“Let’s go make some inquiries,” Thomas said, closing his notebook. “We’ll start with Mephistopheles and Jian.”

“If we march into the performers’ practice area now, demanding to question everyone, we’re going to be met with a wall as dense as London fog,” I said.

“What method do you suggest, then?” Uncle asked. He’d not seen the growth I’d undergone while studying at the academy until this moment. I felt much more confident in exerting my hypothesis, less worried about being wrong or mocked if I was. Thomas had once told me he wasn’t afraid of being proven wrong; he only feared not trying.

“We will simply need to craft illusions of our own,” I said, already well into my own deceit act. “We’ll use misdirection with our inquiries. Let them be suspicious of something unrelated. If they make their livings using that art form, there’s no reason why we can’t use that very method ourselves.”

A slow, wicked grin lifted the edges of Thomas’s mouth. “If they’re the Moonlight Carnival, we ought to come up with our own fancy name. Marauders of Truth. Maidens of Mischief. Well,” he amended, taking in my uncle’s heavy sigh, “that doesn’t necessarily apply to all of us. I’ll keep thinking up names.”

“While you occupy yourself with that monumentally important task,” I said, “Liza invited Anishaa for tea in the morning. I’ll see what I can uncover about her and anyone who might be a secret swordsman.” I chanced a look at my uncle and smiled. “Let’s plan on going over our findings before supper tomorrow.”

Thomas pulled his pocket watch out, clicking it open with a grand flourish. “That gives us thirteen hours to sleep, infiltrate their ranks, create a bit of smoke to distract them, come up with our group name, and be dressed in our supper best.” He ran a hand through his carefully styled brown locks. “Thank goodness it doesn’t take much to make this”—he swept his arm across his person—“blindingly handsome. Unlike Mephistopheles.”

“Seems the two of you learned extra skills while at the academy.” Uncle took the limb on its tray and placed it in a refrigerated box loaned to us by the captain. “Though I’m not sure how sarcasm and banter will benefit this case. We need to focus on identifying who this limb belongs to.”

“It’s called charm, Professor. And I do believe it’ll get us far.” Thomas inhaled deeply, eyes dancing with mirth. “No one can resist a well-timed quip.”

Uncle turned from the refrigerated box, looking less than amused. “Both of you are dismissed. Go to bed, then enchant or annoy information out of the carnival performers in the morning.” He waved off Thomas’s next remark. “Try not to aggravate any of them too much. A little of your charm goes a long way.”

No one told me to be careful, which I took as a positive sign. An idea was forming that I wasn’t sure either of them would like, but it was always preferable to beg for forgiveness after the fact than ask for permission beforehand. I just hoped Thomas wouldn’t be too upset about me doing this next act on my own.

Morning arrived much sooner than night had left, and I awoke to the sound of knocking at my door. I scrubbed at my face and found a tarot card stuck to my cheek. I must have fallen asleep on the deck. Liza rolled her eyes, but said nothing as she shoved me toward my trunk.

“One moment!” she called out, purchasing a bit of time for me to get ready.

I cursed in the most impolite of ways, running around to pull on a decent yet simple receiving dress. A few minutes later my cousin opened the door with a grand flourish.

“I’d like to introduce Anishaa, also known as the Ace of Wands,” Liza said graciously. “This is my cousin Audrey Rose.”

We curtsied to each other and arranged ourselves on chairs and stools while a maid entered and set down a samovar and tray filled with breakfast sweets. I filled my cup, wincing as the first sip scorched my tongue. I peeked over at Liza. Of course, being the perennial hostess, she’d been up early, calling for refreshments. I could embrace her for her attention to detail in times like this.

Anishaa, the fire-swallowing goddess, was nearly unrecognizable out of her ice-inspired costume. Instead of the thickly braided silver wig, her hair was chin-length bluish black that hung in a smooth sheet. Her skin, now that it wasn’t painted ice-blue white, was a shade between golden brown and fawn.

She gave up trying to balance her teacup on her lap and sat cross-legged on the floor where Liza was already seated. I watched, wide-eyed, as she sipped the same tea that had scalded my tongue, and offered an amused grin. “After swallowing fire every night, tea never seems as hot,” she said with a wink.

At my unladylike snicker, Liza lovingly smiled before sipping from her own cup. Not wanting to be rude, I joined them on the thick carpet.

“I dare say that’s true.” I set my teacup and saucer down, watching the steam rise like a snake striking the air. “How did you first start eating flames? I cannot imagine attempting it for the first time. You’re very brave.”

“Most would say very foolish,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

I offered my most innocent, benign expression. Liza huffed in exasperation, but didn’t chide me for my inquisitiveness as her mother would have done. She was well versed in sensing a scheme and knew I was up to something. Instead of commenting, she passed a tray of biscuits around, probably hoping the sweets would distract from my social awkwardness.

Anishaa snatched a biscuit, eyeing up bits of chocolate before responding to my question. “A pair of wonder-workers, fakirs, taught me how to swallow flames. They said my name—which roughly means ‘one whose life knows no darkness’—meant I was born to wield fire.” She snorted. “Flames were mine to command. To swallow whole.” She lifted her tea back up, taking a long pull. “I was very young and very impressionable when they first lured me away from my home, fooled by the promise of riches. I am embarrassed that I fell for their sweet words. Once I agreed to leave, they dropped me off, took their coin, and left to find another person for another carnival.”

“They were the ones who ought to be ashamed. You did nothing wrong.” Liza reached over and clutched the girl’s hand, reminding me how talented she was at sensing what people needed and innately offering support.

“Liza’s right,” I added. “Tricking you into joining a traveling troupe was a terrible thing for them to do.”

Anishaa lifted a shoulder and tore off chunks of her biscuit. “They brought me here and life has been good with the Moonlight Carnival. I have money, food, friends. It turned out to be all right.”

“Mephistopheles was the one who did that to you?” I asked, trying very hard to not have my china rattle as my hands shook. “He tricked you from your home and family?”

“He—” Anishaa briefly dropped her gaze to her lap before continuing. “He hires people in countries he visits to seek out talent. Anyone who’s been through a… difficult time… he invites into the carnival and trains. The choice is ultimately ours to make, but he makes the deal hard to pass on.”

“So is everyone in the carnival from a different country?”

“Mostly. Jian is from China. Sebastián, Spain. Andreas is from Bavaria, Cassie is French, though she speaks in an English accent. And I’m from India.”

“You mentioned he seeks those who’ve had a difficult time; what exactly do you mean?” I asked, though Liza gave me a look that said I was an idiot for prying.

“We all have reasons to leave our lives behind.” She inhaled deeply. “Now, would you like to know how I swallow flames? That’s what everyone wants, though most don’t really want the magic or illusion destroyed.”

I studied her for another moment, knowing the inquiry into her past and the carnival was now over. I didn’t quite know what to make of Mephistopheles. He didn’t necessarily save anyone, but I couldn’t quite say he’d harmed or tricked them, either. Though maybe they didn’t see it that way, perhaps resentment started as a small cut and became infected over time. Perhaps someone wanted the Moonlight Carnival to be destroyed as revenge for taking them from their homes.

“Well?” Anishaa asked. “Would you like to know?”

“Please,” I said, shaking thoughts of potential motives away. “How do you swallow the flames and not get burnt?”

She pushed herself up, gracefully trekking across the floor as if it were the stage. I wondered if the performers ever dropped their acts, or if their entire existence was given over to their craft.

“Observe this taper.” Anishaa removed a candlestick from its holder on my nightstand, lit the end, then turned it nearly upside down. Wax beaded, slipping toward the floor. “Where does the flame go when I hold it this way?”

Understanding dawned. “Away from the bottom, or,” I added, “if it were during one of your performances, the flame would be reaching away from your mouth.”

“See?” Anishaa smiled warmly. “You’re a natural.” She cupped her palm around the candle, snuffing the flame out, and set it back in its holder. “Same principle is applied when I ‘swallow the fire.’ All I’m doing is removing the heat from my face, then carefully exhaling as I put the torch in my mouth. Most living things need oxygen to breathe, even fire. Deny it of that? And it dies like anything would.” She folded herself back on the floor where Liza and I remained seated. “The real trick is using the laws of physics. Like that scientist… Newton? Mephistopheles taught me all about him. He was right, it helped hone my performances.”

Her voice changed a bit while speaking of the ringmaster, admiration tinged with a bit of longing. I wondered if there was a person aboard this ship who hadn’t fallen under his spell. Well, besides Thomas.

“Does Mephistopheles help all the performers?” I asked, eyes fixed on my teacup. I imagined he charmed young men and women in each city or town they’d passed through. If she’d harbored feelings for him that he didn’t return, perhaps it might prove to be motive. That mixed with resentment would be a powerful reason. “He seems as smart as he is handsome.”