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       Nefertiti, p.27

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Ask Mutnodjmet what the people think,” he commanded.

  Nefertiti glared at me, and I was surprised at how Meketaten’s birth had changed her. The angles of her face had softened, but there was still a sharp determination in her eyes. “Well,” she said. “Tell us all what the people think.”

  I wasn’t afraid of her disapproval anymore. “They think Aten is something too distant to be worshipped. They want gods they can see, and touch, and feel.”

  “They can’t feel the sun?”

  “They can’t touch it.”

  “No god should be touched,” she retorted.

  My father added hastily, “That’s not all the people think.”

  “They are afraid of the Hittites,” I added, commanding myself not to think of Nakhtmin. “They hear news from merchants who tell them that the Hittites are sweeping through the north, taking women as slaves and slaughtering men, and they wonder how soon before it happens here.”

  “In Egypt?” she cried, and she turned to see if our father agreed. “The people of Amarna think the Hittites will invade?” When his face was hard against her, she looked at me. “We have nothing to fear from the Hittites,” she said smugly. “Akhenaten has made a treaty with them.” My father dropped the scrolls he’d been carrying, and Nefertiti shifted defensively. “I think it is a wise decision.”

  “A treaty with Hittites?” my father roared.

  “Why not? What do we care about Lakisa or Kadesh? Why should we pay to defend them when we could spend—”

  “Because the blood of Egyptians bought those territories!” My father was shaking in his rage. “This is the most foolish thing you have ever done! Of all the poor decisions you have let your husband make, this—”

  “It was the decision of both of us.” She stood tall, her black eyes proud and defiant. “We did what we thought was right for Egypt.” She reached out her hand. “I thought you of all people would understand this.”

  My father looked at me to see my reaction.

  “Don’t look at Mutnodjmet!” Nefertiti shrieked.

  My father shook his head. “Your sister would never have been foolish enough to bargain with Hittites. Handing them Kadesh!” My father’s eyes blazed. “What next when they have taken Kadesh? Ugarit, Gazru, the Kingdom of Mitanni?”

  My sister lost some of her confidence. “They wouldn’t dare.”

  “Once Kadesh has fallen, why not? The Kingdom of Mitanni will be theirs for the taking. And when they’ve raided Mitanni’s land, raped her women, and turned her men into slaves, what’s to stop them from marching south to Egypt? Kadesh is the last stronghold saving Mitanni. When Mitanni falls”—my father’s voice rose, and I wondered how many servants could hear him through the door—“then so does Egypt!”

  Nefertiti walked to the window and looked out over Amarna, a city of sun and light. How long would it last? How long before the Hittites came to the borders of Egypt and contemplated attacking the most powerful kingdom in the world?

  “Build up the army,” my father warned.

  “I can’t. To do that would be to stop building Amarna. And this is our home. In these walls, we will achieve immortality.”

  “In these walls, we will be buried if we do not stop the Hittites.”

  Nefertiti opened the window and stepped out onto the balcony. A hot breeze pressed the soft linen of her dress to her body. “We have signed a treaty,” she said with resolution.

  The next morning, the markets were calm, but I sensed a tenseness when I walked through the stalls, like the sharp eyes of a crocodile watching just below the surface of placid waters.

  “This treaty with the Hittites is all everyone is talking about,” Ipu confided.

  And Nefertiti’s belly, I thought bitterly. Only eleven months after Meketaten and Nefertiti was with her third child.

  Ipu stopped walking to glance across the market. “Djedefhor’s not here,” she observed.

  I looked around. Djedefhor usually patrolled the quay, but today the soldiers were all strangers. From across the square, the meat seller recognized Ipu and called out to her.

  “Good morning, my lady! Has the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife come to buy gazelle?” We made our way over to his crowded stall, where apprentice boys were using palm leaves to keep away the flies.

  “No gazelle today.” But Ipu smiled and leaned across the counter, inviting the man into her confidence. “The market is quiet.”

  The meat seller raised his thick eyebrows and nodded, cleaning his knife. “There are rumors,” he said. “Rumors of—” He was cut off by the sound of children shouting. Their cries filled the streets. Women began rushing from the stalls, calling to their husbands, and the meat seller dropped his knife in excitement.

  “What’s happening?” I exclaimed.

  But the meat seller had dropped his linens and begun shutting up his stall, searching for his apprentice. When he found the boy, he shouted excitedly, “Take care of everything. I’m going to see.”

  “See what?” Ipu cried. But the meat seller disappeared. Hundreds of people surged around us. She dropped her basket and grabbed my arm, but we were carried away by the swell of the crowd. I had never witnessed anything so wild or chaotic. Sellers abandoned their stalls, leaving their daughters behind to mind them. Women began tearing branches from dwarf palms and running into the street, shouting out praises as if the gods themselves had descended upon Amarna.

  “What’s going on?” I shouted above the din.

  A woman next to me pointed wildly. “Horemheb and his men are coming! They’ve defeated the Hittites in Kadesh!”

  Ipu looked at me, and I felt my eyes go wide as saucers. She took hold of my hand and pushed me toward the front of the crowd. Riding through the streets in chariots of gold, as the woman had said, were Horemheb and his men, still dressed in their armor.

  “Is he there?” I cried.

  Ipu pushed us farther in front, so close that we could reach out and touch the men’s horses. And then we both saw him. “He is here, my lady!” She was screaming. “He is here!”

  The procession passed and I shouted out his name, but the people were cheering too loudly. Their sons were coming home; Egypt’s soldiers had been victorious. They were heroes. Then I thought of Akhenaten.

  “Ipu! We have to go. We have to get to the palace!” But the crowd was moving. It swelled and swayed. Children ran after the horses and women threw flowers at Horemheb’s feet, following the soldiers down the Royal Road. “We have to go! Akhenaten will kill them!”

  We pushed our way out and at the edge of the crowd, his eyes searching frantically, was Djedefhor. “My lady!” he shouted.

  “Djedefhor!” I almost cried in relief. “How did they do it? How did they defeat them?”

  “General Nakhtmin is a great tactician. With Horemheb’s training, the Hittites were slaughtered! Horemheb has brought back the head of the Hittite general.”

  I stepped back in shock. “The head?”

  Djedefhor nodded. “To lay at Pharaoh’s feet.”

  I imagined Horemheb riding triumphantly into the palace, his soldiers following on his heels as he burst into the Audience Chamber, tossing the general’s head at Akhenaten’s sandals. I could imagine the horrified look on Akhenaten’s face, and the dark glare of Nefertiti, who would neither shudder nor look away. Then I imagined Akhenaten’s anger filling the halls, ordering death for every soldier returning from the fronts of Kadesh. My voice rose with fear. “Djedefhor, can you take me to the palace?”

  He took my arm and led us through the crowds. Then I gathered my skirts and we ran like thieves through the back alleys of Amarna until we came upon the gates of the palace, guarded by two dozen of Akhenaten’s Nubian men. The procession was only a few blocks behind us and the noise could now be heard even in the courtyard where Akhenaten’s trees grew in manicured rows. “Open the gates!” I cried, thrusting my ring with the insignia of Nefertiti under the guards’ noses.

  The guards pass
ed looks among themselves, and then the tallest one grunted his approval. Grudgingly, the soldiers opened the gates. “Come!” I shouted to Djedefhor and Ipu, but a tall Nubian stepped in front of me.

  “They remain outside.”

  I looked at Djedefhor, and he nodded to Ipu. “She should go to your villa, and I will wait here in the courtyard,” he said.

  “I’ll return,” I promised. But with what kind of news, I didn’t know.

  I heard my father’s voice in the Audience Chamber even before the guards pushed opened the heavy doors. Inside, Nefertiti was with the princesses Meritaten and Meketaten. Akhenaten was standing before the Horus thrones. He was dressed in gold armor and carried a spear. He threw open the doors to the balcony, and the cheering of the crowd echoed from below.

  “HOR-EM-HEB! HOR-EM-HEB!”

  The wind blew the chants up to the Audience Chamber, and the veins in Akhenaten’s neck grew thick. “Arrest them!” he commanded. His white cloak swirled around his ankles. “Arrest them and make sure that none of those men see the light of day!” He stalked from the balcony, his eyes as hard as coal. I don’t think he saw me when he passed. I don’t think he saw anyone. “The people want heroes?” Akhenaten sneered. “Ay!” he shouted. “Bring a chest of gold from the treasury.”

  “Your Highness—”

  “Now!”

  My father bowed and went away to do Pharaoh’s bidding.

  Akhenaten turned on my sister. His eyes glittered, cold as an adder’s, and he gripped Nefertiti’s shoulders so hard that I gasped. “When your father returns, we will go to the Window of Appearances. Then the people will remember who loves them. They will remember who built a city out of sand for the glory of Aten.”

  There was a commotion outside, and I saw that beneath the balcony Horemheb was standing on a block of granite. Nubian guards surrounded him, waiting to see what he would do. Then the people began to cheer, and Horemheb held up the bloodied head of the Hittite general he had killed. I gasped, and Nefertiti pressed closer to the balcony.

  “He’s brought back the head,” she said in a horrified whisper. “He’s brought back the head of the general!”

  Akhenaten rushed to the balcony. In the courtyard below, Horemheb held the severed head high to the cheering crowds. Then the general turned and recognized Akhenaten. He tossed the bloody trophy over the balcony, where it rolled against Akhenaten’s white sandals. Akhenaten reeled backward. It was the closest he had ever come to battle, and it was the closest I had come to such gruesome death. I covered my mouth as blood splattered across Akhenaten’s legs. Panahesi rushed forward to draw Pharaoh away and the doors to the Audience Chamber swung open. My father had returned with seven men, six of whom carried a chest laden with gold.

  Akhenaten grabbed Nefertiti’s arm. “To the Window of Appearances!”

  He stalked through the palace, the entire court on his heels. My father studied the blood on Akhenaten’s feet and said to me, “Stay close and say nothing.”

  We swept through the halls to the bridge between the palace and the Temple of Aten. From there, the Window of Appearances looked out over the same courtyard as the one where Horemheb stood with his men. But unlike the balcony from the Audience Chamber, the Window of Appearances was official. When the window opened, all of Egypt stopped to listen. We entered the chamber, and Panahesi rushed to throw open the window. At once, the chanting stopped below. Akhenaten looked at Nefertiti for guidance. She stepped forward, raising her arms.

  A thousand Egyptians dropped to their knees.

  “People of Egypt,” she called. “Today is a day of celebration. For today Aten has given mighty Pharaoh a victory over the Hittites!”

  A cheer went up throughout the crowds.

  Nefertiti continued. “Aten looks on Pharaoh with pride, and the blessings of Aten are bestowed upon us!” Akhenaten dug his hands deep into the wooden chest, tossing armfuls of coins out to the people. Women began to shriek and children cried with laughter; men leaped into the air. No one noticed the guards fanning out around the soldiers, marching them away to the dungeons of Amarna.

  I surged forward, but my father held me tightly. “There is nothing you can do for Nakhtmin,” he whispered. I wrestled my arm away. Suddenly, Tiye was there, speaking quietly but sharply.

  “Don’t be foolish. This is not the time.”

  “But what will happen to him?”

  “The people will either rise up,” she predicted with brutal honesty, “or every one of those soldiers will be executed.”

  We stood back and watched as Akhenaten tossed handfuls of gold over the balcony. In the crush to reach the glittering coins, the soldiers had been forgotten. Guards ordered the men to drop their weapons, and directed them to step clear of the crowd and to follow them into the palace. Every one of them complied.

  Even Horemheb. Even Nakhtmin.

  “Why aren’t they resisting?” I cried, pressing closer to the Window of Appearances.

  “It is a hundred of them and five hundred Nubian guards,” Tiye said.

  My father turned to me. “Go now,” he said quickly. “Go to Nefertiti’s chamber and wait for her there.”

  Light flickered from two dozen oil lamps and illuminated the paintings on Nefertiti’s walls. An artist had painted Nefertiti and Akhenaten raising their arms to embrace Aten, and the rays of sun ended in tiny hands whose fingers caressed my sister’s face. The pair of them together looked like gods, while Aten was unknowable, untouchable, a disk of fire that disappeared every night and reappeared at dawn. I looked around the room, but none of the gods that had made Egypt great had been rendered. Not even the goddess Sekhmet, who had brought Egypt victory in the land of Kadesh.

  I took one of Nefertiti’s figurines in my hand and there was a sharp intake of breath from behind me. My look silenced the guards, but they continued to watch me, wondering what I was doing in Pharaoh’s quarters. I stared at the miniature carving in my hand and held it up to the oil lamps. When the light revealed its feline face, I gasped. No other god besides Aten had been given a place in these chambers, but here was the cat-goddess, Lady of Heaven, counterpart of Amun, the great mother Mut. I pressed my lips together. I have been cruel to Nefertiti. I have accused her without truly knowing if she knew of Akhenaten’s plans.

  The door opened and a tall figure appeared silhouetted in the light of the passage. Akhenaten? My heart jumped and the guards stretched out their arms in obeisance. “Your Highness.” At once, I let out my breath. Her crown had made her taller in the evening light.

  “Mutnodjmet?” She saw me and came closer, hesitating.

  I put the statuette on a chest as she stepped into the room. “What is happening to Nakhtmin?”

  Her eyes fell on the ebony statue. She pointed to the goddess Mut. “My replacement.”

  “For what?” I didn’t like how she changed the subject.

  “For you.” Nefertiti turned to the guards and barked, “Go!” They moved out, and when the door had shut, she turned back to me. “I am pregnant for the third time and none of my children know their aunt, and now I wonder if they ever will.”

  My eyes filled with tears. She was pregnant again, but I refused to be drawn in. “Nefertiti, where is Nakhtmin?”

  She took the statue of Mut and placed it back on the table. “Do you remember when we were young,” she said, “and we laughed that someday we would raise children together and you would be the firm mother and I would be the one to give them everything?” She cast her eyes around the room, taking in the paintings and murals. “I miss those days.”

  I repeated, “Where is Nakhtmin, Nefertiti?”

  My sister averted her gaze. “In prison.”

  I took her hands. They were cold. “You have to get him out. You have to.”

  She watched me sadly. “I have already made arrangements for his release. The others will be executed; only Nakhtmin shall be spared.”

  I blinked in shock. “How?”

  “How?” she repeated.
“I told Akhenaten to let him free. He refuses me nothing, Mutnodjmet. Nothing. Of course, he went running off to Kiya’s chamber. But so what? I am the one who’s pregnant with his child. I’m Queen of Egypt, not her.” She looked like a little girl singing out loud in the dark to convince herself that she wasn’t scared. I embraced her tightly, and the two of us stood in the light of the oil lamps, leaning into one another. “I will miss you,” she whispered. “I wanted to be the only one that mattered to you.” She stepped back to look at me. “But I would never have poisoned your child,” she whispered. “I never—”

  I squeezed her hand, looking over at the small feline goddess. “I know,” I said. I leaned into her shoulder and squeezed again.

  She nodded. “Go. Go tonight.”

  “Djedefhor, isn’t there any other way?”

  “This is the only way up the hill, my lady.”

  The streets teemed with people. Chariots shared the road with jostling carts and dozens of soldiers milled about. “What is everyone doing?” I asked him.

  “Talking,” he replied. “They have heard that General Nakhtmin has escaped.”

  “Escaped? But he hasn’t. My sister—”

  Djedefhor raised a gloved hand and lowered his voice. “The people want an escape. And it won’t be long before the soldiers go to him, asking him to lead the army against Pharaoh and take the Horus throne.”

  “He would never do that,” I said firmly.

  Djedefhor said nothing and the chariot rolled toward the hills and my villa.

  “He would never do that,” I repeated.

  “Perhaps not. But Pharaoh will send men tonight.”

  Assassins. That was why Nefertiti said her children would never know their aunt. Why she pushed me out of her chamber and told me to hurry. “Do you really think they will come tonight?” I leaned closer so that Djedefhor could hear me above the wind.

 
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