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    Chapter 241: The Path

    When the officials left, the commoners lingered, especially those from the countryside outside the city. Those who recognized Old Man Chen, Old Man Lu, Old Lady Chen, or anyone from Daxing Village crowded around to ask questions. It took a good quarter of an hour before they allowed the villagers to depart.

    The folks from Daxing Village returned to their village in a daze, as if walking on cotton clouds. Sanluo, having offered her plow and refused the reward, felt that she had done what she could and put the matter to rest in her heart. She thought she could resume her daily life as usual.

    Little did she know how much her actions that day had influenced others.

    Shen Lie seemed to have found his own path.

    In the past, he studied to forge a path out of poverty, to provide a better life for Sangluo, to protect her, and to allow her the freedom to explore the things she loved. But after that fateful day, his motives had changed.

    In Sangluo and Censor Zeng, he saw reflections of his own destiny - a clearer, more defined path through scholarly pursuits and official ranks.

    Within Shen Ning and Xu Wenying, vague dreams began to take shape in their hearts.

    Daxing Village reemerged into the consciousness of the people of Shezhou, louder and more prominently than ever before, creating a sensation far greater than the previous time Shen Ning attempted the provincial examination.

    Simultaneously, tales spread of how Sangluo and the people of Daxing Village had assisted the mountain dwellers in establishing a firm footing in the hills, enabling them to survive by relying on the resources within the mountains.

    The fame of konjac tofu and yam spread far and wide, even the mythical Immortal Tofu, which didn't exist yet, had gained notoriety in Shezhou City first.

    Chen Youtian went to the local government office to register for making the new plows. The first batch was delivered to Daxing Village, and the Shen family's two plows arrived earliest. As neighboring villages gradually acquired the new plows, an unusual sight emerged in Daxing Village.

    Farmers from villages near and far, two per household, carried their newly acquired plows and headed for Daxing Village. Upon arrival, they first inquired about which field Madam Sang's land was located in.

    The Shen family's thirty acres were barely tilled by Zhao Da and Zhao Si; instead, they were mostly plowed by unfamiliar farmers from the surrounding areas.

    It wasn't that they didn't want to work, but there simply weren't any opportunities. Somehow, it became a popular event for nearby farmers to head to Daxing Village with their new plows to help Sang Luo till her fields. It seemed like a tradition that emerged spontaneously, with as many teams of farmers arriving as there were plows issued by the government.

    The Shen family owned no more than thirty mu of land. Even if the government's plows were not as efficient, with sixty or seventy people showing up each day and working for only half a day, there wouldn't be much left to do by the second day.

    But this was far from over. After the farmland was taken care of, there were still the hillsides to tend to. They switched from plows to hoes, with two people per household coming to work for half a day before leaving. The activity in the Shen family's fields was surpassed by the hustle and bustle on the hillsides. It truly attracted countless spectators.

    For a while, whenever anyone saw groups of three or five walking down the main road carrying hoes or plows, when they encountered one another, their greetings would go like this: "Off to Dasheng Village?"

    "Yes, yes, you too?"

    "Indeed, let's go together then."

    It was as if they were just a casual greeting away from asking about each other's meals.

    Unbeknownst to them, someone had noticed that the Shen family cultivated various fruit trees that could be found in the mountains on their land. Before long, the news spread.

    It was unclear from which day forward, but people would occasionally bring fruit trees to the Shen household. They were all dug up from the nearby mountains of their village, with only three to five trees delivered by each village. However, the sheer number of donors was overwhelming. Some were from the Feng, Gan, Zhou, Zheng, and Dong Ge's families, whose faces Sang Luo recognized. Many more were strangers whose names she didn't even know. They would simply leave the trees by the house without even bothering to notify her.

    Zhao Da and Zhao Si were overjoyed for the Shen family. Of course, their parents, siblings, and children had all lent a helping hand when working on the Shen family's land.

    But when the brothers witnessed the forty acres of land that had been cleared by the villagers of Xi Zhou in just a span of seven to eight days, they were left speechless.

    The trees were spared, while the weeds and shrubs had been cleared away. The soil had been tilled, and when some people brought fruit trees, they asked Zhao Da and Zhao Si about the preferred varieties, planting them on the spot.

    Now, everything was neat and tidy. A few small patches had been set aside for fruit orchards, and the remaining land was ready for cultivation. If they wanted to grow beans, vegetables, or yams, they could do so immediately.

    Scratching his head, Zhao Da inquired of his younger brother, "Do we still have more work to do after this?"

    All the heavy labor seemed to be done.

    This was too sudden.

    Zhao Si was quite cheerful. "Sang Lady is kind-hearted. Just think of how much labor the plow will save for everyone. Who wouldn't be grateful? It's not a problem if there's no work to do. I'll ask Sang Lady later."

    ...

    Sang Luo was well aware of the enthusiastic participation of the villagers from outside Xizhou City in the daily tasks. However, when Zhao Si asked if there were still heavy chores that needed doing, she was taken aback.

    "But of course, why wouldn't we need you? With over seventy mu of mountain and field land, can I possibly manage on my own, Uncle Zhao?"

    In reality, Shen Lie, Shen An, and Shen Ning never allowed her to do any heavy work; even light tasks were becoming scarce for her.

    Hearing this, Zhao Si was delighted. "That's great, that's great. We're more than happy to work under Lady Sang. Everyone in the village is envious knowing that we're working for your family."

    Sang Luo smiled. Since Zhao Si had come over, she decided to take the opportunity to ask him to wait a moment. She went back inside and fetched a cloth bag of seeds. "Perfect timing. Uncle Zhao, would you mind sowing these grass seeds on four mu of land for me?"

    "Grass seeds? On four mu?"

    "Yes, these are purple clover. The pigs, sheep, rabbits, chickens, and ducks at home love to eat them. This plant is nutritious for livestock, grows quickly, and provides just what we need. It'll also save Ah Ning from having to gather grass every day."

    This type of grass was especially high in protein when fresh, making it an excellent fodder for livestock and poultry. One crop could be harvested two or three times, and with good cultivation, it could yield several thousand pounds of fresh grass per mu – more than enough.

    In fact, apart from livestock and poultry, this was also an incredibly delicious wild vegetable. When cooked fresh or stir-fried with preserved meat, it was heavenly aromatic. Sangluo planned to regularly sell this in the Eastern Market; the city was currently craving something fresh, wasn't it?

    Most importantly, as long as it wasn't used for fertilizing fields, it didn't consume much time. It could be cultivated as long as the temperature conditions were met, with a blooming season spanning up to four months.

    Sangluo had her sights set on producing Purple Cloud Flower Honey.

    She knew how to make sugar, but even if she managed to obtain sugarcane, would she dare to sell it openly besides sneaking some for personal consumption?

    Honey, on the other hand, was different.

    Honey was considered a luxury item at this time, fetching a high price. It was a win-win situation to raise bees for honey while also feeding livestock; it could even be sold as a delicacy. Where else could one find such a hassle-free and profitable venture?

    In fact, back when she lived in the mountains, she had Jincheng cultivate quite a bit of it in the valley. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to accumulate so many seeds. Of course, the land wasn't extensive back then, only enough for the sheep to graze on and to serve as green manure.

    Now, Zhao Si was utterly convinced by Sangluo's expertise. Listening to her plans, she asked about the specific location for planting and received more vegetable seeds. With a few small cloth bags in hand, she busied herself with the tasks at hand.

    ...

    After Zhao Si left, Sangluo pondered the progress of their farm work. Once this busy season passed, she would hire people to dig the foundation and build the fence around their property. She decided to take out paper and a writing tool to sketch a layout plan based on the size of their land.

    Hardly had she sketched a few lines when Shen Ning, who had finished her household chores, returned from the Shen residence where she had been studying and making brushes with Xu Wenyin and the other young girls. "Eldest Sister-in-law, we've amassed two hundred brushes already. Wenyin and I were considering whether to sell them today. What do you think?"

    "That sounds good," Sang Luo put down her brush and smiled at Shen Ning. "How did you plan it?"

    Shen Ning moved closer to Sang Luo's table and said, "We thought of setting up a stall outside the state school before the students finish their classes. Do you think that would work, Eldest Sister-in-law?"

    "Only trying it out will tell if it's feasible. Have you decided on the price?"

    Sang Luo vaguely recalled that the brushes she bought in Qiyang County a few years ago cost thirty-five wen each. But this was outside the state school, and in times when money didn't hold much value. She had no idea about current market prices.

    Shen Ning chuckled. "Second Brother has already looked into it for me. The cheaper ones go for around thirty wen each, while the pricier ones can fetch one or two hundred wen. Ours have bamboo handles and we're just setting up a small stall, so Wenyin and I discussed selling them at twenty-five wen apiece."

    Sang Luo considered that there were only forty students in the state school, many of whom came from well-off families. She doubted they could sell too many, but she kept her thoughts to herself and simply smiled, encouraging Shen Ning to give it a try.

    Overjoyed by her eldest sister-in-law's approval, Shen Ning began preparing eagerly. Only then did Sang Luo learn that Shen Ning had even asked Chen Ershan to make a wooden box for displaying the brushes. It could be folded into a compact case or unfolded into a stall. Furthermore, Shen Ning had also enlisted Chen Ershan's help in setting up the stall outside the state school.

    Since the state school was an all-male institution, Shen Ning, now thirteen years old, was aware of such matters. Thus, she had drafted Chen Ershan into service.

    At sixteen, Chen Ershan was not only tall but also skilled in martial arts, which made him a suitable companion for Shen Ning and Xu Wenying when they entered the city. At least, Sang Luo wouldn't have to worry about their safety. As for his lack of eloquence, she saw that the two young girls were not idle themselves, so it didn't matter much.

    Sang Luo chuckled. "You've thought of everything. Go ahead."

    "It's still early. I'll wash and cut the vegetables first, so Big Sister doesn't have to rush making dinner. Just wait for me to return; the stall at the state school won't be there for long. I'll be back around the same time as Big Brother and the others finish their studies."

    Sang Luo sent him off with a smile. "Alright then, I'm fine. I'll make dinner. You go attend to your business."

    ...

    On her first day selling, Shen Ning returned home at sunset, accompanied by Shen Lie and Shen An.

    She was not carrying the box, likely leaving it at the Xu family's place. Seeing the joy on her face, Sang Luo smiled and asked, "From the looks of it, you sold some?"

    Shen Ning was overjoyed and nodded happily. She took out her money pouch from her waist. "Big Sister, I sold three pieces. They were bought by Big Brother and the other students. The price was seventy-five coins, but I gave them a discount of five coins, so I collected seventy. Let me keep it safe for now. We can divide the money later when everyone is here."

    That amounted to forty-five coins.

    Seventeen coins would end up in Shen Ning's hands.

    Sang Luo was delighted to see the promising start and cheerfully invited her siblings to wash their hands and have dinner.

    Later that night, when they were settled in bed, she asked Jin Lie who had purchased the brushes at school.

    Jin Lie scratched his nose and mentioned it was Uncle Wang Yunzheng.

    How could a member of the Wang family use such a brush? Clearly, he recognized Xu Wenying and wanted to support her.

    Jin Lie chuckled. "Let her enjoy this for a few days. When she realizes the situation, she'll think of other ways to sell them."

    There were only forty students in the provincial academy, most from fairly wealthy families. If Jin Ning solely relied on selling at the school entrance, the number of brushes sold would be limited, while the time and effort spent on the stall would be significant.

    Jin Ning quickly understood the situation. After just five days, the stall's popularity waned. The first two days saw purchases from Jin Lie's and Wang Yunzheng's classmates, but the following two days, sales significantly dropped, and on the fifth day, not a single brush was sold.

    In the evening, Xu Wenying and her friends visited the Jin household. Gathered in Jin Ning's room, the four girls sat with their chins in their hands, brainstorming ideas. They whispered and discussed for half an hour until the sky turned completely dark. Qin Fangniang and Shi Erlang's wife called out for them from the village, and the trio hastily returned home.

    Before bedtime, the sisters-in-law soaked their feet together. Jin Ning frowned. "Big Sister, these brushes aren't selling very well."

    Sang Luo suppressed a smile. "There aren't many students in the provincial academy, and most of them use expensive brushes. Think about who else might need a brush apart from the students?"

    Are there still people who use writing brushes?

    Shen Ning lowered her gaze and pondered for a moment before slapping her forehead. "Big Sister, do you think families in the city with children around Ah Wu's age have started looking for tutors to teach them how to read and write?"

    Now that the imperial court has established the imperial examinations, it's clear that studying is a path to success.

    The children in their village study every day, with Ah Wu and Zhou Wulang being particularly diligent.

    Finally understanding, Sang Luo smiled and nodded. "Yes, so you should target their business."

    Do they mean the business of children in the entire capital who might start reading? Where would they buy their brushes and ink if they do? As Shen Ning followed this line of thought, her eyes brightened. "Big Sister, I've got it. I'll sell my brushes at a slightly lower price to a few stationery or incense shops on the street outside the state academy, and let them act as distributors."

    She could run the errand once a day, spending about two hours in total, but only setting up her stall outside the state academy for a little over an hour, as there would be no more customers after that time. How could she compete with the stationery shops that were open all day? The more Shen Ning thought about it, the more convinced she became. Didn't her big sister also sell tofu and other items through other vendors?

    With all that extra time, she could produce more brushes or engage in reading, and even discuss with her big sister about making paper. Wouldn't that be more profitable than earning a few copper coins every day from her one-hour stall?

    As she thought, she struck her right fist into her left palm. "That's right. We should give the stationery shops a bigger profit margin. Although we'll earn less per brush, we'll definitely sell more than during my brief stall outside the state academy. After all, it's usually parents who buy brushes for their young children, and they wouldn't specifically come to the state academy to purchase them."

    She had thoroughly grasped the idea.

    At the end of the first month of the year, Shen Ning busied himself with his new venture. Together with Xu Wenying, he visited the incense and candle shops, as well as the stationery stores outside the provincial academy. They negotiated with each proprietor, transforming their retail business into wholesale, selling pens at fifteen coins apiece.

    On the very same day, an official vessel bound for the capital from Xihu Prefecture moored at the riverbank in the afternoon. A courier aboard carried a wooden chest onto a carriage awaiting its arrival, clambered atop it with a wooden case full of memorial tablets, and hastened straight towards the Imperial City.

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