The winds of change are blowing through Thebes. A devastating palace fire has killed the Eighteenth Dynasty’s royal family—all with the exception of Nefertari, the niece of the reviled former queen, Nefertiti. The girl’s deceased family has been branded as heretical, and no one in Egypt will speak their names.
A relic of a previous reign, Nefertari is pushed aside, an unimportant princess left to run wild in the palace. But this changes when she is taken under the wing of the Pharaoh’ s aunt, then brought to the Temple of Hathor, where she is educated in a manner befitting a future queen.
Soon Nefertari catches the eye of the Crown Prince, and despite her family’s history, they fall in love and wish to marry. Yet all of Egypt opposes this union between the rising star of a new dynasty and the fading star of an old, heretical one.
While political adversity sets the country on edge, Nefertari becomes the wife of Ramesses the Great. Destined to be the most powerful Pharaoh in Egypt, he is also the man who must confront the most famous exodus in history.
Sweeping in scope and meticulous in detail, The Heretic Queen is a novel of passion and power, heartbreak and redemption.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Pharaoh of Upper Egypt
Thebes, 1283 bc
“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 at thirteen years old, I was always impatient. Besides, all I could see was the gilded belt of the woman in front of me. Heavy sweat stained her white linen, trickling down her neck from beneath her wig. As soon as Ramesses passed in the royal procession, the 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 coregent?” I asked.
“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 very edge of the roadway. 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 seventeen, he would be leaving his childhood behind. There would be no more studying with him in the edduba, or hunting together in the afternoons. His coronation held no interest for me then, but when he came into view, even 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 thirteen, and in a month I’d be fourteen.
Pharaoh Seti chuckled at my obstinacy. “Little only in stature then,” he promised. “And where is that determined nurse of yours?”
“Merit? In the palace, preparing for the feast.”
“Well, tell Merit 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 were swept 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.”
The passage widened into a vaulted chamber, and a murmur of surprise passed through the crowd. Granite columns soared up into the gloom, and the blue tiled roof had been inlaid with silver to imitate the night’s glittering sky. On a painted dais, a group of Amun priests were waiting, and I thought with sadness that once Ramesses was coregent, he would never be a carefree prince in the marshes again. But there were still the other children from the edduba, and I searched the crowded room for a friend.
“Asha!” I beckoned, and when he saw me with our tutor, he threaded his way over. As usual, his black hair was bound tightly in a braid; whenever we hunted it trailed behind him like a whip. Although his arrow was often the one that brought down the bull, he was never the first to approach the kill, prompting Pharaoh to call him Asha the Cautious. But as Asha was cautious, Ramesses was impulsive. In the hunt, he was always charging ahead, even on the most dangerous roads, and his own father called him Ramesses the Rash. Of course, this was a private joke between them, and no one but Pharaoh Seti ever called him that. I smiled a greeting at Asha, but the look Paser gave him was not so welcoming.
“Why aren’t you standing with the prince on the dais?”
“But the ceremony won’t begin until the call of the trumpets,” Asha explained. When Paser sighed, Asha turned to me. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you excited?”
“How can I be excited,” I demanded, “when Ramesses will spend all his time in the Audience Chamber, and in less than a year you’ll be leaving for the army?”
Asha shifted uncomfortably in his leather pectoral. “Actually, if I’m to be a general,” he explained, “my training must begin this month.” The trumpets blared, and when I opened my mouth to protest, he turned. “It’s time!” Then his long braid disappeared into the crowd. A great hush fell over the temple, and I looked up at Paser, who avoided my gaze.
“What is she doing here?” someone hissed, and I knew without turning that the woman was speaking about me. “She’ll bring nothing but bad luck on this day.”
Paser looked down at me, and as the priests began their hymns to Amun, I pretended not to have heard the woman’s whispers. Instead, I watched as the High Priest Rahotep emerged from the shadows. A leopard’s pelt hung from his shoulders, and as he slowly ascended the dais, the children next to me averted their gaze. His face appeared frozen, like a mask that never stops grinning, and his left eye was still red as a carnelian stone. Heavy clouds of incense filled the inner sanctum, but Rahotep appeared immune to the smoke. He lifted the hedjet crown in his hands, and without blinking, placed it on top of Ramesses’s golden brow. “May the great god Amun embrace Ramesses the Second, for now he is Pharaoh of Upper Egypt.”
While the court erupted into wild cheers, I felt my heart sink. I fanned away the acrid scent of perfume from under women’s arms, and children with ivory clappers beat them together in a noise that filled the entire chamber. Seti, who was now only ruler of Lower Egypt, smiled widely. Then hundreds of courtiers began to move, crushing me between their belted waists.
“Come. We’re leaving for the palace!” Paser shouted.
I glanced behind me. “What about Asha?”
“He will have to find you later.”
Dignitaries from every kingdom in the world came to the palace of Malkata to celebrate Ramesses’s coronation. I stood at the entrance to the Great Hall, where the court took its dinner every night, and admired the glow of a thousand oil lamps as they cast their light across the polished tiles. The chamber was filled with men and women dressed in their finest kilts and beaded gowns.
“Have you ever seen so many people?”
I turned. “Asha!” I exclaimed. “Where have you been?”
“My father wanted me in the stables to prepare—”
“For your time in the military?” I crossed my arms, and when Asha saw that I was truly upset, he smiled disarmingly.
“But I’m here with you now.” He took my arm and led me into the hall. “Have you seen the emissaries who have arrived? I’ll bet you could speak with any one of them.”
“I can’t speak Shasu,” I said, to be contrary.
“But every other language! You could be a vizier if you weren’t a girl.” He glanced across the hall and pointed. “Look!”
I followed his gaze to Pharaoh Seti and Queen Tuya on the royal dais. The queen never went anywhere without Adjo, and the black-and-white dog rested his tapered head on her lap. Although her iwiw had been bred for hunting hare in the marshes, the farthest he ever walked was from his feathered cushion to his water bowl. Now that Ramesses was Pharaoh of Upper Egypt, a third throne had been placed next to his mother.
“So Ramesses will be seated off with his parents,” I said glumly. He had always eaten with me beneath the dais, at the long table filled with the most important members of the court. And now that his chair had been removed, I could see that my own had been placed next to Woserit, the High Priestess of Hathor. Asha saw this as well and shook his head.
“It’s too bad you can’t sit with me. What will you ever talk about with Woserit?”
“Nothing, I suspect.”
“At least they’ve placed you across from Henuttawy. Do you think she might speak with you now?”
All of Thebes was fascinated with Henuttawy, not because she was one of Pharaoh Seti’s two younger sisters, but because there was no one in Egypt with such mesmerizing beauty. Her lips were carefully painted to match the red robes of the goddess Isis, and only the High Priestess was allowed to wear that vivid color. As a child of seven I had been fascinated by the way her cloak swirled around her sandals, like water moving gently across the prow of a ship. I had thought at the time that she was the most beautiful woman I would ever see, and tonight I could see that I was still correct. Yet even though we had eaten together at the same table for as long as I could remember, I couldn’t recall a single instance when she had spoken to me. I sighed. “I doubt it.”
“Don’t worry, Nefer.” Asha patted my shoulder the way an older brother might have. “I’m sure you’ll make friends.”
He crossed the hall, and I watched him greet his father at the generals’ table. Soon, I thought, he’ll be one of those men, wearing his braided hair in a small loop at the back of his neck, never going anywhere without his sword. When Asha said something to make his father laugh, I thought of my mother, Queen Mutnodjmet. If she had survived, this would have been her court, filled with her friends, and viziers, and laughter. Women would never dare to whisper about me, for instead of being a spare princess, I’d be the princess.
I took my place next to Woserit, and a prince from Hatti smiled across at me. The three long braids that only Hittites wore fell down his back, and as the guest of honor, his chair had been placed to the right of Henuttawy. Yet no one had remembered the Hittite custom of offering bread to the most important guest first. I took the untouched bowl and passed it to him.
He was about to thank me when Henuttawy placed her slender hand on his arm and announced, “The court of Egypt is honored to host the prince of Hatti as a guest at my nephew’s coronation.”
The viziers, along with everyone at the table, raised their cups, and when the prince made a slow reply in Hittite, Henuttawy laughed. But what the prince said hadn’t been funny. His eyes searched the table for help, and when no one came to his aid, he looked at me.
“He is saying that although this is a happy day,” I translated, “he hopes that Pharaoh Seti will live for many years and not leave the throne of Lower Egypt to Ramesses too soon.”
Henuttawy paled, and at once I saw that I was wrong to have spoken.
“Intelligent girl,” the prince said in broken Egyptian.
But Henuttawy narrowed her eyes. “Intelligent? Even a parrot can learn to imitate.”
“Come, Priestess. Nefertari is quite clever,” Vizier Anemro offered. “No one else remembered to pass bread to the prince when he came to the table.”
“Of course she remembered,” Henuttawy said sharply. “She proba- bly learned it from her aunt. If I recall, the Heretic Queen liked the Hittites so much she invited them to Amarna where they brought us the plague. I’m surprised our brother even allows her to sit among us.”
Woserit frowned. “That was a long time ago. Nefertari can’t help who her aunt was.” She turned to me. “It’s not important,” she said kindly.
“Really?” Henuttawy gloated. “Then why else would Ramesses consider marrying Iset and not our princess?” I lowered my cup, and Henuttawy continued. “Of course, I have no idea what Nefertari will do if she’s not to become a wife of Ramesses. Maybe you could take her in, Woserit.” Henuttawy looked to her younger sister, the High Priestess of the cow goddess Hathor. “I hear that your temple needs some good heifers.”
A few of the courtiers at our table snickered, and Henuttawy looked at me the way a snake looks at its dinner.
Woserit cleared her throat. “I don’t know why our brother puts up with you.”
Henuttawy held out her hand to the Hittite prince, and both of them stood to join the dancing. When the music began, Woserit leaned close to me. “You must be careful around my sister now. Henuttawy has many powerful friends in the palace, and she can ruin you in Thebes if that’s what she wishes.”
“Because I translated for the prince?”
“Because Henuttawy has an interest in seeing Iset become Chief Wife, and there has been talk that this was a role Ramesses might ask you to fill. Given your past, I should say it’s unlikely, but my sister would still be more than happy to see you disappear. If you want to continue to survive in this palace, Nefertari, I suggest you think where your place in it will be. Ramesses’s childhood ended tonight, and your friend Asha will enter the military soon. What will you do? You were born a princess and your mother was a queen. But when your mother died, so did your place in this court. You have no one to guide you, and that’s why you’re allowed to run around wild, hunting with the boys and tugging Ramesses’s hair.”
I flushed. I had thought Woserit was on my side.
“Oh, Pharaoh Seti thinks it is cute,” she admitted. “And you are. But in two years that kind of behavior won’t be so charming. And what will you do when you’re twenty? Or thirty even? When the gold that you’ve inherited is spent, who will support you? Hasn’t Paser ever spoken about this?”
I steadied my lip with my teeth. “No.”
Woserit raised her brows. “None of your tutors?”
I shook my head.
“Then you still have much to learn, no matter how fluent your Hittite.”
That evening, as I undressed for bed, my nurse remarked on my unusual silence.
“What? Not practicing languages, my lady?” She poured warm water from a pitcher into a bowl, then set out a cloth so I could wash my face.
“What is the point of practicing?” I asked. “When will I use them? Viziers learn languages not spare princesses. And since a girl can’t be a vizier . . .”
Merit scraped a stool across the tiles and sat next to me. She studied my face in the polished bronze, and no nurse could have been more different from her charge. Her bones were large, whereas mine were small, and Ramesses liked to say that whenever she was angry her neck swelled beneath her chin like a fat pelican’s pouch. She carried her weight in her hips and her breasts, whereas I had no hips and breasts at all. She had been my nurse from the time my mother had died in childbirth, and I loved her as if she were my own mawat. Now, her gaze softened as she guessed at my troubles. “Ah.” She sighed deeply. “This is because Ramesses is going to marry Iset.”
I glanced at her in the mirror. “Then it’s true?”
She shrugged. “There’s been some talk in the palace.” As she shifted her ample bottom on the stool, faience anklets jangled on her feet. “Of course, I had hopes that he was going to marry you.”
“Me?” I thought of Woserit’s words and stared at her. “But why?”
She took back my cloth and wrung it out in the bowl. “Because you are the daughter of a queen, no matter your relationship to the Heretic and his wife.” She was referring to Nefertiti and her husband, Akhenaten, who had banished Egypt’s gods and angered Amun. Their names were never spoken in Thebes. They were simply The Heretics, and even before I had understood what this meant, I had known that it was bad. Now, I tried to imagine Ramesses looking at me with his wide blue eyes, asking me to become his wife, and a warm flush crept over my body. Merit continued, “Your mother would have expected to see you married to a king.”
“And if I don’t marry?” After all, what if Ramesses didn’t feel the same way about me as I felt about him?
“Then you will become a priestess. But you go every day to the Temple of Amun, and you’ve seen how the priestesses live,” she said warningly, motioning for me to stand with her. “There wouldn’t be any fine horses or chariots.”
I raised my arms, and Merit took off my beaded dress. “Even if I were a High Priestess?”
Merit laughed. “Are you already planning for Henuttawy’s death?”
I flushed. “Of course not.”
“Well, you are thirteen. Nearly fourteen. It’s time to decide your place in this palace.”
“Why does everyone keep telling me this tonight?”
“Because a king’s coronation changes everything.”
I put on a fresh sheath, and when I climbed into bed, Merit looked down at me.
“You have eyes like Tefer,” she said tenderly. “They practically glow in the lamplight.” My spotted miw curled closer to me, and when Merit saw us together she smiled. “A pair of green-eyed beauties,” she said.
“Not as beautiful as Iset.”
Merit sat herself on the edge of my bed. “You are the equal of any girl in this palace.”
I rolled my eyes and turned my face away. “You don’t have to pretend. I know I’m nothing like Iset—”
“Iset is three years older than you. In a year or two, you will be a woman and will have grown into your body.”
“Asha says I’ll never grow, that I’ll still be as short as Seti’s dwarfs when I’m twenty.”
Merit pushed her chin inward so that the pelican’s pouch wagged angrily. “And what does Asha think he knows about dwarfs? You will be as tall and beautiful as Isis one day! And if not as tall,” she added cautiously, “then at least as beautiful. What other girl in this palace has eyes like yours? They’re as pretty as your mother’s. And you have your aunt’s smile.”
“I’m nothing like my aunt,” I said angrily.
But then, Merit had been raised in the court of Nefertiti and Akhenaten, so she would know if this were true. Her father had been an important vizier, and Merit had been a nurse to Nefertiti’s children. In the terrible plague that swept through Amarna, Merit lost her family and two of Nefertiti’s daughters in her care. But she never spoke about it to me, and I knew she wished to forget this time twenty years ago. I was sure, as well, that Paser had taught us that the High Priest Rahotep had also served my aunt once, but I was too afraid to confirm this with Merit. This is what my past was like for me. Narrowed eyes, whispering, and uncertainty. I shook my head and murmured, “I am nothing like my aunt.”
Merit raised her brows. “She may have been a heretic,” she whispered, “but she was the greatest beauty who ever walked in Egypt.”
“Prettier than Henuttawy?” I challenged.
“Henuttawy would have been cheap bronze to your aunt’s gold.”
I tried to imagine a face prettier than Henuttawy’s, but couldn’t do it. Secretly I wished that there was an image of Nefertiti left in Thebes. “Do you think that Ramesses will choose Iset because I am related to the Heretic Queen?”
Merit pulled the covers over my chest, prompting a cry of protest from Tefer. “I think that Ramesses will choose Iset because you are thirteen and he is seventeen. But soon, my lady, you will be a woman and ready for whatever future you decide.”