Mudra’s mother has a dangerous job. Mudra thinks she must be very brave, because she seems to enjoy it a lot. In fact, Mudra only knows it’s dangerous because when he tells people what she does they all look afraid or stroke his hair and say ‘Poor child,’ in pitying voices.
'What’s a librarian?’ Mudra asks.
His father’s eyes narrow. 'Nothing you should know about.’
'It’s nothing to be ashamed of,’ Mudra’s mother says, spine straight, and that’s the other reason Mudra knows she’s brave, because his father is the scariest person he’s ever met. 'I guard stories.’
'From what?’ Mudra asks.
His father hisses. His shadow gets big and menacing on the wall behind him. 'Stories are extremely dangerous,’ he says. 'We are the ones being protected from them. Remember that.’
Mudra nods obediently, and doesn’t understand.
'This is a book,’ Mudra’s mother explains, her loose dark hair swinging over her shoulder as she sits next to Mudra’s bed. 'It has stories inside.’
Mudra watches it curiously. 'It doesn’t look dangerous.’
'Danger is in the eye of the beholder,’ Mudra’s mother says. Mudra doesn’t know what that means, but it sounds pretty. 'I brought it home because I’d like to read you a story. Would you like to hear one?’
'Mudra, you can never tell your father about this. Or anyone else. Do you promise?’
Mudra shivers, excited. 'Yes. I understand.’
'All right then.’ She opens the book. 'There once lived a poor tailor, who had a son called Aladdin, a careless, idle boy who would do nothing but play all day long in the streets with little idle boys like himself...’
Mudra has trouble concentrating the next day. Words and phrases keep running through his head – passages from the book, passages he’s made up for himself. It feels like flying, like electrocution, like there’s something welling up inside him that can never be stoppered. His shadow turns into dragons and knights and sultans beside him as he walks home from school.
'Can we read the story again?’ Mudra begs as soon as it’s bedtime.
His mother smiles, pleased. 'Would you like to do this every night?’
Mudra feels elated, ecstatic, exultant. 'Yes, please. A thousand and one times.’
Mudra’s mother kisses him on the forehead, her long dark hair sliding silkily across his hand. 'All right, then. I did happen to bring another one home with me, just in case.’
'Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild...’
'Mudra, pass the rice,’ Mudra’s father says.
'Absotively posolutely,’ Mudra says cheerfully. 'It would be my pleasure, coming at you, no problem!’
Mudra knows as soon as he says it that it was a terrible error. His father’s face goes dark and his mother’s goes white.
'Where did you hear that?’ Mudra’s father demands, glaring at his mother.
Oh no, oh no, oh no, Mudra’s brain says, but his body smiles innocently and says 'I made it up. Do you like it?’
Mudra’s parents have a terrible fight. Mudra goes to bed without finishing his dinner. His mother doesn’t come to read him a story.
'There was once a boy in the city of Chup,’ Mudra says softly to his shadow. 'He had a beautiful secret, a glimmering hidden treasure, given to him by his mother, who was the bravest and most beautiful of mothers...’
Mudra’s father forbids them to speak aloud at the dinner table. He makes them use the gesture language of Abhinaya, which Mudra half-knows already from school but which is very awkward to do when holding a forkful of food.
'It’s time you started learning to be a warrior,’ Mudra’s father ‘says’ abruptly after most of the meal has passed without comment.
His mother slams her fork down, the clang loud and bright in the heavy silence. 'He’s just a child!’
'It’s a family tradition,’ Mudra’s father gestures angrily. 'I am a warrior, as was my father before me and his father before him. And it will keep Mudra safe.’
They glare at each other. The air feels hot and charged, and Mudra wants to shrink down small like his shadow.
Mudra’s mother looks away first. 'Fine.’
There are lots of stories with fearsome, noble warriors who slay ravening monsters and rescue dainty princesses. Mudra thinks that could be all right.
Then he looks at his mother’s expression, and is frightened.
Mudra’s mother wakes him in the middle of the night. Her hair has been tied tightly back and her expression is grim. She doesn’t look like his mother.
'Is something wrong?’ Mudra asks. Her shadow is watching the door.
His mother tries to smile. It doesn’t work very well. 'I’m going to have to go away for a while,’ she says. 'The position of Librarian is being discontinued. I’m being called before the Council.’
Mudra frowns. 'Who’s going to guard the stories?’
His mother’s smile disappears completely. 'The stories are going to be locked away. The Council thinks they’re too dangerous.’ She leans down and puts her hand on Mudra’s face. 'Listen to me carefully, Mudra. This is very important. Stories can’t be locked away. Stories can’t be contained. Stories are life itself, and as long as there is life there are stories to tell about it. Do you understand?’
Mudra quivers. 'I’m not sure.’
Mudra’s mother smiles. It still doesn’t look very good. 'All stories come from the Ocean of the Streams of Stories,’ she says. 'And no one can lock up an entire ocean. The stories locked away in Chup are just paper copies, like a painting is a paper copy of a person. The Ocean itself still exists, and therefore so do all its stories. Does that make more sense?’
'I think so.’
His mother’s smile is more real this time. 'Well, then - how about one last story, to say goodbye to?’
'Okay.’ Mudra takes a deep breath. 'I’m scared.’ It comes out in a rush.
'I know. It’s all right to be scared.’ She sits back, and for the first time ever doesn’t open a book but speaks from memory.
'There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name...’
Mudra’s mother never comes back.