Strategic marriages were not an uncommon thing within Cards. Matthew's own parents, the King of Diamonds and Queen of Spades, had been married for nothing more than an alliance between the two kingdoms. It was a marriage of convenience that was occasionally more inconvenient.
But now, this was the first marriage alliance between Cards royalty and foreign. Queen Kiku of Hearts and Prince Heracles ofHellas.
Matthew watched the two dance during their reception. They looked happy together, well suited. At least as well as his parents were.
"Well, this has been fun." Matthew's brother, the crown prince of Spades was still eating as he spoke.
"You just like trying foreign food."
"Nuh-uh. Besides, the food back home is better." He paused to take another bite, this time swallowing before speaking again. "Why aren't you dancing anymore?"
"I've been dancing all night. I lost count of how many times I've been stepped on, and I'm starving." He stole something from Alfred's plate and ate it before he could react. "Mmn, that's weird."
"I know. You have to get used to it, you're eligible."
"So are you, you're not being forced to dance."
"Not really, I'm already Marked, I just have to wait for my queen. You would be strategic for an alliance with Diamonds or Spades. Or both. Everybody wants a piece of you."
Matthew deflated, "You make it sound like I'm property."
"Some people would think of you that way," Alfred said with a shrug. "It's just the way it is."
"Maybe I don't want it to be."He shook his head. "I'm going to go find something to eat." Surprisingly, his brother didn't follow him.
"The pink ones are good," a voice behind him remarked as Matthew looked at the cakes. He turned around to find himself facing a pair of red eyes. He took a step back, only succeeding in colliding with the table. "You look like you've seen a ghost?" The High Joker smirked.
"Uh, no, your Grace," Matthew stuttered, "My apologies."
He shrugged. "Whatever. You're the Diamond-Spadian prince, aren't you?"
"Yes, your Grace." Matthew looked at the ground. "Matthew Bonnefoy-Kirkland."
"I knew that. You don't have to bother with the whole 'your Grace' spiel. I'm just Gilbert. Would you like to dance?"
"I don't think I'm really in a position to refuse." Matthew whispered, not expecting to be heard.
"Well, you could if you wanted to. I'm not going to force you." Matthew looked up at him in surprise. "Well?" The Joker offered Matthew his arm, which he cautiously took.
Gilbert smiled before pulling him out to the floor, spinning him around in an effortless dance that made Matthew feel like his feet weren't touching the ground. "Smile, Birdie," Gilbert whispered in his ear when it was over.
"Huh?" Matthew looked around to realize they were being watched by almost everybody in the ballroom. His face immediately flushed bright red. He heard Gilbert laugh, but when he turned to the other man, he was gone.
"Mattie!" He turned to find his brother running up to him. "Are you okay?"
He nodded numbly. "Yeah, Alfred, I'm fine."
Alfred dragged Matthew off the floor and to an empty corner. "You don't look fine."
"I'm just a little dizzy, that's all."
"Well, yeah!" Alfred pushed him into a chair. "Mattie, you were just dancing with the High Joker. How did it happen? What was it like?"
"The best dance I've ever had. I...I don't know. I don't know why he would want to dance with me, he just asked, I couldn't really say no."
Alfred laughed and shook his head. "Man, when you make a scene, you really make a scene. They're going to be talking about this for weeks. Maybe even years!"
Matthew groaned and buried his face in his hands.
"Hey," Alfred rubbed his shoulder, "Do you want to go up to our room?"
Matthew sat on the floor of the balcony off his room, he could see the lights from the party still going on downstairs shining on the garden. Alfred had returned to the party almost an hour ago, promising to return soon, but Matthew was still alone.
"Are you all right?" Well, he had been. Gilbert stood behind him. "I'm sorry I left like that, but I do have responsibilities."
"It's fine. I understand." He watched the Joker, expecting him to disappear again, but instead he sat down with him. "Why did you dance with me?"
"To protect you."
"I don't need protection," he protested, "I'm not important. You should have danced with my brother instead."
Gilbert shook his head. "Your brother's only important to Spades, you're worth much more." He noticed Matthew's blank look. "What? You really don't realize how valuable you are, do you?"
"Well, I'm the prince, but I'm not Marked, so it's really not worth that much."
"No," Gilbert shook his head again, "Alfred's the only one Marked for the next generation of both kingdom's royalties. That means if anything happens to your parents, you're the heir to both Spades and Diamonds. And if you were abducted you would make a good hostage because your captors would have power over half the country. I'm surprised your parents don't have more guards for you."
"But," Matthew hesitated, "I- So what? You've been watching me?"
"Not in a weird way! Just...checking in on you."
"Oh." He fell silent for a minute. "But why tonight?"
"Because this is the first time you're really being exposed to anyone outside the Four Kingdoms, they need to know you aren't there for them to use as leverage."
Matthew sighed. "Then thank you, I guess."
"Anytime, little Birdie." He vanished.
Matthew groaned and leaned his head against the balcony rail.
Matthew jumped and turned to find Gilbert watching him again. "I thought you left?"
"I forgot something." He knelt so they were on eye level again. "Can I call on you again?"
"Are you sure that's appropriate? I mean, you're not supposed to have any prejudice for any one Kingdom…"
"It's not any one Kingdom, it's just you."
Matthew smiled. "I wouldn't mind."