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       Nefertiti, p.13

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Oh, there are dozens of temples in Memphis,” Nefertiti said gaily. My father looked hard at her and she added defensively, “The men’s orders were to take a fourth of the gold in their treasuries.”

  “And they are following those orders?” he demanded.

  “Of course,” Amunhotep replied. None of us had heard his approach. He stepped between my sister and me and placed his arm around her slender waist. “Panahesi is there to make certain it’s done.” He looked down into Nefertiti’s dark eyes. She leaned her head into his shoulder. “How is it that since your arrival in my life all of my projects have come to fruition?”

  Nefertiti shrugged provocatively, as if she knew the answer but wouldn’t say.

  The High Priest of Amun has still to part with his wealth, I thought darkly.

  We waited in the Great Hall. For hours there was no word from the Great Temple of Amun and the court began to grow anxious. Amunhotep paced the floor while Nefertiti played a game of Senet with my mother. When at last the door swung open and Horemheb burst in, the Great Hall held its breath. The general strode toward the dais dressed in leather and armed, but empty-handed.

  “Where is it?” Amunhotep cried. “Where is Amun’s gold?”

  “The High Priest will not agree to taxation of the temple,” he said simply.

  The anger built in Amunhotep’s voice. “Then why are you here? You know the bargain. If he will not bow to Pharaoh, then he will pay the price!” There was an outburst of chatter as Amunhotep’s viziers talked heatedly among themselves. “Silence!” he shouted. An immediate hush fell over the Great Hall.

  “You must make an example of the High Priest,” Panahesi advised.

  My father stood. “His death could lead to rebellion. The people see him as the mouth of the gods. It is more prudent to arrest him.”

  Amunhotep looked to Nefertiti, and it became clear to the court how much influence she had gained. She descended the dais.

  “You must do what you think right. Perhaps it is wiser to arrest him,” she acknowledged, “but if he will not go in peace…” She held up her palm. She had placated everyone and condemned the High Priest in one breath.

  Amunhotep faced Horemheb. “Arrest him! If he will not go in peace, then you will take his life.”

  Horemheb did not move. “My men are not murderers, Your Highness.”

  “He is a traitor to the crown!” Amunhotep seethed. “A blight on the mighty glory of Aten!”

  “Then I will arrest him and bring him here. In peace.”

  I could see Amunhotep’s desire to lash out, but he needed Horemheb; the job was not finished. Nefertiti stepped forward, placing her lips against Horemheb’s ear, and I could read what she was saying. “Amun’s reign is over,” she whispered threateningly. “Aten watches over Egypt now.” They looked at one another, and a dozen messages were concealed in that glance. Horemheb made a bow, then turned to leave.

  Amunhotep looked to Panahesi. “Follow him,” he commanded.

  There was a meeting in my chamber that night.

  “You let him kill the High Priest of Amun!” my father raged. He paced the bedroom and his cloak swirled violently around his heels.

  Nefertiti sat on the edge of my bed. She was visibly shaken. “He refused taxation,” she said. “Had he gone in peace—”

  “Panahesi didn’t give him the chance to go in peace! This is against Ma’at,” my father warned, and Nefertiti lost some of her color.

  “The goddess understands—”

  “Does she?” he demanded. “Are you willing to risk your ka for it?”

  We both looked at Nefertiti.

  “Nothing can be done now,” she replied. “He’s dead, and…and Amunhotep expects me back in his chamber.” Her voice disappeared into itself. “There will be a feast tonight.” She stole a glance at my father. “He expects you,” she said hastily. “And Panahesi will be there.”

  Our father didn’t reply. Horemheb hadn’t betrayed the king, but something far worse, far more lasting had occurred. This deed of Amunhotep’s wouldn’t echo just on earth, it would echo among the gods. My father stormed from the chamber, and Nefertiti looked at me sharply. Then she disappeared after my father, and I was alone in my room.

  When Merit arrived with instructions to wear my finest jewels to the feast, I shook my head angrily. “But the queen has requested it,” she replied.

  “Then tell the queen she will simply have to be the only daughter of Ay who looks stunning tonight. If I’m not mistaken, the court should be in mourning, not celebrating.”

  Merit looked puzzled.

  “The High Priest has been killed!”

  She drew her head back in understanding. “Oh. Yes. May Osiris embrace his soul,” she mumbled. “I will return with your answer to the queen, my lady. But you will be going?” she confirmed.

  “Of course,” I snapped. “But only because I have no other choice.”

  She looked at me curiously, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care who knew I didn’t think we should be celebrating the death of Ma’at. But in the end, I knew even my father would attend Pharaoh’s feast. No one was above Pharaoh.

  I stood in the center of my room and closed my eyes. “Ipu,” I called. She didn’t answer. “Ipu?”

  My body servant appeared. “My lady?”

  “I am to attend a feast tonight.”

  I could read the shock on her face, although for once she kept her silence. The High Priest of Amun, Holiest of Holies, had been dead for seven hours and a feast was being held. I sat silently while my hair and nails were done, even allowing my feet and breasts to be hennaed. When the door to my chamber swung open, I knew who it was before she appeared.

  Her wig was shorter than the one she usually wore. The hair curved around her ears, showing her double pierced earlobes and then cutting straight to her chin. She looked beautiful and fearsome. She sat down next to me, but I ignored her.

  “You aren’t sulking, are you? We did what had to be done,” she swore.

  “Murder?” I exclaimed. “The gods will punish this family,” I forewarned.

  “We set an example.”

  “What kind of example? That Pharaoh should be feared?”

  “Of course, he should be feared!” Nefertiti straightened. “He is Pharaoh of the mightiest kingdom in the world, and there are only two ways of ruling. With fear or with rebellion.” She held out her arm. “The building of our temple will begin tomorrow. It is a night for celebration no matter what you think.” She smiled, indicating with her chin that I should stand up and walk with her. “Did you know the Elder sent his general here to find out what was happening?”

  My breath came faster. “General Nakhtmin?”

  “Yes.” We moved swiftly through the halls of the palace.

  “But what does the Elder expect the general to do?”

  “He can do nothing,” she said merrily. “You heard, of course, that the Elder has married again. A little princess from Nubia. Twelve years old.”

  I winced.

  “But what do I care? A new sun has risen, and it will scorch every other star out of the sky. Including the Elder.”

  I was shocked by her aggression. “And our aunt?”

  “Tiye is strong. She can take care of herself.”

  We walked briskly through the painted halls to the sprawling room she shared with the king. Amunhotep emerged from the inner chamber, and the sight of him drew my breath away. His kilt was long and formfitting, and his golden pectoral was one I had never seen him wear before. Perhaps it was from the treasuries of Amun. They kissed, and I turned my head.

  “I said you would succeed,” Nefertiti said softly. “And this is only the beginning.”

  The Great Hall opened its doors to us and trumpets blared.

  The feasting stopped so the people could watch Pharaoh’s entrance. I followed my sister, and behind the three of us trailed Ipu and Merit with beads of lapis and gold in their hair. I scanned the faces, but didn’t see th
e general among the crowd. My parents were at their table beneath the double thrones. The architect was there, with Kiya and Panahesi. I was disappointed to see that Horemheb was also among them.

  I took my place at the table and Amunhotep led my sister to her throne. The people watched as they ascended the dais together, looking like gods who had just come to earth. There had never been such a striking couple in Egypt, with their gold and faience beads and jeweled scepters of reign. The court shook their heads and there was a murmur of awe. Then dinner resumed, and everyone chatted merrily, as if a murder had not just taken place. I looked at my empty plate and handed it to Ipu so she could prepare a dish for me. Only Horemheb and I remained taciturn at the table.

  “You are silent tonight, General.” Kiya was sitting next to him, her pretty breasts exposed and her stomach an attractive mound beneath them. “Aren’t you enjoying the feast?”

  Horemheb regarded her incredulously. “I am here because those were my orders. Otherwise, I would be preparing for battle with the Hittites, who are raiding our villages and encroaching on our land.”

  Kiya laughed. “Hittites? You would rather be fighting Hittites than eating with Pharaoh?”

  The general looked at her without saying a word.

  “Are the Hittites really stealing Egypt’s land?” I asked him.

  “Every day that we let them,” Horemheb replied.

  “Do you think there will be war?” I asked quietly.

  “If Pharaoh lives up to his word. What does the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife believe?”

  Kiya made a dismissive noise in her throat. “What do little girls know about war?”

  Horemheb fixed Kiya with his eyes. “Apparently, more than the wives of Pharaohs.” He pushed himself from the table and walked away. Then I stood up without waiting for Ipu to bring my dinner and announced that I had an urge to see the gardens.

  Outside, a full moon had risen above the Garden of Horus. The lights from the palace illuminated the night and a fountain tinkled musically in the distance. I could hear laughter and the sound of happy feasting inside.

  “I thought you might be here.”

  I froze. A man emerged from the shadows and I thought of running. It had been foolish to come out to the gardens alone. But when he stepped into the light, I saw who it was. I remembered our last conversation and smiled coolly. “Good evening, General Nakhtmin.”

  “Not even surprised to see me?” he asked.

  He was wearing a long kilt and a short cloak of heavy linen. I studied him in the pale moonlight. “No. Should I be?”

  “I just arrived in Memphis. Not even Pharaoh knows that I am here.”

  “But Nefertiti said…”

  He shrugged. “They were warned of my coming.”

  “Then you should be inside.” I indicated the palace. “They will want to speak with you at once.”

  The general laughed. “Do you think that Pharaoh cares what his mother has to say on his politics?”

  I thought a moment. “No.”

  “Then what does it matter if I’m in there pretending to be enjoying myself, or out here with a beautiful miw-sher, enjoying myself for real?”

  I flushed deeply. Miw-sher was what my father called me. It was something you would call a kitten, not a woman. “Nefertiti is inside. You could still enjoy the company of a beautiful woman.”

  “So this is why you are angry with me. I wondered—”

  “I’m not angry with you at all,” I said defensively.

  “Good. Then you won’t object to a stroll around the gardens.”

  He offered his arm and I took it hesitantly. “You will get me into a great deal of trouble if my sister finds us out here,” I warned, but I enjoyed the feel of his arm against mine and didn’t pull away.

  “She won’t come out here.”

  I glanced up at him. “And how do you know?”

  “Because right now she’s more concerned with building a temple to Aten.”

  It was true. I doubted if anyone at feast was missing me at all. “So how is it in Thebes?” I asked glumly.

  “Like Memphis. Full of politics,” he said. “Someday I will leave it all behind and retire in a peaceful village somewhere.” He looked at me in the moonlight. “And you? What are the plans for the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife?”

  I was fourteen, old enough to marry and run a household of my own. I pressed my lips together. “Whatever my father decides for me.”

  The general said nothing. I think he might have been disappointed with my answer. “They say you are a healer,” he observed, changing the subject.

  I shook my head earnestly. “I simply learned the use of a few herbs in Akhmim.”

  He smiled. “What’s this, then?” he asked, bending down and picking a leaf from a small green plant. I didn’t want to answer, but he held it higher, waiting.

  “Thyme. With honey it can cure coughs.” I couldn’t help myself, and Nakhtmin laughed. We were at the edge of the garden. In a few steps, we would be at the palace.

  “You don’t belong here,” he said, looking at the open doors to the Great Hall. “You belong with nicer people.”

  My voice rose with indignation. “Are you saying—”

  “I’m saying none of that, miw-sher. But these games are not for you.” We stopped at the verge of the courtyard. “I leave tomorrow morning,” he said. He paused, and then added quietly, “Be careful here, my lady. Let history forget your name. For if your deeds are to live in eternity, you will have to become exactly what your family wants you to be.”

  “And what is that?” I demanded.

  “A slave to the throne.”

  I sat in Nefertiti’s chamber because she had called me there, and I watched her undress, flinging her expensive sheath to the floor. She held out her arms for me to slip on her robe, and I wondered if I was a slave to the throne. I was certainly a slave to Nefertiti.

  “Mutny? Mutny, are you listening to me?”

  “Of course.”

  “Then why haven’t you said anything? I just said that tomorrow we are going to see the temple and you…” She sucked in her breath. “You were thinking of the general,” she accused. “I saw you come into the Great Hall with him last night!”

  I turned away so she wouldn’t see my blush.

  “Well, put him out of your mind,” she snapped. “He’s not a favorite with Amunhotep and you won’t be seen with him.”

  “I won’t?” I stood up, suddenly angry. “I’m thirteen years old. What gives you the right to tell me who to see?”

  We stared at each other and the lines grew tight around her mouth. “I am Queen of Egypt. This is not like in Akhmim when we were just girls. I am the ruler of the wealthiest kingdom in the world and you will not be responsible for bringing me down!”

  I gathered my courage and shook my head fiercely. “Then leave me out of it.” I moved toward the door, but she barred my exit.

  “Where are you going?”

  “Back to my courtyard.”

  “You can’t!” she exclaimed.

  I laughed. “So, what? You’re going to stand here all night?”

  “Yes.”

  We stared at each other, then the tears welled in her eyes. I reached out my hand, but she waved it away. She walked over to the bed and threw herself down on it. “You want me to be by myself? Is that it?”

  I went and sat down next to her. “Nefertiti, you have Amunhotep. You have Father—”

  “Father. Father loves me because I am the daughter with ambition and cunning. It’s you he respects. It’s you he talks to.”

  “He talks to me because I listen.”

  “And so do I!”

  “No. You don’t listen. You wait until someone says what you want to hear and then you pay attention. And you don’t take Father’s advice. You don’t take anyone’s advice.”

  “Why should I? Why should I be a sheep?”

  I sat silently. “You have Amunhotep,” I pointed out again.<
br />
  “Amunhotep,” she repeated. “Amunhotep is an ambitious dreamer. And tonight he’ll be with Kiya, whose vision doesn’t extend beyond the end of her crooked nose!”

  I laughed because it was true, and she reached out her hand to touch my knee.

  “Stay with me, Mutny.”

  “I’ll stay for tonight.”

  “Don’t do me any favors!”

  “I’m not. I don’t want you to be alone,” I said earnestly.

  She smiled smugly and poured two cups of wine. I ignored her self-satisfied expression and sat next to her at the brazier, drawing a blanket over both of our knees.

  “Why doesn’t Amunhotep like the general?” I asked her.

  Nefertiti knew immediately which general I meant. “He chose to stay in Thebes rather than come to Memphis.” The fire from the brazier cast golden shadows on her face. She was beautiful even without her jewels and crown.

  I protested. “But not every general could come to Memphis with us.”

  “Well, Amunhotep distrusts him.” She swirled the wine in her cup. “And for that reason you can’t be seen with him. Those who were loyal came with him to Memphis.”

  “But what happens if the Elder dies? Won’t the army join together again in Thebes?”

  She shook her head. “I doubt we’ll be going back to Thebes.”

  I nearly dropped my cup. “What do you mean? Someday the Elder will die,” I exclaimed. “Perhaps not soon, but someday—”

  “And when he does, Amunhotep will not return.”

  “Has he said this? Have you told Father?”

  “No, he hasn’t said this. But I’ve come to know him.” She looked into the flames. “He will want his own city. One outside of Memphis that will stand as a testament to our reign.” She couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

  “But don’t you want to return to Thebes?” I asked her. “It’s the center of Egypt. It’s the center of everything.”

  Nefertiti’s smile widened. “No, Mutny. We’re the center of everything. Once the Elder dies, wherever we are the court will follow.”

 
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