To distract myself I look around at the landscape. It's the most beautiful place I've ever been to. The forest is but a small section of the arena. Emerald green hills seem to roll forever around here. On one of the hills overlooking the Cornucopia stands a majestic stone building. Above is a clear blue sky but with gathering storm clouds not too far away. They can make it any kind of weather they want in here and they decide on ominous. As if it wasn't hard enough making the hike. It's just breath taking. Arenas usually are, but this one… it feels so peaceful. Well it is now provided the Jabberjays hold to our deal.
The hovercraft lifts up one more person from the arena just as I'm approaching the circle of pedestals around the Cornucopia. How many were injured or killed before we could get to them?
Panthra's voice echoes over the arena, "That is all of them, girl. Now for your end of the deal."
In my earpiece Captain Marsh says, "Welkin, you're sure about this?"
"Just get out of here," I say.
There's silence for a few moments before Luca replies, "Leave her."
My heart pounds harder against my chest as I watch the hovercraft leaving the arena. Closing my eyes I think that I won't be alone. Plutarch had told me to take my time getting here so they could work out a plan to come and get me. Messalina Galba, Marcus Panthra, Aurelia Panthra, Carina, and a couple others… they're on my side. At least I have that in my favor.
As promised, I throw the pill away. My life is now in their hands.
"Remove your weapons and gear."
Plutarch said to take my time. With all the weapons on me that won't be a problem. One by one I take a few knives, guns, grenades, and other weapons out and put them on the ground. It's amazing how much gear I have on. When I finish all I have is my District 13 uniform and whatever I have underneath.
Panthra's voice comes back, "Stand on the platform nearest to you."
Someone going down that thing in reverse? That's new, I try to joke to myself. Anything to keep from imagining what will happen if no one is able to get to me. But still, it was a good trade.
Barefoot, I stand on the platform. Maybe two seconds pass before I'm unbalanced as it descends. The sunlight and blue skies above disappears and I'm engulfed in darkness.
Light appears again, but it's from electricity. The platform stops revealing a room that is only used once in its existence. I inhale quickly when I see Aurelia waiting for me at the bottom with a pair of Peacekeepers.
I can't look relieved. She's supposed to be one of them and therefore not my friend in this game. To them, this meeting is me finding out that Aurelia was against me from the start. Instead of acting surprised I put on the same neutral expression I've always maintained.
Her expression says, Seriously?
"What now?" I ask.
Rolling her eyes she points to the shower. After stripping down in the shower I drop my clothes outside the stall. In the few months I spent in Thirteen my showers had only lasted a few minutes. There you either get cleaned up fast or you have to finish washing your hair in the sink. But here I take my time until one of the Peacekeepers tells me to hurry up.
Aurelia hands me a towel and a set of odd looking undergarments and a slip. These I change into quickly and awkwardly trying to keep myself as covered as possible from the prying eyes of the male Peacekeeper and probably a camera or two.
When I come out the male Peacekeeper has actually turned around.
I didn't let him watch, Aurelia signs. She then points to the device that instantly dries your hair. I laugh to myself at how much I've missed this toy as I press my hand to it sending an electric current through me. My hair probably hasn't looked so good in months.
Aurelia holds up a dark blue and silver dress. It has the same style as her dress, a light red and bronze, but mine has richer embroidery. Somewhere in the back of my mind I register that I've seen this dress before, but where? Certainly not in the Capitol, this dress is too tame for that. In fact unlike the last one I wore under Capitol control, I won't have a problem wearing this dress.
Next Aurelia gets to work doing my hair. She's always been quick with making cute hairstyles and this time is no exception. With a few pieces of jewelry added, Aurelia ushers me out the door to an engine operated cart.
The two Peacekeepers are already in the front. Aurelia pushes me up and then climbs up after me. As we descend further down my hope that anyone from Thirteen will be able to get to me quickly disappears. We enter a tunnel and Aurelia grabs my hand and squeezes and I hold tight. Does she know how close to shaking I'm getting? But as soon as light enters the tunnel again she lets go.
You're being taken to Messalina. There's a problem and I don't have to explain so you're just going to have to keep up and play along, signs Aurelia.
"What are you telling her?" a Peacekeeper asks.
Aurelia writes something down on a piece of paper and hands it over.
"Touchy," she replies when she's read it.
The secured structure of steel and concrete turns to stone. Banners and real live flamed torches line the hallways.
I've seen this before… where have I seen this before? I think racking my brain. It wouldn't have been on television. They would've never shown footage of an unused arena. So then where?
Two figures in what I can only describe as metal armor walk up to us and dismiss the Peacekeepers. "Her Majesty is expecting you."
The double wooden doors are pulled back and I walk into a grand hall of some sort more richly decorated than anything else I've seen so far here. More torches line the walls providing some light, but daylight also creeps in from the windows so I know we're above ground again.
"What a pretty hero you make, young Vixen," says the woman sitting on a rather fancy chair. As I get closer to her I see that it's Messalina Galba. Her dress is deep purple and she wears a simple golden crown similar to the ones the victors get when winning the Hunger Games.
Smiling, she stands up and walks up and cups my face in her ancient hands. Her eyes brimming with tears, she pulls me into a hug, "You look so much like her."
Not that I doubted her but Aurelia is right, something is wrong. This isn't the Messalina I met last winter. There's something in her expression that suggests that she's not all there. It's the expression Auntie Alara, Uncle Drite, Thora, Kolb… really any of the victors would get like they were in some other world entirely.
Going on Aurelia's advice I play along and hug her back.
"Come," she says leading me to the chair beside her.
The two guards watch me like vultures. They don't approach the steps but one wrong move on my part and I can expect one or both of those swords in my flesh the next instant.
"Magnificent, isn't it?" says Messalina sounding like her old self. "My father intended this place for one of the earlier arenas. But it was too beautiful… too beautiful to turn into an abomination. You might've noticed the complete lack of traps except for a few basic ones."
"This is the one place my father promised he would never come. My private sanctuary from him all these years. I'd bring your grandmother here sometimes. We'd wear the fancy dresses and walk around the castle. Sometimes we'd even go riding in the countryside and swim in the ocean. No cameras, no intrigue, no Hunger Games. Just a pair of silly girls living in a fantasy land."
"Messalina… what's going on?" I whisper.
Something like a shadow passes over her face and she's back to the strange woman. "My dear child, I'm doing what I should've done years ago with your father. He may have been Falon's son, but he was also my brother even if he is only half. And since I have no child of my own it is only natural that I take his first-born as my heir. My advisors tell me that my brother is too set in his ways, but you are young and can be molded into a true ruler worthy of this kingdom."
A smile crosses her lips and it seems too real to be fake. I am so lost. Where is Aurelia? Because I need someone to explain this and fast.
"What did you think about the countryside?"
She's asking the question like she's genuinely curious. Well I'm genuinely confused right now but answer, "It's very beautiful, minus the mutts."
A sad expression crosses her face, "They are the dangers that every land faces. I have sent my knights to destroy them many times, but they have died in the attempt. It pleases me that you were able to rescue those children. When you become queen after me it will be your duty to protect your subjects.
"But there'll be time for instruction later," she smiles. "We have so many other things to talk about."
The door opens and a group of people, all dressed in clothes that are probably from the same period. All of them bow before Messalina. One by one I pick them out. The woman whose house I learned what they wanted from me, Liber Wine, Hector Phoenix, a man and woman I know from parties, and Justinian Burkes.
I keep my eyes on the tapestry on my left to avoid the look Phoenix gives me. It's the same look he'd give me when he thought no one was watching. But those were in settings where if he touched me, he died. Not now. Now he has a very real chance especially with Messalina the way she is.
"Pardon our intrusion, your Majesty. But Lord Panthra wishes us to inform you that the traitors are preparing to attack. He believes it their goal to retake the princess," says Liber Wine.
What's the princess? Some kind of weapon?
"They will not have her," says Messalina looking fierce and dangerous. "Lord Wine, prepare for battle."
"Yes, your Majesty," he says with a bow and then he's gone.
Princess… Majesty. These were things that Messalina explained to me were in her book. A fairy tale, she called it. This dress… this dress is exactly like the one the girl on the cover was wearing!
She's living in her favorite story.
Messalina's face hardens, "You dare stare at the princess like that?"
Phoenix immediately breaks his gaze and turns apologetically to Messalina. "My apologies, your Majesty. It just surprises me how much she favors your honored father."
Messalina stands up abruptly sending her footstool flying down the steps, "She favors him in no such way! Princess Vixen favors Lady Dawnson. That is why I chose her over her brother and sister."
Slowly I become aware that I'm griping my armrests. She's borderline hysterical.
"Forgive me," says Phoenix bowing to the floor.
Messalina calms and sits back down. With her eyes closed she says, "You are all excused."
Phoenix leaves quickly knowing he'd be pushing his luck if he objected and the others soon follow. Justinian doesn't spare so much as a glance at me this entire time. I'm not sure what I feel right now about him. Leah said he wanted to prove whose side he was on and that it was ours. But how does this work into the equation? Whatever his position is I hope I have my proof one way or the other soon because there isn't much time left to prove loyalties.
Outside I can hear the familiar sounds of battle. A weight on my hand startles me. Messalina's face is warm and affectionate, almost like a mother's, as she gently squeezes my hand. "I won't let anything happen to you."