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       Nefertiti, p.4

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Palace or harem,” she dismissed, turning back to the mirror, “what does it matter? If I don’t impress him, I will be a figurehead and nothing more. I will pass my days in my chamber and never know what it’s like to rule a kingdom.”

  It frightened me to hear Nefertiti speak like this. I preferred her wild confidence to the reality of what would happen if she failed to become the favorite. Then I saw something move behind us in the mirror and froze. A pair of women had entered our chamber. Nefertiti turned sharply and one of the women stepped forward. She was dressed in the court’s latest fashion, with beaded sandals and small golden earrings. When she smiled, two dimples appeared on her cheeks.

  “We have been instructed to take you to the baths,” she announced, handing us linen towels and soft bathing robes. She was older than Nefertiti, but not by many years. “I am Ipu.” Her black eyes searched us appraisingly, taking in my disheveled hair and Nefertiti’s slenderness. She indicated the woman next to her and smiled. “This is Merit.”

  Merit’s lips curved upward slightly, and I thought her face was haughtier looking than Ipu’s. Yet her bow was deep, and when she came up she flicked her bangled wrist toward the door, indicating the courtyard. “The baths are this way.”

  I thought of the cold copper tubs in Akhmim and my enthusiasm waned. Ipu, however, chattered brightly as we went.

  “We are to become your body servants,” she informed us. “Before you dress or leave your chamber, we will make certain everything is in place. Princess Kiya has her own ladies. Body servants as well as acolytes. The women of the court all follow her lead. However she paints her eyes, they paint their eyes. However she wears her hair, the women of Thebes follow. For now,” she added with a smile.

  A pair of guards ceremoniously pushed open the double doors to the bathhouse, and when the steam cleared from my vision I gasped. Vessels poured water into a long tiled pool that was surrounded by stone benches and sun-warmed stones. Thick plants, their tendrils escaping from vases to wind up the colonnades, grew toward the light.

  Nefertiti surveyed the columned chamber with approval. “Can you believe that Father knew all about this and chose to raise us in Akhmim?” She tossed aside her linen towel.

  We took seats on stone benches, and our new body servants instructed us to lie down.

  “Your shoulders are very tense, my lady.” Ipu pressed down to ease the tension in my back. “Old women have softer shoulders than you!” She laughed, and I was surprised at her familiarity. But as she massaged, I felt the tenseness in my shoulders come undone.

  The beads from Ipu’s wig clinked softly together, and I could smell the perfume from her linen sheath, the scent of lotus blossom. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again there was another woman in the pool. Then almost at once Merit was moving, wrapping my sister in her robe.

  I sat up. “Where—”

  “Shh.” Ipu pressed down on my back.

  I watched them leave, stunned. “Where are they going?”

  “Back to your chamber.”

  “But why?”

  “Because Kiya is here,” Ipu said.

  I looked across the pool at a woman tossing her beaded hair in the water. Her face was small and narrow, her nose slightly crooked, but there was something arresting about her face.

  Ipu clicked her tongue. “I have run out of lavender. Stay here, say nothing. I’ll be back.”

  As Ipu walked away, Kiya moved toward me. She wrapped linen around her waist. Immediately, I sat up and did the same.

  “So you’re the one they’re calling Cat Eyes,” she said. She sat across from me and stared. “I suppose this is your first time in the baths?” She looked beneath my bench and I followed her gaze, seeing what I’d done. I had folded my bathing robe on the ground and now water had come and soaked its edges. “In the palace we have closets for these things.” She grinned, and I looked over to where her robe was hanging and flushed.

  “I didn’t know.”

  She raised her brows. “I would have thought your body servant would have told you. Ipu is famous in Thebes. All the women at court want her for her skill with paint, and the queen gave her to you.” She paused, waiting for my response. When she saw she would get nothing else out of me, she leaned forward. “So tell me, was that your sister?”

  I nodded.

  “She’s very beautiful. She must have been the flower of every garden in Akhmim.” She looked at me from under her long lashes. “I bet she had many admirers. It must have been difficult to leave him behind,” she said intimately, “especially if she was in love.”

  “Nefertiti doesn’t fall in love,” I replied. “Men fall in love with her.”

  “Men? So there’s more than one?”

  “No, just our tutor,” I replied quickly.

  “The tutor?” She sat back.

  “Well, not her tutor. He was mine.”

  Ipu’s steps echoed in the courtyard and at once Kiya was standing, smiling brilliantly. “I’m sure we’ll speak again, little sister.”

  Ipu saw us and alarm spread over her face. Then Kiya slipped out the doors, wearing only her wet linen. “What happened?” Ipu demanded, crossing the baths. “What did Princess Kiya say to you just now?”

  I hesitated. “Only that Nefertiti was beautiful.”

  Ipu narrowed her eyes. “Nothing else?”

  I shook my head earnestly. “No.”

  When I returned to our chamber, Nefertiti was already inside, dressed in a gown that cut below her breasts. Mine was identical, but when I put it on, no two sisters could have been more different. On me, the linen was long and loose, but on Nefertiti the gown hugged her little waist, coming up below her breasts to push them higher. “Wait!” Nefertiti exclaimed as Merit poised the brush above her head. “Where’s the safflower oil?”

  Merit frowned. “My lady?”

  “Safflower oil,” Nefertiti explained, glancing at me. “My sister says to use it. To prevent losing your hair.”

  “We don’t use safflower oil here, my lady. Shall I find some?”

  “Yes.” Nefertiti sat back and watched Merit go. She nodded approvingly at my gown. “You see? You can look nice when you try.”

  “Thanks,” I said flatly.

  It took fully until sunset to prepare us; Ipu and Merit were as capable as my father had promised, and with steady hands they meticulously rouged our lips and applied kohl to our eyes, hennaed our breasts, and at last placed Nubian wigs on our heads.

  “Over my hair?” I complained. Nefertiti glared at me, but the wig looked hot and heavy, full of braids and tiny beads. “Does everyone do this?”

  Ipu stifled a laugh. “Yes, Lady Mutnodjmet. Even the queen.”

  “But how will it stay?”

  “With beeswax and resin.”

  She tied my long hair into a knot and placed the wig on my head with expert care. The effect was surprisingly becoming. The braids framed my face and green beads brought out the color of my eyes; Ipu must have chosen the color for me, for I saw that Nefertiti’s beads were silver. I sat still while my body servant applied a cream across my breasts, then delicately removed the lid from a jar. She poured a handful of glittering fragments into the palm of her hand and then blew softly, and I was covered in gold dust. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and gasped. I was pretty.

  Then Nefertiti stood.

  There was no sign of the boat journey we had taken from Akhmim. She was wide awake with nervousness for this night, and she shimmered with the brilliance of the sun. Her wig came below her shoulders and behind her ears, emphasizing her cheekbones and slender neck. Every strand of hair played music when the beads came together, and I thought there wasn’t a man in any kingdom who could refuse her. Her entire body glittered with gold, even her toes.

  The two body servants stepped back. “She’s magnificent.”

  They switched places to inspect each other’s work, and Merit hummed approval as she looked into my face. “Green eyes,” she said.
“I have never seen eyes this green before.”

  “I rimmed them in malachite,” Ipu replied, proud of her work.

  “It’s beautiful.”

  I sat straighter and my sister cleared her throat, interrupting my moment.

  “My sandals,” she announced.

  Merit fetched sandals encrusted with gold, then Nefertiti turned to me.

  “Tonight I meet the Prince of Egypt,” she said. She held out her arms and her bangles tinkled at her wrists. “How do I look?”

  “Like Isis,” I said honestly.

  We were led to the Great Hall at sunset and could hear the festivities from several courtyards away. As each guest arrived, they were announced, and as we waited in line, Nefertiti squeezed my arm. “Is Father in there yet?” she asked, thinking that because I was tall I could see over the heads of a dozen people.

  “I can’t tell.”

  “Stand on your toes,” she instructed.

  I still couldn’t see. “Don’t worry. Everyone will see your entrance,” I promised.

  We moved up several places in line, and now I could see that the Elder and Queen Tiye were both within. The prince, too, was there. Men kept turning in line to look at my sister, and I realized that my father had chosen correctly when instructing us to arrive after everyone else.

  The line kept moving, and soon the entire hall was spread before us. Of all the rooms I had yet seen in Malkata, it was easily the widest and most beautiful. The herald cleared his throat and stretched out his arm. “The Lady Nefertiti,” he announced grandly, “daughter of Ay, Vizier of Egypt and Overseer of the King’s Great Works.”

  Nefertiti took a step forward and I heard conversation in the Great Hall falter.

  “The Lady Mutnodjmet, sister of Nefertiti, daughter of Ay, Vizier of Egypt and Overseer of the King’s Great Works,” the herald continued.

  Now I stepped forward, and I watched as the guests turned to see Ay’s two daughters, fresh from the tiny city of Akhmim.

  Women stared as we walked to the dais. Our father stood to greet us from behind a long table, and we were brought before the three Horus thrones of Egypt, bowing with our arms outstretched. The Elder sat forward on his chair, and I could see that his sandals were carved of wood and that the bottoms were painted with images of his enemies. He stared at Nefertiti’s round hennaed breasts, though there were enough pairs in the Great Hall to keep him occupied for the entire night.

  “Rise,” the queen commanded.

  As we did so, Prince Amunhotep’s gaze met my sister’s. Nefertiti smiled back, and I noticed that next to him Kiya was watching us closely. Then, because Nefertiti was not yet queen, we were taken to a table directly beneath the dais where the viziers ate and where my father was sitting.

  Nefertiti hissed through her perfect smile, “It’s an insult, to have to sit beneath her.”

  My father stroked my sister’s golden arm. “In a few days, she will be sitting here, and you will be Queen of Egypt.”

  The men at our table talked over each other to ask Nefertiti about her journey to Thebes, if the weather had been good, whether the ship had stopped at any cities along the way. I watched Amunhotep, and his eyes never left my sister’s face. She must have known this, because she laughed and flirted, tossing her long neck back when a handsome son of another vizier approached her and asked about her time in Akhmim. I saw Kiya try to speak with the prince, to tear her husband’s gaze away from my sister, but Amunhotep would not be distracted. I wondered what he thought of his future wife, and I studied the way Nefertiti held men in her power. She spoke softly, so they had to bend closer to hear, and she gave her smiles sparingly, so that when she laughed a man felt like he had been bathed in her light.

  When the food was served and we began to eat, I didn’t know where to look first. The dais, where the Elder leered at naked women whose limber bodies bent backward in dance, or the prince, who looked sharp and controlled, a different man from the one I remembered in the tombs. I looked at Panahesi across the table. The vizier wore the signet ring of the king, and he was tall like my father. But in all other ways they were opposites. Where my father had blue eyes, Panahesi’s were black. Where my father had the high cheekbones Nefertiti had inherited, Panahesi’s face was longer and fuller. Gold rings shone on each of his fingers, whereas my father rarely wore his jewels. I studied our family’s rival until the musicians struck up a tune and everyone left the tables to dance, women in one circle, men in another. My father took my mother’s hand to lead her across the hall, and Kiya watched with critical eyes as Nefertiti got up to join the women.

  “Aren’t you coming?” Nefertiti asked.

  “Of course not!” I stared at the throngs of pretty courtiers’ daughters, all of whom had been raised in Thebes, all of whom would know the court dances. “I don’t know any of the moves. How will you do it?”

  She shrugged. “I’ll watch and learn.”

  Perhaps Merit had given her instructions in private, for I was amazed to see my sister leap and spin in time with the others, a vision of lapis lazuli and gold. There were only a few women sitting, and I noticed with unease that I wasn’t alone at our table. Panahesi remained as well. I glanced at him, the way his long fingers were templed under his clipped black beard, the only vizier at court who let his hair grow long. Then he caught me looking at him and said, “This must be very exciting for you. A young girl from Akhmim, coming to the palace with all its feasting and gold. So why aren’t you dancing?”

  I shifted in my seat. “I don’t know the dances,” I admitted.

  He raised his brows. “Yet your sister seems so natural,” he pointed out, and we be both looked at Nefertiti, who danced as if we’d been attending court functions all our lives. Panahesi looked from her to me and smiled. “You must be half sisters.”

  I hoped Ipu’s rouge hid my mortification, and bit my tongue so I wouldn’t reply with something sharp.

  “So tell me,” Panahesi went on. “With a sister in the king’s harem, who will you marry?”

  My ire rose. “I am only thirteen.”

  “Of course, a little girl still.” His eyes traveled to my chest, and suddenly Nefertiti was beside me. The music had ended.

  “Yes, but better a blossoming woman than a wilted old man.” Her eyes traveled meaningfully to Panahesi’s kilt. Then our father reappeared, taking his seat at the table.

  Panahesi pushed out his chair. “Your children are very charming,” he snapped. “I am sure the prince will come to love them dearly.” He swept away, his white cloak trailing at his heels, and my father demanded, “What happened?”

  “The vizier—” I began, but Nefertiti cut me off.

  “Nothing.”

  My father looked long at Nefertiti.

  “Nothing,” she repeated.

  “I warned you to be careful. The Vizier Panahesi has Amunhotep’s ear.”

  Nefertiti set her jaw, and I could see that she wanted to reply, Not when I become queen, but remained silent. Then she searched the room and became agitated. “Where is the prince?”

  “While you were charming the vizier, he left the hall.”

  Nefertiti faltered. “I won’t meet him tonight?”

  “Not unless he returns,” my father said, and I had never heard his voice so deep or stern. This wasn’t Akhmim. This was the court of Egypt, where mistakes couldn’t be tolerated.

  “Maybe he’ll come back,” I suggested hopefully, and both Nefertiti and my father ignored me. The musky scent of wine filled the hall. Kiya remained surrounded by her women, court ladies who were dressed, as Ipu had told us, in the fashion she dictated: long hair, sleeveless sheaths, and hennaed feet. They hovered around her like moths, her little belly evidence that she, and not my sister, was the future of Egypt.

  “It’s too hot in here,” Nefertiti said, taking my arm. “Come with me.”

  Our father warned sharply, “Do not go far.”

  I followed Nefertiti’s angry footfalls through the hall. “Whe
re are we going?”

  “Anywhere but here.” She stalked through the palace. “He left, Mutnodjmet. He actually left without meeting me. His future queen. The future of Egypt!”

  We went outside and found ourselves at the fountain. We put our hands beneath its flow, letting the water drip from our fingers to our breasts. The rippling water carried the scents of honeysuckle and jasmine. As Nefertiti took off her wig, a familiar voice pierced the darkness.

  “So you are my mother’s choice of wife.”

  Nefertiti looked up and the prince was standing there, clad in his golden pectoral. She wiped any trace of surprise from her face, and at once she was Nefertiti, flirtatious and charming. “Why? Are you shocked?” she asked him.

  “Yes.” But there was nothing airy in Amunhotep’s response. He sat and studied Nefertiti in the moonlight.

  “Is Egypt’s prince tired of the dancing then?” She did it perfectly, hiding her nervousness by sounding coquettish.

  “I am tired of seeing my mother bow to the High Priest of Amun.” When Nefertiti smiled, Amunhotep looked at her sharply. “Is that funny?”

  “Yes. I had thought you had come out here to court your new wife. But if you want to talk politics, I will listen.”

  Amunhotep narrowed his eyes. “Listen the way my father listens? Or the way you listened to your tutor when he professed love in Akhmim?”

  Even in the darkness I could see my sister blanch, and I realized immediately what Kiya had done. I thought I would be ill, but Nefertiti was quick.

  “They say you are a great believer of Aten,” she recovered. “That you plan to build temples when you are made Pharaoh.”

  Amunhotep sat back. “Your father keeps you well informed,” he remarked.

  “I keep myself well informed,” she replied.

  She was smart and she was charming, and even he couldn’t resist the earnestness of her stare in the light of the oil lamps. He moved closer to her. “I want to be known as the People’s Pharaoh,” he admitted. “I want to build the greatest monuments in Egypt to show the people what a leader with vision can do. The Amun priests should never have been allowed to achieve such power. That power was meant for the Pharaohs of Egypt.”

 
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