The End of an Era

It was called Black Song. Grown in low water-filled fields north of
Agrathor, the drug was pressed into wet black bricks and stamped with
gold leaf, the old mark of the government of Etruscus. The kingdom was
no more, the old man thought as he pinched a bit off the corner of the
brick, but the seal remained. The brick itself was worth more than an
equivalent bar of gold. Caspar, the Imperial Governor of the City of
Shulgarde, watched his hand shake as he brought the pinch to his nose,
sniffed deeply. The shaking stopped. He settled back as the
high-pitched ringing began in his ears and the thump of his heart
marked the cadence of pleasure bursting in his brain.

It was a terrible thing, to get old. Twenty years ago, he might have
overdosed on what he had just taken; nowadays, he needed it just to
function through the day.

“You see? Just like I promised, the best,” said the silhouetted figure
standing by the window. The moon was rising early and the sky was dark
and the governor wouldn’t have been able to make out his visitor if he
tried; but he already knew the man was human, short and thin with hair
like some crazed old prophet. “Just like I always bring you.”

“I can’t help you this time, Hakiem,” Caspar said. “I’m old, and you
know it. I’m retiring. It’s only a matter of time before the Emperor
chooses a replacement for me. You’ll have to get your hooks into
someone else.”

“What a way to talk to an old friend.” The shadow moved closer. “We’ve
worked together all these years, and still you give me such
disrespect.”

“I’ve never been your friend. Just someone you could use.”

“I’ve done you favors, you’ve done me favors in return. Look at what
I’ve just done for you. The least you could do would be to tell me
what I need to know.”

“If only I knew. But I don’t. I can tell you one thing, though: Idyrr
has given us a blind eye for too long. Now that there’s gold, they’re
going to crack down on us. The free ride is over.”

“If you’d tell me who will come to replace you, things would be
easier.” The dark figure moved to take the brick away.

“I don’t know, I told you!” Caspar licked his lips, and tried not to
look at the brick, tried to ignore it. “Go ahead. We both know I’m a
dead man once I’m replaced. I could never afford Black Song.”

“You could come work for me. The offer is still open.”

Caspar laughed. “The final insult. No, I will pass quietly into the
next world. Maybe the gods will show me the mercy I don’t deserve.”

The other figure laughed. He moved his hands, and a small fraction of
the brick remained for the governor. This was Shulgarde, after all.
“That, you don’t. Keep your ears open, old man. And remember, I can
help you. Find out who’s coming.” There was a rustle; and then Caspar
was alone again in his office.

It was the governor’s turn to chuckle, though his was ragged with
Song. “Your end is coming, too. You just don’t know it yet. That’s the
difference between you and me; I know my fate.” With hands still
steady, he began to wrap the leavings in soft leather to keep in his
safe.

The End of an Era

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