“An absolute pleasure, Miss Wadsworth,” he said. Perhaps we’ll meet again at our favorite spot…” He leaned in so only I might hear the next part. “Let’s say around midnight? Seems our meeting has come to an abrupt end and I still have much to discuss, if you’re game?” The ringmaster nodded behind me, that antagonistic smile still in place. “Good evening. Mr. Cresswell, I presume? We were just discussing you. And who is the lovely lady with you?”

I let my breath out in a deep exhale, not wanting to turn around and face Thomas just yet.

“Oh? You were discussing me?” Thomas sounded skeptical and appeared even more so when I shifted to find his gaze on me. “An honor considering I don’t possess a trick hat with ink-dyed roses. Or the ability to tumble across the stage. Though I am darkly enchanting. I understand the draw.” He paused as if considering his next words. “You’re still wearing that mask, I see. Does it chafe?”

“Not at all. There’s velvet on the inside.” Mephistopheles turned a smile on Mrs. Harvey, so radiant I feared she’d faint from overheating. “Will you introduce me to this pretty young thing, or shall I die of want?”

“Mrs. Edna Harvey, Mr.…” Mrs. Harvey drew her brows together. “Er… Mr.?”

“‘Mephistopheles’ is perfectly adequate, if you please.” He inclined his head. “If you’ll excuse me, I must tend to consortium business. Good evening to you all.”

We stood together on the deck a moment, watching the ringmaster make his way to the troupe and whatever business carnival folk had postshow. Once he was out of earshot Mrs. Harvey dropped Thomas’s arm and fanned herself.

“He is quite something, isn’t he?” she asked. “So mysterious with that mask and name. I wonder if he ever slips—can’t be an easy thing, taking on a new identity like that. I imagine he’s got to take that mask off when he sleeps…”

“Maybe one of us should sneak into his rooms and find out,” I said, teasing.

Mrs. Harvey’s attention shot to me. “I wouldn’t mind volunteering for that task.”

Thomas grinned, then took Mrs. Harvey’s arm once more, leading us to our rooms in a show of courtly manners I was impressed by. “I doubt any of his performers even know his true identity. There’s a definite reason for the masks, and I’m sure it’s not simply to create an aura of mystique. I’d wager he’s either hiding from someone, or hiding a sordid past.”

I snorted in the most unladylike fashion. “Is this one of your infamous deductions based on observation?”

“Mock me all you will.” Thomas lifted a shoulder. “But his mannerisms speak of aristocracy. As do his boots.”

Honestly, I was unsurprised that Thomas had once again divined some seemingly impossible detail from the salty ocean air. “All right. Tell me more about his boots and how they signal aristocracy in the Thomas Cresswell deduction journal.”

“I bet something terrible happened to him. Poor thing.” Mrs. Harvey stopped walking in front of her cabin. She glanced down the deck behind us. “Miss Wadsworth, since you’re only next door, I think it will be fine if Thomas escorts you home this once. Unless you find it to be too indecent. I’m suddenly feeling quite…”

“In need of your traveling tonic?” Thomas supplied, doing a terrible job of keeping the laughter out of his voice when she poked him in the chest. “Ow.”

“Hush, you,” she said, not unkindly. “It’s not polite to make fun of your elders. One day you’ll need a nip of traveling tonic to help you sleep, too.”

I ignored the silliness passing between them and smiled at our lackadaisical chaperone. It was entirely improper for Thomas to walk anywhere with me without a chaperone, but we’d been in more-compromising positions than a short walk, much to my father’s horror, should he ever find out. “It’s fine, Mrs. Harvey. Since our rooms connect—I’m sure no one will be too scandalized. Most everyone has turned in for the night anyway. We won’t linger long.”

“What a magical evening it’s been. And not one corpse ruined the fun!” She kissed my cheeks and Thomas’s, then opened her door. “I’m completely spent.”

Once she closed the door, Thomas and I walked the few steps to a bench situated between my room and the next. Sensing that he had something to say, I sat down and patted the spot next to me. The snowflakes had mostly ceased, but the bite was still nipping at the air. Ever attuned to me, he shrugged his overcoat off and wrapped it about my shoulders.

“Thank you,” I said. “You were saying something intriguing about shoes, I believe?”

“The soles had no scuffs,” he said, glancing around once before sitting and rubbing his hands together. “Before you mention it, no, I don’t believe that a good buff and shine would explain it. They are new. Or at least they haven’t been worn much.”

“Maybe he only wears them during his performances.”

Thomas sat back, his smile heartbreakingly wicked in the dark. “A good theory, Wadsworth, but the way he runs around and tumbles across the stage… even if he only wore those particular boots during his shows, they’d show a little wear. Since none can be found, what might that indicate?”

“He purchased new ones.”

“Precisely. Even a successful showman wouldn’t spend so much on the fine leather he chooses,” Thomas said. “He certainly wouldn’t purchase expensive pairs every time. Which leads me to believe he’s most definitely someone who already hails from a wealthy household and doesn’t offer much thought to spending frivolously. If you knew you’d need to replace your shoes nightly, would you purchase the most costly ones?”

He had a point. “Well. That would also explain his insistence on wearing a mask and using a stage name, wouldn’t it?” I studied my friend, taking in the familiar sharp angles of his profile. “Yet you believe he’s dangerous.”

“He’s secretive, manipulative, capable of making harmless things feel sinister, and sinister things feel harmless. Two young women are dead. Based on those reasons alone, I do not trust him.” Thomas ignored the polite rules of our world and took my hand in his, twining our fingers together, expression thoughtful. “He wants something from you. I’m not sure what, but my best guess is it’s not for anything good. Whatever his motivations, they are strictly for his benefit or the carnival’s. And if he hurts you…”

“I am capable of taking care of myself, as you know. I’ve already survived meeting him alone, there’s nothing to worry over. I believe getting close to him would be beneficial in multiple ways.”

Thomas stood and paced near the funnel closest to the bow of the ship, shoulders bunched either against the wind or the partial plan I’d blurted out. I slowly got up and followed, wishing I could stuff the words back into my mouth. Steam billowed out behind him reminding me of lounging cigar smokers in a men’s smoke room, puffs of grayish white drifting lazily into the clouds. If only my friend was as relaxed as that imagery. He was wound so tightly I feared he’d spring into the ocean at any moment.

“Honestly,” I said, watching him walk back and forth a few more times, “you know it’s the best method of distraction, Thomas. It gives you a wonderful opportunity to work your Cresswell magic and it offers me time to get closer to the performers. Don’t be jealous you didn’t think of it first. Your sulking is unbecoming.”

He stopped pacing and stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. “Stepping inside a lion’s cage might be the best form of distraction, but it’s not the safest means, Wadsworth.”

“The very nature of our job is dangerous,” I argued. “This is simply another tool to use in hunting murderers. If everyone’s attention is on the drama unfolding between Mephistopheles and me, they aren’t paying close attention to you or Uncle.”

“Oh, really? So no one will be paying attention to your poor, heartbreakingly handsome, jilted lover while you’re getting close to the ringmaster?” He arched a brow. “Perhaps I’ll use myself as bait. I’m sure I could charm my way into the hearts of a few of the performers myself.”

“Is that what this is about? You feel left out of the excitement?” I asked. “Your job is much more thrilling and important than flirting with the ringmaster. You get to study scuff marks on boots and calculate how they got there and who is responsible. See? Very important work.”

“Then you ought to have the honor of playing my role,” he said. “I’m all for equality in our partnership.” I pursed my lips and he smiled victoriously. “That’s precisely what I thought. There’s no good reason for you to put yourself in harm’s way. Mephistopheles is a potential murderer. Strolling down the promenade with him is as wise as me sticking my head in the aforementioned lion’s mouth. And while that might be grand fun, it’s undoubtedly a bad idea.”

“I disagree.”

“You’re saying I should stick my head in the lion’s mouth, then?”

“If you wanted to, I’d support it even if I didn’t like it.” I lifted my chin. “If Mephistopheles is the murderer, then he wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack me, knowing he would be the first person you and Uncle targeted. However, staying close to him, gaining his trust, even flirting with him, allows me an opportunity to infiltrate their troupe. If he trusts me, then the others will, too. Who knows what I’ll be able to observe that way?”

“There is one too many ifs involved,” Thomas said, voice carefully controlled. “If something goes wrong, then you will also be in the direct line of fire. The risk isn’t worth the reward in this instance, Wadsworth.”

“Then I’m sorry to say we’re at an impasse.” I shook my head. “I feel quite the opposite. Some risks are worth taking, even if they seem impossible at first.”