The round of 32 as well as the last 16 progressed for the remaining of the morning, and there were now 8 remaining contestants. A four hours hiatus was implemented before the quarter finals and all title holders from the ‘Elite 16’ as well as ‘The 8 Lords’ were invited for a luncheon gala.
Not all attended, as some took the opportunity to recover from earlier matches, while others simply could not because of their injuries. Still the majority of them made it.
“Congratulations on participating in the last 16, and even more accolades to those entering the quarter finals and attaining the title of “The 8 Lords’,” a wiry gentlemen dressed in the latest fashionable suit welcomed them.
“We are the Merchant Alliance sponsors for the tournament, and warmly invite you to our gathering,” his assistant said.
“I am Pierre, and this is the lovely Miss Genevieve,” the gentleman called Pierre introduced himself and his assistant.
The Merchant Alliance is the biggest alliance in Yuan Zhong, it spans across the entire world and even reaches all the colonies surrounding it. Their size, wealth, and influence, outstrips many smaller empires and even put major ones to shame.
Albeit being the biggest, they do not have the power as compared to the Artisan Alliance or the R&D Alliance. These are among two of the oldest alliances in the world, even before MeisterSchloss was founded. Their HQ long since moved to MeisterSchloss.
The Merchant Alliance was created by the founder of MeisterSchloss, and all its ruling members are part of the Artisan and R&D Alliances. Unlike the martial arts alliances, the Merchant Alliance accepts members who are currently in another alliance. This is also true for most other non-martial arts alliances.
There is only one alliance which precedes all others, it’s presence shrouded in mystery and myth. Everyone knows of this alliance, but no one knows where it is or what it does. They were only referred to as ‘The Lost Alliance’, for even its name was a mystery.
Legend tells of this mysterious alliance and its members, none who wore any crest or markings. Their abilities were like magic and they did many great things throughout history. Bards sing of their deeds and parents often told stories about these heroes to their children.
Even if its members were here for the luncheon, no one could possibly know. The galas held for the remaining freshmen in the competition, were attended by other individuals, organizations and alliances. Invitations were sent throughout the world for these galas, and hefty entry fees were paid.
This was the chance to lure the young ones to their alliances or organizations, and did not mind the entry fees. By having a good report with their parents or guardians, they more or less bribed their way to the children.
It is known that over 95% of the title holders have shown great abilities when they graduated. More often than not, they maintained these titles throughout their academic years, even when faced with numerous challenges for their titles.
“Look at all these leeches walking around,” Instructor Wei said disapprovingly.
“Well, you cannot blame them,” Menon told her, as he placed away a vial which previously contained a vile looking concoction that Menon gulped down.
“Mentor, why do you say this?” Xiaoxia asked.
He invited his parents for this event, but unfortunately they could not make it as Black Iron Anvil Town has been promoted to the next Tier after Maling took over. The influx of more residence to the area, expanded its population and economy. This was no small feat and it is all thanks to Maling who is now the Viscount of the Province, which Black Iron Region is in.
Therefore they allowed Instructor Wei and Menon to be his guardians for these occasions.
“You see these people? They basically want to leech you dry of you talents and dump you once you grow old and worthless to them,” Instructor Wei almost spat when she said that.
“Don’t be too judgmental young lady,” Menon chastised her.
“Why can’t I be?” Instructor Wei asked.
“It’s not their fault, every one of them needs this. Many parts of the world is still unexplored and people with talents are highly sort after to assist in these areas,” Menon explained.
“That’s what armies are for,” Instructor Wei rebuked.
“Menon, I only understand a little from what I learn from Sem. But the books do not fully explain why is it that as powerful as the empires are, they do not deploy their troops to these areas for exploration?” Xiaoxia asked him.
“There are many reasons for this. Firstly we must consider the expenses maintaining an army beyond your borders, you need plenty of resources for this. Secondly there is problem of politics, almost every empire has at least a few neighbors and it will definitely create an alarm if you start maneuvering your army,” Menon explained, pausing for Xiaoxia to absorb it before continuing, “Third, which is linked to the second, you do not want to leave your empire shorthanded, as even the most friendly neighbor may take advantage of that.”
“On top of that, unlike the past, empires no longer do it themselves, and leave it to individuals, organizations or alliances to handle these matters. That is why there are so many of them here now,” Menon concluded
“I see, so by using others, it will be safer and cheaper for these empires,” Xiaoxia responded.
“It’s not as simple as this,” Jay replied out of nowhere, as he suddenly appeared.
“Jay! What brings you here?” Xiaoxia asked happily, he always felt better with Jay around.
“I was invited as a special guest,” he replied with a wide grin.
“Idiot brother, don’t embarrass us today, or I am never talking to you” Instructor Wei warned.
“I won’t,” Jay winked at Instructor Wei, who rolled her eyes, before he continued, “As compared to a large army, it is much easier for a small group of people to move undetected in unknown territories. It is easier to hide a few than to hide an army. The biggest problem is there are many areas in the world where you simply can’t bring an army.”
“Which also brings us to the point of deniability, a group of unknown individuals wearing nondescript clothes can get away with anything. An army would easily give away which empire they are from,” Menon nodded in acknowledgement of Jay’s arrival, as he continued where Jay left off.
“Deniability?” Xiaoxia asked.
“Xiaoxia, you are too young to know certain things. There are unexplored lands with vast resources coveted by many empires, they will not stop at any means to claim it, even if it means wiping out an entire population of its indigenous people,” Jay replied, seeming to know this topic intimately.
“That unfortunately is very true, and no written records of these events are ever taken. We only know them from experience, they are not written in any history books. If they were, I would not know about it,” Menon added.
“Moreover, it’s not only these, your talents in battle is the not only thing that matters. In later academic years, those who have titles have all shown remarkable abilities in areas such as crafts, research and others,” Jay digressed and informed Xiaoxia, as he continued, “The mental capacity of title holders is greater than the others, of course this doesn’t mean that the ones without titles are hopeless. But to be able to be disciplined enough to last so far in the competition, goes a long way to prove your aptitude.”
“I think I understand,” Xiaoxia replied, and before he could say anything else, an arrogant voice cut into their conversation.
“So country hick, I am surprised you managed to even get this far,” it was Huiling.
“And who might you be?” Jay asked, a little intrigued with her first statement.
“It’s Princess for you uncouth people,” Huiling replied.
“Princess? So what?” Jay replied smirking.
“You will learn your proper place or regret yo…”
“Ah Senior Jay!” a gentlemen approached their group and interrupted Huiling right in the middle of her speech, surprisingly she did not utter a single word and looked rather worried.
“Bogard!” Jay exclaimed loudly as he hugged him in a bearlike embrace and slapped him on the back.
“Cough! Cough! Ahem! Damn it Jay, you do not know your own strength, you almost knocked my lungs out!” the man known as Bogard replied immediately after he was released.
“Haha! Sorry man!” Jay replied candidly.
“So who are these people?” Bogard asked.
“Ah sorry! I forgot my manners! Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Imperial Crown Prince of the Hu Yuan Empire, next in line to the throne, Crown Prince Bogard! My best pal!” Jay announced loudly with a wide grin, as he indicated for them to introduce themselves.
Xiaoxia was looking at him in amazement, he looked exceptionally young, and the best part was, he is Amelia’s grandfather!
“My Lord, I am Menon, Grandmaster Artisan, Council of Elders, MeisterSchloss,” Menon introduced himself, while Bogard shook his hands.
At this point, Bogard seemed distracted as he noticed Instructor Wei.
“Ah! Yan Mei! It’s been such a long time!” Bogard exclaimed and walk over to hug her. She did not complain or reacted the same way she did towards her brother.
“It’s good to see you again Bogard,” Instructor Wei replied, with an obvious smile on her face.
“Oh! And who might this young man be?” Bogard asked as he settled his eyes on Xiaoxia.
Xiaoxia did not notice the looks from Bogard, as he was observing Huiling who by now was totally ignored after the appearance of Bogard. She looked extremely flustered in the meantime.
“Xia Er, his Imperial Highness is asking you a question,” Instructor Wei nudged him with her elbows.
“Oh? Oh! Sorry! My na…”
“Xiaoxia! Oh yes that wonderful boy my grand-daughter has been speaking about,” Bogard recalled immediately.
“So young man, I heard from her you have done our empire proud,” he added.
“It is nothing your Imperial Highness,” Xiaoxia replied modestly.
“Nonsense! Our Huiling here has done just as good and she won’t stop telling everyone how awesome she is,” Bogard rejected his modest reply, while indicating that Huiling, who was now standing behind him, was making a mountain out of a molehill.
At this Huiling continued bowing her head while biting her lips, all this time not even daring to say anything. In her mind, she was screaming bloody murder and really wanted to kill Xiaoxia for putting her in this position. She did not care if it was her own doing, she just needed to lash out at something, and he was the perfect target.
At this moment, a couple approached their party, one was a middle age man, the other a woman of undiscernible age.
“Your Imperial Highness,” the man and woman bowed towards Bogard.
“Ah! Nephew! How good for you to join us, come meet my best pal Jay,” Bogard introduced the couple to Jay.
“Nice to meet you Lord Jay, we have heard of your wonderful deeds for the Empire,” the nephew greeted Jay.
“Huiling, what are you doing here?” the woman asked when she noticed Huiling standing behind Bogard.
“Nothing mother,” Huiling replied.
“Oh? This is your daughter?” Jay asked, while an evil grin began to form.
“Ah yes Lord Jay, she is our most precious only child, Huiling,” the nephew replied.
Huiling was trying to hide, she was in big trouble now. She did not know who Jay was and how he was connected to Xiaoxia. To make matters worse, she had insulted him, and now she found out that he have been a great benefactor for the Empire and the best pal of the Imperial Crown Prince.
“Oh by the way, I think your daughter is going to face my Shizhi in the quarter finals,” Jay said in an offhand manner.
“Is this true?” Bogard asked Xiaoxia.
“I am sorry your Imperial Highness, I have not been notified of this,” Xiaoxia replied.
“Yes Bogard, his next opponent will be her,” Instructor Wei answered for him.
“Ah! This is most unfortunate, it would have been good if it was the finals, then the Hu Yuan Empire can proudly lift its head, telling the world the two best freshmen are ours,” he said with a note of regret.
“So this is Chen Zhen Xia?” the nephew asked, his eye bearing some form of menace. After all his brother was sent to prison because of him.
“He does not need to reply to you,” Instructor Wei stood in front of Xiaoxia, glaring at the nephew. She roughly know about the involvement of Huiling’s family in trying to cripple Xiaoxia during the tournament.
“Oh? What am I missing?” Bogard asked.
“My friend, it’s nothing that concerns you, come let us go drink!” Jay grabbed Bogard, as they laugh heartily and moved off to another area. At this time Bogard gave his nephew a passing glance that spoke volumes.
“Damn it,” the nephew cursed under his breath. Amelia had promised not to tell anything to the Emperor or her grandfather, as long as his brother remained in prison. She kept her promise, and apparently now it doesn’t matter.
“Come you stupid girl, you do not know the damn problem you have gotten all of us into,” the nephew scolded Huiling as he moved off.
“I am sorry for this, please forgive our rudeness,” the wife replied as she hurriedly followed after Huiling and her father.
Xiaoxia was trying not to think about it, but he will be facing Huiling in less than a few minutes for their quarter-final match.
The luncheon was an utterly boring affair, people from all walks of life had approached his small group, and tried to start a conversation with them. The only interesting thing that happened, was when one of them mistaken Menon for his dad, and Instructor Wei as his mum.
He almost died laughing after that, as it meant that Instructor Wei and Menon were husband and wife. Something that will never ever happen.
Xiaoxia was smiling at this, but his thought quickly changed to the unpleasant encounter with Huiling and her parents. His guts told him this was not the end of it, even after the quarter-finals.
A loud voice penetrated his thoughts, as he was brought back to reality.
“The next contestant needs no introduction! He is the highest realm among all others and have won amazing victories against tough opponents. Everyone, welcome Zhen Xia!” the announcer declared in a theatrical voice.
The whole stadium immediately roared in approval and cheers, even as Xiaoxia walked onto the single battle dais in the middle of the stadium.
“GO XIAOXIA!! Go go go go go !! Smash that spoilt brat and show her who is the man! Dominate this match!” Amelia was shouting crazily over her voice amplifier.
She did not attend the luncheon, calling it a pompous show of wealth. Her other reason was to avoid Bogard, who dotted too much on her to the point of being unbearable. Bogard had an extreme affection for all his children and grandchildren, and he treated them like babies even though they are adults over hundreds of years old.
“Go HUILING! Crush that country hick and win this match!” another equally loud voice was heard over the crowds, it was Huiling’s father.
Then the announcer proclaimed in an even louder voice.
“Everyone lets welcome the flower of the competition, one who needs no introduction. The beauty amongst the thorns! Her Highness, the Princess Huiling of the Hu Yuan Empire!”
The announcer was bribed by Huiling’s father, and he thought it was harmless, since it was only an announcement.
The crowd went silent for a moment, then in an instant many started swearing and cursing the announcer.
“Who the hell is this? Is the announcer bribed?”
“What is with this nonsense?”
“Oh my goodness, is he blind? How is that a flower?”
“The announcer must have been bribe!”
“Puke! Beauty???! Remove the announcer!!”
It was an unexpected outcome, the announcer was horrified. He did not expect an innocent announcement to have gone this way. Even before Huiling stepped nto the battle dais, the announcer was replaced with another.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! We apologize for the wait. Let us welcome again Princess Huiling of the Hu Yuan Empire!”
The new announcer said, as he tried to soothe the crowd over.
“Get out of here, how dare you bribe the announcer?!!”
Little did Huiling’s father know, majority of Xiaoxia’s supporters were girls, and by bribing the announcer to say such things, it had the opposite effect instead.
Xiaoxia was hardly aware of the commotion around him, as he was formulating a plan of action. He knew Huiling was no small fry, and she have been very capable to progress so far into the competition. From the details he received from Instructor Wei’s information monger, she had defeated a Dragonians easily.
Huiling was gnashing her teeth as she walked towards the battle dais, she could already see Xiaoxia waiting there. What made her more irritated besides the sight of him, was the commotion and insulting comments from the crowd. She needed to smash something right this instant and fast and right now.
“No! Crushing him won’t be enough, I need to humiliate him till he cries for mercy, or my surname won’t be Qing!” she swore to herself.
Even as she entered the battle dais, her leather bracelet was emitting a terrible aura, something that Xiaoxia could feel, but unsure where it came from.
“A family heirloom! Hahaha, the heavens have given me a blessing in disguise! It would have been very nice just to kill her, and now it’s going to be so much sweeter prying it off her cold dead corpse” a figure hidden in the shadows thought to itself. Light from sky reflected off a spectator’s placard and shone on it momentarily, revealing who it was.
It was the child who received the restricted item, in the dead of the night on the 6th day of the competition.