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       Nefertiti, p.23

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Outside the walls?” I asked warily.

  She smiled. “No, but far.”

  We walked through the water garden with its alabaster fountain, and I was amazed at what had been done. I couldn’t imagine how they had built it all so quickly, or how much gold it had taken. Nefertiti kept walking, pointing out statues that I should notice and brightly painted walls where her image stared back at us. The court followed jubilantly behind us, whispering and exclaiming among themselves. “And this is where the royal workshop shall be,” my sister said. “Thutmose will sculpt every part of our lives.”

  “In a thousand years, our people will know what we ate and where we drank,” Akhenaten vowed. “They will even see the Royal Robing Room.” He pushed open the door to a chamber with plush red cushions and boxes for wigs. There were kohl pots, copper mirrors, silver brushes, and perfume jars arranged on cedar stands, waiting to be used. “We will offer them a glimpse into our palace, and they will feel as if they have known the rulers of Egypt for a lifetime.”

  I surveyed the opulent chamber and wondered if I knew them myself. Nefertiti had spent Egypt poor for a city in the desert. It was new and it was breathtaking, but it was the sweat of soldiers that had built these walls, and painted these murals, and erected the colossal images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti so that the people would know they were always watching.

  “When Thutmose is finished,” Nefertiti swore, “Egypt will know me better than any other queen. In five hundred years, I’ll be alive to them, Mutnodjmet. Living on the walls, in the palace, across the temples. I’ll be immortal not just in the Afterlife, but here in Egypt. I could build a shrine where my children and their children would go to remember me. But when they are gone, what then? This”—and Nefertiti looked up, touching the brightly painted walls—“will last until eternity.”

  We passed through the doors of the Audience Chamber, and I noticed there were no images of bound Nubians on the tiles. Instead, there were images of the sun, its rays reaching down to Nefertiti and Akhenaten, kissing them in blessing. Akhenaten strode to the top of the dais and spread his arms. “When Thebans come,” he proclaimed, “every family will be given a home. Our people shall remember us as the monarchs who made them wealthy, and they will bless the city of Amarna!”

  “My lady, are you ill?” Ipu ran to fetch a bowl while I held my stomach and emptied its contents two, then three times. I groaned, resting my cheek against the soft leather of my padded stool. Ipu put her hands on her hips. “What have you eaten?”

  “I’ve had nothing since the tour of the palace. Goat’s cheese and nuts.”

  She frowned. “And your breasts?” She tugged at the corner of my shirt. “Are they darker”—she pressed her finger against my flesh—“tender?”

  My eyes went wide and a sudden fear welled up inside me. These were Nefertiti’s symptoms. This couldn’t be happening to me. Not after all the help I’d given women in this very camp. Ipu shook her head and whispered, “When was the last time you bled?”

  “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

  “What about the acacia?” she demanded.

  “I’ve been taking it.”

  “All the time?”

  “I don’t know. I think. So much has happened.”

  Ipu gasped. “Your father will be furious.”

  My lip trembled and I buried my head in my hands, for, instinctively, I knew it was true. I had missed my blood. “And I’m my mother’s only daughter,” I explained. “She will be so upset, so lonely if—” I began to cry and Ipu took me in her arms, stroking my long hair.

  “It may not be so bad,” she comforted. “No one knows better than you that there are ways to be rid of it.”

  I looked up sharply. “No!” I clasped my hands across my stomach. Kill Nakhtmin’s child? “Never.”

  “Then what else? If you have this child, your father will never make you a marriage!”

  “Good,” I said wildly. “Then the only man who will want me is the general.”

  But Ipu’s voice grew desperate. “And what about Pharaoh?”

  “I have done enough for Nefertiti. It’s her turn now. She will have to convince him.”

  Ipu’s look was incredulous, as if she didn’t believe it would happen.

  “She has to,” I said.

  I paced the tent all afternoon. Two women came for acacia and honey, and my insides turned as I handed the mixture to them, thinking of how careless I had been. Then Merit appeared; the queen was asking for me.

  “She wants to know if you will be coming for dinner?”

  “No,” I said, too ill with regret to face my sister. “Go and tell her that I am sick.”

  Merit disappeared, and several minutes later Nefertiti parted the curtains without announcing her arrival.

  “You are always sick lately.” She strode to a chair and sat down, studying me. I was sorting my herbs, and my hands trembled when they came to the acacia. “Especially at night,” she added suspiciously.

  “I haven’t been well for several days.” I didn’t lie.

  She watched me closely. “I hope you haven’t been taken with that general.” The color must have drained from my face because she added harshly, “This family cannot trust anyone in the army.”

  “So you’ve said.”

  Nefertiti studied me. “He has not come to visit you?” she demanded.

  I lowered my gaze.

  “He has come to visit you?” she shrieked. “In the camp?”

  “What does it matter?” I snapped shut my herb box. “You have a husband, a family, a child—”

  “Two children.”

  “And what do I have?”

  She sat back as if I had slapped her. “You have me.”

  I looked around my lonely pavilion, as if she could understand. “That’s it?”

  “I am Queen of Egypt.” She stood swiftly. “And you are the Sister to the King’s Chief Wife! It is your destiny to serve.”

  “Says who?”

  “It is Ma’at!” she exclaimed.

  “Is it Ma’at to tear down the temples of Amun?”

  “You will not say that,” she hissed.

  “Why? Because you’re afraid the gods will be angry?”

  “There is no greater god than Aten! And you had better learn to accept that. In a month, the Temple of Aten will be finished and the people will worship Aten the way they worshipped Amun—”

  “And who will collect the money they give as offerings?”

  “Father,” she replied.

  “And who will he give the money to?”

  Nefertiti’s face grew dark. “We built this city for the glory of our reign. It is our right.”

  “But the people don’t want to move to Amarna. They have homes in Thebes.”

  “They have hovels in Thebes! Here, we will do what no Pharaoh has ever done before! Every family that moves to Amarna will be given a home—”

  I laughed meanly. “And have you seen those homes?” Nefertiti fell silent. “Have you seen the homes? You visited your palace, but you didn’t see that the homes of the workers are made of mud brick and talatat. Come Inundation, they will crumble to the ground.”

  “How do you know?”

  I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t tell her it was because Father said they would, or that Nakhtmin had said the same when we’d lain in bed together.

  “You don’t know that,” she triumphed. “Come. We are eating.”

  A command. Not a request.

  Then, before she left, she said over her shoulder, “And we will not discuss the general again. You will remain single and in my service until Father or I choose a husband for you.”

  I bit my tongue against a sharp retort.

  “And when is the last time you visited the princess?” she demanded.

  “Yesterday.”

  “You are her aunt,” she pronounced. “It goes without saying that she wants to see more of you.”

  You mean you want to see more of me.
She disappeared, and I sat down and looked at my little belly. “Oh, what in this world will your father say when he hears about you, little one? And how will Nefertiti convince Akhenaten that you are no threat to his reign?”

  Dinner in the Great Pavilion lasted forever and I wasn’t in the mood for Thutmose, with his talk of henna and hair and the unfashionable beards on the emissaries from Ugarit. All I could think was how, in a few days, Nakhtmin wouldn’t be able to visit my pavilion. He would have to sneak into the palace, if that was even possible, and who knew how long that would last before he was caught?

  I looked across the table at Nefertiti; her child would be a prince. Without my father’s consent or the king’s, mine would be the fatherless heir to nothing. A bastard child. I watched as the servants catered to Nefertiti, and a deep longing welled up inside me when Akhenaten put his arms around her shoulders and whispered softly, “My little Pharaoh,” staring down at her round stomach.

  I stood up and asked to be excused.

  “Now?” Nefertiti snapped. “This early? What if I have pains? What if—” She saw my expression and changed tactics. “Just stay for a game of Senet.”

  “No.”

  My sister pleaded. “Not even one game?”

  The courtiers in the pavilion turned to look at me.

  I stayed only for a single game in Nefertiti’s pavilion, which my sister won and not because I let her.

  “You should try,” she complained. “It’s not fun to win all the time.”

  “I do,” I said flatly.

  She laughed, getting up and stretching her back. “Only Father and I are a real match,” she said, moving to the brazier. The firelight cast her shadow across the walls of the pavilion. “He’s coming soon,” she said lightly.

  “You’ve had word?”

  Nefertiti heard the eagerness in my voice and shrugged. “He will be here in six days. Of course, he won’t see us move into the palace…”

  But I wasn’t listening to her. In six days, I would be able to tell him about his grandchild.

  “A child, my little cat. Our child!” Nakhtmin was beside himself with joy. He drew me into the folds of his arms and pressed me tightly to his chest, but not so tightly as to crush the baby. “Have you told the queen?” he asked, and when he saw the ashen look on my face he frowned. “But she must be happy for you?”

  “That I will be pregnant at the same time she is, sharing in my father’s attention?” I shook my head. “You don’t know Nefertiti.”

  “But she will accept it. We will marry, and if Pharaoh is still angry, we will leave the city and buy a farm in the hills.”

  I looked at him doubtfully.

  “Don’t worry, miw-sher.” He pressed me close to him. “It’s a child. Who can resent a child?”

  The next morning, I went to Nefertiti. She would be angry, but she would be furious if I told our father before her. She was in the Royal Pavilion, the morning light filtering through the walls and illuminating the chaos all around her: servants moving baskets, men packing heavy chests, and women gathering armfuls of cosmetics and linens.

  “I need to speak with you,” I said.

  “Not there!” she cried. Every person in the pavilion froze. She pointed wildly at a servant with linens in his arms. “Over there!”

  “Where’s Akhenaten?” I asked.

  “Already at the palace. We are moving tonight. You should be ready,” she said, which made my need more urgent. Once we moved, Nakhtmin couldn’t wander into my tent. The palace would be guarded. There would be gates and Akhenaten’s Nubian men, who were jealous of the army.

  “Nefertiti.”

  “What?” She didn’t take her eyes off the commotion. “What is it?”

  I looked around to see who was listening, but the servants were making too much noise to hear us, so I said it. “I am pregnant.”

  She was very still for a moment, so still I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then she dug her nails into my arm and pulled me painfully to the side. “You are what?” The cobra on her crown glittered at me with its red eyes. “It is not the general’s child,” her voice was threatening. “Tell me it’s not the general’s child!”

  I said nothing and she pulled me farther away into her chamber, separated from the antechamber by hanging cloth. “Does Father know about this?” she whispered savagely.

  “No.” I shook my head. “I came to you first.”

  Her eyes filled with venom. “Pharaoh will be outraged.”

  “We are no threat to him. All we want to do is live together and be married—”

  “You have bedded a common soldier!” she shouted. “You take a man to your bed without my permission? Do you think to insult me?” She moved threateningly close. “What you do is for this family, and now you have put this family in danger.”

  “This is only a child. My child.”

  “Who will come to be a threat to the throne. A royal baby. The son of a general!”

  I stared at her in shock. “Our grandfather was a general, and he kept the army readied and loyal to Pharaoh. Only your husband could see it as a threat. Generals have always married into the royal court!”

  “Not in Amarna,” Nefertiti seethed. “Akhenaten will never have it.”

  “Please, Nefertiti, you have to convince him. This child is no threat—”

  She cut her hand through the air. “No. You got yourself pregnant and you will get yourself out of it. You of all people know perfectly well how to do it.”

  I stared at her with wide-eyed horror. My hands flew protectively to my stomach. “You would make me do that?” I whispered.

  “You are the one who made the problem with your eyes wide open. And your legs,” she added spitefully. “I should have known to keep you closer.”

  I drew myself up to my fullest height. “You have a husband, a daughter, and a second child on the way, and you deny me one? One child?”

  “I have denied you nothing!” She was wild with rage, and now there was only the faintest sound of moving and packing coming from beyond the cloth. “I married Akhenaten to give you everything, and you throw it all away on a commoner. You are the most selfish sister in Egypt!”

  “Because I dared to love someone other than you?”

  The truth was too much. She stalked across the room toward the curtains, then said over her shoulder, “You will be at the banquet tonight in the palace.”

  I bit back my pride. “Will you tell him we want to get married?”

  She stopped, making me ask her again.

  “Will you?”

  “Tonight you may have your answer,” she said. The curtain twitched closed behind her, and I was alone in the king’s inner chamber.

  I went back to my pavilion and was sick to my stomach, wondering if I should find Nakhtmin at the building site and warn him.

  “Of what, my lady?” Ipu asked sensibly. “And how will you get there?” She put her hands over mine. “Wait for the queen’s decision. She will ask for you. You are her sister and you’ve served her well.” Ipu handed me my clothes for the night’s celebration. “Come,” she encouraged. “Then I will see that your things are brought to the palace.”

  “I want to see my mother first,” I told her. “I want you to bring her here.”

  Ipu stood for a moment to measure my resolve, then nodded quietly and left.

  I put on the long tunic and golden belt, then fastened a beaded necklace around my neck, rehearsing what I would say when my mother came. Her only daughter. The one child Tawaret had seen fit to give her. I studied my reflection in the mirror, a young girl with dark hair and wide green eyes. Who was she, this girl who would allow herself to become pregnant with a general’s child? I exhaled slowly and saw that my hands were shaking.

  “Mutnodjmet?” My mother cast her eyes across my pavilion with disapproval. “Mutnodjmet, why haven’t you packed? We are moving tonight.”

  “Ipu said she will do it while we’re gone.” I moved over on the leather bench so that
she could sit next to me. “But first I want you to sit here.” I hesitated. “Because…because I have something I must tell you right now.”

  She knew what I was going to say before I spoke. Her eyes traveled down to my midriff, and she covered her mouth. “You are with child.”

  I nodded, and my eyes filled with tears. “Yes, mawat.”

  My mother was very still, the way Nefertiti had been, and I wondered if she was going to strike me for the first time in my life. “You have slept with the general.” Her voice was flat.

  My eyes pooled with tears. “We want to be married,” I said, but my mother wasn’t listening.

  “Every night I watched him come into the camp and I thought that Akhenaten had beckoned him. I should have known. When has Pharaoh ever been interested in the army?” My mother searched my face. “So the guards looked the other way for you?”

  Shame colored my cheeks. “It would have happened without them. We love each other—”

  “Love? Commoners marry for love. And they divorce just as quickly! You are the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife! We would have married you to a prince. A prince, Mutnodjmet. You could have been a princess in the land of Egypt.”

  “But I don’t want to be a princess.” My tears flooded over. “That’s Nefertiti’s dream. I’m pregnant, mawat. I’m pregnant with your grandchild and the man I love wants to carry me across the threshold of a new house to marry me.” I looked up at her. “Isn’t there any part of you that is happy?”

  She pressed her lips together. Then her resolve crumbled and she took me in her arms. “Oh, Mutnodjmet, my little Mutnodjmet. A mother.” She wept tenderly. “But to what kind of a child?”

  “A beloved one.”

  “One that will frighten Pharaoh and outrage your sister. Nefertiti will never accept it.”

  “She must,” I said firmly, pulling away. “I’m a woman. I have the right to choose my husband. This is still Egypt—”

  “But it’s Akhenaten’s Egypt. Maybe if you were in Akhmim…” My mother spread her palms. “But this is the king’s city. The choices are his.”

  “And Nefertiti’s,” I stressed. “By the time Father arrives, the villas will be finished. Nefertiti can convince Akhenaten to let us live there.”

 
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