Christmas Eve, 1843
The Seam girl suspected that she may have wandered into a dream. For winter wore a prettier face in this fancy part of the district, where people lived in snow-capped, iron-gated townhomes and shopped along cobblestone lanes. Bells rung out everywhere, swaying from the church and jostling from the furry-hoofed horses that pulled sleighs down the streets.
Not only that, but the silvery sound could be heard at each storefront, whenever doors opened and closed. The windows glowed with treasures: rosy-cheeked puppets at the toy shop, hats festooned with primroses at the milliner's, and bolts of satin at the seamstress's. Most of all, iced gingerbread cookies and raisin bread at the bakery, which made the girl's hollow stomach grumble. People bustled around her, going from one business to the next. All manner of merchants and gentry convened here, their purses fat and their arms laden with packages tied in green ribbons. Some had children with them. Girls around her age, perhaps ten or eleven, wore velvet capes lined in ermine, their glossy ringlets bouncing as they trotted beside their parents. Meanwhile, the Seam girl smoothed over her braid and gathered her tattered cloak closer to her chest.
A brother and sister—they looked exactly alike, so they must have been siblings—quarreled over a peppermint pinwheel, their whines overlapping.
"One at a time," their father said. "Speak one at a time, or you will loose your voice."
The siblings clamped their mouths shut. Having eavesdropped, the girl smirked at the falsehood, amused despite her envy. She wished she had a mama and papa, too, that sickness hadn't stolen them away when she was a baby, or that she hadn't been left with Grisly Uncle Cray, who didn't care a snit for her. Having a real home and a real family was her biggest wish, more than a toasty feather bed or a full belly. However wishing hadn't worked before, and it wouldn't work now. The stars—any star, for that matter—were too busy to hear the pleas of someone as insignificant as her.
A lamplighter strolled across the sidewalk, his movements catching the girl's attention. Arrested, she watched as he inserted the end of a shaft into the bottom of a lamp strung in garland and released a quiet burst of flame. He winked at her and then moved on, humming to himself. The humming reminded the girl that she had work to do. Grisly Uncle Cray had warned her that if she didn't return home with wages, he would toss her into the workhouse. And that frightened her more than anything, more than ghosts.
Breath steaming against the glacial air, she brushed off a knoll snowflakes from her shoulders and trudged through the streets, her gangly legs carrying her deep into the residential area of town. These homes were not the grand seats of the aristocracy, but they were still a world away from her own, ovals of fog outlining the window panes to reveal candles that flickered from the needled branches of Christmas trees. Such a magical life, that these people could afford to use up so many candles!
The girl crept past the front gate of a four-story townhouse, to a towering door with a brass knocker, topped by some sort of bird figure. She was too intimidated to touch it, so she used her fist instead, timidly at first, then more insistent because both her knuckles and nose stung from the cold. She ached for the orange glint fluttering from inside. She listened to the ruckus of a latch being unlocked, followed by the sight of the strangest beard she'd ever beheld, coiling and sharp at the ends. A man dressed in gray livery—she thought he was called a footsir or footmer or footman—filled the doorway and pruned her down to a twig with his gaze. He slid a fob watch from his pocket and flicked the lid open with his thumb. "You have precisely three seconds to make yourself scarce, beggar."
The girl longed to snuggle into a protective shadow but forced herself to stand her ground, though it did little to stir an iota of the man's sensitivity. Her teeth clattered as she prevailed upon him, "I-I-I've c-c-come to s-s-sing for—"
"This is a respectable home. We don't deal in charity. Off with you now."
He was about to shut the door, but the girl's cry of protest startled him so much that he paused.
"I say, what's all the fuss?" inquired another man from within the house. The servant—she was sure now, he was called a footman—moved aside for an older gentleman with a kind face, threads of gray in his hair, and a dusting of flour on his arms.
"My apologies, sir," the servant sneered. "This urchin refuses to leave, though I've told her twice to be on her way."
The man turned his attention to the shivering girl. "What can I do for you, little miss?"
His voice was like whipped custard, softer than the footman's or Grisly Uncle Cray's, and more refined than the brogues and cockney accents of her neighbors in the Seam. It eased her chills, enough for her to speak plainly. "If you please, sir, I'm here to sing a carol for you. For a small wage."
The footman was aghast. "A thief up to no good, indeed."
It shocked the girl that the servant would speak out of turn, but his master simply waved off the comment. "Oh, thief-smief. Go away, Seneca. You have enough to do, so look smart about it. And fetch Peeta for me."
The servant blanched and grudgingly disappeared into the townhouse, his coattails flapping behind him.
"I always thought butlers answered doors. Not footmen," the girl said, more confident now that she and the man were alone.
He quirked a bushy brow in amusement. "A curious one, aren't you? Indeed butlers do, but ours is terribly ill at the moment. Our first footman is doing the honors temporarily."
"That's too bad for your visitors."
At the man's agreeing laughing, the girl said, "I can sing anything you want. I know all the carols."
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"The Seam, sir."
For a second, she hesitated. "No. I'm working, 'tis all. Carols for pennies."
"You're rather brave to jaunt all the way here on your own," he remarked with a concerned expression that she didn't quite understand.
Heat shimmied up her neck. "I can survive just fine," she assured him.
He chuckled once more. "I suppose I'll have to believe that. Em . . . just a moment." He craned his head over his shoulder and then back at her. "My son was helping me bake, and he's a bit slow coming from the kitchen. He loves handling the dough even more than his drawing pencils."
Warmth brimmed from inside the house, as well as the smell of black pudding and sugarplums. "Baking?" she asked.
"Indeed. I own the bakery in the square."
The girl brightened. Food was his skill. That made him a magician! "Oh, I know that place," she exclaimed. "I've seen your raisin loaves in the window."
The man bowed. "You have a fine eye. That's our specialty. We prosper a great deal from it."
Funny that. And how strange. And confusing. Wasn't he a gentleman? Rich folk, with houses like these, who talked fancy like him, didn't need to work. They had no reason to be in trade.
"In fact," the man continued, "my son and I were just starting a new batch of raisin loaves. However, I'm sure he'd like to indulge in a break and hear you sing."
It certainly seemed that way, because just then a boy appeared, peeking behind his father. He was light itself, with golden hair and a face that reminded her of an ornament. And his eyes—they were extraordinarily blue, like jewels. Or better yet, like faerie wings. His eyes widened and gleamed when they looked upon her.
The girl was suddenly aware of her fingerless gloves and the filth caking her nails. She should have washed her hands before venturing here, but from the way he smiled at her . . . it was like he didn't mind that she was dirty. He stepped closer, eagerly planting himself in front of his father.
Peeta. That was what the man called him.
The girl's cheeks felt like they were roasting, which was a comfort but also scary. She averted her gaze.
Peeta tugged on his father's sleeve until the man leaned over, listening as the boy whispered something in his ear. The man nodded and ruffled his son's hair. "Good choice. Now." The man rubbed his hands. "How much for The Valley Song? It's not a carol, but—" Wistfulness glinted in his eyes. "But it's a special one for us. It was a favorite of Peeta's mother."
Oh? Peeta must have lost his mama. The Seam girl understood what that was like.
"What's your price?" the man repeated.
"A copper?" she suggested, fretting whether she should have gone higher than a penny and possibly asked for a tuppence.
"Hmm." He tapped his chin, giving it such consideration that the girl braced herself. Finally, he said, "If your voice earns it, a shilling seems more fair. Don't you agree?"
The little girl gasped. A shilling!
"Go on, then," he encouraged.
The girl's stomach flipped over at the thought of having to sing in front of this boy. She cleared her throat and began, the lyrics curling from her throat and blending into the winter night. Peeta's eyes danced with blueness. She never thought of the color as hopeful until now, and that she had something to do with it made her proud. She liked to think her singing voice was mythical.
When she finished, the gentleman was speechless. "That was remarkable. Thank you very much. Truly, my dear."
"Th-thank you," the boy echoed, his voice reaching out to her like a hand would. He bit his lower lip and shuffled his feet in an anxious manner. "Um . . . one more?"
"Peeta," his father scolded with good-nature. "We can't take up so much of the girl's time. She has other houses to enliven." Yet there was a heavy pause in which he scratched the back of his head, delaying for some reason.
Ah, of course. He must have been waiting for a proper goodbye. The girl curtsied, grateful to have earned her shilling but feeling an even greater loss as the man sighed and ushered his son back into the house. Before the door closed, Peeta gave her one more desperate look.
As she headed down the lane, she was surprised by how much she missed his face already. But at least she had her wages, and she tried to cheer herself by skipping like she used to when she was five. She thought how pleased her uncle would be and wondered if he'd let her keep some of the money for a treat.
Her skips got higher and faster. And then she fell, her knees skidding over the pavement, and disaster struck. For a dark figure helped her up, then dashed off, and that's when she discovered that her shilling was gone. The nasty pickpocket! Her night turned to spoils! She couldn't even run after the crook and tackle him because it happened too fast.
Frightened by what Grisly Uncle Cray would do to her when she got home, the girl hid in a murky alleyway and dropped onto the ground in despair, weeping for the loss of her good fortune. Maybe this was where she'd starve. She hadn't had a bite in ages, and if she did perish here, at least she'd be with her mama and papa again. Maybe she should let herself die. She was on the verge anyway. Of that, she was certain.
"Psst," came a pinched voice to her right. "Hey. Psst."
She whirled around and scanned the shadows, her eyes popping when she discovered the baker's son, Peeta, edging towards her. His own eyes trembled with worry. "Are you okay?"
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I followed you. I ran out of the house when my papa wasn't looking."
"That's not nice of you!"
"Are you hungry?" Peeta asked, crouching in front of her and holding out a slice of raisin bread that smelled of cinnamon.
The girl wavered. What was he about, coming after her like this? Oh no, had he seen her fall?
"Go on," he said, wiggling the bread at her. "It won't bite. That's your job."
Fine. She had nothing left to lose, and her stomach hurt so badly, like a knife twisting into her gut. She fancied a good long pause before accepting the slice, her fingers touching his in the exchange. She feasted, ravishing the crusted morsel with her teeth. Jehoshaphat, it tasted like life itself!
The boy plopped down next to her, hugging his legs to his chest. "You sure have a pretty voice."
She examined his waistcoat, cravat, and tailored pants. "You're going to ruin your fine clothes," she warned with her mouth full. "The ground is wet and grimy. So is everything else in reaching distance."
"I don't care. It's worth it to sit beside you."
"You shouldn't be following people."
"Sorry. What's your name?"
"How old are you?"
She swallowed the last of the bread and then wrinkled her nose. "I don't like questions."
"I'll give you more bread if you tell me."
All he really needed to do was keep smiling, but that was a private thought, and she vowed never to reveal it. Never ever. Not in a million years. "I think I'm eleven." When he squinted, she explained, "That's what my Grisly Uncle Cray says. But I don't know my birthday."
"What about your mama and papa?"
"They died. I live with my uncle, but he's not really my family. He doesn't want me around. No one does."
Peeta shook his head, which shimmered in the dark. He jabbed at his chest. "You're wrong. I want you around."
"No, you don't. You're a boy. Boys don't want girls around."
"I'm not just a boy. I'm Peeta."
She rolled her eyes, elated by his declaration. But once more, she wasn't going to say it out loud and make a ninny of herself. "Fine," she said. "I'll allow that. You can have me around if you offer more bread." And again, if he kept smiling at her.
Peeta thought about something. "Do you come from the stars, Katniss? Because you sing like you do. You sing like magic."
She managed a weak giggle. He grinned back, revealing a duet of dimples, and the effect was like a match against a tinderbox, sparking inside her tummy. She liked how their breaths clouded together in the frosty air. Giddiness bubbled inside her.
She opened her mouth to thank him for the bread when a distraught voice cried out. "Peeta! Peeta!"
"Uh-oh," Peeta groaned. "I'm in trouble." He cupped his mouth and called, "Over here!"
Just then, his father came bounding into the alleyway. In his haste, he nearly slipped on the icy ground. Katniss watched in fascination, and with immense longing, as the gentleman sank to his knees and yanked Peeta to his chest, hugging him with all his might. When he pulled back, he braced his hands on Peeta's shoulders, his face wrinkled with anger. "Have you gone bedlam? What were you thinking, dashing off like that?!"
Peeta babbled his response. "I had to, Papa. Katniss was hungry, anyone could see it, and I couldn't just let her leave, and I went after her because her voice made us happy, and I wanted to hear it again and give her some bread, and she was here, and I'm sorry, but—"
The man belted out a tired laugh. "All right, all right. Hush, now." He regarded the girl while still holding Peeta. "Katniss, is it?"
Katniss fiddled with her braid. "Yes, sir. Forgive me, sir. I didn't know he would follow me. Please don't be mad, sir—"
"None of that. I'm Mr. Mellark to anyone who knows me."
"But I don't know you."
"You sang for me, so now you know me. You know us."
"Katniss is a star," Peeta boasted. "That's where her voice comes from."
"I'll wager it does," Mr. Mellark answered fondly.
"Can she come home and help us bake?"
Katniss scowled. She wanted to shove Peeta for asking that. It was mortifying.
"Peeta, you must remember that Katniss has a family to return to," his papa said.
On the other hand, his rejection injured her far worse than any embarrassment could. Weariness dragged her shoulders down. These two had been so kind to her. She liked them very much. She wanted to keep them.
Grisly Uncle Cray didn't want to keep her. And even though she didn't want to be pitied, she enjoyed making Peeta grin, and she thought she might follow his eyes anywhere. Also, there was more food at the Mellarks' house. A fire and a Christmas tree, as well.
The words tumbled from her mouth like marbles. "I don't have a family."
Mr. Mellark twisted toward her and frowned. "I thought you said you weren't orphaned."
"I fibbed," she fibbed.
Only a trifle, though. Cray wouldn't miss her, to be sure. So it was partly the truth.
Peeta stared at her intently but didn't give away her secret. He was a good ally. He smelled wonderful, too, like fresh snowfall and sweets and dough. Like hope.
They swapped shy glances, and she noticed Peeta's father studying them both, his gaze traveling between them. She wondered what he saw, but whatever it was, it softened his features and swelled his voice with affection. "Well, Katniss the Star. It appears you've had quite the effect on us. We do have two raisin loaves to finish before tomorrow. Your assistance would mean a great deal. We can pay you with supper and a warm bed, if you'd like." He got to his feet and offered her another kindly look. "We have plenty of room."
Supper. A warm bed. Ohhh.
Her chin rose. They needed her. She liked being needed.
Peeta straightened his cravat, all gentleman-like, and held out his hand. "Would you like to come home with us, Katniss?"
The question felt so important, like a gift that would last for as long as she wanted it to. She took Peeta's hand. Impulsively, she kissed his cheek, then jerked back, feeling as red-faced as he looked. However, that smile of his returned, even bigger than before. He squeezed her hand, and all the way back to the house, he never let go.
Before they stepped through the front door together, Katniss glanced up and saw a cluster of stars. And it was funny, because when she gazed at them long enough, they got fuzzy around the edges and became something else.
Something like a dandelion.