Maximus and Sons: A Pryor Cousins Prequel

England, 1771

Maximus Pryor, Duke of Linwood, had three sons. Their names were Primus, Secundus, and Tertius—or Ace, Deuce, and Terce, as they liked to call one another. When Primus was twenty-four years old, Secundus twenty-two, and Tertius twenty, Maximus called them into his study and locked the door. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. “And I need you to promise that you’ll never talk of it to anyone else.”

Each of his sons gave his word of honor.

Maximus began pacing the room. He didn’t quite know how to broach this subject. His sons stood and watched him, their expressions changing from politely attentive to a faintly alarmed. He saw them exchange glances, silently asking each other Whatever do you think is wrong?

Maximus halted in front of the window. “This is going to sound fantastical, but . . . our family has a Faerie godmother.”

The alarm on their faces transformed into incredulity. His middle son, Secundus, hastily muffled a snort of disbelief with his hand.

Maximus ignored the snort. “I know you won’t believe it—I didn’t believe it myself—but, whether you believe it or not, I need a promise from each of you.”

His sons shifted their weight uneasily from foot to foot and glanced at one another. Now the message they were exchanging was Do you think Father has gone mad?

“Your Faerie godmother will grant you one wish on your twenty-fifth birthdays.” His sons each had different expressions on their faces now. Primus was wearing the same frown he wore whenever Maximus instructed him in the more complicated matters pertaining to the dukedom, Secundus looked as if he was struggling not to laugh aloud, and Tertius was gazing at him with wide-eyed concern.

“You will not choose wishes that harm anyone,” Maximus said. “You will not choose wishes that give you any kind of power over any other person. And you will not aggrandize yourselves in any way.”

His sons all stared at him. How alike they were: the dark Pryor eyes, the hawkish Pryor nose.

“Is that clear?” Maximus said.

“Yes, sir,” Primus answered, obediently.

His sons made their promises, repeating his words out loud, and Maximus listened closely. They thought he was mad talking about Faerie godmothers and wishes, but when each son gave his word of honor, he meant it. Maximus didn’t hear the clang of a single lie.

Afterwards, Primus articulated what they were doubtless all thinking: “Father . . . are you feeling quite well?”

“Never better,” Maximus said, and it was the truth. He was deeply relieved to have their promises. His heart felt much lighter with that worry gone. “I know you think I’m queer in the attic, all of you, but wait until you’ve turned twenty-five before you commit me to Bedlam.”

Primus flushed. “We would never—”

“He’s joking,” Secundus said. “He knows we’d never do that, don’t you, Father?”

Maximus smiled at him. “I do.” He crossed to the door and unlocked it, then turned back to his sons and said, “Humor me. Pretend it might be real. Give some thought as to what you might wish for.”

“Yes, sir,” Primus said, ever the obedient son, and Secundus laughed, and said, “I already know what I’d choose if it were real.” He flapped his arms, making a circuit of the room. “To be able to fly.”

“You’re an idiot,” his older brother told him pompously.

“Better an idiot than a stick-in-the-mud with no sense of humor,” Secundus retorted.

Maximus opened the door. Primus and Secundus exited, already bickering.

Tertius lingered, a faintly worried crease on his brow. “Father?”

“Trust me, Terce. I’ve not gone mad.”

Tertius hesitated, and then said, “Father . . . if this Faerie godmother does exist, what did you wish for?”

Maximus gazed at his youngest son, very proud of him for thinking to ask such a question. “Think about it, Terce. What can I do that no one else can?”

Tertius frowned. His pupils tracked back and forth as he thought, and then his eyes widened. “You know whenever anyone lies.”

Maximus nodded.

“So . . . it really is true?”

“It really is true.”

Tertius left the study looking very thoughtful.

* * *

Maximus didn’t mention the Faerie godmother to his sons again, but he did keep an eye on his calendar. The night before his oldest son turned twenty-five, he barely slept. He spent the following day on tenterhooks. Primus didn’t appear to be on tenterhooks, and neither did Secundus—they’d both forgotten about Faeries and wishes, Maximus thought—but Tertius hadn’t forgotten. He watched his oldest brother with barely concealed anticipation, waiting to see what would happen.

Morning passed. Afternoon approached. A servant came to tell them that luncheon was served.

Primus was steady, reliable, responsible, and extremely punctual. Today, he was late for luncheon.

The Faerie’s here, Maximus thought, and a shiver prickled across his skin.

He served himself cheese and cold meat, but couldn’t eat. Across the table, Tertius wasn’t eating, either.

Secundus was, his attention centered wholeheartedly on his food.

A minute passed. Another minute—and then Maximus heard footsteps on the stairs. Loud footsteps. Fast footsteps.

Maximus stared at the door. So did Tertius. Secundus kept eating.

Primus burst into the room, opening the door so violently that it struck the wall and sprang back, almost hitting him.

Secundus choked on a mouthful of ham and began coughing.

Primus’s eyes were bright, his face flushed with excitement. Maximus had never seen his eldest son look so elated before, so alive.

“It’s true,” Primus cried.

“What’s true?” Secundus wheezed, between coughs.

“What did you choose?” Tertius asked, leaning forward eagerly.

“I’ll show you!” Primus said, and he did.