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    Chapter 229: The Pulse of Joy

    Sang Luo was not wrong.

    Qing Dynasty was indeed impoverished at the moment. Apart from the major clans like the Zheng King's Lin family, even the Zeng family, who had recently taken up an official post in Shezhou after leaving Taiyuan, were not much better off than other officials. Due to the great distance, their family's influence had yet to stretch this far.

    Thus, Shen Lie carried over forty pounds of meat and claimed he was looking for a personal attendant of Lord Zeng. Despite not knowing the attendant's name, he mentioned that he had previously delivered books and asked for assistance inquiring about the way to the governor's residence. The gatekeeper at the back entrance of the governor's mansion actually helped him with the information.

    The attendant had a deep impression of Shen Lie and knew that his master held the Shen family in high regard. Upon hearing that Shen Lie had come to deliver a gift of gratitude, he asked him to wait and passed on the message to the main office.

    Bureaucrat Zeng was so busy that he felt as if his feet were hitting the back of his head; he wished he could be two people at once. After visiting Daxing Village to inspect the yam, he casually instructed for the books to be delivered and promptly forgot about it. Now, after such a long time, he raised an eyebrow upon hearing that several dozen catties of wild boar meat had been sent as a token of gratitude.

    He didn't decline the gift; instead, he instructed his attendant to accept it. However, he didn't keep the meat for himself. With around forty or fifty catties, he had the attendant distribute it among the subordinates.

    While officials lived relatively comfortably, the clerks relied solely on the meager monthly stipend from the court to feed their families. Meat was a luxury they couldn't afford. It was fortunate that the holiday season was approaching, allowing them to enjoy some extra provisions.

    As for meeting Shen Lie, that was out of the question. Both parties were too occupied with their duties; Zeng had no time, and Shen Lie didn't harbor any expectations. He had merely fulfilled the social obligation by entrusting the gift to the attendant before taking his leave.

    Sang Luo was relieved to know that the gift had been successfully delivered. With this act of kindness repaid, she could now focus on her other tasks without the weight of this matter on her mind.

    A snowfall brought ice formations under the eaves, and for Shen Tie's group of children, a new snack was born. On such frigid days, they would break off the icicles and crunch on them with relish.

    San Luo shuddered at the sight, then remembered the four bundles of bark she had left in the mountain stream.

    Calculating the time, they had been soaking for two months. She wondered if the surface of the stream might have frozen over. In a hurry, she ventured into the mountains to retrieve the bark.

    After two months of immersion in the flowing water, the bark's color appeared significantly lighter compared to those soaked for only one month. San Luo felt a glimmer of hope.

    Of course, papermaking was out of the question for now. After Chu Qichang's unexpected visit, San Luo dared not experiment recklessly at home until the courtyard was restored. However, she recalled that to achieve a pure white hue for the ramie fibers used in weaving, a crucial step was exposure to sunlight and water, with precise control over the balance between wetness and dryness. If the water was not applied promptly or the fibers dried too much, the color would become uneven.

    San Luo examined the four bundles of bark in her hands, planning to test two pairs. She would treat one pair with basic processing and then expose them to the sun and water as she would with ramie fibers. The other pair would be crushed and suspended in a basket from a tree behind the house, exposed to both sun and rain, before comparing the results.

    On the twenty-eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, all of San Luo's attention was focused on this task. It wasn't until the twenty-ninth that she began making rice cakes and steaming date paste cake, preparing for the New Year celebrations.

    ...

    The New Year in Daxing Village was not a complete reunion. The Lu brothers had yet to return from fetching the eldest family member, and Chen Dashan and his companions were still in the mountains. However, on the second day of the New Year, the village welcomed a new life.

    Feng Liu's pregnancy, nine months along, went into labor on the afternoon of the second day of the first lunar month. Upon hearing the news, San Luo headed to the Lu residence. Before even entering the house, she could hear Feng Liu's cries, though they soon subsided.

    Old Mother Chen was boiling water in the kitchen. When she came out to gather firewood, she saw Sang Luo and gasped, quickly walking over to lead her away. "Young married women aren't allowed to witness childbirth. Go back, go back! We have plenty of help here. This isn't Lady Feng's first child; it should be a smooth delivery. We'll send word to each household when the baby is born."

    Though Sang Luo didn't understand the taboo against young wives watching women give birth, she heeded Old Mother Chen's words. Unable to settle down at home, she took up her sewing and went to the Chens to wait for news with Zhou Ge.

    True to Old Mother Chen's prediction, by evening Ah Xi brought the good tidings: his mother had given birth to a little sister. The boy was ecstatic, rushing around to share the joy with everyone before finally settling down at home.

    Upon hearing that both mother and daughter were safe, a smile bloomed on Sang Luo's face. As Zhou Ge rejoiced for Feng Liu, his left hand subconsciously rested on his own flat stomach.

    It had been three months since she had come out. Since deciding to leave the mountains, she had stopped avoiding intimacy, yet there was still no sign of pregnancy.

    Considering Sang Luo was her peer, Zhou Ge softly asked, "A Luo, you're not avoiding it anymore, are you?"

    Sang Luo turned her head to see Zhou Ge's hand resting on her abdomen, instantly understanding the hidden meaning in her words. She shook her head. "No, I'm not avoiding it anymore."

    She then asked Zhou Ge, "Are you worried?"

    Zhou Ge replied helplessly, "I'm nineteen, and Dahan is twenty-four. How can we not be anxious? When we went home to pay respects today, my mother even secretly asked me about it."

    Nineteen and twenty-four—ages at which their children should already be running around.

    "Have your grandmother and Aunt You Tian been urging you yet?"

    "Not really."

    "Well, there you go. If neither your grandmother nor Aunt You Tian are worried, why should you be? Children come when the time is right. Besides, you've only just moved out, and most of the time, you're home alone. It's perfectly normal not to have conceived yet. Nineteen isn't too late; there are advantages to waiting."

    Since Chen Dashan and Shen Lie had returned from the mountains, they spent nearly every day in the wilderness, with only a handful of days resting at home.

    Seeing that Sangluo wasn't the least bit anxious, Zhou Ge relaxed a bit. Recalling how Sangluo had secretly taught her about contraception, she chuckled. "How do you know everything and dare to say anything?"

    Sangluo smiled lightly. "I only told you, didn't I?"

    After exchanging a few playful words, Sangluo glanced at the sky, estimating that Shen Lie would be returning soon. She bid farewell to Zhou Ge and headed back home.

    At this moment, she never imagined that her casual comment about fate would prove so prophetic. Within just a few days, the prediction came true for both her and Zhou Ge, as they both unexpectedly found themselves expecting.

    It all started with Shen Lie's intention to expand his rabbit breeding business and gather more prey to sell in the Eastern Market before he started school. From the second day of the lunar new year, he frequently took Shen An and Shen Jin into the mountains. On the fifth day, they happened upon a mountain stream, and Shen Lie opportunistically caught some fish.

    With Chen Dashan away, Shen Lie naturally took care of the Chen family. He shared the fish equally among the Chens, the Xiao Jin brothers, and his own household.

    He returned late, right at feeding time. Shen Lie had taken care of the fish himself, but it was Sang Luo who cooked.

    On New Year's Eve, there were no issues with the fish. On the third day of the new year, when Shen Lie's apprentices came to pay their respects, Feng Erlang also brought a fish, and nothing seemed amiss then. But today, as soon as Shen Lie carried the prepared fish closer, the smell overwhelmed Sang Luo, causing her stomach to churn with nausea.

    With some fishy odor on his hands, Shen Lie couldn't even approach to pat her back; it would only make her retch more. As she vomited, she waved him away, not wanting him near.

    This was the first time that Sang Luo had shown such aversion towards him, and Shen Lie, unaware of the reason, hesitated to approach. Only when she seemed to recover slightly did he urgently ask, "Are you feeling better? Let's go see a doctor in the city while it's still early."

    Living together for several years, Sang Luo seldom fell ill due to her martial arts practice. Even the few headaches or fevers she experienced could be cured with some herbal medicine. Never had she vomited so violently before.

    Seeing her pale complexion, Shen Lie didn't wait for her response. He hurriedly fetched some silver and instructed Shen Ning to cook, preparing to take Sang Luo away.

    Remembering how Sang Luo had pushed him away earlier, he changed his tone and said, "Xiao An is at home, so cooking can wait a little longer. Ah Ning, help your sister-in-law up."

    Both Shen An and Shen Ning were startled and promptly agreed.

    When the initial wave of discomfort passed, Sang Luo realized something. She might not have personal experience with pregnancy, but she had seen enough novels and TV dramas to recognize morning sickness.

    Calculating the days, she noticed her period was significantly overdue. A momentary shock froze her. As Shen Ning came to support her, Sang Luo's heart pounded with fear, worried that her guess was wrong and that she would disappoint Shen Lie. She opened her mouth but ultimately remained silent, merely nodding. "Alright, let's see the doctor."

    It was then that they stumbled upon Zhou Ge, who was also being supported by Madam Chen and Qin Fangniang as he exited the Chen residence. Both had similarly pale faces. Upon seeing Shen Ning carefully assisting Sangluo and Shen Lie standing by their side, Madam Chen's eyes widened in surprise as her mouth gaped open. "What is this?"

    Shen Ning replied, "We're heading to the clinic. My eldest sister-in-law isn't feeling well with her stomach."

    Both Madam Chen and Zhou Ge wore expressions of delight, particularly Madam Chen and Qin Fangniang, who were exceptionally pleased. Madam Chen exclaimed, "Great, great! Then let's go together."

    Shen Ning found it odd. Why were they so happy about going to the clinic?

    However, Shen Lie suddenly had a realization.

    It was a distant memory from his childhood. When his mother was pregnant with An and Ning, she had experienced something similar. The same could be said for Third Aunt when she was carrying Jin and Tie.

    He stood frozen, staring at Sangluo. His chest rose and fell, and his throat moved as he struggled to speak due to his nervousness. He wanted to approach her but, now aware of why she had vomited, he hesitated, remembering that his hands had just been handling fish.

    ...

    At the Yi Yuan Hall.

    The elderly physician placed his fingertips on Zhou Ge's wrist, lowered his gaze to listen to her pulse, and then released her hand with a smile. "Indeed, it's a joyful pulse. Morning sickness is normal; just make sure to rest well. No need for medication."

    Upon hearing that it was a joyful pulse, Chen Po, Qin Fangniang, and Zhou Ge were all at a loss for how to express their happiness.

    She really was pregnant!

    Chen Po's hands instinctively wanted to clasp together in prayer, but she remembered Sang Luo and promptly helped her over to sit on the stool Zhou Ge had just vacated. "Doctor, please examine this child as well. She's also experiencing morning sickness."

    The elderly physician was quite surprised. Did this family have two expectant mothers?

    However, he still gestured for Sang Luo to extend her hand.

    This time, he took her pulse for significantly longer. After a gentle examination, he applied more pressure with his fingers, checked her left hand, and then signaled for her to switch to her right.

    Both Shen Lie, who had already guessed the outcome, and Shen Ning, who had finally understood after hearing Chen Po's words, held their breaths, focusing intently on the physician's expression.

    After palpating both wrists several times, the elderly physician seemed more confident and smiled. "It seems like a joyful pulse, but the pregnancy is likely still in its early stages, so I'm not entirely certain. If you're still worried, come back in ten days, and I'll take your pulse again."

    Shen Lie could no longer contain his joy and involuntarily took a step towards Sang Luo. Recalling the fishy smell on his hands, he quickly retreated. Nevertheless, the happiness on his face was undeniable, his smile too radiant to hide. His hands alternated between being clenched and unclenched, unable to suppress the excitement surging within him.

    Unable to approach Sang Luo, he regained some sense and promptly asked the doctor if there were any precautions they needed to take or any special diet required.

    The experienced physician, who had seen countless couples in similar situations, smiled warmly and gave a few instructions, mainly to avoid collisions and overexertion. He also mentioned that both their constitutions were strong, so there was no need for excessive worry from their family.

    After paying the medical fee, Shen Lie escorted Sang Luo carefully throughout their journey back, always ensuring her safety and frequently turning around to look at her with an idiotically happy smile.

    Older Lady Chen found his behavior amusing and said, "You and Da Shan have always been close friends. Now, it seems you'll be fathers around the same time."

    She continued, "If Da Shan were home now, he'd be ecstatic. It's been almost twenty days since he left, why hasn't he returned yet?"

    Shen Lie sensed the concern in Old Lady Chen's words and reassured her, "It's normal. Most of our folks have already come out. Da Shan needs to search in other places this time, which is different from before when everyone knew and trusted us. Convincing people to leave will likely take more effort. Finding them and persuading them both require time."

    He added, "It's possible that they might need to see the outside world first before making a decision. Didn't we also explore repeatedly before leaving the mountains?"

    Old Lady Chen nodded in agreement, "That's true. Fortunately, the government still provides monthly allowances, otherwise, it would be too time-consuming."

    As they spoke, they heard the sound of galloping hooves behind them. Shen Lie quickly positioned himself protectively between Sang Luo and Zhou Ge. Turning around, he saw three men on horseback approaching. Thankfully, despite being on horses, they seemed aware of pedestrians, and the roads in Xizhou City were wide enough to accommodate them without incident.

    Once the riders had passed, Sang Luo asked Shen Lie, "Was that Censor Zeng up ahead?"

    Shen Lie nodded. One of the two riders behind them was someone he had encountered before, a trusted servant.

    The world of the governor was distant from theirs; although Shen Lie was grateful, he was not overly concerned about bumping into him on the road. His current focus was solely on Sang Luo, so he said, "There are carriages and horses in the city. Let's be careful not to collide with them. We should leave the city first."

    Sang Luo knew that during early pregnancy, the fetus was vulnerable, so she didn't dare to be careless. They didn't linger in the city and headed for the gates.

    Upon reaching the city gate, they noticed that the soldiers on duty were distracted, craning their necks to look outside. The flow of people entering and exiting the city had stopped, all gathered at the gate, seemingly watching something.

    This was an unusual sight, and Sang Luo's curiosity was piqued. It wasn't until they passed through the gate that she understood the reason.

    In the distance, on the main road, was an endless convoy of carriages that seemed to stretch on indefinitely.

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