This story is a sequel to After the Secret, which is in turn a sequel to Unburdening the Soul.
For Stollhofen125, because she asked for it in a review.
The opinions held by the characters in this story are not necessarily those of the author.
Victoria stood, unmoving for a moment, at the edge of the plaza outside the building that was known to everybody in town as Dr. Hernandez's office. She had just been released from a physical to make sure her health, as well as that of the baby she carried, was as sound as it had been before her attempted hanging by Ignacio DeSoto, the former Alcalde of Los Angeles. Dr. Hernandez's office outside of the pueblo was located to the side of his personal house, three miles to the west, and frequently visited by the farmers and peasants who lived on the outskirts of the territory surrounding the pueblo. His children, now grown with children of their own, were also frequent visitors of the office, where expensive and highly alluring medical gadgets could be found at every turn. Victoria had often heard Hernandez muttering about how he found his medical instruments in very inappropriate places after a visit from his grandchildren. Yet, the twinkle that glinted in his eyes while he told such stories in her tavern indicated how much he truly cherished those visits by his grandchildren, whether he complained about those exuberant children or not.
Thoughts of Dr. Hernandez's grandchildren led her to contemplate children in general, and she couldn't help but think of her own plight as the hot breeze scoured the entire plaza and rifled her hair across her back. Dust devils and tiny, dirty currents of air moved just as languidly as the peasants crossed the plaza on this market morning, one week after Alcalde Ignacio DeSoto had almost hanged her and had been unceremoniously thrown out of town for his troubles. One week after Zorro's unmasking due to that hanging, due to a threat to her life as well as to the life of the unborn child that she was carrying even now...
Remembering the threat to her child led Victoria to contemplate her own strange set of circumstances. One week before, she had almost been dangling from the Alcalde's gallows' rope, and if not for Diego de la Vega...
Her thoughts paused there as she remembered the events leading up to that almost-hanging; Diego had pulled her aside the day his brother had died, had whispered the most extraordinary things to her - that he was Zorro in secret, that for years he had visited her in her kitchen, had caressed her, kissed her, secretly loved her, year after year after year after year... For four long years he had remained silent as to his affection for her, but that day he had just as deliberately divulged everything.
That confession had led to her astonishment, to her anger over his protracted silence until he had explained his overwhelming fear that her temper would prove too much after such a confession. That confession of his had been followed by her relenting, her gentleness towards him, then to ecstatic, long-denied lovemaking in her room... which in turn had led to her present predicament. She may love Diego with a strength and intensity that always amazed her, but the child that they had created without the bonds of a socially accepted marriage between the two of them was as equally as irrefutable. Victoria wondered how Diego's father, Don Alejandro, was taking the news that he was going to be a grandfather before he had been the father of the groom at a wedding. He had been barraging Diego with his desire for grandchildren for years, but Victoria doubted that he had ever anticipated the heralding of a baby before the revelation of Diego's marriage. Even the presence of the engagement ring that rested around the third finger of her right hand didn't guarantee that hoped-for wedding. Diego, unmasked before the citizens of the entire town in order to save her from the hanging that Ignacio DeSoto had promised, had yet to say anything about getting married, and Victoria was surreptitiously growing worried herself about his intentions.
Worrying and wondering made her automatically turn and take several steps towards the tiny mission church that had always been a safe, secure haven to her in the past. But now, Victoria wasn't quite sure that the religious institution was prepared to welcome a woman such as she was rumored to have become back into its theological embrace. She unconsciously squared her shoulders, feeling a certainty that she had nothing but genuine affection to be ashamed of, and who in their right mind would be ashamed of the sincere feelings of love such that she had been enjoying since Diego's unveiling? But the thoughts of her specific concern were so strong that she found herself entering the building without further mental inquisition.
She walked slowly, feeling the strangeness of her uncovered hair fluttering in the unseen breeze that wafted through the sanctuary. Another woman, the wife of a Los Angeles merchant, gave her a curious stare as she slowly walked up the aisle. Victoria ignored the look, as she had grown used to such expressions, as the citizens had often cast their furtive glances at her as they crowded into her tavern to see if the woman known to be carrying the child of the man who was Zorro was going to disintegrate for welcoming such an unforgivable transgression as their previous padres had assured was doomed to happen, or if she would go untouched. Victoria would have normally scoffed at such suspicions, except that she wasn't sure herself; was she cursed to burn up in a cloud of smoke, as the padres had promised, or had that always been the story that had been circulated so that a marriage was more of a certainty? Victoria wasn't sure of the reasons behind the church doctrine even now.
The merchant's wife let herself out the door to the mission,
and Victoria found herself alone with the fluttering candles and
her unanswered questions. Then, coming from the back of the
sanctuary, Padre Benitez appeared like a fog from his own
church's prayer candles. He was just suddenly there, but
Victoria didn't know what to think about the scrutinizing look on
his face as he gazed at her.
Can I help you, my child? he
asked in his gravelly, almost whispery, voice.
I don't know, Victoria confessed as she placed her
fingers on the back of a pew.
I don't even know if I'm
supposed to be in here.
That statement seemed to take Benitez by surprise. He
started on his way down the aisle in order to meet her.
do you mean? You are always welcome here.
Even now? asked Victoria.
Even if you know
that..? Then she remembered that the padre had been part of
the crowd that had been present at Diego's unmasking. She
couldn't, or wouldn't, finish her inquiry, then.
Benitez watched her.
Even if I know... what? They
stared at each other when Victoria didn't help him by answering
his question. Then he seemed to understand as comprehension
dawned across his features.
Oh, do you mean because...
because you and... and...
Diego, Victoria finished for him.
Diego and I are going to be parents, whether we're married or
How do you feel about that, my child? Padre Benitez
The question wasn't an odd one, but one that nobody had thought to ask before now. Even Diego had not had time to inquire as to her thoughts on the subject of their state of impending parenthood. They had always been surrounded by other people, or Diego had been busy either on his way to San Pedro to see that the previous Alcalde boarded a ship bound for Spain, or at home, trying to catch up on his lost sleep, or discussing the situation with his father. He hadn't had time to do more than briefly visit her to make certain she had positively weathered the experience of her almost-hanging.
What do I think? Victoria repeated, sounding slightly
amazed at the question.
I don't quite know what to think.
Mostly, I'm wondering myself, and full of questions and
Concerns? asked the priest.
What are you
concerned about? Besides the obvious?
Well, began Victoria, but then she stopped.
allowed to mention them now? she asked suspiciously.
Padre Benitez sighed, then smiled kindly.
you're 'allowed to,' my daughter. There's no one here who wants
to judge you, he informed.
Victoria was still suspicious.
That's not what I was
always told, she informed right back.
Once more came the padre's sigh. Now his exhalation of
breath sounded tired.
What were you always told? That you
would disappear in a fire if you had relations with a man before
the bonds of a marriage?
Victoria closed her eyes, then nodded to confirm the
priest's words. To her surprise, Benitez chuckled at her
That's what I thought.
That's not what will happen?
Benitez smiled again.
What do you think?
Victoria stared at him, then replied,
I told you; I don't
know what to think.
Suddenly, Padre Benitez scrunched his eyes together in a
Do you want to Confess?
Confess? Victoria sounded surprised. 'Confession'
denoted acknowledged wrongdoing, and though Victoria knew that,
according to her particular religion, she had undeniably done
something wrong, she wasn't entirely convinced of her
accountability on a personal level.
No, I don't have anything
to Confess at this time, but I would like to talk to someone.
Anyone, she whispered then in a tone that resembled the one
the priest often heard in the confines of Confession.
Perhaps this conversation was more of a Confession than she
intended it to be.
Talk? he parroted.
What would you
like to talk about? he invited, coming up beside her now.
Victoria was silent as Padre Benitez settled down on the pew in front of her.
Yes? he prodded, trying to encourage her to
Victoria sat as well, and gripped the wood of the pew before
Are you sure you're ready for this? she asked,
You sound so much like Diego when you
say that, he informed.
Did you know that you have become
more and more like him in the last weeks?
This information surprised Victoria. She hadn't spoken to
any observer long enough in the past days for that person to
divulge such a thing.
No. Though it makes sense that we
should adapt each other's habits. Then she continued to
stare at the religious man before her, assessing his ability to
handle uncomfortable truths. At last, appeased, she reclined
against the back of the pew she had chosen to sit in.
right, she said, starting in a strong, though hushed, voice.
She would have sounded reverent only two months before. But now,
too much had happened for unquestioning reverence.
truth of the situation. Diego is the masked bandit known as
Zorro. A year ago, he proposed marriage to me, and I accepted
even before I knew who he was. Then, a month or so ago, after
the end of Emissary Risendo's reign of terror in the pueblo,
Diego felt pushed by the recent events to reveal the truth about
himself and his secret identity to both Don Alejandro and
myself. Here, Victoria blushed just the slightest bit.
tried to resist him, I really did. But Diego was... She
grinned at the memory.
His unmasking to me was beyond
anything I had previously been faced with... Her smile
widened until the expression of happiness lit her eyes to blaze
in the dim candlelight.
I was a fool to think that I could
ever resist him. I had loved him for so long, and we had refused
each other so much over the years... Victoria halted, then
sighed in complete relaxation at the memory.
Padre Benitez shook his head, though he, too, grinned.
Well, I won't pretend with you, my dear. There will be many
who disagree with your chosen actions...
The joy disappeared.
I dare anyone to say that to my
face, Victoria interjected acrimoniously.
Benitez sighed again.
Few have that kind of courage, I
predict, he admitted.
But, in this type of situation as
you find yourself in, we must consider the religious convictions
as well as the extenuating circumstances. Now, please try to
keep a hold on your temper as I speak; I may or may not agree
with everything I say. The facts of life may not be much to your
liking, but I feel I should consider them, for the sake of the
Victoria thought about his words, then nodded.
right, I think I'm ready.
Again came that smile. He shifted thoughtfully against his
seat. Then, he began again,
Victoria, it's no secret that
I've wished for years for you to marry... You have so much love
to give to a husband, children... You even attempted to marry
once, if I recall, before I knew of your love for Diego...
Victoria nodded. But the priest before her sighed sadly.
That was bad advice, I have to say, Benitez said then.
Victoria appeared surprised at the admittance from the
priest before her, but Benitez was going on,
You love Zorro..
uh, Diego. It's part of the legend that Zorro has become in the
pueblo, part of who you are... who he is... It comes to mind
immediately every time I enter the tavern, I admit... And now, I
learn that Diego has asked you to marry him, and that you have
accepted... He sighed once more.
But his fight for
justice seemed doomed to continue for the unforeseeable future...
I wondered at the time if the two of you were ever going to be
free to marry and have a life together. But a life apart was
unfathomable... Padre Benitez wriggled again, then went on,
I'm sorry, my daughter. That's all I can say.
Victoria looked puzzled.
Sorry for what?
For not giving you the benefit of the doubt, Benitez
began, and now sounded wholly regretful.
For not seeing the
genuine affection the two of you have always held for each
other. Now, he cast his eyes down to his knees.
allowing accepted conventions to be the judge for your behavior
when you at last discovered his identity, for... Benitez
... for not telling you of that identity
when I first learned of it after I advised you to marry someone
This admission fully astounded Victoria.
she blurted accusingly, before she could better modulate her
You've known for..?
Yes, since that near-marriage of yours. The padre
I promised not to tell, but yes, I knew. I've
known for years.
Victoria felt faint, but she didn't know if that was caused
by his news, or by her pregnancy.
You knew? she
And you didn't tell me?
Benitez appeared contrite now.
Diego made me promise not
to tell either you or his father. He was so certain that the
truth would lead only to your deaths... His arguments were most
persuasive, Benitez divulged.
Victoria grinned somewhat sourly at that statement.
I know how persuasive his arguments can be.
Benitez grinned, too, his gesture even more ghostly than
Yes, I bet you do. Then, he went on,
nothing but a different realm of existence... but he wanted so
much more for you, for his father, for his family...
Victoria sat unmoving, too stunned again to do anything but
stare before her.
I can't believe you knew, she whispered
in an aggrieved tone of voice.
I can't believe you didn't
The padre smiled wistfully.
Like I said, I made a
promise, and I had so little left to me at the time... She
looked at him, confused.
I had only given bad advice to you
before, Benitez explained.
I had advised Diego's one true
love to marry someone else, to basically ruin his one hope for a
future... It took him a long time to regain his sense of faith
Victoria drew in a breath.
I never knew that, she
So you see, Benitez breathed,
I owe you both so
much on a personal level, that I find it hard now to condemn you
on a purely religious plane.
She was still so stunned that she could do nothing but stare some more.
Benitez smiled sadly once again.
Yes, I knew, he
said, correctly interpreting her expression.
And now, you
know, too. And you're openly engaged. You're carrying his
child. Ignacio DeSoto is no longer the Alcalde of the
pueblo. He sighed, the sound of his breath ringing around
the otherwise empty room.
The King of Spain will not look
favorably on the return of the man whom he had appointed being
summarily hounded out of town, but what DeSoto tried to do to you
was... um... cruel, he finally decided upon in some
I doubt that Ferdinand will have the manpower
to retaliate, however, he predicted.
At least, not for
No, not with this war with France, Victoria said, and
had to admit that it was the first time she was glad for the
diversion of a war with Spain's neighbor to act as a conflict in
her personal affairs.
Zorro may be finally unmasked, but I
highly doubt he will face any kind of governmental
That's what I've been telling Diego, but he finds it
difficult to hear anything he doesn't outright agree
Again, Victoria was stunned.
You've seen Diego?
He's been in the mission to talk
practically every day since the unmasking, he announced.
He comes through the back way, of course, so no one will see
him and hound him with questions about Zorro... I don't know if
you know or not... he's so good at hiding his emotions... But I
think you should know that he's terrified by the prospect of
capture at this late date. That's why he hasn't married you yet.
If he remains unmarried, he has a hope, no matter how slim, of
convincing an avenging official to overlook you. But a wife
could not be kept a secret so easily.
Victoria again appeared almost stunned to speechlessness.
He's terrified? she whispered.
The padre nodded in affirmation.
He's certain that
Ferdinand will respond, Benitez informed.
Victoria squirmed on the hard bench.
I never knew,
He didn't tell me.
Of course he didn't, my child, Benitez consoled.
He couldn't. He tried, but he couldn't
He came by for a visit one night, Victoria said.
He asked about my general health, how I was feeling.
And all I could do was demand when I would
see him the next time, so sure that such furtiveness as we had
known in the past would be over, and dismayed to see that it
The priest smiled kindly at her, regretfully.
So he told
me. Yet, what more could he do? He stayed away, then, while he
could, and has been waiting this last week, hoping that the
retribution he predicted would come at a time that he could
ensure your safety. It was the only thing he would allow himself
to do... for months, if he had to.
Victoria looked like she was ready to cry, her eyes were so
He never said a thing... she reported, dazed.
Padre Benitez shook his head then.
Yes, I expect it will
take some time for him to learn to trust others with sensitive
information such as this. He has to learn that to trust in
others is the only way for him to share his burdens. His
response to my advice was to say that to share his burdens meant
more than he was prepared to give, so he chose to remain
Oh, my God, said Victoria in a whisper.
Alone. Yes, Padre Benitez said.
I think that's
the way he like things to be. He sighed as he considered.
It's certainly what he's used to.
Victoria sat, unmoving, eyes as wide as her dinner plates.
Benitez went on,
So, I can hardly be condemning in this
case, he said.
As you know, our religion prescribes
abstinence until marriage, but... Diego is already under so many
troubles. Self-imposed troubles, to be sure, but troubles
nonetheless. I feel almost compelled not to add the judgment of
propriety to his mind.
Victoria's stunned whisper interrupted him.
I have to
talk to him, make him understand...
If you can do that, then you are able to do more than I
can do, the padre said.
However, if anyone can do such a
thing, I believe that you can.
Victoria's head jerked up so that her eyes could confront
Why is that? she asked.
Diego loves you. It's as clear as the
ringing of my bell on a cold day. He went on, then, after he
took hold of both of her hands.
He only stayed away from you
in order to ensure your safety. That kind of sacrifice after all
that he's put himself through demands forgiveness that neither I
nor the pueblo's citizens can give him. But you can, he
said, and meaningfully eyed Victoria.
How can I condemn such
a man for actions intended to be so good? Then he added,
No matter the consequences.
A look of sheer determination wormed its way across
Victoria's features. But before she could speak, the padre
However, that kind of talk doesn't help you in the
least. I think I've added to your sorrows again, and for that, I
am truly sorry. And he did sound wretched in the extreme.
But the facts of your situation, my daughter... Now, he
I'm afraid that's all people will look at
because that's all of the situation that they will know.
Victoria appeared more thoughtful as her mind again turned
to her reason for even being in the mission on that bright, hot,
morning. Agreeing, she was forced to roll her eyes in her
equitable belief in his words.
Yes, we can hardly deny the
The facts? Benitez squeezed both her hands.
reputed love unmasked himself. You couldn't deny feelings that
had been gradually building, but had been put on hold, strangled,
shall we say, but never fully denied, for years. You
understandably gave in and made love. Now, you have the evidence
of those emotions that you've always had for each other. It's an
open and shut case, as our former Alcalde was fond of saying, but
there's so much more to it than what we all know. His eyes
Yet, you should anticipate the rejection of
the people for awhile, he advised.
They only know certain
things, and they can and will judge you according to what they
I understand, said Victoria with a nod of her head.
But compared to what the padre had divulged about Diego, it
seemed a small, petty price to pay instead of suffering the
hardships he was undergoing even now. He may be exercising those
hardships on himself without telling her about them, but she
planned to defend their previous choices as much as she could.
It seemed the least she could do in the situation, the least she
could do for him.
Victoria, Benitez interrupted her thoughts then.
There are those who will want me to shun you both for this,
who will expect me to look poorly on you. But I find that I just
can't. He shook his head again.
I know I'm supposed to,
according to the teachings that I preach every week, according to
the book I venerate, according to the theology I represent...
Then he stopped to emphasize his comments.
But I won't. As
long as I am the priest of Los Angeles, you will always be
welcomed here. That's one thing you can depend on, at
Victoria took in his words, comprehended their import, and
smiled her gratitude.
Thank you, she said, and she
squeezed his fingers.
It's a small repayment for all the times that Diego has
come to the defense of the pueblo's citizens as Zorro, and in the
future, I plan to preach on the subject of forgiveness, but who
knows... Perhaps I will be heeded, perhaps not.
Again Victoria gave a squeeze.
Thank you, Padre, and
thank you from the baby. Your refusal to condemn its parents
will be remembered forever, she promised.
Suddenly, Padre Benitez's expression became one far more
curious that contrite.
How are you feeling, anyway, my
Feeling? Victoria was confused again. She thought
he meant how was she feeling about all that he had said.
You're pregnant, said the priest in explanation.
We can't forget what a miracle of the Lord a baby is, but we
also can't deny that it brings along a peculiar brand of...
symptoms.., he said.
Victoria grinned in understanding.
I'm fine, she
I just came from seeing the doctor. Diego
convinced me to go for a physical after Alcalde DeSoto... Dr.
Hernandez says I'm as healthy as a horse.
As strong as Toronado? Benitez inquired in sudden
Yes, she answered.
Benitez smiled back at her grin.
That will be a relief
to Diego. He worries about you, you know.
Victoria's grin turned more sour as she sarcastically
I'm beginning to see that Diego worries about a
great many things. She stood up to leave the sanctuary.
Benitez followed her lead.
Something we'll have to cure
him of, he said.
Subtly, of course, Victoria agreed with a
The padres' eyebrows lifted.
Of course, he
Victoria grinned as her brown eyes followed the priest's progress back up the aisle to whatever task her arrival in the church had interrupted. In another moment, she found herself completely alone for the first time in a week.
Victoria breathed in the silence, understanding why Diego sought it so often. It wrapped around her like a soothing blanket. It always promised to be understanding. That sense of a complete lack of judgment was very addictive, she admitted before following the padre up the aisle and slipping down the corridor on her way to the outside herb garden and its private bench that offered a brief respite from the citizen's curious stares that awaited her in the tavern. She happily told herself that she wanted to stay away from the bustling, noisy, tavern, for just a few more minutes. Then, she promised herself, she would return to work. But she wanted to think about all that she had learned, first, and to do that, she needed the quiet and promise of not being interrupted that the church sanctuary just couldn't offer.
But it's garden could.
And so, she stared toward the horizon and the clear, blue sky, thinking. The citizens of Los Angeles went about the important business of setting up the morning market, but she sat on the lone bench in the mission's back herb garden, completely ignored, completely undisturbed, and completely alone. Yet, Victoria did not feel lonely as she sat, considering Diego, the padre, Don Alejandro, Felipe, the baby... The bustle of activity went on around her, but she remained still and silent on the bench, deeply lost in thought.
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