Home > The Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles #1)

The Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles #1)
Marie Rutkoski


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.”

Martin laughed.

“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.


The Sign of the Compass

EARLIER THAT MORNING, Petra Kronos had woken up to the tick tick tick of metal. It was not, as you might imagine, a clock. It did not have chiming bells, and it did not have two hands. Yet it did have eight legs and something like a face, a very tiny one punctuated by two eyes, specks of twinkling green. Astrophil, Petra’s tin spider, scampered around the nightstand next to her bed, calling, “Wake up! Wake up, you sloth! Cave bat! Ground squirrel!” His shiny body vibrated as he shouted.

Petra rubbed at the grit in the corner of her eye. “Just because you must have stayed up last night reading a book on all the animals that hibernate doesn’t mean you have to show it off.”

Astrophil folded his front two legs in a good impersonation of a human schoolteacher. “In fact, sloths do not hibernate. They are simply very, very lazy.”

“Hmm.” Though the morning sun was already making the room warm, Petra snuggled under the thin linen sheet. “I bet they’re stupid, too.”

“Oh, yes.”

“The sort of animals who just can’t take a hint,” Petra said. She yawned and closed her eyes.

“Well …” Astrophil relaxed his legs out of their stiff pose. “There is one rare sloth, the Spotted Angola Sloth, which is known to be quick-witted.”

Petra lay still.

“And generous of spirit.”

No response came from the bed.

“And easily moved by the persistent pleas of friends,” Astrophil added.

Petra rolled over, her back to Astrophil.

“The Spotted Angola Sloth is also prudent, especially when threatened by the prospect of waking up one morning to find sticky, metallic spiderwebs crisscrossing her entire face.”

“A dreadful fate,” Petra declared. She flung back the sheet and slipped out of bed. The sound of clucking hens floated in through the one tall window. A rooster must have crowed sometime earlier that morning, but it had not broken Petra’s steady sleep. She pushed back the tousled hair that she stubbornly refused, against the repeated wishes of her grownup cousin Dita, to braid into something resembling neatness. Petra’s eyes were gray—or, to be more precise, they were silvery, like they each had been made with liquid metal anchored in a bright circle by a black center. They looked just like her father’s eyes. In general, she resembled him greatly. This usually pleased her.

She turned to a shelf that ran along the white wall between one corner of the room and a rectangular bulge, which was the chimney that began in the kitchen fireplace just below. The rough wooden shelf was littered with bottles, sheets of heavy paper, a few broken goose quills, and a small box the shape and glossy brown color of a horse chestnut. It was wooden and had a hinged lid. Petra took the box and plucked down a bottle.

Astrophil shot a sparkling thread across the room so that it hit the wall next to the shelf. With one swing, he launched himself several feet to perch on the shelf’s edge.

Petra uncorked the bottle and opened the chestnut-shaped box to reveal a miniature spoon, into which she poured thick green brassica oil. Astrophil sucked from the spoon with a delighted noise. After he had drained the oil, his eyes deepened in color and glowed.

“Well,” Petra said, corking the bottle. “If you’re hungry, the others must be, too.”

Astrophil quickly crept up her arm and dug his legs into her shoulder, piercing through her thin summer nightgown.


If she expected Astrophil to apologize, he didn’t.

“By the way,” he said, “I was not reading a book last night.”

“Oh?” Petra shut the bedroom door behind her. She jogged down the stairs with unnecessary force. The spider bounced up and down. They reached the second floor. A whirring, clanking sound began to come from downstairs. “Then why do you suddenly know so much about zoology?”

“I was reading ephemera,” he said, referring to the thin booklets stacked in her father’s library. “You know I can only turn pages, not those heavy leather book bindings. If books are not already open, I cannot open them myself.”

Petra raced across the landing and began to hop down the next flight of steps. Astrophil gripped her more tightly. The whirring sound was getting louder.

Astrophil said, “If someone does not remember to leave out the beautiful, big books for a poor insomniac spider, what is a poor insomniac spider to do but consult the badly written ephemera?”

“Why were you reading about sloths and squirrels anyway?”

Astrophil paused. “I wanted to learn about creatures like me. But there was nothing in the ephemera about spiders.”

Petra stopped. She began to walk down the steps at a normal pace. “I’m sorry, Astro,” she said. And she really was, for there was no book that could tell him about creatures like himself, even if she took down the zoological guide to arachnids her father had consulted when he made Astrophil. “I’ll remember to leave a book out before I go to bed.”

She reached the ground floor and opened the door to her father’s workshop, which was also the family store. It was here that one could buy metallic objects and machines crafted by Mikal Kronos.

“It is just that I am a very fast reader,” Astrophil said.

“Yes, you are,” Petra responded with pride.

The workshop looked like you would never find what you were looking for, and sounded like you would never be able to match up a noise with the thing that made it. But it was—or so her father always claimed—arranged in a very logical order. Then again, it was a logic that only he could understand. But in his absence Petra learned to find what she needed (usually), even if it took her twice or three times as long as it would have taken him.

Squeaks came from a very large cage under a table in the corner of the room. The tin pets were hungry and eager to be let out. “What took you so long?” some of them cried. Like Astrophil, all the creatures possessed tiny metal vocal cords. Metal naturally amplifies nearby sounds. Petra’s father had designed the animals so that their metal bodies magnified the volume of their voices. Astrophil was a quiet spider, as spiders usually are. He liked to share his opinions on many things, but he liked best to share them secretly with Petra, hidden in her hair and whispering in her ear so that no one else would understand why she giggled. But the tin pets could be loud if they wished. A screeching tin monkey was proving this very point.

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