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Chapter 9


Sharon and Ruy heard the ruckus from three blocks away—or what passed for blocks in a town that had grown, rather than being laid out in the manner Sharon was used to back up-time. As they rounded a corner, one of those tricks of big-city acoustics that Sharon had found were amplified by the lack of automobiles brought the sound of an uproar and what seemed like chanting. The part of town they were in was a little bit run-down, and so the streets were not busy. Such people as there were, however, seemed more than a little nervous, and were looking toward the source of the sound.

"What's that, I wonder?" Sharon asked.

"Trouble," Ruy said, and then, after a moment, smiled wryly. "I predict it will be futile of me to suggest that I am loath to take my lady to a place where there may be trouble, however curious she may be to see the cause of it."

Sharon grinned right back. "Ruy Sanchez, you have got precisely no room to talk about people who don't take care to avoid trouble."

Ruy sketched a small bow. "The chastisement of my intended, however mild, suffices to reform me forever. I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, shall henceforth be the very model of circumspection. Come, my lady," he said, offering her his arm, "let us go by way of some more refined quarter of the city, even if we are on our way to the Borgo to meet a pack of revolutionary firebrands."

"Oh, phooey, Ruy," she said. "You don't get around me that way. Since we're heading this way anyway, let's go see what's happening. We don't have to go close, but if it's real trouble we ought to take a look firsthand to go with whatever our informants give us to send back to Magdeburg. Besides, we're heading for a worse neighborhood than this one."

Ruy dropped the smile. "Permit me a moment of gravity, my heart. I do not doubt that your Señor Stearns and Don Francisco have spies and informants enough. If I judge the sound of this aright, it is trouble that might well become a brawl, if not a riot, and in such anything might happen. We are heading into the Borgo, a rough quarter, and even I may be overwhelmed by a sufficient multitude. For that matter, a blade is scant defense if cobblestones are being hurled."

Sharon heard the concern in his tone, and realized that if Ruy, a superbly skilled soldier, was concerned, then things might just be a bit too rough for comfort. She'd seen him in action, once. Six armed assailants had only just been enough to take him down that time—and he'd faced those odds with a smile and a stream of witty remarks. If he thought going to take a look at the street theatre was risky, it was probably suicidally dangerous by anyone else's standards. Or could be, at any rate.

Or, and this piqued her a little, he was still operating on that hidalgo spinal reflex that reacted to women as—reality be damned!—frail creatures to be cosseted from even the chance of harm. Strange how a man who had been raised by tough Catalan peasant women could have internalized that damned myth so well.

A moment's reflection, and she decided to try compromise. "Okay. Close enough to get a sense of what's happening. The other end of the nearest street, maybe. We can always skedaddle if it looks like it's coming our way."

Ruy nodded. "My lady's desire is my command." He held up an admonitory finger. "But I shall decide what is a safe distance, and I shall hear no argument about when to withdraw, Sharon. I shall one day be your husband: cultivate now the habit of obedience."

Sharon was quite proud of her Old-Fashioned Looks. On her personal scale, the one she gave Ruy was about an eight, edging up to nine. Even that took thirty seconds to crack him up.

Five minutes' walk brought them to a corner where they could look down the street. It didn't look like much, Sharon thought. A smallish crowd, at most a hundred or so, gathered outside a building she didn't recognize and shouting. "Can you tell what they're saying?" she asked.

"That they are angry?" Ruy hazarded. "Actually, probably more like that they have been paid to come there and shout, or at least some of them have."

"You reckon? I don't know that I could tell a rented mob from the real thing."

"I do not see the kind of thing that real mobs do—you may recall I have been the recipient of the attention of street ruffians before. They are not pressing forward, for one thing, just standing around and shouting. And all shouting the same thing, what is more. Someone has told them what to chant."

Sharon looked again at the crowd. There did seem to be a distinct lack of unruliness about it, although as she watched a fistfight broke out on the fringes, distracting a couple of dozen of the protesters to watch the fun. "You're right, it doesn't look like their hearts are really in it. They're getting distract—Oooh," she said, as one of the combatants took a kick where it counted, "his heart's not going to be in anything for a while."

"Truly not," Ruy said, smiling. "Ah, we spoke too soon—"

Sharon nodded. It looked like the guy hadn't been caught square in the family jewels, and had come back up holding a knife. Not a big one, but enough to raise the stakes. The ring around the two who were fighting finally closed up, hiding the action, but jeers and shouting followed the action.

Behind them, a clatter of hooves on cobbles became audible over the hooting and jeering. "Militia," Ruy remarked, without turning around. "About five minutes too late, if my humble opinion is worth anything."

Sharon chuckled. "Can an opinion informed by forty years of soldiering be called humble?"

Ruy raised an eyebrow and flared his mustachios magnificently. "Humility is a thing of the spirit, woman. The mere possession of uncommon skill and discernment boots nothing to the pride I take in my humility." Absolutely deadpan, save for the slight twitch of the left moustache, that anyone who did not know him would miss.

Sharon chuckled. "Why late?" she asked.

"Because five minutes ago they were simply a crowd of street-trash hired to be noisy. Now, they are minded to see a little blood. A sensible militiaman will simply chivvy them along to disperse into the taverns such normally haunt. What will you wager me that those eager hoofbeats are marshaled by someone who lacks experience?"

Just then the militia came in to view, wheeling prettily into the street Sharon and Ruy were on. They looked, to Sharon, like they were a cut above the usual seventeenth-century soldier—well turned-out, wearing something that came close to uniform, their back-swords held at the ready and gleaming in the spring sunshine. "They look okay to me," Sharon said.

Ruy's sneer was a pale thing compared to what he was capable of. A demonstration, in truth, of the contempt he had in mind—not even worth the breath to call them dogs, was one phrase she'd heard Ruy use a few months before. "Well drilled, well provided for, and badly led. Observe as the cretin on the lead horse—clearly, the horse has the brains and he has the money in that partnership—forms his men up for a saber-charge."

"How can you tell?" Clearly, Sharon thought, Ruy could see more than she could in the details. A lot more. They looked prettified, certainly, and not like the kind of riot police she was used to seeing on the TV news, but there didn't seem to be any obvious reason why they'd not be able to get the job done. The sabers were, perhaps, a bit nastier than she'd have expected from twentieth-century cops, but then these were rougher times.

Ruy sniffed. "Town guards, militia. You can spot the ones who know their trade by the fact that they look as little like soldiers as they can. The ones who break up a tavern fight, rather than making it worse, tend to look little smarter than the participants—ah, did I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, not predict this?"

The militia horsemen were lining up for a charge in the street out of sight of the rioters, just around the corner Ruy and Sharon were standing on. The officer on the lead horse—Ruy had picked him out correctly, for all he was attired similarly to his men—leaned down. "Signora, signor, move aside, if it please you. We shall clear this riffraff from the street directly."

"Come, Doña Sharon," Ruy said, adopting the form of address she had never been comfortable with. "Let us move to a less insecure vantage point."

"I thank you, signor. It would grieve me most greatly if the dottoressa was hurt in the unpleasantness to follow." The officer touched the hilt of his sword to the brim of his hat as he spoke, while behind him his men chivvied out into a column of fours. At least he's up on current gossip in this town, Sharon thought. As the wealthiest and most prominent black woman in Rome, she was distinctive enough that pretty much everyone recognized her on sight.

Before she'd arrived in Rome, Sharon had assumed that she'd be the only black woman in the city. But, to her surprise, she'd discovered there were a considerable number of black people living in several cities in the peninsula. Having black servants was considered fashionable by wealthy Italians. The same was true in southern France. There were a lot of African women in Marseilles, for instance. In fact, there was a subspecies of charity in France that consisted of orphanages for the out-of-wedlock children of African domestic servants whose masters would not allow the kids to be reared in the household, along with an order of nuns who ran them. In due time, she imagined, these children—or their children—would just merge into the general population.

But few if any of them looked the way she did—wearing very well-made and expensive down-time garments and accompanied by an armed caballero. She also knew that her bearing and comportment would be quite different. She still found the idea peculiar—downright bizarre, in fact. But she'd eventually accepted what Ruy and every down-timer told her, that she acted as if she were nobility, and high-ranked at that. A veritable Queen of Sheba, as Ruy had once put it.

Ruy took Sharon's elbow and urged her back down the street. "This should be amusing to listen to," he said, irritation coming through the veneer of good humor he usually projected. "And if we retire a little I shall be able to fight down the urge to call out that—" Ruy trailed off in a low, monotone stream of obscenities. Sharon's own grasp of Spanish—still less Catalan dialect—didn't let her follow more than a few words past the pithy description of what the officer's mother had done for a living. While drunk. With toads.

"Calm, Ruy dear. Getting annoyed with stupid people for being stupid really does no one any good."

"Ha! Did not your up-time Charles Darwin say it? Survival of the fittest? Did I not have clear duty here and now I should improve the next generation of Italians out of all recognition. I pray only that he did not breed before today."

"You think he's going to die?"

"May god grant in his infinite mercy that he should, Sharon." Ruy's tone was suddenly quite grim. "Forty years of military experience, ha!"

Sharon leaned in to Ruy, holding his arm tight. "Bad memories, love?"

"Yes. Of serving under officers like that fatuous, incompetent, deluded dullard." He sighed. "Oh, for a certainty more of his men will survive this day than not, but that will be in spite of him. He has orders to clear a disturbance from the home of some notable, and thinks to make a bold gesture. Ah, here it comes—"

A hunting horn blew from where the head of the cavalry column—thirty or forty mounted men, Sharon guessed—had turned the corner.

"It is as if the Sight were on me, Sharon." He cast his eyes heavenward. "No warning to the crowd to begin dispersing. An advance too rapid to let them disperse, but, since he bids them charge around the corner and left them too little street to achieve a gallop, not fast enough for true cavalry shock."

The sound of clattering hooves from the corner, building to a brief thunder overlaid with wild yells and screams. Then, a sound of a general melee.

Ruy covered his face with his hands. His voice, muffled: "Now, we hear the sound of horsemen in among a crowd. Some have been trampled, of course, but those who remain are frightened, angry and are carrying knives. The horses"—Sharon shuddered as she heard one of the animals scream—"cannot use their strength, and are crowded by people with knives. The rear ranks of the cavalry are pressing in, some of the horsemen broke through the crowd."

"Is there anything we can do?" Sharon asked, hearing another horse scream in pain, a noise that cut through what she knew must be the sound of sabers coming down on flesh. Screams, shouts, the clatter of hooves. And, to the ears of a trained nurse—trauma surgeon, rather, by any standard that mattered, these days—the sound of lacerations, fractures and God alone knew what-all other butcheries.

Ruy's face was bleak. "Does my lady have a preference in prayers for the dying?"

"How did you see this coming?"

Ruy waved a hand. "Rome is a town full of priests. Well-behaved. One might expect the militia to be less than brilliant. But it was when I saw that—" He stopped and took a breath. "No, I shall forego the curses for the moment. When I heard that fool give orders for a charge in column I knew there would be a disaster. There are orders one gives to disperse rioters, Sharon, and there are orders one gives to instigate a massacre. That idiot picked the wrong orders for either."

Ruy's tone had been blunt and professional. Sharon had a suspicion that Ruy had, in his time, taken part in both sorts of military action. The suave hidalgo gentleman's airs he affected had been earned on dozens of battlefields on more than one continent.

"I guess you'd know if anyone would. Say, it sounds like the fighting's over." She felt for her medical bag, which now went everywhere with her; she'd been caught with insufficient supplies once before. "I think it's time to go check on the wounded. Detour on the way to the committee place, I think."

"There is nothing I can do to dissuade you?" Ruy hardly paused for an answer before looking up to check where the sun was. "There is a bright side, by all the saints. We shall arrive at the Freedom Arches in time for lunch, and I shall finally discover what a pizza might be."

Sharon wiped her hands on the last of the boiled rags that a nearby taverna owner had provided to make up the stock she'd carried. "I guess this dress is ruined," she said. She looked down. Both sleeves were soaked in blood, and the bodice was just as plastered. The condition her skirt was in didn't bear thinking about.

The results of the riot were even grimmer. Six horses were dead, two in the fighting and the other four so badly hamstrung that they had had to be shot where they lay. Out of thirty militia soldiers, fourteen were hurt and four were dead. Including, fortunately, their commander, which saved Sharon from having to drag Ruy away from a duel. From the looks, he had been pulled down and then trampled by his own horse. He would have had a chance to escape if part of his troop had not gotten around the crowd and penned them in for a short time.

Ruy laid a hand on her shoulder. "The only order the fool gave was to charge," he said, in a soft voice. "And his men were not so well trained that they left the crowd a way out."

The crowd had suffered worse. The only soldiers they had hurt badly were the ones whose momentum had carried them into the midst of the riot. The rest had surrounded the crowd and hacked away with sabers. With the flats, at first, until they had been forced to fight in earnest. Sharon hadn't even tried to count how many were dead, but out of maybe a hundred who had been here, there were at least forty lying in the street. She'd been able to patch up half a dozen, others had rendered some assistance, but she would not be surprised by a final death-toll of thirty.

The rest had fled, for most of the troopers had been backed up behind their fellows at the tail end of the charge. The few who had gotten around the rioters had penned them in for only a few moments, and when one was pulled down the pressure had been relieved. Like lancing a boil. The troopers left behind, finally under the command of sergeants with some sense, had begun gathering up their wounded and dead. One of those sergeants had offered a sword-salute, but had said nothing. Now, he came over.

"Dottoressa," he said. "I thank you for your assistance. I fear the magistrate will wish to hear your witness of today's work." His face was grim. Sharon wondered if he had known, before the order was given, that he had been ordered to commit an atrocity?

"I can be contacted at the embassy of the United States of Europe," she said. "I shall be back there this afternoon, after I complete the business which this interrupted."

The sergeant nodded. "My thanks," he said. "For what it is worth, Dottoressa, if I had known before the order was given—" he spread his hands.

He had known, Sharon realized, but too late. Somehow she couldn't bring herself to feel sympathy for him. "I hope for your sake," she said, after a long pause, "that the death of your officer is enough to absorb all the blame."

He nodded, gloomily, and thanked her again before turning away to organize his troop's return to barracks.

"It will not suffice," said Ruy. "Like every militia, they are officered by gentry, and such as they do not allow their own to be blamed."

Sharon snorted her agreement. "Not my problem." Then, after a moment's thought. "What is my problem is what the hell started this lot off, Ruy."

Ruy smiled. "Your perceptiveness is yet another of your fine qualities. It is clear even to a simple Catalan soldier such as myself, the very byword of rusticity."

"Knock it off, Ruy," she said. "A rented crowd is one thing we need to look into. Everything in this town is political in some way or other. The fact that it turned into a massacre only adds to the mayhem. We've been here less than a month, and things are—might be, at any rate—turning ugly. I want to know what it means for the USE."

"If it means anything at all," Ruy chided. "You are not a Castilian, to be seeing plots in every shadow, Sharon."

"No, I'm not. But we've got powerful friends in this town, the USE has at any rate, and if things are changing around here it could affect us." She chuckled. "I'm stating the obvious, aren't I?"

"Most insightfully, my love."

"We'll see what the spooks have turned up when we get back. If anything. It all seems to be Cardinal Whatshisface says this, and Monsignor Whoozit is maneuvering for the other."

Ruy cocked his head on one side. "In truth, these things are the very life of politics in Rome," he said.

"I think I may have heard a trace of sarcasm there, Ruy," Sharon said, looking down ruefully at her ruined dress. "And I'm wearing the reason I think they're missing something."

Ruy nodded. "Although I could wish that you had not rushed on to this scene so quickly, it speaks in a voice like thunder of the finest qualities my intended possesses," he said. "But, indeed, this is an unusual political maneuver for Rome. Did we not have a report that Borja is just outside the city, receiving a stream of distinguished guests?"

"We did. You think there's a connection?" It was Sharon's turn to raise her eyebrows.

Ruy shrugged, an expression into which he could put more meaning than most people Sharon knew could manage in an hour-long PowerPoint presentation. This time he was giving off I am hypothesizing wildly with overtones of But I wouldn't be surprised with a side order of I really think we should gather more information.

"In an infinite universe, Sharon, all things are possible. Even the possibility that I am mistaken. I would wager my three most expensive swords that that display was called for the precincts of some notable who has not curried sufficient favor with Cardinal Borja."

Sharon saw the sense in that. Borja was plainly, even blatantly, Up To Something. The USE's intelligence apparatus was expertly wielded, but still very much under construction. The best that they'd been able to turn up was the possibility that he was seeking to undermine the pope. Turn him, for at least some time, into a "lame duck" pontiff. A low trick, and a traitorous one, but all too common in politics down the ages.

Still, if the USE's newest and most surprising not-quite-ally was under attack in his own capital city, it would be purely negligent not to try to find out what was going on. And the fact that Sharon had had no advance warning that this sort of thing was to happen—assuming that this was only the first incident, or just the first to have such unhappy consequences—meant that there wasn't anyone covering this end of the problem.

That was, she felt, typical of the way they thought in this day and age. Maneuver, infight, factionalize, go to war. No one stopped to think about what the hell happened to the ordinary folks. Armies were sent to "live off the land" as a matter of course, a polite way of saying go rob the peasants blind, we don't care about them. She looked around her. There were, even this shortly after the killing and with the soldiers only just about to depart, people about on the street.

Mostly people who wouldn't ever count for much in an account of the Great and the Good, except by implication. When "the mob" was mentioned. Or "popular discontent." Or "civilian casualties." When those even got mentioned in these times.

They were, of course, looking at Sharon in a way she'd gotten kind of used to. First of all, she could afford good clothing, so they assumed she was some kind of nobility, even without the exotic appearance she had for this time and place.

But then they saw her getting down in the street and helping people. They called people like that saints, in this time, instead of—as Sharon thought of herself—simple working stiffs with the training to help.

The fact that she provided medical assistance was just the icing on the cake. Most of them probably had never even seen knowledgeable medical personnel, let alone professionals. That was something she genuinely liked about the Committees. They were trying to make that kind of attitude a thing of the past. People mattered. And that reminded her of why they were out in the first place.

"Right," she said. "Let's go see how Frank's getting on. I think it might do some good to go just as I am, as well. That boy's landed himself right in the thick of this, and I can't think of a better way to warn him to be careful."


"And on the way," Sharon said on impulse, "we can discuss your new job. Spymaster."

Ruy halted. "Spymaster?"

"Spymaster. Well, intelligence analyst, if you prefer. I want some holes filled in the information I'm getting. I want to know who's hiring rented mobs, Ruy."

"This may be a little more difficult than you imagine, Sharon," Ruy said, his tone unusually serious.

"Surely not," Sharon said, teasing him. "I thought cloak-and-dagger stuff was most of your career?"

"Oh, the skills I have in abundance, let no man say he is the better of Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz in that regard. But there is the small matter of my being a subject of his most Catholic Majesty, as is Cardinal Borja. I foresee difficulty with Don Francisco, supple-minded as that man is by reputation, and no end of difficulty if the authorities of my own country hear about it."

"Well, collecting a little local color for your intended can't hurt, surely? Speaking to people in bars and so on. I just want to know what the common folk are hearing and thinking. Gossip. Rumor. Surely no one who'd care about what you get up to would care about what people like that think?"

Ruy laughed, gently. "And to think I joked about your tepidity, woman. There are some subjects on which you wax positively Catalan. I assure you, the more intelligent of the servants of the princes and kings of Europe do concern themselves very much with popular sentiment. Alfonso in particular, since he was very much on the receiving end of it once."

Sharon nodded. Ruy had been Cardinal Alfonso Bedmar's right-hand man, back when he was plain old Marquis of Bedmar and intriguing in Venice. The pair of them had gotten out of Venice just ahead of a mob of arsenalotti who'd have had tar and feathers handy if they'd heard of the practice. And been willing to get that much closer to civilized behavior than what they'd actually intended to do to the members of that conspiracy.

"Still," she said. "You could maybe write the cardinal and ask to be formally released from service, and get on with laying the groundwork in the meantime."

"Your very whims are as the commands of God Most High, Doña Sharon. I, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, shall spare no effort in this matter."

He paused a moment as they strolled off toward the Borgo. "Did I mention, earlier, something about habits of obedience?"


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