Entering the armoury was an interesting experience. The armoury itself was connected to the beginner hall, with the two buildings sharing access to the same warehouse. In the early days, a number of enterprising fools had attempted to break into the armoury, only to find themselves caught and slain. Since then, no one dared to even consider stealing from the first-floor guardians. Rather, everyone just lined up quietly while waiting their turn.
The building itself was roughly the same size as the newcomer hall, which to Arthur screamed of bad planning. After all, considering the crowd before him compared to the one before, he could not help but think perhaps dedicating more attendants would make sense.
Then again, at least in the Tower they were able to skip out on one of two major mainstays of civilization—taxes—so perhaps he should be willing to accept long waiting times. Still, it didn’t help that the hall he waited in was just the holding area before individuals were brought into small private rooms to make their purchases.
Cocking his head from side to side, Arthur examined the mix of individuals within. About a good half of them were silently cultivating, using the time provided to pour energy into their bodies. The fact that they were willing to potentially miss their slot spoke volumes about the wait times involved. The other half were like him, too tense to cultivate, and either spending the time conversing with others or looking about.
“So, what’s your story?” The woman who’d just flopped into the chair beside him asked. Unlike many of the youngsters in the room, she looked to be in her mid-thirties at the least. Most startling of all was the missing front tooth she sported as she spoke, though the slightly squashed nose was just as remarkable. If not for those two imperfections, she would have been a decidedly average Chinese female.
“Huh?” was Arthur’s intelligent reply.
“Your story.” A gesture at him and his haircut. “You aren’t a newbie, but I haven’t seen you around before. So, you got to be something interesting.”
“I really am not.” Arthur crossed his arms. “Anyway, what’s your story?”
“Me? Boring. Mother of two, just another serf. Parents are taking care of my children till I come out, but . . .” A shrug of her shoulders, a flash of pain. “That might be a while. Still, better than them starving. And the loan of my services in here isn’t that bad.”
“Ah. Indentured servant. I took a loan that gets paid off by serving the company in here.” She shrugged. “I’m Mei Ling by the way.”
“Arthur.” He automatically replied before knitting his brow. “Which company?” The use of indentured servants was not unknown. Mostly among more experienced folk though, what with the high death rate among those trying to climb their first Tower. In fact, some guilds had become major companies—or taken over major companies—with the sheer abundance of resources and strength they gained by running the Towers.
Very few companies bothered with newcomers. In fact, he could only think of three. Of which, the worse was—
“Bumikasih.” Mei Ling said. She watched him wince but she shrugged, seeming to be content with the way things were. “So, your story?”
“Why are you asking?”
“You ask a lot of questions without answering. But sure, here’s the last answer, free of charge. I’m charged with getting information about interesting people. And you look interesting.” Mei Ling said.
“Is this how you get all your information? Just blatantly asking people?”
Mei Ling kept quiet, staring at Arthur.
His head spun as he considered what he should say. Not speaking would mark him out even more as someone of interest. On the other hand, he did not want to reveal his problems with the Suey Ying tong. Or his encounters in the middle of the forest. Still, if she was an information gatherer, they would also be willing to sell that information. And that could be useful.
“I’m not super experienced, but I’ve been around for a few months now. Mostly working the outer edges, so I haven’t really been coming into the village much.” Or at all. “Need to stock up though.” A gesture downwards, taking in his rather pitiful shoes and the sheathed, weathered sword by his side. “So… here I am.”
“You were trained, weren’t you?” Mei Ling said, eyes narrowing as she looked at the sword.
“Why’d you say that?”
“Not many like actual swords. Parangs are preferred. Cheaper. Works just as well.”
“I took a few classes before I came,” Arthur said. “I never understood why others wouldn’t.”
Holding up fingers, she counted them down as she spoke. “Arrogance. Money. Time. Connections. Bad information.”
“Oh yeah. Didn’t you see the videos about how the parang—or the spear or the keris or barehanded—is the way to go? Like five years ago, it was all axes!”
“That was when Andrev the Ukranian Bear was all the rage, right?” Arthur said. “I remember that a bit.”
“How can you only know it a bit?” Mei Ling said, waving her hand around. “And you know what Datok Mahathir wields.”
“A parang and keris combination, yes. I’m not completely out of touch,” Arthur said. “But I spent most of my time training or working to earn enough money to train.” He waggled his fingers at her. “Not many people to talk to, unpacking in warehouses or doing deliveries.”
“Whatever.” She shook her head, then frowned. “Not even school?”
“Training,” Arthur bit off.
“Right, right. Gotcha. You’re type B then.”
Glowering, he waited for her to clarify.
“Battle fanatic. Always thought you’d be the hero of the ages, trained ever since they were a kid, so on, so forth.” Mei Ling nodded along with a grin. “Good, good.”
“And why’s that good?” Arthur bristled a little.
“Wanna know a secret?” She lowered her voice, though more than a few people leaned in to listen. “People like you are the ones who manage to make it off the first floor and up the Tower fast. The rest of us? We’re stuck in here.”
“I’m—” Arthur began to protest her words, but before he could finish, his number was called. Looking up at the Malay attendant, who was oddly thin in his arms and legs but also sporting a stomach, he blinked and looked back at Mei Ling. “Got to go.”
“Sure, sure. If you ever want to talk, just ask for me on the outskirts of the Bumi enclosure. I buy and sell information, you know.” Grinning, she waved goodbye to Arthur before looking around, scouting for her next target.
Rolling his eyes a little, Arthur hurried over to the man, rubbing the back of his neck. For a moment, he wondered what life was like. For those who had not trained, who came in here thinking they could do it, and realising exactly how hard it was to get ahead. He had nearly died multiple times, so how much harder was it for those who did not have his years of training?
Was it a surprise then, that sometimes things got a little desperate? If a way out showed itself, a way to climb upwards with less risk, would he too not try to grasp at it?
Shaking his head, Arthur slipped in along with the attendant and took a seat across from the man in their private room. A slight humming spoke of enchantments closing in, allowing them to speak in privacy.
Mei Ling’s offer was something to think about later anyway.