Sunday, May 24, 2020

Health and Immunity!

I've been sorta remiss in my runup to International Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day. As I noted last week, I've had Jack Vance on my mind lately. There are a couple of reasons for this... one is that a podcast I like, which looks at fantasy and science fiction literature using St Gary's famous Appendix N as a starting point, covered The Star King in a recent episode.

The primary reason I've had Vance on the mind is that I've been using "HEALTH AND IMMUNITY!" as a greeting and farewell lately. This was inspired by a passage in The Palace of Love, in which protagonist Kirth Gersen, honed by his grandfather into an instrument of vengeance against the pirates and slavers who destroyed their community, visits one of the Planets of Hats (WARNING: TV Tropes, may cause hours of lost time) that pop up in the series, in this case, a planet on which poisoning is an art form. The visit, prompted by a news item concerning the upcoming execution (by poison, of course) of a guildmaster 'venefice' for selling poisons to the Big Bad Evil Guy of the book, involves contacting a local guide and poisoners' guild member to allow Gersen to interview the condemned man in the hope of obtaining information about his quarry.

In typical Vance fashion, this episode in the novel is all about mordant humor, cultural relativism, and verbal repartee, with a side order of an off-putting culinary exposition. One of the highlights involves a pre-interview visit to a forest, in which the local guide shows off local flora and fauna to Gersen and his female companion, who is beginning to weary of Gersen's role as an obsessed avenger:

"Very well," sighed Edelrod "The interview may be conducted later this afternoon In the meantime what are your wishes^ Would you care to explore the countryside5 The weather is fine, the woods are ablaze with flowers, sultnes, pop-barks, there is a well-drained path " Alusz Iphigenia, who had been restless, rose to her feet Edelrod led them along a path which crossed a brackish river and plunged into the forest. The vegetation was a typical Sarkovy melange trees, shrubs,cycads, bubble-shells, grasses of a hundred varieties The high foliage was for the most part black and brown, with occasional splotches of red; below were purples, greens, pale blues. Edelrod enlivened the stroll with a discussion of various plants beside the way. He indicated a small gray fungus. "Here is the source oftwitus, an excellent selective poison, fatal only if ingested twice within a week. It ranks in this respect with mervan, which migrates harmlessly to the skin, and becomes a lethal principle only upon exposure to direct sunlight. I have known persons who fearing mervan kept to their tents for days on end."

They came to a little clearing. Edelrod looked sharply in all directions. "I have no overt enemies, but several people have died here recently . . . Today all seems well. Notice this tree growing to the side." He pointed to a slender white-barked sapling with round yellow leaves. "Some call it the coin-tree, others the good-fornought. It is completely inoffensive, either as a primary or an operative. You might ingest the whole of it leaves, bark, pith, roots, and note nothing other than a sluggishness of digestion. Recently one of our venefices became irritated at such insipidity. He made an intensive study of the coin-tree, and after several years finally derived a substance of unusual potency. To be useful it must be dissolved in methycm and wafted into the air as a fog or a mist, whence it enters the corpus through the eyes, causing first blindness, then numbness, then complete paralysis. Think of it' From waste, a useful and effective poison' Is this not a tribute to human persistence and ingenuity?"

"An impressive accomplishment," said Gersen. Alusz Iphigema remained silent.

Edelrod went on: "We are frequently asked why we persist in deriving our poisons from natural sources. Why do we not immure ourselves in laboratories and synthesize? The answer is of course that natural poisons, being initially associated with living tissue, are the more effective."

"I would suspect the presence of catalyzing impurities in the natural poisons," Gersen suggested, "rather than metaphysical association."

Edelrod held up a minatory finger. "Never scoff at the role of the mind' Eor instance—let me see—there should be one somewhere near . Yes. See there—the little reptile."

Under a mottled white and blue leaf rested a small lizardlike creature.

"This is the meng. From one of his organs comes a substance which can be distributed either as uigar or as furux. The same substance, mind you' But when sold as uigar and used as such, the symptoms are spasms, biting off of the tongue and a frothing madness. When sold and used as furux, the interskeletal cartilage is dissolved so that the frame goes limp. What do you say to that? Is that not metaphysics of the most exalted sort?"

"Interesting, certainly... Hm... What occurs when the substance is sold and used as, say for the sake of argument, water?"

Edelrod pulled at his nose. "An interesting experiment. I wonder... But the proposal encases a fallacy. Who would buy and administer an expensive vial of water?"

"The suggestion was poorly thought out," admitted Gersen.

Edelrod made an indulgent gesture. "Not at all, not at all. From |ust such apparent folly come notable variations. The graybloom, for instance. Who would have ever suspected the virtue to be derived from its perfume, until Grand Master Strubal turned it upside down and left it in the dark for a month, whereupon it became tox meratis? One waft will kill; the venefice need merely walk past his subject."

Alusz Iphigema stooped to pick up a small rounded pebble of quartz. "What horrible substance do you produce from this stone?"

Edelrod looked away, half embarrassed. "None whatever. At least none to my knowledge. Though we use such pebbles in ball mills to crush photis seed to flour. Never fear; your pebble is not so useless as it seems."

Alusz Iphigema tossed it away in disgust. "Unbelievable," she muttered, "that people should dedicate themselves to such activity."

Edelrod shrugged. "We serve a useful purpose, everyone occasionally needs poison. We are capable of this excellence and we feel duty-bound to pursue it." He inspected Alusz Iphigema with curiosity. "Have you no skills of your own?"


"At the hotel you may buy a booklet entitled
Primer to the Art of Preparing and Using Poisons, and I believe it includes a small kit of some basic alkaloids. If you are interested m developing a skill—"

"Thank you. I have no such inclination."

Edelrod made a polite gesture, as if to acknowledge that each must steer his own course through life.

The macabre tour continues in town, as the guide escorts them to the poisoners' guildhall, where Gersen will attempt to convince, that is bribe, the guildmasters to use a quick, painless poison rather than an experimental toxin for the execution so the condemned man will give him the information he needs:

Subdued and depressed, Edelrod took them through the bazaar. Only in the Poison Quarter did he recover his animation, and pointed here and there to bargains and especially noteworthy preparations. He seized a ball of gray wax. "Observe this deadly material. I handle it without fear: I am immunized^ But if you were to rub it on an article belonging to your enemy—his comb, his earscraper—he is as good as gone. Another application is to spread a film over your identification papers. Then, should an overofficious administrator hector you, he is contaminated and pays for his insolence."

Alusz Iphigenia took a deep breath. "How does a Sarkoy survive to become an adult?"

"Two words," Edelrod replied, holding two fingers didactically high. "Caution, immunity. I am immune to thirty poisons. I carry indicators and alarms to warn ofcluthe, meratis, black-tox and vole. I observe the most punctilious caution in eating, smelling, donning garments, bedding with a strange female. Ha—ha. Here is a favorite trick, and the overimpulsive lecher finds himself in difficulties. But to go on. I am cautious in these situations and also in passing downwind of a covert, even though I have no fear of meratis. Caution has become second nature. If I suspect that I have or am about to have an enemy, I cultivate his friendship and poison him to diminish the risk."

"You will live to become an old man," said Gersen

When time comes for the public execution, which takes the form of an entertainment accompanying a banquet, the friendly guide and poisoner uses the salutation that I adopted a couple of weeks ago:

As if in response to her question Edelrod appeared bowing in absurd punctilio. Tonight he wore a long gown of green cloth, a tall fur cap "Health and immunity'" he greeted them. "Do you attend the poisonings? They are scheduled for the hotel rotunda, for the education of gathered notables "

Health and immunity, everybody!

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