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    "Not so," Liu Yuan shook his head slowly. "This was my own initiative. I wanted Yang Xu dead so badly that I couldn't contain my excitement as my wish was about to come true. The former Minister of Rites often said that I was too impetuous, and he wasn't wrong."

    In August, the results for the provincial examination in Yang State Prefecture were announced, with Pan Xueliang ranking last. In September, despite his illness, the former Minister of Rites volunteered to be the chief examiner for the national examination. In October, a letter from Liao Rao, implicating the former minister in a cheating scandal, was sent from Yang State Prefecture to the capital. The following April, Pan Xueliang became the top scholar of the national exam.

    Even without Pan Xueliang's suspicious remark when he left the examination hall—"How could it be such a coincidence?"—he would still have been drawn into this scheme and become a disposable pawn.

    "Liu Yuan discovered the chaos caused by the maritime piracy along the southern coast of Jiangnan when he was the provincial governor of Zhejiang," Liu Yuan said, looking at Gu Changjin. "The pirates from Four Square Island, along with those from Diluo, Liuguo, and other small countries, repeatedly plundered Great Yin's merchant ships in the South China Sea. As a result, the previous emperor imposed a maritime ban, but these pirates eventually began raiding on land. Minister Liao was originally recommended by the former Minister of Rites to serve in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, but power can blind one's eyes, and human hearts are fickle. Do you know why we haven't been able to eliminate these pirates?"

    "Profit," Gu Changjin replied. "The internal strife in Diluo and other countries has left them short of silver, so they turn a blind eye to their pirates' pillaging for profit. The pirates plunder for profit, ordinary citizens become pirates for profit, and officials and merchants who collude with them also do it for profit. To end this lucrative business, we must make it unprofitable or, rather, make the risks associated with it so great that they dare not act rashly."

    Liu Yuan continued, "So, tell me, how would you go about making this lucrative business disappear? As long as the pirates persist, Great Yin's coastal defenses will never be at peace, and the people living along the coast will never know peace."

    Piracy had been an issue even before the establishment of the Great Yin dynasty. During Emperor Jiande's reign, the pirates from Four Square Island were the most rampant, and their activities persisted until Prince Qiyuan took over as regent.

    After Emperor Jiaoyu ascended the throne, it took nearly a decade to stabilize the borders of Great Yin.

    Recently, however, as Emperor Jiaoyu's health deteriorated, the loyalty of those in positions of authority had started to waver.

    "Piracy is an age-old problem, not one that can be eradicated by a simple edict or strategy," Gu Changjin said calmly. "Both external and internal factors contribute to it, so we need both external and internal measures. Externally, we should sow discord among the pirates from different countries who have formed alliances for profit, forcing them to turn against each other. At the same time, we must strengthen our coastal defenses. As long as Great Yin prospers, we need not fear the pirates. Internally, we should lift the maritime ban, allowing Great Yin's merchants and coastal citizens to seek profits legally. We must also severely punish traitors and eliminate corruption within local factions to achieve stability both domestically and defensively."

    Liu Yuan was slightly taken aback by Gu Changjin's response.

    Suddenly, he realized that the old Minister had sent Lord Gu to Yangzhou not just to pave a way out for Pan Xueliang.

    "Indeed, Great Yin imposed maritime restrictions to protect its merchants from pirate attacks. Yet, the sea routes have always been a path paved with gold. Commodities like silk, tea, and porcelain, which sell for one gold coin domestically, can fetch five or even six gold coins overseas. Conversely, foreign spices, ivory, and jewels become highly sought after when they reach Great Yin."

    Liu Yuan's smile faded gradually. "Cutting off such a lucrative trade route actually brings more harm than good. When the old Minister sent Liao Rao to Jiangzhe, his intention was to revitalize coastal defenses and reopen the maritime trade. Alas..."

    He didn't elaborate on what he regretted, nor did he need to.

    "I assume Lord Gu is already aware of Pan Xueliang's identity. After the Water Dragon King's demise last January, his concubine seized power with lightning speed." Liu Yuan walked over to the tea table, took a sip, then continued slowly, "Jiaofeng is Pan Xueliang's biological mother. Though she wasn't well-known before, her actions are even more ruthless than the Water Dragon King's. She eliminated most of the pirates who opposed her within half a month. Liao Rao knew the Water Dragon King's weakness but not Jiaofeng's. That was until he discovered Pan Xueliang."

    Gu Changjin grasped the situation at once.

    Liao Rao had a deal with the Water Dragon King. With the latter's death, Jiaofeng inherited his power, and their previous agreement might no longer hold. Thus, Liao Rao targeted Pan Xueliang in an attempt to control Jiaofeng.

    "Given Pan Xueliang's talent, he should not have passed the provincial examinations. It was Liao Rao who put Pan Xueliang's name on the list of successful candidates."

    Liu Yuan put down his teacup and looked at Gu Changjin. "Lord Gu, General Liang's defeat of the Four Square Island pirates earlier this year, resulting in the deaths of thousands, has gradually overshadowed Liao Rao's reputation in Jiangzhe. Therefore, Liao Rao needs a victory to regain his standing, lest the Emperor removes him from Jiangzhe."

    As the governor, once Liu Yuan was transferred from Jiangzhe, his military power would be inherited by the next governor, leaving Liao Rao as powerless as a toothless tiger.

    Gu Changjin said, "You're looking for evidence of Liao Rao's collusion with the Water Dragon King."

    "Yes," Liu Yuan replied. "General Liang has received several anonymous letters over the years, all accusing Liao Rao of conspiring with the Water Dragon King. However, the letters only revealed that the Water Dragon King disguises himself as a Great Yin citizen to secretly meet with Liao Rao annually, without specifying when or where. General Liang now suspects these letters might be fake, possibly intended to mislead him."

    Gu Changjin's brows knitted slightly. "Do you know who sent those letters?"

    "No," Liu Yuan answered.

    Twirling his jade ring, he suddenly changed the subject. "Does Lord Gu know who stands behind Liao Rao? And who it is that ambushed you on the road, trying to kill you?"

    Gu Changjin gazed into his teacup, his expression unruffled. "The Qi family or the Xing family?"

    The Qi family represented the Second Prince, while the Xing family represented the First Prince. Liao Rao must have already pledged allegiance to one of them.

    The case of the former Minister and Pan Xueliang had been shockingly disturbing. Though the trials were conducted in secret by the Three Censors, it was still possible that someone had already noticed the irregularities.

    Diplomatic veterans like Commander Qi and Chief Minister Xing, who were seasoned in the court, likely sensed something amiss from the moment the former Minister confessed.

    "The Qi family is involved," Liu Yuan said with admiration as he glanced at Gu Changjin, "The ones who set up explosives on the road were sent by the Second Prince. The fact that your two attendants were able to reach Yangzhou safely was not only due to the protection of the Warrior Camp but also with the help of the Xing family. Rest assured, all the people sent by the Second Prince have been eliminated by us."


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