A powerful, engrossing story of a biracial heiress who escapes to Paris when the Haitian Revolution burns across her island home. But as she works her way into the inner circle of Robespierre and his mistress, she learns that not even oceans can stop the flames of revolution.
Sylvie de Rosiers, as the daughter of a rich planter and an enslaved woman, enjoys the comforts of a lady in 1791 Saint-Domingue society. But while she was born to privilege, she was never fully accepted by island elites. After a violent rebellion begins the Haitian Revolution, Sylvie and her brother leave their family and old lives behind to flee unwittingly into another uprising—in austere and radical Paris. Sylvie quickly becomes enamored with the aims of the Revolution, as well as with the revolutionaries themselves—most notably Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress, Cornélie Duplay.
As a rising leader and abolitionist, Robespierre sees an opportunity to exploit Sylvie’s race and abandonment of her aristocratic roots as an example of his ideals, while the strong-willed Cornélie offers Sylvie safe harbor and guidance in free thought. Sylvie battles with her past complicity in a slave society and her future within this new world order as she finds herself increasingly torn between Robespierre's ideology and Cornélie's love.
When the Reign of Terror descends, Sylvie must decide whether to become an accomplice while a new empire rises on the bones of innocents…or risk losing her head.
Release date: August 2, 2022
Print pages: 432
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If we fall asleep for an instant on the edge of the abyss, we will tremble upon awakening! . . . France will receive a mortal wound, and a multitude of honest citizens will be impoverished and ruined; we will lose everything.
—Vincent Ogé, Address on the Abolition of Slavery
By the age of eighteen, Sylvie de Rosiers had mastered fractions.
She lounged on the sofa, feet neatly tucked beneath her, maintaining a primness even en repos. Her gown encircled her in a pool of white muslin; the chemise à la reine had come into fashion a few years prior, but its airiness made it ubiquitous among the wealthy women’s wardrobes on Saint-Domingue. And the thin fabric showed off her legs to their ultimate advantage.
But the new house slave disrupted the pleasantness of her morning. She knew the girl was a recent addition to the household staff because Sylvie noticed all fractions, and this servant presented a challenge.
On the French colony of Saint-Domingue, fractions were not innocuous numbers separated by lines of dark ink (though she knew those, too). Here, fractions had faces. Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon—these terms divided the blood into halves and quarters and eighths, Black and white and whiter still.
Sylvie regarded the newcomer from under her thick fan of lashes. The girl was pretty enough, as many house slaves were, though clearly inexperienced at household tasks. House slaves, as a rule, needed to be attractive; no wealthy family wanted an ugly girl serving tea.
Most often, Creoles, those who survived on the island long enough to know the language of the colonists, worked in the house. Bossales, African-born slaves, worked fields.
Her father’s wife, Madame Catherine de Rosiers, chose maids like she chose rugs: pretty ornaments that served a purpose, but that mustn’t distract.
Too thin to be truly beautiful, this girl could not match Sylvie’s loveliness.
The servant had dark skin, though not dark like the coffee Sylvie’s father grew. Her tignon, or hair wrap, was a plain handkerchief tied close to her head. Sylvie’s tignon, like that of other free mulattas, towered high in a mass of bright colors and intricate folds. Her lady’s maid, Alice, wrapped the best tignons of any of the house servants, hence why Sylvie valued her most of all of her father’s slaves.
A true mulatta? she mused. White fathers normally freed their children according to island custom, but even so, the occasional planter ended up with suspiciously light-skinned slaves generations down the line.
But she is too dark. A third, perhaps? She almost shook her head and thought with no little pride, No, she is not as fair as me.Sylvie’s face was prettier, paler, and had a better nose.
White masters and their wandering hands left more than one slave heavy with child. Sylvie’s mother had been one of them. So no matter how many house slaves came and went, she saw her own shameful pedigree in every face. But she never saw divisions when she beheld her own reflection each morning; no marks partitioned Blackness on her skin, only the smooth expanse of bronze marred by a dusting of freckles across her nose.
Few eligible men on Saint-Domingue had yet to meet Mademoiselle de Rosiers, and fewer still left the introduction without their heads swimming with hazel eyes and twinkling pearls—she was a Venus of Saint-Domingue, Caribbean sea-foam come to life.
But she did not have to see those divisions in order to feel them.
Thus, her understanding of fractions became more than simple arithmetic and rather a lesson in her very identity. Those lines kept Sylvie, and all other affranchis like her, from the fields their mothers worked and died on.
Sylvie decided that the girl was simply a fair-skinned Creole—thus comfortably lesser—and commenced to stir her tea now that the equation had been solved.
Les Affiches américaines, the only newspaper on Saint-Domingue, lay on the silver tray beside a fashion journal. She ran a disinterested eye over the tiny print. The press always wrote articles advocating for the complete independence of the island from France, especially after the United States managed to do it with its leaders’ heads still attached. They made freedom look so messy, with two constitutions and a tacky striped flag.
She pushed it aside, favoring the Magasin des modes instead. It took months for new editions to make it to the island, and she absorbed every page for hat trimmings and changing silhouettes.
But the new slave disturbed the morning quiet. Her trembling hands made the cups rattle. The china was not built to endure such rough handling, and Sylvie grimaced at the thought of drinking broken porcelain as well as tea.
“Do go and fetch a fruit platter,” she said. Wide-eyed, the servant scurried out of the room to do her bidding.
Finally able to relax, Sylvie settled more deeply into the cushions. She had not even finished with the third page of the journal when Gaspard burst through the breakfast parlor doors, and she spilled tea onto her magazine.
Gaspard, her blond, cherubic brother, plopped onto the chaise in indolent splendor. He shrugged a shoulder at her glare—only one, as both would have required too much energy.
“I’ve still got a bloody splitting headache from last night,” he moaned, brandishing a personalized silver flask. He dressed in bright, showy fabrics and a sloppily tied cravat. He’d probably locked out his valet to ensure a quiet morning. But it never mattered what he wore; he was the prettiest of the three de Rosiers siblings and reveled in his foppishness. “I was as drunk as Davy’s sow. And you’re the only person in this blasted house who doesn’t make it worse with mindless chatter.”
“Yes,” she crooned with a smirk, dabbing the tea before it smudged the print. “I’m extremely supportive of you becoming a regular brandy-face.” He never treated her as less than a full-blooded sister despite their only sharing a father, and she loved him for it.
He wrinkled his nose. “I’m no brandy-face, more like a connoisseur of fine spirits.”
“I just wish you’d drink something less”—she glowered at his flask—“plebeian.”
He sipped from his favored blend of black tea and rum. Gaspard had discovered the drink, aptly named “gunfire,” from a visiting British sea captain the previous year. The only time he had been on a ship was during the crossing from France as a little boy—which he hardly remembered—but he enjoyed the affectations of the foreign sailors.
She was not so reckless as to drink gunfire this early in the day, but she would steal a nip or two before dinner.
He unscrewed his flask and took another drink, smiling broadly. She tried not to laugh while she poured more tea.
“I don’t know why you insist on always having tea here,” he continued, sneering at the drapes and worn rugs. “The room is in desperate need of a renovation.”
The salon hadn’t been updated since their papa built the estate twenty-odd years prior. Yet, she preferred this room—not for its dated furnishings or size, but rather the windows. They faced north, protecting her from the afternoon sun that threatened to darken her skin. Vanity did not dictate she live in shadows, but her future did.
Dark-skinned girls worked in fields; light-skinned girls got husbands.
“It’s quiet here,” she replied. “I don’t have to endure Madame’s screeching while I pretend to do needlepoint.”
Gaspard wiped the drops of gunfire at the corners of his mouth. “And I don’t have to endure Edmond’s morning sermon.”
She snickered. Of all of their father’s children, only Edmond showed any real interest in slaving and coffee. Sylvie’s interest in either extended only so far as the comforts she could buy with their profits, and Gaspard had no interest at all.
As the eldest and the heir, Edmond felt it his duty to tolerate their father’s morning routine of angry muttering, complaining about gout, and reading the newspaper. Gaspard argued his brother simply liked playing the martyr.
“Wherever he is”—she stirred a lump of pristine white sugar into her cup and took a sip—“I’m grateful. I hate watching Papa work himself into a fit. The doctor says he must rest, but he insists on reading the paper or writing to his friends in the Assembly. Much good that does.” Despite her earlier judgment, she poured a splash of rum into her own tea. “So what was so urgent that you’re out of your chambers before noon?”
Leaning back, he folded his arms behind his head. “I know something you don’t.”
“I’m surprised”—she glanced at the slave in the corner and at the archway connecting the room to the corridor—“you hear anything with your head so far up your—”
He slapped his thighs and popped up from the chaise. “A shame, and I was so eager to share the secret with you. But now you’ll have to wait until Father decides to tell.”
She sniffed and resumed her reading. “A terrible shame.”
Indulging him only meant he would string her along until he’d confess some absurd rumor that had perhaps a whisper of truth.
“Oh,” he said, tapping his chin in mock consideration. “I wasgoing to recommend wearing blue next week—he is an indigo planter, after all—but since you’re disinterested . . .”
She dropped the magazine like cold ashes into a pan: he was a rather critical pronoun. “What? Who is?”
“No, no.” He backed away with his hands raised. “I’ve overburdened you already.”
“Gaspard.” She crept toward him. “Gaspard.” He grinned, knowing and wicked, before giving in.
“I think you ought to explore Father’s study today before he comes back from town.”
“Explore? You mean go prying into his affairs?”
“Me? Advise you to burgle our father’s study? Come now, I comport myself with dignity.”
“Indeed, if dignity charged you by the hour.” His blue eyes glistened with memories unfit for repeating. Sylvie rolled her eyes.
“As witty as your remarks are”—he pulled out their grandfather’s pocket watch, which had been too “ostentatious” for Edmond’s dreary taste—“I declare you only have perhaps a half hour for reconnaissance.”
She hurried toward the study with singular focus, the feather in her tignon bobbing with each step. Servants carrying clean linens hugged the wall to avoid a collision. Sylvie was grateful that skirts had narrowed quite a bit, or she would have bent a pannier.
She approached the mahogany double doors of Papa’s study—cut and carved on this very island. Fashion plates and cartoons exaggerate the constraints of stays; she couldn’t blame her breathlessness on any undergarment.
She slipped inside the familiar room filled with the scent of coffee and paper, past the regularly dusted books lining the walls. Her father and his wife were not particularly well-read, but Sylvie’s governess, a similarly situated mulatta like herself but without her extraordinary beauty, had tried in vain to introduce Sylvie to the broader world of reading.
You would enjoy Rousseau, she had said with feeling. His Julie captures your very soul with the struggle between our private hopes and morality. Sylvie preferred the copy of Dangerous Liaisons she hid under her mattress.
She moved toward the desk at the center of the study, which featured a promising dark box.
Curious, and heartily tempted by the gold and mother-of-pearl calling her to the hidden treasure within, she gently opened the small chest.
In a bed of ocean-blue velvet sat a double strand of pearls with a matching pair of fat teardrop pearl earrings. They were well maintained, though clearly in the baroque style, with small sapphires joining the two strands at several points.
Sylvie had her share of pearls. Her father called her “my pearl,” and Saint-Domingue had long been called the Pearl of the Antilles for its wealth and beauty. She considered them her signature, like the Medici women of old.
But this set was beyond the delicate elegance littering her vanity—it was the sort of opulence only grand blanc money could buy. Even if they needed to be reset and updated a tad.
She reflexively touched her throat, imagining the pleasant weight of them during a dinner party. Anyone would want her with a face like hers and a necklace worth a dowry dangling between her ample breasts.
Her skin may not be pearl white, but that hardly mattered when you were dripping in them.
She pinched an earring between her fingers, watching the sapphires splash light like the oceans they had crossed to be in her hands.
The glint of blue fell across the array of papers beneath the jewelry box. Some of the documents were simple accounts or valuations of coffee shipments, the usual fare of her father’s office. But the most striking pages said Articles of Sale, featuring the purchase of fifteen articles—slaves.
Half of the world’s coffee came from Saint-Domingue, and they lived in the interior, more mountainous region of the island—ideal for coffee growing. Most windows in her house faced the coffee fields and the slaves who worked them.
Sylvie knew where their wealth came from—knew where shecame from.
And yet, pearl in her fist, she scrolled through the list of numbers and receipts of purchase. Fifteen numbers, twelve men and three women, with their ports of origin and insurance claims.
Some slaves had notes scribbled in the margins in her father’s hand: strong legs, nimble, and superstitious. No doubt referring to vodou, the religious practices she heard Edmond grumble about.
The women, however, had different sorts of comments. One said fine figure and another referred to the whiteness of her teeth. But one number, one slave, had an asterisk and comment beside her row in another man’s writing saying private use. She only recognized it as not Gaspard’s.
Did her mother start her own life here on such a document? What notes did Papa write in the margins? Did she have white teeth or a shapely figure? Was she for private use, promised for the house and not for the field?
She searched through a gallery of dark faces in her mind—the chambermaids and scullery girls and laundresses. Who had written what in their margins?
She threw the pearl back into its chest and closed the lid, eyes trained on that ambiguous asterisk.
“You shouldn’t be in here.” Edmond stood in the doorway, frowning. Twenty-four-year-old Edmond had less of his father’s handsome looks but all of his self-importance. And, like always, he was more fastidious in his dress than Gaspard, his cravat tied in a practical knot. But he did not fill his wardrobe with the colors of the tropics or the shimmer of gilt—just the white iciness of sterile cotton.
She pushed away from the desk. “How long have you been lurking there? I didn’t hear you knock.”
He scoffed. “This isn’t your study; you can’t demand privacy. Get out. You shouldn’t be in here.”
She swallowed her unease and crossed her arms. “Honestly, I have more right than you. Papa lets me serve as his secretary; maybe he would give you the honor if you weren’t so insufferable.”
He stood over her in front of the desk, staring down at the paper she still gripped in her hand. A little smile danced on his face. “Enjoying some light reading?”
She dropped the sheet like it had bitten her. “There is such a thing as loving one’s work too much.”
“I take my pleasure where it’s owed.”
She did not understand him, and the voice of her father stripped her of the opportunity to ask. A dog barked in the hall, and her father’s voice followed: “Sylvie, dearest.”
“Papa,” she greeted as she stood up, her eyes moving between the box and him.
Papa’s chestnut hound, Richelieu, sat by his feet. His tail twitched excitedly behind him upon seeing Sylvie. He was one of many, seeing as his master always enjoyed companionship.
“I’m glad to see you, my pearl,” Papa said. He held out his hands, and Sylvie dutifully came out from behind the desk, feeling a small part guilty and uncomfortable from Edmond’s words, and took them in hers. “It seems Edmond has found you.”
“Indeed he has,” she said as she kissed Papa’s cheeks.
Edmond rolled his eyes and checked his silver fob watch. “Well, now that you have her, I’ll be leaving to finish surveying the western fields.” He brushed by them and out the door—the whip he kept in his coat poked out from the hem, following behind him like a tail.
None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
To what do I owe this honor?” Sylvie asked with a pinched mouth. She sat down in a guest chair opposite the desk. “Has someone died?” Perhaps the pearls were some inheritance from family in France.
“Does someone have to die for me to spend time with my dearest and only daughter? You’ve been in my study a thousand times.” Richelieu scurried over to sit beside her feet. “Traitor,” he scolded at the panting beast.
She laughed, shifting her skirt to avoid muddy paws. “True, but I have never seen you quite so nervous.” His underarms had darkened with sweat, though Papa had never really acclimated to the island climate.
“You have always had such a keen eye. It made you quite a terror when you were in leading strings.”
“I prefer precocious.” She pointed to the jewelry box peeking from behind his figure. “And what is that lurking on your desk there?”
He patted the lid with a wry smile. “I shall choose to believe that you were in my study and did not look inside.” He clasped his hands together. “Madame has made it clear that a lady in your . . . position is at a most unfortunate disadvantage and quite vulnerable to the thorns of society.”
Sylvie restrained a snort. Position made it sound like her role as an illegitimate daughter was transitory rather than permanent. She had no choice regarding her position. “Papa,” she started, “I’m not quite certain—”
A series of light knocks preceded Madame—or Catherine de Rosiers—flurrying into the room with a butterfly spaniel in her arms. She did not wear her irritation well.
She had never been a handsome woman, her golden hair her only truly lovely feature. Her white skin had a propensity toward redness rather than the delicate flush most ladies desired. But what she lacked in attractiveness she made up for in wealth: her bloated dowry had brought much to the de Rosiers estate—specifically more slaves and more jewels.
“I told you I wanted to be present when you told her, Julien.”
“Do not worry, Madame,” Sylvie said with the docility of a cat who licks your hand before biting. “Dearest Father has yet to tell me anything, though I am most eager to hear.”
Despite not having a mother of her own, Sylvie preferred the company of Gaspard or Papa to Catherine.
It was not that she disliked Madame—she couldn’t hate a woman who’d cared for her to some degree since birth—but she had no respect for a wife who so clearly did not keep her husband’s interest.
When she married, her husband would not so much as breathe in another woman’s direction—least of all a slave’s.
Papa shuffled and picked up the box. “Indeed, I have not. I was just saying that, er, the thorns of society and whatnot . . .”
“What your father means,” Madame said from her perch on the other overstuffed chair, “is that you have become a most charming and accomplished young lady. I declare it is time for you to wed.” And from Madame’s eager little grin, she was more than happy to get her mulatto interloper out of this home and into another.
Though Sylvie didn’t exactly mind the idea of seducing a rich foreign captain into marriage. Or being courted by a dashing mulatto like herself.
Her father, box in hand, came around the front of the desk and presented it to Sylvie with misty eyes. She opened the box again, but for some reason the Articles of Sale seemed to dull the luster of the pearls. Still, she smiled and touched the necklace with the appropriate reverence.
Julien nodded. “We do not intermingle with the affranchiclass, of course, but for your sake, we have invited a Monsieur Blanchard to come dine with us when his business allows. You must wear them then.”
Sylvie whirled toward her father, shocked by his cavalier declaration. “My intended has already been chosen?” she gasped. “These are an engagement gift?”
The appeal of landing a husband was the chase—disarming him with wit and sweetness until he went mad with longing. By all accounts, marriage was the capstone of a woman’s existence, and Sylvie wanted a modicum of control over her own future.
Misreading her distress, her papa patted her hand and assured her, “He is a decent man, uninvolved with all of that rebellion nonsense—I’ve had Edmond be sure of that.” She didn’t understand what he meant, so she made a note to ask Gaspard about it later. “A quite wealthy quadroon from what I understand, a very civilized fellow. He owns a large and successful indigo plantation; I’ve been hoping to dabble in the indigo trade—”
She looked back into the blue abyss of the sapphires.
She could be a proper wife to an influential and rich man of her station. They’d share a lifestyle and a skin color. Affranchishad their own balls, soirees, fashion, and entertainment; she could finally circulate and thrive in a society in which she’d be considered an equal.
“An excellent match by all counts,” Madame interjected, knowing that Sylvie had different concerns over the charm of her intended, economics of indigo not being one of them. Madame’s lapdog chewed on the ribbons dangling from her stomacher.
“I’ve heard of the Blanchard family, but I didn’t realize we were acquainted,” Sylvie said.
“Well, we weren’t,” Madame explained. “But Gaspard introduced us through a friendship with Blanchard’s eldest legitimate daughter, I believe.”
Gaspard probably concluded that if he enjoyed bedding a Blanchard, Sylvie would as well. Genteel white women were few on the island, save for a scant number of lingering prostitutes shipped over years ago. Trust Gaspard to know every one.
Their gazes rested heavily on her face, and she took in a deep, steadying breath and brushed aside her disappointment. Even the dog watched the necklace with interest.
“Well, if he’s an indigo planter,” she said, letting herself be distracted by the glisten of the pearls, “then I’ll have to wear blue.”
January kept the stifling heat and humidity away with strong breezes off the ocean, making Sylvie and Gaspard’s stroll within Le Cap more pleasant.
Short for “Le Cap Français,” Le Cap was the cultural and economic hub of Saint-Domingue—so much so that most referred to it as the Paris of the Antilles. Most of the large public parties for white families were held there, and Sylvie only went for the occasional shopping trip.
She had asked Gaspard to bring her into town to have the pearls assessed by a jeweler as a guise: she wanted to know more about Papa’s grumbling about rebellion.
Sylvie and the family didn’t often travel into the capital given the roads, weather, and distance. But in the months since she’d last visited, the city—usually a shining twin of Paris on a smaller scale if her father was to be believed—crackled and hissed like coals doused in water. Militiamen moved in packs throughout the square with the same skittish eyes as stray hounds, and the usual stares her color invited felt wary rather than intrigued.
A footman led their horses from behind the pair at a respectable distance—she didn’t want any servants to hear about her curiosity.
“Brother, why are there so many soldiers lurking about?” She teetered around puddles of horse piss: she needed to watch both her tongue and her feet. “Has there been some trouble?”
They crossed the town square, where a group of slaves were expanding a wooden platform under the supervision of militia. Sylvie only noticed because she followed Gaspard’s gaze.
“Do you remember Vincent Ogé?” he asked, squinting into the afternoon light.
She vaguely recalled some scuffle last fall that had Edmond particularly hostile. “The mulatto fellow Edmond wouldn’t stop sneering about in October? He was some mutineer, I think.”
But the occasional rebel wasn’t anything new, and Father did not let Edmond speak about it much when she was around. She didn’t try to discover more—not that her eldest brother would ever be forthcoming.
Gaspard nodded, reaching for the flask in his pocket. “It was a bit more than a scuffle. The mainland would be more proactive about the whole affair if the king weren’t practically under house arrest.” Between the march on Versailles and the Storming of the Bastille, Sylvie and Gaspard reached their majority in an age of unrest. But France was far away, and it hardly disturbed the well-entrenched and wealthy ways of Saint-Domingue. Power may shift and wane, but money was invariable. “Though that’s the gist of it. He’s quite popular.”
He laughed. “Anyone unlike Edmond: progressives, mulattoes, free Blacks. People who think color should not be a bar to citizenship.”
“So he wants freedom for everyone.” She couldn’t imagine a Saint-Domingue where she could marry whom she liked, go where she liked, and wear what she liked. The idea of a person like her descending from the hills to demand equality at the end of a bayonet gave her an unexpected thrill.
Gaspard guided them away from the sound of work and hammers. “No, not everyone. He was quite clear on his stance that only free men were included.”
She felt a bit silly for thinking of marriage first. She supposed freedom was a smaller concept then.
But she was not surprised by Ogé’s reticence to include slaves in his crusade. All of those mulatto bachelors wealthy enough to court her, like Blanchard, made their money one way.
There was no bonding between mulattoes and slaves—mulattoes like Sylvie built their success on distancing themselves from their African roots. To them, whiteness was a way of life.
A gray cloud of ash caught in her throat. A white woman had emptied a hearth out of a window right beside Sylvie. It thankfully did not land on her but beside—filling the air around them.
She jumped away, coughing and smacking her pale skirts to free them of ash.
Gaspard shouted up at her, “Watch where you are pouring your waste, you ill-begotten fishwife!” The haggard woman must not have seen Sylvie’s clearly wealthy white escort, and her gaping mouth and rounded eyes were similar to the fish his insult implied. She scurried away from the window and out of sight. “Mon Dieu, are you all right?”
The left side of Sylvie’s gown had a gray cast, and her throat tickled. She whacked away his helping hand as she tried to shake off what she could. The dress wouldn’t be permanently ruined, at least.
This altercation was one of many. The unpleasant menagerie of Sylvie’s childhood memories was made up of such offenses: some from family, some from strangers, some at the hands of her government.
But this act, so cruel in its randomness and physical in nature, brought out such a burning in her chest, she thought her ribs would blacken.
She crumpled the fine muslin—now no better than the raw, unbleached cotton of a field hand—between her ringed fingers. Its beauty spoiled, its craftmanship unappreciated.
“Has he been captured?” she asked.
“What?” He wiped some ash off her tignon. “Who? Ogé?”
“Yes. Was he captured?”
Gaspard looked up at the window, frowning at the closed shutters. “He was handed over by the Spanish, yes.”
Sometimes Sylvie wondered if all her efforts would ever amount to happiness. Whiteness is a fantasy promised but never realized.
She plowed on toward home, leaving Gaspard by the little pile of ashes, pretending the burn in her eyes was from their dust and not the truth.
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