Nothing in his experience, however, had ever prepared him for the discovery that a young lady of his acquaintance was a ninja. This was not merely beyond propriety, it was beyond possibility. It would be like discovering that one’s valet of many years was actually a potted plant, or that one had been riding to hounds on a hobbyhorse.
“Oh, blast!” Augusta said, balancing with one foot on the windowsill. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to avoid an unpleasant scene?” asked Blackfarthing weakly, setting his back to the door and hoping that Deptford and his inamorata were not about to enter.
“I cannot help but think that you have failed!”
“And I cannot help but think that you might have locked the door!” retorted Blackfarthing.
Augusta folded her arms over her chest. “As to that, my brother Cecil arranged to lock himself in a closet for half a day some years ago. Stepmama ordered every lock in the house sprung to keep it from ever happening again. It is of all things most inconvenient!”
“How dreadful,” Blackfarthing said. It had suddenly occurred to him that if Deptford did break in---or anyone else!---that he was standing in a darkened room with a young woman who would have to put on several layers of clothing to be merely indecent. She would immediately be thought compromised, and in honor, he could hardly fail to announce their engagement at once.
The notion that he might go from his pleasant bachelorhood to immediate forcible matrimony with a ninja—whose mother may or may not have been in trade!—was enough to waken a shudder in the stoutest heart.
Blackfarthing pushed aside his immediate ignoble impulse, which was to shove Miss Rothingham out of the way and go out the window himself, and cast about for something to say. “Err—what has become of your clothing, madam?”
“One of the cabinets has a false bottom,” she said. “Which is just as well, because it is extremely difficult to get onto the roof from my bedroom, and I prefer to climb up from the library. I am not going to tell you which cabinet, because for all I know, you would steal my clothing and that would be excessively awkward.”
“Why on earth would I steal your clothing?” asked Blackfarthing, baffled.
Augusta hesitated. “One of my uncles stole women’s clothing occasionally,” she said. “It was really too bad of him, because if he returned it at all, it would be abominably stretched out in the shoulders. But he said that he got into the habit at Eton and could not help himself.”
“If we are referring to the green crepe,” said Blackfarthing awfully, “I assure you, madam, the only reason I should steal it is if I planned to burn it! It does not become you, and even less can I think it would be become me!”
“Certainly not!” she said.
“Thank you!” he said, somewhat mollified.
“With your hair, you would certainly look better in lavender. Perhaps a blue chiffon.”
“I do not hesitate to tell you, madam,” said Blackfarthing, goaded beyond endurance, “that you are the most odious girl—who is also a ninja!—of my acquaintance!”
“I daresay I am the only girl—who is also a ninja—of your acquaintance,” said Augusta, apparently impervious to such set-downs. “So it stands to reason.” She pushed open the window and stepped up onto the sill.
This alarmed Blackfarthing greatly. First of all, it seemed likely that she might fall out the window if he made any sudden movements in her direction, and secondly, the grungy orange glow that served for moonlight in London now surrounded her, which meant that he could see a very well-defined outline of—err—limbs. And the thing that happened to limbs when they got to the top and became something else entirely.
And if he could see this, it was quite likely that anyone outside in the gardens, if they happened to look up into the wrong place at the wrong moment, might see it as well.
“Miss Rothingham, you must come down from there at once!”
“I will do no such thing,” said Augusta. “I am going out this window, and you are going to go back to the party and utter no word of this to anyone.”
“Surely you cannot expect me to do that!” said Blackfarthing, deeply shocked.
“I cannot conceive of any reason why you should not!” Augusta tossed her head, which would have been more effective without the hood encasing her curls. “Particularly since you will have a very difficult time convincing anyone that the daughter of your respectable hostess is actually a ninja!”
“You have mistaken my meaning,” said Blackfarthing stiffly. “A pretty fool I should look, putting such stories about! I scarcely believe it myself! No, madam, I am convinced that you cannot expect any man of honor to allow a lady to go out a second-story window unescorted at such an hour of the night!”
Augusta hesitated. “Would it be much different if it were a first-story window?”
“That,” said Blackfarthing, “we shall never know! Now come down from that window at once!”
Far from responding to this masterly tone, Augusta pulled her hood down over her forehead and said “Pooh! I wish you wouldn’t talk such fustian.”
“Miss Rothingham, surely you cannot mean to set out in the streets alone!”
“Nothing like it,” she assured him, producing a black glove from somewhere on her person and pulling it onto her free hand with her teeth. “I shall go over the rooftops, as a proper ninja might. There is a meeting of the clans tonight, and it is most vital that I not miss it.”
“But unescorted! Have you no chaperone? Your mother—one of your sisters—“
“Also not a ninja.”
“Your governess, then!”
“We employ a deplorable lack of ninjas in this household. I assure you, I will have words with the housekeeper on this head first thing in the morning. Now will you kindly go away?”
“You cannot know the dangers that might befall you!” Blackfarthing cast about desperately for what those dangers might be, in the hopes of talking sense into this madwoman. “There might be urchins, or—or unkind chimney sweeps—or other ninjas—or…err…large hostile birds…?”
She gave him a withering look. “I assure you, I shall seek cover at the first sign of an oversized shadow on the shingles.”
“I cannot allow you to go out that window!” He took a step toward her, remembered that the door could not be locked, and cast about for a chair to wedge under the knob.
“If you attempt to stop me, I shall scream!” threatened Augusta.
“If you attempt to climb out that window, I shall scream!” Blackfarthing replied. “I cannot imagine that you are any more eager for discovery at this moment than I am!”
She compressed her pugnacious lower lip into a thin line. “Hmm. It would seem, my lord, that we are an impasse!”
Blackfarthing gritted his teeth. He was a gentleman, and he knew his duty, no matter how awful it might be. His peers might think this the most distempered of freaks—and likely it was—but his way lay depressingly clear before him.
“Very well,” he said heavily. “If you are determined to go gadding about on the rooftops, clad in an outfit that would drive any female of proper sensibility into strong hysterics—“
“Are you certain you are the Viscount? You sound rather an elderly Viscountess to me!”
“—if,” continued Blackfarthing, glaring, “you are so determined, then I see that I have no choice but to accompany you.”
*The sister of the Earl of Oxenwold, Blackfarthing’s father, had outlived three husbands, felt that one could never wear too many ostrich plumes at the same time, and had inspired one noted wit to inquire if she was not pining for her old friend Charybdis.**
**Fortunately for him, Blackfarthing’s aunt had only a vague notion of the classics, and one of her ostrich plumes providentially caught fire before explanations were forthcoming.
(Insert usual disclaimers, professions of loathing, etc. Any anachronisms or failure of accuracy, feel free to mention in the comments--everything I know about the Regency comes from romance novels, after all.)