“Drop the knife.”
The assassin sighed, but made no move.
“I won’t ask again.” The man behind her pressed the blade into her neck. One whisper of pressure more and it would break the skin.
“Then it appears we are at a standstill.”
The man snorted. “I don’t see how that is true.”
“Of course, you do not.”
The thief tried to maneuver out of the assassin’s grasp, but she drove his knife deeper into his throat and he stilled. He glared at her, but it was of no consequence. Only the kami and oni could kill with a look and this man was neither. He was, quite literally, beneath her and simply hadn’t processed this yet.
“My tea grows cold,” the assassin said.
No one replied. A shadow of uncertainty passed over the face of the thief like a wisp of cloud before his mask of defiance resettled. The few others in the teahouse didn’t move. The tea mistress, though, found her courage. It was her teahouse and the assassin was her guest and no one had cold tea in her house. She stood, still trembling, and peered over the counter.
“The Rule of the Crossroads still stands.” Her voice was like leaves quivering on the aspen. “You must leave if you dishonor it.”
The partner to the thief laughed and the knife nicked the assassin’s neck as his hand shook.
“It goes ill for those who do not honor the Rule,” the assassin said.
“It goes ill for those who do not know when to stand down,” the man replied.
There is no such thing as a true stalemate outside of the world of games. The world continues to move, the mountains continue to crumble, and the rivers continue to flow. There is always something that comes along, a breath of breeze, a flutter of wings, or a clap of thunder, that breaks the balance.
Or sometimes something as small a sneeze.
The boy by the counter let out a sneeze enough to shake the roof. The thief’s accomplice flinched. His hand drew back from the assassin’s neck.
She ducked, spinning on her foot, as she drove a fist into the man’s neck. He dropped the knife, sputtering for breath.
Before the thief could rise, she rounded on him and drove the handle of his knife into his temple and he went limp. His accomplice, still gasping for breath, was driven to the ground by her kick to his knee.
The assassin was tying together his hands before anyone in the teahouse took another breath. When both were loaded on the back of the thief’s horse and the horse was sauntering down the road, unconcerned about its burden and happy to not be kicked, the assassin returned to her table and sat down to her cup of tea. It was cold.
She looked up at the tea mistress, who still hadn’t moved from her position behind the counter. Her hands were white from gripping the cleaning cloth.
“Perhaps I could have some fresh tea.”
And like the breaking from a dream, those in the tea house breathed as one and resumed their meals or contemplations. The tea mistress hurried over with a fresh, steaming pot of tea.
“I beg your forgiveness for breaking the Rule,” the assassin said as her tea was poured.
“No, no,” the tea mistress said shaking her head. “Thank you.” She bowed.
“There is no need.” The assassin picked up her tea cup. “There will be two more.”