Hani would forever remember what he was doing the day he learned of the coregent’s death.
He and his father, Mery-ra, were strolling in the garden before dinner, on their leisurely way to the garden pavilion where they would eat on a midsummer evening. As if they were synchronized everywhere on earth, the cicadas roared in rhythmic waves, and the late afternoon sun was a golden liquid, spattering the gravel of the path where it sifted through the leaves of the big sycomore. Hani breathed deeply of the shady air. Despite all the troubles in the world around him, he couldn’t help believe that life was good. Jasmine and lilies were in bloom, and earthy aromatics and white daisies; the air was syrupy with their perfume, as if scent had mass. Could a man ask for more?
“Look, Father,” Hani said with a smile. He pointed to where Qenyt, his pet heron, stood as frozen as a statue on one leg in the shallows of the pool, her gray color making her almost invisible among the reeds that swayed there—a whisper of feathers, a deadly shadow of bird. All at once, her long neck unfurled and her dagger-sharp beak plunged into the water. A moment later, she stood with a twisting silver fish in her bill, which almost immediately disappeared down her throat. “She’s ruthless.”
Mery-ra chuckled, his belly bouncing. “I’ve found that to be true of females generally, son. Haven’t you ever noticed, with all the devious ladies you’ve had to serve over the years?”
Hani joined his laughter. “You have a point. Certainly the royal women are a cutthroat bunch.” But he added with a twinkle in his eye, “Of course, our women are very different.”
“I should think,” said Nub-nefer from behind him. She emerged from among the bushes, a tray in her hands upon which were arranged a variety of cheeses and pickled vegetables and bread cut into chunks. “However, our men tend to get hungry before a meal.” Hani’s wife set the tray down on a little table in the pavilion. I’ll bring you some beer. The kitchen girls have had it cooling in the well. Dinner will be a while yet.”
“Thank you, my dove,” Hani said fondly. He stroked her coppery arm. As Nub-nefer’s name proclaimed, she was his pure gold, his golden treasure. Even after thirty-six years of marriage, he felt he had yet to plumb her perfections.
The two men settled into their chairs on the porch of the pavilion and stretched out their legs. Mery-ra expelled a big breath with a whoosh. “Hot.” He folded his arms over his head to cool his armpits.
“That shouldn’t surprise you, Father. It’s almost time for the Inundation.”
Without lowering his arms, Mery-ra scrubbed his close-cropped gray hair. “I’m not surprised, but it’s hot nonetheless. These are the Heriu-renpet, the intercalary days. The old year is fast coming to an end. What will the new one bring, do you suppose?”
Nub-nefer and one of the serving girls approached with the beer pot and its stand. “Here you are, my hungry men,” Hani’s wife called from the porch of the pavilion, her voice rich with affection.
Suddenly Hani heard a wild noise of footsteps pounding down the gravel path from the gate, and Neferet burst into the open, red-faced and panting.”Mama! Papa! Grandfather! Ankh-khepru-ra Smenkh-ka-ra is dead!”
Hani and Nub-nefer exchanged a stunned look. Hani struggled to swallow, wondering if he had heard his daughter correctly. The coregent, only in his twenties, had died?
Mery-ra was the first to regroup. “When, my girl? How?”
“The plague, Grandfather. It only just took him off like that.” She snapped her fingers. “It hasn’t even been made public yet.” Neferet, who was a physician of the ladies attached to Ankh-kheperu’s court in Waset, would have been one of the first to know.
“That’s what happens when the king doesn’t perform the Appeasement of Sekhmet ritual,” Mery-ra said in a dire tone. “She gets mad.”
“Today’s the birthday of Sutesh,” Hani murmured. “A day of ill omen.”
They all got to their knees and scraped up dust to strew on their heads in a gesture of mourning. Hani climbed heavily to his feet, sweat beginning to spring on his forehead. He thought, This is the first brick falling out of the edifice King Nefer-khepru-ra has built. Ankh-khepru-ra was supposed to outlive his brother and serve as a regent for the Haru in the nest. Now what will happen?
Nub-nefer’s face had lit up with hope. She fastened huge glowing eyes on her husband, and Hani knew she was thinking the same thing: the building is starting to crumble.
Hani stared around him, the tableau of his family fixing itself in his memory. This was not just an occasion to tie on the white headband of mourning and participate in the lavish funeral rites of a king. Something significant had shifted—far more significant than the young deceased himself, who had been none too bright and was undoubtedly under the sway of others, probably his brother—or his wife. The likelihood of civil war breaking out when the present king died had just grown immeasurably greater.
Everyone stood there, frozen, until Neferet, unable to remain silent any longer, said, “Can I stay for dinner?”
Hani finally returned to the world around him. He laid a paternal hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Of course, my duckling. Where is Bener-ib?” Her fellow sunet and friend was always to be found trailing after Neferet.
“She was on duty tonight. One of the queen’s handmaids is sick.” No doubt seeing her family’s horrified expressions, she hastened to add, “But it’s not plague. She just had a baby, and things aren’t looking too good.”
“Come, my love.” Nub-nefer took her daughter by the elbow. “Help me bring out the food.” She caught Hani’s glance as they departed, and he could see the ill-dissembled joy struggling to blaze out of her eyes.
Hani watched them as they set off through the garden for the house—Nub-nefer almost as trim and lovely, to Hani’s eyes, at fifty-two, when many women had sunk into old age, as she had ever been. Behind her, Neferet, their youngest child, nearly skipped. She was twenty-one, but so full of energy that she seemed unable to walk sedately. Hani’s heart warmed with love, as always, when he thought of his little duckling. In appearance, Neferet was a female version of her father, square jawed and stocky, with small brown eyes and the same winsome gap between her front teeth. But whatever she lacked in beauty, she more than made up in personality, the irrepressible girl. Hani saw less of his daughter than he might wish, even though she now lived in Waset, assigned to the coregent’s court. She had married Hani’s friend and superior Lord Ptah-mes, and resided with her friend Bener-ib in her husband’s magnificent villa while Ptah-mes himself was assigned in near-permanence to far-off Azzati, a victim of the king’s antipathy. Hani declined to think about the strange arrangement of convenience that defined that marriage.
He turned to his father. “What will happen now, I wonder?”
Mery-ra said, with a twinkle of false innocence in his eye, “I suspect we’ll eat dinner.”
“I meant with the kingdom, revered Father,” Hani pretended to punch Mery-ra in the arm. “Ankh-khepru-ra was supposed to outlive the king and provide a transition to the reign of the little prince, maybe make him coregent with himself for a while when the boy’s older. Who’s left except the Great Queen now? And that seemed to be something the king was trying to avoid.”
Two servants arrived, bearing between them the couch of Hani’s eldest daughter, Baket-iset. Paralyzed after a terrible fall from a boat when she was only fifteen, she had remained strong souled and cheerful. Hani’s nose twinged every time he thought about her, his precious swan—all the more precious after her brush with death the previous year. “Wait till you see what Mama had the cook make, Papa, Grandfather.” She turned her dazzling smile upon the two men as the servants set her down.
Hani drew down the reed mat that shaded one end of the pavilion from the long rays of afternoon sun and resumed his seat. “I can’t wait.” He cleared his throat and asked in a lower voice, leaning toward his daughter, “Did Neferet tell you what has happened?”
“About the coregent? Yes. I’m very sorry for him. He was so young.”
“I guess we’ll have to trot out the white scarves again,” Mery-ra observed without much sorrow. He popped a slice of pickled turnip into his mouth and leaned toward his beer straw.
Nub-nefer and Neferet soon emerged from the house, leading a procession of servants, who arranged the dishes on small tables in front of the assembled family’s seats. All talk ceased as the family tucked into the delicious fish baked on fennel leaves.
“Lady Meryet-aten told me to tell you she wants to see you after the funeral, Papa.” Neferet said into the silence, her mouth half full.
Mery-ra shot his son an uneasy glance. Hani stopped chewing for a moment, frozen in his tracks. He hoped this was nothing serious. The last time the younger Great Royal Wife had called him in was to find out the real mother of the Haru in the nest. He was aware the younger queen harbored designs on the throne after her father’s death. “Do you know why, little duckling?”
“I have no idea, Papa.” Her eyes shifted around guiltily, and Hani suspected she did indeed know.
The family settled back to their meal, Hani careful not to let his uneasiness show. They had made their way through the quails and grilled endive and were starting in on figs when there was a loud breathless exchange of voices coming from the gate. A moment later, Hani’s son-in-law and secretary, Maya, came pounding down the path on his short legs, crying, “My lord! My lord! The coregent has died!” He mounted the porch, his face flushed with excitement.
“I know, son,” Hani said. He motioned to a stool, and Maya hoicked himself up onto a seat.
“I already told them,” Neferet informed him smugly.
A flash of annoyance flittered across Maya’s face, but he said handsomely, “Of course you would have, my girl. You work in the palace, don’t you? I just found out at the barracks.”
“What else were they saying, my boy?” Hani tried to soften the blow—Maya liked to be indispensable.
“They’re saying that the king isn’t long for this world either—”
“I told them that a long time ago,” said Neferet, not easily put into the shade.
“And that there will be a civil war between Lord Ay’s party—that is, Lady Nefert-iti and the crown prince—and her daughter’s party, who wants to return the country to the old ways.”
Hani and his wife locked eyes. A smile of carnivorous delight spread across Nub-nefer’s face. “May the Hidden One bless the girl. She’s stood firm through all the indoctrination of her childhood.”
The end of this awful nightmare may be in sight, Hani told himself, hardly daring to hope. But I fear it won’t come bloodlessly. Today is a day of bad omen indeed.
Seventy days later, the Osir Ankh-khepru-ra was inducted into the afterlife in a splendid ceremony, in which Hani, an increasingly upper-level functionary, found himself involved at rather close rank. All the diplomats abroad had been called home. To Hani’s amazement, Lord Ptah-mes was actually among the grandees chosen to help sledge the late coregent’s coffin to its burial place in the valley in the mountains east of Akhet-aten. As Hani stood in the sun, sweltering under his neck full of gold shebyu collars while he waited until he and his peers were to join the procession, he wondered who had made that decision. Probably not the king, who was no friend of Ptah-mes. Perhaps the Osir’s young widow. And if so, Hani asked himself whether things might soon be going Ptah-mes’s way for a change. Nefer-khepru-ra had made a point of bypassing Ptah-mes for promotion, and indeed, degrading him in rank over and over, driving the commissioner deeper and deeper into rebellion. But now, this honor…
The royal family, including the eighteen-year-old widow, attended the ceremonies under a flower-decked marquee cooled by servants with ostrich-plume fans, while everyone else tried not to pass out in the glaring sun of early Inundation season. Ironically, the burial took place on what had once been the collective festival of the Gods of the Two Lands. Are they planning their return?
Hani shaded his slitted eyes with a hand and stared around. The bleak Great Place, where kings had been buried on the west bank of Waset for time out of mind, was a verdant garden by comparison to this fissure in the cliffs of the eastern desert. Here there were no royal mortuary temples, with their carefully tended trees and shrubs, to soften the harsh, reddish stone. Indeed, Hani wasn’t even sure where the mortuary chapel of the deceased coregent was. Perhaps it had yet to be constructed; no one had expected him to die.
Hani’s mind was full of turmoil. No question but that the death of Ankh-khepru-ra is the end of something, and the gorgeous facade that remains standing is hollow and doomed. It was Nefer-khepru-ra who opened the mouth of the coregent’s coffin, so the dead man might enjoy the food and perfumes of the Field of Reeds—even though, Hani was sure, the Atenist creed made no provision for a Field of Reeds. This was a role usually played by the deceased’s son, and at royal burials marked a designation as heir. But of course, Ankh-khepru-ra had no children. What did it mean that his older brother and not the little nephew who was the Haru in the nest took this role today? Hani could see that the king looked drained by the weight of his duties—it would have spared him to have let his rambunctious eight-year-old take over the burden, but somehow the symbolism had seemed important enough to undertake it himself.
At last the ceremony was over, the royal family made their way in their carrying chairs back to the palace, and, little by little, the lesser participants untied their scarves. Somehow the image of the black-clad, bare-breasted mourning women, wailing and strewing their hair with dust and tearing their clothes, lingered in his mind like a bitter aftertaste. In a pensive mood, Hani spotted his old friend, Mane. His heart brightened. They waved at one another, and Mane scurried against the current to walk beside his friend.
“I haven’t seen you for over a year,” Hani said, slapping Mane delightedly on the back. “How are you managing at Artatama’s court?”
Mane rolled his eyes. “I’m retired, my friend. There’s not enough of Naharin left to justify an ambassador, and our government isn’t interested in talking to the Hittite viceroy at Karkemisa. It seemed like a good time to say my goodbyes to the foreign service.”
“We’re the poorer for that, but I’m happy for you. I wish I could do the same.” Hani thought queasily of the threat of promotion that hung over him in spite of his resistance to the king’s policies. He had almost quit once before. But he knew that those who chafed against the king’s reforms wanted loyal men to pack the bureaucracy so that when their day came, the transition would be smoother. And having seen the pale ghost of Nefer-khepru-ra, Hani wondered if that time weren’t upon them.
“Your family’s not here?” Mane asked in his booming voice as they walked.
“My father, sons, and son-in-law are. Nub-nefer refused to come, and the girls stayed with her, except for Neferet.”
“My wife’s not here either. She had no desire to stand out in the sun for hours.”
The two of them trudged in silence over the stony ground toward the city.
Hani said in a musing voice, “What does it mean, that our kings are now to be buried in the east? What does that say about the afterlife?”
Mane shot him a wry look. “We’ll all get to flutter around Nefer-khepru-ra’s altar, remember? He’ll shine like the sun upon us.” He wiggled his fingers to indicate the joyous throng of fluttering souls.
Hani snorted. It occurred to him that he heard more and more of this sort of open scorn, even among the diplomatic corps.
“Do you want to join me on my boat? I’m leaving this evening for Waset, even though I won’t get far before nightfall.”
“Thanks, my friend, but my family and I are to meet at my firstborn’s house, where we’ll spend the night. I’m hoping to see Lord Ptah-mes before I get away.”
Mane nodded understanding. “Where is he these days? He used to be my superior, but then he disappeared.”
Hani heaved out a breath of disgust. The subject still made him angry. “He was demoted and sent to Azzati. I saw him last year when I was up there.
“Demoted, eh?” Mane’s cheerful face twisted in a momentary sneer. “He was too much of a thorn between someone’s toes, I suppose.”
“My lord! My lord!” A voice from behind him made Hani turn. His secretary Maya was trotting up from out of the press. With his short stride, he fell into step alongside the two diplomats. “I can hardly believe I found you in this crowd. Lord Mane.” He nodded respectfully to Hani’s friend, the former ambassador to Naharin.
Hani smiled down at his son-in-law with affection. Maya was still wearing his pen case over his shoulder, reluctant to abandon the symbol of his literacy even in a crowd composed mostly of literate bureaucrats.
“Here’s where I split off. I’m docked downriver,” Mane said. He and Hani clasped forearms. “Come see me. I’m always home now.”
“With pleasure, my friend.”
Mane disappeared into the crowd as they entered Akhet-aten proper. Hani and his secretary turned south on the main processional street. He observed, as they passed the central palace, that the red banners signaling the king’s presence stirred lazily in the sluggish air. Hani’s thoughts were confused, a mixture of dread and hope.
As if he had read Hani’s thoughts, Maya asked in a quiet voice, “What will happen next, my lord?”
“I don’t know. There’ll almost certainly be an uprising as soon as the king dies. That may be the moment this whole bizarre experiment falls apart. I can’t imagine there are many real believers. Most people, like our Aha, are committed only to please the king and advance their careers.”
Maya made a thoughtful humming noise.
“Whether that’s a good or bad thing I’m not sure. The restoration of the Hidden One may come at a bloody cost.” The thought sat like a weight on Hani’s chest, making it impossible to rejoice as he wanted to.
“It depends on who the army supports, doesn’t it?”
“I suspect it does.” Hani thought about the young officers he knew. About the noncommittal Menna and the fervently anti-Atenist Pa-aten-em-heb, who had wasted no time returning to his own name of Har-em-heb as soon as he was posted outside the Two Lands. “I guess our friend the new commissioner of Kumidi is back for the funeral. Is that why you were at the barracks?”
“No, Lord Hani. I was visiting a comrade, a young standard bearer. His wife is Sat-hut-haru’s friend, and I thought it might be useful to cultivate another contact in the infantry. Maybe we’ll see Har-em-heb somewhere here today.”
Hani looked about him at the throng. Many people had peeled off to their separate destinations, but it was still quite a crowd that streamed toward the river or up or down the processional street. It would be miraculous to encounter the commissioner among all these people, this flock of noisy lapwings. “You know what I want?”
“For there not to be a war? For the Hidden One to be reinstated?”
Hani turned a humorous eye to his secretary. “I want lunch.”
At Aha’s house that evening, the whole male part of the family gathered in the garden after dinner to enjoy a pot of beer or some honeyed tamarind drink. A sweet, pearly twilight had descended. The cicadas were hushed, the crickets had taken up their watch, and a musky perfume of aromatics wafted from the well-tended flowerbeds edged with white stones that seemed to glow in the fading day. The men settled themselves in comfortable silence, and the liquid notes of a nightingale rose over the quiet evening from somewhere. It seemed hard to imagine civil war disturbing this pleasant tranquility.
Hani, sitting on the step of the garden pavilion alongside his second son, Pa-kiki, put an arm around the boy’s shoulder. “We don’t see much of you these days, now that you’re stationed in Kumidi.”
Pa-kiki said enthusiastically, “That may end soon, Father. Lord Har-em-heb has been promoted to general. He’s being withdrawn from the commissioner’s post.”
Hani and Maya, seated on the other side of Pa-kiki, exchanged a look. “His wife will be happy,” Hani said neutrally, mindful of Aha’s presence. In fact, he could barely contain his delight. Their fervent friend was making his way rapidly into a position of influence.
“And so will I. It’s pretty boring up there. But now that Lord Har-em-heb is a general, we can return to put those rebel vassals in their place with as many troops as we need.”
Hani pondered this development. It seemed the cause of the Hidden One was advancing nicely.
Seated in his chair above his father, Aha was pontificating about something. Mery-ra pretended interest, but Hani saw his jaw tremble with a suppressed yawn. Mery-ra finally interrupted, “What will become of your job if the old gods make a comeback, my son?”
Aha bridled. “The Aten isn’t going anywhere, Grandfather. Maybe they’ll open the temples back up, but the Dazzling One will always rule over our kingdom.”
“And when he dies?” Hani asked.
“The Aten die? What do you mean?”
“You know who the Aten is, don’t you?”
But Aha seemed confused. “He’s the sun...”
“He’s the king.”
Aha’s bushy eyebrows drew down. He seemed to be stopped in his tracks by this consideration. You’d better give some thought to this, son. You’re employed by the temple of the Sun Disk, and you may soon be forced to try look as faithful to Amen-Ra as you have tried to look zealous for the Aten. But aloud, Hani said nothing, just bent to take a pull on his straw.
The next morning, as soon as the sun had risen, Hani, Neferet, and Maya made their way to Ptah-mes’s splendid villa in the capital. Hani was eager to speak to his superior, whom he had not seen for the better part of a year. Their last meeting had been after their illegal arrest of Amen-nefer, the former commissioner at Kumidi, the two of them having taken the law into their own hands to punish a corrupt and demonic man. At the very recollection, Hani’s lip curled up in a sneer. He was far from feeling guilt in the matter; Amen-nefer had been the cause of Baket-iset’s terrible fall. It was only by the grace of the Weigher of Souls that he and Ptah-mes didn’t have the commissioner’s blood on their hands, because they had certainly intended to execute the man, guilty of murder or not. But his nefarious allies, the hapiru brigands, had taken care of that instead. Hani told himself, “Djehuty sits by the balance.” Justice is more important than the law, my boy. Ma’at was well served.
They approached the lofty gate of Ptah-mes’s “modest place”, where he stayed when he was unavoidably in the new capital. Hani was interested to see that Neferet wanted to greet her husband. She seemed almost eager, striding along beside her father with a spring in her step, chattering away about anything and nothing, about potions and puppies. Bener-ib trailed quietly in her steps. “Papa, did you know that henbane is used in medicine?”
“What’s that?” Hani asked uneasily.
“It’s a plant with pretty flowers,” said Bener-ib in her timid little-girl voice.
Nefert continued her friend’s thought. “It stinks, though. It’s poison if you eat enough of it, but a little is all right. Mostly, it’s used in salves for various things. Like impotence.”
Hani stared at her, round-eyed. “What do you know about that, duckling? I thought you only treated the young queen and her ladies.”
Neferet shrugged, her eyes twinkling with the pleasure of shocking her father. “But that involves the queen, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, who’s on the receiving end of—”
“Stop right there, my girl,” Maya cut in. “Say you’re not applying salve to men’s parts.”
She snickered but left the question unanswered.
They marched along in silence for a few paces more, a clamminess moistening Hani’s forehead that had nothing to do with the heat, before he was able to say what was going through his mind. “Do you mean to tell us that the Osir Ankh-khepru-ra wasn’t able to …?” He coughed, feeling distinctly uncomfortable discussing such a thing with his twenty-one-year-old daughter and her friend.
“I can’t tell the coregent’s secrets, Papa,” Neferet said with a virtuous lift of her chin. “But if someone twisted my arm, I’d have to say yes.”
Hani and Maya exchanged a look of discomfort. “Please keep that to yourself, my duckling,” Hani warned her. But he remembered his first meeting with Queen Meryet-aten more than a year ago, when a comment had slipped from her lips about not bearing any heirs. Suddenly it made sense. No doubt about it—Ankh-khepru-ra’s foreseeable lack of children made his choice as coregent clearer. It had been intended to make Prince Tut-ankh-aten’s claim on the throne more secure. Too many regents had taken the power from their wards and passed it along to their own offspring.
They arrived at the beautifully painted gate of Lord Ptah-mes’s villa. He had discreetly left the usual catalog of his offices uninscribed on the lintel, and it simply read “Ptah-mes son of Bak-en-ren-ef.” No doubt, “First Prophet of Amen-Ra” would not have sat well in Akhet-aten, where the Hidden One was never to be mentioned.
Under his breath, Hani asked Neferet, “When was the last time you saw your husband?”
“Just once, right after we were married—you were there,” she said matter-of-factly. “But I’ve written to him.”
“Yes, he told me. Good for you, little duckling.”
The gatekeeper immediately recognized his new mistress and her companion and welcomed them with a deep bow. Then he saw Hani and Maya, and a smile lit his formal face. “My ladies. My lords. What can I do for you.”
“Is Lord Ptah-mes in?”
“He is, my lord, and I’m sure he would be happy to see you and the mistress of the house.”
“Thank you. Please announce us.”
But the servant said, “He’s in the garden eating breakfast, Lord Hani. Feel free to join him there.”
Hani had virtually lived in this house for years, whenever he made a visit to the capital. He knew the way to the garden pavilion, past the long pool and the orchard and the beautifully manicured flowers. A pair of finches was fussing and screeching, invisible in the bushes, and it filled him with the desire to laugh. Nature could only be tamed so far.
Ahead, he saw the flash of white garments and called out, “Lord Ptah-mes? It’s Hani.”
Ptah-mes rose from his chair under the shady grapevine, rich with hanging clusters. His austere face lit up with pleasure. “Hani, my friend. I’m so glad we crossed paths. Maya.” He nodded courteously, then he saw Neferet bouncing on her toes at her father’s side and Bener-ib standing shyly behind her. “Lady Neferet. Lady Bener-ib.” The high commissioner’s face never changed its pleasant expression, but Hani saw his eyes flicker sideways for an instant.
He’s ill at ease, Hani thought. And well he might be. His marriage with Neferet was undoubtedly the most unconventional in the Two Lands, each serving as cover for the other’s unwillingness to engage in the normal rules of marriage. Ptah-mes had lost his beloved wife only three years before and was still in mourning—perhaps would always be—while Neferet had no interest in men and lived under Ptah-mes’s roof with her lady friend.
“Lord Ptah-mes,” Neferet said, bobbing in a bow. But that was the extent of her formality. Neferet was rather more spontaneous than schooled in etiquette. She beamed at her husband with her broad gap-toothed smile and waggled her fingers in a wave.
Hani saw with a thrill of horror that Ptah-mes’s expression softened into something resembling fatherly affection. Oh, no. She’s made him start to care for her—just through her letters, I suppose. The gods knew his own children were no comfort to him.
“I had hoped to catch you before you went back to Azzati, my lord,” Hani said.
Ptah-mes gestured them to be seated. “Please forgive me my lack of courtesy, my friends.” They settled themselves on his beautifully carved stools, and Ptah-mes crossed his legs, linking his fingers around his knee. “Any news, Hani?”
“Nothing since we last met, my lord. I wonder what’s going to happen now?”
“Me too.” The high commissioner’s lips spread in a smile that was almost sly.
“Queen Meryet-aten is going to rebel against her mother and brother, that’s what.” Neferet burst out. “And since the king is sick, it shouldn’t be long.” She stared at Ptah-mes with sparkling eyes, delighted to take him off guard.
Ptah-mes sat up. He caught Hani’s glance and lifted an eyebrow in what seemed to be real surprise. Maya groaned and hung his head. Hani could have spanked his daughter, ever ready to draw attention to herself. But along with that impulse came a twinge of guilt that he had not informed his superior of this earlier. It hadn’t seemed to be his secret to share.
“How do you know this, my dear?” Ptah-mes asked smoothly.
Smug, Neferet smiled, eyes sparkling.“I work at the Teni-menu, of course. I’m the young queen’s physician.”
Ptah-mes nodded slowly. “I have heard that Lady Nefert-iti is to be raised to full coregency, and that Lady Meryet-aten is to become Great Royal Wife in her place.”
Maya gasped, and Hani widened his eyes in stunned silence. Only Neferet said, in the flat voice of disappointment, “Iyi! I didn’t know about that!”
“It sounds like the whole royal family is a set of senet pieces, to be moved around the game board at the king’s will,” Hani said, poorly disguising his disgust. “All this shuffling of roles smacks of desperation to me.”
“Doesn’t it?” Ptah-mes smiled. The idea seemed to please him. He looked more genuinely cheerful than Hani had seen him in a long time—certainly since Nefer-khepru-ra had come to the throne. “Perhaps the end is upon us, Hani.”
“That’s what I feel too, my lord.” Hani turned to Neferet and said earnestly, “But no one must express that in public, my duckling. Not a word of it. Dying animals often bite.”
She smirked. “Good thing I’m a doctor, isn’t it?”
Hani had to laugh in spite of his anxiety. The clever little demon. He saw Ptah-mes smile indulgently and thought once more, Oh dear. He’s under her spell. “I suppose we’re still in our old assignments. The coregent wasn’t in charge of foreign service appointments.”
“No. It’s still Ra-nefer.” Ptah-mes’s lips grew hard. Hani knew how he held the vizier of the Lower Kingdom in contempt. “But I suspect he’ll be distracted with all the coronations coming up. You might as well enjoy some time with your family until someone remembers we have a foreign policy.”
Maya suppressed a snort and Neferet giggled outright.
Hani said, “I was pleasantly surprised to see you as one of the late coregent’s pallbearers, my lord. Does this mean things are… looking up for you?”
“As you probably have guessed, that honor was by the request of Lady Meryet-aten. Perhaps the king didn’t even know until he saw me there. I understand he’s delegating a lot more decisions than he used to.”
Hani nodded. “It was a little risky for both you and her. She has declared her independence of her father in full public view.”
Ptah-mes smiled caustically. “All the colleagues who abandoned me in disgrace have started creeping back to remind me how they’ve always admired me.”
“I wonder what has made her change her mind. Does she know you well?”
“In a word—Mai.” Ptah-mes exchanged a significant look with Hani. “She has been listening to him.”
Hani goggled at him, dumbfounded. “The Crocodiles? She’s in with them?”
“Who’s Mai? Who are the Crocodiles?” Neferet asked, gaping from face to face.
“Perhaps it’s safer for you not to know, my dear,” said her husband with that same softened expression as before. “Since you work at the palace.”
Hani saw the beginning of a stubborn lip outthrust, but, mercifully distracted, Neferet cried, “Oh, wait. Will anybody be living in Waset, now that Ankh-khepru-ra is dead?
Ptah-mes shrugged. “A good question. I doubt it. It was never clear to me what the king hoped to accomplish by that anyway. Perhaps just to keep an eye on our fair city, full of sedition as it is.”
Neferet turned to her father, her little brown eyes squinted with anxiety. “Do you think Lady Djefat-nebty will send us permanently up to Hut-nen-nesut, now that nobody will be at the Teni-menu? It’s so-o-o far away...”
“How can we know, my girl?” Maya answered irascibly. Hani chuckled inside. He could imagine how irritated Maya was at Neferet hogging the spotlight for so long.
At last, Ptah-mes rose, with a brush of his skirts, and the others followed suit. He said, “I know you need to get away to Waset, Hani. And for that matter, so do I. There’s nothing holding me here at the moment. Can I prevail upon you to join me on my boat?”
“I thank you, my lord, but my father and brother are with me.”
Ptah-mes tipped his head in gracious gesture of welcome. “I would be delighted for them to join us. Shall I meet you at the embarcadero after lunch?”
“With pleasure, Lord Ptah-mes. That’s very kind of you.”
“But anyway, it’s my boat too, Papa,” said Neferet with a grin that was the furthest thing from proud or possessive. It was if she had just realized this delightful fact. She caught Ptah-mes’s eye, a complicit sparkle in her own.
This is still a game for her, Hani thought uneasily. I just hope Ptah-mes doesn’t really fall in love with her only to have her repulse him. It would be too cruel. “Then we take our leave, my lord. We’ll see you at the boat.”
Ptah-mes saw them off with perfect grace. Neferet decided to go back to Aha’s with them for lunch rather than remain at her husband’s villa. Through the garden, shaded with sycomore and plane trees, the three of them set off. A pair of ducks floated serenely on the water of the long pool, and Hani eyed them with affection. They have no idea what’s about to break over the Black Land. But then, none of us really does.
With a nod to the gatekeeper as he threw back the heavy doors for them, Hani and his secretary and his daughter passed out into the street. The heat and glare hit them on the dusty road like a slap across the face.
“What do you think about what Lord Ptah-mes told us, Lord Hani? That’s what you tried to get for the queen years ago,” Maya said.
“But iy, to marry your own daughter?” Neferet’s nose wrinkled.
“I suspect it’s just a pro forma marriage, my duckling.” And you should know about that. “The Great Royal Wife has many ceremonial duties, and if Lady Nefert-iti is really a full-fledged king, she can’t perform them. Perhaps that’s why Nefer-khepru-ra didn’t formally make her king back then, even thought she had all the powers of one.”
Maya nodded, “That’s probably true.”
They strode on in silence while the sun beat down upon them mercilessly at the noon hour. There were scarcely any shadows at that time of day. Fortunately, Aha’s place was also in the southern suburb of the city, so their way was not long.
“Well, here you all are at last,” cried Mery-ra as soon as the little party had entered the gate. “We had begun to think that slavers had kidnapped you and dragged you off to Sangar.” He heaved himself up from where he was sitting on the steps of the little garden shrine. Pipi, sitting beside him on the gravel path, managed to rise gracelessly, bottom first, nearly losing his wig.
“You’ll both be overjoyed to know that Lord Ptah-mes has invited us to join him on his yacht for the trip home.”
“Yahya! Oh, Hani, you know how I love that boat!” Pipi cried, a grin lighting up his square-jowled face until he nearly quivered with excitement.
Hani laughed. “Why are you coming down to Waset anyway, little brother? Don’t you have duties at the Hall of Royal Correspondence here?”
“But it’s the Feast of the Purification of the Hearts of the Gods. I’m off work.”
Mery-ra snorted. “Don’t tell me they gave you that day off in Akhet-aten.”
“And a lot of other festivals are coming, Father.”
“There’s something nearly every day of the year. But they’re not all holidays, you know, son.”
Pipi hung his head and looked up guiltily from under his eyebrows. “I told them I was sick. But I want to see Mut-benret and the grandchildren.”
Forcing the rebuke out of his voice, Hani said in a neutral tone, “Not even Pa-kiki is coming down, and they’re his wife and children. Because he has duties, and his superior is stationed in Akhet-aten at the moment, so there he stays.” Like a grown-up, Hani thought dryly. Pipi was nearly fifty, but he was still just a big ten-year-old at heart, with no sense of responsibility.
Pipi was quiet during lunch, undoubtedly suspecting he had disgraced himself in his father’s and brother’s eyes yet again. But Aha, Mery-ra, and Neferet kept the conversation lively. As for Hani, he was sunk in troubled thought. Meryet-aten was to be the new Great Royal Wife, while her mother was crowned a second king. She was planning a revolt, in the company of Lord Mai and the rebellious priests of the Hidden One. And she wanted to see him, Hani. Despite the possibility of a much-desired outcome, in the short term, this foreboded nothing good.