Rereading K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife

The Folding Knife Reread: Chapter Fifteen

Last chapter we saw the first cracks. The conquest of Mavortis started as planned, but then got a little too involved. And expensive. Then things started going wrong. Is Basso’s legendary luck on the turn? With Bassano lost in the woods (both figuratively and literally), this could spell disaster.

Chapter Fifteen: “Sides are everything”

The chapter begins with a letter from Bassano. He’s off the woods in the middle of Mavortis, as the courier never showed up in time. He’s scared and a bit… flipped out. “Sides are what you are,” he notes—as he’s now concluded that “morality is an illusion” (433). The “good prince” is having a tough time.

Back in the city, Basso berates a soldier. He wants Bassano out. It isn’t possible. A courier can’t reach him and, as the soldier says, he’s probably safer with Aelius and 28,000 men than anywhere else. When pressed, the soldier gives his honest assessment of Aelius’ chances: he doesn’t know. “Not knowing” is a theme in this chapter.

To keep things really exciting, the Imperial Second Fleet is heading towards Voroe. (Remember Voroe? The little Imperial island that Basso used as a stomping ground for the Hus?) Basso and the soldier chat about launching the Vesani fleet in response. Basso’s reluctant—there’s no money. The soldier is convincing—broke sucks, but being overrun by Imperials is worse.

To raise money for the fleet, Basso needs a million nomismata in a hurry. Tragazes is his usual “helpful.” Basso can’t borrow it—people suspect he’s overextended. He can’t sell the shipyard, thanks to laws he enacted himself. They decide on their shares of the Mavortine mines, and Tragazes sets off to find a buyer.

In Aelius’ absence, command of the fleet goes to Servilius Gnatho, who is handsome, dashing, well-educated and completely inexperienced. Still, Basso keeps an eye on him, and Gnatho seems to do everything right. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Vesani boast about being able to launch a fleet in 48 hours is proven correct.

Basso locks himself into the war room with only a really big map of Mavortis for company. No one gets to see him—not Furio, not Sentio, not even Melsuntha. There’s a bit of comedy: the House meets in Basso’s absence and passes a few motions to curtail his war-time powers… But they can’t get the paperwork to him. They eventually stuff it under the door.

Then they meet again, laying the paperwork for an impeachment trial. But they can’t stuff that under the door because the first paperwork is in the way. HAR HAR. What’s he doing in there? No one knows.

The Optimates, with their new leader (who happens to be the new owner of the shipyards [oops, see above] and a fair share of the Mavortine mines), come up with a new law: a man convicted of a serious offense (say, murder) couldn’t be First Citizen. They then try to put Basso on trial in absentia. It doesn’t pass the House (barely). Sentio and Cinio chat—they’re both ragged—and they agree that they don’t know about their future. It all depends on what happens with Aelius. They are relying on Cazar military support to prop up their rule, but no one knows what’s happening:

  • If they win in the next ten days, “none of this will have ever happened.”
  • If we win, but Aelius dies, we’ll probably all get killed.
  • If we lose, but Aelius survives, it’ll depend on the general staff, but who knows?

News! Gnatho! And the First Citizen accepts the letter! Gnatho reports that the Vesani fleet won… barely. It was a bloody engagement, and the Vesani forces are limping back. But (largely thanks to their artillery), they won. Whew. Although, as Gnatho says, it ain’t much of a victory. He points out that the Empire still has 19ish squadrons remaining, while the Vesani only have 1 and a half. Fortunately those Imperial squadrons are scattered all over the Empire. When will they be back? No one knows…

Basso returns to the House! (Back to our “historic” view.) It is all very dramatic. He announces the victory. He talks about the “misguided attempts to pass illegal legislation,” but how he’s signed pardons for all those responsible. (449) And… he proposes a new tax, as he’s used the Bank’s reserve to pay for the fleet. “Proposes” isn’t the right word—using his war-time powers, he’s executed said tax. Y’all can appeal after the war. Maybe.

And then we’re back to our more intimate view—Basso explaining to Melsuntha what just happened. Basically, beating the Empire at sea is a “yay” (even if it is just… temporary), but they’ve “beaten us by just launching their fleet” (450). The tax was Basso’s “in case of emergency” last resort, and now he’s… well, blown it. He needed that for more important things, not for a naval battle. There’s no money left—not in the government, not in the Bank. The only solution is for Aelius to win—and win decisively enough that Basso can begin mining. If not? No one knows.

Parker then treats us to a lot of completely irrelevant stuff—essentially so we suffer like Basso is suffering. The one thing that matters? News from Mavortis. And so far, no one knows any.

  • Letter from the Cardinal of Auxentia (remember him?)
  • Tragazes wants to speak to Basso. Basso hides.
  • Soldiers in Mavortine forts (not forest) would like more money and supplies, please.
  • Plague in southern Permia.
  • Storm hits Vesani fleet (or remnants thereof). They get patched up again.
  • Imperial fleet goes off hunting pirates. Whew.
  • Warlord in the north.
  • Financial panic—everyone loses confidence. Basso halts it with a clever bit of juggling.
  • By-election: the Optimates try really hard, still can’t beat Basso’s candidate.
  • Letter between Imperial Governor and Segimerus: “don’t let Basso get re-elected, he’s a huge danger, etc.” Nothing we don’t know—if Basso wins the war, the Empire sees him as a threat. If not, he’s out of the picture. Basso and Sentio are sad they can’t publish it.
  • Looming financial crisis. (Basso and the Empire agree on that one.)
  • News from Mavortis.



“Basso was squeezing his left hand extremely hard with his right” (438). This is the first reference we’ve had to Basso’s injuries for a while; the last, interestingly enough, was the last time Basso was wildly lucky—the night at the bookmakers’ in Chapter 13. That evening, he “pretended to be deaf” in order to sneak by a kitchen maid (373). When things are going well, he’s playing up his challenges. When things are going badly, his wounds flare up on their own.

Basso also gets his sums wrong (437). This causes him to freak out a little bit—not without reason. Last chapter, we saw Basso’s luck turn. All the fundamental aspects of Bassoness (business savvy, lucky) are starting to sour…

Basso’s math is arguably even more important than his luck, as, unlike the missed courier, he’s witness to it. It leads Basso to question, well—everything. Did he have the head for this? Did he go too far? Should he have done this without Antigonus? Basso has always had a certain degree of self-awareness, but, for the first time, he’s really questioning his infallibility.

The one mistake?

The quest for the one mistake continues… there’s an extremely strong candidate nominated in this chapter: sending Bassano off to war. As Basso says:

“I chose to do it. I made a conscious decision to put the only human being I love on their earth in mortal danger… of all the bloody stupid things.” (452)

Why could this be Basso’s biggest mistake?

First, it risks Bassano as, well, a person—and Bassano’s the most important thing in the world to him.

Second, it risks Bassano as an ideal: without him, Basso’s entire vision collapses.

Third, it risks the comfortable status quo: with Bassano in danger, Basso can’t concentrate. He says as much and, hell, so does the Empire. Without discipline and dedication (which he had during, say, the plague crisis), Basso can’t be his normal ingenious self.

Fourth, he has no one to blame but himself. Sending Bassano to war was 100% Basso. Not Lina, not Bassano, not the Empire, not a reaction of any sort… it was entirely Basso’s doing.

I’m pretty convinced by this one…


I do love the idea of Bassano going relativist and gloomy—and he certainly does in his opening letter. But contrast his speech about sides with Basso’s mistake (above). Bassano prioritises Bank over country, friends over Bank and family over friends.

Basso’s currently risking everything, but at the center of his grand scheme (and/or big mistake?)—risking Bassano (family).


We’ll find out next week.

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

  • Flobis—Imperial port city
  • Permia—another country; also home of Sharps!

Jared Shurin is still very upset about the way this is turning out.


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