Hidden carefully amongst bushes and trees was a small gazebo of roses and vines, framed with a small bird feeder and water at both sides. It seems to be that what he told me he's showing me was a garden.
"Bienvenue dans mon jardin, ma reine." He pushed the small door shut behind us, which was framed with bushes and barely noticeable amongst the vines that was embracing the wood. Cobblestone decorated the ground and served as the stepstones towards the gazebo at the far end of the small clearing. It really was in the center of the palace rose bush maze, and it bugged me to know that the end was this clearing. It seemed far too cliche for him, if I were to be honest. I admit I expected something more. I myself had my own secret garden back in Spades. There must be secret gardens at every palace in the entire world.
"What is this?" I asked, taking in the image of the silent hideaway. He clicked his tongue, possibly smug as he led our way inside. No maid nor gardener was roaming as it was closed off by bushes, and the windows to the palace facing the area all had curtains. It was bizarre knowing that there was a blind spot in the castle's structure.
It's not his fault, though. His country wasn't the kingdom of the all seeing eye, mine was.
I looked at him as he stepped forward, tracing the rose bushes with his finger. Humming as he picked up the watercan and watered the roses himself, I silently stood in awe. Since when did the king water the plants in the palace garden? Never heard of it, anywhere, ever. Alfred can't even go near the bushes even if he wanted to.
"This is a secret garden obviously, Arthur," he replied with his thick accent, "Can't you tell?"
I blinked. "I can tell that much," I said, rolling my eyes at his sarcasm, "Why am I here? This wasn't a secret anymore if you brought someone in here. I can spread word, as a Queen."
He hummed even more, traces of a smug smirk visible at the corners of his lips. "Can you even tell anyone about the king's garden in his own territory and have someone believe you?"
I scoffed, looking down at the cobblestone. He was right, but that doesn't negate the fact that I can still tell somebody. For example, my king, my jack and my aceーAlfred, Yao and Matthew. These are people that will believe me. This garden is a huge deal, and once word set out that the mighty and wealthy King of Diamonds brought a Spadian Queen, out of all people, in his sacred garden, it will be worthy of a scandal. Nobody could witness what actually went down, and I'd like to grab the upperhand before he snatches it from underneath my fingers.
It's not like I'd actually tell somebody anyway. I'm not that evil, even for the King of Frogs.
"This is a place where my special person and I played cards, and also where I was defeated in that game for the first and only time," he answered not too soon after, placing down the watercan and taking off his gardening gloves. Seeing him in dirty gloves is very uncomfortable and I'm glad he's back to his clean gold ones.
"Your special person?" I repeated, unimpressed. "Really, Francis? I thought we're over this. This is settled by universal law years ago."
He sighed. "C'est vrai. I didn't say anything about taking him back though."
I furrowed my eyebrows, watching him take a seat inside the gazebo. There was a teaset in the table and I accepted the offer of a seat. I won't drink the tea of courseーSpadian tea is always betterーbut at least he was cultured enough. I returned my gaze to meet his once again. "So, what are you trying to say?"
"Matthieu became a Spadian citizen and was surprisingly, also your kingdom's ace. I can't deny even further that he wasn't meant to stay as a Diamond citizen of any sort. I'm just reliving precious memories, that's all," he explained, leaning back and gesturing to my seat. I had a cold feeling he lied at some part. "He sat there, right where you are. I taught him everything he knew and one of which included how to play tricks on cards. I am sure you can tell how good he was at those."
I agreed half-heartedly. This conversation doesn't make any sense. There must be something he wanted. "Yes, he was excellent. He was a bright and kind child," I said. I followed up with a whisper, "You raised him well."
"I know, mon ami. He was exceptional, was he not?" He smiled. "I remember that day, he was just a small child. I taught him concentration and we played for the first time. He was excellent, I am telling you. That comes from the master of concentration, yours truly."
I raised a brow in disbelief. "Oh yes, really? I recall winning at concentration about twice, defeating you," I stated. He didn't reply and only laid his head on his hand, closing his eyes.
"I don't recall anything like that, Arthur." He then summoned a deck of cards from one of his pockets. It was the one with the yellow and gold print at the back of courseーthe Diamond royal deck. The gold designs at the back of the cards are genuine gold, just like the gold in the red Hearts deck and the silver in the blue Spadian and green Clubian decks. The cards are owned by their respective monarchs and it serve a lot aside from being plain playing cards. It was also a symbolic object that could be offered to the Joker and the entire world could be heaven or hell in an instant.
"Throughout the game, it was a tie. We played four decks for fun, half of which was Spadian." To my surprise, he pulled out another deck from his coat pocket, this time with a blue and genuine silver print at the back.
"Those...are my cards." I frowned, feeling my pocket and feeling it empty. I'll let him be for now, I was in his garden after all.
"He matched up every Spadian card and all that was left for me to not lose was to get a draw by matching up my own decks. It was hard, and before I knew he flipped the last card, the King of Diamonds and coincidentally, defeated me," he said, setting down the two decks onto the table. He picked up the first card on the piles and revealed the King of Spades on the Spadian pile and the Queen of Diamonds on the other.
"What are you trying to say, Francis?" I asked impatiently. I am positive he wanted something now. He smiled, tossing me the Queen of Diamonds which I caught between two of my fingers before it cuts my face.
"I lost the King of Diamonds. Ironic, huh?" he revealed. He stared at the King of Spades he held and smiled at the blue and silver design at the back. "I need your help finding it. After my game with Matthieu that day, I lost the card and never found it again."
I started to dislike the idea the more I thought about it. So this was what he wanted? "Why me? Can't you seek help from your servants or mages or something?"
Francis grinned, darkness coating his eyes and smile. "Because you're in debt, Arthur!"
"What the hell, Francis?" I slammed my fist down the seat. He wasn't taken back at all. I hated talking about politics when it had little to no connection to the topic. I am overpowered and we both knew it. He leaned over and stared at my eyes with the most intense glare a king could muster.
"Here's the case, mon ami. Your kingdom is in a total debt of 7 trillion euros to my kingdom, and you're here to negotiate the payment process or rather," he smirked coyly, "how to avoid paying it at all, am I wrong?"
I glared at him. "What do you want?" I don't like where this is headed.
"Spades is in debt with Diamonds, in a cold war with Clubs and is too far from Hearts to seek an alliance. I am the only one that could help you, only if you offer to help me back." He sighed. "I will cut your country's debt back to 99 million euros. You can pay that much in cash already, right? Seven trillion and ninety-nine million, there's a big gap, right? I'll take it if I were you."
I gulped. This won't sound good, that's indeed a huge difference. The only reason it even reached seven trillion was because of his ridiculous interests. We only owed him a couple million initially, in fact, only two million and a half.
"What will I do if I accepted?" I asked in curiosity. There is still a chance we can work out not paying anything at all, Yao is a good speaker and Vash is reasonable. Alfred is also good at sweet talking, that's his specialty.
"You help me find my card, the King of Diamonds on the royal deck. I will immediately talk to Vash about cutting it back to 99 million as soon as I return if you accept the deal now." He leaned back, keeping the decks and waving the Spadian deck to my face. "I'll keep your deck for now, as a deposit."
Shit, I can't play until I found the card then.
"Oh, and also this," he blurted out, remembering something. He dug deep in his coat pockets, slowly pulling out a gold chain that to my horror, is one of the most important things my kingdom could ever own. "I'm keeping the Spadian King's clock as a deposit too. I need to make sure you don't run away."
I pushed myself up, almost crumpling the Queen of Diamonds on my hand in anger. His smirk grew even wider, staring at the gold pocket watch with the king's insignia carved inside. "Why involve Alfred and Lili on this?! Where did you even get Alfred's clock? You can keep my cards, you can even keep my magic for all I care!"
He chuckled. "Does that mean you accept the deal, mon ami? It's a huge difference, I can even offer military back up if ever the war between Spades and Clubs broke out. I can do lots of things for Spades and all you had to do was find a tiny little card for me. It's more unfair on my side than yours, if you put it into perspective."
I took a sharp breath, sitting back down. Glaring at him, I weighed the pros and cons of this deal. Francis and I were never on the greatest terms ever, but we're not qualified be official enemies because of our connection to Matthew, the first ever formerly-Diamond citizen to be a part of the Spadian royal family in history. Matthew still had Spadian blood on his veins, being cousins with Alfred himself, but the fact he was adopted by the King of Diamonds is still a factor for scandal amongst both our people. You could say we were both his mentors; parental figures, if you may.
I was the one that helped Matthew cross our borders and I was also the one that saw the Spadian Ace insignia tattooed on his shoulder. Matthew being Alfred's cousin, I was the next most-capable human in Spades to help and vouch for him and I am still and always glad I did. Helping Matthew convert to Spadian citizenship gained me a new enemy though, and that was Francis himself. God, he's still so fucking bitter it's annoying.
Formerly Matthieu Bonnefoy, he entered my country as Matthew Williams, the new Ace of Spades. This enraged his father figure, Francis, who did nothing but passive-aggressively hate us ever since. Alfred knew the problem but he was pretty confident it won't get worse, but here I am, risking my life for this shitty game doing exactly that.
"All of this for Matthew?" I growled. "Even if I wanted to return him to you, he was the one who left you willingly. He was the one who chose our country himself and he was the one that-"
His smile faded, his gold irises darkening. "Will you accept the deal or not, Arthur? You had the Queen of Diamond's card on your hand, therefore you had my word as a king," he said slowly and with bite. I knew I struck the right cord when he pushed back Alfred's clock inside his coat, leaving out the King, Jack and Ace of Spades on the table and keeping the rest of the cards. I quickly snatched the three magical cards before he could take it back.
"There wasn't any time limit, take as much time as you like. But if I were you, I would hurry since Alfred's clock is on my hands. I could break it anytime if I got too impatient," he threatened. His hair shone against the sun as it stepped out a cloud's shade, which fueled some more rage inside my soul. He was cunning and had the upperhand, and he loves it. "I suppose Matthew still had my card. You could look through his things, that is the easiest route I could assume."
I stared back down at the Queen of Diamonds on my right hand, the other cards of Spades on my left. Once I inflicted damage on Lili's card, she will face terrible consequences. It was the king's duty to take care of the cards, but it was too risky to harm this. Lili is innocent and Francis had Alfred's clock and the Queen of Spades.
Matthew might kill me for this...
"I accept, Francis. I know where your card is," I relented. His glare turned into an innocent smile, flicking his hair back and humming.
"That's what I like to hear, mon ami."
Without the complete deck of Spadian royal cards, which became my responsibility since Alfred is a huge mess of a king to watch over it, we couldn't ensure our safety from the Joker nor play royal games. Francis haven't played in a century since Matthew was gone, and I guess I knew why: his deck is incomplete. His gambling winnings were the reason for the Kingdom of Diamond's wealth and thriving.
The clock, however, was my major concern. The cards hardly matter.
Alfred could die any second now and it was up to Francis when.
"So, shall we go now? I have to rush to Vash to tell him my decision. You can prepare 99 million at the mean time. We expect payment at the night conference," he said, standing and even having the audacity to offer me a hand. I didn't accept and simply marched right out of the maze. Once inside the palace, servants and butlers bowed down to our presence and Francis disappeared to his office without saying another word.
I turned to the corner, finding Alfred's room. Francis might have his clock, but I still had my own. I could protect Alfred using mine, Yao mentioned it before. The Queen's clock can subsitute for a King's in emergency situations, and I could formally declare this scenario as one.
"Alfred!" I called, opening the doors to our office. Yao was sitting on his desk while Matthew smiled kindly at me, standing near the doors with a hand settled on his sword. Alfred himself was lounging near the window, sipping coffee as he read the news.
"Yes, Artie?" he asked passively. Yao went back to his business as Matthew went back on guard.
I stayed standing beside him, looking down at his golden locks as he relaxed by himself. If he foreseen he was to die, then he should've done something, right? This man is my king and no matter how stupid he might be sometimes, he still knows what was for the better. He knows what the future holds.
So, I tapped his head using a rolled-up magazine and frowned down at him. "Aw, what's that for?" he asked, his blue eyes peering up at me.
"Alfred," I said, leaning down and whispering in his ear, "Do you mind discarding the "hero speech" you made for tonight's conference and spare it for tomorrow? Francis told me there was a huge problem and had to inform us of it tonight instead. No time for speeches."
It is a huge problem, at least for me.
"Huh, whyyyy?" he frowned, but upon noticing my serious gaze, he sobered up. "Seriously, did something happen?"
"I don't know yet," I lied. "For now, we need to follow their lead." I turned to Yao who worked on the paperwork. "Yao, was there any news from home?"
He shook his head. "Just the same old riots. Nothing Abel and Emma couldn't handle," he replied in misery. That was the effect of the debt in our country, we need as much cash as we can and it disturbs our food production. Our people are not happy at all. And Yao is kinda passive and sarcastic at most, but I could tell he was burdened by the problems as much as we are, if not even more. Matthew frowned at this.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing," I replied, chanting an apology at the back of my head. I'm sorry, Matthew. "Yao, could you please prepare our money for the first installment? I have a feeling our debt had something to do with the problem."
Yao looked up at me, staring at me. For a moment I was afraid he would ask. To my relief, he did as told and bowed, walking out of the room. The money we could offer right now was only a hundred million, in contrast to the seven trillion we originally had as debt. We could still come home with a million and distribute it back to our people, if ever Francis kept his word. I know he does, else Lili might have to suffer for his king, I thought as I felt the card on my pocket. Just in case Francis did something with the Queen of Spades or the clock....
"Arthur, 'you okay? You're acting off," Alfred noticed. I looked back at him and shrugged it off.
"No, I'm good. I'm just thinking about the debt, is all," I answered. It wasn't a lie. For now, I need to enchant my clock to stand for Alfred's lost one. That could be handled tonight, when slumber washes over the land.
I felt the cousins share looks and I could only frown at them as per usual. Before any of them could ask more, being the nosy children they always were, I left the room and marched straight to my quarters. The day was stressful, being around the kings are already draining on itself, and I can't help but flop down the sheets and let out a heavy sigh.
Setting out the Queen of Diamonds from my pocket and pulling out the King of Diamonds from underneathe the pillow, I placed them together and smiled. I just need the ace and the jack, but for now I am content having these two. Alfred would be ecstatic once I informed him of our mini-victory in private, but I still need to play safe. Francis is a known compulsive gambler and knows how to find his way around things. Little did he know, I am just as a compulsive gambler as he is and I am willing to risk a lot of things.
The Queen cards alone could turn fate on itself. King cards needed to have a full set.
It really was true, queens could rule without kings. This is a lesson Francis had to learn. Since the frog chose the hard way, then so be it.
I know I'd win. I had the stronger hand over Diamonds than Francis had on mine. What an idiotic move, Frenchy, I can't help but mock. Matthew may be angry at us for this, but taking over his mentor's kingdom, the land of the wealthy, had been Spades' long time dream.
I'm sorry, Matthew. Francis Bonnefoy will suffer, and he will drag his kingdom along his fall.
Good Riddance, old friend. You dug your own grave.