Page 7

 Christopher Paolini

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“Thank you,” murmured Nasuada, lowering her almond eyes. She sat, shy and demure, and with an air of vulnerability that made Eragon want to comfort her. Her demeanor was tragically different from that of the energetic young woman who had visited him and Saphira in the dragonhold before the battle.
“Although this is your time of mourning, a quandary exists that you must resolve. This council cannot lead the Varden. And someone must replace your father after the funeral. We ask that you receive the position. As his heir, it is rightfully yours—the Varden expect it of you.”
Nasuada bowed her head with shining eyes. Grief was plain in her voice when she said, “I never thought I would be called upon to take my father’s place so young. Yet . . . if you insist it is my duty . . . I will embrace the office.”
The Council of Elders beamed with triumph, pleased that Nasuada had done what they wanted. “We do insist,” said Jörmundur, “for your own good and the good of the Varden.” The rest of the elders added their expressions of support, which Nasuada accepted with sad smiles. Sabrae threw an angry glance at Eragon when he did not join in.
Throughout the exchange, Eragon watched Arya for any reaction to either his news or the council’s announcement. Neither revelation caused her inscrutable expression to change. However, Saphira told him,She wishes to talk with us afterward.
Before Eragon could reply, Falberd turned to Arya. “Will the elves find this agreeable?”
She stared at Falberd until the man fidgeted under her piercing gaze, then lifted an eyebrow. “I cannot speak for my queen, but I find nothing objectionable to it. Nasuada has my blessing.”
How could she find it otherwise, knowing what we’ve told her?thought Eragon bitterly.We’re all backed into corners.
Arya’s remark obviously pleased the council. Nasuada thanked her and asked Jörmundur, “Is there anything else that must be discussed? For I am weary.”
Jörmundur shook his head. “We will make all the arrangements. I promise you won’t be troubled until the funeral.”
“Again, thank you. Would you leave me now? I need time to consider how best to honor my father and serve the Varden. You have given me much to ponder.” Nasuada splayed her delicate fingers on the dark cloth on her lap.
Umérth looked like he was going to protest at the council being dismissed, but Falberd waved a hand, silencing him. “Of course, whatever will give you peace. If you need help, we are ready and willing to serve.” Gesturing for the rest of them to follow, he swept past Arya to the door.
“Eragon, will you please stay?”
Startled, Eragon lowered himself back into his chair, ignoring alert looks from the councilors. Falberd lingered by the door, suddenly reluctant to depart, then slowly went out. Arya was the last to go. Before she closed the door, she looked at Eragon, her eyes revealing worry and apprehension that had been concealed before.
Nasuada sat partially turned away from Eragon and Saphira. “So we meet again, Rider. You haven’t greeted me. Have I offended you?”
“No, Nasuada; I was reluctant to speak for fear of being rude or foolish. Current circumstances are unkind to hasty statements.” Paranoia that they might be eavesdropped on gripped him. Reaching through the barrier in his mind, he delved into the magic and intoned: “Atra nosu waíse vardo fra eld hórnya. . . . There, now we may speak without being overheard by man, dwarf, or elf.”
Nasuada’s posture softened. “Thank you, Eragon. You don’t know what a gift that is.” Her words were stronger and more self-assured than before.
Behind Eragon’s chair, Saphira stirred, then carefully made her way around the table to stand before Nasuada. She lowered her great head until one sapphire eye met Nasuada’s black ones. The dragon stared at her for a full minute before snorting softly and straightening.Tell her, said Saphira,that I grieve for her and her loss. Also that her strength must become the Varden’s when she assumes Ajihad’s mantle. They will need a sure guide.
Eragon repeated the words, adding, “Ajihad was a great man—his name will always be remembered. . . . There is something I must tell you. Before Ajihad died, he charged me, commanded me, to keep the Varden from falling into chaos. Those were his last words. Arya heard them as well.
“I was going to keep what he said a secret because of the implications, but you have a right to know. I’m not sure what Ajihad meant, nor exactly what he wanted, but I am certain of this: I will always defend the Varden with my powers. I wanted you to understand that, and that I’ve no desire to usurp the Varden’s leadership.”
Nasuada laughed brittlely. “But that leadership isn’t to be me, is it?” Her reserve had vanished, leaving behind only composure and determination. “I know why you were here before me and what the council is trying to do. Do you think that in the years I served my father, we never planned for this eventuality? I expected the council to do exactly what it did. And now everything is in place for me to take command of the Varden.”
“You have no intention of letting them rule you,” said Eragon with wonder.
“No. Continue to keep Ajihad’s instruction secret. It would be unwise to bandy it about, as people might take it to mean that he wanted you to succeed him, and that would undermine my authority and destabilize the Varden. He said what he thought he had to in order to protect the Varden. I would have done the same. My father . . .” She faltered briefly. “My father’s work will not go unfinished, even if it takes me to the grave. That is whatI want you, as a Rider, to understand. All of Ajihad’s plans, all his strategies and goals, they are mine now. I will not fail him by being weak. The Empirewill be brought down, Galbatorixwill be dethroned, and the rightful governmentwill be raised.”