Royal Card Game

"How's the tea?"

"It's fine, thank you."

"How's the meal?"

"It's fine, thank you.

"Would you like anything else?"

"I'm fine, thank you.

"Fine" and "Thank You" were two other members of Elena's vocabulary that were repeated very often. The maid seemed to share the same thoughts. The quiet girl seemed extremely relieved whenever Elena requested nothing more of her. Elena often wondered if she had other plans besides being a maid, besides serving this pretty little princess, a life other than the one lived by the clichéd maid serving the clichéd royal family.

"Elena, honey, when you're done with your tea, we're going dress shopping." The plump duchess bustled around, briefly plucking at the sleeve of Elena's casual blouse. It was a plain, light tan chemise adorned with white and red silk lace. Not too flowery, but not too empty either. Even so, the duchess clicked her tongue in disapproval. "You need better clothes. This is not suitable for a girl of royalty. Don't you agree, my dear?"

Elena glared at the lady, tired of being led around like a cute little niece. In fact, she didn't agree at all. Dress shopping was not her idea of a good time…but then again, wasn't her whole life a poor waste of time anyways?

"We can go to the bakery," the duchess prompted, trying to coax the younger girl into coming. Elena shook her head, lips pursed slightly. Was this the clichéd stuck-up princess within her?

"It's market day," Elena mentioned uselessly. She would get stuck in a crowd, but the duchess most likely didn't really care. After all, it was important for Elena to be "seen as a royal model in public" or something cheesy like that. The Romano's Bakery was probably the only commoner's shop that the royals preferred; the cakes and bread and whatnot served there were really that good.

"I'll order you your favorite cake," the duchess added. "The best in the country, just for you."

Again. Again, again, again. "Just for you, Elena". "The best just for our little princess."

"No thanks, Duchess Marta. Really." But her refusals were of no use—the plump duchess would drag her along against her free will. They were going to go dress shopping, and that was the end of the story. There was no such thing as refusal according to the plump duchess.

After receiving a particularly stinging insult from yet another stingy little market vendor, getting tossed and jostled by the impossibly large mass of people, and getting swept all the way back to where he started (and having to journey back up again), Cozart finally made it to the bakery. He spared a hesitant glance at the stylish little bakery, noticing the long queue of waiting people eager to get their pastry. Cozart, being the absentminded person he was, began eavesdropping into random conversations that were going on nearby.

"I told you, we're not getting pastry. I'm picking up a fresh loaf of bread for my sister," a young man with curly, crimson hair said. He pushed his glasses up on his nose, obviously frustrated by the tall blonde beside him.

"But I want the strawberry pastry," the blonde said, pulling at a stray curl in his hair. He had a dry sort of expression plastered on his face, but his eyebrows were arched in a mischievous way, expectantly waiting for the redhead's retort.

"How many times to I have to tell you?" the redhead said, exasperated. He ran a hand through his already messy hair, creating a red bird's nest out of his head. "We're not here for the pastry."

"But you have to admit, it's good pastry." The blonde grinned. He became aware of Cozart watching them, and threw the young Shimon an amused wink. Cozart, embarrassed at being caught listening in on others' conversations, gave the comical blonde a wry grin.

He turned back to the front of the bakery…where Giotto was nowhere to be found. Was he over that-a-way, by the charming little tables where guests were nonchalantly discussing topics to be forgotten by the next minute? Nope. Was he over by that alley where a man with the start of a stubbly beard on his chin was smoking a cigar as he fingered his trim, professional-looking doctor's coat was? Well…nope.

Cozart's eyes roamed all the way back to the front door of the bakery, where he read the name.

"Romano's Bakery. Huh." He wrinkled his nose at the wafting scent of biscuits fresh out of the oven. It wasn't that he didn't like biscuits, or that they smelled bad—in fact, they were making his mouth water, considering he hadn't had his breakfast—but it was because Romano's Bakery seemed like a place Giotto would go to very often. It just sounded like a place you could find the Vongola's leader lounging in a corner chair, a pair of attractive glasses perched on the edge of his nose, reading an old little novel, pages worn and yellow. "How Giotto."

"Cozart, could you be any slower?"

As if thinking of him could make him appear, Giotto magically appeared from behind a group of extremely animated middle-aged ladies out for whatever reason middle-aged ladies go out. The other man seemed more than a bit perturbed, sniffing impatiently as he repeatedly brushed loose strands of his golden hair out of his face. Usually, Giotto didn't care for his longish golden bangs; if they were in his face, they were in his face.

"You okay there?" Cozart grabbed Giotto's shirt sleeve before he could disappear again. Though Romano's Bakery was a very Giotto-like place (Cozart felt waves of Giotto's personality emanating from the classy shop, if that made any sense), it certainly wasn't a place that he'd belong in now, not with this hasty, irritated mood. "Something on your nerves?"


"Oh. Okay. Well…," Cozart said slowly, surprised at his friend's curt answer. Giotto was an easygoing person who'd gladly talk to anyone, and at the moment, he was snappy and curt. "You don't have to be so wound up, okay?"

"I'm not wound up."

"…Right." Cozart quickly followed his friend into the bakery, where he was blasted by an unexpected wave of heat accompanied by a few different odors: the crisp scent of new bread (not burnt), the sweet tangy aroma of pastries and cakes, and the stench of crowding people and sweat and conversation. This was definitely not a place Cozart would see Giotto's external advisor, Alaude. He's probably burn the place down rather than go inside of it. Then again, it was difficult for anyone to withstand the sensual explosion of smells, sights, and sounds.

How Cozart pictured Giotto reclined in a comfy chair with a book in his lap, he had no idea. It seemed to much more peaceful from the outside…

"He's not here."

Giotto glared at the far table, where the animated middle-aged ladies were having a dynamic conversation about their daily lives, about how their children were growing up so quickly, and how so-and-so's daughter had met such a nice young man, but so-and-so's son had the ugliest girlfriend ever…

Cozart shook his head, blinking rapidly. He really needed to stop overhearing conversations.

"Who's not here?" he asked, extremely confused. He poked Giotto's shoulder when he received no answer, but the blonde just spun on his heel and nearly walked right into the redhead Cozart had seen earlier.

"Ahh! Oh! Eh?" stuttered the redhead, glasses falling off his nose and hitting the ground with a crack that didn't bode well.

"Sorry," Giotto said, stooping over and briskly picking up the glasses. Luckily, the lenses were intact, and the redhead gladly put them back on, albeit the glasses were rather crooked.

"It's no problem," said the other man, combing his scarlet hair with his fingers again. Cozart thought that a rather odd habit. Even though he himself was a redhead, and Giotto his blonde friend, they were nothing like this other pair.

"That's why you should've bought pastry. Then we'd be over in that line," said the redhead's friend, the blonde with the little curl in his hair. "Strawberry sells out the fastest too." He grinned, a lopsided, funky sort of smile.

"Get out of here now. Cozart? Cozart!" Giotto grabbed the back of his companion's jacket and yanked him towards the door. Nearly choking, Cozart staggered after him.

"What's your problem?" he exclaimed, tugging at his shirt collar to straighten it out. "First you pull me out of my house at a random time without telling me beforehand, you drag me through the market where I nearly get run over by these crazy market people, and when we finally get to this bakery, you tell me to leave?"

Giotto's eyes were on the ground, and the look on his face was contemplative. He pulled his hair away from his face again, the action reminding Cozart a little bit of the peculiar redhead from inside. When the other man finally looked up, collected himself and tried to smile.

"Sorry, Cozart. Really. I didn't mean for you to go through so much trouble," Giotto said, his smile a little uncomfortable. Cozart patted his friend on the back; he was relieved, now that Giotto had said something more Giotto-like.

"Can you at least tell me what's wrong?"

Giotto made painful face, as if someone had stabbed him in the back (figuratively and literally). He looked back into the bakery, warily checking out the people sitting there. His eyes lingered on the one table with the vivacious ladies, and the silent men in suits, newspapers spread to cover their faces. He was suspicious of almost every little thing.

"I was supposed to meet someone here," he finally told Cozart. When asked who, Giotto scanned the crowd again, as if someone could be watching. Being the Vongola boss, someone probably was watching him. If he wasn't careful, he could be assassinated. The same went for Cozart.

"And? I'm guessing it's dangerous, because—" he was cut off when a man with a newspaper shifted his eyes to glare at them. Cozart spotted the weapon at his belt just as Giotto pulled him into the crowd.

"He's supposed to be my mist guardian."

A hunter on a fast horse was coming after him. The young man, Daemon, hastily rubbed the blood away from his cheek as he urgently spurred his stallion forward. The arrow had nearly gotten him. An inch or two more, and it would've been through his eye.

The hunter was gaining ground. At least, Daemon thought it was a hunter. Whoever it was, he had a fast horse, and that horse was obviously smaller than Daemon's, because it was navigating the dense forest paths much faster than he was.

And the hunter could shoot while riding. He sat up in the saddle, no need for hands while riding his horse, and deftly strung another arrow to his bow. On the ground, he never missed his target. That last one had been a fluke. Whoever this was, he was going to get him. After all, his day job was guarding the royal palace.

The arrow flew.

Daemon could feel it getting closer, closer, and yet closer to the back of his head…

…when he tumbled off his horse and fell headfirst into the forest floor.