“We’ll need to swim,” Nicholas said, the first words he’d uttered in nearly an hour. They’d come upon what Etta thought might have been part of the moat that surrounded the remains of the grand city. The moat had naturally filled up with earth and wildlife over the years, but with the rain lashing down around them, the water level was high enough that they couldn’t wade their way across.
“No, my mom talked about some kind of a bridge…at the southern gate, I think,” Etta said. She doubted it looked anything like the modern causeway that existed in her era, but it was worth finding, to avoid whatever was living in the moat.
To fill the silence and stop thinking about the way the rain made the trees rattle like angry snakes, Etta asked, “Where did you travel with Julian?”
“Here and there.”
All right. Julian was still off-limits, and she wouldn’t press him, not when it was clearly still painful. But Etta was incredibly curious about that sliver of time in his life.
“I think you were close to getting on the right trail to the astrolabe,” she told him. “I’m not sure if you were in the right year, but I’m almost positive the first clue refers to the Tiger’s Nest. And that’s where Julian died, right?”
Nicholas ran a hand back over his short hair and nodded.
Etta’s fingers twisted around one another. “It’s my mom’s fault, isn’t it? Everything. You traveling with him, his death…”
“I can forgive your mother for doing what she believed to be right, even if her methods were questionable and a damned pain,” he said, “but if we trace the blame back to its roots, there’s only Ironwood at fault.”
“I’m not sure where or how to begin,” he said, holding a branch out of her way. Nicholas searched for the words. “Julian and I were sent to Bhutan because the old man had found records that a monk once sighted a young blond woman in one of the meditation caves—one who never emerged from it again. We thought for certain it would be another fruitless trip. Over the years, the search took us everywhere from Mexico to India, to what I think you’d know as Alaska…?”
“It’s not…it’s not such an easy thing to discuss,” he said, his low voice drowned out for a moment by the cracking of thunder. “For a time, I was blind to the real role I was playing. I told myself I wasn’t there as Julian’s servant, but as a brother; a friend and protector. I think he did see me as a confidant, but…I’m afraid I’ve too much pride. The realization that I was actually there to play valet festered in me. Made me resent him. Just before he died, I told him that I didn’t want to travel any longer—I wanted out of the trap of servitude again. Ironwood had promised me status if I returned to the arms of the family—promised me wonder, adventure, all the things that sound exciting to a boy of fourteen. But I was never given freedom. I was issued orders. I did not receive the full training, or the locations of all of the passages, you see—I wonder now if Ironwood feared I’d escape through them and somehow disappear.”
She did see. Cyrus was a masterful manipulator. He would probably have promised to lasso the moon and bring it down to Nicholas in order to get him to travel with Julian.
“I wanted to make those choices again. Build my own life, feel like I was at its helm again—the way I only felt with the Halls, when I sailed with the captain.”
“What did Julian say when you told him you wanted out?” she asked.
Nicholas was silent a long while. “He told me there was a contract I’d signed, and not a single drop of shared blood would compel any of the Ironwoods to break it. He said it was my purpose, one way or another; that it was the order of things. Terribly sorry, old chap, and all of that. I don’t believe he had a black heart in him; he’d only been poisoned with these justifications like all the rest of them.”
Etta itched to take his hand, but by the way his shoulders were bunched, she wasn’t sure he wanted to be touched.
“I realized my mistake. I had been planning to slip away from the family once we returned to the eighteenth century, to fall back into place in my own natural timeline, and I thought I might be able to, after we returned from…” He trailed off again. “Does Sophia still believe I let him fall?”
Etta winced, giving him his answer. “I told her that was impossible.”
“Is it?” he said, brushing a branch out of the way, “I don’t blame her. The whole family must have known I was desperate to escape my contract of service. Exile is a rather neat, if extreme, method of accomplishing just that. I’ve…I’ve even wondered if something in me let him fall, knowing what the consequences would be.”
She shook her head. “No. And, for what it’s worth, Sophia does recognize it was an accident.”
“But she does blame me,” he finished. “I blame myself. And I’m the fool, because in spite of everything, he was my brother. I never saw him as anything less, or cared for him less than Chase, who is my brother in everything but blood. And it clearly wasn’t the same for him.”
She tried to remember what Sophia had said—that Julian had insisted he and everyone else should think of Nicholas as his brother—but words must have meant very little when he clearly hadn’t demonstrated any of those feelings.
“That doesn’t make you a fool,” Etta huffed, wiping her sopping wet hair out of her face. “You deserve to be loved and treated with respect.”