Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Eleven

Last chapter was particularly eventful (in the traditionally uneventful way of The Folding Knife). Basso monologued, expounding his grand vision and overarching scheme to Melsuntha and Bassano. The war! The empire! The vast wealth! The Severus dynasty! All, of course, for naught. At the end of the chapter, Lina outfoxed Basso and left him sulking in the dark.

Chapter Eleven spends a lot of time tying up loose ends.

Chapter Eleven: “People are the best weapons”

Basso has been in power for one year (an eventful one). Poor Antigonus finally passes away right before the anniversary. Basso learns about his friend’s personal life for the first time—despite being fabulously wealthy, Antigonus lived an austere (one could say “miserly”) existence. He leaves everything to Basso—also, a book filled with instructions on what to do with the Bank.

Antigonus’ will is a little heart-breaking. He confesses that Basso’s father was an idiot (no surprise) but that he loved Basso like a son. “The only joy in my life has been to see your triumphs. The only sorrow worth mentioning has been to see how little comfort your success has brought you.” (311) Beautiful, and a little gutting—especially since Antigonus was a slave, with his own past and life completely subsumed by Basso and his family.

Basso fends off (accidentally) another attempt on his life. He’s working in the garden, calculating the cost of the Mavortine invasion (an invasion he’s stalling until he can figure out what to do about the lack of Bassano) when someone fires siege equipment at him. Seriously. He doesn’t even notice, but when he looks up, there’s a big ol’ arrow sticking out of the wall. Eep.

A bit of detective work (go Aelius!) reveals that the bolt must have been fired from the tower of the Great Light Temple—which means someone from the Studium has it in for Basso. (Or is being paid to let someone else have it in for Basso.) Basso halts Aelius’ investigation than does a little of his own. He leans on the Patriarch of the Studium (one of the book’s better scenes—Basso can be scary) and gets the answer he seeks.

Speaking of answers, an unexpected visitor arrives with the solution to an earlier mystery. An Auxentine doctor has figured out what caused the plague. Some plagues, he reveals, are caused by fleas. (Add that to the list of possible, but in this case, incorrect, reasons.) But the Vesani plague? Tainted food. A bad batch of salt beef, in fact. The folks on the original ship had it, and so did many of the people in town. The bad news: Basso was never close to having the answer. The good news: some of the Vesani’s manic attempts at a solution may have helped out. The people being shuffled about the city to various refugee camps were being fed bread and cheese, not salt beef. It may have saved their lives.

Basso and the doctor share a few schemes about preventing plague, hunting rats and other social matters. The doctor then reveals that he conducted tests on prisoners and debtors—killing most of them in his search for a cure. Basso’s not super-pleased, especially when the doctor draws a comparison between them. Basso sends soldiers off to war (for the Greater Good), the doctor tests on prisoners (for the Greater Good). What’s the problem? Basso gives him some gold and threatens to have him killed if he ever sees him again. The doctor goes scuttling off.

There’s an entertaining sidenote about the election of a new cardinal in Scleria. The electors couldn’t make up their minds. Just as the king was threatening to put his nephew in the position, an overweight, illiterate, slightly-deranged abbot seized the throne. Literally. And since they couldn’t remove him, so they let him be. Basso’s entertained, so he sends the new cardinal—Magnentius X—a jar of figs. Why not?

Wacky hijinks thus recounted, Bassano shows up for a secret meeting. Basso’s been a good boy and broken off contact. Ditto, Bassano’s stayed away from Basso because of his mother’s threats to bring a lawsuit against him. However, Lina’s plan comes tumbling apart as the two Severus chaps get a chance to talk things out. Bassano learns that the lawsuit wouldn’t hurt Basso one bit—in fact, it might even help him in the long run. Bassano also learns that Lina was the one behind the siege-based assassination. The two have a heart-to-heart (Basso: “My sister makes me sad.” Bassano: “My mom doesn’t love me.”) and Bassano accepts Basso’s offer of, well, the world.

Everything’s coming up Severus.

RESOLVED:

  • The cause of the plague.
  • Who was behind the mysterious assassin(s).
  • Why Basso and Lina continue to fight, and why Basso puts up with her.
  • Bassano’s decision (and why he makes it).
  • Antigonus’ illness (sorry, big guy).

Feels like another of those “spring cleaning” chapters, doesn’t it? With all the loose ends tied up and rolled under the bed, we can start focusing on the future. Which, in The Folding Knife text, generally means something horrible is looming on the horizon. But, for now, it is nice to see all that resolved….

The plague is mentioned a few times in this chapter—I wonder if there’s now enough distance for people to start speaking about it comfortably. All the crises since then—even the robbery—have paled in comparison. Losing a chunk of money doesn’t really compare to losing a chunk of the population. When the only possible response to the plague is “these things are usually worse…” well… we can’t underestimate how traumatic it would have been.

For the sake of its references in this chapter, it may help to think of the plague as “guaranteed death”—that is, everyone that came in touch with it would’ve assumed that they were going to die. This is why, for example, we know that Basso loves Lina—despite how her death would make his life easier, he still confesses that he was worried when the plague came, and he seriously contemplated her absence.

Similarly, it is why the doctor comparing his human testing to Basso’s war is particularly upsetting. To Basso, the doctor was condemning people to death. The doctor, however, could claim he was sacrificing lives for the greater good. Similarly, the doctor can claim that sending a man off to war is condemning him to death. Yet, to Basso, his wars are for the greater good. (In that, they’re all part of making “good deals”—with positive outcomes for everyone.)

Basso is surprisingly flummoxed at the time, but they aren’t quite even comparisons. For one, there’s an issue of agency. All of the doctor’s test subjects are prisoners (of war or of debt)—they have no other choice. Basso, on the other hand, conducts his war with professional soldiers—they chose to be there. (Doubly so, since the Vesani conduct their wars with mercenaries.) Still, there are certainly parallels between Basso and the doctor, made all the more uncomfortable since Parker paints the doctor as such a loathsome individual.

(It is interesting that Basso thinks that Bassano will have an easier time with this sort of thing. Basso believes that his nephew is capital-g-Good and will mysteriously know what to do.)

This discussion of agency is also reflected in Antigonus’ relationship with the Severus family. He was a slave to Basso’s father; a friend and father to Basso. Again, there are parallels. Basso, for example, never thought of freeing Antigonus. But, again, Antigonus had no choice but to obey the elder Severus. Whereas, during the past year, Antigonus was a free man—and certainly had the wealth and the wherewithal to make his own path if so he so chose.

Of course, the final note on agency belongs to Bassano—who chooses to accept his “destiny” (as set down by Basso) for no other reason than “because I want to.” Basso is then quick to point out that there’s no better reason. Given the book’s continual discussion of luck, destiny, action and reaction, it is satisfying to see everything boiling down to that one simple fact: doing something because you want to do it is the best reason of all. No force. No fate. Not as a response to something. Just free will, pure and simple.

This week’s word is….

Strigils” (309)—something in Antigonus’ bathroom, and it turns out to be one of those ancient world sweaty-scrapy things. (I remember seeing them in the BBC production of “I, Claudius” and being horrified as a kid.)

That would’ve hurt a lot…

“The scorpio was a smaller catapult-type weapon, more of a sniper weapon than a siege engine, operated by only one man. The scorpio was basically an early crossbow, a “catapult with bolts,” probably first invented by the Greeks, then later adopted and used on a larger scale by the Roman legions. This catapult used a system of torsion springs, that made it possible to obtain very great power and thus a high speed of ejection of the bolts…. In precision shooting, it was a weapon of marksmanship capable of cutting down any foe within a distance of 100 meters.”—Wikipedia

In Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, he notes the precision of the Scorpio. This is something referenced on several websites, including the Wikipedia passage above, but it actually took a bit of futzing around in Ol’ Hairy’s diaries to find the specific passage. Here it is:

“There happened in my own view a circumstance which, having appeared to be worthy of record, we thought it ought not to be omitted. A certain Gaul before the gate of the town, who was casting into the fire opposite the turret balls of tallow and fire which were passed along to him, was pierced with a dart on the right side and fell dead. One of those next him stepped over him as he lay, and discharged the same office: when the second man was slain in the same manner by a wound from a cross-bow, a third succeeded him, and a fourth succeeded the third: nor was this post left vacant by the besieged, until, the fire of the mound having been extinguished, and the enemy repulsed in every direction, an end was put to the fighting.”—Book vii, Chapter xxv

This translation, from MIT (what do they know?) talks of “bolts” and “darts,” but the Latin used is “scorpione,” which, according to Macmillan’s Latin Series, means “by a missile from a scorpion” (1909, University of Chicago Press—go Maroons!).

Anyway, that’s seriously impressive shooting—and apparently the Scorpions were even more lethal en masse. Set up for parabolic shooting, a Roman artillery battery of 60 scorpions could rain 240 bolts a minute down on enemy units up to 400 meters away. Eep. (See: opening pages of Parker’s Devices and Desires for more on the scorpion in action.)

The Gazetteer—your annex for world-building:

  • Jazygite: we’ve had these folks before, as that’s where Antigonus is (was) from.
  • Hus: another group of people/race/nation; at some point at war with the Auxentines (as the doctor experimented on POWs).
  • Magnentius IX and X: Sclerian cardinals (in history, the real Magnentius seized a throne too).
  • Barcy: an abbey in Scleria.
  • Sclerian Curia: the equivalent of the Vesani Studium. It feels like two branches of the same religion (the Invincible Sun).
  • Xenophanes: classical author of theological commentary.
  • Cyanus’ Dialogues: a book.
  • Sostratus: someone Basso quotes—a philosopher?

Now that Basso’s got everyone signed up to his legacy, it is time for him to get on with making it happen….


Jared Shurin really dislikes scorpions (the arachnids, not the siege equipment).

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