“You want us forgive trying to kill him, ah?” Jan said, blurting out from behind Arthur. For once, he had to admit he was grateful for her lack of decorum, since her words jolted him back into the present. He, however, chose not to answer, curious to see how the Chin girl reacted.
“Yes. It is more complicated than that,” the girl said. “If you’d let me explain…?”
“Before that. Why are we meeting here?” Mel interrupted, gesturing around them. Her eyes were narrowed in suspicion. “You could have apologized in the village. If you were really contrite, you could have done so in our Clan building.”
“Ah…” Lips pursed then, a flicker of irritation rising across the pale jade skin of the woman. She looked over her shoulder, meeting the other older man’s gaze and giving a silent command as she did so.
He stepped forward with ease, bowing low. Like the woman, he too had a British accent though might faded. “My niece has been lax in providing introductions. I am Willis Chin, the senior member in charge of the first floor. My niece – Casey Chin – is the third daughter of my senior cousin, and is in the process of gaining her first Tower progression.”
“Arthur Chua. A bit of a bah, that you know that for a fact,” Arthur said with a smile.
Mel chimed in with her name, but the two ostensible bodyguards chose not to speak this time. Just like Casey’s own guards.
“That doesn’t explain why we’re meeting here.” Arthur purposely looked around, searching for potential trouble or signs from his own people.
“That is my choice.” Willis inclined his head to the village behind Arthur. “In there, it can be said that the Clans hold the advantage. You have not seen the extent of control – the advantage – you have, but you should at least understand that it is present.”
Arthur frowned a little, casting his mind over the minor advantages they had gained. The guard, the building. Nothing too great. Was he hinting there were other advantages they could gain as a Clan? And if so, why tell them? He had to know it would only aid him. Unless he assumed Arthur – or the Thorned Lotuses – had understood that much already.
“Out here, in this place, lie our strength. We have no Clan building here and will not because our Patriarch cannot enter this Tower-”
That wasn’t new. It was well known that due to the amount of energy present in lower levels of beginner Towers, more powerful cultivators were generally barred from their entrance. The exact point where such things switched over was unknown, though it generally ranged between two to three threshold breaks from the average.
“-but we are still the Chin family. We have our holdings, our alliances. And so, in-between then, we find a balance between our strength and yours. A proper place, to have negotiations, rather than bowing our head to you. Or you to us.”
“Negotiate what?” Arthur said, looking increasingly frustrated. “First you try to kill me, then you apologise, then you want to negotiate? You guys are making as much sense as one of my rhymes.”
“If you just wait, I can explain…” Casey said.
“I still don’t trust this,” Mel faux whispered to Arthur.
“I know. Me too.”
“I JUST TOLD THEM TO TAKE CARE OF YOU WHILE I WENT HUNTING!” Casey shouted, as the pair continued talking and ignoring her.
Willis winced, shooting the woman a long glare. Arthur had to wonder about the kind of backroom, family politics going on that the older man was being forced to babysit the woman. He assumed it had something to do with the reason why Willis was basically relegated to running the lowest floor of the Tower, a death sentence for the rest of his life. Or most of it at least.
“My niece is right. The fault was mine. I saw you as a threat. She believes you might be an opportunity,” Willis said, bowing a little. Not much – the man had his pride after all – but it was a bow.
Arthur’s eyes widened, darting between the flush faced woman, no, girl, and her distant uncle. Now that she was blushing and embarrassed, her initial startling beauty had given way to showcase her true age, her youth. She looked to be in her early twenties at most. Probably just finished her degree in the UK before coming back to run the Tower and take her place among her family.
“Oh.” Arthur paused, glancing at Mel. She shrugged, and he had to admit, he agreed with her unspoken words. If they were acting or running a trick, then they were wasted as cultivators. They should both be actors and bring the Malaysian film industry some much needed talent. “Well, maybe you should have been more careful with what you said.”
“I know already, lah! My dai ga jie always says that too,” Casey snapped, shifting back to Manglish a little as she spoke.
Arthur could not help but grin. She was no longer the outstanding beauty of before, but a more approachable kind. He had to admit, that was a little more attractive, but it also meant that he could focus better. Mind for the most part still clear, even as the Yin chi pulsed within him, he continued.
“You have use for me – for the Clan – it seems. What is it?”
She glanced around, looking at the few passerby’s who had moved to eavesdrop. She kept staring at the brave fools till they chose to back away, until a decent space was cleared around the group. Small gestures from both Willis and Mel had their own people help clear out the space further.
When Casey was finally satisfied, she smiled a little, trying for disenchanting. That disarming beauty flared to being again, but this time around, ready for it, it had little effect on Arthur, allowing him to concentrate on her next words easily.
“An alliance. A safe place to grow and progress.” She gestured upwards. “A way to ascend the Tower the fastest.”
“The fastest?” Arthur said, blinking.
“Yes. Faster than anyone in my family. You know there’s prizes for those who clear it quickly, right?” Arthur nodded. He did. He also knew that such speedrun awards were useless to someone like him. The time he had spent on the first floor alone had seen him pass the timing for the top ten. And even if they gave prizes for the top fifty, he doubted he’d make up enough time no matter how fast they ascended. “Well, I want one. None in my generation have won one.
“I intend to change that.”