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       Nefertiti, p.28

           Michelle Moran
 

  He nodded. “I know they will, my lady.”

  I held my breath as the chariot rolled toward the villa that I had made into my home. We stopped in the courtyard that I had seen so many times in the sun, but in the waning light it suddenly seemed dark and threatening. Djedefhor took my hand, and together we rushed into the forecourt. But when he threw open the door to the villa, I stepped back. Dozens of soldiers occupied my loggia. And Nakhtmin was there. He turned, and the entire room went quiet.

  “Mutnodjmet.”

  My eyes welled with tears as he took me in his arms. In a room full of strangers, we held each other close. He smelled of heat and dirt and battle. I drew back to study his face. He was dark from the sun, and there was a scar across his cheek that had not had time to heal. I thought of the sword that had cut him there and fresh tears came to my eyes. “There is no child,” I wept.

  He looked into my face, brushing the tears away. “I know.” Akhenaten had stolen our child and imprisoned him. His gaze found Djedefhor’s, and his look was threatening.

  “What?” I panicked. “What are you going to do?”

  “Nothing.”

  “My sister is queen. You won’t rebel against her?”

  “Of course I won’t. Nor will anyone else,” he swore loudly, and the soldiers shifted uneasily in their armor. “The gods saw fit to put Akhenaten on the Horus throne, and there he will stay.”

  “Until what?” one of the soldiers shouted. “The Hittites overrun Egypt?”

  “Until Pharaoh sees the fault of his actions.” My father swept in from the back of the atrium, his white cloak brushing the tiles. “Daughter.” He took my hand.

  I looked around my villa and realized that the men were dressed for battle. “What are all of these men doing here? In my house?”

  “They came to convince Nakhtmin to take the Horus throne,” my father said. “I had Nakhtmin brought here for his safety, and these men came to find him. If they know where he is, then so does Pharaoh.” My father stepped toward me. “The time has come for you to make a choice, Mutnodjmet.”

  My mother appeared at my father’s side, and suddenly, my throat felt tight. I could see Ipu at the edge of the kitchen, and Bastet surveying the room from his perch on a pillar. I turned to Nakhtmin.

  “I will have to leave Amarna,” he warned. “And unless my safety is guaranteed by Pharaoh, I will never come back.”

  “But Nefertiti released you. She could ensure it.”

  My father shook his head. “Your sister has done what she can tonight. If you choose this life, if you choose to marry Nakhtmin, you must leave Amarna.”

  I looked first at Ipu, then at Bastet, then out to my beautifully cultivated garden.

  “Tiye will tend it until you can return,” he promised.

  Panic swelled in my chest, imagining a life without my parents. “But when will that be?”

  My father’s eyes shone the color of bright polished lapis, imagining a time when his daughter would be Pharaoh of Egypt in all but name. Perhaps even in name. The ultimate ascension for our family. “When Nefertiti grows powerful enough to order you back with or without her husband’s consent.”

  “But then again, it could be never,” Nakhtmin warned.

  I looked at my parents and Nakhtmin. Then I slipped my hand in his. I felt his shoulders relax, and I turned to my mother. “You will visit?” I whispered.

  My mother nodded quickly, but her tears still came. “Of course.”

  “And Nakhtmin will be safe?”

  “Akhenaten will forget about him,” my father predicted. “He will not risk Nefertiti’s wrath to pursue him from city to city. Nefertiti is the one the people follow,” he said. “And Akhenaten will not risk her anger.”

  Ipu shoved handfuls of linen into baskets and the servants rushed into action. The soldiers were gone, and my mother and father took Nakhtmin aside, whispering with him about Thebes. Fear and excitement welled in my stomach. Tiye watched from the garden as the donkeys were laden with my belongings, then came and held out a lotus flower for me to take.

  “The sister who should have been queen,” she said.

  “No, I could not do what Nefertiti has done.”

  “Make a treaty with the Hittites, birth two girls in succession, and erect statues of herself at every crossroads?” My aunt turned to Nakhtmin. There were signs of battle still on his kilt, the blood of enemies he had slain. “You have been fortunate in your destiny,” Tiye said. To me she added, “Maybe you are the lucky sister. The one who will have peace in this life.”

  In the city below us, tension hovered like a cloud. As the evening cool settled across the villages, women opened their shutters and men took to the Royal Road.

  “The men are taking to the streets.” I panicked, peering over the balcony.

  “They have heard my son plans to execute Horemheb and his men. Certainly, they are.”

  “Then why did Horemheb return? He must have known that Pharaoh would imprison him.”

  Tiye looked to Nakhtmin and guessed, “Perhaps he hoped for rebellion.”

  “I don’t know,” Nakhtmin admitted, his voice softening. “Perhaps it was pride. Horemheb is full of lofty ambitions. I only know what I came for.”

  I felt heat creep into my cheeks. Beyond the balcony, I could see the swelling of people in the streets. My aunt saw the direction of my gaze and raised her brows.

  “So it begins.”

  I glanced at her. “Aren’t you afraid?”

  Tiye tossed her head, a gesture I had seen Nefertiti make a hundred times, and at once a deep regret overwhelmed me, that I could steal away in the night like this, leaving my sister forever.

  “It is the price of power, Mutnodjmet. Someday you may come to understand that.”

  “No. I would never want to be queen.”

  When the sun descended, Nakhtmin and I mounted horses. Djedefhor was to sail a bark full of servants behind us while we went on. “We will visit when we can,” my mother swore, standing at the edge of the villa. Ipu came forward. Her eyes were red as she embraced various members of my household: the cook, the gardener, the boy who cleaned the lotus pools. Then she stepped toward Djedefhor, since she’d be sailing with him.

  “You don’t have to come with us,” I told Ipu again. “You can stay here and keep Bastet.”

  “No, my lady. My life is with you.”

  Nakhtmin fastened his bow behind him. “We must go,” he said tensely. “It will be dangerous tonight.”

  My father pressed my hand in his.

  “What if they storm the palace?” I asked him.

  “Then the soldiers will beat them back.”

  “But the soldiers are not on Akhenaten’s side.”

  “They’re on whatever side has silver and gold,” he said, and I understood suddenly why my father had not opposed my marriage with Nakhtmin. With the general on our side, the soldiers had no one to rally behind. As long as Horemheb remained in prison, our family was safe on the throne of Egypt.

  We rode out under the cover of darkness, and as we sped through the streets, we could see the beginnings of rebellion. Men with sticks and rocks marched in the streets, demanding the release of the soldiers who had thwarted King Suppiluliumas and defeated the Hittites. The chanting grew louder as we rode through the city, then there was the clash of weapons. Fire swept up the mountainside where my villa and its herb garden stood, and I turned around on my horse and looked back into the night.

  “The fire will not reach it,” Nakhtmin promised, slowing to a canter as we came upon the gates that would lead us out of the city of Amarna. “Say nothing,” he instructed. He held out the scroll my father had given him; I could see Vizier Ay’s seal in the torchlight, as dark as dried blood with the sphinx and Eye of Horus pressed into it. The guard looked at us, nodding his assent for the gates to be opened.

  And suddenly, we were free.

  Chapter Nineteen

  THEBES

  eleventh of Payni

&n
bsp; OUR NEW HOUSE stood on the banks of the Nile, perched on a cliff like a brooding heron. The building looked cold and empty in the middle of the night, and the owner was curious when we appeared at his door, inquiring about buying his house on the shore.

  “It was built for the daughter of the mayor,” he explained, “but she said it was too small for Her Highness’s tastes.” He appraised my jewels and the cut of my linen, wondering if it wouldn’t be too small for me. Then he said, “Strange time of night to be buying a house.”

  “We’ll take it all the same,” Nakhtmin replied.

  The owner raised his eyebrows at us. “How did you know it was for sale?”

  Nakhtmin produced a scroll and the man held it up to the lamplight. Then he looked at the both of us anew. “The vizier’s daughter?” He peered at it again. “You are the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife?”

  I straightened my shoulders. “I am.”

  He held up the candle to see me better. “You do have cat eyes.”

  Nakhtmin frowned and the owner laughed. “Didn’t you know that I went to school with Ay?” He rolled up the scroll and gave it back to Nakhtmin. “We both grew up in the palace at Thebes.”

  “I didn’t know that,” I said.

  “Udjai?” he replied. “Son of Shalam?”

  I blinked naively.

  “What? He never told you about our boyhood adventures? Pulling pranks on the Elder’s servants, running naked through the lotus gardens, swimming in the sacred pools of Isis?” He saw my scandalized look and said, “Ay has changed, I see.”

  “I cannot imagine Vizier Ay running kiltless through lotus gardens,” Nakhtmin admitted, scrutinizing the old man.

  “Ah.” Udjai patted his belly and laughed. “But those were our younger days, when there was less hair on my stomach and more on my head.”

  Nakhtmin grinned. “It is good to know you are a friend, Udjai.”

  “Of Ay’s daughters, always.” He looked as though he wanted to say more, but he turned and motioned with his hand. We followed him into a hallway where a dog pricked its ear at our approach but didn’t bother to move. “I am guessing you are in need of discretion,” he said. “At this time of night, with no baskets or servants…It can only mean you have angered Pharaoh.” He looked at Nakhtmin’s kilt with its golden lion. “Which general are you?”

  “General Nakhtmin.”

  Udjai stopped in his tracks, turning fully around. “General Nakhtmin who fought against the Hittites in Kadesh?”

  Nakhtmin smiled wryly. “News travels fast.”

  Udjai stepped forward and there was the deepest respect in his voice. “You are all the people will talk about,” he said. “But you were imprisoned.”

  I stiffened. “And my sister set him free.”

  Understanding dawned on Udjai’s face: why we were there in the dark of night, why we’d come without baskets or linens or even a day’s worth of food. “Is it true, then,” he whispered, “that Pharaoh will execute the great general Horemheb?”

  Nakhtmin stiffened. “Yes. It is only by Lady Mutnodjmet’s grace that I am free. Horemheb has no such luck.”

  “Unless the gods are with him,” Udjai replied, glancing up at a mural of Amun. He saw my look and shifted. “The people don’t forget the god who gave them life and made Egypt great.” He cleared his throat tactfully, as if he’d said too much to the daughter of Ay. “Do you think to hide from Pharaoh, then?” Udjai asked.

  “No one can hide from Pharaoh,” Nakhtmin said. “We’ve come to raise a family and make a new life far away from court. By tomorrow, they will know where we have gone. But Pharaoh will not send men after us. He is too afraid of rebellion.”

  And Nefertiti, I thought.

  Udjai produced a key from a golden box. “Payment due once a month, beginning on the first. Or you can pay me outright.”

  “We will pay you outright,” Nakhtmin said at once.

  Udjai bowed. “It is an honor to do business with a general who would have made the Elder proud.”

  We walked up the stone path, and I shivered in the chill that had settled over the desert. But there was warmth in Nakhtmin’s hand and I didn’t let it go. Inside the empty house, he lit the brazier and shadows moved across the ceiling.

  My eyes welled with tears. We had crossed the threshold of an empty house together, and in every family of Egypt this meant the same thing. I held back my tears. “We are married now,” I said. “Only a few days ago I thought you were dead to me, and suddenly in the darkness of night we are together as husband and wife.”

  Nakhtmin pressed against me, smoothing my black hair. “The gods have protected us, Mutnodjmet. There is destiny in our being together. My prayers to Amun have been answered.” He kissed me, and I wondered if he had been with another woman; he would have had his choice of any woman in Kadesh. But I looked into his eyes, and his urgency told me otherwise. He lifted my gown and we made love near the warmth of our small fire, over and over again. Toward morning, Nakhtmin rolled on his side to look at me.

  “Why are you crying?”

  “Because I am happy.” I laughed, but there was sadness and bitterness in it, too.

  “Did you think I wouldn’t return?” he asked seriously.

  My linen gown lay at the foot of the brazier, so he wrapped me in a fold of his cloak. I pressed my cheek against its warmth and nodded.

  “They told me to forget you,” I whispered. My throat tightened, thinking of the night when I’d lost our child. “And then the poison…”

  My husband clenched his jaw, wanting to say something violent, but tenderness overcame him. “There will be other children,” he promised, putting a hand to my stomach. “And no force of Hittites, however strong or numerous, could keep me from you.”

  “But how did you defeat them?”

  He told me the story of the night that Akhenaten’s Nubian guards had ordered him onto a barge with seven other men bound for the front at Kadesh. “I don’t doubt Pharaoh thought it was suicide, but he overestimated the Hittite forces. They are scattered throughout the north, and there weren’t enough of them to break through a coordinated defense. They’d chosen the city because they’d gambled that Akhenaten wouldn’t send soldiers to defend it. But they were wrong.”

  “Only because he thought those he was sending were going to their death.”

  “But the Hittites didn’t know that. The mayor of Kadesh didn’t know that. We have saved Egypt from a Hittite invasion,” he said, “but they’ll try again.”

  “And next time they’ll be no one to save Kadesh, and when it falls, their march to Mitanni and then to Egypt will be unstoppable.”

  “We could fight them,” he said, sure of himself, remembering the fear Egypt’s army had instilled during the time of the Elder. “We could stop them now.”

  “But Akhenaten will never do it.” I conjured an image of Akhenaten, the white leather of his sandals and his pristine cloak that would never see battle. “Akhenaten the Builder,” I said contemptuously. “While the Hittites march south, Egypt’s soldiers will be busy sanding stone for his eternal city to Aten.”

  Nakhtmin paused, considering his next words. “When we rode into the city, the soldiers were shocked to see your sister on every temple,” he confided. “Her image is everywhere.”

  “She is reminding the people who rules in Egypt,” I said defensively.

  Nakhtmin watched me, and his look was guarded. “There are some who say that she has raised herself even above Amun.”

  I was silent, and when he saw that I wasn’t going to speak against her he sighed.

  “Either way, I am glad our children will know what it’s like to till the earth and fish the Nile and walk through the streets without being knelt to as if they were gods. They will be humble.”

  “If I have a son”—I measured my words—“Nefertiti will never forgive me.”

  Nakhtmin shook his head. “That’s over now.”

  “It’s never over. So long as Nefertiti is
alive and we are sisters, it will never be over.”

  The next morning, the sun had risen well into the sky before we rolled off our pallet and looked around us. There was a commotion outside. “Soldiers?” I tensed.

  Nakhtmin’s hearing was sharper. “Djedefhor. And from the sounds of it, Ipu.”

  Now I, too, could hear my servant’s incessant chatter. We dressed in a hurry and I opened the door.

  “Ipu!” I exclaimed.

  “My lady!” She set down a basket. “What a place,” she cried. “It’s so large. Not as nice a garden, but look at the view.” The basket toppled over and an angry Bastet marched out with an injured air. When he saw me, he leapt into my arms.

  “Oh, Bastet. Was the river ride so terrible?” I chucked him under the chin.

  “I have no idea what he’s complaining about. Djedefhor caught two fish and gave them both to him.”

  I turned to Djedefhor.

  He bowed. “My lady.”

  Nakhtmin embraced him warmly. “I never had to chance to thank you,” my husband said. I glanced at Nakhtmin. “I asked Djedefhor to watch over you while I was gone,” he explained.

  I covered my mouth and Ipu stifled a giggle.

  Djedefhor shrugged. “It wasn’t difficult. A few trips into the village.”

  “A few? You came every day!” I looked again at Nakhtmin, and my heart filled with a sudden, overwhelming love. Even as he was being sent away by my own family, he had thought to find someone to watch over me. I went to Djedefhor and took his hands. “Thank you,” I said.

  Djedefhor flushed. “You’re welcome, my lady.” He studied the house and said with admiration, “You’ve found a beautiful place up here.” He passed his hand over the smooth walls. “Real construction. Not mud brick and talatat,” he added.

  “Yes. A real city of limestone and granite,” I said.

  We unloaded the baskets that had come on the barge and spent the afternoon laying rugs and washing linens. Neighbors peered through our window, curious to see who had moved into the house that had been meant for the mayor’s daughter.

 
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