By Paulo Coelho
In ancient China, around the year 250 B.C., a certain prince of the region of Thing-Zda was about to be crowned emperor; however, according to the law, he first had to get married.
Since this meant choosing the future empress, the prince needed to find a young woman whom he could trust absolutely. On the advice of a wise man, he decided to summon all the young women of the region in order to find the most worthy candidate.
An old lady, who had served in the palace for many years, heard about the preparations for this gathering and felt very sad, for her daughter nurtured a secret love for the prince.
When the old lady got home, she told her daughter and was horrified to learn that her daughter intended going to the palace.
The old lady was desperate.
‘But, daughter, what on earth will you do there? All the richest and most beautiful girls from the court will be present. It’s a ridiculous idea! I know you must be suffering, but don’t turn that suffering into madness.’
And the daughter replied:
‘My dear mother, I am not suffering and I certainly haven’t gone mad. I know that I won’t be chosen, but it’s my one chance to spend at least a few moments close to the prince, and that makes me happy, even though I know that a quite different fate awaits me.’
That night, when the young woman reached the palace, all the most beautiful girls were indeed there, wearing the most beautiful clothes and the most beautiful jewellery, and prepared to do anything to seize the opportunity on offer.
Surrounded by the members of his court, the prince announced a challenge.
‘I will give each of you a seed. In six months’ time, the young woman who brings me the loveliest flower will be the future empress of China.’
The girl took her seed and planted it in a pot, and since she was not very skilled in the art of gardening, she prepared the soil with great patience and tenderness, for she believed that if the flowers grew as large as her love, then she need not worry about the results.
Three months passed and no shoots had appeared. The young woman tried everything; she consulted farmers and peasants, who showed her the most varied methods of cultivation, but all to no avail. Each day she felt that her dream had moved farther off, although her love was as alive as ever.
At last, the six months were up, and still nothing had grown in her pot. Even though she had nothing to show, she knew how much effort and dedication she had put in during that time, and so she told her mother that she would go back to the palace on the agreed date and at the agreed hour. Inside she knew that this would be her last meeting with her true love and she would not have missed it for the world.
The day of the audience arrived. The girl appeared with her plantless pot, and saw that all the other candidates had achieved wonderful results: each girl bore a flower lovelier than the last, in the most varied forms and colours.
Finally, the longed-for moment came. The prince entered and he studied each of the candidates with great care and attention. Having inspected them all, he announced the result and chose the servant’s daughter as his new wife.
All the other girls present began to protest, saying that he had chosen the only one of them who had not managed to grow anything at all.
Then the prince calmly explained the reasoning behind the challenge:
‘This young woman was the only one who cultivated the flower that made her worthy of becoming the empress: the flower of honesty. All the seeds I handed out were sterile, and nothing could ever have grown from them.’
(Adapted from a story sent in by Maria Emilia Voss)
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