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    Chapter 224 - Villagers?

    Did Zhu Qicang believe Shen Lie when he said it was genuine?

    Absolutely not!

    How could an ordinary wealthy family, let alone common villagers, possess a refined lady in simple attire who spoke eloquently, an unfamiliar red wine, dried sauce, Li Qi, which the Zheng family had treasured and displayed as their pride for decades – a recipe brought over by Madam Zheng from her dowry, or those novel and exquisite round pastries?

    Zhu Qicang wasn't foolish. The Shen family had led such a large group out of the mountains to become citizens of Great Qi, and even assisted the imperial court in searching the mountains. Moreover, the two brothers had taken the provincial academy examination together. At the very least, this demonstrated that the Shen family was sincere and recognized Great Qi, which was excellent.

    As for the Shen family's background, whether the wine was a gift from an old friend or if they possessed the recipes for Li Qi, dried sauce, and pastries, what did any of that matter to him, Zhu Qicang? He didn't harbor such intentions, nor did he have the ability to meddle with these recipes. Why bother delving deeper?

    It would be great if they had the means. Then, he would be eager to establish ties with them.

    After hearing Shen Lie's assurance, Zhu Qicang looked at him and then clapped Shen Lie on the shoulder. "Alright, let's have another drink, brother!"

    Now, they were brothers.

    Amidst the toasts and exchanges, the matter was swept under the rug. No one inquired about the specifics of the food or drinks; whatever Shen Lie said, that was taken as truth.

    With that issue aside, the meal became genuinely enjoyable. Not only were the dishes novel, abundant, and skillfully prepared, but the combination of the cold rabbit dish with red wine was a supreme delight for someone like Chu Qichang, an old wine connoisseur. Even with the Chu family's decent background, when had they ever tasted such a delicacy before? Over the past few years, not even his own household could indulge in anything they desired.

    Fine wine and exquisite food made for a conducive atmosphere to discuss serious matters. Chu Qichang promptly shared his purpose.

    As Sang Luo had anticipated, congratulating Shen Lie was merely an aside; he urgently needed to consult with Shen Lie about a pressing issue – the problem of population decline.

    "Brother Shen, I've been traveling with a group to various counties below, and it's desolate. Fertile fields have turned into wastelands, causing great sorrow. But alas, there are too few people. Although His Majesty has restored peace, many who had wandered in the chaos of war have gradually returned home, countless others have either perished or fled to the wilderness. In our Xizhou jurisdiction, some counties are no better than ruins. If not for this, I wouldn't be so anxious and rush here immediately upon my return."

    The rich, aromatic wine seemed to carry a bitter aftertaste as he sipped it.

    Shen Lie had already guessed the reason for Chu Qichang's visit, though he hadn't expected him to arrive so soon. Originally planning to discuss the matter with Chen Dashan tonight, he found it inappropriate to do so in front of Chu Qichang. Tapping his fingertips on the table twice, Shen Lie considered his options. He had a future to pursue and at least a direction; he didn't wish for Chen Dashan to miss a potential opportunity. Thus, he said, "Please wait a moment, Lord Chu. Since Brother Lu, who was with us earlier, is currently not in the village, we would be short-handed if we were to leave immediately. I'll inquire around to see if anyone else can spare the time. I'll be back shortly."

    He then asked Xu Wenqing to accompany Chu Wenqing while summoning Chen Dashan outside.

    Chen Dashan was puzzled but kept his confusion hidden. He followed Shen Lie out, only asking once they were a safe distance away, "Where do you plan to ask at this hour?"

    Each family in the village was preoccupied with their own farm work, making it difficult to gather six able-bodied individuals. If they were to try, perhaps they could turn to the Feng family. Or would they venture to the neighboring village?

    Shen Lie shook his head and glanced towards his own kitchen. He whispered, "I'm not really looking for someone. I want to ask if you have any thoughts about getting a position in the state office."

    Chen Dashan was taken aback. "Like those clerks, Sir Xing and the others?"

    Shen Lie nodded. "Yes, I've observed them. They don't have many people on their team, and they're in urgent need of manpower, especially for venturing into the deep mountains. Do you want to seize this opportunity to plan for your future? Would you rather have the right to use the mountain land for twenty years or get a position in the office?"

    Chen Dashan realized that it was the state office that needed them now. Perhaps Shen Lie's suggestion could actually work.

    He lowered his gaze, hesitating.

    The prospect of a job in the state office was tempting, but he didn't immediately agree. After a moment of hesitation, he asked Shen Lie, "Can I ask how your wife plans to use the mountain land?"

    Shen Lie hadn't expected him to ask this at this moment. He raised an eyebrow. "Are you thinking of managing the mountain land?"

    Chen Dashan scratched his head. "I have no idea how to do that, but maybe your wife does? Working in the office is great, but as you know, I can't read or write much, and I'm not keen on learning either. I saw that Sir Xing and his crew are all proficient in writing and arithmetic. Can you ask your wife for me? Would it be worth it to get a hundred acres of mountain land?"

    Shen Lie fell silent. "Anyway, since we're out here, let's go together. Ask her yourself."

    ...

    Upon hearing Chen Dashan's intentions, Sangluo replied, "With over a hundred acres of mountain land, you won't become fabulously wealthy if managed well, but moderate prosperity is achievable. However, there are risks involved. Crops depend on the weather, and livestock can fall ill – nothing is a sure bet."

    Chen Dashan was unaware of what Sangluo meant by 'moderate prosperity,' so he asked, "Richer than being a government official?"

    Zhou Ge also looked at Sangluo.

    Sangluo couldn't help but laugh at their gaze and nodded. "Assuming we avoid the risks I mentioned earlier, it would indeed be much more lucrative than being an official."

    Chen Dashan was delighted. "That's settled then. Nothing in this world is truly stable, right?"

    He then turned to Shen Lie and said, "I still want that mountain land, and it has to be this one that suits me."

    Turning back to Sangluo, he continued, "Sister-in-law, given our relationship, I won't beat around the bush. Could you give me some advice on how to manage our land? Or perhaps in the future, when it comes to making tofu or sauce, you seem to know a lot about such things – wouldn't they require raw materials? We could plant whatever you need. When the time comes, we'll sell them to you at a lower price than the market."

    Back in Shili Village, despite its poverty and distance from the county town, Sangluo had managed to establish a livelihood with several families. There was no reason for her to idle at home now that she lived near Xizhou City.

    Zhou Ge's eyes also lit up. The villagers were aware of the business ventures involving the Chen, Lu, and Shi families under Sangluo's guidance. He nodded in agreement. "Yes, Ah Luo, please guide us. We can supply you with ingredients."

    Business must proceed, for Shen Lie had his aspirations in this timeline, and she had hers as well. She nodded, but refrained from making grand promises. "I'm still learning myself. If you're truly interested, feel free to visit and ask me anytime."

    With that, matters were settled.

    Shen Lie and Chen Dashan didn't waste any time and hurried back. Upon seeing them return, Cui Qichang anxiously inquired, "Well? How did it go?"

    Shen Lie chuckled. "The farm work is hectic too. We could still use an extra pair of hands. Dashan can inquire around the neighboring areas tomorrow. Lord Cui might have heard others address me as 'Master,' but what you don't know is that when we sought refuge in the mountains, there were actually two martial arts masters. Dashan was the other one. His martial skills are no less than mine, and his familiarity with the forest is just as profound. His maternal grandfather's family were hunters, so I've even learned a thing or two about the woods from him."

    Shen Lie thus pushed Chen Dashan forward.

    Zhu Qichang, enthralled by the narrative, eagerly agreed from the side, recounting with admiration how his Master Chen's mastery of the long staff was nothing short of supernatural. Fortunately, aware that he was speaking to a government official, he refrained from exaggerating further, avoiding mention of archery skills or sword techniques.

    When men gather around a table for drinks, the atmosphere is always lively, especially since Chu Qichang's main purpose for coming here today has been accomplished. With fine wine and delicious food, the mood becomes even more jovial. By the time Sangluo and the others finish their meal, the men over here are still indulging in their feast.

    Chu Qichang was also half a warrior, albeit one who primarily focused on scholarly pursuits. Although he couldn't match the martial prowess of Shen Lie or Chen Dashan, he was by no means merely a man skilled with a pen.

    Four martial artists sat together, demonstrating remarkable appetites. A table filled with dishes meant for nine people was completely emptied, leaving not a morsel behind. Chu Qichang had to lean on the wall to steady himself as he left. Had it not been for the city gates closing at the hour of the hour of the dog, and the cold rabbit dish being finished, along with the last drop of a small jar of red wine, he would have been reluctant to depart.

    Of course, he didn't return empty-handed; Sang Luo made sure of that. She filled a small jar with her delicious cold rabbit dish for him to carry back in his net bag.

    Shen Lie, Chen Dashan, and Xu Wenqing accompanied him all the way out of the village until they reached the official road leading to Xizhou City before Cui Qichang called for them to stop.

    When Cui Qichang left the city, he had a picnic basket in hand; upon his return, he carried a clay jar, his face glowing with joy, clearly having had a fantastic time!

    Upon arriving back at the Cui residence, Madam Cui detected the smell of alcohol on him. She chided, "Just who is this important person that you rushed to deliver paper and ink from home as a congratulatory gift for his admittance to the state academy? You didn't even have time to change out of your dirty official robes?"

    Curious, she asked, "And why do you reek of alcohol? Where could there still be wine? Did you visit the Lin or Wang family?"

    Cui Qichang chuckled and replied, "It's none of those families. I visited the Shen household – the very fortunate one I mentioned!" He then handed the bag to his wife. "This is a fine gift from the Shens. They said it can last a few days in this weather. Tomorrow at noon, let's share it with Father, Mother, and the children."

    Madam Cui immediately knew whom her husband was referring to when he mentioned the fortunate one. Lately, they had been delighted, not only because a group of mountain villagers had made it on their own but also because they had helped many others to do the same.

    She examined the woven bag holding the earthen jar. It was the kind commonly used by rural folks, and she was quite intrigued. "Was it one of the villagers who helped you bring others out that passed the state academy exam? There are literate families among the villagers?"

    Cui Qichang glanced at his wife and chuckled. "I misjudged this time. This isn't an ordinary villager."

    Madam Cui was about to inquire further, but Cui Qichang refused to elaborate. Instead, he mulled over the unfamiliar wine, aware of its significance. Shen Lie had mentioned only a small jar, so regardless of the truth, he wouldn't bring it up again.

    As for Li Qi, it would inevitably involve the Zheng family, so Cui Qichang wisely decided not to mention that either.

    Xu Wencheng's mention of the possibility of cultivating yam artificially... Chu Qichang took the hot towel offered by his servant, used it to cover his face for a moment, enjoying the warmth before removing it and laughing while wiping his hands. He would be able to establish another merit with the governor.

    Of course, he didn't crave this credit. It wasn't something that fell under his jurisdiction as a Registrar, nor could he directly report it to the governor. However, mentioning it to the Prefect would surely earn him favor with both the Prefect and the governor.

    Shezhou was mountainous, and any crop that could be cultivated extensively on such terrain, with high yields, long storage life, and versatility in both cooking and as a staple food, would naturally receive great attention from the Prefect and the governor. Especially since the person who had achieved this was from Daxing Village, whom the governor had inquired about only that afternoon.

    Why did Chu Qichang hastily prepare a gift for the Shen family? It wasn't just because of his concern over the population issue, as he had claimed. Naturally, he hadn't specifically sought out the Prefect to inquire about the Shen brothers' admission to the provincial school. Upon returning to the provincial office and reporting to the governor on the resettlement of refugees from various counties, the governor casually asked about Daxing Village. When he heard from the Prefect that several people from the village had been admitted to the provincial school, he borrowed the list and discovered that both Shen Lie brothers had passed the exam.

    Shen Lie's identity had evolved in Chu Qichang's eyes: from a humble mountain dweller, to a skilled martial artist and capable villager, to a literate and martially adept villager, and finally, to someone who had attracted the governor's attention and might one day hold an official position in the court.

    Could these stages be considered the same?

    That was why Chu Qichang hurried home to prepare a gift, filling a basket with paper and ink as a congratulatory offering to the Shen family.

    Now, things were even more different. Apart from everything else, the Shen family now carried an enigmatic background and the possibility of noble origins.

    Given that the governor already had a favorable impression of Daxing Village, why not extend a favor to the village and to Shen Lie? For those aspiring to a career in the bureaucracy, what better path than to gain the attention and support of a provincial governor?

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