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Pulchritudinous Malfeasance

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Chapter one.

       There was a light on the horizon.

       Peculiar Inventor noticed it first, as he was starting to come out of his dehydration-induced haze. He stared at it for a good long while, as his companion busied himself with other things.

       Perspicacious Solicitor was starting a fire near the riverbank. This was the best day he and Inventor had had in—well. Ever, probably. They found a river. There were trees growing along the river, some of which even had fruit growing from them. The fruit wasn’t exactly ripe yet, but Solicitor picked some and stowed it in his bag anyway.  Grass grew along the damp soil—so different from the sands of the desert, just yards away—and the river itself was clean and sparkling, fish darting to and fro just below the surface. Innovator curled his fingers in the soft grass and wondered if this is what paradise is like. He stared at the light on the horizon.

       He mentioned it to Solicitor, who was dismissive. Solicitor was probably too tired to properly appreciate the implications of finding this river, let alone think about their future prospects. He’d been wandering the desert too long, carrying Inventor on his back. Inventor decided to talk to him about it later. Instead he gathered up their canteens and bottles, took them to the water and filled each one. Then he set about trying to catch some dinner although, lacking any tools or experience in catching fish, he was not particularly successful.

       Solicitor ended up helping Inventor, drawing his Regisword and spearing a fish.

       Between the fish and the fruit, it was the most substantial meal they’d had in months.

       Solicitor fell asleep as soon as he was done eating. Inventor didn’t sleep. He laid there, curled around Solicitor, watching the light in the distance and wondering what it could be.

       Inventor brought it up again in the morning. Solicitor squinted at the horizon, but the sun was cresting over the hills and the light was no longer visible. Inventor hoped that Solicitor wouldn’t think that he was imagining things.

       “Y’ said it looks like it’s on th’ river?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

       “Y--yes,” Inventor replied.

       Solicitor shrugged, then stowed away his canteen and sword.

       “May ‘s well get movin’, then.”

       Solicitor remained cautiously optimistic as they followed the river upstream. He speculated that it might be an outpost, which had been Inventor’s first thought as well. Solicitor said it could just as easily be, who knows, a volcano or some sort of horrible glowbeast or something.

       Inventor considered this possibility, and had to admit that it seemed more likely, considering his luck.

       By the time the sun set again, the two were closer and could make out faint silhouettes rising out of the glow. Buildings, maybe. Tall ones. A city.

       “Prolly some ruins,” Solicitor noted.

       “People could have s-settled in them,” Inventor added. “Got the, the electricity back up.”

       Solicitor nodded.

       Solicitor caught two fish that evening. The two exiles fell asleep speculating on how many people might be in that city.

       They walked for two days, and when night fell on that second day they could see all the lights of the city in all their splendor. This couldn’t be some tiny outpost, squatting in the decrepit ruins of an old city. This had to be the real deal, a proper metropolis. Their days of walking the desert would soon be over. They would rejoin civilization, not have to worry about the hot sun or rabid hoofbeasts or where to find food and water.

       Inventor hoped they had tea.

       He found Solicitor smiling, grinning wider than he’d ever seen before.

       “It’s, ahh.” Inventor stumbled, looking for the right word and failing to find it. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

       Solicitor nodded.

       They stood there for a little while, staring at the city sprawling before them, before Solicitor said, “I want it.”

       “W--we’ll be there soon,” Inventor assured him. “Probably umm, in another day or so.”

       Solicitor shook his head, brushing his overgrown hair out of his face. “No, no. I want it. Like. ‘m gonna make ‘t mine.”

       Inventor almost chuckled, but the sound got caught in his throat. How long had it been since he’d laughed?

       “I’m s-sure you will,” Inventor said.

       They resumed walking the next morning and arrived in the city before sunset. The transition from desert to city was gradual, with small, abandoned buildings rising out of the sand, followed by larger ones, followed by ones that actually looked to be in use. From looking at signs on storefronts and banks, Inventor discerned that the city was named Metropolis Central. He wondered what it was central to.

       Inventor spent a lot of time staring at the taller buildings in the distance, in what seemed to be the downtown district. Once he looked down and started paying more attention to his immediate surroundings, he found himself hiding behind Solicitor. It was crowded, and people were giving them funny looks. Solicitor noticed his friend’s unease.

       “We look like a couple ‘f vagrants,” he said by way of explanation, tugging on his own beard.

       Inventor looked at his clothes, which by this point were nothing but tattered shrouds. He bit his nails and looked at the people around them, all nicely dressed in clothes that probably didn’t come with them from Prospit and Derse. “W-we. How do we, um.”

       Solicitor brushed his hair aside and glanced around. He seemed to think for a moment.

       “Step one,” he said. “We gotta get money.”

       Before Inventor could point out how obvious that statement was, and how it solved literally nothing, Solicitor ducked into a nearby alley. Inventor followed and found him trying to climb into a dumpster.

       “Gimme a boost, Inny,” he said.

       Inventor was far too weak to lift Solicitor, despite the man’s shorter stature. Instead he crouched down to let Solicitor climb onto his back. Solicitor rummaged through the trash until he found a banged-up plastic bowl, then hopped back onto the ground and dashed out of the alley. Inventor followed him to a busy corner in front of a small grocery store. He sat on the sidewalk, against the wall, and motioned for Inventor to sit next to him. He put the bowl in front of Inventor and leaned in close.

       He whispered, “Look like you’re dyin’, okay?”

       Inventor shot him a look. At any given time, Inventor looked like he was dying. It was his natural state of being. Solicitor smiled, and seemed to interpret this as confusion, because he added, “Trust me, okay? Jus’ pretend like you’re too tired t’ go on. Take a nap if y’ wanna. Jus’ look sickly for me.”

       Inventor pulled his hood over his eyes and laid down. Solicitor gave his head a pat. “Good, yeah, jus’ like that. You’re a damn natural. Now jus’ lemme do th’ talkin’, arrite?”

       Inventor had no qualms with that.

       Solicitor waited a couple of minutes--probably so that anyone who overheard him giving Inventor instructions would pass--and then started panhandling. It wasn’t long before Inventor heard someone stop in front of them and drop a coin in the bowl. He couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by Solicitor’s plan.

       Solicitor thanked the benefactor kindly, and asked if they would like to hear his story. With an amused tone of voice they say yeah, sure.

       Inventor tensed. Solicitor didn’t really mean to tell a complete stranger that story, did he? It seemed awfully personal, and surely there had to be people in this city who would want revenge on Solicitor for the things he’d done.

       Thankfully, the story Solicitor told was not the one he’d told Inventor in the desert. This was a grand tale, a story of courage and betrayal. He was a natural storyteller--this is something Inventor learned in the desert, when Solicitor would regale him with stories from his youth in the Dersite capital. It was no surprise when more people on the street stopped to listen to him speak.

       He weaved his tale carefully, in such a way to draw sympathy from the Prospitians in the crowd, and pity from the Dersites. He even managed to keep anyone from begrudging them the fact that they were very clearly both shadow mages. It was the perfect sob story, despite not a word of it being true. As he neared the story’s end, Inventor could hear clink after clink as more money was thrown into the bowl.

       Solicitor thanked everyone. The crowd dispersed, its members wishing the two exiles luck. Inventor continued to act half-dead. Once it sounded like the coast was clear, Inventor peeked up and looked in the bowl.

       “Not bad, eh?” Solicitor said as he sifted through the money. “Jesus, that fat guy dropped a fifty. How much do ya’ think that is? Think it translates t’ Boonbucks ’r what?”

       Inventor shrugged, then looked in the window of the grocery store. “It looks like milk is ahh, f-four fifty.”

       “So this’s good, then.” Solicitor shoved some cash in his pockets, then stowed the larger bills in Inventor’s clothes. He left a few coins at the bottom of the bowl and ruffled Inventor’s hair through his hood. “We’ll jus’ do this a li’l longer ‘n I think we’ll have enough t’ get started.”

       Inventor nodded, then put his head back down.

       Solicitor told the story two more times, both times gaining the same reaction from the crowd. After that, the two pocketed their latest money, discarded the bowl, and left the corner. Their first stop was the grocery store whose wall they had borrowed. They picked up lunch, and found a park bench on which to eat it. Inventor had never been much of an eater--he’d been worryingly skinny even before exile--but he couldn’t help but relish the simple luxury of eating bread.

       After that, they found a secondhand clothing store.

       Solicitor grimaced at everything on the shelves before picking something out, a defeated look on his face.

       “We’ll get better shit later,” he grumbled. “Jus’ don’ wanna blow our whole stash at once.”

       Inventor looked at the clothes he had picked out. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with them. They were certainly cleaner than what he was currently wearing.

       “I s-suppose an Archagent is used to wearing nicer things,” he said, quietly enough that the cashier wouldn’t hear.

       Solicitor nodded. “Much nicer.”

       They didn’t change clothes right away. During one of Solicitor’s story sessions, a young Prospitian had told him about a nearby shelter for exiles like them. They kept the clothes in the little plastic bag they came in, and headed down the street in search of this shelter. Solicitor spent the whole time talking about how excited he was to be able to take a nice long shower, and maybe even sleep in a bed.

       “Th-they might only have cots,” Inventor warned him, “Or, or mats on the floor, or—“

       Solicitor reached up and papped Inventor’s cheek. “Don’ crush my dreams, darlin’.”

       The shelter was, as far as Inventor could tell from the outside, a dump. It was an old-looking building, cracked with chipping paint. Solicitor knocked on the faded wooden door, and a bright-faced young Dersite woman greeted them. She seemed to falter a bit at the sight of them, two shadow mages, but she did her best to hide it.

       “I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re already full for the night.”

       Inventor wasn’t surprised. Their luck had been too good already, there was no reason to expect things to keep going well. He started to walk away, but Solicitor grabbed him by the sleeve. He flashed a smile at the woman.

       “I don’ think we introduced ourselves,” he said to her. “This here’s my li’l brother, Peculiar Inventor. Ain’t he a doll? ‘n me, I’m Perky Soldier. Nice t’ meetcha.”

       The Dersite woman seemed to shrink under the weight of Solicitor’s smile. “Um. Y-yes. Nice to meet you. But like I said—“

       “Oh, it ain’t nothin’,” he insisted. “We got no problem sleepin’ on th’ floor ‘r whatever. ‘s all we did in th’ desert, right?”

       “Oh, right, that. That’s true.” She let out a weak chuckle, and toyed with her hair. “I’m not sure I can, though. Fire codes, and all.”

       “We won’t tell no one if you don’t,” he said.

       She struggled with the decision, chewing on her lip as she stared up at Solicitor and his wide smile and his green, green eyes.

       She opened the door.

       “Just for one night,” she said, letting the two pass.

       “’f course,” Solicitor replied, giving her a kiss on the cheek. She turned away quickly to shut the door, her face turning a deep shade of red.

       The showers were empty when Solicitor and Inventor got to them. The rest of the exiles were in the mess hall eating whatever cheap gruel they had. Solicitor and Inventor still had some food left over from their trip to the store, and Inventor preferred to avoid crowds whenever possible, so it seemed the best time to use the shower.

       They showered together. After all this time, they’d become accustomed to doing everything side by side.

       “How do you, um.” Inventor bent down so Solicitor could massage some shampoo into his hair. “I mean. Everyone’s been uh.”

       “They been doin’ what I want ‘em to?”

       “Y-yes.”

       He scrubbed at Inventor’s scalp, working out months worth of filth. “People usually do what I tell ‘em. ‘s my stat distribution.”

       Inventor nodded. His own stat distribution was weighted towards Imagination. He was always meant to be a scientist, and Imagination breeds intelligence and creativity. Of course the former Archagent would have favored Pulchritude, but Inventor had never seen that stat put to such good use.

       Quietly, he wondered if Solicitor had been using his Pulchritude on him.

       “You’re uh. R-really good at umm.”

       “Bein’ charismatic. I know.”

       Solicitor rinsed out Inventor’s hair.

       “Y-you. You could have been such a great Archagent.”

       “Coulda been,” he said, handing Inventor the bottle of shampoo. “’sa li’l late for that now.”

       Once they’d cleaned up, they donned their new clothes, happily discarding their old, sandy shrouds. They did not have a bed, instead claiming a little space in the corner. They slept in shifts, so that no one could take what money they had left. They left the shelter early the next morning.

       Inventor followed two steps behind Solicitor, watching his friend walk with purpose. “Where’re we going to s-sleep tonight?” he asked. He was content with an alley or something. It wasn’t very different from his childhood, sleeping on park benches and trees because he wasn’t welcome in his own home, but he was sure Solicitor wanted something better. “I mean umm. Do you think you’ll be able to, to sweet-talk the shelter workers again, or…?”

       Solicitor shook his head. “I could, but I ain’t gonna. I got sights higher’n that.”

       Before Inventor could ask him what he meant by that, Solicitor stopped him and motioned towards a barber shop.

       “Let’s say we finish our li’l makeover, shall we?”

       Solicitor pushed Inventor inside and told the barber to make the both of them look “dapper ‘s hell”. Twenty minutes later, the two were short-haired and free of facial hair. Inventor found himself gawking at his partner.

       “I know what’cher thinkin’,” he said, grinning that bright smile of his. “It’s, ‘oh no, he’s hot.’”

       Inventor frowned, turning away to look at himself in the mirror instead. “Oh please, Sol.”

       “’sa normal reaction,” he said, adjusting his collar. “I’m th’ finest man Derse ever did churn out. Not even m’ grey skin could keep th’ ladies offa me. ‘n the fellas too, ‘f course.”

       “I d-don’t think my hair’s ever been this short,” Inventor said, to try and get Solicitor to quit bragging.

       “’t looks good on ya’,” Solicitor said, slapping Inventor’s back. “Y’ look downright respectable.”

       Inventor tried not to blush.

       Solicitor paid the barber and led Inventor back outside. They walked down the street, until Solicitor pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket—it looked to be ripped out of a book, likely one of the books from the shelter—and looked at it.

       “Wh—where are we going?” Inventor asked.

       “Here,” Solicitor said, shoving the paper back into his pocket. “’san apartment buildin’. I think I can get us a roof over our heads.”

       “W-we don’t have enough m-money for that,” Inventor said. “P-pretty sure we don’t.”

       “Shh.” Solicitor smiled and patted Inventor’s back. “Jus’ keep quiet, I’ll handle everythin’.”

       Solicitor walked inside, with Inventor on his heels. There was an office near the front of the building, and Solicitor let himself in. The two had to wait a bit for the landlord to come back from some errands, and Solicitor spent the whole time flirting with his secretary. When the landlord finally returned Solicitor greeted him warmly, as though seeing an old friend, and shook his hand. He started out asking if there were any vacancies in the building—there were, several of them, and Inventor noted from the tone of his voice that this was probably more vacancies than he wanted. Solicitor didn't point this out. He simply told the landlord his and Inventor's story. Again, the story was false, and this one was entirely different from the one he had told before. The two of them were down on their luck, laid off from their jobs, but they totally found new ones. Thing was, the gap in paychecks got them thrown out on the streets, and they needed a place to stay. They'd be able to pay the deposit and rent by the first of the month—Inventor quietly wondered what day it was, and whether Solicitor had bothered to check—so can they please have a place?

       The landlord wasn't sure, but Solicitor kept at it, assuring him that he wouldn't regret it, he'd have his money soon enough, there was nothing to worry about.

       “We're right respectable young fellas,” Solicitor added, throwing an arm around Inventor's shoulders and grinning. “You can trust us.”

       In the end, they got the place.

       It was pre-furnished, just barely. Solicitor threw himself into the dusty old mattress and laughed.

       “I can't believe 'e bought it!”

       Inventor stood in the middle of the bedroom. It was a small place. Just a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. There was only one bed. The dressers were falling apart and the sinks were running.

       “H-how are we going to pay rent?”

       “We'll figure 't out,” Solicitor said.

       “And th-the deposit,” Inventor added. “I. I don't think we c-can panhandle for that much.”

       “We'll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Solicitor said, sitting back up. “How much money we got left?”

       Inventor rummaged through his pockets. “Ninety eight dollars. A-and ten cents.”

       “Good. Next step 's get some groceries 'n a couple more changes 'f clothes. Get really settled in.”

       Inventor put the money away. “And look for j-jobs, right?”

       “Sure, yeah. T'morrow.”

       Solicitor held his arms out. Inventor frowned, then climbed into bed and hugged Solicitor.

       “So um.” Inventor rested his head on Solicitor's. “When you, ah, t-told me about, about everything you uh. You weren't just making it up, were you?”

       “I wouldn't lie about all that,” Solicitor said.

       “A-are you changing your name to P-Perky Soldier now?”

       “F'r now,” Solicitor said, leaning into Inventor. “Can't use my real name, 'm sure ev'ryone knows it 'n would wanna have words with me.”

       “A-at least I can still call you Sol.”

       “'ntil I think up somethin'better.”

       Inventor reflected on how quickly everything had changed. For the past few months all he and Solicitor had to worry about was the sun, the cold, and finding food and water. Now the desert was behind them, and they had no time to adjust before having to worry about things like jobs and rent.

       Solicitor papped his cheek.

       “You're thinkin', ain'tcha?”

       Inventor nodded.

       “Don't. Everythin'll be fine.”

       Inventor nodded again, then flopped down, taking Solicitor with him. “I g-guess even the gutter is, is better than the desert.”

       “At least water's not at a premium now,” Solicitor said. “We've got two sinks, Inny. All th' water we c'n drink!”

       “D-dehydration is a thing of the past.”

       Solicitor chuckled, wiggled out of Inventor's arms and rolled off the bed.

       “'ll head out 'n grab us some food,” he said. “How's about y' hold down th' fort, hmm?”

       Inventor nodded. Solicitor ruffled Inventor's hair, then left the apartment.

       Inventor lay on the bed for a while longer, staring at the ceiling and being quietly amazed with the whole situation. Their exile was over. They'd found their way out of the endless desert and found civilization again. They had clothes and water and a roof over their head.

       It was really over.

       He crawled out of bed and made his way to the window. The view was not spectacular. In fact, all he could see was another building across an alleyway. Through the reflection in a window he could see the city itself. A lone beacon rising out of the desert, shining and beautiful. No wonder Solicitor said he wanted it.

       Inventor's Imagination stat was impressive, but even he could not imagine how Solicitor could take a whole city.