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As soon as he opened his mouth to retort, the three stately officials were at a loss. The three looked at each other, seeing their opponent's resentment. Fan Xian had had Guo You removed from his post with no regard to the rules. In truth, it had provoked the ire of many an official in the capital. Thankfully, the majority of officials did not dare do anything out of consideration of the Prime Minister and Minister Fan.
But these three officials each had their own backers, and each had their own interests and schemes.
Some time pa.s.sed before Han Zhiwei, Minister of Justice, suddenly spoke coldly. "Yesterday, the imperial censor gave the order to impeach you, as you are aware, Mr. Fan."
"I know of the matter, but not in detail," replied Fan Xian calmly.
Han Zhiwei glared at him. "Fan Xian, do not be so arrogant simply because of your reputation as a talent and the support you have behind you. And do not presume that I will believe that you exposed this scandal simply out of dedication to the nation and its people. If you cannot explain clearly your despicable behavior regarding the civil service exams, then do not blame me for not treating you kindly."
Fan Xian frowned. "Sir, there are some problems with what you say. If I did anything during the exams, would I really be willing to take such a risk to bring this before the court? As for 'despicable', I could say the same for you."
"The audacity!" The three officials denounced him. In all their years in the capital, they had never seen such an arrogant youth. Han Zhiwei's whiskers shook as he reprimanded him. "Do not presume that all of the capital's officials fear those who stand behind you. I have headed the Ministry of Justice for eight years, and I stand on the side of righteousness, not your methods of flattery and threats."
Fan Xian laughed. "If you care about the truth in investigating this matter, then why are you so impa.s.sioned in discussing such things? I truly do not understand."
Han Zhiwei's anger turned to laughter. "Very well," he said, "then I ask you: on the 26th of February, did you or did you not visit the Tongfu Tavern?"
Fan Xian knew they were asking about that rainy day. He smiled. "That is correct."
"And did you or did you not meet with Yang Wanli and his three other a.s.sociates?"
"That is correct."
"Before Yang Wanli entered the examination hall, did you or did you not whisper something to him?" "That is correct."
"You acted as proctor in that exam. Sealing examinee's names on their papers to prevent fraud is a great responsibility... so I ask you, did Yang Wanli enter the third rank of candidates?"
"That is correct."
"Outside the hall that day, many people have affirmed that they saw you catch Yang Wanli smuggling notes in with his clothing. Why did you allow him to enter the exam hall?"
Fan Xian smiled to himself. He had explained the silk robes to w.a.n.g Qinian, allowing Yang Wanli to be ruined. "That did not happen," he said, without the slightest hint of nerves.
"It didn't?" asked Han Zhiwei angrily.
"That is correct."
"Very well. Then I ask you: on that day outside the hall, many other candidates were caught carrying objects that would allow them to cheat. Did you still allow them to enter?"
Fan Xian trembled slightly. He knew that on the small end of the scale, this was not considered an issue, but if his opponent got hold of him, he would not let go. This was somewhat troublesome. But he remained unfl.u.s.tered in his reply. "That is correct."
"Very well." There was a flash of color in Han Zhiwei's sallow, haggard face as he glared at Fan Xian. "Since you have admitted to it," he said coldly, "we have no choice but to send you to prison, pending more detailed enquiry."
"What have I admitted to?" said Fan Xian, surprised.
Han Zhiwei frowned. "You have admitted everything that I have asked you. It is all clearly visible, fifth-rank Academician Fan Xian. As proctor of the civil service exams, you secretly colluded with candidate Yang Wanli to abuse your position for personal gain, ignoring the laws and decrees as well as the will of the Emperor. Your conduct was truly reckless."
Fan Xian narrowed his eyes at the minister. "To what have I confessed? Correct, on the 26th of February, I met Yang Wanli. That was because I appreciate his scholarship. At that time, the scandal had already been exposed. If I truly had contempt for the law, then how could I meet with him that day? And our meeting place was indeed the Tongfu Tavern, where many other scholars were gathered. Do you think I would not fear the gossip of others present?"
He smiled. "Since I dared to go, though I dare not say this proves the honesty of my intentions, how can you decide that I colluded with Yang Wanli on the basis of this? Sir, you know that the first time that I met Yang Wanli was outside the exam hall. If you are saying that I colluded with him in advance, that is a grave misaccuation."
"Then how do you explain your decision to allow him to enter the exam hall with smuggled notes?"
Fan Xian frowned. Too many people had seen it at the time. This was all because he had not taken the civil service exams seriously. His behavior had been truly arrogant. He had no choice but to shake his head. "Because I received orders from the Overwatch Council to observe corrupt officials within the exam hall, so it was no good to save a little only to lose a lot. As for the details of my reasoning, you may write to the Overwatch Council and ask that they explain the particulars."
Han Zhiwei groaned with anger. The Overwatch Council was the Emperor's own spy agency; how could he question it? The more he looked at Fan Xian's handsome face, the angrier he felt. He brandished his judge's rod, and called out in a loud voice: "Very well, since you are not willing to admit it—guards! Beat this shameless criminal for me!"
"There will be no beatings!"
Two people had shouted those words in the hall. One of them was a Commandant of Justice. He forced a smile as he tried to persuade the Minister of Justice that before them stood no ordinary son of a n.o.bleman. Beating him was out of the question. The powerful people who stood behind him would find ways to teach them a lesson. Who would dare beat him for his crimes?
After Minister Han had calmed down, he recaleld that Fan Xian was not only the son-in-law of the Prime Minister and the son of a minister, but also a favorite official of the Emperor. As he worked in the Six Ministries, there was no way Han Zhiwei could not have known of Lin Wan'er's ident.i.ty. After he had been roused by his colleagues, Han Zhiwei could not help but frown. If he really were to have Fan Xian beaten, he would have no choice but to explain it to the other n.o.bles of the palace.
Shortly, after, the three officials were somewhat curious. Who was the other person who had shouted "there will be no beatings"? They looked down into the hall, and saw Fan Xian looking at them with an innocent face.
The Commandant of Justice was somewhat amused. He couldn't help but ask. "Why can there be no beatings?"
"I am from the family of a successful exam candidate. According to the law of the Kingdom of Qing, I need not kneel, and when questioned, I cannot be tortured arbitrarily. Thus, you cannot beat me. Otherwise, if a future imperial censor should take an interest and find that Minister Han has not observed the laws of the kingdom, then what does that mean for me?"
One of the officials investigating the case, Guo Zheng, from the censorate, was a distant relative of Guo You. He was the sort of person to take the initiative. Hearing the barbs in his opponent's words, he could not help but laugh coldly. "Master Fan, not only are you a talented scholar, but you are also very familiar with the law of the Kingdom of Qing," he said quietly. "But you should know that there are 15 great crimes mentioned in the legal commentary of the kingdom, for which we may disregard the customs you mentioned." The imperial censor naturally also did not truly dare to torture Fan Xian, but he was willing to use words to threaten him, taking out the officials' frustrations over the past few days.
Fan Xian shook his head, his face remaining innocent. "I still cannot be beaten."
Out of the three officials, the Commandant of Justice was the one who was least involved in the exam hall scandal. He could not help but feel curious. "Speaking of great crimes, young Master Fan, you are still not willing to argue for yourself. Why can you not be beaten in this court?"
Fan Xian was still playing with words. It would be better to bring up the tricks of the Overwatch Council. "The matter is cla.s.sified," he replied earnestly. "I have not received authorization from the relevant office of the Overwatch Council, so I cannot speak in detail."
The investigation into the case was truly sullen. The three officials looked at each other, seeing the fear and anger in each others' eyes. If they couldn't beat him, then how could they get Fan Xian to confess? The masters who stood behind each of these officials wanted to see Fan Xian suffer. They saw no basis for allowing him to return home.
At that moment, a worried old man ran in through the curtain at the side of the room, and whispered something into Justice Minister Han Zhiwei's ear. Han Zhiwei's face suddenly changed. There was a flash of coldness in his eyes, but still a hint of visible fear.
Fan Xian narrowed his eyes as he watched his face. The powerful zhenqi in his body began to circulate, but all he could make out in Han Zhiwei's reply was a few phrases, and among them were the words "Eastern Palace", spoken fiercely. He didn't know who had given him the information, nor what could have made the Minister of Justice so fearful.
At the same time, two pieces of paper were placed into the hands of imperial censor Guo Zheng and the Commandant of Justice. Guo Zheng looked at the paper, his face unmoved, while the Commandant of Justice's face betrayed slight shock. The Commandant thought for a moment, then stood up and cupped his hands in salute to the two officials. "I must answer the call of nature. Sirs, if you will investigate, I will return soon."
Fan Xian was shocked. What piece of paper could scare the Commandant of Justice so? Before he had come to the Ministry of Justice, Fan Xian had understood that the Minister of Justice seemed to be an equitable and incorruptible sort. But in truth, though he was the Eastern Palace's man, the Commandant of Justice was on very good terms with the Qin family in the Bureau of Military Affairs. And Guo Zheng, the imperial censor, had had some sort of unclear relationship with the Eldest Princess in his youth. If Fan Xian had not had the terrifying strength of the Overwatch Council at hand, he would not have known of such hidden relationships.
After a moment of consideration, there was a sudden shout in the hall. "Guards! Academician Fan Xian is causing chaos in the court! He is involved in the scandal. He has committed the 15 great crimes! Beat him!" Minister Han Zhiwei's face was contorted, and he seemed to have made a major decision.
The Commandant of Justice had already slipped away. It seemed he knew that there was about to be a dangerous situation, and his master did not wish to offend the Fan family and the Prime Minister. Fan Xian's eyes were cold as he glared at Han Zhiwei. "Minister, do you intend to have me confess under torture?"
There was viciousness in the eyes of Guo Zheng, the imperial censor. "Beat him!" he yelled.
Two staves smashed into Fan Xian's fragile shins. The thirteen offices of the Ministry of Justice were accustomed to doing this sort of thing. Staves were inelegant, but swift and fierce.
Fan Xian's face went white. He did not attempt to avoid them. There was a cracking sound. The pants on his legs did not shield him from the blow - it wasn't his shin bones that his broken, but the two staves that had cracked in the middle, leaving only splintered wood!