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       Nefertiti, p.5

           Michelle Moran

  There was the crunch of gravel and the three of us turned.

  “Amunhotep.” Kiya stepped into the light. “Everyone is wondering where the Prince of Egypt has been.” She smiled lovingly at him, as if his disappearing was both quaint and wonderful. She held out her arm. “Shall we return?”

  Nefertiti nodded. “Until tomorrow then,” she promised, and her voice was low and sultry, as if there was a great secret between them.

  Kiya’s arm tightened around Amunhotep’s. “I felt our child move tonight. A son,” she swore, loud enough for Nefertiti to hear as she steered him away. “I can already feel him.”

  We watched them walk into the darkness, and I noticed how tightly Kiya was holding on to Amunhotep, as if he might disappear at any moment.

  Nefertiti seethed, her sandals slapping across the tiles to our chamber. “What will he do in two days when we are united before Amun? Will he bring Kiya along and ignore me then, too?”

  My father stood and closed the door. “You must lower your voice. There are spies throughout the palace.”

  Nefertiti sank onto a leather cushion and put her head against my mother’s shoulder. “I was humiliated, mawat. He sees me as just another wife.”

  My mother caressed my sister’s dark hair. “He will come around.”

  “When?” Nefertiti sat up. “When?”

  “Tomorrow,” my father said with certainty. “And if not tomorrow, then we will make him see that you are more than just his mother’s choice of wife.”

  Chapter Three

  twentieth of Pharmuthi

  THE CORONATION OF Egypt’s new Pharaoh and his queen was to take place on the twenty-first of Pharmuthi, and my father did everything in his power to put Nefertiti before Amunhotep’s eye.

  In the morning we entered the wide, bronze gates into the towering Arena that Amunhotep III had built for Amun. Nefertiti squeezed my hand, for neither of us had ever seen anything so high or magnificent. A forest of columns encircled a sandy pit and the painted walls stretched to the sky. On the lowest tier of seats, the nobility assembled while their servants held drinks and honeyed cakes. This was where Amunhotep liked to ride in the morning, so we were there, watching the prince sweep around the tracks in his golden chariot. But Kiya was there as well, and the Vizier Panahesi, so that when the prince was finished playing warrior an hour later it was Kiya he kissed, and Kiya he laughed with, while Nefertiti had to smile and look pleased before her rival.

  At noon, we were in the Great Hall again, sitting below the dais, eating and chatting as happily as if everything was going our family’s way. Nefertiti laughed and flirted, and I noticed that the more Amunhotep saw of his future wife, the less he could stop watching her. Kiya had none of Nefertiti’s sleek charm. She couldn’t turn a room the way Nefertiti did. But when the afternoon meal was finished, no further words had passed between the prince and Nefertiti, and when we returned to our chamber, my sister was silent. Ipu and Merit rushed around us, and I watched Nefertiti with a growing unease. Amunhotep still saw her as his mother’s choice of wife, and I couldn’t see how my father planned to change that.

  “What will you do?” I finally asked.

  “Repeat to me what he said in the tombs.”

  Merit stiffened, poised to apply gold across Nefertiti’s chest. It was bad luck to speak of what happened below the earth.

  I hesitated. “He said he would never bow to his brother. Never bow to Amun.”

  “And by the fountain he said he wanted to be loved by the people,” Nefertiti stressed. “That he wanted to be the People’s Pharaoh.”

  I nodded slowly.

  “Mutnodjmet, go and find Father,” she said.

  “Now?” Ipu was applying kohl to my brows. “Can’t it wait until after?”

  “After what?” she asked tersely. “Kiya has birthed him a son?”

  “Well, what are you going to tell him?” I demanded. I wasn’t going to leave until I’d determined that it was worth disturbing our father.

  “I am going to tell him how we can turn the prince.”

  I sighed, so she would know I wasn’t happy about it, then I went into the hall, but I couldn’t find my father. He wasn’t in his room or in the Audience Chamber. I searched the gardens, made my way into the labyrinthine kitchens, then rushed into the courtyard at the front of the palace, where a servant stopped me and asked what I needed.

  “I’m searching for the Vizier Ay.”

  The old man smiled. “He’s in the same place he always is, my lady.”

  “And where is that?”

  “In the Per Medjat.”

  “The what?”

  “The Hall of Books.” He could see that I did not know where this was and so he asked, “Shall I show you the way, my lady?”

  “Yes.” I hurried after him into the palace, past the Great Hall toward the Audience Chamber. For an elderly man, he was spry. He stopped short at a pair of wooden doors, and it was clear he could not go inside.

  “In there?”

  “Yes, my lady. The Per Medjat.”

  He waited to see whether I would knock or go in. I pushed open the doors and stood gazing up at the most magnificent room in all of Malkata. I had never before seen a hall of books. Two twisting flights of stairs in polished wood wound toward the ceiling, and everywhere there were scrolls bound in leather, held together by twine—they must have contained all the wisdom of the Pharaohs. My father sat at a cedar table. The queen was there, too, as well as my mother, and all of their voices were quick and tense. When I stepped inside, all three of them stopping speaking. Then two pairs of sharp blue eyes focused on me; I had not seen the strong resemblance between my father and his sister until then.

  I cleared my throat and directed my announcement to my father. “Nefertiti would like to speak with you,” I told him.

  Ay turned to his sister. “We’ll speak on this later. Perhaps today will change things.” He glanced at me. “What does she want?”

  “To tell you something about the prince,” I said as we left the Per Medjat and entered the hall. “She thinks she has found a way to turn him.”

  Inside our chamber, Ipu and Merit had finished dressing Nefertiti. Matching cartouches jangled at her wrists, and there were earrings in her ears. I paused, then gasped and rushed over to see what our body servants had done. They had pierced her lobes not once, but twice. “Who pierces them twice?”

  “I do,” she said, lifting her chin.

  I turned to my father, who only looked approvingly at her. “You have news about the prince?” he asked.

  Nefertiti indicated our body servants with her eyes.

  “From now on your body servants are your closest friends. Kiya has her women, and these are yours. Merit as well as Ipu were both chosen with caution. They are loyal.”

  I glanced across the room at Merit. She rarely smiled, and I was thankful my father had chosen Ipu, the merrier one, for me.

  “Ipu,” my father instructed quietly, “stand by the door and talk softly with Merit.” He pulled Nefertiti to the side, and I could hear only pieces of what they said together. At one point, my father looked immensely pleased. He patted Nefertiti’s shoulder and replied, “Very good. I thought the same.” Then they went to the door and he addressed Merit. “Come. I have a job.” And the three of them left the chamber.

  I stared at Ipu. “What’s happening? Where did they go?”

  “To turn the prince away from Kiya,” she said. She indicated the leather stool where she could finish my kohl, and I sat. “I only hope they succeed,” she confided.

  I was curious. “Why?”

  She took out her brush and uncapped a glass vial. “Before she wed the prince, Kiya and Merit were good friends.” I raised my eyebrows and Ipu nodded. “They were raised together, both the daughters of scribes. But Panahesi became a High Vizier and moved Kiya into the palace. It’s how she met the prince. Then Merit’s father was to become a lesser vizier at the palace as well. The Elder wanted to promot
e him. But Panahesi told the Elder he wasn’t trustworthy.”

  I sucked in my breath. “How devious.”

  “Kiya was afraid that with Merit in the palace, the prince would lose interest in her. But Merit always had another man in mind. She was to marry Vizier Kemosiri’s son, Heru, as soon as her father received his promotion. When it didn’t happen, Heru told his father he was still in love with Merit, daughter of a scribe or no. They kept writing, hoping the Elder would discover that he’d been wrong. Then one day, the letters stopped coming.”

  I sat forward in my chair. “What happened?”

  “Merit didn’t know. Later, she discovered that Kiya had turned Heru.”

  I didn’t understand. “Turned?”

  “Turned his eye. Even though Kiya knew she was going to marry the prince.”

  “How cruel.” But I could imagine Kiya smiling sweetly, the same way she had smiled at me in the baths. All the girls must be in love with you, she’d probably told him.

  Ipu clicked her tongue softly, holding up the pomegranate paste. “Of course, once Kiya was married, what did it matter if Merit came to the palace?”

  “And her father?”

  “Oh.” Ipu’s dimples disappeared. “He’s still a scribe.” Her voice grew low and hard. “It’s why Merit still hates Kiya.”

  “But how can Nefertiti take Kiya’s place?”

  Ipu smiled. “Gossip.”

  Chapter Four

  twenty-first of Pharmuthi

  ON THE MORNING of Nefertiti’s marriage and coronation, rumors began spreading in the palace that a beauty never before seen in Egypt had descended on Thebes and would become the queen. Ipu suspected those rumors began with my father and involved the transfer of deben, which were rings of metal value, because by sunrise there was nowhere Nefertiti could go without servants peering through the windows at her. Ladies newly arrived at court for the coronation suddenly began appearing at our room on false errands, calling to see if Nefertiti needed perfume, or linen, or spiced wine. Eventually, my mother barricaded us in her chamber and drew the curtains on all four sides.

  Nefertiti was irritable; she hadn’t slept all night. She’d rolled around, stealing my covers and whispering my name every so often to see if I was awake. “Stand still or I can’t fasten your necklace,” I said.

  “And be gracious,” my mother advised. “These people are whispering in the prince’s ear even as we speak, telling him about you.”

  Nefertiti nodded, while Merit applied cream to her face. “Mutnodjmet, find my sandals, the ones with amber. And you should wear the same. It doesn’t matter that they’re uncomfortable,” she said, anticipating my reaction. “You can throw them away afterward.”

  “But no one will even see my sandals,” I protested.

  “Of course they will,” Nefertiti replied. “They’ll see your sandals, your linen, and your crooked wig.” She frowned, interrupting Merit to lean forward and fix my hair. “Gods, Mutny! What would you do without me?”

  I handed her the amber-studded sandals. “Tend my garden and have a quiet life.”

  She laughed and I smiled, even though she was being unbearable.

  “I hope it goes well,” I said earnestly.

  My sister’s face grew serious. “It has to, or our family will have traveled to Thebes and exchanged our lives for nothing.”

  There was a knock on the chamber door and my mother rose to get it. My father stood at the threshold with six guards. The men stared into the room and I smoothed my hair quickly, trying to look like a Sister of the King’s Chief Wife. Nefertiti, however, ignored them all, closing her eyes while Merit applied the last sweeps of kohl.

  “Are we ready?” My father strode into the chamber while the guards remained at the door, studying Nefertiti’s reflection in the mirror. They hadn’t even noticed I was there.

  “Yes, we’re almost ready,” I announced. The guards looked in my direction for the first time and my mother frowned at me.

  “Well, don’t just stand there.” My father gestured. “Help your sister.”

  I flushed. “With what?”

  “With anything. The scribes are waiting, and soon the barges will be sailing for Karnak and we’ll all have a new Pharaoh.” I turned to look at him because there was such irony in his voice, but he gestured for me to keep moving. “Hurry.”

  Then Nefertiti was ready. She stood, her beaded faience dress spilling to the floor as the sun caught her necklace and gilded bangles. She looked at the guards, and I studied their reaction. Their shoulders straightened and their chests expanded. Nefertiti moved forward, hooking our father’s arm in hers, and she told him winningly, “I’m glad we came to Malkata.”

  “Don’t get too comfortable,” he warned. “Amunhotep will stay at Malkata only until Tiye has decided that he is ready to leave. Then we will go to the capital of Lower Egypt to rule.”

  “Memphis?” I cried. “We’re going to Memphis? Forever?”

  “Forever is a big word, Mutny,” my father said. We walked out into the tiled hall and passed through the columns. “Perhaps not forever.”

  “How long then? And when will we return?”

  My father looked at my mother, and it was understood between them that she should explain. “Mutny, your sister will be Queen of Egypt,” she said in a voice used with small children, not thirteen-year-old girls. “When the Elder embraces the Afterlife, Amunhotep will move back to Thebes to rule Upper Egypt as well. But we will not return here until the Elder dies.”

  “And when will that be? The Pharaoh could live for twenty more years!”

  No one said anything, and I saw from my father’s look that the guards had probably overheard me.

  “Now that the court is to be split, dangerous games are going to be played,” my father said in a lower voice. “Who will stay with the old king, and who will place their bets on the new? Panahesi will go with Kiya to Memphis, since she is carrying Amunhotep’s child. We, of course, will go as well. Your job will be to warn Nefertiti when there is trouble.”

  We entered the open courtyard outside the palace where the procession was waiting, and my mother took Nefertiti to Queen Tiye’s side. I pressed my father’s hand before he, too, could leave. “But what if she doesn’t want to listen to me?” I asked.

  “She will because she always has.” He squeezed my shoulder gently. “And because you are the one who will be honest with her.”

  The procession was to begin at noon. The Elder and Queen Tiye were to ride in chariots. Behind them, the rest of the court would be carried in open litters shaded by thin canopies of linen. Only Amunhotep and Nefertiti would be on foot, as tradition decreed, walking through the city to Pharaoh’s barge, which would be waiting on the waters of the Theban quay. From there, the barge would sail to Karnak, where the royal couple would proceed to the temple gates to be crowned Pharaoh and Queen of Lower Egypt.

  As the courtyard filled with nobility, the guards grew tense. They shifted nervously from foot to foot, knowing if anything happened during the procession, their lives would be forfeit. I noticed one soldier in particular, a general with long hair and a pleated kilt. Ipu saw the direction of my gaze and said, “General Nakhtmin. Only twenty-one. I can make an introduction—”

  “Don’t you dare!” I gasped.

  She laughed. “An eight-year difference is not so big!”

  Nefertiti heard us laughing together and frowned. “Where is Amunhotep?” she demanded.

  “I wouldn’t be concerned,” my father said wryly. “He won’t miss his own coronation.”

  When the prince appeared, he was escorted by Kiya on one arm and her father, Panahesi, on the other. Both were whispering into the prince’s ear, speaking quickly, and when they came to our place in line Panahesi greeted my father coldly. Then he caught sight of Nefertiti in a queen’s diadem, and it looked as though he had bitten into something sour. But Kiya only smiled, touching Amunhotep softly on the hand as she prepared to take her leave of him. “Blessings
to Your Highness on this auspicious day,” she said with a sweetness that was sickening. “May Aten be with you.”

  Nefertiti met my father’s eye. Kiya had just blessed Amunhotep in the name of Aten. So this was how she held him.

  My father’s eyes glinted. “Stay close,” he warned me. “Once we reach Karnak, we will be walking to the temple, and there will be more Egyptians in the streets than you have ever seen.”

  “Because of the coronation?” I asked, but he didn’t hear me. My voice was lost in the melee of horses and chariots and guards.

  “Yes, and because rumors have been spreading through the city that the reincarnation of Isis has appeared.”

  I turned. The young general was smiling up at me.

  “A beauty who can heal with the touch of her hand, if you listen to palace servants.” He held out his arm and helped me into my litter.

  “And what servant would say that?”

  “You mean, why would someone pay a servant to say that?” he asked. “Because if your sister can win the people’s hearts,” he explained, “your family’s stakes will have risen higher in this kingdom.”

  The litters were borne up, and in the swell of people the general disappeared.

  As the procession made its way into the city, people began chanting the prince’s name, and as we passed through the markets, we were overwhelmed by the passion of a thousand Egyptians crushed into the streets, shouting my sister’s name, begging for the blessings of Isis and chanting, “Long live the queen! Long live Nefertiti!”

  As the people crushed against our litters, I tried to imagine the large chain of supporters my father must have called upon, and I realized how truly powerful the Vizier Ay was. The guards repeatedly pushed the people back, and I turned in my litter to see Amunhotep looking with astonishment on the woman who was so beloved in his kingdom. I watched as Nefertiti raised Amunhotep’s hand in hers, and the roar that went up in the streets was deafening. She turned to him triumphantly, and I could read her expression: I am more than just your mother’s choice of wife.

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