The Heretic Queen, p.1Michelle Moran
Also By Michelle Moran
To my mother, Carol Moran
Without you, this would never have been possible.
THERE WAS A time in the Eighteenth Dynasty when Nefertiti’s family reigned supreme over Egypt. She and her husband, Akhenaten, removed Egypt’s gods and raised the mysterious sun deity Aten in their place. Even after Nefertiti died and her policies were deemed heretical, it was still her daughter Ankhesenamun and her stepson, Tutankhamun, who reigned. When Tutankhamun died of an infection at around nineteen years of age, Nefertiti’s father, Ay, took the throne. With his death only a few years later, the last link to the royal family was Nefertiti’s younger sister, Mutnodjmet.
Knowing that Mutnodjmet would never take the crown for herself, the general Horemheb took her as his wife by force, in order to legitimize his own claim to Egypt’s throne. It was the end of an era when Mutnodjmet died in childbirth, and the Nineteenth Dynasty began when Horemheb passed the throne to his general, Ramesses I. But Ramesses was an old man at the start of his rule, and when he died, the crown passed to his son, Pharaoh Seti.
Now, the year is 1283 BC. Nefertiti’s family has passed on, and all that remains of her line is Mutnodjmet’s daughter, Nefertari, an orphan in the court of Seti I.
I AM SURE that if I sat in a quiet place, away from the palace and the bustle of the court, I could remember scenes from my childhood much earlier than six years old. As it is, I have vague impressions of low tables with lion’s-paw feet crouched on polished tiles. I can still smell the scents of cedar and acacia from the open chests where my nurse stored my favorite playthings. And I am sure that if I sat in the sycamore groves for a day with nothing but the wind to disturb me, I could put an image to the sound of sistrums being shaken in a courtyard where frankincense was being burned. But all of those are hazy impressions, as difficult to see through as heavy linen, and my first real memory is of Ramesses weeping in the dark Temple of Amun.
I must have begged to go with him that night, or perhaps my nurse had been too busy at Princess Pili’s bedside to realize that I was gone. But I can recall our passage through the silent halls of Amun’s temple, and how Ramesses’s face looked like a painting I had seen of women begging the goddess Isis for favor. I was six years old and always talking, but I knew enough to be quiet that night. I peered up at the painted images of the gods as they passed through the glow of our flickering torchlight, and when we reached the inner sanctum, Ramesses spoke his first words to me.
I obeyed his command and drew deeper into the shadows as he approached the towering statue of Amun. The god was illuminated by a circle of lamplight, and Ramesses knelt before the creator of life. My heart was beating so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t hear what he was whispering, but his final words rang out. “Help her, Amun. She’s only six. Please don’t let Anubis take her away. Not yet!”
There was movement from the opposite door of the sanctum, and the whisper of sandaled feet warned Ramesses that he wasn’t alone. He stood, wiping tears from his eyes, and I held my breath as a man emerged like a leopard from the darkness. The spotted pelt of a priest draped from his shoulders, and his left eye was as red as a pool of blood.
“Where is the king?” the High Priest demanded.
Ramesses, summoning all the courage of his nine years, stepped into the circle of lamplight and spoke. “In the palace, Your Holiness. My father won’t leave my sister’s side.”
“Then where is your mother?”
“She . . . she’s with her as well. The physicians say my sister is going to die!”
“So your father sent children to intervene with the gods?”
I understood for the first time why we had come. “But I’ve promised Amun whatever he wants,” Ramesses cried. “Whatever shall be mine in my future.”
“And your father never thought to call on me?”
“He has! He’s asked that you come to the palace.” His voice broke. “But do you think that Amun will heal her?”
The High Priest moved across the tiles. “Who can say?”
“But I came on my knees and offered him anything. I did as I was told.”
“You may have,” the High Priest snapped, “but Pharaoh himself has not visited my temple.”
Ramesses took my hand, and we followed the hem of the High Priest’s robes into the courtyard. A trumpet shattered the stillness of the night, and when priests appeared in long white cloaks, I thought of the mummified god Osiris. In the darkness, it was impossible to make out their features, but when enough had assembled, the High Priest shouted, “To the palace of Malkata!”
With torchlights before us we swept into the darkness. Our chariots raced through the chill Mechyr night to the River Nile. And when we’d crossed the waters to the steps of the palace, guards ushered our retinue into the hall.
“Where is the royal family?” the High Priest demanded.
“Inside the princess’s bedchamber, Your Holiness.”
The High Priest made for the stairs. “Is she alive?”
When no guard answered, Ramesses broke into a run, and I hurried after him, afraid of being left in the dark halls of the palace.
“Pili!” he cried. “Pili, no! Wait!” He took the stairs two at a time and at the entrance to Pili’s chamber two armed guards parted for him. Ramesses swung open the heavy wooden doors and stopped. I peered into the dimness. The air was thick with incense, and the queen was bent in mourning. Pharaoh stood by himself in the shadows, away from the single oil lamp that lit the room.
“Pili,” Ramesses whispered.
“Pili!” he cried. He didn’t care that it was unbecoming of a prince to weep. He ran to the bed and grasped his sister’s hand. Her eyes were shut, and her small chest no longer shook with the cold. From beside her on the bed, the Queen of Egypt let out a violent sob.
“Ramesses, you must instruct them to ring the bells.”
Ramesses looked to his father, as if the Pharaoh of Egypt might reverse death itself.
Pharaoh Seti nodded. “Go.”
“But I tried!” Ramesses cried. “I begged Amun.”
Seti moved across the room and placed his arm around Ramesses’s shoulders. “I know. And now you must tell them to ring the bells. Anubis has taken her.”
But I could see that Ramesses couldn’t
Ramesses looked down at me, and it was understood that I would accompany him.
In the courtyard, an old priestess sat beneath the twisted limbs of an acacia, holding a bronze bell in her withered hands. “Anubis will come for us all one day,” she said, her breath fogging the cold night.
“Not at six years old!” Ramesses shouted. “Not when I begged for her life from Amun.”
The old priestess laughed harshly. “The gods do not listen to children! What great things have you accomplished that Amun should hear you speak? What wars have you won? What monuments have you erected?”
I hid behind Ramesses’s cloak, and neither of us moved.
“Where will Amun have heard your name,” she demanded, “to recognize it among so many thousands begging for aid?”
“Nowhere,” I heard Ramesses whisper, and the old priestess nodded firmly.
“If the gods cannot recognize your names,” she warned, “they will never hear your prayers.”
PHARAOH OF UPPER EGYPT
Thebes, 1283 BC
“STAY STILL,” Paser admonished firmly. Although Paser was my tutor and couldn’t tell a princess what to do, there would be extra lines to copy if I didn’t obey. I stopped shifting in my beaded dress and stood obediently with the other children of Pharaoh Seti’s harem. But at thirteen years old, I was always impatient. Besides, all I could see was the gilded belt of the woman in front of me. Heavy sweat stained her white linen, trickling down her neck from beneath her wig. As soon as Ramesses passed in the royal procession, the court would be able to escape the heat and follow him into the cool shade of the temple. But the procession was moving terribly slow. I looked up at Paser, who was searching for an open path to the front of the crowd.
“Will Ramesses stop studying with us now that he’s becoming coregent?” I asked.
“Yes,” Paser said distractedly. He took my arm and pushed our way through the sea of bodies. “Make way for the princess Nefertari! Make way!” Women with children stepped aside until we were standing at the very edge of the roadway. All along the Avenue of Sphinxes, tall pots of incense smoked and burned, filling the air with the sacred scent of kyphi that would make this, above all days, an auspicious one. The brassy sound of trumpets filled the avenue, and Paser pushed me forward. “The prince is coming!”
“I see the prince every day,” I said sullenly. Ramesses was the only son of Pharaoh Seti, and now that he had turned seventeen, he would be leaving his childhood behind. There would be no more studying with him in the edduba, or hunting together in the afternoons. His coronation held no interest for me then, but when he came into view, even I caught my breath. From the wide lapis collar around his neck to the golden cuffs around his ankles and wrists, he was covered in jewels. His red hair shone like copper in the sun, and a heavy sword hung at his waist. Thousands of Egyptians surged forward to see, and as Ramesses strode past in the procession, I reached forward to tug at his hair. Although Paser inhaled sharply, Pharaoh Seti laughed, and the entire procession came to a halt.
“Little Nefertari.” Pharaoh patted my head.
“Little?” I puffed out my chest. “I’m not little.” I was thirteen, and in a month I’d be fourteen.
Pharaoh Seti chuckled at my obstinacy. “Little only in stature then,” he promised. “And where is that determined nurse of yours?”
“Merit? In the palace, preparing for the feast.”
“Well, tell Merit I want to see her in the Great Hall tonight. We must teach her to smile as beautifully as you do.” He pinched my cheeks, and the procession continued into the cool recesses of the temple.
“Stay close to me,” Paser ordered.
“Why? You’ve never minded where I’ve gone before.”
We were swept into the temple with the rest of the court, and at last, the heavy heat of the day was shut out. In the dimly lit corridors a priest dressed in the long white robes of Amun guided us swiftly to the inner sanctum. I pressed my palm against the cool slabs of stone where images of the gods had been carved and painted. Their faces were frozen in expressions of joy, as if they were happy to see that we’d come.
“Be careful of the paintings,” Paser warned sharply.
“Where are we going?”
“To the inner sanctum.”
The passage widened into a vaulted chamber, and a murmur of surprise passed through the crowd. Granite columns soared up into the gloom, and the blue tiled roof had been inlaid with silver to imitate the night’s glittering sky. On a painted dais, a group of Amun priests were waiting, and I thought with sadness that once Ramesses was coregent, he would never be a carefree prince in the marshes again. But there were still the other children from the edduba, and I searched the crowded room for a friend.
“Asha!” I beckoned, and when he saw me with our tutor, he threaded his way over. As usual, his black hair was bound tightly in a braid; whenever we hunted it trailed behind him like a whip. Although his arrow was often the one that brought down the bull, he was never the first to approach the kill, prompting Pharaoh to call him Asha the Cautious. But as Asha was cautious, Ramesses was impulsive. In the hunt, he was always charging ahead, even on the most dangerous roads, and his own father called him Ramesses the Rash. Of course, this was a private joke between them, and no one but Pharaoh Seti ever called him that. I smiled a greeting at Asha, but the look Paser gave him was not so welcoming.
“Why aren’t you standing with the prince on the dais?”
“But the ceremony won’t begin until the call of the trumpets,” Asha explained. When Paser sighed, Asha turned to me. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you excited?”
“How can I be excited,” I demanded, “when Ramesses will spend all his time in the Audience Chamber, and in less than a year you’ll be leaving for the army?”
Asha shifted uncomfortably in his leather pectoral. “Actually, if I’m to be a general,” he explained, “my training must begin this month.” The trumpets blared, and when I opened my mouth to protest, he turned. “It’s time!” Then his long braid disappeared into the crowd. A great hush fell over the temple, and I looked up at Paser, who avoided my gaze.
“What is she doing here?” someone hissed, and I knew without turning that the woman was speaking about me. “She’ll bring nothing but bad luck on this day.”
Paser looked down at me, and as the priests began their hymns to Amun, I pretended not to have heard the woman’s whispers. Instead, I watched as the High Priest Rahotep emerged from the shadows. A leopard’s pelt hung from his shoulders, and as he slowly ascended the dais, the children next to me averted their gaze. His face appeared frozen, like a mask that never stops grinning, and his left eye was still red as a carnelian stone. Heavy clouds of incense filled the inner sanctum, but Rahotep appeared immune to the smoke. He lifted the hedjet crown in his hands, and without blinking, placed it on top of Ramesses’s golden brow. “May the great god Amun embrace Ramesses the Second, for now he is Pharaoh of Upper Egypt.”
While the court erupted into wild cheers, I felt my heart sink. I fanned away the acrid scent of perfume from under women’s arms, and children with ivory clappers beat them together in a noise that filled the entire chamber. Seti, who was now only ruler of Lower Egypt, smiled widely. Then hundreds of courtiers began to move, crushing me between their belted waists.
“Come. We’re leaving for the palace!” Paser shouted.
I glanced behind me. “What about Asha?”
“He will have to find you later.”
DIGNITARIES FROM every kingdom in the world came to the palace of Malkata to celebrate Ramesses’s coronation. I stood at the entrance to the Great Hall, where the court took its dinner every night, and admired the glow of a thousand oil lamps as they cast their light across the polished tiles. The chamber was
“Have you ever seen so many people?”
I turned. “Asha!” I exclaimed. “Where have you been?”
“My father wanted me in the stables to prepare—”
“For your time in the military?” I crossed my arms, and when Asha saw that I was truly upset, he smiled disarmingly.
“But I’m here with you now.” He took my arm and led me into the hall. “Have you seen the emissaries who have arrived? I’ll bet you could speak with any one of them.”
“I can’t speak Shasu,” I said, to be contrary.
“But every other language! You could be a vizier if you weren’t a girl.” He glanced across the hall and pointed. “Look!”
I followed his gaze to Pharaoh Seti and Queen Tuya on the royal dais. The queen never went anywhere without Adjo, and the black-and-white dog rested his tapered head on her lap. Although her iwiw had been bred for hunting hare in the marshes, the farthest he ever walked was from his feathered cushion to the water bowl. Now that Ramesses was Pharaoh of Upper Egypt, a third throne had been placed next to his mother.
“So Ramesses will be seated off with his parents,” I said glumly. He had always eaten with me beneath the dais, at the long table filled with the most important members of the court. And now that his chair had been removed, I could see that my own had been placed next to Woserit, the High Priestess of Hathor. Asha saw this as well and shook his head.
“It’s too bad you can’t sit with me. What will you ever talk about with Woserit?”
“Nothing, I suspect.”
“At least they’ve placed you across from Henuttawy. Do you think she might speak with you now?”
All of Thebes was fascinated with Henuttawy, not because she was one of Pharaoh Seti’s two younger sisters, but because there was no one in Egypt with such mesmerizing beauty. Her lips were carefully painted to match the red robes of the goddess Isis, and only the priestesses were allowed to wear that vivid color. As a child of seven I had been fascinated by the way her cloak swirled around her sandals, like water moving gently across the prow of a ship. I had thought at the time that she was the most beautiful woman I would ever see, and tonight I could see that I was still correct. Yet even though we had eaten together at the same table for as long as I could remember, I couldn’t recall a single instance when she had spoken to me. I sighed. “I doubt it.”
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