Sandrilene Toren was ten years old. At her advanced age, she was certain of one thing: she was going to die. She was going to die in the dark, alone, halfway to madness and no one would ever find her body. She clung to her flickering flashlight—the best she could find in this low-level district.
When her parents suggested a tour of Panem, she was most excited for this district. District 8, where all textiles and accessories were made for socialites of the Capitol. She was excited to hear the steady beat of shifting looms, to see the embroiderers work their magic by hand. There were machines to do the work faster and on a grander scale, but they lacked the special touch of District 8 artisans. Sandry touched the embroidery silks in her sewing basket, the only thing she managed to grab as her avox rushed her to safety.
Her flashlight faltered, leaving her totally in the dark for a moment. “No! Nononono.” Sandry slammed her hands against the sides of the flashlight, urging it back on. Garbage tech. Garbage district. Sandry’s chin quivered, but she smacked the flashlight until it turned on again. She needed a distraction. Her hands shook too much to trust herself with a needle, so she settled on something simple: a braid. She plucked some bright colors from her basket, anchored them, and started braiding. She fell into the familiar action and just stared at her only source of light.
Her mind wandered. She wondered if there would be anyone left outside. Would anyone from the district survive the plague? Or would it spread until it found its way to the Capitol? Did the Peacekeepers manage to contain the sickness? Or did they succumb as well, just as vulnerable as the people they guarded. Sandry thought of her parents, dead in a bedroom somewhere. Pirisi, their avox, wouldn’t let her see them. They could hear the beginning of a riot outside as Peacekeepers tried to herd the sick to be disposed of, to keep it from spreading. Pirisi dragged Sandry through the halls until she found a closet to stash the girl in. Moments later, Sandry heard the oncoming storm of pounding feet and the roar of voices calling for answers. Pirisi did not survive.
Sandry’s eyes drooped and she realized she’d been braiding for a long time. She had three feet of thread. She rubbed her eyes and realized that the flashlight had died. But how could she still see her hands? Her thread? Sandry gasped. The thread was glowing. It held a steady, yellow light like the one her flashlight cast when it was working. “Did I know I could do that?” she asked herself. “No, no I didn’t,” she responded. “Sandry, you’re talking to yourself.”
Sandry kept braiding until a noise from outside broke her concentration. Like the flashlight, her braid flickered and died. Sandry gasped at the sudden darkness. She struggled to control her breathing. If she was going to die, she wouldn’t do so as a wailing mess. She would do it with dignity. Dignity didn’t stop the tears from spilling down her cheeks.
The noise persisted and soon Sandry recognized it as a voice. “Keep looking, she’s around here somewhere.”
Sandry pounded on the door of her prison but she was too weak to call out. She knew no one would hear her. Please, she thought. I don’t want to die here.
“I think this is her Avox, she must be here!” the voice said again. He sounded like a gruff man and he was so close to her. She tried to call out again, but she could do nothing but croak. She reached out toward the door, determined to hammer against it, but her muscles were weak and she collapsed on the floor.
This is it, she thought. This is how I die.
The door opened slowly, a silhouette blocking out the light behind him. Sandry looked up at the stranger, unsure of if she had finally snapped. The silhouette ducked down to inspect her, letting light flood the room. Sandry screamed and plunged into darkness.
When she came to, it was to the rhythmic thump that beat in time with her heart. She was in a small room. A woman with short hair sat near the window, an embroidery hoop in her hand. Sandry watched as the woman’s fingers danced with a silver needle. She wondered what the woman was making, who the woman was, where was she, where was that noise coming from. She wondered so much she gave herself a headache.
Sandry tried to sit up, but her muscles were still too sore. The woman at the window noticed and rushed to her side. “Careful there, dear. You’re still weak.” She held a cup of water up to Sandry’s lips and the young girl drank greedily.
“Is she awake?” Sandry recognized the gruff voice from her rescue. The man who entered the room wore the finest Capitol fabrics, but his style was subdued. He liked color and good workmanship, but he seemed to prefer clean lines, unlike many Capitol residents Sandry had encountered. He smiled at her and Sandry felt safe.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“My name is Niklaren Goldeye. You can call me Niko. I travel Panem to find things that are lost.” He pulled a chair close to Sandry’s bedside.
“You found me,” she said, understanding. “Where am I?”
“You’re still in District 8, Ms. Toren. This is the mayor’s house. As soon as you are well, I will return you to your cousin, President Berenene.”
Sandry paled. She had only met cousin Berenene once, but it was not a pleasant experience. “Do I have to return to the Capitol?” Sandry asked. “Can’t I stay here?”
“Sandry, your parents—”
“They’re gone, I know.” Sandry said. She took a steadying breath. “So is Pirisi. I’m alone.”
“But you’re not, you still have your cousin.” Niko reached out to take her hand. She let him. Sandry trusted this man, but he was wrong about Berenene. The President was cold and ruthless, and blood didn’t much matter when you got in her way.
“I don’t want to go to Berenene. I want to stay here.”
“If I may?” The woman who watched over Sandry spoke up. Niko turned his attention to her. “It is not unheard of for children of the Capitol to travel the districts as ambassadors in training. Let Sandry begin her training now, here. The mayor will surely be glad to house her and as a former victor, I can help her too.”
Sandry beamed at this brilliant woman. She looked up at Niko with pleading eyes. All he had to do was say yes.
“Very well, Lark. Sandrilene Toren will begin her studies as a district ambassador here in District 8 with you as her guide. I’m sure President Berenene will be pleased to hear her cousin is so eager to serve Panem.”
Niko shook Lark’s hand and winked at Sandry before he left. Sandry let herself sink into the pillows. She figured out what that consistent pounding was—it was the famed looms of District 8, where they hand-made beautiful fabrics for the Capitol. Sandry’s breathing matched the rhythm of the looms as she drifted off to sleep.