"What... what spell is this?" Claude asked as he stared at the ball of light now bumping against the ceiling. At this distance it looked just like a lightbulb. He didn't know how long it would last, but he desperately wanted it for his nightly studies.
"Luminous Pearl," the lady said, "It's just a light spell combining Illuminate and Glow. It was originally called Light's Cricket, but Stelling VI didn't like it and changed it to Luminous Pearl."
What? Stelling VI changed the name? But, didn't all the kingdoms hate magic? Weren't magi hunted villains? How on earth did an Auerean king have anything to do with magic? And she even made it sound like it was absolutely normal!
The lady laughed.
"Relax. I forgot we're in the southwest. It's a very rural corner of the kingdom so I should expect it to be behind the capital. That's why I didn't hesitate to call you a magus. Sorry, it seemed only natural to me."
"Is it okay to be a magus in the capital?" Claude asked.
The lady shook her head.
"No. Magic is forbidden throughout Aueras, just like everywhere else, but that's only the official stance. Every nation is constantly researching magic in secret. It's a massive weapon, so what makes you think people thirsting for power would just give it up? The problem was never the existence of magic itself, but that magi were the ones in control of the world. They're fine as long as they're servants, not masters. If you were discovered in the capital you'd be recruited in secret and taken to the secret organisation responsible for training magi."
"So learning is allowed?"
"Not publicly, of course. It's all hush-hush, you understand. You weren't wrong to want to kill us. The kingdom eliminates rogue practitioners."
"So I'm a rogue magus..." Claude mumbled, staring at the lady in disbelief, "So the kingdom wants to control magic, so they keep forbidding it in public and hunting down rogue magi. How do you know whether I'm a rogue magi or an evil magi from Siklos?"
The lady pointed at his musket.
"Evil magi despise muskets. They wouldn't touch one if it would save their lives, much less casually walk around with one. They believe the use of evil weapons is a betrayal of magic itself."
"May I ask two more questions? Are you a rogue magus or a member of that secret organisation? And how did you know I used a spell?"
"I'm not a rogue magus, but I'm not a part of the organisation either. I'm a registered third-party magus."
"A registered magus?"
"Not everyone joins the organisation -- not all of them can. Very few join, in fact, the organisation is very strict with whom it accepts."
"I see," Claude nodded in thought
So it was actually a competitive affair?
"Many magi live normal public lives like any other civilian, hiding their talents from the world. You have to be registered with the government, however. The kingdom gives them access to some spells and other information it has on magic, it would be a waste not to allow magic-talented individuals to develop that -- they can be quite useful in wars, after all -- but they have to be watched closely. Luminous Pearl is one of those harmless spells they let registered magi learn. I remember last Restoration Day, the king had magi cast 200 of these pearls on his palace."
Claude knew those people obviously had to be from noble families. He doubted the organisation would have approved of such a visible use of magic, but if the magi in question had a strong noble foundation, even that organisation, which could not take public action and admit its existence, could not exert much influence over them.
He doubted the nobles refrained from teaching their descendents magic, either. Nobles were always power hungry, and magic was an incredible tool with which to gain it in a world where it was no longer widely practiced. It was like being the only country to have a nuclear bomb. Only idiots wouldn't try to get their own. So of course noble families, probably right from the fall of the magi and the normal humans' rise to power, noble families secreted away tomes and manuals for study and learning.
"How long does it last?" Claude asked, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.
"About half an hour. It depends on your level, of course. I've heard it can go as long as two hours if you've powerful enough, but I've never seen it. Any other questions? I've not even heard your name yet..."
"I'm sorry, Madam. But you haven't told me how you found out about my spell."
"I just used Appraisal. Magic is like water, when you cast a spell, you're dropping a rock into the water. That makes ripples. Spells like Appraisal lets the caster see the ripples. Unlike ripples on water, however, the ripples of a spell remain for much longer, depending on the scale of the spell. Usually about an hour," the lady answered, her face questioning.
Claude bowed deeply. "Thank you. I am Claude Ferd, Madam."
"Claude Ferd..." the woman mumbled and her eyes widened suddenly, "Your father's Morssen Ferd, right?"
"Yes, I'm his second son."
"Aha, I've heard about you! I'm actually in Whitestag because of you!"
"Because of me? But I don't know you..."
"Let me introduce myself properly. I am Maria Fen Normanley. You can call me Baroness Normanley, or use my given name. I'm an apothecary."
"Milady, then," Claude said, scratching.
So he was right, she was a noble after all. He didn't expect her to be an apothecary, though.
"You don't seem convinced I'm an apothecary," the baroness said, displeasure in her voice.
"No, I just didn't expect a noble to be an apothecary, that's all. I've only seen sinister old men like the town's apothecary," Claude hurriedly explained.
"Oh, Niro? Well, he's only a beginner. I'm an intermediate."
Claude wondered how she knew him. He'd never heard of a baroness coming to town. Even old Claude's memories had nothing on her. How did she know both his father and the apothecary? And she appeared familiar with the town as well.
"Come, I'll show you my lab. I brought something for you. You'll know what I'm talking about once you see it."
Claude was surprised at how casual the baroness was. He had the impression that nobles were all anal about courtesy and procedure to enforce their status.
The front doors opened to reveal the butler.
"Can I help you, Madam?"
Maria wove Claude along as she spoke.
"Some refreshments to my laboratory, please."
"Right away, Madam."
The butler closed the door behind him, strolled across the room with purpose, and disappeared through a small, unobtrusive door deeper into the building.
The laboratory wasn't in the manor itself. It was in a separate building behind the main manor, about twenty metres away.
"It's inconvenient, but much better than having foul smells stinking up the halls and rooms. I don't mind too much, since I'm always working in there when I come here -- though that's not often -- but my little sister and the rest of the family visit often and they don't like the smells."
The heavy-metal door swung open laboriously, and a large, niros crocodile confronted the two just beyond the brink. Claude's instincts told him to cast Magic Missile immediately, but he subdued the impulse when he saw how calm the baroness was. She didn't even look at it, sending another pearl into the room like it wasn't there at all.
It didn't move. It took Claude several seconds to realise it was a taxiderm. When he looked a little closer, something about the crocodile started feeling familiar. He walked around it once, and nodded. It was indeed the crocodile he'd killed. Had the baroness stolen it from Sir Fux?
"Why... why is it here?" Claude wondered aloud.
"Hehehe..." Maria giggled mischievously, "See? I wasn't lying. I was talking about this. I didn't believe the story of you four killing it when I first heard it. I didn't expect you would be one of the four. Your confidence in being able to hunt boar sounds less like arrogance now."
"I'm sorry for my bad manners..." Claude said.
The mount looked perfect. Sir Fux wasn't kidding when he said he was going to stuff it. He'd even had the eye fixed.
"I rushed back here when I heard a niros crocodile had been killed. It cost me 45 crowns, but I got it. You didn't expect that, huh?"
The baroness looked like a little girl waiting to be praised for her new toy.