‘Ah. Renore, dear, there you are! Where have you been?’ Lucretia is back, in the company of a man I can only assume is Otho. She has wrapped an exquisitely patterned silk scarf around her hairless head. ‘I’ve given the boys a scolding for abandoning you. But you look like you’re still intact,’ she says, looking me over. ‘Allow me to introduce to you my partner, Otho.’
The man beside her steps forward to take my hand. He gives it a kiss. ‘Charmed, my dear, truly. Lucretia has it easy this year, I see. Yet she’s outdone herself, still!’ Otho is rather more conventional (by Capitol standards) than Lucretia. He appears much younger than what I suspect he really is. He’s fairly tall and trim, and wears his white hair in a high, tight, ankle-length ponytail – I don’t think it’s a wig; probably extensions. It looks like he’s bleached his skin, because he’s bone white like a living porcelain doll. He wears skimpy clothes to show off the beautiful murals inked on his body. There are artful depictions of peacocks sat in blossoming cherry trees and other colourful birds in flight. His irises appear candy pink, as do his lips, and his nails are long. I think I see Agrippa’s handiwork on them.
‘Oh, not as charmed as I am,’ I respond, slipping into my Gracious Lady routine once more. I force a blush into my cheeks and tuck my chin in humility at his compliment. I look up through my lashes at him. ‘I don’t know how Lucretia can create such wonders with you around to distract her.’
I’ve hooked him. He titters like Pontius and waves his hand. The blush creeping into his face looks alarming against his snowy skin. ‘Any more of that out of you and they’ll have to postpone the Games – I’ll have run off with one of the tributes!’
‘I think you’ll have to stand in line, Otho,’ comes Woof’s warm voice as he joins us. ‘She’s charmed the pants off Pontius already and, by the way he keeps looking at her, that Agrippa fellow is keen on her, too.’
I turn and follow Woof’s gaze to where my prep team stands a short distance away. Agrippa smiles.
Lucretia takes my hand and, walking me over to my chariot, helps me onto it. I see Rafe for the first time since this morning and the last piece of the costume theme drops into place. He’s been decked out in a handsomely tailored summer suit of sky blue seersucker which flashes gold when he moves. On his feet are golden wingtips; on his head a golden coronet. In contrast to my tiara’s opal moon disc, his is wrought into a sunburst set with stones of yellow, orange, and red. But, just like my train, the main feature of his costume is a cape that flows regally from his shoulders. And, just like my train, it is made of the cleverly cut fabric patches that swirl and puff like clouds. Instead of black, the cape is white and traced with subtle incandescent patterns of amber, gold, and blue. I’m the moon; he’s the sun. I’m nightwear; he’s daywear. Between us – if not each – we’re wearing every kind of textile ever produced or processed in District 8. I have to hand it to Otho and his prep team. They managed to make Rafe look pretty impressive. Even his makeup isn’t too silly. A bit of sky blue and grey around his eyes, some pale powder, clear gloss on his lips, and a bit of golden glitter. He’d look charming if he weren’t scowling.
He takes one look at my lingerie as he climbs onto the chariot and rolls his eyes in disgust. ‘Oh, what a surprise. Why even bother with the underwear, Renore? May as well just show ‘em all what they’ll be paying for. That’s only fair, right? Give them a chance to reconsider.’
I’m thinking of pushing him off the chariot, but both stylists and our mentor are there to see us off. The music for the opening ceremonies has begun to blast through the Capitol. It’s loud enough for us to hear it inside the Remake Center stables.
‘Please,’ Otho is begging Rafe, ‘smile! Or least stop frowning. Try looking serene or imperious… anything but disdainful!’
Woof agrees. ‘It’s important to make a good first impression. Your stylists have done an excellent job – that could easily give you a running start ahead of the other tributes in terms of securing sponsors. Don’t let that go to waste.’
A massive pair of doors opens ahead of us. The District 1 chariot is starting to move.
Lucretia gives my arm a squeeze. ‘Get your face out there as much as possible. Keep your chin up and give your attention to the crowd on all sides. Use those eyes. Everyone is going to want you – make them believe they can have you!’ The three of them step clear of the chariots, and join the two prep teams. District 1 and 2 have rolled into the streets already. We can hear the roar of the spectators. Our horses (it turns out the dappled ones were ours, after all) begin to walk.
The cheering has died out a little by the time District 7’s chariot is pulled into the street. District 1 is always popular, and this year it sounds like 4 and 5 are dressed well. But 6’s costumes are lacklustre, and 7’s are the predictable tree outfits, so the shallow people of the Capitol have grown a little bored.
A wave of sound ripples out in front of us, then behind us, as we hit the streets and the cameras turn on us. Shrieks, whistles, catcalls, clapping and stomping; all of Panem is trembling at the sight of us. The excitement is infectious. I don’t have to pretend when I put on my smile. I do exactly what Lucretia told me – I don’t just flirt, I make love to the masses. Using the giant television screens like a mirror, I quickly perfect my look. My lips curl into a mysterious, coy little smile, full of intent. My eyes are bedroom eyes, first shy and veiled under my lashes, now flashing out boldly to seize those of an unsuspecting spectator. I wave my fingers, I wink, I blow kisses. My body writhes toward the crowds, as if it has a mind of its own and longs to embrace each and every body we pass. I can hear men and women both screaming my name, vying for my love. Flowers are raining down on us from all sides. I single out a woman with something ridiculous on her head and mouth to her the words ‘I love your hat’. She faints. She actually faints. Capitol folk are so easy to please. On the screens, I see that Rafe hasn’t deigned to smile, but he has managed to achieve the imperious look that Otho suggested. It seems to be effective. There are people in the crowd just begging him to look at them.
As the daylight begins to fade, we reach the City Circle. Our chariot draws up behind District 7’s and slows to a stop. I continue to make eyes at the cameras while we wait for the last four chariots to arrive. The cheers are steadily dying out and, by the time District 12’s horses pull up at the rear, there’s only the hum of collective murmuring.
The music ends and President Snow appears on a balcony to make his traditional speech of welcome. The cameras cut to the faces of each tribute while he talks and when he’s through, the anthem of Panem blares out. The cameras cut to the tributes again while the music plays, lingering on a few of the crowd favourites. I’m happy to see I’m one of few who get the most airtime. The chariots make another pass around the circle, then we disappear into the Tribute Center with the sounds of applause at our backs.
My face hurts.