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       Nefertiti, p.11

           Michelle Moran
 

  The fire snapped and hissed, and Panahesi hid his shock, looking quickly to Nefertiti to see if she’d known, gauging how far the Pharaoh trusted her now. Then all of the viziers began talking at once.

  “But Your Majesty,” one of them interjected. “Is that prudent?”

  Panahesi cleared his throat. “Of course, it is prudent. The temples of Amun have never been taxed. They hoard Egypt’s wealth and spend it as their own.”

  “Exactly!” Amunhotep exclaimed. He struck his fist into his palm and many of the soldiers turned to hear what Pharaoh was saying. I looked at my father, whose face was a blank courtier’s mask, but I knew what he was thinking: This king is only seventeen years old. What will happen ten years from now, when power rests on his shoulders like a comfortably fitting cloak? What precedents will he topple then?

  Panahesi leaned over and said to the king, “My daughter has missed you these eight nights at sail.”

  Amunhotep glanced quickly at Nefertiti. “I have not forgotten my first wife,” he said. “I will come to her again…when we are in Memphis.” He looked across the fire at Kiya, who was feigning ignorance about what her father had just said. She smiled lovingly at him. Little minx, I thought. She knows exactly what her father’s doing.

  “Shall we walk along the beach?” Nefertiti said at once, grabbing my arm and whisking me up.

  I held my breath as we walked away; I thought my sister would be enraged. But as we pressed our feet along the wet banks of the Nile, trailed by two guards, her spirits were high. She looked up at the wide expanse of stars and breathed in the fresh air. “The reign of Kiya in Amunhotep’s heart is over. He’s not going to visit her again until we reach Memphis.”

  “That’s not so long,” I pointed out.

  “But I’m the one designing his temple with him. I’m the one who’ll reign at his side. Not her. And soon I’ll be with his child.”

  I glanced at her sideways. “You’re pregnant?”

  Her face fell. “No, not yet.”

  “Have you taken the honey?”

  “Even better.” She laughed as if she were intoxicated. “My servants found mandrake.”

  “And they made the juice?” It was a difficult process. I’d only seen Ranofer do it once.

  “Yes. I took it last night. And now it could happen at any time.”

  At any time. My sister, pregnant with the heir to Egypt’s throne. I stared at her in the silver light and frowned. “But aren’t you ever afraid of his plans?”

  “Of course not. Why should I be afraid?”

  “Because the priests could rise against you! They are powerful, Nefertiti. What if they should try assassination?”

  “Without the army, how could they? The army is on our side. We have Horemheb.”

  “But what if the people never forgive you? It’s their gold. It’s their silver.”

  “And we’ll be freeing it from the stranglehold of the Amun priests. We will give back to the people what the priests have taken.”

  My voice sounded cynical even in my own ears. “How?”

  Nefertiti looked out over the waters. “Through Aten.”

  “A god only you understand.”

  “A god all of Egypt will come to know.”

  “Because that god is really Amunhotep?”

  She shot me a look, but she didn’t reply.

  The next morning, the sailors were slow to start. They had taken too much wine, so by orders of Amunhotep no one was to be allowed onshore again. My mother and father said nothing, exercising their cramped legs on the deck, but three nights later word spread between the ships that six of Horemheb’s men had died. The servants whispered that their deaths had been caused by tainted water and food.

  “What does Pharaoh expect?” a vizier hissed at my father. “If we’re not allowed onshore to find fresh water regularly, then men are going to die.” Dysentery, someone called it, an ailment that could have been cured by any local physician had the men simply been allowed to go onshore.

  Two nights later, news came that eleven more men had died. Then the general disobeyed Amunhotep’s orders. In the evening, he stalked to the royal barge at the front of the fleet and came on board our ship, demanding an audience with the king at once.

  We looked up from our Senet games and my father stood swiftly. “I do not know if he will see you, General.”

  Horemheb would not be turned away. “More men are dying and the dysentery is spreading.”

  My father hesitated. “I will see what I can do.” He disappeared into the cabin. When he returned, he shook his head grimly. “The Pharaoh will see no one.”

  “These are men,” Horemheb said between clenched teeth. “These are men who need help. A physician is all that they need. Will he sacrifice men to arrive sooner in Memphis?”

  “Yes.” The door to the innermost cabin opened and Amunhotep appeared in his kilt and nemes crown. “Pharaoh does not change his mind.” He strode forward. “You have heard my decision!” he shouted.

  Real danger flashed from Horemheb’s eyes. I thought he might slit Amunhotep’s throat with one slip of his dagger. Then Horemheb remembered his place and moved toward the door.

  “Wait!” I cried, surprising myself. The general stopped. “I have mint and basil. It may cure your men, and we wouldn’t have to go ashore for a physician.”

  Amunhotep tensed, but Nefertiti appeared in the cabin door behind him. “Let her go,” she urged.

  “I could use a cloak,” I said quickly. “No one would even know I was gone.” I looked to Amunhotep. “Then the people would think your orders have been obeyed and the lives of your soldiers would be spared.”

  “She studied herbs in Akhmim,” Nefertiti explained. “She might be able to cure them. And what if the dysentery should spread?”

  General Horemheb looked to Pharaoh for his decision.

  Pharaoh raised his chin, feigning an air of munificence. “The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife may go.”

  My mother’s face was disapproving, my father’s eyes unreadable. But these were men’s lives. To let them die when we could save them would go against all the laws of Ma’at. What would the gods think if on our way to Memphis, to the start of a new reign, we let innocent men die? I ran to my pallet and collected my herb box. Then I threw on a cloak and in the shadow of darkness followed Horemheb onto the deck. Outside, the wind of the Nile rustled my cloak. I was nervous. I wished I could bend in quick obeisance to Bast, the god of travel, for safe journey. But I followed the general in front of me, who said nothing. We boarded the vessel, where the men were suffering and the stench of sickness was overwhelming. I put my cloak to my nose.

  “A squeamish healer?” the general asked, and I dropped the cloak in defiance. He led me into his own cabin. “What do you need?”

  “Hot water and bowls. We can soak the mint and basil and make it into tea.”

  He disappeared to collect what I needed and I studied his chamber. The cabin was smaller than the one that Pharaoh and Nefertiti were sharing and nothing hung on the walls, even though we had been on the river for almost twenty days. His pallet was neat and folded, and four armless chairs were arranged around a Senet board. I looked at the pieces. Whoever had been black had won the last game. I guessed it was Horemheb or he wouldn’t have let the pieces remain.

  “The water is heating,” he said when he returned. He didn’t offer me a seat. I remained standing.

  “You play Senet,” I remarked.

  He nodded.

  “You were black.”

  He studied me with an interested expression. “They said you were the wise one.” He didn’t add whether he believed them now, but he indicated a seat with his hand. He took one himself, crossing his arms over his chest while we waited for the water to boil. “How old are you?”

  “Fourteen,” I replied.

  “When I was fourteen, I was fighting for the Elder against the Nubians. That was eight years ago,” he said thoughtfully.

  So he wa
s twenty-two now. General Nakhtmin’s age.

  “Fourteen is an important age,” he added. “It is a time when destinies are decided.” He stared at me in a way that was unnerving. “You will be your sister’s closest adviser in Memphis.”

  “I advise her in nothing,” I said quickly. “She takes her own advice.”

  He raised his eyebrows and suddenly I wished that I hadn’t said anything. Then a soldier came into the cabin bearing a steaming pot of water. A second followed with dozens of bowls.

  I was surprised. “How many of the men are sick?”

  “Twenty-four. And there will be more by tomorrow.”

  “Twenty-four?” What had Amunhotep allowed to happen? It was half of the ship. I worked quickly, tearing leaves of mint and placing them in each of the cups. The general watched, appraising my work, and when I was finished he said nothing to me. He took away the steaming bowls and led me out the way I had come. I thought that nothing else would pass between us, but as we reached the king’s barge he bowed deeply. “Thank you, Lady Mutnodjmet.” Then he turned and disappeared into the night.

  Our fleet of ships was docked close enough together that a sailor could stand at the stern of one and speak with a sailor on the prow of another. This is how talk of what I had done for Horemheb’s men spread from ship to ship, and whenever the barges docked for the night, word began reaching me of women looking to ease their monthly pain, or stop seasickness, or prevent the unwanted results of a casual encounter with a sailor.

  “Who knew,” Nefertiti said, lounging in my doorway, “that Ranofer’s endless talk of herbs would be useful?”

  I sorted through my box, handing Ipu ginger for seasickness and raspberry leaf for monthly pain. Preventing unwanted births would be more difficult. I had studied the combination of acacia and honey with Ranofer, but making it would prove more complicated. Ipu wrapped the herbs carefully in small strips of linen and wrote the women’s names with a reed pen and ink. She would pass them along to the women who’d asked for them.

  Nefertiti continued to watch us. “You should charge for this. The herbs are not grown free.”

  Ipu looked up and nodded. “I suggested that as well, my lady.”

  I sighed. “Perhaps if I had a garden of my own…”

  “And what happens when these run out?” Nefertiti wanted to know.

  I looked into my box. The mint was nearly gone, and in a day there would be no more raspberry leaves. “Then I will replace them in Memphis.”

  When we finally arrived in the capital of Lower Egypt, the women ran onto the decks and the men crowded next to them, catching their first glimpse of Memphis. She was beautiful. A city of busy markets glittering in the early morning sun. The Nile’s waters lapped against the steps of the Temple to Amun, and we could hear the calls of merchants unloading ships at the quay. The temples of Apis and Ptah rose over even the tallest buildings, their golden roofs shining in the sun. Nefertiti’s eyes were wide. “It’s magnificent!”

  Amunhotep flinched. “I was raised here,” he said, “with my grandfather’s discarded treasure and unwanted wives.”

  The servants unloaded the ships, and chariots were brought so that Pharaoh and his court could ride the short distance to the palace. Thousands of Egyptians pressed together in the streets, throwing petals, waving branches, and chanting the royals’ names until the sound grew so loud it deafened the noise of horses and chariots.

  Amunhotep swelled with the people’s new love.

  “They adore you,” Nefertiti said in his ear.

  “Bring me two chests of gold!” Amunhotep shouted, but the viziers couldn’t hear him above the horses and cheering crowds. He motioned to Panahesi, who halted the chariots. Then he shouted a second time, “Two chests of gold!”

  Panahesi dismounted from his chariot and ran back to the barge. He returned with seven guards and two chests, and when the people realized what was about to happen they grew wild in the streets.

  “For the glory of Egypt!” Amunhotep took handfuls of deben and tossed them. There was a momentary silence, then Egyptians swelled around him, their chanting growing animallike. Nefertiti tossed back her head and laughed, taking handfuls of rings herself, tossing them to the people.

  Crowds began running after the king’s chariot, and Horemheb’s soldiers blocked their passage with their spears. When we passed through the gates of the palace, the mob had grown uncontrollable. There were thousands now, but the chests were empty. “They want more!” Nefertiti shouted, seeing women hurl themselves at the gate.

  “Then give it to them!” Amunhotep cried. A third chest was brought, but my father raised his arm.

  “Is this wise, Your Highness?” He looked directly at Nefertiti. “The people will kill each other in the streets.”

  Panahesi stepped forward. “I say bring a fourth chest, Your Majesty. They will love you.”

  Amunhotep laughed jubilantly. “A fourth!” he cried.

  A fourth chest was brought to join the third and debens of gold were scattered over the gates. Horemheb shouted orders to his men, telling them to arrest any citizen or slave who attempted to scale the walls.

  “They’re fighting!” I gripped my mother’s sheath in horror.

  “Yes.” Amunhotep smiled. “But they will know that I love them.” He strode from the gardens into the halls of the palace, servants trailing on his heels.

  My father said angrily, “You cannot buy the people’s love. They will come to disdain you.”

  Amunhotep stopped walking and Nefertiti reached out in a conciliatory gesture, putting a hand on his arm. “My father’s right. There is such a thing as too much.”

  Panahesi sidled up to him. “But the people will be talking about the Great Pharaoh Amunhotep for months.”

  Amunhotep ignored my father’s concern. “Take us to our rooms!” he commanded, and we were shown to our new chambers.

  As always, Pharaoh’s chamber was in the center of the palace. Nefertiti’s clothes were brought into his rooms, and although the Memphis servants stared wide-eyed, the Malkata servants knew better. Vizier Panahesi and my parents were placed in a courtyard to the left of the king, and I was to Nefertiti’s right in a separate chamber, divided only by a short hall. The standing army of nearly three thousand men would arrive in ten days and be housed in their own quarters, rooms just outside the palace but behind its walls. Of the soldiers who’d journeyed with us, nearly two hundred of them had died on the ships.

  In my new room in the king’s courtyard, I stared at my gilded bed with its carved images of Bes, the dwarf god of protection, who would keep away demons. The room was large, with plump feathered cushions in every corner and brightly glazed pottery on low cedar chests. The ceiling was held up by columns in the shape of lotus blossoms, and in a corner Ipu was already rearranging my belongings. She had seen how I’d placed my herb box in a cool corner of my room in Malkata and had done the same, even going through the trouble of hanging up the amber-colored leaves of myrrh the way I had, to sweeten the chamber. She hummed as she worked, and Nefertiti appeared in my doorway, smiling.

  “Come see this,” she said. She hooked my arm in hers and led me into the royal chamber. She stood back, grinning, and I gasped.

  I would never see another room like it. It was exquisitely tiled and painted, furnished with gold statues honoring the most powerful Egyptian gods. From a wide, arching window, it was possible to see the manicured palace gardens and a tree-lined avenue sloping down to the Nile. There was a room for wigs that was scented with lotus, and an entire chamber where Merit could work. I went into this second room, where everything was laid out in preparation: pellets of incense for under the arms, hair curlers, tweezers, jars of perfume, and pots of kohl already mixed with date palm oil. A hand mirror had been cleverly carved into the shape of an ankh and makeup chests filled every available space. Every lamp was inlaid with ivory and obsidian.

  Amunhotep sat in the corner, watching my expression. “Does the Sister of the Ki
ng’s Chief Wife approve?” he asked, standing and taking Nefertiti’s arm so that she had to let go of mine. “You’re the first person your sister ran to get.”

  I bowed. “It is beautiful, Your Highness.”

  He sat down and pulled Nefertiti onto his lap. She laughed, and indicated that I should sit across from them. She said merrily, “Tomorrow the builder, Maya, is going to begin the temple.”

  I sat. “To Aten?”

  “Of course to Aten,” Amunhotep snapped. “On the twenty-sixth of Pachons, the army will begin collecting taxes from the priests. On the first of Payni, we build. Once the temple is finished, we won’t need the high priests. We will become the high priests.” He turned to my sister in triumph. “You and I…and the gods will speak though us.”

  I recoiled. This was blasphemy.

  But Nefertiti said nothing and avoided my gaze.

  Dinner in the Great Hall was chaotic. Though the chamber was the same as it had been in Thebes, confusion turned the towering hall into a commotion of rushing people that I’d only ever seen the likes of in the marketplace. Servants were bowing to scribes and snubbing courtiers because they hadn’t learned the faces of the Theban nobility. Only a few of Egypt’s viziers were in attendance, and even Panahesi was absent, probably still seeing to his robes and his rooms. Women came up to thank me for my herbs, women I had never seen before, and they all wanted to know if I would continue to carry acacia, adding that they would be willing to pay me for it, and the raspberry leaves if I would continue to provide them.

  “You should do it,” Ipu encouraged me. “I could fetch any herbs for you at the quay. You might not have a garden, but if you told me what you needed…”

  I thought a moment. It wouldn’t just be acacia and raspberry. The women had asked for other herbs, too. Safflower oil for muscle pain and healthy hair, fig and willow for toothache, myrrh for healing. I could harvest some of those from my potted plants, but Ipu would have to find me the rest. “All right,” I said hesitantly.

 
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