The horses know the way. The bottom level of the Tribute Center is brightly lit – it’s brighter than the waning twilight on the streets of the Capitol. We wait, fidgeting, for the chariots to draw up a few yards away from a row of elevators. There’s a small crowd waiting. Mentors and escorts, mostly; a stylist here and there. District 1’s team has already disappeared to the next floor, the District 2 tributes are just getting into an elevator, and the pair from District 3 are heading for another when our horses pull us to a stop. Rafe barely waits for the chariot to stop moving before he hops off. He pulls the coronet from his head without ceremony and lets it drop from his hand like a clod of filth. It clatters on the floor, drawing looks from the other tributes. Not pausing, Rafe strides toward the lifts. His cloud cape billows out imposingly behind him. Seeing him without an escort, an Avox scurries into the elevator to conduct him to our floor. The two of them shoot up into the sky.
I’m in no particular hurry, myself. I step down from the chariot at leisure, casting my eyes about for Woof’s friendly face. When I find it, I wave and make my way towards him. My stylist and prep team are absent this time, but Pontius is waiting with my mentor. He calls out ecstatically as I approach.
‘Renore! Darling girl! What a success! What an absolute triumph! You could hardly have made a better impression. I swear it – you’re the talk of the town! Everybody who’s anybody wants to see more of the moon goddess from District 8. I already have several sponsors lined up for you. Yes, Woof has only to seal the deal when the time comes. Come, let me congratulate you!’ He pulls me into a hug as soon as I’m in range. We turn our heads a little to opposite sides and give each other a glancing peck on the cheek.
‘Thank you, Pontius. I’m sure it’s more to do with your negotiating skills.’ I see he’s changed his ensemble since this morning and add, ‘You look radiant this evening.’
‘Oh! You noticed,’ he says, touching his latest wig with pride.
I turn to Woof and hug him, too. ‘What do you think?’
‘About Pontius’ wig? It defies physics,’ he says with a playful smirk.
I poke him in the stomach and give him a look, unable to suppress a smile. Pontius doesn’t seem to get the joke. ‘Quit it. You know what I meant, Woof.’
My mentor chuckles and rubs his belly where I poked him. ‘Okay, okay. You looked unforgettable, Renore. You and Rafe both, to be honest. The crowd really responded to you. And Pontius wasn’t exaggerating; you made waves among the most prestigious citizens. It’s a great start. If you can keep up the momentum through the training and the interview, you’re going to have a real fighting chance in the arena.’
His words send a wave of warmth flowing through me, making me realise for the first time how nervous I have been. The relief makes me feel exhausted. Woof must see it, because he gives my shoulder a squeeze and says, ‘You must be hungry. Let’s get settled into our rooms and have some supper, eh?’
‘Yes, yes!’ Pontius chirps, ready to preside over the tour. ‘If you think the train was luxurious, just wait until you see your rooms here. And dinner will be a feast, for sure! We are celebrating, after all.’ He and Woof turn to lead the way to the lift. I’m about to follow when I’m accosted from behind by what feels like an enormous sack of twine spools.
‘Congrat- hic! Congratu… urp… layshuns.’
It can only be Haymitch. He’s damn near strangled me by throwing his arm around my neck and stumbling over my heel. I squirm in his grip to face him and get a snout full of sour breath. The District 12 victor is fully inebriated now. At the rate he was drinking before the parade, I’m not at all surprised. I struggle under his weight to keep us both upright. ‘Thank you, but…’
‘You’ve effect-… 'fective…ly killed about-‘ he pauses to burp here – ‘half the tributes alread- hic! Or two, at any rate…’
Drunk as he is, his remark is cutting. My high from the chariot ride crashes and burns. The warmth from Woof’s praise is chased off by a chill of shame. I look around for help. Woof and Pontius already made it to the elevator before realizing I’ve been manhandled. I see District 12’s escort at another lift, herding her tributes inside and reeling off instructions. The doors close, they shoot up out of sight, and the escort snaps her fingers at a pair of Avoxes. Five people are converging on us now. ‘Haymitch, as much as I appreciate your well-wishing, I think you need to go to bed.’
‘Hey…’ he shrugs, making me wobble. ‘I’m game if you are.’
I can’t tell if he’s joking or if he really thinks I was referring to my own bed. Either way, his backhanded congratulations has left me in a less-than-playful mood. ‘Oh please,’ I hiss at him, ‘you can hardly stand up, I doubt you can get it up.’
‘I’m standing,’ he protests. But his argument rings hollow as he wavers again, nearly pulling me over. Woof arrives, his face stuck between amused and concerned.
‘Hello, Haymitch. Are you well? I see we’ve started early this year…’ The older man tries to peel Haymitch’s arm from around my shoulders, but it threatens to destabilise him and he grabs on even tighter. So now the three of us are stood here looking weird; me with a severe tilt to one side and my tiara slipping off, a lopsided Haymitch with his arms around me, an awkward Woof with his hands on the drunkard’s forearm. Pontius is watching from a safe distance away, looking appalled.
‘Here now, that’s enough!’ he pips at my captor. ‘Let her go. Really! This is no way to behave. I don’t know what sort of squalid debauchery passes for proper conduct in District 12, but you are in the Capitol and we have civilized manners here!’
Haymitch lifts his head to eye up my escort. He opens his mouth to retort –
-only to regurgitate on my leg. The layer of gloss Agrippa put on my skin is apparently waterproof. The hot slime slides down my calf like water off of vulcanised rubber. It’s a mixed blessing, though, as this serves to conduct the mess straight into my shoe, where it leaks out between my toes. That’s a new sensation.
‘Woops,’ slurs Haymitch and he attempts to wipe my leg off. ‘Pretty shoes.’
‘Ouch! Not so hard. Look - you’re just smearing it around!’
The escort for District 12 has arrived just in time for this show-stopping number and she throws the throttle straight into reverse, backing up at speed and covering her mouth and nose with a frilly handkerchief. ‘Ugh! Heavens, how humiliating! Get him,’ she’s snapping to the Avoxes with her. ‘Get him off that poor girl and out of my sight!’
One of them levers Haymitch up under his free arm, the second pries his other arm off of me. Woof helps me duck out of his reach. Between them, the Avoxes half-steer, half-carry the confused lush to the elevator. The escort is apologising profusely. ‘I am so sorry, dear. I am so, so, so sorry! That man is a nuisance. Sometimes I think someone dressed up a pig as a prank. I’d have him arrested if it were up to me!’ Then she huffs off toward the lifts muttering about hoping to be assigned to a ‘better’ district next year. Despite having been angry at him moments before, I feel sorry for Haymitch now. Is that my future if I win the Games?
I slip my shoes off, shake the worst of the gunk off my foot, and allow Pontius and Woof to escort me to our floor. I still hear Haymitch's voice in my ear.
You've effectively killed half the tributes already. Or two, at any rate...