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       Nefertiti, p.25

           Michelle Moran

  “But your court physicians—”

  “Are not as well versed in herbal knowledge as you.” She looked out the open doors to my cultivated garden, row upon row of senna and chrysanthemums, their leaves flashing green and yellow in the sun. There was juniper for headaches, wormwood for cough. For women who wanted it desperately, I still ground acacia. Even knowing that my herbs had killed my own child, I wouldn’t deny them. “The women say you’ve become quite a healer. They call you Sekem-Miw,” she said, meaning powerful cat, and at once I thought of Nakhtmin and my eyes became clouded. My aunt studied me with a critical expression, then reached out and patted my hand. “Come. Show me the herbs.”

  Outside, the warm sun dappled the garden. The dew on the plants would dry as the day grew warmer, and I inhaled the heady scent of the earth. I bent down and plucked a green unripe berry from the juniper plant.

  “The juniper would be good.” I handed her the berry. “I can make you a tea, but you would have to have it twice a day.”

  She crushed the berry between her forefinger and thumb, then brought her fingers to her nose. “It smells of letters from Mitanni,” she mused aloud.

  I looked at her in the light, forty years old and still making alliances with foreign nations, conspiring with my father on how best to run a kingdom.

  “Why do you still do it?” I asked, and she knew at once what I meant.

  “Because it’s Egypt.” The sun reflected in her bright auburn eyes and the gold around her wrists. “I was the spiritual and physical leader of this land once. And what has changed? So I have a foolish son who is sitting on the throne. They are still my gods, my people. Of course, had Tuthmosis been Pharaoh…”

  She sighed and I asked quietly, “What was he like?”

  My aunt looked down at her rings. “Intelligent. Patient. A fierce hunter.” She shook her head at a regret that only she knew. “Tuthmosis was a soldier and a priest of Amun.”

  “Both things that Akhenaten can’t abide.”

  “When your sister married him, I wondered if she was too fragile.” My aunt laughed sharply. “Who knew that Nefertiti, little Nefertiti, would be so…” She searched for the word, her gaze falling across the city below us, a white pearl against the sand.

  “Passionate,” I responded.

  My aunt nodded ruefully. “It wasn’t what I planned.”

  “Nor I.” My lip trembled and when my aunt saw the tears she took my hand. “Ipu thinks you are lonely.”

  “I have my herbs. And my mother comes in the mornings with bread. Sesame bread and good shedeh from the palace.”

  The queen nodded slowly. “And your father?”

  “He comes, too, and we talk about news.”

  She arched her brows. “And what has he told you recently?”

  “That Qatna has sent pleas for help to defend themselves against the Hittites,” I said.

  Tiye’s face grew stern. “Qatna has been our vassal for a hundred years. To lose her now would tell the Hittite kingdom we are not willing to fight. It is the second of our vassal states to ask for help. I write letters of peace, and behind my back my son sends requests for more colored glass. They want soldiers”—her voice rose—“and he asks for glass! When our allies have fallen and there is no buffer between us and the Hittites, what then?”

  “Then Egypt will be invaded.”

  Tiye closed her eyes. “At least we have our army in Kadesh.”

  I was horrified. “Of one hundred men!”

  “Yes, but the Hittites don’t know that. I would not underestimate the power of Horemheb or Nakhtmin.”

  I refused to think that Nakhtmin could return. I sat in the garden under the sunshade and thought, If he returns, they will have been victorious in Kadesh, and that will never happen. I dropped a chamomile leaf into my morning tea. Even after so many months, I never slept well, and when I thought of Nakhtmin, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

  “My lady!” Ipu appeared on the terrace. “A gift has arrived from the palace.”

  “Then send it back like the others,” I said. I would not be bought off. We weren’t little girls anymore; she couldn’t break my favorite toy and give me one of hers later. She still thought that this was nothing, that Nakhtmin was just one man and that there would be others. But I wasn’t like her. I couldn’t kiss Ranofer one day and leave him the next.

  But Ipu was still watching me. “This may be something you’d like to keep.”

  I scowled, but I put down my tea and went into the house. There was a basket on the table. “Great Osiris, what’s in it?” I exclaimed. “It’s moving.”

  Ipu grinned. “Look.”

  At Ipu’s prompting, I lifted the lid. Crouching inside, tiny and scared, was a small spotted kitten, a breed only the wealthiest nobles in Egypt could afford. “A miw?” The little creature looked up at me, crying for its mother, and against my better judgment I took her out. She was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, and when I brought her to my chest she began to purr.

  “You see?” Ipu said, proud of herself.

  I put the kitten down. “We’re not keeping her.”

  “It’s a him. And why not?”

  “Because it’s a gift from my sister, and she thinks that a kitten can replace a child.”

  Ipu lifted her palms. “But you’re lonely.”

  “I’m not lonely. Every day I have clients. And my parents.” I put the kitten back into the basket, placing the lid carefully on top. Its little voice echoed through the weaving and Ipu stared at me coldly.

  “Don’t look at me that way. I’m not killing it. Only sending it back.”

  She was silent. The only sound was the kitten’s pitiful mew.

  I rolled my eyes. “All right. But you can take care of it.”

  When my father arrived with my mother in tow, their serving lady had a basket filled with luxuries from the palace I didn’t need. He frowned at the sight of Ipu crouched by the divan, dangling a string and calling softly to something underneath.

  “What is she doing?” he asked.

  The serving woman put the basket on the table, and the three of us turned to look. There was the flash of a gray paw, then a startled scream as the string disappeared. “The naughty creature won’t come out!” Ipu cried.

  “What is it?” My mother peered closer.

  “Nefertiti sent me a kitten,” I said flatly. My father studied my expression. “I only took it because Ipu wanted it,” I said. The kitten scampered down the hall.

  My mother grinned. “Have you named her?”

  “Him. His name is Bastet.”

  “The patron of felines,” my mother said approvingly.

  My father looked at me in surprise.

  “It was Ipu’s idea.”

  My mother began unpacking various linens from the basket, and my father and I strolled out into the garden.

  “I heard my sister came to visit you yesterday.”

  “She thinks there is a chance of success in Kadesh,” I told him, waiting for his response.

  He put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s possible, Mutnodjmet. But it’s nothing I would wait for. He is gone. We have all lost loved ones to Osiris.”

  I fought back tears. “But not like this!”

  “Nefertiti didn’t know,” my father explained. “She is beside herself. The child is due at the end of Thoth, and the physicians say if she doesn’t get rest and begin to eat she will lose it.”

  Good. Let her lose it, I thought. Let her know what it’s like to wake up robbed of everything she holds dear. Immediately, however, guilt overwhelmed me. “I hope she finds peace.” I bowed my head. “But even if she didn’t know about the herbs, she allowed Nakhtmin to be taken.”

  My father said nothing for a while. Then he warned, “She will want you at the birth.”

  I bit my tongue. My father knew the irony of what he was asking. “When the time comes,” I whispered.

  Queen Tiye visited me for a second time. She swept up the step
s of the villa with seven ladies in tow, each of them carrying large willow baskets.

  “Ipu, find Bastet!” I shouted. “We can’t have him running around attacking the queen’s ankles.” This was Bastet’s new game. He would find a piece of furniture under which to hide, and then run out to bite the ankle of anyone who passed. “Bastet,” Ipu wailed. “Come here, Bastet.”

  I could hear the queen’s ladies drawing closer. “Bastet!” I commanded, and the little ball of fur pranced out from his hiding place, marching up to me as if to demand what I wanted with him. “Ipu, take him into the back room.” I pointed.

  He looked at Ipu and gave a plaintive cry.

  “How come he comes for you and not for me?”

  I looked down at the proud little kitten. Even though Ipu was the one who fed him, it was my chair he sat under and my lap he curled up on in front of the brazier. Arrogant miw, I thought.

  A knock resounded throughout the house, and Ipu rushed to open the door. Outside, two servants held a peacock sunshade over my aunt’s head to protect her from the sun.

  “Queen Tiye.” I bowed. “It is a pleasure to see you.”

  My aunt held out her hand so that I could escort her inside. The rings on her fingers were dazzling, great chunks of lapis set in gold. She took a seat on a feather pillow in the loggia, studying the torn tapestry on the wall. She fingered the loose threads. “The kitten from Nefertiti?” She smiled at my surprise. “There was talk in the palace when it wasn’t returned.”

  At once my ire rose. “Talk?” I demanded.

  “Someone suggested that all might be forgiven.” She watched me carefully while color darkened my cheeks.

  “And did someone suggest that a gift won’t buy a child? Won’t buy back a man’s life?”

  “Who would say that to your sister? No one challenges Nefertiti. Not I, not even your father.”

  “Then she does what she pleases?” I asked her.

  “The same way all queens have. Only with a greater passion for building.”

  I gasped. “There can’t be more building?”

  “Of course. There will be building until the army finds a leader who will lead them in revolt.”

  “But who could be powerful enough to revolt against Pharaoh?”

  Ipu brought in tea with mint. My aunt raised the cup to her lips. “Horemheb,” she said frankly.

  “Which is why Horemheb was sent to Kadesh.”

  My aunt nodded. “He was too popular. Like Nakhtmin. My son saw danger where he should have seen advantage. He is too much a fool to see that with Nakhtmin in your bed, he would never have revolted.”

  “Nakhtmin would never have led a revolt,” I said quickly. “With or without me.”

  Tiye raised her sharp brows.

  “He wanted a peaceful life.”

  “He didn’t tell you that in Thebes, when Akhenaten was ready to take his brother’s crown, soldiers came and asked him to lead a rebellion? And that he agreed?”

  I lowered my cup. “Nakhtmin?”

  “There were viziers and soldiers who convinced him that a rebellion was the only way to achieve Ma’at once Prince Tuthmosis was killed.”

  I stared at my aunt, trying to determine whether she was truly saying what I thought she might be. That Tuthmosis had been killed not by a fall from his chariot, but by his own brother’s hand. She saw my question and stiffened.

  “I hear servants’ gossip as well as anyone else.”

  “But his chariot fall—”

  “Might have killed him regardless. Or he might have recovered. Only my living son and Osiris now know the truth.”

  I shuddered. “Only there was no revolt.”

  “Nefertiti arrived and the court believed she would be Egypt’s salvation from my son.”

  I sat back. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked her.

  My aunt put down her tea. “Because someday you will return to the palace, and either you will return with your eyes wide open or you will be buried with them shut.”

  Twenty days later, Tiye was sitting on an ivory stool between the rows of my garden, quizzing me about plants, wanting to know what other uses the licorice root had besides sweetening tea. I told her that when it was used instead of honey, it prevented tooth decay, and that eating onions instead of garlic would do the same. My father came upon us between the feathery green herbs; I hadn’t even heard Ipu greet him at the door.

  My father looked first to her, then at me. “What are you doing?”

  My aunt stood up. “My niece is showing me the magic of herbs. A very clever girl, your daughter.” She shaded her face with her hand. I couldn’t tell whether the look in my father’s eyes was one of pride or displeasure. “And what brings you here?”

  “I came to find you.” My father’s voice was grave, but my aunt had lived through many grave times and wasn’t moved.

  “There is trouble in the palace,” she guessed.

  “Akhenaten is planning a burial in the east.”

  Tiye glanced at him sharply. “No Pharaoh has ever been buried in the east.”

  “He plans to be buried where the sun rises beyond the hills and wants the court of Amarna to leave any tombs they’ve already cut in the west.”

  My aunt’s voice deepened with rage. “Leave tombs we have already built in Thebes? Move the tombs from where they have always lain at the feet of the setting sun to be buried in the east?” It was the angriest I’d ever seen her. “He will never do it!”

  My father spread his palms. “We can’t stop him. But we can build a second tomb and keep the tombs we’ve built in the Valley—”

  “Of course, we will keep them. I will never be buried in the city of Amarna,” she vowed.

  “Nor I,” my father said, and his voice was also low.

  They both turned to me. “You must be the keeper of this,” Tiye instructed me. “If we die, you must make sure we are buried in Thebes.”

  “But how?” How would I go against Akhenaten’s wishes?

  “You will use your cunning,” my father said swiftly.

  When I saw that he was serious, I was stricken with fear. “But I’m not cunning,” I worried. “That’s Nefertiti. She could do it.”

  “But she won’t. Your sister is building a tomb with Akhenaten. They have abandoned our ancestors to risk burial in the east.” My father stared at me in earnest. “You are the one who must make sure this happens.”

  My voice rose with fear. “But how?”

  “Bribery,” my aunt replied. “The men who work as embalmers are as easily bribed as the next.” When she saw that I did not understand, she gazed into my face as if no girl could be as ignorant as I was. “You have never heard of women who give up their children to the infertile wives of the nobility? They tell their husbands the child has died and the embalmers take a monkey and wrap it up like an infant.” I shrank back in horror and Tiye shrugged, as if everyone knew about this. “Oh, yes, they can work miracles in the City of the Dead. For a price.”

  “If it should ever come to that,” my father said, “you would bribe the embalmers to place a false body in the city of Amarna.”

  My hands began to shake. “And take you to Thebes?” It didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem possible. My father and the queen would never die. But my father patted my shoulder as if I were a child.

  “When the time comes—”

  “If it comes,” I stressed.

  “If it comes.” He smiled tenderly. “Then you will know what to do.” He glanced at Tiye. “Shall we meet here tomorrow?”

  “In my garden?” I exclaimed.

  My father replied, “Amarna has become a court infested with spies, Mutnodjmet. If we wish to speak, it will have to be here. Akhenaten trusts no one, and Panahesi’s women are everywhere, flitting through the palace and reporting back to him. Even some of Nefertiti’s ladies.”

  I thought of Nefertiti alone in the palace, surrounded by false friends and spies. But I refused to feel sorry for her. It’s a bed o
f her own making.

  I was commanded to the palace at the end of Epiphi. A herald arrived with a letter that bore my father’s heavy seal, pressing it into my hand with urgency.

  “The queen, my lady, is already in labor.”

  I opened the letter and saw it was true. Nefertiti was about to give birth. I pressed my lips together and folded the sheets, unable to bear the sight of the news. The herald continued to watch me. “Well, what do you want?” I snapped.

  The boy didn’t flinch. “I want to know if you will you be coming, my lady. The queen has asked for you.”

  She had asked for me. She had asked for me knowing that while she was birthing her second child, my first had been murdered! I crumpled the folded papyrus in my hand, and the herald watched me with widening eyes.

  “There is a chariot waiting.” The boy’s voice grew pleading.

  I studied him. He was twelve or thirteen. If he failed to bring me, it might end his career. His eyes remained wide and hopeful. “Wait, and I will get my things,” I told him.

  Ipu hovered in the kitchen. “She has physicians. You don’t have to.”

  “Of course I do.”

  “But why?”

  Bastet arched his silky body against my calf, as if to comfort me. “Because it’s Nefertiti, and if she dies, I would never forgive myself.”

  Ipu followed me into my chamber, trailed by Bastet. “Do you want me to come?” she offered.

  “No. I’ll be back before night.” I took my box of herbs, but as I went to leave Ipu pressed my hand.

  “Remember, you’re going there for the child.”

  I swallowed bitterly. “Which should have been mine.”

  “She said she had nothing to do with it,” she reminded.

  “Maybe,” I replied. “And maybe she sat by and said nothing while it was done.”

  The herald took me to his chariot. He snapped the whip and the bright chestnut horses galloped along the Royal Road. On every pillar, at every crossroads, there were statues of my sister. In painted images, she raised her arms over the desert city she and her husband had built, dressed in the dazzling clothes of Isis, and where the gods should have been on the temple gates there was her face with Akhenaten’s.

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