Xerxes sat what he hoped was a discreet distance from his marks, diagonally across and a few tables down. Enough to keep them within his peripheral vision but not enough to be of immediate interest. 

He finished what drink was left in his mug, and then poured more from the flagon, emptying it and setting it aside. Having wanted to make as little movement as possible, and thus draw little attention to himself, he had been sure to order enough drink to keep him occupied for a while and for the barkeep to not draw attention to Xerxes. The wine was a vintage Xerxes was unfamiliar with, but tasted adequate enough as a way to pass the time.  

The group had been there for hours by now, and he was beginning to wonder if they were intent on staying well into the evening. That would prove problematic; the barkeep was already showing annoyance at the ratio of time-to-coin spent at The Risky Reaver, but Xerxes had been able to keep the impatient businessman at bay.  

I have my ways, he thought to himself with a smile. 

Do you now? A new voice, rising up in Xerxes’ mind with a smugness Xerxes found both tiresome and obnoxious.  

I don’t know why they don’t get me a new handler, Xerxes thought, not for the first or seventh time.  

What was that? There it was again, the intrusive presence in his mind. 

Xerxes knew better than to acknowledge the hint of derision his handler, Bryze, had caught. Although Bryze had talents in the way of telepathy, he lacked Xerxes’ advanced skills. More to the point, Xerxes maintained better mental defenses – better than most in the Tribe – which allowed him a measure of privacy many did not have when dealing with mentalists. Although not a High Lord, Xerxes had not needed the rigorous training they underwent to help keep themselves and their secrets safe. Xerxes was gifted in that manner, and it suited him well.  

Yet, somehow, he had still decided to go into field work. 

Have you successfully tracked down the Vanguard remnants? Bryze asked.  

Yes. The intel proved accurate.  

Xerxes felt a silence across the abyss of thought that he interpreted as Bryze… being impressed? Xerxes found this curious, but let it pass. 

The Council wants you to continue to observe. Though the Vanguard is of importance, they are not your primary objective.  

Xerxes could sense Bryze attempting to impart urgency, but it was unnecessary and annoying, one of Bryze’s faults that kept him at his current station. Xerxes already knew the mission and what his real objective was. Bryze’s narcissistic condescension was thinly veiled and wearying.  

Are we clear? came Bryze once again. 

Of course, Xerxes offered. 

In his mind, Xerxes imagined jettisoning Bryze back into the void of thought, casting him out like a creature of myth. He felt alone in his mind once more, and brought up his mental walls again. 

Then something curious happened. One of the Vanguard – Akaja, he recalled – glanced around the room, her eyes narrowing as if hearing something unusual. Something only she could detect. 

Xerxes did not allow himself to panic. Akaja was the Vanguard’s prime telepath, he knew. Inwardly he cursed himself for not having considered the possibility that she would pick on something, no matter how discreet. But he drowned his self-recrimination as well, and focused on making himself as innocuous as possible, a nobody in a room of nobody’s that the Vanguard would need not concern themselves with. He slowly and deliberately drank from his mug and maintained an even posture, simply appearing as a man alone with his thoughts.  

From his peripheral vision, he noticed that Akaja went back to focusing on her friends, and Xerxes maintained the same mental stillness.  

There were too many things in motion right now to bring attention to himself or the Tribe. Discretion. Shadows. These were their ways.  

Xerxes took another drink, a faint red mist suffusing his hand, only noticeable to him.