“Wake up,” Sharmila said, her foot prodding at his knee. He opened his eyes, clear and without the fog of ascending from cultivation. She glared at him for a second before she nodded, as though her suspicions were confirmed.
They probably were.
Arthur felt no remorse in doing so. The spear he had on his legs came with him as he stood up, idly placed by his side as he waited. Calm. Almost serene, it seemed, thanks to the Yin Body. A corner of his mind gibbered at the thought of death, but it was a small voice.
Was being killed by erstwhile allies any different than being slain by a monster? Dead was dead and his mangled corpse would not care.
“You’re not running? Or fighting?” Sharmila said, an eyebrow rising. He could not help but note that it had gotten a little bushy, now that she had drawn attention to it, the gap between two eyebrows closing.
He did not, however, mention it. Though it might make a useful distraction if he had to fight. “I’ll fight if I have to. But I’m hoping I don’t.”
“Don’t think you can tipu us, ah. Any trick, you die,” Jan said, having edged around to his back.
If she had hoped to startle him, she would be disappointed. Those eyes of his, his only real talent upgrade, was more than sufficient to pick up her sneaking behind him. “You’re the ones dragging me around. I’m more strapped to your horse, rather than a willing participant. I’ve asked to leave, multiple times.”
“And then track us, ah? No way, man,” Jan snapped.
“Peace.” Uswah spoke up, stepping forward. “It’s not our choice.” Dark eyes, lying heavily on Sharmila. It seems the women, even Uswah, deferred to the Indian woman’s decisions.
Sharmila bit her lip, considering. She turned her head one way, then the other before letting out a long, exhausted sigh. “I don’t want to kill for no reason. And he’s been faithful thus far.”
“But . . .” Jan protested. “He has to promise not to take it then!”
“Why don’t I just leave? Before anyone else says anything, eh?” Arthur said, offering a placating grin as he tried to edge away. Of course, that did not work and instead their gazes sharpened, with Jan shifting to block his movement.
“No leaving!” Jan snarled.
“Then just make up your mind. I could be doing something better with my time. Like dying,” Arthur said. “Or flying.”
“Flying?” Uswah said.
“I thought rhyming would be too on the nose.”
Sharmila sighed. “He’s too much of an idiot to be a traitor.”
Jan snorted but relaxed a little.
“Okay. Here’s how it is. We need to finish the job, find our people, and collect the treasure,” Sharmila said. “We can let you go, but then we risk you following us.” She shook her head. “We can’t have that. So you come with us, but you got to promise you won’t keep the treasure to yourself.”
“And what do I get out of it?” Arthur crossed his arms. “You’ve dragged me all the way out here, not let me collect any cores, and what? I get dragged even further into possibly fatal danger for nothing?” He threw his hands up, exposing his chest. “If you want to kill me, just kill me already, lah. ‘Kay?”
“He asked.” So saying, Jan drew her parang, leveling it at his neck.
Arthur stared right back without flinching.
“Jan. Enough!” Sharmila said before sighing. “What do you want, then?”
Arthur shrugged. “Fair share of the cores. Knowledge of what is to come and, of course, a promise that whatever may happen, you let me walk away safe and unharmed.” He paused, seeing them stir a little before adding. “By you. I understand, of course, the Tower is no place of safety.”
“And you’d trust us?” Sharmila said.
“It goes both ways, doesn’t it? We start, one way or the other. Or we end it. One way or the other.”
Still holding the parang to his neck, Jan pressed a little harder, pricking his skin and leaving a thin line. “I still say we kill him now. Kill him and dah cukup. We don’t need him.”
“And I’m still the boss,” Sharmila snapped. “So put your sword away. He has a deal. I won’t become the very kind of people we’re trying to break free from.”
“Fine. But I get to say, I told you so, ke,” Jan withdrew her blade, pushing it back into its simple, soft leather sheath.
“Parang. Not really a sword as much as a machete. It’d be better if she actually had a real sword. More options and length,” Arthur said, even as he stepped back and touched his neck. His fingers came away bloody, but the wound had already begun to clot.
“Oi! Who the weapon expert now,” Jan said, sarcastically. “The guy carrying a long stick.”
Arthur just rolled his eyes, ignoring her comments, and turned to Sharmila. “You gonna explain the plan?”
Sharmila pursed her lips, looking uncomfortable now that the matter was brought to a head. It was Uswah, standing silent till now, who spoke up. “We’re looking for a clan seal.”
“On the first floor?” Arthur yelped. “Those things don’t appear till the tenth, at the least!”
“Normally. But there are cases when such things happen,” Uswah said. “And, with a clan seal, we’ll finally be able to break free. Make the Thorned Lotuses an actual guild, with the ability to build a guild house in the lower levels, safeguard our people. Even recruit and give guild bonuses.”
For once, the usually quiet woman grew excited.
“That’s why you sent some of your strongest,” Arthur said, remembering Mel and her group. “You need to bind it to her, don’t you?” There wasn’t much in terms of details about clan seals on the Internet, what with being one of the most sought after items. However, a few things were well known.
A clan seal allowed the formation of an official establishment recognized by the Tower. Unlike the informal organisations created by the humans who entered a Tower, such an establishment—called a clan, guild, or corporation depending on your location and preference—had Tower-given rights. Among them, as already mentioned, certain types of guild rights.
For example, at the lowest level, a clan seal holder was recognized by the town guard as nobility. They were protected from casual violence while within the confines of the Tower villages. They were allowed to purchase land and create buildings on each Tower level they visited. Those who fell under their banner would receive advantageous prices at the store. Inter-Tower mail, transportation between Tower establishments, and most important, the ability to allow a limited number of individuals to exit the Tower on a limited basis before Tower completion.
Such organisations became powerful very fast.
They were also incredibly rare. In the entirety of Malaysia, there were but two such organisations. In the world, just over a thousand.
“Yes.” Sharmila confirmed his suspicions, eyeing him now that their secret had been revealed. “So what do you think?”
Arthur shrugged. “What do you want me to say?” He had to silently thank his Yin Body. Without which, he would appear uncountably excited. Something that would be entirely the wrong move right about now, especially considering the way Jan was caressing her parang hilt. “Is it exciting? Sure. Definitely a secret to kill for. But am I going to do it?” He shook his head. “I’m not dumb. I just got into the Tower. That kind of power means I’m someone’s lapdog for the rest of my life. Worse than staying out there.”
Sharmila searched his face, lips thin and angry. Eventually, not finding what she was searching for, she nodded. Jan, by his side, relaxed.
Which was why, of course, he decided to push it. “I do have one other condition though, now that you’ve mentioned this.”
“What condition?” Jan was tense, while even Sharmila had shifted the position of her weapon aggressively.
“I get to join you guys.” He waved a hand. “And without any, you know, sex change or whatever.”
“Do you think we’re all women?” Uswah said, a hint of laughter in her voice.
In answer, he just gestured around.
“We have men too, just not so many, “ said Sharmila. “And they're not pondan, if that's what you were thinking.”
“Ya-lah. So you can still be a man,” Jan chimed in. But she just had to add. “Though, with your Yin Body ah, maybe you're not anymore.”
“You’re a real biao zi, aren’t you?” Arthur said.
“Yup,” Jan replied.
Well, at least she had an understanding of herself. And he, an understanding of what was to come. Even through the enforced calmness of the Yin Body, he found himself excited for the future.