Chapter 93: Rattling the Snake
The administrative official handed the paper to them. Jun Huang read it over with a calm expression. She wasn't an official in the palace herself. She didn't know what the exam questions would be. Thus she couldn't be sure if this was legitimate.
"Do not let anyone know of this," the official growled. "If the emperor finds out, we'll all be thrown into prison."
"Understood," Qin Sheng and his friends responded. They put the paper away and respectfully saw the official off with cupped hands.
Jun Huang was still deep in thoughts even after the official had left. Qin Sheng walked up to her and patted her on the shoulder. She looked up at him with unfocused eyes.
Qin Sheng smiled. He thought that Jun Huang must have been intimidated by the official's words. He said gently, "The official didn't mean what he said. There's no need for you to dwell on it."
As if suddenly remembering something, he asked, "By the way, do you want to have a drink with us at the Autumn House? To blow off some steam?"
Jun Huang waved a hand at him. "This gentleman doesn't want to rain on brother Qin's parade. However, now that I've got my hand on the exam paper, I'd like to study it on my own to make sure I will do well in the metropolitan exam."
Qin Sheng could understand that. Rich men like he and his friends could hand the questions to their honored guests and have the guests formulate answers for them. They needed only to memorize the answers and write them down when the exam came. Poor men like Jun Huang, on the other hand, had to study hard themselves even with the leaked information.
"If so, this gentleman will not try to sway you. I sincerely hope you will perform well in the exam. Let us meet at another time." Qin Sheng cupped his hands and left with his posse of men from rich families. He missed the dark look in Jun Huang's eyes.
Jun Huang went straight back home and sent a message to Qi Yun. When Qi Yun visited in the evening, she was sitting in the garden alone with a piece of paper in her hand. Her eyebrows were tightly knitted together.
Qi Yun walked up to her, his robe brushing against the leaves on the ground. He stepped on the twigs with his black boots and the sound startled Jun Huang. She looked over at him.
"What did you find?" asked Qi Yun.
Without a word, Jun Huang handed the paper to Qi Yun. He curiously took it. As soon as he saw what it was, his face darkened and his fingers tightened.
"Do you recognize it?" asked Jun Huang.
Qi Yun nodded. He took a deep breath to settle his rattled mind. "I do. It's the questions for this year's metropolitan exam. I've seen the report the Ministry of Rites submitted to Royal Father."
"What are you going to do about the official who has been selling the exam questions?" she asked, her eyes firmly on Qi Yun and her fingers tight around the teacup.
"I'll tell Royal Father, of course," Qi Yun said through clenched teeth. His anger was apparent from his expression. "Northern Qi will not tolerate deceitful actions like this! Besides, the metropolitan exam is held to find talented men with integrity. It's not for scums like the official to exploit for his own gain."
Jun Huang let out a quiet laugh. She took a sip of tea before saying, "A mere administrative official like him wouldn't be able to do this on his own. Someone is behind him. Does Your Highness know who is in charge of the Ministry of Rites?"
Qi Yun widened his eyes and staggered backwards. "Do you mean… second brother?"
Jun Huang shook her head. "Qi Chen probably doesn't know about this yet. However, you must remember that the emperor has charged him with the task of managing the ministry. It's not yet time for us to make him our enemy. We cannot expose this scandal ourselves."
"Are we going to just let it go?"
"Of course not," she said with narrowed eyes. "We can't get involved, but others can."
Qi Yun had learned how to read some of Jun Huang's nuance expressions. From her tone, he soon figured out that she was trying to kill with a borrowed knife. "Do you mean we should get the news out through the Court of Judicial Review?"
Jun Huang quirked her lips and nodded. "Everyone knows that the Court of Judicial Review is fair and just. Once they know of this issue, they will report to the emperor. This won't be traced back to us, and Qi Chen won't be able to assert his influence on the court."
Qi Yun nodded and sat down. He took the tea Jun Huang had poured for him, barely managing to swallow down his ire.
"The gentleman is indeed clever," Nan Xun suddenly walked out and said. "I truly admire you for that."
Jun Huang threw him a quick glance before looking away. Nan Xun didn't take her lack of response personally. He sat down next to Qi Yun and looked at the exam questions. He scoffed.
"What have you found, Qi Yun?" Jun Huang asked.
Qi Yun felt his chest tightening in anger again. He slammed the teacup on the stone table, spilling the remaining tea over his fingers.
Qi Yun's reaction was an obvious enough answer to Jun Huang's question. He must have found something incriminating. After all, Qi Yun was a royal prince who had not been through the hardships a peasant man would go through. A question from her was enough to provoke him into spilling his frustration.
Qi Yun listed out what he had found over the past few days. The investigation had been depressingly fruitful. A good majority of the officials, including the ones who were often overlooked, had taken bribes, and many possessed real power.
"These men have been enabling their relatives and colluding with one another in pursuit of their own profit," Qi Yun said furiously. "They are going to destroy the country from the inside. It's truly unfortunate for Northern Qi to be plagued with their existence."
Jun Huang paused for a moment before looking up at him. "If you were able to find out this much in only a couple of days, it means that these are likely open secrets. The emperor must have known to some extent as well. Sometimes, to rule a massive country, you have to give some leeway to your people. If you hand the emperor all the evidence you have found, he will be perturbed, and he may not take any real action."
"To be on the safe side, you should divide the evidence. One half you hand to the emperor and let him make the final call. The other half you keep in your hand as insurance."
Qi Yun nodded. It made sense to him.
Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun. "Which part of the evidence do you think we should turn in to the emperor, Your Highness?"
Nan Xun thought for a moment with his head ducked. "Ignore how high or low grade the officials are. Anyone who is involved in rigging the spring exam, we don't report them. Anyone who is part of Qi Chen's circle, we don't report them, either. As for the rest, we'll pick the ones who have a certain level of influence to expose."
"This way, we can show Qi Chen how competent Qi Yun is. But since we haven't made a move on Qi Chen's major supporters, he won't consider Qi Yun a threat. On one hand Qi Yun will be able to prove himself to the emperor without making Qi Chen wary. On the other hand we can secretly weaken Qi Chen's power."
Jun Huang gave it some thoughts. Nan Xun's analysis was spot on. This is what they should do now. It was clear that Qi Chen not only had the support of his mother's family, but also the support of a group of people who stayed neutral and were loyal only to the throne.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun's analysis had made Qi Yun realize how much he still had to learn. He swore that he would catch up with them and become a man with both courage and wisdom. He would leave a mark on the world.
When the sun was setting, Qi Yun got to his feet and bid them farewell. He had to plan how he would inform the Court of Judicial Review of the leaked exam questions.
Before he walked away, Nan Xun reminded him, "You must not alert the snake by beating the grass."
Qi Yun nodded. "Of course."
Once Qi Yun had left, Jun Huang and Nan Xun were the only ones in the garden. Jun Huang lowered her head and quietly drank her tea, while Nan Xun looked at the flowers surrounding them without a word. After a while, a guard showed up.
The guard cupped his hands. Jun Huang frowned and asked him what had happened. The guard replied, "This subordinate was ordered to keep an eye on a seventh-grade official. The official had been acting suspiciously. Today I found him making his way towards Prince Chen Manor. I had no choice but to knock him out and bring him back."
Jun Huang narrowed her eyes and shot up to her feet. "Where is he now?"
Jun Huang threw a glance at Nan Xun, who nodded at her. They made their way to the woodshed. The moment they opened the door, they saw a young man being tied to a chair. He looked to be no more than twenty. His eyebrows were drawn close in a stubborn expression.
Jun Huang scoffed at the young official, but in her head she was relieved. It was fortunate that she had taken precautions. For each official who had agreed to pledge loyalty to her, she had ordered a guard to tail him. If the officials had taken any suspicious actions, the guards were to tell Jun Huang immediately.
If the guard had not reacted so quickly, Jun Huang would have been stabbed in the back by this dishonest official. She let out a sigh inwardly without letting her emotions show on her face.
"I told you that your hasty actions would have alerted the snakes hidden in the grass," Nan Xun said sarcastically. "Who knows how many among the officials that joined your circle will betray you like this man did?"
"People like him are in the minority," said Jun Huang, her tone steely. One could even say she was prideful. "Anyone with a clear mind would have seen which prince is a leader who can lead the country into prosperity, and which is an oppressor who knows only to exploit the people."
The official had not grasped the situation fully yet. He had been beaten up by Jun Huang's guard. His head was throbbing, and it felt like his bones had been dismantled. Every little move was unbearably painful to him.
Nevertheless, he was a young and reckless man. Even though he was under Jun Huang's mercy, he felt compelled by his anger to Jun Huang. He thought that what Jun Huang did was no different from what a bandit would do, and that she wasn't a trustworthy person. He huffed out a scornful laugh. "The gentleman is indeed cunning. You pretended to be a gentleman with integrity and gave a good pitch, but now you have had me tied up in this room. I wonder which part of your speech is honest, and which part is only lies."
Jun Huang twisted her lips into a smile as she approached the official. She laughed. "You are too humble, sir. As far as cunning goes, this gentleman is no match to you."
The official's face flushed. He knew he was the one to blame here. If he hadn't broken his promise and tried to tell on Feng Baiyu, this ethereal man wouldn't have show himself again, and he himself wouldn't have ended up in this situation.