“Goodnight, Audrey Rose.”
She likely wouldn’t remember it in the morning, but I hoped she’d think it was a wonderful dream. A memory I might one day paint so I could look back on it long into the future and be filled with the same sense of warmth and peace.
Instead of being distracted by jealousy and bargains that ultimately didn’t matter, I wish I’d been paying better attention to the nightmare that was about to unfold.
In four short days, she’d be in my arms, bleeding out. And I’d finally become the dark prince my father knew me to be, as I unleashed myself upon them all.
Vintage stage and fog.
8 JANUARY 1889
Blood spilled over my hands in warm, rhythmic gushes. For one drawn-out moment, I was frozen, then my world narrowed to an equation. Sterile. Familiar. Calm. The exact opposite of my surroundings. Chaos reigned on stage, and I was semi-aware of a struggle raging behind us.
Jian, the mighty Knight of Swords, had joined Mephisto in wrestling Andreas to the ground, but the murdering fortune-teller wasn’t giving up easily. I watched as each of the Moonlight Carnival performers fought him, taking out both their rage and hurt on the man who’d sacrificed their troupe in order to exact his revenge.
A dark, seething anger boiled up. I’d never been particularly violent, choosing to use my talents for deducing the impossible in order to end violence, but a part of me wanted to jump into the brawl and unleash a feral attack on the man who’d hurled a knife into Audrey Rose. I also wanted to avenge each of the innocent women whose lives he stole—all in the same of his own fiancée’s death.
I stared at the knife in Audrey Rose’s leg, imagining how it’d feel to slash his throat open with it. I’d never wished for anyone’s blood to be on my hands before, but, as I clutched the girl I loved, her lifeblood emptying onto me and the floor, I prayed for the chance to return the favor on him tenfold. I would gut him while he still breathed and feed him his innards. Jack the Ripper would tremble at my ruthlessness, the brutality in which I carved him open and laid him bare.
Andreas managed to land a punch in Mephisto’s gut before Jian tackled him. He was so close I could almost seize him… but then Audrey Rose let out a quiet, sobbing breath.
I turned back to her. I needed to focus.
I set my jaw and surveyed the wound. There was too much blood, an indication her femoral artery had been hit. I couldn’t risk removing the blade until I stopped the blood flow. The knife was likely the only thing preventing her from bleeding to death.
At that, a sudden, rapid flutter assaulted my chest. Panic.
My mind shut itself down into a sterile, unfeeling weapon. If I thought about the girl lying still beneath me, her eyes slowly losing focus, I’d be consumed by fear. If I allowed terror into my heart, I might as well sign her death warrant. Logically, I knew this; emotionally, I was failing.
“Wadsworth,” I said, forcing my tone into a calmness I didn’t feel, “stay here. Stay here with me.”
She struggled to look at me, her eyes glazed with a bright sheen. When she finally focused on my face, her expression turned peaceful. I wanted to rip open my flesh and give her anything she needed to survive, even if it meant sacrificing my own blood. “I’m not… going… anywhere.”
Distantly, I was aware of the audience rushing from their seats and voices shouting. Women crying. A stampede of heels and boots on marble floors. Doors slamming against walls as the passengers fled into the corridor. I clamped my jaw together so tightly I heard a sharp crack. I glanced up as Anishaa, the fire-eater, tossed a length of rope to Mephisto, and Houdini used his talents to secure Andreas. Distractions.
“Thomas…” Wadsworth’s voice was faint. Too faint. A strange, violent wave of emotions raged upward, threatening to pull me under. “Don’t leave me.”
As if that would ever be possible. “Never.”
Tears dropped onto her. I was too far gone to consider that I was crying. She was cold. Blood slicked my fingers. I needed to staunch the bleeding soon or she’d die before me. Her eyes fluttered shut. For a second, her chest stopped rising. Everything inside me turned to ice.
Memories of losing my mother, watching the life leave her once vibrant features, assaulted me now. I’d been too young, too inexperienced to save her then. I would not let Death unjustly steal someone I loved again. I gently clapped a hand to Wadsworth’s face. No response. My heart must still be working, because I swore I felt it cleave in half. I clapped her face again, and again, and her eyes didn’t so much as flutter.
“Audrey Rose!” I shouted. “Look at me!”
I ripped my tie off and cinched it above her wound as a tourniquet of sorts, careful to not disturb the knife. I had to slow the blood until she was moved to the infirmary and I could safely remove the blade.
If I kept repeating what needed to be done, I might remain calm.
“Audrey Rose!” My voice was wild. She was unresponsive. Death was imminent, but I’d battle it until it claimed me first. “Mephisto!” I shouted, startling the ringmaster from where he stood over a now-subdued Andreas. He rushed to my side, his light brown face looking pale behind his masquerade mask. “Get Dr. Wadsworth. Now!”
For all his faults, he didn’t hesitate. He dodged around fleeing passengers, shoving and weaving until he disappeared into the corridor. I shifted to the other performers who’d gathered in a protective circle. Jian and Sebastián guarded Andreas. Anishaa and Cassie—the trapeze artist who’d tried to drop a bag of resin onto Andreas before he could strike—fell to their knees beside us. They cared for her. While I’d been stewing in insecurity, Audrey Rose had made genuine connections while trying to solve the mystery. I swallowed a sudden lump rising in my throat.