Exclusive Extract: Queen of Exiles

Exclusive Extract: Queen of Exiles

An extraordinary story of one woman’s journey to shape her role through history…

Today we’re delighted to reveal the cover of Queen of Exilesthe stunning historical saga based on the real life of Queen Marie-Louise Christophe of Haiti, by Vanessa Riley. Read on for a synopsis and the first chapter of the book. And don’t forget to pre-order Queen of Exiles now, publishing in July 2023!

As Queen of Hayti, Marie-Louise Christophe rules alongside her husband, the King, in a court of opulence and beauty. But when King Henry is overthrown, Queen Louise and her daughters are forced to leave their royal palaces and flee to London.

In exile, Louise must redefine her position in society. Journeying from London to Germany, and finally settling in Italy, Louise and her daughters continue to move in royal circles, living a life filled with glittering balls and princely marriage proposals. But when tragedy strikes, and with newspapers and gossip following their every move, Louise must decide what is most important in her new world, and what is worth fighting for.

*

Chapter 1

1821 London, England

 

Dumping the contents of my last trunk onto the floor, I wanted to shriek. I checked again and again, ripping at petticoats, throwing gowns into the air of my suite at the Osborne Hotel.

Nothing.

“Madame, it’s not here. Madame—”

Shaking my head so hard that it should fly off, I blocked Zephyrine’s reasonable words. My jewels had to be here.

A bag with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, along with a cluster of gold coins, items I’d risked my life smuggling out of Hayti, needed to be wrested from its hiding place. The insurance of being able to pay our way in this strange new land couldn’t vanish.

“I’ll. . . I’ll search again,” I said in a voice breaking with tears. Turning to my weathered portmanteau, something I’d gotten from my sister during my captivity, I hunted and hoped.

More tossed silks, flopping to the ground like ghosts.

More bruising of my knuckles, slapping along the bottom of an empty trunk.

More punishing fear, rocking and shredding my insides.

My maid grabbed my wrists and pulled me to the burgundy tapestry, the covering used to warm the cold floor. “It’s stolen, Ma Reine.”

Wet streaks drizzled down Zephyrine’s brown cheeks to the front of her white bib apron. Prim and pressed and resolute in her service to me, my friend awaited orders from her sovereign.

“I’m not that anymore. I’m no longer queen.” Flat and pulsing, wanting to grab onto something real, I stilled my hands. “I’m just Madame Christophe. Nothing more.”

My fingers sank deeper into the softness of the woven silk, the colorful Indian rug. Like my weavers, I could picture the care and labor it cost to produce this treasure upon a loom, but I had to clutch, to claw at something, something I could fight.

“It’s not here.” Zephyrine sniffled, then gulped a breath. “We’ve checked and checked. The necklaces, the bracelets, and pins are gone.”

She was right. We had nothing.

Nothing to sell to pay for food or these fancy lodgings.

No rings.

No pearls.

Not even my favorite emerald pieces.

The yellow satin bag with all the valuables that the man I loved, my king, had given me disappeared.

Turning from her, I wanted to pretend it didn’t happen, but I’d lived through so many things I wanted to wish away.

Couldn’t this merely be another nightmare, oui?

Exiled to Europe was to be salvation, renewal. I wanted to pray, but God wouldn’t hear an angry woman.

My life, my fairytale life of being picked from obscurity to reigning over a nation, all had torn away. The evidence of that other life, my jewels—some thief stole.

But we had lived it… we’d been wealthy and happy and royal.

“Madame, how will we survive? Robbed of your treasures means ruin. At Lambert House, fruit grew on trees. A beggar can eat in the jungle.”

“Back to Hayti? Barely existing surrounded by armed guards, hoping their fickle leader wouldn’t execute what remained of the people I loved? Non!”

I covered my mouth, wanting to erase my words from the air.

No one needed to know how helpless I felt in my beloved Hayti. Ever since I left my parent’s care, I’d stood on my own, grew up fast, outlived rebellions, and kept my babies safe in the wilderness. A thief couldn’t be the thing that destroyed me.

Fury roiled in my gut. The dread, the fear I’d kept to myself exploded, quaking my insides, flooding my face like a turbulent river. I dug into a pile of clothes, strangling a shift like it was the robber or the man who ended my kingdom.

“Madame,” my maid said. “You’ve shown the pieces to Monsieur Wilberforce. He was to help you sell some to get money. He’ll visit tomorrow. Wouldn’t he know what to do?”

A creamy hem of a discarded dress became a handkerchief. Taking my time, I dabbed at my face, letting the soft lace soothe my skin. “I don’t know.” I mumbled more scared words and swallowed tears. “I just don’t know.”

Zephyrine pulled me to her shoulder. “How could this happen? Have we not been careful?”

I hadn’t been showy, but I’d worn my bracelet over my mourning drape. The gold surely caught a criminal’s eyes.

Reclaiming my posture, the etiquette Lord Limonade, the Haytian court’s protocol master, ingrained, I sat up straight and fingered the scuffed lock on my trunk. “It’s been gouged. Someone came into our rooms, pried this open, and stole my valuables.”

This crime was blatant, occurring during the day, perhaps when we’d gone downstairs to sup. Did he think we’d not notice? Or did she assume no one would help the poor exile, the foreigner?

“We’ll not let them win, Zephyrine. Monsieur Wilberforce will help.”

“The hotel maids.” She wiped at her eyes. “Perhaps they saw something.”

Only the Osborne staff had access to enter.

Zephyrine began picking up the clutter I’d created. “At least a Blanc saw the diamonds and emeralds in your possession. He’ll be believed. No one here would think a Black could have such finery or accuse one of them of stealing.”

Her words kicked me in the gut.

Bang, I sank again to the floor. My stomach pushed flat. Air gushed out of my mouth. I wept, wept as hard as when the kingdom fell.

Unprotected, my girls, my household, and I were in a place of danger where skin color was more important than truth. The Black safe world we’d built was gone.

*

A week dragged by since the theft of my property. The manager of the Osborne Hotel seemed apologetic, and in his blue eyes, I saw embarrassment. Dignitaries stayed at this place. He begged Wilberforce to give him a chance to make inquiries.

Leaning by a window looking out at the Thames, I noted the fog had lifted. In Milot, that meant sunshine. Here, it held no meaning. The temperature might barely rise. The humidity and heat of my lush home would be another lost memory.

Chastising myself for my complaints, I reached for my wrist, the empty spot where my emerald would sit. I was lucky to be here, lucky to be alive, lucky to bring with me my daughters and my loyal attendants, Zephyrine and Souliman.

How would I lead them when our escape to London had gone so wrong?

Going to their bedroom door, I peeked at the girls sleeping together on a single mattress. Snuggled in warm bedclothes, piled under blankets in a world that for the moment wasn’t moving, wasn’t rocking or shifting like alliances, I merely watched them breathe. I’d checked on them several times throughout the night like goblins might steal them too.

There should be more beds holding more of my family. If the kingdom had to end, we all should be exiled from Hayti.

Leaving the suite like a silent mouse, I crept down the stairs. Souliman waited at the bottom—no flintlock rifle but a cane in his hands. His scowl menaced.

The large bags under his eyes declared he hadn’t slept either. I dared not look in a mirror. The papers once called me Henry’s old Black wife. I’d surely aged thirty years since the kingdom fell.

“Souliman, are you well?”

“Peu importe. Non. Don’t matter. I failed.” He beat at his chest. “I let them thieve you.”

He talked fast, using bits of Kreyòl and French. Again, he pounded his white shirt. “I should’ve been with the trunks. Pa ta dwe janm! Should’ve never taken my eyes off your treasures.”

No one could watch everything forever. Couldn’t even stare at a son wishing for his safety or comfort him when darkness came. I took a handkerchief from my pocket and gave it to Souliman. He was twenty-eight, an age my Victor would never see. “You had to eat. Seeing to maids is not one of your duties.”

“It is now.” He wiped at his nose, which had just made a trumpet noise. “Madame Christophe, forgive me. Pardonne-moi.”

Placing a palm to his shoulder along the jacket a naval officer gave him to wear, I caught his eyes. “Souliman, this is not your fault. I forgot that we cannot let our guard down. Just because we don’t see bayonets doesn’t mean the enemy is at rest.”

“I will find this thief, Madame. I’ll hang them upside down. They will be—”

“Non. We don’t rule here and have no authority. We’re barely making our way. Promise me, Souliman. I can’t fret about you and the girls and a hundred other things.”

Lifting with his cane, one he’d carved and notched with lost faces, he bowed to me. “As you wish, Ma Reine.”

Unlike with Zephyrine, I didn’t have the strength to admonish him. The new president of Hayti wasn’t around to hear and create new orders to kill my surviving family or me.

“We’re little more than refugees. The archbishop has money that my husband sent for me. When we gain access, we’ll no longer be destitute.”

His hands dropped to his sides, strong rock hurling arms. “Madame, I believe no Blanc priest here anymore than I believed Brelle in Cap Henry. I’m prepared to fight. I won’t let my queen be in rags.”

My sister, dear Cécile, once said there was honesty in poverty. Non. The truth—poverty made one naked, vulnerable and dependent. It would leave the royal Christophes easy prey to be shunned.

We had no shield.

I had to become one. “I’ve led us here. I’ll protect you, all of us.”

“I will get strong. My lameness won’t prevent it. I promise.” He grumbled more, mouthing sentiment like my husband, my chivalrous Henry, about keeping women safe, then retook his seat. Souliman’s unsmiling countenance looked frightful, as if he readied to attack a new band of robbers.

They wouldn’t appear yet.

Hayti’s new president and my jewel thief might be in league, working to torment me, but they’d need time to strike again.

Somehow, I had to prepare. I had to be that woman, that mother in the wilderness protecting my children from war. I’d done it—survived birthing Victor in a cave and kept the girls alive whilst their father fought the French.

If I had to outwit, outthink, even deceive, I’d do what I had to and protect my girls and keep safe all the ones entrusted to me. I went for a walk under thick afternoon clouds praying the Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t my next villain.

*

My restless spirit had me walking the neighborhood of the Osborne Hotel. I expected Monsieur Wilberforce any minute. As an advisor to Henry, he’d taken the fall of the kingdom hard. During our reign, the man had been faithful sending teachers and doctors and scientists to Hayti. These laborers were all a part of Henry’s vision of making our people the smartest and healthiest in the world.

A church tower somewhere close chimed. Anglican more so than Catholic, I welcomed the toll and headed back to the Osborne.

The red brick of the hotel was smooth. None was Haytian rubble brick. When the clouds lifted, London revealed towers, taller and closer together than Le Cap before the wars. Henry had just started his plan to rebuild the capital. I wondered if it would’ve looked like this, stiff and foreboding. Or would it have been more like Sans-Souci with space and curves?

I stuck my hands in the empty pocket of the coat Madame Clarkson gave me. I brought with me a few dresses but nothing like this indigo-colored greatcoat. It was thoughtful, but I hated that I’d become a royal beggar.

At least this woman was genuine, giving to me in true Christian love. Wondered if the maids who’d smiled in my face and stole my jewels had any. I was very sure the thief was one of the staff.

A carriage stopped in front of me. It was a gig; the type where the driver is the sole passenger. Monsieur William Wilberforce descended. Tall, lank, slight bent posture, he rushed toward me. “Madame Christophe, walking alone?”

“It clears my head.” I offered these assessing blue eyes the best smile I could. “I’m glad to meet you away from the family.”

He held out his arm to me.

Staring at the smooth ebony wool of his coat sleeve, I hesitated. “Are you sure you want my hand? The scandal mongers will accuse you of being entangled with the Blacks again.”

“They already do when I’m not walking with a queen.” His thin red cheeks glowed. “It’s the cartoonists who do the worst. They reduce everything to tittle-tattle and scandal. With you, the honorable Queen Marie-Louise in my company, my reputation can only improve.”

A good-humored charmer, this dear man. I claimed his arm and we proceeded down the street. I observed more tall houses, more smooth bricks, more crowding.

“Are you here to tell me to return to Hayti? Should I leave before thieves steal my dresses?”

“No. The manager dismissed the maids assigned to your rooms.”

Justice for us… in exile? “Truly? I’m astonished.”

“When I reminded him of the king’s interest in your safety and welfare, the manager promised to redouble his efforts in finding the criminals.”

King George IV, the former Regent, during his father’s madness, allowed his Captain Nicholson to bring my family across the sea to safety. The boat, the Missionary bounced with every wave. I remembered looking out my cabin window at Port-au-Prince harbor disappearing. Fool that I was, I thought I said goodbye to trouble.

“Madame Christophe, you stopped walking. Are you tired?”

“Non. Just thinking. The work my husband did to normalize relations with Britain seemed to have some impact. Thank his majesty for me.”

“My prime minister will, and perhaps you can help me think of ways to begin talks with the new government. They seem very dismissive when I offered to help.”

“Don’t think those men wish to hear from me, monsieur.”

“They should listen for the good of the nation. You’re logical, madame. I wish there were more. It seems those with level heads have been imprisoned or executed.”

He said the last bit so softly that I might’ve missed it because of the hullabaloo of the city—the passing carriages, the dock workers heading to the Thames.

A noir face was one in the crowd. Arms swinging, he trudged forward, heading toward the water.

“Ma’am? You’ve stopped walking again.”

“Just looking at the diversity of this city. All types of workers.”

Wilberforce nodded. “I think your nation would’ve become this—”

“If Henry hadn’t died.”

The cold air of the Thames surrounded me, separating us, as if my king stood between me and Wilberforce. This was the first time on this soil I’d said it aloud, said Henry was gone.

“What am I to expect of my circumstances? Without my jewels, I need the archbishop to return the money that my husband gave him. It was for me.”

“I’ve spoken with manager of the Osborne,” Wilberforce said. “You’ll remain here, comfortable and cared for until all matters with the archdiocese is settled.”

That wasn’t an answer. “And my funds?”

“It’s not that simple, Madame.” The gentleman urged me to walk with him again. When I did, he said, “A record must be established. We have to make sure what’s dispensed can’t be challenged by others.”

In others, he meant my enemies in Hayti. They didn’t want a woman’s blood on their hands, so they allowed me to leave, but the upstart government wasn’t done tormenting me. “Must be a great sum for there to be worries?”

“Nine thousand pounds.”

That was a lot of money, but not the amount I thought Henry had set aside.

“You’re frowning, Madame Christophe. You expected more?”

Pacing a little ahead of Wilberforce, I looked out at the busy shipyard. “My king made a great deal of money facilitating trade for the kingdom. There should be more, but perhaps his fortune has been commandeered like the spoils of Sans-Souci.”

“King Christophe was very wealthy. Our papers talked often of things he purchased for the kingdom.”

His mouth twitched. I saw the same foul judgment that I initially had for Henry’s dealings, but after what my husband’s vision of setting Hayti above all nations cost him, I knew every gourde was earned. “How long before things are resolved?”

“That I don’t know. And there may be more money in our banks that you’re entitled.”

Entitled was the devil’s word, meaning different things to different people. To me, my family was entitled to live in freedom without duress or sneers or thieves. I doubted many others saw it the same.

“Well, let’s hope after you and the priests are finished, there are enough for dresses and coats. I hear your winters are horrid.”

He sighed but kept us heading down the street. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.”

Turning from his soft, wizened eyes, I watched barges unload barrels which were either cane or rum. “The world still needs its sweets and its liquor, no matter where it comes from or from whose hands, free or enslaved. But for a moment, it was shipped by a free nation, a powerful Black nation. Monsieur, that shouldn’t be forgotten.”

“It won’t be, but that will be upon you and your children to take up King Christophe’s mantle.”

This sweet man was a fool if he thought for one moment, I’d risk more Christophe blood. The world was on its own to figure out how to end enslavement. “Non. No more demands upon me or my living children.”

A man shouted, and I trembled.

Wilberforce steadied my hand. “It’s a worker on one of the docks.”

“Yelling can be as disconcerting as silence. There needs to be some sort of noise to let you know life is still happening.” I stood up straight and filled my lungs. “I want silence, slowness, some sense of lasting peace.”

“I’m sorry, Madame Christophe. Give me more time. Things will be better.”

Offering him what smile I could, we headed back to the Osborne. Though I didn’t want to fight, I knew I had to be ready for one. As long as we lived, whether in exile or in power, those that sought to destroy us wouldn’t stop until they succeeded. I placed a vow upon my heart to figure out how to be the dignified widow of a king and protect the loved ones who lived.