The red carpet stretched from the entrance of the throne room 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.
As Eli took his place on the lowest of the platforms, he scanned the room.
Small groupings of dignitaries stood around; unaware they were being watched. The leaders of the government at all levels, the leaders of the military, all appointed officials of the monarchy, descendants of the queen’s sister and brothers, the king’s sister, aunts, uncles, and a myriad of cousins.
Formal dress was in the eye of the beholder when the people of Madain Saleh gathered for a reception. Some men were in business suits or military uniforms, others wore ornate robes made of colorful linens. Only a few men wore tuxedos; most 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 were comfortable in their chosen attire. Eli appreciated the diversity of his kingdom.
A tiny hint of commotion caught Eli’s attention as his cousin stepped into view at the entrance of the throne room, Alexander at his right. Mark didn’t show any signs of nervousness, although the scene must be intimidating from his point of view. He had the serious disadvantage of everyone knowing who he was and why he was here.
The young man appointed to be caller at the entrance to the throne room spoke with clarity that resounded through the excellent acoustics, “Your Majesty and Your Grace, may I present His Royal Highness, Prince Marcos Sayid, and his advisor, Alexander Cohen-Stephenson.”
Murmurs preceded them as they walked the length of the room and as Mark got closer to the royal family, his gaze quickly swept from the top platform down the line. When he met Eli’s gaze, he smirked.
Eli was glad to have given Mark the lowdown on what to expect. This whole evening could have been a disaster otherwise.
At the base of the marble steps leading up the platform, Mark lowered to one knee, as did Alexander.
“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.”
Eli raised his eyebrows at Mark’s use of the ancient pronunciation of their kingdom, which was rarely used other than the most formal declarations. The observance spoke volumes as to Mark’s commitment to their land.
“Welcome, Your Highness,” King Sayid nodded regally and held out his hand.
Mark and Alexander stood and ascended the marble steps to approach the thrones and stood 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 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. Alexander 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 their great-grandfather’s second wife, forgoing the bow of respect he’d given the queen. Eli fought the urge to chuckle at the omission. “Princess, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Liar, Eli thought but held his peace.
“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, a defiant lift to his chin.
“Your Highness,” Mark said to Eli’s father 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.”
Eli fought the urge to glare at his grandmother, knowing she was the reason why his father never had a chance to say goodbye to his beloved uncle.
“Thank you, Your Highness,” father said with real sadness in his voice. “I remember him fondly as well. I regret not having him here as I grew up.” He seemed to pause and compose himself then lifted his chin 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 Eli’s father, 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,” Jared said, as if he were a doting father who loved his little girl.
“A princess befitting such a strong name, I’m sure.” Mark took her hand and his eyes seemed to smolder with calculated attention. Perfect. He was playing his part well. Maybe Mark’s inevitable rejection would push Nimrah off her high horse if that were possible. Eli wanted to be around to see her stumble.