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       Nefertiti, p.10

           Michelle Moran
 

  “I’ll bet you like it here in these gardens,” I said wistfully, chucking the kitten beneath the chin. “No one to bother you or ask you what kilt they should wear.” The kitten ignored me and climbed up my shirt, nestling its tiny head in my neck. I laughed and pried it away. “Come here.” It held out its tiny arms and claws, searching for something stable. “There.” I tucked the kitten into the crook of my arm and she sat there, watching the dragonflies, fascinated by them.

  “Mutny?” Nefertiti called from across the garden. As always, her voice was filled with urgency. “Mutny, where are you?” She appeared through the trees, walking the perimeter of the lotus pond to get to me. Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she wasn’t crying. She never cried.

  “What happened?” I sprung up, abandoning the kitten. “What’s wrong?”

  She hooked my arm in hers and steered me to a stone bench. “I bled,” she confided.

  I observed her quizzically. “But you’ve only been his wife for—”

  Her nails dug into my arm. “Kiya is nearly four months pregnant!” she cried. “Four! You must know something you can give me, Mutny. You studied herbs with Ranofer.”

  I shook my head. “Nefertiti—”

  “Please. Think of what he told you. You always listened to what he had to say.”

  While it was Nefertiti that Ranofer had been in love with, I was the one who had listened patiently as he rattled off the names of medicinal herbs. I would have smiled, but there was fear in her eyes, and I realized how serious it would be if Kiya had a son and Nefertiti was not even pregnant with a child. I tried to think. “There is mandrake,” I said.

  “Good.” She sat straighter, the color coming back to her cheeks. “What else?”

  “Honey and oil.”

  She nodded quickly. “I could get those things. Mandrake, of course, is more difficult.”

  “Try the honey,” I prompted, and I knew it was useless to point out that it had taken Kiya nearly a year to conceive.

  On the twenty-eighth of Pharmuthi, every courtyard in the palace was cluttered with litters. Heavily laden donkeys brayed loudly while bustling slaves bumped into each other and muttered sharp curses. Because this was nearly Shemu and the waters were low, our journey to Memphis would take many days. I asked Ipu to scour the markets for treatises on herbs that I could read while we sailed.

  “On the ship? You want to read on the ship?” She stood in the doorway of my room and lowered the empty basket in her hands. By afternoon, it would be filled with my requests. This would be the last we’d see of Thebes, and who knew what kind of markets existed in Memphis? Everyone was in a panic, rushing into the city to find lotus oil, kohl, and coconut balm. “But how could you bear to read on the water? Won’t you get sick?”

  “I’ll take ginger.” I stood up from my bed and pressed several deben of copper into her hand. We walked outside together, so that I could join my sister. “Leather-bound tomes or good scrolls on anything to do with herbs.”

  The Elder had come into our courtyard to oversee the packing of Amunhotep’s belongings, and he watched the loading of the articles with suspicion. Twice, when he saw something he wanted, he demanded that servants unload it.

  “The gold vessel with turquoise was tribute from the Nubians. It will remain in Malkata.”

  So the servants struggled with the standing vessel and returned it to its place in the rooms that Amunhotep had occupied. When the Elder saw a female slave he was particularly fond of, a nubile girl with long hair and small breasts, he demanded that she be brought back to the palace as well. The queen looked on with contempt.

  “I shall never tolerate a lecherous husband,” Nefertiti seethed. We stood together beneath an awning, watching the spectacle.

  “She allows it because it keeps him occupied,” I told her, realizing the truth of my words as I said them. “If he is in the bedchamber, then he cannot be in the Audience Chamber as well.”

  My mother joined us, and together we found seats and watched the chaotic proceedings. Fan bearers cooled us in the stifling heat, which Nefertiti didn’t seem to mind. She left our shaded spot to supervise the loading of all the things that would soon be hers in Memphis, barking orders while the servants stared. They hadn’t become used to her rare beauty, her almond-shaped eyes and long, sweeping lashes. And they mistook her beauty for complacence, not recognizing yet that she had limitless energy and a need for movement.

  Queen Nefertiti, I thought, ruler of Lower Egypt and someday Upper Egypt as well. Queen Mutnodjmet, I imagined, then shivered. I would never want that. A low voice shook me out of my reverie, and I realized that Amunhotep was standing near our awning. He was wearing a long kilt with a golden belt and silver bangles. The kohl around his eyes was fresh. General Horemheb was standing across from him at arm’s length, but a gulf separated the two, and with little surprise I realized, The general doesn’t respect this new king.

  “Seventy men are to follow on my heels with fifty in front. I won’t risk assassination. If any peasant slips onto the boats undetected, he is to pay the penalty of immediate death.” Runaway slaves would sometimes join a king’s caravan so they could escape to the palace, where they could serve in luxury.

  The general said nothing.

  “And we shall travel from morning until dusk. Until it’s too dark to see the currents,” he commanded. “We will proceed straight to Memphis without stopping at any ports.”

  The first flicker of emotion crossed Horemheb’s face. “Your Majesty,” Horemheb interrupted firmly, “the men will need rest.”

  “Then they may take turns at the oars.”

  “In the heat of the day, the men could die. The cost would be great—”

  “Then whatever the cost, it shall be done!” Amunhotep shouted. The bustle in the courtyard fell silent. Amunhotep was aware of an audience and the blood rushed to his face. He stepped toward Horemheb, who didn’t flinch. “Are you questioning Pharaoh?” he asked dangerously.

  Horemheb returned his stare. “Never, Your Majesty.”

  Amunhotep narrowed his eyes.

  “Is that all?”

  For a moment, I thought Amunhotep wouldn’t answer. Then he replied. “That is all.”

  The general strode purposefully toward his men and Amunhotep moved in the opposite direction. Nefertiti looked at my mother and then at me. “What’s happened?”

  “Amunhotep was angry with the general,” I said. “We are to proceed straight to Memphis without stopping. The general says the men could die in the heat.”

  “Then they can take turns at the oars,” she replied, and my mother and I exchanged glances.

  There was to be no Feast of Farewell before we left for Memphis. The sun rose higher in the sky and the time of our departure grew near. Panahesi appeared in the courtyard, and my sister and I saw him whisper something into Amunhotep’s ear. They stood together on the verge of the commotion, away from the braying of the donkeys and the din of the servants. Nefertiti moved across the courtyard, pulling me with her, and Panahesi gave a bow and made a hasty retreat. “What did he want?” Nefertiti demanded.

  Amunhotep shifted uncomfortably. “A litter.”

  My sister was quick. “For Kiya?”

  “She’s pregnant. She will need six bearers.”

  Nefertiti held tighter to my arm. “Has she grown so fat she must be carried by six men?”

  I flushed. She was raising her voice to the King of Egypt.

  “I must accommodate Panahesi—”

  “Is Panahesi riding in it or is she? Only queens are carried by six servants! Is she queen now? Have I been replaced?”

  I could sense the commotion in the courtyard stopping again, and on the border of my vision I saw General Nakhtmin.

  “I…I will tell Panahesi she must only use five,” Amunhotep faltered.

  I gasped, but Nefertiti nodded and watched Amunhotep disappear to tell Panahesi that his pregnant daughter must use fewer bearers. As Pharaoh left, General Nakhtmin wad
ed through the busy courtyard.

  “I have come to wish the Queen of Egypt farewell,” he said, “and to bid the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife a safe journey. May you find as much joy in the gardens of Memphis as you have in Thebes, Lady Mutnodjmet.”

  Nefertiti raised her eyebrows. I could tell she was intrigued by the general. She liked his pale eyes against his dark skin. He looked at Nefertiti and I felt a sudden surge of jealousy. “You seem to be familiar with my sister, General.” Nefertiti smiled and the general grinned back.

  “We have met several times. Once in the garden, in fact, where I predicted her future.”

  Nefertiti smiled wider. “Then you are a fortune-teller as well as a general?”

  I inhaled sharply. Only the priests of Amun knew the wishes of the gods.

  “I wouldn’t presume to go so far, Your Highness. I am simply an astute observer.”

  She moved closer to him, so that if she wanted to she could have brushed his cheek with her lips. They were playing a game I didn’t like. His eyes swept over her small, powerful body and rested on the inky hair that fringed her cheek. She would not have allowed just anyone to look at her that way. The general stepped back, dizzy from her perfume. Then Amunhotep appeared and their dangerous game was over. She straightened. “Will you be coming to Memphis then, General?”

  “Sadly, no,” he answered, and he looked at me when he said it. “I shall be waiting here instead for your return. But I shall accompany Your Highness’s caravan to the quay.”

  Nefertiti shrugged playfully. “Then we shall see you shortly.” She moved to interrogate Amunhotep about the bearers, and the general held me with his eyes.

  “Good-bye, General,” I said coolly, then turned to join my mother beneath the awning.

  The caravan was ready. The animals shifted uncomfortably in the warm courtyard, and there was nervousness in the air. The horses whinnied impatiently and servants stroked their muzzles to calm them. I had packed my plants into a carefully prepared chest, placing linen between the pots to stop them from rocking together on the short trip from the palace to the quay. On the ship, I could unpack them and place them where they could find sun. But there were only a dozen. The rest I left in the palace, taking clippings from their leaves and storing them in an inlaid ivory box. There were dozens of these, and in small, tightly bound linen bags I’d stockpiled some of the most useful plants. General Horemheb inspected the army, then Amunhotep knelt before his father, receiving the Elder’s blessing.

  “I will make you proud,” Amunhotep swore. “The gods are rejoicing on this day.”

  I saw the Elder turn to Tiye, and I imagined they were both thinking of Tuthmosis, who should have been kneeling there instead of Amunhotep. Amunhotep saw this, too, and stood.

  “You may wish for Tuthmosis,” he hissed sharply, “but I am the son who rules Lower Egypt. I am the one the gods chose, not him.”

  Queen Tiye straightened her shoulders. “May the gods protect you,” she said coldly. Pharaoh nodded, but there was no love in his eyes.

  Amunhotep straightened his tunic self-consciously, and when he saw that the soldiers and servants were watching he cried out violently, “Move!”

  My body servant appeared and shouted, “Into your litter!”

  I scrambled inside. The caravan surged forward. I was behind Nefertiti and Amunhotep, who rode together. I parted the curtains and waved to my aunt. She waved back. The Elder, I noticed, looked solemn. We departed in a cloud of dust, riding the short distance to the bay that surrounded the palace. The glare off the moving water could be seen through the strips of linen protecting me from the sun, and then the caravan stopped where a fleet of impressive Egyptian ships had been moored. We were lowered in our litters and the royal family was taken onto the barges. Because we were part of the royal family now, my mother, father, and I would be traveling on Pharaoh’s barge with golden pennants flying from the mast. Panahesi and his family had their own private ship. I was glad for the separation; no vessel could have held both Nefertiti and Kiya.

  The barges could fit fifty-two soldiers rowing at the oars and another twenty passengers above or below decks. In the midst of the ships were wooden cabins with two chambers inside. The cabins were built of wood and covered in linen. “To protect against the heat,” my father said.

  “And where will the soldiers sleep?” I asked him.

  “On the deck. It’s warm enough now.”

  The ships looked handsome in the water. The ebony oars, inlaid with silver, caught the light, and the calls of an ibis searching for its mate echoed across the bay. I watched from the steps as treasures from the Elder’s palace were packed: copper bowls, cedar wig chests, alabaster statues, and an altar of granite that was inlaid with pearl. The slaves strained under the weight of the many heavy baskets, loading Egypt’s finest jewels onto the vessels last so that the guards could watch over them.

  When the ships set sail, I went to find my parents in our cabin. My mother was playing Senet with the wife of Egypt’s most honored architect. So Amunhotep convinced him to leave Thebes after all, I thought. “Where’s Father?” I asked her.

  My mother used her chin to indicate the stern of the ship, but she didn’t take her eyes from the game. Like Nefertiti, she was good at Senet. I wandered out to the stern and heard my father’s voice before I saw him.

  “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he demanded.

  “Because I knew you would be angry. But Horemheb is on our side. He understands what we are doing.”

  I peered beyond the door of the cabin and saw my father shake his head. “You are making enemies for this family faster than we can make allies. The sands of Memphis will swallow us whole, and if the people rise against you…”

  “But they will love us!” Nefertiti promised. “We will build them greater temples than they have ever seen. We will hold more feast days, and we’ll give to the people. This is Amunhotep’s dream.”

  “And yours?”

  She hesitated. “Don’t you want to be remembered?”

  “For what? For taxing the temples?”

  A short silence hung between them.

  “You will be the most powerful man in the kingdom,” she pledged. “I shall see to it. While he builds temples, you will rule this kingdom. He has no interest in politics. Everything will be left to you, and Panahesi will be like bronze to your gold.”

  Chapter Nine

  Shemu, Season of Harvest

  BY THE SECOND of Pachons, I began to recognize the sailors on board our ship. They nodded as I passed, but they were wearied and beaten, driven all day in the sun with only water and soup to sustain them. They always had time for Ipu, however. When she walked the decks with her heavy gold earrings and swaying hips, the men talked to her the way a brother might talk with his sister, and quietly, when no one was looking, they laughed. But they never spoke to me except to mumble politely, “My lady.”

  By the third day of the voyage, I had grown bored. I tried to read, learning about trees that grew in the Kingdom of Mitanni far to our north where the Khabur and the Euphrates overflowed their banks. I read all seven treatises that Ipu had collected in the markets of Thebes by the time we had spent seven days without disembarking. Then, on the eighth night, even Amunhotep grew weary of constant travel, and we were taken to shore to build fires and stretch our legs.

  The servants gathered wood to roast the wild geese they had caught on the river, and we all ate in the Elder’s best faience bowls. It was a glad change from the hard bread and figs we had been eating, and Ipu joined me at the fire, holding a cup of Pharaoh’s best wine. Across from us, at a dozen different fires, soldiers were getting drunk and courtiers were playing Senet. Ipu stared into her cup and smiled.

  “As good as anything I’ve ever tasted,” she said.

  I raised my brows. “Even the wine from your father’s vineyard?”

  She nodded and leaned close. “I think they have opened the oldest barrels.”

  I
sucked in my breath. “For tonight? And Pharaoh doesn’t care?”

  She glanced at Amunhotep, and I followed her gaze. While the courtiers laughed and Nefertiti spoke in low tones with our father, Amunhotep was staring into the fire. His lips were drawn into a thin line and the bones in his face appeared hollow in the flickering light. “He only cares about getting there,” Ipu replied. “The faster he arrives in Memphis, the sooner he can take up the crook and flail of Egypt.”

  Panahesi was making his way toward our circle with an obviously pregnant Kiya. As they drew near the fire, Nefertiti turned and pinched my arm roughly. “What is she doing here?” she demanded.

  I rubbed my arm. “She’s coming with us to Memphis, remember?”

  But Nefertiti didn’t hear my sarcasm. “She’s pregnant. She should be back on the ship.” And away from Amunhotep, she wanted to add.

  One of Kiya’s ladies spread a feathered cushion on the sand and Kiya sat across from Amunhotep, resting her hand on her large hennaed belly. She was soft and fresh, natural in her pregnancy, while across the fire Nefertiti glittered with malachite and gold.

  “We are halfway to Memphis,” Panahesi announced. “Soon, we will arrive and Pharaoh will be enthroned in his palace.” The small group around the fire nodded, murmuring among themselves, and my father watched him carefully. “Are the plans going well for the building, Your Highness?”

  Amunhotep straightened, awakening from his stupor. “The plans are coming magnificently. My queen has a great mind for design. We have already sketched a temple with a courtyard and three altars.”

  Panahesi smiled indulgently. “If His Highness should need any help…” He spread his palms and Amunhotep nodded at his loyalty.

  “I have already made plans for you,” he said. At nearby fires, the courtiers stopped playing Senet. “When we reach Memphis,” Amunhotep announced, “I want you to see to it that General Horemheb succeeds in collecting taxes from the priests of Amun.”

 
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