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    Chapter 278 - Investiture

    The announcements from the Ministry of Rites about the imperial examinations and the enrollment of students in the National Academy arrived almost simultaneously with the imperial edict destined for Great Prosperity Village.

    While Shen Lie and Shen An were discussing with their classmates, Wei Qinghe, Wang Yunzheng, and others, about the detailed advancement system for the first batch of scholars from Daji, a messenger rushed over to summon the brothers back home.

    "You have a visitor from your village. They say an imperial envoy has arrived at Great Prosperity Village, requesting your immediate return."

    The uproar in the provincial academy left no doubt as to whom the imperial edict was intended. Shen Lie's wife, Sang Xiangjun, had already received more imperial decrees than officials from Shezhou. Within a short year, she had been granted land, a memorial archway, and now another edict?

    Some students approached the scholars from Great Prosperity Village to inquire about Sang Luo's latest endeavor.

    With the edict already delivered, there was no need to keep it a secret. Wei Qinghe and those who knew the details shared the news, leaving everyone stunned. One swallowed hard, "Surely she'll be elevated to a County Lady this time?"

    It was during the midday break, and the entire student body was restless, all eyes fixed on the teaching assistants who were also reading the notice board.

    The teaching assistants were curious too! Exchanging glances, they agreed to go together and investigate.

    Well then, not only did Shen Lie and Shen An return home, but a group of teaching assistants and students from the provincial academy followed suit.

    Exiting the city gates of Xizhou, Fang saw many people heading to Daxing Village from afar. They were dressed as local villagers.

    Upon entering Daxing Village, the courtyard of the Shen family was already surrounded by people, but no one dared to push their way in. Shen Lie found it odd that everyone was so well-behaved. Chen Dashan and Zhou Dalang, who were also outside, whispered to him, "Aside from the envoy, several high-ranking officials from the capital have arrived. Apart from my grandmother and a few aunts from the village who are inside helping with the arrangements, we didn't dare to go in, for fear of offending them." This explained why all these villagers remained outside the Shen family's gate without stepping a foot inside. The common folk genuinely held a natural awe towards officials at this time.

    The teaching assistants and students from the provincial school were quite enamored with the officials from the capital, as they studied for the imperial examinations in the hope of one day rising above their social status and obtaining an official title. Consequently, they had more courage than ordinary villagers and followed into the first courtyard. However, they only stopped at the entrance to the second courtyard. From there, they could vaguely see that in addition to their governor, there was a high-ranking eunuch and two officials in red and green robes. Recognizing the rank insignia on the red-robed official, they identified him as a fourth-rank official and did not dare to proceed further.

    In the late February of Wuding Year 5, Daxing Village welcomed its third envoy. When Shen Lie met him, he realized that the envoy was someone he could barely consider a familiar face – it was Cen Xi, who had come to the village to deliver the imperial edict during his first visit.

    Of course, Shen Lie did not know Cen Xi's name at that time, nor was he aware that this person was the most trusted grand eunuch by the emperor. He merely recalled having seen him before, and the brothers bowed in greeting.

    Cen Xi, however, carried no air of a grand eunuch. Without even waiting for the brothers to bend their waists, he stepped forward to help them up, his smile as warm as a spring breeze.

    When the introduction later came to the Vice Director and Assistant Director of the Ministry of Agriculture, the brothers bowed again. Observing Cen Xi's demeanor and considering the upcoming investiture of the one who would become the Countess of Yunyang, no one dared to act like an official; they all remained courteous.

    ...

    The Shen family was well-prepared, with Sang Luo dressed in full regalia, incense burners arranged, and even Aoyao and Qianbao, who were barely half a year old, were coaxed into behaving as they were brought out. Only then did Cen Xi proceed to read the imperial edict.

    Receiving an edict had become a familiar routine for the Shen family, and they had anticipated a generous reward from the emperor. However, when they heard that Sang Luo was to be granted the title of a Fourth Rank County Lady with an official title, they were momentarily stunned.

    In the courtyard, the crowd of teachers and students from the provincial academy gasped softly or whispered in awe. "She's been elevated directly to a County Lady, bypassing the rank of a County Mistress, and it's a titled Fourth Rank County Lady at that."

    Not just an untitled Fourth Rank.

    Cen Xi continued reading the edict, and those around, like Zeng Zixuan, who listened attentively, understood the implications. The rewards were compact, portable, and could easily be taken along for travel...

    Sure enough, following the proclamation, it was mentioned that the entire Shen family would follow Sang Luo to the capital after the autumn examinations in Xizhou.

    Neither the title of County Lady nor the generous rewards surprised the Shen family, but the final sentence made them all look up in astonishment.

    Cen Xi smiled as he finished reading the edict and stepped forward, gesturing for Sang Luo to accept it. Addressing her and Shen Lie with a warm smile, he said, "The County Lady has made significant contributions to agriculture. The emperor hopes that she will come to the capital as soon as possible. Considering the young miss and young master are still very young and should not endure the rigors of travel, the date has been set after the autumn examinations. The County Lady's residence in the capital will be prepared, and when the time comes, your family only needs to pack your valuables and head to the capital."

    He then turned to Shen Lie and Shen An, saying, "I've heard from Lord Zeng that both of you are studying at the state academy. Upon hearing this, His Majesty has specially granted two spots for the county lady's residence to enter the imperial academy, not limited to those with inherited titles. However..."

    Here, he glanced at Shen Lie with a hint of a smile and suggested, "Young Master Shen, why not give the autumn examination a try this year?"

    Shen Lie bowed his hands and replied, "My younger brother and I just saw the notification issued by the Ministry of Rites before we returned from the state academy. We were already preparing to take the autumn examination."

    Shen Lie was telling the truth. He had no idea about Zeng Ziqian's three-year plan with the emperor. With Sang Luo repeatedly making contributions and her title rising, Shen Lie felt immense pressure. Over the past year, he had studied with great determination. When he saw the notification from the Ministry of Rites, he had already decided to take the exam.

    Cen Xi's smile widened. "That's excellent, truly excellent!"

    Then, he turned to Sang Luo and Shen Lie. "Please show us around your manor and the neighboring farmlands."

    They needed to see the double cropping with their own eyes and visit different places.

    Sang Luo couldn't refuse. She asked Cen Xi and the others to wait a moment while she put away the imperial edict, the lady's formal attire, and all the imperial gifts. After that, she, along with Shen Lie and Zeng Ziqian, the local governor, led the group outside.

    The villagers who had gathered outside were seeing Sang Luo in full formal attire for the first time, walking alongside officials. They immediately made way for them, while many others followed at a short distance behind.

    Back at the Shen residence, Chen Po and the others in the courtyard were still stunned after hearing the imperial edict.

    Country women like her didn't fully comprehend the difference between a county lady and a rural lady. They had previously visited a rural lady's residence, but now they were switching to a county lady's. The mentions of golden beans and leaves didn't register much in her mind; the only thing she remembered clearly was that Sang Luo was going to the capital.

    Sang Luo was heading to the capital.

    Shen An, Shen Ning, and Shen Jin remained at home, managing their two children and entertaining a group of young eunuchs. Chen Po instinctively pulled Shen An aside, who was still in the courtyard. "Little An, what is the Autumn Examination? Did the imperial edict just now say that your whole family will be going to the capital after the examination?"

    Shen An felt a mix of emotions. He nodded and replied, "Yes, the Autumn Examination is an imperial examination held in autumn. It will take place this August."

    Chen Po, Gan Shi, Gan Erlang's wife, Feng Liu, and Zhou Cunzheng's wife were all stunned.

    They were delighted for the Shen family's future prospects but also realized that Sang Luo, who had led them all along, would be leaving them, leaving Daxing Village, and leaving She Prefecture. They were at a loss about how to react.

    Chen Youtian tugged on his mother's arm and said, "Mother, this is good news."

    "Of course it is," Chen Po nodded. She sighed, "I just didn't expect it to happen so soon."

    In truth, since Sang Luo had encouraged Shen Lie and Shen An to pursue their studies, Chen Po had known that the Shen family would eventually leave Daxing Village. It was just that she hadn't expected it to happen so quickly.

    Indeed, wasn't it quick?

    Over the years, Shen Lie and Sang Luo had become the backbone of the families in Daxing Village. Now that they were suddenly leaving in half a year, it was as if the villagers' support had been abruptly removed, leaving them stunned.

    Chen Xiaoya, Xu Wenying, and Shi Qiaoer, who had been in the courtyard, also fell silent, exchanging wordless glances.

    On the other side, Shen Yin and Shen Tie, who were entertaining their two young nieces and nephew, couldn't help but feel a bit uneasy upon hearing that their eldest brother's family would soon be heading to the capital.

    Wei Qinghe, Wang Yunzheng, Chen Dashan, and Xu Wenqing were relatively more at ease. Wei Qinghe knew he too was bound for Chang'an for the imperial examinations. If he passed, he might not stay long in the capital, but he certainly wouldn't linger in Shezhou either.

    Chen Dashan comforted his grandmother, "What are you worried about? My trading business has always been expanding northward. I've been fretting over the fact that I'll have to travel too far in a few months, since jerky and dried meat won't keep. Selling only noodles and fermented tofu seems a waste. With Shen Lie going to the capital, it's perfect! I can open a shop there and won't have to regret losing potential customers from the northern regions. Who knows, maybe I can even visit the Duchess's residence every one or two months for a few days of free food and drink."

    Chen's grandmother chuckled and patted his arm, "You're such a tease."

    Despite his jest, everyone's spirits lifted instantly.

    Indeed, they were still working under Sang Luo. If their trading expanded to the capital, wouldn't they need to travel there frequently?

    As long as they could see each other often and keep in touch, it would be wonderful.

    The atmosphere improved, and Shen Yin and Shen Tie seemed less uneasy. Xu Wenying entertained the thought that if her two elder brothers studied diligently, perhaps she might have a chance to visit Chang'an one day. At least, they all had something to look forward to now.

    ...

    Cen Xi and the other officials from the capital returned after about two hours. Sang Luo and Shen Lie accompanied them on their way, seeing them off to an inn within the city.

    The inn was not far from the governor's residence, so Zeng Zixuan invited Shen Lie and his wife to pay a visit to his home.

    Sang Luo guessed that Zeng Zixuan had something to discuss, and since it had been a while since she last saw Lady Fan, she joined him at the governor's residence.

    Indeed, Zeng Zixuan had a matter to bring up. He briefly shared with Sang Luo what had transpired in court that day, and then instructed Xiaofeng, who had been waiting outside, to escort her to Lady Fan's quarters.

    Once Sang Luo left, Zeng Zixuan spoke privately with Shen Lie.

    "On this trip to the capital, His Majesty summoned me after the imperial audience and granted two spots for students at the Jiaozhou Manor to enter the Imperial Academy. As Eunuch Cen mentioned, these spots are not restricted to the children of officials, which is quite unprecedented."

    "Once enrolled in the National Academy, obtaining an official position through the civil service exams will be much easier. However..."

    He paused here.

    Before Zeng Zixuan could finish his sentence, Shen Lie shook his head. "Xiao An can benefit from it, but it's best for me to take the August provincial exam and then enter the capital for next year's spring examination. I want to genuinely rely on myself to pass the exams."

    Zeng Zixuan chuckled upon hearing this. "I was overthinking."

    Shen Lie was indeed clever enough and clear-headed.

    With solemn respect, Shen Lie bowed. "My foundation is weak, so I humbly request to visit the provincial office every five or six days in the future."

    Zeng Zixuan patted his arm with a smile. "No need to wait that long. Come here every day after school, and leave before the city gates close."

    Sang Luo was too outstanding – outstanding enough to lift the Shen brothers to new heights. However, someone carried along by her wouldn't receive much favor from the emperor; they would only be a shadowy presence.

    It was still acceptable for Shen An, who was young, as he had ample opportunities to excel after entering the National Academy. But not for Shen Lie. He hadn't even entered the officialdom yet, but the label of 'husband of Yunyang County Lady' was already deeply ingrained in him. If he relied on the emperor's quota to enter the Imperial Academy and sought an official position, he would find it difficult to be seriously considered for important roles in the future.

    On the other hand, a peasant son, with only a year and a half of serious study, would gain much more respect from the emperor if he managed to pass the exams through his own abilities.

    For the first imperial examination, the noble and official families' children would go through the National Academy. The real competition would be among a small number of yet-to-enter-service minor aristocratic, commoner, and peasant offspring. The upbringing and education of the aristocratic and commoner children were beyond question, while peasants lacked both power and connections. Passing the exam would be a monumental challenge.

    However, Sang Luo's reputation in the court had its advantages. As long as Shen Lie had sufficient knowledge and solid skills, the examiners wouldn't dare to dismiss him solely based on his background.

    Thus, this premature journey to the capital was both a challenge and an opportunity for Shen Lie. It was a chance for the Son of Heaven and the court officials to acknowledge him as an individual, not merely as Sanluo's shadow. The outcome would depend solely on his own abilities.

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