‘A vision! You are simply a vision of poise and elegance, Renore!’ exclaims Pontius, my biggest fan, when I step out of my quarters and into the hallway. ‘It’s not fair! Your stylist will hardly have to lift a finger, while your poor mentor and I are going to be hounded to death by clamouring would-be sponsors!’
I pay close attention to the way Pontius gushes. I hope to imitate it as best I can while I’m in the company of Capitol folk. It works like a charm on Pontius when I mirror his sugary, inane etiquette right back at him. It’s vanity.
Having thanked him in suitably elaborate language and making myself blush in humility, he offers me his arm with a flourish and I take it. He prattles on about how exciting the Games are going to be this year and how glorious the Capitol is as he guides me to the dining car. I’m just nodding and smiling. The dining car is clad in panels of polished wood, the floor covered in the same ‘lovely springy’ carpet as the lounge car. My heels sink into the plush enough that I have to tighten my abdominals to keep from wobbling. Pontius walks me to a beautiful hard wood table set with real silver cutlery and delicate porcelain. He personally pulls out a seat for me and situates himself in the chair to my right. ‘I’m sure Rafe will be along shortly,’ says Pontius without conviction. He claps his hands and a parade of waiters start serving up the soup course.
To my left, sitting at the end of the table is my mentor, Woof. I reckon the reason for his absence up until now is that he was taking a nap. His eyes are a little puffy and his hair is slightly dishevelled on one side. He’d looked so tired at the reaping it’s no surprise. I want to be on good terms with him so I smile and greet him. ‘Good evening, Woof. We didn’t really get a chance to meet formally at the reaping.’ I extend a hand to him. He takes it gently with a surprised, amused smile. Then it’s his turn to surprise me by pressing it to his lips instead of shaking it. I go on when he releases me, ‘It’s nice to meet you. I suppose I’ve always wanted to – admittedly not like this, but…’
‘It’s a pleasure, Renore,’ he replies, ‘though I agree with you regarding the circumstances. You know, you could have knocked on my door any time if you wanted a chat.’
I don’t tell him how often I had thought of knocking on his door over the years. Because what I was offering wasn’t a chat and it isn’t something for polite dinner conversation. And I don’t want things to get awkward between us. My relationship with Woof could mean my life or death in the arena.
‘I was too nervous,’ I say instead. It’s half the truth.
‘Isn’t she precious?’ croons Pontius, patting my hand. ‘So pleasant and polite! They say things about District 8: how obstinate and disrespectful you all are. Of course, it’s usually true. So many other District 8 tributes I’ve escorted over my ten years here have been stubborn as mules and downright rude, to boot! One year, a young lady - hmph! Lady indeed – snatched my best wig right off my head and threw it out the window! Can you believe it? And then, the year before last, I caught our male tribute snaffling the silverware up his sleeves! It’s a wonder that young man didn’t end up an Avox!’
Oh, stop it, Pontius. You’re giving me ideas.
I try to look shocked while suppressing my laughter. It’s enough to fool Pontius. I cast a glance at Woof and he catches my eye. A corner of his mouth quirks up for no more than an instant and he gives me the tiniest of nods. He approves of my conduct. By this time, our soup has been ladled out and the three of us tuck in. It’s a zingy gumbo with monstrous crayfish and succulent okra.
‘We don’t need to go into everything before we reach the Capitol if you don’t want to,’ Woof says. ‘But is there anything in particular you want to ask?’
I think while we eat. Not because I don’t know what to ask, but because I don’t know what to ask first. ‘Hm. You’ll be training both of us, won’t you? Rafe and me. How is that going to work out, exactly?’
The waiters clear away the soup course and bring out a salad full of more greens than I knew existed and a rainbow of tomatoes. Woof waits until they’re done serving to answer, ‘Yes, it’s not unheard of for tributes to have only one mentor between them.’
I nod. District 12 only has Haymitch Abernathy, and he’s only been mentoring for five years so far.
Woof goes on. ‘We can have our sessions as a group or, if you prefer, I can spend time with you each separately. Keep in mind, there are benefits to both methods. Training together means you can both spend the full amount of time available under my tuition. It means you can learn more about each other and your strategies, which can both facilitate an alliance between you and give you valuable insight on how to… outwit… the other.’
He means how to kill each other. But I can see why he might want to skirt the issue. The role of the mentor is a grim one. It’s not a prospect I look forward to.
‘By training separately, your abilities and strategies will be between tribute, mentor, and style team only. This could give one of you the edge over the other, through the elements of uncertainty and surprise.’
I see what he means by there being advantages both ways, but since I’m playing to win, I don’t see much point in an alliance with Rafe. Plus, he hates me with the fire of a thousand suns. That feels like the kind of thing that might put a bit of a damper on our relationship.
‘But I think we should discuss it when we’re all here,’ Woof concludes. The rest of our conversation is dominated by Pontius’ cheerful, empty prattling. We finish our salads and I’m already beginning to feel full. I’ve rarely eaten so much in one sitting. District 8 may have it better by population than some other districts, but for those of us without families life is lean. If all the girls in the Home didn’t apply for tesserae, there wouldn’t be enough food to go around. The next course is brought out and I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get through it. It’s peppered rabbit pie with sliced potatoes cooked in a creamy, cheesy sauce and a crumble topping. It’s delicious, but I only make it two-fifths into the dish before I start to struggle. I set down my knife and fork in defeat. Woof smiles, transfers my plate to his own and polishes it off for me. The same thing happens with the melon balls in compote that follow. I don’t know where he’s putting it all. He’s not a big man.
I’m staring wide-eyed at the decadent cake that appears in front of me when he leans over and quietly jokes, ‘Go on. You could stand to gain a few pounds.’ This time, I manage to clean my own plate. I swear I’ve ruptured something.
The table is cleared, coffee is brought out, and Rafe still hasn’t made an appearance. It’s nearly time for the recap, so Woof drains his mug and excuses himself. ‘I’ll just go see where the other one’s got to,’ he says with some concern. The way he says ‘the other one’ isn’t cold. Woof has a fatherly demeanour and a way of speaking that’s full of warmth and subtle humour. I already like him.
Pontius escorts me (hey, it’s his job) into the lounge car. I settle into one of the sofas in front of the viewing screen and he goes to the bar. He comes back carrying a silver tray which he sets on the little table before us. There’s a bucket of ice on it, with a bottle sticking out, and four glasses. I watch him pour out a pale, peach-coloured liquid into each glass and pick up two. He hands the first to me, keeping the other for his self. I hold the glass up in front of me and take a whiff. It smells so sweet and delicate, it makes me salivate.
‘Wonderful nose, is it not?’ Pontius indulges me, ‘The taste does nothing to disappoint, either.’ He chinks his glass against mine and drinks.
I take a sip. It’s fruity and floral, like apricot and rose. The liquid is cold, but a pleasant heat spreads through my mouth and throat when I swallow. It’s infinitely nicer than the homebrew we used to make at the orphanage. Sometimes I don’t even know what strange ingredients the girls would find to ferment. I have the feeling I don’t want to. There’s an unspoken agreement: don’t ask, just drink. That stuff was stronger. The only proper alcohol I’ve had before this was the fizzy pink wine Mayor Card sometimes brought me, and the pungent whisky Marcus Flint would ply me with. I liked the whisky better.
Rafe finally makes his appearance, just before the anthem of Panem begins to blare out from the television set. I don’t know what Woof said to him, but it obviously worked better than anything Pontius could bleat out. As is quickly becoming tradition, he casts me a nasty look and sits as far away from me as possible. When Pontius offers him a glass, he looks at it like it’s poison. Pontius’ hand hovers there in front of him for longer than necessary before the bewigged man gets the picture. He sets the rejected glass on the table in crestfallen indignation. Woof sits down next to Rafe and accepts his glass. He drains it with practised speed. That’s something you see a lot with victors. He sees me watching him and gives a small, embarrassed shrug. We turn to the screen.
Time to see who I’m up against.