The throne room made the foyer seem diminutive. Before stepping into the entrance to be announced, Mark took a moment to assess the layout. An actual red carpet stretched from the entrance to the far wall, the center of which included a raised platform of marble where three thrones sat. Several lower levels of raised platforms sat to the right of the king, each with thrones, all of which were occupied by various members of the royal family.
Small groupings of dignitaries stood around the room; unaware they were being watched. The leaders of the government at all levels, the leaders of the military, all locally appointed officials. There were no elected officials as there would be in the United States because Madain Saleh was a monarchy rather than a democracy.
Mark had been told the court would also include descendants of the queen’s sister and brothers, the king’s sister, aunts, uncles, and a myriad of cousins.
Formal dress was apparently in the eye of the beholder. Some men were in business suits or military uniforms, others wore ornate robes made of colorful linens. Only a few wore tuxedos and Mark was glad he and Alex had opted for formal suits. Some women wore floor-length evening gowns and jewels while others were shrouded from head to toe. Most fell somewhere in between, and all of them seemed to be comfortable in their chosen attire.
“Are you ready, Your Highness?” a young man asked from beside him. The man, not much older than Mark, didn’t introduce himself but didn’t ask for an introduction either. Mark sensed the disadvantage of everyone knowing who he was and why he was here.
With a slight lift of his chin Mark stepped forward, sensing Alex just behind his right shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he could have handled all this without his best friend. He understood the double meaning behind the notion of having a trusted advisor with him through all stages of life.
“Your Majesty and Your Grace,” the young man called out with surprising clarity, attesting to the acoustics of the throne room. “May I present His Royal Highness, Prince Marcos, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Murmurs seemed to proceed them as they walked the length of the room and Mark realized the genius of elevating Alex’s status by including his lineage.
As he got closer to the royal family, Mark took inventory. The king and queen both wore black formal mourning attire, as did a gentleman one platform below the highest. Mark assumed that was his grandfather’s nephew, Eli’s father, Prince Omar.
Above Omar, on the same platform as the king and queen but with a slightly smaller throne sat a woman in blood red velvet, almost as if purposely avoiding the appearance of mourning. From all descriptions he’d heard up to this moment of his life, Mark had no doubt this woman was the Princess of Tayma.
In a calculating move, Mark raised one eyebrow at the princess and the corner of her mouth pulled into a tiny smirk. Mark quickly pulled his gaze away, his attention drawn further down the levels of the platform to where Omar’s oldest son, Eli’s older brother Jared sat in a placement of honor that seemed almost above that of his father even though his throne was one level lower on the platform. Although another woman sat to his left, who Mark assumed with Jared’s wife, an obvious emphasis rested on the fifteen-year-old girl to his right.
Mark understood immediately what Eli had meant about the dynamics of the royal family. Because Eli’s throne sat behind, albeit a step above, his niece, the smirk he gave Eli, complete with a slight lift to his eyebrows, was misinterpreted by the demure young lady. She sat up a little straighter and flipped her long hair over her shoulder. Mark almost laughed but knew that only added to the illusion. She would perceive him to be smiling at her. Perfect.
At the base of the marble steps leading up the platform, Mark paused and lowered himself to one knee, taking comfort that Alex had followed his lead without hesitation.
“Your Majesty—” Mark bowed his head briefly— “And Your Grace. It is with regret that I bring you the news that your son, His Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid of Mada’in Saleh has passed away. I have brought him home that he might be returned to the soil from which he came.”
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid nodded regally and held out his hand.
Mark took that as the invitation to approach the thrones and led Alex up the stairs to stand before the king. “Your Majesty, I am your great-grandson, Prince Marcos Sayid, son of Prince Benjamin Sayid, and grandson of the late Prince Marcos Sayid. May I present my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
King Sayid raised one eyebrow at the Cohen name, then lifted a hand to introduce the women who sat on either side. “May I present, Her Grace, Queen Salaina of Madain Saleh, and my second wife, the Princess of Tayma.”
“Your Grace, I’m honored to finally meet you.” Mark bowed to his great-grandmother and pulled her hand to his lips in a kiss of respect. Alex appropriately held back and didn’t step forward to greet the king or queen, merely bowed his head and maintained his stance behind Mark.
Mark stepped to the other side of the king’s throne and similarly greeted his great-grandfather’s second wife, forgoing the bow of respect he’d given the queen. “Princess, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
When he pulled her hand to his lips for a kiss, the princess gave his hand a little squeeze and he allowed a tiny twitch of his mouth that could be interpreted as a subtle smirk.
He was thankful once again for Eli’s coaching. This whole sequence of introductions would have been completely flubbed had he not known what to expect.
“May I present my son,” the princess practically purred at Mark. “His Highness, Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” Her emphasis on the word crown was even stronger than that of her son’s advisor, Ahmed, who stood dutifully behind Omar’s throne. The almost defiant gleam in his eye confirmed Mark’s previous suspicion that Ahmed was involved in a brazenly open affair with Tayma. Interesting.
“Your Highness,” Mark said to Omar with an added level of respect and admiration. “Your uncle, His Highness Prince Marcos, wished for me to convey to you the extreme amount of love he held for you throughout the remainder of his life, and the regret that he felt in never having the opportunity to see you again before he died.”
Mark fought the urge to glare at Omar’s mother, knowing she was the reason why his grandfather never had a chance to say goodbye to his beloved nephew. It wasn’t Omar’s fault his mother was an evil woman who tried to kill Mark’s father. Mark once again felt sick at the notion that he needed to play nice with her as long as he was visiting the kingdom.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Omar said with real sadness in his voice. “I remember him fondly as well. I regret not having him here as I grew up.”
Omar seemed to pause and compose himself then lifted his gaze and straightened his shoulders.
“May I introduce my sons, Prince Jared, and Prince Elmer.”
“Prince Elmer was of great assistance to me this afternoon when he escorted me from the airport.” Mark nodded to Omar, then stepped down to reach out a hand to Jared. “Pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. You simply must introduce me to this lovely young lady at your side.”
“May I introduce my daughter, Her Highness, the Princess of Nimrah.”
“A princess befitting such a strong name, I’m sure.” Mark took her hand and bore his gaze into the young girl’s almost feline features. If she lived up to the origin or her name, which quite literally meant bitterness and rebellion, she was going to be a force to be reckoned with. A chill raced down Mark’s spine and he feared for the future of his kingdom with the likes of her in charge.