The yellow hills rose and fell in sunny tops and valleys. The Bohemian countryside on this August morning looked almost like a golden ocean with huge, swelling waves.
A rickety cart was wending its way through a valley. Two men were perched atop the riding seat, watching the sturdy horse as it pulled them along. There was a bundle wrapped in cloth that took up most of the space in the open cart bed behind the men.
One of them, Jarek, held the reins. He coughed. "I should be paid extra for this," he said. "What a stench."
"What do you mean?" said Martin, Jarek's companion. He turned around to look at the bundle.
Jarek saw him do it. "No, not that. Those blasted brassica flowers. They stink fouler than a five-hundred-year-old outhouse."
"Oh, that," Martin replied. "They smell sweet to me."
The yellowness of the hills was caused by thousands of flowers, clustered and thick.
Jarek gagged. "I wouldn't like to be one of you hill people, working the flower fields. My clothes are going to smell rotten by the time we get back to Prague."
Too lazy to get offended, Martin leaned back in the cracked leather seat. "Many folks enjoy the smell of brassica. It's just one of those things you love or hate. Like eating asparagus."
"Raised with the stink as you were, I'm sure you're used to it."
"And remember"--Martin wagged a finger at him, pretending he had not heard Jarek's last comment--"Bohemia needs those flowers. Bet it'll be a good harvest this year. Soon the farmers will be out in the fields to collect the seeds and press them into oil. You can grumble like a goat about the scent, but that brassica's used for all sorts of things."
The horse took a turn in the dirt road and one of the cart wheels dipped into a large hole, jolting the cart.
The bundle in the back groaned.
"Here now!" Martin craned his neck to scowl at the dark shape. "None of that! You'll give us a bit of quiet." He made an impatient sound at the back of his throat. He took off his hat and fanned the sweat on his face. "It's very hot," he said, and sighed.
"Yeah," Jarek drawled, staring ahead.
"Good money, though, this trip."
"Hmm." Jarek flapped the reins. "We're almost there, anyway. Should take us about half an hour."
"What, have you been here before? I thought you never left Prague. How do you know this area?"
"I don't." Jarek shifted in the seat. "But the horse does."
Martin gave him an odd look. "And she told you how long we've got left, did she?"
Jarek laughed, possibly for the first time during the whole trip. "Nah, course not! I was only joking."
But it seemed like a strange sort of joke.
"Do you know what he did?" Jarek said, jerking his chin toward the bundle, whose breathing had gotten louder and ragged.
Martin was still looking at Jarek suspiciously. "No. Didn't ask, and that's the honest truth."
Jarek nodded. "It's best that way."
"The order," Martin said, "came from the prince himself."
This was news to Jarek. Learning this detail made him realize that he had been in a dark mood for the past several hours. Realizing this was like suddenly getting a cramp after sitting too long in one position. And, as a matter of fact, Jarek then thought, he did have a cramp in his lower back.
"You didn't tell me the orders came directly from the prince," he said.
"You didn't ask."
Which was true. Jarek did not ask any questions when Martin, who also took care of the prince's horses, proposed they make a delivery to the village of Okno (with some of the profit going to Jarek, of course). And Jarek did not ask any questions when two castle menservants met him and Martin in the stables, carrying a man who seemed barely conscious, and whose face was wrapped in a bloody bandage.
"Ah, there we are," Martin said, pointing his hand at a nest of buildings. The houses and shops began to distinguish themselves, and the dirt path became the main cobblestone road that ran straight through Okno.
The village looked prosperous. There were several stone houses. The wooden ones were in solid condition, often with pretty patterns of different-colored strips of wood decorating the window frames, many of which had real glass set into them. Shop signs advertised goods: leather tack for horses, books, carpentry, glassworks, and cloth. Women walked by in full, unstained skirts. Even a passing stray dog seemed rather fat for an independent creature. The road turned into a small square whose center was marked by a fountain that was well designed, its water bubbling over three tiers of stone.
Martin dug a parchment out of his jerkin pocket and consulted it. "Turn left here."
"It doesn't make any sense," Jarek mused.
"I am the one with the map, and you should turn left."
"No, I mean this"--he tilted his head toward the back of the cart--"doesn't make any sense. What could he have done to deserve that kind of punishment, and get sent home instead of being clapped into the nearest jail cell?"
"Dunno." Martin waved his hand airily, chasing away a fly. "Maybe he killed someone."
"Then he would be in prison or executed or both."
"Maybe he killed the prince's favorite dog."
"Then he would be in prison or executed or both."
"All I'm saying is this," Jarek continued, "if you want to get rid of a weed, you don't just clip some of its stems and call it a day." The road they turned down had fewer houses. Ribbons of wind passed between the buildings and through the men's sweaty hair. "The weed'll grow back. There's always the chance for revenge."
"Him?" Martin laughed again. "Oh, I'm glad I picked you to drive. You're a funny sort, you are. Weed or no, this fellow's in no shape for action. Hold on now--" Martin looked at the map again and glanced at a tall, skinny stone house set far apart from the others. As they drew closer, they saw that the ground floor was a shop, its windows crowded with bizarre metal objects, clocks, and tin toys bouncing like grasshoppers. Jarek could not read the words painted over the door, but a sign hanging from the corner of the house showed a many-pointed compass. "Stop here," Martin said. "This is it."
Jarek pulled on the reins. His hands settled in his lap, but they still gripped the leather straps. "He may have sons. Angry ones."
Martin thumped Jarek on the shoulder. "No fear, my friend," he said, and pointed toward the door, which had opened. In the doorway stood a girl, tall for her age, which was twelve. Underneath a long tangle of brown hair her face was wary. She was dressed in a nightgown, but stood defiantly, as if to say that she knew that wasn't normal but didn't care. She stared straight at them. Her eyes were narrowed--but perhaps, Jarek thought, this was because of the sun and not because she already hated them.
Martin leaned to whisper in Jarek's ear. "As I said, don't worry. He's only got her."
It seemed to Jarek that his backache had gotten worse.
The mare sighed. Then she spoke silently in his mind the way she did with no other human, for she knew none who had Jarek's gift to understand her. If you were a horse, she told him, you would be used to bearing such unpleasant burdens.
Excerpted from THE CABINET OF WONDERS by Marie Rutkoski.
Copyright © 2008 by Marie Rutkoski.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.