For all the painful slog that it was to get back and the mild concerns that Arthur carried about potential trouble, they actually managed to make it back most of the way before running into another party that wanted a word with them. Thankfully, it was just the local floor boss of the Double Sixes gang. After an explanation of the current state of the team and their desire for rest, they were escorted back to their clan hall.
An hour later, after washing both the grime and blood from his body, Arthur joined the patient man and his friends in the dining hall. The room had undergone minor changes, the addition of even more tables and chairs, though it was a rather mixed collection of furniture, more akin to a junkyard dive than a unified redesign.
“Clan Head Chua.” Standing up, the gang boss offered his hand. “Dev Patel.” He noticed Arthur’s raised eyebrow and shook his head. “My father was a fan. And well, Patels are . . .”
“There are a lot of you,” Arthur finished for him. He wasn’t sure of how many but he did know that they were quite a number of them. Not as many in Malaysia as in the States, but still not an entirely uncommon surname here. “Trust me, I get it.”
Patel chuckled, taking a seat. Whether he had decided to go in the opposite direction of his namesake or just because he liked the style, Dev wore his hair long in a ponytail but had kept his chin smooth. “Mohammad Osman sent word up, but at the time he simply said you were newly formed and he wasn’t certain how long you’d be working together.” A gesture down to the outside hallway. “And now, you’re part of Prime Group.”
“Just an alliance with the Chins,” Arthur said. “And the deal is with them, not Prime.”
“Even better, isn’t it?”
“Well, Raahim said you were nice enough, if a little ruthless with the bargaining,” Dev said. “What can the 66 do for you?”
“I think it’s the other way around, isn’t it?” Arthur said, smoothly. “I have room here, for more people. If you want it.”
“And will pay for it?”
“That goes without saying.”
Dev hesitated, raising his head a little. He visibly drew a deep breath, cycling the energy that was contained in the room through his body, testing the energy concentration here. It amused Arthur a little that while the energy concentration in the monster cores was significantly higher, the concentration in the air itself was much the same. It was the same for all levels of the Tower, such that on higher floors refining via cores was significantly more advantageous than transferring from the environment.
It did make one wonder why cultivation methods were at all useful, until one realised that the environment in each Tower was different and Advanced Towers had greater concentrations of energy than Beginner Towers.
As such, cultivating on the lower floor of an Advanced Tower was still significantly more advantageous than on a higher floor of a Beginner Tower. Not taking into account rest places like Arthur’s clan hall, cultivation nexuses, and cultivation oases that cropped up, where the ambient energy levels might increase even further of course. Then, the ‘usual’ numbers got weird.
On top of all that, of course, was the fact that once mastered, cultivation techniques actually helped refinement techniques too. It took mastering the main form first, before one could really benefit from the progress in refinement speed, but it was a considerable improvement.
Unfortunately, that advantage and boost in refinement speed mostly dealt with cultivated energy from the Tower surroundings. Since monster core energy was technically already refined, drawing such energy into the body was actually an entirely different process and subject to other limitations.
This was where specific traits helped. Arthur’s own Sticky Energy trait was more focused on energy already stored within the body, but other Spirit traits could help build the suction power of a Tower climber, making it easier to draw from monster cores.
Of course, the only people who chose to go down that route heavily were the rich and connected. After all, for most people, a reliable and constant supply of cores was not guaranteed. Though, Arthur had to admit, he might one day be considered a rich and wealthy layabout too, being a clan head.
All that flashed through Arthur’s mind while waiting for Dev to make up his mind. In the meantime, Arthur was also eyeing the trio of individuals who made up his entourage. It amused him, a little, to watch them and try to figure out if they had a tell. Unlike in the world outside the Tower, where thugs and gangsters might dress or move in a certain way to show how much of a badass they were, or felt they had something to prove, these three had little to mark themselves as gang members beyond a strip of red and black cloth tied around the left arm.
Then again, it wasn’t that surprising. After all, most Tower climbers—on the second floor more than the first—had an air of danger to them that outside civilians lacked. A hard-won confidence, a way of looking around constantly to detect danger. And, of course, a rather horrible dress sense, what with the amount of clothing they dirtied and destroyed.
“It might be worth it,” Dev said finally. “But how many rooms are you offering?”
“How many are you looking to get?” Arthur temporized.
“I can let go of three, max,” Arthur said after a moment. “And that will house a max of . . .” He frowned, running dimensions in his head. “Twelve people.”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” Dev said. “Putting limits on how many people we can place in a room.”
“Right, right. Two rooms then, and six people,” Arthur said.
“Are you an idiot?” Dev snapped. “That’s not how you negotiate.”
Arthur nodded seriously. “I am. I really am.” He continued, “I also realised you might just be looking for a way to sell space in the rooms, which is why I’m limiting both.” He opened his hands. “But look at it this way. If we get to an agreement now, at least the people on the next floor won’t be pissed with you.”
“What?” Now Dev looked confused.
“Well, right now, I’m making deals with the 66 and the Chins. This floor, pretty sure that’s all we can handle.” He turned his hand sideways. “Eventually, getting actual buildings is going to be a real pain. And what we can offer, whether it’s three rooms or two or one will reduce. But I’ll still be approaching the 66 first, if I have extra space. If you make a deal now.”
“And if I don’t, you’ll blame me when you go to the next floor.” Dev’s eyes narrowed in anger. “You’re blackmailing me.”
“No, no. Blackmail is . . .” Arthur trailed off. “You know, I might be. I actually don’t know the real definition of it.”
“And?” Dev said impatiently after Arthur fell silent.
“Aren’t you increasing the number of rooms available? Or apologizing for blackmailing me?”
“Oh, yeah, no.” Arthur shook his head. “I’m okay being a dick.” He smiled. “Now, are we going to talk price or are you still pissed? Because if you are, I can just go and sleep for a bit. I did just come back from being stabbed, clawed, and kicked around. And I really, really, want a night’s sleep.”
“You could have been nicer,” Mel said later, after the door had closed and Dev and his people had been shown out. He needed to verify numbers and collect the first week’s payment before the 66 floor leader could come back and take advantage of his new rooms.
Arthur sighed and started walking down the hallway, waving her to follow. He idly nodded to a group of second-floor newcomers, pausing only to promise to come and enact joining rituals later in the day after he had gotten some sleep.
Only when he was inside his room, away from the crowd, did he finally answer Mel. “Nice or not, doesn’t matter. He could have come back later too.” Arthur shrugged. “They chose to talk when I’m tired, hoping I give them what they want easy. Now, he knows. I just get grumpier and more stubborn.”
“Noted,” Mel said. “Treat you like a child. Feed and rest you appropriately.”
“Exactly. Also, I like shiny things,” he replied.
She could not help but chuckle. “You don’t think he’ll cause problems?”
“And do what? He’s already supposed to help guard us,” Arthur said. “Killing me or our people just makes him look bad.”
“We could use more security.” She chewed on her lower lip for a second before adding, “Recruitment is low. Jaswinder still hasn’t changed her mind and the Lotuses are following her lead.”
“Then we wait. We don’t build Durians in a day. Or a week. If she can’t control her temper, she isn’t of any use to me. Especially if she can’t work with people like Dev later on.”
“Says the person who was all kinds of rude.”
Arthur was about to reply when he broke out into a long yawn. Forced to hide his mouth from her, he struggled to get his body under control, his eyes squinting as the yawn just kept going.
“I get it, I get it,” Mel said, opening the door. “I’m leaving. See you at the induction ceremony.”
By the time he finished dealing with the multiple yawns, she was gone, leaving him alone. Muttering to himself about bad timing, he flopped back onto his bed and closed his eyes. Whatever was to come—and most of that, he knew, was a lot of admin work—he still needed his rest.Especially since they’d need to try the next orang minyak village soon enough.