I am sure that if I sat in a quiet place, away from the palace and the bustle of the court, I could remember scenes from my childhood much earlier than six years old. As it is, I have vague impressions of low tables with lion’s-paw feet crouched on polished tiles. I can still smell the scents of cedar and acacia from the open chests where my nurse stored my favorite playthings. And I am sure that if I sat in the sycamore groves for a day with nothing but the wind to disturb me, I could put an image to the sound of sistrums being shaken in a courtyard where frankincense was being burned. But all of those are hazy impressions, as difficult to see through as heavy linen, and my first real memory is of Ramesses weeping in the dark temple of Amun.
I must have begged to go with him that night, or perhaps my nurse had been too busy at Princess Pili’s bedside to realize that I was gone. But I can recall our passage through the silent halls of Amun’s temple, and how Ramesses’s face looked like a painting I had seen of women begging the goddess Isis for favor. I was six years old and always talking, but I knew enough to be quiet that night. I peered up at the painted images of the gods as they passed through the glow of our flickering torchlight, and when we reached the inner sanctum, Ramesses spoke his first words to me.
I obeyed his command, and watched from the doors as he approached the towering statue of Amun. The god was illuminated by a circle of lamplight, and Ramesses knelt before the creator of life. My heart was beating so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t hear what he was whispering, but I heard his final words when he cried, “Help her, Amun. She’s only six. Please don’t let Anubis take her away. Not yet!”
There was movement from the opposite door of the sanctum, and the whisper of sandaled feet warned Ramesses that he wasn’t alone. He stood, wiping the tears from his eyes, and I held my breath as a man emerged like a leopard from the darkness. A spotted pelt hung over his shoulders, and his face was as smooth as an embalmer’s mask, which is to say that he might have been forty years old or a hundred, and his left eye was as red as a pool of blood.
“Where is the king?” the High Priest demanded.
Ramesses, who was nine years old, stepped bravely into the circle of lamplight and spoke. “In the palace, Your Holiness. My father won’t leave my sister’s side.”
“Then where is your mother?”
“She…she’s with my sister as well. The physicians say my sister is going to die!”
“So your father sent children to intervene with the gods?”
I understood for the first time why we had come. “But I’ve promised Amun whatever he wants,” Ramesses said desperately. “Whatever shall be mine in my future.”
“And your father never thought to call on me?”
“He has! He’s asked that you come to the palace.” His voice broke. “But do you think that Amun will heal her?”
The High Priest moved across the tiles. “Who can say?”
“But I came on my knees and offered him anything. I did as I was told.”
“You may have,” the High Priest snapped, “But Pharaoh himself has not visited the temple.”
Ramesses took my hand and we followed the hem of the High Priest’s robes into the courtyard. A trumpet shattered the stillness of the night, and when priests appeared in long white cloaks, I thought of the mummified god Osiris. In the darkness, it was impossible to make out their features, but when enough had assembled, the High Priest shouted, “To the palace of Malkata!”
With torch lights before us we swept into the darkness. Our chariots raced through the chill of Mechyr to the River Nile. And when we’d crossed the waters to the steps of the palace, guards ushered our retinue into the hall.
“Where is the royal family?” the High Priest demanded.
“Inside the princess’ bedchamber, Your Holiness.”
The High Priest made for the stairs. “Is she alive?”
When no guard answered, Ramesses broke into a run, and I hurried after him, afraid of being left in the dark halls of the palace.
“Pili!” he cried. “Pili, no! Wait!” He took the stairs two at a time and at the entrance to
Pili’s chamber two armed guards parted for him. Ramesses swung open the heavy wooden doors at the top of the stairs, and stopped. I peered into the dimness. The air was thick with incense, and the queen was bent in mourning. Pharaoh stood by himself in the shadows, away from the single oil lamp that lit the room.
“Pili,” Ramesses whispered. “Pili!” he cried. He didn’t care that it was unbecoming of a prince to weep. He ran to the bed and grasped his sister’s hand. Her eyes were shut, and her small chest no longer shook with cold. I stood in the shadows and the Queen of Egypt let out a violent sob.
“Ramesses, you must instruct them to begin ringing the bells.”
Ramesses looked to his father, as if the Pharaoh of Egypt could reverse death.
Pharaoh Seti nodded. “Go.”
“But I tried!” Ramesses cried. “I begged Amun.”
Seti moved across the room and placed his arm around Ramesses’s shoulders. “I know. And now you must tell them to ring the bells. Anubis has taken her.”
But I could see that Ramesses couldn’t bear to leave Pili alone. She had been fearful of the dark, like I was, and she would be afraid of so much weeping. He hesitated, but his father’s voice was firm.
Ramesses looked down at me, and it was understood that I would accompany him.
In the courtyard, an old priestess sat beneath the twisted limbs of an acacia, holding a small bronze bell in her withered hands. “Anubis will come for us all one day,” she said. The old woman’s breath fogged the cold night.
“Not at six years old!” Ramesses cried. “Not when I begged for her life from Amun.”
The old priestess laughed harshly. “The gods do not listen to children! What great things have you accomplished that Amun should hear you speak? What wars have you won? What monuments have you erected?”
I hid behind Ramesses’s cloak, and neither of us moved.
“Where will Amun have heard your name,” she demanded, “To recognize it amongst so many thousands begging for aid?”
“Nowhere,” I heard Ramesses whisper, and the old priestess nodded firmly.
“If the gods cannot recognize your names,” she warned us, “They will never hear your prayers.”
Thebes, 1283 BCE
Pharaoh of Lower Egypt
“Stay still,” Paser admonished firmly. Although Paser was my tutor and couldn’t tell a princess what to do, there would be extra lines to copy if I didn’t obey.
I stopped shifting in my beaded dress and stood obediently with the other children of Pharaoh Seti’s harem. But all I could see was the gilded belt of the woman in front of me. Heavy sweat stained her white linen, trickling from beneath her wig down her neck. As soon as Ramesses passed in the royal procession, the entire court would be able to escape the heat and follow him into the cool shade of the temple. But the procession was moving terribly slow. I looked up at Paser, who was searching for an open path to the front of the crowd.
“Will Ramesses stop studying with us now that he’s to become co-regent?” I asked him.
“Yes,” Paser said distractedly. He took my arm and pushed our way through the sea of bodies. “Make way for the princess Nefertari! Make way!” Women with children stepped aside until we were standing at the edge of the road. All along the Avenue of Sphinxes, tall pots of incense smoked and burned, filling the air with the sacred scent of kyphi that would make this, above all days, an auspicious one. The brassy sound of trumpets filled the avenue, and Paser pushed me forward. “The prince is coming!”
“I see the prince every day,” I said sullenly. Ramesses was the only son of Pharaoh Seti, and now that he had turned fifteen, he would be leaving his childhood behind him. There would be no more studying with him in the edduba, or hunting together in the afternoons. I wasn’t interested in seeing him crowned, but when he came into view, I caught my breath. From the wide lapis collar around his neck, to the golden cuffs around his ankles and wrists, he was covered in jewels. His red hair shone like copper in the sun, and a heavy sword hung at his waist. Thousands of Egyptians surged forward to see, and as Ramesses strode past in the procession, I reached forward to tug at his hair. Although Paser inhaled sharply, Pharaoh Seti laughed, and the entire procession came to a halt.
“Little Nefertari.” Pharaoh patted my head.
“Little?” I puffed out my chest. “I’m not little.” I was twelve; in a month I’d be thirteen.
Pharaoh Seti chuckled at my obstinacy. “Little only in stature then,” he promised. “And where is that determined nurse of yours?”
“Menit? In the palace, preparing for the feast.”
“Well, tell Menit I want to see her in the Great Hall tonight. We must teach her to smile as beautifully as you do.” He pinched my cheeks, and the procession continued into the cool recesses of the temple.
“Stay close to me,” Paser ordered.
“Why? You’ve never minded where I’ve gone before.”
We passed into the temple with the rest of the court, and at last, the heavy heat of the day was shut out. In the dimly lit corridors a priest dressed in the long white robes of Amun guided us swiftly to the inner sanctum. I pressed my palm against the cool slabs of stone where images of the gods had been carved and painted. Their faces were frozen in expressions of joy, as if they were happy to see that we’d come.
“Be careful of the paintings,” Paser warned sharply.
“Where are we going?”
“To the inner sanctum.”