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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I’d heard of Lord Babur from Mother and recalled him to be a powerful noble, though held in little esteem by my parents. A squat man, Babur was dressed in a silk tunic with lime and ivory stripes. A sword hung from his side. As was customary when seeking an audience with the Emperor, Babur touched his right hand to the ground. He then produced a gift that was proportional in value to his rank, as protocol dictated. I was close enough to Babur to see him hand one of Father’s servants a decorative quill designed to compliment a turban. Jade and lapis beset the piece. The ritual complete, Babur nodded to his servants, who then pulled an old man to his feet. He was bound in chains, and his face was a mask of dried blood.

"What has been done to this man?" Father demanded.

"It’s not what has been done to him, my lord, but what has been done to me." When Father kept silent, Babur continued, "This criminal owns a petty piece of land next to my fields. As petty as a fly on a wall. When his crops failed, he turned to what came most naturally to him. Thievery, that is. My guards caught him pilfering our storehouse, a capital crime."

I glanced toward the corner of the room, where two muscle-bound executioners stood motionlessly. A pair of waist-high wood blocks rested between them on a colossal slab of granite. The stone was grooved so that blood would drain into awaiting ewers. The blocks were stained and gouged from numerous sword strokes. Though Father was always reluctant to order a man’s death, sometimes he had no recourse. Today he must have been fortunate, for the executioners’ blades were bright and clean.

Father moved toward the accused, regarding him for a moment before asking, "Your name?"

The man, who must have seen many, many seasons in his field, lowered his head. "Ismail, my lord."

"A Persian name, isn’t it?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Well, Ismail, what do you have to say for your crime, if indeed, you committed one?"

The man swayed, licking his lips nervously. "My lord, my sons had the honor of warring for you. My boys were proud to fight under your banner. They served you well, and they…my lord, I hear they died as men."

"Then the honor is mine."

"Thank you, my lord, thank you."

"But now, Ismail, you must speak against the charge."

"My lord, they were my only sons." The farmer waved a fly from his bloody nose. Sweat or perhaps tears glistened upon his cheeks. "Without them, I couldn’t harvest my crops. My rice rotted to pulp. It still stands in my fields—"

"Laziness doesn’t justify thievery."

"Be patient, Lord Babur," Father said. "Our laws entitle him to speak."

When the Emperor pointed at him, the old man cleared his throat. "My wife and I were starving, my lord. Starving night and day. I asked Lord Babur for food, but when he refused, I stole a sack of rice."

"So his words are true?"

"Yes, my lord."

Father returned to his Peacock Throne. He seemed to wander in thought as he stared at the underside of its canopy, which was inlaid with jewels arranged to resemble orchids. "The law calls for your death," he finally said. "But I’ve no desire to see a man executed who gave fine sons to the Empire. How can such a man be killed for a sack of rice?"

"He broke—"

"I’d rather, Lord Babur, pose the question to my wife, than to one so involved with the matter."

Around the room, nobles whispered excitedly. Though almost all believed women had no minds for such issues, each was aware that the Emperor often asked his wife for advice. Despite being unversed in politics, I understood that Mother stood in a difficult position. She’d never seek the farmer’s execution but could hardly offend a noble such as Babur.

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

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