* * *
Prime Minister Etherington sat at his desk, staring at the single sheet of paper in front of him. It was pale cream, edged in a sooty residue that now spotted the ink-stained blotter beneath it. A line of type sat in the centre of the page.
Problem solved. Payment taken.
He didn't need the page to tell him this. He'd been listening to the reports for the last five days. The mysterious plague that began affecting the citizens who'd long graced their Suspicion Lists, the same plague that wiped out the entire Ministry of Secrecy in neighbouring Retirany. The supposedly natural disasters that destroyed whole sections of Retirany's major cities, throwing the entire populace first into uproar, and then disarray. He didn't need to be told why it was happening.
Etherington knew that could be explained by the first half of the message. He slumped forward, his fingers curling into his hair as he cradled his head in his hand. The first half was bad enough, but nothing connected those events to his meeting with the Shadow Cabinet. Indeed, Parliament congratulated him on his decisive action, and the destruction of the threat to the nation. They'd figured out the connection between the two, and didn't seem to question the ethics of destroying the lives of innocent citizens to wipe out an invasion plot. During those first five days, he didn't even question it himself. However, what he did mind, what really bothered him, was the second half of the message.
For every Retiran citizen who perished, they lost one of their own population. Not through natural disasters, or mysterious plagues that could be noticed by one side or the other - they simply ceased to be, winked out of existence without warning or fanfare. Etherington didn't need to know why. He'd asked the Shadow Cabinet for help, and now he needed to reconcile himself to what they'd done. They'd tipped the scales first one way, and then the other. His only advantage was that no one else knew; the moment one of their own population disappeared, they took the memories of their existence with them. No one remembered or mourned them. The nation simply seemed quieter, and less crowded than usual.
Only Etherington knew they had once existed, and now because of him, they didn't. That was the price he'd had to pay.