10. Emperor of the Ostriches

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The Beginning

Ashbah was many things. Above all else, it was boring.

My mother ordered me to stay inside. For my safety, she said. Safe? Perhaps. But trapped in a three-hundred square midpace slab of stone in which I was ordered not to look at or touch anything, I began to lose my mind. My grandmother had eyes in the back of her head. If I tried to sneak so much as a peak out the window, she'd immediately shut me down with "Somebody will see you", or "They'll ask questions", or "Maybe later, when the street is less crowded". Morning, day, night - it never mattered. The suns always shone just as bright, and the street was never less crowded.

My mother's "private discussions" with Jamshid, Izzet, my grandmother, and other strange men grew more secretive and more frequent until I was lucky to see her for more than an hour or so a day. The one time I tried to eavesdrop, Izzet caught me, and unbeknownst to my mother, whipped me with his ostrich's reins so hard I could barely sit the next day. The actual pain phased me very little, but the principle caused me to lay awake several nights afterward. Izzet was abrasive and antagonizing, yes, but he'd never touched me. So whatever it was their little cult was discussing, it must have been worth it.

I spent day after day, night after night lying on the sand-stone floor, drawing unintelligible patterns in the dirt. Sometimes I drew symbols: for "home", or for "water", or for "hunger", and most often, punctuation - I wrote the symbol for "?" over and over again. When the dirt gave me no reply, I met it with my forehead. Then I rolled over on my back, and the ceiling looked exactly like the ground.

No scenery, no conversation, no books, not even energies to entertain me. Nothing.

So one day when they were off having one of their private meetings in the small room, I went to Jamshid's hovel.

They were basically the same hovel, yes? And there wasn't anything Jamshid didn't already know. The inside looked mostly the same as my family's - dirty and cluttered everywhere with large, stacked boxes. But the open door to their small room revealed the most interesting thing I'd seen all month. Papers sprawled across the ink-stained floor and several opened books made a halo around where Abu laid on his stomach, writing in the original script.

His eyebrows scrunched together in concentration as he chewed on the inside of his cheek, so transfixed by his studies he didn't notice me reading over his shoulder until I said,

"You wrote it wrong."

He jumped a little, almost knocking over what I was sure was invaluable ink.

"Wha- What?"

"The last stroke. It's supposed to curve down, then out, but you did the opposite. It's wrong."

"You can write in the traditional script? Already? But you're just..." Abu seemed to consider that. "I suppose that makes sense. I bet you had capable tutors, yes? If I'm being honest, I know who you and your mother really are."

"Jamshid told you?"

Abu shook his head. "No, I figured it out myself." Faint pride curved in his lips. "And now you've just confirmed it."

Abu was not the gloating sort. "What's it like? Feeling energies?"

I pursed my lips, quiet for a moment in thought. Nobody had ever asked me that before - nobody had ever been able to. "It's... hard to explain. Like describing sight to somebody who's been blind since birth. It just... is."

"Can you teach me?" he asked. "How to write the right way?"

I hesitated. "Why do you want to know? Most works have been translated. It's a lot of effort to learn something that's mostly decorative."

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