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Hard to be a God
By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1964 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
All rights reserved.
When Rumata passed Holy Míca's grave — the seventh and last along the road — it was already completely dark. The much-ballyhooed Hamaharian stallion, received from Don Tameo in payment of a gambling debt, had turned out to be completely worthless. He had become sweaty and footsore, and moved in a wretched, wobbly trot. Rumata dug his knees into the horse's sides and whipped him between the ears with a glove, but he only dejectedly shook his head without moving any faster. Bushes stretched alongside the road, resembling clouds of solidified smoke in the gloom. The whine of mosquitoes was intolerable. Scattered stars trembled dimly in the murky sky. A mild wind was blowing in gusts, warm and cold at the same time, as was always the case in autumn in this seaside country, with its dusty, muggy days and chilly nights.
Rumata wrapped his cloak tighter and let go of his reins. He had no reason to hurry. There was still an hour until midnight, and the jagged black edge of the Hiccup Forest had already appeared above the horizon. Plowed fields flanked the road; swamps flickered beneath the stars, stinking of inorganic rust; barrows and rotting palisades from the time of the Invasion were visible in the dark. To his left, a grim glow was flaring up and dying down; a village must be burning, one of the innumerable indistinguishable places known as Deadtown, Gallowland, or Robberdale, though august decree had recently renamed them Beloved, Blessed, and Angelic. This country extended for hundreds of miles — from the shores of the Strait until the saiva of the Hiccup Forest — blanketed with mosquito clouds, torn apart by ravines, drowning in swamps, stricken by fevers, plagues, and foul-smelling head colds.
At the turn of the road, a dark figure materialized from the bushes. The stallion shied, throwing back his head. Rumata grabbed the reins, adjusted the lace on his right sleeve out of habit, and put his hand on the hilt of his sword before taking a good look.
The figure took off his hat. "Good evening, noble don," he said quietly. "I beg your pardon."
"What is it?" Rumata asked, listening hard.
There's no such thing as a silent ambush. Robbers give themselves away by the creak of their bowstrings, the gray storm troopers belch uncontrollably from the stale beer, the baronial militiamen breathe avidly through their noses and clatter their weapons, while the slave-hunting monks noisily scratch themselves. But the bushes were quiet. It seemed the man wasn't a bandit. Not that he looked much like a bandit — a short, thickset city resident in a modest cloak.
"May I run alongside you?" he asked, bowing.
"Certainly," said Rumata, lifting the reins. "You may hold the stirrup."
The man began to walk next to Rumata. His hat was in his hand, and a substantial bald patch shone on top of his head. Probably a steward, thought Rumata. Visiting the barons and cattle dealers, buying flax or hemp. A brave steward, though ... Maybe he isn't a steward. Maybe he's a bookworm. A fugitive. An outcast. There are a lot of them on the night roads nowadays, more than there are stewards. Or maybe he's a spy.
"Who are you and where are you from?" Rumata asked.
"My name is Kiun," the man said sadly. "I'm coming from Arkanar."
"You're running away from Arkanar," Rumata said, bending down.
"I'm running away," the man agreed sadly.
Some eccentric, thought Rumata. Or maybe he really is a spy? I should test him ... Actually, why should I? Who says I should? What right do I have to test him? No, I don't want to! Why can't I simply trust him? Here is a city dweller, clearly a bookworm, running for his life ... He's lonely, he's scared, he's weak, he's looking for protection. He meets an aristocrat. Due to their arrogance and stupidity, aristocrats don't understand politics, but their swords are long and they don't like the grays. Why shouldn't Kiun the city dweller benefit from the disinterested protection of a stupid and arrogant aristocrat? That's it. I won't test him. I have no reason to test him. We'll talk, pass the time, part as friends ...
"Kiun ..." Rumata said. "I knew a Kiun once. A seller of potions and an alchemist from Tin Street. Are you a relative of his?"
"Unfortunately, I am," said Kiun. "Just a distant relative, but it's all the same to them ... until the twelfth generation."
"And where are you running away to, Kiun?"
"Somewhere ... The farther the better. Lots of people run away to Irukan. I'll try Irukan too."
"Well, well," Rumata said. "And you think that the noble don will help you across the border?"
Kiun was quiet.
"Or maybe you think that the noble don doesn't know who the alchemist Kiun from Tin Street is?" Kiun stayed quiet.
What am I saying? thought Rumata. He stood up in his stirrups and shouted, imitating the town crier in the Royal Square, "Accused and convicted of terrible, unforgivable crimes against God, peace, and the Crown!"
Kiun was quiet.
"And what if the noble don adores Don Reba? What if he's wholeheartedly devoted to the gray word and the gray cause? Or do you think that's impossible?"
Kiun was quiet. The jagged shadow of a gallows appeared out of the darkness to the right of the road. A naked body, strung up by its feet, shone white beneath the crossbeam. Bah, it's not even working, thought Rumata. He reined his horse in, grabbed Kiun by the shoulder, and spun him around to face him.
"And what if the noble don decides to string you up right next to this tramp?" he said, peering into the white face with dark pits for eyes. "All by myself. Quickly and neatly. Why are you quiet, literate Kiun?"
Kiun was quiet. His teeth chattered, and he squirmed weakly in Rumata's grasp, like a crushed lizard. Then something suddenly fell into the roadside ditch with a splash, and immediately, as if to drown out the splash, he shouted frantically: "Then hang me! Hang me, traitor!"
Rumata took a deep breath and let Kiun go. "I was joking," he said. "Don't be scared."
"Lies, lies ..." Kiun mumbled, sobbing. "Lies everywhere!"
"Come on, don't be mad," Rumata said. "You'd better pick up what you threw in — it'll get wet."
Kiun waited a bit, rocking in place and blubbering, then he pointlessly patted his cloak with the palms of his hands and climbed into the ditch. Rumata waited, hunching wearily in his saddle. That's how it has to be, he thought; there's no other way.
Kiun climbed out of the ditch, hiding the bundle underneath his shirt.
"Books, of course," Rumata said.
Kiun shook his head. "No," he murmured. "Just one book. My book."
"And what are you writing about?"
"I'm afraid it wouldn't interest you, noble don."
Rumata sighed. "Take the stirrup," he said. "Let's go."
For a long time, they were silent.
"Listen, Kiun," said Rumata. "I was joking. Don't be scared of me."
"What a wonderful world," Kiun said. "What a merry world. Everybody jokes. And everybody's jokes are the same. Even noble Rumata's."
Rumata was surprised. "You know my name?"
"I do," Kiun said. "I recognized you by the circlet on your head. I was so glad to meet you on the road ..."
Ah, of course, that's what he meant when he called me a traitor, thought Rumata. He said, "You see, I thought you were a spy. I always kill spies."
"A spy," repeated Kiun. "Yes, of course. In our times it's so easy and rewarding to be a spy. Our eagle, the noble Don Reba, is interested in what the king's subjects say and think. I wish I could be a spy. A rank-and-file informer at the Gray Joy Inn. How lovely, how respectable! At six o'clock I come to the bar and sit down at my table. The proprietor rushes toward me with my first pint. I can drink however much I want, the beer is paid for by Don Reba — or rather, it isn't paid for at all. I sit there, sip my beer, and listen. Sometimes I pretend to write down conversations, and the frightened little people hurry to me with offers of friendship and money. Their eyes express only the things I want: doglike devotion, fearful awe, and delightful impotent hatred. I can grope girls with impunity and fondle wives in front of their husbands — big burly men — and they'll only giggle obsequiously. What beautiful reasoning, noble don, is it not? I heard it from a fifteen-year-old boy, a student of the Patriotic School."
"And what did you tell him?" asked Rumata curiously.
"What could I tell him? He wouldn't have understood. So I told him that when Waga the Wheel's men catch an informant, they rip his belly open and fill his insides with pepper. And drunken soldiers stuff the informant into a sack and drown him in an outhouse. And this was gospel truth, but he didn't believe me. He said that wasn't covered in school. Then I took out some paper and wrote down our conversation. I needed it for my book, but he, poor thing, decided that it was for a report, and he wet himself from fright."
The lights of Skeleton Baco's inn flashed through the bushes ahead. Kiun stumbled and went quiet. "What's wrong?" asked Rumata.
"It's a gray patrol," muttered Kiun.
"So what?" said Rumata. "Listen to another bit of reasoning, worthy Kiun. We love and value these simple, rough boys, our gray fighting beasts. We need them. From now on, a commoner better keep his tongue in his mouth, unless he wants it to dangle out on the gallows!" He roared with laughter, because it was so well put — in the finest tradition of the gray barracks.
Kiun shuddered and drew his head into his shoulders.
"A commoner's tongue should know its place. God gave the commoner a tongue not for making fine speeches but for licking the boots of his master, who has been placed above him since time immemorial."
The saddled horses of the gray patrol were tied to the hitching post in front of the tavern. Husky, avid swearing came through the open window. There was a clatter of dice. In the door, blocking the way with his monstrous belly, stood Skeleton Baco himself, in a ragged leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up. In his hairy paw was a cleaver — clearly he had been chopping dog meat for the soup, gotten sweaty, and come out to catch his breath. A dejected-looking gray storm trooper was sitting on the front steps, his battle-ax between his knees. The ax handle was pulling his mug off to one side. He was clearly feeling the effects of drink. Noticing the rider, he pulled himself together and bellowed huskily, "S-Stop! Who goes there? You, no-obility!"
Rumata, jutting out his chin, rode past without a single look. " ... and if a commoner's tongue licks the wrong boot," he said loudly, "then it should be removed altogether, for it is said: 'Thy tongue is my enemy.'"
Kiun, hiding behind the horse's croup, was taking long strides by his side. Out of the corner of his eye, Rumata saw his bald patch glistening with sweat.
"I said stop!" roared the storm trooper.
They could hear him stumbling down the stairs, rattling his ax, cursing God, Satan, and those noble scum in one breath.
About five men, thought Rumata. Drunk butchers. Piece of cake.
They passed the inn and turned toward the forest.
"I can walk faster if you like," Kiun said in an unnaturally steady voice.
"Nonsense!" Rumata said, reining in his stallion. "It'd be dull to ride so far without a single fight. Don't you ever want to fight, Kiun? It's all talk and talk ..."
"No," said Kiun. "I never want to fight."
"That's just the trouble," Rumata muttered, turning the stallion around and slowly pulling on his gloves.
Two horsemen jumped out from beyond the bend, coming to a sudden halt when they saw him. "Hey you, noble don!" one of them shouted. "Come on, show us your traveling papers!"
"Boors!" Rumata said icily. "You're illiterate, what would you do with them?"
He nudged his stallion with his knees and trotted toward the storm troopers. They're chickening out, he thought. Hesitating. Come on, at least a couple of blows! No ... no luck. How I'd like to let out some of the hatred that's accumulated over the past twenty-four hours, but it looks like I'll have no luck. Let us remain humane, forgive everyone, and be calm like the gods. Let them slaughter and desecrate, we'll be calm like the gods. The gods need not hurry, they have eternity ahead.
He rode right up to them. The storm troopers raised their axes uncertainly and backed up.
"Well?" said Rumata.
"What's this, eh?" said the first storm trooper in confusion. "Is this the noble Don Rumata, eh?"
The second storm trooper immediately turned his horse around and galloped away at full speed. The first one kept backing up, his ax lowered. "Beg your pardon, noble don," he was saying rapidly. "Didn't recognize you. Just a mistake. Affairs of state, mistakes do happen. The boys drank a bit much, they're burning with zeal ..." He started to ride away sideways. "As you know, it's a difficult time ... We're hunting down fugitive literates. We wouldn't like you to be displeased with us, noble don ..."
Rumata turned his back to him.
"Have a good journey, noble don!" said the storm trooper with relief.
When he left, Rumata called softly. "Kiun!"
No one answered.
And again no one answered. Listening carefully, Rumata could make out the rustling of bushes through the whine of the mosquitoes. Kiun was hurrying west through the fields, toward the border with Irukan. And that's that, thought Rumata. That's it for that conversation. That's how it always is. A careful probing, a wary exchange of cryptic parables. Whole weeks are wasted in trite chatter with all sorts of scum, but when you meet a real man there's no time to talk. You have to protect him, save him, send him out of danger, and he leaves you without even knowing whether he was dealing with a friend or a capricious ass. And you don't learn much about him either. His wishes, his talents, what he lives for ...
He thought of Arkanar in the evening: the solid stone houses on the main streets, the friendly lantern above the entrance to the tavern, the complacent, well-fed shopkeepers drinking beer at clean tables and arguing that the world isn't bad at all — the price of bread is falling, the price of armor is rising, conspiracies are quickly discovered, sorcerers and suspicious bookworms are hanged on the gallows, the king is, as usual, great and wise, while Don Reba is infinitely clever and always on his guard. "The things they come up with! The world is round! For all I care it's square, just don't stir things up!" "Literacy, literacy is the source of it all, my brothers! First they tell us money can't buy happiness, then they say peasants are people, too, and it only gets worse — offensive verses, then rioting." "Hang them all, my brothers! You know what I'd do? I'd ask them straight out: Can you read? Off to the gallows! Write verses? Off to the gallows! Know your multiplication tables? Off to the gallows, you know too much!" "Bina, honey, three more pints and a serving of rabbit stew!" Meanwhile, squat, red-faced young men, with heavy axes on their right shoulders, pound the cobblestones — thump, thump, thump — with their hobnailed boots. "My brothers! Here they come, our defenders! Would they let it happen? Not on your life! And my boy, my boy ... he's on the right flank! Seems like only yesterday I was flogging him! Yes, my brothers, these are no troubled times! The throne is strong, prosperity reigns, there's inviolable peace and justice. Hurray for the gray troops! Hurray for Don Reba! Glory to the king! Oh, my brothers, how wonderful life has become!"
Meanwhile, the roads and trails of the dark plains of the Kingdom of Arkanar, lit by the glows of fires and the sparks of torches, are filled with hundreds of wretches running, walking, stumbling, avoiding outposts. They are tormented by mosquitoes, covered in sweat and dust, exhausted, frightened, and desperate, yet hard as steel in their convictions. They've been declared outside the law because they are able and willing to heal and teach their sick and ignorant race; because they, like the gods, use clay and stone to create another reality to beautify the life of a race that knows no beauty; because they penetrate the secrets of nature, hoping to put these secrets in the service of their inept race, which is still cowed by ancient superstitions ... helpless, kind, impractical, far ahead of their time.
Rumata pulled off his glove and whipped his stallion hard between the ears. "Giddyup, lazybones!" he said in Russian.
It was already midnight when he entered the forest.
No one was quite sure where the strange name came from — the Hiccup Forest. The official version was that three hundred years ago, the troops of Imperial Marshal Totz — later the first king of Arkanar — were hacking their way through the saiva, pursuing the retreating hordes of copper-skinned barbarians, and during rest stops they boiled white tree bark to make a brew that caused uncontrollable hiccups. According to this legend, one day Marshal Totz was making the rounds of the camp and, wrinkling his aristocratic nose, declared, "This is truly insupportable! The whole forest has hiccups and reeks of home brew!" And this was allegedly the source of the strange name.
Excerpted from Hard to be a God by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko. Copyright © 1964 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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