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       Nefertiti, p.42

           Michelle Moran

  I looked at my sister with the crook and flail of Egypt in her hand, still worried that she was going to be alone. “I have two sons across the river waiting for me.”

  “But you’ll come back in the evenings, won’t you? You’ll come every day?”

  “We’ll come every evening,” I promised. “I’ll bring Baraka and Tut so they can grow up with their cousins.” She frowned deeply, and I said, “He’s my son, Nefertiti. He’s no more a Prince of Egypt now than Baraka or Nakhtmin.”

  Nefertiti bit back what she wanted to say. “But you will come,” she repeated.

  “Yes,” I replied, and added to myself, As I have always done.

  Heqet was singing softly to Baraka and little Tutankhamun, hovering in the open window that looked out over the sweeping gardens. She looked up when she heard our footfalls along the path, then rushed out to the loggia to greet us.

  “A woman named Ipu was here to see you, my lady. She left this.” Heqet indicated a small box on the table. “She’s says it’s something new she found. She thought you might want it for your garden.”

  I opened the wooden lid, and inside was a small, pink flower still attached to its root. It was in bloom, and I ran my finger over its delicate petals. They were long and smooth, the texture of linen that’s been woven very fine. I studied its perfect color, the shade of a setting sun. To have my garden, my home, and my family, to be able to step into the sunshine and feel the warm soil beneath my hands and the life growing beneath my feet…

  Heqet stopped what she was doing. “Are you well, my lady?”

  “Yes. I am simply glad to be home.”

  Heqet straightened, surveying the painted walls and linen baskets. “And what will you do now without the court?” she asked me.

  “I will fulfill my destiny,” I said. “In my children’s nursery and in my garden.”

  I knocked on the painted door with its carved image of a ship at sea.

  “My lady!” Ipu’s squeal of pleasure echoed in the streets.

  Her cheeks were plumper and her hair had grown past her shoulders. The wail of a tiny voice broke out behind her, where Kamoses was waiting in his father’s arms. I was astonished at how he had grown. “Look how big!”

  “More than a year now. And he’s such a pleasure that I’m ready to do it again.” She rested her hand on her stomach and smiled. “In Mesore.”

  I gasped. “Oh, Ipu…”

  “Look who’s talking!” she cried. “You are the mother of two sons.” She stepped back to look at me and beamed. “Oh, my lady. After so long.” She embraced me, then ushered me inside.

  “Welcome home,” Djedi said. He looked healthy and contented. Plague had not come to any city but Amarna, and I tried not to think what that meant.

  “So this is Kamoses,” I said, trying to imagine that this was the same baby I had waved farewell to a year ago on the quay. “He is handsome. He has your nose,” I told Ipu.

  “And Djedi’s eyes. The midwife says he’ll be wealthy.”

  “How does she know?”

  “Because his first cry was nub.”

  I laughed loudly. “Gold? I have missed you, Ipu.”

  “And Ipu has missed you.” Djedi grinned. “You were all she would talk about.”

  “Amarna is all anyone would talk about,” she confided. “No one knew what to believe. First a Durbar, then a coregent, then plague. Is it true”—her voice fell—“that Pharaoh sent an arm to the king of Assyria?” I nodded, and Ipu shook her head. “Tell me everything. I want to know everything.”

  So I told her of the Durbar and my sister’s coronation, then of the Black Death and Akhenaten’s offering. I described the deaths of Nefertiti’s youngest, the death of Nebnefer, and finally Tiye. When I spoke of Akhenaten’s ride through the city, Djedi placed Kamoses in his crib. He could not believe he had gone out unescorted to tear down forbidden images of Amun. “Pharaoh was full of rage,” I told him, but it was impossible to explain the bitterness in Akhenaten’s eyes when he watched his children burn in the city he had built for Aten.

  “When they forbid the barges from leaving Amarna, we thought everyone inside would perish,” Ipu admitted, and her eyes grew teary. “Including you and Nakhtmin.”

  I embraced her. “And we had no way of knowing whether the plague had spread. It was frightening for us, too.” Something rubbed against my leg and a large, heavy body appeared in my lap. “Bastet,” I exclaimed. I looked at Ipu.

  “He followed me from the workshop one evening and never returned. You can take him back now,” she added, but I saw the hesitation in her eyes.

  “Of course not. You must keep him,” I said earnestly. “He would have died with all the other palace cats had you not saved him.”

  “They slaughtered the miws?”

  “Every animal in the palace was put to death.”

  “Where did they bury the bodies?” Djedi asked.

  “Carts came and took them away.”

  “Without amulets?” Djedi whispered.

  “And without tombs?” Ipu cried.

  “Mass graves. Holes dug in the ground and covered with sand.”

  The pair of them were silent.

  We walked to my house later in the warm evening, and Ipu wanted to hear the story for a second time of Kiya’s deathbed request that I should take her child. I told it again, and even the fussy Kamoses was quiet, as if he too were spellbound by the tale.

  “Nothing has happened as I imagined it,” said Ipu. “Egypt is a land turned upside down. You are raising a Prince of Egypt,” she marveled.

  “No, not a Prince of Egypt,” I said firmly. “Just a little boy.”

  We fell into a quiet routine in Thebes, and there was a peaceful rhythm to our life. Men came from around the city to visit Nakhtmin, telling him tales of what had been happening in Thebes while Amarna was being ravaged by plague. Then they tried to tempt him back to war, saying it was a waste of his time to teach soldiers when he could be leading men to victory in Rhodes. The soldiers stood outside our house and shook their heads and looked accusingly at me.

  “He is the finest general in Pharaoh’s army,” Djedefhor said. “The men can’t understand why he won’t return. They begged me to come here and ask him. Horemheb is hard. He is mirthless, and the men don’t love him the way they love Nakhtmin.”

  I thought again of my father’s words, Do you trust him? and looked out to where Nakhtmin was instructing my sister’s soldiers. The muscles were hard beneath his kilt, his brow was seeded with sweat. I smiled. “They will simply have to content themselves with the knowledge that he’s turning their boys into men.”

  “But what will you do while you’re not at court and he’s not fighting?”

  I laughed at the earnestness in Djedefhor’s question. “Live a quiet life,” I said. “And someday Nakhtmin will teach our sons to be soldiers or scribes.”

  Djedefhor looked at me strangely. “Sons?”

  “There is Tut,” I reminded him sharply.

  We both stared across the garden to where two boys were crawling beneath the shade of an old acacia. Heqet was there, watching over them. “Kiya’s son,” he said, then added, “a possible Prince of Egypt.”

  “Never,” I replied. “He’ll be raised here, away from court. Meritaten will be Pharaoh next, then Ankhesenamun.”

  I knew what he wanted to say. That there had to be a prince for Egypt, that there had always been and there always would be. But instead he said simply, “I assume you’ve heard of the deal that’s been struck with the Aten priests?”

  “That they were given a fortnight to shed their robes for the vestments of Amun?”

  “Yes. And some refused.”

  I glanced at him in shock. “But they can’t refuse. They’ll have nowhere to go.”

  “They will have the homes of Aten believers. There are many, my lady. Children who never knew Amun and followers who only left Amarna when their houses were burned. There could be trouble from them.”

  That evening, I entered the Hall of Books in the palace and a young scribe led me to my father. His back was turned to me. In his hand was a sheaf of papyrus bound by leather. “Father?”

  “Mutnodjmet.” He turned around. “I thought I heard you.”

  “What are you doing?”

  He put down the sheaf of papers and sighed. “Studying maps of Assyria.”

  “Then seven thrones were not enough?”

  “No. They have allied themselves with the Hittites,” he replied.

  I sighed. “Akhenaten did great damage. Why did Nefertiti allow it?”

  “Your sister did more than you realize. She kept him occupied while your aunt and I dealt with Egypt’s affairs. She took gold from the Temple of Aten so that we could keep the army fed and pay foreign kings to remain our allies. Loyalty does not come cheap.”

  “Akhenaten never paid the army?”

  “No.” My father passed me a significant glance. “Nefertiti did.”

  We stood in silence. “How did she hide the gold?” I asked him.

  “She disguised it as projects for Aten. And it was not just a handful of copper deben. It was chests full of gold.”

  “And what of the Aten priests now? A soldier tells me they will be trouble for Nefertiti.”

  “If she continues to meet with them.”

  “On her own?” My voice was too loud. It echoed in the Per Medjat.

  “And against my advice.” But my father didn’t ask me to try and change her mind. She was twenty-seven years old. A woman and a king.

  “But why would she meet with them?”

  “Why?” He heaved a heavy sigh of his own. “Why? I don’t know. A sense that she owes them something, perhaps.”

  “But what could she owe them? They are killing Amun priests. Perhaps she is hoping to bring it to an end,” I suggested.

  “The fighting? That will never end. They believe that Aten is the god of Egypt, and the people believe in the power of Amun.”

  I settled back against the wall. “So there will always be war.”

  “Always. So be thankful you have the peace of your garden. Perhaps your mother and I will take refuge there when the cares of Thebes become too heavy.”

  “As they are now?”

  He smiled grimly. “As they are now.”

  Chapter Thirty-One

  1335 BCE

  Akhet, Season of Overflow

  BARAKA’S MUSCLES GREW taut as he drew back a feathered arrow, sending it swiftly to its target at the edge of the courtyard in a flash of red and gold.

  “Well done,” Nakhtmin praised.

  Baraka gave a satisfied nod from the grass. He looked like his father, with the same wide shoulders and crop of dark hair brushing the nape of his neck. It was impossible to tell that he was only nine. He could have been a boy of eleven or twelve.

  “It’s your turn now,” Baraka said, moving back so Ankhesenamun could step up to the target.

  “I bet I can hit closer than Tut,” she bragged. “While you’ve been studying, I’ve been out here practicing with Nakhtmin,” she taunted Tutankhamun. She drew her small arm back and the bow tautened.

  “Steady,” Baraka advised.

  The arrow flew, slicing very near the center of the target, and Ankhesenamun let out a squeal of delight. Baraka covered his ears.

  “Very good,” Nakhtmin said approvingly. “You’re becoming a fine soldier, Ankhesenamun. Soon your mother is going to have to let you practice with my students.”

  “I’d like to be a soldier someday!”

  Nakhtmin looked across the bower at me. No child could have been more different from her father.

  “Come,” she crowed. “Let’s row back to the palace and show my mother what I can do.”

  “Do you think the queen will like that?” Baraka asked practically.

  Ankhesenamun pushed back her forelock of youth. In two years, she would shave it and become a woman. “Who cares what Meritaten thinks? All she does is read scrolls and recite poetry. She’s like Tutankhamun,” she accused, and Tut took offense.

  “I’m nothing like the queen!” he protested. “I hunt every day.”

  “You also recite poetry,” she goaded.

  “So what? Our father wrote poetry.”

  Baraka froze, and Ankhesenamun covered her mouth with her hands.

  “It’s fine,” Nakhtmin cut in swiftly.

  “But Tut said…” Ankhesenamun didn’t finish.

  “It doesn’t matter what Tut said. Why don’t we visit your mother now and show her what you can do? She’ll be waiting for us anyway.”

  The sun had nearly set. We would be expected soon in the Great Hall of Malkata. While a pair of servants rowed across the river, Ankhesenamun leaned over in the bark.

  “You shouldn’t have said that about Father.”

  “Leave him alone,” Baraka said, defending Tut. “He was your father, too.”

  She set her jaw. “I bet Mutnodjmet wouldn’t approve of it.”

  “Approve of what?” I smiled innocently, and all three children looked up at me.

  Ankhesenamun did her best to look morally superior. “Speaking about the Heretic King. I know you wouldn’t approve of it,” she said. “My mother says he shouldn’t be spoken about, especially in public, and that he’s the reason there’s rebellion in Lower Egypt. If he hadn’t abandoned the gods and created the Aten priests, they wouldn’t be fighting in the north, and our priests in Thebes would be safe at night because there’d be no one attacking them or leading revolts.”

  “Your mother said all that?” Nakhtmin asked curiously.

  “Yes.” But Ankhesenamun was still staring at me, waiting for my answer, and eventually everyone in the bark turned to see what I would say.

  “Perhaps it is better not to speak of the Pharaoh Akhenaten in public,” I admitted and Ankhesenamun gave Tutankhamun a wise look. “However, there is nothing wrong with remembering the good a person did.”

  Ankhesenamun stared at me. Nakhtmin raised his brows.

  “He wrote poetry.” I hesitated. “And he was skilled with the bow and arrow. That is where the two of you might have inherited it from.”

  “My mother was good with the bow,” Ankhesenamun contradicted.

  “That’s true, but Akhenaten was especially swift.” And at once, I thought of the woman in the Audience Chamber trying to save her child by fleeing from the plague. I drew my cloak closer to my chest, and Ankhesenamun leaned over in the bark as if there was an important question she needed answered.

  “Was my father really a heretic?” she asked.

  I shifted uncomfortably on my cushion, avoiding Nakhtmin’s gaze. “He was a great believer in Aten,” I said carefully.

  “Is that why mother meets with the Aten priests, even though Vizier Ay says that it’s dangerous? Is it because our father believed in Aten and she feels sorry?”

  I met Nakhtmin’s glance. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t know why she meets with them when everyone’s told her it’s a dangerous thing. Maybe she still feels sad.”

  “About what?”

  “About being deceived by Aten when Amun is the great god of Egypt,” Baraka declared.

  Nefertiti met with the Aten priests despite her viziers’ protests, against all common sense and my father’s warnings.

  “I will fix this,” she swore, walking the battlements of the new wall around Thebes. With age, her delicate beauty had hardened into something knifelike and more defining. She was thirty-one now.

  “But what if there’s no fixing it?” I asked. “They’re criminals. They want power, and they’re willing to kill to have it again.”

  She shook her head firmly. “I won’t allow there to be discord in Egypt.”

  “But there will always be discord. There will always be disagreement.”

  “Not in my Egypt! I will talk with them.” She gripped the crenellations and stared out beyond the Nile. The sun beat down on the freshly cut stones, baking them in t
he heat of Mesore. From here we could see the entire city: my villa across the River Nile, the towering images of Amunhotep the Elder, the Temple of Amun, and hundreds of royal statuary.

  “What can talking do? These men have killed Amun priests,” I said. “They should be sent to the quarries.”

  “I’m the People’s Queen. There shall be peace in this land while I’m its ruler.”

  “And how will meeting with them achieve it?”

  “Perhaps I can convince them to turn to Amun. To stop fighting.” Nefertiti glanced sideways at me to see that I was listening. “I have so many visions, Mutnodjmet. Of an Egypt that stretches again from the Euphrates in the east to Kush in the south. Of a land where Amun and Aten can both reside. Tomorrow, I’m meeting with two Aten priests. They have petitioned to have a temple—”

  “Nefertiti,” I said firmly.

  “I can’t grant them the use of Amun’s temples. But their own temple…Why not?”

  “Because they will still want more!”

  She grew quiet, looking out over Thebes. “I will make peace with them,” she vowed.

  The next evening I rushed into the Per Medjat and my father looked up, startled. “Have you seen Nefertiti?” I asked.

  “She’s in the Audience Chamber. With Meritaten.”

  “No. Thutmose saw her with two Aten priests. She swore she would meet us in the Great Hall, but she isn’t there!”

  His eyes met mine, and then we were running. The hour for petitioners was already done. We burst through the doors of the Great Hall and the palace guards tensed. “Find Pharaoh!” my father shouted, and the fear in his voice sent a dozen men springing into action, opening doors, shouting Nefertiti’s name. From down the hall, we could hear the men calling, “Your Majesty!” as we opened doors, finding nobody.

  A sick feeling bore into my stomach, a feeling I’d never had before.

  Nakhtmin found us in the Great Hall. “What’s happened?”

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