The Insulae Nero was in the poorer end of Viriconium. One of a number of squat blocks with an external staircase leading to each floor’s front balcony. In some attempt to create an impression of a pleasant environment, the blocks were set out in quadrangles around what might have once been central gardens, but which now had the odd broken piece of playground equipment and banks of overgrown weeds with litter blowing through like tumbleweed.
Had this been in Londinium, Dai would have regarded it as decent enough non-Citizen accommodation. Indeed both himself and Bryn had lived in insulae not so very different from these in their time there. But here in Viriconium, it was anything but. They had parked up on the edge of the estate under a security camera and walked through attracting attention from local dogs and children. The adults saw them and seemed to either melt away or lurk threateningly as if daring them to approach. At one point a bottle smashed close behind them, but they just kept walking.
“Hello, SI Cartivel.” The speaker detached himself from the insula wall he’d been supporting and stepped into their path. Beneath a mop of dark brown curly hair, he was thin faced, with one ear and one nostril pierced. His tunic and trews seemed too stylish for the locale. Dai moved his hand to push back his jacket intending to both grip and reveal the nerve whip at his belt. But beside him he felt rather than saw Bryn sink into the casual stance that offered no aggression but left him ready to respond to any attack. Unlike Dai’s approach, Bryn’s was de-escalatory. Taking his lead from the man who knew this area best, Dai let his hand drop back.
“Hello Cas. Not your usual playground. You been barred from the Dog and Onion again?” Bryn sounded almost as if he cared.
The man called Cas, hawked and spat as if the name tasted bad. “You know I don’t run with the Broanan’s SI Cartivel, they are not nice people. And I’m here visiting my *llys-tad.”
“Which one would that be? You had a few growing up, so I’ve heard.”
Cas pulled his face into an expression of sorrowful hurt.
“What are you implying about my mother, SI Cartivel? She was a good woman. The best. Gave me a good upbringing.”
“I heard she was a generous soul,” Bryn agreed mildly. “Just a shame she weren’t so successful at teaching you the difference between right and wrong.”
“You insult me,” Cas sounded pained. “I’m a good man. I look after my own. There’s never been any crime laid at my door.”
“Well that is because you just feed on the profits of other people’s crime, isn’t it. Cas? You point them where to go and when. They do the deed and you sell it on. Worse thing is it’s the local kids you get to do it. They don’t even understand the consequences. You know we’ll get you for it one day.”
“Is that a threat, SI Cartivel? My lawyer told me you aren’t supposed to threaten me. I could report you for it. Get you suspended.”
“No, it’s not a threat,” Bryn told him, his tone still mild and amicable. “In your case, Cas, it’s a promise.”
He walked on and Dai stayed put, fixing the curly haired man with a cold glare until he turned away and loped off towards one of the insulae.
“Nice place,” Dai said when he’d caught up with Bryn. “Not sure I’d want to come visiting alone after dark.”
“Cas Ofydd is a cunnus. But a clever one. If he’d put that intelligence into something honest he’d have made good. Instead, he uses it to recruit kids to commit crimes he sets up for them. But there is never anything to link him to it all except their word if we catch them. I’ve seen the court send two teens to the arena in the last year thanks to that bastard, though that was as much the Magistratus’ fault in pressing the letter of the law on them when he could have chosen not to.”
“The Magistratus feels he has no choice.” Dai wondered why he was defending his superior. Perhaps because he had faced some really difficult judgements himself and knew how hard it was to draw the line in the right place. He got no reply and was left with the impression he had somehow failed a test.
“The people here are used to seeing authority coming in hard with nerve whips and menaces,” Bryn explained as he led the way up the stairs of one of the blocks. He gestured along the first balcony. “Most of the front doors have been forced so often they don’t lock properly anymore, so it’s not too hard if someone wants to walk in and take stuff.”
Bryn shrugged and jogged up the next flight of steps.
“Most often Aiofe’s lot or one of her competitors collecting on illegal loans, though it is as likely to be the angry drunken ex-spouse or the drug-warped teenager who forgot their key. And our boys and girls, of course, though we only do it when they refuse to open up.”
He turned onto the next landing and made his way along the exposed balcony. Faces stared at them from the windows beside the doors – those that weren’t boarded over.
“This,” Bryn said stopping outside a door that had several cracks in it and a hole where the lock should be, “is Villa Gillie. A commodious residence with views over the local park…” he paused to gesture dramatically to the small square of mud and weeds with a couple of vandalised benches, “and built-in air seasonal air-conditioning.” Bryn put his hand above the absent lock, hooked his fingers through it and held it, braced against the frame. Then he knocked hard on the door a couple of times.
There was no reply so after a few moments, he knocked again a bit harder. The window beside the door was still in existence and a face appeared there briefly. Bryn let go of the door and it swung slightly open as he did so.
‘Dying to be Born’ is one of the exclusive bonus short stories The Third Dai and Julia Omnibus by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook
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