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       Nefertiti, p.6

           Michelle Moran

  As we reached the barge, the cries throughout the city became “AMUN-HOTEP. NEFER-TITI.”

  The prince’s face was aglow with the people’s love. Nefertiti raised Amunhotep’s hand in hers for the second time and proclaimed loud enough for Osiris to hear, “THE PEOPLE’S PHARAOH!” Then the crowds swelling along the riverbank grew untamable. The guards brought us to the quay with difficulty; we descended quickly from our litters and boarded the barge, but commoners had already surrounded the ship. The guards were forced to pry them off the ropes and from the hull. When the barge surged forward, it left thousands on the riverbank. The crowd immediately followed the barge along the shore, chanting blessings and throwing lotus blossoms into the water. Amunhotep stared at Nefertiti with the look of a man who’d been caught unawares.

  “Is this why the Vizier Ay chose to raise his daughters in Akhmim?”

  Nefertiti was flushed with triumph and her voice turned coy. “That, and the vizier didn’t want us believing as his sister does in the power of the Amun priests.”

  I pressed my lips together in fear. But I saw what she was doing. She had taken her cue from Kiya.

  Amunhotep blinked in surprise. “Then you believe I’m right?”

  Nefertiti touched his arm, and I thought I could feel the heat of her palm as she whispered forcefully, “Pharaohs determine what is right. And when this barge reaches Karnak, you will be Pharaoh and I will be your queen.”

  We reached Karnak quickly, for the Temple of Amun was only a short distance from Malkata Palace. We could have walked, but sailing the Nile was tradition, and our fleet of barges with their golden pennants made an impressive sight in the midday sun. When the plank was lowered, thousands of Egyptians swelled around the barge. Their chants boomed over the water, and they struggled against the guards to glimpse the new king and queen of Egypt. Amunhotep and Nefertiti weren’t afraid. They brushed past the soldiers and into the crowd.

  But I stood back.

  “This way.” The general appeared at my side. “Stay close to me.”

  I followed him, and we were swept into a quick-moving procession. Up ahead, I could see the four golden chariots of the royal family. My mother and father were allowed to ride with the Pharaoh and his queen. The rest of us would walk to the Temple of Amun. On all sides of us women and children shouted, reaching out to touch our robes and wigs so they, too, could live for eternity.

  “Are you all right?” the general asked.

  “Yes, I think so.”

  “Keep walking.”

  As if I had a choice. The temple loomed ahead, and I could see the beautiful and nearly completed limestone chapel of Senusret I, and the towering shrines of the Elder. Sun spilled across the courtyard, and as we passed through the enclosure, the cheering fell behind us and everything grew suddenly cool and silent. Geese waddled between the columns, and shaven-headed boys in loose robes appeared, holding incense and candles. I listened to the crowds outside the walls, still chanting Nefertiti’s name. If not for them, the only sound would have been trickling water and sandals slapping on stone.

  “What happens now?” I whispered.

  The general stepped back, and I noticed that his eyes were the shifting colors of sand. “Your sister will be taken to the sacred lake and anointed as coregent by the High Priest of Amun. Then she and the prince will be given the crook and flail of Egypt, and together they will reign.”

  My father appeared. “Mutnodjmet, go and stand by your sister,” he instructed.

  I went to Nefertiti. In the dim light of the temple, her skin shone like amber, and the lamps illuminated the gold around her neck. She glanced at me, and we both understood that the most important moment in our lives had come: After this ceremony, she would be Queen of Lower Egypt, and our family would ascend to immortality with her. Our names would be written in cartouches and public buildings from Luxor to Kush. We would be remembered in stone and assured a place with the gods for eternity.

  Amunhotep ascended the dais holding Nefertiti’s hand in his. He was taller than any Pharaoh that had come before him, and there was more gold on his arms than in my parents’ entire treasury in Akhmim. The priests of Amun filed through the crowd, taking their places on the dais next to me, their bald heads like newly polished brass in the sun. I recognized the High Priest by his leopard robe, and when he came to stand before the new king, my sister passed Amunhotep a look full of meaning.

  “Behold, Amun has called us together to exalt Amunhotep the Younger before the land,” the High Priest announced. “Amun has appointed Amunhotep to be Chief of Lower Egypt, and to administer the laws of her people for all his days.”

  I could see the general from where I stood. He was watching my sister, and for some reason I felt disappointed.

  “From Upper to Lower Egypt they have come. The Pharaoh of Egypt has declared that his son shall be made Pharaoh with him. The people have united to celebrate the new Pharaoh and his protector, Amun. From east to west there will be rejoicing. From north to south there will be celebration. Come.” The High Priest held up a golden vessel filled with oil. “Amun pours his blessing on you, Pharaoh of Egypt.” He poured the oil over Amunhotep’s head. “Amun pours his blessing on you, Queen of Egypt.”

  The oil poured down Nefertiti’s new wig and dripped onto her best linen gown. But my sister didn’t flinch. She was queen. There would be many more gowns.

  “Amun takes you by the hand and leads you to the sacred waters that shall wash you clean and make you new.” He led them into the sacred pool, where he laid them back and the oil was washed away. The nobles who had been allowed inside the temple grew still and silent. Even the children knew that this was a moment they might never witness again.

  “King Amunhotep and Queen Nefertiti,” the High Priest proclaimed. “May Amun grant them long life and prosperity.”

  The sun was still high in the sky when we assembled in barges to return to Malkata from the Temple of Amun. On the boat ride from Karnak, Amunhotep studied my sister with open fascination: the way she talked, the way she smiled, the way she threw her head back and laughed. “Mutny, come,” my sister called gaily. “Amunhotep, this is my sister, Mutnodjmet.”

  “You do have cat eyes,” he remarked. “Your sister told me, but I didn’t believe her.”

  I bowed, wondering what else my sister had time to tell him about. “I am pleased to meet you, Your Majesty.”

  “My husband has been talking about the temples he will build,” Nefertiti said.

  I looked to our new king to see if this was true, and Amunhotep straightened.

  “Someday, Mutnodjmet, when I am Pharaoh of both Lower and Upper Egypt, I will raise Aten above all other gods. I will build him temples that overshadow anything built for Amun, and rid Egypt of the priests who take her gold to glorify themselves.”

  I glanced at Nefertiti, but she let him continue.

  “Today a Pharaoh of Egypt can’t make a decision without the priests of Amun. A Pharaoh can’t go to war, build a temple, or construct a palace without the High Priest’s consent.”

  “You mean the High Priest’s money,” Nefertiti offered.

  “Yes. But that will change.” He stood up and looked out over the prow. “My mother believes my worship of Aten will pass. But she is wrong; even my father will see in time that Aten is the god who has guided Egypt to glory.”

  I moved away to stand closer to my aunt, who was watching her new daughter-in-law with a critical eye. She beckoned me over with a finger to where she sat, a formidable woman, and smiled at me.

  “You are a brave girl to have spoken to General Nakhtmin in front of my son,” she said, then patted an armed chair next to her and I sat.

  “Are they enemies?” I asked.

  “My son dislikes the army, and the general has lived and breathed it since he was a boy.” I wanted to ask more about General Nakhtmin, but she was searching for something else, something that had to do with Nefertiti. “So tell me, Mutnodjmet,” she asked casually,
what is my son discussing with your sister?”

  I knew to choose my words carefully. “They are speaking of the future, Your Majesty, and of all the plans Amunhotep wants to make.”

  “I wonder, do those plans include temples to Aten?”

  I lowered my head and Tiye said, “I thought so.” She turned to the nearest servant. “Find Vizier Ay and bring him to me.”

  I remained seated, and when my father came, another chair with leather arms was brought. All three of us watched Nefertiti on the prow, talking in earnest with her husband. It was impossible to think that just this morning they had hardly known each other at all.

  “He is speaking of Aten,” my aunt declared heatedly. “On his way from the Temple of Amun he is still rambling about something his grandfather once carved into his bedposts and onto his shields!” I had never seen my aunt so enraged. “He will be the unmaking of the country, Ay. My husband will not live forever! Your daughter must control him before he becomes Pharaoh of Upper Egypt as well.”

  My father looked across at me. “What has Nefertiti been saying?”

  “She is listening to him,” I said.

  “That’s it?”

  I bit my tongue and nodded so I wouldn’t have to lie.

  “Give her time.” Ay turned to his sister. “It’s only been a day.”

  “In a day, Ptah created the world,” she answered, and we all knew what she meant. That in a day, her son could undo it.

  In Malkata Palace, Nefertiti and I were both undressed and given new gowns for the feasts celebrating the coronation. Ipu and Merit scurried like cats, finding sandals that would complement our sheaths and painting our eyes in black and green. Merit held Nefertiti’s crown with awe, and placed it on her head while we all watched, holding our breaths. I tried to imagine being Queen of Egypt and wearing the cobra around my brow. “What does it feel like?” I asked.

  Nefertiti closed her eyes. “Like being a goddess.”

  “Will you go to him before the feast?”

  “Of course. I will walk in on his arm. You don’t think I’d risk having him go with Kiya? It’s bad enough he will go back to her bed.”

  “It’s the custom, Nefertiti. Father said he’ll be with her every fortnight. There’s nothing you can do.”

  “There’s plenty I can do!” Her eyes darted wildly across the chamber. “For one, we’re not staying in these rooms.”

  “What?” I had arranged all my potted herbs along the windowsill. I had unpacked my chests. “But we’re only in Thebes until Tiye announces when we’ll move on to Memphis. I’ll have to repack.”

  “Ipu will do it for you. Why should the Pharaoh and queen sleep apart? Our parents sleep in one room,” she pointed out.

  “But they aren’t—”

  “Power.” She raised her finger while our body servants pretended not to listen. “That’s why. They don’t want the queen to have too much power.”

  “That’s foolish. Queen Tiye is Pharaoh in all but name.”

  “Yes.” Nefertiti began brushing her hair vigorously, dismissing Merit and Ipu with a wave. “In all but name. What more in life do we have but our name? What will be remembered in eternity? The gown I wore or the name I carried?”

  “Your deeds. They will be remembered.”

  “Will Tiye’s deeds be remembered, or will they be recorded as her husband’s?”

  “Nefertiti.” I shook my head. She was aiming too high.

  “What?” She tossed the brush aside, knowing that Merit would pick it up later. “Hatshepsut was king. She had herself crowned.”

  “You are meant to discourage him,” I said. “You were talking about Aten on the barge!”

  “Father said to control him.” She grinned smugly. “He didn’t say how. Come.”

  “Come where?”

  “To the king’s chamber.”

  She moved down the hall and I followed on her heels. In front of Pharaoh’s room, a pair of guards moved aside. We swept into Amunhotep’s anteroom and stood before the entrances to two separate chambers. One was clearly Amunhotep’s bedroom. Nefertiti looked at the second room and nodded. “That will be yours after the feasts.”

  I stared at her. “And where will you stay?”

  “In here.”

  She pushed opened the doors to the king’s private chamber and I heard Amunhotep’s gasp of surprise. I caught a glimpse of tiled walls and alabaster lamps, then the doors swung shut and I was alone in the king’s private antechamber. There was silence for a moment, then laughter echoed through the walls. I waited in the antechamber for Nefertiti to come out, thinking the laughter would eventually cease, but the sun sank lower and lower in the sky and there was no indication of when they would emerge.

  I seated myself and looked around. On a low table, hastily scrawled poems to Aten had been written on papyrus. I glanced at the king’s door, which was firmly shut, then read them while I waited. They were psalms to the sun. “Giver of breath to animals…Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.” There was sheaf after sheaf of poetry, each one different, each one praising Aten. For several hours, I read while inside Nefertiti spoke. The sound of Amunhotep’s voice penetrated through the walls, and I didn’t dare to imagine what they were speaking of so passionately. Eventually, evening fell, and I began to wonder if we would ever go to the feast. When someone knocked on the door, I hesitated, but Nefertiti’s voice rang out brightly, “Mutny can answer it.”

  She knew I’d still be waiting.

  On the other side of the door was General Nakhtmin.

  He stepped back, shocked to see me in the king’s antechamber, and I could tell by the way his eyes shifted to the king’s door that he was wondering if Amunhotep had taken both sisters as lovers. “My lady.” His gaze focused on the closed inner chamber. “I see that the Pharaoh is otherwise…occupied.”

  I flushed a brilliant scarlet. “Yes, he is busy now.”

  “Then perhaps you can give him the message that his father and mother are awaiting his presence in the Great Hall. The feast in his honor has been going on for some hours.”

  “Perhaps you can give him the message?” I said. “I…would hate to disturb them.”

  He raised his brows. “All right.”

  He knocked on the king’s door, and I heard my sister’s voice call sweetly, “Enter.” The general disappeared and reappeared a moment later. “They have said that they will come when they are ready.”

  I did my best to hide my disappointment, and the general held out his arm to me.

  “That doesn’t mean you should miss the feasts.”

  I looked at the closed door and hesitated. If I left, Nefertiti would be angry. She would accuse me of abandoning her. But I had studied the same mosaics in the antechamber for hours and the sun had already set…

  Rashly, I held out my arm, and the general smiled.

  On a dais in the Great Hall were now four golden thrones. Beneath them a long table had been arranged where my mother and father were sitting; I could see them talking and eating with the viziers of the Elder’s court. The general brought me over to them, and I was aware of my aunt’s sharp eyes following us.

  “Vizier Ay.” The general bowed politely. “The Lady Mutnodjmet has arrived.”

  I felt a small thrill that he knew my name. My father stood, frowning over my shoulder to ask harshly, “This is well, but where is my other daughter?”

  The general and I looked at each other.

  “They said they would come when they were ready,” I replied. I could feel the burn in my cheeks, and someone at the table inhaled. It was Kiya.

  “Thank you,” my father said, and the general disappeared.

  I sat down and bowls of food appeared before me: roasted goose in garlic, barley beer, and honeyed lamb. Music was being played, and over the clatter of bowls it was difficult to hear what my parents were speaking of. But Kiya leaned across the table, and her voice was clear.

  “She’s a fool if she thinks he’s going
to forget me. Amunhotep adores me. He writes me poetry.” I thought of the psalms in Amunhotep’s chamber and wondered if they were his. “Pregnant in the first year, and I already know it’s going to be a son,” she gloated. “Amunhotep’s even picked out a name.”

  I bit my tongue to keep from asking what it was, but I needn’t have done so.

  “Tutankhamun,” she said. “Or maybe Nebnefer. Nebnefer, Prince of Egypt,” she imagined.

  “And if it’s a girl?”

  Kiya’s black eyes went wide. Rimmed in kohl, they looked three times their size. “A girl? Why would it be—” Her response was cut off by the sound of trumpets announcing my sister’s entrance. We all turned to see Nefertiti enter on Amunhotep’s arm. At once Kiya’s ladies began whispering, tossing glances in my direction, then in my sister’s.

  From the dais, Queen Tiye asked her son sharply, “Shall we dance, now that the night is nearly over?”

  Amunhotep looked to Nefertiti.

  “Yes, let’s dance,” my sister said, and my aunt did not let her son’s deference go unnoticed.

  Many of the guests would stay in their drunken stupor throughout the night and into the next, to be carried off in their litters when the sun rose. In the tiled hall leading to the royal chambers, I stood with my parents and shivered in the cold.

  “You are shaking.” My mother frowned.

  “Just tired,” I admitted. “We never had such late nights in Akhmim.”

  My mother smiled wistfully. “Yes, many things will be different now.” Her eyes searched my face. “What happened then?”

  “Amunhotep was with Nefertiti before the feasts. She went to him, and Nefertiti said he asked her to spend the night.”

  My mother cupped my chin in her palm, seeing my unhappiness. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Mutnodjmet. Your sister will only be a courtyard away.”

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