Insula, by Chris Bone and Paul L. Mathews
Hegio’s experience as a civil engineer varied depending on who one asked. Some maintained he’d built the Colosseum single-handedly, others the entirety of the Palatine. The more fanciful stories would have it he’d helped Romulus build Rome itself. Whatever the truth, this was just another day for the old man, with just another building.
He stood beside his horse in the shadow of a semi-constructed apartment block. Stroking the horse’s nose, he pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes as he studied this nascent building and scaffold that cosseted it. Nine days, he thought. Nine days until it’s completed, if that. And the sooner the better, he thought as he fed his horse a handful of grain; after the ‘mysterious’ fire that had gutted this, the XIth district, he had a lot of work on his hands. The swathes of surrounding buildings—all of them gutted, blackened carapaces—wouldn’t rebuild themselves, would they?
He smiled to himself as the horse ate from the palm of his hand. So much opportunity, he thought, so much available space; and right beside the Circus Maximus…
…He could almost taste the money.
He has to be quick, he thought. To spend too long on each building would give his rivals the chance to build first. Already new blocks were being developed by those cockroaches. His men called them ‘insulas’: islands of brick and wood in a sea of ash and debris. Construction workers—mostly slaves—toiled like ants as they crawled over each of these new buildings, great hide buckets of caementicum strapped to their backs. Their ladders and scaffolds creaked ominously under the weight.
"Hail, Hegio! What a truly magnificent building you are creating!”
He turned to see Labrax and six members of the Aventini stroll into his construction site. Labrax, hands behind his back and eyes squinting against the midday sun, studied this new, formative habitation even as he sauntered toward Hegio.
“Such a pleasure to see the men of the Aventine taking an interest in my work,” said Hegio through gritted teeth as his horse whinnied and strained against the rein in Hegio’s hand. “If only you’d been here when we laid the foundations…”
“Such a magnificent erection. Your reputation is most thoroughly deserved,” said Labrax. He stopped mere feet away from Hegio. A wiry man made entirely, it seemed, of sinew and scars, he looked almost childlike in comparison to the engineer, whose decades of building and labour had hewn him into a tower of muscle and dry, sunburnt skin. “You and your little builders have worked so hard. Such a shame if construction were to slow down…” Labrax said. He nodded to his two most favoured men, Dordalus and Petrus, as they stood beside one of the many ladders that leant against the scaffold. “…Or even halt.”
Smirking, Dordalus and Petrus pushed the ladder—incumbent slave and all—away from the scaffolding. They stepped aside as the slave fell screaming to the ground. He landed in an untidy heap, twitching and moaning amidst the broken hod and smashed bricks which he had been carrying up the ladder.
“What you need,“ said Labrax as he stood on his toes to whisper conspiratorially in Hegio’s ear, “Is some insurance. Any more of these little accidents and your new apartments will never be finished, will they?”
“And I suppose, “ said Hegio with a sneer, “That you will provide that insurance, for a substantial fee?”
“Substantial?” Labrax feigned a look of almost comedic integrity. “Why, my rates are—”
“Your ‘rates’ are immaterial,” said Hegio, stroking his horse's nose in an effort to settle the agitated beast. As he spoke a group of seven rough looking individuals ran out of an adjacent taverna .They were well-armed and took up position swiftly, covering the men of the Aventine. "As you can see,” Hegio then said with a smile and a raised eyebrow, “I already have insurance with Aemilianus of the Circus Maximus.”
He stepped back as an arrow sped down from the scaffolding, embedding itself in Labrax’s right shoulder. As the skinny leader staggered away from Hegio, eyes wide and teeth bared in anger and pain, hornets of lead buzzed from the half-constructed second floor gallery. Two Aventini dropped to the ground like sacks of gravel, their faces an explosion of blood and bone as these slingshots found their mark. The remaining members of the Aventini were surrounded. They drew their weapons, faces grim as they prepared to go down fighting.“Futue te ipsum!” yelled Labrax as he drew his gladius and, pausing only to spit in Hegio’s face, ran towards the enemy. “Et caballum tuum!”