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       Nefertiti, p.40

           Michelle Moran
 

  Nakhtmin stared fixedly into the room where our son was lying.

  “Someone must rescue the queen and Meritaten,” I repeated. “Ankhesenpaaten—”

  “Is lost.” My husband’s eyes were grim.

  “But she’s still alive!” I protested.

  “And there is nothing we can do for her. For any of them. If three princesses have already died, the nursery must be quarantined.”

  “But we can separate the healthy. We can place them in separate chambers and give them a chance.”

  Nakhtmin was shaking his head. “Pharaoh damned their chances by inviting the Hittites and listening to Panahesi.”

  We all knew when the news arrived that the twin princesses were gone, and the two-year-old Neferuaten and five-year-old Meketaten had also been taken.

  Bells tolled in the courtyards and there were screams in the palace. Women were weeping and calling on Aten to lift the curse that had descended over the palace of Amarna. A servant came and told us that Nubian guards had been sent to rescue the remaining princesses and the queen, but that for Nebnefer it had been too late. I shut the door, and we listened to the chanting beyond the walls of palace. It had never been so loud.

  “They know there’s plague within the palace,” Nakhtmin said, “and they think that if Pharaoh’s own children have been taken, then it must be because of something he’s done.”

  For three days, the chanting never stopped. We could hear angry Egyptians calling for mercy in the name of Amun and cursing the Heretic Pharaoh who had brought them plague. I stood near the window and pressed my face against the wood, closing my eyes and listening to the rhythm of the cries. “He will never be known as Akhenaten the Builder. They will call him the Heretic Pharaoh until eternity.” I thought of Nefertiti alone in her chamber, hearing the news that four of her children had died, and whenever I looked at my son at Heqet’s breast my eyes stung with tears. He was so young. Much too small to fight off something so great, and I held him to me at night and tried to be thankful for the time I had with him.

  In the day, we listened to the roll of the death carts outside the palace. We stopped our quiet games of Senet when the wagons went by, wondering whose body was to be stripped and buried anonymously for eternity, without any cartouche to tell Osiris who they had been when he returned to earth. I begged the servants who delivered our food to bring us more rue, but they all said there was none left in the palace.

  “Have you checked the cellars? It could be stored amid the wine. Look at the barrels and read the names.”

  “I’m sorry, but I cannot read, my lady.”

  I took a reed pen and ink from my box and wrote the name of the herb on the back of one of my medical papyri. I hesitated before tearing it off, then took the strip to the woman in the hall, pressing it into her hand. “This is the herb. Look for this name amid the barrels. If you can find it, take some and put it under your door. Bring as much as you can carry to my sister and to my parents. Bring the rest to us. If there is a second barrel, pass it out among the survivors.”

  She nodded, but before she left I asked her, “What do they give you to walk among these halls of death?”

  She turned back to me and her eyes were haunted. “Gold. Every day they pay me in gold, and I keep the rings in my chamber. If I survive, I will give it to my son to be trained as a scribe. If I catch the Black Death, he will do with it as he pleases.”

  I thought of Baraka and felt my throat begin to close. “And where is your son?”

  The heavy lines around her eyes seemed to soften. “In Thebes. He is only seven years old. We sent him away when there was news of the death.”

  I hesitated. “Did many servants send their children to Thebes?”

  “Yes, my lady. We all thought you would have, too, and the queen—” But she stopped at the look on my face, wondering if she had said too much.

  “Thank you,” I whispered. “If you find the rue, bring it at once.”

  She came the next day with a basket of herbs. “My lady?” She knocked eagerly and Nakhtmin opened the door just enough to see her face. “Will you tell my lady I found the herbs and did just as she said. I placed some under my door and brought a basketful to Vizier Ay.”

  Nakhtmin beckoned me with his hand and I took his place at the door, leaving it open only a crack. “And the queen?”

  The woman hesitated. “Pharaoh Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti?”

  “Yes. Did she take it?”

  The woman lowered her head and I guessed at once. “Pharaoh Akhenaten answered. I want you to go back and place it above their door.”

  The woman gasped. “What if someone sees me?”

  “If anyone asks, tell them you place it on my sister’s orders. Pharaoh will be locked inside. He’ll never know.” The woman backed away and I touched her arm. “No one shall say otherwise,” I promised. “And if he asks the queen, she will know it was me and she’ll say she commanded it.”

  But the woman still hesitated, and I realized what she was waiting for.

  I frowned sharply. “I have nothing to give you.”

  She looked down at the bracelet I was wearing. It wasn’t gold, but it was made of turquoise stones, a gift from Nefertiti. I took it off and pressed it roughly into her hands. “You will hang it everywhere,” I made her swear. “You will twine it into garlands.”

  She placed the bracelet into her basket. “Of course, my lady.”

  I didn’t see the servant again for seven days. I had to trust she’d done what I’d paid her to do, while the cries in the palace halls grew more urgent. I could hear women in sandals running down the tiled halls. Some beat on locked doors in their delirium, and I could imagine their terror. But we kept our doors locked and didn’t leave our chambers. On the eighth night after the servant appeared, a woman whose child had died beat on our door in delirium and cried desperately for us to open it to her.

  “She doesn’t want to die alone,” I realized, and began holding Baraka closer to my chest, knowing that our time together was short.

  “You can’t press him so tightly. You will hurt him,” Heqet remonstrated.

  But my panic rose. “The food won’t last. We will die of hunger if we don’t die of plague. And our tomb is not finished! A sarcophagus hasn’t even been carved for Baraka.”

  Heqet’s eyes grew wide. “Or my son,” she whispered. “If we die, we will all die nameless in here.”

  Nakhtmin shook his head furiously. “I won’t let it happen. I won’t let it happen to you. To either of you.”

  I looked down at our son. “We should pray to Amun.”

  Heqet gasped. “In Pharaoh’s palace?”

  I closed my eyes. “Yes. In Pharaoh’s palace.”

  When the sun rose the next morning, there were no new signs of plague, no fresh Eyes of Horus. We waited another day, then two, and slowly, when seven days had passed and all we had left to eat was stale bread, courtiers began to emerge from their chambers.

  I saw the servant who had risked her life for gold.

  She had survived the Black Death. She would send her son to school to become a scribe. But so many others were not so lucky. Broken mothers came stumbling out of their chambers, and fathers who’d lost their only sons. I saw Maya, bent and frailer than he’d ever looked. The light had gone out of his eyes. As we emerged, there were whispers that the Pharaoh of Egypt was ill.

  “With plague?”

  “No, my lady,” the woman who’d placed rue over my sister’s door said quietly. “With an illness of the mind.”

  Bells tolled in the palace, calling viziers and courtiers and all the servants that were left back into the Audience Chamber. Now, in the room where hundreds had once stood, only a handful remained. Immediately, I searched the chamber for my parents.

  “Mawat!” I rushed into my mother’s arms and she wept over Baraka, pressing him to her chest until he let out a cry. Nefertiti looked down from her throne at us. I could not read the expression on her face, but she held Ak
henaten’s hand in hers. Below them sat Meritaten and Ankhesenpaaten. Their family of eight had been reduced to four, and even young Ankhesenpaaten sat still and silent, muted by what she must have seen in the nursery while her sisters lay dying.

  “We should leave Amarna,” my mother whispered. “We should leave this palace for the palace in Thebes. Terrible things have happened here.” I thought she meant the curse of the plague, but when my father clenched his jaw, I realized that they were referring to something more.

  I looked between them. “What do you mean?”

  We moved away from the dais so we wouldn’t be overheard. “On the seventh day of quarantine, Pharaoh insulted the king of Assyria.”

  “The king?” Nakhtmin repeated.

  “Yes. The king of Assyria sent a messenger with a request for three ebony thrones. When the messenger came, he saw that there was plague and hesitated. But he had orders from his king and he came into the city, traveling all the way to the palace.”

  “Then guards called on Pharaoh instead of your father and Akhenaten sent him away,” my mother blurted. “With a gift.”

  Nakhtmin heard the ominous timbre of my mother’s voice and glanced at my father. “What kind of gift?”

  My father closed his eyes. “A child’s arm riddled with plague. From the nursery.”

  I stepped back; Nakhtmin’s face became grave. “The Assyrians have thousands of troops,” he warned darkly.

  My father nodded. His tone was certain. “They will move against Egypt.”

  “It’s too dangerous to be here,” Nakhtmin stated, and I knew that it was no longer my decision to stay. We had lived through Black Death. Amun would not be so generous when the Assyrians fell upon Egypt. He looked at me. “There’s nothing more we can do.”

  “Wait for the funeral. Please,” Nefertiti begged.

  “We are going tonight. The Assyrians will be on Egypt’s doorstep and your army is not prepared to stop them.”

  “But there will be a funeral tonight,” she said desperately. “Stay with me,” she whispered. “They are my children. Your nieces.”

  I hesitated at the look in her eyes. I asked quietly, “What have they done with the bodies?”

  Nefertiti trembled. “Prepared them for burning.”

  I covered my mouth. “No burial?”

  “They were victims of plague,” she said savagely, but her rage was not directed at me. I thought of Meketaten and little Neferuaten, the flames rising around them as they burned on a pyre. Princesses of Egypt.

  “But we will leave for Thebes immediately after,” I said sternly. “And if our parents are wise, they will take Tiye and come with us.” Our aunt was still sick, but not with the plague. It was a sickening of the heart. She’d watched over the nursery where Anubis had struck. She’d seen her grandchildren sicken and die. Meketaten, Neferuaten, Nebnefer. And there’d been others: the sons and daughters of wealthy merchantmen and scribes. When I went to see her, my eyes burned with tears. “Stay with us,” I’d begged her. “Don’t you want to stay to plant in your garden?” She’d shaken her head and grasped my hand. “Soon, I will plant in the gardens of eternity.”

  Nefertiti was shaking her head at me now. “Father’s not going anywhere,” she said. “He wouldn’t leave me.”

  “The people are angry,” I warned. “They are dying of plague, and they blame it on their Pharaohs. They believe Aten has turned his back on them.”

  “I can’t hear this. I can’t hear it now,” she swore.

  “Then you will hear it when it is too late!”

  “I can fix it!”

  “How? When the king of Assyria unwraps his gift, what will you do? Do you think the kingdoms of the East haven’t heard of Akhenaten’s rashness? Why do you think they write to Father and not to him?”

  “He has visions…Visions of greatness, Mutnodjmet. He wants to be loved…so much.”

  “The way you do.”

  “It’s not the same.”

  “No, because he will do anything for it. And you are rational. You are our father’s daughter, which is why he likes you best.” She started to speak, but I carried on. “Which is why he will stay here with you, even if the city falls down around him. Even if all of us were to die. But is it worth it?” I demanded. “Is immortality worth this price?”

  She didn’t answer. I shook my head sadly and walked away. I found Nakhtmin with Baraka in the hall leading to our chamber.

  “Heqet will come with us,” he said. “There are no barges going in or out of Amarna. We can go by horse, then find a barge outside the city. We will go nowhere near the workers’ houses. We’ll ride straight for the gates and the men will let us through,” he said confidently.

  “But we can’t go until night,” I told him. “There will be a funeral. I know what you are about to say, but she can’t face it alone. She can’t.”

  “It will be a funeral pyre, then?” he asked.

  I nodded. “Little Neferuaten…” My lips trembled, looking at Baraka in his father’s strong arms. “I don’t know how she stands it.”

  “She stands it because she is strong and there is nothing else to do. Your sister is no fool, for all that she supports Akhenaten. And she is no weakling.”

  “I could not bear it,” I said, and he put his hand under my chin, raising my eyes to his.

  “You will never have to. I am taking you away from here, whether you want it or no.”

  “After the funeral.”

  Bells tolled when the sky had grown dark, and the priests of Aten who had lived through the plague gathered in the courtyard in the palace of Amarna. We all wore garlands of rue. A pyre had been built by nervous servants—plague could be lurking in any stone—but we gathered together, veils covering our faces, and the women cried. My mother leaned against my shoulder for support, while my father stood beside Nefertiti, the two of them defiant towers of strength. The sound of weeping from Kiya was unbearable to hear. She was heavily pregnant, and I was surprised that in her weakened state she had survived the plague.

  But then, little Baraka had survived it, too.

  I watched her deep, heart-wrenching sobs, and I thought of how cruel it was that no one was with her but the few women she had left. Panahesi stood near the pyre in his robes of office, while Nefertiti held on to Akhenaten’s hand, afraid to let it go.

  “Do you think they are with Aten?” Ankhesenpaaten asked. She was a different child now, sullen and withdrawn.

  “I think they are with Aten.” I pressed my lips together at the lie. “Yes.”

  She turned her face back to the flames, which had begun on the farthest side of the pyre. The bodies had been wrapped in sheets of linen, sprinkled with rue. The flames leaped toward the sky, engulfing the princesses in fire. Flesh cracked and sizzled and the smell was acrid. Then Prince Nebnefer’s clothes caught flame and the shroud around his body disintegrated, revealing his face. A scream split the courtyard and Panahesi grabbed Kiya. Akhenaten looked between his grieving wives and something in him broke.

  “This is the fault of Amun worshippers,” he shouted. “We have been betrayed. This is Aten’s punishment,” he cried, his sanity breaking. “Find me a chariot!” His Nubian guards stood back. “A chariot!” he shouted. “I will go to every home and break down their doors in search of their false gods. They are worshipping Amun in my city. In Aten’s city!”

  He was mad. The rage showed in his face.

  Nefertiti gripped his arm. “Stop!” she cried.

  “I will tear apart the families whose houses have false gods,” he swore. He wrenched his arm away from her, throwing back his cloak and jumping into the chariot that had been brought. The two horses whinnied nervously and he raised the whips. “Guards!” he commanded, but they stood back, afraid. There was plague in the city, and no one wanted to risk their life. When Akhenaten saw that no one would join him, he commanded the gates to be opened regardless.

  “You will keep them shut!” Nefertiti’s voice boomed.


  The guards looked between the Pharaohs, wondering whom to obey. Then Akhenaten galloped toward the heavy wooden gates and Nefertiti shrieked, “Open them! Open the gates!” before he crashed.

  Akhenaten never stopped. The gates swung open in time to let the rider and his wild chariot through. Then the Pharaoh of Egypt disappeared into the night as the flames rose higher in the courtyard, engulfing the bodies of his children.

  Nefertiti stepped forward into the light. The crook and flail of power were in her right hand. She clenched the left. “Bring him back to me!”

  The guards hesitated.

  “I am the Pharaoh of Egypt. Bring him back”—her voice rose—“before Amarna is destroyed!”

  A servant rushed out from the palace weeping, and the courtyard seemed to turn as one.

  The girl fell before Nefertiti. “Your Highness, the Dowager Queen has passed.”

  The keening in the courtyard now grew to hysteria, and my father moved to Nefertiti’s side, speaking quickly. “If he returns, it could be with plague. We must release the inhabitants of the palace. Find barges and get them outside the city. The servants will remain. Your children—”

  “Must go,” Nefertiti said selflessly. “Mutnodjmet can take them.”

  I was shocked.

  “No!” Meritaten cried. “I won’t leave you, mawat. I won’t leave Amarna without you.”

  My father assessed Meritaten’s will.

  “I won’t leave the palace,” Meritaten swore.

  He nodded. “Send Ankhesenpaaten with Mutnodjmet, then. They can stay in Thebes until Akhenaten regains control.” My father looked toward the palace. He closed his eyes briefly, the only respite he was allowed. “Now I must see my sister,” he said.

  I could see the physical toll that power had taken on my family. My father’s eyes appeared sunken in his face, and Nefertiti seemed to shrink beneath the weight of so much loss. And now the woman who had brought us to power was gone. I would never see her sharp eyes again, or listen to her breathy laugh in my garden. She would never look at me with the power to see my thoughts, as if she was reading them as plainly as a scroll. The woman who had reigned at the side of the Elder, Amunhotep the Magnificent, and taken his role when he was too tired to want to rule, had passed into the Afterlife.

 
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