The tea mistress and the boy ran to the door. The traveler barely managed to avoid colliding with them and stumbled forward. The assassin caught his arm.
“You should rest.”
“Rest?!” His eyes were those of cornered prey, wild and panicked. “I have to get out of here!” He tried to turn, but found himself restrained by the assassin.
“Staying is wise.” She glanced away as if listening for something only she could hear. “The tea is still warm.”
He sank to his knees, unsure of why, and didn’t try to lunge past the assassin for the door again.
The assassin neither lingered nor hurried to the door of the tea house. The tea mistress was standing on the porch, clutching her son’s shoulders. She turned when the assassin stepped beside her.
“What will we do?”
“Go inside and draw the screens across the windows. Close the door and do not open it for any reason until you hear me knock three times. Do not open it if I ask it of you. I will knock and say nothing. You will know it is me.”
“What will you do?”
“I will meet them and see that the fire passes you by.” And the assassin stepped from the porch to the road and didn’t look back. She had eyes only for the procession winding its way up the road towards the tea house. It looked like a river of fire, the torches bobbed and swayed in time with some rhythm no one outside the procession could hear.
They were still too far away for even the assassin’s clear sight to distinguish individuals among the marchers. But she didn’t need to see them to know they were not human. Experience told her so. That and the maelstrom of the Path that made the night darker than it should have been with the moon in the sky. The Path was not on good terms with the marchers who would be upon the crossroads and the tea house before a new kettle of water was boiled.
The assassin pulled the knife she’d relieved the thief of out of her sleeve and began carving a series of symbols in the dirt at the foot of the tea house. They weren’t in any language written by the clans on the island. Nor were they known to any on the outer islets. They weren’t spoken either, at least, not by humans. But the assassin carved them with a sure hand as easily as if she had been painting on a scroll with a brush.
Then she walked to the crossroads and leaned, uncharacteristically, against the weathered post signaling the ways and distances beyond. And she waited. Assassins often did.