November 8. So much closer than I thought it would ever be. Once, I wanted to complete this before that date. Such a foolish dream. I wonder how many readers I'll still have on November 9…

So… this and the next chapter were originally planned as a single one, but it grew so long in essence that I decided to split it. The next one is not yet written, and both of these might be a little shorter than usual, but I felt as if this little episode would be best explained in two parts.

Thanks to reviewers: Castaway5, Dagibsta, IronMikeTyson, BokitoProof, Tsukune08, TheJasAlex, Rise Against713, Hikari Urania, Halcyon5, Lynne Cullen, and xxx.

Disclaimer: Too pessimistic and tired to own a sad pillow. You're right, that was irrelevant and senseless.


When Lines End

"I wasn't sure he'd agree," Eragon told Arya, lying on his side on the floor of his tent, Saphira dozing in the background. The elf sat cross-legged beside the blue rider, Faölin sprawled out in front of her. She was in the process of expanding his rapidly-evolving vocabulary, and Eragon was sure she was catching perhaps only half of what he said. "But, of course, he knew I would take offense, should he refuse. We're blood brothers, after all."

"Orik is wiser than to offend you," Arya replied, her eyes still on the dragon, "but that is not why he agreed to your proposal."

Faölin huffed, heat streaming from his mouth, warming Eragon from where he sat a few yards away. The green dragon was large; he barely fit in the blue rider's tent any longer. Eragon could sense the young creature's desire to bear his own destined rider in flight, and it was clear that such a fantasy was only days from becoming reality. Through his own permitted dalliances with Faölin's consciousness, Eragon could tell he would grow to be a magnificent warrior, as cunning as Saphira and brutally strong. He almost thought the carried traits ironic, since Arya, the rider, fought primarily with speed and precision, instead of fire and might.

He had also known precisely why Orik had agreed. "So you share my view… he would rather Nasuada not have complete control over both of us. He doesn't trust her enough for that."

Would you?

Arya froze, and Eragon's eyebrows slowly rose of their own accord. Saphira even opened her eyes, but Faölin merely glanced to the blue rider for an answer, as if he hadn't even realized the question had come from his own mind.

Eragon allowed his smile to form on his face, curving up the corners of his mouth. It was the warmest he had felt in days. Aloud, he answered, "That question, while moot and pointless, has an answer I cannot speak aloud. Suffice it to say, young one, that I am not as unwary of those around me as I was not long ago. Everything—everything—hangs here in the balance."

As Saphira laid herself back down, she blinked her eyes closed and then winked at Eragon, her gaze mocking and teasing at the same time. Only for him to hear, she chuckled. Look at you, Eragon-elda.

Shut up. The smile disappeared, for a reason he couldn't identify. He glanced away from his dragon and her green counterpart, at the tent wall, as if trying to erase something from his mind. What it was, he couldn't have said. Abruptly, he felt his heart seize in a wave of nostalgic pain, more dull than it was intrusive and gripping.

Thankfully, neither Arya nor Faölin seemed to have noticed his reaction. Arya reached out and laid a hand over her dragon's snout, and the green hatchling grunted affectionately, content. "I've never seen a piece of life so eager to take to the sky," she murmured, so softly Eragon half-believed she had spoken in his mind instead of aloud. He felt the glow of her love for the green dragon for the briefest moment, and the power behind its magnitude was large enough to raise his eyebrows for a second time in as many minutes.

I would not doubt he has grown enough, Saphira said, to all three of them. Her dragoness eyes traveled lengthwise across Faölin's body, a task that no longer was simple. His body stretched the full four or five yards from the flap of his tent to where his head rested in Arya's lap. I did not grow so rapidly as he, but I carried Eragon for the first time before I had reached this size.

"And perhaps he will soon have great need to bear you, as Saphira did the first time we flew," Eragon added. He blinked, and the conversation of moments previous returned. "And so it remains to be seen if your mother can change my lady's mind. I fear Jörmunder will have less luck, even should he agree with Roran's claim."

He glanced at Arya, only to find her attention already on him. She reached out to him with her mind, and after a surprised moment of puzzlement he dropped his protective walls. Svit-kona?

What if she refuses?

You know what I am willing to do, Eragon replied. Faölin rested his head contentedly against Arya's leg, oblivious to her rider's occupation. Saphira pretended wonderfully to be uncomfortable and requiring a noisy shift in her position, though she heard every word in his head.

He had explained his intention to her before, and had felt her surprise at the lengths to which he was willing to go. For the first time, however, he felt her hesitation—her uncertainty—as it unintentionally entered her tone. Should you break her favor, Eragon… You would lose her trust forever.

Arya. You should know by now that I realize the simple truths in the world. I will no-doubt always be young to you… but I am not so young as I once was.

He stared into her eyes; deep. So deep that he almost lost himself in them, as he always desired to do, and never had the opportunity to do. Whenever he caught her gaze, it never failed to be fleeting, a simple touch of her stare before it was off to look at better things. Now, however, he felt locked in the depth of her fixed expression, and green clashed desperately with brown as their minds mingled freely with each other…

Sometimes, she whispered. Sometimes, you still are.

And then she withdrew swiftly from their connection.

He blinked, glancing towards Saphira. Her sympathetic eyes and strangling yawn were her own personal gestures that she understood how much he hated it when his elf companion did that; nearly let him beneath her armor and then rebuke him at the last moment. He verified that his facial expression remained neutral and showed nothing of his displeasure and angst. It mattered not, in any case, as Arya's attention had returned to Faölin and seemed focused intentionally only in that direction.

She is very grateful for what you are willing to do to protect him, Saphira said, only to her partner-of-mind. Eragon glanced over at her, and then back to the scene of the green hatchling and rider. She does not speak it, but she understands now just how much she owes to you.

Perhaps she understands what she thinks she should, Eragon replied. But she does what I try to dissuade the others from doing all of the time. I am a Dragon Rider. I'm supposed to make the sacrifices for others. It is not a sacrifice of myself that I make so that this hatchling may grow to maturity, but a stake I am obligated to pay so that we all may one day live in freedom. That is no sacrifice. It is a task I gladly undertake.

That doesn't mean she won't feel guilty when you lose the trust of your liegelord and become even more ensnared in a game you never wanted to play in the first place. Saphira opened an eye just long enough to convey the sincerity with which she spoke, although Eragon was still doubtful of her words.

At length, he simply nodded, a sort of concession and dodging at the same time. He then glanced towards the green hatchling. It was true that the creature was magnificent, although he was sure it was not in comparison to Saphira—no creature competed in that category. Nevertheless, the color of his scales, the lancing of his muscles… it all formed together to create a stunning picture of dragon, one Eragon had little doubt would soon strike fearsome horror inside many soldiers of the Empire. And the link with his rider, the most important part of being dragon and rider, was healthier than Eragon could have possibly hoped it to be.

Uninvited, he felt a twinge of bitterness spawn in his heart. Saphira felt it, too, as it unknowingly ricocheted throughout his thoughts and a grimace popped into existence across his face. As quickly as it came, Eragon tried to stamp it from existence, but instead it expanded, so much so that he could not hide it from she that shared his consciousness.

Resentment, Saphira breathed, and he made half-effort to throw her from his mind. It didn't work, nor had he expected it to or especially desired it. Even jealousy. And… shame.

Yes, shame, Eragon snapped.

Shame of something entirely cruel? Saphira pondered to him, although they both knew she was stalling pointlessly. She knew everything he felt, and exactly why he felt he felt it, just as much as he did, himself. Or shame of your resentment?

I have no right to be resentful. I am certainly not jealous.

Saphira grumbled, deep in her chest, so low only Eragon, who was accustomed to such sounds, could hear it. You have cold emotion in your heart, little one. It is not necessary for you to hide it when it will only consume you inside.

Eragon glared at her, physically. I have no right to feel this way. He just chose his name; he didn't know its significance, or why she offered it.

But you take offense to it.

He averted his gaze, lest she saw too much of what she couldn't already feel through their bond. I don't take offense. I don't blame the hatchling. I don't blame anyone. I'm not angry at anyone. I can't tell you exactly what I'm feeling, and I wish it would just disappear. I don't want to feel this way.

You resent that she offered it to him, Saphira crowed, in a mental tone obviously meant to be calming. As a choice. Because it meant she still thinks of him, even when all she should think of is you.

Eragon stiffened. That is not what I said. She thinks of whatever she thinks of, and she does it freely. I have no control over what happens in her mind, nor do I desire it. She should be free to make her own choices, as she is.

Saphira blinked at him, and he noticed the glint of relation even out of the corner of his eye. But you wish she hadn't.

He turned his stare back to her. A long moment passed where the two partners-of-mind simply held each others' gazes silently. Finally, he sighed in their minds. I can't control the way I feel about her, and I can't change the past. I have no right to have these feelings, but I do, and I hate myself for it. If she loved him, Faölin was a glorious person. If this hatchling accepted his name as its own, then it will become just as great of a being as the elf was. I will not voice displeasure spurned only from unrequited affection, especially when it could only be detrimental to us in this instance. It is my pain alone, and it is neither prominent nor of consequence. She loves him. He stared at the hatchling. And he loves her.

You should not hate yourself, little one, his partner-of-mind urged gently. No matter whether or not you feel your thoughts are justified. It is punishment enough that you keep this to yourself. Do not worsen it with internal sorrow.

He wasn't sure he believed her words, but he sent a wash of affection swimming through their link anyway. At least her words chose not to patronize him in this instance, as he had been afraid they would. He blinked and shook his head to regain his physical mindset, returning his eyes to an active stance. Turning his gaze away from the hatchling, however, only proved more unsettling.

Arya was staring at him, her eyes narrowed in confusion. "You are quiet. Are you all right?"

For some reason, he thought the color of her emerald pupils was sharper today, in the dull light of a dark tent on a cool winter day. Shivering, despite being quite comfortable in the temperature, he forced himself to look away, as nonchalantly as he hoped possible. "Yes, I'm fine. Preoccupied."

"Eragon," she breathed, and her name knocked away his resolve. He glanced up at her, and instantly wished he hadn't. The grin slipping over her expression threw aside another erected barrier in his chest, and he felt his heart ache. He listened to her voice as if under enchantment. "Sometimes I believe it would be best if you stopped thinking. You will get us nowhere if you constantly fixate on issues you are currently making no move to solve. Especially in times like now."

"How can you say that?" Eragon said, not unkindly or snappishly. "Everything depends on moments. Every one of ours is precious."

Her grinned only increased a fraction. "Come here."

He was relatively sure his heart stopped beating. He felt his jaw go slack; he forgot how to feel, and wasn't sure if it was hanging open or not. "What?"

"I said," Arya repeated, slowly, a hand on her dragon and her dragon's eyes on him, "to come here." Threateningly, she held up a fist, palm up, and extended her index finger. As if mockingly, she slowly moved the digit in a beckoning gesture twice. "Now."

Saphira's amusement could not be contained through their link; he was fairly certain it spilled out to any mind that cared to listen. For once, however, Eragon chose to ignore her, as ecstatically trapped in the moment as he was. With no small amount of horror, he climbed rather unsteadily to his feet, intentionally lengthening the two-step journey to her side to reign in his turbulent chest butterflies. Her eyes followed him, the grin in place like a beacon for his direction, and he felt much smaller than he actually was as he lowered himself back to the ground beside her. Faölin was curled up at her feet once more, and had Eragon in sight, as well. He could only imagine what kind of conversations were crossing between rider and dragon. The blue rider's heartbeat was thudding as if the elf had instead thrown off all of her clothing and tackled him to the bed; if she couldn't hear it, he didn't doubt it was detectable through the vibrations in the ground.

The expression he wore must have been rather strange, for a gleam of amusement flared into her gaze as he settled himself. "Turn around."

Wordlessly, he did as bade. Saphira watched him with a warily cautious stare, still trying to tamper down her amusement. He turned himself on the ground, so he was facing away from the elf. His lungs involuntarily took a shuddering breath, and it was only just within his ability to pass it off as a deep sigh. The sharp intake of air that accompanied her hands resting on his back, however, was impossible to shield.

He felt their contact first on his shoulder blades, and, while it was not as if she'd ever touched him before, the covert softness of her fingertips brushing across his body knocked the wind from his chest as if a dragon had kicked him in the breastbone. Inevitably, every muscle in his body tensed of its own accord. In response, her hands hesitated for a split second before cautiously moving over the surface of his tunic again.

"Relax," she whispered, her lips inches from his pointed ears. It took a great amount of effort to resist the impulse to gasp at her proximity. "You have to relax, Eragon. I am trying to help you relax."

Yet, what she was doing nearly made it impossible to do so. It wasn't an intimate touch, nor something he was unfamiliar with, but the way she was going about what she was doing made it almost agonizing for him; her fingers grazed over the fabric as if they were in direct contact with his skin, and every spot they touched on his back erupted like fire. Her hands began to trace invisible patterns, snaking their way to and fro behind him. He hadn't the slightest idea what she was doing, but after the cycle had repeated itself a few times he began to notice his back involuntarily beginning to loosen.

Eragon closed his eyes, wondering if Arya had yet to discern the internal inferno she was startling with her movements. This mere contact, tiny circles of her skin dancing lightly over his, was throwing his entire mind out of balance. It was shooting stars across his vision, sending electric spurts of movement throughout the distant nerves of his limbs. Sparks flared in his chest every second, tingling and threatening to reveal his state.

If she was trying to calm and quiet your mind, Saphira teased, she seems to have the exact opposite effect.

Eragon ignored her, trying to focus his energy on a specific thought. In a cruel twist of irony, the only snatch topic he could center his mind around while under her unexpected and lethal influence was the hope that she was unaware of what she was doing to him. For what it was worth, it seemed that she didn't. Her motions never slowed or differed, the patterns continually tracing and tracing, his muscles loosening and loosening.

Abruptly, he became aware again, his world not restricted to the sensation of her fingers crossing his back. It took him several seconds after he opened his eyes, however, to realize that he had regained his senses because she had stopped. Even as this realization hit him, he felt her palms press lightly, soft as a swan's feathers, into his shoulder blades.

"Better?" she murmured behind him, and he could still feel the smile on her voice.

"Yes," he replied, although, speaking the honest truth to any who occupied his mind, he wasn't sure whether or not her treatment had been for the better or worse. "What was that?"

Her hands left his back. Instantly, he felt as if his body temperature had dropped ten degrees. Or that he had been stabbed in the heart by a shade's blade. There were several moments of pause, and more a moment he half-believed she had left the tent, too frightened for this possibility to turn around and check. Finally, Arya replied, in a much more distant voice, "Faölin used to do that for me when I had difficulty sleeping."

Eragon saw the hatchling's body shift as his name was spoken, not realizing he was not the one of whom was being spoken. The blue rider, on the other hand, felt another shade's blade enter his chest, and found himself wishing a third had severed his vocal cords before he had had a chance to ask a question with such an undesirable answer. "Ah," he murmured. If his voice were any louder, he feared that bitterness would seep into the tone. "You replicate it well."

She said nothing in return.

Saphira grunted. Eragon cringed inwardly and cursed himself. He would have turned around to face her, but he wasn't sure she wanted to face him at this particular moment of time. "Arya, I'm sorry—"

"Eragon," she whispered. He froze. "It matters not. What is done is done. Whether or not you believe it so, I have grown to accept the losses of more people than you have ever had the chance to meet. I shall not mourn the past any longer."

He knew exactly where her right hand rested; he could sense it, lying against her knee less than six inches off his right hip. He was seized by an overwhelming urge to reach out and take it in his own hand. To prevent himself from doing so, he rose to his feet, much less clumsily than he had been going down, and paced himself to an appropriate distance away from her.

When he turned to face her, he caught her eye instantly, and smiled guardedly. "Thank you. Whatever it was, it helped."

To his surprise, a strange smile wider than his own curled around her eyes. "If for nothing else, at least it got your mind off the war…"

Before he even got the opportunity to decipher what she meant, a sharp rapping echoed into the tent. Saphira's head turned towards the flap of the tent, where the pole had been knocked, quickly followed by Eragon's own. The two shared a glance, and then the rider turned back to Arya. She had quickly averted her eyes, so that eye contact was no longer possible.

Strangely enough, the mysterious smile had not left her expression.

Frowning, Eragon called, "Enter."

It was a young messenger girl, no more than fifteen, her brown hair caught up in a braid slung over her right shoulder. She bowed low upon entry, before righting herself. She said, "Rider Eragon, Lady Nasuada requests your presence in her tent, immediately."

In an action completely different from when it had occurred beneath Arya's touch, Eragon's heart skipped several beats. "Did she give a reason for her request?"

"No, sir. She stresses immediately, however, sire."

The moment we anticipate finally arrives, Saphira murmured in his mind, and he agreed. All of his recent plotting—his conversations with Orik, his beseeching of Islanzadí, his late-night expunges with Roran—was about to be rewarded, or come completely unraveled. And, depending on whichever outcome reality had chosen the form of, too in the balance was his relationship with Nasuada, and, too, the Varden itself. He glanced at Arya, whose expression had finally returned to neutral, and then at Faölin, who was regarding the newcomer to the tent with disinterest but also appeared in conversation with his rider.

Eragon turned back to the messenger and nodded, slowly. "Please inform Lady Nasuada I will be there shortly. Thank you."

The messenger girl bowed once more, and then in turn to Arya, Saphira, and Faölin. As Eragon watched the interesting gestures, the messenger girl left, and he calmly let an audible sigh escape his lips.

"I will return immediately after our meeting concludes," he breathed to Arya. The elf and her dragon glanced at him, a twin glint of emerald, and she returned the nod he gave to her. Her eyes held his for an additional moment, and it was a gesture not ill-received.

Well wishes, Eragon-elda, Faölin said, and Eragon couldn't help but smile.

Thank you, Faölin. With a final grin at the hatchling, he turned to face his partner-of-mind. She remained curled through her opening of the tent, but familiarity only their link provided revealed to him the raucous tension lining her muscles. He crossed the floor to lay a hand on her snout, lowering his forehead to rest beside it. Will you join me, or would you care to remain here with Arya and Faölin?

Do you wish me to come with you? she said, blinking back at him.

I can manage on my own if you would rather stay, he replied, stroking her scales as he removed his head from her own. But I wouldn't mind you listening in.

I would never allow you to have this conversation unless I was inside your head to supervise, she said, huffing a cloud of smoke past his close face. Should you find need of my presence, however, don't hesitate to call on me.

I won't, Eragon promised, and with a final smile he passed his partner-of-mind, Arya and her own soul companion, and left the tent, pausing only to pull a cloak over his shoulders and strap Brisingr to his belt.

The snow-covered ground made crunching noises with every footfall as he stepped into the bitter air of the outside and began his journey between the tents. Compared to the activity immediately after Belatona's capture, the camp and city were severely diminished in terms of manpower. Few now walked between tents in the day, save the guards that now patrolled endlessly and those who conjured the distant sounds of axes at work. As Eragon left the tents and passed quickly through the city gates, activity picked up slightly, but in the city the effect was still visible; the presence of the Varden made the citizens less willing to go about their normal routines, and, besides that point, it was not a very warm day.

It took him less time than he thought it would to traverse the city's virtually empty streets and arrive at the governor's house. He passed the gates and entered the home with nods to the guards stationed at both posts, and allowed himself to be led to Nasuada's council chamber by a butler. At the doors to the room he waited beside the Nighthawks, while one of them passed through to inform Nasuada of his arrival. A moment later, he was allowed entry.

The chamber was largely unadorned. From the twin doors that were flanked by a pair of Nighthawks, a long red carpet led forth to where Nasuada sat, in a grand-carved chair atop a raised platform. On either side of the carpet stretched long tables lined on both sides with chairs, and the walls were painted fantastically with what looked like Alagaësian history—only, it also appeared that the paintings were recent. Galbatorix' version of history, Eragon thought bitterly, eyeing them as he traversed the path forward, glaring at the harsh battles and blood they showed beneath the flickering of several dozen torch brackets.

He arrived before Nasuada's chair and bowed, acting as courteous as he thought was still respectful. "You summoned me, my Lady?"

He had been aware of the ebony-skinned woman's stare since the second he stepped into the room, but only now did she set aside the piece of parchment she had been evidently regarding moments before. Her expression was neutral with the skill of a military commander, and Eragon could not have deciphered the thoughts running through her head, even if he had deigned to try. He waited for her to speak, and with every passing moment began to wonder whether or not he was quite prepared for whatever she was about to tell him.

Finally, she reacted. Her eyes left his, and glanced over his shoulder, towards the doors he had come through not a minute before. "Nighthawks, please leave us."

Eragon kept his eyes on Nasuada as he digested this command, abruptly not knowing what he had walked into. So far, this meeting was not turning out to be anything like he had expected, and he was no longer sure he could easily gain the upper hand if necessary. If his liegelord was asking her guards to leave their conversation, then perhaps there was more to be spoken here than he had previously weighed or imagined.

Behind him, he sensed the guards hesitate and heard them stutter. "My Lady," one of them, a human, said. "We are not to leave you under any circumstances—"

"I am with the Rider, Trenton," Nasuada replied, as if it were a grand solution to any problem. Despite this, the look on her face as she locked her dark eyes to Eragon's made it seem as if it were anything but. "I am more than sufficiently protected."

There was a further moment's pause, and then the sounds of respects and the scuffling of departure, followed by the closing of the large door, met Eragon's ears. In the space of moments, these noises faded to stillness, and it was silent in the chamber. It was warm enough to be comfortable, but Eragon, nevertheless, thought the air rather cold. Nasuada continued to stare down at him from her perch, her hands clasped in her lap, and he waited patiently for her to explain his presence.

Eventually, it seemed waiting grew tired even for the Varden's leader. Sighing, she spoke. "I seem not to have given you enough credit as a schemer as I should have, Eragon. For that, I apologize."

Eragon froze, willing himself to remain neutral in appearance. "My Lady? Excuse me?"

"I know you don't agree with me when I choose to keep the green dragon with the Varden for the winter, for both its protection and ours," Nasuada murmured. "I know you believe I'm making a grave error and I imagined you would silently oppose me even when the matter was long-decided and irreversible."

"My Lady," Eragon said, working through a pause in her words. "Forgive me. I don't understand why we are discussing this."

Nasuada surveyed him, and began speaking again. His question was not answered, and, he realized listening to her words, he hadn't expected it to be. "I understand Islanzadí's misgivings about such a plan, even a little bit of prodding from her direction to sway me over to the other side of possibilities. Especially when her daughter is the newest free rider of Alagaësia, a bit of misgiving over human protection is understandable from the elves…"

Eragon remained silent. It was just as well, for he wouldn't have been able to insert even a single word anyway before his liegelord pushed forward, continuing to speak. Her voice gained a pitch level as she went. "What I hadn't expected is for Orik to go to the trouble of personally messaging me with the intent to discuss the details about the green dragon's whereabouts. It was slightly surprising for me to hear him so adamantly speak about the dwarves that still don't seem to appreciate the alliance we have with the elves and they, and that if it were common knowledge that the dragon remained with the Varden's winter camp in Belatona, he feared some of his less-supportive constituents may just seek out this dragon and take their matter of hatred into their own hands. Of course, I told him I would take his concerns into my own consideration, although I was slightly curious why he seemed so interested when even a fully-grown dwarf warrior seems no match for a hatchling, much less the wrath of Eragon and Saphira should anyone try and attack the newest dragon. Or the fact that we rest a hundred leagues from the nearest dwarven settlement. Nevertheless… do you not find Orik's concerns out-of-place, Eragon? Why do you think the green dragon's arrangements startle him so?"

Eragon raised his eyebrows, doing his best to look conjectural and puzzled. "I haven't seen Orik in months, my Lady, but he has always been a steadfast supporter of the alliance with the Varden. If I were in his place, I would be determined to keep any advantage over the Empire as safe as was possible. Perhaps he just wants to be sure we have all of our precautions as best placed as we can."

"Perhaps," Nasuada replied, sounding unconvinced. "I suppose Orik is very cautious, as far as dwarves can be, that is." She descended into silence for a moment, and Eragon thought perhaps she was rethinking her words. Then she took another breath to speak again, and he discovered that this hypothesis was quite wrong indeed. "But while an elf queen's nightmares and a dwarf king's misgivings make perfect sense to me, but really gave me pause is when my army commander requested an audience to discuss… lo and behold! the green dragon."

Eragon did his best to look surprised, but knew that it didn't matter how good of an actor he was; it would almost be better for him now to remain perfectly neutral, especially because it seemed that Nasuada was not finished speaking.

"And, forthright, it wasn't even he that was particularly upset regarding the arrangements, but those of some of his high-ranking officers, one of whom just happens to be—by my appointment—your cousin, Eragon, Roran Stronghammer. It seems as if, from what Jörmunder was telling me, not only do some of his captains feel wary about having the dragon so close to enemy lines while it is so young, they are also worried that since it is so young and unused to human company, it may attack them when they ill-prepared to defend themselves against an ally."

She paused long enough to stare at him piercingly, and then cleared her throat and continued. He made no move to change his expression or intervene in-between her words. "This all, coming from men who have spent their fighting lives cheering on Saphira, who came to us as a young dragon herself, as she clashes with scores of demons and enemies they will never then have to face, drinking to their own health after the newest dragon addition to the world hatched just so recently. Being told by a commander who doesn't personally share these feelings of wariness, but instead feels it is his right by position to pass on to me whatever may concern his officers—which, apparently, the location of the young, green hatchling certain does!"

He managed to retain eye contact as her voice escalated past control, into a shout. Remaining motionless, he allowed her once more to continue. For a moment, he was even fearful of what may happen should he try to intervene. He could feel Saphira's tension in the back of his mind as Nasuada took a deep breath, before going on. "My father, inevitably, made me quite suspicious of everything around me at a young age, since, even when I was a little girl, most of everything, wherever I went, was trying to kill me. It wasn't until I came to the Varden that I had any sense of a safe haven… but even then, I couldn't quite rid myself of the feeling that everything around me was trying to manipulate me—which, as it turns out in these dark days, almost everything is. So, you can obviously understand my suspicion in this case, when I received three requests, and two remarkably unforeseen ones, to change my mind about a matter I feel is one of the most important to the Varden today. And it didn't take me very long to identify the commonality of the cases, or the meager steps it would take to fulfill this thing I suspected as I plot."

Eragon held his head high, prepared to deflect any accusations she may spring upon him, although he knew it was inevitable. A grim sense of finality had set about his heart, and he was already preparing himself for the fact that he would have to leave the Varden very shortly, without the permission of his liegelord. Much as it was necessary, he would have rather done anything in his power than sever the ties he had. In this case, however, with Nasuada glaring harmfully down from her heightened seat, he was being left with no choice in the matter.

When it was clear that the rider would not answer her subtle attack, Nasuada sighed. For the first time since she had begun speaking, she turned her gaze away from Eragon, looking towards the high, expertly-carved ceiling. "I am not a fool, Eragon. Do you take me for a fool?"

"No, my Lady."

Her head snapped, her eyes flashed; despite his confidence and determination, Eragon found immediate difficulty in holding the heavy stare. The reproach in her expression nearly drove him to shame, despite believing completely in his destined actions. "Then why, Eragon… why would you try and put this dishonesty past me? Tell me why you have done this."

For a second Eragon considered denying her further accusations. They were alone, however—stretching his consciousness out, he verified there were no eavesdroppers at the doors or in adjacent chambers—and he didn't exactly have her fooled. "My Lady, I respect you and admire you in grave matters of state and war. However, this is a matter of neither, a matter of dragons, instead, and, as such, I believe it would be proper to defer to my judgment. As you did not, and I cannot risk the green dragon's life, my hand was forced in the situation. Would you not have done the same thing, Nasuada?"

"I cannot say," Nasuada replied, her eyes spewing fire into the surrounding environment. "Regardless of what I would have chosen to do in your situation, however, Eragon, you have made your decision to act against my wishes."

"My Lady," he cut in, making sure to time his intrusion directly between her words, so as to minimize the magnitude of his interruption. "I have not acted against your wishes. The commands you gave me have been followed to the letter."

"But you scheme to undermine me, Eragon!" she cried. She slid to the front of her chair as she spoke, her hands seizing and gripping the ends of the armrests. Her eyes were furious. "You seek to undermine my authority. You; my vassal! This is a crime, Eragon, a crime with which I have the ability to punish you to the highest severity, short of death."

"Will you?"

She chortled, dry and high on the air. "What do you think I will do, Eragon?"

"You can have me whipped," he replied, coolly calculating his every word. "It would not be an unjust response to such actions by a vassal."

Her glare escalated to a murderous stare. "If I touch you, the soldiers will be in uproar. No, I cannot have you whipped. The army would protest, and the people would protest, and we would have unrest and disarray in the camp while we are fighting a civil war on the front. I cannot punish you, Eragon, as you well know."

He did well know. What she spoke was true; if the dragon rider were being whipped in the streets, it would not be a sign of disobedience and punishment but public martyrdom in a rudely awkward way. It would be a very brief process after that: Nasuada would be questioned, and then doubted. They would then wonder if she were truly acting in their best interests, since had so viciously beat their symbol of hope. There may be a moment of council that was poorly constructed and even more poorly undergone, and then Nasuada would be removed from her position for another person. Another person that Nasuada would not trust to lead the Varden to victory.

There was no other person Nasuada trusted to lead the Varden to victory. "So what should I do?" she repeated. "Where do I go from here? I have pressure from both our allies and my highest commanders to do something I am not comfortable to do, but something my dragon rider and vassal insists is necessary and for the best."

"Perhaps, my Lady, if I may be so bold," Eragon began, treading lightly, "you should do exactly as they bid?"

Her eyes crinkled, reproaching from behind a wall of neutrality. "And what example will I be setting there? That I am a leader that merely follows the crowd in times of difficulty and uncertainty? What sort of message will I be sending?"

"My Lady. There are times when a leader must follow the crowd, because the crowd is what you are fighting for. And, for what it's worth, no one will ever know why you changed your mind, or even that you really did. The leaders of your allies will not doubt you, and the men will concur with your choice no matter what it is. Perhaps, Lady Nasuada, the greatest barrier to your acceptance is the fact that you are unwilling to admit you might be wrong."

Nasuada unexpectedly slammed a fist into her armrest. Anger flared freely across her face. "If you were any other person in this commission, you would be whipped for such words in front of your liege."

"Then punish me, my Lady," Eragon urged quietly, holding her eye. "For I will not concede to you in this matter. I promise you, if you do not allow me what I desire, and the hatchling remains with the Varden, it will be dead before the first ice begins to thaw in the spring."

She stared at him, and, for one who had so greatly stood up for the people around him, he felt considerably smaller. Nevertheless, the courage that had grown inside of him each time he faced down Murtagh or rushed into battle on Saphira's back rose up inside of his chest now, and he desperately willed himself not to break eye contact with Nasuada as she coldly regarded him, her fingertips drubbing in sequence over the armrest.

Finally, she sighed. "My pride and personal belief tells me you're wrong. Everything that has previously served me in the positive as the Varden's leader is screaming at me that I have made the right choice, yet everyone who says they are my friend—my own vassals—are telling me I am wrong." She looked away from him then, but didn't cease talking. "If it were merely up to me from this point forward, I would yet refuse you what you ask for."

Eragon heard the hesitation and uncertainty in her voice, and knew that she had meant it to bleed out; Nasuada was far too secure in his presence to let something of blunt nonchalance sink through like so. "It would be a mistake, my Lady."

Without looking at him, she sighed again. "Would it? Of course, it wouldn't matter, would it, Eragon? Either way, the outcome is the same. I have no control over it, do I?"

"My Lady?"

"Look me in the eye, Eragon, and tell me it is not true that no matter what I decide, you and Arya and your dragons will take to the hills and leave us. Tell me that when I refuse you your doubled request, you will not break the oath of fealty and abandon your status as my vassal and the rider of the Varden to protect the life of the dragon you think in danger."

Over the course of several moments, Eragon became aware that his mouth hung open, and he hastened to close it. Despite himself, he was impressed with his liegelord. Even he hadn't anticipated his rather simple plan being disassembled heartlessly in front of his very eyes. "I cannot tell you this, my Lady. For it is the truth."

"As I suspected," Nasuada replied. Her face had transformed as she finally allowed the rage she felt to blanket her expression. "You would break your greatest oath to me, to the honest people of Alagaësia."

"For the life of a dragon, my Lady," he said, keeping his voice as calm as he possibly could, despite the emotion bubbling within, "I would break any oath. To you, to the gods. Your trust matters little to the riders where there are more important matters involved."

Nasuada's lip curled. "So be it. And so this is yet another reason I cannot refuse you. No matter what I think of what the Varden may see in my actions, above all, for the men's pride and hope as much as the tactical advantage it gives us, we cannot lose the blue rider."

"Then you will adhere to my desire, my Lady?"

Her eyes were so narrow that they barely resembled slits. "If I didn't like you so much and you weren't so important to me, I'd kill you, Eragon. In the interests of maintaining peace within the Varden and a victorious hope on the horizon, I will hesitantly, reluctantly, and with great reservations permit you to leave the Varden with the green dragon in order to train it and Arya in the ways of the dragon riders."

Eragon nodded slowly, gravely. "Thank you, my Lady." In as respectful way as he could possibly make it look, he bowed.

"Eragon," Nasuada whispered, and he lifted his eyes to see her watching him without with anger. Instead, there was… almost misery in her glare. "I'm not our enemy. You're not my enemy. I hate to fight you like this. I truly believe it is in the best interests of the Varden to keep Arya's dragon in the presence of all of the Varden's people. I trust you to train it wherever you go, but I would not be as comfortable knowing you were not around."

"You will not be attacked, Nasuada," he replied, adopting her less-formal tone. "It's the dead of winter. Murtagh is dead, Galbatorix has nothing further to hit you wi—"

"I would not feel as comfortable," she repeated, "if you were not around. Regardless of whether or not the Varden were in danger. When you are away from the army, bad things always happen to you."

"I am tied to this army."

"You are tied," Nasuada said, her voice quiet, "to me."

Eragon exhaled, having been prepared for this moment and wondering whether or not it would actually present itself. It was an opportunity and a risk, and he hadn't expected to actually use what he had readied. "Perhaps, my Lady, that is a liability you have grown weary of having, just as it has become a burden on myself that is now slightly heavy to carry."

"What exactly do you imply now?" He had a strong feeling she knew exactly what he was implying. It wasn't exactly easy for her to miss.

"My oath of fealty is six months old and many battles and tasks spent," Eragon responded. "I have done as you have bidden in every case. I have served as both rider and your vassal honorably and loyally. My masters are now dead; I am the only free rider who is trained enough to fight. I ask now that you release from my oath. No more will your reputation be tarnished by my actions."

Nasuada stared at him for several moments, almost as if gauging whether or not his words were serious. He listened with elven ears as she sucked in a breath. "After the gravest disloyalty to your liegelord, you ask for release from your service?"

"I have not been disloyal, my Lady. I have tried to change your mind, and it has failed me. I pressured others to join my cause, and they have."

"You acted behind my back."

"I needed to be sure the dragon would be safe—"

"Enough!" Nasuada cried suddenly, and she was on her feet in a flash. She stood over him, threatening to topple off her raised platform should she become any more emotional. Eragon fought to contain himself in response, succeeding only barely. "How can I trust you any longer? You have betrayed me, and now you ask to be discharged from my service with honor! If I grant you such leniency, you will not return to us as the same man. You will no longer be the Eragon we know!"

There was a second of complete silence, and then a moment of incredible hesitation. Rage of an intolerable factor boiled inside of Eragon's mind, and he fought desperately to keep his expression neutral. He lifted his eyes to regard Nasuada, hold her gaze while she glared with shame upon him. Without even fully realizing what he was doing, he felt himself step forward. His foot raised of its own accord and mounted the platform upon which she stood. He towered up to his full height as he came to stand rigid beside her, and turned to face so that his chin hovered near her forehead.

Slowly, he bent down, into her personal space, into her face, and remained there, knowing that the ground he had been so lightly treading moments before had disappeared. So close that their noses were almost touching, he spoke under his breath. "I schemed against you; I worked to do things that were specifically against your will; I have shamed you, I have sometimes perhaps dishonored you; but as your vassal or not, this life or another, I will never—never—betray you."

They were still. The rage and fury in her eyes had transformed into astonishment and shock. Eragon waited, knowing his move in their little game had ended, and it was Nasuada's turn that was in-play. He refused to move, quite aware that whether or not he would return to the Varden after his excursion with the dragons depended on these few moments.

While he waited and watched, Nasuada turned and slumped into her chair, staring not at him or at the door; just looking straight forward, into oblivion. "Take the dragon and go. Return to me and the Varden when your business is complete. That is as far as I'll go. Do not ask me for this again."

Eragon shifted his head downward respectfully. "My Lady."