“There’s Mephistopheles’s chambers.” Liza halted a few doors down from them. “Harry’s room is three away. Fetch me as soon as you’re ready to leave.”
She kissed my cheek quickly and hurried off. I watched her sneak down to Houdini’s cabin and slip inside before bringing my fist to the ringmaster’s door. I heard something that sounded like papers rustling. I counted off five beats of my heart and knocked again. The door flung open, revealing a masked woman in a robe. Cassie. Judging from the way the fabric clung to her slim frame, I didn’t believe she had on anything beneath it. Her unwelcoming expression more than hinted I’d interrupted something. My face burned when I put together what.
“I-I’m so very sorry, I—”
Mephistopheles moved into the doorframe, a lazy grin upon his face. I noticed he was completely dressed, not a wrinkle in his clothing, and his cursed mask was still in place. I almost sagged with relief. “Come to profess your undying love?”
“However did you know?” I asked, loud enough for Cassie to hear. I leaned in indecently close and whispered, “Perhaps when you’re dreaming.”
“At least it’s not in my nightmares.” He winked. “That would be most unfortunate for you.”
I stood back and stole a glance over his shoulder, noting bolts of fabrics and an odd assortment of netting, pearls, and more sequins than I imagined the world contained. A suit jacket with tassels hanging from the shoulders lay on a table with more embellishments ready to be added. It seemed Mephistopheles had quite the sewing hobby—yet another piece to add to the puzzle of him.
“Cassie?” he asked, not sounding at all patient. “Unless there’s anything else, we’re done for tonight.”
Cassie scrutinized me before slipping out of sight. I recalled what Liza had said—Cassie was… close with the ringmaster. I suddenly wished to pull a disappearing act of my own. No wonder she was so annoyed; I’d ruined her romantic plans. As if reading my thoughts, Mephistopheles tilted his head. “Cassie was just finishing up her final fitting. Her new costume is a real showstopper—you ought to see it.”
“It’s not any of my business what you’re doing,” I said. “And I didn’t ask.”
“No, you didn’t.” His lopsided grin was back in place. If he was disturbed by the earlier murder or having the remainder of his evening tryst ruined, he didn’t show it. “But you appear awfully relieved for someone who doesn’t care.” Before I could argue, he stepped back inside and reemerged with a heavy coat. “See yourself out, Cassie. I’ll have someone drop the costume off before the show tomorrow.”
I stood there, mouth agape. “You cannot be serious.”
“Not often, but I do have my moments.”
“You’re going to put on another show tomorrow? That’s madness!”
“Which is good business, Miss Wadsworth.”
“Of course it is, how silly of me to think having another show after a body burned onstage tonight was anything other than a tremendous idea.”
The ringmaster raised a brow above his mask. It truly was a remarkable feat. “It is wise because it will serve as a distraction for those who seek it. Beats the alternative of locking everyone away for three nights, jumping at every creak and groan the ship makes. That, my dear, is madness inducing. Lock a man up and cracks begin to show.”
“Is that something you know firsthand?”
He motioned for us to move down the deck, far enough to remain unheard when Cassie left. We kept a respectable distance, but it still felt as if we were too close.
Once we’d reached the end of the ship, I leaned against the railing and kept my focus off of the ringmaster. I needed to think clearly, and he made it difficult with his brash flirting. Wind nipped at my ears and neck. The coldness helped snap my thoughts into place.
“Well? To what do I truly owe the honor and delight of your presence? Are you ready for your next lesson? Or have you mastered your card trick already and have come to boast?”
I stared out at the churning sea. Waves rolled and tossed themselves back and forth, much the same way my mind waded through new information.
“It’s been two days,” I said, still not looking at him. “Do you honestly expect me to master tricks when bodies keep appearing?”
Mephistopheles barked out surprised laughter. “I don’t deal in honesty, but you’re a sharp delight, Miss Wadsworth. Shame you won’t allow me the honor of cutting my heart in half.”
I turned, finally meeting his stare. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Well, I’m not sure I believe you,” he said, regarding me carefully. “Which means you’re doing much better than I’d anticipated with your lessons.”
“Sleight of hand can hardly be applied in a situation such as this.”
“Can’t it, though? Words themselves are tricky, wicked things.” He grinned as if he’d uncovered some truth I hadn’t hidden particularly well. “Anyway, what I mean is every rose can draw blood as much as delight. Yet we do not hesitate to inhale their fragrance, do we? Danger does not detract from appeal; it increases it.”
He bent near enough that his breath was a whisper of warmth on my skin. Gooseflesh rose. In fear or excitement, I couldn’t discern.
“I am unafraid of being pricked when the reward is so sweet. You, however… what is it that you’re afraid of?”
For some reason Thomas’s face flashed across my mind.
Mephistopheles stepped closer. “What do you fear the most? Certainly not death. That you’re intrigued by.” He placed his arms on either side of me and I involuntarily tensed. “Ah. Bars caging you in? Now that’s something you’re terrified of. If you want a life of freedom, simply take it for yourself. What’s stopping you?”
My heart beat so quickly I feared it might cease. “Is this part of tonight’s lesson?”
“This?” He angled his face near my ear. “This is a bit of friendly advice. You cannot live your life following someone else’s rules. Would you like to explore other avenues of science? Perhaps forensics aren’t the only thing you’re passionate about. You might enjoy putting your skills into engineering.”
I tried to keep my breathing steady. He might be acting interested for show, but he saw the truth of me. A truth I didn’t even think Thomas had discovered. It made me want to simultaneously hug him as well as kick him. I was intrigued by mechanical things, my father had crafted toys and I’d always wished to learn how to make them myself. Father had taught my brother, but never indulged me, since I was a girl and it wasn’t a “proper feminine pursuit.” I’d been given more dolls than I knew what to do with, but gears and bolts… that had been what I’d truly wished for.
“I want to speak with Jian,” I said, breaking the strange moment. “Take me to wherever the performers are and let’s make up whatever ruse you’d like.”
“I’m not sure it’s a wise decision after tonight’s events.” All the teasing in his face disappeared. “The performers have decided to deal with their stress in their own special way. It might get a bit sloppy.” He pulled out his pocket watch. “Likely it’s already beyond sloppy.”
“Cassie’s not with the other performers,” I pointed out. “Perhaps Jian is not engaged in whatever debauchery you’re suggesting the others are doing.”
“Actually, I’m fairly certain he’s the one passing out the liquor.” He stared off into the dark water. “I hope Andreas hides his swords again. Things got quite interesting last time he drank his mood away. The Green Fairy is a tricksy mistress.” He leaned against the railing next to me and glanced in my direction. “Do you believe he’s capable of murder?”
“How can I possibly answer that when I haven’t been able to speak with him more? If you’re serious about solving these murders, then bring me there now.”
“Of course I’m serious about that. If this carnival fails, I have to go back to my old life. And I’d rather jump into the sea than find my way into another gilded cage.”
I searched his face. Perhaps he and I weren’t so different. “Where are the performers?”
He raked his gaze over me, though it wasn’t in his normal roguish way. There was something swift and almost analytical about it. He pushed himself off of the railing. “If you insist on attending this gathering, you’ll need to dress the part.”
I brushed down the front of my velvet cloak. The dress underneath was a bit plainer than the evening gown I’d worn earlier, but there wasn’t anything wrong with it. I frowned. “I want to blend in.”
“Which is exactly why you need to get rid of that boring thing. You’ll be a ragweed in a bed of wildflowers.” He crinkled his nose. “Sometimes you need to stand out in order to blend in.”
“That makes absolutely no sense.”
“But it soon will.” He pulled out his pocket watch seemingly from thin air again, grinning as I shook my head. “Lesson number two begins now.”
Vintage absinthe posters and labels
LA FÉE VERTE
PERFORMERS’ PRACTICE AREA
4 JANUARY 1889
“Tug at that neckline all you wish,” Mephistopheles whispered as we stood outside the door to the performers’ practice area, “but I promise it won’t suddenly sprout leaves and grow. It would defeat the purpose of décolletage.”
I shot him my most scathing glare, though it was hard to tell if it had the same effect, as I was also wearing a filigree mask. “I cannot believe I allowed you to dress me in this. I look like a cancan dancer. My aunt would have heart failure if she knew.”
“I can see the redness in Mother’s face now.” Liza smiled from behind her own mask. “Perhaps I ought to suggest this theme for my coming-out ball.”