The convention of the Vassal Meeting livened up Veluriyam Capital significantly. Because of the arrival of kings and lords from everywhere, the city bustled with activity. Thirteen great nations, eight hundred cities, and all their associated retinues… all in all, a hundred thousand newcomers were slated to arrive.
Veluriyam Capital had no problem housing an additional hundred thousand. In fact, it could do so rather easily. Each vassal had his own background and patron. From them, Emperor Peafowl had personally cultivated at least a third. These people bore tremendous goodwill towards Sacred Peafowl Mountain.
Because Emperor Peafowl had always been the foremost great emperor of Veluriyam for as long as anyone could remember, the kings and lords made visiting Sacred Peafowl Mountain the first order of their affairs upon arrival.
They had all heard about the rumors, of course. The vassals owing their positions to the emperor especially wanted to find out more once they were there. However, they heard another piece of news as soon as they entered the city's gates. Sacred Peafowl Mountain's young lord Zhen was in residence at Vermilion Bird Avenue's Taiyuan Tower.
"Has everyone heard? Young lord Zhen is back!"
"What? Weren't there rumors that young lord Zhen disappeared as well? Is he back, then?"
"Yes. The young lord has also announced that Emperor Peafowl isn't lost."
"Fantastic news! I mean, who under the heavens can kill an expert like Emperor Peafowl? I never believed the idle gossip about his death!"
"Exactly so. Only with Emperor Peafowl around can Veluriyam Capital maintain stability. No one can replace a man of his greatness in our great capital!"
"Shh, brother. You can't say that too loudly around here. Don't risk angering the wrong people."
"Hmph, I'm not scared of anybody. Emperor Peafowl is the only one I'll recognize. Even if he's not around any more, I'd rather support young lord Zhen."
"But… young lord Zhen is still young."
"So what if he is? Youth isn't correlated with ambition. Young lord Zhen has done many amazing things despite his age. Meanwhile, some people have lived several thousand years without doing much. How has Veluriyam Capital benefited? Can you give me some examples?"
These words were pointed directly at Emperor Shura's lack of contribution towards the city. To be fair to the man, the emperor had lived beneath Emperor Peafowl's shadow for a long time. He had done his share of work for the city's benefit, but Emperor Peafowl's own radiance dwarfed them into insignificance. It was quite likely that his influence over Veluriyam Capital couldn't match young lord Zhen's, despite the young man's very recent ascension to prominence.
"Eh. You can't talk like that. If tragedy really has befallen Emperor Peafowl, then the city needs someone to take the reins. Young lord Zhen is extremely young, after all. He would have trouble maintaining unity. How would he be able to shoulder the burden of running the entire Veluriyam Capital?"
"So what if he's young? Everyone is young once. Even Emperor Peafowl at his age would have a hard time being compared to our current young lord. As long as he has appropriate advisors, he'll have a good grasp of things within a hundred years."
"But can Veluriyam Capital wait that long? The Upper Eight Regions has some cutthroat competition. If you show the tiniest bit of indiscretion, you could be very well be consumed. Plus, a few centuries of transition with Emperor Shura could do the city some good. When young lord Zhen really grows up, it's quite possible the rule will return to him."
"That's absurd. Would you want to give up the throne once you've gotten a taste of power? Would anyone abdicate willingly?"
"So according to you, an internal struggle here in the capital is inevitable?"
"That depends on whether certain people can control their ambitions. At the heart of it, Veluriyam Capital belongs to Sacred Peafowl Mountain. That's been the tradition here for three thousand years."
There was plenty of chaotic discussion in the streets. Some supported young lord Zhen, others, Emperor Shura. The vassals who'd been hand-picked by Emperor Peafowl felt a certain degree of increased assurance when they heard about young lord Zhen's presence in Taiyuan Tower.
Their journey had been filled with worries. Just like everyone else, they'd heard of the rumor about Emperor Peafowl's fall and young lord Zhen's absence from the city. Such words were deeply unsettling to them. Clearly, the Vassal Meeting was being convened so that Emperor Shura could seize power.
Since they had been chosen by Emperor Peafowl personally, they were quite loyal to the man. None of them was willing to see Emperor Shura in power. Once that happened, they would be removed sooner or later as loyalists to the previous ruler. This wasn't paranoid conjecture, but grim certainty. Therefore, they were extremely unhappy about the prospect of someone different at the helm.
But what did their feelings matter, in the absence of both Sacred Peafowl Mountain's emperor and young lord? Without someone in their corner, they had no room to speak up even if they wanted to voice their opposition.
Young lord Zhen's return to the city bolstered their gloomy spirits. Though they wanted Emperor Peafowl more, his designated heir wasn't a bad second option. The young lord's renown in the city rivaled any of the titled great emperors. In fact, he had likely done more notable things for the city than most of them. His battle with Pill King Ji Lang alone gave him irreplaceable prestige. As it should, given the unprecedented nature of the victory.
Within Taiyuan Tower, Emperor Coiling Dragon and Void handed Jiang Chen a list of names.
"Young lord Zhen, this list should be comprehensive for the most part. There may be one or two omissions, but not more than that. Everyone here was hand-picked by Emperor Peafowl to their positions. There is no way they would support Emperor Shura."
"But even so, we must take care that he does not win them over." Emperor Void piped up afterwards.
"Oh, there's no doubt that he's going to try. But people look out for their self-interests and those that convert will be relatively few. Plus, Emperor Peafowl has always had a keen eye for men of quality." Emperor Coiling Dragon laughed.
Jiang Chen glanced at the paper. It was a lengthy list of roughly three hundred names long.
"His Majesty promoted based solely on merit. There's no incompetence mixed in," Cloudsoar Monarch cut in.
"Of course. I trust His Majesty implicitly. Still, anyone that turns to Emperor Shura under the current climate is understandable." Jiang Chen placed the list down slowly; he heard the beginnings of a report from outside. "Young lord, the king of Bluesky Nation is asking for an audience."
Bluesky Nation? The young man recalled at once his trip to the Prancing Horse Inn. He'd also been to the nation's capital, Goldtower City. In fact, he had invaded the nation's royal palace.
The king of Bluesky Nation strode inside, an entourage of six trailing behind him. Four of them were guardsmen, but Jiang Chen was familiar with the remaining two. One was the nation's crown prince, and the other, his tutor.
Walking behind his father, the crown prince appeared mildly embarrassed. Clearly, he was reminded of certain past events as well. His thoughts ran uncomfortably around.
"Greetings to young lord Zhen. I am Li Chunyu, the king of Bluesky Nation. Here is my son, Li Mai." Bluesky's king bore himself in a remarkably kingly manner.
His son came forward at his father's introduction, respectfully saluting to Jiang Chen. "My humble greetings, young lord Zhen."
The young man addressed laughed in response, rather cheerfully. "How have you been, Crown Prince Li Mai?"
Li Mai was stunned by the reaction. "Young lord, you…"
"I was busy with other affairs on my visit to Bluesky Nation," smiled Jiang Chen. "It was somewhat disrespectful of me not to have visited its king."
As the nation's king, Li Chunyu knew a great deal about the goings-on of his demesne. Of course he was informed about Jiang Chen's visit to both Goldtower City and his palace. However, as long as the young man didn't mention it himself, he couldn't either as a member of a subject nation. But, since Jiang Chen was the one who had broached the subject, there was nothing more to worry about.
"My son made a few remarks about your visit, young lord. It is we who must apologize for our insufficient graciousness. We hear stories almost daily about your exploits back home in Bluesky Nation. Your incredible dual masteries of both pill and martial dao is unrivaled. Even the insufferably proud Pillfire City has suffered numerous defeats at your hand. My son still regales me about seeing your marvelous pill dao skills in person."
"You are too kind, my good king. Back then, I mentioned that Taiyuan Tower would be able to supply Bluesky Nation with Tiger Eruption Pills. How is that going? Were you able to receive the pills alright?" Jiang Chen asked.
"Ah, yes, yes. We received the pills, no problem," replied the king hurriedly. "There have been several shipments of them already. That aside… ever since he saw your pill artistry, young lord, my son has dwelled on it day and night. That's why he absolutely begged me to take him along for the Vassal Meeting-so that he could meet you again."
Prince Li Mai welled up with devotion. "Young lord Zhen, I'm from a small-time place. In Goldtower City, the best pill masters we have are pill kings barely over the threshold of high rank. I… I wanted to beseech you to allow me to stay here in Taiyuan Tower. I would be happy just to work as an apprentice!"
As a youth engrossed in pill dao, Li Mai wholeheartedly worshiped young lord Zhen.
"What do you think, King Li?" Jiang Chen glanced at the young man's father.
"If you will have him, young lord," answered the king. "It would be his greatest honor, a once-in-lifetime blessing. He should consider himself truly lucky to be allowed to stay."
"You two are father and son, alright," the young lord chuckled. "The words that come from your lips are equally sweet. I have observed Li Mai's enthusiasm about pill dao. It's rare for a large nation's crown prince to refine pills in the royal palace. If he is sure about his decision, then he may stay. I will teach him myself if I have the time, and my best disciples can take my place otherwise. Do not worry, Your Majesty. Sacred Peafowl Mountain will return to you a pill expert of a prince!"
This wasn't idle boasting on Jiang Chen's part. He was a veritable miracle worker when it came to pill dao. Plus, it wasn't like Li Mai was dull or untalented. As the crown prince, he was both gifted and resourceful-certainly more than a match for the typical scion of a great clan.