When Pontius leads me into the dining room, I find Rafe is already at the table, doing his level best to be the worst conversationalist ever. It’s a full house tonight; not only is Woof here, but Pontius has invited both stylists and both prep teams to join us. Rafe keeps his face turned away from everyone and whenever he is asked a question he gives the shortest answer possible, if any at all.
‘Ah! There’s the moon to our sun!’ Otho cries when he sees me and the others turn to greet me, too. The tall, ghostly man drifts over and offers me a glass of deep red wine, which I accept. He steals me away from Pontius and walks me to the table, where he introduces me to Rafe’s prep team. There are two women and a man; Alba, Drusilla, and August. Everyone is full of praise for Lu and Otho’s designs, and congratulations for Rafe’s and my celebrity. Agrippa stands up and pulls out a chair for me next to his. I flash him a smile as I take my seat. I’m across from Rafe, who doesn’t look happy about it.
Just like on the train, Woof is sat at the end of the table, adjacent to me and Rafe. ‘I hope you didn’t lose your appetite,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘Lu informs me you’re on an all-you-can-eat diet between now and the interviews.’
Dinner commences. Everyone makes pleasant small talk throughout several courses. Pontius tells us about his day over pea soup with mint. Otho talks at length about how he and Lucretia came up with the chariot costumes as we eat salad with tiger prawns in a lemony sauce. Roasted mushrooms stuffed with cheese and garlic accompany August’s gossip about people I don’t know. I probe Agrippa on his love of miniature paintwork while we dine on glazed ham sliced wafer thin, served with bacon-wrapped asparagus and braised apples. The talk moves on to ideas for our interview outfits as we’re served cheeses and grapes, then warm slices of a dark chocolate and black cherry torte. I have dutifully stuffed myself to the gills, with no help from Woof. Finally, when the table is cleared of everything but drinks and a bowl of fresh fruit, we get down to business.
‘So,’ says Woof, looking at Rafe, ‘Let's talk strategy. What are your skills? What hobbies do you have that might have given you some edge?’
Rafe shrugs. ‘I like to run. I’m pretty fast, I guess.’
Woof waits for him to go on, but when he doesn’t, the victor nods. ‘Okay, that’s good. Speed is always useful in the Games. And you, Renore?’
Violet’s voice whispers to me. Remember your dancing. There’s got to be some way you can use that.
‘I like to dance. I’ve been practising since I was little.’
Rafe snorts, but Woof gives me a shot to make my point. ‘And what sort of skills would you say that gives you?’
‘Fitness. Flexibility,’ I begin slowly, thinking. ‘Agility. Balance. Stamina. Stability. An eye for detail.’ I grow more confident as my list grows longer. ‘Creative thinking. Quick reflexes.’
Rafe decides to test that last one here and now. He snatches an apple out of the fruit bowl and lobs it at my head. I catch it in front of my face and lob it right back. It hits him square in the forehead, bounces off and, to my own astonishment (and immense contentment), I catch it again. My attacker looks understandably livid. I won’t lie, I feel quite full of myself right now. I look Rafe dead in the eyes and take a slow, deliberate bite of the apple, filling the action with as much smugness and sexuality as I can muster.
It's all over before anyone can react. The Capitol folk look ruffled and Woof is clearing his throat in uncertainty. ‘Ahem. Well, I guess that theory checks out. Now-‘
But Rafe interrupts him. ‘Wait. Let her finish. You haven’t let her tell you about her other hobby.’
‘Oh?’ Woof raises his eyebrows in surprise. He looks curiously from Rafe to me. ‘What would that be, then?’
He can’t mean… No. Not here. Not in front of everyone. Tell Woof, that’s fine. I can even stand Pontius knowing. But not Lu. Not Agrippa.
A horrible smile is spreading over Rafe’s face. He looks like a predator preparing to taste the most delicious prey of his life. When I fail to speak, he answers for me.
‘She’s a whore.’
‘Language!’ gasps Pontius, above the whispers and murmurs breaking out around the table.
Woof coughs again. ‘There’s no need for name calling-‘
This time, I interrupt. I’m not going to give Rafe the satisfaction of seeing my shame. That's what he wants. I’m not going to let him win. Since it’s already out there, I’m going to wear it like armour. I still can’t bring myself to look at Agrippa, but I keep my tone calm and casual as I say, ‘No, it’s true. I’ve been on the game since I was thirteen.’
This time, the table goes silent.
Then Woof, the wily old man, turns to me to ask, ‘So… What useful skills might that have given you?’
I decide I love Woof.
I laugh. ‘A lot of the same ones, I guess. Stamina, flexibility...’ I wink. ‘Creative thinking.’
Woof laughs, too. So do Agrippa and Lucretia. The others follow suit. Rafe doesn’t look happy. Foiled again. A thought strikes me.
‘You know, I suppose it’s also where I developed my acting skills.’
‘Oh,’ Rafe’s voice is deadly quiet. ‘Is that how you could fuck those Peacekeeper pigs? Did you act like they didn’t murder our parents, or did that just turn you on?’
Several chairs are toppled over on the floor. There are broken glasses and spilled drinks everywhere. I’m on the tabletop, aiming a kick at Rafe’s hideous face. Otho and his prep team have retreated to a safe distance and are watching with horror, hands over mouths. Cassius and Felix are motionless, dumbstruck. Lucretia and Woof are trying to pull Rafe out of my boot’s firing range.
Agrippa’s hands clamp down on my arms from behind and he drags me off the table before I can strike. I’m kicking anyway. I want to tell Woof that I’ve changed my mind, that I don’t want to be mentored with Rafe, but all I manage to get out is, ‘Separate! Separate!’ over and over as Agrippa hauls me out of the room and down the hall.