They were in a room about 20 metres square with three double windows. It was clean, especially its white walls and grey flooring. A large, white, wooden table of impeccably sturdy build sat in the middle of the room, taking up about a third of its total floorspace. Various glass apparati buried it. Had Maria not been by his side, Claude would've thought he was in a chemistry lab from his previous life.
A black wooden cupboard overflowing with herbs covered the wall to the right. Several hundred small bottles -- each containing a different, labelled herb -- filled it. The other end of the room had a two-metre water tub. A small bronze tap burst out of the wall at one end of it.
"Your lab, Milady?" Claude asked.
"A part. I use this place mainly to make healing concoctions. Experiments here are rare. I have a different room for that. It has a basic array. Let me show you."
Maria strode across the room proudly and opened a delicate wooden door on the opposing wall. Claude followed.
Beyond it was a similar room, though far messier, and the table in the middle wasn't buried beneath glassware, most of it was bronze or iron instead. Metal and wooden machinery crowded the room, a couple pieces big enough to count as furniture in their own right.
"Herbal medicine was first practiced by magi. The original concoctions were made using alchemy. Commoners didn't get to use such 'noble' potions. This apparently only changed because the continent was hit by a severe plague. The magi couldn't keep up with the demand for medicine, and too many people were dying for them to keep civilisation going with those they could save on their own, so they finally taught commoners how to make their medicines.
"The continent's ruling nobility has gone to excruciating pains to wipe out this information. They can't have such an essential field to be known to be the result of the work of the evil magi. Healing spells can achieve the same results as herbal concoctions, elixirs, and ointments, however, so magi were never really interested in the discipline since it was mostly only of use to those that couldn't use magic in, and were thus worthless in the first place.
"That said, we should deeply respect the apothecaries who have, despite their inability to use magic, tried to understand the natural world and experimented with herbs to try and develop treatments for all the ailments of common men. Their concoctions never matched what magi could make, but their concoctions were made using the knowledge they'd earned through hard work and perseverance, and allowed common men to heal themselves..."
Maria's introduction continued for another ten or so minutes before she finally turned her attention to the room itself.
"This is the most advanced laboratory in the entire kingdom," she said finally, then pointed at a small array carved into the table in the middle of the room, "This is the array I mentioned," she said.
She took pride in the fact that she was a mid-ranked apothecary, and even more so in the tools of her trade. She dragged Claude around the room for nearly an hour, carefully introducing him to each and every article in it.
"This is a centrifuge," she introduced yet another piece of machinery, "You put a mixture in here, then spin this lever here, which causes the tubes inside the spin. The bigger heavier bits end up in the bottom. This--" she pointed at another piece of machinery, "--is a mortar. You can powder minerals or crystals in it, or ground up plant bits, like leaves, into paste. This is an evaporator. You pour the liquid mixture in here, then light a small fire beneath. This is a pipette..." her voice picked up pitch and her words speed again.
Claude stared, more at the woman introducing her tools, than at her tools themselves. Steam power didn't exist, so all the machines were hand operated. A few instances of water power being used, though they exceedingly rare. The technology was used almost exclusively for grinding corn into powder.
"Open the window and look outside. You'll see," Maria giggled.
This room, unlike the previous one, had only one window. It sat on the right wall, but was covered by paper, stuck to the pane like a papier mache. Claude fondled the window for several moments until he found the latch, undid it, and opened it. Outside, a large water wheel sat in mid-air. Normal wheels were anchored on the bank of a river, the bottom of the wheel submerged in the water where the stream could shove it into motion and keep it there. This one, however, dangled in mid-air and its skoops looked more like buckets than the paddles of normal wheels.
The sight baffled Claude for several moments until he noticed a large copper pipe which ended right above the wheel's apex. It stuck to the building like a vine, and Claude's eyes followed it to the roof, where he was the edge of what had to be a giant reservoir.
"Incredible. Who designed it?" Claude gaped.
Maria grinned so broadly her teeth showed.
"I did. I have an almost identical lab back in the capital. We used to run donkeys, but we'd need someone to keep an eye on them, and that's an eye I don't need around while I'm doing my experiments. Not to mention that we need a consistent turn rate for the finer experiments, so if a donkey slows down or speeds up I lose an experiment. I was sitting next to a river outside of the city one day, brooding over losing one of those experiments, when I noticed a mill on the opposite bank, and how consistently it kept turning due to the current. I wondered why we couldn't just do the same for our pole. We don't have a river obviously, so I decided to put a tank on the roof and have the water run down a pipe to the wheel. We can put the donkeys on a screw to pump water up to the roof, that doesn't have to be as consistent, and they can do that while I'm not doing an experiment, so no prying eyes at inconvenient times."
"You're too clever, Milady. No wonder you're a mid-ranked apothecary," Claude praised.
"Oh psshh!" Maria waved, her cheeks a tender pink, "I'm nothing compared to the real bigshots. They are the ones who came up with all this--" Her hand swung in an all-encompassing wave. "--from scratch."
"This may be inappropriate, Milady, but would you teach me herbal medicine?" Claude begged.
"You want to become an apothecary?"
Her eyes became absent in though for a few moments, then she shook her head.
"I'm sorry. It's not that I don't want to teach you, but I'm leaving in a fortnight, so I won't be here to. Not to mention you have school--"
"--I can study the material on my own, Milady," Claude squirted, "I'm graduating in two months. I'll have the time. Even now, I don't even really have to attend classes since I already know everything they're teaching. I'm not asking you to tutor me one-on-one. If you can just give me the material and answer an occasional question, that would already be more than enough!"
"Hmm..." Maria stared at him for several long moments, then turned around. "...Follow me."
Claude did so and the two returned to niros crocodile.
Maria stopped in front of one of the ceiling-tall shelves.
"This is my section on herbs and herbal medicine. You can come and read them while I'm still here. I'll give you a test the day before I leave. If you can't pass it, you have to give up, understood?"
"So many books... I can read any of them?"
The prospect of having to study what had to be nearly a thousand books didn't daunt him in the slightest. If anything, it was heaven. Few things were more enjoyable than reading.
"You like to read, too?" Maria asked, her eyes warming a little more as they gazed at the boy.
Few people, even among the nobility, had discovered the joy of reading. For most it was a chore, for many yet a punishment to be avoided at all costs. She'd proposed it to scare him off, instead it seemed she'd given him a bag full of candies.
"Yes. My father has about a hundred books in his study, and I've read through all of them at least once, a number of them several times. It's always a struggle to find a good book in town as well."
"Most of these were bought in the royal capital. It's my personal collection. Most deal with herbs and herbal medicine, though. I only have a couple on other stuff. You can come visit as often as you like," Maria smiled in a conspiratorial fashion.
"Thank you, Milady. Can I pick out a few now?"
"If you wish. I'll get us some more tea."
Rodan materialised by the doorway. He snuck a glance at Claude while he waited for his mistress to give him permission to speak.
"The boars are here, Madam."
"Oh. Let's go have a look," Maria said.
Claude sighed, his hand just pulling a book off the shelf. He pushed it back unwillingly, and turned to follow them. The trio walked for about five minutes, just over the hilltop to its reverse slope, then saw the singular of boars.
"Should we hire a few hunters after all, Milady?" Rodan asked again.
"I'll take care of it," Claude said again.