I suppose that it's only fitting, that during those first few months in Harmonia I was touched with a heaviness of body to match that of my heart.
I had heard the maids' talk all my life, of course, and many believed that if it was the first time you lay with a man, you could not conceive a child. But it was my first time, and yet I did; as I'd always thought, the idle chat of young women only rarely contains meaningful truths. Who else, though, might I have had to speak with about such things?
Most of my education on the subject came - unwished and much too soon - from Luca. He was the one who told me who I was and where I came from, and that "that coward" was not my father. I was a little child when first he told me, and I began to cry - and remarkably, his anger turned to concern. Part of his confliction was that he was torn between loving me, for I looked like our mother, and hating me, because I played a role in her death. He overcame that last childish grudge as he grew older, realizing with time and more mature knowledge that I had no say in the matter. I, however, never quite overcame that guilt myself.
He was mad, he was always mad, but what could I have done about it? I was the only one he spoke openly to about his rage, and I understood it. Although towards the end of his life, I've heard that he proclaimed himself to be evil, I know he was not. He was a kind little boy who was twisted by the injustice of the world, which his soul was too good to bear unmarred. A loving soul like his could not exist in a world and a time such as we live in, full of so many misdeeds and treacheries, and so it adapted the only way it knew how.
Having lived through the process of that adapting all my life, I never realized how deeply his soul had been perverted until I asked him about the young spies from Jowston who I'd seen going to their deaths in the village of Kyaro - and he bragged about how he had set it up so that it appeared the City-State army had slaughtered the youth brigade. And he laughed, because he saw these children turned upon by their hometown, and knew that the good people of Highland would not tolerate City-State sympathizers any longer, even if they were their own blood - the slaughter of children made it unforgivable. He knew that they were innocents, his own people, and he knew that it had been his orders that struck them down, but to him, it was Jowston who slaughtered the good people of Highland even to this day.
That was when I saw what he had become. Children live the way they know how to live, one of our nursemaids said when I was young, and so I had lived with him for my entire life, simply enduring. But on that day, I was no longer a child. On the other hand, although Luca grew taller and stronger and much more powerful, I believe he never became more than the little boy who wanted to save his mother from the bad men of the City-State who abused her.
Never having known her, I never felt the loss that he did, or gave much thought to her absence, until I found that I was about to become a mother myself.
Though we'd been married months already before I prepared to flee L'Renouille, Jowy had never touched me. I never minded. I knew all along that he was using me, and I allowed myself to be used; I believed in the hope he had for the future of Highland, and did whatever I could to help it along, even consenting to the hoax of a public death he had planned for me. I didn't understand until he prepared to send me to Harmonia just how carefully he had been planning it all along, to make the new identity I was to assume as believable as possible. And after that, I could not leave him to his fate without at least telling him the truth of my feelings, just once.
That once was enough to last a lifetime. As the servants ushered little Pilika away, our last embrace melted the cold we'd lived in so long, and we were swept away in a flood. As with everything he did, Jowy was careful and methodical - drawing the curtains around the bed we'd until then shared only chastely, his fingers never fumbling on the catches of my dress, holding himself back until he was sure that I was ready.
I was sure I would be afraid, for Luca had told me many times all the gruesome details of what had happened to my mother. He had told me of her screams and muffled sobbing, of the men's laughter and the bruises and bleeding they left as marks upon her body, and even more details that I cannot let myself think about. But Jowy's caresses were sweet and tender, and his ecstacy had an almost childish innocence as "husband" and "wife" became more than titles, and our spirits joined as one.
We did not have long to tarry, and he helped me to dress again quickly afterwards, running his fingers through my hair in the absence of a comb. I fled L'Renouille not as the queen of Highland, but as disheveled and grief-stricken as any other widow of the war. It was the role that had been assigned to me, but aside from a change of names, I knew from the howl of the Beast Rune in the distance behind me that it was no longer a role at all.
I could never have appreciated what my mother suffered until I felt the bittersweet joy of my husband's child moving within me a few months later. My child was to be the culmination of a love I'd feared I would never be able to express, and a bit of Jowy living on after his death. Every jostle, every soft kick, was a reminder of his love for me - and how terrible it must have been for my own movements in the womb to be a reminder of the torture my mother had endured at the rough hands of men who cared nothing for her.
The women who attend me tell me that I cried out for her during the worst of my labor, and I don't doubt that she was in my thoughts at that time, when even a loving union causes a pain nearly unbearable. If a child of love can cause so much agony, how much worse must it be to bear a child of spite? And afterwards, I found myself wondering if in the brief time she had left after my birth, if she could possibly have seen any of the beauty or wonder in me that I saw in my own daughter as the midwife placed her in my arms.
She is as fair as he was, with wisps of the palest blonde hair. Pilika seems to prefer her hair cut short, but I hope that as little Asha grows older, she will want her hair long and straight; I look forward to the day when I can comb through it, as I never did his. He lives on in her, every beat of her heart an echo of his.
Touches of him are everywhere in this home he prepared for us, filled with my favorite things. I had no idea that he noticed my fondness for silver and pearl and velvet, or how I loved the cool fruits of Matilda's autumn harvest, but they were in our kitchen when we arrived. The exquisite wrought-iron gates to our manor could be a coincidence, but the garden within, planted with roses and lilies? There was even a sweet little dog, now christened Gwynn, to greet us - and how could he have known how much I missed my dear Annette, who died of old age a few years past?
He saw me - he loved me - all along, and if I had not been bold in those last moments, his love would have fallen along the wayside, only to be discovered when it was already too late to return it.
The news of Highland's fall arrived in Harmonia not long after Pilika and I did. Messengers brought word of the collapse at L'Renouille, and reported not a trace of the young king. I could not speak to the women of our town, for they repeated the stories that reached the north of Jowy's treachery - how he had sacrificed his own wife, whom he had married only to take the throne, in some ghastly ritual. They frowned and murmured at the rumors of his involvement in the deaths of the two kings who had reigned within a year's span of his own ascension, and believed every word.
It was only natural that their conversations might upset the newly widowed Lady Vivienne, as her husband had been a general under that frightful young king; he had been a casualty of the king's tyranny, as were the parents of the war orphan she'd taken in. And if she grew more upset at their words, remaining silent nonetheless, it was only because the pain was still new, and the other women's tones grew hushed, so as not to bother her while they gossiped over the misdeeds of Jowy Blight. And so Lady Vivienne remained alone in her manor, surrounded by her maids and her flowers, speaking only to the little girl who thought of her almost as a mother by this time, and the fair-haired child that reminded her of her absent husband. Absent, yes, but not departed.
Pilika and I were in the garden by the gate every afternoon while the seasons permitted. I don't know if she felt the same as I did about the flowers - that like Asha, they were a bit of life Jowy had left to us to protect. I taught her to help tend to them while I cared for Asha, and she took to it easily - unlike the noble little girls I'd grown up surrounded by, she was from a poor village and had no qualms about playing in the dirt. There was an innocent joy in her, even after the atrocities of war, and that too I attributed to Jowy, who was also willing to get his hands dirty; he may have deceived many, but never the ones who counted, such as little Pilika, or myself.
It was a day in early fall, when Pilika and I were watering the flowers while Asha napped in the shade of the gazebo a short ways off. Many of the flowers had passed their prime for the year, and soon it would be time for pruning the roses, in preparation for the Harmonian winter. We were about to cut a few late blooms for the house, when Gwynn lifted her ears, and looked towards the gate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Pilika glancing over to see what she was looking at, and her face lit up. My attention was on a branch that had been bent in the last night's windstorm, and I didn't look up immediately. "Is there a cat, Pilika?"
Before she'd even had the time to respond, I saw what she had seen, and my breath caught in my throat at one glimpse of autumn sunlight on blond hair as pale as my daughter's, trailing in the air as a fair face turned away. "It's Uncle Jowy!" Pilika crowed.
Already standing, she had a head start on me as she ran to the gate, and I ran after her, forgetting entirely that I'd told her she was never to use that name again.