"I'll tell you where the real road lies:

Between your ears, behind your eyes

That is the path to paradise

Likewise, the road to ruin"

Mirabelle McMaster, 38, Wife of the Master of Ceremonies

Another twenty-four dead, another faceless batch whose faces will haunt her forever, and yet the country is still in turmoil. She breathes in and breathes out through the ache climbing its way into her heart, her chest, her head, her throat. She breathes for those who will never breathe again.

They sent her here—what seems like a century ago—across the sea, from another country and another family she hardly remembers anymore. It was a contract. A betrothal. One her heart does not belong to. Her Heart. It sits in a box, buried deep with the girl she'd once been, in a grave of lilies and sunshine and bitter, regretful tears. Now all she has is an extension of a title; she is the wife of Malachi McMaster—but doesn't she have the right to her own name? Why couldn't Malachi be just "husband of Mirabelle," for once?

She tries not to think about that, but instead aims her thoughts like a quivering arrow at her upcoming chance for escape. The Chariots will be their freedom, if not hers.

They sent her in and spit her back out within just a week, one of the shorter Games on record. She was an exotic pet, a deal signed, a means to an end. An experiment. And suddenly, a Victor.

They've forgotten her now, but back then she was a phenomena. She was special and young and beautiful, and they loved her and adored her and sucked her dry. She remembers it in vague, formless, fuzzy scenes, and with each memory comes a shudder, though she does not shake and wake in the night to cry so much anymore.

The newest Victor, doe-eyed and shiny-faced, does not know what awaits her. She is blind to the hungry-eyed supplicants who wait to pull her under. She is not privy to the gossip snaking through the underbelly of Panem. She does not know the poison waiting for her just around the corner.

But Mirabelle does.

She remembers it pulsing like thunder, dragging her under, her dreams of a new country crushed like old earrings beneath stilettoed feet. She remembers being everything and languishes in her nothingness now.

There is no hope for her anymore. She does not love the man she's been married to for twenty years now. Children are a distant prospect to her. She has given up on each and every dream that struck her fancy long ago.

But there is hope for the youth of Panem, picked off each year and promptly forgotten, even a Victor becoming a shadow behind their newer, more beautiful counterpart that comes the next near. There is hope for their lives cut short, there is hope for their souls stained too early, there is hope for their pleading eyes and their suffering hearts and their punctured lungs.

Soon, another twenty-four fates will be sealed. Soon, the guillotine will bear down on twenty-three innocent teenagers. But this time will be different. Mirabelle is tired of sitting back, smiling and putting on airs just to look pleasing for a population she barely cares about. She is tired of hanging back, watching the world go by and children die and the sky turning gray above a tear-streaked Arena. This year, she will make them see. She will make them pay. Not for her life—which is over now—but for theirs.

...

Signet Graymore, 18, First Son of Panem

It's a few weeks before Reaping Day now, and he is not ready to become president. He's never set foot outside his father's estate, never kissed someone and actually enjoyed it, never even met a Victor. Until today, he's merely been the first son, an afterthought and practically a child still, who might, just might become ruler someday. But now that someday was a day. Set in stone by stone-faced surgeons, grim-eyed and monotone.

T-minus 35 days, 6 hours and 13 minutes until it was someday. More indelicately, until His Excellency, Most Esteemed President Alabaster Graymore's time would run out. Seemed blasphemous for Signet's life to be just beginning. How dare it go on while his father's was window down? But then, he couldn't really control that, not unless he knew how to reverse the degenerating of his father's cells—which he didn't. And so he glided out in a velvet-cushioned hover-craft to meet the eyes of Panem, announce that—yes—despite his father's impending death, the Games would still go on, for what better way to mourn a man than to hold another Games as though nothing was wrong?

The carriage now winds its way through the gleaming courtyard, and as its speed increases, so too does the intensity of Signet's pulse. He is not a social butterfly, he is not a charmer, he has not even talked to anybody his age. Ever. Behind the walls he's stayed, like an obedient creature trapped in a cage who does not escape because he does not know where to escape to—he has no life outside the gilded walls.

Signet is known for his exceptional homemade bread, his remarkable ability to read eight or nine books per week while still retaining a sizeable amount of their content, and his unquenchable shyness. He is certainly not known for carrying a country on his shoulders like a knapsack. But here he is, alone in a plush hover-craft with the windows veiled tight, leaving the protective shielding of home for the first time to greet his adoring subjects. To him it feels like something that can never be undone.

He reminds himself to even out his breathing. His father, growing sicker now that the announcement of his ailment has been officially proclaimed, asked him to announce the Games this year. He stares down at his notepad where his speech is painted in elegant handwriting. It looks stupid now, borderline incoherent, and he'd rip it up and start his sixth draft if he could, but they're approaching the spacious city center now, the screens on the windows withdrawing, the covers lifting, the sun peeking in. And Signet knows he should be more worried about his father's impending death, but right now all he can think about is all. Those. People.

Clicking cameras underline the frantic shrieks of the people as his craft touches down, the high-pitched questions volleyed so fast that he can't distinguish words; only a vague murmuring overtone, a single keening note. He reminds himself to breathe, that he's faced bigger monsters than this, but Signet is not a liar. He knows the only scary thing he's faced in his life is running out of milk after pouring cereal. And now a whole country is arrayed and displayed for his viewing pleasure- But no, he reminds himself, it's just the Capitol. Just a thirteenth of the people, really, but to him it looks like the entire population.

The covers are all lifted now and the crowd erupts in an earth-shattering bellow of cheers; for a second he wonders why before realizing they're looking at him. They can see him now. He stands and waves, waves, waves, wondering if they will ever stop cheering or if he should just start talking despite the din. A sad-eyed servant all dressed in crisp livery hands him a megaphone, and he stares at it for a long time before putting it to his lips. He's ashamed at his hesitation, how his brain's gone all sluggish, but he soldiers on, discretely-or-so-he-hopes reading from the notebook he's so glad he prepared.

"Citizens of Panem-thank you so much for joining me, whether live or by remote viewing, for this announcement. I am Signet Graymore, first son of Panem, and soon-to-be President." Jugding from the shocked gasps, so simultaneous it feels scripted, and Signet realizes with a sickening swoop of his heart that they might not have heard about that yet. But he takes a deep breath and continues speaking. "It disheartens me greatly to announce that my father, President Graymore, has fallen terminally ill. He has begun putting his will in order in preparation," —stars and stripes that sounded heartless— "and has asked that I make this announcement, as well as rule the country in his stead."

He pauses for breath and listens to the music of the crowd. Once they die down a little, he steels himself and continues. "Fortunately, despite this tragedy, we will be continuing with our annual Games, and this will be our 16th. All proceedings will continue as scheduled, with Reaping Day falling on our normal date. Though my heart and yours are heavy with the sudden king's death, his time is not over, and a new beginning will soon be in store for Panem. I hope to rule this country as my father nobly did before me, and we will see you again for the Reaping recap. Goodbye for now, Panem."

Only when the covers fell back upon the hover-craft did Signet allow himself to cringe at how awfully cliché and wrong that had sounded. It'd looked grandiose, generous, celebratory, even, on paper. But speaking in front of the crowd was not the same as writing in one's room.

Reaping day. Such a dark, ominous name for the beginning of a game. How the Capitolites had cheered and squealed when he'd announced the Games would continue as normal; Signet hoped they'd provide reprieve from the grief that would soon wrack the country. His father had never allowed him to watch the Games on television, and he'd been sealed airtight in his and his sibling's wing at the palace. But the way the Capitol had rejoiced, they must be quite a spectacle. And if there was one thing him and the country needed, it was that; a spectacle.

...

Helloooo friends, I'm back at it again with my first-ever non-collab SYOT and a prologue which, I know, is shorter than normal, but here's a secret: I don't like reading prologues. Usually. There's just something so intimidating about them. But I hope mine at least piqued your interest because I have a fun bunch of Capitol characters in store for you all. Before continuing, I do want to let you know that Lexi and I still have Happily Ever After on our minds and are waiting until our schedules are both a bit less busy, and my other work is still being written and in the works; this is just a little side project. I had a sudden burst of inspiration and... well, it's a free , so I figured I'd post it for the world to see since I do have a lot of big ideas. Do keep in mind before submitting that this will not be a daily-chapter kind of story, I'm hoping for weekly or biweekly updates, but I may need to take a small break once exams in April roll around. There was also be a small break as I wait for submissions to roll in, but after I've decided the cast, we should be smooth sailing and I'll update as regularly as possible.

Still here? Cool! This verse that I've created in my mad scientist brain is not canon-compliant; Katniss and Peeta never have existed and never will, and it miiight be a little inspired by the Fantasy novels I've been so into lately, but I will be further expounding on that world-building throughout the story. This Panem is pretty similar to canon, but the Districts are a little less well-off, with each struggling about the same amount—Careers are just coming into existence, but that only means more creativity on your end, since the strategies won't be overused in my verse. Don't hesitate to ask any questions, about anything, through PM or Discord—I am more than happy to answer them. I hope you liked—or at least enjoyed reading about—these first two characters, Mirabelle and Signet, who are both not doing great at the moment, but who are thriving as best they can. Rules and form will be on my profile to avoid unnecessary clutter in this already rambling author's note! I'm predicting one, maybe two more prologues, featuring the rest of our Capitol cast, and then it'll be right into the Tributes. I will not be taking reservations for this SYOT, but instead will take the Tributes that I think I can work with best—however, don't be scared away by that, as it's going to be a full cast of twenty-four, and since this is one of my first SYOTS I'm sure there will be plenty of spots open. As for deadline, it'll be March 15th; so plenty of time to cook up some amazing characters! :) I can't wait to see what you come up with. I hope you all have a lovely day and that you consider submitting, since this is bound to be a very fun ride!

With much love,

Miri