The mirror should have reflected pride. Very few actors had been invited four times to star as Udayana, the Hero of Kaushambi, in the king’s private theatre. No actor before him had been honoured with a royal banquet. This was repeated to him a number of times from the moment the king had announced his invitation. He was asked to be grateful, for the king had excellent taste in art, women, and friends, inherited from his long line of Gupta ancestors. His acceptance was inconsequential, already presumed.

The mirror should have reflected apprehension. Actors were not schooled in actual royal etiquette. He, his family, his ancestors, had only met royals and nobles in theatres. The flickering torches, the bejewelled costumes, the painted faces, the perfume made up his armour since boyhood. It was this armoured actor that the king had called a friend. This Udayana, the Hero of Kaushambi, was the one who had received the honour to dine at the royal table, the one expected to appear. But heroes could not stand without a script. No one taught heroes to make real conversations.

The mirror should have reflected excitement. He was far from home. His parents would need to hear of his triumph as soon as possible. He would fumble, soak up a parchment. Feathers and ink had never been his friends. How could he transcribe this kind of joy? Were there even words for it? Perhaps he would visit them after the banquet, ask a friendly tradesman for a ride. One more idea, one more cloud beneath his feet.

The mirror should have reflected the face of a man setting out for the evening of a lifetime.

But this is just an ordinary mirror. It cannot reflect what never appears. It cannot conjure beauty when the grotesque walks before it. So all it reflects are the appearance of a familiar visitor, the gift of a buffalo-skin flask, an embrace, laughter, claps on the back, a tentative sip, an emboldened swallow, the contortions of pain, the final stab of death.

The last thing the mirror reflects is dread. The new Udayana, the Hero of Kaushambi, shatters it to shards of wood and glass. Like all travelling mirrors, it is believed to hold its actor’s soul.