Note: This is one of those stories that I always planned to make into a full novel, but could never quite find the words to move forward past its beginning. Still, I kind of like how the prologue turned out… so here’s the “first chapter”, sort of, of “The Ambassadors of Garr’kiis” or “The Ambassadors’ Sanctuary”.
“… Everything?” I heard her voice ask so quietly, thoughtfully. She seemed hurt, and yet numbed to the fact that she was even sad. It was the way we all felt. It made me shiver to realize how much everything had changed. This was not the voice she was supposed to have. None of these were our voices. We were shaken, and it showed.
“Yes…” I started to answer, then paused and reconsidered, “well… almost everything,” I cringed at the sound coming from my own vocal cords as I spoke and then slowly looked up. My eyes locked with those of my two best friends. I could feel our other close friend’s eyes wandering in and blinked in a way that said I was okay with adding another to this important ritual. I saw his face light up and couldn’t help but smile a little. Then, all four of our voices echoed loud and clear, and deeper and stronger than they had ever been; even more so than when these words had first been uttered. It was almost music, a song that reached into us so deeply that we felt connected not only with each other, but with everything else around us. It was our song.
“I promise that we will always be together, in life and in death; that if one of us dies we will not cry, but help to support the others and those they love; and that we will… find the truth, no matter what stands in our way,” the words poured out of our mouths so naturally. Even our pause, fixing the promise which had already been changed from its original form, was perfectly synchronized. My heart rose for a moment, filled entirely with the warm familiarity of that sound: all of our voices melding together in near-perfect harmony. It made me think back. I thought back to when everything had been shattered, then to the days just before it all fell down, then further to when our teachers were still around, then even further back… to when the promises had been made in a place that no-one knew of but us.
It had been our sanctuary, our secret haven, the one place we had that was completely and totally our own. From the time we were old enough to walk home from school by ourselves we went there. It had been long forgotten not only by my mother, but by everyone else who had ever cared about its existence. I closed my eyes and breathed in all of the scents it had to offer: wet soil, fresh water, dying roses, flowering weeds, and even the scents of my two best friends and the faint wind that passed over us through some unknown opening in the cave as we lay on our backs, staring up at the ceiling with our hands clasped together in a circle. It was our garden, a little cave full of life with a single bright light bulb hanging from the ceiling. How it was powered, none of us were really sure; but we wouldn’t have cared even if it had gone out. It was still the one place in the entire city—the entire world, as far as we knew at that age—where anything actually grew and lived. More importantly, it was still ours. I sighed, happy, and heard another sigh to my left.
“I hope it can stay this way always…” Susie whispered thoughtfully, happily, wistfully. She was the smallest and weakest of our little trio, but she was the most intelligent and observant as well. She wasn’t easily disturbed or even surprised and it was something that I always admired about her. I imagined her face then, soft and wondering. I imagined her short, light, pale blond, almost white hair being ruffled by the breeze passing overhead and felt a few strands of it touch my own head. I closed my eyes and saw the rest of her small, light, pale six-year-old frame in my mind’s eye. When I say she was pale, I really mean that she was about as white as snow (not that I knew what snow was at the time). It was normal to us to be pale, barely any color to your skin, but she was pale even by our standards. I saw her tiny hands, her soft blue eyes blinking against the wind, gentle though it was, her small toes wiggling a little. Moxie and I always agreed that she looked so delicate she could have been a porcelain doll, though she laughed when we told her that and got a mysterious look in her eyes. I smiled at the sound of Moxie’s voice.
“Of course it will! I can promise it,” Moxie answered confidently. She was the strongest, the tallest, and the most reckless of us. Where Susie was quiet, calm, pensive, and gentle; Moxie was loud, rambunctious, easily distracted, and had a much rougher sort of kindness about her. I imagined Moxie now as she smiled at the thought of her promise; her long, thin, stringy, dark black hair covering her face as the wind passed over it. I imagined her light brown skin, her slightly thicker and taller than average body by six-year-old standards, her strong hands holding mine and Susie’s. I imagined her eyes, jade green with a happy, excited, mischievous, far-off look to them as if she was always in another world. Susie and I always said that she was too ambitious and clever for her own good, though she would stick her tongue out and remind us that it made her the good fighter who had saved us from bullies more than once. Both the girls were loyal, smart, strong in their own ways, and my best friends from the day we “met” as babies six years before (if it can be considered meeting when you’re too young to know who you’re meeting). Our parents had been friends since they had been children in school themselves, and their parents had been friends before them, so it was only natural that we would spend a lot of time together as well.
We were also friends with some of our classmates (a young boy named Adam Tar, a girl named Daisy Cair, a girl named Tia Reign, etc.) and more closely with my neighbors, the Dain family. That family consisted of Misty Dain, the oldest and bitterest and most arrogant of the four children; Henry Dain, the calmest and strongest and most considerate of them; Rose Dain, the sweetest and happiest and most maternal; her twin sister Jackie Dain, the most outgoing and exuberant and creative; and the young Max Dain, the quietest and gentlest and most pensive child. They were like an extension of our family, like cousins. Still, it wasn’t the same as our friendship. The three of us were practically joined at the soul. We were like one person. We could each tell with a respectable amount of ease what the others were feeling and thinking and we knew each other better than anyone else could have. We were always together, always talking— even without talking at all. There was no closer relationship than ours. We loved each other, as best friends should.
That was why Susie was thinking about what would happen if we were ever separated. It would be the worst thing imaginable. Of course, it didn’t seem like something real to us. It was a distant nightmare, a vague fear in the backs of our minds. So Moxie promised her that it would never happen and somehow that was enough for us.
“I promise,” she started with a more thoughtful confidence, some sort of plan obviously playing out in her mind, “that we will always be together. Even our curses won’t keep us apart. We’ll accept each other and be with each other no matter what! Even if one of us has a Medical curse or a Lifespan curse we’ll still be together. Promise?”
I felt Susie’s hair brush against my head as she tilted hers questioningly. “How are we going to stay together if one of us dies?” she asked reasonably. It was a concern all of us had. It was a concern that our parents had, too, and just about everyone else in the city. When everyone has their own unique curse to face, there are certain things you come to worry about above others.
“Well, we’ll still know where the others are, right? I mean, Henry said that there’s a life after you die where everything is perfect and all of your other friends who have died are there and that you’ll live there forever and ever when you’re dead. So I think that we can just wait there for a while for the others to come. I mean, if everything’s perfect then we won’t notice even if it takes years. It doesn’t even have to be perfect; just really, really nice: like this. We’ll definitely be together after we die. And until then, we won’t leave each other over anything stupid like a curse looking weird or being dangerous. Do you promise that?” Moxie answered quickly, something in her voice that made me imagine that special spark in her eyes that she got when adrenaline pumped through her veins during a fight or when she was giving a particularly exciting show and tell lecture to our class. It made me smile and the three of us, words communicated but unspoken, breathed heavily for three long seconds before speaking all together.
Our voices rang through the cave in harmony, a little like they would later on, “I promise you, we will always be together.” The joy of that moment flooded in me for a second and I wanted to laugh uncontrollably but I stayed silent. We breathed heavily again for a bit, the solemnity of the moment clearly understood. We had made a promise and promises, especially in our underground city of Garr’kiis, carried a weight with them. They were extremely important.
“And…” Susie began quietly, “And if one of us does die then… the others aren’t allowed… I mean we can’t… we… or is it they? We… we can’t cry over them. At all. We have to keep our families from crying too: my parents; or your uncle Stephen, Moxie; or your mom, Alex. We can’t cry at all. Do you promise that?” There was another long silence following her question. We didn’t need to think about it, we didn’t need to debate with ourselves whether it was a promise worth making, but it only felt right to spend a moment of silent reflection. It was somehow more real when she put it that way, after all. Especially because of the words she had said without saying. When she had said “if one of us does die” she had really meant “if one of us does die of a Lifespan curse” because it was the type of death we feared most and when she had said “we can’t cry over them” she had also meant “we can’t let that curse win”. Those things made us uncomfortable, and made some invisible collar start to faintly choke the life out of me as if I really did have some sort of Lifespan curse. I felt a few shivers from the girls’ shoulders and knew that I wasn’t the only one whose eyes were starting to water at the very thought of one of us dying. We all understood the importance, though, and we didn’t want any curse to win over us; no matter what it was. For that to happen, it was vital that we never gave in to our sadness.
Again the cave resonated with our clear, determined, slightly sad little voices as we spoke in unison, “I promise you, we will never once cry if any one of us dies.” The wording felt a little awkward, but absolutely right at the same time. It was the way we wanted it, whether we knew it or not. Another long silence came and it was my turn.
“Before…” I started to say, cutting out the part about us dying of curses or old age or anything that is capable of taking a human life. I restarted, “We all have to see the Surface world, I think. I know we all want to, or we wouldn’t have chosen this as our special place. So we have to be Ambassadors. We have to feel the real wind on our faces, smell the real smells of the Surface, and see real plants. We have to be together there, too. We have to apply for the same job. Do you… do you promise that?” The weight of the question made me falter a bit at the end, even as confident as I’d been through the rest of it. I had done almost as well as Moxie until then. I felt my lungs fill and empty as we breathed deeply for the next pause. It was agreed by now that this was how we would make promises. We had to pause first.
Even if we already knew what we were going to say, we still had to have that pause. Only Ambassadors got to see the surface world, after all. It was something that nearly every child in our dark underground city longed to do. We saw the stone walls all around us, the artificial or magically powered lights strung over the stone ceiling, and in our garden we could feel some wind every now and then, but we had never seen what the sun really was or experienced the “weather” that Susie’s mother talked about from time to time. We had to actually apply to be Ambassadors, or else we would be trapped there beneath the surface world. We would never go on missions to retrieve food and materials from surface towns or go above ground using stealth and diplomacy to make sure that a way in was never found by a surface-dweller; at least, we wouldn’t until we were Ambassadors.
So then, for the last time, the cave rang with our joined voices, “I promise you, we three will become Ambassadors and see the Surface world together, no matter what stands in our way.” This agreement was more elaborate than the others, and in some ways more specific. This one didn’t just call on us to face our own selves in order to accomplish the promised goal; it asked that we fight outside forces that would prevent us from seeing the Surface too. It was, in its own way, the most demanding and heaviest of the promises. This was especially true because it was the closest to our minds, the most real. It was something we could do, not a plan for an eventuality. All of them were important, though, and all of them filled us with a feeling of responsibility and closeness. It was just one way of expressing our love for each other.
We lay silently on that soil for a long time after that, speaking about what had just happened and sorting out details of the promises in our heads, without ever saying a word to each other. As one we all turned over and looked into each other’s eyes, still holding each other’s hands. Another breeze came and ruffled our hair, throwing some in Moxie’s face and making Susie’s a little ratty. I imagined myself from their point of view, my shoulder length, light brown hair being blown into my dark brown eyes as they were scanning my friends’ faces. I imagined my normally pale skin, my average sized body splayed out on the hard dirt beneath us. I was the only boy in our group, but we didn’t care. Friends were friends.
After a time, we rolled back over and took in the garden for a few more seconds. Then we slowly rose, keeping our hands clasped, walked backwards so that our backs touched each other and we could feel our breathing for a minute, and let go to walk out of the garden with quiet smiles on our faces. Our words seemed to have set everything in stone. This was what we would do. It all seemed so perfect to us then, so easily attainable. So, as Susie turned the key in the lock of our garden, we smiled.
This was how the three promises were originally made that guided the decisions we made for the rest of our lives. They were the promises that made me think when I read The Surface Myth Books, that made me question the world around me, and that helped make me take the risks that I did… even if they were never exactly intended for that purpose. To quote a good friend of mine, “We were the blind man fighting a thunderstorm. We were drowning; and as the water flowed into our lungs to slowly kill us, we, in our ignorance, simply let it do its work.” You see, I’m not writing this just so it can decay in the ground or be taken as some fable from a far off land. I am writing this because it is my story. It is the story of Alexander Red Faux; though please, I sincerely beg that you just call me Alex. This is, after all, the story of my name and the journey it took me on; of the change that it sparked in not only my life, but those of many others. This is the story of me and Garr’kiis.
I wanted to be calm, but I couldn’t. The silky blue drapes in the antique room didn’t move and the little chess table sat halfway through a game. Tears started to gather in my eyes, but I wouldn’t let them fall.
"You know why I chose you, don’t you?" his voice was old and serious, but light and friendly too. He was a mentor, a friend, someone I relied on for advice. He was the only one I knew who still remembered how to be innocent, how to be kind, how to see the beauty of the world, and he was dying. This was the way things worked; it was how they had to be. I hated it, but I could do nothing about it.
"Yes," I whispered, taking hold of his hand in both of mine and remembering all of the time we had spent talking about the "old days" and the "way of the world". The Passing was a ritual that everyone had to undergo, something no-one could avoid or postpone, the refreshing of souls. It was the way that we reminded the world who we once were while creating someone new. It was our legacy.
"You have strength and empathy, Marrelu. You can make this world a better place if you want to. I know that, and I want to be sure that my knowledge and experiences are in the right hands. I trust you, Marrelu. That is why I chose you for this, and no-one else," my old friend said, his voice labored but still seeming so strong in spite of the circumstances.
“I have your voice and your stories. To have the stories without the voice… it will never be the same. I don’t know if I have the strength for that,” I answered, my tears starting to fall.
"But I know that you do. I have loved teaching you, my friend. You have been the best student I ever had. It will not be the same… I know… but… you will… make it… worth it… right… my mentee?" his breath came even shorter, and I could barely look at the eyes that were so quickly losing their life. Bright then dull, bright then dull… flickering like a lightning bug.
"I can try…" I said, starting to feel the cold of his hands and the magic in the air around us. His soul was leaving, fading away from him and moving to some other place where it would wait for the call to become something new.
“That is… all that I ask of you… my mentor-to-be,” he smiled, gripping my hands lightly to reassure me that it would be alright. I closed my eyes, the memories of his life and views and thoughts all flashing before my eyes like a movie. I let go of his hand, getting up to open the window. The summer breeze hugged me close, then it carried away the last visible reminder of my old friend. His soul was off, to find some new calling. Choking back my tears, I smiled a little at his voice echoing in my mind. He was young in the memory, readying himself for some journey or other.
“What I want to do with my life?” he echoed the friend sitting next to him before answering, “I want to see the world… all of the world… and I want to share what I see with everyone. I want to let them know how beautiful it is. I want them to see that it can make them happy, when nothing else can.”
"That’s funny…" I muttered, barely noticing the mortician who came into the room to complete the Passing process, "that’s exactly what I want to do, too. I won’t let you down, my friend. I promise."
I don’t know if I can keep
The promise that I made to this place.
For to this world of ours I swore not to sleep
Until I had given it something, brought a smile to its face.
I swore that I would give something,
That I would leave something great behind.
Even if just being me was that something,
But I don’t know if it’s enough just to use my mind.
This world is made of people, I know,
And you can only truly know so many.
And some will come and some will go,
And to each you give a humble penny.
But a penny isn’t any kind of money,
And a penny just won’t do.
‘Cause while these people are here, honey,
They want something sure, something true.
So you give all that you’ve got,
You give something beautiful to this place.
You give the world what you forgot:
You bring a smile to its face.
And so I swore that would give something,
That I would leave something great behind.
I said I’d draw, I’d write, I’d think, I’d sing.
I thought that it would be enough to use my mind.
But this world is full of people, I know,
And though I hardly know any…
I will try not to let them go
As I give them each that special penny.
But a penny isn’t enough, I know,
And a penny just won’t do.
Still I’ll give all I’ve got, so
I’ll leave behind something lovely, something true.
But I just don’t know if I can keep
The promise I have made to this place.
For I have fallen ignorantly into sleep
And the only smile seen is the one upon my face.
I have left this world behind,
I have given nothing…
But I’m not stupid and I’m not blind.
I still have time to give it something.
So I’ll give all that I’ve got,
And one day I’ll give something beautiful to this place.
I’ll give the world what I forgot:
I’ll bring a smile, like my own, to its face.