1635: THE CANNON LAW – snippet 69:

“Ha!” Melissa’s laugh didn’t have much humor in it. “Astroturf. Still, on the bright side, it’ll be the first time the official estimate of the crowd will be more accurate than the protestors’ one.”

“Really?” Sharon’s dad asked.

“Sure. We’d get a couple of hundred thousand marching through Washington. Next day, you’d read in the paper that ‘official estimates'”—she pronounced the words the same way most people would damned lies—”would say that the demonstration consisted of a couple of thousand, most of who had been paid to be there. I wish we had been paid, I’d have had some money back in those days. Now here, we really have got, what, fifty? Sixty? And all paid to be here.”

“Less than usual,” Ruy said. “Perhaps they grow short of funds?” He didn’t sound like he believed that.

“I’ve had’t lads stand to wi’ billets, Cap’n, Mistress,” Corporal Ritson said, in his broad Cumberland accent, “behind’t door, like as we won’t provoke yon shites, beggin’ y’presence, Mistresses.”

“Thank you, and well done,” Sharon said, absently, as she tried to figure out what to do next. Having the Marines pick a fight would probably be quite fun to watch, since they could probably clear the street without administering more than a few bruises and broken teeth. Brawling was second nature to most of them and they were a disciplined lot who’d follow orders. Trouble was, if there was the slightest accident, the propaganda value for someone would be very high indeed. No sort of official protest would do a blind bit of good, either.

“Has anyone called the militia?” she asked.

“No, Mistress,” Captain Taggart replied. “Yon’s no job for halberdiers or horse. Shall I send a man anyway?”

“No, no,” she said, taking the hint. “I can’t say I was impressed last time.”

“And some of them are suborned, I am certain of it,” Ruy growled. There had been reports of militia turning out to demonstrations and overreacting, although it tended to be a bit murky who exactly had managed to call them in time to react so quickly. It was pretty much standard for seventeenth century policing that when it went beyond local watch or constabulary—who pretty much couldn’t handle riots worth a damn—then heads got broken, because the militias weren’t cops as such but trained bands of men maintained by the gentry for local defense. Mostly, they were the military hobby of rich men who occasionally got used to preserve disorder, to borrow the old Mayor Daley line. Turning them out took time, though, because most of them had day jobs and didn’t keep their equipment handy. Most of them mustered once a year, if that. That first militia squadron Sharon had seen had been, by a very unfortunate coincidence, preparing for its annual muster and close enough to get to the scene of the disturbance within half an hour.

“I think we’re going to be late to the Colonna place,” Rita said, into the slightly amused silence.

“Reckon so,” said Sharon, following her gaze up the street and seeing what she’d seen. “If we get there at all.”

“We will let this rabble get in our way?” Ruy said, incredulous. “If you do not desire blood on the street, Dona Ambassadora, bid the carriage come to another entrance.”

“Maybe we can, Ruy, but it looks like they had enough money after all,” Sharon said, pointing. A little way up the street, just about visible from where they stood, was another crowd. This one was quiet, and looked like it numbered a couple of hundred. They were gathered around someone who was talking to them. “Captain,” Sharon said, “have you got a spyglass?”

“Aye, Mistress,” he said, handing it over.

She was about to open the window and lean out for a better view, but then realized there was a better way, one that wouldn’t draw the earlier crowd’s attention to the newcomers. She had a sneaking suspicion she knew who it was, and she didn’t want to do anything that altered the situation until she was sure. “Upstairs,” she said. “There’s a balcony up there, right?”

One short climb later—more of an effort in one of these skirts than is quite reasonable, she thought—and a quick look through the good Captain’s spyglass confirmed it. “It’s Frank,” she said.

“Frank Stone?” Melissa’s eyes widened. “He’s got that many people following him? Tell me it’s out of morbid curiosity, please.”

“Not fair, Melissa. I don’t know what he was like at school, although I can guess if last year was anything to go by. He’s really steadied down since he got married and moved to Rome, though.”

“Frank’s married?” Melissa said. Then, pursing her lips a little: “Good for him. Those boys, frankly, needed some security in their lives and I’d been afraid they’d go off the rails completely.”

Sharon’s dad snorted. “Why, you, you … bluenose. Melissa Mailey, if I didn’t know you better I’d swear that those were the words of a gen-you-wine conservative.”

“Well, Tom Stone’s a good man, but hardly what you’d call—”

“A good role model? Caring? Someone who’d put a roof over their heads and food on their table? Reckon I probably know Stoner a sight better than you do, Melissa. I figure those boys have had their fill of commune life, but I’m not even a little bit surprised they turned out to be decent young men. Now, me being such a pillar of the community, given where I grew up, that’s a surprise.”

“Well. Um. What I meant…”

“Leave it, Melissa,” her dad said. “There’s a difference between the wrong side of the tracks and wrong side of the law.”

“It seems the young Senor has marshaled his forces,” Ruy said. “I have to agree here with Signor Nichols. There is a young man with a head on his shoulders.”

The crowd Frank was leading had spread out to cover the street, and was walking slowly forward. The group at the front of the Embassy hadn’t noticed yet, being still too intent on their catcalls and jeering. Plus, Frank’s people had been out of their sight from ground level, what with there still being a fair amount of traffic in the early evening. It was starting to clear, and carriage-drivers and pedestrians and riders could see what was about to happen and turned down sidestreets and alleys and got into doorways.

“He’s got them moving kind of slow,” Rita remarked.

“Keeping them fresh if there is a fight,” Ruy said.

“Or giving the other guys time to run away without one,” Dr. Nichols said. “Given how Frank was raised, I’d put my money on that. And he’ll not have guys with knives or swords in front, either. It’ll be sticks and clubs.”

Ruy nodded. “Also sensible decisions. Well, perhaps not the clubs. I might have counseled the use of blades, the better to encourage the enemy to run.”

James Nichols shook his head. “I don’t think Frank thinks that way. He might not object to handing out a few lumps, but he’s going to draw the line at killing.”