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       Nefertiti, p.35

           Michelle Moran
MY HUSBAND DIDN’T mention my promise on the river again, and before I knew it the seasons of Peret and Shemu passed and word arrived that Djedi’s ship had come into the harbor. I put on my wig and brightest linen belt.

  Nakhtmin raised his brows. “You’d think it was the queen who was arriving.”

  We rode to the port, where we found the ship to be as large and impressive as I remembered it. The scent of roasted cumin hung heavy in the air, and we pushed our way past the people who were packed like fish along the quay. Many of them had come to see their loved ones arrive. More than fifty sailors had left with Djedi that day in Thoth, and now their wives pressed against each other with flowers and lotus blossoms in their hair. When I spotted Ipu on the docks, I gaped. She was round with child!

  “My lady!” Ipu made her way through the throng. “My lady!” She threw her arms around my neck, and I could barely reach mine around hers. “Look.” She grinned, and indicated her round stomach. “He waited for you.”

  “How many months?” I gasped.

  “Nearly nine.”

  “Nine,” I repeated. It was impossible to believe. Ipu. My Ipu. With child.

  She turned to Nakhtmin. “I thought about you when I was gone,” she admitted. “On the shores of Punt, the soldiers carry weapons unlike anything in Egypt. My husband brought you back examples of their weaponry. All kinds. In ebony and cedar. Even one in a metal they call iron.” She put her hand on her round stomach, looking healthier than I’d ever seen her.

  Nakhtmin said gently, “Why don’t you two go home. I can help Djedi here, and the two of you can talk. This is no place for a woman nine months with child.”

  I took Ipu back to the house she hadn’t seen in nearly a year. As we walked, she told me about a land where the people were darker than Egyptians and lighter than Nubians. “And they wear strange ornaments in their hair. Bronze and ivory. The wealthier the woman, the more charms in her hair.”

  “And the herbs?” I pressed.

  “Oh, my lady, herbs like you’ve never seen. Djedi has an entire chest of them for you.”

  I clapped my hands. “Did you ask the local women what they were for?”

  “I wrote down most of it,” she replied, but we had come upon her house and her footsteps slowed. She looked up in wonder at the two-story building, white with brown trim around the windows and doors. “I had forgotten how nice it is to be home,” she said, holding her stomach, and a strange feeling of envy washed over me.

  There was a deep sense of stillness when we opened the door, a quiet I could only remember from the tombs in Thebes. Ipu looked around at the statues of Amun, all standing in the same places that she had left them. Besides a thin layer of dust, nothing had changed. Except her. I was the first to speak. “We should roll up these shades and let in some light.” I went about rolling up the reed mats while Ipu watched. Then I turned around. “What’s wrong?” I asked her.

  She sank down on a bench, putting her hands on her stomach. “I feel so badly that I’ll be the one on the bricks. I wanted you to have a child so much.”

  “Oh, Ipu,” I said tenderly, making her move over and embracing her. “It’s the will of the gods. There’s a reason for all of it.”

  “But what?” she asked bitterly. “What can it be? I prayed for you while I was there,” she admitted. “To a local goddess.”

  I sucked in my breath. “Ipu.”

  “It couldn’t hurt,” she said firmly, and there was a seriousness in her tone I’d rarely heard before.

  We looked at each other in the soft sunlight that filtered through the lowered mats, and I said, “You are a good friend to me, Ipu.”

  “As are you, my lady.”

  We talked and cleaned at the same time, dusting the wall hangings and scrubbing the tiles. She told me about all of her adventures on the Nile. They had begun by sailing upriver to Coptos, then, after leaving the ship in the care of a sailor, they traveled east by caravan through the Wadi Hammamat. When they arrived at the seacoast, Djedi bought three ships for all of the goods they intended to bring back, and then they hired more sailors and embarked on their voyage to the south. She recalled how one of the men was nearly killed by a crocodile when he went for a swim, and how the croaking of the hippos kept her up at night.

  “Weren’t you ever afraid?”

  “Djedi was there, and fifty armed sailors. There was nothing to fear on the water besides the animals, and as we sailed farther south there were animals like you’ve never seen.”

  I lowered my dust linen. “Like?”

  “Like snakes the length of this room and cats as big as…” Ipu searched her loggia. “As big as that table.”

  My eyes went wide. “Bigger than our statues at the Temple of Amun?”

  “Much bigger.”

  Then she began to describe the magnificent herbs that she had found, and the cinnamon wood they had brought back by the chest-full. “We walked everywhere, my lady. There were no litters for women. Only donkeys to ride. And once I grew big, it was easier to walk than ride.” Djedi had allowed her into the foreign marketplaces, where women sold dark-colored pods with a gingery-lemon scent, used to flavor honey cakes and bread. Ipu had seen grown men the size of children, and tall spotted beasts that ate leaves from the tops of trees. Women sold dry spices and flavored tea, and the colors in the marketplace were bright saffron yellow, earthy basil, and flaming red. “Like their garments.”

  “Do all of the people wear red?”

  “Only the rich. It’s not like in Egypt,” she explained, where all classes wore white.

  When Djedi returned from the quay with Nakhtmin, sailors trailed behind him carrying chests filled with goods. The smell of cedar filled the house, and we sat around the loggia looking through the exotic finds and listening to the stories each of them held. Some of the chests were gifts for us. There was an ivory box filled with the herbs that Ipu had searched out herself, and a wooden case with the weapons for Nakhtmin. Ipu brought back a dress in bright indigo for me as well. The rest were goods for the house and jewelry for the coming child. This would be its inheritance: ivory and gold from the land of Punt.

  We ate well that night, and stayed up until morning listening to Djedi’s hearty laugh when he retold the tale of a sailor who ate a local dish and couldn’t leave his hole in the ground for a day, since in Punt, unlike Egypt, there was no such thing as toilets. Only Djedi could match Ipu’s full laughter, and when we left, carrying my box full of herbs and Nakhtmin’s new weapons, it was as if they had never been gone.

  In Egypt, there is a saying: When good fortune looks down upon us, it does so in threes, one for each part of the Eye of Horus. His upper lid, his lower lid, and the eye itself. The morning after Ipu arrived nine months heavy with child, the drought ended. The rains came down in heavy torrents, splashing into the Nile and making puddles of mud across our fields. In the evening, while Nakhtmin took dinner by the brazier and I chatted with Ipu, a messenger from Amarna arrived, holding out a scroll with my family’s seal. Djedi, who had opened the door to our house, handed it to me with wide, interested eyes. I don’t think he had ever seen a vizier’s seal; heavy golden wax on the finest papyrus grown in the Delta. I opened it at once and read it aloud.

  A new birth is weighing heavily with your sister and the priestesses of Aten hold hope it will be twins, or perhaps the sign of a prince. But she is sick often and summons you here. Nakhtmin is welcome.

  Ipu gasped. “A fifth child?”

  I knew what else she wanted to say. That only a queen blessed by the gods could be so fertile. Every year Nefertiti was with child no matter rain or drought. And suddenly, without warning, my eyes filled with tears.

  Nakhtmin lowered his cup. “Oh, miw-sher,” he said tenderly.

  I wiped the tears from my eyes, embarrassed. “You are to come,” I said. “My father wouldn’t let my mother send such a letter if he thought you were in danger. Will you come?” I asked him.

  He hesitated, but when he saw the hope in
my face he replied, “Of course I will. We will sail as soon as Ipu goes to the birthing pavilion.”

  I wrote back at once, telling my mother we would sail as soon as Ipu had given birth. “It will not be for at least fifteen days,” I replied, and the letter that came swiftly in return five days later was in Nefertiti’s own hand.

  You want to wait for the birth of your godchild when your nephews, the future Princes of Egypt, are about to be born? I am ill every morning and can’t sleep through the night, but you want to stay in Thebes when I could be dead by Aythyr?

  I could hear the blame in her voice. If she died and I was not there to bless her, my ka would never be at rest. I finished her letter.

  I know you would never abandon me, not with Anubis so close at my door, so I have sent a ship. When it arrives, it will take you with all speed to Amarna. And since I know you will not come without Nakhtmin, he is welcome, too. You may both stay in the guest rooms near the Audience Chamber.

  I crushed the new scroll in my hand. “And so it begins again. She has sent a ship. But I’m not leaving,” I vowed, “not until I have seen my godchild blessed.”

  Ipu shook her head. “This time your sister is right, my lady. When the ship comes, you must go. If she’s carrying twins…” She spread her hands in sympathy.

  Nakhtmin nodded. “I do not need to tell you how my mother died,” he said softly. “And neither of my brothers survived.”

  There was no choice but to go back to Amarna, to return to the city from which I had been banished.

  “But what if Ipu’s birth ends badly?” I whispered, and Nakhtmin turned over in the darkness. The images of Tawaret that had been carved into the bedposts looked down at us benevolently in the moonlight.

  “You know what the physicians say, Mutnodjmet.” He put his thumb on my forehead to smooth away the care.

  “They think Ipu will give birth within the next seven days. But they could be wrong.” I worried my lip, thinking of Nefertiti’s ship approaching Thebes. “What if the ship comes and Ipu isn’t ready?”

  I stayed up thinking of ways to stall the ship. Nefertiti wasn’t due for months. She could wait. If Ipu’s birth didn’t happen for days…

  But I needn’t have worried. The next morning, Ipu went into the birthing pavilion that Djedi had built and attached to their home. All morning she pushed and screamed. Outside the carved door, Nakhtmin comforted Djedi, while Ipu gripped my hand and made me promise to look after the boy or girl, whichever it should be, if she should not survive.

  “Don’t be foolish,” I told her, smoothing the thick hair away from her face, but she made me swear it. So I promised her, but for nothing. By evening, her ordeal was done, and Djedi was the father of a strapping son.

  “Look how heavy he is!” I complimented, handing her the swaddled infant. His lusty cries pealed through the chamber. “What will you name him?”

  Ipu looked down over the bloodied linens; outside, I could hear Djedi and Nakhtmin celebrating. “Kamoses,” she said.

  I spent the days waiting for Nefertiti’s ship with Ipu, watching her with Kamoses and envying the way she bathed him and rocked him and studied his chest rising and falling in his sleep. And even though he was fussy, I felt a longing in my stomach watching him feed at Ipu’s breast, his little face full of contentment.

  In the evenings, I came home to Nakhtmin and we fell into bed together, spending the nights trying for our own son. On our last night in Thebes, Nakhtmin smoothed the hair away from my face. “If we never have a child, I will be at peace. But you won’t, miw-sher. I can see that.”

  I blinked away the tears. “Don’t you want a son?”

  “Or a daughter. But it’s a gift from the gods.”

  “A gift we sent back!”

  “A gift that was stolen,” he clarified, and his voice was dark.

  “Sometimes I dream there will be a child,” I said. I turned up my face to him and he wiped away the tears. “But do you think it means anything?”

  “The gods give us dreams for a reason.”

  The next day, the barge came, but leaving Thebes was harder than it had been before. We waved to Ipu and Djedi on the docks, who were passing Kamoses between them with a new-parents’ pride. They would care for our house while we were away, tending the garden and feeding Bastet. Ipu would serve the women who came for honey and acacia. She’d watched me with my herbs for nine years, and I had promised to pay her handsomely. “You don’t have to do that, my lady.” But I’d replied, “It’s only fair. It may be several months before we return.”

  Standing on the prow of the ship, blinking into the fresh sunlight, I had no idea then how long we’d be gone, or under what circumstances we would return.

  We arrived in Amarna when the warm autumn’s sun was setting. We stood on the ship’s deck, and I was shocked by how big the city had grown, and how beautiful it appeared. Litters had been sent for us and we were carried through the city to the Riverside Palace, shielded from the fading sun by strips of linens. I parted the curtains, and on every new temple and shrine was Nefertiti’s image: on the doors, across the walls, from the faces of crouching sphinxes. She was etched into every public space, her face engraved where the faces of Isis and Hathor should have been. And from the massive columns supporting the palace, in place of Amun peered the profile of Akhenaten. When the litter bearers put us down beyond the fortified gates, Nakhtmin stared up at the pylons, then looked out over the city. “They have made themselves into gods.”

  I put my finger to my lips as my father appeared.

  “Mutnodjmet. Nakhtmin.” He embraced my husband warmly. When he came to me, he lowered his voice in earnest. “It has been too long.”

  “Over two years since Thebes.”

  He smiled. “Your mother is waiting in the birthing pavilion.”

  “Nefertiti has already taken to her pavilion?”

  “She is ill,” he said quietly. “The birth is weighing heavily with her this time.”

  “At four months?”

  “Some of the physicians say it could be six.”

  We were shown into Riverside, which looked the same as when I’d left. White limestone columns reached toward the heavens, and in every courtyard the sunlit gardens were in bloom. Someone had planted myrtle and jasmine, and the jasmine was overtaking the water gardens, dipping their fragrant tendrils in the pools. We passed the Great Hall and my father said, “Your rooms will be here,” and he pointed to the guest rooms for foreign diplomats and messengers. I felt a sharp pang, but Nakhtmin nodded gratefully.

  “Come,” my father said. “I’ll take you both to the pavilion.”

  I glanced at Nakhtmin. “But what about—”

  “This is Amarna,” my father said wryly. “Nefertiti allows everyone in. Men, women…”

  We entered the birthing pavilion and a chorus of voices rose all at once. I glanced at the bed where Nefertiti lay and Akhenaten sat rigid, watching Nakhtmin with suspicious eyes. Then we were surrounded by jumping, laughing children who wanted to see their aunt Mutnodjmet and meet their uncle Nakhtmin. I counted back and realized that Meritaten was already five years old. Her precocious grin reminded me of Nefertiti. “Mother said you’d bring gifts,” she said and held out her hand.

  I looked at Nakhtmin, who raised his eyebrows and opened his bag. Each gift was wrapped in papyrus; Ipu had labeled them before we left. “Where is Meritaten?” he called.

  “That’s me,” said the eldest princess. When she had her gift tucked neatly under her arm, she gave Nakhtmin an introduction to her sisters. “That’s Meketaten.” She pointed to a plump girl with curling hair. “She’s only one year younger than me. And Ankhesenpaaten.” Meritaten indicated a beautiful child standing behind her sisters, waiting patiently for her gift. “She’s two. And that’s our baby sister, Neferuaten.”

  The baby toddled over to us, then each of the girls received their gifts. There was a frenzy of unwrapping while my mother came over to embrace me, kissing both of my ch
eeks. Then Meritaten’s voice rang out.

  “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she announced, sounding ten years older than her age. “Mawat.” She went to Nefertiti’s bedside. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

  Nefertiti gazed at the ivory writing palette Nakhtmin had carved with help from a stonecutter working on our tomb. The princesses’ names were engraved in hieroglyphs and both palettes held brushes and a shallow bowl for ink. My sister fingered the smooth edges and slender brushes, and there was a different look on her face as she raised her eyes to thank Nakhtmin.

  “They are beautiful. We have nothing like this in the palace,” she admitted. “Where are they from?”

  “I want to see them,” Akhenaten commanded. The girls brought their writing palettes over to their father. He inspected them casually. “Our workers can do better.”

  Nakhtmin lowered his head respectfully. “I worked on them with a stonecutter from Thebes.”

  “They are exquisite,” Nefertiti complimented.

  Akhenaten stood up and his face was flushed. “Meritaten, Meketaten! We are riding in the Arena.”

  “Will the general be coming, too?” Meritaten asked.

  Akhenaten paused at the door and the rest of us froze. He turned, then looked down at Meritaten. “Who said this man was a general?”

  “No one.” Meritaten must have heard the danger in his voice because she knew better than to answer him with the truth, which must have been that the Vizier Ay still called him “general.” “I saw his muscles and knew he must work outside.”

  Akhenaten narrowed his eyes. “Why couldn’t he have been a fisherman or a painter?”

  I’ll never forget the answer Meritaten gave, for it showed her cunning even at five. “Because our aunt would never have married a fisherman.”

  There was a moment of tension, then Akhenaten laughed, sweeping Meritaten into his arms. “Let’s go to the Arena and I will show you how a warrior rides. With a shield!”

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