He loved the warm feel of the winter sun on his face. It was getting to be afternoon and the day was bright and clear. Sunlight glowed upon the burnished wooden walls of the main building in the centre of the palace complex. Ashoka had fortified his capital even better than his predecessors had, with a great timber palisade and an outer city wall of stone encircled by a deep moat. The massive city gates were made of heavy timber, banded with iron and protected by huge, cruel spikes. Tall guard towers on the first wall afforded an unobstructed view of the outlying plains and the forest beyond. Arrow slits interrupted its entire length. Only a fool would dare attack Ashoka’s capital, as Hao had once commented wryly to the Brahmin.

As he strode swiftly through the palace complex, crossing open squares and stepping in and out of a maze of corridors, the Brahmin smelt war in the air. He glanced up at the five hundred and seventy guard towers that topped the soaring, crenelated city wall at regular intervals, from which vigilant soldiers looked out for signs of hostile action. The forest itself, with its narrow ravines and slippery paths, was a line of defence against any enemy unwise enough to attack Pataliputra.

Sunlight washed the paved stones of the wide street that ran the length of the palisade. The Brahmin knew it was incredibly difficult to scale the city wall, or even to enter Pataliputra unseen through any of the 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 verandahs 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 in the battle of Hydaspes on the banks of the Jhelum river. After Porus’s defeat, the fighting skills of the Greek warriors had become 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.

One of them met the Brahmin’s eye. The spymaster gave an imperceptible nod and walked through a doorway. It led to a small hall, which widened out into a large room with wooden walls. Here, he waited for his spy.

“Antochlius, there is little time to lose,” he said when the mercenary entered. “Is the dancing girl ready?”

“She is, my lord.”

“Does she know what is expected of her?”

The soldier nodded nervously. The things he had heard about the Brahmin terrified him. The Brahmin terrified everyone.

“Does she look like the girl you brought to me two weeks ago?”

Antochlius nodded again, recalling the form and features of the girl his master was referring to and the circumstances in which he had discovered her existence. Two weeks before the concubine’s murder, an informer of his, a eunuch who owed him a favour, had told him that one of the harem girls had met the Chief Eunuch in private. She was apparently a new arrival to the harem, but he couldn’t identify her, since guards, however trusted, were not allowed inside the women’s quarters.

The following day, as he walked to his post, a strange girl had stepped out from behind a pillar, where she had been hiding. Antochlius instinctively grabbed the hilt of his xiphos, but she arrested him with a hand on his forearm.

“Don’t. I mean no harm. I want to meet your master,” she had said in a low, cultured voice. He couldn’t place her accent, though she spoke Magadha Prakrit perfectly.

“My master?”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid. I know you are one of the Brahmin’s men.”

“Who told you?”

“A little bird in the harem, who do you think?”

“Where did you come from, my lady?” he had asked, the salutation coming naturally. Something in her face told him here was a woman, however young, who was used to command.

“I have a message for the Brahmin. Take me to him. But I don’t want anyone to know.”

The imperiousness in her voice left him no choice but to obey. Yet, he hesitated.

“Why should I? I don’t know you,” he began.

The expression in the girl’s eyes had stopped him. It held both anger and fear in equal measure.

He knew intuitively then, that this was the girl his informer had spoken about; the girl who had met the Chief Eunuch in private. If she was not, taking her to meet the Brahmin was as good an idea as falling into a cauldron of boiling oil in Girika’s chamber. But if she was, the master would be pleased and a promotion might be possible.

Something in the girl’s carriage made him decide in her favour.

“Take me to him, soldier,” she repeated. “But beware, no one should know. Especially the Chief Eunuch.”

If Antochlius had any hesitation in taking this young stranger to the Brahmin, her last statement decided it for him. He had asked her to wait for night to fall so that he could take her to the Brahmin safely. It was the right decision, for the spymaster had greeted her courteously at the gated entrance of the long, covered aisle, which led into his office. To Antochlius’s disappointment, he had been asked to wait at the door through the brief meeting and couldn’t hear a word of their conversation. Soon the Brahmin came out with the girl, and bid her goodbye with a bow. Antochlius was mystified. She must be someone important for his master to treat her with such respect.

“Until we meet in Ujjain, then,” he heard the Brahmin say.

The girl smiled and left the building swiftly, keeping to the shadowy sheltered side of the corridor with Antochlius behind her. Upon reaching the door of the harem, she turned around and glanced at him briefly. He read both gratitude and relief in her eyes and felt strangely vindicated.

She met him again the next day, creeping up on him as he stood with his back to the doorway, spear gripped firmly in hand. He turned at her touch, and started when he saw it was her. A reproach came to his lips, which he stopped in mid-sentence. There was not one girl who stood beside him now, but two. Seeing his baffled expression, they laughed.

Then they both held out their hands. There were two identical birthmarks on them. The puzzled guard had searched their faces, and found one pair of eyes that was unmistakeable. They belonged to a person who was used to having her orders obeyed.

“Isn’t she lovely?” she had asked laughing, pointing to her lookalike. “I found her in the harem.”

They bore an eerie resemblance to each other, his new acquaintance and the concubine. A concubine who would be dead two weeks later.

Excerpted with permission from The Brahmin, Ravi Shankar Etteth, Westland.