“Your Majesty?” Mark stepped one foot into his great-grandfather’s office, marveling at the grandeur. Dark masculine wood furniture accented the off-white sculptured carpet and drapery, gold fixtures, and lighted water feature that trickled down the north wall as if an infinity pool spilled from the ceiling.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid looked up from where he sat at his desk, all casualness from the night before gone from his tone. “And Master Alexander, good of you to come.”
Mark and Alex walked tentatively into the ostentatious room; heads held high with all the confidence their twenty-year-old selves could drag from the corners of their apprehensive hearts. Their clothes were more casual than the previous evening when they’d been welcomed into the grand reception. They’d assumed correctly that crowns and business suits were not required for less-formal introductions around the royal family and parliament.
“Sit for a moment, won’t you?” Sayid raised his hand to indicate a small grouping of leather sofas. The boys did as the king had suggested, perching forward with attention. The king rose from his chair and walked around the desk to join them on the sofas. “Alexander, tell me about yourself.”
Alex cleared his throat, glancing at Mark for direction. “Well, I’ve been friends with Prince Marcos since we were quite young and we’re now college roommates.”
“Yes, yes—” Sayid said with a dismissive wave. “Tell me how you have the Cohen name.”
“Uh, my mother was Nicholas Cohen’s daughter,” Alex said, lifting his chin with renewed confidence.
“Was?” the king raised his eyebrows.
“She passed away when I was very young.”
“I knew your grandfather well,” Sayid said with only a small degree of pity for the loss of Alex’s mom.
“You did?” Alex leaned forward with youthful interest. “What was he like back then?”
“He and my son were wallflowers lacking confidence and stuck in the shadows behind strong older brothers.”
“What?” Alex chuckled. “That doesn’t sound like my grandfather at all.”
“Nor mine,” Mark added suspiciously.
“Ah, they gained confidence as adults and were forced to grow up real fast after the… uh… alleged incident when Nick killed a man defending his brother.”
“So, it’s true?” Mark glanced at Alex and both boys raised their eyebrows. “He really killed a man?”
“Only a few people are still alive to tell that tale,” Sayid said. “You’ll have to ask your grandfather directly for the whole story. I will say this, your grandfather, and his father, were some of the shrewdest businessmen I’ve ever seen. They were billionaires even before they sold off their land shares in the Middle East and bought up half of Dubai and then rescued every failing business on the Yucatan Peninsula.”
“You’ve kept up with their dealings overseas?” Mark asked, intrigued.
“I am the head of state and ruler of a Middle Eastern sovereign nation,” the king said with more confidence than Mark had seen, even while the king had sat on his throne the previous evening. “It is my job to know what’s going on in the world, especially with a family as powerful as the Cohens, and in such close relations with my only remaining son…” His voice trailed off with emotion.
“Did you know… about me?” Mark asked.
“Benjamin’s son? Of course. I watched you grow up in pictures. Your father and mother did a fine job of reaching out to me unbeknownst to your grandfather.”
“They did? Wow. I had no idea.”
“Did I mention you look very much like your grandfather at his age?”
“Yes, you told me that last night.” Mark coughed lightly, embarrassed at both of their show of emotions.
“Let’s go meet the other princes,” Sayid suggested, standing from the leather sofa. Alex and Mark quickly followed the king’s lead and stood at attention. “Come, we will begin with Omar. He’s getting up there in years, you know.”
Mark chuckled at the king referring to his grandson as being old. “He’s about sixty-five, right?” He and Alex followed a few steps behind Sayid as his linen robes billowed with each haughty movement. Mark decided he was going to need to get himself some of these cool clothing articles so popular among his family, and many others he’d seen since arriving in this arid region.
Apparently, there was more to them than just chic elegance. Linen was quite literally cooling to the body underneath, which Mark and Alex could use right about then. Slacks and Polo shirts weren’t practical in Madain Saleh.
They strode down the hall to another office where the king entered without invitation to find his grandson, Prince Omar leaning over a table laden with maps, printed financial sheets and engineering charts. His advisor, Ahmed glanced up from where he was pointing something out to his prince, finished his sentence, and then both men stood at attention.
“Your Majesty,” Omar said, bowing regally. “To what do we owe the honor?”
“I’m taking your cousin on a grand tour to become better acquainted with the royal family and our dealings in the region. Dare I say, in the world.”
“Doesn’t he have enough worldly knowledge?” Omar barely glanced at Mark. “Perhaps it’s time he returned to his ivory tower and leave the real work to the men in the family.”
Mark ignored Omar’s rudeness and stepped forward, fascinated by the engineering plans. The maps and schematics made sense immediately. “Are you involved in potash mining? One of my majors in college is natural resources management.”
“When you’re done with college, I’ll take the time to tell you all about our dealings in potash mining.” Omar stepped in between Mark and his table covered in fascinating documents. Mark’s shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“I’ll look forward to your tutelage, Your Highness,” Mark said with sincerity. “I’ll do my best to learn all I can about our kingdom and the surrounding landscape during my studies. I’ve yet to choose a thesis project for graduate school. Perhaps if there are any challenges you’re facing I could include one in my research.”
“I’m sure I can overcome any challenges without your research.” Omar’s condescending tone was draining Mark’s resistance to return snide remarks.
“Your Highness,” Alex stage whispered to Mark, turning his head down and to his left as if whispering in Mark’s ear. “Perhaps your expertise in aerial photography using onboard remote sensing devices could be put to good use in the same way the technology is revolutionizing modern agriculture in the U.S.”
“Fantastic idea,” Mark stage whispered back to Alex. “I’ll have to evaluate the possibilities.”
“Was there something else you needed, Your Majesty?” Omar asked. “Surely you had some other reason to interrupt my work besides introducing me to a boy I met last night.”
“Ah, but you have things backwards, Your Highness,” King Sayid said. “I wasn’t introducing you to him. I was introducing him to you. Carry on, gentlemen.” With a swish of his robes, Sayid turned on his heels and led them from the room.
Mark raised his eyebrows at Alex then nodded to Omar and Ahmed. “Good to see you again, Your Highness.” Mark and Alex turned to follow after the king, leaving his cousin’s office with renewed confidence sandwiched between apprehension and terror.