Jiang Chen had only hatred for these two sects. He was perfectly content to see them at each other's throats. Sadly, he didn't have the leisure to see things through personally. It had been a long time since his departure from Veluriyam Capital. Though his trip had proceeded smoothly for the most part, he had spent several months restoring Huang'er back to full health. Afterwards, he had spent another few breaking through to the sky rank sage realm. All in all, it was a considerable number of days.
He would have missed the Veluriyam Pagoda's opening ceremony for sure. The festival centered around the Pagoda happened only once every sixty years. It was an excellent stage for rising stars at the capital to test their strength. The assembly properly began on the fifteenth day of the third month. From his calculations, it was already the fourth month. That meant the pagoda battles had already begun.
Thankfully, Jiang Chen's pill-related reputation in the city was already insurmountable. He didn't need the event to spread his fame. He wasn't missing out on much by skipping the sideshow. Because the Eternal Celestial Capital and Ninesuns Sky Sect were presently embroiled in a heated battle, Jiang Chen and Huang'er's return trip was fairly smooth.
Meanwhile, the pagoda battles were in full swing. The participants for this year's battles were far more numerous. Perhaps they had been inspired by the legend of a certain "Pill King Zhen", but geniuses from all over came to the pagoda battles, intent on using the battles as a stage for proving their worth and showcasing their skills. Their ambitions added a great deal of excitement to the proceedings. Because the divine Pill King Zhen wasn't participating, many talented pill geniuses wanted to take the crown, and in doing so, distinguish themselves as second-best.
The only loss was that Pill King Zhen, who had defeated Pillfire City, hadn't yet appeared at any of the Pagoda's events. In particular, many pill geniuses called for the famous pill king to be a referee over the proceedings. The cries for this demand were so great that the entire Veluriyam Capital was swept up in them. Though they were ignored initially, there was strength in numbers. The petition made its way into the ears of the seven titled great emperors.
Emperor Peafowl had to step in to placate them. Pill King Zhen was out traveling and hadn't yet returned. But since everyone so eagerly expected the young prodigy, the emperor would do everything in his power to locate the pill king so that he could take part in the rest of the festivities. Jiang Chen had promised he would return for the Veluriyam Pagoda's opening, and the emperor's trust in him was firm and unshakable. As long as there weren't any extenuating circumstances, he would return.
For this year's ceremony, Emperor Peafowl seemed to be keeping a lower profile in general. He delegated much of the duties to the other titled great emperors and didn't show himself too often. This change caused a subtle shift in the winds that blew through the city. Was the emperor too old? This was the first thought that crossed many people's minds. Or was it because he was overly saddened by the passing of his disciple, young lord Fan? Did he no longer have any faith in the city's heritage? More crucially, was this Emperor Shura's time to take the stage?
Though there was no announcement, no official version of events, every sign pointed towards the latter's distinct possibility. The clans under Emperor Shura took the opportunity to rear their heads once more. The repercussion from the Majestic Clan's fall from grace had seemingly disappeared. Compared to them, the clans beneath Emperor Peafowl's command were completely inconspicuous. Though the Coiling Dragon Clan lord had appeared at the ceremony and its related festivities, a rumor spread across the city that he was nearing the end of his natural lifespan. He would undergo cultivation dissipation in the next one or two years, maybe even within the next few months. The Coiling Dragon Clan lord was at the end of his rope.
Because of the low profile that both Emperor Peafowl and his foremost clan had taken, a curious atmosphere loomed over this year's ceremony. Within the Coiling Dragon Clan's halls, the clan lord was forlorn. Young master Ji San stood to his side, brow similarly furrowed. Neither man was particularly cheery.
"Ole Third, is there news of Pill King Zhen?" The Coiling Dragon Clan lord sighed quietly.
"Not presently." Ji San's reply was unhappy.
The clan lord picked up a list of names, reading it over again and again. "The top hundred for both the noble youths and wandering cultivators are out. The scions under His Majesty Peafowl's banner only have twenty-three spots in the top hundred, almost a historic low. Emperor Shura, on the other hand, has twenty. They're neck to neck with each other, and competition is tough."
Clearly, he wasn't pleased at the fact that there was a competition in the first place. Ji San shared in his plight. "If not for the fall of the Majestic Clan, I'd estimate that the numbers between the two emperors would be equal right now."
"Yes. That's why there's a sense of unease here in Veluriyam. The prevailing opinion is that Emperor Peafowl wants to abdicate the throne to Emperor Shura. There are more absurd rumors stating that His Majesty is too old and can no longer effectively compete with Emperor Shura any more." There was a tangible sense of helplessness from the Coiling Dragon Clan lord's words.
"Ridiculous. These people are ridiculous! Emperor Peafowl has ruled over Veluriyam for millennia. How can he lose to Emperor Shura?" Ji San was a diehard fan of the emperor. He wouldn't even entertain the thought. The situation was somewhat tempestuous, though. Even the factions that Emperor Peafowl was closest to didn't know what His Majesty was thinking.
"Clan Lord, is His Majesty setting a trap?" Ji San couldn't help but ask.
The clan lord laughed dryly. After some consideration, he shook his head. "I've been thinking about that, too. His Majesty's thoughts are difficult for the rest of us mortals to comprehend. But it is true that His Majesty's management of both Sacred Peafowl Mountain and Veluriyam Capital has loosened in recent years. Almost as if it were intentional."
"Why? Has His Majesty finally seen through it all and cast off the shackles of power and ambition?" Ji San had no idea how it could be.
"His Majesty is insightful and wise. I have no doubt that he has his reasons." The clan lord shook his head, bemused. "Perhaps he really does have a different plan in mind that we can't see. In my perspective, Emperor Shura has the talent and skills to shoulder the duties of the city, but his fortune and morals are still somewhat lacking. There's something missing as to the way he carries himself, at least compared to Emperor Peafowl."
"The way… he carries himself?" Ji San was perplexed.
"That's right, though that might be a little insubstantial," the clan lord explained. "Let's look at it from a different perspective. Because Emperor Peafowl is in charge, we can ignore the threat of first-rank sects and loom above them. That's why we can evenly oppose even an entity as large as Pillfire City. In the hands of Emperor Shura, I'm not sure if we'd be able to do the same. That's the difference."
The comparison clarified things for Ji San immediately. He scratched his head, bothered by the possibility. "I really don't want that to happen. His Majesty seemed to take a strong interest in that sworn brother of mine, but the guy's disappeared at such a crucial time. It makes me worry about things." Young master Ji San really was worried. He wanted Ji San to become Emperor Peafowl's personal disciple from the bottom of his heart. He even wanted Jiang Chen to replace young lord Fan if possible, and become the most-admired heir of the emperor. That was conducive to the Coiling Dragon Clan's development as well. But Jiang Chen wasn't here when he needed the fellow!
The Coiling Dragon Clan lord was just as concerned as Ji San. Unlike the latter, he was anxious about his mortality. Though Jiang Chen's healing was good for the next two or three years, that would pass in the blink of an eye. He didn't want to collapse at such an important and complicated juncture. If he did, the entire clan would definitely immediately follow suit.
"Clan Lord, I hear that His Majesty has promised to find my sworn brother. Surely there'll be no problem if that's the case?"
"That depends on where he went. If it's far away, even His Majesty would have a hard time finding him." The clan lord shook his head. "More importantly, I hope that nothing bad has happened to him."
The whole conversation bothered Ji San. He decided to change the topic by asking a question that suddenly came into his mind. "How're the top hundred wandering cultivators this time around?"
The Coiling Dragon Clan lord was cheered up by the question, his eyes sparkling. "There are quite a few very talented cultivators this year. One mysterious person in particular has an absolute advantage over the rest, and shows incredible promise. I'd say he can even go toe-to-toe with noble youths."
"Oh, is that so? What an impressive guy. And you say he's a wandering cultivator?" Ji San was very surprised. "Could it be my brother pulling a new trick over our heads?"
The clan lord smiled wryly. "That idea popped into my head as well, but the truth is that that's probably not the case. The guy is talented, but he uses drastically different methods compared to Pill King Zhen. His talent is remarkable, but they're still not quite the same caliber of genius. Still, it's amazing to see someone like that in Veluriyam."
"Then shouldn't we contact him ahead of time?" Ji San's eyes lit up.
The Coiling Dragon Clan lord coughed. "I don't think we could get him to join us. The seven emperors have their pick before we get our turn, and they have a lot more to offer. The first ten on the wandering cultivator list generally all get snatched up by the emperors. We can only think about the eleventh onwards."
"Then, does Emperor Peafowl have any inclination to extend an offer?" Ji San hurried to ask.
"Apparently not. Emperor Peafowl hasn't sent any messengers inquiring about him. We don't have any information from the actual person in question, either. From the current state of things, though, Emperor Shura's contact with him has been the most frequent. Many people speculate that he'll join them in the end."
This was bad news for anyone under Emperor Peafowl's wing. The top-ranked wandering cultivator typically picked the strongest faction to join. If the person who took first place in the pagoda battles was taken by Emperor Shura, it sent out a bad signal—namely, for the top geniuses, Emperor Shura was now more attractive than Emperor Peafowl.