I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted after last week’s half-chapter. Breaking into the mint, breaking out of the mint, carrying 160,000 kilogrammes of gold back and forth… makes me nostalgic for quieter days of plague and assassination.
This week—and this half-chapter—the Vesani get their revenge. For our intrepid bank robbers have made a terrible mistake. There are only three real blunders, you see. Never get involved involved in a land war in Asia. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line. And never, ever mess with Basso’s money.
Chapter Nine: He thanked them for their attention
The second half of this chapter is all action, and, with the third person omniscient narrator, not much recapping is required. I’ll break with my own tradition and try to keep it brief....
A barber (an expat Vesani) in the Mavortine lands is paid with a gold coin by a Mavortine client. It clicks. He reports it to the local Vesani lodge, where the clever Vesani delegate figures it all out. He makes a deal with the Sclerian delegates (the Auxentines say no) and they find the offender, thump him a bit, chuck him on a ship and get him back to the Vesani Republic.
Proper interrogation confirms that they’ve found one of the thieves and, more importantly, the location of the village where the rest of them are all hanging out.
Aelius drops by his old hometown in the Cazar Peninsula and picks up some mercenaries—about 200 of them. They head over to Mavortine lands, raid the village and find the gold. They’re then besieged by other Mavortines. Aelius is not fussed. Despite being outnumbered and encumbered by a lot of recovered gold, he beats up on the Mavortines, breaks out of the village and makes a run (more like a “slow waddle”) down to the coast.
There’s a sticky situation as Aelius waits for a ship, but it arrives to pick him up. Aelius makes a few dodgy deals with the Mavortine aggressors and an unhelpful crew, slaughters a few hundred people and, after it all, gets the gold (and gets home).
The whole thing is more tense than I’ve made it sound, but the total Vesani losses amount to 6,000 nomismata, 1 broken arm, 3 bruised ribs.
Meanwhile, everywhere except the ranch….
This is one of those rare (half-)chapters that’s not actually about Basso at all, it is a useful way of looking at the rest of the world. To some degree, it is an extended version of Aelius’ walk in Chapter Four, the scene where he got to see the rest of the City and how it was reacting to Basso’s rule.
So, what do we learn?
First, the Vesani aren’t super-duper popular. The frequently burned-down mission, the bribed mercenaries, the hasty negotiations (often at sword-or-arrow point)… there’s no Vesani mystique, no “civis romanus sum” that demands respect. The Vesani, as noted when Basso extended the franchise, are snobs—they think they’re inherently noble, but, to the rest of the world, they’re just Vesani.
Second, Aelius is hardcore. It is easy to see him as a bit dozy and laid back… he’s intimidated by Basso, for one, and as a law officer, he was well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual. But here, like with the Auxentine war, he’s a ruthless bastard. He’s given a goal and he achieves it—no matter the cost. The way Parker tells this part of the chapter is also significant. This isn’t a dialogue (or a monologue), it is an impartial, omniscient view, leaving the reader to judge if/when Aelius goes too far.
Perhaps most importantly, we learn that the world is messy. It is filled with bitty factions and ridiculous coincidences and under-the-counter deals. Things happen in surprisingly bizarre ways. A barber spots a coin, a barrel happens to contain the right ingredients for Vesani fire, a brigand’s morale snaps at exactly the right time….
This randomness—this chaos—sheds a new light on many of the book’s themes. Take the idea of destiny, for example. If something happens through ridiculous coincidence—say, the barber spotting a certain coin—is that an argument for or against predestination?
On one hand, that’s so implausible that obviously it is Fate taking direct action. Not coincidence: FATE!
On the other, it isn’t implausible at all. The thieves were talented amateurs—if there was any inevitability to this it was when you put a handful of rookie robbers vs. the most conniving, ruthless government in the known world, the latter will invariably win. There’s no miraculous hand of fate here, just common sense.
Similarly, the chaos of the world makes us rethink Basso’s greater strategy, including his Microsoft Project plan to build an empire and change the world. How does a “messy” world impact his plans?
On one hand, he’s guaranteed to succeed. Look at how Aelius performed. Granted, the world is a chaotic place, but the cream rises to the top. Winners win, no matter what the circumstances. Basso’s plan is based on results, not means. It doesn’t matter how each stage is achieved, we can be confident that Basso, Aelius, Bassano, Melsuntha and Antigonus have the ability to achieve them.
On the other hand, we don’t have much evidence of Basso’s efficacy as an agent. He’s reacting, always reacting, and no matter how talented he is at making the best out of a situation, he’s rarely the cause of that situation occurring. It isn’t a huge leap to think that Basso’s ability to respond to a crisis will translate to his ability to change the world… but it is easier to share his confidence whilst he’s sipping wine in the heart of the City. The further the story moves from Basso geographically, the more we see how chaotic the world is—and how idealistic he is to think he can change it. (And, as we know, “idealism” isn’t something of which Basso approves.)
Like the chapter with the plague, we’re left wondering about one person’s ability to make a difference. The plague, for example, was pure chaos—unknown, uncontrollable, unpredictable. Basso stayed ahead of it, plotted, schemed, acted, did everything he could and saved a lot of lives as a result. Or… did he? Huzzah for Parkerian ambiguity!
Parker can write one hell of an action scene. I fully admit that this book’s subject material can be a bit… dry. But there’s something about Parker’s approachable, conversational style that makes it work. We’re never patronised, but, at the same time, the most complicated concepts are being explained to us in a natural way.
And that style, unleashed on battles? Holy cow.
Parker comments about how heavy the gold (20 million nomismata) is—apparently fifty villagers can’t carry it, but 275 can. Presumably the soldiers can help, but would be more lightly encumbered (they’ve got other priorities). Looking at the calculations from last week, I think we can definitely conclude that it would be a light coin. There aren’t wagons, horses or multiple trips involved here, just people lugging sacks of gold.
One last, lingering question
The greatest heist in the known world—perfectly planned, timed and equipped—carried out by a random group of Mavortine villagers? People from a place so rural that a single gold coin is a rarity? What were they thinking? What were they going to do?
Call me crazy, but doesn’t it feel like there’s someone else behind the scenes? The Optimates? The Auxentines? The phantom Empire? What about Lina? (She wouldn’t put Bassano in danger, but then, the raiders didn’t hurt him...) That feels like a too-neat conspiracy theory, but it links in to all the questions above: Is this all really just coincidence? Or was there some greater force working behind the scenes?
People, places and things that appear, noted below so we can reference them against other works by K.J. Parker. Why? Because.
- Mavortine: we’ve had them before (Melsuntha, earlier in the chapter, etc), but not in this detail. Villages, rural, etc.
- Sclerians: we’ve met them too.
- Cazar: Aelius’ people. Seem to be of a military persuasion. In my mind, I think of them as Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry. But I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate…; of the Cazar Peninsula (city: Anno; geography: Great Crest Mountains).
- The Art of War: a book, exactly as it sounds (same as the real world analogue).
- Vesani Fire: another analogue, back to the Byzantine Empire.
- Inguiomera: second city of the Mavortine Confederacy (Ingui people).
- River Tiwas: river in the Mavortine country.
- Hus: a nomadic people.
Maybe things calm down a little next week...
Jared Shurin does not know the secret of Vesani Fire.