Hello readers, old and new. This story spans the end of the Dark Days to the 2nd rebellion, introducing the first Career victor, and her legacy. I have grown increasingly fascinated with Careers, and this is what came of it.
Vicuña's breath caught. Something was wrong.
It was early morning, the air ringing with the clangs of rustling wares and the voices of artisans setting up shop. This was a poorer part of town, but usually quiet and safe, as much as all could be these days.
But no so safe that Mr. Sheen would leave his front door open.
Her brother Lazuli was just as tense as she was, his head jerking towards the ajar door.
Vicuña picked up a rock and gave a brisk nod.
Lazuli kicked the door open.
There was a boy in there. A grime-covered stranger. Crouched over the bags of tesserae grain.
Her knuckles white around the rock, Vicuña rushed inside, a scream of rage building in her lungs. The window was open. There was a second boy. Two bags of their grain slung over his shoulder.
"No!" He was too fast, disappearing into the streets.
"Mr. Sheen?" Lazuli cried, rushing for the bedroom as Vicuña blocked the second thief's way out.
It's going to be safe, Vicuña had said. Our grain won't be stolen there.
Vicuña had promised. She'd promised them! Her throat clenched, horror and rage twisting her gut, sizzling through her wiry muscles and she snarled, grabbing the filthy thief by the legs as he tried to flee. He fell to the floor, his wrist hitting the wood with a satisfying crunch.
He'd made her into a liar.
He looked fourteen, bigger and dirtier than her. It didn't matter, not when she had her knee and all her weight on his back.
He grunted when she grabbed his ears, her filthy nails digging into soft skin.
"Keep your ugly mug down," Vicuña barked, her voice loud and certain because a twelve-year old girl got no respect if she spoke like she needed protecting.
All their tesserae grain. Vicuña bit back an anguished whimper. How'd they eat this winter?
"Vi, Mr. Sheen's dead."
Lazuli's broken words turned the anger and fear into white-hot rage.
The thief, murderer!, under her tried to jerk upright. Vicuña dug her nails deep and she tore, her mind screaming louder than any of that bastard's wails. She brought the stone down on his head. He screamed.
"Please," he begged. He had wide blue eyes and cheeks sunk from hunger.
Vicuña stepped off him and he whimpered in pathetic relief.
Murderer. She kicked him, her eyes sparkling as he cried out once more.
She'd asked Mr. Sheen to store their grain. He'd been almost a stranger until three months ago. A shopkeeper they'd known, one who'd been lucky enough to survive the war without losing too much. He'd remembered Vicuña and her father from before, back when they'd had money to buy stuff. Mr. Sheen had opened his house to her and Lazuli instead of turning his nose up at them. He'd been so decent.
Now he was dead.
Vicuña kicked the boy again, not caring about the blood bursting out of his mouth. He coughed and gurgled. She wished he'd scream louder.
She was the one who had gotten Mr. Sheen to trust her.
Another kick. The boy wasn't moving anymore.
Mr. Sheen told them to call him Uncle.
When the thief's neck broke, Vicuña spat in his face, tears of grief, rage and despair running down her cheeks. Their grain was gone. Those bastards had killed Mr. Sheen.
"We have to find that grain, Lazu. We got to get it back. We got to get a peacekeeper." Her heart lurched when she entered the bedroom and saw Mr. Sheen, blood all over his head, lying down like a criminal in his own home. Why? Why him? "They got to give him a proper burial."
"Vi, we got blood on our hands," Lazuli said, his hands frantically pressing on Mr. Sheen's heart. Vicuña let him, desperately hoping he'd been wrong, that there was still some life in that man who had looked beyond their torn clothes and dirty hands, who had given them a chance.
"It was just some urchin," Vicuña spat. Just like them, but they weren't thieves. "A murderer." It didn't count, when it was justice. "People don't kill just one for food, he probably had killed others too. We got to get that tesserae back, Lazu." She'd survived the Dark Days, she would not starve now. "I got a close look at the one who ran off. I'll find him."
Lazuli nodded grimly, tears soaking his cheeks as he gave Mr. Sheen one last pitiful shake. "Make sure that peacekeeper thinks like you do." He let out a shaky breath. "Vi, there's blood on your shoe."
The dirt clung to her nails, the hunger to her stomach, but Vicuña didn't beg. She brought them together, the tough street kids she wanted to see survive. They weren't many, they weren't pretty, but they were hers, family. Lazuli was the one best thing the war had given her. Before the war, people just didn't find each other and decided they were family. Her, Lazuli and the kids, Amber and Legend, kept the merchants safe, keeping an out for the thieves lurking in the shadows. The pay got her through the weeks her Da had nothing. When Da had something, they used the extra money to buy clothes, to look sharp like they had real jobs. Like before.
Vicuña held to those memories of before like golden nuggets. Before, District One had been a place to be proud of. She'd had a house before it was burned, she'd had a mom. Mom had worked as a maid and one day they'd gone to find her, and found the beautiful house she'd worked in torn apart, everything valuable stolen. Her Da had been a peaceful man. That had been before.
Vicuña knew Mom was still somewhere. She'd ran, she was hiding. She was looking for them, she had to be. Vicuña just knew.
Bombs, guns and mutts were Capitol, but fires and pillages were rebel. Her Da became a spy and put a Capitol-issued pistol in her small hands. Vicuña had clutched the gun to feel safe and kept her eyes open and her ears sharp, honing them with all the rage a child could muster.
Da got caught one day, and Vicuña slipped the pistol in her shirt and she cried and cried in front of the house where the rebels had taken her Da to make him spit his secrets. She cried so loudly she could pretend she hadn't heard her Da scream.
They let her in, asking what was wrong. She said bad men had taken her parents and they gave her a handful of biscuits. She shot the three of them, her ears ringing with screams that weren't her Da's, the biscuits safely in her stomach. Da looked at her differently when she cut the ropes, when she dragged him out, gasping for breath under his weight.
She'd begged the peacekeepers then, all dirty-blond hair and wide-blue eyes and a set jaw that wanted the world to go back to right. The Capitol gave them medicine because they'd been fighting on the right side, but her Da couldn't spy anymore. The scar on his cheek had taken his eye, and anyone who saw him would remember his face.
Da looked at her different, but there was more pride than fear. He stopped treating her like a child.
Vicuña didn't cry much anymore. She wasn't the only one with a sad tale. They said the Dark Days were over, that the rebels had been beaten, but in the streets of One, for those who'd lost it all, war still raged.
There were food days. Rations, barely enough to get by, but blessedly free, brought in by the Capitol. One had been the first district to turn back on their side. Traitor, rebels whispered, but Vicuña swallowed the hot thick soup, her hands shaking as she never seemed to get warm, and she only felt grateful. Maybe when she'd be thirteen and stronger, she'd manage to get a real job.
Vicuña tossed and turned on the thin mattress she shared with her Da, hidden in a corner of a house in ruins –and Vicuña didn't want to know how many people had died in the fire that had turned the walls black- she wondered how long she could live like this. She slept in short bursts, her fingers curled around her knife, in case someone came in. The war mutts had gone but there were very human monsters roaming at night.
Day after day, it was her, Lazuli, Da and the kids, and the world didn't want to give them a way out.
"We can't leave the kids," Lazuli said, his voice a growl and a snarl at the unfairness of it. "We said we were family. We meant it, Vi!"
Vicuña hadn't said anything, but the same helpless bitterness burned her throat. Cadet training, a new thing in One, but the Capitol wanted the peacekeeper numbers replenished fast. If you were tough, they took you in at fourteen. Vicuña was fourteen and it was right there. A job, a way out.
"We can't leave them," Vicuña agreed, choking out the words, her nails digging painfully into her palms. Her Da would get no stipend for her. He was her Da, he'd held her since she was a baby, she didn't remember any other man ever holding her Mom's hand, but he wasn't her blood, and they'd need years, to get an official paper. Lazuli didn't even have a Da not of his blood. He just had them. "We've got to get them to school, or we'll be stuck on the streets forever."
They joining the massed voices that demanded the children of the Dark Days be allowed to study where they'd left off before the war instead of being stupidly forced into age appropriate classes they could not follow. The Capitol finally sent teachers, and not pretend puppets either. Real teachers with books and rules and patient voices.
In the third year after the war, on the eve of the third Hunger Games, the Capitol plastered the lists to the Justice Building's wall. New housing. An awed smile so broad it hurt burst on Vicuña's lips when she saw they were at the top of the lists. They hadn't forgotten that she and her Da had served.
Vicuña shared a bed with little Amber and Legend, who was a boy but too young to matter, but it was a large bed, so soft and comfortable and clean. Lazuli slept with her Da, and for all he complained of snores and elbows, he and Vicuña shared a grin every morning. She still didn't eat meat or fresh fruit and just stared straight ahead when they passed the clubs where people went to have fun and forget the Dark Days, but she had a house.
Vicuña owed the little she had to the Capitol.
Vicuña had loved the Hunger Games already at twelve. The broadcasts were just a couple of hours each night, a lot of frozen pictures, commentaries, flashbacks on the Dark Days. Vicuña cared little for that. She cared that they sat together that people talked and it became okay to speak of the war again. People stopped pretending it was all fine and gone, and she could sit with Da and Lazuli among peacekeepers, hearing them boast and lie and share true stories with haunted eyes. There she felt like a soldier instead of like an urchin who slept in the ruins of burned houses.
The first Hunger Games had been a battlefield. A village in ruins, gnarly trees and hissing fumes. No tribute was there by chance. Not rebels, no, but criminals, hated by both sides. A precious few were decent and fierce and when Rowan from Seven won, everyone agreed he'd deserved it. And everyone agreed the Capitol had done everything to make sure he would.
Why does Seven get a feast? Why did those filthy lumberjacks do to deserve it? Vicuña burned with jealousy, hating that she'd have to go back to a flea-ridden mattress that tasted like ash when people were bursting their stomachs. Why hadn't the Capitol chosen a One?
The tributes refused to fight during the second Games, until the silver parachutes fell, a message for each tribute. Blackmail, watchers whispered. That's when the teenagers picked up weapons, some crying, others red with anger.
Vicuña had winced when each tribute died, but if that was the price to pay for no more Dark Days, then Vicuña was prepared to be scared and count tesserae and maybe even go in there. Mom still hadn't come back.
The victor from the second Games wrestled a gun from a peacekeeper and put it to his head halfway through the Victory Tour.
Vicuña watched the empty houses in the Victors' Village, allowing herself to imagine, what it would be like to sleep in silk and eat real fruit, and she didn't understand why the man had shot himself.
In the third Games, the mutts were many and vicious and it was clear that if any other year tributes refused to fight they would go down slowly and painfully. It was a Seven again, a big man with an ax, blind luck this time, and Vicuña scowled in dismay. Larix was proud and defiant when he stepped out. He was hollow and broken after his first mentoring year. Seven would not win for another eighteen years.
Everything changed when the fourth Games reaped Lazuli. Vicuña didn't go there for the peacekeepers and the stories anymore. She watched like she had never watched before.
Only the first Games had had obvious criminals, but the seed had been planted. The tributes deserved it, they wouldn't be reaped if they didn't. Lazuli didn't deserve one second of it. Vicuña finally understood it was not about strength or justice when the arena of earthquakes, explosions and chemical waters swallowed him whole. Only half the tributes ever needed to fight. Bianca from Six was lucky, educated enough to recognize danger, strong-willed enough to stay away even when hunger and thirst dug their claws deep into her mind and body. Angry enough to go get that victory when there were just four of them left.
Grief was a twisted, poisoned beast, and burning tears wracked Vicuña's body until there was nothing left but scorching pain, but Vicuña knew not to hate Bianca. Six owed nothing to One, Bianca knew nothing of Lazuli.
But then Bianca turned to cards, alcohol and superstition. She was brittle, and that was unforgivable.
Vicuña ran. She ran until her muscles were burning and she tasted blood on her throat hoping physical pain would push away the agony. She ran to the outskirts of town where none would hear her scream. How dare she! How dare Bianca be miserable when Lazuli died so she could win!
Despite the large houses, despite the wealth, the interviews revealed hollow people and Vicuña snarled at the screen because it wasn't fair!
Had they any inkling what Vicuña would do, if she had a fraction of their money?
Had they any idea what Lazuli would have accomplished?
The house was empty without his laughter, Lazuli, her brother, and all of Vicuña's plans shattered like glasshouses under hail.
She was just a girl without an apprenticeship, a girl too unpretty with her square jaw and rough manner. A girl who'd only ever just stare at luxury and who had to choose between scrounging a living and abandoning her family. She hated the envy that stirred in her stomach whenever she glimpsed one of the peacekeeper cadets.
Her leg lashes out, ribs crack under her foot. Mr. Sheen's kind smile makes her anger go away.
Vicuña sat up in the bed, wiping cold sweat off her eyes. She clamped her lips shut and counted to ten, clearing her vision of blood and violence. Not wanting the kids to wake up.
She wished she had seen Lazuli's smile instead. That smile kept escaping, always at the corner of her vision, hiding behind blood and death and the arena's fires.
The anger remained, right under her skin, begging to get out. It flared every time she saw Bianca on a screen, wrapped in Victor's finery. It clawed at her throat, glittered behind her eyes and it wouldn't let her go.
Vicuña saw the fear on their faces, every parent, friend, sibling and teenager of District One. Vicuña knew hunger and she knew death. She'd killed and she'd do it again.
Vicuña saw an opportunity.
She went to see the artisans, to the merchants, those with daughters her age. "Train me," she said, "and I'll volunteer for the seventh Hunger Games."
Many laughed at her, but many more believed her. She saw the incredulity in their eyes and then the awe, the gratitude, when they realized she was serious. She saw the veil of fear ripped from their faces and they said please and thank you and Miss with a bow of her head as if she had been born one of them.
They invited her Da to dinner, they called him Sir and it wasn't a joke. When one gave Legend an apprenticeship with one of their sons, when Lieutenant Griffin gave Vicuña a sword of shining steel and said he would teach her, Vicuña felt her head spin.
She would not, ever, be a nobody again. They gave her Da money, enough to buy tools and the marble he'd missed so dearly. He made the cold stone into people, giving them soft smiles and wistful eyes. He carved Lazuli for her, his memory eerily perfect, and Vicuña smiled like she hadn't in months.
The Capitol found her. She was summoned to the Justice Building.
"A volunteer, Vicuña Chrysaor?" Evadne Achlys said, her short hair styled and earrings glittering just like on TV.
President Achlys, regal and fair, eerily human save for her golden eyes who gazed into Vicuña's very soul.
"Victors could be so much more, Ma'am," Vicuña said, her heart pounding in her chest. The President. She was being taken seriously. This was her chance. "They don't seem to realize the power they have. There have been a couple volunteers, but people never volunteer to win. District One fought for you. My family at least," Vicuña amended nervously, "fought for you. I tried to claw out of poverty and I can't do it. But I'll fight in the Games, and I'll make sure they'll fight, because they know I'll cut them down if they don't."
The second and third Games. Vicuña knew Achlys had not forgotten. Vicuña was telling her the Games would go smoothly, because the other tributes would have an enemy.
"And when I win, I will be yours. I'd be whoever you need me to be in order to train people, people like me. Volunteers would protect One, I know what favor I am asking," Vicuña said, unable to hold the woman's gaze.
Those gratitude filled eyes had burned her. Those parents, siblings, boyfriends and mentors. Vicuña had power, so much power, just there at the tip of her fingers.
"And through loyalty and reward, I have more to gain than by holding you back," Achlys finished, a smile that looked fond, gracing her lips.
Vicuña thought her chest would explode. Yes, yes!
"You would like us to rig the Games for you?"
Vicuña heard the test in that voice. "No, Madam President," she replied, standing to attention like Lieutenant Griffin had taught her. "I would just ask of you that the arena not kill me through no mistake of my own."
Achlys' soft smile bloomed into a friendly grin. "This I can do. Vicuña. When you train, don't forget the cameras. It seems the Hunger Games are not simply a display for the Districts anymore. I will grant you, and all tributes, an interview next year. Don't make me regret it." Achlys' smile broadened, and Vicuña knew she'd made the right decision. "An odd career you've chosen. You may be the start of something new, Vicuña. Maybe something very good for us all."
An odd career.
Vicuña would later realize, the full ramifications of what she had done, but even then, this would remain the best day of her life.
Vicuña tasted blood as she hacked at the dummy. She hadn't eaten in days, she hadn't drank since the night before. She hadn't stopped. She needed to see when she would drop.
She asked them to test her limits, to bully her, to make it real. To see how her mind responded to stress, to paranoia. They put all the lights out on her day off, when she least expected it, and locked her in her room with rats and one particularly vicious alley cat. Vicuña had the scare of her life, some nasty scratches, and her room was a mess, but day after day, she felt more prepared.
For the first time, they stood in front of Gamemakers -hodded men and women hidden behind a forcefield-. They had weapons all around them, dummies and targets, and one order: show you're dangerous. Scores went from 1 to 12, no other tribute scored better than 7. Vicuña walked out with a 9.
Achlys kept her word. The twenty-four of them were led in a theater in their reaping clothes, greeted by Marcus Flickerman who gave them each a chance to speak, and where the other tributes walked unprepared, feebly lying for favor or, more often, insulting the Capitol with all their might, Vicuña came as a servant and promised prosperity and honor. She spoke for all those who had fought alongside the Capitol for peace and she knew she had surprised them, and they had listened.
Vicuña's first kill was fourteen and begged for his life. He'd spat at Marcus Flickerman during the interviews, screaming for all to hear that he wished Capitol men to burn and their wives raped. Vicuña made it fast, but not too fast. She made sure the camera saw she wasn't drawing it out for herself. She wasn't killing a threat to her, she was convincing the Capitol that she deserved to live.
Hours turned into days. There were no traps, no explosions, but Vicuña could feel her life ebbing away. Every flicker was a threat, the very sound of her heartbeat in her ears had her turn and twist and waste precious energy while the allied boys from Five and Ten hunted her down. They could sleep in turns, Vicuña could not. District Five had a bow he knew how to use. Her sword alone would not win her this fight.
Vicuña watched the silver parachute fall from the sky. There was no note, just a black package. Never had a tribute received a gift before.
A Capitol-issued pistol, a model that Vicuña knew all too well. Her fingers reverently caressed the handle.
She looked at them in the eyes when she shot them, hoping the Capitol got the message. District One is loyal.
Deep in District Four, a girl held onto her mother's wrists, refusing to let the raven-haired woman shield her eyes. Maybe Vicuña was a monster, but the girl heard the message, the fires of rebellion burning deep inside her soul.
The Capitol will give you power if you play your cards well.
The five living victors looked at Vicuña with contempt and loathing. They hardly liked each other, but she became the enemy as soon as she made the mistake to say she wanted to train volunteers.
They didn't understand. They heard she wanted to make monsters who relished in blood and sought glory. Vicuña just wanted a mirror she could turn upon them. Those sorry people full of anger and self-loathing.
Twenty-three people, often innocents, had died for them. Couldn't Panem at least have true victors? Happy victors? Useful victors?
Mattock had a girlfriend, and it was her who opened the door to their new house in Ten's Victors' Village after the fifth Games. If Vicuña squinted, she could see a victor rather than a victim. He was the only one she could bear watching without sneering.
Rye from Nine had killed almost one tribute a day and he couldn't stomach it. He let the madness take him because it was easier. Bianca used alcohol as a crutch, Rye drowned in it. He was foul and coarse and Vicuña spat on the ground for a year whenever his ugly face appeared on TV. It was hard not to spit at him, when he called her a whore, a Capitol sellout.
Vicuña finally let them hate, because President Achlys wouldn't want her to say too much. Few districts would be allowed to train.
She was an outsider, and it hurt more than she had thought possible.
When Comet from Three won the 8th, Vicuña swallowed back bitter failure. She'd found volunteers, but they'd been the wrong kind. She'd brought a cruel boy and a girl who was mad and desperate. She learned that year that not all willing volunteers skilled at weapons would do. Without showmanship, without class, the Capitol wouldn't play the Career game. The volunteers would represent District One and Vicuña needed them dignified.
She was learning. President Achlys was tolerant of her inexperience.
Vicuña decided to pay them, fifteen-year-olds and older. She found a building, called it the Academy, hired instructors and set up an entry exam. Those who would stay to train would gain a stipend. Dozens came, most were worthless, there for the stipend, too violent or twisted, or simply too naive.
It was Reaping Day and Vicuña ground her teeth together, plastering a proud expression on her face for the cameras. She couldn't believe Constantine Aquila had volunteered before Malachite had had a chance to speak. She hadn't imagined anyone would train without asking her first. Stupid rich kid. His mother was Colonel, one of the five highest ranking peacekeepers in One. Selene Aquila came out of the Justice building and met Vicuña's eyes. Vicuña had seen death, but that mother's icy glare turned her insides to water.
"I'm sorry," Vicuña whispered. "I'll bring him back. He's handsome, well-educated and strong. The Capitol will love him."
It was mattering more and more, the Capitol's love. It would just take one more year, for sponsors to become inextricably linked to the Hunger Games.
The worst was that Constantine was exactly the kind of volunteer Vicuña had searched for. A teenager craving meaning who had found little in his life. A young man who had charisma. But despite bravery and his skill with swords, Constantine was a spoiled prince who thought heroes won in real life. He remained magnificent, and Vicuña allowed herself to weep when he died.
But she didn't hate Mags Abalone. Far from it.
Another volunteer. Someone who wasn't apologizing for their victory, who went home with plans and ambition. The recaps showed a rebel who had changed her views before the end of the Games. Sorting lies from truth was the President's job. Vicuña cared that Mags from District Four listened to her and shook her hand, wariness in her eyes but determined to listen. Vicuña wasn't alone anymore.
When Mordred created the Annex in District Two. When he brought back two victors in four years, when the Council in One demanded results, Vicuña grew afraid.
She would not have dozens of teenagers kill criminals or battle the elements in mock arenas to get the perfect Career! It was unthinkable. Volunteers were to protect the innocent, to free One from the fear of the Capitol's Games. Vicuña would not break hundreds in the hope of having one win. This was Mordred's plan. It was insane, worse, it was successful.
President Achlys had no intention to stop him: Two was the peacekeeper district and its loyalty mattered even more than One's. Careers in One and Two fueled the outliers' hate and kept the districts divided. Careers made the Games entertaining; they brought angle and honor, because they didn't break. Outliers would murder in desperation and madness, tearing, ripping and screaming and making a horrifying mess, but Careers were clean. Careers made it all more watchable. Sponsors grew more and more numerous, happily throwing the money into the Capitol's coffers. And with every Career, Achlys tightened her control over the victors in the Capitol.
When Mags vowed to sponsor Vicuña's best tribute for the 15th Hunger Games, to get the outliers to do the same, Vicuña couldn't believe her ears. Mags was the only one who would be kind when everyone's tributes were killing each other, when the Games were the most miserable moment of the outlying victors' self-loathing filled lives, and they lashed out at each other, because it was the only thing they could do.
They respected Mags for it, for coming to the Capitol to help the other victors first and her tributes second. They even loved her for it, for coming in with a smile, for squeezing their shoulders and distracting them from the horror. They were victors, but Mags was their mentor.
And she persuaded them. Somehow, Mags succeeded, and when Vicuña's handsome Garnet survived and appeased both sponsors and the Council, Vicuña knew District One was saved for her Academy would remain humane.
Vicuña worked with peacekeepers and the Capitol's Homeguard when she wasn't training. President Achlys had been Evadne for years, and Vicuña was proud, to build a Panem that would last, a Panem that would prosper.
District Two trained warriors, strong and loyal and intense. Four trained them upbeat, playful and endearing, tight-knit pairs who wormed themselves into the viewers' hearts. Vicuña trained actors, she trained celebrities. The hardest thing had been to craft angles that would guarantee them respect.
During the first years, Vicuña had looked for passion and fire, but that had been a terrible mistake. She'd looked deep into the sponsors eyes and seen lust, the desire to own. Vicuña realized how close she had come, to selling her boys and girls into golden slavery.
There was a beauty in ice, and it was that beauty that Vicuña molded into victors. Her girls were no courtesans, they were empresses, creatures of fantasy and they would not be touched. She did not need to enforce it, it was understood. Girls and boys alike, they lived as much in the Capitol as in One, models, ambassadors, actors, guests of honor, and it suited everyone just fine.
The Hunger Games had always been about revenge, about superiority and power, but as the years advanced, as the Dark Days became a bad memory, the Capitol let itself slide in denial, wrapping it in pretense, occluding the suffering and relishing in the drama. Vicuña understood revenge, she understood harsh decisions to keep peace, but this she didn't understand. Instead she used it, and her volunteers offered drama, and their lives, to preserve District One from the fear, oppression and poverty that plagued the outlying districts.
The Games grew more inventive, and so many victors stepped out broken, but never hers. In the streets of One, her former trainees greeted her with a small smile, and Vicuña could look at herself in the mirror and not regret her choices.
The Hunger Games changed with Seeder, a girl more intelligent than Vicuña would have expected to find in backwards Eleven. Shameless as usual, and evidently having seen something in the girl, Mags had helped the mentorless Seeder craft an angle that had gained her the Capitol's favor and urged the victors to cooperate. It had taken little, a pointed look at the Careers' training scores, a comment about how the Capitol still despised District Eleven, the infamous rebel district.
Vicuña saw then that Evadne was a little tired of her friend's manipulative ways but where a lesser ruler would have punished, Evadne instated Parcel Day in addition to the Victory Feast. And because Evadne Achlys valued propaganda over pettiness, the first Parcels went to District Eleven a month after Seeder had won the 33rd.
Even Vicuña had stared in awe at the reporters' images, knowing that that wonder, that hope, would fill every single District in Panem.
There was nothing more beautiful than the look in a victor's eyes when they saw the people laughing and crying as they passed crates of supplies, fresh, scrumptious supplies, to their relatives and neighbors, knowing they would be fed, and well, for a whole year. Seeder had cried happy tears, knowing she had done this, and Vicuña knew that then, that Seeder's nightmares would fade away.
Even in District One, where hunger was not a plague, people now looked at her with shining eyes, asking them if she had hope for the year's trainees. Yes, Evadne was brilliant, making the Districts now anticipate the Games with fierce hope, because what were a few more dead children compared to tens of thousands eating their fill for a whole year?
The stakes had changed. Tributes and mentors alike had more reason to fight. And even Mags would not manage to have them fight for another District's tribute unless they truly had no hope in theirs.
Vicuña watched her victors. Garnet, her first, now fat, white-haired and happy, hand in hand with Annalise, victor of the 22nd, never a beauty but so fine and graceful that she had received three sets of clothes in the arena because sponsors had found insulting to see her dirty. The memory always brought a smile to Vicuña's lips.
Obsidian, the trickster of the 29th, endearing despite his cruelty and almost too intelligent for the Hunger Games. Lucius, an intellectual despite his sturdy frame, fluent in Latin, who had turned his Games into a lesson of roman history and delighted like few had ever before. Her silver-tongued Eve who had spread chaos and mistrust and had ended the 38th with one swift strike, her only kill, and Magister, roguishly charming and luckier than most, who had a knack for seeming kind, even as his mace smashed through his victim's chest.
As a girl, she'd chosen Lazuli, Amber and Legend just like her Da had chosen to do right by her even if she didn't share his blood. Vicuña still had no family by blood, but these were her children, those and others, two boys of the Academy who should have been volunteers but who Vicuña had decided not to let go, and who know were peacekeepers, with more innocence in their eyes than any tribute Vicuña had brought through the Games.
She had accomplished all she had sought out to accomplish, but she saw it now, at the summit of her glory, how the Capitol kept them in chains.
She saw clever men and women being denied opportunities because they'd been born ugly while beauty in One was valued beyond reason. She saw the intelligent kids who were clumsy with their hands and awkward with their tongues breaking their backs in the mines, when in District Three they would have been among the best. She saw mediocre Capitolites year after year give good peacekeepers asinine orders, with little regard for lives or comfort, and later punishing them harshly for inefficiency. She saw merchants and artisans fall into poverty when the Capitol's fashion changed and their once popular wares stockpiled uselessly in their shops. Cheap desperate labor that would then scramble to do whatever work was available. It was usually the mines: gold, silver, diamond and gems. Like the stone and marble quarries of Two, those were never mentioned on television. The outliers had to believe the lie: that everyone in One and Two lived a life of luxury under the Capitol's benevolent gaze.
And One is a rich, favored District. Vicuña didn't dare think of the others.
She saw a group of teenagers get executed because they had sneaked outside the city, beyond the perimeter and into the old ruins, the last traces of States erased from the world by the Cataclysm. Teenagers with solid families, crafts and a future. What had they seen, that was worth their lives?
She saw the Capitol waste. Food, energy, clothes, money, everything they laid their hands on and that the Districts had painstakingly provided. She saw the frivolity, the blindness and denial, the easy cruelty of self-centered people who never paused to glance beyond their city's walls.
As the 46th Games crept nearer, Vicuña didn't blink when Mags all but implied the recent assassinations had been part of a larger plan to eliminate Evadne Achlys. A part of Vicuña had always known that her old friend was a rebel, the most dangerous of them all.
"Do you know who'll replace her?" Vicuña simply asked.
"Zephyr is a decent man, for a Capitol politician," Mags replied with quirk to her lips, stunning Vicuña by giving a straight answer on the subject for the first time in decades. "He believes in equal rights and democracy. He has support and we hope that he can bring change without making Panem implode."
We. Vicuña wondered how many people already hid behind that simple word. There was power in that word, and hope.
Vicuña died with President Achlys, in the same terrible attack Mags barely escaped with her life, and none of them suspected then that only nightmares lay ahead. Zephyr was assassinated -not that anyone could prove it, or dared to- three years after he'd stepped into office. By Coriolanus Snow.
How they had learned to loathe that name.
Chrysoberyl was the last victor Vicuña had trained. She had five siblings because her parents were beautiful and in District One beauty was important. There was money to be earned if you married into beauty and especially if you brought beauty into the world. Chrysoberyl was selected a twelve years of age among the most promising applicants, and when she won the 48th, she made sure to give homage to the woman who had given One its pride back.
It was all Cecelia's fault. That desperate, foolish little bird from District Eight, who by winning the 59th doomed them to almost two decades of Hell.
No fire! Vicuña's first rule was etched in the minds of every girl and boy that stepped on the stage. Cecelia had won with her body and now the Capitol had lust in their eyes.
President Snow decided he wanted them. Not for himself, he would never touch them, but he wanted the money, and One's industry was luxury, was it not? The Academy would train them not to break, or the President would see District One suffer.
They had called Chrysoberyl 'the Ghost' after her Games, during Zephyr's short rule, before Snow crushed Panem's hope for a peaceful transition to a fairer world. Chrysoberyl spoke little and smiled even less. She was beautiful and ethereal, gliding through the crowds, letting them stare and weave the myth about the tribute who had appeared near every corpse, watching the Hovercraft take them away. She had struck down the killers at night, without a sound or warning, without a drop a blood staining her immaculate clothes.
She was all Vicuña had wanted her to be and she held to that with unshakable pride. Sometimes, it was the only thing she'd had left.
They were only ever supposed to desire her from afar. And they had been pleased to, until Snow had planted the idea in their minds.
Vicuña was gone. To protect them, there was only Mags. She was a Four, but she came as close as they all had to a mentor, and there was no one else left. Mags seemed invincible, but so had Vicuña, and Chrysoberyl counted the days until Snow would make their gray-haired protector disappear. Mags had brought order and prosperity to a rebel infested Four, and had stood right there with Vicuña among the few victors President Achlys had valued, but Snow didn't need her.
Chrysoberyl watched in wonder and a small dose of envy as Mags returned, year after year, proud and so loved by a Capitol who would never think to buy her.
Chrysoberyl asked Lyme and Brutus to train their children to kill hers. The girls, the pretty boys, don't let the Capitol have them. Kill the Careers from One in the last eight, no one would be the wiser. She also asked Mags, in case the Twos wouldn't make it.
Enrollment at the Academy dwindled. Career recruitment became forced. There was still a stipend, but those who didn't do their best, in training and the Games later, knew they would not be the only ones to pay. No one asked what happened to those who were discharged from training and who disappeared after their sixteenth birthday. The families were told their beautiful daughters and handsome boys had found a job in the Capitol: waitress, circus girl, dancer, the letters came once a year, scripted lies, silent about the full extent of their duties.
Two's Careers came from broken families and were given a new chance, one rooted in violence and rage, but where they'd started was worse. One's often came from loving families and were desperate to comply. They turned their rage into weapons and murder, and later swallowed it down, letting it consume them like slow poison, when they were stripped of the right to own their bodies. The luckier ones became bodyguards to rich businessmen or models for body-art projects, but few were truly lucky.
The victors had the best of the luxury, and the worst of the vice.
Mags came one day telling Chrysoberyl that she wouldn't be sold anymore. That the Capitol had grown angry, that a few with money and little scruples had shattered the myth for so many. Chrysoberyl had smiled, a true smile for the first time in three terrible years. The Ghost returned, grateful, but the armor was cracked, and behind the impassive mask, Chrysoberyl could not break free of the fear. She silently apologized when Gloss won and wept when the trumpets announced the beautiful Cashmere's victory.
Fire and passion. They all were now, consumed until the Capitol threw away the ashes.
They tried to save as many of the trainees as they could. They saved some, but not enough, not nearly. Some of them Chrysoberyl later saw in the Capitol, tall and proud with a survivor's vindication in their hardened gazes. They were precious exceptions, those who had climbed their way out and reclaimed some of their freedom.
She told Mags their names. Mags would know what to do with them. Chrysoberyl dreamed of fire, scorching and hungry, tall flames swallowing the Capitol's golden city until only ashes remained.
Magister had named his little girl Vicuña. Chrysoberyl didn't dare meet the child's cobalt eyes. Their mentor would weep, if she saw them now. Her queens turned into whores, her refined warriors into toys. Chrysoberyl saw those girls at the Academy, they didn't even have to think anymore, to suggestively show their legs as they fought, to turn each smile into a lascivious promise. They were lethal and yet submissiveness was etched into their very souls.
Vicuña would have protected them.
Chrysoberyl saw it in Magister's eyes. The flicker of doubt when he looked at his wife. A Capitolite, a former escort, a good mother. She had been Magister's escape from Snows' clutches, a woman he could not have said no to had he ever wanted to. He told himself every day he had married her for love, for herself, but Chrysoberyl saw that terrible doubt that never left his eyes.
He was lucky. He'd married her early enough. He was almost a Capitolite now, with real rights. Mysterious deaths followed every other victor who tried to follow Magister's footsteps.
District One was among the first districts to rebel after the 74th Games. The outliers would believe it was because the rebel network born in Four decades before had infiltrated One to the roots.
Among the victors, only Annie Cresta from Four remained to know the truth. Johanna's anger at Careers, at everything touched by the Capitol, clouded her eyes. Enobaria was a Two and Snow had needed loyal peacekeepers more than he had needed more gold.
The others, district dwellers and victors alike had watched Cashmere and Gloss and believed they'd chosen this. They saw the sultry blonde and her handsome brother, so arrogant in their beauty. They'd watched the sibling victors flirt with Capitolites who showered them in riches, and they had sneered in disgust. They believed the lies, that Cashmere chose her lovers, that Gloss whispered sweet words to Capitol women he desired, for power or money. As if they could have complained without losing their lives. There were no lovers, only victors sold.
Annie sang to her little boy, her precious miracle, to sleep. She ached to forget, to wrap herself in songs and raise her baby away from the ugly world, but she could hear Mags and Finnick's voices through the fog, she saw their faces, so strong and beautiful, and they needed her now. To make this right. They kept her strong when she just wanted to let the ocean take her away. She had been such a shielded victor, never mentoring, never touched without her consent. Her son deserved a mother he could be proud of. He would never be allowed wonder, why her Finnick had chosen her.
Finnick had been too beautiful, her wonderful Finnick. The Capitol had wanted him, and just like the Ones, he'd not had the leisure to refuse. Few would ever know the price Mags had paid to have Snow wait for Finnick's sixteenth birthday. But Finnick had been stronger than them. He'd earned the privilege to choose his clients. He'd learned their secrets and now Coriolanus Snow was gone and the Capitol defeated.
"People need to know the truth."
"The peace is tenuous, Annie," Plutarch Heavensbee said. His expression was dark. He knew. He was a Capitolite, but he'd been Mags' man before he'd even finished school. He'd saved Cecelia from those who'd licked their lips for spoils. He'd closed the brothels as soon as Katniss, their Mockingjay, the spear point of the rebellion, had killed Snow. But Plutarch kept silent. "They're eager for an excuse to tear the Capitol apart. There would be another war, and no matter which side would win, Panem would not recover. We must allow tempers to cool."
"I don't care. Wait five years then, ten even," Annie said, her voice shaking, a rare fierceness in her eyes. Cashmere had been Finnick's first. She had taught him, she and Gloss had been there for him, whenever it became too much. Annie heard the slurs no matter how hard she pressed her hands to her ears, and it revolted her. "But there will be no more secrets. It's the least they deserve."
Name origin: Vicuña is the most expensive wool in the world (from a Llama). Chrysaor is a legendary sword in a fantasy novel I liked.^^
This story intersects with Checkmate, my main WIP centered on Mags' life. So if you want to see more of District Four (including a lot of Finnick and Annie in the last book), go for it.
Please share your thoughts.