Sakhr, his thawb identical to Karim’s own, stumbled closer. The man walked with an absurdly wide gait. He could not be their Salah. Such an undignified soul as this…
“Your brothers would have his ears removed,” Sakhr chortled as he came to stand beside Karim. He watched Abdul’s frothing mouth and manic, bulging eyes with a faint half sympathetic smile. “To deny a soul the whisper of the dune…” He shook his head and turned from the failure’s humiliation. “Such cruelty!”
“This heretic does not listen to the Watcher’s whispers, Holy One,” Karim said automatically, puzzled. He did not like this. It was rare for this charlatan to move about alone. What did he want from Karim that he did not want the others to hear?
“He does not listen.” Sakhr muttered, seeming to draw in on himself. His eyes looked down at something far below the rough dirt at their feet, something that Karim could not see. “But he still hears the Watcher’s words. Does he not?”
The question caught Karim by surprise and slipped like a subtle blade past his guarded senses. He had expected to be made to watch Abdul’s suffering, add to it or even to cut his acolyte’s throat. He had anticipated harsh words or accusations.
But nothing had prepared him to bandy philosophical musings with the arch-heretic while a man thrashed in agony before them. His tongue hung limp, his mouth dry.
“This beast hasn’t the sense to hear the loudest shouts of the Watcher.” Karim replied, knowing that he must say something.
He immediately regretted his words. One ragged line of sparse grey hairs lifted to form an arch on Sakhr’s brow. The flowing cloth of his pure white thawb rustled as he took two steps closer. Karim was surprised to see that even a sorcerous sack of filth such as Sakhr could have thin red veins in his eyes, dark rings beneath them. The heretic was tired. Who knew they even slept?
When he spoke, Sakhr’s voice was crisp and brittle. His breath felt as cold as a desert winter on Karim’s face. Their noses were hardly a hair’s breadth apart and, as the false Salah of the Aswan bit out his words, Karim imagined those straight yellow teeth snapping closed on his tongue, chewing it out from his mouth.
“What? You say he cannot hear the Watcher’s loudest shouts?” Sakhr asked, the chill in his voice shattering each syllable. Karim winced. “What? What?! When the Watcher’s voice is heard throughout? When his mouth speaks through every trickling stream, rustling bush and shifting grain of sand?
“What? Answer me! No, but I have been unkind.” He laid a paternal, wizened hand on Karim’s arm. “You are emotional. This has been a trying day. You did not think. The Watcher sees all faults and forgives the righteous.”