“What has led you to the Xia Valley and the Game of the Dreaming? What do you hope to see when the blossoms take your mind?” asked Datai Chu, the duly appointed and empowered 217th Overseer of the Games. “As late entrants, you will be subject to my ruling on whether or not you are worthy of the games and the Flowers of Xia.”

Ru Shim, a former soldier in the Qingdu Emperor’s great army, replied “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might prove myself worthy of the renown I once possessed. I hope to see a field of worthy enemies that I might lay low in fair combat.”

Qiang Zhou, a mercenary and fortune-seeker, said “I seek the Game of the Dreaming that I might earn the purse for winning it. I hope to see a challenge not possible in the waking world, that I might overcome that which no man has ever faced.”

Jiang Tang, a farmer facing the loss of his land if he could not pay a debt, was direct: “I also seek the Game of the Dreaming for the purse, as it is the only thing that might save the land that my family’s hands have tilled for generations. I hope to see a circumstance in which a hardworking farmer can see his toil rewarded.”

Xuan Li, a wanderer facing the end of his long and proud line due to his inability to sire an heir, answered last: “I seek not the Game of the Dreaming, but rather the flowers themselves. Win or lose, I hope only to see a vision of what might come to pass if my line were not wiped from the earth.”

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Sun Anne-Wen tapped her staff to life against the ancient and abandoned stonework, drenching the area in a light as bright as it was cold. Each breath froze in the air as she moved, and the chill was enough to cut through her carefully prepared outfit as if it were nothing.

Such was the power of the phantom snow; it was a cold not of the body but of the mind.

Indeed, Anne-Wen was able to move through the knee-high drifts without difficulty, as if they weren’t there at all. Her parka kept the real cold of the place at bay, but it was only a matter of hours–perhaps less–before the warmth was sucked from her soul and she lay down to let the elements claim her. It didn’t happen much anymore, not since the Ru-Alim academicians had puzzled out the nature of the phantom snows that had sent Anne-Wen’s ancestors fleeing from the very halls she now walked.

Emerging into a great rotunda, Anne-Wen knew that she had arrived in the place Smith Ling-Harold’s notes had described. The upper portions had collapsed, spilling masonry and stone columns into the broad arcade below, and a ring of statues honoring distinguished men and women long forgotten (except by the most obscure and learned of the Ru-Alim academicians) maintained a lonely vigil over the choking phantom snow.

But in the middle of the chamber…Anne-Wen had to pass her hand through it in disbelief. Lit by a beam of cold sunlight and sprouting impossibly from an outcrop of solid rock forced through the floor by one of the great old earthquakes…

A single, luminous flower.

Inspired by this.

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The work of a botanist had long suited Alan Greene. There had been endless jokes and jibes from schoolmates growing up about his “Greene thumb” and Alan was perfectly happy to tend to his garden, which blossomed beautifully with tender care in a way that human relationship could never be relied upon to do. He wrote extensively; even though his ostensible specialization was ragweed and sunflowers and other Asteraceae, his knowledge was far broader and found expression wherever it could, from academic monographs to gardening magazine articles. His home in Hopewell, near campus, was a popular stop on the parade of homes due to its massive and carefully maintained lawn and flowers.

When he retired, Alan bought property in the Upper Peninsula near the old SMU field station that had closed in 1974. With quite the nest egg saved up–he had never married, girlfriends always pulling up stakes claiming he loved his plants more than them–he’d invested in a property out in the middle of nowhere, roughly halfway between Paradise village and Whitefish Point. It was equipped with a geothermal heating system, its own well, and a greenhouse almost as large as all the other rooms combined.

Infrequent visitors found the lawn to be an order of magnitude more impressive than the old Hopewell property, bursting with artful arrangements of flowers and grass in front and a garden bursting with produce around back. In the winter, heated by the geothermal pipes and the occasional cylinder of propane from Paradise, the greenhouse was a beacon of life, often snowbound.

When Alan’s remains were found in his garden nearly a year after his last trip to town, investigators were astonished to discover seventeen previously unknown varieties of flora growing about him–a last will and testament of sorts.

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Sirkka Mäkinen-Korhonen had been a rising star at the University of Helsinki, completing a rigorous program of study and qualifying to enter the faculty as a full member before her 22nd birthday. In addition to groundbreaking work on the classification and molecular genetics of vascular plants in the Asteraceae (the daisy family), she was a well-regarded writer and poet. Mäkinen-Korhonen had the rare distinction of having work published in the university’s botany journal at the same time a series of poems appeared in its literary journal.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that great things were expected of her.

Then, after she had worked at the university for six years, Mäkinen-Korhonen spent a summer at the university field station at Inari, in the north. There, Sirkka undertook a massive project to collect and classify Asteraceae native to Finland, as well as subspecies adapted to several nearby microclimates. It was expected to be three months’ work, resulting in the collection of some interesting specimens, an academic monograph, and another step on the inevitable road to a senior professorship and the departmental chair.

Instead, Sirkka Mäkinen-Korhonen never returned.

She insisted on prolonging her stay, first by taking a sabbatical. When her leave time ran out, she accepted a position overseeing the field station at substantially reduced pay and the loss of academic tenure and all promotions. Eventually, hit hard by a recession, the University of Helsinki closed the field station and reassigned its members to other areas. Mäkinen-Korhonen refused to leave, and was duly terminated from the university altogether. Using her savings, she purchased a small home on the shores of Lake Inari and arranged to have supplies delivered–and mail collected–for the nearest village once every few weeks.

In her hermitage, Sirkka apparently continued her study of daisies as well as her literary pursuits. Letters to family and former colleagues became more infrequent and more disjointed, jumbled masses of paeans to daisies in a variety of meters and styles mixed in with diatribes against the pace of modern life and invitations to join her in a life “outside the graph paper.”

Eventually, Sirkka began claiming that, through intense study, one could experience “asterism.” As far as anyone could discern, “asterism” was a sort of cosmic oneness achieved through daisies–one apparently recognized that the pattern of petals reflected stars in the night sky and the reflections in a polished gemstone, and thereby was able to tap into universal consciousness. Sirkka’s last, disjointed letters urged her friends and family to begin their study of daisies at once, lest they be left behind then all humanity eventually ascended to another plane through unity with flowers.

When the last supplies arrived at her cabin, the villagers found it deserted. A triangle made of three asterisks was painted on one of the walls, and every potted daisy in the house had been uprooted.

It was called “The Game of the Dreaming.”

Every autumn, when the first leaf fell in the Xia Valley, the masters of the local school would open the tournament and many would respond to their call, from all corners of the Empire. The Xia tournament was far from ordinary, however, which led considerably to its allure.

The masters would go out at midsummer to the nearby mountain, returning after a week’s absence with strange purple flowers that no one who lived in the area could ever recall seeing in the wild. Ground up, fermented, and placed into ornate bottles, the flower draught was the centerpiece of the tournament. A special arena in the form of a labyrinth with an open top was maintained at the school; competitors would quaff the flower draught and then enter, seeking a plain clay pot placed at the center.

Spectators would watch as the champions, many of them accomplished martial artists, ran about wildly, screaming, fighting invisible spirits, and otherwise acting in ways most unbecoming. For the challenge was not one of mere strength but rather mental and spiritual fortitude. The flower draught would inflame the mind with fantastic visions, veiling the world of the real and reducing the strongest of men to gibbering wrecks in the face of torments only they could see.

Xuan Li entered the 217th Xia Valley Tournament as its last entrant, arriving only hours before it began.

It would be the last such tournament the valley would ever see.

One particular stretch of the walk, a dead-end utility road, was Jackson’s favorite. He liked the way thick foliage on either side cut busy nearby streets and buildings off from view; made him feel, if only for a moment, like he was out in the back country on a casual stroll instead of trying to save precious gas money by walking to the office.

That was only the most visible part of the atmosphere, of course.

The real attraction was the scent that filled the area during the springtime.

Even though the brambly wooded gullies on either side of the road revealed nary a visible blossom, the path always smelled strongly of wildflowers. Nevertheless, their presence was felt as soon as Jackson walked by; unlike many strong floral scents, he didn’t cease to percive it after a few moments.

It was almost as if he were walking somewhere breathtaking, like a flower show or a wide-open field scattered with blossoms rather than a dreary windowless office.