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       Nefertiti, p.26

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Amun, forgive their arrogance,” I whispered.

  As in Memphis, a birthing pavilion had been built. I could see Nefertiti’s hand in the design: the floor-to-ceiling windows, the padded seats, the vases spilling over with plants, particularly lilies, her favorite kind. There were dozens of chairs arranged around room for the ladies of the court, nearly all of them occupied.

  “The Lady Mutnodjmet,” the herald announced, and the talking and laughing that filled the chamber stopped.

  “Mutny!” Nefertiti shooed her women away, and the viziers’ daughters who clustered around her bed all parted, their eyes wide and envious.

  I stopped before her bedside. She was healthy and beautiful, propped up on a pile of cushions without any sign of pain. The color rose in my cheeks. “I thought you were in labor.”

  “The physicians all say it will be today or tomorrow.”

  A storm crossed my face. “Your messenger said it was urgent.”

  She turned to her ladies, who were studying my hair, my nails, my face. “Leave us,” she commanded. I watched them flutter away like so many moths, girls I didn’t even know. “It is urgent. I need you.”

  “You have dozens of women to keep you company. Why do you need me?”

  “Because you’re my sister,” she said sharply. “We’re supposed to be with each other. Watching out for each other.”

  I laughed meanly.

  “I didn’t take your child!” she cried.

  “But you know who did.”

  She didn’t say anything.

  “You know who poisoned me. You know who was too afraid that I should give birth to a son, a child of a general…”

  She covered her ears. “I won’t hear any more!”

  I stood silent, watching her.

  “Mutny,” she pleaded. She looked up at me with her dark plaintive eyes, as black and wide as pools, thinking her charm would get her what she wanted. “Be with me when I have this child.”

  “Why? You look happy enough.”

  “Should I go around with the fear of death on my face, frightening Akhenaten so he won’t give me more children? So that the ladies of my court can run back to Panahesi and tell him that the Queen of Egypt has grown weak? What better time for Kiya to rise up than when I’m down? What else am I supposed to look but happy?”

  I marveled that she could think of these things even when she was about to give birth.

  “Stay with me, Mutny. You’re the only one I trust. You can be sure of what the midwives are giving me.”

  I stared. “You don’t think they would poison you?”

  She looked up at me with a wearied expression.

  “The physicians would discover that you were poisoned,” I pointed out.

  “After I am dead! What good is it then?”

  “Panahesi would be risking his own life to do such a thing.”

  “And who would be there to prove it? Who do you think Akhenaten would believe? A tattling midwife or the High Priest of Aten? And then there are the Amun priests,” she said fearfully, “who would give their lives to see that Akhenaten never produces an heir.”

  I thought of someone poisoning her the way I had been poisoned. I imagined her contorted in pain, crying out as Anubis crept closer because I had refused to be with her during her child’s birth. “I will stay. But only for the birth.” She smiled, and I sat down grudgingly. “So, what will you name it?”

  “Smenkhare,” she said.

  “And if it’s a girl?”

  She looked sharply at me from under her long lashes. “It will not be a girl.”

  “But if it is?”

  She shrugged. “Then Meketaten.”

  Though Nefertiti was impossibly small, Nekhbet must have blessed her womb, because all of her children seemed to come without difficulty. The midwife caught the tiny bundle in her arms, bloodied and crying, and the other midwives in the room pressed forward to peer at the sex. Nefertiti sat forward.

  “What is it?” she gasped.

  The midwife looked down. My mother clapped her hands with joy, but as the servants helped Nefertiti back to her bed, I saw that the color had drained from her face. Her eyes met mine from across the room. Another princess. I let out my breath and thought spitefully, I’m glad it’s not a son. I gathered my basket and moved toward the door.

  My mother grabbed my arm. “You must stay for the blessing!”

  The room grew more crowded. A herald arrived, followed by Thutmose, as servants flitted around Nefertiti to wash her body and fit her crown. My mother took my elbow and led me toward the window. Bells were ringing, announcing the new princess’s birth. Three tolls for a Princess of Egypt, same as a prince. “At least wait until she is named,” my mother begged.

  Nefertiti looked over and saw the two of us together. “Isn’t my own sister going to come to wish me long life and good health?”

  The entire room turned. I could feel my mother’s hand on the small of my back, pushing me forward. If my father had been allowed in the birthing chamber, he would have set his jaw sternly against my disrespect. I hesitated, and then moved forward. “May Aten smile upon you.”

  Everyone backed away as Nefertiti opened her arms to embrace me. The milk nurse was in the corner of the cheery pavilion, already giving suck to the little princess. “Come, be happy for me, Mutny.” Everyone was smiling. Everyone was exultant. It wasn’t a boy, but it was a healthy child, and she had delivered successfully. I held up my basket.

  “For you,” I said.

  She peered into it eagerly and her eyes grew bright. She looked from the basket to me, then back again. “Mandrakes?”

  “Only a few grew well this season. Next season should be better.”

  Nefertiti glanced up. “Next season? What do you mean? You’re coming back.”

  I didn’t answer her.

  “You have to come back to the palace. Your family is here!”

  “No, Nefertiti. My family was murdered. One in my womb and the other in Kadesh.” I turned away before she could rebuke me.

  “You will be there for the blessing,” she shouted. It was not a request.

  “If that is what you want.” I left the birthing chamber, letting the doors swing shut behind me.

  Outside the palace, villagers throughout Amarna were feasting. The birth of a royal heir meant a day of rest, even for the tomb builders high above the valley. I walked to the outer courtyard, where royal charioteers stood waiting to take dignitaries in and out of the city. “Take me to the Temple of Hathor,” I said, and before the charioteer could say he did not know of any such forbidden temple, I placed a deben ring of copper in his hand. He nodded quickly. Once we were there, we both stared at the columned courtyard carved into the side of the hill.

  “Are you sure you want to be left here, my lady? It’s abandoned.”

  “A few women still tend Hathor’s shrine. I will be fine,” I said.

  But the royal charioteer was young and concerned. “I can wait,” he offered.

  “No.” I gathered my basket and descended. “There’s no point. I can walk home if I need.”

  “But you are the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife!”

  “And like many other people, I possess two legs.”

  He chuckled and was gone.

  On the hill amidst the outcroppings of rock and carved stone, there was silence. The few women who kept Hathor’s hidden shrine would be feasting in the villages below, pouring out libations to the new god of Egypt in thanks for the delivery of a new princess. “But not all of us have forgotten you.” I knelt before a tiny statue of Hathor on the hill, placing an offering of thyme beneath her feet. Although shrines to Amun were forbidden in Amarna, on the outskirts of the city women had secretly commissioned small temples like this. And in homes like mine, her statues were often hidden in secret niches where oil and bread could be placed so the goddess would remember our ancestors and children that never were.

  I bowed in obeisance. “I thank you for del
ivering Nefertiti safely. Though she offers you up no wine or incense, I do so in her name. Protect her always from the hands of death. She is thankful for the gift of new life you bring her, and for a healthy recovery in childbed.” I arranged the herbs next to a jug of oil another woman had brought and heard the crunch of gravel behind me. Someone spoke.

  “Do you ever pray for yourself?”

  I didn’t turn. “No,” I replied. “The goddess knows what I want.”

  “You can’t do this forever,” my aunt said. A hot wind blew the edges of her skirt behind her. “At some point, you must let the child’s ka rest. He’s not coming back.”

  “Like Nakhtmin.”

  My aunt’s eyes were solemn. She took my hand in hers, and we stood on the topmost tier of the temple, looking out over the desert to the reeds of River Nile. White-kilted farmers threshed in the fields and oxen pulled the heavy carts of grain behind them. A hawk wheeled overhead, the incarnation of the soul, and the Dowager Queen sighed. “Let them both rest.”

  Chapter Eighteen

  1348 BCE

  Shemu, Season of Harvest

  DAY AFTER DAY, village women sent for my herbs, and sometimes I delivered them personally. In the city that sprawled beneath the white pillars of the palace, I would wind my way through the narrow streets, and often I would find myself in houses where women had just given birth and there was no hope that the mother would survive. I would bend over her sickbed to inspect her womb and make a special tea with the oil of nettle. And the women would rub their forbidden amulets to Hathor and whisper prayers to the goddess of motherhood. The first time I saw these forbidden amulets I was surprised, and a servant in the house explained quickly to me, “She has protected Egypt for a thousand years.”

  “And Aten?” I asked curiously.

  The servant tensed. “Aten is the sun. You cannot touch the sun. But Hathor can be held and made obeisance to.”

  So, at seventeen years of age, they called me Sekem-Miw, and I came to know all the villages in Amarna better than Pharaoh himself.

  “Where are we going today, my lady?”

  It was the charioteer from the palace. He was not on duty, and I had reached the end of the long road from my villa. He smiled down at me, and I tried to stop myself from thinking of Nakhtmin.

  “To collect seeds,” I replied, walking faster, ignoring the rapid beat of my heart.

  “Your basket looks heavy. Wouldn’t you rather ride?” He slowed, and I debated. I had no guards. I had insisted on having none when I’d left Nefertiti and her palace. But without guards, I had no charioteer, and it was a long way to the quay. The charioteer saw my hesitation. “Come.” He held out his hand and I took it, stepping up into his chariot. “I’m Djedefhor.” He bowed.

  Djedefhor began to appear every morning.

  “Do you wait out here for me each day?” I demanded.

  Djedefhor grinned. “No, not each day.”

  “You shouldn’t,” I said earnestly.

  “Why not?” He lent me his arm and we rolled toward the quay, where I searched out new herbs from among the foreign sellers every few days.

  “Because I am the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife. It is dangerous for you to be seen with me. I’m not a favorite of Pharaoh.”

  “But you’re a favorite of the queen’s.”

  When she wants something, I thought, and my lips thinned into a line. “If you value your place in Pharaoh’s house,” I said sternly, “you will not be seen with me. I can be of no use to you.”

  “Very well, then, because I am not looking to use you. Just escort you to the market and back again.”

  I flushed. “You should know the man I love is in Kadesh.”

  It was the first time I had spoken of Nakhtmin to anyone outside of my family.

  Djedefhor bowed his head. “As I said, I want nothing from you. Just the pleasure of escorting you back and forth again.”

  The first time Ipu saw me with Djedefhor, her eyes grew wide. She followed me around the house, as bad as Bastet, and tried to get me to speak about him. “Where did you meet him? Does he drive you every day? Is he married?”

  “Ipu, he isn’t Nakhtmin.”

  Ipu’s smile faded. “But he’s handsome.”

  “Yes. He’s a handsome, kind soldier. That’s all.”

  Ipu hung her head. “You’re too young to be alone,” she whispered.

  “But it’s how my sister wants it,” I replied.

  “The Hittite regime is growing in the north. The mayor of Lakisa sent for help this morning.” My father produced a scroll from his belt, and Tiye held out her hand to read it.

  My house had become a place of meeting. I was allowed to listen while Tiye and my father debated how to rule the Kingdom of Egypt. And while the Hittite king Suppiluliumas swept through Palestine, creeping closer to Egypt, Akhenaten and Nefertiti commissioned statues and rode through the streets arrayed like gods, tossing copper from their chariots into the crowds.

  My aunt lowered the scroll to her lap. “Another of Egypt’s territories in danger.” I knew she was thinking that the Elder would have forfeited his ka to Ammit before he saw Hittites on Egyptian land. “Just like Qatna.” She looked at my father. “But we cannot send help.”

  “No,” my father said, and took back the scroll. “At some point, Akhenaten will discover that gold is being drawn from the treasury to defend Kadesh and—”

  “Gold is being drawn from the treasury to defend Kadesh?” I interrupted.

  “To draw more to defend Lakisa would be dangerous,” Tiye agreed, ignoring my outburst.

  My father nodded, and I wondered what Akhenaten might do if it was ever discovered that Egypt’s highest vizier was siphoning gold to defend Egypt’s most important stronghold against the Hittites. My father was taking a risk, ruling Egypt the way he believed the Elder would have wanted the world’s most powerful kingdom to be ruled, but it was Akhenaten’s crown, not his, not even Nefertiti’s. When the Elder had built his army, Egypt had extended from the Euphrates into Nubia. Now her land was being eaten away, and Akhenaten was allowing it. My sister was allowing it. And had it not been Nefertiti, had it been Kiya or another harem wife, Tiye and Ay would have struck her down—murder, poison, an unfortunate fall. But Nefertiti was Ay’s daughter. She was Tiye’s niece and she was my only sister, and we were supposed to forgive her anything.

  Tiye rearranged her linen. “So what will we do with Kadesh?” she asked.

  “Hope the gods are with Horemheb and he will achieve victory,” my father said. “If Kadesh falls, every other city will fall in her wake, and there will nothing to stop the Hittites from marching south.”

  The next month when I went to the market, Djedefhor insisted on coming with me through the crowded stalls along the quay. “It’s not safe for the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife to walk by herself,” he said.

  “Really?” I smiled slyly. “And yet I have been doing it every other day since Mesore.”

  I thought he was flattering me, but then he stepped forward and said seriously, “No. It is not safe for you to be alone right now.”

  I glanced about me, at the bustling market with its foreign goods baking in the heavy heat. Everything was as it normally was. Only the children paid me any attention, staring at my sandals and the gold bracelets around my arms. I started to laugh, then was checked by the look on his face. He took my arm and led me through the crowd. “Pharaoh has done a foolish thing today,” he confided.

  I looked at him askance. “Is my family in danger?”

  He drew me into the shade where two pottery merchants had erected a pavilion. “He’s answered the mayor of Lakisa’s plea for troops with monkeys in soldiers’ garb.”

  I studied him to see if he was joking. “You’re not serious.”

  “I am very serious, my lady.”

  I shook my head. “No! No. My father would never have allowed it.”

  “I doubt your father even knows of it yet. But he will, when angry Lak
isans begin marching on the palace.”

  I looked around me, and now I could see that none of the dark-skinned Lakisans were at their stalls. Suddenly, the heat became overwhelming.

  “My lady!” Djedefhor reached out his hand to steady me, then withdrew it quickly.

  “Take me to my villa,” I said quickly, and as we rolled through Amarna I realized how many builders there were, on the streets, around Akhenaten’s half-built temples, and all of them were soldiers. All of them were men who, in the Elder’s time, had been defending our vassal states, keeping the Hittites at bay in Qatna, Lakisa, and Kadesh. As soon as we were at the gates to my villa, Ipu came running and my heart leaped into my throat.

  “The Vizier Ay was just here!” she cried.

  I jumped from the chariot. “What did he say?”

  “There is going to be trouble today. He sent soldiers to the market to find you.”

  I looked at Djedefhor, feeling rising panic.

  “I’ll find them,” he promised. Then he turned around. “Don’t worry, my lady. They will not harm your sister. The soldiers will stop them at the gates!”

  I had not been in the palace since the birth of Princess Meketaten eleven months before. Now, the sound of my sandals slapping against the palace stones drew the servants out to stare. There would be gossip all throughout the kitchens tonight. Even the children peered around the columns at me. My mother tightened her hold on my arm, as if she was afraid I might turn and run away. “Your sister has made very foolish decisions. But we are bound to Nefertiti. In life and in death, her actions will speak for all of us.”

  Two Nubian guards opened the doors to my father’s rooms and I saw that Nefertiti was already inside, pacing the tiles and clenching the scepter of reign. When she saw me, the guards moved swiftly to shut the doors behind us. She turned an accusing look on our father.

 
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