A Heretic by Degrees
by Marie Brennan
The king was dying, and nothing in the world could save him.
The Councillor Paramount said, "Then we must look outside the world for help."
The suggestion was heretical, and treasonous to boot. Two years before, the king
had established by sacred decree that there was only one world, and that nothing
lay beyond its bounds; anything seen there was a delusion, a final torment sent to
test the faithful before their eventual salvation. And for two years, his Councillors
and subjects had respected his word.
Now they faced a choice. Disobey the king -- or lose him. Commit treason, or let
him die, and with him, the last remnant of the sacred royal line.
The Councillor Paramount's statement met with a lengthy, embarrassed, indecisive
By the standards of his predecessors, Qoress was new to the position of Councillor
Paramount; he had been in service for a mere two years. The man who served
before him had gone into the spaces outside the world, and only his right arm and
half of his head had come back. Thus the decree, and thus the need for a new
One might expect from this that Qoress would be the last man to suggest that
something might exist outside the world, much less that help might exist in those
places. But he was a thoughtful man, and moreover one who cared for his king;
also, he knew that his fellow councillors were a weak-willed lot who would
consider and discuss and debate and do everything in their power to avoid making
a decision, for whoever brought matters to such a point could subsequently be
blamed for it.
From out of the rustling of ceremonial robes and uncomfortable creaking of stools
came one timid, anonymous voice. "But -- we wouldn't know where to start."
Their lack of spine served Qoress' purpose, for it meant they wouldn't argue with
him. He smiled down at them all, hands arranged in the gesture of Serene
Confidence. "Do you really believe all of His Holiness' subjects have obeyed that