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Peret, Season of Growing
WHEN THE SUN set over Thebes, splaying its last rays over the limestone cliffs, we walked in a long procession across the sand. In the twisting line that threaded between the hills, the viziers of Upper and Lower Egypt came first, then the priests of Amun, followed by hundreds of mourners. The sand cooled rapidly in the shadows. I could feel the grains between the toes of my sandals, and when the wind blew under my thin linen robe, I shivered. I stepped out of line so I could see the sarcophagus, carried on a sledge by a team of oxen so the people of Egypt would know how wealthy and great our crown prince had been. Nefertiti would be jealous that she’d had to miss this.
I will tell her all about it when I get home, I thought. If she is being nice to me.
The bald-headed priests walked behind our family, for we were even more important than the representatives of the gods. The incense they swung from golden balls made me think of giant beetles, stinking up the air whichever way they went. When the funeral procession reached the mouth of the valley, the rattling of the sistrums stopped and the mourners went silent. On every cliff, families had gathered to see the prince, and now they looked down as the High Priest of Amun performed the Opening of the Mouth, to give Tuthmosis back his senses in the Afterlife. The priest was younger than the viziers of Egypt, but even so, men like my father stood back, deferring to his power when he touched a golden ankh to the mouth of the gure on the sarcophagus and announced, “The royal falcon has flown to heaven. Amunhotep the Younger is arisen in his place.”
A wind echoed between the cliffs, and I thought I could hear the rush of the falcon’s wings as the crown prince was freed from his body and ascended to the sky. There was a great amount of shuffling, children looking around the legs of their parents to see the new prince. I, too, craned my neck.
“Where is he?” I whispered. “Where is Amunhotep the Younger?”
“In the tomb,” my father replied. His bald head shone dully in the setting sun, and in the deepening of the shadows his face appeared hawkish.
“But doesn’t he want the people to see him?” I asked.
“No, senit.” His word for little girl. “Not until he’s been given what his brother was promised.”
I frowned. “And what is that?”
He clenched his jaw. “The coregency,” he replied.
When the ceremony was finished, soldiers spread out to stop commoners from following us into the valley, and our small party was expected to walk on alone. Behind us, the team of oxen heaved, pulling their golden cargo across the sand. Around us, cliffs rose against the darkening sky.
“We will be climbing,” my father warned, and my mother paled slightly. We were cats, she and I, frightened of places we couldn’t understand, valleys whose sleeping Pharaohs watched from secret chambers. Nefertiti would have crossed this valley without pause, a falcon in her fearlessness, just like our father.
We walked to the eerie rattle of the sistrums, and I watched my golden sandals reflect the dying light. As we ascended the cliffs, I stopped to look down over the land.
“Don’t stop,” my father cautioned. “Keep going.”
We trudged onward through the hills while the animals snorted their way up the rocks. The priests went before us now, carrying torches to light our way as we walked. Then the High Priest hesitated, and I wondered if he’d lost his bearing in the night.
“Untie the sarcophagus and free the oxen,” he commanded, and I saw, carved into the face of the cliff, the entrance to the tomb. Children shifted in their beads and women’s bangles clinked together as they passed each other looks. Then I saw the narrow staircase leading down into the earth and understood their fear.
“I don’t like this,” my mother whispered.
The priests relieved the oxen of their burden, heaving the gilded sarcophagus onto their backs. Then my father squeezed my hand to give me courage and we followed our dead prince into his chamber, out of the dying sun and into total darkness.
Carefully, so as not to slip on the rocks, we descended into the slick bowels of the earth, staying close to the priests and their reed-dipped torches. Inside the tomb, the light cast shadows across the painted scenes of Tuthmosis’s twenty years in Egypt. There were women dancing, wealthy noblemen hunting, Queen Tiye serving her eldest son honeyed lotus and wine. I pressed my mother’s hand for comfort, and when she said nothing, I knew she was offering up silent prayers to Amun.
Below us, the heavy air grew dank and the smell of the tomb became that of shifted earth. Images appeared and disappeared in the flickering torchlight: yellow painted women and laughing men, children floating lotus blossoms along the River Nile. But most fearsome was the blue-faced god of the underworld, holding the crook and flail of Egypt. “Osiris,” I whispered, but no one heard.
We kept walking, into the most secretive chambers of the earth, then we entered a vaulted room and I gasped. This was where all the prince’s earthly treasures were gathered: painted barges, golden chariots, sandals trimmed in leopard fur. We passed through this room to the innermost burial chamber, and my father leaned close to me and whispered, “Remember what I told you.”
Inside the empty chamber, Pharaoh and his queen stood side by side. In the light of the torches, it was impossible to see anything but their shadowy gures and the long sarcophagus of the departed prince. I stretched out my arms in obeisance and my aunt nodded solemnly at me, remembering my face from her infrequent visits to our family in Akhmim. My father never took Nefertiti or I into Thebes. He kept us away from the palace, from the intrigues and ostentation of the court. Now, in the flickering light of the tomb, I saw that the queen hadn’t changed in the six years since I had last seen her. She was still small and pale. Her light eyes appraised me as I held out my arms, and I wondered what she thought of my dark skin and unusual height. I straightened, and the High Priest of Amun opened the Book of the Dead, his voice intoning the words of dying mortals to the gods.
“Let my soul come to me from wherever it is. Come for my soul, O you Guardians of the heavens. May my soul see my corpse, may it rest on my mummified body which will never be destroyed or perish . . .”
I searched the chamber for Amunhotep the Younger. He was standing away from the sarcophagus and the canopic jars that would carry Tuthmosis’s organs to the Afterlife. He was taller than I was, handsome despite his light curling hair, and I wondered if we could expect great things from him when it was his brother who had always been meant to reign. He shifted toward a statue of the goddess Mut, and I remembered that Tuthmosis had been a cat lover in his life. With him would go his beloved Ta-Miw, wrapped inside her own miniature sarcophagus of gold. I touched my mother’s arm gently and she turned.
“Did they kill her?” I whispered, and she followed my eyes to the little coffin beside the prince.
My mother shook her head, and as the priests took up the sistrums she replied, “They said she stopped eating once the crown prince was dead.”
The High Priest began chanting the Song to the Soul, a lament to Osiris and the jackal god, Anubis. Then he snapped shut the Book of the Dead and announced, “The blessing of the organs.”
Queen Tiye stepped forward. She knelt in the dirt, kissing each of the canopic jars in turn. Then Pharaoh did the same, and I saw him turn sharply, searching for his younger son in the darkness. “Come,” he commanded.
His youngest son didn’t move.
“Come!” he shouted, and his voice was magnified a hundred times in the chamber.
No one breathed. I looked at my father, and he shook his head sternly.
“Why should I bow to him in obeisance?” Amunhotep demanded. “He would have handed Egypt over to the Amun priests like every king that came before him!”
I covered my mouth, and for a moment I thought the Elder would move across the burial chamber to kill him. But Amunhotep was his only surviving son, the only legitimate heir to Egypt’s throne, and like every seventeen-year-old crown prince in our history, the people would expect to see him enthroned as coruler. The Elder would be Pharaoh of Lower Egypt and Thebes, and Amunhotep coregent of Upper Egypt from Memphis. If this son also died, the Elder’s line would be finished. The queen walked swiftly to where her youngest son stood. “You will bless your brother’s organs,” she commanded.
“Because he is a Prince of Egypt!”
“And so am I!” Amunhotep said wildly.
Queen Tiye’s eyes narrowed. “Your brother served this kingdom by joining Egypt’s army. He was a High Priest of Amun, dedicated to the gods.”
Amunhotep laughed. “So you loved him better because he could butcher what he blessed?”
Queen Tiyes inhaled angrily. “Go to your father. Ask him to make a soldier of you. Then we will see what kind of Pharaoh you shall become.”
Amunhotep turned, stooping rashly before Pharaoh in the midst of his brother’s funeral. “I will become a warrior like my brother,” he swore. The hem of his white cloak trailed in the dirt, and the viziers shook their heads. “Together, you and I can raise Aten above Amun,” he promised. “We can rule the way your father once envisioned.”
Pharaoh held on to his walking stick, as if it could support his ebbing life. “It was a mistake to raise you in Memphis,” he pronounced. “You should have been raised with your brother. Here. In Thebes.”
Amunhotep stood swiftly and his shoulders straightened. “You only have me, Father.” He offered his hand to the old man who had conquered a dozen lands. “Take it. I may not be a warrior, but I will build a kingdom that will stand for eternity.”
When it was clear that Pharaoh would not take Amunhotep’s hand, my father moved forward to save the prince from embarrassment.
“Let your brother be buried,” he suggested quietly.
The look Amunhotep gave his father would have turned Anubis cold.
It was only when we returned on barges across the Nile, with the waves to drown our voices, that anyone dared to speak.
“He is unstable,” my father declared on our way back to Akhmim. “For three generations, our family has given women to the Pharaohs of Egypt. But I will not give one of my daughters to that man.”
I wrapped my wool cloak around my shoulders. It wasn’t me he was talking about. It was my sister, Nefertiti.
“If Amunhotep is to be made coregent with his father, he will need a Chief Wife,” my mother said. “It will be Nefertiti or Kiya. And if it is Kiya . . .”
She left the words unspoken, but we all knew what she had meant to say. If it was Kiya, then Vizier Panahesi would have sway in Egypt. It would be easy and logical to make his daughter queen: Kiya was already married to Amunhotep and nearly three months pregnant with his child. But if she became Chief Wife, our family would bow to Panahesi’s, and that would be an unthinkable thing.
My father shifted his weight on his cushion, brooding while the servants rowed north.
“Nefertiti has been told she will be a royal wife,” my mother added. “You told her that.”
“When Tuthmosis was alive! When there was stability and it looked as if Egypt would be ruled by...” My father closed his eyes.
I watched as the moon rose over the barge, and when enough time had passed, I thought it safe to ask, “Father, what is Aten?”
He opened his eyes. “The sun,” he replied, staring at my mother. There were thoughts passing between them, but no words.
“But Amun-Ra is god of the sun.”
“And Aten is the sun itself,” he said.
I didn’t understand. “But why would Amunhotep want to build temples to a sun god that no one has heard of?”
“Because if he builds temples to Aten, there will be no need for the priests of Amun.”
I was shocked. “He wants to be rid of them?”
“Yes.” My father nodded. “And go against all the laws of Ma’at.”
I sucked in my breath. No one went against the goddess of truth. “But why?”
“Because the crown prince is weak,” my father explained. “Because he is weak and shallow, and you should learn to recognize men who are afraid of others with power, Mutnodjmet.”
My mother threw a sharp glance at him. It was treason, what my father just said, but there was no one to hear it above the splash of the oars.
Nefertiti was waiting for us. She was recovering from fever, but even so she was sitting in the garden, reclining by the lotus pool, the moonlight reflecting off her slender arms. She stood up as soon as she saw us, and I felt a sort of triumph that I had seen the prince’s funeral and she’d been too sick to go. Guilt swept this feeling away, however, when I saw the longing in her face.
“Well, how was it?”
I’d planned on having the information drawn out of me, but I couldn’t be cruel the way she could be. “Absolutely magnificent,” I gushed. “And the sarcophagus—”
“What are you doing out of bed?” my mother scolded. She was not Nefertiti’s mother. She was only mine. Nefertiti’s mother had died when her daughter was two; she’d been a princess from Mitanni and my father’s first wife. She was the one who gave Nefertiti her name, which meant the Beautiful One Has Come. And though we were related, there was no comparing us: Nefertiti was small and bronze, with black hair, dark eyes, and cheekbones you could cup in the palm of your hand, whereas I am dark, with a narrow face that would never be picked out of a crowd. At birth, my mother didn’t name me for beauty. She called me Mutnodjmet, meaning Sweet Child of Goddess Mut.
“Nefertiti should be in bed,” my father said. “She’s not feeling well.” And although it was my sister he should have been reprimanding, it was me to whom he spoke.
“I’ll be fine,” Nefertiti promised. “See, I’m better already.” She smiled for him, and I turned to see my father’s reaction. Like always, he had a soft look for her.
“Nevertheless,” my mother cut in, “you were hot with fever and you will go back to bed.”