A/N: I love all of your reviews! And I hope you enjoy this extra long treat, so soon after the last update! Thank you for reading, and I disown everything not mine, as always.
We sailed south some nine days. The wind blew briskly at our backs and the seas rolled us gently forward. I remembered all the tales I'd heard about the black nature of this sea, how it never stayed calm longer than a day or two before it blew itself into a ship-eating gale, and how pirates patrolled its surface and monstrous marine worms its depths. But this sea was not that of the tales and rumors. It was unnatural — even I could feel that — as if a god had passed his or her hand over its surface and calmed it for the betterment of our passage.
I watched Peeta closely the first day, wondering if he did this.
Or perhaps it was Annie.
Peeta left me well enough alone for these nine days of sail. During the day I sat with Lavinia, Primrose, and one or two of the other Trojan women on the aft deck, raising our faces to the sunshine, and passing stories between us of children and childbirth. I hated it. I loathed it — could these women talk of nothing else but babies? They even put their hands to my belly — ugh! I felt violated — and felt the shape of the baby within, and nodded their heads sagely, and said it was bound to be a fine son for their prince. They said nothing to me of how this "fine son" had been got on me, or of how it bloated my body most horribly, or of the pains that shot up and down my legs and through my groin when I walked, or of its odious twisting and turning at night when I wanted to sleep, nor even of the pressure the thing put on my bladder so that I dribbled urine at the most inopportune moments. They spoke only of the fine son it was for Peeta, and how that must please me.
I smiled, and nodded, and knew Primrose needed this kind of small attention and small talk to get on through the days. I wouldn't ruin it for her, so I continued to sit there, and hoped they did not see through my eyes to the fear beneath. I could laugh and gossip with the best of them when it came to saving my life. Though I know blue-eyed Peeta promised to keep me safe from others and alive, I didn't know if I could put my faith in black-eyed Peeta once he arrives. So I still feared.
A new fear built in me of a mysterious person, whom was to be my murderer on the baby's birth. In my nightmares they had no gender or face, they were merely a shadow, some dark wisp that came in and slit my throat before Peeta could take a step. Glimmer's visions were heartily believed among Peeta's men, and I knew somewhere deep down Peeta believed the vision, too. How could I not as well?
How could I expect Peeta protect me when he's never done so before?
At night blue-eyed Peeta came to lie beside me, but he rarely spoke to me and made no demands on my body, as promised. He did, nonetheless, disturb me, for when I lay awake at the torment of my own fear and nightmares when he slept he dreamed of such strange things that he tossed and turned and murmured.
Sometimes they were nightmares; terrible ones where he woke gasping and departed immediately, half-mad in the eyes, cold sweat covering his body. Once I asked him what he dreamed of and he told me the past. I shuddered and told myself never to ask again. But also among the night visions that passed through his mind was a dream of a woman. I know this because as I sat wakeful and watching, I heard him murmur to her, and reach for her. Who was she? Someone to replace me once I'd fulfilled my purpose and delivered him a son? Someone he preferred to me? Someone he…liked? He said he liked me but I saw the guilt him at that moment… his pity moved him more than anything in my direction.
Those hours, when I sat there and watched Peeta dream of another woman, were among the blackest I'd ever known. It seemed, then, that any hope I had gained while he promised my protection was lost, and the hope of gaining black-eyed Peeta's regard was very slim indeed.
Sometimes I tried to remember Gale, but under my current trying conditions — the burdensome weight of another man's baby within me, the strangeness of shipboard life, the constant worry that blue-eyed Peeta would disappear and black-eyed Peeta would abandon or murder me once I'd given birth (an even greater fear now I knew he dreamed of another woman, and worse, that it won't be him at all and not under his control) — I found Gale's face ever more difficult to recall.
Besides, he belonged to a life long gone.
On the morning of the tenth day at sea the forward fore-looker cried out, and pointed, and between the scores of craning necks between where I sat on the aft deck and the stem of the ship, I could see a faint line of the horizon. It was an immense land, Lavinia's husband, Pelopan, told me, toward which we sailed. Vaster than could be imagined, and filled with creatures stranger than the wildest fantasy.
"Is this where Peeta leads us?" I asked, hating it that I had to ask Pelopan and so reveal my own complete ignorance of my husband's intentions. "Is this where he will build the new Troy he speaks of so often?"
"Who can know?" he said, and then turned aside to his own wife, holding her hand and smiling with obvious care at her. I felt a sudden surge of ill will toward them. There they stood, simple untutored folk, at ease and in love with each other, while I…I, was condemned to a husband I feared and a child I resented. I scowled at the approaching island then, and when Primrose came to me, she was crying.
Lavinia's deep sighs and condescending pats on her shoulder infuriated me, but at least Peeta was not there to witness my sister's tears. He spent most of the morning shouting and gesturing; doing what all men must, I suppose, when they direct a fleet so large toward a suitable anchorage point.
By noon all the shouting and gesturing had paid dividends, for the entire fleet had anchored in shallow waters off a long sandy beach that appeared to extend for a lifetime to either side of our ships. Beyond the beach rose a low range of hills, covered with brush and topped at one point with two strange stone pillars. These, Pelopan informed me, were what was known as the Altars of the Philistines. When I asked why, he shrugged, but said they were well known among sailors for the natural spring at their base.
The entire afternoon was spent in rafting people to the shore. The word was that this was, indeed, only a temporary stop. We were to camp here some days to stretch our legs, replenish our supplies both with water and with fresh game, and to hear what Peeta had in store for us.
Many of the adults and some of the older children would not wait for their place on the rafts, and jumped overboard from their ships to wade through the shallows to the beach, but I, naturally considering my sister's comfort and my pregnancy, waited for my place on a raft. I was surprised when Peeta came to me and indicated he would aid me to the first of the rafts.
"Will you run?" he asked me, low in my ear. He sounded like he feared I would. I looked back at the strange land I did not know and considered my palace life, then glanced at my bloated body, then my sister's and knew that would be impossible. His worry was misplaced, but rightfully thought of.
"Do I have much choice?" I finally replied.
He did not smile, and he regarded me a moment with uncomfortable speculation, but then he nodded as if I'd somehow answered a question in his mind and helped me down the side of the ship to the raft with more regard and a gentler touch than I'd been lifted on the ship by his hands. Primrose got the same aid.
Cato and Marvel were already waiting on the raft, and Marvel stood and aided me, stone-faced, to a clear spot. I murmured my thanks, and prayed that my plan to win Peeta's companions over might actually be having some effect, or have potential. I cheered considerably thanks to Primrose's excitement to see new land and be free of the rocking ship which had made her quite ill. I did not even flinch when Lavinia dropped aboard so inelegantly that the raft rocked and I was splashed all down my right side with a wash of seawater. She was the last to board, and so, looking one last time to Peeta who was staying aboard to supervise the loading of subsequent raft-loads, I turned to this strange new land where we were to rest for some days, at the least.
I was this was not where Peeta meant us to stay permanently. Although the beach itself was pleasant enough, the wind that blew from the interior of the land was hot and dry, and carried with it the stink of hardship and toil.
On shore I took Primrose's hand and we walked slowly up the beach, enjoying the coolness of the water that swirled about our ankles. My other hand was at the small of my back, trying to ease some of the discomfort of the child. About us groups of Trojans, clearly relieved to be on dry land once again, were moving tents and cooking pots a little distance into the low hills beyond the beach to set up sheltered camps.
I stopped, and closed my eyes, and sighed in pleasure. Even the hard soil of this land would prove a more comfortable bed than that damned sleeping pallet onboard ship. "Katniss." I opened my eyes and turned, a twist of discomfort in my stomach. It was Cato, Peeta's never far distant friend. He was a harder man than blue-eyed Peeta, and somehow bleaker than the black-eyed one. I sensed that where Peeta might be swayed, Cato was implacable. There were no charms I could use against this man, and so I employed none.
"Yes?" I said.
"You are needed," he began, and his cold eyes slid to my belly, reminding me of exactly why I was needed, then flickered to Primrose, and my hatred for him doubled. "Peeta has landed with the last of our people," not my people, "and is now asking that you join him at his side while he speaks to the assembled gathering."
I tried not to let my surprise show, though I suppose I should have expected this. Peeta was the kind one for who knows how much longer and every moment he doesn't spend on his people is making up to me for something he's done. But… Peeta wanted me at his side while he stood and addressed his people? The same people who had not forgiven me my part in Mesopotamia's slaughter? (Whereas he has forgiven me because of his own part in it, and I have begun to not loathe him for it…) And it was Cato who must bring me this news, when he undoubtedly would prefer it to be him standing at Peeta's side? Ever mindful of the precariousness of my position, I repressed any emotion on my face, nodded, and followed Cato back to where the Trojans gathered, still clinging to Prim's hand.
"I am graced with the will of Artemis," Peeta said, his voice clear and strong.
I stood slightly to one side of him on a small rise that faced the beach; before us were spread the assembled mass of the Trojans. Although it looked as if I had my eyes on the crowd, I was surreptitiously watching Peeta. I wanted to know how blue-eyed Peeta handled a crowd. And even though I feared this him slipping away greatly, and hated black-eyed Peeta and all he'd done to me, I had to admit he looked magnificent as he stood in the last rays of the afternoon.
Even my king, Primrose's father, had never commanded so much authority, nor exuded so much confidence. And for Hera's sake, he was a god now. He eluded a power that drew me in, and the entire crowd, too, as near as I could tell. Peeta had apparently waded or swam ashore, for his waistcloth clung to him wetly, and his skin gleamed with droplets from the sea. Once his body disgusted me, that first night, but now I could appreciate it. As I watched him move an arm, for no apparent reason I realized he was not wearing his gold bands, and had not been for the past few days – and for another no apparent reason I remembered how, when Peeta lay with me, those bands had always felt hot against my skin. I shuddered, and saw Peeta's eyes shift my way momentarily, and I dropped my eyes quickly.
"We are to travel far to the west," he continued after a moment, "to a land of great beauty and riches. It is called Panem."
Panem! At the articulation of that one word it was if I were back in that strange stone hall of my vision listening to that small girl's laughter, staring through the stone of the arches into the wondrous landscape beyond. And this is where we were going? No wonder I'd dreamed of the stone hall so often since leaving Mesopotamia… I felt a surge of excitement. Seeder presence came to my mind, but I didn't look about to see if she were actually here. All I thought was that wondrous land in my dreams…where I'd felt such a sense of "home" we were going there. And it was no vision at all, but reality? It must be, surely, if that single word recalled the dream so vividly. If Seeder planted the seed.
Panem…I rolled it silently about my mouth, and found it sweet, in a cloying way.
Peeta was talking of how this Panem occupied the southern part of a white-cliffed island called Albion. As he spoke I allowed myself to dream a little of this new land — my visionary land, and every time Peeta said the name of "Panem" I felt another small surge of energy spark against my skin.
One of my hands strayed to my belly, and suddenly the word wasn't so sweet. Would I be alive by the time we got there? Albion was far, much farther away than two months, and I was due to die in childbirth. The thought that I would never make it there was… disappointing, and I hardened my face.
Peeta's voice spoke on, and my mind drifted further into a sea of uncertainty. If he did manage to protect me, or I managed to myself, or Glimmer was wrong, than wouldn't that mean I would make it to Panem? There he'd build his well, become immortal, and… hadn't he promised to make me queen? I never wanted that, nor do I still want it, but I wondered what it might be like to stand as queen beside Peeta, a god, in Panem. I became vaguely aware that under my hand my belly was unnaturally hot, and that my fingers and palm were throbbing with that heat, but that awareness did not distract me from my train of thought. It the hand that covered mine that drew me up short. There, in front of me, was the fey goddess of my dreams. Seeder smiled at me, and I knew no one else could see her there in front of me.
What is it? I thought to her.
She did not answer, only stared down at my stomach, smiled again, and then dissipated.
I heard the sound of another man's voice and I blinked, and came back to the moment, dropping my hand from my belly. Peeta had apparently finished his address, and was now standing, answering some questions from the crowd. One man asked if the people of Panem would welcome the Trojans, and Peeta hesitated before answering. "It is possible they will not do so," he said, "but we have the gods with us, and we will prevail." There was a murmuring at that, but from what I could see most people seemed reasonably accepting of what Peeta had told them. I was not surprised. Peeta had molded the crowd just right… and it struck me suddenly in horror: he'd even had me daydreaming of him!
Peeta must have seen my slight movement from the corner of his eye, for he turned to me and told me to make my way down to the campfires, that I should eat and rest, and not weary myself overmuch in this desert air. And I nodded, jaw clenched, hoping beyond hope he had not seen Seeder or my thoughts.
I are sparingly, washing down the food with healthy draughts of the barely watered wine; justifying the wine as an antidote to the effects of the hot wind that blew continuously from the interior of this land.
Across the camp I could see Peeta talking with Primrose. He used his hand a lot, gesturing, and she nodded, small and swollen thing that she is, and eventually she was crying. I wanted to retrieve her then, but I could tell even from the distance that he was trying to apologize to her. I gave him a chance.
When I had done, and had drunk enough to sate my thirst, I rose, and told Lavinia to leave me be, as I needed to relieve myself at some distance among the scrubby bushes of the hills. A lie, but she subsided, nodding sympathetically and remembering, I suppose, her own numerous pregnancies. Sometimes it helped to be a breeding woman among breeding women. I did indeed take the opportunity to explore unheeded, and with Primrose busy, the silence was calming. I meant only to stay in nearby bushes and turn back, but then, instead of returning to the fireside, I walked farther into the hills, drawn as if mesmerized by the hot wind that blew in my face.
The wine I had drunk throbbed in my blood, and I shook out my hair from its restraints and let it blow free, relishing its freedom. I climbed to the top of the first hill, and stopped to catch my breath. Once I would have been limber enough to run up this gentle slope and not need to pause for breath at all…but not now. I drew in deep, grateful breaths, gazing over the hills rolling into the distance.
In this evening twilight the shrubs that covered their slopes gave the hills a purple aspect, and I stood entranced by the sight, my imagination wondering what lay beyond them in this strange land. I had never known anything beyond my mother's whorehouse and the king's palace. I breathed in deep once more, and found it easy, so I walked down the far slope of this hill and toward the next, pushing my way through the shrubs, tilting back my head and letting their thorny stems catch at my hair.
It seemed like freedom, somehow; this wilderness about me.
This next hill was steeper, its footing more slippery and stony, and I took far longer to climb its height. Yet when I did so, and stood, hands on belly, gasping in the sweet night air, the view seemed even more entrancing, the successive rolling waves of hills even more seductive. I wondered how many people had been seduced deeper and deeper into these hills, and where their bones lay, and if they had been picked clean by strange beasts, or left, to be scrubbed white by the sun and the wind.
"Katniss," said a voice so gently behind me, and a soft hand caught at my elbow. I turned, but did not pull away my arm. I was somehow not surprised to find him behind me. "I had not thought you the one to be so entranced by such wildness," he said, smiling, and I, still under the spell of the hills and the wine and that single word he had spoken hours ago, smiled back.
Peeta drew up to my side, and let go my arm, standing to look over the hills, now almost invisible in the darkening night. His own body, virtually naked save for the waistcloth, was golden and exotic, the linen of the cloth gleaming very white against the tan of his skin. A sensation of heat flowed down the length of my spine and I realized, without any surprise at all, that it was desire.
"Were you running away?" he asked, still looking at the hills.
"Where to?" I said, but Peeta frowned and I dropped the game. "No, Peeta, I was not running away."
An urge to say something sung in me. I drew in a heavy breath, and pushed the exhale through my teeth. Nervous? No, I couldn't be. I peeked at him out the corner of my eye and said, "I can never decide if I should hate you, or tolerate you… or…" and I did not finish that statement out loud.
"Or?" Peeta prompted, turning to me.
I shook my head, and without thinking too greatly about it, he reached down a hand to the untied tangles of black hair around my shoulders and ran his fingers through it, his expression unknown to me.
"You should hate me," he decided. "But I don't want you to be afraid of me."
His hand drifted to my face, running over my chin, and up my jaw. I closed my eyes. "I'm not afraid."
I could feel him draw closer, feel his breath on my face. And for once my stomach didn't clench in disgust. My hands moved to lay flat against his bare chest. It was the first time I had ever done so, the first time I had freely touched him. I had seen all of him, and smelled him, and felt him brush over my skin so many nights of these past seven months, but I had loathed all of it, all of him for it, and I had never wanted to touch him as I did now.
Peeta's hand on my face was caressing passed my lips when he asked, "Can I kiss you?"
I did not answer, not with words, but he drew me in close to him, our bodies pressed hard against each other, one of his hands burying into my hair. I found my breath short, and my throat dry. The wind threw my hair like veil about us, whipped against our cheeks like a swarm of barbarous, biting bees, devouring us in its wildness until there was nothing but his warmth and the scent of his maleness and his hand centering my universe. When I opened my eyes again, his mouth was parted, and I could see the glint of his tongue, and smell the sweet musk of his breath. My own breath grew even shorter, and I relaxed in his arms and against the entire length of his body. His face drew closer, and I felt his lips brush my forehead and my cheek, and then the rough wetness of his tongue sliding along the line of my jaw.
I shuddered. I remembered when he first kissed me and I'd slapped him, and he'd made sure never to kiss me again, not since then. But now he asked. Was he waiting for me to give my permission?
"Sometimes you can be so sweet," he whispered. "And I want to die for all I've done to you."
In my state the thought of him dying, not seeing him again, blue-eyed or black-eyed, or god, was horrifying and my hands on his chest snaked around his neck and pulled him deeper to me. I closed my eyes again, and sent a pray to Seeder – please, please, let this be the real him, and not make me a fool.
"Yes," I whispered, and I wondered if I am allowing my rapist/kidnapper or my savoir from my rapist/kidnapper to kiss me.
As his mouth moved very close to mine, one of his hands grazed down the side of my waist, gripping my hip, fingers on my hips bone, and I pressed myself hard into his hand. "Are you certain?"
"Yes." That time my voice came out harder, and I raised my face to his. Our mouths grazed, I felt the warm slipperiness of his tongue as it slid briefly, tantalizingly, between my lips, and I relaxed completely, utterly, and opened my mouth to his.
And almost fell to the ground as abruptly he let me go and stood back.
"Peeta?" I asked.
He was gripping his hair and turned his back to me. I reached out a hand to touch his shoulder, but he flinched away from my touch and I drew back. "Go," he said, but I frowned and remained stubborn.
"What's the matter?"
He was shaking then, and I felt something heavy hit my feet. He'd told me of Annie, of how she shook like a leaf clinging to a tree in fall, and I wondered if that was this. If the power he'd taken was going to control him, instead of the other way around. I can't that happen! a voice inside me shouted and I stepped closer to him. "Peeta, look at me." He didn't move. "Please…"
The please got him to turn my way an inch or so, and I slid a hand up his back, softly. He shuddered and the shaking stopped. His fingers still clenched and twisted in his hair, though. "What is it?"
Peeta didn't reply in words, and didn't have to. He raised his head from his hands and met my gaze and I flinched away from the black spreading through the blue in his irises. He gripped my wrist before I could put distance between us, and he tugged me closer, and I reeled away, thinking he meant to strike me, but instead he wrapped his arms around my torso and clung. As if I were weight to hold him down.
Reluctantly I laid my arms around his shoulders and upper back, and curled them around, my hands resting in his blonde curls, shifting through them. They were soft, and I could hear his heavy breathing, and from where his ear lay I knew he could hear the galloping of my heart. Scared of him, now, scared if I misstep, and of how abruptly he'd changed, and of when he changed, with me so close…
He was gritting his teeth in effort I didn't understand, and I continued to pet his hair for a while, familiar to the act thanks to Primrose. And then it struck me something else I used to do for Prim.
"Do you want me to sing?" I asked him.
His jaw remained clenched, though his throat worked tightly, and he wanted to say something, and I drew back – despite his hands grappling to keep me close – and looked down at him. His eyes were more black than blue now, and when he opened his mouth, he spoke harshly, his words bitten off weirdly, "I thought I repulsed you…" he said. He stopped, fighting with himself, then continued. "Or was it that the only reason you could bear me so close just now was because you were screaming Gale's name over and over in your mind?"
"Peeta…" I warned, and his hands tightened painfully around me.
"You bitch," he said. "Did you think that your sudden display of wantonness would fool me?"
And he flung me away from him, and I barely retained my balance. I was scowling now, scared but not wanting to admit it, and desperate to have the other him back. "I never meant those words, Peeta."
"Yes! Yes, you did! Those words must be the only truths I've ever had from your mouth. Look at you..." and he eyed me in distaste and I shrank a little on the inside, my resolve to recover what seemed entirely lost forgotten. "Do you think that now I could possibly want you? Now that I am what I am."
"I'm sorry," I said, slowly, my eyes steady on his. I risked all by placing one of my hands on his arm. His muscles tensed at my touch, but he did not throw me off, and I drew a little closer. "I'm sorry."
How bitter the words are, now, when it should be him apologizing to me.
"Do you think I am going to kill you? Do you?" The words came out of nowhere, and bitterly.
Despite blue-eyed Peeta's promises I said, "Yes."
"Good," he said, and the coldness in his tone was horrifying. "I think you can only be trusted when you are terrified." But I saw something flash in his eyes briefly, something akin to fear. I was not the only one lying tonight. I found new resolve to pull him back from this bleak state, so I mirrored what he'd done to me tens nights ago, and I lifted my hands to his face and placed both on his cheeks, holding his face steady there. I forced him to look me in the eyes, and he remained still and fuming, staring back.
I opened my mouth, drew in a breath and began what I had sung so many times to Primrose:
"Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your sleepy eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise."
For a moment Peeta continued indifferent, until I drew a thumb down his cheek his eyes lulled shut.
"Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true…"
I paused, and felt his hands reach for my waist, pulling me close again, clinging. I let go his face as he buried it in the crook of space between my shoulder and head, lips pressing into my throat.
"Here is the place where I love you."
I sung the line softer than the rest, cautious of the lyrics, said so close to his ear. He didn't react.
"Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
And when again it's morning, they' ll wash away.
Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm"
The final lines are barely audible.
"Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you."
Once the song was done, I became aware how dark and silent it was upon the hill. In the distance beyond Peeta's back I could make out the Trojan's campfires on the beach and I wondered if they noticed our absence. I knew I should return to Prim, if not return Peeta to his people, but I stayed put this time, not willing to pry his hands away from me as he held on, and hopefully pulled himself back into the man that I considered my husband, and worth protecting.
For a long while we stood. After some time I began to pet his hair again, and Peeta's breathing grew regular. His hands on my back traced shapes into my clothes and I closed my eyes and wondered what.
Finally, he drew away and his eyes were blue. I sighed extravagantly, sagging in my skin.
"Better?" I asked.
Peeta's head hung a fraction too low, but he nodded. "I don't know what came over me…"
"No." He shook his head and then turned to the side and gazed up at the stars. "It is as Clove promised."
The mention of Clove troubled me and I hugged myself and stayed where I was. "What do you mean?"
He touched his bare arms, where the golden bands should be. "The bands aren't actually mine. They belonged to a god… the god of poison, she said, and his power and being still lingers in them. When I wear them I become more like him, and they… well they make me what you consider my other self. They dull things like guilt and regret, and pain, even. They give me his power and strengthen the emotions like anger and ambition in me. If not entirely put them there. And she said they would soon seep into me, and become a part of me, even if I am not wearing them…"
I back tracked, trying to understand. "The bands are the difference?"
How had I not noticed? I shook myself and asked, in horror, "So… you'll lose the control to switch?"
"I never had the control, Katniss. Clove is the only one who can take the bands on and off of me."
"Then why do you trust her?" I demanded. "How could you allow her to do it?"
He turned to me, helplessness lightening up his face. "I can't turn on her. I can't! She's all I've had since the moment I was exile, after my father…" and he choked there, too. I remembered he'd murdered his own father, but it occurred to me for the first time that it might have been set up. "At first I thought the bands were harmless, that they only helped me, and it wasn't until she takes them off that I believe them truly bad. But when she comes back to put them back on… she's a goddess, I can't overpower her, and by the time the bands are on I forget why I was resisting her at all."
"You're her prisoner?"
"No!" he said to hastily. He's a prisoner in denial. "I made the pact with her as much as the others. I can't pull out of something like that. This isn't some silly agreement. This is war."
"The war is almost over and… you're going to start another if you attack Thresh," I pointed out.
Peeta scrubbed both his hands over his face. "I know that."
"You've already got more than you can handle. You're going to be immortal soon, along with all the others, and do you really want to start that? An immortal war, such as the Olympians had? You saw what that did to the world, and you want to be responsible for that kind of destruction?"
Tension filled his form and I froze, trying not to turn him once more into the monster.
Had I pushed too hard?
"Katniss," Peeta said, and sounded like him, soft and guilty. "It's more complicated than that."
And with that he straightened, took my arm and walked me back to camp without another word.
Peeta kept his people five days in the hills surrounding the Altars of the Philistines. Each day hunting parties ventured into the wild lands beyond the hills, bringing back fresh kills of stringy hare and the small antelope that fed off the shrubs. The fresh meat was welcomed. Most of it was dried in the sun for eating once the fleet put to sea again, some of it was consumed within hours of being brought back to camp, roasted on open fires with some of the herbs and oils the Trojans had packed in their ships.
On the sixth day, at dawn, Peeta gave the order to reembark. The loading went quickly — people were now used to the rafts and loading procedures — and by late morning the fleet was under way again, sailing due west. Clove words had spoken true; Peeta need not worry for a thing, for as soon as he'd given the order to weigh anchor, a stiff easterly breeze sprang up. Ship captains raised their great square linen sails, and the oarsmen stowed their oars and reclined on their benches, enjoying the feel of their ships slicing through the blue-green waters of the great central sea.
They kept the line of the coast on their port beam, and many a curious eye ran over the landscape that they passed. Now desert, now more verdant oasis, now hilly, now flat, many among the Trojans wondered at what lay deeper within this vast continent they sailed past. Sometimes the wind carried the howls of exotic beasts, sometimes the scents of spices strange and rare. Sometimes people appeared on the beaches, watching the massive fleet as it sailed past. They wore long, hooded, and brightly colored robes, and leaned on long crooks similar to shepherd crooks. They never waved, nor shouted. They merely watched; praying, perhaps, that this fleet would continue onward, and not stop to ravage their lands.
Peeta kept the ships at sail for eight days and nights. His people slept as best they could among the press of other bodies, bundles of clothing and blankets, amphora of water and wine and the constantly fidgeting goats and sheep they carried with them. During the day there was little else to do save watch the passing coastline, peer over the sides of the ship into the deep clear waters of the sea in an effort to spy sea monsters, play at dice or boral stones, pass the time idly gossiping with their neighbors, or wonder at what awaited them in this new land. Very few people had any complaints about where Peeta led them. They knew they might well be sailing into possible hardship, even conflict, but they were sailing into freedom, and in doing so they were reclaiming their proud heritage and nobility.
Peeta had made them Trojans again; he had handed back to them their self-respect.
Peeta did not spend his entire time shouting orders, or contemplating his future building New Troy.
And to his supreme relief, no other incident like the one in the hills occurred again.
Sometimes, when he had time to rest, and sit and enjoy the sun and the sea spray that washed over the sides of the ship, Peeta followed Katniss with his eyes, watching her. Thinking. He'd left Primrose and Lavinia to share her cabin since that first night at the Altars of the Philistines, after what he'd said and done, preferring to bed down with the single men and warriors. He was still furious with himself over ruining that perfect moment, when she let him kiss her. He didn't know what came over him, only that suddenly he was angry at her, for those spiteful words to him in their bed, for her treachery that had caused so many deaths in Mesopotamia, and, most of all, for her false seductiveness in the hills behind the Altars of the Philistines.
But had it been false? He didn't think so at first, but the other side of him was certain of it.
He'd followed her into the hills because he'd wondered, despite his words to Cato, if she had some new treachery planned, or if she thought of escape. To have her turn to him, and touch him as if she truly desired him, and press herself against him was beyond belief. Gods! He had wanted her (which deepened his other side's anger unintentionally), but though blue-eyed Peeta was fine with being fooled, black-eyed Peeta would not be. She'd spent the past seven months making perfectly plain to him that she despised him, and that she preferred that immature child-boy Gale fumblings to what he could offer (and he knew he could arouse her, he knew it!). What was she doing? What game was she playing?
Well, he would not play it with her. His one half would not allow himself to be fooled by her.
Blue-eyed Peeta however… he did not mind being fooled if it meant her close to him.
That is if he was being fooled.
The fact that she did not flee when he brought up the matter of killing her strengthened his belief that she was not trying to fool him. The fact that she did not shun him once he changed over helped, too.
And her singing…
He'd never heard such a compelling voice, and wished she would never stop. And would always sing. But the song had ended and with it his suspicions and the horrible tide of something else faded as well.
Another horrible certainty came with that other half of him, the one connected to the bands; Clove waited him, a woman who could truly partner him, who had promised herself to him from the moment they met…the true antithesis to Katniss. And what would she do if she thought she was losing to her?
The thought horrified him, because he knew Clove, ruthless as she was, and protecting Katniss deepened to mean something else. He couldn't let Clove see his affection for his wife (returned or not), or Katniss' life would surely be forfeit. Yet despite the knowledge that he had to stay away from her to keep her safe, as Seeder told him to and as he promised Katniss to do, he continually found his eyes drawn to Katniss. Surreptitiously, whenever she was unaware of his regard, Peeta would watch her. Katniss' belly was large now, ungainly, but even though she was so far into her pregnancy, she'd still found the time to continue growing herself. She'd gained a little height, and both her face and her limbs had lost much of their palace life roundness – and if Peeta cared to notice, he'd realize Primrose had grown as well. But there was a grace and sureness to Katniss' movements — the tilt of her head as she laughed (rare as it was), the languid sweep of her hand through the air as she pointed out something to her sister — and Peeta did not know how he did not notice all this about her before.
Often he would listen to her speak, telling stories to her sister to distract the child's mind, and he wondered if she sung at night in the cabin to Prim and weather he dare to eavesdrop. But then he shook himself. What he should want is for her to grow fat and ugly, so that he could truly despise her, and then she can be safe. One part of him hated it that in almost everything she did she only made him want her more. And the other side hated that he could not have her, despite her being his wife.
Both hated it that when she turned and saw him looking at her, the light faded from her face.
Both hated it most of all that whenever he thought of Glimmer's prophecy that she would die in childbed, he felt a terrifying sense of loss.
On the eleventh day after leaving the altars of the Philistines the fleet approached a green and verdant land on their port beam. For the next day and a half they sailed past large towns, even cities, that appeared at regular intervals along the coast or just inland.
In midafternoon of the twelfth day a large port city appeared at the mouth of a sluggish river, and Peeta called to the captains of the fleet to lower their sails and to set the anchors. He, accompanied by some five other men, set out in a small rowboat to the port from where he did not return until the next morning at dawn. With him came several moderately sized sailing vessels well-staffed with men who were, the Trojans were relieved to note, only lightly armed.
Peeta climbed back into his flagship, smiling at Cato and Marvel who stood anxiously by. Behind them Katniss, face and body still, waited with Lavinia. Her eyes did not once leave Peeta. "We have made new friends," Peeta said, grinning as Cato, then Glimmer came forward from the ship and clasped his hand and arm. "This land is called Mauritania, and it is a rich and well-ordered and supplied realm."
His grin widened as Glimmer let go his hand, and she said, "But not so rich they are not willing to part with some of their supplies for a portion of the gold and jewels you said we carried with us."
"Will we stop here?" Katniss asked, her eyes now moving past Peeta to the city about the port.
He looked at her thoughtfully, wondering at her motives for the question. "No. We stay only the length of time it takes the Mauritians to ferry out to each of our ships fresh supplies of water, grain, and fruit." He looked back to Cato and Marvel, and the ship's captain with them. "It is too late in the summer to linger. We leave as soon as we can."
They sailed the next day in the hour after dawn.
Far, far away Clove stood by a still pond, staring at the vision she could see in its mirrored waters. A hundred black-hulled ships, sailing toward the Pillars of Hercules… Peeta in the lead. Closing her eyes, and summoning her power, Clove called on Annie, who stirred into turmoil at the call, but appeared.
The bewildering beauty stared down at Clove with at least four inches of height. "What?" she asked.
"Do you remember our deal?" Clove asked casually, drawing a hand over the surface of the pond.
"I remember." Annie glanced at the action and the ripples in the pond stilled at once and faded. "But tell me again what you need. Exactly? I don't want to get this wrong… I get a lot wrong…"
Clove smirked up at the Goddess of the Sea.
For all her kind words and reassurances to Peeta, Clove intended to cripple this fleet long before it reached Panem for the purpose of the plan, of course… and perhaps even finally rid herself of this mewling child Peeta had taken to wife while she's at it. Clove hated the way thoughts of Katniss constantly filled Peeta's mind. It was beyond time that the bloated thrall was disposed of, and far before she had a chance of giving birth. Peeta would have to survive without his precious son.
Clove stood, leaned into Annie and whispered the plan to exact measure.
"And then…" Annie licked her lips. "And then I shall have he who prays to me so well?"
"Yes," Clove promised. "But only if all goes as planned."
Late in the afternoon land masses to the north and south had closed in upon the fleet so that ahead lay only a relatively narrow strait of sea between two headlands. Peeta — standing in the stem of his ship with the captain, Cato, Glimmer, and two other experienced sailors — looked ahead, clearly worried.
Then he glanced upward toward the sky that had, in the past hour, clouded over until they were almost as crowded by low-hanging black clouds as they were by the headlands. "So much for "Artemis'" pledge for calm seas," Cato muttered, and Peeta threw him a dirty look.
"I have been through the Pillars of Hercules once before," said the captain, Aldros. "It can be a perilous journey in the best of seasons, let alone when a storm threatens to close in about us."
"How many ships abreast?" said Peeta. If he sailed the fleet through single file it would take hours to get them all to safety.
"Five, possibly six," said Aldros, his dark eyes narrowed in his weather-beaten face as he stared ahead. "But even then the captains of the ships on the outer extremities will need to be careful. There are rocks there" — he pointed — "and there, and there."
"Do we sail, or row?" said Peeta, now watching Aldros more carefully than either the sea ahead or the sky above.
"We row," said Aldros. "The Pillars of Hercules is the meeting point of two great seas, the central sea, which we leave, and the great gray infinity that stretches to the west, into which we enter. Tides and waves pull and push in every direction. If we depend on sail, we are likely to be dashed on the rocks to either side of the pillars. The oarsmen must prove their worth if we are to survive. Ye gods, Peeta, I hope you trained the new crews well in the months we waited in Mesopotamia."
"Well," said Peeta, "now we will find out. Aldros, will you organize the passing of instructions between ships? We sail five abreast, and we do it before night falls. Tell the captains to stow their sails, and to tie everything down. The crews must take to their oars, and passengers must huddle as deep in the bellies of the ships as they can."
Aldros nodded, and hurried off to speak to some of his sailors. The next moment the great sail started to come down. "My friend," Peeta said to Cato without turning to him, "will you see to the people in this ship? Get them low and tightly packed."
As Cato moved off, Glimmer turned to Peeta. "I cannot see what is to come," she said, distressed.
"That's alright," Peeta allowed, and smiled at her, hardly. "I think this is no coincidence."
"Poseidon?" Glimmer asked, ignorant to many of Peeta's secrets.
Or Annie, Peeta thought. He had thought about her once or twice, wondering when she would come.
Is this her coming?
After dismissing Glimmer Peeta picked his way toward the aft deck of the ship. Katniss, Primrose, Lavinia, and two other women were sitting in the small space beside the cabin. They stared at Peeta, and sometimes beyond him to the gray seas between the Pillars of Hercules, their faces tense and worried. Peeta saw Katniss finger her belly briefly, and then kiss Prim's hair and whisper in her ear.
For the first time he began to truly worry about the trial ahead. He had so many vulnerable people in this fleet… He reached the women, and smiled, but because the smile did nothing to wipe the concern from his blue eyes, none of the four women smiled back.
"We have heard rumors of storms and danger ahead," said Katniss. "Will we be safe?" He didn't miss how her arms momentarily tightened around her little sister.
He hesitated, and then realized that because of that hesitation nothing he said would relieve the women's anxiety. He shrugged, and decided to be truthful. "I don't know. Normally a storm, even a bad one, would not concern me overmuch. But in these narrow straits, with these rocks, and with so many people packed into these ships." He paused, sighed, and said again, "I don't know."
One of the women sitting with them, Atala, gave a low moan of terror.
He glanced at Katniss: she was obviously fearful, but calm.
"You cannot stay on the aft deck," he said to the women. "It is too exposed should the sea rise and rage."
"We will huddle with the others below in the belly of the ship," said Katniss. "Do not worry about us. We will be well."
Peeta stared at her, surprised at her taking charge. He supposes she could have always been a take charge kind of woman, but under recent circumstances and by his forceful terms of meeting her, this side of her had been buried behind what had all happened. He rather liked her this way; as herself.
He nodded. "Wrap yourselves well in blankets — anything to keep you dry if the waves toss themselves over the side of the ship. And whatever happens, whatever you see or hear, stay where you are. There will be no greater safety anywhere else."
"We shall wrap our arms about each other and tell each other childish rhymes," Primrose said, trying unsuccessfully to smile, "and we will not get in the way." For a moment Peeta remember apologizing to this slip of a girl, and she had – though he knew Katniss disapproved – and he smiled at her.
Peeta admired their composure. They could have made things hard for him; instead, it appeared as if they were going out of her way to make things easier, even though they were fearful themselves. He nodded. "Thank you," he said, and he left.
Katniss turned to the other women and began to urge them into the belly of the boat.
A half hour later, just as the first waves of ships had entered the straits between the pillars, a storm of supernatural proportion bore down on the fleet.
Many years before, when he had been a child, Peeta had heard the sound made by a massive block of stone falling fifteen paces onto stone pavement. The noise that the winds made now, as they met in the center of the straits, reminded him of that, although it was ten times more powerful, and accompanied by a shrieking and raging such as no mortal ear normally heard during its lifetime.
Whipped on by the winds, the seas rose into great jagged gray-green cliffs, plunging and swirling in such a manner that the entire world about and within the ships collapsed into swirling, drenching horror.
Peeta, who had tied himself to the stem post of the ship so that the seas would not sweep him overboard, screamed at the oarsmen — as within every one of the hundred ships in his fleet captains and officers screamed at oarsmen — to dig in and stabilize the chaotic spinning of the ships. The oarsmen, fighting down their terror, dug in their oars into the waters in the dip-and-hold maneuver they'd practiced a thousand times on dry land. They did well, holding their oars steady against the massive pressures battering against both oars and ships, but no matter how well they managed to hold the maneuver, the ships would not stabilize. Not in this sea, not amid this degree of rage.
Katniss and her companions crouched as deep as they could within the belly of the ship, already drenched despite their thick covering of blankets, hardly daring to breathe in the extremity of their fear.
Still alongside Katniss, Primrose, and Lavinia, Atala had begun to wail and shriek, sure that her life was near to ending. The storm's intensity increased, and ships were driven far apart.
Peeta, watching half terrified, half enraged at his post, saw one of them lifted high on an immense wave, then plummet down its face to dash against the rocks at the base of one of the pillars. There was a brief glimpse of bodies being hurled through the air, and then the swirling waters ate the entire ship and its people and cargo. Within seconds there was no sign the ship had ever existed.
"Cursed be you!" Peeta screamed at the waters. He bared his teeth into the storm and shook his fist at the rain that sleeted down. "Cursed be you!"
As if in answer, thunder boomed through the air, resounding horribly through the flesh of everyone who heard it, then three gigantic streaks of lightning seared through the grim sky: each one hit the mast of a ship. All three masts exploded, sending bodies and cargo spinning helplessly into the wild seas.
Atala, clinging to Lavinia and Katniss, suddenly lost all her reason. She shrieked, tearing herself from their hands, and, rising to her feet as best she could manage amid the violent motion of the ship, fought her way toward the aft deck, perhaps thinking to shelter in the cabin. Lavinia called after her, holding out hopeless arms, but it was Katniss who rose, leaving Prim in Lavinia's arms and, carefully, inch by inch, made her way after Atala.
"No!" she shouted to the woman. For some reason Katniss couldn't let her harmed. She knew what fear gripped the woman, and Atala might not have been her friend, but a companion in the least. "Wait!"
Far behind them, clinging to the stem post, Peeta saw the two women. For a moment he could not make out their identity amid the dense sea spray and foam, but then he saw the distinctive shape of the second woman, and realized who she was.
"Katniss!" he screamed and, untying himself from his anchor, struggled toward them.
Clove lifted her head and smiled at Annie. The unstable woman stood before her, eye closed, concentrating on the storm she brew on the fleet. Occasionally Clove saw Annie's jaw tightened or she shook in the shoulders, but it made no matter. As long as she did what was asked…
And though Annie had declined to do one task of Clove's… concerning Katniss…
Well, Atala would prove to be such a useful tool.
Peeta struggled through the length of the boat, tripping and falling several times as his feet caught first in those of one of the oarsmen, and then twice in the crevices between the huddled terrified bodies crouching in the belly of the ship.
Before him he could see the two women in the aft deck, struggling and swaying in the violent motion of the ship. And, in one moment when the spray cleared for an instant and a gap appeared in the monstrous waves that surrounded the ships, Peeta saw that behind his ship another had been caught in the raging waters, and was dashed against the rocks. Terror gripped him.
"Clove, aid me!" he whispered, and fought his way farther aft.
"Eventually," Clove whispered. "But not yet."
Annie moaned across from her.
Peeta managed to reach the struggling women, realizing that Katniss was in fact trying to pull Atala back into the belly of the ship. "Comply!" Peeta cried as he grabbed hold of Atala. She shrieked, trying to wrench herself away from both Katniss and Peeta.
Peeta let go of her arm with one hand, and grabbed both her shoulders, shaking her slight, hoping it was strong enough to knock some sense into her. He spoke quickly and loudly over the storm, and tried to calm the woman in a gentle way, but she was insensible, and his way proved entirely ineffective.
Suddenly, Atala wretched away from him completely, then, stunningly, grabbed Katniss around the shoulders and drew her toward the edge of the craft. Unheard by Peeta, low in Katniss' ear she spoke: "Time for you to die, you stubborn whore," Atala said, almost conversationally.
Katniss, terrified, tried to tear herself free, but Atala suddenly seemed possessed of supernatural strength. Her hands tightened about Katniss' wrists, and smiling calmly, all her previous terror apparently vanished Atala dragged Katniss a little closer to the deck railing.
Above them a gigantic wave rose, then crashed down, washing the two women toward the very edge of their deaths, and Peeta back farther toward the relative safety of the mid-deck. Peeta was momentarily blinded by the stinging salt water, and knocked breathless by the force of its blow. When he managed to rub the water from his eyes, and blink some focus back into his vision, he saw that Atala had fallen over the side of the ship, dragging Katniss, who was desperately pulling back, almost completely over the railing.
Peeta could not find the breath to shout. All he could see was Katniss' terrified face and her desperate cries as she tried to resist Atala's determination to murder her. Without thinking, Peeta threw himself at his wife, wrapping his arms about her hips, and pulling her back with all his might.
"Let her go!" he finally managed to gasp at Atala. "Let her go!"
"No," whispered the demented woman, falling ever closer to the waves. "She's mine, now."
Katniss fell forward even farther, and her scream was high and thin, the loudest she's ever screamed. It rang in Peeta's mind like a bell and his heart galloped painfully. He felt his grip on her hips sliding.
"Peeta!" Katniss shrieked. Atala sneered… and tugged at Katniss' struggling form so that Katniss now hung almost entirely from the ship. Only Peeta's grip on her robe kept her from going over completely.
"Peeta!" Katniss whimpered, and horrifyingly, Peeta realized it was a form of farewell.
From somewhere came a rage and a strength he did not think he possessed. Pulling himself upright, he leaned over the ship's railing, grabbed Katniss' sodden hair in his right hand and with his left fist dealt a fearsome blow into Atala's face. Her nose and cheekbones caved inward, sending a spray of blood into the wind… and then her hands opened, and she was gone, and Peeta was dragging Katniss back on deck.
For a moment he relished in the feel of Katniss clinging to him.
Until she looked up and saw his eyes and hers widened in horror. Katniss pushed away from him, falling back onto her bottom on the deck, and did not tear her eyes away from his black ones.
Then, as soon as Atala's body hit the water, the storm wondrously abated. Peeta and Katniss both looked up, wiping the seawater from their eyes and blinking in the sudden light. A woman stood on the deck before them, dry and serene despite the wildness of rain and wind. "Clove!" Peeta said, and Katniss felt something turn to ice inside her at what she heard in his voice. "Thank you! Thank you!"
"It is enough," the woman said, then turned her eyes to Katniss, "if not altogether quite enough."
Then she was gone.
Katniss rubbed at her eyes — they were still filmy and sore with the salt water, and she could not see very well. "Who was that?" she whispered; her voice sore from the water that she swallowed.
Peeta hesitated. "Clove," he said finally.
No, a small, ancient voice said deep within Katniss.
No. No. No.
That was the goddess that gave me the plans to turn on you back in Mesopotamia.
The goddess who gave me the means to do what I had done, and see! See what it has done!
Katniss knew in that instant she'd been fooled. Clove had been the one who came to her that late night in Peeta's bed, back in the palace. Clove had been the goddess who whispered the deals that could be made in her ear, and must have laughed when Katniss enacted the plan. Clove was not the sister Hera had talked of. But Katniss had thought she was… and it had led to the destruction that was her home.
Clove sat very still, re-gathering her strength. Annie accomplished most of what she'd wanted — the crippling of Peeta's fleet so that it would need to seek out a port in which to shelter for repairs — but she had not managed to murder Katniss, and that frightened her more than a little.
Peeta had tried very, very hard to save Katniss. Far harder than Clove had thought he would. Her strength had given out just as Peeta had seemed to find some extra, and the silly Atala had not managed to pull Katniss over the side at all.
Still, the fleet was all but crippled, and for now Clove must content herself with that.
"Now?" It was Annie, and Clove fought back a sigh.
None of the fleet managed to come through the frightful storm unscathed, but only five ships in total perished. The remaining ships limped through the straits of the Pillars of Hercules in various states of damage; many completely de-masted, others trailing broken or snapped masts through the water, still others with half the ship's quota of oars washed away.
Over five hundred men, women, and children had lost their lives.
Peeta ordered that the few visible floating corpses be retrieved for a suitable cremation when they could reach dry land; the others, he supposed, would spend their eternity floating at the bottom of the straits. He asked Marvel to speak prayers for them, and to cast burning herbs across the waters to still their souls, and he hoped that they would find peace, and not linger to draw others to their deaths with watery, bitter siren songs.
Night had set in quickly once the storm abated. Neither Peeta nor any of the fore-lookers could see any possible landing — and even had one been close by, Peeta would not have wanted to risk the ships on unseen rocks during a night landing. So he determined they should set anchor as best they could close to the northern shoreline, and spend a cold wet night on the ships — there was not a dry robe nor blanket among the entire fleet, and Peeta dared not allow fires to be set within the hulls of the ships.
The three ships that had sustained the least damage, however, Peeta sent sailing north-northwest, following the coastline. They were to seek a suitable bay where the fleet could anchor, the people disembark and see to their wet clothes, blankets, and their injuries, and a forest where they could cut new masts for those ships that needed them. There was still an unknown time of sailing ahead of them, and Peeta wanted to be able to take advantage of the winds while he could.
He spent many hours consulting with his officers, and clambering from ship to ship to offer support and to assess damage, and did not return to his own ship until the dawn of the next morning. His robe was still damp, his cloak a sodden, useless mess, and by the time he sat down beside Katniss on the aft deck he was shivering uncontrollably.
She had awakened at his return — or perhaps had not slept at all — and shifted slightly to make room for him at her side. As he sat beside her, sighing gratefully as he rested his back against the side of the ship, she hesitated, then leaned in close against him, offering him her warmth.
He stiffened slightly, then relaxed. He was too tired and heartsore to push her away at the moment, and if he was truthful with himself, he did not truly want to. "Is my son safe?" Peeta said, laying a hand on her belly.
"Aye. He is the warmest of all of us, I think."
Peeta realized he was not the only one shivering, and again after a momentary hesitation, pulled Katniss as close to his body as he could. There were people to either side of them — Primrose on Katniss' right hugging Lavinia and her child, and an oarsman called Daedeline on Peeta's left — but even as tightly packed as they were, their damp clothes and the night wind made for a miserable existence.
"What were you doing," Peeta asked very softly, lest he disturb what slumber their neighbors could manage, "to risk yourself and our child like that? Rushing to save Atala?"
He felt Katniss shrug. "I did not think. I thought only to save her."
"For the sake of the gods, Katniss, she almost killed you!" Peeta truly did not know what to think about Katniss' actions in trying to save Atala. Had Katniss' concern been genuine… or was it instinct for her?
He wanted to be glad that she was that kind of person, but the dread in his gut that told him he almost lost her told him he should be upset that she should so put herself in that danger. And so heedlessly!
Katniss didn't notice his struggle, but managed her own. "Atala has…had two children. When she ran toward the back of the ship, that's all I could think of. I heard them crying out for their mother from where they sat close to the stem…" She shivered again and Peeta thought it the tremor of true emotion rather than an act. "I remembered the sounds of the children dying in Mesopotamia, their mothers beside them. I couldn't stand it." She shivered again. "I don't know. I acted without thinking. I should have considered the risk. I could have left Prim all along if I did die…" She was shivering more violently than ever now, and Peeta rubbed his hand up and down her upper arm, trying to warm her.
Katniss looked sideways at him and murmured the next part softly, "You… changed."
"You're you now, but earlier… when you finally pulled me back up you were him. Not you."
No? Peeta's eyebrows furrowed. He did not remember the change. And that sent fear through him. He only remembered feeling desperate, and helpless, and he needed strength to pull her back up. He had resorted not in his weak and unfully formed power as Hades' but he had turned to the bands. Hadn't he?
"He's… stronger," was all Peeta could manage to explain.
"How can he be stronger when you are all that Hades once was in this form?" she demanded.
"Because I will be all that Hades once was, once my god well is complete. Or until I establish a place of power. For now all I have is what little I can manage off his death. The power I get from the god of poison is already established in the bands, so all I have to do is turn to them for it."
"The side effects aren't worth it," Katniss decided, stubborn as ever.
Peeta leaned into her, smelling the saltwater on her skin. "And I won't do it again, I promise. But I had to… then… Atala had been so bent on pulling you over… You should have thought of the risks first."
"Aye, I risked your son as well my body – his cradle," she said, bitterness edging her voice.
Peeta let her remark go, remembering only that frightful moment when he'd seen Katniss stumbling after the incoherent Atala. In that moment he had not a thought for his child, but only for Katniss. He opened his mouth to tell her so, but she spoke first. "What is Clove to you?"
Confused by the sudden change of subject, Peeta could only say, "Why?"
Katniss shrugged again, but he could see she was upset… angry, even. "Although that I cannot be certain, I think she is the one you have dreamed of ever since you returned from that island. I want to know more of her."
Peeta stiffened. What does she mean, speaking of his dreams? Had she lain awake each night watching him, marking each movement? (Planning her next treachery? Black-eyed Peeta raved with paranoia. Or [and he would not admit even to himself that this was worse] had she lain awake dreaming of that damned Gale?) Peeta lifted his hand from Katniss' arm, and drew away from her.
"I don't dream of her, no." He frowned at Katniss. "I dream of the past, like I told you. Clove is my business partner, and is a part of my future. She will be there at New Troy waiting when we arrive."
Something hardened in Katniss' face, before she turned it down at her lap and asked, with little interest in her voice now, "Then who is she of the past? The one you reach out for if not Clove?" And when she said Clove's name there was a hatred in her voice that made Peeta uncertain.
"When I was boy, I had a betrothed. I never really loved her, but we were best friends once."
"And you miss her?" Katniss sounded bored.
"No, she's still around. She's a part of the pact. Delly is her name. The dreams are innocent."
Katniss looked up, raising an eyebrow. "You have friends in this pact?"
Peeta shrugged and ran a hand around her back, for warmth again, relaxing. "Only Delly. I was surprised to see her at the first meeting I was brought to. It stuck in my head like that, because I thought she'd died or ran off, a few years before… when I was about thirteen. She's not the same in some ways, but she reminds me every day what I lost in my father's kingdom. I dream of it often when I'm… me."
Eventually Katniss replied, saying, "I don't want you… to continue your business with Clove."
And it was all Peeta could do not to outright slap her, when the sudden urge to came over him. Black-eyed Peeta took control in that moment… because that is how it worked. Because the bands were all the kept him so tightly tethered to Clove, and loyal, (and very far distant Clove seethed at what she heard the bitch wife say). "Katniss," he warned, his voice dark. And not his own.
She flinched and drew away from him, seeing his eyes now. "Stop," she hissed. She gave sudden motion, determination in her eyes, and grabbed him by his wrists, forcing him to meet her stare.
"This isn't you," she said. "Don't you see? This is her doing. She's –"
Peeta caught her own wrist and twisted until her words cut off in a sharp gasp. "Enough. You will not speak of her that way. Clove is a powerful goddess, and it was her who stopped the storm so you should be grateful, not spiteful."
"And she makes you long for her, is that not so? God that you are, you look on others similarly marked with longing. No matter how treacherous or unstable. She obvious has you trapped, and she obviously wants you to herself –" Peeta could not tell how Katniss had come to this conclusion – "and I am tired of this weariness that is you. You are not worth protecting if you do not hear me when I tell you how best to do it. You want this Clove? Go freely to her, or in denial, I care not. But leave me out of it! What am I to you but a trophy of war, and a breeding vessel for your sons? Answer me, what else will I ever be to you? And why can't I just leave?"
"What in all the gods' names do you want to be?" he hissed back, voice still low as hers.
He'd had enough. All the frustration and anger of the past day (that he did not know he was harboring) suddenly threatened to bubble to the surface in a vicious, hurtful flood. She did not reply, save for a slight stiffening of her features as she turned her face partly away from him.
Then he heard the answer. Not from Katniss, but Primrose. "Free."
The bubble broke, and the viciousness poured forth from black-eyed Peeta's mouth.
"And what makes you think you'll survive in this world alone? There' no palace waiting out there with slave to ferry you about on their backs. Look at you! You're a pair of mewling foolish self-obsessed young girls, filled with resentment and arrogance, and both pregnant, might I add?" To Katniss he continued, "You're no use even as a trophy wife. By the gods! Who would want to display you about?"
She'd shrunk as far away from him as she could now, her face pale, her gray eyes wide. Primrose shrunk into Katniss' side as well, her big blue ones brimming with tears. All about them people had their faces carefully averted. Those wide tear-filled eyes were too much for Peeta. Damn them!
Damn her! Why was it all she wanted was to be away from him? He wouldn't admit that was what made him angriest. But somehow he knew with a terrible certainty that if Katniss was urging away from Clove, he couldn't trust her and she was fooling him… someway… somehow. He didn't know how he knew that. Only that some power urged him away from her, and he stood, spitting, "And if you do not bear me a healthy living son from that great belly, my dear, then I may have absolutely no use for you at all!" He fled, picking his way over the legs and bodies of the people in the belly of the ship until he reached Cato's side.
As Peeta sat down, Cato shot Katniss a look of sheer triumph.
As Peeta stalked off I sat back, closed my eyes against the contempt of all the Trojans about me, and succumbed to a fit of shivering that I could not control. I could not despise the real Peeta for what he had just said… or rather shouted. I suppose it was what I expected. I knew the instant I spoke out against Clove – that bitch who tricked me back in the confines of Mesopotamia – that he would turn.
I should have had expected Clove to have a great hold on him, and she had proved that plainly, more by his actions than his words. I was not to be in his future, per her plans. I wondered for one horrible moment if Clove would be the one to kill me at my son's birth.
It's always Peeta's son, or Trojan child, or parasite… never mine.
I sucked in a breath and pushed it out loudly. Prim heard and hugged me tighter. She sobbed silently into my shoulder and whispered out of everyone's earshot, "I thought he was getting nicer…"
"He was," I replied, regretfully.
But Clove had claws very deep in him, and I finally realized what I was protecting him from.
I opened my eyes, daring to search out Peeta. He sat with Cato, and both men were laughing and chatting lightly with Glimmer. A nasty little knot of hatred throbbed in my chest. The woman smiled and laughed at Peeta, and tossed her golden hair, and pulled back her shoulders so that her breasts strained against her sea-dampened robes. Although Glimmer talked with Cato, her attention was all on Peeta. And why not? I was patently no threat to them, as Peeta just proved by saying what he had and moving away from, and Peeta was…well, as much as I hated to admit – even in his hateful form – Peeta was a highly desirable man. He had an aura of maturity and strength and command about him that was almost magnetic in its pull; apart of his Underworld allure?
I wasn't jealous, not of Glimmer, of course. The only Peeta I cared for was blue-eyed and gone at the moment, and more sickeningly, trapped by another woman by the name of Clove, not Glimmer.
The sun had finally crested the horizon, its light catching his body, and I saw the muscles in his chest and upper arms ripple as he stretched out in the welcome warmth of the sun. And what was that gibe I had once thrown at Peeta? That Gale was so much more athletic, so much more desirable than he?
Gods, and how I regretted that – not because I want to spare his feelings – but because he would never drop it, ever, and I wondered if the jealous in him was his or a part of the bands. I missed Gale so suddenly, sitting there, that my chest ached. He hadn't deserved to die in the manner that he had, but his death in no way made him the virile, athletic lover with which I'd taunted Peeta. He'd been but a friend, and I'd always turned down his marriage offers, and now I felt the biggest fool in the world.
I shifted uncomfortably, the baby heavy and burdensome within me. Glimmer was still laughing, her attention solely on Peeta now. He reached out, and touched her on the cheek, then ran his hand back through her hair as he leaned forward and whispered something in her ear that made her eyes widen and the breath catch in her throat. Cato laughed uproariously, and patted Peeta's back.
I closed my eyes, trying to forget that Glimmer was the woman who had predicted my death. The death my Peeta promised to prevent… did that still stand? It was too painful to think about. I tried to turn my mind to other things…to concentrate on the dream of the stone hall and who waited within. But it didn't work. Even the peace and happiness of the stone hall could not distract me from the idea that soon I would be dead. Black-eyed Peeta, under the influence of Clove, Cato, Glimmer, and Marvel will get the son he wanted and toss Primrose into the nearest crest of waves, and he will laugh as I die.
"You almost died today," Prim said beside me and I nodded. "He saved you."
"I know." And that did help, as if Prim knew exactly what to say. I felt lighter at that. He did save me. But for his son or for me? And more importantly… I wondered… worried… sure, blue-eyed Peeta could have wished to save me and he tried to… but in the end he wasn't enough, and black-eyed Peeta was strong enough… but was he strong enough because he wished to save me or his son?
Was I not enough to motivate either to be strong enough?
Would blue-eyed Peeta be enough on the day of our son's birth?
My eyes opened again and for an instant I could see neither Peeta nor Glimmer. Then, my heart thudding in my chest, I spotted Glimmer stepping slowly over legs and bodies toward the back of the ship while Peeta and Cato had turned to lean over the deck railing and look out to the ocean. I sighed, and my heartbeat slowly returned to normal as I confronted the startling knowledge that I was not so much concerned at losing my life when this child was born, but at failing Seeder, and the real Peeta.
Because once I'm dead, who will be there to stop Clove?
For two days they drifted at anchor, spreading clothes to dry in the sun, doing what repairs they could, casting fearful eyes back to where the Pillars of Hercules lay some five thousand paces behind them lest another storm blew out of nowhere.
Peeta spent most of his time leaping between the close-anchored ships, speaking encouragement and warm words, keeping a smile on his face and the worry from his eyes. He'd hoped that the three ships he'd sent up the coast would have returned by now with news of some shallow, mild bay with natural springs and game and tall straight trees for their succor. But for two long days there was nothing but the silence of the fore-lookers.
He kept as far away from Katniss as possible. He had little idea what she did, but vaguely hoped that she kept herself busy as all women did during times of such enforced inactivity. Peeta doubted she would get much sympathy from the other Trojan women. They'd spent the best part of their lives slaving and sacrificing for her and her sister's father's comfort, and for what? To have Katniss plot to have them slaughtered the moment they reached for their freedom. If she sat uncomfortable amid their abhorrence, then Peeta had no sympathy for her. It was a far lighter punishment than what she'd wanted for them.
During those times he didn't fret over the condition of his people and ships, Peeta worried over Katniss.
Despite himself… or rather, his other self.
He hated the words he'd thrown at her, when he'd returned to his real self, but they were already said. He was worried that the moment he spoke to her again he would change and do something worse, so he stayed well away from her in fear of that. Maybe it was for the best to let go now. Katniss had the right of it, Clove would have him in the end, her king of gods, and it was unfair to lead Katniss on.
Even if it was Katniss he wanted rather than Clove.
His other half demanded how he could trust her in the event he did give in, and if she spoke on more bad word against Clove, black-eyed Peeta would definitely let her death come, certain and final.
(And an even smaller, more certain voice in him asked him if he turned on Clove for Katniss, how would he survive such an act? Clove was more powerful, had more allies, and would kill them both!)
For the past two days he remained blue-eyed and sorrowful, and himself, but still stayed away.
At noon on the third day one of the fore-lookers finally raised the alert; ships approached. Peeta, back on his own ship, rushed to stand with the fore-looker. "Where?" he said, placing his hand on the man's shoulder.
"There." The fore-looker pointed, and Peeta squinted his eyes against the sun (and thank the gods it was sunny; Peeta did not think he wanted to see any more heavy seas or rain for the rest of his life). The sunlight glinting off the water made it difficult to focus well, but Peeta gradually made out the sails of three — no four! — ships sailing toward them from the north.
"Four?" he said, and shifted restlessly from foot to foot as the ships slowly came closer.
"They must be dragging their anchors behind them," Peeta grumbled as Cato joined him.
Cato did not reply, but concentrated on his own squinting inspection of the four ships.
Glimmer appeared out of nowhere, bright eyed. "Three are ours," she said.
"Yes, yes," Peeta said, annoyed that she should so waste time stating the obvious.
Glimmer's mouth twitched. "And the fourth is 'ours' as well," she said.
She grinned at the two men as they turned to stare at her.
"What? What do you mean?" Peeta turned back to study the ships. They were clearer now, their full-bellied sails filled with wind, and Peeta screwed up his eyes, trying to make out the device on the sail of the fourth ship. Cato grunted, because he could not tell the difference.
Gods, but Glimmer must have good vision. "I can't see," he said.
"Wait," Glimmer said, her smile broadening.
And then Peeta suddenly yelled in excitement. "It has a Trojan device! But how, Glimmer…how?"
She shrugged. "Who knows? Trojans scattered in all directions when Troy fell. Your father's kingdom was just the largest gathering of them as far as we know. Is it so impossible that a few ships made it this far west?"
Peeta did not answer. He had shoved the fore-looker completely to one side, and had stepped right upon the stem post, wrapping one arm about it and shading his eyes with his other hand, staring ahead.
The ship was a beauty, a warrior vessel, slung low in the water and with oarsmen so magnificently skilled and smooth he could hardly make out the dip and lift of their oars in the water. The hull was daubed in the usual black pitch, but the stem of the ship had been carved into the head of a mystic serpent, and painted in blues, greens, silvers, and golds. The great linen sail had been dyed in similar colors, and in its center strained the familiar device of Troy. "They are brothers," Cato said, marveling.
"They are brothers!" Peeta began to wave with great sweeping arcs of his arm, then, when the ships had approached close enough that their oarsmen had begun the dip-and-hold maneuver to slow them down, cast himself into the sea, swimming toward the great warrior ship of Troy.
He reached its hull, and placed one hand on its pitch-black surface as he trod water, shaking the sea from his hair and eyes. "I have never seen a fairer mermaid," said a laughing voice, and Peeta blinked, and looked up.
A man of bronze hair and fair complexion stared down at him, his open, friendly face wreathed in a huge smile. What stood out most, however, were his eyes; a stunning (familiar) sea-green. The man was robed in a splendid sleeveless scarlet tunic, a scabbarded sword was belted at his hips, and gold and silver armbands ran up his arms to his muscular biceps. He was handsome, no doubt, and older than people, but young, still. "But, wait!" The man affected surprise, and stood back. "This is no mermaid! To be sure, it is a man! What do you here, man, and under what name do you pass?"
"I am come to greet you," Peeta called back, grinning. "And if you would be good enough to throw me a length of rope that I might climb to join you, to embrace you in friendship and brotherhood. I am Peeta, son of Silvius, son of Ascanius, son of Aeneas who was hero of Troy, and son of Aphrodite."
"Good enough," said the man, as if the progeny of gods was the least he had expected, and personally tossed Peeta a length of rope, holding it steady as Peeta climbed hand over hand up the hull of the ship.
As Peeta swung his leg over the ship's deck railing, the man caught sight of Peeta in true and gasped.
"You are Peeta indeed! And here I thought your men lie!"
"Aye," Peeta said.
"Then you are doubly welcome to my ship, Peeta, blood of heroes and goddesses," said the man, clasping Peeta first by the forearms, and then drawing him into a close embrace. "My name is Finnick, of the line of Locrinus of Troy, and I head the four clans who have descended from him."
"How came you here?" said Peeta, standing back and studying the man closely.
"Why," said Finnick, his expression lightening away from his shock and back to humor, "by ship of course!"
"I meant —"
"I know what you meant," said Finnick, his grin fading. "My great-grandfather escaped from Troy with your great-grandfather, Aeneas. They sailed together for many years, but when Aeneas decided to settle on the River Tiber, my great-grandfather decided he still had some wanderlust left in him."
"Ah, yes, I remember. Five ships of men and women continued on after Aeneas settled. And you are of those ships?"
"Aye! They established themselves on this coast, some distance north, where they built a great city and divided themselves into four clans descended from Locrinus' four sons. Come now, take this towel and dry yourself." Finnick humor had faded completely now, and he stared past Peeta, now busily drying himself, to the fleet that lay before him. "By the gods, Peeta, something has bitten you well! And so many ships… how many, for the gods' sakes?"
"Seven thousand people, give or take a few hundred," said Peeta, "and ninety-five somewhat battered ships… we were one hundred grand sailing vessels until we became the victims of a supernatural-driven storm."
Finnick muttered to himself, "Supernatural storms and unnatural earth tremors. What in Zeus' name was happening to their world?"
"Huh?" Peeta said, but Finnick waved him off.
"The important thing is that you survived."
He looked back at Peeta, and Peeta saw the sharpness in his eyes, and knew that the man wore his natural humor as a mask to charm words from men who would otherwise be more careful. Peeta suddenly felt a respect for Finnick; he would never be a man to be trifled with. "We survived," he said, "due to the intervention of… Artemis." It is better to leave it with that name, as he gave the same name to his people to rely on – they would be more inclined to trust a goddess they knew and loved, than Clove. "We were favored, indeed."
Finnick raised his eyebrows. "Artemis?"
"It is a long tale," Peeta said. "Should I discuss this now, or wait, perhaps, till you have guided my people to a safe harbor? We have injuries aboard, and much of our dry stores are ruined. My people are exhausted and hungry and damp."
"We attend to your people's needs first," said Finnick. "My home is not far away — a day's sail, if you can bear it or a day and a half's row in your ships if they are too injured to raise their sails. Perhaps, if we row, we can talk tonight, over a meal?" He stopped rather abruptly, and took a step forward peering at the ship Peeta had so precipitously leapt from. "Who is that fair lady?"
Peeta followed his eyes. Katniss was now standing with Cato by the stem of his ship, shading her eyes as she stared at Finnick's vessel. "She? She is my wife."
"Your wife? Then leave her not there, anxious and curious," Finnick exclaimed. "I invite her aboard, to keep you from worrying on her behalf, and you both shall tell me your tales as we sail to my home."
I was stunned into breathlessness. I had not seen a ship so pround and so beautiful since one of the Egyptian pharaoh's vessels had docked in the bay before Mesopotamia several years ago. Then I had been a girl, and more concerned with Prim's wellbeing to truly appreciated its beauty and power. Now I was a different person entirely, and I could see that this ship was the vessel of a proud and noble man.
I could see Peeta – dripping wet – talking with a richly dressed man on board, and I overcame my revulsion of Cato enough to stand with him in the stem of our ship so I could see the better. "It is a Trojan ship," said Glimmer, no doubt hoping to impress me. She was far too late. I was already hopelessly impressed. The ships Peeta had under command were nothing like that one.
As the beautiful vessel drew very close I saw that the man who talked with Peeta had turned to look at me. He smiled, wide and genuine, and it stunned me. Should it have? I suppose I had vaguely expected contempt, seeing as that is all I got from the Trojan people. Being both Primrose's sister and Peeta's hated treacherous wife, I had not expected such open delight and even – no, that could not be possible, not in my state – frank and open admiration.
The strange warship and the vessel in which I stood were now no more than two or three arm's lengths distance and men from both ships hastened to position buffers of close-packed straw so that neither ship should stave in the other. But before all the buffers were in place, the handsome man at Peeta's side leapt gracefully between the rapidly narrowing gap, landing not two paces distant from me.
"My princess Katniss," he said, stepping closer to me. "I am pleased beyond measure that you have survived such a dreadful ordeal. Will you join me on my ship, where you may rest on silken pillows, and eat from the sweetest figs I could gather?"
I could do nothing but stare. There was not a shadow of contempt in his eyes, not a spark of hatred, not even a single measure of speculation. There was merely good-natured acceptance and curiosity and, I still couldn't believe it, an unabashed admiration. I frowned despite myself; sure he was handsome, bronze haired and physically flawless that he was, but something about him…
"I'm no princess," I said, finally. Primrose is the princess, born and raised and groomed as so.
"Why, has Peeta lied to me?" he asked. "Are you not his wife? And therefore Troy's princess?"
The title hit me like a blow. I wanted to laugh – but that was Cato who laughed, and my want died on my tongue at the sound. Glimmer brushed passed me, and I took a stumbled half step toward Finnick. I became horribly conscious of my sodden, shapeless, crinkled robe, my great belly, my hair all in oily tendrils, and my bare feet. I was wearing no jewelry, no perfumes, not a single accruement of nobility – not like this man probably expected of Troy's princess, Peeta's wife. And yet here he was, standing there with the friendly smile all about his mouth and eyes, treating me with friendliness and respect.
The man leaned in, and whispered, "This would be exceedingly awkward if this is his way of indirectly asking for your hand in marriage, and hardly the time! But do be a dear, if so; don't make me say a no!"
Without thinking, I grinned. Under the circumstances, with both Cato at my side and Peeta on the deck of the stranger's ship watching me, it wasn't the most advisable thing to do, but I grinned anyway.
"What is your name?" I asked, studying him with as much frank admiration as he gave me. He was a young man, older only by Peeta a year or two, and even though he wore a sword at his hip he carried about him the air of the ambassador just as much as a warrior.
His robes and jewelry were rich and finely made… but none of this mattered much to me.
All that mattered was the acceptance I saw in his eyes.
He reached out his hands, and took one of mine between them.
"I am Finnick, of Locrinia," he said, "and you are most welcome to me."
Then he leaned forward and planted a polite, but very warm and very soft kiss on my mouth.
When he leaned back, all I could see was Peeta glowering at me.
I pulled my hand from Finnick's as gently as I could, and as well-bred as Finnick very obviously was, he understood the message immediately. He turned to Cato, exchanged greetings, and then asked after the injured. "Peeta tells me you have wounded among your fleet, and your people are hungry and sore."
"Aye," said Cato, and then the two men proceeded to discuss how best to distribute the three physicians Finnick had brought with him, as their herbs and unguents to replace those we'd lost during the storm.
I just stood there, relieved somehow to have someone here who did not hate me on principal.
I even smiled at Peeta, still staring down to where Finnick, Cato, and I stood.
Eventually Finnick and Cato had arranged matters to their satisfaction, and Finnick turned to me again.
"Will you join your husband aboard my vessel, princess?" he said.
I shifted my eyes doubtfully toward his ship – although the gap between his vessel and this was not overly large, the two vessels ground against each other, and anyone who fell between them would surely be crushed to death. "Ah!" he said, perceiving my doubts. "Allow me…"
And in the next moment I found myself swung into his arms as he turned to the gap.
I gasped, all my relief lost in concern, and my hands tightened about Finnick's neck.
"Do not be afraid," he said softly. "I will not drop you."
With that, he began to climb into his slightly higher vessel, one arm about me, one hand on the rope, his feet braced against the outer planking of his ship: he was much stronger than I had thought him and my fear subsided somewhat. He even made me laugh, for he thought to amuse me by singing under his breath a silly seafaring ditty about the dangers of ravenous marine worms to beautiful princesses.
We were both laughing by the time he'd hauled me to the deck railing of the ship, and there Peeta was to take me from Finnick. I breathed a sigh of relief as I felt my two feet on firm decking again, and straightened out my robe as best I might, still smiling at Finnick.
I was about to thank him when Peeta spoke.
"You are a strong man, Finnick, to carry such a load!" he said, and – oh, the insult! – patted me on my belly.
I flushed with equal parts anger and embarrassment, then caught a glint of empathy in Finnick's eyes, and managed to regain my composure.
"Do you have a maidservant, Katniss," Finnick asked, "that I can have brought aboard to help you with your ablutions?"
I shook my head, pushing away Peeta's hand on me. "No. I don't have servants. Only a companion, Lavinia, but leave her to her own husband and her child. Just send for my sister, Primrose, if that is not too much to ask…"
"One Primrose it is," said Finnick. "Please," he continued, "I have a well-appointed cabin on the aft deck, if I may escort you?" He offered me his arm, and I took it without reserve.
I didn't look back to see how Peeta felt about this.
I sighed, deeply content. It was a truly well-furnished cabin. Tapestries and linens hung from the walls, hiding from view the wooden planking. Luxurious furs covered the floor, allowing the eye only a peek of the mosaics beneath. And it had a bath. A real bath in one corner that was large enough to hold two.
I sank my swollen body into gratefully – only the gods knew how Finnick had caused the water to be heated, but I cared not to think on such trivialities. Prim sat across from me, her leg occasionally brushing mine, and she scrubbed the dirt from her skin. I luxuriated in the comfort instead of working so hard to erase the lines of the last few months.
I closed my eyes, and leaned my head back against the rim of the bath.
I heard a step.
My eyes flew open. Peeta stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
Prim smiled at him, unthinking. "Hello Peeta," she greeted, sliding in the water further to hide her nakedness, though if truth be told, Peeta did not even glance her way. His eyes were trained on me.
"Do not worry," he said, and crossed the room to stand beside the bath, "I have no thought to join you." That he spoke to me. "I need to show Finnick's physicians where they are the most needed."
Then, in part lie to his words, he sank down to sit on the side of the bath. He reached out a hand, and ran it over my belly, then raised his eyes and looked at me. "What was that I saw?" he said.
"What?" I said, confused.
"Did you think to make me jealous?"
I sat up in the bath as far as I was able. "I do not know what you mean."
His hand was still heavy on my belly, rubbing back and forth, back and forth.
"Your little display with Finnick. It shamed me."
I clenched my jaw, and narrowed my eyes. "You think to admonish me? He was courteous to me, and I was no more than courteous in turn. What do you accuse me of? And do you really think now is the time?"
He did not answer, but continued to stare at me with hard eyes, his hand now very heavy on my belly.
"He kissed you."
"I did not ask for it!"
"Did you beg him?"
"It was a greeting only!"
"Beware, Katniss. Do not think to use Finnick as a weapon as you have tried to use Gale."
With that he gave my belly a hard, painful slap, rose, and I stood so fast I shocked myself. Bath water splashed over the edge of the bath, onto his legs, and into Prim's face, but I stepped out and caught Peeta's arm to rip him back partially my way. I snarled, "And so what if I do? What matter is it of yours! Have you forgotten you latest words to me? I'm nothing to you, you made that very clear!"
Peeta jerked from my touch and screwed his eyes shut. "You're my wife."
"Ha!" The laugh was bitter. "You are so insufferable! You don't want me, but no one can have me?"
"Finnick does not want –"
"This isn't about Finnick!" I shouted over him. "This is about my freedom!" Peeta drew back at my volume and frowned, drawing his eyebrows over his now open and very black eyes. "Ours," I corrected myself. I stepped back, sitting on the edge of the bath, and placed a hand on Prim's thin shoulder.
He stared at me for a long time.
He stared and stared until I started to grow cold and shiver, naked in the open air.
Then, finally, Peeta said, "Fine. I free you. We are no longer married. Depart at Finnick's city if you wish it so, and take my son with you, and your sister, and never come back if that's what you want."
And with that he turned and left.
I stared after him, stunned, hardly daring to believe.
"Truly?" Prim whispered behind me. Her warm, wet hand slid over mine. "Truly we are free?"
I turned to her, looking down at her, and her sweet pale face was tipped up to mine shining with hope.
I felt something shake out of my throat – my breath: half a sob of joy, and half of disbelief.
I nodded, and sank into the bath and folded my sister in my arms, and nodded some more.
"Yes," I said. "Truly, very truly. We're free."
But I have lost the gift a goddess has given me, and I do not know how to feel about that.
Much later that evening a dinner was set up on the spacious aft deck of Finnick's warship. Peeta had returned, and with him he had brought his immediate command: Cato, Glimmer, Marvel, and various other captains of high and admiral rankings.
Peeta ignored all inquiry anyone made after Katniss and said she would not be joining them.
The food Finnick caused to have spread before them was mouthwatering: fine maza and turon made of the best flour, honey, and cheese; sweet fresh figs; almonds and plump olives; sweet roasted game, both partridge and venison; salads sprinkled with mint and oregano; honeyed cakes and fresh apples and pears. And much time was spent as Peeta's commanders told Finnick the story of Mesopotamia.
When they were finished Finnick nodded, and said, "So that's what she meant."
"Who meant?" Peeta asked.
"Katniss, when I addressed her as a princess she declined the title. She must have been thinking of her sister. Strange that you would take Katniss and not the king's real daughter. Why was that?"
Glimmer scowled at the conversation, and Cato feigned disinterest. "I did not come to talk about Katniss," Peeta said, and Marvel jumped in to agree, and brought up the matter of New Troy. "Well said," Peeta remarked. "New Troy does await us, and all our mistakes and follies lie well behind us."
"You actually intend to rebuild Troy in this land of Panem?" Finnick said.
"Aye," said Peeta. "I do."
Finnick smiled warm and friendly. "Then I am very much your man!"
"You want to join with me?"
"Oh, aye, I do!"
Peeta was not sure how to regard this. Earlier he would have greeted it with enthusiasm. Now…
"But surely," said Peeta, "you are established and happy and free already, and from what you have said of your city I cannot think that any would want to leave it —"
"Ah, Peeta," Finnick said, "I have not told you all. Some weeks ago a great earth tremor struck Locrinia during the night. Some buildings collapsed, and some people died, but the true horror was not realized until the next morning. Every building within the city, every single one, has been cracked so badly that none will stand for much longer. Within weeks, a month or so at the most, Locrinia will crumble into the bay, and it will be as if the city never existed."
"You cannot rebuild?" Cato said.
"Rebuild?" said Finnick. "No. The city is too badly damaged. Besides, who could want to rebuild when Peeta offers me Troy?" He turned his attention back to Peeta. "Pray, do not allow your doubts for me make you refuse me," he said. "I can be of great aid to you. Not only can I contribute ships, wealth, supplies, and yet more Trojans to make your New Troy great, I have knowledge. Peeta, I know this land of which you speak."
"Tell me," Peeta said, now leaning forward himself.
"Joanna is from there! A native! She may well be able to tell you all you need to know."
"And Joanna…?" Peeta said.
"Joanna is my close companion, a sister to me," Finnick said, and his voice was composed of such pride and compassion and (slightly) defensiveness, that all of Peeta's doubts dropped away.
"Joanna is a native," Finnick continued. "She left when she was but fourteen, married to a merchant who died within six months, leaving her stranded in Locrinia." Finnick gave an unashamed half shrug, and a grin. "What could I do but invite her in? Someone had to save her from destitution."
"And why am I thinking," said Marvel with a grin, his humor now fully restored, "that this poor widowed woman was probably the most desirable creature you had ever set eyes on?"
Finnick laughed. "Feisty, yes. Beautiful? All a matter of opinion. My one true love in the sea.
"But to the matter at hand," he continued. "While you rest in Locrinia, repairing your ships and healing your people, Joanna can teach you the ways of Panem." An ironic twist made his smile. "The gods drove you to me! If the storm had not stopped you, and ripped masts from their beds in their keels, then you would have sailed past Locrinia in the dead of the night, not knowing what aid awaited you within."
Peeta felt suspicions rise in him at Finnick's words. Had this been planned?
And this is too convenient for this Joanna not to be Chaff's daughter.
Peeta liked Finnick, truly, and the thought that he had to betray him with murder made him sigh.
"Well, what say you?" Peeta said finally, turning to his companions and friends. "Should we welcome this Finnick into our midst, and take what aid and fellow Trojans he offers us?"
"Oh, we accept him," Glimmer said for the whole. "We welcome him gladly."
Later that night Peeta found himself entering Katniss' cabin, and he sat carefully on the edge of her bed, avoiding Prim's curled up form. "Katniss?" He waited for an answer, but there was only silence.
Katniss lay with her back to him, only the rapidity of her breathing betraying her wakefulness.
Peeta sighed, leaned against the side wall and, with his free hand, toyed with a strand of her long black hair. It had become much softer with pregnancy, as slippery and fluid as honey, and with a seductive, natural scent. "Why do we hate each other so much? Why? I try not to hate you, but all my other self wants to do is hate you for every little thing you do and say. I don't know how to stop it…"
She gently pushed his hand away, and sat up, careful not to disturb her sister. "I do not –"
"Don't dare to say to me that you do not hate me," he said harshly, "for I would not believe that!"
Her mouth trembled, but she said nothing, realizing that it was not blue eyed Peeta returned.
It was still the black-eyed one, who had been so harsh earlier, but had freed her.
She was waiting for this moment. "Have you changed your mind?" she whispered.
His eyes moved from her face to her body, and his hand he lifted and rested gently on her belly.
"No," he said. "No I haven't. But I came to warn you that Finnick's city is no more and his people leave with mine to see New Troy. You're still free, and no longer my 'wife' – if that title ever meant anything to begin with – but you can't leave the fleet. You'll only parish and I can't send you off to die alone and undefended. You'll continue on with me for as long as until we reach Panem."
"Is it possible for me to remain at your side, as a friend, Peeta?" Katniss said, her eyes wide and glued on his. They were sincere as near as Peeta could tell and something warm blossomed in his chest at the sound of her words. "By freedom I don't mean exile from you." She sat up and grabbed his hand, as she's done many time before and curled her fingers in his. "I just meant from being your thrall, from being a wife, and from being a princess of Troy… I was not meant to be all that, and I know Clove awaits to fill all those roles." He opened his mouth to say something on that, but Katniss shushed him.
"Peeta, I will gladly stay in the fleet, and I want to be your friend. At least… the real you. That's why, actually, because I'm not sure your other friends recognize the difference. And someone has to save you from… the other you…" Katniss spoke cautiously at his part, stepping around glass, watching his face closely and was glad to note the black fading. "Seeder gave you to me, remember?"
"And Seeder gave you to me," he said back, a faint smile touching his face. "To protect each other."
The blue was all she saw then, crystalline and beautiful and she sighed in relief. "I missed this you."
"I wish I was here more often, this way, and couldn't be gone long enough to miss."
Because many of the fleet's ships were so badly damaged, and the oarsmen needed longer breaks than they usually would after their ordeal during the storm, it took an extra half day longer than expected to reach Locrinia.
When they eventually approached at dusk of the fourth day after the storm, Peeta realized why Finnick had thought they'd sail straight past if it had been night – as it probably would have been if they'd sailed untouched through the Pillars of Hercules. The city was visible from the ocean, but only barely. It was tucked into the southern shore of a bay whose only opening was a narrow, rocky strait. If a fleet had sailed north along the coast late at night when the citizens of Locrinia were asleep and all lights doused, then those aboard the fleet would never have known what they passed.
Clove was right and for reasons beyond Peeta's knowledge (as she promised) all was going according to her plan. Katniss was set aside, as she wanted from the beginning. No matter how much that upset Peeta and still the upset did not dim the surprise and pleasure he got from her wanting to be his friend, freely. It was a chance at an untainted companionship between them. And as the hours passed the closer he got to this Joanna, daughter of Chaff, and the eventual victim to him – and it made him nervous.
Clove never outright told him to murder her. Was it too much to hope Clove would do it?
But then again, Clove had said she would kill Hades and it was Peeta who did it in the end.
Locrinia was a medium-sized city of low buildings constructed in pale shades of sand and limestone and tiled in bright red and turquoise. It stretched from the southern shore of the bay halfway up the slopes of a massive mountain. At the edge of the city, neat fields ran up the mountain to the border of a close, dark forest that covered the greater part of the peak.
The city should have looked prosperous and comfortable, but here and there Peeta could see the mounds of rubble left by the earth tremor, and in many other buildings, a horrible list as if they were shortly to join their crumbled fellows.
No wonder Finnick was so joyful to have Peeta appear. This city was surely doomed.
Finnick told Peeta that because of the state of the city most of the Trojans would have to make do as best they could on their anchored ships. With luck, however, he could find accommodation for enough of them that the crowding aboard the ships would be lessened considerably. Finnick apologized, clearly embarrassed at his inability to house all the Trojans in accommodation ashore, but Peeta waved away his apologies; Finnick was already doing more than enough.
His embarrassment only mildly allayed, Finnick directed his warship in close to the stone wharf. As soon as it had docked he jumped down to the wharf, sending messages into the city to set people to finding accommodation as best they could for several hundred people at least, and directions to set sailors in small rowboats into the bay to direct the Trojan ships into suitable anchorage sites.
Then, as the gangplank was set into position, Finnick boarded once again and escorted both Katniss and Peeta down to the wharf. Katniss looked uncomfortable, and her eyes were ringed with blue shadows as if she had not slept well, but she was composed and polite, thanking Finnick for his assistance in aiding her to the wharf, and then after, for aiding Primrose.
For a while Finnick stood with Peeta and Cato watching the other Trojans disembark, then, catching sight of Katniss' wan face, said, "Is something amiss, princess? Are you feeling ill?"
The questioned was directed at Katniss, but it was Prim who answered. "The baby, it pains her."
Anxiety livened in Peeta and he looked distressed. He had not gone to see her since three nights ago, when she'd asked to be friend and he'd readily agreed. "Is there reason for concern?" he asked.
Katniss waved a vague hand, dismissing Prim's claim and Peeta's worry. "It is merely the usual discomforts that come with pregnancy that has kept me awake this past night… nothing more."
Finnick frowned, not entirely soothed. He turned to Peeta, "Do you think you can leave Cato and Marvel to direct the unloading of as many people as we can accommodate? I think it would be best if I took you, Katniss, Primrose and Lavinia and her child and husband to my house, that the women may rest. It is but a short walk distant, and safe enough that you may all sleep well at night."
"If Joanna won't fuss at the extra visitors," Peeta said.
"She will… she'll grow accustomed," said Finnick, smiling in a way that gave way to an inside joke. He bowed slightly in Katniss' direction. "And she will be delighted to have you to gossip with, Katniss. I swear that before tomorrow morning has dawned, you will know all the lapses and blunders of Locrinia's most upstanding citizens. Even, I fear, some of mine!"
He was rewarded with a smile from Katniss, but it was thin and tight. And probably more at his attempt to cheer her than any eager anticipation of Joanna's gossip, but it was enough for Finnick. "Come," he said gently, and led the small group forward.
As they walked Finnick took Prim's arm – she glowed there, at his side, blonde and beautiful, and it gladdened Katniss to hear her laugh as the great man spoke to her and led her forward. It left her to fall behind and Peeta stepped up to her side, keeping pace. "So…" he started.
Katniss gave him a flickering look.
"I didn't hear you correct him when he called you princess."
"I couldn't think of a way to explain to him that I am no longer your wife as of the day we came upon his ship. Mayhap he'll blame himself the cause. And actually, I never truly told him we were married."
"Well I did," Peeta said, shrugging. "But you may continue under the pretense. It bothers me none."
This time Katniss' smile was genuine. "That's because if you had it your way I would still be your wife." Her hand fell to her swollen abdomen. "At any rate it will be awkward and hard to explain the split, so the pretense will be fine… as long as you don't take advantage of it. Once we reach Panem you can officially denounce me and I will happily become a normal citizen of New Troy."
There was a pause, wherein Katniss' smile died and so did Peeta's. "If I make it there," she added.
"You will," Peeta swore, taking her hand that hung at her side and interweaving their fingers.
"As you say." She sounded more tired than before, and the paleness of her face disturbed him.
"I promised you, remember? I kept that promise once, when Atala tried to pull you from the ship in her madness and I will continue to keep both promises. You won't die, and so long as I live, and you are willing, you have a place at my side as a friend, advisor, ambassador… or wife. Where ever you want."
"Sometimes you are so sweet… sometimes it feels like you'll move heaven and earth to protect me, to get me anything that I need, and it would only take one word from me to make you do it… but then sometimes it's as if I mean less to you than dirt and one misstep means it's you who is my murderer."
"I know. I know what I do, and I'm trying. I just need your help to stay the real me."
"I can only help if you want help, Peeta," Katniss said. "If you want to stay the real you, all the time."
"I do!" he whispered. "How can you doubt it?"
"You have to want to and need to be the real you all the time, no matter the situation, no matter if the real you isn't as strong had the other you. You have to stop relying on him. You can't switch, or you'll get too familiar with the act… and you'll stop knowing the difference. You have to stop having a need for him, and maybe he'll go away… or maybe he won't. Maybe he'll be there forever, tormenting you, and Clove is urging his use, but don't give in. It's a constant fight and you need to want to fight to win."
Peeta clung to her fingers for a moment, wordless. "Has anyone told you you'd make a great queen?"
Katniss snorted, inelegantly. "No."
"Someday others will begin to notice it," he said, and continued to say, "I understand what you're saying and… I'll watch out for those things. I don't want him to be here any longer. Ever. Not even for Clove… because she can deal with me as me, and I can still do what she needs… as me."
Even if it will be harder, and not dull the emotions that result, he thought to himself.
"Good," Katniss said, then dropped him hand and joined her sister at Finnick's side.
One of Locrinia's wardens, a plump, cheerful man, bustled toward them, greeting Peeta effusively, and clapping his hands with joy at the sight of the massive fleet filling the bay. Finnick and Peeta passed a few words with him, then they were off, following Finnick through the gently rising streets of the city.
"I have my house on this rise here," Finnick said, leading them into a wide and well-paved street. One or two of the houses had fallen, and in the others Peeta and his companions could clearly see the wide cracks spreading up the walls. "I love the view of the bay it gives me."
"And… here we are!" Finnick said, indicating a large house standing just before them. Made of a very pale pink stone, it had been built long and low with numerous large open windows and graceful arches to allow the bay air to flow through its rooms and chambers.
It too had been cracked, and one archway had collapsed almost completely, but the walls were well propped, and the house looked solid enough, especially compared to some of its neighbors.
As they approached, a woman appeared in one of the archways. She stood there, as still as a rock pool, one hand on a pillar, her white linen robe blowing gracefully about her short, slim form. Her hair was dark, and cropped as short as a warrior's – an odd style, many of the Trojan's thought – but her skin was extremely pale and her features well drawn and strong.
Joanna walked to meet them, strutting. She had about her an air of obtrusiveness that stuck in odd, faintly disturbing angles and when she greeted Finnick it was quick and to the point. Peeta saw none of the compassion Finnick had regarded the woman with. "Who are these strangers?" she asked.
She did not hide her suspicion, crossing her arms over her chest and eyeing Peeta.
"Joanna," Finnick said, and he took her arm and made her unfold them. She looked to him, grudging and he smiled. "If I said to you that you might be going home to Panem again, what would you say?"
Joanna's face went completely expressionless, but in that instant before the veil came down, Peeta swore he saw a peculiar mix of terror and resignation in her eyes. Then she forced a smile.
"I would ask you where you got this new silly idea from."
They had washed, settled in their chambers, and eaten (Cato, Glimmer, and Marvel having joined them as well as his other captains there was room for), and now it was late at night, but Peeta could not go to bed before he'd had a chance to speak with Joanna, both about Panem, and to get to know her before he prematurely decided she was the daughter to Chaff that Clove had indicated as their key to Panem.
He sat with her, Finnick, Glimmer, Marvel, and Cato on a sheltered portico overlooking the bay. Everyone else had gone to bed for the night – indeed, the city itself seemed lost in a languorous slumber as it spread out below them – and they finally had some quiet to talk. The warm air was very still, and the scent of a flowered climbing vine across the portico hung heavy and sweet about them.
"So," said Joanna to Peeta, "you wish to build your New Troy in Panem?"
"I do so at the permission of Artemis." He decided not to name Clove to Chaff's daughter, just in case.
"Not on the goddess of Panem's wish," said Joanna, stubborn on that point. "Artemis has no place there."
Peeta shrugged and said, "Tell me of Panem."
"What can I say, where can I start?"
Joanna looked frustrated, and took a deep breath, and lifted her eyes to stare over the bay.
Peeta did not like it that she wouldn't look at him. "Will they welcome us?"
Now she did look at him, steady and sure. "I cannot know," she said. "It has been over a decade since I was last in Panem." She paused, gnashing her teeth. "But they most certainly will not welcome me."
Before Peeta could ask the obvious question, Finnick, wary-eyed, broke in. "Peeta," he said, "may I speak a little of Locrinia's relationship with Panem?" At Peeta's nod he went on. "Panem is not a closed country; many people trade with the people there. I and my people do, the states to the north of us do, the people of Crete even traded precious spices and gold for their tin and copper. But…"
"But Panem does not encourage closeness with any outsiders."
"Yet you married an outsider, a merchant, before you came here," Peeta said to Joanna.
"I was forced into the doing by my mother," Joanna said. "I admit myself glad when my merchant husband died and Finnick took me in… I was never raised for marriage, or the obedience he asked."
"Who is their king?" said Peeta. "What strength of swords does he command?"
"Panem has no king."
"How can this be? Every land has a chief, a king, a —"
She held up her hand. "Peace. There are many tribes, or Houses, and each House has its Mother."
A Mother? Peeta frowned.
"But overall we defer to two people, the living representations of our gods Seeder and Chaff. There is the Anointed Father, who represents Chaff." Again something in Joanna's manner made Peeta study her well, but whatever discomfort the name of Chaff caused her, she dampened it down well. "And there is the priestess of Seeder, and we call her the Anointed Mother. The Anointed Mother is always a mother," Joanna continued. "It is part of her duty. When I left Panem so many years previous, the Anointed Mother was my mother. But it is possible she is gone now, and the woman who took her place is likely one of my many sisters, the youngest." Joanna gave a slight shiver, as if she were cold. "In Panem society it is always the younger daughter who inherits the power of the Mother, or of the Anointed Mother. Not the son, as in Trojan society, nor even the eldest daughter."
"The youngest inherits?" he asked. "How can this be so?"
"Why should the eldest inherit – whether son or daughter – when it is the youngest child who is the product of the mother's maturity and life-wisdom?" Joanna countered, shrugging.
Peeta thought that sounded slightly naïve – all knew the firstborn was the strongest-born – but he left it alone. "And the Anointed Father? Who is he? What manner of man is he? If you recall…"
Joanna smiled very bitterly. "When I left Panem the Anointed Father was an aging man," she said, "and weaker than he'd ever been when he was in his prime. I cannot know who he is now."
Peeta leaned back in his chair, and drank deeply of his wine. He was silent for many minutes, thinking of the picture Joanna had painted in his head – it was very hard to image, a society built around mothers as leaders, and with representations of their gods – and of Joanna herself who seemed less than enthusiastic at the idea of going back to her homeland. Why is that? Clove had said she was exiled, but not why… and he wondered if the plan was to merely bring her back and watch her get executed.
"Do you still speak the language of your birth?" he finally asked Joanna.
She replied in something unintelligible. Finnick laughed at the looks on Peeta's companion's faces.
"Will you teach it to me while my ships and people recover from the wild storm that so injured us?"
"If you think you can learn it," Joanna said, smirking. Then she paused, obviously uncertain whether or not to continue. "Peeta… many people have thought to conquer Panem. They have marched into the mists surrounding the Veiled Hills, and they have never emerged again. Panem is ancient, and unknowable…even to your gods. Its people aren't fierce, but our gods are powerful. Be careful."
Peeta didn't find the irony in her words amusing. "You don't want go home, do you?"
In answer, Joanna rose. "Whatever gave you that impression?" Sarcasm tainted her voice, and the next part she muttered was no doubt dark, but in the same unintelligible language as before.
They all watched her walk away, sauntering. Finnick apologized for her queer behavior.
"She's always like that," he explained, smiling. "Personally I find her a good friend once you get around the sarcasm."
Katniss sat on a stool, combing out her hair methodically, staring at her reflection. She didn't actually see it, but was lost somewhere in her mind. It was the first alone time she had in a while – Prim was off with Lavinia, exploring, and enjoying themselves. They had invited Katniss, but she had not been up for the idea of moving around, especially after a night of no sleep and a day of constant walking.
So absorbed she was, she hadn't noticed when Joanna paused in the doorway of her chambers.
"You look exhausted," Joanna said, startling Katniss, and then walking across the room and taking the comb from her hand. "And you're ripping right through your hair. Let me do that." Katniss tried to object, but Joanna tutted. "I might not have much hair, but at least I know how to take care of some."
She took up a place behind Katniss and began gently to run the comb through the younger woman's raven feathered hair, fingering the locks occasionally, and wondering how this woman came here.
"Your husband will be hours yet," she said. "I have left him talking and drinking with his companions."
Katniss gave a small shrug of her shoulders, as if she cared not one way or the other.
"Finnick has told me a little of you," Joanna said. As she spoke, she continued combing Katniss' hair with long, slow strokes, more careless movement than a true act of grooming. "Of how Peeta forced you into marriage, and forced that child into your belly. Of how your home was destroyed, and your people killed under it. Your sister barely escaped." She was not one to jump around harsh truths.
Katniss did not respond verbally, but Joanna could see how she'd stiffened.
"I, too," Joanna continued, very softly, "had a child forced into me when I was but a young girl, perhaps a year or two younger than you are now. I, too, was forced to leave my home. The difference between you and I though was all that misery culminated in a friend who stole me from it." Finnick, she meant, more a brother to her than he real family ever had been to her. "I have no idea what future awaits you, Katniss, and normally I wouldn't care… but considering our similar pasts, I do in a bit of spite toward your husband hope that joy and love will be a part of it."
There was a long silence, during which Joanna stopped combing and placed the brush aside on the vanity in front of Katniss. Finally, Katniss whispered, "I do not think so."
"Love and joy… I do not think it'll come to that."
"And how is it you do not think so? Because of this burdensome Peeta of yours?"
"No," Katniss said, her hands and eyes dropping to her abdomen. "There are two things in my way."
Katniss gave a wiry smile. "Death," she said, lightly. "And a woman named Clove."
"Clove? Who is that?"
"Someone who wants the first thing to happen more than anything, and will do anything to see it come true... and if not, than she wants me gone from Peeta's side so she might be there. And I do not object, but… I must, because Peeta… needs me." That part seemed hard for her to say. "And even if I'm willing to forget about my promise to him, and to… some else in concerns of him… then I have to let go of this raging need in me to get revenge on Clove as well. And I don't think I can let it go."
"Revenge?" Joanna slid onto the stool beside Katniss, interested. "For what? This is getting interesting."
Hesitatingly, Katniss told Joanna of how she'd plotted with Prim's father to kill the Trojans as they left Mesopotamia, and how it had all failed, and her city, her people, and her father had been horribly killed as a result. "And yet I do take some blame for falling for it, Clove was the goddess who had come to me with the plans and whispered assurances in my ear. Only for me to fail miserably, knowing what it would eventually do. I think she meant for it to kill me, or Peeta to be so angry he would do it."
"But he didn't," Joanna pointed out. Katniss was beginning to think she was mocking her with this attention and she frowned, but Joanna was quick to smile and laugh. "Look on the bright side!"
"The one where you're alive and soon going to give birth to a little Trojan prince. I might hate kids, and I might never have another, but the one I had... even though forced on me, I loved." The admittance seemed uncomfortable for her to say, but she shook it away with self-assurance. "And who knows? Maybe you will get your chance at this revenge in Panem. Will Clove be there?"
"Unfortunately." But Katniss seemed stuck on what Joanna first said, and could not move beyond it.
Though puzzled, Joanna dropped the matter and turned to the mirror. Side by side, Joanna was dwarfed by the thin and tall Katniss, and though Joanna's features were sharp, Katniss' were striking, dark.
Jo lifted a hand and stroked the girl's hair. Peeta's people, she knew, thought of her as a wayward child, untrustworthy and self-obsessed (and thought even less so of her sister), but that was not the woman who sat before Joanna now. With as much as Joanna hated her mother, and her sisters, and the idea of going home… she was a little happier knowing that with the Trojan fleet came this woman, a new queen. "I think," said Joanna slowly, "that you will grow to be a very great queen indeed, one day."
Katniss laughed outlandishly at that. "You've been talking to Peeta, for certain."
"Ah, Peeta!" Joanna grinned and waved a hand dismissively. "He is but a man." She rose and, taking Katniss' hand, led her to the bed. "This will be more comfortable. Here, sit with me and talk."
They sat close as they could, Katniss laying on her back and Joanna laying on her side, propped up on an elbow, using her free hand to continue to sift through Katniss' hair laid out on the pillows.
"In the land toward which you journey," Joanna said, conspiringly, "Peeta will be but a man in a world where women are revered more than men."
"Women? Revered?" Katniss sat up straight, her face amazed. "How can this be?"
Joanna laughed and, apologizing for her intrusion, rested her hand on Katniss' swollen belly. "For this reason, of course. Women hold the mystical ability to grow children within their bodies. We call it the Seeder within our womb, for Seeder is our mother goddess, and most revered, and it is her influence within our wombs that grants to us the ability to bear children. Men are respected, and loved and adored, as the case may be, – though not all cases, I'd say – and it is their feet which tread the forests, but within the home, family, and village society, it is the women's voices which are listened to first.
"Women in Panem," she added, grinning, "do not even take husbands!"
Seeder! Katniss tried not to let the name mean anything to her visibly, in case Joanna noticed, but the whole statement left her reeling – and to know Seeder's homeland! No wonder Panem sounded so wondrous a word! How could I have not known that the island we seek is Seeder's?
She shook off the thought and asked, "No husbands? Then how do they breed their children?"
"Women take whomever they want into their beds, but never make formal unions with such lovers. Children born to women always stay within their mother's house, whether daughter or son. If a woman decides to take a man as her lover and to breed from him, she lays with him either in the blessed groves of the forests or the meadows of the sun, or she allows him into her bed for a few hours at night…but he must be gone back to his own mother's house by morning, lest he irritate the woman's own mother with his presence."
Katniss had her hands to her mouth as Joanna said all this, her eyes wide. Joanna enjoyed her reaction.
"You mean woman can take men as it pleased them, and not by what the men desire?"
Katniss was visibly shocked. "And a woman desires daughters more than sons?"
Katniss fell silent, staring incredulously at Joanna who eventually laughed.
"Who knows," Joanna said. "Panem may be the haven you seek."
"Perhaps," Katniss said, her mood drooping again. "If I make it there…" Joanna wanted to ask how it was she would not… but Katniss suddenly thought: if I could prove the vision wrong… "Glimmer says I am carrying a son, but I hope for a daughter. Can you tell?" Katniss asked of Joanna.
Joanna hesitated. If Katniss had been born in Panem then, yes, it would have been easy, for she would have carried the Seeder within her womb, and that would have spoken to any Panem born woman.
But she was foreign to everything connected with Panem. There would be no possible way she could…
"Please," Katniss said, looking at Joanna with yearning eyes and placing Joanna's hands on her belly. Katniss had not struck Joanna as the pleading type, and it made Katniss' desperation clear to see. "Try," Katniss continued to say. "I need it to be a girl… I have to have a girl… Glimmer must be wrong."
Joanna sighed, then closed her eyes and made the effort, even though she knew it would be —
She jerked back, her eyes almost starting from her head. "By the gods!"
Joanna swallowed, trying to regain composure. She brushed her hair from her forehead briskly.
Seeder was strong within Katniss' womb. Stronger than Joanna had ever felt it.
"I am but surprised," Joanna said, composed again, "for as it happens I could feel your child easily."
"You carry a son."
Katniss' face fell. "Peeta will be please, at least."
"But you will love him, too. You will, surely. Remember that I, too, bore a child that was forced into me. I thought to hate him when he was born, but when I held him to my breast, it was as if all my doubts and hate had never been. I adored him. I'm telling you… it'll happen…"
"I cannot think so," Katniss said, grimacing as she placed a hand on her belly. "I won't get the chance."
"You will be a good mother," Joanna dismissed… and she said it in her native tongue of Panem.
"Maybe once I would have been, perhaps," Katniss replied, and she also spoke in Panem's native tongue as if she, too, had been born to it. "But not with this child, I think."
She stopped, and frowned.
"What did I just say? Oh, Joanna, I must be overtired if I babble nonsense! I am sorry."
Joanna had been stunned by Katniss' easy response in a tongue she should not have known, but hid her surprise well. "I will leave you to your rest in a moment, and stop pestering you, but tell me, who was your mother? A stranger to Mesopotamia's shores?"
"No. She was a Dorian Greek, as was my father."
"And her mother before her?"
"Also Greek. Why?"
"Seeder's mysteries are deeper than I thought," Joanna said, and she stood.
She waited until Katniss had slid into her bed and the covers before leaving.
And once Joanna had left and closed the door behind her, she leaned against the corridor wall, shaking.
"Seeder?" she whispered. "Seeder?" There was no answer.
Once Joanna left me, I slept immediately. It was a relief for the last few nights where no matter which way I positioned myself the baby pressed down painfully on me and I could not sleep. Too exhausted, and though Joanna's companionship was nice – and being treated as a joking equal was more than I could have hoped for – her statement about my child doomed me to think only of my coming death.
However, once my eyes shut, dreams took the worry away.
I dreamed twice, in fact, and both dreams were most wonderful.
My first dream was of a jewel. A great emerald jewel in a gray-blue sea, with mountains and meadows, rippling streams and raging whitewater rivers, and where a magnificent white stag with blood red antlers ran wild through the forests. This land was Panem, I knew, and it was home.
Then, unsurprisingly, I dreamed again of the great stone hall that stood within Panem – I knew not that if it actually was built there, or if it was a figment of my imagination, but I knew that it was meant to be from there. I walked through its vast spaces, happier than I could ever imagine, happy to be there.
I heard the tinkle of a child's laughter, a girl, and I turned about, trying to see her.
She was there, but almost indiscernible, always just at the corner of my vision, laughing and playing.
I cried out to her, calling her to me, for I knew this girl was my friend.
But all she did was laugh, and slide farther out of my vision.
Then her laughter died, and I knew she had gone.
But I was not bereft, for someone else was within the vastness of the stone hall.
A man who loved me dearly, perhaps that I loved, too, although I was not sure.
I called out a name, although it was indistinct and I could not tell whose name it was.
He stepped out from under the shadows of one of the arches and walked toward me.
I laughed, and ran to him and, as his arms encircled me, lifted my mouth to his and drowned in his kiss.
That same night, just before the early hours in the morning, Peeta was still sitting out on the sheltered portico overlooking the bay, alone now. He sat with his thoughts, and some figs and his regrets.
He was nursing huge uncertainties. Most of them were around Katniss; he was uncertain if he could save her from her fate, and if he should – no. He had to. He promised. Clove would deal with Katniss, he decided ultimately and he wouldn't press friendship any further for Katniss' safety's sake. Just as he said before…? But this time it was official. Their marriage was null and void. Friends only.
"Right," he muttered, rubbing his forehead.
Next uncertainty was Joanna; he knew it had to happen eventually. Clove's plan depended on them making a New Troy in Panem, so they can build their god wells and become immortal… and then as a result being virtually untouchable… and at that point able to risk attacking Thresh.
But he wasn't even sure he still wanted to attack Thresh. It had been Clove's idea to begin with…
Thoughts against or negative on Clove always brought his other half to the surface, but this time Peeta was prepared for the surge and he wrestled it back. He came away clean and smiled, proud of himself.
He thought Katniss would be proud, too.
Then he heard a step, and felt a presence and he turned, half expecting to see a fuming Clove.
Instead, Annie stood there. Moonlight painted her silver and fragile, and Peeta stood. "Annie," he said, surprised, but not entirely so. He glanced around at the empty surroundings, then offered her a chair.
Annie sat heavily beside him, staring out at the bay. "You met him…" she said.
"Finnick?" Peeta asked.
"Finnick," Annie repeated, the name rolling off her tongue, tasting the sound. "He's beautiful."
"Yes. And kind, funny, and charming. Is he the man you were wanting to meet?"
Annie shrugged, the movement shuddering with power – even unintentionally.
Peeta didn't have to be told that Annie already made her god well and was immortal.
"Then why have you chosen to show yourself now? Just an hour ago Finnick sat here with me."
"I know." Annie flushed and looked agitated, then swung her head Peeta's way. "I couldn't."
"Why not?" Peeta asked.
"I can't… talk to him. It's too hard. What will he think of me?"
"That you are an immensely powerful and beautiful goddess. He'll be intimidated and awed, no doubt."
"Or he'll be frightened… like you all. Or he'll think me broken, like you all say I am."
Peeta felt uncomfortable underneath her searching, insecure stare. "You… hear us?"
"I hear all of you, all the time, wherever I go. Even now, I hear them. Can't you?"
"Then you've not made your well."
"I do not think it was this way for the Olympians, but it is with us. It's unnerving. Being so connected… but so deserted, too. We're falling apart and…" Annie began to shake. "And I can sense what's going to happen… and it is not good for anyone. You and Clove aren't the only ones plotting."
Peeta dared not move or say anything, not wanting to confirm the statement that he and Clove were in fact plotting things other than for the good of the Enlightened as a whole. He just nodded, cautiously, wondering where this slightly more level-headed Annie was most of the time.
Was it being so close to this man she liked so well that influenced her?
"You know, I can introduce you to him, if you'd like. If it'd make it easier for you…"
Annie jumped, delighted, and her hand snatched up his. "You'd do that for me? Truly?"
And in her thoughts, Peeta heard something – and it could only have been at her bequest –
Clove said you would introduce us if I did her that favor.
"What favor?" he asked.
Annie blinked. "I don't know what you mean." He knew she was lying, acting… and what was worse than the realization that Annie could act so well, was that Clove was keeping secrets from him.
In the end Peeta smiled and said, "Tomorrow morning, I'll introduce the two of you."