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Knights and Knaves

R.D. Simmons was born in the shadow of a great cathedral on the northern edge of the Roman Empire and currently lives in a city by the sea. He lurks around Twitter and other corners of the internet under the handle @barlbarian.

It had been a busy day for the Guardian of the First Door; no fewer than three heroes had come his way. That was often how it happened, though. Centuries could pass with barely a tomb raider to break the monotony, then some king or other would set a quest and suddenly, bam--wall-to-wall questers. Today's trio had all worn sandals and tunics, suggesting they had set sail from a sun-kissed island of olive groves and crystal-clear waters. The first had entered the chamber as dawn broke, the second in the mid-morning, while the last had only arrived in the Room With Two Doors as the shadows outside were lengthening and the Guardians had been about to knock off for the day. He was barely more than a boy, with blond curls that glowed in the dying sun and an angel's face set hard with determination. A son seeking to avenge his noble father, rather than a street-urchin on the adventure that would make him a legend, the Guardian guessed.
Not that it made any difference. The lad had asked the wrong Question, just like the others, and when he chose the wrong path, the Guardian of the First Door had unsheathed his great double-handed sword and taken his head. The Guardian of the Second Door had chucked it on the pile with the rest, and together the two of them had dragged his body into the room of the Wrong Decision, where the Most Sacred One would dispose of it. How, the Guardian did not know. One did not question the doings of the Most Sacred One.
Anyway, what with the welcome (given by the little old man with the long beard who sat in the corner of the Room with Two Doors), then the explanation (the old man again, who always milked this bit), then the Question, followed by the execution and the resulting clean-up, they'd ended up leaving late. The Guardian didn't mind that--you had to do the job properly, after all--but he'd had plans for the evening and was keen to get off.
It was dark and the grasshoppers were chirping in the big field as he walked up the familiar dirt track to the house.
"You're late."
"I'm sorry, light of my life. It was a nightmare on the road."
Jacinta sucked in her cheeks suspiciously. "You've been drinking. Went you to the tavern?"
"There was a hero today. He sought to dull my wits with wine and thus best me in combat if he chanced to ask the Wrong Question. He failed."
"That is no answer. Went you to the tavern?"
"Sweet Jacinta, I would have thought after all these years you would display a little trust. I am the Guardian Who Cannot Lie. It is cruel that you would exploit my curse such. Cannot a man have his secrets, even from the one who is most dear to him?"
"Went you to the tavern?"
The Guardian gave an exaggerated sigh. "No, oh rare and radiant flower, I went not."
"So you have not seen Bria today?"
"Don't play coy--you know of whom I speak. That wench from the tavern. The one who always holds you in her gaze with eyes of sapphire. Have you seen her today?"
"No. Are you satisfied?"
Jacinta nodded. "Forgive me, dear heart. I only wished to be sure."
"Your doubts do you no credit, oh beauty of beauties. What woman could have more reason to be certain of her paramour's fidelity, than you?"
She lowered her head, accepting the wisdom of what he said. "It is the truth. With you, it is always the truth. I will doubt no more." She sought to change the subject. "How was your day?"
"The Guardian of the other Door vexed me. Truly, he is a wicked fellow. He wearies me with his endless lies."
"You should not speak of him so. He is your brother. Your twin brother. It is not his fault that the same curse which compels you to speak only truth compels him to utter only falsehoods."
"Maybe not, but to stand beside him every day as he drips his poisoned words, to see my own face speaking with a deceiver's tongue...."
"It is his duty, as it is yours to be his antithesis. More than a duty: it is your destiny."
The Guardian shrugged, as if to say that destiny was overrated.
"Come, let us speak no more of your labors. Meat and honey wait for you upon the terrace and, once you have eaten your fill, we shall retire to the bedchamber, where you may find honey of another sort." Jacinta fixed him with her brown eyes and tossed her long chestnut hair.
The Guardian allowed himself a wry smile as he followed her to the terrace. Trouble would surely come of this, but it would fall upon his brother's head, not his own. The woman Bria was comely, no doubt, but tonight would be followed by tomorrow. Sooner or later, Jacinta would ask an innocent question and the truth would out. The truth would always out, when it came to his brother. Deceit was best left to those well-practiced in the art.
"Am I not the most desirable woman you have ever laid your eyes upon?" Jacinta stood upon the terrace, her willowy form shimmering seductively in the light of many candles.
How trouble had not already arrived with a woman who asked that kind of question, the Guardian truly did not know.
"I have never seen a lovelier being in all creation," he replied. For a second he thought he caught a flicker in those brown eyes, but it was gone before he could fathom it. Jacinta gave a smile that showed every one of her white teeth, and he smiled back, and together, they sat down to dine.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 28th, 2021

Author Comments

This story is based on a pretty famous riddle--a version of it originally entered my consciousness as a child thanks to the British "puzzle adventure" book Time Train to Ancient Rome, though you may know it from Labyrinth or Doctor Who. I didn't find out the real name of the logic problem until I'd written the piece but was delighted to find on Wikipedia that it is "Knights and Knaves," as I thought it made for a nice short story title. It wasn't a very planned story--I began with the first line and then built out to see what would happen. I think I just wanted to write something a bit Greek mythy in atmosphere, and when you have as your main characters a duo who can only lie or tell the truth their private lives is the inevitable place to go.

- R.D. Simmons
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