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       Nefertiti, p.18

           Michelle Moran
 

  Nefertiti took me aside that afternoon before we rode to the site of the new temple. “I think I heard something last night,” she confided.

  I froze. “Did you tell Father?”

  “No, I wasn’t sure that I heard it. It was outside the window.”

  A chill went up my spine so violent that I shook. “Have you told the king?”

  She shook her head, her hand on her stomach. “No, but I want you to sleep with me tonight.”

  Then I remembered it was Amunhotep’s night with Kiya, and I stepped back to take her measure.

  “What?” she cried violently. “Do you think I would lie?”

  I watched her for a moment, wondering.

  “Please,” she said firmly, and there seemed to be real fear in her eyes. “Not just for me. For the baby.”

  The child six months in her womb.

  That evening, she moved over in the large bed she shared with Amunhotep, and I hesitated.

  “Come.”

  “But it’s the king’s bed.”

  She narrowed her eyes. “Not tonight. Tonight he’s left me alone.”

  But I refused to lay there.

  “Stop wasting time and get in,” she snapped. Pregnancy was making her irritable.

  “No. Come to my bed,” I replied.

  She looked at me sharply, her hand on her belly. “I’m pregnant.”

  “It will be safer,” I encouraged.

  She paused, and I knew I had won her. She tossed back the linens and held out her hand. I took it, helping her across the chamber. Inside my room, she maneuvered carefully onto my cushions.

  “Your bed’s not as comfortable as mine,” she complained.

  “No, but it’s a whole lot safer.” I smiled, content in my triumph, and she didn’t say anything. I arranged the pillows behind her back.

  “Do you really think someone would try to kill me?” she whispered.

  I laughed uneasily. “Not if they have to get past the twelve Nubians standing outside my door.” I tried to speak lightly to calm her fears, but Nefertiti’s mood was dark and she persisted.

  “But why would someone want to kill me?” she asked.

  I shivered to think about it. “Because you are married to Pharaoh and carrying his child. What better way to get to Amunhotep than through you?”

  “But the people love me.”

  “The people,” I replied. “Not the priests. Not the men whose lives are dedicated to Amun and whose temples you are about to destroy—”

  “That’s Amunhotep’s idea,” Nefertiti said sharply. Then there was the sound of footsteps in the hall and we both froze. The person outside must have decided to retreat, because the footsteps immediately pattered away. I held my breath.

  “I can’t take this anymore!” Nefertiti exclaimed. “I’m afraid of everything.”

  “Well, it’s a bed of your own making,” I said cruelly. But I was still holding her hand, and that night we fell asleep with the lamps still burning. In the morning, both of us awoke at dawn, curled around each other like cats.

  Chapter Fourteen

  Shemu, Season of Harvest

  NEFERTITI’S CHILD WAS to come in the month of Pachons. She refused to give birth to the heir of Egypt in the same pavilion that Kiya had used, so Amunhotep ordered the workers from the temple to begin construction on a birthing pavilion near the lotus ponds.

  “There should be windows facing all four directions.” My sister spread her hands so the workers could see what she envisioned, a palace of light and air. “Windows from ceiling to floor,” she instructed. The soldiers bowed obediently and the sculptors set to work, carving leaves into the bedposts and painting fish onto the tile that spread blue and green across the floors.

  When she wasn’t directing the construction of her pavilion, she and Amunhotep rode out to the temple to see its progression, which was slower now that the workforce had been divided. “Mutny, find your cloak,” she’d call. “Mutny, we’re going out to the temple.”

  I saw General Nakhtmin on the temple grounds, instructing the builders, and I wondered again what he was doing in Memphis when he’d been so adamant about staying in Thebes. He smiled when I passed and I looked away, so Nefertiti wouldn’t think there was anything between us, but Ipu, who rode in my chariot, whispered softly, “Pharaoh has made an offer the soldiers won’t turn down. Twenty deben of silver a month for building in Memphis.”

  I turned to her in shock. “General Nakhtmin came here for silver?”

  She looked out to where the general was standing and gave a dimpled smile. “Or something else.”

  Then one morning my sister was too ill to ride, and she wanted me to go in her place. “I don’t want Amunhotep going with Kiya,” she said spitefully. “I can just imagine her riding out to the site and writing a poem to his shining new building. And he would probably inscribe it for her on the wall of the temple.”

  I might have laughed, but what she was asking for frightened me. “You want me to go to the temple site? Alone?”

  “Of course not alone. You’ll take Ipu.”

  “But what will I do?”

  She placed her hand on her belly, weary with my ignorance. “You will do as I’ve always done,” she snapped. “You will establish your presence at the temple to make sure the builders aren’t lazy. You will be sure that the workers aren’t stealing gold, or alabaster, or limestone.”

  “And if they are?”

  “They won’t,” she said flatly. “They wouldn’t dare with you watching them.”

  While the Master of the Horse prepared my chariot, Ipu asked, “Where is Pharaoh? Isn’t he coming?”

  “My sister is ill and she wants him by her side.”

  “So we’re to go alone? With no guards?”

  “None at all.”

  When the Master of the Horse was finished, we rode beyond the palace to the site of the temple building. The soldiers were breaking rock and carving into stone. None looked to be pilfering alabaster, but several men waved cheerfully to Ipu as we passed. I raised my eyebrows and Ipu smiled.

  “I have friends in strange places, my lady. And because you cannot make friends among the soldiers, I make them for you.”

  I followed her gaze to a man in the street who halted our chariot with an outstretched arm. The horses stopped as if they’d been commanded, and Nakhtmin smiled up at the two of us.

  “General.” I nodded formally.

  “My Lady Mutnodjmet,” he said. Ipu grinned.

  “And how is the work going on the temple?” I asked. I made a show of supervising his men. They were grunting in the heat, heaving a heavy stone column into place.

  A smile played at the edge of the general’s lips. “As you can see, they are working hard for His Highness’s great ambitions. But aren’t you going to ask why I’m here?” The sun had turned the general’s skin a deep shade of bronze, darker than his long hair and light eyes.

  “I already know why you are here,” I replied. “Pharaoh made an offer no soldier could resist. Twenty deben of silver a month.”

  General Nakhtmin blinked against the merciless sun. “Is that what you think? That I sold out for handful of silver?”

  I stared at him plainly. “Why else would you come?”

  He stepped back and his face grew thoughtful. “When I was a boy, I saved the gold that I earned in the army to buy a farm in Thebes, and when my father died I inherited his land. So no, I did not come for a handful of deben.”

  I felt I had offended him somehow, and he continued staring at me until I was forced to reply, “Then why have you come?”

  He glanced at Ipu. “Perhaps you can explain it, my lady. As for myself, I must return to my soldiers before they begin stealing limestone.” He gave a quick smile. “Or alabaster.”

  I watched him walk away, then rounded on Ipu. “Why does he enjoy playing with me?”

  “Because he’s interested in you. He’s interested in you, and he is not sure that you are interested back.”
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  I was silenced.

  “Only don’t let your sister see you looking like that,” Ipu warned me. “Or there will be more trouble in the palace than whether the queen gives Pharaoh a prince.”

  The Temple of Aten was completed early, in time for Nefertiti to give birth. The child was weighing heavily on her, and she sat in a special pavilion decorated with images of Hathor and Bes, her feet propped on feather pillows while harpists played music in the antechamber. Fan bearers stood at every corner of the room. My sister reigned as Queen of the Bedside, snapping at anyone who was near, even our father.

  “Why didn’t anyone tell me Kiya’s been going with him to see the construction? Has she taken my place now?” Her voice rose with indignation. “Has she?”

  “Shut the door, Mutnodjmet,” my father ordered. He looked down at my sister. “For a few days, you will simply have to bear it. There’s nothing you can do.”

  “I’m Queen of Egypt!” She struggled to sit up, and her body servants moved quickly to be at her side. “Send for Amunhotep!” she commanded. The young girls looked at our father. “I said send for Pharaoh!” Nefertiti’s voice grew sharp.

  My father turned to the nearest woman and nodded. The girl scurried out. “You’d do better to concern yourself with the state of affairs in this kingdom,” he said. “Have you even bothered to find out what is happening in Thebes?”

  Nefertiti shrugged. “Why should I?”

  My father’s face darkened. “Because the Elder is ill.”

  The servants did their best not to look at one another, but they would be gossiping come night. Nefertiti sat forward on her pillows. “How ill?”

  “There is news that Anubis may take him soon.”

  Nefertiti struggled to sit up. “Why haven’t I heard of this?”

  “Because you haven’t heard of anything unless it concerns the Temple of Aten,” my father reproached. “When is the last time Amunhotep visited his Audience Chamber? Or corresponded with the princes of foreign nations? Every day I sit beneath the Horus throne and wield the power of a king.”

  “Isn’t that what you want, the Kingdom of Egypt stretched before you?”

  “Not when your husband plays Pharaoh for a day and sends statues plated in gold to his allies instead of real gold. Then I am the one who must make his amends. I am the one who must explain to the mayor of Qiltu why the army is not ready to come to his defense because the Hittites have attacked his kingdom.”

  “There is an army in Thebes. Let him send them to the Elder.”

  My father’s ire rose. “How long until Amunhotep uses them as workers, too? What next? A palace? A city?” I looked quickly at Nefertiti. “There is division in Egypt,” he warned. “The priests of Amun are preparing for rebellion.”

  “They’d never rebel!” Nefertiti hardened her jaw, a seventeen-year-old queen.

  “Why not?” my father challenged. “With Horemheb at their side?”

  “Then Horemheb would be a traitor and Amunhotep would have him killed.”

  “And if the army joined with him? What then?”

  Nefertiti recoiled, her hands on her stomach, as if to protect her child from such news. Then the door to Nefertiti’s birthing chamber opened and Amunhotep arrived.

  “The most beautiful queen in Egypt!” he proclaimed.

  “The only Queen of Egypt,” Nefertiti said sharply. “Where were you?”

  “At the temple.” Amunhotep smiled. “The altar is ready.”

  “And did you consecrate it with Kiya?” she hissed.

  Amunhotep froze.

  “Did you?” she shouted. “Now that I’m Pharaoh’s heifer, about to birth a prince, I’m not of interest anymore?”

  Amunhotep looked around the chamber, hesitating, then moved quickly to her side, placing his hand on hers. “Nefertiti—”

  “It is my likeness that looks down over the people of Egypt. I am the one who watches over this kingdom. Not Kiya!”

  Amunhotep knelt swiftly. “I am sorry.”

  “You will not go with her again. Say you won’t go with her.”

  “I promise—”

  “A promise is not enough. Swear it to me. On Aten.”

  He saw the seriousness in her face and said it. “I swear it to you on Aten.”

  My father and I exchanged glances, and my sister raised him from the ground. “Did you know your father is ill?” she asked, settling back on her pillows, creating the illusion beautifully: When she was happy, everything unfolded in Amunhotep’s favor.

  At once he stood up. “The Elder is ill?” He looked at my father. “Is it true?”

  My father bowed. “Yes, Your Highness. There is such news from Thebes.”

  Amunhotep tossed his glance around the chamber, and for the first time he seemed to notice the women. “Go!” he shouted. Ipu and Merit hustled the women out. Amunhotep turned to my father. “How long until he is dead?”

  My father stiffened. “The Pharaoh of Egypt may live another year.”

  “You said he was ill. You said there was word.”

  “The gods may preserve him for longer.”

  “The gods have abandoned him!” Amunhotep cried. “It is me they look after, not a decrepit old man.” Amunhotep crossed the chamber in two strides, then opened the door and spoke to the guards. “Find me the builder Maya,” he commanded. Then he turned to my father. “You will go back to the Audience Chamber and draft a letter to the princes of every nation. Warn them that within the season I shall be Pharaoh of Upper Egypt.”

  The color in my father’s cheeks revealed his temper. “He may not die by then, Your Majesty.”

  Amunhotep came so close to my father that for a moment I thought he would kiss him. Instead, he whispered in his ear, “You’re wrong. The Elder’s reign is finished.”

  He stepped toward the door and summoned the guards again. “Find Panahesi!” He turned back to my father. “The High Priest of Aten is making a trip to Thebes,” he announced. “Go now and draft a letter to the kings of foreign nations.”

  He indicated the door, and my father and I were led into the hall. Then he barred it shut it behind us. Immediately, muffled voices could be heard from within, high pitched and excited. I followed the angry slap of my father’s sandals to the Per Medjat.

  “What is he doing?”

  “Preparing.” My father seethed.

  “Preparing for what?”

  “To hasten the Elder’s trip into the Afterlife.”

  I sucked in my breath. “Then why did you allow Nefertiti to tell him?”

  My father didn’t stop walking. “Because someone else would have.”

  “The queen is giving birth!”

  A servant found me in the palace gardens and her words tumbled out breathlessly. At once I was up, pressing through the crowd around Nefertiti’s chamber. Messengers and court ladies stood seven thick outside the pavilion, covered by sunshades, gossiping about what should happen if Nefertiti produced a son. Would Nebnefer be sent to live in another palace? What if it was a girl? How soon might the queen become pregnant again? I entered the birthing chamber, shutting the door and the gossip behind me.

  “Where were you?” Nefertiti cried.

  “In the gardens. I didn’t know it had begun.”

  My mother shot me a look, as if I should have known.

  “Bring me juice,” Nefertiti moaned, and I rushed to the nearest servant and told her to find it. “Quickly!” I turned back to my sister. “Where are the midwives?”

  She gritted her teeth. “Preparing the birthing chair.”

  Two midwives appeared. “It is ready, Your Highness.”

  Nefertiti’s chair had been painted with the three goddesses of childbirth. Hathor, Nekhbet, and Tawaret held out their arms across the ebony throne. My sister’s body was straining to release the heavy burden in her womb. Her breath was growing labored.

  The women eased her onto the padded seat with its hole in the middle for the child to make its descent into the w
orld. My mother placed a cushion behind her and Nefertiti reached out her hand for mine, screaming loud enough to wake Anubis. The chattering outside the pavilion stopped and all anyone could hear were Nefertiti’s cries. My mother turned to me instead of the midwives. “Isn’t there anything else we can give her?”

  “No,” I said honestly, and the midwives nodded.

  The eldest woman shook her graying curls. “We’ve already given her kheper-wer.” She had inserted the mixture of kheper-wer plant, honey, and milk into my sister to induce birth. Now the old woman spread her palms. “It’s all we can do.”

  Nefertiti groaned. Her brows were drawn and sweat coursed from her neck, causing her hair to stick to her face. I ordered one of the women to pull it back. Ipu and Merit carried a dish of hot water to the birthing chair, placing it between my sister’s legs so that the steam would help ease the delivery. Then Nefertiti tilted her head back and gripped the chair.

  “He’s coming!” my mother cried. “The Prince of Egypt!”

  “Push harder,” the old midwife encouraged.

  Merit pressed a cool cloth to Nefertiti’s head and the midwife was beneath the chair at once, her hands reaching for the crowning head of the baby. My sister arched back with a cry of agony, then her little body shuddered and the child came in a rush of water.

  “A princess!” the midwife cried, searching for any deformities. “A healthy princess.”

  Nefertiti stared up from her chair. “A girl?” she whispered, gripping the arms. “A girl?” Her voice grew shrill.

  “Yes!” The midwife held up the little bundle, and my mother and I exchanged glances.

  “Someone go tell Vizier Ay,” my mother rejoiced. “And send a message to the king.”

  Ipu rushed out to announce to the palace that the queen had survived. The bells would toll twice for a Princess of Egypt. The midwives bundled Nefertiti back into her bed, and her womb was packed with linen to stop the bleeding. “A princess,” she repeated. She had been so sure it would be a prince. She had been so certain.

  “But she’s healthy,” I replied. “And she’s yours. Your own little link to eternity.”

 
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