Chen Pingping mumbled the insult, and the heads of the Overwatch Council felt a slight twinge of fear seeing the Director's anger. Chen Pingping pulled down the blanket over his knees and coughed. His messy white hair was not all that appealing to look at. "The Council regulations are extremely clear. We do not stick our noses in palace affairs, except on the Emperor's orders."
Fourth Bureau head Yan Ruohai forced a smile and shook his head. "Unfortunately, it really can’t be helped. Before, we were checking for cheating in the imperial exams. But this sort of thing happens in the highest echelons, and we don't have enough people in those positions. It's hard to find the thread. Now that we have these names, we can follow the thread, and it shouldn’t be difficult to find the official behind this. I just did not expect it to lead us to the Eastern Palace."
Internal discussions in the Overwatch Council had always been extremely bold and full of biting criticism. Except for their unparalleled loyalty to His Majesty, these secret police chiefs did not care in the slightest about the people around them.
Chen Pingping pushed his wheelchair over to the window, his white hair standing out against the black curtain, appearing especially clear as he said, "This commissioner's order is truly something. Last night His Majesty finally decided to look into this year's exam hall scandal. He has sent quite a gift."
Yan Ruohai was also thoroughly curious about this commissioner, whom he had never laid eyes on. He was not sure how he had gotten hold of this list of names. "We should look into it as soon as possible," he said quietly.
"Mm." Chen Pingping waved a hand, dismissing the gathered subordinates and sending them back to making arrangements for the big operation that was to happen in a few days' time. But Yan Ruohai stayed behind, and some time later, he spoke coldly. "There are plenty of people who know this commissioner's identity, so there is no way to keep this a secret. His Majesty wishes to ensure that the Crown Prince can save face, so we cannot move against the person in the Eastern Palace."
"And the Prime Minister?" Yan Ruohai had a sudden thought. Guessing at the commissioner's identity, he couldn't help but feel rather shocked.
Chen Pingping narrowed his eyes. "So you know who it is. Of course, we cannot move against his father-in-law no matter what, as you well know."
"The truth is that we can't move against any of these people." Yan Ruohai laughed bitterly. "Apart from the Crown Prince, one is a noble of the palace, one is the Prime Minister, and one is a senior figure in the Bureau of Military Affairs. The Council has always had a good relationship with the military. We can’t sever it for the sake of such small matters."
"Mm." Chen Pingping let out a grunt. "We must move on these three threads. But we cannot follow them to their source, or there will be repercussions throughout all levels of society. Even His Majesty would be unable to escape it. These people are officials. Perhaps they have guessed that the Emperor does not have complete control over his officials as a result of the exam hall scandal and have become much more brazen recently."
He suddenly laughed, but there was a coldness in his smile. "But they didn’t expect that someone might be even more brazen then they are. Someone has sold them out."
Yan Ruohai frowned. "Commissioner Fan has acted inappropriately here. When there are so many nobles transgressing like this, where does it end?"
"This is what he is doing by giving me this." It wasn't clear whether Chen Pingping's expression was one of fury or madness, but he was clearly not in a good mood. "He knows that the old man can’t allow him to be at the heart of the struggle, and so that is why he gave me this list of names. He is telling me that he does not wish to be led around by the nose, and he wants me to help
deal with this!"
Yan Ruohai did not dare say anything, but he felt rather alarmed. What really was the relationship between Director Chen and Count Sinan's eldest son? Why Would he all of a sudden act like this? And looking at his master's face, it looked as if he was really going to go along with Fan’s plan.
Chen Pingping calmed himself down, then suddenly burst out laughing, though the laughter was barbed and ugly-sounding. "Interesting. Truly, truly interesting."
"What benefit does it bring Commissioner Fan to act like this?" asked Yan Ruohai, curious.
"There are always a few strange people in this world who do not act in their own self-interest." Chen Pingping seemed to have recalled something, and a rarely seen look of reverence appeared on his face. It was a look that Yan Ruohai had never seen on Chen Pingping's face, not even when he had met with the Emperor.
"Sir, if I may ask, how high up does this exam scandal go?"
Chen Pingping lifted his head slightly. "His Majesty feels that the Guo family has been in charge of the Board of Rites long enough."
"Currently there is no one at the First Bureau. Mu Tie is not clever enough, so I will put you in charge."
The civil exams had reached the third round. Fan Xian dabbed at the corner of his eyes with a warm wet cloth, and found that the past few days had really left him feeling fatigued. The sleep in his eyes had increased, and he couldn't help but laugh bitterly as he stood up and stretched. He took a scrutinizing look at the students who were bent over asleep at their desks. If he had found it this hard just to be their examiner, he felt even more pity for the students.
This was the last day of the civil service exams. Fan Xian had already spent several days inside the exam hall located in the second office of the Ministry of Rites. Although they had frequently sent food and other revitalizing things from home, his body and mind were both extremely fatigued. He yawned and walked up to where Yang Wanli was to take a close look. Over the next few days, he discovered that this Yang Wanli was a very committed student. The things that he had wedged into his clothes had not moved an inch. He couldn't help but feel pleased.
What particularly surprised him was that Yang Wanli seemed to have a truly talented mind. Though his commentary were not completely without reproach, and his opinions did not fall on any overtly political line, they were conscientious, unadorned, and were very much in line with Fan Xian's own temperament. The nameless official from the Overwatch Council returned with his report. Yang Wanli was from a poor family. As a child, he had studied at a clan school in Quanzhou. His performance in the provincial exams had been excellent, and Fan Xian had uncovered his cheating, so he was inevitably more careful.
Yang Wanli had now finished the final exam question, and with tiredness across his face, he was checking to make sure he had not made any slip-ups. Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught a glimpse of young Master Fan once more coming toward him, and he couldn't help but feel nervous.
Although he was in the exam hall, Fan Xian obviously could not talk to any of the students. But having gone through days of torment, Yang Wanli's state of mind was somewhat distracted. Boldly, he took hold of his lapels, staring miserably at Fan Xian. It seemed that he was asking the young examiner a question: How had Fan Xian discovered the things he was hiding earlier in the exam hall?
Fan Xian couldn't restrain his smile. Was this how he made the most of his scholarly talent? It was inappropriate to speak with him; he only used the forefinger of his right hand to gently point at Yang Wanli's bedclothes.
Yang Wanli was confused and looked down. All he could see were the bedclothes lumped together behind him that looked like a big black jujube. Then he looked at the long satin gown he was wearing, which, while unwashed for several days, still projected an air of nobility. His heart skipped a beat as he realized how he had slipped up. How could an exam candidate wearing such a freshly washed silk gown carry such a dirty pile of bedclothes into the exam hall?
He couldn't help but laugh at his foolishness.
Fan Xian smiled. He had made his decision. With his hands behind his back, he strolled away.
It was night time, and the students were gradually making their way out of the exam hall at the Ministry of Rites. After several grueling days, they were on the verge of fainting, yawning incessantly, their bodies stinking, and their faces heavy with a dazed expression. There were still a few students left over who wrote slowly, bent over their desks chewing on their writing brushes. Some others had fallen asleep in the lamplight; it was still not yet time, so none of the examiners had come to deal with them.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a gong in Tongtuo Alley by the side of the Ministry of Rites. It sounded crisp and clear, and was seemingly meant to awaken all of the nighttime city.
"Your time is up; students, please put down your writing brushes."
Shouting loudly, the officials of the Ministry of Rites began to clear the hall, clearing out those students who had still yet to put down their writing brushes. There was one candidate in his forties, his hair already white, who had yet to finish the questions. He howled in despair as he refused to leave his writing desk, until eventually he was pitifully dragged out by some officers of the Overwatch Council.
They could still hear his sobbing some time later. It was not easy to listen to as it echoed all around outside the exam hall of the Ministry of Rites.
Fan Xian sighed. He had no sympathy. This world and that world were the same; whether you were able and suitable to do something depended entirely on your own effort, and nothing more. It was not that he was heartless, but as he saw it, their tests were finished, and his test... well, that had only just begun.
On the night that the civil service exams concluded, the scrolls had to be sealed; this was Fan Xian's job. The chief examiner, two examiners and two supervisors were all high-ranking court officials, and they did not dare leave. They all waited as Fan Xian led people in sealing the examinees' names on their examination papers and making copies of the answers. Then they could seal the papers and signed them.
The candles shone bright and clear on the busy scene within the second office of the Ministry of Rites. Outside, dozens of functionaries separated the exam papers and arranged them. In another room, Fan Xian rubbed his temples as he watched the officials from the Ministry of Rites seal the names on the papers.
Before all the test papers had been sealed, they had to be sent over to Fan Xian. Fan Xian did not dare show the slightest neglect, and he carefully pored over the names on each test paper, affixing corresponding names to the four sheets of paper. Some time later, he had gone through dozens of test papers, inconspicuously placing them on his right hand side.
By his side, the two officials from the Ministry of Rites lowered their heads and looked at each other. They knew that these dozen or so papers had been called for specifically by higher-ups in the palace and the royal court.
Having finished this, Fan Xian beckoned them over and indicated that they were to begin sealing them. The two officials from the Ministry of Rites did not dare miss a thing, and they quickly began covering over the names and birthplaces of candidates on the sheets with paper.
Fan Xian also didn’t arouse suspicion, looking carefully to the side, eventually discovering how these officials of the Kingdom of Qing carried out such matters. It turned out that as they sealed the test papers he had gone through, the slips of paper they were using when pasting names were slightly shorter than the paper they used on the other exam sheets for the pasted names of the average sentence.
Watching the officials from the Ministry of Rites solemnly paste short slips of paper onto the exam papers he had gone through, Fan Xian couldn't stop himself from smiling. If Guo You knew that not these papers were from candidates hand-picked by the palace - that some of them were talented students that he had chosen personally, such as that foolish Yang Wanli - how angry would old Guo be?
But he did not know that if his little trick fell into the hands of the Overwatch Council, Minister Guo would perhaps not even have the chance to get angry.