For all the precautions he might have to take and did take, Arthur was grateful that they managed to get into town with minimal violence. Raahim waved at the guards as he came through, hurried forward, and then surreptitiously dropped a monster core into one hand as he bribed the guards to look the other way and give them a little space. He did it so smoothly that, if Arthur had not been watching so closely, he might even have missed it.
On the other hand, the walk past wooden buildings on the outer circle of town was rather tense. Without a cheap source of electricity, the only lighting available came in one of three forms. Generators and batteries that came from mortal Earth—that is, outside the Tower—which had to be carefully watched over in case someone stole them. These were hooked up to electric lights. Next there were burn barrels full of wood that gave off warmth and light and allowed people to cook game from the forest. And for the high-class establishments, also known as anything owned by TG Inc., there were spirit lamps powered by monster cores.
What that all meant was that the group moved through pools of darkness splashed with sudden explosions of light, as windows were thrown open or they arrived at a crossroads, where burn barrels were often set in place. The main thoroughfares were well lit, with external lights from TG-owned buildings comfort and protection; guards were present here too. Of course, that also meant it was more crowded on these streets. All in all, smart marketing.
But for Arthur’s purposes, slightly less crowded and darker streets were optimal. With Raahim guiding them, they were, hopefully, headed in the right direction.
“Who built these streets? It’s curvier than a . . .” Arthur trailed off, eyes still sweeping for trouble. But the denizens of the second floor were mostly keeping away from the armed group, offering only glimpses of avarice.
“Than what?” Jan said, challengingly.
Arthur knew better than to finish that sentence. There was a reason he’d stopped; he couldn’t think of a suitable ending that wasn’t going to get him poked. But under the glare she had turned on him, he scrambled for a word. “Durian.”
“Durian.” Skepticism deep in her voice.
“But durians aren’t curvy. They’re spiky!” Su Mei said.
“I know, why do you think I stopped?” Arthur said, glaring at Su Mei. “It’s not as though I’ve got a writer penning things for me to say. Sometimes I just get it wrong!”
“Still . . .” Su Mei shook her head. “Wheels? The old highway? Mountains. Maybe even noodles? All a lot curvier than durians.”
“Oh, great. Any suggestions?” Arthur said to Jan, who snorted.
Bickering good-naturedly, the quartet kept walking. The talk helped take their minds off the oppressive darkness, the encroaching fear as they passed unfriendly-looking residents and disappeared deeper and deeper into town. If not for the fact that Arthur could glimpse the three-storey, lit-up beacon of the TG Inc. shop and use it as their guidepost for travel, he’d have been more worried.
As it was, rather than taking a single, easy-to-travel direct route, they’d snaked back and forth a few times. But eventually the buildings they passed began to change. Although a minority were quite shabby, the majority now looked less makeshift and more like permanent structures of stone and wood. A testimony to the slapdash earlier construction of the first Tower climbers, Arthur assumed, and then the slow gentrification of the Tower floor as more and more people arrived.
“About time,” Jan groused.
“It’s not easy, you know,” Raahim said, stopping. He turned back, putting a hand on his hip. “Got to watch for the stupid ones and the aggressive ones. Got to take the right routes to avoid roads the Suey Ting control.”
“Fine, fine,” Jan waved the man’s protests away.
Raahim opened his mouth to protest more, but Su Mei kept trudging on and almost bowled him over. He skipped aside, glaring at her. “Anyway, that’s—”
“My destination. I know. I have a marker,” Su Mei said.
All three stared at the girl again, who seemed to not notice their looks. Her head bent low as she carried the heavy bag. For the first time, Arthur noted the way her feet dragged a little, the hesitation in her steps. Perhaps she might have been strong, but carrying all that could not have been easy.
“Right, let’s get this done.” Arthur kept scanning around, only slowing when Raahim drifted over to his side. “What?”
“Duit.” Raahim held out his hand for payment.
“At the door,” Arthur said, hedging their bets. Raahim looked unhappy but said nothing, waiting until they were close enough to the Tower administrative center that was Su Mei’s destination before he stuck his hand out. He relaxed a little when he saw Arthur digging around his belt at the pouch he had strapped on but also tucked in his pants. No comment at all, since pickpockets were certainly a thing.
Three monster cores, two from the first floor and one from the second, came out. Arthur could tell the difference just from their size and the pulse of energy within them, which was good as he handed over the cores and Raahim glared at him.
“Apa ini?” Raahim stared at the three cores on his palm unhappily but pulled his hand away to make it harder for Arthur to grab them back.
“Three cores. Your payment,” Arthur said.
“No, no, no. Tak boleh! Second-floor cores.” He closed his fist around the cores and waved it. “This isn’t enough!”
“To guide us through? You’re joking. I even paid extra for Su Mei,” Arthur said.
Speaking of the girl, she had left the two arguing men behind, stepping right through the double doors of the Tower office without a word and past the faceless Tower guards that stood in front. The only place, Arthur assumed, that these guards would do anything. Jan looked between the two, but at Arthur’s gesture, hurried after Su Mei.
After all, he didn’t lead her all the way in just to miss finding out what she carried in her backpack.
“You cheater!” Raahim growled, stepping close.
“I don’t like being shaken down. You provided a service, I’ll grant you that. But I don’t get shaken down.” Arthur paused, then added as an afterthought, “If you have a problem, tell your boss. In fact, tell your boss that Arthur Chua of the Benevolent Durians is here.”
“Durian? More like durian-brained,” Raahim spat, but Arthur just grinned, stepping swiftly around the man. He went past the Tower guards swiftly, ignored the yelp from behind which quickly enough turned to grumbling. No point in hiding his presence anymore, he figured.
If he was right, he was about to make a big splash anyway.