It was her mother who taught her how to kill.
She remembers it, as surely as if it is a wound, a bloody curl into her flesh which had not yet healed, throbbing every time she moved. How sinister it is, her mother taught her how to kill.
The meek do not inherit the earth, her mother had said, a pretty blonde woman with hard hands and a hard smile, small and slim. The strong do not inherit. The strong take.
Pressed a knife into her hand. Smiled, kissed her on the cheek.
Clove is a good girl, you see. Did as her mother asked. Slid the knife, smooth, tight, easy as breath, into the dog's throat. The blood rushes over her hands, red, alive, and there is salt on her lips.
A game must have its rules, after all.
The blond boy—the tall one, the big one, the one who looks like he could wrap his arms around her throat and crush her with his sheer weight—is two years older, two years stronger, two years faster.
The blond boy is competition.
"Think you could be a tribute?" He sneers at her, when they pit her against him, silent eyes and silent grins all around them, competition waiting for her to fall, for her to bleed. "Think you could win the Games?"
She is still, she is quiet, she watches him watch her.
When he lunges at her, the sheer force of him alarming, something base, something animal, she darts, she turns, she jumps. In an instant she is perched on his back and he is face down on the ground, breathing hard through his mouth, and it is only then that she grins, sharp as shrapnel and cut as glass, and hisses—
"Think you could be a tribute?" She says, words soft, into the shell of his ear, presses down until she can feel his bones grinding together, until she draws a laugh, painful and torn, from his throat. "Think you could win the Games?"
The strong take what they want, and never look back.
She digs her nails hard into his skin, until his blood fills her up. "Here endeth the lesson."
He is still two years older, and he is still competition.
She watches him train sometimes. Watches him swing around that ridiculous sword of his, watches him press it close to the throat of the weak, watches him rein back, at the last moment, the hunger, for blood, for flesh, for prey. She watches him, and thinks, I should like to see it released.
Similarly, he watches her.
She feels his gaze on her sometimes, when the tip of her knife pierces the target, when she dances a little bit too close to the edge of a sword, feels him on the other side of the room, feels him flinch, feels him tense, as if he is close to the edge of the steel, and not her. She feels him release a breath, when she slams her opponent into the ground, when she slides her blade across the defeated's skin, just to teach them that she has done them a great mercy.
They watch, then. They are competitors, after all.
(At silent times she lets him kiss her, and touch her, and when they are old enough, lets him fuck her.
She does nothing, after all, without thinking of the Game, of the rules. She does nothing without thought.
I could kill you in an instant; she thinks sometimes, brushes her hand through that blond hair, across that fine, winner's skin. A great red smile, just for you.
"You could kill me right now if you liked." She whispers to him, watches the way his pupils dilate, as if in desire, as if in want. Killing is the one thing he likes more than fucking.
His smile spreads slow across his lips. "Here? With no one around?"
His hand curls around her throat, and she arches, smiles. "What would be the point?")
When she is picked, he volunteers.
Her smile is hard, cut into the curve of her cheek, and in appearance she is a girl still, still lithe, still lean, still fit to win. He, on the other hand, is beginning to become a man. Beginning to become weighed down by his very own body. The body is a cage, after all. Strip it of its skin and its gristle and its bone, it is just meat. And meat, by definition, is already dead. Meat, by definition, has already lost.
Clove thinks, then, that it shall be very easy to kill him.
He laughs as the crowds erupt, as they chant his name and scream hers. In secret, as if they were star-crossed lovers or some other such nonsense, his fingers brush hers, and he grins.
"Think you can be a Tribute?" He murmurs, and oh, he must think himself so very poetic.
She is willing to play his game. For now.
Her mother had taught her how to kill, after all. Her mother had taught her how to win.
"Think you could win the Games?" She replies, smiling.
The strong take what they want, she thinks. And you, boy, I want you. Your death is mine.