I seriously questioned their idea of a good time. Swinging from a tiny little bar more than twenty feet in the air seemed like certain death. How she managed it in beaded costumes with long trains was either a miracle or magic or both.

Sebastián swung over from his side of the practice room, legs over the bar and arms extended outward, a wide grin on his face. As if he weren’t already talented enough with his contortions, now he was doing them in the sky. “Easy, see? All you have to do is let go.”

“You’re all mad,” I muttered under my breath. “Absolutely mad.”

“Normal is overrated.” Cassie nudged me toward the bar. “Extraordinary is unforgettable.” I took the bar in my hand, but the Empress quickly stopped me. She clapped my hands with a strange white substance that felt both sticky and chalky. “Resin. It helps with your grip.”

“I thought I was only using my legs for this?”

“Yes, well”—Cassie turned me about, placing my hands on the bar—“you need to hold on and then loop your legs through, right?”

I’d much sooner prance naked on the prow and sing a bawdy-house song.

“Everything all right up there?” Mephistopheles yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Practice is almost over. Guests will be heading out for breakfast soon, and we must deposit Miss Wadsworth in her chambers before anyone notices her absence.”

I shot him a dirty look that he probably missed, since I was higher than a building. “Nuisance. I’d like to see him swing on the trapeze.”

Cassie laughed. “Don’t challenge him. He’ll do it, and if he breaks his neck, then we’re all out of a job. And I need the money.”

I took the bar in my hands, ignoring the dampness that seemed to seep through the resin powder. “Are you saving for something?”

She adjusted my grip and demonstrated how to bring my legs up and over, ignoring my question. My stomach flipped. “No… I…” She heaved a breath out. “I made unwise choices and may owe a bit of money to people.”

I threaded one leg over the bar, heart racing for multiple reasons. “People who also work for the carnival?”

Cassie motioned for me to repeat the procedure with my other leg. I hesitated, but only for another moment, hoping she’d keep talking. This was exactly what I needed: information that might prove to be a motive for murder. She helped pull my leg over the bar and made sure it rested solidly against the backs of my knees. While I did feel secure with the grip, I felt anything but comforted while dangling upside down. The ground was very, very far away.

“No,” she finally said. “The people I owe aren’t in the carnival.”

Before I could inquire further, she untied the trapeze from where it had been secured to two large poles for me and gave me a slight push. I couldn’t control the yelp that escaped my lips as I flew across the room. I closed my eyes, fearing that I’d either be sick or panic and do something stupid and go crashing to my death.

“Open your eyes!” Mephistopheles called up. “Enjoy the view! Come on now. I didn’t peg you as a coward.”

The rogue was squawking like a chicken. I cracked a lid, colors and lights flashed by, much like I imagined my life to be flying away. I swung one way, then the other, each pass seeming to go on simultaneously forever and too fast to recall.

“Look at that,” he shouted up. “You’re flying!”

My heart thrashed and my breath came in short bursts, though fear was ebbing away to excitement. I slowly extended my arms. In this moment I understood the draw of the carnival—the magnetic pull to run away from restrictions and simply let go. To allow myself complete and utter freedom to soar.

Despite my morning trapeze practice, the late-night bargain I’d struck with Mephistopheles felt like I had, indeed, sold my soul to the Devil. I had no right to meddle with Liza’s affairs, yet how could I sit back and remain inactive while Houdini destroyed her life on a romantic whim? His letter clearly indicated his love and admiration for a woman who was not my cousin. And yet imagining myself handing the evidence over and watching her heart shatter felt equally horrible.

I paced along the small rug of our cabin, dreading the next hour of performances. I was no better than those acting onstage—pretending to be a decent cousin when I was a filthy liar. Liza was content with her choice, but only because she didn’t know the whole truth. Somehow having Mephistopheles intervene seemed kinder than flat out breaking her heart.

Truth was a blade I did not wish to stab her with. Perhaps he should be the one to give her the letter. Seemed like the sort of wretched thing he’d enjoy.

“Audrey Rose?” Liza hovered in the connecting-room doorway. She was resplendent in a raspberry-colored evening gown that had layers of black lace over the skirts—no one would recognize her dressed in her finery and without one of those filigree masks. I was thankful the Moonlight Carnival required such costumes; it would help keep my cousin’s identity a secret and make it easy for her to return to England without society being any the wiser. Mephistopheles truly had considered everything when he’d run from his own family name, whatever that was.

“You look gorgeous, Cousin.”

“It’s a bit odd,” she said, turning her face from side to side in my looking glass, puckering her lips. “I’ve not sat in on a performance since London. Though it will be nice to be a member of the audience for once. An entire evening free of the costume makeup will be delightful. It feels like plaster and dries my skin in the most wretched ways!” Liza stopped adjusting her coiffure and glanced at me in the looking glass. “Is everything all right? You seem on edge. You’re not even dressed yet… are you not going to the show?”

I plopped onto my bed, the weight of my secrets pressing me down. “I’m not sure. I was up early and didn’t sleep very well—perhaps I might miss this one night.”

Liza dropped her hands and came to my side. “You simply cannot miss this show! The Ace of Wands will truly be remarkable to witness. I’ve seen her practice and still cannot believe how brave she is, swallowing fire—you’d enjoy speaking with her, too. She’s always studying new journals on engineering and science. A lot of the performers draw up ideas and give them to Mephistopheles to create.”

I raised my brows at this. “He engineers the props entirely alone?”

“Oh, yes.” Liza nodded. “He makes all of them. No dream is too far-fetched or out of reach. Whenever we’re practicing, he sequesters himself away to craft what we need. He doesn’t usually permit anyone in his cabin—he claims it distracts him, but I believe he’s not keen on having anyone steal his innovative secrets. He plays everything close to his chest, that one.”

“So no one ever has access to his personal room, then?” I tried sounding as nonchalant as possible.

“I’m sure the women he beds are invited in.”

“Liza!” My face burned yet my blood froze. It was a crass angle I hadn’t considered. Perhaps a jilted lover did commit the murders. Maybe she was intent on destroying his carnival the way he’d destroyed her heart. I’d never seen him without his mask, but the sharp cut of his jaw and fullness of his lips hinted at attractiveness. “Does he take many women to his chambers?”

“Why all the interest in the ringmaster?” Misunderstanding the source of my curiosity, she narrowed her eyes. “You have something real and grand and irreplaceable with Mr. Cresswell. Mephistopheles is a great showman, but that’s the crux of it. He’s all show. I caution you to remember that. He’s inviting, but in the way the flame on a candle is. It might set ambiance, create a sense of warmth, but if you get too close, it will burn you.”

“You’ve become quite the poet,” I said, lightly. I wanted to ask if she had those same fears and concerns over Houdini, but pressed my lips together. I motioned vaguely in the direction of my trunk. “What should I wear?”

Liza jumped up, clapping her hands together. “Something breathtaking.” Carefully sorting through my gowns, she lifted one up as if it were a prize. Pale sage with pink roses and ribbons that had been sewn onto one shoulder and cascaded from the right hip to the floor, it was certainly a showstopper. “This is it. You will be more dazzling than the performers in this.”

Tonight the dining saloon had transformed once again. Tables were dressed in dark blue silk, the surfaces shiny enough to reflect lights, while crystal goblets twinkled like glitter. White calla lily and eucalyptus garlands spilled over each table and brushed the checkered floor—decadent and fragrant. I longed to run my fingers over the velvety softness of the petals, but managed to maintain an air of dignity. I glanced at Liza and Mrs. Harvey, who wore similar expressions of awe. I wasn’t the only one who felt as if I were walking into a star-filled dream.

Thomas and Uncle were already swirling drinks, heads bent in what appeared to be a heated debate, when Mrs. Harvey, Liza, and I entered the room. I’d made excuses for not going over case details with them this afternoon, locking myself away to practice sleight of hand. It was disastrous. I mostly got a workout in picking up the cards after I’d dropped them all over the floor. Though the snap trick Andreas had taught me was slowly improving.

Always in tune with my presence, Thomas lifted his attention, and heat shot through me as our eyes met across the room. He said something to my uncle, pushed back from his seat, and was at my side a moment later, offering his arm. My pulse thrummed at his touch.

“Ladies. You are all stunning this evening.” He placed a hand around one ear, tilting his head to the side. “Did you hear that? I believe it was the sound of hearts shattering across the room. Do be careful as you step over bloody shards.”

I shook my head. “Honestly? ‘Bloody shards’?”

“Do you blame them for being envious? I’d be riotously jealous of me, too. In fact, I might challenge myself to a duel after supper.”