The Pharaoh watched as Aneksi smoothed down his robe with a smile and looked himself over in the stand–up mirror. He nodded his head in approval and then turned back to face Aneksi. He raised a hand and ran it through her hair. She closed her eyes and inclined her head as the Pharaoh leaned forward to gently kiss her forehead.
"Do not stray far," he said, dropping his hand to his side. He was smiling. "I'd rather not hear about you getting lost already." Aneksi nodded and the Pharaoh strode out of the room.
The Nursery was a circular chamber, supported by six columns painted with golden rings. Hieroglyphics of the god Bes lined the walls, the protector of infants and the young, and below them, stone bench seats were placed, decorated with cushions. At the center of the chamber was a small, but ornate imported ivory and marble bed, where the Prince Ankhetep slept. Just above the bed was a cut glass ceiling, allowing for Ra's light to shine directly down upon him.
At the Pharaoh's arrival, the servants formed a semi–circle around the Prince's bed with their heads bowed.
Lady Kiya did not react to the Pharaoh's presence, and instead, remained where she stood, staring mournfully at her son's sleeping face. The Pharaoh walked to her side and laid a hand briefly on her back. She turned to face him before falling to her knees.
"Please, O Grace of the Nile," she begged, clenching the bottom of his robe in her hands, "your son does not heed his mother's voice."
The Pharaoh glanced at Lady Kiya, grimacing, and then forced his eyes on the near–motionless boy before him. He leaned forward over the base of the bed, allowing the scene to sink into his heart.
"My son, Heir Prince Ankhetep, rise at the sound of your father's call," the Pharaoh said, reaching out to gently shake the child's arm.
There was no response.
The Pharaoh caught his breath, feeling his hope waver. "Ankhetep," he repeated, "your father calls you to rise." Again, there was no response. Swallowing back the bile in his throat, the Pharaoh pulled back, feeling a sudden chill in the air. He turned to the servants. They shifted uneasily in their position. "Which of you were the first to notice the Prince's condition?" he demanded.
One of the women to the left took a small step forward. "It was I, your Greatness," she answered.
"And?" the Pharaoh asked, folding his arms across his chest. "What did you do?"
"I...I sent for the Prince's mother, Her Highness," she stuttered.
The Pharaoh turned his attention to his grieving wife, who remained at his feet. The Pharaoh felt a stab of pity for her in his chest but disregarded it. It was humiliating to have one of his wives shamelessly degrading herself before the servants, no matter the reason. And it was unlike the Kiya he knew to be such an emotional mess.
"First Wife, do not disgrace me by groveling on the floor." Kiya looked up at him, meeting his gaze with red–rimmed eyes. She rose to her feet slowly, accepting the Pharaoh's offered hand. "Now you," he said, facing the servants once more, "send for the High Priests and every notable physician of the Nile. I want this chamber to be filled with the men who can wake up my son." Several of the servants rushed to complete the task asked of them.
Once gone, Kiya wiped away the streaks of paints on her face with a kerchief a servant had passed to her and pressed against the Pharaoh's side.
"I pray Isis can guide our son to his former self," she whispered. The Pharaoh mutely nodded, unable to speak. He could not fathom how the child could have fallen ill. Ankhetep had always been a healthy, eccentric child.
Kiya made a move to draw the Pharaoh away from the bed but he brushed her hand away, not heeding her as he moved over to stand by the side of Ankhetep's bed. With a frown, Kiya walked out of the Nursery and did not look back.
The Pharaoh stared at Ankhetep's closed eyes, flaring nostrils, and closed mouth. His little Prince. The thought of losing such a treasure made the Pharaoh's eyes burn and tear up. Exhaling loudly, the Pharaoh composed himself, running a hand over his face. It was then, from the corner of his eye, did the Pharaoh notice something about the boy's face.
A dark shadow, serpent–like in form, glided below the Prince's skin. It made no protrusion as it slipped from Ankhetep's jaw to his temple.
The Pharaoh's hand fell to his side, breathless. Hoping he had only seen a shadow of something above them, the Pharaoh turned up his head to look at the glass ceiling. But the sky was empty. The Pharaoh reached out a hand to touch Ankhetep's cheek and instantly drew his hand back.
The child's skin was burning hot.
"What are you doing, standing around here like beetles?" the Pharaoh shouted, sweeping his arm in frustration. The remaining servants perked up at his voice, their faces identical in fear at the tone of the Pharaoh's voice. "He is burning up and you keep him under the sun! Are you trying to kill him?" the Pharaoh shouted angrily, his knuckles white from gripping the bed's raised sides.
The servants leaped towards the Prince, picking him up from his bed and ushering out while the Pharaoh glared at the brilliant white linen blankets and bedsheets, his heart racing. What did he just see? Had an evil found a claim to his son's soul?
Aneksi could hear voices in the distance and the echo of the Pharaoh's commandeering voice. What they were saying, however, was inaudible to her. But she sat upright at the sound, having previously been draped across a lounge sofa with hands folded over her stomach.
Seeing that Aneksi was now sitting up, two nearby servants approached her and began to brush her hair.
Aneksi glanced at her childhood slave, Lithra, who was seated on the floor on the other end of the chamber. In front of her was a writing desk piled with books of all kinds and Aneksi did not know where she had gotten them.
But Aneksi also did not mind not knowing.
"Lithra, do you have any idea as to what is happening?" she asked.
The fair–skinned girl with blue eyes looked up from her reading. Her voice was monotone.
"Is it not His Excellency's son who has fallen ill? It will not be long before they call you in, Ani."
Aneksi furrowed her eyebrows.
"Call me in? What for?"
Lithra closed the book in front of her. Its cover was made of a thin layer of cowhide and it had the sewn imprint of an upside–down leaf.
"If they suspect the Prince's illness to be of unnatural causes, the entire Royal Family will be placed into confinement until the issue is addressed."
"Unnatural? You do not mean..." Lithra nodded. Aneksi gasped. "Who would dare poison a son of Ra? Oh, Ma'at, let it not be so!" Her slave remained quiet at this, turning to flip open to another book. Seeing her nonchalant reaction, Aneksi shook her head. "Yes, let us not think the worse.
I pray that Prince Ankhetep will recover soon."
Lithra briefly looked up at Aneksi. Her expression was blank, but if you looked closely, which Aneksi did not, her eyes expressed annoyance.
"Of course, Ani. There is not a soul in these lands you wouldn't pray for." Aneksi smiled at these words, but Lithra had already turned her face away. Aneksi tilted her head, watching the older girl.
"Is there something wrong, Lithra?" she asked. "You haven't smiled once since we were situated in the Palace."
Lithra did not hesitate to answer. "I am still trying to find my place here. After all, I have only ever known your father's Temple." Lithra had said the last two words with a grimace but the look quickly passed as she added, "How long has it been since the Pharaoh woke up, did you say? It must be time for you to ready yourself for breakfast."