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Chapter 23: Challenge

Everyone paid their gratitudes and took their seats. The Emperor of Liang ordered maids to fill each table with fragrant wine and favoured everyone with three cups. He waited until everyone drank their wine, then said, “This banquet is graced by the presence of gallant warriors and great fighters. Everyone here must be gallant gentlemen to be able to claim final victory.  My intention for hosting today’s banquet is to honour your accomplishments and congratulate you. Heroes are great drinkers. Everyone may drink another cup.”

The ten candidates hastily raised their cups and stood up. They drained their cups.

The Emperor of Liang then turned towards the two Head Ambassadors at the guest table and said, “The Yan and Yu empires are truly birthplaces for gallant heroes. These young heroes have travelled from afar, and are all exceptionally skilled. However, I fear that I am not well acquainted with them. I would be glad if you could introduce them to me.”

The two ambassadors hastily stood up and bowed, saying “Yes, Your Majesty!” Yet, just as they straightened up and were about to speak, they discovered a problem. The two empires both have representing candidates in the final champions. However, the Emperor of Liang had only said to “introduce them”, and never specified who should introduce first and who should introduce after. Honestly speaking, who spoke first and who spoke second was not such a big deal, but everyone needed to try to come out on top during such a grand banquet. Besides, the Yan and Yu were not some friendly neighbouring empires. Disputes and quarrels were frequent between them, so neither party wanted to yield ground for no reason.

After a momentary lapse, the two head ambassadors realized that this deadlock needed a solution. Together, they turned their eyes towards the host. They found the old Emperor to be wearing an unkind smile. He clearly wanted them to resolve this issue of sequence amongst themselves.

“There are two warriors from our Yu empire within final candidates…” began the Head Ambassador of Yu immediately, implying that we have two and you guys only have one, so we should speak first.

“It’s unfortunate that these ten candidates do not have an opportunity to compete further amongst themselves. Our warrior Baili is still eager for more,” said the Head Ambassador of Yan, unwilling to concede. His words implied that both of yours together can’t compare with the one of ours, so why should you speak first.

“Actually, there are many other brave warriors within our empire who are able to compete. However, considering that this is to request the Princess’s hand in marriage, the candidate should possess both good looks and talent. Thus, we made a careful selection beforehand.” The eyes of the head ambassador of Yu were filled with disdain, clearly mocking Baili Qi for his ugly looks, which the Princess will definitely find disdainful.

“All that glitters is not gold. It is better to judge people by their character rather than their appearance. Such a remarkable person as the Princess would never give her attention to people who are merely useless ornaments…” retorted the Head Ambassador of Yan, who had an equally sharp tongue.

The Emperor of Liang finally gave a laugh and mediated, “Our three empires are friends today, which should be a joyous affair. Let’s not bury our head in the details. Please take a seat, ambassadors. Let’s have Meng Zhi take over the duty of introductions.”

Meng Zhi shot out immediately. After a “Yes, Your Majesty”, he turned back went next to candidate from the Yu empire first. He indicated the man politely with his palm and said, “This warrior from the Yu empire is named You Guangzhi[1], age twenty-eight. His father is a Second Rank Official within the Central Records. He had once been engaged with a Ms. Hu, which had been cancelled three months ago.” Following that, he went next to the Yan table and said, “This warrior from the Yan empire is named Baili Qi, age thirty. He is a soldier serving under the Fourth Prince of Yan. Apart from this tournament, he had never left the side of His Highness. He had never been married.” After that, he returned back to the side of Yu and said, “This warrior from the Yu empire is named Zheng Cheng, age twenty-seven. He is the brother-in-law to the Second Prince of Yu. He had once been married to a lady with the surname Zeng[2], who he expelled half a year ago under the crime of malicious language.”

The Emperor of Liang listened quietly. “Mhmm.”

The Yu ambassador didn’t expect for Liang to actually investigate the backgrounds of these candidates so thoroughly, and was rather unnerved. He rushed to explain, “Your Majesty, these two are both outstanding young men of my empire, in possession of both good looks and character. Any previous engagements have absolutely been properly resolved. We dare not mistreat the Princess.”

The Yan ambassador chuckled coldly, “They’ve really been resolved in time!”

“It’s still better than your esteemed empire sending over a servant. Don’t you know that this is to request the Princess’s hand in marriage?” retorted the Head Ambassador of Yu angrily.

“The Princess is marrying a person, not his family background. Besides, with the Princess’s honourable status, why would she need to mind something like someone’s family background?”

“There had always been a distinction between the noble and the common since ancient times. How can it be ignored?”

“Our warrior Baili had become sworn brothers with the Fourth Prince prior to leaving. The noble and common change with the tides of time and fate.”

“You…” The Yu ambassador was about to retort, but someone by his side tugged his sleeves discreetly and said quietly, “There is already a process in place for how the Princess will choose her husband. There is no benefit in this quarrel.”

The Head Ambassador of Yu wasn’t dumb either. He comprehended immediately with the slight reminder. Besides, the person who spoke to stop him was his Vice Ambassador, the famous martial artist on the Langya Ranking, Jindiao Chaiming. How could he ignore him? He gave a “Humph!” and sat down.

The Emperor of Liang watched their quarrel with cold eyes. He remained silent until both sides momentarily doused their fire, then said slowly, “Everyone here is exceptional. There is no need for a quarrel. Unfortunately, I have been busy with government affairs and have not been able to see every match. I’m afraid that I’m still rather unfamiliar with these warriors.”

“I have a suggestion, Father.” Prince Yu had a quick wit by nature, and with the addition of his speedy information gathering, he already knew the intention of his royal father’s. He jumped on the opportunity and said, “Why don’t we take advantage of the banquet today and have these ten warriors spar with each other? It would make for a great tale.”

The Emperor of Liang made a soft sound of approval. He brushed his beard and asked, “What is the opinion of everyone else?”

“Father, I believe that this suggestion by Prince Yu is rather lacking in consideration,” responded the Crown Prince hurriedly. “Your Majesty’s royal figure is here. How can we allow knives and swords in the hall? If they somehow…” At that part in his speech, he suddenly saw something at the corner of his eyes. Mei Changsu had raised his cup and was gazing at it, all the while shaking his head gently. The Crown Prince’s heart gave a thump, and he immediately changed his speech, “These are merely some concerns I hold for Father… But now that I think about it, I remember Father’s heroics that year while quelling the rebellion. Plus, we have Commander Meng standing guard, so there shouldn’t be any major issues. Hence, I have a suggestion, Father. Sparring is fine, but everyone must hold back in their attacks, as it is inauspicious to see blood.”

He changed his tone halfway through, which rather showed some quick wit. Prince Yu did not see Mei Changsu’s hint, so he didn’t understand how this person suddenly wised up. He was a bit disappointed, and gave a cold “Hmph!”.

“Both of my sons’ suggestions please me greatly,” chuckled the Emperor of Liang. “Then, everyone may challenge any other candidates at their will. There is no need to set any rules.”

His words clearly exposed that he really did want to see everyone spar. The Crown Prince silently lamented over the danger he avoided, and couldn’t help but send a grateful look at Mei Changsu. However, the latter was leaning over and listening to Princess Nihuang’s whispers, and didn’t see him at all.

Even though everyone was allowed to freely challenge others, everyone there had endured thousands of hardships to earn their positions. Plus, nobody wanted to rashly challenge someone in front of the Princess, in fear of making a fool out of themselves rather than earning prestige. For a time, everyone tried to measure each other out, and there was an awkward stillness.

“I’ll go first, then.” The person who gave a long laugh and stood up, clothes rustling, was of course the carefree Yan Yujin. He walked to the middle of the hall and bowed to the Emperor, then turned around leisurely and tilted his chin up, “I, Yan Yujin, would like to challenge the young master Mr. Xiao.”

Xiao Jingrui looked at him with a pained yet amused smile, but he had no choice but to stand up. Quite a few people in the hall couldn’t help but chuckle while they watched the two stand face to face and hug their fists in greeting. These two rascals had scuffled with each other since their childhood, and had left teeth marks on each other’s little cheeks before they could even walk. However, nobody had actually seen them in a proper duel.

Just as everyone watched the match begin with eyes filled with expectancy, they couldn’t resist an internal “Psh” after a few moves. How was that an important duel? It was clearly a performance competition. Never mind Xiao Jingrui, who was acting properly as usual. However, Yan Yujin was dead set on showing off. He performed all of his coolest and prettiest moves, and fluttered around the hall like a colourful butterfly. Sometimes, when Xiao Jingrui’s attack would accidentally block the move he was about to display, he would even glare at him. During all that hassle, he didn’t forget to choose the best angle to give charming smiles at the Princess. It made Princess Nihuang bowl over in laughter. She waved her hand while trying to catch her breath and said, “Little…little Jin… Enough, enough… I know…you’ve always been the most handsome…”

After that opening, the atmosphere was, as expected, immediately relaxed to the extreme. Soon after, people began to challenge others one after the other. For a time, there was an unending stream of spectacular matches. Everybody was certainly spectacularly skilled, each with their strengths.

About four or five rounds later, the biggest dark horse Baili Qi finally stood up. He hugged his fists at a Liang candidate who had already won one round, but who had also rested for a round as well. During such an occasion, it was impossible to hesitate. The opponent stood up immediately and came forward.

“This person isn’t from the capital. Do you know him?” asked Yan Yujin, leaning in his good friend’s ear.

“Li Xiao is the most outstanding disciple in the current generation of the Wudang Sect[3]. My Zhuo dad often has high praises for him. His inner energy has is very solid with great foundation. He could actually be considered an opponent for Baili Qi,” answered Xiao Jingrui quietly.

While the two were whispering amongst themselves, the duel had already begun. The Wudang Sect had great martial artists from every generation. Its inner energy mantra and combat techniques naturally had their superior aspects. Li Xiao was very appropriate in his attacks and defences against a great fighter like Baili Qi. Every move and every technique was filled with power. In the blink of an eye, dozens of moves have been exchanged, and he actually showed no sign of defeat.

Still, just when everyone was exclaiming over a spectacular move from Li Xiao called “Win Some Lose Some”, Princess Nihuang suddenly sucked in her breath. At the same time, Meng Zhi summoned his inner energy and shouted loudly, “No!” Before the remnants of his voice faded away, Li Xiao’s body had already flown out. Meng Zhi darted out and caught him, then supported him to sit on the ground. When Meng Zhi looked at Li Xiao again, the young man’s forehead was filled with cold sweat, and his face was ashen. Meng Zhi held his limp right arm for an inspection, then his brows locked together. The young man was luckily shielded when Meng Zhi shouted with 10% of his inner energy, which prevented Baili Qi from shattering all of the energy channels in his arm. However, the bone was broken, and the major tendon was severely damaged. The young man had gritted his teeth and did not make any sounds. Still, one can see from his sorrowful eyes that he understood that with his injury, it would be almost impossible to advance his martial arts further hereafter.

“This is the Fracture Restoration Balm made by Dr. Xun. Use it for three consecutive days, then refrain from using power for half a month, and you will be able to make a perfect recovery.” Mei Changsu had circled around quietly at some point. He shoved a box of balm into Li Xiao’s pocket and continued softly, “You need to believe in Dr. Xun. Don’t worry and rest well. You will not have any lingering problems.”

Dr. Xun’s Fracture Restoration Balm was an incredible medicine that one can seldom chance upon, and some unfamiliar young man actually gifted a whole box of it to himself. Li Xiao was so startled and thankful that he forgot all about his pain. He stared dumbly at Mei Changsu, unable to speak.

Meng Zhi gave a slight nod to Mei Changsu and summoned servants to carry Li Xiao off. At that time, Baili Qi had already returned to his seat. He looked on with indifference, as if his destructive move just now wasn’t anything much.

“Mr. Ambassador,” started the Crown Prince angrily, “Everyone had decided to spar in goodwill. How could your fighter be so cruel? It’s too much!” He felt really humiliated as he had just suggested for the candidates to hold back in their attacks, and was the first to speak.

The other candidates shot over angry looks as well. The Head Ambassador of Yan stood up and said haughtily, “We did obey the Crown Prince’s orders and did not show blood. Besides, it is impossible to avoid injury in competitions of strength. It is well-known that our empire has always respected the strong. The Princess is a courageous lady of the military and should know that the word “kindness” does not exist on the battlefield. What wrongs has our warrior Baili committed?”

The Emperor of Liang said with apparent displeasure, “The Royal Court is not the battlefield. Your warrior has been rash. It must not be repeated.”

Even though he said that, it was a duel after all. The Emperor of Liang couldn’t exactly get angry and administer punishment, thereby allowing for criticism in the future. Thus, he could reprimand him a little. After the other party respectfully agreed, he let it pass and did not mention it further.

Still, from the subsequent cold smile of the Yan ambassador, everyone discovered that Baili Qi’s objective was nothing using this opportunity to display his combat abilities. He went on to challenge seven opponents, two of which were from Yu. He did not use any more cruel moves like breaking bones, but he still gave his opponents quite a few hidden injuries. In the end, he only left Yan Yujin and Xiao Jingrui alone, ignoring them completely. Who knows if it was because he thought too little of them, or if it was because he thought too highly of them?

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