Qi Xue opened her eyes to bright blue skies and the sound of someone shouting at her to wake up. She sat up abruptly and took in the ancient scenery, the wooden village houses, the lack of modern technology evident in the carts and absence of pavement. Scanning the surroundings told her that this body had just been hit by one such cart, and a blubbering person to the side was the distraught driver of said cart who was worried they’d killed her when she was knocked unconscious.
Ah, so it was like this. She’d transmigrated, hah?
I knew I shouldn’t have read that novel where a character shared my name, she thought. Ah, well, at least transmigrating into a situation where you already know the story helps grease the wheels.
Who would have thought that her, Qi Xue, world-famous culinary innovator and leader of the farm-to-table movement in her city, would suffer a freak kitchen accident and meet her untimely death?
She got up, dusted the road off of herself, and wandered off. If she remembered correctly, this character who shared her name was a side character who—
“Hey!” A hand grabbed her shoulder and began to turn her around.
The body’s instincts were strong, even if the original soul had departed. Qi Xue found herself flipping the person without even knowing how she’d done it. Belatedly, she recalled that the original owner came from a long clan of martial arts masters and that she was here in this town to beg the family patriarch to allow her, the only child of her recently deceased parents, to join the male members of the clan in warrior training.
Fuck that! thought Qi Xue. I don’t want to fight! This ancient world is hard enough without modern amenities! All I want is to live the best life possible, therefore I want to get rich.
She quickly discarded the thought of following the novel plot and almost wandered off again, contemplating how she was going to take advantage of her modern knowledge to make money here, when she suddenly remembered she’d flipped someone with martial arts. Extending a hand, she helped them up. “So sorry, I was startled by you. Please forgive me, what can this lowly peasant do for you?”
She was aware she was laying it on a bit thick, but Qi Xue figured it wouldn’t hurt to ingratiate herself and maybe get some info and contacts that would help her get rich.
Instead, she got a slap for her troubles. “Insolence! How dare you pretend that you did nothing wrong when you traumatized my cart driver and dared to lay a hand on my valuable self! I demand repayment!”
Ah, she remembered more now. The character named Qi Xue was an annoying villain, presented as a conniving con artist who set up schemes to blackmail others into giving her money. The patriarch of the martial arts clan had immediately denied her request and kicked her out. Once she was stuck on the street with nowhere to go, she decided to turn to a life of villainy. In the story, this was the original owner’s first scam. She threw herself at the cart, pretended to be hurt, and extorted resources out of the main character. This young lady, the main lead, was the daughter of the richest people in the town, the Wu family. From then on, the character Qi Xue continually schemed and made the main character’s life difficult.
Well, I don’t know about blackmail, thought Qi Xue. But I do want money, or at least a place to live. A plan formed in her head as quickly as storm clouds gather on a summer day.
Aloud, she begged, “Oh, please forgive this lowly peasant! I have no money, but anything to repay the virtuous young lady for her troubles, I will do!” She fell to her knees. “But please, whatever it is, do not sentence me to a life of servitude locked away where no man will ever see my face and want to marry me.” She summoned tears to her eyes using the original owner’s special technique at acting. “You see, this peasant is getting older, and her marriage prospects are flowing away like running water. The worst thing she could imagine is being stuck as a kitchen servant until she is old and unmarriageable, and then what would she do? Oh no, please, anything but that!”
Wu Ruoying was a sharp and hard woman at this point in the story. It was not until she met her love interest (Qi Xue found him so boring she forgot his name) that she began to soften and to see the wrong in her interactions with others. Therefore, Qi Xue knew if she was given insight into what this annoying Qi Xue character most did not want, the young lady would immediately pick that one.
All according to plan, Wu Ruoying tilted her chin up, eyes hardening, and announced haughtily, “You dare to make requests of the young lady of the Wu family? For your insolence, I sentence you to ten years of servitude in my family’s kitchen. Servant Deng, put her in the cart!”
A servant other than the cart driver jumped down, expressionless. Qi Xue burst into tears but went along with him willingly. Secretly, she rejoiced at the success of her machinations. Okay, maybe a trace of the scheming original owner was still left over, but that was okay. Qi Xue was simply living up to expectations!
Life as a servant was hard, naturally. Given the adaptations Qi Xue already had to make to accommodate living in the ancient past, she easily disguised her confusion over everything with adjusting to her novel surroundings. At some point, though, she was able to get the hang of life as a kitchen servant in the Wu household. Once that was accomplished, she was finally able to sit down and plot.
She didn’t really need spending money at the household. Sharp and hard as Wu Ruoying was, her father was the opposite. Wu Shun was a generous father but also a generous master. By manipulating Wu Ruoying so thoroughly, Qi Xue had really lucked out. She had a place to sleep and was able to eat two meals a day. Though she had to work hard, she at least did not have to worry about basic necessities of living.
Intentionally, Qi Xue avoided Wu Ruoying and did not antagonize her as the original had done in the story. Wu Ruoying quickly forgot about the servant she’d indentured and Qi Xue’s life was overall peaceful. She was barely even aware of the events of the novel coming to fruition, of the young lady’s encounter with the mysterious gongzi Zhou Zehao that all the other servants wouldn’t stop talking about. Besides, who had time to wag tongues over the affairs of the rich when there was always servant’s work to be done?
Since she didn’t mind staying here, Qi Xue contemplated how to make her life easier instead. Being a servant was no fun, maybe she work her way into becoming a cook? Her hands itched, longing to prepare food again. In this rich household, there was no shortage of ability to obtain delicious ingredients unavailable to the common people. Her only problem was how to gain access to them and get a chance to prove her skill in cooking.
That opportunity came at the New Year. While Old Man Wu allowed all of the servants who wished to return home to their families for some of the days, Qi Xue truthfully stated that she had no home to return to and so would stay. The kitchen auntie, on the other hand, went home every year. Though she was very loyal to Old Man Wu and stayed no matter what at other times, the kitchen auntie’s one insistence was to have the entirety of the Spring Festival after New Year’s Day to spend with her family.
Thus, after the total number of servants going home for the New Year, Qi Xue found herself as head cook. She had been snooping previously during her regular duties and already knew where everything was kept, so now it was just a matter of cooking meals for the big family.
The person below her in the kitchen was Fang Wenhui, who had been pulled from her usual work to offset the short-staffed kitchen. Fang Wenhui had an odd story. She was a farmer in a time where female farmers were rare. Most of the time, women managed households and farms while their husbands and sons did the work, but not Fang Wenhui. Her family seemed to birth only daughters, so the family head had decided that they would teach the daughters to do farmwork. It had sent tongues wagging and ridicule raining down on the Fang family, but when harvest time came and the Fang family produced over twice the harvest as in years previous, the neighbors had stopped laughing. Their prosperity continued for several years.
Unfortunately, when Old Fang died unexpectedly, the one who took over was a covetous uncle who reverted the farm to its old ways and cast out the daughters who were too strong-minded. Old Man Wu had been a childhood friend of Old Fang and pitied his oldest daughter, Fang Wenhui. He took her into his household and let her join the other farmers on his land. Those who remembered the prosperity of the Fang family knew better than to wag their tongues, and they soothed their minds over the impropriety when they saw that Old Man Wu didn’t invite other women farmers, just Fang Wenhui. In the cold season, it was also only Fang Wenhui among the farmers who went into the house to work. This was proper, said the other servants. She was a woman, after all.
So that was how Fang Wenhui came to be working under Qi Xue.
The first day in her new position, Qi Xue could not help but glance continually at Fang Wenhui out of the corner of her eye as she worked. The other woman did not speak any words more than one syllable, only grunting at each of Qi Xue’s commands. She was tall and her arms had hidden muscles that revealed themselves when Qi Xue directed her to move heavy things. Her hair was bound tightly under a kerchief, which was in line with the messy kitchen work the two were to be doing. But most striking of all were her phoenix eyes. Their gaze was bright and intelligent, and when they turned on Qi Xue she felt her heart flutter.
This is not the time to notice the beauty of women! Qi Xue scolded herself. She forced her mind to focus on cooking.
The kitchen auntie had stayed to prepare the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, which had been a fancy occasion. Before she left, the kitchen auntie had given detailed instructions for the meals for each day. Qi Xue had nodded along and then immediately scrapped those ideas. They were the same things the family always ate. How could this kitchen auntie be said to be taking care of the family if she didn’t provide a banquet feast of delicious dishes for the New Year? Qi Xue resolved to repay Old Man Wu for his generosity with hearty delicacies.
However, even though he was rich, the master did not like to purchase nice foods. He wanted to use his money to ensure the prospects of his family and famously said that simpler fare was sufficient. He allowed only a specific ration of salt and oil to be purchased, enough to make food edible. Qi Xue was going to convince him that good food was a worthy use of his silver, and also that Qi Xue was one worthy of providing such deliciousness. She had to start small though, so as not to rouse the family’s notice too abruptly.
The first day was a meal of steamed fish with ginger sauce. Qi Xue devised a method of grilling the fish as well so that the skin was crispy and very delicious. The ginger she grew herself after noticing only a meager amount of it in the Wu family larders. She had spent the few coins she earned as a servant solely on seasonings in this way. Now there was an edge of the property that grew garlic, green onions, ginger, and many other small things that people did not notice.
Alongside the fish, she sent longevity noodles and an assortment of stir-fried vegetables seasoned with a touch of chili oil to the table. She had discovered that chili oil was not used in this household due to expense and had no doubt that the subtle addition of heat would leave minds wondering what exactly made their meal tonight so flavorful.
Fang Wenhui gave a sideways glance to Qi Xue at her strange additions but said nothing and continued chopping as directed.
After the meal, when Qi Xue snuck by the family’s dining table on pretense of going to the latrine, she was pleased by what she saw. All the dishes were wiped clean, and members of the extended family who had come to visit were talking about what an excellent meal it had been.
Old Man Wu seemed surprised at the praise of his family’s cookservant, mostly because he himself did not know what had changed but felt himself that the food had been more delicious today. Ah, well, if the kitchen used a little more oil or salt, it was the New Year. It was alright for now, due to the special occasion, he reasoned.
The second day, she made braised pork with wood ear mushrooms, stir-fried tofu and vegetables in a flavorful sauce with a little more chili oil than the day before, and formed a dessert of crumbly sesame cookies. She would have sneered at the results in her previous gourmet life, but here the cookies were an unusual delicacy.
Fang Wenhui said nothing once more, but she ate five cookies by herself of the six Qi Xue had set aside for their own meal. Qi Xue grimaced but did not complain. In a way, she thought of it as bribing Fang Wenhui not to interfere. Not that the other woman needed much encouraging to stay silent.
Besides, Qi Xue said to herself, who wouldn’t want to give sweets to a beautiful woman? She remembered her middle school days and shy girls giving their homemade sweets to boys they liked. She, Qi Xue, had gifted her sweets to the most butch girl in the school who had eaten them and then started dating the pretty boy Liu Zhang shortly afterwards, not even noticing the broken heart she left behind.
Yes, Qi Xue had always found girls more attractive than boys! That was why she was trying so hard not to look closely at Fang Wenhui. She knew if she allowed herself the luxury, she would fall madly into a crush, which she did not need right now. Qi Xue had always been weak for the stoic, cool type, especially if they had muscles as well. That Fang Wenhui checked all these boxes was not lost on her, hence why she did her best to outwardly ignore the other woman and only peek at her when she wasn’t looking.
This evening, Qi Xue did not sneak by the master’s table. She didn’t want to establish a routine and get caught/punished for insolence. Instead, she paid the servant boy who delivered the dishes from the kitchen to the table to eavesdrop instead. Of course, she had hardly any coin, but to a boy, a few extra bites were as good as a string of copper.
So it was that Qi Xue heard of the increased praise for the savory meal and the delight over the novelty cookies. She rubbed her hands evilly and suppressed her triumphant laughter into a silent but wide smirk instead.
Fang Wenhui saw this reaction and said nothing, though her eyes rested soft on Qi Xue’s figure. She didn’t know what to make of this temporary cook who wouldn’t look at her overtly but was always watching her secretly. However, she felt that the actions of this mysterious servant were quite
The third day Qi Xue busied herself with hand-pulled noodles. Even in her original world of modern conveniences, this task was arduous. Qi Xue doubted the kitchen auntie ever went to lengths such as these, and that was without considering the advantage Qi Xue had of being a former culinary superstar. Kitchen auntie was a good cook, but Qi Xue was a chef. The difference between the two was immeasurable.
She found that the original owner’s body, previously honed for martial arts before she decided to turn to a life of con artistry, was well suited for making hand-pulled noodles. Qi Xue was able to smack the dough hard on the table with a loud whap! and then stretch it to her full arms-length many times without getting tired as she had in her previous life.
Unbeknownst to her, Fang Wenhui watched the repetitive slap and pull, slap and pull from behind. The other woman could not seem to stop watching this temporary cook, who looked so small but was working the stiff dough with such ease. Looking upon such a scene, who would not be curious and want to learn more? As she stared, Fang Wenhui noticed her eyes drifting to the curve of Qi Xue’s neck where it met her shoulder, the flex of her arms and shoulders as she slapped the dough onto the table again and again, and the soft locks of hair that had escaped the kerchief atop her head.
Fang Wenhui slapped her cheeks twice to snap out of it. What was wrong with her? She had probably got a little dehydrated in this hot kitchen. She quickly finished her task of washing vegetables and went away to drink some tea.
Once the noodles were finished, it was time to come up with a sauce. With a little digging, Qi Xue found some fermented black beans in a cupboard. It seemed the kitchen auntie was a little adventurous herself! Qi Xue shamelessly helped herself to the treasure. These she used to make a black bean sauce which was sure to amplify the taste of all her creations.
As if the tender and chewy noodles with savory black bean sauce were not enough, Qi Xue also whipped up steamed chicken and mushroom stew, steamed cabbage rolls, spicy lotus root stir fry, and scallion pancakes. Now, on the third day, Qi Xue was beginning to get bold with her deviations from the normal menu. In addition to the noodles, she knew the scallion pancakes would be very popular with her special dipping sauce.
The servant boy reported back that once again, all the dishes had been wiped clean and that everyone was raving about the noodles. One of the children had even licked the plate like a dog in order to slurp up the last of the sauce. He had immediately been scolded, but it was flattering nonetheless.
Qi Xue went to sleep that night, plans of future meals dancing in her head.
The fourth day was spicy pork noodle soup, salt-fried fish, cabbage egg drop soup, and chicken and pork spring rolls with cabbage. Qi Xue knew no one in this household had ever heard of them, probably because of the excess of oil required to fry them. Her guess was confirmed when the servant tasked with bringing the dishes out returned with the full plate.
“The old master is fine with the other dishes but asks what are these and how to eat them?” the boy asked.
“Wrap in lettuce like this and eat with the sauce here,” Qi Xue instructed. “They are traditional in my hometown, and I thought the old master might enjoy it as well.”
Based on the news the servant brought back, the master did enjoy them, very much. So much so he asked for them to be made again for tomorrow’s noon meal.
That night, Qi Xue was surprised by the old master appearing in the kitchen with a red envelope.
“The meal was very delicious, Miss,” he said. “Please, take this.”
“Ah, I couldn’t,” Qi Xue refused politely. “I only hoped that master would forgive this lowly servant’s insolence in daring to cook food from my hometown for the meal. This servant was missing home, you see, and before I knew it my hands had made them. That you ask me to make them again is more payment than I ever could have asked for.”
“I see,” the master said. He replaced the red envelope in his sleeve pocket. “Please feel free to make more foods from your hometown for my table. If you need more ingredients, simply ask.”
He turned around and walked away, and so did not see Qi Xue’s triumphant smirk. In truth, she had been nearing the bottom of the rations of salt and oil, which had been intended to last through the full two weeks. Qi Xue considered it an investment: spend more oil and salt to get more oil and salt. It turned out that her educated gamble reaped the rewards and now she was able to cook freely.
The fifth day, Qi Xue rose early and made hundreds of little dumplings.
After seeing Fang Wenhui’s miserable attempts at wrapping the dumplings, Qi Xue sighed gustily and went over. Wrapping her smaller hands around Fang Wenhui’s, she demonstrated with nimble fingers the trick of making the pleats in the dumpling without spilling the filling. She did this several times and then asked Fang Wenhui to do it on her own while she supervised carefully.
Was it just her, or was Fang Wenhui’s face slightly pink? Qi Xue resolved to open a window so as not to overheat her underling. It wouldn’t do for the tall, muscular woman to faint from the heat of a kitchen!
Although her dumplings were not as beautiful as the neat ones Qi Xue made, Fang Wenhui’s work was eventually deemed acceptable, so the dumplings were sent up. There were two kinds of fillings: both were typical meat and vegetable dumplings, but one was soup dumpling style. She had had to make the gelatin herself from pork and chicken bones, but for a chef such as her, it was no big deal. The soup dumplings were fragrant and tender and springy once steamed. One couldn’t help but marvel over them when taking a bite.
Qi Xue was aware that her meals mixed cuisines from all over China, but she had been a big star in the culinary world in her previous life and saw no issue with globalizing the dinner table a little. If pressed, she would just say they were foods from her hometown and no one from this world could know the difference. No one at the Wu house had ever asked exactly where she was from, and if they did, Qi Xue planned to name a foreign city from the modern world and pretend that it existed in this one.
The dumplings were accompanied with pork and lotus root soup, water spinach and water chestnuts sautéed with garlic, and steamed fish with scallion oil. These were relatively simple, but Qi Xue figured that any additional dishes would be overshadowed anyway by the dumplings and didn’t care.
By now, the family knew to expect an incredible dish from the kitchen, and still they were impressed by what was brought out by the servant boy. Old Man Wu had taken the liberty of inviting some guests over solely so he could show off his cook’s creations.
Behind the scenes, Qi Xue rubbed her hands in delight. The fact that the master now valued the good food of his household enough to brag to others about it meant that she could probably rely on him to promote her. Plus, tongues talked; she might even be able to score a position better than her current one if news of a marvelous cook reached the right ears.
From the shadows beside her, Fang Wenhui’s eyes settled on those rubbing hands, which just hours earlier had been wrapped around her own, and looked away quickly and shyly.
After those first five days, Qi Xue began to repeat some dishes, though always making sure to mix and match so that the master wouldn’t get bored. The servant boy dutifully reported to her each night so she could learn the preferred foods of each of the master’s family, though he tended to get off-track and start talking about Wu Ruoying. Through this method, Qi Xue became aware that Wu Ruoying had entrapped Zhou Zehao into visiting her family home every day of the Spring Festival and was trying to court him. Zhou Zehao was honorable and did not care for Wu Ruoying’s sharp nature, and the servants had noticed she was beginning to soften some.
Qi Xue didn’t care and wished there was a button she could mash to speed through the servant boy’s explanations of Wu Ruoying’s love life. Heavens above, the way that boy would wax poetic about Wu Ruoying’s red lips and large eyes! Even Qi Xue, who was susceptible to a beautiful woman, did not care for one who was as hard-edged as that one. She supposed it wasn’t the fault of Wu Ruoying herself, but rather the author who had picked such a troublesome trope to portray.
Still, she breathed a sigh of relief when the servant boy would move on from Wu Ruoying and onto the important gossip: which foods were most favored. The more meals she made that impressed the family and their guests, the more she could rely on them to take care of her. Qi Xue believed in self-comforts, after all!
Tonight she was hastily stuffing dozens of tiny steamed buns with salted egg yolk. Qi Xue had been thrown off track by the servant boy’s long report and now her timing was off. Dinner had been sent up already, and she had to work quickly so that these little buns would be ready in time for dessert.
A hand settled gently between Qi Xue’s shoulders.
“AH!” she yelped, her body reacting instinctively. The original owner’s martial arts emerged and threw a chop with a knife-shaped hand at the offending arm, just at the elbow crease.
Before her hand could connect, Fang Wenhui had moved out of the way. For it was Fang Wenhui who had touched Qi Xue’s back so delicately! And now her face was inches from Qi Xue’s own, and her phoenix eyes were wide as she looked directly at Qi Xue.
“What is it!” Qi Xue asked, a little too sharply, but she couldn’t help it when she had been so startled.
“Want to help,” murmured Fang Wenhui. “Show me how?”
It was more words than Qi Xue had ever heard the other woman say consecutively. Faced with that fact and Fang Wenhui’s handsomely beautiful face, Qi Xue said yes without even thinking about it.
She demonstrated how she rotated the ball of dough around the filling while pinching, similar to the dumplings from last time but with a different style of pleats. Fang Wenhui watched studiously and attempted to replicate. Unfortunately, she failed miserably, more miserably than Qi Xue thought possible, and looked up at Qi Xue with expressionless eyes.
Qi Xue sighed deeply in her mind and summoned all her inner strength so that she wouldn’t combust. Then, she wrapped her hands carefully around Fang Wenhui’s and demonstrated once more. Her smaller hand could not show the movement properly from underneath Fang Wenhui’s large, work-roughened one, but she hoped that the movement of her hand translated through. With her other hand, she pinched the top of the dough, her other fingers occasionally brushing the palm of Fang Wenhui’s.
Was it just her imagination that Fang Wenhui had the tiniest of smiles on her lips?
After this second one, Fang Wenhui got a passable grade and joined Qi Xue in forming the dumplings. Even though Qi Xue could make three dumplings for every one of Fang Wenhui’s, the work still went more quickly. Fang Wenhui stood directly across the table from Qi Xue, a position which invited her to watch.
The original owner’s body was not that short, especially not in this ancient time; however, she still felt dwarfed in comparison to the extreme height belonging to Fang Wenhui. Similarly, the original owner’s muscles were nothing to be ashamed of, but Fang Wenhui’s toned arms that were bared when the stove flames were roaring made Qi Xue’s own arms look like limp noodles in comparison.
The most unfortunate thing about Fang Wenhui standing across from her was that if Qi Xue tried her usual tactic of looking down in order to avoid meeting her eyes, her line of sight made a direct target of Fang Wenhui’s chest. Qi Xue wasn’t sure how sexualized breasts were in this world, but she felt certain that staring at anyone’s chest was bad form in ancient times. Thus she had to yank her gaze upwards to avoid that awkwardness, and that meant looking at Fang Wenhui’s intimidatingly attractive face!
Ack, why does Fang Wenhui have to be exactly my type! Qi Xue lamented silently with an internal QAQ expression. Outwardly, her mouth was set in a firm line and her eyes were narrowed in concentration.
“...You don’t like me. Why?”
Fang Wenhui’s question startled Qi Xue from her gay panic. “What?”
“The way you look at me. Unhappy. What did I do?”
“Ah, no, you haven’t done anything!” Qi Xue hastily assured. “I’m not unhappy!”
Qi Xue struggled for a second to come up with a suitable cover story for I have a hard time looking at you because when I see you I want to **** your **** and **** and **** your ****! She sternly told her hyperactive libido to calm down, trying to settle her mind. Her face dropped down to the table, and she made two dumplings quickly. “Um,” she said aloud. “I miss my...friend? From back home. You look kind of like her.”
It was a bald-faced lie, but Fang Wenhui’s face softened, releasing an amount of tension that Qi Xue hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Lonely?”
“...A little,” Qi Xue admitted honestly. She hadn’t even meant to speak so plainly, but she was lonely. Even though her plans were progressing nicely and she didn’t have to worry about finding meals or shelter, she missed people. Even back in the modern world, she hadn’t had many friends, just colleagues and acquaintances.
Fang Wenhui’s hand stretched across and covered Qi Xue’s. “Lonely too. I can be your friend.”
Qi Xue’s head swiveled up to meet Fang Wenhui’s phoenix eyes, and her heart beat erratically. “I—I’d like that,” she said, and turned her hand palm upwards so she could close her hand briefly around Fang Wenhui’s.
An endless second passed.
And then the servant boy came running in to give the warning that the family upstairs had almost finished the main meal. The moment was broken, and Qi Xue directed Fang Wenhui to throw the formed dumplings into the steamer while she threw egg yolk into dough and twisted them closed at lightning speed, bam! bam! bam!
What did being friends mean? Qi Xue wondered. She didn’t have much experience, so her friendship with Fang Wenhui naturally took the position of being the best friendship in the world.
Fang Wenhui took the initiative to take her places or show her things, on the rare times they had downtime. Typically that was when dishes were in the midst of cooking, so they couldn’t go far. Fang Wenhui showed her how to understand the land, how to read the health of plants from their leaves. Qi Xue, who had a surplus of credentials for a license as a professional houseplant assassin in her past life, listened attentively. It was honestly a miracle that her stealthily grown garlic, onion, and ginger had survived.
Together with Fang Wenhui, Qi Xue planted a slice of tomato in a small cup and kept it by the sunniest window of the kitchen. It had just begun to sprout, tiny green stems worming their way out of the soil. Qi Xue clapped her hands in delight when she saw and excitedly dragged Fang Wenhui over to marvel at them too. Fang Wenhui smiled proudly, but more at Qi Xue than at the tomato sprouts.
It was the first time Qi Xue had seen the other woman’s smile and her heart stopped beating for a moment. No, no! Fang Wenhui was her friend now. Qi Xue reasoned that she was just horny and ruthlessly thought of other things.
After the outings in the sun and planting the tomato, Qi Xue showed Fang Wenhui how to make some desserts. She had noticed that Fang Wenhui particularly liked sweets in spite of her rough farmer’s appearance. Qi Xue wanted to show her something special and so started them off with egg tarts. Knowing the tart crust was something unknown in this world, Qi Xue did most of that herself so that Fang Wenhui only had easy, hard-to-mess-up tasks. Baking without modern implements was difficult, but the novelty of the dessert outweighed everything else. When the egg tarts emerged, releasing a light and sweet fragrance, Fang Wenhui picked one up and inhaled deeply.
Qi Xue saw the other woman’s little smile once more. The contrast of this severely beautiful woman with delicate desserts ticked another of Qi Xue’s boxes, and she had to distract herself to prevent confessing to Fang Wenhui immediately.
Days passed, and Qi Xue showed her how to make several other desserts. This also doubled as doing work, so she felt more able to justify hanging out with Fang Wenhui as working time. They alternated who got to pick what they did during these designated times. Spending time with her, it was really clear that Fang Wenhui loved plants and growing things. Her tense demeanor softened as she spoke of crops and land management, and Qi Xue could tell she missed home. Unfortunately, she could do nothing for the other woman now and only made a mental note to plot how to get Fang Wenhui her own farm.
When it was Qi Xue’s turn, the days passed in a series of desserts. Sweet soft tofu in ginger syrup, sesame balls, sachima, steamed egg cakes, and of course tangyuan for the final day of the Spring Festival. In the blink of an eye, the time had come for the kitchen auntie to return tomorrow.
It was now no trouble to get Old Man Wu to approve ingredients for the kitchen. It was easy for such a well-to-do man to get a big head and become addicted to praise of his house’s cook. Once Qi Xue had achieved this level, she was confident that her temporary position would be made permanent. She was very happy with this arrangement. Cooking had always been her passion. Now, she also had to put her brains to figuring out how to make what she wanted in these ancient times. It was like a fun challenge for her, and not for the first time she thanked whatever force had transmigrated her that she had entered this rich household where the master could afford to buy anything.
As expected, when the kitchen auntie returned to the house, the steward of Old Man Wu came down with her and explained that there had been some changes to the roster. Qi Xue could now be considered to be the second head cook of the kitchen, and the two would alternate weeks on and off. When there were special occasions, the two would work together as equals. The kitchen auntie was really angry at first. Who didn’t know that when two people were hired to do the work, the pay would be less!
Old Man Wu had anticipated this, and his generosity revealed itself once more. He would not dock the kitchen auntie’s pay and asked only that she assist Qi Xue during the weeks she was cooking. He did not offer the same monetary compensation to Qi Xue. Although this made Qi Xue’s mouth twist unhappily, she understood why. The kitchen auntie had been a servant of the Wu household for many years, since before the current master was a grown man. He had more reason to value her than he did to value Qi Xue.
That was okay. Qi Xue would make him see her value.
Months passed, and Qi Xue’s reputation as the better cook grew and solidified in the Wu household. No one dared tell this to the kitchen auntie, but even the auntie herself knew it when she tasted Qi Xue’s dishes. Everyone talked about the alternating quality of meals in hushed tones, similar to how they would discuss the extramarital affairs of Old Man Wu’s wife.
Qi Xue ignored all the gossip and simply focused on making simple meals spectacular. She noticed the kitchen auntie watching and doing her best to imitate Qi Xue’s technique, but it was always inferior to the original and tasted like a bland copy to even the most unrefined palate. Qi Xue constantly had to hide the evil smirk that seemed to live on her face permanently these days.
(Had she thought about it more, she would have realized that she became a villain in this story-world anyway, just not the villain of the female lead Wu Ruoying.)
The only thing Qi Xue really missed during these months was Fang Wenhui. The other woman had been returned to her previous position when the rest of the servants returned after the Spring Festival. Now, the two of them had to arrange for specific days to see each other. The life of a servant was really too busy for either of them to drop by the other’s workspace.
As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Now, when Qi Xue saw Fang Wenhui, she rushed over and gave the other woman a big hug. During their rare times off together, Qi Xue would chatter happily while Fang Wenhui listened, head tilted to indicate her attention. Anyone looking at their backs would instantly register the harmonious atmosphere and be reluctant to disturb.
When spring came in force, flowers on the trees and in the fields bloomed. Bursts of whites and pinks and yellows adorned the Wu lands beautifully. On one of their rare days off together, Fang Wenhui took Qi Xue on a walk and taught her the names of each flowering plant.
One brilliant white apple blossom had fallen from the winds the night previous. Unlike other fallen blossoms, this one was intact. Fang Wenhui bent down and scooped it up. She glanced over at Qi Xue’s hair, which was uncovered due to being secluded on the family lands and not actively working in the messy kitchen. Fang Wenhui had an idea. Gently, she reached over and fixed the flower atop Qi Xue’s bun.
Qi Xue stopped midstep and mid-sentence. “Ah?” she questioned intelligently.
Fang Wenhui nodded once to herself. “Pretty,” she said. She reached down to grab Qi Xue’s hand and started walking again, tugging her along.
Qi Xue went, but she did not resume talking. This was because her brain had exploded in a puff of smoke at the cuteness of Fang Wenhui.
To the surprise of no one, Qi Xue more and more became the head cook, unofficially and tacitly. Old Man Wu specifically requested her to take the lead during special occasion meals, including the wedding feast for Wu Ruoying and Zhou Zehao.
Qi Xue went all out for this, knowing that if her meal was suitably impressive, she would defeat the kitchen auntie with one decisive strike. She felt a little bad for the kitchen auntie, but Wu Shun would never be cruel to the auntie who had been in the household most of his life.
For such a big event, more servants were pulled in to assist with the cooking, including Fang Wenhui. Qi Xue was delighted at their reunion. She arranged all the sous-chefs such that Fang Wenhui was stationed right next to her wrapping spring rolls and sweet steamed buns. The other servants she barked at and ordered around so severely that some of them went about their work with tears in their eyes. The regular kitchen servants were already used to this and commiserated, but only slightly. There was work to be done!
Grand dish after grand dish quickly came to being under the scrutinous command of Qi Xue. First, there were chicken and vegetable spring rolls to whet the appetite. Then there was a whole roast pig, the sole presence of which would have been sufficient to satisfy the guests as to the wealth of the Wu family. Qi Xue was not satisfied with “wealthy enough” and also made several roast ducks served with delicate thin steamed pancakes and a sweet dark sauce (hey, if she didn’t call it Peking duck, who would know and report her for violating imperial rules?). There were two types of noodles: long, hand-pulled ones in black bean sauce with mushrooms and chives served with salt-fried pork, and deep-fried bird nests filled with stir-fried veggies and boiled eggs and chicken meat. For each table there was a whole steamed fish, grilled over hot flames afterwards to make the skin crispy and delicious. The bones of the carved ducks from earlier were made into soup that helped cleanse the palate after the meal. Finally, soft tofu in ginger syrup and sweet steamed buns were sent up, and the meal was finished.
This time, Qi Xue didn’t even need to bribe the servant boy to figure out if the guests enjoyed the food. Old Man Wu himself came down to the kitchen and requested her presence upstairs. The guests were so impressed that they were clamoring to see who had crafted such wondrous dishes the likes of which no one had ever seen before.
Qi Xue hurriedly took off her apron and smoothed her clothes as best she could. Her hair was still bound under the kerchief, but she wasn’t sure if some of these honored guests would take more offense to the stained headcloth or to her unbound hair as an unmarried woman. In the end, she chose to keep her hair bound and simply washed her face with warm water.
When she hurried upstairs, she didn’t notice that Fang Wenhui also slipped away and followed behind with a worried expression. Who knew what these rich people wanted with her Qi Xue? Maybe they would even want to bribe her to leave the Wu household and become their personal chef, taking her away from Fang Wenhui! Unacceptable!!
When Qi Xue emerged into the banquet hall and was introduced by Wu Shun as the head cook for today’s meal, it was to cheers from all the guests.
“Thank you auntie—ah? This isn’t an auntie, but more a sister?”
“So young and so talented! Thank you for the meal!”
“Thank you sister!”
It was overwhelming and frankly embarrassing. Qi Xue ducked her head quickly and brushed away the comments bashfully, as expected of a servant.
And then she was led to the table of the young lady Wu Ruoying and her betrothed, Zhou Zehao. She could immediately see that Wu Ruoying had no recollection of Qi Xue and stopped worrying about a confrontation. She observed the groom. From what she remembered of her fading memories of the original novel, Zhou Zehao was an upstanding, kind man who had transformed Wu Ruoying from her nasty former self into a sweet peach blossom. When he spoke now, Qi Xue could hear in his voice that malice had never been a thought in this man’s head.
“Dear sister,” Zhou Zehao announced earnestly, “today’s banquet was better than I ever could have imagined for my wedding. Please share with us the secret of your heavenly foods, that our own household might be blessed with an echo of the delicacies you crafted today?”
Qi Xue was hardly about to answer truthfully and say that it was her knowledge of a far-distant future world with superior technology and innovations that allowed her to stand out so much. She had an unpleasant feeling that if she said it was only hometown recipes, this rich gongzi would actually send men to seek out her “hometown” to hire a cook. Her eyes cast about desperately and lit upon Fang Wenhui. Two problems collided into one solution in her crafty mind.
“Young master and young lady’s guests are too kind, ah! In truth, I simply refined recipes from my hometown, which is very far away, and with the addition of Fang Wenhui’s homegrown crops, I was able to have a good result from my attempts. This good meal was truly only possible with Fang Wenhui’s superior farming skills!”
The room erupted into whispers. The uneducated asked who Fang Wenhui was, and the educated informed them of her background. Some of the more observant among the guests noticed the presence of a servant along the walls, but none of these fancy guests connected the gossip to the person behind them. For her part, Fang Wenhui simply stood still and pretended to be a stone statue, though her lips twitched as she fought a smile. Her Qi Xue was surely up to something!
Old Man Wu stroked his beard thoughtfully. “You say that Fang Wenhui’s skill in agriculture is the source of the marvels that graced our table today?”
Wu Shun turned to the bride and bridegroom. “Daughter and now, son, this is a good moment to give some gift announcements. Firstly, I have already built you a separate house a little distance from my own. To this, I now add the ability to request meals from this cook. To enable this, I will build a stand-alone kitchen between our two homes. To Fang Wenhui, I will grant a small space of land solely to grow crops for our consumption. These will be separate from the crops to be sold and are to be used exclusively for meals by—” he turned and looked at Qi Xue.
“Qi Xue,” she supplied.
“—By chef Qi Xue. How does that sound?”
“Father, you are far too generous!”
“Oh, but there are more gifts to be bestowed…”
Qi Xue zoned out as gift after gift was offered and received. She had too much to think about now. Her own kitchen! In a standalone building, where there wouldn’t be any busybodies coming to bother her! And Fang Wenhui would be there too…
Feeling eyes on her, Qi Xue looked up and met the gaze of the one and only Fang Wenhui across the hall. Seeing that she was spotted, Fang Wenhui nodded once and slipped out of the room.
Later, Old Man Wu came to the kitchen while Qi Xue was cleaning and outlined the details of her new position. The standalone kitchen would also have two bedrooms attached, one for Qi Xue and one for Fang Wenhui. She would provide the evening meal for the main family and for Wu Ruoying’s household every other day, alternating between the two. There would be a servant sent with a cart to transport the meal with expedience at a specific time each day, so she wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the food warm. For her troubles, Wu Shun would dramatically increase her pay. He didn’t even mention charging her rent for living on his land, an omission that Qi Xue correctly guessed implied how much he now valued the quality of his meals since she started cooking for his family.
Qi Xue found these terms acceptable and agreed on the spot. Not only would she get her own kitchen, but the salary meant she would be able to save and move out on her own one day. After that, she could work towards opening her own restaurant to make even more money! At the same time, it wouldn’t be so bad being a servant in the Wu household now that she had been promoted. She would hold onto the thought of moving out and simply save her earnings in the meantime.
She didn’t bother to ask Fang Wenhui whether she would accept the position. Qi Xue knew that the other woman would instantly agree anyway if it meant she could farm freely.
The work on the new building was completed faster than Qi Xue thought possible in these ancient times. She had also been consulted for her preference on the layout and setup of the kitchen, so when she stepped into the standalone building for the first time, it was not new to her. Still, Qi Xue’s breath caught at seeing an ancient replica of her beloved kitchen from her past life.
Fang Wenhui, standing to the side as they stepped in the door, saw this emotional expression on Qi Xue’s face and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, squeezing reassuringly. “Happy?” she asked, voice low and melodious as ever.
“En,” Qi Xue nodded vigorously, so much that her kerchief slipped and some of her front hair slipped out. “I like it very much. Are you happy?”
Fang Wenhui gently brushed the lock of hair off of Qi Xue’s forehead and looked into her eyes. “En, happy.”
Weeks passed. Qi Xue quickly grew accustomed to the way of things. She was not overworked at all, partially because she only needed to make one meal a day but also because she truly loved cooking and so did not tire of having to do it. She could see the same was true of Fang Wenhui. Though the other woman toiled in the bright sun day after day caring for crops, she never seemed weary of the world by evening time, simply affected by the fatigue after a job well done.
Partially, this may have been attributed to the two’s new ability to see each other everyday. Their rooms were directly across from one another, so the first thing Qi Xue saw when she opened her door was often Fang Wenhui’s sleep-rumpled face.
Nice, thought Qi Xue. It’s good to wake up to a beautiful woman fresh from her bed in the mornings.
Fang Wenhui always returned from her crops in time to help Qi Xue wash and chop the newly picked vegetables. The summer harvest made it very easy to make more vegetable dishes. Qi Xue made eggplant with ground pork stir fry, steamed cabbage rolls, cucumber and egg stir fries, deep fried noodles with bok choy, bittermelon stuffed with meat and stir fried with egg, and more. As the weather grew cooler, other dishes were added to the menu as the vegetables changed. There was pumpkin soup, stir fries of thinly sliced potato, steamed egg with potato soup, stir fried pumpkin slices with ground pork, plus many others. Qi Xue was in her element. Her previous experience in farm-to-table eating was well-suited to crafting seasonal dishes.
After sending the evening meal to its destination, the two women ate together each night and then played cards or chess. It was only the two of them in the standalone kitchen, unlike the noisy bunks all unmarried servants shared. The setting allowed Fang Wenhui and Qi Xue to have peaceful
dates interactions together. Each day, Qi Xue found it harder and harder not to stare at Fang Wenhui. In such a domestic setting, what person wouldn’t find it difficult to prevent the development of their inconvenient romantic feelings?
Because she was so focused on not looking, Qi Xue was blindsided by what happened next.
It was an unusually warm autumn day. Fang Wenhui’s harvest was pretty much done, so now she tended to hang around Qi Xue all day. Ostensibly, her off-season position was sous-chef to Qi Xue, so this was not unexpected.
That morning, Fang Wenhui motioned for Qi Xue to come along on a walk through the forest. Qi Xue easily agreed and also packed a basket of steamed buns as well as some bamboo tubes of chicken soup. The breeze was warm and the trees were fire-colored. When a strong guest blew, red, orange, and yellow leaves floated down softly. In short, it was beautiful scenery.
Qi Xue let her hair flow loose and free as they walked along, enjoying the feeling of the gentle breeze feathering its way through her usually tightly-bound hair. Beside her, Fang Wenhui also uncovered her hair, though she did not release it from its single, severe braid. Afterwards, she casually picked up Qi Xue’s hand and held it as they traipsed down the path.
They came to a stop in a clearing where there was a small pond. The surrounding ring of trees all had golden leaves, and the surface of the pond looked to have been cleared of any debris so it was very beautiful to look upon. Additionally, there was a roughly carved but well-sanded wooden bench and table.
“Did you arrange this?” Qi Xue asked, wonder in her eyes as she gazed around.
“En.” Fang Wenhui took the basket from Qi Xue and set it up on the table. “Eat now?”
“Okay!” They ate leisurely, sitting on the bench and admiring the view. The tall trees were majestic, especially to Qi Xue who still remembered modern cities and their lack of ancient greenery.
Every so often, the breeze would blow, sending leaves swirling down. One such leaf landed directly atop Qi Xue’s head. Fang Wenhui eyed it jealously and quickly removed it, though her hand lingered. Unable to help herself, she let her fingers trail through the long, long length of Qi Xue’s hair.
Qi Xue shivered involuntarily, her scalp tingling. She turned to Fang Wenhui. “I—”
But suddenly she couldn’t speak. This was because Fang Wenhui had leaned down and covered Qi Xue’s lips with her own.
“Mmm…!” Qi Xue didn’t react for a second and then started kissing back. She even opened her mouth a little and used her tongue to greet Fang Wenhui’s lips, which parted in response. Hey, why question a gift? She focused on enjoying kissing her crush now and decided to ask questions later.
Fang Wenhui brushed her fingers through Qi Xue’s hair again and again, then moved to touch her cheekbones tenderly, then the softness of her neck. It was like she couldn’t get enough of touching Qi Xue. Fine by her. Qi Xue took this as permission to finally let her fingers squeeze Fang Wenhui’s toned arm muscles. From there, she explored upwards and downwards and sideways and found muscles everywhere her hands roamed, except for two conspicuous spots. Nice.
Eventually, the two separated, breathing heavily. Their hands were still linked, though.
Fang Wenhui spoke first. “Sorry?” she asked, cheeks pink as she tilted her head inquisitively.
“No, you don’t have to be sorry. I’m not sorry either.” Qi Xue took a deep breath. “Fang Wenhui, I like you. In a way that usually men and women like each other, I like you. Is that okay?”
“Yes.” Fang Wenhui so-recently kissed lips tipped up in a small smile. “I like you too.”
Qi Xue beamed. “I’m going to kiss you again.”
Two pairs of lips met once more, and the warm breeze blew and the red and orange and yellow leaves swirled down in celebration.