Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part X

“Move!” the assassin brushed passed the tea mistress who was wailing and shoved the knife back into its hiding place.

The boy lay unmoving in front of them, his face dusky pale. He didn’t respond when the assassin shook him. She felt for his pulse it was weak and there was no breath. The Path around him was fraying. There was no time.

“His hands are sticky,” the assassin said as the tea mistress looked at her with inconsolable sorrow and incomprehension.

The assassin picked him up as if he were a sack of rice and thrust her fist into his stomach as she held him.

Once, again. Nothing happened.

The tea mistress stood up and began slapping the assassin. Yelling at her to stop desecrating his body.

The assassin ignored her as she thrust her fist into the boy’s stomach again. And with this came a soft plop and a mochi ball sailed out of his mouth onto the floor.

He gasped and his mother froze, hand halfway back to strike the assassin. And into the silence she cried again. This time in joy.

The assassin lowered the boy gently so he could sit. The color returned to his cheeks, like the spring cherry blossoms, and his breathing became regular. The Path around him stitched itself back together, although only the assassin noticed. Neither the tea mistress nor her son noticed the soft glow that radiated from under the assassin’s hand as she steadied the boy until his breathing returned to normal. It was probably a trick of the light.

The tea mistress flung her arms around her son. She sobbed and the assassin left them alone. She watched the sun begin to lighten the horizon as she finished the last of her tea. Then she hoisted her pack and slipped out of the tea room. She scuffed the symbols she’d carved in the ground with the sole of her boot. They were no longer needed as she resumed walking down the road.

She had not yet gone passed the crossroad signpost when she heard the tea mistress running towards her and yelling, “Wait!”

So she did.

“What is your name?” the tea mistress asked.

“Assassins have no names.”

The tea mistress shook her head. “Everyone has a name. Mine is Asako.”

The assassin bowed. It was an honor to be told a person’s name, even more rare to be accorded the honor of hearing a person’s familiar name apart from one’s clan. But even then, the assassin only replied, “Then call me what you will.”

The tea mistress nodded, unsurprised. “Then I will remember you as the North Wind, assassin, for you blew three troubles away me and mine.”

The assassin may have inclined her head. Then, again, it may have been a trick of the wind. “Peace be on your Path.”

“And ten-fold on yours.” The tea mistress bowed deeply and lowered her eyes to the ground. When she looked up, the assassin was gone. The moon smiled down as the clouds passed from its face. It would disappear soon as the sun claimed its place in the sky and the wind brought with it the smell of the sea. The tea mistress shook her head and laughed, and perhaps the assassin heard it and smiled. Perhaps.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part IX

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.

“But why?”

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.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part VIII

The yokai at the front of the pack appeared to hit an invisible wall before they reached the tea house porch. They were flung backwards, toppling those behind them. The howls morphed into cries and furious chattering. The tengu tried to fly to the tea house, above the others, but they too slammed into a barrier, falling on the pile of bodies below. They turned as one back on the assassin, who looked on, impassive.

“A wall?!”

“That language is not yours to use!”

“How dare you?!”

“It is our due!”

“We hunger!”

“You will pay, human!”

The shouts of the yokai tripped over each other like a nightmare chorus as they came to circle around the assassin. The smell of bogs and soot, mountain breeze and dusty paper, burned wood and ice clashed in the air around her. Most would tremble, even the bravest of warriors who faced death and lived. Still, she was not moved.

“There are other, easier prey on the road tonight,” she said as if commenting on the weather.

The shouting stopped as swiftly as if a kami had taken their voices. What passed for smiles transformed their anger into glee.

“Easier prey, say you? Where?” the oni who was the current leader asked. “They must not be far or easy they are not.”

“Two, on a horse, down that way.” She pointed past the tea house, towards the sea. “Easy.”

“You have a quarrel with them.” It was not a question.

“The humans. Not the horse. Leave the horse unharmed.”

The oni narrowed its eyes at her. “You do not order us.”

“I do.” She leaned forward and smiled. It was not kind. The torchlight reflected off her teeth and the oni reared back as if struck.

“What do we want with a horse? Human prey is sweeter!”

A cheer went up from the gathered yokai and they did not notice the slight tremor in the oni’s voice. They moved off as one, silent now so as to not spook their prey.

The assassin watched until she could no longer see even an afterburn of a torch when she blinked her eyes. Then she returned to the tea house, knocked three times on the door without saying a word, and was let in. She sat down and waited. First for tea, which came quickly. Then for the third trouble, which would come when it did. There was no hurrying either time or trouble.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part VII

There was the world of the humans and the world of the spirits. These two worlds rarely crossed. Of course, there were ghosts and hauntings and wild tales of mysterious things. But then, that was the way of the worlds. Sometimes crossings happened. Sometimes there was a reason. Sometimes not. The assassin did not spare much thought to the spirit world.

Those that did not fit neatly in either world were a different matter. The assassin considered them carefully. Only fools did not and they did not come out the other side of an encounter with the yokai intact.

The assassin watched the procession bobbing and weaving towards her and the tea house. It would have been beautiful, if the fire had been glowing lanterns floating down a calm river. But it was not. The assassin breathed in and out, steady and unhurried, with a pause between the inhale and exhale. It was the same pattern as if she were focusing an arrow upon an unsuspecting target. The space between breaths. That was the assassin’s place of calm, of planning, of waiting.

The individual yokai resolved themselves out of the night and the assassin, who was not the praying kind, prayed that the tea mistress and others heeded her warning and were not watching from the windows. It was not a sight for human eyes. The fire gleamed off red skin and eyes too large for human faces. Claws that promised deep scars and pain and wings that shimmered in colors indescribable. The oni were in the lead, followed by kappa and kamaitachi with the tengu circling behind. There were others, too many to see at once, but the assassin numbered them all. It would be unfortunate to meet them under the moon tonight.

The oni leading the procession stopped short when it saw the assassin leaning casually against the post as if she saw such things every night. A cry, hungry, rose from its throat and propagated down the line until the night was filled with shrieks and yowls that could cause white hair and frozen blood.

“What are you doing, human?” the oni said, pointing its torch at the assassin. “It is bad fortune to meet as this…for you.”

The assassin did not answer immediately, but pushed away from the post and cocked her head to the side in acknowledgement. It was not how she had planned to spend the night.

“We will give you a chance to run…the tea house is near.”

“The tea house is beyond your reach.”

Howls reverberated down the line. Nothing was beyond the reach of the yokai at night.

“You are on dangerous ground, human.”

The assassin looked down at her boots, travel stained with dust. The ground felt solid enough. It would do. “No.”

“No?” A look of confusion passed over the oni’s face. Those they found on the road rarely had the wherewithal to speak, yet alone argue.

“It is you who are on ground that is not yours for the taking.”

But before she finished speaking, the yokai surged as one, howling, towards the tea house.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part VI

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.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part V

There is a saying that trouble waits for the unsuspecting, ill-prepared, and arrogant. But in the assassin’s experience, trouble came for everyone regardless of how suspicious, prepared, or humble one was. Trouble was truly as impartial as the wind when it came to blowing into one’s life. And there was no way to avoid it or change its course, although many tried. The assassin preferred not to waste her time on such thankless pursuits. She simply waited.

The others in the tea house left after an hour when nothing happened. Other travelers came, none the wiser, ate and left. Few spared a passing glance at the assassin sitting as still as a statue at the table near the door. She watched everyone, noting where they hid their knives and treasure, which leg they favored, and how polite they were to the tea mistress. None stayed long as the sun was fast sinking towards the sea and the light through the windows took on the rusty sheen that signaled night coming to claim its due.

The tea mistress, the assassin, and the boy who sneezed were the only constants in the tea house. The assassin watched the boy carefully. It was rare to see someone so young, so alone in a tea house at a crossroad. But although he appeared alone, he was not. The Path was kind to him, but more than that, the tea mistress was his mother. Both took pains to hide the bond, but it was as obvious as the first cherry blossom on a bare branch after winter to one who observed carefully. And the assassin did.

Another hour passed and no trouble came through the door. The tea mistress had begun cleaning her counter again, though it didn’t need it. The boy tapped his fingers against his knee, beating out a rhythm that he didn’t realize was almost as old as the marker of the crossroads itself. The assassin did not fidget, but drank more tea.

The sun set. The moon rose. And still the Path did not sweep in trouble through the door.

Perhaps, trouble found an unluckier soul tonight. The assassin’s bones ached as she allowed herself to close her eyes for a moment, which was when trouble smiled wickedly.

The tea house door slid open with a snap and a wide-eyed traveler stumbled inside.

“Fire!” he yelled. “They are bringing fire!”

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part IV

“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.”

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part III

The sages said there was a hush before a storm, but the assassin never found that to be true. Before a storm there was always the scent of rain, the rush of wind, or the sound of thunder. Trouble likewise was always proceeded by a warning. Most people simply did not pay enough attention to such things and claimed trouble found them unawares.

The tea room was not silent, though to the unobservant it might have seemed so. The scattered few others in the room were pretending nonchalance, wondering whether to stay or go and which would be the safer option. Their choice was made for them as the sound of galloping filtered in from the road, followed by a snort from beast and rider and the sound of boots on the porch.

The assassin set down her cup of tea and did not look at the door as it slid open. Trouble entered in the form of a man, neither short nor tall, neither thin nor large, with nothing to distinguish him from anyone else in a crowd.

“Peace be on your Path,” the tea mistress said.

The man did not reply, but walked straight towards her leaving dusty footprints across the tatami mats.

As he stepped up to the counter where the tea mistress was worriedly rubbing a cleaning cloth over the spotless wood the assassin knew this trouble would not pass by quietly.

“You are the tea mistress.” It was a statement not a question.

She nodded.

“Then bring me your coins.” He drew out a knife and held it to her throat. It was wicked with more teeth and sharp edges than necessary to do its work and it offended the assassin.

The tea mistress trembled like an ash before a cyclone’s blast and reached blindly for the money box. She yelped as the thief nicked her neck, drawing a drop of blood with his carelessness. And the Path roiled black around him, like den of snakes awakened before the spring.

“You do not belong here.”

He turned around, still holding the knife against the tea mistress’ neck, glaring. “Sit down before I slit your throat.”

The assassin did not reply, but neither did she sit down.

“I said sit, woman.”

The assassin again said nothing as the others in the room held their collective breath.

“I said sit down!” He pointed his knife at the assassin, the tea mistress forgotten and she seized her opportunity to duck beneath the counter.

Still the assassin did not move nor say anything.

The thief stalked towards her. “I will teach—”

He never finished as the assassin threw him to the floor and removed his knife from his grasp in one swift motion. His head cracked with a thud against the mats he had so carelessly soiled. And as he tried to sit up, his blade bit into his neck giving him a mark that was a twin of the one he had inflicted on the tea mistress. His was not made carelessly.

“You have no honor,” the assassin said.

He hissed at his attempt to rise, but he could not move from under her grasp.

“Go now and I will forget this offense.”

He spit in her face and laughed. “You are in no position forgive.”

And she felt the unmistakable cold touch of a blade to the side of her neck.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads, Part II

When the assassin set down her empty tea cup, she was unsurprised to see the tea mistress glaring down at her. The Path never lied, although she’d hoped it wouldn’t be that kind of day.

“Pay and go.” The tea mistress slid a small receiving tray across the table for the assassin’s coin.

The assassin pulled out a handful of coins from an inside pocket of her coat, slowly so no one did something stupid as if she was to pull her sword over rudeness alone. She’d let larger unkindness pass without retribution before and she would again. The coins clinked against the lacquer and gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Even the tea mistress could not contain her gasp at the golden glow, far too much for the poor meal and lukewarm cup of tea.

“Too much.”

The assassin shrugged. “It is what I’ve always paid here.” She stood, stretching her back like a fox before shouldering her pack.

“Peace be on your Path.” She nodded her head to the tea mistress who still hadn’t taken her eyes off the coins, enough to pay for a year’s worth of meals three times over.

“And ten-fold on yours,” the tea mistress replied.

As she slid open the door to leave, the assassin paused. “Trouble always comes in threes and I am not the first.”

The tea mistress looked up, a frown on her face that was touched with concern.

“I’d put those away if I were you and perhaps close before the moon rises. Sometimes trouble will pass by if not invited in.” Sometimes not. She set one foot over the threshold when the tea mistress called.

“Wait!”

The assassin stopped, but did not turn around. The silence in the tea room was complete.

“Would you like another cup of tea?”

No one saw it, but the assassin smiled before she turned around. Yes, the moon and the Path were conspiring this afternoon. Someday she would be beyond such tests.

“Only a fool would turn down a cup of tea.” The assassin sat down at the table where her dishes and cup were still.

The tea mistress started as if from a trance and hurriedly whisked them away, returning with a tea pot with steam curling from its spout and a cup covered with delicate, intricate painted flowers. She poured it with an almost steady hand and opened her mouth, but said nothing before turning away.

Trouble would come, as it always did. There was nothing for doing except waiting and drinking a perfectly brewed, steaming cup of tea. And that was what the assassin did.

Saturday Short: The Tea House at the Crossroads

photograph of rock path in Japanese tea garden through a wooden gate flanked by two stone statues, one of a figure and one of a pagoda

“I don’t want any trouble.”

“Neither do I,” the assassin said studying the whorls in the tabletop before her. Her hands were folded on her lap, where the tea mistress could easily see them.

“The Rule at the Crossroads—”

“I know the Rule and I know your duty. Do you?”

The tea mistress’ cheeks flamed red, but not as red as the strand of hair that had escaped from the scarf covering the assassin’s head. The few other patrons in the tea house pretended not to listen, though each had edged closer to the door. They were not so foolish as to antagonize an assassin, even within the protections of the tea house. Rules had been broken before.

“Of course, I know my duty—”

“Then I would like some tea and the house special, please.”

The tea mistress huffed away, muttering under her breath as the assassin feigned indifference to everyone in the room. Service had been more professional the last time she had been here, but that had been a long time ago. Before there was a touch of snow in her hair, before she had a scar that could only be seen in the moonlight.

She truly didn’t want any trouble. But with the north wind might want to blow trouble her way with the darkening of the Path in the doorway. Her tea and meal arrived without another word from the tea mistress. The assassin ate her meal without haste, but also without pause. It was better to have a full stomach when trouble came than not.