<-- return to previous part
"And with the Second Quarter Quell just around the corner -- ! Well, it certainly throws us right back to why we're doing this. As one of our first Victors, Liesel, what are your thoughts?"
Careful, Liesel. Careful. Don't make the same mistakes you did when you were fifteen.
"I think it's boring to repeat a Quell," she said, injecting a cheery lilt to her voice. They could be talking about the weather, the shrimp, the new president. Across from her, the interviewer blinked. His eyelashes had been surgically altered to twice their length, with miniature snowflakes clustered at their ends. He wasn't much -- some youngblood Games presenter want-to-be. She could barely remember his name. Flickerman something? "Trust me, the Districts are Quelled."
Smile, smile. It was a joke.
"All those troubles," airy wave of her hand, like she wasn't talking about war, slaughter, and the annihilation of District 13. "It was so long ago. Surely there's a way to work with the Districts that doesn't involve --" killing our children. How dare you touch our children, how dare you, they're not guilty of anything!
No, you can't say that, they'll kill your husband. They'll kill your boy.
You're the word-shaker, Liesel. Find the words!
"-- such humiliation."
Caesar leapt on that eagerly. "Is that what you think? The Quell is humiliating?"
"The Games are humiliating!" Liesel laughed. "Every year! Herr Flickerman, I'm from District 12, and we've only had two Victors in the past fifty years. Of course the Games are an embarrassment."
On who, indeed.
The arena for the 13th Annual Hunger Games had been built on the western-facing slopes of the Capitol mountains.
At least, Liesel assumed that's where they were. This was before they'd mastered the ability to terraform arenas from scratch, and had to work with existing landscape. Regardless, the foliage, the earth, the foothills all looked familiar -- she'd just seen it all, coming from the other direction.
Nothing existed west of the Capitol, everyone said, except ocean and maybe some far-off landmasses that once held population, but didn't anymore.
The Capitol, District 7 to the north, and District 1 to the south … theirs were the western-most borders of Panem.
I am standing further west than any citizen of Panem will probably ever stand in their entire life, Liesel thought, as she and Rudy hiked higher into the foothills to find a place far, far away from the Cornucopia to hide for the night. It made her toes curl inside her boots with delight, that thought, even as the sun baked the back of her neck and her tongue parched itself to the roof of her mouth. No rain this side of the mountains, either.
Liesel Meminger was both the youngest and the smallest tribute in the arena this year.
(No twelve- or thirteen-year-olds had been Reaped. Supposedly, this was simply a lucky year for the Districts, but Liesel would later find out that it had more to do with some high-ranking government official, whose thirteen-year-old daughter had just died -- faulty medicine from 5. They'd loved the Games, the politician and his daughter, so the Capitol removed the names of the youngest entrants from the Reaping that year, to spare him any further trauma. To speak nothing of the Districts' trauma, of course, but who cared about that?)
Rudy wasn't much older, but he'd always been the champion in school athletic competitions. He could outrun anyone in District 12. He'd even gotten a head-start on his growth spurt, which Liesel -- who'd always relied on being eye-to-eye with him during their games in the Meadow -- found obnoxious.
And then there was the issue of him being Panem's very first volunteer.
("Well, I do like being first," he'd said to her, and then, "ow!" when she got a hard hit on his ribs.)
There was no arguing that he set a precedent, one Liesel would see develop in the evolving Career Districts for the next forty years. And while part of her will never forgive that stupid, miserable, filthy merchant pig for it, she knew why he did it.
In those few, hot, awful moments after Liesel Meminger was called to the stage at the Reaping, Rudy Steiner took one look at his family, judged himself to be the starving mouth most expendable, and decided he was going to go with his best friend. That's what they'd done all their lives. Rudy went where Liesel went, Liesel went where Rudy went. No reason to stop now. The Capitol didn't have the power to come in between that, he wasn't going to let it.
The fact that by volunteering, he also spared the handicapped Tommy Muller just made it easier.
And, perhaps worst of all, it didn't occur to him that Liesel might survive without him. He genuinely thought they were both going to their deaths.
"So …" Rudy kicked at the yellow tracking along the edge of the stair. "What do you want to do?"
Liesel glanced about. A couple of the tributes had beelined right for the weapon racks; the big guy from District 10 had a mace in hand and was already beckoning over one of the attendants to partner with him. There was something sadistic about the way he handled that weapon that made her want to be on the opposite end of the Training Center, right now.
Rudy brightened, nudging her. "Hey! I've always wondered what it would be like to hold a sword. Do you want to give it a try?"
"No," Liesel said immediately. What she really wanted was the Meadow, a ball, and her Papa playing the accordion on the grass. Was there anywhere they could go and just … oh, play sounded like such a childish word, but that was exactly what she wanted to do. "Come on. We don't know how to start a fire without matches. Let's try that."
From their arrival in the Capitol onward, they, by wordless agreement, spent every waking moment together, as much as they possibly could. They did all their training at the survivalist stations, avoiding the weapons entirely. They ate cake together on Liesel's birthday (they'd never had cake before, it was exciting!), they studied edible plants and camp-making together, they prepped with Dolphine and Max together, because if they only had days left to live, they sure weren't going to spend that time alone.
Liesel scraped by with a training score of three, Rudy a six, and this was before they interviewed tributes in front of a live audience, so when the Capitol cameras caught up to them in the press room, they were always together, dressed by their stylist to match, and that's how they presented themselves: Liesel-and-Rudy, the District 12 tributes. Rudy blew kisses to his baby sisters back home.
Very few of the other tributes made any impression on her whatsoever.
Some part of her already considered them all to be dead, so it didn't matter if she knew who they were or not.
Certainly she remembered some of them, like Viktor Chemmel, the District 10 boy who'd gone after an attendant with a mace that day, or Franz Deutcher of 7, who slammed Rudy's face into the lunch table and sneered, "oops, sorry, thought you were a rat," or the District 5 girl, who'd asked Max about uppercuts in the elevator and called him "Vandenburg-san," which thrilled her down to her core, because if they had one form of address in District 12 and a different form of address in District 5, did that mean there were more?
But none of them were Rudy.
Rudy Steiner was the only thing about the 13th Hunger Games she cared about.
They had one ally in the arena.
He found them on the second morning, because they weren't exactly making it difficult, standing out in the open arguing about whether they should head back downhill or continue on up into the foothills. Liesel voted for the latter, deeming it safer, but Rudy wanted to know what they'd do if they reached the edge of the arena and found themselves in a corner with another tribute bearing down on them.
"So you want to go to them instead?" Liesel demanded impatiently. "You dummkompf, we'll be killed for sure!"
"So, what, you're just going to sit here?"
"No, I want you to rethink and come to the right opinion."
"Or!" a voice called from the trees behind them, sending their hearts jolting right out of their bodies with fright, diving for the safety of the rocks and leaving the rest of them obliged to follow. "I could just kill you both now. It'd solve your problem!"
It took him five laughing minutes to coax them back out again, promising he wasn't really here to kill them, and he even went so far as to remove all visible weapons from his person and set them down to prove it. When they emerged, they found themselves on a hillside with the boy from District 1.
His name was Glorious ("but people call me Arthur for short. Arthur Berg,") and he was sixteen years old and covered in an unfortunate amount of pimples.
"Why aren't you going to kill us?" Rudy asked belligerently, and Arthur looked offended.
"You're District 12, aren't you? District 12's a mining District, and us miners have to stick together," he told them, like it really was that simple. District 1 made luxury items for the Capitol, which included mining for precious gems. Arthur's family, she later found out, lived in an area he called the Red Canyon, in the southern-most part of District 1, where they farmed turquoise. She even got to see it on her Tour. "Why, do you want to die?"
"No!" they answered together, and he grinned.
"Good, because I have a plan, and it involves someone very little and very quick."
"… I'm very little," Liesel volunteered.
Rudy finished, "And I'm very quick!"
The plan involved quite a lot of thievery: food, mostly, because none of them were very good at scavenging it on their own. Supplies, when they needed it, or when it was to their advantage to remove a key item from another tribute. Arthur didn't see any reason they should have to kill anyone, although they might get killed if they didn't get out of there quick enough.
"Have either of you ever stolen anything before?"
"Sure! All the time," Rudy lied.
"I've stolen books," Liesel offered, shyly. "Three of them."
"You can't eat books, sweetheart," Arthur chuckled. And then, "Come on, let's go get breakfast."
"At this rate," Rudy murmured to Liesel as they trekked back downhill. "They're going to need to bring the referees back just to get us back on track," and Liesel smirked. The very early Games were always presided over by a referee. Their job was to remind the tributes that they were there to kill each other, just in case they got any other ideas.
We were all just really baffled by the whole thing, Max recalled. We didn't want to fight. What had these other people ever done to us?
Right, agreed the District 8 Victor, seated on Liesel's other side. We'd been allies in the Uprising. Why would we suddenly want to kill each other? The referees were there to persuade us.
They were all cooped up in the control room, and a howling snowstorm meant that almost all their tributes had run to ground, so there wasn't much to do. At her station, Victorie Heavensbee nodded slowly, mulling it over. She shifted her toddling son, Plutarch, to the other hip and said, very dryly, I remember most of us would have rather killed that damn referee than each other, and Mags cackled.
Of course, by the time Liesel and Rudy were Reaped, a whole generation of children had grown into a world where the Hunger Games dictated their relationships with the other Districts, and they knew what was expected of them. The referees weren't needed.
"Psst!" Rudy hissed over at her, and Liesel bared her teeth in return, letting him know exactly how she was going to grind his face into the mud if he got them caught. "Psst, you filthy ass-scratcher, I'll make a deal with you!"
They were waiting for the girl from District 6, Otto Sturm. According to Arthur, she had the largest stockpile of food out of anyone in the arena. Also, apparently she'd gotten out of the Cornucopia with a most excellent traveling basket, and they wanted it.
Right now, though, it was hot and scratchy under the summer sun and they were tired of waiting. Liesel's lookout was a bush that draped haphazardly over an overhanging ledge, and she'd watched at least four separate curious insects crawl up under her sleeve without being able to do anything about it.
"What!" she hissed back.
"If I get the goods and get back to the rendezvous point before you do, then I get to claim a prize!"
"You're not getting any prize," Liesel retorted, kneejerk. And then, "What do you want?"
Rudy's teeth winked white at her across the distance. "How about a kiss?"
She rolled her eyes so hard she was afraid they'd come right out of her head and drop off the ledge.
"Gross," she complained, and Rudy's huffing laughter carried them through the rest of their wait.
When she pulled him out of the river, streams of water poured off of him, and he blinked up at her through crooked, clumpy eyelashes.
Registering the terror that had to be all over her face, he grinned at her with great delight, all his teeth on display.
"How about that kiss?" he wanted to know, and Liesel didn't know what it was about that moment, but it got stuck. It squeezed itself into some crack in her heart and became sediment there, crystallizing like a coal seam, like hundreds of years from now somebody would come along and mine it out of her and there he would be, Rudy Steiner, perfectly preserved and permanently fifteen years old.
Liesel Meminger would never forget this moment. She would relive it a thousand times: her hand and Rudy's, gripping each other's forearms, Rudy's slick wet hair and slick wet mouth, the way he smiled at her like it didn't matter where they were, they could be anywhere and he'd still smile at her like it was a Sunday in the Meadow.
It would haunt her all her life.
At the time, she'd ignored the nervous bubbling in her stomach and just rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, come on," and they scrambled up the hill to where Arthur was gesturing at them frantically, yelling about Deutcher and Deutcher's stupid deadly rapier and they needed to get out of here now, now, now.
When they were children, before they could even sign up for tessarae, they used to walk by the gates of the Victor's Village the way she'd once done with her brother.
They'd suck on pine bark to ease the aching in their bellies, passing pieces of soft, white wood back and forth until they'd gnawed it all up, peering in between the bars at the immaculate houses. Everything was quiet, still. The birds didn't even disturb the eaves, and no squirrels rioted across the gutters. They knew somebody lived there, but they'd never seen him except on stage at Reapings and on television.
"Do you suppose that's his talent?" Rudy asked, keeping his voice down like the noise would disturb the stillness of the place.
Liesel squinted at him. "What?"
"Max Vandenburg," Rudy clarified, impatiently. "Do you think that's his talent?"
"What, being impossible to find?"
"Yeah, exactly! Don't you think it's weird that we've lived here longer than he has, and yet, we never see him anywhere! Not at the market, not at the harvest festival -- it's like he doesn't exist when the Hunger Games aren't happening. Where does he go?"
Liesel found out when she was sixteen, orphaned again and so, so, so angry that it never went away. She could taste it in everything she ate, felt it in every part of her like she was covered in hairline fractures, like her insides were coated and one struck match would turn her into cinders. It burned at her, that kind of helpless fury, and Max found her one morning on her front step, cradling Hans Hubermann's accordion to her chest. It wheezed faintly at her occasional movement, a half-sigh of a note.
He stood in front of her, bramble-haired, and every part of him looked hollow, like she could throw a coin in him and never hear it hit bottom.
She wanted to smash him into pieces, except he extended a hand to her and said, "Come on, I want to show you something."
He pulled her off the steps of Number 33, and she followed him past Number 35, which was his official address. She'd been inside: it was more hollow than he was, with hardly anything in it at all.
He led her all the way down to the house at the end of the lane. They went around the side to the kitchen door, and Max lifted the broken lock, shimmying the door open. They stepped inside, but he didn't wait for her to look about. He led her to the basement steps. A glow of light pooled at the bottom: he must have a kerosene lamp down there.
"Is this where you go?" Liesel asked with dawning realization. "When none of us can find you?"
Max's smile softened. "My mother and I spent a lot of time in basements when we were trying to get out of District 2. I know it's the fist-fighting I'm famous for," he spread his hands out, studying his knuckles the way Liesel would look at a book she'd never read. "But honestly, I think I'm much better at hiding than I am at anything else."
He stepped back, and she descended the basement steps on her own.
"Oh," she gasped, lifting her hand from the banister and then forgetting about it, so that it hovered in the air in front of her. Her eyes darted back and forth, landing on each feature of the room and flicking away again: a mattress on the floor, protected by a pile of tarps, a heap of paint cans clustered together in the corner, a washing line strung from the banister and fastened to a nailhead on the opposite side of the room. Pages clung to it with clothespins.
And the walls --
The walls were covered in paint. So were the pages on the washing line, but the walls.
Some of what Max had painted was minuscule; next to the mattress, at about eye-level, three bricks stood in a row with entire scenes contained within each one. Some of what Max had painted was wild and enormous, taking up a seven-foot section of wall. She could tell by the fringes that feathered the floor and ceiling that Max routinely covered the whole basement in a coat of white, to give himself fresh canvas.
She looked back up the steps.
Max sat at the top. "I lose days down here," he explained. "I can go -- it feels like months, I'll go without seeing the sun, or the clouds, or the stars, and then when I have to go outside again, everything burns." He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, like the memory of it hurt.
"Ja," Liesel said.
"Ja," Max agreed, very quiet.
Something snagged her attention then, and she turned away from him, ducking underneath the washing line and the nearest page that hung from it (the woman painted on it bore frightening resemblance to Frau Holtzapfel, and looking at it made her feel like she was going to get spat on; Frau Holtzapfel had excellent aim,) to get a better look. Against the wall, framed by a suggestion of a golden chariot, were --
"This is us," said Liesel in surprise. "Rudy and I, at the presentation of the tributes."
She didn't know how she knew. The smears of paint were abstract at best, quick lines that could have been people as easily as they could be anything else, but she could make out herself in grey, and Rudy beside her, black-painted except for the "12" on his chest.
"Was it really coal dust they covered him in?" Max wanted to know.
"I think so. For authenticity, maybe? They covered every inch of him," Liesel confirmed. They'd turned Rudy Steiner black as coal, and dressed her up like a miner to match, with an oversized foam axe hiked over her shoulder. She felt ridiculous. She probably looked even worse. "I was still digging it out of my ears when I went into the arena."
Now that she was looking, she could spot the ravages of other years, other Games, other tributes, memorialized in paint.
"Your stylist was an idiot."
"He was all right," Liesel defended, absently.
Liesel and Rudy's stylist called himself Orpheus, a name Liesel forgot thirty seconds after being told. If she didn't care about the other tributes, then she certainly didn't care about some frivolous Capitol fashion designer looking to use them as a stepping stone.
The man himself came in while she was still lying on the table in the prep room, feeling raw from where her gravediggers had stripped her of years of coal dirt, and at least three layers of skin.
Perhaps she should have seen Rudy's coal-covered entrance coming, because when the stylist stepped around to where she could see him, the first thing she registered was that he was in head-to-toe black. His boot heels thudded against each other. His gloves squeaked when he folded his arms.
Most noticeably, he wore a mask that covered almost the entirety of his face, except for a single blue eye.
Something told her it wasn't purely a stylistic choice.
"Hello, Liesel," he said in a slow voice like still water, like it would take a lot to disturb.
"What happened to you?" Liesel asked, with the rudeness of a child.
It was impossible to tell, but the mask moved with the suggestion of a smile.
"The Uprising, of course, what do you think happened?" he replied. "I was enlisted to the science division, doing … design work of a different sort, for the war effort. Then the rebels finally figured out where we grew the mutts, and gassed us." He pointed to his face, then gestured to the rest of him. Every inch of skin was covered by black fabric. "Cell damage. They couldn't even graft it back. My own mother wouldn't recognize me," and a chuckle scraped out of him. "Doesn't, in fact. I've run into her a few times. She's still waiting for them to bring her a body."
She listened, still on her back. "Do you hate us?" seemed a relevant question to ask.
He hesitated, and she could tell he was determining whether to be honest or not.
"Maybe," he admitted. "But not in the way you'd think. We learn it as children, and it takes daily effort to unlearn it when you're grown. Now, is this what you wore at the Reaping?" He crossed to the chair where Liesel'd folded up her dress and smock before the prep team came in.
She bolted upright. "No --!"
It was too late. As he pulled the dress off the chair and shook it out, a bent-cornered book came loose from the folds of her clothes and hit the ground at his feet, where it split open, broken-backed.
For a beat, they both just looked at it.
Watching a few pages lift and then collapse, Liesel tried to shrink, drawing her knees up to her chest and ducking her head. Finally, he lowered the dress and then bent down, picking it up.
"Is this yours?" he asked, turning it over.
He tilted it towards her questioningly, like somehow somebody else's book might have ended up in her clothes, and it prompted a defiant "yes!" out of her.
He looked at it again. "Do they often hand out … Capitol novels in District 12?"
Liesel hid her cringe. She hadn't gotten a chance to look at it closely yet. She'd seen it poking out of a gravedigger's jacket pocket as they worked over a tray of gels and lotions, chattering at each other and complaining about her body hair (she was prepubescent. How much body hair could she have? Too much for Capitol sensibilities, apparently,) and grabbed it at the first opportunity. It was her third stolen book.
"More often than you'd think," she lied, and his single visible eyebrow lifted.
Then, to her great surprise, he closed it and put it back on the chair. When he finished inspecting her Reaping outfit, he folded that up and placed it on top.
Liesel watched him, and something like understanding kindled in the space just underneath her ribs.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"No," she shook her head, not knowing how she knew, but feeling certain of it. "Your real name."
He paused, then came about to face her, heels together and arms folded across his chest, one hand lifted to his chin in a thoughtful pose. It was a long time before he spoke, but when he did, it came out of him lake-deep, slow, "When the rebels took out the laboratory I was working in, I met Death -- strange individual, very fond of colors, it was weird -- and afterwards, when I climbed out, I didn't look back."
He was silent for another long moment.
"But," he said quietly. "Since I'm asking you to trust me with your image, it wouldn't make sense for me not to trust you." His gaze snapped back to her, and again, there was the impression of a smile. "It's Johann."
When the noise finally stopped, Liesel lay buried under the destruction, caked in debris and parched the color of tombstones. Rubble made her bed, and in her ear, the cuckoo alarm programmed into her gas mask kept sounding, warning her of undetonated bombs nearby.
She kept frozen and still, not daring to move in case it triggered more blasts.
How long she lay there, she wouldn't know until she saw the other side of it in the recap.
First came the immediate, frantic arrival of the hovercraft, then the dispersion of Capitol utility workers who started crawling over the mountain range of rubble, carrying scanners and lead by bounding finder-mutts with keen noses and intelligent eyes, and the steady unearthing of each new body. First they found Esper from 4, then the pair from 3 who'd brought up the idea of dropping bombs on the arena in the first place. Next came both tributes from 11, and Franz Deutcher of 7. The only part of Viktor Chemmel that could be identified were his teeth.
By the time they found Liesel Meminger, she was the only one left alive.
They had their Victor.
All bets had been on Viktor Chemmel, she was pretty sure, since the only people who really bet on her were Max and Ilsa Hermann.
Victor Viktor had a nice ring to it, and three of the twelve living Victors at that point were from District 10, the slaughterhouse District, so they had the lead. It left some of the other Districts with no Victor at all; in fact, as punishment for the politician's daughter, District 5 wouldn't be allowed to have their first Victor until the year before the first Quarter Quell.
It was while she was down there, buried cellar-deep and breathing slowly to preserve the oxygen reserves in her mask, that Liesel thought for one strange, lit moment that she could see somebody standing over her.
She blinked once, then twice, and squinted, but no matter what, the figure didn't coalesce into anybody recognizable; she could determine no physical features, couldn't even peg a masculine or feminine nature -- seemingly, the figure was both at once. The one thing she could see clearly was that her visitor carried something in arms, gently, protectively, the way you'd hold something impossible and fragile.
The way you'd hold children.
Instinctively, she reached up.
"Oh, no," said a voice above her head. "Not you. Not yet. You've many years ahead of you, book thief, and they will be very busy for the both of us."
Then, "When the time comes, call me to the tree."
"Like the song?" Liesel coughed out, confused.
"Yes," said the voice, sadly. "Like the song."
And then, from above --
The sound of digging.
In Liesel's experience, the people who come to your door in the middle of the night never bring good news.
"Pretty sure that's for you," her husband mumbled, heavy-mouthed into his pillow. Below, the pounding of a fist on the door resumed, and he took his foot, leveraged it against Liesel's thigh, and shoved until she fell part-way off the mattress. "I'm not the popular one here."
"Eurggh," Liesel responded, very cuttingly.
She gathered up her robe, shoved her cloud of hair back and trapped it under a bandana, and felt her way downstairs in the dark. The motion-activated porchlight threw a silhouette against the curtains, and she knew who it had to be even before she dragged the front door open and saw Walter Kugler on her step.
"Please," he said. He wore his uniform trousers, unbelted and creased like they'd been picked up and thrown on, and a cut-out shirt that had seen better days. His sleepwear, she presumed. "Please, I can't wake him up."
"Ja," she said, already stepping out and pulling the door shut behind her.
He led her next door, through the dark house, and up the stairs to Max's bedroom. A bedside lamp was on, and the figure illuminated in the sheets was knotted-up, twisted in on himself, and utterly silent like he feared being found, even in the safety of the Victor's Village. The steady tremor that shook at him was the only thing that alerted her something was wrong. It was a tension she could feel, even standing in the doorway.
Liesel spotted Walter's holster looped around the back of a chair, his boots beneath with his Peacekeeper's helmet, and -- more tellingly than that -- his glasses, a stack of books, and a glass of water on the bedside table opposite Max's.
She swallowed, ignored these things, and hiked up her robe so that she could climb up onto the mattress.
She located Max among the sheets, dug around for his balled-up fighting fist, and pulled it up to her.
She sang to him, because what else are you to do in the face of what frightens you? It beats at you, you sing back. It hurts you, you sing back. Never let it have the power.
He taught her that.
She started with "The Hanging Tree," because it was on her mind, and after a moment, Walter joined in, so the song became a harmony. She worked Max's fist open so that she could wrap her fingers around his, to give him an anchor to use to climb out of his nightmare.
"The Hanging Tree" segued into a hymn from District 6 with a similar tune. Most of the music from District 6 dealt with themes of the sky, of wide-open spaces, of clouds and stars and the colors embedded in the times of day. District 6 specialized in transportation; they built the trains, the tracks, the hovercrafts. It made sense, the way their culture became so focused on unreachable destinations. They were always building the paths, but could never take them.
"You should see the sky tonight, Max," she whispered. "Do you remember how it looked from the Seam, where there were no artificial lights to block it out? On clear nights, it looked like a carpet of stars, remember?"
"I remember," he rasped, now awake. And, "… where was I?"
"Still somewhere we could reach you," she replied.
For the 41st Annual Hunger Games, the arena was an aquarium.
There were four separate chambers, each one featuring a different underwater environment: one was a brightly-lit, sandy coral reef with lots of little fish and poisonous eels; another an open water shelf littered with darting, winking swordfish and blood-scenting sharks and forests of jellyfish and no place to hide; a freezing, pitch-black tank meant to simulate the deep sea trenches and their frightening occupants; and lastly, a kelp forest where tributes could harvest their own food and even cook it over belching-hot vents. The chambers were connected by a series of maintenance tunnels, which could only be entered through pressurized hatches. All tunnels led to a hub in the heart of the arena.
Each tribute that year was fitted with a wet suit, flippers, and an oxygen tank before entering. The oxygen tanks only held air for so long, though, and the only refilling station was, naturally, at the Cornucopia in the hub, as were the only pumps for fresh water.
The District 4 tributes were the favored winners, since the arena was more to their advantage than anyone else's. They were down to the final eight, and both District 4 tributes were still alive, holding a grudging mutual dominion over the coral reef and all of its food sources.
But Liesel had a tribute in the running, too.
A girl, a niece of Tommy Muller's, who allied herself with the District 3 girl to strategically flood the tunnels to cut off the other tributes from readily available food and the Cornucopia. She was the only tribute unafraid of the deep-sea trench chamber, hunkering down with her lamp and her tank among the nightmarish mutt-fish and the squids, waiting for other tributes to come to her.
There were some advantages, Liesel thought, to being from the coal District. You didn't mind the darkness, for one thing.
But she wasn't used to mentoring alone, not for this long (her tributes rarely made it to the final eight,) and it was only Seeder's intervention and gentle insistence that she was no use to her tribute sleep-deprived and delirious that got her out of the command center. By the time she got back to their floor in the Training Center, every part of her dragged. She felt like she was trying to haul sandbags around.
She sank onto the sofa in the main room, only intending to rest and check the Capitol news before heading to bed, but next she woke, it was hours later and the door chimed.
Disoriented, she sat up. The chime sounded again.
"Enter!" she called.
The door slid open and shut, and a moment later, a boy poked his head around corner.
Liesel smiled in surprise. "Hello, Beetee," she said.
In the 40th Games the year before, at the age of fourteen, Beetee broke Liesel's long-standing record as Panem's youngest Victor. He wouldn't hold the title for long: a few years from now, a thirteen-year-old from District 1 named Adamantine would break it, but for right now, Liesel rose to her feet and saw a child Victor, like she had once been.
Beetee returned the smile.
"Hello, word-shaker," he said. "May I join you?"
"Yes, please, come in," she gestured, scooting over to make room for him on the sofa. "We can watch --" she glanced at the television, and it took her a moment to make sense of what she was seeing. "A cooking challenge, apparently." It rankled at her Seam sensibilities, and she couldn't stop the disgust that crinkled through her voice. "Gross, really?"
"Despicable, isn't it," Beetee agreed mildly.
They sat together on the sofa. For a moment, he didn't say anything, and then he pushed at his glasses and started, with obvious discomfort, "First, I wanted to say that I'm sorry about your District partner. Have they -- did they declare him dead?"
"Yes," Liesel said shortly.
"My condolences. He was ... kind to me, after my Games. It's a very rare attribute, these days." He cleared his throat. "Second, I have a story for you, if you'd like it."
She sat up straighter. An itch started in her fingertips, and with it, the urge to steal. Liesel never outgrew thievery; everything the Capitol didn't want her to have, she took. She stole music and books, she stole information about Districts that were not her own. In District 1, the population is divided into family clans, which were determined by what precious mineral they farmed. A gemstone is usually placed under a newborn's tongue at birth -- it's considered good luck if they swallow it. In District 10, they tie bells around the necks of lambs, a holdover from a time when wolves were a common threat. They still were, in some places.
"I would love it, Beetee, thank you. From District 3?"
"Yes." He waited until she'd fetched a recorder. It wasn't the ideal location, but Liesel had collected stories under more questionable circumstances than this. "My father used to tell it to us when we were little. It's about a man whose wife got sick. There was a hospital nearby, but the problem was is that there was a mountain separating his village from the city where they'd built the hospital, and the valleys were too treacherous to take on foot. It took a day and a half to go around. His wife wasn't healthy enough for that kind of travel, and the man couldn't afford to make the journey to get her medicine."
District 3 was a small, scrubby District that most people just referred to kind of snidely as the Capitol's armpit. It used to be farmland before desertification set in, and now District 3 generated the Capitol's power and mass-produced its technology.
Where 1, 2, and even 4 developed into Career Districts, 3 never had a chance. You don't raise Panem's smartest children and then let them train with weapons, too.
"After she died, the man vowed that he wouldn't let it happen again. There was no reason his village shouldn't have access to adequate medical care. So one morning, he got up and went up into the mountains. He picked one and started taking it apart, stone by stone. For the next forty years, that's what he did. When he got too old to pull the cart, his son took over. By the time the son had sons of his own, they finally finished. They'd created a flat path between two peaks. A journey that had once taken a day and half now was only a matter of hours. Nobody in the village had to go without medical care ever again."
He stopped, and looked off into some middling distance. Liesel, sensing he wasn't done, waited.
"The idea, I think, is that mountains …" he paused. He met her eyes. He spoke very carefully, "Mountains cannot be taken apart in a single day. The most anyone can do is move a few rocks, to make it easier for those who come next, until the task is complete."
The smile started at one corner of her mouth and spread to the other.
"I think," she said to the astute fifteen-year-old in front of her. "You might be right about that."
When Liesel married, she married Seam, a coal miner friend of Kurt Steiner's who'd been in the year above her at school.
He whistled on the way to work on sunny mornings, and on the day that Max Vandenburg came up out of his basement with swimming hands, swimming eyes, and skin greyer than wet newspaper and said, simply, like it was the only word he knew, "Liesel," before collapsing face-first into the hearth, he was the first person she encountered when she ran out onto the street, yelling for help. He fetched her a stretcher like the kind they used for mine injuries, and together, they lifted Max onto it, piled him with blankets, and took him to the apothecary's on Merchant Street.
He stayed with her all that night, and when it became plain that Max wasn't going to wake, he coaxed her to let go of Max's hand and go get some rest.
For the next two months, while they waited for -- for something, for Max to die or Max to live or for the arrival of medicine from the Capitol that wasn't coming, he visited her at the end of his shift, usually just as she was leaving school. They walked a circuitous route, first to the apothecary's, then to the market for necessities, then past his home in the Seam to her own.
He'd ask her about her curriculum, and she always sung him a few things until he picked them up. His singing voice wasn't anything extraordinary, but he could whistle everything she gave him, note-for-note.
"I think all the birds have stopped to listen to us," he told her once, with a grin that folded at his eyes. "Do you hear anything?"
And Liesel, for once, could find nothing to say at all.
He made her feel like she was stumbling, even when she had both feet on the ground.
They married in May, on the ten-year anniversary of her own Games. She rented a white dress that zipped all the way up the back of her neck -- she liked the idea that after the threshold ceremony, after the toasting, she would need her husband's help to get out of it again.
It came as a surprise to some people, she knew that. After all, she and Rudy had been a foregone conclusion in everyone's minds, a matter not helped by their very public end. A boy and a girl, best friends since childhood? They were destined to marry, don't be silly, who else could there possibly be?
Liesel thought that was an awful lot of expectation to put on a pair of fifteen-year-olds. Who was thinking about marriage at that age?
And anyway, she couldn't ask Rudy, because the Capitol killed him for sport. Franz Deutcher skewered him in the mud, and let him bleed to death in Liesel's arms.
She'd kissed his corpse good-bye.
It took them a couple years to come around to the idea, but when they did, she and her husband decided in a fit of strange euphoria that they might as well have a dozen children. A whole village, why not? She had the money to feed them, and if the foreman could spare him, he could care for them while she was mentoring in the Capitol. Liesel warned him that they'd need to have them very close together. They'd lose a couple to the Reaping, it was inevitable -- it had already happened to the Victor from the 3rd Hunger Games (not Victorie Heavensbee, who'd had the wherewithal to leave Plutarch with his father in the Capitol, out of harm's way, or Max Vandenburg, who didn't dare reproduce) and the ratings from those Games had been way too high for it to never happen again. The sooner they could get them grown, the better.
In the end, though, they just had three.
Of them, only one made it to adulthood.
Liesel Meminger raised her children like Careers.
She had to. They had no way of getting the skills to survive in the arena otherwise, and there was no doubt in her mind that they'd need them.
She disguised it as play. She sent her boys after each other in the yard, armed with arrows with cushioned tips that had been coated in coal dust, making each hit they scored on each other plain and visible. She encouraged their habit of throwing pencils at each other, and gave them hints on how to make a mark even with a long-distance throw -- a skill that would translate easily to knives, later. She taught them to swim and to chop firewood that they sold in the Seam for far, far less than it was worth. She taught them to identify a variety of edible plants that grew wild, all the dandelions and blackberries, all the katniss tubers and spring onions.
"It's too bad there's no way to predict when the electricity on the perimeter fence is going to fail," her husband mused, lacing up his boots one morning. "Otherwise we could take them into the woods to hunt. It wouldn't hurt."
"Don't be stupid," Liesel returned, startled. "That's illegal."
He just gave her an amused look, and kissed her on the way out the door, already whistling.
When their eldest son turned twelve, his name went into the Reaping for the first time.
It was, of course, drawn, and no amount of training, no amount of preparation, no amount of sponsorship could save a twelve-year-old who went into the Hunger Games. It was the cruelest and most despicable part of an already cruel, despicable system.
The Capitol audience loved every minute.
A girl named Seeder from District 11 won the very next year, and when Liesel returned home after doing her Capitol-mandated concerts, celebrity appearances, and signings (because why should the Capitol care if she was grieving, if she still woke up some mornings in a state of renewed shock, roaming her house, convinced she could hear him calling for her? Her son's death was so last year, get over it,) she found out she had news.
She was forty-one years old. Both her boys were in the ground, one from the Games, one from pox, because if you were District and the Games didn't kill you, something else would. She was too old for this, she thought.
She didn't sleep well, trying to plan what she would say to her loved ones, and the third night of her return to District 12 found her in her kitchen at one in the morning, cracking nuts into a bowl.
Nibbling at the soft meat inside gave her something to do, and then, outside her kitchen door -- a scuffle of feet and an urgent knock.
No, she thought, closing her eyes. Nothing ever good came from a knock on your door in the dead of night.
She composed herself and rose, answering it.
Max Vandenburg stood there, in his sturdiest coat and boots. A rucksack clung to his shoulder like a pleading friend, and in the gloom, his eyes appeared to be pits of dark color in his face. Walter Kugler was with him, dressed in Seam clothes and also carrying a sack slung across his back. The only visibly Peacekeeper-ish thing about him was his gun, holstered at his hip as it always was.
"Come on, it's time," said Max, unnecessarily. He spoke lowly, handing his voice out only as far as it needed to go. "It's now or never. Are you ready?"
"The electricity to the perimeter fence will be down for at least an hour of maintenance," Walter volunteered from behind Max's shoulder. "And we don't know when the next window of opportunity will be, so we need to go now."
Liesel nodded numbly.
When she didn't move, Max pressed forward. "Come on, Liesel, get dressed, get your things. Your husband said you were ready."
They were. This moment was the culmination of weeks, if not years, of observation and planning. Liesel and her husband didn't have to stay in 12 anymore, not now that their children were buried, and Max refused to leave without them.
"Max …" she started, weak with it, and Max Vandenburg, who knew her better than anyone else left alive, immediately shook his head.
"No," came leaking out of him. Hairline fractures damaged his voice, and he started shivering on her step. "No, Liesel. We have to go. We have to leave now."
"Yes, you can, please."
"I'm pregnant again, Max." His eyes snapped shut, caught in a trap and fatally wounded. "And I -- I -- I can't deliver a baby in the wilderness, you know that, so. So just go, and be careful, and -- live well, okay? Please, please do that. Live well, and --"
He didn't let her finish.
He grabbed her by the arms, pulling her into him. She lashed her arms around his back, clutching him tightly to her, and they barely held each other up, shaking at the knees. She buried her face against his neck, her nose pressed up underneath the feathery bits of his greying hair, suddenly fifteen again and newly lifted out of the arena. They'd hugged like this then, too, hugged and cried and collapsed to the floor of the hovercraft that took them back to the Capitol. Max Vandenburg and his Victor, his only Victor.
After a long moment, he pulled back. He kissed her, very hard, square in the center of her forehead.
She closed her eyes, and salt water came free from their corners, tearing her face in two.
Then Walter Kugler stepped forward. He touched Max's shoulder, pulled at his coat until he released her with a horrible, agonized noise like she was skin coming off. He took Max's hand in his own.
"Come on," he said, so very gently, pulling again. His eyes grabbed Liesel up, and she nodded back.
Then they were off her step and tracking back through the spaces between the houses. She watched their shapes smudge into the darkness until she could no longer see them, and picked herself up. On coltish, unsteady legs, she tore through the kitchen, the front room, reaching the front window and ripping the curtains aside.
At the end of the lane, in the shadow of the house whose basement he'd made his refuge, Max Vandenburg stopped.
He turned, finding her in the window for one last hard grip of the eyes.
She touched the middle three fingers of her left hand to her lips, and lifted them in farewell. When her hand dropped back down to her side, they were gone, and Liesel Meminger let the motion carry her to the floor. She cried until she thought her ribs would come apart into a thousand pieces and leave her spread out and dripping on the carpet. When her husband came downstairs, he found her like that.
She never saw Max again.
The Capitol took her into custody and questioned her, of course, but she was just some tiny, toothless Victor from 12. What did she know?
A few weeks later, when Max had officially been missing for too long and the Capitol verged on appearing incompetent, they cobbled together some story and announced the very unfortunate, very gruesome death of Max Vandenburg, so that he might be an example. They showed footage of a hovercraft bearing down on the wilderness treetops, a figure running full-pelt below, and the harpoon that speared him against the ground like an insect on a collection board.
Whoever it was, it wasn't Max, although Liesel was pretty sure she was the only one who could tell you that.
They'd never find him. After all, hiding was his greatest talent.
The punishment for District 12 came later, in a different form.
After careful consideration, the committee of Gamemakers decided that because Max Vandenburg was originally born in District 2, and was Reaped so shortly after his immigration to 12, that his victory didn't really count as a victory for 12 at all. When Liesel checked later, though, she found that he wasn't counted among the District 2 Victors, either. He simply … went missing.
And so, quietly, bloodlessly, Max Vandenburg was erased from Panem's history.
Ask anyone, and they'll tell you that yeah, sure, District 12's only ever had two Victors: Liesel Meminger and Haymitch Abernathy.
Well, prior to the 74th Hunger Games, at least.
But that's another story.
Long before Liesel was much of anything, she was this:
A Seam-colored girl with mixed-race hair, who lived with her mama and her papa in a house next to the Holtzapfel's, where coal dust grimed along the edges of everything and everybody was too poor to notice how poor they were unless someone was actively bringing it to their attention. She liked to steal and dreamed of someday being able to read well enough to leave the midget class. When her Papa came home from the mines, he'd wait for her to wake from her nightmare and they'd read together, him drowsing over a cigarette and her stumbling over phrases like the Districts must pay war reparations and the proper maintenance of your equipment is of upmost importance to your gravedigging career.
She had a best friend. His name was Rudy Steiner, and he was merchant -- but the good kind, the kind that knew how to starve with the rest of them.
On nice days, and even on days when the rain came down streaked and coal-colored, they'd walk home the long way along the perimeter fence.
They walked the whole length of District 12 that way, Rudy periodically picking up little stones or sticks and throwing them at the fence to watch it spark and flash. Testing for weakness, he said.
"What do you suppose is out there?" he asked her once, squatting down and peering through the gaps in the wire. "Do you think we'll ever get to see it?"
"Don't be stupid," said Liesel, but Rudy never let it drop.
"There's got to be a way to get out," he told her, firmly, testing another section. "And I'm going to find it, and then I'll take off. I'm faster than any of the boys in my class, they'll never catch me!"
As they grew, they started being able to put names to the things that existed outside the fence. Along the stinking ravine that ran behind the Hob, they pointed and agreed that District 11 must be that way, because look, you could see the land getting flatter. They skirted around the train station, jumping-jack over the tracks: if you went that way, you'd reach Districts 8 and 9, where they took the coal. You could even see the belching smokestacks if you looked hard enough! (You couldn't.) Closest to Liesel's home in the Seam, in the Meadow, Rudy excitedly pointed out bits of the fence that were starting to corrode.
"There'll be a hole someday!" he exclaimed.
"The fence will still electrocute you if you try to squeeze through," Liesel pointed out, and ignored the sour look he threw her. Anyway, the only thing that could exist beyond the fence in that direction was wilderness.
One day, when they were both about thirteen, they were sitting on some rocks on the edge of the Meadow. Liesel had her homework cracked open over her knees, brushing the ants off her legs. Rudy stood off to one side, calling tips to Tommy Muller, who had possession of the ball and was trying to keep it away from the combined effort of their sisters. Since Tommy's damaged hearing kept him from noticing almost everything except Rosa Hubermann and most sirens, this was completely useless.
Then, suddenly, he was next to her.
"Hey!" His fingers jabbed at her ribs, but he retracted them quickly, before she could snatch them up and bend them back until he yelled uncle. "Look!"
A flock of birds had just settled in the white, budding branches of a nearby yearling. They were small, about cardinal-sized, with black-and-white plumage and pointed crests that looked a lot like Rudy's hair when he tried slicking it up with water.
"Are those jabberjays?"
She looked again. One of the birds looked back at her beadily.
She said, "They look like mockingbirds to me."
Rudy contemplated it. Then he shot her a grin. "Only one way to find out!"
"Rudy!" She scrambled to her feet, shoving her homework to the side and hurrying after him.
He strode right up to the tree and peered up into the branches. The birds, either unused to human interference or undaunted by it, peered right back. She hissed at him, but he just ignored her, turning his head this way and that, before announcing loudly and with great delight, "All is shit."
But the birds didn't do anything with the offering. One chirruped back at him, and then with disinterested flips of their tails, a couple took off and several others hopped up higher into the branches.
Rudy, desperate not to lose his audience, started crooning at them in a singsong voice, like he did sometimes with his baby sister to keep her from fussing while he changed her drawers. "All is shit, all is shit, no, come back, you stuuuuupid animals, come back and repeat what I'm saying."
To her surprise, this worked better. Two birds flitted down to the branch directly above their heads and whistled a wordless, but otherwise perfect mimicry of Rudy's two-tone chorus.
He flashed her a triumphant grin.
"I still don't think they're jabberjays," Liesel said peevishly. "Jabberjays can repeat whole conversations. Besides, the jabberjays should have all died out by now, remember?"
"Well, you're right, too," Rudy allowed, magnanimous in his victory. "See, they've got mockingbird coloring, so maybe they're mockingbirds, too. Hey!" He jabbed again at her ribs, lightly this time. "Maybe they're mixed, kind of like you!"
"No, really. Sing them something, Liesel! You're a lot better at it than me."
This was the first Liesel'd ever heard of it. She looked at Rudy incredulously, expecting him to be mocking her, but he wasn't. He shoved at her shoulder, gesturing with eagerness up at the waiting birds, who were watching the exchange curiously.
So Liesel looked up at their audience and dredged through her mind for something to offer them. She didn't have much, just some things Papa played a lot that he taught her the words to, and then some of the stuff they learned in school, like the alphabet song and the mining song. So she took a page from Rudy's book and picked some chant that Ludwig Schmiekl and his miserable gang shouted on the schoolyard a lot, fitting it to the tune of the alphabet song.
It took some concentration, so it wasn't until Rudy gripped her elbow, shaking it a little with joy, that she noticed the collection of birds above their heads had grown enormously.
"Look," Rudy whispered in wonder. "They've all stopped to listen to you."
On the very last day, she stood on the gravel road, outside the house in the Seam that had once belonged to the Hubermanns.
The wind bit through her clothes, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself, like she needed to keep her ribs pinned in place.
Almost fifty years ago, a woman from the community home led her through that door so she could meet her new parents. Somebody replaced the roof at some point, and a chicken coop now hunkered up against the side of the house, where the earth was stirred up into mud by the traffic to-and-from the water pump. The council reallocated the house for a young couple after her parents' death, and that young couple had given way to another young couple.
The owner arrived while Liesel was still standing there.
A miner with two missing fingers and a long black braid wound up into a knot at the base of her neck, she swiped at her dirty forehead underneath her helmet and gave Liesel a curious look. Her lunch pail banged against her hip, rattling and empty.
"Is everything all right, Mrs. Everdeen?" she called.
Liesel smiled. "Meminger, please. I never took my husband's name. And yes, everything's fine, thank you."
She turned away and walked on, down to the end of the lane and beyond, out into the Meadow. As she made her way along the fence, following the curve it made back towards the mines, the warehouses, and the other official buildings, the sun sank behind the hills.
At the end of the day, the only thing the Peacekeepers who controlled the District 12 power station were thinking of was the food that would be waiting for them when they got home. Some might even stop at the Hob for fresher fair -- wild dog and turnip soup from young Greasy Sae, perhaps -- and so nobody paid Liesel any mind as she loitered around the entrance. One man smiled at her and wished her good night. His son played the fiddle in Liesel's music class.
She slipped inside before the night crew settled into their routine.
Beetee had lent her a book the last time they were both in the Capitol. The book itself now safely resided in Ilsa Hermann's library, along with everything else Liesel'd stolen, but the relevant chapters were seared onto her memory.
Namely, the parts on electrical grids.
Mountains cannot be taken apart in a single day.
District 12 didn't have much in the way of security, especially not around here. What'd be the point?
The most you can do is move a few rocks, and make it easier for whoever comes next.
Liesel found it, visibly labeled with the words "Perimeter Fence". The grid spread upwards, a complicated and tightly-woven collection of flips, switches, and colored lights. It branched out towards the top, where connecting lines ran to other grids.
It looked, she thought with some surprise, like a tree.
A voice, unbidden, rose from her memory.
When the time comes, call me to the tree.
An indistinct noise behind her brought her attention back to the task at hand, and she focused, removing from beneath her smock a pair of pliers and a small blowtorch.
The plan relied on two very important elements.
One, it relied on just how much the Capitol didn't care about District 12 -- the smallest, poorest, and most unimpressive of its Districts. Once she'd sabotaged the flow of electricity to the perimeter fence beyond easy repair, it relied on the Capitol being much more concerned about spending its money on important things, like entertainment for its citizens, rather than some power problem in District 12.
Two, it relied on the curiosity and desperation of children like Rudy Steiner, who'd looked out at the wilderness and saw nothing but potential.
If the mountain was going to be taken apart, then the children who came next could not look at a fence and see a cage.
Liesel Meminger, of course, would not survive to see it. She probably wouldn't even escape this building. Peacekeepers were trained to be a very trigger-happy bunch, and she was lucky that she got to know Walter Kugler, who liked being the exception to the emblem on his sleeve. Johann Hermann had a point: you're always learning and unlearning, when it comes to people.
Without stopping, she considered what came next.
A bullet to the back of her head would be nice. It'd be a lot less gruesome than some of the ends her tributes had faced.
She wasn't afraid, not really. Her husband was already safely at rest, six feet beneath the earth with their other children, from the lung disease that got everyone in District 12 eventually. There were no medicated patches for coal miners. Her youngest son was almost of age, and once she was dead and there was no one left to punish publicly, it was unlikely he'd be drawn at the Reaping.
And Haymitch …
Well, Haymitch wasn't happy with her, but he hadn't tried to stop her when she said good-bye. He hadn't even asked what she thought she was doing, but he probably didn't have to. He was one of the sharpest kids she'd ever mentored, and Mags and Woof, Seeder and Chaff -- they'd help him out after she was gone.
She smiled. After all this time, Liesel Meminger finally had a Victor.
Her only one.
When she was done, a familiar voice spoke.
"Hello, book thief."
Liesel nodded with satisfaction, and turned to meet what was coming.
Many years from now, in the same clearing where Hans Hubermann used to sit and play the accordion for Liesel and Rudy, where the mockingjays had once all stopped to listen to Liesel sing, a grey-eyed son of hers will sit in the grass among all the wildflowers, a coal miner who whistled and snuck through a hole in the fence on Sundays with the bow his mother trained him with as a child.
With him with be the apothecary's daughter, a blonde-haired Steiner girl with clever sewing hands, and with great courage, she will touch her fingers to the back of his wrist.
This will be the year they turn nineteen, and they'll be safe from the Reaping.
And when he sings, all the birds will stop to listen.