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The Flock: The Pairing

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Hidden deep in the woods of District 12, in the darkest part of the forest and far beyond the reach of Capitol control, lay a small village where time stood still. The village spread through the forest like a rippling quilt, touching areas man was too frightened to venture. The community, or the Flock, as its citizens called themselves, was an old one. One that stood for over three centuries during tyrannical rule, an apocalypse, many wars, and the founding of a new nation. The citizens of the Flock held little concern for the Outside and its political upheavals. Many had never left the village’s borders where the cursed light shone over the tree heads, the sun peeking through the leaves and kissing one lightly on the cheek, preferring, instead, the safety of the blessed shadows.

The day of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games reaping, Katniss Everdeen Axson was sneaking through her grandparents’ kitchen, pocketing food her grandmother wouldn’t notice missing from breakfast—a couple of rolls from dinner the night before, an apple and pear, and a small jug of mint tea. Her family still slept above, her grandfather’s stuttering snores easily heard if she stopped to listen, as she tucked her stash into her apron pockets, rearranging the leftover rolls and fruit so it appeared nothing was missing. She’d learned throughout the years the importance of doing this, and had felt the firm whack of her grandmother’s wooden spoon many times for her negligence. 

It was still early, the afternoon sun high in the sky, warming the forest to an uncomfortable temperature, but Katniss didn’t pay much mind to the humid heat. This was the only time of day she was truly free to do as she wished without having to mind what her grandparents, Cecily and Abraham Axson, thought. Or what the Flock’s Elders saw as appropriate behavior for a lady of her status. She quietly closed the back door, stepping around the loose board that creaked when one stepped on it, and paused, listening for any disturbance from above. When she heard no sound, she hurried across the field, her skirts bunched up in her arms, to meet Gale in the barn. Today was hunting day, and he always started his early shift there, sharpening the necessary tools he’d need to fill her family’s weekly meat quota. 

She rapped sharply on the peeling barn door before heading in. “Eventide,” she greeted, slipping onto the small wooden bench next to Gale’s workstation and depositing her stash. “Honey rolls and fruit for breakfast.” 

Gale grunted his thanks, a hunting knife clenched between his teeth as he sharpened another on a stone. 

“You know,” she said, resting her elbows on the worn tabletop, “you really shouldn’t hold a knife like that.” She rolled a screw in a wobbly circle, its round head creating an indent in the wood. “Doubt the Healer could sew your tongue back on right.” 

His hands stilled, the glint of his hunting knife dull in the light of the hanging lantern above their heads. He gave her a pointed look before taking the knife out and slapping it down in front of her. “Happy?” 

Katniss frowned.  “You’re rather cranky this afternoon. I just saved your tongue’s life and that’s the thanks I get?” She picked the knife up and twirled the sharp tip into her index finger, wincing as it twisted into her skin, and set it down again

“My tongue was fine,” Gale snapped, his focus back on the stone and hunting knife in his hand. “And I’m not cranky, as you put it. I just hate this day.” 


Gale shook his head. “It’s an Outside thing. You wouldn’t understand.” That wasn’t fair. Yes, she’d only lived on the Outside for a few years, but that didn’t mean she didn’t remember it. Didn’t remember the way starvation ate away at her stomach all those months after her father passed away, didn’t remember seeing the dead huddled in alley corners, clutching their stomachs as their last breath escaped them. The way she and her sister Prim would curl up in their shared cot to keep warm, singing songs of meadows and trees as they waited for the familiar horn from the mines, releasing the miners for the day. She remembered it all, but Gale always acted like her years there were nothing more than a weekend trip away. 

Watching him pack up his bag, she bit into her apple and tried to recall the holidays on the Outside. There weren’t many. Mainly in the autumn months when the leaves turned to burning reds and rich golds. Then she remembered the tension she always felt in the air in the early summer days, families preparing themselves for the worst. Two names. Two coffins. And quickly, Gale’s sour mood made sense.

“Today’s the reaping,” she said quietly. This was something she barely remembered, her parents and Granny Everdeen keeping her and Prim occupied with corn husk dolls, Granny’s calloused hand squeezing her own, and her father humming songs of flying birds in her ears when the names were drawn and the cries from families were heard, his strong arms protecting her from the world, like it was her name called for the reaping instead of another’s. “Do you—do you want to talk about it?” 

Gale slung his larger hunting bag over his shoulder and gave her the smaller sack. “Nothing really to discuss. Today would have been my last day in the reaping.” 

“Oh.” She hugged the small sack to her chest, unsure what to say. Gale was the only person she knew who had ever been in the reaping. Her family had left long before Katniss was ever of age. “But your family escaped. Your brothers and sister are safe from the Summer Slaughter.”

“Don’t call it that,” he snapped. “That’s not what it’s called, and yeah, we are all safe, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help thinking about those other kids out there.” He shook his head and opened the barn door, ready to go. “It’s hard for you to understand, Catnip. Let’s get going before we lose daylight.” 

She shoved the untouched rolls and pear back in her apron pockets, and followed after him. 

They rarely spoke much on their Tuesday hunts–a few words here and there, a joke every once in a while–but today the silence felt suffocating as they headed out to the darkest parts of the forest, leaving behind her grandparents’ estate. Katniss didn’t know what else to say to him after their talk in the barn, and anything she thought of felt childish and inconsequential. Most days she forgot their two-year age gap, but today the divide was felt. 

And it grew as the afternoon dragged on and they discovered that some mutt had gotten hold of a few of their snares, the half-eaten, bloody carcasses left carelessly on the side. A pitiful way to die, Katniss thought sadly, crouching down and poking at the matted fur. Being caught in a trap and mangled out by Night knew what, only to be left here to rot away, forgotten. Pitiful. A waste. The discovery worsened Gale’s mood because he had a quota to meet and this set him back a few days. “I’m sure my grandfather will understand if your meat quota is below your average hunt,” she told him after they encountered the fifth compromised trap. “My family can manage a few meatless meals, and the crops are looking fair this season, Gale. We’ll just make up the cost later in the season. These things happen.” 

“And Cecily?” he snapped back, kicking at the mangled body near his boots. “You believe she will be so understanding?” 

Katniss frowned at the mention of her critical grandmother. No, Grandmother would not be as understanding about the “reasonable” meat quota she and Grandfather had set for Gale, their sole Hunter. She would call him lazy and might even raise the quota, saying the challenge would motivate him to succeed. Her silence was answer enough, and he pulled out an empty jar, shoving it at her. 

“Bleed it out,” he said. “I can at least get money from the blood.” 

She made a face, ready to argue that this was a waste of their time. The animal looked like it barely had any blood left to give, but his scowl made her reconsider her argument, knowing he was already having a rough day. She shoved the lantern at him and unscrewed the jar, crouching in front of the half-eaten rabbit. Her hands dug into the knotted fur and held it over the jar before wringing the body out like a wet rag. To her surprise, the blood filled a quarter of the jar. Gale grunted in approval behind her, and she continued squeezing the carcass until it was a bloody mass of fur and tissue. Organs harvested and preserved in their own jars, Katniss stood up with them, her hands still wet with blood, and handed them over to Gale.

“It creeps me out how calm you always are about doing that,” he said, carefully wrapping the jars around rags before putting them back in his bag. “Like you enjoy it.” 

Katniss looked down at her red-stained hands, the smell of decay stuck in her nose like a familiar perfume, and shrugged. “Prim’s pretty big on blood rituals,” she explained, afraid of admitting how it was rather calming watching the blackish red liquid ooze from her hands, dripping into the glass jar. The end of the hunt was always her favorite part for this reason. 

Prim was definitely rubbing off on her.  

Before she could think twice about it, she leaned forward and drew a crescent moon on his arm. “May the Moon keep you safe and bless your path,” she giggled. Gale wrenched his arm away at the wet touch, his scowl deepening, and she laughed harder at how uncomfortable he looked, his hand smearing the symbol away. “Scared of a little blood, Gale?” 

“I’m not scared of it,” he said. “It just grosses me out how casual everyone is about it. Do people really believe hanging animal eyeballs in the trees around town is going to protect them from wild animals? Or that blood is the strongest connection we share between man and beast?” 

“I don’t know.” She drew two circles on her cheeks and forehead like Prim had shown her as a sign of protection. “Maybe it does work. We still wear the crystals and herbs to protect us from the Outside’s mutts.” She held the small pouch hanging from her waist. “And even if it doesn’t work, it’s still fun. Want a protection symbol, Gale?” Katniss teased, holding a bloody finger out. 

“No thanks.” He backed away and hoisted the bag over his shoulder. “Let’s get you back, Catnip. The last thing I need is your grandparents on my ass. They’re already going to be pissed about the meat this week. I don’t need you getting me into more trouble just because you have a hard time taking no for an answer.”

Katniss wiped the remaining blood in the grass and followed after, feeling the divide between them a bit less now. 

To her surprise, Prim was already up and dressed by the time Katniss had shimmied up the vine railing outside their window. She sat at her vanity, brushing out her long, white-blonde hair, and gave a reproachful look in the mirror as Katniss stumbled into their room, trying to not fall flat on her face. It must have been later than she thought.

“Grandmother’s been asking for us,” was all her sister said. 

“What’d you tell her?” The last thing she needed was for her grandmother to find out that she made a habit of going out into the woods alone with their Hunter. The scandal! She rolled her eyes at the imagined scene the old woman would no doubt cause if she ever knew. Keeping Cecily in the dark as long as possible was the best for all parties involved. 

“That you overslept and still had to wash up.” Still something she’d get in trouble for, but nothing Katniss wasn’t already used to. She nodded and filled the wash basin with fresh water, grateful Prim thought to leave a towel out for her despite her clear disapproval over the whole thing, and scrubbed at the blood on her cheeks, cursing under her breath at some of the stubborn spots. It was a stupid move, putting the blood on as she did. She knew better than to show any sign of her hunting, but she’d done it anyways ... and for what? To prove to Gale that blood protections worked? To show him it wasn’t as weird as he thought? Whatever her reason, it wouldn’t be worth it if it led to discovery.

“Why were you so late this evening?” Prim asked, braiding her hair now. The accusation was clear in her voice and Katniss did feel bad for that. She knew how much Prim hated lying to their grandmother, on whom she doted, and it always flustered her whenever covering for Katniss made her “speak falsehoods.” 

Katniss, now in nothing but her underclothes, wrapped her arms around her sister from behind, and gave her little peckish kisses on her cheek, causing the young girl to laugh in spite of herself. “Don’t be mad at me, Prim,” she said, resting her head on her shoulder, the two staring at each other through the reflection of the mirror. “I can’t stand it when you are.” 

“Then stop making me mad.” 

Katniss laughed and stood up, tugging lightly at Prim’s braid. “That, I cannot help. What is it that Grandmother always says? ‘Katniss was born to vex me’? But I do apologize.” She frowned, hoping her little sister would forgive her. It weighed on her conscience whenever they fought, and after dealing with Gale’s foul mood all afternoon, she didn’t think she could stomach Prim holding a grudge. Prim’s grudges could last for nights. 

“Gale wanted to go out farther than usual and we lost track of time,” she explained, opting not to tell her about the half-eaten carcasses and dying Outside children weighing heavily on her friend’s mind. “I’m sorry you had to lie to her.” 

Shrugging, Prim stood and found a simple black dress for Katniss to wear. “Hurry up and get ready. If she calls for us again, there’s not much I can say.” 

“Yes, ma’am.” The dress felt like a truce offering that Katniss gladly accepted. The two hurried to get the eldest Everdeen-Axson sister ready: Prim tightening Katniss’ stays as Katniss braided and pinned up her hair. She was just adding finishing touches—buckling on a pair of stiff, polished boots that were no good for hunting—when Cecily’s voice came sharply from the other side of the door, accompanied by a loud knock.

“What is taking so long in there?” their grandmother demanded from the hall. “Your grandfather and I are waiting, and you know how he does not like to wait.” 

Prim rushed to answer the door. “Apologies, Grandmother,” she said in a sweet voice that mollified Cecily’s annoyance just slightly, her sharp features softening in the presence of her favorite granddaughter. “I was just helping Katniss finish getting ready.” 

Cecily’s cool blue eyes turned from her favorite granddaughter to her least favorite one, her pointed glare harder than usual. “I see that you are up and well, girl.” 

“Yes, Grandmother,” Katniss said, straightening her dress out of nervous habit. Her grandmother didn’t scare her, exactly, but she was intimidating to deal with, especially so early in the evening. “I apologize for causing a delay in breakfast. Shall we go down? Best not keep Grandfather waiting!” 

Cecily grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her back, her gaze scrutinizing. “Have you seen sun, girl? Your cheeks look darker.” Her other hand reached out to touch a cheek, but Katniss stepped back, eyes widening dramatically. 

“The villainous sun, Grandmother? I would never!”

 It was clear she’d suffer for her words later, but Cecily sighed, exasperated with her “Outsider” antics and moved aside. 

“We will discuss your actions at another time, Katniss,” was all she said, letting them pass. “Your grandfather’s been waiting long enough due to your selfishness.” 

The girls hurried down the stairs to the dining room, ignoring Cecily’s reproachful reminder about how young ladies “are meant to walk, not clop along like colts!” and kissed their grandfather on the cheek. “Good morning, Grandfather,” they each said sweetly before taking their seats at the long dining table. The old man grunted his greeting, his attention still focused on a letter he was reading, and the sisters gave each other small smiles because clearly Abraham hadn’t been as bothered over the delay on breakfast as Cecily had made it seem. Their grandmother took her place at the other end of the table, her face still pinched with disapproval. She nodded to Hazelle, Gale’s mother and their serving maid, to bring their breakfast in from the kitchen. 

Katniss’ stomach growled as she watched Hazelle serve her famous sweet honey rolls, a plate of the greasiest sausage links imaginable, and a bowl of scrambled eggs with fresh goat cheese. Prim made a face when the eggs were set in front of her. She believed it sacrilegious that their grandparents insisted on eating any sort of bird, meat or egg, despite the Flock worshiping the Mockingjay, but their grandparents still followed the Flock’s most ancient religious practices, revering Lady Night and her children, the Moon and Stars. The inclusion of Mother Mockingbird, Father Jabberjay, and their blessed child, the Mockingjay, was a newer addition to the Flock’s worship, and Prim’s fervor could not wholly outweigh their grandparents’ adherence to tradition. All birds were sacred, Prim believed, and their children should be allowed to live. It was one of the few things usually accommodating Prim stood her ground on, but the eggs remained a fixture on their breakfast table. Giving her sister a small smile, Katniss switched the bowl of eggs with the honey rolls, and Prim nodded her thanks before grabbing for a roll. 

Yes, she was truly forgiven for being so late this evening. 

Once the food was set and plates were filled, Abraham cleared his throat and stood for evening blessings, his hands held over the meal. Cecily and Prim’s heads bowed low in prayer, but Katniss lowered hers just a smidge, her eyes focused on her grandfather instead. At one point, long ago, Abraham Axson was one of the holiest men in the Flock, second only to the High Priest, who ruled over them all in both law and spirit. It was something she never got to witness in person, his role as Head Elder stripped away before her family had returned from the Outside, but when he said blessings like this or read from their sacred text, the Penumbra, Katniss caught a glimpse of what the old man once was. The power and strength he once possessed.  

“Lady Night,” Abraham began in his strong, gruff voice, “the first Goddess, who guided us from light into dark, we beg of you to purify this our evening meal from the touch of the sun, Fire’s child, under whose baleful eye our crops must grow. True are the hands that harvested this food. True are the hands that prepared and served it. Make this meal to strengthen and equip us for your purposes.” He picked up their ornate black offering bowl, the Moon and Stars painted carefully around it in gold and yellow, and tore off a piece of his roll, tossing it into the bowl. Prim and Cecily both gave up half a sausage link before passing the bowl to Katniss, who tossed in a corner piece of buttered toast. Once everyone had contributed something, Abraham held the bowl up high. “Accept our offerings, Lady Night, and may the Flock prosper forever. Carpe Noctem!” 

“Carpe Noctem!” they parroted back as Abraham turned and tossed the offerings into the fire behind him, the familiar smell of burnt food filling the room. 

Abraham took his seat and began to eat, his unspoken way of granting permission to his family. Eagerly scooping up a bite of egg, Katniss was about to wolf it down when her grandmother cleared her throat and gave a pointed glare. “Katniss Esther, isn’t there something you wish to say to your grandfather?” 

Sighing, because she knew Cecily wouldn’t let up unless she groveled, Katniss set her forkful down and stood, facing the head of the table. “Dearest Grandfather,” she spoke in a bored, monotone voice, “I am so deeply sorry for being tardy this morning for breakfast. Alas, it seems my clumsy fingers are still growing accustomed to the high-laced dresses Grandmother insists I wear now that, as she has mentioned many a time, I am now ‘a young woman of Pairing status.’ Please, dearest Grandfather, forgive my unwomanly faults.” And just because she couldn’t help it, Katniss did a small, clumsy curtsy. Had she not known her grandfather well enough, Katniss never would have dared to speak so plainly to an adult—at least to their face—but Abraham laughed, and nodded his forgiveness. 

“Sit down, girl,” he said, his dark blue eyes amused at her antics. She did as was instructed and began eating, ignoring the cold glower coming from her right. 

“Honestly, Abraham,” Cecily said crossly, shaking her napkin out to place in her lap. “For you to encourage such behavior!” 

“Cecily, my wife, you act as though we waited hours,” he sighed, nodding his thanks when Hazelle poured his tea. “The girl was a mere fifteen minutes late.”

“There are rules to follow,” Cecily responded, her upper lip stiffening just a tad. “Breakfast is at six in the evening, sharp. No earlier, no later.” 

“And who, pray tell, made these rules?” her grandfather inquired. Katniss fought to hide her smile, knowing it wouldn’t do her any favors if either caught on to her amusement. They were fighting about her tardiness, after all. “Lady Night herself?” 

“Grandfather,” Prim scolded softly, “you shouldn’t speak of Night in such a way.” 

“Yes, apologies, Primmy. Was it the High Priest himself, Cecily? Did he dictate that all breakfasts must start at six o’clock sharp?”

Cecily scowled. “Now you’re just mocking my life’s work, Abraham, and in front of the girls! It’s no question where the girl gets her poor behavior.” 

Any amusement vanished instantly from Abraham’s darkening features. “No,” he said in a low, hard voice. “Any poor behavior we see out of the girl is from her no-good Outside father.”

 Katniss looked down at her plate, the familiar mixture of shame and anger curling low in her stomach. She hated whenever her grandparents spoke of her father. It was never favorable talk, and it always felt unjust. They claimed to have known him, never shy of blaming him for their family’s downfall all those years ago, when Katniss was a mere toddler, but they didn’t know her father. To them, he was the man who seduced her mother, their precious daughter Caroline, and stole her away to the Outside through trickery. But they weren’t there all those years in 12. Katniss was. She remembered. Remembered the way her father would pick wildflowers on the way home from the mines, remembered the way her mother’s eyes lit up at receiving them. Katniss remembered the songs he used to sing to her as they snuck under the fence to pick herbs and berries for her mother’s small, homegrown apothecary. Katniss remembered the way he’d pick her and Prim up after a long shift and swing them around the room, asking if they behaved themselves that day. 

She remembered the hollow look in her mother’s eyes once they made it back to the Flock, when Cary Everdeen could truly mourn the loss of her beloved husband. The love of her life. 

This was the man her grandparents claimed was heartless and selfish. The man they blamed for any misdeed their granddaughters committed, as though mischief was a hereditary trait and not a learned one. The man who was somehow responsible for her mother’s death, though he’d been dead in the ground for almost a year when Cary succumbed to the Pale Fever. 

None of what they ever said about her father was fair, none of it, but Katniss knew by now not to argue with them. It did her no good and left her grandfather out of sorts, taking the one powerful ally she had against her grandmother away. To Cecily, practically anything Katniss did was wrong, but with Abraham to defend her, at least she stood a chance of getting through the night with only a few icy glares and a strap here and there.

Katniss picked at her food, feeling that she had disappointed her father’s memory once again for not speaking up in his defense. She wasn’t entirely sure how her father felt about her grandparents: not well, she assumed, because her parents did run away, but she wouldn’t like it if anyone kept dragging her name through the mud, and she imagined her father felt the same.

“Grandfather,” Prim said, sensing how uncomfortable their criticisms were making Katniss, “how do you think the crops will fare with such humidity this season?” Katniss gave her sister a subtle nod in thanks, grateful for the change in topic. Prim, only four when Cary snuck her daughters away from 12 under the protective blanket of Night, was too young to remember their father. The Flock was all she knew, and the disparaging talk of Sage Everdeen didn’t cut the same way as it did Katniss. But even though Prim didn’t remember their father, she loved her sister, and knew how Katniss felt when their grandparents behaved this way.

Abraham cleared his throat, a small frown tugging at his lips, but he answered Prim’s question. That followed another line of thought and then another. Before long, Abraham and Cecily were discussing what seeds they need to collect from the Market Square for next season, and arguing over which seller had the better supply. Katniss and Prim ate their breakfast in silence, glancing over at each other and smiling every now and then. Happy to have the attention off of them. 

It was just as they were finishing up the last of their tea, Cecily already going over what she expected the girls to work on that day一“Katniss, I expect full memorization of the sonata you’ve been working on. Primrose, your tutor has told me of your struggle over arithmetic. That won’t do, if you hope to one day apprentice our Healer”一when the letter came. Hazelle hurried to answer the knock and returned with a folded piece of parchment bearing the blood red seal of the Elders. 

“A letter, sir.” Hazelle spoke softly, handing it to Abraham with a slight curtsy. He took it, his brief pleasantry from breakfast gone as he tore the letter open. 

“What do those old pigeons want from me now?” he groused. “I already paid my taxes in full for the year.” 

“Perhaps they beg for your return,” Cecily suggested, hopeful. Katniss rolled her eyes and reached for another honey roll before Hazelle swept the bowl away. She tore into the sweet bread, happy for Grandmother’s distraction. “I would love to see the Head Elder and the High Priest grovel at my feet for the insult they placed on our family.”

 “Cecily, please,” Abraham sighed, scouring the letter in contempt. Folding the letter back up, he passed it to Katniss, saying, “The Elders wish to see you, granddaughter.”

Katniss choked on her bite of bread just as Cecily yanked the letter out of her limp grip, almost tearing the paper in her haste. Her eyes scanned the letter, and her smile grew until she was practically shaking with joy. Katniss had never seen her grandmother look so happy before and thought it a bit unsettling, her wide smile almost unhinged. The lump of bread dislodged itself from her throat, but just barely. 

“Your Interview,” Cecily breathed, her excitement hardly able to be tamed. “Dearest Miss Axson, the Council of Elders request your presence in our halls at three this morning in regards to your Pairing Interview,” Cecily read, but her voice sounded miles away, drowned out by the loud ringing in Katniss’ thoughts. The letter continued on to describe what was expected from a young woman of eligible Pairing age and what an honor it was to bear the necessary souls for the Mockingjay’s avian army, but Katniss heard none of it. 

All her mind focused on was that it was finally here. The moment she had been dreading since her grandmother spoke of it years ago. Pairing: the formal matching system their people followed to ensure families meet the necessary requirements needed for the Flock to prosper. Not everyone followed the formalities of the Pairing System, of course一meeting with prospective families, surviving the dreaded interviews, and going through the endless ceremonies which Bound the young couple’s souls to Lady Night一but a great many did, especially families of high status. Eventually, a Paired couple was expected to produce as many children as they could, and the process repeated itself. A never-ending cycle. 

No, not everyone followed this system, but her grandparents believed in it entirely. Her grandmother even ran a finishing school out of their parlor, focused on molding elite young girls into perfect prospective wives for fine, strong men. 

Katniss felt like she was going to be sick.

Cecily took in a sharp breath and looked up at Katniss, as though she were seeing her granddaughter for the first time that day. “Oh, look at you! You look a wreck! We cannot possibly have you interviewed looking like a milkmaid romping around the fields. No, this will not do.” She rang a bell, but Hazelle didn’t appear. She rang again. “Why must we have such incompetent workers?” she muttered to herself when the maid did not come, standing and calling out for Hazelle near the kitchen door. 

 If it was possible, Katniss felt even more sick as Cecily chastised the woman for not coming promptly and ordered her to start fetching water for a bath. “Katniss’ Interview is in a few hours and we have much to do in the meantime.” 

Hazelle curtsied in response and hurried out to start fetching buckets of water from the cellar well. Cecily shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose in agitation. “I swear to Lady Night.” Prim didn’t object to the blatant disrespect of the dark goddess. A wise choice. Not even Cecily’s love for her favorite granddaughter could stop her from snapping at such corrections right now. 

“Grandmother,” Katniss argued, feeling horrible for so many things now, “I don’t need another bath. I took one yestermorn and scrubbed well when I woke tonight. Please don’t make Hazelle hurry on my behalf.” 

“Silence, child!” Cecily said sharply, gripping the invitation tightly in her grasp. “For once, just do as I say without any objections and be the respectable woman I raised you to be, or so help me, you will be served quiet tea until the Mockingjay returns. Am I clear?” Katniss’ stomach churned, remembering the feverish haze and extreme cramps that awful tea caused the last time she was severely punished. She’d rather the strap any night. 

“Yes, Grandmother,” she muttered, her elbows slumping on the table because there was no point arguing, especially if that horrid tea was threatened. “I was just trying to be conscientious of all the chores Hazelle could be doing for you, instead of wasting her time drawing a bath for me.” 

“How thoughtful of you, Katniss,” Cecily said stiffly, “but since Hazelle is my servant, I get to decide what tasks she completes and right now, that is drawing you a warm, lavender bath, and since you are my granddaughter, it is I who get to decide what you do and do not do. And I say you will march upstairs and take a bath.” 

“Yes, ma’am.” Slowly, Katniss got up from the table, hoping that Abraham would interject on her behalf, declaring this a waste of time. That she didn’t need to be Paired and to hell with the Elders and their strict rules, but he didn’t. His attention had moved on to the tray of letters that had arrived earlier that evening for him and she knew even if he wasn’t distracted, that this subject was a closed deal. Young ladies of their class were Paired and as much as she hated it, Katniss was a part of that. Caroline Axson had bucked convention to be with Katniss’s father, and Katniss knew there was no way her grandparents would let such formalities go unobserved ever again. Not after the trouble and heartbreak Katniss’ mother had caused them. 

Prim must have been excused too because she practically ran into Katniss in the hallway, beaming about how wonderful it was for her Interview to fall on the sacred night that Agatha Frocklin, a figure Katniss vaguely remembered learning about in school, sacrificed her head to Lady Night so that the fervor of her faith might be known. “They kept her headless body on the Stones of the Forest for a month,” Prim prattled on as they climbed up the stairs to their room, loving to share her knowledge of the Flock’s questionable history. “People believe Agatha’s blood is why the earth is so rich by the Stone. Lady Night was pleased with her sacrifice for the Flock and blessed her entire being. Oh, to be a sacrifice for such a noble cause!”

Katniss winced at the phrasing. “Prim, can we not discuss sacrifices right now?” The Flock had outlawed human sacrifice a century or so ago, but tonight, Katniss felt like one. No sense talking of others who let themselves die for the Flock’s “noble cause.”

Prim stopped and turned to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked. 

“Nothing,” Katniss muttered. Prim gave her a look and she sighed. “I don’t want to go to my Interview.” 

Prim’s eyes widened. “What? But it’s one of the most important moments in your life! Next to being baptized and joining the Mockingjay’s sacred nest, of course.” She held three fingers up and made the Mockingjay’s sign: a curved gesture across the chest, fingers landing over the heart. “Katniss, you have to be interviewed! How else will you receive a compatible mate?” 

Katniss rolled her eyes and fell back onto their bed. “I don’t want a mate.”

“What do you want, then?” 

That was an excellent question. In a population so isolated, her options were extremely limited. “I’m not sure,” she admitted, staring up at her bed’s canopy ceiling, the dark purple swirls in the pattern having a calming effect. “Perhaps be a Hunter, like Gale?” 

Prim made a face. “A Hunter? Katniss, that is only a hobby. Like what Grandfather does in the autumn season. You cannot make it into a livelihood.” All words saturated with their grandmother’s beliefs. 

Katniss frowned and sat up. “Why can’t I? Gale manages himself just fine, and I’m good at it. It’s one of the few things I am good at.” She wasn’t exaggerating. One of the first things Cecily did when a young woman entered her school was find a strength they could work on improving. Katniss had tried sewing, painting, flower arranging, reciting poetry, and other lady-like activities the other girls in her class found success in, but none struck her interest, nor her capabilities. Eventually, Cecily gave up, saying her skill with the piano and her looks would have to be enough to attract a family.

“That isn’t true and you know it,” Prim argued, pulling her off the bed to start undressing her. As they quietly spoke behind the dressing screen, Hazelle came with buckets of warm water, and soon the room smelled of lavender and jasmine. Like Mother , Katniss thought sadly as Prim helped her into the tub. Cary Everdeen used to smell of flowers no matter the season, and lavender was her favorite. The scent always reminded Katniss of home. Another home. Home where she had two loving parents who proved that the Pairing system was not necessary to find your other half. 

How did you get out of this, Mama? Katniss silently asked, sliding lower into the water, wishing she could stay in its warmth forever. How did Caroline Axson convince her hard-headed parents not to let her participate in this archaic tradition? Maybe Abraham and Cecily were not so hard on their daughter as they were on her and Prim? But why leave the Flock, if that were the case? She sighed and sat back up, reaching for the soap. Her Interview was in mere hours and crying about it was not going to change that. 

Prim sat behind her, keeping watch of her hair and making sure it didn’t get wet. “What type of style shall we create?” she asked, piling Katniss’ long locks atop her head. “Perhaps a top bun with braids? I still have some white flowers that would look lovely against your dark color. Or maybe we curl it in ringlets?” 

“I don’t care,” Katniss murmured as she scrubbed at her arms. She’d be damned if Cecily commented how she smelled like a milkmaid. “Shave it off, for all I care.” Her sister gasped and she rolled her eyes. “I’m joking, Prim. But truly, I do not care what you decide. Anything I choose, I’m sure Grandmother would see as slovenly anyway. You choose for me.” 

As Prim listed off different ideas for hairstyles they could try with the amount of time they had, Katniss took her anxiety out on her skin. Not a single inch was left untouched, and by the time she stepped out of the tub, her dusky skin glowed a dark red and throbbed at the forceful scrubbing. Prim helped her out and started drying her off. 

“You shouldn’t have worked so hard on your skin, Katniss,” she reprimanded, patting at Katniss’ arms and frowning when she winced at a tender spot. “What will Grandmother say when she sees this?”  

It was hard to care what Cecily thought because she wasn’t the one who was up for slaughter tonight, but Katniss made an attempt to look sheepish about it. 

“My nerves must be getting the best of me.” That was true. Her stomach had been in knots since the letter arrived. 

“There’s nothing to be frightened of!” Prim exclaimed, giving her sister’s arms a gentle squeeze, and thinking it comforting when she added, “You and Byron will surely be Paired and all will be well.” 

Not having the heart to tell her sweet, naive sister that she would rather walk across a field of hot coals than Bind herself to Byron Bates, Katniss nodded and reached for her drawers and stockings. 

Byron Bates was the boy her grandparents wanted, and expected, her to be Paired with before her eighteenth birthday. That had been the plan since the two were children and had been forced to be acquainted with one another. The older Katniss got, the more Cecily insisted on “dropping by” the Bates’ estate to see “her dearest friend” and to “see how Tilly’s studious son was faring in his studies.” Her grandmother was many things, but subtle was not one of them, and Katniss despised those visits. The tea was always lukewarm, so as not to burn dearest Byron’s palette, and Tilly Bates never seemed able to perfect a simple scones recipe, with Katniss almost breaking a tooth once on the hard pastry. But the worst part was always the company.

Tilly Bates, a mousy woman who likely jumped at the slightest of sounds, centered her whole existence around the care and happiness of Mr. Bates and her son Byron, for that seemed all she could ever talk about. Katniss had tried to follow Prim’s advice and ask Mrs. Bates about her hobbies–“Are you reading anything of interest, Mrs. Bates?”–but the conversation always came back to “her boys” and how she didn’t have much time for such “frivolous” things. “Father and Byron work so hard,” she’d always say in her squeaky voice, either choosing to ignore the face Katniss made every time she’d refer to her husband as “father” or not noticing it because she was too busy gazing up at the large portrait of her boys over the parlor fireplace. 

Grandmother never thought her friend odd and always complimented how promising a student Tilly had been as a girl, and what an excellent wife she turned out to be. “She will have much to teach you when you live with her,” Cecily would always say on the ride home, pleased with the visit because she and Tilly were on the same page when it came to their children. Katniss never said much because the thought of having to live the rest of her life acting like Tilly Bates and referring to her husband as “father” made her sick. “The finest of wives in all the Flock, if I do say so myself. Yes, you will do well as Tilly’s daughter.” 

And if Tilly Bates wasn’t bad enough, her son was worse. 

Byron Bates was a tall, handsome man with dark hair and dark brown eyes. He had the looks of a dashing hero in the romantic novels Prim kept hidden under their bed, and he was expected to inherit his father’s large fortune, but his looks were about the only thing the seventeen-year-old had going for him. It wasn’t that Byron was cruel or rude. He was a fine gentleman and any compliment received about his kindness was well deserved, but Byron was dull. Boring. Bland. Tedious. Unexciting. Katniss could make a whole list describing how uninteresting Byron was and that list would be of more interest than the man himself. 

“He has no personality, Prim,” she complained on numerous occasions, collapsing on their bed in misery. “And he never stops talking! ” For someone who had no more charm than a turnip, Byron loved to talk and talk and talk

“Perhaps he is nervous,” Prim would comfort, brushing out her hair.

“We have known each other since we were children,” Katniss would argue back. “There is no reason to be nervous!”

Prim always reminded her to make the best out of it, but it was hard. Katniss would think perhaps her mind exaggerated his tedious personality, but then they’d be dance partners at the Flock’s seasonal dances, where she’d have to wear a forced smile as he stepped on her feet, talking of nothing but different fencing styles for the farm, and she knew there was no room for exaggeration. 

Byron really was that boring. 

And Katniss really was stuck with him. 

Katniss tried not to think of Byron Bates as Prim helped her slip into her underclothes, wondering how long it would take the Elders to notify the families of the Pairing. 

“Delly told me how they had her wait an entire week before announcing her Pair,” Prim said, tying one of her lucky icons to the ribbon that held Katniss’ stockings up. “I hope they let us know as soon as possible. The suspense would practically kill me!”

There was no chance to quiet her sister’s worry. Cecily hurried in with a dress draped over her arms and Hazelle right behind her with new stays and stockings in hand. 

“No, no,” Cecily said, pulling Katniss off the bed and beginning to undo her stays. “We must make sure everything you wear has been blessed, child. There is too much on the line. Lady Night needs to be with you tonight.” She pulled the stays off and tossed the garment on the floor, moving onto Katniss’ stockings and bloomers next. Soon Katniss stood naked in the center of the room, her hands covering her small breasts and the juncture of her thighs and feeling extremely self-conscious. Hazelle laid out the garments she carried, and moved to fix up the dress Katniss was expected to wear for her Interview. Cecily instructed Katniss to hold her arms up as a new shift was placed over her head.

“Primrose,” Cecily instructed as she pulled tightly on Katniss’ new stays, “please fetch Katniss’ bum roll. I believe it is in her wardrobe.” 

“Grandmother, no,” Katniss argued, tugging on the stiff stays. “I don’t need that. It makes me look ridiculous.” 

“Quiet, girl,” Cecily warned, giving a sharp thwack to her rear. “We need to show the Elders you have a figure and that this slim frame is able to birth many children.” Katniss bit the inside of her mouth at the thought of having children with Byron, and stood still as Cecily tied the bum roll around her hips and added two petticoats over it. She watched herself through the mirror transform into what Cecily deemed “an elegant lady.” Prim oo’d and ah'd from the bed, commenting how envious she was of Katniss for wearing such finery. 

“You look so lovely, Katniss,” she said. “I wish I could be as half as lovely.” 

“Don’t be silly, Prim,” Katniss sighed, lifting her arms up at her grandmother’s insistence. “You are only twelve and twice the lady I will ever be.” Her Interview dress–a heavy black velvet gown with a white lace collar and a black silk sash tied at the waist–was draped over her head, its weight heavy on her shoulders. Cecily’s bony fingers carefully buttoned the black buttons in the back while Hazelle buttoned the ones at her wrist. It was a lovely gown, Katniss had to admit. One of the few finer ones she didn’t mind wearing. But that was in the winter seasons, when the cold winds sent chills to her bones. This was summer and the humidity sat heavy in the air. Already Katniss could feel beads of sweat trickle down her back, between her breasts. 

But her grandmother insisted this was the dress, no matter the season. 

“Straighten your posture, Katniss,” Cecily reminded, pulling on her shoulders. “You must remember to appear confident during your Interview.” 

“I thought I was meant to look sweet and demure.” 

“You are.” This was ridiculous. How on earth was she meant to look confident while also acting sweet and demure? “Let us go over a few questions as Primrose does your hair.” 

Prim squealed and shot off the bed, already reaching for Katniss’ hair. “Truly, Grandmother? You trust my skills on such an important occasion?” 

“Of course, my blossom,” Cecily said warmly, cupping Prim’s face with a smile. “You are so skilled with your hands. Just as your mother once was.” Prim smiled in return, always pleased whenever she was compared to her mother, and kissed Cecily’s hand before turning to Katniss. 

“I was thinking of a lovely braided bun with ringlets off to the side, like this?” She pulled a few strands of hair and loosely wrapped the rest of Katniss’ long hair back to look like a bun. “Perhaps some baby’s breath for a bit of color?” 

Cecily nodded. “Yes, that looks lovely. The ringlets will shape her face nicely, bringing focus to her lovely grey eyes.” The compliment surprised Katniss. It wasn’t often Cecily offered any type of compliment to her eldest granddaughter, and on something she inherited from her father! 

As Prim set to work on her hair, Cecily took out her notes and began quizzing Katniss on questions the Elders might pose to her. No Interview was exactly the same as another. The Elders wanted to know different things for different Pairings, especially if one person was sought after by many families, but the questions generally followed a pattern: knowledge of the Flock and its long history, desire for children, how to raise said children, and how to be a supportive, doting wife. At least for the girls. 

According to her grandfather, the boys were given an entirely different set of questions, such as occupational aspirations, how to support a growing family, and how to discipline a wife ... to name a few. Katniss briefly wondered, as she recited her thoughts on gardening versus buying produce from the Market Square, what Byron would say about disciplining her. She didn’t like the idea of the rod being passed down from her grandparents to her husband, but she did wonder how boring-as-dry-paint Byron would discipline her? Would her grandmother share her quiet tea recipe? Blessed Night, she hoped not. Perhaps the standard scold’s bridle with a mockery sign? Horrible, and she felt for the women whose husbands favored that humiliating punishment, but a bit of humiliation seemed better than the intestine-eating tea, or the strap on her back and rear. 

Katniss bit at her nail at the thought of Byron strapping her. 

“Stop that at once,” Cecily scolded, slapping Katniss’ hand away from her mouth. “I thought we broke you from that disgusting habit.” 

Setting her hand back in her lap, Katniss frowned. “Apologies, Grandmother. I suppose I am just nervous about making our family proud.” 

Cecily gave her a sharp look, unsure whether she was sincere or not, but Katniss was being sincere. She might hate being part of such a system, but she wanted to make her grandfather and sister proud. It felt like a rare feat, and she was going to do it. Even if it did mean having to give up her life to do so. Cecily must have sensed her sincerity because she nodded and set down her book of questions. 

“Your Interview is quite nerve wracking, but you will pass. So long as you answer exactly how we have practiced. We have worked on questions that will focus on you being Paired with someone from our Traditionalist class. Answer as we have prepared, and by the end of this week, I anticipate Tilly and I will be busy planning your Binding ceremony.” 

It took all Katniss had in her to conceal her disgust. 

Prim soon finished with her hair, giving Katniss a kiss to the cheek when she was done. “The Elders will be so pleased with how lovely you look. You will make our family so proud, dearest sister.” Katniss tried to smile, for Prim’s sake; the style she chose was lovely and though she was sweating, the dress did look nice. Cecily dabbed at her pulse points with a perfume Katniss recognized as one her mother used to wear on special occasions. The smell of the perfume, and the bathwater, and looking like a porcelain doll ready to be sold all became too much, and Katniss didn’t know how to feel anymore. 

Would she still be going through with this if her mother had lived? It was hard imagining life in the Flock with Cary Axson Everdeen still alive. In Katniss’ mind, her mother belonged in 12 with her father, and had died there with him. Neither belonged to this world of Lady Night and blood rituals, charms and Pairings. Neither belonged in the Flock.

But did she? 

“Stop those tears, child. You are doing what Lady Night destined for you the night of your birth.” 

“I know.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. Her eyes cast down to her lap, unable to look at herself any longer. She might disagree with Lady Night’s plan for her, but trying to argue with her grandparents was like arguing with the Moon not to shine her blessed cool light on them. 

The clock tolled loudly from below, alerting the women they only had an hour before her appointed Interview. 

“We must be on our way,” Cecily announced, handing Katniss her black lace gloves and bonnet. “Katniss, tell the Hawthorne boy to get the buggy and our finest horse ready. I expect us to be seen in style. Just in case that horrid Head Elder of ours is there.” 

“Grandmother,” Prim sighed, “you know the Head Elder has better things to do than join in on a Pairing Interview.” 

“Just the same. Things are looking up for us, girls. I can feel it.”

She didn’t have to explain to Gale when she reached the stables. When he saw her in her finest apparel, he knew.  “I saw one of those feather heads here earlier. Figured it had to be for your Interview.” 

Katniss looked down at the ground, the stiff leather boots that pinched at her feet peeking out from under lacy petticoats, and sighed. Was it only a few short hours ago that they were out hunting? Those nights were most definitely over. There was no possible way Cecily would allow Katniss out of her sight once she was Paired. 

“We need the buggy, and Grandmother wants Dante as the lead,” was all she said, looking back up. Her voice was thick with emotion.

Gale nodded, but didn’t make any move to do as she requested. “I suppose today’s just meant for sacrifices, huh? Kids in the Hunger Games. You to the Elders.” 

“I’m not a sacrifice,” she snapped, trying to buck the feeling that that was exactly what she was.“It’s just … something that is expected of me. I may not like it but … but I chose this.” 

“A sacrifice is still a sacrifice, Catnip.” 

“You wouldn’t understand. You’re an Outsider.” For once, Katniss was happy she could throw that in his face. She couldn’t understand how he felt being an Outsider? Fine, then. He couldn’t possibly know how she felt being a baptized member of the Flock. “No one expects anything from you.” 

“Just blind obedience to the Elders and a guy who follows some made up bird.” 

Katniss scowled. “Get the buggy ready, Gale. My grandmother is waiting and you know how she doesn’t like to wait.” 

He sighed and took a step closer. “Katniss, wait.” 

She turned back around, glaring up at him. 

“I’m sorry.” And it sounded like he meant more than just his words. 

She swallowed and looked away, unable to bear seeing his pity for her. “Please hurry with the buggy. I don’t want to be late.” 

“There you are!” Prim proclaimed, startling Katniss out of her thoughts. She’d been so absorbed in her misery, and the sinking feeling of unending doom, that she didn’t even notice Prim waiting for her on the back porch. “We were wondering where you flew off to!” 

“Were you?” Katniss slowly climbed the porch steps, wishing the ground would be kind and swallow her whole, and leaned against the railing where Prim stood. She held out the black bonnet Katniss often wore for days of worship and sacrifice. Katniss accepted, her grip on the stiff material tighter than necessary. “Won’t this ruin your work?” she asked in reference to her braided hair. 

Prim shrugged. “Grandmother insisted you wear it.” 

“Of course she did,” Katniss sighed, making no move to put it on, and stared out into the darkness. The Moon shone brightly tonight; Her light painting their property with a pale, pearly light. From a distance, Katniss could see Gale hitching their horses to the family’s buggy and her stomach churned. His look of pity forever ingrained in her memory now. Just another thing to recall on this cursed night, she supposed, looking down at her bonnet.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.” Prim bumped her shoulders in good spirit. “I promise whatever it is, it won’t upset me.” 

That seemed debatable, since Prim and her grandparents thought the Pairing system just and even holy because it was ordained by Lady Night Herself. Katniss bit at her bottom lip in indecision. 

“I’m nervous.” That wasn’t a lie.

“That seems normal. This is a huge moment in your life,” Prim promptly reminded her, as though she hadn’t already known that her Interview was a huge, life-altering event. “Everything about your future rests on this sole moment in time.” 

“Not helping, Prim,” she snapped.

Prim smiled apologetically. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. Just that there’s no reason to feel ashamed at feeling nervous. Everyone is. At least you have a good idea who you will be Paired with. I’ve heard of so many girls barely knowing their mate, and here you are, already knowing so much about dearest Byron! Grandmother truly is looking out for you, Katniss.”

It didn’t feel that way, she wanted to argue. It didn’t feel like a blessing, but more as an eternal punishment she was meant to endure until the Mockingjay freed her from her Binding promises to stay true and kind to her mate. The unknown might be frightening, but at this moment, Katniss would have given anything just to un-know her fate. 

“You’re worried about being Paired with Byron,” Prim surmised. 

“The thought has crossed my mind, yes.” 

Prim wrapped her arms around her and gave a gentle squeeze. “You will learn to love him, Katniss. I know it. It is the way of our people. Just as Grandmother learned to love Grandfather and–” 

“Our mother loved Papa,” Katniss snapped again, pulling away. “They were never Paired, and look how much they loved each other. How devastated Mama was when he died.” 

“They loved each other dearly,” Prim agreed slowly, placating her sister more than believing her, “but that is not our way, Katniss. The Mockingjay tells the Elders where to place us and we follow as we’re told. To make a stronger flock.” 

“Yes, well”—Katniss shoved her bonnet on her head and headed inside—“I suppose I should suck it up and Bind my soul with Byron, if it’s for ‘the betterment of the Flock!’” 

“Katniss—” But the back door slammed shut before she could hear what Prim had to say. She didn’t really care. For the betterment of the Flock? It was always for the Flock. Well, she was tired of the Flock and its demanding needs. Let it suffer without her. 

Cecily was in the front hall, straightening her greying auburn hair, pinned up in a tidy bun. She turned upon hearing Katniss' step in the space and frowned. “How is it that you manage to undo all my hard work in so little time? Come here, girl.” Katniss stepped closer, making no sound of contempt as her grandmother yanked and pulled at her heavy dress. She dabbed harshly at her cheeks, muttering about sweat and how unladylike it was. 

“I can’t help that,” Katniss finally growled, unable to stop herself. “It’s summer and you put me in my winter dress!” 

“Hold your tongue!” Cecily scolded, tightening the bonnet ribbon under her chin. Katniss winced, but remained still. “Remember: tonight you are representing our family and reminding the Elders that the Axson name can never be tarnished.” I’m not an Axson , Katniss wanted to argue. I’m an Everdeen. But she held her tongue and followed Cecily out when Hazelle came to tell them the buggy was ready. 

“Head up and shoulders back,” Cecily instructed as they stepped out into the humid air. Katniss rolled her eyes, but did as she was told. 

Gale waited for them, his hands tucked behind his back. He nodded when they approached, holding out his hand for Cecily to take and step into the buggy. When it was her turn, Katniss hesitated. The thought of making a run for it crossed her mind. She could bolt into the trees and hide out until Gale found her and took her back to his home. Neither he nor Hazelle would ever out her to her grandparents, and with enough time, Prim would understand why she had to run away. Her grandparents would never dare step out into the Boughs, the outer sector of the Flock where the poorer folk and refugees from 12 lived. That was beneath them. She would be safe from their demands, but most importantly, she would be alone. This life of solitude and freedom in the Boughs flickered through her mind so brightly, Katniss felt a little bit of hope that was quickly squashed when Gale cleared his throat, bringing her back to the present. 

“Miss?” he asked, giving her a small look of concern. 

“Oh. Um. Thank you.” She accepted his offered hand, wishing she could take it and run, but knowing she never would, and hoisted herself up, sitting across from her grandmother. 

As they drove off, Katniss watched the large house grow smaller until she saw nothing but the looming trees enshrouding them in darkness.

The ride to the Nest’s square was an hour’s journey from the Axson’s large estate, a journey Katniss normally never minded. She enjoyed the time in her own thoughts, often riding with her stoic  grandfather and thinking about the things she would buy in the market that evening with her allowance, or mentally mapping a new hunting route for the next time she and Gale hunted. Tonight’s journey was different. Her Interview consumed her thoughts the entire way. Cecily didn’t appreciate solitude and self-reflection as Abraham did and filled the time with more questions.

Katniss tried her best to remember her practiced responses, but the closer the buggy got to the main square, the more distracted she got. 

“Katniss!” Cecily finally snapped after she stumbled distractedly through another response. “Pay attention, child! We are almost there and I’ve only gone through half my questions.” 

“Apologies, Grandmother.” To her great surprise, her grandmother’s sharp features softened and she leaned forward and gently squeezed Katniss’ hand, offering a rare smile.

“You are nervous, I understand.”

 Katniss nodded. 

“That is expected. I remember trembling in my boots the night of my Interview, but my mother did not allow for my nerves to get the better of me and I shan’t let yours harm your chances tonight.” She leaned back on the buggy’s cushioned bench, still wearing that small smile. Katniss waited for more, wanting something of more comfort, but that seemed to be all her grandmother could afford her. She sighed when Cecily moved on to the next question on her list and answered as they’d practiced. 

Katniss knew they were close when her lungs filled with the heavy scent of blood, soot, and burnt herbs. Her senses grew alert as she leaned forward in her seat and watched as the shrouding trees opened to the heart of the Flock: the Nest. Cast iron lanterns hung in trees, creaking slowly in the summer breeze. Homemade candles flickered as the dim light guided patrons of the Flock to their destination. Katniss was surprised at the amount of people out at this time, and then felt foolish, realizing it was still early in the night. Summer nights were short and people would take any opportunity to bask in the darkness for as long as Lady Night protected them. 

Despite the weather, men and women in long coats and dresses went along their business as usual, carrying their own lanterns and baskets as they went, greeting those they passed. Children wearing homemade paper mache masks in the shape of birds and rabbits merrily gamboled outside the school house, cheerfully singing a macabre tune. Katniss quietly smiled, remembering when she and Prim would play similar games in the moonlit woods, pretending they were the Daughters of Night, protecting the world from the Sun and His fiery children. It was easier then, when all of this was a game.

Hens, a group of pious women dedicated to the Mockingjay and His army, covered in holy relics, chanted as men hoisted a large bird-like effigy into the trees in front of the large, old Sanctuary, their holy place of worship. Katniss watched in fascination as the women danced around the effigy, the holy crystals decorating its wings catching the candlelight. A protection spell, Katniss realized, turning around in her seat to continue watching as they passed. She recognized the incantation from Prim, who just last week performed her own protection ritual in the trees, Katniss a reluctant participant. 

“The attacks must be getting worse,” she observed, “I’ve never seen the Hens do that.”  The comment was more to herself, but her grandmother sniffed, feeling the need to respond. 

“We wouldn’t have to worry about such things if the Head Elder would do something about the borders,” Cecily said reproachfully, eyeing the Hens with a more critical eye. “But of course, they are too busy with their nonsense bird worship to care about such matters. Your grandfather would never have let it get this bad. He made sure our borders were secure.” 

Katniss chose not to respond, knowing if she did, it would only set Cecily off on the injustice she felt their family received from the High Priest and the Council of Elders. She watched as the Hens chanted and danced, mesmerized by their synchronized motions, until they were out of sight. Cecily had calmed down, moving on to criticizing the amount of beggars there were littered on the streets after seeing the butcher shooing a small group off his stoop as he was busy painting his shop’s door with blood, another form of protection against evil spirits and mutts.

“Where is a Talon when you need one?” the woman scorned. “Every year it seems there are more and more of them. It’s despicable.” Katniss felt for the beggars, recognizing their ragged clothes as those from the Outside, and wished she could jump out of the buggy and offer them any pennies she might  have in her pockets to help them. “To allow such creatures into our Nest astounds me. I wish they would stay in the Boughs where they belong.” 

“They’re hungry, Grandmother,” Katniss commented, unable to help herself.

“We’ll all go hungry at the rate we continue letting Outsiders in,” was all Cecily said before changing the subject back to Katniss’ Interview. Katniss watched as one of the beggars, a woman with no shoes and wearing the familiar drab garb of an Outsider, picked up the small, crying girl that was holding onto her skirt, and soothed her, following after the group that had  been shooed away. Katniss’ heart lurched at the sight, remembering her own mother and the loss she still felt, and looked away.

The Elder House sat directly across from the Sanctuary. A symbol of balance, as it were, that kept the Flock moving toward a better tomorrow. The large grey-stone building loomed over them as Gale helped Cecily and Katniss out of the buggy, with a tilt of the head for luck toward the latter. Katniss took a deep breath in as she looked up at the tall building–the tallest next to the Sanctuary’s steepled roof–and said a quick prayer to anyone who was listening on this humid summer’s night. 

Cecily didn’t ask if she was nervous or how she was faring now that they were here. Instead, her grandmother straightened herself out from the long ride and turned to Katniss, tugging and re-tying all the faults that she found. 

“Now remember,” Cecily said, yanking a loose hair on Katniss' forehead so hard, it caused the girl to wince, “this is your only chance to make our family proud. I have done all I can, but it is up to you to fulfill your duty to the Flock.” She didn’t sound like she had much faith Katniss would succeed. “Do not embarrass the Axson name and do as you are told in there.” 

“I know, Grandmother.” This was not the first time Katniss had been told this, but she prayed it’d be the last. 

Cecily pinched her cheek hard in admonishment. “Your tongue will only seek out trouble. Hold it, as I have taught you, or so help me, you will never be allowed out of our home without a bridle on again.” 

It was as Cecily opened the door, satisfied Katniss was heeding her threat, that two Talons pushed past, shoving the two women aside as they dragged a raving woman out. Katniss barely recognized Raven Tiller, the tailor’s wife, with the metal scolding bridle deforming her features. Raven’s dark eyes were hard as she fought against the strength of the Talons, her tangled red hair sticking to bits of her face, but it was a fruitless effort. The two Talons, one Katniss recognized as Thom Krause, a boy a few years her senior, carried Raven along without much pause, telling her she was only making things harder than it ought. 

Another Talon rushed out to assist as Raven Tiller was carried to the center of the square where those who were sentenced for public punishment were kept for all to see. Two women were already tied tightly to two of the posts, the black iron bridles signifying they had spoken ill of someone or something. Two men occupied the stocks beside the three standing posts, their hands encased in metal gloves, a symbol that they had committed theft. All wore  signs around their necks reading their crime, but Katniss was too far away to read what they said. Raven Tiller was carried to the last post, the fight in her thin body depleting the moment the Talon pressed her back to the wooden post. 

Cecily tsked, shaking her head at the sight. “To take a deserved punishment in such a matter... Master Tiller ought to be ashamed at his lowly wife’s behavior. Come along, Katniss. It is best not to keep the Council waiting.” Katniss paused, looking back at the now tightly bound woman. 

It was a common sight in the Nest to see such things; the Council of Elders held no mercy for those they saw as impertinent to the Flock, especially the Head Elder, who was infamous for keeping watch as the punished were confined to their misery. The pit in Katniss’ stomach grew heavier at the sight of all those punished in the square tonight. The Elders must be on a roll, she feared, only imagining how her Interview was going to fare. 

She followed Cecily in, and they were instructed to wait in the hall until the Council was ready to see Katniss. The Hen behind the desk pointed to a corner bench under the large, black glass window that overlooked the square, and the two sat down. Cecily fussed with her bag, not pleased they would have to wait when they were on time, but Katniss didn’t mind. She looked out the window to pass the time. A small crowd had formed around Raven Tiller, curious passersby wanting to see the latest troublemaker. Katniss turned back in her seat, unable to watch the spectacle outside. 

The building was filled with sounds of doors opening and closing. Floors creaking under the weight of people walking down hallways, and her attention was brought to a small group of men exiting the room across from where they sat. By habit, Katniss sat up straighter when she noticed the High Priest among the men, crossing her legs and looking away as all did when in the presence of their most holy leader. His Highest Grace’s robes were more austere than the richly colored garb she was used to seeing during Service, but the simple robes didn’t diminish the power the tall man held as he spoke. Katniss lifted her head slightly, eyes following his blond curls among the dark-haired men, wondering what could possibly have the man so cross.  

“I told her I would handle such matters,” he said, his voice clear and sharp. He shook his head at something someone said. “No, let her do as she pleases. We shall discuss it later.” The conversation continued, but the group was too far down the hall now for Katniss to hear. She slumped against the wall as best as she could in the stiff material of her dress and took a shaky breath in. Reality was fast settling upon her and seeing the High Priest reminded her how soon she would be expected to conduct a  second Interview with both His Highest Grace and her Paired mate in order to receive the blessing from the Mockingjay. It was possible that whatever choices were made tonight could be moot if His Highest Grace didn’t bless the Binding, but Katniss had never heard of such a thing happening. 

She jumped when the large oak door creaked open and an older Hen came out, her bony hands clenched tightly in front. “Katniss Esther Axson?” she asked, her voice cold. 

“That’s me,” Katniss said, raising her hand before pulling it down at her grandmother’s glare. The Hen didn’t seem to mind the social faux pas. “Follow me,” was all she said before turning back into the dark room. Katniss swallowed, her feet unable to move. 

“Go, you ridiculous girl!” Cecily scolded, giving her a not-so gentle push that snapped Katniss out of her trance, and she hurried after the Hen. 

Except for the red candles that lined a long wooden table flickering a warm yellow glow, the room the Hen led her into was shrouded in darkness. Katniss swallowed, pulling at the collar of her dress. 

The stuffy room reminded her of a time when she was little and had accidentally locked herself in her father’s hunting shed. For hours she’d cried, pleading for someone to find her, praying that she wouldn’t die in this stale, dark room. It was her mother who had finally rescued her, having woken from a nap with Prim, and carried her back to safety, kissing the top of her head and promising that everything would be okay.

But her mother wasn’t here to rescue her now.

Katniss was on her own. 

A door to her right opened, causing Katniss to jump at the sudden noise. The Council of Elders proceeded in, wearing their heavy dark robes, and each carrying what appeared to be a book. Katniss took a deep breath in as the men settled themselves at the table. When she’d imagined her Interview—mostly in nightmares—Katniss thought there’d be fewer members observing her. Compared to other government concerns, Pairing patrons of the Flock didn’t seem to be as high of a priority. But looking at the large group in front of her, it appeared Katniss was mistaken. This would not unsettle her, she decided, trying her best to relax. Her grandmother had prepared her for this moment.

 She had this. 

Please give me strength , she silently prayed, holding the skirt of her dress for dear life. Don’t let me embarrass my family. 

“Katniss Axson?” one of the Elders—Elder Gregory?—asked. 

Katniss nodded before realizing how she must be nothing more than a disembodied voice in this darkness. She cleared her throat. “Yes. I am she.” She could hear scratches of quills on paper. What could they possibly be writing with that information? Didn’t they know her name already? 

“Excellent. Welcome, child.” The lighting concealed everything but Elder Gregory’s smile, the gentle gesture appearing more sinister than kind. “Are you aware that you have been called upon tonight for your Pairing Interview?” 

“Yes, sir.” More writing. 

“Wonderful. Now there is nothing to worry your pretty little head about. The Council will ask questions, you will answer to the best of your ability, and we will review how your answers match with the gentlemen your family has selected for you. Remember, Miss Axson, these questions are important, and will determine your purpose in the Flock. Do not answer lightly.” 

Oh, is that all? Katniss rolled her eyes, glad no one could see in such darkness. “Yes, sir,” she answered aloud. “I understand the importance of my Interview.” 

“Good. Let us begin. The first question—” The door Katniss had stepped through slammed open, causing everyone to startle and turn to see the elegant, imposing silhouette of a tall woman breeze through while two Hens hurriedly closed the door behind her billowing skirts.

“Gregory,” the woman snapped, “did you believe I was merely jesting about my wishes to conduct this particular Interview myself?” Katniss’ eyes widened, recognizing the Head Elder’s cool, regal voice. What was she doing here? Grandmother never mentioned anything about the High Priest’s closest confidante being present tonight! And why was her Interview singled out? 

“Speak, Gregory,” the woman said, as though she were talking to a dog. “Explain to me why my wishes were ignored.”

“Madame Mellark,” Elder Gregory stammered, adjusting what Katniss assumed were his glasses. “I was not expecting–” 

“Not expecting what, Gregory? Me? Is that so? Well, perhaps it is time the High Priest appointed a new Elder, for there is no room on His Council for such blatant disrespect.” She waited until the man picked up his belongings and moved to the end of the table, where the other Elders shuffled to make room and find him a seat. Katniss had never seen the Council appear so…human. It was an unsettling sight. Madame Mellark took Elder Gregory’s vacant seat and sat down, not producing any book or quill like the others. 

“Katniss Esther Axson,” Madame Mellark spoke, clear and commanding, as though she were speaking to a crowd instead of one sixteen-year-old girl. Katniss stepped back at the sound of her name. “Daughter of Caroline Axson and…an Outsider. Well,” she demanded when Katniss didn’t respond, “speak, child.” 

“Sage Everdeen,” Katniss quietly corrected, unable to stop herself. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“My father,” she said, louder this time. “My father was an Outsider, yes, but his name was Sage Everdeen.” 

The Head Elder waved her comment off—choosing, amazingly enough, to ignore Katniss’ childish outburst. Blessed Night , she breathed, trying to calm her sudden annoyance. Not even five minutes into her Interview and she was embarrassing her family. She could already taste the bitter quiet tea running down her throat. “His name matters not to me, Miss Axson. An Outsider is an Outsider in the eyes of the Mockingjay.” 

Katniss bristled at Madame Mellark’s blasé attitude toward over half the Flock's people, but she held her tongue, tucking her hands behind her back and tightening her grip around her  fist. 

The Head Elder’s steady gaze didn’t waver as she jumped straight into her first question: “Miss Axson, it appears that you do not have any valuable skills that will automatically connect you with a particular profession. Is that correct?” 

Katniss alternated the weight in her feet, carefully deciding how to word her answer without sounding as insulted as she felt. “I carry many valuable skills, Madame,” she said slowly, each word weighted in caution. “I hunt with my grandfather–” 

“I said valuable skills,” the woman sharply corrected. “For a woman. Hunting, though valuable in its own right, is not something of value in a woman. In fact, your grandfather should feel ashamed at tarnishing his granddaughter’s chances of being Paired with a promising family.” She laughed to herself, shaking her head in amusement. “Then again, this is a man who lost his role in society due to the mismanagement of his family. So I should not be surprised. Gentlemen,” she addressed the table of Elders, “please note that Miss Axson illegally hunts.” Katniss could hear the frantic scratches of quills on paper.

“Let us move forward, Miss Axson. We both know your skills do not match those who run business in the Nest, and though it is tempting to Pair Cecily Axson’s eldest granddaughter with a mere farmer in the Boughs, there is a process even I must follow.” Katniss wished she could tell the Head Elder that being Paired with a boy from the Boughs would be the least of her worries, but she knew her grandparents would be mortified at the ill-suited match. “Our records state you were baptized under the Mockingjay’s wings. Is that correct?” 

“Yes, Madame,” Katniss muttered, repeating herself when instructed to speak louder. 

“Have some dignity in your responses, Miss Axson,” the Head Elder reprimanded. “This is your future we are speaking of.” 

“Apologies, Madame.” 

Madame Mellark held out her hand to her left and what appeared to be a stack of papers was passed to her. She sifted through the pile, making soft, contemplative noises as she read. Katniss assumed it was her record. Did everyone have a record? she wondered. The folder snapped shut and the Head Elder’s steady gaze was on her once more. Katniss did her best not to sway. 

“Miss Axson, you were baptized in the late summer of our three-hundred and seventeenth year. Is there a reason for such a delay when you were born in the spring?” Katniss’ eyes narrowed, unsure how to answer. Madame Mellark sighed, stood up and walked around the table, the other Elders hurriedly pushing themselves closer to the table as the tall, commanding woman passed them. “You may wonder why I inquire after such a small detail, but as many children of the Flock are baptized weeks after birth, your baptism gives me great pause. And as it is public knowledge that your parents, Cary Axson and the Outsider, abandoned our nest for the barbaric world that sends their children to slaughter, I hesitate to believe you are faithful to our most beloved and generous Mockingjay.” 

Her grandmother had not prepared Katniss for this type of question. Katniss knew questions of her faith would come up and knew her only way of convincingly surviving them was to think of Prim and her fervent belief, but this question was completely unexpected. How could she explain the actions of her parents when they weren’t here to explain them to her? Katniss took a deep breath to clear her rattled mind. “If your question, Madame, is whether I believe in the Mockingjay, my answer is yes. I do believe in all the good He brings forth to us.” That sounded like something Prim would say. 

“Merely believing is not enough,” Madame Mellark frowned. “Anyone can believe in something. Gregory,” she called over her shoulder, “do you believe the High Priest chose well to place you on His council?” 

The man in question startled, sitting up straighter. “I-I-Yes, Madame, I do believe He chose well.” 

Marta Mellark smiled sweetly at Katniss. “See? Just because we believe something doesn’t necessarily make it true. You may believe you follow the Mockingjay, but your lukewarm performance during Service speaks otherwise. Which again leads me to believe that the hatchling doesn’t fall far from its nest.” 

Katniss clenched her teeth. “Madame, I assure you, I am loyal to the Mockingjay. He brought my sister and myself back…back home.” 

“Yes, the Outside sister. It is rather ironic that your Outside kin is more loyal to our beloved High Priest than you. Pity she is set for the healing cloth, for she would be a most dutiful Hen.” Marta Mellark stood and walked down the room, the sharp clicks of her boot heels echoing in the empty space. “Miss Axson, as a baptized member of our Flock, what does it mean to be baptized in the Mockingjay’s blood?” 

At last, a question she was prepared for. “Being bathed in the Mockingjay’s blood provides lifetime protection against any harm brought upon us.” 

“And why are only infants allowed such total protection and love?” 

Because it would require hundreds of slaughtered birds just to bathe one adult. “Children are born under total darkness and are dark in soul and mind. As we grow older, we are tempted by light, Madame. It is our temptation that taints the Mockingjay’s trust and we must prove ourselves worthy, even for one small ounce of His blessed blood.” The scratching of quills filled the room.

“And why must we prove ourselves worthy?” 

“We must prove ourselves worthy because our souls belong to the Mockingjay’s army and soon He shall call upon us to fight to defend Lady Night against the perils of the world.” 

Madame Mellark made her way closer to Katniss. “And why must we defend Lady Night? For what do we owe a sleeping goddess?” 

Katniss’ body became more rigid the closer the Head Elder came. This close up, she could faintly smell the woman’s perfume, a flowery spice that did nothing to ease Katniss’ nerves. She swallowed, straightening her posture. “We owe Lady Night our lives because She made us, nourishes us, and protects us, even as She slumbers. We are Her children, and She shielded us in her blanket of darkness when Fire overtook the world and attempted to burn us all in His ravenous blaze. Lady Night shelters us still, in the deep of Her forest and Flock.”

Madame Mellark smiled, her hands tucked behind her back as she circled around Katniss. “Why do we refer to ourselves as the Flock, Miss Axson?” 

“Because we are following in our brethren’s ways, wishing to unite together as they do, Madame Mellark.” The woman paused, glancing back at her with a critical eye. “Our brethren?” 

“The birds,” she clarified, recalling the hours spent pouring over the volumes in her grandfather’s study. “Lady Night’s first earthly children. Her better children.”

“You speak of Lady Night’s children,” Madame Mellark said conversationally. “Who were her most loyal servants?” 

“Mother Mockingbird and Father Jabberjay are considered Lady Night’s most loyal servants. She blessed them with eternal life, and blessed their union, though it was forbidden in the eyes of men until she granted them the gift of changing their forms to be together as true mates.” Katniss smiled, having enjoyed this particular story as a young child. It was one of the few stories the Penumbra spoke that didn’t end in death or the destruction of civilization. 

“And what did Lady Night foresee when blessing their forbidden union? What fruit came forth?” 

“The Mockingjay, of course,” Katniss sighed, feeling like they’ve been at this for ages now. 

“Of course,” the Head Elder mocked, pivoting around so quickly, Katniss took a step back. “You speak with such contempt toward our beloved savior, Miss Axson. Lady Night may be our ultimate salvation, but never forget that it is the Mockingjay who is destined to bring our Flock into the era of prosperity. It is the Mockingjay who collects the souls of our people. Who trains an army to defend what was once ours. ‘Of course,’” she sneered, looking down at Katniss now. “Have respect, Miss Axson, for the very being who forgave your worthless mother for her betrayal against her own kin. Who welcomed you and your Outsider sister home. Baptized you both with His own blood.” 

“Marta!” Elder Gregory spoke out at last, standing at his seat. “That is enough! You are frightening the child.” 

The Head Elder looked startled, as though not realizing her intensity, and composed herself once more. “Yes. It appears I have let my personal judgments get ahead of me.” 

“Personal judgment!” Katniss said incredulously, unable to hold back her irritation. “Madame Mellark, I apologize for not answering your question to the exact specifications you require, but to insult my beloved mother is an attack on my being. My mother, may she fly high above us all, believed fervently in Lady Night and believed Her Ladyship had a different path for her to take. She wasn’t unfaithful. She was the most faithful woman I knew. Faithful enough to do what she was called to … even if it meant great heartbreak for all. 

“His Highest Grace speaks of following the calling we are given, Madame. And that we should always follow our calling, no matter how difficult it may be for ourselves. My mother gave up everything. Twice! I will not have you speak of my mother in such a horrid tone, even if you do dictate my fate.” By the time she finished, her ribs ached as they fought against her tight stays, her breathing hard and heavy. It was a rarity, hearing someone speak so lowly of her mother— Katniss couldn’t help it. Her feelings toward Cary Everdeen might be complicated, but it didn’t mean others could tarnish her mother’s name. Her mother’s beliefs. 

She expected the worst possible scolding after her outburst. Expected Talons to march in and drag her out to the posts with Raven Tiller and the others who had broken the law. Or worse: she’d be dragged off to Repentance and spend weeks fasting away her sins, working off her sinful debt to the Council until the High Priest deemed her soul pure again. But no one burst through the doors. No one moved. 

Marta Mellark smiled, and that felt even worse.

“Well,” she said, sounding more amused at Katniss’ outburst than upset. “It seems Cecily couldn’t tame all your wildness. She does struggle with that, does she not?” Katniss didn’t say a word. Marta began her track once more, walking around the young girl. “Perhaps I was too hasty in my judgment of you, but that is my downfall, I shall admit. As women, it is best we learn of our imperfections so that we may improve upon them. Not only for the betterment of our own souls, but,” she said, glancing back at the Council’s table, “so that our enemies may not use our faults against us.” She stopped in front of Katniss and grabbed her chin, her grip solid and tight. “It appears, Miss Axson, your fault is your fiery temper. As the Penumbra states, ‘Fire is the element of destruction. If not contained, it will consume and destroy all within its path.’” Katniss swallowed and winced when Madame Mellark let go and patted her cheek—the gesture so motherly, but its meaning speaking otherwise. “It’s best you keep that in check before it destroys us all.”  

“Y-yes, Madame Mellark,” Katniss said, her voice shaky and small. “I understand.”

“Good. Do you believe the Flock has entered into the era of prosperity?” The juxtaposition startled Katniss, and she had to take a few calming breaths in to clear her head and focus on the task at hand. Surely nothing mattered now. Madame Mellark all but admitted she saw very little in Katniss and her outburst didn’t help matters. She would be lucky if she was Paired with any young man within her grandparents’ social circle. 

“We strive always to reach greater prosperity,” Katniss recited, the words of her grandmother flowing right off her tongue, but something didn’t feel right with her answer and she continued: “But though we strive to reach greater prosperity, Madame, I do not believe we will ever achieve such an era if we continue to ignore those that suffer.” 

“I presume you speak of your father’s ilk, Miss Axson.”

“I speak of those living in the Boughs, Madame. They are not treated as those in the Nest are, and for the Flock to prosper, we must unite ourselves under the Mockingjay’s wings.”

“You speak boldly, child,” Madame Mellark sniffed, “but these are considerations for the Elders, and not wifely concerns. How ought a wife to serve the Flock, Miss Axson?” 

Katniss made a face before quickly composing herself to appear the sweet and demure wife-to-be she was expected to be. “To produce strong and loyal children, Madame, and to tend to my husband’s every need.” The last part was said in one, rushed breath, her least favorite part of it all. Katniss could handle the likes of motherhood, but to spend the rest of her life humoring the likes of Byron Bates? Tending to his precious male ego? The Mockingjay could not pluck her soul fast enough. 

Marta raised an eyebrow. “And?” 

Panic set in. “And … to … um…” What more was she expected to say? Was laying down her soul for servitude not enough for the Council? 

“To set an example of faithful, womanly submission,” Madame Mellark supplied, “as we must all submit to the will of the Mockingjay.” 

“Oh. Yes. And that.” A small, muffled laugh came from the table, the guilty party coughing to hide it.

“Yes, that ,” Madame Mellark sighed, not as amused as her counterpart. She began another round around Katniss. “In the raising of your children, and in all matters of the home, what is your duty to your husband?” 

“To make sure everything is to his liking and that the home is restful for his soul.” 

“And your temperament and comportment towards him?” 

“Is meant to be docile, submissive, and obedient, Madame.” That stopped the Head Elder directly in front of Katniss, and she looked down at her in contempt. 

“An area that is much to be desired.” Katniss’ face warmed at the judgement. “And when you retire to your marriage bed?” 

Katniss fidgeted, feeling the intrusion immensely. Her grandmother never went into full detail about how a man and wife acted behind closed doors. All she knew was that a man inserted himself between her legs and that the first time would feel terribly uncomfortable. “But you will accept the pain,” Cecily had told her and her classmates during this particular lesson, “because it is a trial given only to women by Lady Night. Pain of breaching and pain of birthing. It is a reminder of our frailty. Our weaker spirits.” The task sounded ominous and nothing Katniss imagined could ever be seen as pleasurable, at least not to the wife. She’d heard many bawdy gentlemen proclaiming their sinful acts with great enthusiasm after having had one too many during Gathering. “I lie there and let him fill me with child?” 

Marta scoffed. “A husband has no interest in bedding a statue, you foolish child. You must pleasure him. Make him feel wanted. Desired. Praise him with your body.” 

Katniss nodded, wondering if her cheeks will ever return to normal. “I-I shall,” she stammered out. Praise someone like Byron Bates with her body? She shuddered at the thought.

Madame Mellark didn’t seem disturbed about questioning her further on the topic. “Miss Axson,” she continued in a cool, collective tone, “describe to me your experience with the opposite sex.” 

Well at least that question was easy to answer. “There isn’t much to describe, Madame. Next to my grandfather and the gentlemen my grandparents have introduced to me, my contact is limited at best.” 

Her answer didn’t seem to appease the woman, though. Marta Mellark halted in her step and sharply pivoted around to face Katniss again. “You speak of little contact, Miss Axson, yet you have been seen around the Nest and our western borders with a tall, male Outsider. Is he a figment of our imagination? You did not mention him.” 

“Gale?” Katniss asked, dumbly surprised she had forgotten her best friend. 

The woman shrugged. “His name holds little concern …unless it ought to?” 

“No! No,” Katniss rushed to amend. “Pardon my thoughtlessness, Madame. Yes, Gale is my family’s hunter and farmhand. I see him almost daily.” 

“Have you had any sexual thoughts of this Gale?” Madame Mellark asked, closing in on Katniss. “Been intimate with him in any capacity? It might get lonely out on the Axson estate, so far from our Nest. I can imagine a curious girl, like yourself, wondering how it feels for a boy to kiss her, make her feel things only a man could have her feel.” Katniss took a step back as Marta Mellark honed in on her with her accusations.

“Never! Gale—he’s more like a brother, Madame. I’ve always thought of him as an honorable older brother. I’ve never …had those thoughts,” she sputtered, the last part barely above a whisper. “I’ve never even been kissed.” The mortification of having to discuss such a thing in front of the Council was too much. Her cheeks felt on fire now.

“Spare me your outrage, Miss Axson,” the woman said, sounding exasperated. Madame Mellark’s hands reached out and grabbed at Katniss’ sleeve, pulling her arm out. “What of your school days, Miss Axson?” she asked next, holding the back of Katniss’ dress up just slightly to inspect something. “Any boy catch your attention, then? If not the Outsider, like your mother, then perhaps someone else?” Katniss’ hands fisted at the mention of her mother. “A boy from the Nest, perhaps, take you behind the schoolhouse and snuck up your skirt?” 

“Marta!” Elder Rowan called out, aghast at the question. “Where are you leading with this?” 

“I am making sure the girl is pure in body, Elder Rowan,” she explained, never breaking eye contact with Katniss. “Is that not what we want to make sure with all young brides?” 

“Then ask her if she’s had sexual relations and move on! There is no need to treat her like a criminal.”

The Head Elder turned and glared at Elder Rowan. “I am asking questions I feel are necessary.” She looked back to Katniss with a tight smile. “I want to make sure the girl is worthy enough to be Paired with my son.” 

Katniss’ eyes widened. “Pardon, Madame Mellark?” 

Madame Mellark didn’t deem it necessary to answer her, returning to her previous line of questions. “You’ve no idea of what I speak of, do you, child?” she asked. Katniss numbly shook her head, unable to speak. Unable to process any of this. Marta Mellark’s son? The High Priest-Elect? Heir to the Flock? She felt like she was going to be sick. 

“I will admit, Miss Axson,” she continued, “I am not thoroughly impressed with you. If you tell me producing healthy children for the Mockingjay’s army is a woman’s sole duty in life, but yet you wear padding that tries to hide your narrow frame”—she poked at the bum padding Cecily had tied around Katniss’ waist to add volume to her hips—“how am I supposed to believe you? Cecily Axson may think herself so clever with these illusions, but I know better,” Madame Mellark tauntingly sang, waving her finger in Katniss’ face. “How can I trust you to carry on the most important lineage in the Flock if you cannot lay down all your faults? Remove the padding.” 

“Come now, Marta,” Elder Northland argued. “I believe we can move on to—” 

“Remove the padding, Miss Axson,” Madame Mellark said, not even raising her voice over the Elders. Her eyes never left Katniss’. “I wish to see your true frame. Come now, Miss Axson. We haven’t got all night.” 

Biting her tongue hard, Katniss pushed the waist of her skirt down just enough to find the black ribbon that tied the bum padding around her and pulled. It fell to her feet with a small thud. The volume in her skirts deflated like under-proved bread instantly. The Head Elder frowned, circling once again. “Just as I thought. Miss Axson, how are you expected to birth such blessed children with the hips of a young child?”   

She found it difficult to swallow, the ball in her throat large and constantly growing as the minutes ticked on. “I…” How could she possibly answer this? “I will suffer through whatever pains the Mockingjay and Lady Night see as necessary, Madame. It would be an honor to die for such a cause and give the Flock an heir.” 

That caused Madame Mellark to laugh. “It is a sin, Miss Axson, to lie, but I do appreciate your attempt to appease me. It shows great courage to do something so reckless.” 

“Thank you, Madame?” 

The Head Elder went back to the table and waved her hand dismissively. 

“Be gone with you, child. The Elders and I must discuss if you are worthy enough of being Paired with the Elect.” A small bell rang and the doors opened, light pouring through, and Katniss stumbled to leave, quickly remembering to scoop up her padding in her hurry to escape. Everything looked as it did when she first entered the Interview chamber. Hens and Talons were busy with their tasks, a few men she recognized from Service shook hands at the end of the hall, and her grandmother sat stiffly straight on the bench. Nothing had changed, but everything had. 

The High Priest-Elect! How could that even be possible? How could she have garnered the attention of the Flock’s most powerful family? 

“Are you all right, child?” the Hen who led Katniss into her Interview asked, concern in her eyes. 

“I feel a tad lightheaded,” Katniss confessed. “Might I fetch some water?” 

The Hen smiled, likely used to members feeling this way after the arduous interviews. But this is different! Katniss wanted to shout. They want me Paired with the Elect! “I’ll fetch you a glass, Miss Axson. I’ll bring it over.” A clear dismissal to shut up and sit by her grandmother. Katniss nodded her thanks and managed to move her stiff limbs over to where Cecily sat. 

Cecily frowned when she saw the bum padding clutched in Katniss’ hands, but thankfully said nothing about it. “I was beginning to worry about how long you were in there,” she said, pulling Katniss to sit. “You made our family proud, I hope?” 

“I think,” Katniss said, her voice barely above a whisper. “The Head Elder conducted it.” 

“What? Marta Becker conducted your Interview?” 

Katniss numbly nodded, staring straight ahead. Cecily huffed, rearranging her bag and parasol in her lap. “That woman. Always has her nose where it doesn’t belong, even as a young girl. Horrid thing. She has always had it in for our family. Always.” It seemed impossible for Cecily to sit still with this news. “She practically ruined your mother’s chances of being Paired with the High Priest, and now she just cannot help but ruin your chances of being Paired to a respectable man like Byron Bates! I will not have it. I shall insist your grandfather speak with His Highest Grace immediately–!” 

“Grandmother,” Katniss cut in, having to repeat herself a few more times before Cecily finally stopped and glared at her, allowing her to speak. “Madame Mellark wasn’t trying to sabotage my Interview. At least, I don’t believe she was, but she most certainly did not have Byron Bates in mind.” 

That piqued her grandmother’s interest. “Oh? Did she say who she had in mind?” Katniss nodded. “Well speak, girl!” she said, slapping Katniss upside the head in her agitation. “I did not raise you to be a mute. Speak!” 

“The High Priest-Elect!” Katniss said, trying her best to avoid her grandmother’s sharp hand. “Her intentions are to Pair me with His Grace!” 

The slapping ceased and Cecily’s eyes widened. “The High Priest-Elect?” she breathed. Katniss couldn’t recall a time where she’d ever seen her grandmother speechless, but nodded, hoping another onslaught of hits wouldn’t come. 

But instead, her grandmother burst into a joyous laugh, grabbed hold of Katniss’ face and kissed it repeatedly “Oh, Blessed Night,” Cecily called out, not caring what onlookers thought of them. “Our prayers have been answered! My granddaughter, the future Lady of the Flock! The ear to the High Priest! Blessed, blessed Night! What did she say? Did Madame Mellark confirm your Pairing with the Elect?”

“I—” Katniss began before the doors she’d gone through for her Interview opened, and Madame Mellark herself stepped out, demanding the attention of the hall. All eyes went to her.

“Ah, the Axson women,” she greeted in her cool, composed voice. “I do hope you weren’t waiting long. Please. Follow me.” Miraculously, Katniss was able to stand, her legs still feeling like weak branches, and followed, halting when Madame Mellark held her hand up at Cecily. “Not you. Just the child.” 

“Oh. Of course, Your Ladyship. Apologies.” Cecily surprised Katniss once more by curtsying to the Head Elder, which seemed to please the powerful woman immensely. 

“Thank you. This shan’t take but another moment. Come, Miss Axson.” Now in clearer light, Katniss could see the blood red pins she recognized as a symbol of the Holy Family pinned into the Head Elder’s pale blonde hair, holding her braided bun up. Katniss swallowed, unable to believe that soon, she would likely have her own pair of blood red pins and be expected to look and act the part of someone who knew what she was doing. 

The urge to run snuck back; Katniss imagined herself making a run for the forest behind the Elder House. She was a fast runner and knew she had a good chance of making it past the likes of the Elders and her grandmother, but when the doors slammed shut, she knew any ideas of escape were fruitless. She swallowed again and wiped her sweaty palms once more on her velvet dress. Her underthings were practically soaked with sweat now. 

“Stand where you were,” Madame Mellark sighed, heading back to the table. It was empty, Katniss realized, and wondered what that meant. 

“Do you understand what this Pairing means, Miss Axson?” Madame Mellark asked, point-blank. 

“It means I would one day be the Lady of the Flock, Madame. Like you. And that it is my responsibility to please the Elect and provide him an heir.”

“That’s right.” She could practically hear the smile in the woman’s voice. “So you understand that I must be selective on my Peeta’s Pairing. If I choose wrong, the entirety of the Flock could be in future ruins. We don’t want that, now do we?” 

“Of course not.”

Marta stood and grabbed something from a wooden box Katniss just now noticed sitting on the table. The soft candlelight glinted off the object and Katniss took a step back, realizing the Head Elder held a sharp knife. 

“Madame…?” she said, hesitant. Slightly panicked. Was her Interview that poorly received that she had to be murdered

Marta Mellark looked at the knife, twirling it slowly in her hands. “Trust in the Mockingjay, child, and He shall protect you. Do you trust in His good grace?” 

Katniss swallowed, eyes never leaving the knife. “Of course, Madame,” she muttered, her voice breathless. “I trust. I believe.” 

“Good. Hold out your left hand.” She hesitated, but did as was instructed. Marta grabbed it firmly and held the glinting blade over flesh. “Oh mighty leader,” Madame Mellark said, the knife pressing lightly into Katniss’ skin, “I offer you this maiden as a token to my son’s fruitful future. May you guide her to your humble nest as she begins her arduous journey and help her find true happiness in all parts of womanhood.” The knife dug in deeper, causing Katniss to hiss, but Madame Mellark’s grip only tightened as she continued: “‘In the river of blood one finds absolution,’” she quoted from the Pillars of Womanhood. “‘May your blood turn to ash and your ash turn to life. Rebirth in your remembrance to the sacred virtues of womanhood: grace’”—she sliced down the center of Katniss’ palm, ignoring the girl’s cry of pain and moving to slice a second line across the first—“'diligence, and most important’”—the third and final line cut diagonally through the cross, creating the familiar symbol all Paired women of the Flock wore— “‘submission.’” Marta closed Katniss’ palm into a fist, blood oozing out of the crevices of her fingers, dripping onto the dark floors. Tears spilled as Katniss tried her hardest not to cry out again. “‘May you never forget the pillars of womanhood and the time-honored pain it brings forth as we sacrifice all to the Flock. Carpe noctum.’” 

“Carpe noctum,” Katniss breathed, the stinging, burning sensation running up her left arm. Madame Mellark released her hand at last, allowing Katniss a moment to hug her poor hand close to her chest, and wiped the blood on a handkerchief she pulled from the pockets of her skirts. She handed the bloodied handkerchief to Katniss, a silent gesture of kindness to tend to the wound. Katniss gratefully took it, pressing the soiled cloth to her flesh. 

“Congratulations, Miss Axson,” Madame Mellark continued in her cool, composed manner. Her voice didn’t carry any enthusiasm, though. In fact, it sounded as though Madame Mellark wished for there to be any other girl from the Flock standing in Katniss’ place. Katniss couldn’t find it in herself to disagree. Tilly Bates looked more and more promising by the second. “I have personally chosen you to be Paired with our High Priest-Elect. It is a high honor to be bound to such a noble figure as my son.” 

“Yes, Madame.” Between the adrenaline ringing in her ears and the throbbing pain in her hand, it took all Katniss had in her not to buckle to the ground. “A great honor.” 

“Yes, well,” Marta sniffed, still not looking pleased by this turn of events. “There are few honors a figure with Outside blood can achieve, Miss Axson. See it as the blessing it truly is. Kneel.” Katniss wasn’t even fazed by the command. Her legs instantly buckled, hitting the wood floor hard. Marta Mellark turned, her dark skirts swaying as she quietly strode back to the box on the table, pulling out another item. This one appeared to be a long garment and Katniss’ stomach dropped. Her veil. The garment that would protect her purity until her Binding ceremony. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in, focusing on the pain in her hand. The pain kept her anchored, giving her strength to push through. 

“I place upon you the blessed shadow of Lady Night,” Marta spoke, holding the long veil over Katniss’ body. She could feel the scratchy material grab at her hair, touch her forehead. Katniss squeezed her hand tighter. “May your purity be safeguarded beneath this veil until your soul is bound forever to the Flock.” The veil’s pins slid through Katniss’ curled hair, her world growing darker under the fabric. Madame Mellark commanded her to stand and the veil fell over her, concealing Katniss from head to mid-stomach. 

“There,” Marta said, stepping back. “Your journey has officially begun.” 

Unsure what else to do, Katniss curtsied, thanking her for the great honor. “I hope I do not disappoint you, Madame Mellark,” she said, laying it on a bit thick, but whenever she did this with Cecily, the woman was more kind. This method did not seem to work on the Head Elder. Marta sniffed and strolled back to the table. “Given your family history, that is unlikely.” She waved her hand in a dismal fashion. “The High Priest and I shall inform your family of when we shall conduct the ribbon ceremony. You may go. Do leave the handkerchief on the floor. A Hen will retrieve it.” 

With the newfound pressure on her head and the throbbing in her hand, Katniss dropped the small fabric and left the hall, practically careening into her grandmother in the hall. Cecily was beside herself when she saw her granddaughter draped in the black fabric. “Oh wonders!” she exclaimed, pulling Katniss near and giving her an almost-hug. Katniss kept her wounded hand tucked to her chest, wincing. “It is official! You are veiled, my sweet, sweet girl! Come, come. Let us get home and tell your grandfather the excellent news.” 

Too stunned to speak, Katniss allowed her grandmother to lead her down the hall and through the doors that went outside. When she saw Gale with the buggy, she lowered her head, embarrassed to be seen like this. Having him see her shrouded in the veil made her feel small. Like she wasn’t as brave as her mother once was for standing up to her grandparents. Katniss kept her head down and hands tucked under the veil, pressed against the soft velvet of her dress. 

“Take us home, young man,” Cecily said, her pleasant mood a surprise to the farmhand. He nodded and helped the woman in. Gale held out his hand to Katniss, but she refused to take it, pulling herself up and in instead, and throwing herself onto the cushioned seat.

The ride home felt faster than the ride into the Nest. Katniss wondered, as she stared out into the night forest, if that was Lady Night blessing her. All she wanted was to tear off these clothes and bury herself under the covers, never to appear again. The tightness in her throat increased as she imagined having to feign excitement when her grandmother broke the joyous news to Grandfather and Prim. 

You knew this was going to happen! she scolded herself. You knew the Elders were going to Pair you with a boy and expect you to feel thrilled at fulfilling your womanly duties as wife and mother. You knew

But the reality still felt as gut-wrenching as she feared. 

At least the Elect was a kind boy. That had to count for something, right? She had never personally spoken to him, only seeing him at Gatherings and Service, but everyone thought well of him. Katniss hoped none of that was a front and that, behind closed doors, he was a mean spirited person like his mother. Her hand still throbbed any time she made the smallest of movements. 

Her grandmother never took notice of Katniss' reserved demeanor. To her, everything was better than ever. Poor Tilly Bates would have to be comforted about the news, of course, and Cecily would have to tell her before the High Priest announced the Pairing at Service, but what news this was for their family! “I always knew that Marta Becker had excellent taste! Such a fine woman she is. And surely the High Priest was consulted and gave his blessing. Katniss, how blessed you truly are, having the High Priest himself give his approval before your final inquisition.” She wondered if the Elect knew yet and what he thought about being Paired with a member from one of the first families. Katniss blanched at the thought of Peeta Mellark not knowing beforehand, but then couldn’t decide if it was better to think that he didn’t know yet ... or worse to think that he did, and had recoiled at being Paired with such a small, inconsequential thing like herself. 

Prim was waiting on the front porch when they arrived back at the estate, her hair now braided with flowers. She waved at them, excitement brimming over. “You’re home!” she exclaimed, running down the stairs to greet them. “Grandfather, they are home! Katniss has returned from her Interview!” Her blue eyes widened when she saw Katniss’ veil and squealed. “You’re veiled! Blessed Night!” 

“Primrose,” Cecily reprimanded as she stepped down from the buggy. “Is this the way a respectable woman behaves?” 

Prim’s cheeks darkened at the chastisement. “Apologies, Grandmother. We were growing concerned at how long it was taking! Grandfather worried the Elders were mistreating Katniss because of Mother’s history with the Council, and I had to stop him from taking the horse out to give them a piece of his mind,” Prim said in one long breath, sucking in more air to continue. “I told him that it would not be wise and that surely the Mockingjay was watching out for our dearest Katniss, but he worried dearly. We both did.” She turned to Katniss, who had just hopped down from the buggy, and ran to give her sister a firm hug. 

“Blessed Night,” Prim breathed, hugging Katniss even tighter. “Congratulations, Katniss! I prayed all night that your Interview would go well and He has answered! You are veiled! How is your hand? Did they present your wifely virtues? Did you stop at the Bates’ on your way home? How happy Byron must be!” 

Prim’s enthusiasm about her veiling and stupid Byron Bates pushed Katniss to her breaking point. “I don’t want to talk about it, Prim.” With more might than she meant, she pulled free from her sister and ran up the front porch steps, practically running into her grandfather on her way in. 

“Katniss,” the old man greeted, but she pushed past him too, and took the stairs two at a time to her bedroom, tripping a couple of times due to the veil limiting her range of sight. But despite how fast she ran to her room, she still managed to hear her grandmother exclaim, “Oh, my dearest husband, you will never believe with whom Katniss is Paired!” Katniss slammed her door shut to drown out the voices. She didn’t care if it got her in trouble. 

But no one came up to yell at her, as would be the case on any normal night. Nothing could upset her grandparents tonight, though. Katniss had done what they wanted. They wished to use her Pairing to move them back up in society, to reinstate the Axons' pristine name to what it once was, and for them, their wishes had been granted. Their eldest granddaughter was Paired with the High Priest-Elect, and would one day rule the Flock alongside him. How could they reach any higher next to becoming the Holy Family themselves? Katniss tore the stupid veil off, wincing as it tore pieces of hair with it, and threw it across the room. It gave a satisfying plink as the top pins hit the glass window. 

She hated how the room still looked as it did when she left hours ago. Hated the sight of her muddy boots sticking out from under the bed, remembering how it was only mere hours ago she was out hunting with Gale and collecting vials of blood for him to sell at Market. And now she was Paired to the Elect, forced to spend the rest of eternity bound to a family that held little sympathy toward the well-being of those just seeking respite from the cruelties of the Outside. Tears blurred her vision and she threw herself onto the bed, the decorative pillows flying off. Katniss buried her face into her pillow and cried, allowing herself this one chance to be upset about how little control she had in her life. 

She wished she were as strong and as brave as her parents. They did as they pleased, and carved out a life for themselves that was separate from the Flock, breaking away from tradition. They knew who they were and Katniss envied that, wondering if they would feel ashamed at how compliant she was in comparison. And just like that, the little piece of coal she kept buried deep in her heart flickered at the memory of her parents, growing brighter as Katniss cried into her pillow. She remembered how her mother always smelled of freshly cut flowers, even in the wintertime, and hummed as she tended to her garden. Or how her father would lift her up on his shoulders and run around their small home, the two of them laughing. The warmth of their hugs when they wrapped their arms around her, making her feel safe and loved. Hawks and Hens, she missed them. Missed their love. Their gentle touches. No one ever hugged her here. No one but Prim, and even then, it was usually Katniss initiating the hug, offering her love.

Katniss turned to her side, drawing the quilted blanket her mother had sewn around her, wiping her tears away into the soft, worn fabric. Her pillow was damp with tears, but no more came, for which she was thankful. As her mind drifted to a dreamless sleep, wondering wearily how Peeta Mellark would be as a husband, Katniss thought she heard the gentle hum of her mother’s voice, felt a soft caress to her brow, and fell asleep. 

In the eyes of the Flock, a Pairing was not official until the young couple blessed one another in the ashes of their burned blood, mixed together in a holy tonic the High Priest created, and bound their hands together in a blood red ribbon that represented unity. The ribbon would later be replaced by coarse rope during the Binding ceremony, but for now, the dainty ribbon, so easily breakable, so easily blown away by a gust of wind, was meant to represent trust between the couple. Trust that neither would be untrue to the other as they grew closer to the night where they would be Bound under the Hanging Tree, the most sacred tree in all the forest. 

Katniss thought the whole thing ridiculous, believing it another excuse for the High Priest to feel important about himself. She had seen many Ribbon ceremonies conducted at Service, where Paired couples kneeled in front of the High Priest and pledged their trust and loyalty to one another. It was an hour she could have spent doing something more productive, like poking needles into her hand until she bled out. 

Prim thought the whole thing utterly romantic. “Katniss,” she argued once, “how could you think such a thing about our High Priest! The ribbon ceremony is a time-honored tradition that our ancestors have been doing since they arrived in these woods.” 

“Our parents were never ribboned,” Katniss pointed out. 

“Yes, and see where they are now.” Her off-handed comment got her in trouble, a rarity for Prim, and the sisters didn’t speak to one another for three nights. Katniss was too upset to even look at her little sister and chose to sleep on the floor rather than share a bed with her. They made up after Prim broke down crying and begged Katniss to forgive her and take her to Mother’s grave so that she might apologize for her disrespect in person, but the discussion of ribbon ceremonies wasn’t brought up much after that. 

Until now. 

As they waited for the High Priest’s family to inform the Axsons when Katniss and Peeta’s ribbon ceremony was going to take place, it was all Prim could talk about. 

“When do you think it will be?” Prim asked as the sisters worked on their samplers a couple evenings after Katniss’ Interview. 

In fear of questions being asked at the sight of the long black veil that shrouded her, Cecily had forbidden Katniss from stepping foot outside of the house. “We must wait until it is officially announced,” her grandmother had told her, even going as far as never allowing Katniss a moment alone. When it was not Cecily keeping her hawkish eyes on her, it was Abraham, who had her read aloud for hours: all about boring land ownership laws and crop development. But when both grandparents were busy with their own personal businesses—Abraham with the estate and Cecily conducting private lessons—Prim was her chaperone. She didn’t mind Prim’s company, though. It was better than her nervously strict grandparents.

Katniss shrugged, trying to untangle a knot in her thread. “At night, I suppose.” She ignored Prim’s pointed glare. 

“Ha ha. You are hilarious, Katniss.” She bounced in her seat, almost knocking the spool off her lap. “I cannot believe you are not at least the smallest bit excited for this new chapter! It’s not even happening to me and I am so anxious!” 

“I don’t know, Prim,” she sighed, slouching as much as her stays allowed. “We are different in this respect.” In truth, Katniss was anxious. She wished for it to happen already, yet wished for it never to come. Once the ribbon ceremony took place, everything became real. She wasn’t ready for the Flock to become more privy to her life than they already were, and she most definitely wasn’t ready to face the inevitable criticisms that would come once people learned she was Paired with their precious Elect. No, Katniss would rather be seen as only the half-blooded daughter of Cary Axson and Sage Everdeen who left the Flock for the Outside and returned unscathed. She hissed when the needle pricked her finger. 

“Do you suppose they changed their mind?” Prim wondered aloud, worried. 

I hope not. Katniss didn’t want to imagine how her grandparents would react to that scorn. “I’m sure His Highest Grace is busy, Prim.” 

“For his only living son?” her sister scoffed. “I highly doubt it. Do you think the Elect is ill? We should say some prayers for a full recovery.” 

“Prim, you are being ridiculous,” Katniss sighed, tossing her sampler back in her basket. Her sister’s agitation was making her restless. “We would have heard something if he were sick. The entire Flock would have.” 

“It doesn’t hurt to pray for someone’s health, Katniss. As his Pair, you should start working on your wifely concerns.” Katniss frowned and looked down at her scabbing hand, a permanent reminder of the duties expected of her as Peeta’s wife. The cut was healing nicely and much of the soreness had shifted to a dull itch that kept Katniss hitting her hand against her thigh to appease the need to scratch at it.

A sharp knock on the door drew their attention away from their conversation and Prim shot up to the window to see who it was. “I see a horse!” she squealed, pressing her face to the dark glass to see better. “It looks like one of the High Priest’s Talons!” 

“Prim, you’re going to get the window all smudged and Hazelle just washed them.” She pulled her sister away by the back of her skirt. They heard the front door open and the soft murmurings of greeting between Hazelle and the Talon exchanged. It took all of Katniss’ strength to keep her little sister from shooting to the closed doors to spy. 

“If it concerns us, then we’ll eventually find out,” Katniss reminded her sister, pushing her down onto the small couch near the fireplace. “And if not, then why would we care?”

“You are the biggest stick in the mud,” pouted Prim, sticking her tongue out. 

Katniss smiled sweetly, sitting back in her seat across from her sister. “Perhaps you should pray for more patience, sister.” Prim made a sound of aggravation and slouched down low on the couch, still pouting. 

A soft knock on the parlor door this time turned their attention from one another to Hazelle quietly sticking her head in. Prim shot up. “Is there a letter for Katniss?” she asked. 

Hazelle smiled at the young girl and nodded, holding a small folded letter up. It looked identical to the one that had summoned Katniss for her Interview: the seal of the High Priest standing out in the warm glow of light. Prim leaped over and grabbed the letter out of the servant’s hand, giving Katniss the feeling of deja vu over the whole thing. She got up and pulled it out of her sister’s grasp. 

“Primrose, you were not just going to read a letter addressed to me, were you?” she scolded, and moved back to her seat. Unperturbed, Prim followed close behind and sat on the arm of Katniss’ seat, reading over her shoulder. 

The letter was indeed from the High Priest, though from the tight, feminine script, Katniss could tell the Head Elder had written it and used her husband’s seal. It informed her that the High Priest and His family would be arriving at their estate for dinner in the early morning. It went on to describe the type of meal the High Priest expected and each member’s dietary preferences. “And do have your altar room furnished in the appropriate fashions,” the letter read. “The Elect expects nothing but the finest.” Katniss swallowed at that, wondering if their altar room was up to His Grace’s standards. A family’s altar room was tucked in the backs of homes, reserved only for family members. She had no idea how ornate the High Priest’s altar room was.

Would this break the Pairing before it was even made official? 

Prim didn’t seem concerned about the letter’s parting words. She seemed thrilled at the news and grabbed the letter, reading it once more. “At last!” she exclaimed. “Your ribbon ceremony has been confirmed, and what luck that it is for the early morning, for my board predicted rains,” she explained. Hard rains were always a sign of blessings from Lady Night. 

Pressing her lips to her sister’s hair, Prim stood, letter still in hand. “Grandmother ought to know. Hazelle!” She rang the small bell on the table. The woman returned. 

“Yes, Miss Prim?” 

“Please fetch my grandmother. Tell her a letter has come from His Highest Grace about Katniss’ ribbon ceremony.” Hazelle nodded and with a small curtsy that made Prim feel quite mature, she left. 

“Can you believe,” Prim gushed, “that soon, I shall be sister to our High Priest-Elect! Such an honor it will be! Do you think Grandmother will allow me to dine with you all?” 

“I don’t know,” Katniss muttered, feeling the weight of the news. She had been waiting for this, yes, but now that it was here, it was really here. After tonight, the High Priest would announce his son’s Pairing to the Flock and then everyone will know. Everyone will feel they have a right to an opinion about her—her appearance and dress, the choices (like any would be from her) made for the Binding, when she should have children. It will all become real in only a mere few hours. 

Katniss felt she was going to be sick.  

Cecily came bustling into the parlor, her heavy skirts moving to and fro, clutching the onyx brooch at the base of her throat to steady her breath. “The High Priest has written at last?” Prim smiled and handed the letter over. The elder woman’s sharp eyes scanned the letter once. Twice. A third time, before that unsettling smile she’d been wearing since Katniss’ Interview returned. “This is excellent news! Excellent indeed. It is typical that they shall only give us hours to prepare, but nevertheless!” She clapped her hands in sharp succession, instructing the girls to get up and fetch the special draperies from the closet for the altar room. “We must make sure there is nothing amiss that could ruin our family’s chances.” 

“You don’t think the High Priest would break off the Pairing, do you, Grandmother?” Prim asked, draperies in arm.

Cecily kissed her favorite granddaughter’s forehead. “We can never be too sure, Primrose. For our family’s prosperity, we must show the Holy Family our very best.” Prim nodded with a small, understanding smile, which Cecily returned. “Now bring those to Hazelle for ironing. Katniss, do not dawdle like an injured bird! Fetch the blessed relics for polishing!” 

The family was ready for guests by a quarter after five and waited for the High Priest and His family to arrive. Katniss sat where instructed—on the small loveseat facing the doors leading into the parlor—and watched as her grandmother flitted nervously around the room like a caged animal. Her grandfather sat in his usual place near the fire, already smoking the wooden pipe she and Prim had gifted him for a birthday a few years back, and grumbling under his breath about how hungry he was. 

“Typical Bara,” he said in his gravelly voice. Without Prim here to reprimand him for not only using the High Priest’s name so casually but criticizing the man for being late for a dinner he imposed on them. “In my youth, these things were done at the husband’s house.” 

“Abraham,” Cecily sighed, peering out the window once more, only to shake her head in disappointment. Katniss had already reminded her twice that they would hear the buggy and horses, but her grandmother either didn’t hear her or chose not to listen. “You know these are unique circumstances.” Perhaps it was the lighting, but Katniss could swear tears were welling up in her grandmother’s eyes. Was she thinking about her mother and how this was something they never got to experience with her? Probably. Caroline and Alexander, a deceased uncle Katniss had no memory of outside of the portraits hung throughout the home, were really the only subjects that brought her stately grandparents to quiet tears. 

Katniss fidgeted with her glove to calm her nerves. This was the first time she was to meet the Elect personally, and she still wasn’t sure what she was going to say to him. Of course she was going to remain silent unless spoken to, the dreaded promise of Cecily’s infamous quiet tea at every meal for a month should she embarrass her family this morning hanging over her head like a razorblade ready to drop still fresh in her mind—but she had no idea what she was going to say when he spoke to her. Or if.

The sound of horses alerted the family to the arrival of the High Priest and His family. Cecily hurried to the window to confirm any suspicions and hurried back to her place across from Abraham. To Katniss’ amusement, her grandfather seemed bored, as though the most important figures in their community had not just arrived at his home. The family heard Hazelle’s greeting through the thick wooden doors separating them from the arrival of their guests. They stood when Hazelle came in to announce His Highest Grace, Her Ladyship, and His Grace. 

“A blessed night, dear Axson clan!” Bara Mellark greeted, clapping his large hands together in praise. “It is a pleasure to walk these familiar halls once more on a celebratory occasion.” 

“I don’t know, my dearest and wise husband,” Marta Mellark smiled, arm looped through her husband’s, hand protectively resting atop his arm. “I was quite pleased the last time we visited our beloved friends, knowing our dearest Abraham was finally able to retire from his taxing duties as Head Elder and focus on his familial responsibilities.” She rested her head on Bara’s shoulder, smiling innocently at the elder couple in front of them. Cecily’s mouth pinched in contempt, but she held it together and curtsied low, clearing her throat for Katniss and Abraham to follow suit. 

Katniss complied, afraid any act of rebellion would push her grandmother into action over her threats of punishment, her veil brushing the wood floor. 

Abraham did not bow to the Holy Family. He stood tall, only a couple inches shorter from the large man in front of him, and straightened his evening coat. “I never thought I would see you in my home again, Bara,” he boldly told the High Priest, ignoring the soft gasp from his wife, but Bara only smiled at the aging man, familiar with his rough manner. 

“I admit, good friend, neither did I, but let us agree that the past is tucked deep in the Mockingjay’s nest and focus on the joining of our families?” Abraham curtly nodded and pulled Katniss forward, his grip firm on her shoulders. It was perfectly acceptable for her grandfather to speak his mind, but for Katniss, the message was clear: do not disgrace me. Do not humiliate me as your mother once did. 

“My eldest granddaughter,” he said, and Katniss curtsied low once more, trying to keep her balance despite the wobbly feeling happening in her back leg. 

Bara’s boyish smile widened. “My future daughter,” he warmly said, freeing himself from his wife’s grasp to stand in front of her. Motioning for her to stand, Katniss startled when his large hands cupped her face, veil and all, tracing the small features of her face with his thumbs. “Is the girl as beautiful as her mother, Marta?” 

The Head Elder sniffed, fixing a crease in her deep red velvet dress. “She looks much like her mother in face, but acts like her Outside blood.” That seemed to amuse the High Priest. 

“My son is lucky, indeed. Peeta, son, step forward and greet your Pair.” He motioned for his son to leave the safety of his mother’s side and pulled Katniss up further so that the two stood face to face. 

Katniss had seen the High Priest-Elect many times throughout the years—the first being when Cary had brought her daughters to His Highest Grace’s home to plead forgiveness for her betrayal to the Flock and begging on her hands and knees to be welcomed back home. Bara had been moved by her confession; Marta, not so much. It was while the adults discussed Cary’s repentance that Katniss, only eight at the time, remembered seeing a little blond-haired boy about her age peeping out from behind a doorway. His dark eyes watched her and she made a sour face at him, not knowing at the time who he was. How important he was to the Flock. Katniss didn’t care who he was. All she knew in that moment was how mad she was, being ripped from the only home she knew, from the few friends she had. From where her Granny Everdeen and father rested in the ground. Having to beg to be allowed back in this strange place she had no memory of. 

But the little boy didn’t seem bothered by her hard expression. He merely made strange motions with his hand at her, and vanished when her mother pulled her attention away. 

It wasn’t until later, when she started to understand the Flock’s religious nuances, that she learned what the little boy had signed to her that night in his family home. He was blessing her departed loved ones and asking protection for her and her family. And it was something she thought about occasionally after her mother’s passing, wondering if he had the Sight of what was to come, even then when his older brother was the Flock’s chosen heir. 

She had seen him often during Service, sitting dutifully by his mother’s side in the front, draped in the finest blacks and reds his status permitted; charmingly conversing next to his parents with adult members afterward. Despite them being the same age, he never went to school with the other children from the Nest and though she had seen him playing ball with his cousins at Gatherings, she had never seen him playing with anyone that was not kin. Katniss used to think this a bit odd, accusing the Holy Family of seeing themselves as too important to congregate with those beneath them, but quickly learned of the Flock’s bloody history, and how the High Priest’s father, Samuel Mellark, was brutally murdered by insurgents in the Boughs. No wonder the Mellarks kept to themselves, only to be seen for religious and political events. 

And she would be joining them soon. 

Despite seeing him three times a week at Service and then at Gathering afterward, Katniss had never stood so close to the Elect before. Her first thought, as they stood toe to toe, was how tall he was. Standing at almost a foot taller than her, Katniss had to crane her head back to get a better look at her Pair, and suddenly felt incredibly small. Her second thought was how incredibly warm his eyes looked under the candlelight. He had deep blue eyes, like his mother, but while Madame Mellark’s were cool and icy, Peeta’s reminded her of the blue sky at dusk. Mesmerizing, she thought, unable to look away from his gaze. 

“Son,” Bara introduced. “This is Katniss Axson, daughter of Cary Axson. Your Pair.” Peeta smiled at her and there was no possible way Katniss could have prepared herself for how handsome he looked when he smiled; his whole face brightened and his blue eyes crinkled at the corners, telling her it was a genuine smile. Her stomach clenched in a way she’d never felt before, and it only grew tighter when she realized he was holding a bouquet of wilting dahlias.  

“For you, Miss Axson,” he said, his cheeks darkening when she didn’t make haste to take them. “Forgive me for not properly drying them out. My mother gave me very little warning of tonight’s festivities, and I did my best with what little time I had.” He gave his mother a sly grin, turning just slightly in her direction, and shook his head in amusement when Madame Mellark waved his comment off and took her seat on the couch closest to her. 

Cecily cleared her throat from behind, breaking Katniss from the spell the Elect had placed on her. “Thank you, Your Grace,” she mumbled, only to repeat her gratitude again, clearer this time, after another fuss from behind her. “That was kind of you to think of me. They are lovely, even now.” She took the flowers, noting his hands were gloved like hers, except his were covered in worn black leather whereas hers were held in black lace.  

“I am glad. I hope we shall grow together in the coming months before our Binding, as the Mockingjay expects all His sacred children should.” 

Katniss swallows. “I am sure we shall, Your Grace.” 

“Pardon,” her grandmother interrupted, “but did you say months, Your Grace? I was expecting the ceremony to be held in the coming month.” 

Peeta’s composed posture stiffened but his face still appeared amiable. “I did, Lady Axson. My father has foreseen that we will be wed on our holiest of nights: Allhallows’ Ember.” A soft gasp escaped her grandmother and Katniss’ eyes widened at the news.

To be Bound on such an occasion was a statement, indeed. 

The High Priest patted his son’s back, chuckling in amusement at the surprised look on everyone’s faces. “Yes, the news is quite exciting, isn’t it. The Mockingjay visited me through prayer many nights ago,” he explained, “and foretold His wishes for my heir to Bind himself on the founding of our great Flock.” 

“Quite the spectacle,” Abraham said, voice low and gravelly in criticism. “I can see the Mellark touch quite nicely.” 

Bara didn’t take notice of the jab at him and his family. He merely smiled at Abraham. “It makes quite the statement,” he agreed. 

“And gives us time to determine if the girl is as worthy of our son as she claims,” Marta said from the couch, running her pale hand over a side table and frowning when her hand came away clean.

Her husband tsked at his wife’s doubts. “Surely the daughter of our dearly departed friend is unable to lie, Marta! She will do well at our son’s feet.” 

“Let us never forget Cary’s betrayal to our Flock,” Marta reminded him, her pointed gaze on Abraham and Cecily. The elder couple had the sense to look away in shame at the reminder of their only daughter’s abandonment, the baptismal vows she broke when she and Sage ran away with their young daughter in tow. “Surely betrayal constitutes a lie, Bara.” 

Katniss clenched tightly to her flowers, her grip causing some dried leaves to fall to her feet. Never had she claimed anything, especially about the High Priest-Elect. All she did was answer questions truthfully and was criticized and prodded for it. She never went into her Interview expecting the Head Elder to Pair her with the High Priest-Elect! And then to bring up her mother as such? To twist the knife in her grandparents’ hearts over the loss of their daughter? It was maddening. 

“Your temper is going to get you in trouble,” Prim warned her once, after Katniss returned from Abraham’s study from punishment. 

“I’ve already been punished,” she grumbled, falling onto their bed and wishing away the throbbing pain in her hands and upper thighs. Cecily’s strappings were never as bad as her quiet tea concoction, but still hurt for nights after. 

“I mean real trouble. Grandmother’s strap is hardly worrisome.” 

“Tell that to my backside,” Katniss snapped, not in the mood for a lecture after hearing one from their grandmother for the last hour. “I won’t be able to sit for nights.” 

Prim sighed, crawling into bed, and petted her sister, rubbing her back in the way she knew she liked best. “Grandmother is trying to protect you, Katniss. You never think when you’re upset and action holds consequences.” 

Katniss had scoffed at the time, hating that her beloved baby sister was so devoted to their domineering grandmother, and believed her so well-meaning, but as the urge to chuck her bouquet of flowers at the Head Elder’s head and inform her that she never wanted to be Paired with anyone , let alone the High Priest-Elect grew, she thought of Prim’s warning. Angering the most powerful people in the Flock would be foolish and the High Priest would surely sentence her to the post, or worse, Repentance. People were never the same after Repentance and while Katniss didn’t know what fully went on within the dark caverned rooms, she remembered her mother suffering that fate upon arriving back home and wanted nothing to do with it. 

Katniss sucked in a breath, ready to politely remark how she would be the most dutiful wife the Mellarks had ever seen, but she was cut off by the Elect himself. “Mother,” he said ever so casually, “you forget so easily the teachings of the Penumbra. Are we not to forgive misdeeds of our people?” 

“Forgiveness and forgetting are two different things, son,” Marta said. 

“Perhaps, but even if Cary Axson did not repent for her sins, which she did, is it right of us to presume her daughters possess the same restless spirits as she did?” He turned and smiled at Katniss, amusement shining clear in his eyes as she gawked at him, never seeing anyone argue with the Head Elder before. 

Marta showed the slightest signs of annoyance by the thinning of her lips, the rigidness of her posture. “I suppose you are correct, son,” she said, her tone not masking her vexation. “It is unholy of me to presume Miss Axson is the same as her mother.” Her eyes leveled on Katniss and she smiled, making Katniss feel like the canary to her cat. “We should base judgment on her actions alone.”

Peeta nodded, those piercing blue eyes never leaving her. “Exactly. And Miss Axson’s character must be worthy to carry our family name, Mother, if you have personally selected her to be my Bound wife. I do respect your wisdom immensely.” Madame Mellark’s hard expression softened and she patted the seat next to her. 

“Do sit next to me, son.” 

“I would prefer to sit next to Miss Axson.” Katniss’ heart fluttered at his insistence, still amazed at the way he was speaking to his mother. Cecily would have already had Katniss by the ear, dragging her off to be reprimanded in private. 

The High Priest shook his head in amusement, clapping his son on the back. “A true man, indeed! Let the boy sit next to his intended, Marta. It’s best they start getting acquainted now so as to avoid any difficulty consummating on their Binding day.” He winked at the young couple. “We hope for an heir come next summer.” Katniss’ heart clenched at the reminder, having practically forgotten that Peeta Mellark was soon to be her Bound husband…and that meant consummation and children and pleasing him in wifely ways inside the bedchambers and out. She swayed and her intended stepped forward to steady her. 

“Are you well, Miss Axson?” he asked in concern. Katniss nodded, her throat too parched to speak, but Peeta guided her to the nearest couch, his touch gentle on her back and arm, and helped her sit. “The air has been incredibly stifling,” he commented, as though that was her reason for almost fainting and not the overwhelming realization that this was her future she was looking at. He stood and poured her a glass of Abraham’s fine fruit wine, ignoring the man’s grumbled complaints about entitlement, holding it out for her to take. Katniss accepted, her hand a bit shaky, and snuck the glass under her veil to sip. She had become most adept at eating and drinking under the damn thing. 

“Thank you,” she said, clearing her throat, and blushed when she noticed his hand was now idly rubbing her back. “I don’t know what came over me.” She did, but there was no way she was going to reveal that to the room. Perhaps Prim, later, when they were tucked in their bed, and she was pestering her for every single detail. 

Peeta’s hand stilled, as if noticing what it was doing for the first time, and pulled away. “Of course. Perhaps this is a sign from the Mockingjay that we ought to dine now?” His question was targeted at Cecily, who seemed to be beaming at the sight in front of her. Peeta had to repeat his question before she realized he was speaking to her. 

“Yes! Of course! I am sure Hazelle is ready for us.” Cecily hurried out of the room to inspect the status of their meal. Katniss took another careful sip, making a face at the bitter wine. “Dinner is ready, Your Highest Grace,” Cecily announced with a bit of flourish.

With another kind smile, Peeta stood and offered his hand for Katniss to take. Katniss hesitated, unsure if she’d be scolded for such physical contact, but decided to take it, figuring that since he was offering, it had to be alright. Madame Mellark was the only one who noticed the contact, disapproval clear on her face, but she made no mention of it as the party adjourned to the dining room. 

Despite the short notice and frantic trip to the Nest for supplies, Hazelle had outdone herself. The long, dark wood table was draped in a deep red tablecloth and black lace and running down its center, lined three large silver candelabras adorned with colored stones and small animal bones, Cecily’s most prized possessions. Small wicker baskets of dark flowers and ribbons were tucked around their bases, the warm candlelight glow flicking upon the flowers. Katniss’ stomach growled at the sight of the food—venison pie, golden potatoes adorned with green leaves, honeyed carrots, and Hazelle’s famous sweet rolls—and willed herself not to dig in immediately once everyone was seated. 

Bara stood at the head of the table and held his hands high. “Blessed night,” he began  in what could only be called his sermon voice. “It fills me with great joy to…”

Never known for his brief sermons, the High Priest went on blessing the meal for well over fifteen minutes and Katniss practically pounced for the sweet rolls once the group muttered their thanks, tearing into the delicious bread under her veil. Peeta smirked, having noticed her attack on the food, but didn’t say a word as the adults around them stiffly chatted about seasonal crops and had their goblets filled with whiskeys and Abraham’s fruit wine. 

Dinner finished with Hazelle bringing out a light sponge cake decorated with blackberries. Everyone was in good spirits by then, even her grandfather, who was laughing loudly at the High Priest’s jokes, seemed to have forgotten his distaste for the Holy Family. Katniss had probably eaten too much, her stays pulling uncomfortably around her middle, but she couldn’t help herself. Between the stress of tonight (this week, really) and her nerves, she hadn’t been eating as well as she ought. 

Bara cleared his throat when the last plate was lifted and stood with his goblet. “Before we commence to the night’s true festivities,” he said in a loud and commanding voice, “let us make a toast to my beloved son and his bride-to-be.” Everyone grabbed their glasses and held them high. “The Flock has waited long for this night to fall upon us, and what joy it brings me to know that this union will unite the Mellark and Axson names once more.” Bara waited for the room to express their joy before continuing. “Peeta, you are not the son I expected to fly behind me, but the Mockingjay has His ways of showing our true paths and though I pray your dear brother Bannock flies high in the Mockingjay’s eternal sky, I could not be more proud to call you my heir.

“Katniss,” he said, turning to her. “It is hard to believe that the squalling infant I baptized on a humid summer’s night would grow to become a dutiful wife and daughter of my family. I imagine your dearest mother is looking down fondly as we speak, child.” Katniss’ cheeks warmed at the High Priest’s endearment, his gaze just as piercing as his son’s. Bara held his goblet up higher. “Blessed Mockingjay, guide these children to fulfill their rightful place in our Flock and protect them from the evil temptations of the Light.” And with that, he took a sip, finishing off his wine. They all proceeded to follow suit, the wine giving Katniss a strong buzz. The group rose soon after and headed to the Axsons’ altar room. 

They had prepared the room to the letter’s specifications. The two floor-to-ceiling windows were covered in heavy drapery. The large altar that was tucked between the windows was cleared of their many religious icons of Lady Night and her children, and replaced with the few Mockingjay icons Prim had been permitted to keep throughout the years: statues of hands holding stars and moons replaced with headless statues of the Mockingjay, displaying Him as part man and part bird, winged arms spread out in flight. Yellowing flower petals were scattered around the icons, with incense burning at the bases of the two red candles set at either corner of the altar, a third candle sitting above them on a shelf. The final detail required of them was the sharp knife that sat next to a white basin, waiting to slice into the young couple’s skin. Katniss’ stomach had clenched when preparing the altar, her hand throbbing at her recent cutting as she set the knife in place. Knowing another blood offering was required of her so soon didn’t lessen her apprehension.

The room was dark as they entered, the three lit candles only giving off enough light for the families to enter and take their seats. Bara pulled Katniss and Peeta up to the altar before they had the chance to sit and so they awkwardly stood in front of one another as everyone situated themselves. Even in this low lighting, Katniss  could see the Elect’s small, comforting smile and to her amazement, it helped. A little. She took a deep breath in and held it until her lungs screamed for release, letting the air go as quietly as she could. This was the one part of the night Katniss wished her sister was allowed to be with them. Prim couldn’t do anything, but her presence would have been enough. 

Would have made her feel less alone.

The High Priest brought the room to attention, clapping one hand on his son’s shoulder, the other on Katniss’. Again, Katniss couldn’t help marveling at how alike the High Priest and his heir were, especially in their smiles. She shook her head to focus. 

“The time is upon us to officiate this Pairing,” he said, his grip tightening around the children’s shoulders, “so that their souls may begin the binding process. Lord Axson, as head of your household and master of the young maiden before me, do you release her into the caring wings of our beloved Mockingjay and Lady Night?” 

Abraham stood from where he knelt on the floor, his knees popping as he straightened. “I release all care of my granddaughter to our beloved Lady Night.” Cecily hit his leg and he grunted, adding, “...And the Mockingjay, I suppose.” The corners of Peeta’s mouth lifted slightly at the old man’s admittance to following only Lady Night. 

His father seemed amused, too, shaking his head. “As master of my heir, I too release all care of my son to all our blessed deities above.” He held his hands out for the couple to kiss. They did. “Let us begin. Marta?” The Head Elder stood from the corner she knelt in and brought a small box forward to His Highest Grace. Inside the box were two bloodied cloths. One, Katniss realized, was from the night of her Interview, when Madame Mellark had carved the symbol into her palm. The other must have been from Peeta. Bara lifted the bloodied cloths and held them above the couple’s heads. 

“On the first night of your Pairing, you offered your first sacrificial bleeding,” Bara said, his voice sounding distant. Possessed. “We thank you.” Katniss shuddered, hating whenever the High Priest would get this way during Service. His eyes would roll back, the whites of his eyes were all that could be seen, and his speech would change. Prim said he became a vessel to the Mockingjay in those moments. Bara’s eyes glowed in the dim light as he instructed them to kneel before him. 

Each was handed a bloodied cloth and instructed to press the stiff material to their lips. For a brief moment, Katniss wondered how the High Priest could tell if this was her bloodied handkerchief or Peeta’s? Was this the Elect’s blood she kissed? 

“I offer my blood to thee,” they murmured in unison against the bloodied cloths, dropping them in the offered white basin Madame Mellark held before them. “Take my body and soul into your care and do with me as you will.” Gently, Bara’s large hands cupped the backs of their heads, moving them closer until their foreheads touched. 

For years Katniss had assumed intimacy expected of a Bound couple would feel like being smothered under a blanket, unable to find peace in solitude ever again. A good wife was expected to listen to, and obey, her husband. To offer her affections when needed, and to embrace his advances whenever the moment arose. She never imagined, being this close to a boy, that she would like such closeness. But with Peeta mere inches from her face, her only barrier being her veil, Katniss realized it didn’t feel like she was suffocating at all. It felt… nice being so close to him, feeling his warm breath fan across her cheeks, smelling of berries and alcohol. 

She swallowed, focusing on their touched noses. She didn’t want to know how penetrating his eyes could be so close up. Wasn’t sure if she could handle such knowledge. 

Bara pressed the knife atop their heads and told the story of the Mockingjay’s parents. Mother Mockingbird, a sweet little songbird, was flying through the forest one day, looking for shelter for the night. It was during her search that she found herself following the sound of the most beautiful music she’d ever heard: a rich, melodious tune that carried through the trees, between the branches. Oh, how she needed to find where it came from! 

Through the trees she flew until she found herself on a small farm where a man sat on the porch of his home, rocking. And singing. The melodious tune came from him! How strange , Mother Mockingbird thought, flying around the stranger’s home. She had never heard a human with as pure a song as her own before! She joined him, catching the man’s attention. He smiled and the two sang: she the melody and he the words.   

The two fell in love, and though they could not be together as a true husband and wife, they devoted every moment to each other’s company. Lady Night took notice of the happy couple and kept watch of them, seeing if they would ever stray from one another because of their differences.

They never did. 

But soon their unusual love disgusted the people of the village near the man’s farm, and one day, a band of wicked hunters shot Mother Mockingbird dead. Her beloved wept over the small mockingbird’s body, so still and cold, pleading with Lady Night to bring his love back. Lady Night heard his pleas, and breathed new life into the songbird, but she warned the pair that their love would ever endure the hatred of others, for they were of different blood and soul. 

“Then make me a bird,” the man asked the night goddess. “Or make me a woman,” pleaded the bird. “So that I may always be with my love.” Lady Night granted his wish,  commanding the two lovers to mingle their blood together and pledge their souls to her servitude. The man agreed and with a slice on the palm of his hand and another slice on the wing of his mockingbird, the two mingled their blood together and offered it to Lady Night. The goddess accepted their offering, and granted them the gift of changing forms, so they might be together either as woman and wife, or as a mated pair of lovebirds, Mother Mockingbird and Father Jabberjay. 

It was a lovely story, and one Katniss secretly liked because it reminded her so much of her parents with her father being the sweet mockingbird and her mother being the jabberjay, willing to give up everything for him. 

The knife lifted, bringing her attention back to the ceremony, and Bara Mellark said Peeta’s name, holding the knife out to his son. Peeta accepted it and looked down at her, his eyes so, so blue. Katniss swallowed again, allowing him to pull the glove off her unwounded hand. The glove fell to the floor between them, but she hardly noticed, his gaze captivating her so. 

“I take thy hand,” Peeta said, reciting the words after his father, “as Father Jabberjay did his beloved’s, and create the line of union.” The tip of the knife cut into her palm, near her index finger, and she flinched, unable to conceal the hiss that escaped. Though he didn’t say anything, Peeta’s eyes were apologetic, and he waited for her to give a reluctant nod to continue. She did and the knife swiftly swiped down at an angle, ending at the center base of her palm. Madame Mellark held the basin out and Peeta’s strong hand held it over the bowl, her blood staining the bottom of the bowl red. It didn’t hurt as badly as her last cutting did, but Peeta was strong and squeezed her hand tight, like one would a lemon, and got every droplet of blood he could before pressing a clean handkerchief his mother offered to the cut.

“You may now lift the veil,” Bara Mellark instructed, “and show your intended the knife.” Katniss’ ears rang at the command, knowing it was coming, but suddenly feeling so vulnerable about  Peeta Mellark, the High Priest-Elect, seeing her. Would he be disappointed in her plain looks? There were surely more beautiful young women in the Flock a man as handsome as he would prefer. 

Peeta did as he was told and lifted her veil, and sucked in a breath at the sight of her, his eyes widening as they took in her small features. Katniss’ cheeks reddened and she glanced down at the floor. That didn’t seem to please the Elect, though. Tucking a finger under her chin, Peeta pulled her gaze back to him and smiled, holding the bloody knife up to her face. Katniss grimaced, knowing what was expected of her, but she couldn’t seem to do it. 

“Miss Axson,” Peeta gently hedged, reminding her that everyone was watching them. As though she could ever forget! Squeezing her eyes closed, she kissed the knife, the wet blood coating her lips red. “Beautiful,” he murmured, so softly she was unsure she heard him correctly. Surely she misheard him. 

But when it was Katniss’ turn to pull off his glove and repeat the words from the High Priest, she started to understand what the Elect had been talking about. Peeta took his cutting gracefully, with only a small flinch at the beginning. His smile remained gentle throughout, if not a bit more intense than before, and when he kissed the knife, Katniss’ breath hitched, unable to believe the sight in front of her. 

Peeta Mellark with wet bloody red lips, looked incredibly... attractive . There was no other way to put it. It would be downright irritating that a man could be so attractive with doing so little, if Katniss wasn’t so stricken by the sight of him. Her mouth must have dropped open, the veil not concealing her every thought now, because the High Priest cleared his throat for her to set the knife down. “Apologies,” she muttered, setting the knife down at the altar and pressing a clean cloth to his bleeding wound. 

Madame Mellark struck a match and tossed it into the basin, the material bursting into flames immediately. With blessed water, the High Priest put out the flames and drew a singular line running down the center of their foreheads. “From blood to ashes,” he said, “the Mockingjay awaits.” Drying his hands on an offered towel by his wife, Bara Mellark pulled out two red ribbons that every Pairing wore around their wrists and hands until their Binding and held them above the couple’s heads. 

“Upon the wrapping of your ribbon,” he said, “your journey to the Mockingjay’s Hanging Tree, where His parents joined together as one, creating their nest, and soon too their son, shall begin.” He handed Peeta one of the long silk ribbons and he began an intricate wrap around Katniss’ bloodied palm. “The ribbon signifies unity,” the High Priest continued, and Katniss’ eyes focused on the way Peeta’s large hands looked so nimble as they weaved the ribbon around and around, knotting right above her wrist. Katniss was handed the second ribbon and, a bit clumsily, began wrapping the long ribbon around the Elect’s hand. Though she knew he would most likely wear his around his wrist as many men preferred, Katniss liked seeing their hands matching in cut and bandage. “Wrapped tightly around your sacrifice, you shall remember your vows made here tonight.” The High Priest motioned for them to stand and with three turns around the small room, burning a stick of incense until their noses burned from the scent, Katniss Everdeen Axson and Peeta Mellark were officially Paired.