“Who’s the man with Jian?” I asked, watching him remove the daggers and stagger back. “Is he an assistant?”

“Goodness no. That’s Andreas the Fool.”

I snorted. “I would have imagined that to be Mephistopheles’s stage name.”

“Honestly, Cousin. Mephistopheles is not half as bad as you make him out to be. He’s the Magician, naturally. And he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. Harry admires him and is constantly yammering on over his brilliance. The way he uses science and math is incredibly innovative. If you give him a chance, you might actually like him.”

I kept my eye roll to myself. It seemed as if everyone was convinced the ringmaster could do no wrong. While I was intrigued by his form of science, I did not wish to let on about it. I nodded back at Andreas. “So why is that one called the Fool?”

“He claims to have a magic looking glass that divines one’s romantic future.” She shook her head. “The sad thing is, he actually believes it works. I’ve sat down to a reading, and thus far it hasn’t informed me who my husband will be. All I see is my distorted image and an indecent amount of cobwebs. If anything, it’s downright haunted!”

“Why does Mephistopheles keep him if he’s no good?”

Liza looked at me as if I’d said something particularly dense. “He’s incredible at the spectacle of fortune-telling. His tent is one of the most popular—he lights incense, speaks in a darkly mysterious Bavarian accent. Plus”—she nudged me in the ribs—“he’s quite interesting to look at. Not exactly handsome, but arresting in a way.”

“What about—”

“She shouldn’t be here.” Liza and I both spun around, faced with massive chest-plate armor. I dragged my gaze upward and swallowed hard. Jian turned his glare from me to Liza. “And you still don’t belong here.”

“Don’t be so cross, Jian. It’s unbecoming.” My cousin simply rolled her eyes. “This is not just anyone, this is my cousin, Miss Wadsworth. She’s a lord’s daughter so you ought to show a smidgen of respect.”

He pointed one of his blades at me, hands scarred from practices that must have gone poorly. “You shouldn’t be here, miss.”

Liza’s face turned near scarlet, but before she could explode, I smiled politely. “It was lovely meeting you, Mr. Yu. Impressive knife work, you must practice often.”

His lips curved up in what I imagined was an attempt at a smile but came out more like a sneer. “Sometimes I use moving targets. Keeps things interesting.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Have you ever made any mistakes while using live targets?”


Without elaborating, he marched back to the stationary target board and threw blade after blade into the wood. Andreas jumped back as splinters flew. It took an incredible amount of force to cause that sort of damage—the same sort of strength that was needed to shove seven swords into a corpse and string it up.

“I’m dreadfully sorry about that,” Liza said as we made our way out of the practice ring. “The performers get a little sensitive about outsiders.”

“You’re not an outsider,” I pointed out. “And he wasn’t very pleasant to you.”

“Once I accept them as my blood, our bond will become unbroken,” Liza said, sounding as if she were quoting from some strange carnival manual. “But not a moment before.”

Houdini promotional poster





3 JANUARY 1889

Tonight’s stage was dressed in silvers and grays—like moonlight shining through cracks in the ship’s hull, lighting on bits of broken glass, or, in this case, crystal decanters and bejeweled patrons. Diners paused, eyeing the preshow performers as they glided through the room on stilts, their movements surprisingly graceful despite the long poles they perched on.

Every part of their costumes was silver, from their masks to their sequined shoes. Tulle hung in tattered shreds that moved ethereally each time they stepped forward on their tall pretend limbs. In fact, the stilts they balanced upon resembled swords. They were bits of glittering beauty with an edge, blades ready to drop at any moment and slash those who least suspected it.

While my uncle and Mrs. Harvey spoke cordially over their meal, I stared at the twirling batons, mesmerized by the silver and white ribbons slicing through the air. An extraordinary amount of work and skill had gone into the creation of the garments, and I wondered at the person who’d made such fine stitches. They could be under the queen’s employ, though I supposed they worked for royalty of a different sort.

“You’ve got the look of someone who’s thinking of sewing corpses back together.” Thomas grinned over his roasted-duck entrée as I snapped my attention to him. It was scary how well he knew me sometimes. He lifted his glass. “We ought to toast to that. This champagne is terribly good—the bubbles go straight to your head. Don’t worry,” he added with a wink, “I’ll be sure to join you dancing on the table after you’ve had a few glasses.”

“My partner in crime and debauchery,” I said, clinking our glasses together. “I am a lucky woman, indeed.”

Thomas seemed quite pleased by the statement.

The lights dimmed, our nightly signal that the show was about to begin. I shifted, watching the ringmaster, who promptly took the stage in a clap of cymbals and blast of smoke. His suit was tailored to his body and was a charcoal so deep it could have been mined. Both mask and waistcoat were scarlet tonight, the red bullion around his top hat mimicked splashes of blood. A bold yet decent choice, considering everything that had occurred. I tried to ignore how his knee-high boots drew the eye downward, even if the eye stubbornly wished to remain on his blasted face.

Thomas inspected the young man in the same manner he studied corpses. I couldn’t tell if he desired to murder him or dissect his secrets more.

“Ladies.” Mephistopheles walked the perimeter of the stage, mask casting beams of light that cut through the chittering crowd and ended most conversations. “Tonight’s act is so fearsome you may faint from the strain. However”—he pulled out a small crystal vial—“we have smelling salts for any fits or vapors. Don’t be shy in requesting them. Our stilt walkers have plenty on hand; alert them if you’re in need.”

He beckoned to someone behind the curtain. No one appeared, which likely meant something had been set in motion behind the scenes. I swallowed a bit of roasted duck that suddenly seemed stuck in my throat. I hoped Liza was all right.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Mephistopheles paced along the edge of the stage. “You may wish to look away if you have any sort of medical condition. Particularly any affliction of the heart.” The ringmaster paused and glanced around, his gaze settling on my table. “For the brave and fearless among you,” he continued, “tonight will forever be marked as the greatest event of your lives.”

A murmur went through the crowd at that bold statement. The Moonlight Carnival was spectacular as a traveling troupe, but even their exquisite illusions couldn’t live up to that show-bill claim. A sound of thunder rolling through storm clouds began a moment before a masked Liza and another assistant wheeled out a large trunk, then stepped back.

I moved my focus from the trunk to the assistants. They were dressed in sequined silver costumes that were basically just corsets, and thick white stockings. It took a moment for me to piece together that most of the colors chosen were a palette taken from the night—moon, stars, and clouds against inky skies. The ringmaster extended his moonlight revel to the smallest detail.

“Tonight you will experience a metamorphosis like no other. Tonight the impossible is possible. All the way from Appleton, Wisconsin.” Mephistopheles swept his arm in a gesture of welcome. “The great. The wonderful. The man who cannot be tamed or caged—please turn your attention over to the amazing Harry Houdini, King of Cuffs!”

The audience politely clapped, but it wasn’t anywhere near as wild as it had been for the ringmaster on opening night. Mrs. Harvey winked at me, then hefted her wine into the air in a toast as a young man in a tuxedo took the stage. I sat straighter, not wishing to miss even the slightest detail. This was the young man who’d been clever enough to win my cousin’s affections. His dark hair was parted down the middle, and when he flashed a smile, dimples greeted the crowd.

Unlike the other performers, Houdini was unmasked. There was a presence about him, though, something that felt like a charge in the air before lightning struck. Liza smiled wide, her whole body seeming to radiate joy as Houdini lifted his arms above his head. In a booming voice that was surprising for his smaller stature, he called, “Ropes!”

Liza removed a length of rope from the trunk, holding it up for the audience before snapping it through the air like a whip. Houdini pivoted, his back now turned on the crowd.

“That’s quite rude, isn’t it?” Mrs. Harvey whispered. “Bad manners to turn his back on… oh… oh, I see. That is something.”

Houdini held his arms out behind himself, nodding to Liza as she silently tied them together in a web of crisscrossing rope. I was impressed by her expert knots—Aunt Amelia would not be as pleased by her embroidery lessons being used in such a way.

“Look at those knots,” Mrs. Harvey whispered, “he’ll have a dickens of a time getting out of those. I wonder if he’s got a knife stashed in his trousers… certainly appears that way.”

Thomas choked on his water, shooting our chaperone an incredulous look.

Liza tugged and pulled, nearly knocking the escape artist off his feet. A young man at the table next to ours said quite loudly, “How boring. I bet the rope isn’t even real.”

Houdini spun until he faced the tables again, eyes flashing. “Two volunteers from the audience! Who wants to inspect my bindings?”