Back in print after a decade, Brokedown Palace is a stand-alone fantasy in the world of Steven Brust's bestselling Vlad Taltos novels.
Once upon a time...far to the East of the Dragaeran Empire, four brothers ruled in Fenario:
King Laszlo, a good man―though perhaps a little mad; Prince Andor, a clever man―though perhaps a little shallow; Prince Vilmos, a strong man―though perhaps a little stupid; and Prince Miklos, the youngest brother, perhaps a little―no, a lot-stubborn.
Once upon a time there were four brothers―and a goddess, a wizard, an enigmatic talking stallion, a very hungry dragon―and a crumbling, broken-down palace with hungry jhereg circling overhead. And then...
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Steven Brust is the bestselling author of Issola, Dragon, The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, and many others. A native of Minneapolis, he currently lives in Las Vegas.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
BROKEDOWN PALACE (Chapter One)
FIRST, CONSIDER THE RIVER.
It began in thunder; a cascade from Lake Fenarr, pouring over the lip of Mount Szaniszló. From there it cut a deep, straight path through the center of Fenario, eventually joined by other, lesser rivers. It cut a gap in the Eastern Grimwall, after which it turned south toward the sea, passing beyond the ken of Fenario’s denizens.
Once, when Miklós was eleven, he had been in a mood of pleasant melancholy and had gone down to the near bank, to a secret place between the Palace loading docks and Midriver Rock. There, hidden by rushes and reeds, he had sat holding a single yellow flower that he had wanted to present to his middle-older brother. But his brother had been busy and had brushed him off, which was the reason for his melancholy. So he had taken the flower and thrown it into the river. The idea was to watch it as it floated out of sight, while thinking of how the world mistreated him. With luck, he could bring tears to his own eyes, which would cap the event nicely.
But the River, perverse thing that it was, had carried the offering back to him, spoiling the gesture completely. It always did things like that.
Now, remembering this, Miklós decided that the River ought to rise from its banks and sweep his wounded, broken body away, out of sight to the east. But it wouldn’t.
Miklós was twenty-one years old, and dying.
NEXT, THE PALACE:
It loomed over the bend in the River, over the city of Fenario, over the River Valley, over the land, and over Miklós’s left shoulder.
It had stood for nearly a thousand years if you count the hut. Nine hundred and fifty years if you count the fort. Seven hundred years if you count the Old Palace. Four hundred years by any way of counting, and that is a long time. And for all of that time, back to when it was merely the hut where Fenarr had dwelt, the idol of the Demon Goddess had watched over it.
Miklós craned his neck to look at the Palace and to try to forget the pain. It jutted up against wispy night clouds and a few half-hearted stars. The central tower resembled a stiletto; the River Wall resembled a blank, gray shield. Above it and above him, jhereg circled ominously, their cries harsh and distant, commenting on his state and, obliquely, on the Palace itself.
It looked its age. The nearest tower had a perceptible tilt, and he’d overheard his eldest brother, the King, speak of the way the wind played games with it. The River Wall was cracked and breaking. Its bones were showing.
Are my bones showing? he wondered. Enough of them are certainly broken, and I’m bleeding in enough places. There are probably a few bones coming through the skin.
The thought would have made him retch, but he hadn’t the strength.
NOW, OBSERVE THE INTERIOR:
Start at the bottom. The Palace had been built without a basement of any sort, but tunnels had been dug during the long siege when the Northmen came down from the northern Grimwall Mountains and swept over the land more than three hundred years before.
The siege had lasted five years, and by the end of that time the whole area beneath the Palace, and beneath much of the surrounding city, was riddled with cunning tunnels that were used to sneak food in, or to harass the Northerners, or to spy out fortifications. When the enemy was finally driven out, the tunnels were promptly turned into wine cellars—which is one of the reasons that the wines of Fenario are known for thousands of miles around.
Let us move up from the cellars.
The walls throughout on the main floor were done in the palest of pale blues, and thought had been given to the areas of darkness and of light. Rippling patterns from a candelabrum, unlit, drew and erased wavering lines on the floor before the entrance. Now, was the candelabrum responsible for the patterns, or were the hanging, swaying oil lamps? Both, certainly. One determined essence, the other determined shape.
Here was the nursery, when Miklós was very young. All thoughts of taste had been left for other chambers. Here was a cacophony of colors and hanging beads and flowing streamers. It had been filled with things that rolled and things that tumbled and things that pushed or pulled other things that rolled or tumbled.
When Miklós was five, it was time for Prince László, then fifteen, to have his own chambers. Miklós had to move out. The nursery was emptied of things that rolled and tumbled, and filled with things that cut and stabbed. It was emptied of bright colors and filled with tasteful decorations of people cutting and stabbing.
But let us not be heavy-handed.
Every room was in use. Many were used for things for which they were not intended. This bedchamber was once a library. That servants’ dining room was once a private study. Miklós’s bedchamber, which had been one in the original design, was in the process of becoming a study. Now, was the bedchamber a misused library, or has the change in function changed the definition? Do definitions matter?
Well, define “dying.” How about: “that state where the absence of life is imminent.”
It would seem clear that Miklós cannot be blamed for having received the beating when, really, all he did to bring it on was to be there for twenty-one years. But consider the candelabrum and the lamp.
If you don’t find this a fair analogy, rest assured that Miklós didn’t either.
Miklós thought that it would be nice, in any number of ways, if the River would pick him up and drown him or carry him off to die far away. The longer he lay there dying, the nicer the idea seemed. In his chambers at night, alone, death was a mysterious, terrifying mystery—a wall whose contemplation sent shudders through him while he couldn’t help trying to see over it. But here, death was merely a relief from pain—a relief that he began to fear would never come. Above him, the jhereg had given up, save one whose cries now seemed to say, The River! The River!
Finally, Miklós used what little strength he had in his right leg (which had only a hairline fracture) to push himself down the bank and into the icy water, which should have been the end of it.
But, as was pointed out earlier, the River is perverse.
AND THE CITY:
It was called Fenario, as was the land. It was the largest city in the country—the largest for thousands of miles in any direction beyondit. Well, any direction except west. West of the land of Fenario were the Mountains of Faerie, and who knows what lay beyond? But the city was a huge, sprawling thing on both sides of the River, with a population of well over five thousand. From the city, the towers of the Palace—all six—were infallible landmarks. Each was distinct: the tall and leaning King’s Tower, the pockmarked Tower of the Goddess, the squat and rotund Tower of Past Glories, the worn and threadbare East Tower of the Watch, and crowned West Tower of the Watch, and the graceful, silvery Tower of the Marshal. Though the dwellers in the city were unaware of it, they oriented themselves by these towers. Should the towers vanish one day, the merchants and artisans of Fenario would have suddenly felt lost.
The walls surrounding the Palace courtyard ended some two hundred feet from where the city began, and, by the natural course of things, it was the most prosperous of inns and markets that were located nearest, along with homes of noble families who chose not to live among their estates.
Oddly, from the Palace the city was all but invisible. The wall hid the view from the lower two stories, and the third story, containing almost nothing but the Great Hall, had only windows high upon it. The towers had no windows at all (these having been filled in during one especially cold winter some years before), save for the East and West Towers of the Watch.
The city was built where the River of Faerie joined the North River, and grew slowly. Along the North River came grapes, as well as lamb and bacon, both liberally spiced to preserve them against the summer’s heat. The spices traveled back north much more slowly. Wool also came along this river.
Down the River of Faerie came cotton from the marshes to the south, and timber and mushrooms from the Forest. There were docks along the south bank to receive these things, and two bridgesover to the north bank—the Merchant’s bridge and the King’s bridge.
Miklós used to wander the city during the day with Prince Andor, who was the second oldest and his elder by six years.
“What is that, Andor?” he said once, pointing to the clouds moving in from the west.
“The Hand of Faerie, Miklós,” his brother answered. “The people say it bodes great ill when it covers the whole land.”
“Does it?” asked Miklós in wonder.
Andor shook his head. “I’ve seen it cover the whole sky two or three times, and nothing ever happened except that it has blown away in a few days.”
And Miklós nodded, content, and took his brother’s hand. That evening, he asked his brother Prince Vilmos, who was only three years his elder. Vilmos grinned wickedly and, for two hours, told him stories of what had happened during “Dark Times.” The next day, Miklós asked László, but the latter only grunted and returned to his studies.
In any case, the sky was clear and the stars were bright and piercing when, during Miklós’s sixth year, half of the west wing collapsed. It had been snowing hard for a week, although this only sped up what would have happened anyway, sooner or later. The collapse injured Miklós’s father and, indirectly, led to Miklós’s present situation.
At night there weren’t many of the denizens of the city who visited the Riverbanks, so it wasn’t surprising that no one saw the youngest brother of King László being carried away, his head somehow staying above the water, by the River that runs down out of the Mountains of Faerie.
FINALLY, THE LAND:
One could describe the terrain by the food—apples, for instance.North was crisp and tart, from the hills at the feet of the Grimwall Mountains, East was sweet, from the valley carved by the River, South, near the Great Marsh, were crab apples.
Corn from the silt loams along the River in the east. The western forests had as many varieties of mushroom as the central plains near the city had varieties of pepper. The colder and dryer north gave wheat. Rice grew in the south. Cattle and pigs were raised below the northern hills; sheep upon the hills themselves.
The land was enclosed by mountains on three sides: the Grimwall to the north and east, the Mountains of Faerie to the west. In the southwest the Wandering Forest, which for the most part rested like a skirt at the ankles of the Mountains of Faerie, gradually meshed with and turned into marshland. Then fens and bogs as one went farther south until, along the southern borders, the way was impassible save in the very depths of the coldest of winters.
Now consider early autumn. Consider the first hints of color from the birch and the elm and the hickory. Notice the strings of red peppers hanging like scraggly beards from the eaves of the peasants’ houses. Find the place where a gentle curve in the River causes a small eddy before the exposed roots of an oak that has watched the Riverbank forever. Notice Miklós clutching the roots and wonder, as he does, why the weight of torn shirt, leather boots, and heavy cotton doublet hasn’t dragged him under.
And we’re ready to begin.
MIKLÓS AWOKE TO HOT BREATH IN HIS FACE AND THE CORRESPONDING sound of breathing—no, blowing. These things were accompanied by a dull ache in his lower back. His eyes opened to stare up into what he finally recognized as the nostrils of a horse.
Then it came to him that his back hurt—that is, that only his back hurt. His last memories were of swirling water; his mindclouded by the misery of broken arms and legs, cracked ribs, and a collection of cuts and bruises that had made consciousness an agony.
The human mind being what it is, however, he looked for the source of his current pain before considering the absence of his past pain. He discovered that he was lying on exposed tree roots. As he moved away from them, the horse backed away several steps, and Miklós got his first good look at it.
There were three distinct breeds of horses in Fenario. This was like none of them. It had the gray coloring sometimes found among the small, fast lovasság breed from the central plains; was as large as the munkás workhorses of the north; and had the high head, broad chest, strong shoulders and thin ankles of the repül, owned only by the proudest among the nobility. Its legs were thin but strong, its stance seemed narrow. Its eyes were wide and blue above a swirl of hair perhaps half a shade lighter than that around it.
Miklós, though he had no horse of his own, had been around them all his life, and knowledge of horses was so automatic to him that he took no pride in it. As he studied the horse, it stared back as if studying him.
Let us, then, pause long enough to say that Miklós was a tall, lanky young man with light brown hair, brown eyes, a thin face, and something of a distant look about him. His face was clean-shaven but gave the impression that he would have had trouble growing a beard even had he wanted to. His hands were long and thin, his cheekbones high, his eyes perhaps a bit narrow and slanted. His complexion was dark, with the least trace of yellow if one looked closely.
After a moment Miklós rose to his feet, shakily. He looked around. From the position of the sun, he decided that it was early afternoon. He studied the River and saw that it had carried him a long way. His clothing was only slightly damp, so he must have leftthe River several hours before. His eyes returned to the horse, which was still staring at him.
Just to see what would happen, he held out his hand, made clucking sounds, and said, “C’mon, boy. C’mon.” He was surprised at how strong his voice sounded.
The horse shook its head and walked up to him. Its step was high. It stopped only a few feet away. It opened its mouth then and said, “I’m glad you have recovered, master.”
Miklós felt his eyes widening, and sudden understanding came to him. “You … you’re a táltos horse, aren’t you?”
“Indeed I am, master,” said the horse.
“Then it was you who healed my wounds!”
“Who can say?” The horse flung his head back and shook it.
Miklós shook his head, unconsciously imitating the horse. After a moment of desperately searching for something to say, he came up with, “What’s your name?”
“I am called Bölcseség,” said the horse. The prince’s mouth worked a bit as he tried to pronounce this. After a moment, the horse said, “Bölk will do, master.”
“Bölk,” repeated Miklós. “Good. I can say that.”
“But can you understand it?”
“Pay no mind, master. But tell me, if you will, how you came to be injured.”
Miklós bit his lip but made no reply. Bölk continued to study him, his large, bright blue eyes somber. At last, Miklós sat down with his back against the hard ridges of the tree. He said, “My brother László did it.” When Bölk r...
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