“What do you mean, gone?” Mark asked, panic in his heart. He had arrived at breakfast excited to see his princess again. After the best kiss of his life had left his head floating in the clouds all night, he hoped the magic still existed at sunrise.
“Nicholas was ready to get home to his own family after taking his granddaughter to the airport,” Benjamin said. He was so matter-of-fact as if this news didn’t rip Mark’s world apart. “You need to get ready to return your grandfather’s casket to his homeland. I’ve arranged for the jet to leave later this evening.”
“I have to fly the whole way there with a casket in the airplane?”
“It’s not just a casket, son,” Benjamin said. “That is the final resting place of a man who was a great leader, a devoted father and grandfather, and the Crown Prince of Madain Saleh. His father, King Sayid, is waiting to welcome him home.”
“Do I really have to do this alone?” Mark was fighting emotions that had been too close to the surface for days.
“Alexander will accompany you.”
“Great,” Mark said. “The blind leading the blind.”
“I have faith in you both.”
“That makes one of us,” Mark grumbled then turned on his heel and ascended the stairs to his bedroom suite, resigned to finish packing.
Eight hours later, the two twenty-year old college students sat wide-eyed in the same private jet that had taken them to Cozumel, sharing space in the once-spacious cabin with an elegant casket and a noticeable absence of the snarky, feisty ball of energy he had come to love over the past week.
The pilot took them to a destination that was foreign and mystical, filled with vast sand that stretched for miles.
As the private jet banked in a circle around the tiny kingdom of Madain Saleh, Mark gasped. This was the land from his dream. The dream he’d experienced many times throughout his life. The dream where he was flying atop his drone above a strange land that was only familiar because he’d seen it in his dreams so many times. This time, Mark wasn’t asleep.
The mountainous ravines and windswept deserts were rocky and unforgiving, with little vegetation, and sandstone outcroppings that had been carved into monuments with elaborately ornate facades.
Madain Saleh was dunes of sand resting on bedrock at the foot of a basalt plateau. It was elegance and terror and desolation wrapped in sand and carved from the rocks. Mark wanted to jump from the jet and skydive down just so he could experience his kingdom from all vantage points.
The nearest airport was 45-minutes by car but only a few moments as the crow flies. As soon as the pilot gave them their fly-by, he asked them to return to their seats and buckle in for landing.
Before leaving the airplane, Alex and Mark retreated to the private bedroom in the back of the plane and took a few moments to place Mark’s crown so that when he descended the steps down to the tarmac, he would arrive in Madain Saleh as their prince.
He wasn’t sure if his crown made any difference since they were greeted by two young men of similar age, one of whom was also wearing a crown. They leaned casually against the side of a large and sturdy-looking limousine, both wearing formal linen robes and shades. The young man in the crown stepped forward and extended his hand.
“Greetings, my cousin,” the man said. “I am Eli.”
“Mark—” he reached for his cousin’s hand. He didn’t remember anyone in his family with the name Eli, and he had studied the full lineage prior to arriving. He’d also studied other names commonly used in the Middle East along with their traditional meanings. “What’s your real name?”
“Elmer,” Eli said through clenched teeth.
“I can see why you go by Eli.” Mark chuckled.
“Yeah, what were my parents thinking?” Eli’s lip twitched in a smirk, and he leaned his shoulder against the limo again, which Mark realized was actually a Hummer. They travelled in style.
“Who is your father?” Mark asked.
“Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh,” Eli said, raising his chin slightly almost challenging Mark to question him.
Mark ignored the reference to Omar claiming the title of Crown. “My grandfather spoke highly of his nephew. Will I have the opportunity to meet him?”
“Absolutely,” Eli said. “We have a planned reception for you this evening.”
“I’m honored,” Mark said, then stepped aside and brought Alex closer. “This is my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Mark made a split-second decision to hyphenate Alex’s last name as a way of adding authority by way of name recognition. The Cohen family were practically royalty in the Middle East even though they made claim to no physical kingdom. Almost like being a Kennedy in the United States. To his credit, Alex didn’t bat an eye to the alteration.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Alexander.” Eli greeted Alex in a similar casual style as he’d greeted Mark minus the handshake.
“Likewise, Your Highness.” Alex nodded his head respectfully.
“And this is my advisor, Kadin,” Eli said, indicating the young man at his side. Mark almost chuckled out loud at his name, which meant friend or companion. Fitting. Instead, he smiled and resisted the urge to shake the kid’s hand. He needed to remember he wasn’t in America anymore and here in Madain Saleh he was openly recognized as a prince. He stood erect as the man bowed his head regally.
“My honor to meet you, Your Highness,” Kadin said.
While they were yet speaking, several gentlemen were busy lowering the casket from the jet and the four young men turned reverently to watch as the late Prince Marcos Sayid was brought to the ground and rolled carefully into a waiting hearse.
“Come,” Eli said, opening the door to the waiting limo. “Let’s escort Prince Marcos home.”