I’m naked, numb, and tingling from face to foot.
After I disembarked at the station, smiling into the cameras, I was introduced to my prep team. The three of them told me their names then whisked me off to what I can only describe as a cosmetic production line. They proceeded to strip me, trim and shape my hair and nails, swab me with chemicals, dip me in hot water, scrub me, dry me, rub me, pull out all my body hair with wax strips (aside from a decorative patch of pubic hairs), check over me with tweezers, reshape my eyebrows, dip me in ice water, dry me again, send electric currents through me with conductive gel, scrub me and dry me yet again, then finally massage silky oils into my skin and hair.
I have an all-male team, which surprised me but doesn’t bother me. Plenty of men have seen me naked. Like a lot of the folk in the Capitol, they each have an eccentric fashion sense. Agrippa is the tallest of the three men and looks the youngest, although with Capitol people you never know. His scalp is completely bald and embedded with rows of metal studs. When I comment on them, he informs me that they are interchangeable. He has numerous piercings in his ears, nose, and lips, and more of the socketed metal studs in his knuckles. Judging from the tiny bumps poking out under his shirt, I’d say his navel and nipples are pierced, too. His nails are short and painted. He has a broad, classically masculine build and, I have to say, is quite good-looking. I can’t resist trying my magic on him while he’s rubbing my naked body with warm oil. His hands are as soft as Ruben Card’s and as strong as Marcus Flint’s. I give him a wink and he grins. There are little gems set into his incisors and his canines have full metal fronts.
When they’ve finished, the three of them step back to admire their handiwork. They circle around me, opining to one another in their silly accents. ‘Exquisite!’ remarks Cassius, as though reaching a verdict. The others nod assent. Cassius is the shortest in the team, shorter than me, but he makes up for it by being the most flamboyant. He’s wearing an artful wig crafted from brilliant bird feathers, with a feathered cape to match. His carefully groomed beard is shaped into several spikes and dyed lemon yellow. He’s wearing golden eye makeup and glittery eyelash extensions. His nails are long and each one is painted with a different pattern in different colours. From the neck down (as far as I can see), his rich brown hide is tattooed with shimmering, swirling golden patterns that resemble the paisley prints we produce in District 8.
‘Of course, we had plenty to work with,’ Agrippa says, winking at me.
‘Oh, indeed!’ agrees the third member of the prep team, Felix. ‘The first decent specimen we’ve had in years! Last year was particularly challenging, as I recall. Although, that in itself can be fun. I like being put to the test on occasion.’ Felix has the oddest style in my opinion. He’s a thin man, almost gangly. He wears lenses in his eyes that make them look like some sort of animal’s. I can’t quite put my finger on what kind, though. The only animals in District 8 are rats, mice, and the birds that roost in the rafters of the factories and warehouses. And a few cats and terriers to hunt the rodents. Felix’s skin is dyed a serene turquoise. His lips and eyelids are coloured a deeper blue which matches his long locs. As for his clothes, nothing is left to the imagination – the bodysuit he has on is made of a translucent sea-green mesh. I can see every inch of him. Including those crucial six.
Cassius helps me stick my feet into some impossibly soft slippers and hands me a thin silk robe to wear while they transport me to the room where I’ll be meeting my stylist. They conduct me down a well-lit hallway, Felix and Cassius chattering away. I got used to half-listening with Pontius. Whenever it seems appropriate, I nod or smile, or laugh. Felix presses the button for an elevator and we file in. When the doors close, he presses another button and the lift slingshots upwards. The speed sends a thrill surging through me and I grasp Agrippa’s arm, breathless. ‘Wait ‘til we get to the tribute center,’ he says into my ear. The ride only lasts a fraction of a second since we’ve only gone to the third floor. Cassius takes the lead down another hall, opens a door and stands aside. Once in the room, they take away my robe and slippers and place me on a pedestal surrounded by mirrors. It’s the first time I’ve seen myself since I left the train this morning. My hair and skin are sleek and shiny as lacquered wood, my eyebrows in neat, elegant curves. Otherwise, not much of notice has changed.
A second door opens and a woman steps through it. She’s visibly approaching elderly, which astonishes me. It’s very uncommon in the Capitol for people to age naturally. They employ all manner of medications and surgeries and cosmetics designed to keep them looking young. This tells me she must be something of a rogue. I fully expect to like this woman. She’s as short as Cassius, as thin as Felix, and as bald as Agrippa. Somehow, this tiny slip of a woman commands an imposing presence. The three men fall silent and respectful. I watch through the mirror as she approaches me, circles round me, looks me up and down.
‘Perfect,’ she says in a voice that sounds as young as I’d expected her to look. ‘This will be no problem. No problem at all. Some tributes take a little trial and error, but you, my dear, need no assembling. I know exactly what our strategy is.’ She stops in front of me and takes my hand to gently guide me off the pedestal. ‘Hello, Renore. I will be your stylist here in the Capitol. My name is Lucretia.’
‘Thank you, Lucretia,’ I say, ‘I can’t wait to see your latest designs. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
A mellifluous laugh dances past her painted lips. ‘You’ve been minding your manners, I see. So many tributes overlook the importance of politeness. It can be your most flattering accessory.’ She pats my hand and leads me toward a table and chairs. ‘You wear it well, dear.’
Cassius puts the slippers on my feet again and Felix holds out the robe for me to slip my arms through. Agrippa pulls out a chair first for Lucretia, then for me. My prep team sits at the table, too; Cassius to my left, Agrippa to my right, and Felix across from me, next to Lucretia. She presses a button and a panel in the middle of the table opens. Our lunch rises up through the gap. Mixed rice, chicken breasts with crispy skin still on them, roasted with whole chestnuts and three kinds of mushrooms. A tureen of savoury brown sauce and a basket of diverse bread. Sticky, golden honey cakes with fresh cherries and cream. All at the touch of a button.
We serve ourselves and I dig in with relish, only holding back enough to retain my dignity. This morning’s beauty regimen has taken a lot more out of me than I realised. I’m famished. I spy the focaccia with flaxseeds that we make in District 8 among the breads, and I wonder if the other breads represent the other districts. I decide to try the green one. It’s salty.
‘You have a healthy appetite,’ Lucretia says with some amusement, though not unkindly. ‘That’s good. You are a little bony in places. If you could try to gain some weight over the next four days, it would help us make you irresistible for the interviews.’
‘You got it, Lu,’ I affirm, dishing out a second helping, to which my prep team laughs. Lucretia smiles, pushing the plate of honey cakes toward me.
‘Good girl. Now, Renore, let’s go over the chariot ride…’