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       Nefertiti, p.39

           Michelle Moran
 

  My sister wrinkled her brow. “You enjoy it more than I did, then.”

  I glanced up from my bed. “But you were always happy,” I protested.

  “Because I had survived,” Nefertiti said bluntly. “And I would live to try again for a son.” Her eyes flickered over Baraka. “But now I will never need one. I am Pharaoh and Meri will be Pharaoh after me.”

  I sat up on my cushions, eliciting a sharp cry from Baraka. “Does Father know this?”

  “Of course. Who else would he want it to be? Nebnefer?”

  I thought of Kiya and Nebnefer on the other side of the palace. The entire court of Amarna—sculptors, priests, dancers, tailors—had flocked to the palace for shelter. Now they were crowded in the rooms around the Audience Chamber. Anyone who had influence or a job in the palace had been allowed to stay, but food was not infinite.

  “What will we do if the plague outlasts supplies?” I asked slowly.

  “We’ll send for more,” Nefertiti said lightly.

  “You don’t have to lie to protect me. I know there can’t be many servants willing to leave the palace. Nakhtmin told me that a messenger came to the window last night to report the deaths of three hundred workers. Three hundred,” I repeated. “That’s two thousand people since the Durbar.”

  Nefertiti shifted uneasily. “You shouldn’t think about this, Mutnodjmet. You have a child—”

  “And I won’t be able to protect him if I don’t know the truth.” I sat straighter on my cushions. “What’s happening, Nefertiti?”

  She sat on a chair near my bedside. Her cheeks lost their color. “They are rioting in the streets.”

  I sucked in my breath, shifting Baraka in my arms until he cried.

  “And there is nothing to stop them charging the prison and releasing Horemheb,” she said. “The army is quarantined. There are only a few soldiers—”

  “There’ll be plague within the prisons. If there is plague at the tombs—”

  “But they could break him free if he hasn’t succumbed. And he would lead a revolt against our family. We would all be lost.” She hesitated. “Except you. Nakhtmin would save you.”

  “Never, Nefertiti. The gods are with you. That would never happen.”

  She smiled wryly, and I knew she was thinking of the plague following so closely on the heels of the Durbar and her ascent to the ultimate throne in the land. If the gods had been with her, why was there plague?

  “So what will we do?” I looked down at Baraka. His tiny, innocent life could be over before it even began. But why would the gods do that? Give me a child after so long only to take him away? “What does Father think we should do?”

  “He thinks we should send messengers to Memphis and Thebes. To warn them.”

  “You haven’t warned them?” I cried.

  “We’ve stopped up the ports,” she countered. “No one can leave. The gates are shut. If we send messengers to Thebes, what will the people think so soon after a Durbar?”

  I stared at the boarded windows. “It’s against all the laws of Ma’at not to warn them,” I said.

  “Akhenaten won’t do it.”

  “Then you must,” I told her. “You are Pharaoh now.”

  Six men from the palace were paid in gold to carry messages to Memphis and Thebes, warning them of Amarna’s plight: The Hittites had carried plague to Pharaoh’s Durbar, and it had already claimed two thousand lives.

  There were not enough tombs cut to hold all the dead; even the wealthy were tossed into mass graves, anonymous for eternity. Some risked death to place amulets with their loved ones in the earth so that Osiris could identify them. I had nightmares about these graves at night, and when I’d wake up crying, Nakhtmin would ask what was haunting me in my dreams.

  “I dreamed Osiris couldn’t find me, that I’d been lost to eternity, that no one cared enough to write my name on my tomb.” My husband caressed my hair and swore it wouldn’t happen, that he’d risk everything to press an amulet into my palm before I was buried. “Swear you wouldn’t do that,” I begged him. “Swear that if I were to die of plague, you would let them take my body, amulet or no.”

  His arms tightened protectively around me. “Of course they wouldn’t take you without evidence for the gods. I would never let that happen.”

  “But you would have to let me go. Because if I were to die and you were to sicken, who would Baraka have to watch over him?”

  “Don’t speak this way.”

  “All of Amarna is dying, Nakhtmin. Why should the palace be immune?”

  “Because we are protected! By your herbs, by our position on a hill. We are above the plague,” he tried to convince me.

  “And if the people were to break into the palace and bring it with them?”

  He was surprised by my mistrust. “Then the soldiers would fight them because they’re protected here and fed.” Baraka’s wail pierced the morning stillness, and Nakhtmin rose to get him. He looked tenderly at his son, placing him carefully at my breast. Tomorrow, our son would have a milk nurse.

  “Nefertiti has sent word to Memphis and Thebes that there is a plague,” I told him.

  Nakhtmin watched me carefully. “Akhenaten will learn of it, once the plague has passed.”

  “How do you know it will pass?”

  “Because it always does. It’s simply a matter of how many Anubis will take with him before he goes.”

  I shuddered. “Nefertiti said they are rioting in the streets.”

  Nakhtmin looked sharply at me. “Why did she tell you this?”

  “Because I wanted to know. Because I have never lied to her, and she knows I would want the same courtesy. You should have told me.”

  “For what good?” he protested.

  “Imagine my shock if they broke into the palace. I wouldn’t know what was happening. I might not know enough to hide our son.”

  “They won’t break into the palace,” Nakhtmin said sternly. “Pharaoh’s army is just outside. They’re eating the same food that we are and wearing the same herbs. For all of Akhenaten’s foolishness, he knows better than to risk losing his army or his Nubian guards. We are safe,” he promised. “And even if they came, I would protect you.”

  “What if they came with Horemheb?” I asked, and by his expression I could see it was something he had thought of, too.

  “Then Horemheb would instruct them not to touch you.”

  “Because he is your friend?”

  Nakhtmin set his jaw. He didn’t like this line of questioning. “Yes.”

  “And Nefertiti?” I asked.

  He didn’t answer.

  My voice dropped. “And my nieces?”

  He still didn’t answer. Instead, a messenger knocked and requested our presence in the Audience Chamber.

  “More Senet,” Nakhtmin guessed, but it wasn’t this time. My father had called us to report that three thousand Egyptians were dead.

  “From now on, begin stocking bread in your room,” he told those gathered in the chamber. “And water in vessels. The plague will outlast our supplies.”

  In the hall, my father looked back at the unoccupied thrones and the ebony tables. In an hour, the chamber would be filled with dancing, and Akhenaten would command the emissaries to play Senet. “An empty husk,” he said quietly. “They kissed his sandals just as he wished, and now his people will lie dead at his feet.”

  We knew Black Death had entered Riverside Palace when the cook ran screaming into the Audience Chamber, sweat beading on his face. “Two apprentices are sick,” he cried. “There is death in the kitchens. Five rats and the wife of the baker are dead.”

  The Senet games stopped, and the harpist’s fingers froze in horror at the fat man’s labored words.

  He might as well have unleashed Anubis in the palace.

  Nakhtmin grabbed my shoulders. “Get back into our chamber. Bring Heqet and her child, then seal the door and let no one in until you hear my voice. I’m going for fresh water.”

  Women
ran and men rushed to get away. Nefertiti met my glance, and I could feel her horror as Amarna slipped from her grasp. If there was plague in the palace, it was a death sentence for everyone inside. Akhenaten stood from his throne and summoned his guards, screaming that no one must leave him. But there was no controlling the panic as it spread. He turned to Maya at the bottom of the dais. “You will stay,” he commanded.

  Maya’s face turned gray. His city, their city, once a tribute to life, was now monument to death. Amid the panic, someone ordered the children to the nursery. Every child under the age of sixteen was to be protected in the most secluded chamber of the palace.

  “Who will watch them? Someone must watch them,” my father shouted. But the chaos was too loud. No guard stepped forward. Then Tiye appeared, her face ashen but calm.

  “I will watch over the nursery.”

  My father nodded. “Order the guards to reseal the windows,” he instructed Nefertiti. “Kill anyone who attempts to break free. They are risking our lives.”

  “What does it matter?” a woman shrieked. “There is already plague in the palace.”

  “In the kitchens,” my father snapped. “It can be contained.”

  But no one believed him.

  “You!” Akhenaten shouted, pointing to a noblewoman who had pushed her child to freedom through a broken window and was herself preparing to break free. He grabbed one of his guards’ bow and arrows. “Step farther and you will die.”

  The woman looked between herself and her child. Then she moved to bring the child back into the palace and an arrow twanged. There was a collective gasp, then silence in the Audience Chamber as the woman slumped forward and her child screamed. Akhenaten lowered his bow. “No one leaves the palace!” he shouted. Akhenaten drew back a second arrow and pointed into the midst of the suddenly silent crowd. Nefertiti came up beside him, lowering the weapon.

  “No one else is leaving,” she promised.

  The people watched her with wide, frightened eyes.

  Akhenaten stopped in front of one of the priests, who fell to the floor in obeisance. “Anyone who opens a window or slips a message under a door to the outside will be sent to the kitchens to die. Guards!” he commanded. “Kill every cook and baker’s apprentice. Keep no one in the kitchens alive. Not even the cats.” He looked for the man who’d delivered the news of plague and pointed. “Begin with him.”

  The guards were swift. The man was taken screaming through the doors of the Audience Chamber before he could even beg for his life. Our family looked as one to Nefertiti.

  “Everyone return to their chamber,” she said. “Anyone with sign of the plague is instructed to take charcoal from their brazier and mark the Eye of Horus upon their door. Meals will come once a day.” She saw my father’s approving nod, and her voice grew louder and more confident. “The servants will take food from the cellars, not the kitchens. And no one is to venture beyond their chambers until the palace is free from plague for a fortnight.”

  Panahesi stepped forward, eager to put himself in the center of things. “We should make a sacrifice,” he announced.

  Akhenaten agreed. “A platter of meat and a bowl of Amarna’s best wine outside of every door,” he declared.

  “No!” I moved quickly forward to the dais. “We should hang garlands of mint and rue outside of every door. But that is all.”

  Akhenaten turned on me. “The Sister of Pharaoh thinks she knows more than the High Priest of Aten?”

  Nefertiti’s look was fierce. “She is wise with herbs and she suggests rue, not rotting meat.”

  Akhenaten’s voice grew suspicious. “And how do you know she isn’t trying to rid herself of a sister and brother-in-law? She could take the throne for herself and her son.”

  “Every door will have a garland of mint and rue,” Nefertiti commanded.

  “And the sacrifice?” Panahesi pressed the two Pharaohs of Egypt.

  Akhenaten straightened. “For every chamber that wants protection from Aten,” he said loudly. “Those who wish the great god’s wrath”—his eyes found mine—“will go without.”

  The exit from the Audience Chamber was subdued. As the crowd broke up, Nefertiti touched my hand. “What will you do?”

  “Go back to Baraka, then seal the door and let no one inside.”

  “Because we can’t all be together, can we?” she asked. “To put all of our family in one chamber would be to risk everything.” There was fear in her voice, and it occurred to me that this was the first time she would have only Akhenaten and no one else. Our parents would go to their chambers while Tiye watched over the children.

  I reached out and touched her hand. “We may all survive this separately,” I said.

  “But how do you know? You could be dead of plague and I wouldn’t discover it until a servant reported the Eye of Horus. And my daughters—” Her slight body seemed to grow even smaller. “I will be all alone.”

  It was her greatest fear, and I took her hand and placed it on my heart. “We will all be well,” I promised, “and I shall see you in a fortnight.”

  It was the only time I ever lied to her.

  While Black Death swept through the palace, Panahesi placed offerings of salted meat at the doors of those who wished for Aten’s blessing. In his leopard robes and heaviest golden rings, he moved through the halls, followed by young priests singing praises in their high, sweet voices to Aten. And while the young boys sang, Anubis ravaged.

  When Panahesi came to our door, Heqet ordered him away.

  “Wait!” I flung the door open to confront him. Both Nakhtmin and the milk nurse cried out. “I will hold a sprig of rue before me,” I promised, then faced Panahesi. “Are you placing an offering at the nursery?” I asked.

  He tossed aside his leopard cloak and moved to the next door.

  “Are you placing an offering at the nursery?” I demanded.

  He looked at me with condescension. “Of course I am.”

  “Don’t do it. Don’t place an offering there. I will give you whatever you want,” I said desperately.

  Panahesi looked me up and down. “And what would I want from the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife?”

  “The sister of Pharaoh,” I replied.

  His lips curled. “My own grandson sleeps in the nursery. Do you think I would poison Egypt’s hope for the throne to kill six meaningless girls? Then you are as foolish as I thought you were.”

  “Close the door!” Heqet cried from behind me. “Close the door,” she begged, holding my son with hers. I watched Panahesi disappear down the hall with his bowls full of meat, then I closed us back inside, shoving springs of rue and mint beneath the door and sealing up the crack.

  Two days passed, and there was no sign of the Black Death in the halls of the palace, no charcoal eyes of death on any door. Then, on the third night, just as we had begun to believe that the palace would be protected, Anubis paused to eat at every chamber that had an offering to Aten.

  A servant girl’s screams pierced the silent halls at dawn. She ran by the royal chambers, shouting about the Eye of Horus. “A boy next to the kitchens,” she screamed, terrified. “And the Master of the Horse. Everyone who placed an offering to Aten! Two ambassadors from Abydos. And one from Rhodes. We can smell it from their chambers!”

  “What now?” I whispered from behind our closed door.

  Nakhtmin replied, “Now we wait and see, and hope death only visits those who placed offerings to Aten.”

  But when the people of Amarna saw the death carts rolling toward the palace, fury swept through the city. If Pharaoh’s god wouldn’t protect Amarna’s palace, why would he protect its people? Despite the risk, Egyptians took to the streets, chanting to Amun and shattering Aten’s images. They pressed against the palace gates and demanded to know if the Heretic Pharaoh was still alive. I moved closer to our boarded-up windows and heard the cries. “Do you hear what they’re calling him?” I whispered.

  Heqet’s eyes were wide with fear. She r
eplied, “The Heretic King.”

  “And do you hear what they are chanting?”

  We listened to the sound of shattered stone and hammers. They were defacing Akhenaten’s statues and chanting for the destruction of Amarna itself. “BURN IT DOWN! BURN IT DOWN!”

  I took Baraka and held him to my chest.

  When food came at noon, Nakhtmin opened the door and stepped back in shock. A different servant was carrying our food, trembling and crying.

  “What is it?” Nakhtmin demanded.

  “The nursery,” the girl gasped.

  I handed my son to Heqet and ran toward the door. “What about it?”

  “They’ve all been touched,” she cried, holding a basket out for us. “All the children have been touched!”

  “Who? Who has been touched?” I shouted.

  “The children. The twin princesses are gone. The Princess Meketaten is taken. And Nebnefer, my lady…” She covered her mouth, as if the words that would fall out must be held back in.

  Nakhtmin gripped the girl’s arm. “Died?”

  The servant’s knees grew weak. “No. But sick with plague.”

  “Give us our food and shut the door,” he said quickly.

  “Wait!” I pleaded. “Nefertiti and my parents. Do they have the Eye of Horus?”

  “No,” the girl whispered, “but our Pharaoh will wish she was dead when she hears that her six princesses are reduced to three.”

  I recoiled in horror. “She hasn’t been told?”

  The girl pressed her lips together. The tears came harder and she shook her head. “No one has been told but you, my lady. The servants are afraid of him.”

  Of Akhenaten. I steadied myself against the door: three princesses and soon the Prince of Egypt. And if there was plague in the nursery, what of Tiye? Of Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten? Nakhtmin bolted the door and Heqet was on her feet at once.

  “We shouldn’t eat the food.”

  “It’s not carried by food,” Nakhtmin replied. “If it was, we’d all be dead by now.”

  “Someone must rescue the survivors,” I said.

 
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