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    Chapter 235: Third Brother Zeng

    "Credit?" Many were moved by the offer.

    "What's the interest? Do we have to put up collateral?"

    Some of them had borrowed money before, but as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to repay their debts. In the end, they had to sell their fields, and there were even tales of families being forced to sell their children to pay off their debts.

    They hesitated for a moment.

    The official dared not respond. Instead, he glanced at the maid standing beside him, who seemed even more refined than the ladies of wealthy households in the city.

    In reality, the maid was also worried. Others might not know, but she and her mistress were well aware of the effort and favors that had been expended, as well as the pressure from the old patriarch and the support from the matriarch, to purchase these two hundred cows from the Zeng family for twenty-five taels each.

    That added up to over five thousand taels.

    Now, they were giving them away without collecting a single coin, offering credit instead?

    True, the matriarch had secretly given three thousand taels to her daughter-in-law, but wasn't the remainder still from the lady and her lord's own coffers? Besides, there was more to this gift than just the cows.

    But as a servant, no matter how much she cared, the lady's own will took precedence. Obedience to her was paramount.

    Women from noble and influential families, even if they were maids, carried an air of authority. The clerk's gaze did not intimidate her. Taking up the conversation, she said, "Our lady has instructed that no interest is required for a year. Moreover, after this autumn's harvest, you may repay your debts with grain. If it remains unpaid after a year, the interest will be twenty copper coins per month per tael of silver."

    "As for collateral..."

    The lord was a governor; what need did he have for collateral?

    Besides, judging by the farmers' appearance, their land was newly allotted by the government. They likely had nothing else to offer.

    "Our lady did not mention any requirement for collateral. Just bring your household registration documents and write IOUs, pressing your seals for a record at the office."

    Upon hearing this, the crowd erupted in commotion.

    No collateral, no interest for a year, and the option to repay with grain instead of silver – these terms sparked rapid calculations among the farmers. The astute began mental arithmetic, while those less sharp huddled together to discuss their plans. How much land could they cultivate this spring, how much grain would it yield, and how much silver would it amount to at harvest time?

    The unlettered peasants found arithmetic challenging, except when it came to calculating harvests. However, grain prices fluctuated, making it difficult to convert their yields into silver. Nonetheless, with fingers secretly counting in their sleeves, they could roughly estimate the numbers.

    When harvest time arrived, expecting three hundred copper coins per bushel of grain as now was unrealistic. No one dared to calculate so optimistically; only by assuming lower prices could they ensure stability.

    Even lowering the estimate further, to the pre-war normal price of sixty or eighty coins per bushel, if ten households in a village combined their resources and managed to reap an additional two or three stones of grain, they could afford the ox.

    "Clearing land is crucial. Without an ox, we can't do it alone. With one, if luck favors us, the extra land we cultivate this year might cover the cost of the ox."

    "Then we borrow?"

    "Borrow!"

    "Quickly, leave some to choose the ox. Second Son, Third Son, go summon everyone from our village. Inform them immediately."

    With someone taking the lead, many others felt reassured. While not every villager would come, groups of families or acquaintances would join together to view the oxen. Thus, everyone scattered hurriedly to gather their fellow villagers.

    Seeing this commotion, Chen the Elder and his companions hastened their ox selection. The knowledgeable among them scrutinized the creatures, assessing their build, coat, eyes, nostrils, and teeth. From the twenty-five oxen, they picked three satisfactory ones and then chose the liveliest with the most vibrant pair of eyes. Seizing that ox, Village Chief Zhou called out loudly, "Ox for sale to Daxing Village!"

    This announcement invigorated the atmosphere. Those selecting oxen grew more diligent, while those searching for villagers ran even faster.

    Delighted, the cowherd, who was originally a servant from the Fan family, promptly answered with enthusiasm, "Alright, come this way! We're from Da Xing Village and we're here to buy a bull! Kindly make way, everyone!"

    His voice was clear and joyful, causing a smile to grace Fan's face behind the latticed window.

    Outside, the group from Da Xing Village had already arrived at the registration desk. Buying cattle was village-based and had different procedures than purchasing poultry. The official looked at them and asked, "From Da Xing Village, I assume? Have you elected your village head?"

    Village Head Zhou chuckled and replied, "Yes, yes, it's me."

    Upon hearing this, the official smiled again. "A scholar, are you?"

    Village Head Zhou shook his head. "Not at all, just a few strokes of literacy."

    As he spoke, he handed over his family's registry and pointed to his section on the bamboo slip. "This is my personal registry information."

    "Zhou Jiuzhang?" The official confirmed with Village Head Zhou before proceeding to register accordingly. After finishing, he opened another ledger for verification. "Da Xing Village, nine households, correct? Are you purchasing the bull as a single household or collectively?"

    There were many who couldn't afford to buy even in partnership and preferred to rely on labor for farming, hence the question.

    "Nine households are pooling our resources to buy," Village Head Zhou answered. The Lu family's main branch had yet to register, so they were not counted in the number of households.

    "Very well, present your household registration, and I'll draw up the IOU. You can examine it and sign if there are no errors."

    Zhou Cunzheng shook his head. "No need, officer. We've brought the silver."

    "Not on credit?"

    The official instinctively looked up at Zhou Cunzheng and his group. It wasn't his fault; he had been sitting there for over an hour, observing many visitors but not a single purchase. Just as the governor's wife had announced the option to buy on credit, Daxing Manor stepped forward – it was natural to assume they were availing themselves of that offer.

    Even the maid by Fan's side gave the group a closer look. They certainly stood out from the malnourished faces she had seen in recent months. Regardless of age or gender, these people all seemed quite healthy.

    Daxing Manor, the maid silently noted the name.

    In the blink of an eye, the two had sized each other up. Zhou Cunzheng continued, "Governor and Lady's noble intentions to care for the people are appreciated, but we happen to have the means to pay in full. We dare not take advantage of their generosity."

    With that, he presented a pile of small silver pieces collected from various households along the way – precisely fifteen taels. "Please inspect it, sir."

    While the official verified the silver, the maid, sensing a positive outcome, turned to return and inform her mistress.

    Fan had been watching the whole time. Although the people from Daxing Village had moved away after registering, she couldn't hear their conversation clearly. After the maid returned, she relayed the details to Fan, who raised an eyebrow upon hearing this and gave the villagers a more thorough look. "Their complexion is indeed better than most. That's quite rare. It's called Daxing Village?"

    After all the chaos of recent years, it was uncommon to see ordinary folk living so well, especially when it wasn't just one or two individuals, but everyone in the group.

    Strange.

    Are they truly common folk?

    Before the maid could reply, she suddenly bowed deeply. "Lord."

    Fan turned her head and saw that her husband, who had disappeared into the front office earlier, had returned without her noticing. Her eyes brightened, and she greeted him with a smile, calling him Third Brother.

    Prefect Zeng looked out the window beside her. "What were you talking about?"

    He seemed to have heard something about Daxing Village.

    "My lady was observing the transactions for cattle and poultry outside," he replied.

    The maid, seeing that her mistress had once again brushed off the matter with just a few words, added, "The poultry are selling well. Many city residents came to buy them after hearing the news. But for the cattle, it's difficult. The prices have dropped as low as fifteen taels per head, and despite many people looking, not a single one has been sold this morning. My lady just allowed credit purchases, and that's when things started moving."

    A servant girl who had grown up with her refused to let her spend her money and effort in vain, always speaking up for her. Lady Fan merely gave her a glance but didn't say anything.

    The maid lowered her eyes and bowed her head.

    Lady Fan smiled and said, "After years of turmoil, the price of grain skyrocketed before the chaos began. Most people probably have no silver left, so they can't afford to buy even if they don't owe debts. We can't just let the oxen idle at the entrance or let the land lie fallow."

    "Empress," Governor Zeng held his wife's hand, momentarily at a loss for words. "Thank you."

    The two maids were perceptive and quickly withdrew after exchanging a glance.

    Lady Fan looked at Third Son Zeng with a smile. "Not giving me the cold shoulder anymore?"

    Governor Zeng recalled the shock and joy he had felt when he heard the news yesterday. Of course, there was more shock than joy, especially when he saw her setting off with so many supplies, livestock, and poultry. He had been terrified on the way back to the governor's residence. He glared at her. "Next time you act so recklessly, it won't just be the cold shoulder."

    But Lady Fan was unafraid. Instead, she pinched Third Son Zeng's face. "I like it best when you're smiling at me, Sanlang."

    Third Son Zeng hastily took a step back and looked around. The clerk guarding the storeroom had his head down; he didn't know if he had seen anything. Trying to appear calm, he whispered almost silently to Lady Fan, "Don't cause a scene outside."

    Seeing the redness creeping up his neck, Lady Fan laughed and tsked. "Heng'er is already three years old. Why are you still so thin-skinned?"

    The last part of his whisper was only audible to the couple.

    Zeng Sanlang held her mischievous hands and said, "Come on, let's return to the inner courtyard."

    As they walked, he asked earnestly, "What were you talking about earlier regarding Da Xing Village? Did they buy cattle? On credit too?"

    "Mm-hm, it's the first village to buy a cow. It's quite rare. I agreed to let them pay on credit, and they actually came up with the cash," she replied.

    Zeng Sanlang's lips curled up slightly but he didn't ask further.

    They had already entered the back garden in a few steps. When they turned to the inner residence, Fan Shi's maid who had come with her as a dowry approached them. Having been apart from her husband for a long time, Fan Feiniang found him looking thinner no matter how she looked at him. She called out to her maid and asked, "What did you prepare for lunch?"

    The old maid was well aware of her lady's thoughts and reported five dishes with a smile. This was extremely frugal even by the standards of noble families and could even be considered shabby. Naturally, this was also related to the fact that the governor's residence didn't have an abundance of ingredients, and Fan Shi was unwilling to use those poultry for her own meals. However, the old maid had put effort into the selection, explaining which dishes were tasty, nutritious, or favored by her lord, all with good reason. In short, it still suited Fan Shi's preferences.

    The old maid knew very well that no matter how beautifully she described them, there weren't many good dishes. Therefore, she suggested, "There's fresh roe deer meat in the kitchen today. I was thinking of asking if my lady and lord would like to have it for lunch. Cooking it in a clay pot is the most tender."

    "Roe deer meat?" Fan Shi was surprised. "Where did it come from?"

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