"Hey, Leon," says Rhona. "Tell me another story."
He takes one last drag from his cigarette and flicks it over the side of the building before he turns around. "You should be in bed, kid," he says. "Big day tomorrow."
"Can't sleep," she says, and hops up to join him on the porch railing. "Tell me a story."
He grins down at her. "Hell, kid, I might be all out of stories by now."
"Bullshit," she says promptly, and he laughs. She crosses her arms. "If you can't tell me a story, at least give me a few last pointers."
"No can do," he says. "Giving you pointers is dangerous business. You know what happens to mentors in the stories."
She only cocks her head and stares him down, bare feet dangling over the porch railing. "You saying all of you are gonna die?" she challenges. "Seems like your chances are pretty good. Better than mine."
"And yours are better than most," he says, and he can't help but think of Bellasseau, the goddamn pig, and let the surge of anger wash over him like it always does. Of course. If he were more paranoid, he'd say the decision was deliberate. Assign the government toady to partner the former rebel, make sure he doesn't even get near the line, much less toe it.
But no. Any traces of that life are gone, wiped clean without his help, and if Leon Chen was ever anything other than a damn good cabbie, nobody's alive who knows it. Not even Bellasseau. Bellasseau, who's got blood on his hands that hasn't even dried yet, who's in charge of a kid who can't even speak the language. Gods know what poison that snake is feeding him even now.
(Tell me a story. Tell me a story, Uncle Leon.)
He takes a deep breath. In the distance, he can hear dull bass and the murmur of voices like water. The Capitol never sleeps, tonight least of all.
"Okay," he says at last. "One story. But just one."
She nods, accepting his terms, and turns her head to stare at the evening sky, never quite dark in the city.
"A long time ago," he begins, "before the war, before the Capitol, even, and before the earth split and the oceans rose"
Rhona snorts. "This a story about you?"
He reaches out to flick her ear and she dodges, laughing. "You want the story or not, kid?"
She subsides, still grinning, and he picks up where he left off:
"Before the earth split and the oceans rose, they say there was another land across the sea. I don't know if it's there anymore. But it was bigbigger than Panemand it was split up into three vast kingdoms in the north, the west, and the south. And you know how it goesthe king of each claimed to be the rightful ruler of all the land.
"Now the king in the north was a tyrant, and he ruled his land with an iron fist. But the king of the western kingdom was wise and noble and everything the king in the north wasn't. Years ago, he'd been part of the northern kingdom too, but he'd rebelled and taken his people with him, and founded the western kingdom with his brothers.
"And now, with the king of the north growing worse and worse, the king of the west couldn't bear to see more people suffering. So he gathered his army and called his prime minister, the most brilliant man who ever lived, and he told them to strike deep into the north and take the tyrant's crown for their own."
A flash of teeth in the dark. "More like he just wanted more turf for his own, I bet," says Rhona, but she's leaning forward a little anyway.
Leon returns her smile. "You can't always trust the legends. But we'll say they're telling the truth for now. So the prime minister takes the army and heads out, and before long the news reaches the court of the northern king. 'I won't have that,' says the tyrant, and he sends his best general out to meet them in battle.
"Now by this time the prime minister and his army have taken a northern fort for their own, but it's been hard going. It's cold up north, and the land is rocky, and the people of the north are used to defending what's theirs. Besides which, it's been years since anyone in the western kingdom went to war over anything, and not even the prime minister can win battles easily with an army full of farmers. They may have won the fort, but they lost a lot of soldiers in the process.
"So when they hear that a great northern general is headed their way, with the full force of the northern armies at his back, the western army starts to panic. Winter's setting in, and all they have is an old fort to defend themselves with. But if they retreat now, the fresh northern armies will catch them and take them out before they can blink. It's obvious to everyone they should never have come north in the first place."
"Stupid of them," says Rhona. "Shouldn't start a fight you don't know you can win."
"Even if fighting might be the right thing to do?" says Leon, and they both know he's not thinking about some faraway kingdom across the sea.
"Even if," says Rhona flatly. She tilts her head. "But if this prime minister's the smartest man who ever lived, he must have had a way to get out of it."
"That he did," says Leon. And he leans back and lights a cigarette, and very carefully says nothing at all.
It's two minutes by his watch before she finally says, "All right, I'll bite. What was it?"
He smiles around his cigarette.
He says, "I'll tell you the rest when you win the Games."
For a moment she just stares at him, openmouthed, and he wonders if he's read her wrong. But then she smiles at him. A real smile. He's seen her laugh plenty of times, usually because he's told her a joke or two, but he's never seen her smile and actually mean it before, all sudden and bright and fierce.
"Bed," he says.
"You got it, boss," she says.
He watches her go. That fearless half-saunter covers her emotions well. He can respect it, even if he sees through it as easily as anything.
The story's a gamble. A big one. It doesn't look like one right now to her, but it will be. In his mind he's knocked over the first domino, and now all that's left to do is watch the trail and hope he's set everything up just right. He's not sure if it'll pay off. It's a bad time for doubts, but he's always done his best work coming down to the wire.
Andwell. He's always been a gambler. He laughs quietly, once, because sometimes he needs to fool even himself, and turns to go inside.