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    Chapter 245 - Choice

    If Fan Feiniang were a man, she would undoubtedly be an excellent official. As soon as they sat down, she smiled and got straight to the point.

    Sang Luo had come so promptly, clearly showing her interest in the shop. She mentioned, "Feiniang, you know that I don't have any wealth. Currently, I only have slightly over two hundred taels on hand. With the construction of a new house, I wonder how much the shops in Xizhou City are priced at?"

    Fan Feiniang glanced at her trusted nanny, who promptly brought forward seven or eight bamboo scrolls with a smile. "Madam Sang, the details of the shops for sale are all here. The location, size, and price are listed. Please take a look."

    Seeing the large tray of bamboo scrolls, Sang Luo's expression flickered with a momentary complexity. Some things, once they caught your attention, would constantly appear before your eyes.

    Lowering her gaze, she had initially heard from Shen Lie that the paper-making technique was controlled by a prominent family. Not wanting to get involved in the chaos, she couldn't resist and picked up the scroll, frowning in pretended confusion. "I've heard that paper can't be bought in the market now, and even the government offices lack it?"

    Fan Feiniang knew that the Shen family had two scholars and didn't suspect anything. She replied, "Yes, it seems like we'll be using bamboo scrolls for a while. Does your family not have any paper left either?"

    Sang Luo nodded. "That's about right. I kept a few sheets for drawing diagrams. They rely on sharpening bamboo strips at home every night for their studies at the provincial school. Many people in our village have taken orders from the calligraphy and ink shops, earning three copper coins for making ten bamboo strips. I heard that the government office is also recruiting bamboo craftsmen. I'm curious, did something happen to the paper-making artisans a few years ago, or was the formula lost? It can't be that coincidental, right? All the paper-making artisans in Great Qi have problems?"

    Hearing this, Fan Feiniang looked at Sang Luo. After a moment's contemplation, considering that the Shen family currently had scholars too, it wouldn't hurt to let her know some information. She then nodded at her trusted nanny. The nanny bowed and retreated, going outside to signal the maids under the eaves. Everyone dispersed, leaving only the nanny guarding the entrance to the flower hall.

    With the room cleared, Fan Feiniang shook her head. "It's not a shortage of artisans or formulas; it's still a matter of conflicting interests."

    Now, it was a pivotal moment where the newly rising powers and some of the old aristocratic families were vying for their share of power. The newly favored, of course, had fought alongside His Majesty to conquer the world, and thus, they were naturally entitled to ranks and titles. However, many of these so-called newcomers were, in fact, offspring of established families. As for some of the older aristocratic clans, they had stood on the sidelines during His Majesty's struggle for the throne. Now that the realm was at peace, high offices and lucrative titles seemed out of reach for them. Yet, not all were content to accept this; there were always those who schemed to elevate their positions.

    "Are you suggesting that the papermaking formula is in the hands of those previously detached aristocratic families? Could it be that only one family in Great Qi possesses the papermaking technique?"

    "Not quite. The Lu family of Kuei-chi, the Dou family of Mei Mountain, and the Zhang family of Changcheng all held mastery over papermaking techniques. However, the Zhang family of Changcheng suffered a tragic fate when bandits slaughtered the city, leading to an epidemic that wiped out the entire clan. Later, their settlement was also burned to the ground, thus putting an end to any remaining knowledge or formulas. As for the Lu family of Kuei-chi and the Dou family of Mei Mountain, you're likely aware that the relationships among noble families are intricately intertwined. Especially for two families that possess the art of papermaking, they have often formed marital alliances in recent generations. It's safe to assume that they now have a tacit understanding to support each other in times of adversity."

    Sang Luo understood.

    The emperor was in a predicament, held hostage by the influential families.

    "Don't they fear repercussions for their actions in the future?" Sang Luo pointed at the sky.

    Her words echoed Fan Feiniang's recent remark about not fearing the consequences of going too far. Fan Feiniang chuckled before shaking her head. "Not really, at least not for now. The power of the aristocratic families is far greater than you might think. His Majesty still relies on them to a great extent. Many conflicts occur behind closed doors, and they would only reveal their true intentions as a last resort. Otherwise, why do you think His Majesty established schools and holds imperial examinations? The excessive power of the aristocratic families can be... suppressive to the throne itself."

    The words 'imperial power' lingered unspoken on Fan Feiniang's tongue.

    "As for the Luos and the Dou family, they have no choice but to vie for influence. If they don't, they may seem unscathed for now, but over time, it will become increasingly difficult for them to protect their immense wealth and status. Especially the Luos, many of their clan members held high positions in the previous dynasty. As for their reputation... heh."

    Their audacity, however, stemmed ultimately from the Emperor's financial struggles.

    Indeed, they were impoverished.

    The Xiao family was also an aristocratic clan. Who could have imagined that after conquering the realm, they would nearly drain the vast wealth of their lineage? Now, there were still six hundred thousand troops to support, with three years of tax exemptions. Many of these soldiers had once been rebels; any discontent among them could lead to instability.

    Empress Fan couldn't help but sigh.

    Sang Luo asked her, "Why are you sighing?"

    Empress Fan replied, "I sigh at the Emperor's difficulties. He has granted land to the people and exempted them from taxes for three years. Qi has six hundred thousand soldiers to feed, and every aspect requires money and grain. This time, the shops retrieved from various prefectures and counties will be sold, but the silver earned from these sales should ultimately go into the national treasury."

    In a nutshell, the emperor was impoverished, extremely so.

    Had he not been poor, would he have rewarded Sang Luo with two hundred taels of silver? To common folk, it seemed like an extravagant fortune, but to the aristocracy and officials, it was a paltry sum indeed.

    The curved plow, after all, was not some minor act of kindness that would warrant imperial recognition.

    It seemed that His Majesty himself was well aware of his limitations, hence the gift of two hundred mu of land - the most the court could easily part with at present.

    Of course, such musings could not be voiced aloud.

    San Luo understood and turned to Fan Feiniang. "May I ask, you and Lord Zeng also come from noble families..."

    She left the rest unsaid, leaving it up to Fan Feiniang to respond or not.

    "I and my Third Brother," Fan Feiniang replied with a smile at San Luo. "Our aspirations are the same as His Majesty's and yours, Ah Luo. We wish to see a prosperous Chang'an, not a city where the elite indulge in revelry while the common folk suffer."

    ...

    In the end, San Luo, accompanied by Fan Feiniang and her servant, visited several shops with the official in charge of overseeing their sale. She chose a medium-sized shop of about 300 square feet on the main street, priced at 120 taels. They agreed that she would bring the money the next morning to the government office for the transfer of ownership.

    Sang Luo, who had been sleeping soundly since her pregnancy, found herself tossing and turning for the first time that night, unable to drift off.

    During the day, Fan Feiniang had shared with her certain matters, and Shen Lie, having learned of them, noticed her restlessness. He whispered to her, "Still preoccupied with the paper affair?"

    In the darkness, Sang Luo softly acknowledged, "Perhaps it's because of the hardships endured in the previous dynasty. Now that there's a capable emperor who genuinely cares for the people, I can't help but wish for an even better Qiyu. The Luo family, I've heard, held prominent positions back then and were likely oppressors of the common folk."

    Such individuals, holding onto the paper recipe and awaiting a return to power, with the emperor delaying his decision – it was clear they sought more than just a low-ranking position.

    Why, Sang Luo wondered, did she resist this so much?

    She threw off the covers and sat up. Shen Lie, seemingly expecting this, smiled as he handed her a coat, saying, "Put on your clothes first. Don't catch a cold. I'll light the lamp."

    In the dead of night, the couple was still awake, boiling bark in the kitchen.

    Shen Lie insisted that Sang Luo shouldn't stay up late, "I'll keep watch tonight. Sit for a while, calm your mind, and then go to sleep. I'll continue the work tomorrow night and dry it overnight. We'll figure out the rest later."

    ...

    It wasn't until the following night that Shen Ning noticed the commotion at home. People in distant households couldn't hear the sound of pounding bark, but Shen Ning, in the adjacent room, could. She got dressed, carried an oil lamp, and knocked on the kitchen door. "Big Brother? Big Sister-in-law?"

    Shen Lie was busy working, so Sang Luo went to open the door. After Shen Ning entered, she locked the door again.

    Seeing her older brother pounding pulp, Shen Ning's eyes widened slightly. "Big Sister-in-law, you're going to...?"

    Sang Luo replied helplessly, "I haven't decided yet. These materials have been soaked, collected, and dried every day. After all this effort, I have to try if there's any improvement in the final product."

    Shen Ning chuckled and went over to lend a hand.

    This time, Sang Luo's paper-making method had clearly improved. Not only did she refine each step, but she also experimented with various ideas she had previously recorded on bamboo slips. The process of pulping and casting the pulp onto the frame was more refined. With additional tools prepared, her technique for scooping the pulp was different from the first attempt, resulting in a smoother texture visible to the naked eye. She also introduced techniques like smoothing and pressing the paper, which made the finished product, presented on the third morning, significantly smoother and brighter compared to the initial samples she had kept.

    Though it fell short of the premium paper sent by the Wang family, it was on par with the more affordable varieties available in the market before.

    San Luo put away the paper samples and began writing formulas and sketching diagrams of the paper-making process inside her room. Shen Lie, who had a day off, accompanied her and kept watch to ensure no outsiders intruded.

    With her mind occupied by her passion, San Luo's thoughts were less chaotic these days. However, after completing her drawings on paper she made herself, she found herself lost in thought once again.

    Should I take the risk?

    Seeing her distracted, Shen Lie whispered, "There are two options. First, present it as a auspicious occurrence, but if we manipulate it, there's a chance we might leave traces for others to follow. Second, based on what we've seen and the aftermath of the plow offering, Governor Zeng and his wife seem trustworthy. If your only intention is to alleviate the court's concerns without seeking personal gain, communicating with them and passing the benefits to them should be safe."

    San Luo looked at Shen Lie. "You're supporting me?"

    Shen Lie chuckled. "Didn't my help in boiling the bark and lighting the fire convey that already? There may be risks involved, but if it's truly what you desire, it's worth mitigating those risks to follow your heart. You trust Governor Zeng and his wife, don't you? Since that day returning from the governor's residence, you've subconsciously made your choice."

    San Luo smiled and nodded. "Yes, because someone who's willing to spend a fortune to buy livestock, seeds, and grain to send thousands of miles just for the welfare of the people is undoubtedly righteous and kind. Fei Niang said their vision aligns with mine – a prosperous Chang'an. I believe it's worth a try for this cause."

    A smile lit up Shen Lie's eyes. "Then let's go. Conveniently, I can inquire about where to buy bricks and tiles from Lord Chu. Heading to the government office together will draw less attention."

    San Luo tucked the two papers into her sleeve, and the couple left Daxing Village.

    After Shen Lie sent Sang Luo to the governor's residence, he went to the front office to find Chu Qichang. The officials at the residence assumed that Sang Luo had simply accompanied Shen Lie on his way, having heard that she was from the same hometown as the governor's wife. No one gave it much thought, not even Fan Feiniang, who jokingly mentioned to Sang Luo that she had a recipe for a smooth mortar that she would copy for her later.

    It wasn't until Sang Luo discreetly signaled for privacy that Fan Feiniang realized that Sang Luo had a serious matter to discuss, with Shen Lie merely there for appearance's sake.

    Born into an aristocratic family, Fan Feiniang was well-versed in the art of managing household affairs and maintained strict control over her surroundings. With a mere glance, she managed to clear the area for their conversation within moments.

    "What could be so important?"

    Sang Luo pulled out two pieces of paper from her sleeve and handed them to Fan Feiniang. "Please take a look first."

    As Fan Feiniang unfolded the papers and glanced through them, her pupils constricted. Looking up at Sang Luo with wide eyes, she was momentarily speechless.

    Swallowing hard, she asked, "How did you acquire this? Is it... is it truly possible to produce it?"

    Even with a fly hovering nearby, the words 'papermaking technique' still involuntarily caught in Fan Feiniang's throat.

    Did the Luos of Kuaiji really have such extraordinary talents that lifted their family to prominence? No, they were originally just a small aristocratic clan, whose rise was fueled by their mastery of papermaking.

    She couldn't believe it. Didn't Sang Luo belong to the eastern province's Sang family, which was considered a commoner clan? How could she possess a papermaking recipe?

    San Luo nodded without hesitation and said, "Yes, those two you have there were made from this recipe just a couple of days ago."

    "Empress Mother, may I trust you with this?"

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