Chapter 25 Chip Chip Chip Chip
Days passed and the trio found themselves at the government office in Qingshui Prefecture, a bustling hub of commerce with convenient transportation by land and water. The county town, the core of the prefecture, was particularly prosperous with its vibrant streets and endless array of vendors peddling their wares. Teahouses, brothels, tailor shops, and inns lined the streets, each one beckoning passersby with their respective charms.
Li Jinyu was enamored by the quaint, ancient way of life that surrounded him, but his curiosity was soon quelled by Huo Caiyu, who led the group to an inn. Due to their meager funds, they had to settle for two rooms, one for themselves and one for the Lame Beggar.
Huo Caiyu turned to Lame Beggar and asked, “What are your plans? Will you be returning to the village?”
Lame Beggar’s lips pursed in thought before he replied, “I can gather information for you. The beggars in the county town have a wealth of knowledge.”
Huo Caiyu thought for a while, then nodded. “Then we’ll trouble you.”
Huo Caiyu’s initial plan was to take the Emperor straight to the county yamen and hand him over, so that the court could send him back to the capital. However, after seeing the corruption of the tax official in the small village, he didn’t want to reveal himself just yet.
The prefect of Qingshui Prefecture was most likely appointed by the Prime Minister. If Huo Caiyu were to confront him and check the account books, it might alert others who were vying for the position of prefect. It was better to gather evidence from the bottom and proceed with caution. Even if the Prime Minister intended to protect the prefect, he still had to consider the potential treachery of others.
After weighing his options, Huo Caiyu apologized to Li Jinyu and said, “Jinyu, we must endure a little longer.” He didn’t want to put the Emperor through any more hardship than necessary.
Huo Caiyu expected the Emperor, who had lived a life of luxury, to complain about walking and eating dry rations. But to his surprise, the Emperor was surprisingly understanding and never once complained about the hardships they faced.
This realization left a bittersweet taste in Huo Caiyu’s mouth. On the one hand, he was grateful for the Emperor’s resilience, but on the other hand, he felt a pang of guilt for putting him through such difficulties.
Li Jinyu didn’t feel like he had endured any hardship at all. On the contrary, he felt liberated by leaving the restrictions of the palace behind. No longer did he have to put on a facade of arrogance and foolishness. He could be himself around Huo Caiyu, and that was a refreshing change.
Li Jinyu’s only concern during their journey was the lack of a hamster wheel to keep him active. However, walking every day gradually alleviated his anxiety about not getting enough exercise. Despite Huo Caiyu’s offer to rent a carriage for him, he had adamantly refused. Forcing a hamster to forego exercise was more cruel than snatching the food from its mouth!
After settling into their room at the inn, Huo Caiyu prepared to venture out and investigate the situation in the county. He had initially intended for His Majesty to rest in the room, but Li Jinyu had insisted on accompanying him. Reluctantly, Huo Caiyu agreed while secretly indulging the Emperor’s eagerness.
As they strolled along the bustling main street, Li Jinyu gazed around curiously, attracting the attention of several vendors who saw an opportunity to take advantage of him. Thankfully, Huo Caiyu was there to prevent him from overspending.
Eventually, Huo Caiyu pulled him into a teahouse and ordered a plate of melon seeds and peanuts. Concerned about the potential inflammation that could be caused by overindulgence, he also ordered a cup of heat-clearing tea and some sweet candies in case the tea was too bitter for Li Jinyu’s palate.
Li Jinyu was completely oblivious to the subtle ways in which Huo Caiyu catered to his preferences, and even Huo Caiyu didn’t realize that he had become so attentive to His Majesty’s tastes and habits.
As Li Jinyu leisurely munched on the melon seeds, his curiosity was piqued by the bustling scene of the civilian area before him. “This is the first time I’ve seen such a vibrant display of daily life. It appears that the people of this county town are faring rather well.”
However, the expression on Huo Caiyu’s face grew grave, and he let out a soft sigh. “Regrettably, that is not the entire picture of the civilian population.”
Li Jinyu was taken aback by his statement. “What do you mean?”
“To truly understand the lives of the people, one mustn’t only observe the bustling, cheerful side of town, but also the grim, shadowed side,” Huo Caiyu stated as he pushed the teacup towards Li Jinyu with a solemn look. “Do you recall encountering several groups of refugees on our way into the city?”
Li Jinyu nodded, the memory of their haggard, lifeless faces still fresh in his mind.
Those refugees appeared to be little more than ragged beggars, their faces etched with exhaustion and despair.
“Just now when we’re circling the streets a few times, I noticed that beggars were everywhere. It’s far beyond what’s considered normal for a town of this size.”
Li Jinyu tilted his head, seeming to understand vaguely. “Are you saying…”
“It suggests that there’s an extreme polarization of living standards among the people in this prefecture. The wealthy indulge in their pleasures, while the poor suffer from hunger and displacement,” Huo Caiyu continued, tapping the table softly. “I fear that the people here are struggling immensely.”
“You’re not wrong about that,” Li Jinyu responded, but before he could say more, a clear voice interrupted them. A young man had approached their table with a smile on his face. “Rare to find someone who isn’t blinded by the superficial prosperity of this place. Impressive.”
Huo Caiyu furrowed his brow slightly and asked cautiously, “May I inquire as to who you are, sir?”
While he had been chatting casually with the Emperor, Huo Caiyu had used his inner strength to control his voice. It was a technique only those highly skilled in martial arts would be able to pick up on.
This man appeared unremarkable, but his martial arts skills were definitely not to be underestimated.
“No need to be so nervous. This humble one is just a good-natured person,” the young man replied with a friendly smile.
This stranger had a baby face and a friendly smile that made him appear innocent. “Just saw a fellow traveler and wanted to say hello out of curiosity.”
Huo Caiyu didn’t relax his guard and discreetly moved closer to Li Jinyu, ready to protect the Emperor at a moment’s notice.
Li Jinyu regarded the man with curious eyes. “Who are you?”
The young man introduced himself with a smile, “This humble one’s name is Chi Zhongming.”
Li Jinyu’s eyes lit up— he recognized this person!
In the novel, Huo Caiyu had been able to conquer the world not just because of his own strength, but also thanks to the capable friends and subordinates he had at his side.
Chi Zhongming was a crucial figure in the success of Huo Caiyu’s rise to power. Compared with the offensive skills of Huo Caijin, Chi Zhongming was better at defensive warfare. Several times when the imperial army launched attacks or foreign tribes invaded the border, Chi Zhongming exhausted all means to defend and held on until Huo Caiyu came to aid.
Li Jinyu had no knowledge of how Huo Caiyu and Chi Zhongming had first met, but he knew that their relationship had grown close over time. In fact, Huo Caiyu had even entrusted the defense of several key cities to Chi Zhongming.
Unexpectedly, he bumped into Chi Zhongming!
Li Jinyu looked at Chi Zhongming with sparkling eyes. It was hard to imagine that this smiling and amiable baby-faced man was the strongest shield of the later Huo Dynasty.
Huo Caiyu kept a watchful eye on Li Jinyu and felt his mood sink when he suddenly saw him burst out with strong enthusiasm towards this stranger.
“This humble one is surnamed Huo, and this is my cousin with the surname Li.”
“Brother Huo, Brother Li, you both sound like people from the capital? What a coincidence, I also came from the capital,” Chi Zhongming remarked cheerfully.
Huo Caiyu calmly said, “We two brothers came to Qingshui Prefecture to visit relatives.”
Chi Zhongming smiled even brighter, “I also came to visit relatives.”
Li Jinyu listened to their unproductive conversation, looked around, and was filled with confusion. This was how the future Emperor and his most trusted brother slash subordinate had come to know each other? Surely, there had been some more… eventful encounter that had led to their close bond.
Huo Caiyu and Chi Zhongming gauged each other for a while. Confirming that the other posed no threat or hostility, they slightly relaxed. The topic returned to Qingshui Prefecture.
As they talked, Huo Caiyu couldn’t help but feel surprised by Chi Zhongming’s extensive knowledge of the area’s customs and culture.
“Brother Chi seems to be very familiar with Qingshui Prefecture?”
Chi Zhongming smiled modestly, revealing a set of perfectly white teeth. “I have been entrusted with investigating certain matters here,” he replied cryptically, before producing an elegant fan adorned with a painting of a bamboo forest.
Li Jinyu, who was quietly snacking on some melon seeds, suddenly interjected, “Aren’t you cold?”
It was still early spring, and it was very cold. Some wealthy people had not even taken off their cotton-padded clothes. Why was this person still fanning himself?
Chi Zhongming’s smile faltered for a moment, and he slowly lowered his fan, coughing slightly. “I have some martial arts skills,” he explained. “I don’t feel the cold as much.”
Interrupted by Li Jinyu, Chi Zhongming abandoned his attempt to exude an air of refinement and elegance. “Since we’ve met by chance, why don’t I treat you both to a trip to Jiangjing Restaurant? I know the town well, and in early spring, you simply can’t miss out on the food at Jiangjing Restaurant.”
Li Jinyu’s curiosity was instantly piqued by Chi Zhongming’s proposal. Without waiting for Huo Caiyu’s response, he made a decisive decision, “Let’s go!”
Huo Caiyu, who had been about to refuse, found himself abruptly halted. He gazed at Li Jinyu with a sense of helplessness, secretly feeling a little uneasy. Could it be that His Majesty trusted this stranger so implicitly, without a single shred of doubt?
But little did Huo Caiyu know that Li Jinyu had already taken Chi Zhongming under Huo Caiyu’s banner the moment he recognized him. Furthermore, Li Jinyu couldn’t help but sense that Chi Zhongming looked oddly familiar, and even his usually intense fear of humans appeared to have lessened considerably.
With Huo Caiyu voicing no objection, Chi Zhongming eagerly raised his hand in excitement. “Then let’s leave immediately.”
Chi Zhongming’s eyes were filled with disappointment as he surveyed the table before him. “Brother Li, why did you order all of these? Where are the shrimp, crab, and meat?”
The table was full of dried tofu, corn, mung beans, and cauliflower.
Li Jinyu, who had just picked up his spoon, was taken aback by Chi Zhongming’s questions. “But didn’t you ask me to order whatever I like?” he replied in confusion.
Chi Zhongming let out a deep sigh, feeling frustrated by the turn of events. “Yes, that’s true, but…” he trailed off, clearly exasperated by the situation.
In his experience, when people were given the opportunity to order whatever they wanted, they would typically choose the most expensive and luxurious dishes. Why was this young man so polite and reserved? He had ordered a table full of vegetarian dishes, mostly comprised of dry goods, and not a single meat dish in sight!
With a resigned shake of his head, Chi Zhongming spoke up, “Oh well, as long as you’re happy.”
Li Jinyu picked up his spoon again and began to enjoy the food. Back when he resided in the palace, he had been hesitant to deviate too much from Emperor Jingchang’s tastes. He mostly followed the tyrant Emperor’s preferences, only making slight adjustments to the ratio of meat and vegetables. However, now that he was in a human body, he could indulge in foods that a hamster could only dream of without any issues.
In truth, the fragrant and delectable grains remained his favorite food of all time!
Huo Caiyu watched with amusement as His Majesty slowly savored the nourishing grains. He couldn’t help but smile as he poured a cup of tea for Li Jinyu and pushed it towards him, his tone softening unconsciously as he spoke, “Take your time and be careful not to choke.”
In response, Li Jinyu let out a muffled sound of agreement. Being human was so inconvenient, he lamented. Without cheek pouches, he could only fit so little into his mouth at once, and was more prone to choking.
Seated across from him, Chi Zhongming opened his fan with a “snap” and covered his own eyes. He felt like he was going blind and even started to doubt whether he had recklessly called out to the pair of people before his eyes and brought trouble upon himself.
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