Chapter 92: The Diplomatic Approach
Qi Yun rubbed at his forehead and looked up at the bright moon in the sky. Earlier this month it had been raining so much it was as if a whole year's worth of rainfall had been concentrated to those few days. Recently however, the weather had become so hot it was smothering. The temperature only dropped to a more comfortable level at night. This was how it had always been in the imperial city. Thinking about the weather alone was enough to make one's mood take a downturn.
"There's no need for you to stay," Qi Yun said to the page boy. "I'm going to take a walk. You don't have to follow."
Qi Yun strolled along the moonlit street. It was late, but there were still a couple pedestrians remaining outside. And a couple wonton shops had not closed yet.
The smell whetted his appetite. He walked into one of the shops and ordered a bowl of wontons. After he had taken a few bites, his attention was caught by the conversation between two peasant men. They were talking about affairs of the court.
"I heard that the fourth prince Qi Yun was a man interested in only literature," the one dressed like a scholar said. "Why would he get involved this time?"
The other man laughed. "So? Isn't everyone in the Royal family unpredictable like this? The crown prince Qi Chen was once known as a kindhearted man, but he ended up killing his own brother for the throne. If the fourth prince ever gets in his way, Qi Chen won't hesitate to get rid of his younger brother, too."
The scholarly man scoffed, his eyes turning as cold as the night sky. There were only a couple customers in the restaurant, so he didn't even try to lower his voice. "I don't care what the princes do in order to gain the throne. But we do need a better leader than the current emperor. In this day and age money trumps all. We talented men, as a result, cannot find a way to become an official. It's truly outrageous." He broke into a peal of sharp laughter.
Qi Yun's eyes darkened. It seemed that his investigation wasn't as complete as he would like to think. He laid down the utensils and took a good look at the scholarly man to memorize his face. He then left some silver on the table before walking out of the shop. He didn't go back to the Court of Judicial Review. Instead, he went to Jun Huang's place.
Due to his frequent visits recently, Qi Yun had become familiar with the page boy watching the door. Thus he was able to walk in without waiting for a servant to ask for Jun Huang's approval. Jun Huang didn't put a stop to the little pact he had formed with the page boy. Qi Yun was a royal prince. If he stayed at the door for too long and someone saw him, trouble would follow.
She, however, didn't expect Qi Yun to visit her so late at night. It was a good thing that she had only just finished her work and had not retired to bed. She poured him a cup of tea and invited him to take a seat.
"Is there anything you need?" asked Jun Huang. "Have you run into any troubles?"
Qi Yun picked up the cup and looked up at the sky. He didn't give her a straight answer. "The metropolitan examination1 is upon us"
Jun Hang frowned. What did he mean by that?
Qi Yun lowered his eyes. Jun Huang's puzzled look told him that she didn't know about the issue yet.
He didn't go on immediately. "I think the metropolitan examination this year may have been rigged. However, everyone is watching me these days, and my hands are already full. I cannot investigate this myself for the time being, if you have the time, may you look into it for me?"
"Do you mean that someone is manipulating the results?" Jun Hang asked with her brows furrowed.
Qi Yun nodded. "It's only a possibility now. That's why an investigation is necessary."
The metropolitan examination is also known as the spring exam. Students from around the country came to attend the exam, hoping that they might be able to stand out from their peers and become officials.
Jun Huang and Qi Yun had once talked about the exam. With proper training, scholars who passed the exam would become a great asset to them. They would be able to find people with both knowledge and ambition this way.
Jun Huang paused to take a deep breath. This matter involved too many different parties. It wasn't something Qi Yun would be able to deal with. They could not predict what they might find. "Focus on the corrupt officials, Qi Yun. Don't worry about the exam. I'll look into it myself."
Qi Yun knew what Jun Huang was thinking. He nodded. After some more discussion, Qi Yun bid her farewell and left. Jun Huang remained still as a statue as she thought about what she should do.
There were only so many people who would be able to manipulate the exam. It was organized by the Ministry of Rites. Some official in the ministry must have been bribed.
The next day, Jun Huang woke up early and dressed herself as a student coming to the imperial city to attend the exam. In order to not attract suspicion, she forewent the silk robe she usually wore and opted for cheaper clothes. She arrived at the tavern The Drunken Place.
Every year near the spring exam, The Drunken Place would be open to only people attending the exam. Some came for intellectual conversations. Others came to show off their family's wealth and status.
Jun Huang had delicate features that were usually only seen in paintings. She attracted many pairs of eyes as soon as she entered the tavern. A man dressed in expensive clothes said mockingly, "Ah, another poor scholar! Are you here for the exam or a beauty pageant?"
The onlookers broke into laughter after a moment of surprise. Jun Huang leveled the man with a cold stare, her eyes so sharp it unsettled the man. He fell silent.
"Pay them no mind." Out came a man who looked to be under twenty in age. He had a handsome face and was dressed in expensive silk. He looked like a proper gentleman.
Jun Huang nodded. She had a good feeling about this man. He seemed like someone who was fearless in face of people in power, but humble enough to willingly befriend peasants from more impoverished families. He might be a good asset to Qi Yun.
The man took Jun Huang to a table on the other side of the room. There were already a few people sitting at the table. They gave her a friendly smile and introduced themselves. One of them asked, "What is your name?"
"This gentleman is Feng Baiyu from Yangzhou."
"What a coincidence!" The man who brought her here said with a stunning smile. "I'm from Yangzhou as well!"
Jun Huang's mouth twitched. She had picked a random city. She didn't expect this man to be from the area. She stayed silent. The more she talked, the higher the chance she would make mistakes.
"This gentleman is Qin Sheng from Yangzhou." Qin Sheng gestured for her to take a seat. The group of men resumed their conversation.
Qin Sheng was eloquent and expressive. Jun Huang sat in silence, listening to them talk without showing her true colors. Every once in a while she would smile at something they said.
From what she had observed during the afternoon, Qin Sheng had left a good impression on her. He had a way with words and looked at the world with a unique perspective. He was also a man who had an ambitious goal. Jun Huang was sure he would be able to rank first in the exam. It would be ideal if Qi Yun could recruit him.
A few days later, Jun Huang went to The Drunken Place like she had been the past few days. Qin Sheng and his fellow students had been talking for a while. They welcomed her with enthusiasm when they spotted her. Jun Huang was quiet, but cultured. She usually listened to them talk without commenting. She wore plain clothes, but she held herself with elegance. It was pleasant to have her company.
"We are going to scout the exam location later, brother Feng," Qin Sheng said with a lowered voice, looking around cautiously. "Do you want to come with us?"
Jun Huang frowned. "Scout the location? The exam is yet to come. Didn't the emperor decreed that no one was to enter the exam location beforehand? Why would it be possible to scout the place?"
Jun Huang kept her eyes on Qin Sheng. He stilled when he heard her response. Everyone else at the table fell silent as well. They looked at Jun Huang without a word.
Jun Huang felt a little nervous. Had she blown her cover?
"Oh, brother Feng isn't part of our circle, so it's only natural that you don't know about this," Qin Sheng said with a smile. "Continue with your conversation. I'll explain to brother Feng myself." He pulled Jun Huang out of the tavern.
Jun Huang pretended to be confused. She could tell this was the weak point in the system she was looking for. From now on, she must tread carefully.
Qin Sheng made sure no one was around before letting her go. Jun Huang asked, "What did brother Qin mean?"
"Does brother Feng not know that people pay to get the exam questions in advance?"
Jun Huang widened her eyes in horror and confusion. Qin Sheng sighed. His new friend must have been completely in the dark.
"There are more and more people attending the exam, and many are great scholars. In order to guarantee a good outcome, one may make use of his connections to acquire the exam question in advance and prepare accordingly. Brother Feng, I've only told you because I consider you my friend. It's a felony to cheat the emperor. We are all being very careful."
Jun Huang tried and failed to put on a smile. She could only imagine how dark her expression must have been.
Fortunately, Qin Sheng had misunderstood the reason for her foul mood. Feng Baiyu is a scholar with great talent but no money to back him up, he thought. He must have thought that the god is unjust.
He sighed again and patted Jun Huang on the shoulder. "Since we are friends, I'll give you a copy as well. We are both people with great ambitions. This exam cannot be the end of our journey. Come with me to the exam location later."
Something flashed through Jun Huang's eyes, but her expression didn't betray her thoughts. She looked at him with feign delight. "That will be good. This gentleman will not forget about brother Qin's help." She cupped her hands in a salute.
Qin Sheng felt a little bashful. Feng Baiyu was knowledgeable, but he was by no means a stick in the mud. He was a talent to be reckoned with.
Jun Huang, on the other hand, was thinking that she must get a look at what the question was.
Unexpectedly, where they headed for wasn't the exam location. Instead, they took many turns before they finally arrived at a courtyard house in a remote area. Everyone was looking around with cautious eyes, worried that they might get caught.
Just when Jun Huang was wondering what was happening, a man dressed in plain clothes walked out. Jun Huang recognized this face. He was the administrative official of the ministry of rites. She had seen him once on Qi Chen's wedding. The man was spiteful. Jun Huang didn't like him.
The man walked in with two servants in tow. In the servants' arms were stacks of paper. Qin Sheng went up to them and handed the man a silver ingot. He said something while pointing at Jun Huang. His voice was too low for Jun Huang to hear,
After they had finished talking, the man gave Jun Huang a look. She looked familiar to him, but he couldn't put a finger on it. Jun Huang cupped her hands at him in greeting.
In the end the official couldn't put a name to the face. Jun Huang let out a sigh of relief. It was fortunate that she had changed the way she dressed before going out today.
The imperial examination in ancient China was held at different levels, including county, college, provincial, metropolitan, and palace level. People had to make their way up the hierarchy in order to become an official. ↩