“We told the others we’d meet them there,” Taro insisted as he and Lee left the observation post.
Lee made a face. “The Fox and Feather has terrible music.”
“It doesn’t drive you out.”
“That doesn’t mean they have the right to be out of tune. Aren’t they supposed to be professionals?
“You can’t tell the difference.”
“You love the wine there.”
“That doesn’t make up for the assault on my ears.”
“What’s wrong with you? You’ve been touchy all day.
Lee sighed. “Aye. Sorry. I received a letter from my father. He’s upset that Mother didn’t enjoy her time here.”
“Ah.” He had mixed feelings about Lee’s mother. Teshia Mallorough was affectionate and in many ways kind, so unlike the Dowager Duchess, but she had been interfering, so like the Dowager Duchess. Teshia’s machinations with Ben had irritated both Lee and Taro, and had been another source of tension at a time when things were already difficult. While Teshia hadn’t had the opportunity to raise Lee and know her as well as many parents knew their children, it had been clear that Lee didn’t appreciate having to manage arrangements to spend time with a man she didn’t favour while the residents of High Scape were hostile about the continued unseasonal weather and convinced that the High Scape Triple S Pairs were refusing to do something about it. Because the Pairs were too lazy. Or loved snow in the middle of summer. Or something.
And the way Teshia had blamed Lee for the difficulties and abruptly left, that had hurt Lee as well. “I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “I could have worse relatives.”
She looked at him with alarm, clearly fearing having accidentally caused offence.
They walked through the streets in awkward silence.
“Anyway,” Lee finally said. “I’m not sure I’m in the mood to go out. Especially to the Fox and Feather.”
“Everyone’s probably already been there, waiting for us. You can’t make plans and then just not show up.”
“You’ll be going. They won’t miss me.”
“Don’t start that.” He linked his arm through hers. “You’re not invisible, you know. They’re aware of when you’re there and when you’re not.”
“Just one drink,” Taro urged. “You know I wouldn’t harass you if you hadn’t already agreed to go. One drink, and if you don’t want to stay, I won’t say another word.”
“Fine,” she muttered. “But no dancing.”
“No dancing,” he promised.
As they approached the edge of the city, he saw Doran Laidley walking down the street towards them, and Taro acquired some tension of his own.
How had Laidley even known that he and Lee had been on duty?
It felt like he always knew where they were. Or, rather, where Lee was. As though he were watching her.
Taro had had his fair share of followers, those who seemed to find his every move, his every breath, fascinating. When he was very young he’d been flattered, had thought it a sign of deep dedication, but then he’d started to feel uneasy. Didn’t these people have anything better to do, any lives of their own?
Then a friend of his at the academy had suffered the same scrutiny. Her admirer, if that was the term to use, had progressed from watching to speaking to demands, moving to anger when those demands weren’t met. The boy claimed that no one could love her as he could, that he was a decent man who deserved her, that any interaction of hers with anyone else was a betrayal of their love.
Eventually, he had burst into her room and attacked her. She had beaten him off with a brass candlestick. The boy had been punished, of course, but not removed from the school, and he blamed his victim for his punishment.
An unforgettable lesson for Taro as well as his friend.
Doran hadn’t displayed behaviour that was quite that bad, but he was persistent enough to make Taro wary.
He couldn’t say much about it to Lee, who seemed oblivious to Doran’s odd behaviour. Every time Taro edged anywhere close to criticising the other man, she sharply cut him off. Perhaps she had never heard of behaviour like Doran’s and didn’t understand what it could mean. Perhaps she had heard of it but had never witnessed or experienced it. Perhaps she didn’t think anyone would go that strange over her.
Or perhaps it was her general inability to read people.
Laidley smiled as he greeted them. “Good evening, Lee, Shintaro.”
Taro smiled in return, because he wasn’t ready to let Laidley know of his suspicions. “Lord Laidley.”
“Doran,” Lee said with a smile that was genuine. “Good evening.”
“Shintaro, I hope you won’t mind my stealing Lee away, but I’ve managed to get a table at the Imperial and I wanted to give Lee a treat.”
Taro didn’t point out that Lee, as a Shield, could eat at the Imperial any time she wanted, or that Laidley claimed to be perpetually short of funds.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Lee. “Taro and I have plans.”
It was so subtle most wouldn’t have caught it, but Taro had spent his life reading faces. He saw the tiny edge that developed in Laidley’s smile.
“Surely you can move your plans to another night, given these circumstances.”
Taro raised an eyebrow. “Lee would never show the discourtesy of bailing on original agreements just because another offer is made.”
He was the one to get the glare from Lee, and, yes, it was obnoxious to answer for her, but the other man’s arrogance irritated him.
Lee’s tone was apologetic as she said to Doran, “We did promise to meet the others. Why don’t you come with us?”
Doran stiffened a little. “No thank you. I’m not sure I’ll fit in with a slew of Triple S members. You’ll all want to talk about your work and complain about regulars.”
Taro had to give him that one. They did try to speak of other matters when they socialised, but they almost always slid back into their duties, which often included how frustrating regulars could be.
“Not all of them are Triple S members,” Lee said.
“I was hoping to have you for myself.”
Doran was pushing.
Lee seemed unaware. “Perhaps some other time.”
“It was difficult to make these plans.”
“Perhaps your plans should have included asking Lee if she would be free,” said Taro.
Laidley almost scowled.
“I’m sorry,” said Lee.
“I’ll take Lydia. She’ll appreciate it.”
A very subtle twist of the knife of guilt. Well done.
Lee was still oblivious. “I’m sure she will.
Laidley smiled again, but it was a stiff expression. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.” Without waiting for a response, he said, “Lee, Shintaro, enjoy your evening,” and he strode off.
“I feel badly about that,” Lee said.
“He should have asked you first,” Taro insisted. “It’s insulting and arrogant to suddenly show up and expect someone to change their plans.”
“He was surprising me.”
“People who attempt surprises should predict the possibility that the surprise might not pan out and accept denial with grace.”
“He did accept it with grace.”
Taro rolled his eyes.
Laidley was definitely the sort to be all smiles and cheer when things were going his way, but anger and resentment when they weren’t. Taro wasn’t sure that Laidley was so foul that he would actually descend into violence when shown too much opposition, but it was definitely a possibility.
Lee would never tolerate control or abuse, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t suddenly find herself in a dangerous situation.
Taro wished he could take the man aside and give him a warning or two, but Laidley would only tell Lee, and Lee would have his head. And so, he reluctantly supposed, she should. It wasn’t his place to interfere.
There was nothing he could do, except keep an eye on Laidley.