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    Chapter 249 - Pillar of Support

    Zhu Qichang observed the expressions of the two tables of guests. Those from ordinary wealthy backgrounds were merely curious as they had never seen such an item before. However, Lord Wang, a few Lin family descendants, and a couple of others who weren't from major clans but were quite affluent, clearly recognized it.

    Zhu Qichang noticed a hint of surprise on Lord Wang's face, piquing his curiosity. He knew that Shopkeeper Xu, who was under Wang Maolin's command, used to be the manager of the Dongfu Lou branch in Qiyang County. Moreover, the Dongfu Lou in Shezhou had recently undergone renovations and seemed to be searching for a chef, preparing to reopen soon.

    So, the Wang family didn't know that the Shen family could make Li Qi?

    The Wang family truly had no idea. Back then, Sang Luo made tofu in small quantities each day, and Qiyang wasn't particularly close to Shezhou, making it inconvenient for supplies. Most importantly, Shopkeeper Xu was completely unaware of the uniqueness of Li Qi.

    Shopkeeper Xu, being just a restaurant manager, wouldn't have the status to be a guest of honor at the Zheng family's banquet. Thus, he himself didn't realize the humble two copper coin tofu he found in the East and West Markets of Qiyang County had an extraordinary background.

    Considering the difficulty of long-distance supply and the chaotic times, coupled with the knowledge that Sang Luo was from a small household—a lady raising her sister-in-law and brother-in-law—Shopkeeper Xu, despite his employer not being an ill-intentioned family, developed a sense of compassion. He didn't want to cause any trouble for Sang Luo and thus decided not to report it to Shezhou.

    As a result, the Wang family genuinely had no clue.

    When Shen Lie returned to their table, a classmate teasingly asked, "Brother Shen seems to have a good relationship with the Zheng family?"

    Shen Lie initially didn't catch on, "Which Zheng family?"

    Glancing at the table, the classmate chuckled. "With Li Qi here, do you still need to ask which Zheng family?"

    Cao Qichang promptly interjected, "Gentlemen, you may be unaware that this matter is unrelated to the Zheng family. In truth, it concerns something the Shen household produces themselves. The mulberry maiden lauded by His Majesty is no commoner; she hails from the esteemed Mulberry Clan of Dong Prefecture and is a fellow native to our Governor's wife."

    He briefly recounted to Shen Lie the story of Li Qi and the Zheng family's exclusive affairs in Shezhou.

    Shen Lie had been studying at the provincial academy for several months and had gained a fair understanding of the situation in Shezhou. He was well aware of the prestigious Zheng family, yet never imagined that his own household would have any connection with them. Thus, when his classmate mentioned the Zheng clan, he did not initially make the association. However, upon hearing Zhu Qichang succinctly explain the underlying dynamics, Shen Lie finally grasped the reason behind his classmate's remark. Remaining composed, showing neither alarm nor arrogance, he merely chuckled and said, "Is that so? What a coincidence. In that case, you should definitely try it while it's still hot; the flavor is much better that way."

    Saying this, he sat down and signaled for the feast to begin. He added that grain was in short supply everywhere, and they couldn't even buy wine. Without alcohol at the banquet, he apologized for the inadequate hospitality and asked everyone to bear with them.

    His composed demeanor actually earned him even more respect from his fellow classmates. Moreover, the implications behind Cui Qichang's words were intriguing.

    They had only known that San's family was rewarded by the Emperor for their contribution, but they never imagined that San's background was also quite impressive. The fact that he mentioned being a fellow townsman with the Governor's wife suggested a considerable level of familiarity between the two.

    Some observant ones noticed that the walls in the Shen family's house were unusually white and smooth, distinct from any they had seen before. Wang Liu and the Lin family's children could easily recognize it as a unique recipe, one that their own families' formulas couldn't match.

    Who in this world holds the most exclusive recipes?

    The noble families.

    For the transmission of knowledge relies on written records and books, and it is the aristocratic families who possess the greatest collection of them. Ordinary folk seldom have access to books, let alone the opportunity to learn how to read.

    The banquet served as a turning point for Shen Lie's classmates, who reevaluated not only him but also his family and the now-celebrated Lady Sang from the Jia family.

    After bidding farewell to all the guests, Shen Lie shared the incident with Sang Luo.

    To her surprise, Sang Luo was not intimidated. She had long known that some aristocratic families possessed the recipe for tofu, along with countless other formulas for pastries, cosmetics, and fragrances. These small recipes added color to their lives and enriched their family legacies, but the major aristocratic clans didn't place much value on them. Especially for something as inexpensive as tofu, revealing such a recipe might even be seen as degrading their status. Would an aristocratic family really go to the extent of suppressing someone who could make tofu among the common folk?

    However, the fact that an aristocratic family in Shezhou held the tofu formula was unexpected for Sang Luo.

    Shen Ning was aware that her eldest sister-in-law would resume making tofu once the autumn harvest of soybeans arrived, as they had planted a large amount on their mountain land this year. Since they couldn't possibly consume it all themselves, she asked, "Won't selling tofu behind our house provoke that Zheng family?"

    Now, the young girl had a basic understanding of aristocratic and commoner society.

    Shen Lie replied, "We'll know their reaction in a few days. It's not too late to consider our next steps then."

    Shen Ning was still puzzled, but Shen An clarified, "Among the classmates who came today, there were those who genuinely have a good relationship with Big Brother, those who showed up just to support him, and those who merely maintain surface-level interactions."

    Primarily due to their family, his sister-in-law has been making quite a stir in Shezhou recently.

    Shen Ning understood the implications and her eyes widened slightly. "Brother means that someone might inform the Zheng family about this?"

    "Yes, but the Zheng family might not react."

    Sang Luo observed his confident tone and glanced at Shen Lie.

    Shen Lie wouldn't keep her in suspense. "On one hand, your reputation in Shezhou is currently soaring. The Zheng family wouldn't dare make a big fuss over such a trivial matter, considering the imperial archway was bestowed for a reason, and the imperial edict still hangs in our home. On the other hand, do you know who Governor Zeng originally had in mind for the state scholar position?"

    Sang Luo's brows lifted slightly. "Perhaps someone from the Zheng family?"

    "Indeed, it was Elder Zheng. With Governor Zeng and his wife supporting education, there are bound to be those who cherish their knowledge and are unwilling to impart it easily to outsiders. I've heard from Lord Chu that this Elder Zheng made the Censor General sit on the bench several times. Governor Zeng's face darkened, and he promptly appointed Elder Lin instead."

    Recalling Fan Feiniang's previous account, Sang Luo began to see the picture. Reacting swiftly, she asked Shen Lie, "So, no member of the Zheng family is currently serving in the imperial court?"

    Any family with a member in the government would not dare to openly defy imperial decrees. Having already crossed paths with Governor Zeng, it would be difficult for the Zheng family to secure positions in the court as long as he remained in Shezhou.

    A smile flickered in Shen Lie's eyes. "That's correct. Nowadays, one can obtain an official post either by imperial appointment, through the system of hereditary favor, recommendation by high-ranking officials or provincial governors, or by passing the imperial examinations. Even for the latter, one needs the endorsement of the provincial governor to qualify for the exams in the capital. By behaving arrogantly back then, the Zheng family has essentially severed that path for themselves. Therefore, as long as the royal authority remains stable, the Zheng family wouldn't dare offend His Majesty if they still aspire to hold court positions."

    That was not something that could be resolved simply by getting rid of Governor Zeng.

    ...

    As Shen Lie had predicted.

    However, the news reached the Zheng family the very next day. The recipe was something Elder Madam Zheng had brought into the family as part of her dowry. She took great pride in these small formulas she possessed, so upon learning that the somewhat renowned Sang family in Xizhou also had a recipe for Li Qi, she felt rather displeased.

    "Sang of Dongjun? What an impressive background? They're nothing but on par with the Wangs and Lins."

    Already simmering with anger, she began to plot ways to make Sang Luo suffer.

    After being married for decades, Elder Madam Zheng's slightest gesture was enough for Elder Master Zheng to understand her thoughts. Even with his servants massaging his legs and fanning him, he couldn't shake off the annoyance in his heart. "Calm down. You can't vent your anger on that Sang woman as you please. Besides, there are at least two families in Great Qi capable of making Li Qi. Do you plan to teach them all a lesson?"

    "That doesn't mean a peasant can do it. You're blaming me now, but if you hadn't rejected that position as a provincial academy doctor back then, would our eldest son and the others be in such a predicament now? Why can't they hold positions like chief historian, viceregent, or county magistrate? How did it end up with Lin Eldest Son taking that post?"

    These words were like pouring gasoline on a fire. While Sang Luo might not know about the imperial court obtaining the paper-making formula and establishing a paper mill, how could Elder Master Zheng be oblivious? At this point, he had no choice but to acknowledge that he had made a mistake back then.

    But what good was clarity now? With Zeng Ziqian's background and personality, could he possibly recover from the humiliation of that slap?

    Thus, Madam Zheng's complaint struck right at Old Master Zheng's sore spot. The moment she finished speaking, his face darkened, and he slammed the string of Buddhist beads he held onto the side table with a thud. "If you want to wait until Zeng Zixuan is promoted before allowing Daxing Village to prosper, then go ahead and meddle in its affairs."

    He rose to his feet, brushing his sleeves as he left. The string of beads, which he usually fondled frequently, had snapped, and several dozen beads rolled off the table, bouncing noisily on the stone floor like a sudden downpour.

    Madam Zheng flinched from the shock, momentarily unable to speak. Eldest Lady Zheng, who had her own grievances against her father-in-law, now dared not provoke him further. She hurriedly placated Madam Zheng, "Mother, let's drop this matter. It's not a big deal that another family can make Li Qi. Besides, Lady Sang is in favor with the imperial court; we should avoid crossing paths with her at this time."

    Eldest Lady Zheng was truly being overly optimistic. How could Sang Luo allow such a valuable and nutritious food as tofu to be monopolized by the Zheng family in Shezhou?

    The day after Qiao Juan's move, the nursemaid whom Fan Fei had mentioned arrived at the Shen household. Before even observing the Zheng family's reaction, Sang Luo entrusted the old nursemaid with a letter, asking for Fan Fei's advice on the matter.

    In the letter, she essentially sought support, stating, "Does the Zheng family think they're the only ones who can produce food for common folk? Tofu is a rare, affordable, and nourishing delicacy. Who says it can only bear the Zheng name in Shezhou? Fei-er, if I really open this shop once my soybeans are harvested, do you think the Zheng family would dare to cause me trouble?"

    Fan Fei broke into a smile upon reading the letter. Without replying, she instructed her trusted nursemaid, "Auntie Zhong, tell Ah Luo tomorrow that she should proceed with opening the shop! Not only that, but she should use the name of Daxing Village. No need to wait for the soybeans to be harvested; I'll send her ten carts to get started, and she can open tomorrow if she wishes."

    After her initial joy subsided, Fan Fei made sure to protect Sang Luo. When Third Master Zeng returned in the afternoon, she approached him, requesting two skilled hands – Zeng family-trained covert guards.

    She explained her concern, anticipating underhanded tactics from the Zhengs: "The Zhengs don't seem too clever. It's better to be cautious. Give me two capable men, and I'll send them to Daxing Village."

    Sanlang looked at his wife and chuckled. With no one else around, he shook his head and said, "There's no need to send anyone there. Don't worry, it's very safe."

    Fanniang's brows furrowed upon hearing this. "What do you mean?"

    Sanlang's eyes held a hint of amusement. "The Zheng family wouldn't dare. If they were really that foolish to send someone over, their bones would be shattered and thrown back to the Zheng mansion."

    Fanniang's eyes widened slightly before she blinked. She looked at Sanlang and pointed a finger at the sky. "That person?"

    Sanlang laughed but didn't say anything. His expression was clear enough.

    Someone who could invent the curved plow and discover the paper-making method by themselves—wouldn't the Emperor protect them with all his might? Even Shen Lie, before leaving the capital, the Emperor had given specific instructions to give him extra tutoring separately, ensuring that he could enter the capital in three years and be of use. It was just that he was currently too eye-catching, so he hadn't taken any action yet.

    Fanniang's mood improved even more. She added an extra half bowl of rice for lunch. In the afternoon, she wrote a letter back to Sangluo, conveying the message that she could open the shop if she wanted to, but not to ask for anything else, and that her safety would be guaranteed!

    Along with the letter came a message from Mother Zhong, who had been instructed to bring ten carts of soybeans for her to use first. She asked Sangluo to hand the shop keys to Mother Zhong first, and the soybeans would be delivered to the warehouse behind the shop.

    Sangluo was genuinely delighted. "No need to send them, consider it borrowed. I'll return them when the harvest comes in. By the way, I need to ask Fanniang for a favor."

    After Mother Zhong left with the keys, Sangluo turned around and headed for the Chen family's residence while supporting her waist.

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