Chapter 40.1 Chip?
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The Prime Minister’s eye twitched involuntarily, and he scrutinized the person standing before him. His gaze then shifted towards the exam paper resting on the table.
He gingerly picked up the paper and flipped through its contents until he arrived at the essay topic section. As anticipated, the final prompt read “Examine the drawbacks of utilizing severe punishments in legal precedents.” However, there was something strange about the word “drawbacks”. It appeared slightly faded in comparison to the rest of the text, necessitating a closer inspection to discern its meaning.
The Prime Minister’s piercing gaze momentarily froze in bewilderment.
He could distinctly recollect that when he had pilfered the exam paper, the word “benefits” had been clearly printed on the same section!
What on earth was happening?
Why had the word inexplicably altered?
There was no indication of any spiritual energy fluctuations at the time, and it was unlikely that the foolish little hamster was responsible for this bizarre development!
The Prime Minister’s mind raced with various possibilities, but he composedly set down the exam paper and inquired, “Master Huo, has anyone tampered with the exam questions?”
If the exam questions had been altered prior to the commencement of the examination, it would constitute a violation of the imperial examination’s regulations!
In that scenario, Huo Caiyu would be mortified by his negligence!
However, Huo Caiyu remained unperturbed. He calmly responded, “When this official conferred with several great scholars from the National Academy regarding the exam questions, we also deliberated on the issue of impartiality and fairness in the imperial examination. Throughout the dynasties, there have been instances of leaked exam questions. Preventing bias and cheating, and ensuring the impartiality and fairness of the imperial examination, is of utmost significance.”
The examiners below suddenly fell silent.
“As a person knowledgeable in medicine, this official is aware of a certain herb that can be ground and used for writing, producing colorless and transparent ink that only becomes visible after a certain duration. Similarly, another herb can be mixed with ink, causing it to fade after a specific period,” announced Huo Caiyu, scanning the crowd and noticing their shocked, fearful, and uneasy expressions. He then grinned slightly and added, “Several great scholars were present during the demonstration. If the Prime Minister is concerned that it was solely this official’s doing, Your Excellency can send someone to investigate.”
The great scholars responsible for co-creating the exam questions had already departed from the premises.
Huo Caiyu’s gaze abruptly fell upon Master Sun, who was profusely sweating. “Master Sun, where did you learn that the exam question ought to have been related to ‘benefits’?”
Master Sun’s forehead beaded with sweat, and he instinctively glanced towards Prime Minister Ye, who glowered at him coldly. He stammered, “Th-this official simply m-misread it…”
Huo Caiyu arched his eyebrows slightly. “Let us discuss this matter at the Dali Temple.”
He gestured with his hand, and soon after, soldiers entered the room and took Master Sun and several other officials, who had also asserted that the exam questions were incorrect, away.
“Summon the owner of this answer sheet for questioning and determine where he obtained this exam question,” Huo Caiyu commanded.
Glancing at the grim-faced Prime Minister, Huo Caiyu smiled and instructed the bewildered examiners below, “Please proceed with grading the papers. If you come across similar answer sheets, report them immediately.”
The examiners recognized that this was a showdown between the Prime Minister and Huo Caiyu, and they answered in unison without daring to say anything further.
The scandal of leaked exam questions was a grave offense in the imperial court, and it immediately grabbed the attention of the higher-ups.
Despite the Prime Minister’s efforts to downplay the incident, Huo Caiyu had already laid a trap for him and was not willing to back down easily.
Several great scholars who were not aligned with the Prime Minister’s faction vouched for the authenticity of the exam question, leaving the court mystified about the origin of the leaked questions.
The officials from the Sanitary Bureau conducted a thorough investigation of the National Academy’s storage facility, where the exam questions were kept, but they failed to uncover any evidence of theft or tampering.
Capitalizing on this fact, the Prime Minister turned the tables on Huo Caiyu during the court hearing, arguing, “Your Majesty, with no evidence of stolen exam questions, the only logical explanation is that Master Huo must have leaked them.”
Several officials who were affiliated with the Prime Minister chimed in, echoing his accusations against Huo Caiyu.
Huo Caiyu maintained his composure and asked, “What of the testimonies from Master Sun and others affiliated with the Prime Minister?”
The Prime Minister, being an astute man, had not directly participated in the act of selling exam questions. The Ministry of Punishment had successfully apprehended several cheating examiners, who confessed to the crime, but only implicated a few high-ranking officials and not the Prime Minister himself. The case was closed after that.
Although it was common knowledge that the Prime Minister was guilty, there was a lack of concrete evidence to convict him.
Prime Minister Ye snorted and retorted, “Under duress, it is natural for those involved to deflect the blame and protect themselves.”
Huo Caiyu was aware of the Prime Minister’s attempts to influence the detained examiners into smearing him. However, he had foiled his plans with the help of the Ministry of Punishment. With a meticulous investigation, there were enough indications pointing to the Prime Minister as the mastermind. Nevertheless, the evidence was insufficient to convict him, so Huo Caiyu had reserved it for a final, decisive blow.
The court had been embroiled in a series of heated debates in recent days, even continuing until the statistical results of the imperial examination were released. Shockingly, one-third of the answer sheets were based on the incorrect exam questions.
Li Jinyu was taken aback by the staggering ratio.
If the Prime Minister’s plan succeeded, all the hard work and reform that Huo Caiyu had invested in the imperial examination would be in vain. Their efforts would become the laughingstock of the court.
The Grand Marshal’s faction and the neutral party would likely not pay any attention to them then.
Li Jinyu had initially hoped to use this opportunity to overthrow the Prime Minister. However, Huo Caiyu privately advised him, “Retaking control of the Ministry of Personnel is sufficient.”
Perplexed, Li Jinyu asked, “Why is that?”
“The Prime Minister’s faction has deep roots, and it will be challenging to uproot them at this time. The aristocracy will not sit idly by,” analyzed Huo Caiyu. “The Ministry of Personnel and the Ministry of Revenue are the two most crucial departments. If we take back one of them, we will already have the upper hand.”
He paused, his voice dropping to a whisper, “Moreover, our most important objective this time is to sever the Prime Minister’s foundation.”
Though Li Jinyu did not fully grasp the situation, he had faith in Huo Caiyu and ended the topic during the morning court, “Both of you are pillars of the country. Don’t fight over external conflicts.”
His statement was hypocritical, and Prime Minister Ye and Huo Caiyu exchanged speechless glances.
Li Jinyu coughed, “Regardless of whether it is Huo Aiqing or the Prime Minister, there is no evidence to implicate them in this matter. The case must be judged based on evidence, and we must not make false accusations.”
He turned his gaze to the trembling Minister of Personnel. “Since this issue was caused by the Ministry of Personnel, the Minister cannot shirk responsibility.”
The Minister of Personnel was a person of Prime Minister Ye and was able to sit in this position because of his shrewdness. He had already realized that he might become a compromise sacrifice in the battle between the Emperor and the Prime Minister, so he knelt down in silence.
“Relieve the Minister of Personnel of his duties and suspend him for deliberation. Huo Caiyu will serve as the new Minister of Personnel,” Li Jinyu announced.
Prime Minister Ye’s face slightly changed, and he remained silent for a moment. He knew that he was not in the advantageous position in this matter and eventually agreed, “This minister obeys the decree.”
The Prime Minister’s faction believed that losing one Ministry of Personnel was the biggest blow in this debacle, but they were about to face more trouble.
Punishment was meted out to one-third of the candidates who had purchased the exam questions, and they were all sent back after a severe beating. Their crime were recorded and they were barred from participating in the imperial examination for a decade.
Receiving a beating was one thing, but being prohibited from taking the imperial examination for ten years was essentially closing the door to advancement for them.
Except for the natural talents, which scholar did not need to spend their twenties after passing the childhood and provincial examinations? There were also old examinees and scholars who had turned gray before passing.
“In ten years, the court will likely have a new set of people!”
The unfortunate scholars couldn’t believe their ears, and their dreams of a prosperous future were shattered in an instant.
Huo Caiyu seized the opportunity to disseminate the official proclamation concerning the corruption in the imperial examinations.
The statement artfully concealed the arrangement of the genuine and counterfeit exam questions. It merely disclosed that some court officials were caught peddling fake exam questions and were facing severe punishment.
The bitterness and remorse of the scholars who had been barred from taking the imperial examinations for a decade suddenly had an outlet.
“It’s not our fault for procuring the exam questions. The culprits who sold them to us were selling counterfeit ones!”
Their resentments and regrets had a way to express themselves.
By this time, all the implicated officials were already behind bars. Gossips began to circulate stealthily on the streets. “Prime Minister Ye had an invisible hand in this, and even the Minister of Personnel was once his student. This must have been a plot ordered by the Prime Minister himself!”
The buyers of the exam questions were not only ordinary students trying to take a shortcut, but also the concubine-born sons of various noble families, who had lost their chances to inherit their family businesses due to Li Jinyu’s legitimate and concubine-born son policy.
These sons had pinned their hopes on the imperial examinations, only to be deceived by the fake exam questions and face the mockery of their friends and rejection of their legitimate family members.
Despite being concubine-born, they still had some connections due to their noble origins.
“The Prime Minister’s power lies in the resources of the Ministry of Personnel and the support of the noble families. We need to target these areas,” Huo Caiyu summarized. “By doing so, we can gradually weaken his foundation and reduce his power.”
Li Jinyu may not have fully understood, but he couldn’t help but think that Huo Caiyu was impressive. “Huo Aiqing is very clever!”
Huo Caiyu smiled and replied, “It’s not just this official… Prime Minister Ye’s monopolization of the upward path for poor scholars and his unfair practices were always unsustainable. It only took a small spark to ignite everything.”
The world had long suffered from a lack of a just and equitable career path for officials.
The Prime Minister and some of the noble families had deluded themselves into thinking that they could monopolize the officialdom, but the reality had brought them back to earth.
Nevertheless, Huo Caiyu remained skeptical. “This official thought Prime Minister Ye was a wily and cunning individual who wouldn’t be so easily duped. He must have had several contingency plans, but we haven’t seen them in action yet.”
Li Jinyu pondered to himself. Had the former Prime Minister Ye spent decades navigating the treacherous waters of the officialdom, he would have been as sly as a fox. But the current Prime Minister Ye was like a novice demon.
Without the experience and knowledge of his previous life, how could he excel in his new disguise?
Li Jinyu knew this firsthand.
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