He had stopped bleeding by the time they were out of the crowd. His shirt was still stained with blood and stuck to his body as he moved, the dark splotch showing up against the tan brown of the shirt he had been given. Not his favourite colour. He much preferred black, for reasons like this.
Well, that and splatters from eating black-sauce hokkien mee.
“You okay?” Yao Jing said, the big man having fallen back to speak with him. “I can find a small alley, block it off for us to look at your cut.”
“Bleeding’s already stopped. We should keep moving. Just take your time, eh?” Arthur said. Then, glancing backwards to a commotion from behind, he noted three individuals wanting to break through. The leader was an Indian man, somewhere in his mid-thirties and with a turban on his head. A Sikh then, Arthur mentally corrected himself. All three were, actually.
“Let the leader in,” Arthur called, waving Yao Jing aside. He did let his hand drop idly to his kris though. Everything he knew about the Sikh—some of whom had taken up the warrior culture in their history with gusto—said they were not likely to be dishonorable assassins. But that was in generalities.
People, as individuals, could be idiots.
The Sikh leader stopped in front of Arthur, a hand resting on the kirpan by his side. He did not draw it, but let his limp wrist lie just on the hilt of the curved, single-edged sword-dagger; this particular one was a practical weapon that sat in size between a short sword and a dagger. Ever since the introduction of the Towers, the entire religion had shifted again, from symbolic wearing to actual training and use of the blades as weapons.
“Thank you for speaking with me. I am Hartaman Singh.” Gesturing behind to where his people stood, he said, “We have come to join you.”
“Why?” Arthur blurted out, not expecting such a blunt offer. “Do you want to die?”
“The Suey Ying tong is a blight on the people. As warriors of honor, we would seek the return of your woman,” Hartaman said.
“What do you know?” Arthur said, a little heatedly. Unconsciously, he’d stopped and was glaring at the man, his hand tightening on the spear by his side.
“Nothing that is not public,” Hartaman said as he gestured around at the crowd. “The rumors have flown. They have taken your woman, intend to torture her until you yield to them.” He shook his head, and the green turban he wore bobbed with each word and gesture. “This cannot be accepted. Nor can we allow a new clan, one that has so much promise, to fall into their hands.”
Arthur hesitated, staring at the other man’s face. The Sikhs were generally well liked, being a mostly peaceful and kind group. Of course, that was not always the case, what with the younger crowd breaking free from religious constraints in search of money and fame. But the Tower had been, in a way, a boon to them.
As it had been for others like Arthur.
Now here they were. Offering to act as the virtuous warriors they had been brought up to be: kind and compassionate at the same time as fearsome. Maybe dreams did not have to die, with the coming of the Tower and new technology.
“Accepted.” Arthur offered his hand for the other man to shake. “I won’t accept you into the clan right away if that’s what you’re looking for,” he said and noticed a slight twitch in the man’s expression, supposing it was part of the reason he had offered to help. Arthur added, “But we can talk about it. After.”
“Good, good,” Hartaman said, then glanced back to his people.
“Why don’t you and your men join the front of this group?” Arthur pointed to a place near Yao Jing. “Send my men—well, my women—over to the left, and you take the right.” It also meant that if he needed to strike at them if they betrayed him, they were on his stronger side. “Hold that position and spread out when we get to the boundary.”
“Then we talk,” Arthur said firmly. “Talk first. War, if negotiations are not possible.”
Hartaman nodded, agreeing to the suggestion immediately. Arthur could not help but be grateful that so far, none of those he had picked up were aching for a fight. Well, other than Jan, but she always looked like she wanted to bite someone’s head off.
Once the group had rearranged themselves, they made their way forward. Yao Jing, having been sent back to him, was tasked with planning additions to the group. Arthur made a snap decision to make Yao Jing in charge of talking to potential recruits along the way. Unless they represented a larger group, like another clan or a family.
Thus far, though, none had offered to help. That was no surprise to Arthur, for such organisations did not survive by jumping into every worthwhile crusade. Nor were there any familial or friendly ties between him and them. Such bonds took time to build, and it was why people like Amah Si and Mohammad Osman were in charge of finding them additional help.
It did mean, Arthur had to admit, he was going to owe Amah and Osman. But everything had a price.
With interruptions delegated to Yao Jing, the group kept moving forward. They managed to make it most of the way to the boundary of the newbie village, followed by a crowd of curious onlookers and gathering another dozen or so volunteers before another group, a full dozen men and women, came to a stop near them.
All of that group looked bedraggled, some clutching clubs as their weapons. There was an intense passion in their eyes that belied their torn and dirty clothing. The Durians and their allies were forced to stop as the new group blocked their path. Their leader wielded a carved wooden staff.
“Arthur Chua!” the man roared, hammering his staff on the ground. “We want you speak with us.”
Hartaman, being at the front, shook his head. “No one demands anything. Especially not people who don’t announce their names or intentions.” His hand caressed the hilt of his kirpan, but he did not draw it, cognizant of the Tower guards around.
“We are the beggar clan!” the man snapped, stamping his staff.
“Bullshit!” another voice cried out from the crowd. “There’s no Beggar Clan in Malaysia, you idiots.”
The other man hesitated for a moment before he spoke, a little less harshly this time. “We're not The Beggar Clan. We have no affiliation to them. But we're beggars, and we work together. So we are a beggar clan.”
Arthur snorted as he pushed forward to the front. He could understand the man’s sudden reversal. No one wanted to annoy the real Beggar Clan. Their leaders were powerful cultivators, all based in China and Hong Kong, individuals who luxuriated in wealth and might take offence at their clan’s name being taken by another. Though no longer beggars, they still kept to their roots, allowing anyone to join them so long as they tithed a portion of their income to the clan.
“Might want to change what you call yourself,” Arthur said. “You don’t want them smacking you down, just ‘cause.” Then he waved his hand, cutting the man off before he could rebut. “Don’t care anyway. That’s your problem. What do you want?”
“You are Arthur Chua?”
“Last time I checked. I could ask others, though.” Arthur looked at Hartaman and raised an eyebrow.
“I just met you, so if you say you’re the leader of the Durians, I will accept it. It would be rude otherwise,” Hartaman said immediately.
Arthur snorted, then looked at the beggar. “There you have it, nameless beggar.”
“I’m not nameless. But I might as well be, to you people who walk by us, spitting at our feet . . .” the man began to rant, only cutting off when the woman who had been standing by his side shoved him in the shoulder. The man glared at her, but the middle-aged woman did not flinch and only glared back. Eventually the man let out a long sigh. “I’m Joe.”
“Joe the beggar. What do you want?” Arthur wondered if he had really been named Joe or had chosen such a pedestrian name.
Joe snarled, slamming his staff into the ground again. This time, though, a puff of earth erupted from the attack, causing the cobblestone it struck to crack. He fixed Arthur with his gaze. “Are you mocking me, boy?”
“No. I thought I was doing the opposite,” Arthur said quietly. “You didn’t give me a name, and you wanted to be called the Beggar Clan. But that doesn’t matter. I ask again. What do you want? I have another group to deal with, and since you’re meeting me here, where we can’t fight, I’m assuming you aren’t here to fight. Right?”
The no-combat rule of the beginner village encouraged hot-headed people to calm down and use their words instead of their fists. But Joe didn't seem one for calm, rational discussion. Nor were his emotions particularly well hidden, for the anger he had pointed at Arthur now changed targets. He spat out, “The Suey Ying tong. They pick on my people, attack and steal from us. Half of those who joined us—and there are more than you can believe—were killed by them. We will have our revenge. I swore it.”
“We’d also like friends too. If you’re looking for those,” the woman who had struck Joe said. “I’m Suriani.” The tanned woman inclined her head.
“I like friends,” Arthur said. “And I like passion. But too much can be dangerous.”
“Let them join, lah,” Jan said. “These fellas are good people. Though idiots, sometimes. Like someone I know.”
Arthur glared at the girl, then suddenly grinned viciously. Reaching over, he grabbed her arm and propelled her forward. Jan looked affronted and surprised at being randomly touched.
“This is your boss,” Arthur told the beggars. “She’ll give you orders. You listen to her, got it?”
“What?! I’m no boss,” Jan yelled.
“Too late. You opened your mouth.” Arthur gave her one last push, before he waved the rest of the group forward. He let the bodyguards envelope him again before he took off walking. Jan let a little squawk of outrage as she was pushed ahead by an evilly grinning Yao Jing.
Unfortunately, all too soon, they reached the border. And that put an end to all fun and games.