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News of the incident at the Ministry of Justice quickly spread through the city. The expected counterattack by the Overwatch Council, the Prime Minister, and Minister Fan against the Ministry of Justice and the Imperial Censorate had not immediately unfolded, contrary to the expectations of every bureaucrat.
And in the court exams, the Emperor of the Kingdom of Qing had finally quietly shown his attitude. Fan Xian's preferred scholars had entered the 2nd rank of candidates. As for the first, second, and third place titles - zhuangyuan, bangyan, and tanhua respectively - they unsurprisingly went to scholars whose names had long been established. Fan Xian was well aware that these three names had appeared on those pieces of paper, and he had taken that step when he was sealing the names on the exam papers.
His Majesty clarified his position further on the exam hall scandal in the specific circumstances of the top-grade court examination. During a feast, the officials were extremely surprised to discover fifth-level academician Fan Xian of the Imperial College sitting somewhat coyly and uneasily before them, seated to the right of the Crown Prince and the Second Prince, smiling bashfully. It seemed that he had not been drinking that day, so he lacked the frenzy of the night in which he had spat out his 300 poems. He seemed a little uncomfortable with the acclaim of the masses.
After Fan Xian's chaos at the Ministry of Justice, the officials of the capital soon knew of his real identity, and moreover knew that the Overwatch Council were using it as a pretext to cause havoc, using Commissioner Fan Xian's extralegal status to completely tear into Justice Minister Han Zhiwei and Censor Guo Zheng. There was news that the palace had also kicked up a fuss.
The bureaucrats had always found it difficult to get a hold of the countless spies with the secretive position of Commissioner of the Overwatch Council, and to connect Fan Xian with a position that secretly held the lives of officials in their hands. But regardless, when the officials looked at Fan Xian anew, they saw not only a scholar-official and the son of a noble family with powerful backers, but for the first time, they had a sense of Fan Xian's true power.
After the court exams, the civil service exam hall scandal was still under the jurisdiction of the Overwatch Council, who were slowly and steadily investigating it. Commissioner Fan Xian had relaxed somewhat - he knew that people in the know had guessed that he was preparing to go abroad as ambassador in the next few days.
It was the third of March. After the court exams, the banquet, and the various other celebrations concluded, Yang Wanli, Hou Jichang, Cheng Jialin, and Shi Chanli - those four scholars whose luck had turned in an instant - finally had some spare time. They sat a little uneasily in a carriage, and came to the gate of Fan Manor, on a big avenue in the south of the city.
Yang Wanli lifted his head to look at the imposing gate of Fan Manor, and anxiously looked at the ferocious stone lions guarding the gate. "I'm kind of nervous," he mumbled.
Hou Jichang was the calmest of the four, but this was the first time he had ever been to such an opulent estate, and he was also somewhat nervous. He forced a smile. "We have all met young Master Fan before. Not only is he young and promising, he has an engaging tone of conversation, unlike the other repulsive officials of the court. What have we to worry about?"
By their side, Cheng Jialin muttered something indecipherable. They had all been harrassed by the Ministry of Justice and the Overwatch Council over the past few days. Theoretically, the court exams having concluded, they had all come to Fan Xian's door to pay their respects to him regardless. After that day in the Tongfu Tavern, the four skillful scholars had suddenly discovered that the terrifying Overwatch Council of the Kingdom of Qing were moving against them and against the bailiffs of the thirteen offices. It had almost scared them to death.
Shi Chanli's temperament was the most gentle and easygoing. This time he hadn't passed, so he seemed more relaxed than the other three. He laughed at them. "You look pretty worried to me. But I don't think it's the kind of worry that comes from paying respects to one's teacher. It's from discovering that young Master Fan has suddenly changed, and become a Commissioner of the Overwatch Council. There's a sense of dread. Am I right, brothers?"
Yang Wanli looked at the stone lions again, and laughed bitterly. "Who'd have thought that in the space of two days, the immortal poet Fan Xian would suddenly turn out to be one of the most powerful officials in the Overwatch Council? You know what a terrifying place the Overwatch Council is. The court officials have always been somewhat afraid of it. If young Master Fan is part of the Overwatch Council, then his reputation must be rather shocking."
"That's just the prejudice of ignorant commoners," said Shi Chanli, laughing. "You said it yourself in the Tongfu Tavern that day. It's a good thing that the Overwatch Council is monitoring officials." He turned to Hou Jichang, who seemed to have somewhat taken exception. "After Minister Guo was sent to prison, you toasted to the Overwatch Council. How come? Now we have discovered that our master is a high official in the Council, and you all want to keep a respectful distance like the rest of the common people?"
Yang Wanli sighed. "Everyone knows that the exam hall scandal came about as a result of young Master Fan's work. Only after did we understand that he was working for the Overwatch Council the entire time. With this act, not only did he contribute to our futures, but more importantly, he has helped every scholar in the land walk a more equitable path. Everyone is grateful. Even after they found out that he was a Commissioner of the Overwatch Council, there's not a scholar out there who would dare not to show him respect. As for us, there's nothing more to say. Even if Master Fan stays at the Overwatch Council for good, we should still follow him. There's no point discussing this anymore, Brother Shi; I've already made my decision.
Hou Jichang smiled. "You're right. But it's a pity that every person in a high post at the Overwatch Council, according to the customs of the court, can never become Prime Minister. It's a shame that young Master Fan is such a talented scholar."
At that moment Cheng Jialin seized the chance to butt in. "If Master Fan still has that status, then his career cannot develop too much further. I have heard that next year he will take control of the palace treasury, so if he can take up a post at the Overwatch Council, then it is not that much of a pity."
They all understood that he was talking about Fan Xian's status as "son-in-law of the Emperor". When they thought of their master, so many years younger than them, occupying so many different positions, they couldn't help but marvel at him. The four of them debated quietly outside the gate of Fan Manor for a long time. Finally, gathering their courage, they stepped inside, handing over the name cards that they had prepared a long while ago.
The gatekeeper at Fan Manor had been watching the four talented scholars, and with a suspicious look, he took their name cards, and realized that they were the four whose names that had been bandied around the capital for a while now. The servants of Fan Manor all knew that their young master had invited these four scholars, and here they were. They quickly invited them inside and waited on them, serving them tea.
The four of them knew that this was the custom of noble families - every guest who entered first had to be waited upon and served tea at the gate. To their surprise, a moment later, the gatekeeper came back to them, somewhat apologetic. "The young master has stepped out and is not currently in the manor. Sirs, would you like to leave a message for him, or come back another time?"
The four of them could not help but feel somewhat disappointed, but for some reason, they also felt relieved. At that moment, a sedan chair stopped by the side door. The gatekeeper hurried out to greet them. Out from the sedan chair stepped a solemn-looking middle-aged official, with soft and spirited eyes. As he walked through the gate, he stopped to look at the four scholars.
The gatekeeper, seeing that his master had stopped, began to introduce them, but his master waved his hand dismissively, turned to the four of them, and spoke calmly. "Which of you is Yang Wanli? Shi Chanli? Hou Jichang? Cheng Jialin?"
Hou Jichang was stunned. Not only had the man known their identities without asking, but he had asked their names without omitting a single one. It seemed that he did not wish for them to presume he favored any one of them over the others. Such an attentive-minded person must have been young Master Fan's father. He hurriedly bowed in respect. "I am Hou Jichang. It is an honor to meet you, Minister."
The other three finally realized that this official was young Master Fan's father, and they also hurriedly showed their respects.
Count Sinan smiled and looked at Hou Jichang, speaking with a small measure of praise. "It seems that Fan Xian chose well in his estimations. He is not currently here. But if you do not mind my prattling, I would like to invite you inside for a chat."
How should they address their master's father? Although all four scholars were rising stars in the bureaucracy of the Kingdom of Qing, in the face of this wily old minister, they dared not say a word. They merely followed behind him obediently.
The ugliest building on Tianhe Avenue remained silent in the spring sunshine. The famous petals on either side of the road had yet to fall into the water. Because it was still early spring, the flowers had not yet bloomed; they were unwilling to part with their clothing and cast it into the waters.
The common people of the capital still stuck to their old customs, and kept far away from the Overwatch Council. The stone tablet outside the gate quietly watched them, as if it were saying "the Council watches over you, why are you so afraid?" There was no point asking why the common people feared the Overwatch Council, just as Yang Wanli and the other scholars did. People feared the secretive institution for no reason. Because there was no light in that office, it seemed to have only secrets and darkness.
Inside the square building of the Overwatch Council, the seven bureau chiefs sat soberly at a long table. They knew that today's discussions were particularly unusual, so they looked at the crippled Director at the head of the table with doubting glances. After the leader of the First Bureau, Zhu Ge, had killed himself in that very room, the First Bureau had been without a chief. Mu Tie was only leading it temporarily, so today there were seven people for the eight bureaus.
The door slid quietly open, but the seven most powerful people in the state machinery of the Kingdom of Qing naturally sensed it, and unthinking turned their heads around to look. Even Chen Pingping, sat at the head of the table, lifted his head to look, his eyes calm.
An old man with slightly brown eyes, messy hair, and a stooped posture entered the room.
Everyone was somewhat astounded. Seeing Fei Jie, someone spoke quietly. "Let's get this over with. Come in. Don't dawdle."
A young man appeared behind him, somewhat embarrassed. The young man was fair of face and friendly-looking, with a shy smile. He cupped his hands in respect and bowed to the leaders gathered around the table, speaking somewhat quietly and uneasily. "Hello, everyone. I am Fan Xian."