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       Nefertiti, p.33

           Michelle Moran

  “You sold it,” Ipu exclaimed. “Too late!”

  “That’s the finest fish in Thebes!” He looked to me to try to find some reversal.

  “And I’ll be giving it to Thebes’ finest miw,” Ipu promised.

  “You can’t give perch to a miw!”

  “What is your name?” she demanded.

  The fish-seller frowned. “Djedi.”

  “Well, Djedi, when your father returns”—she tucked the wrapped perch neatly under her arm—“my lady here will be sure to commend you to him.”

  He stared openmouthed as Ipu marched away, then looked to me. “I’ve seen her before. Is she always so impertinent?”

  I smiled. “Always.”

  In the unseasonable warmth of Pachons, I began pruning withered leaves and crushing eggshells to enrich the garden soil. Our house became flush with bright canna lilies and flowering hibiscus several months early, but when I reached down to pluck the lotus blossoms I thought of Nefertiti and loss overwhelmed me. In my anger, I had refused to apologize, and now I imagined my mother sitting alone in her chamber while my father shut himself away in the Per Medjat, sending spies and writing scrolls to determine how far the Hittites had advanced in the Kingdom of Mitanni. As I sat on my balcony, Ipu came to me and said, “You wanted it this way, my lady.”

  I nodded sadly. “I know.”

  “You’ve left them before,” Ipu pointed out, not understanding my distress.

  “But never like this. Now we are separated because Nefertiti is angry, and my mother will be worried, and my father will need me if she becomes difficult, only I won’t be there.” I looked over the balcony. If I had children, it would all be different, I thought. I would be taking care of a son or teaching a daughter the ways of the soil. I would never find a wet nurse for my child. He would be all mine. He would be everything to me. And I wouldn’t play favorites between my daughters. But I wasn’t the one that had been blessed by Tawaret. The goddess had chosen to smile on Nefertiti.

  “Come.” Ipu tried to distract me from my gloom. “We’ll go to the market and watch the fire eaters.”

  “In the sun?”

  “We can take a shade,” she offered.

  We went into the market for the second time in seven days and lost ourselves in the busy sprawl. We had nothing to buy, but somehow Ipu’s fish merchant managed to find us. He held out two packages wrapped in papyrus, blowing the hair from his eyes in the heat.

  “For the loveliest ladies in Egypt,” he said.

  “That’s very kind.” Ipu glanced at the fish. “But you know the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife can’t accept food from strangers.” She handed the fish back, and he played at being deeply offended.

  “And who says I am a stranger, my lady? I’ve seen you here twice. And before you left Thebes I saw you once. You may not have noticed a simple, unmarried man like myself, but I noticed you.”

  Ipu stared back at him.

  I laughed. “It seems you have left Ipu without words,” I congratulated. “I believe this is a first.”

  “Ipu,” the fish merchant repeated her name thoughtfully. “The Friendly One.” He placed the fish back into her hands. “Take it. It isn’t poison.”

  “If it is, I will return from the Afterlife to find you.”

  Djedi laughed. “There will be no need for that. I will be eating fish from the same catch tonight. Perhaps you will come tomorrow and tell me how it was?”

  Ipu tossed her hair coyly over her shoulder and the beads made a hollow music together. “Perhaps.”

  When we left the market, I turned to Ipu at the bend in the road. “He is interested!” I exclaimed.

  “He’s only a fish merchant,” she said dismissively.

  “He’s more than that. Look at the gold on his fingers.”

  “Then perhaps he’s a fisherman.”

  “With rings like those?” I shook my head. “Haven’t you said you wanted a husband with a little wealth? What if this is him?”

  We stopped at the path that led up to my garden and Ipu grew serious. “Please tell no one about this,” she said.

  I frowned. “Such as who?”

  “Such as any of the women who come to buy your herbs.”

  I stepped back, offended. “I never spread gossip.”

  “It is only because I want to be cautious, my lady. He could be married.”

  “He said—”

  “Men say many things.” But there was a gleam in her eyes. “I only want to be careful.”

  I didn’t go with Ipu into the market the next day, but I saw her leave and whispered to Nakhtmin that her dress was finer than usual.

  “Do you think she is going to see him?” he asked, hugging me to his chest.

  “Of course! We have plenty of meat and no need for fish. Why else would she go?” I smiled, thinking of Ipu finally in love.

  Now that my return to Thebes had become known, women began appearing at my door again. Most of my business was for acacia and honey, a mixture that women in the villas of Thebes were afraid to send to their physicians for. So servants crept up my pathway at first light, always careful to conceal their lady’s name, arriving with purses full of deben rings in exchange for the certainty that trysts with lovers or unhappy marriages would not produce a child. I tried not to see the irony in this, giving women herbs to stop children when that was all that I prayed for.

  Sometimes the women came for other drugs, plants that could cure warts or heal wounds that had been inflicted in ways they did not tell and I did not ask about. One such woman showed me bruises and whispered, “Is there anything that can cover these?”

  I flinched to touch the raised bruise on the woman’s small arm. I moved across the room that Nakhtmin had furnished with wooden shelves to hold my glass jars and vials. I took down my book of patients and flipped through the pages. “You came six months ago for acacia and honey. Now you return for something to cover the bruises?”

  She nodded.

  I said nothing; I only went to the polished cedar shelf where I kept my oils. “If you wait, I will mix you some rosemary oil with yellow ocher. You will have to apply it with a brush in several layers.”

  She sat near my table and watched me work with the pestle to grind the powder. I could see by the tone of her skin she would need a yellow copper, and I was proud of myself when she reached out her arm and the bruise disappeared under my paste. She paid with a deben of copper, and I looked at the gold around her neck and asked her if his riches were worth it.

  “Sometimes,” she replied.

  Servants came all afternoon—some that I knew, others that were strangers. When the house was quiet, I went outside to watch Nakhtmin in the open courtyard of our villa, where the river winked blue and silver between the columns. His shirt was off, and in the warm sun his golden torso glistened with sweat. He turned and saw me watching and smiled. “All the customers gone?” he called.

  “Yes, but I haven’t seen Ipu since morning,” I worried.

  “Perhaps she developed a sudden interest in fish.”

  I thought how strange it was, my helping Ipu dress for her dinner with Djedi—who owned not just one merchant ship, but three. I placed my best wig on her head, and each tress was threaded with golden tubes and scented with lotus. She wore a smooth-fitting tunic and my fur-lined cloak. The braided papyrus sandals on her feet were mine, and when I looked at her in the mirror I was reminded of Nefertiti and all the times I had dressed my sister for dinner. I embraced Ipu and whispered encouragement in her ear, and when she left, I thought selfishly, If she marries, I will have no one except Nakhtmin. Every night I placed oil at the feet of my little shrine to Tawaret, and every moon my blood came. I was twenty years old without any children. I might never have any. And now I won’t have Ipu, either.

  At once I flushed, appalled that I could ever think like Nefertiti. Perhaps we are more similar than I realized.

  I went into the kitchen and found the bread and goat’s cheese that Ipu ha
d left. “Ipu is dining with the fish merchant tonight,” I told Nakhtmin.

  But he was studying a scroll in the loggia. He didn’t look up at me.

  “What is it?” I asked, bringing him food.

  “A petition from men in the city,” he said gravely. He held it up for me to take. It was from the men of Thebes. I recognized some of the names as men who had held positions of power before the Elder had died. Old friends of my father and former Amun priests.

  I gasped. “They want you to take over Amarna!”

  Nakhtmin said nothing, staring beyond the balcony to the River Nile.

  “We must show this to my father at once—”

  “Your father already knows.”

  I sat down, staring at him in the light that came through the lowered reed mats. “How can he know this already?”

  “He knows everything, he watches everything. If armed men have not come here to slit my throat, it is because he has commanded that I remain safe. He trusts that I will not lead an army against Amarna because he knows that you are more important to me than any crown.”

  “But why wouldn’t my father arrest these men? They are traitors!”

  “Only if I lead them in rebellion. Until then they are friends, and if Amarna ever falls and Aten turns his back on Egypt, where will your father turn for help?”

  I looked up slowly, realizing, “You. You will have the loyalty of the Elder’s people.” He nodded, and I felt a sudden awe of my father. “He is planning in case Akhenaten dies. In case the people turn. This is why my father let me marry you.”

  Nakhtmin smiled. “I should hope it was for more than that. So there is no need to send this to him.” He took the scroll and crumpled it in his hand. “I will not lead the people in rebellion and he knows it.”

  “But Akhenaten doesn’t.”

  “Akhenaten does not deal with anything outside his sphere of Amarna. All of Egypt could crumble, and if Amarna was left standing, he would be content.”

  I felt a heat creep into my cheeks. “My sister would never—”

  “Mutnodjmet,” he interrupted. “Your sister is the daughter of a Mitanni princess. Did you know that twelve nights ago Mitanni was attacked?”

  My breath caught in my throat. “The Hittites invaded?”

  “And Egypt did nothing,” he said ominously. “But history will remember that we stood by and watched. If Mitanni falls, we will be next. If she survives, it is a kingdom that will never forgive us, Mitanni princess or no.”

  “Nefertiti never knew her mother. You can’t blame her—”

  “No one is blaming.” His face looked sharp in the moonlight. “But the wars we shut our eyes to now may blind us in eternity.” A night breeze stirred the curtains and he stood. “Would you care for a walk?”

  “No,” I said quietly, sick at heart. “You go.”

  He took my chin in his hand. “Amun watches over us. We will always have each other, no matter what happens in Mitanni or the city of Amarna.”

  He left. I went into my chamber, but I couldn’t sleep. In the heat, all I could do was go to the balcony to sit and think. When Ipu returned, I got up to see how her night had been. At twenty-four years old, she looked young and radiant. Care sometimes made me forget we were both still young.

  “Look!” she gushed. She held out her arm and showed me a bracelet. “He bought it for me. It’s as if we have known each other all our lives, my lady. We grew up near the same town, near the same Temple of Isis. His grandmother was a priestess and so was mine!”

  I motioned for her to sit with me in the loggia, and we talked into the night.

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  fourteenth of Pachons

  “THERE’S A SURPRISE for you waiting at the quay,” Nakhtmin whispered the next morning when I opened my eyes.

  I sat up at once, blinking against the light. “What is it?”

  “Get up and see,” my husband teased.

  I pushed Bastet off the bed and went to the window, then shouted, recognizing the blue and gold standards of my parents’ bark. “Ipu!” I called, throwing on my good linen. “The Vizier Ay and my mother have arrived. Prepare the house and get out the good wine!”

  Ipu appeared at the doorway to my chamber.

  “What are you doing? Find the wine!” I exclaimed.

  She exchanged a private smile with Nakhtmin. “It’s already done.”

  I looked back at my husband, who was grinning like Bastet. Then I understood. “Did you know about this?”

  “Of course he did,” Ipu replied eagerly. “He has been hiding this surprise for more than ten days.”

  I stopped what I was doing, fastening a gold chain around my neck, and my eyes filled with tears.

  “Go!” he urged me. “They’re waiting!”

  I ran out to meet my parents the way a child runs to meet her friends at the market. When my mother saw me, her face transformed. “Mutnodjmet!” she cried, throwing her arms around me. “You look well.” She pulled back to see me. “Not so skinny anymore. And the house!”

  “It’s a handsome villa.” My father appraised, studying the faience tiles and surrounding hills. The villa’s reflection wavered in the Nile, and the rising sun splashed the water with gold. Already Thebans on both sides of the river were staring from their windows, recognizing the pennants on the bark as royal colors and wondering who had come to visit the city.

  “Ipu! Find a sheet of papyrus and write that I will not be having customers today,” I shouted. “Hang it on the door.”

  Servants stayed behind with the ship while I took my mother and father up through the gardens. My father greeted Nakhtmin solemnly. “So tell me what is happening in Thebes,” he said.

  I didn’t listen to what they were saying. I already knew. And while they talked in the loggia over roasted goose and spiced wine, my mother and I sat in the garden. My mother looked down the hill to the River Nile, comparing the land in her mind to Amarna. “It’s richer here, somehow,” she said.

  “Thebes is older. There’s less glitter and rush.”

  “Yes. Everything’s a rush in Amarna,” she agreed.

  “And Nefertiti?” I asked, raising my cup.

  My mother inhaled. “Still strong.”

  Still ambitious, she meant. “And my nieces?”

  “They couldn’t be more spoiled if they were the daughters of Isis. No horse is too fine or chariot too grand.” My mother clicked her tongue.

  “It’s a bad way to teach them.”

  “I tell Nefertiti that, but she won’t hear it.” My mother’s voice dropped, though there was no one in the garden to hear her but me. “You have heard about Mitanni?”

  “Yes.” I closed my eyes. “And we have sent no soldiers to help them,” I guessed.

  “Not one,” she whispered. “It’s why your father has come here, Mutnodjmet.”

  I sat back. “It wasn’t to see me?”

  “Of course to see you,” she said quickly. “But also to speak with Nakhtmin. He’s a hero to the people and valuable to us as an ally. You chose wisely in your husband.”

  “Because now he can help us?” I asked bitterly. At once, I regretted my tone of voice. My mother, who was no more cunning or pretentious than I would ever be, sat back in shock.

  “Egypt will need him if Akhenaten’s reign should ever crumble.”

  “And by Egypt, you mean our family.”

  She put down her cup and reached across the table, covering my hand with hers. “It is your destiny, Mutnodjmet. The path to the Horus throne was laid long before you were born, before Nefertiti was born. It was the destiny of your grandmother, and her mother, and her mother before that. You can accept it, or it can chase you down and wear you out with all the running.”

  I thought of my father in the loggia, plotting with Nakhtmin, drawing him into the web that would ensnare us and bring us back to Amarna.

  “Nefertiti will always be queen,” my mother continued. “But she needs a son. She needs an heir to mak
e sure that Nebnefer never rules in Egypt.”

  “But she’s had only princesses.”

  “There’s still hope,” my mother said, and something about her tone made me lean forward.

  “She isn’t—”

  My mother nodded.

  “Three months after Ankhesenpaaten?” My lip trembled. Then surely this one would be a boy, and Nebnefer would be forgotten and our family would be safe. So Nefertiti was pregnant with a fourth child. Four.

  “Oh, Mutnodjmet. Don’t weep.” My mother embraced me.

  “I’m not weeping,” I replied, but the tears came fast, and I rested my face against her breast. “But aren’t you disappointed, mawat? Aren’t you disappointed you will never have a grandchild?”

  “Shh…” She stroked my hair. “I don’t care if you have one child or ten.”

  “But I have none,” I cried. “And doesn’t Nakhtmin deserve a child?”

  “It is up to the gods,” my mother said resolutely. “It is not about deserving.”

  I wiped away the tears. Nakhtmin and my father came out into the garden, and both wore grave faces. “We’ll be meeting with former Amun priests tomorrow night,” my father said.

  “In my house?” I exclaimed.

  “Mitanni has been burned, Mutnodjmet,” Nakhtmin said.

  I glanced at my father in horror. “Then shouldn’t you be in Amarna? The Mitanni king will ask for soldiers. Surely now—”

  “No. It is better to be here, planning for a time when there might not be an Amarna.”

  I flinched. “Does Nefertiti know what you are doing?”

  “She knows what she wants to,” my father replied.

  The next night, when the moon was a thin sliver cut into the sky, my parents’ servants moved the long table from the kitchen to the middle of the open loggia. Ipu dressed it with fine linen and laid out our best wine, lighting the brazier and throwing sticks of cinnamon onto the coals. I wore my best wig and earrings, and Nakhtmin left to stand watch at the bottom of our hill. Then men whose names I’d heard spoken with the deepest reverence as a child began to arrive in hooded cloaks and gilded sandals. Their bald heads shone in the light of the oil lamps. They were silent as they came to the door and addressed Ipu with respectful greetings from Amun.

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