"Would you like the beef or the chicken?"
My head snapped up at Rhodendra's cheery voice. "Uh, the beef please. Sorry. I was a little distracted. Forgive me." I took the plate the Avox offered, turning once again to look down at the table. I still wore my costume from earlier, the parade and all it entailed still foremost on my mind.
"Well. Tomorrow you resume training." Rhodendra smiled at Jace and me. "And you will begin your training in your pairs. How are you feeling?"
"Is this being documented for later research?" I quipped.
Across the table Clyse snorted.
Rhodendra shot him a look. "No, dear, I'm just wondering for my own curiosity. After all, I've never dealt with a situation quite like this before. You two truly are fortunate to be the first to experience such an honour."
"'Lucky' isn't the word I would have chosen." Jace mumbled from behind his fork.
Rhodendra hesitated. "That's not what I meant…"
"But it's true." Bran joined in. "They aren't lucky. I know that's not what you meant but can we please not use that word in reference to the Games?" He downed the rest of his glass of wine.
"Alright." Rhodendra looked embarrassed. "I only want to know how you are feeling. Sometimes it helps to discuss it."
Although Clyse rolled his eyes as he moved to refill his own mug, I couldn't help but feel sorry for our escort. She was trying.
"I'm feeling a little nervous, to be honest." I looked up at her with a smile. "But mostly I'm anxious about getting to try the real weapons now that I have nothing to hide. It's like having a weight lifted off my shoulders."
She returned my conversation cheerfully, seeming to forget the earlier awkwardness. "Oh, that must be a relief. And you'll have such a handsome, able instructor to teach you how to best wield them all."
"She'll be able to show him a thing or two about the knives." I almost missed the wink that accompanied Bran's words.
"Well I learned from the best." I said, turning to share my comment with Fra, who smiled.
"And what about you Jace?"
My district partner looked startled to have the conversation back on him again. "I'm not sure. I haven't thought about it much. I never noticed Marissa in earlier training, so I have no idea what she's going to want to do, or what our angle is really going to be. She hasn't talked to me much."
"Hey, well that's what I'm her for." Clyse cracked his knuckles. "We'll go talk to her tomorrow before training and get things figured out. We can't let Caerwyn have all the fun now can we?" The look he shot me spoke of anything but fun.
I only laughed slightly. "No sir. I've probably been overdoing it with the angle thing anyway." Not a chance. I shrugged. "I hope it all goes well though." I meant it too. I didn't want anyone to die. I didn't want Jace to die. I didn't want to have to deal with going home without a piece of the group we had brought to the Capitol. But if that's what it took…
"… the day you will all present to the Gamemakers for your scores. And then the following evening will be the interviews, in your pairs, of course, and then Saturday night will be your first night in the arena." Rhodendra at least had the good grace to avoid appearing too happy about this final matter.
"The week will go quickly," Fra said. "Use all your time training wisely. Get to know your partner as much as possible, and discuss with them everything you might need to know before getting into the arena."
Bran nodded his assent. "There will likely be things you don't want to talk about when you're surrounded by cameras and other tributes. Keep that in mind. Anything you can think of." He took a swig of his drink. "Discuss it."
"Where can we talk that's private here?" Jace asked.
The four adults looked at each other.
"Clyse that's ridiculous."
"Well do you have any better ideas? It's not like the actual Training Room is open—
"Is it?" I interrupted the spat between Clyse and Bran, knowing they'd both had enough to drink to go at it for hours.
Everyone seemed to look at Fra. "I would imagine so, but it wouldn't hurt to check. The weapons will be put away for sure. They won't create any opportunity for Tributes to hurt themselves or each other. But as a room, perhaps it would be available."
"Anywhere else?" Jace persisted.
"There's the roof." I remembered my own discussion there the night before. "It's actually quite large. There's a massive garden up there that could easily hold three or four tributes without any of them knowing the others are there. And some of the equipment for the whole building provides walls and passages that would make it seem private."
Jace nodded. "And that's it?"
"I'll look into it." Rhodendra said. "And the moment I find anything I'll be sure to let you both know."
I pushed my chair back. "Perfect. Thank you Rhodendra." I nodded at her, turning to Fra. "May I be excused? I have some things to work on."
Fra and I both ignored the eye roll from Clyse. "Yes absolutely. I have another book for you actually. You're finished the first four?"
"Yeah, but I'd like to keep them around if you don't mind."
"Not at all." Fra smiled. "Have a good evening."
"You killed it out there Caer!" I caught Bran's comment right before I closed my bedroom door.
I smiled sadly. I had to appreciate his sentiment, even if Bran's choice of words was anything but comforting.
I stripped off the jumpsuit in the bathroom, thinking offhandedly about what Vo would do for our interviews when I heard a gentle note ring out from beneath me, followed by a dull clink. I looked down at my toes, noticing the ring laying nearby. I picked it up, realising it must have been the one that hit me in the neck, but got stuck in my costume afterwards.
I turned it over between my fingers. It seemed to be a man's ring, judging by its size, and the generally strong style. It had a thick silver band, with a large, square stone set in the middle of it. The stone barely rose above the surface of the band, but what it lacked in prominence because of that it made up for in the tiny etchings on either side of it that made the stone stand out even more. The stone itself was a deep green, pure-looking and rich.
I looked down at my chest, where my own ring from my family and mentors hung on a simple chain. I slipped the new ring onto the chain as well, feeling that it was too pretty to throw away. Besides, someone had meant for a tribute to have it. They were probably rich, if they could afford to throw this thing away, and who knows, maybe if they saw me wearing it they'd feel led to sponsor.
I slipped into the shower, relaxing under the soothing sensation of the paint being washed from my body. Maybe tomorrow I'll see if Cato wants to wear it. It might fit him.
I came back into the room to find the book Fra had promised on my bed. I picked it up, frowning immediately at the title, written across the cover in bold, flowing letters.
Keep Your Friends Close
My mind automatically finished the well-known phrase, and my frown deepened. Placing the book on my bedside table, I crawled under the covers, finding myself suddenly not in the mood for reading.
"I don't need to tell you which end to hold, do I?"
I picked up the sword, shooting Cato a glare. "I should hope not. Quit being so smart and teach me something."
Cato shifted his weight. "First of all, you're standing wrong. These swords aren't the real ones we'll be using in the arena. The one you're using right now is much lighter, so your stance doesn't matter as much." He jabbed my hip with the point of his own sword, forcing me to correct my error. "But heavier swords do more damage. You'll be handling the heaviest sword you can manage and then your balance is going to matter."
"I spent my childhood racing around on rickety carts without railings." I lifted my own unsharpened blade. "My balance isn't anything to shake a stick at." I grinned. "Or a sword."
"You're hilarious." Cato lunged at me, taking me by surprise. I was only able to fend him off for a moment before he disarmed me.
I rubbed my wrist. "Okay, let's pretend that wasn't a cheap shot and you tell me what I could have done better."
"There's no pretending necessary." He smirked. "First of all, you always need to be ready."
"Expect the unexpected?" I raised an eyebrow.
"That is a horrible cliché. But yeah. Pretty much."
I took that opportunity to attack him, thinking back to the years when we kids had fought with staffs in the barn. They were much longer than swords, and lighter, so many of the methods changed. But the idea was the same, as I still didn't want to get hit.
Cato parried my attack with ease, toying with me for a while before somehow getting much too close. He only had to lean into our engaged weapons to overpower me. My knees bent in the effort against his weight, when suddenly a page of Mob Mentality popped into my head. The mob was like a force, nearly impossible to fight against, but if you could manipulate it…
I let my knees buckle, rolling to the ground. Not expecting the sudden lack of resistance, Cato stumbled. If he'd been a lesser swordsman he might have fallen, but that didn't matter. I hooked my foot around his leg before he could steady himself, sending him crashing to the ground. I snatched his sword and leapt on top of him, pressing the blade to his neck, a triumphant smile on my face.
"There!" I pulled the blade away from his neck.
He looked torn between being impressed and angry. He stood and stretched, popping his back a couple times. "Watch out. Keep that up and I'll stop going easy on you."
He continued giving me pointers after that, and just as he threatened he became significantly more difficult to keep up with. We sparred for another two hours before we decided to take a break.
"Is there noticeable improvement?"
He took a swig of water, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. "Absolutely. You've done something of this sort before, haven't you?"
I explained to him about the fights in the barn with my family.
"That will do it. The balance of the wooden stick versus a metal sword would create a whole new kind of fighting style, the length would decrease maneuverability…" He seemed to go off on a tangent, thinking aloud. "Interesting."
"Yeah. Fascinating." I sat down on the mat near the water station. "What about you? How long have you been using a sword?"
Cato blanked. "I… I don't know." He thought for a moment. "Fourteen years? Thirteen years? Somewhere in there."
My eyes widened. "And you're only eighteen?"
He nodded. "You've got to start young if you ever expect to win the Games. The Academy's been around for sixty years now, and of all the victors who've come out of it, only two of them started training after their ninth birthday. It's a business in Two. I was younger than average, but nothing extraordinary."
"And you prefer swords?"
"They're two different things. A sword isn't too useful in long-distance combat, and a spear has its limitations close range. That's why it's good to use both."
I nodded. "Is there anything you can't use?"
He frowned. "No."
"Relax, I was just curious." I changed the subject. "Do you guys learn how to swim in Two?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Not too much. You?"
"We have places where we take the crew for water. Er, sorry, the cows." I grinned. "At home we just call them 'the lads' or 'the crew'. I guess that could get confusing if you didn't know what I was talking about. Anyway. We can go swimming there sometimes. But it's hard because we're busy a lot, and it's easier to just cool off at the house."
"We should try it then." He turned to walk towards the pool on the other side of the room. "We only have so much time before lunch. Hurry up." He called over his shoulder.
I rolled my eyes before standing to follow him. I snorted. Careers.
"Why are we wearing these?"
The trainer at the swimming area, a tall, thin man with blue hair and tattoos crawling up his neck, gave Cato a withering look. "Listen son, when you're in the arena, you're not going to have a choice about what you're wearing. This is a copy of what real tributes have worn in real arenas in games that really happened." He leaned in. "Got it, smart guy?"
Cato glared. "Got it."
"Good." The trainer shifted his weight, crossing his arms over his chest. "Then let's get started. The uniforms you're wearing were worn—
"In the sixty-sixth Hunger Games, when District Ten's Clyse Awlson won in the rolling hills of—
The trainer grabbed the front of his shirt, and I could see Cato barely resisting the urge to throw him into the pool. "Listen Hopscotch, I don't care if you can name every tribute who's died in these seventy three years of Hunger Games. When I'm talking, you listen, or you're never going to get a lesson."
He released Cato, who still looked like he was trying to calculate the exact time it would take to break this guy in half.
"As I was saying, these were the outfits worn eight years ago. Sturdy material, you wouldn't heat up too much during the day and would be kept comfortable wearing them wrapped up in a sleeping bag. Much like last year's Games, but with less trees. My point is, they were average Games. This is the sort of thing you could reasonably expect to be wearing in a week's time. Of course, there are no guarantees. But that," here he looked at Cato, "is why you're going to learn how to swim in them." He stepped back and motioned to the pool. "So jump in, cupcakes."
I remembered learning how to dive when I was eight or nine, and tried it on my way into the water. I could tell it was rather clumsy, but other than that it felt just as I remembered. I surfaced, working hard to stay afloat.
Cato dove in after me, looking far too graceful for someone who'd never done much swimming before. He made his way over to the edge, where the trainer sat lazily, watching us.
"Listen, the key to staying afloat is not to try to. You need to relax, and let the water do its job. The minute you think you're doing anything to keep yourself on top of the water is the minute you start to sink." His eyes were bright, and something in them wasn't quite sane. "Remember who's really doing all the work."
By lunchtime, we had learned how to do front crawl, breaststroke, and how to float using our clothes. Cato had an impossible time floating otherwise, but once he'd learned how to blow air into his shirt he was feeling much better about the whole experience.
My favourite was diving. After lunch, when Cato said he wanted to go back to swordplay, I told him I was going to do some more with the swimming instructor.
Needless to say, he was not impressed, but he told me to meet him at knives in an hour.
I made my way back to the pool, offering a smile to the instructor. He had been nothing but a bear to us earlier, and his habit of starting every sentence with the word 'listen' was really quite irritating. But I needed his help.
"How do I dive into the water from high up?"
He looked at me, expression blank. "Listen, I don't have time for you and your Career friend—
"He's not coming." I interrupted. "I know you can kill yourself by entering water at too great a height. How do you avoid that?"
Again, I received a long, vacant stare. "You need to have the water moving when you enter it. A long time ago, when the Capitol was just being built, the workers were all required to wear a special belt when working above the river. If they fell, they could release the belt. It would hit the water before they would, breaking the surface so the worker would survive." He shrugged. "But if you're not too high up, the best way is to enter at one point. Either your hands or your feet. Diving tends to be the best option from moderate heights. It lets you control where you're going, and if you're good, keeps you from hitting the bottom of whatever you're jumping into."
I drank up every word. Every year there had to be water in the arena. There was no alternative. And most of the time, only the tributes from Four knew how to swim. Being able to use it as a base could be valuable. And I already knew how many traps water could be counted on to set for others. "Would you teach me to dive? From… moderate heights, as you say? Please?"
He frowned. "I suppose. Come." He motioned for me to follow him. "We don't often use the towers, they're in an adjoining room, but since you said please." He opened a door. "Hopefully you'll remember all I taught you this morning."
"I hurt. Everywhere." I lay on the couch up on the tenth floor, moaning to whoever was in earshot about the trauma I has endured at diving that afternoon. At the moment, that unlucky recipient was Fra.
"Then why were you diving Caer?" He asked patiently.
"I needed to learn. I can do it now. It just took some time. And then he got me doing all kinds of crazy swimming. My muscles hurt. And I am bruised." I tossed an arm over my eyes dramatically. "From now on, the only water I go near is the kind I drink."
"Until tomorrow, of course."
Clyse's whistling preceded him into the room. He stopped upon seeing us. "What happened to you?"
"Have you not heard?" Bran spoke up sarcastically from somewhere I couldn't see. "From the way she's been wailing and lamenting nonstop I thought for sure the whole of the Training Centre knew what happened."
"Diving!" I gasped. "I nearly died."
"She might be exaggerating slightly." Fra said.
Clyse only nodded. "Okay, well, I'm going to talk to the Gamemakers about the solo sessions. I'll be back. Hopefully you'll make it until then."
"Yeah, if this bad case of Drama Queen doesn't kill her first." Bran said as the door shut.
I sat up. "Excuse me, but why do I detect a distinct lack of sympathy from a certain party in this conversation?"
Bran, who was sitting in the kitchen, only raised an eyebrow. "Maybe because you've got ears?" He shrugged. "That's all I can think of."
"Oh you wound me." I collapsed back on the couch, groaning.
"I think most of the wounding you've been subjected to has been self-inflicted." Fra said gently.
I sighed. "Perhaps."
"Okay wiseguy, tomorrow, how about you try jumping off a twelve metre tower hm? Then, and only then, can you mock my pain."
"Life is pain."
"And anyone who says otherwise is selling something."
I heard Bran chuckling. "You're too quick for your own good sometimes."
I sat up with a smile. "I consider that a compliment."
"Speaking of compliments," Bran continued. "How are things going with that Career of yours?"
I frowned. "Bran, how does that have anything to do with compliments?"
"That, my dear, is irrelevant."
I considered for a moment. "He taught me how to use a sword today. That went well I guess. He's going to practice with me every day this week."
"I'll tell him to keep you away from the pools." Fra said quietly.
"Thank you Fra, for that overwhelming vote of confidence."
He smiled. "Anytime."
"That's it?" Bran prodded.
"I'm not sure what you're looking for." I said cautiously.
"Well he hasn't said anything about alliances, has he? With the other Careers?"
I shook my head. "We're not forming alliances with them. He trusts them as much as I do. Or rather, he doesn't trust them as much as I do. You guys don't have to worry about him." I remembered Fra's words from last night. "Or me. You don't have to worry about me either."
Fra gave a barely perceptible smile. "Have you taken a look at that book I gave you yet?"
I looked at him. "No. But that reminds me." I stood up, suddenly eager to return to my room. "I was going to do some more exercises before dinner." I made my way towards my bedroom door. "If I don't show up on time, I'm just eating in my room."
"I thought your muscles were already so sore." Bran called after me.
I turned. "That excuse won't fly in the arena though, will it?"
I closed the door behind me, but that didn't keep the sound of Fra's voice away.
"Neither will ignoring the problem."
I clenched my fists and stormed over to look at the book on the bedside table. I half expected the words to have changed, but there it sat.
Keep Your Friends Close.