“Your Highness, you know it’s the best course of action,” Mark said, his international line offering clear connection.
Eli knew in his heart that his cousin was right. They’d worked together through the years leaning on one another’s expertise as they’d pushed through the myriad of challenges inherent with running a small country. They’d watched their children grow into young adults, felt the sting of rejection as their young princes chose more worldly pursuits rather than following in their fathers’ footsteps. Now they were faced with choosing a successor to be king of Madain Saleh.
“But I’m not next in line.” Eli’s throat tightened again for the hundredth time since learning of their great-grandfather’s passing early that morning.
“Says who?” Mark asked. “An outdated tradition that has been contested since your grandfather died sixty-five years ago?”
“The king wanted you as his successor,” Eli said, feeling the lie as it left his mouth. Eli had sat beside King Sayid for years, learning from him, comforting him when Queen Salaina had passed, and when Prince Omar had passed, and when the old man was lonely or scared or sick. Their great-grandfather had held on to life for one hundred and six years, always claiming the waters of Madain Saleh were the fountain of youth.
Eli had lived in the kingdom his entire life, while Mark continued to reside in America. They both loved Madain Saleh, but Eli’s allegiance had never been torn between two nations. He knew every little town and village on the outskirts, he’d watched their people struggle through droughts and wars and illnesses, and eventually dwindle into a tiny oasis tucked into the rocky desert.
Their great-grandfather had been the only thing holding this kingdom in existence. The Saudis humored the dying old man. The land would be absorbed into the desert until all that remained were the palaces, tombs, and hieroglyphs no one could translate. Madain Saleh would be a memory.
“Stay and maintain the dignity that has been our homeland for centuries,” Mark said. “As long as there are still members of the royal family willing to claim the throne, Madain Saleh will survive.”
“But you are the rightful heir. You are next in line. You are the Crown.”
“I will continue to be Crown with you as my king.” Mark was now the one whose voice faltered with unshed tears. “At your coronation, I will pledge my allegiance to you.”
“What about your sons?” Eli asked.
“They don’t want that crown any more than your son, or your daughter.”
Mark spoke the truth. Prince Ethan had already moved to America to attend a university and had expressed the desire to stay. Princess Miranda intended to follow her older brother once she completed her secondary school.
No one else cared who claimed the throne. Eli’s niece, Princess Nimrah had taken a lover in Dubai years ago and her sham of a marriage to Ahmed had ended when he died of mysterious causes a few months later. Eli hadn’t heard from Nimrah in ten years or so.
He knew his cousin was right. The time had come for Eli to rule in place of all the others who had been the likely successors. He, who’d been told all his life that his bloodline was inconsequential because he would never be king, was now the only person left to claim the throne, the only person left who loved their kingdom enough to stand within her borders as they crumbled around him.
“Will you be the one to perform the coronation?” Eli asked, hearing his own vulnerability as his voice cracked.
“Of course, Your Highness. My family and I have already begun packing and will be there with you before the end of the week.”
“I look forward to meeting your young princes,” Eli said. He hadn’t seen Aaron and Owen since they were babies and had never met Hayden or Augustus. They planned to hold a press conference that afternoon formally abdicating all rights to the throne, opening the way for the world to recognize Prince Elmer Sayid as the new king of Madain Saleh.
“My young princes look forward to meeting the lovely Princess Miranda,” Mark said with a chuckle.
“They’d better keep their hands off my daughter,” Eli warned in a teasing growl.
“Ah, my friend. It will be good to see you.” There was love and compassion in Mark’s endearment.
“You as well, Your Highness. Travel safely.” Eli found hope in his heart for the first time in days.