“You look so much like him,” a nostalgic voice said from the doorway.
Mark looked up from where he was pawing through his suitcase searching for his bottle of Motrin.
The headache he’d had for the past hour finally drove him from the dancefloor. He was certain he was already dehydrated, having refused every glass of liquid offered to him since he stepped into this palace.
Oh sure, he held the glass in his hand, and lifted the glass to his lips if someone suggested a toast, but despite his thirst, he didn’t trust anyone.
Alex had casually excused himself after dinner to make a phone call and ordered a helicopter to fly to the nearest large town and purchase several cases of water bottles and Powerade, along with protein bars and dried fruit and any other provisions he might need to keep him alive while visiting his homeland.
“Your Majesty!” Mark quickly bowed when he realized his great-grandfather, King Sayid, had stepped into his suite.
“Arise, my boy,” the king said. “We are alone. You can drop the pretenses.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty.” Mark stood at attention. His crown seemed to weigh twice as much under the king’s scrutiny.
“It suits you,” Sayid said, nodding to the symbolic adornment. “Your father was smart to name you after my son.”
“He was an amazing man, You Majesty,” Mark said, relaxing his shoulders. “I loved your son very much.”
“We have that in common,” he said, glancing around the suite that forty years ago had been filled with the love and laughter of Prince Marcos and his young bride, Lyla, Mark’s grandparents. “I’ve missed him terribly these past years.”
“He asked me to convey his deep regret at not returning to our homeland,” Mark said, taking a step closer to this man he barely knew. “And asked for your forgiveness.”
“I’m afraid I should be the one asking forgiveness,” Sayid lowered his gaze.
“He offered that as well,” Mark said, fearing reprimand for the bold way he was insinuating the king had been in the wrong.
“He offered me forgiveness?” When he looked up, King Sayid’s expression was that of a hopeful child whose remorse was eating away at his insides.
Mark nodded, fighting tears.
In a startling conveyance of affection, his great-grandfather closed the distance between them and pulled Mark into his arms. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad I came,” Mark said. With hesitation he wrapped his arms around the majestic king whose body felt much frailer than it looked under the layers of impressive robes. “I’ve dreamt of my homeland all my life.”
“You have?” Sayid pulled back, a crease in his brow.
“Nearly every night,” Mark said, dropping his arms. “That’s what got me interested in geospatial analytics.”
“Geo-what?” Sayid laughed.
“We use cameras on drones and airplanes to see what’s on the ground and evaluate and analyze how best to use the land and resources.”
“You are a very intelligent young man, aren’t you?” the king asked.
“I’d like to think so,” Mark said with a chuckle.
“Back up, though. How does this ground analytics thing relate to your dreams about your homeland?”
“Well, I didn’t know that’s what I was seeing in my dreams until I flew over Madain Saleh in our private jet this morning. The scene was nearly identical to the land I’d dreamt about all these years.”
“Your heart is here.” King Sayid cocked his head to the side and pursed his lips. “I’m glad.”
“Me too.” Mark meant it. Even with all the drama of the royal family and his suspicions and his paranoia, he was glad he’d come.
“Tomorrow, I will personally take you on a tour and introduce you to everyone.” Sayid clapped his hands together once as if excited to play tour guide for his long-lost great-grandson.
“I’d like that, Your Majesty,” Mark said.
Just then there was a clanking coming down the hall and Alex came around the corner into the room gripping a dolly that carried several cases of water, Powerade, and food. His sweaty brow, and the way Alex almost tore his suitcoat off upon arrival, attested to the heat and exertion of getting the provisions here to Mark’s suite.
“I see you’ve heard rumors about the food and beverages in the palace being poisoned.” The king chuckled.
“No offense to you, Your Majesty, but I don’t trust anyone here,” Mark said.
“I don’t blame you.” Sayid patted Mark on the shoulder and stepped out of Alex’s way, back toward the door. Before leaving the room, the king turned back and met Mark’s gaze. “As long as you’re wearing that crown on your head, trust no one.”
As King Sayid left the room, he pulled the door shut behind him and Mark had a shiver of dread run up his spine.
“Gee, who’s ready to be done for the night?” Alex asked, locking the door behind the king.
“I’ve never been so thankful to see a case of water in my life,” Mark said, tearing open the plastic and twisting the cap off the first bottle he yanked from the opening. He sucked down half the bottle before pausing to uncap his Motrin. After taking 800 milligrams, Mark sat at his grandfather’s dressing table and looked at his best friend through the mirror. “Let’s get this target off my head and then I’ll take the couch and you can have the bed.”
“No way,” Alex said, reaching into the closet for the leather bag that held the velvet box for Mark’s crown. “I’m sleeping on the couch and you’re taking the bed. If anyone ever finds out I let the Crown Prince sleep on the couch I’d be chased from the kingdom.”
“If you ever call me the Crown Prince outside this room, we’ll both be chased from the kingdom.”
Alex placed the leather bag on the dressing table and removed the largest velvet box. Ceremoniously opening the box, he stepped behind Mark and their eyes connected in the mirror.
They both took a deep breath and let their shoulders relax, remembering the importance of treating the crown with reverence. When they were ready, Alex reached out and carefully lifted the crown from Mark’s head and floated the heavy crown over to rest it into the velvet box. He nested the smaller box on top and placed both of them reverently into the leather bag along with the small jewelry box that held Hazel’s diamond.
Lifting the heavy bag off the dressing table, Alex stood there as if weighing it. “How much do you think that’s valued in U.S. dollars?”
“More than my inheritance,” Mark mumbled.
“It’s worth a small kingdom tucked into the deserts of Saudi Arabia,” Mark said.
“Give or take a few oil reserves.” Alex carried the bag to Mark’s closet and tucked it just inside, then shut off the closet light.