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       Nefertiti, p.8

           Michelle Moran
 

  “And what did your family do?” I asked.

  “My father was Pharaoh’s personal vintner.”

  “And you left his gardens to work in the palace?”

  “Only when he died. I was twelve, the youngest of five daughters and seven sons. My mother didn’t need me, and I’d inherited her skill with paints.” I studied her heavily made-up eyes in the mirror above our heads, the sweeps of malachite that never smudged in the sun. “The Elder found me a place as one of the queen’s women. Eventually, I grew to become the queen’s favorite.”

  And the queen had let her go to be with me. I thought of my aunt and imagined all the selfless acts that she performed that went unnoticed. And squandering her kindness away was her son, selfish and self-absorbed.

  “Palace life is better than life on the vineyards,” she continued. “To be in a city where women can buy whatever they need…” She exhaled thankfully. “Kohl, perfume, real wigs, exotic food. The boats come along the Nile and stop at Thebes. But no boats ever stopped in the Fayyum.”

  I sighed as she brought me my robe and linen socks. No boats. No people. No politics. Just gardens. I put on my slippers and sat near the brazier. Ipu remained standing, and I pointed to a stool. “Tell me, Ipu.” I dropped my voice low, even though Nefertiti could never have heard me. “What is the gossip around the palace?”

  Ipu gleamed. She was in her element now. “About you, my lady?”

  I flushed. “About my sister and the king.”

  She raised her eyebrows and said with caution, “Ah…I hear the new Pharaoh is willful.”

  I sat forward. “And?”

  She glanced briefly at the door that led to the antechamber and, outside of it, the king’s private rooms. “And the new queen is beautiful. The other servants call her Neferet.” The Beautiful Woman.

  “And Memphis?” I asked. “Have the servants been told when to prepare for a journey?”

  “Oh.” Her dimples flashed. “That’s what you want.” She leaned close to me, her dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. She was a beautiful woman, full of curves and faience beads with glittery malachite eyelids. “Queen Tiye ordered three new litters today, and the Master of the Horse said that six new horses have already been purchased.”

  I sat back. “When will they be ready?”

  “In six days.”

  The next day, I was summoned to the Audience Chamber early, before it grew crowded with the courtiers who would come to hear of Amunhotep’s departure for Memphis. As I entered the double doors, my eyes were drawn first to the forest of closed papyrus-bud columns that culminated at a raised and painted dais. As I approached the golden thrones, the closed buds atop the columns slowly opened until the last two were carved into fully painted blooms—symbolic, I supposed, of Pharaoh opening his arms to embrace all of Egypt.

  Beneath the dais, where my aunt and father were sitting, were images of bound captives, Hittites and Nubians, so that whenever Pharaoh ascended to his throne he would trod his enemies underfoot. The Audience Chamber was empty except for the three of us, and my father sat with his sister on an ebony bench with papyrus scrolls spread out before them.

  “Your Majesty.” I bowed. “Father.”

  Queen Tiye didn’t wait for me to sit. “Your sister has moved into my son’s private chambers.” Her face was inscrutable, and I was careful with my reply.

  “Yes. She has entranced the new king, Your Majesty.”

  “She has entranced the entire palace,” Queen Tiye corrected. “She’s all the servants will talk about.”

  I thought of Ipu calling my sister Neferet, and of what General Nakhtmin had said. “She is bold, Your Highness, but she is very loyal.”

  Queen Tiye studied me. “Loyal, but to who?”

  My father cleared his throat. “We want to know what was said at breakfast this morning.”

  I realized what was happening and saw that I was being used as a spy. I shifted uncomfortably and replied, “They never ate breakfast. The servants arranged trays of food in the anteroom, and after I ate, the food was sent away.”

  “What did they do, then?” the queen demanded.

  I hesitated, and my father said sternly, “It is important for us to know these things, Mutnodjmet. Either we find out or someone else will.”

  Someone like Panahesi. “They made plans for building temples to Aten,” I told them.

  Ay asked quickly, “Drawings?”

  I nodded.

  He turned to his sister and said hurriedly, “Amunhotep can do nothing until the Elder dies. He has neither the gold nor the resources for temple building. It’s just talk—”

  “Dangerous talk!” she flared up. “Talk that will continue until he becomes Pharaoh of Upper Egypt.”

  “By then he will understand that it is not so easy to rule without the support of the priests. He won’t even be able raise an army without their gold. No Pharaoh can rule on his own.”

  “My son thinks he can. He thinks he will defy the gods and raise Aten above all of them, even Osiris. Even Ra. Your daughter was supposed to change this—”

  “She will—”

  “She is too wild and ambitious!” the queen shouted. She walked out onto the balcony and wrapped her fingers around the railing. “Perhaps I chose the wrong daughter as Chief Wife,” she said.

  My father looked over his shoulder to where I sat, but I couldn’t read his expression. “Send him to Memphis,” my father encouraged. “There he will see that it is not so easy to interfere with Ma’at.”

  In the Audience Chamber that noon, the queen announced our departure to Memphis. We were to leave on the twenty-eighth of Pharmuthi. We had five days to prepare.

  Chapter Six

  twenty-fourth of Pharmuthi

  THIS TIME, WHEN we went to watch Amunhotep ride in the Arena, he gathered us in the stables and asked Nefertiti which horse she liked best. Kiya would have batted her lashes and answered that she liked the horse with the most beautiful mane. But Nefertiti observed their width and breadth, the strength of their muscles beneath their coat and the fire in their eyes, then replied in a firm voice, “The dark one. The chestnut champing at the gates.”

  Amunhotep nodded. “Bring out the chestnut!”

  Kiya turned to the three ladies who were always with her, tall women who towered over my sister, and one of them said loudly so my family would overhear, “Next thing he’ll be letting her pick out his kilts.” They all snickered, but Nefertiti walked purposefully to where Amunhotep was standing near Panahesi and my father, and watched him fasten his leather gauntlets. “Have you always ridden?” Nefertiti asked.

  Panahesi snapped, “Since the Pharaoh was a boy in Memphis.”

  Nefertiti looked to where a group of men were waiting, the sons of other viziers who practiced with the king. Amunhotep saw the direction of her gaze and added firmly, “Those men don’t lose to me every morning because they have to. I can outride any soldier in my father’s army.”

  Nefertiti stepped closer. “And you say you have done this since you were a child?”

  Amunhotep strapped on his helmet and replied, “I rode the chariot as soon as I learned to walk.”

  “And what if I wanted to learn?” she asked him.

  Across the stables Kiya retorted sharply, “Women don’t ride in the Arena.”

  “I rode in Akhmim,” Nefertiti announced. I glanced at my father, whose face was reserved. He said nothing, and Nefertiti took a helmet from the nearby shelf and placed it brazenly on her head. “I want you to teach me.”

  Amunhotep paused to measure the seriousness of her statement.

  She added brilliantly, “I want to feel the exhilaration of riding with Egypt’s finest steeds. I want to learn from the greatest rider in Egypt.”

  Amunhotep laughed. “Bring out the Master of the Horse!” he cried, and Panahesi and Kiya flew into action.

  “She’ll be killed!” Panahesi cried. Of course, his real objection was that his daughter hadn’t been smart en
ough or quick enough to suggest it for herself. Now the Arena would be full of Nefertiti. Not even our father had thought of this, but it was perfect, really. An exquisite move. If she could sink her claws in Amunhotep’s chamber, his politics, and now his pastime, where wouldn’t they be united?

  “But Your Highness—” Panahesi said.

  Amunhotep turned and his look was dark. “Nothing more, Vizier. My queen wants to ride, and I will teach her.”

  In the wooden tiers beneath a linen shade, we watched them ride, and Kiya hissed to me, “What does she think she’s doing?”

  I looked down at my sister, laughing and radiant, tossing her long hair back in the sun. Amunhotep laughed with her, and I replied, “She’s entertaining the king. What else now that her tutor is gone?”

  “That was well done,” my father complimented.

  Nefertiti sat smugly in her chair, waiting for Merit to finish beading her wig. A pair of red riding gloves had arrived in her chamber, a gift from Amunhotep. She said, “It was fun.”

  “This once,” my father warned.

  “Why? I enjoyed it. Why shouldn’t I learn to ride?”

  “Because it’s dangerous!” I exclaimed. “Aren’t you afraid?”

  “What’s to be afraid of?”

  “The horses. Or toppling over the chariot. Look what happened to Crown Prince Tuthmosis.”

  My father and Nefertiti exchanged glances. Ipu and Merit both looked away.

  “Tuthmosis died at war,” Nefertiti said dismissively. “And this isn’t war.” Merit strung the last beads over Nefertiti’s wig, and when my sister stood up the glass made hollow music.

  My father stood with her. “I will be in the Per Medjat drafting letters to foreign nations. They must know where to find your husband and address their petitions.” He glanced across the room, where nothing had changed since yesterday’s news. “We are leaving in five days,” he reminded us quietly, “and both of you should be overseeing your packing.”

  When our father left, Nefertiti held out her arm to me, unconcerned with foreign nations. “Come.”

  I scowled. “You heard Father. He said we should pack.”

  “Not now.” She took my arm and pulled me along.

  “Stop. Where are we going?” I protested.

  “To your favorite place.”

  “Why the gardens?”

  “Because there’s someone there we’re going to meet.”

  “Amunhotep?” I guessed.

  “And someone else.”

  We walked through the halls and entered the palace gardens with their tree-lined avenues and sprawling lakes. Someone with a very good eye for design had placed a fountain of Horus in the lotus pond, surrounding it with cattails and indigo irises. Stone benches were shaded by the heavy boughs of sycamores, and a path bordered by jasmine led to the bathhouses. Beyond that was the harem, where the lesser ranked of the Elder’s women lived. I watched the dragonflies dart in and out of the grass, the sunlight catching on their blue-gold wings where we walked.

  “The first thing we shall do when we get to Memphis is erect the largest temple ever built in Egypt. Once the people see Aten’s glory”—my sister strode ahead—“there will be no need for the priests of Amun.”

  “Father says there are balances. The power of Pharaoh is balanced by the power of priests. Even our tutors taught us that.”

  “Did they also teach us that the priests control the purse strings of Pharaohs? Is that balanced?” Nefertiti’s eyes darkened beneath the shade of a sycamore. “Mutny, the Pharaohs of Egypt are puppets. And Amunhotep is going to change that. He will take the focus away from Amun and raise Aten in his place. The Pharaoh and queen will be heads of the temples. We will control the calendar, declare the feast days, and be in charge—”

  “Of all the gold that once flowed freely into the temples of Amun.” I thought of the general and closed my eyes against the truth of his words. When I opened them, my sister’s gaze was resolute.

  “Yes.”

  “Nefertiti, you frighten me. You weren’t this way in Akhmim.”

  “I wasn’t Queen of Egypt in Akhmim.”

  At the end of the path, I stopped walking to ask her, “Aren’t you afraid you will offend the gods?”

  Nefertiti bridled. “This is Amunhotep’s dream,” she said defensively. “The more I do for Amunhotep, the closer he will be to me and no one else.” She stared across the lotus pond and her voice became a whisper. “He is going to Kiya’s bed tomorrow night.”

  I saw the worry in her face and said hopefully, “Perhaps he won’t—”

  “Oh, he will. It’s tradition. You said so yourself. But it will be my children who inherit this land.”

  “Father thinks you’ve become too ambitious,” I warned her.

  Nefertiti glanced at me sharply. “You had a family meeting without me?”

  I didn’t answer.

  “What did you talk about?” she demanded.

  “You, of course.”

  “And what did Father say?”

  “Nothing much. It’s our aunt who does most of the talking.”

  “She doesn’t like me. She doubts her choice. I know she must. Seeing another beautiful woman rise in the palace—”

  “And humble as well.”

  She gave me a look and we continued to walk. “Don’t tell me she isn’t resentful.”

  “Regretful, maybe. You were brought here to bring balance, not tip the scales!”

  “And how does anyone expect me to do that?” she asked heatedly. “I can’t tell him what he believes is wrong; he would run to Kiya and I would be finished.”

  At the farthest end of the gardens, we came upon a bower. I heard Amunhotep’s voice, low and intense on the other side of the tangled vines. I made to back away, but Nefertiti glanced sideways at me, then took my arm and pushed past the trees and into the clearing. At once, Amunhotep straightened. He was standing with a general, and both of them turned.

  “Nefertiti,” Amunhotep said with delight. Then he saw me and his smile thinned. “The inseparable sisters.”

  The general bowed. He was young, like Nakhtmin, but there was a seriousness in him that Nakhtmin didn’t possess; a hardness in his eyes. “Queen Nefertiti,” he said, as if the words didn’t give him much joy. “Lady Mutnodjmet.”

  “General Horemheb will be coming with us to Memphis,” Amunhotep announced. “He wishes to push the Hittites back and to reclaim territory that Egypt has lost since my father retired from the army. I have promised him a campaign in the north as soon as we reach Lower Egypt. And I have told him that all the booty the soldiers can collect may be kept by him and my army, so long as he can reclaim our land.”

  “That is very generous,” Nefertiti replied, watching Amunhotep carefully; I saw that the general was watching Amunhotep with the same guarded look.

  “Other soldiers can remain with my father to waste their careers, but Horemheb will follow me to glory!”

  I glanced at General Horemheb, who wasn’t moved by speeches.

  “And has Your Highness considered where the money will come from for these campaigns?” he asked frankly. “To regain lost territory will be expensive.”

  “Then I will tax the temples of Amun,” Amunhotep replied.

  Nefertiti exchanged a quick glance with me, but the general didn’t blink. “The temples of Amun have never been taxed. What makes you think they will give up their gold now?”

  “Because you will be there to enforce my will,” Amunhotep countered, and then I understood what was happening. He was striking a deal.

  General Horemheb clenched his jaw. “And how do I know that once the army has collected the taxes from the temples that the gold will be used to fund a campaign in the north?”

  “You don’t. But either you will trust me or you will spend your days in the service of a Pharaoh who is too old to fight. Only remember”—Amunhotep’s voice took on a warning tone—“in the end, I will be Pharaoh of Upper Egypt as well.”


  Horemheb looked at Nefertiti, then at me. “Then I must trust your word.”

  Amunhotep held out his hand to the general. “I will not forget your loyalty,” he promised.

  Horemheb took Pharaoh’s hand, but the look in his eyes was one of distrust. “Then I ask to take my leave, Your Highness.” He bowed, and I felt a chill go down my spine as I wondered what would happen if Amunhotep wasn’t as good as his word. I would not want a man like Horemheb for an enemy.

  Amunhotep watched him go and turned to Nefertiti. “I will never bow to the priests of Amun again.”

  “You’ll be the greatest Pharaoh of Egypt,” Nefertiti swore.

  “With the most magnificent queen of Egypt,” he added, “producing Pharaohs that will sit on the throne of Egypt to eternity.” He put his hands across her small taut stomach. “Even now, a little queen may be growing inside.”

  “We should know soon. I’m sure by the time we reach Memphis I will be showing.” But she looked at me when she said this, as if I could influence the gods because I was the one who prayed every night and made obeisance at the shrine of Amun every morning.

  Chapter Seven

  twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi

  “WHAT IF I’M not with child and Kiya gives birth to a boy in six months?” Nefertiti was pacing the floor of the antechamber. The sun had set, but Amunhotep was not with Nefertiti. He had gone to visit Kiya. “And who knows how long he’ll stay in her room tonight? What if he’s there until morning?” she panicked.

  “Don’t be foolish,” I tried to comfort her. “Pharaohs don’t sleep in bed with their wives.”

  “He sleeps in mine!” she shrieked and stopped pacing. “But he is not getting into bed with me tonight. He thinks he can go from one wife to the next? I’m no different from any of his other chattel?” Her voice rose. “Is that what he thinks?” She sat down before her mirror. “Kiya is not more beautiful than I am.” It was a question.

 
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