23 Cannons: The 69th Annual Hunger Games.

24 tributes are reaped by the Capitol to enter the 69th Hunger Games, marking the end of the sixth decade of Games. And as they all prepare for the fight of their lives, none of them know the true extent of the twists that will face them in the arena. With rebels, liars, and killers thrown into a deadly arena governed by power-mad Gamemaker, who will live to hear every one of the twenty three cannons sound out?

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6. Charming the Crowd

Topaz grabbed the rail on the inside of the chariot as the two horses pulled the extravagantly coloured cart out into the setting sunlight of the Capitol. Normally, Topaz imagined that the clopping of the hooves would have been quite loud, but there were two other sounds that practically made everything else impossible to hear. The first was the anthem of Panem, being played by a brass band, and transmitted via far too many loudspeakers to count. And the second was the sound of the crowd: every last brightly coloured citizen of the Capitol was screaming at the top of their lungs. Combining that with the bright sun made the parade almost become a sensory overload.

She glanced to her left, at Osiris. His blonde hair was styled up in an odd manner, and he had some sort of make-up on his face that made the flesh sparkle like a jewel, pretty much like Topaz's own outfit. Her brown hair was done up in an elegant braid, and her make-up sparkled a light shade of blue in the sunlight. Their actual outfits were also different. Osiris was wearing a silk toga, embroidered with golden fabric, and sandals made of some material Topaz had never seen before. The outfit was also adorned with the gemstone of his namesake, garnets. All in all, it was an extremely stunning outfit that showed off his characteristics almost perfectly. And as per tradition, Topaz's outfit complimented her district partner's. She had a short-cut dress made of the same fabric as Osiris', and boots instead of sandals. Her dress was adorned with blue topaz gems, instead of garnets; the gem she was named for. In Topaz's opinion, they looked stunning.

"Hey, Topaz," Osiris said, pointing to the crowd that was now in front of them. "You ready?" At least, that was what Topaz imagined it to be roughly along the lines of; it was nearly impossible to hear him.
"Okay then!" she yelled back, hoping that that was what he wanted her to say. To her relief, he half-smiled, and nodded. Osiris then started smiling and waving at the adoring citizens of the Capitol, causing them to scream in a wave of delight. Topaz joined in, smiling widely, giggling, and waving. More screams came from the citizens, and then, the swarm of gifts.

It was as if it had started to rain flowers from the sky. Topaz looked up, and a genuine smile crossed her face as a mass multitude of flowers descended onto the chariot. She grabbed a white rose from the bottom of the chariot, and brought it to her nose, smelling it. It was the sweetest aroma she had ever had the fortune to encounter. And the Capitol seemed to love it. Party streamers showered down on the pair from District 1, the coloured material weaving into their hair. Topaz smiled at the crowd, and blew a kiss at them. They truly did have the audience captivated by their charm. She looked at Osiris, who was smiling to himself. He then turned to Topaz, and looked at her, grinning.
"Hey!" he yelled over the rising volume of the festivities. "I have an idea that'll really win 'em over!" Topaz watched, still smiling, as Osiris reached onto his outfit, tore a gem off, and tossed it into the crowd. At that moment, her heart splintered in two.

Osiris was doing exactly what Ebony had done last year; Topaz remembered watching it on television, smiling to herself stupidly as he threw the gems at the screaming citizens. That was one of the happiest moments of the Games, seeing Ebony turning on the charm like that. And he was doing so well throughout the Games; getting a score of ten; winning over the crowd in the interview; living until the final eight; making several perfect kills... all of that ruined by one revenge-driven boy from District 10. That had destroyed Topaz, and she was in a state of shock for days, too traumatised to even watch the critical final moments of the Games. It was just too awful.

Topaz was brought out of her emotional state by Osiris, who elbowed her in the ribs.
"Hey!" he called. "Don't space out like that; we need them to see just how great District One is!" His enthusiasm made Topaz smile to herself, a tear rolling down her face.
"Yeah," she replied, deliberately too quiet for anyone to hear. Wiping the tear away, Topaz ripped a handful of gems off of her own dress, and threw them at the crowd. As they erupted with applause, Topaz's anguish once again returned to the depths of her being, and she let the feeling of being adored take over. It did wonders for her confidence, knowing that the Capitol would be rooting for her in the arena. She glanced away from the crowd, and looked up. There were twelve huge monitors, each one showing a different district. The first one was theirs, so Topaz skipped over that, and moved on to District 2's, looking at their outfits.

Both tributes from District 2 were wearing skin-tight suits, adorned with armour. The boy, Dylan, was brandishing a sword, and looking fiercely at the crowd. They were practically swooning over him. Kylee, the girl, had taken a different approach. She had been gradually removing items of armour throughout the parade, and throwing them to the crowd, laughing and being coy with them all the while. Oh, she was good at playing up the crowd, but something about Kylee struck Topaz as different from any Career she had seen before. Perhaps it was that Kylee was more focused on selling herself than representing the district, but she had certainly piqued Topaz's interest; she made a mental note to keep an eye on her during training. With that settled, Topaz looked over at District 3.

District 3 was less impressive than 2, but it was still something to see. Their outfits were laced with cogs and gears that rotated in perfect synch, making several lights on their outfits flash different colours. Both outfits did this in unison so perfect it was as if someone was controlling every turn of every gear. The complexity was beautiful. But the tributes didn't seem to be giving off any sort of impression; they were relying on their outfits to make themselves seen. Topaz swiftly looked to the next district.

District 4's tributes were playing the crowd as well, albeit in a different way. They were the youngest Careers in a while, the boy was fifteen, and the girl fourteen. Ren and Annabell, those were their names. Ren was wearing an open-chested shirt and a pair of shorts made of scales that shimmered in the light. Annabell was wearing a fishing jacket, a vest-top, and a pair of shorts. She also held a trident and net. It was one of everyone's favourite District 4 chariot theme; fishing. Although, Topaz noted, it was the first time the girl was the fisher; normally it was the boy ensnaring the girl in the net. However, despite their young ages, the Capitol sure seemed to love them. And that could come in handy in the arena, Topaz realised. She looked away from District 4, moving on to District 5.

The two tributes from District 5 were certainly different. Their outfits were the same, both wearing black jumpsuits with glowing symbols that Topaz didn't recognise, but that was where the similarities ended. The girl carried herself with an air of quiet fury, seeming to be judging anyone that met her gaze. The boy, though, he was something else. He was looking at the crowd coldly and distantly, but there was something else there, something that Topaz saw nearly every day in Career training: the spark of murder in his eyes. It sent a chill down Topaz's spine, seeing him like this.

Districts 6 and 7 were bland as usual, wearing outfits made of tyres, and dressed as trees, respectively. It was getting old very fast, and it could was evident by the Capitol's applause growing weaker. Those four tributes were certainly not going to get sponsors based on their outfits. Topaz moved on to District 8.

What Topaz saw on that screen confused her. The girl was like any other District 8 tribute in the parade; she was wearing a colourful mess of fabric. But the boy... Topaz couldn't believe her eyes. He was wearing a bright pink suit and tie, and had diamonds attached to it that sparkled brilliantly. There was no way that that could have come from a stylist, and for a fleeting moment, Topaz wondered how he managed to get away with that outfit. But it wasn't worth her time; the outliers were only there to be killed in the long run.

The other districts were extremely boring. District 9 was a pair of grain stalks, District 10 was dressed as two different farm animals; a cow and horse, if Topaz's memory served well. District 11 was two apples in an orchard, and 12 was a pair of coal miners. Fairly disappointing, in her eyes; Topaz expected something more bold, considering this was the last Games of the sixth Coriolanian decade, and consequently the final year of the current Gamemaker team. But, it didn't really matter; Topaz was certain that District 1 had stolen the show with their stunning outfits.

Suddenly, Topaz's chariot came to a stop. She looked at Osiris, who was red in the face from entertaining the crowd. She looked ahead, and saw the other chariots coming into the inner circle of the Capitol, creating a ring of chariots, each one facing the podium at the far end. Topaz looked up there as the anthem died down, and the entire Capitol seemed to go quiet. And then, a figure emerged from a curtain on the podium: President Coriolanus Snow. He walked to the edge of the podium, and grabbed a microphone, looking over the tributes. Topaz could feel his sense of power even from down here.

"Welcome, tributes," he said, his voice booming out. Topaz looked at the Capitol citizens. They were hanging onto his every word. "Tributes, the Capitol welcomes you." Topaz began to find herself being drawn in to Snow's powerful, wise voice. "We commend you, tributes, for your honour, courage, loyalty, and sacrifice." It was the same speech delivered every year, but something about being there in person made it all the more awe-inspiring. "Happy Hunger Games, and, may the odds be ever in your favour."

For a brief moment, it was as if the world had come to a stand-still. And then, the crowd erupted into a massive applause. The anthem started up again, and the horses pulled the chariots down another road. Topaz looked up, and saw that the sun had nearly set entirely now, long shadows being cast everywhere. She suddenly yawned, the day's activities finally catching up to her. Osiris laughed at her, and Topaz shook her head wryly, feeling a warm glow inside. She looked ahead at the looming Training Centre, and smiled. Now the real fun of the pre-Games would begin.

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