We’ve had a few quieter chapters—plus a brief intermission for a short story—and a lot of sappy gooey lovey-dovey stuff. But this is fantasy, dammit, enough with the marriage arrangements and give us some swordplay! Heroism! Acts of derring-do!
Chapter Nine: “I did all right.”
On one hand, this is the easiest chapter to summarise:
- Thieves steal the Vesani gold
- The Vesani get it back
On the other, Chapter Nine is packed with more action and adventure than we’ve had in the previous eight chapters combined. And, arguably, more than we ever see again. So, for just this once (maybe), let’s get all, you know, plotty, and revel in the derring-do.
(Which means, in my efforts to prolong this reread as much as possible, I’m actually splitting Chapter Nine into two different weeks. Which also means there’s a slim chance that the Chapter Nine reread could be longer than the actual chapter. Especially if I keep digressing like this….)
But, as always, the magic of the chapter comes in the way it is told. A simple tale of robbery is given some rather wonderful complexity—evocative of an old Ed McBain procedural or Michael Crichton’s one good book.
This is another “plague chapter”—we see how Basso responds to an external crisis both as a matter of the historical record and on a more personal level. We’re also given an opportunity to ponder over Basso’s motivation (again) and be amazed at his ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse (stuffed with money) (again!).
The chapter begins in the “voice of history.” Six caravels sail into the bay. Somewhere between 300 and 450 armed men spill out of them and quickly cut their way into the City. They march (unopposed) through the streets until the walled circle of the City Yard (holding the Mint, the Treasury Storage and the Arsenal).
The men break into the Treasury Storage and start helping themselves to the accumulated wealth of the Vesani Republic.
The chapter then switches to Bassano’s point of view—he’s recounting his experience to Basso. Bassano, running the Mint, was in the building at the time. Confused by the sudden silence, he wanders down into the Treasury and sees the raiders filling bags with coin. The raiders notice him and discount him—Bassano’s not a threat. Poor Bassano then runs back to his office and hides until they go away.
The narrative then passes to Aelius, also talking to Basso. A well-meaning but ill-fated (and now highly criticised) guard captain responded to the raider assault by essentially sealing them into the City Yard—piling up everything he could find into a rough barricade and then defending it with two dozen men. By the time the raiders were ready to leave, they found that “some fool had blocked their way with a load of carts.” (246)
The raiders plow through the barricade (and the 25 men) like a hot knife through a very unfortunately placed guardsman. Aelius, arriving with another fifty men as reinforcements, sees them coming—several hundred heavily armed raiders to his fifty lightly-armed guardsmen. He “retreats”—which is to say, drops everything and tells his men to “get the hell out of there.” (246)
The raiders saunter (slowly) to their ships and sail off into the sunset.
Now Basso and Cinio. We learn the raiders have taken the entire Vesani reserve: 20 million nomismata. With the floor sweepings and foreign currency, there’s about 280,000 left. (This is partially due to Bassano’s competence—he’s got the Mint working so efficiently that there’s no backlog of foreign money.) The Republic is well and truly screwed.
And back to history… the First Citizen (that’s Basso) announces that the Republic isn’t bankrupt; that’d be impossible. The stolen money will, of course, be recovered. Until then, they’d be moving to a paper currency. And the Bank, with its stockpile of 8 million nomismata, would be lending the Republic whatever it needed. The First Citizen noted that all the other banks would, of course, follow suit.
Then Basso and Antigonus: dissecting Basso’s speech. Antigonus is quick to point out that the Bank doesn’t actually have 8 million nomismata. Basso is equally quick to point out that the other banks, forced to play nicely, will have their gold reserves drawn down first. And, more importantly, the ongoing credit arrangement with the Republic is the sort of lovely financial relationship that they’d been dreaming of for ages.
Antigonus asks that fateful, “yes, but why?” Basso’s refused to blame Aelius (who admits that he ran like the wind) for any part of this—in fact, he’s gone so far as to praise him. Basso’s response is that he likes Aelius—he’s loyal to him.
Will that loyalty pay off? Only time and the second off the chapter will tell. But for now, Basso’s up the proverbial creek.
Let’s start from the end—the whole “Basso, what were you thinking?” bit is a little weaker here than we’ve seen in the past. Basso himself admits two (rather obvious) things in his discussion with Antigonus:
- The paper money / loan scheme works out really nicely for him financially
- If Aelius goes, so does Basso
Basso even provides a third selfish motive: he doesn’t want to lose his “pet soldier.”
But Antigonus acts as if Basso’s done something completely unexpected by not pinning the entire thing on Aelius. I think there are two things in play:
- Historically (at least, within the text), we know the Vesani have a really dodgy relationship between the citizenship and the military. Basso warns about military coups in the past; Aelius is awkward being a citizen (because of military/state separation), etc. Maybe “blame the general” is just the done thing.
- Antigonus might be prodding Basso towards admitting that he’s done something selfless—remember, Antigonus has been nervous in the past that Basso might lose his capacity to feel. Which then means that maybe Basso didn’t just do this for Aelius, actually he did do all of this for selfish reasons, but Antigonus has slyly convinced him that he’s being loyal. All a little complicated, but Antigonus is certainly smart enough (and knows Basso well enough) to convince Basso that he’s felt something that he hasn’t.
I should’ve seen it coming….
Another interesting admission from Basso at the end. He blames himself—I mean, hell, they’ve stacked up gold in the streets and disbanded the army. Why wouldn’t someone come for it? “You can’t think of everything,” Antigonus counsels, but Basso’s response is a curt, “Since when?” (252).
Charming, and possibly untrue. Last chapter we got a hint of what Basso’s prodigious intellect could do when he’s not caught on the defensive. In the back of his mind, he’s scheming away—some sort of multi-phased plan that that involves a new Vesani empire and/or grain monopolies.
But—and this is despite the book’s back cover’s claim that Basso only makes “one mistake”—Basso doesn’t think of things a lot. Part of this, as mentioned above, is that he’s constantly reacting. A plague, his wife’s adultery, his sister’s plots, etc. The stuff that happens to Basso has a tendency to come out of left-field (when compared to some of his sister’s activities, the Great Mint Robbery is practically predictable), but even so, he doesn’t catch everything. Perhaps—and this follows out of the last chapter’s Utopian peak—Basso’s confidence is turning into hubris.
That’s a lot of coinage, how’d they pull that off?
Given that we’re talking about gold coinage, the closest approximation is the Roman aureus or the later solidus (there’s an amazing chart on Wikipedia). For our purposes, this could go either way—it depends whether we think the dominant culture here is Republic/early Empire or late Empire.
Let’s go with the aureus as that’s the Augustan measurement and I’m still a sucker for I, Claudius. The aureus was 99% pure gold and, apparently, not all that common (before Caesar, Wikipedia tells us, it was mostly used to make large payments from captured plunder—well, that fits). By the later Empire, runaway inflation made the aureus increasingly valuable: the government introduced base-metal coinage but only took taxes in silver and gold. Oops.
Anyway, for the purposes of The Folding Knife, our Vesani friends are/were sitting on 20 million of them—at 8 grams each (as dictated by Augustus, and who are we to argue with him?)
That’s 160,000 kilograms of pure tasty gold. Divided by 400 thieves, that’s 400 kilograms each. According to an informative Google search, the instant each robber hoisted their pack, they’d be utterly incapacitated and perhaps pancaked.
So how did our robbers get the gold back to the caravels?
A few options:
- Horses (except they didn’t have them—we know they were on foot)
- They made multiple trips. This isn’t actually as silly as it sounds—the Vesani resistance was completely broken at that point. Aelius had sprinted across town and there weren’t any other guards to speak of. What would prevent the thieves from marching back and forth? Presumably they’d want to go quickly, lest some other reinforcements show, but still, two trips each wouldn’t be too daunting a prospect. (But that’s still not enough—we need to get each trip down to about 50 kilograms to be viable. Slow, but viable.)
- They’ve invented the wheel. Another simple prospect—we know they had equipment with them (Bassano saw them using pans that weren’t in the Treasury). Could they cobble something together? Or, more embarrassingly, why not just use the carts provided to them by the Vesani themselves—the ones stacked up as a barricade?
- Wrong coin. The poor aureus got watered down a lot—by the time of Diocletian it was down to 5.5 grams, and Constantine’s equivalent, the solidus was a paltry 4.5. That’s 90,000 kilograms, and 225 kilograms per person. But, again, too much—our gold coins need to be a feather-light 1 gram each to give us the overall weight we need. (Not impossible—the tremissis was a golden coin from the late Empire, about that weight.)
Or, of course, some combination of the above.
I’m personally leaning towards a combination of 3 and 4. The coinage could easily be lighter than the aureus and there’s a sort of Parkerian irony that comes with the thieves using the barricade carts to haul off their prize… and that helps explain why so many people are irritated at the unfortunate guard captain who blocked them in.
Despite the many fragments of this narrative, we don’t have any witnesses to the thieves departing with their money, so, sadly, this mystery will go unsolved.
You know the routine—people, places and things that appear, noted below so we can reference them against other works by K.J. Parker. Why? Because.
- The Kalends of Histamenon, 997 AUC: the first (and only?) actual date we get. It doesn’t mean anything, as we don’t have a point of reference, but still, nice to find.
- Blues and Greens: we’ve had the Blues before (the chariot racing team), but now we know their rivals
- Mavortine: another race or region (the Mavortine Confederacy, a group of tribes, we learn later). Melsuntha is a Mavortine.
Whew. Well, look forward to next week, when we do more arithmetic. And, better yet, we get to see Aelius kick a little ass….