Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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A Heretic by Degrees
    by Marie Brennan
A Heretic by Degrees
Artwork by Dean Spencer

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 silence.

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 Councillor Paramount.

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 decree?"

The councillors would have gone traipsing about the capital in a vermilion-robed herd, looking for criminals who had gone outside the world, had Qoress not stopped them. They'd been chosen based on lineal tradition and priestly oracular signs, not espionage capabilities. No one outside the palace knew the king was dying, and Qoress wanted to keep it that way.

Finding the help they needed took money they did not have, and time, which was even more precious. But their investment was finally rewarded when the Holy Royal Guard brought a man to Qoress' chambers, on the right sort of charge of treason and heresy.

"You got no proof," were the first words out of the man's mouth when the guards shoved him to his knees.

Qoress regarded the man for a careful moment. His stocky shoulders and barrel chest made him appear nearly as wide as he was tall; too much of one dimension, and not enough of the other. By the ancient principles of harmonious bodily proportion that governed palace life, the man was entirely displeasing, and moreover the length of his nose indicated an untrustworthy nature. But the palace inhabitants, harmonious of build though they might be, did not have the expertise he needed.

Qoress indicated with a flick of his fingers that the guards should leave.

When the two of them were alone in the room, he said, "You have been brought here for a purpose. I swear beneath the foot of the Agate God that if you help us, your crimes will be forgiven, in the eyes of both gods and men."

The man's dull face lit up slowly at his words.

"But," Qoress added, before the man could speak, "this matter is one of utmost security. Therefore, I also swear beneath the foot of the Agate God that if you betray even the tiniest part of this matter to anyone in the world, your blood will boil in your veins, your eyes will roast in their sockets, and your skin will crisp from your flesh, your flesh from your bones, until nothing remains of you but a pile of ash, soon scattered by the wind. Do you understand me?"

After a frozen moment of horror, the man swallowed convulsively and nodded.

"Very well," Qoress said. His own words left a bitter taste in his mouth. Not because he regretted the necessity of threats; he would burn a hundred men to ash if it would save the king. No, the bitterness came because it would not save the king. He could kill, but he could not heal.

He had to hope that someone else could.

Qoress stood before the man, clasping his hands in the gesture of Sorrowful Resolution. "You have been outside the world," he said. "We have need of your experience. It is said that many wonders exist in the places we do not speak of. Is an ability to heal the sick and dying among those wonders?"

It was remarkable, Qoress reflected some time later, how quickly one adjusted to strangeness when there was need. Since becoming Councillor Paramount, he had not once been within three paces of anyone so common and vulgar as Haint, the criminal he had recruited, but now they stood side-by-side at a map table, studying the image and speaking heresy.

Haint's blunt finger stabbed down at a town. "That ain't there anymore. Nor that. Nor that. And the river's dried up, with the spring gone." With one swoop, his unmanicured nail denied the existence of an entire swath of the world.

Worse than Qoress had realized, then. There had been a second decree, not long after his ascension to Paramountcy, declaring that all of the towns, rivers, fields, and other portions of the world were where they had always been. Obedient to the king's sacred word, everyone had disregarded the lack of communication with a number of towns in the east, the disappearance of those who had lived there. But what Haint was describing went well beyond the vanished area Qoress knew had provoked the decree.

So the rumors were true. The world -- what remained of it after the judgment of the gods had begun -- was continuing to fade.

But that was not Qoress' true concern. "Beyond that?"

"Beyond that," Haint said, "there are two places. Up here --" He tapped the northern edge of the disputed area. "You don't want to go there. Creatures there look like six-armed wolves, eat anybody who comes near them. That's what happened to the guy before you. Lucky for us they don't much want to leave their home. But to the southeast . . . there, we might have luck."

Qoress stared at the southern portion of the map, the lines and letters melting away in his mind as the places they marked had melted, leaving a blank, unknown space. "What lies to the southeast?"

Haint grinned at him, showing crooked teeth. "Another world."

The arms of the chair were tangling the sleeves of even the relatively plain robes Qoress had worn to the meeting, and the seat was too high for him to sit comfortably. He was already vexed by his inability to understand the choppy clicks that passed for language in this place; little things like awkward furniture frayed his temper still further. But he could not trust Haint to handle this without supervision, and so here he was, committing an unthinkable crime: not just speaking of a place his king had told him didn't exist, but going there in person.

He had seen a disturbing number of his countrymen walking the tunnels that passed for streets in this . . . he was not yet comfortable with terming it a world. Yet he did not know what else to call the place; it wasn't a delusion, whatever the king's decree had said. He knew it the minute he stepped over the border and found himself beneath a punishing trio of suns that made the need for underground dwelling immediately apparent. And that was before he met any of the impossibly slender people who inhabited it, as unlike the stocky bodies of Qoress' people as dandelion fluff was to a log.

Haint appeared to be arguing with his interlocutor, though given the sharp edges of the language, it was hard to tell disagreement from friendly speech. Certainly there was much back-and-forth, with hand-waving on Haint's part, and rippling shrugs that Qoress thought might be the equivalent on the other fellow's part.

Finally Haint turned to Qoress and sighed. "Right. It's going to be more complicated than that."

The words produced a peculiar mixture of hope and dread in Qoress' heart. "What do you mean?"

"They can't heal anybody," Haint said. "In fact, they don't believe in healing anybody; if you get sick or hurt, then you've offended . . . spit me, I don't even know what he said you've offended. Some kind of god, I guess. And he says none of the worlds they border on can do anything more than medicine -- only he calls it 'blasphemy juice,' which is pretty funny, I thought." He caught Qoress' expression and hurried onward. "But that doesn't mean we're at a wall.

"See, it goes way past here, right? There's our world, and there's this place, and the place with the wolf-things north of here -- only I guess it's west for them; it's where their suns set, anyway -- I don't know, I'm still not great with their language. But they've got other worlds on their borders, and those places border other places too."

Despite his resolution to do whatever he must to save the king, Qoress was deeply uncomfortable with this kind of talk. "Please come to your point, if you have one."

Haint took a deep breath. "My point is, they say there's a guy who can help. Not by healing, but by taking us to somebody who can. He's a guide. Knows a bunch of different worlds. If there's any place where somebody can wave their hands and make a dying man get well, he'll know where to find it. And he'll take you there and back. For a price."

Already this had gone well beyond what Qoress had in mind when he first suggested looking outside the world for help. But could he turn back now? Salvation for the king might lie just a few steps further over the edge.

"Find me this man," he said.

The man insisted, via intermediaries, on meeting them somewhere else.

Haint went with Qoress, but he no longer led the way; his heretical crimes had only extended to the tunnel-place and one trip, brief and ill-advised, to the place of the wolf-people. They had a new guide for this journey, a man of the tunnel-place who knew the realms beyond.

Together the three of them sailed, with guards, across a small and inexplicable stretch of sea, whose sky of shifting colors marked it as yet another place -- another world, though Qoress' mind still shied from the term. The guards were there to stab over the boat's edges at things beneath the water's surface which Qoress chose not to examine too closely.

The place beyond that seemed sane by contrast. The people were taller and slimmer than Qoress' own, but not too strange, and the sky had the proper pair of suns, not too bright.

The man they met there was quite different.

His hair was black like theirs, but he stood a head taller than the people of that place, with skin silvery blue next to their cinnamon. Standing in an open-air pavilion with the willowy dandelion-fluff of their guide and guards, surrounded by cinnamon-skinned locals, with Haint almost strange in his familiarity, Qoress felt disorientation as sharp as pain. He buried his hands in his sleeves -- the gesture of Reserved Wisdom, not that he felt particularly reserved or wise, not that these people could recognize it -- and tipped his head politely to the man.

One of the locals held out a bowl of pure blue glass to Qoress, and said something to their guide.

The guide translated for Haint, and Haint translated for Qoress. "He wants you to spit in the bowl. Three times."

The request was disgusting, but Qoress supposed it to be some manner of traditional ritual, and possibly an insult if he refused. So he did as he was bid, struggling to muster enough saliva the third time. His mouth was very dry.

The local carried it across to the tall stranger, who likewise spat three times.

Again the bowl to Qoress, and again the chain of translations. Haint said, "Now you drink it."

"I most certainly will not," Qoress snapped. His stomach heaved at the thought. "I don't know what quaint local custom this is meant to be, but if they think that I will --"

Long before he got that far in his outraged objection, the stranger was speaking, resulting in a muddled flow as everyone tried to translate for his neighbor and their words swamped Qoress under. Haint had to repeat the message several times before it penetrated. "It'll make things easier -- shared speech -- oh, just drink it, you tight-arsed palace peacock," and thereupon Haint shoved the bowl at Qoress' lips so he could not help but get some in his mouth, mid-diatribe.

Qoress gagged and jerked back, but by then no one was paying attention to him; the local carried the bowl back to the stranger, who drank the remainder without a qualm.

"There," the stranger said, in perfectly coherent speech. "Unpleasant, I'm afraid, but it's convenient; I'll be sad when this place disappears, and I have to go back to learning languages the hard way."

Qoress' eyes widened against his will; he had been trying very hard not to show surprise at the oddities he encountered. "How -- how did you do that?"

"I didn't do it. He did." The stranger pointed at the man with the bowl. "Or the bowl did, maybe -- I'm not sure how it works. That's why we met here. Magic only works in the world it belongs to, but with some things, once they're done, they're done. You and I will be able to communicate no matter where we are. And since you're from the Edge, odds were we would have to go through at least two translators to talk, otherwise."

Traveling through peculiar realms inhabited by people even more peculiar had been enough of a strain on Qoress' mind. This, he felt, was one thing too many. Even though he had come here in search of wonders -- in search of a miracle to cure his king -- to face, to taste evidence of such wonders . . .

Whether he meant to or not, the stranger saved Qoress from hysterical, disbelieving laughter that would have destroyed his pretense at sanity and control. "Now that we can talk to each other," the guide said, "let's talk fees."

Haint picked up the bag they had brought with them from home. At the heretic's advice, Qoress had gathered samples of many different things, not all of them valuable. As Haint brought the items out, one by one, the stranger studied them with a curious eye. The emerald he set aside with a disinterested shake of his head, but the fire quartz received an approving murmur. He tasted several of the foods, making a face at the lizard-sweet, and finally subjected the meshtren in its cage to an extended study.

"All right," he said at last. "What are you hiring me for? I'll guide you there and back by the safest route I know; that's one service. And since you're an Edger, with no languages but your own, I'll serve as translator as well. If you want to bargain with the people we go to, I'll interpret for you, or I can handle it on your behalf. Let me know what you want, and I'll let you know what it'll cost."

None of the other councillors were present for Qoress to consult; he had to make the decision unaided. He scrutinized the man's face, wondering if high cheekbones still signified an adaptable nature when the individual with them was from a different reality. "I would be obliged if you handled the bargaining," he said at last. No doubt the man would take his own cut of the price, but it was obvious that Qoress did not know what counted as valuable trade-goods. And he would empty the palace treasury to save the king.

The stranger nodded. "All right. For the guide-work and the translation, fourteen of those stones." He pointed at the fire quartz. "For the healing, I'm going to make some bargains along the way. Bring me three breeding sets of that insect in the cage -- pairs or whatever it is they need to reproduce. I know a lady who would be fascinated to have some, and she'll give me shells in trade. Is that acceptable?"

It was acceptable; it was a quivering relief. The meshtren was a pest, nothing more; capturing three breeding trios would be as easy as setting the palace maids to work. It seemed Haint was correct about the odd economics of this place. And fourteen fire quartzes was a price he would gladly pay.

When Qoress indicated his agreement, the man said something unintelligible to the cinnamon-skinned people standing around, then gestured for Qoress to follow him. "Let's sit down and discuss this, then."

They settled onto long couches in another pavilion, and servants brought bowls of some liquid the stranger advised Qoress and Haint not to drink. "You never know what will poison you," he said. "Not everybody can eat and drink the same things. I suggest you bring your own food with you when we go."

At last they were relatively alone. The stranger said, "Since we're business partners now, I'll introduce myself. My name is Last. I'm from the Shreds, but I do business near the Edge now and again -- guide-work, translation services, and so on. I've got plenty of experience all over Driftwood. Mine are the safest hands you could be in." He paused in his speech and gave Qoress an appraising look. "Does any of that mean a thing to you?"

Qoress wanted to lie; ignorance was a weakness he dared not reveal. His hesitation betrayed him regardless. "I figured," Last said. "Most Edgers are like that. Let's start with a geography lesson."

He cast about as if looking for something, then caught sight of the carpet. "This will do. It's as close to a useful map of Driftwood as you'll ever get."

The carpet consisted of a set of concentric circles in different shades of blue. Last got up from his seat and crouched at the outermost circle, tapping the pale fibers with one dark-lacquered fingernail. "This is the Edge. Your world is out here. Edge worlds are new to Driftwood. They just had their apocalypses. Outside them is Mist --" He gestured at the floor around the circular rug. "I assume you've got that on at least one side of you, since you can't have been here long.

"Go further in, you find the Ring." Now his hand moved inward to a circle of medium blue. "No Mist touching these places, but they're still pretty big. Further inward of them, there's the Shreds." He touched the dark blue circle. "There's no clear boundary between the Ring and the Shreds; depends on how large you think a place has to be to count as a Ring world. The Shreds are the little remnants, neighborhoods and ghettos. And in the center . . ." A small spot of black lay at the heart of the carpet, and Last looked down at it with an odd expression. "The Crush. Where it all goes to die."

Qoress dodged this stream of heresy rather desperately. "Where are we going?"

Last leaned back against his couch with a blithe disregard for propriety. Or perhaps sitting on the floor was acceptable, where he came from. "I know of two places that have healing magic. Well, three, but the Shstri would have you for dinner if we went there, so we won't. One place is about forty-five degrees widdershins of you." He took a small black stone from a pocket in his trousers and laid it out on the edge of the carpet, then set another one much further inward, on the dark blue, some distance around the circle. "If the first stone's you, the second one is Aalyeng. Our other option is over here." A third stone went on the other side of the black circle from the stone that was Qoress' home.

"What difference is there between them?"

"The people in Aalyeng can cure physical diseases. In Grai-ni-tar, they can cure pretty much anything -- physical, mental, spiritual, whatever."

"And Grai-ni-tar," Qoress said, stumbling over the alien name, "is further away."

"Yes, but that isn't necessarily a problem. We'd have to go near the Crush, but contrary to popular belief, it can't actually suck you in."

Qoress did not know, and did not want to know, what this Crush was. The nature of the king's ailment was unclear; to be safe, he should go to Grai-ni-tar. But Qoress also did not know how long the king had to live.

"How much," he asked with trepidation, "would it cost to try healing him in both places?"

Last looked mildly surprised at his willingness to spend; not even Haint knew the identity of the sick man, and Qoress was not going to share that information. "Do you still have any mines producing iron ore?" the guide asked finally. Qoress nodded. "Bring a man's weight in iron ingots, then. People always need raw materials, in the Shreds. We'll go widdershins to Aalyeng, then on to Grai-ni-tar if necessary; it won't be much longer of a trip than if we went to Grai-ni-tar direct. Will that do?"

It would, and Qoress said so, trying to disguise how pathetically grateful he was to have this man's help.

"Fetch your patient, then, and meet me back here," Last said. "Bring the payment, food, and whatever guards you think you need. I'll make our arrangements in the meantime."

Qoress could not pinpoint the moment at which he accepted that the realms they moved through truly were different worlds, but the cause was clear enough. He could not travel across so many of them and not accept it.

It wasn't merely the people -- short and tall, slender and fat, pale and dark, sometimes with different numbers of eyes or arms, sometimes nothing like men at all. It wasn't merely the changing number of suns and moons, the abrupt transitions from sweltering heat to icy cold as he stepped over an invisible line in a street. It wasn't merely the architecture, the sounds of the languages, the plants and the animals and the colors of the skies.

Something lay beneath all of these surface changes, however unnerving they might be. Walking from world to world with a troop of guards protecting the palanquin of the dying king, Qoress sensed an irreducible otherness every place he went. Some perversion of the natural order brought these places together and made it so he could travel to and within and across them, but it did not make him belong there. He came from another world, and these places were not his.

Last's services, he came to see, extended beyond merely speaking the necessary languages and knowing the safest path. Whether the guide understood this or not, he aided Qoress by thinking on the councillor's behalf, making pragmatic decisions while Qoress' mind gibbered and twitched under the realization of where he was. In the normal way Qoress would never have conceded such control to another, but he had no choice -- a fact never far from his thoughts.

There was no way to track how long they had been traveling, with night and day each seeming to follow the rules of the world they were in, not aligning with each other across boundaries. But they had to stop occasionally to rest, and using that to define a day, they had been traveling for just over a fortnight from the place of the cinnamon-skinned people when Qoress asked Last a question.

He had observed, as they traveled, that the realms they moved through were getting smaller, and now they were nothing more than neighborhoods, areas of a few square blocks that held to a single reality before shifting to another one. They had passed through cities in other worlds, but now it seemed there was nothing but a city. This brought to mind the carpet Last had used as a map, and the things he had said then.

"These places," he said hesitantly to the guide. It was evening where they were, though it had been morning in the previous neighborhood; Last had bargained for a large shed they could sleep in for a time. Now the guide was on the front step, watching the city's life go by, and Qoress had joined him. "They are all worlds."

"Yep," Last said. He was filling an oddly-shaped pipe with a scarlet leaf Qoress no longer expected to recognize.

"Worlds which have . . . come to an end."

"They're in the process of it." Instead of lighting the pipe, Last carefully dripped a little bit of water into it, then sucked on the stem with evident pleasure.

Qoress thought of the myriad places they had traveled through. "All of them?"

Last shrugged. "Every world ends someday. Or maybe I'm wrong; who knows? If a place doesn't come to an end, it doesn't come here. But Driftwood is where worlds come to die."

"Driftwood. That is . . . this place."

"The whole place, from the Crush right out to your home." Last gave him a sidelong look. "People out on the Edge usually deny it; you've got enough of a world left that you can. But it's fading -- have you noticed that? Shrinking. Bits just vanish. People die, or vanish with the bits, and though maybe you're still having kids -- some worlds do, some don't -- your population shrinks with your world. One day there's a place on the other side of you, where before there was only Mist. They've had an apocalypse, too. Different then yours, probably, but the result is the same; there's a fragment that survives, a fragment that isn't done dying, and it came here like all the rest of them. They fade like you do, and as you fade you move inward, because the worlds that lie Crush-ward of you are doing the same thing. Eventually you're just a little ghetto, hardly anything left. And then you reach the Crush, the heart of Driftwood. The last bits vanish -- and then there's nothing."

The utter nihilism of the thought was unendurable. Qoress knew why the center of Driftwood was called the Crush; he felt that force bearing down on him, threatening to undo him entirely.

"Our prophecies," he forced himself to say, "tell us otherwise. Our king will guide us through our tribulations, and lead us to salvation in the paradise of the Agate God. And then will begin the reign of the Amethyst God, and a new birth for the world."

Unimpressed by this information, Last merely shrugged again. "Could be you're right. I've been around Driftwood for a long time, but I don't claim to be an expert on anybody's gods. There might be another world waiting for you all. But it'll be waiting for you on the other side of the Crush."

They checked the king's health regularly; it wasn't good, but he still lived, and that was reason enough for hope.

But the people of Aalyeng -- not people at all, more like serpents with forked and dexterous tails -- could not heal the king, and so they moved onward to Grai-ni-tar.

The guards knew who they carried, as did the physician accompanying him. All had been bound to secrecy in the same manner as Haint. The criminal himself was, Qoress hoped, still waiting in the world of the cinnamon-skinned people, to guide them home when they returned. But Qoress wondered how much good that secrecy would do. Fully a score of people had now disobeyed the king's decree, by order of the Councillor Paramount; they had traveled through other worlds and felt the truth of Driftwood for themselves. They were heretics all, now, and what effect would this experience have on them?

Save the king. Nothing else mattered. He would worry about other concerns after the king was well. And if he was executed for his own crimes, then so be it.

Last guided them through the Shreds in an arc that skirted the Crush. Qoress had no desire to see it with his own eyes. They were attacked by some kind of large bird in one world; the guards' arrows bounced off it, and Last led them at a run over the boundary into the next Shred. Someone killed one of the guards while they were resting, and stole everything off the body, including the clothes, without anyone else hearing. They learned from these lessons and adapted. Qoress, like all councillors, had lived from his birth in the palace. He often wondered if his peers on the council would recognize him when he came back.

At last they came to Grai-ni-tar.

The people there, with skin like ink and eyes like stars, did not want anyone to accompany the king's palanquin into the ramshackle building that, even to Qoress' eye, was obviously a makeshift replacement for a temple now lost, decorated with crude approximations of sculptures and murals. Last, seeing Qoress' distress, argued vehemently with the priests. In the end, the two of them were permitted within, while the guards and physician remained outside.

The priests carried the palanquin down a large, dark archway, through a series of three curtains in black, grey, and white, and into a courtyard open to the sky.

There one of their number drew back the palanquin's drapes, murmured over the king, turned to Last, and said a short phrase.

The guide snapped something back, receiving the same phrase in reply, and strode forward to the palanquin himself. Qoress, his stomach in knots, saw the moment Last's shoulders slumped.

"I'm sorry," the guide said, his voice low and defeated. "He's dead."

Qoress woke on a hard, narrow bed, with only one lamp casting a dim light. There was no blessed period of confusion; he knew instantly where he was, and what had happened.

The king was dead.

He rolled over and found himself not alone. Last sat on a low stool nearby, hands working an intricate puzzle of interlocking wooden pieces.

"I'm guessing he was someone important," the guide said softly, not looking at Qoress. "Your king?"

Qoress' words came thickly, from a mouth that no longer saw much point in speaking. "The last of his line." Perhaps this was his punishment for heresy. But why did his world have to be punished alongside him?

"Who was supposed to lead you all to salvation. I remember." Two pieces slid out of the puzzle. Last laid them aside, the dark gloss of his fingernails gleaming in the lamplight. "Can you choose another?"

Qoress' laugh was despairing. "You don't choose a king. The gods do. His family was sacred, but they all died when -- when the --" His throat closed off. Horror enough, to have lived through the end of the world; he could not tell that tale to this stranger, while lying in a bed worlds away from home.

Last's eyes were still on the puzzle. "Everything comes to an end someday. That's what this place is for. But it doesn't make the end hurt any less." The pieces came apart in his hands, without warning, and the puzzle dissolved into disconnected fragments.

Tears blurred Qoress' vision. What would this mean to his people? Suppose this man was right; suppose that Driftwood was the ultimate truth of the end, and that their prophecies of salvation, paradise, and rebirth were a lie. They were still a lie his people could cling to. Without that to hold them together, they had nothing. Anarchy would tear them apart.

"I do have one possibility to offer you." Last's voice stopped the downward spiral of his thoughts.

Sitting up on the edge of the bed, Qoress brushed feebly at his hair, as if his fingers could mend the disarranged braids so easily. There was little hope in his heart, but still he said, "Tell me."

"Two Shreds widdershins of here, there's a place called Rosphe. They can do this trick -- it's like a permanent shape-shifting. They can do it to other people. And once it's done, it's done, like the language-magic we performed." Last's long fingers were manipulating the pieces once more. Qoress watched them dance. "None of your people know yet that your king is dead."

The puzzle came back together again, as it had been before, and Qoress realized what Last meant.

He surged to his feet, torn between sickness and murderous fury. "How dare you suggest such blasphemy to me? To prey on me when you know I am vulnerable -- you calculated every step of this conversation, didn't you? Even down to that puzzle, an elegant illustration of your point. I am a heretic and a traitor to my king; I confess this beneath the foot of the Agate God. But even I, fallen man that I am, would not presume to such a masquerade."

Last was undisturbed by his outburst. "It's up to you," he said easily, studying the reconstructed puzzle. "Since there was no healing, the priests here have not taken their fee. You could pay it to the people in Rosphe instead. But if this is your decision, then I'll lead you home, as agreed."

Finally he looked up at Qoress, meeting his eyes for the first time since the councillor awoke. "I take my services very seriously. I'm not just a guide, not just a translator; I help people survive in Driftwood. As much as I can, against the breakdown that eventually claims it all. So I offer you what help I can. Whether or not you take it is up to you."

He stood and set the puzzle on his vacated stool. "When you're ready to come out, the priests will prepare a bath and food for you. I'll wait in the courtyard. From there, I'll take you wherever you want to go."

Then he departed, leaving Qoress alone with the delicate puzzle of wood.

A wave of noise surged up from the open plaza before the holy palace, as if the crowds assembled there spoke with one roaring voice. Gold and copper, studded with jewels, shone from the platform where the councillors stood in their vermilion robes.

A guard stepped forward and lifted a spear. Spiked on the end of it, brow still bearing the mark of his office, was the head of the former Councillor Paramount. No one knew the specifics of his crime, but his accomplices had been spared; all the guilt lay on Qoress, and he had died a heretic's death.

So it was, by order of the king.

At the border with the tunnel-world, Last hefted his pack onto one shoulder. No one had paid him for this trip out to the Edge; he'd come of his own will, to see what happened.

The man at his side did not wear the heavy, ornate robes of the king. They drew too much attention, and he was not accustomed to them anyway.

"I am damned for this," the king said.

Last shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. But you have a chance to help your people, and that's got to count for something. You're the king now: heresy will be what you say it is." He grinned, a brief flash of silver teeth. "Maybe you'll be the last, best heretic."

The jest made Qoress flinch, but Last might have been right. He smoothed his expression and gripped Last's hand. "May all the gods smile on your journey."

He stood at the edge of his world and watched until the guide vanished into the tunnels, his own words echoing in his mind. Whether their paradise lay beyond the Crush or not, they could not ignore where they were. At least now his people would face Driftwood with their eyes open, guided by one who, if he did not understand it, was willing to learn.

If heresy could lead to salvation, then he would find a way.

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