It was an annual ritual which no-one in the districts enjoyed, a ritual imposed on them as punishment for the attempt, nearly two generations ago, to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone in Panem knew the story of how the districts rose up, only for the rebellion to be crushed, resulting in the destruction of District 13 and the creation of the Treaty of Treason. This Treaty, as every man, woman and child in the districts knew only too well, decreed that, once every year, each district must send one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen to serve as tributes in the Hunger Games.
Ruth stood in the roped-off area with the rest of the fifteen-year-olds who lived in District 9, sixteen-, seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in front of them and twelve-, thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds behind. All of them were waiting anxiously to hear which of them would have their names drawn from the reaping balls, meaning they would face almost certain death in whatever arena the Gamemakers had dreamed up this year. For that was what the Hunger Games were all about, forcing youngsters to fight to the death on live TV, thereby reminding the people of Panem that the Capitol had the power of life and death over all of them. And, if your fellow tributes didn't get you, the chances were some trick of the Gamemakers would.
Now, Septima Trott, District 9's flamboyant escort, was tottering towards the reaping balls on her ridiculously high heels. Like all citizens of the Capitol, she liked to look as outrageous as she could, favouring mint green hair with lips to match and dressing as garishly as possible; today, she was wearing a shocking pink dress which clashed violently with her bright red shoes. And, like all citizens of the Capitol, she saw the Hunger Games as a form of entertainment and nothing more. She gave no thought to the fact that, in the last forty-three Games, nearly a thousand young people had died in the name of that "entertainment", nor that at least one of those whose names she was about to call would soon be joining the list of dead tributes.
"And, now, the moment you've all been waiting for . . ." She paused for an imaginary drum roll, then reached into the ball containing the names of every twelve- to eighteen-year-old girl in District 9. "Which of you lucky ladies will get to go to the Capitol? Ooh, I can't wait!" As always, she made a big show of pulling out a single slip of paper, unfolding it and reading out the name written on it. "Ruth Waterhouse!"
Ruth felt as though she was in a dream, a bad dream from which she would soon awaken. None of it felt real. The Waterhouses were one of the better-off families in District 9, so neither Ruth nor her older sister, Katie, had ever had any need to sign up for tesserae, the system which allowed youngsters to claim a year's supply of grain and oil for themselves and each member of their family in exchange for extra entries in the reaping ball. Some kids accumulated large numbers of entries in this way, though no-one knew what the record was. But Ruth only had the four entries allocated to all fifteen-year-olds; she had not needed any more. Nonetheless, her name had been called and, whether she wanted to or not, she had to step forward and walk onto that stage.
As she walked through the assembled youngsters, she held her head up high, determined to show those watching on their televisions in other districts that she was not afraid, even though she could feel her heart hammering in her chest. All eyes were on her, a teenaged girl with shoulder-length light brown hair, as she climbed the steps onto the stage and joined those already assembled there. The moment she was on the stage, Septima seized her hand in a vice-like grip and yanked her arm into the air.
"Your female tribute!" Septima cried in the over-excited way typical of the Capitol. "But do any of you . . ." She gazed meaningfully at the other girls of reaping age. " . . . think you stand a better chance? If so, step right up and volunteer!"
No-one moved, though this wasn't surprising. Under the rules of the reaping, once someone's name had been drawn, another eligible youngster of the same gender was allowed to volunteer as tribute in their place. However, while volunteers were common in Districts 1, 2 and 4, the districts where children began training for the Hunger Games almost as soon as they could walk, they were less so in other districts. Ruth was too young to remember the last time someone from District 9 had volunteered, but she had seen the Games in question repeated on television and knew the boy concerned had made it into the final six before being impaled on a spear wielded by the male tribute from District 2.
Septima cleared her throat as theatrically as possible. "Ahem! Since there are no volunteers, we must move right along and choose your male tribute." She reached into the other ball, the one containing the boys' names, and repeated her performance of a few minutes earlier. "Lukas Green!" A seventeen-year-old youth walked up to stand beside Ruth and Septima asked for volunteers from among the boys, who gave the same response as the girls.
As the mayor began to read the Treaty of Treason, Ruth found herself looking Lukas up and down. She knew his name, but he was, at best, a casual acquaintence; the only other thing she knew about him was that he had been taking tesserae since he was twelve, for himself, his widowed mother and four younger siblings. In his first year of eligibility, he had had as many entries in the reaping ball as the minimum allowed for eighteen-year-olds; now, at the age of seventeen, he had amassed forty-two entries, one of which had just been drawn. Soon, he, Ruth and twenty-two other tributes would be forced into a contest in which there could be only one winner, a contest in which defeat meant certain death.
The mayor finished speaking and directed Ruth and Lukas to shake hands. This they did, but formally, knowing they would soon be caught up in an inescapable fight to the death. When it came to the Hunger Games, you could not afford to get too friendly with your fellow tributes, not even your district partner. As the national anthem of Panem blared out, Septima addressed the crowd one last time. "Let's hear it for your tributes in the Forty-fourth Hunger Games - Ruth Waterhouse and Lukas Green!"
Obediently, every man, woman and child in District 9 applauded.
Demmie Waterhouse, or Demeter as she was known officially, had lived in fear of this moment ever since she became a mother, the moment when one of her daughters' names would be drawn from the reaping ball. Fortunately, Katie had turned nineteen at the beginning of the year, meaning she was now safe. But Ruth had not been so fortunate; out of the thousands of entries in the girls' ball, one of the four containing her name had been drawn. If only her luck could have held out for a few more years . . . But it hadn't and, as a result, Ruth was now sitting in District 9's Justice Building, saying goodbye to those she loved.
"I can't believe I'm sitting here," Demmie was saying, as she and Ruth sat side-by-side on the plush couch. Her husband, Neil, sat in a nearby armchair, seemingly unable to find the words to say what needed to be said, though he had given Ruth a hug when he and his wife came to say goodbye. The three of them were in one of the rooms in the Justice Building that had been reserved for this purpose. It was hard for Demmie and Neil to say farewell to their daughter, not knowing if the next time they saw Ruth in the flesh would be as a returning victor or as a corpse shipped back to District 9 in a simple wooden box. "I remember when they took your Aunt Blossom," Demmie added, referring to her younger sister who had been reaped at the age of thirteen during the Twenty-third Games.
For a moment, Demmie's eyes clouded over as she recalled watching helplessly as Blossom, seven years her junior, walked onto the stage. There had been nothing she could do; she was too old to volunteer and there was no way she could take her sister and run, not with the Peacekeepers watching. She had sat with Blossom in this very room, given her a length of pink ribbon as a district token . . . That same length of ribbon was now in a box in Demmie's wardrobe, returned to District 9 along with the body of its owner.
Ruth knew talking about Blossom still upset her mother. Talking about those who died in the Hunger Games was always upsetting, especially the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. As the youngest tributes, they were often quickly weeded out by their older competitors; only once in the history of the Games had a tribute younger than fourteen made it into the final three. Ruth reached out and squeezed Demmie's hand. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll do my best and, if that's not good enough, I'll just have to take a few of the other tributes down with me."
Demmie hugged her daughter close, wishing she could never let go, wishing she could protect her from the cruel system that had landed her in the position of having to kill or be killed. But, like all citizens of Panem, she was powerless against the Capitol and, as if to prove it, a Peacekeeper walked in at that moment and told Ruth's parents their time was up.
Reluctantly, Demmie let go. "Goodbye, Ruth," she said, turning to walk away before the girl could see the tears which had welled up in her eyes. It felt uncannily like the day, twenty-one years earlier, she had left Blossom to face her doom. Was Ruth about to face a similar fate? Demmie did not know, but she would find out in the next few weeks whether she liked it or not. She took one last look at her younger daughter, then left the room.
Before following his wife, Neil Waterhouse walked over to Ruth and shook her hand. "Good luck," he told her, though he knew the chances of her actually winning were slim. Out of forty-three previous victors, only two had come from District 9.
Katie came in with her husband, Alf Moore, whom she had married in this very building only a few weeks earlier. As was traditional at a District 9 wedding, Ruth had presented the couple with ears of wheat to symbolise the hope that their union would be a fruitful one, resulting in many children. Of course, the fear that at least one of those children might end up as a tribute was constantly present, but most parents tried not to think of that. Besides, in some of the poorer districts, many people died young even without the Hunger Games.
"So, the Hunger Games, huh?" Katie said, hiding her fears for her younger sister behind a mask of bravado. "Think you can win?"
Ruth could only reply with a non-committal shrug. She and Katie had always been open with each other and both knew there was little chance that Ruth could get through this alive. They had been watching the Games on television all their lives, albeit from the safety of Demmie's lap when they were very little and might feel the urge to seek comfort during the more violent moments, and knew how tough some of the tributes could be. Especially the ones from Districts 1, 2 and 4, the so-called Careers . . .
Katie reached into her pocket and pulled something out, handing it to Ruth. "Look, remember these?" she asked. "Remember how we used to make necklaces with them when we were kids?"
Ruth looked at the object in her hand; several beads had been threaded onto a piece of elastic, the ends of which had been tied together to form a bracelet. They came from a set which she and Katie had been given several years before and consisted of over a hundred wooden beads painted various colours. But neither of them had touched the beads for years - until now. As soon as the citizens of District 9 had been dismissed following the reaping, Katie had returned to her parents' house, found the box of beads in a cupboard and set to work making her sister a district token. The rules of the Hunger Games allowed tributes to wear or carry one small item from their districts in the arena, though anything which could be used as a weapon would be confiscated.
Ruth slipped the bracelet onto her left wrist, noting as she did so that all the beads were yellow. This reminded her of the vast fields of grain which grew in District 9, stretching for miles and miles. Grain was District 9's principal industry and nearly everyone was involved in some way, from children employed to scare the birds off the seeds to those who owned the vast granaries. Ruth's father owned one of the largest granaries in the district, but the money he had made had not been enough to protect her from the reaping. Ruth felt tears well up in her eyes at the thought that she might never see her father again, but she quickly blinked them back. "Thanks," she said, managing a weak smile. Then, a thought occurred to her.
"Katie," she said, "will you and Alf do me a favour?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"Spot," Ruth replied. Spot was her small brown-and-white mongrel dog whom she had had ever since he was a puppy. "If I . . ." She found she couldn't say the word "die", as if uttering it when she was about to be sent to the Hunger Games would somehow make it come true. " . . . don't win, will you look after him?"
Katie nodded. "Of course I will." She wished she could have brought Spot with her, but dogs were not allowed inside the Justice Building, so it looked as though he might never see his mistress again. All she could do was hope that, if the worst happened, Spot would not pine too much; she had visions of him constantly waiting in vain for Ruth to return. But she had made a promise to look after the dog and she meant to keep it.
Before long, the same Peacekeeper who had dismissed Demmie and Neil came to tell Katie and Alf they had to leave. Tributes were allowed only an hour to say goodbye to all their loved ones before being taken to the station, from which they would travel to the Capitol by luxury train. As only officially sanctioned travel between districts was permitted, this would be the only chance most of them would have to see any part of Panem other than their home districts.
Ruth spent the remainder of the hour in the company of her closest friends from school. Dorcas Gray, whose older brother had been a tribute a few years earlier when a District 2 girl called Lyme won; Flora Sharpe, whose mother was the local dressmaker and had made Katie's wedding outfit; Elly Parker, who had two younger brothers, the older of whom had just been through his first reaping . . . Knowing she might never see them again, she tried to commit their faces to memory, only to find that thoughts of the Hunger Games and how one of the twenty-three cannon shots which would sound during the Games might signal her death kept intruding. It was almost a relief when the Peacekeeper came and told Ruth that her hour was up and she had to leave for the train station.
Soon, Ruth was sitting in the back of a car, along with Lukas who, like her, had just spent the last hour saying goodbye to his friends and family. It had been especially hard for him, since he had been the man of the family for the past five years, a role which would now fall to his ten-year-old brother, Lyndon. His father had died during one of District 9's hardest winters, leaving a widow with five young children; as well as Lyndon, Lukas had two sisters called Letty and Livia and another brother called Lance. And, with the money Mrs Green earned selling old clothes in the market barely enough to feed the family, it had been essential for Lukas to take tesserae. Letty, who was fourteen, had followed suit three years later, but Lyndon, Livia and Lance were not yet old enough.
But perhaps, even when they did reach reaping age, they wouldn't have to take such a risk. If he won the Games, Lukas would be rewarded with a home in District 9's Victor's Village and enough riches to ensure that, while his siblings would still not be able to escape the reaping, they would never have to take the gamble of adding their names into the draw extra times. Of course, that meant the girl sitting beside him would have to die, but he tried to avoid thinking of that.
Septima got out of the car first, followed by the two previous District 9 victors: a young woman named Thalia Ashe who had won ten years earlier and a grey-haired man named Ethan Blake, the victor in the Third Hunger Games. They would be acting as Lukas and Ruth's mentors, advising them on their strategies for the arena, coaching them for their interviews the night before the Games began, securing sponsorship for the two young tributes . . .
Ruth and Lukas got out of the car and Septima promptly steered them into the station. As no-one could travel beyond the boundaries of their own districts without official permission, there was no ticket booth, just a surly-looking Peacekeeper whose job was to check that anyone who attempted to enter the station had the proper authorisation to travel. Septima handed him a piece of paper which stated that their party consisted of two Hunger Games tributes and their escorts. Grunting, the Peacekeeper took the paper and examined it for a moment, before stamping it with the Capitol's seal and handing it back to Septima.
"All right. You're cleared," he said shortly, directing the five of them into the station.
Inside, the station was thronged with reporters, all of them jostling for position as they attempted to film the tributes. Several shouted questions at Lukas and Ruth, but Septima was used to this kind of thing, having been a district escort for over twenty years, and rebuffed the reporters by telling them they would have to "wait until interview night." She then led the party to where a brand new high-speed train stood waiting. Before they could board, however, they had to pose for photographs, as was customary when tributes were about to leave for the Capitol. Septima spent several minutes trying to sort everyone out and get herself into the most prominent position she could manage without overshadowing Ruth and Lukas. Finally satisfied, she told the tributes and their mentors to look at the camera. "Big smiles, everyone!" she cried, pulling back her lips to show off the teeth which she had recently had studded with real diamonds.
Though Ruth managed to smile for the camera, what she wanted to do more than anything was weep for those she might never see again.