Diego de la Vega sat, a cold, unmoving, lump of flesh, on the jail cell's single cot. As much as he'd feared, even expected this moment, he was too numb to feel anything about it now. Far too numb.
It had finally happened. The single, most dreaded thing that could have possibly come to pass had occurred. Ignacio DeSoto had won, had led the mighty Zorro off to the Los Angeles cartel with bound hands and no mask. The entire town would know of Zorro's identity by now, that Diego had pretended weakness so he could be the masked legend in secret. But that wasn't the worst of it, not by far the worst.
He'd lost Victoria. Diego was incarcerated, with no hope of escape, and facing certain death according to the noise of the lancers hastily building a gallows in the central plaza. He had also seen the flat emotion in her eyes and on her face when he'd been captured: rejection, and that had been far more painful to live through.
Not only had he seen her rejection, but he'd seen the revulsion she'd felt when the mask had been ripped away by an merciless Ignacio DeSoto. Her feelings were as plain on her face as if she had said the words out loud; there was no way she was in love with her friend, Diego. Why, he was a scholar, a lover of poetry. It didn't matter that he had fought off groups of bandits who highly outnumbered him. It didn't matter that he'd winked at her, complimented her, loved her, while successfully fighting the tyranny of the Spanish rule with only a sword and a bull whip to aid his wit and talent. It didn't matter that he'd kissed her until she couldn't see straight in the kitchen of her tavern for almost five long years while they waited, fairly impatiently, for 'that day' when he could forever remove the mask that kept them apart and marry. The identity hidden from her for all those years had done more to him than DeSoto ever could. The government official had pulled the mask aside after the capture, and Diego had watched her eyes go from expectation to disbelief to horror to loathing in just a few seconds. She hadn't even said anything when the lancers led him away, bound, weaponless, and hopeless. No, her reaction to the reality of the situation was far worse than the death promised by the Alcalde.
Now, in the light of early morning, he could make out the bars of his cell, not that daylight made much of a difference. So far, he had received no visitors, not even Padre Benitez to administer last rights, and he didn't expect anybody to come. The one person he cared the most about wasn't likely to materialize and stare at him through the bars, and he didn't really have the heart to watch Victoria's beautiful features if they were going to be twisted in ultimate rejection. He'd rather stare at the floor than be subjected to that particular sight.
Diego sighed in sadness. He didn't even have the energy to make an escape attempt, if he had any means of escape. But the Alcalde had been thorough as well as clever in his scheme to capture the masked man. He'd taken the extra set of keys usually left to rust on the wall, and he had posted lancers to watch the prisoner throughout the long night. There had been no unwatched time, not that the bandit had wished for it. So much time alone encouraged him to remember, even if he didn't want to.
And he remembered yesterday very well. Once the protest of the new sales tax was complete, he had talked quietly with Victoria in the plaza, and that's when the surprise had come. DeSoto had only faked being unconscious, had jumped up in a commanding pose the second the black legend's back was turned, ordering lancers to do his bidding so fast, it was like watching a whirlwind of motion going on around them. Having Victoria surrounded as she had been while they stood, talking, in the plaza, with so many loaded rifles aimed at her that Zorro couldn't possibly fight all the soldiers off by himself had left him begging for capture if only the men would not shoot her. DeSoto's ingenious ruse had worked, and after the lancers threatened Victoria's safety instead of his own, the government man had unmasked his enemy in front of the entire town. That shock had led to Victoria's ultimate rejection. Now, the whole population was witness to Diego's shame, his ignominy, and his loss of hope for a future. No, he didn't want to remember at all.
It came down to hope. When there was hope of a possible life, there had been something to fight for. But without it, he had nothing. Not even the loss of his championship saber could come close to this pain. He had lost any hope for a future life. No, it was better that the corrupt government had his saber to mount as a memorial in the plaza. He didn't want it. He didn't want anything.
Diego sighed as the sound of an opening door assailed his ears. The portal to the Alcalde's office squealed as Sergeant Mendoza entered, trailed by five men in lancer uniforms. The sergeant straightened the way his jacket lay over his shoulders.
The military man looked apologetic when he said,
sorry, Don Diego, but it's time.
There had been no trial leading up to this point. No trial had been necessary. A reward translated as a death sentence, plain and simple. There had been no hope of being found innocent at the last minute. The only thing that was waiting for Diego was death, and he knew it, and the lancers who captured him had known it, but he was the only one who actually didn't care. Death was the promised release from such pain that currently circled his heart in sadness, that was all. In fact, he almost found himself looking forward to it.
Now that the promised end was near, Diego also discovered that he wasn't quite ready to go. Images of Victoria as he had often seen her assaulted his mind. One second, she was in her kitchen, to be replaced with a picture of her standing behind her bar, in her bedroom, on the porch, serving food, talking animatedly to customers, marching up the stairs to rent the rooms on the second floor... All the while, she glowed with the sparkle that only he could bring out in her. She shimmered with it in the plaza right before he was captured, as he kissed her hand lightly with lips gone soft with feelings of devotion. Then the sensations she had been feeling turned to something else entirely as he watched the lancers surround her, and he heard DeSoto's maniacal laugh filter through the plaza. Then the horror came, the threat to the one he loved, the unmasking, and at last the final blow as he watched what had been her feelings of love turn to feelings that were definitely not of love. The emptiness he had seen on her face was rivaled only by the complete rejection he had seen in her eyes.
No, Diego had nothing left to live for.
As the lancers yanked off his gloves and tied his hands behind his back, Diego was aware of stray concerns for Felipe and his father. But they would be all right, once they moved beyond the grief they were sure to experience. His father would feel duty-bound to watch over Victoria, he knew, even though Diego and Victoria weren't husband and wife, even though she was now barred by law from winning any of his possessions. Yet, he had nothing to worry about concerning her future. Don Alejandro would make sure she needed few things, paying off any debts she may someday incur with the money Diego had set aside for that eventuality. Any further offer of aid was beyond hope. No, she would accept nothing, and Felipe would be the owner of anything that had been left after Diego's death, anything that wasn't taken and 'memorialized,' that is. Diego only regretted that he wouldn't be able to watch the young man grow into the fine adult Felipe promised to become. It was a bittersweet thing to realize he was going to miss, here at the end.
But even that was only a momentary pang when compared to the misery shrouding his heart. If DeSoto had wanted to wound him unmercifully, he had chosen the one thing certain to garner the effect. A night in jail, no chance of escape, were small annoyances next to Victoria's rejection. It was almost all-consuming, so much so that he barely recognized the sight of the outside door until they reached it as a group. He had to pay better attention as they went through the cuartel, then the cuartel gates themselves, and the plaza as well as the gallows next came into view.
A huge crowd had gathered, a crowd full of angry, protesting citizens. Though they were in the midst of protesting on his behalf, all Diego could manage to do was wonder how on earth they could find the energy to protest anything so strongly. He himself felt drained, and he didn't smile when his gaze swept over the heads of the crowd.
Yes, there was his father, firmly gripping Felipe's hand, looking older than he had the day before, being ferociously guarded by several lancers. He could offer no help, even if his son was looking for it, which Diego wasn't. All Alejandro could do was stand and yell about the unfairness and corruption he was witnessing, the hanging of his only son. The despair he must be feeling could contest only Diego's equal despondency, but he proudly stood behind his wall of lancers, determined not to show the awful strain he was currently under as his son walked calmly to the gallows and the promise of infinite sleep.
Then Diego hit the one impediment that he hadn't counted upon in his attempt to reach the gallows unaided. He passed unknowingly right in front of Victoria, and the wind blowing her dark curls into a twisted spiral was his undoing. He came to a momentary stop, feeling those emotions again that he had managed to bury under the numbness of the night. Now, in daylight, several hours later, they came rushing back on him like a tidal wave in the ocean, fast and relentless. Diego felt them burn into his heart for the first time since the day before; love and regret.
The love, he couldn't help; the sensation was as natural to him as breathing. He couldn't live without feeling it, whether or not she returned his affections. The regret was new, and it shot through him with such a longing for life, an opportunity to try to change her feelings towards him, that it left him gasping for a second. The gallows swam in his eyesight, and even the Alcalde waiting impatiently at the bottom of the stairs that led to the gallows's swinging rope disappeared. All that was left was the love, and the lost opportunity, the regret. It wormed through him, leaving him weaker than he already was. For just a second, he stopped, feeling the emotions slam through his aggrieved body. Then, slowly, wondering if he was crazy, a glutton for punishment, he turned and looked straight into her eyes.
The sight before him was the same as the day before, yet different. Tears now wet her cheeks, tears for the death of the friend that he had always been, and for the death of a love, though that death had really come yesterday, the second he was in the hands of his enemy.
But she was alive, and that was worth the needle sharp pain that struck through his heart as he stared. He had to remember that, no matter what happened next. His gaze never wavering, he delved into her eyes, but saw only the false front she wore to cloak any emotion she happened to be feeling. Nothing appeared as she gazed, nothing glimmered in those dark eyes that he had stared into a thousand times before.
And then, for just a second, something showed through the front. It wasn't love, but it was definitely something. Before Diego could react to that something, it was gone, covered up once more, but he had seen through the expression on her face, seen through the tears. Who were the tears for if not for him? But she made no move as she stood, doing nothing but staring at him.
Then her voice broke through the noise of the crowd, and it
was as if shards of glass had pierced his heart.
can't do this... this cruel... There were tears in her
voice, even as she didn't finish her statement. She was so
choked up that the yell was almost unintelligible, though DeSoto
clearly heard her easily enough. But all he did was laugh. He
made no other reaction.
Victoria gathered herself, then leaned forward, and her
hands reached out for him. Before Diego could halt such a
sentence, he had uttered,
Don't, but it was too late.
Crying, her tears glistening in the sun, Victoria touched him with a hand on each shoulder, and it was as if she had burned him. He felt those individual fingers through the black clothing he still wore, and though it didn't matter any longer, he suddenly wished fervently that he'd told he that he loved her, just once. It didn't matter that she didn't return his affections, that she couldn't. That seemed unimportant now. But he hadn't said it, and he never would, when the knowledge would do nothing but cause her grief and pain. He refused to leave her with only that sensation as her final memory of him.
Victoria continued to cry, though she attempted to draw herself together. This is for her best friend, Diego reminded himself, not for the man who loves her. His heart would have broken in two, then, but she leaned farther forward.
No words were said. Before he could steel himself against the pain he would undoubtedly feel, she kissed him, once on each cheek, softly, quickly.
Then it was over. Victoria offered no other overtures of affection, either for the friend he had been or for the man she had kissed in her kitchen. A glance darted from her to Mendoza, who looked miserable, but she didn't attempt to stop Diego's progress towards the gallows. Which was good. Any attempt to halt the proceedings at this point could lead to nothing short of the death of innocents, and Diego would never want that on his conscience, no matter how little time he had left. She would know that. She tried to straighten, as Don Alejandro stood, but he could see the strain on her face that the effort was causing her.
Diego had turned away, back towards the gallows, and even
taken a few steps in that direction, when she suddenly yelled
from behind him,
The contingent of doomed legend and lancers stopped. The military men had shocked expressions on their faces, and Diego stood, straight and still, impassive, though his insides were a mass of roiling emotions.
Victoria ran up to them and, unmindful of the rifles and the
swords carried in defense by the surrounding lancers, pushed the
weapons aside like they were sticks. Within a moment of her cry,
she was standing in front of Diego, the look of wonder blazing
even through the tear tracks on her cheeks. Without preamble,
You smell the same.
Before he could stop himself, he replied,
What did you
Victoria shrugged, then responded.
I don't know. That
you were different, I was different. But you're not different.
You're not different at all.
A ghost of a smile flitted across Diego's face before he
could stop it.
Perhaps a bit dirtier... The joke fell
onto the air a little flatly, but it was definitely a joke.
Victoria smiled as well, hesitant.
I love your sense of
humor, she said to anybody who could hear.
Diego looked at her, and for the first time, the pain he was
feeling leaked through his tight hold. He took a shuddering
And I love you, he said, even though he had
promised himself, had promised himself, that he wouldn't
say it, as such a statement could do nothing now but cause
But he was wrong. It could cause much more than anguish. It could cause hope.
With a surge, all the old feelings of love and yearning blossomed on Victoria's face. In one more second, she had disregarded the snort of impatience coming from the Alcalde, and leaned in again, only this time she kissed him. And this was no kiss of brotherly affection. This was a kiss of love, aimed at the man she was in love with. Him, Diego.
The rope bonds kept his hands pinned behind his back, but the rest of him hungrily claimed her as if he hadn't felt her for... well, for a night filled with agony. The despair of eventual separation didn't tinge their renewed feelings for each other as the kiss wore on, in front of everybody and anybody, desperate in its intensity to display the scope of the emotion they were feeling for each other.
Then the Alcalde interrupted Diego's and Victoria's overture of emotion. With one curt yell, he ordered three lancers to pull them apart. Reluctantly, they all performed their duty, and worked together to yank Victoria back from Diego and push her to the side, halting any further attempts at emotion.
However, it was too late to stem the tide of longing that easily showed on Victoria's face. Now she was sobbing in earnest, and the first hints of answering tears sprang to Diego's previously dry eyes.
Fortunately, Mendoza chose that moment to show that he had some compassion. The five lancers shoved Diego forward, and he craned his neck back to see her even as he stumbled on his own booted feet, but the sergeant caught Victoria when she would have wilted and propped her up, one arm around her tiny waist.
With one, final look into her streaming eyes, Diego resolutely turned forward, determined through sheer force of will to reach the bottom of the steps leading up to the gallows. A breeze mocked him and stirred the noose until it looked as if it, too, was leering at him in twisted amusement.
DeSoto grabbed for the upper part of his arm. Diego flicked his head to the side to throw his hair out of his eyes, and one booted foot lifted up to land on the first wooden step.
Just as suddenly, the sound of a hundred cocking weapons split the hush that had fallen over the crowd, and it was several seconds before Diego could squint against the glare of the morning sun and realized whom the weapons were aimed at.
Not at him. Not at DeSoto, as would be expected. But at every lancer in the plaza. And every lancer available was in the plaza.
Two choices, said a man's voice, and it took Diego a
few seconds to realize that it was his father who was speaking in
a voice so gravelly as to sound like it belonged to someone else.
Leave. Now. Stay, and we open fire. He paused for just
a moment, and the plaza was so hushed, Diego could have heard a
pin hit the dust. Then Alejandro continued,
Just think about
all the innocent lives who 'hang' on your command, as any lancer
who fires into the crowd will then be fired upon as well. If one
dies, two die. Make your choice.
The pistols and rifles didn't waver in the sunshine, either the ones pointed at the citizens or the ones pointed at the lancers. Then DeSoto laughed again, a sharp, wheezy sound that held no humor, more a bark than a laugh.
The same choice you gave Diego, Alejandro said, and
for the first time, named the man in the black outfit standing to
one side in the sun.
Diego's aching heart lurched for a moment. He hated seeing innocents used as bait, though that's what he supposed had been the role Victoria had been forced to play many times over the years. However, his father had to know how he felt about the use of hostages in any situation, and still was able to use the men who were just following orders as targets for the point of his commentary. He just doesn't have the same compunctions about people as I do, Diego thought to himself, but just as swiftly realized that such a hang-up would now dictate his own certain failure. To beat a man as powerful as the Alcalde at his own game, one would have to be able to threaten the one area that would cause DeSoto the most pain, and the blight of many deaths of men under his command on his permanent record would tweak DeSoto's sense of helpless outrage. Even as Diego hoped it worked, he hated the role that he had been thrust into. It went against his nature, and so much had already gone against his nature over the past four years that he no longer wanted to deny himself the pleasure of speaking out against anything. But his role in this new drama kept him silent.
What is this? DeSoto spoke scornfully, looking
around, taking in the sheer number of angry citizens holding
weapons. They outnumbered the lancers about four to one.
Don Alejandro replied,
I would think that's obvious; it's
the revolution that should have kept men like you out of Los
Angeles in the first place. Now, make your choice.
DeSoto stood for a moment, and the wind whipped his hair
around his face.
It's not much of a choice, is it? he
Victoria answered that statement.
It's the same choice
you gave to Diego, she repeated.
Not a choice you like to
face yourself, eh Alcalde? Her voice was cocky now, devoid
of the tears of only a few moments before.
Again there was a silence broken only by the rustling of the
wind. At last, DeSoto spoke once more. In a subdued voice, he
I know when I'm defeated. To keep these good men
alive... There was general laughter throughout the plaza at
You mean to keep your record clean! shouted a voice
DeSoto was going on then.
... I have decided to leave
the Los Angeles area...
And don't come back, ordered Alejandro, who looked
deadly with his sword held straight out in front of him.
That's a wise decision, DeSoto.
Don't add mocking me to your crimes, Don Alejandro,
But Alejandro had a reply waiting for that insult, as well.
I only mock those who are worth it, Seņor, not you. Then
his calm, cold voice went still as the lancers slowly, one by
one, lowered their weapons. The citizens of the pueblo had won
the day. A second later, a cheer went up in the plaza.
Diego blinked, stunned at the sudden turn of events, and he felt the numbness stealing over him again. Someone sliced through the bonds holding his arms to his sides, and he felt his arms slip apart at the same time as something or someone ran into him squarely from the side. His first thought was that his father's 'revolution' hadn't been as easy as he might have wished. It was only after several seconds that he realized it was Victoria, who was hugging him hard enough to break his ribs, but he didn't care as his arms came up to embrace her long before the blood had had a chance to pool again in his nerveless fingers.
Diego rocked back on his heels, and comforted even though he
needed comfort as much as she did.
It's all right, he
It's all right.
She was crying again.
How can you say that? she
blurted, then hiccuped as more tears streamed down her cheeks.
But you're alive, you're alive. I won't ask for anything else
You've taken away one of my chief pleasures, Diego
commented, his arms still wrapped tightly around her.
Then, before they could move, Alejandro was there, reaching
in to hug them both.
Son! was all he said in an explosion
Diego moved his left arm from around Victoria to enfold his
But I don't understand, he insisted after a
moment had passed.
You didn't even pretend to be surprised at
I knew! Alejandro exclaimed.
We all did. Whoever
wasn't in the plaza yesterday for your unmasking, Felipe told.
The ease of our 'bloodless revolution' goes to Felipe, here,
also. It was his idea to show us the cave, to rescue you, to
come up with the plan to arm the entire town. It's all due to
Diego released Victoria and faced Felipe. The young man
grinned a bit sheepishly. Then Diego ruffled the dark hair
blowing in the breeze from the wind, and said,
to the hesitant servant. He pulled him in for a quick
His father, never one for the tact of diplomacy, looked on
his son and the woman who now refused to leave his side, turned,
Do I hear wedding bells ringing in the near
Diego glanced at Victoria.
I don't know, he said
with uncertainty. Then to Victoria, he asked,
Victoria pulled the ring out of the sash she was wearing,
where she had been keeping it safe. Without another thought, she
shoved the ring on her right hand.
In all honesty, I had
planned to give this back, as I didn't feel right in keeping it,
but if Diego can forgive me for ever doubting the way I feel for
him, there's no way anybody can get this ring off without cutting
it from my finger. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than
to move it to my left hand, she said.
Now? asked an astonished Diego.
The gesture was all the push Diego needed to look in haste
over the crowd for the padre. Being so tall was suddenly not
much of a burden, Diego thought.
That reminds me, what
happened to DeSoto? he asked as he gazed.
Some of my caballero friends 'saw' him leave town,
Alejandro told them, but his son was only half listening.
There he is! suddenly exclaimed Diego.
Well, let's go, Alejandro said with a shove to each
of their shoulders.
You know, Diego, I've always said that we
shouldn't keep a lady waiting. Then they headed off, towards
the mission, but first he winked at a smiling Victoria.
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