The quiet of the night was deafening, and Lec prayed for any noise, strangers’ chatter or dog barking, anything else to focus on. They couldn’t guess at what was going through Issa’s mind, but he had seemed to accept their explanation. Still, his silence left them unsettled, made it harder to tap out their breaths with shaking fingers against their leg. They looked all around in search of a distraction, and their gaze turned skyward. The starts were twinkling, dull beyond the haze of the city smog, yet the constellations were unmistakable. Lec traced the lines, remembered the mnemonics they had learned in school to memorize their names, and for a moment, they were almost calm. Then, they nearly walked straight into a streetlamp. They paused and, laughing nervously, sidestepped the lamp and continued on their way, this time with their eyes not straying from the street.
Shortly after their blunder, Issa spoke, and his words, though gentle and well-meaning, sucked the air out of Lec’s lungs. They didn’t know how to reply or where to begin to address why he was wrong. Of course, he was right, and his stance had Lec questioning not for the first time whether the humans were the savages after all, but Issa was naďve, did not know their laws. Laws that would protect one person’s freedom of expression over another’s right to comfort, or the laws that would put to death an innocent man for being born to the wrong family, the wrong neighborhood, the wrong status. There were too many nonsensical rules in their city, they knew, but it was most often simpler to play along and not face needless bloodshed for things—words—that should not have mattered.
And for the first time, the Lucet’s ignorance of human culture angered Lec in a way they did not know how to explain.
Their hand stopped drumming and instead balled to a fist, tight enough for their fingernails to draw blood from their palms. They thought of all the ways to respond: to tell him he knew nothing of humans, to chastise him for comparing their cultures, to blame him for all the stereotypes their people believed about the violent beast-men who lived in the woods. Lec stopped walking, eyes trained on the ground, breath shallow and malice dripping from its edges.
If it had been Soren… Was that a threat? An irrational conclusion birthed of their anger, their panic, Lec wondered what Issa meant, what he hoped to accomplish by criticizing them like this.
They could feel the sparks burning in their tight fist, burning at their flesh. Lec needed to calm down; this was irrational; Issa meant nothing vicious by his words. They knew that. But still their nostrils flared, and they struggled to control their emotions. A part of them wanted to lash out at this intruder, the animal who had encroached upon their city, had started a fight with their people, had left the remainder of his hatred permanently burned against their skin; in their anger, the two had become on in the same. It would be simple to take their anger out on the one who had caused this. Not a single human would blame them, after what he’d caused. Not a single person… except Soren.
Remembering their brother, his small face, his wide eyes, his endless enthusiasm, their fist loosened. They weren’t a violent person. Where was all this coming from? A headache pounded at their skull, disorienting, and they tried to shake their thoughts. Issa had asked them something. Had he been waiting long? They looked back to Issa, and with a voice betraying nothing, they replied, “Yes.”
Lec started walking again, eager to pretend they had never stopped. If Issa acknowledged what had happened, they wouldn’t reply, wouldn’t confirm what they’d thought. Their hands now trembled, and they found they were more afraid of themselves than Issa. They guided him back to the border between their worlds, and when Issa walked past where the streets ended, Lec looked away. They wanted to get away from him, pretend this day had not happened, but they had its reminders to clean up at the inn. Beyond that, Issa had intentions of learning more about their marks; wasn’t that important? More important than their safety?
Eventually, they met his eye. The eyes of a monster, Issa’s gaze held all too much to interpret. Lec shifted, then looked behind him, at the forest shrouded in darkness. “I’ll… see you around,” they said, though they wondered about the truth of their words. They hesitated, then added, “Thanks, again. I… I hope you enjoyed the show, despite… everything else.” Their cheeks burned, and the panic snaked back to their throat. If they stayed much longer, they’d be caught in a full-blown attack, and they didn’t need Issa seeing that.