As a Christmas gift, I wrote this story for my girlfriend Amanda. This is part of the same story cycle/mythos as the Meep Sheep.
Amanda wiped away the tears as her carriage left the city of the pandas and headed her into the snow and to a home she hadn’t been to in ages. She had been with the pandas serving the queen for two years and in that time she had made friendships such as she had never had before. Had it not been for her family and boyfriend waiting for her she would be tempted to stay with the pandas forever but there were other adventures, and other stories for her to write and it was time for Manda to return to her life. It was time to go back home and back to writing stories that didn’t involve the wonderfully complex world of the pandas.
A sob escaped her as she looked out the back window of the carriage and saw her friend Kindri, a young assistant to the elders, waving goodbye. There had been a grand ball the night before in her honor, not so much a ‘goodbye’ as a ‘fare well’, and it had been something she would always cherish.
“Goodbye is for war, Miss Manda…and for the dead. You are going to neither, so this is fare well.” She was told gruffly, though there were tears in the voice of Ruuuj, one of the honor guards in the city.
Yes, not goodbye, just fare well.
Amanda forced herself to look away from Kindri and turned around to face forward and look toward the road ahead, which was covered over with the winter snow. Behind her the preparations were already being undertaken for the grand winter festival, which was a mix of the annual Renewal Festival and of the traditions of Amanda’s home, something the pandas had taken on in her honor. No one had anticipated how well the pandas would take to her, especially not Manda, but it was true, and the Kingdom had changed because of this friendship. In fact, were it not for her, what began as unrest in an outreaching part of the land may have become full war if Zoof, one of the panda elders, had not gone to speak with the people and taken the Winter globe with him, and it was that which turned the tide. The wonderment that could be created with the magic globe was enough to calm the tide of this budding war and so this would be another season of peace for the Kingdom of Man. Manda smiled thinking this and it was that warmth that took the tears away.
The snow was a blur outside the small window as the carriage picked up speed and Manda looked down at the small green box she held in her hands, a final gift from her friend Loof. He had told her, the day before she was leaving, that he preferred to see her off then, so it was not truly anything more than a fare well, because she had not departed yet. In sending her off though, he gave her the one gift she accepted from the pandas – a small green box. It was not that she didn’t desire to take the beautiful presents that were offered her but she knew their culture well and that gifts were only accepted like that by the family of someone who has passed away, and she was clearly not departing anything more than this kingdom for another. So what she did was have the pandas leave the many gifts of food, clothing, and the beautiful sculptures that were part of their heritage with Kindri, who kept a small cottage for Amanda, should she return. It was a nice thought for her, a warm thought that there was a place for her there. There was a home.
Ah, but when she’d ever get to return was the question.
Much had changed in the Kingdom, and there was much to report, and Manda was still the lead reporter for the Queen and as such, wherever there was something important, she was there. So when she might return she wasn’t sure, but she would.
Ah, but the box.
The snow was a blur beyond the window and the sun was fading. It would still be hours until she was home again and that was an awful long time to think so the box was the perfect distraction. The box was small and green and though simple at first glance, was very ornate. Small, stones had been woven into the fabric, and though they were nothing valuable, their rarity to the pandas and in their lands made them of great value to Amanda. Tears started to run down her face again.
She wasn’t sure what she expected to be in the box but part of her didn’t want to know. Opening the box would take away the last mystery she had left from the place. Maybe the last she would ever have from there.
But then, deep in her mind, she heard the voice of Loof, who had once told her that as long as there were sunrises, there were mysteries. Mysteries did not pass with the person – they only became greater, broader, and more wondrous. Each day, he concluded, is a new world, a new mystery, a new life – it is for us to link these days together or to push into the thickets and make a new path.
Manda nodded to herself.
To not open the box would be an insult. She must be brave, she must be bold.
She must forge ahead.
Amanda took a deep breath and opened the box.
Within the small green box was a red key atop dozens of coins of different color, size, and seemingly denomination. Even in the dim light of the carriage the key sparkled atop the coins and she couldn’t help but smile. Fastened to the inside of the lid of the box was a note, which Amanda pulled out to read.
Miss Manda – I give to you my most cherished treasure – a Key of Dreams. I was given this by a shaman from a lost Tribe of Man many, many years before our histories were recorded. I give this now to you, you who have bridged the Panda Kingdom with the Kingdom of Man once more. I give this to you and smile, knowing the adventures I had with this key when I was younger and had far more dance in my paws. This key is for not a door but for an idea, for a dream; and dreams, my dear, can be found everywhere one looks. When a day comes when you need an escape, when you need an adventure, when you need a new story to tell then take this little red key, close your eyes, and think of where you want to be. When you have that in mind, hold the key out and turn it and a door shall appear and through that door you will arrive wherever it was you dreamed. To return, you do the same. This key is as magical or terrifying as the user wishes, so be warned not to dream darkly unless you wish to see the shade. Use it well, and I trust, some day, you will use this key to dream of us, so we might see you once again.
Amanda couldn’t stop the tears as they coursed down her face, nor could she stop the smile that lit her up and warmed her as they were linked. She lifted the key and it was light, light but warm, and she smiled more broadly, a place in mind, a person in mind, and closed her eyes and held the key out and turned it and felt a lock click open and then a breeze. She wondered a moment about her luggage and then laughed – the carriage would go to wherever it was bidden to travel, with our without its passenger. She took a deep breath and leaned forward, eyes still closed, and fell into nothingness, and into the waiting arms of the one she loved.
And somewhere, far, far away, a grand old panda laughed, as if tickled by a breeze, or by the kiss of someone precious, and it was a smile that lit its face as it fell back into slumber.