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       Nefertiti, p.38

           Michelle Moran
 

  “The Hittite emissaries,” Nefertiti said. “Do not let them kiss your ring,” she told him, and Akhenaten sneered.

  “No, they shall kiss my feet when they see what I have built.”

  Throughout the Durbar, there was nothing Akhenaten did not lavish on Nefertiti. She was his Chief Wife, his chief adviser, his partner in every plan, and now she was Pharaoh. And so that the world should never forget it, we traveled to the borders of Amarna, where he erected a pillar to her reign. He stood before the emissaries of the East and ordered Maya to read the inscription he had written for his wife, the Pharaoh-Queen of Egypt.

  To the Heiress, Great in the Palace, Fair of Face,

  Adorned with the Double Plumes, Mistress of Happiness,

  Endowed with Favors, at hearing whose voice the Pharaoh rejoices,

  The Chief Wife of the King, his beloved, the Lady of the Two Lands,

  And now Pharaoh Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti,

  May she live for Ever and Always.

  No Pharaoh had ever granted the crook and flail to a woman. But when Nefertiti stood before the crowds to bless them, they pressed against each other and stood on stools simply to catch a glimpse of her face.

  “They love me,” she swore on the second day of the Durbar. “They love me more than when I was queen!”

  “Because now you have greater power over them,” I said.

  But she ignored my cynicism. “I want the people to remember this forever,” she answered. In the waning light of her Robing Room, the setting sun turned her skin to gilded bronze. “Mutny,” she said, “find Thutmose. I want to be sculpted just as I am.”

  I crossed the palace to the artist’s studio. The Durbar would last six days and seven nights, and already there were drunken men in the streets, while the wives of dignitaries went stumbling to their litters, reeking of scented oil and wine. Thutmose was in his workshop, laughing in the midst of a gaggle of young girls and handsome men. His eyes lit up when he saw me.

  “A sculpture?” he asked breathlessly. “I’ll be ready at once. When I saw her at the temple with the crook and flail,” he confided, “the cobra rearing on her crown, I knew she would call for me. No queen has ever worn that crown with such grace.”

  “No one has ever worn it at all,” I said dryly.

  Thutmose laughed. “Tell Her Majesty she should come,” he said grandly, then motioned with his hands. “Everybody must go!” The women pouted, trailing out the door with their wine cups and beaded skirts.

  When the crowd was gone, I asked Thutmose, “Why is it that the women love you so much?”

  He thought for a moment. “Because I can make them immortal. When I find the right model I might use her for Isis, and when the winds of time erase her memory from her house, there will still be her face looking down from the temples.”

  I thought of what Thutmose said when I went to tell Nefertiti that he was ready. She had changed, and I wondered if this was the way she would be remembered to history. She was wearing a linen so thin that it was perfectly transparent. On her wrists, at her ankles, from her ears and on her toes, thick gold and faience glittered. We walked through the halls of the palace together as we had done so many years before in Thebes, on the night when she had gone to Akhenaten as a virgin. We could hear the crowds outside in the courtyards, laughing and dancing, but inside the palace it was cool and silent.

  In Thutmose’s studio, cushions had been placed where Nefertiti should sit. There was an armed chair for myself and when Nefertiti entered Thutmose executed a deep bow. “Pharaoh Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti.”

  My sister smiled at the sound of her new name. “I want a bust,” she told him. “From my pectoral all the way to my crown.”

  “With the spitting cobra,” Thutmose nodded approvingly, coming closer to study the rubies that made the snake’s glittering eyes. Nefertiti sat a little higher on the cushions. “I shall do the bust in limestone,” he announced. I stood up to go and Nefertiti cried, “You can’t leave! I want you to see this.”

  So we spent the afternoon that way, and although my memory of the greatest Durbar in history is filled with images of drinking and dance, the memory that remains clearest to me is that of Nefertiti sitting forward on her ocean of cushions, the coral and turquoise from her golden pectoral catching the sun’s last light, her black eyes like pools of obsidian. There was true tranquillity on my sister’s face. At last, Nefertiti was convinced that she would never be abandoned, that a Pharaoh’s crook and flail would mean that she would be remembered by eternity.

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  sixth day of the Durbar

  THE JACKAL-HEADED GOD descended on Egypt while there was still dancing in the streets and thousands of dignitaries in the palace. At first he stole through the alleys at night, snapping up workers in Pharaoh’s tomb, then he grew bolder and stalked the Baker’s Quarter by day. When panic finally spread to the palace, there was no one in Amarna who could deny what they had seen.

  Anubis had arrived with the Black Death in his jaws.

  My father came into the Audience Chamber on the sixth day of the Durbar to bring Pharaoh the news. In the open courts that looked out onto the river, there was still dancing. “Your Highness,” my father said, and the gravity on his face stopped Nefertiti’s laughter.

  “Come forward.” Akhenaten smiled widely. “What is it, Vizier?”

  My father’s face remained serious. “There is report of plague in the workers’ quarters, Your Majesty.”

  Akhenaten glanced at Nefertiti. “Impossible,” he hissed. “We sacrificed two hundred bulls to Aten.”

  “And eleven workers in the tombs have died.”

  Several dignitaries backed away from the dais and Nefertiti whispered, “It must have been the Hittites.”

  “I suggest quarantining yourself in the Northern Palace, Your Highness.”

  “To a Second Wife’s palace?” Nefertiti cried.

  “No. We stay here,” Akhenaten was firm. He scanned the Audience Chamber. The horror of plague had frozen the court. The music played on in the outer chambers, but now the women’s laughter went silent.

  “Your Highness,” my father interrupted. “Rethink whether it is wise to stay in this palace. The Hittites, at least, should be quarantined. Anyone from the north should be sent—”

  “No one is to be sent away!” Pharaoh boomed. “The Durbar is not finished.” Even the musicians fell silent. He turned and commanded, “Keep playing!”

  At once they struck up a tune, and Panahesi moved quickly to the base of the dais. I had not even seen him appear. “We could make a special offering in the temple,” he suggested.

  Akhenaten smiled at him, snubbing my father. “Good. And Aten will protect this city.”

  “But seal the city gates,” my father implored. “No one should be allowed in or out.”

  Nefertiti agreed. “We must seal the gates.”

  “And let our guests think that there is plague?”

  My father said quietly, “They will know it soon enough. The Baker’s Quarter has also been infected.”

  There was a moment of panicked silence, then dignitaries began talking at once. A surge of courtiers pressed against the dais, wanting to know what to do and where to go. Akhenaten stood from his throne, and my father gathered our family around him. Tiye, my mother, and Nefertiti were there. “You must all go back to your chambers,” my father instructed the court. “Go back to your chambers and do not go outside.”

  “I am Pharaoh, and no ones goes back to their chambers!”

  Nefertiti contradicted him. “Do as the vizier says!”

  We swept as an entire family down the hall, and even Tiye’s steps were brisk. We turned the corner to the royal rooms, but Akhenaten refused to go any farther. “We must prepare for tonight.”

  Nefertiti grew enraged, and I saw that it was fear that was making her shake. “During plague, you want to prepare for a feast? Who knows who could be sick? It could be all of Amarna!”

&
nbsp; “And do we want our enemies to see us weak?” Akhenaten challenged. “To see trouble in the midst of our celebration?”

  She didn’t answer.

  “Then I will prepare the feast and no one will forget why they are here. For the glory of Aten. This is what will be remembered in history.”

  Nefertiti watched him disappear into the Great Hall, and I was reminded of the boat ride many years ago when my father had remarked, “He is not stable.” My sister looked up at the carvings of herself and her family and her eyes welled with tears. “It was supposed to be glorious.”

  “You invited the Hittites, and you knew they were tainted,” I replied.

  “And what could I do?” Nefertiti snapped. “Could I stop him?”

  “You wanted it, too.”

  She shook her head. Her answer might have been a yes or a no. “The people will blame us,” she said as we came upon her chambers. “They will blame our devotion to Aten.” She closed her eyes, already knowing how the drama would play in the streets of Amarna and across the kingdom. “And what if it comes into the palace?” she asked. “What if it destroys everything that we’ve built?”

  I thought of Ipu, who once told me that her father had used mint to keep rats away from the cellar and that none of his workers had ever died of plague. “Use mint,” I told her. “Use mint and rue. Tie it around your neck and hang it over every door.”

  “You should leave, Mutnodjmet. You are pregnant.” Nefertiti choked back her tears. “And you’ve wanted a child so badly.”

  “We don’t even know if it’s plague,” I said hopefully.

  My father gave me a long look before we entered the royal rooms. “It is plague.”

  Yet we feasted. The night was filled with harpists and lotus candles, and a hundred dancers glittered in the firelight, reflecting silver and gold. There was a tension among the guests, but no one dared to mention plague beneath the columns of the Great Hall of Amarna. The scent of orange blossoms floated on the night air between the pillars, and guests laughed high and nervous in the courtyard. Nakhtmin brought me a plate with the choicest meat, and we ate while below us Anubis roamed the streets. Women flirted and men played Senet and servants refilled cup after cup of red wine. By the end of the night, even I had forgotten the fear of death. It was only the next morning, when several hundred of the guests smelled a cloying sweetness in the air, that anyone thought to see what was happening in the city.

  When the messenger returned, he reported what he’d seen to a filled Audience Chamber.

  While we had been feasting, a thousand poor lay rotting in their beds.

  “Seal the palace!” Akhenaten shouted, and the Nubian guards rushed to isolate Pharaoh’s palace from the rest of the city.

  “What about the servants on errands?” my father asked.

  “If they’re not in the palace, then they die in the streets.”

  Nakhtmin turned to me. “It’s our last chance, Mutnodjmet. We can go back to Thebes now. We can escape.”

  I gripped the edge of my chair. “And leave my family?”

  “It’s their choice to stay.” His eyes held me in their sway, reminding me of that evening by the river.

  My father came up and spread his hands on my shoulders. “You are pregnant. You have a child to think of.”

  The staccato of hammers fell in the distance. The doors were being boarded, the windows shut. If the sickness crept in, it would spread to every chamber. I put my hands across my belly, as if I could shield my child from this terror. I looked at my father. “And what about you?”

  “Akhenaten won’t leave,” my father’s voice was solemn. “We stay with Nefertiti.”

  “And mother?”

  My mother took my father’s arm for support. “We stay together. It’s unlikely that plague will come into the palace.” But her eyes remained uncertain. No one knew why plague came, to what house, to what person.

  I looked at Nakhtmin, and he already knew the choice I would make, the choice I would always make. He nodded in understanding, taking my hand. “It could be in Thebes as well.”

  We gathered quietly in the Audience Chamber. Every foreign dignitary, whether from Rhodes or Mitanni, had been turned onto the streets, and only three hundred people took shelter beneath the massive columns. Kiya and her ladies hovered in a corner while Panahesi whispered into Pharaoh’s ear. Few people stirred. Nobody talked. We looked like prisoners waiting to be summoned to our execution.

  I looked at the weeping servants. A scribe I had seen many times in the corridors of the Per Medjat was without his wife. I wondered where she had been when Pharaoh decided to seal the palace without warning. Perhaps she’d been away at the temple giving thanks or at home visiting with her elderly mother. Now they would wait out the plague in separate houses and hope that both were passed by Anubis. That, or they would reunite in the Afterlife. I squeezed Nakhtmin’s hand and he squeezed back tenderly, looking into my face.

  “Are you frightened?” I asked.

  “No. The palace is the safest place in Amarna. It’s above the city and apart from the workers’ houses. The plague will have to come through two walls to find us.”

  “Do you think it would have been better in Thebes?”

  He hesitated. “It’s possible the plague has spread to Thebes as well.”

  I thought of Ipu and Djedi. They could be sick even now, boarded up in their own home with no one to bring them food or drink. And what of young Kamoses? Nakhtmin squeezed my shoulder.

  “We will take your herbs and protect ourselves the best we can. I am sure that Ipu and Djedi are safe.”

  “And Bastet.”

  “And Bastet,” he promised.

  “Did the Hittites really bring this?” I whispered.

  Nakhtmin’s look was hard. “On the wings of Pharaoh’s pride.”

  As thousands outside the palace were dying, I was taken early to my birthing chamber.

  The pavilion my sister had used was outside, so women rushed to fill a room with protective images of the sun, and as the pains began Nefertiti slipped an image of Tawaret into my hand, to hide beneath the pillows while I screamed. The midwives called for kheper-wer and basil to help me push, and I knew later when they shouted for clove that this child had been a gift from Tawaret and there would probably be no more.

  “He’s coming!” the midwives cried, “He’s coming!” and I arched my back to give a final push. When my son finally decided to enter the world, the sun was nearly set. Nothing about his birth was auspicious. He was a child of death, a child of the waning sun, a child born into the midst of chaos as outside the revelers of Pharaoh’s Durbar died in the streets, first smelling the scent of honey on their breaths, then discovering a swelling in their armpits and groins, lumps that would turn black and ooze. But inside, the midwives pushed my child into my arms, crying, “A boy! A healthy boy, my lady!” He wailed loud enough to disturb Osiris, and my sister rushed out of the birthing chamber to tell my husband and my father that we’d both survived.

  I caressed the thatch of dark hair on my son’s head and pressed it to my lips. He was soft as down.

  “What will you call him?” my mother asked, and as Nakhtmin burst into the birthing chamber I said, “Baraka.” Unexpected Blessing.

  For two days, I knew only the bliss of motherhood and nothing else. Nakhtmin was a constant companion at my side, watching over me in case I should show the first signs of fever or little Baraka should begin to cough. He went so far as to forbid any servants from having contact with us, in case they should be carrying plague. On the third day, when he thought we were well enough to be let out of our bed, he ordered us moved back into our room where he could protect us from the comings and goings of palace well-wishers.

  The specter of Anubis was on every face. The servants crept around the halls of the palace in silence, and only the wail of Baraka pierced the stillness of the guest chambers. Nefertiti had ordered our room to be decorated in golden beads, the color of my son’s
bright skin, and the ladies of the court had collected beads from their hair and strung them together. It was something to occupy their time while we were prisoners inside the palace. Meritaten, Meketaten, and Ankhesenpaaten had painted happy images on the bottom of the walls with their pallets. Beads hung from every corner and across the wooden beams. Myrrh had been scattered on the braziers throughout the palace, and its heady scent filled the room when I entered it for the first time. My sister looked down at Baraka, and I thought I caught a glimmer of resentment in her eyes, but when she saw that I was watching her she flashed her brightest smile. “I have already found you a milk nurse who can milk him when your three days are finished.”

  “Who is she?” I asked warily. I had thought I would feed him myself.

  “Heqet, the wife of an Aten priest.”

  “And you’re sure she isn’t carrying plague?”

  “Of course I am.”

  “But how do I know her milk is good?”

  “You aren’t thinking of milking him yourself?” Nefertiti demanded. “Do you want your breasts to hang to your navel by the time he is three?”

  I looked down at my son, at his puckered lips and deep contentment. He was my only child, and there would probably only ever be one. Why shouldn’t I feed him, at least until the plague was over? Who knew what the milk nurse could be carrying inside of her when so many were dying? But there was something else to think of. If I spent myself giving him milk, what if the plague should come into the palace and I was too weary to fight it? Baraka would be motherless. Nakhtmin would be widowed to raise a son alone. Nefertiti was watching me. “Bring Heqet,” I said. “I will stop feeding Baraka in two days.” I traced his small nose with my fingertip and smiled. “I can see why you did this five times, Nefertiti.”

 
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