Astrid Darby

For your entertainment and without further ado, Astrid Darby and the Circus in the Sky

Dear readers, I invite you to enjoy Part One of

ASTRID DARBY AND THE CIRCUS IN THE SKY

CIRQUE DU FLAIRE

Pietro Augustus Flaire’s

Dazzling Spectacle of Delectation! Stimulation! and Stupefaction!

Amidst the Clouds and

Among the Firmament!

The advertisement adorned the frosted glass doors of Lady Mandragora’s Elegant Hats and Tasteful Arrayment, infusing the atmosphere around the erstwhile debonair and urbane establishment with an air of roguish silliness. Beneath the provocative recommendation for the innovative and widely lauded Cirque du Flaire, a bright, beautifully rendered collage declared stunning funambulists tumbling amongst exotic beasts, terrible, leering clowns and an enormous man tossing an almost perfectly identical homunculus into the air.

In the fore, a dandified man in a red and gold striped suit raised his arms in sublime exaltation. It appeared as though he floated in the heavens above a most peculiar dirigible, the shape of which so delighted the eye, it been duplicated unabashedly in the more recent penny dreadfuls and adventure tales. It was a large, white and red striped circus tent. The unusual aerostat seemed to be suspended from large, multi-coloured balloons, giving the impression it floated serenely through the clouds, buoyed by the air alone.

Mrs. Darby? Mrs. Darby!”

I spun slowly from Lady Mandragora’s storefront, my lips pursed slightly in pique. I had been eagerly anticipating my appointment with the highly venerated and exceedingly temperamental seamstress for weeks. Mandragora was not a lady to be kept waiting, as I had learned on a number of occasions when my work had interfered with my ability to make our previous fittings. Despite her ire, my generous purse had convinced the lady to fit me into her schedule this morning.

I had not anticipated this most unusual person accosting me in the street with the look of a man in desperate need of my services. I suspected it would be long before the Lady Mandragora forgave me for this new slight. I instantly regretted the loss of her good will; she made the most exquisite dresses.

Good god, man,” I exclaimed. “What do you mean by coming here dressed like this and addressing me as I am enjoying my exceedingly well-needed holiday?”

The young man was out of breath. He took a moment before he responded to my admonition, and I studied him with incredulity. London was a place in which a person expected to see any number of varicoloured people. One did not, however, expect to see a man dressed in a binding, metallic blue unitard and matching cap, from which loose wisps of pale, curly blonde hair had escaped as though in his hasty dash to meet me. Swirls of silver, gold and bronze paint bespangled his face, which was delicate and finely-featured, almost effeminate, though his figure was exceedingly well-muscled. I could not determine if the garish red slash of his plump lips was paint or a natural hue that gave him a peculiar, almost clownish aspect.

His expression was not playful, however. His deep, brilliant blue eyes were imploring as they met my own. “I am so sorry, madame. Forgive me.” He spoke in a distinctly French accent, which tickled my fancy. I could not have invented a more farcical tableau vivant. For an ephemeral instant, I expected to catch my impish cousin peering around Lady Mandragora’s storefront, barely able to contain his mirth at this most witty jape.

The outlandish young man did not appear to be in any mood for jocularity. “I have only a short time on leave, and I had no time to redress. I did not mean to offend. I must speak with you urgently. It is a matter of grave importance, Mrs Darby!”

I lifted an eyebrow. It did not seem as though my cousin had orchestrated this particular meeting, and there was but one conclusion to which I could arrive. “Am I to assume, sir, you are a member of that most famous of circus troupes, the Cirque du Flaire, which I understand to be aground this very day?”

Oui, madame, the very same.”

Ah. Well, this is most intriguing, indeed. Tell me, sir how did you know where to find me at such an auspicious moment whilst I was attempting to keep a very hard-won appointment with my seamstress?”

You were recommended to me by a dear admirer of mine who had heard from the Lady Mandragora that you had insisted upon meeting today while you were in the city on holiday. The seamstress was, by all accounts, quite put out by your apparent inability to keep your appointments with her.”

This was quite out of the ordinary. I had grown accustomed to the gossip surrounding my choice of employment, but I did not appreciate the tempestuous modiste repining my shopping habits to her other clients. “And who might this admirer be to whom Lady Mandragora feels compelled to complain about my wont?”

A Mrs Emmaline Maynard, madame.”

Emmaline? The matron of Tornell Hall?”

The same, madame.”

I see. Yes, Emmaline is a very old acquaintance. Her husband was a distant cousin of my dear late Mr Darby. I understand Earnest has been in ill health lately.” He did not seem affected by the dryness of my tone. Emmaline Maynard was still quite young and pretty, and her wealth was a great draw amongst the finer circles of society. She had been gleefully discussed amongst these circles since her much older husband, Earnest, had fallen ill, rendering the lady practically a widow and revealing a hitherto undiscovered streak of shamelessness. “As you might expect, due to your particular insight into my association with the Lady Mandragora, I do have a rather pressing need to keep our fitting this morning.”

Oui. I am regretful that my dire troubles disrupt your holiday, Mrs Darby.”

I studied him a moment, but his musical accent obscured the tone of his words. “Might I inquire as to your name, sir?”

He bowed so low, his nose practically reached the cobblestones at his feet, which had been hastily shoved into scuffed, worn leather boots that clashed horribly with his outré attire. “I am Eitenne Allard, madame.”

True, Mr Allard, I am on holiday, and I assure you it is most well-deserved. However, your frazzled aspect suggests your situation is dire indeed, and my curiosity is piqued by your Cirque du Flaire. I regret inciting the continued ire of the Lady Mandragora, but I am willing to hear you out.”

His spangled face illuminated. He bobbed his head so keenly, the cap upon his head further loosened, and long strands of curly, baby fine hair escaped to float whimsically around his face. “Merci, madame. Merci.”

We were not alone on the bustling thoroughfare, and Eitenne Allard was attracting much attention from the men and women who passed. Children goggled unabashedly at the queer man and giggled to each other behind their hands. “Perhaps, Mr Allard, this is a conversation best conducted elsewhere, yes? Let us retire to a most appropriate establishment, wherein your dress will not attract unneeded attention and interrupt what I suspect will be a most interesting discussion.”

Of course, madame.”

The Blue Bottle was the sort of establishment Asher Key and his comrades in the licit professions frequented. The storefront was unremarkable, grey cobblestone with a small, hand-lettered wooden sign that declared, Walk in quality ye who enter, for this here be a Coopered Ken. Even the performer’s most singular dress would hardly raise an eyebrow in the Blue Bottle. The patrons enjoyed a particular anonymity that extended even to those of my unique profession who required a quiet place to discuss matters with desperate clients.

A quiet bell tinkled over the door as I entered with Mr Allard. The patrons did not glance up from their drinks as they gathered in twos and threes at the widely-spaced wooden tables around the small, dimly lit lounge. We hardly drew a single eye on our path to a small table in the corner. Mr Allard seemed almost put out by this lack of attention. He peered around the room with an air of disappointment. I rolled my eyes and motioned the young man behind the bar to attend us at his earliest convenience.

Mr Allard, I brought you to this particular establishment due to the unique privacy the patrons enjoy. Do observe the customs of the day.”

He swivelled his head back to me. “Oui. But of course. But I am only Eitenne, madame.”

I inclined my head to acknowledge this invitation. A tall, spindly young man with a shock of curly black hair that resembled a frizzy halo around his head approached the table. He was new to the establishment, I noted, as I had never seen him before. He stared agog at Eitenne a moment but quickly smoothed his strong but overly thin features into a neutral expression of polite solicitousness. “Sir? Ma’am? What can I get you?”

My companion and I would be much obliged if you would fetch us a pot of tea, good sir.”

The young server dipped his head. “Of course, ma’am.” His pale eyes turned back towards Eitenne, who smiled luminously at him. The server did not scurry away to fetch our tea, and I had hoped. “The Cirque, sir?”

Eitenne gave him a graceful little half bow. “Oui. A most astute observation, sir.”

I have heard many tales of the Cirque.” The server’s eyes looked wistful. “I would love to see the show, but a waiter’s salary doesn’t allow such trivialities.”

The performer’s eyes widened theatrically. “Ah, but, sir! What is trivial about a life changing spectacle? An experience of the deepest and most profound transcendence of reality? Truly a stupefying marvel of mingling modern and ancient pageantry?”

That is quite enough, Eitenne,” I interjected. “I am sure you have an airship to catch, and I am eager to keep my appointment with Lady Mandragora, who has, I understand, recently received a collection of the finest, most delicate spun silk from China, which I expect will be most exquisite and just so to my exacting tastes. Please, let us get on with it.” I flicked my fingers at the young server. “Our tea, if you would please, sir?”

He bobbed his head turned smartly on his heel. Eitenne’s gaze followed him for the briefest moment before he turned back to me with renewed gravity. “I am, as you know, Mrs Darby, a performer for the Cirque du Flaire. A funambulist. My twin sister, Elodie and I have travelled with Dr Flaire for many years. It has been a charmed life: travelling, living among the clouds, performing and gathering admirers in the countries across Europe and beyond.”

The young waiter returned with our pot of tea, but he did not remain at our table. His expression was slightly cold, but I did not regret my earlier dismissal; the prospect of yet obtaining one of Lady Mandragora’s exquisite gowns bolstered my desire expedite this audience. “I had not realised the Cirque du Flaire had such a rich and extensive history.”

Indeed, but it has not always been so grand as now, and we have spent most of our years on the Continent in France and the Mediterranean. We are quite popular there. The King of France himself is a great fan. He often attempts to call us down to the palace for private performances, but Flaire is very stubborn. He only performs in the air. He says the necessary play of gravity simply isn’t the same on terra firma.”

I expect not. But what has compelled you to seek me at such an inopportune moment and in such a state as you are? Has something changed?”

His plump, crimson mouth turned down at the corners. “Oui. It is my sister.”

Indeed?”

While she was once my closest friend, once sweet and devil-may-care, she has become cold and serious. She is not interested in having a laugh or enjoying her time away exploring the new cities and countries with me. She spends all her time with Flaire, and she has little time for me anymore.”

Ah. I see.” I concealed a small smile behind my delicate china teacup. “Your sister has become rather smitten with the dazzling Dr Flaire, I shouldn’t wonder? He does look quite flash on his posters and in the more popular penny dreadfuls.”

Eitenne looked positively shocked at the idea. “Why, no. I think not. I am certain Elodie is quite taken with one of the lion tamers with whom she has been involved for many months.”

Ah. Well, who wouldn’t be? They are quite dashing, aren’t they? Have you any other theories, then, regarding the recent attitude of your sister?”

Oui. Many, in fact, but few of them make any sort of sense.”

I lifted a hand to invite him to continue. “Regale me with haste, if you please. I am most eager to hear your tale, but I expect your time on land is limited.”

But of course.” Eitenne inclined his head. He had not touched the tea before him, but now he wrapped his long, slender fingers around its lip and peered into the amber depths. When he looked back up at me, his large, brilliant eyes glittered. “I fear, Mrs Darby, that something gravely sinister is happening at the circus in the sky.”

Naturally. But have you any idea what that might be?”

Well, I have noticed an odd number of guests going missing from port to port.”

Missing, you say? Guests have gone missing from the ship?”

He took a deep breath that swelled his muscular chest. “None of the rest of my fellow performers have mentioned a thing about it. No one seems even to have noticed. But I am more observant than some and I…enjoy the company of our guests more often than they, who prefer to associate only amongst people of their own ilk. I spend more time among the spectators.”

Ah. Yes,” I said delicately. “So I see.”

During our last expedition, I was spending time with one of the young gentlemen, an American with no family who regarded the Cirque as a great novelty. There are not so many airships in America, you know, and ours is especially exciting.”

Indeed, I am aware of the New World’s sad lack of convenient conveyance. I have been there myself. Dreadful time.”

I have never been myself, but it sounds outrageously barbaric. My friend, however, was very handsome and refined. I was expecting to meet him secretly on the observation deck after the show, but he did not arrive. I waited for hours, but to no avail. I could not visit his room, as we are on strict orders not to fraternise with the guests, and I had already been scolded for it. As such, I was forced to wait until the ship had arrived at port to say my farewells. When I attempted to speak with him, I was informed by our porter than the young man had already gotten off.”

You had reason to suspect this was an untruth?”

I had not thought so at first. I had believed I had been rejected by my new friend and so, quite hurt, I visited his room.”

What were you hoping to accomplish by this?”

Eitenne exhaled in mournful sigh. “I didn’t know. Perhaps I thought to find something that would ease my suffering or some way to contact him again to ask him for what reason he had failed to arrive for our rendezvous. I did not find any such thing, but I discovered, under the bed, the note I had so lovingly penned to him. It was crumpled as though someone had accidentally kicked it under the bed without realising it was there. The bed was unmade, and it seemed as though he had beat a hasty retreat. Likely without ever noticing he had left my declaration behind.”

I stared at him suspiciously for a moment, but he seemed quite serious. “Was anything out of place? Did it appear as though something minacious had occurred?”

No, not so much. The room was untidy, but that is quite common. There was no sign of my friend left behind aside from my note.”

I considered him for a moment. “Is it possible, perhaps that your friend beat an early retreat to…how to put it delicately…avoid attention?”

Eitenne thrust his chin into the air. “I do not believe he would have tossed aside my declaration with such disdain, Mrs Darby. It was sheer poetry. Anyone would be flattered to receive it.”

Mm. Perhaps not, under the circumstances.”

I am not sure what you mean.”

I waved my hand dismissively. “You needn’t concern yourself. Anyway, you believe something happened to him?”

Yes. I do.”

But you have no evidence of such.”

His eyes glinted defiantly. “No. No evidence at all. He simply vanished.”

And you think his disappearance was, in some way, connected to your sister’s sudden attitude adjustment?”

I believe it has something to do with Flaire.”

I pondered my empty teacup. Finally, I inclined my head to my companion. “Right, then. I am willing to entertain the idea. Has anything else occurred that will assist us in uncovering the nature of the threat you may very well face?”

Eitenne thought about it for a period of time that seemed to me to be somewhat excessive and suggestive of a lack of anything significant to add. I waited, nevertheless, for him to reply, “Flaire is often locked away in his private rooms. He will not allow anyone inside. Well, he used not to allow anyone inside. I have seen Elodie coming in and out of there.”

Is his room very near yours?”

No. It is separated from the performers’ rooms.”

How, then, did you come to notice these things?”

Well, I was…I was following Elodie. I have been deeply concerned with her behaviour. I simply wanted to see what had so changed her.”

Ah. I see.”

He reached across the table and clutched my hand in his. “I know how this all sounds, Mrs Darby! I am not completely oblivious to what you must be thinking right now. You don’t believe me that something is wrong.”

I withdrew my hand from his long, slender fingers. “Eitenne, I believe that you believe something is not quite right with the Cirque du Flaire, and I have often found it is efficacious to listen to one’s instinct in these situations. In my profession, matters are rarely as they seem. That which appears obvious on the surface often possesses a most minatory underbelly. For what, precisely have you sought to engage my services? I assume you have come here for that purpose, not simply to regale me of your tales of conquest upon the firmament.”

But of course. I suspect very strongly that Flaire is up to something dastardly, but I am sadly without the appropriate faculties to solve the thing myself. Mrs Darby, I have come to implore you to attend our next performance. If anyone can solve the mystery of the circus in the sky, I have faith that it is you.”

I took a sip of my tea and mulled this over. “I see. I am rather keen on visiting the Cirque du Flaire, but I understand reservations for the performances are booked much in advance.”

Eitenne smiled. “Oui, that is quite so. But I was able to convince the hosts that an extremely well-favoured and important guest would be attending our performance and required special accommodation.”

Well, I am not certain anyone would consider me particularly favoured or prodigious, though I am quite popular in many circles and have completed a number of assignments for the very highest of society to the uttermost standard of success and professionalism.”

He fluttered his hand impatiently. “It matters not, Mrs Darby. There are many in England and abroad who know your name, have heard of your many exploits and would like to get a look at you. Besides which, our host is a Swede. Very out of touch with modern society. He wouldn’t know Shakespeare from a penny gaff.” He produced a folded pamphlet from a location I could only begin to envisage. He brandished it towards me. I hesitated. He pressed it into my hands. “It is your reservation for our latest performance. I took the liberty of procuring you a suite. I understand you are not married but do travel in the company of many of your associates?”

Indeed, I often do.”

I am sure you will all be most comfortable.”

I unfolded the pamphlet. “Ah. The show is this evening.”

Oui, madame, so you understand my urgency. It will be long before I will land again on your part of world.”

Yes, I do now. Well, I regret I will not be able to keep my appointment with Lady Mandragora today. She will, I expect, refuse to see me for another several months until her ire has abated. But, such is the nature of our particular relationship. I do find your proposition quite gripping.”

Eitenne breathed a theatrical sigh. “I regret, Mrs Darby, I have little money to pay. The life of a performer is exciting and rewarding, but it is not lucrative.”

I waved my hand in dismissal. “Consider it a wash, my good man. I am most delighted to have acquired this reservation. It is payment enough for the task to which I am now most keenly committed. Well, then.” I dropped a pound note on the table and rose to my feet. “Time wears on. I must gather my things if I intend to make my airship this evening. I will see you, then, sir, upon the Cirque du Flaire.”

Eitenne pushed back from the table and caught my hands. “I must ask one more thing of you, Mrs Darby,” he said earnestly.

Oh? Do go on, then.”

As you might imagine, I am fearful for my life and the life of my dear sister. If he can orchestrate the disappearance of my friend and any number of others, I know not what Flaire might be capable of doing to me and Elodie if he suspects I have hired you to investigate him.”

Ah. Of course. I understand most completely. I will am most proficient at appearing as an utterly innocent reveller without any investigative or adventurous intentions. I will behave just as though we have never met before.”

He bent low over my hand. “I am very relieved, Mrs Darby. Very grateful. I feel as though the weight of my fears has been lifted from upon my shoulders.”

I extracted my hand from his grip. “Well, then. I am pleased to be of service. I am looking very forward to taking in your performance this evening. I have always been keen on experiencing a live aerialist show. The closest I have experienced was a Finnish spy shimmying up a drainage pipe in Berlin to escape the M.O.D.”

For a moment, Eitenne looked quite uncertain whether he should laugh at this remark. I smiled brightly at him. I often received such a response and would likely have been disappointed had I failed to do this time.

Let us step lively, then, Eitenne. Good day. See you this evening.”

Good day, Mrs Darby.”

I did not wait for the young funambulist to follow me out of the Blue Bottle. I suspected he hung back, hoping to catch another glimpse of our hirsute server, who had failed to return to our table after my admonishment. I did not begrudge the young man his quirks; I was most pleased with the outcome of our audience. I hoped I might at the very least, however, salvage my remaining good will with the Lady Mandragora, and I proceeded to her shop around the corner with haste.

The woman was an absolute dragon, and my expressions of profuse regrets did little to assuage her choler. Nevertheless, after much persuasion and some grovelling, I eventually purchased an absolutely lovely and exceedingly costly blue hat with a peacock feather on the brim, and the Lady agreed to reschedule our appointment for two days hence. I was reasonably pleased with the results of our somewhat heated argument; I suspected the Lady would preserve some of that fine China silk for our meeting, knowing precisely my tastes, and the ostentatious headdress would be absolutely perfect for the carnival that evening.

My young cousin and lately ward were most conveniently within our hotel suite when I arrived. Xander and Juliana sat at the desk, bent, heads together, over a shiny brochure covered in esoteric symbols and formulas. They were discussing it earnestly, and their words were so incomprehensible, I assumed it must be some diabolical new scientific theory involving explosions, dangerous chemicals, directed energy or some other life-threatening element of which the two young scientists were so particularly fond

I cleared my throat pointedly to gain their attention. It took them both moments before they noticed I had returned. I crossed my arms over my chest and tapped my foot impatiently. When they finally glanced up at me, I smiled radiantly at them. “Ace. You are both here. I feared you would still be off tarrying away the day at the latest exhibition of sonic deep sea Kraken hunting apparati or the like.”

Juliana snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “Astrid. The Kraken? Honestly.”

Well, I am feeling somewhat silly at the moment.” I lowered myself to the corner of the bed and carefully lifted my newly acquired headdress from its box. “I regret to inform you both that our holiday has been placed—temporarily, I assure you–on hiatus.”

They stared at me in silence as I modelled the hat for them. They did not seem as keen on it as I had been. Xander, in fact, only barely concealed a most horrified expression. Then he frowned at me, quite outraged by all appearances. “But Astrid! You have taken a job? You promised you would not this time. Juliana and I were to visit the Museum of Astrological and Aeronautical Excogitation tomorrow.”

It is supposed to be currently displaying the most innovative and exciting exhibit since Dr Fairway’s Study of the Skeletal Imperatives,” Juliana added. She looked as mightily disappointed as young Knightly, but I was certain their ill-feelings would fall away as soon as they learned of our latest assignment.

I am quite sorry to foil your grand schemes for the afternoon. As such, you may feel free to refuse joining me on this latest expedition. I am confident I am quite capable of solving this particular mystery on my own.”

My two young wards exchanged a suspicious glance. “Do tell, then, Astrid,” Xander said. “You were quite keen on enjoying some leisure time. You must be extraordinarily compelled to cut it short.”

I smiled. “Indeed. I was quite compelled, as you say.” I admired the ostentatious hat in the small mirror above the vanity across the room. “So compelled was I, in fact, that I cancelled my appointment with the tempestuous Lady Mandragora, despite the difficulty with which I persuaded her to accept me. She swore she would never fit me again, though I did manage to insinuate myself back into her good graces by the purchase of this very fine and elegant hat.”

Juliana rolled her eyes. The young lady had thus far displayed little patience with my predilection for dramatic suspense. “We do understand the difficult nature of your decision, Astrid, but what has caused it?”

I thrust my nose indignantly into the air. The moment had been lost, and there was no sense drawing it out. “As I was entering the Lady’s shop to keep our fitting appointment, I noticed a most intriguing advert for Pietro Augustus Flaire’s air-borne circus.”

Cirque du Flaire?” Xander said.

The same.”

I have seen the adverts all over the city since we arrived. It is supposed to be a most thrilling pageant.”

Yes, I have heard as much myself in so many words. I was quite intrigued by the idea of a flying circus, but, sadly, reservations are thoroughly booked through their last shows in England. It is a most novel, idea, is it not? A circus in the sky? Have you seen the ship hovering above the city, glinting in the sun and spilling music into the streets? Delightful.”

Please, Astrid, get to the point,” Juliana ordered impatiently.

I laughed merrily. The young lady was in much better health these days. Her complexion was positively rosy, and she had filled out nicely. A more pleasant and sensible companion I could not have devised. “Right. Of course. I beg your forgiveness. I do enjoy overusing my words, but I assure you I have not been visiting an unrelated tangent.” I allowed them a moment to exchange a long-suffering glance. “Whilst I was admiring the poster, I was unexpectedly accosted in the street by a man bedecked in the most unusual raiment. He introduced himself as Eitenne Allard. Young Eitenne is terribly concerned, you see, that his twin sister, Elodie, has been somehow altered by their mutual employer.”

Xander lifted a reluctantly interested eyebrow. “Altered in what way, Astrid?”

I smiled. My young wards were suitably ensnared. Their eyes glinted keenly with the promise of a thrilling new mystery. “Young Eitenne believes Elodie has been beguiled in some fashion. She is behaving most unusually and is, by his account, a much changed woman; no longer the sweet, playful girl he remembers.”

Please explain, Astrid,” Juliana commanded in a restrained tone of voice that suggested she was suppressing her pique. “It is enough to drive a person mad the way you belabour the point.”

I laughed gaily. “All right, all right. That is no way to speak to your benefactor, Juliana, but I will allow it as I am simply bursting to regale you. Eitenne’s and Elodie’s employer is none other than the very same Pietro Augustus Flaire.”

Astrid! Indeed?”

Oh, yes.”

Why did you not lead with that?” Juliana looked so exasperated, Xander and I exchanged an amused glance.

Eitenne is one of the Cirque du Flaire’s more flamboyant funambulists. He is quite certain there is something nefarious afoot in the Cirque.”

Such as?” Xander asked.

He cites his sister’s peculiar change of affectation. He believes Flaire is controlling her somehow.”

How?”

We can only conjecture wildly at that. Eitenne is, as they say, a bit of a flake. In any case, he suggested some of the patrons have disappeared off the ship from port to port.”

Juliana lifted her eyebrows. “Whilst in the air?”

Yes.”

How many?”

I lifted my shoulders. “He could only offer specifics of one, and in that case I think it it entirely possible the young man misread the situation and was subsequently shunned by said guest. Nevertheless, I have agreed to take his case.”

Xander smiled. “I shouldn’t wonder your decision to do so had something to do with the fact that the subject of the investigation is the famous Mr Flaire?”

Indeed,” I admitted. “It did sway my decision somewhat.”

Well?” Juliana put in. “So when do we begin?”

I withdrew my gold watch from the breast pocket of my vest. “Ah. I’m afraid we haven’t much time. Pack your bags for an overnight trip.”

But where are we going?”

I glanced up at my two young wards. “But haven’t I mentioned? Eitenne was so kind as to offer us a suite on the Cirque du Flaire for the evening’s sold out performance.”

Astrid!” Xander exclaimed.

Juliana leapt to her feet with a disgruntled sigh. “Again, Astrid, you might have lead with that.”

I find little fun in making such matters so straightforward, Juliana, as you know.” I rose from the bed to examine the contents of the wardrobe. “I would be most delighted to have my most loyal and trusted companions with me on this exciting investigation.” I half turned my head to give them a mischievous smile. “However, if you will be terribly disappointed to miss your exhibition…”

No, no,” Xander said, humouring me. “I think we can catch the tail end of the exhibition when we return tomorrow. We will only be in the air for the night, yes?”

Indeed. We will have limited time to solve our mystery; I suspect the famous Dr. Flaire will notice if we’ve stowed away on the ship to investigate his day to day activities.” I drew a most elegant green gown from the wardrobe and held it up in the mirror. It complemented my peacock blue hat most handsomely. “I do very much suspect, between us, that the flamboyant Eitenne is imagining the sinister motivations of his employer. He has offered little to support his claims. I have, however, suspected as much in the past. I am often sceptical when entering into an investigation and often surprised by the shocking reality of the situation.”

A grim silence settled upon us, and I knew my young wards, as I, were remembering poor Juliana’s beloved father, Julius, whose gruesome crimes had utterly astonished us all.

Well,” I said, slightly more subdued, “we have little time. I suggest we all pack our things and retire to the lounge below whilst we await a car. I believe it would behoove us to arrive at the airship port in style. Our client did, perhaps, somewhat exaggerate my especial importance to the realm in order to secure our reservation.”

My young wards and I were accustomed to last-minute preparations for hastily accepted assignments, and it took mere moments to pack our things for the evening’s sojourn. We convened in the hotel’s lounge, and I sipped my tea as Xander and Juliana eyed my elegant chapeau with scarcely concealed antipathy. I smiled luminously around at our fellow patrons, who, too, seemed put-off by the flash appearance of my peacock feathered hat. I was most pleased by the reactions; I could not have devised a more suitable accessory for such a fanciful evening as that which lay ahead.

I understand Professor Eccelson visited the Cirque de Flaire last year while on holiday in France,” Xander said, diverting his gaze from my general direction. “The Cirque is quite popular there, I understand. The professor was only able to secure the reservation when his uncle took ill and was unable to attend as planned. His uncle recovered quite nicely, gratefully. The professor said it was a spectacle the like of which he had never seen, and he has spent much time in the Indies and Asia experiencing a life of exotic pleasures.”

I have, in fact, heard somewhat sinister things about the carnival,” Juliana said. “I have heard there is an Indian snake tamer who is able to hypnotise complete audiences.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “And from whom have you heard such a thing?”

Uncle Silas. He has seen the show himself in Vienna. He insisted he felt quite unlike himself afterward. As though he had undergone some transcendent experience. He said it felt as if he had gone out of his body and floated above the arena. He said it felt as though his fellow audience members were all around him, outside their bodies and soaring above the crowd.”

Most provocative. I myself would like to experience such a thing, but I suspect it would be most difficult for someone such as myself, so firmly rooted in reality.”

Xander sniggered. “Firmly rooted in reality, Astrid? You have quested for cursed masks and walked with the ghosts of a haunted wharf.”

I lifted my chin. “Indeed, but I have never lost my head, have I? It is most indecorous.”

He smiled across the table at Juliana. My own smile was tinged with sadness. My two wards were becoming far too grown up for my liking. They treated me as much an equal these days as their guardian, and they hardly seemed to need one. The days of my young cousin’s wide-eyed admiration and undivided attention to my every word had come so unexpectedly to an end, I wondered if he hadn’t been putting me on for quite a number of years.

I did not so much mind this new dimension of our relationship, however. My two companions were quite enjoyable company, even if they often treated me like a tiresome spinster out-of-step with the more modern schools of thought. I had long ago suspected as much myself.

Mrs Darby?”

A young, swarthy porter in a crisp navy suit approached our table already half hunched into a deep bow. I smiled at him. “Indeed, sir.”

He bobbed his head. “A steam car is waiting outside for you.”

I clapped my hands briskly. “Ace. Step lively then, my young cousins.”

If Juliana disapproved my sudden adoption, she did not remark. Her face lit up in excitement. Xander, too, looked as though the prospect of the evening had completely chased away any thoughts of Skeletal Imperatives and Astronomical Blunders, or whatever they had been so keen to research hours ago. I myself felt rather buoyed by the evening ahead, which quite explicitly promised delectation, stimulation and stupefaction.

Our driver was unfamiliar to me, but my preferred chauffeur, Mr Mills, was not, to my dissatisfaction, available to travel with my entourage. “Where ya off to?” the portly, middle-aged man asked cheerfully.

The airship port, if you please, sir.”

Ah. Off to see the circus, are you?”

Indeed.”

I heard it’s a ripping good show, I did.”

Yes. I am certain it will be. I have heard such myself.”

Wish I could see it. I love the circus. Haven’t been since I was a kid.” His cheerful aspect faltered, and he lapsed into a sullen silence which he maintained throughout the remainder of the journey, for which I was rather grateful.

The airship port was bustling with excited revellers, awaiting their turn to board the enormous aerostat. The ship bobbed gleefully several feet above the ground, as though the hundreds of multi-coloured balloons tethered above the smooth, shining red and yellow big top circus tent strained to lift the ship back up into the air. I had seen the ship in pictures and so had anticipated the remarkable vision, but Xander and Juliana exclaimed delightedly over the sight.

It is most impressive, isn’t it?” Juliana said. Her delicate features illuminated in a smile.

It does look quite cheerful, doesn’t it?” My gaze drifted uneasily to the bright, beamish balloons. “I do hope the construct is sound.”

Xander chuckled with a very slight note of smugness. “Astrid, I am certain the balloons are merely for spectacle. They are not the primary means of propelling the aerostat. There is likely an engine as any other ship of the kind.”

It is most singular, though,” Juliana put in. “I have never seen a ship of its like. What sort of engine do you suppose is propelling the thing?”

Ah, simple pressurised gas, surely. It is no different from the dirigibles to which we have grown accustomed.”

It is rather larger.”

Indeed. And rather more ostentatious,” I added. “I find I am feeling quite festive.”

I was not alone in this. The assemblage surrounding the floating tent was lively and loud. Juliana’s remarkable head was not yet filled with the awe of the upcoming spectacle. “But how will we investigate the ringmaster in this throng, Astrid? It will be quite a challenge to get close enough to him.”

I smiled blithely. “Indeed, I am certain it will, but I believe the crowd may prove to be to our advantage. It is not the famous Flaire to whom we must get close, I suspect. It is Miss Allard. In any case, I do even more firmly suspect the threat exists mostly in our young client’s head. I intend to thoroughly enjoy the show. I do hope Eitenne is a greater funambulist than an evaluator of people.”

The crowd advanced suddenly forward, and we cheerfully joined the queue to board the fantastical ship. An ostiary stood at the entrance, which resembled a tent flap that opened into a large, brightly lit anteroom. He was an unnaturally large man, broad and resembling oddly an oversized metal and synthetic flesh automaton. His face was smooth and so evenly, plainly featured he looked as though he had been assembled from stock pieces. The fine, stubbly growth of fuzz upon his perfectly spherical head was nearly colourless. The only remarkable thing about the man, excepting his peculiar size and plasticine features was his outrageous raiment, which resembled that of a very confused clown. His broad chest strained the buttons of the red and white striped vest, and the plum purple trousers were too short for his long, thick legs. He wore enormous floppy yellow shoes.

He did not speak. He examined my reservation and held the tent flap aside so my wards and I could step into the brilliance of the lobby. The sun filtered through the red and yellow walls, casting the assemblage in bright, festive colours, as though they were all a part of the spectacle. Just inside the door, a quite ordinarily-sized porter waited at a podium to check our reservations. I wondered that the young, dark-haired and pleasantly red-suited young man did not simply await his guests at the entrance, but perhaps the circus had such appeal, the strangely constructed ostiary was necessary to keep out the stowaways and riff-raff.

Ah. Mrs Darby,” the porter greeted. He bowed low to me. “I am to show you to your suite.”

Indeed? Why, we would be most grateful, sir.”

Come this way, if you please, sir and mesdames.” His step was swift, as though he wished to dispense of this bit of hospitality as hastily as possible. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the particular treatment as he led us through a corridor off the main lobby that appeared to form a perimeter around the lobby and likely the circus rings in the centre of the big top.

The suite into which the porter bowed us was not as grand as our accommodations in London. It was, in fact, two small adjoining rooms draped in colourful hangings and quilts. The suite resembled most delightfully a circus caravan wagon. It glowed red as the sun filtered through the brightly coloured canvas walls. Most conveniently, a small water closet abutted the two bedrooms. It would suffice for a single evening.

Ah. Lovely. This will do, won’t it?” I smiled at my two wards. “Xander, you may take the smaller room without the bureau. Juliana and I can share this room quite nicely, I expect.”

Xander and Juliana looked slightly disappointed. I understood their fondness for each other, but, unless I had been most grievously inattentive on that particular day, my dear wards had not yet announced any intent to marry. It would simply not do to allow them to share a room. I did take my guardian duties quite seriously in regard to the young lady, though she seemed most determined to defy me in many such matters. I did so like Juliana. She reminded me quite often of myself.

Shall we dress for dinner and cocktails?” I smiled brightly at them. “I am most eager to get a look at the place. Aren’t you?”

You aren’t honestly going to wear that hat, are you, Astrid?” Xander asked.

I lifted an eyebrow. “Well, it is a party, isn’t it? A grand spectacle. I believe a little pageantry is in order, don’t you?”

I quite agree,” Juliana said. “I, for one, intend to make the most of it. If you would be so kind, Xander, we ladies do require our privacy.”

He rolled his eyes and ducked out of the room. I did not hold out any hope that the young man would uphold the spirit of the evening, but Juliana, at least, did enjoy a bit of show now and then. Her gown was most outrageous, a brilliant blue with large silver spangles adorning the collar, hem and sleeves. The hoop skirt was so wide, she could hardly navigate the small room without rebounding off the furniture. She perched a miniature top hat over her hair and drew the sparkling silver veil over her eyes. She curtsied smartly. “I do wish I had time to purchase a new hat, Astrid. Yours is quite delightful, under the circumstances.”

I do thank you, Juliana. Will you fetch Xander?”

There was no need. He could hear our voices through the thin canvas hangings that separated the two rooms of the suite. He stepped smartly out from around the blue and green striped hanging curtain and bowed. He looked quite flash in a black pin stripe tuxedo and top hat. “I am quite ready.” He offered his arm to Juliana, but her skirt prevented him stepping any closer to her. As it should be.

You look quite dashing, Xander.”

He winked at her. “Why, thank you. It is a special occasion, after all. And I have been waiting for an opportunity to wear this suit.”

I am most impressed with your spirit, cousin. If we are all agreed, shall we be off, then?”

The corridor teemed with revellers moving excitedly towards the grand ballroom. We joined the throng as it carried us into the large, colourful lobby. The atmosphere was boisterous and festive. Guests in bright, gilded costumes chattered gaily to each other in small groups, sipping colourful cocktails and flutes of champagne. Laughter tinkled from every corner.

Sir, mesdames? Champagne?” A waiter in a red suit paused beside us carrying a tray of the pale, bubbly liquid.

Ah. Yes, I think so.” I accepted the delicate flute and sipped appreciatively. I laid a shilling coin on the young man’s tray. “Much obliged, sir.”

Juliana, as well, took a glass of the dry, bubbly champagne, but Xander frowned at us disapprovingly. “I recommend moderation, ladies. We are, after all, on the job.”

I rolled my eyes. “I hardly think a glass or two of champagne will affect our keen skills, do you, Xander? You should enjoy one yourself. It is most delectable.”

Do you see our client anywhere, Astrid?” Juliana asked, peering curiously around the room as though she expected young Eitenne to emerge, bejewelled and tumbling about the room like a clown.

No. I am sure he is preparing for the evening’s performance. I would not expect to see him until after the show.”

A murmur like the soft, insistent buzz of bees filled the room as all eyes turned to the tall man who had just appeared in a flash of brilliant yellow smoke. He wore a handsome, shiny red and gold suit, and his figure was fit indeed. He had the look of a bodybuilder or a former fighter, though he wore the suit like a gentleman. He had once, perhaps, been one of the circus performers. He was not an old man, but he appeared quite distinguished and mature. His fine-looking, deeply tanned face boasted a most elegant handlebar moustache and a trim, pointed beard. Upon his dark, overlong curls, he wore a tall, brilliant gold top hat in a jaunty sort of way that made him seem insouciant and cocksure.

Ah,” I said, smiling. “And here must be our illustrious host, Pietro Augustus Flaire.”

Juliana lifted an eyebrow. “He is rather fine, isn’t he?”

Xander scowled. “He is our subject, Juliana.”

She laughed. “Indeed, but that does not prevent me admiring him, does it, Astrid?”

I believe I have never discovered an instance in which admiring the subject negatively affects the outcome of an investigation. That is, unless one becomes too closely involved with the subject, and I assure you, once is well enough to learn from the mistake.” I felt my cheeks heat slightly, though I did not suspect there was any danger of my young ward repeating my own errors in judgement. She was quite clever in that regard.

He looks as though he’s seen the world,” Juliana added.

There was a distinct aura of excitement and sophistication, an air of adventure about the ringmaster. Something about him reminded me almost forcibly of Agent Asher Key, whom I had always admired for the sense of dash and escapade about him. There was always a certain sort of risk to life and limb when one was in the company of Asher Key. Perhaps Pietro Augustus Flaire often enjoyed the thrill and danger of adventure. Perhaps he had merely spent much time traversing the globe in his flying circus and seen many extraordinary destinations.

I’d like to get a closer look at him,” I announced. “You two enjoy the festivities, yes? Ta.”

Many of the revellers gathered tightly around Flaire, clapping and cheering merrily as he smiled out at them with pearly teeth that looked peculiarly sharp. He bowed low to them. “Thank you all for coming. It is my very deepest pleasure to see you all here tonight.” He stepped forward into the crowd, and they seemed to swallow him up, shaking his hand and exclaiming over the delightful smoke trick.

There did not seem anything particular sinister about the man. He was certainly flash, and his enthusiasm seemed likely put on a bit, but his smile was quite guileless. He looked like any other performer eager for the praise of his audience. As I watched him, I grew more deeply certain by the moment that young Eitenne was, in fact, quite mistaken about his master’s dark intentions.

It is the hat, isn’t it?” The voice was soft against my ear. His breath stirred the stray hairs on the back of of my neck.

I spun and was most startled to find Agent Asher Key standing directly in front of me with a smart, smug smile. “Ash! The hat?”

He lifted an eyebrow. He looked quite dashing this evening. I had so rarely seen the man so well put together. His suit was fine black wool, and it suited his strong figure quite nicely. His dark blonde hair appeared recently trimmed, though I rather missed the roguish, over-long mane he’d sported when last we met. “I was simply attempting to guess what about him so interests you. You seem quite enthralled by the man.”

I smiled. “Not for the reasons you think.”

No indeed?”

But what are you doing here? I would not have expected to find you at such a frivolous spectacle as this.”

Ah.” His cobalt gaze slid from mine for an ephemeral instant. He looked distinctly uncomfortable.

I lifted my eyebrows. The good cheer I’d experienced since my impromptu audience with Eitenne Allard seemed to pop like a balloon. My stomach clenched as I realised Asher must not have come alone. Oh, that was fine, after our most intimate discussion on the Isle of Jules. Fine indeed. “I see.”

You see?” He looked back at me in surprise. “What do you see?”

I had no intention of giving him the satisfaction of deducing the sudden, boiling thrill of jealousy that had coursed through me at the thought of his date. I smiled pleasantly at him. “It is of nothing, Ash. It was, of course, my decision–”

Asher, darling! There you are.”

Asher and I turned to the woman. I gaped at her in shock. When Asher turned back to me with a bemused aspect, I snapped my mouth shut. I had not realised his tastes ran towards elderly matrons, but the woman seemed quite certain they had arrived united. The woman was stout, dressed in a shocking pink gown with long, black gloves and a lacy black hat atop her meticulous blonde curls. Her face was still lovely despite her advancing age, though she could have been Ash’s mother, for their difference in years.

I wondered to where you’d disappeared so suddenly.” The woman swatted him playfully with a large, lacy black fan that complemented her wide-brimmed hat. “One moment I was speaking to Mr Deerford, and the next I turned around to find you quite absent.”

Asher rolled his eyes. “I am sorry, Mother.”

Suddenly, I felt quite foolish.

I spotted an old colleague of mine.”

I pressed a hand delicately to my lips to prevent the bubble of laughter from escaping. His mother. Indeed, my blitheness returned as though it had never left me.

Asher appeared somewhat nonplussed by this unexpected union of mother and former lover. His discomfort was practically tangible. I was most amused. “Colleague?” his mother asked, glancing around as though someone else might emerge from the crowd to greet her. “But where is he?”

Not he. She. Mother, may I introduce Mrs Astrid Darby. Astrid, this is my mother, Mrs Vera Key.”

The matron stared at me for several moments. There was no expression on her face, but her eyes widened almost imperceptibly. I inclined my head to her, though I did not expect an equally polite reception from the women. My profession does not recommend me to polite society, and I am quite notorious in many circles. Asher, too, seemed curious to see his mother’s reaction to me. I wondered, for the first time in our acquaintance, if he’d spoken of me to his parents.

I am most delighted to make your acquaintance, Mrs Key.”

Most unexpectedly, Mrs Key’s aged face lit up. She looked suddenly years younger, almost childlike. “Astrid Darby!” She stepped towards me and clutched my hands in hers. “You must call me Vera. I have heard so very much about you, not just from my son. You name is quite well known in society.”

I smiled dryly. “Yes, I have heard such before.”

I am so pleased to finally meet you. There are so many stories. I simply could not believe it.”

I am gratified by your acknowledgment, but I am afraid many of the tales of my exploits have been blown quite out of proportion. They are not all true.”

Vera smiled slyly. “It is impossible to judge the truth of a tale when it comes from this precocious lad.”

Mother!” Asher scolded. “I am not a precocious lad any longer, I’ll thank you to remember. I’m a grown man.”

So he often reminds me,” Vera told me conspiratorially. “But I still like to think of him as my sweet little boy.”

I stifled a snicker. Asher did not seem particularly embarrassed by the woman, and I suspected she was putting him on a bit. She threaded an arm through mine.

You simply must join us for dinner this evening. I would just love to hear some of the true stories. Is it really true you were responsible for the destruction of Big Ben last summer?”

I waved a blithe hand. “That is an oversimplification, though I shouldn’t wonder who was spreading such tales.” I glanced archly at Asher. His expression was unrepentant. “I would be happy to regale you of the full and accurate account of events.”

Asher rolled his eyes. “Full and accurate events indeed. Do not believe a word she says, Mother. She is infamous for her embellishments.”

Asher Key!” I scolded. “That is a most charitable and untrue thing to say, particularly in polite company. Why, I am known for being a most eloquent and trustworthy speaker.”

That does not necessarily indicate your truthfulness.” He lifted an eyebrow and peered through the crowd around us. “Are you alone this evening, Astrid?”

Oh, you know me. I rarely travel alone. I am joined this evening by my dear young wards, Xander and Juliana.”

Ah. And how is the young lady?”

She is quite well indeed. Her treatments have been most effective. Dr Yeager expects a complete recover in the near future.”

Indeed?” Vera asked. “I have heard about Miss Coffin. The poor young girl. I have hear she was quite ill, and she has enough to be getting on with, what with the scandal with her father.”

Ah, but Juliana is quite resilient, Mother.”

She is that,” I agreed. “She rarely allows herself to fall prey to despair or worry, though she has much reason. She is a delightful companion, and she gets along famously with my dear young cousin. Her presence is simply a light in our lives. I have not for a moment regretted taking her in as my ward.”

And has she become a full fledged member of your entourage?” Vera appeared rather amused by the very idea.

Ah, well, she is still not as strong as she could be. She is, however, very eager to learn our family business, and she is exceedingly clever. She’s been terribly helpful on many occasions with her intellectual contributions, though I suspect she will soon demand a more hands-on experience.”

Oh, you must invite your young wards to dine with us. I am eager to meet two more adventurers, particularly a keen young lady. I am a great supporter of equality for women, you see. We are as capable as men in many fields, as I am sure you have proven on a number of occasions.”

I smiled. “I would like to think so.”

I suspect we are often more effective. I am certain my son would agree. Would you not, darling?”

Asher rolled his eyes again, but his mouth turned up slightly in amusement. “Speaking of your particular employment, Astrid, what did you say brings you to the circus this evening?”

I did not say. I was invited by a new friend.”

And what friend would this be? Mr Flaire?”

It is Dr Flaire, I understand.” I glanced sidelong at him. His jaw tightened slightly. I smiled. “But no, I am not acquainted with the good Master Flaire. It was, in fact, one of the funambulists, funnily enough.”

I did not realise you were particular friends with the performers, Astrid.”

I laughed. “Well, there are many things about me of which you know little, Asher.”

He frowned. Vera barked with appreciative laughter. “It appears as though my son is a bit jealous, Mrs Darby.”

I am not jealous. I am simply concerned for with whom Astrid spends her time.”

I assure you, Ash, I have spent only the briefest half hour with the young man this afternoon in the Blue Bottle.”

Ah. I see. So you are on the job, then.”

That remains to be seen. My time this evening has been engaged, but I am not convinced a need for my services truly exists.”

But this is not like you, Astrid. I understand you were to be on holiday. It’s unlike you to cut it short for such a thing.”

Ah, well, there is the perk of the location of the engagement, isn’t there?”

Asher laughed. “Ah. I see. So you are here for the show.”

Indeed. I am looking most forward to it.”

As are we,” Vera put in cheerfully. “I haven’t had such a laugh in a number of years. I was delighted that my son could join me on our adventure. My husband has been bed-ridden for months, you see. His health is failing in his old age.”

I am very sorry to hear that.”

She waved her hand. “Thank you, dear, but it suits him well. He always did prefer dallying abed all day. Now he is forced to do so, and he has never been happier.”

That is unkind, Mother,” Asher scolded mildly.

Oh, you know I jest, darling. Your father worked quite hard when he was young and strong. He deserves a little rest on his twilight years. In any case, I rarely see much of my dear son these days. He is always off on some adventure. His job of course, as I’m sure you know quite well. I do not begrudge him his life’s work. Still, I do enjoy the times we have together.”

I cast a sidelong smile at Asher. He lifted his shoulders in a tiny shrug. It was rather sweet, his attention to his mother. I opened my mouth to reply to Vera, but Flaire’s voice, amplified by the enormous brass trumpet into which he spoke, attracted the attention of the party. He stood on a podium in the centre of the room, and he looked arresting there, exhilarated, above the crowd as though there were nowhere else in the world he was meant to be.

Welcome all of you to the Cirque du Flaire, a Dazzling Spectacle of Delectation, Stimulation and Stupefaction Amidst the Clouds and Among the Firmament!” It sounded impressive from his lips, and the crowd trilled their appreciation, though they had likely seen the words dozens of times, emblazoned across the city. “If you’ll all join me in the dining room, we will be serving dinner before the main event. Feast, enjoy yourselves, and I will see you at the show.” With that, Flaire bent in a deep, graceful bow and disappeared in a puff of sunny yellow smoke.

Applause broke out among the crowd, but Flaire was no longer there to appreciate it. I rolled my eyes, but I could not prevent the smile turning up my lips. The man certainly had a flair for the dramatic. “Well, on that, I must find my young wards.”

Asher!”

Ah. But they have found us,” Asher replied, turning to Xander and Juliana, who had made their way to us through the crowd. The two young people looked quite astonished to see him.

What are you doing here, Agent Key?” Juliana asked. “Did Astrid invite you along, as well?”

Asher smiled. “Indeed, she did not. It was a happy coincidence that brought us together this evening, as it happens.”

Ah.” My two young wards glanced at each other, and I was certain a look of smug amusement passed between them. I lifted a suspicious eyebrow.

Don’t be impolite, darling,” Vera scolded her son.

Yes, of course, Mother. Sorry. This is Juliana Coffin and Alexander Knightly. Juliana, Xander, this is my mother, Vera Key.”

Xander blinked in surprise. “Your mother?”

Vera lifted an eyebrow. Her expression was arch. “Honestly, is there something wrong these days with spending time with your mother, young man?”

Xander’s ears turned pink. “No! No. Of course not. It is very nice, I’m sure. I was simply surprised, as I had not realised Asher was capable of taking leisure time.”

Both Xander and I would be happy to spend time with our mothers,” Juliana said in a slightly softer voice than usual. “If we had the chance. They have both passed, you see.”

Oh, you poor dears.” Vera threaded an arm through Juliana’s to lead her to the dining room. “Come. You simply must join us for dinner.”

Asher slowed to allow his mother to lead my two wards towards the dining room. I could hear her telling Xander and Juliana about a most amusing incident in which a six-year-old Asher was caught by the local constabulary attempting to apprehend a young pickpocket he’d witnessed relieve a man of his purse in the market. The young pickpocket, by Vera’s telling, had put up quite a fight, but the intractable young Asher had leapt upon the young thief’s back until the policeman had arrived. The policeman, believing the young vigilante to be fighting, had taken him home by the ear and given him a very stern talking-to.

All right, Astrid. Let me have it.”

I’m sure I haven’t any idea what you mean.”

He looked as though he did not quite believe me. “Since my father fell ill, my mother hasn’t had many opportunities to take leisure.”

I find it most endearing that you’re spending your evening with her.”

He lifted an eyebrow. His mouth turned up at the corners in amusement. “Do you?”

I miss my mother. I would have enjoyed taking in a circus with her.” I smiled at him. “So how have you been, Ash?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Much the same.”

Ah. Traversing the globe, capturing dangerous villains and the like?”

That does sound about right. And what of you? Have you taken any interesting cases since we thwarted that assassination plot in Prague?”

One or two.”

Do you intend to tell me on what you are currently working?” I waited until we were seated beside Xander and Juliana, who were so thoroughly engaged with Asher’s mother that they hardly noticed us join them at the large, round, polished wood table. I smiled at Asher, who folded his red and white striped cloth napkin meticulously over his knees before giving me an expectant look. “I wondered when you might ask. You are always simply bursting with curiosity about my work. I have had time to consider the matter.”

He sighed in a long-suffering sort of way. “And to what conclusion did you come?”

I am not certain it is appropriate to speak of it in mixed company.”

Asher let out a bark of laughter. It sounded much like his mother’s. “If you mean my mother, I assure you she will pry it from you eventually.”

I waved my hand. “I do not speak of your mother. She seems quite clever. I can see from where you get it.”

Is that an actual compliment, Astrid? I had not realised we’d moved into that stage in our relationship. Shall I reciprocate?” He considered a moment. “Your new hat is…really rather lurid.”

You are poor at this. Do not become too excited, besides. It was merely an observation. In either case, we cannot be certain not to be overheard. My client is quite fearful for his life. He suspects there was some great degree of danger in enlisting my assistance with his problem.”

Indeed? Danger? On the ship?”

He believes so most wholeheartedly.”

He leaned keenly towards me. “I simply must know. I do enjoy a good show, but there is nothing like thwarting a wicked plot.”

I smiled. Indeed, I often felt the same. “My client suspects there is something sinister afoot on the ship. Hypnotism and the like, people disappearing from port to port.”

Is that so? Is there any evidence of this?”

Not as such. In fact, it sounds as though perhaps the guest simply snuck off the ship early in order to avoid our client.”

Ah. I see.”

He believes most emphatically that something has been done to his sister. He believes she has been altered somehow.”

Altered? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

Nor do I, truly. He claims she has changed since joining the troupe. She has become more serious and spends less time with her brother, by his account.”

I see. But is there anything more substantial?”

I’m afraid there is not. Not at all. I am under the distinct impression that the young funambulist has a particular flair for the dramatic.”

Ah.” He smiled, but he did not say anything more, for an army of waiters stormed the dining room with trays of plates loaded with steaming meat and potatoes. The aroma was quite magnificent and reminded me that, in our haste to make the port on time, we had neglected our luncheon that afternoon. We waited to continue our conversation until our dinner was before us and our wine had been refilled. “So what is your plan, Astrid?”

I considered this as I sipped the crisp white wine. “I have not formed a plan, as such.”

Asher laughed. “That is much like you.”

Is it not? I thought I would simply wing it.”

Much as usual. I would, of course, be happy to offer my assistance in your investigation.” His cobalt eyes glittered as they slid to his mother. “I do love my mother, but she can be an exhausting companion.”

I smiled. “But won’t she mind losing you?”

I am sure she will make do. She is simply delighted to be away from home. I think she would be happy to spend all evening in the lounge, enjoying this rare freedom from responsibility and acquainting herself with anyone who might come too close.”

I laughed. “She is an accommodating women, to be sure. All right then, Ash. I am always happy to avail myself of your particular expertise. I would like first to get a look at all our players during the show.”

You mean you would like to get a look at the show.”

Well, it is, after all, my payment for services rendered. I intend to do my very best for the young man just as soon as I’ve taken in the full enjoyment the evening offers.”

There was a naughty curve to his lips, but I elected to disregard it.

Our dinner passed companionably, and I enjoyed Vera’s many amusing tales of a young Agent Asher Key. She was a wonderfully engaging speaker, and we nearly failed to notice the peculiarly gangly, emaciated man who appeared from behind a shimmering red curtain. He was not a handsome man. His features were worn and rugged. His short, dark hair was swept artlessly back from his face. His white and gold suit looked ill-fitting. It was slightly too short for him; his white socks peeked out from the hem above his shining white shoes.

He address the party in a low, rumbling voice. “If you would all please join me in the arena.” Without further ado, he swept the curtain aside and gestured gracelessly towards it.

Not much of a speaker, is he?” Asher remarked.

What a peculiar looking man,” Vera added.

I do not think speaking is his primary function,” I said, folding my napkin carefully into fours and rising from my seat. “Shall we, then?”

Asher offered an arm to his mother. She waved him off. “I can make my way just fine on my own, young man.”

I smiled as Xander and Juliana moved together towards the arena, speaking softly with their heads together. Vera followed them, and, as I suspected she had intended, Asher offered his arm to me. “Allow me, Astrid.”

We followed the polite, orderly procession into the arena. It perfectly resembled a circus tent with a large ring in the centre for the performers. Hoops, chains and nets hung from the pointed ceiling, awaiting the aerialists and funambulists that would make use of them. Red velvet padded bleachers lined the room in a semi-circle. The other half of the tent was dark, and I sensed movement in the shadows. The guests exclaimed in delight as they took their seats, eager for the spectacle to begin.

We selected a row of benches near the shimmering curtain. I have found that, when one is on the job, there is often occasion to slip away whilst everyone else is otherwise occupied. We were not the last to select our seats. As the last of the lingering party entered the arena, the tent went suddenly completely dark. I sensed movement again and then heard the shuffling of the performers moving into the centre ring.

A roaring blaze illuminated the large chamber and a row of torches circling the ring lit as though touched by an invisible hand. In the centre of the ring, Pietro Augustus Flaire lifted his arms to accept the crowd’s delighted applause. “Welcome, welcome, ladies and gentlemen!” His voice boomed through the arena as though amplified, but he was not holding his brass trumpet. His face seemed lit from within. “Welcome to the Cirque du Flaire! Magnificent thrills and spine-tingling chills await you in our ring where clowns cavort, funambulists rollick, exotic beasts ramble and you, my dear friends, will transcend to planes of consciousness hitherto unexplored by the ordinary man!”

At this, I turned my head to Xander, who was peering back at me. His interest, as mine, was piqued by these very provocative words. Perhaps Eitenne had not been so completely mistaken, after all. Flaire’s promises sounded slightly sinister, even with his wide, gleaming smile. Asher shifted in his seat and leaned to speak in my ear.

Transcend to planes of consciousness hitherto unexplored? What, precisely, does that mean?”

I’ve no idea, but I must admit, my interest is piqued.”

The crowd murmured excitedly as Flaire stopped speaking, beaming around at them. He lifted his hands to the pointed ceiling, and the crowd fell instantly silent. The air was charged. As Flaire dropped his hands, the lights blinked out and plunged the room in pitch blackness once again.

Soft, playful hurdy gurdy music tinkled through the tent, sounding tinny and antiquated. The music soared in an almost startling and impossible crescendo, and a tiny light flared in the centre of the ring, as though it were floating in mid-air. Faces appeared suddenly in the flash, and it seemed to grow almost imperceptibly until an army of clowns with metallic-painted faces and strange, protruding brass goggles over their eyes or pushed into their wild, shock white hair emerged from the shadows into the sudden brightness. They leapt and cavorted over each other in a silly, peculiarly graceful dance, tweaking each others’ noses or falling into somersaults and back flips as their fellows tripped or shoved them to the glittering floor.

Despite the amusing pantomime, the creatures evoked a strange, creeping sensation along my spine. Xander, as well, seemed quite rapt with horror, but Vera clapped and laughed as the clowns struck each other and fell backward onto the waiting backs of their brothers. The clowns, however, were merely a prelude to the odd spectacles to come.

The light blinked out again as suddenly as before. The music changed, slipping from the playful hurdy gurdy to a dark, ominous dirge. When it flared again, the clowns gathered in a tight bunch, carrying between them what appeared to be a stretcher with a still and silent figure covered in a white sheet that shimmered in the faintly flickering torch light. The clowns bent and waved their arms over the figure as though it might suddenly rise up from under the sheet.

From the shadows, another clown emerged, dragging a small, square gleaming brass machine with gauges, copper wires and two long, red tubes that terminated in thick, black paddles. The clowns around the figure shrunk away from their fellow, who clapped the paddles together, emitting a shower of sparks. He nodded and bent suddenly to thrust the paddles against the covered figure’s chest. The figure jerked briefly, but it did not rise from the stretcher.

The clown struck the figure again and again, as though the machine were some sort of strange, decorative defibrillator. The audience gasped as sparks flew from the paddles onto the figure’s inert chest. Then, abruptly, the figure shot up from the bed, and the sheet fell away. It was not another clown, but slender man covered from head to toe in gold covering.

For a moment, he stared around at the crowd. Then he leapt off the stretcher and began to dance. It was a strange, jerky dance, as though his body were constructed of metal and clockworks, which ticked and turned in a motion so inhuman, so uncanny, he appeared to be an automaton of some kind. He produced three shining metal balls from out of the darkness around him and juggled them with the same short, automaton-like movements, tossing one then another into the air and catching them seconds before they dropped to the ground.

As he danced and juggled, the clowns around him faded away into the darkness, stepping backward one by one into the shadows so quietly, so unobtrusively, I almost failed to notice until they had completely gone. A chain lowered slowly from ceiling above. The clockwork man tossed the balls into the air, where the shadows swallowed them. They did not return to his grasping fingers. He lifted his hand to catch hold of the chain, and it dragged him up, out of the light and into the shadows.

The room went black once again. I felt Asher’s suck in a sharp breath beside me. Vera clapped with the others, exclaiming in delight over the eerie tableau. The applause died down as the darkness persisted. The audience fell silent, breathless and eager to see the next episode. I was anxious for the lights to return. I had witnessed strange and bizarre theatre shows in the past, but there was an uneasy sensation thrilling down my spine. Perhaps Eitenne’s assertions of hypnotism and mind-control had settled somewhere in the back of my mind and were exerting unexpected influence over my mood.

As though in answer to my silent anxiety, the room suddenly illuminated, and a cacophony filled the formerly silent air. Flaire stood in the centre ring, grinning around at the audience as what appeared to be the entirety of his troupe gambolled around him. The funambulists tumbled over each other on the floor, executing dazzling flips and spins in the air. The clowns leapt and pantomimed their choreographed fist-a-cuffs while the clockwork man danced in and out of the others. Above Flaire’s head, trapeze artists soared across the ceiling, twisting and writhing with such magnificent grace they might have been birds or made simply of shadow and dreams. A procession of exotic, brightly adorned animals circled the others whilst costumed performers rode upon their backs or cracked their whips to keep the more dangerous beasts from darting into the audience and snatching up an appetizing-looking guest.

The music pitched and crashed across the audience, so loud I could scarcely hear Asher speaking into my ear. “So which one is our client?”

I lifted an eyebrow and tore my gaze from the bright, noisy spectacle before us to look at him. “Our client? I beg your pardon, Ash, but this is, after all, my engagement.”

He rolled his eyes. “Ah, yes, but I have, most graciously, agreed to offer you my assistance. As such, I believe I deserve a little consideration, don’t you?”

So you have. Yes, then. I suppose you do.” I peered up at the aerialists diving from bar to bar, writhing upon chains and walking tight ropes above our heads to scattered gasps and cheers. Eitenne was as distinct among his peers as he’d been on the street outside Lady Mandragora’s shop. He was, I was pleased to note, most impressive. He moved with an easy, practiced agility that confounded the eye and seemed almost to defy the very laws of physics of which my dear Nathaniel and young wards were so fond. I pointed him out to Asher. “There is our man.”

He’s a bit fey, isn’t he?”

Well, he is that. But what do you think so far, Asher? Do you sense anything sinister in the clockworks of the Cirque du Flaire?”

It’s difficult to think so, but I have often been amazed by the villainy hiding in the places you least expect it.”

Indeed, that is often so in our line of work.”

For a moment, we turned our heads to admire the stunning, noisy, boisterous scene. Flaire spoke in his trumpet, introducing the performers as they flew past, the animals as they paraded across his vision. I didn’t recognise most of the names, but I did look when he introduced Elodie. I was hard-pressed to identify her amongst her tumbling and spinning brethren. For several moments, we enjoyed the visions, gasping and exclaiming with our fellow guests.

Oh, Astrid, look!” Juliana cried, reaching across Xander to clutch my arm as a funambulist with long, flowing black hair dropped from the ceiling, landing upon the back of an enormous, gilded elephant. She lifted her arms and smiled brightly at the crowd as the elephant tromped in slow circles around the ring. Then she lifted back up in the air as though she had somehow defied gravity. I blinked in surprise at this until I noticed the thin wires attached to many of the performers. As though her trick had been the cue, several of the tumblers below rose up beside her, twisting and turning in strange, inhuman contortions to the loud, cheerful music.

As we watched the flying tumblers, the aerialists flew overhead and seemed to blink out as they disappeared behind curtains or into the shadowed areas of the tent, which had dimmed so imperceptibly, I had not realised there were shadows at all, though they certainly must have gone off somewhere; they had not simply disappeared.

The lights were dimming, and the exotic throng in the ring was thinning as more of the performers disappeared, unnoticed by the audience as they watched the flying tumblers. Soon, there was but one performer left, a woman with a long, blonde braid. She was not brightly dressed as the others. She wore a sort of sari woven of such deep, rich black, it seemed to blend into the darkness beyond as though she were constructed merely of floating head, arms, feet and the slightest scandalous flash of bare abdomen. A turban of sparkling gold rested upon her head, and she held a long, slender flute of some strange, glowing and almost vibrating metal that gave the impression it was as alive as she.

The music died, and the woman began to play. The melody was slow, lilting and insidious. It was as though the tune had insinuated itself into my thoughts and my bones, as though my body was compelled to move as hers moved, swaying and slithering like a snake rising from its basket. I could not see the other guest, but I felt movement in the crowd, a large, collective shiver that passed through us all. Before the woman, a slithering, swaying shape rose from out of the shadows, and I realised it was, in fact, a snake. It moved in the same motion, with the same rhythm as the audience, as I became aware with a certain unease that my own body was moving.

I stilled myself instantly, clutching my fingers together in my lap. I shook my head to clear it of the melody, and, though the snake charmer still played, the tune did not seize me as it had before. There was something not quite right. I nudged Asher beside me. His eyes were glazed as they followed the snake charmer’s fluid, snake-like movements, but he blinked as he felt my elbow in his rib. He shook his head as I had done. I was relieved to see cognisance return to his face.

Asher peered around at the guests. It was difficult to see their expressions in the darkness, but their bodies still swayed with the music, as though they were still caught up, as though they had not, as we had, realised there was something unusual about the snake charmer’s peculiar instrument. He looked back at me with a disquieted expression that I was certain my own face mirrored. I spun suddenly away from him to examine my young wards.

Xander and Juliana were not, as the others, rapt. In the faint, flickering light, I could see my young cousin frowning in concentration as though attempting to uncover the secret behind the audience’s eerie attention. I was most grateful they were clever, and their heads were quite sound. They were not the sort to be taken in by a spellbinding circus performer.

Satisfied that my entourage was suitably rooted in reality, I watched the woman closely, as though I might deduce the nature of her spell. There was a strange, crackling sensation in the air. It seemed loaded and breathless, as though something was about to happen. The woman did not seem aware of her affect. She stared almost fixedly at the black snake twisting and shimmying before her.

Then I heard a noise. It was oddly familiar, though I could not place it at first. It was so soft, I could barely discern it over the charmer’s insidious melody. “Astrid,” Xander hissed. His voice was barely above a whisper, as though he feared someone might leap out at him from the darkness if they overheard him speak. “Do you hear that?”

Yes. I hear something. But what is it?”

It’s clockworks. Ticking.”

I frowned. So it was. Now that he pointed it out, I could hear the methodic tick tick tick of the works, and then there was a sort of screeching, grinding noise, a soft subtle sound that the charmer’s high, lovely notes barely concealed. As I listened for it, it became easier to distinguish. The ticking seemed, as I watched, to mirror the snake’s eerie movements, its strange, sinuous rhythm as though it, too, was conducted by the melody. An troubled sensation roiled in the pit of my stomach.

The music ended as abruptly as it had begun, and silence rang across the tent. I listened for the grinding clockworks, but they, too, seemed to have quieted. Had they been my imagination? I did not think so, for Xander, too, had heard them and we were not, the pair of us, prone to hallucinations, auditory or otherwise. The snake seemed to still, and then it dropped back into the shadows, coiling upon itself. The charmer reached towards it, and it slithered up her arm, wrapped around her like a bracelet.

And then, once again, the lights went out.

I leaned towards Asher. “I want to get a look at that machine while everyone is distracted.”

Machine?”

The clockwork. Didn’t you hear it?”

He was silent a moment. Then he clutched my fingers in his. “Yes. I wondered what that was. I thought it was part of the music.”

No. Xander is quite sure it was a clockwork. He is most reliable in these matters.”

He squinted through the darkness beyond me. It was impossible to see Vera, but she was murmuring softly beside Juliana. I did not think she was speaking to the young lady. The other guests seemed to be muttered softly, as well. Perhaps they were discussing the experience or perhaps they had transcended to hitherto unrealised planes of consciousness that were, somehow, speaking back to them.

Juliana, will you be so kind as to inform my mother that Astrid and I are going to take a look around?”

Juliana was silent moment, and then I heard her speak to Vera in a low voice, as though she were speaking to a very young child or a senile old person. “Oh, you go on, darling,” Vera replied in a slow, dreamy sort of voice, and I suspected she had not shaken the snake charmer’s trance.

She doesn’t sound quite herself,” Juliana whispered.

I will be fine,” Vera added. In the flare of flickering torch light that once again flooded the centre ring, her expression looked dreamy and vague. “I’ll just stay here and enjoy the show. Oh! They have a tightrope walker now. Look, darling.”

I frowned. “Xander, we’re going to attempt to discover the source of the ticking sound.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “You, Astrid? Do you believe you will succeed?”

It is most unlikely I will be able to discern the clockwork from the ship’s ballonet, if we’re to be completely truthful.”

Juliana and I will accompany you, then.”

Are you quite certain?”

We have already seen the funambulists, and they were quite amusing. I am not entirely certain there is not something quite wrong with this circus. The audience is acting rather strangely. I am beginning to heartily believe our client might be correct in his suspicions.”

Indeed.”

Whilst the light was dim and the audience was thoroughly engaged with the tightrope walker, who wobbled and swayed and seemed likely to plunge to his death at any moment, Xander and Juliana followed Asher and myself through the shimmering red curtain and out of the arena. The lounge was most fortunately deserted, and the air seemed lighter, more breathable than it had been in the circus arena. We could speak normally, for there was no one to overhear. Nevertheless, we did not raise our voices above a whisper; if Eitenne had been correct in his suspicions about his master, it was not unlikely there were listening devices about the place, another large, featureless man waiting to pounce upon the first utterance of sedition.

Juliana and I will attempt to locate the ticking apparatus,” Xander murmured softly, as though, he too, suspected there were listeners all about. “If we discover it, we will catch you up.”

I nodded. “Ace. Asher and I will see what else is about. Meet us back in the arena in…” I removed my gold pocket watch from the breast pocket of my dress. “Half an hour should suffice. I shouldn’t wonder our hosts may deduce our hidden agenda if we are much longer.”

That, I suspect, would be very unfortunate,” Juliana murmured.

I am in agreement. Step lively, then. Time runs short.”

My two young wards spun smartly on their heels as though in perfect agreement of their destination. I had little idea where such a machine as we heard from the arena may be located, but they must have, as often is the case, known more than I. Perhaps they had discerned the direction of the noise already or had spotted something quite queer upon our arrival that had drawn their attention.

Asher’s smiled and offered me his arm again. “Shall we, then, Astrid? I am most eager to discover what secrets lurk in the shadows at the circus in the sky.”

As am I.”

The walls of the lounge were draped in the shimmering red curtains through which we had entered the arena. It was not the only door hidden behind the curtain, however. Some were locked, through which I suspected the performers entered and exited the lounge. I was eager to peek inside the rooms, but Asher flatly refused to pry the locks. Behind the curtain directly across from the arena entrance, however, was a large, shining brass door with the words Oddities. In very small, unobtrusive hand-letting were the words: Beware ye who enter, lest thine faint heart give way and carry thee off into the next world.

A bit dramatic, do you not think?” I asked. Asher’s mouth turned up slightly.

Ah, I believe we have come upon the infamous side show. What do you think we will find in there? Bearded ladies? Miniature people? Creatures with the body of a man and the head of a bull?”

I believe those are most commonly found in mythological texts, Ash, not the circus, even if it is a most unusual show. Shall we, then? I am eager to see what lies behind this door.”

He reached forward and gripped the knob. It turned easily under his long, slender finger. He turned to me with a smile. “Not locked, then,” I murmured. “Quite interesting. Perhaps we are not the first to wander from the arena in search of fresher air and clearer heads.”

Are you prepared?”

I have seen many a peculiar thing in my time, Ash. I think I am most well suited to withstand a side show act.”

All right, then.”

The room was dark, but as we stepped cautiously into the room, a faint glow spread from one side of the semi-circular room to the other, as though several small, square stalls had lit one by one from within. It was, I noted, precisely as it happened. As we moved towards the glowing stalls, we discovered them each to be a large, glass display case. I shuddered in revolution as I realised exactly what was on display inside the frightful vitrines.

People. Dozens of them. People of shapes and sizes such as I have never witnessed nor ever wished to witness again.

Beside me, Asher stiffened as though he, too, weas appalled by the contents of the cages. Within the grotesque, inhuman showcases were the usual circus oddities. Small, hand-painted red lettering on the glass walls purported the inhabitants to be the smallest or largest in the world, though I had seen larger and smaller men and women in my travels, particularly in New Delhi, where the large population somehow bred the strangest of nature’s children. There were siamese twins, a pair of girls with long, curly dark hair tucked under identical blue bonnets that perfectly matched their blue gingham dresses and clear, brilliant blue eyes. They peered insolently out at us through their confines.

I did not know if the inhabitants could view us through their glass; perhaps they merely peered at themselves through two-way mirrors. It seemed as though they sensed us, at least, for there was movement in all of the vitrines now, a subtle, eerie shifting amongst the oddities as they moved closer or further from the glass, eager to hide themselves or perhaps proudly display their peculiarities.

I met Asher’s grim gaze, but we did not turn back the way we came. As though compelled by some morbid, instinctual impetus, we continued along the semi-circle. Mournful faces peered back at us. Some of the oddities bared their teeth in feral leers and pressed themselves upon the glass, following us with their eyes as we passed quickly by. They might have been prisoners of a hideous asylum, eager to lash out at anyone who wandered too close.

This is dreadful,” I murmured morosely.

Asher’s voice was equally subdued. “Perhaps it does not always look like this. Perhaps they are released into some other environment for the main attraction.”

Perhaps.” I did not think it likely. The horrors humans could visit upon each other were enumerable.

Within the vitrines was a bearded lady in a stunning red gown, who smiled saucily at us through the glass, stroking her long, curly blonde beard. A woman, naked but for her sheet of long, dark hair that covered her most intimate proportions, sprawled on the floor of her cage. She could not move, for her legs appears fused together, her feet pointed outwards and sealed at the heels to form what looked, on first glance, to be a mermaid’s tale. The flesh was smooth and featureless. She looked very sad. She reached out a hand to touch the glass, her expression horribly imploring.

Asher looked away, as though the affecting sight had disturbed him deeply. Beside the mermaid was a man with a hideously disfigured face, as though by fire or an awful mangling accident. He snarled and frothed at the mouth, though we could not hear any noise from behind the glass. The entire room was silent but for our shallow breathing and an occasional, horrified gasp. There was a man with what appeared to be scales all across the exposed flesh of his head and torso. He glittered in the bright light about his head. He flexed and preened before us, as though he was accustomed to being much admired.

An albino man with stark white hair and colourless eyes perched with precise, eerie dignity upon a small foot stool in the centre of his showcase. His black suit was smart and well-tailored, though, with his pallor, he appeared to be corpse, propped upright, staring out at us with his chin lifted imperiously into the air. My skin crawled. I spun away from the glass.

I felt Asher behind me, close enough that, had I been willing to admit my intense discomfort, I could step back, into his arms as I had so many times in the past. “Astrid?”

I lifted my chin. “Let us leave this place. There is nothing of relevance to our case to discover herein. I do not hear the clockworks now, but I am certain they are not within this chamber.”

He did not respond to this, but he caught my hand with a firmness that indicated he would not be put off this time. I permitted him to guide me out of the miserable menagerie. The lounge was mercifully bright and cheerful, and I shook off the lingering sensations of repugnance the freak show had invoked within me. I sighed in relief. Asher, too, seemed of lighter foot, as though a weight had lifted from upon his shoulders. He still clutched my hand, but his fingers were warm and soothing, and I did not shake him off.

The corridors beyond the lounge, in which the guest quarters were situated around the perimeter of the tent, were dark and empty. We met nary a soul, and I wondered to where Xander and Juliana had gone. Perhaps they, too, had discovered a hidden nook or cranny, another hideous facet of the gruesome Cirque du Flaire. There was no sign of the mysterious clockwork that had ticked in time to the snake charmer’s music.

At the end of a long, winding corridor, which I was certain must end sometime but which seemed to continue on perpetually, as though we had become entangled in some terrible, endless labyrinth of halls, a sharp, stern voice rang out. It echoed as though the walls were of some cavernous proportions. “What are you doing out here?”

Asher and I spun in a single, seemingly choreographed motion towards the startling voice. Before us in the hall as though he had emerged silently from one of the mysterious locked chambers, was a rangy, hulking man. He was not dressed in the shining metallic suits of his fellow troupe-men, but he was most obviously Flaire’s man. A tight, black leather cap covered his hair and wrapped around his chin, and he wore a black, military-style uniform with a strange, slender pronged wand on his belt. It was, I was certain, capable of much damage should he take it in his head to wield it.

I smiled blithely at him. “Ah, we are most contrite. So sorry to bother, sir. We’ve been caught out. Feeling quite warm in the arena, we stepped out for a bit of air and stumbled upon the most intriguing side show. I’m afraid we’ve lost our way; we searched all over and simply cannot discover the path back.”

The security guard stared dubiously between Asher and me for several seconds. “The ring is this way. Just follow the noise.” He spun on his heel and jerked his head.

We had little choice but to follow him, lest we alert the man and his master to our genuine impulsion for wandering the ship whilst the rest of the party savoured the spectacle in the ring. He said nothing to us as we followed his swift, marching gait towards the lounge, but his hand hovered above the wand on his belt, as though he may yet resolve to draw it and fly at us. He paused before the shimmering red curtain in the still empty lounge and gestured.

He waited, his expression stern and inarguable, until we had slipped past the curtain and reclaimed our seats beside Vera, who had hardly seemed even to notice our return. She clapped and exclaimed delightedly at the tumblers now performing an impressive array of tricks and human pyramids in the centre of the ring. I sighed. Asher, too, appeared rather miffed by the interruption.

Moments later, Xander and Juliana hurried into the arena with identical shamefaced expressions. In the instant before the curtain closed behind them, I saw another man dressed as our guard, watching to ensure they arrived safely in their seats. I smiled, for I was at least gratified that my young wards had come off no better than Asher and I.

Ah. Ran into the guards, did you?” Asher asked.

Xander sighed. “Indeed. We were caught up on the observation deck.”

We, too, were discovered in the guest corridors. Were you successful in identifying the source of the ticking sound?”

Regretfully, no. There is no sign of a clockwork at all in the place.”

Perhaps it is concealed by other similar instruments,” I suggested.

I think not. We did discover the engine room, but it was nothing more than a vast collection of ballonets and boilers. It was most impressive and quite in order. There was no such apparatus that might explain such a strange noise.”

We returned our attention to the centre ring, in which the aerialists spun, twisted and leapt from bars and chains upon the ceiling, contorting their bodies into odd, boneless shapes. Eitenne was as easily spied as before, but he did not seem as carefree as he had at the onset of the show. His movements, still uncannily graceful, were slightly stiffer and less fluid. Perhaps it was simply my imagination, the remnants of the chill of the eccentric Cirque. The hurdy gurdy music swelled around them, and their bizarre dance wove into the music as though it was part of their bodies.

The exotic beasts followed the funambulists, the lion tamer being a most dashing and bonny man. It was little surprise young Elodie admired him, for many of the ladies in the audience sighed and swooned as he flexed the muscles of his tanned, bare arms and tossed his long, dark blonde curls. The spectacle had somehow lost its dazzle after the horrors of the freak show, and I watched idly without feeling much delight or interest. Indeed, as the clowns returned to the centre ring for another slapstick pantomime, I avoiding peering directly at them and instead directed my attention to the shadows around the ring. I thought perhaps I could see movement there, swift, scampering figures, slightly darker than the inky blackness.

As the lights dimmed, I was relieved to note that the music faded until a charged silence rang through the arena. A small flame appeared in the darkness, growing steadily until it barely illuminated Flaire’s ruddy features. He was smiling, but in the shadows, there was something sinister about his handsome face, something feral and dangerous. He held the small flame out towards the audience, in the palm of his hand. It flared larger and larger until it appeared as though he was holding a bonfire between his hands. He lifted it above his head. And then he seemed to toss it, and it lit the torches circling the centre ring.

He smiled around at us in the sudden brightness. “Thank you all for joining us this evening. I do deeply hope you enjoyed the show. I invite you to join us in the lounge where our performers will greet you all and will be most delighted to accept any admiration you might wish to bestow.”

There was smattering of applause, and as Flaire raised his hands, it grew into a crescendo as though he was an orchestra conductor. The audience’s cries and cheers became deafening. Flaire beamed proudly out at them, and then he dropped his arms. The applause did not stop, but it seemed staggered, as though he had somehow struck out at them all, stealing their breath.

And then, once again, he disappeared in a puff of sunny yellow smoke.

The tumultuous applause lasted for several more minutes. The tent flooded with light, and I peered keenly around at our fellow guests. Their expressions ranged from delighted to exalted, but there were as many others whose slavish admiration invoked a certain unease. Something had been done to these people, of that I was sure. What it was and precisely how long it would last was another matter. Certainly the condition was not permanent. I had met many who had visited the circus, some of whom attended as often as space permitted. They appeared none the worse for the experience.

These people would, I hoped, snap out of their queer trance before the ship set down tomorrow morning. After several moments, in a single motion, the audience rose to their feet to make their orderly way towards the lounge. My companions and I waited, watching them. They did not appear harmed in any way, but their eyes were glazed, their faces stretched into wide, buoyant grins.

Vera rose with them. “Darling, where are your manners?” Her voice was so playful, Asher stared up at her without comprehension until I nudged him.

Sorry, Mother. Of course.” He bolted up to offer his arm. “Astrid?”

Do go on ahead. We will make our way shortly.”

He did not look particularly happy about this, but his mother marched forward without awaiting him, and he stumbled after her.

What do you reckon, Astrid?” Xander asked. His bright blue eyes swept the audience as they marched blithely out of the arena.

I do reckon our client was not wrong. It does appear as though they’ve been hypnotised.”

Perhaps it is merely a reaction to the smoke or the lighting. Perhaps they simply imbibed too immodestly before the show,” Juliana said, though she did not sound as though she had convinced herself.

Perhaps, but I suspect there is something far more sinister afoot on this ship. And I fully intend to discover precisely what that is.” I rose and gestured grandly towards the curtain. “Shall we be off then and enjoy what new pleasures await us this evening?”

The lounge was clamorous with fevered voices when we emerged through the shimmering red curtain. Asher and Vera were seated at a nearby table. Vera chattered excitedly, regaling her long-suffering son with a litany of the evening’s delights as though he had not, too, been in the audience. As we approached them, his face lit up with relief. The army of waiters streamed into the lounge, passing around glasses of wine, and we all accepted one gratefully.

But what are we to do now, Astrid?” Juliana asked softly over Vera’s droning voice. The matron seemed not to notice our conversation. Indeed, she turned to another table beside us, engaging the elegant-looking elderly couple in conversation, the subject of which sounded to be nothing more substantial than their unrestrained admiration of the performance. “We can’t very well search the place while everyone is wandering around and the guards are watching out for us.”

I waved my hand carelessly. “I am certain we will find a way. We always do.”

There did not seem to be a suitable solution to the problem at hand, but I sipped my crisp wine and hoped for the best. It came in the form of a young waiter carrying a folded slip of parchment on his tray. “This arrived for you, madame.”

I exchanged the missive for a shilling. I smiled. I had not expected providence to step in so promptly, but, given our limited time frame, I was most grateful for it. I unfolded the parchment with a flourish and skimmed the contents. It was quite brief.

Mrs D,

I humbly request the honour of your exquisite company on the observation deck at 10pm for a breathtaking experience amongst the clouds.

Yours Respectfully,

E

I suspected Eitenne’s desire was not a private liaison. I doubted very much I ran to his particular tastes. “But what is it, Astrid?” Asher demanded, his brow furrowed ever slightly as though he might suspect the young funambulist’s intentions were something more intimate.

Ah. Well, I believe we may have found our deus ex machina.” I handed the parchment to him, and he snatched it greedily from my fingers.

His frown deepened. “But this is extremely inappropriate.”

I rolled my eyes. “What is it, Astrid?” Xander asked.

It is a note from our client to meet on the observation deck…” I extracted my beloved pocket watch and examined it. “In approximately an hour. Despite Asher’s tremendous misinterpretation, I expect he wishes to discuss the case.” The din in the floating lounge suddenly intensified, and I craned my neck to discover the cause. Clowns, funambulists, animal tamers and the other circus players streamed into the room through rustling, shimmering curtains all around us. “Ah. And here are the players now. I do desire another look at the dramatic master Flaire, don’t you?”

Asher smiled. “I do indeed.” His smile slipped as he turned towards Vera. “Mother, are you quite well?”

She turned back to him and beamed serenely. “Oh, yes, darling. I’ve never felt better. It’s as though a weight has lifted from my shoulders.”

Asher’s brow knitted together. He did not appear as though this reassured him, but there was little he could do for the woman’s soaring spirits. She would, I suspected, be quite all right in the morning. He rose and offered me his hand. “Xander, do keep an eye on my mother, won’t you?”

My primary function in this entourage, Asher, in case you have not had occasion to realise, is expertise in the many fields of science and its application, as well as a keen sense of adventure and the unique ability to keep my aunt’s head firmly rooted in reality. Have you, in any of that, somehow deduced that I am particularly skilled at babysitting?”

I laughed. “Dear Xander, you do spend too much time in my company.”

Juliana rolled her eyes. “Do not worry yourself, Agent Key. Your mother is in excellent care. Should Xander fail to perform to the standards you expect, I shall send him for more drinks and shoulder the prodigious responsibilities on my own.”

Astrid, truly, your influence on these young people is disturbing.”

Aye, I think I do agree. Step lively, then. I believe I have just spied the mysterious ringmaster. Do you fancy a meeting?”

Asher smiled. “I believe I rather do.”

The throng surrounding the ringmaster was quite formidable, but Asher and I were quite adept at weaving our way through a crowd. We were before the ruddy featured Dr Flaire in mere moments. His dark eyes glittered with a feverish intensity I had seen before in stage actors after a particularly well-applauded performance. His eyes narrowed for an ephemeral instant as they fell upon Asher and me, but he stretched his mouth into a brilliant white smile.

Well, Mr Flaire,” I greeted, inclining my head to him. “Quite an impressive showcase, I must say.”

He dipped at the waist in a sharp sort of bow. “Madame, you flatter me. I am most delighted our little carnival so entertained you.” He straightened and proffered a hand to me. “May I request the pleasure of your name, good lady?”

I did not for a single moment believe he did not already know it. “I am Astrid Darby, sir. And this is my dear friend and erstwhile colleague Asher Key of the Ministry of Defence.”

Ah. Indeed. Well. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” His expression did not change, but something in his eyes did. It was not, I suspected, quite the pleasure he asserted.

What an utterly pleasing and novel concept you have here, Mr Flaire.”

Please, Madame, you must call me Pietro. Everyone does.”

Of course.”

Yes, the construct of the ship was many years in the making, but I find it suits me and my performers quite singularly.”

Asher smiled in a way that had often turned a tougher man’s insides to ice. “Tell me about the side show, Pietro.”

The side show.”

Or, as they say, the freak show.”

Ah. Yes, well, it is not exactly my cup of tea, but the guests to do enjoy it for some reason. Far be it from me to deny them anything which they may wish.”

It is rather terrifying, isn’t it?” I remarked.

That is, my dear, precisely the point.”

I was quite taken with the young lady who performed the snake charming,” Asher said abruptly.

I glanced sidelong at him, concealing my irritation behind a sparkling beam. Pietro lifted his thick, dark eyebrows. “Ah. You and so many others. The dear girl is quite popular. Her act is…extraordinary.”

It is indeed. Why, it practically had us all hypnotised.”

Pietro smiled. “It is meant for the snake, you know. To keep it under control.”

Indeed,” I said. “Under control, as you say.”

Well.” He cast us another beaming smile. “I am afraid I must greet my other guests. I do appreciate your patronage, and it was a great pleasure to meet you.”

It was that, Pietro. I do hope we meet again soon.” Asher did not shake the man’s hand, but he turned to watch him dissolve into the admiring crowd. “What do you think of him?”

I think there is something very wrong at play on this ship,” I replied grimly. “It is by a most convenient stroke of fortune that we find ourselves here.”

Vera was still gushing with the couple at the next table. “Ah. That was quite quick,” Xander remarked as we seated ourselves beside them. “Did your little conference yield any interesting information?”

No. Indeed, it did not,” I replied. “Although I am most convinced the mysterious master Flaire is quite aware that our presence here does not bode well for those who might be attempting to disguise illegitimate enterprises.”

Asher eyed the crowd. “Have you noticed the snake charmer about?”

I rolled my eyes. “Are you hoping to secure a private audience with the young lady?”

He snorted most uncouthly. “No, Astrid. But I think she might be somehow involved in all this.”

Do you?”

If something sinister is occurring on this ship, whatever it was seems to have happened whilst the charmer was playing that unusual instrument.”

Yes,” Xander said keenly. “When we heard the clockwork.”

But what could it be?” I asked. “I am not an engineer or an expert in machines by any stretch of the imagination, but I cannot suss how a machine could be connected in any way to hypnosis. It simply makes no sense in the logical world.”

I am sensing, Astrid,” Juliana put in, “that we left the logical world far below us. Here, amidst the clouds and among the firmament, things are very different indeed.”

Perhaps the young lady may possess insight into the workings of the machine,” Asher said, peering around.

The snake charmer, however, was not amongst the players mingling with the ecstatic crowd. Perhaps she was, as Pietro had intimated, quite popular and thoroughly engaged with a number of her admirers. Perhaps she was among them, costumed as a funambulist or simply avoiding the throng, desiring a quiet moment alone in the wake of the performance.

Did your man make mention of the clockwork?” Xander asked.

No. If he is aware of the thing, he did not think it worthy of discussion. However, I suspect he is quite deficient in such observations. He might never have even realised it exists.”

Where is the young man?” Asher asked. “Is he among the crowd?”

I spotted him almost instantly. “Yes. He is just there, chatting up that table of young gentleman. He is…a bit unusual in his particular tastes.”

Ah. I see.” If this offended Asher, it did not show on his face. “He does not appear to be particularly preoccupied with the safety of the guests at the moment.”

No, indeed he does not. He is rather capricious. Let us hope he will still be of a state to offer assistance.”

Vera lurched suddenly to her feet, but then she wobbled dangerously and dropped back down into the thick, padded chair. “Oh.” She giggled. Asher looked around at her in alarm, half-rising from his seat. “I think the wine must have gone right to my head. I am feeling quite out of myself.”

Asher gripped her elbow to assist her to her feet. “I believe it is time for bed, Mother.”

Yes. Yes, bed would be quite nice.”

I will take you.”

She waved her hand. “No. No, dear. I am a grown woman. I am perfectly capable of minding myself.” She peered around at us with a curiously baffled little smile. “And I am sure you have better things to be getting up to than suffering the company of a silly old woman.”

Juliana rose to take the old woman’s arm. “I will escort you to your room, Mrs Key. I would be happy to have a few moments away from all the excitement.”

Vera eyed her as though she suspected she might be putting her on. Then she smiled. “Thank you, dear. Such a nice young lady you are, no matter what they say about your father.”

Juliana’s smile hardly wavered. “You can catch me up when I return.”

Of course.” Asher watched them go with a small frown. Whilst he was otherwise occupied, I turned to my sensible young cousin. “What do you think, Xander? Have you any theories about our mysterious machine?”

I am, I must admit, quite baffled. Though I am quite certain our clockwork is connected in some way to the mysterious snake charmer, neither Juliana nor I can imagine why or in what way. It is quite beyond the scope of our collective experience, I’m afraid.”

I do hope there will be some explanation from our client, even if it is of the utterly mundane sort.”

I will accompany you to the meeting,” Asher said suddenly.

I lifted my chin. “I, too, am perfectly capable of minding myself, Ash.”

He frowned. “It is not a matter of your abilities, Astrid. I know of what you are capable, but I suspect you will require the might of the Ministry on your side in case the situation deteriorates.”

Ah. Yes.” I considered this. “For once, I do agree with you. You may accompany me, but do remember this is my case. The MOD has no claim upon it just yet.”

His expression soften into a wry smile. “All right. I am in your service, then, Mrs Darby. This is, as they say, your show.”

I inclined my head imperiously. “Thank you, sir. I am much obliged.” I examined my pocket watch once more, but ten o’clock was some time away.

Our mood did not lighten as we awaited Juliana’s return and the stroke of ten o’clock. Juliana’s arrival occurred promptly, however. Her expression was troubled as she rejoined the table. “Is my mother quite well?” Asher asked anxiously.

Juliana smiled. “Oh, yes. She is quite all right. A bit shaken, but she is tucked safely away for the evening. I have been thinking, I do believe her condition and the condition of our fellows guests must be the result of the snake charmer’s melody.”

Yes, we had all formed the same conclusion,” I reminded her. “Though it was the clockwork with which we were chiefly concerned.”

I was present for the discussion,” Juliana reminded me. “I have been considering it most intently, but I am afraid my expertise runs towards chemicals and physics.”

We should have asked Morgan along,” Xander remarked, frowning thoughtfully. “He might have identified our unique ticking noise without any trouble.”

I am not certain that is true,” Juliana continued. “I believe it is something most unique. If it is, indeed, connected to the snake charmer’s melodies, the machine we seek may, in fact, be an instrument whose primary purpose is to harness the energies of the audience.”

We all stared at her in utter incomprehension. “I beg your pardon, Juliana?” I demanded. “I am not a great expert in science, but such a thing sounds utterly ludicrous.”

It is not so, Astrid,” Xander told me. “It has long since been theorised that human beings in large groups possesses quite enough body energy to be sufficient to generate power, should it be properly harnessed and applied.”

Perhaps the engineers of our mysterious clockwork are using the energies of the audience to power the ship.”

But that would require kinetic energy,” Xander mused. Asher and I glanced at each other with identical expressions of bemusement. “The audience was hypnotised. We could reasonably assume the engineers could power a generator with the excess energy of the audience, but I am not sure what could be done whilst they were sitting still.”

It is a wild theory,” Asher remarked. “I am not sure I can credit it, though there is much about modern scientific progress of which I know very little. Nevertheless, there is something quite odd about my mother’s behaviour. It is as though something has been taken from her. I could, in some way, credit that the hypnotist’s song is the source.”

We might theorise all evening and never reach a proper conclusion,” I remarked absently, for my gaze sought young Eitenne. He had abandoned his gaggle of admirers, and his eyes darted furtively about the room as though ensuring his movements had not fallen under the master’s scrutiny. Apparently deciding he was safe to proceed, he slipped out of the lounge. I examined my watch to discover it was, in fact, precisely ten o’clock. I rose. “It is time.”

Asher gripped my arm as though he expected me to dart off without him. “Xander, Juliana, do keep a close eye,” he said in a low voice. “I am not certain we are safe on this ship. Look after yourselves.”

Xander smiled confidently. “Of course. We will be quite all right here. We can mind ourselves quite nicely.”

They could, indeed, and I felt reasonably confident leaving them alone in the lounge. I led Asher towards the silver curtain through which I had seen young Eitenne disappear. A brass door beyond the curtain bore a small, hand-lettered plaque with the words Observation Deck printed in gold. Asher hesitated an infinitesimal instant, then he clutched my hand and stepped out onto the deck.

The night sky glittered at us from every direction. The deck was, in fact, constructed entirely of clear, sparkling glass, through which the stars twinkled and clouds drifted serenely past. The glass underfoot was clear, so it appeared as though we were standing directly among the firmament. The moon glowed large and fat, appearing close enough to touch.

I did not see Eitenne. The deck wrapped around the corner of the tent. I had not viewed it as we boarded the ship; we were, I realised, in the back. I wondered how far the deck stretched. Was it possible to sneak inside from another room, to slip unnoticed into the sectors of the ship which were inaccessible to us from the lounge and our private chambers?

Asher’s fingers tightened on mine. He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. I peered at him in alarm. “Ash?”

He waved his hand. “It’s nothing. A bit of disorientation. I will be fine in a moment.”

Are you afraid of heights?”

It is very impolite to ask a man such a thing, Astrid.” There was a shallowness to his breath that concerned me ever slightly, but his voice was steady as he spoke. “We prefer to appear fearless and strong for our women.”

I am not your woman.”

Mrs Darby, I am so pleased you were able to make it.” We had not even heard Eitenne’s silent step on the crystal glass floor.

Ah. Eitenne.”

He eyed Asher with an expression of mingled interest and unease. “I had expected to find you alone.”

Ah. Yes. This is my associate Agent Asher Key of the Ministry of Defence.”

The Ministry of Defence?” Eitenne spluttered. “You—but you–! Mrs Darby, I did request discretion.”

Do not fear, Eitenne. Agent Key has not come on your behalf. He did, as point of fact, escort his dear elderly mother to the show. We happened to simply cross paths, and as we are acquaintances and sometime associates, Agent Key has agreed to offer his service to your cause.”

In a strictly non-professional capacity,” Asher added.

Ah. I see. Very good, then.”

What an impressive showing this evening, Eitenne,” I said, beaming radiantly at him. “I was tremendously thrilled to have had the pleasure of experiencing it.”

Thank you most kindly.” Eitenne did not look as though this praise bolstered his spirits, but he bent low at the waist. He straightened almost instantly. “But have you discovered anything?”

It seems there is, in fact, something quite strange about the ship, as you said. Do possess any information about a clockwork machine hidden somewhere on the ship?”

He blinked in surprise. “So sorry, madame, but I know not of what you speak.”

When the snake charmer played that unique instrument, we noticed a peculiar reaction from the audience.”

Eitenne’s features darkened. “Elodie.”

Elodie? Do you mean to say, good man, that the snake charmer is your twin sister?”

Oui. Indeed. The same. She has been studying such arts for many years but has only recently performed them for our audiences.”

I see. While she was playing, my associates and I noticed what sounded to be the ticking of a great clockwork machine.”

Do you think it is related, in some way, to the disappearances?”

I glanced at Asher. To his credit, his expression was amiably neutral. I smiled slightly, though I suspected the gesture was not, as such, an appropriate response, for Eitenne frowned deeply. “Perhaps. I am most sorry to say, Eitenne, that your dear sister may have a deeper involvement in the mystery than originally suspected.”

No. No, she is not responsible for any of it. I assure you. If she is involved, she has been compelled somehow.”

That may very well be the case. Indeed, Pietro Flaire does possess a certain charisma.”

You have met him?”

Of course. I always prefer to introduce myself to the subject of my investigations whenever the opportunity arises.”

Eitenne’s features illuminated, though this mouth still looked somewhat grim. “So you believe me.”

I considered this question a moment. “Yes, I do believe you. However, I believe there is much more to this business than you yourself have even suspected. My associates and I are convinced this mysterious clockwork is at the heart of it.”

Have you any ideas where it might be hidden?” Asher asked the young man, who looked so utterly perplexed, I wondered for a moment if he possessed much if any knowledge in the field of time making. Eitenne’s bemused expression suggested he did not. “Have you any knowledge of the ship’s layout?”

I am, I’m afraid, familiar only with the arena, lounge and backstage areas. I have never seen any sort of machine that was not a part of the show.”

It is unlikely the machine is hidden in any plain view,” I said.

Perhaps it is concealed in Flaire’s private chambers,” Asher added. “Might it be possible to sneak in while the ringmaster is otherwise occupied?

But, Ash, is now not a good time to exert that might of yours?”

Are you suggesting I storm in with my badge ablaze and demand to see the dingus?”

Well, can you concoct another better idea? We could spend all night prowling the ship and discover nothing if we are not discovered ourselves. If Flaire is housing a diabolical clockwork instrument on this ship, it is not likely to be situated in a location that might be easily stumbled upon.”

Obviously.” Asher nodded resolutely. “Right, then. We will need to act now whilst the ringmaster is currently occupied. We may have a good number of moments, and we simply need to catch sight of the thing before I can officially question the good master Flaire.”

We are, indeed running out of time, and so I am willing to neglect our usual panache in this case,”I replied. “Eitenne, can you direct us to where your master’s chamber is located?”

Eitenne’s looked hunted. “I…I am not sure.”

I understand your reluctance. You needn’t join us. If you would just direct us, that would be sufficient.”

That will not be necessary.”

Eitenne paled under his thick, metallic makeup. His eyes darted around as though searching for an escape. “Ah. Pietro,” I greeted warmly, smiling my most charming and radiant smile.

Behind Pietro Augustus Flaire, the two burly guards who had so kindly directed us back to our seats stood with their pronged wands in hand. Our guard looked quite prepared, if not eager, to use it. Beside Flaire was a beautiful young woman with long, blonde curls. The young woman’s pale blue eyes, despite the arctic glint within their icy depths, were so like her brother’s that I was quite certain she could be none but Miss Elodie Allard. She did not speak to us. She lifted her chin and glared reproachfully at her twin brother.

I am perfectly happy to show you what it is you wish to see,” Flaire said, smiling in a most accommodating way. “It will, I regret, be the last thing you see. Luckily, it is quite worth the sacrifice.”

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