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None of the scholars paid much attention to Yang Wanli's strange behavior. Even the citizens of the capital passing by the riverbank barely gave him an odd glance, because this sort of thing was common in the capital, particularly when the results of the yearly civil service exams were posted. Next to the vermilion wall of the exam hall, there was always bound to be a few madmen.
The faces of the scholars on the bridge who had come to see the scroll varied greatly. Some were excited; others were disappointed. Those who had passed looked up at the sky and yelled; those who had failed sank to the ground, their heads hitting the floor. All kinds of facial expressions could be seen, and it was hard to say whether the whole thing was rather comical. Some of them howled miserably, clinging to the locust tree next to the vermilion wall and rubbing their faces against it until their cheeks were rubbed raw and bloody, leaving the other fellows to try to drag them reluctantly away. It was a thoroughly miserable sight.
The imperial exams were how the Kingdom of Qing chose its scholar-officials. Those who were not of high birth could not be awarded the special exam, so as far as the common-born scholars were concerned, the Emperor's proclamation after the civil service exams was the only way they could change their lives. This sort of pressure and power was enough to turn the most cultured and refined scholar into a deranged lunatic. Compared to some of the successful scholars who were frenziedly kowtowing toward Heaven to show their gratitude, Yang Wanli was practically reserved. He had only yelled twice.
Of course, this had only made the other three's silence more conspicuous.
They waited for Yang Wanli to calm down, and excitedly returned to the vermilion wall. Once the three of them had read over the whole proclamation, to their surprise, Shi Chanli's name was not on it. But Cheng Jialin's name had appeared on the final line, which lessened their feeling of despair.
Cheng Jialin couldn't hide his excitement, but looking at Shi Chanli's disappointed face, he tried as hard as he could not to let it show too much. "So you didn't make it this year," he said, comforting him. "There's always next year."
It was a well-worn platitude, but in these sorts of circumstances, it seems that it was the only thing he could say. Shi Chanli laughed bitterly, looking at the other crestfallen failed scholars around him. Trying his hardest to hearten himself, he laughed. "Out of four of us, three of us passed. That's really great. Comapred to the previous years' exams, this year the list is much fairer. As for me, I've got some thinking to do."
Hou Jichang nodded and gently patted Shi Chanli's shoulder. He knew that he was the most easygoing of the four of them, but he had still taken a hard blow today. Changing the topic, he smiled. "I don't know how young Master Fan did it, to protect so many people. From what I can see, the list of names is very different from last year. There are a lot more genuine talents, and a lot fewer incompetent fools who depend on their family backgrounds."
"It's probably got to do with the Overwatch Council looking into the exam hall scandal." They had walked to a quiet place further down by the riverside and sat down. They still kept their voices low, worried that they might cause trouble for their great benefactor Fan Xian.
Hou Jichang shook his head. "Although they arrested a great number of officials this time, apart from a handful of scholars from the south, no other scholars were caught. From that I presume that Master Fan Xian had already made his arrangements before the Overwatch Council had made their move." He shook his head, laughed bitterly, and sighed. Fan Xian really did have strong and stable footing if he could pull off such a strategy in the one of nation's great ceremonies. But it seemed that he had not been mistaken in his appraisal of Fan Xian. The list of names this time did seem much fairer.
The group also talked about matters in the capital. Quite a few officials had lost their posts over the past two days; everyone in the bureaucracy was afraid, and Fan Xian seemed to have great confidence in himself. At that moment Shi Chanli, who had been silent, spoke. "As I see it, Master Fan can't distance himself from the exposure of this scandal."
The other three were shocked, and muttered to each other. "If that's true, then Master Fan... is even more extraordinary than we thought."
Of course Fan Xian couldn't hide his connection to the exposure of the exam hall scandal, but the Overwatch Council had acted in a perfectly appropriate way. Although Guo You, Director of the Board of Rites, had fallen, the Eastern Palace had not suffered too much damage, so the Crown Prince could only have his suspicions about Fan Xian, and nothing more. And when it came to the list of successful exam candidates, of the ones that the Eastern Palace had demanded, three of them had succeded. Compared to the Great Prince and the Bureau of Military Affairs, it was already a good result.
Fan Xian sat in his study, looking at the copy of the list of names that Wang Qinian had brought him, and frowned. The capital had not been peaceful these past two days. Director-general Guo You, a chief examiner, and a supervisor had all been invited to "go out for tea" by the Overwatch Council, and he himself was a proctor; he had been the one who had been in charge of the crucial step of pasting over the names, and yet he had not had any trouble. Anyone who used their head could begin to guess.
But he was also quite happy. The students who he had supported - apart from Shi Chanli, whose temperament he had liked the most - had all managed to make their way onto the list of names. As for the results of the highest-level palace exams, that was dependent on the individual's luck; he had no way to help them too much there.
He left the study, and caught sight of a blue-green silhouette walking along. He yelped and prepared to run back into the study to hide. Who would have thought that his father would suddenly come to his own house today?
Fan Jian, Count Sinan, was now officially the Minister of Revenue. But there had been little change in his worried expression. He coldly pushed open the door to the study that his son had not quite managed to close in time and walked inside. "Did you go out last night?" he shouted in a stern voice.
Fan Xian forced a smile and bowed to his father. "Father," he replied, "it was raining last night, so I wanted to go out for a walk."
"You thought you could hide the fact that you went to Tongfu Tavern!"
Fan Jian sat down. Hearing his voice, Lin Wan'er hurried in from a side room, and quickly ordered a servant girl to serve her father-in-law some tea. Fan Jian looked at his daughter-in-law warmly and smiled. He waved a hand to indicate that she should go back to her room and rest. Then he turned to Fan Xian. "This business with the exam hall is linked to a number of very complicated affairs," he said in a voice as cold as ice. "You acted very rashly. I let you stay in the manor, and you hide yourself away from trials and hardships. Then yesterday you go to Tongfu Tavern to visit a group of scholars. Today their names appeared on the royal proclamation, where everyone can see them. How do you think this makes you look?"
Fan Xian smiled. "Though I am young, I borrowed the identity of a schoolmaster to see if the exam candidates were ordinary people. As for the proclamation... everyone knows how it works. There's no need to be concerned."
"But the Overwatch Council has been investigating the scandal, and the pretext for that was the slip of paper that you handed them," said Fan Jian coldly. "For your safety, if you really want to work for the benefit of the nation, then you shouldn't be placing your own men as third-rank exam candidates. If you only want to use the civil service exams to build up your on strength, then you shouldn't have betrayed Guo You."
Count Sinan looked at his young son for some time. Then he sighed. "No matter where you are, there are always rules – in the capital's bureaucracy even more so. There are clean officials and there are corrupt officials. There are ministers who slander others, and those who speak frankly before the Emperor. These are two entirely different paths. If you wish to be an official who speaks frankly, then you must not walk the path of the slanderer."
Hearing the way his father spoke, Fan Xian knew that the old man was angry. "I do not wish to be a minister who speaks frankly," he replied warmly. "Neither do I wish to slander others. I want to be a minister... with power."
Having said this, the air in the study suddenly seemed thick and cold. After a long time, Fan Jian finally spoke faintly. "A powerful minister? What kind of minister can be thought of as powerful?" He shook his head, and a strange smile floated across his face. "The Prime Minister has power, a father has power, Chen Pingping has power. But do you really believe that this kind of minister can be considered powerful?"
"They cannot," replied Fan Xian calmly, "because power lies in the hand of the Emperor."
"Then what sort of powerful minister do you want to be?"
"One with power in my hand, who has nothing to worry about." Fan Xian spoke sincerely. "I want to be a powerful minister whose life and death cannot be decided even by the family of the Emperor. I have the ability to protect myself, but not the ability to protect those around me. So I need power."
Fan Jian looked at his son. His worry showed in his eyes. Fan Xian could not help but laugh. The reason he had chosen to walk such a dangerous and dull path was naturally because of the darkness deep in his heart.
Some time later, there was a coldness in Fan Jian's eyes. "From now on, don't cause such trouble. Chen Pingping can protect you for a while, but he can't protect you forever. So I'm warning you, don't get too close to the Overwatch Council."
Fan Xian lowered his head as he received the advice. "I understand. Sometimes I need you to remind me, father." He knew that his father had always feared the consequences of him taking over the affairs of the Overwatch Council, but Fan Xian was not willing to renounce it.
Fan Jian slowly closed his eyes. "You have not handled matters well this time. Even if Guo Baokun speaks up in the palace - as you have guessed, the Guo family were on the Eldest Princess's side - you should not make a move yourself. If you had told me in advance, then – using the strengths of the Prime Minister and me – we could have used the pretext of the exam scandal to eliminate him, and would not be in such an impossible situation, like we are now."
Fan Xian knew that his father was right. He had taken a risk in getting the Overwatch Council to handle Minister Guo, and it could only bring about openness as a result. Nobody knew what could happen behind the scenes, as the initiative was with the Council. He thought for a moment before he spoke. "In truth, I was only doing the things I wanted to do."
It was perhaps a cheap feeling of righteousness that many people would hold in contempt, but Fan Xian still stuck to it. Now he was worried what Chen Pingping's plans would be.
Seemingly having guessed what his son was thinking, Fan Jian opened his eyes. There was a comfort in his gaze, with a hint of worry. "You can give up your delusions. Chen Pingping will no doubt let everyone know that the exposure of this scandal was the work of the eldest son of the Fan family."
Fan Xian laughed bitterly. He knew his father was right; Chen Pingping did not fear the Crown Prince in the Eastern Palace. So long as he allowed him to establish his own reputation, and so long as he let him draw closer to taking control of the Overwatch Council, then he could do anything.
Before he left his son in his study, Count Sinan spoke calmly. "Be more mature in your affairs from now on. You can keep this childish talk of being a powerful minister to yourself. You don't need to tell me."