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       Nefertiti, p.29

           Michelle Moran
 

  Ipu rolled her eyes. “That is the third person who has come here looking for lost cattle. Has everyone in Thebes lost their cow today?”

  I laughed, spreading cushions in the loggia. When it was time for Djedefhor to go, we stood on the shore and waved farewell. I put my arm around Nakhtmin’s waist and asked if he thought we’d ever see him again.

  “Djedefhor?” he asked. “Of course.”

  I hesitated. “You are no longer part of Pharaoh’s army, Nakhtmin.”

  “But the winds will blow and the sands will shift. Akhenaten won’t be Pharaoh forever.”

  I stiffened in his arms.

  “It’s nothing against your sister, miw-sher, but no one is immortal.”

  “My family has always been on the throne of Egypt.”

  Nakhtmin pressed his lips together. “Yes, and that is what worries me.”

  We walked back into the house and I followed him into the loggia. “What do you mean?”

  “Only that should our Royal Highnesses die, what link will there be left to the throne? Akhenaten has no legitimate siblings.” He looked over at me. “It’s only you, miw-sher.”

  Only me. I realized that it was true, and I shivered. If something should happen to Nefertiti, if Akhenaten died, the new Pharaoh would need a link to the throne to legitimize his claim. He would have to marry into it. And what royal woman would be of age to marry if something should happen now? Not Nefertiti’s little girls. Only me.

  “You’ve never thought about it?” he asked.

  “Of course I have. But not…” I hesitated. “Not seriously.”

  “If Akhenaten dies without a son, one of his generals is in a prime position to take the reins of Egypt,” Nakhtmin explained. “Why, even right now people could be whispering that I married you for a claim to Egypt’s throne.”

  I watched him carefully. “So, did you?”

  He wrapped me in his arms. “What do you think?” His kisses traveled downward and I closed my eyes.

  “I think it was for love.” I stopped his hands from going any farther and we retired to our chamber.

  Ipu knew better than to disturb us.

  For the first month in Thebes, we did nothing but enjoy the quiet of a life near the water. We listened to the gulls as they searched for food along the sand, and the brassy ring of bells that farmers tied around the necks of their cattle, which grazed at the banks of the River Nile. We went to the market and picked out baskets for our new home, enjoying our anonymity. Although I wore linens and gold, I was no different from the daughters of the priests or scribes whose wrists jangled with bangles and glass.

  Twice, men in soldiers’ garb from Amarna came up to Nakhtmin and whispered with him. Each time they bowed very low, even though Nakhtmin was no longer a general. “This is Lieutenant Nebut,” Nakhtmin said the second time we were approached.

  The lieutenant shaded his eyes with his hand and smiled. “Did you know your husband is all they talk about back in Amarna?”

  “They better not talk too loudly, then,” I told him, “or they will endanger both of our lives.”

  The lieutenant nodded. “Of course, my lady. None of the men have forgotten what happened to Horemheb.” He lowered his voice. “But there is a rumor that Pharaoh will not execute him after all.”

  I glanced quickly at Nakhtmin. “What will they do then?”

  “Keep the men in prison,” my husband replied.

  “Yes. Until the people forget. But they have chanted outside the palace gates for a month. Pharaoh’s guards beat them back, but the crowds don’t stop coming. His own city has turned against him.” His voice dropped nearly to a whisper. “The night I left, he declared any man chanting against him to be a traitor. They have put a dozen men to death already.”

  Nakhtmin was shaking his head.

  “Now the people stand at the gates as a silent mob.”

  I imagined Akhenaten’s rage as he watched the angry mobs from his Window of Appearances, Panahesi next to him, whispering platitudes in his ear.

  “He will have to resolve it soon,” Nakhtmin predicted.

  “Oh, he will,” I promised. “Pharaoh will declare a Festival to Aten. He will throw gold from his chariots and the people will forget.”

  A Festival to Aten was declared the next day.

  My heart sank, knowing that men like Nebut must think I was just like my family, cunning and ambitious to have guessed at her plan. I knew as well that in the halls of eternity, my name would echo with Nefertiti’s, and that if the gods were to obliterate her name from the scrolls of life, they would obliterate mine, too.

  All of Thebes was in the streets, and we walked through the city to watch the festivities. Dancers and acrobats crowded the quay, along with merchants selling baked catfish and pheasant. I watched men make obeisance to an image of the sun on a pillar.

  “I only wonder what the gods must be thinking.” Nakhtmin spoke my thoughts, studying women making offerings to the sun.

  The festivities carried on long into the night, and from our villa perched above the Nile we could hear the sounds of singing and the ringing of party bells. We went to sleep with the cries of drunken revelries in our ears, and I thought, This is how you make a people forget. Free wine, free bread, a day off from labor, and suddenly Horemheb is a name buried in the sand.

  The next day, a messenger from Amarna arrived.

  “From Vizier Ay,” the boy said expectantly.

  I read the scroll, then went into the garden to read it aloud to Nakhtmin. “News from Amarna,” I said. I unrolled the papyrus and read it to him.

  I hope this letter finds you well, Mutnodjmet, and that you have been wise enough to protect your new husband from village gossips and women at the wells. I do not need to say how your mother misses you. But there is rebellion in the city, silent rebellion that eats away at Pharaoh until only Queen Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti can calm him.

  “Queen Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti?” Nakhtmin asked.

  “Perfect Are the Beauties of Aten,” I said disbelievingly.

  Should the Hittites invade, neither you nor Nakhtmin would be safe. Akhenaten is no fool. At the first sign of real rebellion, he will execute Horemheb, then send men to Thebes. Do not think that because you live away from court that you are safe. Should there be an uprising, Udjai will give warning and you will flee to Akhmim. Write nothing to us and send nothing to Pharaoh’s city until the tide of unrest has washed over Amarna. These are only precautions, little cat, but though your heart may belong to your husband, your duty is to family should Akhenaten ever fall.

  Nakhtmin looked up at this. “Your father does not mince words.”

  I let the scroll fall onto my lap. “He is only being honest.”

  Chapter Twenty

  1347 BCE

  first of Mechyr

  THERE WAS NO rebellion in Amarna, though we expected it with every message that came from my father. Horemheb had been forgotten, and the people tolerated their heavy taxes for the glory of Aten the way they did throughout the rest of the kingdom. They ate less, they worked harder, and more women sought out acacia and honey. Fewer mouths to feed meant less food to buy. But as they watched Akhenaten’s buildings rise pillar by pillar, they met in secret to pray to Amun. In Thebes, we set up our own shrine, hidden beneath a bower of jasmine. And this is how the late days of summer passed, and all of autumn. I knew my sister must be growing heavy with child. Then, one day as I was sitting by Ipu’s side, explaining to her the uses of foreign herbs, the message I knew would come arrived.

  I had expected to see my father’s seal on the scroll, his two sphinxes rearing with the symbol of eternal life between their claws. But it was my mother who had written.

  The month of Mechyr has arrived and your sister has summoned you to Amarna. She cannot, however, promise Nakhtmin’s safety. Horemheb still sits in prison and Pharaoh’s fondest wish is that he will die on his own. Your father has told him that if he raises his hand to strike Horemheb down there will
be civil war. But all this is insignificant if Nefertiti produces a prince. Your father asks that you come as well. He will send the royal barge for you.

  “You must go,” Nakhtmin said simply. “She is your sister. “What if she dies in childbirth?”

  I recoiled. Nefertiti was strong, she was relentless. She wouldn’t die. “But you can’t come,” I protested. “If the people should see you and rise up, Pharaoh would have you killed.”

  “Then I’ll stay here and wait for your return. Take Ipu. I will be fine,” he promised. “And besides, there is the matter of our tomb.”

  Yes. We were married now, and work should begin on our tomb. I thought back to the tomb of Tuthmosis, the dank and heavy darkness, and shivered. I didn’t want to choose the site of my own burial chamber. It would be better to let him find our resting place in the hills of Thebes without me. He could choose a rocky outcropping near the sleeping Pharaohs of Egypt, in the valley near my ancestors and his. I looked at my husband in the shifting light, and a feeling of great tenderness overwhelmed me. He was waiting for me to say something, and I nodded. “I will go.”

  I left on the royal barge with Ipu, early enough to escape the prying eyes of neighbors, who would have wanted to know why the barge was there, who was leaving in it, and where it was going. We traveled downriver, and I thought of how much had changed in the eight months since I had left Pharaoh’s city in the desert. I was a married woman now, with a house and my own land. I had sheep and chickens, and I didn’t need to stand in Nefertiti’s shadow anymore. I didn’t need to fetch her linen or make her juice to know that she loved me. We were sisters, and as I looked out across the River Nile, I realized that that should be enough.

  My mother and father met us in the Great Hall, and when my mother saw me she gave a sharp cry and threw up her hands, kissing my cheeks, my hair, my face. “Mutnodjmet.”

  My father smiled and kissed my cheeks warmly. “You look well.” He turned to Ipu. “As do you.”

  “Tell us everything!” my mother exclaimed, and she wanted to know a hundred things at once. How I was living, what my villa was like, and if the Nile there was full this Season of Growing. Thutmose, hearing that I had arrived, came in and swept a great bow to me.

  “The lady that Amarna won’t stop talking about.” He smiled. “And Ipu, the finest beautician in Thebes. Everyone will want to see you,” he promised.

  Ipu giggled. “What? They don’t they have any other fodder for gossip?”

  “Only Pharaoh’s Arena.”

  I threw a sharp glance at my father and he said ruefully, “His new gift for the people.”

  I paused in the Great Hall of Amarna. “But there are no more builders,” I protested.

  My father raised his brows. “Which is why he hired Nubians.”

  “Foreigners to work alongside soldiers?” I asked, shocked. “But they could be spies!”

  “They certainly could,” my father said as we began our walk to the Audience Chamber. “But Panahesi convinced Akhenaten that he could have an Arena immediately and cheaply if Nubians were employed.”

  “And you allowed this? Couldn’t Tiye try to stop him?”

  My mother and Thutmose exchanged heavy looks.

  “Tiye has been banished from the palace,” my father said. “She stays in your villa.”

  “Like a prisoner?” My voice echoed in the hall and I checked myself. “Like a prisoner in her own son’s city?”

  He nodded. “Panahesi has convinced Akhenaten that his mother is dangerous; that if given the chance, she will take back the throne.”

  “And Nefertiti?”

  “What can Nefertiti do?” my father asked. We arrived at the Audience Chamber, then he turned to warn me. “When you go in, do not be surprised.” The guards threw open the doors, sweeping low bows before us, and the herald announced our names to the court.

  Servants were dressed in golden pectorals, their wrists cuffed in bands of lapis and gold. The women who sat like statues around Nefertiti’s throne wore dresses of netted beads and nothing else, playing harps and writing poems and laughing. Pharaoh’s nearly completed Amarna shone like a polished jewel, and I was shocked. I walked into the chamber and felt like a foreigner in a different land.

  “Mutny!”

  Nefertiti was helped to her feet, and as she came down the dais the room parted before us. I inhaled the familiar scent of her hair, realizing suddenly how much I had missed her. Above us, Akhenaten cleared his throat.

  “Sister,” he greeted. “How nice to see you.”

  “It is always a pleasure to be in Pharaoh’s city,” I said flatly.

  “Is that why you ran off so quickly to Thebes?”

  The court went very quiet.

  “No, Your Highness.” I smiled my sweetest court smile. “I ran because I thought I was in danger. But, of course, being here now in the arms of my sister, all such feelings disappear.”

  Rage flushed Akhenaten’s face, but the look Nefertiti shot her husband shrank him back onto his throne. I was the not the same girl who’d run away to Thebes. I was a married woman now.

  The silence that had stolen over the Audience Chamber turned at once to nervous conversation. Nefertiti embraced me. “You know you have nothing to fear,” she promised. “This is my home. Our home,” she corrected. She hooked my arm in hers, and the court watched us move toward the double door of the Audience Chamber. My sister pressed her cheek against my shoulder, and I could feel Akhenaten’s eyes boring into our backs. “I knew you would come. I knew you would,” she swore.

  The court made its way through the glittering hall, following us, talking and laughing while my father spoke with Pharaoh.

  “There is news of Hittites in Mitanni, Your Highness.”

  But Akhenaten didn’t want to hear any news. “Everything is taken care of!” he snapped.

  Nefertiti turned and Pharaoh smoothed his face, laughing nervously. “Your father thinks I have underestimated the Hittite power.”

  We entered the Great Hall and Nefertiti said sharply, “My father loves you. He is trying to protect our crown.”

  “Then why does he think I am less powerful than King Suppiluliumas?” Akhenaten whined.

  “Because King Suppiluliumas is greedy and you are satisfied living a life that serves your people and the glory of Aten.”

  They ascended the dais and I took my old seat at the royal table with my father and mother.

  “The wandering sheep returns,” Kiya said, and looked down at my waist. “Not in foal?”

  “No, but then neither are you.” I lowered my voice. “I hear Pharaoh visits your chamber only twice a renpet now. Is that true?”

  One of Kiya’s ladies said quickly, “Don’t listen to her. Come.” They rushed away to greet guests across the hall.

  “So tell us about Thebes,” my mother pressed brightly.

  “And Udjai,” my father added.

  I told them that Udjai had grown fatter than he had been in my father’s boyhood days.

  “No, he was always large,” my father said. “And now he is a landowner.” He nodded approvingly. “He has carved a good life for himself. But no children?”

  “Three,” I replied. “And a wife from Mitanni. She cooks perch with cumin and Bastet sneezes whenever he comes back from their garden.”

  My mother laughed. I had forgotten how beautiful it sounded. “And your house?”

  “It’s mine.” I smiled with satisfaction. “No one else’s but mine. We’ve planted a garden and expect a harvest in Pachons. Ipu has arranged an entire room for me where I can work, and Nakhtmin has promised to watch the garden till I return.”

  My mother reached across the table to squeeze my hand while cheerful music played around us. “You have had the blessings of the gods,” she said. “Whenever I cry, your father reminds me that you have what you’ve always wanted.”

  “I do, mawat. I am only sorry we are so far away.”

  I rubbed the soles of Nefertiti’s feet with coc
onut oil, smoothing it into her small, rough heel as she lay in her bath. “What do you do, go barefoot all day?” I asked her.

  “When I can,” she admitted, stretching her back. A great copper tub had been built in the royal rooms and was perfumed with lavender. “You just don’t know what it’s like to carry a child,” she complained.

  My eyes met hers and she sat up quickly. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said at once.

  I rubbed the oil over her feet. “I have been trying for eight months,” I told her. Her eyes traveled to my waist. “Nothing. I don’t think I will ever have a child.”

  “You can’t know that,” Nefertiti replied hotly. “It’s up to Aten.”

  I set my jaw, and she laid her head back in the tub and sighed. “Why don’t you tell me about Thebes? What is it you do all day?”

  I would have answered, but we were interrupted by the squeals of children and the heavy sound of an adult woman chasing after them.

  “Meritaten, Meketaten!” My sister laughed. The two girls scrambled into Nefertiti’s wet arms, and my story was forgotten. The nurse was not laughing, however, though she made a short bow when she entered Pharaoh’s chamber.

  The younger girl was crying, holding her forelock. “Meri pulled my hair,” she wept.

  “I didn’t touch her hair. You can’t believe her!”

  I let Nefertiti’s foot drop, and both children immediately stopped what they were doing to look up at me with wide, interested eyes. The older girl came up and stared into my face with the confidence Nefertiti had owned as a child.

  “Are you our aunt Mutnodjmet?” she asked.

  I smiled at Nefertiti. “Yes, I am.”

  “You have green eyes.” She narrowed hers, trying to determine whether she liked me or not. Then Meketaten began to wail again.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked the little princess, holding out my arms, but she clung to her mother’s hand.

 
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