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    “Haah~.”

    With piles of scrolls and books stacked like mountains before him, the Minister of Taxation let out a sigh.

    His name was Kim Jeom, a man who, in the original course of history, would have served as the Minister of Taxation in the early days of King Sejong’s reign, before transferring to the Ministry of Law Enforcement, and eventually serving as the Inspector of Pyeongan Province.

    However, in this altered history, his fate had changed. Although several regular royal personnel reassignments—a practice where officials would typically change positions once a year—had taken place, Kim Jeom had remained stationed as the Minister of Taxation.

    “I don’t know if this is fortune or misfortune.”

    Although Kim Jeom himself was unsure whether his prolonged tenure as Minister of Taxation was a good or bad thing, his wife was quite pleased.

    “Isn’t it a good thing that you don’t have to go far away to the provinces, and can just stay in Hanyang?”

    But the true reason Kim Jeom’s wife was pleased was something else entirely. If Kim Jeom was sent to the provinces, the most likely position he would be reassigned to was as the Inspector of Pyeongan Province. And the place where the Inspector of Pyeongan Province resided was the infamous ‘city of lust’, Pyongyang.

    Regardless, Kim Jeom’s life was completely overturned after he remained stationed as the Minister of Taxation, starting with the appointment of Hyang as Crown Prince.

    The appointment of Hyang as Crown Prince was a significant event, as even if he was young, it meant he would have a certain degree of say in matters. In this sense, Hyang’s ascension to the position of Crown Prince marked the beginning of a nightmare for the officials.

    Glaring at the golden pen held in his hand, Kim Jeom grumbled, “All of this started because of this thing.”

    Ever since the production of golden pens was handed over to private companies, the volume and intensity of work that the Ministry of Taxation had to handle started to increase dramatically.

    “Haah~. It was good at first.”

    When he first heard that production was being handed over to the private sector, Kim Jeom was pleased. He saw many uses for the golden pen.

    Compared to the traditional ink brushes, these pens were easier to maintain, had a reasonable lifespan, and even a second-tier silver pen was cheaper than most ink brushes. Moreover, thanks to this, there would be fierce competition among manufacturers to produce these pens, ensuring a steady influx of gifts for him.

    “I didn’t realize the Crown Prince was so damn clever.”

    The Crown Prince, who had pleaded with the King to gain authority over the production of golden pens, came up with a preposterous system.

    It was called ‘open bidding’.

    As per the Crown Prince’s command, the specifications for the golden pens were distributed to all the merchants who had responded to the bid.

    Under this system, merchants had to state their production cost, and there was a public evaluation under the Crown Prince’s supervision. This was the moment when Kim Jeom’s expected gifts flew away.

    The Crown Prince handed a small piece of paper to the Minister, Second Minister, and Third Minister of Taxation.

    “Please exclude any merchant who quotes a price lower than this.”

    “What is this price?”

    “This is the production cost when artisans at the Military Arsenal make the golden pens. This includes the cost of materials and wages for the workers, and it’s an average amount. Therefore, please exclude any merchant who quotes a price lower than this.”

    Kim Jeom expressed his confusion, “Isn’t it better if it’s cheaper?”

    The Minister of Taxation questioned, and Hyang clicked his tongue.

    “The materials for the golden pens made in the Military Arsenal all come from tax collections, so it’s hard to get a lower price than that. But if they can produce for even less? Minister, do you think that’s possible?”

    “… There would certainly be problems.”

    “Furthermore, the golden pens of the selected merchant will bear the ‘Four Seasons Pattern’ as a sign of quality approval from the nation. If there’s a problem with the quality of such products, do you think the people will trust the nation?”

    “Your Royal Highness is right.”

    Stung by Hyang’s words, Kim Jeom had to rub his temples, and as he lowered his head, he heard Hyang grumble, “I can’t believe the minister of a nation can be so short-sighted… Tsk!”

    And thus, starting with the golden pens, Kim Jeom’s tribulations began. In a way, among all the high officials, the Minister was the first to face difficulties from Sejong and Hyang.

    ***

    The hardships experienced by the minister intensified with the nationwide implementation of the smallpox vaccination.

    In the process of executing the smallpox vaccination, the population records of the eight provinces of Joseon were overhauled. The first batch of these revised records was submitted to King Sejong. Seeing the numbers, King Sejong reprimanded his court officials.

    “Just two years ago was the last overhaul of the population records. You’re telling me the population has ballooned so much in just two years? Can the officials believe this?”

    “Your Majesty!”

    “Stop creating situations to be alarmed about!”

    King Sejong roared, but the court officials had nothing to say.

    Joseon revised its population records every three years. The revised records were made into three copies; one copy was kept in the respective provincial office, another in the Ministry of Taxation, and the last one was sent to the local government office.

    However, when looking at the household heads recorded in these registers, the population of Joseon during its foundation in 1392 was merely around 300,000.

    Since then, by continuously settling refugees and vigorously conducting population surveys, Joseon’s population began to increase rapidly. According to the population survey conducted two years ago, the population of Joseon was about 1.9 million.

    But the population of Joseon verified through this smallpox vaccination was around 4.3 million.

    “Speak! Speak up! Have the people of Joseon been doing nothing but producing children for the past two years! Can the population increase by over 2 million in just two years?”

    “Your Majesty!”

    “Stop creating situations to be alarmed about!”

    The court officials could only bow their heads in response to King Sejong’s anger.

    However, both King Sejong and the court officials knew why this happened. Both the local administrative agencies and the people were trying to avoid tax burdens, especially public service. It was because the benefit they could gain from evading it was significant.

    The people could lessen the burden of public service, and the local administrators could conveniently fill their pockets.

    Unable to contain his anger, King Sejong, with a red face, scolded his officials.

    “When Joseon was founded, we had a small population and were devastated by the nobles’ pillage, so we reduced the taxes! Naturally, as less was coming in, less had to be spent. That’s why compared to previous dynasties, the stipends for the royal family and officials were significantly reduced!

    But look! The actual population is this large, yet the population recorded in the registers is less than half! The state is receiving less in taxes, yet the people are still unable to escape poverty, so where has all the wealth gone!”

    “….”

    “Can’t you answer? Isn’t it obvious? If not the aristocrats, then who else! Those very aristocrats that you are so wary of!”

    “We apologize deeply.”

    King Sejong grinded his teeth with frustration.

    “In the current chaotic state of the nation, you’re saying the aristocrats are without fault? These damned individuals!”

    Sejong’s fury was directed at the ministerial officials who have accepted his rebuke. The officials, enduring Sejong’s wrath, clicked their tongues in disapproval.

    ‘It looks like they won’t be released from their exile anytime soon.’

    ‘Considering their age, they probably won’t be free from exile before they die, unfortunately.’

    “Sigh…”

    With a long, deep breath, Sejong suppressed his anger and gave an order to his officials.

    “Immediately create precise household and land registries!”

    “We will follow your orders!”

    “Even though this Majesty have acknowledged your hard work and included the implementation of salary reforms in the state policies! But do you think I need to show such favor while you work like this?”

    “We deeply apologize!”

    “We will work diligently to complete the task!”

    Upon hearing the replies of the officials, Sejong showed a cold response.

    “Let’s wait and see!”

    * * *

    With the command from King Sejong, the department that became the most pressed was the Ministry of Taxation. The household registry and land registry both were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Taxation. An official named Kim Jeom gathered all his subordinates and passed on the royal order.

    “Therefore, we must supplement both the household registry and land registry. Do your utmost best.”

    “Your Excellency, we’re already overwhelmed with work!”

    When one of the subordinates protested, Kim Jeom exploded in anger.

    “Then resign! Do you think anyone wants to do this job? No one is doing this because they enjoy it!”

    At Kim Jeom’s furious shouting, all the personnel were like mice, being careful and watching for Kim Jeom’s mood.

    “If you have a problem, criticize the regional officials who did a sloppy job! Firstly, find out where the population has increased the most compared to two years ago and report it!…”

    Two weeks later, Kim Jeom presented a scroll to King Sejong.

    “What is this?”

    “It’s a list of villages where the population has unusually increased while we were updating the household registry.”

    “Are there more than one or two such villages?”

    “Yes, there are many, especially some very severe cases.”

    At Kim Jeom’s reply, Sejong spread out the scroll and read its content. After reading the content carefully, Sejong furrowed his brows.

    “This is too serious…”

    The villages written on the scroll, a total of 12, had their population increased by at least five times, and up to eight times. Sejong, examining the list with a scowling face, turned his gaze.

    “Call for the Inspector General.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    Upon Sejong’s order, officers and commanders from the Board of Censors headed towards the 12 villages. The officials who arrived at the villages thoroughly questioned the local officials, stewards, and their direct supervisors, and as a result, 26 former and current local officials, and 40 stewards received dismissal or exile as punishment.

    Kim Jeom and his subordinates from the Ministry of Taxation seemed to have released their pent-up anger quite refreshingly, but not much later, they received a suitable payback.

    “They’ve come again!”

    “Again?”

    At his subordinate’s report, Kim Jeom gripped the back of his neck that was starting to ache.

    “Where is it this time?”

    “It’s Gwangju District in Jeolla Province.”

    “Damn it…”

    Kim Jeom spat out a curse.

    As local officials were punished for irregularities in the household registry, other local officials, trying to avoid the edge of the inspection, made desperate countermeasures. They prepared ‘explanatory documents’ by thoroughly examining the records left by their predecessors and their own records.

    They made a basis for population increase by checking the number of refugees who successfully settled, their children, and the number of slaves who became commoners through exemption from their servitude, although it was not common. They also noted the scale of increased land by developing ownerless land and wasteland, and the current owners, and sent these carefully created documents to the Ministry of Taxation every day.

    From the perspective of the Ministry of Taxation, after letting off some steam, their workload seemed to have multiplied.

    “Hehehe…”

    “Ha! Haha! Ha!”

    With the stacks of documents piling up, the officials of the Ministry of Taxation and Kim Jeom could only let out a bitter laughter of disbelief.

    * * *

    In the midst of all this work accumulating, the Ministry of Taxation was assigned yet another task.

    “Establish a nationwide organization to handle the monopoly of sugar and salt.”

    “I’m really going to quit my job!”

    “We’re all going to die!”

    “Either way, we’re going to die!”

    When everyone from Kim Jeom to the officials of the Ministry of Taxation were making grim resolutions, Hwang Hui suggested ‘personnel reinforcement through the state exam’ on their behalf to King Sejong.

    In response to Hwang Hui’s suggestion, Hyang submitted a plan to hire ‘students from Sungkyunkwan’ considering the ‘time and cost’ issues, and King Sejong approved this.

    When the officials of the Ministry of Taxation heard the news that ‘The ministry’s staff is being replenished with Sungkyunkwan students’, they all let out a cheer.

    “Long live the King!”

    “Long live the King!”

    * * *

    “Well, please bear with it a little longer.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    After Kim Jeom’s comforting words, other officials put their spirits together and got back to work. However, some officials were overly energetic.

    “What! ‘Rite of Initiating the Newcomers’!”

    Kim Jeom, who was handling the piled-up reports, was shocked. He jumped up from his seat and asked the his Second Minister.

    “Who? Where? When?”

    “Three days ago….”

    “Drag those bastards here now!”

    Shortly after, the officials who had committed ‘Rite of Initiating the Newcomers’ were brought in a line in front of Kim Jeom.

    “How many are there?”

    “There are 23.”

    “Damn it… Too many…”

    Kim Jeom shouted at the officials standing in front of him.

    “Do you guys have any brains or not! ‘Rite of Initiating the Newcomers’! Why the hell ‘Rite of Initiating the Newcomers’!”

    “We apologize. However, ‘Rite of Initiating the Newcomers’ is a tradition….”

    “You bastards! This tradition has been abolished! Especially, the current King punished ‘Rite of Initiating the Newcomers’ doers just a year ago! What, tra~di~tion? Stop talking about traditions!”

    “We apologize!”

    “If you have to apologize, you should have avoided doing something to apologize for! Go home right now and reflect!”

    “Yes, my lord…”

    As Kim Jeom scolded, the concerned officials began to leave his room, shrinking back.

    Kim Jeom, whose clothing was disheveled due to the rage, shouted.

    “Do you have shackles on your feet! Get out right now!”

    “Yes, my lord!”

    Just as Kim Jeom was worried, upon receiving the report, King Sejong was furious.

    Looking like he would issue a severe punishment immediately, Hyang made a suggestion to King Sejong. Following Hyang’s suggestion, King Sejong immediately executed the punishment.

    It was the ‘Document Organization Punishment’.

    The punishment was to complete the organization of the Family Register and Land Register, which would take 5 years even if half of the Ministry officials were working on it, within one year.

    If they fail to complete it within a year, an additional punishment of exile was waiting.

    Thanks to this, the concerned officials had to solve their lodging and meals in the newly built storage room next to the Ministry office without being able to go home.

    Despite the replenished personnel, the workload that the Ministry had to handle had multiplied, so everyone from Kim Jeom to the lowest-ranking officials were always overworked.

    Finally, unable to bear it any longer, King Sejong ordered a feast in the royal kitchen. To be precise, he held a banquet disguised as a meal. As King Sejong prepared a banquet for the Ministry officials, he encouraged the attending officials.

    “I am well aware of the hardships you are going through. However, for the administration of Joseon to run smoothly, the Ministry must function without a hitch, so I have no choice but to ask you to work a little harder. When the administration of Joseon improves, I will increase the personnel, so I hope you will be patient and stay strong.”

    “We are forever grateful!”

    The officials all bowed and expressed their gratitude at King Sejong’s encouraging words.

    In this process, a new proverb was born.

    ‘The day the Ministry receives a feast.’ This proverb was a metaphor for treating someone well before assigning them a difficult task.

    Meanwhile, King Sejong handed a medicine pouch to Kim Jeom through the royal secretariat.

    “I ordered the royal physician to prepare a good tonic for you. Please take good care of it.”

    “I am forever grateful!”

    “I put a lot of valuable medicinal herbs in it, so it will be of great help to you.”

    “I am forever grateful!”

    He kept expressing gratitude, but what Kim Jeom heard from King Sejong’s words was, ‘You’ll have to pay for the medicine, right?’

    The poor old man and his guys. ????

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