Sparse raindrops fell around the inn along with the sound of spring thunder. The students were all stunned as they stood stiffly in the rain. This alley was where students from outside the capital who had come to take the examination gathered. Despite the number of people, all was strangely quiet after hearing that shout.
Many moments passed. Finally someone came back to their senses. The student who shouted out was surrounded. There was a loud ruckus like an explosion. There were questions everywhere. Hou Jichang and Yang Wanli both had an excited expression, but they forced down their impulses, and just walked forward to listen.
There were too many people asking questions, and only one person was doing the answering. After a long time, it was finally made clear that the Overwatch Council sent out over a hundred secret agents last night. Splitting into five paths, one went directly to Guo Manor to the south, while the rest went to four other manors. Together, they caught four students from Jiangnan.
Due to how quickly they acted, the night covered their tracks. It was only this morning when His Majesty blandly mentioned to have given out the order to let the Overwatch Council thoroughly investigate this year’s examination for cheating. As the Imperial court descended into chaos, the various officials realized why the Director of the Board of Rites Guo You wasn’t among them.
The only ones who were calm amidst the chaos were the Prime Minister, the Minister of Revenue, and of course, Chen Pingping of the Overwatch Council, who had yet to make an appearance at the royal court.
The Overwatch Council had acted quickly and precisely, especially the groups that caught the four students. They were able to find letters to certain officials. Even more shocking was the amount of silver they found in Guo Manor. After the initial investigation, the families of those students were all quite despotic. Three of the families were salt merchants. They had brought with them large sums of money when coming to the capital and then, using various methods, were able to buy Director Guo’s favor.
Guo You and those students had already been imprisoned. Since yesterday, the Fourth Bureau of the Overwatch Council began to order their branch offices in Jiangnan to apprehend those involved in this serious case. While those four students bribed the head examiner Director Guo, most of the money went to the eastern palace, meaning the one behind this case was none other than… the Crown Prince.
Of course, the students would never know such details. It was all they could do to curse Director Guo in the rain. They even cursed his poor mother and son.
His Majesty seemed to be determined to investigate this year’s examination. Other than the Board of Rites, at least dozens of other officials had their positions suspended and subjected to investigations. According to rumors, the reason for the speed and accuracy of the investigation was due to a blacklist which contained the names of students and the officials involved in secret plots. Starting from those students, the Overwatch Council worked their way up to the officials. It was a very effective method.
Hou Jichang walked to the table, still shocked. He raised a cup and downed the alcohol in one gulp. As if not affected by the strong alcohol, he said to himself, "Never would I have thought this would happen. I really didn't."
"You didn’t think what?" Yang Wanli and Cheng Guilin also came back to their senses and asked.
Hou Jichang laughed and slapped the table forcefully. "I never thought the Overwatch Council would be so accurate and so vicious. They were able to obtain a list which practically sentenced those nobles in Imperial court to death." He raised the jar of wine and poured some for his two friends. Hou Jichang raised his cup, his face full of joy. "Here’s to the Overwatch Council!"
"Cheers!" The other two were all in agreement a
nd completed the toast.
Currently, the inn was full of excited students drinking in sheer joy. The examination of Qing’s political circles had been rotten for a long time. While they all knew it wouldn’t be cleaned up overnight with the arrest of a single director, everything started with a single step. As long as His Majesty knew about the problem and was willing to solve it, those young, spirited, and extremely naïve students all believed that Qing was destined for a more beautiful future.
As the alcohol began to show its effect, Yang Wanli squinted and chuckled stupidly. "How exhilarating. Even if I don’t pass the exam, I was able to experience such a momentous event. What a rush."
Cheng Guilin drank the least, so he was the most clear-headed. He asked hesitantly, "Since they uncovered the cheating, then… will they redo this year’s examination?"
"They won't." After all the alcohol he consumed, Hou Jichang’s thin face became calm. His eyes became extremely clear, "This is a warning from His Majesty. A similar case happened twelve years ago, when fourteen officials from the Board of Rites were executed. Back then, they went on to post the scores from the examination; only the students who had dealing with those officials got their names taken off and replaced by the students after them."
"Then… our chances just improved?" Yang Wanli chuckled stupidly. Being naïve, his question was simple too. "There are only so many openings. After the cheating ones get their names taken off, our chances to pass will increase by a lot."
Hou Jichang laughed coldly. "Only if there are not any other nobles even more powerful than them doing the same thing. Director Guo was only a single official. He wouldn’t dare to do anything drastic to this grand national examination. I’m afraid there are even more cheaters who are under the nobles’ protection. The loss of a few salt merchants’ sons is not significant at all."
As the other two pondered this, they became a bit downcast. Moments later, Yang Wanli suddenly slapped the table and grinned. "Regardless, this is worth celebrating. The most shocking event last year was the propaganda that forced Eldest Princess back to Xinyang. And the most shocking event this year is probably this blacklist which toppled a director."
Cheng Guilin warned: "Let’s talk more after the results are released tomorrow."
Hou Jichang and Yang Wanli knew his temperament. They were still hopeful about this year’s spring examination. "I have to go and wake up that Shi Chanli to tell him the good news."
Yang Wanli laughed. "Remember to buy him some food."
"Beautiful. Very beautiful." Fan Xian was in a good mood as he went over the papers Wang Qinian had brought him. Wan’er sat next to him worried. "Aren’t you afraid the Crown Prince will find out it was you?"
Fan Xian had been scolded severely by his father that day and was under house arrest. Forced to stay in the manor, he knew he was being overboard by disclosing this case. But of course, without the Overwatch Council obtaining intelligence first, Fan Xian wouldn’t know that His Majesty was ready to set an example this year, and therefore wouldn’t dare to make enemies in the royal court.
The blacklist itself wasn’t much of a secret; all examiners had a few sheets. To cheat in such a bold and shameless way, one could see that the bureaucracy of Qing was used to it. That was precisely the reason why this investigation by the Overwatch Council turned out to be so shocking. For the moment, no one suspected Fan Xian.
Hearing his wife’s question, Fan Xian showed a strange expression. "Your prince brother is too bold, and his methods aren’t effective. Those officials at court are all idiots who don’t know their limits. To cheat so openly during the spring examination – even if I don’t report it, were they really going to get away if His Majesty decides to investigate?"
Wan’er raised herself up from under her blanket. She looked at Fan Xian’s face quietly. "Dear, please don’t take such risks in the future. There is no such thing as guaranteed safety in this world. What are you going to do if someone finds out?"
"What am I going to do? I'll make do!" Fan Xian made another one of his otherworldly puns. He smiled. "So what if they were to find out?"
Wan’er sighed. Her husband was learned and well-mannered on the outside, but no one knew when he would do something crazy like this.
Fan Xian knew his wife was worried. He said quietly, "The most crucial part is still in the palace. What’s the point of examinations? It’s a method for His Majesty to gather talented officials to serve him. One emperor from the past once laughed during the examination about how the heroes of the world all came to him under such methods. His Majesty could tolerate the various officials taking advantage of the examination to get rich, but he could not tolerate them using every student to get rich. Besides, two princes were involved in this. The emperor had to ask himself… what his two sons were planning to do."
Wan’er didn’t completely understand. "To cultivate talented officials who would serve them in court, of course."
Fan Xian continued: "Then His Majesty is sure to ask why. The Great Prince led armies; why does he need officials in the royal court?"
Wan’er smiled uneasily. "And what about my brother? He is the Crown Prince, who will someday take command of the nation. It is only right that he tries to find talented people. The Imperial tutor of the Eastern Palace once said that the Eastern Palace cannot be powerless. It must not fear rumors. So it must prepare some people to become useful servants and officials. That is true loyalty to the crown."
Fan Xian shook his head and let his ridicule faintly show. "The Imperial tutor spoke well. He was certainly correct. But the problem is that His Majesty is still healthy. For the Eastern Palace to prepare subjects now, wouldn’t His Majesty wonder if the Crown Prince was losing patience?"