A short introduction, and then the first Career district.

Guinevere Bonaventura pushed herself on tiptoes to highlight that she was eleven now. "Mommy, may I watch this year?"

"What had we said, Ginny?"

"That I could, if I proved I were mature enough."

Ginny's bracelets chimed. They were exactly the same which Cashmere wore. A cheap knockoff really, but when Ginny had tried them on with her brand new heels, she'd felt confident and beautiful. They'd said the money would go to District One, so she'd bought a portrait of Cashmere rather than just a poster. She had a poster of Victor Enobaria too. When Ginny got sad she looked at Enobaria's crossed arms, at the woman who had stepped out of the Victor's Remake Center with sharp golden teeth lining her mouth, and Ginny wondered how to become so strong that she'd never be sad again.

Mom arched her eyebrows at her, her lips twitching. "And have you?"

"I think so, Mom, but you know better." Guinevere was proud to have kept a straight face. Flattery worked, Victors used it all the time. The tributes who didn't... well Guinevere tried but it was hard to remember which the ones who weren't fierce, funny, or weird. It was always the non-popular ones who died when the arena did something spectacular.

Mom grinned. "Tired of sneaking in a radio to listen to the recaps and try to fill in the blanks at school with kids who have older siblings?"

Guinevere grinned back. Oops, she'd thought she'd been sneaky. "Well, may I still go to GamePlay?"

There had been games for kids scheduled during the Hunger Games for as long as she remembered. They went to parks, they visited places they usually weren't allowed in, they were put in mock arenas with fake District Tributes, and that had been scary. The man in the mask had been so close, and he'd tried to kill her. For a moment, she'd almost forgotten it was play. They had lessons on the Hunger Games and Districts, reminding them the Dark Days had happened because people in the Districts were bloodthirsty: they weren't like Capitol people. They needed to be told what to do or they'd make a new Dark Days.

Everyone knew no-one really innocent was reaped. Guinevere sighed. Some days, she envied them for having the chance to be Victors. Cashmere, Enobaria... they'd been born nobodies and the whole Capitol was at their feet... Guinevere had dreamed all her life to be popular, but everybody did, and she wasn't talented enough.

"Do you a think Loyal will win this year again?" Loyals were from One, Two and Four. Spartacus had told her they called themselves Careers. Spartacus was richer than her, so he had a butler. His butler –who was also his family's bodyguard- was from One, so Spartacus knew a whole lot.

Loyals were always the best, handsome, fun or at least intense, and ready to do what it took. And Loyal Victors new to handle being celebrities, they knew it meant responsibilities and that the Capitol deserved their respect for sponsoring them, whereas some other Victors just guzzled on wine and splurged their money, acted all spoiled and then went crazy. Outer Districts couldn't wait for the Capitol to show weakness to pounce and make new Dark Days all over again.

"Whoever it is, they'll know your name. You're old enough to go to the Victory Party now."

Guinevere dropped her pretense of maturity and squealed, doing a victory dance all the way up to her room.

Armagnac Dessonges, 17, District 1.

The dimly-lit stone cellar was packed. Shoulder bumped shoulder, perfume mixed with sweat, as strangers slung their arms around each other and stomped their feet to the deafening rhythm.

Bare muscles glistening, Armagnac hit the drums. His blood sung louder than the music: there wasn't even that much alcohol, this, this excitement, the vibes... He and the guys were the ones doing this.

Lucre's voice, that gravelly smoker's voice that'd win him no awards but had enough power and conviction to set fire to a room, blasted through the speakers. It was Armagnac's words the crowd headbanged to, Armagnac's tunes they'd hum in the morning.

That crowd was so much bigger than what he had expected when he and his friends had spread the word they'd hold a back-alley concert.

So many people, enjoying this.

Armagnac's drumsticks slammed skins and cymbals. Center-stage were Diva and her electronic guitar. The girl was on her knees, strumming like there was no tomorrow, her head thrown back as she accompanied the chorus with her howls.

When Diva, head shaved and crimson lipstick, raised her guitar to Armagnac, leaving him the scene to finish up with his solo, Armagnac let himself forget he was in a big dusty cellar. He pushed away all the doubts that he was just another seventeen year old stupid enough to think he'd make it big, and let himself feel like a rock star.

He finished breathless and head spinning as the cheers roared into a deafening ovation. This, this was life.

They'd left a bucket for donations, next to a sign that read 'Music worth paying for?'. When Diadem brought the bucket back to them, Armagnac felt a jolt of something, something big, run up his spine.

They'd starting doing this four months ago. They'd gotten a few coins. This… So many coins... Diadem's arms were shaking. Better even was her smile.

Armagnac's lips met Diadem's. He grabbed the bucket out of her hands and hooted in delight. "Guys, we can buy ourselves stage clothes!"

Lucre whistled. "Shit, now you're going to have to find yourself a real singer."

Armagnac clapped him on the back. "Dude, you're part of the street appeal. Too polished and we'll sound like wannabes."

"You do drums, composition and lyrics?"

Armagnac jumped, his boyish grin erased.

He'd not paid attention to specific faces in the crowd. Stupid him. Shine, all blond hair, perfect features and a coiled litheness that just needed a blade to cut you in half –literally, she'd made first tier at the Academy last year at fifteen- , was standing much, much too close.

"That's me," he said brightly. But seeing Shine put an end to his high. He switched back to Academy mode, hyper-aware of his posture, his expression, of who watched and took note.

Shine's lips curled as her eyes raked over Diadem. "Come on, you can do so much better than that mundane. Ambition's the first step to status."

Diadem's eyes flashed. You could tell she'd never set foot in the Academy. Her outrage was loud and obvious. She hadn't had to ever be anyone but herself.

"Status means he can choose and not care what you think," Diadem said coldly.

Status. Mundanes or academy kids it was all about status.

Shine's laugh was tinkering bells, as solid as smoke. "Just so. He's not quite there yet, though, is he? Thanks for the music anyway."

She turned away, her step light, her shoulders straight, as if a camera was there to stare and judge.

Armagnac wished he could tease, but he was exactly the same. Instead, he kissed Diadem's neck, glad to feel his girl relax under his lips. "The Academy doesn't teach us true taste," he muttered apologetically.

Diadem had been ungainly child, too short, her legs too thick, her hair too curly, her nose too big and freckled. Armagnac hadn't looked at her twice, so blinded as he'd been by what he'd been supposed to like. Now, she admittedly still struggled to take a decent picture, but when she moved, when she spoke, how she laughed… She was beautiful. Her strength wasn't the violent kind. Her laughter was kind. Armagnac's days in One were numbered, but as long as he and Diadem could be, it was her he wanted and no other.


Armagnac snapped towards the voice, his chest clenching. "Dad?"

"I just heard. The neighbor rushed in-" Dad's face was red and blotchy. He was gasping for breath, his coat askew. He'd been running. "What were you thinking, lad! I – I-"

Dad's strong hands were suddenly on both Armagnac's cheeks. He planted a too-strong kiss on Armagnac's forehead. "Son, you're getting noticed. I hope it pays off."

Dad's voice was so rough. For one horrifying second, Armagnac thought the man would cry.

"You fool boy. You foolish talented boy," Dad whispered so low only he could hear. "Couldn't keep your head down, could you? You couldn't just stay with us?"

Dad was taller, but Armagnac was broader. He hugged his father tight. The cellar felt cold and biting now. The first step up a frozen mountain.

"I can't go back to being ten years old, Dad. I've got to make the best of things. This is it. Music. It's good, it's wholesome."

Dad shut his eyes briefly. "I never told you," he whispered, "but I've got a brother, somewhere, in the Capitol."

Armagnac's heart dropped. He had another uncle? What- Where- Except those questions didn't get answers. Armagnac swallowed his words and just held on a bit longer, because a hug, that he could do. There were things it was better to not speak of. Not to think of.

District One's industry was luxury. The Academy's kids were One's gems, entering rough and unpolished. Whether the polishing would reveal unremarkable quartz or a valuable diamond would determine the prices the buyers had to pay. It would determine their futures.

The buyers, of course, were Capitol.

Dawn came much too early, but Armagnac couldn't afford to be late. He took the time to wash, shave and put on his cologne. He might as well stab himself in the foot rather than neglect his appearance. Neglect was weakness. The Academy did not tolerate weakness.

The Academy's dining hall was a round beast of foreboding black marble and golden chandeliers. A white marble buffet occupied the center. Wooden dining tables filled the rest of the room.

By habit, Armagnac's eyes raked over the room to see who was missing. Everybody could sit anywhere in theory. In practice, sitting in another's seat was a declaration of war. Power plays were the life and blood of the Academy.

There. An empty seat. Armagnac's fists clenched. The seat soon was filled, by a handsome boy not unlike the one who should have been there.

Armagnac took a slow breath. He shouldn't care. Except that missing boy was fourteen. Gone at fourteen meant the Academy didn't see the point in investing more in him. It meant the only thing he had going for him was looks and youth. Everybody knew what kind of buyers that attracted.

Whispers were, that in Two's Annex, they took the violent kids, the neglected, the abused. They made them into weapons, forged their peacekeepers and tributes. In District One, the opposite was true: if your family was loving, all the better: once you were in the Academy, they had you by the balls.

The Academy scouted the attractive and talented kids. Ten year olds didn't get that nothing was ever free. They believed what they were told, lapped up the praise and prizes. They wanted to be the best. They didn't know to hold back. Armagnac hadn't thought to hold back.

As a kid, Armagnac had been teased because he was short, his shoulders too broad, his brown hair too coarse and his face too square. He still wasn't tall nor handsome, ruggedly charming perhaps, but never hot. It used to burn, that feeling of inferiority. Now he was grateful, so grateful, that he could aspire to be valued as a music tutor who doubled as a bodyguard instead of as a piece of flesh.

Armagnac had realized at fourteen that he had a weakness. Kindness, Diadem called it, empathy. She couldn't understand, how it was poison to not be able to not care. Armagnac saw the empty chairs and the questions sunk their teeth in his throat. Where are they? How are they? How is she? In every missing chair, Armagnac still saw those burning blue eyes.

Mink had been beautiful, charismatic, funny. She'd had a vicious streak. She'd been twelve and with sword half her size had beaten him, two full years older and respectably second tier, without breaking a sweat. He'd figured she'd get a shot at the Games themselves. Victors came with their sets of chains but… at least victors weren't owned. At least victors could live in One most of the year.

That possible future had shattered when Mink attacked an instructor. District One gave no second chances to those who forgot their places, because in the end they were only luxuries.

"Nobody got bought," a girl said. "I bet it's murder."

The whisper broke Armagnac out of his dark musings. People were talking. Something had happened. He hurried to his seat, ears wide open.

"I hear Malachite wanted to commit suicide. Something went wrong. He chickened out. His family-" The words died, but everyone knew what Vanity had been about to say. If you failed, someone you cared about always paid the price with you.

Malachite. Armagnac's fingers went numb. He almost dropped the glass of water he'd been filling as the name registered.

One of the empty chairs was on a table where chairs didn't go empty.

Armagnac wasn't the only one whose mask had slipped. The eighteens were all first-tiers: the potential volunteers. Those guys stayed at the Academy until the Games, always.

Dysprosium's elbow nudged him. Armagnac hastily wiped the shock out of his expression. The cameras avidly recording everything didn't stop, and poise was paramount.

"Couldn't stay until the end, last night," Dys whispered. "You and Diva killed it."

"Thanks, Dude." With the concert back at the forefront of his mind, Armagnac found that he could pretend everything was just fine.

Two days after Malachite's mysterious disappearance, another eighteen, Neroli, failed to show up. The whispers began anew.

Five days later, Onyx's chair remained empty. Only four guys, including Onyx's twin brother, Alabaster, shared the now half-empty table.

That was the day where Alabaster, with a chair, murdered Saffron, calling him assassin. By the time the Instructors rushed in, Alabaster was writhing on the floor, a fork sticking out of his eye.

Armagnac had been expecting to be led to an outfitting room. Or to the music room perhaps. Instead, Instructor Freesia led him underground.

Underground were the weapons' rooms. Armagnac still used them: sculpting the body, the rush of friendly sparring, and all that. He wouldn't win a duel against any of the first-tiers but he could hold his own against them. In the real world, it was more than enough.

Had the name of his buyer appeared on the Ledger? Was it someone who prized more extensive weapons mastery than Armagnac had?

His thoughts froze when he stepped inside a badly lit room and the door clicked shut behind him. Instructor Freesia had remained outside. One of the room's walls was glass. Soon Instructor Freesia was on the other side of it, her face unreadable.

There was a weapons rack on the side of the room. Two weapons: sword and mace, leaned against it. The room was otherwise empty.

For now.

Cold sweat broke Armagnac's brow. Fear locked his muscles tight. He knew this room. He'd been here once, shortly after his fourteenth birthday.

He'd tried to forget that day.

He'd fought with maces then. It made sense: puberty had given him more bulk than height. But after that day, he'd only ever touched swords even if it had meant Dys handing him his ass even on good days for two years straight.


He started as a voice blared through the speakers. Instructor Freesia's voice, of course. Armagnac liked Freesia, as much as you could like an instructor. The woman was fair. She knew the Academy played enough games with them not to add her own.

"Why am I here?" he rasped.

"Blanche Bristol wants to commission you. She meets the price. She has commissioned others in the last decade, five, all male sixteens and seventeens, all musically talented, for personal use. Within five years of the commissions, all were ceded to other citizen. What became of them is opaque."

Armagnac sucked in a breath. The words hit him like a punch. This Bristol woman didn't want a tutor for her kids. She didn't want a talent for her band.

She wanted musician boy-toys.

She auctioned them off to similarly skeevy Capitolites when she got bored.

Shock melted into helpless rage. Armagnac strode to the weapons rack and grasped the mace. He swung, his muscles, such big, useless, muscles, burned as he struck the ground.

The mace felt slimy. The slime seeped into him, filthy, choking. What had he done wrong? What could he have done different!

He swung again, against the wall. The pushback slammed into his elbow. He gasped in pain.

"There's a way out," he blurted. "Tell me there's a way out, Ma'am!"

Freesia was regal in middle age, her hair a glossy gray, falling in classic curls to her shoulders. In youth, she must have been stunning. She had gone through the Academy, gone to the Capitol, and come back to One to teach, and that alone made her words worth listening to. She had also mastered the art of being expressive without needing words.

Armagnac sucked in a new breath. Of course. Why this room was obvious now.

"I failed the kill test," he muttered. He'd never said the words before. He had killed the lithe figure after all, his mace tearing flesh and crushing bone.

It had only been after the fact that they'd told him the childish frame wrapped in a thief backstory (enough to get Armagnac's blood boil, to allow him to hate the 'teenager' before him, because his own parents were shop owners, and theft could ruin lives. The fear of Armagnac's family being punished if he failed to kill had done the rest), was actually a humanoid mutt.

But it had looked human. It had screamed human. It had crunched and the blood- Armagnac had had nightmares for weeks. He'd barely been able to keep food down. Needless to say, he'd not made first-tier after that.

"You saw what we all saw last week. Malachite died in an accident, he pushed himself too hard. Neroli, like all eighteens, had already been commissioned. The eighteens' commissioners are to allow them to remain at the Academy until the Games, aware they may be called to volunteer, but there has been a shift in the Capitol. Rumors are that the President holds no love for commissioning and may pass laws restricting it. As such, after Malachite's accident, Neroli's commissioner decided Neroli was to go to the Capitol immediately. Our last two male eighteens and one among the girls are soon to follow suit."

Freesia summed up power plays with a clipped tone that never failed to send a shiver down Armagnac's spine.

District One had three months to find a male volunteer.

Armagnac squared his shoulder and made sure to look at Freesia in the eye. "I was a kid then. I'm not now. I won't fail."

His future would not be Blanche Bristol. The burn of his father's hands grasping his face after the concert, the anguished love there, was branded in his mind.

No, Armagnac wasn't fourteen anymore. Now the stakes were raw and real.

Freesia's lips thinned into a smile. Her eyes never crinkled. "Good. Cashmere and Gloss are fresh in everyone's minds. They were much better than any seventeen first tier we can summon up now. You are of a different mold. I am confident you will garner interest."

"So Saffron really killed Onyx?" Armagnac said as his hands tightened around the mace's handle. His shoulders shook. He couldn't make it stop.

Instructor Freesia nodded, her lips tight.

Armagnac didn't have to be told why Saffron had killed. The volunteer-grade eighteens would be hitmen, elite bodyguards, but just as probably prostitutes too. Realizing you had a shot at volunteering could make anybody, and especially the violent death-desensitized first tiers decide to take things in their own hand.

"Will I be able to see Diadem? My family?"

"Every fortnight for two days, as long as your progress is satisfactory."

Armagnac nodded. He raised the mace. "I'm ready," he said stiffly. Ready for whatever they'd throw at him, to mold his mind into what it had to be.

"You can stick to swords. You are better with them. You are not here to set a record in kill count, Armagnac. You are not here to like it. You are here for your future."

Freesia was as kind as she could afford to be. Armagnac respected her for that.

He put the mace down, trying not show his relief. It was so stupid, the mace wasn't slimy, but- Armagnac picked up the sword, bracing himself.

The mutts, two, came. Human-like, child-like, with that ugly underfed outer district-litheness. Unarmed, screaming, fleeing.

Armagnac had nightmares again, but that was alright. He didn't have to like it. He just had to be good enough.

When he left for the Capitol, Diadem gave him an armband soaked in her perfume. Dad gave him a hug. Mom said she was proud. She said her mother too had given a sister to the Capitol. Dad mentioned his brother again, offhand, almost like nothing. Armagnac heard a plea to get news, any news.

Armagnac could see in his sisters' eyes that they understood now, that the pain of being born plain and awkward wasn't so bad. That a life of hard work in furs wasn't a curse. He also saw the hope, of them becoming a victor family.

He'd do it. For them. For himself. He had a thousand songs still in him.

He'd do it.

Carnelia Aspen, 18, District 1

The forty-two inches long chain-whip sliced through the night air. Its gleaming blade severed a branch full of deliciously ripe cherries.

Carnelia shifted her weight and climbed higher on the tree to catch the last of the ripe fruits. Branches folded and groaned under her feet. She flexed her arm, her lean muscles glistening.

The three-inch-long metal rods held together by rings moved like a snake, coiling and uncurling, guiding the lethally sharp blade-tip towards its targets. A shower of cherries fell all around her as Carnelia climbed higher and higher, the whip an extension of her right arm.

Crack! One of the branches snapped under her weight.

Carnelia let go of the whip and twisted her body to break her fall. She hit the ground with the grin. The cherries were hundreds.

She grasped a handful and moaned as juice exploded in her mouth. The bag slung over her shoulder was filled to burst. She brought her juice-stained fingers to her face, drawing a battle mask. Sweet and sticky, and it looked like blood. Perfect.

Carnelia wasn't pretty, she had never been. At over six feet tall, nobody couldn't notice she wasn't pretty. But in mud and blood, where the prettiest lost their shine, all eyes turned to her. It was her threatening, gleeful eyes, they said. It was her smile that looked crooked despite all the money dear mom and dad had put into braces.

Dawn was breaking. Carnelia ran. The wind whipped her face and her muscles burned, just like she liked it. She didn't bother stopping at home. No, today she didn't feel like seeing Mom's and Dad's stupid faces.

She made sure to look like she loved them dearly, deep down. They were all stupid enough to believe it. As long as people believed, the Academy thought it had a hold on her through her parents. Joke's on them.

Carnelia spat a cherry pit. She soon spat out another one, making her whip snake through the air and swat the pit far into the lamp-light lit darkness.

Mom and Dad had wanted status so very badly. Now... Now they'd get what they deserved.

Carnelia kept running, towards the half-asleep city center, and the circus that had arrived late yesterday evening.

She had to slow as she ran into a peacekeeper patrol.

The broad man in white frowned hard at her red-stained face and arms. He frowned harder at the steel whip. "No weapons outside the Academy, girl."

Carnelia grinned at the peacekeeper and patted her bag. "It's full of cherries, want some?"

"Who did you steal them from?"

Whoopsie. "Come on, nobody would have given you any. Cherries?"

"That's corruption." His partner, a woman, was almost as tall as Carnelia. She didn't look half as serious as she was trying to sound.

"Gimme a break. They're great cherries."

Carnelia and these people understood each other. They'd been through training too, back in Two. Twos learned to make themselves desirable just like Ones. Different skills, though. Twos were shoved down-district, given power but forced to be the bad guys in shitty outer districts. Ones got to go up to the Capitol, in luxury, at the mercy of their owners. Life was a bitch.

"Shouldn't you be heading for the Academy?" the peacekeeper soon said, licking cherry-juice off his lips.

Carnelia flipped her hair. Her thick auburn locks reached her hips and were her only vanity. There was no marked hip-line to compliment her lean muscled body and the time was past to hope for breasts. Too much exercise done too early the Academy's doctor had told her dear despairing mother.

"Don't worry, I'll end up there. Just taking a detour through the circus."

Her parents had wanted little Career prodigies. She and her brother had only been allowed weapons as toys. Carnelia had gone more than one evening without food when she'd been eight for failing to mimic the sexy Career girls' interview answers with the right intensity. She'd been a weak fool, killing herself to make them proud.

Her older brother, Splendor had succeeded first. In killing himself that is. Four years ago, he'd tried to volunteer. Gloss had shoved his elbow in his temple. Gloss had later come to apologize to their family and, unlike her parents, Carnelia had had no trouble granting the handsome new Victor her forgiveness. It was her loving Mom and Dad who had broken Splendor's mind since his earliest years, making him so desperate for their approval. Splendor had been clever, charming enough to pass for handsome, skilled with staves… Splendor had had so much. He'd been third in line to volunteer. He'd actually even met the man who wanted to commission him because he'd been noticed by a Capitolite who cared about personality.

Carnelia's grief had long ago become cold hate. Splendor had been the only one who saw her. Who cared about her. By killing Splendor, dear Mommy and Daddy had effectively orphaned her. Soon, she'd repay the favor.

Their house had burned down two days after Splendor's death. The price to pay for defying the Academy. For thinking you were better than the rules. Carnelia had been on the sidelines but not bullied before that. After that, she had become game.

Bastards. District One was full of hateful, spiteful little people.

Carnelia's hand wrapped around the handle of her now bundled whip. It tightened until her knuckles whitened. The cold metal was soothing.

Carnelia had hated swords since day one. They clanged and grated against each other, so heavy and inflexible. Knives didn't do much for her either, too short, leaving her hands too empty when thrown.

And then she'd discovered whips. She'd been thirteen when they'd gone to the circus. It had been fashionable, you see. The then terrifying tigers and lions had all danced to the whip cracks of a midget with shiny black boots. He'd been weak and ugly but strong, and Carnelia had desperately wanted to be strong, because she knew she'd never be pretty. She'd sneaked into his caravan after the show and demanded to buy his weapon. He'd refused and instead had offered her a seat and made her many drawing of different kinds of whips. He told her what they were and how to use them. Carnelia's gray eyes had been full of stars when he'd sent her away in the middle of the night.

Her parents had been furious when she'd come back so late. It had been the principle of the thing.

Carnelia had thought they didn't love her because she was weak, but when they ripped her precious notes full of whip drawings to shreds, she knew that she would never feel the need to impress them ever again. She hated them. She also knew she'd have power if she could pretend to love them.

She tracked the little man down six months later when the circus returned. She'd stolen enough money from her parents to pay for ten whips. She blamed it on the servant, a rude man who had shouted at her every time she came back home with dirty feet. She'd gotten the bull whip, and the servant sacked.

By the time she was fifteen, Carnelia could disarm her instructors in six slashes. She knew exactly which nerves to strike to make them drop their weapons. One of them, Argent, had told her he could obtain her a more lethal whip: a chain whip. He'd wanted to sleep with her. She got the metal whip and Argent found someone to teach her to use it. The sex had even been good, with him acting like she mattered. He was the first man to make her feel really proud of herself.

Besides, that was what One girls did, no? Sleep with people. Creeps stayed clear of first tiers, just in case they got bought by a Capitolite who'd care to avenge them, but you didn't see sixteen in the Academy still thinking your body was anything sacred.

Finally, Carnelia reached her destination. Freakishly tall as she was, people recognized her easily. No one stopped her from entering the circus' perimeter. She inhaled as she neared the menagerie. Her lips twitched at the pungent scent of caged felines. What beautiful beasts.

"Hello, Master Imp," she greeted as she finally spotted the dwarf. "Need a hand getting the tent up?" She made a point of visiting him whenever the circus came to town. He marched up to her with a toothy grin.

"Hello-o, Lili-tiger! Can you even hear me up there?" He said, his hands cupped around his mouth. He was the only person who got away with pokes at her height, for obvious reasons.

"Excuse me," she said, bending down with a hand cupped to her ear. "Can you speak louder, Sir?"

That earned her a sharp kick in the shins.

He grasped her trousers by a belt loop. "I've got a show at ten, special for the Council. Who should I be brown-nosing to in the crowd, eh?"

A feral smile lit Carnelia's face. She could just picture the little man inwardly laughing himself silly while making pirouettes for their big and mighty councilmen.

Two hours later, Carnelia's hands, arms and legs burned from carrying loads and bending in just about all kinds of positions to get the tent and other props where they had to be. And Carnelia desperately wished she didn't have to go leave. Master Imp talked to her like a human being, almost everyone here did. It was the closest thing she had to a home.

"Sure you don't need me? Like, permanently?" she joked, except it was really no joke.

Master Imp's face twisted into a grimace. "Lili-tiger, if we had the money, you'd be ours in a blink."

The world was an ugly, unfair place.

The Career alliance was traditionally crowded: the Capitol fed on drama as much as blood. Therefore, the twelve of them, six boys, six girls, often as not trained together, broken down in rotating groups of four or six. But with the madness that had followed Malachite's death, and the new boys being seventeens, these last months had had the first tier girls train almost exclusively together.

The Academy's Instructors gave them context, picking an arena setting, a few 'backstory' events, and then it was free for all, bickering, strategizing, showing off. Slipping on a personality, testing boundaries…

Carnelia ranked last among the first tier eighteens. She was the tallest by half a head, had the smallest breasts by two cups, and stood out like a sore thumb among girls that were as graceful and seductive as they were deadly. It was convenient, though, to have someone the other girls could band against, someone against who they'd not think, even subconsciously, to hold back.

Carnelia gave as good as she got. A thrill coursed through her veins at every scream, every time she drew blood. She was crueler, louder, she didn't care if she wasn't seductive. The Instructor let her be, they knew her usefulness lay elsewhere.

"She's down! DOWN!" Ruri laughed, her smile cutting and beautiful because of course. "We felled the giant! I think I heard her calling for her daddy."

Carnelia groaned obscenities, gurgling blood. Ruri hadn't hit anything vital, and her eyes quick to spot when Carnelia was fed up with everything. Ruri insulted, but she kept it to allowed topics, and helped craft the illusion that Carnelia and her family were close and loving.

Ruri was the closest thing to a friend Carnelia had at the Academy. She had straight black hair, slanting eyes, and glasses she didn't need, but who gave her such a smart good girl look that the violence always came as a shock. Of the six, Ruri ranked second.

Carnelia's scream was only half-feigned when Ruri picked her up, arms under Carnelia's ass and back.

"Off to sickbay now," Ruri sing-sung. "Going to think you're crushing on the doc with how weak of a fight you put up."

"Y- You bleeding on me," Carnelia croaked, stealing a lick at the gash on Ruri's collarbone. Moving hurt worse than not moving, but pain was pretty much background noise to any first tier of their caliber.

"Bleed harder, Ruri, maybe she'll look less like roadkill if she absorbs enough decent DNA." Rosacea, the Academy's queen and bitch extraordinaire.

Rosacea laughed at her own joke, but not before the other girls did. Carnelia didn't try to see if Ruri had cracked a smile. Loyalty bowed to power at the Academy.

"What's up? You were all distracted today," Ruri said as they reached, blessedly alone, sickbay.

Carnelia spat a ball of blood on the ground. "Listen, need ya to convince the Instructors and the girls to get us out to the circus the night before the reaping. Say it's to get some original footage, wild nature shots… bullshit something up, okay?"

Ruri made an assenting nose. She shook slightly under Carnelia's weight, but never so much as to need to shift her hold.

"With what happened with the guys and Giada gone, we deserve a breather. 'Sides, anything unusual's good for sponsors... You'll owe me," Ruri added conversationally. "Not much time left to pay up."

"I know."

And this was how Carnelia, with Master Imp's unwitting help, poisoned her five adversaries (and most people who'd come along, and a good number of the circus people themselves, but who cared?). A slow acting poison, that would feel like a stomach ache in the early morning and bloom into something crippling in the hour before the reaping.

Today was Reaping Day.

Carnelia had slept at home. She wasn't important enough to have a stylist help her with her reaping outfit. She'd had breakfast with Mom and Dad, smiling to a point they'd started looking at her weird.

I'm laughing because you're dead, Carnelia wanted to say. They'll punish you as a warning to future tributes. They're stupid enough not to realize it's what I want. You killed Splendor. You paid them to accept me at the Academy when I could have had a normal life. Now it's your turn.

She'd swallowed her words, her hate. She couldn't ruin it, not now.

Now she was back in her room. Time to get ready.

She started when a small rock hit her window. She opened it to find a wobbly, deathly-pale Ruri staring daggers at her. Stopped by Carnelia, Ruri had drunk less than the other girls at the circus, but she still looked a fright, all blotchy and baggy-eyes.

Ruri hissed when Carnelia helped her over the windowsill, but without the help she couldn't have made it. It was a testament to Career training that she'd made it all the way here at all.

Carnelia grinned. "Good timing, I'm about to run to the reapings before the Instructors corner me."

"Fuck you."

Carnelia crossed her arms. "What, you're going to volunteer? Mind you, a One fainting on the way to the stage would be dead memorable."

She wasn't beneath knocking Ruri out. This was her day.

"Hesitating here… and nope." Ruri's lips twitched, softening her glower. "I've been commissioned by someone good, I think."

It took a moment for Carnelia to realize that that foreign glint in Ruri's eyes was hope. The future was something you learned not to think about too hard.

"We'll make it a drinking game," Ruri said, now smiling in delight despite her pallor. "One shot each time you draw blood. And, dearie, I want to get drunk."

"Don't come at the goodbyes. Friends don't fit with the angle."

"Solitary prowler, huh? You'll say got scars on your arms because you just loved blood so much."

Carnelia snickered. "I sure won't tell them that the Center's remake wouldn't pretty me up because I'm not valuable enough."

"Prove them wrong. I'll be proud." Ruri shoved without ceremony something small in Carnelia's hand. "This is for you."

"A fan?" Carnelia swished it, bewildered. It fanned decently enough.

"You might need a new pair of eyes," Ruri said as she rolled hers.

The fan was made of a half dozen little flags. Chain-whip flags. Carnelia could tie them up to the blade-end of her whip, one at a time, to enhance the weapons balance, and its general coolness factor.

"You owe me. You better come back to pay up."

"Oh don't worry, the one thing that'll piss them off more than me volunteering is me winning." Carnelia's hands shook with years of repressed rage. She couldn't wait. "I can't wait to meet Rosacea in the Capitol. You… you'll get a seat of honor."

Poison had made Ruri's smile tired, but not any less true. "You bet I will."

Carnelia volunteered without a hitch. She'd donned a white one-piece and cut herself to stain it with blood. Nobody said a word to challenge her, either not realizing she shouldn't be up there or to stunned to react. Cashmere, her oh-so-traditionally-beautiful mentor cocked an eyebrow, but that was the end of it.

The escort, Romulus, had taken her bloody hand and pretended to kiss it, his lips stopping just short of her skin, and his eyes, under a mask of chill professionalism, held a challenge she'd seen a thousand times before: prove yourself worthy.

Dear Mom and Dad didn't come to the Justice Building. If they were smart, they were running far far away by now.

Carnelia licked her teeth. Revenge tasted so good.

"You're sure she knows you?" The doubt laced with scorn in the peacekeeper's voice, just on the other side of the door, had Carnelia frown.

"Pretty sure," snapped a familiar voice. "What, scared I'd overpower her?"

Carnelia stiffed. She breathed out, not prepared for the sudden shame that assaulted her. "Let him in!" she shouted. "I know him alright."

The dwarf strode in, shaking his head. "People nowadays, no manners at all."

"Thanks," Carnelia replied, eyeing him strangely. She couldn't say that she knew him all that well but no adult had ever been kinder to her. Why was he here? He knew she'd been sixth (well, fifth, with Giada gone). First tier, maybe, but second class as far as everyone else was concerned. He'd seen first-hand how the other girls treated her just last night.

"You heard that?" he squawked, jumping in surprise. "From up there?"

Carnelia snorted. She picked him up on impulse, lifting him over her head with ease. "It's not so far actually, look."

"Wow," he said, raising a hand over his eyes as if he was shielding himself from the sun and peering into the distance. "Now put me down, Lili," he ordered, his voice serious.

Carnelia did.

"I don't know what happened, but half the crew's ill," he said. "Something in the drinks. I remember you being the only one who didn't touch them."

Carnelia stiffened at the inquisitiveness in his tone. But he shouldn't get in trouble. He couldn't have known. And he was famous. There was safety in fame.

"I only drink water." That was true. She hated the sweetness of soda. She hated that alcohol made her weepy and pathetic. "Lucky, I guess. Decided to seize the opportunity." A smile cracked Carnelia's lips. "I only drink water, and blood," she amended.

It began now. She had to be right head-space. Her grin broadened into something crooked and vile. The lines between acting and truth blurred, training did that, but as long as she felt powerful, it couldn't be bad.

The man nodded slowly. "Still... Come back, you're fun."

Carnelia averted her eyes, her smile fading. She had no idea what to do with someone who cared.

"Don't get the wrong idea," she managed. "I want to come back. I want nothing more. I'm not done yet. I'm beginning."

Original? A sense of déjà vu? Flat? Too long? Entertaining?

I'm still delighted to hear your thoughts, and will respond to reviews, even though the the story is complete^^.