There is a being called the Story King. If there is a more vast and ancient being, I know not of him. His attention roves to and fro throughout the universe, and if one seeks—as I do—power for personal gain, one would be wise to avoid his gaze. I invest great energy in disguising my small endeavor here upon the plantation, for if he knew of it, surely he would confound my every effort. He cannot be defended against, for a story slips past all defenses. He cannot be defeated, only stalled. He cannot be destroyed, for it is said that he has died and yet he lives. And his servants are living Stories, sent to do his bidding.
FROM THE MAGICIAN'S GRIMOIRE
THE KAKRI TERRITORIES
I know this story. I feel I have heard it, many years ago.
THE KNIGHT OF THE MIRROR
"I can tell you a story that will change the world." The old woman said these words without looking at Jason Wu. She poked the fire with a stick, and a burst of sparks rose toward the stars, which shone far brighter here in the Kakri territories than Jason had ever seen on Earth.
In the last year, Jason had learned many things. How to drink water from the gourd of a tree called the pentex (or, as Jason liked to call it, the Knife-Bladed Widow-Maker. He was pretty sure he would have scars). How to track the canny wylna to its lair and trap it inside. How to hide in the sand if something was hunting you. How to survive a sandstorm, how to start a fire, and how to sleep despite the cold when fires were impossible. He had made friends with a Maegrom, and he had broken an ancient curse. He had freed a Kharobem—a living story—from slavery. But he had never figured out how to tell when Mother Crow was joking.
He thought she was serious. She didn't make jokes when bargaining with a story. Stories were the cornerstone of the Kakri economy, and several Kakri sayings put stories at the same level as breath and water and food. Story was life. Life was story.
This was how a bargain started. The storyteller told you what sort of story she would tell you. It could be something useful like "I can tell you a story about what is good to eat in the desert." Or it could be something entertaining: "I can tell you a story that will make the listeners laugh every time they think of it." Jason grinned remembering that one. A story could be described any number of ways. The story of how the Peasant King made the crystal spheres. The story of how Mother Crow got her name. Learning the right way to pitch a story to your audience, that was part of the bargain.
For instance, Jason had successfully pitched "Little Red Riding Hood" to Mother Crow by saying, "I can tell you the story of a girl eaten by a wolf." Mother Crow's eyes had lit up at that. She loved survival stories, as did most of the Kakri. Stories that helped you navigate the world were gold, and Mother Crow said the oldest stories were things like "I saw a scorpion near the water hole today." Stories that warned you of danger or prepared you for the risks ahead. She had, to Jason's surprise, loved "Little Red Riding Hood" and said it was about obeying your mother. Jason told her it was about not getting too close to your grandmother, and Mother Crow had laughed and laughed at that. Sometimes she called him Little Red now, which he didn't love, but it made her happy.
She had never offered a story like this. One that would change the world. As the potential receiver of the tale, Jason could ask a few questions. You weren't allowed to ask questions that gave away too much of the story, because she wouldn't share it for free. The last question the recipient asked was the price. But first it was important to know what you were buying. "A story that will change the world," Jason said, trying to act indifferent. "Change it for the better or make it worse?"
Mother Crow smiled at him, pleased with the question. "Better for some, worse for others. It will throw down kings and raise up cities. It will destroy governments and create worlds."
"I thought it was a story, not a riddle."
Mother Crow thought that was particularly funny. "A riddle is only a story you do not yet understand."
"Uh-huh." Jason threw some twigs into the fire and watched them turn bright orange before twisting away into ash. "I hate riddles."
"Remember Nian. He was a puzzle to me. That story was a riddle."