"It was ten years ago yesterday," Jillia said quietly, almost to herself. She stood staring at the calendar on the wall, her dainty hands folded over her stomach. For all her years living with Jillia, Pilika had never learned that posture and stance. Seeing it only served to remind her that Jillia had once been a queen. Small furrows had creased the royal woman's face with worry over the years, but her pale, round face still held that moon-like glow that made her like an ethereal princess from a Harmonian folktale. She gazed at the date a very long time. Her eyes were looking far away into the depths of the past.
Ten years ago yesterday they had arrived in Harmonia. The hurried carriage that sped them away had slowed and stopped on the quiet cobblestone street of Lefern Town, an outlying region of Riverway. Jillia had been withdrawn the entire trip, translucent tears silently staining her pale cheeks. Pilika had been frightened and scared as well, but she was young and unable to stay entirely focused on those feelings so long. She had thought about Uncle Jowy and told Mr. Bear that they would definitely meet again. So far, beyond a tiny glimpse she might've just imagined, that had not happened. It was clear that Jillia thought about Jowy frequently.
The carriage door had opened to reveal a lovely gated house surrounded by lush greenery. Two Harmonian men had been there to greet them. The older one, with a gray beard that looked so soft she would've liked to touch it, had given Jillia his hand and helped her to the ground. The younger man, with round, chestnut eyes, had smiled and lifted her down. He had a twinkle in his grin as he complimented her taste. "Nice bear."
The older man was less lackadaisical. "I won't ask who you are, though I have my suspicions. This was a favor once removed, so this will likely be the last time we meet in person. Don't be concerned about your wellbeing. You've been amply provided for."
Jillia's expression was dark, but she thanked the Harmonians anyway. She reached to take Pilika's hand and led her toward the house.
"Just a moment," their anonymous benefactor stopped them, "You're forgetting something important, Miss-" He paused purposefully and smiled, sly as a fox, before adding a name to the title, "-Gavelle."
"Miss Gavelle?" the younger man gawked, tipping his head to the side like a bird examining a shiny object it had found. "I didn't know these were relatives or yours, Your Excellency."
"Indeed they are," he chuckled and pressed a sealed and folded paper into Jillia's free hand. "My grand-nieces, who had been living in Highland," he explained to his subordinate, "That land has fallen to chaos with the war so I had them spirited away to meet me here."
"That must've been difficult," Gavelle's gullible aide sympathized with them.
The key was in the black, iron gate. Jillia opened it and ushered Pilika into the garden ahead of her. "Goodbye, Uncle," she played along, now sounding more sincerely thankful. "Thank you for everything."
"Come, Avelino," Gavelle commanded, stepping into the carriage the two refugees had just let. With a jovial wave of his fingers, Avelino hopped up alongside Gavelle.
"To Riverway, my good man!" Avelino called to the driver, a tall, thin man dressed in Harmonian livery. He shut the door with an unnecessary bang and the driver tugged the reins. Jillia cautiously pushed open the front door as Pilika looked back, listening to the clip clop of hooves in the distance.
Honestly, when Pilika thought about it now, looking back to that day, she couldn't say she remembered their arrival perfectly. Maybe the key hadn't been in the lock on the gate. Mr. Gavelle might've given it to Jillia along with their papers. And Avelino might not have waved with his fingers like a child, even if that was in keeping with his personality. Pilika wouldn't hold this imaginative gap filling in her mind against herself. After all, at the time she had been only six years old.
"Jillia," she interrupted the thoughts of the woman who had been like a big sister to her since they left Highland.
"Pilika? What was I...?" the regal woman wondered aloud. Her final parting with her husband had been playing over in her mind. Unlike Pilika's cloudy recollections of the fall of the Highland Kingdom, Jillia felt as though that day was branded on her heart forever. Playing at being "Jillia Gavelle," never really opening up to or growing close to anyone...it was hard on her. She had once had friends. Other than rumors, she had no way of knowing what had become of them. She could not reveal herself by attempting to contact them.
"You were thinking about Uncle Jowy, weren't you?"
"Of course," Jillia shook her had sadly. A few small steaks of premature silver slid through her hair. "I know I have a tendency to live in the past, but every year at this time, I fix my hair and wear my best dress on the anniversary in some wild hope that Jowy will appear out of the blue to visit us. I don't care what they say officially. You know as well as I do that he's not dead. ...It's just that I try to mentally prepare myself each year, and each year nothing happens."
Pilika twisted the edge of her dress in her hand. She would've liked to see Jowy again as well, but... Well, that had all been a long time ago in a mess of frightening fires, bloody bodies, and adults reaching toward her to hold her or pull her or use her. Overall, it had been very confusing. She had lost her parents and Jowy had fickly come and gone until she had gone with him to the capital of Highland. Perhaps it was jealously that caused her to look away from the longing displayed on Jillia's face. Jillia honestly still ached in the depths of her heart for the man she had loved and allowed to use her. "I know, I'm sorry," was all Pilika could think of to say.
"I know that you understand more than anyone," Jillia found a bit of optimism on which to sustain a smile. "There's no reason you have to mope about the house like I do. I really do try not to bring you down."
"I believe you," Pilika answered, "I was going to head out, but when I saw you lost in thought like that I had to make sure you were okay first."
"Then rest assured," Jillia smiled more strongly, "I am only being nostalgic. I would be happy for you to go out and enjoy yourself. If you head into Riverway, do you think you could bring home some bread?"
"I'm probably not leaving Lefern, but if I do, I will," the sixteen-year-old agreed. She hung her small red purse over her shoulder and headed out of the house. She still had some misgivings about Jillia's emotional well being, but discussing those feelings wasn't likely to do much at this point.
It was a beautiful sunny day. The bright sunbeams filtered down gently among the leaves of the thick mixture of elms and oaks that shaded the house and street. Her home was at the furthest edge of the town, separated from the other buildings by a grove of trees. It afforded them an extra degree of secrecy, but not enough to cause rumors to circulate. It turned out that the Gavelles were a rich family in the north, so their wealth and status were unquestioned. Even their mailbox, dutifully labeled "Gavelle" in both standard and Harmonian letters kept up the charade. Of course, they rarely received any letters.
"Pilika!" chirped the pleasant greeting of an approaching cleric.
"Father Avelino, why are you out here? Were you coming to see me?" Pilika asked. She had hoped to see him, but had not expected to run into him quite so swiftly.
"Actually, yes," the youthful priest nodded. "Late last night we had a visitor at the church who asked about you and your sister. A skinny blond fellow."
Pilika felt her breath catch in her throat.
"It was nearly midnight when he started pounding on our doors. I was so startled! I practically thought we were being attacked! Father Wiln made me let him in despite the hour and he immediately began inquiring about you two. It was just so unusual I couldn't help but be suspicious. We agreed to let him stay the night, but when I awoke before the first bell for morning devotions he was gone like he'd never been there. The only thing that let me know it wasn't a dream was all the sleep I'd lost. Anyway," he stretched his clenched fingers, "I wanted to tell you. Or perhaps warn you. It was really very suspicious."
Pilika was still dumbstruck. It sounded like it could have been Jowy. Who could it have been except Jowy? Would he come back? Why hadn't he just come to visit them at a reasonable hour? Her mind was swimming with dozens of questions. She had to talk to Jillia.
"Th-thank you for letting me know. I, uh, I have to tell Jillia," she blustered.
"Shall I come along to repeat my story? It might be simpler," Avelino offered helpfully.
"No," Pilika answered quickly and firmly. "That's not necessary. We'll think of something on our own. You should go back to the church and see if he comes back."
Avelino's chestnut eyes lit up as he saw the logic in her idea. "That's right! I need to be at the church! I can't count on Wiln to pass on the information if that traveler returns."
"Yes, you should go," Pilika encouraged him. Avelino still believed the two young women were relatives of his former teacher, Bishop Gavelle. She wasn't about to allow their carefully tended cover to falter after ten successful years. Certainly not to someone as naively trusting as Avelino, no matter how kind of a friend he was.
"Jillia!" she shouted, her voice a harsh whisper.
Jillia immediately rose from her place at the table, allowing the newspaper to fall neglected to the side. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"U-Uncle Jowy! Jowy! It was him!" she rushed forward to stand just before her friend, her face welling over with emotion, a blend of excitement and fear.
Jillia didn't rush her questions, but simply worried a lock of dark hair between her fingers while Pilika unfurled the details passed to her by Avelino. The scrambled and stuttered tale was swiftly told and Jillia was left as quivering with tense excitement as her young companion. "So he did come, last as it may have been."
"Do you think he'll come back? I want to see him, but how will we explain it after he was skulking around like that in the middle of the night?" Pilika worried.
"Don't be pessimistic. We'll think of something when the time comes. All we can do now is wait and hope he does come back."
Pilika was impressed with how sure Jillia seemed. She would never had expected such a surge of pure optimism no matter how positive the news. It seemed more like Jillia to take the story with a grain of salt, attempting to calm her, saying something like, "How do we know it was Jowy? Why did he choose now to visit?" At any other time of year, that probably was how she would react, but the magic of the anniversary was still working on her. Here was her prince about to step across time and space from the fallen Highland Kingdom to complete her story, bringing with him the fairytale ending she was forever denied.
"Is there anything we should do?" she asked, realizing that she they were simply standing in the hall doing nothing.
"Well, you can go back out if you want," Jillia shrugged, "But if I were you I wouldn't go far. We have no idea what's going to happen."
After a comment like that, it seemed irresponsible to head into town. Besides, she doubted she could relax enough to really enjoy herself now. Pilika decided she would content herself at home. "I won't go," she said, a little petulantly. Jillia could still make her do anything. "I'll stay here with you."
"I'm going to bake a pie!" Jillia declared, suddenly lighting up with an even greater amount of cheer. Pilika found herself wondering if she had been a happier person in her younger days before they had met. In all the time they had lived together, Jillia had never been much of a bubbly or joyous sort.
"What kind? Are you sure we have the right materials?"
"A cherry pie. The neighbors gave me some from their tree just the other day. It's the perfect thing for the summer. Jowy will be so surprised. I'll have to make sure to do a better job than last time. I wouldn't want to burn it."
Pilika nodded her agreement. No one had wanted to eat the crust of the burnt apple pie that Jillia had made that past fall. The whole bottom had blackened over and they had merely picked out the cinnamon-flavored apples without commenting anymore than necessary on the ruined shell. "I'll help you. If I don't keep myself busy, I'll get sick with anticipation. I feel like my stomach is already twisting into a knot."
"Then let's get distracted! You start with the crust and I'll work on the cherries. It's probably best that way. Once we get it in the oven, we can look over the house and make sure everything is in order for our guest's arrival," Jillia said, shuffling into the kitchen.
Pilika followed and hefted a bag of flour from one of the lower cabinets onto the countertop. "Will you let me wear some of your makeup?"
"Sure. This is a special occasion!"
The pie making proceeded without trouble and they heard no more from Father Avelino, who was patiently watching the doors of the church, intent on being there the instant the mysterious man returned.
"Actually, now that I really stop and look at you with it on, I think you look good with a little makeup," Jillia smiled. "I guess sometimes I forget how much you've grown. You were such a tiny girl when we met and you didn't have any interest in me at all. The only one you cared about was Jowy."
"Well, he took care of me after my parents died. He was like family," Pilika thought back to that last hug. It was one of those memories she felt would remain in her heart forever. "Of course, you're like family to me now too."
The stream of steam wafting off the pie was gradually slowing. Jillia covered it with a clean dishcloth to keep the heat from escaping completely. "I feel the same way. I'm so glad to have met you. I don't know what would've happened to me otherwise. It would've been harder to come and live in Harmonia on my own. I'm not sure I could've handled the loneliness."
Pilika stood and hugged her. "Well, it wasn't the same, since I was so young, but I couldn't have made it without you either."
The hours ticked by slowly as the two women waited for some sign of Jowy's arrival. Every strange sound they heard caused them their senses to heighten and they glanced continuously toward the door.
Pilika got out a book Avelino had loaned her and finally sat down to read it. She had been putting it off for weeks since it didn't look like her kind of novel. It started slowly, but as she read further, it began to catch her interest. Father Avelino hadn't been completely off base with his recommendation.
Jillia went back to the newspaper and when she was finished with that spent some time folding paper flowers. It was a craft she had been taught years ago by Klaus' mother. She had never become as good as Eliza Windamier, but it was a good way to pass the time.
The younger girl looked up from her book as her stomach growled softly. "I'm getting hungry."
Jillia frowned. "So I am. I just keep waiting, hoping that he'll show up and we can all eat together."
"Well, we might as well start something. Then it'll be ready for Uncle Jowy when he gets here. We'll just make more than usual," Pilika said. She marked her place and went back to the kitchen. "What do you think we should make?"
"Something good, but not too complicated. I don't think my heart would be in it. I'm losing the focus I had this morning," Jillia admitted.
"It's the anticipation," Pilika agreed, "The waiting's killing me too."
Dinner was cooked and an extra place laid on the table, but Jowy did not arrive. They waited longer, but the food was going cold. "It won't do any good to let it all get cold and go to waste," Pilika convinced her friend.
They ate quietly, with barely a sound but the clink of silverware marking their meal. As nothing had happened, there was nothing to say. Jowy's place sat empty, a physical representation of their thwarted dreams.
"I'll wash the dishes," Pilika volunteered. She knew that was one of the household chores Jillia had never grown to like. They had kept a maid for awhile, but the presence of the Harmonian woman had made them feel too awkward and wary, with their store of hidden secrets. Between the two of them, they had learned to manage the household tasks.
Pilika set to work, leaving the dishes intended for Jowy where they sat. Jillia covered and wrapped up the leftover food.
Still nothing. Jillia and Pilika sat together in the parlor. The sun had set. Pilika's typically unruly hair was growing a bit mussed. Their makeup had mostly worn off. "Maybe I was stupid to think it was Uncle Jowy," Pilika suggested sadly.
"It wasn't stupid. I would've thought the exact same thing based on that story," Jillia shrugged, holding back her disappointment with cold numbness. The sorrow would come later, when she was alone in her room that night and could cry alone, regretting her vain hopes.
"I'll stay up with you as along as you want to," Pilika offered, trying to bolster Jillia's fading optimism. "He did show up at the church in the middle of the night. He might not want anyone to see him. It's been ten years, but you know, he was pretty famous. Someone might recognize him."
"That's true. He's obviously very good at staying low-key. This is the first time we've even heard anything. There are never even any rumors. ...Not around here at least. I'd say that it's just a very quiet part of the country, but there are rumors about the bishops at times."
"Yeah, there are. If there was anything going around about Uncle Jowy, we'd definitely hear it." Pilika cheered a little as a funny thought entered her mind, "Avelino'd tell me. That's how I'd know. He's such a blabbermouth."
"And he'd believe just about anything too," Jillia added, her lips curling slightly around the corners. Her good mood from earlier had not truly returned, but she couldn't help but laugh at their best friend in Lefern.
Jillia paused, her eyes sparkling, as she looked at Pilika's gently laughing face. "You like Avelino, don't you?"
"What do you mean? Of course. We're friends."
"No, not just that. You have some sort of feelings for him. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He's older than you, but he's handsome enough. And it's not like you could really ignore a man who pays that much attention to you."
"Jillia, stop! That's silly! He's just a friend! And he's a priest!"
"Some Harmonian priests marry..."
"Oh, that's just your jealousy talking," Pilika insisted lightly, "You miss your husband so much you're starting to think about getting me married."
"No, no, not at all. You're still so young. I was your age when I married Jowy. It was circumstantial. I wouldn't recommend it to most people."
Their conversation slowed and gradually faded away to be replaced by the sounds of the night. Crickets were chirping in the hedges outside. Pilika leaned her head on Jillia's shoulder. All this worrying and waiting had really taken it out of her.
They continued to sit as the night wore on.
"Ah! What? Woah!" Pilika gasped as she awoke. She didn't remember falling asleep on the couch. Her dress was creased and folded from being crunched in an awkward position. Jillia was standing in the hallway. She was no longer dressed in the clothes she had been wearing the day before. She looked calm and lovely as usual, though she was staring at a small scrap of paper in her hand.
As Pilika arose, she nearly tripped over her shoes, which were sprawled across the floor in front of her. "Jillia, what's that?"
A single tear ran down her pale cheek. "I feel asleep on the couch with you and I didn't think anything much this morning. I went, freshened up, and changed my clothes. Then I heard a strange noise. It was the mailbox, slamming shut. The mail carrier never closes it like that, and it was much to early for him to be here anyway, so I was quite surprised. I hurried out and found this."
She passed the small letter to Pilika, who hurried read it, her eyes falling over themselves to catch up with her brain.
"Dear Jillia and Pilika,
I came into town the other day to make sure you still lived here, but I was too much of a coward to stay. I ran away from the church, but I felt like such a cold-hearted fool to come all the way to Harmonia and not say a word. Last night I walked up the silent streets and stared at your house. There weren't any lights on. It was pretty late, so I figured you must be sleeping. I'm sorry for everything. I'm sorry that I'm still too afraid to face either of you. But someday I'll be ready. I hope you can forgive me for everything I've done to both of you. Please don't let the past tie you down. Live happy lives, free from the shackles of our past. I look forward to the day I can finally see you again.
"He came," Pilika whispered.
"Yes," Jillia nodded, another tear streaking down her face, "He did. And I'll gladly wait forever until he comes again."