Jiang Chen hadn't forgotten Ziju Min's admonishment and warning. He was in no hurry to answer Gan Nin's invitation. Was this a standard social gathering or a veiled test between geniuses? Or, perhaps there were yet other reasons?
Typically, these invitations carried more malice than goodwill. More irritatingly, they were irrefusable even if a trap was obvious. If he did, he would be pinned down as an arrogant antisocial who didn't play well with others. Or, a coward who didn't dare attend even a simple tea party.
Because others had the power of criticism on their side, he was in a tough spot.
Jiang Chen smiled after a moment of consideration. "I'm new to the sacred land, so I have many things to ask of you. I just hope you won't think me too coarse."
"Hahaha, you're a straightforward man, Daoist Shao Yuan. Shall we go then?"
"After you." Jiang Chen gestured to indicate that Gan Nin should take the lead.
The young gentleman's personal presence meant that Jiang Chen had been shown full courtesy. If Gan Nin had sent a servant boy to call on him, he wouldn't necessarily have deigned to grace the visitor with a response.
Gan Nin's residence really wasn't far. A few miles of mountain road were all they needed to get there.
As one of the Five Great Gentlemen of the sacred land, Gan Nin was from a prominent background in addition to being talented. He was part of the direct line of one of the elders.
Once within the residence, Jiang Chen's eyebrows furrowed when he saw a particular person already there. It was none other than Xiahou Ying.
Her lips were slightly raised, her eyes half-smiling as they scrutinized him.
Why is she here? Jiang Chen was a bit surprised by her presence.
He swept his gaze around the room to find a group of several others already seated. Xiahou Ying seemed to be rather popular with them; their eyes wandered between examining Jiang Chen and currying favor with Xiahou Ying.
"Haha, this foolish brother has invited the man you're interested in, Miss Ying." Gan Nin smiled slightly, then turned back toward Jiang Chen. "Fellow daoist, Miss Ying mentioned your genius to us after a visit to Elder Ziju. Everyone wanted to invite you out of admiration for your skill. Please excuse the inconvenience."
Jiang Chen nodded very slightly, his expression impassive. The sight of Xiahou Ying had tipped him off to the unfriendly intentions behind this invitation to tea.
The star of the show smiled rather strangely at Jiang Chen as her pretty eyes probed him.
"Shao Yuan, Sir Shao. I didn't expect our separation after House Xiahou to end so shortly. You certainly put on more airs than the average person." Her tone was almost joking, yet carried a note of resentment in it. She glanced at Gan Ning. "If not for senior brother Gan Ning, it would've been very difficult to get you to come."
"A harsh judgment, Miss Xiahou," Jiang Chen smiled coolly.
"How is that harsh? I invited you several times in House Xiahou's name, but you annoyingly ignored me."
"Did you have anything you needed me for, Miss Xiahou?" Jiang Chen feigned ignorance.
"Hmph…" Xiahou Ying sounded a bit frustrated. "You're not a straightforward guy at all, Sir Shao. You know the answer to that already, and it's too late now. You're a genius of the sacred land - House Xiahou can't hope for your allegiance anymore."
"Haha, everyone seated here is a disciple of the sacred land. What say you, Miss Xiahou?" Jiang Chen's impassionate voice hit a painful note for her.
"I am Elder Ziju's disciple, but I'm not lucky enough to be part of the sacred land. No wonder you didn't care for my invitations, Sir Shao… now you've latched onto a much bigger faction."
Xiahou Ying was good at playing off emotions. Thankfully, everyone else already here was a disciple of the Eternal Sacred Land.
Jiang Chen was unmoved. He simply closed his eyes in scorn of her words.
A violet-robed youth beside Xiahou Ying was displeased. He slammed the table. "Are you a man, Shao Yuan? Why are you so uncouth? Why are you giving Miss Ying such attitude?"
Jiang Chen didn't know the identity or rank of the new speaker. From his conduct though, he was likely below Gan Ning at minimum. He didn't bat an eyelash at the outburst, there was nothing interesting about small fry like these.
Xiahou Ying wasn't a disciple of the sacred land, yet this youth was interceding on her behalf by shouting at him - despite the fact that he was an important disciple here.
To Jiang Chen, this kind of behavior was blandishment of the bluntest sort. But he wasn't surprised by it. There was no lack of people who fawned upon women anywhere. The Eternal Sacred Land was no different.
His adversary was furious at Jiang Chen's non-reaction. He felt that he was being humiliated.
"What's with your attitude, Shao Yuan?" The unknown speaker's ire rose. "Do you feel that I'm unqualified to ask you questions?"
Jiang Chen didn't answer. Instead, he cupped a fist toward Gan Ning. "Daoist Gan Ning, is this the so-called tea party you told me about? I haven't tasted any tea yet, but I do taste a rather acidic flavor."
Gan Ning smiled slightly. "Junior brother Jing likes to be indignant on the behalf of others, Daoist Shao Yuan. He's admired Miss Ying for a while now, so please excuse his rashness."
The corner of Jiang Chen's mouth curled, but he didn't grace the statement with any affirmation.
He saw now that Gan Ning was likely in cahoots with the rest. He was merely being a bit more reticent, thanks to his position as one of the Five Great Gentlemen. This tea party really was a trap.
His mind cleared up once he realized this. He wanted to see what these guys had in store for him.
Still, wariness crept into his heart as well. He needed to watch out for Xiahou Ying's schemes. He had always thought her to be a proud and unreasonable young miss, but it seemed that he'd underestimated her.
Xiahou Ying wasn't as brainless as she appeared. A foolish young miss wouldn't be able to incite these young geniuses to action on her behalf, no matter how beautiful she was.
This woman was surprisingly crafty.
Jiang Chen's uncaring stance gave off the impression of a bristling hedgehog. The youths who wanted to pick a fight with him didn't know where to start. They had invited him in order to do so, but his importance in the sect meant that they couldn't do many things too openly. If the executives were angered, the three primes especially, they wouldn't be able to deal with the consequences.
In truth, these geniuses were unsatisfied with Jiang Chen's current state of high favor. This young man before them had seemingly come out of nowhere and gained the favor of everyone for no reason.
Many found it difficult to accept the speed and momentum with which he'd risen. There were countless geniuses in the Eternal Sacred Land, and a lot believed themselves superior to this outsider in every aspect.
Most importantly, Jiang Chen's passage through all nine of the Winding Caves had daunted them to a certain extent.
They would unavoidably oppose and clash with someone who posed so much of a threat. They were understandably uneasy that positions which should've been theirs were no longer guaranteed.
This was the reason they attempted to find fault with Jiang Chen through a myriad of other channels.
It was a very strange sense of insecurity.
Gan Ning smiled when he noted the stifling atmosphere. "Daoist Shao Yuan," he said, "let me introduce these Sacred Land geniuses to you. We'll have plenty of opportunities to get together more in the future."
Jiang Chen tossed a thoughtful glance at Gan Ning. He wanted to know what the other young man's intentions truly were.
Gan Ning was nonchalant as he began a round of introductions, disappointing Jiang Chen when he heard who they were: aside from Gan Ning himself, none were among the Five Great Gentlemen.
At the same time, he was a bit relieved as well that not everyone in the sacred land was as shallow as this. If all Five Great Gentlemen had been so easily won over by Xiahou Ying, the geniuses of the sacred land would've disappointed him wholesale.
Jiang Chen's passivity after the introductions caused a slight frown to crease Gan Ning's forehead.
"Daoist Shao Yuan, I've gone to quite a bit of trouble to present these fine friends to you. Aren't you being unnecessarily aloof?" the young gentleman remarked with some annoyance.
Jiang Chen burst into laughter. "Daoist Gan Ning," he interjected suddenly. "Why don't you tell me just exactly what you want to do at this tea party? We all understand each other well enough. Excuse my bluntness, but I haven't gleaned anything from this gathering save for your collective hostility. Why waste your time and mine by dancing around like this?"
The hint of a smile played at the corner of his mouth. "I didn't expect Miss Xiahou to have such influence in the Eternal Sacred Land. My apologies for underrating you."
Saying this, he raised a cupped fist salute at Xiahou Ying. "Miss Xiahou, why did you seek Elder Ziju's tutelage? To learn pill dao? Or to socialize with these Sacred Land geniuses? Honestly, I'm rather confused."
Jiang Chen saw no reason to be courteous towards anyone from House Xiahou. Neither human nor animal from that house could be his friend, so there was no reason to be polite.
These words effectively tore away Xiahou Ying's facade. Imperceptible killing intent flickered through the girl's pretty eyes. It disappeared as quickly as it came. "No wonder you've given me the cold shoulder all this time," she stomped and pouted. "You're so biased towards me!"=