Excerpt from Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Beneath a Marble Sky

By John Shors

Beneath a Marble Sky
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2004,
    325 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2006,
    352 pages.

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Mother walked over to the farmer, beckoning me to follow, surprising me with her request. He bowed deeply to us. "Take his hands, Jahanara," she said. "What do they feel like?"

The nobles’ whispers increased at her question. Yet I didn’t look to our audience, but to the old man. When he raised his hands before me, I held them in my own, tracing his palms with my jeweled fingers. "They’re hard, Mother," I replied, my heart pounding mightily. "As hard as teak."

"The hands of a thief or a laborer?"

"A farmer, surely."

Babur bristled but didn’t dare interfere. Mother smiled at me before turning to her husband. "My recommendation is simple, my lord. Ismail shall forfeit his land but not his life. He’ll sign a deed ceding his farm to Lord Babur." The accused slumped, for by relinquishing his farm he’d ensure himself a life of destitution and beggary. However, Mother was not finished. "But, my gardens wilt these days, and I need someone with experience in such matters to rescue them. Could you be that someone, Ismail?"

The farmer fell to his knees. "Truly I am, my lady. Truly."

"Then I’ve found my gardener."

"And my wife?"

Mother laughed unreservedly, as if only I were present. "She’ll join you in the Red Fort, of course, for what man could think straight without his wife’s advice?" When she winked at the Emperor, a few nobles, despite their feelings, smiled.

Father chuckled, for an instant looking like an ordinary husband and not the Emperor of Hindustan. "Is this decision acceptable to everyone involved?" he asked, spreading out his hands.

Babur, who must have been thrilled by the prospect of obtaining more land, nodded. "Indeed, my lord. As always, the Empress finds the best solution."

"Then the matter is put to rest, as are these tedious affairs."

At his announcement the room emptied of nobles, servants and warriors. Ismail was released by Babur’s men and hurried forward to kneel before Mother. Beaming, she grasped his raised hands, then asked Nizam to find the man quarters near her gardens. After they departed, she whispered to Father, "Babur may be a worm, but I could think of no other way to quench his anger."

Father slipped on his jeweled sandals. "Thank you, my love. You’ve saved me once again." His eyes dropped to me. "And you were perfect, my flower! Perfect! Were you nervous, like a horse standing above a cobra?"

"Yes, Father. Though I’m but a mouse."

He laughed, turning to his sons. "A pity your mother wasn’t born a boy. She’d be a splendid emperor. Better, by far, than I."

Three of my four brothers grinned. Aurangzeb, however, tugged on Father’s tunic. "But the law says to execute criminals. Now he may steal from us." Aurangzeb, as usual, spoke loudly. To me, it seemed he was afraid of not being heard.

Father’s smile vanished, as it often did when Aurangzeb said something he didn’t approve of. "Perhaps, but he has earned the right to prove his worth."

"How?"

"He sacrificed his sons to the Empire. Had I done the same, I might expect my emperor to show me gratitude, not the executioner’s sword."

"But he broke the law."

"Is a sack of rice worth a man’s life?" Dara probed, for he almost always held the opposite view to Aurangzeb’s.

"The law is the law."

"And it spoke," Father said, fondly patting Dara’s shoulder. "He lost his farm, which went to his accuser, thanks to my brilliant girls." Father took Mother’s hand and stepped away from his throne. "Come, we’ve talked enough of this. And as we’ve talked, my stomach’s done nothing but growl like a wounded lion."

When I turned to follow them, I noticed Aurangzeb glaring at me. His eyes made me feel uneasy, and I wondered what I had done wrong.

From Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Copyright 2004 John Shors. All rights reserved.

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