‘Someone is killing my concubines,’ King Ashoka roared. ‘And you do nothing, Brahmin?’
Ashoka’s feared spymaster stood before his liege with an inscrutable expression on his smooth, golden-skinned face. His hooded, expressionless eyes surveyed the monarch without flinching. Ashoka’s hands clenched and unclenched as if throttling an invisible foe, his chest heaving beneath his loose cambric robe in frustration. The Brahmin knew it was going to be one of those days.
They were in the royal garden, where Ashoka’s large frame occupied most of the gilded wooden bench under the tree that bore his name. The scent of flowers perfumed the falling dusk. Six slave women stood around the king, gently waving fans made of peacock feathers. Their shapely legs were wrapped in scarlet silk embroidered with gold, and strips of the same fabric bound their perfect breasts. He thought of the dead concubine, the stench of her charred flesh, and the deadly token beside her corpse. He sighed.
Ashoka loved to watch his chief torturer chop Buddhist monks into octagonal shapes, then hexagons, squares, ovals and finally circles with his red-hot axe. But he was always surprised at the stoicism with which they bore the torment. ‘It’s a pity these idiots aren’t soldiers,’ he would say wistfully. ‘They can withstand so much pain.’
The king rose from his seat now, tightly gripping the Brahmin’s shoulder with his huge hand. The Brahmin knew he was looking for any sign of pain and decided to deny him the pleasure. Unaware of his spymaster’s thoughts, Ashoka said, ‘Your spies are bringing me good information. With our increased war taxes, our troops are better paid, and have good weapons and fresh horses. But murder in the palace is a serious matter. If someone can get into my harem and kill my women, they can get me too.’
A sharika bird cried out, the shrill sound of warning.
‘Have my enemies slipped a snake into my garden now?’ Ashoka demanded. Sharikas were highly prized for their ability to sense the approach of snakes.
The Brahmin permitted himself a smile. ‘Even if they did, the gardeners would have killed it,’ he replied.
‘Yes, true killers, my gardeners,’ the king muttered sarcastically. The Brahmin pretended not to have heard.
A breeze waltzed browning leaves down to the grass, followed by a shower of jasmine flowers.
Now they were arrayed behind their elder brother, astride their huge warhorses. They were his nine heads: counsellors of wisdom, strategy, statecraft, astrology, science, duty, love, compassion and secrecy. With these qualities, as one, the brothers were undefeatable. But the tenth head had not sought their counsel when he took the woman. They knew he would pay for his mistake and sorrowed. The king felt their sorrow as his own. But being a man of action, he gestured to the nearest one, the Prince of Secrets, and pulled out two gold cones encased in glass from holsters on his war belt. His hand flashed. In a single fluid movement the prince caught the cones in mid-air, wheeled his horse around and galloped away into the forest with the others riding hard behind him. They knew the implications. The war would be over soon, but not for them. Other wars would be fought by different kings in distant lands throughout time, and the Scythe and its twin had to be protected from them all.
Sunlight washed the paved stones of the wide street that ran square along the length of the palisade. The Brahmin knew it was incredibly difficult to scale it, or even to enter Pataliputra unseen through any of the city wall’s sixty-four gates protected by portcullises and soldiers – but not impossible. In his shadowy world, the spymaster knew that death was a persistent hunter.
‘How did the Blood Flower get in, if at all the Blood Flower did?’ the Brahmin mused.
Having reached the inner palace, he walked up the flight of steps to the wide verandah around the building. In perfect symmetry along the verandas lined with polished Chunar sandstone stood high teak doors that led inside to various parts of the building. Greek mercenaries wearing leather helmets, tunics, skirts and sandals guarded every door. Each soldier was armed with a xiphos, a short, leaf-shaped sword, and a huge iron-tipped spear. Alexander’s men had used these effectively to subdue the war elephants of Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes on the Jhelum river. After Porus was defeated, the fighting skill of the Greek warriors became known throughout Magadha and beyond. Ashoka’s grandfather, Chandragupta, had hired them in his wars against the Nanda kings, whom he deposed to become the ruler of Magadha. He had regarded the Greeks as his best fighters. So did Bindusara. The Brahmin knew that Ashoka, influenced by his grandfather, also had a special fondness for his Greek soldiers, whom he even employed as palace guards.
Suddenly a savage neigh, followed by a man’s anguished cries, was heard from outside. The cries were abruptly cut short by the repeated thud of blows delivered with great force. All talk and movement ceased inside the inn. Everyone looked towards the door fearfully, as if expecting demons to come charging in. The landlord thrust out his jaw, gesturing to a tall muscular man standing by the door, probably an enforcer, to step out and investigate.
‘It’s probably my horse, he doesn’t like strangers,’ the Brahmin drawled, drawing up a stool to sit. Antochlius did likewise.
The enforcer returned, his face ashen, and whispered into the landlord’s ear. The landlord rushed out and came back screaming and pulling his hair.
‘Your horse just killed a man. It pounded his body into pulp,’ he wailed, flailing his arms. The customers had stopped whatever they were doing and were looking at the Brahmin and the weeping landlord. The room clouded darkly with menace. The Brahmin nodded at them pleasantly.
‘I told him my horse doesn’t like strangers. Especially horse thieves.’
‘It’s my son-in-law who has been killed,’ the landlord shouted, pointing beyond the open door.
‘Your daughter married unwisely,’ the Brahmin retorted.
Later, sitting around the fire drinking with his friends, Antochlius would recall the events that followed. He said he still couldn’t figure exactly what happened. One moment his master was sitting by his side and in the next, with a fluid moment, he had drawn his sword and advanced on the men with a speed that defied the naked eye. He swore he saw him everywhere at once, looming up behind the gamblers, leaping over the tables like an angry tiger and even running upside down on the ceiling. The din of men shouting, women screaming, pots and pans scattering and tables being overturned filled the room. Within moments, it was over. The Brahmin now stood by his side, sword lowered, untouched and unchanged except for a few specks of blood on his shirt and pantaloons. His breathing was even. Most of the inn’s patrons lay dead or dying on the floor. Only the landlord stood, frozen in fear, his large protuberant eyes taking in the carnage. The women were screaming and rushing towards the door, each one jostling to be the first out of the room.
‘I don’t like people threatening my horse,’ the Brahmin said cheerfully.
The Brahmin had never felt so afraid in his life.
Much later, he realized that it was this fear that gave him the courage to continue fighting even though every muscle of his body felt as if it was on fire. His face was covered in blood and gore, and he bled from a hundred cuts and wounds all over his body. He remembered Ashoka’s face as a red grimy bloodstained mask through which his teeth gleamed like a demon’s.
‘You look like a ghost,’ he told the Brahmin with a fierce grin before collapsing in a faint.
The fighting grew thick around them again.
Most of the horsemen defending them had been destroyed. The Brahmin hoisted Ashoka on his back and ran through the dead and dying, almost slipping on the bloody, slimy mud that sucked at his boots. He whistled for Garuda as he ran. The great warhorse rushed towards them, slashing at the enemy soldiers in its way with its cruel iron-tipped hooves. The Brahmin threw Ashoka on its back and leapt on the saddle behind him. Bodies were flung aside in various directions by the force of Garuda’s massive shoulders as the great horse leapt forward, screaming in rage, ploughing through the mass of fighting men. Suddenly they were free and racing away from the battlefield.
The day was dying and Ashoka was losing blood. They rode hard and fast until Garuda grew weary. Then, just when it seemed that they could no further, faint lights became visible on a rocky rise ahead, and a monastery came into view.
Mur pouted and shook her head, hand held behind her back. ‘It’s a gift from my fiancé. He made me promise never to take it off. And that’s an interesting ring on your finger, by the way. It looks very important.’
‘It’s just a ring,’ the Brahmin shrugged.
He knew a deadly game of wits had begun between him and the beautiful Kalingan spy. He wondered about her mission. Whatever it was, he was sure it would reach its climax in Ujjain, where the queen was. Mur walked across to his table.
‘May I join you?’ She sat down beside Hao without waiting for an answer. Hao grimaced and edged away.
The Brahmin ordered well-cooked capon in mustard gravy, spiced with fried shallots, a bowl of boiled vegetables and roasted wheat cakes. Hao asked for a dish of kodrava rice seasoned with spring onions, peas and spicy goat meat along with a pot of rice wine. Mur raised her delicately plucked eyebrows.
‘You are hungry, aren’t you, sister?’ she asked Hao with a trace of smiling sarcasm.
‘Long ride,’ Hao replied brusquely, refusing to rise to the bait.
The Brahmin realized Suma had known all along that the queen would be in Ujjain. Which meant Kalinga’s agents had penetrated the palace; perhaps, even the harem. He had to put more security measures in place. But for now, Suma could not be allowed to leave Ujjain and communicate with his spies.
‘So, where is your gift? Here, or in Pataliputra?’ the Brahmin asked, a tad ungraciously. Asandhimitra shot him a warning look. Suma pretended not to notice.
‘It’s on its way to Ujjain, Your Majesty and will reach in time for your birthday tomorrow. I beg you to accept it as a token of respect and affection from our king, from one royal to another,’ he said.
She inclined her head gracefully.
The Brahmin noticed a flicker in Suma’s eyes, malevolent and triumphant. It disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Asandhimitra swept out of the room, with the Brahmin and Hao following behind. Upon reaching her chamber, she sank into a low divan and buried her face in her hands.
‘Suma is an evil man, I can see that. I am worried, Brahmin,’ she said. ‘I see darkness closing around the kingdom.’
‘I will protect it with my life,’ the Brahmin said. ‘As you do, too. Isn’t it wonderful what a pretty veil and a little paint can do?’
The night was a dark cowl closing over the land. The Brahmin and Hao were on the stone portico of the east-wing tower of the palace, right below the queen’s quarters. The Ujjain palace, where Asandhimitra stayed for most part of the year, was made of stone, though its inner walls were lined with polished teak overlaid with panels of fragrant sandalwood. Ashoka had a fascination for standalone pillars. The sprawling grounds of his palaces teemed with them, polished to such perfection that they looked lacquered. The palace gardens, too, were expansive, covering hundreds of square stadia, full of fountains, patios and walkways. And, of course, more pillars.
The Brahmin watched the sleeping city sprawled before him. Here and there, small rectangles of light showed – sleepless residents reading the scriptures, playing chess or making love to their wives or mistresses. Beyond the city, protected by spiked iron railings, lay the moat, its irregular edges pencilled by the moon. In it, pink lotuses bloomed and crocodiles dozed, their bellies full with the flesh of convicts. The Brahmin watched the lazy curve of the Shipra river, gleaming like a courtesan’s silver girdle. Far away, the forest watched the city, like a great army frozen by a warlock’s enchantment, ready to break loose and advance the moment the spell was broken. Lights from the cave dwellings that Queen Devi had built for Buddhist monks punctuated the sloping mass of the hillsides.
The spymaster felt a sense of foreboding. Something waited in the forest; something massive and monstrous, fashioned by Lord Suma’s twisted mind. He would know soon. As soon as Hao was back.
Whatever it was, he had a foreboding of danger to the kingdom which he strove so hard to protect. He suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around, surprised. He had been lost in his thoughts – a mistake no spy should make.
It was Asandhimitra. Her hair was loose and her sheer muslin robe did little to hide the lushness of her figure. The wind rose from the mountains and raced across the Shipra, tossing about droplets like a wet animal, to embrace them. Asandhamitra shivered and crossed her arms over her breasts. ‘I am afraid, spymaster,’ she said. ‘I am afraid for the king, for myself and Magadha.’
‘So am I. But fear is of no use. To be afraid of danger is to be wise, but to yield to fear is fatal.’
‘You are a loyal friend,’ she said, placing her hand on his shoulder again and smiling at him. He wanted to gather and fold the slender frame into his arms, and kiss the full lips that would taste of honey and wine. But he kept his face impassive and his body still, not allowing his emotions to show. ‘What is it about this woman that makes me feel so protective of her?’ he wondered. ‘It makes me vulnerable too.’
‘In this palace, surrounded by conspiracies, with war in the air and spies everywhere, I feel so alone. I belong only to Ashoka, but he is so far away.’ Asandhimitra’s soft hand travelled down to the Brahmin’s muscular chest. ‘I couldn’t sleep. Suma makes me uneasy. I fear he is up to something nasty.’
Yes, I too, sire. I am a descendant of that line.’
‘You mean a clan of brahmins descended from Ravana are secret agents in all the great courts of the land? Who was there before you in Magadha?’
Before the Brahmin could open his mouth, understanding dawned in Ashoka’s eyes. He slapped his thigh and the sound echoed through the vast room. People recoiled in their seats.
‘Chanakya!’ Ashoka roared. ‘He was one of you, wasn’t he?’
The Brahmin shrugged and continued, ‘Now let me tell you another story, from a time closer to ours. Almost a century ago, a Greek king set out to conquer the world. His name was Alexander. He defeated all the empires that lay in his path, and entered the land of the Indus. A few years later, he turned back to Macedonia, compelled by his homesick soldiers. A descendant of the nine accompanied him. His name was Kalyan.’
‘Kalanos of Taxila? Who joined Alexander’s army on its way back home, and immolated himself at Sousa? He was a spy?’ asked Asandhamitra. ‘He was the spymaster of Porus,’ the Brahmin said. The Greeks, who were taught by great philosophers like Aristotle, loved to debate with the learned brahmins of Magadha. Kalyan won many such debates, and Alexander was so impressed, he invited him to join his retinue. Kalyan agreed – for a reason only he knew.
The Brahmin’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock at the door. Two men entered. One was Angyo. The other man was cowled, and dressed in a deep crimson robe. His face was shadowed, but the Brahmin remembered him like a vision from a distant dream; eyes like lamps and a voice so gentle and hypnotic that it felt like the pull of the tide of an endless ocean.
‘Master?’ he whispered.
The figure gently walked up to them, and laid a hand on Hao.
‘She has recovered,’ he said. ‘Though it will take some time for her to be healed. The monks have done their work well.’
‘You made a promise,’ said Angyo.
‘I remember,’ the Brahmin said.
He got up from his paillasse and went over to his baldric, which was hanging on the wall. He fished inside its pocket and brought out a small bundle of cloth. Angyo held out his hand. The Brahmin shook his head.
‘I wish to give it to him myself,’ he said.
He stepped up to the Master and offered him the bundle reverentially. The Master handed his staff to Angyo and received it in his hand. As he opened it, a great light spread through the room, filling it with a sense of deep calm.