Unfortunately for them, Ashley gives no reaction whatsoever. They might as well not be in the store for all the notice she gives. She picks up another soap, sniffing it, and I can't decide if she's got nerves of steel or if she truly is that clueless to how much danger she could be in right now if I wasn't here.
"I think our little human friend is shy," one of the praxiians drawls. The other reaches over the shelf and taps her on the shoulder.
She turns in the wrong direction, surprise on her face when she notices the two praxiians. "Oh. Hello." Just as ever, her voice is extremely loud but she smiles at them. "Am I standing in front of something you need?"
"That backside," one chortles.
"All right," I drawl, stepping forward. "That's enough. Leave the human alone, you two. These aren't hunting grounds." I swagger forward, letting the praxiians see my uniform and the identification badges on my shoulder that mark me as one of the military custodians here. "If you want cantina action, go find a keffing cantina. This is a nice, quiet settlement."
The two males scowl at me. Ashley blinks up at me in surprise, her eyes wide.
I gesture at the praxiians. "Go. And I'm going to have the human's house watched over, so if I see either of you even near her property, you're going to end up in jail. Got it?"
They call me some choice names, none of which are surprising, but they file back out of the small store and out into the street. I watch the human—Ashley—to make sure she's not frightened. When she continues to blink up at me, I move to her side. "Are you all right?"
The look she gives me is utterly puzzled. "Why wouldn't I be all right?"
Does she not understand what those praxiians were implying? "Were you open to being courted by them, then? Should I bring them back?"
"Courted?" She looks shocked. "Those men?"
"Yes. What did you think they were talking about?"
"I-I'm not sure," she stammers, clutching the soap in her hand. "I wasn't paying attention."
I grit my teeth. That answer again? Surely this female isn't that clueless? I'm speechless.
There's a young avian male behind the counter—the son of the one that runs the shop, I suspect. He clears his throat. "Human, if you wish to purchase more soaps, we have some in the storeroom that are different scents."
The female blinks up at me, waiting. Then, she sniffs the soap in her hands, turns back to the table, and goes back to her shopping.
"Human?" The young male clears his throat again, and it makes a high-pitched whistle. That makes the female jump and turn around, and she gives me a frightened look, as if startled. He repeats his phrase.
Ashley beams at him. "Oh, yes. I love the soaps. Do you have any that are fruit scented?"
As she hurries over to the counter, I watch her with narrowed eyes. This isn't adding up. "You can't hear him, can you?" I ask in a soft voice, deliberately pitching my tone lower. Loud enough to hear, of course, but I stand behind her so she can't see me as I speak.
She ignores me, her back turned, and fixes her bright gaze on the shopkeeper as he heads toward the back. It's as if I'm not in the store.
I try again. "Can you hear me, Ashley?" I pitch my voice a bit louder. "I'm going to arrest you and confiscate your lands if you keep up this pretense."
I move directly behind her, no more than a pace away. "Human, did you hear what I said?" This time I speak loudly, letting my irritation seep through my voice. "I'm getting real tired of this."
Ashley jumps as if startled and turns her head—again in the wrong direction. When she sees no one, she glances behind her and finally focuses on me. She fixes that dim smile on her face. "Oh, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention. Were you talking to me?"
I'm stunned by what I've just realized. Ashley cannot hear. Or she can, just not very well. And she's pretending to be stupid instead. "I'm following you home, human," I say. "I'm going to go get a sled from the office and then I'll tail you back to your farm."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous. There's no need to go to all that trouble." She laughs as if the idea is ludicrous and turns her back to me once more.
"I'm not laughing, human," I say, and loudly. This female is going to get herself killed if she keeps turning her back to everyone. I can't believe no one's taught her better than this.
She turns around to me once more, this time unable to fake her look of confusion. Ashley studies me, then swallows. She's nervous. Any idiot could tell that. But in the next moment, she lifts her chin and gives me a defiant look. "I don't understand, Custodian. Am I in trouble?"