It was likely as Thomas suggested—a young woman who’d chosen a different path for herself. After spending the last half hour with her parents, I’d say it was high time she’d run off. One more hour with them and I’d do the same.

Uncle poked his head into the water closet, looked around, then pushed his spectacles up his nose. “All seems in order, Captain. From the preliminary inspection, I don’t believe there were foul intentions at play here. Seems like a young girl who’s maybe a bit”—his eyes moved to mine—“spirited for her family’s tastes.”

Captain Norwood visibly sank with relief. If one more body turned up this evening, I imagined he’d row himself back to England. “Very good, then. The remainder of this voyage must go smoothly. Much is at stake for it and myself.” He exhaled. “Come. Let’s get you three to your cabins. Have you had time to tour the auxiliary sails yet?” He placed a hand on Uncle’s shoulder, guiding him toward the promenade. “Truly remarkable. When powered with the steam stacks, this ship can carve through the ocean like it’s a Christmas ham.”

“How festive,” Thomas uttered as we fell into step behind them. “An ocean liner that’s akin to a knife carving salted meat. If that doesn’t suggest luxury, I’m not sure what does.”

I took one more look around the cabin, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, my stomach clenched a bit. I ignored it. A third young woman hadn’t been murdered the second night aboard this ship. That was thankfully too terrible even for the murderer who’d run through a corpse with seven blades and posed her like a tarot card. Thomas offered his arm and I accepted it, leaving the empty cabin behind, though worry wedged itself in like a splinter and lingered just below the surface.

Victorian contortionist





3 JANUARY 1889

Liza crossed her arms over her chest, expression carefully controlled. If this were a game of chess, she seemed determined to win. Though one glance at Uncle showed he felt the same. The Wadsworths were a stubborn lot. This posturing might drag on for hours.

“I cannot possibly back out of the performance tonight,” she said. “We’ve been practicing all week. It would be in poor taste to simply retract my word after I’ve given it.”

“Your word?” Uncle drew in a deep breath as if to keep from exploding like a firecracker. “If, by your ‘word,’ you mean agreeing to assist a young man after you ran off, potentially destroyed our good name, and nearly broke your mother’s heart, then pardon me if I fail to see the honor in that. You will either send a note to this Houdini, or I shall keep you locked up in your cabin until we arrive in New York. As it stands we’ll have to turn right back around so I can escort you to London. Do not make this worse on yourself by aggravating me further.”

Liza shot me a pleading look, but there was little I could do. When she batted her lashes, I relented. I turned to Uncle, hoping to find some thread of reason to tug on. “Sir, if I may?”

He raised his brows. “Audrey Rose, I’d caution you to not try my patience, else you’ll end up with your cousin’s fate of being locked in your chambers.”

I blew out a breath, feeling a bit like a tightrope walker as I navigated Uncle’s foul mood. One small misstep and my hard-fought freedom would come crashing down. “I understand, sir. I was… what I mean to say is… the performers wear masks.”

“A very astute observation.”

I gritted my teeth. Snapping at Uncle wouldn’t be beneficial to either Liza or myself. Though it would be immensely satisfying. “The point being, if you were to graciously permit Liza to complete her performance this evening, no one would be any the wiser. Her identity would remain safe, along with our family name.” He opened his mouth to argue, but I cut him off with what I’d hoped was the winning hand. “Then she’ll promise to never step foot onstage thereafter. Won’t you, Liza?”

She shot me an incredulous look, as if I’d betrayed her after saving her. I held her gaze until she finally sighed. “I promise, Uncle. After this evening, I shan’t agree to any more performances. I will only finish what I’ve committed to.”

Uncle paced around the small cabin, pausing to stare out the porthole. “Need I remind you both that thus far two young women have been murdered on this voyage?” Liza and I exchanged glances. “And now you’d like for me to condone reckless behavior. Does that seem wise to either of you?” He faced us again, hands clasped behind his back. “After tonight’s performance, you are to obey each and every rule I lay out until we’re back in London. Do you understand?”

Liza slowly nodded, eyes fixed on her gem-encrusted shoes. “Yes, sir.”

“Let me make this perfectly clear,” Uncle continued, “should you even think of doing anything you’re not supposed to, I will recommend you live out your days in the asylum for girls. I have an inkling your mother will listen to any diagnosis made.”

I felt the color drain from my face. It was one of the worst punishments I’d ever heard, especially coming from Uncle. I stole a glance at my cousin, but she seemed more relieved than disturbed. Apparently the lecture wasn’t yet over. Uncle addressed me.

“I will hold you responsible for anything that might happen,” he said. I held his gaze, though I longed to sink to the floor. “I suggest you both leave my sight at once before I change my mind.”

I grabbed Liza’s hand and quickly obliged. Once we were out on the promenade, she clutched my other hand and spun me around. “That was brilliant! I cannot believe he listened to you. I must learn your secrets! I was near certain he’d lock us both up right then and there.”

I gently pulled my hands from Liza’s grasp and stared out at the ocean. It was the first sunny morning we’d had and the light was nearly blinding when it bounced off the waves.

“Liza…” I ran a gloved hand over my face. “Perhaps you ought to cancel. Uncle’s brash, but he’s right. Two girls have been murdered. And I—well, to be perfectly frank, I’m worried someone from the carnival might be responsible. Who else would stage a crime like a tarot card?”

Liza studied me for a moment, then reached out and drew me into a hug. “You worry too much, Cousin. And I think—well, I know if you met the other performers you’d not be suspicious of them. They’re really quite sweet.” She stepped back, still holding on to my shoulders. Her face lit up like the sun was gilding her. “I have the perfect solution. You must meet them! Come. We’ll go say hello and then you will see for yourself. They’re harmless.”

“I don’t think…” I took in the hopeful expression on my cousin’s face and relented. “Very well. Introduce me to your new friends.”

My attention steadily moved around the chaotic room. Captain Norwood had given the carnival an empty cargo hold, and they’d put nearly every inch of it to use. Women balanced on tightropes, clowns practiced jumping over barrels and drums, a girl near our age was covered in tattoos of animals, mostly of the lions and tigers she urged to jump through hoops, and a woman took a ball of fire and swallowed it as if it were a dinner roll. I gasped. “What in the name of the queen…”

“Anishaa the Ace of Wands. Each performer’s act is based on the tarot card they represent.” Liza watched the girl gulp down another flaming stick. “The girl on the trapeze is Cassiopeia. We call her the Empress. She’s favored by Mephistopheles and is quite stuck up about it.”

At the mention of his name, I inadvertently searched him out, curious as to what his practices might look like. I imagined a lot of strutting and chest puffing.

“He’s not here,” Liza added, brow raised. “He spends his time locked away in a cabin working on his mechanical inventions.”

“Oh.” I turned my attention on Cassiopeia. She somersaulted from one trapeze to another, rolling gracefully through the air as if she were a comet. Her hair fell in long platinum layers, adding to her etherealness. She was stunning. I watched the other aerial performers tumble down ropes, then swing back up them. It appeared as if gravity was under their spell as much as I was. “How do they manipulate the ropes and silks?”

“Body weight and lots of practice. Don’t let their small statures fool you,” Liza added. “They’re stronger than most men.”

A man in a black-and-white-striped leotard brought his arm round his head, laying it flat over his shoulder. I froze, heart pounding, as I took in the mechanics of it.

“He’s dislocated his shoulder joint!” I whispered to Liza. The contortionist did the same move on the opposite side, then sank down, turning himself into a pretzel. My lip curled involuntarily. “That cannot be good for his health. The wear and tear on his ligaments…”

I glanced at a bemused Liza, shaking her head. “That’s Sebastián Cruz. His performances are quite popular.” She leaned close. “I’ve heard he’s put his talent to good use, hiding in trunks when unsuspecting husbands come home.”

I lightly slapped her arm. “That’s horrible.”

“Horribly scandalous.” Liza grinned. “Rumors claim he’s gotten into some trouble on the ship. That’s why he’s called the Hierophant—he must be favored by God to get out of such unholy predicaments all the time.”

I stared at him a few moments longer, mesmerized by the way he folded his body up. A thought struck me. “Where is your Houdini?”

“Likely off with Mephistopheles.” Liza sighed. “The two of them are always putting their heads together, coming up with some new way to dazzle an audience. I’ll fetch you to meet him tonight after the show.”

Unless there was another murder. Then I’d be meeting a corpse. The thought broke the wonderment of the carnival’s practice session. Now as I glanced around, the performers all made my skin crawl like grave worms. Even without an audience they all wore masks, hiding from both the world and one another. A large board with concentric circles was set up at one end, firecrackers shooting out as it spun in place. Jian Yu threw blades one after the other into the center of the target, the last dagger sinking into the hilt of the blade before it. Chills slid under my silk.