The future began on a still morning in the summer of 1919.
The army paused, its way into the Adriatic city blocked by a small contingent of fellow Italians. The deserters, the demobilized storm troopers, the irredentists who made up the troop were becoming nervous. In a small area between the two groups, a pair of men unknowingly decided the fate of the world.
The chief of the defenders, a general named Pittagula, attempted to reason with his counterpart, a bald, mustachio'd poet. The defending soldiers shifted their weight as their commanding officer talked, gripping their rifles with white knuckles. Behind them was the single staff car Pittagula had come in.
"For the love of God, Signor d'Annunzio, think! This is unheard of! What you are doing will drive the world to the enemies of Italy!" the general pleaded, pacing back and forth. "The King has sent his ministers to Versailles! They will address the issue!" His medals clinked back and forth as he paced. He had hoped that the reminder of rank might temper the passions of the poet. They did not.
Gabrielle d'Annunzio stared at the pacing general. His hand shot into the air and, for a split second, Pittagula feared there was a concealed weapon up the poet's sleeve. d'Annunzio half turned himself towards the silent army behind him, keeping his eyes trained on the general.
"Never, signor! Fiume is the burning heart of Italy! The sacred honor of Rome has been besmirched too many times by that cagoia, Nitti, and his band of empty stomachs!" d'Annunzio shouted, gesturing to the army behind him, "We shall redeem Fiume and so redeem Italy, or we shall die in the attempt!"
The army roared with approval. For ten months, they had awaited a plan from Versailles, one which would redeem Italy and make sense of their suffering. Now that it was clear that the diplomats were poised to hand to Italy a mutilated peace, to snatch away this long-separated port city of Italian Dalmatia, all for the benefit of the far-off land of Yugoslavia, it was time for bold men, such as themselves, to take matters into their own hands. They would liberate Fiume themselves and free its Italian people from the clutches of the Magyar and the Croat. They would annex the city, and the whole of their sacrifice would begin to make sense in a new, redeemed Italy. They would not be turned back now.
d'Annunzio turned to face the crowd, basking in their cheers. His body seemed to glow in warmth of their approval. Pittagula waited a minute, then two, for the cheering to die down. d'Annunzio continued to face the crowd. Pittagula tried to address his counterpart once again. "You claim to support Italy, yet your actions will destroy it. Do y-" he began.
The poet whipped around to face Pittagula, his eyes wide. "Enough! The time for chatter is at an end!" he barked. Suddenly, he tore open his shirt, exposing his bare breast to the general. "Move from the route of the patriot, of the lover of Italy and Dante, at once! Or else slay me where I stand, that my blood might feed the flowers and soil of Fiume!"
At once, the army went silent. Pittagula looked at the aging poet-cum-war hero, who had written publicly about his desire for a courageous death. He saw the old man with wide eyes and a heaving chest, each rib straining against the poet's pale skin.
He looked at the army behind the poet, a thousand men who had stormed the front lines of Eastern Europe, armed with nothing but knives and suicidal bravado. He looked behind him to the rest of the Italian garrison he had brought out to stop this foolish march. None of them would meet his eyes. Pittagula turned back to d'Annunzio and his army.
Perhaps they would lose interest once they saw the true Fiume, a city like any other, filled with Italians, Croats, and Hungarians in near equal measure. Perhaps they would simply re-desert once they had proven that they could enter the city. At any rate, Pittagula was not going to end his distinguished career as the man who shot Italy's most celebrated poet and was then lynched by an outraged mob.
He sighed. "Get in," he said, motioning to the staff car, "and for God's sake, close your shirt." He motioned for his men to stand down.
As the poet moved towards the car, the cheering of the army began to swell until it was all that Pitagula could hear. He got in the car and was joined a moment later by d'Annunzio. Pittagula found it necessary to breath through his mouth to cover the thick reek of perfume that seemed to emanante from the poet.
The driver started the car, and Pittagula and d'Annunzio began their way towards Fiume. The mob slowly trailed behind them. People began singing the Italian national anthem in different times and different keys. It was not until the line about "where heroes fought/in the bygone ages" that the melodies began to blend together.
There was no way that Pittagula could have heard it, but scattered among the advancing soldiers, a dozen or so men sang a very different song in an otherworldly language.
The Italians of Fiume stood silently in the Plaza, staring up at the palace balcony. Among them were scattered some of the thousands of arditi stormtroopers who had followed d'Annunzio in his march, made conspicuous by the green and crimson flames on the lapels of their uniforms. All waited anxiously.
The entire day had passed in a frenzy of toasts, drinking, and singing, at least for the Italian population of the city. Few had slept the night before, and many were close to dropping from exhaustion. But everyone had gathered in the plaza when they heard that the poet-savior would be giving a speech. The words that they hoped to hear, that Fiume had been formally annexed to Italy, would surely be uttered then. That the want and indignities that they had suffered would be redeemed.
Time passed. Five minutes. Fifteen. The assembled people began to get restless. Twenty. There were mutterings.
As the sun began to sink down, the assembly began to lose some of its cohesion. Then, all at once, a great cheer. The poet d'Annunzio stepped onto the balcony, slightly disheveled. He was followed by several members of the local government. He waited for the cheering to die down.
"Italians of Fiume!" he began. The plaza erupted. The glass in nearby windows trembled as the people cheered. d'Annunzio waited. After a full five minutes, the celebration abated slightly.
"In the mad and cowardly world Fiume is the symbol of liberty," he yelled, gesturing wildly, "In the mad and cowardly world there is a single pure element: Fiume! There is a single truth: and it is Fiume! There is a single love: and this is Fiume! Fiume is like a blazing searchlight that radiates in the midst of an ocean of abjection!" With each repetition of the city's name, he pointed to the mass, cheering in response. And all at once, d'Annunzio addressed not an assembled group of thousands, but a single organism.
In the crowd, a man became dimly aware of the fact a woman five meters ahead had begun her period three days prior. A young girl noticed that the man standing next to her had smothered his bastard child twenty-three years ago. But it did not matter. The crowd was aware of itself, but focused solely on d'Annunzio.
The sun sank below the horizon, and the plaza glowed with an unseen light. No one noticed.
d'Annunzio unfurled a flag. The crowd knew what it was going to be even before they saw it. An Italian war hero and close friend of d'Annunzio's had fallen in the war. The Italian flag had been draped over his bloody corpse. d'Annunzio had shown it in parliament the previous year in order to make a point about the blood of Italian patriots. It was a famous prop, one which the poet had used while speaking in Parliament.
The flag d'Annunzio unfurled was not one of Italy, or of any nation. It was dark blue, with a series of interlocking golden patterns that almost looked like calligraphy. Even if individuals might have wondered what the flag was, or what it meant, or why d'Annunzio had not flown the Italian flag, the crowd did not care. There was rapture from the crowd, and d'Annunzio
"This flag," d'Annuznio shouted, somehow making himself heard over the cheering, "Must be reconsecrated by your faith! Your love is all that is needed! Do your confirm your commitment?"
"Yes!" the crowd thundered, tears flowing from its ten thousand eyes, "We confirm!"
"There is a great work to be done in Fiume! This city shall be a fiery beacon to the world! Justice, it will proclaim, and freedom, and joy! Will you join me in this work? Will you build, with your ten thousand hands and hearts beating blood, will you build with me?"
"Yes, yes!" the crowd wept.
"Then together, we will shake a decrepit world to its foundation," the poet cried, his voice amplified by the energy of the crowd, "The purity of Fiume will serve as a blinding light, a clarion call! A portal to a new world, a heroic one! Will you build with me!?"
"Yes, we will build!" the crowd shouted as one.
"Then, let us celebrate tonight crowd of Fiume," the poet shouted, "But tomorrow, we begin our mythic work! Let us build the door to the shining, burning light! Tlateneteo!"
No one saw it, but with the final word, d'Annunzio shook slightly.
"Tlateneteo!" the assembled listeners shouted back. No one quite knew what it meant, but were all aware that it was dreadfully important.
"I release you, Crowd of Fiume," the poet said in a low voice. With that, he retreated back into the palace.
They gave another cheer as the poet stepped back and disappeared into palace. His aides followed with him. The people cheered for another solid minute, then dissolved into a thousand minute whorls of friends and neighbors and co-nationals.
Later that night, individuals would muse on the meaning of the blue flag and why d'Annunzio had not once mentioned Italy. But it did not matter. The crowd had spoken.
Back in the palace, d'Annunzio was greeted with the applause of a much smaller crowd. The elites of Fiume clapped for the poet, giving cheers of "bravo!" and "ben fatto!" With a dozen ringed hands, they patted him on the back as he proceeded down the steps, and with a hundred descriptions of how grand it was that someone finally took the plight of Italy into consideration, the followed him down the hall. But, for the first time since he had arrived in the city, d'Annunzio was tired.
He waved off the gaggle following him, slipping into a small meeting room towards the end of the hall. His aides stood watch over the door. d'Annunzio slid into one of the leather chairs seated around the long table at the center of the room, closing the door behind him. He could hear the murmuring through the door.
Normally, he would have been there to soak up the applause and adulation. He sat, his hands shaking, as the noise outside dissipated. One by one, the men who had come to congratulate him faded away, seeking out the entertainments of this one mad night.
Finally, there was silence. Then a series of staccato knocks on the door.
"Come in," he yelled.
A tall man with a thin mustache entered, pushing the door gingerly. Behind him, a portly middle-aged man with hair that had already begun to recede, pushed it open the rest of the way. d'Annunzio barely looked up. The two took seats opposite him.
"Signore d'Annunzio," the tall man began, extending his hand to the poet, "Again, let us congratulate you on a most auspi-"
The poet batted the man's hand away. The mustached man withdrew his hand, looking hurt.
"From what blasted heath did you summon those words?" d'Annunzio asked. He kept his voice even and measured, willing himself to not fly into a rage. Although he had a pistol at his side, he doubted he could take on either man.
The portly man gave a smile that did not reach his eyes. "Gabrielle, please, we are all friends here. Those words are difficult, but it is like exercise, for the spirit," he said, nodding at nothing particular, "It is hard, but with each passing mention, it becomes easier. Because you will grow strong, and because the chains, they will grow weak. "
d'Annunzio looked at the portly man and nodded. "Yes," he said, "yes, I will grow stronger. A gleaming bonfire, soon." The portly smiled, glad that his message had been understood.
The tall man began again. "And let us just say again, you bring such honor and hope to the Italian people. That we may once again be united, in word, in deed, in song, in spirit," he said, clasping his hands together, "Ahhh, it raises one's mind to the heavens."
d'Annunzio glared at the tall man. "Is it truly required that you be followed by such an odious prat?" he asked, turning to the larger man.
The portly man's eyelids drooped slightly. d'Annunzio didn't care enough to turn to see the reaction of the tall man. "Whatever your initial impressions, Mr. Lagorio is a greatly respected member of the Hand. I trust him utterly," the larger man said, "As should you."
d'Annunzio nodded. The larger man continued. "We simply came here to offer you congratulations on behalf of the Serpent's Hand. You are quite obviously tired, so we will leave it at that. However, come tomorrow, we will have much to discuss."
"Yes, doubtlessly," the poet said. He leaned back in his chair and yawned, closing his eyes.
The portly man leaned forward. "We have also heard that a certain Ms. Baccara has been looking for you," he said, "You doubtlessly have heard her sing, and she seems quite taken w-"
Before the portly man could finish, d'Annunzio was fully awake, out of his seat, and out of the door, with barely time for a goodbye. The poet's aides ran behind him, trying to keep pace as he charged down the hall towards yet another affair. The two men sat alone in the room. Neither faced each other.
Lagorio frowned. "'Odious prat?' Really?" he said quietly, crossing his arms.
"Oh, don't worry about what a Judas goat bleats," the portly man said, chuckling, "At the end of the day, it is still a goat."
"True, but if he keeps up his bleating, I can't be held responsible for happens."
"Fair enough," the portly man sighed. He turned his chair to face Lagorio. "But did you get a reading on him?"
"Oh yes," Lagorio nodded, "he'll do well enough. I just question the necessity of having someone so erratic be the anchor. This is a delicate operation. In both an esoteric fashion and a political sense. What if the Vatican or the Americans get involved? Or that damn coalition they formed last year? The Firmament."
"Foundation," the larger man corrected.
"Yes, that's it," Lagorio said, "the Foundation."
The fat man shrugged. "Alea iacta est. As for Gabrielle, the man is a child. You saw how he reacted to a single word of power. We have nothing to fear from him. And while we can't control him directly, he is easily… nudged."
"I suppose. I just resent having my integrity questioned by that libidinous orangutan."
The fat man nodded. "Indeed. But if we are correct, then that fool won't matter in six month's time. Not when we can shake the earth to its core. He will matter as much as any gnat once he's done and we have completed the great work. A city such as this is a small sacrifice to make, comparatively."
Lagorio grunted, and the pair sat in silence. Outside, the people of Fiume cheered and celebrated the day of their salvation.