A Riot Of Color And Joy
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Corporal Pisani shivered as the dawn broke. It wasn't even November, but the nights were already freezing.

Over the past four years, he had been drafted, shot at, and nearly exploded twice. He hadn't even gotten the luck of being demobilized when the war ended. At the time, with Italy lurching between economic and political crises, the prospect of a rifle and steady pay had seemed appealing enough.

Now, though, Pisani was guarding a road on the frontier against his fellow countrymen. The poet d'Annunzio had seized one of the richest cities on the Adriatic without a single shot fired, vowing to bring Fiume into the fold of Mother Italy. As the politicians in Vienna brayed of free states and self-determination, Pisani stood, a reluctant guard over a goat trail into the town.

Every day, new rumors spread across the lines. Pisani had heard whispers of depravities he had never imagined - which he couldn't be a part of. At night, the sky above the city shone green and red and white. Sergeant Spada said it was just flood lights.

Such misfortune couldn't be the product of coincidence. Probably Sergeant Spada had arranged his suffering. Perhaps the Bolsheviks. Or the financiers. Or all three.

Pisani was so intent on deciding who to blame that he didn't notice the flames licking at the rooftops of Fiume in the distance. Then, all at once, the city was engulfed. Golden fire devoured edges of the city. Pisani could see a hand of blue flame grasp the town, reducing it to cinders in seconds. He ran for Spada.

As Pisani fled, the inferno reached high into the sky, with a great roar that shook his teeth. By the time he returned with Sergeant Spada, the fire was gone, leaving only the blooming red of the morning clouds.

Steam rose from the coffee, mingling with the haze of smoke that never fully cleared from the cafe. The blockade that surrounded the city hadn't prevented coffee and tobacco from flooding in.

Marcel nodded a thanks to the waiter and returned to the paper. He had read the same line - "continue at Paris. American President Woodrow promises a speedy resolution to the Yugoslav question"- fifteen times now. His true attention was with the other patrons.

So far, he had heard proponents of free love, Bolshevism, Theosophy, mass suicide, Menshevism, and nudism arguing in the small cafe. None had particularly caught his attention.

At the table to his left, two men, argued about something or other. From the clean shaven look and constant scratching, he assumed that they were followers of Futurism. Like Marcel, other young men had made their way to the city after the poet d'Annunzio seized control. The streets were awash with young men yelling about speed and valor and the future. Marcel turned away from the twitchy pair.

After several minutes, he noticed another conversation beneath the pretentious braying. A man and woman, sitting in the corner, did their best not to look secretive. He pricked up his ears, trying to isolate their speech. He could only make out scraps.

"… wonder …" said the man in Italian.

"Art … burning … life …," the woman replied, shaking her head. For emphasis, she made a sign below the table. Marcel started. He had only seen the sign a few times before, mostly in the more esoteric quarters of Paris.

"Such … abomination … new … cannot," the man answered.

The cup of coffee sat at the table, forgotten, as Marcel approached the couple. He had found his way into the world of wondrous and impossible art of Fiume.

Giacomo worked with a team of a few dozen men, setting bricks and stones of vivid colors. The only light came from a wide circle of lanterns that surrounded them. Outside of the lanterns, the dark was so thick it swallowed everything.

The women danced between the shadows cast by the work and placed garlands on the heads of the men as they worked. Giacomo recognized their songs as hymns of the poet d'Annunzio.

In their hands, the women held bottles of what looked to be wine. When the pace of one of the men began to slow, the women would pour the fire-colored liquid into the man's mouth.

The men built for hours, utterly silent, as the women's hymns kept time. Giacomo wasn't sure how he knew, but each stone went in its exact correct spot, without the need for mortar or cement. The work crept upwards into the black.

Then, a man Giacomo recognized as Piero the baker took the garland from his head.

The women's songs turned to snarls all at once. The lanterns went out.

Piero screamed. There was a sound of shattering glass.

When the lights came back on, there was no more Piero. The women resumed their singing, now with a ragged edge. The men redoubled their efforts.

Giacomo screamed and jolted upright in from his sweat-soaked sheets. Blood hammered in his ears. He panted for air, unsure of where he was. Bedroom. His bedroom. Boardinghouse. Nightmare. He gave a sigh of relief and sank back into the pillows.

Later that day, Giacomo passed by the skeleton of the lighthouse by the docks. d'Annunzio had described it as a "beacon of glory in a fallen world," and had promised that the world would know of the city's work. Today, just as every other day, there were no workers about. The colored stones seemed to creep higher, day by day, up the steel skeleton of the structure.

Giacomo shuddered and hurried past.

Years later, the disappearance of Piero the baker would come up in conversation every once in a while. When it did, Giacomo would change the subject.

The false papers fell in their thousands. The presses clattered, folding blank paper into wealth. Lira, dinars, francs, and dollars sat in neat bundles on the printing room floor.

In the corner, the forger sat, scratching numbers into a ledger, his pudgy face twisted with concentration. Miroslav was taking three krone for a pound of lamb, but only ten dinars for the same amount. The Stolar brothers had said that they would accept nothing less than five lira for the work of day, and that they would refuse outright any offers made in dinars. And so on.

These numbers would determine the printing output for the shop for the next day, tipping the balance of exchange rates one way or another. With his scratchy writing, the anonymous forger controlled the lives of ten thousand people.

Niccolò sat on the deck and scowled as the city came into view. Life with the Uscocchi - the city's sanctioned pirate fleet - had promised adventure, madness, and danger. The enthusiastic deeds and death that only an arditi, even an honorary one, could truly love.

What he had gotten in the past two months had been raids on small merchant vessels. His bounty had been crates of paper, bags of flour, and - most recently - vast quantities of boots in size 43. All hauled by him and the other "pirates." Some joked that they were more pack mules than raiders.

Resistance had been almost non-existent. No one wanted to risk his neck to protect a ship full of lawn furniture.

In an abstract sense, Niccolò could appreciate the work. The city had been blockaded by land and sea by the Italian government, and it was important to run the blockade and return to the city with valuable supplies. But the blockades were nominal at best, and the Uscocchi could largely come and go as they pleased.

Not once had there been a blazing firefight, nor even an excuse to use grenades. The only struggle of any note had been of sailors mutinying against their captain in favor of the Fiumean cause. The mutineers had been greeted as conquering heroes as they brought their cargo of strange and esoteric weapons down the gangplank.

The previous raid, Niccolò had chucked a grenade into the water, creating a massively satisfying geyser. But everyone had just stared before getting back to work, making the whole affair seem tawdry and cheap. He had spent most of this raid sulking whenever able.

At land, with the parades, the speeches, the endless toasts and counter-toasts, Niccolò was a fearless centurion. At sea, he was a donkey on two legs.

As the boat pulled into the harbor, there was the usual crowd, eager to see what valuable supplies the returning raiders would bring. The frenzied cheers that had met them their first few outings had died into murmurs of approval and polite clapping. Now, people looked almost bored - an uncomfortable sight in the city.

It was only a split second before the shot that Niccolò saw the gun, glinting in the morning sun. He darted down. The wood paneling where his head had been a moment ago exploded in a shower of splinters, almost simultaneous with a loud crack. The crowd screamed and dispersed.

The other Uscocchi dove for cover. Niccolò's blood stopped in his veins. He could die gloriously, but having his brains splattered against the deck of a boat filled with boots was too ignominious to be tolerated.

"You lizard-brained cad, you coward, you cum-defecating swine!" said a voice. It was a woman's voice, one that Niccolò had heard in various cries of ecstasy at some point in the past. He could not put a name or face to the voice.

Niccolò poked his head up from the deck. "Maria?" he guessed.

Another shot, this one slamming into the hull. "Asshole!" said the not-Maria, "Silvia! Our bodies as one! You said you were mine forever! Then you leave me for another woman? For eight!?"

There had been many Silvia's in the previous months. Based on the voice and choice of words, Niccolò was at least reasonably sure he had narrowed the shooter down to two Silvia's. Three, absolute tops.

Apparently, he had underestimated whichever Silvia it was

He spotted her, moving towards him, from the next dock over. Rifle raised. Hair long and loose, as if in the throes of passion. Eyes wild, to be expected from a lover of an Uscocchi.

He recognized her as one of the women from his earliest days of Fiume. Before he volunteered for the Uscocchi, before declaring himself an arditi. Before he was himself. A crowd gathered a few dozen meters away, ringing the quay.

Niccolò raised up from his prone position, his hands raised. Not quite a motion of surrender - an arditi would sooner die - but at least of good intentions. His crewmates stayed where they were.

"When they have fought their battles, soldiers seek sensual pleasures," he began, "in which their constantly battling energies can be unwound and renewed." It was almost an axiom at this point.

He continued. "The exaltation of the initiates of those religions still sufficiently new to contain a tempting element of the unknown, is no more than sensuality diverted spiritually towards a sacred female image. Art and war are the great manifestations of sensuality; lust is their flower."

"And you, as a" he paused a moment, trying to recall, "…artist? You of all should be able to appreciate th-"

Silvia squeezed the trigger. The wood next to Niccolò's head exploded. One of the splinters grazed Niccolò's cheek.

"Fuck you, Nicoletta! Fuck that French whore and fuck your bullshit!" yelled Silvia.

Niccolò flinched. Only a few people knew his old name, before the Uscocchi, before Fiume. When he still lived with a family that was convinced he should marry some doddering old businessman and insisted on calling him his wrong name. Death by a thousand cuts of bourgeois politeness.

That wasn't why he came to Fiume. That wasn't why he sought to die in the name of love, in a mad frenzy, he thought. A martyr for the blazing city. Consummating the eternal cycle. He leapt over the railing and rolled onto the docks.

Another shot. A part of his mind recognized the hot sting as it grazed his arm.

His face twisted into a snarl. The crowd screamed.

He raced towards Silvia.

The rifle clattered to the ground.

The two lovers embraced, fading embers bursting into bright flame once again.

In the space of a few seconds, a thousand incoherent thoughts, on love and violence and transcendence were formed and died in Niccolò's head. Kisses, hot, wet, dry, cold, covered his face.

Silvia had seen him before. Pale, weak, neurotic. Now she would bear witness to his strength, passed through the furnace. Muscular, mad, daring. She was a testament to his utter transformation.

The pair embraced in passionate lust, tearing at one another's clothes. As the captain yelled after Niccolò, they rose to their feet. Without a word, they began to race to the nearest inn. The crowd parted as they passed. Niccolò ignored the blood dribbling down his chin.

The gilded antechamber of d'Annunzio seemed to be in a different universe than the stone and brick city outside. The fact that almost every surface was draped with velvet or covered by exotic bric-a-brac helped. Thick plumes of sickly incense wafted from beneath the door of d'Annunzio's room at all hours.

Henry sat at a desk in the antechamber, an eager supplicant drafting and translating communiques. At the desk to his right sat a Belgian, his fellow pilgrim. He translated the prophet's words into French and spoke of a world yet to come.

Henry did not know much about the slight man who sat at the desk on his left, not even his name. He had never seen the fellow outside of d'Annunzio's office, and the man never gave an answer more than a few syllables.

Whoever he was, he seemed to have to the ear of the only men who met the prophet with any regularity. The men never gave their names, either.

Rather than the rhythmic tac-tac-clack of Henry's own machine, the fellow's machine made a low humming sound as it worked. Henry had no idea where his comminques went, or even what they were. Just that the prophet d'Annunzio would accept them, with a listless stare, before shuffling back to his room.

Once, Henry had looked at the keys in whatever the queer script the man wrote. The nosebleed had continued for several hours. The man only smiled as he continued to work.

Stefano perched over the high desk, giving his best glare to the courier below. The young man placed the stack of papers down with a thump, breaking the silence of the records office. Something in the courier's eyes seemed almost insubordinate.

Before Stefano could give the young man a dressing down, the boy was out the door and back on his bike, speeding away. Stefano considered shouting after the boy for not being careful, and possibly allowing insects into the archive. Instead, he clenched his fists for a moment before beginning to work.

With a practiced hand, he opened the bundle. The papers told of new births from the city's midwives, and of new deaths from the hospital.

Stefano frowned as he began to record the names and dates in his ledger. Back in the old days, before the town was infected with this madness, Stefano could tally the births and deaths, the entry and exit permits, and know exactly how many people were living in Fiume. In the room behind him were the city's archives, dating back to the 18th century. Whether or not they were needed was immaterial. They gave structure to the city and its past.

Now, deserters and adventurers flitted in and out of the city as they pleased, ruining the carefully constructed tables and contingencies.

Stefano began to work, and the numbers wrapped around him. 3100 grams. Died October 19th. Area of residence: Via Dante.

The sounds began to gather outside. The clatter of metal on metal. The shrill yap of a whistle. A rumbling of discordant voices.

At first, Stefano ignored them. His office opened to the street, and a certain amount of noise was inevitable. But the road was not a well-traveled one, and continuous noise was uncommon. After five minutes, the sounds of the street began to grow louder.

Stefano frowned. Looking out the window, he spotted a half-naked young woman. She skipped and twirled down the road. In her hand was a stalk topped with what looked to be a pine cone. The pen rolled from his hand and towards the edge of the desk. The same instant that the woman disappeared from view, the pen clattered to the floor.

He awoke from his stupor and lowered himself from his chair. The sound grew louder.

Stefano made his way to the window, trying to catch another look at the youth. She danced down the street. He stared after her, his hand hovering over the handle of the door. It wasn't until she disappeared around the corner that he turned his head towards the source of the growing din.

A riotous mob wound its way along the crooked street, following the path of the young woman. The people at the head of the group carried the Italian tricolor and the icon of some saint or another. As far as Stefano could see down, the procession was awash with green, white, and red. Colorful streamers shot up at random. The khakis and blacks of arditi uniforms mingled with fine silks and workers' uniforms.

Men and women in various states of undress skipped alongside and in front of the crowd, mimicking the young woman. Stefano could hear the beat of a dozen or so drums, all in different times. From the crowd came bars of the Fanfara Reale, mingled with the Internationale and lewd drinking songs. Chants for different ideologies came from the crowd, seemingly at random, until they were a single mass.

Though muffled by the wall, Stefano could make out every sound. Every few seconds, a great cheer would rise from a different section of the crowd. The setting sun cast the crowd's distended shadows across the plaster and brick of the buildings.

Stefano froze, possibilities flashing before him. So this was one of the parades, a daily occurrence since the poet had arrived. He had always avoided these frenzies of noise and movement, and had contented himself with hearing and repeating dark rumors about their actions. Every day was a new, disgusting carnival.

Once or twice, he had daydreamed about stepping in front of such a mob and giving them a good dressing-down. Now, though, he froze. He stared at the crowd passing him by, which seemed to pay him no mind.

Outside, someone in the crowd began smashing windows. The tinkling of glass finally woke Stefano. He realized he was only inches away from the dregs of Fiume, storming through the city. One of the marchers stopped in front of the window and stared at him. As Stefano turned, he could see more marchers stopping. He dashed back behind his desk and began to climb the chair, slipping several times.

Behind him, he heard the sound of breaking glass and a sharp bang, followed by loud yips and shrieks from outside. He climbed the chair, and saw several, no, a dozen, men and women climb in through the broken window, or crawl over the beaten-down door. They made growling and braying sounds as they moved, their teeth bared at him.

Stefano should have moved. He should have run. He should have flung the heavy ledgers or the sharp pen at the intruders. But all he could was scream, a sound carried away by the noise of the never-ending crowd. The beasts crawled towards him, and he gripped the seat of his chair until his knuckles were white.

He screwed his eyes shut, awaiting the inevitable death at the hands of the frenzied revelers. A minute, then two, passed. Then a thousand, maybe. The world only in sound. Shattering glass. Metal scraping on metal. The brays and yelps of the madmen. The incessant din from outside as the mob moved past what remained of his office.

Finally, the crowd left. The sounds from inside grew softer, then disappeared altogether. In time, the only noise was of glass against the floor, pushed by the gentle breeze from the window. Stefano kept his eyes shut for several more minutes, just in case. Finally, he opened them.

Numbers and letter splashed across the walls and ceiling in nonsense patterns. Some fat, like overfed spiders, others as small as flies. "8Jf de RR." "P9g il 90d dQ." And so on. Thin back lines crept along the walls and ceiling as well.

There seemed to be no central point that they radiated out from. The characters looked to be a natural part of the woodwork, like it was a feature that Stefano had never noticed before.

Stefano stared at the ceiling for several more minutes, trying to decipher the jumbles of letters. Nothing. He turned back to his ledger.

It was blank. Even the printed boxes for each field, gone. Stefano flipped back a page. Then another. Nothing.

He looked up at the ceiling again. The numbers and letters he needed were there. Disordered. He swiped the air, trying to pull the numbers back to him. Nothing.

Stefano remembered the scraping sounds that had come from the archives in back. Before he realized it, he was out of his chair, dashing towards the wreckage of the archive room.

The door hung from its hinges. Stefano stepped gingerly over the blank papers scattered across the floor. Cabinets, once containing decades worth of records, lay on the floor, their metal sides torn apart. He almost couldn't bring himself to look at the ceiling and walls.

When he did tilt his head up, he saw it. The history of Fiume, its births and deaths, the property transactions and arrests that made up the city. Hurled across the walls, as if it had been picked up by a tornado. As if Fiume had no past, only a present of madness, stretching forward forever.

Stefano fell to his knees and began to laugh. He couldn't stop laughing.

The square rang with the poet's ranting. His words more incantation than speech, and he paced back and forth on the balcony as he spoke. Below, the crowd watched with rapt attention, taking in his every word and movement. At times, they would intone alongside the poet.

Gioachino hunched in a darkened alleyway off the piazza, scribbling in his notebook. Over the past month, the newly-minted Foundation researcher had shortened the recordings of speeches to cypher and hieroglyphs.

Sacra Italia became a rising (or was it setting?) sun. The destruction of Fiume and its rebirth became a stylized bird. A response from the crowd meant a symbol was underlined. Gioachino still felt very proud about the innovation. The poet's speeches were dense with cliche, and a two hour speech that had taken fifty sheets of paper to transcribe could be taken down in a single sheet.

It was only the words that were not in Italian - or any other language he recognized - that Gioachino spelled out. Over the month, the volume of those words - ones like tlanateo and nlagneat had increased to the point that they were nearly a quarter of the speech. They seemed to be some sort of magic, but not any Gioachino recognized. His brow furrowed whenever he thought about these unknown words.

The poet's deep voice began to intone to the crowd in the mystical language. "Tlala aniyan maelaph n'zuma!" he yelled, his voice echoing across the square. The lights of the piazza dimmed. Gioachino jotted three parallel lines after the transcribed words.

"Tlala aniyan maelaph n'zuma!" the crowd spoke back. Gioachino underlined the previous section.

"Atalanga tlel werhaer!" came the unified call from the crowd.

No response. Gioachino looked up from his paper. The poet was still. Gioachino had never seen the man at rest since he had started observing him.

"Atalanga tlel werhaer!" the crowd repeated. Even from this distance, Gioachino could see the poet tense up.

"Citizens - brothers - of Fiume," the poet began, jumping back to the line that began the speech, "In a blinkered and fallen world, it is a single flame of liberty that sings redemption for the world!"

"Sanegana, larastayyeba! Okvikalam," the crowd shouted. Its spoke with hunger. Gioachino scrawled down the words as best he could, trying to keep pace with crowd.

"Atalanga ateeshimsi! Tlelokak resdin!" The crowd began to chant, faster and faster.

"Fiume! Fiume cries for justice and liberty!" the poet cried, trying to be heard over the frenzied shouting of the crowd. There was a pleading in his voice "In a mire of degradation, it is only we, we Fiumeans, who rise as a shining beacon! Tlanateo!"

At once, the crowd stopped its chatter and snapped to attention. "Tlanateo," it shouted back.

The speech resumed as normal. Gioachino paused. He had no symbols or even words for what had just happened.

The masters of Fiume huddled together in the darkened room. From every window, rose- and gold-tinted light streamed in. A joyous din punctuated by periodic cheers arose from the streets. The leading industrialists of the city sat shoulder to shoulder with the political masters of the town.

"The focus point is proceeding as anticipated," Lagorio said. He blotted sweat from the back of his neck with a kerchief. "It seems that the rabble of the city are capable of hard work, if only in dreams."

Mario Pentheo, a tall man with a thin mustache, nodded from the head of the table. "And the Beast? Is the fool priming them?"

A small man by the name of Bandoni stood up, almost reaching the height of his seated companions. "Roughly a quarter of the city has joined in the speeches by d'Annunzio. At this rate, the Beast will be more than large enough to fulfill the requirements of the way. According to our man with the fool, he has begun to internalize the chants."

The men always spoke in euphemisms. As beatings and wage-theft became "employee discipline" and "windfalls," the gestalt of the people of Fiume became "the Beast." The mass suicide of the people that made up the Beast - men, women, and children - became "the requirements." The lighthouse, built on a leyline, that would focus the violent energies to tear a hole in space became "the focus point."

Pentheo nodded, and Bandoni sat down, beaming. Soon, the ritual would be complete. For fifty long years, the Serpent's Hand had been excluded from the Library, the fount of all knowledge. Now, with the sacrifice of the Beast, comprised of the people of Fiume, they would find a Way back in.

Through their sheer genius and willingness to sacrifice, the leading men of Fiume would walk once more in the halls of knowledge. They would know every secret of the worlds, every whispered technique and dead tongue. Their knowledge would allow them even greater power, even greater wealth. They would become like gods.

"The sacrifice of a single beast is a small price," Pentheo said, as he did at the end of every meeting. The others repeated the benediction before filing out. Soon, the room was empty, filled with only the light and cheers from outside.

The ballroom swelled with sound. It was a gala, organized by a young banker with libertine inclinations, in honor of Saint Jude - the patron saint of impossible causes. No one missed the symbolism. Artists and radicals rubbed elbows with clerks and bankers. The overwhelming sense of merriment and momentum was all that kept the peace.

Balls like this took place almost every other day now.

The ballroom swelled with sound. Men and women swirled across the dance floor, coupling and parting with every frenetic movement of the music.

To the side sat the prophet d'Annunzio, soul of the Fiume endeavor. His eyelids drooped as the night wore on. Next to him stood one of his secretaries, a silent man with sharp features.

Whenever an admirer came too close, the secretary would glare. That was usually enough to warn off any potential admirers. A few had ignored the warning glances and continued to approach the prophet. The secretary would then gently lead them from the room. The men were seldom heard from after that.

This night, the crowd danced with ferocity, spinning and moving in the half- and quarter-notes. The prophet's head bobbed in time with the dance.

From the spinning crowd, a masked woman grabbed the secretary by the hand and pulled him away. The secretary struggled, but could not escape the woman's grip. Within seconds, he was caught up in a swirl of dancers, spun to and fro, unable to reach the prophet. He tried to push his way through, but it was like trying to force his way through a wall.

With the secretary gone, a gaggle of admirers jockeyed for the spot next to the prophet. After a few seconds, a man with closely shorn hair and a sapphire broach pushed himself next to d'Annunzio.

"Ah, at last, to meet the great spirit of Italy," the man began, "the heart of valor, the fire of the new world." The prophet nodded absently. This was no different from the thousand other greetings he had received from such men.

"I wish to speak with you about a riotous new world. A grand and spectacular life. Tell me, singore," he said, leaning in to the prophet, "have you ever heard of the Fifth Church?"

The prophet's eyes widened, and he turned to face the young man.

The man smiled. "So you have. Let us discuss it elsewhere, in private," he said. The pair left the ballroom.

When the secretary finally fought his way out of the dance, he searched, but could find no trace of the prophet.

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