Ch105 - Hospitality
The ox-pulled carriage creaked; the old man sitting within poked his head out, looking around. On both sides of the road, he saw seas of golden wheat, rippling in the warm breeze, their ears heavy and full. Down in the fields, farmers frenziedly reaped wheat. They were racing against the weather, for if it rained, the wheat would germinate and mold, wasting a year’s worth of toil. They couldn’t afford not to work as if their lives depended on it!
But this vista was a pleasing painting in the old man’s eyes. Bing Province had suffered years of drought. Shangdang had been ravaged by armed conflict four years ago. Under threat of natural and man-made disasters, droves of commoners had uprooted their families, fleeing to Ji, or Yan Province. A thousand leagues of cracked earth, the silence of the roosters, where was a scene of abundance like this to be found?
Yet in merely a year, a paradise, reminiscing of the prosperity of the Taikang Era, had materialized next to Gaodu. Were they really blessed by Buddha after all? The old man shook his head and smiled wryly at the thought. If even he could think so, it was no wonder that the commoners believed so surely that the marquess of the Liang Estate was the incarnation of the Medicine Buddha.
Then again, there were benefits to the rumors. Not just Gaodu, but even the neighboring counties had gotten rid of many locusts. They all said that locusts were a heaven-sent disaster, a warning from on high. But, as Luoyang had already degenerated to such a state, did they even need the warning? At any rate, since the commandery’s grand administrator was entirely occupied with dialectics, and had no attention to spare for affairs of state, he and Gaodu’s new magistrate had conducted an extermination campaign against the locusts. And as it happened, when harvest time came around, a plague of locusts did not occur. The few locusts that did pop up here and there cast themselves into the bonfires they lit during the night. If the status quo was maintained next month, they could collect considerably more grain.
Although, the pitiable acreage of farmland under his authority was nothing compared to that of Gaodu and the Liang Estate. He’d come, responding to the invitation, to better ties with the bodhisattva residing in the Liang Estate. Shangdang was a dangerous place, and he was no highborn scion, so, seeing that a new power had emerged, it was only natural that he’d try his damnedest to throw in with him.
That he could invite lowborn like them to a Double Fifths banquet meant he wasn’t one of those nobles who only cared about status. He wondered what the elegant scholar so enamored of in Jinyang was really like.
The ox-drawn carriage proceeded unimpeded, through the stalwart gatehouse, past the towering walls, and finally stopped before the doors of the main residence. Knowing that he hadn’t the status to oblige the host to welcome him personally, the old man placidly inched off the carriage and let the servants lead him into the courtyard.
The manor’s decor was less extravagant than he’d expected. He surreptitiously took in the furnishings, walked winding corridors, and came to the main courtyard. Several people were already seated in the center hall, but his gaze unerringly landed upon the young man at the head seat.
He wore a single-layer robe made of kudzu and a cloth headdress; from his attire to his posture, he was the picture of leisure and casualness. Regardless, not a single person who was present could outshine his dignified resplendence. He was an ethereal crane amongst a flock of chickens. Even the aristocrats of Shangdang would have to hide their faces and clear a path in his presence, let alone lowborn like them.
Momentarily stunned, the elderly man forgot to salute.
"That is I!" Liu Quan hurriedly stepped up and bowed.
Liang Feng lightly wove it off, "There’s no need for such formalities on such a fine holiday as Yulan. Please, take a seat, Magistrate Liu."
Every word he spoke was pleasant as a spring breeze. It was only because Liu Quan was getting on in years and had some presence of mind that he didn’t lose his composure. He stiffly went to his place, and only then realized that he was surrounded by familiar faces: the magistrate of Gaodu, General Wu of Taihang Pass, and the magistrates of two nearby small counties. Practically all the magistrates of the counties neighboring the Liang Estate were gathered in one place.
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Seeing that everyone had arrived, Liang Feng smiled, "I am honored that you gentlemen came today to celebrate Double Fifths. The rich harvest you saw along the way here was made possible by your coordinated efforts in clearing out the locusts ahead of time."
Guo Jiao stroked his beard happily, "If you hadn’t started those efforts, Marquess Liang, could such a summer harvest come to be? You’re too modest, Marquess Liang. It is us who should give thanks to you."
It was just the right amount of fawning. The others voiced their agreement, evidently wanting to get into the Liang Estate’s good graces as well. Liu Quan cleared his throat, "Before, I had only heard of Gaodu and the Liang Estate’s land reclamation, but seeing it with my own eyes has opened them to a new world. That turning over some barren fields could save so many refugees is truly a blessing for the common people. That is what makes it an act of great benevolence."
Complimenting the Liang Estate; heavily emphasizing "benevolence," attributing all the credit to the bodhisattva, Liang Feng. Such unobtrusive sycophantism was slightly cleverer.
Guo Jiao instantly sent him an irritated glare. This old coot, he sure was good at bootlicking! Determined not to lose, he quickly said, "Magistrate Liu is absolutely right! We must thank the Liang Estate that even to this day, there has been no outbreak among the refugees. The only one in all the world who could achieve such a feat is Marquess Liang."
Their toadying antics amused Liang Feng, "The two of you are overly humble. I only did what was within my meagre ability. However, the governmental farmlands under your authority, Magistrate Guo, are excellently thriving. What would truly be of great benefit to the common people, is if the other counties could follow your example."
His words effected their quietude, at least. They were all magistrates, they all knew that relieving refugees was a thankless task. Assuming they weren’t too poor to provide succor to all those people in the first place, even if they did spend massive amounts of money and grain to keep them all alive, there wasn’t any guarantee that these people would stay to plant their fields. If some mishap were to cause the refugees to assail the county government, now that was a prime example of !
How did Guo Jiao even feed all those refugees? There had to be a few hundred of them already, right? How much money could a tiny little Gaodu have in its coffers?
One’s affairs were best known by oneself. When no one responded, Guo Jiao chuckled, "Well, there were renegade troops to deal with, after all. Without the Liang Estate’s guidance, I wouldn’t have dared to set up governmental fields."
In Western Jin, while rich aristocratic households could provide disaster relief as they wished, the local government had to notify and receive permission from the court before they could distribute grain from their storehouses or lower taxes. Thus, Guo Jiao stuck to the claim that he was taking in refugees to work governmental fields. It was a common way of settling refugees that many larger counties used. Then, he would underreport the acreage and population size, and muddle through no problem.
Currently, the fields were still in their initial phase and their produce was only enough to support these people. After another season or two of planting, there was no one who could fault him for replenishing government coffers or enriching his pockets.
Guo Jiao counted his coins on his wishful abacus. Liang Feng, of course, wouldn’t pop his bubble, "It was your prudent management that facilitated your success, Magistrate Guo. It is due to the chain pumps and waterwheels that I have recently put into production that my estate withstood the drought. If you are not opposed, gentlemen, I could send some craftsmen to your counties to promote irrigation."
This was a great thing, which fell in line with a county magistrate’s basic duties. Still, the infrastructure would cost money to build. Two magistrates hesitated, while Liu Quan answered right away, "How thorough your considerations are, Marquess Liang. Building irrigation works in Ji County would let us cultivate governmental farmlands in just a couple of years. What great generosity!"
The determination to cling to his thigh was strong with this one. Liu Quan earnestly wanted to pay allegiance to the Liang Estate then. Liang Feng nodded knowingly, "If all officials under heaven were as diligent as the gentlemen here, now that would be a true blessing to the people."
That which ought to be praised was already praised, and that which ought to be cued was already cued. Since it was getting late, Liang Feng spoke no more of politics and smiled, "Best to begin the banquet first on a holiday like Yulan. If you would come with me, gentlemen."
Now it was time for the real banquet. They unwound in relief, stood, and followed Liang Feng into an inner courtyard. The banquet was hosted at a pavilion by the water this time. A grove of weeping willows stood by the shores, their branches swaying in the wind; they were rather charming. Who would’ve guessed that the Liang Estate would directly set out the feast, without arranging for songstresses or dancers.
Then again, that may have been for the best. It was uncertain if the guests were even able to participate in all that music-making and poetry composition. Apparently, Marquess Liang really had invited them to eat, and not to make a show of upper-class pomp and circumstance. The guests were all deeply appreciative of Marquess Liang’s conduct and consideration, not at all feeling belittled. The delicacies laid out on the tables were an even bigger surprise.
They’d never seen dishes like these before!
There were five plates and one bowl on each person’s table, as well as two small sticky dumplings placed in a black ceramic platter. The sticky dumplings were made not with yellow millet, but with pearly white rice! White rice was rare already in the northern regions, and sticky dumplings made with white rice were even rarer. Not to mention that these sticky dumplings weren’t filled with meat. One contained red dates, the other red bean paste. The vibrant red peeking out from under glossy white jade made the sticky dumplings look especially temptatious.
The other dishes were each unique as well. The fish wasn’t steamed, but somehow cooked in such a way that its surface was crispy gold, and coated in a thick layer of sauce; its strange aroma assaulted the nose. The mutton was stewed with radishes, nothing special about the method, but who was able to procure radishes in this season? It was rather extraordinary that they could appear on the table if they had been stored away during the winter. The succulent green chives were mixed with freshwater shrimp as small as a fingernail, light red visible beneath translucent white. And there was a dish of cabbage, fresh as if it had only just been plucked out of the ground; garnished with finely minced garlic, just the sight of it was enough to rouse one’s appetite.
Last but not least, the bowl of soup wasn’t commonplace either. It actually had some ground-up cured meat in it. Red meat, white porridge, a smattering of black wood ear and green onion, it was complete in color and fragrance. On the plate beside it were two pancakes, no larger than the mouth of a cup, though they weren’t steamed cakes. They smelled strongly of oily tallow, and their skin was delicate and flaky. The portions of dishes really weren’t much, but altogether, they were a feast for the eyes and certainly the most novel and enticing foods that any one of them had ever seen.
"Truly, Marquess Liang…… you honor us overmuch." Liu Quan’s eyes were glued to the food on the table. Such hospitality was more than enough to receive distinguished persons; used to treat lowborn like them, it was almost too much for them to bear!
Guo Jiao, trying his best to not drool, flattered, "The Liang Estate’s cuisine is most exquisite, and one of a kind."
Liang Feng raised his chopsticks with a slight smile, "The food is simple and coarse; if it pleases you, use as much as you like."
With such a cordial invitation from the host, who could stand to hold back? Everyone dug in with gusto. There weren’t many bones in the fish, the sauce was not salty, but flavorful and sweet. The mutton was stewed sumptuously soft, and even the radishes were bursting with rich juices. The freshwater shrimp was chewy, the chives were invigorating; the cabbage, complemented with minced garlic, was an even more refreshing delicacy.
Liu Quan ponderously sampled the sticky rice dumplings. The dates and bean paste inside seemed to ooze with malt sugar and honey; its glutinous sweetness fixed itself onto the bottom of one’s heart. Wu Ling’s favorites were the soup and the flaky cakes. After devouring everything, and stuffing one’s belly with delicious food, one could still savor the aftertaste.
The meal was a pleasure for both the guests and the host. Even Liu Quan, who espoused that restricting one’s diet was good for the health, had unwittingly eaten till he was over-full. They then took a stroll in the orchards by the mountain. The craftsmen had been brought out as well, ready to follow anyone who was interested in constructing irrigation works back to their county. Weak to kindness, even the two magistrates who weren’t too keen on fussing about irrigation couldn’t help but acquiesce. Liu Quan, on the other hand, had his eye on those larger waterwheels. Unexpectedly, Liang Feng agreed to send people to survey Ji County.
And with that, all the counties within the Liang Estate’s vicinity would install chain pumps, strengthening irrigation. So long as they weren’t ravaged by conflict, it wouldn’t be many years until all their granaries were overflowing. That alone was achievement enough to be promoted.
Who wouldn’t be delighted at being treated well and shown a way forward? He saw everyone away, save for Wu Ling, the only one to remain, "Marquess Liang, the two passes are under my command now, but our forces seem somewhat insufficient."
Losing eight hundred soldiers was a thorn stuck in Wu Ling’s heart. All was fine, if no one investigated. But in the case that someone really did inspect them, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to notice the discrepancies. Plus, the cities in the valley were still under construction. What would they do if they were attacked?
Liang Feng said seriously, "The two passes are vital to securing Shangdang’s safety. Of course more soldiers must be conscripted. Why not wait until the summer harvest is over, after Gaodu county becomes self-sufficient, and recruit from amongst the refugees."
"Very well!" Wu Ling had been waiting for him to say that. Since he was a sailor on the Liang Estate’s ship, it really wasn’t appropriate to act without Liang Feng’s instruction.
"Although, the natural defenses created by these passes must be dealt with cautiously. If you aren’t opposed, General Wu, I can lend you a few people to help you train the new recruits. And remember this, these soldiers must be paid their full wages in grain!" Liang Feng did not want to see these crucial choke points fall into enemy hands because their soldiers’ food was being embezzled. This was something he needed to make clear.
"Rest assured, Marquess Liang, I will do my utmost to guard the passes; there won’t be any mistakes!" This was no joke. The passes now served as trade routes as well. The Liang Estate gave him enough dividends to line his purse with, so why bother pinching that bit of grain out of the soldiers’ mouths?
Wu Ling’s easy response eased Liang Feng’s worries somewhat. As long as he had people in the military, these passes would become surnamed Liang sooner or later. And raising Gaodu’s defensive capabilities would be useful for the coming battles. With this, his environs were stabilized. He only needed another two years to develop, and he could acquire a comfortably safe strategic depth.
He only needed two years…..