The Heretic Queen - By Michelle Moran


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.

“Stay here.”

I obeyed his command and drew deeper into the shadows 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 his final words rang out. “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 tears from his eyes, and I held my breath as a man emerged like a leopard from the darkness. The spotted pelt of a priest draped from his shoulders, and his left eye was as red as a pool of blood.

“Where is the king?” the High Priest demanded.

Ramesses, summoning all the courage of his nine years, stepped 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 her 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 cried. “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 my 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 torchlights before us we swept into the darkness. Our chariots raced through the chill Mechyr night 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’s 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 and stopped. I peered into the dimness. The air was thick with incense, and the queen was bent in