In the darkest stretch of night, when even the earth forgot that there was ever anything but the reign of the moon in the sky, there were only three souls left in the tea house at the crossroads. The man who warned of the yokai and their fire had left after the assassin determined he would travel in the opposite direction of the thieves. Innocent blood spilled was not a wish of any true assassin. This left the assassin, the tea mistress, and the boy.
The boy had been hovering on the edge of sleep for the last several hours. He startled awake every time his chin touched his chest and looked over to see if the assassin noticed. She pretended that she didn’t, that she too was half-asleep. Now and then, he’d sneak a ball of mochi when he thought his mother was not looking. He’d toss it in the air and catch it in his mouth, then savor the chewiness and the belief that the sweetness would help him stay alert.
The assassin watched with what was perhaps a shadow of a smile as she tried not to consider the blessing that would be if the third trouble passed them by. Such good fortune happened to those born under a lucky star.
The stars did not shine the night the assassin was born.
The tea mistress came and sat across from the assassin. A lock of her hair had come loose and she hadn’t bothered to tie it back up, as was proper. But there was only the assassin and her son and neither cared.
“It will be dawn soon,” the tea mistress said.
The assassin nodded.
“Why does trouble come in threes?”
“It simply does,” the assassin replied.
The assassin shrugged. “That is a question for the kami, not for me.”
The tea mistress opened her mouth with another question, but was stopped by the sudden change in the assassin’s attention. She moved like a cat the moment that it spotted prey, going from languid disinterest to singular focus in an instant.
“Where is your son?”
The tea mistress swiveled around to point where he was dozing, but her son was not there. She stood, knees knocking against the table leg, and ran over to where he had been sitting.
The assassin followed the tea mistress, a knife already in her hand. There had been no wind, the symbols in the dirt should have held. The tengu should not have been able to enter. Tracking the boy would be difficult where they tread.
The tea mistress screamed as she fell to her knees.