There was a steady stream of people entering the casino, mostly Norwegians but foreigners too. Bjorn recognized the three Italians from Nora's place among the foreign looking ones, and the two big Norwegian men who had been sitting to the side of their table also appeared a little later.
Pretty soon, just about every table in the room was occupied, and the waiter who had served the men so efficiently when they came in was suddenly busy going back and forth between the bar and her other customers. A big black guy appeared in the bar to help her, and soon afterwards two Asian girls also joined her.
Most people ordered their drinks at the tables, but there were people going up to the bar too, and this was evidently all right with the bartender who managed to serve both the customers at the bar and fulfil the orders coming in from the tables. Everything was dynamic and flexible, and the girls would at times help the bartender draw beer, or do other simple tasks while he put together more sophisticated drinks.
The hustle and bustle of the place was pleasing to watch from where Bjorn was sitting, and he was only half listening to his colleagues' conversations when he caught eye of a man in a black tuxedo entering from a door in the back together with two stunningly beautiful women.
"Is that Jan?" Bjorn asked, breaking into Ante's description of a particularly delicious desert that he once had on a vacation in France.
Bjorn's colleagues turned in the direction of Bjorn's glance, and immediately confirmed his suspicion.
"And those are his two daughters," Ante added.
"They are beautiful," Bjorn said, taking in the sight of them casually and elegantly crossing the floor in the direction of the stage.
"You're not kidding!" Frank agreed, adding a dreamy "yum yum".
"But you better behave when they are around," Ante continued. "Jan has a way of fixing things he doesn't like, so you better not get on the wrong side of him."
Jan, immediately followed by his two daughters, climbed two steps at the side of the stage, and proceeded to the centre, right in front of the velvet curtain. Confidently and dramatically taking up their position, Jan started speaking by lifting a wireless microphone and welcoming everyone to his casino. His daughters then took turns pointing out the facilities of the premises, and going through the repertoire of the evening.
Then there was applause by the guests as the three returned from where they had entered, and shortly after, the stage curtain was lifted, and a small band got going playing an old hit from when Bjorn was a student at a University in England. He was immediately hit by a sense of nostalgia and déjà vu, and for some reason, this gave him an irresistible urge for a cigarette. He could not sit still, and excused himself to his colleagues as he got up and out, first in the direction of the dance floor, and then to the exits.
And Bjorn was apparently not the only one who had a sudden urge for a cigarette. The three Italians were also heading for the exit, and Bjorn almost bumped into one of them as they headed for the same door.
"Excuse me," Bjorn said politely.
"That's all right," the Italian replied with a smile.
Once outside, Bjorn pulled out a cigarette, but even before he had time to put it in his mouth, a bouncer came up to him, asking him politely to go to the designated smoking area a little up to the side.
"We don't want any smoke right here at the entrance," the bouncer explained.
"Oh... I see..." Bjorn replied, taking his cigarette with him to the little row of chairs set out on the sidewalk together with paraffin heaters and small tables with ash trays for the convenience of the smokers.
Bjorn lit his cigarette, and seeing that he was standing right next to one of the Italians he asked him where he was from.
"Venice," the man answered, nodding his head as if this was very significant.
"Italy?" Bjorn added in way of explanation.
"Nah... There's no Italy anymore... Never was, really..."
"But isn't Venice in Italy?" Bjorn asked, not getting what the man was driving at.
"Sure... But what is Italy?"
Bjorn went silent. The question seemed silly, and he got a feeling the man was just being difficult.
"We're from the Republic of Venice, you see," one of the other Italians continued. "We're not very fond of the Romans."
"The Romans?" Bjorn asked, even more confused.
"Well... You heard what happened, right?"
"To your republic you mean?" Bjorn asked, glimpsing some sanity in the conversation.
"Well... you had a referendum... and it was crushed."
"By the Romans," the Italian added.
"You mean the central government in Rome," Bjorn added helpfully.
Bjorn thought for a moment before continuing.
"So how can you be from the Republic of Venice when it got crushed by the... Romans?"
"You can't crush an idea," the third Italian explained.
"You can't live in it either," Bjorn countered.
"So why do you think we live in Italy? Italy is just as much an idea as our Republic."
Bjorn went silent again, puffing a few times on his cigarette before continuing.
"Last time I checked a map of Europe I distinctly remember seeing Italy. I can't remember seeing any mention of a Venetian republic."
"And yet it exists," the Italian replied stubbornly. "Just like the empire."
"The empire?" Bjorn asked with a smile of disbelief. "The Roman Empire?"
"Yes and no," the Italian countered. "But I was thinking of the Fifth."
"The Fifth Empire?" Bjorn asked. "What are you babbling about?"
The Italians looked at each other as if deciding among themselves if it would be worth their time to explain their position. Then, one of them continued.
"The Fifth Empire is the place you end up the moment you reject the current world order and embrace the idea of total autonomy."
"You know," Bjorn answered with a smile. "That makes absolutely no sense at all... But go ahead, I'm listening!"
"The current world order only exists because people believe in it."
"Sure... That makes sense in a way."
"If no one took our politicians and rulers seriously, they would be powerless over us."
"The Fifth Empire is the community of all those who reject the notion that they need to be ruled over by others."
Bjorn took in this last explanation, and it seemed to make some sense to him, even if he could not imagine any of this having any practical implications. But as a fanciful idea, it was kind of cute.
"So where is the Fifth Empire?" Bjorn asked.
"We are standing in it," the Italian said with a confident smile.
"Lundby is an empire?" Bjorn asked in disbelief, and unable to hide his sarcasm he added "some empire you got her, I must say."
The Italians looked at Bjorn, also smiling, as if they thought him the confused one.
"All empires are in the end nothing more than the sum of the people believing in them," the tallest one of them continued patiently. "National borders are but lines on maps. They are only physical in the sense that people believing in them are spending time patrolling them. Once they stop believing in them, the borders themselves will be gone."
"We," the tall one continued, meaning him and his two friends, "are living in the Fifth Empire. And it makes no difference if we are in Venice or in Lundby, or wherever, because the empire is an idea. And it will dominate the world... You, on the other hand is not in the empire, because you have not entered it."
"And how, may I ask, can I enter the empire?" Bjorn asked.
"You enter the empire by declaring yourself a citizen of it," the tall one explained helpfully, and Bjorn immediately got a creepy feeling that he was talking to a member of some weird sect.
But there was no push by the Italians to convert or otherwise convince Bjorn that he should somehow involve himself in their sect, and since they all finished their cigarettes more or less at the same time, they all headed back into the casino as if they had known each other for some time.