AN EVEN GREATER ROAR echoed through Thebes as the pharaoh’s horses picked up speed.
High atop the reviewing stand, Nefertiti watched… Akhenaten… and tried to appear calm.
Meanwhile, two deep-set eyes leered at her. They belonged to her husband’s royal scribe, a powerfully built man in his late thirties named Aye.
The populace was mesmerized by the horse-faced pharaoh galloping his favorite chariot, but Aye could have cared less. He was tantalized by the nervous young queen—and then aroused when she slipped her index finger into her mouth to bite her painted nail before remembering that thousands might witness her insecurity.
The royal scribe licked his lips. He could have almost any woman in Egypt, but she was the one he wanted. Aye studied her graceful neck and the rest of her, down to the gentle sway of her hips. She was much smarter than the pharaoh, who was a freak undeserving of her, Aye thought. Having served under his father, Aye knew how a pharaoh should look and behave—and Amenhotep was no such man.
But if not Amenhotep, then who should reign? Aye wondered.
He answered his own question: me.
Nefertiti suddenly turned his way. She caught him staring but pretended not to notice. She never seemed to notice him.
Aye smiled and glanced down to the street. Miraculously, the pharaoh had survived the first leg of his journey and was now making the turn for home.
Just then a wheel flew off, bouncing wildly into the crowd and nearly beheading a spectator. Screams rent the air. Terrified onlookers fled, certain that the chariot would careen into them and kill dozens of innocents.
The pharaoh was thrown forward out of the basket onto the flank of the horse in front of him. He somehow managed to hold on to the reins but he dangled facedown over the side of the animal. The frightened team galloped faster and faster, dragging the chariot, hooves perilously close to the pharaoh’s face.
Aye turned toward Nefertiti, whose hands now covered her mouth. Even as the future of Egypt hung on what happened in the next few seconds, Aye couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was extraordinary in every way, truly a queen, possibly the most impressive person in all of Egypt.
Then the crowd exploded with a roar so loud that the ground beneath the reviewing stand shook.
Aye flicked his eyes back toward the street and saw that the pharaoh had somehow righted himself and pulled himself up onto the back of the horse. He now sat astride the white charger, fully in control as the team galloped on. Down came Nefertiti’s hands. Away went the look of horror. She was a woman renewed, glowing with pride and love.
As the pharaoh halted the horses at the base of the reviewing stand, the crowd screamed in adulation. He looked up at Nefertiti, his eyes relieved and confident. He dismounted and walked slowly down the center of the boulevard, basking in the divine certainty that he was both ruler and god.
And then Nefertiti placed her lips to Aye’s ear. He could smell her perfume and feel the heat of her skin. More than ever, he lusted for this beautiful woman.
“Starting tomorrow, Aye,” she told him, “Egypt will be changed forever. Mark my words.”
He had no idea what she was talking about. The only thing that mattered was the beating of his heart and the way his name had sounded in her mouth.
“Yes, my queen?”
“If I ever see you looking at me that way again, I will feed your heart to the crocodiles.”