Last week was apocalyptic mayhem with plague ravaging the city and assassins trying to take Basso out of the picture. This week, things are a little more intimate, as Basso tries to fulfill his part of the deal with Lina.
Chapter Seven: “The Phantom of Achievement”
Basso hires social secretary—Melsuntha. She agrees to serve as a representative for him when it comes to finding a wife (things are tricky, as he’s head of his own family, and that doesn’t happen too often.) Actually, she’s been hired for a little while. Basso likes her—she puts up with his shouting. Apparently she caught the plague but got over it, much to his relief.
They have an enlightening conversation about names.
The wife-finding doesn’t go well. Basso and Melsuntha have a conversation about the murder of his first wife, which, amongst other things, seems to be a reason that he's not the City's most eligible bachelor....
The House votes Basso the titles of “Saviour of His People” and “Father of His Country.” Basso is coldly formal about it, and doesn’t allow any further silliness. Behind the scenes, to his Cabinet, he’s a bit grumpier about it.
After much discussion with his Cabinet, Basso extends the franchise. Vesani citizenship is now extended to long-serving members of the military and foreigners that reside for more than 15 years (5 if they’re in government service).
His Cabinet is initially a bit grumpy, but Basso persuades them: the Vesani aren’t exactly “pure bred stock,” the number of citizens has dropped precariously after the plague and, perhaps most convincingly, if they give the franchise to new citizens, they’ll all vote for him….
A conversation with Antigonus follows, in which Basso confesses that they also need the skilled labour for his shipyard. This is the best way to recruit Auxentines. Antigonus points out that he’ll now be a citizen too, which takes Basso by surprise—he didn’t think Antigonus cared. Antigonus hits the nail on the head: “Fortunate that righting a social injustice should fit in with your plans. Like the free bunch of grapes you get when you buy a bushel of olives.” (193)
Awkward interlude, while Basso “courts” Lady Tertullia Placidia. He used to have a crush on her mother. The conversation is pretty painful.
The Enfranchisement Act passes. Surprisingly, this is due to Olybrias and his hard-core Optimates. Chrysophilus (Lina’s intermediary) explains that Lina instructed Olybrias to help Basso, because she “wants to be the sole author of all your misfortunes”. (198) The two chat a little further about Lina (she and Basso are still obsessed with one another, no real change there).
Basso proposes to Melsuntha. Finally, someone puts him on the spot and demands an exhaustive list of reasons. He shares:
- I’m a leg man (200)
- I haven’t had sex for a long time (200)
- Because you’re one of the few women who would ask “why?” (200)
- To annoy my sister (200)
- “Love?” (200)
- All the women of my class hate me or bore me (202)
- I wouldn’t be afraid (of adultery / killing) (202)
- You’d do well in business. (203)
- I shout at you a lot (203) [Which, when explained, sounded a lot like love… but I’m a big softy]
Per usual, the Cabinet have a fit, but recant. And the public is wildly in love with the idea of Basso marrying a commoner. The new enfranchised now worship him as a god (“embarrassingly fanatical”) and even the Optimates are impressed by his arrogance. The upper-class types are secretly relieved, as it doesn’t change the balance of power between the families.
Bassano is expelled from the Studium for breaking the Patriarch’s arm. The Patriarch starts a fight with him, is very insulting, Bassano loses his temper. Basso believes this is connected with the assassination attempt as well—there’s a faction of Optimates that are trying to get at him in whatever way they can. Getting Bassano thrown out of the Studium means that the “deal” between Bassano and Lina is broken as well.
Basso invites Bassano to stay with him. After some worrying, Bassano accepts.
The chapter ends on a disconcerting familial note. Basso also asks Bassano to meet Melsuntha. He also reveals that she’s not met the twins. Nor have they asked to meet her. “I haven’t suggested it. That would imply that all three of us think it’s not really any of our business.” (211)
There’s a quip cited to him (basically, no wonder everyone thinks the Vesani are bastards…) but the most interesting aspect is that the quip’s “earliest mention is to be found in Sertorius’ Commentaries, written seventy years after the event” (187). As well as giving us a timeline, at least, some sense of historical context, this is confirmation that Basso is historically important. The Folding Knife has treated Basso as one of history’s ”Great Men” at times (generally balancing that with more intimate biographical pieces), but this is the first mention, within the text, that Basso is, indeed, considered significant.
But, wait, doesn’t she have hair like spun gold, eyes like shining gems, pert breasts and a body that’s firm and soft in all the right places?
Here’s how we know Melsuntha is attractive. She says, in regards to her work, “people don’t notice I’m in the room.” Then Parker writes, “Basso found that hard to believe.” (182).
What we learn is, a) you can describe a woman in a fantasy novel without essentially licking her with the written word and b) Basso finds her attractive. It doesn’t matter what she looks like or if anyone else finds her attractive (including the reader). Basso does.
(Incidentally, all of the lines above are things I've actually read in genre novels. The horror.)
We now know Basso’s full name and what it means. “Bassianus Honorius Arcadius Severus” - and it essentially recites his family line of mother, father and paternal grandfather. (184)
Melsuntha, on the other hand, is “Elagabil-Manzicert-Rusinholet-Melsuntha,” the latter just being a title that says she’s unmarried, but also part of a famous folk heroine. The other parts of her name indicate another folk heroine, a patron goddess and a host of nuances that imply her role (and that of her family) in that of the social hierarchy.
Amongst other things, this puts an interesting spin on the Vesani colonial arrogance, doesn’t it? Basso is doing her a favour by even asking her about her name—and, as a result, winds up showcasing the great depth of his ignorance. The Vesani, for the most enlightened people in the world… aren’t. As Aelius noted before going to war with the Auxentines, the Vesani collect old knowledge, but don’t use it, and the actual day-to-day useful stuff is largely spurned. (97) Certainly the old stuff is handy (see: conquest of Perigouna), but presumably a decent modern map would’ve been even handier….
Not quite Austen
The scene between Basso and Placidia. He uses his bad hand and dropping the cake, talking about her mother, emphasizing his deafness, his ugliness and their age difference… it feels like he’s testing her. But does he want her to “succeed” and magically love him for him? Or does he want her to fail, with Melsuntha in mind?
Two great quotes that sum up the book so far:
Antigonus: “What matters is the outcome, not the intention. You produce very good outcomes, so who cares?” (194)
Basso: “It’s my trademark, turning disasters into opportunities” (182)
Let’s see how this whirlwind romance develops in the next chapter….
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!
- Mavortine: Melsuntha’s race/nationality, we learn a bit about them in her discussion of names—they have folk heroes & heroines, gods and clans.
- Meo the Great, Hanno the Wise: previous First Citizens, perhaps? Basso lists them (wistfully) as examples of folks that are called something.
Jared Shurin proposed in much the same way.