Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Ten

Well, another long, adventure-packed chapter, but for fear of driving everyone nuts, we’ll try and do it in one go. Now that Aelius is back (with all the Vesani gold in tow), Basso’s got a chance to handle a few domestic problems.

Chapter Ten: A good deal is where both sides make a profit.

The chapter begins with Aelius’ “official” return to the City. Since he’s already had one triumph in the last year, he’s not allowed another. Basso encourages the House to vote Aelius a rather cruel/prestigious honor, The Order of the Headless Spear. It is… demeaning.

Aelius and Basso have a chat about the figure. Aelius mentions that he’s thought about retiring. Basso vetoes the idea. Swiftly and decisively. Aelius makes another suggestion—a small force of trained soldiers. Basso vetoes that as well. No palace guard. But he does agree that Aelius needs an apprentice—someone that can do the running around for him.

From there, Basso heads to the House. Investigation has proven that the raid on the Vesani treasury was purely a “private enterprise” affair (279). The ringleader had worked as a bricklayer in the City for five years, then spent another two carefully recruiting his henchmen. The village that Aelius raided wasn’t even involved—it had just agreed to stash the gold in turn for a cut. The Mavortine government a) wasn’t involved and b) doesn’t exist.

So… when the Optimates make their predictable motion to go to war with the Mavortines, it is expected that Basso will quickly quash the notion after some sort of token debate. “The game wasn’t worth the candle.” (280) Instead, Basso surprises everyone and agrees. The Vesani are going to war. Proper war, against the huge (if utterly disorganised) Mavortine Confederacy.

Everyone is stunned.

Meanwhile, Bassano has taken up fencing. On Basso’s insistence, he’s enrolled at the Three Circles Fight, the City’s oldest fencing school. Bassano works hard because, as he notes, “he was terrified” when the raiders came (282). Basso sneaks some extra courses into the programme of study—infantry tactics and the like. Bassano graduates at the top of his class, after a final exam that involves several rounds of vicious combat.

Afterwards, Bassano joins Basso and Melsuntha for dinner. They have some light chit-chat about wolves and Cazar child-rearing techniques, then they start talking about the upcoming war. Basso lists all his reasons, which eventually turns into a discussion of his long term plans. He’s building up to a war against the Eastern Empire, a campaign that he sees is inevitable.

Basso also reveals that he wants Bassano to succeed him as First Citizen. Basso will set up the Vesani Empire—then Bassano will run it. Again, there’s a long list of reasons, because if The Folding Knife likes to do anything, it is interrogate motives.

This triggers a visit from Lina. She won’t allow it. Any of it. As they agree, she hates Basso more than she loves her son (305). She threatens Basso that she’ll file charges of murder for Palo (her dead husband, remember?). Basso is shocked, but points out that the charges won’t stick. And the backlash could be nasty. Lina gets the last word though. All she needs to do is tell Bassano that she will press charges unless he breaks with Basso completely. Bassano, to protect Basso, will do her bidding.

The chapter ends in a sadly familiar way, with Basso alone in his massive, empty house, watching the lamp flicker out….

Reasons, reasons, reasons

Why are they going to war with the Mavortine Confederacy?

  • The Vesani had been insulted (280).
  • The Vesani look weak, the eyes of the world are upon them (280).
  • The First Citizen’s duty is to protect the Vesani (280).
  • Add to the Vesani Empire (291).
  • Get a lot of lovely new minerals (292).
  • Especially iron (292).
  • The Mavortines started it, anyway (292).
  • It is good for the Mavortines, they need a government (294).

Ok, so why do they need an Empire?

  • War with the Eastern Empire is coming, and the Mavortines, Vesani, Auxentines and Sclerians all need to form small-country Voltron to stop them (296).
  • The Vesani people need work, and running an Empire would give it to them (296).
  • Basso wants Bassano to succeed him as First Citizen (297).

Ok, so why does Basso want Bassano to succeed him as First Citizen?

  • The Vesani will need continuity (297).
  • Because Bassano should aim high (298).
  • Basso owes this to Lina (298).
  • Bassano’s the only possible candidate (299).
  • He’s the right man for the job (299).
  • For fun (302).
  • To make everyone really, really rich (303).
  • To annoy Lina (303).
  • To steal Bassano from Lina (305).
  • To make Bassano happy (307).

As with the previous “reasoning” chapters, Basso’s reasoning is peeled back one layer at a time. It starts at the historical level—big, epic reasons (for the Vesani, for the world stage, etc). Then it passes down through selfish reasons (money, resources). Then it lands on something deeply, deeply personal.

This chapter is unique because Basso is so transparent about how personal his motives are. The Eastern Empire is certainly a concern, as is the need for iron and the opportunity to make money, but, ultimately, Basso is very open about the fact that this is for Lina, for Bassano and for himself. The question is, which of those three motives is foremost?

And here’s what I think….

I think the final two reasons are the two closest to the truth (such as it is). Lina accuses Basso of trying to steal Bassano from her and his response is simply, “He’s all I’ve got.” (305) Basso is desperately, secretly lonely, and, for some reason, Bassano really is all that he loves in this world.

This isn’t all, er, roses and song. Basso’s need to possess things—to be the best, to prove himself by taking stuff—is also something we’ve seen since the first chapters. Bassano is the most valuable thing in the world to Basso, so he wants to own his nephew wholly and completely.

The flip side comes out a few pages later, when Basso confesses that he just wants to make Bassano happy (307). He really does love his nephew and it is easy to believe how Basso believes that this is his motivation. (Confused yet?) “Making Bassano happy” is exactly the sort of secret-but-not-subconscious motivation that Basso would expect of himself. This is probably a comfort to him (remember, Basso was worried that he was devoid of empathy…), but also uncomfortable—he believes in philosophy of enlightened self-interest.

All that said, if we’ve learned any lessons from The Folding Knife it is that a) there’s never a single reason or motivation for anything and b) Basso cannot be trusted to analyse himself.

Because of this, I think it has to be a combination of the two motives: Basso’s secret love for Bassano (his hope) and Basso’s secret need to own him (his fear). Which, I suppose, gives us both sides of Basso’s character in a very, very messy nutshell.

Lina FTW

In Basso’s previous conversations with her, he’s always tried to act a certain part for her. We’ve seen him, for example, give in to her demands—unreasonable ones—because her victories over him give Lina pleasure. He can’t give, she has to take. A bit like his chess games with Melsuntha, in that he can’t let Lina know that he’s letting her win.

In their exchange in this chapter, Basso’s actually exhausted. He’s tired of playing this role and, for once, he fights back. She tries to take; he won’t let her. The result? She actually wins, fair and square, for possibly the first time.

Of course, he broke his deal with Lina earlier (again) in the chapter—he talks about passing the Bank on to the twins, but he’d already promised her that would never happen. That was part of the “Don’t marry Olybrias” bargain, but with Olybrias out of the picture, Basso is treating their bargain like it never happened. First, Bassano moves in. Now, he’s giving the Bank to the boys. Maybe Basso should’ve seen this coming.

Themes, themes, themes

Basso’s spilling his guts here.

First we get the return of Basso the Villain—the “amoral, unprincipled, calculating butcher,” who knows he isn’t a good man (299). 

Then we get a nice pithy statement about the action/reaction balance. Basso talks about how all he’s done is “react and cope,” and he’s finally pleased to have a chance to set his own plans in motion (303). This pretty much summarises The Folding Knife to this point—he’s been running around like a (very lucky, very talented) headless chicken.

Now his Master Plan can finally begin.


The Order of the Headless Spear was founded in 171 AUC (272).

Eastern Empire founded in 200 AUC-ish (295).

There was a siege in 207 AUC (273).

Eastern Empire conquers the West under Cantacusene in 400 AUC-ish (295).

Eudaimonides Brothers (slavers?) were founded in 878 AUC (286).

The gold robbery takes place in 997 AUC (238).

Aelius makes a crack about being naked in front of 100,000 people (275), giving us a good guess at the size of the City.

Basso has been in office for less than a single year.

The Gazetteer

Per usual, 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!

  • The Order of the Headless Spear: ancient honour, reserved for citizens.
  • Paterculi Brothers: heroes that held the pass against a Sclerian army (sounds a bit 300).
  • Bracteatus: another ancient hero.
  • Lobar: an ancient antagonist to the Vesani, sounds like a tribe or a people.
  • Cazar (again): Aelius’ people (see last chapter), mercenaries, on the Cazar Peninsula, they expose female children at birth, they foster their male children at 15.
  • Mavortis (again): the Confederacy doesn’t really exist, they are a lot of feuding (once warring) tribes that don’t have a central government. Lots of minerals though. And forests.
  • Three Circles Fight: the fencing school, “arcane to the point of semi-religious obscurity” (281); anyone else think this is a nod at the Scavenger Trilogy? If so—and if the fencing school was a remnant of the monks—it would mean that The Folding Knife takes place (long) after that trilogy, and we’ve actually got a chronological link… (that’d work with the naming conventions as well—inns and chapter houses from the Scavenger Trilogy have evolved into banks and trading companies. That’s not unlikely!)
  • Trinculani: a Vesani noble family.
  • Velleius: ditto.
  • Saturninus: ditto.
  • Diophanes’ On Being and Reality: book.
  • The Eastern Empire: 800 years old, had a hundred years of civil wars recently, but it looks like they’re settling down. 600 years ago, conquered the West. May want to again.
  • Cantacusene: military genius for the above, did the conquering.

Basso’s imperial ambitions have been derailed by Lina… or have they? See you in Chapter Eleven….

Jared Shurin believes in Basso, but has placed a fiver on the Eastern Empire. Just in case.


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