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    This year's chief examiners were two in number: Minister Fan Zhi, the Minister of Rites, whom Gu Changjin had mentioned, and Shangshu Lin Ci, an academician of the Hanlin Academy.

    There were at least dozens of those secret letters, some of which were baseless accusations, attempting to exploit the chaos to remove some examinees who had made it onto the list of successful candidates.

    In addition, there was a thick stack of files related to the involved candidates. One could uncover the key figures behind the case within the time it took to drink a cup of tea. No wonder this person had become a top scholar at such a young age.

    Hu He chuckled. "Indeed. You probably heard Lord Lu and Lord Tan mention this during your time at the Ministry of Justice. After each imperial examination, the three judicial departments receive numerous anonymous letters, with the Board of Censors receiving the most. But not every letter merits an investigation. Why did you decide to thoroughly investigate this year, then?"

    Gu Changjin pondered for a moment before shaking his head. "I am unsure. I hope Lord Hu can enlighten me."

    "This year's exam questions were set by the old minister and Academician Lin. The question posed by the old minister was particularly tricky, and only one candidate managed to answer it correctly. As he left the examination hall, he muttered to himself, wondering how such a coincidence could occur."

    Gu Changjin understood now. The speaker might not have meant anything by it, but someone else had taken it to heart. Those words would likely be used against the candidate if he achieved a high rank.

    "Are you referring to Pan Xueliang, the candidate mentioned by Lord Hu?"

    Hu He nodded. "Yes, I sent someone to inquire yesterday, and he admitted to saying that when he left the examination hall. However, when we asked him what the coincidence was about, he refused to divulge any information. The incident has already caused quite a stir among the candidates. They say Pan Xueliang confessed to cheating. But everyone in the capital knows the old minister's character – it's impossible for him to be involved in such deceitful acts."

    The old minister Hu He referred to was Fan Zhi. Now in his late eighties, Fan Zhi had returned to the capital and taken up the position of Minister of Rites after former Minister Pei was beaten to death by Crown Prince Qiyuan.

    Fan Zhi was once a powerful provincial governor, who later served as the Headmaster of the Imperial Academy, the Left Vice Minister of Rites, and concurrently as the Chief State Councillor in the cabinet. Even the stubborn Prince Qiyuan, known for his arrogance, showed him great respect due to the old Minister's esteemed status as the prince's former tutor.

    When Emperor Jia You ascended the throne, he intended to appoint Fan Zhi as the Prime Minister. However, Fan Zhi insisted on staying in the Ministry of Rites, where he remained for two decades.

    In the court, Fan Zhi was highly respected for his integrity. How could such an esteemed figure be involved in corruption? What qualities or abilities did Pan Xueliang possess that warranted the old minister's favor?

    Not only Hu He, but even Gu Changjin found the situation hard to believe.

    "His Majesty has always held the old Minister in high regard," Hu He explained, lifting his teacup for a sip. "That's why he wants us to get to the bottom of this, to give an explanation to the scholars and clear the old Minister's reputation." He continued, "The old Minister is currently on sick leave, so we naturally shouldn't disturb him. I've already ordered Pan Xueliang's arrest. Let's keep him in custody for a few days, then you can join me when we interrogate him."

    The Board of Censors had designated places for detaining suspects. For someone like Pan Xueliang, who hadn't been officially convicted, they should have been released if no evidence was found. However, due to the intense protests from the scholars, the Board dared not release him.

    He remained in custody for seven days.

    After seven days, Hu He accompanied Gu Changjin to meet Pan Xueliang. Gu Changjin had previously studied Pan Xueliang's background. The man was a few years older than himself, now twenty-five. It was coincidental that Pan Xueliang also hailed from Yang State Prefecture, born as a merchant's illegitimate son.

    The detention cell where Pan Xueliang was held was relatively comfortable. Seven days had passed, and apart from some new facial hair, there were no significant changes in his appearance.

    When Gu Changjin and Hu He entered, they found Pan Xueliang sitting by the window engrossed in a book. Upon lifting his gaze to see them, he was initially taken aback but quickly set down his book, rising to his feet to give a formal bow. "This humble citizen pays his respects to both officials."

    Hu He chuckled. "Today, I've brought someone along to ask you some questions. Don't be nervous; this is our new Right Assistant Examiner of the Board of Censors, Viceroy Gu."

    Pan Xueliang replied, "This humble citizen dares not. Viceroy Gu's act of lodging an imperial complaint in the Throne Room three years ago has been a model for countless scholars, and this citizen has long admired your courage."

    Hu He's round eyes spun. "In that case, I'll take a break and leave Viceroy Gu to question you alone. You young people might find more common ground to discuss."

    With that, he genuinely turned and left the detention cell.

    Pan Xueliang was somewhat surprised by Hu He's casual demeanor, his lips trembling slightly.

    Gu Changjin watched him intently.

    This newly crowned top candidate had a refined face, with lines beside his lips from frequent pursing, giving him an especially solemn appearance.

    Noticing Gu Changjin's gaze, Pan Xueliang pressed his lips together, his expression serious. "Viceroy Gu, please feel free to ask anything. This humble citizen will answer truthfully to the best of my knowledge."

    "I've read your examination papers," Gu Changjin said, looking at him softly. "I've gone through your county, prefectural, provincial, and metropolitan examinations. You're a man with aspirations, caring deeply for the welfare of the people."

    Pan Xueliang was startled.

    "You've done better and better with each of these four exams. Frankly speaking, the answer sheet from the imperial examination doesn't seem to be written by you."

    One's writing reflected their personality. Pan Xueliang's answers were very formal, almost to the point of rigidity. If he were to become an official, he would likely be an incorruptible but inflexible one.

    In contrast, the answer sheet from the imperial examination demonstrated a flexible and creative mind, a touch of genius that could turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. It didn't match Pan Xueliang's character or writing style.

    "That is indeed the answer sheet I submitted," Pan Xueliang's face flushed red. "I did not cheat."

    His agitation and indignation were genuine, so much so that his body trembled slightly.

    However, there was also a hint of unease in his eyes, as if something made him less confident when he said those words.

    Gu Changjin's dark gaze studied him silently before suddenly asking, "If you didn't cheat, why are you acting so guilty?"

    Chapter 38

    The room fell abruptly silent. Pan Xueliang's eyes widened in surprise.

    "Lord Gu, I am not acting out of guilt, I merely wish to prevent innocent others from being implicated," he shook his head, gradually tightening his fists. "Rumors abound that the Elder Secretary leaked the exam questions to me to aid my ascent to the top of the scholar rankings. Such talk is preposterous. Who is Elder Secretary, and how dare they so brazenly spread baseless accusations and slander? Do they not realize that those who falsely accuse others only soil their own mouths?"

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