Maria left seventeen days later, rather than ten. She might have stayed even longer, but a messenger arrived on the afternoon of the sixteenth day, calling her back to the capital.
Claude was both her chef and her laboratory assistant for all seventeen of those days. In the end they harvested enough skin for seven tomes and 35 blank scrolls. Aside from all the work he did, Maria also taught him how to use the myriad machinery in her laboratory as well as drilling him on some of the introductory basics of herbal medicine.
Claude might sigh at times to himself, but he knew what a blessing it was to be taught by the baroness, so he always went out of his way to make her the best food he could. His food was a big part of the reason Maria chose to delay her return to the capital. She'd been about as surprised with his aptitude for medicine as for cooking, but not quite as much. She was still determined to turn him into a cook rather than an apothecary.
The two spent most of their time buried in books, or working on the crocodile skin, but that didn't stop Claude from learning his fair share about the baroness. She was a glutton. He supposed he had to be polite, so he would call her a hyper-enthusiastic gourmet instead. He supposed it was inevitable, considering the circumstances of her rearing. Being a royal princess in all but name, with all the perks that went with it, she had developed an uber-refined palate. It didn't help that, unlike for the rest of humanity, food was not a necessity for survival for her. It was not the fuel of her body that forced her to eat whatever was on hand. Instead, it was a treat, a welcome delicacy which she could forgo if it wasn't to her liking.
She would usually travel with quite the entourage, though she occasionally, like this time, came without them when she wanted to be quick or avoid drawing unwanted attention. On those occasions she would send Rodan to town to bring her meals from the old tavern. She could have Pjard make her meals for her, but his dishes were commonplace in the capital, and too much of even a good thing was boring. She also fancied her soirees to the countryside as a kind of meditative, spartan retreat, as spartan as a princess' retreat could be, so a simpler food was welcome.
Boring was indeed the operative word as well. She'd grown up on the best dishes in the kingdom, and while they were delicious, thirty-odd years of them was tiring. She'd half-dreaded the dinner with Claude's father. No doubt he would have a feast of those dishes prepared. She'd been surprised when he told his son to go make dinner, and bowled over by the foods he'd made. Not one of his dishes tasted or appeared like anything she'd ever seen before. Few of them were on par with the food she'd eaten in the capital, much less the palace, or so she'd thought at first, then she started to realise that there was no point in even comparing them. It wasn't that his food wasn't on par with the capital's food; it was that his food was something else entirely different. Being a hyper-enthusiastic gourmet, she could not turn down the chance to taste something novel. She'd resolved herself to maintain her propriety, to stick to small portions, but, once she took her first bite, she felt her resolve pack up and move out of town, and she found herself waving goodbye with a big smile on her face.
One of the most incredible surprises he brought her was a dish of vegetables. She didn't know at what she was looking, at first. They didn't look like any vegetables she'd ever eaten. When she asked, he told her it was a vegetable 'stir-fry'. The word was foreign to her. But she supposed it must be a variant of pot-roast, related to the roast, one of the six Freian cuisines. The other five were a steam, a boil, a smoke, a grill, and a cuisine original to Aueras called a mix.
Claude later told her he learned it from a notebook. She assumed he meant the magus' diary. Perhaps the magus had a liking for cooking. If it was a dish from before the fall, then it wouldn't be surprising for it to be just another of the thousands of things lost in the dark ages that followed.
Claude was not privy to the thoughts of his diners. As far as he was concerned, his food was the epitome of commonality. He made only the most basic, common dishes he'd learnt to make from his mother. He was even further hampered by his father's stinginess. He couldn't throw away unwanted parts of the meat or plants he used for dishes, he had to find a use for everything, which meant he had to make dishes that could accommodate the different flavours of those parts.
Those limitations were lifted when he started preparing meals for the baroness at her manor. The baroness loved food, and had the money to cover any wastefulness required for its preparation. It was as much Claude's playground, in that sense, as it was the baroness'. If he wanted to make a dish that needed some obscure or expensive spice for the right flavour, he need only tell Rodan what he needed and he would find it for him. Claude was as much surprised by the butler's ability to find even the rarest, obscurest of spices out here in the general middle of nowhere as by his mistress' willingness to pay for them.
He'd become convinced over the last fortnight-and-some that the baroness' core character trait was her gluttony. Another, an offshoot of the former, was her greed for recipes. If she tasted a dish she particularly liked, she always demanded, in her ever-so-polite-yet-insistent manner, the recipe. Luckily Claude didn't understand the value of his dishes and was all too happy to give them to her.
The two got along well, save for their arguments of the recipes. Not because Claude was unwilling to give them to her, as stated, he was too happy to do so, but because of the way he described the amounts of each ingredient. He was a firm believer in 'guidance with freedom', that his recipes should be a baseline guideline giving the chefs a general direction in which to aim, but that still leaves them with room to experiment and make the dish their own. His mistress, on the other hand, wanted her chefs to make Claude's dishes, exactly, down to the grain and drop, so she was never happy when she went over his recipes.
The baroness' other core characteristic was her obsession with herbal medicine. For all the casualness she could have in everything else, Claude had never known a stricter teacher once the two got started on his herbal medicine lessons.
"There is no room for error in herbal medicine. It is either success, or death," she was fond of saying.
Another of her characteristics, far behind the former two in defining her character, but outstanding in its uniqueness, was her identity as a magus. She had told him one afternoon that she learned magic because of a childhood infatuation with it. Nowadays she didn't bother with it too much.
Claude could see that, he didn't even know what kind of magi she was. Most of her spells were harmless, clearly chosen for their simple convenience. The only combat spell she knew was Lightning, and only because her adoptive royal brother had insisted she learn it so she would have at least one spell with which to defend herself. Magic, to Maria, was just a convenience, a tool to make every-day life a little easier.
If he was discussing identity defining characteristics as well, he could not ignore her social status. She cared barely any more than nothing about it, save that it allowed her to stay close to her adoptive brother; and it vanished from her mind completely when she was in the laboratory and she would act towards Claude like they were both commoners. Claude had heard from his father that there was a rumour going around that she lived in her laboratory in the capital, that her bed had not needed making for years because she never slept in it. Rodan appeared to share a belief in that rumour. He was quite grateful to Claude for his dinners which drew the baroness away from her laboratory, if only briefly, on a regular basis.
Claude was very glad his first magus encounter was with Maria. He doubted anyone else would have been as forthcoming with information, or as restrained in attack that afternoon they'd first met. Most crucially for Claude, though, she had only a passing interest in his spells and the diaries. He was most grateful for her tutelage in herbal medicine and her guidance on tome and scroll production. If anything, he regretted that she didn't have just a little more interest in the subject, he might have been able to learn even more from her were that the case.
She did share enough for Claude to understand his general position on the ladder. She also showed him that he didn't have to live in as much fear of being discovered, or, more accurately, that as long as he was not discovered, he need not live in fear. Most importantly, he had to hide as much information about his abilities as a magus as possible. Not to avoid detection by normal people, but to protect himself against other magi.
He got one tome and five blank scrolls from his mistress once the work was done. He nearly fell over when he held the six items in his hands. A single tome, depending on the spells it contained and the quality of its materials and workmanship, could sell for 50 crowns or more. A blank scroll was worth 5 crowns a piece as well. He finally realised why she didn't even bat an eye at buying the crocodile for 45 crowns. She could make that back with just a single tome.
Maria had originally thought she'd have to stay for a fortnight to finish processing the crocodile and making the tomes and scrolls. Thanks to Claude, however, she finished in just seven. She stayed despite that, however, to teach the boy.
Claude mastered the basics of inscription, the process of inscribing spell formations onto parchment to create scrolls or tomes, just a day before she was recalled, and she rewarded him with an inscription of her sole combat spell on one of his scrolls.
The spell wasn't that powerful, nor did it have any real range, but its paralysis side effect was very useful. Maria would have liked for it to be one of Claude's initial seven spells, but its formation was too complex, so it would have to wait for him to prepare his second hexagram.
Claude realised, a day or two before his mistress' departure, that she'd become his homeroom teacher, or he treated her as such, at least. He'd turned into an attentive pupil -- read sponge -- that stared at her with big, glowing eyes all day long. The realisation also explained why his mistress had had such a strange smile on her face the last couple of days, like she was staring at a puppy or a toddler. He looked even more so for his earnest efforts to please her; and she was certain he would wag his tail at her compliments had he one.
All things must come to an end, however, and the end of their fortnight together was brought by the messenger from the capital. It was time for her sister-in-law, on her biological brother's side, to give birth, and she had to return to tend to her. Much as she wanted to stay, family came first, so she packed up and prepared to leave.
She had Claude prepare and join her for their final dinner together, and officially informed the Siori couple that the boy was now in charge of looking after the wood. She also gave the boy the key to her laboratory and permission to use her tools and materials in her absence.
Claude was grateful for her kindness. He need not worry about being discovered in her wood and could practise his magic openly.
On Maria's part, she simply wanted him to continue to work hard. He showed potential, sad as it was that he was more concerned with herbal medicine than with cooking, which she still fervently believed was his true calling.
She handed him a strip of paper during their final goodbyes, an address written on it.
"There isn't a magic black market in the three prefectures, but they do operate a small shop for the purchase and sale of various ingredients here--" She pointed at the piece of paper. "--If you need anything, pay a visit to this address.
His eyes widened when he saw the address. A shop had been opened there only recently, and his mistress had not been there yet.
He slipped the paper into his pocket and handed her an envelope with instruction not to open it until she was on her way. Inside he'd written down everything he, or rather, Landes, knew of Magus' Hands, Decomposition, and Reconstruction, as well as diagrams of their formations, as well as a tease that if she engraved the four spells, she could make a proper array of her own.
Claude watched the horse trot off into the distance, carriage in tow, with his mistress and her butler inside.