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Located within the Green Leaf World, the Education Palace did not distinguish night and day, those inside also had difficulty sensing the flow of time and didn’t know that outside, in the real world, it was already the next day.
The time was near noon, peddlers grasped the opportunity to eagerly hawk their wares.
Using the stone pillars as a perimeter, beyond that line, it was exceedingly lively, with the fragrance of osmanthus jelly being the most distinct amongst all the foods present.
The populace that had come to view the Grand Examination surrounded the outer perimeter of Li Palace, discussing the latest news that would constantly come out from the palace. These people couldn’t see the thrilling scenes first-hand, but this didn’t affect their mood, the atmosphere was still buoyant, it had to be said that this was also attributable to the work of the storytellers present.
On the streets outside of Li Palace, every hundred or so metres apart there would be a tea store, before each store there would inevitably be an ordinary table with a storyteller dressed in either a cheongsam or a padded jacket stood beside it, their spittle spraying in all directions, coupled with their arms and legs gesticulating incessantly as they unremittingly gave accounts of what was currently happening within the Education Palace.
It was unknown as to whom within Li Palace these storytellers, and the store owners backing them, were acquainted with; what had just happened in the Grand Examination would, at the next moment, become the contents of what the storyteller was recounting, with the details actually being more or less accurate.
In the Southwestern corner, there was a comparatively quiet teahouse, its decoration was rather refined, yet today, this teahouse couldn’t escape from the dowdiness either, specially inviting a storyteller to sit in the main area and also spending a large sum to acquire the latest news from Li Palace.
All that could be seen was that sharp looking middle-aged storyteller smacking the table and saying: “It is said that the River Qu’s serene clarity can reflect a person. The examinees all displayed their various abilities; some stepping upon the river itself, others becoming a streaking cloud, leaving that youth from Orthodox Academy as the last.”
They continued: “For a time, both shores were quiet as can be, with everyone wanting to see how that youth would cross the river, yet who could have expected; they only heard a single cry from the edge of the horizon and the White Crane came hither.”
Talking up to this segment, the storyteller once again heavily smacked upon wood, shocking the patrons out of their attentive stupor before slowly continuing the narrative: “At that time, there were close to a hundred examinees upon both shores that had been shocked to the point of having their eyes and mouths wide open; just as with how your esteemed selves have been startled by this simple old man, the examinees had been startled by that White Crane.”
The storyteller continued: “Why? That’s because at the next moment, that youth from Orthodox Academy actually lifted himself up and clutched on, sitting upon the crane’s back without so much as a word, soaring upwards with the clouds, and headed towards the opposing shore; an actual case of riding a crane down South of the river; tis scene, such peculiarity!”
The teahouse erupted in a chaotic wave of chatter.
That storyteller smiled and said: “Your esteemed selves need not debate this. It should be known that for the examinees who are participating in the Grand Examination, whether be within their respective sects or academies, they would have definitely seen sagely birds and strange beasts before, yet why were they so shocked?”
They continued: “This is because no one had thought that you can use this method to cross the river; yet, what made them all the more shocked was that the White Crane wasn’t just any White Crane, but was the White Crane from our Capital’s Divine General of the Eastern Decree’s estate.”
Sounds of discussion within the teahouse became all the more rambunctious. A lot of the people from the Capital knew that the Divine General’s estate has a White Crane, but sightings of it had been rare for the past few years, some also thought of that marriage contract which had been gossiped of intensely; they couldn’t stop themselves being very curious as to why that White Crane would be willing to carry that youth over.
“If your esteemed selves still remember, then you should know that the White Crane had followed young Miss Xu to Holy Maiden Peak in the South. Why would it suddenly appear at the distant Capital? Could it be that Miss Xu really has accepted that youth to be her fiancé? Then what type of reaction should those distinguished disciples of Li Shan Sword Sect have?”
Having narrated up to this point, the storyteller lightly coughed twice, then raised their cup and took a few sips of warm tea. The patrons of the teahouse understood the meaning of this action. Though a few of them angrily complained that this was yesterday’s story and questioned how could it still be used today to extort money, the majority still obediently took out some gratuity money.
The storyteller saw the amount of copper coins within the tea tray and was very pleased. Clearing their throat, they once again began resuming their account of the Grand Examination.
All the patrons listened attentively, with no one noticing that a middle-aged person wearing a large conical hat, upon finishing the remnants of their tea, left the teahouse.
That middle-aged person’s hat was worn extremely low, making it difficult to clearly see their visage, upon leaving the teahouse, they entered the streets and mingled with the crowd, taking but a moment to disappear from sight.
After a period of time, that middle-aged person appeared at an inn that was around four miles away from Li Palace, they took out two dark red medicinal pills from their chest area and then swallowed them. They then painfully coughed for a while, before finally subduing their injury, then walked over to the bed and laid on top of it, the conical hat shifted to one side and within their black hair, two bumps could vaguely be seen.
After noon, all the teahouses and stores became especially busy, but the accounts of the storytellers were no longer all that captivating, that’s because the results to the Academic Exam had been officially announced. Every teahouse and store’s manager or employee had gone to Li Palace and copied down the results, having returned, they now began to give details to the patrons.
Placing last in the academic phase was a Star Seizer Academy student named Zhang Ting Tao, the populace didn’t have any sort of recognition of this name and thus, there naturally wasn’t much discussion on it, with only a few mocking remarks and attacks on those who ran the academy before subsiding.
Xuan Yuan Po’s results were very close to the bottom, Tang Thirty-Six ranked seventh and Zhuang Huan Yu sixth. The four scholars of Scholartree Manor had extremely good results, they had all actually managed to place within the top 10.
Of course, what the populace was most interested in, were the two foremost rankings – Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng both placed at first and second respectively, beside their names on the rankings was also a note: Outstanding.
Looking at the final results to the Academic Exam, the viewers were all debating heavily, clicking their tongues in astonishment, pointing at Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng’s names, gasping praises nonstop.
Visitors that had come from outside of the Capital were very confused with this, wondering to themselves that even though they were ranked at the top, was it worthy of such praise?
Some people from the Capital explained: the academic results for the Grand Examination would usually just have rankings, only papers that were exceptional would be specially noted as to being “outstanding”, with “exceptional” usually referring to getting all the answers correct.
Both, Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng’s names had the note of “outstanding”, this made it clear that both their papers could be considered perfect. It had to be known that this was an extremely rare event – there had already been a lot of years where something similar has not occurred in the Grand Examination.
It was only with this explanation that those visitors from the outer regions came to understand the reason, but they still had something puzzling them; since both examinees had such outstanding results in the academic phase, having probably answered everything correctly, how had they distinguished the better?
Why was Gou Han Shi ranked first while Chen Chang Sheng was only ranked second?
This question was something no one could answer, even those knowledgeable citizens of the Capital were very curious, in the same way, the Li Palace examiners that were tasked with reviewing the results were also puzzled.
The principal examiner looked at the clergy member that had a slightly frosty expression on their face; they had obviously come to raise a fuss. The examiner thought to himself: “Even if the Education Board is angry with Chen Chang Sheng not taking first place, is it necessary to make it so evident?”
However, the Education Board, under the control of His Eminence, Archbishop Mei Li Sha, in this past year its influence had become abnormally strong, even if the principal examiner’s position was higher than the other party’s, he still had to carefully explain himself.
“It was a problem in the regulation of wording.”
He looked at those few clergy members from the Education Board who were tasked with reviewing the academic results, his expression solemn, and said: “In no other aspects could a difference be determined, but Gou Han Shi’s wording was extremely rigorous and well structured, especially for common terms with regards to the classics, even duplicate words that had been proscribed were correct.
He continued: “Though Chen Chang Sheng did not have anything wrong with his answers, his wording was too archaic; according to the criteria of edits undertaken during the great revisions, it would naturally be marked down.”
Results for the academic phase had already been sent out of Li Palace and announced to the world, it was obviously no longer possible to change them. Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng, whom had both been evaluated as outstanding, became figures of praise for everyone.
Shortly after, once the participants of the final round were confirmed, everyone was extraordinarily shocked, chatter abounded; that’s because it was also Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng, this meant that this year’s first upon the First Banner would definitely be from one of these two.
One is the world renowned Second Law of the Divine State’s Seven Laws; Li Shan Sword Sect’s savant youth; someone that had read the scriptures in their entirety; Gou Han Shi.
One is Orthodox Academy’s first new student in many years; a target of heavy nurture for the Orthodoxy’s tradition faction; Xu You Rong’s fiancé; Chen Chang Sheng.
From just fame alone, the two were equals, and being able to reach this point was proof of their respective strength and learning; yet, the amount of people that looked favourably upon Chen Chang Sheng remained few.
In the latest pay-out rates revealed by the four major gambling venues: Gou Han Shi was 1 and a third; Chen Chang Sheng was 7; the difference was exceedingly stark, it could even be said that the situation was an easy win for Gou Han Shi.
Hearing the rambunctious sounds that were being transmitted from below, Tian Hai Sheng Xue’s face revealed a reflective expression. Though he had placed a lot of money on Chen Chang Sheng, he didn’t actually consider the possibility of that youth from Orthodox Academy being able to reach this point; but even he, couldn’t be optimistic over Chen Chang Sheng’s chances of getting another win.
The reason why no one looked favourably upon Chen Chang Sheng even at this stage, was because everyone, including Tian Hai Sheng Xue, knew that there existed a hurdle between Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng.
That hurdle was extremely high.
That hurdle was linked to life and death, and also exceeded life and death.
Within the Hall of Zhao Wen, His Eminence, Archbishop Mei Li Sha slowly opened his eyes, staring at the results of the academic phase that were displayed upon the mirror, he peacefully remained silent for a long time before laughing out.
He got up after much difficulty with the support of Minister Xin, leaving the hall and heading towards the Hall of Clear Virtue.
He had originally only wanted to use the Grand Examination to make Chen Chang Sheng mature faster, but never expected that Chen Chang Sheng would really be able to pluck that plump and juicy fruit. If there wasn’t any hope, then so be it, but since there was hope, he naturally wouldn’t allow anyone to ruin it. No one.
Deep within Li Palace, the Holy Crown laid upon the table, bearing the heavens that were descending from atop the hall, glimmering with a glorious dazzle that bewitched the eyes.
The Holy Rod upon the platform, reflected a reversed image of the water pool, as if it were within the deep sea.
In comparison to these two divine artefacts, the green leaf within the clay flowerpot inevitably looked rather tacky, but His Holiness did not look at the Holy Crown or Holy Rod, but peacefully gazed upon the green leaf, silently, slightly entranced.
He had his hands held behind him, resembling some elderly gardener.
Nearby, was the clear water pool, the wooden ladle gently bobbed upon the water, akin to a boat. At any moment, it could immediately be filled with water, that water could be used on the green leaf, it could also be used to cause a spell of rain.
At a location most distant from the Capital, there is an overgrown and desolate mountain range, between the mountains were endless forests.
White mist enveloped the area and the mountain paths were damp and slippery making it difficult to trek, it was also eerily quiet.
If it weren’t for the fact that tapping sounds would occasionally break out on the path, it would perhaps appear even more sinister and horrifying.
That tapping sound was from a staff landing upon the wet stones on the path.
Yu Ren leaned onto his crutch and struggled along the mountain path. His and Chen Chang Sheng’s master, that secretive Taoist Ji, was currently walking ahead with his arms held together in front of him horizontally, seemingly not worried as to if Yu Ren could keep up.
The tapping sound continued for a very long time; mist within the serene and quiet forest became increasingly thick, and many faint, fragmentary sounds could be heard, as if countless creatures were being drawn here by the sound of the walking stick.