Claude finally understood why nobody in Whitestag had heard of Baroness Maria; she was from the royal capital. And she had to be damn rich if she could pay 45 crowns for a mere crocodile.
The niros crocodile was a valuable resource, and worth quite a lot, but nowhere near what she'd paid for just the taxiderm. Damn that Sir Fux! He'd make an absolute killing! He paid just 4 crowns and sold it four ten times as much!
Claude couldn't quite understand why the baroness was willing to pay that much for it. Sure, it would be quite the attraction in the capital, but to be that frantic to get it? Come to think of it, how did she learn about it so quickly? The royal capital was weeks away by land, and while ships could shorten the trip considerably, they didn't come by often. She must have quite the informant network to learn about a single crocodile being killed and sole in such a small, remote town, so quickly. Either that, or the Normanley and Fux families had close ties.
Claude was reminded of the saying 'shrimp are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by large fish'. So Claude and his friends were shrimps, and the baroness was a large fish. Even worse, she could hide among the small fish until she struck.
"I didn't expect to see it here, no. Why would Milady rush here for a simple taxiderm? Do you want it for your display room back in the capital?" Claude asked.
"I don't do pointless displays," the baroness said, rolling her eyes, "I need its skin. You should at least know niros crocodile skin make great magic parchment, yes?"
Claude shook his head, but recalled just after that he had indeed read something to that effect somewhere.
Maria shook her head.
"Where on earth have you been learning magic? Nevermind. I think it's best I don't know. Still, you're supposed to be a magus, so how can you know absolutely nothing about the world?"
Claude was forced to concede his ignorance. At least the baroness appeared to be a straightforward person, she got to the point quickly and moved on just as fast. It had its downside, however. The less she said about something, the less Claude could learn about it from her.
"My apologies, Milady."
He supposed he could tell her a little more about him, his magic side, at least, after all. He quite liked her carefree nature.
"I came upon a rune magus' diary by accident and started learning magic out of idle curiosity. I killed the crocodile when I was just starting to learn meditation. I got it with my musket since I couldn't cast spells yet. I only became a true magus last month."
"Wait, you said rune magus, yes? Are you sure you have one's legacy?!" the baroness half-shouted suddenly.
Claude shook his head.
"I don't know if its a rune magus' legacy. The diary's writer said he was a rune magus, and he wrote notes on alchemical experiments and drew a few diagrammes, such as those about Hexagram Meditation and the formations for several spells. I've been training from the diary."
Claude decided he would make a reduced copy of the diaries. He spoke before he remembered that Landes was one of the 'evil magi'. That said, only diaries made of magic parchment would be used by magi, and only they would survive this long without proper care. Fake diaries written on normal paper wouldn't fly with the baroness, she was too sharp for that. But he had to have fakes to give her. She could make even Sir Fux sell the crocodile to her, so if she wanted the diaries, there was nothing he could do to stop her.
"You really don't know the first thing about the magi world, do you? A magus' legacy is supposed to be their dearest secret. No magus reveals their true legacies even when being registered. Do you really think we all know just the harmless spells the government allows us to learn?"
"You're the first magus I've met. I know nothing about the modern world of magic."
"I suppose that's to be expected given your age and situation. 'Rune magus' is one of the old titles from before the magi were chased off the continent. Back then there were only rune magi and battlemagi. The battlemagi and their legacies were all but wiped out by the war. Nowadays rune magi are called alchemists. They've been dedicated to researching ways to do the things spells can do without using magic. You should know about tap water and flush toilets, yes?"
"That used to be done with magic, but decades of research developed ways to do the same thing without using magic. Alchemists are responsible for the vast majority of the improvements to ordinary people's lives that have come about since the Great War. "
Claude forced his dumbfounded expression down.
Did they really have to rely on magic to do those things in the past? Well, he supposed it was much easier with magic, so there was never a reason to look for normal ways to do that, but that was just wasteful. And did the people of today really have to keep referring to the old magic way of doing things to figure out new inventions? There was so many things that could easily be done with just physics, which common sense should have told them how to do centuries ago!
"The magi took all the tomes and manuals that weren't destroyed in the war when they fled to Siklos. Most of what they didn't or couldn't take was burned by the angry mobs. Only a few things, mostly the beginner textbooks left at home by members of noble families who had studied magic, survived.
"People only realised how much they depended on magic once the magi were gone and their magic couldn't keep making the things everyone had taken for granted until then. The rulers immediately started gathering up and hoarding every bit of magic knowledge, every tome, manual, and item they could find, and started raising their own magi as best they could."
Claude finally understood why firearm technology had stood still for so long. The magi guarded their knowledge jealously, and all of it either went with them to Siklos, or was destroyed, and what little was preserved was hidden away in the sovereigns' vaults, rarely seen by anyone.
It also explained why he wasn't taught anything resembling physics and chemistry in school. Those kinds of things were closely associated with magic and was thus banned.
A hidden door in a dark corner of the laboratory opened and Rodan emerged from the darkness beyond carrying a tray with an intricate crystal tea-and-delicacy set.
"Come join me for tea," the baroness said, pointing at a table just beyond the crocodile.
Rodan put the tray on the table and pulled out a tray for the baroness, who took it gracefully, resting her heels on the crocodile's tail.
"Thank you," Claude said, taking the cup Rodan offered him once he was seated.
He didn't dare put his feet on the crocodile however. He couldn't pay 45 crowns if he damaged it, and he definitely wasn't going to try hunting for another one if that was what the baroness demanded.
"Don't worry, step on it as you please," the baroness said generously, apparently reading his mind.
Claude heard something click and saw the servant's door was closed and Rodan had vanished again.
The baroness took a petite sip from her cup, frowned slightly, and reached for a small silver tong.
"Rodan never adds enough sugar," she mumbled as she pinched a small yellow cube from a beautiful brass bowl and dropped it gracefully into her cup.
She stirred for a while until the sugar was resolved, then took another sip and smiled, closing her eyes to best savour the flavour.
"Much better. These are honey crystals. They dry honey until it forms crystals, then grind them into a powder which is pressed into these cubes after being steamed to make them sticky again. Normal honey is very sticky and it makes a big mess when you spill it. These--" She picked up a cube with the delicate tongs and shook it back and forth in front of Claude's face gently. "--These don't stick as much. Come, come, help yourself. You don't expect me to serve you, do you?" she teased.
"No, Milady, I can do it myself, thank you," Claude answered, his cheeks reddening slightly, "I'm okay with it as is."
The baroness chose a cookie from the plate and slipped it into her mouth.
"And some cookies for you well," she somehow said through closed lips, pushing the plate towards him, "I'll answer your questions as a thank you for saving me. I can't tell you everything, of course, but I won't hold back with what I can. Oh, what spells have you learned?"
"The diary's writer was a one-ring rune magus. He was from a family of fishermen, at least that's what he says in the diary. He recorded Magus' Hands, Eye of Appraisal, Fine Control, Decomposition, and Reconstruction. He didn't mention any other spells, so I'm still trying to find two more to fill up my hexagram..."
The spells were utterly common in his estimation, so he spoke about them quite casually, but his voice trailed off when he noticed the undisguised flabbergastment on the baroness' face.
"...Something wrong, Milady?"
"Don't ever tell anyone you learned these five spells, you hear?" she said suddenly, anxious.
Claude stared a question at her.
"The kingdom has forbidden those spells. Nobody may learn them. Even members of the secret organisation only rarely get permission."
"Why? They're just normal alchemical spells..."
"Stellin IV was assassinated by a magus using Magus' Hands. It's been a forbidden spell ever since."
Claude's back was suddenly wet. He'd thought he'd been quite ingenious to use the spell to do his chores, the thought that that very spell was used to kill someone, that he would have been executed had anyone discovered him using it, soaked his shirt.