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       Nefertiti, p.21

           Michelle Moran

  “Yes.” I bit my lip so I wouldn’t say anything against the ambitions of my family, then stepped closer. “And what is the news from the temples?” I asked quietly.

  “The temples of Amun all across Egypt have been sealed.”

  I tried to imagine it: temples that had stood since the time of Hatshepsut boarded up and their holy waters left to dry. What would become of all the statues to Amun and the priests who’d once paid obeisance to them? How would the god know we still wanted his guidance? I closed my eyes and sent a silent prayer to the god who had watched over us for two thousand years. “And the temples of Isis? And Hathor?” I asked him.


  I covered my mouth. “Were many killed?”

  “Not by me,” he said firmly as a soldier came toward us.

  “General,” he called, and when he saw me his eyes lit up with surprise. He executed a hasty bow. “Lady Mutnodjmet, your father is in the Audience Chamber. If you are looking for him—”

  “I am not looking for him.”

  The soldier passed Nakhtmin a curious look.

  “What did you need?” Nakhtmin asked the soldier.

  “There is a woman who claims to be a cousin of the Elder’s, but she’s wearing neither gold nor silver and has no cartouche to identify herself. I placed her in line with the others, but she says she belongs—”

  “Place her with the nobility. If she is lying, she will pay the price when her petition is revoked. Warn her of that before you move her.”

  The soldier bowed. “Thank you, General. My lady.”

  He left, and I noticed that Ahmose the gardener was gone.

  “Shall I take you back to the palace?” Nakhtmin asked. “A hot, dirty courtyard full of petitioners is no place for the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife.”

  I raised my brows. “Then what is my place?”

  He took my arm and we walked together in the shade of the gardens. “With me.” We stopped beneath the acacias. “You are tired of being handmaiden to your sister. Otherwise, you would be with her now. Choosing the site for Amarna.”

  “There can be no future for us, General—”

  “Nakhtmin,” he corrected me, taking my hands, and I let him.

  “We’re going to the desert soon,” I warned. “We’ll be living in tents.”

  He pulled me toward him. “I have lived in tents and barracks since I was twelve years old.”

  “But there will not be the freedom we have here.”

  “What?” He laughed. “Do you think I just want to meet you for secret trysts?”

  “Then what do you want?”

  “I want to marry you,” he said simply.

  I closed my eyes, enjoying the warmth of his skin against mine. In the gardens, there was no one to see us. “She will never let me go,” I warned him.

  “I am one of the highest-ranking generals in Pharaoh’s army. My ancestors were viziers, and before that they were scribes. I am no common mercenary. Every Pharaoh has married his sisters and daughters to generals in the army as a way of protecting the royal family.”

  “Not this Pharaoh,” I said, thinking of Akhenaten’s fear of the army. “This royal family is not like any other.”

  “Then you don’t belong with them.” His lips brushed against mine, and far behind us the hundreds of petitioners disappeared.

  We didn’t leave the gardens until the sun had nearly set, setting the sky ablaze in violet and red. When I was late returning to my chamber, Ipu was in a state.

  “I nearly sent the guards after you, my lady!”

  I grinned, tossing my linen cloak onto the bed. “Oh, there was no need for that.” I met her glance.

  “My lady. You weren’t with the general?”

  I stifled a giggle. “Yes.” Then I lost my enthusiasm, realizing what this would mean.

  Ipu whispered, “What of Pharaoh?”

  “Nefertiti will have to convince him,” I said.

  Ipu found a fresh robe in one the baskets and draped it over my shoulders, watching me with concern.

  “I’m fifteen already!”

  Ipu kept watching. She sat down on the edge of a gold and ebony chair, folding her hands in front of her. “I am thinking this will not go well, my lady.”

  I felt some of the color drain from my face, remembering Nakhtmin’s strong arms around me. “I can’t be her handmaiden forever!” I exclaimed. “She has a husband and a family and a hundred doting servants! She has endless noblewomen waiting for her appearance so they can run off and copy her robes, her hair, her latest earrings. What does she need me for?”

  “She will always need you.”

  “But it isn’t what I want! I don’t need this!” I flung my arm to encompass the heavy woven tapestries and bright ivory lamps. “No.” I shook my head. “She will have to accept it. She will have to convince him.”

  Ipu’s face tightened. “Be careful. Think of the general’s position.”

  “We will wait until the move is complete. Then I will tell her.”

  “And if he is dismissed?”

  If he was dismissed, then I would know where I stood in my family.

  When Nefertiti returned to Thebes, she was furious. She paced my chamber, kicking at a stray piece of coal from the brazier and enjoying the dark streak it left along the floor. It was Akhenaten’s time with Kiya and he had not come back early, as he usually did.

  “He wants to build her a palace,” she seethed.

  “So then you will let him,” my father replied. He steadied her with his sharp blue eyes.

  “A palace!” She turned. “An entire palace?”

  “Let him build her a palace,” my father said. “Who says it has to be in the city?”

  Nefertiti’s eyes grew wide. “It could be to the north. It could be outside the city even.”

  “But inside the walls,” my father clarified.

  “All right. But the walls will be wide,” she warned. She collapsed into a chair and looked into the brazier’s glowing flames. “The army is being sent to Amarna,” she said casually.

  My breath caught in my throat. “What? When do they leave?” There was too much haste in my voice, and Nefertiti regarded me suspiciously.

  “Tomorrow,” she replied. “As soon as the servants pack, we will leave after them. I don’t trust Panahesi. I want to see that every coin in the treasury is going into the building and not into his pocket.”

  “Then Tiye and I will be staying behind in Thebes,” my father said. “We can’t hear petitioners—”

  “Dismiss the petitioners! I need you there with me.”

  “Impossible. Do you want a nation wealthy enough to build a new city or a nation on the brink of starvation?”

  Nefertiti stood up. She wore her crown indoors, even with us, her own family. “Egypt will never be on the brink of starvation. Let the petitioners wait. Let the foreign governments find us in Amarna if they want us so badly.”

  My father shook his head and Nefertiti sank ungracefully into the chair.

  “Then who will I have?” she bemoaned.

  “You’ll have your servants. You’ll have Mutnodjmet.”

  She glanced at me. “Did you see the plans for the villas? One will be for you,” she said. “Of course, you’ll spend most of the time in the palace. I’ll need help. Especially now.” She looked down at her belly with tenderness. “Now that a son is on its way.”

  My father and I stood up at once and I exclaimed, “You are pregnant?”

  Nefertiti lifted her chin proudly. “Two months. I’ve already told mother. Even Akhenaten knows.” She narrowed her eyes. “He can go to Kiya every night of the month, but I am the one who is pregnant with his son. Two children. And all Kiya has given him is one.”

  I looked at my father, who said nothing about Kiya, even though I was sure I’d heard whisperings among the servants of how strange it was that since our family had come to court, Kiya had not fallen pregnant again. But my father’s face showed nothing bu
t pleasure.

  Senet boards and heavy thrones, cedar tables with dozens of chairs and lamps—all were loaded onto heavily weighted barges that floated north toward the city that wasn’t even a city. I stood and watched Malkata stripped of its most glorious treasures and tried to imagine what my aunt must be feeling, watching the rooms she and her husband had furnished emptied on a young Pharaoh’s whim. She stood with my father on the balcony of the Per Medjat, and they both surveyed the chaos in silence; her blue stare unnerved me.

  “You won’t be coming north then, Your Highness?”

  “No. I won’t be sleeping in a tent waiting for a palace to be built from the sand. Your father can go.”

  I was surprised. “You’ll be coming with us then?” I asked my father.

  “Only to see what’s been done so far,” he replied.

  “But it’s only been a month.”

  “And there are thousands of workers already building. They will have cut the roads and built houses by now.”

  “When you have the entire army at your disposal,” my aunt said sharply, “it’s amazing what can be done.”

  “And the Hittites?” I asked fearfully.

  Tiye glared at my father. “We will simply have to hope our new queen will show my son the wisdom in defending our territories.” It was clear from her tone that she expected no such thing.

  Nefertiti has not done what she was supposed to, I thought. Instead of risking her place as Chief Wife to sway Pharaoh, she’s protected it by goading him on. All three of us looked down on Akhenaten, instructing his Nubian guards, and I heard my aunt heave a heavy sigh. I wondered how much of it was regret over choosing Nefertiti as Chief Wife the day she’d come to visit us in Akhmim. She might have chosen any of the palace girls. Even Kiya. My father turned toward me.

  “Go,” he suggested. “Go and pack, Mutnodjmet.”

  I returned to my chamber and sat on my bed, looking at my windowsill where my little pots of herbs had been. They had been so many places with me. First in Thebes, then Memphis, then back to Thebes, and soon to the desert city of Amarna.

  The site that Akhenaten had chosen for his capital was surrounded by hills. There were overhanging cliffs to the north and copper-colored dunes to the south. The Nile ran along the western edge of our new city, where goods from Memphis and Thebes could be brought. In the midst of the endless stretches of sand, a road had been built, big enough to fit three chariots side by side. It was the Royal Road, Nefertiti said, and when it was completed it would run through the center of the entire city. It was a road unlike any ever created, just as this would be a city unlike anything that had ever come before it, a jewel on the east bank of the Nile that would write our family’s name in eternity. “When future generations speak of Amarna,” she vowed, “they will speak of Nefertiti and Akhenaten the Builder.”

  The workmen’s village was to the east. As my father had predicted, there were hundreds of workers’ houses already built, and the barracks for the soldiers had been placed at the edge of the city. To the south, the villas of the nobility were being constructed around the beginnings of a palace, and in the midst of it all, surrounded by palms and giant oaks, lay the half-built Temple of Aten. An avenue of sphinxes led to its gates, where my sister would travel by chariot every morning to do obeisance to Aten. Even with the help of the army, I didn’t see how it had all been done.

  “How could they have done this in such little time?”

  “Look at the construction,” my father said tersely.

  I squinted. “Cheap?”

  “Mud brick and sandstone talatat. And instead of taking the time to create raised reliefs, they’ve cut them into the rock.”

  I turned, holding my robe down in the wind. “And you allowed it?” I asked him.

  “What is to allow with Akhenaten? It’s his city.”

  We looked down over the building and I said thoughtfully, “No, it’s all our city now. It is with him that our names will be remembered.”

  My father didn’t reply. Tonight he would sail the Nile toward Thebes and return only when the palace was finished. And who knew when that might be. Five months? A year?

  Our procession of viziers, followed by nobility and a thousand court servants, turned into the walled City of Tents. Then we crossed on foot over the rolling landscape to the brightly colored pavilions of the royal court. The soldiers’ tents were set up outside the wall in rings, three tents deep, and as we passed through the gates I wondered which was Nakhtmin’s. We stopped before the Great Pavilion where the court of Amarna would dine.

  “So what do you think?” Nefertiti asked at last.

  “Your husband has large aspirations,” our father said, and only I knew what he really meant. That it was a cheap, quick city, a pale shadow of Thebes.

  Two soldiers parted the curtains of the Great Pavilion. Newly polished tables stretched over rugs and tiled flooring. The walls had been covered with tapestries. At the longest table, Akhenaten was pouring himself wine. He was smug in his confidence as he raised his cup. “So how does the great vizier find the new city?”

  My father was the perfect courtier. “The roads are very wide,” he replied.

  “Three chariots can ride abreast,” he boasted, seating himself. “Maya says if we push, the palace will be done by the beginning of Mesore.”

  My father hesitated. “You’ll get poor quality and half finished monuments.”

  “What does it matter,” he hissed, “so long as the temple and the palace are built to last? The workers can rebuild their houses. I want this city before I die.”

  My father pointed out, “Your Highness, you are only nineteen—”

  Akhenaten brought down his fist on the table in front of him. “And I am hunted at every hour! Do you really think I’m safe among the soldiers? Do you think General Nakhtmin wouldn’t try to turn my men against me if he were given the chance? And then the priests of Amun,” Akhenaten continued. “How many might escape the quarries to come hunt me in my sleep? In my own pavilion? In the halls of my own palace?”

  Nefertiti laughed nervously. “This is foolishness, Akhenaten. You have the best guards in Egypt.”

  “Because they are Nubians! The only men who are loyal to me are outside of Egypt!” Akhenaten’s eyes flashed and I looked to my father. He had dropped his perfect courtier’s mask and I could see what he was thinking. The Pharaoh of Egypt had become insane. “Who can I trust?” Akhenaten demanded. “My wife. My daughter. The High Priest of Aten and you.” He whirled on my father. “Who else?”

  My father met his gaze. “There’s an army of men waiting for you to lead them. They trust you and believe in your will to conquer and keep the Hittites at bay. They will do whatever you ask.”

  “And I am asking them to build the greatest city in Egypt! Nefertiti tells me you are returning to Thebes. When?”

  “Tonight. Until the palace is finished, it is the wisest thing, Your Highness.”

  Akhenaten set down his wine. “Isn’t my mother in Thebes?”

  Nefertiti glanced at my father.

  “I don’t like the idea of the two of you there,” Akhenaten admitted. “In the former capital of Egypt. Alone.”

  Nefertiti moved quickly around the side of the table. “Akhenaten, it is better this way. Do you want foreign leaders to send their ambassadors to meet us in pavilions? What will the ambassadors think? If they come to Amarna before it’s finished, imagine what they will report back home to their kings.”

  Akhenaten looked at his wife and then at his trusted vizier. “You’re right,” he said slowly. “No dignitary must see Amarna before it’s finished.” But his dark eyes met my father’s. “You will not be taking Mutny.”

  My father smiled easily. “No,” he replied. “Mutny stays here.”

  Akhenaten was afraid my father would take me to Thebes as his heir, and then crown himself Pharaoh to reign with Tiye. So I am to be his hostage, I thought. Nefertiti colored at the idea that my father would ever choose me
over her. She swept past Akhenaten, hooking her arm through our father’s and said sharply, “Come. I will see you off.”

  Akhenaten rose to join us, and Nefertiti leveled him with her gaze.

  We stood on the quay and my eyes filled with tears. It was possible that my father would be gone for months, and suddenly I found myself wishing as much as Akhenaten did that the palace would be finished.

  “Don’t be sad, little cat.” My father kissed the top of my head. “You have your mother and sister.”

  “And you will come back,” my mother’s voice was constricted, “just as soon as the palace is finished?”

  He cupped her chin in his palm, brushing her hair from her face with his thumb. “I promise. It is business I’m going for. If I didn’t have to—”

  Nefertiti stepped forward, interrupting their moment. “Good-bye, Father.”

  My father gave a parting look to my mother, then turned to Nefertiti. He embraced her. “Your time will be near when I return,” he said.

  She rested her hand on her stomach. “An heir for the throne of Egypt,” she said proudly.

  We watched the ship set sail. As the barge disappeared over the horizon, Akhenaten came to stand next to me. “He is a loyal vizier.” He put his arms around my shoulders and I tensed. “Isn’t that right, Mutnodjmet?”

  I nodded.

  “I hope so,” he whispered. “Because if he should try to make a move for the crown, it wouldn’t be my wife who would suffer the consequences.”

  “My lady!” Ipu cried. “My lady, sit down. You are shaking.”

  I took a seat on my bed and put my hands beneath my legs. “Would you make me some tea?”

  Ipu lit the brazier. Once she’d boiled a pan of water, she poured it into a cup with leaves. “You look ill,” she said quietly, bringing me the tea and inviting my confidence.

  I lifted the cup to my lips and drained it. “It’s nothing,” I said. Only an empty threat. My father was no traitor. “Was anyone here to visit today?” I asked her.

  “Like the general?”

  My eyes flew to the door and she lowered her voice.

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