Author's Note: Otherwise entitled "These Two Bloody Idiots Need to Damn Well Do Something Already!"
Today is my twenty-first birthday, so obviously I wrote another Death and the Emperor side-story to celebrate. And since I'm sick of Gialma and Qihadal insisting on being awkward around each other, I decided to write something about Varan trying to matchmake. It escalated. A lot. Before I knew it, Rivant joined in. Then Kilan. This is the result.
It's not set at any specific point in D&E, so I guess it's an AU "what could be".
The Course of True Love
The course of true love never did run smooth.
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Varan was only too familiar with stories where people were obviously in love yet stayed apart for some implausible reason. Such stories could even be quite entertaining. But there was nothing entertaining about watching such a story play out before her eyes. It was downright infuriating.
All right, so she had no reason to believe Gialma and Qihadal were in love. Yet. But she wasn't blind! She could see there was something between them, something that might become love if they would. Just. Talk. To each other. Instead they did… this.
If you asked her to define "this", she would have gestured to her cousin and her ex-sister-in-law and said, "This!" That was hardly enlightening. Yet she could find no other way to describe it. "This" wasn't a romance. It wasn't even a flirtation. It was awkward conversation and hastily-averted looks of the sort that most people left behind in their teens.
Case in point: this evening's dinner. Kilan had caught a cold and was too busy sniffling and sneezing to attend. (Varan had stopped by to offer some comfort. Her brother's throat was too sore for him to speak, but she got the general idea of what he wanted to say by the glare he gave her when she asked how he felt.) Gialma was unwillingly dragged into being Qihadal's partner. And now the two of them were silently sitting beside each other at the table, not speaking to each other and barely speaking to anyone else.
Varan couldn't stand this any more.
"Speak to her!" she hissed in her cousin's ear.
Gialma started so violently he almost knocked over his cup. Varan grabbed it before it could spill. If anyone had been looking at that moment they would have seen the cup inexplicably stop in mid-air and right itself.
Under the circumstances there was no way Gialma could speak to Varan. She took advantage of this to keep talking.
"You can't just sit here like a dummy. Ask Qihadal what she's going to do tomorrow. Ask her about archery; I heard she started taking lessons. Ask her anything, but for the love of god say something!"
Gialma couldn't turn around to glare at her. He couldn't complain or tell her to go away. There was nothing he could do but go along with what she wanted.
He turned to Qihadal. Abruptly he said, "How are your archery lessons going?"
Qihadal blinked, clearly surprised. "They are going… well." With unexpected sarcasm she added, "I haven't shot anyone yet. I'm told that is good."
Varan couldn't see if Gialma smiled or not. He didn't say anything else, even if he did. She wasn't going to take the risk the conversation would end there; this ridiculous dance was going to stop right now if she had anything to say about it.
"Tell her about your archery lessons. Especially the time you broke the window," she said.
She got the distinct impression there were a few choice words Gialma wanted to say. He couldn't say them now. Instead, with the air of a man being led to his execution, he turned to Qihadal again.
Varan didn't punch the air, but only because there might be another Reaper lurking around somewhere. They'd never let her hear the end of it if they knew she was matchmaking.
Like older siblings everywhere, Rivant had a very low opinion of her younger brother's intelligence. If even she could see he was interested in Qihadal, then he should damn well have figured it out already.
Or maybe he had and just didn't want the public to know. That was the trouble with Kilan's not-widely-known divorce. Rivant had only learnt of it from something Nadriet had let slip. Most people thought Kilan and Qihadal were still married. Looked at from that angle, it made sense that Gialma and Qihadal barely spoke to each other in public.
Rivant didn't make a habit of visiting the capital. She was trying to make a name for herself as an archaeologist; travelling miles to spend hours with people who had nothing in common with her was a chore she would gladly shirk. But she was curious about this new development, and the best way to find out the truth was to visit her brother.
Gialma did not look happy to see her. To be fair, she wouldn't have been happy either if one of her siblings had barged into her house uninvited. "Why are you here?"
"Aren't you going to offer me some tea?" Rivant asked, ignoring him. "Then you can tell me all about Qihadal."
Her brother froze as he reached for the bell to summon the butler. "What about Qihadal?"
Rivant sat down without being asked. "I've heard gossip. And I've seen the letters you write home. Quite a lot about Qihadal in them."
There wasn't really. Not by most people's standards. But by Gialma's standards it was a surprisingly amount. His letters were barely more than five lines and never mentioned anything but the most essential details. His recent remarks about what the empress had said or done were highly unusual.
"I see her frequently," Gialma said. A stranger would have thought he was offended. Rivant was reasonably sure he was just confused.
Twenty-three years of his near-constant companionship hadn't taught her how Gialma's mind worked. But she was determined to get answers somehow.
"How frequently?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Twice a month?"
Why couldn't he say more than a few words at a time? "And what do you talk about?"
"We rarely talk at all."
She could well believe that. "Do you like her?"
Gialma's patience ran out. "Why are you asking me all these questions? I'm not in love with her, if that's what you think!"
"Not yet, maybe," Rivant agreed. She ignored Gialma's indignant shout of "What do you mean, 'not yet'!?" "A bit of advice from your friendly older sister–" Her brother's face showed what he thought of that. "–whether you like her that way or not, talk to her!"
This situation was strange even by Caranilnav standards. Nor was it the sort of thing he could ask Death about. Really, who could you ask for advice when you suspected your ex-wife was falling in love with your cousin?
Kilan first thought there might be something between Qihadal and Gialma when Death told him of how Gialma had reacted when a certain disgraced counsellor insulted Qihadal. The prince wasn't the sort of person who'd dance with a near-stranger without a good reason. Everything he'd seen since then strengthened his suspicions.
He wasn't exactly qualified to speak about romance, but he thought Qihadal and Gialma would have a good chance of happiness together. Neither had any prior attachments, they were bound to find something in common if they talked to each other… and that was the problem. They hardly ever talked to each other.
The already-existing awkwardness between Kilan and Qihadal was so bad that it could hardly get any worse. So Kilan felt surprisingly little embarrassment about raising the subject when he next saw her.
"Did you talk to Gialma at the dinner last week?"
Qihadal stared at him as if wondering whether she'd misheard. "Yes. We spoke about archery."
Archery? Well, it was better than nothing. Now he needed to find some excuse for raising the subject. He said the first thing that came into his head. "My aunt – Gialma's mother – said she thinks he needs to talk to people more often."
Qihadal smiled briefly. "She's right."
That was the end of the discussion. Kilan had never tried to be a matchmaker before. He wasn't about to try too hard and ruin anything he'd achieved. Hopefully Qihadal would talk to Gialma the next time she saw him.
Nadriet felt like a spectator at a play. A play where the characters had forgotten their lines and didn't know the plot.
She didn't know when the idea first struck her. Maybe it had been when the three of them started reading the letters together. Maybe it had been before that. Either way, she had once thought, I think Gialma likes Qihadal, and the thought had never left her since.
It was with that thought in mind that she asked both of them to come and help her design the official proclamation of a cousin's wedding. She didn't expect them to talk to each other; they rarely did. Just bringing them into each other's company was as far as her matchmaking could go.
Words couldn't describe her astonishment when they actually did speak to each other. About calligraphy, which wasn't what she'd had in mind, but it was progress.
"What is the difference between these fonts?" Qihadal asked – stiffly, as if she was talking only for the sake of it. "The letters look identical to me."
Amazingly, Gialma's reply was longer than a few words. "The letters are identical; the ink is all that's different. This one–" he pointed to the first font they were considering, "–is drawn with a sort of ink that's really more like paint. And this one is drawn with normal ink."
Nadriet stared. If she was surprised by that, her surprise was nothing compared to when Qihadal spoke again.
"But why are they listed as different fonts?"
Gialma looked at the sheet of paper again. "I don't know. A printer's error, perhaps."
Were her ears deceiving her? Was she listening to an actual discussion between two of the least talkative people she knew?
That wasn't the end of the shocks Nadriet had that day. A few minutes later, Gialma – without being prompted, and she'd never have believed it if she hadn't seen it – said, pointing to another font, "We can't use that. It's only used for funeral notices."
I'm dreaming, Nadriet thought dizzily. I have to be.
It was the only explanation she could think of.
Oh, for goodness' sake. She didn't know which was worse: Gialma and Qihadal's awkwardness, or the craze for matchmaking that had seized certain Caranilnavs.
Death wasn't surprised by Varan's interference. Reapers were incapable of leaving well enough alone. But when Nadriet and Kilan joined in…
Still, their clumsy attempts had done what leaving well enough alone couldn't do. They had succeeded in making Qihadal and Gialma exchange more than a few words.
On one of her visits to Zasordoth Palace Death witnessed an unexpected scene. Qihadal was in her garden. Nothing unusual about that. Linyie was toddling around the flowerbeds, watched by her nurse. Also not too unusual. Gialma was there too, hovering near the gate as if contemplating escape. Much more unusual.
Death stopped and listened.
"It seems," Qihadal said slowly, "that some of your relatives think…"
"…That we need to talk to each other?" Gialma finished.
It was the first time she'd ever heard him finish someone's sentence like that. Qihadal thought the same, if her bemused look was any indication.
"I don't know what gave them that idea," Gialma said nervously, adjusting his sleeves – which hadn't needed adjusting – and brushing back a strand of hair that was nowhere near his eyes.
Qihadal stared at him. She looked even more bemused than before. "Do you mind talking to me?"
"No! I mean, I don't. Mind, that is."
Death facepalmed. Gialma looked like he wanted to do the same.
He tried again. "I don't mind talking to you because you don't expect me to talk all the time."
Qihadal nodded thoughtfully. Death waited for whatever she would say next. But she left the subject there and moved on to a different one. "I asked to see you because a museum has asked for funding, and I thought you would know how much to give them. I hear your sister works in a museum."
Gialma didn't quite grimace at the mention of his sister, but Death could tell he wanted to. "How much money did they ask for?"
Death lingered a moment longer before leaving. She had expected it would take at least another year for them to talk to each other so casually. Perhaps this matchmaking business had actually worked. But she hoped Varan at least had lost interest in it.
The last thing she needed was an outbreak of matchmaking in the Land of the Dead.