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       Nefertiti, p.16

           Michelle Moran
 

  When word reached Amunhotep, he came at once. “What is it? What’s wrong with her?” he cried.

  I thought that the lies would stick in my throat, but they tumbled out quickly when I saw his fear. “I don’t know, Your Highness. She took ill this morning, and now all she can do is sleep.”

  Terror darkened his face and his joy at having a son was gone. “What did you eat? Was it prepared by your servant?”

  Nefertiti’s answer was soft and weak. “Yes…yes, I’m sure it was.”

  He pressed his hand to her cheek and turned to me. “What happened? You must know. The two of you are thick as thieves. Just tell me what happened!” I saw that he was not trying to be cruel. He was afraid. Genuinely afraid for his wife.

  My heart raced. “It might have been the wine,” I said quickly. “Or the cold. It’s very cold outside.”

  Amunhotep glared across the room at the windows, and then at the linens on the bed. “Give me blankets!” he bellowed, and women came running. “Blankets and wool. Find the Vizier Ay. Have him bring the physician.”

  “No!” Nefertiti sat up.

  Amunhotep brushed the hair from her brow. “You are unwell. You must see a physician.”

  “Mutny is all that I need.”

  “Your sister is not a physician!” Then he leaned across her bed and grabbed her arm desperately. “You cannot be ill. You cannot leave me.”

  She closed her eyes, her dark lashes fluttering against her high pale cheeks. “I hear you have a son,” she said quietly and smiled, resting her small hand on her stomach.

  “You are the only thing that matters to me. We are going build monuments to the gods together,” he swore.

  “Yes. A temple to Aten.” She smiled weakly, playing her part so well that tears welled in Amunhotep’s eyes.

  “Nefertiti!” His cry of anguish was so real that I felt sorry for him. He threw himself across her bed and I panicked.

  “Stop it! Stop it or you will hurt the child!”

  There was a knock on the door, and my father appeared with the physician at his side. Nefertiti passed him an anxious glance.

  “Don’t be afraid,” my father said meaningfully. “He can only help.”

  Something passed between them, and she allowed the physician to draw blood from her arm. He swirled the dark liquid in a pan to see its color, and we all stood and waited for him to read the signs. The old man cleared his throat. He looked once at my father, nodding briefly, then at Pharaoh.

  “What is it?” Amunhotep demanded.

  The physician lowered his head. “I am afraid she is very ill, Your Highness.”

  The color drained from Amunhotep’s face. His champion, his wife, his most ardent supporter, sick now with his child. Amunhotep stole a glance at his beloved Nefertiti, whose hair spilled over the pillows like black ink. She looked beautiful and eternal, like a sculpture in death. He turned on the physician. “You will do everything possible,” he commanded. “You will do everything in your power to bring her back.”

  “Of course,” the man said quickly. “But she must have rest. Nothing must disturb her with the child. No terrible news, no—”

  “Just heal her!”

  The physician nodded vigorously and rushed to his bag, producing several bottles and a vial of ointment. I peered closer, to see if I could recognize them. What if they were dangerous? What if they truly made her sick? I passed a look to my father, whose face remained expressionless, and I realized what it must be. Rosemary water.

  The physician administered the draft and we waited the rest of the night with my sister, watching her drift into sleep. My mother came, then Ipu and Merit brought fresh juices and linens. As the night wore on, my mother returned to her heated chamber while Amunhotep, my father, and I remained. But as I watched her repose, I grew resentful. If she wasn’t so selfish, my father and I wouldn’t have to partake in such a charade. We wouldn’t have to stand like sentinels around her bed, warming our hands by the fire while she tucked herself neatly into her covers and Amunhotep caressed her cheek. When even my father left, he turned and said significantly to me, “Watch her, Mutnodjmet.” He closed the door, and Amunhotep went to stand over Nefertiti’s bed.

  “How ill is she?” the king of Egypt demanded. His face was long and angular in the shadows.

  I swallowed my fear. “I am afraid for her, Your Highness.” It wasn’t a lie.

  Amunhotep looked down at his sleeping queen. She was a perfect beauty, and I knew in my own life I would never be loved with such obsession. “The healers will bring her back,” he vowed. “She is carrying our child. The future of Egypt.”

  Before I could stop myself, I had asked him, “What about Nebnefer, Your Highness?”

  He looked at me strangely, as if he had forgotten about Kiya’s heir. “She is Second Wife. Nefertiti is my queen, and she is loyal to me. She understands my vision of a greater Egypt. An Egypt that is guided by the Almighty Aten. Our children will embrace the sun and become the most powerful rulers the gods have ever blessed.”

  My voice caught in my throat. “And Amun?”

  “Amun is dead,” he replied. “But I will resurrect my grandfather’s dream of Pharaohs who aren’t cowed by the power of the Amun priests. I will honor his name and be remembered forever for what I’ve done. What we’ve done,” he said forcefully, looking down at Nefertiti, his battle consort, his staunchest ally. For any advance Kiya made, Nefertiti was there suggesting a new statue, a new courtyard, a glittering new temple.

  He remained at her bedside the entire night. I watched him, wondering what would possess a man to destroy the gods of his people and raise in their place a protector no one had heard of. Greed, I thought. His hatred of everything his father believes in, and his greed for power. Without the Amun priests, he will control everything. I sat on a thickly cushioned chair and watched him caress my sister’s cheek. He was tender, brushing his hand across her face, inhaling the lavender scent of her hair. When I fell asleep, he was still beside her, praying to Aten for a miracle.

  When I awoke the next morning, my eyes felt like small weights in my head. Already at the door was a messenger with news from Thebes, dressed in lapis and gold. Yet Amunhotep would hear none of it. “No one is to disturb the queen,” he said forcefully.

  Panahesi appeared behind the messenger. “Your Highness, it is about the prince.”

  Amunhotep crossed the chamber. “What is it? The queen is ill.”

  Panahesi frowned, stepping into the room. “I am sorry to hear that Her Highness has taken ill.” He peered across the antechamber to my sister’s bedroom and narrowed his eyes. “Queen Tiye and the Elder have sent their blessings to your son,” he continued. “The Birth Feast, with His Highness’s permission, shall be tonight.”

  Amunhotep looked toward Nefertiti’s chamber. Her door was open, and Panahesi could see her lying on the bed, Merit and Ipu fluttering around her.

  “Go,” my sister encouraged from the next room. “He is your son.”

  Amunhotep crossed back to her chamber and rested his hand on Nefertiti’s. “I will not leave you.”

  “The gods have given you a son.” She smiled wanly. “Go, give thanks.” She beamed at him, all beauty and munificence, and I realized how craftily she had set up this scene: She was the one giving him permission to go, rather than Pharaoh telling her he would be gone in celebration. “Go,” she whispered.

  “I will think of you all night,” he promised.

  In the antechamber, Panahesi studied me. “I am so sorry to hear of the queen’s illness. When did it happen?”

  I felt my cheeks warm with shame. “Last night.”

  “About the same time as the prince’s birth,” he remarked.

  I said nothing. Then Amunhotep emerged from Nefertiti’s chamber and Panahesi tried a smile. “Shall we go to the feast, Your Highness?”

  “Yes, but I am in no mood for celebration,” he warned.

  As soon as they were gone, Nefertiti sat up in her bed.<
br />
  “Panahesi knows,” I told her.

  “Knows what?” she asked cheerfully, standing up and brushing her hair.

  “He knows that you are lying.”

  She turned so quickly that the hem of her robe spun around her ankles. “Who says that I’m lying? Who says that I’m not ill?”

  I remained silent. She could fool the entire court of Memphis, but she could never fool me. I watched her change into a fresh sheath and call on Merit for fruit. “How long will you keep this up?” I demanded.

  A smile began at the edges of her lips. “Until the novelty of a new prince has worn off.” She shrugged lightly. “And I am the center of Egypt again.”

  The novelty didn’t last long—not with the building of the temple to Aten taking precedence over everything. And in three days, Nefertiti was miraculously well. The physician came and claimed it was a miracle. My father brought her shedeh from the winery and my mother squeezed out a few tears for the occasion. I was beginning to think we were more like entertainers than the ruling family of Egypt.

  “What is the difference?” Nefertiti asked when I shared this thought with her. “Both require masks.”

  “But it’s a lie. You lied. Don’t you love him at all?”

  She stopped in the courtyard, where the chariots were waiting to take us to the building site of the new temple. The cobra on her crown, nestled in her dark hair, glinted in the sun. “I love him as much as any woman ever will. You don’t understand. You’re only fourteen. But love means lying.”

  Amunhotep appeared through the arches, escorting my mother on his arm. They were laughing together, and I paused in shock.

  “Your mother is a very charming woman,” Amunhotep said warmly, and Nefertiti gave my mother her widest smile. My mother.

  “Yes,” she agreed. “The gods have blessed me in my family.”

  Pharaoh helped my mother into my chariot and she flushed with pride. Then he held out his arm for Nefertiti and the procession began. A heavily armed cavalcade rode alongside us as we made for the site, the cool wind of Phaophi billowing their kilts. I wanted to lean over and ask my mother what Amunhotep had said to make her laugh. Then I thought that perhaps it was better I didn’t know.

  We began our ascent up a hill, far above the Nile and the naked sweep of earth. Amunhotep wanted the best vantage point to see his building, and when the chariots rolled to a sudden halt armed guards fanned out in a circle around us. We descended and my mother whispered incredulously, “Great Osiris.”

  I stood frozen, stunned by the sprawling landscape dotted with pillars that pierced the sky. “They must never stop.” Thousands of builders groaned under the weight of heavy columns, hoisting them up with ropes. The columned courtyard of Aten’s temple had been completed, as well as a chapel and a granite altar. This time, because such heavy work was being done, Amunhotep didn’t demand obeisance.

  Panahesi appeared and bowed very low. “Your Highness.” He smiled, flattering as always. He turned to my sister. “My queen,” he said with less enthusiasm. “Shall we tour the god’s temple?”

  Nefertiti passed Amunhotep a triumphant glance, as if this had been her present to him, and we descended the small hill to stroll through the chaos. Nefertiti wanted to look at every pillar, every mosaic, every cut stone.

  In the artists’ quarters, Amunhotep stopped. “What is this?” he asked coldly.

  A worker stood up and wiped the sweat from his brow. He was built like a charioteer, with thick arms and a wide chest. “We are working on statues of Your Highness.” He bowed.

  Amunhotep bent closer and saw the chiseled features of Pharaohs that artisans had been drawing for centuries. The perfect jaw, the long beard, the eyes rimmed in sweeps of kohl. He straightened and his face grew dark. “This isn’t me.”

  The man faltered. He had depicted Pharaoh the way all Pharaohs had been depicted for the past thousand years.

  “That isn’t me!” Amunhotep shouted. “My artwork should reflect me, should it not?”

  The artisan stared at him in horror, then went down on one knee, bowing his head. All around him work had come to a stop. “Of course, Your Highness.”

  Amunhotep whirled to face Panahesi. “Do you think I want the gods to confuse me with my father? With Tuthmosis?” he hissed.

  Nefertiti stepped forward. “We shall have the rest of the sculptures done in our likeness,” she commanded.

  Panahesi inhaled. “The artisans use grids. They will have to—”

  “Then do it,” Nefertiti directed. She wrapped her arm around Amunhotep’s, and Pharaoh nodded in agreement. Then she led him away through the dirt and stone. Panahesi glowered after her. Then he looked down at the man with the thick arms.

  “Fix it!”

  “But how, Your Holiness?”

  “Go and find the best sculptors in Memphis,” he shouted angrily. “Now!”

  The artist looked between himself and the other men. “But we are considered the best,” he replied.

  “Then you will all be fired!” Panahesi raged. “You will find me an artist who can sculpt Pharaoh as he wishes or you will never work again.”

  The man panicked. “There is a sculptor in the city, Your Holiness. He is well renowned. He is flamboyant, but his work is—”

  “Just find him and bring him to me,” Panahesi seethed. He looked down at the image of Amunhotep as a Pharaoh no different in appearance than any other and lashed out with his foot, sending the carving toppling to the ground. “Don’t ever depict His Highness like this again. No one is like him. No other Pharaoh in Egypt can compare.”

  I hurried to where Nefertiti and Amunhotep were walking. Men were working on an outer courtyard, raising pillars with carvings of the sun god etched into the yellow stone. So much work was being done by so many men. I stared across the courtyard—at the farthest end stood General Nakhtmin. He was staring back at me. Then Amunhotep moved toward him and his gaze flicked away. What was he doing in Memphis? He belonged with the Elder in Thebes. My mother, with her sharp eyes, had missed nothing.

  “Was the general staring at you?” she asked.

  I shook my head quickly. “No. I don’t know.”

  She looked into my face. “General Nakhtmin is not liked by the king.”

  “So I’ve been warned.”

  “Do not think of falling in love with a soldier.”

  I looked down sharply. “Of course, I’m not in love!”

  “Good. When the time comes, you will marry a nobleman who has Pharaoh’s approval. It’s the price we all pay for the crown,” she said. I stared at her resentfully, thinking of her laughing with Amunhotep, and I wanted to say, We? But I shut my mouth firmly.

  The next morning, Amunhotep burst into the Audience Chamber, startling the viziers and emissaries from Mitanni who had arranged themselves around my father’s table. Panahesi and Nefertiti followed on his heels, and Nefertiti passed our father a warning look. He stood at once.

  “Your Highness, I thought you were riding in the Arena.”

  The viziers and emissaries rose quickly to bow. “Your Highness.”

  Amunhotep swept up the dais and sat on his throne. “The horses from Babylon have not arrived and I’m tired of Egyptian steeds. Besides, the High Priest of Aten has found us a sculptor.” He glanced across the room, at the foreign dignitaries with their curling beards. “What is this?” he demanded.

  My father bowed. “These are the emissaries from Mitanni, Your Highness.”

  “What do we care about Mitanni? Dismiss them.”

  The men looked among themselves, passing nervous glances at one another.

  Amunhotep repeated loudly, “Dismiss them!”

  Immediately, the men rose to file out, and my father whispered calmly, “We will meet again.”

  Amunhotep settled comfortably into his throne. Now that Pharaoh was present, a crowd had gathered in the Audience Chamber: the daughters of viziers and troupes of musicians. Panahesi, who had come from the building site
to present the new sculptor to Pharaoh, stepped in front of the dais. “Shall we fetch the artist, Your Highness?”

  “Yes. Bring him in.”

  The doors of the Audience Chamber were thrown open and the entire court turned. The sculptor entered. He was dressed like a king, with a long wig of golden beads and more kohl than was usually deemed proper for a man. He came before the dais and swept a low bow.

  “Your Most Gracious Highnesses.” He was beautiful in the way a woman is beautiful in her best jewels and henna. “The High Priest of Aten has said that your palace is in need of a sculptor. My name is Thutmose, and if it is so pleases Your Majesties, I shall render your images famous through eternity.”

  There was an excited murmuring throughout the court and Nefertiti sat forward on her throne. “We want them to be like no one else’s,” she cautioned.

  “They will not be like anyone else’s,” Thutmose promised. “For no other queen has ever possessed your beauty, and no Pharaoh has shown such courage.”

  I could see that Amunhotep was wary of this man who was prettier than him. But Nefertiti was taken. “We want you to sculpt us today,” she announced, and Amunhotep added icily, “Then we shall see if you are as good as your reputation.”

  The court rose, and Panahesi sidled up to Amunhotep as we walked through the halls of the palace. “I think Your Highness shall find him the best sculptor in Egypt,” he predicted.

  A makeshift studio had been prepared for Thutmose’s coming. Panahesi held the doors open to the studio, with its open windows and tables cluttered with paints and clay. There was every tool of an artist’s trade available: reed pens and papyrus, bowls of white powder and crushed lapis for dye. An elaborate dais had also been built.

  Thutmose proffered his hand to Nefertiti and escorted her up to her throne. The viziers whispered at this familiarity, but there was none of a man’s flirtatiousness in it. “What shall we do first, Your Highness? A carving into stone”—he flicked his free hand—“or a painted sculpture?”

  “A sculpture,” Nefertiti ruled, and Thutmose nodded agreeably.

 
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