If Eli had been overly-casual greeting his cousin at the airport, that ended when they arrived at the palace. The forty-five-minute drive through the dusty mountainous caverns and open desert gave them an opportunity to discuss all who they would meet upon arriving.
“My father was seventeen when my older brother, Jared, was born,” Eli explained.
“Seventeen?” Mark’s jaw dropped.
“It is tradition, and expected, that the Crown Prince be married at sixteen,” Eli said.
“Man, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in Madain Saleh,” Mark grumbled then turned his attention back to his cousin. “How old was your father when you were born?” Mark was trying to do the math in his head, but nothing was lining up.
“I wasn’t born until he was twenty-six, which meant I became an uncle at the ripe old age of eight.”
“Yeah, my brother had his daughter when he was seventeen,” Eli said. “She is by far the most spoiled little fifteen-year-old princess you’ll ever meet. Takes after our grandmother, the lovely and charming Princess of Tayma.” Sarcasm dripped from Eli’s words.
“I take it you don’t like your grandmother?” Mark’s rhetorical question was interrupted by Alex.
“Forgive me, Your Highnesses, but isn’t she the reason your grandfather fled this land with your father in his arms because she tried to poison him?” Alex raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“My initial reaction to your question is that none of us are safe as long as she is pulling strings in the background.” Eli chuckled nervously. “But the reality is my niece and grandmother are both such flighty airheads, to borrow some American slang, I don’t think poisoning you would even cross their minds, especially if they don’t see you as a threat.”
“That’s… reassuring.” Mark gulped and glanced at Alex, realizing one of the reasons they were here was to assert his status as heir to the throne. His strategy shifted as quickly as the moment he added Cohen to Alexander’s name.
“Oddly, my best advice is for you to flirt with them,” Eli said.
“What?” Mark’s jaw dropped.
“Stoke their already inflated egos. My grandmother is an immature sixty-seven years old but thinks she’s thirty-five and regularly takes much younger men as her lovers,” Eli said.
“Yeah, that ain’t happening,” Mark said, disgusted at the thought for more reasons than he could count.
“Nor do I recommend it,” Eli said. “But appeal to her youthfulness and treat her as a peer, then ask her about her lovely granddaughter.”
“The fifteen-year-old?” Mark gulped, feeling mildly nauseated by this whole conversation. If he thought it was repulsive to date Hazel while she was seventeen, fifteen was jailbait.
“She has yet to choose a husband,” Eli explained. “A wealthy distant cousin, who also happens to be a prince whose roots trace back to Madain Saleh with only one generation removed? Yeah, you are perfect.”
“P—perfect?” Mark wondered if he’d need to pull the car over.
“I’m not saying you actually entertain the notion.” Eli backtracked. “I’m just giving you pointers on how best to survive the next few days.
“Gee, thanks.” Mark gulped. “I’ll take all this into consideration.”
“Oh, and Alexander—” Eli turned to Alex. “When advising your prince, pull him aside and stage-whisper in his ear rather than interrupt his conversation. You will be seen as a highly revered advisor with an impressive bloodline who elevates Prince Marcos’ status even loftier by mere association.”
Alex sat up straighter and lifted his nose with an air of snobbery.
“Perfect,” Eli said. “Your acting skills are superb. But remember to stay one step behind and to the right and never attempt to be his equal.”
Alex’s shoulders drooped. “Gee thanks.”
“I’m just helping you guys out,” Eli said. “I want you to enjoy your stay here. You can laugh about it later. Oh, and by the way, I am not your equal either. My status in our royal family is almost a step down from Alexander’s as your advisor.”
“You’re kidding,” Mark said.
“Not at all,” Eli said with resignation. “I was told by my father’s advisor that I should be walking to your left and one step behind Alexander.”
“Wow… okay,” Mark said. “Interesting.”
“Here we go,” Eli said as the limo came to a rolling stop before the main entrance of the palace. “Do not get out of the car until my father’s advisor opens the limo door for you, which he will, rather quickly I might add.”
Eli was correct. Before Mark could gather his bearings, the door to the limousine opened and an older gentleman greeted him.
“Prince Marcos Sayid,” the man said, bowing regally. “Welcome to Madain Saleh.”
This wasn’t what Mark had expected. Because his dreams had involved a mountainous desert, similar to the region they’d traversed between the airport and Madain Saleh, Mark had imagined ancient ruins and third world conditions.
The ruins were there, of course, on the outskirts, covered in thousand-year-old hieroglyphs no one could read, but they were more used as tourist attractions. The palace and city center were modern displays of old-money and haughty ambition funded by petroleum reserves and potash mining.
Everything Mark’s father and grandfather had taught as important values, such as generosity and humility, were a juxtaposition in this environment. They had been inspired to warn him in advance of his arrival.
Mark stepped from the limo and waited to greet Prince Omar’s advisor until Alex had joined him at his side.
“I am Ahmed bet David, advisor to Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” The man bowed his head respectfully, if briefly. The strange combination of traditional Muslim and Jewish names peaked Mark’s interest, but he chose not to question him, nor did he acknowledge Ahmed’s emphasis on the word ‘crown’ in the mention of his prince.
“Allow me to present my advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson,” Mark said, holding his hand out to his right as if displaying Alex proudly.
“Cohen?” Ahmed raised his eyebrows. “Any relation to the late Levi Cohen?”
“I am his great-grandson by lineage of Nicholas Cohen,” Alex said.
“A respected businessman in his own right,” Ahmed acknowledged.
“Thank you, I agree.” Alex maintained his air of aloof haughtiness and Mark struggled to keep a straight face, remembering how Eli had complimented Alex on his acting skills.
“I trust that you will enjoy your visit to our kingdom.” His subtle emphasis on the words ‘visit’ and ‘our’ were a little too obvious.
Mark fought the urge to narrow his eyes at Ahmed. Something about his demeaner was off. And where was his prince? Shouldn’t they be together at all times? Why did this man seem to be in charge? Telling Eli where to stand and making declarations about the Crown. Eli had said the Princess of Tayma was pulling the strings in the background. Was this man as well? All in the attempt to elevate the spoiled, fifteen-year-old princess? Something wasn’t right. There were more moving parts to this royal family than he anticipated.
“Your cousin, His Highness Prince Elmer will escort you to your suite,” Ahmed said. “We have arranged to have a grand reception for you this evening and formal attire is expected.”
“Naturally,” Mark said without reacting to the snide way Ahmed said Eli’s name. As a means of elevating Eli’s standing, Mark took a step back and nodded to his cousin. “I will follow you, Your Highness.”
Eli pursed his lips in a way that Mark could tell was trying to hide a grin and raised his eyebrows as he led the way into the palace. One good deed for the afternoon. The least Mark could do after the invaluable advice Eli had provided on the ride from the airport.
The palace boasted shining white marble floors, cathedral ceilings and sparkling crystal chandeliers. Three groupings of four brocade sofas strategically arranged around low tables attested to the sheer length of the foyer, which was adorned by Persian rugs and elaborate tapestries. Mark immediately picked up on the Middle Eastern influences his grandfather had included in decorating his home in Mexico.
“We’ve upkept your grandfather’s suite and you’ll be honored to be the first person sleeping there since he left,” Eli said, turning his head sideways and behind in much the same way a tour guide would explain a museum exhibit. “His Majesty, King Sayid, never gave up hope that his son would one day return to occupy his suite.”
“His Highness, Prince Marcos regretted on his deathbed that he hadn’t taken the time to do so,” Mark said. “Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he requested I return his body to our homeland.”
After multiple twists and turns and ascending two sets of grand staircases, they finally stopped in front of a set of ornately carved double doors
“Here we are,” Eli said, opening the doors to reveal an elegant sitting room that resembled the one in his parents’ bedroom suite.
Mark gravitated slowly to the obviously more masculine of the two dressing tables, imagining how his namesake would have sat here with Collins behind him, attending to the care and management of more than just the crown, but the kingdom.
A startling thought jumped into his mind and he turned to Eli. “Is your father’s advisor having an affair with the Princess of Tayma?”
“How on earth did you pick up on that?” Eli folded his arms and leaned against the door frame.
“The hand that rocks the cradle,” Mark said, in awe of the notion that he was right and more alarming, the implication.
“I’m not following you.” Eli creased his brow.
“There’s an American saying about how the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world,” Mark explained. “Who is actually ruling our kingdom?”
“I’ll be interested to hear your take after you’ve been here a few days,” Eli said, creasing his brow. “Having an affair is one thing, influencing matters of state… I’m going to need some time to process that.”
“Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see what’s right in front of our eyes,” Mark said, turning back to his grandfather’s suite. “What time shall we make our appearance at the reception?”
“The reception begins at seven o’clock, so I’d suggest arriving at about twenty minutes after the hour,” Eli said, straightening and preparing to leave the suite.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Mark said sincerely, stepping over to his cousin and affectionately placing his hands atop Eli’s shoulders. “You have been a wealth of knowledge.”
“Glad to be of assistance, Your Highness,” Eli returned the sentiment. “I’ll see you at the reception.”