The Bureau of Herbs

22 Sep

One of the first acts of the new absolute dictator in Hycania was to summon the Director of Herbs to his palace office. So, in the pinkish rays of early morning, Dhal went by dos-a-dos to the official residence of the head of government, his hands slightly atremble. What did the all-powerful Loegre wish to see him about?

A servant in an orange jerkin led the visitor into a long, spacious room with a durmast desk at one end. The new ruler, short and fat, sat behind it in an easy chair. His melanoid eyes took in each and every step Dhal made as he approached the desk.

The overwhelmed bureaucrat realized he would have to stand through this interview.

“Can you guess why I called you here, Director Dhal?”

The latter felt a cold chill up his long back. He was the taller man, but the other was the power-holder in this land. The latter started to speak in a flat, nearly ugly voice.

“I have been told many favorable things about how you supervise herbal production and commerce. That is very interesting for me, because that is one of most important industries. As you probably know, I have only a single child, a daughter. Because my wife died immediately after the birth of our Vexa, she grew up having only one live parent. Those years were difficult for the girl, because of my full-time involvement in politics. My time was dedicated to a public career, and she has had to pay some of the price for that.

“But there is one interest, a kind of hobby, that fascinates my Vexa. The subject of herbs. She cooks with them, she grows and collects them. Her books are about nothing but that. Most of her waking hours are spent in the garden that she keeps, or at the herb-growers’ markets.” He scrutinized the long, narrow face of Dhal intently. “Once I attained my present post, I faced immediate demands from her on this matter of herbs. She wishes to involve herself in the fundamental activities under your authority: herbal farm inspections, herbal trade, and innovative developments. All these matters are close to the heart of Vexa. My need, then, is for you to help her in all that she wishes to become active with.”

Dhal felt as if a hammer had stricken him on the head.

“Where and how shall I begin?” he asked the dictator.

“She can explain her plans and ambitions in person. A servant will take you behind the palace, to where Vexa has started a new herbal garden.”

Tiny and comely, the dictator’s daughter had curly black hair and musty caliginous eyes that had a sparkle in them. She led the stranger through the recently planted herbal beds, pointing out her favorite varieties.

“Here is my tansy, pennyroyal, cicely, and lovage,” the young woman said, pointing to the right. “And over on this side are rue, wormwood, and burnet.”

The pair stopped. Dhat examined several of the plants closely. “This cultivation shows a considerable amount of knowledge and care. I congratulate you on this enterprise of yours. It is most impressive.”

“Thank you,” blushed Vexa. “I try to do my best, along with my gardeners.”

They started to walk further on, toward the end of the beds of herbs.

“Your father told me that I can be of aid to your efforts here, Miss.”

She looked up at him, studying his chestnut eyes several moments before speaking.

“I realize that the bureau that you head has contributed much, over the years, to the progress and advancement of herb growing in Hyrcania. Not only have wild species been found in the remote areas of our country, but rare varieties have been imported from abroad for the benefit of our native growers. All that is to the good. But I feel that a lot more is possible and should be taken up in the days ahead. How can such a program be carried out, though? I believe that if ideas from me were picked up and acted upon, there could occur an acceleration of development. What do you think?”

Dhal, looking down into her pretty face, gave a glowing smile.

“The ideas you just described are in perfect agreement with mine. Our herbal industry must continue to thrive, and that depends primarily on innovation fostered by my bureau. Yes, your proposals are welcome. I am eager to find specific practical steps to take up at once.

“But I need to ask you something. Would you be willing to be an unofficial advisor to us? I am certain that your father would have no objection. In fact, he would look upon your involvement with favor. What do you think?”

“Yes, of course,” she grinned at him. “Both he and I are in agreement on my plan to cooperate with you.”

Thus it came about that the daughter of the dictator became a consultant to the bureau in charge of the herbal sector of the Hyrcanian economy.

Dhal drove a bureau tilbury out of the capital, Veza sitting to his right.

They passed burgeoning fields of teff, spelt, triticole, vetch, and fescue. Their destination was the herbal experimental station and the farmers’ market adjacent to it.

“We shall be seeing recent advancements from the lab,” explained Dhal, “as well as some new imports being sold in the stalls. Both should be of interest, Vexa.”

She turned her head toward him. “Yes, there may be new plants here that we can use in the future.”

The two climbed to the ground after their ride ended. Dhal hitched the horse to a metal post in front of the herbal station.

An office worker showed the pair through a greenhouse where experimental herbs were germinating. Burdock, calamus, cocklebur, horehound, yarrow, pipsissewa, broomrape, and squawroot were pointed out by him as products being altered and tested by the staff.

Once a circuit of the facility was completed, Dhal asked his companion whether she wished to go with him into the nearby market place where herbs were bought and sold.

“Yes, of course,” she replied, her curiosity and satisfaction evident in her facial expression.

A large crowd of local villagers was buying plant products from growers of the region. Basil, argula, cilantro, clove, peppercorn, marjoram, sorrel, peppermint, mace, oregano, safflower, lavender, chives, rosemary, sage, fennel, gingeley, and fenugreek were on sale.

The two visitors managed to make their way to a stall at the end of the covered market, where a vendor was selling imported herbal substances.

“Look!” pointed Vexa with delight. “There is some Pelasgian zinzibar, and further on behind it Zean saxifrage, also known as alumroot. Isn’t that wonderful? I mean to have such foreign herbs available as much as possible. If only we could grow them all in our own climate!”

“There is always something new being brought forth,” said Dhal, looking her in the eye. “I think that I will buy myself a little of the galangal from Matamoria. I have often read of it, but never enjoyed a taste of the ginger root.”

As Vexa looked away from him, her eyes fell on a large stick unfamiliar to her. She looked at the female clerk and asked her what it was.

“Oh, Miss. That is called harmala.”

Vexa turned to her companion and asked him a question. “Have you ever heard of anything like that?”

“Yes, I have come across it in my reading,” he answered. “It is the source of harmine. That is a strong medicinal preparation distilled out of it.”

“For some reason, I think I will purchase a little and see what can be done with it,” she told Dhal, not foreseeing the momentous results of that simple act.

It was a week later that Loegre invited his daughter to eat supper with him, something the busy dictator rarely had time for. Over Bambara stew, the two of them had the first close conversation with each other since Vexa had been introduced to the Director of Herbs.

“How is your hobby progressing?” he asked near the end of the meal. “Is this activity useful and fulfilling for you?”

Vexa’s eyes glowed with spirit and enthusiasm.

“We have made a wonderful discovery, Dhal and I. At present, the specialists are working on practical ways of growing and using a certain plant imported from Aconia,”

The father stared at the daughter “What can this thing be?”

“Its name is harmala, and the product that comes from it is a medicinal called harmine. There are applications in the treatment of mental maladies.”

“That sounds very interesting. Could I have more information? I would appreciate receiving current reports on how these developments are going.”

“I can bring you the latest research data available tomorrow, father.”

“Good,” grinned the dictator. “I will find the time to read it over.”

A wild idea arose in the mind of Loegre. It took root and expanded until there occurred complete domination over all his thought. He summoned the Director of Herbs to the palace and told Vexa to be present for the occasion. The three met in a secluded room, about a small round table.

“I have dug deeply through the material given me. Several times I have gone over every page. And now it is possible for me to decide on something that weighs on my mind. It is this: the particular substance called harmine can be made a general consumer commodity. What else can do as much to energize our people and bind them together in peace and harmony?”

His daughter asked him a question that flashed forth in the mind of Dhal as well.

“Why is that to be done with something that could be misused if not kept under the control of those who practice medicine?”

The father hesitated for a moment, but then gave an answer.

“I have considered what the effects will be in terms of preserving law and order. That is what every regime on our planet has to calculate and plan for when making such a big step into the unknown. My judgment is that the widespread utilization of harmine should make for cooperation and harmonious living in our country. What do you think of the idea of its widespread availability, Mr. Dhal?”

He turned his face and eyes upon the latter.

“The effects cannot be accurately predicted,” asserted the dictator. “I would not dare try to fortell what the results might turn out to be.”

Silence followed while the three of them pondered the situation.

“I have decided,” announced the head of state, “to proceed with full scale production and marketing as soon as possible.”

Absolute dictatorship is able to act with superhuman speed. A gigantic amount of harmana seed was planted. Intense cultivation, harvesting, and refinement produced a flood of herbal preparation for the public. It was marketed at low, discounted prices. Loegre expected a strengthening of his popularity and his hold on Hyrcania.

The dictatorial state became increasingly effective as a large fraction of the citizenry became consumers of the hallucination-producing harmine. One group of users turned into addicts, a larger number acted as if they were so.

The conscience of the Director of Herbs grew more and more troubled.

He revealed this to Vexa in private when she visited his Bureau office.

“The situation in Hyrcania is more serious by the day, my dear,” he whispered to her.

She have him a look of surprise. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Police control and bureaucratic regulation and domination has never before in history been so severe. The widespread resort to harmine is making millions of people oblivious of their actual conditions of life, as long as they can obtain their pain-killing anodyne. Hallucination makes it easy for the autocratic state to control and govern.”

“You are speaking about my father, Dhad,” said Vexa with a sob. “If you feel that way, why don’t you express what you think openly, in public?”

He thought for a moment.

“Yes, perhaps that is what I should have done at the start of all this.”

Remembering from the supper eaten at the table of the dictator that his favorite mealtime drink was Hyrcanian metheglin, a combination of fermented honey, malt, yeast, and allspice, Dhal decided to present the ruler with just such a present. But this ampullar gift was also to contain a secret, unknown, and disguised ingredient as well.

The effects of the harmine, though unforeseeable, were bound to be considerable.

He brought the bottle of mead to the palace in a wicker carboy and gave the box to the chief butler as a surprise table delight for the head of government.

“No one is to be informed of this treat,” instructed the Director of Herbs.

He bit his tongue, for this meant that Vexa was not to know as well. But she never drank any such beverage, that he was certain of.

Yet there was a remote chance that she might decide to taste this present.

So, he came to the scheduled supper unsure of the exact results. There was something of a gamble involved in what he was up to.

The evening was balmy outdoors. Loegre appeared to be in a jovial mood. He began to joke and tease his daughter, Vexa.

“What do you think, my dear? Our precious friend sent a delightful present for our festive repast tonight. It is this ampulla of metheglin you see before me. And now I am going to uncork it and try out its flavor. What would you say if I offered you a taste of it?”

Dhal looked at her with apprehension. What was she going to say or do?

“Thank you, father, but I do not like anything as sweet as that is.”

The guest let out a sigh of relief on hearing this.

But then Loegre turned to him. “What bout you, my son?” he asked.

“I must be excused,” prevaricated Dhal, “for my medico forbids me any fermented beverage that contains any alcohol.”

The dictator smiled. “No one dares to forbid me anything,” he said as he opened the gift ampulla and poured out a small quantity of liquid into a large glass goblet and took a swig of it.

He likes it! realized Dhal as the drinking continued. As he and Vexa watched, Loegre drained off half of the metheglin provided him.

A magnificently shining grin seemed permanently stamped on the great man’s fat face.

But what were the consequences of this strange experiment begun by Dhal?

They were not immediately available, because the ruler of Hyrcania fell into a deep, contented slumber at the end of the supper.

“Let’s leave your father sleep this off right here,” said Dhal to Vexa. ‘We can come back in awhile to see whether he has awakened yet.”

The pair went outside for a walk in the night through the extensive woods of the palace grounds.

Loegre was not in the dining chamber, but an attendant informed Vexa that her father had awakened and gone to his private working cellule. She hurried there, Dhal following behind her.

The hallucinating dictator sat at a hackmatack desk writing with a stylus. He set the latter down and looked up as the pair entered.

“I felt that it was necessary to put my thoughts down as soon as possible, while they were fresh in my mind. No one yet knows my intentions. The two of you will be the first to find out.” His eyes focused on Dhal as he addressed him specifically.

“You must obtain for me more of that wonderful metheglin that I drank tonight. It appears that all of it is now gone. And I have decided to step down from the high office I now hold. Why should I toil and worry when such a marvelous material exists? No, I shall not give a further second of time to idle business like governing. I have secretly dreamed of leaving my post, but I thought it would be far in the future. But now I see the need for immediate retirement.

“Liquid pleasure will become my watchword for the remainder of my life.

“If anyone asks to whom I leave my absolute power, it shall be to Dhal, the Director of Herbs. You are to facilitate the population’s enjoyment of all the herbal supplies given us by nature. Let everyone find the plants that make him happy. That shall be the goal of our state and society. There will be nothing beyond personal happiness to aspire to. I have found mine!” beamed Loegre joyfully.

Dhal took Vexa by the hand and led her into the corridor outside the cellule.

“I intend to dismantle all the institutions of dictatorship,” he said with a laugh. “First, though, I have to get your father more metheglin laced with harmine. It is a herb that promises to change our world completely.”

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