It was very difficult for refugees to save up money. They already earned very little each day, yet the consortium still operated shops that sold meat stew, alcohol, and tobacco, as well as had gambling dens all over town. The Central Plains did not ban alcohol, probably because of the relatively rich foods that were found here.
When it was time for the workers to go home, those entertainment shops would be advertising their businesses at their workplace entrances. After a hard day of work, everyone just wanted to reward themselves, so they would spend the money they had just earned.
In this town, there was always a place that pandered to their desires.
Zhang Jinglin once said this was a world meticulously designed by the consortiums. It seemed like he was not wrong at all.
People-watching the refugees, Ren Xiaosu recalled the days when he and Yan Liuyuan were still living in the town at Stronghold 113. Although that period was more difficult than now, it was still exceptionally wonderful in his memory, so much so that he would deliberately forget some of the suffering he had been through, forget about the time when he could not fill his stomach, forget how he was ostracized by others, and forget the feeling of falling asleep in fear.
Then, there would only be happy memories left.
Humans are optimistic creatures.
To this town, Ren Xiaosu was an unfamiliar face. But with the increased number of stronghold residents who had fled here from the Northwest in recent days, no one really cared about his arrival.
The stronghold residents who had fled here would hide in the corner and worry about their future lives.
Suddenly, a young woman ran out of the back door of the tavern with a notebook and pen in hand. She was looking for these escapees to ask them some questions.
Ren Xiaosu leaned in close to listen and discovered this young woman was actually asking the escapees from the Northwest about the war over there. She wanted to know how the war had started and if there were any heroic deeds that took place or any particularly powerful figures in it.
The young woman wasn’t asking the escapees to tell her stories about the war for nothing, though. There would be a payment of one steamed bun for every story told as an exchange of equal value.
Although payment of a single steamed bun sounded really cheap, to these escapees who had no idea of how many meals they had skipped, this bun was worth their life, so they would say everything they knew.
A middle-aged man said, “Zong Ying, the commander of the Zong Consortium’s front line this time, is still a very capable leader. He used a scheme to make Fortress 178—”
Interrupting, the girl, around 18 years old, shook her head and said, “Didn’t the Zong Consortium already lose? I don’t want to hear about the Zong Consortium’s side of the story, I only want to listen to what Fortress 178 has done.”
The middle-aged man blanched and his heart bled. He used to be a bureaucrat in the Zong Consortium’s ranks, but as a result of losing the war, he had to drag his family away from his hometown. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough yet, he now had to speak heroically of the enemy’s deeds. Was this young woman here to fucking add insult to injury?
The young woman said earnestly to him, “If you don’t have a story to tell, I’ll just ask someone else. Grandpa is still waiting.”
The middle-aged man quickly stopped her from leaving. “I’ll tell you, I will! Besides, I used to be a high-ranking official, so I definitely know more details than anyone else. When Stronghold 146 was being destroyed, I was right there myself!”
The young woman was very happy when she heard that. “Really? Then quickly tell me about it. If it’s interesting, I’ll give you another steamed bun!”
When this middle-aged man heard he could get another steamed bun, he immediately started relating the story without a care for his previous status. He was afraid the other escapees would steal this opportunity from him.
Once he started, he droned on for more than two hours. Ren Xiaosu went next to them and listened. But as he kept listening, his expression became stranger.
At the beginning, the middle-aged man was able to relate the story rather factually. He talked about why Fortress 178 wanted to start a war against the Zong Consortium and why the Zong Consortium had been provoking Fortress 178 in recent years. Truly, this middle-aged man was quite the eloquent speaker. His rhetoric was so good that it made people relish listening to him. There were some things that even Ren Xiaosu did not know about.
And then he touched on the actual war, from the attack on Mt. Guan and Mt. Dingyuan, to Shichuan Village being taken, to the Beiwan River being broken through, and finally Stronghold 146 getting destroyed.
All of those incidents revolved around Ren Xiaosu. While he was on the subject of Stronghold 146 getting destroyed, the middle-aged man started talking about how that mysterious young supernatural being had utterly crushed the entire Zong Consortium’s combat brigade.
As the girl listened to the story, she wrote it down in her notebook. She wrote very fast, and the more she listened, the brighter her eyes became. She asked, “Is there really such a bold and powerful person in this world?”
“He’s not just bold and powerful.” The middle-aged man sighed and said, “I was inside the manor of the Zong Consortium’s third house at the time. I saw with my own eyes how he wrapped himself in steel armor and managed to dodge three RPGs. After that…”
At this point, the middle-aged man suddenly looked at Ren Xiaosu and said in surprise, “Have we met before?”
The Zong Consortium had sketched a wanted portrait of Ren Xiaosu. Nearly all of the Zong Consortium’s higher-ups had seen that portrait before. But as it was not the responsibility of this middle-aged man to catch Ren Xiaosu, he only took a quick glance at it. Now he felt a shocking sense of familiarity when he saw Ren Xiaosu. However, he could not recall where he had seen him before.
Ren Xiaosu smiled and said, “I also fled here from the Northwest. We might’ve met there before.”
“That’s possible.” The middle-aged man nodded.
Next to him, the young woman urged, “You haven’t finished the story yet. Hurry up and finish the rest of it.”
The middle-aged man was stunned. When he raised his head again to take another look at Ren Xiaosu, he realized he had already left.
Ren Xiaosu did not want anyone to recognize him yet. He felt it would be better for him to keep a low profile now that he had arrived at the Central Plains. Although the Central Plains were prosperous, the “undercurrents” of this place should be similar to that of the Southwest and Northwest.
He understood that although the war in the Central Plains had not yet begun, everyone already knew of the intentions of the consortiums here to fight for the Central Plains. He did not wish to get embroiled in these matters.
Furthermore, the Pyro Company was here. The Central Plains was the home field of the Pyro Company. In this place, the Pyro Company would no longer be as easy to deal with as before.
Ren Xiaosu suddenly realized the escapees were probably all former stronghold residents, and some of them were even formerly people of status. So then, why were there no refugees who escaped here as well?
But Ren Xiaosu realized his thinking was wrong. The escapees could only be former residents of a stronghold. In fact, they would also have to be high-ranking officials linked with the Zong Consortium.
The refugees in the Northwest were very welcoming of Fortress 178. Once Fortress 178 arrived in the Zong Consortium’s territory, they would definitely lower the refugees’ taxes and improve their living conditions. So why would any refugee want to escape from there? In fact, they probably could not wait for Fortress 178 to arrive.
As for the normal stronghold residents, they did not have to worry about the war affecting them at all. Only the high-ranking officials would worry about getting removed from the system!
After all, during the time the Zong Consortium was in power, the high-ranking officials caused quite a lot of trouble for the stronghold’s residents and refugees. Ren Xiaosu had been to many strongholds, so he knew the Zong Consortium’s officials were definitely not any better than those from the Li Consortium, the Qing Consortium, or the Yang Consortium.
At the thought of this, Ren Xiaosu cast aside his sympathy for the escapees. None of those who could come here despite their guilt would be good people.
The waiter in the tavern pushed open the creaking wooden door. Ren Xiaosu got up and walked in.