The day was warm already. The hot sunlight streamed down on the almost deserted plaza as the temperature rose as the day wore on. A week had passed since Don Alejandro and Diego de la Vega had ridden into town accompanied by the Alcalde, a woman, and the dead body of Alejandro's stolen son, the Emissary to the king, Gilberto Risendo, alias Gilberto de la Vega. An uneventful week had followed, one of heat, calm, dust devils in the plaza dirt, bandits captured by the outlaw Zorro, and yet no reprisal from the Alcalde. The peace was growing more suspicious by the moment.
The unusual display of quiet was what was on Zorro's mind that Tuesday afternoon as he led the three horses belonging to his most recently-apprehended banditos up to the very edge of the pueblo. The men sitting astride the horses all had the familiar 'Z' carved into the backs of their ragged vests, practically obscured by the hands tied firmly behind their backs that created the 'v' that indicated the thy were safe enough to arrive in the tiny town. It would take knots tied by his own hand to give Zorro enough peace of mind to lead the captured men into the very town where the love of his life resided. She was currently oblivious to his presence as she continued to wait on her customers in the one tavern gracing the tiny pueblo. Victoria Escalante was many things, and she could take care of herself, as he well knew, but only a fool would willingly put his love in the danger of a possibly escaped convict. Zorro yanked once more on the knots of the bound men, making certain of the tightness of the ropes before leading the horses the rest of the way into Los Angles and up to the cuartel gates.
Sergeant Mendoza! Zorro yelled, the sound of his
voice splitting the air of early siesta.
I have a gift for
The blue and red of the sergeant's coat came into view as he hurried from the confines of the tavern, across the plaza, and up to the masked man sitting comfortably astride his great, black stallion. The moment the sergeant reached Toronado's side, the green door of the Alcalde's office burst open and Ignacio DeSoto slid through. Instantly, Zorro's demeanor changed to one much more wary at the sight of the military officer.
Zorro continued, despite the number of lancers and their
rifles that accompanied the Alcalde from his office. He was
certain that the customary battle was about to ensue, though that
promise didn't bother him. The idea of an unexpected sword fight
made his spirits, as well as his adrenaline, rise like the summer
temperatures. Still, he kept an alert eye on the appearance of
his chief adversaries even as he noted the influx of interested
people who streamed from the tavern and onto the tavern's porch.
The serenity of the small town was shattered as he called,
Please accept this gift of the Pascuela brothers, tied tighter
than the Alcalde's closed doorway, and the tinkle of the silver
that they 'borrowed' from the Los Angeles bank the other day,
found resting coolly in the leader's saddlebags.
Sergeant Mendoza glanced over the entourage with
Thank you, Zorro, but how did you capture them
so quickly? I know these are three of the most cunning outlaws
this side of Mexico.
Zorro grinned first at the audience watching the scene
unfold, then at the sergeant's comment.
Even the most cunning
of bandits leave a trail, Amigo. He turned to face DeSoto.
Isn't that right, Alcalde? he goaded.
DeSoto looked almost uninterested as he answered,
wouldn't know, Zorro, never having been the one to successfully
track you to your hideout in all these years that I've been
chasing you. He looked over at the apprehended men.
I thank you for the trouble you took in bringing these men to
justice. My lancers's tracking abilities being what they are,
you saved us several days under the burning, hot,
Zorro shook his head. Had he heard correctly? Had DeSoto
actually delivered what could only be considered a compliment?
Zorro was instantly suspicious of any nicety coming from Ignacio
DeSoto. It had to be a trap, so he carefully watched the Alcalde
from his higher perch atop Toronado.
Consider it all just
part of a day's work, Alcalde, Zorro said as he wheeled the
black stallion around, heading out of town.
Thank you again, Zorro, DeSoto said as his main enemy
spoke only a word to his mount and they took off out of town,
raising a cloud of dust on their way.
The same outcome, nothing, awaited Zorro four days later when he apprehended Pedro Vincento and his evil cohort, Manuel Gonzalez. Tethered tightly to their saddles, 'Z's cut neatly into the rears of their shirts, he encouraged the horses into Los Angeles with a sharp slap to their rumps. He followed only seconds later, but the audience he was hoping to avoid had already streamed onto the tavern's shaded porch and was watching his every move with held breath. Zorro was particularly aware of the longing gaze belonging to one señorita in the group as he once again found Ignacio DeSoto greeting him from his place just outside the cuartel, where he had been leading a training exercise for the men under his command.
Zorro made certain the two criminals and their horses walked
sedately through the open cuartel gates before he called,
feel I should warn you, Alcalde, that the last time I snuck into
your office, I took a glance at all the training exercises for
the lancers. You can stop putting these men through their paces,
since I know all about their next planned moves.
The Alcalde only laughed, not the reaction that Zorro had
You did, did you? DeSoto shook his head.
hate to disappoint you, but these training exercises aren't meant
to be used against you, despite how such an activity
Oh? Zorro queried, not quite believing his ears as
his past experiences came to the fore.
Then what are these
exercises for if not to capture me?
DeSoto's response was to laugh again. The sound carried
easily to those listening on the tavern's porch.
disappoint you again, but it's just training that these men are
undergoing. He looked up at the cloudless blue of the sky.
We're about to call it a day, as it's getting so hot this
afternoon. I don't want any of my lancers confined to their
quarters due to the heat. His gaze landed on the man in
black before him, and his eyes turned shrewd, a much more common
expression. However, what he said next was anything but common,
Perhaps you would like to join us for the drink I was about to
Zorro's eyebrows rose in surprise at the invitation. He
glanced once towards Victoria as she stood on the porch and
watched, bemusement clearly evident in her expression. It was
only with firm discipline that he remembered that this man was
his sworn enemy in time to shake his head, smile charmingly, and
No thank you. I don't imbibe, as you well recall, and
besides, I would expect a drink from you to be poisoned, so I
would naturally have to say 'maybe next time.' He tilted his
head in a clearly beguiling manner.
The look on DeSoto's face was not arrogant, as expected, but
sad, the diabolical pleasure conspicuously absent from his
Well, perhaps next time, as you say,
the man responded before preparing to round up his men.
The response Zorro shot at his arch enemy's turned back was one of astonishment. Again he threw a glance at Victoria. She was obviously as mystified as he was. What was the Alcalde up to this time?
The lack of the typical call for loaded rifles greeted the
masked legend when he turned back around in Toronado's saddle,
and the deficiency was duly noted before he cried,
meantime, please receive these bandits as a gift from another
I don't consider you a bandit, came DeSoto's amazing
Zorro gave a start before he could force Toronado out of the
What did you say? he asked, the words ripped from
his mouth almost against his will.
I said that I don't consider you a
bandit, he repeated.
Zorro could only stare at him in disbelief.
I thought you said, he replied softly, yet every member of
the gathered crowd heard his hushed response.
DeSoto gazed up at him, swathed in the heat waves that
danced across the plaza. After a silent moment, he came
carefully forward, cautious of Toronado's famed and deadly
I might as well tell you now as later.
Tell me what? Zorro inquired in a suspicious
The Alcalde answered,
I'll be happy to tell you, however,
I would like it if you dismounted and I can say what I have to
say to you face to face.
Zorro snorted a laugh.
What? Dismount and leave myself
open to the sharpshooters you undoubtedly have positioned on the
rooftops of the pueblo? I think I'll listen to your news from
here if it's all the same to you.
Again DeSoto wore that sad look that he'd displayed earlier.
I assure you, Zorro, there's no trap, no sharpshooters,
nothing that might ensure your capture hidden around the pueblo.
Just me and my news; you have nothing to fear.
Still circumspect, Zorro carefully regarded his enemy from
his higher perch on Toronado.
Forgive me if my past personal
experiences encourage me not to believe you, Alcalde, he
You can do as you wish, of course, but
you have my word as an officer in the King's military that you
won't be harmed, captured, or otherwise detained.
Zorro looked in alarm at his opponent, almost too stunned to
react. He paused for a moment.
What's come over you
lately? he asked boldly, opting for honesty in his
DeSoto laughed now.
Well might you ask, he said,
then went on to explain,
I've been thinking, that's
Zorro looked at him as if he didn't believe a word DeSoto
About the Emissary, my near execution, did I want to be
known to be as ruthless as the Emissary for causing your own
execution, and how could I change my ways if I really wanted
to. The Alcalde squinted through the sun.
Nothing of any
import, he added.
That last statement stunned Zorro enough to force him to
dismount so the Alcalde would no longer need to squint just to
see him. He stared at the shorter man with a measure of the
incredulity he was feeling.
I would say that was
important, he commented.
DeSoto finally smiled.
Here it comes, Zorro thought to himself, ready to spring back into the saddle again at the first sign of trouble.
DeSoto went on smiling.
I'm glad you think so, Zorro,
because the news I have will directly affect you and, I hope,
start my reputation along a much nicer path, shall we
Zorro was far too dazed to resort to the bravado that
usually went with his words.
I'm listening, he said.
DeSoto glanced around to find that the entire town was
listening, too. It's just as well, he said to himself in
answer to his observation. I'll only have to say this once.
That's good. Then he turned back to the legend standing
As I've said, I've been thinking, he began,
and I've decided that the turnaround I want to make should
start with you, so I wrote to the governor, whose reply I got
just today, and he agrees with me and he bids me to act as I see
fit. So I hereby rescind the price you currently have hanging
over your head.
You what? he asked inelegantly. Could
he believe what he was hearing?
DeSoto stared at him.
The bounty has kept you busy for
long enough, don't you think? he asked without emotion
coloring his voice.
I rescind the price of six thousand pesos
from you, effective immediately, as well as the call for your
The only thing Zorro could do at that point was to allow his
amazement to continue to grow.
Don't you mean that you want
to double the price on my head? he asked.
DeSoto just shook his own head.
No, I meant to say that
I rescind it. It's kept you from living your life, after
all. He glanced pointedly towards the tavern's porch where
Victoria stood, her mouth hanging open like a fish trying to
breath in the open air. He would have laughed at the sight, but
And if I wish to be different from the
Emissary, this seems to be as good a way to start as any.
Zorro stood still, rooted to his spot in astonishment. If he'd been mounted, he would have fallen off his horse, he was so surprised. Momentarily, he met Felipe's gaze in the crowd, but the young man who had just come in to town to eat some lunch with his patrón didn't know how to react to this astounding news any better than his mentor did. In fact, he was so surprised that for the first time in his life he forgot to behave like he couldn't hear.
It was so quiet that the call of a bird echoed from one end
of town to the other. Zorro looked once at the Alcalde, once at
Victoria, then turned his attention back to the man standing in
front of him.
What's the catch? he asked, sure there was
a bump somewhere in the words uttered so recently by the
DeSoto smiled once more, the gesture still sad.
catch, he said instantly.
Look, no guns, no call to
arrest you, no threat to hang you, no promise of retribution
through those you love... the Alcalde went on.
you won't need that mask you wear any longer, and he flicked
his hand towards the black piece of cloth that showed only his
You can take it off.
Zorro couldn't help it; a thrill shot through his entire
body at the Alcalde's words, but he tried to calm himself, tried
not to get too excited at the prospect of unexpected freedom.
What if I say that I don't believe you? he asked.
DeSoto waved his hand.
You can suit yourself, he
but I would think that you would jump at the opportunity
the loss of the mask represents. He gazed shrewdly again and
pursed his lips.
You don't have to worry; I'm telling you the
truth, he informed, and he did sound sincere.
free as you were the day you were born. e glanced at the
town's citizens to gauge their reactions. Incredulity met him on
all sides. To amaze them even more, he said,
You can have my
words in writing by tomorrow.
For a breathless moment, Zorro stared at the Alcalde and
DeSoto stared at Zorro. Finally Zorro asked,
Zorro paused, then went on,
Nothing happens to my
You have a family? inquired DeSoto smoothly. Then he
shook his head hard enough to make his white hair swing back and
But no, nothing will happen to them.
Or Señorita Escalante? Zorro asked next.
DeSoto grinned patiently.
Or that tavern owner you seem
to prefer. Nothing will befall her for any of your decisions.
You have my word, he said with another glance towards
Victoria's spot on the tavern porch.
My word as a member of
the King's military.
Another thrill coursed through Zorro's frame; he simply
couldn't help himself.
As a member of the King's military, DeSoto reminded.
I didn't think my word as a fellow gentleman would carry as
much weight with you, DeSoto remarked.
Zorro looked at him suspiciously.
How do you know I'm a
gentleman? he asked.
I never told you that.
Once more came DeSoto's laugh.
It's not that hard to
figure out! he exclaimed.
Only a gentleman would have the
leisure to parade around in that get-up, spoiling all my
best-laid plans. You're wealthy, too, he went on,
least, wealthy enough to create all those wonderful things you've
been using against us. He looked at Zorro conspiratorially,
with raised eyebrows.
That's also not hard to figure
Zorro's gaze grew even more suspicious.
Were you trying
to uncover me? he asked.
DeSoto shrugged again.
I was, he informed honestly.
But then the Emissary came to town, and, well, you know how
that ended. May he rest in peace. Then he raised his
Forgive me, Don Alejandro! he
It appeared that Don Alejandro had not heard him, or chose not to reply, because again there was silence in the plaza. At last, DeSoto just shrugged his shoulders.
Zorro felt himself becoming convinced. He didn't want to be
convinced... Well, he wished to be persuaded by the Alcalde's
words, if he was honest with himself, but he was always
suspicious of good news. Such a policy had kept him alive over
the years. But he found himself wanting to believe that what he
was hearing was true.
Are you serious? he asked.
I am, he said, then added,
seemed like a good way to be as different from the Emissary as I
could be. As he wanted me to capture you, it stands to reason
that the opposite thing would be to set you free. This time
he only shrugged one shoulder, just to be different.
So I am.
Setting you free, he specified.
Zorro scratched at Toronado as the horse nuzzled his gloved
hand. For a moment, he just stood there while the sun beat down
on the plaza. He could feel the heat soaking through his black
Nothing happens? he asked, just to make sure
he'd heard the Alcalde correctly.
Nothing happens, DeSoto promised.
I have your word? Zorro next inquired.
DeSoto smiled a tiny smile.
You have my word.
Not a scratch?
Not a scratch.
Zorro whipped his head around to face an astounded Victoria.
Well, Señorita, he said in a deadpan tone of voice.
What do you want to do with this freedom?
Victoria pushed herself away from the scarred post that had been supporting her. Slowly, as if she was in a dream and swimming upstream against a hard current of water, she approached the two men. When she was even with them and Toronado, she stopped and simply stared at them both. The two men who had been sworn enemies since the day they had met stared back at her.
This is amazing, Zorro thought to himself as he gazed
at Victoria. Never before had he stood next to her, loving her,
as a free man. The headiness from such knowledge was almost
overwhelming, and even as a third chill coursed up his spine to
send tingles shooting throughout his body, he cautioned himself
to be careful. She doesn't love me, he reminded himself,
but for once he felt a halving of his old fear of rejection.
Somehow, it didn't seem to have the same power to secure his
silence as a free man as it had over a wanted bandit.
Victoria? he questioned when she remained silent, and took
her hand as he continued to stare at her.
Finally, Victoria reacted. Drowsily, as if she were still
under water, she squinted in the bright light and said,
think you have a promise to keep, Señor.
Zorro stared at her, at the way the sunlight absorbed into
her black hair, at the way the shadows she created just by being
alive bounced off the plaza dirt. It all looked radiant to him.
You're sure? he asked cautiously.
What if you can't
really love the real me?
Victoria put her hands on her hips in a mock show of
impatience and anger.
Are you still using that as an
excuse? she asked.
DeSoto laughed, and Zorro suddenly had the thought that he would rather not unmask in front of the Alcalde and an entire town full of people. However, an entire town full of people was what he seemed to be getting.
DeSoto went on chuckling.
I'd hate to be around when you
have your first disagreement.
Zorro never took his eyes away from Victoria.
disagreement shows nothing but spirit. I love the señorita's
It's a good thing, DeSoto mumbled.
Victoria sent him a glare before whipping her eyes back to
the masked man she loved.
Well? she prodded. She sounded
courageous, she was glad to note, but inside her heart beat in an
erratic rhythm, even when she attempted to calm it.
or aren't you?
Señorita, we have something of an audience, Zorro
said softly, though he knew he was grasping at any excuse now to
avoid the inevitable.
Just kiss her and get it over with! someone yelled
from the crowd.
Zorro briefly held Victoria's fingers up to his lips.
Know that nothing would please me more, he said, a twinkle
of mischief in his eyes.
But you have to remember that you
don't love the real me.
Yes, I do, Victoria protested.
How can I
Zorro gazed down at her.
You have never shown any
interest in the real person I am, he said back, and DeSoto
Have you shown any interest in her? asked the
Zorro sighed in impatience.
Stay out of this, please,
You haven't, have you? Victoria quickly asked.
Zorro felt like the two were ganging up on him, and he had
to spend a moment enjoying the irony of a situation where the
Alcalde and Victoria were on the same side of a predicament
together. Then the moment was over, and he defensively replied,
Well, no, and I didn't want you to uncover the truth, either.
It was far too dangerous for you to know.
Why? asked the Alcalde suddenly, butting in to the
Your accomplis knew.
Zorro sighed again, then turned to look at DeSoto.
do you know I had an accomplis, and I thought I asked you to stay
out of this?
DeSoto looked chagrined.
First, you had to be working
with someone to be in two places at once, as you have been many
times in the past, the Alcalde said,
and second, my
apologies. I'll just remove myself now.
That would be appreciated, Zorro said as the Alcalde
trotted back to his gathered lancers.
Victoria looked once again at her masked love. Longing that
he had difficulty resisting glowed out of her eyes at him.
Don't you wish to marry me? Is that it?
Victoria, you must know that I wish beyond anything to
marry you, Zorro stated emphatically.
Victoria's gaze turned uncomprehending.
Then what's the
Zorro glanced down to stare at his boots.
afraid, he admitted at last.
I always have been.
You said that when you proposed, Victoria let slip,
and the gathered crowd of people responded with further amazement
to hear that the favored couple of the pueblo was secretly
What are you waiting for? someone hassled from the
crowd on the tavern's porch. Zorro suspected that the man who
was listing drunkenly to the right was the one who had spoken,
but he couldn't prove it.
Zorro isn't truly afraid of anything, Victoria
So unmasking should be no problem
Of course it's a problem, Zorro quietly argued
Victoria snorted impatiently again.
Look, Zorro, we can
stand out here in the hot sun, waiting all day for you to conquer
your fears, she said, not unkindly,
But the truth of the
matter is that if you want to ever marry me, you'll have to take
the mask off. Than a sly smile lighted her features.
Unless you plan to leave it in place all the time, for
the rest of our lives.
Someone whistled a catcall, sounding loud and shrill in the
quiet of the plaza as Zorro smiled in embarrassment, fully
understanding exactly what Victoria was referring to.
have no plans to wear a mask all the time, he said as
the echo of the whistle resounded loudly off the sides of the
adobe buildings that made up Los Angeles.
Well then? Victoria prodded again.
That one day, when my fight for justice
was over, I would remove the mask and declare my love for
Victoria grinned, and Zorro felt his insides melt at her
I'm waiting, was the only thing she
Yes, you've been waiting for a long time, mi preciosa.
Long enough, Zorro said softly in a voice that was almost a
whisper. He removed his gloves and tucked them in his sash, then
took a moment to gently caress her cheek. With a pounding heart,
he lifted his hands to the back of his head. A squeak of
excitement slipped through Victoria's held breath, but that was
the only sound in the plaza.
Victoria's eyes grew wider and wider with every twist he
made of the binding ties behind his head. She could see his arms
shaking even as they remained behind him.
trembling, she announced.
Maybe I should..?
No, he refuted.
I should, as I should have years
ago. The last twist of the mask fell away in his shaking
hands. He kept his blue-eyed gaze firmly locked with hers as the
black material went slack in his fingers. Nothing remained but
for the mask to be removed, truly freeing him forever to live the
life he'd always promised himself he'd live. He closed his eyes
for a second, feeling the edges of the mask flapping against his
cheeks from the slight breeze. With quaking arms, a thundering
heart, and as the promise of a fulfilling future cried out to
him, he took a deep breath for courage. Then without another
moment's hesitation, pulled the offending piece of black cloth
The sharp sound of indrawn breaths resounded from the crowd on the porch. Slightly softer were the gasps of the citizens in the plaza, which he knew included his father and Felipe. But his gaze remained glued to Victoria's reaction to his unmasking.
For a moment, she just closed her eyes and stood motionless
except for her lips. Diego wasn't that good of a lip reader to
know if she was thanking God or cursing him for the remainder of
his life. He supposed it could be either. Then she opened her
eyes, and her dark gaze met his blue one for a split second full
of sizzle and energy. Passion blossomed behind her lashes like
the flowers of Spring.
Gracias a Dios, she whispered, the
only coherent statement she ever made in all her mutterings.
Then she fell forward, leaving him no choice but to catch her or
let her fall to the dust of the plaza.
Diego caught her in his arms, and the fresh smell of her hair assaulted his nostrils only seconds before he wrapped her up tightly in his embrace. He could feel her pounding heart beat an aberrant rhythm against the front of his chest, but felt her trembling arms circle around his back and clamp tightly together. Before he knew what was happening, her soft, velvety lips were on his in a kiss passionate enough to make his father and the padre blush from innuendo.
A cheer from the gathered people cut through the fuzzy, red haze that had invaded Diego's mind, but he was far from ready to relinquish the feel of Victoria's lips in their first kiss of freedom. The taste was intoxicating, invigorating, and it was only after his lips had slid from hers to graze across her cheek, that he remembered they were in a public setting and he shouldn't be consorting with her so openly. But his arms tightened even further around Victoria, and he held on as he buried his face in her hair, and the world tilted strangely around them.
He marveled at how good she felt in his shaking arms, thrilled at the feel of her body so close to his, and quaked in reaction to the fear he felt as he acknowledged that unmasking was probably the hardest thing he'd ever done, sword fights included. He whispered that sentiment to an equally shaking Victoria.
It's something that you'll never have to do again,
Thank goodness, he said, and hugged her close.
No, whispered Victoria as her lips did their own
slide across his cheek.
Thank the Alcalde.
Suddenly Diego laughed.
I won't tell him that if you
won't, he whispered.
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