"Is it that obvious?" I asked, my voice tired and laced with sarcasm.
"Of course," he replied, "We do know each other quite well, do we not?"
I smiled warily. "I guess we do." I walked across the room to sit on the corner of his desk, leaning my back against the wall and closing my eyes. I wanted just one moment to make my mind blank. "I've been thinking for a while, and I need some unbiased advice." He continued his painting as though I wasn't there, but I knew he was listening carefully. "I worked as an assassin before, and I hated it. But I only hated it until I started trying to bring people in alive, and I ended up doing that most of the time. So I wasn't really an assassin anymore, but you get the idea. And... In a way, I did like that kind of work. On the ground, helping people directly. And you know how much I hate politics, and I was hesitant to become an Elder in the first place..." I paused, taking a deep breath. "I just don't know if I can do it. I mean, I think I'm good enough at it- I'm pretty well read in strategy and I think- at least I hope- that I've made a lot of good decisions, and I'm careful to follow all the rules. I do all the necessary paperwork, and write in the journals, and issue orders and hold meetings and organize everything, and I never fight on the front lines. And it's killing me. I can't just sit around in an office sipping tea and reading reports while I send other people to their deaths! I just can't! And as much as I love Zaf, I can't do what she did the first time Mevolent returned, either. I can't lead the battles, or even be part of them- because she was right when she said she couldn't lose me back in the dungeons earlier today. Somebody has to be here to issue the orders, and that person has to stay safe, and I can't live with myself knowing other people have died to protect me, and all I did for them in return was add their name to the list and send for an obituary." I hadn't meant to speak for so long, but once I'd started I couldn't stop, and by the end my breaths became strained and hot tears fell from my eyes. "I just... Can't do it anymore." I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, and continued. "And I know I took the job- I feel like an idiot now for taking it, but I did- so I can't just say no in the middle of a war, can I? I mean, she only asked me because she didn't have any other candidates lined up... At least, that was my impression."
Niccolò made one long, final stroke of his brush, then set it aside and raised his dark eyes to meet mine. He looked so old, sometimes, so tired. I could never really forget who he was, or what he thought he was supposed to be. "What would you like me to tell you?" It was an earnest question. Of course, in the end, I needed to make my own decision. But I needed and what I wanted were two separate things. He brushed away the few tears still drying on my cheeks.
"I want you to tell me that I don't need to be an Elder anymore- that I shouldn't be one. I want you to tell me that someone else will take the position- someone who's wise, and calm, and not heartless, but not so emotional that some piece of them breaks every time they turn a person into a statistic, and that I don't have to do it anymore. I want you to tell me that it's ok if I just quit, and go back to being a foot soldier." I spoke firmly, as though I was angry at the very nature of the job. Really, I think, I was just angry at war.
He thought for a few moments before answering. "For your sake," he spoke slowly, meticulously, so his dark chocolate voice sounded like it was melting, "You should not be an Elder. For the sake of others... Perhaps you should be. Ask Zafira if she knows anyone else willing and able to take the job. If she does, you may leave. But if not... War takes its toll on everyone, Aretha. You know exactly how much I loathe to see you scarred, but there storms that simply cannot be subdued, storms that even I cannot shelter you from. You have to outlast them. I know that you have the strength." He took my hands in both of his and kissed one of them, ever so lightly, while he dropped the hilt of a black knife into the other. Then, with a last knowing glance and a swirl of his coat, he evaporated from the room like a cloud of smoke. I took a deep breath, tucked the knife away in its rightful home in my pocket, and headed out into the late night. I would finish revising the recon schedule or fall asleep trying.