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    Chapter 247 - Secret Memorandum

    When the envoy returned to the capital, it was customary to first pay respects to the emperor. Zeng Zixuan, the governor who had come to report on official matters, waited in a side palace.

    Not long after Li Yu entered the imperial study, Zeng Zixuan heard a loud thud from outside. The emperor's furious voice followed: "Luo, that commoner! Why didn't he just ask for the position of a Grand Minister directly?"

    The eunuchs serving inside the imperial study were prostrated on the ground, while those outside and in the side palace also kept their heads low, silent as cicadas in winter. Upon hearing that it was related to papermaking, Zeng Zixuan, who had instinctively braced himself for the emperor's anger, relaxed and sat with his eyes lowered, concealing his emotions.

    In the imperial study, Li Yu had already knelt down. "It is this subject's incompetence."

    The emperor sat back in his dragon throne, supporting his forehead with his hand as he took several deep breaths before speaking to Li Yu. "This has nothing to do with you. It's Luo's insatiable greed."

    Thinking of restoring his clan's positions from the previous dynasty, huh? Why didn't he just say he wanted to change the Great Qi back to the Great Yan!

    Li Yu dared not speak for a few moments. After a while, he cautiously asked, "Shall this subject make another trip to Mount Mei? Although the Luos and the Dou are related by marriage, they might not be a solid unit."

    The emperor rubbed his temples but didn't immediately agree. Instead, he asked, "You mentioned that Third Son accompanied you to the capital?"

    The term "Third Son" was a rather intimate address. Li Yu nodded and replied, "Yes, Zixuan is currently waiting in the side palace for Your Majesty's summons."

    The emperor nodded and said, "After all this traveling, you must be exhausted. Let's postpone the discussion about Mount Mei. Go back to your residence and rest. Let San Lang come in."

    Li Yu knew that the emperor was not ready to talk about paper again. He acknowledged the order and bowed before leaving. In the side chamber, he informed Zeng Zixuan about the imperial audience and signaled him to be cautious with his words. Watching Zeng Zixuan thank him and head for the imperial study, Li Yu then turned to exit the palace.

    When Zeng Zixuan entered the imperial study, the eunuchs had already tidied up the place. He promptly bowed and, noticing the emperor's less-than-ideal mood, still managed to bring a smile to the emperor's face when he recalled Zeng Zixuan's presentation of the plow from Xizhou: "Rise quickly, San Lang. Why have you come to the capital?"

    Zeng Zixuan didn't rush to stand but replied, "Your Majesty, I have a matter to report in person."

    The emperor's brow furrowed slightly. He glanced at Cen, who bowed slightly and waved at the other eunuchs to step away. The attendants in the imperial study filed out, even those standing at a distance. Cen himself took position outside the door.

    "What matter do you wish to bring to my attention, San Lang? Speak."

    However, Zeng Zixuan didn't speak. Instead, he took a secret report from his sleeve. To ensure confidentiality, he had written it by lamplight at the final relay station just before entering the capital, and had kept it on his person ever since.

    Advancing a few steps, he presented the report to the emperor with both hands. The emperor looked puzzled but glanced at Zeng Zixuan. After taking the report and unfolding it, he read several lines at once. His pupils dilated, then his face lit up with delight. He barely gave Zeng Zixuan a second look as he swiftly finished reading the entire report. Only then did he gaze intently at Zeng Zixuan with shining eyes: "Is what you've written in this report true?"

    A smile appeared on Zeng Zixuan's face. "How dare I jest with the emperor?"

    He then retrieved another carefully sealed package wrapped in oil paper from his robe and handed it over. This time, the emperor eagerly accepted it. After opening it and unfolding the enclosed papers, he examined three diagrams one by one. Upon finishing, he burst into laughter. "Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!"

    Three consecutive accolades!

    Cen, the eunuch standing guard outside, perked up his ears and lifted his gaze slightly. He wondered what Third Lord Zeng could have reported to the emperor that made him switch from an enraged countenance to a more relaxed one in such a short time. Having served by the emperor's side for several years, Cen knew his boundaries well. He quickly lowered his eyes again, like an old monk in deep meditation, not daring to look too closely and pretending to be deaf.

    Within the Imperial Study, the Emperor continued to scrutinize the three diagrams and several paper samples. According to Zeng Ziqian's account, the two sheets that depicted the papermaking process and elucidated its principles were examples of the very paper produced by the Sang Clan. The remaining paper samples, on the other hand, were crafted by Zeng Ziqian himself, following Sang Clan's guidance, with varying soaking durations of three, five, and seven days to demonstrate the effect on the final product.

    Indeed, his mood was greatly improved. He picked up the confidential report he had just set aside and read it again with renewed interest.

    Zeng Ziqian admired Sang Luo for her willingness to offer the papermaking method to the imperial court, and his secret report was filled with praise. He detailed how she had discovered the court's shortage of paper, sought out the Fan family for information, and ultimately, with great urgency, ventured into danger to request the Fan couple to secretly present the papermaking technique to the court on her behalf. He even included in his report Sang Luo's response when the Fan family asked what reward she desired for her contribution. His words overflowed with admiration and accolades, ultimately expressing that it was the blessing of Great Qi, the emperor, and the people to have such a citizen.

    The emperor's smile illuminated his eyes, lips, and cheeks. Though he was tempted to offer a few words of praise, he couldn't forget Zeng Zixuan's urgent request in the confidential report to protect Lady Sang at all costs and prevent any leaks. Thus, he suppressed his urge and instead laughed heartily, saying, "Very well, I approve your memorial."

    By "spot on," it referred to Sangluo's wish for paper prices to be even lower than before, making it affordable for common folks to use.

    Zeng Ziqian expressed his gratitude and stepped forward to ask the emperor to hand over the secret report. He apologized with a polite phrase, then turned around and lifted the lampshade on the imperial desk. Without hesitation, he set fire to the document that the emperor had read twice, reducing it to ashes. Only after that did he discard the remaining ashes into the copper basin.

    Having requested the emperor's sketches, he borrowed the writing tools from the imperial study and, kneeling at a low table nearby, proceeded to reproduce Sangluo's three drawings identically.

    The emperor stood by the entire time. After the three sheets were copied exactly, Zeng Ziqian presented them to the emperor for comparison. Finding no discrepancies, he proceeded to burn Sang Luo's three drawings until not a single trace was left behind.

    The emperor held the few formulas as if they were priceless treasures. After ensuring that the ink had dried, he locked the paper with the recipe in a hidden compartment. He kept the sketch of the water-powered mill, and smiling at Zeng Zixuan, he said, "Your grandfather has come to the capital. Li Yu has told you, hasn't he?"

    Zeng Ziqian smiled and nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty. I plan to visit my grandfather at home as soon as I leave the palace."

    The emperor, smiling, waved his hand and said, "You have accompanied Me on military campaigns for years abroad, and later took charge of Xiazhou. Rarely have you had the chance to return home. I shall not deprive you of this cherished reunion with your grandfather. For now, go and enjoy your family time. Tomorrow, attend an early morning court session. You have rendered meritorious service with the water-powered mill, and tomorrow, I shall bestow upon you a reward."

    Zeng Ziqian took his leave, making his way out. The junior eunuchs cast discreet glances at him along the way. Cen, the chamberlain, had a young disciple who whispered, curious as to how the Emperor's mood had suddenly improved. Cen gave him a look, reprimanding him with a few words, before turning to attend to the Emperor in his study.

    Cen the Eunuch was perceptive; seeing that the Emperor was in a good mood, he dared to speak more. As he poured the Emperor a fresh cup of hot tea, he said with a smile, "It's still Lord Zeng who knows how to please. Your Majesty, your smile has become more frequent. You might not know, but on this journey south with Lord Li, I saw that the recovery under Xizhou's administration was the swiftest. If Your Majesty could see it for yourself, your mood would be even better."

    The emperor's interest was piqued. "Oh? Do tell."

    One who could serve by the emperor's side and be entrusted to accompany an imperial envoy to observe the world outside must possess a way with words. The attendant vividly recounted the scenes he had witnessed on his journey, comparing different regions, and shared that life in Xizhou had almost returned to normal. People were clearing lands for farming, villages were filled with cattle, sheep, chickens, and ducks, and even pig breeding had resumed. The emperor was genuinely taken aback.

    "How did they achieve this?"

    He regretted allowing Zeng Sanlang to leave the palace.

    Cen the eunuch smiled as he narrated Fan Feiniang's deeds. The emperor listened intently, praising Zeng Sanlang for having a virtuous wife.

    Cen the Eunuch shifted his tone and chuckled. "The prosperity of the people in Xizhou isn't solely due to Madam Ceng's efforts. Your Majesty, can you guess how old Ms. Sang is, the one who invented the Ox-bow Plow? I accompanied Lord Li to Daxing Village."

    The emperor's brow furrowed. He was most curious about Sang Luo at this moment. Hearing Cen mention her after talking about Fan, he glanced at the eunuch and pondered, "Knowing so much about agriculture, she should be around forty or fifty, right? But since you're asking me to guess, she mustn't be that old. She can't be a young lady or an old woman in her sixties, can she?"

    Cen the Eunuch praised the emperor's insight with a smile. "You've guessed correctly, Your Majesty. I'd say she's not even twenty yet. Lord Li was quite surprised."

    "Not even twenty?" The emperor looked astonished.

    "Indeed. She's probably only eighteen or nineteen. It's unexpected for someone so young to know so much about farming. Not only that, but Ms. Sang has an excellent reputation in Xizhou. Her influence surpasses even that of Madam Ceng."

    He continued to share his observations about Sang Luo in Xizhou. "The locals call her a female Bodhisattva. During the years she was trapped in the mountains, she taught the villagers how to make divine tofu from a common leaf and identified the yam, which they then cultivated in large numbers. She also detoxified a poisonous wild taro, making it edible and filling. Countless lives were saved because of her."

    He also described the remarkable abilities of the young men in Daxing Village, how they protected their fellow mountain dwellers, and how they brought people out of the depths of the mountains upon learning of the imperial policies. The emperor listened with great interest.

    "By the way, Ms. Sang's husband and brother-in-law both passed the entrance exam for the provincial academy. When I visited Daxing Village, I saw them wearing the uniform attire of students in our Great Qi's provincial academies."

    The emperor understood now. No wonder Sang Luo had been thinking about papermaking.

    He narrowed his eyes, a faint smile playing on his lips. Sang Luo was not yet twenty, and her family had scholars. This was excellent news, even more so than the papermaking formula he had just obtained. It warmed the heart of the Great Qi emperor.

    His fingertips tapped lightly on the imperial desk. Given his humble origins, his foundation might not be exceptional. If he were to enter the capital, it would likely take three years, right? Tsk, the emperor mused about how Sanlang's family was involved in plow reform and papermaking, and he felt that three years was too slow.

    However, he was well aware that the first few batches of scholars heading to the capital would face the greatest challenges and be most vulnerable to targeting by influential families. Well, if three years it must be, then so be it. Fortunately, Sanlang's family was inherently kind-hearted, concerned with the welfare of the people, and trusted Zeng Sanlang and his wife deeply. None of their inventions, such as the curved plow, paper, or water-powered mill, had been delayed in reaching the court.

    A smile appeared in the emperor's eyes at this thought, and his mood was excellent.

    As for Lao Luo and Lao Dou, let them drag things out slowly. He was content to watch the spectacle unfold. Just imagining the old fox from the Luo family's reaction when he found out that the government was establishing its own paper mill would make all the recent frustration vanish instantly.

    What a delight!

    ...

    The following morning, during the court session, Governor Zeng Zixuan of Shezhou was rewarded by the emperor for his presentation of the water-powered mill. Although the reward consisted merely of money and cloth, not overly generous, Zeng Zixuan's wife, Fan, was highly praised by the current ruler in front of the entire court and granted the title of a Third Rank Lady of Virtue.

    A Third Rank Lady of Virtue!

    Not only was Daqi freshly unified, and many officials were still preoccupied with their duties to request titles for their wives and mothers, but even those who did apply would have to wait for approval. Let alone the Third Rank, how many Third Rank officials were there currently in the court?

    Zeng Zixuan's grandfather, the former Director of the National Academy, held a sub-third rank position, while Zeng Zixuan himself ranked Fourth Rank below. Yet, Fan was bestowed the title of a Third Rank Lady of Virtue, a rank higher than Zeng's grandmother.

    From this day forth, it was likely that many noble ladies in Great Qi would emulate Fan's example. The officials held their court tablets, each one seemingly lost in thought, inwardly acknowledging the emperor's clever move.

    Those of modest backgrounds fretted over their family wealth while strategizing on how to present a graceful front. The more established families, however, cared little, for they knew that following Fan's lead would not bring any significant gain. Yet, for the sake of their reputation, noble women could not afford to be outdone. These families were accustomed to contributing funds and provisions to the emperor; now, it was merely a different form of support. It was not as if their prestige would suffer by directly aiding the people, and it might even enhance their public image – a worthwhile trade-off.

    What truly caught the attention of the aristocratic clans was Zeng's and especially Fan's actions. With such a well-educated daughter, any family seeking a bride for their sons would now give first consideration to a Fan woman.

    ...

    Zeng Zixuan's return to the capital, along with the presentation of the water-powered mill and Fan's honor, monopolized the attention of the former court, even surpassing the interest of the elder Zeng himself.

    It was more than two months later when the imperial court established its paper mill, and no one knew where the papermaking formula had originated. The emperor had, for a while, instructed the palace eunuchs to search through numerous imperial library texts. Some speculated that the formula might have been discovered within those books.

    Of course, these were merely conjectures. The aristocratic families with ambitions for the imperial examinations felt a tinge of regret, but it was only that – disappointment. Despite the emperor's mild demeanor, it was said that mercy couldn't govern an army, and his genuine kindness hadn't stopped him from defeating dozens of powerful warlords to conquer the vast territory of Great Qi.

    When their interests were at stake, they could choose not to support the emperor or even secretly defy him. However, with most of the aristocratic families still backing the emperor, no one dared to be foolish enough to challenge royal authority. After all, they were all beneficiaries of the new dynasty, not in the same position as the Luo and Dou clans.

    Speaking of which, the only ones truly caught off guard were likely the Luo and Dou clans, who had monopolized the papermaking technique and used it to negotiate with the emperor. But who cared about them?

    Among the entire court, Li Yu was perhaps the only one who genuinely suspected that the papermaking formula might be connected to Zeng Sanlang, given his proposed trip to Meizhou. After Li Yu's suggestion, the emperor never mentioned it again, and the timing was too coincidental.

    Li Yu couldn't help but chuckle. What a clever Zeng Ziqian!

    However, he had to commend the brilliant move in his heart. Apart from venting the frustration he and His Majesty had endured from the Luo and Dou families, the establishment of schools and the continuation of the imperial examinations would proceed smoothly. The profits from papermaking could also slightly replenish the national treasury. Li Yu felt a weight lifted off his shoulders.

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