Three days had passed. Dawn was unusually cranky. She tried very hard to keep this thorn in her side to herself, but there were times it leaked through. She'd snapped at almost everyone. Claude chalked it up to the stress of having Joseph around, but she knew in her heart that he wasn't it. He might be contributing to it, but she knew she couldn't blame him for all of it.
"I don't know what's the matter with me," she lamented to Marie and Esmeralda one day, "I've been so nasty to Claude…bless his heart. He just takes it and takes it. Sometimes I think I'd feel better if he yelled back at me once in a while. Malachi does, at least. I've just been feeling so tired and bitchy and just mean."
"Are you feeling well otherwise?" Marie asked.
"Yeah, I think so. My appetite and my sleeping habits haven't changed," Dawn answered, "no skipped times-of-the-month."
She'd been keeping track of that since Malachi was born to keep from missing the signs of a pregnancy. The sheet of paper she recorded those dates on was folded up in her bedside drawer. Though she loved Malachi dearly, he was rapidly approaching the terrible-twos and she just didn't think she could handle another child right now. Though Claude had been expressing the desire for a daughter lately, he understood completely.
"I should probably just go deal with Joseph and get it over with," Dawn sighed, "I hate the way he seeps into everything. Claude and I can't even…"
She paused, trying to think of the right euphemism for it.
"Make love?" Marie added helpfully with a mischievous smile.
"…Uh, yeah, that…without me remembering he's somewhere in the cathedral. He's in my head and I hate that. I can't do anything without feeling his presence. The guy has the personality of a fart: everybody's relieved when he clears the room and they all make this face when he comes in."
The three women dissolved into laughter. It was a good feeling to have real friends for the first time where she didn't have to watch everything she said.
"That's the first time I've ever heard it put that way," Esmeralda remarked. She turned to check on Celeste and quickly chased after her. Celeste was curious about the river and seemed anxious to have a swimming lesson. Squishie usually herded Malachi away from anything potentially dangerous, but she couldn't keep up with three children!
"Good job, Squish," Dawn praised the dog when she dragged Malachi back towards them by his diaper. Malachi turned and gave her a dirty look—he, too, was curious about the water.
"She's very intelligent for an animal," Marie commented.
"Most of them are," Dawn answered, "they just don't get the credit. Of course, the necklace helps."
They already knew all about the amulet and how it allowed her to communicate with almost anyone with a pulse.
"I wish I had a helper like that," Esmeralda admitted, "Djali doesn't much like babies. She's been very good with Celeste, but her patience is limited. Celeste keeps trying to climb on her back and ride her. We just can't watch her every second of the day."
"Yeah…they're at that age, unfortunately," Dawn sighed, "I can't wait until Malachi's out of diapers for good."
While the "hen party" took place on the dock down by the river, the men were upstairs in Claude's office.
"She's been…scary lately," Claude admitted to Jehan and Pierre, "if I so much as breathe wrong, she's at my throat for it. I don't know what to do to help her feel better."
"Maybe there's something else going on," Pierre remarked, "Esmeralda didn't get sick very often when she carried Celeste, but she was rather frightening at times."
"So was Marie…but of course, you knew that already."
"Is there anything else it could be? I don't mean to sound ungrateful for God's blessings, but…I'm not sure I'm ready for another one."
"There are plenty of things it could be," Pierre said, trying to help put Claude's mind at ease, "women are like that…sometimes they themselves don't truly know what's bothering them. I'm sure it will pass."
They were all looking down at the girls on the dock.
"They seem to be in a good mood for now," Jehan said, seeing their open-mouthed smiles that indicated laughter, "I hope it stays that way.
"As do I."
"Let's get it over with," Dawn said, sounding very resigned when she came in. Her hair was messed up from the wind and she had flower chains around her wrists, head, and neck. The children were learning how to make flower chains, though they messed up more flowers than they actually put on there successfully. Malachi was yawning and clearly ready for a nap after running around outside all morning and part of the afternoon. She had been prepared to stay out longer, but a storm was coming and outside was getting chilly.
Claude didn't say anything one way or another for fear that she'd change her mind. They put Malachi in his bed for his nap and Jacques, the kind old priest, came in to watch over him while they were gone. They had no idea how long it would take to talk to Joseph and didn't want to leave the baby unattended.
Joseph was laying on his bed staring up at the ceiling when they entered. He glanced over at them with emotionless dark eyes. It was as if his body was here, but his mind was somewhere else.
"Have you come to tell me of my fate?" he asked, voice cold and flat.
"Perhaps," Claude said cautiously, "but you have one more chance to defend yourself."
Joseph sat up. His clothes had been loose to begin with, but it was clear that he had lost weight since he'd come back to Paris. His cheeks seemed hollow and his face carried no color. He looked like a corpse already.
"How can I, Your Excellency? Your wife has already expressed her wishes to end my life and I know you'd do almost anything to let her have what she wants."
Dawn twitched and Claude's hand slipped into hers and squeezed it. He knew that Joseph's wording had already offended her.
"You're right, I would," Claude said calmly, "but see that she is showing you mercy despite her strong feelings…"
Joseph finally looked directly at her. Her body was taut and her eyes were blazing. Claude's grip on her hand wasn't nearly strong enough to hold her back if she wanted to attack him. He wasn't even sure if she was armed. He would need to speak carefully.
"I don't blame you, my lady," he said awkwardly, not knowing how to address her, "if I had met another human being as undesirable as myself, I'd be ready to destroy him, too. There is nothing I can do or say to convince you that my feelings have changed and I can see it in your eyes."
Dawn said nothing. The metallic taste of blood tainted her tongue, as she was biting her lip hard enough to injure it.
"I was wrong to interfere," he continued, his voice staying hollow, "I took it upon myself to judge both of you when it was not my place. I thought it was up to me to decide how others should live. Instead of trying to help, I hurt instead. I didn't take anyone's feelings into account except for my own. I was horribly jealous and wanted to take what was never mine to have. I should never have returned, but that I will never regret. It is time that I take the consequences for all that I've done. I apologize for all that I've done in the past and I apologize for frightening you and your son—I never meant to harm him. I only wanted to see one last miracle before I set out into a Godless word. God Himself has turned His Face away from me and I know where I'm headed when I draw my last breath. It was worth it all, though…just to see you all again and to know that you're happy and cared for."
He swallowed and willed his throat not to constrict.
"He loves you so much…and you love him. You always have, right from the beginning. You made him feel things I never could have in my wildest dreams. You both became better people through your love for each other. And I know you will long after I am gone."
A long silence passed. Dawn's hand felt eerily cold in Claude's. She released his hand slowly and stepped up to the edge of the bed. Joseph's pulse began to speed, but he willed himself to stay perfectly still. Claude was nervous, unsure of what she would do. Her eyes bored into Joseph's. The dark eyes that were almost always soft and full of laughter were sharp and cold as daggers right now. For a moment, he thought she would strike him.
She didn't. She abruptly turned on her heel and exited the room. Puzzled, Claude followed her. The door closed behind them and Joseph was left alone in the rapidly waning light and dropping temperature.
"Are you all right?" Claude asked gently when they had exited the hallway.
She was silent for a moment, watching the flames dance on one of the wall torches.
"I thought I could handle him if he tried to beat me up again," she replied after a moment, "I thought I could handle anything he handed me. But it's like he's given up already. He has no will left to live. I have no clue how to deal with that."
She slid into his arms, comforted by the warmth and strength there.
"I can kill somebody in self-defense," she admitted, "I can do whatever it takes to survive or defend…but I can't take somebody on when it's not a fair fight."
"It wasn't," he reminded her.
"It's definitely not now."
As much as she despised him, the image of him sitting there with his knees pulled up to his chest and his dead expression haunted her. He was such a miserable being. She felt something alien in her gut that nearly made her sick: the stirrings of pity. Claude looked as sick as she felt.
"What are we going to do?" he asked her.
She heard her heart thump in her ears. That was an awfully big decision…then, the next moment, she felt as though she was floating away in a dream. The moment seemed unreal.
"Nothing," she heard herself say, "we're letting him go and hoping like Hell he stays away. If he starts trouble again, I'm taking him out myself."
Claude's look of disbelief echoed the one in her heart. The few that had been present nearby when she said that had begun to whisper as they turned and walked right back up to Joseph's room.
"Are you sure about this?" Claude couldn't help but ask.
"No. But I'm doing it anyway."
The door banged open loudly and Joseph jumped visibly. This was it, he thought. This is where my days become numbered.
"Get up," Dawn said firmly. Stunned, he did. There was a different light in her eyes; an odd light. He didn't recognize it. Taking both of his hands, she pinned them behind his back and marched him out of the room. By now, other people were staring. They gathered a small crowd as she steered him through the labyrinth of hallways and out to the main entrance.
"Two things," Dawn said firmly, "you come near my kids or my husband without my say-so, you're dead before you even take your next breath. I've been a Hell of a lot nicer to you than you deserve. Get the Hell out of here."
She shoved him forward and he sprinted away just as a bolt of lightning cracked across the sky. They all stared at her, open-mouthed. Dawn swept past them and went inside just as the rain began to fall, whipped around by the wind. She was tingling all over and felt light-headed. She was vaguely aware of Claude's arm around her.
"Sit down," he demanded, "you're very pale."
She numbly obeyed. The amulet flashed different colors, indicating mixed emotions.
"Some water," Claude demanded, alarmed at her sudden paleness. It took a few minutes before one of them brought him a cup. She shakily accepted it and sipped at the water to appease him.
"I'm all right, really," she managed to say, "I was just so stressed out by this…"
Claude kissed her cheek. He himself was feeling a little shaky after what had just happened.
"I love you so much," he whispered in her ear. It seemed like the only right thing to say at a time like this.