Chapter 223 - Returning

By the time the warmth of spring arrived, the Yu Family’s green vegetables were already ready to sell. At this time, other people hadn’t even scattered vegetable seeds onto the ground. The four mu of land in the front courtyard were all planted with green vegetables that had short growing cycles. In general, most green vegetables required twenty to forty days to finish growing. However, their family’s produce still only required twenty days to be ready for harvest, and this was during a time when snow had fallen twice.

As the rest of the world was recovering from the silence of winter, the whole courtyard was filled with lush and verdant green vegetables. It was a sight that comforted people’s hearts. Lady Fang, who was now eight months pregnant and on the verge of childbirth, strolled in the vegetable fields every day with one hand supporting her back and the other cradling her belly. Not only was she able to get some exercise but she also felt her spirits rise whenever she looked at the growing plants.

Every morning, multiple carts came to and from the Yu Family’s residence, purchasing vegetables. Most of these customers were the wealthy families in town. Last winter, Zhenxiu Restaurant made a killing off of their oyster sauce green vegetables dishes, which cost five taels a plate. Because the Yao Family had fresh vegetables last year, their reputation rose within the town. This year, some people found out early where they bought their food from and had especially signed a contract with the Yu Family well in advance. They were afraid that if they didn’t come to an agreement early, there wouldn’t be any spots left for them to become a customer.

The Yu Family’s vegetables grew very well, and each stalk was healthy and flourishing. They looked so tender that it seemed as if one pinch could draw out water. They weren’t cheap though. Other than Zhenxiu Restaurant and the Yao Family, who were given last year’s prices as old customers, the rest of the new customers had to pay a third higher to obtain these vegetables.

Although each of the Yu Family’s four mu of fields was able to produce around three thousand five hundred catties of vegetables, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the town’s demands for fresh produce. Following the rule of ‘first come first serve’, the Yu Family chose the first ten families that approached them as their customers of the year. Luckily, each family didn’t buy too many vegetables every day, so they were able to supply them all.  

The Liu Family’s eldest son, who was Xiaocao’s eldest maternal uncle, had been enlightened after his business with selling watermelons, so he bought his own donkey and cart. Using his cart, he hauled a bunch of fresh vegetables every few days from his younger sister’s home to the prefectural city. Because he had General Fang’s help, he was able to find ready customers from the city’s grocery stands. Whenever he pulled into the city with his cart full of vegetables, he no longer had to wait for customers to buy. Instead, all he had to do was arrive at a grocery store, weigh all of his vegetables, and get paid before he headed back. Although he made less profit doing this than selling at market price, it wasn’t as exhausting for him. 

Liu Pei wasn’t someone who would take advantage of his younger sister and brother-in-law. The three of them disputed the wholesale prices for half a day and finally came to an agreed price. They would sell the vegetables to him at the same price they sold to Zhenxiu Restaurant. Originally, Liu Pei was trying to get them to sell the vegetables to him at the higher price the other eight families were paying, but Yu Hai resolutely rejected that idea. Luckily, he was the only source of such fresh vegetables in the prefectural city. Even if he sold all of it at a wholesale price to the grocery stores, the price was still much higher than what he paid for. Liu Pei was therefore able to earn dozens of taels of profit for each run he did.

As for harvesting the vegetables, the Yu Family, once again, had more work than they could deal with. Thus, they spent some money to hire some scrupulous young girls and matrons to help. Every day, they received a salary of twenty copper coins for four hours of work. In the past, twenty copper coins could only be earned by a brawny man doing hard labor for a day. 

Ever since the construction of the harbor started, the need for labor steadily increased. Naturally, salaries slowly went up. An adult man in his prime could earn around thirty to fifty copper coins a day. However, these people were all doing back-breaking labor to earn this money. How could it compare to working at the Yu Family picking vegetables for four hours?  

Anyone in the village who could make a connection with the Yu Family did their best to cozy up. Thus, there were many people who came around. However, the Yu Family only needed around a dozen people to help out. Since all of the women who came over were known to them, it made Madam Liu very worried. She didn’t know how to refuse any of them.

Xiaoao knew her mother’s personality well, so she gave her a couple of presents and had her mother go back to her maternal family for a couple of days. Ever since she married over to the Yu Family, she never went back to her maternal family as she was afraid that Madam Zhang would be unhappy. After they separated from the family, they were so busy that there was no time to even rest, so she had very few opportunities to go back. Now, using this opportunity, Xiaocao had her mother go back to her home to rest for a few days and enjoy the time with her parents. 

As for the sticky job of hiring people, that was left to her godmother’s two handmaids. Those who were able to become the primary handmaids of the managing lady of the residence definitely weren’t simple. These two maids knew when to be careful and when to reveal their shrewish sides for the benefit of their mistress. In addition, they also had the support of the general and his wife. Even if the women asking for a job got rejected, they couldn’t do or say anything. 

The two maids were also quite clever. They wrote down the details of every person who came by asking for the position into a small book. By doing that, they were able to analyze the connections and relationships that each prospective candidate had. Using that knowledge, they chose a dozen from the bunch. After dispatching the messages to everyone, they instructed the new workers arrive at five in the morning sharp every day. Those who were late naturally had their salary deducted. As for the other people who came by, the two handmaids looked at them with calm expressions and merely stated, “In the future, when there is more work, we will first consider you” before sending them off. 

The workers included the following people: Shuanzhu’s wife, Ergou’s wife, Xiaocao’s two paternal aunts (Yu Xi and Yu Jiang’s wives), Xiaocao’s older female cousin (Yu Xi’s eldest daughter), Zhou Shanhu who was trying to earn some pocket money, and some other women who had decent relationships with the Yu Family. All of these people knew that Zhenzhu and Linglong chose them because they were good friends with the Yu Family, so they worked especially hard. 

All of them were used doing work in the village, so the task of picking vegetables wasn’t considered hard. Every day, they were able to finish four hours of work in two. Furthermore, there wasn’t even a speck of dirt on the vegetables and they were all stacked neatly. All of the servants who came over to buy vegetables praised them for being hardworking and nimble. 

There wasn’t much work left to be done at home, so Xiaocao wanted to rest a bit. Before two days passed, Xiaolian called her over to the docks to help. Xiaolian’s business at the docks had continued to grow. Now that it was spring, the docks, which had been more quiet over the winter, were now becoming more and more busy.  

The docks had workers, which meant that there were also people selling food. The mornings and evenings were a bit chilly in the early spring, so they had stopped selling starch jelly last autumn. Xiaolian and Eldest Maternal Aunt were now busy with their noodles and braised food stand. There was so much work that they couldn’t keep up. 

The noodle stand now had more variety than when Old Liu ran it. Old Liu used to sell noodles that were boiled in water. Xiaocao added zhajiang noodles, noodles mixed with scallions and oil, noodles mixed with salted vegetables and shredded meat, and braised meat noodles to the menu. All of these were taught to Xiaolian and Eldest Maternal Aunt in an effort to make the noodle stand seem fresh. In addition, she also made a batch of noodles for the purpose of making noodles stir fried with eggs and noodles stir fried with shredded meat. These two dishes were more heavily seasoned and suited the tastes of northerners. Thus, although the price of the stir-fried noodles was higher than that of the other offerings, they were still a popular dish. 

As for the braised food, Xiaolian didn’t have to do the labor-intensive work of wrapping a portion of braised meat in oiled paper bags anymore. Instead, she brought over a batch of the braising sauce from home and a bag of spices that Xiaocao had crafted with her secret recipe. At the docks, she was now able to braise food right there. The stove at the stand was at just the right height and reached Xiaolian’s waist. Charcoal burned merrily inside the stove, which caused the braising marinade to bubble incessantly as the ingredients simmered in the pot. Snow white steam wafted out of the pot and a dense, fragrant smell of braised food permeated the surroundings. The smell invaded people’s noses. If there was a good wind around, that strong enticing smell could almost envelop the entire docks.

A bowl of plain noodles and two copper coins’ worth of braised food was enough to satisfy an adult. Every day at mealtime, the Yu Family’s noodle stand was crowded with bunches of people. There weren’t enough seats at the tables, so some people had to squat on the ground as they ate. Despite that, those people never went to the other areas to eat. 

All of the other food vendors at the docks could only watch helplessly as the Yu Family raked in money. Among them included the lady at a different noodle stand who had long ago shooed Xiaocao and her sister away when they wanted to first sell their braised food next to her. Her business had slowed down until it was hard to break even. That woman now deeply regretted her previous actions. If she hadn’t made a bad decision in the past, it was possible that her noodle stand would be the one with people lining up without end!

Today, Xiaocao had been dragged along by Xiaolian to be a free laborer. She didn’t have to do any of the ‘hard work’, such as rolling out the dough, boiling the noodles, and slicing the braised food. Instead, she was in charge of serving the customers when the food was ready. Even with the easy job, she was so busy that she didn’t have time to take a breath to rest. 

Right after the busy time of the day finished, Xiaocao was about to sit down and rest when she suddenly heard a bunch of commotion at the docks, ‘Eh? What’s going on? Why are there so many strange people at the docks now? Is someone here to cause trouble? Don’t tell me some hooligans are coming to smash this place Or is it because someone is jealous of Brother Six’s achievements at the docks and wants him to stumble?’

Xiaocao squirmed her way towards the docks out of curiosity and discovered that there were a large group of people there. They didn’t look like an unruly mob. On the contrary, they resembled members of a well-disciplined family. She couldn't help but feel a bit worried for Brother Six——these fellows didn’t look easy to deal with!

Brother Six was someone who was worldly. He had been at the docks for all these years, so what type of person hadn’t he seen before? When he saw the group of people in front of him, he calmly went up to greet them. He headed towards the person who seemed to be in charge of everyone and bowed, “Please excuse me, but may I ask what brings you here to the Tanggu Docks?”

Although the supposed leader of the group was dressed casually, it couldn’t hide his lordly bearing. He faintly glanced at Brother Six and asked, “Are you the one in charge of the docks here?”

“That I am! Lord, are you trying to load cargo or unload it? Please come to our business office and register. I will make sure to give you priority!” Brother Six didn’t feel any malice coming off this stranger so he carefully sounded him out.

The man hinted at Brother Six and brought him to a relatively secluded place. He lowered his voice and said, “I am the commander of the imperial bodyguards from the capital and I carry with me a secret decree from the emperor. We are here to welcome the young royal prince who is coming home from his seafaring journey. Royal Prince Yang has already informed us in advance that he has almost a hundred cargo ships that need to dock. All of them carry precious goods from the southeast seas and the western hemisphere. Therefore...you need to prepare in advance!” 

When Royal Prince Yang left on his journey last year, it caused a sensation. Even if Brother Six wanted to forget that event, he couldn’t. A year and a half had passed and the royal prince hadn’t even come home. Thus, it was necessary to make it grand and ostentatious. This so-called commander of the imperial bodyguards had brought over at least fifty to sixty soldiers with him. From this, it looked like he planned on firmly guarding the docks.

There was nothing wrong with that. It was said that before the current emperor ascended the throne, he also heavily recommended exploring distant seas to find novel species, especially high-yielding crops. In fact, after the sweet potato was introduced to the country, it benefited thousands among thousands of Great Ming commoners. The current emperor had even said this in his throne room, “When we ascended the throne, we set our ten year goal to this: we want the common people of the Great Ming Dynasty to all have food on their plate and all to be able to eat their fill!”

For the sake of finding more high-yielding crops, this emperor, who loved his people, sent Royal Prince Yang, who had just reached the age of fifteen, on an important mission. He had to travel to the western hemisphere. This time, Royal Prince Yang was coming back victoriously. Naturally, the emperor regarded him with great importance.

Brother Six knew that something as big as this required careful planning. A small misstep could cause him to lose his life. However, if he did everything well and was able to show himself in front of Royal Prince Yang, then, in the future, his footing at the docks would be stable. Should other people try to take his position, they would first have to consider his backing. The construction of the harbor would be finished within the next two years. If the whole harbor was in his hands, then he, Brother Six, would truly be a person of note in Tanggu Town!

There was no such thing as a free meal. He had to take this particular piece of business!!  

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Myst's Thoughts

Food pic1 & pic2

Sanguine’s Thoughts: And now, the plot thickens!

Translator: Sanguine