The doors open onto a large lounge, with plush sofas and cushions, and a thick, luxury carpet. There are plants everywhere. I supress a snort. Is this really how they view District 7? I guess it is.
“Where’s my room?” I ask.
“I’ll take you.” Clemensia offers.
I let her. I just won’t look at her scales. I follow her down a dark corridor, away from the vibrancy of the lounge.
“Can I just ask- I don’t want to be rude- but… um… well- Why did you choose to get scales?”
Clemensia goes very quiet at this, and I’m kicking myself. I’ve offended her. I don’t even know why I asked it. I don’t think she’s going to answer me, when she says, “I didn’t choose to have scales.”
“But- I don’t understand. Why-“
“Why do I have scales if I didn’t choose them? I was bitten by venomous snakes – yes, that is snakes plural – when I was younger, and this was a side effect that couldn’t be gotten rid of. It was a really sick joke on my professor’s behalf.”
“Your-your professor did this? Deliberately?!” My eyes widen.
“Well, technically she was Dr. Gaul, Head Gamemaker, but my… collegue and I were handing an assignment to her on behalf of the rest of the academy.”
I’m silent. The Head Gamemaker did this? Why do I not feel reassured by the knowledge that Head Gamemaker is crazy? Ha. Rhetorical question. I know the exact answer.
“Your room is to the left. Lunch is in a couple of hours, and training is after that.”
I nod my thanks, then open the door to my room. There, in the corner, is what I’m looking for. A bed. I snuggle down into the duvet, still in my reaping clothes, and almost immediately fall asleep.
“Willow.” There’s a knock at my door, then it opens. Josef comes into my room.
“Willow, it’s time for lunch.”
I drag myself out of bed and try to smooth out the creases in my dress. Josef holds out his hand, and I take it. We make our way to the dining room, which is brightly lit. Compared to the dark of my room, it is blinding. I have to blink a couple of times before my eyes adjust. Mattia Linker, Tigris and Clemensia are already sitting at the table. The table itself is laden with many, many dishes, with new and equally delicious smells coming from each. It smells of heaven. It’s a shame hell is where we’re headed.
Clemensia smiles at me. “Come and sit down Willow.” I do as she asks, and take a seat next to her. Josef does the same, and sits on the other side of me.
I lift the lid up of a dish, and sniff it. It smells wondrous. “What’s in this?” I ask.
“I believe that is the dried plum stew. Prunes, I think they’re called.” Tigris says.
Prunes. They don’t sound too good. I think I’ll skip that one. I move onto the next one. “And this?”
“Curried chicken, in a sweet’n’sour sauce, with rice.”
Now that sounds nice. I take a large spoonful of it and put it on my plate. The wonderful smell strengthens, and I’m inclined to forget trying to eat it, and just inhale the stuff. But I eat it nevertheless.
After lunch, we are called down to the training room. I take Josef’s hand. I’m shaking like a leaf. I’m going to meet the other tributes, and that’s when the Careers pick their targets. And I know I’m going to be one.
When we enter the training room, I let go of Josef’s hand. I don’t want to show any signs of weakness to the rest of the tributes. Besides, I have a plan.
I head immediately to the edible plants section. I have no intention of showing off my axe skills to the rest of them. The first thing Josef taught me after Mama died was how to use an axe. At the time I thought he was preparing me for when I was eighteen, and when I had the choice to work as a lumberjack. Now I see that he was preparing me for when my name was pulled out of the ballot. I was nine then, and he was fifteen. Three years later, I am now an expert at the art of axe fighting.
In the edible plants section, there are some I recognise, but others are completely unfamiliar. I guess it’s a good thing I’m a fast learner.
Over the next three days, I immerse myself in the learning of which plants I can eat and can’t eat. My intent is not to win the games, but at least with this knowledge, I can last much longer than I would have done. Maybe long enough to protect Josef and to make sure he wins.
By the time we have to have our individual assessments infront of the Gamemakers, I know exactly what I’m doing.
“Willow Shiels.” My name is called over the tannoy.
Josef has already been and gone. I make my way to the training hall. Compared to the 23 other tributes in here this morning, it is empty.
I head straight for the axes. Whatever happens in here remains strictly confidential, so no one will know how good I am with an axe.
Fifteen minutes later, I walk out of the training hall, after throwing all of the axes at the dummie targets. Every single one of them hit the targets. I head back to Floor 7.
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