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       Nefertiti, p.36

           Michelle Moran
 

  “What about me?” Ankhesenpaaten cried.

  “You’re only two,” Meritaten said sharply.

  “You shall come, too,” Akhenaten proclaimed.

  When the four of them left, my father asked Nakhtmin, “Shall I show you to your chamber?”

  “I think that would be best,” my husband replied.

  “And we should arrange for several body servants while you are here.” My mother stood to go with them and Nefertiti called desperately, “But you’ll be back for dinner?”

  “Of course,” my father said, as if it wouldn’t be any other way.

  I pulled up a stool to Nefertiti’s bedside.

  “Your husband is a handsome man,” my sister admitted. “No wonder you’d rather be with him than me.”

  “Nefertiti—” I protested, but she raised her hand.

  “Sisters can’t be close forever. Merit and I have become friends; I made her father vizier this year. He was wasting his talents as scribe.”

  I glanced around the chamber.

  “She’s fetching me juice. She makes perfect jujube. And she doesn’t want to marry,” she added pointedly.

  I sighed. “So how are you feeling?”

  My sister shrugged. “As well as possible. They say it’s heavy enough to be a son.” Her dark eyes gleamed. “But others say it could be twins. Have you ever heard of a woman living through twins?”

  I pressed my lips together so I wouldn’t have to lie.

  “Never?” she whispered fearfully.

  “Twins are rare. There must be women who have lived through it.”

  She looked down at her stomach. “Four princesses, Mutnodjmet. I think Nekhbet has abandoned me.” Her voice was heavy, and I wondered if this was the first time she’d confided her true fears since I’d last been in Amarna. Who else could she trust? My mother, who would assure her that everything would be fine? Our father, who would tell her to think of the kingdom? Merit, who knew nothing of childbirth and its pain? She took my hand, and suddenly I felt the terrible loss of living in Thebes, the terrible guilt of leaving her alone to her fears and ambition, though it was she who’d banished me. “Mutnodjmet, if I die in this birth, promise you will make Meritaten queen. Promise me that Kiya won’t be made Chief Wife.”

  “Nefertiti, don’t speak like this—”

  Her grip tightened on my hand. “I have to survive this birth.” She trembled. “I have to survive to see my son rule.” She looked hopefully into my face and I didn’t promise her that she would. Only Nekhbet knew. Only Tawaret could say.

  Instead I asked her, “How many months are there left?”

  She looked down at her swollen belly, small and shapely like all of the other times, but this time rounder, heavier somehow. “Three. Three months until it’s over.” She had never been this way with the others, so eager to have it done. “But you will help me, won’t you?”

  “Of course.”

  She nodded slowly, reassuring herself. “Because I thought”—her eyes welled with tears—“I thought you had abandoned me.” She had completely forgotten my banishment, locking the memory away in a place where it couldn’t haunt her, where she could be the one who’d been wounded.

  “I have not forsaken you, Nefertiti. You can love two people at once, the way you love Meritaten and our father.”

  The look she gave me was one of deep mistrust.

  “I will stay here until you have delivered your sons,” I promised.

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Peret, Season of Growing

  A FEW MONTHS later, the pains came at dawn. It was the longest my sister had ever known labor, and in a corner the midwives passed worried glances among themselves, discussing rhubarb and rue.

  “What are they saying?” Nefertiti cried.

  “That you have never had so much pain before,” I said truthfully.

  “You would tell me if there was something wrong,” she gasped. “If they knew something—”

  “There’s nothing,” I cut her off, placing a soothing hand on her forehead, and she gripped the arms of her birthing chair.

  “Mawat,” she screamed. “Where is Father? I’m in so much pain!”

  “Push!” the midwives cried together, and Nefertiti strained against the padded seat, shrieking to wake Anubis, and then they arrived.

  Not one child but two.

  The midwives shouted, “Twins!” and Nefertiti demanded, “What are they?” She strained to see. “What are they?”

  The midwives passed worried glances among each other. Then one of them stepped forward and replied, “Daughters, Your Highness.”

  The lusty wails of newborn children pierced the air. Nefertiti collapsed in the birthing seat. Five times she’d tried. Five times for six girls. There was crying and shouts of joy in the pavilion. My mother held one of the princesses aloft.

  “Take me back to my bed,” Nefertiti whispered, and no sooner was she dressed and put into bed than Akhenaten burst into the birthing chamber.

  “Nefertiti!” He searched for his wife, and seeing that she lived, he searched for his children.

  “Twins!” The midwives feigned joy, and the look on Akhenaten’s face was triumphant. Then his peace grew disturbed.

  “Sons?” he asked swiftly.

  “No. Two beautiful daughters,” the eldest midwife said, and it was strange, for no man could have looked more joyous.

  Akhenaten was at Nefertiti’s side at once. “What shall we name them?”

  She smiled for him, though I knew her disappointment was bitter. “Setepenre,” Nefertiti replied. “And—”

  “Neferneferuaten.”

  “No. Neferneferure.”

  I glanced at Nefertiti, and the hardness in her eyes told me that she would not name her daughters after a god who had given her six princesses. I wondered whether Amun might have given her a prince.

  Akhenaten picked up my sister’s hand and pressed it to his chest. “Neferneferure,” he conceded, “after the most beautiful mother in the world.”

  When my father heard the news, he sat down outside the birthing chamber and called for a drink. “Six girls,” he said hollowly; he couldn’t believe it. “He gives Kiya a son and your sister has six girls.”

  “But he loves them. He’s possessive of them.”

  He stared up at me. “He may love them more than he loves Aten, but it’s what the people will think.”

  As the news spread through Amarna, I went into the gardens to find my husband.

  “Did you hear?” I asked him, wrapping my cloak around my shoulders.

  “Twins.”

  “Not just twins,” I said softly, and my breath made a puff of air in the garden. “Girls.”

  “How did he take the news?” Nakhtmin asked.

  I joined him on the bench near the lotus pond and wondered how the fish could swim when it became so cold like this. “Akhenaten or my father?”

  “Your father. I can guess how Pharaoh feels. No son to be in competition with for Nefertiti’s affection. No prince to be wary of when he’s an old man. Panahesi may think he’s holding all seven pawns. He doesn’t realize how much Pharaoh fears Nebnefer.”

  “But Nebnefer’s seven—”

  “And when he’s fourteen or fifteen?” my husband asked.

  I watched the fish come to the surface of the pond, their round mouths searching for food. “Would you be jealous of a son?”

  “Jealous?” He laughed. “I couldn’t think of a greater blessing,” he said earnestly. “Of course,” he added, “if it never happens—”

  I took his hand and squeezed softly. “But what if it did?”

  He stared quizzically at me and I smiled. He leaped from the bench. “Are you—”

  I nodded, my smile widening.

  He pulled me off the bench and pressed me into his arms. “How long have you known? Are you sure? It isn’t—”

  “I’m three months already.” I laughed deliriously. “I haven’t told anyone. Not even Ipu. I waited
to be sure it wasn’t a false sign.”

  The joy in his face was deep and overwhelming. “Miw-sher.” He pressed me to him and stroked my hair. “A child, miw-sher.”

  I nodded, laughing. “By Mesore.”

  “A harvest child,” he said wonderingly. There was nothing more auspicious than a child at harvest. We stood with our hands clasped, gazing into the pond, and the air didn’t seem so bitter.

  “Will you tell your sister?”

  “I will tell my mother first.”

  “We should tell her before we leave for Thebes. She will want to make arrangements to be there for you.”

  “If my sister doesn’t demand I have the child here,” I said. It would be just like Nefertiti to do such a thing. Nakhtmin glanced at me. “I will tell her no, of course. But we should stay another few months; the extra time will pacify Nefertiti, especially if it’s a son.”

  “Must everything pacify Nefertiti?” he asked.

  I looked down at the hungry fish and told him the truth, the way it had always been in my family. “Yes.”

  Nakhtmin came with me to tell my mother the news. She was with my father in the Per Medjat, warming herself by the brazier as he drafted a proclamation to the kings of foreign nations that the Pharaoh of Egypt had been blessed with two more heirs.

  Guards opened the heavy doors, and when my mother saw the look on Nakhtmin’s face she knew at once.

  “Ay,” she said warningly, standing up.

  My father lowered his reed pen in alarm. “What? What is it?”

  “I knew it!” My mother clapped loudly and came to embrace me. “I knew there would be!”

  Nakhtmin grinned at my father. “There is going to be an heir for this family, too.”

  My father looked at me. “Pregnant?”

  “Three months.”

  My father laughed, such a rare, precious sound, then he stood up and came over to embrace me as well. “My youngest daughter,” he said, holding my chin in his hands. “About to be a mother. I will be a grandfather seven times over!” For a few golden moments, I was the daughter that had achieved something worthwhile. I was going to bring a child into the world. A legacy of their flesh and blood, and part of us that would last until the sands ran out. We stood as one happy, laughing family, then the door swung open and Meritaten was there, watching us.

  “What’s happening?”

  “You are going to have a cousin,” I told her, and with a knowledge well beyond her years she asked wisely, “You are pregnant?”

  I beamed. “Yes, Meritaten.”

  “But aren’t you too old?”

  Everyone laughed and Meritaten flushed.

  My mother tutted softly, “She is only twenty. Your mother is twenty-two.”

  “But this was her fifth pregnancy,” Meritaten explained, as if we were all very foolish not to understand.

  “Well, for some it takes longer than others to have a child.”

  “Is that because Nakhtmin went away?” she asked us.

  There was an uncomfortable silence in the Hall of Books.

  “Yes,” my father said at last. “It is because Nakhtmin went away.”

  Meritaten saw she had said something she should not have, and came to embrace me. “Twenty isn’t so old,” she said seriously, giving me her permission. “Are you going to tell my mother now?”

  I took a heavy breath. “Yes, I think I will tell her now.”

  Nefertiti was still in the birthing pavilion. I was prepared for rage or weeping or drama. A child would take me away from her. I wasn’t prepared for her joy.

  “Now you will have to stay in Amarna!” she cried happily. But it was a calculated happiness. The ladies in the birthing chamber watched me with interest. Over the soft music of the lyre, they could hear what we were saying.

  “Nefertiti,” I cut in sharply, “in the end I will go home to have my child.”

  My sister turned toward me with a look of deep betrayal, perfectly executed so that I would look like the one being unreasonable. “This is your home.”

  I gave her a long look. “And if I had a son, do you think he would be safe in Amarna?”

  She sat straighter in her bed. “Of course he would be. If it’s a son.”

  “I will stay for another two months,” I promised.

  “Then what? You will leave and take Mother with you?”

  “Don’t worry. Mother won’t leave you alone,” I snapped. “Not even to see me give birth to my first child.”

  She laughed, embarrassed by the truth in front of so many women. “Mutny! That’s not what I’m saying.” She moved over on the cushions, which loomed large and heavy around her tiny frame. “Come. Sit.”

  She wants to make up to me now, I thought.

  “Did you know there will be a feast tomorrow?” she asked. “For three nights. And Thutmose will sculpt a new family portrait to go in the temple. To remind Panahesi.”

  He would have to endure it every time he walked past the altar of Aten. Nefertiti wearing the asp and crown. Nefertiti and her six beautiful children.

  She lowered her voice. “Panahesi thinks just because I’ve birthed two daughters that there will never be a son now. He thinks that Egypt’s crown will go to Nebnefer. But I’m going to change that,” she swore.

  I looked behind me. “How?”

  “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I will find a way.”

  On the third day of celebration, Nefertiti slammed the door to her chamber, blinded with an uncontrollable rage. Before I could calm her, she threw her brush against the wall and the tiles shattered. “I deliver him two daughters and now he’s with Kiya?”

  My father ordered a servant to pick up the pieces and added sharply, “Sweep it up, and then close the doors behind you.”

  We waited for the girl to do as instructed while Nefertiti fumed. When the girl shut the doors, my father stood.

  “Have some control,” he demanded.

  “I have just birthed two children and that’s not enough?”

  “You have given him six girls.”

  “We must go to her again—”

  “Absolutely not,” my father said. “It’s too dangerous now.”

  “This time Mutny can do it!”

  My father looked hard at her. “You will not bring your sister into this.”

  I tried to convince myself that what they were saying had nothing to do with the loss of Kiya’s second child.

  “We leave it to the gods,” my father said.

  “But she will be pregnant within the month,” my sister whispered. “And what if it’s another heir to the crown?” Her panic rose. “One son might die, but two?”

  “Then we will have to find another way to hold the throne. Six girls or no.”

  Seven days later, on the first of Phamenoth, two priests arrived in the Audience Chamber and announced to the court, “Your Highness, our priests have had a great vision.”

  My father and Nefertiti exchanged glances. This was not a remedy that they had brewed together.

  Akhenaten sat forward. “A vision?” he asked. “What kind of vision?”

  “A vision for the future of Egypt,” the old priest whispered mystically, and when Panahesi stood eagerly from his chair, we knew at once that this was his doing. He had been waiting for this moment from the time that Nefertiti had used the ruse of a dream to convince Akhenaten that Panahesi should become High Priest and not treasurer. Now he cried dramatically, “How come I haven’t been told of this vision?”

  The old priest bowed with a flourish of his hand. “It has only come this morning, Your Holiness. Two priests were blessed by a vision from Aten.”

  I looked over at Panahesi and the second priest, who had a round, kind face. Not one priest, but two. Panahesi had chosen his puppets beautifully.

  “Beware of false prophets,” Nefertiti warned from her throne. The court filled with expectant chatter.

  “What was the vision?” Akhenaten pressed.

  The younge
r priest stepped forward. “Your Highness, in the Temple of Aten today, we were given a revelation—”

  “Where exactly?” Nefertiti demanded, and Akhenaten frowned at the hardness in her voice.

  “In the courtyard beneath the sun, Your Majesty.”

  Better and better.

  “We were honoring Aten with incense when a bright light came before us and we saw—”

  The old priest cut in. “We saw a vision!”

  Akhenaten was taken. “Of what?”

  “Of Nebnefer, wearing the pschent crown.”

  Panahesi stepped forward eagerly. “Nebnefer? You mean His Highness’s son?”

  “Yes.” The old priest nodded.

  The entire court tensed, waiting for Akhenaten’s reaction.

  “A very interesting vision,” my father said. “Nebnefer”—he arched his brows meaningfully—“wearing the crown of Egypt.”

  “Aten’s visions are never wrong,” Panahesi said sharply.

  “No,” my father agreed, “Aten never lies. And, of course, there were two. Two priests who saw the vision.”

  Panahesi shifted in his leopard-skin robes, disliking this new accord.

  “A son to rule the throne of Egypt,” my father went on. “And wearing the crown that rested once on his father’s head. Didn’t the Elder receive such a vision?”

  The court realized what he was doing and Akhenaten paled.

  My father added quickly, “But Nebnefer is loyal. I am sure he is a son who will serve His Highness well.”

  It was a twist Panahesi had not foreseen. “Of course Nebnefer is loyal,” he stammered. “Of course he is.”

  Akhenaten looked down at my father, who shrugged cunningly.

  “It is a danger that all Pharaohs risk with sons.”

  And who knew that better than Akhenaten? I felt a victorious thrill, the triumphant feeling my father must experience whenever he outwitted an opponent.

  Kiya turned red with rage. “No one can prove that the prince is disloyal!” she shrieked.

  Akhenaten looked to the priests. “What was the rest of the vision?” he commanded.

 
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