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       Nefertiti, p.19

           Michelle Moran
 

  “But, Mutny…” Her eyes grew distant. “It’s a girl.”

  The midwife came over and presented my sister with the First Princess of Egypt. Nefertiti shifted the child in her arms. My mother’s eyes grew moist. She was a grandmother now. “She looks like you,” she told Nefertiti. “The same lips and nose.”

  “And so much hair,” I added.

  My mother caressed the soft, downy head. The child gave out a piercing wail, and the gray-haired midwife came rushing over.

  “She must be fed,” the midwife announced. “Where is the milk nurse?”

  A tall plump woman was let into the birthing chamber. The midwife squinted into the young woman’s round face. She was not much older than Nefertiti. Seventeen or eighteen, and she was hearty looking and strong.

  “Are you the one Vizier Ay chose?”

  “Yes,” the girl replied, and it was clear from her swelling breasts that she, too, was a new mother.

  “Then come sit by the queen,” the midwife instructed.

  A seat was arranged and the new mother exposed one of her breasts. We all watched the little princess suck greedily, and Nefertiti studied the miniature reflection of herself in the milk nurse’s arms.

  The midwife smiled. “As beautiful as you, Your Majesty. Pharaoh must be pleased.”

  “But not a son.” Nefertiti looked down at the princess she had birthed: the princess who was supposed to have been a prince.

  “What will you name her?” I asked.

  “Meritaten,” Nefertiti said at once.

  My mother started. “Beloved of Aten?”

  “Yes.” Nefertiti straightened and her face grew determined. “It will remind Amunhotep of what is important.” My mother frowned, and Nefertiti replied heatedly, “Loyalty.” Bells were tolling in the distance, twice so that Memphis would know a princess had been born. Nefertiti gripped the edge of her linens. “What is that?”

  “They are the bells,” my mother began, but Nefertiti cut her off.

  “Why are they only ringing twice?”

  “Because the bells toll three times for a prince,” I said, and Nefertiti flew into a rage.

  “Why? Because a daughter is less important than a prince? The bells tolled three times for Nebnefer and the bells will toll three times for Princess Meritaten!”

  My mother and I looked at each other, and Princess Meritaten began to wail.

  Merit broke the silence. “Shall we take you to the baths, Your Highness?”

  “No! Someone must stop the bells,” Nefertiti ordered. “Bring Amunhotep!”

  “First have your bath, then you can see Pharaoh and tell him,” my mother encouraged.

  “Nefertiti, you can’t see anyone like this,” I pleaded. Her sheath was stained, and though her legs had been wiped clean and her hair brushed back, she was not a Queen of Egypt. She was a woman who had just given birth, reeking with the stench of blood. “Bathe quickly, then we’ll call Pharaoh and tell him.”

  She did as I suggested, and there was silence in the birthing chamber as she was wrapped in fresh linen and taken away.

  “She birthed a beautiful child,” my mother said finally. The milk nurse continued to feed the princess while the midwife went about removing the birthing chair. It would be another year before there might be a prince. Perhaps longer.

  “Do you think he will listen to her?” I asked.

  My mother pressed her lips together. “It’s never been done.”

  “Neither has a queen living in a Pharaoh’s chamber.”

  When Nefertiti returned, bathed and dressed in white, my mother nodded. “Much better,” she said, but Nefertiti was in no mood for flattery.

  “Bring in Amunhotep.”

  Merit opened the door to the birthing chamber and called for Pharaoh. He came at once, and Nefertiti assailed him as soon as he appeared.

  “I want the bells to ring three times,” she commanded.

  He rushed to her bedside, putting a hand on her cheek. “Are you well? Are you—”

  “The bells must ring three times today!”

  “But the birth…” He looked down at the sleeping Meritaten. “Look how beautiful—”

  “I’m talking about the bells!” Nefertiti cried, waking the princess, and Amunhotep hesitated.

  “But the bells only ring—”

  “Is our princess any less important than a prince?”

  Amunhotep looked down into the face of his daughter, real tears coming down his cheeks. She had inherited his dark eyes and curling hair. Then he looked at Nefertiti, her face set with conviction, and turned to Merit. “Instruct the men to ring the bells three times. The princess…” He glanced at Nefertiti.

  “Meritaten has been born,” Nefertiti said, and Amunhotep seated himself at her side.

  “Meritaten,” he repeated, looking into his daughter’s face. “Beloved of Aten.”

  Nefertiti raised her chin proudly. “Yes. After the great god of Egypt.”

  “A princess.” Amunhotep picked up the wailing infant from the milk nurse’s arms and held her to his chest.

  My father came in and looked poignantly at my mother. “A girl,” he said quietly.

  “But still an heir,” my mother whispered.

  My father stayed long enough to hold his granddaughter, the First royal Princess of Egypt, then left to address a message to the kings of foreign nations.

  I studied Nefertiti in her bed. She looked drawn and pale, putting on a cheerful show for Amunhotep when she should have been sleeping. “Do you think she looks well?” I asked my mother.

  “Of course not. She’s just given birth.”

  Then Merit appeared at Nefertiti’s side, armed with her great ivory box of cosmetics. Dutifully, my sister sat up, though if I had been her I would have ordered everyone out of my chamber. I looked down at Princess Meritaten, pressed firmly against my sister’s breast, and I felt a pain in my heart that was probably envy. Nefertiti had a husband, a kingdom, a family. I was fifteen, and what did I have?

  The Birth Feast was held at the end of Pachons. Beautifully crafted vessels of precious metals were sent from foreign kingdoms and arranged on a table that spread from one end of the Great Hall to the other. There were statues of sculpted gold and ebony chests. The king of Mitanni sent a pack of hounds, while silver and ivory bracelets arrived from noble families in Thebes.

  In Amunhotep’s chamber, Nefertiti asked me which gown she should wear to the feast. “The open front, or something that cuts off at the neck?”

  I studied her hennaed breasts, which were large and flattering. Her stomach was so small that it was impossible to think she had given birth only fourteen days ago. “The open front,” I said.

  I watched her body as it filled out her tiny gown and was fascinated with the way she looped two golden earrings through her double piercings. I thought, I will never be that beautiful. Then we looked at ourselves in the mirror: the Cat and the Beautiful One.

  In the Great Hall, no man could take his eyes off her. “She is stunning,” Ipu said as my sister swept between the columns and up the painted dais. Birth had filled out the hollowness of her cheeks and brought color to her face. Hundreds of candles wavered in her path, and there was a momentary hush as she took her throne.

  It seemed that every member of the Egyptian royal court had come to celebrate Meritaten’s birth. I walked outside to where my father was standing with my mother, enjoying a moment’s peace before the food was served and we would all have to sit. I looked again at the people crowding the courtyard, floating in and out of the Great Hall with cups of wine, dressed in the finest linen and gold. Only Panahesi was absent.

  “How come there are so many people?” I asked. Even the nobility from Thebes had come to celebrate, beginning the journey on the Nile a month earlier when news of Meritaten’s impending birth had arrived.

  “They have come to pay homage to the new Pharaoh,” my father said. I didn’t understand, so my father explained, “The Elder is dying.”


  I stared at him. “But he was supposed to live another season! You told me—” I stopped myself and realized what my father must be saying. I leaned forward and my voice dropped to a whisper. “He wasn’t poisoned?”

  My father said nothing.

  “It wasn’t poison?” I pressed, but my father’s face was a mask. I reeled back. “Is that where Panahesi has been?”

  My parents exchanged looks and my father stood up. “Whatever has happened in Thebes, the Elder won’t last the month.”

  A bell rang from inside the Great Hall, summoning the guests to dinner. My father took my mother’s arm and disappeared into the crowd while I stood, still gaping at his words.

  “By the look on your face, we’re either going to be invaded or you’ve just tasted something particularly sour.”

  I turned, and General Nakhtmin held out a bowl of wine.

  “Thank you, General. It’s nice to see you, too.”

  He laughed and indicated the Great Hall with his hand. “Shall we?”

  We walked together through the arched doors of the Great Hall with its magnificent columns and hundreds of guests. He would sit at the table for the military elite, I with the royal family. But before we reached the dais, I stopped him. “Tell me, General. Have you heard anything about the Elder in Thebes?”

  Nakhtmin regarded me thoughtfully, then drew me away from the tables to an alcove where we could speak with more privacy. “Why do you ask?”

  I hesitated. “I…I just thought you might know.”

  Nakhtmin regarded me suspiciously. “He will probably pass into the arms of Osiris very soon.”

  “But he’s only forty! He could live another ten years.” I whispered, “It wasn’t poison?” and searched his face for honesty.

  He nodded gravely. “There’s been talk. And if there’s talk in the king’s own family—”

  “There isn’t,” I said quickly.

  He studied me.

  “But if…if the Pharaoh dies…”

  “Yes?”

  “Well, what then?”

  “Then your sister becomes Queen of Egypt and the Dowager Queen will bow down before her daughter-in-law. And who knows,” Nakhtmin added conspiratorially, “she may even be Pharaoh before it’s over.”

  “Pharaoh?” I repeated dismissively.

  “Is that so surprising?”

  “No, that’s foolish. Only a handful of women have ever ruled Egypt.”

  “And why not her?”

  We both looked through the forest of columns at my sister, a thick golden signet pulling her glossy hair away from her face, enlarging her eyes. She commanded a view of the entire hall from her throne, but it was Amunhotep she watched.

  “He trusts her with everything,” Nakhtmin added. “They even share chambers.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “I’m a general. It’s my business to know. Even if I were a servant in a minor palace, I should know something so trivial.”

  “But she would have to become a widow before she would become Pharaoh.” I glanced at him and he didn’t argue the point, as if he wouldn’t be surprised if Amunhotep should die. I felt a chill go up my spine and settle as a coolness on my back, despite the warm night. Guests were taking their seats, and laughter echoed beneath the ceiling of the Great Hall. The Birth Feast would last all night, but I might not get a chance to speak with the general again. I hesitated. “I thought you would stay in Thebes and live a quieter life than this.”

  “Oh, it’s not quiet in Thebes. Anywhere there’s a palace it’s never quiet. But someday I hope to find someone who might share a quiet life with me. Away from Thebes or Memphis or any city with a royal road.”

  We both looked into the hall and I nodded, understanding that desire.

  “But now that the temple is finished, the soldiers wonder what will happen next. Pharaoh is afraid of the army. He won’t send us to war even though the Hittites encroach on our territory with every season that passes and Egypt offers no resistance. With Panahesi serving Aten and Amunhotep building temples to glorify Aten’s reign, your father ascends the throne of Egypt. Perhaps not literally, but in every other way he is Pharaoh, miw-sher. Now is the time to decide what you want in this life. Your name etched in sandstone for eternity or happiness?”

  “And how do you know I’m not happy here?”

  “Because you’re standing in a corner speaking with me while your sister sits on the Horus throne and your father smoothes her way. If you were content, you’d be there.” He indicated the table for the royal family, presided over by my mother and father, the two of them surrounded by bald-headed men in fine linen. “So where does that leave you, little cat?”

  “As the handmaiden to Nefertiti,” I said sharply.

  “You could always change that.” Nakhtmin regarded me with interest, then added meaningfully, “By marrying someone.”

  “Mutny, would you find me my robe?”

  I looked up from my Senet game but remained in my chair. “Where’s Merit? Can’t she get you a robe?”

  Nefertiti watched me with her large painted eyes from where the milk nurse was feeding Meritaten. Sitting next to the woman, she stroked the princess’s downy hair. “I can’t leave Meritaten. Won’t you get it? It’s just in the other room.”

  “Go ahead, Mutny,” my mother said. “She’s busy.”

  “She’s always busy!”

  My mother gave me a look that told me simply to do it, and I returned with my sister’s robe. I paused over Meritaten’s tiny face. She had her mother’s coloring, the light hue of sand, but her eyes were olive, like Amunhotep’s. It was impossible to tell whether she would have her mother’s jaw or her father’s height. But her nose was slender and long like Nefertiti’s. “She looks like you,” I said, and my sister smiled.

  My mother’s shoulders tensed. “Did you hear that?” she asked quickly, tearing her gaze from the Senet board.

  We all froze, even the milk nurse with Meritaten in her arms. I could hear what she was referring to. It was the sound of wailing women and temple bells.

  Nefertiti rose up. “What is it?”

  Then the door to the chamber swung open and Amunhotep’s grin was so wide that we knew. My mother covered her mouth with her hand.

  “He’s gone to Osiris,” Nefertiti whispered.

  Amunhotep embraced her. “The Elder is dead. I am Pharaoh of Egypt!”

  My father entered the room with Panahesi on his heels. In her joy, Nefertiti didn’t even notice that men were in her birthing chamber. My father bowed. “Shall we prepare for the move to Thebes, Your Highness?”

  “There will be no move to Thebes,” Amunhotep announced. “We will begin building the city of Amarna at once.”

  There was a sudden silence in the birthing chamber.

  “You will move the capital of Thebes?” my father asked.

  Amunhotep exulted, “For the glory of Aten.”

  My father glared at Nefertiti, who wouldn’t meet his gaze.

  Chapter Fifteen

  THEBES

  1349 BCE

  fifteenth of Thoth

  AMUNHOTEP PACED. “MY mother is in the Audience Chamber. She is wearing the Queen of Egypt’s crown. It is yours now. Shall I take it for you?”

  We sat in a circle in the richest chamber of Malkata: my mother, my father, Ipu, and I. We had sailed to Thebes for Pharaoh’s burial, and now the Elder’s room belonged to Amunhotep IV. We watched while Merit painted Nefertiti’s eyes. She was beyond us now. More powerful than Tiye. More powerful than our father even. When the Elder had been alive, there had always been the possibility of appealing to him for help if there was trouble. Now, there was only Nefertiti.

  “Let her keep the crown,” my sister ruled. “I will wear a crown that no Queen of Egypt has ever worn. Something I have created.” She looked over at Thutmose, who went wherever we did.

  But Amunhotep wasn’t satisfied. “We should take the crown,” he insisted cruelly. “She could be dang
erous to us.”

  My father’s gaze found Nefertiti’s, who stood up at once. “It’s not necessary,” she replied.

  “She was my father’s wife!” Amunhotep rejoined, his voice full of menace.

  “And she is my father’s sister. He will watch her for you.”

  Amunhotep studied my father, then shrugged, as if his mother was a matter he was willing to let go. “I want to move from this city as soon as we can find a place to build.”

  “We will,” Nefertiti promised, going to him and caressing his cheek. “But we must put things in order.”

  “Yes,” he agreed. “We must rid ourselves of the Amun priests before they can try assassination—”

  “Your Highness,” my father interrupted.

  “I won’t have them disturbing my sleep!” he raged. “I dream about them at night. They’re in my dreams. But I will send the priests to the quarries.”

  I gasped, and even Nefertiti froze at the suggestion. These were men who had never toiled a day in their lives, representatives of Amun who spent their time praying. “Perhaps we should just send them away,” she offered.

  “So they can plot somewhere else?” Amunhotep demanded. “No. I will send them all to the quarries.”

  “But they will die,” I blurted before I could stop myself.

  Amunhotep turned his dark gaze on me. “Very good.”

  “And what about the ones who will bow to Aten? They can be saved,” Nefertiti implored.

  Amunhotep faltered. “We will offer them the chance. But those who refuse will be shackled and sentenced.” He left the room, shouting at his guards to keep seven paces back.

  “The Elder has not been a month in his tomb and you are planning the destruction of Thebes?” my father asked furiously. “The people will see that this is against the laws of Ma’at. They will never forget this.”

  “Then we will give them something else to remember,” Nefertiti swore. Her eyes were painted and around her throat was the golden symbol of life. “Bring me my crown.” Thutmose disappeared. Then Nefertiti took off her wig and those of us in the room let out a cry.

 
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