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In Pursuit of Perfection

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Dorian, age 3. Pavus Estate, just outside Qarinus

Dorian woke to the sound of footsteps and low voices in the hall. Crawling out from under the covers, he knelt on all fours, listening for a moment, then slithered off the side of his new big-boy bed.

“Come, on, Ducky,” he whispered, plucking the wheeled, wooden duck, from his pillow, and tucking it under one arm.

He padded, bare-foot, across the room—past the small toy box, and the over-filled bookcase, and the empty crib that used to be Dorian's, but was soon to be handed over to the new baby—and pressed his ear to the crack between the jamb and the partially-open door to the antechamber where Nanny slept, listening for her snores.

Sometimes, when he woke late at night, after the fires were banked and the servants all in bed, he and Ducky would sneak past her narrow bed and explore the house on their own, poking around in all the guest rooms and closets and side parlors that he was not allowed to explore when everyone was awake. One night, he even dared to sneak into his father's study to run his fingers along the leather spines of rare magic books, and play with the baby dragon skull Magister Pavus kept on the credenza behind his desk. Dorian had been found by Magister Pavus himself, who was alerted to his son's skulduggery by the wards that Dorian had unwittingly tripped. It would be several years before Dorian would figure out how to bypass his father’s wards and make a second break-in attempt. He was curious, not stupid.

The little room where Nanny slept was dark and silent. He opened the door a little further and stuck his face through the gap, half expecting Nanny's cross voice, telling him to go back to bed. But her bed was empty, the covers carelessly tossed to the side, and the impression of her head still visible on the pillow. He heard more footsteps in the hall and the muffled voice of their housekeeper, Mrs. Boranehn, barking out orders to some member of the junior staff.

Once their footsteps faded away, Dorian opened the outer chamber door, squinting at the bright light from the oil lamps blazing up and down the corridor. A maid bustled by, carrying a stack of towels, and Dorian followed in her wake, clutching Ducky tightly to his chest, toward the T-intersection at the end of the hall. Turning left at this intersection took one to his mother's private chambers, and turning right led to his father's. As he approached this junction, he was very nearly run down by another maid, carrying a bundle of wet rags, stained a deep maroon, in the other direction.

"Oh! Master Dorian," the girl gasped, as she pulled up short, "You shouldn't be out here. Back to bed with you."

Dorian reluctantly turned back toward his room, dragging his feet dramatically, but was surprised when the girl neither acknowledged his protest, nor waited for him to obey, and instead hurried off toward the servants' stairs. He stopped, looked over his shoulder toward the intersection, then back toward his room. After brief consideration, he turned back around. Approaching the corner cautiously, he peered down the corridor toward his mother's chambers.

Dorian’s caution was well advised, as it turned out, because there was Magister Pavus himself, up unusually late, pacing the width of the corridor in front of his wife’s door. Dorian nearly turned back, at that point, but Father’s attention was clearly on other things, and curiosity was always a demanding taskmaster. Halward Pavus quit his pacing and turned at the sound of his wife's door opening. Dorian thought he heard muffled crying, but the sound was cut off when the man who emerged quickly closed the door behind him. Dorian recognized him as a laetan healer, from the village. He had come up to the estate late in the evening on Satinalia, after their guests had returned home from the feast, and Mother had taken to her bed, complaining of indigestion. She hadn’t left her chambers in the weeks since, and Dorian wasn’t allowed to disturb her, but the healer had visited several times, and had always had a few kind words to spare for Dorian.

At the end of the hall, the healer said something, his voice low and somber, and he shook his head. Magister Pavus’s shoulders slumped, for just a moment, before he pulled himself back up into the picture of composure—and there was something about that uncharacteristic break from perfect posture, however brief, that made Dorian’s blood go cold.

He hugged his toy a little tighter. “Don’t worry, Ducky,” he murmured. “There’s nothing to be scared of. I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

The two men turned in his direction, and Dorian ducked back around the corner, out of sight. He was relieved to hear only one pair of brisk footsteps coming down the hall. The laetan healer turned the corner, and Dorian flattened himself against the wall, hoping not to be noticed. The man stopped and smiled down at him.

“Well, hello, young man. You’re up late. Couldn’t sleep with all the noise?”

Dorian looked up at him, wide-eyed, and nodded. “Ducky was worried about Mother,” he said.

The healer smiled, though somehow his eyes still looked sad. “Well, Ducky doesn’t need to worry anymore,” he said. “Your mother is going to be fine. She’ll likely be up in a few days, and you’ll get to see her then.” He ruffled Dorian’s hair, then turned to see himself out.

Then Magister Pavus’s voice reached down the hall to grab his son by the ear. “Dorian.”

Halward never yelled at him, nor raised a hand against him, but when he spoke there was a note of command that Dorian didn’t dare ignore. His shoulder hugged the wall as he turned the corner, and he held Ducky in a stranglehold.

Halward beckoned from the end of the hall with one hand. “Come here, son,” he said, quietly. He didn’t seem angry. He didn’t even seem disappointed in Dorian for being out of bed, when he knew he shouldn’t be. He just raised his other hand and beckoned again, with both. Dorian peeled himself away from the wall and approached his father uncertainly. Halward reached down and scooped him up into his arms.

“Oh, my son,” Halward murmured into Dorian’s hair. There was an odd tension in his voice, and he was hugging Dorian so tightly that Ducky’s wheels dug painfully into Dorian’s ribs.“It’s all up to you, now, my boy. You’re the last hope for the Pavus line.”

He didn’t let go until Nanny appeared in Mother’s doorway, a minute later. Dorian was secretly relieved to be handed off and taken back to bed.

The next day the crib disappeared from Dorian’s room. Mother emerged from her chambers a week later to attend the annual fund raising ball for the Qarinus Sailors’ Widows and Orphans Fund, for which she acted as Chair.

No mention of babies was ever made again.