In the last week of every month, ZhangYong diligently freed up some time so that he could find Xinyi. Through experience, he quickly learnt that the only way he could meet her was after he met HuiShan. Otherwise, he would only be told that she was too sick to receive any guests. He never really understood why that was the case but decided to roll along with it.
Their sparring matches never lasted for more than half an hour. Their matches ended as abruptly as it began and he always left with the same satisfied smirk. His brief disappearance within the estate was long enough for some to notice. Tongues began to wag. Gossip about him contained stories about how he was having dalliances with a maid in Xinyi's courtyard. It was not a secret how abandoned Xinyi's courtyard was, since it was never used by the sickly bedridden owner. While everyone tried to figure out who the favoured maid was, Xinyi was not suspected in the least.
Such gossip never bothered anyone though.
It was common in their culture for men to have dalliances and several concubines. The more wealthy and powerful one was, the less one could care about his dalliances and the larger his harem could grow. Women, on the other hand, were expected to stay pure and chaste until marriage, then faithful till their death.
Not to mention how ZhangYong was also at an age where boys were known to start chasing after girls' skirts, everyone believed that he would mature at a faster pace given the environment that he grew up in.
Furthermore, everyone pitied him. With the amount of time the two young men spent with HuiShan, they were taken as suitors holding affections for the household's precious little miss. However, everyone fully expected HuiShan to choose WangWei over ZhangYong.
By the fourth month that ZhangYong came by, BaoBao let his guard down. Nothing bad happened like what Xinyi expected. They've been living their days peacefully and Xinyi even made some progress on her end. This led BaoBao to believe that Xinyi was just being pessimistic, like Erica once described her.
Xinyi has learnt to cultivate without the need to be in a meditative state. Her subconscious mind continued to circulate the energy within her while taking in a slow and still unsteady trickle of energy from around her.
Her martial ability also rose to mid level Sky realm.
Now that her herbs have all grown, they would be observing the results of Xinyi's experiment today. Given how things were progressing smoothly, BaoBao was also feeling optimistic about the impending results.
After Xinyi was done with her usual morning martial arts practice, she got started on the harvesting of her herbs.
There were six pots of herbs where three were directly nourished with spiritual energy and three were indirectly nourished by growing in soil nourished with spiritual energy.
She then split the herb from each pot into two, where one will be stir fried and one will be boiled into soup.
In his eagerness to know the results, BaoBao appeared by her side and proactively helped her with the washing and prepping. When he was done, he stared sullenly at the single pot and pan on the stove.
"How long will it take to cook everything?"
"Seeing how the soup would take some time, I would estimate at least 3 hours."
BaoBao's jaw dropped. "Can't we just steal more pots?"
"If we take too many at once, someone will notice and think that there is a thief, resulting in a search and heightened security around the estate. Besides, I would have no need for that many pots after I'm done with this, then I'd have to return it again. Too much trouble. I'd rather be patient."
"If we had the system market, something small like this wouldn't be an issue…" BaoBao grumbled under his breath.
BaoBao jumped in fright, covered his mouth with both hands, then spoke through them. "Did I say anything?"
"..." Xinyi raised an eyebrow at his poor but cute attempt at lying then turned her attention back on cooking. Since he did not want to talk about it, she would not probe.
Once she was done with the stir fried herbs, she did not wait for the soup to be done to start her taste testing.
She took a mouthful of the herb that was directly nourished once every week. Her eyes remained closed as she paid full attention to any sensations or changes in her body that could be brought about by the herb.
"Nothing?" BaoBao probed.
Xinyi shook her head. "Just tastes a little better than usual."
Xinyi then took a mouthful of the herb that was directly nourished thrice every week.
"Still nothing?" BaoBao's voice reflected his dropping enthusiasm.
BaoBao visibly perked up upon hearing her answer.
"It's no longer bitter. It's actually appetising now. Not what I was hoping for though."
"Next! Next!" BaoBao urged her impatiently.
When Xinyi took a mouthful of the herb that was directly nourished everyday, her face finally revealed a change in her expression. She did not wait for BaoBao's prompt to share her findings in astonishment. "It's delicious! Like, really delicious. Fit to be part of a feast."
/I should make this for-/ Her thoughts got cut halfway when she became aware of where it was leading her to. Her expression fell and she looked a little down again.
"For?" BaoBao cluelessly probed.
"You." Xinyi put on a small smile and gave BaoBao the remainder of the dish for him to enjoy.
"For me?" BaoBao's eyes sparkled. Before he waited for her confirmation, he started to dig in. As soon as he took his first bite, his face became like a melted marshmallow that has rosy cheeks.
"Sho noishh~" He spoke with his mouth full of food.
After he gobbled everything down, he exclaimed with sparkling expectant eyes, "Do you really mean it? Will you cook this for me again?!"
Xinyi's heart slightly warmed at this adorable sight. "I will."
With that said, she moved on to eat a mouthful of the herb that was indirectly nourished once every week. Then the one nourished thrice every week. Then the one nourished everyday. The final one was only slightly rejuvenating at best.
BaoBao's disappointment was clear on his face.
"There's still soup." Xinyi pointed out to him, perking him up a little again.
However, before they could get to trying it, BaoBao suddenly exclaimed out, "ZhangYong's coming!"
They hastily moved the dishes from the stone table to the back where the stove was.
"Look after the stove please."
BaoBao nodded, then informed her that ZhangYong had entered her courtyard.
Xinyi entered her room through the window then came out through the front door.
After going through the same procedure for the past four months, they have dropped a bit of the formality and Xinyi rushed at him immediately after she bowed to greet him.
Knowing that she was trying to catch him before he could assume his defensive stance, he smirked then commented, "Too naive."
Already expecting her first attack to get blocked, she followed it with a punch towards his blind spot, then a kick at an angle that would be difficult for him to defend. Every move she made, she had the next planned.
Her only goal now was to last as long as she could.
ZhangYong felt pride and satisfaction welling up in his heart.
Not only was she able to force him to keep his guard constantly up, she improved from lasting no more than 5 exchanges of blows to lasting around 30 exchanges of blows. It was increasingly hard to end the match whenever he wanted to without needing to increase the output of his spiritual energy.
He could tell how much she studied and how much she took their sparring matches to heart. Her attacks were made into her defense and she minimised the area that would be left vulnerable in a move.
After approximately 30 minutes was up, he finished the final exchange then resumed a relaxed stance that signalled the end of their spar.
He raised his eyebrows while he appraised her current condition. He had noticed how she did not become sluggish in her movements towards the end of their match and how she was not panting as hard as she usually would.
What he did not know was that it was also thanks to her continuous cultivation that she did not look as lethargic. Every few seconds that passed, a tiny bit of energy would be recovered. The better her continuous cultivation would become, the faster she would recover.
It was only now, however, that he seriously paid attention to her appearance. The way she donned a simple but elegant white robe, did her long hair up in a simple ponytail, and had no makeup on, told him how little effort she put into maintaining her appearance. Even if her natural beauty was nothing remarkable, her natural look was like a breath of fresh air.
Xinyi guessed that he was appraising her strength, so was able to hold his intense gaze calmly. She raised an eyebrow to find him walking towards her instead.
/He could just say it where he was standing./
ZhangYong only stopped when he was a foot away from her. "You've become stronger."
Xinyi could hear the praise and pride in his gentle but firm voice. She was impressed that he could sound so authoritative despite his still slightly immature voice. He also looked the part with him being a little taller than her even though he was a year younger than her.
Unbeknownst to them, BaoBao was at the back of the courtyard, behind the house, jumping up and down in excitement with his hands covering his mouth in an effort to suppress the scream that threatened to spill out.
[They look so close! Something must be going on! Things are going well after all!] He exclaimed to himself.
Meanwhile, Xinyi replied to ZhangYong's comment. "There's still much for me to learn."
"I like your attitude. Even though I didn't see HuiShan today, you've really made my day. Thank you."
Alarms went blaring in Xinyi's mind the moment she heard what he said. "You didn't see HuiShan mei?"
"She wasn't free today, but today was my only free day this month." ZhangYong explained.
"How did you come to my courtyard?"
"That's easy. I said that I wanted to see how sick you were for myself."
"Why did no one accompany you?"
"I dismissed them."
"They let you?"
"Not at first. I used a little trickery. Feeling honoured yet?" He smiled teasingly. "I guessed that there must be a reason why you were pretending to be sick and I didn't want to ruin it for you."
"... You already did though."
ZhangYong was speechless. He could sense her unhappiness with his actions. He frowned as he struggled with understanding what he did wrong. He had even made use of the gossip about him to come here unobstructed. Her act would not be exposed.
"I think it's better for you to not come anymore. Thank you for everything you've taught me." Xinyi took a large step back so that she could bow down properly with her hands cupped.
Her words shocked ZhangYong to the core. With his outstanding performance and reputation, no one has ever driven him away like that, much less a woman. As such, he did not really know how to deal with it.
"I see." He said through gritted teeth then left her courtyard in a huff.
Xinyi was not afraid of offending him. She did not believe that with that little bit of rudeness, he would create an upheaval because of her. Moreover, she successfully drove him away with it.
The only lament she had was losing the advantage of practicing with the second male lead. She attributed the cause of her smooth progress to luck and situation.
Before she could get back to her soup, BaoBao exclaimed in her mind again. [ZiYao's coming!]
Xinyi rushed into her room and did whatever she could in that short amount of time to fix her complexion to be that of someone still recovering from a grave illness.
Pretending to be enjoying the weather outside with her eyes closed, ZiYao's voice was soon heard. "Er Jie, how have you been doing?"
ZiYao walked up to her then held onto her hands like they were really close.
Xinyi stared at their joined hands and could already tell where this was going. "Er Jie has been doing fine. Thank you for your concern."
"I really missed you."
"It has indeed been some time since we last hung out." Xinyi put on a light smile and skillfully avoided saying sweet-nothings back to ZiYao.
She was fine with making herself humble but she drew the line at acting affectionate with someone.
Xinyi could tell that ZiYao was once again taking things slow when she did not bring up her real objective during her small talk.
Suddenly, ZiYao's nose twitched as she caught a whiff of a tantalising smell.
"Is there..." ZiYao took another whiff.
"Something cooking at the back?" ZiYao asked in surprise.
"Just a little past time I have."
"Oh?" ZiYao's eyes widened in excitement as she made her way to the back of the courtyard without waiting to be brought there.
When she turned around the corner, she was met with an unattended stove. "Is it done?"
"Yes, I was just about to take the pot off the stove." Xinyi then proceeded on to do so. BaoBao was whining in her head how he had been about to do so when the busybody came walking over.
Seeing how there were quite a few shares by the stove, ZiYao asked with anticipation clear in her eyes, "Can I try it?"
"I wouldn't want to sully your taste buds."
ZiYao's irritation suddenly shot to the roof and she had the temptation to rip off the apologetic smile off of Xinyi's face.
She realised how although Xinyi always behaved so cordially, ZiYao had never gotten anything that she wanted from this woman. If Xinyi was not some sick isolated patient, she would have thought that Xinyi was behaving like this on purpose.
"I see. What a pity. Well, the smell made me hungry so I'll make a move first to grab a bite. I'll see you another day." ZiYao replied amiably.
After ZiYao left, BaoBao appeared by Xinyi's side again with a pout. "Are we really not going to see Zhang Yong anymore?"
"What? Did you fall in love with him?" Xinyi looked at him and asked with an eyebrow raised.
"Who wouldn't?" BaoBao crossed his arms and humphed.
Surprise flitted across her eyes. BaoBao did not vehemently reject having emotions the way he did the first time she pointed out how he sounded sad.
Not forgetting to respond, she said with mirth in her eyes, "There're at least two people who wouldn't."
BaoBao frowned and cocked his head. "Besides you…"
After a while, he blurted out, "Oh! The female lead! HuiShan!"
Xinyi laughed lightly and rubbed his soft head that has only a small tuft of hair. "You got it."
She ended the conversation with that and walked off to resume her taste-testing.