Living in the Capitol was quite the upgrade from the life he had before, Jin Guangyao mused to himself.
The party was full of his father’s friends (to celebrate a thing he, Jin Guangyao, did), and despite himself, he wasn’t feeling in the mood to celebrate with the others.
“Is your beverage not to your liking, Jin-gonzi?” He was taken out of his musing by a familiar voice. It was one of the servants, Qin Su, a sweet girl that had been recently hired.
He dreaded the day his father would make her another of his playthings.
He smiled, took a little sip from the yellow drink, and shook his head. “Not at all, A-Su. The drink is good, it’s just…” he knew he could confide in her the matter, but saying what bothered him would make the others suspicious. There were ears hidden in every corner in the Capitol, after all. “The tributes are being selected, from their respective districts. It’s rather depressing.” He even let out a sigh, as though this mere thing had been bothering him.
The girl raised an eyebrow. “I thought this was your second year as a Game-maker?” Jin Guangyao frowned. “I mean, wouldn’t you be already used to this?”
His stomach churned. He didn’t need to be reminded of that. “Nonsense,” he smiled again, though this time it faltered a little. “It’s only my second year, after all.”
“Guangyao!” Before Qin Su could give an answer to that, the youngest presenter that has ever regaled the Capitol appeared and took him from the arm. “Come, come! Your dad’s about to make the announcement!”
He bit his tongue from commenting that he would make a fool of himself if they appeared by his father’s side ruffled, but this was Huaisang he was speaking about. He wouldn’t be able to convince him even if his life depended on it.
It took them less than a minute to cross the whole length of the garden before they appeared by Jin Guangshan’s side, who was yet to make his announcement.
“Ah, there you are, Yao’er,” the man smiled sweetly at him, the nickname was disgustingly intimate. “Thanks again, for everyone who has decided to come to this party. I admit they’re not that uncommon from me,” there were various comments from the audience, and Guangyao had to suppress the urge to puke, “but this one is, as you might guess, indeed important to me. To our family, rather.”
He took a flute full of champagne and raised it in Guangyao’s direction. “Despite my son’s young age, he has proven to be a prodigy in everything regarding technology and he has a shrewd mind, fit for strategies and whatnot. Therefore, our president has regaled him with the highest honor—to become a game-maker.” There was a pause, where people were saying this was no news. “But he isn’t any game-maker, this year he was asked to design the arena.”
This caught the attention of several people in the crowd, who were definitely not expecting that. Jin Guangshan merely raised his flute once again.
“I propose a toast for my dear son. It’s a fortune he could find his way home. For Guangyao!”
His audience roared and drank from their respective flutes.
There was only one memory he cherished from his childhood in District 7 that had nothing to do with his mother. Most of the time, he tried not to think about that place, for it truly did not make any difference to his life here.
“Oh, Nie Mingjue.”
Jin Guangyao raised an eyebrow. The game-makers were having a reunion with president Wen, who was at the moment watching the reaping from District 7 with apt interest.
“Is he any interesting, sir?” Gao Wan, one of the elder game-makers, asked uninterestedly. He seemed to be planning where to put the mines, Guangyao guessed. It’s not like he had spent months designing the arena they were going to use this year. It’s not like he spent restless nights mimicking the different places in the simulator so as to make the first thing he gave to be only the most perfect, deadly if not traveled with caution, map to ever exist.
But then again, he was only seventeen. What did he stand against a thirty-year-old game-maker, who had survived president Wen’s watchful eyes for a decade now?
“His name sounds familiar, nothing else.”
“His father led a small group of people and tried to rebel,” provided Guangyao, locking the map without letting the changes be saved. President Wen raised an eyebrow at him, he had apparently said something that was not supposed to be said.
Or something he wasn’t supposed to know.
He cleared his throat. “I used to live there, sir.” I was there when it happened, too, didn't pass his lips. “His father was a muscle-for-brains who knew nothing else besides chopping meat. His leading a revolution was such an astounding discovery, I couldn't help but investigate it.”
That sounded… adequate. And maybe he was a little paranoid, in providing all this information unasked (or as unasked as a raised eyebrow and the undivided attention from President Wen went), but it was still better than saying nothing.
It seemed like he finally recognized the name, for his eyes widened.
“Oh, I see now. Yes, he was a hard-working butcher. What a pity he decided to rebel, I quite liked the quality in his meat.”
And they discussed nothing else of the matter. Guangyao felt he had just escaped certain death. But no matter how safe he currently was, he could still feel president Wen’s eyes burning a hole through his back.
“Trees again? District 7 definitely needs to learn a thing or two about fashion.”
Guangyao snorted at Huaisang’s comment. Of course, he would comment on something like that.
“District 7 is known for its wood, you know.” Huaisang didn’t bother to respond, he merely hid his face behind his fan, like he did whenever he knew Guangyao was right but didn’t want to acknowledge it. They continued to watch the Tribute Parade in silence until President Wen’s speech.
“This year the tributes are very nondescript,” Huaisang lamented to himself. “I haven’t heard a bit about any of them.”
“You sure?” Guangyao was a little surprised at this. There was very little Huaisang didn’t know, especially if it came from other districts. “What about Xue Yang, from District 10? Didn’t he lose a finger after being fooled by the son of an important businessman from District 1? Or how about Su She, from district 4, who was a close relative to the Victor from four years ago, Lan Xichen, but had a big fallout and had his family disown him?”
Huaisang looked at him astounded. “It’s not fair, you have an advantage as a game-maker!” he pouted, but Guangyao knew he was more glad by hearing these tidbits of gossip than he was mad at him for using his so-called advantage.
“Be that as it may, growing in a brothel teaches you a thing or two about gossip.”
People around them started to applaud once President Wen sat, and they decided to mimic them.
“You didn’t mention any gossip from District 7,” said Huaisang as they walked towards Guangyao’s car. “Are their tributes really that useless?”
Guangyao frowned. “To be completely fair, I only know of the male’s tribute’s father, but if he’s got at least one-third of his father’s strength, he might have a chance of winning.”
Huaisang’s eyes glimmered, as though he had seen through Guangya’s indifference charade.
But that was fine, he guessed. It took a liar to know one.
“Careful, game-maker Jin. Your District pride is showing.”
“Does he really deserve an eight?” Guangyao was looking incredulously at his fellow game-makers, who were discussing Nie Mingjue’s strength and apparent speed.
“He has everything we look from a tribute: Strength, agility, and he doesn’t seem to think so much before acting! He’ll give us the perfect entertainment!”
He was feeling the beginning of a headache. “And did it ever occur to you that he is the son of a rebel? That he might have implanted in him the same ideals and that, if you give him even the slightest bit of hope he might grasp it and cause a rebellion?”
The other game-makers looked at him incredulously, as though he was a child having a tantrum. He leveled them a glance that hid no part of his incredulity.
“Be sensible, game-maker Jin. We all know about his father’s past, but he has proven so far to be a brute with no brains. We need someone like him in the games, so why shouldn’t he have an eight?” Gao Wan said this sweetly, but Guangyao could feel the condescending tone from a mile away.
“We’d have to be blind to give him less than an eight after that astounding performance with the saber, too. Or did you not see how expertly he wielded it?” Another game-maker mentioned.
Guangyao rolled his eyes. “Be that as it may, he shouted angrily at us and said, quoting, ‘It is not my desire to become one of your toys’. He might not be as brainless as you think him to be.”
The other game-makers were looking at him with no short amount of patronization. Yao Lie, one of the ‘elders’, snorted in disbelief. “It would seem to me like you have a bias against him, game-maker Jin. Or are we imagining things?”
He gaped incredulously at them. How dare they?!
Guangyao took a deep breath and smiled. “As game-makers, there is no such thing as a bias, game-maker Yao, I was merely stating a possibility. You know how inexperienced I am, I tend to get carried away by rumors.”
“It is understandable. Despite your intelligence, you sometimes forget you are nothing but a child. Now, do we agree that he deserves an eight, or not?”
And if Guangyao sighed in relief, nobody was the wiser.
“Tell us, Mr. ‘I only trust in my own strength’, is there something you desire to do after you win the Hunger Games?”
It was funny, to see the tributes march one by one to have interviews with Huaisang. It didn’t matter how old they were, what their personality was, or even if they were acquaintances with him; he always had them wrapped around his finger after a question or two.
Maybe that’s what made him the more dangerous, but Guangyao had to admit it was funny to see the muscle-for-brains that was Nie Mingjue squirm in his place, having had already put up with half an hour of the presenter prying into his personal life.
“Oh, don’t be shy, you’re with friends.” Huaisang nudged him with one arm, and it was obvious that Nie Mingjue was trying very hard to not punch him for entering his personal space.
He could even see the blush covering his already tanned skin from all the attention he was receiving, how adorable. “Once my father told me something. And…” he took a deep breath, and looked at his hands, “maybe most of the things he told me through my life aren’t true, but I still believe in this.”
Huaisang’s eyes glimmered. He knew whatever this thing Mingjue’s father had told him was, it had to be something big for the other to keep holding onto.
“Please tell, your fans are dying to know about it.” He even closed his fan, as to show the other how curious he was.
“My father said he had once met a woman from the Capitol, a week he spent doing commerce. He said they… had a dalliance.” There were gasps from the crowd, and even Huaisang covered his own mouth with his hands, although his eyes glimmered even more if possible.
“I think I have a brother, and if I were to win the Hunger Games, I intend to look for him.”
His statement was met with silence. Huaisang sobered up a bit, smiling tightly.
“I believe whoever the woman was, she must be watching us at this very moment. Make sure to win, then, and she’ll be honored to have a Victor for a son.”
Nie Mingjue nodded, but didn’t give an answer to that.
“Well, it was nice having a conversation with you! Sure, it was like speaking to a brick wall, but what an interesting brick wall we have here! When you win, remember you promised me a new fan. With you, ladies and gentlemen, Nie Mingjue, from District 7!”
Huaisang’s voice sounded mildly broken, but he was a good enough actor that nobody but Guangyao noticed it. This was information he should pile up for later, then.
He remembered when his mother used to be alive, and he had to fetch things for the brothel to 'earn his place'.
“Is he seriously getting sponsors?”
Guangyao blinked the bleariness away and stared at Huaisang, who was ogling the papers he had slept looking at.
“You shouldn’t look through those, you know. I could lose my head for that,” once the heaviness went away, he looked at the other again. “Nor should you be here. How did you even…?”
“Nobody can resist me, naturally.” He batted his eyelashes and hid half of his face behind his fan, so as to prove his point. “So? It’s been eight days so far, eighteen deaths, and none of them is the tribute from District 7.”
Guangyao rolled his eyes, took the papers away from the other, and rose from the resting bench. “I need a coffee, it’s too damn early for this.”
Huaisang noticed he didn’t answer his question, so he decided to change the topic. “You haven’t slept for the past four days, have you?”
“It’s two weeks of little to no sleep before blissful rest if they’re not very long. But even if it’s a month, I can manage.” He shrugged. It’s not like he wasn’t used to getting little rest, living in the Capitol merely softened him up. “Though, I do not believe he has received any sponsors.”
Most of his attention was put on Xue Yang, who had proven to be a very ruthless tribute, who after his second day of truce with District 3 Tribute, Xiao Xingcheng, led him to suicide and killed at least another two other tributes.
“So far Xue Yang has proven to be very interesting.” He shrugged, and walked to the cafeteria, ordering a coffee for himself and a milkshake for Huaisang. “Right now there are only two game-makers viewing the games, so I’ll have to go back as soon as possible.” As an afterthought, he ordered food for himself. “And you should get out of this place, it’s a restricted area.”
It didn’t surprise him when, three hours later, Nie Mingjue received a hefty gift from an unnamed sponsor.
Guangyao hated crowds. He didn’t show it, but having so many people with access to alcohol inside a building reminded him eerily of his childhood (the whores, the workers, the bestiality of it all, it was horrific). Not even the amazing beverages that Qing Su prepared were enough to keep him from having flashbacks from that horrific place and—
He turned and found a familiar face. He smiled placidly.
“My, if it isn’t our newest victor. What a wonderful surprise, Mr. Nie, are you enjoying yourself? This party was thrown for you, after all.”
The penguin suit didn’t suit him, it made him look shorter and chubbier than he was, and… it was disconcerting, to say the least.
But it didn’t look like he was paying attention to his own clothes or how they looked on him. Instead, he was looking intently at Guangyao.
His name crossed his lips as though he were unraveling a very hard-to-crack secret, as though the pieces from the puzzle were finally adding.
Guangyao raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’re probably confusing me. My name is Jin Guangyao, second son to Jin Guangshan and currently, the youngest game-maker to make his own map.”
But he wasn’t fooling the other. There was recognition in the other’s eyes. There was something else that shouldn’t belong on his face, but Guangyao couldn’t quite describe (why was he so hard to read?).
“So you’re saying you weren’t the kid I used to help as a child?” He asked, not entirely convinced by the other’s lie.
Guangyao rolled his eyes. “To be fair, it was only one time.” Only one time that had saved his life, and saved his mother time before she had to go away.
“And you’re denying the note you left on my bedroom the day before the games? The several sponsor gifts I received throughout the games, or how easy it was for me to navigate through the arena?”
The game-maker laughed. “What an incredible mind you have, Mr. Nie. All these things you’re saying… they’re mind-blowing. Interesting theory, but I’m afraid game-makers are forbidden to intervene in the place of a certain tribute.”
This was the Capitol, after all. Where even the walls had ears and the bushes had eyes. Where someone as a game-maker could help a tribute to survive without none the wiser if he played his cards right, but couldn’t say it aloud for fear of other people hearing it.
A place where Meng Yao couldn’t live, but where Guangyao thrived and played by the rules, and only when he wanted.
But then again, it’s not like the other people in the Capitol played by the rules in this shrewd game of politics.
“Do you fancy a drink? If we were at my father’s mansion, I would suggest one of Qin Su’s, she’s got blessed hands when it comes to preparing beverages.”
And Nie Mingjue seemed to figure this out because he followed him to a secluded place where the younger winked at him, muttered a soft “you’re welcome” and asked him to never utter a word about it.
It's not like he saved his life or anything risking his own, after all.