Arthur hesitated only for a few seconds more before he chose to stand up. He waved a little to three women, still holding on to his staff as he offered them the most disarming grin he had on hand. It was a good one too—he’d been told it was a little rogueish and charming. A hint of little-boy mischief in it.
It bounced off the glaring women who gestured for him to enter the clearing.
Once again, he hesitated. His choices were either run like hell right now or talk his way out. And he rather thought he had a better chance at negotiating peace than outrunning the women.
“I’m not with them, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he began immediately. “I just heard the fighting and came to see what was happening.”
“And play vulture once we left, right?” sneered the girl who had found him. She was tall, probably of some Northern Chinese descent. Didn’t use to have a lot of them early on, since the initial wave of settlers to Malaysia came from the south; but once China had grown more populous, many Northern Chinese arrived.
“If you left anything, yeah,” Arthur admitted. “One man—well, woman’s—garbage is another’s treasure, right?”
“Scavenger.” The woman spat to the side and muttered something in Mandarin, too low for Arthur to pick out. Also, his own Mandarin sucked. After all, he he was a KL boy after all—a native of Kuala Lumpur— and Cantonese was his dialect. Heck, he could even pick out a word or two of Hokkien, but Mandarin was no longer in much use except by those who’d gone through Chinese public school. And those guys were annoying.
Arthur tried not to look offended. It was not as though he were stealing after all. Or killing.
“He’s weak,” Rani said. “Come on, if we chase Budo down now, we can capture him.”
“You think you can catch Budo?” the leader snorted. “As good as he is at fighting, he’s even better at running. By this point, he’s probably a good few kilometers away. Anyway, running off to catch the bird in the bush when you have one in hand makes no sense.”
Arthur offered them a tentative smile as his grip tightened on his staff. “I’m really not a very tasty bird, though. Nothing much for you to steal, beyond a few crystals.”
“Quick to admit you own anything,” the leader said. “Not scared we’re going to rob you?”
“Scared? Yeah. Robbery’s never fun. But you seem rational and in control, so that’s a bonus. Better than drugged out or in withdrawal or doing it for the first time,” Arthur replied.
“You been visiting Shah Alam a lot then?” Rani said, her eyes crinkling a little in humor.
“Not by choice. But I’ve done a few deliveries that way before. Almost not worth the money, you know?”
The girl made a face as she nodded in agreement. “Damn tongs.”
“If you two are done?” the leader said, tapping the edge of her halberd against her body. “We still need to decide what to do with him.”
“That’s your job, isn’t it?” the Chinese girl said with a smile.
“I . . .” she faltered, then sighed and nodded. “Fine. I’ll take your word for now. But why the hell are you this far out here?”
Arthur grimaced. “I had a little bit of a run-in with people when I first arrived. The, umm, Suey Ying tong got in my face. So I got in theirs. Been out here, you know, powering up.”
“Suey Ying . . . beginner . . .” the leader frowned, trying to remember what she had learnt. Then, her eyes widened as she recalled the details in full. “You’re the fool who killed three of their people! They’ve got quite the bounty on you.”
“Yeah, I assumed that.” He sighed. “Well, thanks for the confirmation I guess.”
“If you’re idiotic enough to antagonise them, I guess you’re not an enemy. But we sure don’t want you hanging out with us.”
“Now that’s just hurtful,” Arthur replied.
“Whatever. Stay out of our way, we’ll stay out of yours.” The leader gestured to the other girls, who had just finished looting the bodies. “Got it?”
Rani frowned, looking back and forth between her boss and Arthur before she leaned in. “We can’t just leave him here. He’s going to get killed.”
“Not. Our. Problem.” Pushing Rani along, the Chinese girl hissed, “We’ve got a mission, damn it.”
Arthur watched as the group moved off, leaving him in the clearing. He bit his lip, considering following them before he shook his head eventually, leaving them alone. Whatever they were up to, it was none of his business.
He did check the corpses and the bags of equipment that the girls had not taken. Extra clothing, basic hygiene kits, a sewing kit, and a bunch of pots and pans for cooking, along with a pair of tents. He eyed the tents for a second, then replaced his own worn-down one with these better-quality options. He took the rest of the equipment in short order.
No food, which was fine. He could survive on Tower energy, though he was really missing actual food. No first aid supplies, no pills or even a boot knife. Still, even the extra sets of clothing were a boon to him at this point.
Having stripped the corpses of everything the women had chosen not to take, Arthur made his way out of the clearing. He had a little bit of a jaunt in his step.
This was a good day.
Which was, of course, why an hour later he found a sword against his throat and a glowering, angry man staring back at him over the weapon’s edge.