Long before I ever called the streets of the Seam home or the pack of rats known as the Ravens my family. Before I became indebted to a wretched woman more interested in the clientele I could bring in than my own well-being. Before Jamie paid that same debt, put a knife in my hand, and showed me exactly what to do with it.
I can remember my mother just barely, a faint child-like memory. Foggy and hazy and filled with equal parts happiness and dread. Joy because if I close my eyes and sit in silence, I can almost hear her humming as she fries up sausage for breakfast. Pain because that's all I have left of her. Faint little memories that grow more clouded the farther away I get from them.
I know I cried the day she passed. Mostly because I didn't understand why she was gone. Where did she go? She's dead, said the Peacekeeper who'd found her lying in an alley. They wouldn't tell me how it happened, how they found her bloody and beaten and left to die; it wasn't something a child needed to hear. All I knew was the one person in this world who loved me had left me in the hands of fate, and by the time I had learned it wasn't her choice, it was already too late.
The tender little girl my mother had raised for seven short years, who loved flowers and sunshine and warm hugs, had died with her.
Back when I saw everything through a much different lens, rose-colored and glittering at the edges. A little girl with big hopes and wild dreams, no clue that the world wasn't exactly as it had been in the stories my mother used to tell me at bedtime. Before I wound up on the streets like a rat, begging for scraps and skittering through alleys and abandoned buildings for shelter.
I'll always remember the day Madam Baumé found me half-dead, three-days hungry, passed out against the dumpster outside the Miner's Den. It hadn't been compassion that compelled her to order two bouncers to scoop me up and deliver me to her quarters. And it certainly wasn't out of the goodness of her heart that she had a home-cooked meal prepared for me and a fresh change of clothes laid out. To her, I was a new project. A doll to dress up and play with. When she saw me lying there in that alley, it had been gold she'd seen. A lifetime of it. Not a little girl down on her luck in desperate need of a little kindness, but a debt to be collected tenfold. Nothing in life is free. She'd said that to me that first night, smoking a cigarette as she sat on the edge of the chair in the corner of her room. Right before she put a price tag on the clothes she'd given me. And the bath she had let me take. Even the cooked carrot I was chewing as she talked.
Everything has a price.
I spent the next three years training to be one of her girls, learning from the few who she'd considered her best. In other words, her best earners. Julia, a gorgeous red-head with a singing voice as smooth as silk against skin. She taught me how to connect to the audience, how to draw them in and keep them begging for more. But it had been Marie who taught me everything useful. Not only was she the best dancer in all of Panem, she was ethereal. Like being in the presence of a goddess from long ago. Marie was the best of the best, and had shown me how to fill her shoes better than anyone else. But it had been the lessons without the supervision of Madam Baumé that had been the best ones.
She had shown me all the spots within Miner's Den that were the best to eavesdrop. Like the second floor landing which had a vent that directly flowed to Madam Baumé's room. She had told me all the ways in which to please a man without having to even lift a finger, and showed me all the ways men were so easy to control. They're simple. Every last one of them. Just pout a little, blink a few times and they're puddy. She'd been so confident about that, and with damn good reason. The men of twelve cared about few things, namely one of them being told they're important. Ego is everything to a man who just came up from the mines and doesn't want to go home to his family yet. But I think what had been the most important thing Marie ever taught me was that money isn't everything. People keep secrets and knowing those secrets can make you richer than a good Saturday night prime slot at Miner's Den. Big B can keep her gold. I'll take a Peacekeeper's secret any day of the week.
But if I'm being honest, looking back, Madam Baumé should have just left me out there in the alley. Maybe I wouldn't have survived. Maybe Jamie would have found me then, and I could have skipped nearly eight years of servitude to a woman who all but kidnapped me and demanded a ransom from me in the same breath.
Maybe I would have died, but maybe I would have stayed innocent.
Before I learned how to melt into the shadows, how to become one with the darkness and the edge of a blade that emerges from it. I was a person. A girl. A dancer. An acrobat with a knack for turning heads and holding the attention of a crowd. A puppet with its strings tied into a noose. Until I learned that I belong to no one, not even the boy who laid down a bag of money and freed me from my barbed-wire cage like a mangled, wingless bird.
This isn't a transaction. You can leave, or you can go. But it's your choice. Everyone deserves that at the very least.
He was the first boy to look at me like I wasn't a meal, or a doll, or a thing to be had and discarded like trash. It was a job he offered, a position by his side. Not as a performer or an assistant or a janitor, but a member of his crew—the Ravens. They were criminals. Good for nothing thieves who traipsed throughout Twelve like they owned the place. But if the look of fear on Baumé's face when the infamous James Monaghan had walked through the doors of Miner's Den had been any indication, for all intents and purposes, they lived up to their rather rotten reputation.
I'd heard things. Whispers from Keepers when they'd had too much to drink and didn't think the girl in the corner dancing to the same record for the millionth time could hear them. Another body found at the south end of the Seam. Murmurs from wounded men who toast and cheer and claim you should see the other guy; a helpless little gutter rat from the Monaghan boy's crew. I cut his throat so deep his head almost fell off. Big words from small men, that much I knew for sure. But it wasn't until the man, the myth, the legend strode into the place I'd called home for as long as I could remember, introduced himself, and paid my debt in less than five minutes that I knew him and his boys were ten times as powerful and more lethal than any Keeper that had ever wandered through Baumé's doors. It was then, when he'd said I had a choice, that I decided who I was going to be from then until my dying day: a ghost. What did I have to offer the boy from Twelve with his leather-encased fingers in every pot who wanted for nothing? An entire district's secrets.
I would owe him nothing, that was the deal. And he would teach me what it meant to be a Raven; a thief in the night, a warrior of darkness, a provider of all things sinful and delicious. But that wasn't what kept me around. At first it was the hunt. The privelege to make those very men who had wronged me so many times for so many years pay. Not with money, but with their life. Each time I sank my knife into their flesh it felt like one of my own wounds was finally healing, and no one could take that away from me. I became that very thief in the night. I became the darkness, lurking in every corner, hidden in every shadow. Waiting to strike. More importantly, listening intently. For secrets reside on the lips of cowards who hide in the dark, but what they forget is I am the dark.
Yes, I was a girl. I was soft, and innocent, and I was whole once, too. Until a confident boy from the wrong side of town put a knife in my hand and said paint the world red.