Princess Gouyu’s entrance made the noisy din of voices completely disappear.
After all, every single heir present felt a bit of dread and fear towards the identity of the main organizer of the Hidden Dragon Trials. If you irritated Princess Gouyu somehow and you faced additional obstacles as a result, the loss would outweigh the gain.
A distinguished vicennial gathering such as the Hidden Dragon Trials was something that the whole nation participated in. Shortly after the appearance of Princess Gouyu, two squads of strong practitioners from the Tiandu army sprinted down the avenue and occupied the two sides of the avenue, cordoning off the area.
This meant that the monarch was arriving.
Eastern Lu was in high spirits and his steps were steady and vigorous. His bright eyes looked around with a stern and an awe inspiring gaze.
“May the Emperor live ten thousand years, long live the Eastern Kingdom!”
The subjects and courtiers all threw themselves down on their knees one after another, awaiting the arrival of the king.
The 108 dukes also all found their areas and took their seats.
Eastern Lu occupied the center of the courtyard and spoke with a strong and resonant voice, “Our Eastern Kingdom, with a heritage of a thousand years, has always emphasized the heritage of martial dao. In order to conspicuously display our martial dao, and provide impetus to the dukes, we – the Eastern Kingdom – highly value the vicennial Hidden Dragon Trials. We happened to come upon this distinguished gathering and we saw heroic bearings and valiant postures from all the nobles, people of exceptional ability in all their majestic variety. We are indeed gratified.
Today, the 108 dukes of our court have gathered in a meeting of the wind and clouds. It is said that each age brings forth new geniuses on this noble land, and each will rule their own domain for years to come. We hope that all dukes present will display a new aspect of themselves, and expound on the highest level of their abilities, continuing to foster and enhance the traditions of the revered might of our dynasty.”
Eastern Lu handed the reins back to Princess Gouyu after speaking only a few simple words instead of a long winded speech. After all, Princess Gouyu was the main organizer of the Hidden Dragon Trials.
“Your Majesty, Yan Jiuzhuang has a matter to report.” Yan Juizhuang of the Yanmen dukedom stepped forward and bowed after Eastern Lu had concluded his remarks.
“Oh? What business does Duke Yan have?” Eastern Lu smiled faintly.
“Your Majesty, your subject has heard that the duke of Jiang Han has fallen ill with a severe disease, and has even heard that he is possibly not part of this world anymore. The Jiang Han territory borders the southern reaches of my territory, and is a military fortress of strategic importance. If the duke of Jiang Han does not reappear for an extended period of time, the thieves and rascals in the southern reaches will take advantage of the opportunity to rise in revolt. Your subject sincerely requests to discuss the jurisdiction of the Jiang Han dukedom before the Hidden Dragon Trials.”
The Jiang Han territory – the rights to a dukedom.
Eastern Lu’s expression froze slightly. No one had certain news of Jiang Feng’s condition. This duke of Yanmen had been the first to jump out in an apparent effort to be the trailblazer for the duke of Soaring Dragon.
Eastern Lu’s gaze flitted towards the Jiang Han dukedom area.
Jiang Chen smiled faintly and took a step forward, “Your Majesty, this duke of Yanmen has no respect for his own seniority to publicly curse my father at such a dignified gathering. As the son, how could I sit idly by and ignore this? Your subject requests that Yan Jiuzhuang apologize to me.”
“Apologize? Jiang Chen, you’re at an age in which you still smell of your mother’s milk, who are you to make I, a vaunted duke of a province, apologize to you?” Yan Jiuzhuang laughed coldly.
“Cursing others without cause or reason is a mouth without virtue. A mouth without virtue is an old dog. Old dog Yan, you’re an esteemed noble, yet you’ll willingly become the falcons and hounds of others.1 Condemning you as a dog is an extreme offense to dogs.”
Jiang Chen’s viper tongued foundations weren’t made of pure bluster.
“Jiang Chen, you dare publicly insult and deride a territorial duke… this duke will petition to fix on you the egregious crime of slander and insult to a noble!”
“Old dog Yan, just try making a move against my son!”
Suddenly, a voice rang out like thunder from the area reserved for the Jiang Han territory.
This man’s gait was akin to a dragon’s gambol and a tiger’s walk. He strode to the front with frosty looks shooting out of his eyes and stared at Yan Jiuzhuang, “Old dog Yan, where has my son spoken incorrectly? You, duke of Yanmen, are a duke of the first rank, at the end of the day, and have sunk so low as to become cannon fodder for others, what are you, if not the falcons and hounds of others?”
It was Jiang Feng, the duke of Jiang Han who had been missing for quite some time.
The scene abruptly began bustling with noise and excitement. No one had thought that the duke of Jiang Han would suddenly appear, and even be bursting with the vitality of dragons and the ferocity of tigers.
And judging from his wholly unconcealed aura, it was the frightening aura that only a true qi master boast of!
This Jiang Feng had broken through and become another true qi master!
“Subject Jiang Feng greets Your Majesty!” After Jiang Feng had condemned Yan Jiuzhuang, he genuflected towards Eastern Lu in a very natural and poised way.
“Jiang Feng, We had heard that you were indisposed. So it turns out those were false rumors?” Eastern Lu’s heart had also settled slightly upon seeing Jiang Feng appear at a crucial moment.
As the king of the nation, he did not wish to see the Jiang Han territory change hands under these conditions.
Even if it were to change hands, it would still be up to him, Eastern Lu, to decide who would take over ownership. He absolutely would not let the duke of Soaring Dragon and his henchmen seize ownership with no clear reason whatsoever.
Jiang Feng laughed heartily, “A few thieves and rascals employed some disgraceful and unpresentable tricks. It’s not worth mentioning.”
“Haha, Duke Jiang possesses virtue and patriotism, and naturally has the protection of heaven and earth. It seems that we were overly concerned.” Eastern Lu was also in exceedingly good spirits.
The side of the duke of Soaring Dragon, however, was exceedingly gloomy. Jiang Feng hadn’t died? And had lived with the vitality of dragons and ferocity of tigers to boot? It looked like even his training had broken through.
Long Zhaofeng had a belly full of depression. He was becoming more and more dissatisfied with the competency of his underlings. Not a thing had gone smoothly ever since he had butted heads with the Jiang family father and son.
This Jiang Feng had fallen victim to a fatal poison, how could he be bursting with the vitality of dragons and ferocity of tigers?
Not only had Jiang Feng not died, but his training had gone up a notch. This way, weren’t they asking for ridicule if they sought to seize the Jiang Han territory through devious means?
The duke of Yanmen had a face full of awkwardness, as if someone had landed a hard punch on his nose. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place for the moment, and felt incredibly awkward.
“Duke of Yanmen, I, Jiang Feng, have one bit of advice for you. When being cannon fodder for someone, first look at Du Ruhai’s exit, then think of the straits that have befallen the Pill King Garden.”
The nobles who were the confidantes of and backing up the duke of Soaring Dragon were all deeply moved by Jiang Feng’s words.
Indeed, Du Ruhai had been a trailblazer and pathbreaker for the duke of Soaring Dragon, but had met his end at the duke’s own hands with his house raided afterwards and the family property confiscated.
Although no one had died in the Pill King Garden, their business was in a sorry state due to the Hall of Healing – like fallen flowers being carried away by the flowing waters as they steadily lost ground. There were even rumors that they had completely sold themselves to the duke of Soaring Dragon, and had lost their right of autonomy.
Yan Jiuzhuang was exceedingly depressed, but his tone remained quite proud. “Jiang Feng, don’t be pleased with yourself too early.”
“Why shouldn’t I be pleased with myself?” Jiang Feng laughed quite heartily. “In terms of one on one combat, you would be unable to beat me. In terms of sons, your son has been thoroughly trounced by my Chen’er on two occasions. I have no reason not to be pleased with myself in front of you, wouldn’t you say so?”
Yan Jiuzhuang had nothing to say to that.
Jiang Chen was in exceedingly good spirits upon hearing his father’s flashy comeback. One had to admit, everyone had their own rules for survival in order to become a duke.
With the appearance of Jiang Feng, the small interlude naturally ended with Yan Jiuzhuang’s losing face with a resounding slap.
Princess Gouyu’s phoenix eyes moved slightly as she flicked a meaningful glance towards Jiang Chen.
“Everyone, I now announce the official commencement of the final competition in this year’s Hidden Dragon Trials. The rules remain the same: Please begin applying for the exam mission.
This time’s exams are still missions divided into nine levels. The missions of different levels represent each dukedom’s rank.”
There were 108 dukes in the Eastern Kingdom that were divided into nine levels of ranks. Each rank consists of twelve dukes, and so on and so forth.
The duke of Jiang Han was ranked number 14 out of the 108 dukes, and counted as a duke of the second rank.
For instance, dukes ranked one through twelve were all dukes of the first rank, and there were naturally levels within the first rank.
Levels one through four were the four great dukes of the kingdom and honored with the title of utmost first rank.
Levels five through eight were honored with the title primary first rank.
Levels nine through twelve were labelled auxiliary first rank.
When it came to second rank and dukes ranked even lower, there was no title of “utmost”. Each rank was also divided into three levels.
With second rank as an example, they were divided into upper second rank, middle second rank, and lower second rank.
The duke of Jiang Han was a noble of the upper second rank!
And the Hidden Dragon Trials were a contest to determine the rankings of the next generation of nobles.
The 108 heirs could apply for a mission of any rank. Of course, each heir candidate only had two application chances.
If both times didn’t result in a completed mission, that meant one had failed the exam and had to handover the dukedom, to allow the big and powerful aristocratic families to continuously take their place.
Many of the heirs would be exceedingly cautious because there were only two application chances, and sought to make the best out of these two chances.
Some heirs may challenge a higher rank mission with the first chance. But if the first challenge failed, then they would exercise extreme prudence when it came to the second application chance. Otherwise, if they failed the second mission as well, that meant handing over the dukedom.
Every duke’s feelings were exceedingly complicated when it came to the Hidden Dragon Trials.
If potential was high, then the concern was which rank was the most appropriate.
If potential was mediocre, then the concern was whether or not maintaining their position was most important?
The higher ranks had to worry about challenges from behind.
The lower ranks also had to worry about their dukedoms being taken by those aristocratic families casting covetous eyes like a greedy tiger.
The middle ranked dukes had to debate whether they wished to take a step forward or remain where they were.
The Hidden Dragon Trials was a time of decisions – indeed, of extremely difficult decisions.
Many times, some heirs overestimated their potential and strength and challenged high rank missions due to a moment’s impulse. The end result was failing twice and the immediate loss of their dukedom.
This would cause extreme feelings of frustration, indignation, and regret.
“Brother Chen, what rank’s missions do you intend on challenging?” Fatty Xuan crowded in and it was apparent that the fatty was just a tad bit nervous at the moment.
Jiang Chen glanced at his two best friends and asked in return, “What have you decided on?”
“I’ve decided to challenge a second rank mission first.” A hint of resolution suffused Hubing Yue’s fierce expression. He was of eight meridians true qi now and thus had the ability to say so.
He even had the right to challenge a first rank mission.
“I… I’ll keep my position first and then see.” Fatty Xuan said weakly. The duke of Jinshan was an upper fourth rank duke. His ranking was above average. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if he could keep this ranking.
At least, the highest expectations that the duke of Jinshan had for fatty Xuan was only to maintain their current ranking.
Jiang Chen nodded, “It is right for Xiaoyue to pick the second rank.2 Brashly assailing the first rank would be too much pressure for you. As for fatty, maintaining your rank would count as success.”
Jiang Chen was rather familiar with the rules of the Hidden Dragon Trials. If the number of people who applied for the missions of particular rank exceeded the quota, then rankings would be decided based on the quality of the missions completed, successively being pushed back appropriately.
This was to say, if fifteen people applied for and completed a mission of the third rank, then the three people ranked in the last of these fifteen would be pushed back to the fourth rank.
And this was the logic that was followed. But the number of 108 dukedoms was eternal and unchanging.
1. The hunting animal of another.↩
2. This is Jiang Chen’s nickname for Hubing Yue.↩