A Place for Men to Do Big Things
“Should he refuse to kowtow to this old one, this old one who prohibit him from entering the exam venue.”
“Cut the rubbish out. If you’re as tough as you act, swear that you’ll die if I set foot inside.”
“This old one swears that, if this sly-shameless thug sets one foot inside the venue, this old one will smash his head on a w-, wait, why should this old one have to die for your sake?”
“Because you stupid? How should I know?”
Since nobody was willing to pass up the opportunity to watch some drama, things… got a little hard to clean up. Though the guards didn’t recognise me, they recognised Long Zaitian, and he was their new commander, so nobody dared to arrest me when he was standing on my side. Some officials at the rear didn’t care about Long Zaitian, but they recognised me, so they didn’t want to involve themselves. Time continued to pass, yet nobody passing by showed any interest in the exams anymore. As such, I could tell that the situation was getting harder and harder to wrap up with each passing moment.
A young civil servant hurried over to us and saluted us. “Please wait a moment. Prime Minister has summoned you.”
The elder and I immediately showed respect upon hearing the mention of Prime Minister Li.
“If it were not for the fact Prime Minister needs to talk to this old one, he would not let you off the hook. No matter. He shall report your unbecoming appearance and contemptible deeds to Prime Minister Li. Given our relationship, hmph, let’s see if you can still take the exams!” In order to impress his juniors, the elder loudly asked, “Ahem, what does Prime Minister seek this old one for?”
The young official replied, “Uh, Prime Minister did not ask for you; he asked for him.”
“Him?” The elder looked back at me.
“Hah.” I condescendingly stepped forward. “Given our relationship, hmph, let’s see if you can keep your post!” With that, I strutted past the incensed elder and into the venue.
A while later…
Like a bat out of hell, I sprinted back out of the venue to change into the clothes Gu Xianxian held onto for me. I would’ve been kicked out of the exam venue before I even sat the exam if I didn’t change! Thankfully, there was no one in my way when on my way back in.
There were hundreds of small segregated rooms lined up in dozens of columns that had weathered decades of time. There was a shabby wooden bed, desk, stool spittoon, inkstone, brush, ink, and ink grinder in each room. Even the best inkstone had a chip corner. Our Emperor was either frugal or a cheapskate. In comparison, the Western Regions’ rulers splurged on every form of luxury they could.
I didn’t have much time to check the place out for we needed to hurry in.
Prime Minister Li beamed upon spotting me. “Hahaha, Duke Ming, Duke Ming, you made this old one wait for ages.”
“I missed you, Prime Minister!”
“Have a seat. Have a seat. This old one feels like days aren’t complete if he doesn’t see you. What ailment could this be?”
“The people say that meetings in this lifetime are flowers of seeds planted in the last life. Perhaps we were somewhat acquainted last life, but this one did not have the fortune of becoming your son-in-law.”
Prime Minister Li frowned. “Whatever do you mean? We hit it off from our first meeting. It is a familiarity embedded in our bones. In-laws? More like father and son. Definitely father and son!”
“Really? Do I really bear such a striking resemblance to your late father?”
“Your mouth is truly… truly… Come on in.”
“Hahaha, after you.”
The civil servants who watched us converse and enter were so confused that their confusion was confused. Some of them even looked at me believing I could’ve been in a father-son relationship with Prime Minister Li in my past life.
Prime Minister shooed everyone out and poured me a cup of tea. “It has been a rough journey for you.”
“It is nothing compared to the toiling you are committed to for the country and people.”
“This one means what he says.” Prime Minister Li slid my cup over to me without the usual playful look on his face. “How could this one have not heard about the assassination attempts on your life when every corner of the capital has heard about it? Is it true you even found Northern Wondrous Warrior Manor? This one is genuinely concerned for your wellbeing since you could complete such a momentous task under such precarious circumstances.”
You know how you could tell Prime Minister Li was a smart veteran? From beginning to end, he never mentioned his status or his stance; he inquired solely using the tone of an elder concerned for someone younger, but there was plenty of information conveyed between the lines.
I graciously had a drink of tea. “To hear that from you makes it all worth it. You can rest assured. No matter how bold Bronze Mask may be, it is unlikely he would carry out an assassination on the imperial palace grounds.”
“Unlikely does not mean there is no chance.” Prime Minister Li stroked his beard.
Prime Minister Li’s apprehensions were warranted. After all, the imperial city and imperial palace were extremely close, and there was an assassin who was bold enough to kill people in broad daylight in the heavily-guarded capital. Though security in the imperial palace had been strengthened significantly after my shifu and Ximen Chuideng went nuts in there, it had been a long time since the security detail had to deal with such infiltrations. If they hadn’t practiced, it was understandable for them to be rusty. Moreover, even if no harm was done, it would certainly cause public uproar if people heard an assassin was able to infiltrate the palace and give His Majesty a fright. In contrast, I wasn’t too concerned about Prime Minister Li’s concerns primarily because I had information they didn’t.
“Prime Minister, Hohoho.” As I rubbed my hands together, I asked, “The exams commence today. You should fill this one in, right? Did… His Majesty tell you to pass on anything?”
“… He did not say anything?”
No? Your Majesty, you still want me to ace the exams when I’ve already done something so big for you?!
“Relax, Duke Ming. His Majesty is just treating this as a procedure for you.”
Thank heavens. You had me panicking for a second there.
See? I told you His Majesty wouldn’t be so nasty.
“Considering your knowledge and intellect, the exam is not even worthy of being your warmup; you could win even with your eyes shut.”
That’s what he means?! Win with my eyes shut?! Who do you think I am?! My shifu?! Your Majesty, you have too many misunderstandings about me! I might not even understand the topic!
Had I not pre-emptively made preparations, I wouldn’t just be sweating cold bullets but even handing in my resignation letter.
“Are you not going to give me any special privileges? If nothing else, I,” I lowered my voice prior to continuing, “what happens if someone infiltrates the venue to assassinate me?”
“Did you not just say it was not a concern?”
“I was trying to be polite!”
Bronze Mask could easily bypass these shabby security protocols to assassinate me!
“In your opinion, do we have to guard against Bronze Mask, then?”
“You are asking me?”
If you’re asking me…
“Yes! Absolutely! Not just against Bronze Mask but even Fiends’ Genesis and the four unorthodox factions! The line of people out for my life could fill every space from east coast to west coast. Is this something to be taken lightly? Prime Minister, you mentioned summoning Tianhu back. Where is he now?”
“Well… He has not returned yet.”
“It would be pointless even if he did come back!”
I removed my boora and took out a halved piece of jade.
Prime Minister Li pinched his nose. “Oh, that’s… Is the rumour actually true?”
Prime Minister got up to pace around, moving further and further away from the piece of jade.
Do you need to go so far? I wash myself every day. It’s not… blegh. Okay, I forgive you.
“Rumour has it that Tianhu lost a most valued possession of his in Beiping, leading to him going on a rampage that resulted in him injuring many members of the north’s martial world. He usually is untraceable, but he did not hold back this time at the cost of giving away his whereabouts.”
“Where is he now?”
“I do not know. Ye Yun said he has gone off in search of his lost property. We have been wondering what could possibly make him act out of character. If it is this piece of jade, then it all clicks together. How did you get your hands on it, and why is there only half of it?”
I couldn’t tell Prime Minister Li about Jingan, or I’d only complicate the situation even more. Hence, I vaguely answered, “Simply put, I have been framed.”
“… Tianhu uses the piece of jade as Navagraha Star Summoner’s child piece. Putting aside its value to him, this old one heard he would not spare anyone’s life if they touched it. You split it in two?“
“I have been framed!”
“You were framed, yet you are holding onto it? Well, hid it in your shoe?”
… I was worried I’d lose it if I changed my clothes like usual…
Still pinching his nose, Prime Minister Li told me, “Are you truly looking to live a short life? This old one reckons he might even ignore His Majesty’s orders to retrieve the piece of jade and kill you… Also, wash your shoes.”
I knew it was my shoes’ problem! I wash these daily!
“Surely I can talk it out with him.”
“Hard to say. Nobody can dissuade him once he goes berserk. If he wants to kill you, he will fight his way into the capital for your life no matter who stands before him. Taishu Hall has absolutely no means of holding back The Ultimate Three.”
“There is no guarantee he will come.”
“Where does your optimism come from? If you were truly framed, then someone is evidently provoking Tianhu into killing you. Therefore, they would leak who is in possession of it. Truly a vicious scheme.”
I… I… I’m going to report you. You called Her Highness vicious! If I’m going down, I’m bringing everyone down with me!
“Are you not going to give me any special privileges, then?!” I slammed the table and cried, “I was counting on your promise to have Tianhu fend off assassins coming for me, but even Tianhu wants to kill me now! If you do not change the rules, I will not be responsible when assassins barge in and sabotage the exam!”
“Relax.” Prime Minister Li looked ready to dominant any situation with the way he waved his hand. “This old one always has two backup plans. Come!”
As soon as we stepped out the door, we ran into Old Wang. He greeted Prime Minister Li, but he scoffed at me.
“What did you do to anger him?” queried Prime Minister Li.
“He is such a nuisance. He confronted me outside the venue, so we ended up arguing and hating each other.”
“It is unwise to anger him,” Prime Minister Li advised as we continued along.
“He is an official of Hanlin Academy, right? He is not an examiner or auditor. What reason is there to fear him?”
“While that is true, all the examiners and auditors are his subordinates.”
He… They… What?
“He is an erudite teacher whom even His Majesty shows respects. He is the head examiner this time.”
“I thought it was you!”
“That is true, but it is only in name. This old one just needs to assume responsibility for the overall event; others take care of the bits and pieces.”
“So he is…”
“Professor Wang Zhenyun, or more commonly Professor Wang. You are in for it now. In saying that, that is only a minor issue. Come.”
Minor? How?! Let’s keep talking about this Professor Wang! Hey, wait!
I followed Prime Minister Li into the exam venue and headed towards the end of the exam rooms.
“You need a commander platform, a space where you can muse and resolve personal matters without any external influences, a private space that cannot be monitored and, ideally, a space that allows you to compete against your enemies.”
That was a veteran of three reigns for you. He was on the money. His title of the “man who never ages in politics” was well deserved.
We finally arrived at the commander platform Prime Minister Li mentioned. There was isolated private space. The space could be used to prepare an assortment of items. No prying eyes could see inside.
“While not large, it has enough room to house three people. The door can be locked. I shall leave the key with you. I have told the others that this is your exclusive place, so nobody will bother you.”
I pinched my nose. “Prime Minister, can you please cut the nonsense?”
Prime Minister gave me the young-people-these-days look and tapped on the isolated building. “Fragrant rosewood. It will not attract attention.”
No matter if you inlay it with gold or silver, it’s still a toilet! I can’t just run to the toilet whenever something comes up, can I?!
“Have you not heard the saying?”
Prime Minister Li formed a fist. “The toilet is where men do the big jobs!”
By the time I finished processing what I just heard, Prime Minister Li was out of sight.
Come back! Is this what you classify as big jobs?!
I can’t believe he just left me stupefied! You slippery old geezer!
Come back! I don’t want to do big things here!