Nabta Playa plateau, Nubian Desert
Year 13 of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Rule, second month of Shemu, day 14
Nefertiti had been away from her beautiful palace for more than two handfuls of days now, sleeping on a rough cot in a dirty canvas tent or on the deck of a tiny boat that seemed suspiciously unseaworthy, surrounded by animals and slaves and eunuchs. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d bathed properly or seen her glorious husband or played with her daughters in the cool shade of a covered courtyard. But all that would soon change. Today was the day they’d open the Sky Gate, and she could finally return to Akhetaten and reunite with the Pharaoh and her daughters. And while her husband’s kingdom would be safe for another year, she wasn’t quite so sure of her own safety.
In the past month, Meritaten had taken to rather publicly voicing her displeasure with not yet being named the Keeper of the Book and her mother’s successor. Nefertiti’s ladies had brought to their mistress a number of rumour concerning the young princess meeting with poisoners and other assassins as she planned a coup to become the real power behind Akhenaten’s throne, just as her mother was currently. Nefertiti had hired tasters for her own meals and had doubled the number of eunuch guards around her, but still she didn’t feel safe. Even in the middle of the Nubian Desert, more than sixty iteru away from her daughter’s influence, she did not feel safe.
Still, the Sky Gate must be opened, the spell her lord and husband had chosen for that year’s Miracle must be read, and the continuation of the Aten’s glorious kingdom must be perpetuated. So Nefertiti made the long, exhausting journey into the heart of the dangerous Nubian Desert and camped at the edge of the stone circle that pre-dated her own civilisation by more than a thousand years. On the morning of the fourteenth day of the second month of Shemu, in the midst of the hottest part of the year, the stars of the Hunter’s Belt aligned perfectly with the inner stones of the circle, and the High Priestess of Hathor’s Cult–a small group of women to which Nefertiti, her mother, her mother’s mother, and all their mothers stretching back in time belonged–could open the Sky Gate, read from the Book, and be heard by the gods.
The Queen awoke long before dawn and began preparations for the spell weaving she must begin at the exact second the stars and stones were in alignment. First she bathed as well as she could given her circumstances, then she donned her best linen dress and a robe made from the skin of some spotted hunting cat that lived far beyond the farthest southern border of the kingdom of Kush. Then she slipped her feet into delicate leather sandals and left her tent. Her most trusted handmaiden, Oshairana, and two eunuchs followed her, carrying a jar of water and the Book with them. Nefertiti had been fasting since they arrived on the plateau two days ago and would continue taking nothing more than a little water mixed with honey until after she had performed the Miracle.
Nefertiti seated herself cross-legged in the centre of the stone circle, right next to the Altar Stone, the middle of the three alignment stones, and fell into the meditative trance that helped her collect her will and harness the power of her own heka, her own powerful life force. And so she would remain until just before the Aten rose above the eastern horizon, gracing the land with His beautiful face once more.
“Mistress. The Aten comes!” Oshairana’s delicate, soft voice pierced Nefertiti’s meditative trance, and the Queen opened her eyes to peer directly east of where she sat. The horizon was golden above the line of far hills, and Nefertiti rose from her seated position, giving her handmaiden a thankful nod before reaching for the Book.
It was a heavy thing, its covers fashioned from thick clay tablets and held together by thin strips of leather. The pages inside were delicate papyrus sheets, beautifully illustrated with paint made from crushed gemstones and pure gold taken from her husband’s private mine less than half an iteru from the very spot where she now stood. Laying the Book on the Altar Stone, she glanced towards the heavens and saw that the three stars were very nearly in alignment. She hurriedly opened the Book and carefully paged through it until she came to the spell Akhenaten had selected as this year’s Miracle.
Keeping her hand on the Book, she raised her face to the east and watched as the Aten awoke and stretched out His life-giving rays towards her. Just before one of them penetrated the very centre of the circle’s eastern-most trilithon and caressed the Altar Stone in front of her, Nefertiti released her heka in an explosive breath and began her incantation, weaving the power into a key that would open the Sky Gate.
Directly above her head, three points of light appeared first as pin-pricks, then gradually grew wider, soon becoming gaping black holes in the sky. They joined, forming a single blue-edged maw through which nothing could be seen but unending blackness. Nefertiti’s eyes reflected this emptiness, the black nothing in the sky swallowing down any trace of colour in her irises and even consuming the white of her sclera. Her dress whipped around her ankles in a whirlwind that affected only her; a halo of blue, crackling energy surrounded her, arcing between her fingers and the Book, the Altar Stone and the two other stones on either side and the ground at her feet.
The Aten’s rays touched the stone upon which the Book rested and the Sky Gate was finally open. Lowering her face from the Aten’s arrival, the Queen read in a loud voice:
“Aten sits on his Throne of Millions of Years, and there assemble for him the Nine Gods with Hidden Faces who dwell with him in the Mansion of the Sun. O you who sit on your thrones, let me address you and beseech you on behalf of my lord and husband, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, he who wears the pschent, he who is called Meryaten Wer-nesut-em-Akhetaten Wetjes-ren-en-Aten, he who is the Son of the Sun. Let him sit on the throne of Aten, let him be reborn and go forth in the shape of a living spirit whom the common folk worship on earth. Let those who would harm him be driven off from the land of the Aten. Let him see the Aten, let him go forth against his enemies, let him be vindicated against them in the tribunal of the Great Aten, in the presence of the Great Aten. He who is the most trusted heir of the Great Aten, his name will be strong for you and assuredly you will live daily through him.”
Nefertiti let the rest of her collected heka go in a soft sigh and closed the Book. The swirling hole in the sky above her head slowly separated into three individual points of light once more and shrank away until they blinked out of existence. Nefertiti’s eyes went back to normal and she, her handmaiden, and the two eunuch guards held their breath now, returning their gazes to the eastern horizon, and waited for the Aten’s response to the sorceress’s appeals. If the sun’s light rose from where it now caressed the Altar Stone and lit up Nefertiti’s face, the Great God would grant her wishes for the year and Akhenaten’s kingdom would be safe from invasion. But if no light touched the Queen, it would mean that the Aten was displeased with his Son, and Akhenaten’s kingdom and throne would be in terrible danger.
The light of the Sun slowly crept up the Altar Stone and illuminated the Queen’s linen dress, then the long, slender column of her throat and finally, graced her beautiful face. All four Egyptians breathed a profound sigh of relief. Their world would be safe for another year; the Aten was pleased with his Earthly Kingdom, and would grant the Queen’s wishes on behalf of His Son, Akhenaten.
The North Palace, Akhetaten, City of the Sun
Year 14 of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Rule, second month of Akhet, day 9
“No, Oshairana,” Nefertiti said urgently, pressing a clay tablet and the Book into her handmaiden’s arms. “You must do this for me. Meritaten can never have this knowledge. She will not use it for the Aten’s glory but for her own. You must take these and hide them away. Hurry!”
“Oshairana, go. Now. Before that daughter of Ammut comes for me again.” The Lady of the Two Lands pressed a kiss against Oshairana’s forehead and gently shooed her out of the Royal Suite before firmly closing and barring the door.
The tiny Nubian slave girl, who had been raised at Nefertiti’s feet and was as close to the Queen as the Pharaoh himself, wept openly as she stood in the darkened hallway of the North Palace. Since the last Miracle Day, the Princess Meritaten had made two separate attempts on her mother’s life. Only Nefertiti’s physician’s quick actions saved her from a painful death by poisoning. The Queen feared she would not survive a third attempt and so had entrusted Oshairana with the tablet necessary for opening the Sky Gate and the Book of Aten's spells, and bade her find a safe hiding place, revealing it only to Nefertiti’s daughter, Ankhesenamen, after she became Tutankhaten’s wife and Queen.
Oshairana ran from the Palace, slipping out silently through the Garden Room, scaling over the walls one-handed, and landing in the soft sand between the palace complex’s most outer wall and the road that led south into the city. Staying in the shadows of the buildings that lined the Royal Chariot Route, she quickly made her way to a T-intersection and turned east, moving through the shadows past the great Desert Altars, toward the Royal Wadi, which was located just an iteru away now.
The handmaiden had decided she would hide the tablet and the Book in the Pharaoh’s tomb, which was still being built. She would hide them in the dais upon which the Royal Sarcophagus would sit. It was the perfect place. No one but a Pharaoh could enter a tomb after it was sealed. The knowledge of the Cult of Hathor would be safe until such time as its location could be passed on to Nefertiti’s chosen heir.
Just before sunrise, Oshairana entered the Pharaoh’s unfinished tomb, silently, reverently walking with her head bowed. There were workmen’s tools in a basket by the entrance and she stooped to pick up a hammer and chisel. Setting down her precious bundle for just long enough to carve out a hole in the dais, the young girl set the tablet and the Book into the hole and then quickly filled it back up, packing down the rock chips and smoothing a layer of sand over it. Then she replaced the tools in their basket and left the tomb, racing back to the Palace as fast as she could go.
When she arrived at the North Palace, it was in an uproar. Servants and guards were weeping and tearing at their hair, flinging themselves bodily on the ground, screaming and keening. Oshairana grabbed a passing guard by his forearm and demanded, “What has happened? Why is everyone screaming and crying?”
“The Lady of the Two Lands and her daughter, Meketaten, have died!” the guard shouted at her and shook her hand off his arm before he jogged away, leaving the handmaiden to stare dumbly after him in utter incomprehension. Died? How? When? Oshairana shook herself and set off towards the Royal Suite, certain that the guard was misinformed. Nefertiti couldn’t be dead; Oshairana had just spoken to her a few hours ago.
The doors to the Royal Suite were hanging broken off their hinges, bits of wood scattered on the floor at the entrance to the Suite. There were four Medjay guards standing on either side of the doorway and inside, the Pharaoh himself sat on a couch, his face covered by his hands, shoulders shaking in silent grief. Standing around him wearing expressions of equal grief and bewilderment were his vizier, Ahmes, Nefertiti’s Steward, Meryra, and Meritaten herself. Seeing the Pharaoh in such a candid and private moment stunned Oshairana, and she stood stock-still, staring at the scene before her.
Meritaten’s head snapped up and an expression of rage filled her eyes. “There she is!” she shouted, pointing at Oshairana. “Medjay! Arrest her! She killed my mother!” The guards sprang into action, roughly grabbing Oshairana and pinning her hands behind her.
The Pharaoh’s hands dropped away from his face and he looked up at Ahmes with confusion. “I know this girl,” he said, standing and moving forward toward Oshairana. “She is my Beloved's handmaiden. Nefertiti loves...loved...her as a daughter.” He stopped just a few cubits away and stared at the girl, who looked back at him, her eyes dark with fear. “Did you kill Nefertiti?” he asked in a soft voice.
“No, my Lord!” Oshairana said desperately, pleading with the Pharaoh.
Meritaten boldly stepped between her father and the servant. “Of course she did, my Lord Father. She poisoned my Lady Mother and my Royal sister and then fled.” The Princess gave Oshairana a dangerous look, reminding the handmaiden of a crocodile before it strikes. “She came back to watch us find their bodies and grieve. She must be executed, my Lord Father.”
Ahmes slid up next to the Princess, moving silently on the stone floors like a snake moves over the desert sands. “I will see to this, my Lord,” he said in a voice like the wind across bare rock. “You must rest now. Meritaten will take care of you now.” The Princess nodded and a complicated look passed between her and the vizier before they turned to the Pharaoh, putting their arms around him comfortingly.
Akhetaten stared a moment longer at Oshairana and the expression of betrayal and despair in his eyes caused the young girl’s heart to break in her chest and finally, she wept. He nodded to Ahems and allowed Meritaten to draw him away, deeper into the most private areas of the suite. The Medjay dragged Oshairana away, followed by Ahmes, and threw her in a storage magazine, bolting the door from the outside.
Somehow Meritaten had succeeded in killing her mother, and somehow Meketaten had gotten in her sister’s way, too. Oshairana curled up on the dirt floor of the tiny, windowless room and wept bitter tears. Her life was over now; in just a few hours, she would be beheaded in the courtyard of the Great Palace in the Central City. But she would die knowing that her mistress’s most prized possessions and the secrets they contained would be safe forever from Meritaten’s grasp.