At night, Fan Xian returned to his own place. He chatted to Wan’er about meeting the Second Prince the day before greeting an unexpected guest—vice-minister Xin Qiwu, the Crown Prince’s aide from the eastern palace.
Having been given a seat and some tea, Fan Xian stared at the names on the strip of paper. He knew what Crown Prince was up to, but he didn't know the reason for this visit.
"Why are you showing this to me?" Fan Xian asked while shaking his head, "Vice-minister, I’m afraid I do not have the authority to interfere with the examination in any way."
Many months ago, during the process of negotiating with Northern Qi, the two of them were head and assistant deputies. They had cooperated quite well with one another, and there were no character conflicts. Furthermore, a few days ago, they drank together. So it was no wonder that they had become more familiar with each other today. Xin Qiwu took a sip of tea and explained, "You should know what those names mean."
Of course Fan Xian knew. The examination began in two days. At this crucial time, the various government organizations were all secretly in touch with each other; their back doors were almost broken. Supposedly Guo You of the Board of Rites became annoyed by it, but he was afraid to provoke too many nobles, so he asked for Imperial permission to wait it out in the palace. The examiners practically turned the Imperial College into their own residence, and they dared not to leave.
But, just based on the current authority of the eastern palace, Crown Prince should have access to plenty of ways if he wanted to pick out some talented people from this examination. Everyone knew that Guo You was a firm supporter of the eastern palace, so it should be simple to deliver word to him. Why, then, was Fan Xian involved?
As if detecting Fan Xian’s suspicion, Xin Qiwu shook his head. "Young Sir Fan, you are admired by all, but you don’t seem to understand the various customs of the capital very well. The current rules regarding examinations were passed down from the previous dynasty. There weren’t many changes. In order to prevent cheating, all the submitted exams are to be copied. That way the graders could not associate the exam with an individual by their handwriting. The most important part is sealing an examinee’s name on the exam to discourage fraud."
Xin Qiwu continued, "Those six names on the paper – I’ve seen them all in person." He smiled, "They are all very talented."
Fan Xian always thought of himself as a composed person. But after Xin Qiwu left, he sat quietly in the study looking at the strip of paper. He could feel anger faintly brewing. Just two days before the exam, he found out that, along with the director, head examiner, and other officials involved, his own position was a complicated but important one.
Xin Qiwu had told him that the Imperial court had ordered him to be the proctor for this year’s exam. It was a rather strange position which took full charge of the exam. The proctor held substantial authority. Most importantly, at night, before the officials of the Board of Rites and teachers from the Imperial College copied down the exams, and before the exams were changed for the next day, Fan Xian would be in charge of sealing all the examinees’ names.
For those who wanted to play some tricks while taking this exam, the first thing they would have to take care of would be the sealing of the name. Even if one were to bribe some official from the Board of Rites beforehand, the official couldn’t do much if the name seal wasn't tampered with.
Over the years, cheating had already become a skilled trade among the various officials of Qing. Each of them contributed the best they could to provide some assumptions for reference. As for the famous Fan Xian miraculously taking the position of mediator, no one was sure what this little Poetry Sage would do.
That was why Crown Prince sent Xin
Qiwu directly to Fan Manor. He didn’t think Fan Xian would betray him; he believed that the eastern palace had rewarded him enough, and now it was time for Fan Xian to show his appreciation.
Fan Xian looked at the paper strip again. With a grin, he ripped it to pieces. He then walked slowly back to his bedroom. He was a bit thankful toward Second Prince. Had Second Prince been planning the same thing, Fan Xian would be caught in the middle and it would be a difficult situation.
But he was still underestimating the complexity of it all.
Lin Wan’er sat beside the table, looking at him with a smile. She then gently knocked on the table. The sheets of white paper next to her finger gave off a chill. Fan Xian sighed and slapped his forehead. "Don’t tell me names are written on there."
Li Wan’er chuckled. She stood up and walked over to him, holding onto his arm. She said, "You are smart indeed."
Fan Xian smiled uneasily, "I thought I’d live a life of leisure just before setting off for Northern Qi. Who knew…?" He finally couldn’t hold back anymore. "Who appointed me to this position?"
"My father, and yours." Lin Wan’er looked at him painfully, "While not a head examiner, it’s still a crucial position. Based on how it’s always been, the students that pass this year’s exam and become officials have to call you 'teacher' when they see you."
Fan Xian was still not pleased. "Don’t you think our fathers are being too enthusiastic? I’m only seventeen. Do I have to be saluted by a bunch of pedantic scholars?"
Li Wan’er giggled. "With your current fame in the capital, there were even people who wanted you to oversee the exam. Your age was the only thing that made the palace reject the idea. You were close to becoming the youngest overseer in centuries."
Fan Xian said, "That’s not a good thing. I regret getting drunk at the banquet." As hindsight always comes afterwards, Fan Xian received the papers from his wife and discovered that he was familiar with the names. All of them were famous students in the capital, some of which he had met in person. They were truly talented. Only after seeing this did Fan Xian settle down a bit.
"Since I’m the proctor, how could they still so brazenly come to the manor?" Fan Xian sighed. "The papers are evidence of their fraud. With this on my hand, they’re being way too bold."
"Old customs." Lin Wan’er had resided in the palace for many years, so naturally she knew about such things. She explained, "Your position is an important one, yes, but due to its low rank, it wasn’t treated too seriously. On the contrary, if someone from the palace really wanted to cultivate some close aides, the proctors could only pretend nothing happened. But this year, with you taking the position, people are wary of your methods. Bbut they aren’t familiar with your disposition. That’s why they thought to visit you to show their manners and respect. Of course, those that couldn’t get a hold of you would adhere to the old ways; they wouldn’t dare to bother you."
"In that case, I just have to follow the old customs?" Fan Xian frowned slightly; he really wasn’t expecting Qing’s political circles to be so corrupt. As he thought about those poor students living in the libraries in the suburbs, he became unsettled.
"You do what you want." Lin Wan’er was no ordinary person. She said lightly, "Even if none of them wanted to curry favor with you, who would dare rile you?"
Fan Xian smiled bitterly. "You’re a princess. Naturally you’re not afraid of anyone," he thought to himself. "While my background isn’t insignificant, your prince brother wants to use this chance to see my attitude." He asked, "Who sent these papers?" There were only three papers; not as many as he thought.
Lin Wan’er was a bit embarrassed. "In truth, I started all this."
Fan Xian was surprised, "How so?"
"I went to the palace today to visit Ning the Talented. You know I always played with her when I was little. That’s one paper." She frowned, "As for the other two, one was sent by Mister Yuan on father’s orders, and the other was sent by Sir Qin from the Bureau of Military Affairs."
Fan Xian shook his head. Ning the Talented represented the Great Prince who was still stationed far west. And since the prime minister made him a proctor, making use of one’s son-in-law seemed natural. As for Sir Qin of the Bureau of Military Affairs, while Fan Xian had never met him, he knew Sir Qin was a senior official who commanded much authority when it came to the military. That raised a question: instead of educating some fine generals, what was he doing interfering with civil officials?
"Never mind those trivial matters. Since the whole country is a crow, there’s no need for me to pretend to be a crane," Fan Xian said emotionlessly as he shredded all the papers. He gently embraced his wife and walked toward the front of the manor.
It was the ninth day of the second month; the first day of the grand examination. All scholars had to show what they learned in the past ten years to the Imperial court. And this examination was the standard for whether or not their knowledge was deemed useful. Like a school of fish, the scholars excitedly walked towards the second bureau of the Board of Rites where the exam was taking place. They looked like they were squeezing into a tiny fish trap.
The previous night, Fan Xian had already met up with the other officials who were in charge of the examination. They somewhat nervously arranged the procedure and assumed their positions the next day.
An official’s chair was placed by the front gate. Next to it were the various officials from the capital’s office and Overwatch Council. Fan Xian sat firmly on that chair, coldly eyeing the students passing by.
The students that walked by, regardless of age, all saluted Fan Xian. Those that knew him saluted out of respect for his name; those that didn’t know him saluted out of respect for his position. The officials next to Fan Xian had already spread out a cotton curtain and were preparing to carry out body searches to look for prohibited items.
Fan Xian took a sip of tea. He shook his head as he looked at those students who led difficult lives carrying around blankets, rations, and chamber pots like they were some laborers from a village. Suddenly, he saw one student who just got checked and was about to enter the examination area. Fan Xian rolled his eyes and shouted, "Wait!"