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 at the palace.
“My father was seventeen when my older brother, Jared, was born,” Eli explained, wondering how much his cousin knew about the royal family.
“Seventeen?” Mark’s jaw dropped. Apparently not much.
“It is tradition, and expected, that the Crown Prince be married at sixteen,” Eli said, thankful once again that he hadn’t been born first. Now, at twenty-three years old, Eli was finally committing himself to the love of his life rather than being forced to marry a stranger back when he was a teenager.
“Man, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in Madain Saleh,” Mark grumbled.
Eli almost chuckled, wondering how this conversation would have been different if Mark had grown up in the kingdom. Would he have been recognized as Crown? Or would the title be as disputed at it was today?
“How old was your father when you were born?” Mark’s brow creased.
“I wasn’t born until he was twenty-six, which meant I became an uncle at the ripe old age of eight.” Eli fought the urge to sneer, even now remembering his discomfort at watching his older brother forced into adulthood at such a young age.
“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 Alexander.
“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?” Alexander 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, realizing the truth of his statement. “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.” Eli fought the urge to raise his gaze to the brazen adornment on Mark’s head. Might as well throw it out there. Mark was playing with fire showing up at the palace wearing that crown.
“That’s… reassuring.” Mark gulped and glanced at Alexander.
Threats aside, Eli’s grandmother was the main catalyst for almost every problem their kingdom faced, and Mark would be in her sites before he stepped from the limo. Her first husband had barely been interred when she insisted her five-year-old son be named Crown. The notion was preposterous.
Not able to sway the king, Tayma seduced him instead. Before the year passed, she had him in her bed, and shortly thereafter the king had taken her on as a second wife. The scandal was unfathomable to someone as committed to purity as Eli. He would never defile a woman in such a way. Or himself for that matter.
“Oddly, my best advice is for you to flirt with them,” Eli said, realizing the hypocrisy in his words.
“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, eyes wide and appearing disgusted at the thought.
“Nor do I recommend it,” Eli said, backpedaling. “But appeal to her youthfulness and treat her as a peer, then ask her about her lovely granddaughter.”
“The fifteen-year-old?” Mark gulped, looking mildly nauseated by this whole conversation.
“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 placed one hand on his stomach and Eli wondered if they’d need to pull the car over. Better offer clarification.
“I’m not saying you actually entertain the notion. 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 Mark’s advisor, needing to address one other issue. “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.”
Alexander sat up straighter and lifted his nose with an air of snobbery. Yeah, he wasn’t grasping the point Eli was trying to make.
“Perfect. Your acting skills are superb,” Eli said. “But remember to stay one step behind and to the right and never attempt to be his equal.”
Alexander’s shoulders drooped. “Gee thanks.”
“I’m just helping you guys out,” Eli said with a sigh. “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.”
The door to the limousine opened and Ahmed offered his calculating fake smile and bowed regally. “Prince Marcos Sayid. Welcome to Madain Saleh.”
Eli waited while Mark and then Alexander stepped from the limo. He and Kadin exited the vehicle as Ahmed introduced himself.
“I am Ahmed bet David, advisor to Crown Prince Omar Sayid of Madain Saleh.” The man bowed his head respectfully, if briefly. To his credit, Mark didn’t react to 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 Alexander proudly.
“Cohen?” Ahmed raised his eyebrows. “Any relation to the late Levi Cohen?”
“I am his great-grandson by lineage of Nicholas Cohen,” Alexander said.
“A respected businessman in his own right,” Ahmed acknowledged.
“Thank you, I agree.” Alexander maintained his air of aloof haughtiness and Eli struggled to keep a straight face, remembering how he had complimented Alexander on his acting skills.
“I trust that you will enjoy your visit to our kingdom.” Ahmed’s subtle emphasis on the words ‘visit’ and ‘our’ were a little too obvious.
“Your cousin, His Highness Prince Elmer will escort you to your suite,” Ahmed said. Eli nearly rolled his eyes at the derogatory way Ahmed emphasized his given name. “We have arranged to have a grand reception for you this evening and formal attire is expected.”
“Naturally,” Mark said then took a step back and nodded to his cousin. “I will follow you, Your Highness.”
Eli pursed his lips and tried to hide a grin. He raised his eyebrows at his cousin as he led the way into the palace. Way to stick it to Ahmed, asking Eli to lead the way. Eli was almost certain Mark had done that on purpose.
“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.
Mark drifted slowly to the obviously more masculine of the two dressing tables, and glanced in the mirror as if imagining how his namesake would have sat here with his advisor behind him, attending to the care and management of the crown, in much the same way Kadin did for Eli.
Suddenly Mark 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 kid had only been in the kingdom ten minutes and hadn’t even met the princess. Yet he had already made that connection.
“The hand that rocks the cradle,” Mark said, his face a mixture of awe and alarm.
“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?”
Good question. “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.” Tayma and Ahmed had been having an affair for several years and Eli suspected she controlled both sides of the crown; the king and his successor, whoever that turned out to be.
“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?”
Eli took that as his dismissal and pushed away from the door jam. “The reception begins at seven o’clock, so I’d suggest arriving at about twenty minutes after the hour.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Mark said sincerely, stepping over 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.”
Eli took his leave and strode down the hall with a crease in his brow and a heavy heart. An outsider’s perspective indeed. Where would this new enlightenment lead him? He picked up his pace, wondering where his advisor had disappeared to upon arriving at the palace.