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       Nefertiti, p.34

           Michelle Moran
 

  “How many men are coming?” I asked.

  My father replied, “Nearly fifty.”

  “And women?”

  “Eight or nine. Most of these guests tonight were once Amun priests. They are powerful men”—his voice was full of meaning—“and they still practice in secret shrines.”

  There was no official welcome. When my father determined that everyone he’d summoned had arrived, he slipped off into the darkness to find Nakhtmin, then returned. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion, he announced, “Everyone here knows that I am the Vizier Ay. You know the former general Nakhtmin.” My husband inclined his head. “My wife.” My mother smiled softly. “And my daughter, the Lady Mutnodjmet.”

  Sixty silent faces turned toward me, searching out my eyes in the flickering light. I inclined my head, which felt heavy and cumbersome in its wig, and I knew they were comparing me to Nefertiti: my dark skin to her light, my plain features to her chiseled ones.

  “We are all aware that Mitanni has been invaded,” my father went on. “The Hittites have crossed the Euphrates and subdued Halab, Mukish, Niya, Arahati, Apina, and Qatna. No one here is under the assumption that Egypt will send soldiers to Mitanni’s King Tushratta. These cities are gone.” The men in the loggia shifted. “But Pharaoh Akhenaten finds comfort in the treaty he has signed with the Hittite king.”

  There was the rise of voices in our loggia.

  “You have talked of rebellion,” Nakhtmin addressed the men who looked to my father with alarm, “and the Vizier Ay is on our side. He wants to fight the Hittites, he wants to release General Horemheb from prison, he wants to turn back to the great god Amun—but now is not the time for rebellion.”

  A chorus of disapproval went up and dozens of shaved heads rose angrily.

  “I have no desire to be Pharaoh, and my wife has no desire to be queen.”

  “Then raise the Vizier Ay!” one of the men said loudly.

  My father stood. “My daughter is Queen of Egypt,” he replied. “The people of Amarna support her possession of the crook and flail. And I support her.”

  “But who supports Pharaoh?” someone shouted.

  “We all must. It is through him that Egypt will be given an heir. The queen,” he announced, “is with child again.”

  “We must hope it is a son,” Nakhtmin added quietly.

  “Hope has gotten us nowhere,” one of the men interjected. Two gold earrings pierced each of his ears. He stood up, and the cut of his linen was very fine. “In the Elder’s time, I was High Priest in Memphis. When the Elder embraced Osiris, I hoped to return to my temple. I hoped not to lend out my services as a scribe to put food on my table, but hope has done me little. I am lucky that I saved and was a frugal man. But not all of these men can say that.” He gestured with a bangled arm. “What Egyptian could have foreseen what would happen at the Elder’s death? A new religion, a new capital. Most men here have lost everything. And Vizier, we are not a group without means,” he warned. “We have sons in the army; we have daughters in Pharaoh’s neglected harem. We hoped your daughter would bring sense to Egypt, but we are tired of hoping. We are tired of waiting.” He sat down, and my father spoke directly to him.

  “But wait you must,” he said simply. “To meet here is treason”—his voice grew low—“to suggest removing Pharaoh is more dangerous still. To remove a Pharaoh is to risk setting a terrible precedent. The Queen of Egypt watches over her people.”

  “Yes, in Amarna. What about Thebes?” the former priest demanded.

  “Thebes’s time will come,” my father promised.

  “When?” An old woman stood up. “When I have embraced Osiris as well? By then it will be too late!” She steadied herself on her ebony cane and peered across the room. “Do you know who I am?”

  My father nodded respectfully.

  “I was Prince Tuthmosis’s nurse. I tended him even to his deathbed. And there is no one here who doesn’t know the story of what I saw that night.” There was an uneasy shuffling in the loggia. “A prince surrounded by tangled sheets,” she went on, “a pillow cut with teeth marks!” I shot a terrified look at my father, who allowed the old woman to continue with her fratricidal tale. “Akhenaten cast me out of Malkata Palace as soon as his brother was buried. He might have killed me, too, but he thought I was old and useless. And now what family will hire me,” she cried, “the nurse of a dead prince?”

  She sat down, and a shocked silence filled the loggia. I held my breath. The old woman had just accused Pharaoh of murder.

  “All of us have deeds that will weigh heavy with Osiris, some heavier than others,” Nakhtmin replied. “We have all been wronged. We have all struggled since the Elder’s death, and we have all been called here to be reminded that destinies are decided by the gods, not former Amun priests. We must wait for a prince to be born to the queen, and Vizier Ay will train him to be a soldier worthy of Egypt.”

  “That’s not for fifteen years!” several men cried.

  “Perhaps,” my father conceded. “But know that I am with you, that my daughter, Queen Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, stands by you as well. Amun will not be lost to Egypt forever.” He stood up, and it was clear the meeting was over.

  Our hooded guests bowed with respect to my family. When they had left, I whispered to Nakhtmin, “I don’t see how this meeting will stem rebellion.”

  “These men won’t be so quick to want war against Pharaoh now that they know Amun has not died in the heart of Akhenaten’s closest adviser,” he replied. “Egyptians are a patient people in the end. The worst is over. Now they have only to wait for change.” Nakhtmin squeezed my shoulder. “Don’t worry, miw-sher. Your father knows what he is doing. He wanted to calm their fears, to tell them that the future is not as bleak as it seems so long as he is there to mold it. And to see you there, his second daughter, with a former general willing to fight against the Hittites, it sends a powerful message.”

  “And what is that?”

  “That not all Egyptians have fallen under the spell of Amarna. There is hope within the royal family.”

  My parents stayed through the end of Pachons, and when it was time for them to go I bit my lip and swore I wouldn’t cry, even when I knew they would not be coming again soon.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  1346 BCE

  Peret, Season of Growing

  NEWS OF NEFERTITI’S confinement came in the first month of Peret, only this time I was not commanded to attend. If my sister died, I would not even be there to say good-bye.

  I went into my shop and Nakhtmin followed. He sat on the bright-orange cushion for customers, watching me take down a box of cinnamon bark that would keep away head lice and perfume a home. It was for a woman who came every ten days at this time, the daughter of a well-respected scribe who could afford such luxuries from the land of Punt.

  Nakhtmin kept staring and I turned around.

  “I rarely see you at work,” he explained. “I’m always outside.” His skin was dark because of his practice with local soldiers, and the contrast with his hair and eyes was stunning. I believed there was no man more beautiful. He stood up and took me in his arms. “I’m glad you won’t be going to Amarna,” he admitted, kissing my neck. “I miss you when you’re gone.”

  While we waited for word from Amarna, other news came one evening as Nakhtmin and I walked along the Nile. We were discussing how stalwart the soldiers of Mitanni must be to keep fighting the Hittites though half of their cities were lost. The waning sun shimmered on the water, and every so often the sound of fish cut the still evening air. Then Ipu came running down the riverbank, dressed in her finest linen. Holding up her middle finger, she cried, “I am getting married!”

  The three of us stopped. Nakhtmin was the first to congratulate her, embracing my body servant and promising we would throw her the grandest feast in all of Thebes.

  I took her hand to examine the ring. A thick golden band. It must have cost three months’ worth of wages. “When did this happe
n?”

  “This afternoon!” Ipu’s cheeks were flushed. “I went to his stall and he gave me a little boat he had carved himself. He said someday we would sail in one just like it. Then he told me to look inside the miniature cabin and there it was.”

  “Oh, Ipu! We shall have to begin planning the feast at once. When will you move?”

  “At the end of Tybi.”

  “That’s soon,” I exclaimed.

  She smiled. “I know. But I won’t be leaving you.”

  “That’s not my—”

  “But I won’t. His home is not so far away. I’ll come every morning and leave when he returns from the fish stall at night,” she promised.

  Ipu’s marriage feast was held on the tenth of Tybi, an auspicious day. On that evening, I dressed her in Thebes’s finest linen, painting her eyes and lending her one of my golden pectorals studded with turquoise. Blue faience earrings pierced her ears, and her hair was swept back by a blue Nile flower. Women came to henna her hands and breasts, and when Nakhtmin appeared at the door to our chamber he gave a low whistle. “A bride to rival Isis,” he complimented.

  Ipu stared at herself in the polished bronze. “I wish my mother could see me,” she whispered, putting down the mirror and holding up her arm, letting her jewels catch the evening light.

  “She would be proud,” I told her, taking her hand. “And I am sure her ka is watching over you.”

  Ipu choked back her tears. “Yes, I am sure it is.”

  “Now come, Djedi is waiting.”

  In the glitter of a torchlit night, barks sailed along the River Nile. Three hundred people watched the ships from our courtyard, the triangular sails like white moths in the dusk, and I marveled that Ipu knew all of these guests, men and women, children and grandmothers. Lamps burned along the pathway down into the garden, and people came and went all evening long, bringing gifts of gold and spices for the new couple, kissing Ipu’s forehead and rubbing her stomach to bless her womb. I watched the proceedings and I felt like the scales of Anubis, my happiness going both up and down.

  “Do you wish you’d had this?” Nakhtmin asked me during the celebration. We were surrounded by tables of roasted goose in garlic, lotus flower dripping in honey, and barley beer. Wine had been flowing all night and women danced to a chorus of flutes.

  I smiled, reaching across the table to take his hand. It was rough, not like my father’s hand, but there was strength in it. “I wouldn’t trade you for all the gifts in Thebes.”

  Ipu and Djedi appeared, their hair decked with flowers and their faces filled with the wonderful contentment of a newly joined couple. “To the hosts of this feast,” Djedi shouted above the din, and hundreds of guests raised their cups to us, and the musicians struck up a happy tune. “Come and dance!” Ipu cried.

  I held out my hand to Nakhtmin, and then we crossed the courtyard to where men and women were clapping, shaking sistrums, and watching the young dancing girls from Nubia, their skin like polished ebony in the torchlight, bending backward and leaping in unison to the men’s cries.

  If a stranger stood across the Nile, he would have seen a hundred golden torchlights flickering like stars against an indigo palette, rising in tiers and casting illuminations across the villa belonging to the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife. The celebration disappeared in the early morning hours, when litters arrived bearing the most important guests back to their villas along the water. When the courtyard was empty at last, I spent the first night since my childhood without Ipu.

  The next morning, a servant from Amarna arrived. He held out a scroll that I didn’t wait to read. “What does it say?” I held my breath, and the young man’s face grew bleak.

  “The queen has given birth to the Princess Neferuaten. They both survived.”

  A fourth princess.

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  1345 BCE

  seventh of Thoth

  FOR EIGHT LONG months after the birth of Nefertiti’s fourth daughter, Egypt knew only drought. A hot wind blew over the arid land, parching the crops and sucking the life from the River Nile. It began in the season of Peret. At first it was only a warm breeze at night when the desert chill should have arrived. Then the heat invaded the shadows, stealing into places that should have been cool, and old men began to go down to the river to stand in the water, splashing their faces in the withering sun.

  At the wells, women began to gossip, and outside the city temples men whispered that Pharaoh had turned his back on Amun-Re, and now the great god of life had unleashed his anger, a drought that killed off half our neighbors’ cattle and sent fishermen’s children begging in the streets. Only Djedi seemed immune to the famine, telling Ipu that now was the time to sail, and that they could go upriver to Punt and bring back treasures far more valuable than any fish: ebony, cinnamon, and green gold.

  “But Ipu’s not a sailor,” I cried. “She will die in Punt!”

  Nakhtmin laughed at me. “Djedi is a talented man. He will hire sailors, and merchants will invest in his expedition.”

  “But Ipu wants children,” I complained.

  Nakhtmin shrugged. “Then she will have them in Punt.”

  The horror of the notion left me speechless.

  “It’s what she has chosen,” he reminded, “and I would bid my farewell to her before morning.”

  I went to Ipu’s home with a heavy heart; I was losing my closest friend. Ipu had been with me since I had first passed the threshold of Malkata Palace, and now she was sailing for a foreign land from which she might never return. I was quiet, watching my body servant who was more than a body servant stuff linen into baskets and wrap cosmetics in papyrus.

  “I’m not leaving for the ends of the earth,” Ipu remonstrated.

  “Do you even know how they treat women in Punt? How do you know it’s not like Babylon?”

  “Because Egyptians have been there before.”

  “Egyptian women?”

  “Yes. In Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s time, Punt was ruled by a woman.”

  “But that was Hatshepsut’s time. And besides, you’ve never really sailed. How do you know that you won’t get sick?”

  “I’ll take ginger.” She took my hand. “And I’ll be careful. When I return, I will bring you herbs that no one in Thebes has ever seen. I will search the markets for you when I am there.”

  I nodded, trying to reconcile myself to what I couldn’t change. “Be safe,” I made her promise again. “And don’t you dare bear a child on foreign bricks without me!”

  Ipu laughed. “I will tell my child it must wait for its godmother.”

  She and Djedi, with their ship full of sailors and merchants, departed the next morning for a land we Egyptians imagined as far away as the sun.

  “It’s not so far as you believe,” my husband told me, sharpening his arrows in the courtyard the following morning. “She’ll be back before next Akhet,” he predicted.

  “In a renpet?” I cried. “But what will I do without her?” I sat down on the stump of a fallen palm, feeling sorry for myself.

  Nakhtmin looked over and a slow smile spread across his face. “Oh, I can think of some things we can do while Ipu is away.” I had the feeling he would be glad to be relieved of Ipu’s incessant chatter for a time.

  But every month, my moon blood came.

  I grew mandrakes, I added honey to my tea, I visited the shrine of Tawaret in the city every morning, laying down the choicest herbs from my garden. I began to accept that I would never give Nakhtmin the children we wanted. I would never be fertile again. And instead of turning me aside the way many husbands might have, Nakhtmin only said, “Then the gods meant for you to make the earth fertile instead.” He caressed my cheek. “I would love you the same with five children or none.” But there was a fire in his eyes, and I was afraid. It was only for me, for my family, that he refused to rid Egypt of a man who should never have been Pharaoh. Yet he never said a word about the letters that arrived from soldiers in Akhenaten’s army. He o
nly took me in his arms and held me close and asked me if I wanted to walk along the river. “Before it disappears,” he joked darkly.

  “I hear the priestesses in the shrine talking among themselves,” I told him. “They think this drought is the result of something that Pharaoh has done.”

  Nakhtmin didn’t disagree. He opened the gate to the garden so we could pass through and walk the short distance to the water. “He has neglected Amun and every other god.”

  We both looked at the river. On the exposed banks, naked children were playing, tossing a ball and laughing while their parents watched them, covered by sunshades. Three women nodded deferentially to us as we passed, and Nakhtmin said, “It’s amazing how much Egyptians will tolerate before they rise and rebel.” He turned to me in the setting sun. “I am telling you this because I love you, Mutnodjmet, and because your father is a great man forced to serve a false Pharaoh. The people won’t always bow, and I want to know that you won’t be crushed. You will be ready.”

  His words were making me afraid.

  “Promise me you won’t make foolish decisions,” he pressed. “When the time comes, promise me you’ll make decisions for the both of us, not just for your family.”

  “Nakhtmin, I don’t know what you’re talking—”

  “But you will. And when you do, I want you to remember this moment.”

  I looked beyond him to the River Nile, the sun reflecting on its shrinking surface. I looked at Nakhtmin, who was waiting for my response. I replied, “I promise.”

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  1344 BCE

  Akhet, Season of Overflow

 
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