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    Chapter 257 - Tribute

    It was the season of bountiful harvest in September. San Luo had just given birth and was in the middle of her confinement period, which, according to Mother Zhong's advice, should last for two months to be beneficial for her health. Despite this, she couldn't help but worry about the farm management.

    Fortunately, Shen Lie and Shen An were on vacation at home. Apart from the occasional half-day visit to the governor's residence when Governor Zeng took his ten-day break, Shen Lie would stay at home. The rice, wheat, and various beans they planted in the spring had been harvested since August. Hence, Shen Lie only needed to discuss with San Luo about what to plant next, and the brothers could handle the rest.

    This year, the most abundant harvest in Da Xing Village was the various beans. They had planted as much as possible on the mountainous land, resulting in a great yield.

    With an ample supply of raw materials, San Luo began to think about two delightful products.

    Rice noodles and fermented bean curd.

    She had already planned to teach the Chen family how to make rice noodles, but the sweet potatoes were not ready for harvest yet. However, they had green beans. Nevertheless, the Chen family was already busy with farming and making tofu, so San Luo decided to postpone teaching them. Instead, she started working on the fermented bean curd first.

    For mass production and sale of fermented bean curd, they needed old tofu, and it was best to make it themselves since the recipe was kept secret. Previously, San Luo had asked Fan Feiniang to help buy a mule on behalf of the Chen family, but they didn't have one themselves. Normally, they would take their grains to the Chen family for grinding, but Shen Lie, with his strength, wouldn't find grinding tofu a difficult task. When Shen Lie returned home for lunch, San Luo shared her plan with him.

    Hearing that there would be new products in the shop, Shen Lie found it interesting. Making tofu might be hard work for others, but it wasn't for him. He agreed and said, "The stone mill at home is too small. I'll go buy a larger one. Let me know if you need anything else, and I'll take Xiao An with me to do some shopping."

    There were indeed many items to purchase, with salt, wine, and spices topping the list.

    As for the wine, it was out of the question. Not only was it impossible to find modern high-proof alcohol, but even the traditional wine of this era was scarce due to the recent harvest season. People had barely enough food to eat, let alone wine.

    Fortunately, though the flavor of fermented tofu would be lessened without high-alcohol content, and its shelf life shortened, it could still be made.

    For convenience, customizing a large steamer and a big iron pot would prove useful. Not only for making fermented tofu, but also for steaming and stir-frying other dishes, far more efficiently than using clay pots and steamers.

    After listening to her requirements for the iron pot and steamer, Shen Lie replied, "I'll order an iron pot. As for the steamer, I can make it with Xiao An's help."

    He then asked Sang Luo, "What about packaging? Are we using jars?"

    Sang Luo nodded. "No rush on that. I need to calculate the jar size and draw a sketch first."

    The two children were still easy to manage at this stage, sleeping and eating most of the time. Thus, Sang Luo could work on her drawing in the room undisturbed.

    After lunch, Shen Lie and Shen An pushed a handcart into town to purchase what they needed. The iron pot would take a few days, so Shen Lie and Shen An spent the afternoon crafting the steamer that Sang Luo required.

    Sang Luo's sketch wasn't drawn by her own hand. As Aunty Zhong had instructed, she shouldn't strain her eyes during the postpartum month. Thus, Shen Ning took over the task. It wasn't a difficult job, as their family had frequently collaborated with the pottery jar craftsman since they opened the shop. She merely needed to indicate the jar size, sketch a rough outline, and write a few words.

    Daxing Village's fermented tofu came in various types: green, red, and white, each with countless flavors when further distinguished. Sang Luo had personally made the most common varieties herself – the red and white varieties coated in chili powder. Due to her health back then, she primarily made white-flavored ones: sweet and spicy, osmanthus, five-spice, sesame, and rice wine. For her first batch, she instructed Jinnan to make the spicy red and five-spice white versions.

    On the day the iron pot arrived, Shen Lie and Shen An made tofu overnight, pressing it until dawn. Once it was sufficiently dry, the meticulous work began, led by Shen Ning, who possessed the best culinary skills among the brothers. The two siblings assisted him as they worked together.

    This process required time for fermentation, and the row of houses constructed in the Shen family's backyard came into use.

    Sang Luo visited the backyard herself to monitor the fermentation progress. Only after confirming its success did she allow Shen Ning to proceed to the next stage.

    By this time, the Chen family had also finished their busy tasks. Sang Luo invited Mother Chen and Qin Fang to learn how to make mung bean noodles from her. Since she was still in confinement, she could only provide instructions verbally. Fortunately, she had personally made these noodles before for video recordings to earn some income, so she was quite familiar with the process. However, Mother Chen and Qin Fang found her explanations confusing, asking repeatedly until they were confident they had understood every detail. They then returned home to prepare the tools and attempt a small batch.

    Despite a couple of failed attempts due to incorrect handling of details, they eventually succeeded on the third try. This time, they moved the operation to the Shen family's inner courtyard, closing the door to minimize disturbance. With Sang Luo supervising the entire process, they finally achieved success.

    That same night, both the Chen and Shen families tasted their homemade noodles, thrilled beyond words. Back at the provincial school, Shen Lie's classmates, who were close friends, congratulated him on the birth of his twin son and daughter.

    The physician from Xuzhou, Doctor Xu, who had returned to the capital, naturally resumed his duties after requesting an end to his leave. Quietly, he sought out Cen Xi and seized an opportunity to report back to the emperor.

    Doctor Xu was rather relieved; after half a month on the ship, the bit of flesh he had gained during his stay at the Shen residence had slimmed down. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been a good sight for the emperor.

    He faithfully recounted the situation with Sangluo, and upon learning that they were expecting twins, the emperor was quite pleased, considering it a blessing for the Shen couple. He inquired further about the welfare of the people in Xuzhou before dismissing Doctor Xu with a wave of his hand.

    Watching as Doctor Xu bowed, took a few steps back, and left with an air of integrity, the emperor felt wistful.

    Perhaps only his own covert guards could have brought him some food.

    subjects still fell short.

    When would such a shop appear in the capital?

    ...

    In early October, the much-anticipated specialty store of Daxing Village, under the emperor's watchful eye, introduced a new product called fermented bean curd. It was sold in small jars for sixty copper coins, advertised to be delicious when paired with congee.

    Sang Luo's shop had already gained a reputation in Shezhou City; people were always afraid they wouldn't get their hands on it, and there had never been any complaints about taste. The target customers were the affluent residents of the city, so a price tag of sixty copper coins was indeed very reasonable within this establishment. Due to the habit formed from previous rushes to buy, it was wise to secure several bottles of each flavor beforehand.

    Indeed, it was true that in the South, congee was a common breakfast. This delicacy soon found its way onto the tables of some wealthy households in the city, and then... the shop became bustling once more.

    Not knowing what exactly this new item was made of, people were afraid that it would be as sought-after as the previous bread, cakes, and meat floss, disappearing before they could get their hands on it. As a result, there were return customers the next day, buying in bulk. Fortunately, the flavor improved with time after being preserved, so as long as they didn't overstock, the siblings allowed it.

    Moreover, since it was relatively affordable compared to other items in the Da Xing Village Specialty Shop, its reputation gradually spread, attracting more middle-class customers, thus boosting business significantly.

    After a few days of sales, Shen Ning calculated the profits, and the trio's enthusiasm for making this product only grew. As the food needed to ferment directly on steaming trays, Shen Lie, along with Shen An, made over ten additional sets. Throughout early October, Shen Lie barely rested when he came back from school, aside from playing with the children. It was fortunate that the backyard had ample space, or else they wouldn't have been able to accommodate such a large production. Only when Sang Luo mentioned that the fermented tofu couldn't be stored for too long did the siblings finally slow down a bit.

    By mid-October, the fervor for the fermented tofu hadn't subsided, and now zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) and noodles joined the lineup. The people of Shezhou already knew that if they wanted something exotic, they should frequently visit the Da Xing Village Specialty Shop. Even those from the surrounding counties who occasionally ventured to Shezhou City would make it a point to stop by the shop.

    As the fame of the Da Xing Village Specialty Shop spread, so did the reputation of Da Xing Village itself. Furthermore, the interactions between the Shen family and the governor's mansion eventually caught the attention of observant individuals.

    In the middle of the month, at the provincial academy, Elder Lin, now the academy's doctor, privately called one of the teachers and whispered some instructions to him.

    This teacher was originally hired by Elder Lin and had a close relationship with the Lin family. Upon hearing Elder Lin's words, he was startled. "Your Excellency, is this...? I hope it's not what I think it is?"

    Elder Lin smiled. "I need you to inquire about it first."

    The teacher hesitated for a moment but still advised, "Your Excellency, have you considered this further? During the September clothing preparation holiday, most students genuinely took a month off. But not for the five, no, six students from Da Xing Village, including Wang Yunzheng. They returned from their month-long break with visibly tanner complexions."

    In other words, they were genuine farmers indeed.

    Grandpa Lin stroked his beard and chuckled. "I understand. You've given it careful thought. Just ask around for me, but don't mention that I sent you."

    With those words, the scholar wouldn't dare say anything else. Moreover, upon reflection, not to mention the five from Da Xing Village and Wang Yunzheng, their academic progress was indeed rapid. Some of what they knew didn't seem to have come from their schoolmaster.

    He realized that Grandpa Lin might have noticed this as well.

    So why should they be afraid of farming now? There would always be a day when they could rise above their circumstances.

    Thus, he agreed with a smile and returned to the school. After class, he called Shen Lie aside for a chat.

    ...

    When Shen Lie came home that evening, the two children were still awake. He washed his hands and played with them before discussing something with Sang Luo.

    "Brother Wei's marriage seems to be taking shape."

    These words caught Sang Luo's attention. Wei Qinghe's marriage was a major concern for Wei Lingzhen. After all, Wei Qinghe was already twenty-four years old, and by the next New Year, he would be twenty-five. How could she not be anxious?

    Unfortunately, due to years of warfare, suitable young women were genuinely hard to come by. Moreover, during the first year when every family was busy cultivating their land, even if there were eligible maidens, they would stay at home to help out, as survival took precedence. As for the Wei family, both Wei Qinghe and he himself weren't too concerned. Wei Qinghe's entire focus was on his studies, believing that it was fine to establish his career before settling down.

    Not only was Wei Lingzhen anxious, the Zhou and Lu families were also busy arranging matches for Third Son Zhou and Third Son Lu. These two had previously been engrossed in the mountains, and later, they were swamped with tasks in Daxing Village. Recently, having some free time, both families were actively seeking information about eligible young women.

    Thus, when Shen Lie mentioned Wei Qinghe's marriage, Sang Luo became quite curious. "Which family? Did Wei Qinghe talk to you about it?"

    Shen Lie shook his head and replied, "One of our teachers subtly inquired about Brother Wei and his family's situation today, as well as whether there are any plans regarding Wei Qinghe's marriage."

    "Do your teachers have their eye on Wei Qinghe as a son-in-law?"

    Shen Lie waved his hand. "I'm not sure, but this teacher probably doesn't have a daughter of marrying age. Perhaps they're asking on behalf of someone else. If they have their heart set on it, you might hear about it sooner or later."

    By the end of October, Sang Luo indeed found out, thanks to Xu Wenying discreetly whispering to Shen Ning. She dared to speak of it because the matchmaker had already visited the Lin family twice.

    It turned out to be the Lin family.

    The Wei family's actions seemed to set the stage for Daxing Village. In early November, after Sang Luo finished her postpartum confinement, the Zhou and Lu families also brought joyful news.

    Both Third Son Zhou and Third Son Lu's marriages were settled. The one from the Zhou family was particularly familiar to Sang Luo – it was Dong Ge's younger sister, Xinning, who worked as a female apprentice in her shop.

    As for Lu Sanlang, he was referring to a cousin of his second sister-in-law, Feng Liangniang.

    The atmosphere in Daxing Village was jovial, as if the years had been stolen by the world's vicissitudes. The dates for celebrations were chosen nearby, either at the end of the year or the beginning of the following year.

    This was a joyous occasion within the Zhuang Estate, and Sangluo watched with radiant delight as Lady Fan, accompanied by Auntie Zhong and two maidservants, arrived. Their visit served three purposes: first, to mark the end of Sangluo's month-long confinement and personally see how she fared; second, to behold the newborn child; and third, to convey a message on behalf of her husband concerning official affairs.

    Each prefecture and county is required to present tribute to the capital by year's end. As for the offerings from Xizhou City, Prefect Zeng has selected several local specialties from Daxing Village.

    San Luo's eyes widened in astonishment: "!!!"

    "A tribute? Sent to the palace?"

    San Luo straightened up significantly.

    A tribute! Just the mention of it meant that all her products' packaging could be upgraded next year once it entered the palace!

    Fan Feiniang chuckled, amusing herself by playing with Yaoyao, who was grasping her finger in the cradle, while she teased San Luo, "You have no idea about the value of your own shop's goods, do you? If it weren't for their inability to be stored for long, I would have included them in the annual gifts I send to Taiyuan. And that's not all. Can you guess what the highlight of this year's tribute is?"

    Seeing Fan Feiniang looking at her with evident interest, San Luo was puzzled. "It has something to do with me?"

    Fanyang smiled and nodded. "Yes, you'll gain some recognition for it."

    Sangluo: "…"

    Did she accomplish anything remarkable this year?

    She looked at Fanyang and then lowered her eyes to ponder. She had already gained fame for the plow invention. The paper-making technique was something that couldn't be disclosed. What else could it be?

    Just as this thought crossed her mind, Sangluo's eyelids twitched as she realized something. She stared wide-eyed at Fanyang, speechless. "You can't mean…"

    Fanyang struggled to contain her laughter. Seeing that Sangluo had guessed correctly, she covered her eyes, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

    "I really don't have to seek this fame, you know."

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