Nasuada struggled to remain cordial as she asked, “What purpose does it serve, though?”
“Purpose?” Orrin looked at her with genuine astonishment. “None, of course. At least not that I can think of. However, this will help us to understand the mechanics of our world, how and why things happen. It’s a wondrous discovery. Who knows what else it might lead to?” While he spoke, he emptied the tube and carefully placed it in a velvet-padded box that held similar delicate instruments. “The prospect that truly excites me, though, is of using magic to ferret out nature’s secrets. Why, just yesterday, with a single spell, Trianna helped me to discover two entirely new gases. Imagine what could be learned if magic were systematically applied to the disciplines of natural philosophy. I’m considering learning magic myself, if I have the talent for it, and if I can convince some magic users to divulge their knowledge. It’s a pity that your Dragon Rider, Eragon, didn’t accompany you here; I’m sure that he could help me.”
Looking at Farica, Nasuada said, “Wait for me outside.” The woman curtsied and then departed. Once Nasuada heard the door to the laboratory close, she said, “Orrin. Have you taken leave of your senses?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“While you spend your time locked in here conducting experiments that no one understands—endangering your well-being in the process—your country totters on the brink of war. A myriad issues await your decision, and you stand here blowing smoke and playing with quicksilver?”
His face hardened. “I am quite aware of my duties, Nasuada. You may lead the Varden, but I’m still king of Surda, and you would do well to recall that before you speak so disrespectfully. Need I remind you that your sanctuary here depends on my continued goodwill?”
She knew it was an idle threat; many of the Surdan people had relatives in the Varden, and vice versa. They were too closely linked for either of them to abandon the other. No, the real reason that Orrin had taken offense was the question of authority. Since it was nigh impossible to keep large groups of armed warriors at the ready over extended periods of time—as Nasuada had learned, feeding that many inactive people was a logistical nightmare—the Varden had begun taking jobs, starting farms, and otherwise assimilating into their host country. Where will that leave me eventually? As the leader of a nonexistent army? A general or councilor under Orrin? Her position was precarious. If she moved too quickly or with too much initiative, Orrin would perceive it as a threat and turn against her, especially now that she was cloaked in the glamour of the Varden’s victory in Farthen Dûr. But if she waited too long, they would lose their chance to exploit Galbatorix’s momentary weakness. Her only advantage over the maze of opposition was her command of the one element that had instigated this act of the play: Eragon and Saphira.
She said, “I don’t seek to undermine your command, Orrin. That was never my intention, and I apologize if it appeared that way.” He bowed his neck with a stiff bob. Unsure of how to continue, she leaned on her fingertips against the lip of the bench. “It’s only…so many things must be done. I work night and day—I keep a tablet beside my bed for notes—and yet I never catch up; I feel as if we are always balanced on the brink of disaster.”
Orrin picked up a pestle stained black from use and rolled it between his palms with a steady, hypnotic rhythm. “Before you came here…No, that’s not right. Before your Rider materialized fully formed from the ethers like Moratensis from his fountain, I expected to live my life as my father and grandfather before me. That is, opposing Galbatorix in secret. You must excuse me if it takes a while to accustom myself to this new reality.”
It was as much contrition as she could expect in return. “I understand.”
He stopped the pestle in its path for a brief moment. “You are newly come to your power, whereas I have held mine for a number of years. If I may be arrogant enough to offer advice, I’ve found that it’s essential for my sanity to allocate a certain portion of the day for my own interests.”
“I couldn’t do that,” objected Nasuada. “Every moment I waste might be the moment of effort that’s needed to defeat Galbatorix.”
The pestle paused again. “You do the Varden a disservice if you insist on overworking yourself. No one can function properly without occasional peace and quiet. They don’t have to be long breaks, just five or ten minutes. You could even practice your archery, and then you would still serve your goals, albeit in a different manner…. That’s why I had this laboratory constructed in the first place. That’s why I blow smoke and play with quicksilver, as you put it—so that I don’t scream with frustration throughout the rest of the day.”
Despite her reluctance to surrender her view of Orrin as a feckless layabout, Nasuada could not help but acknowledge the validity of his argument. “I will keep your recommendation in mind.”
Some of his former levity returned as he smiled. “That’s all I ask.”
Walking to the window, she pushed the shutters farther open and gazed down upon Aberon, with its cries of quick-fingered merchants hawking their wares to unsuspecting customers, the clotted yellow dust blowing from the western road as a caravan approached the city gates, the air that shimmered over clay tile roofs and carried the scent of cardus weed and incense from the marble temples, and the fields that surrounded Aberon like the outstretched petals of a flower.
Without turning around, she asked, “Have you received copies of our latest reports from the Empire?”
“I have.” He joined her at the window.
“What’s your opinion of them?
“That they’re too meager and incomplete to extract any meaningful conclusions.”
“They’re the best we have, though. Give me your suspicions and your hunches. Extrapolate from the known facts like you would if this were one of your experiments.” She smiled to herself. “I promise that I won’t attach meaning to what you say.”
She had to wait for his reply, and when it came, it was with the dolorous weight of a doomsday prophecy. “Increased taxes, emptied garrisons, horses and oxen confiscated throughout the Empire…It seems that Galbatorix gathers his forces in preparation to confront us, though I cannot tell whether he means to do it in offense or defense.” Revolving shadows cooled their faces as a cloud of starlings whirled across the sun. “The question that weighs upon my mind now is, how long will it take him to mobilize? For that will determine the course of our strategies.”
“Weeks. Months. Years. I cannot predict his actions.”
He nodded. “Have your agents continued to spread tidings of Eragon?”
“It has become increasingly dangerous, but yes. My hope is that if we inundate cities like Dras-Leona with rumors of Eragon’s prowess, when we actually reach the city and they see him, they will join us of their own accord and we can avoid a siege.”
“War is rarely so easy.”
She let the comment pass uncontested. “And how fares the mobilization of your own army? The Varden, as always, are ready to fight.”
Orrin spread his hands in a placating gesture. “It’s difficult to rouse a nation, Nasuada. There are nobles who I must convince to back me, armor and weapons to be constructed, supplies to be gathered….”
“And in the meantime, how do I feed my people? We need more land than you allotted us—”
“Well, I know it,” he said.
“—and we’ll only get it by invading the Empire, unless you fancy making the Varden a permanent addition to Surda. If so, you’ll have to find homes for the thousands of people I brought from Farthen Dûr, which won’t please your existing citizens. Whatever your choice, choose quickly, because I fear that if you continue to procrastinate, the Varden will disintegrate into an uncontrollable horde.” She tried not to make it sound like a threat.
Nevertheless, Orrin obviously did not appreciate the insinuation. His upper lip curled and he said, “Your father never let his men get out of hand. I trust you won’t either, if you expect to remain leader of the Varden. As for our prepar
ations, there’s a limit to what we can do in so short a time; you’ll just have to wait until we are ready.”
She gripped the windowsill until veins stood out on her wrists and her fingernails sank into the crevices between the stones, yet she allowed none of her anger to color her voice: “In that case, will you lend the Varden more gold for food?”
“No. I’ve given you all the money I can spare.”
“How will we eat, then?”
“I would suggest that you raise the funds yourself.”
Furious, she gave him her widest, brightest smile—holding it long enough to make him shift with unease—and then curtsied as deeply as a servant, never letting her demented grimace waver. “Farewell then, Sire. I hope that the rest of your day is as enjoyable as our conversation was.”
Orrin muttered an unintelligible response as she swept back to the laboratory’s entrance. In her anger, Nasuada caught her right sleeve on a jade bottle and knocked it over, cracking the stone and releasing a flood of yellow liquid that splattered her sleeve and soaked her skirt. She flicked her wrist in annoyance without stopping.
Farica rejoined her in the stairwell, and together they traversed the warren of passageways to Nasuada’s chambers.
HANGING BY A THREAD
Throwing open the doors to her rooms, Nasuada strode to her desk, then dropped into a chair, blind to her surroundings. Her spine was so rigid that her shoulders did not touch the back. She felt frozen by the insoluble quandary the Varden faced. The rise and fall of her chest slowed until it was imperceptible. I have failed, was all she could think.
“Ma’am, your sleeve!”
Jolted from her reverie, Nasuada looked down to find Farica beating at her right arm with a cleaning rag. A wisp of smoke rose from the embroidered sleeve. Alarmed, Nasuada pushed herself out of the chair and twisted her arm, trying to find the cause of the smoke. Her sleeve and skirt were disintegrating into chalky cobwebs that emitted acrid fumes.
“Get me out of this,” she said.
She held her contaminated arm away from her body and forced herself to remain still as Farica unlaced her overgown. The handmaid’s fingers scrabbled against Nasuada’s back with frantic haste, fumbling with the knots, and then finally loosening the wool shell that encased Nasuada’s torso. As soon as the overgown sagged, Nasuada yanked her arms out of the sleeves and clawed her way free of the robe.
Panting, she stood by the desk, clad only in her slippers and linen chemise. To her relief, the expensive chainsil had escaped harm, although it had acquired a foul reek.
“Did it burn you?” asked Farica. Nasuada shook her head, not trusting her tongue to respond. Farica nudged the overgown with the tip of her shoe. “What evil is this?”
“One of Orrin’s foul concoctions,” croaked Nasuada. “I spilled it in his laboratory.” Calming herself with long breaths, she examined the ruined gown with dismay. It had been woven by the dwarf women of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum as a gift for her last birthday and was one of the finest pieces in her wardrobe. She had nothing to replace it, nor could she justify commissioning a new dress, considering the Varden’s financial difficulties. Somehow I will have to make do without.
Farica shook her head. “It’s a shame to lose such a pretty dress.” She went round the desk to a sewing basket and returned with a pair of etched scissors. “We might as well save as much of the cloth as we can. I’ll cut off the ruined parts and have them burned.”
Nasuada scowled and paced the length of the room, seething with anger at her own clumsiness and at having another problem added to her already overwhelming list of worries. “What am I going to wear to court now?” she demanded.
The scissors bit into the soft wool with brisk authority. “Mayhap your linen dress.”
“It’s too casual to appear in before Orrin and his nobles.”
“Give me a chance with it, Ma’am. I’m sure that I can alter it so it’s serviceable. By the time I’m done, it’ll look twice as grand as this one ever did.”
“No, no. It won’t work. They’ll just laugh at me. It’s hard enough to command their respect when I’m dressed properly, much less if I’m wearing patched gowns that advertise our poverty.”
The older woman fixed Nasuada with a stern gaze. “It will work, so long as you don’t apologize for your appearance. Not only that, I guarantee that the other ladies will be so taken with your new fashion that they’ll imitate you. Just you wait and see.” Going to the door, she cracked it open and handed the damaged fabric to one of the guards outside. “Your mistress wants this burned. Do it in secret and breathe not a word of this to another soul or you’ll have me to answer to.” The guard saluted.
Nasuada could not help smiling. “How would I function without you, Farica?”
“Quite well, I should think.”
After donning her green hunting frock—which, with its light skirt, provided some respite from the day’s heat—Nasuada decided that even though she was ill disposed toward Orrin, she would take his advice and break with her regular schedule to do nothing more important than help Farica rip out stitches from the overgown. She found the repetitive task an excellent way to focus her thoughts. While she pulled on the threads, she discussed the Varden’s predicament with Farica, in the hope that she might perceive a solution that had escaped Nasuada.
In the end, Farica’s only assistance was to observe, “Seems most matters in this world have their root in gold. If we had enough of it, we could buy Galbatorix right off his black throne…might not even have to fight his men.”
Did I really expect that someone else would do my job for me? Nasuada asked herself. I led us into this blind and I have to lead us out.
Intending to cut open a seam, she extended her arm and snagged the tip of her knife on a fringe of bobbin lace, slicing it in half. She stared at the ragged wound in the lace, at the frayed ends of the parchment-colored strands that wriggled across the overgown like so many contorted worms, stared and felt a hysterical laugh claw at her throat even as a tear formed in her eye. Could her luck be any worse?
The bobbin lace was the most valuable part of the dress. Even though lace required skill to make, its rarity and expense were mainly due to its central ingredient: vast, copious, mind-numbing, and deadening amounts of time. It took so long to produce that if you attempted to create a lace veil by yourself, your progress would be measured not in weeks but in months. Ounce for ounce, lace was worth more than gold or silver.
She ran her fingers over the band of threads, pausing on the rift that she had created. It’s not as if lace takes that much energy, just time. She hated making it herself. Energy…energy… At that moment, a series of images flashed through her mind: Orrin talking about using magic for research; Trianna, the woman who had helmed Du Vrangr Gata since the Twins’ deaths; looking up at one of the Varden’s healers while he explained the principles of magic to Nasuada when she was only five or six years old. The disparate experiences formed a chain of reasoning that was so outrageous and unlikely, it finally released the laugh imprisoned in her throat.
Farica gave her an odd look and waited for an explanation. Standing, Nasuada tumbled half the overgown off her lap and onto the floor. “Fetch me Trianna this instant,” she said. “I don’t care what she’s doing; bring her here.”
The skin around Farica’s eyes tightened, but she curtsied and said, “As you wish, Ma’am.” She departed through the hidden servants’ door.
“Thank you,” Nasuada whispered in the empty room.
She understood her maid’s reluctance; she too felt uncomfortable whenever she had to interact with magic users. Indeed, she only trusted Eragon because he was a Rider—although that was no proof of virtue, as Galbatorix had shown—and because of his oath of fealty, which Nasuada knew he would never break. It scared her to consider magicians’ and sorcerers’ powers. The thought that a seemingly ordinary person could kill with a word; invade your mind if he or she wished; cheat, lie, and steal without being caught; and otherwi
se defy society with near impunity…
Her heart quickened.
How did you enforce the law when a certain segment of the population possessed special powers? At its most basic level, the Varden’s war against the Empire was nothing more than an attempt to bring to justice a man who had abused his magical abilities and to prevent him from committing further crimes. All this pain and destruction because no one had the strength to defeat Galbatorix. He won’t even die after a normal span of years!
Although she disliked magic, she knew that it would play a crucial role in removing Galbatorix and that she could not afford to alienate its practitioners until victory was assured. Once that occurred, she intended to resolve the problem that they presented.
A brazen knock on her chamber door disturbed her thoughts. Fixing a pleasant smile on her face and guarding her mind as she had been trained, Nasuada said, “Enter!” It was important that she appear polite after summoning Trianna in such a rude manner.
The door thrust open and the brunette sorceress strode into the room, her tousled locks piled high above her head with obvious haste. She looked as if she had just been roused from bed. Bowing in the dwarven fashion, she said, “You asked for me, Lady?”
“I did.” Relaxing into a chair, Nasuada let her gaze slowly drift up and down Trianna. The sorceress lifted her chin under Nasuada’s examination. “I need to know: What is the most important rule of magic?”
Trianna frowned. “That whatever you do with magic requires the same amount of energy as it would to do otherwise.”
“And what you can do is only limited by your ingenuity and by your knowledge of the ancient language?”
“Other strictures apply, but in general, yes. Lady, why do you ask? These are basic principles of magic that, while not commonly bandied about, I am sure you are familiar with.”