- Escaping from Houdini
Without warning, the curtains peeled back like splayed flesh, revealing a masked young woman in a corset made of crushed red velvet, and midnight stockings. And little else.
Coffee-and-caramel hair was done up in ringlets that added inches to her height. Her bustle had layers of black crinoline edged in red ribbon that was quite beautiful.
A heart was cut out between her neck and bosom, showing off her décolletage. Ties in black ribbon mimicked the back of her corset, holding the neckline together. Matching black appliqués adorned each hip. She wore a filigree mask that was a metal so dark it appeared to be frozen oil. Dressed in red and black, she donned the feminine equivalent of the ringmaster’s suit.
There was a collective gasp as the crowd took in the masked woman and then the oversize sword gleaming in her hands. Much like her costume, the sword’s hilt was a thing of beauty—carved in nearly black metal, it resembled a bouquet of wildflowers and bird wings. It was like a faerie blade forged in some wild, heavenly fire.
Behind the mask, the young woman’s eyes met mine and widened. Why on earth—
I covered my mouth, trying to contain my gasp as recognition shot through me like an arrow. No matter how or why, I knew one thing for certain.
The girl onstage was my missing cousin, Liza.
I swallowed hard, my focus never leaving hers. Even with the mask covering half her face, I knew it was her. The ringmaster moved into view, breaking the spell between us, and I set my goblet back down with a thud. Liquid splattered the tablecloth, and an attendant, ever vigilant, swiftly sopped up the mess. Liza. I barely blinked, worried she was a specter I’d conjured up and would disappear just as quickly.
“Try not to lose your hearts or your heads”—Mephistopheles’s eyes gleamed—“and lovely Liza will try to keep hers as Jian Yu the Invincible. The incredible. The superior Knight of Swords, saws her in half!”
While the crowd roared in delight, I gulped down my growing horror.
“Well, this is an interesting development,” Thomas whispered. I stared at him, unsurprised that he was practically bouncing in his chair. He adored riddles and unexpected pieces to sort out—tonight had just become one of the grandest puzzles of all.
“If by ‘interesting’ you mean absolutely horrid, then yes, I agree.”
Uncle inhaled sharply and I knew he’d recognized our wayward family member as well. I refused to look at him, knowing he must be furious. What she’d done was far worse than simply run off. Maybe not in my eyes or Uncle’s, but in society’s she might as well brand herself a harlot.
Mephistopheles cleared his throat, spurring my cousin into action. Liza grinned seductively at the crowd and lifted the sword above her head, strutting along the stage as if she were born to do so. My pulse thundered. I was both speechless and proud.
“Your aunt would have a stroke if she were to witness Liza in such a state,” Thomas said, earning a swift glare from my uncle. He drew his brows together. “Is it not true?”
“Thomas,” Uncle warned. “Enough.”
In spite of the terrible circumstances, I smiled. My cousin was living out her romantic dreams, uncaring what the world thought of her. I admired her, though a sliver of worry slipped in as I recalled Mephistopheles’s fateful words. It appeared Liza had lost both her heart and her head to his carnival. Suddenly, her last letter came back to me. She’d mentioned being secretly courted by an escape artist.
Gasps went up around us and I shifted to see what had caused such a stir. A sound of ominous hoofbeats filled the room as Jian Yu the Invincible, the Incredible, the Knight of Swords, rode a black horse dressed in chain mail through the saloon. The animal’s liquid eyes flashed their whites, and it reared up into the air, hooves crashing onto the tile with enough force to rattle glasses. Mrs. Harvey clutched my arm, and a few women seated close enough shrieked.
Jian seemed as hardened as the armor he wore. His silver mask completely covered one eye and ended in a series of points sharp enough to pierce skin on the other side. It appeared as if a crown of swords had melted and formed itself around his head. He was the living embodiment of the Knight of Swords tarot card, and his costume reflected it perfectly.
In his wake, the other sword-wielding performers sheathed their weapons, with a sound that sent spikes into my veins, and dropped to their knees as if in supplication. Gooseflesh rose along my arms. The whole scene was terrifying, made even more so by the silence that buffered Jian.
He rode the horse up the stairs, his gait unhurried—he wanted us to admire him as he went by. Long dark hair was tied back at the nape of his neck, offering the crowd a good look at his equally dark angular features—sharp enough to slice through a few hearts, judging from the fans snapping open and the excited chatter coming from the women. Mrs. Harvey took a long pull of her ice water, and Thomas rolled his eyes.
“Is a muscular physique truly that inspiring, or is it the dangerous scar over one eye?” he asked, though Mrs. Harvey didn’t trouble herself with answering. Or tearing her gaze from the young man now onstage. Jian hopped down from his steed and thrust the reins at Liza, jerking his chin toward the curtains.
“Have you been studying those journals I gave you, Audrey Rose?” Uncle interrupted, pulling my attention to him. “I’ll need both you and Thomas to be well versed in marks made with an—”
Uncle fixed his gaze on something across the room, piquing my curiosity. A second assistant rolled a coffin-type contraption onto the stage. Holes were cut out near the top, bottom, and sides of the strange box. Lengths of rope were lassoed about each end and also looped over the shoulders of the female assistants.
“Oh, good,” Thomas said blandly, “I was hoping they’d wheel the dead out before dessert. Entrails go better with the main course, don’t you agree, Wadsworth?” He crinkled his nose. “Totally wrong for sweets.”
“Be serious.” My heart raced despite my admonishment. “No one is going to spill entrails.”
He cocked his head. “I am being serious. That box is used to saw people in half. One wrong move and those in the front row will have blood splatter and severed organs sloshing onto their tables. Messy business for the mousse and berries. Though if we do have a murderer aboard, this might be the spectacle killing we feared.”
Jian sheathed the swords he’d been swinging about and made a show of inspecting every inch of the wooden box. Liza and the second assistant stood to either side, smiling broadly as if one of them might not be cut open before our very eyes. I subtly wiped my hands down the front of my skirts. Part of me was morbidly fascinated. And the other part disgusted by that same fascination. Some days I despised the contradictions of my mind and the darkness in my heart.
“You don’t think Liza will be the one…” I stopped speaking, eyes fastened to Jian as he stepped up to the edge of the stage and lifted a hand to his face as if he were shielding his eyes from the sun. The dining saloon quieted a bit, but noise persisted.
“A volunteer,” he grumbled, a slight accent apparent. “Now.”
No one seemed inclined to offer themselves up as a potential sacrifice. And I couldn’t blame them. Who in possession of their logical senses would do such a thing? Jian’s mask glinted as he stalked to the opposite end of the stage. He glared at a table full of young gentlemen. “You are all cowards—not worthy of meeting my blades.” He turned to the assistants onstage. “Liza!”
My cousin’s smile was frozen, though her throat bobbed and her knees locked, betraying her fear. She took a deep breath and stepped forward. Before I knew what I was doing, I was out of my seat, tossing my napkin onto my half-eaten food.
“Ah.” Jian grinned, wide and toothy. “We have an assistant after all.”
Even though I was standing, half ready to run across the stage and throw myself into that box of death, the knight’s gaze was not directed at me. He was looking across from where I stood, knees wobbling, to where Thomas was already making his way up the stairs and onto the stage, steps sure and unhurried. The precise opposite of my heartbeat. Everything inside my body went numb and prickly at once.
“Thomas, please don’t.” I stared, hands clenched at my sides, as he paused before the coffin and, after winking at me over his shoulder, climbed inside.
“Sit, dear,” Mrs. Harvey whispered, reaching for my arm. “You appear a little peaked, have some wine. It soothes the nerves.” She signaled to a waiter who poured a deep red blend from the carafe he held. I tried not to think of Miss Prescott’s blood as it sloshed into my cup. “There you are, be a good girl and take a few sips.”
Without argument, I plopped back into my chair and took the proffered glass, bringing it to my lips, barely registering the sour-grape taste as it slid down my throat in quick drabs. I didn’t care much for wine, but it did distract me. Briefly. I dabbed at the corners of my mouth with a linen napkin, attention straying to where Thomas poked his head, arms, and feet out from the coffin-shaped box, then stayed perfectly still.
Flashes of him lying dead on a morgue table assaulted my senses, and it took every last bit of my self-control to not rush the stage and drag him into my arms. The rational part of my brain knew with certainty that no harm would come to him. Carnivals were in the business of selling tickets and creating spectacles. Not murdering patrons.
Even if that was precisely what had happened last night.
I could not shake the tension from my limbs as Liza and the second assistant covered the wooden box with a lid, and nodded to Jian. I sat straighter, easing the boning from my center. The room suddenly felt hotter, and I wished to be outside on the deck, the icy winter air waltzing along beside me as it drifted through the covered promenade.
Uncle huffed at the sight of Thomas shoved into the box, but I noticed the crease of worry that appeared between his brows. It did nothing to assuage my own fears. “Foolish boy.”
I clutched my mother’s heart pendant hanging around my neck, ignoring the bite of metal in my palm. Thomas removed his arm from view, then brandished a card when he stuck his hand back out. I could have sworn the massive ship encountered turbulence as I swayed in my seat.