“Oi! You're leveling up now?” Sharmila grabbed Arthur by the ear and dragged him out of the tent. She gestured impatiently for the women to finish packing, then turned on him again. “Don't you know better than to use refinement points in the field? Especially your first point in Mind? You bodoh, ke?”
“I know a lot of things. And shouting at me is not helping,” Arthur groused.
“So you’re not ignorant, just stupid.”
“Oh, and waiting weeks before I can progress is a good idea?” snapped Arthur as he stood up more fully and detached himself from Sharmila. He walked over to a woman who was pulling his spear out of the tent and took it from her. “Mine.”
“Aiyoh! Just say, lah. No need to grab like that,” she grumbled at Arthur.
“Sorry, ah!” Arthur replied before walking back to Sharmila, who was watching Arthur’s tent and his gear get packed with a critical gaze. “Anyway, I’m not that late, am I?” He looked up at the sky. Hard to tell, but he could see the sun coming over the trees.
“Late enough. We need to put more distance between us and our pursuers.”
“What pursuers?” Arthur said. “I’m not that important. I mean, sure, a few people got killed but they’d just wait for me to come back and then kill me. Or beat up those of you who are still there. No reason to come all the way out here. Unless…”
“Later.” Sharmila’s lips pursed. “Take your bag. Let us go.” Spinning on her heel, she rushed off, not answering Arthur’s own words.
“Suspicious behaviour, your name art Shar!” Arthur cried out at her retreating back.
Sighing, he did as she asked, slipping his bag on and hoisting his spear. He joined the group, falling into the center where they seemed intent on having him. For now, it seemed, they had no need to ask him where to go. Not a huge surprise since they were only a day of hard marching away. Mel, Daiyu and Rani had left word of their route before leaving the larger group.
Well, that sounded like they had a plan. One that they had spoken of and informed the Thorned Lotuses about. Which spoke of premeditation. Which spoke of . . .
“Why you always frowning?” Jan had suddenly appeared beside him.
Arthur jumped, both feet off the ground, his spear leveled at where Jan had been. She had stepped aside swiftly and was now giggling like crazy. Guffaws came from the other women too.
“Don’t do that!” Arthur snarled.
Grinning, Jan sauntered, pushing the tip of the spear aside with her fingers gently. “Keep doing your face like that. Get wrinkles fast.”
He growled, but her continued giggles made him decide that complaining would not end well for him.
“Aiyoh! Just ask, lah!” said the same woman that he had taken his spear.
“What?” Arthur said. He hated Manglish. Getting beaten by his teacher every time he had used it meant he’d learned how to speak properly—or at least, proper enough that he only got walloped once in a while by that snotty old Brit graduate—and created his own rather pointed viewpoint.
“Ask, lah. You know you want, mah.”
She had a point. “Thanks!” Arthur said, then hurried after Sharmila who was at the front of the convoy, his suspicions dancing in his mind.
When he got to Sharmila, he blurted out his theory. “Mel and the others – they learned something. Something important. A hidden part of the first floor, a hidden boss or treasure room. Something important, didn’t they?”
Sharmila's brow drew tight as she turned to him. Her long black braid swung around her leather breastplate, which stood out against her darker skin. It struck Arthur that she possessed the severe look of an authentic woodswoman. If she had a spear like his, she'd make a great ranger cut-out.
“None of your business.”
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Arthur smirked.
“You know, asking too many questions can get you killed.”
“By the time we find them or get to the place, you’ll all love me and my rakish charms,” Arthur said.
“Or want to kill you immediately.”
“Or want to kill me.” Arthur shrugged. “It’s hard being as good looking as I am.”
“My dog more handsome than you,” Jan had been shadowing him, and she now flanked his left.
“Seriously, do you just hang around, waiting for me to say something so that you can poke holes in my ego?”
“Your ego so big I can poke holes from there.” Jan jerked a thumb towards the rear of the group. Sniggers resounded, but she wasn’t done. “But you can’t hear me there.”
“I hate you.”
“I know,” Jan said.
Arthur frowned but dismissed the woman to focus on Sharmila. “So, you going to answer me or what?”
“I’ll take door number two,” Sharmila replied.
Lips thinned, but Arthur realised he wasn’t going to get an answer. Not right now at least. Still, just because they would not confirm his guess didn’t mean he couldn’t . . .
Long minutes later, while he stewed in silence, Sharmila finally spoke up. “What?”
“Huh?” Arthur said, looking at her.
“You just going to pout because I didn’t answer you?” she said accusingly.
“No.” He paused, then grinned. “Unless that means you’ll answer me.”
“Not a chance.”
Arthur sighed. “Figured.” Then, seeing she was still waiting for something, he continued, “I was just thinking about what else I needed to do.”
“Nothing much to do,” Sharmila replied easily. “You show us the place you last saw them, we confirm that we can pick up the trail and then, well . . .”
“Well?” Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Well what? Stopping in the middle of that sentence isn’t disconcerting at all.”
“Nothing bad. We just haven’t decided what we’re going to do with you.”
“What’s there to do? You let me go on my way, you guys go do your thing.”
“Oh, and you don’t want to spend more time with Uswah?”
“Sure, that’s fine. After you guys are done with whatever.” He tapped the strap of his backpack. “If I learn this by the time we’re there, I’ll probably just need a few pointers after.”
“And what about your deal with me?” Uswah said as she appeared by his side. Arthur found himself jumping a little.
She just smiled a little enigmatically, waving a finger for him to continue.
“I’ll tell you whatever you need, after. I don’t want to get involved in whatever you guys are doing.”
“Oh, and he was so excited about a ‘treasure’” Jan replied from behind, tauntingly.
“As though you’d let me get anything good from whatever you guys are up to finding.” Arthur crossed his arms. “I also noticed most of you are stronger than me. Significantly. So whatever it is, it’s dangerous.” He shook his head. “I’m willing to take risks. But I’m not entirely stupid.”
Jan snorted, but Arthur didn’t take the bait. He shook his head, saying, “I’ll give you the information you want. But I’m not coming with you.”
“We’ll take that under advisement,” Sharmila said.
Arthur pursed his lips but nodded. It seemed his saviours were not so much here to save him. Which meant . . .
Deep breath. And then he grabbed the document from his bag to read it over once more. If they wanted to drag him around against his will, he might as well let them do the hard work of keeping him alive while he studied.
Because he was going to need to be stronger, faster, sooner or later.