Update: Some changes have been made in this chapter, so that a certain golden monkey can make an entrance. Enjoy! :)
Ellie. My best friend.
She stood tall and white faced, her wildcat daemon spitting and hissing at her heels. She took a step forwards, then another, slowly, not wanting to reach the stage and so seal her fate.
I felt so confused. It couldn't be her, it just couldn't. And yet at the same time I felt a little glad that I was still safe. I was that selfish, always ready to let someone take the bullet for me, even my best friend. Even if they were unwilling.
Then Augustus spoke again. "Oh," he said in surprise, and as we all watched, Ellie suddenly frozen to the spot in case she might just be saved, the ticket in his hand fell apart. No, it didn't fall apart. Another ticket, hidden snugly in the folds of Ellie's ticket was released and fluttered gently in the air. He caught it deftly, before it had the chance to float down the the floor, and read the name scrawled upon it.
I couldn't breathe. Everything slowed down, a heartbeat out of real time. The shocked faces, the anguish in the eyes of my uncle there at the front and the way his daemon howled as if her heart had been torn apart, the almost relieved glance of Ellie, and the terror emanating from my own daemon, so strong that it hurt with an unendurable agony.
Augustus was completely shocked. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Some people shouted for him to put the names back in the bowl and choose again. He shook his head at those. Once a slip had been chosen, it could not be returned to the bowl. After a hurried discussion with some of the Peacekeepers and Asriel, he turned back to the crowd with his smile back in place, only a little forced this time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that we have pulled out two female tributes," he began, forehead glimmering under a thin sheen of sweat. "And as a result, we must choose one of them to go forward. Um…" He glanced our way hesitantly. "Would either of you two like to volunteer?"
We remained stubbornly silent. Neither of us was going to go in by choice.
"Right, well... In that case, we'll go in alphabetical order," Augustus snapped, all niceties gone. He examined the two pieces of paper carefully, although I already knew with a heavy heart who would be chosen. "Imogen Belacqua, come to the stage please." He flourished the hateful piece of paper with my name on it, once more in control.
This was it. I'd been chosen.
I threw Ellie a thinly veiled glare of hatred, although I didn't quite mean it. Kairan fluttered through the air, scuttling along the ground before shoving his mouse-nose deep into Ellie's daemon's fur. The wildcat bent to nuzzle Kairan, and then pushed him away gently with a leathery paw. I held Ellie's gaze for a moment in a silent farewell.
I will come back, I wanted to promise. I will win. But I didn't know that. I probably wouldn't stand a chance, not against seasoned fighters like James, and the hoards of eager volunteers from Districts One and Two. Chances were that the only way I'd return to District Four would be in a coffin.
Numbly I stumbled forwards towards the stage. I could barely suck breath in past my corset. Beside me, Kairan had grown into a broad shouldered wolf with a charcoal stained pelt, and I buried my hand into the warm ruff of his neck, firmly twisting my fingers through his soft fur. His strength gave me the strength to keep walking, despite the spiteful whispers sparking up around me, the jeers of how I wouldn't last a day in the arena. Every eye followed me; I could feel every gaze boring into my back with an unbearable hotness. Calculating stares, resentful that I was chosen instead, judging whether I'd break down now or save it for when the cameras weren't looking. I had to prove myself now - first impressions were everything. And I was already in this game, however unwillingly, so I might as well play along.
I straightened, striding forwards with the largest illusion of confidence I could muster. I parried stares with a hostile scowl, until the challengers retreated with hot embarrassment painted red on their faces. Kairan bared his gleaming white fangs in a menacing snarl, padding at my side with steady amber eyes that warned people to keep their mouths closed or else.
We reached the front, and Kairan soared to my shoulder as a golden eagle as I climbed the steps. His shimmering feathers pummeled the air for a moment before he settled down to preening his ruffled plumage, although one bright eye was kept sharply on Augustus as he approached me.
"Ladies and gentlemen, our female tribute. Imogen Belacqua!"
The crowd clapped unenthusiastically, with a few scattered cheers. I felt like I was going to faint. Augustus offered me a hand, and I stood stupidly for a second before realising that I had to shake it. As we shook, I caught a glimpse of an armoured head with two beady black eyes, and a tiny red tongue that flickered out across Augustus' skin like a flame. The snake so close to my own hand, so close to breaking the taboo, made me snatch my hand back.
Augustus followed my gaze to his daemon, and briskly he pulled his sleeve up obscuring the miniature snake from view. Almost as if he were ashamed of it. Ashamed of his daemon? Why would anyone want to conceal their daemon? Daemons were normal, and although often people weren't happy with the form their daemon chose to settle on, they were never hidden from view. Having a daemon that had settled was something to be proud of. It proved that you'd matured, that you were an adult rather than a child.
I abandoned the niggling question, and focused on smiling as Augustus continued to ramble about rules, and laws, and how the Capitol was so wonderful. I shot a glance at my fellow tribute. He stood perfectly still, arms crossed, eyes far away, but his eagle daemon continued to shuffle restlessly on the chair behind him, her feathers rustling as she beat her magnificent wings once, twice, three times before finally becoming still. I noticed smugly that Kairan was nearly twice the size of her, although he'd changed again, trying to mimic the snake wrapped around Augustus' wrist.
I tapped his bright head sharply. "Stop it, he might see!"
He hissed in vexation, but in the end reluctantly took his place at my throat as a ferret.
"And now we have our tributes! Please," he gestured towards several free chairs behind us, "sit."
It sounded like more of a command than an invitation. I let my fingers curl around the arms of the chair, crush into the polished wood with silent panic.
Kairan had left my neck - I missed his comforting warmth - but I turned to see him perched on the back of my chair as a sea eagle, eyes half-closed as if he were about to doze off. Shining white plumage with ink-splattered wings, just like the eagles that flew above the bay and along the cliffs screaming to one another. Many a time I'd stood on the prow of one of those ancient rocks, the wind ripping at my hair and slapping my cheeks, and Kairan would soar overhead, hanging in the air as he rode the currents, calling triumphantly to the open sky. His new form gave me a little comfort, reminding me of the salty spray and blistering winds, the mirrored blue of the sea that rocked in time with the roar of the surf on the sand. Reminding me of home. Maybe I could make it. Maybe I could get through and come home triumphant.
"… and now it's time to escort our tributes to the Capitol!" The crowd cheered and I clapped politely.
Then we were ushered onto our feet, firmly shepherded forwards past loved ones and awestruck faces. Kairan had settled back onto my shoulder, and in the sudden mayhem of noise and movement, I whispered to him under my breath. "Hold your form," I whispered.
"Why?" Kairan shuffled his magnificent feathers sulkily.
"Only around the cameras and other contestants. Well, everyone here knows that you can change, but maybe the other contestants won't." A slim hope, but I wanted an advantage that perhaps the others didn't have. I was foolish not to think of it in the first place. "Save your skills for the arena. Then we'll have the advantage of surprise. You'd best pick something permanent for the next week or two."
He instantly dived from my shoulder to trot at my heels in a russet blur. Back in his comfortable fox form. I grinned. "I thought you'd go for that one," I said.
"No you didn't," he scoffed affectionately.
No, I didn't. But I wasn't about to tell him that. Anyway I loved his fox form best, but I wasn't going to tell him that either. Chances were he already knew; I wasn't quite sure how many of my thoughts he could hear.
We were bundled across a platform into the crossfire of an army of cameras, all flashing with the ferocity of the sun, and all belonging to people in elaborate clothes with rainbow hair. Everyone clamoured for our attention.
"Miss, look this way please…"
"Chance of a smile?..."
"I can see the cover of this week's magazine just designing itself!"
"That lad sure looks like a winner…"
"Eye candy for the girls…"
Click after eager click. The flashes of light were making me dizzy. Kairan growled warningly, but that only made the cameras click faster. Up ahead, the train beckoned invitingly, but the Peacekeeper behind me placed a warning hand on my shoulder. We inched our way forwards at a punishingly-slow pace. All around me the buzz of people shouting my name and the whine of cameras as they captured my face over and over again.
I kept my eyes glued to the floor, my features schooled into a blank mask. Crying was a weakness. And scowling or smiling was a sign of arrogance, which would definitely get you marked down as a possible threat. Best to remain neutral, blend in with the crowd. Even Kairan was unusually subdued, trotting along at my ankles like an obedient dog. No show of emotion, unlike James' daemon who was fanning her wings vainly for the delighted crowd.
I snuck a look sideways. What was James doing? Right now, he was either a possible ally, or a definite threat. He would know me best when it came to the arena; we'd be spending a week or two in close proximity, gaging each other's weaknesses and strengths, and tactics if we could. He was preening for the cameras with his daemon perched handsomely on one muscled arm, the ideal picture of a perfect tribute. Handsome, strong, and confident. No doubt sponsors would be throwing themselves at his feet.
I needed sponsors, and quickly. I didn't have the first clue in offense, let alone defence. I would need all the help I could get. So nervously I raised my head and tried a smile. The crowd loved it. And quickly I was waving and posing for the cameras, despite feeling sick with nerves inside. I had to charm the Capitol, and the better I looked on screen, the better my chances in the arena.
We finally reached the train, and were bundled inside. I'd been on smaller, more worn trains that took fish and mussels to other, richer Districts, but this was off the scale. The walls were panelled with richly polished wood, and my feet trod a thick creamy carpet. A chandelier bobbed overhead. The furniture was all velvet and leather, and I sank back into a soft armchair by the window with a luxurious sigh, Kairan jumping up to sit on my lap.
"That was awful," I whispered whilst we were alone.
"If it's any consolation, I hated it too," he said loyally. "And I've never understood those Capitol types. They look so funny." His nose wrinkled in distaste.
"Funny as in ha ha, or funny as in weird?"
"Agreed," I nodded.
"And what is it with hiding their daemons away? I didn't see a single one in that crowd."
"No. No, nor did I." I mulled on that for a second. "Who'd be embarrassed of their own daemon? It would be like being constantly ashamed of being… well, you."
"But they are aren't they?" he remarked sagely. "They're all trying to be people they're not with all that make-up, and those fancy clothes. It's all to hide the person they're too embarrassed to be."
"Was that wisdom, Kairan?"
"Maybe." He bared his teeth in a grin.
There was a violent jolt beneath me as the train started forwards, like a horse when slapped on the rump. It chuntered forwards hesitantly for a few moments, before settling into a steady rhythm. The station was already gone. Instead, I could see streets and streets of houses, and the green of the park. And along the horizon, a streak of blue that would forever be stamped in my memory. The sea. To think I may never see it again. Sadness crashed over me like a wave, and it took everything I had to keep my face clean of emotion. There might be cameras hidden anywhere.
I hadn't even had a chance to say goodbye. Tributes used to have an hour after the Reaping to say their farewells with family members and close friends. But after one tribute went mad with panic and started attacking his sister in the hopes that they could swap places, the Capitol had hastily decided that the sooner the tributes were on the train, the better. How could Asriel bear it? First Lyra, and then me. A thought crept unbidden into my head, an image of Asriel strolling into an orphanage and picking the smiling blonde toddler with the cute kitten daemon to fill the hole in his home where I'd once been.
I ripped the idea from my head with an agonised groan, leaning against the cool glass. I would get home, somehow. I wouldn't let some random child take my place as easily as someone might replace a broken vase or a dead battery.
The door slid open with a hiss, and a crowd walked in, headed by Augustus who was talking enthusiastically about training and sponsorship deals. He fell onto a sofa opposite me, and grinning broadly, patted the free space next to him. James came over, and sat down, glowering at me in acknowledgement. What a pleasant boy.
"You guys were great!" Augustus exclaimed. "The cameras loved you both! We'll be getting sponsor deals in before the Games have even started!"
I tried to look pleased.
"Now, I've selected a training partner for each of you," Augustus continued. "James, you'll be working with Zale."
A black man appeared from behind me, and grimly shook James' hand. A scorpion sat on his wrist. I eyed him up curiously; he was tall and muscled so he'd clearly stayed in shape. A thick, ridged scar ran down from his temple to a point beneath his chin, raking right across one eye socket. Only one eye regarded us cooly; the other was misted over slightly, and stared blindly ahead.
"Good to meet you," James said. His daemon screeched approval.
"And Imogen," I flinched as Augustus said my name, "you'll be working with Mrs Coulter."
I looked round expectantly. The first thing I saw was hair. Long black curls that fell down her back and a fringe that masked her eyes. She swept it back gracefully to regard me with a beaming white smile and keen, dark eyes.
What surprised me was her daemon. I'd imagine him to be something tiny and intricate like a jewel-winged butterfly, or a soft rabbit with dewy eyes. Instead she had the most beautiful monkey I had ever seen on her shoulder, fierce eyes glaring out at me from a soft mask of lustrous golden fur. He was gorgeous, I had to admit, but there was something in his tense, crouching position, and the way in which he was watching Kairan almost hungrily that sounded alarm bells in my head. I had to remind myself that Marisa had won the Hunger Games for a reason completely unconnected with her complexion.
"Hello," she said, offering me a pale, slender hand. "Please, call me Marisa. Mrs Coulter is such a mouthful." She laughed a tinkling laugh, and the pure charm of her words washed over me like a cool wave on a hot summer's day
"Um… hi." I quickly took her hand as gracefully as possible.
Her daemon screamed, making me jump backwards in alarm. Kairan growled threateningly.
"Hush!" The monkey bared his pointed teeth in a silent snarl, golden hackles raised, but sank reluctantly back into silence.
"Well, now you're all introduced, I think it's time for a spot of lunch," Augustus beamed, gesturing to the table behind him, in a rush to dismantle the uneasy atmosphere, the sort that bridges between two strangers with no idea of what to say. And there were five strangers in the room, so you can imagine that the ambience was positively stifling.
We all sat, James and Zale engaging in a somewhat tentative conversation. Marisa smiled in my direction, but my mouth remained firmly shut.
The food came in courses, each dish almost too beautiful to eat. There were bowls of a thick vegetable soup, then some sort of meat dish with mounds of vegetables and steaming gravy, and finally a creamy, multicoloured desert in a thin stemmed glass. It was all absolutely delicious, and despite the fact that we ate pretty well within our own District, it was all I could do to eat at a politely measured pace.
I realised with slight unease that the daemons got nothing. At home, Kairan would eat at the table beside me, since he was essentially human in all but his form (and manners). But here, no food was served to them, and I noticed how Augustus' lips pursed with disapproval when I passed Kairan scraps of food from my own plate.
At last the meal was over. I was eager to escape the awkward formality that I'd donned for the meal like an expensive dress.
We'd each been assigned a set of rooms; a large bedroom with a bathroom tacked onto it, plus the most enormous room I'd ever seen entirely dedicated to clothes. I sighed in contentment as I stretched out over the silken sheets, after exchanging my dress for a loose shirt and pair of jeans, each a disconcertingly perfect fit. The shoes had been kicked into a corner without much ceremony.
Kairan curled up by my side, and nuzzled his nose into the crook of my elbow. "This is the life," he sighed.
His eyes shut as he abandoned the false sense of cheeriness. "No. Not really."
I bit the inside of my cheek - hard - as homesickness threatened to overwhelm me. Longing for a home that statistically I would never live long enough to see ever again. When I inevitably returned, it would be in a coffin. "I want to go home," I whispered.
His rough tongue rasped against the inside of my wrist in an attempt of comfort. "So do I."
"Why do they even bother with all of… this?" I threw my free hand in the air angrily. "As if in some way it'll make up for what's coming? 'Oh yes, sorry, did we mention? You'll be made to fight to the death in a week's time, but in the meantime have a slice of cake and as many clothes as you want'!" A laughed shaded with hysteria bubbled out of my throat, and with it all the tears that I'd held back, the sobs of frustration and despair that I'd bottled in front of the cameras.
In a way, it made it worse. All the ceremony, the glitter, how everything had been made so amazing. Like this was some sort of honour, when instead I was an unwilling pawn in the Capitol's vindictive scheme.
Through the film of tears, a savage, almost excited, grin grew across my face. They wanted me to play, right? Then I would play. But not by the rules. I was going to play as dirtily as humanly possible. And I was going to win.
Kairan looked up at me with enquiring eyes. Soft, puppy eyes.
His reluctance to change had once been an annoyance, and almost embarrassing. But here, now, it might just be the perfect asset for the arena.
"You're our advantage," I whispered. "And together, we're going to beat the Capitol."
He grinned, back in his fox form, and his amber eyes glittered with mischief. "What did you have in mind?"