Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Seventeen

Well, that was messy, wasn’t it? The last chapter gave us a moment of brilliant hope—Bassano as hero! The Vesani win the war!—then took it all away from us in the final, agonising lines. Bassano’s dead, and three-quarters of the army are gone with him.

What happens next?

Chapter Seventeen is a classic denouement—it isn’t just the final resolution of the plot, it also neatly tidies up all of the character arcs. Well, maybe not too neatly…

Oh, and, hey. Spoilers.

Chapter Seventeen: “Never back down, never turn your back on a friend.”

We go old school, and the chapter begins in the traditional fashion—the “historical view” of proceedings in the House. Basso (in absentia) is being charged with a vast list of crimes—everything from the “reckless occupation of Voroe” to, you know, spending the Treasury’s money like it was his own.

The new leader of the Optimates, Scaevola, summarises the situation. The Vesani are hosed:

  • The army in Mavortis is devastated
  • The Mavortines are picking off the Vesani forts, and will soon have the Vesani kicked out of their country
  • The fleet is stuck in Voroe, pinned down by an Imperial armada
  • The Empire has said they’ll be taking the City next
  • There’s no one left that will fight for the Vesani

In short, the House is preparing for surrender to the Empire.

Meanwhile, Basso and Melsuntha are packing. The little money they have in the house, her jewellery, anything small and valuable. Basso asks Melsuntha to come with him, and when she says yes, he’s strangely touched (“awwww”).

They sneak out the window and take off. The City is a wreck. They stop for a drink (so dignified) then clamber over some carts and get out into the country.

Basso and Melsuntha stroll for a while, then plop down to scheme about the future. Melsuntha then comes out with the most extraordinary confession. She’s been spying for the Mavortines. Passing them (useless) information, mostly. Then, when the army went into the forest and everyone (on the Mavortine side) was worried that they were doomed, she struck on the idea of using the plague that just broke out in Permia (Chapter Fifteen—453, very sneaky). Under her instruction, the Mavortines got some plague-ridden corpses from Permia and used them to infect the Vesani troops in the fortresses. When the Vesani forces came out of the woods, victorious, they immediately caught the plague and were wiped out.

As Basso points out, it is a Pyrrhic victory—the Mavortines now have the plague as well, and it’ll decimate the country. But as Melsuntha says, “we’d rather die than be conquered” (494).

Basso is stunned. He takes his folding knife out (uh oh…) but then reconsiders and lets her leave.

After a sleepless night of shock, Basso is back on the move. He encounters a variety of fairly inhospitable people—trading coins (“pictures of himself”) for scraps of food. Eventually he runs into the carriage of Magnentius X (remember him from Chapter Eleven? He was being a pest in Scleria then, but has clearly continued his rise in the world.).

Magnentius recognises Basso and owes him a “good turn.” He hires Basso on as a clerk and they head off to Auxentia. Basso takes the name of “Antigonus” and climbs to the top of the carriage. Which takes us right back to the Prelude…

Conclusions and conclusions and such

Well, three more candidates for the one mistake:

  1. “By pinning all his hopes on the Mavortine mines, Bassianus Severus had acted with a degree of blind stupidity that bewildered the mind… a monstrous error of judgement” (483)—This is the “historical” view, and it makes sense. “History” wouldn’t bother with the personal or family stuff, the record will only focus on Basso’s “error” of gambling too heavily on the Mavortine mines.
  2. “I loved him so much and my love killed him” (Basso’s note to Lina, 485)—Here it sounds like Basso’s primary regret is something related to Bassano. His pressure on Bassano, his belief that Bassano would be prince (or emperor), his sending Bassano off to war… something along those lines. Wibbly, but at least it narrows down the field somewhat.
  3. “‘I didn’t realise…’ He shook his head. Too stupid to be able to think through the mess in his head.” (Basso to Melsuntha, 493)—This is our last real competitor for the Big Mistake (at least, I hope so—we’re out of book). Basso should’ve realised that Melsuntha was a spy, or he should’ve known that she was loyal to her homeland. [I’m not sure about this, mostly because it seems like Melsuntha’s mistake. But I’m open-minded…]

Character Outcomes (Spoilers!)

Character: Basso
Result: Loses all his money and his family name, but takes the name of his (spiritual) father, Antigonus.

Character: Melsuntha
Result: Back to Mavortis—a free woman (in every way)

Character: Bassano
Result: Dead (plague)

Character: Aelius
Results: Dead (war), had achieved everything he’d ever wanted, lost to an inferior opponent—knew it was coming

Character: Antigonus
Results: Dead (old age), lived in poverty (unnecessarily), but happily; died peacefully and with few regrets

Character: Tragazes
Results: Fine, witness against Basso

Character: Lina
Results: Humiliated in the market (chariot crash), strong indication that she’s gone insane

Characters: Festo and Pio
Results: We have no idea (only fitting)

Character: Bevennius the Barber
Results: Back into poverty (but at least home in the City)

Character: Magnentius
Results: Doing very well, thank you. (Challenge: is the gift of figs the moment where Basso passed on his luck?)

“Character”: Vesani Republic
Results: Absorbed back into the Empire

“Character”: The Bank
Results: Dead (starvation)

“Character”: The Empire
Results: Reclaiming lost provinces (if the Vesani were capable of taking Auxenia, Scleria and Mavortis, this should be easy for them) (Interestingly, Basso was fooled into thinking their fleet went elsewhere—maybe their spies are better than he thought…)

“Character”: Mavortis
Results: Dead (plague)—but free!

Our reading group questions are:

Did everyone get what we expected, based on stories of this type?
No way.

Did everyone get what they deserved?
Yes, I think.

Did Basso make a difference? Or has everything returned to the status quo?
The latter, I think.

Was Basso lucky? Magnificent? A villain?
No. Yes. Maybe.

What was his mistake?

What do you think?

We’ll have one lonely wrap-up post next week, to talk about a few of the themes and revisit some of the wild claims I made in the prologue. Also a quick look around The Folding Knife: the context in which it was published and the mysterious figure who wrote it.

The Gazetteer: our chapter-by-chapter summary of the world-building fun

  • The Memory of Heroes—an inn (I like the name)
  • Hus—to the north somewhere. Basso sees the northern border 100 miles off from the city, then the land rises slowly, finally turning into a “desert of coarse grass” that’s home to the Hus (491)
  • Mavortis—to the east somewhere, at least, so Melsuntha says. We know the distances better thanks to the end of Chapter Sixteen.
  • Auxentia—also the east
  • Blemmya—also the north

Jared Shurin would be a terrible clerk. He’s ok at math though.


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