Ezekiel Ashton was a big man in all senses of the phrase. He was six feet tall and broad-built like a man used to heavy labor, massively powerful. In his fifties, now, a taste for fine foods and wines had him running to fat, so he must have weighed over three hundred pounds and only the excellence of his tailor made him thoroughly presentable in his immaculate evening-wear. Despite his size and build, there was a neatness about him, his gray-shot moustache and beard neatly trimmed, his thick, spatulate fingers manicured. He would never be compared to a bear, walrus, or ape the way other large men might; the brain simply refused to associate Ashton with any kind of animal metaphor. And he was big in the figurative sense as well, the Schnee Dust Company's director of English operations.
"My God, what is this?" he exclaimed at walking into the study. His eyes took in the wreckage, the strewn papers, the fallen automata, and then zeroed in on Weiss. "What on earth happened to you?"
"A clumsy oaf of a girl spilled wine on my dress." She gestured at the stain. "I came upstairs to change and I found that someone had broken into my room through the window. I rang the alarm, then investigated."
"That was very foolish of you, young lady. You could have been—" His eyes flicked to the bandages swathing her face, and amended his remonstrance. "You were hurt, and could have been killed. Thieves are not gentlemen like in the dime novels, but vicious, desperate criminals."
"This thief touched nothing in my room, not jewelry, not money. I thought it more important to protect the company, and I was right. I caught her going through these papers she obviously got into by forcing the safe." She gestured sharply at the mess. "I'll grant you vicious and desperate, though. She disarmed and wounded me, and though I set the automata on her she defeated them and made her escape."
"We'll contact Garnet immediately," Ashton said, referring to the company's security officer in charge of the manor.
"Yes, but there are more important things to do than worrying about how this spy got in and out. Besides, he can't make any proper investigation until the ball ends."
Ashton grasped what she meant almost immediately.
"Of course. The least hint of scandal or disturbance tonight could cause us incalculable harm in the financial markets, perhaps even more than whatever it is our intruder intends. But your own absence will already have been noted, and you can hardly return like that."
"I've already taken care of that. I sent a message to have Aunt Margarethe announce that unfortunately I have been taken ill and could not rejoin the celebration, but that I insisted that the ball go on so that my own indisposition did not spoil everyone else's enjoyment."
With luck, that stupid girl in red will blame herself, which will repay her for causing this fiasco! Though in another way, the girl's clumsiness had actually been a blessing in disguise. Without it, the spy's presence might not have been discovered for hours, by which time she might have gotten away with everything she wanted instead of being caught in the act and left to grab only a few documents.
"Excellent. Did you happen to see if—she, you say?—if she took anything with her?"
"She grabbed a couple of pages out of the file she was reading."
Ashton stroked his beard thoughtfully, his big hand all but engulfing the lower part of his face as he did.
"Very well; I'll need to establish what's missing and what consequences it might have. At least it may help to point our way towards the thief's employer. I think that will be all, Miss Schnee; I'm sure that Mr. Garnet will want to question you in the morning about your experiences. It will be an uncomfortable business, I'm certain, but I'm sure you understand that it will be necessary for the good of your family's company."
Weiss arched her right eyebrow at Ashton, a gesture she belatedly realized was nowhere near as effective with her left eye bandaged. Her tone of voice adequately expressed her mood, though.
"Ex-cuse me, but you seem to believe I'm going to be packed off to bed like a good little girl to leave this affair in your hands. That is not going to be the case."
"Miss Schnee, this is not the time for you to start engaging in petulant displays. This is a serious situation and the only way to acceptably resolve it is if you allow those of us who are capable of doing so to address it without interference."
"And I would remind you, Mr. Ashton, of what day today is. The purpose of the ball might serve as a clue." She waited a beat, to see if he'd either rise to the bait or capitulate at once; he did neither, letting her play it out in her own way. "It is my twenty-first birthday, meaning that as of today, I am not a child but a legal adult and the owner in my own right of a twenty-five percent voting share of Schnee Dust Company stock. With my father out of the country, I am the ranking member of the Schnee family's ownership group currently present, and I am not going to pass off my responsibilities on others any more than he would!"
Ashton's eyebrows rose sharply.
"That is not at all what I expected to hear."
"After this," Weiss gestured at her bandaged face, "do you expect me to simply sit back and hide like a frightened child?"
"I would expect you to leave these matters to those who better understand them."
Temper flared, but Weiss throttled it. Ashton really would think her a child if she threw a tantrum over the point. There was a time to unleash her anger, but this wasn't it.
The image of the intruder popped into her mind at the thought. She, most certainly, would feel the full force of that anger before they were through.
"I understand that I don't have the intimate knowledge of the company's affairs that my father does. That's why I sent for you, to help me navigate the complexities. But you need to understand that I have trained all my life to fulfill my duty as heiress of the Schnee family, and that duty is not merely to act as a social asset or a bartering chip in a marriage alliance." She fixed her one-eyed gaze squarely on him. "Your role as director of the company's English operations is to facilitate our purposes, to support our goals with your undeniable skills. Royalty may quail at your voice, but when you speak, you do so for me. Do we understand each other, Mr. Ashton?"
His reluctance was obvious. That was no surprise; no English businessman, let alone one as used to authority as he was, wanted to take orders from a girl scarcely out of leading strings. But she didn't need him to like it. Respect she'd have to earn, but she would have her due.
"I do, Miss Schnee."
"Good. Then I'll start with the most self-evident question. Is there anything in those papers that could put the Source at risk?"
He shook his head.
"No. Not unless your father was extraordinarily foolish."
Which he was not. Weiss would never think of calling him that.
"Good. That takes care of the worst fear, then."
"That doesn't mean that the thief knew that when she broke in. Even you didn't, so that may well have been what she was after."
Weiss shook her head.
"No; remember that she stole papers. That means that she was on the track of whatever she was after. She'd have known that whatever she was looking at didn't have anything to do with the secret to refining Dust." She rose from her seat. "I'm afraid you're going to have to go through these records. You're the only one who could reasonably put together this mess, and the only one who ranks high enough to see all these files." She knew the compliment would help prop up the ego she'd battered, and it was easy to offer because it was the plain truth. "When you find out what's missing, come and see me, and we'll decide how to proceed."
"And what will you be doing?"
"I'm going to answer Mr. Garnet's questions, and ask him a few of my own. There's nothing he can do to explain why, but there might be leads towards figuring out who."
~X X X~
The tip of a lit cigarette glowed brightly in the dark as air was drawn through it.
"You're late," the speaker said.
"I was delayed," Blake replied.
She was wearing the same cloak she'd had on during her return from the Schnee manor, but the rest of her wardrobe was completely different. She had changed into a white skirt and shirtwaist, a cameo at her throat the only ornamentation, and the headscarf had been replaced by a simple black bow, something of a trademark with her.
The speaker glowered at her.
"You should have sent word."
"I didn't have the opportunity. Hence the delay."
He took a step forward, into the pool of light from the gaslamp on the street corner. His height and sharp, clean-shaven features Blake could see already, but the light seemed to wash color over him, painting his red hair, scarlet-tinted spectacles, and tan ulster. A flick of his fingers spun the cigarette to the curb, and his boot came down, crushing it out. His eyes measured her, then softened.
"You left it too long?" It was part statement, part accusation.
"I didn't have a choice. I was down to my last supply."
"You should have come to me."
"No, I couldn't. You know that as well as I do."
His face darkened.
She shook her head.
"I can tolerate it if I have to. Better than some of the others, at least."
"That's not important."
"...Three extra days." Before he could say anything, she rushed on. "You know that it doesn't take me as hard as it does most of us."
"For how long, if you keep doing this to yourself?"
"If I do it twice, that's nearly a full week, and a week means that somebody else gets what they need."
"Is this some kind of penance for Jack?"
"No, it isn't." Liar, some part of her mind seemed to whisper at her. "But that doesn't mean that I want to see that happen again if I can help it."
His hand dipped into his pocket and came out with a vial. The tincture glinted in the gaslight, a deep scarlet like old wine as if it held secrets in its depths. Which, Blake reflected, was the literal truth. He then brought out a second vial, this one containing the white crystals of the chemical salts.
"This is from the last of the old supply."
She took the vials and put them away in her reticule.
"I didn't think you wanted to come back just yet." He paused, then added. "No one blames you, Blake. It had to be done."
"Yes, it did. That doesn't make it any easier for people to accept. And you know as well as I do, Adam, that it would have been easier for them if it was someone other than me."
His lip curled, but he didn't contradict her. He knew the truth of it too well.
"It had to be you. You were uniquely placed."
"I know. But if I can do that, then I can use those same advantages for a better purpose."
"Such as pushing yourself beyond your limits?"
"Such as finding a way that none of us ever has to."
"You're asking how it went? Badly."
"You couldn't get in?"
Blake favored him with a little smirk.
"Please. You don't have to be insulting. But no, I did get in. I got into the house, and I got into the records." She frowned. "Then I was interrupted. Apparently the birthday girl herself decided the present she wanted was to confront a burglar with her own hands."
"Weiss Schnee herself caught you?"
"Her dress had a big stain on it; I think she came upstairs to change and stumbled across me. Would you believe, she even had a sword? She was just dangerous enough to get herself hurt. She's lucky she wasn't killed, and I ended up cutting her face."
"It would have served her right if you had killed her."
Blake shook her head.
"I don't think so. She's barely my age; the pampered daughter of a rich family isn't going to be part of what the business does, and you can't hold her responsible for fifty years of Schnee Dust Company history." Blake folded her arms across her chest. "Maybe tonight will teach her that the world isn't there just to be given to her on a silver platter. Besides, if I'd killed her you know as well as I do that the Schnees wouldn't rest until they'd found me, and through me all of you. That's the one thing I can think of that would make them throw out any profit and loss balancing and just unleash all of their power on vengeance regardless of what it cost."
"You're right, of course. We can continue to live because it's not worth the money or risk of exposure to them to do what it would take to guarantee their victory." Adam snorted. "That doesn't make it any easier to think of that spoiled brat having a stained dress being what passes for a disaster in her life. Not after what we've been through."
"You can give her credit for one thing, at least. She didn't faint or curl up screaming when I cut her. Instead she crawled under the desk and turned loose a couple of automata. Suits of armor animated by clockworks and verdant Dust, to be specific."
"And you got away from them?" Since obviously she had, it was more of a prompt for her to continue than a genuine question.
"I was lucky; I managed to disable them temporarily by tying them together, but I lost my gun in the process."
"But were you successful?"
Blake reached into her reticule and took out the pages she'd managed to bring along with her.
"I don't know yet. I grabbed these when Miss Schnee caught me. The names in them might be useful."
"Don't you need them?"
"I took notes for myself, so you can keep these. You might be able to learn something that I cannot."
"I doubt it, but I'll do what I can."
"Thank you. I'll follow up on my own, of course, but we each have our different connections, avenues to explore."
"And this is too important to pass up any lead."
"You'd better get going, then. You're going to need your rest if you're going to be any good to anyone, most of all yourself."
"Should I take that as a comment on my looks?"
Adam just curled his lip. Blake's own sense of humor didn't exactly run to uproarious levity, but he didn't have one at all. She chuckled softly.
"Good night, Adam."
"Blake." She'd started to walk away, but she paused in mid-step. "Stay in touch. I know that you don't feel like we're happy to follow you, but you are our comrade. You're one of us."
She wished that it was that simple. But for Adam, it genuinely was, and she didn't want to demean that by being dismissive or flippant to him.
"I won't forget," she told him, and headed into the night.
~X X X~
"It's a matter of balance." Verhart Grunwald clucked his tongue as he looked at the broken knights lying on the heavy workbenches. Powerful electric lamps gave the cavernous basement workshop a ghostly appearance; gleaming brass and dull iron were everywhere. "The weight distribution of an automaton is different than that of a man. The Dust furnace, the clockworks, the Analytical Engine, they are not bones and tissue! Making them fit the shell of a suit of armor..." He clucked his tongue again. "Form interfering with function, it is! Surely you can understand, Mr. Garnet, that the best security tools must be optimized for their use, not how they look!"
The Schnee family's engineer and automatist looked like a parody of what he was: a hunched, gnomelike man with a bald pate and gray side-whiskers, wearing a canvas apron over his shirt and trousers, the material heavily scarred by acid and heat. The fact that he was awake at this hour was no concession to his employer's needs; he was virtually nocturnal by habit. Weiss had been extremely surprised when she'd learned that he was a widower with four grown children and eleven grandchildren.
"Looking ordinary is part of their function," Mitchell Garnet replied. "Mr. Schnee doesn't want some obvious war machine sitting around his home." Though only in his forties, his deeply grooved face, long lines like scars descending his cheeks and framing his bushy moustache, made him seem much older.
"Then Mr. Schnee will just have to expect that their ability to fight off their opponents will be compromised."
"Can they be repaired?" Weiss cut in, hoping to shorten a debate whose outcome she didn't care about.
"Oh, yes. The Dust crystals were intact, thank the good God, so it is only a matter of replacing a few damaged gears and restoring some parts of the mechanism that had been jarred loose. It will take no more than a day or two."
"Excellent. In that case, if you gentlemen can turn your attention to what caused the damage in the first place, we might make distinct progress."
She'd already gone over what had happened with Garnet here in Dr. Verhart's laboratory, where the automata and the woman's weapons alike could serve as exhibits. He'd shared in return the story of the two hired men's encounter with the escaping intruder out on the grounds. Fortunately, both would be all right, though one would need some days of bed rest to recover from a concussion.
"This, you mean?" Garnet said, picking up the gun. "It's called an apache pistol, after the French criminals who often use them, not the American Indian tribe. This way they can carry one weapon, and have access to a pistol, a knife, and brass knuckles." He demonstrated how folding or unfolding the weapon could allow it to be used in different configurations that were best for one or another function. "This second knife blade under the gun barrel, that's less than usual. An old gun, the Elgin Cutlass, had a blade like this, only bigger, like a Bowie knife, but it's not at all what you see in apache pistols, for them to have two blades."
"What about the whip?" Weiss asked.
"You mean this?" He picked up the mesh strap and dropped it back on the bench. "Are you sure it happened like you say?"
"Yes! Or are you implying that I am some sort of hysterical female? She had that strap wound around her arm, and took it off and clipped it onto the gun, then threw the gun holding the strap like it was the end of a whip, caught it, and stabbed it into a joint on one of the automata to anchor it. It wasn't some random activity, but a quick, practiced motion."
Garnet shook his head.
"I've never heard of such a thing. I suppose that with the second blade, it might be used as a grappling hook? It's already a multi-purpose weapon, after all. Though I wouldn't care to be throwing a firearm around as a tool."
"There's a safety-catch on the gun," Dr. Verhart explained, "but I agree—the idea of trusting such a thing is quite risky. Not unlike catching it, to be sure—an irregularly-shaped object with multiple knife blades."
"So it was something she'd trained to do," Weiss said. "Like I said before, something she'd practiced in doing." She looked at Garnet. "I would think that would help your investigation. Surely London's underworld cannot be filled with women thieves who use such an unusual weapon."
"Yes, well, quite," he murmured under his breath. Weiss wasn't sure exactly why he seemed to be truculent about it. Perhaps it was just that he, too, was having difficulty adapting to the idea of taking instructions from her, when before now she'd just been part of his duties as one of the things he had to protect.
Or maybe it's just that his professional pride's been hurt. That woman had gotten past armed watchmen, locked and alarmed windows, an up-to-date safe, and even two automata. Weiss could certainly appreciate that a man like Garnet might feel as if he'd been made to look a fool. Considering that not only had valuable papers been stolen but Weiss also injured, he might even fear for his job—a sentiment that Weiss was not herself just ready to dismiss as yet. We'll catch this woman first, and see just how flawed Garnet's security actually was, and how much use he proves in bringing her down.
"Indeed, I would think she'd be fairly notorious, a woman who wields a gun-knife combination on the end of a metal cord. Or, not really a cord, is it? I thought it was a ribbon, or a leather strap, when she had it around her arm, but it's actually metal, isn't it? I guess that it's painted black so that it doesn't reflect light?"
"Very likely. That's an old soldier's trick, to use soot to blacken metal at night. Paint's probably easier for her purposes."
"From what I've seen, metal cables are usually made of braided wire. Why is this one like this? It looks like a strip of chain mail."
Dr. Verhart shrugged.
"That's basically what it is. It would give considerably increased flexibility if used as a rope or cord. You say she wore it wrapped around her forearm? Then it could be used as armor as well, though the metal is quite lightweight." He frowned thoughtfully. "One of the new alloys, no doubt; there are a few of them being developed that enhance the properties of ordinary steel."
"I know that; some of the metallurgical research is taking place at Schnee-owned subsidiary firms," Weiss snapped testily. The engineer clucked his tongue at her.
"Tetchy, are we, Miss Schnee?"
"I have had my birthday ball ruined, been attacked in my own home, had my face sliced open, been humiliated by a stupid thief, and am up far too late. Doctor, I am so far beyond tetchy."
"Hmm. Well, then, permit me to at the least assist you somewhat in improving your mood, yes? I think Mr. Garnet will bear me out when I suggest that your burglar's weapon was by no means ordinary." Since Garnet had in fact already made that point, Dr. Verhart didn't wait for him to repeat himself. "I think that were I to have something so unique and thus something I have spent many hours on practicing, and I lost it, then I would seek to replace it."
"You said these apache pistols got their name from the French gangs that use them," Weiss asked Garnet. "Are they common among our English criminals as well?"
He shook his head.
"Not particularly. Firearms aren't so common among the English criminal classes; if they were our bobbies couldn't keep order with just their truncheons. And those that do, they just use ordinary weapons: an army Webley, a Colt's Navy, perhaps a derringer or other pocket pistol if they're being subtle or if they're concerned with emergency protection instead of active firepower. A thing like this, it's for someone who thinks differently about its use than most of our nobblers."
"So there are cultural differences even between thieves and murderers. But in that case, there would be relatively few places where she could turn to replace this gun. It's basic economics: where there is little demand for something, there's rarely a significant supply."
"Especially when you factor in this mesh ribbon. This is undoubtedly a custom piece."
"So, the next step is plain. Mr. Garnet, you doubtless have access to a variety of informers of underworld activity, be it through the police, company security, or on your own. The list of possible gunsmiths who could replace this can't be long, and you should be able to find out which is the correct one soon enough. We won't need to hunt her down, not when she will come right to us.
"And then," Weiss concluded, her face an angry mask, "she'll be mine."
~X X X~
A/N: Apache pistols? Completely real (though using them like a kusari-gama, there's not so much with the reality there); I bet Monty would love them. As is the Elgin Cutlass, basically the mating of a pistol with a Bowie knife. And then there's the Le Mat revolver, not mentioned here...which is a revolver, but with an extra barrel...which is for a shotgun (so yes, not only is the idea of a "gun-gun," as Kerry Shawcross once said, feasible, it's even been done!). Hybrid weapons may not be so ubiquitous in real life as they are in RWBY, but they do in fact exist.
A "nobbler" is Victorian thieves' cant for a criminal whose practice is in the infliction of violence.