An Apology

“It wasn’t your story to tell.”

 

Of all the feedback you expected, that wasn’t it. This was the song you were proudest of, and the one you had worked on the longest. For the past year, whenever you had a spare moment (which was not nearly as often as you would have liked), you jotted down notes, which became lines, which became stanzas. Still, it wasn’t a perfect ballad, and you knew it – the scansion in some sections could never quite be pinned down, the twenty-third and forty-seventh stanzas used the exact same series of rhymes, the pacing took a major hit in the second act, and your melodies have always been pedestrian at best. These were the kind of criticisms you were expecting, while still hoping you wouldn’t receive them. And strangely, you didn’t.

When the last notes on your lute disappeared into silence, which disappeared into applause, all you saw were smiles. A larger crowd than you had expected had gathered to see your much-touted performance in Lomyn Park, and a humbling portion of that crowd stayed behind to congratulate you. You shook hands, took donations, and even signed a couple autographs! This was a first for you. It had felt so good to have your ambitions proven right.

You still remember the first time you heard of The Scourge of Regent Okohke. It was in the hold of the Meadowlark, on Day 23 of your nine-week voyage across the sea. The tale had captured your imagination – almost as much as your horror. You were braving the terrors of the ocean for a new life in Vespia, and to hear of such cruelty and tragedy in your future home filled you with shock, fear, and artistic inspiration.

You asked around with the crew, and it seemed no one had yet written a ballad about Okohke. Sure, news of how the great Empire of Sand had almost fallen to complete ruin had spread far and wide, but it was not a tale yet sung by the bards of Vespia. Maybe it was deemed too soon, maybe the scope of the tragedy was too great, maybe no one in Vespia had the skill to pull it off – you knew not. But this was important. Sure, the Empire had rebuilt, and all news coming from its high walls and dark alleys indicated that the new regent was doing an able job making up for her predecessor. But this story could not vanish into the shifting sands that gave it birth. Nothing in history was new, but with enough public awareness, some things could be prevented from happening again.

So you set feverishly to work. The entire first act of the ballad was written before you even set foot on the Vespian continent. Your pace then slowed considerably after you landed and began to acquaint yourself with the city of Hwab’tsier. Creating the Great Vespian Ballad was all well and good, but you needed to eat. Many a night over a bowl of seafood stew you pored through newspapers, scrolls, and the few books to be published on the matter. As you chewed through gristly seafood castoff, you felt emotions rise in you that you had never felt before.

You were never one particularly given to anger. Pettiness and sarcasm you had in abundance, but anger? That was a rare occurrence, brief and often triggered from some perceived threat. What you felt as you read about the Scourge’s insidious reign of terror was entirely new. It was not the brief flare of anger, but an unquenchable cold fury.

There was nothing you could do physically to this man, but by the Many, you still had words. These were the weapons, the grand instrument you would use to destroy any lingering reputation this human corpse fire was able to cling to. You were going to write something amazing… no.

 

You were going to write something perfect.

You ferociously studied the styles and trends of modern Vespian balladry. The plan was perfect – a lighter, even humorous introduction to build audience goodwill. A descent into the darkest recesses of the human heart. A triumphant ending that did not dismiss the pain of Ohkoke’s victims, but sent the audience home feeling inspired and like they too were part of some grand, noble, victorious struggle.

And it worked. From the first notes, you had the audience glued. Everyone knew the basics, but you were compiling all available information into one easily digestible ballad. Multiple times you nearly stumbled in your performance as you witnessed the dawn of enlightenment in the eyes of your audience. To see them nodding along, agreeing with you, stoked your fury into a virtuosic performance of facts and truth and pain and hope.

“How many Empsan did you interview?”

“Pardon?” You were cleaning up, most of the crowd had dissipated by this point. A young woman in loose fitting clothing came up to you, after the line of congratulaters had left. By her dress and accent, you could immediately tell that she was a native of the Empire.

“In the research and creation of your ballad. How many Empire residents did you talk to?”

“Well, in the creation of my epic, I didn’t really do the interviewing, per se, but I read all the information the city had to offer, even booking a very expensive appointment in the Library of the Clouds -”

“So, you didn’t talk with anyone who actually lived through the Scourge’s reign? No first-hand accounts at all?”

“If it is the accuracy of my epic that concerns you, my dear woman, I can assure you that I used only the most reputable sources and -”

“Pfft. Yeah, Hwab’tsian sources. For one thing, Lotrare was just kind of in the area when everything went down – he wasn’t some grand conspirator. Not everyone who was in the High Court at the time was automatically evil.”

You stammer. “Well, I… I apologize but are you sure, after all, each source I read concurred that -”

In retrospect, her next action should have been accompanied by fury, maybe even shouting. It would have been deserved. She was angry, but it was not the passionate bonfire you read about in your favorite stories, not the same fury that inspired you. It was a sad, almost resigned anger. It was the anger of someone who understood that while the past shapes you, you cannot change it. She pulled back the sleeve of her linen shirt and bared her left arm, which bore the Brand of the Broken.

“I. Was. There. I saw it all happen. I didn’t just see it happen, it happened to me.” She shoves her sleeve back down. “I was there when they sealed off the Lower Court, when the Moonskin were forced into our streets, when an entire city was afflicted.” You realize that what you thought were freckles were actually the healed scars of Nanipaux – colloquially known as Moonskin, a vicious and highly contagious disease. “And I was there during the Night of Moonlit Blades. I barely escaped my house being crushed into rubble. I can still feel The Quake in my knees every time a cart goes by – sometimes even in my sleep. I. Was. There.”

You pause, far too briefly. You are surprised, but not humbled. Not yet. “I… I truly am sorry, miss. I did not… I am sorry for any and all mistakes in my song, and I would be more than happy to work with you on correcting them for future performances…”

She sighs. “You don’t get it. There shouldn’t be any future performances.”

 

This truly takes you aback. “I… What?! I truly don’t understand. You just said it yourself, this was a tragedy, a travesty, a… a… a thing that should never happen again! The whole world should know about this! It is my duty to spread the story of -”

“Says who? According to who? Who assigned this duty to you? Who gave you the orders – no – who gave you the right to sing about our pain like this? To turn my pain into a – a performance?”

“But surely people need to know what happened! We can’t be allowed to forget this!”

“They do know!! Everytime I mention I’m Empsan, that’s the first thing I’m asked about. Of… Of course we can’t let this be forgotten. Of course. But… But you could have talked to a single one of us.”

“W-well, here in Hwab’tsier, there aren’t too many Empsan, and I’m new to the city, so I don’t really know any and…”

“Did you ask? Did you ask around at all?”

“I…” You look down. “No. No I didn’t.”

“I’m not saying it’s not an important story. Or that it shouldn’t be told. And it wasn’t necessarily told badly – besides everything you got wrong and the wonky pacing in the middle, that is. But it doesn’t help the victims – it does no aid to the people of the Empire for you to tell their story for them. Not when there are so many capable Empsan mouths who can and do, every day. Who tell their story simply by continuing to live.”

“But… But no one was telling the story! After a few short years, people just don’t talk about it anymore! And I just couldn’t let… I just…”

“Maybe it just isn’t time yet. Maybe it’s been told enough – for us. Maybe it’s told every single day, told by the very existence of all the survivors who continue to live, and thrive. I… I appreciate that you have sympathy for what happened, I do. But your sympathy won’t change what happened to us. We are the survivors, the ones who have to live every day with the weight of the past on us. We have the burden of this story, and the privilege to tell it. Your heart may have been in the right place, but…

 

“But it just wasn’t your story to tell.”

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