They brought him into a building, not the central one but off to the side of it. Amah was already seated, rubbing her knee with a grimace of pain. By the side, a woman was brewing tea.
“Sit. Sit. We don’t have a lot of time. We got you out, so talk. And make it quick,” Amah said, glowering at Arthur.
“First things first, names!” Arthur said. “I’m Arthur. Arthur Chua. Be nice to know the name of my savior.”
“You can call me Amah Si.” The old woman’s hand moved off her knee for a second, touching the cane by her side as she glared at Arthur. “Now, talk.”
“Right, so, I met your girls the first time by accident. They were in a fight with . . .” Arthur chose to speak, fast, no longer seeing a point in delaying. He owed them for saving his ass after all, but he wasn’t out of the fire yet. Maybe edging towards the fire’s edge, but he knew what they wanted. Eventually. Thus all the noise he could hear outside, the bodies he could catch in the reflection of the glassed window of people hurrying.
When he finally ran down and finished telling his story, Amah Si stared him up and down. She frowned as she looked over his body, then nodded abruptly.
“Sharmila!” She called out.
The big, dark-skinned Indian woman poked her head around the corner. “What?”
“Take him to get washed and changed. He stinks.”
“I . . . do.” Arthur paused, taking care not to sniff himself. Vomiting and bleeding and sweating and exuding corruption while cultivating was not a good smell.
“Well then, stinky. Move!” Sharmila snapped, causing Arthur to jump up. He grabbed at the edge of his chair when he realized he’d moved too fast, wincing as his head spun. Once he had his feet underneath him though, she chivvied him into the nearest bathroom.
Arthur was not at all surprised when he found the bathroom cleaner than most that he had visited. After all, Amah Si did not strike him as an individual who allowed things like uncleanliness or slovenly behaviour to exist within swinging range of her cane.
So, in a clean, pandan-and-bleach smelling bath, he cleansed himself. The scrub and exfoliating brush he found nearby did wonders for his skin, leaving him to marvel just for a second, at his transformation as a cultivator.
Of course, unlike a real bathroom, there were no showers, forcing him to go old-school using a pail and barrel. Surprisingly, the cold water was invigorating rather than freezing. He luxuriated for a few moments in being actually clean, before his time of peace was interrupted.
“Mmm . . . so are you a shower or grower?” Sharmila, standing inside the bathroom with a towel and a change of clothing in hand. She was staring at Arthur rather admiringly.
“Oy!” Arthur spluttered, covering himself. “I latched that door!”
“And?” Sharmila smirked. “You think we let you in alone without a way to get in? You think we’re that trusting?”
Still covering his privates, Arthur glared. “No, ,ust a pervert. You know, this is assault.”
“I haven’t touched you. Yet.” She shook the towel in her hand, smiling. “Also, I came here to offer you this.”
“Fine. Sexual harassment.” Arthur growled, walking over and snatching the towel. “You do realise, if I was a guy doing this to a girl, you’d be screaming bloody murder. Equality means you don’t get to do shit like this either.”
“Well then, I guess that means you have permission to walk in on me when I’m bathing,” Sharmila replied. She even winked.
Surprisingly, beyond the initial shock, Arthur found that he was not as embarrassed as he could have been. Some of that, of course, had to do with having shared quarters and bathing areas with women. Accidents did happen, though there was often a lot more blushing and apologies involved.
Still, her sauciness and outright flirting didn’t affect him like it should have. Any other time, he might have grown bolder. Maybe stepped up, kissed her, played the game of daring to see how far he could push it. He had never been sexually shy.
Right now, though, while he could feel his desire, it was at a remove. As though a slight film was covering it, letting him gauge the entire situation with less heat than before. He could see the way her eyes had tracked over his body initially, but now, beyond the over-exaggerated licking of lips and perusal of his body, Sharmila was watching him—his face, his body language—with a different kind of intensity.
As though . . .
“Tiu. You’re testing me.” Arthur sighed, running a hand through wet hair. He might have flexed a little. He might be weirdly cold about all this, but he was still a man and rather vain about his body. Long hours training meant he was ripped, especially since his meals had become Tower-energy intensive.
“Amah was right.” Sharmila said, suddenly relaxing and turning away to put the robes aside. “She’s always right. It’s really annoying.”
“Right about what?” Arthur asked, stepping closer.
He hesitated, losing his chance to grab her by the arm. That last inch, that sacrosanct millimeter of space where physical touch became all too invasive between people who lived in crowded cities and stand breathing in each other’s faces on packed trains and buses . . . that invisible barrier stopped him.
And she was gone. Leaving him asking the air, “Right about what?!”
Dressed and dry, he found the woman waiting with Jan. The pair seemed to have chosen—or been chosen—to be his guards. In short order, he was down the stairs, hustled out of the building. When he craned his neck for a glimpse of Amah Si, he was pushed forward with a stick in his back.
“Ouch. And where are we going?” Arthur groused. “I’m grateful for the rescue and bath, but I’m not exactly thrilled at being led around.”
“Out. We’re headed out,” Sharmila replied breezily, her head craning from side-to-side constantly.
“I get that, but where out?” He waved at the few buildings and many tents around him. New buildings were still being constructed by industrious women and the occasional few men. “What’s the plan?”
“You don’t know, ah?” Jan said, derision in her voice. “It was your plan, mah.”
“You show us Mel and others, we save them lah!”
“Right. Of course. My plan.” Arthur sighed. Well, it was better than being slowly beaten to death. Still . . .
“Cheer up. We’re going to meet Uswah. She’s got a Yin Body like you. You can learn how to cultivate from her,” Sharmila said, prodding Arthur again with her stick. “Then maybe you’ll be a real man again.”
“I’m not . . . you . . .” Arthur threw his hands up. “Fine. Whatever. But I need my bag.”
“Ya, ya, kita dah bawa.” Sharmila tossed his bag over. “Now move, before the Suey Ying tong stop talking and try bursting in.” One more prod and Arthur grumpily caught up with Jan, who had started moving faster. In the distance, he could just about spot the commotion by a tent, where a group of large, burly, and angry men stared in their direction.
Yup. Definitely better than being beaten to death.