第1章: Life turned upside down

The night was off to a bad start. Chaoyun had only served one table, but the customers there were so demanding that it was almost impossible for her to think of anything right now. Other than trying her best to survive this current round of it. Where she had sent three things down to the kitchen as it was.

And then take them up again. And it was barely into the main course, and most of her problems were with the children. Or rather the fact that their parents had not opted to let them pick it, and resulted in this food wastage. She loathed to throw them away, and they often found an orphan. Today they had sent out plenty of bowls, although her mother was charging them on their account.

So this wasn’t a free service, and there was rarely anything wrong with it. It may have been made by the hand of a cook, but she made few mistakes if it was ever done. Just as she went up, heading into the room Where the worst had been the children, some of them were barely walking. While the other had been less fussy, not so for them.

And she mostly got why her mother offered more natural alternatives, ones where a child raised in luxury would enjoy. A sick family would rarely have such complaints because they never managed to get the ability to fuss over it. Taking what was available.

When it was out, it was always separated. Except that she needed to rearrange the entire plate of food. Requiring her to use a chopstick, to change the way it looked. To make it more appealing to a child. Something that she learned, from someone younger. A boy who needed to support his entire family. With many more youthful siblings, sometimes they liked a different style a lot better.

Just as they accepted anything, and the power of a mild change to change the perception. From the people who didn’t have much of choice: it was eating what was on the table or going hungry.

Something that even she remembered vividly, where her mother gave away the leftovers, or they ate it when closed if she was hungry. Most of it was cold, and far from the best. But there was not much cash, even as now they were stable enough to mostly give it away or become a part of the meals of struggling families.

And how the Magistrate mainly chose not to raise their rent. Mostly because of what they had done, and continued to do even now. She went up, serving it to them with a kind smile. Though deep down, she was on the edge of her patients.

Mostly wanting to listen to music. Having a longtime musician who played her every night and also afternoon somewhere else. Once she served, and they seemed rather delighted. She left, taking a chance to have a light break. And see the music right now. They were already there, where he was inviting someone to help him.

They only played in the night, and once the sun had set. She lived close to the place, just behind where their house was located. This was a mostly small town, taken if any was traveling between the East of China and the west. Primarily to Chang’an from the East. It also laid between the North and South of China, which was why it was a popular destination.

But few really stayed here for more than a few days. A town where there were all sorts of goods, but not a lot of people. Just as her mother made a killing, after forming a deal with a neighboring inn. Where they did not offer food and mostly bed and board, with them coming over. An agreement which allowed them to primarily focus on one thing while earning more.

And thus most of them were travelers, except for many regulars. Ones which saw her grow up here, and around town. She saw him and the woman with him. Dressed in deep red, her lips painted in the same color. He gave a light wave to her. Just as she knew that it was time to head back to work.

Going down the steps of the place, before entering the kitchen again. With mostly everything at the side. The head chef was a middle-aged woman, only slightly younger than her mother. Dressed in rough clothes and an apron, with her holding a ladle testing the soup. She grabbed the food before leaving immediately, not wanting to deal with her as much as possible.

Especially tonight when she had plenty of changes to the orders; and none of them were mistakes on her part. Most of them were additions, and it seems that they would have had quite a charge. It was in the policy, carved in wood right outside to any who could read. For a family as educated like them, that was certainly the truth and expectation.

Not that she needed a reason for them. As much as she certainly would like to see them charged for the sort of trouble they make her go through to get there. She heard a little before going down once more to grab the other dishes. These were the most natural part of her situation now.

Dreading every moment she was called in to reason with children much younger than her, and understand that all she was expected to do was to nod her head and take it down. And suddenly, the extra charges seemed fair on them. Especially in such a case. While still ensuring that the time was never wasted.

Entering inside, where it was a separate room. The tables were usually vast and comprehensive. With two of them. One which was much lower and meant for the children. Being careful as the one who faced the door was always the eldest person. She opened it, gently coming inside and placing it on the large table. Before grabbing the porcelain plates with her hands. Bowl was the last as it was always filled up with rice, something that she thought was ingenious.

It saved her time, as all she needed was to clear out the plates filled with the dishes. And prevented the need for endless repetition of the same, only that the utensils were very much the issue. As each had its own set, and none of them mixed. And thus, required them to keep all of them when they were done.

She left and placed them to the kitchen. Where there were dishwashers, many of them were children and orphans. Since this did not work, which needed the ability to really tolerate, and there was only a simple instruction and direction involved. And thus why it had been decided that it was better for them.

While the older and teenagers served. Only sophisticated customers indeed demanded them to be as hard as they were. And required them to be older and understand that this was simply business and to leave emotion out of it. Travelers had sometimes been the easiest, and occasionally she served a wealthy family which was courteous.

The same thing never extended to when the wealthy treated any beneath them or servants. Their demands were always met. “Chaoyun, Madame Bai wants you to serve that table instead.”

“Noted.” Just as she left, knowing that this was strange for her own mother at this point. Something that never occurred. But it had done so now. She went to the front, a family of five. A husband and his wife and three sons. Just as she led them up, as well as she shook off the uncomfortable set of eyes on her.

That was the case anyway, but it was stranger. She did not turn, choosing to walk slightly faster. Facing the menu board, where all the tables could. And if they could not read it, it was recited by them. Having served her for years, this was something that she was familiar with. And had rarely made a mistake. Even as many were suggested to make markings.

Even with the printing press, and better ways to make paper. It was still far from being cheap, and also she never did. Although years had indeed made it a lot easier for her to remember them fully, ingrained into it after years of service.

“I’m ready to take my order.” The man said. Having the five dishes, the eldest of the boys, had still been a child. Perhaps two to three years younger than her. With two of the vegetables and the rest were meat. Eating out as she learned was a rare occasion, even as they were filled in day in day out. But regular patrons were those who had come every few days.

She went down, taking the chance to really listen to music. It was well practiced, with it helping her to really focus. It had been something which she used as a child to clear her mind and forget about the stress. Even as it was easy to fall into such a trap of focusing too much on failure, then it would merely raise the chances of doing so.

Or not on what was positive and serve the customers satisfyingly, and when a mistake was made acknowledge it or let it pass when it is not recognized.

She passed it down to the kitchen, even as she found it strange. When she looked out to the edge, looking at the musician. He turned his head to see her, she returned a smile. The woman followed his eyes but quickly went back to the crowd. The expectations were always there, no matter what one had tried right now.

She took up the appetizers, one which was meant to keep them busy while the main course was being cooked. The choice of seats right now, and they were up on the second level. Allowing them a perfect view of the performances and also the menu as well. Giving an almost eagle eye view of the menu board right now than ever.

She passed it to them in the middle. The plates were laid out with chopsticks crossed across them, and she merely moved next. Focusing on it as she ran down the steps, something so familiar as much as most of them were equal. She went down, where they both looked at each other before choosing to play another. This was something happier.

Enjoying it immensely while coming from the far west. Being so different from any of the folk tunes that she had heard before. The rhythms and melodies were very different from what she had been used to at this point. And a great change.

Just as she returned back into grabbing the next sets. Grabbing a large wooden tray and placing the five bowls of rice on them. Before grabbing one of the main dishes. And bringing it up to the steps, before serving without hesitant. Her moves were with haste, but showing that she was used to the speed.

She took the tray, quietly before passing it and coming down. This was something that they did. The night was almost half over, done before it. And with the rest of the remainders cleared out. The same for them, except they only ended shortly before the closure of the shop.

She returned to do the same. “Thank you.” The man said, one of the few things that she found strange as it never happened. She walked away with her head down and to grab the next.

“The orders aren’t even close to done yet. There are still four more dishes to go to.” She gave a bright smile before going to see the next order. Where it was probably was already completed to some extent. She headed down, feeling that it was even stranger. Just as Qingyao had come down to him.

“It’s a little strange to see your tables change.” He said.

“Ma’s orders, so there isn’t a lot that I can do about it currently speaking.” She was truthful when it came to that fact. Maybe there was something else to it, and the man was a far kinder patron than her last one. She usually got the most demanding, but not the worst behaved.

Vicious in their demands but never mistreated her, at least outright. Perhaps quietly, but never outright.

But this was a nice change, they did not say anything and seemed satisfied. And allowed her some time to breathe. Perhaps she was struggling, just as her eyes averted the next woman. One who was assigned to take her place, and in some cases, suffered for it. Just as she had when she was ordering and needing for the food to his specific requirements, at least so that it was not rejected.

To the degree that she thought her mother perhaps should have considered having alternative arrangements if they were young. Or start charging for the premium service of making food more palatable. Even as it was part of her impeccable service, and some of the more sympathetic adults had tipped her and the others. Although still mostly rare when compared to other things.

Since it was never anything that they could do a lot about while they were here. “Anything wrong with her?”

“Mostly because I dodged something really terrifying. They really were trying to test the sanity of the servers, or at least they did mine. But depleted the tolerance and patience of most of their other choices at least right now.” He didn’t agree, perhaps having seen most of the faces.

“I should get back to work.” At least to not be seen as skiving around. She went into the kitchen with the same tray and bringing the rest with her. It was already almost done, and a pot of soup before it was completed at last.

Before passing it to them. “Signal if you’ll need dessert.” Before she went down, knowing that it was time to pick up some slack on the others. So far, it seemed that there was none. And the woman who took her place had come forward to her.

Just as the man had passed her something else, this time around it was a large silver ingot. She slid it into her pocket, knowing that this was a little too much.

“It was far from easy, but it seemed they also understood the difficulty of it and paid me really well.” She gave an awkward smile, seeing the benefits to such a choice at least while they were here right now. There was nothing else which they could have tried to do so at the very least. And hid that she was also paid just as well.

“That’s great, it seemed that torture also paid off.” She also got it mostly right now. Same for her as well. Before she lightly smiled, while heading down and taking the chance to see the center. Where it was fine, albeit somewhat struggling. She took over some of them, and handed most of the dishes to the right one and took orders for the others.

Her colleagues struggled with mostly remembering the complicated nature of her mother’s menu. Often tricky and somewhat tricky, but she was familiar due to having spent years working her. Ever since she was a child, to learn the ways of her mother. While allowing her to spend her afternoons running around as long as she spent her evenings inside.

This allowed her to have her mother pay her, giving her more freedom than most. Able to buy things that truly interested her as opposed to things which mostly did not. Sweets, as well as interest. Just as the pay was rarely good until now, where she earned enough to save.

Mainly for her lofty dream of leaving. Having achieved the age of majority of girls, at fifteen. Although for most was a sign that she was ready for marriage, more so than actual adulthood. While real girls who were unmarried did not do so. But for a commoner, it rarely mattered.

Girls were heavily involved in the house from a young age. Forced to learn to weave as a way to support their family. And often seated near their mother who taught them the art of doing so, and thus allowed them to slowly gain skill. She was decent but never good.

Her Life laid here, even as in earlier times she would have been reduced to a loose woman. One who lacked the womanly virtues. But now, there were fewer restrictions on where they could go. With female poets mostly choosing to stay out late and bars to drink, regardless of their marital status. And of course, courtesans who would go onto win the influence of powerful courtiers, holding sway but also not bound to them.

And often finding their retirements in somewhat comfortable, having mostly later on paid off their bond. And the first rise of entertainers or adventuresses, exploring the country and vastly beyond. And why she was here, wanting a chance to do this.

“Chaoyun.” This time it was her mother, having left her office likely having done with all her paperwork. And things that needed to be done. “Come with me, there is something we need to say.” She nodded, having most agreed for the most part.

The office was hidden on the second level, just before their rooms. Where she would usually sleep, and so would her mother. Also, with empty rooms as well, although they were not used and her mother did not want to compromise it so far. Other than lending it to children who had nowhere else to go.

Inside, she found the same man watching once more. Someone whom she never thought to think about it right now. “There is something I need to say, this is your father, Chaoyun.”

She blinked, taking a moment to process it.