7 JANUARY 1889

I lifted my hand to knock when the door to Mephistopheles’s workshop swung open, startling both myself and the unsuspecting Andreas as he walked into me. The fortune-teller took one look into my face, then threw his hands up, stumbling backward. “Don’t hit me, miss. Please. I told you the magic looking glass was better than the tarot. You didn’t listen!”

“I—what?” I asked, unsure if I ought to be offended. “Have that many people smacked you after a reading? I thought we were friends… I’ve been practicing that card trick. The snap-change one? Remember?”

Mephistopheles chuckled from somewhere in the cabin behind him, and Andreas’s face scrunched up.

“Take heart, my friend. If you’d brought out that wretched looking glass, she’d have kicked you.” The ringmaster appeared in the doorway, clapping a hand on the fortune-teller’s shoulder. “One glance at that filthy glass sends all the wise girls running for maids and cleaning supplies. Now then”—he turned on his performer—“give her back her brooch and be on your way.”

“My…” I felt around my cloak, realizing the pin was missing. “How?”

“Here.” Andreas thrust the brooch at me and snatched his cloak from the hook near the door and huffed. “The looking glass divines the future. And there is nothing wrong with it. It’s an antique—the patina gives it character. The spirits enjoy it.”

“Whatever you do,” Mephistopheles said, “do not repeat that rubbish to Harry. You know how he feels about those who claim to speak to spirits or tell the future. And how many times do I have to tell you to not steal from patrons? It’s bad for business.”

“Harry Houdini is a fool. And she is not technically a patron anymore, is she?” Andreas gave the ringmaster a haughty look before dashing into the morning light.

“He gets a bit sensitive about his Bavarian portending relic.” Mephistopheles motioned for me to step inside before shutting the door. Dust motes moved like glitter in the shafts of thick morning sunshine. “I bet he stole the thing from some tiny shop in a nameless German town.”

“That’s what you want to comment on? What about my brooch?” I swung around, head cocked. “Does Andreas have a habit of thievery?”

“No, he makes a living at it.” He walked over to his worktable and fiddled with some pieces of mechanical cage he’d been making. “Before you ask, I’ve already checked his chambers for clues or knives or other murder ephemera. Everything was a mess, but no blood or bodies.”

“Well, I don’t trust him.”

“A wise deduction on your part. For that matter, you ought to be terrified of me.” From his tone, I didn’t think he was entirely joking. “Rumor has it that another body was discovered this morning. Is that why you’re blessing me with your presence?”

“How do you know about it?” I asked. “Have you made other midnight bargains with spies?”

“Jealous?” He glanced at me over his shoulder, a smile tugging one side of his mouth up. “Your cousin told me when I saw her this morning. She’d found a note you’d left in your room.”

“Oh.” It was a simple-enough explanation, though I didn’t know quite what to make of it. “Why did you need to speak with my cousin so early?”

“I take it you finally gave her Harry’s letter.” He turned fully in his chair, eyeing me. “She was quite touchy. Hardly the mark of a girl blissfully in love with her suitor. I also apparently annoyed her by knocking on your cabin door like a… how did she phrase it? ‘A stray cat in heat,’ I believe was the charming term.” He smiled. “She threatened to have me neutered. Imagine that.”

For some silly reason my cheeks warmed at the thought. “Why were you calling on me so indecently early, then?”

He looked at me like I might be a bit dull. “To invite you to breakfast. Though I thought better of it once I’d discovered where you were. Dissection and tea don’t sound all that appealing, though maybe your tastes are a bit more depraved than my own.” I rolled my eyes. “Tell me”—his tone was suddenly serious—“what did you discover?”

I hesitated, unsure of how much information might be too much to share. For all I knew I was standing in the room with the very man who’d murdered all those women. “How well do you know the people who are part of your carnival?”

“How well do we truly know anyone, Miss Wadsworth?”

“Don’t start equivocating.” I crossed my arms. “If you’d like to hear my theories, you need to participate in being helpful. Tell me who you trust and who you don’t. We need to narrow down the suspects. Any information you have might be of use.”

“I do not have the luxury of trusting anyone.” He pointed at the mask he wore. “If I did, I would not keep myself hidden like a common thief. Do I believe in the people who work for me? I do. I believe they are all unique and wondrous. And horridly misunderstood. I also know that they all have a past, most of them criminal.”

“Even Anishaa?” I asked, skeptically. “She was lied to and taken from her home and family. I have it on good authority that you were the one who made that bargain.”

“Is that all she said about her past? Interesting.”

He motioned for me to take a seat on a settee that was piled high with bolts of fabrics and costumes. Reluctantly, I did.

“Would you care to hear a story, Miss Wadsworth?”

I did my best to not show my impatience. Everything was a riddle with him. “Will it be beneficial to the case?”

“Eventually,” he said. “But it may take a moment to arrive there.”

“All right, then. Tell me.”

“My grandfather taught me his best trick,” Mephistopheles said, surprising me with an actual family detail. There was a wistful expression in his gaze that made him seem like any other young gentleman. Except for the cursed mask. He shook his head. “Though I doubt my father would be pleased to hear it.”

“What did your grandfather teach you?”

He offered a smile tinged in sadness. “To dream.”

I drew my brows together. That wasn’t at all what I’d been expecting, which should have been expected coming from Mephistopheles. “Yes, but was he also good at engineering? Did he show you how to craft trick hats and boxes that saw people in half? Surely that’s more valuable in your business than a simple dream.”

“The greatest trick of all is dreaming without limits.”

“Everyone dreams, Mephistopheles,” I said. “There’s no trick to it.”

The ringmaster stood and picked up a toy-sized hot-air balloon. He beckoned me to come near and lifted it into the air, watching it hang prettily between us, all pale blue stripes, crescent moons, and tiny pearls. Up close, I could see the little wicker basket had been woven through with silver thread.

“Dreams are strange curiosities,” he said, eyes still on the balloon. “Sure, everyone possesses the ability to lay their heads down and imagine, but to do so without limitations or doubt? That is something else entirely. Dreams are boundless, shapeless things. Given strength and form from individual imaginations. They’re wishes.” He looked at me, then reached out and removed my hatpin. “All it takes is one shard of doubt to wedge itself into them”—he swiftly stuck the balloon with my pin, and the air whooshed out as it descended to the ground—“and they deflate. If you can dream without limits, you can soar to great heights. Let the magic of your imagination set you free.”

“Does your grandfather approve of your carnival?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t too rude of a question. “Or is that why you wear a mask? To hide.”

Mephistopheles stared down at the ruined balloon. “My family does not desire to know a thing about my show. They purposely act as if neither it nor I exist. As the spare heir, I was never required to be the good or decent one. I simply needed to be there in case the unthinkable happened to their favored son.”

There was no trace of bitterness that I could detect, though his words were brutally harsh in their honesty. Part of me longed to reach over and comfort him, while the more sensible side refrained from acting on the impulse.

“My grandfather passed away and my father withered. He’s still alive,” he amended, “but my brother mostly runs the estate. It was best, they said, if I didn’t displease my father with my useless dreams while he recovered. My follies were for swindlers and other lowborn thieves—things I supposedly needed to be extra wary of, since my mother is from Constantinople. They worried about society speaking even more poorly of me than they already did.”

“I’m sorry.” My heart clenched. My mother, being half Indian, had occasionally faced similar prejudices from small-minded people. “I know how hard it is to desire approval from your parents, even if it’s the last thing you truly want.”

Mephistopheles rubbed at his mask, but didn’t take it off. “Yes, well”—his voice was a bit rough—“now you see why that signet is so important to me. I might have been a disappointment to my family, but I’m not quite ready to give them up. My grandfather insisted I have it once he passed on, and it’s my last link to him.”

My hand went to the heart locket around my throat. I would go mad if anything happened to my mother’s necklace. I recalled the longing in Mephistopheles’s eyes when Thomas had produced his signet. If it were me, I’d have throttled someone until I got it back.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone your family ring was missing?”

He smiled, but it was more fierce than sweet. “I do not need anyone learning my true identity. Who knows what sort of blackmail might be used, should my name be discovered. The carnival folk are brilliant, but they’re also practical. They need coin and earn it anyway they can.”