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       Nefertiti, p.9

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Of course not.”

  “Is she more cunning?”

  I couldn’t say.

  Nefertiti spun around, and there was the light of a new idea in her eyes. “You must go and see what they are doing,” she decided.

  “What? You want me to spy on your husband?” I shook my head vehemently. “If I’m caught spying, the guards would bring me to Pharaoh.”

  “I have to know what they do together, Mutnodjmet.”

  “Why? What does it matter?”

  “Because I have to be better than she is!” She raised her chin. “We all have to be. It’s not just for me, it’s for our family. Our future.” She came and held my shoulders. “Please, just find out what he says to her.”

  “It’s too dangerous!” I protested.

  “I can tell you how to reach their window.”

  “What? Outside? You want me to crawl in the dirt? What if I’m caught?”

  “Guards aren’t posted beneath Second Wives’ windows,” she sneered. “Please, just put on a cloak,” she encouraged.

  With a deep foreboding, I put on a heavy linen and sat at the mirror to tie back my hair. Nefertiti watched my progress from behind me. “It’s a good thing you’re dark,” she remarked. “No one will notice you.”

  I glared at her, but she was no longer watching me. All of her thoughts now were on Kiya, and she stared down the hall as if she could see what her husband was doing already. When I was done, I went and stood at the door. My father would have wanted me to do this. It was for the good of the family. And spying wasn’t against the laws of Ma’at. I wasn’t stealing, just listening.

  “I need to know everything that he tells her,” she said. She wrapped a long cape over her sheath and shivered. “I’ll wait here. And Mutny—”

  I frowned.

  “Be careful.”

  I felt my heart in my throat as I slipped into the courtyard. The air was warm and reed mats slapped softly against the palace windows, moving in the breeze. No one was out. The moon was a sliver in the sky, and unless someone were looking for me, there would be no reason to walk beyond the palace doors in the middle of the night. I passed through a succession of courtyards, counting them as I went. I kept close to the walls, near the shrubs and ivy. When I arrived in Kiya’s courtyard, I stopped to listen, but there was no sound. I crept along until I reached the third window. I glanced across the courtyard and saw no one, then crouched to listen. Now there were voices; I pressed myself flat against the wall, trying to hear what Pharaoh was saying.

  When you set in western lightland, earth is in darkness as if in death. Every lion comes from its den. All the serpents bite. Darkness hovers, earth is silent, as their maker rests in lightland

  .

  He was reciting poetry.

  Earth brightens when you dawn in lightland. When you shine as Aten of daytime, as you cast your rays, the Two Lands are in festivity. Awake they stand on their feet. You have roused them!

  “Let me read the rest.” It was Kiya’s voice. I heard the rustle of papyrus, and then she began to read.

  Roads come open when you rise. The fish in the river dart before you. Your rays are in the midst of the sea. You are the One who makes seed grow, who creates life, who feeds the son in his mother’s womb, who soothes him to still his tears. Oh, Nurse in the womb, oh, Giver of breath. You nourish all that you make

  .

  So this was the spell that Kiya, with her long willowy legs, cast on him…the magic of quiet sanctuary. Away from Nefertiti’s constant plans and politics, Amunhotep and Kiya read poetry together. From beneath the window, I could smell burning incense. I waited to see what else they would talk about, and he began telling her stories of what life would be like in Memphis, where he’d grown up as a boy.

  “My rooms will be in the center of the palace,” he said, “and to my right I will place you and give you the best of everything.”

  I heard her giggle like a child. Nefertiti never giggled; she laughed, deep and breathy like a woman.

  “Come!” He must have grabbed her, because I heard them fall heavily on the bed, and I covered my mouth in horror. How could he take a woman in pregnancy? He would hurt the child!

  “Wait,” she whispered, and her voice grew stern. “What about my father?”

  “Vizier Panahesi? Of course he will come with us to Memphis,” he pronounced, as if there was never any other option. “And I will give him the highest position at court.”

  “Such as?”

  “Such as whatever he wants,” he promised. “You never have to worry. Your father is loyal to me and my cause. There is no vizier in Egypt I trust above Panahesi.”

  I looked across the courtyard and there, in the silvery light, was the vizier listening to everything that I’d just heard. He was standing motionless, and I believe at that moment my heart stopped in my chest. When he saw that I’d recognized him, he smiled.

  Then I was running, all the way back to Nefertiti’s chamber. I forgot about Amunhotep’s poetry and Kiya’s questions. Nefertiti rushed to meet me at the door. “What happened?” she exclaimed, seeing my face, but I couldn’t answer. “Mutny, what happened? Were you caught?”

  My breath came in quick gasps. My thoughts raced, and I wondered if I should tell her about Panahesi. We had both been conspirators caught in the night. I hadn’t said anything and neither had he.

  She shook my shoulders. “Were you caught?”

  “No.” I breathed. “They were reading poetry.”

  “Then why were you running? What happened?”

  “He said he trusted Panahesi above any other vizier in Egypt. He told Kiya he’d give her father the highest position at court!”

  Immediately, Nefertiti was at the door, commanding one of the guards to fetch Vizier Ay. Our father came at once, and the three of us sat in a circle around the king’s private brazier. If he returned, he would catch us conspiring about him.

  My sister straightened. “I’m going to tell Amunhotep that Panahesi can’t be trusted,” she resolved.

  “And risk his anger?” My father shook his head. “No. Panahesi can be avoided,” he replied. “The bigger threat is growing in Kiya’s belly.”

  “Then perhaps we should kill it,” my sister said.

  “Nefertiti!” She and my father both looked at me.

  “The right mix of herbs in her wine…,” my father wondered. I didn’t want hear this. I didn’t want to be part of it. “But she would only get pregnant again,” he concluded.

  “And the vizier would be suspicious,” Nefertiti replied. “He would tell Amunhotep and that would be the end of us. I will simply have to outwit her.”

  “Keep doing whatever you’re doing,” my father agreed. “He’s infatuated with you.”

  She raised an eyebrow. “You mean keep praising Aten?”

  My father looked stern.

  “It’s the only way to keep him,” Nefertiti said quickly.

  “And it’s what Kiya does,” I pointed out.

  “Kiya does nothing,” Nefertiti replied hotly.

  “She listens to his poetry. And he doesn’t read it to you!”

  “When we go to Memphis, he must be careful with the priests of Amun,” my father interrupted. “He cannot interfere with them. Nefertiti, you must make sure of this.”

  I waited for my sister to speak of the deal Amunhotep had struck with Horemheb in the gardens, but she said nothing.

  “If he grabs for too much power, it could topple us all. The Elder has other sons that could replace him if he should suddenly die.”

  My breath caught in my throat. “The priests of Amun would murder a king?”

  My sister and father stared at me again, and then ignored my outburst.

  Nefertiti asked, “But what if he could take power from the priests?”

  “Don’t think it.”

  “Why not?” she demanded.

  “Because then Pharaoh would have total control of Memphis, and your husband is not wise enough
to wield that kind of power.”

  “Then you could have it. You could be the power behind the throne,” she tempted him. “You would be untouchable.”

  Now this was something new. A king’s vizier could wield more influence if he only had to answer to Pharaoh, not to the priests and noblemen. I saw my father thinking, and my sister continued. “It’s what he wants. He will be busy building his temples to Aten. And who would rule better, you or the High Priest of Thebes?”

  I could see that my father was thinking she was right. If there was going to be a shift in the balance, why not come out on the better end? He had a better knowledge of foreign and domestic entanglements than a priest walled up in a temple to Amun. “Tiye will not be pleased,” my father warned. “It’s a gamble,” he said. “It could all turn out wrong.”

  “How else am I to remain the favorite?” Nefertiti rose dramatically. “Tell him he will fail? He will go through with this whether I support him or no.”

  “Can’t you take his mind away from Aten?”

  “It’s all he can think about.”

  My father stood and went to the door. “We will play this slowly,” he decided. “There are men in this court neither you nor your husband would like to make enemies of.”

  We listened as his footsteps slapped across the tiles back to his own chamber.

  Nefertiti collapsed into a chair. “So while Amunhotep is reciting poetry to that whore, the Queen of Egypt is spending the night with her sister.”

  “Don’t be angry or he will resent you,” I said.

  She shot me a look, but didn’t mock my suggestion.

  “I will sleep with you tonight,” she decided, and I didn’t complain. I wouldn’t have wanted my husband crawling into bed next to me after a night with another woman, either.

  The next morning, I awoke at sunrise, then dressed myself quickly to pay obeisance at the shrine of Amun. I moved as silently as possible, but even so Nefertiti rolled over to grumble at me.

  “You’re not going to the shrine?” she asked with disbelief. “You don’t have to pay obeisance every day,” she said.

  “I enjoy speaking with Amun,” I replied defensively, and she made a disbelieving noise in her throat. “When is the last time you went?” I demanded, and she closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep. “Do you even know where Amun’s shrine is?” I challenged.

  “Of course. In the garden.”

  “Well, it wouldn’t hurt you to come. You’re Queen of Egypt.”

  “And you visit every day. You make my offerings for me. I’m too tired.”

  “To thank Amun?”

  “He knows that I’m thankful. Now leave me alone.”

  So I went into the gardens by myself, as I had every morning since our arrival in Thebes, and picked a crop of flowers to place at Amun’s feet. I took only the choicest flowers: irises as purple as deep summer’s night, and hibiscus with petals like bloodred stars. When I was finished at the shrine, it was still quite early, and only servants were out in the gardens, watering the tamarinds with their heavy earthen bowls. Nefertiti was certain to still be asleep, so I walked to my parents’ courtyard. My mother would be awake, placing offerings at Hathor’s feet.

  As I moved through the palace, I enjoyed the silence. Cats crept through the halls, sleek black with bronze eyes, but they took no notice of me. They were hunting for the remains of last night’s dinner, a half-eaten honeyed fig dropped by a servant or a delicious morsel of roasted gazelle. I reached my mother’s courtyard and found her sitting in the garden, reading a scroll with a familiar wax seal.

  “News from Akhmim!” she announced brightly when she saw me. The morning sun gilded the new lapis collar that she was wearing.

  I walked eagerly to her bench and took a seat. “And what does the overseer say?” I asked.

  “Your garden is doing well.”

  I thought of my jujube with its ginger-colored fruit and the beautiful hibiscus I had planted last spring. I would not be there to see any of it ripen. “And what else?”

  “The grapes are growing fast. The overseer says that in Shemu this vintage could produce sixty barrels.”

  “Sixty! Will they send them on to Memphis?”

  “Certainly. And I asked for my linen shifts to be sent as well. I forgot them in the rush to pack.”

  We smiled at each other in the pale light of the courtyard, both thinking about Akhmim. Only her smile was wider and more innocent, because my father kept from her the things he couldn’t keep from me, and she didn’t see that we’d traded security for worry.

  “So tell me about Nefertiti,” she said. “Is she happy?” She rolled up the scroll, tucking it into her sleeve.

  “As happy as she can be. He did go to Kiya last night.” I settled against the cool stone bench and sighed. “So, we are leaving for Memphis.”

  My mother nodded. “Amunhotep will only grow restless here, waiting for the Elder to die. Perhaps not even waiting,” she added ominously.

  I glanced at her sharply. “You don’t think he would hasten the Elder’s death?”

  My mother looked across the courtyard, but we were alone. “There is talk he sent Tuthmosis to an early burial. But that is just talk,” she added quickly. “Servants’ gossip.”

  “Except that servants are usually right,” I whispered.

  She lost some of her coloring. “Yes.”

  That night we took our meal in the Great Hall, but much of the court was absent, attending a funeral for the emissary to Rhodes. Both Queen Tiye and my father had gone, while the Elder remained at the palace with his wine and women. That night the Elder was in a particularly vulgar mood, singing and belching with abandon. I saw him grab one of the servant’s breasts while she reached to replenish his wine, and when Nefertiti sat down to her husband’s left he suggested she might want to sit near him instead. She declined without a word, and I flushed on her behalf, so Pharaoh turned to me. “Then perhaps I might have the company tonight of the green-eyed sister.”

  “Enough!” Amunhotep banged his fist on the table. The courtiers turned to us to see what was happening. “The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife is perfectly fine where she is.”

  The Elder lowered his wine threateningly and stood, sending his chair clattering to the floor. “No weak-stomached son of mine will ever command me!” he shouted, reaching for his sword, but as he stepped forward his feet gave out beneath him. He crashed to the tiles, hazy with wine, and a dozen servants rushed to his aid. “No son of mine will teach me manners!” he raged.

  Amunhotep jumped to his feet, commanding the servants, “Take him out of here! He is sick with wine.” The servants looked between the Elder and his son. “Take him now!” Amunhotep shouted.

  The servants rushed to do as they were bid. They carried Pharaoh toward the door. But the Elder broke free and rushed the dais violently.

  Amunhotep reached for his short sword and my heart raced in my chest. “Nefertiti!” I cried.

  Guards rushed to restrain the king, and the Elder shouted, “No prince who writes poems instead of fighting on the battlefield will control my kingdom! Do you hear? Tuthmosis was the chosen Prince of Egypt!” The guards hustled him toward the doors and he shouted violently, “The chosen prince!” The doors swung shut and suddenly there was silence. The diners in the Great Hall looked to Amunhotep, who sheathed his sword and flung his cup against the tiles. When it shattered into pieces, he held out his hand for Nefertiti. “Come.”

  Dinner in the Great Hall was over.

  Inside the antechamber to our rooms, Amunhotep’s mood was dark. “He’s like a pig, stuffing himself with food and women. I will never be like him!” he shouted. “He was more interested in the serving girl than he was in me. If Tuthmosis was alive, he would have begged him to tell his stories. What did you shoot today?” he mimicked. “A boar? No! You wrestled a crocodile?” Amunhotep’s pacing grew more fervent. Between the two of them, they would wear the polish off these tiles. “Why is Tuthmosis the chosen on
e?” he thundered. “Because I don’t go off and shoot things like he did?”

  “No one cares whether or not you hunt,” Nefertiti said. She caressed his cheek, moving her hand through his tumble of curls. “Leave it,” she suggested. “Tomorrow we begin preparing for our departure, and you will be a true Pharaoh and beholden to no one.”

  Chapter Eight

  twenty-seventh of Pharmuthi

  THE FOLLOWING DAY brought frenzied preparations to the palace. My parents were arranging litters and donkeys, and Nefertiti hollered into my chamber only when she wanted something from me. Should she bring her wigs or get new ones made? What should she wear on her progression to Memphis, and would Ipu and Merit be coming with us? No one was standing still in the palace. Even the army was in disarray, with the Elder choosing which men would stay with him and which ones would go. The generals were to decide for themselves.

  I went out to the palace gardens, where there wasn’t any commotion, and walked down the avenue of sycamore trees, their bright foliage shading the cobbled road. I wandered off the path, stopping to admire the flowering myrtles that clustered near the olive groves, their thick white blossoms used to treat coughs, bad breath, and colds. All around the palace grew plants with properties to cure or hurt. I wondered if the Royal Gardener knew that jasmine was good for exhaustion, and whether he’d planted the vines near the yellow and white chamomile flowers by accident, or if he’d known that chamomile was also used by the court physicians to ease tension.

  I could sit in the gardens all day and no one would notice until Nefertiti wanted something. I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the water, and as the splash resounded I heard a high-pitched mewl. First one, then another kitten darted out of the brush, startled by the noise the pebble had made. One of the palace felines had just produced a litter and the kittens bounded after their sleek black mother, nipping at each other’s tails and tumbling in the grass. I called one of them over to me, a green-eyed bundle who looked like her sire, and she curled up in my lap, mewling for food.

 
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