Naclia’s people were renowned for their delicate, fae-like beauty, but she couldn’t help admiring her dining partner. His skin was olive-toned, darker than her own and that of her kin. His long black hair was sleek and grown long, but tied back in a functional fashion. A shadow of stubble from his shaved beard was apparent across his cheeks, chin, and upper lip, another trait that was foreign to her. Fayl’Idayn men grew light beards sometimes, but nothing like what human men could grow. It intrigued her, and she was biting back the urge to reach across their table and stroke his cheek just to see how it felt. His features were sharp with high cheekbones, a narrow chin with a well-defined jawline, an aquiline nose, and angular brows that framed his slender eyes. Bashful, he stared down at his empty plate, his dark lashes hiding his striking pale green eyes. There was a mix of the same delicate beauty she was familiar with and rugged swarthiness of humans in Talen.
They had been exchanging questions since she arrived in the village. After all, her intent was to satisfy her curiosity about their neighbors to the north. Naclia lounged confidently in her chair, her legs crossed and arms open, resting comfortably on the arm rests of the captain-style chairs that the inn provided. “Tell me about your family, Talen,” she plied, moving on from their cursory conversation about food and dietary differences. They had finished their vegetarian dinner, which Talen had shared with her out of respect, despite the fact that he was more accustomed to meat with his meals.
“Well,” he began, gathering his thoughts. He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, folding his hands under his chin. Discreetly, Naclia watched his movements. His body was lean, though hidden under a loose cotton shirt. She could see the taut musculature of his forearms which spoke of years of practice with weaponry, though he had never seen actual combat from what he had told her thus far. “The Dreclouds have been in service to the crown of Kosony for seventeen generations, eighteen, counting mine. Our house was established after… well, the war between our peoples,” he smiled sheepishly and looked up at her with apologetic eyes. Centuries ago, the nation of Kosony had tried to raid the Ardir Forest for its resources, only to face fierce opposition from the forest inhabitants. The ensuing war established a definite border between the two lands, which was not far from the outpost village that they sat in now.
Naclia waved her hand dismissively. “It was a long time ago, there is no need for unpleasantness,” she replied. “But tell me about your mother and father, your siblings.” Even for her, the war was ancient history. Her parents were too young to have experienced it, though her grandparents had certainly been there. Three generations for her, eighteen for him.
“Oh, well, my father is a knight as well,” Talen replied. “We have an estate to the east, between Anche and Ady, but we are in direct service of the Duke of Anche, and he serves as a proxy for the king in the east.”
Naclia nodded, though she wanted to steer him away from the politics. In four years, she would be officially granted the opportunity to explore outside of the forest, but her visit now was limited. She wanted to know Talen, not the government of Kosony. “Your father, what is his name?” she asked, steering the conversation back toward her original question.
Talen gave a small, awkward smile. “I’m actually named after my father. I’m Talen Drecloud the third, he’s the second.”
Naclia was momentarily taken aback. “Is that not confusing?” she asked.
“Well, it’s traditional. A lot of knights carry on the same name for several generations to honor our forefathers,” Talen explained.
“Hm,” she intoned thoughtfully. “The Fayl’Idayn do not use the names of the living for new children. We may name a child for a deceased relative, but never for a living one. We believe that names should be unique.”
Talen nodded. “That makes sense. To be honest, I can’t say I feel that it would be important to name my son after myself, my father, and grandfather,” he mused.
A break from tradition from such a traditional man, Naclia noted. “Well, what of the rest of your family?”
“Ah, well, my mother, of course. Her name is Sora. She is from a knightly family as well. I have an older sister, but no other siblings,” Talen explained. “What about your family?”
“Only one sibling? That would be normal for the Fayl’Idayn,” Naclia replied with an amused smile. “I thought humans had large families. Most Fayl’Idayn have one or two children, but not my mother. She is… odd. All of my life I heard whispers that maybe she was half-human because she has so many children close in age!” Naclia paused to shake her head, still smiling mirthfully. “I have an elder brother who is very close to my age,” she continued. Ten years was close for the Fayl’Idayn, but she realized that it was significant to humans. “But I also have a younger sister and brother, and my mother had a new baby last year. My mother loves children, but I think my father is done with little ones. Perhaps when my younger siblings are older my mother will find herself a second husband who will take over for my father! I think that the fates must play a joke on us, our families are the opposite sizes of what our peoples say they should be.”
“A… second husband?” Talen asked and Naclia found him looking genuinely concerned. “But what about your father? She would just divorce him after so long?”
“Divorce, oh no!” Naclia replied, her mirth quickly fading. “No, no, we may take more than one spouse. I believe my father would be grateful to have another relieve him of his fatherly duties, if more children are what my mother desires.”
“Wouldn’t your father be jealous?” Talen asked.
“It would be a lie to say there is never jealousy. If one person is hurt by the actions of their spouse, it must be remedied, even if it means halting the err… progress of the other romance,” Naclia explained as best she could. It was taxing her second language’s vocabulary. Even though she was fluent in the language Talen spoke, she was far from a native speaker like him. If anything, her version of his language seemed slightly archaic and stiff compared to the casual and natural way he spoke.
Talen nodded, then remained silent for a few moments. He seemed to be carefully considering his next words. “So, I… I don’t really know how to ask this,” Talen stumbled over his question, the color rose in his cheeks and he couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. “But…well, what are your plans for… or do you plan to marry?” He shook his head, as if to dismiss the question. “I’m sorry if that’s too forward.”
“Marriage for me? It is such a distant goal; one I am much too young to consider!” she giggled. Seeing this young knight who had first greeted her with a hand on his sword now struggling to string together a sentence regarding marriage made her feel powerful, in a way. He was undeniably attracted to her, and she to him, but the dynamic here gave her command of the situation.
Talen’s gaze lifted. There was a momentary flash of excitement in his eyes. “Too young? You don’t look much older than me, if I may be so bold,” he replied, blushing again as he awkwardly addressed the issue of age.
Naclia leaned forward and placed her elbows on the table, then rested her chin on the backs of her hands. “Oh, much older than you,” she said with a mischievous grin. She wouldn’t reveal the truth of her one-hundred and twenty-one years to him, she was aware of the brief lifespans of humans in comparison to the Idayn, and that the truth of their ages were often disturbing to the human sense of mortality. However, she was more than willing to taunt him with the mystery. “And older still I will be when I choose to wed, if I choose.” Changing the subject from herself to him, she posed her own question: “So, if I appear to be your age, does that mean that you will soon be married?”
Talen’s gaze dropped again, he seemed disappointed. “My marriage will likely be arranged in the next year or so, once my year of service at this outpost is complete,” he explained.
“Arranged? So, you have chosen a wife?” Naclia asked.
“Oh, no,” Talen said, shaking his head. “My parents will hire a matchmaker who will select potential brides for me.”
Naclia looked at him, baffled. “Someone else chooses your wife?”
“Well, I do I have some say in it, but the options presented to me are chosen by the matchmaker,” he explained. “What about the Fayl’Idayn, how do you choose a husband?”
Naclia shrugged her shoulders slightly, cocking her head to the side. “When we find a lover with whom we would want to bond our lives to, bear a child with, we marry,” she explained. “And then, eventually, more lovers may come and the family will grow.”
“Lovers? So, you err… take lovers outside of marriage?” Talen asked. The color rose in his cheeks again.
“Do you not take lovers before marriage?” Naclia was now the one surprised. She leaned forward and dropped her hands to the table top as she regarded Talen. “You truly only know one lover your whole life?”
Talen’s gaze dropped back down to the tabletop. “Well, that’s what we try to do. I don’t think everyone quite lives up to that ideal,” he replied.
Naclia lifted a hand and rested her chin on it again, giving Talen a playful smirk from across the table. “Do you live up to that ideal? Have you never…?” Naclia trailed off. While she was enjoying seeing him squirm, she didn’t want to push him too far into embarrassment.
“No, no, I’ve never. I do intend to live up to that ideal, but… have you?” he asked, meeting her eyes again with a fresh blush.
“Would it trouble you if I said I have had lovers? After all, my people do not share your ideals of chastity,” she inquired in return.
Talen looked away, gazing into the fireplace across the otherwise empty common room. “I… don’t know,” he replied.
Naclia shook her head and giggled. “You take sex so seriously! How will you make a good husband with no practice? And how will you know if you have found the best partner if you only ever know one?”
She could see that he was mulling over his thoughts. For a moment, she worried that her forwardness would push him away. He was so charmingly naïve. Naclia wanted to show him what he was missing out on. It was a shame that such a handsome man in his prime should be hoarded by only one woman—and a woman he didn’t even know yet! Naclia sighed, expressing the frustration of her thoughts.
At the sigh, Talen’s attention drifted back to her. “I could marry someone I meet outside of the matchmaker. I’m not entirely without a choice. If I meet a woman who could be a suitable wife, the matchmaking would be unnecessary,” he said thoughtfully.
Is he suggesting that he marry me? Naclia thought, startled for an instant. “Must it always lead to marriage?” she asked. “There is so much more… I am sorry, I should not cast judgement on your ways.” She shook her head. “I am only a visitor here.”
Talen remained silent for a moment, contemplating yet again. “I want to know your way.” His pale green eyes pierced Naclia, and now she felt the heat rise in her own cheeks.
“I thought that you intend to live up to your ideals,” she said softly, almost as a warning.
“Maybe there is some wisdom to your ways that mine lacks,” he replied.
Naclia had to wonder if it was wise to indulge his curiosity, but her own was too strong for her to deny. He was handsome and different, what if this opportunity never came again. She bit her lip and cast her gaze away from his coyly. “If this is what you want, then I will oblige you,” she agreed and looked up to meet his eyes again. The excitement fluttered in her belly like so many birds’ wings.