Chapter 68: Dishes －Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy
The person by his side was named Yu Se, Song Jiaoyue’s head female servant and the first woman he’d had. Although she’d been taken into his rooms, she was still only a head female servant in the lack of an official wife. How could she not understand his current state when she saw his condition?
Settings aside the eldest young master’s tastes, he wasn’t one to fancy simply any woman. Were it not for a few fellow sisters who served him since childhood and were clever and quick-witted, he wouldn’t have accepted them into his house no matter what. But how could they not understand how he felt? Even if he took them in, it didn’t mean he was taken with them. More likely, he was just familiar with them, or simply pitied them.
It was different this time. Song Jiaoyue had actually blurted out a woman’s name, and that woman was none other than Prince Li’s concubine. Yu Se had thought that eldest young master had been acting differently these days. Not only did he stop spending time with the girls in his rooms, but he often wore a dejected expression. But it all made sense as soon as she put everything together. She sharply inhaled. It would’ve been fine had the young master adored a young woman from another house. He’d be able to save himself trouble if he went calling along with Madame Song. But this particular woman’s status was too unique. It seemed that eldest young master would have to resign himself to suffer. How would Yu Se not understand what kind of person Song Jiaoyue was?
Still, Yu Se could only keep such thoughts in her heart. If she brought up the subject, eldest young master would be embarrassed to the point of anger. Thus, she pretended not to understand a thing and simply tidied him up before drawing the bed curtains and going to rest off to the side.
When Song Jiaoyue woke up the next day, he was clearly less gentle than before. He summoned a servant and asked, “Who was it that helped me to bed last night?” The little girl replied, “It was big sister Yu Se.”“Call her in.” He always strove for self-restraint, but couldn’t help relaxing his guard when he was at home. That had been especially true last night. He still remembered some of what had happened earlier, but who knew what he’d said after he came home by himself? If anything spread, she would catch the worst of it. She was so delicate, so how could she bear such a thing against him?
As he was thinking, he spotted the small plant growing by the window. Though its green and verdant growth was very pleasing to the eye, it was tiny, and its entire body was covered in spikes. He really didn’t understand why she treated such a thing like a treasure. Song Jiaoyue broke into a warm smile, even as Yu Se entered the room. It made her heart give a start. Ever since he had brought back that plant, eldest young master had cherished it like a treasure. He even watered it himself, and never let any of them touch it.Could it be...
“Yu Se, you’ve been at my side for ten years now, right?” Song Jiaoyue inadvertently swept his eyes over her, though his expression was a bit stern. Yu Se knelt on the ground with a thump. She naturally understood that while the eldest young master appeared sentimental, he was actually quite ruthless. He’d definitely dismiss her from his service if he found cause to dislike her. It was true that he wouldn’t just sell her to some servant boy or match her up with a random person, due to taking their past history into consideration. Still, he had ways to make sure she never appear before him again. “Yes, eldest young master.” Yu Se was afraid, but replied very prudently.
“Then, last night…” Song Jiaoyue trailed off on purpose, while Yu Se was quick to pick up.
“Eldest young master fell asleep as soon as he came back last night. He never woke the entire night.” Song Jiaoyue smiled and nodded his head. “Understood. You don’t need to kneel either, so hurry and help make me presentable!” He didn’t press the issue, knowing that whatever he said last night, it wouldn’t spread any further.
After freshening up, his first deed was to water that tiny green cactus. Today was the third day, so it probably needed to drink. After watering the plant, he went directly to Madame Song. As long as he was with his mother, he’d see her sooner or later. Even if it was only a glance, that was just as well. He wouldn’t ask for more. But by sheer coincidence, he arrived just in time to hear his mother had gone to Hundred Fragrance Courtyard and hurried after her. He was surprised to see his mother from a distance as soon as he arrived. Her tiny figure was surrounded by a handful of servants and old maids, while a few distinctive ingredients were set out by her side.
For example, weeds...Wildflowers...And other unknown plants...Song Jiaoyue barely avoided laughing out loud, but watched as she pointed amongst the flowers and plants, filled with inner self-confidence. When he drew closer, he heard her speak. “Don’t call these ones weeds. They can actually improve flavor as well. It’s rare to find them in this season, so they mustn’t be frozen. Put them in a room that’s neither too hot nor too cold. Besides having plants for garnishes, the most important thing is the freshness of the vegetables. Also, you have to soak the beans ahead of time. Once that’s done, will we have we prepared everything for today?”
Beans made up a majority of vegetarian dishes, so of course she had to probe and make sure. By then, Song Jiaoyue had already arrived at Madame Song’s side. When she saw her son, she hastily placed a finger against her lips to show that he should be quiet. Then she pointed at Bai Xiangxiu, indicating that Bai was currently inspecting the ingredients, so she shouldn’t be disturbed. Song Jiaoyue would prefer nothing less, so he stood on one side without speaking. After watching her inspect many different things without sitting down or even drinking a sip of tea, he began to grow worried. “Mother, why not rest a bit?” he reminded from the side.
Only then did Madame Song say, “That’s right. We promised Old Madame that we couldn’t exhaust her helpful assistant. But I really am envious; how did she find such a formidable lass! This one’s made preparations for sixteen different dishes in just this bit of time. Madame Xiu, come over and rest. You can see to the rest later.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Madame Song felt a bitter gaze turn her way and nearly spat out her tea. She hadn’t said anything untoward, had she? But Bai Xiangxiu simply walked over, wringing her handkerchief as she spoke. “Greetings to Sir Song.” Then she looked towards Madame Song with a pitiful air. “Madame Song, I’m afraid I haven’t gathered up a hundred dishes.” They had invited Bai over to make dishes, but no matter how she did it, she couldn’t make a hundred different ones. Madame Song wrinkled her brows. Although she was in charge of the household, she was better with the account books than personally taking charge of food and ingredients. Now they were in a predicament. If they could only make around eighty-some dishes, it wouldn’t be enough to save face.
“What to do now? Tomorrow’s the start of the banquet.”
“Actually, we could manage it if we forced it, but we might not have enough ingredients,” said Bai Xiangxiu.“I can go gather some ingredients, as long as we can make more dishes,” Song Jiaoyue hastened to say. He wanted to take part in some way, too. Madame Song didn’t suspect anything. After all, this was the old master’s birthday, so a son should naturally expend some effort.
“What other dishes can we make?” Madame Song asked as she sat down.“I want to gather some canned peaches…” started Bai Xiangxiu. “Well, beets made with peaches, a type of cold dish. Then we can have pickled vegetables with bean curd. We don’t have anything pickled vegetables here, so you can send someone to the prince’s estate to get it from Winter Garden. I have a lot there. After that, there’s bitter melon with egg. If we make make it pretty, it should be presentable. Another one is fragrant spicy lotus root, which we can carve into something presentable as well.”
When she finished, she saw both Madame Song and her son staring at her and gave a start, her face turning red. “What… what is it?” Madame Song smiled. “I never thought that brain of yours had so many dishes. I haven’t even heard of these ones before.”
“They’re, they’re all commonplace dishes.” Did they need to be so moved? Weren’t you the ones who asked me to come help you in the first place? If I couldn’t help out when you were so busy, then what would be the point of me coming over? Bai Xiangxiu had always thought of herself as a sincere person who did earnest work.