The Third Flower

At the end of the world was a mountain, and in the hidden heart of the mountain was a maze.  At the center of the maze, the stories said, there bloomed a flower.  Storytellers from the riverlands said the flower was fair as morning, and shone with its own light.  Storytellers from the drylands said the flower had petals dark as shadow, and perfumed the entire maze with the scents of extinct fruits.  And storytellers from the mountain itself said the flower was no flower, but the chrysalis of a goddess.

One day a traveler from a far land came to the end of the world.  She gazed out over the edge, where the sky bled into an insuperable blackness, unpierced even by starlight.  Long ago, she had offended against her general, and he had exiled her to the world’s end.  He had meant for her to die on the way, but the traveler was skilled with bow and spear, and her foes had fallen before her.  Nor did she intend to greet death by flinging herself over the world’s edge.  But she knew of the tales of the maze, and as there was scant sustenance to be had on the mountain, she would have to seek it within the maze.

Although hunger gnawed at her stomach, she searched until the stone yielded its secrets to her.  Trembling, she descended into the maze.  A curious pale light the color of pollen illuminated the passageways.  Not trusting the light, the traveler closed her eyes.  Her footsteps echoed strangely, and so it was that she discovered a door hidden to the eye.

The light grew brighter, so that she saw it as a reddish haze against her eyelids.  There was a pattern in the haze: a map in the shape of the convolutions of a flower’s petals.  The traveler did not trust this either, but her curiosity was piqued.  Besides, she was nearing the end of her strength.

Following the map she had been shown, the traveler went deeper and deeper into the mountain.  At times she thought she could hear the mountain whispering to her of hoarded bones and rotted ghosts.  I am stronger than you, she said to it, and kept putting one foot in front of the other.

She came upon the flower almost without warning.  It was fair as morning, and she stopped, struck by its beauty.

Pluck me, it said in a voice like silk and pearls.  I offer you the treasures of the world: sapphire cabochons and silver coronets, alabaster sculptures and books of forgotten poetry.

I am but a simple soldier, the traveler said.  My spear and bow are all the treasure I need.  And she would not touch the flower.

Darkness suffused the flower’s petals, and it became even more beautiful than before.  Pluck me, it said in a voice like velvet and glass.  I offer you the wisdom of the world: knowledge of the rivalries that drive men and women, and understanding of the philosophies that dragons compose during storms; the answer to every riddle ever devised and the questions that even the dead must ask.

I am but a simple soldier, the traveler said.  The wisdom I carry is the wisdom of the road.  I have no need of yours.  And she would not touch the flower.

Then the flower’s petals withered and floated free, crumbling to dust when they landed on the floor.  All that remained was the rich smell of a hundred unfamiliar fruits.

The traveler looked at the empty stem.  In the tales there is one other flower, she said.

You are the flower at the heart of the maze now, said the flower’s voice.  If you do not desire material treasures or gifts of wisdom, all I can offer is what you brought with you: yourself.

Years later, they say, the general repented of his sentence and sent messengers to the end of the world to find the exile.  Although they searched the mountain’s every slope, they never found her.  They left without ever asking the mountain’s humble villagers about the newly-built shrine where they left offerings of petals and fruit to an unnamed goddess.

for Telophase