AS THEY ASCENDED, RETREATING FARTHER FROM THE winding trails that marked the way to nearby villages, the world opened to him in its purest form: silent, ancient, mysterious.
Nicholas had spent the better part of his life on the sea, or close enough to catch its perfume of fish and brine when there was a good wind. Even now, as they approached the monastery, waiting for it to appear through the heavy cover of mist and clouds, he found himself turning back, futilely searching beyond the towering peaks of the Himalayas for the hazy line where the sky met the curve of rippling water—something familiar to anchor himself to, before his courage disappeared along with his confidence.
The trail, a winding series of stairs and dirt, had stretched at first through the pine trees dripping with moss, and now hugged the sheer, vertical cliffs into which the Taktsang Palphug Monastery had somehow, impossibly, been built. Lines of bright prayer flags fluttered overhead in the trees, and the sight eased some of the tightness in his chest; it reminded him instantly of the first time Captain Hall had brought him to New York Harbor and the new frigates had been festooned with flags of every make and pattern.
He shifted again, a small, careful movement that would ease the sting of the rucksack’s straps digging into his shoulders, without sending himself plunging over the open side of the trail.
You’ve climbed the rigging any number of times, and you’re frightened of heights now?
Rigging. His hands itched to touch it, to feel the spray of the sea kicked up by wind and his ship charging through the water. Nicholas tried to set his shoulders back, toss sand over the burn of resentment in the pit of his stomach before it could catch fire. He should have been back by now—he should have been with Hall, with Chase, rolling over the crest of each passing wave. Not here in a foreign century—the nineteen hundreds, for goodness’ sake—with an incompetent sop who required Nicholas to help button his new coat, lace his boots, knot his scarf, and position his ridiculous floppy hat, despite having two hands of his own and, to all appearances, a brain in his skull.
The leather sack slung around his neck slapped heavily against his side as Nicholas continued his climb toward where Julian stood, one leg braced against a nearby stone—his usual pose when he thought ladies were around to admire him. But now Nicholas couldn’t begin to fathom whom he was attempting to impress—the few birds they’d heard on their walk through the damp forest? Had he always been this way—dramatic, vain, with a complete lack of consideration—and Nicholas so blinded by the wonder of finding a so-called brother, a new life with possibilities of comfort and wealth and adventure, that he’d willingly ignored it?
“Now, chap, come here and take a look—this is the Tiger’s Nest, you know. Damn this infernal mist—”
Nicholas did, in fact, know. He made a point to read as much as he could about whatever location the old man sent them to, so as to figure out the best ways to keep the ever-reckless, ever-stubborn Julian alive. Nicholas was constantly working from a deficit of knowledge, of training. When he’d realized the family would never truly provide a real education for his traveling, he’d begun to wonder if it was intentional, a way to keep him in his lowly place. The thought had enraged him enough to cause him to spend most of his meager funds on history books.
“Bhutan’s Buddhism guru Padmasambhava—according to legend, of course—flew here on the back of a tigress,” Julian continued with a grin that had gotten them out of any number of scrapes and trouble—the smile that had once softened Nicholas’s heart and temper, always teasing out forgiveness. “We should pop into one of their meditation caves on the way back. Maybe you can have yourself a little think. Have a look at that view, and tell me you won’t miss traveling. How, in the whole of your small life, would you ever have come here otherwise? Put that foolish notion away, will you?”
Rather than throw a punch at his smug face, or send the metal tip of the pickax strapped to his back on a similar path, Nicholas shifted the rucksack again and tried not to focus on the fact that he was, yet again, being crushed under the weight of Julian and his belongings.
“It looks as though there’s a storm coming in,” Nicholas said, proud of how steady his voice sounded, despite the rattle and hiss of the resentment he felt building again inside of him. “We should make this climb tomorrow.”
Julian flicked a bug from the shoulder of his pristine coat. “No. I had to leave that bearcat back in the speakeasy in Manhattan, and I want to get back for a quick tumble before returning to the old man.” Julian sighed. “With empty hands, yet again. Sending us out into the middle of nowhere for something that probably doesn’t even exist at this point. Classic.”
Nicholas watched as his half brother twirled his walking stick around, and began to wonder what the monks would make of them: the preening, ruddy-haired prince in new mountaineering gear, poking around their sacred spaces looking for lost treasure, and the dark-skinned young man, clearly the servant, trailing behind him like a trapped shadow.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Why had he left? Why had he signed the contract—why had he ever trusted this family?
This isn’t who I’m supposed to be.
“Buck up, old man,” Julian said, with a faint punch to Nicholas’s shoulder. “Don’t tell me you’re still sore about the contract.”
Nicholas glared at Julian’s back as he turned away. He didn’t wish to speak of it, didn’t wish to think of it either—the way Julian had shrugged and merely said, I guess you should have read the terms a bit more closely before you signed it. He’d escaped enslavement by this family once, yet, in the end, he had only sold himself back into servitude. But the old man had talked of impossible things—of magic, of voyages, of money beyond his wildest dreams. Five years of excitement had hardly seemed like a sacrifice at the time.
The moment he had realized he would only ever be a valet to a half brother who would never, ever, not in a thousand years, acknowledge him publicly as such, Nicholas had merely swallowed the bile rising in his throat and finished retying Julian’s cravat the way he preferred it to be styled. Since then, he’d never felt so aware of time. Each passing second chipped away at his resolve, and he was afraid to find out what disastrous fury might spill out of him when his defenses were whittled away.
“We should turn back and make camp,” Nicholas said finally, avoiding Julian’s assessing gaze. “Start again tomorrow.”
Julian scoffed. “Afraid of a little rain, are you? Don’t be such a pill, Nick. The climb’s a snap.”
It wasn’t the climb itself he was worried about. Already, the air felt thin in his lungs; his headache, he realized, had less to do with Julian’s incessant prattling and more to do with how perilously close they were now to the heavens. His knees felt as though they’d turned to sand; his hands were drained of any sensation at all.
I could leave him here. Run.
Where could he go that they couldn’t find him? Not back to Hall; not back to his own natural time. Not even to find his mother.
Nicholas glanced at the spread of steel-gray clouds rolling through the mountain range, sliced neatly by the Himalayas’ long, jagged necks. On a ship, he would use the ocean and the vessel itself to gauge the intensity of an approaching storm, and form a plan to see it through safely. Now he had neither; there was only the faint prickle at the back of his neck to warn him as distant thunder cracked and echoed through the empty mountains.