“Valle Paradox,” answered Freeborn.
Valle Paradox: where shamed academics live on in feudal chaos, debating their flawed theories ad naseum, casting misshapen temporalgorithms into the cubic ether and warping actuality with every barbed, non-canonical entry into the world’s spatialgebra. Valle Paradox: the anus of hypotheses, the blasphemous academy of the failed postulation, filled with polygauchos, parallellamas, and concaverines locked in tedious, eternal debate. Valle Paradox: home of the Nimble Riddles, as far from the pool of knowledge as one could get within the country of Logic, shaded by twin mountains that flanked the northern gate from the lands of Reason. When good sense falters, it enters Valle Paradox.
“And so shall we,” he said, “for La Sphinx’s implication points here. This is ‘where one and one adds up to nothing’.”
His heart, still bleeding from the arrow, quivered with anticipation. The descent of the mountain had posed no problems, once Freeborn had assessed the angular geography and its petitio principiices (though not its fauna, which had caused no small degree of annoyance–especially the pentadragons). His armor—the black silver suit his mother had given him, that which sheathed a thousand icy daggers—had been invaluable on his journey, even now as it ran low on supply. He traced his finger along the eighteenth breastplate line, counting five remaining filled slots. He would need to be frugal henceforth.
“Thirsty,” he said. “Do not worry. We are almost there. We should point out that you are still very weak from our fight with the existenebrae, so you must try to keep calm.”
The beating in his chest evened out. Using the endless silk rope (which he’d won from the dualist spiders during a necessary spelunk through Cueva Gnosis), Freeborn abseiled down the final vertical drop and beheld the sprawling mishmash of shanties that formed the slum settlement of Valle Paradox. Somewhere in this tatterdemalion city was a black, transient house. It was invisible now, showing no signs of movement, but Freeborn knew it was there. It was Emy’s house.
Emy: silver-haired, almond-faced holy grail of his heart, the bane and vein of his existence. A maiden of omens, she had divined in her youth that her true love would cause her to forsake her cherished House of Forever, a precious artifact of transience, of which she was appointed sole guardian. Freeborn had caught sight of her in the waters of Rio Historia, fallen madly in love, and had been courting her ever since. Heart displaced from mind, he had given chase across the country, from Selva Thesauri to Grim Castillo to Lingua Aride and now Valle Paradox. She left him letters with every escape, which told him of the pain she felt at running from him; of how she couldn’t forgive herself to stay. Freeborn’s task was clear: he would find her, convince her of his love, and they would together guard her house forevermore.
Find me before I foresee your coming, she had written, and perhaps we might have a chance.
Midnight light filtered faintly through the mist, shedding white flecks on Freeborn’s helmet, as he crept through a narrow alley between two derelict houses. Beyond, in a small, vacant plaza, stood a square well made of glistening white stone. A conic bucket lay flat on its side, affixed with a rope to an axis-in-peritrochio, next to a rough painted sign which read: Hearty minds, drink freely.
“A simple well,” he said, “though odd in construction. Luck’s Lantern shines upon us tonight. Give us a moment to quench this thirst of a hundred leagues, and we shall resume our search forthwith.”
Freeborn raised his helmet, lowered the bucket into the yawning darkness, and drew up a cone of water. No sooner had he lifted his head to swallow than his heart tromped and rolled, causing him to spit.
“What are you telling us?” he said. “Are we not thirsty?”
“And who is this man who speaks to himself,” said a voice from behind him, “all dressed up in gleaming, and alone in the dark?”
Freeborn spun around to face the speaker, a dagger from his breastplate poised to fly.
There in the plaza stood a bespectacled stranger in a blue turnback gown, bearing no apparent weapons save a sharp, raised eyebrow on his prominent forehead. The man raised his hands, waving away any perception of ill will.
Freeborn frowned but gave him a customary bow. “We are Freeborn Galawain,” he said, “of the Bosky Nostalgics in Rio Historia. Is this your well, good sir, and might we drink from it?”
“It is everyone’s well,” the stranger said, smirking, “and you can certainly drink without permission. But I caution you: all wells in Valle Paradox are poisoned. It is the way of things here.”
Freeborn put a hand to his lips, considering his narrowly-avoided death. His heart gave a knowing shrug, and he thanked it in silence.
The bespectacled man took a careful half step, lowered his arms, and began walking circles around Freeborn, keeping the eyebrow raised and the smarm on his pale face. “Cat got your tongue, young man? A moment ago you were speaking like an emperor. You are an emperor, aren’t you? Logic tells me that if you speak like it, then you must be it.”
“We are no emperor, good sir. We are afflicted with plurality; a parting gift from Lingua Aride, where we last sojourned.”
“Ah, Lingua Aride! Where the wordsmiths trade pablum on camelback and djinn! I can see that you are a storied young man. Tell me, what brings one such as you to this humble city? Are you a black knight? A noble wanderer?”
“We would appreciate your name first, good sir. A common courtesy, having given you ours.”
With a stomp of his foot and flourish of his gown, the man introduced himself as The Great and Departed Topological Propositioner Virgil Amarillo Rostro Jr., Last of the Moebius Scholars and First of the Valle Paradox Speakers. “But you,” he continued, “may call me Yellowbelly. It is less kind on the ears than ‘good sir’, but far more appropriate.”
“A coward, then. If we were to threaten you, Yellowbelly, would you direct us to clean water?”
“Oh, there is no need for threats, Freeborn! They say water is more precious than pablum, though knowledge is by far the most satisfying. Come to my house and regale me with your story. I’m positively positive that my glasses are half-empty, but there’s more than enough for the living. In any case, we mustn’t be out after curfew.” With that, Yellowbelly sauntered off, past a black wall and into a dim shanty, its rough exterior stained with damp and time.
Freeborn hesitated but, finding no arguments in his heart, followed anyway.
Yellowbelly’s little shanty was a muddled, ramshackle affair which, to Freeborn, spoke volumes of its tenant’s disposition. Papers were strewn across a cot and tables in haphazard fashion. Empty fountain pens littered the plank floor. The balsa walls were filled with hasty, unintelligible scribbles. Freeborn struggled to find an empty area to situate himself but, failing that, ended up standing on an unfurled scroll. Yellowbelly gestured to a tall corner bookshelf.
“I have a waterskin behind that volume of Liber’s Homeomorphisms. The one on top. The cork is wrapped in twine and hasn’t been broken. You’ll find eight gulps of not-so-fresh spring water in that, still clean.”
Freeborn reached for the vermillion tome and found that, indeed, there was a waterskin behind it, still fat with liquid. He undid the knotted twine, popped the cork, lifted the mouth to his lips and, feeling no disagreement in his chest, drank four healthy gulps. He offered the rest to his host, who declined, raising that pompous eyebrow once more.
“You seem to think I have need of that,” Yellowbelly said, and, sensing confusion: “You’d be mistaken. My body has long since been put in the dirt, and water only serves to bar my crossing. Did you know that waterskins are made from sheep’s bladder? Ingenious receptacle; can keep all manner of fluid.”
Freeborn took one more sip, then deposited the skin in his breastplate. “So you are a specter? A poltergeist?”
Yellowbelly put his arm through the breastplate in confirmation, ephemeral as a notion.
Freeborn’s heart clenched out of a sudden chill, but relaxed when the phantom limb was removed. He shook his head and said, “Our condolences on your loss, and apologies for our ignorance.”
“It’s nothing,” said Yellowbelly. “Cowards rarely live long, even if they do like to run. My colleagues at Lago Nihil saw fit to hang me after my momentous thesis on Coplanar Infinity. Standard practice, mind you. It’s a fatal move to contradict annalistic continuity; such was my folly. But then the thirst for knowledge survives all kinds of death, wouldn’t you agree?”
“We are no scholar, Yellowbelly, but we sympathize with your condition. When our time comes for final sleep, we hope to be afforded simple dreaming.”
Yellowbelly laughed then: a low, sonorous bellow, like an earthquake. “Your virtues are much differed from mine, Freeborn. You pique my interest. Now, I’ve given you water and fulfilled my part of the bargain—your turn. Tell me of your intentions here in Valle Paradox. Why come to such a place, knowing—as surely you do—that no less than a thricefold abandon will permit your departure henceforth?”
“We seek a soothsayer; a diviner; a woman by the name of Emygdia Omens. Perhaps you know of her? She reads lifelines and tomorrows.”
“I’m afraid not, young man. You’re welcome to try one of the eight registrars in the city, but I suspect their census documents to be counterfeit, else borrowed from another city. Why a paltry oracle? Are you so concerned for your future?”
“Only inasmuch as it precludes our love.”
“Love! So you are a knight! A bonnie questing knight, out searching for his lady love! Logic tells me that she is a princess of outlandish beauty! Am I right?”
“She is no princess, but the queen of our heart. We seek her hand in marriage.”
Yellowbelly began to rifle through his papers, throwing scrolls and gewgaws aside. With a triumphant “aha!” he raised a wrinkled brown folder. “This is a record of people who’ve lent their testimonies to my studies. Describe this woman to me. Leave no detail out. Perhaps I’ve encountered her in my research.”
“Her name is Emygdia Omens. Flowing silver falls from her precious head, framing a sublime visage of dappled, creased wonder. Her eyes, the color of fine wine bottled in clear—”
“Dispense with the poetry! Give me facts! How old is she? What is the color of her skin?”
“Her skin is the color of fine snow at sundown. Her age like the ocean, eternally renewed—”
“Four score and seven, last monsoon. We meant to see her on her birth’s date.”
“Eighty-seven!” Yellowbelly dropped the folder. “She’s a crone! You’re in love with a crone! A handsome youth like you, pining for a gypsy hag! Shame!”
Freeborn slammed his gauntlet against a table, rattling the rickety old shanty.
“Yellowbelly! We will not tolerate another word said against her! She is our true love; our paramour; our soul-half and destiny! She has kindled a light in the darkness of our being and remains our sole purpose in this world. She foresaw us before we were born, braved the lonely years before our first encounter, and now that our lifelines have overlapped, we have fought arrows and mountains, perfidy and starvation, pentadragons, cobolds, kitalics–even underlions!–just to be in her presence once more. We have shared our purpose in this city in gratitude for water, but we will not let you sully our love with cheap, verbal inconsideration!”
A harrowing wind swept through the shanty, sending papers into the air. There came a gentle tap on the door, followed by an incrementally louder tap, then another, stronger one. Yellowbelly’s eyes widened. He put a finger to his lips and motioned for Freeborn to hide himself.
Still seething, Freeborn stepped into the shadow of the bookshelf, as he struggled to pacify the thundering in his chest.
Yellowbelly opened the door, just as the tapping grew frantic. “Yes?”
A raspy voice, like frog’s whisper, but loud enough to hear from across the room: “Disssturbancssse.”
From his murky vantage point, Freeborn could make out four slender, long stilts outside the door.
Yellowbelly stared up at their owners, hands shaking. “A fitful dream,” he said, “of mountains and, er, underlions. Nothing more. I apologize for the noise.”
Another voice, similar to the first, but deeper: “Presssent Debaterssss Licenssse.”
Yellowbelly reached into his turnback gown and produced a small card. “Here. It’s still valid, mind you. Renewal’s not for another decade.”
Two long sticks, like welding rods, stretched down from above and seized it from his hands. “Hsss. Virgil Amarillo Rosssstro. Firsssst Ssspeaker, it sssaysss.”
“Like mosssst othersss in the ssscity. Isss meaninglesss.”
“Ssshould asssk you a quessstion.”
“Or,” Yellowbelly said, clearing his throat, “you could delay your ardent interrogation for another time, for it would cause an even louder disturbance. You heard my impassioned somniloquy; if a dream could provoke that, what more a question from yourselves? As a valued citizen of Valle Paradox, I’m more than willing to pay the requisite disturbance fine. Tomorrow, before sundown. Should I fail to deliver, you may, of course, ask away.”
Silence, as the stilts swayed and jittered beyond the door. Thin rods lowered the license card into Yellowbelly’s hands.
Freeborn’s heart tensed, imploring him to keep still. He trained his gaze on a single stilt, readying a dagger should things go awry, until finally:
“Sssubmit disssturbancssse fffine. By sssunssset.”
“Or be asssked a quessstion.”
“I hear and understand, great guardians.” Yellowbelly pocketed his card. “Thank you for your patience, and my deepest apologies for the disturbance. I swear on my grave: it won’t happen again.”
“Ssssee to it, ssspirit.”
Yellowbelly closed the door and let out a sigh of relief.
Freeborn stepped out of the shadows. “They are officers of this city, we presume?”
“Officially unofficially,” said Yellowbelly, taking a seat. “A quirk of Valle Paradox’s geography, even before the settlement was established. Are you familiar with the Nimble Riddles?”
“We have heard of them, yes, in limericks and serventesios. They are bogeymen; wordspun horrors meant to frighten children.”
“They’re as real as the beating of your heart. They guard the northmost gate out of the country of Logic and, as a result, the domain of Valle Paradox. They tolerate us during the day, but at night, question anyone who speaks above seventy decibels. Hence the curfew. And the noise ban. You shouldn’t have raised your voice.”
“It was you who raised your voice first.”
“Noted. Apologies for that. And for my—how did you put it?—verbal inconsideration—”
“There have been enough apologies for one night. We accept, and thank you for your assistance. Thrice tonight you have helped us—first by warning us from poison, second by offering drink, and third by concealing our presence from danger. If we could pay this fine for you, we would, in gratitude.”
“It’s nothing. As I said earlier: you pique my interest. Now, I am most certainly certain that I’ve never interviewed an eighty-seven-year-old woman in all the years of my research. Logic tells me that she must be somewhat new to this city, else you’d have arrived here much earlier than tonight. All new citizens build their own shanties; Emygdia Omens is a new citizen; therefore she must have a shanty in the outer areas.”
“She already possesses an abode; a House of Forever which, on reflection, can transit from city to city. It is black and boxlike, with a single white door.”
Yellowbelly’s eyes lit up. “I’ve not seen such a shanty. A House of Forever, you say? Interesting. As a scholar of Eternal Topology, I know all the byways and backroads of this circuitous city. I would be an excellent guide. Let me assist your search in the morning. I am an old, bored recollection, and your company stimulates the intellect, however temporary.
Freeborn could only nod in agreement, offering but the slightest hint of a smile. At sunrise, after a dreamless slumber in Yellowbelly’s cot, he realized that his bleeding heart, steeped in loneliness for so long, had grown quite fond of this dead coward.
Noontime found Freeborn still wandering the streets of Valle Paradox in search of Emy’s house. In rapid succession, his erstwhile guide led him into an existential debate with a parallellama, a duel with a concaverine, and a tussle with a pig-headed polygaucho. He had expended a dagger in blocking an oncoming hyperbola and another one in disabling his challenger. Needless disbursements, Freeborn reasoned, but his heart kept faith in Yellowbelly, leaving him no course but to follow.
At the Mercado Hypothetical, where citizens traded in suppositions, Freeborn recalled the disturbance fine, and endeavored to ask: “Why did you not answer the Nimble Riddle’s question? It would have been child’s play for a fine tongue such as yours. You would not have had to pay.”
“Ah, Freeborn,” said Yellowbelly, “the price, regardless, is risk. Nimble Riddles pose a life or death question. Failure or hesitation to answer would lead to indefinite uncertainty; a state of being neither here nor there; a fate worse than death. Or undeath, as it were. A coward such as I wouldn’t dare engage such a question.”
“We have become dubious as to the truth of your cowardice. We think that perhaps you are much braver than your name implies, to be helping us so.”
“I think I know myself better, young man. You project your own bravery at me. Our names lead us to places as surely as our footsteps, and the boot still fits. Don’t trouble yourself to plumb an imagined depth to my character. I am no mirror of you.”
Freeborn held his tongue and let the subject lie, as they trekked to the Exterior Podium—where new arrivals to Valle Paradox set up temporary residence, until license could be bought—then backward, to Capital Herring, where exiles absconded to, in avoiding their premises. It was at the Parque Bandwagon, during a public performance of the Orchestra Ad Numerum, that he began to grow certain of duplicity.
“Yellowbelly,” he said, “we would impress upon you how we are all most vulnerable to the ones our heart confides in.”
“Fret not, my friend,” said Yellowbelly. “Everyone knows that there is music where true love is ignited. I’m positively positive that your prospective paramour is somewhere in this crowd. Hold my license for a moment, would you?”
“We mean yourself,” Freeborn said, accepting the card. “We hope that you will not end by causing us grief. We are most vulnerable to any wounds you may care to inflict. That, it appears to us, is what friendship means.”
“Friendship means knowing another to the point that you know yourself. If you truly considered me a friend, you’d not be making such misguided statements.” He paused at a crescendo and continued: “Would you know if Emygdia likes cake? I remember a bakeshop in Calle Gastronomos which I consider quite the mouthful, and if she is predisposed toward cake, she might situate her shanty right across. And if she is the sort to eat it, too, adjacent would be the most tasteful placement. Either option is viable!”
At sundown, under the shade of cherry trees, Freeborn was assured, without doubt, that his heart had betrayed him.
Pink blossoms glowed orange in the last light of sunset. They had stopped at Jardin Botanical, where propositioners plucked ripe arguments from trees. It was here, after a fruitless day of searching, that Freeborn’s tongue broke loose, unbidden: “No more games, Yellowbelly. Tell us where she is.”
The smirk returned to Yellowbelly’s face. “It seems,” he said, “that your naiveté has a limit.”
Freeborn trained his gaze on Yellowbelly’s left foot. A dagger, suffused with cold intent, shot out of his breastplate, sliced through the air and hit Yellowbelly square on the instep.
The man stepped out of the point of attack with the ease of the ephemeral. “Don’t be stupid, Freeborn. I am nothing you can bleed, remember?”
“Tell us where she is!”
“You were a victim of selective observation. The black wall, next to the well? That was her house. She was my neighbor all this time, Freeborn. I would have shown you to it eventually, had you not mentioned that it was a House of Forever.”
“Traitor,” said Freeborn, at war with his heart. “This game is at an end, Yellowbelly. We shall leave you now to see to our love. We cannot punish your mendacity, but we will not soon forget it.”
“On the contrary, my friend. You’ll not leave to meet this witch, whose magics must have been potent, to have instilled such devotion in you. You will forget when the Nimble Riddles ask their question: a kinder fate than this parody of love, and far more appropriate.”
Freeborn took a step forward, then realized he could not. His somnolent feet, bound by an invisible force, could only move backwards. “What sorcery is this?” he shouted. “Release us!”
“The fine for disturbance is a mind pushed to irrationality, easy pickings for the Nimble Riddles. The day’s meanderings have been to my benefit, my friend. You’re standing in a cul de sac of my fashioning; a city-wide moebius strip; a space of coplanar infinity, traced in your very footsteps. You could try to walk back to the well, but the Riddles will find you answerable before then. Enjoy forever, for as long as it lasts.”
With that, Yellowbelly sauntered off, past algebrushes and cherry trees, leaving Freeborn to contemplate his doom.
A harrowing wind swept through the garden, sending leaves into the air. There came a gentle tap on the floor, followed by an incrementally louder tap, then another, stronger one. Freeborn’s eyes widened. His heart shrank, as the Nimble Riddles entered view. Mottled plumes of words walked in on stilts, their airy letters forming skeletal masks which obscured their true faces.
“Sssee the fffine sssubmitted? The ssspirit ssspoke sssoooth.”
“A sssimple sssacrifice, it ssseemsss.”
Freeborn raised his chin, defiant. “We are not the ghost you seek, Nimble Riddles. Yellowbelly has fled to his shanty, where you last saw him, to commit further offenses. He is the one who owes you, not we.
“Debatersss Licenssse. Iiin your sssharp sssheathhh.”
“It isss you.”
Freeborn inspected his breastplate. Finding the card which held Yellowbelly’s name, he silently cursed himself for accepting it. “We entreat your understanding, Nimble Riddles! We were placed here through a malicious contrivance of events! This is a travesty of Logic and a mockery of all that you protect!”
“We sssafeguard Logic, irrasssional one.”
“Anssswer thisss quessstion:”
“Whhhat am I, that you if sssay my name, I disssapear?”
As the garden blossoms sparked a final orange in the grave light of the moonrise, Freeborn’s thoughts raced to overtake the question. His heart surfaced an answer. Freeborn ignored it and offered his own: “Silence.”
The stilts swayed and jittered at his response. Freeborn shut his eyes, stilled his heart, and prepared to enter indefinite uncertainty.
Hoary voices broke his calm as they hissed, in unison: “Ansssswer accsssepted. Ssset off, passer of riddles, and be free from our myssstery.”
Freeborn opened his eyes. The Nimble Riddles were gone. Heart pounding, he took a step back, and another, and another, toward Emy’s House of Forever.
At the fatal well, Freeborn shook free of his footsteps. He could not fathom how he had broken free of the loop so easily, but suspected that Yellowbelly’s influence had somehow failed. Touching the remaining pair of daggers in his armor, he strode past the glistening well and stopped at the black house beside Yellowbelly’s shanty. The beautiful white door was ajar.
Freeborn stepped through and confirmed his suspicions. There Yellowbelly stood, at the center of the house’s sole room, surrounded on four sides by mirrored walls. He did not register Freeborn’s entrance, captivated as he was by his own reflection, reflected upon itself four times ad infinitum.
“By the gods of Lago Nihil,” he said, “never have I been so enchanted by infinity. So elegant yet so casual; almost a perfunctory trait of existence. I understand now: eternity resides in the finite self, like a riddle, like precious water, mere light bounding from mirror to mirror in constant, reflexive plurality.”
Freeborn remained at the doorway. “We would have given you an endless rope and the devotion of a bottomless heart, had you been the coward we thought you were,” he said. “Instead, we leave you here, in the house of our love, until the end of time.”
Freeborn reached into his chest, drew out Yellowbelly’s waterskin, and placed it by the threshold. “Enjoy your forever, for as long as it lasts,” he said as he closed the door. He brushed away a patch of dirt in front of the house and found Emy’s letter, where she always left it:
My dearest Freeborn,
The prophecy has come to pass. The house is no longer mine. I have fled through the gate at the edge of the city, into the lands beyond the country of Logic. Find me in the state of Epiphany, past the borders of Reason, where foresight cannot dwell. There, perhaps, we might finally have our chance.
Heart in hand, Freeborn walked toward the triangular gate. The twin mountains which flanked Valle Paradox ended their slopes at its edges. Midnight light fell from the sky in sheer opalescent beams, painting sinuous brushstrokes over the black silver armor, which lay strewn in pieces among Freeborn’s footprints.
“Your answer to the Nimble Riddle,” he said to the lump in his grasp, “we shall prove wrong. When the time comes, we will say her name, and she will not disappear.”
Three skeletal masks hovering on stilts greeted him at the gate. The rules were clear: a thricefold abandon was required in order to cross the borders of Reason. Freeborn was ready.
“I bring only a heart, a rope, and myself,” he said. “I have cast off my armor, my daggers, and my past. These I now leave behind.”
A tremulous whisper: “Passser of riddles. Exsssit with permissssion.”
With singular resolve, Freeborn faded into the waiting triangle, his heart grown heavy with hopeless desire. He carried it, straining, into the wordless unknown beyond.
Andrew Drilon is a Filipino comics creator, writer, and illustrator. He was a finalist for the 2008 Philippines Free Press literary award and is a recipient of the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Award. He is best known for his experimental webcomic, Kare-Kare Komiks.
His work has appeared in K-Zone, Philippine Speculative Fiction, Siglo: Freedom, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Genre Stories, Playboy, and Bewildering Stories. He is a regular cartoonist for The Philippine Star newspaper and a proud founding member of the Litcritters writing and literary discussion group. Andrew is currently hard at work on his graphic novel, Black Clouds.
The image of the daggers is from here.