Last week, Basso got romantic. Or at least made vaguely marital noises. But now that the Vesani Republic’s most eligible bachelor is safely engaged, what’s next on the horizon?
This week’s chapter is another sedate one, but, really, everything’s just going so very well….
Chapter Eight: Lemon and whitebait
The chapter begins with a follow-up to the “currency crisis” of Chapter Six. At the time, Basso increased the purity of the Vesani nomisma—mostly to annoy the Optimate-controlled finance committtoree. As a result, Vesani currency has become the hottest buy in town (regionally speaking).
Everyone—the Auxentines, the Sclerians, etc—all ship their coins to the Vesani Republic to be melted down and reminted as nomisma. Basso explains the process to Melsuntha and it all boils down to the Vesani (and Basso himself) getting very, very rich. The Republic takes a cut of the gold. The Bank takes a handling fee.
Basso goes on to expound his plans to Melsuntha at length. These include:
- Building a new shipyard and navy
- Driving the Auxentines out of the sea and taking over the trade routes
- Creating the Vesani Commonwealth
- Forming a military/naval Reserve
- Reforming the legal system with permanent jurors
- Raising taxes on businesses
On a more personal note, he discovers he enjoys talking to his fiancée. I’d jest and say “mostly about himself,” but it does seem more than that—Basso starts bandying around the word “love” in this chapter.
Chrysophilus swings by to say that Lina is disappointed in the engagement. Basso essentially smiles and shrugs. Later, he does some mysterious paperwork and tells Bassano to move in for good.
All is swiftly explained when Basso sends Lina a letter. Basically, he ran a con on poor Olybrias. The beleaguered Optimate and Lina’s “intended” now has a mortgage on everything he owns… in Basso’s hands. Basso has him sign a contract saying that he’ll never marry Lina.
Lina responds in writing, but the reader isn’t enlightened (although “I feel nothing for you but contempt” is mentioned). Whatever she said, it hurts Basso’s feelings.
Melsuntha encounters the sulking Basso and cheers him up. They play chess (he convinces her to play for—ahem—premarital favours and then sneakily throws the game) and talk about Bassano’s future. Melsuntha hits on the idea of appointing him in charge of the Mint—it is booming (see currency fun, above).
Fast forward a wee bit. Wedding day. It goes… ok. A very small event. Bassano explains that his job at the Mint is pretty awesome and Basso reveals that he’s apparently doing very well. Basso and Melsuntha are married, and then return to work.
The chapter ends with her going to bed early, him staying up late to do more work.
This feels like a peak
With the exception of that very last bit, could things be going any better for Basso? Lina’s no longer got a hold over him, he’s basically growing money, the Republic is doing incredibly well, he’s happily married, his nephew has moved in with him, his friends are all alive and his one pathetic political enemy is completely declawed.
He’s totally doomed, right? We even get a bit of foreshadowing (or so I assume), with Bassano and Melsuntha acknowledging that Lina will never, ever, ever give up.
Looking at that very last bit—Melsuntha goes to bed early, Basso stays up to work—I’m not sure how to interpret it. This is their wedding night. She could be fake-yawning, heading up to the bedroom, a bit come hither… he could be nervous, steeling himself… Or they could just, from day one, be settling into a pattern of amiable, non-romantic companionship. Which, since this chapter reveals that Basso (to his own surprise) is in love, is a little disappointing. Maybe he’s nervous—he’s in love, she’s got the power, he’s uncomfortable with being hurt again. Or, this could just be making a mountain out of a molehill, and, as I type this, they’re shagging like fictional bunnies.
Fausta Tranquillina Carausia
Lina’s full name. We get a rare few pages devoted completely to her. In the same pattern normally reserved for her brother, we see Lina first as a historical figure, and then more intimately. She is a grand dame—related to two First Citizens, incredibly wealthy and demanding, influential in the church. But she’s also, well, bonkers.
The most revealing insight is that she’s as obsessed with Basso as he is with her, except, while he’s got a country to distract him, her entire Severus intellect is devoted to her brother’s ruin. She even—worryingly—pretends to be deaf, and wraps her hand in bloodied cloth.
Perhaps because nothing awful is happening to him, Basso seems to get ahead of the game for once—he’s acting, not reacting. He engineers Olybrias’ downfall, for one, and, if the currency purification was a spur of the moment thing, Basso still manoeuvres to take full advantage of it.
More importantly, we see—perhaps for the first time—that Basso is looking ahead. The empire he schemed up when expanding the war with the Auxentines is now something with a full mental roadmap. Basso may be joking when he talks about a Commonwealth that’s “ten stages down the line” (215), but only in regards to the timeline. Somewhere, he’s put this all together, step by step.
It isn’t just about not responding to situations—as he’s been forced to do in every chapter so far, this is about evaluating Basso and his legacy on more than his luck. Everything he’s done has been a reaction, from the murder of his wife to the war(s) to the plague. He’s always come out of it ok (or better than ok), but the common theme of all the discussions is that he’s been lucky.
Building an empire? Reforming society from the ground up? This isn’t Basso the Lucky—this is Basso the Magnificent. The conversation in this chapter isn’t about his reactions, it is about his actions, and why he believes that they will succeed where so many others have failed.
The most pointed comment on this topic is actually in a discussion about Bassano’s future. “As far as I’m concerned,” Basso says, “destiny is the enemy” (228).
This is a hard line not to love. For Basso, he’s specifically talking about class and opportunity. Melsuntha should be a goatherd; Bassano should be a vapid noble drifter. They’ve both battled their destinies and wound up “better” (“more substantial” may be a better way of putting it) for it.
In regards to Basso, it is about that tension between luck and skill, reaction and action. Basso could rely on his luck as well, and just see what was destined to happen to him. But he won’t, and, as we see in this chapter for the first time, he’s determined to shape events, not surf them.
Finally, in regards to The Folding Knife, “destiny is the enemy” is a completely revisionist way of viewing fantasy. Basso’s not born special or magical. He’s in no way chosen. He’s a very, very different sort of hero. If anything, this reinforces the idea of Basso as a high fantasy villain. He’s the one creating an empire after all. Perhaps some Auxentine goatherd has just awoken with a dragon-shaped tattoo, a magical sword and a prophecy in his head….
Well, born slightly special
Basso is chosen in a way—he’s the 1%, the Elite, whatever you want to call it. Born a Vesani citizen, inheriting a vast pile of wealth, it isn’t like he’s worked his way up from being a goat herder (Melsuntha), slave (Antigonus) or soldier (Aelius). Basso was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and, even if he sometimes forgets it, the book itself doesn’t.
The best example is his conversation with Melsuntha about “civilisation,” and, as she dryly puts it, how “the definition of civilisation is being like the Vesani” (232). As with last chapter, we’re reminded that the Vesani are the centre of their own universe, and there’s a great deal that they don’t actually know. Basso’s got his grand ambition of an empire with colonies, but perhaps he’s not got all the knowledge he needs to pull it off….
Basso makes Chrysophilus marry him and Olybrias bear witness. That’s just mean to poor Lina.
The priest in the Studium makes reference to a labarum and a globus arciger. The former is a banner, the second, I’m not sure. (Although an “arciger” is a species of jumping spider—and that does seem properly horrible—it doesn’t quite fit in the context.) A “globus cruciger” is a type of orb doohicky with a cross on top. So perhaps this is the same, adapted for the Invincible Sun instead of Christianity.
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!
- The White Sea: large body of water, controlled or shared with the Auxentines
- The East: as a place, not a direction—reference to the home of the Eastern Empire?
- Throne of the Sun, Ascension Week, Queen of Heaven: three more references to the dominant religion (of the Invincible Sun)
- Fermia: a duchy
As things are going too well, Chapter Nine starts with one of the worst disasters yet. Someone hits Basso where it really hurts—right in the money….
Jared Shurin is terrible at chess.