A fight to the bitter end, that was the most lionhearted suggestion. The emperor almost coughed up blood. If they weren't in dire straits, he might well have put this old servant to death.
"Your Majesty, please have faith in your old servant's loyalty. If Your Majesty fears for the people, then pick the first choice. If your Majesty itches for a fight, then pick the second. If survival is the most pressing issue, then pick the third. If your Majesty wants to show his unyielding character, then a fight to the bitter end is the only path left."
Old Guo knocked his forehead repeatedly on the floor, crying in sorrow. "I've served Your Majesty for many years now. These old bones fear no death, but I beg your Majesty to heed my advice. The way Jiang Chen handled the Eternal Celestial Capital is enough to show what kind of man he is. Your Majesty would be sorely misguided to think he'd drop this matter. It's only a matter of sooner or later."
The emperor knew that Old Guo was loyal and honest, unlike flatterers who only said what he wanted to hear. He couldn't hide from the sharp truth in Old Guo's logical words.
"Your Majesty, the Scarlet Parting Sect, Myriad Buddha Sect, and Sky Eagle Sect request an audience," an imperial guard reported.
The three great sects asking for a joint audience?
The emperor rejoiced. The three great sects were pillars of the empire alright! With all three tightly knit around the imperial house, they could at least steady the ship even if they couldn't beat back Veluriyam Capital.
And maybe, if young lord Zhen couldn't control the other great emperors, if Sacred Peafowl Mountain was the only force he could gather against Great Scarlet? Then who knew, they might even be able to withstand him! He suddenly glimpsed a ray of hope.
"Send them in, send them in already! Wait, this steadfast expression of loyalty in dire times deserves me welcoming them in person." The emperor was in high spirits.
Old Guo urged him, "Your Majesty, you're the exalted emperor. Welcoming them in person would breach every rule of propriety! Why not invite them in and see what they have to say?"
It'd been a momentary impulse. Now that he'd calmed down, the emperor nodded. "Old Guo, welcome them in my stead."
A moment later, Old Guo came back with the representatives of the three great sects in tow.
"Greetings to Your Majesty." The ones who came this time were impressively the leaders of all three sects. Given their status, they merely cupped their fists and offered a slight bow instead of kowtowing.
It was a simple action, but a sudden foreboding premonition constricted the emperor's chest. The three sect heads wore grave expressions, and their greetings had been perfunctory at best.
"Dearest subjects, you must have come together today because you've heard of the rumors and wanted to help shoulder the burden of these trying times?" the emperor welcomed with a smile.
The Scarlet Parting sect head spoke first. "Your Majesty, my sect deeply feels the dangers of our troubled times. After suffering great losses at Cloudshatter Mountain, our fortunes and very existence totters on the edge of collapse. Hence we plan to seal our gates and stay secluded from the world for a hundred years. I came by to notify Your Majesty of this."
"What? Seal the gates for a hundred years?" The emperor blanched. His heart sank as if a giant hammer had smashed his chest.
"Yes." The Scarlet Parting sect head remained imperturbable in the face of the emperor's dangerous stare.
"Your Majesty, my Sky Eagle Sect is in the same boat. We likewise suffered great harm from Cloudshatter Mountain. We will seal our gates for a hundred years to recover and won't meddle in worldly affairs."
"My Myriad Buddha Sect has always shunned secular matters. A measly sect like ours is powerless in the face of the winds of the world now blowing to and fro. Hence we plan on sealing our gates for two hundred years and ask nothing of the world." Not to be outdone, the Myriad Budday Sect upped the ante to two hundred years.
The Great Scarlet Emperor almost spat out a mouthful blood. He'd thought the three sects were here to offer aid, not to quit. There were clear lines being drawn in the sand. In other words, they saw the writing on the wall and planned to abandon the imperial family.
"You planned this together, didn't you? You didn't have the courage to come alone, so all three of you came together to intimidate me?" The emperor's words were coated with thick rancor.
"We wouldn't dare. We are Your Majesty's loyal subjects, how could we ever imagine intimidating your august person?" The Scarlet Parting sect head's tone was neither servile nor arrogant.
"Indeed. Your Majesty, please don't misunderstand."
"Hmph! Loyal subjects?! Would loyal subjects abandon me in these dire straits? Is the bond between the imperial family and your three sects so weak it can't withstand a few rumors?" The emperor erupted in anger. "Your sects consume the best food and goods in Great Scarlet, use the most precious resources, and enjoy the greatest status and treatment. Now you turn your back on the region when it needs you most? How can you even face the people of Great Scarlet? How can you face all those who worship you as pillars of our region? How can you face the imperial family's regard?"
Old Guo secretly shook his head. Why was the emperor talking about the common people at a time like this?
The leader of the Scarlet Parting Sect offered a faint smile. "Your Majesty, it's no use saying all this now. There's only ever been just one that enjoyed the best resources of the region, and that would be Great Scarlet herself. Our three sects are thrown some leftovers at best. Moreover, we are mere sects. The worries of the common people are best left to Your Majesty to bear."
"Indeed. Your Majesty, you speak of your high regard for our sects. Last time on Cloudshatter Mountain, our sects lost considerable manpower, but we heard all of it was an elaborate trap from the imperial family meant to humble and whittle us down. Your Majesty still hasn't given us a clarification to this day."
The emperor's anger turned into rage at the mention of this matter. "Bullshit! My own younger brother died on Cloudshatter Mountain. A trap? How creative!"
"Fine, let's talk about something else then. Back when we invaded Myriad Domain, Your Majesty had promised each of our sects a sky rank spirit herb. Did Your Majesty honor this commitment?"
This matter was another stain on the emperor's name.
"Do you think I withheld them on purpose? We found no sky rank spirit herbs inside the Regal Pill Palace!" Or rather, the emperor had obtained some, but nearly not enough to share with each of the three sects.
"Heh, Your Majesty, whatever you say goes. We invaded Myriad Domain at great risk for our sects but didn't obtain anything. Now you want us to shoulder the responsibility for what happened? That's quite unfair!"
"Indeed. To gain no benefit but to share the troubles, the world doesn't work this way. Our sects aren't strong enough to withstand Veluriyam Capital's wrath."
The three sect heads pulled no punches after seeing the emperor drop all pretense of civility. They knew full well that this liege merely wanted to use them as cannon fodder while he kept his rule.
None of them were fools. They were glad they had nothing to do with that matter and since it was a good pretext to sever ties, they naturally did so without any hesitation. The best choice for them was to seal off the gates and hide.
It was none of their business whether Great Scarlet Mid Region had a new master. It might even be better for them. Neither the region nor the three sects had flourished under House Yan's long rule. So they didn't mind if a new master seized control. In fact, it might even be better for them in the long run!
The emperor's chest ached dully while his eyes flashed murderously. However, he couldn't take action since none of these three sect leaders were in any weaker than him. The three of them together could offer a good fight even in the core of his domain. If he ordered their deaths and one of them managed to escape, then the imperial family would've just signed the writ for their own doom.
Forcing down his fury, he heaved a soft sigh. "Sect Heads, my conscience is clear when it comes to the sky rank spirit herbs. But as an apology, I can take three of them from the national treasury as compensation."
"Heh. We won't participate in worldly disputes after sealing off our gates, so we won't need sky rank spirit herbs either."
"Indeed. I'm afraid we aren't so blessed as to enjoy them."
The three sect heads were of one mind. Anything they accepted from the Great Scarlet emperor at this time would be seeds for future trouble. They took their leaves.
Watching their retreating figures, Captain He's eyes belched with fire. "Your Majesty, just say the word and I'll bring a squadron to exterminate those rebels!"
The emperor waved it off limply. "Don't be brash. The three sects have solid foundations. Our region can't escape internal strife if we ever fell out with them."
He would have no hesitation at all if it had been a single sect, but an uprising of the three pillars would be a tough obstacle for the imperial family to digest.
"Old Guo, summon the crown prince. I'll task him with requesting help from Pillfire City. He can be a hostage prince there to express our determination to defect to them."
The emperor had finally made up his mind. Offering his own son as hostage as guarantee of his sincerity was an exceedingly humiliating act of diplomacy. He would be at the complete mercy of others. From this, it was obvious to see that he was obviously grasping at straws.
The prince came very quickly and, when he heard the emperor's plan, responded without any hesitation. "Imperial father, your son is willing to help share your heavy burden. I will head to Pillfire and request their help."
The emperor was elated at having a worthy son. He immediately ordered Old Guo to make the preparations and send off the prince in secret.
"My son, if Pillfire accepts our request, I'll find a way to bring you back sooner or later. If they don't, then stay there and don't come back. You'll at least be able to carry on the family name," the emperor exhorted him.