Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle 4) - Page 43

When the man in the gray tunic returned, she was almost glad to see him, a reaction for which she despised herself, considering it a weakness.

She was not sure how long she had been waiting—could not be sure unless someone told her—but she knew it had been a shorter period than before. Still, the wait had felt interminable, and she had feared that she was to be left strapped down and isolated—though not ignored, surely not that—for the same drawn-out stretch. To her disgust, she found herself grateful that the man was going to visit her more often than she had originally thought. Lying motionless on a flat piece of stone for so many hours was painful enough, but to be denied contact with any other living creature—even one as lumpish and abhorrent as her jailer—was a torture in and of itself and was by far the harder trial to bear.

As the man unlocked her from her restraints, she noted that the wound on his forearm had been healed; the skin was as smooth and pink as a suckling pig’s.

She refrained from fighting, but on the way to the privy room, she pretended to stumble and fall, hoping to get near enough to the platter that she might steal the small paring knife the man used to cut the food. However, the platter proved too far away, and the man was too heavy for her to drag toward it without alerting him to her intentions. Her ploy having failed, she forced herself to submit calmly to the rest of the man’s ministrations; she needed to convince him that she had given up so he would grow complacent and, if she was lucky, careless.

While he fed her, she studied his fingernails. Previously, she had been too angry to pay them heed, but now that she was calmer, the oddity of them fascinated her.

His nails were thick and highly arched. They were set deep within the flesh, and the white moons by the cuticles were large and broad. In all, no different from the nails of many of the men and dwarves she had dealt with.

When had she dealt with them? … She did not remember.

What set his nails apart was the care with which they had been cultivated. And cultivated seemed the right description to her, as if the nails were rare flowers a gardener had devoted long hours to tending. The cuticles were neat and trim, with no sign of tears, while the nails themselves had been cut straight across—not too long, not too short—and the edges smoothly beveled. The tops of the nails had been polished until they shone like glazed pottery, and the skin surrounding them looked as if oil or butter had been rubbed into it.

Except for elves, she had never seen a man with such perfect nails.

Elves? She shook off the thought, irritated with herself. She knew no elves.

The nails were an enigma; a strangeness in an otherwise understandable setting; a mystery that she wanted to solve, even though it was probably futile to try.

She wondered who was responsible for the nails’ exemplary condition. Was it the man himself? He seemed overly fastidious, and she could not imagine he had a wife or daughter or servant or anyone else close to him who would lavish so much attention on the caps of his fingers. Of course, she realized she might be mistaken. Many a battle-scarred veteran—grim, close-mouthed men whose only loves seemed to be wine, women, and war—had surprised her with some facet of their character that was at odds with their outward guise: a knack for wood carving, a tendency to memorize romantic poems, a fondness for hounds, or a fierce devotion to a family that they kept hidden from the rest of the world. It had been years before she had learned that Jör—

She cut off the thought before it went any further.

In any event, the question she kept turning over in her mind was a simple one: why? Motivation was telling, even when such small things as fingernails were concerned.

If the nails were the work of someone else, then they were a labor of either great love or great fear. But she doubted that was the case; somehow it felt wrong.

If, instead, they were the work of the man himself, then any number of explanations were possible. Perhaps his nails were a way for him to exert a modicum of control over a life that was no longer his own. Or perhaps he felt they were the only part of himself that was or could be attractive. Or perhaps caring for them was merely a nervous tic, a habit that served no other purpose except to while away the hours.

Whatever the truth might be, the fact remained that someone had cleaned and trimmed and buffed and oiled his fingernails, and it had not been a casual or inattentive effort.

She continued to ponder the matter while she ate, barely tasting her food. Occasionally, she glanced up to search the man’s heavy face for one clue or another, but always without success.

Upon feeding her the last piece of bread, the man pushed himself off the edge of the slab, picked up the platter, and turned away.

She chewed and swallowed the bread as fast as she could without choking; then, her voice hoarse and creaky from disuse, she said, “You have nice fingernails. They’re very … shiny.”

The man paused in midstep, and his large, ponderous head swiveled toward her. For a moment, she thought he might strike her again, but then his gray lips slowly split and he smiled at her, showing both his upper and lower rows of teeth.

She suppressed a shudder; he looked as if he were about to bite the head off a chicken.

Still with the same unsettling expression, the man continued out of her range of sight, and a few seconds later, she heard the door to her cell open and close.

Her own smile crept across her lips. Pride and vanity were weaknesses that she could exploit. If there was one thing she was skilled at, it was the ability to bend others to her will. The man had given her the tiniest of handholds—no more than a fingerhold, really, or rather a fingernail-hold, as it were—but it was all she needed. Now she could begin to climb.


THE THIRD TIME the man visited her, Nasuada was sleeping. The sound of the door banging open caused her to jolt awake, heart pounding.

It took her a few seconds to remember where she was. When she did, she frowned and blinked, trying to clear her eyes. She wished she could rub them.

Her frown deepened as she looked down her body and saw that there was still a small damp spot on her shift where a drop of watered wine had fallen during her meal.

Why has he returned so soon?

Her heart sank as the man walked past her carrying a large copper brazier full of charcoal, which he set upon its legs a few feet away from the slab. Resting in the charcoal were three long irons.

The time she had dreaded had finally arrived.

She tried to catch his eye, but the man refused to look at her as he took flint and steel from a pouch on his belt and lit a nest of shredded tinder in the center of the brazier. As sparks smoldered and spread, the tinder glowed like a ball of red-hot wires. The man bent, puckered his lips, and blew on the incipient fire, gentle as a mother kissing her child, and the sparks sprang into lambent flames.

For several minutes, he tended the fire, building a bed of coals several inches thick, the smoke rising to a grate far above. She watched with morbid fascination, unable to tear her gaze away, despite what she knew awaited her. Neither he nor she spoke; it was as if they were both too ashamed of what was about to take place for either to acknowledge it.

He blew on the coals again, then turned as if to approach her.

Don’t give in, she told herself, stiffening.

She clenched her fists and held her breath as the man walked toward her … closer … closer …

A feather-like touch of wind brushed her face as he strode past her, and she listened to his footsteps dwindle into silence as he climbed the stairs and left the room.

A faint gasp escaped her as she relaxed slightly. Like lodestones, the bright coals drew her gaze back toward them. A dull, rust-colored glow was creeping up the iron rods that stuck out of the brazier.

She wet her mouth and thought how nice a drink of water would be.

One of the coals jumped and split in two, but otherwise the chamber was quiet.

As she lay there, unable to fight or escap

e, she strove not to think. Thinking would only weaken her resolve. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and no amount of fear or anxiety could change that.

New footsteps sounded in the hallway outside the chamber: a group of them this time, some marching in rhythm, some not. Together they created a host of raucous echoes that made it impossible to determine the number of people approaching. The procession stopped by the doorway, and she heard voices murmuring, and then two sets of clacking footsteps—the product of hard-soled riding boots, she guessed—entered the room.

The door closed with a hollow thud.

Down the stairs the footsteps came, steady and deliberate. She saw someone’s arm place a carved wooden chair at the very edge of her vision.

A man sat in it.

He was large: not fat, but broad-shouldered. A long black cape hung draped around him. It looked heavy, as if backed with mail. Light from the coals and from the flameless lantern gilded the edges of his form, but his features remained too dark to make out. Still, the shadows did nothing to hide the outline of the sharp, pointed crown that rested upon his brow.

Her heart skipped a beat. With a struggle, it resumed its previous rapid tempo.

A second man, this one dressed in a maroon jerkin and leggings—both trimmed with gold thread—walked over to the brazier and stood with his back to her while he stirred the coals with one of the iron rods.

One by one, the man in the chair tugged on the fingers of his gauntlets. Then he pulled off the gloves. Underneath, his hands were the color of tarnished bronze.

When he spoke, his voice was low, rich, and commanding. Any bard who possessed such a mellifluous instrument would have his name praised throughout the land as a master of masters. The sound of it caused her skin to prickle; his words seemed to wash over her like warm waves of water, caressing her, beguiling her, binding her. Listening to him, she realized, was as perilous as listening to Elva.

“Welcome to Urû’baen, Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad,” said the man in the chair. “Welcome to this, my home, ’neath these ancient, piled rocks. Long has it been since a guest as distinguished as yourself has graced us with their presence. My energies have been occupied elsewhere, but I assure you, from now on, I shall not neglect my duties as host.” At the last, a note of menace crept into his voice, like a claw emerging from its sheath.

She had never seen Galbatorix in person, only heard descriptions and studied drawings, but the effect the man’s speech had on her was so visceral, so powerful, she had no doubt that he indeed was the king.

In both his accent as well as his diction, there was something of the other, as if the language he spoke was not the language he had been raised with. It was a subtle difference, but impossible to ignore once she noticed. Perhaps, she decided, it was because the language had changed in the years since he had been born. That seemed the most reasonable explanation, as his way of speaking reminded her—No, no, it reminded her of nothing.

He leaned forward, and she could feel his gaze boring into her.

“You are younger than I expected. I knew you had but recently come of age, but still, you are no more than a child. Most seem as children to me these days: prancing, preening, foolhardy children who know not what is best for them—children who need the guidance of those who are older and wiser.”

“Such as yourself?” she said in a scornful tone.

She heard him chuckle. “Would you rather the elves ruled over us? I am the only one of our race who can hold them at bay. By their reckoning, even our oldest graybeards would be considered untested youths, unfit for the responsibilities of adulthood.”

“By their reckoning, so would you.” She did not know where her courage came from, but she felt strong and defiant. Whether or not the king would punish her for it, she was determined to speak her mind.

“Ah, but I contain more than my share of years. The memories of hundreds are mine. Life piled upon life: loves, hates, battles, victories, defeats, lessons learned, mistakes made—all lie within my mind, whispering their wisdom into my ears. I remember eons. In the whole of recorded history, there has never been one such as I, not even among the elves.”

“How is that possible?” she whispered.

He shifted in the chair. “Do not think to pretend with me, Nasuada. I know that Glaedr gave his heart of hearts to Eragon and Saphira, and that he is there, with the Varden, even now. You understand whereof I speak.”

She suppressed a thrill of fear. The fact that Galbatorix was willing to discuss such things with her—that he was willing to refer, even obliquely, to the source of his power—eliminated what little hope she still had that he ever intended to release her.

Then he gestured at the room with his gauntlets. “Before we proceed, you should know something of the history of this place. When the elves first ventured to this part of the world, they discovered a crevice buried deep within the escarpment that looms over the plains hereabout. The escarpment they prized as defense against the attacks of dragons, but the crevice they prized for an entirely different reason. By happenstance, they discovered that the vapors rising out of the crack in the stone increased the chances that those who slept near it might catch a glimpse, if however confused, of future events. So, over two and a half thousand years ago, the elves built this room atop the fissure, and an oracle came to live here for many hundreds of years, even after the elves abandoned the rest of Ilirea. She sat where you now lie, and she whiled away the centuries dreaming of all that had been and all that might be.

“In time, the air lost its potency and the oracle and her attendants departed. Who she was and where she went, none can say for sure. She had no name other than the title Soothsayer, and certain stories lead me to believe she was neither elf nor dwarf but something else entirely. Be that as it may, during her residency, this chamber came to be called, as you might expect, the Hall of the Soothsayer, and so it still is today—only now you are the soothsayer, Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad.”

Galbatorix spread his arms. “This is a place for truths to be told … and heard. I will tolerate no lies within these walls, not even the simplest of falsehoods. Whosoever rests upon that hard block of stone becomes the latest soothsayer, and though many have found that role difficult to accept, in the end, none have refused. You will be no different.”

The legs of the chair scraped over the floor, and then she felt Galbatorix’s breath warm against her ear. “I know this will be painful for you, Nasuada, painful beyond belief. You will have to unmake yourself before your pride will allow you to submit. In all the world, nothing is harder than changing one’s own self. I understand this, for I have reshaped myself on more than one occasion. However, I will be here to hold your hand and help you through this transition. You need not take the journey alone. And you may console yourself with the knowledge that I will never lie to you. None of us shall. Not within this room. Doubt me if you wish, but in time you will come to believe me. I consider this a hallowed place, and I would no more desecrate the idea it represents than cut off my own hand. You may ask whatever you want, and I promise you, Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad, that we shall answer truthfully. As king of these lands, I give you my sworn word.”

She worked her jaw back and forth, trying to decide how to answer. Then, from between clenched teeth, she said, “I’ll never tell you what you want to know!”

A slow, deep chuckle filled the room. “You misunderstand; I didn’t have you brought here because I seek information. There’s nothing you could say that I don’t already know. The number and disposition of your troops; the state of your provisions; the locations of your supply trains; the manner in which you plan to lay siege to this citadel; Eragon and Saphira’s duties, habits, and abilities; the Dauthdaert you acquired in Belatona; even the powers of the witch-child, Elva, whom you have kept by your side until but recently—all this I know, and more. Shall I quote the figures to you? … No? Well then. My spies are more numerous and more highly placed than you imagine, and I have

other means of gathering intelligence withal. You have no secrets from me, Nasuada, none whatsoever; therefore, it is pointless to insist upon holding your tongue.”

His words struck her like hammerblows, but she strove not to let them dishearten her. “Why, then?”

“Why did I have you brought here? Because, my dear, you have the gift of command, and that is far deadlier than any spell. Eragon is no threat to me, nor are the elves, but you … you are dangerous in a way they are not. Without you, the Varden will be like a blinded bull; they will snort and rage, and they will charge straight ahead, heedless of what lies in their way. Then I will catch them and, with their folly, destroy them.

“But the destruction of the Varden is not the reason I had you abducted. No, you are here because you have proven yourself worthy of my attention. You are fierce, tenacious, ambitious, and intelligent—the very qualities I prize most in my servants. I wish to have you by my side, Nasuada, as my foremost adviser and as the general of my army as I move to implement the final stages of the great plan I have been laboring upon for nigh on a century. A new order is about to descend upon Alagaësia, and I would have you be a part of it. Ever since the last of the Thirteen died, I have searched for those who were fit to take their place. Until recently, my efforts have been in vain. Durza was a useful tool, but being a Shade, he had certain limitations: a lack of concern for his own preservation to name but one. Of all the candidates I have examined, Murtagh was the first I considered eligible and the first to survive the tests I set before him. You shall be the next, I am sure. And Eragon, the third.”

Horror crept through her as she listened to him. What he was proposing was far worse than she had envisioned.

The maroon-clad man at the brazier startled her by shoving one of the iron rods into the coals with such force, the tip banged against the copper bowl underneath.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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