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       Nefertiti, p.2

           Michelle Moran

  “And Aten is the sun itself,” he said.

  I didn’t understand. “But why would Amunhotep want to build temples to a sun god that no one has heard of?”

  “Because if he builds temples to Aten, there will be no need for the priests of Amun.”

  I was shocked. “He wants to be rid of them?”

  “Yes.” My father nodded. “And go against all the laws of Ma’at.”

  I sucked in my breath. No one went against the goddess of truth. “But why?”

  “Because the crown prince is weak,” my father explained. “Because he is weak and shallow, and you should learn to recognize men who are afraid of others with power, Mutnodjmet.”

  My mother threw a sharp glance at him. It was treason, what my father just said, but there was no one to hear it above the splash of the oars.

  Nefertiti was waiting for us. She was recovering from fever, but even so she was sitting in the garden, reclining by the lotus pool, the moonlight reflecting off her slender arms. She stood up as soon as she saw us, and I felt a sort of triumph that I had seen the prince’s funeral and she’d been too sick to go. Guilt swept this feeling away, however, when I saw the longing in her face.

  “Well, how was it?”

  I’d planned on having the information drawn out of me, but I couldn’t be cruel the way she could be. “Absolutely magnificent,” I gushed. “And the sarcophagus—”

  “What are you doing out of bed?” my mother scolded. She was not Nefertiti’s mother. She was only mine. Nefertiti’s mother had died when her daughter was two; she’d been a princess from Mitanni and my father’s first wife. She was the one who gave Nefertiti her name, which meant the Beautiful One Has Come. And though we were related, there was no comparing us: Nefertiti was small and bronze, with black hair, dark eyes, and cheekbones you could cup in the palm of your hand, whereas I am dark, with a narrow face that would never be picked out of a crowd. At birth, my mother didn’t name me for beauty. She called me Mutnodjmet, meaning Sweet Child of Goddess Mut.

  “Nefertiti should be in bed,” my father said. “She’s not feeling well.” And although it was my sister he should have been reprimanding, it was me to whom he spoke.

  “I’ll be fine,” Nefertiti promised. “See, I’m better already.” She smiled for him, and I turned to see my father’s reaction. Like always, he had a soft look for her.

  “Nevertheless,” my mother cut in, “you were hot with fever and you will go back to bed.”

  We let ourselves be herded inside, and when we lay on our reed mats, Nefertiti rolled over, her profile sharp in the light of the moon. “So, what was it like?”

  “Frightening,” I admitted. “The tomb was huge. And dark.”

  “And the people? How many people were there?”

  “Oh, hundreds. Maybe even thousands.”

  She sighed. She had missed a chance to be seen. “And the new crown prince?”

  I hesitated. “He…”

  She sat up on her pallet, nodding for me to go on.

  “He is strange,” I whispered.

  In the moonlight, Nefertiti’s dark eyes glittered. “How do you mean?”

  “He is obsessed with Aten.”

  “With what?”

  “With an image of the sun,” I explained. “How can you honor an image of the sun and not Amun-Ra, who controls it?”

  She was quiet. “That’s it?”

  “He’s also tall.”

  “Well, he can’t be that much taller than you.”

  I ignored her criticism. “He’s much taller. Two heads over Father.”

  She wrapped her arms around her knees and replied, “This should be interesting, then.”

  I frowned. “What?”

  She didn’t explain.

  “What should be interesting, then?” I repeated.

  “Marriage,” she said lightly, lying back down and pulling the linen cover over her chest. “With a coronation so close, Amunhotep will need to pick a Chief Wife, and why not me?”

  Why not her? She was beautiful, educated, the daughter of a Mitanni princess. I felt a sharp stab of jealousy, but also fear. I had never known a time without Nefertiti.

  “Of course, you’ll come with me,” she said, yawning. “Until you’re old enough to be married, you’ll be my Chief Lady.”

  “Mother wouldn’t allow me to go to the palace alone.”

  “You wouldn’t be alone. She’d come, too.”

  “To the palace!” I exclaimed.

  “Mutny, when you’re Chief Wife, your family comes with you. Our father is the greatest vizier in the land. Our aunt is the queen. Who would dare to say no?”

  In the middle of the night, a long shadow lingered outside our room, then a servant entered, holding an oil lamp above Nefertiti’s head. I awoke at the brightness and saw my sister’s face in the golden light, perfect even in her sleep.

  “My lady?” our servant called, but Nefertiti didn’t stir. “My lady?” she called louder. She looked at me, and I shook Nefertiti awake. “My lady, the Vizier Ay would like to speak with you.”

  I sat up quickly. “Is something wrong?”

  But Nefertiti didn’t say a word. She stepped into her robe, taking an oil lamp down from the wall and sheltering the sputtering flame with her hand. “What’s happening?” I asked, but she didn’t reply. The door simply whispered shut in her wake. I waited up for my sister’s return, and by the time she came back, the moon was a yellow disk high in the sky. “Where were you?” I scrambled up on my pallet.

  “Father wanted to speak with me.”

  “Alone?” I challenged her. “And at night?”

  “When else are all the nosy servants asleep?”

  Then I knew at once. “He doesn’t want you to marry Amunhotep,” I said.

  Nefertiti rolled her shoulders, playing coy. “I’m not afraid of Kiya.”

  “It’s Vizier Panahesi he’s concerned about.”

  “I want to be Chief Wife, Mutnodjmet. I want to be Queen of Egypt the way my grandmother was Queen of Mitanni.”

  She sat down on her pallet and we were silent, illuminated only by the flame of the lamp she’d brought in.

  “And what did Father say?”

  She shrugged again.

  “Did he tell you what happened in the tombs?”

  “So he refused to kiss the jars,” she said dismissively. “What does that matter if in the end I’m sitting on the Horus throne? Amunhotep is going to be the Pharaoh of Egypt,” she added, as if this settled the matter. “And Father has already said yes.”

  “He said yes?” I threw off my linen cover. “But he couldn’t have said yes. He said the prince was unstable. He swore he would never give a daughter to that man!”

  “And he changed his mind.” In the flickering candlelight, I saw her lie down and draw up the covers. “Will you find me some juice in the kitchens?” she asked.

  “It’s night,” I retorted, my voice tight with disapproval.

  “But I’m sick,” she reminded. “I have fever.”

  I hesitated.

  “Please, Mutny. Please.”

  I would go, but only because she had fever.

  The next morning, the tutors ended our lessons early. There was no sign of illness on Nefertiti. “But we shouldn’t tax her,” my father said.

  My mother disagreed. “These are all the lessons she will ever have if she’s to be married soon. She should learn what she can.”

  My mother, who had not been raised among nobility like my father’s first wife, knew the importance of an education, for she’d had to fight for hers when she was young and the daughter of a simple village priest. But my father turned his palm over.

  “What else is there for her to learn? She excels at languages, and she’s more proficient than the palace scribes at writing.”

  “She doesn’t know the healing herbs like Mutny,” my mother pointed out.

  I raised my chin, but my father only replied, “That is Mutnodjmet’s gift. Neferti
ti has other skills.”

  We all looked at my sister, the center of attention in her short white sheath, her feet dangling in the lotus pools. Ranofer, the son of a local physician, had brought her flowers, a bunch of white lilies bound with twine. He was supposed to be my tutor, teaching me the secrets of medicine and herbs, but he spent more time watching my sister.

  “Nefertiti charms people,” my father said approvingly, “and the people she doesn’t charm she can easily outwit. What does she need with herbs and medicine when she wants to be a leader of the people?”

  My mother furrowed her brows. “If the queen approves.”

  “The queen is my sister,” my father said simply. “She will approve of Nefertiti as Chief Wife.” But I could see the concern in his eyes. A crown prince who defiled his brother’s burial chamber, a man who couldn’t control his own emotions? What kind of Pharaoh would he make? What kind of husband?

  We stood and looked at Nefertiti until she saw the three of us watching her. She beckoned me over with her finger. I went to where they were laughing by the pools, my sister and my tutor.

  “Good afternoon, Mutnodjmet.” Ranofer smiled up at me, and for a moment I forgot what I had wanted to tell him.

  “I tried the aloe today,” I said at last. “It healed our servant’s burns.”

  “Really?” Ranofer sat up. “What else?”

  “I mixed it with lavender and there was less swelling.”

  He smiled wider at me. “You are surpassing even my teaching, my lady.”

  I grinned, proud of my ingenuity. “Next, I think I want to try—”

  “Talking about something interesting?” Nefertiti sighed and leaned back in the sunshine. “Tell me, what was Father saying just now?”

  “Right now?” I am a terrible liar.

  “Yes. While you were standing there spying on me.”

  I flushed. “He spoke of your future.”

  She sat up, the ends of her black hair brushing her chin. “And?”

  I paused, wondering if I should tell her the rest. She waited. “And that the queen might be coming,” I said at last.

  Immediately, Ranofer’s smile vanished. “But if she comes”—his voice rose—“you will leave Akhmim.”

  Nefertiti frowned over Ranofer’s head at me. “Don’t worry,” she promised lightly. “Nothing will come of it.”

  There was a moment between them, then Ranofer took her hand and they both stood up.

  “Where are you going?” I cried, but Nefertiti didn’t answer, so I called after my tutor. “What about our lesson?”

  “Later.” He grinned, but it was only my sister he really had eyes for.

  Word arrived that the queen would pay a visit to our villa in Akhmim. In our family shrine, this was what Nefertiti had been secretly praying for, laying down bowls of our best honeyed wine at the feet of Amun and promising all sorts of wild things if he would only send the queen to our city. Now that Amun seemed to have granted her request, Nefertiti was unbearable in her excitement. While my sister preened, my mother rushed around the house, snapping at slaves and servants alike.

  “Mutny, make sure the towels are clean. Nefertiti, the bowls please. Make sure the servants have washed them. All of them.”

  Our servants dusted the fringed wall hangings while my mother arranged our best inlaid chairs around the Audience Chamber, which would be the first room the queen would enter. Queen Tiye was my father’s sister; she was a hard woman and would not approve of sloppy housekeeping. The tiles in the kitchen were scrubbed to gleaming, even though the queen would go nowhere near them, and the lotus pool was stocked with orange fish. Even Nefertiti did some work, actually inspecting the bowls instead of pretending she had. In six days, Amunhotep the Younger would be crowned at Karnak and made coregent with his father. Even I knew what this visit meant. The queen had not come all the way to Akhmim for over six years. The only reason to visit now would be for a marriage.

  “Mutny, go help your sister get dressed,” my mother said.

  In our room, Nefertiti stood in front of the mirror. She pushed her dark hair from her face, imagining herself with the crown of Egypt. “This is it,” she whispered. “I will be the greatest queen Egypt has ever known.”

  I scoffed. “No queen will ever be greater than our aunt.”

  She whirled around. “There was Hatshepsut. And our aunt doesn’t wear the pschent crown.”

  “Only a Pharaoh can wear it.”

  “So while she commands the army and meets with foreign leaders, what does she get? Nothing. It is her husband who reaps the glory. When I am queen, it will be my name that lives in eternity.”

  I knew better than to argue with Nefertiti when she was like this. I mixed the kohl and handed it to her in a jar, then watched her apply it. She rimmed her eyes and darkened her brows, and the paint made her look older than her fifteen years.

  “Do you really think you will become Chief Wife?” I asked.

  “Who would our aunt rather see give birth to an heir? A commoner”—she wrinkled her nose—“or her niece?”

  I was a commoner, but it wasn’t me she was slighting. It was Panahesi’s daughter, Kiya, who was the child of a noblewoman, whereas Nefertiti was the granddaughter of a queen.

  “Can you find my linen dress and gold belt?” she said.

  I narrowed my eyes. “Just because you’re about to make a marriage doesn’t make me your slave.”

  She smiled widely. “Please, Mutny. You know I can’t do this without you.” She watched in the mirror while I rummaged through her chests, looking for the gown she wore only to festivals. I pulled out her golden belt and she protested, “The one with onyx, not turquoise.”

  “Don’t you have servants for this?” I demanded.

  She ignored me and held out her hand for the belt. Personally, I liked the turquoise better. There was a knock on the door, and then my mother’s servant appeared, her face bright with excitement.

  “Your mother says to be quick!” the girl cried. “The caravan has been spotted.”

  Nefertiti looked at me. “Think of it, Mutny. You will be sister to the Queen of Egypt!”

  “If she likes you,” I said flatly.

  “Of course she will.” She glanced in the mirror at her own reflection, her small honeyed shoulders and rich black hair. “I’ll be charming and sweet, and when we’ve moved into the palace, just think of all the things we can do!”

  “We do plenty of things here,” I protested. “What’s wrong with Akhmim?”

  She took the brush and finished her hair. “Don’t you want to see Karnak and Memphis and be a part of the palace?”

  “Father’s part of the palace. He says it makes him tired, so much talk of politics.”

  “Well, that’s Father. He gets to go to the palace every day. What do we ever get to do here?” she complained. “Nothing but wait for a prince to die so that we can go out and see the world.”

  I sucked in my breath. “Nefertiti!”

  She laughed merrily. Then my mother appeared in the doorway, breathless. She had put on her good jewels and heavy new bangles I’d never seen before. “Are you ready?”

  Nefertiti stood up. Her dress was sheer, and I felt a wave of pure envy at the way the material tightened across her thighs and emphasized the slenderness of her waist.

  “Wait.” My mother put her hand in the air. “We must have a necklace. Mutny, go and fetch the gold collar.”

  I gasped. “Your collar?”

  “Of course. Now hurry! The guard will let you into the treasury.”

  I was shocked that my mother would let Nefertiti wear the collar my father had given her on their wedding day. I had underestimated how important my aunt’s visit was to her, then. To us all. I hurried to the treasury in the back of the house, and the sentry looked up at me with a smile. I was taller than him by a head. I blushed.

  “My mother wants the collar for my sister.”

  “The gold collar?”

  “What other
collar is there?”

  He snapped his head back. “Well. Must be for something very important. I hear the queen is arriving today.”

  I placed my hands on my hips so that he knew that I was waiting.

  “All right, all right.” He descended into the underground chamber and reappeared with my mother’s treasure, which would be mine someday. “So your sister must be getting married,” he said.

  I held out my hand. “The collar.”

  “She would make a fine queen.”

  “So everybody says.”

  He smiled like he knew my thoughts on the matter, the prying old donkey, then he held out the collar and I snatched it. I ran back to my room and held up the heavy jewel like a prize. Nefertiti looked to my mother.

  “Are you sure?” She looked at the gold, and her eyes reflected its light.

  My mother nodded. She fastened it around my sister’s neck, then we both stood back. The gold began at my sister’s throat in a lotus pattern, dipping between her breasts in droplets of various lengths. I was glad she was two years older than me. If I had been the one to marry first, no man would have chosen me over her. “Now we are ready,” my mother said. She led the way to the Audience Chamber, where the queen was waiting. We could hear her speaking with my father, her voice low and grating and full of command.

  “Come when you are called,” my mother said quickly. “There are gifts on the table from our treasury. Bring them when you enter. The larger one is for Nefertiti to carry.”

  Then she disappeared inside, and we stood in the tiled hall to wait for our summons.

  Nefertiti paced. “Why wouldn’t she choose me to marry her son? I’m her brother’s child, and our father has the highest position in the land.”

  “Of course she’ll choose you.”

  “But for Chief Wife? I won’t be anything less, Mutny. I won’t be some lesser wife thrown into a palace that Pharaoh comes to visit only every two seasons. I’d rather marry a vizier’s son.”

  “She’ll want you.”

  “Of course, it’s really up to Amunhotep.” She stopped pacing, and I realized that she was talking to herself. “In the end, he’ll be the one who chooses. He’s the one who has to get a son on me, not her.”

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