Skep's Place


Chapter 64: Skep Goes On Side Tangents

Continuing his show of remarkable character growth, Zhang Fei asks himself what Zhuge Liang would do with the guy he just captured in his ambush, and decides to display compassion for once. As a reward for sparing his life, the guy gives Zhang Fei a cheat code to skip all the remaining levels and go straight to Liu Bei.

This is just in time, too, because Liu Bei attacked the city he ran away from last chapter, failed again, and was actively being chased down by the enemy general in charge when Zhang Fei shows up to intercept.

As an aside, the book now refers to Liu Bei's forces as "Han" armies. Which I guess is in line with Liu Bei's mission to restore the Han. But really, Cao Cao is in control of the emperor and the capital and all that. He's the one keeping what's left of the original empire going. So like... his army should really be the Han army, right?

Whatever. Anyway Zhuge Liang arrives to do his thing and help out Liu Bei.

Okay, actually, here I have to ask. If you're in charge of the city, and Zhuge Liang rides up with his army. And you've heard of this guy, you've heard the stories of how he's supposed to be top-notch in the warfare department.

And this guy's outside your city calling you out to fight; but meanwhile, his troops are disorganized and his battle lines are crooked as shit. The battle lines of this great tactician.

Don't you stop to think, maybe, just maybe, his battle lines are sloppy on purpose?

Like, if it seems too easy, it probably is, right? That thought doesn't occur to you at all?

And since I'm on the topic, I need to ask this too. How does Zhuge Liang decide how galaxy-brain he needs to be? Like, for this battle, all he does is appear weak, feigns retreat when his enemy comes out of the city, and pulls him into an ambush. This is basically the bread-and-butter trick attack of the book, we've seen it used fifty times now by just about everybody. Zhang Fei has used this trick.

But then other times, Zhuge Liang's entire plot will hinge on the mind-game type of "I know that you know that I know" logic, disguising his real tricks as the fake tricks and vice versa.

So how do you pick how many levels of complexity your scheme needs? Does that kind of knowledge come with practice? Is it plot device? It's probably plot device.

Anyway so they take the city.

Liu Zhang starts to get nervous that he might not win this war against the protagonist of the book, so he actually reaches out to Zhang Lu for help. Remember, it was Zhang Lu threatening to attack that made Liu Zhang reach out to Liu Bei. Things are silly.

Hey, random detour, let's check in and see how Ma Chao's been doing after Cao Cao kicked him out of town.

Well, he's been doing okay, but this chapter is really his fall from grace. He takes over a city, but recruits a guy who was super-loyal to the previous lord for the sole reason that he was super-loyal to his previous lord. Like, it's an honorable trait, you want somebody with a track record of loyalty. But since you can't guarantee they're going to switch that loyalty to you, you'd think it would go wrong more often.

Anyway it goes wrong. Long story short Ma Chao ends up outside the city wall with pieces of his family members being thrown down at him.

I have to point out that there's a really odd juxtaposition I notice reading this book, where it seems like there's so much social stake riding on proper observance of formalities and governance and rites and decorum, but also if somebody can justify it, they're allowed to be absolutely barbaric to you and your clan. Granted, this is theoretically a fictionalization of events, but it's also not a stretch to picture this sort of stuff actually happening.

And how do you decide how you should act when everything seems so arbitrary? Say for example, you're in charge of a city under Guy A, and Guy B is plowing through Guy A's territory and threatening you now.

Do you submit to Guy B, turning over the city? He might like that and reward you, or he might execute you and your clan for disloyalty to your lord.

Do you defend against Guy B as hard as you can? If he takes the city, he'll most certainly kill you, and probably your family too. Except he might like your valor and determination and loyalty, and decide to hire you instead. The anxiety of navigating this society must be exhausting, is all I'm saying.

Okay I swear to god I'm going to actually finish this chapter now. Ma Chao has nowhere else to go, so he ends up taking refuge with Zhang Lu. That's certainly convenient timing, because Liu Zhang just promised Zhang Lu a bunch of land if he sent somebody to come fight Liu Bei.

Sure enough, that somebody is going to be Ma Chao.

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