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       Nefertiti, p.32

           Michelle Moran
 

  At once, my aunt grew very still. “I doubt I shall ever leave Amarna,” she replied. “I will never return to Thebes except in my coffin.”

  I stared at her, aghast.

  She leaned forward and confided, “Just because I am not in the palace doesn’t mean my power there has vanished. Your father and I work hard never to have our influence seen.” She smiled ruefully. “Panahesi has succeeded in turning Akhenaten against me. But he’ll never rid Egypt of your father. Not so long as Nefertiti is queen.”

  I stared at Tiye in the light of the windows. Where did the strength come from to do what she did? To remain in Amarna and be the power behind the throne while her spoiled, arrogant son sat on the dais?

  “It’s not as hard as it seems,” she replied to my unspoken question. “Someday you may understand this.”

  “Where have you been?” Nefertiti crossed the chamber in several strides.

  “In my villa.”

  “You don’t have a villa,” she challenged.

  “I was visiting Tiye.”

  My sister reeled back as though I had hit her. “While I was waiting for news, you were visiting Tiye? While Kiya was ill”—her voice rose with fury—“you left me?”

  I laughed. “What? Did you need support for the shocking news that Kiya was sick? That she might lose her child?”

  She stood immobile. I had never spoken to her this way before. “What is that?” She was looking at the scroll in my hand.

  “A letter.”

  She tore it from me and began reading.

  “It’s a letter from my husband!” I reached out and took it back.

  Nefertiti’s face darkened. “Who delivered it here?”

  “How should I know?”

  “When did it come?”

  “While you were with Father.”

  Then I realized what she was saying and my voice rose with indignation. “Why?” I exclaimed. “Have there been others?”

  She said nothing.

  “Have there been more?” I shouted. “Have you hidden them from me? Nakhtmin is my husband!”

  “And I am your sister!”

  We glared at one another.

  “I will come to dinner. After that,” I swore, “I am leaving for Thebes.”

  She stepped in front of me. “You don’t even know what happened to Kiya—”

  “Of course I know what happened to Kiya. Just what you said. She lost the child.”

  “Panahesi will be suspicious—”

  “Of course he’ll be suspicious. But you will have to watch him alone.”

  “You can’t leave me!” she cried, and I turned to face her.

  “Why? Because no one else can? Because everyone else is too awed by your beauty? You have fifty other women at court who will follow you like lapdogs. Have one of them watch out for you.”

  I went to dinner as I promised, and Nefertiti tried to test my loyalty by ordering me to find her a special fruit she knew was only kept in the back of the kitchens. I stood up and told the nearest servant to bring my sister a plate of jujube.

  “It could be poison!” she cried. “I want you to go.”

  I gave her a long look, then swept across the Great Hall in a fury. When I returned, my sister was surrounded by a throng of young courtiers. She tossed her head back and smiled when she saw the platter of fruit in my hands. “Mutny, you brought it.”

  As though she’d doubted I would.

  The women parted so that I could give her the fruit. Nefertiti swore, “You’re the best sister in Egypt. Where are the musicians?” She clapped. “We want music!”

  While the girls took their seats, I sat with my mother at the base of the dais, and servants came with roasted gazelle and honeyed lamb.

  “It’s how she shows she loves you,” my mother offered.

  “What? By making me her servant?”

  The music began, and Nefertiti clapped as the dancers emerged, clad in bright linens and bangles with bells. Half a dozen ladies were watching the way Nefertiti drank, holding their cup the way she did, between forefinger and thumb. “How long do I have to stay?” I demanded.

  My mother frowned. “Until the dancing is over.”

  My father said, “I hear you visited Tiye.”

  “I told her what happened to Kiya,” I replied.

  He nodded. “Of course.”

  “And she wasn’t surprised.”

  He stared at me strangely, and I wondered for a moment if there had been any poisoning at all, or if it had just been a happenstance of fate. Nefertiti looked down at us and her sharp brows lowered. She crooked her finger at me.

  My father motioned with his chin. “She wants you.”

  I got up, and Nefertiti patted an empty chair on the dais where guests were allowed to sit and converse. “I hope you weren’t talking to Father about Kiya,” she warned.

  “Of course not.”

  “It’s a dead subject.”

  “Like her child.”

  Nefertiti’s eyes widened. “Don’t you let Akhenaten hear you,” she warned. Akhenaten turned to see what we were saying. She smiled for him and I stared back expressionlessly. She turned back to me. “Look at this feast I had to arrange just to take his mind off her.”

  “How kind of you,” I replied.

  Her temper flared. “Why are you so angry with me?”

  “Because you’re endangering your immortal ka and going against the laws of Ma’at,” I retorted. “And for what?”

  “For the crown of Egypt,” she replied.

  “Do you think there won’t be a single vizier who hasn’t wondered whether Kiya was poisoned?”

  “Then they’d be wrong,” she said firmly. “I didn’t poison her.”

  “So someone else did on your behalf.”

  There was a lull in the music and our conversation stopped. Nefertiti smiled brightly, so that Akhenaten would think we were talking of inane, sisterly things. When the music started up again, she leaned over and said briskly, “I need you to discover what Kiya’s ladies are saying.”

  “No,” I replied, and my answer was resolute. “I am returning to Thebes. I told you I’d leave. I told you that even before Ankhesenpaaten was born.” The musicians still played at the other end of the hall, but those nearest the thrones could overhear what we were saying. I walked to the bottom of the dais and she sat forward on her throne.

  “If you leave me, then you can never come back!” she threatened. The court turned to look at me and she was aware of an audience. She flushed. “Make your choice!” she shouted.

  I saw Akhenaten’s eyes widen with approval. Then I turned to look at my father at the royal table. His face was a perfect vizier’s mask, refusing to reveal what he thought of his two daughters fighting it out in public like cats. I inhaled deeply. “I made my choice when I married Nakhtmin,” I replied.

  Nefertiti sat back on her throne. “Go,” she whispered. “Go and never come back!” she shrieked.

  I saw the determination in her face, the bitterness that had set there, and I let the doors of the Great Hall swing shut in my wake.

  In my chamber, Ipu had already heard what had happened. “We’ll leave, my lady. We’ll leave on the first royal barge tonight. You’re already packed.”

  My chests readied on the bed, and I was shocked by the immediacy of it all.

  I had been banished.

  Then, suddenly, my mother was there. “Mutnodjmet, rethink what you’ve done,” she pleaded. My father stood like a sentinel at the door. “Ay, please! Say something to your daughter,” she cried. But he would not try to convince me to stay.

  I went over to my mother and held her face in my hands. “I’m not dying, mawat. I am simply returning to my husband, to my house, to my life in Thebes.”

  “But you have a life here!” She looked at my father, who took her hand in his.

  “It’s what she has chosen. One daughter reached for the sun and the other is content to feel its rays on her garden. They are different, th
at is all.”

  “But she can never come back,” my mother cried.

  “Nefertiti will change her mind,” he promised. “You were good to have come here at all, little cat.”

  I embraced my father, then held my mother tightly as the servants moved the chests, balancing them one on top of another.

  “We will come twice a renpet,” my father promised. “I will arrange a meeting with the Mitanni king while we are there.”

  “If Akhenaten lets you.”

  My father said nothing, and I knew he intended to do it with or without Pharaoh’s permission. Then I heard a noise and turned, catching two little girls peeking around the columns at me. I beckoned them with my finger.

  “Are you leaving?” the older one asked.

  “Yes, Meri. Would you like to walk to the quay and bid me farewell?”

  She nodded, then began to weep. “But I want you to stay.”

  I was touched. She had only known me for a month.

  “You haven’t even seen all my horses. I wanted to show them all to you.”

  I blinked at her selfishness, then bent down and kissed her forehead. “Someday I will return and see them,” I promised.

  “Even my temple?” Meri managed between sobs.

  “Even your temple,” I said, biting my lip against such indulgence. Her own temple to Aten? What kind of queen would this little child become if she was permitted every luxury? How would she come to know restraint or patience?

  I walked with my mother down to the quay and cried despite myself when the ship was ready. Who knew what might happen once we said farewell? I could die in childbirth or my mother could succumb to any pestilence that flourished near the Nile. We held each other’s hands, and I felt keenly how much I’d failed her. I had brought her only sorrow when a daughter was supposed to bring a mother joy.

  “I’m sorry,” I told her. “If I’d been a better daughter, I would have married a man who was acceptable to Pharaoh and stayed close to you. I would have given you grandchildren to bounce on your knee and be thankful for. Instead, all I have given you is heartache.”

  “You have lived the life that Amun destined. There is nothing to regret.”

  “But you are lonely,” I argued.

  She bent close to whisper so that my father wouldn’t hear. “And I am consoled every night by the reminder that of my daughters, you are the one that eternity will smile upon. Even without gold, or children, or a crown.”

  She kissed the top of my head, and even my father looked moved when I waved farewell to the towering city of Amarna, a jewel my family had created from the sand. She was only a cheap rival to Thebes, full of new glitter and gold, yet when I left her, there was a sense of loss, too: that this was my family’s legacy and I’d left it forever.

  Chapter Twenty-One

  THEBES

  fourteenth of Phamenoth

  MY HUSBAND WAS at the quay as soon as the ship sailed into port. He took me into the house and laid me down on our bed. I looked up at the walls that had shone white and lusterless when we’d arrived. Now they were bright with river scenes and faience tiles. “Who did all of this?” I asked him.

  “I hired a painter from the city. He did it all in three days.”

  I appraised the painter’s work. It was pretty. Not anything as grand as Thutmose would have produced, but beautiful all the same. The colors he had chosen for the river were deep and varied.

  “So tell me,” he said.

  I sighed, telling him the story of Ankhesenpaaten’s birth, then of Kiya, and of my banishment from Amarna. He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed. “What is it about you, miw-sher, that makes people so obsessed? I thought about you every day and wondered if your sister would hatch some plan to send assassins, then marry you off to someone else when I was dead.”

  I gasped. “Nakhtmin.”

  “You are everything to her,” he said soberly.

  “And you are everything to me. Nefertiti understands that. And if she so much as heard a whisper against your name, she would stop the hand of Pharaoh—”

  “She has become that powerful?”

  “You should see the people at the Arena and in the streets. They would do anything for her.”

  “And for him?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He caressed my cheek with his hand. “Let’s think of other things now.”

  We made love that afternoon. Later, Ipu brought us lunch, figs and almonds with slices of fish and fresh barley bread. We ate and talked, and Nakhtmin told me about our tomb in the hills of Thebes, how solidly it was built and how beautiful the workers had already made it. “I found the workers Pharaoh fired before moving to Amarna. Now they are hiring out their services to any nobleman who is willing to pay. Pharaoh was foolish not to take them.”

  “Pharaoh is foolish about many things,” I said. The door creaked open and Nakhtmin’s hand flew to his knife. I looked down and laughed. “It’s only Bastet! Come here, you big miw.”

  Nakhtmin frowned.

  “And look how big he’s grown!” I lifted Bastet onto my lap and he purred, pleased with my attention. “I’m surprised he’s not angry with me for leaving.”

  Nakhtmin raised his brows. “Oh…He did his share of moping while you were gone.”

  I looked down at Bastet. “Were you a naughty miw?”

  “Ask your favorite linen sheath.”

  I paused. “The one—”

  Nakhtmin nodded.

  “You tore my good sheath?” I cried, and Bastet’s ears flattened against his head, as if he knew exactly what I was talking about.

  Nakhtmin said, “I doubt he understands you.”

  “Of course he does. He ruined my favorite sheath!”

  “Maybe that will teach you to leave home,” Nakhtmin added playfully. We wrapped ourselves in our light linen covers and Bastet curled up at the foot of our bed. Then Nakhtmin listened while I described Amarna to him, the Northern Palace and the Arena that had taken thousands of men to build. Eventually, when evening fell, we opened the doors and sat on the balcony, watching the moon rise over the river. Across the water, large houses glittered with a hundred winking lamps.

  “How could he think Amarna would ever compare to this?” I asked, and I was so thankful to Amun to be alive and sitting with the man I loved on a balcony overlooking the greatest city in Egypt.

  The next morning when I returned to my garden, I complimented my husband on the job he had done to keep the mandrakes watered and the hibiscus fed. Even Ipu was impressed with his skill while we’d been gone.

  “I thought for certain we’d return to dirt and weeds,” she confided.

  We both laughed, and Nakhtmin demanded to know what we were laughing about.

  “Only your prowess in the garden!” I said.

  It was not difficult to return to my life in Thebes. The Nile rushed, the birds sang, the herons mated, and Bastet stalked through the house like the Master of Egypt.

  Ipu and I went to the market to buy fish for Bastet, and I was reminded yet again what a magnificent city Thebes was. The blush of the hills and deep gold of the rocks was bright and fresh in the early morning light. Between the stalls old women were arranging their wares, chewing on betel nuts as they gossiped to one another. The winter’s sun glinted gold off the river, where men with heavy nets carried cargo from merchant ships. We walked through the crowds and the men looked first at me, attracted by my gold and silver cartouches, but their eyes lingered longest on Ipu, who swayed through the stalls, smiling at all the men’s jokes.

  Paser, the carpenter, wanted to know whether Pharaoh was satisfied with the box he had made him seventeen years ago.

  “It’s still in his chamber, accorded the most prominent place,” Ipu told him.

  The old seller reeled back, clapping his hands. “You hear that? Paser the Carpenter’s work in the Riverside Palace.”

  I glanced at Ipu, who gleamed at her lie. Paser leaned forward. “I could have worked on the t
ombs. I bet they would have taken me if I had gone to Amarna, and I could have carved ushabti for Pharaoh’s journey into the afterlife.”

  “But what would your daughter have done without you?” she asked.

  “She could have come, too,” he said excitedly, and then he gave a heavy sigh. “Ah, but these are just an old man’s dreams.”

  “Not so old,” Ipu flattered, and the carpenter grinned.

  We moved on, and I reminded Ipu of the fish for Bastet.

  “We’ll go to Rensi’s stall,” she promised. “He always has the best.”

  “It’s for Bastet. I doubt he will know the difference.”

  Ipu passed me a look. “He knows everything, that miw.” She strode purposefully to the last stall in the market, then came up short at the sight of a young man in Rensi’s place. He was tall and well built with hands that didn’t belong to a fish seller.

  “What can I get for you, my ladies?”

  “Where is Rensi?” Ipu demanded.

  “My father has business in Memphis these next two months. Until then, I’ll be tending his stall.”

  Ipu put her hands on her hips. “Rensi never told me he had a son.”

  “And my father never told me he had such lovely customers.” He looked between us, but I could see that his compliment had been meant for Ipu.

  “Well, then, we want perch. Fresh perch. Nothing you caught two days ago and rubbed over with thyme.”

  The son looked taken aback. “Do you think I would really sell a days-old fish?”

  “I don’t know. Is the son of Rensi as reputable as his father?”

  He handed her a wooden bowl with perch already cut. “You take this home and tell me if it’s not the finest fish in Thebes.”

  “I’m afraid she won’t be able to tell you that,” I said flatly. “It’s for a miw.”

  The son looked at Ipu as if she was insane. “Perch for a cat?” he rejoined, and reached out to take the fish back.

 
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