There is a commotion at the head of the line. Talesca still has some thirty people ahead of her in line and she cannot see what has happened. The crowd buzzes in a dozen languages. She leans out of line, trying to get a glimpse of the checkpoint. Something stirs up the dust of the dirt road they are on, the only one foreigners are allowed to use to enter the city. She catches sight of a city guard, no doubt baked half to death inside his armor by the heat.
Someone nearby says, “They found a weapon.”
Someone else immediately counters, “I heard it was poison.” Tempers flare. They are all hot and tired and sick of waiting as the city guards decide who is good enough to celebrate the holy day inside the city. People have walked in a steady stream back the way they came, turned away at the checkpoint. There are so many, Talesca wonders if they are letting anyone in at all or if this is just a vicious prank.
Voices shout, there is the twang of a bow, and a body drops just outside the gates. The crowd falls silent in an instant. Talesca watches the soldier hoist up the body. Another helps weave the dead man’s arms through the gate. They leave him there, arrow sticking out of his back, as a warning to everyone watching. Whatever their foreign goods might be worth in the marketplace, their lives hold no value to the citizens of the city.
Talesca stands in line and shuffles forward with the rest of the unwelcome visitors. She resists the urge to touch her hair combs or the beaded ropes tying her robe shut. She does not spin her parasol and holds it at an angle so that only she benefits from its shade. She would gladly share with her fellow pilgrims, but the guards are known for punishing such displays of kindness and solidarity. She cannot afford to have them take her parasol away or do anything else to punish, or worse, bar her. She minds her own business and makes it to the front of the line.
When it is her turn, she collapses the parasol before they punch holes in it out of spite. The guard who pats her down does not even try to hide or excuse how his hands linger on her breasts and buttocks or slip between her legs in the search for hidden weapons or contraband. Talesca keeps her eyes fixed straight ahead. She dares not even let herself think the curses that want to fly from her lips, lest they show on her face. She gives them no reason to trouble her. Then she is through the gate and it feels like time starts moving again.
Even inside, there are guards everywhere. If they are not watching her, the citizens are as she reaches farther into the city. They stare at her with mingled curiosity and disgust. She is as foreign to them as the bottom of the sea. They are repulsed and drawn in by turns. She uses this to her advantage, playing up her foreignness: the tilt of her parasol; the swing of her hips; the nakedness of her gaze. The wave of interest crests and crashes down to disgust. In the moment their eyes turn away, Talesca ducks between buildings and out of sight.
She quickly breaks down her parasol into its component parts. She pulls the handle away from the rest, leaving her with a hollow tube and a flopping circle of paper and wood. She pulls a comb from her hair. Jewels and drops of silver hang from it, catching the light and interest normally. She pops off the silver drops, which are really needles, the feathers that had hung from them turning them into darts. Finally she pulls a bead from the rope at her waist. A tiny reservoir of greenish liquid sloshes inside. She dips the needles, careful not to so much as scratch herself. Preparations complete, she slips the loaded dart gun up her sleeve and goes in search of her royal target.