As we rounded the corner, passing the chamber that held the Moonlight Carnival’s crates, Mephistopheles stepped into the corridor and motioned to me.
How wonderful. Another opportunity to commit murder before the day was through. Dr. Wadsworth paused, glancing between the ringmaster and me, silently demanding that I act like a proper gentleman and not end up in a cell adjacent to Andreas. It was the cruelest request he’d ever made, but I inclined my head.
“I’ve been thinking about our conversation,” Mephisto said, crossing his arms once the doctor was out of earshot. Today’s suit was a deep eggplant with silver fringe. It was horrible. “I… it is possible I may have twisted the situation a bit.” I stared at him until he sighed. “I’m normally consumed with crafting bargains and playing a role for people—I—” he exhaled, and even with his dumb mask on, I saw the true person behind the tricks and games. “I never should have made that bargain with her, knowing that she was in love with you. I should have been decent and helped her anyway, without strings.”
It was more than I expected. I grudgingly respected him a bit more. “What, exactly, were the terms you struck?”
“I’d teach her sleight of hand and grant access to the performers, so she might discover whether or not the murderer was one of mine.” He held a hand out and buffed his nails against his chest. “I also might have sweetened the deal by promising to sever Liza and Houdini. Another deplorable manipulation, but I justified it by the overall good it would do. Liza needed to go back home to her family; this carnival life is not for her. As much as I respect Houdini, I didn’t want to watch her throw her whole life away.”
“And in turn, you got what, exactly? Access to Audrey Rose?” I narrowed my eyes, taking swift measure of him. “Ah. You truly wanted her to solve the mystery, didn’t you?”
He gave me a lazy grin. “Of course, I did. And it didn’t hurt that I desperately wanted to kiss her. I behaved poorly. I won’t repeat that act again.” He straightened and flourished two tickets from thin air. “For you and Miss Wadsworth. Should you both ever care to visit the show again, please do so free of charge. I promise, no murder, no untoward bargains. I offer only friendship from now on. For both of you.”
I took the tickets and stuffed them into my waistcoat. “Audrey Rose is still…” I couldn’t bring myself to say. “Are you going to wait and say goodbye?”
He took his mask off and tossed it back into the room. Without it, I saw he was much closer to my age. Maybe only a few months older. I wondered at the path his life had taken, the trouble he must have faced to lose his sense of morality while still a youth. He and I weren’t so different. Perhaps we could be cordial one day. He certainly seemed as lonely as I had been.
“I think it’s for the best if you pass along my regards to her,” he said, finally meeting my gaze. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry for any grievance I’ve caused you, Mr. Cresswell. While your delivery needs vast improvement,” he said, his grin sliding back into place, “I appreciate your candor. If you ever require my help in the future, know I’d like to offer it.”
9 JANUARY 1889
One moment I was lost in desolate thoughts, blaming myself for what happened to Audrey Rose, and the next, her eyelids were fluttering. It took a moment for her to fully open her eyes, and she released a startled sound when I leaned over the bed and took her hand.
Her expression brightened as much as it could, then quickly faded as her gaze roved over me. I knew what I looked like. Eyes, bloodshot. Hair, disorganized. Expression, wild. It had been the longest twenty-four hours of my life.
“I thought…” I held onto her hand as if the force of it would keep her here, in this room and this world, for eternity. “I thought I’d lost you for good, Wadsworth. What in the bloody hell were you thinking?”
She drew her brows together, seemingly struggling to recollect the events of the last day and a half. “What happened?”
You almost killed yourself for me. You took a knife to the femur. You nearly ripped my heart from my chest as you lay dying. I inhaled deeply. “Aside from you rushing to save me from certain death? Taking a knife precariously close to your femoral artery?” I shook my head, gathering myself. Now wasn’t the time to get upset about foolish acts. I set my jaw. “The blade went in so deeply it stuck to the bone, Audrey Rose. Your uncle was able to remove it while Mephistopheles and I held you down, but we cannot be certain how much of the bone was fractured. Thus far we don’t believe it’s shattered.”
She flinched. I gritted my teeth, figuring her pain had reappeared at mention of it. My mother often complained of aches and pains, and her expression was similar. I’d give anything to take it from her, to rewind time and stop her from being my hero at her expense.
“Sounds as though you’ve all been busy,” she said, trying for levity. “What day is it?”
“You’ve been out for only one evening. We’ve reached port in New York.” I wanted to say more, tell her how desperately out of control I’d felt, how my emotions nearly stole all sense of reason and logic, but instead I concentrated on drawing little circles on her hand. The motion soothed me almost as much as it seemed calm to her. “Andreas confessed to all.”