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       Nefertiti, p.22

           Michelle Moran
 

  “No. I’m sorry. Perhaps he can’t get through the royal camp with so many guards.”

  A shadow lengthened outside the door of our pavilion. Someone pushed back the flap and Merit appeared.

  “My lady, the queen wishes to see you,” she said. “The young princess has earache and the queen is ill. Pharaoh has asked for a physician, but she’s said she’ll only have you.”

  “Tell her I’m coming,” I said at once. Merit disappeared, and I rummaged through my boxes. I took out mint for Meritaten. But what for Nefertiti? “I don’t know why she should be sick,” I mumbled. She was only two months. She had carried Meritaten for five months before ever feeling ill.

  “Perhaps it is a son,” Ipu said. I nodded. Yes. Perhaps that was the sign. I took out the fenugreek, shoving the dried herbs into several pouches.

  The Nubian guards parted to let me inside the Royal Pavilion where the royal couple slept. At the bed, Akhenaten was standing over Nefertiti, holding her while she heaved into a cup. It was a strangely tender scene—this man, who thought nothing of sending men to their death, hovering over his queen while she was sick.

  “Mutny, the herbs.” Nefertiti groaned.

  Akhenaten watched me unwrap the herbs. “What are they?”

  “Fenugreek, Your Highness.”

  He snapped his fingers twice without taking his eyes from my face and two guards entered into the pavilion. “Test them.”

  I gaped at Nefertiti, who said sharply, “She’s my sister. She’s not going to poison me.”

  “She’s a rival to the crown.”

  “She’s my sister and I trust her!” Nefertiti’s voice brooked no argument. “And when she’s done, she will go to the nurse’s tent for Meritaten.”

  The guards stepped back. Akhenaten said nothing as I boiled water, steeping the herbs to make a tea. I brought it to my sister and she drank it completely. Akhenaten watched us from across the pavilion. “You don’t have to watch us,” Nefertiti snapped. “Go find Maya and look over the plans for the villa.”

  Akhenaten passed me a look of deep hatred, then swept through the tent flap and was gone.

  “You shouldn’t shout while I am here,” I told her. “He’ll think it’s me that makes you angry with him.”

  “It’s his obsession with assassination that makes me angry. He suspects everyone.”

  “Even your own sister?”

  She heard the criticism in my voice and said defensively, “He is Pharaoh of Egypt. No one faces the danger that he does, for nobody’s visions are grander than his.”

  I raised my brows. “Or more expensive.”

  “What is expense? We’re building a city that will last through eternity. Longer than you or I ever will.”

  “You are building a city of cheap material,” I replied. “A city as cheap as it is quick.”

  “Is this Father talking?” she demanded. “Does he think this city is cheap?”

  “Yes. And what if we’re invaded? Where will the gold come from to defend ourselves?”

  She sat up. “I won’t hear of this. I am carrying Egypt’s future in my belly and you are going on as if it’s doomed to failure! You’re just jealous! You’re jealous that I have a beautiful little girl and a son on the way, and you are nearly sixteen and Father has not even decided who you shall marry!”

  I stepped back, stung. “He hasn’t decided who I shall marry because of you. He wants me here with you, waiting hand and foot on you, giving advice to you. If I had a husband, none of that would be possible. Would it?”

  We stared at one another.

  “Am I dismissed?” I asked her.

  “To go to Meritaten. Then you will have dinner with us,” she replied.

  It wasn’t a question. It was a command.

  “What are you looking for, my lady?”

  “My cloak. I’m going out.”

  “But it’s nearly nighttime. You can’t go out now,” Ipu cried. “It could be dangerous.”

  “My sister has plenty of guards. I’ll take one of them.” I picked up my basket for collecting herbs and Ipu trailed after me. “Shall I come instead?”

  “Only if you feel like a walk.” I didn’t look behind me to see whether she had come, but I could hear her footsteps. She caught up to me at the gates. “You can’t go into a man’s camp—”

  “I’m the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife,” I retorted. “I can do what I want.”

  “My lady,” Ipu’s voice was desperate. “My lady.” She put her hand out to stop me. “Please, let me go instead. Let me give him a message.”

  Outside the walls, fires were being lit in the soldiers’ camp. One of those fires belonged to the general. I stopped and wondered what message I should give him. “Tell him…” I bit my lip and thought. “Tell him that I accept.”

  “What do you accept?” she asked cautiously.

  “Just tell him I accept and to come tonight.”

  Ipu’s eyes grew wide as cups. “To your pavilion?”

  “Yes. He can say he is coming to see Pharaoh.”

  “But won’t they know?” Ipu glanced at a nearby soldier.

  “Perhaps. But the guards at the gate are his men and they despise Akhenaten. They will turn their heads the other way. That I promise.”

  Amun must have been watching over me that night, because the fanfare and music accompanying our regular meals was mercifully short. Nefertiti ignored me while everyone laughed, telling stories about Memphis and what Amarna would be like once it was finished. Nevertheless, I walked Nefertiti back to the Royal Pavilion, and as we stepped into the chill night she shivered. Four guards stood back and two held open the flap leading into the Royal Pavilion. I walked Nefertiti to her large bed hung with linen. “Come and rub my back,” she requested.

  I took off my cloak and began with her shoulders. They were tense, even for a woman with child.

  “I wish Father was here,” she complained. “He’d understand how difficult this all is. The building and planning. He understands me.”

  “And I don’t?”

  “You don’t know what it’s like to be queen.”

  “So Father does?”

  “Father rules this kingdom. Even without the crook or flail, he is Pharaoh of Egypt.”

  “And I’m just a handmaiden to my sister,” I said sharply.

  She tensed. “Why are you so bitter?”

  “Because I’m sixteen years old and no one has planned my future!” I stopped rubbing the oil into her back. “Your future is all laid out. You’re queen. Someday you’ll be a mother to a king. And what will I be?”

  “The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife!”

  “But who will I love?”

  She sat up, taken aback. “Me.”

  I stared at her. “And what about a family?”

  “I’m your family.” She lay down again, expecting me to rub. “Warm the oil. It’s cold.”

  I closed my eyes and did as I was told. I wasn’t going to complain, not when it would only prolong my time in the Great Pavilion. I waited until Nefertiti fell asleep, then I washed my hands and crept outside into the cool Phamenoth night. In my own pavilion, Ipu was waiting. She stood up as soon as she saw me.

  “Are you sure about this?” she whispered. “Do you still want him to come?”

  I had never been more certain. “Yes.”

  Ipu’s hands flew around her in excitement. “Then I should braid your hair, my lady.”

  I sat down on my feathered cushion and couldn’t sit still. I had already told Ipu what the general had said. Now I told her that I wanted a quiet life. “A life away from any palace in a place where I can tend my herb garden and—”

  There was the crunch of boots on gravel and we both turned. Ipu dropped my braids in her hands. “He’s here!”

  I grabbed the mirror to check my appearance. “How do I look?”

  Ipu searched my face. “Like a young woman ready to meet her lover,” she said with slight consternation. “If your father—


  “Shh,” I remonstrated. “Not now!” I dropped the mirror. “Open the tent.”

  Ipu went to the door and the general’s voice came softly through hangings. “And you are sure that she sent for me?”

  “Of course. She is waiting for you inside.”

  Nakhtmin showed himself in. Then Ipu disappeared as I had instructed, and I held my breath. The general stood before me and bowed. “My lady.”

  Suddenly, I was very nervous. “Nakhtmin.”

  “You sent for me?”

  “I have thought over your proposal,” I replied.

  He raised his eyebrows. “And what has my lady decided?” he asked.

  “I have decided that I am done being the handmaiden to Nefertiti.”

  He stared at me in the firelight. In the glow of the flames, his hair was like copper. “Have you told your father this?”

  My cheeks warmed. “Not yet.”

  He thought of Nefertiti. “And I suspect the queen will be angry.”

  “To say nothing of Akhenaten,” I added. I looked up into his face and he wrapped his arms around me, grinning. “But what if we are banished?” I asked him.

  “Then we will go back to Thebes. I will sell the land I inherited from my father and we will buy a farm. One that is all ours, miw-sher, and we’ll have a quiet life away from the court and all its entanglements.”

  “But you will no longer be a general,” I warned.

  “And you will no longer be Sister to the King’s Chief Wife.”

  We were quiet, clasping hands by the fire. “I wouldn’t mind that.”

  I found I couldn’t tear my gaze away from his, and he stayed until the early hours of the dawn. It was the same throughout that entire month of Phamenoth and into Pharmuthi: The guards would look the other way and smile as he made his way to my tent. Sometimes when he came, we talked by the brazier, and I asked him what the men thought of Akhenaten.

  “They stay because they are paid so well,” he said. “It’s the only thing that keeps them from revolt. They want to fight. But they’re willing to build so long as the gold keeps coming.”

  “And Horemheb?”

  Nakhtmin heaved a heavy sigh. “I suppose that Horemheb is far to the north.”

  “Killed?”

  “Or fighting. Either way”—he stared into the flames of our small fire—“he is gone and Pharaoh has what he wanted.”

  I was quiet for a moment. “And what do the men say about my sister?”

  He glanced sideways at me, to gauge how much I really wanted to know. “They are under her spell the same as Pharaoh.”

  “Because she is beautiful?”

  He watched me carefully. “And entertaining. She goes into the workers’ villages and tosses deben of silver and gold into the streets. But she would do better to toss them bread, for there’s little to buy, even with all the gold in Egypt.”

  “Is there a shortage?” I asked.

  He glanced at me.

  “I didn’t know.” In the royal camp, there was plenty of everything: meats, fruits, breads, wines.

  “Until the population of Thebes moves north, there will always be a shortage. There are few bakers and no place to house them even if there were more.”

  A shadow appeared outside the tent and Nakhtmin rose. His hand flew to his sword.

  “My lady?” It was only Ipu. She pushed aside the flap and looked at Nakhtmin, blushing although he was fully clothed. “The queen is asking for you, my lady. She wants her tea.”

  I looked at Nakhtmin. “She doesn’t want tea. She only wants to gloat that they’ve nearly finished the palace.”

  “She could be an ally to us,” he said practically. “Go,” he suggested, “and I will see you tomorrow.” He stood up and my eyes filled with tears. Nakhtmin said kindly, “It’s not forever, miw-sher. You said yourself the palace is nearly finished. In a few days, then, your father will be here and we will go to him.”

  Nefertiti wasn’t due to give birth until Thoth, but she walked through the camp as if the child might come any day. Everyone had to stand three paces back when they were near her, and work in the city stopped when she went past, so that the noise of the hammers wouldn’t disturb the unborn child. She was convinced that it would be a prince, and Akhenaten catered to her every need, ordering her wool from Sumer and the softest linen from the weavers of Thebes. Then she tested her power by demanding that he stop visiting Kiya in the pavilion across the road, in case her worry should hurt the child.

  “Could it happen?” Akhenaten came upon me at the well. Though we had servants for fetching water, I enjoyed the musty scent of the earth. I lowered my bucket and shaded my eyes.

  “Could what happen, Your Majesty?”

  He looked across the lotus pond that had been built in the midst of our camp. “Could she lose the child if I were to upset her?”

  “Anything could happen, Your Majesty, if she were upset enough.”

  He hesitated. “How upset?”

  He misses Kiya, I thought. She listens to his poems and draws him into her quiet world while Nefertiti’s world never stops. “I suppose it depends on how fragile she is.”

  We both looked at Nefertiti, her small powerful body moving across the camp, trailed by seven guards.

  She came up to us and Akhenaten grinned, as if he hadn’t been talking about visiting Kiya. “My queen.” He took her hand and kissed it tenderly. “I have news.”

  Nefertiti’s eyes glittered. “What is it?”

  “Maya sent word this morning.”

  Nefertiti let out a little gasp. “The city is finished,” she guessed.

  Akhenaten nodded. “Maya has sworn that within days the walls will be painted and we shall leave our pavilions behind.”

  Nefertiti gave a small cry, but I thought at once of Nakhtmin. How would we meet once we moved? He would live with his men in the barracks and I would be trapped inside Akhenaten’s palace.

  “Shall we go and see it?” Akhenaten asked eagerly. “Shall we reveal our city to the people?”

  “We’ll take everyone,” Nefertiti decided. “Every vizier, every noblewoman, every child in Amarna.” She spun around to face me. “Has there been word from Father?”

  “Nothing,” I replied.

  She narrowed her eyes. “He hasn’t written to you secretly?”

  I stared at her. “Of course not.”

  “Good. I want to be the one to tell him Amarna is finished. When he sees the palace”—her face was exultant—“he will realize that Akhenaten was right. We have built the greatest city in Egypt.”

  At noon, the announcement was made: The gates would be opened and Amarna would be unveiled to the people at last. A palpable excitement passed through the camp. By orders of Pharaoh, only workers and noblemen had been allowed inside the gates to see the construction. Now the palace would be revealed, along with hundreds of villas crouched in the towering hills behind it. By evening, the long procession of chariots swept through the desert, carrying viziers and noblemen, foreigners and commoners. Riding beside me in my chariot, Ipu gasped as the gates were drawn open to the city of Amarna.

  The magnificent temple, with its glittering quay and its tightly packed villages, had been finished. Hundreds of white villas had been built for the nobility, and they sheltered like pearls in the folds of the hills. Everywhere was construction, everywhere were workers, but the city itself shone lustrous and white.

  The procession went first to the Temple of Aten. Beneath its pillared courtyard, priests were making sacrifices to the sun. The men bowed in obeisance to Pharaoh and my sister, and they fanned away the smoke so we could see how beautifully the courtyard had been done. Moringa and pomegranate trees trimmed the wall, but most brilliant were the safflowers, yellow and cheerful in the fading light of the open court. Light had obviously been important in the design, and Akhenaten announced proudly that he was the one who had instructed Maya to build the clerestory windows inside.

  “What are clerestory
windows?” I whispered.

  Nefertiti smiled slyly. “Come see.”

  We passed from the courtyard to the inner sanctum, where the evening light streamed down from the ceiling, filtering through long windows. I had never seen anything like it.

  “He is a genius,” Ipu said wonderingly.

  I pressed my lips together, but there was no denying it. Nothing like it had ever been built.

  Viziers and nobility walked into the temple, studying the tapestries and large mosaics while the rest of the procession waited in the courtyard.

  Nefertiti was triumphant. “What do you think Father will say?” she asked.

  That this is the most expensive temple ever built. But I replied, “That it is magnificent.”

  She smiled; I had said what she wanted to hear. But I would never tell her that it was worth Amun’s gold, or worth Egypt’s security and her vassal states. Akhenaten came up beside us.

  “Maya shall be rewarded richly,” he announced. He surveyed the fluted pillars of his temple, the wide stairways leading up to balconies where smaller sanctuaries were bathed in light. Warm air floated up from the river, wafting through the courtyard. “When the emissaries return to Assyria and Rhodes, they will know what kind of Pharaoh reigns now in Egypt.”

  “And when they see the bridge”—Nefertiti opened a heavy wooden door—“they will know that a visionary planned this.” The door swung back to reveal a bridge that arched over the Royal Road, connecting the Temple of Aten to the palace. It was higher than any bridge I had ever seen, wider and more elaborate. As we walked its expanse, I had the feeling I was crossing into the future, that I was seeing my grandchildren’s lives and what their world would look like after I was gone.

  In the palace, no expense had been spared. Windows swept from ceiling to floor and perfumed fountains tinkled musically in sunlit corners. There were chairs of ebony and ivory, beds inlaid with precious stone. I was shown to the room that I would have, and the chamber my parents would take, with blue glazed tiles and mosaics of hunting scenes.

  “We have named it Riverside Palace,” Nefertiti said, taking me to see every corner and niche. “Kiya’s palace has been built to the north.”

 
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