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.