"Good morning, Milady."
"You're late, Claude," Maria answered a second later, putting down her book.
Claude didn't meet her glare. It wasn't even nine yet, his father had brought him to the foot of the hill, but he still had to walk up it...
"You're just wasting time like this. Stay tonight. Rodan will prepare a room. Don't worry, I'll inform your father," Maria said; again with that it's-already-decided voice.
"I do whatever Milady says."
Claude had had a long talk with his father in the study about the baroness' background and had decided it was best to do what she said. It was only for ten days, after all. He'd faced much worse before.
"Good. Put your musket away. You and I know you are not here to shoot pigs. You'll be my assistant. Come; change into this."
The clothes looked like doctor's robes. But grey, and made of linen.
Maria started handing out orders the moment the two set foot in the laboratory.
"Cut off all the unnecessary bits. With Magus' Hands and Fine Control, of course. Then separate the bone-scales from the skin beneath."
Rodan brought tea and snacks an hour after they started.
The baroness sat, ever-so-stately, enjoying her tea as she observed her newest, and youngest, servant work her priced crocodile. One might be forgiven for thinking the two were just sitting, meditating, if not for the crocodile's skin, which split and folded as if touched by invisible hands.
The morning ended in sweat and hot tea with a third of the work done.
"Time for lunch," Maria announced suddenly with a clap of her hands, "Then a short nap before we get back to work. You can either sleep or read. The food was delicious, by the way. You have quite the versatile set of hands on you, maybe I should turn them into parchment--" she smiled mischievously. "--You will take care of dinner tonight, won't you?--" Her face said it wasn't a question. "--Just tell Rodan what you need."
Claude smiled bitterly, yet not without appropriate obedience.
"As you wish, Milady."
Damn that father of his! It was all his fault! All he had to do was agree to her request. He didn't have to make her stay for dinner and then make Claude prepare the food! At first he only offered dinner, but the baroness refused and in his desperation to get her to stay he told her Claude was a great cook and he would be the one preparing dinner.
Her infernal interest was piqued and his father swore him to hell and back to make the best food he had ever made. Now he was not just boar hunter, but head chef as well!
He had not thought she might give him such a promotion at the time, else he would not have put in so much effort. But he had not, and so he had prepared an eight course meal from the best dishes he remembered and could make with what was at hand. Everything tasted slightly off to him, since many of the ingredients used back on earth didn't exist here, or tasted differently, but the baroness didn't know that, and she was more than impressed.
She had never eaten even a single dish of what was served that night, not even in the greatest restaurants of the capital. She had to fight to keep the drool from dribbling down her mouth, while not swallowing too obviously. She had to preserve her dignity, after all. She managed that, what she did not manage, however, was to stick to a lady's portions. She ate until she felt embarrassingly full.
Morssen, ever the ambitious man, immediately started wondering if he should change his plans for his second son and have him serve as the baroness' chef instead of sending him off to his godfather.
Claude knew the moment he saw the look of sorrow on Maria's face when she swallowed the last bite of dessert that he was in for it. And now it had come. His thoughts wandered back to that conversation his father had had with him in the study after they'd seen the baroness off.
"Isn't she just a baroness?" he had asked.
"Who do you think Lady Maria is? Baroness or not, she's a Fen Normanley! She has, if not the king's ear, then his advisors'. Her words are worth more to the king than the entire Council of Lords!"
The rest of the night, what was left of it at the time, was spent in the study listening to his father's recounting of House Fen Normanley's history, with several substantial sidetracks about how Claude's grandfather Habis had made the greatest mistake of his life to not continue to serve in the military since he could also have been in the Normanleys' position.
As it turned out, the house's founder was born a cobbler's son, in Whitestag, no less. Afess Normanley took over his father's trade and became a cobbler himself. He joined Stellin IX's army like Claude grandfather, but, unlike Claude's grandfather, he stayed on after the town was taken. He served the king-to-be loyally for the entirety of the war and conducted himself honourably, which won the king's respect and trust. At war's end he was awarded a rural barony outside of Whitestag, and became hereditary Baron Fen Normanley.
While all twenty of the town's survivors who'd fought for the king were made nobles, only Afess was given lands, and thus became a hereditary noble. Granted, that special award was thanks to the three times Afess had saved the king's life. The king had wanted to make him a viscount and give him Whitestag itself, but his low birth made that difficult, since none of the king's already-noble followers agreed. Afess was common born, and they would never settle for him outranking any of them. He could only be made the lowest tier of noble possible.
Despite his low status in the peerage, the king's trust in him was absolute. He was made Captain of the Guard and put in charge of the king's safety. Afess died during the second war with Nasri, and the king took his son and daughter as his charges. The two grew up with the king's son, now Stellin X.
Baroness Maria Fen Normanley was Baron Afess Fen Normanley's daughter, and one of Stellin X's closest confidantes and his dearest friend, second only to her brother, who was a captain in the royal guard under her husband, Viscount Kartoff, who had succeeded her father as Captain of the Guard, which made him a general, despite the post's title. In reality, she was a viscountess, but tradition was to refer to a noblewoman by her birth title rather than a title she held by marriage -- since she was not in the line of succession for a title held by marriage -- unless she had no birth title.
She did not mind at all, since her brother had been made a viscount by the king, given his own viscounty, and had decided to leave their father's barony, and his title, to his sister. She much preferred to be known as a baroness in her own right, rather than a viscountess thanks only to her marriage to her husband.
Then there was also her fame as a mid-rank apothecary and the de facto, if not de jure, royal apothecary. Even the prime minister didn't dare cross her.
The baroness had always kept a low public profile, despite her immense power and influence, and she certainly never got involved in politics. She didn't even do favours. Her sole interest, it appeared, was her study of herbal medicine.
Her father was the one who planted the wood on their lands. Neither her father, her brother, nor she, often came here, however. They mostly governed in absentia from the capital, leaving the lands to their butler. They didn't come to town, or interact with anyone from it when they did come for a short visit, so few ever knew when they were home. Gaining her favour was incredibly difficult, but doing so would open most of the doors in the kingdom in one fell swoop. This chance Claude had been given was beyond rare, and even further beyond precious. If he was successful, he would have little trouble rising to the very top of whatever career he chose. If he crossed her, however, he would get nowhere no matter how diligent, hardworking, or talented he was. And no amount of networking, no backer, could help him if that happened. He had to take this seriously.
Morssen was both excited and terrified. If his son succeeded, his family was set for generations. If he failed, it was over for them, no matter what any of his other children might achieve, in fact, it was all but certain they would achieve nothing if Claude angered the baroness. Most importantly, one needed a strong backer if one was pursuing the peerage. Merit alone was not enough. In the absence of war, it was a multi-generation effort to build up the support with the nobility necessary to become a peer, but if they could get the baroness on their side, a few kind words would be enough.
Claude shivered as the reality of his situation, both the potential and the danger, settled in. His back drenched in cold sweat when he thought of how he'd thought of killing her. If he'd succeeded, he'd have the entire kingdom, not to mention the king, personally, after him. And he didn't doubt the king wouldn't rest until he was dead, even if he had to chase him to Nubissia and back.
His only option was obedience. So, he got back to work that afternoon without hum or complaint, and served the best dinner he could that evening.
"Alright, now the membrane is free of the plates, it's time to clean the inside," the baroness said the next morning, "Do it with Magus' Hand and Fine Control like yesterday."
"If I may, Milady. Why not use Magus' Hands and hold an actual knife? Why use Fine Control to turn my manifestations into knives? It uses up far more mana."
"The crocodile's skin is damaged by contact with physical objects, especially metals. We'll only get the best quality if we use only mana. My best option until know was a wooden blade made from bamboo. You don't have to use a physical blade, however, and shouldn't."
"Also, I'll have some more of that -- fried noodles, was it? -- tonight as well."
"As you wish, Milady."
The second day went much as the first.
"Alright, now split the skin into two-page sheets. Put them in this solution--" She pointed at an already-prepared bucket on a nearby table. "--and soak it for a day. Then hang them out to dry. No physical tools, understood?"
"Understood, Milady. What is the solution, if I may ask, Milady?"
"It's called a skystar solution. That book--" She jabbed a finger at a book on the other end of the table. "--describes it. You can read about it later. Just know it's used to cure the skin, which makes it more resistant to wear from use and more efficient at conducting mana."
"I see. Thank you, Milady."
"Good. But actions speak louder than words. Thank me with a good dinner."
"I will, Milady."
So came the fourth day.
"We have nothing to do today. The sheets are still drying, so go hunt a bit. I want deep-fried liver for dinner, the same way you made it last time. I can't believe that stuff could actually be edible, much less tasty. And you said liver is good for sight? Hmm... I have been struggle with my eyes for a few years now... All this work isn't helping, either."
"If I may be so bold, Milady, you have only been sitting there watching me every day."
"Exactly," the baroness said as if that should have told him everything he needed to know.
"Am I your assistant or your chef, Milady?"
"Alright, I'll be frank, Claude. You shouldn't waste your time with magic or herbal medicine. You're much better as a chef. With your skills I don't doubt you could become the Royal Chef in time, with a few recommendations from myself--"
"A joke! A joke! Anyway. We're wasting daylight. Off you go!"