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       Nefertiti, p.3

           Michelle Moran
 

  I winced at her crassness.

  “But I’ll never get to see him without charming his mother.”

  “You’ll do well.”

  She looked at me, as if noticing that I was there for the first time. “Really?”

  “Yes.” I sat down in my father’s ebony chair and called one of the household cats to me. “But how do you know that you will love him?” I asked.

  Nefertiti looked at me sharply. “Because he’s about to become the Pharaoh of Egypt,” she said. “And I am tired of Akhmim.”

  I thought of Ranofer with his handsome smile and wondered if she was tired of him, too. Then my mother’s servant came through the doors of the Audience Chamber and the cat slipped away.

  “Are we to come?” Nefertiti asked anxiously.

  “Yes, my lady.”

  Nefertiti looked at me. Her cheeks were flushed. “Walk behind me, Mutny. She has to see me first and fall in love.”

  We entered into the Audience Chamber with the gifts from our treasury, and the room seemed bigger than I remembered. The painted marshes on the wall and blue river tiles on the ground looked brighter. The servants had done well, even washing out the stain on the hanging above my mother’s head. The queen looked the same as she had at the tombs. An austere face surrounded by a large Nubian wig. If Nefertiti ever became queen, she would wear such a wig. We approached the dais, where the queen sat in a large, feather-stuffed cushion on the chair with the widest arms in our house. A black cat rested on her lap. Her hand was on its back, and its collar was lapis and gold.

  The queen’s herald stepped forward and flung out his arm in a sweeping gesture. “Your Majesty, your niece, the Lady Nefertiti.”

  My sister held out her gift and a servant took the gilt bowl. My aunt touched an empty seat to her left, indicating that Nefertiti should sit next to her. As my sister ascended the dais, my aunt’s eyes never moved from her face. Nefertiti was beautiful in a way that made even queens stare.

  “Your Majesty, your niece, the Lady Mutnodjmet.”

  I stepped forward and my aunt blinked in surprise. She looked at the turquoise box I held out for her and smiled, a concession that in Nefertiti’s presence she’d forgotten about me. “You’ve grown tall,” she commented.

  “Yes, but not as graceful as Nefertiti, Your Majesty.”

  My mother nodded approvingly. I had turned the conversation to the reason the queen had come to Akhmim, and we all looked to my sister, who tried not to glow.

  “She is beautiful, Ay. More of her mother, I think, than you.”

  My father laughed. “And gifted. She can sing. And dance.”

  “But is she clever?”

  “Of course. And she has strength.” His voice lowered meaningfully. “She will be able to guide his passions and control him.”

  My aunt looked at Nefertiti again, wondering if this was true.

  “But she must be Chief Wife if she is to marry him,” he added. “Then she will direct his interests away from Aten, back to Amun and to politics that are less dangerous.”

  The queen turned directly to my sister. “What do you say to all this?” she asked.

  “I will do what is commanded of me, Your Majesty. I will entertain the prince and give him children. And I will be an obedient servant of Amun.” Her eyes met mine, and I lowered my head to keep from smiling.

  “Of Amun,” the queen repeated thoughtfully. “If only my son had so much sense.”

  “She is the strongest willed of my two children,” my father said. “If anyone can sway him, it would be her.”

  “And Kiya is weak,” the queen conceded. “She cannot do the job. He wanted to make her Chief Wife, but I wouldn’t allow it.”

  My father promised, “Once he sees Nefertiti, he will forget about Kiya.”

  “Kiya’s father is a vizier,” my aunt said warningly. “He will be displeased that I chose your daughter over his.”

  My father shrugged. “It’s to be expected. We are family.”

  There was a moment’s hesitation, then the queen stood up. “So the matter is settled.”

  I heard Nefertiti’s delighted intake of breath. It was over as quickly as it had begun. The queen walked down the dais, a small but indomitable figure, and the cat followed her on the end of a golden leash. “I hope she lives up to your promise, Ay. It is the future of Egypt that is at stake,” she warned darkly.

  For three days servants rushed from room to room, packing linens and clothes and small jewelry into baskets. There were half-empty chests lying open everywhere, with vessels of alabaster, glass, and pottery waiting to be wrapped and put inside. My father supervised the move with visible pleasure. Nefertiti’s marriage meant we would all move to live in Malkata Palace in Thebes with him, and he would get to see more of us now.

  “Mutny, stop standing around,” my mother admonished. “Find something to do.”

  “Nefertiti’s standing around,” I tattled. My sister was at the other end of the room, trying on clothes and holding up pieces of glass jewelry.

  “Nefertiti,” my mother snapped, “there will be enough time to stand in front of the mirror at Malkata.”

  Nefertiti heaved dramatically, then took an armful of gowns and tumbled them into a basket. My mother shook her head, and my sister went out to supervise the loading of her seventeen chests. We could hear her in the courtyard, telling a slave to be careful, that her baskets were worth more than we’d paid for him. I looked over at my mother, who sighed. It hadn’t become real that my sister would be queen.

  It would change everything.

  We would leave Akhmim behind. We’d keep the villa, but who knew if we’d ever see it again. “Do you think we’ll ever come back?” I asked.

  My mother straightened. I saw her look at the pools that my sister and I had played in as children, then out at our family’s shrine to Amun. “I hope so,” she answered. “We’ve been a family here. It’s our home.”

  “But now Thebes will be our home.”

  She drew a heavy breath. “Yes. It’s what your father wants. And your sister.”

  “Is it what you want?” I asked quietly.

  Her eyes turned to the room she shared with my father. She missed him terribly when he was gone. Now she would be near him. “I want to be with my husband,” she admitted, “and I want opportunities for my children.” We both looked at Nefertiti, commanding the servants in the courtyard. “She will be monarch of Egypt,” my mother said, a little in awe. “Our Nefertiti, only fifteen years old.”

  “And me?”

  My mother smiled, the lines on her face coming together. “And you will be Sister of the King’s Chief Wife. That’s no small thing.”

  “But who will I marry?”

  “You’re only thirteen!” she exclaimed, and a shadow crossed her face. I was the only child the goddess Tawaret had given her. Once I was married, she’d have no one. Immediately, I felt sorry I’d said anything.

  “Perhaps I won’t marry,” I said quickly. “Perhaps I will be a priestess.”

  She nodded, but I could see that she was thinking of a time when she would be all alone.

  Chapter Two

  THEBES

  nineteenth of Pharmuthi

  OUR BARGE WAS ready to set sail for Thebes four days after my aunt’s visit to Akhmim. As the sun rose in the east above the temples of our city, I stood in front of my small herb garden and plucked a leaf of myrrh, holding it up to my nose and closing my eyes. I would miss Akhmim so much.

  “Stop looking so sad.” I heard my sister’s voice behind me. “There’ll be plenty of gardens for you at Malkata.”

  “How would you know?” I looked out over my tenderly cultivated plants. Cornflowers, mandrakes, poppies, a tiny pomegranate tree that Ranofer and I had planted together.

  “Well, you’ll be Sister of the King’s Chief Wife. If there aren’t, I’ll have some built!” I laughed, and so did she. She took my arm in hers. “And who knows? Maybe we’ll build an entire temple to you,
make you goddess of the garden.”

  “Nefertiti, don’t say such things.”

  “In two days I’ll be married to a god, and that will make me a goddess, and you the sister of one. You will be divine by relation,” she joked shockingly.

  Our family was too close to the Pharaohs of Egypt to believe in their divinity the way the common people did, the way they were told to believe so they wouldn’t challenge their authority. My father explained it one night, and I was afraid that next he would tell us that Amun-Re was not real, either, but he never did that. There were things you believed in for convenience’s sake, and things too sacred to speak against.

  Despite Nefertiti’s promises, I was sad to leave my little garden. I took as many herbs with me as I could, placing them in small pots, and I told the servants to take care of the rest for me. They promised they would, but I doubted if they would really pay attention to the jujube or give the mandrakes as much water as they needed.

  The trip to Thebes from the city of Akhmim was not a long one. Our barge pushed through the reeds and cattails, and then splashed through the muddy waters of the Nile south toward the City of Pharaohs. My father smiled at my sister from the prow, and she smiled back at him from her chair beneath an awning. Then he beckoned me over with his finger. “You have cat eyes in the sun,” he said. “Green as emeralds.”

  “Just like Mother’s,” I replied.

  “Yes,” he agreed. But he hadn’t called me over to speak about my eyes. “Mutnodjmet, your sister will need you in the days to come. These are dangerous times. Whenever a new Pharaoh sits on the throne there is uncertainty, and never more than now. You will become your sister’s Chief Lady, but you must be very careful what you do and say. I know you are honest.” He smiled. “Honest sometimes to a fault. But the court is no place for honesty. You must take heed around Amunhotep.” He looked out over the waters. Fishermen’s nets hung limp in the sun. At this time of day, all work was abandoned. “Also, you must rein in Nefertiti.”

  I glanced at him in surprise. “How?”

  “By giving her advice. You have patience and you are good with people.”

  I flushed. He had never said that about me before.

  “Nefertiti is hot-tempered. And I am afraid…” He shook his head, but he didn’t say what he was afraid of.

  “You told Aunt Tiye Nefertiti could control the prince. Why does a prince need to be controlled?”

  “Because he is hot-tempered, too. And ambitious.”

  “Isn’t ambition good?”

  “Not like this.” He covered my hand with his. “You will see. Just keep your eyes open, little cat, and your senses alert. If there is trouble, come to me before anyone else.” My father saw which way my thoughts were tending and smiled. “Don’t look so worried. It won’t be so bad. After all, it’s a small trade for the crown of Egypt.” He indicated the shore with his eyes. “We’re almost there.”

  I looked out over the prow. There were more ships now that we were nearing the palace, long vessels with triangular sails like ours. Women ran to the sides of their ships to catch a glimpse of our barge and to see who was in it. The gold banners flying from the mast identified my father as Senior Vizier to the Elder, and everyone would know that it was carrying the future queen of Egypt. Nefertiti had disappeared into the cabin, and now she reappeared in fresh linen. Rare jewels that our aunt had left for her hung across her throat and caught the sun. She came up and stood beside me on the prow, letting the spray cool her skin.

  “Great Osiris!” I pointed. “Look!” There were fifty soldiers on the shore, and at least two hundred servants, all waiting for our arrival.

  My father was the first to disembark, followed by my mother, then Nefertiti and myself. This was the order of importance in our family. I wondered how that hierarchy would change after my sister’s coronation.

  “Look at the litters,” I exclaimed. They were gold and lapis with ebony carrying poles.

  “They must be the Elder’s,” Nefertiti said, impressed.

  We were borne up, each in our own curtained box, and I parted the drapes to see Thebes for the second time, sparkling under the afternoon sun. I wondered how Nefertiti could bear to sit back in her litter when she had never seen Thebes before. But I could see her shadow, proud and erect in the middle of her box, restraining herself as we swept through the city our father had never taken us to. A dozen flutists played as we went, passing the sandstone houses with their hundreds of onlookers. I wished I could be in the same litter as my mother, sharing her joy as the acrobats and musicians entertained the gathering crowds. We passed the temple of Amunhotep the Magnificent and the colossal pair of statues depicting him as a god. Then, in the midst of the desert, a lake glittered on the horizon. I nearly toppled out of the litter, my urge to see it was so strong. It was a man-made pool dug in a half-moon shape, and it surrounded the palace. Boats with small sails slipped across the waters in a place where sand and palms should have been, and I remembered my father saying that Amunhotep the Magnificent had built a lake as a symbol of his love for Queen Tiye, and that it was unlike any other in Egypt. It shone like liquid lapis and silver in the sun, and the crowds moved away as we approached the palace gates.

  I quickly sat back on the pillows and let the curtains fall into place. I didn’t want to seem like a farm girl who’d never been outside of Akhmim. Even with the curtains closed, though, I knew when we had passed onto the grounds of the palace. The road became shaded with trees, and I could make out the outline of small chapels, villas of public officials, a royal workshop, and small, squat quarters for servants. The litter bearers ascended a flight of stairs and we were set down at the top. When we parted the curtains, all of Thebes was spread before us: the half-moon lake, the mud-brick houses, the markets and farms, and, beyond them, the Nile.

  My father dusted off his kilt and announced his intentions to the servants. “We will be taken to our quarters and unpacked. When we are bathed and changed, we shall meet the Elder.”

  The servants bowed deeply in a show of esteem, and I knew my mother was impressed at how much power her husband commanded in Thebes. In Akhmim he was simply our father, a man who liked to read by the lotus pools and visit the Temple of Amun to watch the sun set over the fields. But in the palace he was the Vizier Ay, one of the most respected men in the kingdom.

  A male servant appeared sporting the side lock of youth. He was slight, with a kilt trimmed in gold. Only Pharaoh’s servants wore gold on their cloth. “I will be the one to take you to your rooms.” He began walking. “The estimable Vizier Ay and his wife shall be lodged in the courtyard to the left of Pharaoh. To his right is the prince, next to whom the ladies Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet shall be placed.” Behind us servants scrambled to gather our dozens of chests. The palace was built in the shape of an ankh, the center of which was Pharaoh. Scattered around him in various courtyards were his viziers, and as we passed these open squares women and children stopped to watch our procession. This is what our life will be like now, I thought. A world of watching.

  Our guide walked across several brightly tiled courtyards with paintings of papyrus fields, then into a chamber where everyone stopped. “The Vizier Ay’s rooms,” he announced ceremoniously. He threw open the doors and granite statues peered out from every niche in the chamber. It was a room full of luxury and light, with reed baskets and wooden tables with carved ivory feet.

  “Take my daughters to their rooms,” my father instructed, “then escort them to the Great Hall in time for dinner.”

  “Mutny, be dressed properly tonight,” my mother warned, embarrassing me in front of the servants. “Nefertiti, the prince will be there.”

  “With Kiya?” she asked.

  “Yes,” my father replied. “We have arranged for jewelry and clothes to be placed in your chamber. You have until sunset. Mutny will help you with whatever you need.” My father looked at me and I nodded. “I have also arranged for body servants to be sent. These are the most highly tra
ined women in the palace.”

  “At what?” I asked ignorantly. We had never had body servants in Akhmim. Nefertiti flushed a mortified red.

  My father replied, “At cosmetics and beauty.”

  There was a real bed in our chamber. Not a reed mat or stuffed pallet as we had in our villa back home, but a large, carved ebony platform overhung with linens that Nefertiti and I would share. A brazier was sunk into the tiled floor for colder nights when we would sip warm beer and wrap ourselves in heavy blankets by the fire. And in a separate room used just for changing there was a limestone toilet. I pulled up its lid, and Nefertiti glanced over her shoulder in horror. Our guide watched me with amusement. There was a ceramic bowl filled with rosemary water beneath. We would never have to use a toilet stool and bowl again. It was a room fit for a princess of Egypt, and our guide interrupted us to explain that I would be Nefertiti’s bedmate until she was married, at which time she could choose to have her own bed.

  Everywhere were the representations of growth and endless life. The wooden columns had been carved into flowers, then painted in blues and greens, dark yellows and reds. Egrets and ibis took flight along the walls, drawn by an artist skilled at his work. Even the tiled floor splashed with life, the mosaic of a lotus pond so realistic that like the gods, we, too, could walk on water. Our guide disappeared, and Nefertiti called, “Come look at this!” She touched the face of a mirror, larger than both of us together, and we stared at our reflection. Small, light Nefertiti and me. Nefertiti smiled at herself in the polished bronze. “This is how we shall look in eternity,” she whispered. “Young and beautiful.”

  Well, young, anyway, I thought.

  “Tonight I must be magnificent,” Nefertiti said, turning quickly. “I have to outshine Kiya in every way. Chief Wife is only a title, Mutnodjmet. Amunhotep could send me to the back of some harem if I fail to charm him.”

  “Our father would never let that happen,” I protested. “You will always have a room in the palace.”

 
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