Maximus’s Wish: A Pryor Cousins Prequel

England, 1746

When Maximus was a child, he adored his mother. He knew that no mother in the world could possibly be as wonderful and beautiful and perfect as his mother was. When the time came for him to go to boarding school, he clung to her, weeping. But school turned out to be more enjoyable than he’d thought. He made lots of friends and learned a great many new things, and as the years passed and Maximus acquired more and more knowledge, not merely about Latin and algebra but also about people, he came to realize that his beautiful mother was far from perfect.

She was vain and selfish and manipulative, and she lied, not just now and then, but all the time. No one else seemed to notice this, but Maximus did. He loved his mother very much, but by the time he was fifteen he had begun to wonder whether she ever spoke the truth.

Maximus also had an uneasy suspicion that his mother was a little mad. He’d had this suspicion since he was nine years old, when he had earnestly tried to explain to her that Faerie godmothers didn’t exist. He’d tried telling her this because, for as long as he could remember, she had told him that on his twenty-fifth birthday he’d be visited by his Faerie godmother and granted one wish. He’d believed this until he’d gone to school, where he’d learned that there was no such thing as Faerie godmothers, but when he informed his mother of this fact, she merely laughed her musical laugh and patted his cheek and said, “You’ll see, darling.”

He attempted several times to persuade her that Faeries didn’t exist, but she remained unconvinced and her answer was always the same: “You’ll see.” In the end, he stopped bringing up the subject. Years passed without either of them mentioning Faerie godmothers, but as his twenty-fifth birthday approached, his mother began talking about them again, and in particular about what he should wish for. Maximus tried avoiding these discussions by visiting each of his far-flung estates, first Kent, then Somerset, then Oxfordshire, but it became impossible to avoid them when, three days before his birthday, his mother arrived at Linwood Castle, stating her intention to celebrate his quarter century with him.

“Persuasive speech,” she told him over dinner that first evening—and the second evening, and the third. “That’s what you must ask for, Maximus: persuasive speech. You’ll lead the government. Everyone will hang upon your words. You’ll be the most influential man in Britain.”

“The king is the most influential man in the Britain,” Maximus pointed out, helping himself to some Davenport fowl, two veal olives, and a slice of beefsteak in oyster sauce.

His mother dismissed this with a graceful wave of her hand. “You’ll be the most influential man after the king.”

Maximus didn’t want to be the second most influential man in Britain. He didn’t want to be Chancellor of the Exchequer or First Lord of the Treasury or Leader of the House of Lords. Being a duke was responsibility enough. In fact, if he had a choice, it would be to shed some of his responsibilities, not add to them. But he’d learned years ago that arguing with his mother was a fruitless endeavor. It was impossible to make her see things from other people’s points of view, and so he didn’t tell her that not only did he not believe in Faerie godmothers, he also did not want to head Britain’s government, he merely said, “Yes, Mother,” and ate his dinner.

On the morning of his twenty-fifth birthday, Maximus woke early. He didn’t ring for his valet; instead he lay in his bed staring up at the green-and-gold canopy, turning his most pressing problem over in his head.

Maximus had ten estates, hundreds of tenants, and an unholy amount of money. He had bailiffs and stewards and men of business, and over the course of the past few years he had come to the uncomfortable realization that he didn’t know whether he trusted each and every one of his bailiffs, stewards, and men of business. Was the advice they were giving him in his best interests, or theirs?

He wished there was some way of knowing—not whether to drain this paddock or fence that one, or whether to invest his money here or there, but to know whether or not to trust.

Should he believe that the advice he received was offered without bias, or not?

He was tending towards ‘not.’

Maximus flung back the bedclothes, crossed to the windows, and drew back the curtains. He leaned his hands on the windowsill for long moment, staring down at the rose gardens spread out below.

When was trusting one’s advisors gullible, and when was it wise? How on earth did one know? How on earth could one know?

Maximus blew out a breath and turned to ring for his valet—and discovered that Faerie godmothers did exist, because one was standing in the middle of his bedchamber.

He knew she was a Faerie godmother because her eyes were black. No whites, no colored irises, just pure black. Her clothing was a little odd, too. The gown looked like something Queen Elizabeth might have worn.

His Faerie godmother didn’t look very pleased to be in his bedchamber. “Well?” she said in a brisk, impatient voice. “What do you choose?”

Maximus was so flabbergasted that he almost obeyed his mother and said ‘persuasive speech.’ Fortunately, he managed to close his mouth in time.

“Well?” the Faerie said again, somehow making the word sharp and hissing even though it held no esses.

Maximus had been so certain that Faerie godmothers didn’t exist that he’d given no thought as to what he’d like to wish for, but he knew it wasn’t persuasive speech. He wanted something that would make his life easier. But what?

He stared at the woman, thinking about his estates and his tenants and his bailiffs and his stewards and his men of business—and then he knew what it was that he most wanted. “I wish to be able to tell when people are lying.”

“Done.” The Faerie gave a flick of her fingers.

Maximus took a step towards her. “How will I know?”

But she was gone.

Maximus stared at the spot where she’d stood for almost a full minute before he rang for his valet.

Half an hour later, shaved and dressed, he went downstairs to the breakfast parlor. His mother was already there, radiantly beautiful in a gown of pale jonquil silk, her hair dressed en dishabille, her face unpowdered. She glanced swiftly at him, a teacup poised before her lips. “Has she been yet?”

Maximus didn’t feel like having an argument on an empty stomach about the fact that he hadn’t chosen persuasive speech, so he said, “No,” and as he said the word, he heard the strangest sound in his ears, a faint discordant clang. He looked around trying to find the source of the sound . . . and belatedly realized what that clang had meant: it signified a lie.

Slightly perturbed, he served himself from the dishes lined up on the sideboard and sat at the table. Was he going to hear that sound every time someone uttered a lie? He poured himself a cup of tea and sipped it with dismay, regretting that he hadn’t chosen another wish.

His mother nibbled daintily on a ratafia biscuit. “Twenty-five! It’s such a shame your father isn’t here to see you. He’d be so proud of you.” She bestowed one of her sweet, caressing smiles upon him. “You’re so very like him, darling.”

“I am?”

“Oh, yes. You have his eyes—so dark—and that nose.” She gave a sad, soft little sigh. “I adored your father. It broke my heart when he died.”

Maximus looked down at his teacup and listened to the discordant sound in his ears. His mother hadn’t adored his father, and she hadn’t been heartbroken when he died. That was . . . rather disturbing.

His mother uttered another sad, soft sigh, and then shook herself and gave a brave smile. “Now, you must spend as much time by yourself today as you possibly can. She’ll only come if you’re alone.” She sipped her tea. “It was afternoon when she came for me, and evening for my mother, so you may have to wait all day.”

Maximus began eating his eggs.

“She only ever grants one wish, so be very careful what you say to her.”

Maximus glanced at his mother. That had been a lie. Not the bit about choosing carefully, but the bit about giving only one wish. “She only granted you one wish?”

“Of course.”

Maximus listened to the clang in his ears and wondered what it meant. He ate a sausage, and considered everything that he knew about his mother’s twenty-fifth birthday. It had been a dramatic day. A life-changing day. The day he had become duke . . . following the deaths of his grandfather, uncle, and two cousins.

The sausage suddenly became impossible to chew. Maximus tried to swallow it, and almost choked. He hurriedly gulped a mouthful of tea, forcing the sausage down. “My grandfather . . . his death . . . our Faerie godmother had nothing to do with that, did she?”

His mother uttered a tinkling laugh. “Of course not! That was just a terrible accident.” She sipped her tea, and turned to the subject: “Now, darling, have you given any thought to redecorating the London house? It’s looking rather shabby.”

Maximus pushed aside his plate. His mother glanced at him in astonishment. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“No.” He didn’t feel hungry at all; in fact, he felt rather ill. He stared at his mother for long moment, and then made up his mind. “She’s already been. The Faerie.”

His mother gave a little gasp. “Darling, you mean . . . ?”

“I mean that I’ve chosen my gift,” Maximus said. “And it wasn’t persuasive speech.”

His mother managed to look shocked, reproachful, hurt, fragile, and beautiful, all at the same time.

“Do you know what I chose, Mother? I chose being able to hear lies.”

The color drained from his mother’s cheeks. Her teacup clattered slightly as she set it in its saucer.

“Please tell me the truth about what happened that day.”

His mother avoided his gaze. “What day?”

“The day our Faerie godmother visited you.”

“That was years ago, darling. I can’t remember the details.”

It was another lie.

“I insist, Mother.” Maximus stood, crossed to the door, and turned the key in the lock, so that no servants could enter. Then he returned to the breakfast table and sat.

His mother pouted. “Darling, you’re being quite ridiculous.”

“The Faerie granted you more than one wish,” Maximus stated.

“No, she didn’t.” She picked up her teacup again, and sipped.

Maximus gave an exasperated sigh. “Mother, I can hear when you lie.”

“Oh, very well, then!” she said, putting down the teacup with rather too much force. “If you must know, she granted two.”

Maximus studied his mother’s face. She was in her forties, now, but still as flawlessly beautiful as she’d ever been. “Did you . . . ?” He took a deep breath. “Did you wish for my grandfather and uncle and cousins to die?”

“Of course I didn’t,” his mother said, and while it was the truth, she didn’t meet his eyes. She picked up her napkin and began to fiddle with it.

“But the Faerie had something to do with their deaths.”

His mother glanced at him, and then back down at the napkin.

“What happened, Mother?”

“All that I did was . . . I merely . . . all I did was say aloud that I wished you were a duke. It wasn’t the wish I chose. I didn’t know that creature was in the room! I was just . . . speaking aloud. But she heard me.” His mother gave an indignant sniff. “I told her I didn’t want that wish. I forbade her to grant it!”

“Then why did she?”

“Spite. She didn’t like the wish I chose, so she decided to punish me!”

Maximus listened for the clang that signaled a lie, and heard nothing. He examined his mother’s face again, noting the sulky set of her mouth and the defiant tilt of her chin.

“Could you have stopped the deaths?”

“How? Your uncle was in London, your cousins at Eton—”

“No, what I mean is, did she warn you what she was going to do? Did she give you a chance to retract the wish she didn’t like?”

His mother opened her mouth, her tongue poised between her teeth, the word ‘No’ almost uttered, and then froze—which gave him his answer: she had been given the chance to retract her wish.

Maximus stared across the table at her. “What did you wish for, Mother? What was so important that four people died because of it?”

His mother flushed angrily. “I didn’t want them to die.”

“What was the wish, Mother?” What on earth had she valued so highly? Eternal youth? Everlasting beauty?

“I passed my family’s legacy from the female line to the male line.”

Maximus frowned at her. “Legacy?”

“Our Faerie godmother. She only ever granted wishes to the females before. You’re the first male.” His mother leaned across the table and gave him another one of her sweet, caressing smiles. “I did it for you, darling.”

Maximus listened to the clang that followed that final sentence, and shook his head. “You didn’t do it for me.”

His mother’s smile vanished. She sat back in her chair. “If I hadn’t made that wish, the legacy would have stopped with me, and if you aren’t thankful for it, then believe me that your descendants will be. Our family will become the most powerful family in the British Empire because of me. Perhaps the most powerful family in the world!”

Maximus looked at his mother, at the angry flush in her cheeks and the fanatical sparkle in her eyes, and realized that he’d been correct all those years ago: she was mad. Not mad for believing in Faerie godmothers, but mad in her grandiose delusions.

Four people were dead because of her, two of them children.

Did she even care?

“You said you didn’t wish for the deaths of my grandfather and uncle and cousins . . .” Maximus felt his way carefully through the question he wanted to ask. “But . . . were you glad afterwards? Were you glad when I became a duke?”

“What if I was? Any mother would be glad that her son had become a duke.”

“Yes, but were you glad for my sake, Mother, or for yours?”

His mother didn’t answer, which was an answer in itself, and in that moment, his childhood suddenly made sense. Everything fell into place—a thousand different things his mother had said, a thousand different things she’d done—things that she’d claimed had been for his sake, but that he now realized had been for her sake.

And as that realization sank in, so, too, did another one.

Maximus looked at his mother, looked at that perfect face, that petulant mouth. “You don’t love me, do you? You never did, not even when I was a child.”

She didn’t deny it. In fact, she said absolutely nothing.

It shouldn’t have hurt—he’d known for years that his mother lied—but he’d always believed that her love for him was deep and real and true. To learn that it wasn’t, that it never had been, was painful.

“What about my father?” he asked. “Did you ever love him?”

“Love,” his mother said contemptuously. “Listen to yourself, Maximus! You sound ridiculous. Like a schoolgirl!” She cast aside her napkin, pushed back her chair, and stood.

“Were you glad when Father died?” Maximus asked.

His mother crossed the room with a brisk, angry rustle of jonquil silk and unlocked the door.

Maximus raised his voice. “Well? Were you? Glad?”

“Yes,” his mother said. “I was.” She gave him a spiteful and exquisitely beautiful smile and left the parlor, leaving Maximus alone with his half-eaten breakfast and the unpalatable truth.