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       Nefertiti, p.31

           Michelle Moran
 

  “I am the one they want,” she said.

  I moved closer to see who she was talking about. Below, wealthy foreigners in jeweled turbans stood staring up at the palace, as if they could see her shape in the window. But the dark of night shielded her from their view. “They love him because of me,” she said.

  “He has to go to Kiya,” I replied. “He has to have sons.”

  She spun around. “And you think I can’t give him one?”

  I stepped closer so that we were both looking down over the city. “If you don’t, would he stop loving you?”

  “He adores me,” she said heatedly. “Who cares that Kiya is pregnant? He’s only going tonight because it’s Panahesi who called him. He thinks Panahesi is loyal.” She stiffened. “So while Father slaves away procuring ships and avoiding war, Panahesi whispers into Akhenaten’s ear, and it’s as if Aten himself has spoken. And his influence is growing.”

  “Not above Father’s?”

  “Never above Father’s. I make sure of that.” She looked down at the people who couldn’t see her. They moved across the city carrying baskets of harvested grain on roads that twisted like white ribbons. “Only Hatshepsut ever had such influence as I have. And Kiya is not a queen. She could have five sons and never be queen.” The rage returned to Nefertiti’s eyes. “I should attend,” she said viciously. “I should attend this feast and ruin it for her.” And I could see by the look on her face that she meant it.

  There was a noise behind us and Father entered the antechamber. “Come, Nefertiti.” He drew my sister away from the Window of Appearances and they conversed in low tones. While they spoke, I passed my fingers over the paintings that decorated the walls of the palace. I wondered what Nakhtmin would think if he could see the gold from the temples staring back at him in gilded images of my family, myself in some of them, all faces that Thutmose had drawn from memory.

  I studied one of the engravings, an image of my father receiving golden necklaces from Pharaoh. It was symbolic, of course, since my father had never received such gifts and would have only needed to raise his hand to command them. But in the scene, Nefertiti had her arm around his waist, her other arm resting on Akhenaten’s shoulders. The two princesses were there, and someone had begun painting a third child held in a nurse’s arms. Tiye and I stood off in the distance. Our arms were not raised to Aten the way everyone else’s were. We were dressed in open kilts, and the sculptor, Thutmose, had emphasized the green color of my eyes. We were everywhere, my family, and only the absence of Panahesi and Kiya was conspicuous in Amarna. If the Northern Palace ever fell, their tombs would be the only testament to their existence.

  “Are you coming?” Nefertiti demanded.

  I looked around. “Where’s Father?”

  Nefertiti shrugged slyly. “On business.”

  Her smug silence warned me. “What’s happening?” I asked her. “What’s going on?”

  “We’re going to the feast,” she said simply.

  “Nefertiti—”

  “Why not?” she exclaimed.

  “Because it’s cruel.”

  “Power is cruel,” she retorted, “and it will either be mine or hers.”

  My sister watched herself in the mirror. “I want to be as beautiful as Isis tonight. Unearthly beautiful.”

  She stood, and the netted dress she was wearing arched over her breasts and fell down her back. The silver on her lashes and across her thighs caught the torchlight. She had replaced her crown with silver beads in her hair that moved when she did. I almost felt sorry for Kiya. But Kiya was just as cunning as my sister, and if Nefertiti never gave Akhenaten a prince, our family would bow to Kiya when her son took the throne. It was this that made me sit and endure the painful plucking and careful painting of my cheeks and lips. The thought of our family serving a man like Panahesi…I shook my beaded head. It must never be.

  In the open courtyard, Nefertiti’s ladies were waiting, talking and giggling like girls. We walked between them, and I had the impression that we were silver rain droplets in a field of lotus blossoms. The ladies parted, and I realized that they were all girls I didn’t know, the daughters of scribes and Aten priests whose job was to keep my sister entertained. From the stables, a throng of guards had appeared. A lieutenant took Nefertiti’s hand and helped her up into her chariot. She took the whip from him.

  “You’re going to drive?” I exclaimed.

  “Of course. To the Northern Palace!” she cried.

  Nefertiti flicked the whip and the chariot lurched forward toward the white beacon in the night. The guards scrambled to chase after her, and I could hear the wild laughter of the women racing in their chariots from behind.

  “Not so fast,” I shouted, petrified of turning over, but the wind drowned out my words as the chariot sped north. “We will die, Nefertiti!”

  My sister turned to me in triumph. “What?”

  As the chariot reached the palace gates, she tugged on the reins and the horses dropped back. I was stunned at the majesty of Kiya’s palace. Its delicate reflection wavered on the Nile, a white bastion constructed out of love and dedication. Every column had been carved into a lotus blossom, springing upward as if to embrace Aten. From the wide opening of the palace’s pillared front, I could see into its courtyards and torchlit gardens. Kiya’s guards assembled themselves in a frenzied panic when they saw who we were, falling over one another to lead the way and bow before us.

  “Your Majesty, we didn’t know you were coming.”

  “Announce our arrival,” Nefertiti commanded.

  The servants in gold kilts rushed toward the hall as we made our slow and purposeful progression between the oil lamps that lined the limestone stairs. Guests bowed down before us, whispering to each other. When we reached the Great Hall, the trumpeters reassembled.

  “Queen Nefertiti and the Lady Mutnodjmet,” the herald declared.

  We swept inside and the Great Hall burst into chatter. Nefertiti’s ladies followed us closely; they fanned out, finding food and seating appropriate for a queen. The silver of our necklaces and bangles caught the light, and I knew that we were more beautiful than anyone there, even the proud and pretty daughters of the palace viziers and scribes. Kiya turned sharply, talking quickly to her husband to draw his eyes away, but his gaze was fixed on my sister, a silver fish flashing in an illuminated pond.

  “Take me to the table of honor,” Nefertiti said, and we were taken across the hall to the table where Akhenaten and the pregnant Kiya were sitting. Nefertiti sat down at the opposite end. Between us sat all of Kiya’s closest ladies. I knew I could never have the courage to do what Nefertiti had just done: sweep into a lion’s den like the head of the pride.

  Panahesi, on the right side of Akhenaten, grew red with fury. At Kiya’s own feast, Nefertiti called for music, and everyone laughed and sang and drank. Kiya was caught; at any other time, all of her ladies would have snubbed my sister. But now, in the Northern Palace, none of them dared to snub Nefertiti in Akhenaten’s presence, so they were fawning and kind, telling her stories, exchanging gossip, and as the wine-fueled laughter heightened, so did Kiya’s rage.

  “What is it?” Akhenaten said, worried.

  Kiya glared back at him from under her lashes. “This is my feast, not hers!”

  Akhenaten looked around to be sure Nefertiti wasn’t near him, then promised, “I will make it up to you.”

  “How?” she cried shrilly.

  Akhenaten tore his gaze away from my sister, who threw back her head and laughed at one of Thutmose’s jokes. “I will have Thutmose sculpt you,” I heard him say.

  “And if we have another son,” Kiya pressed her advantage, “will Nebnefer finally be declared your heir?”

  I leaned closer to hear how he would respond.

  “That is up to Aten.”

  I thought triumphantly, To Aten and our family.

  When the feast was over, I could see the strain of what Nefertiti had done in her eyes. Her voice brooked
no argument when we reached her chamber and she said, “Stay with me until he returns.”

  I climbed into her bed and stroked her hair comfortingly.

  “The Hittites are at Mitanni’s gates and I am playing seductress to my own husband,” she seethed. Then her voice broke, “She cannot have another son.”

  “She might not. It might be a princess.”

  “But why can’t I have a son?” she cried. “What have I done to anger Aten?”

  What have you done to anger Amun? I thought, but said nothing. “Have you been taking the honey?”

  “And mandrakes.”

  “And have you gone to the temples?”

  “Of Aten? Of course.”

  I let my silence speak.

  Nefertiti asked quietly, “Do you think I should seek out Tawaret?”

  “It couldn’t hurt.”

  She hesitated. “Will you come? Akhenaten can’t know.”

  “We can go tomorrow,” I promised, and she squeezed my hand tenderly. She turned over and pressed the covers to her chest. When she’d fallen asleep, I lay awake, wondering where in Amarna we’d find a shrine to the hippopotamus goddess of birth.

  Early the next morning, before the sun was up, Merit had an answer for me. She told me that some of the women in the village kept their own statues to Tawaret for when their daughters went to the bricks to bear a child. I asked her to take us to the house with the largest shrine, and even before Akhenaten awoke, bearers carried our covered palanquin up the hills into the cluster of wealthy villas.

  The rising sun in the sky was warm. Below us the city was waking in shades of cardamom and gold. I parted the linens and inhaled the scents of a woman cooking date bread and mulling wine.

  “Close the curtains,” Nefertiti snapped. “This should be done quickly.”

  “You’re the one who wanted to come,” I said sternly.

  “Have you ever prayed to Tawaret?” she asked.

  I knew what she was asking. “Yes.”

  At the top of the hill, the bearers lowered the palanquin and a servant came to greet us. “Your Majesty.” The girl bowed deeply. “My lady is waiting in the loggia.”

  We swept up the steps, Nefertiti, Merit, and I. The litter bearers remained in the courtyard, ignorant of why we had come, and a woman in fine linen came to greet us.

  “Thank you for gracing my humble home. I am Lady Akana.” But Nefertiti wasn’t listening. She was looking around for the statue of Tawaret. “Our goddess is this way,” Lady Akana whispered. “Hidden from public view.” Her eyes shifted nervously from Nefertiti to me.

  We walked to a room at the back of the villa where the reed mats were lowered. The white walls had been painted with bold images of the hippopotamus goddess. Lady Akana felt the need to explain. “Many people keep images like this, Your Majesty. Only public shrines have been forbidden. Many people keep their private shrines hidden.”

  Not well hidden enough to escape Merit’s attention, I thought, and Nefertiti nodded silently.

  “I shall leave you, then.” Lady Akana retreated. “If you have need of anything, you have only to call.”

  Nefertiti, as if woken from a dream, turned around. “Thank you, my lady.”

  “Do you want me to go as well?” I asked.

  “No, I want you to pray with me. Merit, leave the offering and shut the door.”

  Merit left the incense and lotus blossom on a stool, then retreated the way Lady Akana had gone. We were left alone in the chamber. The hippopotamus goddess smiled at us, her big belly of polished ebony gleamed blue in the rays filtering through the reed mats. “You go first,” Nefertiti prodded. “She knows you,” she explained.

  I went to the goddess, kneeling before her with a handful of lotus blossom. “Tawaret,” I murmured, “I have come before you asking to be blessed with a child.”

  “We’re here for me,” Nefertiti said sharply. I scowled over my shoulder at her.

  “I have also come on behalf of the Queen of Egypt.” I pressed the lotus blossoms to Tawaret’s feet. “I have come to ask that you make her fertile.”

  “With a son,” Nefertiti clarified.

  “Can’t you do this yourself?” I demanded.

  “No! She might not listen to me!”

  I bowed my head again. “Please, Tawaret. The Queen of Egypt is in need of a son. She has been blessed by three princesses, and now she asks that you send her a prince.”

  “And not Kiya,” Nefertiti blurted. “Please make it that Kiya does not have a son.”

  “Nefertiti!” I cried.

  She stared blankly. “What?”

  I shook my head. “Just light the incense.”

  She did as she was told, and we stared at the hippo goddess, enshrouded in smoke. She seemed to smile benevolently on us, even when what Nefertiti had asked for was malicious. I stood up, and Nefertiti stood with me.

  “Are all your prayers like that?” I asked.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Never mind. Let’s go.”

  The next morning, a messenger arrived in the Audience Chamber.

  “The Great Wife Kiya is ill.”

  Immediately, I thought of Nefertiti’s prayer and paled. My father glanced at me and I began to confess. “Yesterday—”

  But my father’s hand cut through the air. “Go find your sister and Pharaoh in the Arena!”

  I brought Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and though Nefertiti kept asking me what had happened, all I could whisper was “Your prayers have been answered.” We burst into the Audience Chamber. It had been emptied of servants and petitioners. My father stood at once. “This messenger has news for Pharaoh,” he said.

  The messenger bowed low. “There is news from the Northern Palace,” he reported. “The Great Wife Kiya is ill.”

  Akhenaten froze. “Ill? What do you mean? How ill?”

  The messenger’s eyes fell to the ground. “She is bleeding, Your Highness.”

  Akhenaten went very still and my father came toward him. “You should go to her,” he suggested.

  Akhenaten turned to Nefertiti, who nodded. “Go. Go and make sure the Great Wife gets well.” He hesitated at her kindness and she smiled sweetly. “She would want you to go for me,” she said.

  I narrowed my eyes at Nefertiti’s cunning, and when Akhenaten was gone, I shook my head sternly. “What’s happening?”

  Nefertiti shrugged off her cloak. “Tawaret answered my prayer, just as you said.”

  My father frowned. “Nothing’s done yet.”

  “She’s ill,” Nefertiti said quickly. “And she’s certain to lose the child.” I stared at her in horror, and then Nefertiti smiled. “Would you find me some juice, Mutnodjmet?”

  I froze. “What?”

  “Find her some juice,” my father said, and I saw what was happening. They wanted me gone so they could speak in private. “Pomegranate,” Nefertiti called out after me, but I was already out the doors of the Audience Chamber.

  “My lady, what happened?” Ipu stood quickly. “Why was everyone dismissed from chambers?”

  “Take me to my old villa,” I replied. “Find me a chariot that will take me to Tiye.”

  We rode the entire way in silence. When we arrived, the house looked the same as when I had left it. The broad loggia and rounded columns shone white in the sun, the cornflowers a dazzling blue against them.

  “She planted more thyme,” Ipu observed quietly. She went to the door and a servant answered. Then we were shown in to what had once been my home. There were more tapestries in the hall and several new murals depicting a hunt. A lifetime of rule and this is what the Dowager Queen of Egypt is left with. We turned into the loggia, and the queen stepped forward to embrace me. She had heard of our coming.

  “Mutnodjmet.” Heavy bangles made music on her arms, and her golden pectoral was rich with pearl. She held me at arm’s length to take in my face. “You are thinner,” she noticed. “But happier,” she added, looking into my eyes.

  I thought
of Nakhtmin and felt a deep contentment. “Yes, I am much happier now.”

  A servant brought us tea in the loggia and we sat on thick pillows stuffed with down. Ipu was allowed to stay. She was family now. But she remained silent.

  “Tell me all of your news,” my aunt said happily. She meant about Thebes and my garden and my villa. But I told her about Nefertiti’s birth and Kiya’s pregnancy. Then I told her about the feast and Kiya’s illness. “They say she will lose the child.”

  Tiye passed me a calculating look.

  “I’m sure my father would never have a child killed,” I said swiftly.

  “For the crown of Egypt?” She sat back. “For the crown of Egypt, all that has been done and worse. Just ask my son.”

  “But it’s against Amun,” I protested. “It’s against the laws of Ma’at.”

  “And do you think anyone worried about that when you were poisoned?”

  I flinched. No one mentioned that anymore. “But there’s Nebnefer,” I warned.

  “Who’s only seen his father every few months, when Nefertiti lets Akhenaten out of her sight. And do you really think that Akhenaten would let a son rule? He, who knows better than anyone else the treachery a son can bring?”

  We were interrupted by my aunt’s old herald. He bowed at the waist. “A letter from the general Nakhtmin. To Her Lady Mutnodjmet.”

  I glanced at Tiye. The servants still called my husband “general.” I hid my satisfaction and replied, “But how did this come to be here?”

  “A messenger heard where you were and came looking.” He bowed himself out, and my aunt watched my face as I read.

  “Our tombs are finished. They’ve carved them and have already begun painting.”

  My aunt nodded encouragingly. “And the garden?”

  I smiled. She had become a great lover of gardens. I skimmed the papyrus for news of my herbs. “Doing well. The jasmine is in bloom and there are grapes on the vines. Already. And it’s not even Phamenoth.” I looked up and saw the yearning on Tiye’s face to have a real home of her own. Then a thought came to me. “You should leave Amarna and come and see them,” I said. “Leave Amarna and return to Thebes.”

 
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