Allison Pataki, author of The Traitor’s Wife and Sisi, has teamed up with her brother, first-time novelist Owen Pataki, on a new book set amidst the French Revolution. Where the Light Falls takes place three years after the storming of the Bastille, as a spirited young couple, noble-born soldiers, and an aristocratic young widow all seek to find their places in this bright, new Paris — all while post-revolution chaos continues to simmer throughout the city’s people.
EW is excited to exclusively reveal the cover for Where the Light Falls below, in advance of its July 11 release, as well as a sneak peek at the book’s prologue, below:
Excerpt from Where the Light Falls by Allison and Owen Pataki
Paris, Winter 1792
He hears them before he sees them, a swell of thousands, young and old, male and female, clamoring from the other side of the prison walls. They sound impatient, shrill with the heady prospect of fresh blood to wet the newly sharpened guillotine blade.
His skin grows cold where the rusty shears touch his neck, creaking and groaning as they clip his locks. He watches as the limp wisps of gray float to the ground, harbingers of what is to come for the head that had grown them. He would be sick, but nothing remains in his stomach to be emptied.
“Can’t have the hair getting tangled on the blade.” The old jail keeper’s sour breath reeks of wine as he makes quick work of the prisoners’ hair, snipping the line of ponytails in brisk, well-rehearsed succession. Most of the hair, even that from the young heads, is laced with gray. Funny, he thinks, how terror ages a man much more quickly than any passage of time.
“This way, old man, move along.” The guard jerks his pockmarked chin toward the far end of the hallway, and Alexandre de Valiere, now shorn tighter than a springtime lamb, shuffles his chained feet one final time down the dark corridor. The inmates whose names weren’t called peek through the small slits in their doors, watching the march. Grateful, for the moment, to be on the other side of their doors. Their tiny square cells feel safe, even cozy, compared to the brown courtyard toward which de Valiere now walks.
And now, he waits. Standing alongside the others in the courtyard, he cups his hands and tries to blow some warmth into his cold, aching fingertips.
“Must be thousands of ’em out there.” A twitchy man at least thirty years his junior looks at him with wide, unblinking eyes. De Valiere nods in reply.
“You think this lot are loud, wait till you hear them gathered on the other side of the river,” one of the other prisoners grunts, spitting on the frosted ground. He was already bald and therefore hadn’t required the same shearing as the rest.
The crowd had come out early this morning, as they had for several weeks now, assembling just beyond the walls of the prison that had once been the residence of the ancient kings. They’ll line the entire route: across the small island that sits in the middle of the Seine, over the bridge in front of city hall, lining Rue Saint-Honoré before opening into the great square of Place Louis XV, recently renamed La Place de la Révolution, where a deafening roar would erupt from the masses assembled in view of the scaffold.
A guard emerges from the prison. “All right, it’s time. Up you go,” he says, pointing his musket at the tumbril that awaits. “Let’s not keep Madame waiting.”
De Valiere recalls Dante’s passage, mumbling the words to himself, “His sworn duty is to ferry the souls of the damned across the infernal River.”
“No back talk, you!” A nearer guard raises the butt of his musket as if to smite the old man across the face, and de Valiere notices with a flash of bitter humor that he had winced, instinctively, in the face of the threat. As if a beating could do any harm at this point.
De Valiere waits his turn to climb into the tumbril, helping an old woman before him. When the last of them are aboard, a guard lifts the gate and the driver cracks his whip over the horses. The wheels groan as they slowly begin to turn, stiff like aching bones on this cold morning, lurching the cart forward. De Valiere steadies himself on the railing, offering a faint smile to the old woman, who had reached for his shoulders to regain her balance. She smiles wanly back at him, her trembling hands betraying her own terror. As the prison gates grind open, the guards posted along the entrance look on, bored, as the human cargo rolls past; the tumbrils passed this way yesterday, and more will pass tomorrow.
Just then the feeble disc of the sun slices through the thick cloud cover and the city is illuminated in stark winter daylight. The old man is momentarily blinded. He squints, his eyes adjusting as he beholds the great crowd that has come out to witness his final passage through the city. There are even more than he would have guessed.
The old woman beside him is praying to the Virgin, clutching an ivory rosary that she has somehow slipped past the prison guards. She holds de Valiere’s eyes for just an instant, and he gives her a small, barely perceptible nod.
A whirring noise rings past his ears, followed by a dull thud. He looks over his shoulder at the prisoner immediately behind him, his gray shirt splattered with the brown juice of a rotten tomato. A head of lettuce follows, bouncing off de Valiere’s shoulder before it knocks the old woman, sending her string of beads loose from her hands and over the tumbril railing to the filthy street. She cries out, “My rosary!” The crowd lets out a chorus of cheers and sniggers. One of the more eager onlookers, braving the wrath of the guards, rushes forward to scoop the ivory beads from the grimy street. The old woman mumbles quietly to herself, “My rosary. It was my mother’s rosary.”
“Ha! Old bitch cares about her necklace till the very last!”
A mother clutching a newborn in one arm uses her free hand to hurl a fistful of cabbage that strikes a prisoner toward the front of the tumbril, and the crowd erupts once more. “Rot in hell, you glutted rich pigs!” The guards, some holding old muskets and others armed with newly sharpened pikes, strain to hold back the vengeful crowd.
“Make way, I said!” The driver lifts his whip, and the people clear a path as the mounted guards escorting the tumbril struggle to master their nervous horses. As they cross the river, the crowd lining the old bridge follows behind, running with the procession toward La Place.
The cart rounds the corner and the narrow cobblestoned street opens up into the large, packed square. The mob spots the approaching carriage and erupts. No monarch of France, not even the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, had ever entered La Place to such an uproar.
The noise is deafening, as de Valiere hears voices roar the nation’s new national anthem. Several men triumphantly wave the new tricolor flag with its streaks of red, white, and blue, the standard of the fledgling nation. Some shout curses, but most of the voices remain an indistinguishable and menacing growl to the prisoners quaking in the rolling carriages.
The crowd gathered around the scaffold is so thick that the old man would not be able to see the murder apparatus, were it not mounted on its large wooden stage. Raised up, de Valiere muses, death exalted.
The carriage rolls to a halt. A guard lowers the tumbril’s back gate and waves a gloved hand. “All right, step off. Move lively now.” For a moment, none of them moves. De Valiere takes the first step, lowering himself down onto the street.
The crowd jostles to get near them—vying for an opportunity to scratch a bit of noble flesh, pull a strand of noble hair. The mounted guards push back against the onslaught, and a guard on foot swings his elbows and brandishes the butt of his musket to escort the dozen prisoners nearer to the scaffold. De Valiere ducks in time to miss the assault of a soft rotting apple.
“You first.” The guard points at the young man with wide eyes, the one who had remarked at the large number in the crowd.
The man puts his hands to his chest as if to ask “Me?”
The guard nods, waving his hand. “Go on up,” he says, putting special emphasis on the words that come next: “Best not to keep them waiting, Monsieur le Duc.” The young man, whom de Valiere now knows to be a duke, shuts his eyes and begins to cry, and de Valiere notices a patch of moisture beginning to seep across the groin of the young man’s breeches.
Please, don’t let me shame myself, de Valiere thinks. Let me depart with just a final shred of dignity.
The young duke is practically carried up the creaking steps, his thin frame trembling between the guards. His sobs and protestations are audible, even over the din of the crowd. “But why must I go first? Why me? What on earth have I done?”
“What difference does it make, Seigneur?” The guard is impatient; he’s seen enough of this useless pleading to be bored by the last-minute hysterics. He needs to get the show going before the crowd grows unruly.
De Valiere watches as the man’s smooth hands are bound and he is marched to the center of the stage, and notices a woven basket that rests below where the blade will crash down. The duke is forced to kneel, and his neck is taken in the thick fingers of the guard, who settles the prisoner facedown, sliding his neck into a wooden cradle where a smooth semicircle has been carved. A matching wooden plank is placed on top so that the two semicircles form a perfect wooden noose around his neck, holding the man’s head in place. The nobleman is sobbing now, trying to resist, but the base of his neck remains fixed against the bracket. The crowd, witnessing his writhing and his pleading, grows even more frenzied.
De Valiere stops breathing, but he can’t pull his eyes away. A priest makes the sign of the cross over the writhing prisoner, an absolution which the damned man can’t see. Finally, when the latch is pulled and the blade flies downward, de Valiere shuts his eyes. He hears a quick noise, a brief crash, followed by a thunderous roar. In the din, the thudding sound of the severed head dropping into the basket is lost.
“Le prochain! Next!”
Having caught this first whiff of blood, the crowd becomes even more ravenous. The guard calls for the old woman, the frail, praying woman who had steadied herself on de Valiere’s shoulders. He can’t watch. He doesn’t wish to know what her face looks like as she is escorted up the steps to the jeers and curses of the crowd. Again, he hears that sickening noise that slices through the moment of brief, anticipatory silence, followed by the shrill cries of elation. “Encore! Encore!”
The guard is looking at him now. Pointing at him. He lets out a slow, long breath. So this is what it means to stare into the face of death.
One foot in front of the other, he makes his way to the stage and up the steps. He no longer feels his own footsteps, nor thinks about how his legs manage to carry him. The roar of the crowd seems to recede, to grow somehow distant, and a strange sensation takes hold of him, almost as if he were floating outside of himself.
He kneels on his own, preempting the guard’s gruff handling. On his knees, he glances out over the crowd; a sea of jeering faces, contorting in lusty anticipation. And then his stare lands on one face in particular. Colorless eyes, skin and hair as white as parchment. He’s come to gloat, even now? Even in this last moment? In spite of himself, the old man begins to tremble, the face of that one onlooker doing more to inspire terror and fury than any guillotine blade could. Lazare. Lazarus. The man whom Jesus raised from the dead; and now, this man sends so many others to their own deaths. De Valiere holds the man’s eyes briefly, swears that those pale lips pull apart in a sinister grin. But then de Valiere blinks, forcing himself to look away. He won’t have that face be the last sight his eyes rest upon while on this earth.
He turns his gaze to the apparatus before him, beckoning him to his death, and his head is slid into the groove. There’s the woven basket again, below him this time and stained scarlet. The woman’s head is facedown, so that all he sees is her thin, silvery hair, tangled in red and reaching for the body from which it has been severed. But he can’t avoid the wide, vacant eyes of the young nobleman killed moments before. They stare at him without blinking, without light, frozen in fear.
The eyes are so distracting that he no longer hears the crowd. He does not hear the shrill tap-tap-tap of the drums. He wills his mind to envision something else, something other than this present hell. To forget the pale hair and colorless face of his enemy. To forget the stunned eyes of the dead young duke. He sees the face of his wife, conjures her image, her beautiful features uncreased by time or worry. And then his mind flies to his greatest source of happiness: two boys, dark-blond curls, happy faces reflecting the lost joy of his own life back to him. He sees them chasing each other in the garden, squealing with childish abandon. At this thought, he smiles one last time.
His vision turns to black, and he feels nothing as the crowd erupts for the third time, rejoicing in the death of the old nobleman Alexandre de Valiere.
From the book WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS by Allison Pataki and Owen Pataki. Copyright © 2017 by Allison Pataki and Owen Pataki. Reprinted by arrangement with The Dial Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.