The sun edges over the horizon, tips the shadows of the docks onto the water, and I'm there to greet it. I stare at the thin clouds until they're tipped with gold, until they swell with sunlight and shine so brightly that I see spots. The ocean laps at my feet, tugs at my ankles, invites me in.
"Not today," I tell it, drawing back. It murmurs as I leave, like it'll miss my company. Like it wants me to stay. Like it wants me.
Everyone wants me today, though, and there's only so much of myself I can spread around.
I used to welcome the dawn. Dawn is when the fish stir and start to hunt, and dawn is when we hunt them. Dawn is when we set our nets and sit in our boats, mugs of something warm in hand, waiting for the tug that lets us know when we've snared something.
I haven't had to fish in almost five years. I haven't had to work at all, really. And I spend more time in the Capitol these days. People sleep late there.
I'll be going back soon. I don't expect to get much sleep, though.
I jog back to where the surf breaks against the sand, sit at the edge of the water with my knees tucked to my chest and my arms crossed over them. The sky is reddening now, streaks of crimson spreading under the gold, bleeding from the land into the ocean. Gulls circle above me, swoop down to snatch their morning meals and call out to the sun and sky in thanks. I feel like I should say something, too, but when the camera isn't trained on me nothing I say sounds right. So I listen, and I wait. I should plunge into the ocean, but Drusus, my stylist, will have a fit if he has to wash the salt out of my hair, and will threaten to tip it with metal like his eyebrows so it stays in place. Don't you know what that does to the other chemicals I put in there? he'll chide me. I'd demonstrate, but I actually like the way I smell today. And you should set a good example for your tributes. They have to trust that I'm going to make them beautiful, not calcified.
He's right about one thing. Everyone will be watching me. I feel sorry for the tributes.
I toss a pebble into the circle of gulls. The arc of their flight widens, but otherwise they don't pay me any mind. It's nice.
No one would pay me mind out here. I could walk along the shore until it stops being District 4 and starts being District 3, in the north, and until I got into the hearts of the cities, no one would care. I could let the tide drag me out even further. I could go home, and I wouldn't have to mentor another kid, dress him up and send him to die, and I wouldn't have to look at my parents who don't know what I've become, and there wouldn't be any cameras.
I could. I won't. I know myself better than that.
As much as I hate mentoring, I'm their best chance for survival in the Arena.
I kneel down, hold my hair out of my face so Drusus won't have to sheathe it in metal, and put my lips to the water. I'll return, I promise it silently. I'll return, and I'll bring one of them home.
My chances are slightly greater than one in twelve. I've faced worse odds.
Reaping has become a much bigger event since I won. Boats of all sizes line the docks, and people pour out of them in their Reaping Day best, suits scrubbed with a sponge to get rid of the salt stains and dresses whose ruffles are wilting with age. Some of the wealthier members of our district have turned out in clothes even the Capitol would deem acceptable, but I shouldn't disparage them too much, as I'm one of them. Although I'm not wearing much clothing, come to think of it.
They draw the girl first, like always. Her name is Annie Cresta. She was a few years behind me in school, but I stopped going after I won the Games, so my memories of her are blurred at best. She's grown up well. Her hair is long enough that Drusus can’t do anything with it without changing her, and her eyes remind me of how mine used to look, back when they held the sea.
The boy is next. Varin Conch. Mags slumps in her chair, her face salt-white as her hair, and I reach out to take Mags's wrist. Her pulse is slow, but it's steady enough. Varin is Mags’s grandson--her only grandson, and they aren’t that close but he’s still come to dinner on the Victor’s Wharf and sat at the same table as my cousins.
Varin walks up to the podium with his head high but as soon as he has to turn around for the cameras he stops, and says, “Can’t be helped. I’m sorry.” Mags shivers, and I feel rather than see the cameras honing in on us, abandoning the tributes for the other scene unfolding before them. I stare into the twisting glass lens as it zooms in and I smile as I've done so often before. The cameras know me. The cameras love me.
"I think District Four is going to welcome home another winner this year," I say, and if my smile has more teeth than usual I can't see it reflected back. "May the odds be ever in our favor."
"I'm mentoring him," Mags says. I don’t argue. Instead, I watch the recap of the reaping ceremonies. The tributes from the districts below 9 are barely worth remarking on, though the girl from 8 walks to the platform with a kind of steely determination I can't ignore. 5 and 7 might have real fighters this year, as well, and 1 and 2 have their usual sets of volunteers, boys with necks as thick as my thigh and girls whose footsteps make no sound.
District 4's volunteering system isn't as regimented as the ones in those districts; a good number of us have had training, though nothing so brutal as what potential tributes in District 2 are rumored to go through if the whispers from my fellow victors have any truth to them. If someone who doesn't look like he has a chance is drawn, someone better-trained volunteers, unless everyone thinks they'd be better off with you gone. That's happened once or twice, not since my victory, but before it. Since I won, more kids have seemed interested in trying. Six of the last eight tributes District 4 has sent have been volunteers. I wonder if the excitement has finally worn off, if enough kids have seen their friends drowned and burned alive and hacked to pieces to rethink the appeal. I wonder if anyone wanted to see Varin and Annie gone. I wonder if anyone wanted to see me gone. Well, if they did, they must be feeling pretty stupid now. I'm everywhere.
The announcer beams as the tribute's faces flash across the screen. "This year's group certainly looks exciting! And we have word that a number of districts have sent their most celebrated victors to mentor this year's tributes—let's take a look at that lineup."
I turn off the television and head into the compartment where Annie's staying.
Annie is sitting with her back to the window and her face in her arms. I don't think she's crying. "Hi, Annie," I say. "I'm Finnick."
"I know who you are," she says without looking up.
"I guess you do. I'm your mentor this year. I'd usually be working with the boy tribute, but we're doing things differently this time. Can't get too predictable, can we?" I smile, but if she responds I can't see it. There's a stock speech after this, about my responsibilities as her mentor and what she needs to share with me if she's going to be successful in the Arena and what strategies we should consider to get sponsors' attention, but her hands creep over her ears and I sit next to her instead. "What kind of training do you have?" I ask.
"I hate the train."
"Training," I repeat, a little louder, and tap the back of her hand.
She uncovers her ears, straightens. "Sorry," she says. "I wasn't listening."
"I thought so." I look at her more closely. Dark circles ring her eyes, but the skin around them isn't puffy, just pale and drawn tight. She wasn't crying earlier, then. She hasn't changed out of her Reaping outfit, a neat blue skirt and a white blouse big enough to fit two of her inside. She's slender but not small, and lines of muscle show in her arms and legs.
"What kind of training do you have?" I ask her again.
"Some," she says, and I nod. "Knives and spears, like you. I can tie knots, but not as well as you, but I'm better with a needle."
"That's good. You never know what you'll need to sew up in the Arena."
"Are the stitches still there from when you sewed up your side?"
"No," I say, and correct myself. "Not really. I can feel the scar under my skin, but it doesn't show. There's something the stylists call Beauty Base Zero: no makeup, no polish, no product, just the cleanest slate they can make." I've had it done enough times that I know the procedures by heart. "Getting rid of scars takes more than a skin polish, but it's the same idea—restoring you to how you should look, if nothing got in the way of you looking your best."
Annie recoils, her back pressed to the wall.
"It's not that bad," I say, and try to smile, but I don't see it reflected back so it falters. "It doesn't hurt, at least. That's what Drusus and your prep team will do when we reach the Capitol, and they'll build your opening ceremonies look from there. He's good at what he does."
If anything, that makes her retreat more, draw in her shoulders and close herself off, her eyes fixed on something I can't see. The motion in them stills for just a minute.
I don't know whether I should scoot closer to her or not, but I do. "He has this thing for mermaids, but I'm putting my foot down this year. I'm finally older than all of the tributes, he might listen."
She pulls her chin up, at least, even if she's looking at my knees. I think I see her start to smile. "I should just go naked."
I shake my head. "Trust me, after five years of me, they've seen enough of District Four to last them a lifetime."
She laughs. Good.
"It's my job to make you look good out there. Mine and Drusus's," I say. "And it's my job to make sure you look good to other people, too, so I can get you what you need in the Arena."
Her laughter stops, and I wonder when I got so bad at talking to people without cameras around. (Talking to people in the Capitol doesn't count. They’ve spent their entire lives being audiences.)
I change tactics. "The fish in the Capitol's all right—it's what we catch back home, but not as fresh—but the desserts are incredible. There's this one they always serve, most of what looks like the cake part is spun sugar, and the layers are separated by different kinds of cream. Some sweet, some tart, just to set it off. There are marzipan panes on top—have you ever had marzipan?"
She shakes her head.
"Marzipan's my favorite. They make it out of almonds. They grind them up and hold them together with sugar, and they shape that into anything but almonds. I got to eat part of a marzipan castle one year, with a marzipan river and a marzipan drawbridge and little marzipan guards around the gate. I ate most of the guards. They had halberds made of chocolate."
That gets her to laugh again.
"I can ask them to bring up some for you, if you'd like to try it."
"They'd make it if you asked?"
"Maybe not on the train, but once we get to the Capitol. They'll make it even if you don't ask."
"What, they just know? Because it's you?"
"Not only that." I settle back, and she finally looks at me through the curtain of hair that's fallen over her face. I should tell Drusus to do something with that, more naiad than mermaid. "They make everything in the Capitol, everything they might want, and throw away what they don't need."
"Like us." She looks down again, crosses her ankles. "Well, not like you."
Smiling hurts now, so I stop. "That's why we have to convince them that you're something they want."
"And then what?" she asks.
I'm the one who looks away, stands and faces the window. I can't tell what district we're in; we're traveling fast enough that the sky and land blur together into one muddy streak. "Then you take what you can."
She falls silent. So do I. I wonder what Mags and Varin are getting up to, whether she'll tell me what she's planning. Whether she's managed to scope out the other tributes. Whether she's instructing Varin to ally with Annie or stab her in the back and run. Killing a tribute for your home district doesn't win you any favors back home, though it's more forgivable if it happens in the last stages of the Games, but I doubt Mags cares. I can't count on anything from her these Games, that's clear enough, and I'd rather walk through a forest of tracker jacker nests than ask for her support.
"Do you know Varin?" I ask her.
"Not well," she says. "Just through training. He’s better than I am.” She twirls a strand of hair around her finger until it chokes off the flow of blood.
I'm awful at this. I don't know why Mags is letting me do this on my own. I do, but I wish I’d let one of the other victors mentor this year.
I pull my knife out of its belt sheath. A chunk of wood is missing from the handle, the guard is cracked and the blade is stained from fish blood. It's not Capitol material, nothing worthy of an Arena, but I've had it since I turned eight. "You said you knew how to use a knife," I say, and set it down on the seat next to her. "Why don't you show me what you can do?"
She picks it up, tests its weight, shifts her grip all the way down to the point and throws sideways without getting up. It's the most open posture I've seen on her yet. The blade doesn't lodge in the wall, but the point dents it enough that the Capitol attendants will be upset about it later.
"Good technique," I say. "But you don't want to throw your knife away in the Arena."
"I don't think of it as throwing," she says, stoops to retrieve the knife. "I think of it more like reaching."
"I think of it as a good way for someone else to steal your weapon."
"Not if he's dead."
I have this argument with the victors from District 2 every year; I'm not going to have it with one of my tributes. "How are you with it in close quarters?"
"Not as good," she says.
I nod, thinking. "You're familiar with spears, you said, and those give you range. And those you can throw. You'll want a weapon with reach, you don’t have the right kind of muscle mass for close combat." Not with the size of the tributes from District 1 this year.
While I'm talking, Annie balances the point of the knife on the tip of her finger and slowly eases it off the handle, keeping it aloft. I stop talking. She sustains that for around half a minute, then winces and pulls her finger into her mouth. The knife clatters to the ground.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she says, picks up the knife herself and sucks on her finger again. The knife hangs to the right of her mouth like a tusk. "It's not much blood."
"It doesn't look good if I let my tribute get injured before the Games even start," I say.
She hands me the knife, bites her finger as though she's wringing the blood out of it.
"Why do you hate the train?" I ask her.
"It's dry. It's closed. And everything shakes. Not rocks," she clarifies, "shakes. And the walls don't breathe."
"It won't last long," I say. "And the second time is easier."
"If there is a second time."
I slip the knife back into its sheath.
Our district representative is new this year, a woman named Julia Page. I think she used to represent District 7 and got promoted, which makes sense given the hot streak District 7's been on lately in the Games. Johanna Mason was a piece of work last year. Julia wears colored glasses too big for her face that magnify her eyes to about twice their natural size, and she clicks her tongue when she looks Annie over, presses her palms together and taps her fingers in a way that reminds me of an insect.
"No mermaids this year," I tell her.
"That," she says, her Capitol accent unusually crisp, "is her stylist's decision."
"Yes, and Drusus wants her to make the right kind of splash."
Not even a smile. I decide she's a lost cause. "Besides, I promised her she wouldn't be a mermaid," I say, and step behind Annie, draw some of her hair in front of her face. "We want her to look like a credible threat in the Arena, right? I'm thinking sirens. Sea-ghosts."
Fortunately, Drusus takes one look at Annie's complexion and redesigns her makeup palette as I watch, switches out the jewel tones for wild greys and greens. "You're lucky," he says as Annie's prep team ushers her off. "I designed a dress for Agrippina Hawksley's ball last season—she never wore it, but it's just the right thing for what you have in mind, and I should have enough time to alter it as necessary."
"You're a marvel, Drusus," I say. "What about Varin?"
Drusus waves his hand. "Oh, he can be a sea ghost, too. Have you seen the state of his hair?"
I leave Drusus to his work and find Julia Page deep in conversation with Mags. More accurately, I find Julia talking at length about the changes to the costumes for the opening ceremonies and Mags managing a vague smile as she rattles on. I lean against the door, give Julia a little wave, and at least she picks up on that.
"I'll see you both at the ceremonies," she finishes.
Mags keeps staring straight ahead like she hasn't noticed Julia left, keeps wearing the same vague smile.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I should have asked you about the costume change."
She nods once, goes back to staring at the wall.
"I thought it would be better than mermaids." I can't crack much of a smile. "I think Drusus can strike the right balance between frightening and offputting. He's good. Look at all he's managed to do with me over the years."
I didn't mean to say that last part. I shouldn't have. Mags folds her gnarled hands in her lap and pays me no mind at all.
"Mags, I—" I stop, and instead of trying to talk I sit down at her feet, the way I did when I was a child. She ruffles my hair, and Drusus isn't around to yell at her about mussing my curls. "I'm sorry," I say again, don't dare say more than that because every inch of this building is bugged, but I hope the way I take her hand and squeeze it says the rest.
"We're training them separately?" I ask.
"We'll see," Mags says.
I nod. My stomach churns. "Do you think they have a chance?"
Mags looks at me then. A memory surfaces: my father and I on the deck of our boat on a starless night, far out from the coast, staring into the black waves below us with only a lantern for light. The sea swallowed that up quickly, and we clung to the rail, not sure which way the boat would pitch under us next. That's what Mags's eyes remind me of.
"Only one of them can win," she says.
I am struck, then, by what's expected of us as mentors. How saving one means letting the other die.
"How do you do it?" I ask her. My voice shakes. "You've been doing it for so long—year after year—"
"When it was my time in the Arena," she tells me, closes her eyes, "I learned to choose and chose to survive. I've never stopped making that choice."
I nod, barely. I can't bring myself to do much else; the rest of my body drags, pulled towards the ground. "Mags, I know I have no right to ask this year. It's not fair to. But—"
I stop. I can't force the words make sure Annie's all right if I can't be there out of my throat. Whatever decency's left in me blocks them, I guess. I could ask, or a part of me could, the part of me that flings false lovers aside for the cameras with little more than a smile and a be a dear, won't you? But I refuse to do that to Mags. I'll find time to juggle what Snow expects of me and Annie needs, somehow.
Her hand covers mine again. "I'll look after her as best I can, Finnick."
"I don't deserve you," I say. "I don't deserve you at all."
"You never deserved any of it," she murmurs, brushes a stray curl from my forehead.
When Annie and Varin's chariot pulls into view, I almost kiss Drusus.
He's sharpened and drawn out the shadows on their faces, braided strands of their hair with seaweed, dressed them in long flowing robes that start out white and gradate to grey-green, with artful slits in the overrobe to let even darker colors leak through. Some kind of fine netting's stitched over the whole thing, and it catches the light when it moves like drops of water. But the best part is their nails: long, black, extended, ready to tear anything that comes too near.
The crowd falls silent as they draw nearer, then explodes in applause. I don't soak it in for long. I know this is only the beginning. Still, it's a hell of a beginning.
"Training isn't just about picking up skills," I tell Annie. "You can only learn so much in a week. Training is about figuring out who else is in the room, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, looking for allies in the Arena. And threats."
Annie's face is almost as pale as it was when she had the makeup on during the opening ceremonies, but she nods, her lips thin. At least she doesn't shrink from me when I try to discuss the Games themselves anymore, but they're impossible to avoid in the Capitol.
"District Four traditionally allies with One and Two for the early stages of the Games. I can talk to their mentors for you, if you want." I don't know the female mentor from 2 well, but I've at least spoken to Cashmere and Gloss and Brutus in years past, and they don't seem to hate me. I won't even need to sweet-talk them into it if I present it as a survival strategy, though I doubt sweet-talking would have much effect on them. They aren't the sorts of people I usually play for. None of the victors are, really. They know what I am.
"Shouldn't I meet them first?"
"Up to you," I say. "Keep it open as a possibility, though, all right?"
Annie nods again. Her head stays down.
"Hey. What's wrong?"
"It's a lot to take in," she says, doesn't raise her head.
"It's all right. I know it's a lot, but you can do it." I chuck her under the chin, tilt it back so I can meet her eyes. "Chin up."
She smiles. That's something.
"For now, think about how much you want to show off in training."
She frowns. "I thought the Gamemakers didn't evaluate you until the end."
"They don't," I say, "but the other tributes will be, and you might not want them to know everything you can do." The tributes from 1 and 2 like showing off in training, heading to the stations they're most proficient in and flashing their weapons for anyone watching, and we're not above doing that in 4, either. "If they notice you, you can become a target."
"But if they don't notice you at all, they take you out."
"It's a balancing act," I say. 'You have to decide what you show them."
"What did you show them?" she asks.
"Enough to make sure they didn't underestimate me. I was young, about three years younger than most of them, but I made sure they knew I could swim, I could take care of myself, and I could kill if I had to. You have a lot of that going for you. You're not as young as I was, but you don't look the way they expect a tribute to." Especially not a Career. "Let them know you're a contender."
She bites her lip. "But not a threat."
I've been a victor for four years now, long enough to get to know most of the others by reputation if nothing else—especially the victors from districts with smaller pools to draw from, since they can't rotate mentors as frequently as 1 and 2 and 4 can.
Cecelia's the fist to sweep me into a hug. "Look at you," she says, "You've grown since last year. At least two inches, I'd say."
"Around that." I hug her back. "And you've gotten at least two years younger."
"Cheeky thing," she says, gives my shoulder a swat.
Chaff punches me in the arm next. "Finnick! You're old enough not to be a tribute anymore."
"Does this mean I can go out drinking with you and Haymitch?" I ask.
He laughs, a hearty booming sound. "If you can keep up, kid."
We circulate and mingle, catch up on what's happened in the almost-year since we've last seen each other. Cecelia is pregnant again, Beetee's hard at work on a project the rest of us only half-understand, Meadow helped birth a calf last week. Small talk, mostly, but it's best that way, as Beetee silently indicates the most likely places for the Capitol to plant bugs.
Haymitch sits slumped in the corner, already a third of the way through a bottle of white liquor. "I don't see how you can keep that down," I say. "It burns your throat." Burn's a mild enough way to describe it; it lights your stomach on fire.
"You get used to it," he says.
"How are your tributes this year?"
Haymitch grunts, takes another swig from the bottle. I don't press the question. "Where's Mags?" he asks, once he's finished.
"Training. Her grandson was reaped this year."
He sets his bottle down.
"I think she wants to make sure he has a fighting chance."
"Or she wants to spend as much time with him as possible." He gazes, bleary-eyed, at Cecelia. Seeder's rubbing Cecelia's belly. "Can't say I blame her."
"He could win."
"Do you want him to?"
I think of Mags's face at the Reaping, seasick, as though the Justice Building were pitching under her feet. I think of the tangle of hair in front of Annie's eyes, their sea-green intensity.
"I don't know."
"How is she in training?" Hadrian Schiller asks. We go back, Hadrian and I. President Snow introduced us when I was sixteen.
I smile, just the way he likes. I've spent years perfecting it, the right curve to my mouth, the upward glance through lidded eyes, the angle of my neck. "You know that's classified information, Hadrian."
"Oh, I wouldn't dream of asking for specifics," he says. "I know training is closed to us. But we get so curious, you know." His hand crawls closer to my thigh. "We want to know if our money is being well-spent."
It seems to have been for the past three years, I think, but hold my tongue. "Annie holds a lot in reserve," I say, drop my voice to the kind of purr that's worked on him in the past. "You'd be surprised at her depths."
"Would I now." Hadrian's voice is as low as mine; his fingers creep higher. I know better than to close my eyes. "I'd rather not be surprised at all. I like knowing what to expect from my investments."
"The whole point of an investment is that you get more than what you pay for." I sprawl back on the couch, my head draped over the armrest, my arm dangling from the cushions. I look like I'm supposed to. "You got a good return on me, didn't you?"
His fingers tighten. "I've already put in a lot for you tonight."
"That was for Snow," I say. "This is for me."
I wonder how many more times I'm going to have to say that.