Arthur was never sure afterward who threw the first blow. All he really knew was that things had been tense, like in a Mexican standoff but with parangs instead of guns, and next, everyone was punching, kicking, and slicing one another up.
Being rather broken at the moment, Arthur was not able to pay full attention to the fight. Though a few things were quite clear, quite fast.
Firstly, Samseng really knew how to run. It wasn’t as though he had learnt a new movement technique, unless there were a technique called “throw your friends in front of your enemies” except, you know, with a more flowery title—but he seemed to have an innate sense of when to run and when to duck, so that others could get in the way of the oncoming fist.
Secondly, the Amah was just as she looked. She had a scary level of efficiency at using the cane in her hand, smacking weapons out of knuckles and cracking it across temples and collarbones. The fact that the cane itself was sheathed in some lightly glowing energy probably helped with the smacking.
Lastly, the Suey Ying tong’s people here were all thugs. They seemed to have improved their Body attributes in strength and endurance more than in speed. It made them really hard to take down but also slow in comparison to the ladies, who made up for their lack of damage potential by using very sharp weapons.
For all that, when one of the men managed to land a hit—and in a fight, that happened all too often—the women had a tendency to break.
In the end, two corpses, two injured, and one fast-running man were left, along with three tear-stricken faces. The Amah stood around, glaring at the two men she had taken down mostly by herself. Then she prodded her no-longer-glowing cane at Arthur.
“Get up, boy. We can’t stay in their territory too long. Ah Choi is good at running and he’ll bring back his people fast enough.” Looking at the bodies, she barked out a quick series of orders that had them stripping weapons and helping the injured get away. One girl, the largest of the women, grabbed hold of Arthur’s bag and then his arm, dragging him upright.
“Move!” She growled. Her voice was husky. Kind of cute, if you liked a low, growly voice in women.
“Who are you people? And what do you want with me?” Arthur muttered.
“Us? We’re the Thorned Lotuses. The Ci Hehua.” She was a bear of a woman; she looked as if she might burst out of the clothes that tightly hugged her dark skin. She kept him moving along the edge of the tent village, following the limping but still fast-moving Amah.
Arthur winced. “Please don’t.”
“Don’t drag you? We got to move.”
“Don’t speak Mandarin. Your accent is horrible.”
“Yours isn’t much better!” A voice called out from behind, ribbing Arthur.
“Never studied Mandarin. I’m a KL boy!”
“Uh-huh,” said the same woman, smirking. “Didn’t go to a proper school?”
“No Chinese schools where I was. Malay public schools all the way,” Arthur admitted. What that meant was that he studied in Malay mostly, had a class in English, and no Mandarin at all. If not for some afterschool classes, his Mandarin would have been pretty much non-existent. As for his English, that had gotten a decent boost from his tsifu and a dedicated teacher overall.
Ah, the joys of public education, where there was never enough money, never enough good teachers, and everything was taught in a language less than 30 million people spoke, many of them not even well.
“I do have to ask: what the hell is wrong with you?” said the girl holding him.
“I got beaten up.”
“Not that. You feel off.”
“Ummm, thanks?” Arthur said uncertainly.
“Stop being dense. I meant your energy flows. It’s not what I’d expect from a man. You feel like a . . . a . . . girl!”
“Oh, that. Yeah . . .” He winced. “Cultivation deviation.”
“So what? You’re a girl now?”
“You know ah, I don’t let my friends call me a girl, never mind an unnamed woman.”
“You can call me Sharmila. Now, stop dodging the question,” her voice dropped and grew dangerous. “If you’re into some weird dual cultivation practice you read on the Internet—”
“No! Nothing like that.” Arthur shuddered. He knew what she had spoken of. There had been a case a few years back: one man who had left the Tower started sacrificing women, using them to empower himself. He had to use Tower survivors, but he had left them as husks. Unfortunately, before he was captured, he’d released his methods onto the Internet. Attempts to scrub the information had obviously failed, so rumors of dual-cultivating cults were always floating around.
Didn’t help that other groups like the Golden Sunrise and the Third Pyramid in the US had all chosen to jump on the same cult bandwagon, leaving the entire process with a rather bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
“Ha? You very fast to say no, ah!” remarked one of Sharmila’s companions.
“You got that right, Jan,” Sharmila said.
“It isn’t,” Arthur said quietly. “I took a pill I found. Thought it’d give me a boost . . . It was dumb, alright. I knew it was dumb. But it’s not as though playing it safe is going to get me to the top.”
“Oh, you so gila Tower ke?” Jan said, rolling her eyes.
“What? And you all aren’t?” Arthur replied. “what’s the point of going into the Tower if you don’t intend to climb it.”
“Just like a man. You men got options,” Jan said. “You think we got, ah? You think we want to be here? Some of us come ‘cause we have no choice, lah.”
“So, what? Come in, hang out, live life and, maybe, ascend?” Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the point? You can’t even have kids in here.”
“And thank god for that!” Sharmila said fervently.
“No hunger. You mau makan? Then eat, lah! You tak mau makan? Then no need to eatl, aso can! Have to fight sometimes, but can also sleep a lot.” Jan shrugged. “Outside got loan shark. Got rent. Got lot of people want something from you. Here, no one come bother you from outside.”
“Ya lah, that’s right. I wasn’t going to marry him.” Sharmila shuddered at some memory. Then she said, “A Tower climber? That’s status. And hey, no reason you can’t, maybe, eventually ascend.”
A lot of nods then, from some of the other women.
Arthur could not help but contemplate their words. It was an entirely different viewpoint about Tower climbing than he had been exposed to. Everyone in his classes had been like him, dedicated to the idea of bettering themselves through the Tower. Using it for its intended purposes which was, presumably, to ascend.
Then again, were they so different? Everyone who entered the Tower was doing so to escape the dystopian world of automation, low-paying jobs, and barely enough welfare income to pay for their existences. Well, except for the rich or connected, who were here to become richer and more powerful.
“Whatever. I just need to figure this out. Then I’ll be fine,” Arthur said.
“Uh-huh. Just keep telling yourself that,” Sharmila said, following Amah as the older woman turned, heading deeper in the village of tents Soon enough, more and more individuals appeared, women of all sorts, many calling out greetings that were ignored or shushed.
Word spread, and suddenly, Arthur felt himself rather alone in a sea of women. A sea of watchful, angry women.