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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  • First Published:
    Jun 2004, 325 pages
    Jun 2006, 352 pages

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The Red Fort itself was like a lacquered box seeming to contain an infinite number of compartments. Inside the perimeter of the citadel lay the common grounds, mostly bazaars, mosques, temples and courtyards. The fort’s interior, segmented by stout sandstone walls, was comprised of more private spaces consisting of apartments and halls and stables. And within the very heart of this dizzying network stretched the imperial harem.

Thousands of women, supported by the Emperor, lived here. His wives, the most powerful of the harem’s residents, had their own palaces within its walls. My grandfather, Emperor Jahangir, had seventeen wives—a small number compared to his ancestors’ spouses. Though Grandfather was dead, his wives, being much younger, still remained with their scores of servants. Most of the harem’s women were concubines, who excelled in the arts of dance and music and were always available for the Emperor’s delight.

The royal children also lived within this realm. I didn’t like it much, for the harem was a house governed by strict rules. My brothers could do almost anything, but girls enjoyed little freedom. In Grandfather’s day, female guards from the Amazon enforced the rules. Father had long since sent them away, but dozens of other guards were forever eager to keep me in check.

The harem’s rooms were equal parts magnificence and comfort. Floors were strewn with cashmere carpets and silk cushions, walls with paintings and mirrors. Alleys were lined with manicured trees, thick enough to discourage the gaze of outsiders, but not a gentle breeze. Everywhere fountains spouted from square pools brimming with untroubled koi.

I now sat in an immense room along with servants and concubines, as well as my brothers and sisters, who were swathed in silk and precious gems. A pair of wetnurses fed my twin sisters, who were only a few months old. Behind them, stood my mother, Arjumand. Like most noblewomen, she was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt tight enough to seem a second skin and tucked into a loose skirt that fell to her ankles. Over her shoulders draped a cashmere shawl.

Everyone in the room, save eunuchs, servants and lesser concubines, wore jewelry. Strands of pearls adorned necks while precious stones dangled from each ear. Fingers and toes bore coveted treasures—gold and silver rings inset with sapphires and emeralds. Ladies’ nails gleamed in a variety of colors, though usually scarlet.

Beauty was revered within the harem, and most women competed to invent new clothing trends. The most fashionable ladies wore sections of peacock feathers in their hair. Others preferred colorful veils pinned atop their heads and falling back upon their shoulders. These veils were typically silk, though in cooler months women might wear pashmina, woven from the purest and most refined of cashmere fibers.

Eunuchs and servants dressed in simple tunics and robes. Standing next to Mother was her slave, Nizam. Though he’d been her attendant for almost a hundred moons, I had only recently learned his tale, which belied his gentle disposition. For when Nizam was only five, a Persian warlord slew his parents and seized him. Boys taken as slaves were usually castrated, but the warlord wanted his underlings someday to fight and was unwilling to stunt their growth with the gelding knife. Nonetheless, he ensured Nizam never pursued women by removing a portion of his manhood that Mother wouldn’t describe to me.

For several years thereafter Nizam had lived in a sprawling tent, serving the warlord’s women. When he pleased them, he was fed. When he failed to accede to their demands, he was beaten. His fate might have been forever unchanged, but praise Allah, our forces had overrun the Persians. Glimpsing Nizam’s bruised face, Father plucked him from the captured slaves. And though he became Mother’s slave, she cared for his wounds and treated him kindly.

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

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