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       Nefertiti, p.7

           Michelle Moran
 

  “I know. It’s just that I’ve never spent a night without her before.” My lip quivered, and I tried to steady it with my teeth.

  “You can sleep in our chamber,” my mother offered.

  I shook my head. I was thirteen years old. Not a child anymore. “No, I shall have to get used to it.”

  “So Kiya will be displaced,” my mother remarked. “Panahesi will be angry.”

  “Then he may be angry for many nights to come,” I said as Nefertiti and my father joined us.

  “Take Nefertiti to your rooms,” my father instructed. “Merit is waiting.” He squeezed my sister’s shoulder to give her courage. “You understand what to do?”

  Nefertiti reddened. “Of course.”

  My mother embraced her warmly, whispering words of wisdom in her ear that I couldn’t hear. Then we left our parents and walked through the painted corridors of the palace. The servants were dancing at the feast and our footfalls echoed in the empty halls of Malkata. Tonight, our childhood would pass.

  “So you are going to Amunhotep’s bed,” I said.

  “And I plan to stay until morning,” she confided, striding ahead.

  “But no one spends the entire night with a king,” I exclaimed and quickened my pace. “He sleeps by himself.”

  “And tonight I shall change that.”

  In our room, the oil lamps had been lit. The paintings of papyrus fields swayed in the flickering light. Merit was there, as my father had promised, and she and Nefertiti whispered together. Ipu was in our chamber as well. “We will both bathe your sister and get her ready,” she said to me. “I will not be able to assist you tonight.”

  I swallowed. “Of course.”

  Merit and Ipu led Nefertiti to the baths. When they returned, they changed her into a simple sheath. It took both of their hands to powder her legs and perfume her hair, making sure every scent Amunhotep encountered was sweet.

  “Should I wear a wig?” It was me that Nefertiti was asking when it should have been Merit, who would know about these things.

  “Go without it,” I offered. “Let him see you as yourself tonight.”

  Next to me, Ipu nodded, and together we watched as Merit applied cream to Nefertiti’s face and sprinkled lavender water over her hair. Then my sister stood and our servants stepped back. All three turned to see my reaction.

  “Beautiful.” I smiled.

  My sister hugged me, and I inhaled deeply so I would be the first to smell her like this, not Amunhotep. We stood together in the dim light of the room. “I will miss you tonight,” I said, swallowing my fear. “I hope you brushed with mint and myrrh,” I added, offering her the only advice that I could.

  Nefertiti rolled her eyes. “Of course.”

  I pulled back to look at her. “But aren’t you afraid?”

  She shrugged. “Not really.”

  “And Ranofer?” I asked quietly.

  “We never did anything.”

  I gave her a long look.

  “Only touching. I never—”

  I nodded quickly.

  “Not that it would matter. It only matters that I remain faithful to him now.” She tossed her head and her dark hair fell across her shoulders. She caught her reflection in the polished bronze. “I’m ready for this. I’m ready to be the queen my mother swore I would be. She married our father hoping someday it would lead to the throne, and this is it.”

  “How do you know that?” I had never thought of my father’s first marriage in that way. I had never thought that a princess of Mitanni might marry a queen’s brother for a chance to place her child on the throne.

  Nefertiti met my eyes in the mirror. “Father told me.”

  “That she didn’t love him?”

  “Certainly, she did. But first and foremost was the future of her child.” She turned to Merit and her look was firm. “I’m ready.”

  Chapter Five

  twenty-second of Pharmuthi

  NEFERTITI CAME TO my bed the next morning. She shook me from a deep, exhausted sleep and I sat up quickly, afraid that something had gone wrong. “What? What happened?”

  “I made love to the king.”

  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I looked at her side of the bed. It was unmade. “And you spent the night!” I threw off my covers. “So what was it like?”

  She sat down and shrugged one of her brown shoulders at me. “Painful. But then you get used to it.”

  I gasped. “How many times could you have done it?” I cried.

  She smiled wickedly. “Several.” Then she looked around our chamber. “We should move rooms at once. The Queen of Egypt doesn’t sleep in a bed with her sister. I will sleep with Amunhotep from now on.”

  I scrambled from my bed. “But we’ve only been in Thebes for four days. And tomorrow Tiye will announce in chambers when we’re leaving; it could be within the month.”

  Nefertiti ignored my plea. “Have your servants pack up your herbs. They’ll grow just as well in sunlight a few chambers away.”

  Nefertiti told no one about the move, and I wasn’t going to be the one to let our father know. He’d said to come to him with any sign of trouble, and so far as I could see there was no trouble in moving a courtyard away. Besides, the entire palace would know soon enough.

  “Kiya will be beside herself.” Nefertiti grinned, practically dancing through our new rooms and pointing to tapestries she wanted moved.

  “Be careful with Kiya,” I replied. “Her father can make trouble for us. And if Kiya has a son, then Panahesi will be the grandfather to the heir of Egypt.”

  “By the end of Shemu I’m sure I’ll be pregnant.” We both looked at her belly. She was small and slender. But by Pachons she could be carrying Egypt’s heir. “And my sons will always be first in line for the throne. If I can get five sons from Amunhotep, our family will have five chances.” And only if all of her sons were to die would any of Kiya’s sons stand in line for the crown.

  I watched her pick up a brush and start on her hair, the deep, silky blackness of it framing her face. Then the door opened to the antechamber and Amunhotep strolled in.

  “Queen of Egypt and queen of my—” He stopped short when he saw me in his room. His mood darkened quickly. “And what are you two sisters gossiping about?”

  “You, of course.” Nefertiti opened her arms, making light of his suspicions, and wrapped him in her embrace. “So tell me,” she said intimately, “what is the news?”

  His face lightened. “Tomorrow my mother will announce when we are to move to Memphis, where we will build such temples as the world has never seen.”

  “We should begin at once,” my sister agreed. “Then in time you will be known as Amunhotep the Builder.”

  “Amunhotep the Builder.” A dreamy look passed over Amunhotep’s eyes. “They’ll forget about Tuthmosis when they see what I do. When we leave for Memphis,” Amunhotep said decisively, “my father’s architect must come with us.” He stepped away from my sister’s embrace. “I will write to Maya to make sure he understands the choice that lies before him. To follow the future,” he said as he walked swiftly to his chamber, “or be buried in the past.”

  The door swung shut behind him, and I looked at Nefertiti. She wouldn’t meet my gaze. When there was a knock at the outer door, she rose quickly to get it.

  “Vizier Panahesi!” she said delightedly. “Won’t you come in?”

  Panahesi stepped back, shocked to see her in the king’s private antechamber. He stepped in gingerly, as if he thought he might wake from a dream. My sister’s voice was not sweet when she asked him, “What do you want?”

  “I have come to see Pharaoh.”

  “Pharaoh is busy.”

  “Don’t play with me, child. I will see him. I am the Vizier of Egypt and you are just one of many wives. You would do well to remember that. He may be passionate for you now, but by the end of Shemu his ardor will cool.”

  I held my breath to see what Nefertiti would do. Then she spun on her h
eel and went to find Amunhotep, leaving me alone. The vizier nodded at the second room. “Is that your chamber now?”

  “Yes.”

  “Interesting.”

  Amunhotep reappeared with my sister, and at once Panahesi swept him a bow. “You did well yesterday, Your Majesty.” He moved quickly to the king’s side and added, “All that’s left is to sail to Memphis and ascend your throne.”

  “And wait for the Elder to die,” Amunhotep said with brutal frankness. “He doesn’t see the greed of the Amun priests.”

  Panahesi glanced at Nefertiti, then at me. “Do you think, perhaps, we should talk about this elsewhere?”

  Nefertiti was quick. “My husband trusts me, Vizier. Whatever you have to say can be said in the presence of everyone here.” She smiled sweetly at Amunhotep, but her eyes were full of warning. I can stop loving you and the people’s adoration will disappear. She touched his shoulder briefly. “Isn’t that true?”

  He nodded. “Of course. I trust my wife as I trust Aten.”

  Panahesi grew furious. “Then perhaps Your Majesty might not want privileged information to be heard by younger, more impressionable women.”

  “My sister is neither young nor impressionable,” Nefertiti said sweetly. “Perhaps you are thinking of your own daughter at her age?”

  Amunhotep laughed. “Go on, Vizier. What is it you have to say?”

  But by now Panahesi had lost his way. “I simply came to congratulate Your Majesty.” He turned to leave, and then, as if on second thought, he added, “Though many may have wished for your brother yesterday, I know you shall rule with greater wisdom and strength.”

  “Who wished for my brother? Who wished for Tuthmosis to be on the throne?”

  Panahesi had found a way past Nefertiti. “There are factions, my lord, who wish for Tuthmosis. Surely you see them. Of course, once we go to Memphis, it will be telling who chooses to come with us and who chooses to stay behind.”

  “Will the architect Maya come with us?” he demanded.

  “It’s possible.” Panahesi spread his hands. “If we get to him.”

  “And the army?”

  “It will be divided in two.”

  Amunhotep was silent, then he said with venom, “You will make sure this court knows that when I go to Memphis, either they are with me or against me. And they had best remember which Pharaoh will live longer!”

  Panahesi bowed out of the chamber. “I will do as I am told, Your Majesty.”

  Nefertiti shut the door behind him and Amunhotep dropped into a gold and leather chair. “Why doesn’t your father come to congratulate me on my coronation?”

  “My father doesn’t offer congratulations where none are needed. Everyone knows you were chosen by the gods to rule as Pharaoh.”

  Amunhotep glanced up from under his thick lashes. He was a boy. A sulking, insecure child. “Then why did Panahesi say—”

  “He is lying!” Nefertiti exclaimed. “Who would be so foolish as to wish for your brother’s rule when they could serve a Pharaoh like you?”

  But a light flickered in Amunhotep’s eyes and he turned. “If my brother had not died, you would be his wife.”

  “I would never have been Tuthmosis’s wife,” Nefertiti said quickly.

  It was dangerous, the way the king’s thoughts were tending. Amunhotep turned on me. “They say the sister of Nefertiti never lies. Did your father ever mention Tuthmosis in his house?”

  Nefertiti turned white and I nodded slowly.

  “And did he plan to marry your sister to him?”

  I was wise enough to know that if I didn’t lie now, Kiya would become the favorite in Memphis and my sister just another of the king’s many wives. Amunhotep leaned forward and his face looked dark. It would take only one lie to change eternity, to ensure that our names lived forever on the glorious monuments of Thebes. I glanced at Nefertiti, who was waiting to see what I would do. Then I stared into Amunhotep’s eyes and replied the way my father would have wanted me to, the way Nefertiti was hoping I would. “Vizier Ay always believed it would be you who would take the throne of Egypt. It was you whom my sister was intended for, even when you were a child.”

  Amunhotep stared at me. “Destiny,” he whispered, sitting back in his chair. “It was destiny! Your father knew I would take the throne of Egypt!”

  “Yes,” she whispered, looking at me.

  I swallowed the lump in my throat. I had lied for her. I had gone against my conscience to preserve our family.

  The seventeen-year-old Pharaoh of Egypt stood up. “Ay will serve as Chief Vizier above all the land!” he proclaimed. “He shall be Overseer of Foreign Affairs in Memphis, and I will raise him above all other viziers!” Amunhotep looked at me again. “You may go,” he said carelessly. “The queen and I have plans to make.”

  Nefertiti reached out her hand to stop me, but I shook my head sternly, slipping past her out the door. Tears welled in my eyes and I wiped them away with the back of my hand. I had lied to a king of Egypt, the highest representative of Amun in the land. Ma’at will be ashamed, I whispered aloud, but there was no one in the columned halls to hear me.

  I thought of going to see my mother, but she would say that what I had done had been the right thing to do. I found my way into the gardens and sat down on the farthest stone bench. I would be punished by the gods for what I’d done. Ma’at would want vengeance.

  “It’s not often a queen’s sister comes to the gardens alone.”

  It was General Nakhtmin.

  I blinked away my tears. “If Pharaoh sees you with me, he will not be pleased,” I said sternly, gathering myself.

  “No matter. Soon the new Pharaoh will be in Memphis.”

  I looked up sharply. “You will not be coming?”

  “Only those who choose to leave will be moving. Much of the army will remain in Thebes.” The general took a seat next to me without asking my permission. “So why are you here, among the willows and all alone?”

  My eyes welled up again. I had shamed the gods.

  “What? Has a boy broken your heart?” he demanded. “Shall I banish him for you?”

  I laughed, despite myself. “No boy is interested in me,” I said.

  We were quiet for a moment.

  “So why all this weeping?”

  “I told a lie,” I whispered.

  The general studied me and a smile began at the edges of his lips. “That’s it?”

  “It may be a small thing for you, but it is a great deal to me. I have never lied.”

  “Never? Not even about a broken dish, or somebody’s lost necklace that you found?”

  “No. Not since I became old enough to understand the laws of Ma’at.”

  The general said nothing, and I realized I must look like such a child to him, a man who’d seen war and bloodshed. “It doesn’t matter,” I mumbled.

  “It does matter,” he said seriously. “You value truth. Only now you’ve lied.”

  I said nothing.

  “It’s fine, your secret’s safe with me.”

  I stood up, furious. “I should never have told you!”

  “You think you will lose my respect over a lie?” He laughed kindly. “The court of Egypt is built on them. You will see that in Memphis.”

  “Then I will close my eyes,” I replied childishly.

  “At your own peril. Best to keep them open, my lady. Your father depends on it.”

  “How do you know what my father depends on?”

  “Well, if you don’t keep a sensible head, who will? Your beautiful sister? Pharaoh Amunhotep the Younger? They’ll be too busy building tombs and temples,” he replied. “Maybe even,” he added treasonously, “dismantling the priesthood in order to control the gold it brings in.” I must have looked scandalized, because the general asked, “Do you think your family is the only one that sees this? The new Pharaoh has everyone running. If the priests of Amun fall, so will many other wealthy men,” he predicted.

  “My sister has
nothing to do with that,” I said firmly and began walking back to the palace. I didn’t like the way he implicated my family in Amunhotep’s plans. But he followed after me, matching my stride.

  “Have I offended you, my lady?”

  “Yes, you have.”

  “I’m sorry. I shall be more careful in the future. After all, you will be one of the most dangerous women at court.”

  I stopped walking.

  “Privy to the secrets that viziers and priests are paying spies very handsomely to procure.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Information, Lady Mutnodjmet,” he said, and he kept walking toward the stables.

  “And what do you think information can do?” I called after him.

  “In the wrong hands,” he replied over his shoulder, “it can do anything.”

  That night I prepared for bed in the room next to the king’s private chamber, knowing my sister was next door but that I was unable to call to her. I looked over at my windowsill at the potted herbs that had endured the journey from Akhmim, and then a shuffling from one room to the next. Tomorrow, the queen would announce the date for our move to Memphis, and the plants would have to survive yet another uprooting.

  When Ipu appeared to undress me, she saw my long face and clicked her tongue. “What is it, my lady?”

  I shrugged, as if the matter was of little consequence.

  “You miss your home,” she guessed, and I nodded.

  She slipped the sheath over my head and I put on a fresh one. I sat obediently on the bed so that she could braid my hair. “Don’t you ever miss your home?” I asked quietly.

  “Only when I think of my brothers.” She smiled. “I was raised with seven brothers. It’s why I get along so well with men.”

  I laughed. “You get along with everyone. I saw you at the feasts. There’s not a person in Thebes you haven’t met.”

  She lifted her shoulder casually, but didn’t deny it. “This is how we are in the city of Fayyum. Always friendly.”

  “So you were born near Lake Moeris?”

  She nodded. “A little farming village between the lake and River Nile.” She described vast stretches of loamy soil rolling away into earthy green hills. And the vineyards dotting the blue-green Nile. “There is no place in Egypt better for gardening, for tending to crops or harvesting papyrus.”

 
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