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       Nefertiti, p.15

           Michelle Moran
 

  Nefertiti’s smile widened. “The first son of Egypt.”

  I gasped, covering my mouth, and Amunhotep let out a great shout and hugged Nefertiti to his chest. “A family, and no child shall ever be adored as much as ours,” he swore. He put his hand gently on my sister’s belly. I thought with incredulity that at seventeen, Nefertiti would be a mother to a Pharaoh of Egypt.

  She beamed at me. “Well?”

  I didn’t know what to say. “The gods have blessed you,” I gushed, but I also felt fear. She would have a family now, a husband and children to pay attention to. “Have you told Father?” I asked.

  “No.” She was still smiling. “But I want my child blessed in Aten’s temple,” she said eagerly, and I stared at her in shock.

  Amunhotep’s face grew serious. “Then the temple must be finished within nine months,” he said. “They must finish by Pachons.”

  Inside the palace, there had already been whispers among the servants. There had been no blood found on Nefertiti’s sheets and no stains on her sheaths. Of course, I didn’t know. I was a courtyard away from her now, but Ipu wasn’t surprised.

  “You knew and you didn’t even tell me?” I cried. Ipu lifted my robe over my head and put on another one for the night’s celebration.

  “I didn’t know you wanted me to pass on gossip, my lady.”

  “Of course I do!”

  Ipu smiled so widely her dimples showed. “Then all my lady had to do was ask.”

  Preparation for a celebration in the Great Hall officially began after Nefertiti told Amunhotep that she was carrying his child, but the dozens of tables and flickering oil lamps looked to have been prearranged. An army of servants must have decorated all afternoon, and every cook in Memphis must have started preparing dishes the same hour the news arrived in the palace. The dais, with its three steps leading to the Horus thrones, was bestrewn with flowers. On each step, servants had placed two chairs, high backed and well cushioned, for the highest members of the royal court. I would be sitting in one of those chairs, as would my mother and father, High Priest Panahesi, and, if she came, Princess Kiya. The last chair would be reserved for a chosen person of honor.

  Once it came to eating, we would all ascend to the royal table where, most nights, the royal couple ate alone at the top of the glittering dais. But this night we would join them. This night was a celebration of our family. The royal family of Egypt.

  Trumpeters announced our entrance to the room and we swept through the hall, making sure all the viziers could see how many golden bangles I was wearing and how many rings my father had donned. Kiya gave the excuse of pregnancy, but Panahesi walked with us in procession to the dais, and from beneath the Horus thrones my mother couldn’t stop beaming.

  “Your sister is carrying the heir to the throne of Egypt,” she said in a voice full of wonder. “He will be Pharaoh someday.”

  “If it’s a boy,” I replied.

  My father smiled sharply. “It had better be. The midwives say Kiya is carrying a son and this family can’t afford a pretender to the throne.”

  The Great Hall was filled with talking, laughing people. Every noble in Memphis had come. Nefertiti descended the dais and held out her arm for me to walk the room with her. She glowed in her triumph.

  “You can’t walk alone?” I asked her.

  “Of course, I can. But I need you.”

  She didn’t need me, not really, but I hid my pleasure and gave her my arm. Heads turned as Ay’s daughters made their way across the chamber, and for the first time I felt it: the giddiness of being both beautiful and powerful. The men stared at Nefertiti, but their eyes lingered on me as well.

  “Such a beautiful little girl.” Nefertiti chucked a woman’s fat child under the chin. I stared at my sister. She couldn’t possibly think the child was beautiful. But the mother smiled proudly and bowed more deeply than any of the other women at court.

  “Thank you, my queen. Thank you.”

  “Nefertiti,” I protested.

  She pinched my arm. “Just keep smiling,” she instructed.

  Then I saw that Amunhotep was watching us from his throne. Nefertiti and the sister of Nefertiti, charming and lovely and desirable and wanted. He descended the dais. He’d had enough of watching her bestow her graces on everyone but him.

  “The most beautiful woman in Egypt,” he avowed, pulling her away from me. He escorted her back to her ebony throne and she glowed.

  The child was all we heard about.

  In the baths, at the Arena, inside the Great Hall, Nefertiti reminded everyone that she was carrying the heir to Egypt’s throne. By the middle of Thoth, I believe even Mother was tired of hearing it. “It’s all she ever talks about,” I confided, sitting forward on the stone bench in the garden, watching the cats hunt mice in the tall grass.

  “It’s what she came here to do,” my mother said. “To give Egypt a son.”

  “And to control the prince,” I said pointedly. We stared into the lake, watching the lotus blossoms dance across the surface, their cupping flowers mirrored in the water.

  “Let’s just hope that it’s a son,” was all my mother said. “The people will forgive anything if there’s a prince waiting for the throne and they know there won’t be bloodshed for the crown. They may even forget that while the royal family is building temples in Memphis the Hittites are marching on Egyptian land in Kadesh.”

  I glanced across at her, surprised, but she said nothing more on it.

  “Get dressed, Mutny. We’re going to the temple.”

  I started from my sheets. “The Temple of Amun?”

  Nefertiti gave a dismissive sniff. “The Temple of Aten. They have finished the courtyard and I want to see it.”

  “They finished in fifteen days?”

  “Of course. There are thousands of men working. Hurry!”

  I rushed to find my kilt and sandals and a belt. “What about Father?”

  “He will stay in the Audience Chamber enforcing Egypt’s laws.” My sister added proudly, “The perfect trio. Pharaoh, his queen, and the competent vizier.”

  “And Mother?” I slipped on my kilt.

  “She’s coming.”

  “But what will Tiye think?”

  My sister hesitated. I thought there was real regret in her voice when she admitted, “Tiye is angry with me.” Shame colored her cheeks. After all, Queen Tiye had been the one to place the Horus crown on her head. But now Nefertiti owed Amunhotep her loyalty, not Tiye. I knew she saw it this way, but she never discussed with me what the choice had cost her or the sleepless nights she had, her head on her palm, looking out at the moon and wondering how eternity would echo her decisions. She sat on my bed now and watched me dress. She used to make fun of how long my legs were and how dark my skin was. But she didn’t have time for children’s insults now. “She even sent messengers to threaten him. But what can she do? He was crowned. He will be Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt as soon as the Elder dies.”

  “Which could be years,” I warned, hoping the gods didn’t hear the way her voice rose with hope when she spoke about Pharaoh’s death. I followed her through the hall, and when we entered the courtyard I turned to Nefertiti in surprise. “Who are all these armed men?”

  Amunhotep strode through the carved sandstone gates and answered me. “I must have protection, and your sister as well. I don’t trust my father’s army.”

  “But these men are part of the army,” I pointed out. “If the army can’t be trusted—”

  “The generals can’t be trusted,” Amunhotep snapped. “The soldiers—these soldiers—will do as they’re told.” He stepped up into his gilded chariot, holding out his hand to help my sister. Then he cracked the whip in the air and the horses took off.

  “Nefertiti!” I cried and turned to my mother. “Is it safe for her to be riding so fast?” I could hear Nefertiti’s laughter above the horses’ hooves and watched her disappear into the distance.

  My mother shook her head. “Of co
urse not. But who is going to stop her?”

  The armed guards ushered us quickly into our own chariot, and it was a short ride to the site of the new Temple of Aten. When it reared into view, it was as though we had stepped into the midst of a city that had come under siege. Sandstone blocks lay scattered and soldiers picked their way through half-built debris, grunting and heaving and shouting orders. Panahesi, his long cloak billowing, stood with his arms folded over his chest, barking commands to the men. As my sister had promised, the courtyard had already been erected, and pillars, carved in Nefertiti and Amunhotep’s likeness, were being pulled into place. The royal couple descended from their chariot and Panahesi rushed over, bowing.

  “Your Highness.” He saw my sister and tried to hide his disappointment. “Your Majesty. How kind of you to have come all the way here.”

  “We plan to supervise the building until it is done,” Nefertiti said firmly, surveying the site. Although it appeared to be chaos, at a second glance, the land seemed to be divided into four distinct sections: the painters, the carvers, the movers, and the builders.

  Amunhotep flipped his cloak from his shoulders and looked around. “Have the men noticed our arrival?”

  Panahesi hesitated. “Your Highness?”

  “Have the men noticed our arrival?” he shouted. “No one is bowing!”

  The workers around us stopped and Panahesi cleared his throat. “I thought Your Highness wanted the temple to the glorious Aten finished as quickly as possible?”

  “Nothing is more important than Pharaoh!” His voice echoed across the busy courtyards. I saw General Horemheb in the background, his face filled with quiet menace. Then the hammers stopped and the soldiers immediately fell to one knee. Only one man remained standing. An anger bright as fire flashed across Amunhotep’s face. He moved forward and the crowds stumbled back to make way for him. Nefertiti inhaled and I stepped closer to her. “What will he do?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Amunhotep closed the distance between himself and Horemheb. They stood at the same height, but only one had the love of the army. “Why don’t you kneel before the representative of Aten?”

  “You put these men in jeopardy, Your Highness. The most elite of your fighting force is here. Men who ride chariots into battle are carving your likeness into stone when they should be defending our borders from the Hittites. This is not a wise use of trained men.”

  “I will determine what is wise! You are nothing more than a soldier and I am Pharaoh of Egypt.” Amunhotep stiffened. “You will bow before me.”

  Horemheb remained standing and Amunhotep’s hand flew to the dagger at his side. He stepped forward threateningly. “Tell me,” he said, drawing the knife from its sheath, “do you think your men would rise against me if I were to kill you here?” He glanced around him nervously. “I think they would continue to kneel, even as your blood soaked into the sand.”

  Horemheb inhaled. “Then try it, Your Highness.”

  Amunhotep hesitated. He looked around at the thousands of soldiers whose powerful bodies were clad in kilts, but were weaponless. Then he sheathed his dagger and stepped away. “Why don’t you obey me?” he demanded.

  “We struck a deal,” Horemheb replied. “I obeyed His Highness and His Highness betrayed Egypt.”

  “I betrayed no one,” Amunhotep said viciously. “You betray me. You and this army. You think I don’t know that you were friends with Tuthmosis? That you were loyal to him?”

  Horemheb said nothing.

  “You would have knelt before my brother!” Amunhotep cried. “Tell me you wouldn’t have knelt before Tuthmosis.”

  Horemheb remained silent and suddenly Amunhotep’s fist lashed out, connecting with the general’s stomach. Horemheb sucked in his breath, but his legs didn’t buckle. Amunhotep looked quickly at the soldiers around him, whose bodies went tense, ready to defend their general. Then he grabbed Horemheb’s shoulder and whispered savagely, “You are relieved of this duty. Go back to my father. But you would do well to remember that when the Elder dies, I will be Pharaoh of Upper Egypt as well.”

  The crowds parted as Horemheb moved toward his chariot. Then the soldiers turned as one to look at Amunhotep.

  “Resume the building!” Panahesi shouted. “Resume!”

  Even though it was early in the morning, a fire crackled in the brazier inside my chamber. Nefertiti sat in a gilded chair nearest the heat, the light of the flames illuminating the lapis eye between her breasts. Our father sat back, his fingers under his chin. The rest of the palace was asleep.

  “Is there nothing you can do to manage his temper?”

  The fire snapped and hissed. Nefertiti sighed. “I do what I can. He hates the army.”

  “They are what keep him in power,” my father said sternly. “Horemheb will not forget what he did.”

  “Horemheb is in Thebes,” Nefertiti replied.

  “And when the Elder dies?”

  “That could be another ten years.” She was using my words, even though I knew she didn’t believe them.

  “Without the army, Egypt is weak. You are fortunate that in Thebes there are still generals who prepare their soldiers for war.”

  “They will only be building for three seasons,” she defended.

  “Three?” My father rose in anger. “It was six and now it’s three? How can an army complete a temple in a year?”

  “I am with child!” Nefertiti clasped her stomach. “He has to be consecrated on the altar of Aten.” My father glared at her. “It’s Amunhotep’s wish,” she added. “And if I don’t do it, then Kiya will. What if she gives him a son?” she asked desperately.

  “She will be brought to bed within seven days,” my father warned. “If it’s a prince, he will celebrate. There will be feasting and processions.”

  Nefertiti closed her eyes, willing herself to be calm, but my father shook his head.

  “Prepare yourself for it. These next few days must belong to Kiya.”

  I could see the determination in my sister’s face. “I’m going with him this morning to the Arena,” she declared. She turned to the closet where she kept her riding clothes and called for Merit.

  “You’re going to ride with him?” I exclaimed. “But you haven’t ridden in days!”

  “And now I will. It was a mistake to think I could settle comfortably into pregnancy.”

  She tore through her closet until Merit came. Even at this hour of the morning, her body servant’s kohl was perfect and her linen crisp. Nefertiti said sharply, “My gauntlets and helmet. Quickly. Before Amunhotep’s awake and wants to ride.”

  My father confronted Merit. “Is she endangering the child?”

  Nefertiti glared at Merit from behind my father’s shoulder, and Merit said immediately, “It’s early, Vizier. Only a few months.”

  Nefertiti tightened the belt around her waist. “Perhaps if I ride my blood will quicken and make it a son.”

  On the twenty-eighth of Thoth, Ipu came running into my chamber where Nefertiti and I were playing Senet.

  “It’s happening!” she cried. “Kiya is having the child.”

  We both scrambled out of our chairs and rushed down the hall to our parents’ chamber. My mother and father were sitting together, speaking quickly in hushed tones.

  “She is going to have a boy,” Nefertiti whispered.

  My father looked at me, as if I had told her something I shouldn’t have. “Why should you say that?”

  “Because I dreamed it last night. She is going to give birth to a Prince of Egypt!”

  My mother stood up and shut the door. The palace was overrun with messengers who were waiting to make a proclamation to the kingdom.

  Nefertiti panicked. “I can’t let it happen! I won’t let it happen.”

  “There’s nothing you can do,” my father said.

  “There’s always something I can do!” she proclaimed. Nefertiti added calculatingly, “When Amunhotep returns, tell him I’m not well.”

/>   My mother frowned, but my father saw what game she was playing at once. “How unwell?” he asked quickly.

  “So unwell…” Nefertiti hesitated. “So unwell that I could die and lose the child.”

  My father looked to me. “You must confirm her story when he asks.” He spun around and instructed Merit. “Take her to her room and bring her fruit. Don’t leave her side until you see Pharaoh.”

  Merit bowed. “Of course, Vizier.” I thought I saw a smile at the edge of her lips. She bowed to Nefertiti. “Shall we go, Your Highness?”

  I remained at the door. “But what should I do?”

  “Tend to your sister,” my father said meaningfully. “And do as she asks.”

  We walked in procession to Nefertiti’s chamber, slowly, so that if anyone should see us, they would know something was wrong with the queen. In her room, Nefertiti lay like an invalid. “My sheath,” she said. “Spread it for me.”

  I gave her a long look.

  “Across my legs and over the sides of the bed.”

  “This is terrible, what you are doing,” I told her. “You’ve already displaced Kiya in Amunhotep’s affections. Isn’t that enough?”

  “I’m sick!” she protested.

  “You’re taking the only time that she has!”

  We looked at each other, but there was no shame in Nefertiti’s gaze.

  I sat by her bed while Ipu stood guard outside the door, harassing servants for news from Kiya’s birthing chamber. We waited all evening. Then, finally, Ipu came running, and when she opened the door her face was grave.

  “Well? What is it?” Nefertiti sat forward in her bed. “What is it?”

  Ipu lowered her head. “A prince. Prince Nebnefer of Egypt.”

  Nefertiti sank back on her pillows, and now her face became truly pale. “Send word to Pharaoh that his Chief Wife is ill,” she said immediately. “Tell him I may die. That I may lose the child.”

  I pressed my lips together.

  “Don’t look like that,” she commanded.

 
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