“I ain’t been writin’ to no one!”
Liza, her face near burgundy, stomped through the dining saloon, ignoring each attempt Houdini made to halt her procession. Anishaa and I exchanged nervous glances, but kept our mouths shut. I wished to be back on the trapeze with Cassie and Sebastián, far from the fireworks that were happening offstage. One more look in Anishaa’s direction proved she felt the same; the flame eater stared longingly toward the curtains, probably wishing she possessed the escape skills Houdini did.
“Liza, the only woman I write to is my mother! You gotta believe me—”
“No, Harry, I don’t ‘gotta’ do anything!” She marched through the room and threw her mask at his feet. “Take your lies and sell them to someone else. This conversation is over!”
Mephistopheles strolled into the room with Jian and Andreas, halting when he saw Anishaa and me holding on to our flaming batons and Liza and Harry storming around. “Lovers’ quarrels are not permitted during practice. Please save the added drama for a private show only.”
Liza offered her most withering glare to the ringmaster and lifted her chin. “We’re through here. Make sure he stays far away from me, or you’ll have an entirely new spectacle on your hands.”
With that she slammed the door, rattling the glassware that had already been set up for tomorrow night’s dinner. Harry made to follow after her, but Mephistopheles stopped him with a hand to the chest. “Let her collect herself. It’s never wise to push a person who’s upset.”
“But I ain’t doing anything wrong!”
“Let’s go get ourselves a nice drink.” Mephistopheles wrapped an arm around the escape artist and escorted him around the tables and through to the other side of the room. “We’ve got to stick together now. The show needs you at your best.”
With one look over his shoulder at me, he led the distraught Houdini out.
Anishaa shook her head. “We should probably put these out. I’ve got to get some rest and you need to do the same.” She leaned in and sniffed my hair. “You might want to bathe before morning, your hair smells a little like kerosene now. It’ll be hard to hide that from Thomas or your uncle.”
I absently nodded and followed Anishaa to a bucket of water that had been set up for us, extinguishing my flaming baton with a hiss of steam. Something about Houdini’s insistence of innocence bothered me. He appeared genuine, his face screwed up in pain. Either he was an expert liar, or he’d been telling the truth. Or a version of it.
Which meant there was a strong possibility the ringmaster had crafted yet another illusion. One more lie to add to a list I feared was never-ending with him. Perhaps Houdini wasn’t the one Liza needed to escape from after all.
A few hours later, I slipped from my chamber, hoping that enough time had passed for me to find who I was looking for. He wasn’t lurking near the prow, which meant there were only two more places he’d be at this hour.
I checked over my shoulder, ensuring I was alone, then headed toward the stairwell. I flew down the stairs, the metal biting into the soles of my feet, reminding me of how alive I was, and how fleeting that could be.
I burst into the animal cargo and Mephistopheles jumped a little but quickly recovered. He studied me from the shadows and I replied in kind. His mask was firmly in place, though his shirt was wrinkled and damp. He appeared as horrible as I felt.
“You lied to me.” I watched him closely, searching for any crack in the armor he wore as often as his masks. “About Houdini’s letter. He was writing to his mother, wasn’t he?”
Mephistopheles didn’t so much as blink, his gaze traveling from my eyes to my mouth, smirking a bit when he elicited a scowl. “I didn’t lie, my dear. If you recall that night, I never claimed he’d been writing to a secret lover. Did I?”
“Oh? You didn’t?” I scoffed. “Then I suppose I produced the half-destroyed letter myself and crafted a story to go along with it all on my own.”
He held my gaze, expression wiped clean of humor. “Consider it your first true lesson in sleight of hand, Miss Wadsworth. Sleight of word is also a valuable tool for any magician or showman. Our minds are magnificent conjurers, capable of endless magic. What I said and showed you that night was simply a half-ruined letter. Your mind fabricated a story—it jumped to its own conclusion. I never said he had a secret lover. I never claimed anything other than he writes to someone and sends a letter from each city.”
I shook my head, wishing I could shake the man before me. “But you said he loved her.”
Mephistopheles nodded. “I did. I imagine he loves his mother very much.”
“You claimed that Liza was unaware of the letters or woman. You made me think there was something more going on—you…” I went back to the night of our bargain, stomach sinking with each new memory of our conversation. He hadn’t lied. He just hadn’t been entirely truthful.
“I, what?” he asked. “I laid facts out for you, Miss Wadsworth. You assumed I meant lover. You assumed he was untrustworthy, simply because of our professions. Your prejudice interfered with your ability to inquire further, to ask more specific questions, to separate fact from the fiction of your mind. You had the opportunity to clear everything up; I would not have lied to you. That was a choice you made, and did I benefit from it? Of course I did. I make no denial of the fact I’ve used this method on people before, and I will most certainly do so in the future. If you’re angry with anyone, it ought to be yourself as well. You created an illusion of the truth you wanted to see.”
“You’re a terrible person.”
“I’m terribly accurate at reading humanity. Change human behavior, Miss Wadsworth, and I’ll change my tactics.”
“You made me break Liza’s heart for no good reason.”
“Really? Can you think of not one reason that’s positive?” He cocked his head. “Do you truly believe that she belongs with an escape artist in a traveling carnival? Or is it a whim that has dire consequences? You did your cousin a favor, Miss Wadsworth. But sometimes they don’t come in sweet-smelling bouquets. Houdini would have broken her heart eventually, or she would have broken his. The right choice isn’t always the easy one.” He offered a slight bow. “I hope one day you’ll understand that. Good night.”
“Oh, no,” I said, marching after him and tugging him around to face me. “You don’t get to do that.”
“Do what, exactly?”
“Pour kerosene, set it aflame, and walk away when the fire is too hot for your tastes.”
He leaned against the lion’s cage, expression thoughtful. I hoped the lion would decide to have a midnight snack. A foul and wretched thought after knowing the animal had consumed at least part of one victim. A victim we’d yet to identify. I shuddered. Mephistopheles shrugged out of his tailcoat and draped it over my shoulders—the embroidered scarlet velvet reminding me a little too much of blood.
“I use science and study the human mind the same way you do,” he replied calmly. “Don’t be angry you took the boring, traditional route. You could still choose differently, you know. You want to set your world on fire, I’ll give you a matchbox.”
“‘Boring’?” I parroted back. “Pardon me if I do not find amusement in the idea of potentially destroying a life on a whim. Perhaps you ought to stick to crafting pretty costumes.”
“If you’d like to join my midnight carnival permanently and offer up more stellar ideas, you simply need ask.”
“You are completely mad if you think I’d care to join you or your depraved use of ‘science’ and engineering for good. Your acts are violent, savage things. All they show us is how horrid the world can be.” I tossed my hands up when he smiled. “Why is this amusing?”
“I find your vehemence endearing.”
“I find your lack of compassion appalling,” I said. “Are you ever serious?”
“Of course I am. I am seriously the most honest person I know,” he said, his voice frustratingly calm. “Truth is a blade. Brutal and ice cold. It cuts. Sometimes when spoken carelessly it even scars. Our performances expose that fact and make no apology for it. Once again, if you’re upset with anyone, it’s yourself. What truth did you discover while that tank was unveiled tonight?”
“Aside from the body? I discovered that you’re all willing to go too far for a stupid carnival.”
“Is that all?” He smirked. “Did you enjoy it? I’d wager your heart beat a little faster. Your palms dampened with dread and expectation. We are all fascinated by death—it’s the one thing each and every one of us has in common. No matter our station in life, we all must die. And we never know when it’s coming for us. Seeing someone nearly drown in itself isn’t scary or intimidating. It’s the truth and realization of what truly excites us that is most disturbing.”
“I’m not sure I know what you’re getting at.”
“Don’t you, though?” He tilted his head. “Tell me, Miss Wadsworth. Imagine this: When that curtain drops around the tank and the clock starts counting, those seconds ticking loud enough to cause arrhythmia, what is the whisper in your mind between heartbeats? Are you secretly praying that Houdini will make it through? Hoping against seemingly insurmountable odds that he will defeat death? Or are you sitting there, fists clenched below the table, both dreading and anticipating the possibility that you’re about to witness something we all fear? What is most exciting? Most terrifying?”
I swallowed hard, and didn’t answer; I didn’t need to. Even though we’d not gotten a chance to witness the act he spoke of, Mephistopheles already knew what I’d say, anyway.
“That is the truth we offer,” he said. “We are, all of us, desperate for a way to overcome the biggest threat of all: death. At the same time, we’re all hungry when it comes for someone else. You may hate the truth, deny it, curse it, but the fact remains you are equally enchanted by it. Knowing the flames are hot isn’t always a deterrent from playing with fire.”