The days passed uneventfully for Claude for a while. Life on the estate was pastoral, and despite living right next to a manor, it felt more like he was living somewhere in the mountains, sequestered away for some spiritual retreat, which was not entirely inaccurate, when he thought about it.
He did little in terms of management of the estate; most of that was left to the Sioris. He only checked in on them occasionally to make sure everything was still in order. The couple were getting on for time, but they had managed the estate together for all their adult lives and were still far from too old to manage on their own. As a result most of his time was spent wandering the woods foraging for herbs, spices, and mineral rocks for his concoctions and ointments, and making said ointments. He cooked for himself and ate alone most of the time, though he occasionally invited the Sioris over for a meal, usually either preceded or followed by a meeting to discuss the state of the estate.
The estate needed little tending, despite its size, thanks to most of it being natural-growth woodland, so the majority of the elderly couple's time was spent looking after their personal land; a small patch of farmland just west of the estate's borders. They cultivated mainly blackwheat and potatoes -- wheat over the summer and potatoes through the winter -- and had two-dozen laying hens.
Servants were not usually allowed to have any devotions aside from their family and the estate and lords which they tended and served, but the baroness had granted the two permission to work a bit of land. She knew they had little else to do in the extended periods of her absence, so she didn't have a problem with it. The two had suggested the idea to her with the intent of working a stretch of the woodland and generating a bit more income for her, but she insisted they do it for themselves. She even bought the couple of hectares of land they now worked herself as a reward for their long years of service, and insisted they keep any income it generated for themselves.
They were family as far as she was concerned, they'd all but raised her until the king had taken her and her brother in, after all, and considered it her duty to look after them. Their children were grown up and married, and had followed her brother to his viscounty, so their family was continuing their service to the family, if not on this estate. It made sense, she supposed. The young ones were tied to her brother since they were roughly the same age and had grown up revering him, so it was natural for them to follow him. Their parents, however, had spent their entire adult lives tending to the estate, and were tied more to it than any of the Normanleys. They loved the brother and sister, yes, but they were like children. The two had watched them grow up. They brother-and-sister pair had grown up, and like all children, had left the house to live on their own. The two elders just wanted to live out the rest of their lives peacefully, tending to the estate.
Normanley Manor was the birthplace of House Fen Normanley, and had for two generations before their entitlement been their home. Now, however, it was a place of retreat more than a home. Maria still loved the place dearly. The pastoral days it gave her were a precious change from the bustle of the capital, which was also no doubt why its previous owners had built their villa there. The quiet was especially precious for her more difficult experiments.
The wood was originally planted for lumber, but it had sat untended for that purpose for five decades, and was now a forest in all but name, still called Normanley Wood. All-in-all, the forest covered 486 hectares of land, swallowing up four large hills, including the one on which Normanley Manor stood.
The Sioris could never have managed the forest if it were still a wood, if it had to be maintained as a wood would have to, but since it was being left to become natural-growth woodland, a forest, they had very little to do. They need only patrol it occasionally to make sure they were aware of its state and keep some of the more destructive animals out.
Claude did little as far as the daily management of the woodland was concerned, though he had taken enthusiastically to patrolling it. He especially enjoyed taking Jemmy out for long rides in the darkest corners of the valleys between the hills and along the brooks and creeks that cut down them. He couldn't survey all of the estate in a single outing, but if he spent an hour a day patrolling at a good trot, he could cover all of it once a week. He rarely spent only an hour out on horseback, however, since he usually stopped to pick a few herbs or shoot a stray hare or squirrel. His biggest concern was illegal loggers, of which he'd caught several already.
His pickings were nothing new. The Sioris had always taken baskets along on their patrols, and sold their pickings in the town market every couple of weeks. Claude did much less of it, however. The Sioris did it mainly for the extra income between harvests, but Claude had no need of extra income, so he only picked to restock his stores.
His days were once again spent in school, but his late afternoons and evening were spent at the estate. The late afternoons were usually spent on horseback out patrolling, while the evenings after dinner were study and meditation time. He visited his family once a week, usually Saturday evenings, and he'd spend his Sundays in the laboratory doing experiments.
He and his friends rarely spent much time together outside of school these days. Each of the other boys had their own concerns as well. Borkal was being kept more and more busy by his father as he prepared him to inherit the family business. Eriksson and Welikro were primarily occupied with fishing and sailing. All three knew it was mostly an excuse for Eriksson to be near or on the lake to keep an eye out for his father. Claude might have calmed him some with his far-fetched consolation, but the boy was still deeply worried for his father.
For all the time Claude had spent on his concoctions, he still struggled with even the simplest concoction, not to mention ointment. He'd improved a lot, but even now he successfully completed his refinements only three out of ten times if he was lucky, and they were usually of fairly poor grade and fairly ineffective; he killed his subjects more often than not.
His subjects, hares and squirrels primarily, were running out and it was about time for him to go out and catch a few more. He needed an especially large pool of subjects for the juice he had lately been trying to make. It was a simple healing concoction that could heal small wounds. The textbooks he read said a concoction's quality could be checked in its colour. The more transparent the concoction, the higher the quality and the purer its effects, but Claude had yet to make concoctions of a high enough quality for such evaluation to become possible. All his concoctions were still completely milky, and even their colour was inconsistent. It forced him to test them on animals to see how effective, or not, they were. His snares were getting worn, however, and it was time to replace them.
He still had a couple of fat hares and two turkeys left, however, so he wanted to test his concoction on them first. The animals had fattened themselves up nicely for winter, however, and he didn't like using them as test subjects rather than food, but he had to make use of what he had.
He plucked one of the hares from the cage and slit its stomach. The cut went deep enough to cause considerable bleeding, but not enough to spill its intestines. The little furrball squirmed and squaled violently for a few moments before--
"Bang!" Claude shouted, and it stopped struggling.
Claude set it on the table, stomach skyward, blood bubbling eagerly in the ravine carved into its stomach, and uncorked a small glass vile. He poured a thin stream of the milky bile-green liquid along the cut and watched it mix with the crimson blood for a few moments before the boiling in the blood started to change. It was originally an eager bubbling, like water bubbling happily out of a small fountain, but now it bubbled frantically, like a sauce being simmered down to a thick stew. The blood thickened as it bubbled and solidified into a char-black scab over the cut.
Half an hour later the scab fell off, revealing pale skin beneath. The hare, however, was stiff, eyes glassy. Another failure, he sighed. Maria had warned him to be careful and precise with his measurements. Clearly he had been neither in enough measure.
His mind wandered for a moment, and he remembered the address Maria had given him before she'd left. The address for the small black-market shop in town. Maybe he could buy the materials he needed for an array there.
The thought brought him back to his and his mistress' different opinion of magic. Claude was a magus first and foremost, whilst Maria was an apothecary first and perhaps a magus on the side. As such, she dedicated herself to the study of medicine without the use of magic. Claude, however, had no such qualms. Why should he struggle on without magic?
He relished the thought of using an array to make potions instead of having to struggle to make concoctions by hand. Array had a very low failure rate, and you had to really mess up to make it fail, unlike concoctions, made by hand without magic, which failed at the slightest mismeasurement.
He made his decision to dive head-first into alchemy, tossed the dead hare to Siori, and headed to town on the carriage. He stopped by his family home for dinner. His mother had just started cooking when he arrived, and he handed her a hare and a turkey he'd brought along. His little siblings forced him to play with them and the dog until dinner was ready.
Arbeit slithered into the house with his usually impeccable timing when it came to dinner, gulped down his food in silence, and left as quickly as he'd come. Claude had come to despise his older brother even more since he'd moved to the estate. The bastard didn't even bother to thank him for the meat he'd brought for dinner. Even the snowhound had better manners than him.
"Are you going back home right after dinner?" his mother asked as he swallowed his last bite and followed it with the last of his water.
"No," he answered, "I need to stop in town to buy a few things."
"Now? There aren't any shops open this late. And you shouldn't waste your money on any shop that is still open. They're only scamming you!" his father chirped with his usual firm frugality, "You should go straight home. It's late."
Claude didn't argue with his father. He left for the estate obediently until the road turned a corner and he was out of his father's sight. He left the carriage and horse in the town square and headed for the slums. He could take it with him, but he didn't want to reveal his identity, not to mention it would attract unwanted attention from unsavoury sorts.
The night was unnaturally dark in the narrow, dim slum streets. What little illumination the moon might have offered was blocked by the shoddy roof overhangs. Only the occasional dancing shadows of the window beams thanks to candles betrayed the darkness. But even those eventually faded away as he reached the heart of the slum.
He pulled the his hood over his head. It need not cover his face as much as it would have had to in the town proper to completely hide his face, so he could see out quite well. He still wrapped a thin cloth around his face, if for no other reason that it made him feel more comfortable. He stood out like a sore thumb in his getup, despite the darkness, but as he neared his destination, more and more of the few pedestrians in the alleys wore similar garments.
Not all were headed for the same shop as he. Old Street was the town's red light district, and many other distractions there required the same level of discretion to attend. The rest of town was busy during the day and deserted at night, save for a few taverns, but Old Street was deserted during the day, and crowded at night.
As he neared the furthest end of the street, more and more shops were open. Most of them were fronted by scantily clad women. Every possible combination of physical characteristics was present; young, old, skinny, fat, slender, plump, fair, dark, etc.
The majority of the people walked slowly, taking time to investigate every shop's offerings before moving on or heading inside. The street, despite being very crowded, was quiet; people spoke only in whispers and hoarse, unrecognisable voices.
Claude sighed. He'd hoped to avoid the worst of it by coming early, but it seemed he'd underestimated the impatience of lust. He ducked carefuly between a number of vixens, a couple reaching for him, and slipped away into the darkness again. He grabbed one final glance at the street and turned to head down another alley, but was stopped by a familiar voice. His eyes followed the sound, and came to rest on his older brother. Arbeit was whispering to a young woman just a couple metres from Claude, negotiating a price for her time.
"Screw off! Why even bother coming if you don't have the money?!" she suddenly yelled, "You have my price, and not a penny less! And no tab for the likes of you!"
Claude had to bite back his laughter and slipped away into the darkness.
"Seventeen Flowerstone Alley," he whispered as he came to a half in front of an old building.
The alley was tiny, not even big enough for two people to walk side by side comfortably, and black as the endless void beyond the stars. Four men crowded the doorway, loitering in its immediate vicinity. They tried to look as unsuspicious as possible, but Claude immediately recognised them as guards. They only gave him an icy glance each, then ignored him.
Claude stared at the scene for another long moment, then took a step forward.