As the strips of paper being pasted onto the exams only differed very slightly in length, one would not notice anything unusual at just a glance. But if you were one of the officials making copies, who knew what was going on, you would be able to notice the difference. After Fan Xian saw that Yang Wanli's scroll had been affixed with a short strip of paper, he inexplicably felt quite pleased. He shook his head and laughed and couldn't help but say something. "Even if they've been chosen, when they're being copied out, how do you make the seal?"
The official next to him laughed a little uneasily. He knew that this new guy didn't have a good understanding of the customs, and responded carefully. "Young Master Fan, when copying, as long as the characters have been written with skill, then the examiner marking the papers will understand."
Fan Xian had a sudden realization. "That way even if the marker doesn't know who it is, they know it is the correct person," he exclaimed in admiration.
"Yes, master," replied the official from the Ministry of Rites politely, all the while silently cursing this talented youngster in his head who still did not know the customs of the bureaucracy.
At the same time, Fan Xian silently cursed these people's stupidity. If it weren't for the unbridled arrogance of the officials of the Kingdom of Qing, this custom - full of loopholes - would not have continued for so many years, and he couldn't exploit the loopholes himself to allow the true scholars to do something.
Of course, he understood, the reason that the whole bureaucratic system had tacitly agreed on this method was because whether or not they were political enemies, they had all tacitly agreed to this method of sorting. Save for madmen, no one in the system dared to rock the boat.
In truth, the Eastern Palace and the major players, even including the Prime Minister, had other methods of arranging such things. But they all happened to have found him by chance. One reason was because the proctor was in charge of sealing names; it was an important step in the cycle. Another reason was that other than Prime Minister Lin, they all wanted to see what Fan Xian's approach would be.
Fan Xian's approach was very simple: screw that. After all, no one could turn from an easygoing disposition to violent resentment like Fan Xian. After all, no one had as good a father as Fan Xian did, or a mother like Princess Iron Fan.
After a busy night, the civil service exams that decided the lives of countless scholars finally came to an end. Many officials gathered in the main hall, rubbing their tired eyes, listening to the exam director and Minister of the Board of Rites Guo You's admonishment of his subordinates.
After a raft of arguments lacking new ideas and lies about collecting material for the nation, Guo You, somewhat fatigued, waved a hand and allowed the subordinate bureaucrats to depart. Afterward, he looked kindly at Fan Xian. "Thank you for troubling yourself with this these past few days, young Master Fan."
"It was no trouble at all, sir," said Fan Xian with a vigorous smile. "Besides, I am still young."
Guo You smiled. "Everyone has gone to some trouble." At that moment, the high-level officials in the hall all understood the inside story of this year's exams, and the ones who had benefited from it had not only been Guo You and the two head examiners. Even Fan Xian was unaware that over the past few days, the sum of silver that he deserved had been sent to Fan Manor. The sum was even more formidable than half a year's profit from the Danbo Bookstore.
Over the several days of the examination, the whole exam hall had been filled with the unpleasant odor of urine and sweat. Fan Xian, standing on the stone platform, held his nose and looked at the dark exam hall. A satisfied smile floated across his face. He had come to this world many years ago now. He knew that he wanted to live, b
ut he did not know how he should live; until he had made the firm resolution to do this sort of thing. He had discovered that simply being a generally good person was quite satisfying.
Of course, being a good person does not mean being unwilling to offend anyone.
Officials from the three departments had gathered up the exam papers. Under the command of a palace eunuch, and the protection of the palace guards, the Overwatch Council and the Bureau of Military Affairs, a team of people made their way through the slowly fading night toward the Imperial College. Within a few days, those exam papers, copied out with their names sealed, were fully evaluated. Thus the list of third-rank candidates who had passed was drawn up. The highest-level candidates were looked over by the Emperor, and it was decided who would be given the ranks of Zhuangyuan, Bangyan, and Tanhua - highest, second-highest, and third-highest scorers respectively.
Leaving the stinky exam hall, Fan Xian found that a carriage from Fan Manor was waiting for him at the corner gate. After he boarded the carriage, he took the towel that Teng Zijing handed him and wiped his face. "What does father think about my approach?" he asked, somewhat tired.
"He has said nothing." Teng Zijing moved his injured leg and responded quietly. "But your father seems somewhat displeased. I've always felt that you should inform the Prime Minister of your actions, young master. And this matter implicates a wide range of people. If you truly provoke the wrath of the people, I fear that the Prime Minister and your father will find it difficult to protect you."
Fan Xian smiled and said nothing. The Overwatch Council was still behind him, and crucially, Chen Pingping was communicating with him through Wang Qinian. His Majesty was planning to clean up governance this year, and he was just seizing the opportunity. He reckoned Chen Pingping would scold him for causing trouble, but he would finally have a pretext to act in secret.
Fan Xian had just provided the Overwatch Council with justification, which they would bring before the Emperor, who would make a decision. As for the Crown Prince and Ning the Talented, Fan Xian had also made arrangements. Before the names were sealed, whether they were asked for by the Eastern Palace or by the Great Prince, Fan Xian had chosen the names of some of the talented scholar and hidden them - somewhat to protect them, and also to give his counterpart an explanation.
When the matter came out, Fan Xian wanted to give people the feeling that he had done it not as a result of any bias for one side or another of court politics, but purely as a scholar. Out of a stubborn desire, he had made a "noble" and insane decision.
Over the next few days, all was quiet in the capital. As Fan Xian's exposé began to complement the hidden strength of the Overwatch Council, at least before the list of third-rank candidates was published, the unsurprising information made its way through the bureaucracy. Finally, the third-rank candidates were chosen, and the names that Fan Xian had hidden in there had not been weeded out. Clearly some of Chen Pingping's spies were inside the Imperial College and the Ministry of Rites, and were helping Fan Xian in secret.
Guo You and his high-ranking officials had perhaps made sure cheating was too easy to accomplish in the exam hall over the past few years. And behind him, he had the Eastern Palace as a supporter, so to not have seen such clear problems, they were clearly not paying enough attention.
On the 22nd of February, the trees gradually began to blossom, with little birds perching on the branches in pairs. It was a fine and happy spring day. In a tavern in the capital, not far to the west of the Imperial College, the flustered scholars gathered together awaiting the news. There were no snacks or drinks on the table, because these students did not have the heart to eat a thing, focusing only on the important news that was to come.
"Not a chance," said a student from Shandong Road with a bitter laugh as he shook his head. "I don't think I stand a chance this time."
"Jialin, brother, why do you say such a thing?" The student sitting by his side was ashen-faced - it was Yang Wanli, the one who Fan Xian had looked in the eye in the exam hall.
He came from Quanzhou, and made his living by the sea; he was very different from those other scholars who had come from wealthy backgrounds and spent their lives in libraries. You could tell from looking at him that he was of a thoroughly easygoing disposition. He grabbed a pair of chopsticks from the table and began snacking on some pickled peanuts, chewing as he spoke with his mouth full. "Jialin, you're one of the most well-known people on Shandong Road. You can write a marvelous policy essay, and everyone will shower you with praise for days afterwards. Me, I'm no good at it. I've not got the skill in writing. Although self-confidence is enough to govern a province, there's no way my name will be on that list."
Cheng Jialin was from Shandong Road. This was his third time taking the exam. He laughed bitterly and kept his voice low. "Do we really not understand these things? So many people take these exams each time. The major players at the court pick a couple, the palace picks a couple, and the Imperial Palace picks some. People like us from the provinces – maybe we've got some renown from taking the provincial exams, but what good does that do in the capital? Even if the royal court wanted to find a few more talented people to fill the gap, there's plenty of scholars in the capital. Why would they pick us?"
The other scholar at the table had a lean face. It seemed that he was not happy; perhaps he had drunk too much and had pent-up frustrations. He laughed coldly. "Jialin, you're right. As I see it, it's best you don't take it again, so as not to spend all your money on travel. Goddamn civil service exams. It's only for the high officials and the palace to pick their pet poodles!"
Cheng Jialin's face darkened with slight fear. "Jichang, keep your voice down. If the Overwatch Council is listening, never mind our careers, it'll be our lives we'll have to worry about."
Hou Jichang was an oddity, someone who did not want to walk the road of an influential official. Although he had some renown in the capital, and was once equally famous as He Zongwei, his sharp tongue and his temper left him somewhat lonely. Hearing his friend's anxious words, he couldn't help but laugh. "The Overwatch Council might be fearsome, but why would they bother to spy on people as worthless as us? If they're so great, why don't they stop the cheating in the exam hall?"
Yang Wanli shook his head. "Although nobody thinks well of the Overwatch Council, when it comes to supervising governance, they are quite good at it."
Hou Jichang waved his finger. "Is anyone in the entire bureaucracy clean and honest? If we're placing our hopes in the Overwatch Council, it's like asking a tiger to give you its hide." 
"The officials are also chosen from the scholars," retorted Yang Wanli. "They can't all be bad, I think..." he muttered for a moment, trying to think of a single clean person in the entire bureaucracy of the capital. Finally, his eyes lit up. "I think the academician Fan Xian of the Imperial Academy is a fine official."
The two others beside him both knew that he had been called up by Fan Xian for smuggling things into the exam hall, and they couldn't help but laugh. "So he lets you finish the exam and that makes him a good official? Being a good official seems pretty simple."
The three men chatted and laughed, and as the alcohol slowly went to their heads, they couldn't stop themselves from quietly bemoaning the abuses of the royal court. They wondered whether the Overwatch Council was really going to investigate the scandal properly - if so, maybe things would get better in the exam hall.
Suddenly, there was commotion within the tavern. The three of them stood up and heard a scholar frantically shouting outside. "There's been a scandal in the exam hall, and the Director of the Board of Rites, Guo You, is going to prison!"
A roar! The spring thunder rumbled above the capital, and fresh spring rain fell upon the students in the tavern.
 A traditional saying, meaning to make a doomed petition.