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.
“The old man had better be right this time,” Julian said, starting up the trail again. From where Nicholas stood, it looked like an endless ribbon of steps that had been draped over the rough, rocky face of the cliff, rising and falling with the natural shape of the landscape. “I’m tired of this game of his—the blasted thing is lost. Even he doesn’t win sometimes.”
He always wins, Nicholas thought, fingers curling into fists at his side. I am never going to be free of any of them.
“All right, come on then, Nick. We’ve a journey to make,” Julian called back. “And I’m hungry enough to eat a horse.”
The first fat splatter of rain caught him across the face, sliding down his cheek to drip off his chin. It was a strange, trembling sort of moment. Nicholas felt caught in that instant, glancing around for some form of temporary shelter, which he knew Julian would demand, rather than risk getting his boots wet. Aside from the choten—the low white buildings that sheltered the elaborate, brightly colored prayer wheels—there were a few small covered ledges where mourners had placed conical reliquaries of ashes.
“There!” Julian let out a sharp, joyful cry, pumping a fist into the air. The mist shrouding the monastery had settled, as if the rain had dragged it down. It sat like the foggy surface of a lake, disguising the thousands of feet between the ledge and the sheer, rocky drop below. “Where’s the camera? Break it out, will you? No one around to see it anyway—”
The thunder that exploded overhead ricocheted like cannon fire through the mountains. Nicholas’s whole body tensed, cringing away from the deafening roar. No sooner had it faded than the heavens opened up and rain poured down from the clouds, momentarily blinding him with its strength. Nicholas let out a startled gasp as the pounding intensified into a solid sheet of water, a surge he’d only ever witnessed once at sea when his ship had drifted toward the edge of a hurricane. Rivers of rain were washing down from the ledges above, pouring around him, nearly carrying his feet out from under him.
Nicholas spun back toward the edge of the trail just as Julian turned to shout something to him, and watched Julian’s left foot disappear as the muddy ledge crumbled beneath it.
As he dove, throwing himself across the distance, a single thought slammed through Nicholas’s mind: Not like this.
“Nick! Nick!” Julian had managed to grab on to the fractured remains of the ledge, his hand already sliding out of his sopping wet glove as his full weight dangled over a vast spread of air, stone, mist, and trees. Nicholas crawled the last few feet between them on his stomach and was reaching, reaching, and the contents of the rucksack were rattling, digging into his back—
Julian’s face was bone-white with fear, his mouth moving, begging, Help me, help me—
Why should I?
This family—they’d taken everything from him—they’d taken his true family, his freedom, his worth—
A cold, bitter satisfaction filled him to the core at the thought of finally taking something back.
Because he’s your brother.
Nicholas shook his head, feeling the force of the rain start to carry him toward the ledge. “Reach up—swing your arm up—Julian!”
A look of determination crossed Julian’s mud-smeared face as he thrust his free arm up, trying to catch Nicholas’s grasping hand. Julian sacrificed his grip on the ledge to swing himself up; Nicholas lunged forward and caught his fingers—
The weight he’d been holding disappeared as Julian’s hand slipped out of the glove, and his dark shape slipped silently down through the feather-soft mist, parting just enough for Nicholas to see, at the bottom of the ravine, a burst of light as Julian’s body broke apart into glittering dust.
There was a boom and rattle from miles away, and he knew the passage they’d come through had just collapsed. Blood roared in Nicholas’s ears, chased by his own soundless scream; he did not need to look, to search through the haze and rain, to know that time itself had stolen Julian’s broken body, and dissolved it into nothing but memory.