Love and Marriage

by Linda Bindner

Victoria Escalante ostensibly cleaned the green bar in her tavern with the rag in her hand, but surreptitiously eavesdropped on the conversation of the two men who had just entered her establishment. They were talking about a new tax law that had gone into effect just that day.

I don't know if I can afford it, Miguel. We're already paying taxes on the land, and the bank loan. I don't think we can pay a tax on our income, too.

But what choice do we have, eh, amigo? asked the second man, one of two obvious farmers in the pueblo de Los Angeles. Their sombreros hung down the backs of their plain shirts, tucked discreetly into homemade trousers that were faded with wear. Their whole demeanor bespoke of their poverty, but they both held their heads up high in dignity and honor. The two even drank with petiteness as they lifted their glasses of whiskey, Victoria noted. We have to live somewhere, Miguel went on.

But not here, maybe.

You would leave Los Angeles? the second questioned in amazement.

No. Not leave. But maybe if we all band together and refuse to pay.... he began.

That's crazy, Antonio! Miquel said hopelessly. You have a wife to provide for. Little ones on the way. How will you do that from the stocks? Or if you are flogged? Because that's what will happen to you if you don't pay up.

Antonio looked carefully around the tavern, taking in the fact that siesta was about to start and the tavern was almost empty because of it. But he really wanted to make sure that certain individuals from the cuartel didn't overhear him. I know what will happen if we play by their rules. But what if we play by ours?

What do you mean?

I mean that several of us have got together and formed a group who's going to refuse to pay, whispered Antonio.

What? said Miguel, this time in incredulity. You have gone crazy.

No. We've gotten smart.

Look, maybe Zorro will....

Victoria perked up at the mention of Zorro's name. She couldn't help her behavior every time he was mentioned. But the two were still talking, and she quickly squashed her wandering attention.

What? Antonio was asking. He'll do what? If he ends this new tax, the Alcalde will simply instate a new one that's just as bad. No, we have to make our stand now, tonight. It's the only hope we have.

But what if you're caught or worse?

Then we pay up and starve, because we won't be able to afford any more food, amigo. This pueblo is bleeding us dry. But at least I'm married.

Miguel gave Antonio a curious look. What does that have to do with it? he asked.

It has a lot to do with it, Antonio explained. If I'm thrown in the stocks, I will still have my dreams of Magdalena. I can think of her if I'm flogged. She has given me everything, and it's all due to marriage.

Hmm, Miguel answered. The way you say it, marriage is a wonderful thing.

Oh, it is. Don't listen to anybody who tells you different. In fact, Friday is my anniversary.

How long does that make it, my friend?

Three years, replied Antonio.

Don't you want to make it three more?

Sure I do. Magdalena is incredible.

Then give up this crazy scheme! suggested Miguel.

I can't, said Antonio. DeSoto will just make a new tax!

Let him. Zorro will come to our defense. You'll see! And you'll get to stay with Magdalena.

And what if he doesn't? Antonio asked. Must we always leave things for Zorro? This is our problem, and we intend to fix it our way. But you should get married someday, Miguel. There's nothing like it, Antonio insisted.

I plan to, don't worry, Miguel said determinedly. Maybe Mercedes?

Do you love her?

Sort of.

Antonio laughed. You have to be in love, or it doesn't work.

How do you know if it's love? asked his friend as they pulled money from the pockets of their trousers.

Oh, you know, he assured with a smile. Hey, can you pay today? That new tax took my last peso. I'll pay you back.

I know you're good for it. But we weren't expecting this new tax when we came to town, or you'd have brought more money with you.

What money? Antonio laughed lightly. I don't even have enough to my name to buy a drink here, and you know it. But I promise to pay you back somehow.

This one is on me, Miguel said graciously. You have your farm, your wife, and two more kids on the way. What more can a man ask for?

More money? laughed Antonio.

Nah! Miguel stated. The Alcalde will just take that, too. He'll come up with some way to tax it. But he can't take what's inside your head. He can't take your happiness.

Right. Though someday he'll find a way to even tax that. So maybe you shouldn't get married, he joked.

Why wait? Miguel asked. I want my happiness to start right now. Maybe this weekend.

That's the ticket! I'm telling you, even with new taxes, marriage is the way to go. There's nothing like the love of a woman. With that kind of power on your side, how can you lose?

Even with an income tax! Miguel joked, and the two left the tavern.

Victoria stood still for a minute, letting their words sink in. She had heard a lot of grumbling about the new income tax all morning. She was just going to pay it and get it over with, but what the two men said left an impression, and suddenly she changed her mind. The two men were right on several fronts. Why did Zorro have to solve all their problems? And DeSoto would just make a new tax anyway, she was sure about that.

But she didn't agree with the two men about having to be married. She was perfectly able to dream about Zorro, and they weren't married. Why would she wait for marriage? But then, Antonio had talked about his happiness, and that could only come with marriage, he'd said. Why? Was there something she was missing because she wasn't married?

Victoria pondered on, weighing the pros and cons of marriage, although she didn't know about many of the cons, never having been married herself. There was no one to ask, either, since it was siesta time and everybody was asleep. But the arguments she had heard were compelling no matter what she didn't know, she admitted. It sounded like there were some really good things about being married.

Antonio's arguments were at odds to everything she had heard before. And she had heard plenty, being the only tavern owner in Los Angeles. What she'd heard about marriage had mostly been complaints from men, and then the complaints had mostly been about their partners. And partners were mostly procured through amicable arrangements. That wasn't the case with her relationship.

Victoria well knew the strange arrangements surrounding her relationship with Zorro. What applied to normal people naturally couldn't apply to them. They were as far from normal as two people could get, yet they both longed to be married, to have children, to be normal. They longed for it enough that Zorro had actually proposed to her several months before, but he had yet to remove his mask and disclose his identity, even to her. He claimed it was too dangerous. But dangerous for whom, she suddenly wondered. If they were to get married, how would things be any different? He would still have to hide who he was, and they couldn't be together. But they would be married, she heard Antonio's voice repeat in her head. Wouldn't that make all the difference?

Victoria wished she had someone to ask. Even Don Alejandro would do in a pinch, she thought. He had been married for many years before his wife died. That counted. He would know what she and Zorro were missing out on, if indeed they were missing out on anything. And she didn't see any point in asking the other caballeros; they had arranged marriages, not marriage for love. They might laugh at this sudden interest to marry and not understand her quandary. But Don Alejandro would be different, she thought. He would know what she was talking about. Come to think of it, she had never heard him mumble one bad thing about marriage before. Did that mean he was privy to a secret that the others weren't? Was love better than arrangements?

Quickly she cataloged what she did know about her own relationship. Was she in love? Absolutely. Was Zorro? She thought he was. Did she want to get married? Yes. Did Zorro? Here she hit her first jam: in order to get married, he would have to tell her his identity for the church record. Wouldn't he just assume she was using marriage as a way to get him to reveal his identity?

She didn't think so. She would never do that, and she thought that he knew her well enough to predict that. So could she get him to finally reveal his secret for her? He had always resisted in the past, but she had never brought up marriage to him before. The question was, would he reveal himself for the sake of marriage? She wasn't sure.

One thing she did know was that she couldn't have children until Zorro disappeared for good. Children would be used against him by the Alcalde. But having children made her think of the wedding night, which made her blush like a schoolgirl. Was she scared of the wedding night, she asked herself. If she was honest, she would have to say that no, she wasn't. Despite what she'd heard while gathering water at the plaza fountain, she was ready. And judging from his kisses, so was Zorro, which was how she might convince him to go to the alter, she realized at the last minute. It was amazing that she had never thought of that before. If he balked when the crucial moment came, she would just kiss him until he couldn't think straight, she decided.

Victoria smiled. Unlike Zorro, she knew exactly what she was planning, and knowing something before he did put her at a decided advantage. She smiled again.

However, she did know plenty about taxes, having lived in Los Angeles her whole life, and she resolved again not to pay the new income tax. It wasn't that she couldn't afford it, it was the principle of the matter. And what the two men had said was right; the Alcalde would just replace this new idea with another new tax if Zorro made him repeal it, and one thing they didn't need was another new tax to defeat. In fact, she decided to leave the tavern to protest the income tax right now, before taking her afternoon siesta. There was enough poverty in the area that she thought she had at least a decent chance to convince the Alcalde to repeal it himself. He wouldn't get much from an income tax, after all.

Throwing her rag decisively on the counter top, Victoria made her way out the front door and across the plaza to the Alcalde's office. She couldn't hear his snores through the open front door, and she took that as a good sign that he wasn't asleep yet. She marched right in.

Señorita Escalante, what can I do for you? DeSoto asked congenially enough from behind his impressive pine desk. He was just bending over to remove his boots for siesta, Victoria realized. She was just in time.

I'm glad I caught you before siesta! she exclaimed in relief. It's your new income tax, Alcalde. It's ridiculous to charge an income tax when people here are so poor and can't pay anyway. I have no intention of paying it, she said straight away, as she usually did when protesting anything. She didn't believe in `softening the blow.'.

Slowly DeSoto straightened up. You do realize the penalty for not paying, don't you, Señorita? he asked.

Of course. It's on the proviso board, isn't it? Flogging, followed by a fine or a day in jail? He would choose the fine, she knew from past experience. And she would gladly pay a fine if it would prove once and for all that an income tax for most of the people was out of the question. They'd need a year just to save for it before any amount of their income could be taxed and a profit could be made for the Alcalde. So she knew she was safe in refusing.

DeSoto shrugged under his military jacket. As you wish, Señorita. Corporal, he called, his voice carrying to the men's barracks, it was so loud.

Corporal Sepulveda entered the office, followed closely by Miguel de la Sancho, a new lancer from Santa Barbara. Their own military uniforms glinted in the sunlight.

The señorita has chosen not to pay the income tax by way of protest. So noted in the records, said DeSoto like he was recording a particularly boring dinner menu instead of a protest. It's time for you men to do your duty. Take her outside.

The two lancers immediately flanked her and wrapped their hands around her upper arms. Victoria, stunned, was starting to get worried.

Wouldn't you rather have the fine? Victoria asked hurriedly in a squeaky voice. She cleared her throat.

The punishment is flogging, DeSoto reminded her.

The proviso board said a fine was acceptable, she explained in a panicky voice. She had not considered a flogging.

DeSoto growled, I know what the board says, and it indicates a flogging and a fine. Take her outside, he ordered curtly.

The hands tightened on her arms. This was really happening. What? asked Victoria. Take your hands off me! Surely they didn't mean to flog a woman!

The corporal and the private were pulling her towards the outside door. We've never flogged a woman before, Corporal Sepulveda said as a reminder to the Alcalde, echoing Victoria's earlier thought.

But her gender wouldn't save her now. Then she's our first! DeSoto exclaimed, looking pleased at the sudden events. Imagine, Zorro's woman flogged for tax evasion. And by her own admittance, too! His luck was too good to be true! DeSoto jumped gleefully out of the chair to follow.

Victoria was really worried now. What had she gotten herself into? But the proviso says....

I'm well aware of what the proviso board says, DeSoto exclaimed while he paused to collect his favorite whip. It was black and braided on the end, just like Zorro's.

Alcalde, shouldn't we talk about this like civilized...?

What's to talk about, Señorita? The message board is quite clear, DeSoto hissed. This is perfect, he continued, muttering to himself, A flogging during siesta when no one is around to save her is exactly what's needed to lure him out! I couldn't have thought of something so diabolically perfect in a million years! He gave a devilish chuckle.

Now Victoria was scared. Are you sure you don't want a fine instead? she asked in desperation.

Who would take a fine in lieu of a flogging? he questioned, and uncoiled his whip.

They were in the yard now. Victoria faced the two whipping posts bravely, but inside she was quaking. They truly meant to have her flogged! It was the one thing she hadn't considered.

Tie her up, DeSoto commanded tersely as he snapped the uncoiled whip. It hissed through the air.

But we've never....

I said tie her up! DeSoto roared, suddenly loud in the quiet yard.

The two men pushed her roughly into one off the two posts and worked at tying her hands in front of her. Victoria fancied she could see the blood already on the post in the dark maroon stains that bit into the wood she suddenly found herself getting intimate with. She thought she might get sick as her stomach heaved.

I'm really sorry about this, Corporal Sepulveda said under his breath to Victoria, but didn't dare sound contrite while near his superior officer.

The two military men ripped her bodice down the back. Victoria cringed at the feel of the cooler air on her skin.

Her corset's in the way, DeSoto said in a comical soliloquy, given the circumstances.

De la Sancho suddenly produced a knife from his boot and cut her good corset and underwear in two. There, mí Alcalde.

This isn't happening, thought Victoria. Her wrists chafed at the rope, and it was far more uncomfortable than she thought to have her arms tied in front of her. He has to come, she thought desperately. Zorro must come and save me from myself!

DeSoto snapped his whip in practice. Victoria flinched.

That won't do you any good, DeSoto barked. He chuckled again. I don't believe my luck! The whip cracked once more, sounding ominous in the quiet afternoon.

He has to come! thought Victoria, trembling outside and in now. Even if only by some miracle, Zorro had to know what was going on.

You'll never get away with this. Zorro will come for me, she informed, giving a desperate incentive as a last inducement for leniency. Actually, Zorro would probably kill the Alcalde for flogging her, but DeSoto didn't see things the way normal people saw them.

A laugh again was her answer. Oh, I hope he comes, Señorita. I certainly hope so.

And then it began.

The first whip strike wasn't so painful. It bit into her smooth, creamy back like a hot knife through butter, leaving a welt that she could feel swell with blood. It dripped onto her arm a moment later, explaining the blood on the posts. She had wondered about that, Victoria thought in merciful distraction.

The second whip stroke landed just below the first. Victoria grunted, still thinking of Zorro to block out the circumstances.

The third landed on her left shoulder, and she cried out in pain.

Hurt, Señorita? asked the Alcalde, completely uninterested in leniency. Maybe you'll think twice before tax evasion next time.

I'll make sure to resist when there are people around to stop you, Victoria commented, her voice coming out softer than normal, her teeth clenched against the pain.

I assure you, DeSoto commented back conversationally, it won't make any difference, Señorita.

This is ridiculous, Victoria thought suddenly. We sound like we're at a garden party, we're so civilized.

The fourth strike whipped out. It hurt so much, Victoria writhed against the post. Think about a marriage to Zorro, she ordered herself. It was the thing she'd been thinking about last.

The fifth one struck her right shoulder, raising a bright red gash. Victoria cried out in undignified pain and rage. Just think about a wedding, she instructed herself, trying not to scream. She couldn't bear it if she screamed.

The lash struck for the sixth time, and Victoria sagged against the post. The pain was all-consuming now.

What had she been thinking about? Victoria's head lolled to the side. Oh yes, the wedding. Maybe she should ask him first? She giggled drunkenly, and the lash hit for the seventh time.

Victoria was on fire. If only the agony would stop, she decided languidly. A face wearing a black mask rose unbidden to her mind.

On the eighth strike, Victoria slipped blissfully unconscious so she didn't feel the ninth and tenth, though the red welts left behind spoke eloquently enough.

Throw her in jail, DeSoto said softly, as if he didn't want to wake anybody. Silently, the two officers did as they were told, laying the unconscious Victoria on her stomach on the cold floor of the jail cell. With a clang, they closed the door and left. Victoria was the only occupant.

The sound of the door slamming shut momentarily roused Victoria, and she felt the stark coolness of the stone floor. But all she could see were bars swimming in front of a black mask before unconsciousness claimed her again. She never learned of her distinction of remaining conscious longer than anybody else.

It was six o'clock in the evening before anybody missed Victoria, and then it was only Sergeant Mendoza in search of a decent supper. When he didn't find something bubbling on the kitchen fire, he shrugged and went back to the cuartel. He inquired about the señorita's whereabouts on his way out, but Maria hadn't seen her since siesta. She must be oversleeping in her room, they figured, and smiled.

By eight o'clock, an all-out search was formed. It was agreed; Victoria Escalante was missing. But no one thought to look in the jail. By eight-thirty, Felipe was interrupting Diego's latest science experiment with the news that they couldn't find her anywhere inside the tavern, and her bed hadn't been slept in. The rumor was that she was in jail again, but as far as he knew, nobody had checked it out before he went to fill in Diego.

Diego de la Vega stopped stirring the compound of silver nitrate in his mixing bowl. With a shudder, he set the bowl down on the worktable with a thud. He hoped she wasn't spending another token night in jail because of her well-known feelings for Zorro. Then again, Victoria's tongue was famous around the pueblo. He also hoped she hadn't said anything rash enough to get her thrown in prison. It wouldn't be the first time. He chuckled softly at the thought of her famous temper. It was the chief reason she only had one suitor, he knew, even if she was the prettiest woman in the pueblo, and thought it was because of Zorro's reputation. He also secretly hoped it would be enough to keep other men at bay for a few more years.

Felipe was unrelenting in his string of questions regarding Victoria. He seemed more worried than Diego, and he was engaged to her.

It's probably nothing, Diego reassured with an indolent look. She'll probably stroll into the kitchen in the next half hour, wondering what all the fuss is about. If Felipe didn't already know better, he'd swear Diego was practicing to be the unconcerned best friend. Only he knew better. Felipe could tell Diego was concerned by his aberrant behavior - a cheek muscle twitching - which made him feel jumpier than ever. Diego always made sure to set his bowls down with ease, too, never to drop them on the table like that. In fact, he'd pointed out such behavior in Felipe just that afternoon. This is peculiar, Diego stated when Felipe gestured wildly. You say her bed hasn't been slept in?

Felipe shook his head, making his hair swing wildly.

And no one seemed to be in the tavern before siesta?

Again Felipe shook his head.

And no one saw her leave?

Once more came the head shake.

That is strange. Diego's brow was now puckered in two tiny lines across his forehead. Victoria always made sure someone was around when she left the tavern. It was a precaution she had inherited from her parents. If she was upset about a new tax, someone usually hears about it.

Felipe signed a 'Z' into the air next.

Diego's shoulders lifted in a shrug. Why not? I'll go check it out, but this is probably a wild goose chase. However, he would get an unanticipated visit with Victoria that night, and that was always cause for celebration. He was whistling a tune to himself as he pulled the black hat off the coat tree, though something prickled in the back of his mind, a warning to be careful.

Zorro cautiously lifted himself to the roof of the Alcalde's office and pulled at the noisy skylight. The Alcalde really had to take better care of his office, starting with an oil can. Zorro made a mental note to come back on some night when something dire wasn't happening and oil it himself. He'd never trust the Alcalde to find his furnishings of any importance. Zorro dropped to the floor silently and headed for the door leading to the jail.

He found Victoria right away. It wasn't hard, as she was currently the only prisoner. The light from one lantern near the door highlighted Victoria, who was stretched out on her stomach on the floor of the cell farthest from the door, resting her cheek on one hand. Mi Preciosa, I've come to take you home, he murmured and reached for the keys.

Surprisingly, she didn't jump up at the sound of his voice. I wondered when you would come, she said quietly, still unmoving.

With a prickle of the hair at the nape of his neck, he quickly unlocked the door to her dark cell and reached for her. For the first time, Victoria shrank away from his touch. The prickle turned to a shiver of dread. What's wrong? he asked immediately.

Instead of answering him, she sobbed suddenly into the crook of her arm and said, It has nothing to do with you.

This was bad. What's wrong? he repeated, and this time his concern was obvious in his voice.

Bring the lantern closer, she whispered, her sobbing under control for the moment.

In confusion, he did as he was told, but with a heavy heart held it up high to light up the red welts crisscrossing her back. He sucked in his breath and couldn't stop his incredulous whisper, Madre de Dios! He whipped you?

Victoria nodded her head against the floor. Because I protested the new income tax. She sobbed anew at the admittance. What was wrong with her? She normally didn't cry for anything.

He knelt to examine the injuries. All this, for a tax? he asked disbelievingly. The whip marks were already seeping an opaque liquid into her shirt, and the red of her blood marked the ragged remains of that shirt. Even her underwear had been cut, he noted before his concern turned to red-hot anger.

Before he could do anything or even call for help, she spoke again. DeSoto hoped you would find me. To trap you while you were concerned about me, she explained wearily. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth.

Oh, he'll find me, all right, Zorro promised furiously. His quiet voice was the only indication of the revenge he vowed to himself.

Her voice was dull with pain when she said, I thought of you to keep my mind off... what was happening, she said, unable to go on.

Zorro stood, not callous to her ramblings, but she needed a doctor. Infection had already set in on her back. He could tell by the smell. I'm going for the doctor, he said. Don't move.

She laughed at that, a light, amused chuckle that was laced with pain. As if I can, she said humorlessly. Then she started sobbing again. I'm sorry, she whispered so quietly into her arm that he almost didn't hear her.

Never be sorry for another person's actions, he imparted, and rubbed her cheek. I'm going now, but I'll be back, mí Preciosa. Hold on.

The time away from him seemed interminable. To keep her mind off the throbbing that had finally centered in her back, Victoria counted to one hundred, then reminded herself of the points of her marriage arguments. It proved to be a good escape from the pain. She barely felt the whip marks when she thought of marriage.

Outside, Zorro slipped from shadow to shadow until he was at the doctor's house. Quietly he knocked on the door, only to be greeted by the housekeeper, informing him that the doctor was currently at the tavern. Quickly, he crawled from shadow to shadow again until he reached Victoria's kitchen door. Mercifully, the door was unlocked and the wood yielded readily at his touch; a quick peek through the sliver in between the curtains let him know that it was safe. No military coats met his blue eyed search, but he did spy Dr. Hernandez sitting at a table with two caballeros. Though the conversation seemed an inviting one, the doctor kept glancing at the front doors, as if he was expecting someone to need his services that evening.

Well, I certainly fall into that category, Zorro said aloud to himself, and without further thought, parted the curtains and entered the main room.

With no consideration of the danger to himself and without a look at the incensed, then curious caballeros, he sat down across from the doctor and explained his mission without preamble. I found her. She's in the jail, he said in a low voice.

Will I need my bag? asked Hernandez without any further questions the minute he looked into Zorro's worried eyes.

Yes, Zorro answered tersely. Come. Please. It was the first time anyone had heard the entreaty come out of that mouth. The señorita must be poorly off, Maria thought, as she halted her eavesdropping and continued to clean the glasses on the bar as if having an outlaw in the tavern was an everyday occurrence. It was one of the few times he didn't flatter her as he left with the doctor. The omission said more than he did, and the hairs on her scalp tingled in warning. Quietly, Maria said a prayer for her friend.

Victoria needed all the help she could get. But before they could get to her, they would have to go through the Alcalde.

They entered the office, only to find the way blocked by DeSoto. I knew you would come, he gloated at knowing his nemesis so well.

Get out of the way, Zorro said, annoyed, and DeSoto saw only a flash as the black leather glove impacted suddenly with his jaw.

Zorro caught him as he slumped to the ground, and laid him quietly behind his desk. It's probably more than he deserves, Hernandez stated at the outlaw's behavior towards DeSoto.

I'll come back later, Zorro promised ominously. You're going to have a busy night, he said with a nod at Hernandez.

Hooray, Hernandez said in mock enthusiasm. Now let's look at the señorita's injuries. He reached familiarly for the door to the cells, knowing exactly where to go.

At the mention of her injuries, Zorro felt his blood boil again. He would definitely come back for the Alcalde.

Quickly, he led the doctor over to Victoria. She still lay prone to the floor, her position unchanged since he had left, except that now her eyes were closed. At first he thought she was unconscious, but her eyes opened as their boot's scraped on the stone floor. Hola, he whispered.

Hola, she replied with some of the old determination in her voice. At any other time, she would have been thrilled just to be in his presence, but the pain in her back was too demanding of her attention.

I brought the doctor for you, he whispered. He'll make you feel better in a trice. What was a trice, anyway, Zorro wondered. It was something his father always said.

Dr. Hernandez spoke then. You'll be up and about in two weeks. Here, drink this, and he thrust a glass at her hand. There was plenty of liquid for her to drink. What he didn't say was that he had never seen worse whipping wounds. The Alcalde must have really had it in for her.

What is it? she asked suspiciously.

Laudanum, he replied tensely. It will help with the pain and send you off to sleep. He needed Zorro's help to lift her head high enough for her to drink the liquid. Distract her, he ordered then, just as tensely.

Zorro reached for her fingers on the hand pillowing her cheek. Done drinking, Victoria gratefully wrapped her fingers around his hand, and she was not too far gone not to notice the warmth of his naked fingers. How sweet, she thought, he had taken his gloves off, just for her.

Victoria, what were you thinking about me before when... you know? he asked quietly as the doctor yanked the blouse from her wounds. Dried blood was already sticking to the material in several places. He couldn't believe they hadn't even cleaned her up before throwing her in a cell.

She smiled slightly, and her eyes closed for a minute. Then she grimaced at the yank made by the doctor, but she knew it was necessary. Two men came into the tavern today.


No, farmers. They didn't have much money. One even had to pay for their drinks.

They weren't expecting to have to pay another tax, he grumbled, sounding suddenly dangerous.

Victoria agreed. No, but that's not what made me think of you. One was married, and made being married sound so wonderful.

Warning bells went off in Zorro's mind. Victoria had commented about weddings ever since he'd asked her to marry him. It was a natural response, he suspected.

What did he say? he inquired casually, but he knew he'd have to be careful now. He didn't want to hurt her feelings or prick her pride on top of her other injuries.

The doctor began cleaning her wounds as she spoke. Victoria flinched. Not much. Just that he had his memories of his wife to help sustain him in bad times, she grunted.

Well, he's right about that. You proved his point quite dramatically. His fingers unconsciously tightened on hers. Zorro had often used the memory of her to get him through some tough situations. Memory was a very powerful tool.

He also encouraged his friend to get married as soon as possible.

To avoid this newest tax.

No, I don't think so, Victoria stated as she wondered about what Zorro had said. She hadn't heard that married couples were exempt. That bit of information certainly supported the theory the tax had been created only to lure out Zorro, who was as single as they come. If so, it had succeeded. He spoke as if there was some mystery about marriage. Some secret that we're not all privy to, she said.

A mystery? Not that I know of, he was quick to enforce.

Anyway, there was no one to ask, and I had the tax to complain about. Then I ended up here. You know the rest, she finished on a yawn, big and tired sounding. It's a wonder her jaw didn't crack, she giggled. She closed her eyes against the lantern light. Oh, and the fight they plan to start tonight about the tax.

He leaned down close to her, getting a good whiff of her hair. It smelled nice, and he briefly wondered what she put on it to make it smell so good, but his main concern were her eyes. They were closed, but not tight enough to block out the pain from her wounds. Victoria? he whispered in the gathering gloom of the cell. Was she asleep or unconscious? Victoria? Preciosa? Maybe she was asleep after all.

She surprised him when she said, I'm so sleepy all of a sudden. What was I saying?

Zorro smiled, and tenderly kissed her hair. You go to sleep, he whispered to her. It will make your back heal all the faster.

Stay with me, she entreated next into her arm. She was just too tired to talk correctly.

He smiled again. I'm not going anywhere. Wild horses couldn't drag me off.

She grinned too. I won't tell Toronado if you don't. Then she was asleep, completely oblivious as the doctor pushed at her shirt to clean even the corners of her wounds. He was being most thorough. Then he started smearing salve from his kit onto Victoria's back, being very liberal, getting it under the edges of her ragged blouse.

Zorro was glad Victoria was unaware of the humiliation of the scene. She would be incensed at having her corset in plain view if she was awake. But it wasn't something the doctor hadn't seen before.

Zorro sighed then, feeling his reaction to Victoria's state of dress, or undress, as the case warranted. That was nothing new, either, he admitted to himself. His thoughts drifted to marriage and children despite his best efforts. He found himself considering Victoria's words. Did she suddenly want to get married?

He imagined what it would be like to live normally, married to Victoria, to wake up and see her beautiful face every morning, to hold that perfect body every night. Even if it was impossible, he liked the scenes unfolding inside his mind. Some of them were good, such as kissing her all night long, and some of them were bad, such as being challenged constantly for who he was. Marriage seemed to be such a luxury to the uninitiated, he mused, but he couldn't control his feelings, which were about to completely run away with him. He watched the doctor's gruesome task as a distraction.

It worked. Looking at fresh blood was sure to bring his down from the boiling point, or at the very least, make it boil for different reasons. Dr. Hernandez was bandaging Victoria's wounds when Sergeant Mendoza suddenly appeared, shuffling backwards through the door to the barracks, casting a quick glance over his shoulder to keep from running into anything. And then she said..., he was saying, when he caught sight of them. Zorro! Fumbling, he reached for his sword.

Shhhh! Zorro placed a finger to his lips. She's sleeping. You don't want to wake her up. The fact that the mission bell could ring in Victoria's ear and not wake her was conveniently left out of Zorro's instructions.

So that's where she is, said the sergeant with a smile and a tilt of his head. Then he caught sight of Victoria's bare back. Madre de Dios! he exclaimed. What happened?

Zorro answered to save Dr. Hernandez from having to. She was flogged.

Flogged? Do you mean whipped?

Zorro nodded unhappily.

By whom?

The Alcalde, he answered tersely.

The Alcalde did that? Why?

For tax evasion, Sergeant. Zorro's voice was getting dangerous now.

Dr. Hernandez broke into the conversation, his timing impeccable. As fascinating as this is, the explanations can wait. Sergeant Mendoza, you can help us carry her back to the tavern. Señorita Escalante will recover much faster in her own bed, he declared.

The sergeant straightened his collar. You can count on me.

I'll carry her, Zorro volunteered, and stood up before anybody could protest, lifting Victoria into the cradle of his strong arms. He was not about to let any other man touch her at this point, even the doctor or the sergeant. He was careful not to jar her injuries or contact her back in any way. Lead on, he suggested quietly, his tone of voice belying his later intentions with the Alcalde.

Hernandez wiped his hands on a white towel he kept for just such an occasion, and straightened one of Victoria's bandages. I don't want to see any more infection, the doctor explained, then went on to command, The tavern is closed until further notice.

Closed? gaped Mendoza.

The doctor stated firmly, Closed. I've known the señorita all my life; those wounds will reopen if she tries any cooking, and she will.

She won't. You have my guarantee, Zorro said, depositing Victoria more securely in his arms. Her head lolled against his shoulder as he wondered how he planned to keep such a promise, her head a loving distraction to his thoughts. Hernandez might have known Victoria all her life, but so had he; she would not make a good patient, he predicted.

Stealthily, they beat a hasty retreat through the Alcalde's office, not pausing to look at the still-inert form of DeSoto. The plaza was strangely empty, but the tavern, which was the center of the search parties, was teeming with life. Maria was having a hard time keeping up with the demand for coffee. A worried Don Alejandro held the door open for Zorro and Victoria.

What happened? he asked the minute he noticed that Zorro was carrying her.

Whipped, Zorro replied simply. By the Alcalde.

Explanations will wait, added the doctor quickly to the shocked crowd. First we have to get her to her room. Maria, can you help me change her into something more, he glanced at Victoria's ripped blouse, comfortable? he ended.

Sí, Señor, answered the tavern helper, fully prepared not to like what she saw. She followed anyway.

Zorro carried the sleeping Victoria up the stairs and deposited her on the bed on her stomach before even he was banished to the outside hall by the doctor. He wasn't as concerned as the sergeant looked; Victoria's room came with many amenities, one being a window that faced the back of the tavern. He would visit Victoria later in the week to see how she was doing.

Now came the steady stream of questions from the people gathered downstairs. They'd been patient long enough, he decided. Zorro found himself seated at a table with the unwelcome task of explaining Victoria's injuries to a quiet crowd. But at least there was no attempt to arrest him. He expected that Sergeant Mendoza just wanted to hear the end of a good bit of gossip. But the sergeant kept the number of lancers in the tavern to a minimum.

We must do something! somebody yelled the second he finished.

Zorro quickly stood up. No! This is my fight, not yours. He walked around to the edge of the table. I'll take care of it. He turned to the padre and growled, But I might need your services before the night is over.

What do you plan to do? Don Alejandro's voice rose above the din.

What did he plan? Beating the Alcalde senseless seemed like a good plan.

No violence, Padre Benitez entreated before Zorro could reply, then said the one thing that might stop him. Señorita Escalante would not want us to seek revenge.

But surely we must do something, Padre. It was Don Alejandro's voice again.

Remember the law, concentrate on the law, cautioned the good padre.

Which suddenly gave Zorro an idea. Wait here, he ordered. I'll be back. And with those terse words, he slipped into the night.

Zorro headed in a roundabout way to the proviso board, where he ripped the new law down, repealing it himself. When the Alcalde found his new law missing, he would know that he had gone too far this time. With shaking arms, Zorro drew his sword, wanting to plunge his fist into a face, but knowing the padre was right at the same time. He carved a `Z' into the board instead. He didn't find it nearly as satisfying, but Victoria had already suffered enough, and he didn't seek revenge on the officer who had done the whipping.

Victoria was hurt because of him, he knew. Their love was famous around the pueblo, and everybody wanted to be just like them. The citizens didn't understand the sacrifices he and she made just to see each other. The sacrifices, or the punishments. Victoria's whipping was just one of many tributes they made for each other on a daily basis.

But was there anything to her words? He wondered as he crept once more towards the tavern. Would marriage solve their problems, compound them, or not make a difference? Zorro was unsure of the answer. He would have to unmask his identity to Victoria, at least, and that wasn't something he wanted to do.

A marriage between the two would have to be conducted in secret, extended in secret. Could he trust Victoria that far? He thought he could. And the temptation of loving her as Diego had a certain appeal to it, even if he had to be sneaky to do it. He would have to talk to his father about it. Just the prospect of such a conversation made him blush. He had not talked about his parents' relationship before. To say nothing about intimate relationships! Having a normal wedding night had never occurred to him, but that appeared to be what Victoria wanted, and he knew he could deny her nothing. When had he turned into such a sap?

At the same time, would they ever have another chance to marry? How long would it take her injuries to heal? He didn't know. The only thing he was certain of was that a young woman had been persecuted that day because of her feelings for him. His heart twisted inside his chest. How much worse would it be if it were known that they were married?

But if he was honest with himself, belonging to her appealed to him as much as having her belong to him.

A brave lancer took a potshot at him, and missed, but Zorro hurried back to the tavern, tossed the law onto the table, and turned to leave. He had already outstayed his welcome in Los Angeles, even if it had been for Victoria's sake. There would be no fight over the new law that night, he guessed. With a jaunty salute that hid his feelings, he ran through the kitchen curtain, out the door, and onto Toronado's waiting back. He had been gone long enough already.

Those lancers are getting better at shooting in the dark, he acknowledged while fingering a new bullet hole in his satin cape. He didn't know how close the bullet had come to him, and he didn't want to know. He just wanted to get home, where he could be alone with his depressing thoughts. A picture of a bloody Victoria lying in a jail cell came unbidden to his mind, and he knew the flogging was his fault. All his fault.

By the time he reached the secret entrance to the cave, he was fighting the tears in his eyes. No matter what he did, he didn't make any difference as Zorro. He saw that now. He didn't even care if he was followed, he felt so despondent.

The second Toronado walked into sight, Felipe started signing, asking about Victoria. Diego read one question, but didn't have the heart to read any more. He dismounted slowly, then jerked the hat off his head. The mask followed suit, and he leaned wearily into the cup of Toronado's saddle. He couldn't remember ever feeling so tired.

The tears came then, fast and heavy in spite of his efforts to stop them. Only Felipe's question of whether or not Victoria was dead halted his sobs. No, amigo, not dead. Only hurt, he managed to whisper. Diego shuddered at the thought that she could have died. But it's my fault. Her pain is my fault. Not the Alcalde's, who held the whip, but his, because of their love.

He continued crying even when Felipe surrounded him in a giant embrace.

What was Mother like? Diego asked two days later as he and his father rode companionably into town.

What was she like? Alejandro repeated in surprise. She was wonderful. You've seen her picture.

But what was she like? Diego persisted.

What do you mean? Alejandro asked.

What was your relationship like?

Alejandro suddenly grew dreamy.

Diego was impressed. That good, huh?

A smile still on his face, Alejandro said, Marrying her was the best thing I ever did. Even though we fought like cats and dogs sometimes, and she died too young, I'd do it over again in a heart beat. Why? Are you thinking of getting married?

Diego quickly asked a question about Felipe's mount to distract his father. Luckily, it worked. That had been a close call! Diego resolved not to ask any more questions.

Zorro climbed quietly through her bedroom window. How are you feeling? he asked from a convenient chair left beside her brass bed. It had been a week since the whipping, and Victoria was much better already.

Victoria wiggled against the pillow. Bored, she admitted to him. I don't mean to complain, but.... I want to cook something! But all I can do is sit here. It's driving me loco! How about you?

Me? Oh, I'm bored, too, he answered with a slight self-deprecating smile. The Alcalde has been exceptionally good since your... your punishment. They had decided to call it that, but the event still made him feel uncomfortable. He decided to risk changing the subject. You know, Victoria, I've been thinking about what you said the other day.

About marriage?

He cleared his throat. Maybe this subject wasn't much better, but he would see it through now that he had brought it up. Yes. About marriage. About you and I... getting married, he ended lamely.

She looked at him in astonishment. You're kidding.

This doesn't bode well if you don't believe me.

No, it's not that, it's just that I'm... well... surprised, that's all! she was quick to refute.

One thing your... punishment taught me is that life is too short and you never know what it has in store for you. I don't want something like that to happen again.

Neither do I! Victoria gave a sincere interruption.

But if it does, he doggedly continued, I want to be there for it.

She studied him in silence. What are you saying? Victoria suddenly asked in amazing shrewdness.

Zorro took a deep breath before responding. I guess I'm saying that I want to get married.

At first she was speechless. But you'll have to reveal your identity, she was quick to point out then.

He nodded. I know.

Victoria suddenly wiggled in her bed again. Are you sure?

He took her small hand in his large ones and laughed nervously. No, but marriage is what I want, and I have to do this, he replied sincerely and kissed her hand. An electric jolt hit them both.

And you know that I love you, not the legend, she repeated herself to stress that point. She'd said the same thing when he had proposed.

He smiled at the memory, then reached for the knot behind his head. Slowly he withdrew the mask, revealing a secret he had kept from her for years because he thought not knowing protected her. Now he understood that not knowing didn't make much difference either way.

When Diego was sitting on the edge of his chair, distractedly playing with the wrinkled ends of the mask in his lap, he entreated, Say something.

Victoria leaned against the pillows behind her. She gawked at him in amazement. Thank God, she whispered. Then with wide eyes, even though her words denied her expression, she said, But Diego, what...? How...?

Excuse me. I meant to say, 'Say something coherent.'

She laughed at his words. Diego! This is no time to joke! I don't know what to say.

Say you want to get married, he suggested, shamelessly leading her to his will. This was too important to treat lightly. He knew he was using her words, but at this point he didn't know what else to do.

Suddenly she laughed, and the white nightgown she wore crept up annoyingly to snag on the bandages. All right. I want to get married.

That's it?

That's it.

Does this mean I get to kiss you now?

She was suddenly shy, and blushed. Her heart pounded against her ribs. She could only whisper. If you want to.

Suddenly serious, Diego glanced at her rosy lips and whispered, I want to.

Then go ahead, she whispered invitingly back, equally as serious. This time around, though, Victoria did her own looking.

Diego reached for her, reminding himself not to touch her back as he drew closer to her, suddenly aware of the scent of her hair enfolding him. Maybe marriage wasn't such a bad idea after all....

He tentatively touched her lips, and when Victoria didn't resist him, deepened the kiss. Experimentally, she cupped his cheek and tasted him with her tongue. Sparks flew.

She smelled so good to him that he couldn't stop. He didn't want to as her hair enveloped him and her arms slowly wrapped around his neck. Her tongue flicked again and he was lost in lazy desire. He buried his hands in her hair and cradled her head as a warm wave of love and desire practically swept him away.

She moaned his real name for almost the first and the hundredth time. His lips were incredible as his soft, sensuous mouth found the pulse in her throat. He touched it there with his own tongue, and she craned against him, yearning for more.

His lips touched hers briefly again before pulling back so he could stare at her as if he had never seen her before. That amazing kiss stood between them, ready to share and give to both of them, as they each needed.

Wow, Victoria whispered, her gaze meeting his in eagerness. You should disclose your identity every day.

Still bored?

Not anymore. Her heart pounded in her ears.

Neither am I, Diego whispered, spending long, lazy minutes entertaining the invalid in a way that only he could.

Half an later found a still-trembling Zorro talking to the padre in the mission. The padre recommended patience when Zorro was ready to have the ceremony over with right now. The padre also recommended a trip to some place far away, such as San Francisco, where an unmasked Zorro could spend some time, say two weeks, with his new wife.

It was an excellent suggestion. Zorro took to it, hoping Victoria would too, and a day and time were set in one week when Dr. Hernandez would first allow Victoria to get out of bed. She'd be able to stand for the entire ceremony, and that gave her time to make a dress if she wanted to, and for him to get nervous. It was an amicable meeting and both Zorro and Padre Benitez felt content with the decisions made.

Thus in one week's time, Zorro found himself stealthily riding into the pueblo at three o'clock on a Thursday morning to unmask himself at the mission before the padre and Dr. Hernandez, who acted as a witness to the event. Victoria Escalante and Diego de la Vega were married in a clandestine ceremony, and Padre Benitez and Dr. Hernandez were the only ones to know the truth.

Outside, the sleeping pueblo lay quietly, while stars twinkled softly in the brilliant night sky, and while two new lives began within the pueblo's walls.

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