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       Nefertiti, p.30

           Michelle Moran
“Meri pulled my hair,” she sobbed.

  I looked at Meri. “You wouldn’t do such a thing, would you?”

  She batted her dark eyes. “Of course not.” She looked up winningly at her mother. “Otherwise, mawat won’t let us ride.”

  I stared at Nefertiti.

  “Chariots,” she explained.

  “At two and three? But Meketaten is too small—”

  I thought I caught a satisfied nod from the nurse, who was standing at the door watching over her two charges. “Nonsense,” Nefertiti said as a servant helped her from her bath and brought her a robe. “They ride as well as any boy their age. Why should my children be denied just because they are girls?”

  I stared at her in amazement. “Because it’s dangerous!”

  Nefertiti bent down to Meritaten. So Meri’s the favorite, I thought. “Are you frightened when you ride in the new Arena?” she asked, and the scent of her lavender soap filled the bath.

  “No.” The older princess shook her black forelock and the ponytail came to rest as a curl beneath her chin. She was a pretty child.

  “You see?” Nefertiti straightened. “Ubastet, take the girls to their lessons.”

  “No, mawat.” Meritaten let her shoulders go limp. “Do we have to?”

  Nefertiti put her hands on her hips. “Do you want to be a princess or an uneducated peasant?”

  Meri giggled. “A peasant,” she said naughtily.

  “Really?” Nefertiti asked. “Without horses or paints or pretty jewels to wear?”

  Meritaten trudged out but hesitated at the door, wanting some consolation before she left. “Will we be going to the Arena tonight?” she pleaded.

  “Only if it pleases your father.”

  In the Royal Robing Room, Nefertiti held up her arms. The servant moved to get her dress, but she said, “Not you. Mutny.”

  I took the linen gown and pulled it over her head, envious of the way it fit her body, even in pregnancy. “You allow them to ride in the Arena at night? Is there anything you don’t allow?”

  “When we were children, I would have given half of Akhmim to live the kind of life my daughters are having.”

  “When we were children, we understood humility,” I said.

  She shrugged and sat before her mirror. Her hair had grown. She handed me her brush. “You always do it so much better than Merit.”

  I frowned. “You could write to me once in a while,” I told her, taking the brush and pulling it gently through her hair. “Mother does.”

  “It was your choice to go running off with a soldier. Not mine.” My fingers tightened around the brush and Nefertiti’s eyes flew open.

  “Mutny, that hurt!”

  “I’m sorry.”

  She settled back in her ebony chair. “Tonight we’ll go to the Arena,” she decided. “You haven’t even seen the crowning jewel of this city.”

  “I thought that was you.”

  She ignored my wry humor. “I think I have accomplished it,” she said. “I think I have built something that will stand until the end of time.”

  I stopped with her hair. “Nothing is forever,” I said cautiously. “Nothing lasts.”

  Nefertiti studied her reflection in the mirror and grinned brazenly. “Why? Do you think the gods will punish my overreaching?”

  I replied, “I don’t know.”

  In a noisy throng of guards and jeweled chariots we moved down the Royal Road to the towering Arena. It was the first time I had seen the Royal Road in completion, and it stretched impossibly wide, threading through the city like a long white ribbon. Thutmose, who had become as important as any vizier at court, rode in my chariot, and I caught him watching me in the evening light.

  “You look more like your sister than I remember,” he said. “The same cheeks, the same lips…” The artist in him hesitated. “But not the same eyes.” He peered closely at me as we rode. “They have changed.”

  “They have grown more like my father’s. Wary and cunning.” I stared out ahead of me. “And Nefertiti?” I asked. “Has she changed since you first came to the court of Memphis?”

  We both looked at Nefertiti in the chariot before us. Her crown glinted in the pale evening light and her long silver cloak whipped in the wind. Thutmose said proudly, “No, the queen is exactly the same.”

  Still a spoiled child, I thought. But the people loved her. As we rode toward the Arena, they crowded in the streets, chanting her name and throwing lotus blossoms before her. As word spread that the queen was in the city, the chanting grew more fervent. Her Nubian guards made a circle around her in their polished chariots, warding off the crying people with their shields. “Stand back!” they shouted. “Stand back!” But Egyptians crushed against each other on the Royal Road, begging my sister to intervene with Aten to bring them happiness. “Please,” they cried out. “Please, Your Majesty!”

  I glanced at Thutmose. “Is it always like this?”

  “Always, my lady. They would walk to the quarries of Aswan for her. They line up at the palace gates just to see her pass by the window of her chamber. Every statue in Amarna is her shrine.”

  “So she’s a goddess?”

  “Of the people.”

  “And Pharaoh?” It was difficult to see him. He was surrounded by a thick press of Nubian guards.

  Thutmose leaned close to me and said, “I would think he would be jealous. But she guides their love to him, and they praise him because she does.”

  The horses turned sharply into the entrance of the Arena and the cries of the people fell behind us. I gasped. It was grander than anything I had ever seen. Thutmose gave me his arm to help me out of the chariot. “Look at the crown.” He drew my eyes to the top of the open Arena, where images of Nefertiti and Akhenaten had been painstakingly carved, their arms raised to the rays of Aten.

  I gaped. “You did all of this?”

  “With Maya’s direction. And in only seven months.”

  Each of the sandstone statues had been painted and gilded. Their united hands formed the top of the Arena. It was a magnificent sight. A building to rival the temples of Thebes. We walked inside, and the stillness of night settled across the empty colonnades. Our voices disturbed the silence, and our long procession filled the Arena.

  “What do you think?” Nefertiti searched my face.

  “It’s magnificent,” I told her. “Thutmose is truly gifted.”

  There were portraits of all the royal court on the Arena walls, riding in chariots, striking blows at the Hittites, but I searched in vain for Kiya and Prince Nebnefer. My sister had already erased them from Amarna. She knew that to speak the name of the dead was to make them live again, and that someday, when the Gods returned to Egypt, they would find no trace of Kiya’s existence.

  “Shall we take her to the new horses?” Meri asked eagerly. “They’re Assyrian.”

  Akhenaten led the way to the stables, and Nefertiti watched my awe at the lavishness of it all with satisfaction. I imagined all the letters my father must have written to procure so many breeds.

  “That is the pair from Assyria.” Nefertiti pointed. “Akhenaten purchased two for Meri and Meketaten. And now who knows? Soon we may need one for a little son. It’s the greatest Arena in Egypt, isn’t it?”

  “It must have taken a great deal of labor.”

  “Three thousand Nubians,” Nefertiti replied.

  “I would have thought you would have been wary of them as spies,” I said cautiously.

  “The Nubians are more loyal than half of Egypt,” Akhenaten sneered. “They are loyal not just to me, but to the glory of Aten. There is only one god of Egypt.” He looked to Nefertiti. “The god who granted us the Horus crowns.”

  Nefertiti had total sway over him now. Us.

  She leaned her head against his arm and rested her hand on her belly.

  It was an easy birth, like the first and the second, and I wondered how many more I would attend before I crossed the threshold of my own birthing pavilion. I told myse
lf that I was going to leave as soon as the child came, but I couldn’t be jealous of my sister’s happiness when I saw the little infant pressed against her breast.

  A third princess. Three girls in a row.

  The herald announced the child’s name. Ankhesenpaaten, meaning “She Who Lives for the Glory of Aten,” and when I saw the tears of joy in Akhenaten’s eyes, I could not stop the bitter voice that asked why he deserved a child and Nakhtmin did not.

  “What are you thinking?” my mother asked quietly.

  I watched Nefertiti surrounded by her family. Akhenaten, Meritaten, Meketaten, and now the infant princess Ankhesenpaaten. All of them named after the god of the sun, a god no one understood but them. “You can guess,” I replied, pressing my lips together.

  “It will only eat away at you.”

  My father and Tiye came up behind us, embracing me sympathetically.

  “Aren’t I the one who just had the child?” Nefertiti exclaimed. “What did she do besides sit and watch?”

  Tiye passed me a look, then went to see the new Princess of Egypt. “Great Osiris.” My aunt looked over at me. “She has Mutnodjmet’s color. And the same shape of her eyes.”

  My mother and father moved quickly to the bedside to see whether this was true, but I stayed where I was, too upset to see anything.

  “She does,” my mother exclaimed.

  Nefertiti beamed proudly at me. “Come. She looks just like you,” she said.

  Pharaoh clenched his jaw as I bent over his third child and peered into her face. Then I smiled up at him. “Yes, just what my own daughter might have looked like. Had she not been killed.”

  “He is furious with you.” The anger on her face froze the guards in their positions. But I refused to care.

  “Then let him be furious!”

  Nefertiti sat up and hissed, “You should never have said that! No one in Amarna believes such a thing.”

  “Because no one in Amarna is foolish enough to tell you the truth. But I will not lie! I am going home.”

  “To Thebes?” she cried, scrambling out of bed in the birthing pavilion. I shouldn’t have let her. She held on to my arm to pull me back. “Don’t go. Please don’t go, Mutnodjmet. You can’t leave me like this.”

  “Like what?” I demanded. For a moment, I thought she wouldn’t answer.

  Then she replied, “So vulnerable. Akhenaten never goes to see Kiya when I’m pregnant. He will go to her now.”

  I couldn’t do this anymore. Be her spy, play her games, want what she wanted. I moved to go again.

  “Mutnodjmet, please!” She scrambled so that her legs became twisted in the linens. “I can’t do this without you.”

  “What exactly do you do?” I asked scornfully. “You don’t till the land, you don’t fish the Nile, you don’t fight to keep the Hittites at bay the way Tiye did when this was truly an empire.”

  “No! I play the goddess to the people!” she cried. “I play the savior of this kingdom when masses of Egyptian soldiers want to revolt and are stopped only when I can convince them that Aten has spoken through me and assured them of prosperity. I am the one who must hold the puppet strings in this play, and only Father”—her lower lip began to tremble—“only Father knows how hard and tiring that is.”

  She closed her eyes and the tears hung suspended on the edge of her lashes. “Please. Stay with me. Just for a while.”

  “Not forever,” I warned her.

  “But a little while.”

  As soon as Nefertiti knew that I would stay, she did her best to make sure I thought very little of my husband in Thebes as he was working on our tomb, carving our likenesses into the stone so that the gods would know us when they returned. She made sure she was full of laughter and praise, showering me with gifts: emerald pendants to match my eyes, golden cuffs for my ankles, even turquoise beads for my hair, which was thick and lustrous—the only feature I possessed that Nefertiti ever envied. Every morning we rode to the Temple of Aten, where she made obeisance to the sun and Akhenaten shook the sistrum to the holiest of holies.

  “You can’t stand and do nothing while we worship,” Nefertiti admonished.

  But Pharaoh didn’t argue when I refused, for I was the one who reined in Nefertiti’s vicious temper, playing Senet with her, reading myths to her, bouncing the precocious Meritaten on my knee, while for three nights he went to see Kiya. So I stood in the cool shadows of the columns and watched. I would not worship a disk in the sky. Hidden in my chests, I had brought my own statues of Hathor and Amun to Amarna, and those were the gods I bowed to every morning.

  “What?” A voice echoed across the empty hall as I watched. “The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife doesn’t worship Aten?” Panahesi emerged from the shadows. “Aten is the god of Egypt,” he said warningly.

  But I wasn’t afraid of Vizier Panahesi anymore. He was nothing more than the father of the king’s second-favorite wife. “So you believe in a faceless god?” I demanded.

  “I am the High Priest of Aten.”

  My eyes lingered on his jewels. He caught my meaning and stepped closer to me.

  “You know that Pharaoh has been to visit Kiya for three nights now,” he hissed. “He went to her as soon as the princess was born. I thought you’d be interested to know, little sister, that Kiya is certain she is pregnant. And this time, like the last, it will be a son.”

  I studied Panahesi’s deceptive face and challenged him. “How do you know that she is pregnant? A woman can’t tell for two months, even three.”

  Panahesi turned his eyes to the courtyard where Nefertiti and Akhenaten were kneeling. He grinned. “I have been given a sign.”

  I did not tell Nefertiti what Panahesi said, but I went to my father, who counseled me to say nothing. “She is recovering from birth. Do not disturb her with gossip. There is enough to think about with the Hittites so close to war in Mitanni.”

  “But Akhenaten has been to her palace for three nights,” I complained.

  My father started at me as if he didn’t understand the problem.

  “For three nights!”

  “And he must have sons. Even in his foolishness, Akhenaten knows that. If Nefertiti cannot produce one, then he will turn to someone else.”

  I looked at my father in horror.

  “It’s not disloyal.” He read my thoughts. “It’s the way of the gods.” He put his hand on my shoulder to placate me, and I noticed how many scrolls were unrolled on his table, waiting to be answered. Many of them bore the Mitanni seal.

  “Will there really be war in Mitanni?” I asked, studying the parchments.

  “Before the month is out.”

  “And then?”

  “Then if Egypt sends no soldiers to their aid, Mitanni will fall and we will be next.”

  We watched one another, both understanding what this meant for Egypt. Our army was not ready; our greatest generals had either been imprisoned or sent away. We were a kingdom great in our history and in our gold, but in might, we would be crushed.

  I went back to Nefertiti in the small studio Akhenaten had built for the princesses. Pharaoh was there, and they were arguing. As soon as Nefertiti heard the door open, she beckoned me angrily. “Ask her,” she demanded.

  Akhenaten looked at me with loathing.

  “Ask her!” Nefertiti demanded louder this time, and Akhenaten replied that he didn’t need to ask me how many nights he had been to see Kiya in the Northern Palace. She stormed past me toward the door and Akhenaten sped after her.

  “Wait! I’ll be with you tonight,” he promised.

  “I should hope you would be!” Nefertiti seethed. “Or have you forgotten you are their father, too?” She jerked her chin toward Meritaten and Meketaten, who had stopped playing with their paints to watch the scene.

  “I won’t return to her palace,” Akhenaten apologized.

  Nefertiti hesitated at the door. “Will we ride out tonight?” she asked him, already knowing his answer.

  “Yes, and we
can take Thutmose with us,” he said.

  “Good.” Her gaze softened.

  “And will we be going, too?” Meritaten asked.

  I held my breath, waiting to see how Akhenaten would react to being questioned by a child, but Pharaoh swept Meri up into his arms. “Of course, you will be coming, my little princess. You are the daughter of Pharaoh. Pharaoh does not go anywhere without his precious ones.”

  The family filed out. Nefertiti pressed me to join their expedition into the city, but I refused.

  “I’m tired.”

  “You’re always tired,” she complained. “You would think you were queen the way you drag yourself around.”

  I threw a sharp look at her and she laughed, wrapping her arm around my waist. “I’m only playing.”

  “Who rubs your feet, who makes you juice, who brushes your hair?”

  She rolled her eyes. “But you’re eighteen years old. What will you be like at forty?”

  “Probably dead,” I said acerbically, and her dark eyes narrowed.

  “Don’t say such things. You want Anubis to hear you?”

  “I thought there was only Aten.”

  Fifteen days later, my sister shrieked. “A festival for what?”

  The doors to the Audience Chamber had been shut to everyone; only our family was in attendance. Akhenaten muttered, “A festival in honor of Kiya’s second child.”

  Nefertiti threw her scepter of reign across the dais, listening to it clatter against the tile floors. She exploded with rage. “Does that mean you will be eating as well as sleeping in the Northern Palace tonight?”

  Akhenaten hung his head. “It’s a feast in her honor, and it can’t be refused. But you are Queen of Egypt.” His reached out to her. “You are welcome, of course.”

  For a moment, I thought she would say she would go. Then she stood violently and moved past him. The double doors to the chamber swung open, and with a commanding look in my direction she was gone. As the doors banged shut, I glanced at my mother.

  “Go,” she said immediately.

  I ran after Nefertiti and found her in the antechamber leading to the Window of Appearances. She was looking down over the city of Amarna. The temples of Aten reared up in the distance, their columns like dark sentinels in the dusk. I was afraid to disturb her, but she’d already heard my footfalls.

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