My knowledge of France’s history during this time is embarrassingly limited, as I’ve never understood the post revolution monarchy shifts, finding the whole era confusing. I began this story solely focused on Sebastian finding his mother and perhaps finally learning the identity of his biological father. What I hadn’t anticipated was being fascinated with the history of this period. The author cleverly used Sophie as a critical figure in the political machinations involving Napoleon’s emergence from exile. Her long term relationship with one of his marshals, Alexandre McClellan (fictional), has deeper implications, too. Who knew I’d finally understand those leadership shifts in the aristocracy and what inspired the people to re-embrace the exiled emperor and why he was destined to ultimately fail.
Though the historical elements once again captured my imagination, it was Sebastian and wife Hero who took hold of my heart. His grief was palpable and her commitment to his dogged determination to find Sophie’s killer reminded me how much I loved their union. Hero is a formidable partner and if Sebastian ever needed one, it was during this investigation. The journey to the truth led them to many curious people who were connected to Sophie, also giving them insight into who she was for the past twenty years. It wasn’t ever clear who they could trust and all seem to have their own agendas. It was a dangerous time for those connected to the aristocracy as they had to balance allegiances as they were subject to change overnight and back again. All of this was presented against the backdrop of historic Paris, told in such vivid detail I felt I could see, smell and hear the city. This was a brilliantly written story that didn’t provide all the answers I was hoping to find but brought me (and Sebastian) closer to finding the truth. I’m just happy I also got an incredible history lesson in the meantime. Prepare to Google as you work through the story!
Thursday, 2 March 1815
One more day, he thought; one more day, perhaps two, and then . . .
And then what?
Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, walked the dark, misty banks of the Seine. He was a tall man in his early thirties, lean and dark haired, with the carriage of the cavalry captain he’d once been. For two weeks now he’d been renting a narrow house on the Place Dauphine in Paris, near the tip of the ële de la CitŽ. He was here on a personal quest, awaiting the return to the city of his mother, who had abandoned her family more than twenty years before.
Waiting to ask for answers he wasn’t sure he was ready to hear.
The night air felt cold against his face, and he thrust his hands deeper into the pockets of his caped greatcoat, his gaze on the row of fog-shrouded lanternes that ran along the quai des Tuileries before him. The great ancient city of Paris stretched out around him in a sea of winking candles and the dull yellow glow of countless oil lamps. He could hear the river slapping against the stones of the embankment beside him and the creak of an oar somewhere in the night, but much was hidden by the mist.
Ironic, he thought, how a man could strive for years to achieve a goal and then, once it was almost within his grasp, find himself shaken by misgivings and doubts and something else. Something he suspected was fear.
He turned away from the dark, silent waters of the river and climbed the steps to what had been called the Place Louis XV before it was renamed the Place de la RŽvolution. It was here that the guillotine had done some of its deadliest work, whacking off well over a thousand heads in a matter of months. The blood had run so thick and noisome that in the heat of summer the people who lived nearby complained of the smell. Not about the roaring crowds or the haunting pall of death that even today seemed to hang over the enormous open space, but about the smell.
Pausing at the top of the steps, he stared across the vast lantern-lit intersection, still surrounded by the stone facades of its once-grand prerevolutionary buildings. Even at this hour the place was crowded, the air ringing with the clatter of iron-rimmed wheels on damp paving stones, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the shouts of frustrated drivers mingling with the cries of street vendors selling everything from sweet-smelling pastries to pungent medical potions. The guillotine was no longer here, of course. At the end of the Reign of Terror, they’d rechristened the space the Place de la Concorde-the place of harmony and peace. But with the fall of NapolŽon and the return of the Bourbon dynasty, the sign plaques had been changed back to “Place Louis XV.” He’d heard there was talk of renaming it once more, this time to Place Louis XVI in honor of the king who’d lost his head here.
So much for harmony and reconciliation.
It was a drift of thought that brought him back, inevitably, to his mother. She had lived in this city off and on for over ten years-the estranged wife of an English earl turned mistress to one of NapolŽon’s most trusted generals. Why? It was one of the many questions he wanted to ask her.
Why, why, why?
The church bells of the city-those that hadn’t been melted down to forge cannons-began to chime the hour, and he turned his steps back toward the Pont Neuf. It wasn’t a stylish place to stay, the ële de la CitŽ. The British aristocrats who’d flocked to Paris since the restoration of the Bourbons tended to take houses in the Marais district or the newer neighborhoods such as the Faubourgs Saint-Germain and Saint-HonorŽ. But it was on this elongated ancient island in the middle of the Seine that Paris had begun, and it called to his wife, Hero, for reasons she couldn’t quite define but he thought he understood.
He could feel the cold wind picking up as he stepped out onto the historic bridge that cut across the western tip of the island. It was still called the Pont Neuf, the New Bridge, even though it dated back to the sixteenth century and there were now much newer bridges over the river. Built of a deep golden stone with rows of semicircular bastions, it consisted of two separate spans: a longer series of seven arches leading from the Right Bank to the island, and another five arches that joined the island to the Left Bank. In the center, where the bridge touched the ële de la CitŽ, stood a large square platform that had once featured a bronze equestrian statue of Henri IV but now held only an empty pedestal.
Earlier in the evening he’d noticed a painfully thin fille publique soliciting customers beside the old statue base. But the ragged young prostitute was gone now, the platform deserted, and he paused there to look out over the ill-kept stretch of sand, grass, and overgrown plane trees that formed the end of the island. The gusting wind shifted the mist to show, here and there, a patch of black water, a weedy gravel path, the bare skeletal outlines of branches just beginning to come into leaf. Something caught his attention, a quick glimpse of what looked like an outflung arm and delicately curled, still fingers that were there and then gone, lost in the swirling fog.
His fists clenched on the stone parapet before him as he sucked in a quick breath of cold air heavily tinged with woodsmoke and damp earth and the smell of the river. His imagination?
No, there it was again.
He bolted down the flight of old stone steps that led to the water’s edge. A tall, slim woman lay motionless on her side in the grass near the northern span’s heavy stone abutment. This was no wretched prostitute. Her exquisitely cut pelisse was of a rich sapphire blue wool accented with dark velvet at the cuffs and collar; her blood-soaked hat was of the same velvet, trimmed with a jaunty plume; the gloves on her motionless hands were of the finest leather. Her face was turned away from him, her cheek pale in the dim light and smeared with more blood.
Then she moaned, her head shifting, her eyes opening briefly to look up into his. She sucked in a jagged breath. “Sebastian,” she whispered, her eyes widening before sliding closed again.
Recognition slammed into him. He fell to his knees beside her, his hands trembling as he reached out to her, his aching gaze drifting over the familiar planes of her face-the straight patrician nose, the high cheekbones, the strong jaw. Features subtly changed by the passage of years but still recognizable, still so beloved.
It was his mother, Sophia, the errant Countess of Hendon.
Excerpted from When Blood Lies by C.S. Harris. Copyright © 2022 by C.S. Harris. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
(Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for my complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.)