Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Twelve

The last chapter had another assassination attempt, but the result wasn’t quite what the killers intended: Basso’s alive, well, and reunited with Bassano. With his dynastic ambitions on track, it’s time for some good ol’ fashioned militarisation!

Chapter Twelve: “There’s always another reason”

Another one of those bitty chapters, with lots of little things happening, all in the run-up to the invasion of Mavortis. Incidentally, another of those chapters that I think of as my “favourite” (I’ve used that to describe, like, six of them…)

First, the Cazars show up. As Basso says, all he has to do is write a letter and, wham, twelve thousand Cazar mercenaries come running. It leads to a long conversation between Basso and Aelius about the latter’s home country, which by all accounts is a pretty miserable place. For lack of natural resources or any sort of economic leverage, the Cazars have essentially turned into subsistence cattle breeders and desperate mercenaries. They make good soldiers because, well, they don’t want to go home.

Less well-received are the Hus cavalry—three thousand of them. Basso won’t have them in the city as they’re… reckless.

Basso equips the new Vesani army with supplies from the Arsenal (a state requirement), but Basso’s foreman fails most of the material as low quality. Basso quickly sets up a rival supplier (very quickly—he’d been poaching the Arsenal’s best workers for a while) and starts the lucrative business of becoming an arms merchant (and boots and fleeces and… stuff). There’s basically an open flow of money between the Treasury and the Bank: the latter loans to the former, the former then spends it at places owned by the latter.

Aelius lends Bassano a book—The Art of War. It is his personal Bible, although, as Bassano discovers, it doesn’t contain anything particularly interesting. Still, it is very kind of Aelius and Bassano responds by finding a copy of the sequel and not shattering Aelius’ illusions about the author’s competence.

Some bright soul finds a way to map Mavortis by using Mavortine labourers and teaching them how to measure their strides. Sorted.

Some less bright souls come over from Scleria. Their university has a Faculty of War, mandatory for all commissioned officers. Basso pays the professors a lot of money to come over and lecture. When they do, the Vesani realise that the Sclerians are ages behind. And since the Sclerians are slightly ahead of the Empire and the Auxentines, it means that the Vesani are, by far, the most advanced military power. That’s nice. Sorted.

Aelius kvetches that Mavortis has a big forest in the middle and his supply lines won’t take it. Bassano talks to Basso. There’s a shortage of good horses, so Basso buys a mine for its ponies (as one does). Sorted.

The Hus (above) get bored and sack the town of Leir. Leir is nominally a part of the Empire, so Basso gets a little nervous. He moves them out of Leir and on to the island of Voroe (also a part of the Empire, but in a much more dubious way). The Hus sack that too, but no one cares. Sorted.

Basso’s sons—remember them?—are arrested on a charge of rape. Basso is livid, and doesn’t entirely know what to do. He discusses a variety of responses, but doesn’t make up his mind before his sister visits. Lina says he’s not allowed to “hush this up” and threatens to take this to the Patriarch (a threat that, as Basso points out, doesn’t carry much weight).

Basso visits the twins and just gets mad at them. Disgusted, really. He debates more schemes, this time with Melsuntha, and eventually decides that he’s just going to leave them to it. “Basso the Just.”

Bassano springs them. He bribes the victim with a lot of money and she drops the charges. The twins are sent home. Basso is stunned—he didn’t even think of it. Sorted?

Cazars and Hus and Mavortines and Imperials and Sclerians

We’re getting a little more of a picture about the rest of the world now—only appropriate, as Basso’s plans are getting increasingly imperial. The Sclerians and Vesani seem more or less on par, which makes sense—the Vesani are an “offshoot” of the Sclerians (sort of like Americans to British, perhaps?), and they’re vaguely culturally similar. Ditto the Auxentines, although, as we’ve seen, the Vesani can run rings around them when required. The Cazar Peninsula is worthless, meaning that the poor Cazars are essentially part of the Vesani Empire already, for the cost of a few silver a day. And the Hus, who have been referenced in a sort of “Mongol Horde” kind of way in the past, are apparently on no one’s side.

The Eastern Empire, of course, is just sitting there—sorting out its own problems. They’re still the Looming Big Bad (in the historical sense). There’s also a reference to “the West” (339), implying it is a completely different region/group of regions. Something we’ve not really heard much about yet…

On the virtues of private enterprise

Basso and Bassano’s conversation about “profiteering”… First, in the greater sense, we’ll just add this to the list of things to discuss when we hit “The Folding Knife in context of 2010” conversation. It is disconcerting to think of the (ruthless but likeable) Basso as some sort of Halliburton analogue, but, yikes…

Second, we’re getting some sort of hint about the scale of this operation. Twelve thousand men (fifteen, counting the Hus). Provisions, equipment, training, housing… Basso is signing “book-thick sheaves of bills… twice a day” (338). Even with the virtuous circle of Bank-Treasury money, at some point there’s got to be an end to it. Basso is the richest man in the Republic, but even the Republic has its limits…

Test of the Twins

A couple of facts.

First, Pio and Furio are guilty. They raped a barmaid.

Second, there are two punishments possible: hanging or castration.

(Interestingly, there’s initially some confusion over the number of girls involved. Furio says “girls” (356), but Bassano sees “the girl involved” (365).)

So, what is Basso to do? For once, he’s reasoning with no one but himself—and, as he spirals up into self-awareness, he realises he has no idea of what he wants. He’s always “quick to tell you a good reason, always a different reason” (361). But, right now, the decision is completely in his hands.

Ultimately, Basso decides to let the twins face their punishment. He lists his reasons (who he gives the reason to / page number):

  1. Because they did it now, at the worst possible moment. (Himself / 362)
  2. They might not even be his sons (Himself / 362)
  3. Always thought of them as his (dead) wife’s sons (Himself / 362)
  4. Rape is disgusting and unconscionable (Himself / 362)
  5. His sister is due a victory (Melsuntha / 364)
  6. Integrity (Bassano / 364)
  7. Selfish (Bassano to Basso / 364)

Ultimately, we, the reader, also know that Basso has never loved the twins. It makes Bassano’s point (#7) extremely convincing, and also explains Basso’s reluctance to come to a decision. He’d rather think about thinking than just admit what he already knows.

Of course, there is a simple answer—bribery. Basso never even considers it (see above—he’s looking for excuses to get the twins out of his life) but Bassano does. As well as revealing, inarguably, that Basso was essentially looking for reasons to ditch the twins, it also puts an interesting spin on Bassano’s own moral superiority. Remember, Basso sees himself as the necessary evil, while Bassano is the “good prince” that will succeed him, and take the Vesani Empire to the next stage in its evolution.

But, in this case, Basso is the one—for whatever reason—doing the hard, right thing. He was letting two guilty criminals take their punishment. Bassano is the one bribing a rape victim. The money is essentially meaningless to him, so there’s not even any sacrifice involved: the good prince is ensuring that a pair of rapists get away scot-free. Bassano’s solution is clever and it “saves” his cousins, but is it the act of the hero? The one that will supposedly be able to make all the tough decisions and rise above it all?

I’m not so sure.


I don’t know anything about surveying—would the tactic used to map Mavortis work? Has that been done in the past?

I think Basso and Bassano are a little hard on Aelius and his The Art of War. Basso jokes that Aelius has “only ever owned one book in his life” (340). This may be true, but Aelius isn’t an uneducated man. Flip back to one of the earliest conversations between Aelius and Basso:

Aelius smiles. “Actually, I’ve read forty-seven books. And attended four courses of lectures at the Academy, and you could say I’ve been apprenticed to masters of my craft for thirty-five years.”

Which leaves us two options for The Art of War. First, it is more like Aelius’ lucky charm than it is a reference. Or, second, it is actually really good. Despite what the General Summary says, Jotapianus may have known his stuff. (And, frankly, after the Sclerian professors do their thing, who would trust an academic on the topic anyway?) We know Aelius is plenty good at his job, so it is worth trusting him a little on this.

Interesting scene with Lina again… is she really losing her mind? One thing to note: “She was holding a tiny lace handkerchief in her left hand… as though it was some kind of weapon” (359). This is a lovely reference to the earlier descriptions of her madness, when she’s pretending to be deaf and wrapping “a napkin stained with beetroot juice round her left hand” (224). All of which, of course, ties in to the day Basso killed her husband and was stabbed in his own left hand…

The weight of money (again!)

Because we can. Bassano, a healthy young man, needed to make two trips to carry 15,000 nomismata (366). Granted, this was up several flights of stairs (vertical hauling as opposed to distance), but still—7,500/person is a good measure. This means that the 20 million stolen from the Mint would’ve required 2,666 “man-trips” to carry unaided. For the 400 thieves, that’s 6-7 trips each…

So, how much does each nomismata weight? Fortunately, we’ve got the ultimate reference of human achievement on hand—the Dungeons & Dragons SRD. We know Bassano is in good shape (and still exercising after fencing school), so let’s give him a Strength of, say, 14. That gives him a (rather generous) maximum carrying capacity of 175 lbs. With 7,500 coins, that means each weighs .023 lbs. or a shade over 10 grams. Referring back to our handy chart of Roman currency, it gives us a coin a little larger than an Aureus (7 gm.)—in fact, the Vesani nomismata would’ve been slightly larger than even the ones minted under Julius Caesar, around 8 gm. (which, incidentally, were also the closest to the Vesani coinage in terms of purity).

Anyway, returning to our discussion in Chapter Nine… carts.

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

  • Cazars: lots and lots about them here, practically the Rough Guide to the Cazar Peninsula
  • Hus: more about them as well
  • The West: mysterious (see above)
  • Mavortis / Mavortine: Apparently someplace called “White Rocks” in there
  • Lots of ancient heroes (mostly page 364): Torquati, Five Thousand, Caelius, Pacatianus, Carinus, Popilius
  • Books: General Summary, an Auxentine encyclopedia; The Art of War by Jotapianus Tacticus; Adventures in Wonderland, a children’s book; Complete Description of the World

Next week: more warmongering!

Jared Shurin now knows way too much about Roman currency.


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