AN: And without further delay, here you go my dear readers! I thank my beta, Katnissinme, for all her help with this chapter.
Alternate Title: The Dark Side of the Heart
Katniss shouted Peeta's name again, wanting to run to him as his soldiers were still staring at the scene in shock, caught between the jubilation of victory and the blow of seeing their leader lying in the mud. She wanted to lunge, but her feet were pressed to the ground.
Then the feeling in her legs slowed—No!—her surroundings moved faster and faster, as though she were watching a video being played thrice as fast. Archers aimed at the tree from where the shot came, and a body fell, pierced with so many arrows. There were shouts to assemble the soldiers, orders to carry the Prince and bring him to the healer.
It was all too much to witness. Katniss pressed her eyes shut as she gulped mouthfuls of air, feeling as though she was being pressed from all sides, the feeling from her legs rising through to her torso and limbs.
Her streaming eyes opened to a vastly different scene.
The soldiers were gone. The field was still, littered with corpses and mangled arms and dried wounds. A fog had descended, an eerie mantle over the landscape and the torn banners and emblems.
She was still breathing heavily, the bow and arrow a comforting presence slung around her body. As she took her first step, the bloody mud coming between her bare toes, Katniss heard the unwelcome squawks of crows in the distance. Lifeless eyes greeted her, their owners' lives bloodily cut short. This field may have once been beautiful, the soldiers resting on flowering weeds the color of sunshine, but it was now a macabre painting. Katniss felt her chest squeeze at the sight of such massive loss of lives.
A crow shot through to her right, startling her, the flap of its wings brushing against her hair.
Katniss took her bow from her shoulders and gripped it tightly. Based on the stillness of her surroundings, she was the only living human around. She bit her lip in frustration. How was she going to find Peeta?
Rather than allow panic to rise, Katniss looked around and peered at the trees. Perhaps if she knew which kingdom she was in she could start from there. The green foliage suggested she was not in the northern kingdoms where Autumn was perpetual. She must be near the center, where it was always Spring, perhaps even south of the fallen Capitol.
She crouched low and picked up a fallen standard. Beneath the layer of grime and blood, she saw the spiked gauntlet emblem of the Sixth Kingdom. But she thought that perhaps armies fought at places other than their kingdoms, and she was not really in the Sixth Kingdom. She threw the standard back in frustration and stood up. Even if she knew which territory she was in, she had no knowledge of the local villages. And she also didn't have a horse or proper clothes for traveling.
At the realization of her clothing situation, Katniss shivered and the hair on her arms rose at the cold. She had better seek shelter soon, somewhere far away from this battlefield, and start a fire.
It was difficult to battle the burdensome state of helplessness, especially as she looked around at her surroundings, the fog becoming denser as the minutes passed. She closed her eyes to calm herself, but the only images her mind permitted were those of Peeta, injured and lying in the mud. She feared what she would find if she located his camp.
Then her bangle started to feel warm. She looked down on it, the skin on her arm grateful for the heat. The empty bangle began to glow like the pearls. She watched, fascinated, as it, too, turned to dust and fell to the ground. Then, like her arrows, it materialized into a small, jeweled pewter pot, with engravings on its lid that reminded her of the bangle.
Katniss picked it up, unfastening the lid, to find a translucent, wobbly gel, with a faintly medicinal, pungent smell, like garlic that had been cooked for too long.
Katniss breathed a prayer to whoever was helping her. The fairy, she thought. She was sure this was a medicine for Peeta's injuries.
Her ears pricked to the sound of a galloping horse. She tensed immediately. It could be enemy soldiers, or marauders looking to loot the fallen weapons and have them traded or melted down to other objects.
She dropped the medicine and loaded her bow with the white arrow, the one that never missed according to the fairy. She could not see much in the fog, and the arrow's property should help in eradicating the threat. But a part of her mind told her to be cautious. What if it was not an enemy? Would she willingly kill someone innocent? Yet the instinct to preserve her life was strong. Panem was a dangerous place now, and she would not take any chances.
She pulled the bowstring tautly as the sound grew louder, nearer. Her mind's eye estimated the target. She exhaled to still her being, to make her aim more precise.
Katniss had a moment to choose to fire, yet her conscience wrangled with her baser instinct. It passed. Then the outline of the horse became visible, but there was no rider. She inhaled and lowered the bow as the bedecked horse galloped past and into the fog, scattering the crows that had begun to feed on the corpses.
And felt the cold blade of a sword at the side of her neck.
A low voice, calm and rational, spoke from behind her. "You should never lower your guard, my lady," her unseen assailant said.
She turned her head and saw a man, lightly dressed not in plates and chainmail but in a scratched leather doublet and a worn cape. He held the sword with both arms in perfect form. His dark hair was trimmed short. His skin was in compliment with the golden hue of his striking eyes, which were calculating and measuring.
"And you should never hold a sword against a woman," she retorted, looking for an emblem on his clothing, any sign of where this man's loyalties lied.
"Perhaps in another time, when brothers do not turn on their brothers," he replied.
"Are you going to kill me?" Katniss asked bluntly, the sword calm against her veins.
"Were you going to kill me?" The man threw the question back shrewdly at her, jerking his head toward her bow.
"I hadn't gotten a chance to decide," she said.
The man smiled, his voice smooth as honeyed wine. "Pity. And you have such beautiful weapons. But extremely ill judgment will cost you your life in this war."
Katniss dropped her bow and quivers slowly, next to the medicine, not in surrender, but in hopes to get this man to behave in a less hostile manner toward her. "I don't mean you any harm," she confessed.
"But of course, you're hardly in a position to do so now," he drawled. The sword did not move from her neck.
"Please, I only sought a safe passage to the Twelfth Kingdom," she said, gambling her fate by revealing her allegiance, because if this man really had meant to kill her, she would be one of the corpses lying in the field by now.
The man narrowed his eyes then withdrew his sword. It was a relief to no longer feel the chill of steel. "Injudicious and trusting. A lethal combination during warfare, if I may say so," he said, sheathing his weapon. He turned away from her and whistled, and once again, the horse came galloping back.
"Gather your weapons," he said, looking back at her, then added, "Why do you seek the Twelfth Kingdom? It's a far place from where we are," the man asked.
"And where are we?" Katniss shot back. She was desperate. Peeta did not have much time. She was now willing to gamble anything and playing docile would not get her anywhere.
The man looked funnily at her, a girl lost in the middle of a battlefield. "Did you stumble here? Or fall from a horse and forget things?"
Annoyed, Katniss continued their odd banter of answering questions with questions. "Will you tell me where we are or not? So I know where to move," she said, lying, and making a motion to turn in the other direction.
The man moved to his horse and adjusted the saddle. Katniss continued to walk slowly, and farther out. The man sighed, as if waiting for her, and then she heard him mount his horse. It slowed to a trot beside her.
Before the man could gallop away and leave her, Katniss swallowed her pride and looked up. "Please tell me how to go to the Twelfth Kingdom, or to their encampment or wherever they are, if you know. If it's money you need—"
"It's not money I need from you, my lady, but answers. Proper ones, so I can decide if you are an enemy or not. And we're in the First Kingdom, to answer one of your questions."
She stopped. "The First Kingdom? Then why are there no silver banners with falcons in the field?" she asked, her previous lessons from Peeta kicking in.
The man's eyes swept their surroundings carefully, as if to see if they were still alone, before answering her. "Because the First Kingdom's people and soldiers scattered to the wind the day the Thirteenth Kingdom obliterated its monarchy. Its lands are now used as battlegrounds. A shame really, for its fields had been an arresting sight. There is much to be sorry for in this war."
She remembered the doomed Princess Cashmere at the mention of the First Kingdom. The man stopped his horse, waiting for her to respond. A chill went through the back of her neck as she answered one of the man's earlier questions. "I need to go to the Twelfth Kingdom because my cousin is there, fighting, and I have nowhere else to go," she fibbed.
Which the man saw right through. Chuckling, he replied, "Commendable effort, I must say, in not revealing the complete truth to a stranger, but ineffective if you do not know how to lie."
Katniss gritted her teeth in dismay, readjusting her bow. "Let's just cut to the chase. Are you taking me as prisoner?"
"Would you like to stay and wait for the pillagers who would take you as prisoner?" There was that tone in his voice again, as if he were patiently talking to a person of slow mind.
Katniss narrowed her eyes. "Will you help me or not? Because if not, then I have a lot of ground to cover and I need to start walking."
"I will help you if you answer me truthfully. Why do you need to go to the Twelfth Kingdom?" the man asked her in a more commanding tone, looking down at her with that calculating stare.
Katniss relented. "I need to see the Prince. I know he's gravely injured and I can help," she said confidently raising her chin to meet the man's stare.
She unclasped the locket from her neck and tossed it to the man. "Because I am the Mockingjay."
His palm snapped close as he caught the locket and examined it. Then he gave her a long, measuring look, comprehension dawning on his face. He tossed her back the locket. An elongated moment stood between them, where Katniss prayed for him to believe her, before he finally extended his hand so that she could help herself onto the horse. "The truth sounds differently, wouldn't you say?" he teased.
Once safely mounted, the man instructed her to hold onto him, and that it would take a night's ride to reach the Twelfth Kingdom's camp, where he was heading.
So he was from there, she thought, thanking her lucky fate. Relief flooded through her.
"My name is Katniss," she said, introducing herself, as the horse gained momentum and cut through the dense fog.
"Cinna," the man replied.
Prince Peeta slipped between the cold folds of consciousness and the dry denseness of sleep. Between it, the onslaught of fevered dreams brought nothing but a bottomless ache. His heart was left hollow from everyone who had been taken from him. Every time he woke, a resounding agony emanated from his left shoulder, from where the arrow had pierced him. Relief would only come later, from the healer's medicine. But the medicine only tamed the beast partially.
Through the haze of his sleep he had heard them talking yesterday. They were puzzled by his wound; at the blood that slowly seeped from it and never seemed to abate, that he weakened every hour. Then the healer found the spidery gossamer of darkened veins sprouting menacingly from the wound.
They reached the inevitable conclusion when he spat out blood. The arrowhead had been poisoned.
His enemies had wanted the assurance of his life's forfeiture, and they were successful. The healer's vials could only slow that which was a certainty, knew it with growing dread as he lay almost immobile, almost unconscious, having such vivid, unpleasant dreams replace the reality outside. And through it all, he wanted something else so badly.
He wanted to dream of her again, before the poison raced to his mind from where his heart pumped it onward. He wanted to see Katniss again, see her return to him even in dreams, just as when he had first heard about the legend.
Peeta had never forgotten the night she disappeared, the way her weight on his lap vanished as the echoes of her whispers rang in his ears, that she needed to retrieve the last pearl from her world. He thought of it every night in this damned war before he went to sleep, her name on his lips as his dreams pulled him under. He cursed the pearl for being in another world, for separating them, for being somewhere he could not follow. The fissure in his heart had urged him to lock himself in his mother's refuge, convincing himself that she would return soon, that he should wait for her. His father had understood. Lord Abernathy had been more disapproving of his display of vulnerability.
Then the day came when his father signed the declaration to go to war with his allies, and as the Prince, the only one left, it was his duty to protect his kingdom. He had walked out of his mother's home and locked the door on all his emotions, for they were all intrinsically linked to his beloved. With a mind of steel, he galloped to his first battle and emerged victorious, never looking back, never counting the men he had slain, only living for the next battle.
A wrong intake of air set the pain alight once again, disrupting his thoughts. He smelled the scent of parched soil taking in the softest patter of rain. He smelled the metallic tang of his armor nearby. He smelled the decay festering in his wound. Almost motionless from the pain, it was easy to fall asleep.
Then the poison must have reached his mind, he thought, bringing him under and birthing illusions, because he was with Katniss again. They were in the festival once more, that frenetic night of desires and dancing, of barely restrained want for the other, the liquid songs from the minstrels evaporating in the heat. It was a cruel dream. Katniss was within reach of him again, her gown of velvet and satin seductive under the light of the torches. She was so real. He lifted her in the air, brought her down, and turned. Amidst their joy, as they looked at the sky, he heard his brother, soft as a whisper, urgent as a plea. The dream took a more cruel turn as Peeta followed it at once, out of the festival, his guilt unbearable. He ran breathless towards his brother's room. But dread had already a home in his belly. If only they had returned for Aldran earlier. If only they had brought him with them. If only his eyes had not been clouded with passion and he had sensed the danger surrounding them. The dream ended as it had been in real life, with his brother dead and Prince Gloss free and Peeta left with an insurmountable guilt.
Peeta struggled to break through the nightmare's chains, to wrest the poison of its hold on his mortal body. He knew he could not die, not yet, not while his brother's murderer still lived. This truth, this acceptance, tethered him to the realm of the living, battling the poison for him. He knew that if he gave in, he might never wake up.
Then his senses sharpened as he fought sleep. Through his struggle, he heard a woman's voice calling his name.
He recognized this voice, and it came from somewhere far. He knew this voice. He had prayed fervently to hear it again. He smiled as he discerned its indignant tone. She had always had a feisty temperament.
Peeta strained to hear more.
A clang of metal, a thud, and a rush of footsteps came next, then the impatient sweep of the tent's flaps. The footsteps, light and tentative, approached him. Her sweet voice, worry woven in every tone, called his name.
Her fingers cupped his cheek. They felt cold. He opened his eyes. Katniss was there, looking at him, the locket dangling from her neck.
Peeta wanted to touch her face. It had been too long. His arm, though, would not move. Even though his mind was no longer under the poison, his body still was.
He felt something icy on his shoulder, where his wound pulsated. He sighed at the relief it brought.
Then the weight lifted. Peeta felt something pull him under once more to his dreams, but he faced it not with dread, but with a feeling of deliverance.
His last thought before it took over was the salty taste of moisture on his parched lips.
The nights and days where she had waited and taken care of Peeta passed with varying shades of intensity that left her exhausted, shoulders and lower back stiff from sleeping with her forehead on the bed while sitting by the bedside. Katniss was never the light sleeper, yet the smallest movement or the softest moan would wake her, and she would diligently check on Peeta's wound. He showed physical progress, the medicine working its miracles, but he rarely responded when she called to him. The disappointment inflicted her with innumerable little stings and chipped away at her fragile hope.
On the third day, as Peeta still lay quietly, Katniss pressed a tender kiss to his temple, and left the tent, eager to inhale a crisper air than the stale space inside the tent, muddled by candle flame and incense. Even though she worried for Peeta, she still sought something else to do if only to take her mind away from her prince's trouble.
Which was why she searched for Cinna now, the apprentice to the Master at Arms, for the man still held her weapons. She ached to practice, but as long as she was with the Prince, no weapon would be allowed in the royal tent. It was part of the agreement she gave Peeta's new Captain of the Guard as they argued outside the tent the say she returned. She had to remind herself that none of the ones who went with her in search of the pearls were here now: that to his current company, she was a strange girl with a strange claim as the Mockingjay who insisted on seeing their mortally wounded prince. Almost everyone had perished at the fall of the Capitol, giving their lives so that they could escape to find the third pearl at Mockings Hall. The Thirteenth Kingdom killed the remaining ones as it pursued them. It was the strength of Cinna's words that allowed her to go to Peeta. There was no time to wait for a letter from Lord Abernathy vouching for her identity.
She pinched the side of her light, layered satin dress to raise the hem as she walked on muddy ground. It was different from the one the fairy had given her, sturdier and better suited to the cool climate. There was a tug at her heart as she remembered where the clothes she wore came from, given to her one night when Cinna showed her a chest full of her clothes, a chest Peeta had insisted on bringing with him wherever he went. It was one of the many things that made her impatient to see Peeta wake up. She had so much to tell him.
The encampment stretched almost interminably to the far distance, and was a mix of tents and smoke and the occasional jovial laughter that kept the soldiers' minds from being too occupied with the turbulent war. The Twelfth Kingdom's army must number in the tens of thousands, possibly even reaching almost a hundred thousand, all risking death at the command of their Prince. Walking deeper into the camp, the sound of metal clanging drowned out the whistle of the wind. The reek of tension and sweat overpowered the blossoms of the flowering trees by the camp's borders.
She searched and asked for Cinna. Katniss felt uneasy being weaponless, even within the safety of Peeta's camp. She wanted her weapons back.
Katniss found Cinna near the stables, where he was sharpening several swords with other apprentices. He acknowledged her presence with a bow.
With an effort, Katniss decided to be direct and dispense with any of the courtesies that preceeded a conversation. "I would like my bow and arrows back please," she requested.
Cinna had just emptied a large metal bucket of its graying water contents and wiped the dripping sweat from his forehead, fruits of standing too close to the makeshift furnaces. He turned his soft, golden eyes to her. "Do you need them now?" he inquired.
"Yes, because I would like to spend some time in practice," she said calmly.
"Then perhaps my lady could take one of the bows used by the archers first," he said, indicating with his arm to a far wall where bows of black wood rested against aged racks. "My apologies, but I am making something for you and I need your bow and quivers," he added with a smile.
The stress of the past days made Katniss impatient, and she firmly demanded that she be given her weapons. If anybody would stop her over her bargain with the Captain, she would argue that it was already clear she was no threat to the Prince.
Cinna walked to where she stood. Then he looked at her with the same measured look when they first met. "Tell me, when the time comes to use them, will you be prepared to kill?"
She flinched. She was not prepared for a probe. Cinna continued when she didn't answer immediately. "I do not doubt your courage, my lady," he assured her, "but it takes more than courage to fire your weapon, even if you do practice, as you say."
"What does it matter anyway?" she said. "When that time comes, I will do what needs to be done. And I have taken someone's life before," she added.
His calculating stare never wavered, unnerving her. "In the middle of battle? With him equally prepared to take your life?"
"No," she mumbled. "He was dying and he sacrificed himself." She felt so small at that moment. "The truth is, I won't have a choice when the time comes for me to kill. I didn't have one then, and I doubt I would if an enemy wishes to kill me. I have to live, don't I?" she said, defiantly.
He regarded her for a moment before answering. "I'm afraid that's the wrong answer, and I cannot give you your weapons back," Cinna replied sadly, moving back to the table and picking up a sword to sharpen with a whetstone.
She looked sharply at him. "And what exactly is the answer you were looking for?"
Cinna put down the heavy sword on the table between them. The sword's balance was perfect, reposing with ease against the table. His eyes probed her sharply. "Conviction, my lady, is what I am looking for from you. For the person you kill, the soldier who had set aside his fears and his hopes as he marches to war deserves a better death in the battlefield than from a person who fires the arrow that ends his life simply because the choice was wrestled from her hands."
"So you're suggesting that I should want to kill?" Katniss whispered angrily.
"Not at all, not everyone was born to kill, much less have the stomach for war. But in the face of all the deaths, the only shred of nobility and honor we could hope to retain is when we defend a truth we believe in. All of the soldiers who have marched on with the Prince believe that he seeks to stop the kingdoms from destroying our home, and nothing more. He fights not for power but in defense of his people. And they will ride and fight and die by that belief.
"And besides, if you fire that arrow prematurely, before your conviction has grounded you, you will find yourself lost, my lady. It will be a most unbearably painful position to not know why you have killed so many," he said, returning to sharpening the sword.
When Katniss did not reply, Cinna looked up and added with a finality, "They will be yours again, Lady Everdeen, once you are ready."
Katniss walked back to the tent, shaken by Cinna's words. She had not expected those stinging words. She had thought she was ready, after what the fairy had shown her.
She was so immersed in her thoughts that she did not notice a man standing in the middle of the tent as she walked in. His back was to her as he slowly donned a leather jerkin over his linen shirt.
Her heart skipped in her chest.
Katniss's breath slowed as she observed him. He was so different from how she remembered him before the war started, before she left for her world. His wavy blonde hair was now half a hand's measure longer, the ends licking by his nape. He had gained a great bulk of muscles and his shirt floated around the planes and ridges of his stomach. He still moved slowly and carefully because of his shoulder, but to see Peeta standing again, away from the tendrils of the poison, swelled the emotions she had kept secured since she screamed his name. No more wishing. No more praying. Her prince, her beloved, was here, now. Alive. Safe.
Katniss ran to him at once, her sight wavering in tears, crashing into his back and wrapping her arms tightly around his waist, the impact jolting them both. She rested her head between his shoulders as her body began to shake. The horrible images of him being struck by the arrow invaded her mind again, and she shook her head as if to ward them off, and held Peeta tighter, as if he would disappear. She sobbed, no longer able to keep at bay the ache of uncertainty over his survival, never before having loved someone so deeply.
Peeta placed his hands on top of hers. They were warm, and she had missed them so much. "Katniss," Peeta's reassuring voice echoed within his body, the sound of it prompting more tears.
"I'm fine now, Katniss," he said, in a gravelly, unused voice that trembled. He reassured her by giving her hands a small squeeze.
Katniss responded by welding her arms around his hard waist, facing to the side so she could inhale and speak. "You scared me to death, damn you," she breathed. "If only you knew how much this means to me, to see you alive," she sobbed.
Peeta's thumb stroked the back of her hand comfortingly. "I'm sorry I made you worry," he whispered, "But I am all right now, thanks to you."
Yet Katniss could not stop her tears. Peeta laced his fingers through hers as they stood. She expelled all her fears, remembering the days and nights when she would count his breaths, looking to see if the shallow pattern ever ceased.
When she had subsided, Peeta slowly moved to face her and secured her hands behind him. She looked up, finally meeting his blue eyes, brilliant even in the weak candlelight, without the haze of pain and delirium. The sounds of the camp outside filtered in.
Katniss leaned closer. The war had reshaped his face to further maturity. Though his eyes remained as they had been, kind and warm, his jaw fell in sharper angles, prickled with stubble. Katniss pulled her arm from behind him and ran a hand down his cheek, testing the shadow of a beard her prince had, the short hair bristling her palm. Peeta took her hand and kissed it, the gesture so simple and intimate, and it seemed she had waited so long for such a touch. They shared a smile when she hiccupped, a remnant of her earlier cries. His eyes grew softer as he looked her over.
"You came back," he said, as his arms wound around her.
"Of course," Katniss said, closing her eyes. "I wasn't finished yet here. And I came back for you, too," she added.
"I missed you," Katniss said, opening her eyes, Peeta's face so near hers, his lips inches from her trembling mouth, the anticipation making her breathless.
Then Peeta leaned in, and she closed her eyes again, the kiss slow and unhurried. He didn't go further, staying where he was to languidly savor her lips.
He pulled back a little to murmur to her, "And I've missed you most intolerably." There was a clang of metal outside the tent, reminding her that they were in the middle of a devastating war, but at this moment, she had never felt safer and more loved. Katniss leaned in to kiss him, this time a bit more intense, a bit more impatient, pulling him to her by his collar. She tilted her head, losing herself in the kiss as their tongues danced, committing the fire she felt at this moment to memory.
They broke again for air.
"I need to tell you something," Katniss said, surprising herself at the urgency her voice carried. But the moment demanded it, and she had to ride the wave. Peeta was about to dip his head to access her throat, but now lazily moved back up to look at her, a smile on his lips, the light from the happy emotions of their reunion dancing in his eyes.
Katniss's breaths started coming short. Even now the words did not fall easily from her. She had never before placed herself in such a position, so open and trusting and vulnerable.
"What is it?" Peeta asked gently when she continued to just look at him. Her heart responded to his voice, beating fast against her ribs. But there was nothing to fear. There never had been. This was Peeta.
Her words found their home as her heart pushed her voice.
"I love you, Peeta," she confessed, her voice growing stronger in conviction. His hold grew tighter, and the way he looked at her made her breath quicken. She lost herself again in his eyes and in his arms, but it was a glorious surrender. And she could not stop her words. "I'm sorry it took me so long, and that I didn't tell you back then because I was so scared and confused and thought it was so fast. But I do, I do love you, Peeta," and her sight wavered again as the tears came.
Peeta smiled adoringly, radiant as the dawning sun, warming her throughout and making her feel as if she could soar. One of his hands cradled her cheek, wiping the tears with his thumb.
"I love you too," he responded. "And I never want to part with you again," he added, drawing her closer to him. And while in his arms she knew that no matter what they faced outside amidst the chaos of war, together, they were invincible.
Her pebbled nipples brushed against his chest as her ecstasy arched her back toward Lord Hawthorne. His false name fell from her lips after her repeated chorus of exultation, writhing, moaning, and completely conquered. Gale raced to his own hollow conclusion as he ground her to the mattress, hips snapping until his abdomen ached and he spilled.
After a few exhales, he disentangled himself from her legs and sat on the bed's edge, reaching for a flagon of wine and a goblet, his only constant companion during his trysts. He had prayed the woman was sated enough. He needed valuable knowledge from her. This was his life now, all in service and duty to his kingdom.
She was still panting heavily, trying to recover from their fourth joining of the day. He felt her hand trace his spine, knowing what else the woman demanded of him. She would have him another time before she spilled her secrets. Gale grew anxious. The longer they stayed, the more it became dangerous. There was no day that passed without him fearing their discovery.
The woman continued to trace mindless shapes at the base of his back, tingling his skin with the pads of her fingers. He looked back at her as he drank more wine. Her eyes were mischievous, her hair dark as grapes spilling into her breasts. To the woman, he was merely another scribe to another nobleman, mining for information to make his master more favorable to the queen.
As if to persuade, he felt her lips along his spine, her breath cool against his sweat, until they stopped by his ear. "That was a considerable service rendered for such a paltry piece of information I hold," she purred.
"Nothing is ever trite to my master," Gale replied, returning the goblet to the table by the bed.
"Oh, but what I know will soon be common knowledge," she whispered.
"Yes, but my master needs to know it now," he persuaded, and with that, he twisted fast and pinned her to the bed again.
The woman yelped in excitement and arched toward him again, whispering as she dug her sharp nails into his scalp.
"Very well then," she said coyly. The moment she had told him what he needed, Gale's blood turned to ice. He could barely concentrate as he seduced her again.
He needed to find Princess Johanna. And they would need to leave the Thirteenth Kingdom immediately. All the information that Lord Abernathy needed from him had been secured and covertly sent, save for this new knowledge, this devastatingly important piece of information.
When the woman was finally sated, he left her side and dressed swiftly. He prowled the stone halls and went up to the towers. The princess may be in the company of the young heir to Queen Alma.
Princess Johanna and himself played the role of the tumultuous couple perfectly, he the rogue lover and she the scorned woman. It was the only act that would divert suspicion from them being seen often together.
He saw her exiting the young prince's chambers, carrying a mass of linen sheets in her arms. The passageway was mercifully deserted. As soon as she saw him and the expression he wore, she knew there was something grave he would share, and was about to walk to him when the door opened. Young Prince Nim, fragile and sickly, appeared.
"You forgot my gift from the winter garden," the boy said, handing Johanna a stem of night iris, its petals a shocking violet.
Princess Johanna smiled sincerely as she took the flower, affectionately ruffling his hair. "Forgive your poor, forgetful chambermaid, Your Highness." She bowed low, and Prince Nim looked pleased as he returned to his room.
Johanna's friendship with the young prince was a calculated move on their part. If they were to be discovered, the heir may play a role in ensuring they kept their heads attached. It was well known that Queen Alma gave her son anything.
When Johanna neared him, he knew his face was grim. "What have you learned?" she asked, her eyes growing steely.
"The Thirteenth Kingdom will attack the Twelfth Kingdom next—"
Princess Johanna eyed him narrowly. "So send word to Lord Abernathy to fortify the defenses in the isthmus you share with the Fourth Kingdom—"
Gale exhaled sharply. "They do not intend to attack through the land," he said, pausing. "They will attack through the northern coasts, through the sea, with another host. A much larger host. The one currently deployed in Panem is merely a decoy," he said.
At once, Johanna's expression grew sharp as the reasons dawned on her. "Because they know your kingdom is defenseless while Prince Peeta leads the army in the mainland," she finished the conclusion in his mind. The realization had hit him hard when the woman unloaded her secret. Gale looked out the large windows, at the skeletal trees that shook in the howling winter storm.
"We will need a diversion," Johanna whispered, looking up at him. Gale's expression hardened. He had already thought of it. His eyes fell to the night iris on top of the soiled sheets in Johanna's arms, and met her glare as their minds raced to a unified thought.
He felt her grip his wrists painfully and she moved to block his way, as if to shield the room's innocent occupant from the unthinkable deed Lord Hawthorne had already resigned himself to do.
The frayed yellow ribbon Katniss held in both hands snapped back as she released one end. She had been twisting and stretching, rolling and knotting the once beautiful ribbon for hours as she waited for Peeta. Their tent now felt more confining and restrictive as her Prince insisted she stay there. He did not want her going into battles with him. Merely a week after his recovery, he was called to war once more.
Katniss pleaded with him that she should join, being the Mockingjay, and Peeta pleaded back that he was not prepared to see her in battle yet. There were too many unpredictable variables, he reasoned, and since they had only regained each other, it was painful to give up the certainty of her safety. Besides, he had said as his squire helped him into his heavy armor, this battle was only a clean up, finally rounding out what had remained of the Fifth Kingdom's host. Lord Abernathy had instructed the Prince to wait with his men on the far side of the Third and Sixth Kingdoms's borders, where Prince Finnick would have conducted the battle with the Fifth Kingdom.
He had kissed her goodbye before she could argue some more, and that was when she saw the ribbon hanging from the closed lips of a wooden chest. She yanked it free and began to make knots, infinitely bored and at the same time worried about Peeta. However, no amount of fiddling with the ribbon eased her anxiety. She felt useless. And stupid, for relying on a ribbon to calm her down. She itched for her bow and arrow. It had always been her source of calmness, her breathing aligning with the tautest tension of the bowstring before its release, and the satisfying trajectory of her arrow as her eyes tracked its path.
She threw the frayed ribbon into a growing pile of earlier discarded ribbons and fetched a fresh one. A part of her resented Peeta for being too protective and for leaving her behind. She wanted to argue with him that she was supposed to be fulfilling her destiny here, not just waiting and sitting around.
Katniss sat down again on a low, upholstered stool. On the table behind her were heaps of scrolls and maps, with small flags indicating the kingdoms and their armies and where they were deployed. On the far end were the letters delivered by falcons that had kept pouring and pouring and weighing down on Peeta.
Their nights had been as before. Katniss would be the first to bed, sleepily waiting for Peeta, but now he pored over the maps and ran battle strategies in his mind. He was still the sweet, attentive Prince as he had always been, but Katniss sensed that shadow that hung on him like a cloak. He carried it when he went to bed with her, and this time around, it would be Peeta's head resting against her chest, and she felt him hold her tightly, desperately.
Her thoughts were broken when she heard the exhausted cry of horses and the ribbon in her hands stretched to the breaking point at her anxiety.
She had just risen from her chair when Peeta violently walked through the tent, his armor shining red, the air smelling of the salty tang of blood and metal. His scribe followed him dutifully. He paused behind the table, breathing heavily. She was taken aback by the angry waves that rolled off him. It pulled his muscles taut. His eyes were orbs of fury. Katniss had seen this side of him in the mirror, seen a milder twin of it as they escaped the Capitol. The Prince before her now was as dark as a moonless sky.
Peeta had not acknowledged her presence as his scribe removed his armor hastily. He impatiently plucked the steel plates from his arms and let them fall to the ground, eyeing them in distaste, as though they would bite him. Once stripped of the heavy protection, he marched to the other side of the tent where the bathing chamber was. The flap released the steam inside, and before long, she heard the sounds of water and skin being roughly scrubbed.
Katniss was shocked at what she had witnessed. She walked tensely towards the flap, thinking that Peeta might need some help. Even though his disposition frightened her, she marched bravely on. She pulled the flaps aside.
"Go away!" Peeta barked. Her hand froze immediately. She heard the sound of spilling water. The steam masked anything to be seen clearly, save for the dark outline of the copper tub.
When she didn't move, Peeta commanded from within again. "You need not see this, so go away." The rough scrubbing sound stopped, as did her heart at his cold tone.
Peeta impatiently shouted again his desire to be left alone. His angry tone made her eyes grow wide with alarm. Had he always done this after a battle?
Hurt, Katniss slowly withdrew her hand, looking down at the red-stained water seeping from the chamber and lapping at the hem of her silken dress.
The pain shot from Minister Heavensbee's thumb, up his arm, the blood crying down to his sleeve, the culprit a thorn. He looked at the offending plant, resisting the urge to suck on his wound. In his haste to get to the meeting, one of his sleeves caught a wilting rose's stem in the Chancellor's garden. It was one of the few patches of beauty in the joyless palace of the Second Kingdom, which was now their seat of command after they had barely escaped the Capitol. The Chancellor had all but usurped his brother the king in all matters. But then, there never was a doubt as to who truly ruled.
He pinched his thumb tightly with his other finger, walking and being more careful of the tall bushes surrounding him. There was no need to add more to the injuries he had suffered from the ambush of his carriage yesterday, where he lost half his retinue. Today, he was summoned by the Chancellor, who cared not if he had lost a leg so long as he could still use his mind. By the tones of the voices near the fountain clearing, he was already late.
Minister Heavensbee did not miss the swift look of loathing Minister Crane shot him when he arrived. His suspicions about who orchestrated his ambush were now verified. The war had them lapsing into savageness and barbarity, so far removed from the courtly pursuits and manners they had always maintained. No matter, it was this kind of pit that Minister Heavensbee excelled at manipulating. He savored that moment when his bitter rival in Minister Crane realized he had escaped, not unscathed, but at least still breathing, enough to keep the wheels of revenge turning.
He smirked and savored even more the fact that Minister Crane was here to deliver news on their alliance's strike against the Seventh Kingdom. Minister Heavensbee knew the news was grim.
"Well?" The Chancellor rounded on Minister Crane, who no longer carried a luster in his eyes. Even his leather boots had looked worn. He swallowed nervously, unsure how to swing the news to a positive light.
"Prince Gustav has survived, Your Excellency."
Chancellor Snow's eyes grew colder. "And our forces?" he asked sweetly, showing that frightening countenance predators reserve for prey.
"Substantial damage was incurred by the Ninth Kingdom."
The Chancellor hissed. "And what of the scourge from the frozen north?"
"We are still pursuing—"
"Still pursuing?" Snow echoed ominously. "That should have been dealt with already. Long ago. Before they had a chance to gain momentum." He paced back and forth, clearly unsettled. Then he paused, looking at Plutarch.
"Did you bring some wine, Minister Heavensbee?" The old man inquired, his beard ever wiry and white.
"Wine, Your Excellency?" It was Plutarch's turn to feel the coldness of those eyes. The Chancellor was known to cast a wide net of blame in his anger.
"Because I thought, with all these news, that perhaps we could celebrate by giving a toast," Chancellor Snow smiled while eyeing both his deputies. "Gentlemen, you should congratulate yourselves. Both of you had started and mired us in a war where we have not the upper hand!" The Chancellor screamed, his ominous voice echoing.
Minister Heavensbee dared speak, despite his instinct's protest, in an effort to appease Snow. "If I may, Your Excellency, we did make progress on the Third Kingdom. Their Queen had already been dealt with, along with the prince she carried. This leaves King Beetius with no heir and no fight left in him—"
"I did not want the decrepit Third Kingdom alone, I had aimed for the whole of Panem, safe and functioning and thriving despite our schemes, but all it seems I will have are its ashes if and when my precarious victory is secured," the Chancellor spat out. Then the old man started to cough, the blood undeniable on his palms. He coughed for a long time, thin shoulders trembling. The healers said his illness devoured his insides excruciatingly. That explained his brisk temper.
The Chancellor's imminent death made him more desperate. It made him more ruthless.
It gave Plutarch the signal it was time to follow his own plans. There would be a void soon, if the Chancellor died and the war was not yet concluded. It was time to prepare for that.
He had one more card to play to turn the odds in his favor. And seal the nail on Crane's coffin.
"My spies have brought me a curious piece of information," he ventured, earning a glare from Minister Crane and a sneer from the Chancellor who spat on a linen kerchief, dismissively wondering if his colorful words could turn the war around.
"They found something of interest in the ruins of the Eighth Kingdom, an old castle rich in forgotten history," Plutarch offered. The Chancellor's eyes scanned his face. One wrong word and he may be facing the rack that would pull his limbs apart. The Chancellor was not in a forgiving mood.
"The Twelfth Kingdom has been hiding something, Your Excellency. Before the Unification Ball, my spies have gathered that an event had occurred, that, amazingly, one of their legends turned out to have a seed of truth in them. The legend of the Mockingjay. The very symbol in their emblem. She is here."
"She?" the Chancellor asked, unconvinced. Plutarch flicked an eye over to Minister Crane, whose blood drained from his face. In fact, it was Crane's spies who had gathered the information. But they now pocketed gold from Plutarch's coffers. Greedy men were easy to predict and manipulate.
"Yes, she. The darling lady attached to the youngest prince's hip during the Unification Ball. The carvings at the old castle revealed that another Mockingjay was here before, during the last great war, aiding their King Petrarch to victory. If history has favored them before, we can expect history to favor them again, especially with her auspicious arrival. I think we all know on whom we should focus. It is never good to give a worthy enemy any advantages," he finished confidently, silkily.
Chancellor Snow wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth, looking at him with renewed eyes. This man that he had served for so long he knew better than he knew his own father. He knew the granite-faced politician would finally give him what was due. No more sharing with Crane. While Crane saw the Chancellor as someone to court and flatter and please, Plutarch knew that for Chancellor Snow, life and power were one and the same thing for him. With his disease, there would never be a better opportunity to give the man what he desired above all things. Absolute power. And to finally deal the lethal blow to his long-standing enemy, the Twelfth Kingdom, would be the key to holding the Chancellor's confidence.
But what of Panem? A tiny voice that sounded much like his father echoed in his head. He banished the thought. The nation was only second to ambitions. They had already drenched Panem in blood. Another woman's life would be but a drop in the sea.
And he knew he had secured his place with his revelation, that Crane was now a walking corpse. But he still had reason to be cautious, for dead men had nothing to lose. And should the Chancellor not gain anything from his information, he would be following Crane. But now was the time to savor his small victory, his cunning, and his greatness.
But as if to remind him of his mortality, Plutarch felt the wound ache once more, and his thumb bled again.
She had stayed away from the tent all evening, choosing to eat her evening meal with Cinna. Peeta's sudden, irrational actions were discomfiting, the change so abrupt and so distinct. His words still whipped at her heart.
The moon was high in the dark, cloudless sky, and she felt the day's fatigue even if not much had been done. Katniss bade the apprentice a good eventide and walked back to the tent, mindful of the pained moans the wounded around her emitted. She felt a helplessness that dragged her as she walked, as though the cries of the soldiers clawed at her dress, slowing her gait. It did not help that she knew she could have done something, especially with her gifted arrows. But nothing more could be done until Cinna released her weapons and Peeta relinquished his stubbornness over her safety.
The tent was dark and quiet, most of the candles unlit save for the ones by the entrance. She headed for their sleeping chamber after lighting another candle to bring with her.
She saw Peeta sleeping, but not on their bed. Her Prince sat on the floor, leaning against the bedside, exhaustion lining his face.
Katniss settled the candle on the table and fetched a woolen blanket. She should wake Peeta, or if he did not want to move, she knew she should at least drape the blanket over him to shield him from the cold.
Before her hand could smooth the thick cloth over his lap, a rush of wind knocked her breath, and pain dully emanated from her throat. Fingers locked painfully around her thin wrist, she felt a dagger against her throat, the blade pressing dangerously close to her hammering pulse.
She took a good look at her aggressor. Her eyes widened in fright.
Peeta's expression was heartbreakingly distrustful and fearful, his mind imprisoned by malevolent visions. They stared at one another, breathing heavily, Katniss shocked once more at the change in her prince.
"You're hurting me Peeta," she whispered. He let her go at once, as though her skin burned him.
"Never do that again," he growled, unhinged, as he sheathed the dagger and stood, leaving Katniss stunned.
He strode to the table and threw the dagger. "I did not want you here tonight," he murmured, still breathing heavily. "I had been dreading the day that you should see me like this."
Undaunted by what happened, Katniss walked to stand beside him. He refused to look at her so she placed a hand on his cheek and turned his face towards her. She knew where this came from.
"How many have you slain, Peeta?" she asked.
His eyes met hers unflinchingly. "By my hand or my command?"
Katniss took the hand by his cheek to cover her mouth. She knew the answer. He must have sent thousands to their deaths. She knew the darkness had encroached on her sweet prince. The gentleness he once had was now poisoned by violence and tragedy.
Then he started to shake, as though an unrelenting chill passed through him. Peeta gripped her hips. His voice was soft and unnerved. "Can you still say that you love me?" His frantic eyes probed hers.
"Yes, of course," Katniss replied, without hesitation.
"Can you love all of me, then? Even though I'm a killer, Katniss."
"Because it's better to leave me now, after you've seen all of me, than to keep me hoping," he harshly interrupted her.
"I'm not going anywhere," Katniss said, reaching behind her to unlace her stomacher. She shed her silken layers, until she was only in her gauzy underclothes.
Peeta sucked in a breath at the sight of her barely concealed body. She led him carefully to bed and climbed in, her arms opening to receive him. His heavy body pressed into hers as he settled his head against her neck. Katniss stroked his hair gently hoping to relax him.
As her lids began to close, Peeta spoke. "I see Aldran's murderer in every enemy I face in battle. And I kill them as though they are. It's what drives me to slay them, to take that final step in deciding they didn't deserve to live. Then in my dreams, especially after a battle, Prince Gloss is always still alive, always within grasp, but I never complete the kill," he confessed.
Katniss did not respond, realizing how close she had been to being harmed by her prince who was consumed with revenge. So she just stroked his hair again until he fell asleep. But it took a long time before she too slumbered, before she could shake off everything that had happened.
When his eyes opened, Peeta knew he had only a few hours' rest. But even so, his tightly strung body never needed more than a handful of hours. Besides, his sleep was always punctured with his recent battles, his mind replaying them in the most vivid and draining way possible.
He had awoken because he had sensed someone approaching the tent. Not an enemy, but not someone expected as well. Peeta carefully extricated himself from the sleepy tangle of Katniss's arms and got dressed.
His mood descended once he left Katniss in bed. He felt that inexplicable anger that haunted him nowadays, aimed at everything yet at no one in particular. The day he had started feeling this way, he knew that even if he did not die, the war had already claimed him. It had awakened that beast within every man that demanded for blood, and no peasant, no knight, no prince was exempt.
Peeta found his squire nervously looking to the ground as he exited from his sleeping chambers. He was the son of a distant retainer to Lord Abernathy's family, a gentle boy who would not last long in battle.
The squire informed him of the news he had been awaiting for weeks. The hunting party he had sent out, right before he even rode into his first battle, had finally returned. It was a special mission he entrusted to only a few of his privy gentlemen and knights.
He ventured out into the camp at once, the sky caught between dark and light. A thin layer of the blood red sunrise rose slowly from the horizon. His boots sunk to the soft mud as he approached a makeshift wooden prison, built from splintering stakes and old nails. A pole stood in the middle, and a man sat tied to it. His hair was long, his clothes tattered and filthy. He groaned as a bucket of gray water splashed into his head.
A guard opened the gate, and as Peeta went nearer, the man rolled his head to his shoulders.
He had changed, Peeta thought. The shirt now hung loosely, having been made for a body strapped with flesh and muscle, not bones and loose skin. The water slid the dirt from his face, and as Peeta crouched before the man, his eyes opened. Peeta felt satisfaction as he recognized a flicker of dread in them.
Peeta smiled cruelly, "Ah Prince Gloss, how foolish of you to have been caught."
His brother's murderer spat out a loose tooth, no doubt from an earlier skirmish. The eyes quickly blazed as a raspy, low voice grumbled. "Spare me your words, Prince, and get on with your revenge."
"Why, if I had known you were in such a hurry to die, I would have just sent my bloodhounds after you, to be hunted down like a wild boar," Peeta remarked. "No, we both have come a long way, Prince Gloss, and we must settle this in the right manner. You surely would not deny my men the opportunity to relish the death of their prince's murderer and have his butchery avenged."
Prince Gloss stared at Peeta with unmitigated hatred. The prisoner's pride was still plentiful and no remorse would bleed from him.
Undeterred, Peeta gave an uninterested remark. "No need to worry, Prince Gloss, if it's death you seek, then I can assure you that you will forfeit your wretched life by sundown."
He left the prison and issued instructions to his deputy to build the scaffold immediately.
The executioner's sword lay on the very table on which they partook their meals.
Katniss swallowed as she appraised the heavy looking weapon, no doubt to be wielded with both hands. The noise from the construction of the scaffold had gone, leaving only certainty that one man would lose his life before the moon rose again.
She did not speak to Peeta all morning and afternoon, after being crankily woken by the noise of the construction, and gathering information from his squire about what had happened. She feared for Peeta, and she even feared for the doomed Prince Gloss. She remembered Princess Cashmere as her broken body hit the sea. She imagined the once stately and proud Prince now weakened and helpless and being dragged to the block. She felt sick and ran to the bathing chamber to expel her last meal on a wooden pail.
When she emerged, Peeta was standing by the table, rigid as a pole with his back to her.
"Peeta, please don't do this," she begged.
"And what do you suggest I do, let him walk free?" he snapped back.
Katniss moved toward him, knew he had heard her, but he still did not face her. "Let the bloodshed and revenge stop with you, Peeta," she asked of him sadly.
"I need to do this," he replied with finality and heavy conviction, sheathing the sword with a click. Desperate to stop him, she placed a hand to his shirt, clutching, pulling him back from walking out.
"It will destroy you, Peeta," she said, hating the way her voice cracked at the end. "There's always another way, another choice," she insisted.
But the coldness of his resolution seeped through his tone. "There never was for me," he replied. "A prince must be unflinching in his duty to protect his kingdom and his family, and avenge them if need be."
But Katniss had not let him go, and instead, leaned her forehead to his back, hoping he would stay. His next words broke her heart.
"I love you, Katniss, but not even you can get in the way of this," he declared harshly before he left.
Standing alone, with her closed fist now empty, the air torn from her lungs, Katniss felt as though Peeta had slapped her.
She did not leave the tent until she heard the drums beating for the doomed Prince Gloss. Katniss forced herself to get out of the tent, to witness what she knew would be Peeta's most difficult hour.
The soldiers assembled in orderly lines and she could see the scaffold built by the foot of a hill. Peeta was already there, both his hands resting on the hilt of the heavy sword. Katniss walked until she reached the side of the tall platform, wishing Peeta would look at her. He did not. But she felt a familiar presence come to her right. It was Cinna.
The field was silent and the soldiers stood still. She next heard the sounds of grunting. Through the wide berth between the groups of soldiers, two men dragged the fallen prince who seemed to have lost the ability to walk. Prince Gloss was brought to the woodblock, directly in front of Peeta. The front of the block was dressed in small stacks of hay.
The soldiers pushed Prince Gloss to a kneeling position, tied his hands behind his back, and from the tremble in his body, she knew all his bravery had deserted him, unlike his sister who valiantly sought her freedom in death.
Peeta positioned himself beside the kneeling man. "You are allowed your final words," he spoke roughly.
Prince Gloss remained silent.
After seconds of waiting, Peeta began to step back in preparation for the execution. As he was about to take the last step that would bring him to the perfect distance to behead the man, Prince Gloss turned to Peeta, his eyes accusing and full of loathing.
"You would have done the same thing," he enunciated slowly in an agonized voice. Katniss gasped at the statement. She saw Peeta hesitate. Prince Gloss, propelled by anguish, shouted his next words for all the soldiers to hear.
"You would have killed my sister, if it meant saving your brother from the Chancellor, and I would have been the one wielding the sword now," he said.
Peeta's face had drained of color.
Embittered, Prince Gloss continued, tears now running down his face. "My only crime was that I loved my sister as much as you loved your brother, and that's why we're here. So do it, Prince. End my life, and I will watch in the next as you rot in this world." Prince Gloss then lowered his neck on the block, a sign of submission to his execution, closing his eyes in anticipation.
She wanted to shout at Peeta to stop. That it was not too late. But instead, she held her silence.
Katniss saw Peeta grip the sword with both his hands. He looked at Gloss with undisguised revulsion. "I hope your stirring words were a comfort to you," he said as he positioned the blade against Gloss's neck.
And it all happened so slowly. As Peeta raised his arms, Gloss opened his eyes and met Katniss's gaze. It seemed as though she were back in the mirror, her connection to Cashmere felt so strong, and the pain in her heart was as though she were the princess, witnessing her own brother's execution. She felt so acutely the antagonistic yet loyal love that all siblings share.
Peeta's cry rushed to her ears. The sword flashed in an arc. Then bone bowed to steel in a sound as gentle and swift as a bird's flight. Katniss closed her eyes as the severed head fell to the hay and the emaciated body slumped to the block. She heard the frantic running of someone distancing himself from the wretched site, and she knew to whom the sounds belonged.
Katniss found Peeta in the copper tub, filled with steaming water. Her prince soaked in his clothes, staring blankly at the space ahead of him. She pulled a wooden stool and took Peeta's hand, humbly offering whatever comfort she could impart with her touch. She knew he was unreachable, that she had to wait for him to come to her.
Finally Peeta whispered. "He was right." His tone was broken, whipping her heart.
"Peeta please, let's get you out—"
"How could I have condemned a man whose actions would have been my own had our fates reversed? Had my brothers been the ones threatened by the Chancellor?" He turned to her, eyes in pain. "If it had been you he threatened?" The last words were whispered in torment as his hand reached for her cheek.
"I am his mirror, Katniss, and only our allegiance distinguished us," he said, withdrawing his hand. She could only look at him.
Then Peeta took a washcloth hanging by the tub and began rubbing the back of his left hand raw, muttering, "It won't go away."
Katniss looked on, alarmed, as the redness deepened. She placed her hand on Peeta's wrist to stop him.
He looked at her, questioning. "Let me," she said. She held her hand out for the cloth. She would do this for him, she thought, cleanse him and share his burden as he had always done for her. She cupped his face and smiled sadly.
Katniss stood and retrieved more buckets of hot water and soap, and instructed Peeta to remove his clothes.
She returned and saw Peeta had lowered himself into the tub, his broad shoulders exposing his scar from the poisoned arrow.
"Just close your eyes," she told him. When he did, she leaned and pressed a kiss on his forehead, her own tears mingling with the water.
She lathered the cloth with the soap and began gently cleaning Peeta's hands. The hot water relaxed her prince, and soon he was leaning his neck back against the tub, his shoulders unwinding.
Katniss cleaned him with tender strokes, lovingly scrubbing even between his fingers and toes, up his arms and legs. Never mind that her sleeves were soaked and the front of her dress was also stained with soapy water. She worked diligently, wishing she could scrub away the tarnish on her golden prince. His was a mind pushed too far. Pushed by circumstances that had spiraled out of control. Pushed by the many players who pulled the strings in this war.
When she was done, she handed Peeta the towel and left him to dress, composing herself by the chamber's entrance. She led him to bed, where he slept immediately, that eternal frown on his forehead finally smoothed.
As she looked at her sleeping Prince, Katniss felt a wave of hot anger course through her at the people responsible for making Peeta this way. The Chancellor. His deputies. Even Peeta's father. It was all a convoluted, tragic mess.
Katniss forced herself to step back. She went to her wooden chest where her clothes were and secured a cape around her shoulders for the cool air. She headed out of the tent in search of Cinna.
Cinna was sharpening daggers this time when she found him; the sound of steel swiping steel sickened her, reminding her of what had transpired at sundown.
He bowed when she made her presence known. "My lady," he acknowledged.
She walked closer to him. "I need my weapons," she demanded quietly.
"Do you think you deserve to use them now, my lady?"
"I need my weapons," she said again, standing her ground. Cinna went around the slab of stone he worked on, assessing her, seeking to see what had changed. She met his eyes defiantly.
"Then tell me, Mockingjay, are you now prepared to kill?"
Katniss thought of the men she had seen slaughtered in the battlefield, the chaos that Panem had descended to, the images she saw in the mirror, and finally, her broken prince. All these heartaches hurried her reply.
"Yes, I am."
And she finally understood the tragedy of it all, that even the best intentions could spawn the darkest deeds, as she herself was prepared to do everything to save Peeta and protect him. It was now her turn to pay the price of war, as everybody had done.
AN: Sooo? How was it? I would LOVE to know what you think. This chapter, especially Gloss's execution, has been one of the things that I had been looking forward to share with you guys ever since I started outlining the story. Mockings Hall, when I planned it, and you may have noticed, is not just focused on Everlark. I deliberately made this a multi-POV story because I believe that Everlark doesn't exist in a vacuum, especially with war as its backdrop. The choices of other characters will affect them, as we have seen here. It plays a huge dynamic on their relationship. And it will play an even bigger role in the chapters to come.
Speaking of chapters, if you follow me on tumblr, you will have seen my post about the alternate titles of the coming chapters as a teaser. If not, come join me on tumblr and we'll have lots of fun as I share sneak peeks and outtakes and other stuff that interest me (FOOD, FOOD, FOOD). Oh, and here you go :D
Chapter 13: Lost in Paradise
Chapter 14: The Feast
Chapter 15: Where They Can't Hurt Us
Chapter 16: Never Let Me Go
Chapter 17: The Broken Places
We're more than halfway through already. And I would like to thank all my readers, those who follow this story, those who have it under their favorites, and those who have reviewed. Thank you so much. You guys keep me going as I chug through writing these long chapters for you.
See you! :D