A/N: Thanks to mmkbrook, KatieZfan, and DonDonJuan for being such wonderful betas!
A/N2: Every person who has read this story so far claims it to be a very silly and unbelievable story at first. Their advice to readers has universally been to suspend your disbelief and keep reading. It's a short short story, so your disbelief will not have to be suspended for long:)
Zorro got the surprise of his life when he and Toronado returned to the cave after capturing the Corvolo Gang. They had been gone half the night, first tracking the gang to their camp site, then following them to the Destano ranch, where he caught them trying rather unsuccessfully to steal a bunch of cattle. After a little wrestling, a few punches, a brief sword fight that almost kept him from growing bored, Zorro rounded up his prey and left them tied up outside the cuartel in Los Angeles - nobody even knew he was there.
Except now when he was finally free to return home, it was only to find that the real work of that night was calmly sitting at his desk, patiently waiting for him to appear. However, who was doing that calm waiting made him feel far from calm:
It was Ignacio de Soto who sat at his desk, fiddling with a pen while closely watching him sit, stunned, on Toronado in the cave's single stall. That feather quill the Alcalde had been idly playing with fell to the desk upon Zorro's sudden entrance. Fortunately, the Alcalde had dropped it on a piece of scratch paper, so when it splattered ink everywhere, it didn't make a mess except on the paper.
Yet Zorro was still too stunned to feel any emotion at the careless gesture. He was too stunned to do much of anything except gape at his visitor.
de Soto rose to his feet, and in response to the unexpected motion, Zorro fell as much as lowered himself from the tooled leather saddle to the cave's stone floor, where he could fight more easily if he had to. He instantly missed having Toronado's animalistic support nevertheless.
de Soto spoke as soon as Zorro gained his feet, though what he said was just as bewildering as his presence in what was supposed to be a secret hideaway. “I apologize about the mess,” he said, oddly amiable.
What? The Alcalde, apologizing?! Zorro never expected to hear that! But before he could think of anything intelligent to say that might be construed as a response to that banal statement, de Soto rounded the desk. “I'm also sorry to intrude on your secret... place,” and he looked to the cave's ceiling as well as the laboratory fronting the desk, taking in everything with a practiced eye. “... but I need to talk with you. May I... sit?” And he gestured at a stool pulled near the work table.
Stunned anew at de Soto's friendly manner, Zorro noted that as he rounded the desk, de Soto clearly had no visible weapons on him. He'd probably performed the action just so Zorro would realize this very thing. Instead of putting Zorro at ease, however, this only heightened his awareness that no obvious weapons could only mean that de Soto had weapons hidden somewhere on his person; he was clearly planning some diabolical scheme yet to be disclosed.
Not to mention, there was the point as to why and specifically how de Soto even knew about this cave's existence. How long had he known? Why was he here? Now that he was here, did he plan to arrest Zorro and hang him before the night was through? Zorro clung to Toronado's saddle, his head reeling with the endless possibilities.
Despite his reeling mind, Zorro moved slowly into a position where he could spring onto the famous stallion's back at a moment's notice in case they had to run for their lives. But until that moment arrived, his endless curiosity was getting the better of him, and felt himself softening toward this friendly de Soto the longer he was in the cave; Zorro discovered a surprising willingness in himself to hear what this audacious Alcalde had to say. “You've got my attention; I'm listening.”
The Alcalde gestured towards the desk. “Wouldn't you be more comfortable sitting down? What I have to say might take awhile.”
Zorro paused, his blue eyes suspiciously trained on his long time enemy. “If it's all the same to you, I prefer to stay right where I am. But I'll warn you: Toronado doesn't much care for anyone invading his personal space like this. It makes him jumpy.”
Ironically enough, The Alcalde laughed. “You too, no doubt.”
Zorro shrewdly eyed him a second time. “Perhaps,” was all he said.
de Soto shrugged, and moved to the stool. “Suit yourself.” Then in an exaggerated manner, he held out first one side of the plain linen coat he wore, then the other, sat, then took off each boot, upturned it, flipped up his pant legs, put each boot back on, then pulled up the sleeves of his ruffled shirt.
“What are you doing?” Zorro mistrustfully asked, wondering if this was the prelude to some strange Madrid disrobing ceremony that he hadn't heard about.
de Soto sounded almost bored when he answered, “I'm showing you that I don't have any hidden weapons up my sleeves... or in my boots... or my pant legs... or in my coat. I come in peace, I assure you, but knowing you, you won't believe me if I tell you that, so I'm showing you.”
Still cautious, but feeling better about this unexpected visitor the more that man didn't reveal, Zorro almost relaxed. “How did you get in here?”
“Through the back door,” de Soto revealed. “You did an incredible job at hiding it - it took me almost a year before I had a clue as to where it even was. And that pulley system...” He pointed to the pulleys that opened and closed the back door. “Ingenious! I spent the first fifteen minutes I was here just studying it.” His gaze centered again on Zorro. “But I must talk to you, and this is the most secure place I can think of.” He crossed his legs, a feat on the small stool he occupied, but the new position showed how at ease he was.
Zorro wasn't at ease at all, despite the Alcalde's compliments to the cave. The easy movement only made him more distrustful. “What do you want?”
de Soto seemed uncaring of Zorro's evident suspicion, almost as if he had anticipated it. “I don't blame you for being somewhat ill at ease,” he soothed. “I would be too, were I in your position. But I don't have the time to do much about calming you, besides saying that I know where Señorita Escalante sleeps, and could have arrested her at any time over the last years, but I haven't. And I'm not here to arrest you, either.”
That disclosure hardly boosted Zorro's confidence. “Then why are you here?”
“To talk to you, just like I said.”
“Talk is cheap.”
“So it is, so it is. Action always speaks louder than words... eh, Diego?”
The breath automatically caught in Zorro's throat in a loud gasp that as much as confirmed he was who the Alcalde claimed him to be. But then, Zorro was so bamboozled that he didn't even think to try to prevaricate with the Alcalde, and blurted the first thing that came to mind, “You know who I am?”
Ironically again, de Soto chuckled. “Oh, Diego, I've known who you are since before I even arrived in Los Angeles.”
Zorro's eyes practically popped out of his head. “What?”
Once more came that laugh that was fast growing irritating. “Calm down, Diego. I told you that I have to talk to you, and I do. Now please, sit. You'll be much more comfortable.”
Zorro's eyes receded back into his head, then narrowed in anger. “I don't want to sit. Explain yourself.”
de Soto sighed. “Again, suit yourself. But I assure you...”
“You can assure me all you want, but that doesn't explain just what you want.”
The gust of air that hissed out of de Soto's mouth illustrated his quickly eroding patience. “I said that all I want to do is talk. I've showed you that I'm unarmed. I'm sitting here on a stool, leaving the best seat in your... what do you call this place? Your secret lair? I'm leaving the best seat for you. What else can I do to convince you that I'm serious?”
Zorro's eyes clouded over with his lack of trust until they were as sharp as the blade of his sword. “I've been fighting you for over two years, you've done nothing but take advantage of the poor people of Los Angeles, you've gone out of your way to show how you look down on anyone suspected of being provincial... and you expect me to do a complete turnaround at a moment's notice simply because you say 'I come in peace - trust me?'” Zorro shook his head. “I don't think so.”
The Alcalde rose from the stool, hands held before him in supplication. “Will you listen if I let you tie me up?”
Still wary, Zorro only gazed at de Soto, and eventually agreed, “I might.”
“Then I surrender,” de Soto instantly said. He clasped his hands together, illustrating his intentions. “If it will help put you at ease, then that's what I'll do.”
Zorro quickly yanked a piece of rope from a peg on the wall and bound the Alcalde's hands. He then secured that rope to a ring on the wall, and bound his feet in the same fashion. Then he moved back to the stall and unsaddled Toronado, though he left his bridle on. He also surreptitiously gave him the 'wait' signal, then left him unfettered and free in his stall. The horse would be able to carry Zorro away if he had to.
When he was done brushing him down, Zorro again faced the imprisoned Alcalde. “If you've made some kind of a trap in here, at least you won't be able to get out of the cave until someone sets you free. Even if I'm dead, you'll have to deal with Toronado.” Zorro grinned a feral grin. “I wouldn't want to be in your boots.”
de Soto gave an aggrieved sigh. “I wish you would just trust me - this would be so much simpler.”
Such a statement didn't persuade Zorro; it only aggravated him. “Alright, talk. If I don't like what you tell me, I'll gag you.”
Thus invited to talk, de Soto didn't waste any time. “I told you that I've known your identity since before I came to this pueblo.”
“So you say.” It was clear by his tone that Zorro didn't believe a word de Soto said.
This didn't deter the Alcalde. “All this time, you've been my assignment.”
That confession gave Zorro pause. “Your assignment? From whom?”
“From King Ferdinand.”
Zorro's suspicion was back. “The king?” His calm look grew more distrustful than calm. “This is insane.”
“It's true. I have the proof in the form of a letter from the king in the breast pocket of my coat. Take a look if you don't believe me.”
de Soto turned his left side towards Zorro, who cautiously reached into the pocket and pulled out a folded piece of parchment. He stepped far away from the Alcalde before unfolding it and reading.
“It bears the King's signature... and his seal,” he said, impressed in spite of himself.
“And the king's water mark,” de Soto added. “It's all legal, I...”
“... assure you,” Zorro finished for him. “Just be quiet while I read.”
The only sound in the cavern for the next several moments was the whuff as Toronado chewed his oats and the bubbling of the many experiments laid out on the work table. “It says here that you work for a secret society called 'The King's Hand.' Why have I never heard of this society?”
de Soto rolled his eyes. “It wouldn't be much of a secret if you'd heard about it, would it?”
Zorro silently conceded that the Alcalde had a point, but he was unwilling to let the man know it. “Why haven't I ever come across this letter before?”
de Soto gave a satisfied half smile. “Because I kept it in a place I knew you would never look.”
“Oh? And where was that?” Sarcasm fairly dripped from his every word.
“Underneath Mendoza's mattress in his room.”
Again, that information made Zorro pause. “You're right - I never had reason to search Mendoza's room. I've only been in there once.” Zorro silently added that it was a wonder he even knew where it was, but didn't divulge that tidbit. He had a reputation for knowing the area like the back of his hand to uphold. He didn't want to ruin it for something as inconsequential as only guessing at the location of Mendoza's quarters.
So he asked a question to distract the Alcalde. “Why was I 'your assignment?'”
de Soto seemed only too glad to talk now that he had decided to do it. “King Ferdinand wasn't sure about your loyalty... about the de la Vegas, I mean. I was sent here to ascertain either your loyalty, or your enmity.”
This surprised Zorro. “My father's always been a loyal supporter of the king. So have I.”
“Yes, well...” de Soto hedged. “Your family does appear to be loyal... but Don Alejandro is very vocal about antigovernment dogma, you must admit that.”
“Antigovernment dogma?” Zorro questioned incredulously. “He supports the government of Spain, just not you! As do I!”
de Soto continued his explanation as if Zorro's outburst hadn't happened. “Like I said, the king wasn't entirely certain about your family...or about Zorro, for that matter.”
Zorro gave a double take. “Zorro's known to oppose the greedy Alcaldes of Los Angeles, not Spain. He hasn't shown any political leanings one way or another.”
“I've heard you say more than once that you protect the people against the excesses of the government,” de Soto instantly argued.
Zorro just as instantly argued back, “I protect the people against the excesses of the military, not the government!”
“The military is the government, especially out here.”
Zorro opened his mouth to further argue his point, but couldn't deny that what the Alcalde said was true. He snapped his mouth shut on the protests that he wanted to make, and instead ground out, “So you were told to watch us.”
“And to capture Zorro, if possible, since I was going to be in Los Angeles anyway.” He eyed the black of Zorro's outfit. “The king wasn't convinced that Zorro was an unimportant bandit in a backwater pueblo of a glorious empire. No matter how benevolent his intentions seemed to be, it was safer to immobilize him than ignore him.” de Soto gave his barking laugh. “However, capturing Zorro proved to be much harder to do than to say.” The admiration he was feeling showed on his face. “Truly Diego, I never expected you to be so clever!"
Instead of being mollified by this compliment, Zorro's glare intensified. “Why did I never have an inkling of any of this?”
While Zorro glared, de Soto merely arched his brow. “Remember, Diego, you're not the only one in this pueblo who can act.”
For a minute, Zorro simply stared in incomprehension at the Alcalde, a cold shiver of dread washing over him. “What do you mean?” Did he mean... he had been acting all this time?
de Soto twisted his wrists tethered so successfully to the wall. “The sword fights... the blackberries... the almost hangings... All that was of no more importance than it turned the people against me enough to make you really dislike me, which is what I wanted. I could do any crazy thing without consequences because I knew you would stop me.”
Zorro cringed; people had almost lost their lives! If that was 'no consequences,' then he wondered what filled de Soto's consequential criteria?
As Zorro thought, the Alcalde continued, “I also knew I had to watch Don Alejandro, and you, and even that servant boy of yours - anybody who might grow sloppy and give me any information about where your true loyalties lay.”
The Alcalde had the grace to appear guilty as he stated, “Yes, that's what I eventually learned.”
Zorro made a move of supreme aggravation, then checked his obvious anger. “Our loyalty was questioned, you spied on us - why, for heaven's sake?”
de Soto had a reason ready for just such a question. “Like I said, I was fairly certain about your family. But I had to be absolutely certain. The king was facing mortal enemies in the mother country - he didn't need any more enemies in the colonies. It was my job to winnow out those potential enemies and dispose of them as I saw fit.”
Zorro noticed that the Alcalde had artfully talked around his question rather than answering it even as he drew his sword in one furious movement and replied, “I would never have just stood back while you..!”
“Easy, Diego!” de Soto stepped as far from Zorro's famous Toledo blade as his rope bonds would allow. “I'm only telling you about my assignment - nothing ever happened!”
“And it won't - I'll see to it!”
“Yes, you always do an admirable job of keeping the pueblo under control.”
Zorro actually stumbled while staring at the Alcalde as if struck by lightening. He blinked, so completely bamboozled by that statement that his brain went numb. Did the Alcalde mean..? Was de Soto..? An accusatory gleam lit Zorro's eye. “You used me.” The whisper sliced through the surrounding darkness. “You used me to keep the peace while you... you...” He couldn't vocalise his suspicions.
“No,” the Alcalde corrected. “I used your sword. You just happened to be the one wielding it.”
Zorro was still so sucker punched that he couldn't respond.
“Again, I'm not telling you anything that you haven't already read about in my letter from the king.” de Soto smoothed his goatee with one restrained hand, his eyes trained on Zorro's unmoving sword that he had let fall to his side in his befuddlement. “So that's Sir Edmond's championship saber,” de Soto commented while gazing at the hilt in rapt admiration. “I've only ever seen it sheathed at your side, or coming close to plow me in the face. I've never actually looked at it properly.”
Zorro's sense of suspicion was instantly on the alert. “How do you know about Sir Edmond Kendall or his sword?” He was affronted that a man like de Soto had even uttered his fight master's name.
de Soto actually laughed at him. “Of course I know about Sir Edmond! I thought you knew!”
Zorro was skeptical again. “Knew what?”
The Alcalde gazed at him incredulously. “You mean I did that good of a job at changing my fighting style?”
Zorro eyed him in puzzlement. “Changing your style?”
de Soto eyed him right back as if he thought Zorro was supremely dull-witted. “You and I went to the same university. We had the same professors. We even took some of the same classes.”
The truth suddenly bit Zorro like a giant bug. “You took saber lessons from Sir Edmond.”
The smile on the Alcalde's face affirmed the statement. “You and I might not have been close the one year we were both at the University of Madrid, but I knew some of the same students you knew. Our fellow students and I wrote letters, kept in touch at Christmas, gossiped...”
A second backpedal put some much needed distance between Zorro and the sudden, horrifying truth. “You knew ahead of time that I'd won Sir Edmond's sword.”
The Alcalde merely arched an eyebrow.
“That's how you knew that I was... am...”
“Zorro... yes.” de Soto shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “My predecessor...”
“... knew nothing,” was the firm reply.
“Yes, yes, yes, he didn't know...”
“He wouldn't have known a rock if it hit him in the head.” It was the most unkind thing that Zorro had said about anybody. “If it wasn't to his direct financial advantage, then he ignored it, including the pueblo's citizens... unless he could entertain himself by being needlessly cruel to them.”
“Which is where you stepped in,” de Soto finished for him. When Zorro didn't add anything more, he divulged, “That's what initially caught the king's attention.”
Again Zorro's eyes narrowed. “And that means..?”
The Alcalde's eyes narrowed as well. “Luis Ramone was far from silent as to who he thought was Zorro. He frequently sent reports to King Ferdinand, speculating on Zorro's identity.” de Soto thoughtfully rubbed his goatee once more. “Ramone knew that Zorro had to be a caballero, just not which one.”
It was Zorro's turn to arch an eyebrow. “Oh? And what made him think Zorro was a caballero?”
This made de Soto cackle. “Really, Diego, are you that slow?”
Zorro glared. “I am not slow, and I would appreciate if you didn't say that I am!”
The Alcalde heaved a sigh of resignation before going on. “Zorro always showed up in the nick of time to save whoever needed saving, so Ramone knew that Zorro lived in the area, probably in a secret lair or barn or cave of some kind.” He pointedly glanced around the cave, continuing, “Ramone couldn't figure out where it was, so instead he concentrated on finding out how Zorro gained information that he shouldn't know.”
Zorro remained silent, determined not to give away all his secrets.
“Fine.” de Soto gave his eyes another roll, as if not agreeing with the bandit's need to keep things confidential, but not willing to expend the energy necessary to uncover the truth, either. “Keep your blasted secrets, you outlaw. Where was I?”
“At things Zorro shouldn't know,” Zorro helpfully supplied.
“Ah, yes. In order to act on those things so quickly, Zorro had to come from nearby, somewhere that allowed him to have the freedom to act. The only people with the kind of time on their hands to spy and set up some kind of secret lair are part of the elite. Zorro also had plenty of tricks made from items that aren't common in nature, meaning they weren't cheap, so he had to come from a moneyed family in order to afford them.”
“Is that so?”
The Alcalde just hemmed his reply, not rising to Zorro's bait of disbelief. “So he knew Zorro had to be a caballero. But which one?”
“Indeed.” Zorro's sense of disbelief rose another notch.
“Thinking he was a caballero considerably narrowed the field. Add to that list only the caballeros who have mustaches... who are tall... blue-eyed... Fighting ability is what stumped him.”
“I'm glad something did,” Zorro dryly stated.
A faint smile ghosted across de Soto's face. “You were the obvious choice, but the Diego de la Vega he knew wasn't a fighter... particularly with a sword... only I knew better.” His gaze met Zorro's. “And as you have a questionable parent...”
Zorro corrected him, “I have a parent with a temper, not a questionable one.” He sounded bored from explaining this point.
de Soto shook his head. “Whatever. You came to our attention. I was sent to Los Angeles as a general observer, and to observe Zorro, aka Diego de la Vega.”
Zorro's snort cut through the silence of the cave at night, saying without words what he thought about this plan.
“You were thought to be a bandit bent on obstructing the government. That is rather damning to your loyalty, you have to admit,” the Alcalde argued.
Zorro said nothing to this, either.
“Ramone offered a reward for any information, but no one stepped forward.”
People not letting money speak for them? “I bet that confused the Alcalde to no end,” Zorro sarcastically said.
de Soto ignored his sarcasm. “So when he had the chance, the king sent me out here to see what was going on. And now I know what's going on. And so do you.” He flexed his wrists once more.
There was still one thing Zorro didn't understand, though. “You still haven't told me why you're telling me all this,” he artfully reminded his old schoolmate.
“No, I haven't.” The Alcalde looked down, blew air through his cheeks as if deep in thought, then blurted, “The Mexicans are coming, so I've been recalled.”
Once again Zorro was left behind in the conversation. “What?”
de Soto grimly smiled. “Mexico's an independent nation now. They want California, we don't, so Ferdinand sold it...”
“He sold it?!”
The man's smile grew even more grim. “We can't afford it anymore,” he patiently explained. “We're already fighting the French. Fighting for this miserable piece of... it's too much. So Ferdinand decided not to bother.... and I'm going home.”
“Home?” Zorro's brain was so jumbled with all this unexpected information that he could do nothing but parrot the other man.
“Finally. That is, if you untie me.”
The Alcalde was leaving? Oddly enough, Zorro wasn't as ecstatic at this news as he'd thought he'd be. “You're going then, just like that?”
de Soto nodded once. “Just like that. I know what I need to know, that the de la Vegas are as Spanish as I am, for all the good it will do you when the Mexicans take over the pueblo, and Zorro...” His smile became the gloating one that the man in black was so familiar with. “Zorro is no longer of any consequence. He's Mexico's problem now.” Then de Soto smirked and added, “Or he's Señorita Escalante's problem, that is.”
The effect of the quotation marks he gestured in the air at the word 'problem' left no doubt as to exactly what he thought the Señorita's problem was soon to be.
Zorro's numbed brain sluggishly reached the same conclusion as de Soto - he was in the process of completely losing his temper for the first time ever when the Alcalde stunned away his anger by saying, “Do me a favor, Diego. Tell her. In fact, tell them all. They deserve to know who's been defending them all these years. And you...”
Zorro expected to hear something akin to the remark 'You can go to the devil' but what the Alcalde actually said surprised him again. “You deserve their gratitude, if anyone does. I've kept the lancers relatively untrained in order to aid you however I could... but I could only do so much. The rest was all you.” That unusual expression of appreciation once more ghosted across de Soto's features. “I hereby appoint Don Alejandro to take over as Alcalde of the pueblo... he at least has some experience, I understand, and he's better organized than Mendoza.” He shocked Zorro anew by conspiratorially leaning towards him and admitting, “I think I'll be doing Mendoza a favor by not appointing him as my replacement. He doesn't like being in charge of anything more important than his lancers, or of the Señorita's tamales. I'm telling you this now so you can see that my final wishes are fulfilled - you're honorable if you're anything,” was his last sarcastic comment, as if he just couldn't fathom the necessity for an honorable outlaw.
Zorro's brain was slightly less sluggish than before, but only enough to take in what the Alcalde was saying. A moment later he was again fully bamboozled when de Soto lifted his hands jauntily away from the ropes wound around his wrists, showing how his hands were free of his bonds. “Never trust a Spaniard,” de Soto sagely advised as he leaned over to release his ankles, making easy work of Zorro's complicated knots.
Zorro gawked at him once more, but de Soto ignored his gaping to cavalierly say, “Diego, it's been fun. But I really must leave if I want to avoid the Mexican welcome party.” Then he divulged, “They have a warrant out for the instant hanging of anyone they catch from the Spanish government. And since I don't want to hang any more than you do... I must be off.” And he strode to the lever in the floor that would cause the back door to swing aside and allow him to leave.
Zorro went numb in shock once more. “What?! You're leaving without a ceremony, a speech... nothing?” Slipping away without a big show was hardly like the man that Zorro knew.
de Soto saucily placed two fingers to his forehead and saluted. “This dusty little hovel of a pueblo is yours. I'm going back to Madrid, hopefully to never set eyes on you again.” Just as he reached the depression in the floor, he paused. “Oh, and give my regards to the Señorita.” He grinned his familiar gloating grin again, stepped on the lever, then swept through the back door and into the night as if he'd never existed.
Zorro watched him go, then vaguely heard the clop of a horse's hooves take the man in an Easterly direction, into the desert. But if he at all knew the slippery de Soto, the man would double back towards the coast, catching a ship bound for Spain in who-knew-what port, successfully putting an end to his assignment.
Now that the time was here, Zorro almost felt sorry to see him go... which was just too bizarre. de Soto's going meant a great deal to the pueblo... to Mendoza... to 'The Guardian... to Don Alejandro... to Zorro... to Victoria... to the relationship between Zorro and Victoria...
For the first time, a ghostly thought about Victoria slipped through Zorro's mind. Most notably, he thought about how de Soto's desertion would affect Victoria and her business. That thought led to how it would affect her personally... and that thought led to the way he now had the freedom to be with Victoria... and that meant unmasking, as de Soto had suggested. The fear that always accompanied that prospect roared up to overtake Zorro, but he was able to valiantly beat it down, even in his bamboozled state.
Yet one thing was clear: he would have to think more on this topic... as he would about de Soto's leaving the pueblo. He barely understood what that meant to him beyond having an odd feeling of sadness. After all, he and de Soto were friends... of a sort. Friendly enemies... that's what they were, friendly enemies.
As the cave's back door swung firmly shut once again, another stray thought slipped like a shadow across Zorro's mind: 'keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.'
de Soto was Zorro's one enemy who got away.
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