- For the place in Turkey, see Şarköy.
The Sarkoy are the people of the planet Sarkovy, featured in Star King and The Palace of Love, two of the Demon Princes novels of Jack Vance. Sarkoy mainly inhabit the steppes of their somewhat bleak and unforgiving planet.
Habits and customs
Sarkoy have a highly formalised and structured society and place great value upon etiquette. A breach of certain manners may earn a death sentence; "dishonouring a fetish" is one such crime and "throwing sour milk upon his grandmother" is another (both offences quoted in The Palace of Love). The cruelty of the Sarkoy can be judged by the popularity of the sport of harbite, in which the harikap, a semi-intelligent animal, is tormented to death in a number of imaginative ways including being set on fire. (When Kirth Gersen ironically enquires of Sivij Suthiro what the Sarkoy will do for entertainment when they have exterminated the harikap, Suthiro responds blandly that they always have each other.)
The Sarkoy poisoners
Their most notable characteristic is that practically every inhabitant of the planet is skilled to a greater or lesser degree in the art of assassination by poison. An adept of this art is known as a venefice and it is rumoured that a Master Venefice can kill his quarry merely by walking past him. This may be an exaggeration, but perhaps not a flagrant one. Many venefices pride themselves on their ability to develop poisons out of substances previously considered harmless, and an expert can transmit toxins or plague germs on contact, even a contact so slight as to go unnoticed. A skilled venefice typically keeps his fingernails hardened and sharpened such that they can cut paper at a touch (in order to deliver subcutaneous poison); a still more skilled practitioner can poison one merely by passing him paper to show off this 'paper trick'.
In The Palace of Love Master Edelrod explains to Kirth Gersen that to avoid this fate a venefice will try to acquire immunity to the poisons that may be used against him and also exercises great caution in all his personal dealings (going so far as pre-emptively poisoning any rivals). In this way he will "live to become an old man" (a Sarkoy expression).
A trade Guild exists to regulate the trafficking of poisons and act as a professional body for the venefices. Breaking its rules is a serious matter and the offender may be sentenced to "cooperate" with the Guild, whereby other Guild members test new poisons upon the unfortunate (see The Palace of Love for an example, the offender had sold fixed-rate poison at a discount).
Referred to several times in the series, the poisonous or infective agent known as cluthe is one of the most famous and dreaded substances at the venefice's disposal. Tristano the Earthman, when beaten by Gersen in a fight, is willing to stand physical torture and permanent maiming and disfigurement rather than spill secrets and be put to death by cluthe (as Suthiro would be ordered to kill him). Other opponents whom Gersen encounters readily agree to inform on their employer merely on the understanding that Gersen will kill them by shooting rather than by cluthe.
It is not quite consistent in either its application or its effects on the two occasions that Gersen himself uses it; in Star King, Gersen induces Suthiro to accept a piece of paper from him and uses the opportunity to infect him with cluthe (whether by an imperceptible touch of his own or by contaminating the paper is not clear), whereas in The Face, he kills Lens Larque by slapping him with a cluthe-laced glove. Larque dies within minutes, racked by hideous internal and external convulsions, whereas Suthiro exhibits no effects whatever until meeting Gersen a day later, though his exceedingly rapid decline thereafter suggests that he had failed to notice that he was ill, possibly on account of his arrogant assumption that no-one could have poisoned him.
While visiting Sarkovy in The Palace of Love, Gersen is advised to restock his supplies of cluthe, as when not fresh it is merely debilitating or even inconveniencing and not fatal.
Other poisons mentioned include alpha, beta, black-tox, furux, mervan, tox meratis, twitus, ulgar, and vole.
Sarkoy generally worship Godogma, who carries a flower and a flail and walks on wheels. Evidently he is viewed as one who gathers the souls of the dead, and the Sarkoy view death with apparent fatalism; however, when Kirth Gersen remarks to Suthiro that "One never likes to hasten Godogma", Suthiro agrees and remarks that on Sarkoy there are a thousand popular aphorisms to this effect.
Gersen's association with the Sarkoy
During a visit to the planet, Gersen displays a familiarity with and tolerant acceptance of Sarkovy's unlovely customs. He also has friends in high places, as the mere mention of a venefice named Coudirou is enough to open doors for him. Most probably this is because Coudirou is enough of a master of his craft to kill anyone who crosses him, and the other Sarkoy naturally assume that Gersen would never dare to drop his name casually unless he really did know him well. The previous mention of Coudirou in Star King implied that Gersen was at some point a student of his, and Gersen himself is no slouch as a poisoner.