Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Six

As important as last week’s chapter was in establishing Lina and Basso and their relationship, it was a little… quiet.

This week, there’s no shortage of excitement. Plague and assassination ahoy!

Chapter Six: “If everyone dies, don’t blame us.”

A ship drifts into the harbour. The patrol sloop spots that everyone on it is dead of the plague. Immediately, the City goes into lockdown—the ship is burned, everyone that even went near it is quarantined, the harbour is chained off. Public spaces are closed, guards are given emergency powers, if the Vesani had Homeland Security, it’d be on Red Alert.

…all for naught. The plague hits the City like, well, a plague. There are two strands of discussion. First, what is causing it? Second, what to do?

For the first, Basso and his advisors consider the following causes:

  1. Rats (150)
  2. Airborne (154)
  3. In the water (158)

None of which, it turns out, are correct.

And solutions:

  1. Let it run its course (151)
  2. Special superstitious herb-burning (150)
  3. Fire (151)
  4. Flooding (151)
  5. Move everyone around to keep them ahead of the wind (154-5)
  6. Dig cisterns (159)

Plus, all the incidental fun—including typhoid (see: cisterns, above) and looting.

And for all their work? All the effort Basso and Aelius and the council put in? None of it seems to have been “the answer.” Still, when all is said and done, the final death toll is somewhere past 18,000—a terrible number (the City’s population is 250,000), but much, much better than in the past. Either something worked or they just got lucky. Or both.

Basso’s mother dies in the plague. Basso himself catches it, but isn’t killed. Antigonus also catches the plague, but in a weird combination of factors, it actually helps ease his cancer—he’s feeling better than he has for years.

The plague also wipes out most of Basso’s political foes (not Olybrias though) and some of his more inept friends. As Basso sayd, “If someone had given him thirty political assassinations of his choice for a birthday present, he couldn’t have done better” (161).

As is the tradition, Basso also gets richer. He and Antigonus buy up all the land—severely depressed due to the plague. Their activity restores the market and makes them, well, very, very wealthy indeed. The two of them have an interesting chat about Basso’s moral fiber.

Lina sends a priest to remind Basso that he’s promised to marry within the next two months. The priest (Chrysophilus, we learn in a later chapter) is a charming ambassador—Basso seems to like him, even if the message itself isn’t appreciated.

In a fit of pique, angry with the House finance committee, Basso refuses to devalue the gold content of the nomisma, the Vesani currency. Instead, he increases its purity—paying for the proceeds with a new tax bill. The motion passes unanimously after he points out that his tax bill is the largest in the country (and the Opposition fails to note that his profits from the recent land grab far, far outweigh the tax bill…).

Tragazes reports back that the twins were doing “very well” at the Bank. Basso is unhappy, as, he “expected them to surprise” (171).

Finally, on his way home from the office, Basso is ambushed by assassins. His guards are swiftly killed. Basso gives a decent account for himself (he kicks a guy in the knee and makes a break for it), but is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he learns that a sizable mob of civilians intervened to save his life. His thirteen soldiers and five citizens were all killed, but the assassins escaped.

Basso quickly quashes any plans to make this news public and, instead, he spreads the rumour of food poisoning (the words “running shits” appear repeatedly in this chapter). No one believes that, but then, no one can understand why he would cover up an assassination attempt either… as a result, everyone sort of… lets it go….

This week in themes….

We see the clockwork machinery of the system at work. From the spotting of the plague ship, everyone does everything with incredible precision, fulfilling their roles and duties with great efficiency. And yet, it matters for naught. “Chaos theory!” I shout, waving droplets of water around like Jeff Goldblum. Or, as is rapidly developing into one of the themes of The Folding Knife: better lucky than good.

Basso and Antgonus carry on their conversation about his luck as well—Antigonus again accuses Basso of having the most extraordinary luck, for both good and ill. He also suggests that it connected to Basso’s (fears of) losing his “capacity to feel.” Because of the way he conducts his life—and the circumstances thereof—Basso has become distanced from the rest of the world. It is hard to deny. But Basso’s worries about it are, in some way, reassuring.

Again, this is interesting in the context of the “epic fantasy.” Imagine, for a second, “luck” replaced with “destiny” or “fate” or, god forbid, “prophecy.” Wouldn’t all Chosen Ones feel this way? Somehow distanced from the rest of humanity, at risk of losing their empathy?

This also connects with the historical/personal divide (and we see that again in events like the currency change)—Basso’s perhaps starting to buy in to his own role as a pivotal figure, starting to learn that, with the “luck” on his side, he’s making a difference on a larger scale. Is it then a surprise that he’s, perhaps, becoming less connected to ordinary people? He’s no longer one of them, after all.

Bits

Charmingly, Antigonus quotes the informal Severus family “motto” back at Basso: “You’re the best investment I’ve ever made…” (164).

Basso is a bit snarky about the aromatic herbs, making fun of the superstition that they ward off plague. But then when everyone else leaves, he dumps more on the fire (153). This is charming (a moment of weakness), but also a moment of empathy. He’s frustrated by his inability to do anything or to take any action himself, so this is a token action: a bit like spitting on a forest fire. It is also a bit poignant, given that his mother dies by the end of the chapter.

Basso’s mother is referenced more in this chapter than in any since the beginning of the book. And, frankly, she’s not referenced that much. She dies, but neither Basso nor Lina seem to care too much. Basso’s more upset about the fact that he doesn’t care (which gives the impression of denial—so perhaps he cares very much indeed) and Lina’s more upset about the manner of her burial, and takes it as an opportunity to score points.

Basso sleeps in his office for the duration of the plague. He has a strange childhood memory of the mosaics on the ceiling—in particular, “one angel with a sad face; her eyes were big and wide open, and a single stylised tear hung from her lower eyelid. She didn’t seem to be there any more.” (156) My marginalia here is, er, “what’s this about?” It isn’t like Basso to have a guardian angel, but then, he later mistakes the nurse for Victory when he wakes up at the end of the chapter. Maybe he really does have a streak of faith in him somewhere?

Alternatively, the angel could be a memory of someone else—for example, his mother or his sister. Yet that memory—a trusting, naïve, emotive face—doesn’t seem to connect with either one. Perhaps Basso’s memory is of a woman that simply doesn’t exist—and never has—in his life.

Basso has no one to tell that he had the plague. Presumably his inner circle knew, but he never tells Bassano and he doesn’t tell Lina because “she wouldn’t have been interested in anything solely to do with him.” (159) This is depressing. It also shows that Basso has essentially given up on having a relationship with Lina that’s in any way ordinary. This isn’t a matter of one person carrying on the motions, they’ve both agreed to play her game. One wonders if their story would be different if Basso just tried to wear her down by acting normally…

Again with the enemies—as discussed in the last chapter, Basso’s ultimate antagonist has to be Lina or himself. In this chapter, all of his “most intelligent enemies” die of the plague, yet none of them are names we’ve heard before. Or have, in any way, thwarted him (or even slowed him down).

Of course, even if they don’t have names, someone is trying to get Basso killed. Interestingly, his left hand—the one stabbed by Palo—is at the center of things. Basso blocks (well, “takes”) a sword thrust with it. He then fumbles the sword in the same scene, with his “fingers refusing to close and grip” (174). This mimics the language of the prelude, in which he drops his folding knife with fingers that are “stiff” and “don’t work properly” (1).

Despite the many blades flashing around, Basso’s own knife never appears in this scene.

Finally, what do we think happened when Basso spoke to the civilians that saved his life? This is a bit like the previous chapter, where Basso learned that he was “Magnificent”—their actions clearly touched him. But his conversations with the civilians (which are “off camera”) apparently did not go well. Why not? My first thought was that the civilians didn’t realise they were saving Basso’s life. Basso was tempted to think of himself as beloved by the people, but, if their intervention was just a fortunate accident, that’d be very deflating.

All in all, there’s a lot of death in this chapter… but looking ahead, love is in the air.

The Gazetteer:

With each chapter, I’m going to pull out the world-building stuff and tack it here, at the end of the post. If you spot references to these things in other KJ Parker books or stories, please say so in the comments!

  • Verrhoean: reference to a person, presumably a nationality or race
  • Scleriot: “belonging to Scleria”
  • Coele Opuntia: city, had the plague 60 years ago
  • Dapoeia: city on the river Asper, had plague 46 years ago
  • Mavortines: we’ve had them already, but it is definitely a nation/state as well as a race, given that they have an embassy

Jared Shurin will never sample the Mavortine cuttlefish.

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