Arthur was not surprised by what greeted him as he stepped up to the invisible border between the beginner village and the tents outside. The change in buildings and the strip of cleared land—forcibly cleared by the Tower guards when someone accidentally built upon non-authorised land—was where Arthur’s clan met Boss Choi’s tong. This liminal zone between the Tower and the Choi’s own lands were where groups often met to negotiate tense and important agreements. So it was here that the Suey Ying tong waited.
Two dozen individuals, more than what Arthur had expected but fewer than he feared. He could not help but smile a little, knowing that the tong was significantly outnumbered. Of course, a small part of him wondered how many of his “allies” were truly that, but even so . . .
“Finally, you came,” Boss Choi said, standing in front of his people. “Ei. You there or not? Or hiding like a coward?” He proceeded to peer between Arthur’s guards exaggeratedly, drawing mocking laughter from his men and a few genuine ones from the onlooking crowd.
Arthur shook his head, knowing the other man was mocking only to draw him out. That it annoyed him a little was even worse, though he did his best to push that emotion down. Now was not the time to act on his impulses, not when Choi held Mel.
Still, he did make his way through his guards, ensuring that he could stand clear of them and be seen by all. It would certainly not do to hide behind and shout over their heads in a negotiation. It would make him look too weak.
“I’m here. Maybe you should consider glasses, if you can’t see me,” Arthur said, leaning a little on his spear. “Where are they?”
“They?” Boss Choi said, smirking.
“The people you took prisoner,” Arthur replied, ignoring the man’s provocations. “You must know that we know. And that you can’t win this fight.” He gestured to his accompanying men. “Even if you seem intent on having one.”
“Why you say that?” Boss Choi said, stepping forward. “Maybe I just want to talk.”
“If you wanted to talk, you’d have met us inside the village.” Arthur hooked a thumb backward at the village behind him and the crowd that had begun gathering, though at a distance. None of them wanted to get caught in the inevitable battle. “No reason to meet here otherwise, I would think. No?”
“Smart boy. But you have to be smart . . . to kill my brother and steal his kris,” Boss Choi said, his voice low and angry.
“Please. Not like you ever cared much for him.” That much, Mohammad Osman had mentioned to him on the walk over. Along with expanding on some of the internal politics and fractures the Suey Ying tong was facing. He did his best not to flick his glance to the right, to where Ah Yam, Choi’s lieutenant, stood. No word if he was willing to betray his boss. Or even consider it.
“He was my brother,” Boss Choi snarled, stepping forward. “Maybe an idiot, but which family got no idiots?” He threw his hands open, speaking to the crowd. “I don’t care about your people, but you . . . I want you.”
“Really . . .” Arthur’s eye twitched then. This was a new tactic. Not one he had expected. He had anticipated demands for him to bow down, to accept Choi as his boss. The return of the kris, maybe. Or even acceptance of the Suey Ying into Arthur’s clan if he went that far.
Not an attack and an appeal to family.
The worst thing was that Choi’s tactic was effective. Arthur could see more than a few people giving him looks of askance. The way the public mood had shifted, the way they stared at him. The bonds of family were strong, and revenge for a brother—unliked or not—was a compelling case.
“Yes, really!” Choi echoed.
“Then why did you take my friend?” Arthur said. “Why hurt her?”
“She hurt us! Killed one of my people. Sent two more to hospital,” Boss Choi snapped. “We took her alive; we even bandaged her wounds. See!” A gesture had his men bring Mel, whose arms were tied up in front of her. Indeed, her fingers and other wounds had been bandaged. In fact, other than the bruises and bloody bandages, she looked relatively put together. Someone had even taken the time to wipe down her face, though a gag kept her from speaking.
Mel growled through her rag at the pair. Arthur met her gaze, tracked down to her wounds and broken fingers and then up to her eyes again. The woman could only shrug a little. She then struggled to loosen her arms slightly from the tight grip of her captors.
“Well, I’m here,” Arthur said. “Let her go.”
“You think I stupid, ah?” Boss Choi gestured at the village. “I let her go, you run away and hide. I don’t get my revenge. Then you send your shadow killer, try to kill me.” Arthur guessed he meant Uswah.
Boss Choi sniffed. “No. She will stay with me until we finish this.”
Trapped. Damn it. Everything he said was reasonable, which was the most annoying part of this. The crowd, even Mohammad Osman by his side, was nodding along. The Sikhs on his other side, just past where Yao Jing stood, looked perturbed. The only people who didn’t seem to care were the beggars, whom Jan had to constantly growl at to stay contained.
“So, what? You want the kris back?” Arthur shrugged. “I don’t think so. It’s a deadly instrument. And your brother, he used it on me. On my friends. Attacked us when we were getting our clan seal, right after we had fought so many jenglot to get it. He attacked us when we were already exhausted and hurt. Your brother killed those he could have spared . . . so I won’t say I’m sorry that I killed him.”
Silence greeted his words for a moment, and Boss Choi trembled with contained rage. Where he had seemed steady before, now he looked almost unhinged. His eyes grew bloodshot from unshed tears, and he gripped the handle of his weapon tight.
“So you did kill him. It was you.” Boss Choi spat to the side. “Wasted my time on this stubborn girl, didn’t open her stubborn mouth.”
Mel struggled again, pushing against the bonds before she glared at Arthur. He cursed himself a little, for falling for the oldest trick in the book. Yet, he could not feel too bad about it.
“Doesn’t matter. He needed putting down. He was a rabid dog that came after us, and I don’t regret it,” Arthur said, letting his voice harden. “I’ll do the same to you and your tong if I need it. Let her go. Let all of your prisoners go.” He drew a deeper breath and added. “Then, break up.”
“What?” Boss Choi said, caught out for once.
“Break up. The Suey Ying ends today. Join other groups. I don’t need you all to die. But I want the Suey Ying gone.” His words brought forth a roar of approval from some in the crowd, but mostly from the beggars and his own people. “This ends. Today.”
“You want me to give up my people? Give up my revenge?” Boss Choi returned to his line of appeal, shaking his head. “NO! I won’t give up my people. Come out and fight me, boy.”
“And get swarmed by your people?”
“Scared, ah?” Boss Choi gestured at the two dozen he had and then back to Arthur’s larger group. “You got so many, still scared ah? Little boy.”
Again, murmurs of disapproval. Arthur knew that as many as allies he might appear to have, they were newly forged friendships. There was no guarantee they would fight for him, or that there were no spies and traitors within. If it came down to an actual fight, he was not certain of having the upper hand.
After all, one party was fighting for survival. The other, for revenge.
That, of course, was the knot. And the solution to this predicament. If he was willing to risk it.