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.