“Then come down and put on your proper clothing and we shall speak no more of this.”
There is a certain kind of woman who can stomp her foot in temper and get away with it. Augusta was very much not this sort of woman, being too large in all dimensions, several years too old, and having a broad practical streak as well, so she did not stomp her foot, but it was clear that she would have liked to do so.
She reached for the top of the sill in what might have been a casual gesture, but Blackfarthing was having none of it. “If you think to go without me, I shall tell your mother!”
Augusta rolled her eyes. “There is not the least chance that she would believe you.”
“I shall tell her,” said Blackfarthing grimly, “that I entered the library to see you vanishing out the window in the arms of a ninja!”
She froze. “You wouldn’t.”
“I shall say that you were being abducted, of course,” said Blackfarthing hastily. “I have no wish to compromise your reputation in any way. But I will not allow you to put yourself in such danger, and if this is the only way that I may raise assistance to look for you, I shall do so!”
“They wouldn’t find me,” said Augusta frankly. “But I will not deny that it would make a great deal of trouble for me to explain things upon my return. Oh, it is too bad of you! I am persuaded that no gentleman would threaten a lady so!”
“And for my part, I am persuaded that no lady would wish to cavort about the rooftops unchaperoned!”
She growled. Really, the resemblance to a bulldog was quite remarkable. “If I allow this—if—then you will promise me two things, my lord!”
“I am listening,” said the Viscount warily.
“You will tell no one of this when we return. You will make me no threats, and you shall not concern yourself with my behavior in the future!”
“I assure you,” said Blackfarthing, “I would give a great deal not to be concerning myself with it now! And your second condition, madam?”
“You will not attempt to enter the meeting itself,” said Augusta, pulling the mask up across her nose. Dark eyes glittered at him. “The clans will not allow a stranger among them. Even I am barely—well, no matter. I can promise you that there will be several dozen in attendance, including several very elderly women of the strictest propriety.”
“…who are also ninjas?”
“Who are also ninjas, yes.” Her eyes dared him to make something of it.
It occurred to Blackfarthing that attempting to argue that a ninja could not also be a woman of the first respectability was going to get him into a great deal of trouble in present company. He groped for his quizzing glass, planning to give her a very stern look through its lenses, remembered that he had lost it some days previously, and was forced to abandon the notion entirely.
He had no sooner offered his reluctant agreement to her plan than Augusta was out the window and climbing up the wall, using a series of handholds in the crumbling brick facing.
The Viscount, it must be said, was not and had never aspired to be a Corinthian. While he required neither severe corsetry nor a diet of potatoes and soda water to maintain his figure, he was far more likely to find his exercise in the saddle than at Gentleman Jackson’s saloon.
Nevertheless, he swung himself out the window, paused briefly on the sill to offer a prayer that none on the ground might take a notion to look up, and followed Augusta up the side of the building.
He was paying far too much attention to his own handholds to take much note of Augusta’s ascent—and in any event, the view could hardly be considered befitting of a gentleman—but he did notice that while she climbed smoothly, she did not possess the squirrel-like agility of many of the ninjas he had seen.
This was just as well. It took him rather longer to attain the roof than he had expected, and Augusta was waiting for him at the summit.
“Take off your boots,” she said.
“I beg your pardon!”
“Your boots. They are the wrong sort of footgear for the rooftops. You will be far better off without them.” She extended a tabi-clad foot and wiggled her toes.
“But my stockings shall be ruined!” He gazed down with no little pride at the magnificence of striped silk stockings that adorned his calves.
“Suit yourself,” said Augusta. “I should think that a forty-foot drop will be much harder on them, myself.”
Blackfarthing removed his boots.
Augusta nodded and set off across the roof with the Viscount in tow. The Rothingham residence lay at the end of a row of well-appointed townhouses, and the gaps in the roofline were not large. Blackfarthing found the canted roofline an unsettling surface to walk on, particularly at the brisk pace that Miss Rothingham was setting, but was not truly alarmed until they reached a nearly six-foot gap from one building to another.
“Come on, then,” said Augusta, and launched herself fearlessly off a cornice before he could do more than gabble a protest.
“Madam—but—are you mad?”
He peered over the edge. It was a long way down. The notion of what a forty-foot drop might do to his stockings was still vividly in his mind.
“Come on!” called Augusta. “We haven’t much time!”
He looked at the gap, at Augusta, and at the ground again.
She took a brief running start and landed next to him. “Don’t look down. It’s always a mistake.”
He thought of several very clever retorts, but his tongue appeared to be affixed to the roof of his mouth.
“It’s not so far as it looks. I am persuaded you have taken far greater jumps a-horse.”
“Yes,” said Blackfarthing, finding his voice, “but the horse did most of the work!”
“The principle is the same,” said Augusta firmly. “Throw your heart over, and the rest will follow.” Suiting words to action, she crossed the gap a third time.
Even Blackfarthing’s worst detractors would not have called him stuck-up, but he had a pretty fair opinion of himself, and the notion that a chit who barely came up to his collarbone would go where he dared not—well, it was not to be borne.
He took a deep breath, took several steps back—and threw his heart over.
“Well done!” said Augusta cheerfully.
A moment or two later, she added “But you might wish to get up now. We still have a way to travel.”
“These are marvelous tiles,” said Blackfarthing, from somewhere around ankle height. “I am convinced there are no better tiles anywhere in London. Possibly nowhere in England.”
“I did not realize that you were so fond of roofing materials, my lord.”
“I have just now conceived a passion for them.”
He rediscovered this passion several more times in the course of their flight across the rooftops, most particularly on the final leap, which combined a seven foot gap with a three foot vertical drop.
“Take heart!” said Augusta. “We have very nearly arrived. I shall meet the sentries at this next chimney, and…Blackfarthing?”
“O foolish heart! Did it think it had known love before? Surely not! There is no tile to compare to this one. Welsh slate, I believe. It is a marvel.”
“Careful,” said Augusta, much amused, “talk to it in such terms, and you’ll turn its head for certain.”
“I would wed this slate upon the instant.”
“Not without a special dispensation, you won’t. Up now, my lord, let’s get you someplace to sit down…”
It would be unthinkable for a young lady to offer a gentleman her arm to haul him to his feet, but it happened, and Blackfarthing found himself so far sunk in his own esteem as to be pathetically grateful for it. For her part, Augusta seemed to feel a combination of solicitude, exasperation, and grudging approval, much as one might for a particularly dim child who had done something unexpectedly clever.
They picked their way across the rooftop. Several black-clad shadows appeared on a distant chimney and began gliding across the house-tops in their general direction.
“They’re coming to escort me,” said Augusta. “I suspect that they will wish to leave a guard with you as well. You must promise to stay here and not try to follow us—although I suspect that will not be an issue.”
Faced with the society of other people—even ninjas—the Viscount had no choice but to straighten up and attempt to deal with the ruin of his neckcloth as best he might.
Augusta watched this with obvious amusement, but did no more than point out a particularly ill-placed pigeon dropping on his coat of blue superfine.
“I’m sorry I threatened to say that a ninja abducted you,” said Blackfarthing stiffly. “Please accept my profoundest apologies.”
She sniffed. “Well…”
“It is clear to me now that it would have taken at least five ninjas. With pistols.”
“Possibly with dogs as well.”
It was difficult to be certain, with the cloth pulled up across her face, but he was fairly certain by the crinkling around the corner of her eyes that she was smiling.
A trio of ninjas arrived. They did not appear so much as become apparent. It was rather like looking at one of those clever etchings where birds and beasts and notable public figures are hidden in the contours of a landscape and one gradually becomes aware that yes, that cloud formation is actually a fox or a pheasant or the Duke of Wellington. Blackfarthing realized after a few moments that one of the shadows of a nearby chimney was carrying a sword and when he turned around to remark to Miss Rothingham on this fact, he discovered that she was in conversation with two more.
They were not speaking a language that Blackfarthing recognized, except that it seemed to have a great many Ns and Ks and everything ended in singing vowels. One of the ninjas turned and looked at him with cool eyes.
Blackfarthing waited for Augusta to introduce her companions, and by the time he realized that she had no intention of doing so, it was rather too late to break in. It was very ill-mannered of her, to be sure—but then, perhaps the ninjas did not speak English. Hmm. Yes, that seemed likely. And the ninjas did not seem entirely pleased with either of them. She certainly seemed to be doing a good deal of haranguing—not that that was a surprise, Blackfarthing thought darkly.
None of them appeared to be elderly or female, but then again, how did you tell?
You could certainly tell with Augusta.
He had never given it any particular thought. Possibly there were obviously female ninjas all over the rooftops, and he had simply never thought to look. Gentlemen did not ogle passing ninjas. It would be unseemly on several different levels.
He composed his face into a courteous, distant expression that he had cultivated for those occasions when the talk at parties turned to politics, and waited.
“It is all arranged,” said Augusta finally. “They do not much like it, but they do not have a great deal of choice in the matter. They will leave a guard with you, and I will go with them.”
“When will you return?” asked Blackfarthing, worried. Stumbling out of a back room at three or four in the morning was commonplace behavior at all the best parties, but if things dragged on until dawn, he would have overstayed his welcome, a social solecism that had never yet been laid at the Viscount’s door.
“Perhaps an hour,” said Augusta. “I dare not stay out much longer myself. Make yourself comfortable.” She turned back to her black-clad compatriots and they launched themselves across the rooftops at a bruising pace. The last ninja perched himself on the bricked up remains of a dormer and gazed into the middle distance.
Blackfarthing sighed and dusted off a patch of roof tiles with his handkerchief. He eased himself down onto it and surveyed his stockings gloomily. There were holes in the heels and toes. His valet was never going to forgive him.
Moonlight and the dull red-orange glow of the London night-sky made the rooftop into a wild and eerie landscape. The shadows were thick as tar. The sounds from the street seemed strangely attenuated. The clop of a horse’s hooves seemed to come from miles away, and echoed strangely among the slates.
He wondered if there were any chimney-sweeps in the area. Surely not. The ninjas probably wouldn’t have a meeting in an area with a sweep tribe…awful, ashy creatures that they were. Anyway, you could hear them long before you saw them—singing freaks, the lot of them. “Always with those long jiggery songs full of nonsense syllables, right before they come at you with a war-broom,” his uncle had said. The family had bought his uncle a commission, as the second son of the family, and he’d wound up as part of the action in Spain a generation before, where they’d had both the troops on the ground and the feral Spanish sweep tribes to deal with.
Not that London sweeps were anything like so bad. Probably the ninjas helped keep them in check. Raw eggs and cheap snuff and they’d clean the chimney and make a neat job of it, too. You still had to keep grilles over the chimney top the rest of the year, of course, but that was only common sense.
Blackfarthing wondered what the ninja would do if they were attacked, either by sweeps or more ninjas or…well, large hostile birds, come to that. Would he fight back? Come to Blackfarthing’s aid? Vanish into the shadows?
He didn’t look very helpful. He was still perched in the exact same position. He hadn’t moved a muscle. Might as well be a gargoyle.
Maybe he was dead.
No, that was absurd. More likely he was, what-d’you-call-it…mediating. They did that, didn’t they? Blackfarthing wasn’t quite sure what they were mediating between—their posterior and the slate tiles, perhaps. Uncomfortable bloody tiles. He shifted a bit. The ninja didn’t move.
Blackfarthing wasn’t sure if he was breathing. Was he blinking?
Maybe he didn’t have to blink.
Maybe it was one of those secrets of the Mysterious East. The ninja was probably stuffed full of them. The Orient was supposed to be lousy with that sort of thing, wasn’t it? Couldn’t walk down the street without people turning themselves into dragons or pottery soldiers or climbing up ropes then vanishing at the top—no, dash it, that was India, wasn’t it?
Come to think of it, a pottery soldier would be a pretty useless thing to turn oneself into, so maybe he was misremembering. Still. Secrets of the Mysterious East. Yes. Freddy Lackhower’s mother was always on about it at parties, talking a storm and wearing silks in patterns that made poor Freddy squirm with embarrassment.
Seemed unlikely that Mrs. Lackhower was a ninja, though. Wouldn’t think she’d know the first thing about ninjas. And you wouldn’t catch her climbing out a library window wearing black.
Had to admit that most of the chaps he knew who’d come back from China didn’t sound like Mrs. Lackhower. Mostly they talked about trade negotiations and silk embargos and the opium problem and there was a lot of bitter complaining about the pay accorded to junior diplomatic staff, that sort of thing.
“Buddha’s balls,” said the ninja, moving at last. “What I wouldn’t give for a smoke...!”
I have got to stop enjoying this so much...