I HAVE NOT POSTED OR WRITTEN THIS IN LIKE OVER A MONTH WHY DIDN’T ANYONE REMIND ME
admittedly I haven’t written anything because someone pointed out something and suddenly writing turned into this potential obligation that made me anxious and want to die but whatever. IF YOU ARE NEW TO COURT OF CARDS and would like to read an elaborate fanfiction about playing cards, my posts are tagged chronologically here. You should probably read that before this!
In the far-too-bright light of day, it was obvious to Benedict that he’d gone about things all wrong. He could pinpoint the exact moment it had happened, even though thinking was difficult when his head was pounding. When Marianne had asked him why she was in the maze, he ought to have asked her why, indeed, she was there. Instead, all overwhelmed with lust and his own self-importance, he’d gone and asserted himself in a way that made her input seem irrelevant. He ought to have treated her more like a Heart – a particularly gentle Heart, at that – instead of like a Club.
A relationship with a Club – the Clubs he’d known before, at any rate – was at the core of it a game of power. The only way that he’d ever managed to hold his own with Briana was through careful manipulation of the situation, and even then, there was the constant risk that she’d break his nose anyway.
He was much more careful with Hearts. He’d been raised from birth with the notion that a person ordered to do something will do it much more poorly and bitterly than one simply asked. He’d seen men and women throw themselves at the opportunity to serve their Queen in their area of competence, seen the lowliest peasant refuse the King with no care for explanations. His grandmother had only given orders once, and that was because the castle was on fire. It wasn’t always the most convenient system – for a Suit, anyway – but happy people do good work, and Benedict would not argue with results.
Even so, Benedict was always very careful when seducing a Heart of low station. While the minder of horses could refuse him, he’d have found himself mightily displeased if they failed to do so out of a sense of obligation. It was the very opposite of the game he played with Briana: finding subtle ways to raise them high and bring himself low, to emphasize always his willingness to leave them alone without seeming disinterested. It was impossible to know if he always succeeded, but he hoped that he had.
Considering all of this, it was obvious now where he had gone wrong. Marianne had not participated in his power games, had let him trample her quite thoroughly. A part of him was certain that she’d quite liked him despite – because? – of it, but that was nonetheless where he’d made his misstep. Based on what he’d deduced from his excessively creepy reconnaissance mission, Marianne was not someone accustomed to holding her ground. She could spar with a Joker, but a Club? A Heart? An Ace?
No, he was almost certain now that this was someone used to having decisions made on her behalf, and ostensibly for her own good. That was how a rabbit survived in a den of bears: by not being a rabbit at all. By being an entirely different sort of bear, disguised as a rabbit, free only to remove her false furs when the other bears weren’t looking.
This metaphor was getting away from him.
The point, however, was that if his groggy new theories were correct, his typical posturing would not do at all. He hoped that he was correct, or else he was liable to make a complete fool out of himself the next time he saw her. And he would see her again. He would make absolutely certain of it. He had a week before the betrothal ball, a week in which to learn as much as he could about this fascinating human being. A week for one last affair – for him, and for her. That was assuming she wanted him, which he would continue to do for the sake of having something to do with his time.
She still wasn’t showing her face at any of the planned events, insofar as he could tell. It was a bit difficult to say for sure, when she was so small and quick. All of this subtlety was grating on his nerves; he wished he could just ask. He didn’t even like picnics; whoever thought it would be a good idea to eat outside where there was sunlight and birds and his cousin’s yappy dog? Other than his mother, anyway. For as long as Benedict could remember, the King of Hearts had always enjoyed coming up with excuses to take meals outdoors. Much as he wished he could hold it against her, she always looked so damnably happy while the sun was burning freckles on her face.
Benedict was avoiding his parents, lest they try to convince him once again that he ought to fall in love with his future bride. He would fall in love with her in his own good time – it wasn’t like it was difficult, anyway. The King and Queen also had a distressing tendency to shout whenever he’d had too much mead, and he couldn’t say he much cared for it.
No one else seemed to be having as much trouble as he was with mingling. He’d have to do something about that soon, or else he’d look a dreadful leader indeed, standing off to the side with a greasy mug of soup and a sour look on his face.
“You should try drinking water,” came a quiet voice from his side, and he turned to find a rather lovely Spade considering him – a tankard of water in hand.
“Do you suppose so?” Benedict murmured politely, even as he sipped his broth instead. His mother had told him once that it was the desert sun that made the hair of a Spade so absurdly bright, and he found it hard to disagree. If this woman‘s hair had been straight rather than curled, Benedict could have used it as a mirror.
“Strong drink dries a person out as well as salt. You need to get your head wet again if you want to set yourself right.”
At this, Benedict had no choice but to accept the gift she offered, discarding his soup over his shoulder and narrowly missing the dog. “Far be it for me to refuse a woman offering to help me get my head wet,” he said with a grin, tossing back the water as easily as he had the mead. The Spade woman seemed entirely unfazed, and he could not tell if she was flirting or if he was simply a lecher. Spades generally weren’t the flirtatious type.
Then again, Spades generally also were not as tall as this one was. She still stood a head shorter than Benedict, but that made her a head taller than every other Spade he’d seen in the Suit. Her earlobes, as well, were the smallest he’d seen – the hoops in her ears were barely bigger than his pinky, nothing at all compared to the fist-sized stones he’d seen the King and Queen wearing. Benedict would have to see if he could find out why; it was probably some sort of important cultural thing that he knew nothing about.
“My head seems to be feeling better already! Who might I thank for having saved me from my wretched state?” She smiled faintly, and it had a mesmerizing effect on her eyes – blue like a sapphire, shaped like almonds, astonishingly bright next to her cinnamon skin.
“I am Nandi, Two of Spades. You are Benedict, Ace of Hearts. Soon to be married to Vivienne, Ace of Diamonds.” What must a Spade sound like having an argument, quiet as they were?
Benedict gave an exaggerated pout, furrowing his heavy brows and jutting out his lower lip like a child. “Now how am I meant to introduce myself, with you having done my half for me?”
“My apologies. I am often remarked to be excessively talkative.”
“Oh yes, I can see that. A dreadful chatterbox, you are. At any rate, Nandi, thank you very much for your unsolicited advice in regards to my poor decision making. Might I ask what I did to invite it? Are you simply so goodhearted that you could not bear to see me suffer?”
“You were alone, and helping you with your headache seemed a good way to initiate conversation without drawing undue attention.”
“I admire your forthrightness, but if your goal is discretion, a picnic does not seem the place to initiate a torrid affair.”
“I am relieved to find you as forthright as I had been lead to believe, as it makes you a valuable source of unbiased information. I wish to know more about your brother.” Benedict’s eyebrows shot up at this.
“Stewart? Stewart is an open book. Why would you need to talk to me instead of him?” At this, Nandi seemed to look faintly uncomfortable for the first time.
“He is sketching, presumably to deflect attention while he steals longing glances at the Ace of Diamonds. As such I thought attempting contact might be counterproductive.”
“Are all Spades so observant?”
“Most are moreso. I speak too much to truly listen.”
“So are the earrings intended to reflect on listening ability? That would certainly explain why the Queen’s are so massive.” Nandi smiled faintly again, but this one did not reach those charming eyes of hers.
“The King and Queen adopted me but recently, and those short years have not been sufficient to bring my ears to a more regal stature. As I shall be marrying out of the fold, it is presumed their current status shall be sufficient for my spouse.”
“I am an insensitive lout,” Benedict apologized immediately, “and should not go poking my great big nose into matters where I lack understanding.”
“How else is one to acquire understanding? It is that insensitivity I require, for I must know soon if it is worth attempting to court your brother.”
“You want to marry Stewart?”
“He is currently uncalled for, and I require a match. I must focus my attentions where they are most likely to bear fruit.”
“There are numerous unclaimed Clubs.”
“Indeed, but determining their status in terms of connectedness shall be a touch more difficult.”
“Efficient,” Benedict mused, “but unfortunately, it is that very efficiency that would make a match with my brother… difficult. He is a romantic, one prone to moodiness and excessive words, with a love for those things which he perceives to be delicate or ethereal. You are slender, and ethereal is indeed a good way to describe those eyes and that hair of yours… but you are still a Spade. I may not know much of jewelry, but I know enough about the women of the Spades – and so does my brother. He prefers women who break men more figuratively. The power differential would make him pout.”
Nandi took a long and quiet moment to consider this, and he hoped he had not hurt her feelings. It was possible Benedict was selling his brother short, but he’d known the man his whole life, after all. Stewart was someone that loved to have his heart broken, but who could not bear a bruise, or even the possibility thereof. He had his own strengths, but strength was not one of them.
“Consideration of the facts leads me to believe your assessment is likely to be correct. Thank you very much for your time.”
Nandi was turning to leave him when Benedict asked, “Would you like my unsolicited advice?” She turned back and raised an eyebrow, and he pointed to where he could see a few Clubs and Diamonds mingling as best they could. “While the Ace of Clubs is all but spoken for, the Jack is not. His name is Alphonse – or perhaps you knew that already – and if you wager him whether or not you could fell him in under a minute, his pride will not allow him to refuse. When you do fell him – and I know that you will – you will have won from him a kiss, and in doing so, his heart. Unlike my brother, the Jack of Clubs cannot resist a woman who can break his limbs as easily as his heart.” Nandi gave this a moment’s thought before giving him a nod of thanks, gliding in the direction of the unsuspecting Jack.
“You made Shishi sick.”
Benedict twirled on his heel to meet the gaze of his petulant cousin, her arms crossed and her toe probably tapping impatiently under her voluminous skirts. “I don’t see why I’m responsible for the fact that your dog eats out of the grass, Yolanda. If I tried to do that I’d be the laughingstock of the Suit.”
“That is because you are not literally a dog,” the freckled 14-year old explained patiently, “so you know better. Shishi is incapable of knowing any better, because he is a dog.”
“And a fine dog he is. I am sure he will spend the rest of the day no worse for wear despite the horrible ordeal of tasting a delicious soup twice.”
“That’s gross, Uncle Benedict. You’re gross.” Yolanda had never had a very good grasp on the idea that someone so much older than her could be a mere cousin, rather than uncle, and he had given up on correcting her.
“Why am I the gross one when your dog is eating trash and then getting sick? And for that matter, why are you talking to me when you could be mingling? Wouldn’t you like to arrange a marriage with someone from an exotic foreign land who can take you away from all these gross uncles and dog vomit?”
At this, the lanky teen was forced to go on the defensive, feigning apathy as only a 14-year old can. “Foreign lands seem boring,” she said, though Benedict thought that this probably meant she didn’t want to leave her parents behind. Uncle Bruce and Aunt Tia had given up on children before Yolanda was born, and they were quite attached to her as a result. The very thought of sending her away made Tia nearly faint. “Besides,” Yolanda added, as an afterthought, “Mei and I have already decided that we’re going to get married.”
“You cannot marry Mei, Yolanda.”
“I don’t see why not. She’s only a little younger than me.”
“Because she is your cousin. Marrying your cousin is for people who don’t know any better.”
“It’s too late. I already told her we’re to be married.” Benedict sighed, rubbing his forehead with one gloved hand.
“Mei is twelve, and she is far too nice as a result of her father’s influence. She’s not going to keep wanting to marry you when she grows up.”
“Yes she is. She said I’m pretty.” Yolanda was doing an admirable, if not entirely successful, job of trying not to blush. It was silliness like this that made the Shuffle so important: a Suit that only mingles with itself tends to get problematic appallingly quickly.
“How do you know that Spade over there doesn’t think you’re pretty?” Benedict pointed to the first girl he could find around Yolanda’s age, a tiny thing with pudgy cheeks and whose curls went down to her waist. Yolanda considered the other girl critically.
“She’s not as pretty as Mei, I don’t think. And she probably isn’t as good at games.”
“You will never know unless you talk to her so you’d better go do that now before she decides she’d rather go do something interesting without you,” Benedict insisted while pushing his cousin in the Spade’s direction. It was probably not a good idea to go rushing his cousin around when her feelings were obviously conflicted, but he’d just spotted a petite Club lingering behind where the Jack had been – before Nandi had knocked him to the ground, that is. He had a clever plan, and this one would work better than his last clever plan.
Stewart was, as Nandi had said, sitting in the grass with his sketchbook. His attempt to look busy was undercut by the fact that he had drawn nothing but a circle, over and over again, while staring at his brother’s bride-to-be. This was not, strictly speaking, healthy behavior.
“You’re going to get grass stains on your trousers,” Benedict called, startling Stewart out of his reverie.
“I don’t mind the added color,” came the wary response; Stewart was clearly feeling defensive. Which was good, for Benedict’s purposes.
“No, but I’m sure the fellow who does the laundry minds quite a bit. Not to mention the tailor. Clothing is wasted on you.” This had been a legitimate source of tension between the brothers before, though they’d both come to terms with the disagreement. Benedict would simply continue to wear his hair in immaculate ringlets, have his boots shined to mirrors, keep his cravat folded with borderline deadly precision, and his shirts carefully fitted to show off all that they concealed; Stewart, meanwhile, would continue to think this was completely ridiculous. Benedict had tried to help him when they were teens: combed his unruly mop of rosewood hair, put him in clothes not stained with paint, cleaned beneath his fingernails, and attempted to get him to stop smelling like burnt coffee. None of it had stayed for longer than an hour, and left Stewart thinking his brother was unspeakably vain and shallow.
Which he was. But that wasn’t really the point.
“Not everyone seems to mind.” At this, Stewart could not help but glance at the Ace of Diamonds, who was currently engaged in conversation with their father. Benedict rolled his eyes, but refrained from smacking his brother upside the head; he was too prone to nosebleeds for that to end well.
“You’re really going to have to work on your discretion if you plan to keep dallying with her.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re staring at Vivienne like she’s the last glass of water in the Kingdom of Spades, and your drawings of a circle aren’t likely to fool anyone.” Stewart slammed his sketchbook shut looking shamefaced, and Benedict couldn’t help but grin. “It doesn’t matter anyway, I have a plan to help you get some practice in.”
“Your last plan ended with our parents thinking I was a girl.”
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good plan. This is a better plan. This plan will get you alone with a lovely woman with flowers in her hair, somewhere private where you can make all sorts of metaphors at one another. Possibly she can teach you how to embroider.”
“It is a skilled art that-”
“Yes I know that was the joke. Do you want to hear my plan or not?”
“Fine. I’ll listen. But if it involves putting on a corset I reserve the right to ignore you.”