Nefertiti, p.17Michelle Moran
Nearly fifty members of the court took seats as if preparing to witness a troupe of dancers or a songstress with her lyre. The artist turned inquisitively. “And how would Your Highnesses like to be portrayed?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then Amunhotep replied, “As Aten on earth.”
The sculptor hesitated. “As both life and death?”
“As both female and male. As the beginning and the end. As a power so great none can touch its divinity. And I want them to know my face.”
Thutmose paused. “Just as it is, Your Highness?”
The court whispered. For a thousand years, whether a Pharaoh was fat or short or old, he had been depicted on temples and on tombs as young and slender, his kohl perfectly drawn, his hair immaculately coiffed. Now Amunhotep wanted his own face staring into the ages, his slanted eyes and narrow bones, his full lips and curling hair.
Thutmose inclined his head thoughtfully. “I will sketch you on papyrus. When it is finished, you can determine whether you approve of the likeness. If His Highness is satisfied, I shall carve him into stone.”
“And for me?” Nefertiti pressed eagerly.
“For you I shall be faithful to life.” Thutmose smiled. “Since nothing could ever improve Her Highness.”
Nefertiti settled back in the throne that had been prepared for this day and looked satisfied.
We watched as the sculptor’s reed pen worked the papyrus, two dozen eyes critiquing his movements on the wide bronze easel at the center of the chamber. As we waited for a figure to emerge on the paper, Thutmose entertained us with the story of his life. It began with a dreary boyhood in Thebes, a life of toil. His father was a baker, and when his mother died he took her place at his father’s ovens, pressing loaves and kneading dough. The women who came in stared at the boy with dark hair and green eyes, and the men looked, too, especially the young priests of Amun. Then one day a renowned sculptor came into his father’s bakery, and when he saw Thutmose at the ovens, he saw his next model for Amun.
“The famous sculptor Bek asked if I would model for him. He would pay me, of course, and my father said go. He had seven other sons. What did he need with me? And when I arrived at his studio, I found my calling. Bek trained me as his apprentice, and in two years I had my own studio in Memphis.”
He stepped back from his papyrus, and we all saw that he was finished.
The viziers at the front leaned forward as one, and I craned my neck to see what he had drawn. It was an image of Amunhotep’s face, his leonine features half covered in shadow. His eyes were bigger than they truly were, his chin longer and more threatening. There was a quality about his face that made him seem both female and male, both angry and merciful, both ready to pronounce and ready to listen. It was a haunting face, powerful and striking; the face of a man with no equal.
Thutmose turned the easel toward Pharaoh, who sat forward on his throne, and we held our breaths to hear his pronouncement.
“It’s magnificent,” Nefertiti whispered. Amunhotep looked from the image on the easel to the face of the young sculptor who had sketched it.
“I can begin filling the image in with paint, if that would please Your Highness.”
“No,” Pharaoh said firmly, and the court held its breath. We looked to Amunhotep, who had risen from his throne. “There is no need to paint. Carve it into stone.”
There was an excited murmur in the studio, and my sister ordered jubilantly, “A pair of busts, and we shall place them in the Temple of Aten.”
Peret, Season of Growing
WHEREVER NEFERTITI WENT, Thutmose was made to follow. He was told to sketch the royal couple in every aspect of their lives, and my mother thought it was shocking how he was even allowed to sit next to the dais in the Audience Chamber.
My father demanded, “How do we know that we can trust him?”
Nefertiti laughed. “Because he’s an artist. Not a spy!”
Even Pharaoh was entranced by this slight young artist. With his scrolls always at his lap, Thutmose studied Amunhotep while the king played at Senet or careened around the tracks of the Memphis Arena. I watched from the tunnel of the Arena as Thutmose seated himself near my mother, and she smiled as he complimented her eyes.
“Is there anywhere he isn’t permitted?” I challenged, and Nefertiti followed the direction of my gaze. Merit strapped a pair of leather gauntlets to my sister’s legs, though she was several months pregnant.
“Only our chamber,” Nefertiti admitted. “But I think Amunhotep will change his mind.”
“Nefertiti! You aren’t serious?”
She smirked a little.
“In your chamber?”
“Why not?” she asked brazenly. “What is there to hide?”
“Then what is there that’s private?”
She thought a moment, then put on her helmet. “Nothing. Nothing is private in our reign, and that is why we shall be remembered until the last days of Egypt.”
I followed my sister through the tunnel to the Arena. A chariot was waiting for her, already fastened to two massive steeds. Thutmose held out his arm to help me up into the tiers. I hesitated, then grasped his hand. It was smooth for an artist who worked with a chisel and limestone.
“The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife,” he remarked, and I thought he would go on to compliment my eyes, but he remained silent, studying me. For once, there weren’t two dozen ladies surrounding him. Amunhotep had wanted to ride early this morning, and the rest of the court was tucked warmly in their beds. I shivered, and Thutmose nodded.
“So you came to watch His Highness as well.” He looked meaningfully around at the empty tiers. “You are a dedicated sister.”
“Or a foolish one,” I mumbled.
He laughed, then leaned closer and confided, “Even I wondered whether I should leave my bed this morning.”
We both looked at Amunhotep in his dazzling chariot, racing Nefertiti and his trained Nubian guards. Their shouts of joy could be heard over the snorting of horses and the pounding of hooves, and the sounds carried high above the walls of the Arena. Our breaths fogged the chill morning air and a chariot came to a sudden halt before the low wall next to Thutmose. Amunhotep shouted joyously, “This morning I want a sketch of myself in the Arena!” He took off his helmet and his dark curls pressed wetly against his head. “We will carve this morning’s image into a limestone relief.”
Thutmose picked up a papyrus sheaf and stood quickly. “Of course, Your Highness.” He indicated the lofty columns of the Arena. “I will sketch your chariots gilded in the rays of the winter’s sun. See where it filters between the columns to make an ankh?”
We all turned, and for the first time I noticed the rough shape of an ankh on the dusty floor of the ground.
Amunhotep gripped the side of his chariot. “Eternal life,” he whispered.
“Etched in the sand. The gold of electrum chariots,” Thutmose envisioned, “and beneath them, the blazing ankh of life.”
I stared at Thutmose, who was not all flattery and talk. I looked again at the symbol of eternal life created by the interplay of shadows and sun and couldn’t imagine why I hadn’t noticed it before.
In the Great Hall that night, Thutmose was placed at the royal table, and Kiya sat next to him with her gaggle of ladies, women who had been raised in the comfort of the Elder’s harem. Nefertiti and Amunhotep watched with satisfaction as the court fussed over their sculptor, who lived now in the palace simply to serve them.
“May we see what you sketched today?” the women entreated. But Kiya’s mood at the table was dark.
“Why did no one tell me they were going to the Arena?”
Thutmose placated her. “It was too early, my lady. You would have been cold.”
“I don’t care about a little cold,” she snapped.
“But it would have paled your cheeks, and their color is too lovely for that.” He appraised her intimate
Kiya settled a little. “So where are these sketches?”
While we waited for our body servants to bring food, Thutmose produced the sheaf of papyrus I had seen in the Arena. New among the drawings was an image of Pharaoh, shaded to reveal the ankh of life beneath him as he reined in his powerful horses. Thutmose passed the sketches around the table, and there was a short silence even among the viziers and my father.
Kiya looked up. “These are very good.”
“They are excellent,” my father complimented.
Thutmose bowed his head, and the beads from his wig clinked musically. “Their Majesties are easy subjects to render.”
“I think it is your skill,” my father replied, and a warm glow colored Thutmose’s cheeks.
“It is my pleasure. And yesterday His Highness gave me permission to use my studio for other commissions as well.”
There was a sudden surge of interested questions, and Kiya said grandly, “Then I will commission you to do a bust of myself and the first son of Egypt.”
There was an uncomfortable moment at the table. My father glanced at my mother. Then Thutmose said tactfully, “Any child of His Highness will make a fine bust.”
“And you?” my mother asked at my side. “Should we commission a portrait for you? It could be a bust, or even a relief for your tomb. You should begin to think about how the gods will remember you.”
Thutmose was inundated with requests and everyone was talking at once, even the viziers. In the midst of the cacophony, Thutmose saw my silence and smiled at me.
“Perhaps later,” I said to my mother. “Perhaps later I might like a painting of a beautiful garden.”
The women of the court fluttered around Thutmose like newly released butterflies to a bloom. Even after two months in the palace, Thutmose was like a new guest, being invited to every feast and shown around the gardens.
“I don’t know why they bother,” Ipu said, braiding my hair one morning. “It’s not as if he’s interested in women.”
I stared at her, uncomprehending. “What do you mean?”
Ipu took up a jar of frankincense and glanced sideways at me. “He likes men, my lady.”
I sat still on the edge of my bed and tried to fathom this. “Then why do all the women like him so much?”
Ipu applied the oil to my face with wide sweeps. “Probably because he’s young and handsome and his skill with limestone can’t be found anywhere else. He complimented my work,” she added smugly. “He said he’d heard of me even in Memphis.”
“Everyone’s heard of you,” I replied.
She giggled. “All of the ladies want him for their portraits. Even Panahesi commissioned one.”
There was a fire in the brazier. The weather had turned, and we all wore long kilts and robes now. I huddled against the warm fur of my cloak, considering this new addition to Amunhotep’s court. “Well, everywhere Nefertiti goes, he follows,” I replied. “Suggesting places he can engrave her image. He’ll be there this morning at the Arena, I’m sure.”
“Does he go every morning?”
I sighed. “Like the rest of us.” But this morning I didn’t want to go see Pharaoh ride. I knew what it would be like in the stadium, with the viziers and Panahesi and Kiya all crowded around each other for the benefit of Amunhotep, watching him ride with Nefertiti even though she was five months with his child. I knew the wind would be chill and that even if the servants warmed shedeh and brought it to us, I’d still be freezing. And my mother would be silently worrying that Nefertiti shouldn’t be riding in her condition, that it was the future of Egypt she was carrying in her belly, yet no one would say anything, not even Father, because he understood that this was how she kept him from Kiya.
“Ready.” Ipu put her brush and kohl away. But when I went out into the hall, my feet didn’t make their way toward the courtyard. If I was going to spend my time freezing, I decided, then I would do it in the gardens. Perhaps in the commotion I would be forgotten and no one would notice that I was gone.
I took a seat beneath an old acacia and then heard Nefertiti’s sharp voice calling for me.
“Mutny? Mutny, are you out here?”
I pulled my feet up onto the bench and remained silent.
“Mutnodjmet?” My sister’s voice grew more urgent. “Mutny?” She rounded the lotus pond and saw me sitting. “What are you doing? We’re going to the Arena.” She stood over me, her black hair brushing the sides of her cheeks.
“I thought I’d stay here.”
Her voice rose dramatically. “And not watch me ride?”
“I’m tired today. And it’s cold.”
“It’s cold here, too!”
“Ipu can go,” I offered. “Or Merit.”
Nefertiti hesitated, debating between continuing the argument and letting it go. “Thutmose finished the busts,” she said instead. She would allow me then to remain in the gardens. “He’s painting them now.”
I lowered my feet. “How long will he remain in the palace?”
Nefertiti gave me a strange look. “Forever.”
“But what will he paint all day?”
“All the time?”
“He is free to hire out his services to courtiers as well.” She turned. “Can you see it?” she asked me, moving sideways so I would notice the little belly on her, protruding over her belt of golden scarabs. “He’s already growing.”
I hesitated. “What if it’s a she?”
“Amunhotep will love whatever child I give him,” she said heatedly.
I frowned, knowing her better. “Will you?”
She pressed her lips together, worrying them with her bottom teeth the way I often did. “If it’s a girl, Kiya will be mother to Egypt’s eldest prince.”
“But she’s Second Wife. If you give the Pharaoh a son, even if it’s next year, he will still come to be Pharaoh.”
Nefertiti looked out into the distance, beyond the lotus pond, as if she could see all the way to Thebes. “If I don’t have a boy, Nebnefer will have more time to gather support.”
“He’s only four months old!”
“But not forever.” She leaned forward. “You will help me, won’t you? You will be there with me when it’s time. And you will pray to the goddess to make it a boy.”
I laughed, then stopped short at the look on her face. “Why would the goddess listen to me?”
“Because you’re honest,” Nefertiti replied. “And I’m…I’m not like you.”
Nefertiti moved through the palace with her hand on her belly, and no one dared speak a word about the four-month-old prince suckling at Kiya’s breast in the Great Hall, even though everybody saw him. And he was a sweet little prince, even if his mother was sour as a lemon. Amunhotep helped Nefertiti over every step, into every chariot, even onto her throne. He fussed over her and praised her growing baby even as he ignored the one already born.
In the month of Mechyr, Amunhotep announced in official scrolls and on public buildings that Aten was the god who reigned in Memphis. A proclamation was sent forth that Egyptians would bow down before the priests of Aten as they had for the priests of Amun.
For Aten embraces Egypt. He is all powerful.
He is most beautiful. All knowing and all wise.
The scroll did not end with the word Amun. No official scroll in Egypt had ever ended without the word Amun. Now none in Memphis ever would again.
My father lowered the scroll onto his lap. “This is blasphemy, and the Elder will hear of it! He will not be pleased.” He glared at my sister and Nefertiti shrugged. She didn’t shrink away as I would have done.
“Blasphemy is whatever Pharaoh says it is,” she replied.
“And your husband is not the only Pharaoh!” My father stood and flung the scroll into the brazier. “The Elder still lives. And mark me, Nefertiti, mark me well. If your husband is not careful, do not be surprised if my sister sends men to assas
I covered my mouth and Nefertiti turned white.
“Amunhotep already wears the atef crown! She wouldn’t!”
My father said nothing to her.
“You wouldn’t let that happen!”
“It has gone too far.”
“But I’m carrying his child!”
He moved toward her. “Listen and listen very carefully. There could very well be an assassination. Be sure the men you’ve hired to protect you are willing to die.”
The color drained entirely from Nefertiti’s face. “You must stop her! She is your sister!” she cried.
“She is also Queen of Egypt and I am only a vizier.”
Nefertiti looked sick. “But you will protect me, won’t you?”
He didn’t answer.
“Won’t you?” she whispered. She looked so small and frightened that I wanted to cross the room and wrap her in my arms.
Our father closed his eyes. “Of course, I will protect you.”
“And my child? And Amunhotep?”
“I cannot promise that. You must hold him back. You must find a way. Or no protection of mine will ever be enough.”
We lived like cats, sniffing our food before we ate it, even when it had been tasted by servants, and keeping one ear pricked at night for the sound of intruders. Ipu began to worry for my health.
“All night you toss and turn. It isn’t good for you, my lady.”
“I’ve heard news, Ipu, that makes me worried.”
My body servant stopped folding my linen so that she could look at me. “Bad news?”
“Yes,” I admitted, putting my hands under my legs. “You would tell me if there was talk in the palace?”
Ipu’s dimples disappeared. “What kind of talk, my lady?”
“It’s not so shocking,” I whispered. “Amunhotep has made enemies. But you would tell me if you heard of something, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course,” she assured me, and I could see the earnestness in her face.
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes