Brom swept the coins back into his purse. Gareth shot a venomous look at the man at the table, then turned his back on them and picked up the glass again. Brom went to the stranger and said, “Thanks. The name’s Neal. This is Evan.”
The man raised his mug to them. “Martin, and of course you met Gareth.” His voice was deep and rough. Martin gestured at some empty chairs. “Go ahead and sit down. I don’t mind.” Eragon took a chair and arranged it so his back was to the wall and he faced the door. Martin raised an eyebrow, but made no comment.
“You just saved me a few crowns,” said Brom.
“My pleasure. Can’t blame Gareth, though—business hasn’t been doing so well lately.” Martin scratched his chin. “Jeod lives on the west side of town, right next to Angela, the herbalist. Do you have business with him?”
“Of a sort,” said Brom.
“Well, he won’t be interested in buying anything; he just lost another ship a few days ago.”
Brom latched onto the news with interest. “What happened? It wasn’t Urgals, was it?”
“No,” said Martin. “They’ve left the area. No one’s seen ’em in almost a year. It seems they’ve all gone south and east. But they aren’t the problem. See, most of our business is through sea trade, as I’m sure you know. Well,” he stopped to drink from his mug, “starting several months ago, someone’s been attacking our ships. It’s not the usual piracy, because only ships that carry the goods of certain merchants are attacked. Jeod’s one of ’em. It’s gotten so bad that no captain will accept those merchants’ goods, which makes life difficult around here. Especially because some of ’em run the largest shipping businesses in the Empire. They’re being forced to send goods by land. It’s driven costs painfully high, and their caravans don’t always make it.”
“Do you have any idea who’s responsible? There must be witnesses,” said Brom.
Martin shook his head. “No one survives the attacks. Ships go out, then disappear; they’re never seen again.” He leaned toward them and said in a confidential tone, “The sailors are saying that it’s magic.” He nodded and winked, then leaned back.
Brom seemed worried by his words. “What do you think?”
Martin shrugged carelessly. “I don’t know. And I don’t think I will unless I’m unfortunate enough to be on one of those captured ships.”
“Are you a sailor?” asked Eragon.
“No,” snorted Martin. “Do I look like one? The captains hire me to defend their ships against pirates. And those thieving scum haven’t been very active lately. Still, it’s a good job.”
“But a dangerous one,” said Brom. Martin shrugged again and downed the last of his beer. Brom and Eragon took their leave and headed to the west side of the city, a nicer section of Teirm. The houses were clean, ornate, and large. The people in the streets wore expensive finery and walked with authority. Eragon felt conspicuous and out of place.
AN OLD FRIEND
The herbalist’s shop had a cheery sign and was easy to find. A short, curly-haired woman sat by the door. She was holding a frog in one hand and writing with the other. Eragon assumed that she was Angela, the herbalist. On either side of the store was a house. “Which one do you think is his?” he asked.
Brom deliberated, then said, “Let’s find out.” He approached the woman and asked politely, “Could you tell us which house Jeod lives in?”
“I could.” She continued writing.
“Will you tell us?”
“Yes.” She fell silent, but her pen scribbled faster than ever. The frog on her hand croaked and looked at them with baleful eyes. Brom and Eragon waited uncomfortably, but she said no more. Eragon was about to blurt something out when Angela looked up. “Of course I’ll tell you! All you have to do is ask. Your first question was whether or not I could tell you, and the second was if I would tell you. But you never actually put the question to me.”
“Then let me ask properly,” said Brom with a smile. “Which house is Jeod’s? And why are you holding a frog?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she bantered. “Jeod is on the right. And as for the frog, he’s actually a toad. I’m trying to prove that toads don’t exist—that there are only frogs.”
“How can toads not exist if you have one on your hand right now?” interrupted Eragon. “Besides, what good will it do, proving that there are only frogs?”
The woman shook her head vigorously, dark curls bouncing. “No, no, you don’t understand. If I prove toads don’t exist, then this is a frog and never was a toad. Therefore, the toad you see now doesn’t exist. And,” she raised a small finger, “if I can prove there are only frogs, then toads won’t be able to do anything bad—like make teeth fall out, cause warts, and poison or kill people. Also, witches won’t be able to use any of their evil spells because, of course, there won’t be any toads around.”
“I see,” said Brom delicately. “It sounds interesting, and I would like to hear more, but we have to meet Jeod.”
“Of course,” she said, waving her hand and returning to her writing.
Once they were out of the herbalist’s hearing, Eragon said, “She’s crazy!”
“It’s possible,” said Brom, “but you never know. She might discover something useful, so don’t criticize. Who knows, toads might really be frogs!”
“And my shoes are made of gold,” retorted Eragon.
They stopped before a door with a wrought-iron knocker and marble doorstep. Brom banged three times. No one answered. Eragon felt slightly foolish. “Maybe this is the wrong house. Let’s try the other one,” he said. Brom ignored him and knocked again, pounding loudly.
Again no one answered. Eragon turned away in exasperation, then heard someone run to the door. A young woman with a pale complexion and light blond hair cracked it open. Her eyes were puffy; it looked like she had been crying, but her voice was perfectly steady. “Yes, what do you want?”
“Does Jeod live here?” asked Brom kindly.
The woman dipped her head a little. “Yes, he is my husband. Is he expecting you?” She opened the door no farther.
“No, but we need to talk with him,” said Brom.
“He is very busy.”
“We have traveled far. It’s very important that we see him.”
Her face hardened. “He is busy.”
Brom bristled, but his voice stayed pleasant. “Since he is unavailable, would you please give him a message?” Her mouth twitched, but she consented. “Tell him that a friend from Gil’ead is waiting outside.”
The woman seemed suspicious, but said, “Very well.” She closed the door abruptly. Eragon heard her footsteps recede.
“That wasn’t very polite.” he commented.
“Keep your opinions to yourself,” snapped Brom. “And don’t say anything. Let me do the talking.” He crossed his arms and tapped his fingers. Eragon clamped his mouth shut and looked away.
The door suddenly flew open, and a tall man burst out of the house. His expensive clothes were rumpled, his gray hair wispy, and he had a mournful face with short eyebrows. A long scar stretched across his scalp to his temple.
At the sight of them, his eyes grew wide, and he sagged against the doorframe, speechless. His mouth opened and closed several times like a gasping fish. He asked softly, in an incredulous voice, “Brom . . . ?”
Brom put a finger to his lips and reached forward, clasping the man’s arm. “It’s good to see you, Jeod! I’m glad that memory has not failed you, but don’t use that name. It would be unfortunate if anyone knew I was here.”
Jeod looked around wildly, shock plain on his face. “I thought you were dead,” he whispered. “What happened? Why haven’t you contacted me before?”
“All things will be explained. Do you have a place where we can talk safely?”
Jeod hesitated, swinging his gaze between Eragon and Brom, face unreadable. Finally he said, “We can’t talk here, but if you wait a moment, I’ll take you somewhere we can.”
“Fine,” said Brom. Jeod nodded and vanished behind the door.
I hope I can learn something of Brom’s past, thought Eragon.
There was a rapier at Jeod’s side when he reappeared. An embroidered jacket hung loosely on his shoulders, matched by a plumed hat. Brom cast a critical eye at the finery, and Jeod shrugged self-consciously.
He took them through Teirm toward the citadel. Eragon led the horses behind the two men. Jeod gestured at their destination. “Risthart, the lord of Teirm, has decreed that all the business owners must have their headquarters in his castle. Even though most of us conduct our business elsewhere, we still have to rent rooms there. It’s nonsense, but we abide by it anyway to keep him calm. We’ll be free of eavesdroppers in there; the walls are thick.”
They went through the fortress’s main gate and into the keep. Jeod strode to a side door and pointed to an iron ring. “You can tie the horses there. No one will bother them.” When Snowfire and Cadoc were safely tethered, he opened the door with an iron key and let them inside.
Within was a long, empty hallway lit by torches set into the walls. Eragon was surprised by how cold and damp it was. When he touched the wall, his fingers slid over a layer of slime. He shivered.
Jeod snatched a torch from its bracket and led them down the hall. They stopped before a heavy, wooden door. He unlocked it and ushered them into a room dominated by a bearskin rug laden with stuffed chairs. Bookshelves stacked with leather-bound tomes covered the walls.
Jeod piled wood in the fireplace, then thrust the torch under it. The fire quickly roared. “You, old man, have some explaining to do.”
Brom’s face crinkled with a smile. “Who are you calling an old man? The last time I saw you there was no gray in your hair. Now it looks like it’s in the final stages of decomposition.”
“And you look the same as you did nearly twenty years ago. Time seems to have preserved you as a crotchety old man just to inflict wisdom upon each new generation. Enough of this! Get on with the story. That’s always what you were good at,” said Jeod impatiently. Eragon’s ears pricked up, and he waited eagerly to hear what Brom would say.
Brom relaxed into a chair and pulled out his pipe. He slowly blew a smoke ring that turned green, darted into the fireplace, then flew up the chimney. “Do you remember what we were doing in Gil’ead?”
“Yes, of course,” said Jeod. “That sort of thing is hard to forget.”
“An understatement, but true nevertheless,” said Brom dryly. “When we were . . . separated, I couldn’t find you. In the midst of the turmoil I stumbled into a small room. There wasn’t anything extraordinary in it—just crates and boxes—but out of curiosity, I rummaged around anyway. Fortune smiled on me that hour, for I found what we had been searching for.” An expression of shock ran over Jeod’s face. “Once it was in my hands, I couldn’t wait for you. At any second I might have been discovered, and all lost. Disguising myself as best I could, I fled the city and ran to the . . .” Brom hesitated and glanced at Eragon, then said, “ran to our friends. They stored it in a vault, for safekeeping, and made me promise to care for whomever received it. Until the day when my skills would be needed, I had to disappear. No one could know that I was alive—not even you—though it grieved me to pain you unnecessarily. So I went north and hid in Carvahall.”
Eragon clenched his jaw, infuriated that Brom was deliberately keeping him in the dark.
Jeod frowned and asked, “Then our . . . friends knew that you were alive all along?”
He sighed. “I suppose the ruse was unavoidable, though I wish they had told me. Isn’t Carvahall farther north, on the other side of the Spine?” Brom inclined his head. For the first time, Jeod inspected Eragon. His gray eyes took in every detail. He raised his eyebrows and said, “I assume, then, that you are fulfilling your duty.”
Brom shook his head. “No, it’s not that simple. It was stolen a while ago—at least that’s what I presume, for I haven’t received word from our friends, and I suspect their messengers were waylaid—so I decided to find out what I could. Eragon happened to be traveling in the same direction. We have stayed together for a time now.”
Jeod looked puzzled. “But if they haven’t sent any messages, how could you know that it was—”
Brom overrode him quickly, saying, “Eragon’s uncle was brutally killed by the Ra’zac. They burned his home and nearly caught him in the process. He deserves revenge, but they have left us without a trail to follow, and we need help finding them.”
Jeod’s face cleared. “I see. . . . But why have you come here? I don’t know where the Ra’zac might be hiding, and anyone who does won’t tell you.”
Standing, Brom reached into his robe and pulled out the Ra’zac’s flask. He tossed it to Jeod. “There’s Seithr oil in there—the dangerous kind. The Ra’zac were carrying it. They lost it by the trail, and we happened to find it. We need to see Teirm’s shipping records so we can trace the Empire’s purchases of the oil. That should tell us where the Ra’zac’s lair is.”
Lines appeared on Jeod’s face as he thought. He pointed at the books on the shelves. “Do you see those? They are all records from my business. One business. You have gotten yourself into a project that could take months. There is another, greater problem. The records you seek are held in this castle, but only Brand, Risthart’s administrator of trade, sees them on a regular basis. Traders such as myself aren’t allowed to handle them. They fear that we will falsify the results, thus cheating the Empire of its precious taxes.”
“I can deal with that when the time comes,” said Brom. “But we need a few days of rest before we can think about proceeding.”
Jeod smiled. “It seems that it is my turn to help you. My house is yours, of course. Do you have another name while you are here?”
“Yes,” said Brom, “I’m Neal, and the boy is Evan.”
“Eragon,” said Jeod thoughtfully. “You have a unique name. Few have ever been named after the first Rider. In my life I’ve read about only three people who were called such.” Eragon was startled that Jeod knew the origin of his name.
Brom looked at Eragon. “Could you go check on the horses and make sure they’re all right? I don’t think I tied Snowfire to the ring tightly enough.”
They’re trying to hide something from me. The moment I leave they’re going to talk about it. Eragon shoved himself out of the chair and left the room, slamming the door shut. Snowfire had not moved; the knot that held him was fine. Scratching the horses’ necks, Eragon leaned sullenly against the castle wall.
It’s not fair, he complained to himself. If only I could hear what they are saying. He jolted upright, electrified. Brom had once taught him some words that would enhance his hearing. Keen ears aren’t exactly what I want, but I should be able to make the words work. After all, look what I could do with brisingr!
He concentrated intensely and reached for his power. Once it was within his grasp, he said, “Thverr stenr un atra eka hórna!” and imbued the words with his will. As the power rushed out of him, he heard a faint whisper in his ears, but nothing more. Disappointed, he sank back, then started as Jeod said, “—and I’ve been doing that for almost eight years now.”
Eragon looked around. No one was there except for a few guards standing against the far wall of the keep. Grinning, he sat on the courtyard and closed his eyes.
“I never expected you to become a merchant,” said Brom. “After all the time you spent in books. And finding the passageway in that manner! What made you take up trading instead of remaining a scholar?”
“After Gil’ead, I didn’t have much taste for sitting in musty rooms and reading scrolls. I decided to help Ajihad as best I could, but I’m no warrior. My father was a merchant as well—you may remember that. He helped me get started. However, the bulk of my business is nothing more than a front to get goods into Surda.”
“But I take it that things have been going badly,” said Brom.
r /> “Yes, none of the shipments have gotten through lately, and Tronjheim is running low on supplies. Somehow the Empire—at least I think it’s them—has discovered those of us who have been helping to support Tronjheim. But I’m still not convinced that it’s the Empire. No one sees any soldiers. I don’t understand it. Perhaps Galbatorix hired mercenaries to harass us.”
“I heard that you lost a ship recently.”
“The last one I owned,” answered Jeod bitterly. “Every man on it was loyal and brave. I doubt I’ll ever see them again. . . . The only option I have left is to send caravans to Surda or Gil’ead—which I know won’t get there, no matter how many guards I hire—or charter someone else’s ship to carry the goods. But no one will take them now.”
“How many merchants have been helping you?” asked Brom.
“Oh, a good number up and down the seaboard. All of them have been plagued by the same troubles. I know what you are thinking; I’ve pondered it many a night myself, but I cannot bear the thought of a traitor with that much knowledge and power. If there is one, we’re all in jeopardy. You should return to Tronjheim.”
“And take Eragon there?” interrupted Brom. “They’d tear him apart. It’s the worst place he could be right now. Maybe in a few months or, even better, a year. Can you imagine how the dwarves will react? Everyone will be trying to influence him, especially Islanzadi. He and Saphira won’t be safe in Tronjheim until I at least get them through tuatha du orothrim.”
Dwarves! thought Eragon excitedly. Where is this Tronjheim? And why did he tell Jeod about Saphira? He shouldn’t have done that without asking me!
“Still, I have a feeling that they are in need of your power and wisdom.”
“Wisdom,” snorted Brom. “I’m just what you said earlier—a crotchety old man.”
“Many would disagree.”
“Let them. I’ve no need to explain myself. No, Ajihad will have to get along without me. What I’m doing now is much more important. But the prospect of a traitor raises troubling questions. I wonder if that’s how the Empire knew where to be. . . .” His voice trailed off.