How did this happen? How could this have possibly happened? There were hundreds of potential tributes there – thousands! Yet, here I was. Me. Connor Jedd. Fifteen years of age. On my way to the Capitol to participate in the 44th Annual Hunger Games.
Blond hair blocks my waterlogged vision, as I sit there, curled up in a ball on the train straight from District 5 to the Capitol – a journey from which I will probably never return. District 5. My home. The thought brings a fresh set of tears to my eyes. What would my siblings be doing now? With no parents, their brother being reaped just lost them one more way of earning money. Tristan, the head of the family at twenty years of age; he'd probably be staying strong for my sister, Pura, who would be weeping uncontrollably.
Sitting across from me is Ace Harper. She's this years' female District 5 tribute. At seventeen, she's two years older than me, and it shows. Shadowed, bloodshot eyes are staring out the window, but not one tear has leaked from them since the Reaping. Blonde silk hair flows onto her body, which is also curled up, like mine.
I brush the hair from my vision and wipe my eyes as I hear the door to the carriage hiss open. Our escort, Decimus Lilydore, steps in. He's wearing an ice blue tight suit that erupts with huge crystals at the shoulders. His hair is neatly trimmed, and white with cyan streaks. Eyes dusted with frosting look us up and down.
'Not bad, not bad' he says, 'We can work with that. Now, you two, I think it's about time you met your mentors.'
His white-lipped mouth creeps into a grin. I imagine this is supposed to seem warm and comforting, but it's really failed in that department and somewhat unnerves me. Ace stands up, expressionless and walks over to Decimus, who exits through the door he first appeared from, beckoning us to follow. I stand up, finding my legs to be stiff after being pressed against my chest for however long the journey has been so far.
I cautiously step along towards the door and follow Decimus and Ace into the neighbouring carriage. This carriage is very plush – in any other circumstance, I probably would be taking in every detail in awe, but today my eyes are solely focused on the two people seated on one of the two couches in the room. The first I recognise as Tyga Redlake. She had been the victor two years ago, and is still only eighteen years of age. Fire red hair curls down onto her shoulders and she smiles at us as we walk in. The other is Tobi Hornan. I hadn't been born when he won, but I understand that he had won the 26th Hunger Games when he was 18, making him 36 now. I'd met him once, when he came into school for a talk on Capitol society, but as far as I'm aware, most of his time is spent living in his house in the Capitol, as opposed to the District 5 Victor's Village. He has curly white hair but, unlike Decimus', the streaks in his are black to match his suit. I imagine this is probably the fashion in the Capitol at the moment.
Decimus introduces us to them and then tells us a little bit about who our mentors are and how they'd won, before strutting out the room, giving us both a slightly (but probably unintentionally) sinister wink. Tobi gestures for us to sit on the other couch which is at a 90° angle to theirs, and we do so.
'Right' Tobi begins, 'First things first – sponsors. If you're a tribute in the Games, sponsors are the most important resource you can have. Sure, it's not the end of the world if you don't make the best impression, but if you get injured and don't have any sponsors to send you medicine, then life in the arena's gonna be a hell of a lot harder.'
Tyga continues on from Tobi.
'The interviews are the most important thing, but every move you make on camera is going to be judged. From the moment you're reaped, people are making bets on you, odds are being created. Ace, you're doing well so far, however, Connor-' she looks at me, 'You've got a bit of catching up to do.'
It's true. There's no way I could've come across as sponsor-worthy so far. Tears formed in my eyes the moment I hit the stage. I'd caught myself in a reflection and seen a pale, frightened face staring back at me. Who'd place any money on that?
Tyga and Tobi then suggest we watch the full set of reapings to familiarise ourselves with the other tributes, and a few stand out for me. Both from District 1 lodge themselves in my mind because of their ridiculous names – the girl, Bliss, is slim with long chocolate hair, and the boy, Chant, is also slim, but appears very fit and also looks about twenty, so I am shocked to see he's only seventeen. There's a fourteen year-old girl with tight black curls from three, and a dazzling boy from four, who I'm sure will gain many sponsors just on his appearance. Then it's us. Ace looks very strong, no fear shown in her eyes when we're called up. Not like me. I cringe as a pale, broken boy slowly steps onto the stage. Tyga and Tobi look uncomfortable. A few more stick in my memory – both from eight volunteer after their younger siblings are called up, a thirteen year-old girl from nine collapses after her name's called – I feel terribly sorry for her as this won't help her gain any sponsors, and finally, an eighteen-year old girl from eleven who volunteers before the name has even finished being read out. She has a scar on her cheek and murderous eyes. After the pair from twelve shake hands, the screen flickers off, and Tobi speaks.
'So, what do you think of the competition?'
To my surprise Ace speaks for the first time since she was reaped, 'District 1 and the girl from District 11 look like they could be problems.' So she's noticed the same threats as me then.
'Yes,' Tyga replies, 'The Capitol have them, along with the boy from two, down as the favourites at this early stage.'
Who was the boy from two? I can't remember.
'But it's still all to play for.' she continues, 'The training scores and, more importantly, the interviews are the things that really craft your odds and gain you sponsors.'
We spend about another half an hour running through tips on increasing your sponsors before Decimus returns and announces, in his strong Capitol accent, that we'll be arriving in two hours, so we all head to the dining carriage for supper. District 5 isn't a poor district, on the whole, but at least a third of the food on the table I've never seen before in my life. Delicate plates are piled high with meats and fruits, cheeses and desserts. I take a glass filled with a pink liquid – I figure I might as well try something new – there's a one in twenty-four chance that I'll never try it again. I gulp down a mouthful and it tastes disgusting, so I quickly have a sip of water to rid myself of the clinical taste. Tyga doesn't eat a huge amount, but Tobi has filled his plate with something from at least half of the dishes on the table. Ace cautiously tries a spiced chicken wing, and decides she likes it – spending the rest of the meal dining on these. I try a bit of everything, most of which is delightful.
Half way through the meal, after polishing off a plate of bright red meat, Decimus attempts conversation.
'Oh, you'll love the Capitol' he says enthusiastically, 'It's such a stylish place.'
We don't respond.
'And the people are so friendly.' I doubt this, so I turn to Tobi, who spends most of his time there. His expression neither encourages this view, nor does it say it's a lie. 'Honestly, you compare some of the children in the Capitol to the tributes you see every year and the difference in manners and etiquette is just astounding!'
Yeah, I think, maybe that's because they don't ever have to worry about being forced to fight to the death on national TV. I hate him for this comment. I see Tyga shoot him a murderous look.
'Oh, but of course not you two.' He adds hastily, 'You're simply delightful!'
This appears to be more directed at me than Ace, but, if anything, this makes me despise him more.
After this, the conversation dies down quickly, and it's not long before we finish eating. Supper lasts around 45 minutes, so after we finish we decide to make our way back to our chambers to clean ourselves up for the cameras and fans that will be eagerly awaiting our arrival at the Capitol. The same people who, a few days from now, will be cheering as our deaths provide them with some light entertainment.
I shower, and change into a casual shirt and trousers. The shelves of the bathroom are laden with beauty products. I read the backs of some of the bottles and try a few out on my arm. After spraying it on my wrist, one product removes all freckles on my arm, at which point I choose to stop and leave my room. The tunnel leading up to the Capitol has left the carriages absent of any natural light. As I walk down the carriage I can hear faint sobs. A door opens several metres in front of me. Tyga exits with reddened eyes. She's been crying. Tobi follows her. I dodge round a corner, to make sure I'm not aware to have witnessed some form of private moment. For a moment I ponder why one of my mentors has any reason to cry. An answer does not immerge quickly, so I continue down the carriage to the main lounge.
When I arrive at the lounge, Decimus, Ace and Tobi are all sat on plush velvet chairs. Tyga is absent. Decimus springs into animation when I appear.
'Okay, good! Just in time!' he yelps excitably, 'We're just about to enter the Capitol. Now, people will be watching you, so smile or look fierce or whatever, just don't look-' He pauses, '-weak.'
Light pours into the carriage as the train exits the tunnel. My eyes adjust a second and suddenly they're full of colour. Decimus didn't lie in his descriptions of the Capitol. It is stunning. I suddenly realise people have spotted the Tribute train. Rainbow bursts of Capitol citizens stare at the train. I look over to Decimus, who beams, as we inhale the very essence of his home. He mouths a word to me – 'wave'.
I do, and the crowd outside go wild, hopping up and down in glee. I've found that their smiles have radiated into me, and I am now wildly grinning at the Capitol residents. My smile only falters when I realise that the people I am waving to will be the same people who will be overjoyed to watch me, and twenty-two others, die in the arena.
That somewhat ruins the moment.