The Diamond of Milan
Regina sat stone-still in her grandfather’s throne listening to the frenzied roars of enraged citizens gathered outside the front gate. That’s it! Reveal yourselves! Show the world who you really are, she thought to herself.
A faint rasp tickled her ear — the sound of an intruder’s rusted iron lever chewing away at the frame of a bolted library window. She leapt to her feet and dashed into the hallway. They must have climbed over the rear wall, but how on earth did they survive the descent? Moments later, a petite young woman stepped out of the shadows and greeted Regina.
“I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” the intruder said with a prideful smirk. “Honestly, I’m a little disappointed. It should have taken more than a few good yanks to break that window loose. I was hoping for more of a challenge.”
“How did you…”
“I bounced down the branches of the tree by the garden, hopped onto the roof of the groundskeeper’s shed, and flung myself into a snowdrift. It was quite simple, really.”
Regina stared intensely at the intruder’s right hand. “Well, now that you’re here and armed with that menacing tool, which you doubtlessly plan on using to gain my compliance, I offer no resistance,” she said. “On the contrary, you may take what you like and distribute it among your friends outside. All I ask in return is that you spare my life, which I don’t think is an unreasonable request.”
“Those are not my friends, and frankly, I have little interest in your possessions,” the intruder shot back. “But I would very much like some food, and perhaps a glass of wine.”
Regina giggled. “A hot meal? Is that all? Well, please, help yourself to anything — everything — I have!”
As the intruder rooted through the pantry, Regina quietly withdrew to the library. There she retrieved a rather impressive wooden lock box held together by thick brass latches and decorated with the utterly alien jewels of an extinct kingdom. She then returned to the kitchen and offered the box to the famished thief.
“I know this is why you’ve come,” said Regina.
The curious intruder gently lifted the lid of the box, revealing the most magnificent diamond she had ever laid her eyes upon. Under the gushing light of the evening sun, it glistened and glowed a brilliant golden hue. One could almost taste the unending rivers of blood that had been spilt in pursuit of this sparkling wonder. It was a diamond unlike any other, an anomalous beauty forged by forces that no mere mortal could ever hope to replicate.
“That is a very nice rock,” the intruder remarked.
“Yes, it’s — wait, a rock? A very nice rock? You idiot! This is no rock! This is the Diamond of Milan!”
“Well, in that case, it’s a very nice…Italian rock?”
“It is not a rock! Stop calling it that!”
“Well, what is it then?”
“I told you. It’s the Diamond of Milan!”
“No, you misunderstand me. I’m not asking you what it’s called. I’m asking you what it is.”
“What a silly question! Have you never seen a diamond before? This particular diamond is an object of immeasurable desire that has driven entire nations mad with envy! I have no other answer to give you, and I’m offended by your ignorance.”
“Well, my apologies. I meant no offense. But all I see before me is a large, glassy rock from Italy. It appeals to my eye, certainly, but not to any other part of me. Why should I want this large, glassy rock from Italy? What does it mean it to you? What is its value to you?”
“This is a trick. A joke. Yes! You’re a joker, a jester. My husband sent you here to play games with me. He’ll arrive any minute now, guards in tow, and will rescue me from the hordes of fraudulent revolutionaries who have come here under the false pretense of righteous justice. And then the joke will be revealed, and we’ll all have a good laugh about it then!”
“Of all the wealthy nobles I’ve encountered in my short life, you are unquestionably the most peculiar of the bunch,” the intruder noted. “You’re furious with me, why? Because I won’t take that which you value most? There is something very pitiable about that.”
Regina’s exasperation was instantaneously displaced by unrestrained indignation. She violently grabbed hold of the intruder’s wrist and led her through a nondescript passageway. Moments later, the two women emerged in the center of a secret chamber bursting with marvelous riches.
From inside an antique vitrine near the doorway, a battle-worn Wakizashi sword that felled dozens of rōnin during the Shimabara Rebellion caught the intruder’s attention. Along the western wall, an old oak table straddled a Samian ware pot overflowing with Greek decadrachms, Venetian ducats, and other ancient coins. In the northeastern corner, a stack of rare Persian carpets dating back to the earliest years of the Safavid dynasty took refuge behind a makeshift bookshelf full of parchment manuscripts of unknown origins. As Regina’s eyes swept across this vast ocean of treasures, the intruder suddenly reached out towards a dusty shelf and seized hold of a small, heart-shaped trinket.
“What is this?” the intruder asked.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Regina replied. “Just an old amulet that belonged to my great-grandmother. When she was a child, a friendly merchant in Rome gifted it to her on her birthday. She insisted it brought her good fortune and carried it with her everywhere she went until the day she died. I had it appraised last year. It’s worthless.”
“Worthless, you say?”
“Well then, I do believe I’ve finally found something worth stealing — in addition to your food and wine, of course.”
The intruder dropped the amulet in her pocket and skipped merrily back towards the door. Regina, frozen in place, her mouth agape in astonishment, was once again lost for words.
“I — I — do…”
“Something the matter?” the intruder asked with a knowing grin.
“I offer you the sword of a noble samurai warrior, and you decline it. I offer you an assortment of precious coins worth more than all the wine in Europe, and you avert your eyes. I offer you the finest collection of Persian carpets this side of the Rhine, and you spit on them. But that trinket — that dull, heart-shaped lump of stone worth less than a loaf of bread — is what you choose to steal from me.”
“Well, this worthless little trinket tells the wonderful story of a generous merchant who made a young child smile on her birthday,” the intruder noted. “What stories does your diamond tell? How many battles have been fought over it? How many children grew up without their fathers because of it? How many years of life were sacrificed in pursuit of it?”
Regina turned her gaze towards the diamond resting in her palm.
All that time and energy I dedicated to finding you, to chasing you, so that I might become the envy of anyone who ever mattered. And now that dream dies a pathetic, miserable death at the hands of a common thief whose lineage is almost certainly as unremarkable as the amulet in her pocket.
The two women returned to the dining room, and Regina fixed her eyes on the dancing flames of the torches amassing at the front gates. It dawned on her that she was about to lose everything and nothing all at once, but still she clung tightly to the illusion that had led to this moment.
“Please, I beg you,” she implored the intruder. “If you won’t have any of these treasures, at least confess that, deep down inside, some part of you covets them. The confession doesn’t have to be sincere.”
“If it’s a confession you seek, it’s yours — and I offer it to you with absolute sincerity. I do indeed harbor the desire to which you refer. It exists inside of me, resting quietly on the periphery of my soul. From that distance, however, it no longer influences me. I cannot hear it and do not feel it, though I am nonetheless aware of its presence.”
“You mean to say that you’ve subdued it, unlike those animals at the gates seething with jealous rage.”
“Don’t be so hard on them, Regina. Some of them are indeed motivated by unrelenting jealousy, while others among them have come here only to satisfy a sadistic bloodlust. But many of them — most of them, even — are here because they suffer. You shouldn’t be so quick to judge them. However appalling their methods may be, their resentment is understandable.”
“You mean, I shouldn’t judge them as you’ve judged me?”
The accusation took the intruder by surprise.
“The premise of your question is quite erroneous!” she replied. “I have judged neither you as a whole being nor any specific component of your character. I don’t know you well enough to do either. But if it will help put your mind at ease, know that I do not begrudge you your treasures, your estate, or even the land on which we’re standing. So long as none of these things has come into your possession through deception, violence, or exploitation, I see no reason to judge you for the good fortunes that have come your way. You’re an independent being, same as I. It isn’t my place to scold you for the material pursuits that occupy your time, though I admit that I’m unable to comprehend the appeal of those pursuits.”
As she carefully considered her next words, the intruder studied the pained expression forming on Regina’s face, and pangs of sympathy began to sprout inside her heart.
“But you — you have passed judgment upon yourself, haven’t you?” the intruder asked rhetorically. “You once regarded these treasures as the fruits of a life well spent, but now they’re worth nothing to you because they’re worth nothing to me. It was all in vain, you see! You were doomed from the start! You could never be the envy of all of Europe because I don’t lust after your treasures, and I am a woman of Europe. Oh, forgive me, Regina. I never meant — this isn’t why I came here. All I wanted was some food.”
Suddenly, chunks of splintered wood sailed across the room and landed at Regina’s feet. She and the intruder both turned their eyes towards the front door.
“They’re breaking through,” Regina said. “It’s only a matter of time.”
The intruder propelled herself out of her chair and took Regina’s hand in her own. “Come with me,” she insisted. “Come with me, and together we’ll reclaim that which I unwittingly stole from you today!”
Regina sunk back into the throne that had become just a chair. She had neither the will nor the desire to lift herself out of it. The weight of her regret was too heavy to endure.
“That’s a generous offer, but I’m afraid I must decline.”
“Regina, you have no choice! We’re almost out of time. We must go right now. And your husband…”
“My husband set off for the Americas in search of new artifacts for our collection. He said he’d be gone for no more than eighteen months. That was four years ago.”
Ripped free from its hinges, the door crashed down to the floor below. The putrid stink of salt-crusted flesh rolled through the foyer and into the dining room as the raging mob swarmed the breach and caught sight of its prey. The intruder dashed back into the library and launched herself through the mangled frame of the broken window. As she struggled to regain her footing, her right leg jerked out from underneath her, sending her to the ground. She pushed herself up on her palms and twisted her body around, coming face to face with a hulking, middle-aged brute clutching her ankle in his hand.
Suddenly, the corners of the man’s lips curled downwards, his eyes rolled gently back into his head, and his body flopped onto the frozen earth below. The intruder freed her leg from her comatose captor’s meaty fingers and turned towards the window. There stood Regina, stilled by the violence of the moment, holding the intruder’s bloodied iron lever by her side.
“I’m impressed!” the intruder blurted out. “And sincerely grateful, of course.”
“Will he be alright?” Regina asked nervously. “It wasn’t my intention to kill him.”
“He’ll be fine. I’m sure of it. Though he does have a rather large bulge growing on the back of his head, doesn’t he? I’m sure it’s nothing. Just a little — oh my, no, that’s not a scratch at all. Well, I think perhaps this would be an ideal time to depart! Shall we?”
Regina glided through the window and into the intruder’s waiting arms. Together, they made their way to the rear gate, and Regina withdrew a key from her pocket. She looked back over her shoulder one last time at the castle that was now just a house, a house devoured by the growling flames of utopian ambition.
“For what it’s worth, I regret the unkind favor destiny has done you,” the intruder said.
“Fortunately, not all was lost,” Regina replied.
She then pulled a pale blue handkerchief from inside her dress, unwrapped it, and plucked a small sapphire ring from its grasp. The intruder breathed a heavy, disapproving sigh.
“So in the last few moments you were given to take whatever you could carry, that is what you chose to retrieve? I’m not quite sure what to say. Are such treasures really worth that much to you? Can you honestly claim that the envy of strangers ever brought you the satisfaction you so desperately crave?”
Regina gently tilted her head towards the sky, and at the edge of her eye, the unmistakable glint of an iced-over tear signaled her nostalgic distress.
“Ah, so this particular treasure — this one is different,” the intruder guessed. “This one actually means something to you, doesn’t it?”
“This was a gift, much like the amulet in your pocket,” Regina began. “My husband gave it to me on the anniversary of our first romantic rendezvous. The very next morning, he left for the Americas. I had pleaded with him to stay. He was a hardy man with good instincts and a steel will, but I could hear the warnings in the winds that swirled around us as we embraced each other one last time before his departure. I knew something would go wrong. I knew he wouldn’t come back.”
“And that ring was the last thing he gave you. That’s why you chose to rescue it instead of the glassy rock from Italy. My dear Regina, it would seem that I was wrong about you! You do indeed understand the value of a thing. That ring is worth far more than any of the treasures you left behind. I’m relieved that you saved it. You made the right choice.”
“But now what? Where are we to go? What are we — am I — to do? I’ve lost everything. My husband is gone, likely forever, and my home is a smoking pile of ash. I have nothing left but this ring, the clothes on my back…”
“And me. You have me. Come with me, and together we will explore every corner of this continent, gather new trinkets and treasures along the way, and anchor them to the people, places, and stories that make a thing worth something to the world. It will be a most marvelous adventure! Of that, I can assure you.”
“It is decided, then. I will place my trust in you, inadvisable as that may be. But first, might I have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
“And spoil the mystery of the moment? I think not. You’ll have to earn that pleasure first, and it should prove a very interesting story!”