Treason

by Linda Bindner

Diego sat in the tavern, pretending to read his book on Haydn, but in reality watching the movements of a certain señorita as she served food to her hungry customers and darted into the kitchen to grab a pitcher of wine prior to refilling any empty glasses belonging to those customers.

It wasn't that Diego expected trouble... it's just that he had developed a habit of keeping a close eye on Victoria after she had almost suffered an attack by an overnight guest the year before, and Diego didn't want to take the chance of such an attempt happening twice. Besides, he liked watching over her better than practically anything else he did with his free time.

But he wasn't worried on that bright, sunny day. Such an assault attempt needed the promise of an overnight customer, something Victoria didn't even have yet that day. Plus, the stage had already come and gone at this late hour that was approaching lunch, so no new guests were expected to arrive. A rumbling sound issuing from Diego's stomach reminded him that he needed to finish his coffee in order to make it back to the hacienda in time for Maria's lunch. If he didn't hurry, Felipe might eat all the choice options before his mentor even had a chance to pick and choose over the food that had been prepared. Felipe was still a growing boy with a matching appetite, and Diego was strongly reminded of that every time a meal was offered.

With a rather self-deprecatory groan at his muscles that had stiffened over the hour long watching period, Diego took a sip of the remaining dregs of his coffee, and found that the last few swallows had gotten cold while he read. He grimaced, then rose and reached into his sash for the odd coin he'd put there in case he found himself spending several hours at the tavern that morning, which had indeed been what had happened. There was hardly a day that went by that he didn't stop by the tavern. As well as having a lovely owner that he surreptitiously liked to watch as she went about her work, it was an excellent hub of activity and knowledge to be gained. Besides needing to note the movements of the people staying in town for information purposes, Diego had often become apprised of new edicts posted by the Alcalde. He had grown aware of such new developments many times in the past, thus greatly helping his alter-ego of Zorro along the way by informing him of what was transpiring in the tiny pueblo. And any help to Diego was help to Zorro, even if the lancers, who did most of the posting and discussing of those edicts, thus providing most of the 'help,' didn't know they were assisting by simply talking about their jobs. It was a good arrangement, as the erroneous opinion they all had of the scholarly Don Diego caused them to be more open around him than they would have normally been around other, more 'manly' men. Any information they let slip while near Diego automatically helped Diego's other self, Zorro, in his fight against their leader, the Alcalde, so it was a beneficial arrangement for all parties involved. The soldiers had no idea they were providing information, and Diego always welcomed any new tidbits of news that came his way. Yes, it was a mutually advantageous relationship.

But now the lancers currently inside the tavern were preparing to leave, giving Diego the cue that it was his time to depart as well. As much as he would prefer to stay and watch the tavern owner go about her tasks, it would look too suspicious for him to remain in one place too long. Besides, his extended presence might someday cause Victoria to start wondering about how he was always hanging around, which may in turn lead her to realizing his secret passion for her, and that would be nothing less than horrendous! Diego shuddered at just the thought of Victoria inadvertently discovering who he was and how he felt. Learning of his private yearnings of the heart might then lead her to discovering other, more important, confidential matters, such as his identity as Zorro, and then he didn't want to even consider what might happen. She would be so angry that she might not ever want to see him again. Diego didn't think he could withstand that.

So Diego rose a minute after the soldiers did, smiled at Victoria, who barely paused in her rush to fill another patrons' lunch order, dropped the coins on the bar to pay for his coffee, then sauntered out the door and onto the tavern's porch. As he meandered through the milling citizens and the jumbled collection of outside tables, he noticed that Sergeant Mendoza was busily hanging another new sign on the tavern's roof support post. The sergeant wasn't smiling, which told Diego that the subject of the new post was an unhappy one. What has Ignacio done now? Diego wondered as he walked over to the roof support pillar to read this new edict.

To All Citizens Of Spanish California

Let it be known that the bandit and revolutionary, Joaquin Correna, was sighted just South of Monterey, and due to the ensuing battle between government troops and revolutionary forces, was killed in September of 1822. The forces of King Ferdinand are currently on the lookout for his fellow revolutionaries, his wife and one-year-old son, Sofira and Miguel Hernandez. Report any sightings of these outlaws of the Spanish regime. There is a reward of 5000 pesos offered for any news pertaining to their whereabouts.

Underneath the announcement was a picture of Sofira, the young woman previously engaged to Diego while he had spent several years studying at the University of Madrid, and the young son that Diego didn't know.

At the suddenness of the report, Diego stood, stunned, frozen in the warm California sunshine, letting the warmth of the sun soak unheeded through his shirt and trousers, causing sweat to run down his arms and pool in his bent elbows.

Joaquin Correna was dead? That man whom both he and Victoria had helped escape a jail sentence at the very least was gone? And he'd had a son? Diego couldn't quite comprehend the news, let alone inform the nearest lancer of his past connection to that woman who had been Correna's wife.

Sergeant Mendoza, a fistful of blowing papers held tightly in his fingers, returned to the announcement he'd just put up when he noticed the caballero's arrested attention to it. He tilted up his hat to stare under the brim at the words and their accompanying portrait. To think, I was completely dazzled by her during the time she was in our pueblo, he said to Diego. And the circus she was part of turned out to be just a cover for those revolutionary friends of hers. To say nothing about her husband! Here Mendoza gave an uncomfortable tug on his hat. He had such rebellious tendencies! Did you know that he shot me badly enough to put my arm in a sling for weeks? Diego nodded. Mendoza went on, I'm glad he's gone to meet his maker!

Sergeant! Diego exclaimed, moved by internal emotions that the older soldier didn't know about. Surely you don't mean that! Why, I thought you were a man who loved peace almost as much as you love Victoria's tamales.

Mendoza tilted his head to the right for a better look at the picture. Oh, I love peace as much as the next person, Don Diego, he affirmed. But it's hard to feel much sympathy for a man who led the life of a revolutionary.

Diego turned to Mendoza. But I would think that his hard existence would make him seem to be even more of a sympathetic cause, not less, he noted softly. The man did leave behind a young child after all. What could be more sympathetic than that?

Mendoza gazed at Diego in the sunlight. It sounds like you support Correna, not Spain. Mendoza squinted at Diego. I wouldn't let Don Alejandro hear you talking like that, he cautioned.

Diego sputtered. What does my regretting that Joaquin Correna left a son behind have to do with my father's loyalty to Spain?

The Sergeant's squint grew even tighter. They're bandits, Diego, nothing more, nothing less.

So? Diego inquired. According to the government, Zorro is also a bandit, he informed.

And someday the Alcalde will capture him, too, Mendoza said, his voice sounding forceful and regretful at the same time. As a man opposed to the crown of Spain, he has to hang on the event of that capture.

I thought you owed him your life, Sergeant, or do I have my information wrong? Diego asked.

I do owe my life to him, Mendoza told Diego, then his discomfort increased. I only hope that it's not me who apprehends him, he admitted.

Diego pretended to balk. But I thought he did much of your work for you.

Mendoza's discomfort grew even more. Oh, sí, sí, but that doesn't mean that he and I are on the same side.

There are no 'sides' in justice, Diego protested, sounding dangerously like Zorro as he made that statement. He self-consciously cleared his throat. At least, that's what the padre has always taught us in mass.

The Sergeant straightened his shoulders minutely under his uniform tunic. Once a bandit, always a bandit, he said.

Again Diego argued, We both know that Zorro is no bandit.

Oh, Mendoza shrugged, I know that, but the Alcalde doesn't, and it's him who matters. He gestured towards the new posting. Now with Correna killed, it's only a matter of time for one of two things to happen: either a revolution is brewing that will break King Ferdinand's control of the colonies, or he will tighten his claim on them, and then the Alcalde will be forced to step up his attempts to capture such outlaws, including Zorro, he announced, showing how he'd given the matter a great deal of thought. It's only a matter of time, he repeated grimly.

Diego was just as stunned to hear the Sergeant's prediction as he was to realize that Sofira had a son. Not that he was stunned that Mendoza had such a prediction, he acknowledge to himself, for he, too, had thought that a change in governmental policy was in store for California, but surprised that the sergeant was privy to such information to begin with; the Alcalde kept a notoriously tight grip on what he considered 'need to know' information.

But... Diego still felt the need to object, yet the arrival of a group of lancers cut him off.

Mendoza glanced apologetically at Diego, and shuffled the other edicts in his hand. I have to go, he said softly. There are more of these bulletins that I have to put up.

Of course, Sergeant, intoned Diego much more cheerfully than he felt. Please, don't let me interrupt you.

The conversation, stalled by the arrival of the soldiers, petered out, and Mendoza moved off towards the mission, the fluttering papers held tightly in his hand. Diego remained in front of the paper nailed to the post.

A son? Correna'd had a son? Diego stared helplessly at the poster. Now that the sergeant was gone and he was alone, there was no need to pretend any longer that the information contained in the handbill didn't bother him much more than he indicated.

Diego recalled the time he'd helped Sofira's husband to an abandoned farmhouse located away from the de la Vega hacienda, and he remembered Sofira's words of commitment just before that escape. She'd claimed to still be in love with Diego, and the young nobleman that he was had looked to Victoria and denied Sofira's professed attachment to him in the hope of someday winning the love of the beautiful tavern owner. But if Sofira was so devoted to him, why then had she allowed herself to carry and give birth to Correna's child? Had she had a change of heart after all these years?

Perhaps Correna had forced her, though even considering such an occurrence made the bile in Diego's throat rise and swirl behind teeth clenched at the image. He disregarded such an occurrence almost immediately, for he had seen no desire to cause violence to Sofira in Correna's expression as he had lain, shot and bleeding, on the love seat in the hacienda's library. No, he loved his wife, even as she had declared her own steadfast devotion to Diego, her former fiancé and the man she had wanted to marry years before. Only circumstances had intervened, thus keeping her from meeting Diego at the very church that was to join them in matrimony. Diego, at first heartbroken, had rebounded quickly, too quickly for his emotions for the bewitching sister of his good friend, Carlos Hernandez, to have been so fixed on marriage. It was quite an uncomfortable discovery for the young Diego to have made.

Still, Diego considered the episode in his relatively innocent young life to have been an escape, the first of many he was to be granted. Considering the love he had developed for Victoria almost from the minute he had set eyes on her, his narrow evasion from the bonds of matrimony had indeed been fortunate.

Diego took a moment to feel shock at his blasé emotions on the subject of his deliverance from a marriage to Sofira, as well as relief for that deliverance. It was a confusing duality of emotion for him to feel. At any rate, the drawing of the little boy remained with him as he finally turned away from the announcement to collect his horse, Esperanza, from the tavern's provided hitching rail.

As his horse cantered home, Diego was still lost in thought. He couldn't shake the hold that the representation of Sofira and her child had on him, try as he might. At last, he gave in to the allure the picture represented, asking himself why he was so enamored by the drawing. It wasn't Sofira herself, Diego decided, but that she'd had a child. That little boy could be his, he realized. Had he and Sofira gone through with the planned marriage, that one-year-old boy in the picture would have been his little boy and not Correna's. That's what bothered Diego the most about that announcement.

No, Diego thought, it wasn't that Correna'd had a son. It was that he himself wasn't married and, hence, had no child to call his own, he realized. Though his adoption of Felipe had gone through the court system and been finalized two months before, and many, including himself, would argue that the young man could now be considered Diego's son, an adoption wasn't the same as marrying Victoria and having a child by her. Felipe might object and say that he was Diego's son as clearly as anyone could be. However, in spite of being Felipe's father by adoption, it was still Diego's constant dream to marry Victoria and hold a young baby in his arms for the first time. Whether or not that baby was adopted or legitimate made no difference to Diego, as long as the baby and Victoria were guaranteed to be safe. But he couldn't guarantee anyone's safety as things currently stood in the pueblo. Zorro was an outlaw of the Spanish crown. It was the Alcalde's desire and sworn duty to capture Zorro. As he, Diego, was Zorro, his capture was the devotion of the man appointed by King Ferdinand to lead the people of Los Angeles. Fatherhood, at least fatherhood to a baby he'd had with Victoria, was a dream best left to a future when Diego didn't have a reward offered for his capture, even if there was nothing he wanted more. It was a conundrum no matter how he looked at it.

Diego arrived home to the flurry of activity just before a meal. He sat down at the long dining room table and successfully conversed with his father about the state of his cattle, and to Felipe about his sudden and new standing as the catch of the century in town since his adoption. Such a turn around in the young man's affairs was astounding to Felipe, but not a surprise to Diego, who was much more used to his allure as the son of a rich caballero than Felipe was. The years spent in Los Angeles since his return from Madrid had been eye-opening to Diego as to the pursuits of money-hungry women, or, more in deference to the efforts expended by those young women, to their money-hungry mothers. Now Felipe, who was a second heir to the wealth of a huge fortune, a prize that Diego was long since accustomed to, was growing aware of what such standing meant. It was up to him to shift through all his admirerers and decide for himself who was real and who was simply after his inheritance. Perhaps by adopting the former servant, Diego hadn't offered him any favors, he thought wryly to himself, and smiled.

A siesta after lunch only incited Diego to relax on his bed, the mattress completely concealed by his red and gold coverlet, his hands linked comfortably behind his head, and to contemplate his situation even further than he already had on the ride home. Being alone only encouraged the direction of his thoughts to veer back to his contemplation of Sofira and her son, or more notably, to how different was their situations in life. Sofira was married. Diego spent his days unmarried and pining after Victoria Escalante, a woman he couldn't lay claim to for reasons of safety, despite their rather impromptu engagement at Zorro's hands. But Victoria didn't even know who she was engaged to, so the son that Sofira had was only a vague dream of Victoria's and Diego's, something that might happen sometime in a future where Ignacio DeSoto wasn't the Alcalde of Los Angeles. Such a future seemed dim and far away as Diego continued to ruminate.

It was true that both Diego and Joaquin Correna were considered outlaws, but only Correna had been a revolutionary. And even that had not stopped him from having a wife and a son.

Still thinking, Diego had to concede that Correna had shown bravery and commitment when he had married Sofira, but the sorrow of leaving a one-year-old boy alone, without a father, was amazing and infinite to Diego. What if Sofira were captured and the boy turned over to an orphanage? Or, what if Sofira decided to marry again? The boy might never know of his real father, but be raised as the son of Sofira's second husband. That was a plight that many children in California shared, Diego knew. One thing he decided then and there was that he had no desire to have his progeny raised by another man, one who would probably wish to rear such children as his own instead of as his stepchildren. But the thought of Victoria married to anybody else was so unfathomable as to almost make him laugh out loud.

Suddenly a chill snaked down Diego's spine; what if Sofira brought her son to Los Angeles with the intention of seeking out her former love? She had certainly been sincere when she had voiced her affection, whether Diego was agreeable to that attachment or not. Though he had affirmed his own emotions were otherwise engaged at the time, several years had gone by since his declaration. As far as she knew, his feelings may no longer be fixed, and he was free to marry her and raise her son as his own.

Diego suspected that such a marriage would be very amenable to his father, who wanted little more than to have his own son marry and produce grandchildren. He knew about Sofira, as Diego had been forced to tell the older don about his son's dealings with the wife of a man who asked for sanctuary in his own hacienda. Though Diego had done his best to patch up the gunshot wound in Correna's shoulder, he had gently rebuffed Sofira's romantic advances, claiming to love another woman, which was not far from the truth, as Zorro's love for Victoria was well-known and accepted by the citizens of the pueblo. And as he was Zorro, his affection for the tavern owner could not be disputed.

However, few people, including Sofira, knew of this subterfuge that Diego had been living for the past six years. When he had met Victoria and become Zorro, he had seemed extremely young at the age of twenty-two. Victoria had only been nineteen at the time. Six years had somehow gone by, and now he was thirty, and Victoria was twenty-six, almost beyond the years to bear children. If he was going to remove the scourge DeSoto had come to be known as in the pueblo, he had better make his move soon before he or Victoria were both too old to produce those grandchildren that his father so wanted to have.

Diego paused. Weren't his thoughts becoming dangerously treasonous? How could he be responsible for removing DeSoto from the pueblo when the man had been appointed by the King of Spain himself? Wouldn't a removal of any appointed official be not-so-subtle commentary on the King? Did Diego want to take on that kind of responsibility?

On the other hand, where was his life currently headed? He was an outlaw, a bandit, a wanted man with a price on his head, and no matter how such men as Joaquin Correna had managed to marry and have children, Diego didn't see how he could do the same and still live in Los Angeles. No, Correna may have fathered a child, but he had been a criminal, on the run from the law, and now dead because of the resistance he had led. A lot of good it did him to have a child if he was killed only a year into that child's life.

Besides, the similarities between Correna and Diego 'getting the girl' were completely nonexistent. Correna had met Sofira and fallen love in Segovia, in Spain, when she was there to nurse her brother. Victoria had met and fallen in love with a man wanted by the crown of that same country, though the meeting had taken place in California. Sofira'd had a child by Correna. There was no chance of Victoria having Diego's child, much to his regret. She didn't even know it was him under Zorro's concealing mask; how could she possibly marry a man she didn't even know?

No, Diego's longed-for life with Victoria would have to wait. But for how long? his mind immediately inquired. It answered, As long as it takes. But how long was that? It wasn't fair of him to expect Victoria to wait for him until she was also in her thirties or older, until Ferdinand decided to remove DeSoto from the post of alcalde of Los Angeles. That may never happen, Diego's mind ghosted to him as soon as he had the thought. So where did that leave him? A bachelor for eternity?

Diego refused to leave his fate at that. His hope of one day being with Victoria was the one thing that spurred him on now as Zorro. He had ceased to look at his efforts as anything close to the revolutionary activities that had peppered Correna's life. Zorro was about as revolutionary as mud, he decided wryly, and brought about as much change as such a deposit. DeSoto would never alter, no matter what Zorro did. The governmental appointee would keep hunting his favorite outlaw until he captured the bandit, and once he captured him, he would waste no time in hanging him. Mendoza had been right about that.

And beside Diego on the gallows would be Victoria, Felipe, and Don Alejandro, for DeSoto would never allow them to live. He was convinced that Victoria, at least, knew Zorro's identity, and the other two would be considered accomplices, whether that was the case or not. Felipe really was an accomplice, something Diego truly regretted, even if he could never have carried off the disguise alone. But his father knew so little about who his son was in reality that he had gone so far as to call Diego a coward when it was Diego who was frequently risking his own life every time he protested something in the plaza.

No, DeSoto was never going to undergo a conversion. Diego could battle with the man until he was blue in the face over his efforts and not modify a single idea of DeSoto's. If he wanted DeSoto removed, he would have to do it himself; DeSoto would never 'come around.' His confrontations with Emissary Risendo, an Emissary appointed by the king himself and a man after DeSoto's own twisted heart, had illustrated that.

But could he, Diego, remove such a man himself? Wouldn't even considering such a thing be treason? How could he do that to his own father, who loved Spain as much as he loved his own family?

Then, Diego began to consider what Spain meant to him. How did he feel about the mother country?

Diego had no doubt about how his father felt; he was loyal to Spain to a fault, only sending letters to King Ferdinand detailing DeSoto's common treachery in his unending bid for Zorro, rather than defying the actual rule of Ferdinand. But though Diego had been born in Madrid, in Spain, he had come to California at a very young age. He considered California, not Spain, to be his home.

Most Spaniards hadn't even heard of California. They only knew it was somewhere in the colonies, if they were lucky enough to know even that much. Diego had a hard time thinking of allegiance to a country where most of its citizens didn't even know where he lived. Alejandro could, and probably always would, consider himself a Spaniard, but his son didn't. There was nothing that Diego could do about the way he felt. Even his years at the University of Madrid had not engendered any loyalty in him.

So was he in support of a takeover by Mexico? That's what Correna had been fighting for; freedom from Spain and rule by their Mexican neighbors. The Mexicans were surely only a first step to eventual control by the United States, barring independence. Though a continent and several Indian tribes lay between California and the Eastern country, Diego wasn't so naive as to believe that he would not see California becoming a state in the new union during his lifetime. He only hoped that it wouldn't be in Alejandro's lifetime; statehood might be the one thing that the old don couldn't handle. Mexico, at least, was a country where its citizens still spoke Spanish. But becoming part of the United States meant learning English, an entirely new language. Diego doubted that Alejandro could learn English, even if it meant fitting in to a new country. However, since Diego had been tutoring Felipe in English for years, he knew he was already bilingual himself.

So where did his loyalties lay? Diego asked himself. Was it with Spain? No. He was a wanted man in Spain. A reward of six thousand pesos kind of had the ability to squash any loyalty he had ever felt. Was he a Mexican revolutionary then, like Correna had been? No. He was Zorro, and Zorro never got involved in politics. Was he an American then? No, Diego didn't think he showed the right kind of fervor and political interest to be an American. So who was he loyal to, then? Diego asked himself that, and while he acknowledged that Zorro may be immune to politics, Diego de la Vega certainly wasn't released from a hold to... somebody. It was a pity that he didn't have stronger feelings about this. He couldn't expect Victoria to respect a man who didn't even know which country his heart belonged to.

California, whispered Diego's mind. He loved California like his father loved Spain. It didn't matter who California belonged to, as long as that country treated the territory as if it mattered.

And King Ferdinand wasn't doing that. His appointment of men like DeSoto only showed Diego how out of touch he was with the territory he had conquered. Conquering didn't enforce a sense of belonging, Diego conceded. Correna being killed meant fighting, which meant a revolution. Diego ruminated that Ferdinand had also become embroiled in a war with the French, and the bloodiness of that war, as unexpected as it had been, showed how many soldiers Ferdinand was losing. He needed military men just to hold onto his interests in the colonies, which were questionable assets to begin with, but all those men were unavailable to France. They were all in California. Only Ferdinand had treated the California land with contempt and its citizens with scourges like DeSoto. He apparently turned a deaf ear when the colonies presented problems and grievances to him, as the lack of response to the many letters his father had written over the years illustrated. In truth, the King ignored those complaints from the colonies every time he could, as had been vividly shown in his past dealings with the colonial citizens. No, Ferdinand was losing his control of California bit by bit.

That left Mexico, who may or may not treat the people of California any better. If Mexico didn't substantially improve the lives of Californians, then hopefully someone else would, someone like the Americans.

Diego didn't have any qualms about becoming an American citizen. He would be allowed to vote, to finally have an official say in the running of the government. His only compunction would be that he be married by the time it happened. Since women were denied by law the right to vote, the only voice they had in governmental matters were ostensibly through their husbands, and he refused to leave Victoria, as a single woman, out of the governmental loop. A single woman had little hope of ever garnering any voice in the government. Diego may not agree with such a policy (as if a woman's marital status somehow affected her ability to reason), but he had to concede that many men did agree with that approach. He would never understand the people who thought in such a way.

However, this was all assuming that Victoria could forget her opinions of Diego long enough to fall in love with him and marry him, and this in turn depended on ousting DeSoto from his current governmental post. The man would probably never leave on his own, so convincing him to leave was a mandatory occurrence. That was step one to finally getting the life he, Diego, wanted. He could definitely not have Victoria as his wife while DeSoto was still in office, so DeSoto simply had to go. Only it wasn't simple. What would be considered an act of treason never was.

Diego carefully considered what he had thought about so far in his time during siesta. The idea of ousting DeSoto was alluring, no doubt, but he had expected to feel more anger at the governmental man, especially considering all he had done to the people under his control. When Diego deliberated on the idea of DeSoto unfairly accusing the farmers and merchants of the area of tax evasion, then throwing them in jail for that evasion, thus ensuring that the taxes would never be gathered together and paid, made Diego shake. Injustice always did. It was certainly the reasoning behind his decision to become the bandit that men like DeSoto naturally feared in the first place. The price advertised for him that was meant to act as an incentive for his capture had been an unfortunate response by the King to that original promise to enforce the justice of the pueblo, but Diego didn't see any way to circumvent that fundamental response. Over the years, he had certainly tried to find a way around the price on his head, but had so far been able to discover only more injustice, proving that a man like DeSoto couldn't be trusted. That man had even declared to have cheated at the university! Even if that statement had been offered as a rather badly-timed joke, the idea had been planted in a younger Diego's mind. There was simply no way DeSoto would ever be persuaded to remove the price on Diego's head.

That idea made Diego wonder if DeSoto had really cheated in his classes, as he had claimed once in Los Angeles, or not. Diego knew such odds weren't too far from the realm of possibility; he himself had been tempted by 'friends' from his own classes who had turned out to have little of his best interests at heart. Or rather, to have his interests at heart, but for the right price. Diego the student had laughed at the enticements at the time, but he supposed that a man like DeSoto, who was already asked to withstand the constant stigma of a scholarship, might find the attraction of provided answers to test questions too much to resist. Since Diego knew him so well after two years of continual, devious attempts at his own capture, he knew that DeSoto wasn't as clever as his grades had indicated at the time. It wouldn't surprise him at all if DeSoto had given in to the draw of high grades in exchange for money. Yet he himself had always shown too much integrity to have his grades bought, no matter the asking price. He may have a reward promising 6000 pesos at his capture to contend with, but at least he knew that he couldn't be bought. Considering what he had been forced to then give up in daily life because of that reward, the thought of his freedom from being bought was a small consolation, he admitted to himself.

Still, the idea did have the effect that it was meant to have. Diego felt the first stirrings of the necessary anger in his guts, and the twists of the emotion only grew when he rolled over and attempted for the first time that afternoon to take the siesta his father had suggested. Zorro's recent nightly adventures catching a band of pernicious horse thieves encouraged his nap along, and soon he fell asleep, though the thoughts and ideas he had been contemplating continued to churn in his subconscious mind.

Z Z Z

In the end, it was what happened the next morning that solidified Diego's determination to commit the acts of treason that he had been secretly contemplating the day before. He still had trouble even thinking about such uncomely behavior, but the cold prickles he experienced every time his mind drifted in that direction kept him from thinking those thoughts too often.

However, Diego's father suffered from no such apprehensions. The innocence of another sunny day was too much to resist for Don Alejandro. You know, Diego, he announced the next morning while sitting and reading in the library with his son and grandson, I think you had the right idea yesterday when you went to Victoria's for coffee. Making coffee at home is too much trouble, but coffee sounds good after that job we just had of checking out the stock in the North pasture. Those horses may look fine, but Victoria's coffee sounds equally as inviting.

You won't hear any complaints from me, Father, Diego had said, instantly agreeing with the older caballero's suggestion. But then, he would always approve of an unexpected visit to Victoria's tavern, even at those times when he could do nothing more than look. He was as hopeless as Mendoza, he thought to himself as he rolled his eyes, but agreeably followed his father out the hacienda's front door.

While sitting with Don Alejandro and Felipe at one of the available tables in the tavern, quietly playing a game of chess on the board that Victoria had provided, the Alcalde came in, accompanied by a man opulently dressed in white with gold piping along a jacket also jangling with the clink of medals.

Now, who would wear medals in Los Angeles? Diego asked himself, but before he had the chance to answer his own mental question, DeSoto answered it for him by calling the man accompanying him by his name.

This, de Garcia, is the town's only tavern and a source of entertainment to the peons. His lip curled ever so slightly as he spoke, as if he had smelled something disagreeable, arresting Diego's attention from the chess game. My lancers often spend time here.

As do you, Diego thought, but remained quiet so he could listen to the conversation.

de Garcia glanced around. Judging by the sneer marring his expression, he found the place lacking in the accouterments often offered by such places in Europe. A bit... mean, he finally said in a low, lilting voice.

DeSoto replied, Well, Los Angeles doesn't offer the luxuries of Madrid, that's for sure. Now, before you leave this morning, let me show you the mission... He had turned to start out, but the unexpected arrival of Victoria made him pause. He gestured towards her. May I present Señorita Escalante, the tavern's owner and propriatess. Señorita, Emmanuel de Garcia, of Santa Barbara.

Victoria smiled as she slipped behind the bar to return a bottle of wine that a previous patron had requested. Buenas Dias, Señor, she pleasantly intoned.

de Garcia made no attempt to hide the inspection he was giving Victoria, and the hairs on Diego's arms rose in natural response. Buenas Dias, he said in an obvious tone of appreciation. Then he turned to his companion. A female owner?

DeSoto seemed to stutter, then forced himself to stop and straighten proudly. He was posturing for his friend, Diego realized. Only in the colonies, I assure you, the Alcalde said.

Victoria's smile vanished at that comment, and she snapped her towel firmly against the bar's green countertop. However, years worth of training to be congenial fought for control and won against the rise of her famous temper. Is there something I can get for you, Alcalde?

DeSoto swiveled towards her. Besides that masked fiend, Zorro's, head on a silver platter, I would like a glass of wine to toast the coming of a good friend, Señorita.

Make that two, de Garcia said, unaware of the rush of blood he had interrupted as Victoria blushed at the mention of the well-known bandit's name. Only her response wasn't a gesture indicating embarrassment. It hinted at the rise of her temper over her sense of friendliness.

Diego bristled just slightly at the mention of his alter-ego's name, but he was forced to confess to himself that DeSoto was either very brave or incredibly stupid to wish for the demise of the man accepted to be Victoria's love interest right in front of that interest in question. He waited to see if Victoria would need his help in dealing with the two men, and to intervene, peacefully, of course.

But Victoria seemed to need little assistance. Her face blanched quite remarkably at the Alcalde's comment, but she kept an admirable hold on her obvious anger. I hope you don't mean that, Alcalde. A man of the government would never wish such a thing as the death of one of his own citizens. You would especially not wish such a thing in front of me, and you know perfectly well who I am.

All pretense of nicety was gone now. DeSoto frowned. I certainly do wish for his death if it means a life free of his infuriating brand of justice.

Victoria slapped down the towel she was holding. Your private humiliation, you mean, she said in a dangerously low voice.

de Garcia chose that moment to laugh in amazement. A lady with a temper, I see, he said, amused, as if he never expected to see such a thing displayed in the more genteel environs the pueblo had to offer.

DeSoto straightened his shoulders under his coat in a show of control. That may be, Señorita, he answered, but I only wished to show my good friend, the magistrate from Santa Barbara, around the pueblo. I do not want that magistrate to become involved in our town's political affairs.

Too late, Victoria replied with a toss of her head. He already is involved, and so am I.

de Garcia chuckled again, his appreciation for the unplanned diversion growing. A lady who owns a tavern and shows an interest in politics. He shook his head, as if he had never expected to find one such as Victoria in his travels. I would anticipate a hustler to better know her place.

Incensed at the insult to Victoria's name and at DeSoto's clear lack of a response to that complaint, Diego set his hands on the table in preparation to standing up and coming to Victoria's defense, but he never got the chance.

My place? Victoria asked in a scathing tone. My place has nothing to do with my gender, she proclaimed.

DeSoto would have been forgiven (eventually) if not for his next statement. Seemingly losing his common sense due to his friend's visit, he said, What you and your lover do is of no concern of mine, of course...

Do not call him that, Victoria emphatically stated, her face going from the white of shock to the dark of a dangerous thundercloud in an instant. And I am no hustler. It would be wise of you both to leave, she announced then in tightly controlled fury.

But de Garcia wasn't finished, it seemed. Unsuspecting of the slur his friend had heaped onto the tavern owner, he guilelessly asked, Courtesan then? Is that what you wish to be called?

The rest of the blood in Victoria's face drained to her toes at the unintended, though no less potent, insult. This is not that kind of establishment, Señor.

But he just said something about your lover..? prompted de Garcia, clearly confused. I imagine you've had many...

Angry now beyond even caring about the safety of his identity, Diego seethed at what the Alcalde was inferring and his friend was believing. He rose from his bench, the sound of the wooden legs scraping across the floor in warning. Only his father's cautioning hand on his arm kept him from engaging the government men, even if such a confrontation was out of the established character for him.

Alcalde, warned Victoria in a soft voice. I will not be insulted, by you or by any of your guests to this pueblo. I want him gone, now, she ordered.

de Garcia chose that moment to bristle himself. I will not be told what to do by a mere woman, he said.

Victoria was hardly mollified by this statement. Well, this woman wants you gone from her tavern, she told them.

DeSoto spoke up next. Trying to undo the damage he and his friend had done, he appeasingly said, Now, Señorita Escalante, don't lose your temper...

I said out, Victoria demanded. Then she sneered in derision in DeSoto's direction. And don't bother to pretend to be concerned about my temper. What you've said about Zorro is unpardonable. He has a better sense of justice in his little finger than you do in your entire body. Now, leave, and don't bother coming back for a week.

As nice as it was for Victoria to defend him so roundly, Diego knew that she was also walking a fine line between defense of the man she loved and arrest at the hands of the Alcalde. For her sake, he hoped that she didn't have another night in jail in store for her.

de Garcia postured pompously. In Santa Barbara, where I'm from, no simple barmaid would ever be allowed to behave so disgracefully!

Victoria's anger was turned on him, then. Blazing, she said through clenched teeth, Then we are lucky not to be in Santa Barbara.

DeSoto was finally taking heed of her angry display. He halted further words from his friend by placing a gloved hand on de Garcia's arm. Perhaps it would be best if we leave, as the señorita requests, he suggested.

de Garcia puffed himself up again. Aren't you going to arrest this barmaid, DeSoto? He ridiculed Victoria with his disdainful tone of voice even as he called for her arrest.

DeSoto pulled on his military tunic. An arrest would be pointless, he said, That bandit of hers would only release her from my jail once night is available to conceal his movements.

Victoria smiled, but the gesture had little warmth in it. That's the first true thing you've said all day, Alcalde.

The sneer was back on DeSoto's face. His wish to smooth over the encounter was gone. He pointed a waving finger at Victoria's face. Next time, Señorita, I promise you that I will not only arrest that bandit of yours, but you as well.

Out! Victoria ordered. And I don't want to see you for a week!

DeSoto turned to go, but he didn't appear to be able to resist a parting shot. He turned to de Garcia, but raised his voice to carry easily to Victoria behind the bar. What can one expect from a woman who publicly proclaims an alliance with a known outlaw?

Victoria jerked her way around the counter. Out!

Then the two men were gone.

Victoria stood, rooted to her place at the side of the bar, trembling from residual anger at the conflict she'd just been forced to endure. Then, deliberately, her movements wooden and jerky, she made her way to the kitchen. Diego could tell just by her actions that she was still angry enough to bite through the steel of his sword blade.

Slowly Diego sank back to his original place on his bench, though he still shook with the force of his own anger. He glanced once toward the red and blue curtains to the kitchen, and once at Felipe, who wore as grim an expression as he ever had.

Z Z Z

Diego, Don Alejandro inquired the second they had cantered out of town and were no longer in danger of the lancers or DeSoto overhearing his cautious question, Is it possible for me to ask you something?

Diego commanded his horse nearer to his father's. You always can, he answered, though his voice was still shaky.

Alejandro's face darkened into a frown. While it's very noble of you to come to Victoria's defense like that, I have to ask you what you planned to do when you stood up as you did? Not that I wasn't about to do the same thing, and I have come to the defense of the people many times, but you are not me. After all, I know perfectly well what you proposed to protest in the tavern today.

Diego slowed his horse to a walk so that his father could better hear his voice, and Alejandro's horse, Dulcinea, also slowed. Father, you have to understand that I won't allow anyone to talk to Victoria in such a manner, whether he's the alcalde of Los Angeles or anybody else.

But Diego, protested Alejandro, The Alcalde?

Apparently, since he was the one who couldn't keep his mouth closed, Diego responded, being perhaps the most honest he'd ever been about Ignacio DeSoto, but also being the most uncharitable as well. However, he continued, still sounding low and angry, The things he said to Victoria should not be allowed to be said at all.

And that's another thing, Alejandro noted as he continued, What do you care about what the Alcalde or anybody, for that matter, says about Victoria? I mean, he amended, it was a nice thing to do, the way you stood up and all that, but even I didn't choose yet to stand against the Alcalde! For the way she responded, Victoria could have been arrested, or worse!

I know.

Then why, for heaven's sake? At least tell me that.

Diego was silent for a second, weighing the consequences of whether or not he should tell his father exactly why he had wanted to come to Victoria's defense, but instead said, You've always wanted me to get more involved with the politics of the pueblo, Father, and Victoria is a close family friend. She and Zorro...

Alejandro interrupted. She and Zorro both know that they will have to bear such commentary from people as low as DeSoto. He pulled Dulcinea to a halt when Diego did the same to Esperanza.

Are you saying that I should have just been a good little citizen and let a man who abuses his authority say anything he wants while I stand there and watch? Diego's voice held a hint of sarcastic incredulity in it.

No, that's not what I'm saying, Alejandro protested.

Good, declared Diego in an uncharacteristic show of firmness. I'd hate to think that you agree with the things that DeSoto said.

Alejandro gave a loud snort. I don't agree with him, you know that. However, I hate to have to say it myself, but half the pueblo's citizens have been speculating on the state of Victoria's and Zorro's romance for years, and at least half of that half of citizens would agree with him.

What? Diego nearly shouted while simultaneously trying to remain quiet and unobtrusive. He looked aghast at his father. Are you trying to tell me that a full quarter of the population thinks that... He started to shake again, and didn't get the chance to finish, for which he was a bit grateful.

Diego, interrupted Alejandro again. I don't have any control over what the citizens of this pueblo think. Even if I don't agree with them... and I don't... the fact still remains that you almost challenged the Alcalde today, and I want to know what you hoped to accomplish.

It was a good question. Diego asked himself, What had I hoped to do by standing up in the tavern? It's true that DeSoto had said things that should never have been uttered, or his friend had said them, but two against one shouldn't have worried Diego; he had faced many more simultaneous opponents as Zorro.

But he couldn't forget that he hadn't been Zorro at the time. He'd been simply the weak-willed, scholarly Don Diego when the altercation with the Alcalde had taken place. And Diego would hardly be a feared opponent to DeSoto and his erroneous opinions, no matter the amount of surprise he had on his side. What had he been hoping to do in challenging DeSoto the way he almost had; give away his identity?

Diego blinked. That's precisely what he had thought of in the back of his mind, he realized. Besides wresting an apology out of DeSoto before he beat him senseless for what he had inferred about Victoria, any opposition he would have given to those words of the Alcalde's and de Garcia would have been instantly incriminating. Diego would do just about anything for Victoria, even give away his identity if he had to by simple defending her family name. Was he prepared to do that?

Did he really wish to give away his identity in order to defend Victoria's honor? It was an interesting idea, and would take more thought when he had the time to wrap his mind around it, but his father was waiting impatiently for an answer right now, and he couldn't delay any longer.

I didn't know what I hoped to accomplish, Father. I just know that I couldn't let anybody talk about Victoria that way.

All right, I accept that, Alejandro proclaimed before he went on in a quizzical manner, But again, what does it matter to you? He gazed on in abject bewilderment at his son, clearly confused but also clearly thinking that his more poetic son would not be able to explain his actions.

That lack of expectation of an explanation was as shattering to Diego as DeSoto's and de Garcia's initial comments had been. Still, he had to say something to such a question. I was so angry that I merely thought to... He could tell by the expression on his father's face that the older caballero wasn't buying a word he said. Finally Diego looked around in a furtive manner, saw no one on the grass-covered road, but decided not to take any chances, and quietly said, Not here. I'll explain at home, but not here.

An irritated look crossed Alejandro's face, and one of horrified disbelief colored Felipe's, who had stopped when his father and grandfather had. You better. No excuses this time, Alejandro muttered, then reined Dulcinea to pass by Esperanza on the dirt track. He didn't say anything more to Diego, which did more to enforce his dissatisfaction at the lack of an explanation yet again than that explanation probably could have done in the first place.

Diego didn't miss his father's pointed snub, but he was still too furious at the two men in the tavern to care overly much. He followed Dulcinea, after sending an apologetic look at Felipe.

For himself, Felipe stared at the horizon of waving grass and tried to grow as prepared as possible for a divulgence that had been at least four years in the making. I hope you're up for this, he signed as Diego passed him. His adopted father made no response to his signed statement.

In the front courtyard, Don Alejandro dismounted and found Diego immediately at his elbow. Come on, I have something to show you, Diego softly said as he, too, dismounted, and pulled his father across to the front steps and up to the door.

This is no times for games, Diego, Alejandro argued, but felt Diego's pull a bit too strong to resist. He went along with Diego, practically tripping on the carpet of the library as his son paused at the fireplace in order to glance surreptitiously around the room. Okay, no more games Diego, out with it.

I'm trying, muttered Diego, and he pushed his hand against a spot on the fireplace mantel piece. Before Alejandro could protest again, a door opened in the back panel of the fireshell, and Diego had pulled him towards it before his surprise could root him to the library floor. Felipe followed close on their heels.

Alejandro was in shock. His voice echoed in the corridor that they found themselves in. What..? he asked in a whisper. Then he paused and looked back at the doorway. So that's where it's been hiding all these years. He turned his still surprised face to Diego, who stood in front of him in the narrow tunnel. You have no idea the amount of time I spent looking for this escape route when I was young! he exclaimed.

Escape route? So his father knew of the cavern and its exit into the hills? This statement surprised even Diego. You knew about the cave?

Knew about it? Alejandro asked rhetorically. My father showed it to me, he divulged. He made sure I knew how to open the passage from both sides, in case we were ever separated in an Indian attack - they were much more prevalent in my younger days than they are now - but then I joined the army and came back to a wife and a son, then Elena got sick... I'm afraid I forgot the location of the passageway, and by then my father was dead and I couldn't ask him about it again. I searched over the years, of course, but... I would never have thought to look for the spring to the opening in the library fireplace, though! I always thought it was in one of the bedrooms. I remember seeing the side of a wardrobe... or a desk! His eyes brightened. Yes! My father's desk always sat under the window, and I was so short in my younger years that I thought I was seeing a tall dresser standing near the opening! Alejandro's surprise turned to a grin. And it's been in the library all this time! he said in amazed appreciation. He continued to gaze with an inquiring eye at his son. You found it, though, didn't you?

Well, Felipe did, Diego admitted. Talking about this part of his past always made him feel just slightly uncomfortable, as if he'd done something that he should feel proud of, a sensation that was unfamiliar to the more modest young don. In the end, it just made him nervous.

But not so for Alejandro, who had no trouble feeling the confidence he'd been raised with. You mentioned a cave? he asked. I vaguely recall a cavern of some kind... He pushed forward in the tunnel, then shoved both Diego and Felipe out of the way until he rounded the corner to emerge in... Wait a moment... He gazed at the black clothing, the silk mask, the cave, Toronado... He hadn't expected to find himself in what was obviously Zorro's secret lair.

Alejandro stood at the bottom of the stairs leading down into the cave, and hesitantly glanced around. He took everything in that his eyes could possibly land on - The arsenal of weapons, the mirror, the decorations of Zorro's adventures liberally displayed on the rough stone walls, the desk and worktables, the bookcases filled to the brim with volumes of every kind, Toronado unconcernedly munching on something in the stall area that had been set aside to house the powerful stallion - It all coalesced into one questioning look on his face. He whipped back to stare at Diego again. You? he practically gasped in stunned shock.

Diego glanced once at the stones under his feet. Yes, he whispered in admittance. He's always been me.

Alejandro's eyes widened. You've done this in my own hacienda? he asked. Right under my very nose? His thoughts raced on, heedless to the discoveries they would make, according to his expression. Suddenly, his face fell as he considered all he'd done and said over the years... It coalesced relentlessly in his mind; he'd reviled his peace-loving son for refusing to stand up for the rights of the peasants, for disappearing every time there was trouble brewing in town, for working diligently on those many experiments of his... Suddenly a shame so penetrating as to be almost infinite overtook his expression. Oh, Dios mio, he said in a low voice again. I called you a coward once, and you were surely just...

Diego's nervousness increased, but Felipe's waving and signing forced him to acknowledge the hurt he'd experienced in the past. Those comments as to my abilities may have been false, he began, and they may have... caused a certain amount of distress... but you can hardly be blamed for saying them. You didn't have all the information, and that's my fault, he conceded.

Alejandro's eyebrows rose as he considered Diego's words, then thought of his obvious skill with a sword, and he wondered at what other talents his son had hidden from him in the past. Then it's the truth? he asked, a bit harsh in his surprise. That you haven't told this secret to anyone? Diego's nervousness distinctly illustrated his inexperience with dealings of such an honest nature.

Diego took a calming breath. To speak the truth very likely meant discovery, which meant death, most probably for me as well as the speaker of the secret. In all good conscience, I couldn't tell a soul.

Not even me? Alejandro asked in a strained tone of voice.

You were one of the two I was always most concerned about, Diego acknowledged. If you knew the truth, do you honestly think you could have hidden it over the years?

Alejandro turned and stared at Toronado for a moment, then turned back to gaze at his son and grandson. You... I would have... He stopped and forcefully swallowed hard enough to make his Adam's Apple bob in his throat. Then he let a breath hiss out between his teeth. I'm having so many thoughts, that I don't know where to begin, he finally muttered. I can't believe you did all this alone... He gestured at the worktables with a lackluster wave. Victoria doesn't even know?

No, Diego answered, looking regretful now. You're the first person I've told in six years. Only Felipe knowns the truth.

Only Felipe..? Alejandro blinked twice. Of course, you two have always been such a pair of... He shook his head, making his silver hair dance against his shoulders in an attempt to physically force himself out of the stupor he had fallen into. Even Victoria... Again he interrupted himself. Victoria... My son, Diego, is in love with... He paused once more. Don't you think she has the right to know who she's waiting for?

The sense of obvious discomfort again settled on Diego's shoulders. She has the right, he said on a sigh, but if she were ever harmed because of her knowledge of my activities... The threat hung in the air of the cave, made more insidious with its unfinished promise. I can't tell her. But now you know why I grew so angry at the Alcalde's accusations this morning. His visage turned hard and more unforgiving even as his father looked on.

Yes, that does make sense now, Alejandro slowly admitted. As does a great many other things... The stink the library often seemed to have, the way Diego could appear at will and be reading in the same room that Alejandro had just checked a moment earlier... Suddenly his eyes widened as his thoughts turned to contemplating the many exploits of Zorro that he had seen. It's you the lancer's were always ordered to shoot at? You with that amazing skill with a sword? My own son..? A master?

Diego fidgeted, more accustomed to hearing criticism instead of praise. Now you know why I never told you, he said in a moment of quiet sincerity.

Alejandro began, Yes, but... He paused, and his eyes suddenly moved to the collection of practice foils hanging on the wall. Care to give an old man a demonstration? he asked suddenly.

Diego followed his father's gaze, then his own became hesitant. Are you sure you want to do that? he asked, still reluctant.

Oblivious to what he was truly asking, Alejandro shrugged. I may be old, but I still have some tricks up my sleeve.

Diego shrugged as well. As you wish. Halfheartedly, but with a hint of pride behind his slow, deliberate actions, he moved to the spot where the foils surrounded his typical Toledo blade resting in its scabbard. He pulled it from its place and another sword from their storage pegs pounded into the wall, then tossed the second blade guard first towards his father, who plucked it out of the air.

Don't hold back, Alejandro ordered.

Diego sized up his father like he would any other adversary. I wouldn't dream of it, he answered flippantly, some of his more usual humor finally clawing through the residual anger he still felt. He clamped down on his emotions, then tucked his fingers into the guard of his sword. A true exhibition of skill, he promised.

Just like you showed to Emissary Risendo, Alejandro ascertained.

Diego raised his brows, slightly surprised that his father was so sure of either his own skills as a swordsman, or that uncertain of his son's abilities with the same weapon. With an uncustomary display of showmanship, Diego transferred the blade to his left hand, then sliced through the air a few times and saluted. Whenever you're ready, he invited.

Felipe dove behind the desk, giving the two men all the room he could.

Alejandro saluted in return, his gesture of respect not nearly as practiced nor as fluid as Diego's. Hold nothing back, he reminded. Diego nodded, then had no time to turn his attention to anything but the fight that he had been pressed into.

Alejandro lunged, and Diego parried. Alejandro attacked again, only to turn his blade aside at the last second. Diego blocked him again. Then Alejandro swung his sword around in an arc that was meant to connect to his son's exposed right shoulder. Diego parried with a circular motion that sent Alejandro's sword clanging to the ground. Felipe grinned from his safe place behind the desk.

Alejandro rotated his wrist with some irritation and bent to retrieve his sword. Again.

This time Diego only took two moves to disarm his father.

Now Alejandro's irritation was deeper. He retrieved his sword once more from its place on the floor near the worktable. Again, and this time, use your sword arm.

Diego shrugged and switched hands. If you insist.

Using his right hand, the next disarm took only one block and one returning move. Just for the sake of interest, Diego swung his sword up fast enough to make the air whistle around it and brought it to a stop a few centimeters from his father's ruffled, white collar. Point, he said, the confidence finally leaking through his voice.

A moment went by while the only sound in the cave was the heaves of exertion on Alejandro's part and Toronado's ridiculously loud chewing. Then Alejandro chuckled. Perhaps I'm not as good as I remember.

Diego drew back his sword and saluted. Perhaps, was all he said with a raise of his eyebrows.

Alejandro implored, Can Felipe..?

Ask him yourself, Diego suggested.

Alejandro turned, but even after coming fully around, he only half faced the young man, and expected only half a response because of it. Felipe, can you fight as well? he asked.

In answer, Felipe merely nodded, then joined his grandfather with a gesture meant to take his sword.

Alejandro didn't understand the full implications of the motion at first. Felipe had taken the practice sword, faced his mentor and father, and saluted before the entire truth of the matter had impressed itself upon Alejandro's mind. He gaped. Felipe, can you hear?

But Felipe had only enough time to nod once before Diego attacked with a swinging arch of his own. Felipe blocked the attack, and soon the two were dancing around the worktables as they traded blows in a resounding clanging of metal striking on metal. A small smile of joy seeped slowly onto Diego's face, and eventually, the gesture grew into the grin that Alejandro was familiar with, and one he associated with the famous masked man more than any other movement.

Ha! Diego grunted, then finally disarmed Felipe with a complicated riposte. Felipe grimaced, then grinned even though he was also panting in exertion. It was apparent that he had enjoyed pitting his growing skill against his teacher's. Well done, Felipe, Diego praised. You've finally learned to keep your defense up, he said in some excitement. Felipe grinned again, then crawled under the desk where his sword had come to a stop after a roll that had been hard enough to bend it's handguard.

Diego turned his attention back to Alejandro. Convinced? he inquired in amusement.

Alejandro could only nod. I think so, he said, dazed at the swordplay he'd just witnessed come from his studious son. But how about the whip you always use? he asked.

Diego raised his eyebrow again, but only took his sword and the one offered him by Felipe, returned them to their proper places in the wall armory, and came back with Zorro's customary black whip. Diego pointed at a candle guttering on the worktable, judged the distance between him, the candle, and the cavern's high ceiling, then flicked his wrist. The whip snaked out and snuffed the candle without coming in contact with the hot wax.

Gracious, Alejandro muttered with a twitch of his shoulders at the snap of the black braided, leather whip.

Proud of his skills in spite of his desire not to show it off, Diego coiled the whip back into its usual circle. I practiced at least for several moments every few days.

Alejandro gaped again. You did this... for years? Again, Diego nodded. Alejandro whistled. Heaven help the Alcalde.

Diego's expression instantly darkened at the mention of the Alcalde. What he said to Victoria... He paused, leaving his words hanging in the air of the cave.

Alejandro's demeanor suddenly grew darker and more meaningful as well. Diego, he said in a quieter voice full of dread mixed with curiosity. What do you plan to do to DeSoto? Because Diego had to make some form of response to the rude words uttered injudiciously in the tavern, especially after witnessing the man's negligent and unforgivable attitude, even if the government man he had been posturing for had been a friend.

Diego considered his father for a moment. How much of his past thoughts, which were inarguably linked to DeSoto and his outrageous words, could his father handle? I'm not sure I should tell you everything, Diego finally divulged. The shock might be more than you can take.

Alejandro nodded, but said, However, you should tell Victoria of your identity, he suggested. A possibly dangerous undertaking encourages, almost demands, an explanation, at least in a letter, perhaps, if you don't have time to tell her face to face. Surely the man who is Zorro can see that?

Diego considered again. A letter? Hmmm, he repeated. I hadn't thought of that. He sounded as if such an idea had merit.

Tell her, Alejandro said one more time. She deserves to know. He turned to the steps leading out of the cave and back to the library. Yet he paused, and a grin erupted across his face. One more shake of his head indicated his surprised and proud thoughts, as if he hadn't expected to be thinking of his son in such a way. But he said nothing, and disappeared up the steps, still shaking his head in astonishment.

The desertion left Diego in the center of the cave, alone with only Felipe to distract him from his new ideas and the consequences of his possible actions.

Z Z Z

Two hours later found Diego sitting motionless behind his desk, feeling paralyzed by old, familiar fears, but moved to action by his father's entreaties. It was a strange partial existence to be in, he considered. Yet, he stared blankly at the empty piece of paper he had pulled in front of him several hours before. The words for a letter or a message to Victoria remained elusive, tucked into the remote areas of his mind, no matter what his father had suggested.

Finally, Diego settled on simply stating the facts as he understood them because he knew he had to write something, and soon, or Felipe would not have time to deliver the letter before his adoptive father was either forced to take his planned retribution or forget about that retribution and leave his plans for another day. However, Diego found that he wanted to take action against every one of DeSoto's evil schemes as soon as he possibly could. As soon as possible meant that he had to tell Victoria everything now, if he wanted her to know at all, or never. The alternative, to remain silent, wasn't really an option any longer. Victoria had the right to know of his identity if he wanted to make DeSoto pay for the allusions he had made about her that morning in the tavern. And as Diego had decided to do his protesting as himself instead of Zorro, since Zorro should have and did have no political connections, and Diego wanted to keep it that way, he had to tell the truth to Victoria while he had the chance if he didn't want to publicly embarrass her by announcing to the pueblo's citizens his identity without telling Victoria first. It was the only decent way to treat her, and he loved her too much to treat her indecently. So Diego started writing with his quill dripping ink on the blotter sitting on his desk.

Sweet Victoria,

The time has come, I think, to give you what you've been asking for these last six years, and now would seem to be the right moment. As I'm contemplating a rather... unexpected... and uncharacteristic... political action (if you don't know anything, you can't tell anything, so forgive me if I'm not specific), I also find that I have no wish to leave you unwarned about the occurrence of such an event. To reveal myself to you in a public setting is the last thing I want to do, especially in one that would be no less than utterly shocking to you, and would leave you at the mercy of the idle speculation of the citizens of the pueblo. I would far rather unmask myself in a letter than show myself to you in such a surprising manner. I certainly do not want to compound the strain you most probably feel just from life in general and being, through no fault of your own, such a public figure. If I could, I would save you from such publicity and turn off the love I feel for you so you would not be forced to suffer in that public setting as we always have, but I find that it would be an impossible task.

You must remember that I love you, only you, I always have, and I always will. I want nothing more than to protect you for the rest of your life, even though I expect no one to be more capable of taking care of herself on her own than you are. But I know from past experience that we don't always get what we want. Barring the possibility of someday marrying you and holding you in my arms forever, it seems as if the least I can do is finally tell you who I am, though doing so scares me more than fighting an entire legion of lancers.

Here, Diego took a deep breath, smelling the sulfur and the sodium that colored the air in the cave from all of his past experiments. The odor was familiar, and strangely unforgiving at the same time. Diego took some apprehensive comfort in the smells, and continued on:

The previous opinions you've had of me have kept me silent all these years, as has the worry that, by telling you the truth, I risk losing you forever, and I'm not sure I can handle that. However, you have the right to know of my identity. If I can't do this in a face-to-face conversation, as I prefer, then a letter will have to do.

I'm stalling. I'm so afraid, and I'm not usually afraid of anything. You hold more power over me than you know; perhaps I love you too well, and too completely. But I can hardly help myself; I've loved you since the day we met, or perhaps even before that, since the beginning of time, it seems, and now you are a part of my soul, whether I think it's 'safe' or not. Though such a thing crept up on me, I realized that I was in love with you only after it was too late to do anything about it except to constantly protect your safety by saying nothing and maintaining my continued silence. It seems as if I have been silent for a long time.

I'm still stalling. Perhaps the only way for me to tell you of my identity at all is to emphatically affirm that I love you, and to sign my name.

Yours forever,

Diego de la Vega, the man you know as Zorro.

One more deep breath, a cringe at the risk he was taking, then without reading through his writing to second guess his words, Diego folded the letter and forced it into the envelope he already had prepared and resting before him. He sealed the letter, then left the cave to call for Felipe, who would deliver the message as discreetly as possible. Diego set himself to release the fate of his life into his adopted son's hands, and prepared the unthinkable, treason, and his long awaited unmasking as he confronted DeSoto in the Los Angeles plaza.

Z Z Z

An hour later, Felipe had returned from his mission as impromptu messenger, but Diego studiously avoided asking what Victoria's reaction had been to receiving such an unexpected letter. He only knew that it had been delivered, and his destiny now rested in the petite hands of a tavern owner who might or might not accept his suit. But this sense of unease he now felt was better than the 'not knowing' of her reaction to the news of his identity. So he prepared himself as best he could for the upcoming ordeal, all the while secretly hoping for possible acceptance, steeling himself against rejection, and trying not to sweat too much in the interim.

Turning his attention to the objective he had assigned to himself also became his unexpected salvation. He managed to forget his misgivings about Victoria, and grew angrier by degrees as he recalled the insults he had heard only that morning at the tavern, and the thoughts of the treason he meant to commit in order to finally rid the pueblo of DeSoto forever. Oddly enough, the revolutionary ideas were calming now that he had at last decided it was time to choose sides and believe in something more than his nebulous sense of justice. It was an extremely decisive move on his part, especially as he had never displayed political leanings before, either as Diego or as Zorro.

Diego's first concern was to come up with a way to quickly disarm the pueblo's lancers, or he would have the worry of bullets piercing his unprotected back added to the concern he already had of convincing DeSoto it was in his best interest to leave the area. He had no wish to forsake Los Angeles and abandon the citizens to life without an alcalde, but he couldn't in all conscience allow Victoria to live down DeSoto's words on her own, either. Besides, how could he expect people to continue their respect of a man who couldn't stand up for himself, or for the woman he loved, if he didn't make some kind of response? And if he was going to respond, he might as well respond in the most dramatic way he knew how. And Diego was capable of being quite dramatic when he wanted to be. His plan promised to be as exciting to watch as he could make it, and Alejandro and Felipe had already departed for the pueblo with the desire not to miss any of the coming activities. Diego had simply neglected to inform his father of what those activities entailed. The less Alejandro knew, in this case, the better off he'd be.

The second concern Diego had was actually relatively easy to decide upon. He grew angrier still as he recalled the words uttered about him in the tavern, and his goal remained the unexpecting DeSoto the entire time. The fact that an act of treason was necessary to convince DeSoto to leave Los Angeles didn't bother him as much as he'd always thought it would. If DeSoto had been the just alcalde that Ferdinand had promised, none of these actions would now be required.

Diego's third decision was, of all things, how to arrive in the pueblo. This seemingly unimportant point was a point of more importance than he first anticipated. Realizing that he needed to be his real self to be convincing, he chose to wear a white shirt to represent the part of himself that was Diego, and the black trousers from his outfit as Zorro. By riding Toronado into the pueblo, he solidified his identity as the masked bandit, and, at the same time, showed his true personality in a way that he had never shown it before. It was to be an unmasking in more ways than one. Besides, he might need a fast escape, and Toronado was easily the quickest horse in the pueblo.

To review the plan he had in mind, Diego went over everything one final time before leaving the hacienda for Los Angeles, perhaps for the last time if a lancer became luckier than he anticipated and shot him the minute he entered the plaza.

So, Diego would use surprise to ride into Los Angeles, his skill to disarm DeSoto - and he knew that he had always been holding back to match his ability with a sword to DeSoto's, so disarming DeSoto was almost an inevitability - and once he had DeSoto disarmed and at sword point, then he would demand that each lancer drop his weapon before anyone had the chance to fire. It was at that hoped-for time that he would 'ask' DeSoto to leave, and if the government man refused, demand his departure.

Victoria's reaction was so unknown that he refused to extrapolate its possible outcomes in an attempt not to distract himself with worries that he couldn't control.

It was a simple plan, elegant, as foolproof as he could make it, except for Victoria's reaction.

Then why was he so determined to sweat so much?

Ignoring the warning bells that consistently peeled in his mind, Diego saddled Toronado for perhaps the last time with a resolve that he had rarely felt before.

Z Z Z

At least, that was the plan he had in mind. But everyone there watching knew that even the best-laid plans could go awry. Which is exactly what happened, from the very beginning. Nothing went as Diego expected it to go; even to the point that DeSoto was waiting for some form of retaliation from Zorro for his words in the tavern. He just hadn't anticipated that Diego, of all people, was the man he so feared. But the second that Toronado's familiar scream rang across the plaza, he seemed doubly glad that he was surrounded by his best lancers.

Not that being surrounded by his best soldiers was much of an advantage to DeSoto. It was clear to each witness the instant the fight broke out that Diego, as Zorro, had always been slightly withholding his skill with a sword when battling with the soldiers, which also meant that he must have been pretending while fighting DeSoto as well. The entire time Diego fought through the line of lancers sent out to protect their Alcalde, Diego kept one eye trained on DeSoto. With every punch to the jaw and round of blurrily fast swordplay, however, Diego found himself no closer to his enemy than he had been from the moment he'd ridden into town.

I have to get away and rethink my strategy, Diego decided as he kicked out and his boot struck another unlucky lancer. I would be happy to have any kind of strategy now, he thought wryly to himself even as he studiously avoided glancing in the direction of the tavern. He didn't want to know if Victoria was watching or not. He didn't want to see her reaction to him, especially not after receiving that letter he wrote baring his heart and soul to her. The sounds of yells and screams had covered up the clangs of sword fighting so far, but it was nothing compared to the roaring of fear in Diego's ears.

Diego began to systematically fight in the direction of the mission, where he hoped to disappear for a few moments by taking sanctuary of the church, but even that was denied him as the more soldiers he rendered unconscious, the more ran out of the garrison to take their places. As he backed carefully in the direction of the mission, the lancers drove him to the side, trying to sneak around behind him, until he found himself sweating and fighting in a spat of fierce swordplay even as the mission's back walled-in garden appeared on his right. He barely glanced at it, all his attention taken up by the sudden change in the level of fierceness of the battle.

Thus he was more than surprised, stunned even, when he found his unexpected opportunity to punch the final lancer left standing, did so, began to turn to run into the mission through the tiny gate that led into the garden and to the church, and literally ran into Victoria shoulder first. The basket she'd been carrying flew into the air, something green seemed to descend in slow motion, until both basket and whatever she'd been gathering settled onto the man laid out before them in a puddle of blue and red uniform.

Diego! she said.

Victoria! he exclaimed back in surprise.

Diego quickly sent a furtive glance to the front of the mission, saw no one in the immediate vicinity, took her hand and led her at a run through the dust beside the walled-in garden.

Diego, are you crazy? Where are you taking me? Victoria yelled immediately. Then the wall surrounding the garden cut them off from the view of the plaza as grass growing on that little-used side of the holy building took over from the dust common to Los Angeles.

Sh! Diego hissed in a whisper. Do you want everyone to hear you and figure out where we are? He looked down at the grass that curled around his boot toes, then back at the trail he and Victoria had left through the dirt and grass. The trail was obvious to him, even through the grass, but DeSoto and the lancers had not had nearly the amount of practice tracking that he had. They would never see a trail through grass. There, that should keep them from following us. With that, he hefted his sword onto the top of the high wall meant to keep deer, wild horses, and other animals from wandering into the garden, lifted Victoria to follow his sword up onto the top of the wall, then jumped up to join her before he put one finger to his lips to indicate a need for silence. Quick as a blink, he had slipped over the wall down to the path that ran alongside, and helped her to land beside him. He grabbed her hand again, then bent lower to sneak up the path and into the mission through its wooden back door.

Diego softly closed the door, barred it, then led her to the front of the building and dropped her hand in order to open the double door just enough to peak through the crack provided for his eye. When he had ascertained that no lancer had either followed them or stood before the door in an unplanned siege around the mission, he quietly closed the door and threw the bolt across it. Only then did he resheath his sword and turn to her. What are you doing here? he fiercely whispered.

Me? she answered, also in a subdued tone of voice. I'm gathering cilantro. What are you doing?

Diego didn't respond to her harsh-sounding inquiry. Gathering cilantro? he repeated incredulously. In the evening?

Victoria propped her hands on her hips in a show of annoyance. It's best to gather it in the evenings - everyone knows that.

I can't believe you buy that old tale, Victoria, Diego said in a slight reprimanding tone just before pushing the bolt on the door aside once more and peering through the tiny crack his move had created before closing and locking the door again. He drew her a few steps back.

She began her denial quietly, as if they'd never even moved. It may be an old tale, but I'm not willing to risk the possible dissatisfaction of my customers; running an eating establishment has its rules, too, you know. Besides, and her voice grew sarcastic, I've been a little preoccupied while pondering a certain letter I received by messenger this afternoon; now is the first time I've had since lunch where my brain wasn't mush, I wasn't consumed with anger, or I didn't feel completely confused. I came to the mission for Confession, but I can't find the padre, even though I looked everywhere, and I just picked the herbs to cover any suspicion about my actions in case I'm being watched. Her voice changed again to a more acerbic tone. Though I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to avoid even that anymore.

Diego grimaced. I'm sorry about your discomfort - I certainly never meant to cause you any confusion.

Well, you did! Victoria claimed, though her voice was still hushed.

Diego again made the motion to indicate the need for quiet. I'm sorry! he whispered vehemently once again. But I had to tell you before... He interrupted himself and his voice waned into nothing as he went on staring at her face.

Before..? she prompted.

Before this! he finally and emphatically granted. Before I came to the pueblo and showed off more skill with a sword than you ever expected to see from me. He attempted to explain. Look, Victoria, ever since the Alcalde and his friend spoke to you that way in the tavern this morning, I knew...

And you never once considered that it was a trap, did you? she cut through his words.

An expression of confusion split his features into a frown. A trap? But...

She continued on. I know, I played right into their plans, too. I didn't think of it as a setup meant to ambush you until much later, unfortunately. I was going back over the Alcalde's words in my mind when I figured it all out; he would never say such things. He may not not be my favorite person, but he has never before been so... crude, she settled on at last. I was just wondering how to get word to you of my suspicions when Felipe showed up at the tavern. I was too confused after that to do anything... Oh, you've heard the rest, she growled.

A trap, Diego whispered in stunned softness. He slowly crossed over to the nearest pew and lowered himself down on the wooden seat after moving his sword out of the way. Suddenly he gave a dry chuckle. I admit, I didn't see that one coming; he's far more clever than I ever gave him credit for.

Don't feel too badly; I thought of it too late to do anything about it, too, Victoria said in self deprecation as she joined him on the pew.

Diego turned to regard her. At least you thought of it, he said. That's more than I did.

Victoria smiled forgivingly. It was luck, nothing more.

Diego shook his head. There's no such thing as luck, he negated.

Victoria glanced up at him. Sure there is. It was luck that led you into my tavern to save me from that soldier I had dumped lemonade on the day I met you.

Diego smiled. You still remember that?

Victoria gave an answering gesture in kind, soft and slow. Of course I do.

Was that luck or fate? Diego queried.

It doesn't matter, she stated unequivocally. You came in, we met.

Diego gave another snort of derision. Then you and father got arrested, Zorro showed up to rescue you, and the rest is history, I suppose.

Not all of it, she insisted.

Diego looked at her from the corners of his eyes. Victoria's black hair fell over one shoulder in enticement. He wondered if she knew how she set his heart to somersaulting inside his chest? What do you mean 'Not all of it'?

Victoria sighed, but the sound wasn't nearly so irritated now. I mean that we haven't decided what to do now, she said. We haven't discussed your letter yet, and though the Alcalde and his lancers are pressing business, surely, your letter shouldn't be ignored. I think it's just as pressing.

That letter... Diego started to say, then he paused and asked, What did you think about that letter, by the way? He made the inquiry sound light so she wouldn't suspect how important it was to him.

Victoria was still, and for a terrifying moment, Diego couldn't tell what was going through her mind, judging solely by her expression. At first I was so angry, I couldn't see straight. Then she snorted a laugh. A predictable reaction.

Beside her, Diego smiled softly too. I admit that I always expected you to be angry.

After that I couldn't decide if I wanted to hit you alongside the head with my heavy kettle or dance for joy around the tap room of the tavern.

Diego grimaced now. I would rather see you dancing for joy than get clobbered with a kettle, he admitted.

She had some admitting of her own to do. I don't know that you wouldn't have gotten your engagement ring back if you'd walked into the tavern just then.

Diego winced. You were angry. He'd always suspected that she would want to give the ring back if she ever found out the truth. He sighed. I anticipated that, at least.

I'm not finished, she chided him.

Oh, sorry. Please, go on, he invited. You were confused?

Yes, Victoria said, her voice soft and reminiscent. That's why I came over here to see Padre Benitez. Maybe he could suggest to me what to do.

A good idea, Diego said to her.

Victoria snorted in derision again. A lot of good it did me. I couldn't even find him. All I found was you, fighting for your life when you were supposed to be rebelling, and I didn't even know it. I couldn't even hear it! The last she said in more self derision.

Victoria, Diego instantly mollified, his voice softer yet. Don't be so hard on yourself; you were in here or in the back of the mission, where you couldn't see anything over that wall. It's no wonder you didn't know what was happening.

Victoria rolled her eyes. That's an understatement! she avowed, then gave a physical shake if her head that made her hair dance. The move was enough to make Diego blanch in reaction, but she didn't notice. However, we were talking about your letter, she reminded.

Diego groaned. My letter. Perhaps it would be best if you just forget about it.

Victoria's eyes widened. Forget about it? she asked in amazement. How can I forget about it? She faced forward after her rhetorical question to stare in a daze at the pews surrounding the one she sat in. Then her gaze turned more appreciative. It certainly was a bold move, writing your name down like that. The King would only have to read that letter to have enough evidence to hang you!

Diego sighed, the sound spilling regret through the room. I know. I thought long and hard before I wrote anything, let me assure you.

Victoria nodded. I bet you did. You're conservative enough in your movements for me to believe that. She nodded again. I burned it the moment I had read through it; it was too incriminating a letter to just leave lying around. Then a grin leaked through her expression of censure. It was also the most romantic letter I've ever received.

Diego's head jerked up to regard her. Romantic? he asked, to make sure that he had heard correctly.

Victoria grinned again, in bit of embarrassment this time, and shifted on her seat. Well, yes. I've had people pour their hearts out to me before, but not quite so... poetically. Finally, she blushed. It was beautiful, she confessed quietly. I've never gotten anything quite like it before.

Suspicious of any feeling she might have that didn't include yelling unmercifully at him, he stared at her. What do you mean? he finally asked again for more clarification as he recalled all the things he'd said in that letter.

It was her turn to glance at him out of the corners of her eyes. Finally, she said, Maybe I should write you a letter sometime as a reply. That might be interesting.

Jittery beyond endurance, he said, Victoria, though a letter from you would gladden my heart like nothing else would, I'd prefer to know your response now, I admit.

Do you have to ask? she inquired. She could see the fear emanating from his eyes.

Diego stared at her again, unsure of how much or how little he could assume. Well, yes, he answered slowly. Don't you think I should?

That's what I love about you, she admitted with a soft, shy smile. You have to know as much as you can about everything before you commit yourself to something, even me.

Diego looked at her one more time. I like to know what I'm getting into. He lifted one hand up to rub against her cheek and down to her chin as if it was someone else's fingers. You're so soft, he noted in a haze.

Victoria leaned against his fingers and kissed their tips. I like your overdeveloped sense of justice. Her own hand reached up to explore his face as well. And your mustache, she told him. And your blue eyes...

Diego scooted forward until his leg was touching hers all along its length to the point where the contact was driving him crazy. I prefer dark eyes, he whispered even as he stared unabashedly into her own eyes of deep brown.

She whispered back, Then it's fortunate mine are so dark.

Victoria...

As he spoke, they were drawing closer together. The sensation of love shining from his vibrant blue eyes was palpable to anybody looking. Fortunately, they were completely alone in the tiny mission church. A serious expression had taken hold of his features, though it was clear that for the first time in years that the mask he'd always hidden behind was absent.

Victoria, I... he began to say again, but never had the chance to finish as she twined her fingers in his hair, something she had obviously always wanted to do, as the passion with which she performed the move melted any resistance he might have had left. He felt her gentle tug on his head, then her lips met his, and neither of them had time to do anything anymore.

That first mask-free kiss was soft, and tender, and aching with the repressed emotions belonging to them both. Diego wrapped his arms around her and felt immediately like he was falling into her. At the same time his heart swelled with the feelings of love and well-being that washed over him as he deepened the kiss.

Victoria felt his fingers move to explore her face, her shoulders, her hair as his kiss sought the same emotion he felt from her lips. Her pulse pounded as she responded completely in kind, and enveloped his face with fingers that suddenly couldn't cover ground fast enough. They quaked as they touched what they had hungered to feel for many long years.

Victoria's lips slid to his cheek, then to his ear before she fully embraced him, hanging on as tightly as if she had been looking for him for as long as she'd known him.

My Diego, she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. I finally found you.

Diego rocked back and forth on the pew. I'm not going anywhere. Not now. Not ever, he vowed, and kissed her cheek.

Don't promise, she instructed with a smile in her voice. We've spent enough time on promises.

Diego laughed, a light rumbling sound that started in his chest. I can't guarantee that, but I can certainly try. He paused, then added, It's why I'm attempting to rid the pueblo of this yoke of tyranny it's under; we have no hope of a future as long as DeSoto's in place.

Victoria hesitated, and she knew that Diego felt it.

What? he prompted.

Victoria reluctantly sat back, but voiced what was on her mind. What do you plan to do about DeSoto? How are you going to defeat him and all those lancers?

Diego's sigh once again cut through the sanctuary of the church. I don't know now. Things haven't exactly gone as I'd planned. And you're the one with all the ideas; you tell me what to do.

But before she could answer, the choice was made for him.

de la Vega! DeSoto's voice penetrated through the mission's doors. We have you surrounded!

Diego looked at Victoria in alarm. How had the lancers unraveled the trail he and Victoria had left through the grass? Apparently they found us.

You can come out and surrender or we blow up the mission! the disembodied voice warned next.

He's bluffing! Victoria cried at the same time Diego's voice exploded into the quiet of the church, They can't!

We can, DeSoto claimed, as if he'd heard Diego's exclamation. We can rebuild anything! he declared. Then he anticipated his adversary's next concern. We have plenty of gunpowder to do it, too, and we have the padre, and your father, both of whom will be released on your surrender. So, what's it to be? Your capitulation, the mission, or perhaps we should just go straight to blowing up the houses belonging to the citizens? I think we'll start with the tavern first.

No! Victoria said loudly and gave a startled jerk.

So, you have the Señorita, noted the voice, muffled by the wood in the doors, but unmistakably that of the Alcalde. You don't want her to die in the mission, or have her livelihood destroyed, do you? But it's your decision; you have five minutes!

Five minutes! Victoria exclaimed in an agonized voice.

Diego blew out a breath. It really was no choice at all as far as he was concerned.

You can't do it! Victoria declared. You can't give yourself up.

Diego also jerked at the suggestion. Then what would you have me do, Victoria? I can't let them hurt Padre Benitez, my father, or you!

But my life is not worth your surrender! Victoria stated vehemently.

Diego turned stricken eyes on her. Your life is priceless! he whispered fiercely.

That's what he's counting on you to think! He has to be bluffing!

What choice do I have? Diego spoke fiercely.

Run! Victoria commanded next. You're an outlaw, a bandit! You know things they'll never conceive of! They'll never find you!

Diego was partially appalled that she would even suggest such a thing. I can't run! They know who I am now. It will only be a few hours before they have you, Felipe... I can't make fugitives out of everybody I love!

Victoria threw herself into his arms. But I just found you! she protested with the sound of tears in her voice. I can't lose you now!

Diego held her close. Take sanctuary of the church, he ordered. Padre Benitez will hide you...

Three minutes! bellowed the voice through the door. Victoria turned a tear stained face to Diego.

But for how long? she argued. I can't stay here forever! I don't have the money to do that!

Diego was caught, he realized. I can't run. I can't do that to you! he said.

Two minutes! warned DeSoto from outside.

Then came another voice, this one belonging to his father. Don't do it, Diego! Run! A moment later: Take your hands off me!

Then, DeSoto again. Is your father's life worth more than Señorita Escalante's?

It was every one of Diego's fears coming true all simultaneously.

One minute! the voice shouted.

No! Victoria yelled.

Diego stood up. I surrender! he called loud enough to penetrate the wooden doors and fill the plaza with ease.

No! Victoria yelled again.

Victoria! hissed Diego. What else can I do? Have him blow up the mission?

She jumped up to join him. Her tear stained cheeks shone wet in the light from the few prayer candles that had been lit earlier that day, but even the light couldn't diminish the ache that had settled in the center of her heart. Then I'm coming with you!

It was Diego who said No! that time. He grabbed her hand, a look of pure desperation on his face. I won't let you do this! You can't throw away your life...

Without you, there us no life! Victoria exclaimed.

Thirty seconds before the fireworks begin! called the voice.

Diego started for the front doors, but his attention was on Victoria. No! he said.

Yes! she answered, and followed him.

No! he exclaimed again.

Yes!

Going with me can only lead to hanging! he said, recalling what Mendoza had stated the day before. His hand was on the doorknobs now.

Then I'll hang! she stated.

Diego whipped his head around so that he could stare at her in horror; it was the culmination of his worst fear and his gut wrenched at the mention of it. No! I won't watch you hang for me!

Victoria yanked open the mission's doors and walked out into the sunshine, and called, I go where he goes! thus taking the choice out of his hands.

Victoria, no! Diego said, no longer caring to cover up the sound of his voice.

But Victoria didn't pay him any attention. She was more concerned with the twenty rifles that aimed at her and Diego the second they came into sight. As calmly as she could, given the circumstances, she called, Stop! She threw herself in front of Diego as well as she could. No shooting!

The sigh of the wind blowing through the plaza was the only sound that whistled in the pueblo. DeSoto stood behind a line of protective lancers, unreachable to the last. The grunts of Padre Benitez and Don Alejandro as they struggled against their own guards carried quietly over to Diego. He could barely see the form of his father glowering behind the heavy, silencing battalion of soldiers guarding him. Diego did his best to step in front of Victoria, trying to keep her safe for as long as possible, while still holding his hands up in front of him and to shout to the Alcalde that he was unarmed for the moment, as his sword rested in its scabbard. Please, don't shoot! he called as he still attempted to push Victoria behind him, though she was being far from cooperative.

The Alcalde laughed, his voice ringing out across the people standing, watching, in the plaza. Then he regarded Diego with a thoughtful smirk on his face. I have to say that you put up more of a fight than I anticipated you would.

Let her go! Diego ordered even as Victoria came up beside him and grasped his hand.

DeSoto laughed again. You are in no position to ask for anything, he stated. Now, take off your sword, and I'll think about it.

No! Victoria yelled again.

But the choice was not difficult to make as far as Diego was concerned. With no hesitation, he unbuckled his championship saber and let it fall into the dust. It lay there, glinting like a black reminder of what was happening at that very moment in the plaza.

No! Victoria called once more, though most of her attention was taken up with trying to reach for Diego's hand that he was doing his utmost to keep from her. She finally caught it in her flailing fingers.

The whip, too, DeSoto casually reminded. The black whip that had been hooked to Diego's waistband joined the sword in a heap on the plaza dust.

DeSoto came forward, then, sauntering with a sense of control, even as he commanded Diego to step away from the pile of weapons. Well, well, well, he drawled. I should have known it was you this morning in the tavern by the way you grew so angry at mine and de Garcia's words. But I have to admit that I never saw you falling so neatly into our little trap. He chuckled.

You have me, take me! But let her go! Diego said again, begging, sounding as desperate as he felt.

DeSoto placed one hand in his sword hilt in a posture of authority. Oh, I have no intention of letting her go. She'll hang right beside you as soon as my lancers can build a gallows meant for two. He glanced back at Don Alejandro. Or should I make that three?

Diego's heart skipped a beat at just the suggestion of killing his father. No! he yelled in protest, the only form of argument that he could do now. You can't! He knew nothing about my identity!

DeSoto turned back to the couple before him. You mean you expect me to believe that Don Alejandro knew nothing?

You saw the way he always treated me! Diego told him.

He knew nothing for six years? DeSoto asked incredulously.

Diego replied, I made sure of that! And neither did Señorita Escalante!

Victoria chose that moment to throw her own voice into the mix. I knew nothing; never did!

Please listen to her! Diego plead.

However, Victoria went on, But I know now, like everybody else does! And I go where Diego goes!

DeSoto tilted his head negligently to one side, considering her. You knew beforehand, he accused. And for that, you will get exactly what you want; lancers, escort them both to the jail.

No! Diego yelled, and even his voice sounded frantic now. She knew nothing about..! But two lancers were grabbing his arms and yanking him forward.

Yes, I did! Victoria called back in determination. I knew everything!

Victoria, have you gone crazy?! Diego hissed.

Absolutely, Victoria answered back. As the Alcalde of this pueblo, DeSoto should lock me up and throw away the key.

The two were now nearing DeSoto's line of protective lancers, and he heard every word that Victoria uttered. That is the only leniency you can expect from me, and I'm not sure yet I'll do even that.

She knew nothing! Diego exclaimed one last time.

Slowly, DeSoto focused his gaze on his adversary. I'd suggest saving it for the judge, but there's not going to be any trial, for either of you, so it would be a waste of my breath.

Diego hadn't expected a trial for himself, but not having even a sham of a trial for Victoria was an insult heaped on insults. Yet he couldn't let Victoria hang for her association with him as well. Please, you can't hang Victoria, too, he begged. Pleading was certainly not beneath him at this point.

DeSoto thoughtfully stroked his goatee. Let me sleep on it, was all he would promise, still managing to sound lazy and indolent in this last request. He did, however, stop the lancers from leading a writhing Diego through the open door of his office and into the jail cells. He caught Diego's chin in his hand and stared into his blue eyes. I can't believe you fell for the idea that I would destroy my own pueblo's mission, he gloated softly.

Diego responded, And I can't believe you would think otherwise. He continued, I expect you to be capable of anything, Ignacio. Remember, I've been your main enemy for two years. He struggled again, but it was so use; the lancers had too tight of a hold on his arms.

DeSoto went on examining Diego and Victoria and their linked fingers in spite of the hold the lancers had on them. Put them in separate cells, was all he ordered, not giving them even the benefit of being incarcerated together. Then he continued almost as an afterthought. Oh, and any attempt to escape means that your father will hang in your place. Don't you forget that.

Without any more words or ceremony, Diego and Victoria were shoved through the office doors and pulled into the cell area of the jail.

Diego was thrown unceremoniously into the first cell, and Victoria was shown more cordially into the only other cell Los Angeles had to offer.

Well, at least we're alone, Victoria said the minute the lancers had disappeared through the door leading to the garrison. That's something.

Diego immediately launched himself at the bars separating them and curled his fingers around them. Victoria, I want you to tell him that you were lying, tell him...

It was far as he got. She cast him an honest glance. I don't lie, she interrupted. I always left that up to you.

Diego contritely looked down at the stones beneath his feet. I'm so sorry about that, Victoria, but I did it only for your safety the entire time, and I didn't...

I know, Diego, she said as soon as he had to pause to take a breath. And I apologize for such a bad remark; I shouldn't have said that. You were only doing what you thought was best, she declared, and encircled his fingers with hers. Now, please, don't mention it again...

Suddenly Diego rested his forehead against the bars and groaned his despair. I tried, Victoria, I tried! A rebellion seemed like a fine idea this morning...

Tell me, she cajoled, happy to just distract him into thinking about anything else besides his decisions over the past six years, even for a moment.

So Diego sank despondently to the cold floor with his hand wrapped securely around hers, only the bars keeping her from holding him, and told her what had been in his mind for the past two days, starting with the poster announcing the reward for Sofira and her son and ending with the moment he had bumped into Victoria at the side of the mission. He had hardly begun when he heard the voice of an unknown soldier, probably receiving some last minute instructions, which were followed by the more authoritative tones of his father in the outer office. His heart shrank in on itself at the thought of Don Alejandro hanging the following day. He paused in his story, but couldn't distinguish the words muttered by the Alcalde.

Diego finished telling Victoria everything, and she had opened her mouth to draw breath and reply when the door from the garrison clicked open. It slowly swung out to reveal the form of Sergeant Mendoza standing in the half light, silhouetted in the doorway. The sergeant gaped as he stood in one spot. Don Diego! he whispered in amazement.

A moment of silence passed before Diego was able to collect his roiling emotions and speak. Yes, Sergeant? he asked, feeling more calm now that he had reviewed his reasoning for Victoria, as she'd known he would. His logic had been sound given the information he'd been handed. It wasn't his fault that the Alcalde was a much better actor than he'd ever given him credit for.

I didn't believe it! Mendoza was saying. In the plaza, when I saw you come out of the mission, I didn't believe it!

Diego was confused. He stayed where he was on the floor, but looked up at the sergeant. Believed what? he asked, his tone mild enough to bely any accusations against him.

That you..! That you're..! Mendoza began, but then he blinked. You can't be him! he exclaimed.

Diego couldn't help but laugh at the soldier's incredulity, though even his laughter sounded a little bitter. I better be Zorro, he said, or I can be accused of dallying with the wrong girl. He glanced at Victoria, who only grinned at his words and tightened the hold she had established on his fingers.

Yes, but you... Sergeant Mendoza then took a step into the holding area. I owe my life to you, he stated quietly, still in a state of shock, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. He shook his head and widened his eyes.

Diego grinned, enjoying the look of utter doubt on the sergeant's familiar face. I assure you, it's no illusion. Then he sighed. Unfortunately.

Mendoza spluttered inelegantly. Is there... Is there anything you need? Something to read, perhaps?

You can fix it so that Victoria is released, Diego suggested immediately.

Victoria instantly answered his suggestion. Mendoza, you can have free lunches for a month if you let me stay, she offered.

Free lunches? Mendoza asked.

If I stay, Victoria clarified.

Don't listen to her, Sergeant! Diego said right away. Then he turned to Victoria. What are you doing? I'm trying to get you out of here!

My place is at your side, Victoria retorted just as quickly. I stay, she said more loudly to Mendoza.

Lunch? the sergeant queried, the thought of free food momentarily superseding his astonishment at finding his friend in jail.

Every day, for one month, for free, Victoria reminded him.

That's not fair! Diego hissed.

Victoria only smiled sweetly. Do we have a bargain? she asked.

Mendoza was only a tiny but hesitant. Can I order anything I want?

Absolutely, Victoria said in an instant. Anything at all, as long as it's already in the kitchen.

Sergeant Mendoza smiled and patted his stomach. That will do a great deal to ease the pain of what the Alcalde has planned for you.

Alert immediately, Diego crouched on the floor and inquired, What's that, Sergeant?

Mendoza didn't say a word, but pulled his finger across his throat. His message was unmistakably clear. I just wish it was to anybody but you, Don Diego. You've always been so nice, Mendoza admitted.

Diego would have rolled his eyes at the saccharine comment coming from anybody else, but the sergeant was different; more honest, and hence more trustworthy because of it. Thank you, Sergeant, he softly said. That means a lot coming from you.

Suddenly Mendoza leaned forward more confidingly. I wouldn't give up all hope yet, Don Diego, he said.

Diego was instantly intrigued at the turnaround in the conversation. Why?

Mendoza pulled back a bit and flashed a quick glance at the door leading into the Alcalde's office. Well, there was a rider waiting for us after your capture with what he said was important news for the Alcalde. He had a letter in his hand. And besides, we haven't been ordered to build a gallows yet, Mendoza whispered with a smile.

Diego looked to Victoria with raised eyes. That isn't much comfort, Sergeant, he admitted.

Mendoza shrugged. It's something, he pointed out. Then he backed to the door he'd come in through. I should go; the Alcalde doesn't know I'm in here and we have strict orders not to visit the prisoner. That's you, Don Diego, Mendoza helpfully supplied.

I would never have guessed, Only Victoria heard the dryness in Diego's answering tone.

I'll keep my ears open and come back right before lights out tonight, Mendoza offered. That's the best I can do, he said.

Thank you, Diego told him. I know that's a lot...

Mendoza grinned. It's the least I can do for a friend, he said, right before disappearing again through the door leading to the garrison.

Victoria and Diego watched him go. Then Diego turned to regard Victoria. Free food? he questioned in irritation.

Victoria shrugged, but hid her smile at besting him at his own game. It's all a matter of knowing what to offer, she explained. And I knew.

Diego sighed, but was beginning to accept the fact that he couldn't bargain for Victoria's release, at least for now. I hate to have to say it, but you're the perfect match for a fox.

Again came the sweetest, purest smile that Victoria could muster. Thank you.

Diego grimaced. Don't thank me yet. The only thing such cunning may get you is a noose in the morning, he predicted pessimistically.

Victoria pressed as close to the bars as they would allow. I'd rather be assigned to a noose with you than stay as ignorant as I was just a few days ago, she declared.

Diego's gaze turned serious. It looks like you'll get your wish, he predicted.

She flattened a finger to his lips in the universal sign for silence. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else, she whispered.

Affection for her welled in Diego's eyes. I love your spirit, he whispered back, and kissed the end of the finger touching his lips.

And I...

But Victoria wasn't allowed to finish as a sudden sound drew their attention to the open window of Diego's cell. With a squeeze to Victoria's hand, he gestured for her to stand back as he cautiously approached the window. He peered out into the night that had fallen on the little town. Who's there? he demanded once he could squint into the darkness. He wished he could reach the lantern to douse all light, but it was hanging on a peg too far away for him to reach. Show yourself.

Without warning, Felipe popped up so that those inside the cells could see his face.

Felipe! Diego said, and breathed a sigh of relief, though his voice was louder than he meant it to be. Self-consciously, he cleared his throat, then paid strict attention to Felipe. His adopted son signed something, and Diego watched the waving arms with an intensity that he had rarely shown before in the pueblo. Then that same voice grew determined and desperate. No, Felipe! he whispered harshly. You can't leave anything for our escape. We can't escape at all! he insisted. Then he watched again. I can't sacrifice my father, for one, and besides, Victoria and I would be hunted forever, Felipe, he explained and glanced to the side at Victoria. We'd be fugitives for the rest of our lives, and I refuse to do that that to Victoria... I know we'd be at least alive, but that's no kind of a life for... No, please don't, Felipe. I know, I know... It's hopeless if you look at it that way. He watched again. No, there's nothing that you can do for me except take care of Toronado. He's somewhere behind the tavern. And... He snuck a glance at Victoria again as she stood in the corner, trying to be as small as she could. Wait! Diego said at the last minute, his eyes still on Victoria's form. There is something else you can do for me... Do you think you can fetch the padre? One more look, and he nodded. Thank you. We'll be right here. Then his expression turned a tad sour. As if we could go anywhere else. He stepped back from the window.

What did he say? Victoria asked, her voice snaking out of the darkness that wrapped around the corner of her cell despite the lanternlight.

Diego went back to his previous spot near the bars of the cells, and she joined him. He wanted to bring us some acid from my laboratory to eat through the bars, but what's the point? he asked rhetorically. Even if we escaped, where would we go?

Anywhere out of Los Angeles, she answered as if it was an obvious thing to say.

But Diego was shaking his head. No. The Alcalde would stop at nothing to catch us. He's been trying to capture me for two years; he wouldn't stop now.

That makes sense, she said, trying to see the logic of what he claimed. But still she wrinkled her brow in sudden bewilderment. Diego, what does that have to do with the padre?

Diego grew quiet as he absorbed her question, though it seemed innocuous enough. He sighed sadly into the silence of the jail. Finally he looked her full in the eyes. Victoria, he began in a patient tone of voice, as nervous as he had ever been. He could feel the thunder of his heart beating inside his chest, swallowed to hide his innate fear, and started again, Victoria, there's a good chance that we'll be... be hung in just a few hours.

Victoria's face matched the seriousness of his tone. Gone was any plea for escape. Now she only showed acceptance of what he suggested in her eyes of dark brown. I know, was all she said in a quiet voice, and cast her eyes momentarily to the floor.

Diego replaced the hold he'd had on her fingers through the bars between them. I... I've thought about that possibility and accepted that fate a long time ago.

I bet you have, she commented, her voice still quiet, but her eyes firmly encountering his this time. He had to accept capture as a possible option every time he risked his life and entered the pueblo. It still amazed her how well he had deceived an entire town with his acting the part of the lazy caballero though one look into his eyes would have given the deception away. Now her brown danced with his blue for a moment as their eyes met through the barrier the bars represented.

But, I had one stipulation to hanging. If I could, I'd make this dream of mine come true, Diego went on.

Stipulation?

Diego squirmed a little under her steady gaze, but he didn't back down. Yes. I... I dreamt of being married if I could be, and as I want more than anything to be married to you...

Sudden comprehension lit in her eyes; he wanted to get married, right here, right now. and to her... She didn't know what to say as conflicting emotions slammed into her psyche from several sides at once. Of course, ever since Zorro had proposed to her in his secret cave, she'd known this moment was going to come, but it had always seemed to be a day far off in the future, not something she would face the night before her planned death by hanging. Diego, I... She cut off her own voice, then closed her eyes, sighed, opened them again, only to find herself staring straight at Diego de la Vega through the cell bars, and she knew exactly what she was going to say. Diego, I... I love you. There isn't anybody else I want to be married to, either...

Diego hissed out the breath he'd been holding, aware of the thudding of his heart against his ribs and the sensation of relief that poured over him. All he could think was Gracias a Dios, Gracias a Dios, over and over again, until he rested his lowered forehead on hers between two bars of the cells. At long last, he was able to sincerely whisper, Thank you, Victoria.

In response, she whispered back, Don't thank me for doing something that I have wanted to do for years and years...

But Diego interrupted her with a warning sound in his voice. This might be the shortest marriage on record.

Victoria sighed. You know I don't care about that, and it's not your fault anyway.

Overwhelmed at her sense of understanding, Diego could only stand there in the jail cell, rooted in one place, with his forehead leaning against hers, breathing in the smell of her hair, her skin, everything that was her, and simultaneously noting the irony of getting married in a jail cell. At last, he said, Thank you for doing this for me.

Victoria was quick to react. Diego, please don't talk that way. I'm not doing this for anybody, unless it's for myself. If you are really who you say you are, and I have no doubts that you are, then I've been waiting to marry you for years.

Eyes squeezed shut tight to block out the reality of the situation, that they would more than likely die in just a few short hours, Diego heaved in a breath of air that smelled a little fetid, as the cells themselves did. It was an odd mixture of something noxious combined with the fresh smell she offered, something that smelled of roses, and hope. It gave him the courage to say, Can I share something with you, something that's perhaps a bit silly, and way too romantic, even for me?

What? she asked.

Without giving any warning as to his intentions, he kissed her fingers still wrapped around the bars between them, reached into his trouser waist band, and pulled up a tiny pouch that he ripped off. Dumping the pouch upside down, he caught an object in the palm of his left hand, then tossed the pouch onto the stones underfoot in the corner of the cell by the door. He plucked up the object, pinching it with the thumb and index finger of his right hand, and held it up for her inspection. The flickering lantern light made it hard to discern where his fingers stopped and where the small, circular object began, but it was easy to identify that he was holding out a perfect representation of a man's golden wedding ring.

I bought this at the Los Angeles market on the day after I proposed, from a woman whom I've never seen since, Diego said in a voice so low that it was almost a whisper. I've secretly had it on me every minute of the day, no matter who I was at the time, as a reminder of what you mean to me from the moment I proposed until now. He grinned ruefully. Not that I needed any reminders. Just walking into the tavern and seeing you but knowing I couldn't touch you was reminder enough.

Victoria was unaccountably smiling at him through the bars.

What is it? Diego inquired.

Victoria laughed an explosion of air. If you're so romantic that you're silly, I guess that makes two of us. She reached into the waist of her skirt hidden beneath her sash of bright red, and pulled out the emerald ring the he had given her and that had once belonged to his long-deceased mother. She held it out for him to insect. I carry it with me, too. Then she shrugged her shoulders, trying to pretend that keeping her ring with her all the time wasn't a big deal. Because, you never know, just in case I ever needed it. Then she smiled, and the gesture made her face glow even in the dim dankness that belonged to the cells.

Diego smiled back. You, too? She nodded. Knowing that she had kept her ring with her as well was almost a vindication of him keeping his ring close by at all times. He suddenly didn't feel so silly now.

The deep green of the emerald winked in the dim light, but wasn't enough to diminish the smiles that met through the bars.

Victoria relaxed her neck muscles and leaned her head forward until she felt his skin touch hers. Sweet Diego, she whispered, and sighed, a silly grin on her face.

Diego answered with a barely audible rendition of, My Victoria. He leaned his own head forward until he, too, could feel her skin, and sighed, content.

That was how Padre Benitez and Felipe found them a moment later; holding onto hands curled around bars, their postures relaxed and filled with peace.

Z Z Z

The next morning dawned bright with a shining sun and cool winds that blew off the nearby ocean. The breeze caressed the two sitting on the pallets from the bunks in their respective jail cells, leaning against each other, fingers loosely linked, and both sound asleep. The sense of security remained to those trapped on the inside of the jail, but a turbulent battle of juxtaposing emotions warred in the individual who stood in the door to the Alcalde's office and regarded them with a sneer etched into his face.

None of them stirred, except to breath the slightly foul air at steady intervals. DeSoto, who stood watching his two prisoners, stared with utter irritation at what was obviously a gold wedding band on the señorita's finger, held knitted with Diego's. He wore a band similar to hers in color on his other hand that was just barely touching her through the bars of the cell.

DeSoto's sneering look of irritation deepened. He coughed, not attempting to sound delicate, and woke the two sleeping on the floor. They both came awake with a start.

Diego blinked at the sudden influx of sunlight slanting through the cell windows, stretched out cramped long legs, and sighed. He glanced once at DeSoto, drew in an inhaled breath, then looked towards Victoria, as if to make certain that her presence and their actions the night before weren't a dream. He visibly relaxed when her slouching figure came immediately into view.

DeSoto harshly said, I don't much care for being dismissed so quickly from your attentions, especially since I hold yours and Señorita Escalante's fates in my hands.

Diego replied, You're going to do what you're going to do anyway. What good does it do either of us to acknowledge your supposed superiority in this situation? If you're planning to kill us, don't waste any time bothering us about it.

DeSoto's scrutiny continued. A moment later, he continued. You might be interested to know, he said, that Don Alejandro nagged me far into the evening about the dishonesty of your capture, and hence any promotion to Madrid that comes my way as a result of that capture is also dishonest. It was a compelling argument, even if the arguer was as annoying as Sergeant Mendoza on a day when he's not allowed to eat at the tavern.

From his place on the floor, Diego replied, Your love for Madrid is as well-known as Mendoza's love for the tavern's enchiladas, and my father is equally as famous for being capable of out-irritating anyone if he has a mind to. I should know.

Yes, you should, and now, so do I, DeSoto admitted.

Diego groaned as he pushed his face away from the support of the metal bars. He stood slowly, as did Victoria, but their fingers remained attached.

Felicitations are in order, I see. DeSoto deadpanned, and nodded towards their left hands. Trying to outmaneuver me even from a jail cell, are you? he asked.

Victoria huffed a breath of air. I hate to have to inform you, Alcalde, but this had nothing to do with you or your inflated ego.

You can think whatever you like, Señorita, and...

That's 'Señora,' Diego reminded.

DeSoto smiled, a gesture that looked more like a grimace than something meant to denote pleasure. Excuse me. Señora.

Victoria nodded, but didn't deign to speak again.

DeSoto cleared his voice, a bit uncomfortable now. As I was saying, you can think whatever you like, but as to my 'inflated ego,' I think you called it? - It might not be in your best interests to be so insulting to me. He stared at Victoria and Diego.

Diego snorted out a breath. What difference does it make? Victoria and I may have gotten married last night, but it will be the shortest marriage on record when you hang us later this morning.

The Alcalde heaved a sigh of his own and linked his fingers together behind his back. That brings us to a rather sticky point in the proceedings, he announced.

Victoria narrowed her eyes. Which is?

DeSoto turned to stare straight at them. Do I hang you and be done with it, or not?

Diego's hand tightened on Victoria's, but he was too well-practiced to give any newfound hope he was feeling away with his posture. He let his shoulders droop, but his face crinkled. What do you mean? he asked.

Just this, the Alcalde nonchalantly told them, and drew a piece of paper out of the inside pocket of his coat and let them stare at it. He unfolded it, and even from his position by the cell's bunk, Diego could see the crest of the governor right beside that of the King of Spain.

And that is... what? asked Victoria. If it's not a pardon, I don't see what it has to do with us.

It's not a pardon, informed the Alcalde. And it's not a promotion, not exactly.

'Not exactly'? Victoria repeated. What's that supposed to mean?

It means, Señora, that I have an option regarding you and your... husband... that I hadn't considered yesterday, DeSoto claimed, letting the sneering sound enter his voice when he said the word 'husband,' as if Diego's new state highly displeased him. Actually, just the thought of you two getting married makes me rather sick.

Diego didn't flinch at the words. Neither did Victoria.

The Alcalde went on. But be that as it may, this letter does lend enough light to the subject of your hanging to... confuse... the issue, shall we say.

Diego's face crinkled even further. How so?

The Alcalde stared at them. They stared back, clearly a unit despite the fact that they stood on the wrong side of the jail cells. DeSoto cleared his throat again. Well, there's no use in not telling you about the letter's contents. It's from my friend de Garcia. He turned to Victoria. You remember him? he asked pointedly.

Victoria shot him daggers through her eyes. And? She asked the question through her grinding teeth.

DeSoto chuckled at her discomfort. I'm getting to that, he said. As we told you, he's the magistrate of Santa Barbara. What we did not inform you of is that he's also the magistrate for the King.

The King? Why the secrecy? inquired Victoria.

The Alcalde shrugged. It never came up, he said.

There was momentary quiet until Victoria scoffed in derision, It never came up? Now, why is that, I wonder? Her sarcasm was evident even from a jail cell.

DeSoto glared at her though the bars. I also didn't say that I was proud of myself for the silence on my part.

Diego brought their wandering attention back to the problem at hand when he asked, What does that have to do with us?

DeSoto swung his eyes around to regard him for a moment. Nothing, he finally answered, It has more to do with me, actually, but you are involved in the deliberations whether I like it or not.

Diego sighed, the irritated sound echoing around the room. How are we 'involved?' he asked next.

DeSoto pursed his lips. I don't know if I should tell you yet; I haven't made up my mind about you, yet, after all.

Victoria ground her teeth. Then why are you here? I, for one, would rather be asleep than having such a pointless conversation before breakfast.

DeSoto smiled, or the closest he could come to that pleasant gesture. You're direct if you are anything, Señora. I'm going to miss that. I always knew where I stood in your estimation; there was no maneuvering because of my political position.

Diego instantly latched onto half of the Alcalde's statement. What do you mean that you will miss Victoria's direct speech? Are you going somewhere?

DeSoto dropped his hands from behind his back. The letter was now in full view and he referred to it by lifting up his hand and waving the piece of paper in the air. I've been offered the post of Chief Military Strategist in Madrid. My ship sails for Spain this evening from San Pedro.

Victoria's reaction was immediately written on her features; she gaped with open enthusiasm. Diego was a little more guarded, but not much. What? he finally gasped.

DeSoto grimaced his grin at their response. Yes, that's how Mendoza acted when he heard the news. You see, my friend de Garcia wrote this letter in his coach on his way home to Santa Barbara yesterday. The dispatched rider was impressively determined to see the letter in my hands as soon as possible. His grin, or rather, his grimace deepened. It's only luck that it came on the same day you planned your pathetic little uprising. He sneered then.

Diego appeared annoyed. That 'little uprising' took the threat of complete destruction of innocents homes for you to end it with my capture, he reminded.

DeSoto's gaze turned on Diego Are you saying you could have outfought my lancers?

Diego's eyes didn't waver from his enemy's. I'm not saying anything, he declared. Just know that I always held back a bit when I fought with your lancers.

And, I am to assume, so did you with me, DeSoto said.

Diego wouldn't voice his agreement, even if his enemy was completely right.

Diego's silence on the matter said as much as his words would have. DeSoto sighed in definite aggravation, but continued on anyway. I have a proposition for you.

For me? Diego asked.

DeSoto glared at them through the bars. Yes, he finally admitted. You want to get out of here to go home alive. And I... he paused dramatically. I am curious about one point that you can finally answer. He eyed Diego calculatedly. I've been curious for a long time.

Diego was instantly suspicious. What's that? he asked in a cautious tone of voice.

DeSoto sighed again, and stared in open inquisitiveness at his adversary. Finally, he said, How good are you? I've heard rumors for years that it's too easy for you to beat us, so I'm curious.

The question surprised the wary Diego; what was the Alcalde up to this time? Do you want a rematch?

DeSoto silently regarded Diego through the bars. At last he said, Actually, I do.

Diego was instantly even more wary. You do?

DeSoto chuckled at Diego's obvious distrust. Here's the deal, he began, after an assessing glance into the cells. We fight, with swords. If I win, you hang and I leave for Spain. If you win, I give you your freedom, and I leave for Spain anyway. Whatever the outcome, I get to shake the dust of this miserable little group of houses off my feet. DeSoto sneered deeply again. There's the deal. Take it or leave it.

Diego looked hesitantly towards Victoria, whose eyes were suspiciously bright. But first he had to ask, No lancers hidden in the wings, just waiting to shoot us?

No lancers, promised DeSoto. What would be the point of lancers, when I want to know how you've been fighting me all these years?

Diego recognized the logic of such a question. We go free? he ascertained, certain of only the fact that he couldn't trust DeSoto as far as he could throw him. And as strong as he was, Diego knew that he couldn't throw DeSoto all that far.

You go free.

Both of us? It did no good to be free to live a life if Victoria died on the gallows in a few hours.

But DeSoto bobbed his head. Both of you. Then he scoffed. There's no reason to worry that I'll hang this innocent bystander, he said and indicated Victoria. What would be the fun in that? Then he paused. Besides the obvious, that I would finally have a little peace and quiet?

Victoria wrinkled her nose in distaste. I'll haunt you forever, she promised. You'll never know a moment of peace.

Suddenly DeSoto laughed. It wasn't entirely a pleasant sound, but it was appreciative. I don't envy you the future that's in store for you, he said to Diego. All it will take is one disagreement and wham! Suddenly you find yourself sleeping on your love seat.

Diego grimaced at the unvoiced insult to Victoria. Nevertheless, he said, Please don't concern yourself with my future, argumentative or otherwise. As per your bargain; I agree.

Victoria was instantly incensed. No, Diego! Don't trust him! He'll have some twist that will leave me a widow before the day is out; you can be sure of that.

I resent that, DeSoto said.

Resent it all you want, Diego said, But it's as true as anything else she could have said. You're no one to trust. Especially as far as I'm concerned.

DeSoto glared at Diego. You're right, he said. But this time I got what I wanted. You can either profit from it, or... He left the rest of his sentence unsaid, making it stronger in its unspoken state.

It took a moment of obvious fast thinking, but eventually Diego nodded. All right. A fight, and winner takes all, he said softly.

DeSoto reached for the keys hanging on a rusty nail pounded into the wall. He unlocked the cell doors, releasing them. He didn't wait for Diego and Victoria to emerge slowly from the cells, but proceeded on into his office, where he grabbed his own sword from the corner and walked out into the hot, dusty sunshine of the plaza.

Lancers, get out here! he yelled the minute his boots touched the dirt. After all, what was the point of a fight if they didn't have an audience?

Red and blue coated men began appearing at a run from all directions. Some carried their rifles, and all wore a confused expression on their faces when Diego came out to squint in the sudden light, his arm wrapped firmly around Victoria's waist.

No guns! DeSoto yelled next, his attention already on his main enemy. Get rid of any rifles, and don't interfere, no matter what happens. With a clear look of calculation on his face, he eyed Diego, who had reclaimed his famous blade from the display the Alcalde had set up of it the day before.

Diego unsheathed his sword with a twang and an air of extreme caution laced with distrust. They warily circled each other as citizens poured forth from the tavern, the bank, the cuartel, the shops on the square... His father and Felipe appeared on the tavern porch just as DeSoto made his first move.

DeSoto didn't salute in respect or bother with any other such nicety. As Diego brought the famous sword up in a salute of his own, DeSoto lunged, then brought his sword up and around in a sudden and unexpected attack before his sword came even close to Diego. The move, besides being surprising and speedy in its own right, left Diego's entire top half wide open to a hit.

Diego reacted with blinding, decisive speed of his own. He wasn't the famous masked man for nothing. He blocked the impossible swing, gathered his balance, and riposted in a move of his on. He circled his blade around the Alcalde's, batted the enemy blade aside with a powerful sweep of his wrist, then disarmed his opponent in one smooth, swift action. The sword rolled in the dust and stopped a few feet from the Alcalde's office door.

DeSoto stood, rooted to his place in the dust, looking slightly surprised and aggravated at the same time. He collected his wandering attention, then sent a glare at his adversary. Well, what took you so long? he asked.

Victoria bent to retrieve the fallen sword so the Alcalde couldn't decide on an unexpected rematch sometime in the near future. With a shaking hand, she gave the sword over to the custody of Don Alejandro as he joined her in the dusty plaza. She gulped, then placed what was meant to be a calming fist to her forehead as the caballero grabbed her upper arms for a squeeze. When she felt more collected together and her emotions of intense fear were no longer seething across her worried expression, she slowly approached her husband's side.

Slowly, Diego's arm snaked out to encircle her waist.

Shakily, Victoria laughed. I didn't even have time to stop my heart from pounding through my ribs.

I'm sorry, Diego whispered. The last thing he wanted to do was cause her distress. But it was impossible to avoid in this instance.

You've been playing with us, DeSoto accused of Diego, trying his best to maintain an aura of authority after Diego had so quickly defeated him.

No, I was merely matching my ability to whoever I was fighting, Diego corrected as he hugged his wife.

It's all the same to me, DeSoto said with a shrug. I leave no matter the outcome.

But you'll stick to your word? Diego ascertained. No hangings?

No hangings, reaffirmed DeSoto. I made a deal and I try to keep to my word when I can.

Victoria grimaced. That's a surprise, she accused herself. I never trusted anything you said.

And I never liked you or your tavern, DeSoto shot back. That makes us even. Then he turned his eyes on Diego and spoke before that particular man could take offense at the insult to his wife. You have your freedom, and I'm leaving this place behind as fast as I can go. I'd wish you a nice life, but with that shrew for a wife, all I can wish for you is a noisy life. With that he disappeared into his office to start packing as much as he could.

An indrawn breath was Victoria's first response to DeSoto's comment, but Diego's arm tightened its hold around her waist as DeSoto vanished into his office. He leaned down to whisper in her ear, I'd rather have you, loudness and all, than not. Pay no attention to him, he advised. To emphasize his words, his embrace tightened once more and he moved to drop his sword before wrapping his other arm around her in what was clearly a hug that was as much public as it was romantic and relieved.

Don Alejandro smiled at the sense of unity that his son and Victoria presented. As calmly as he could, he slapped Diego on the back in a nonchalant gesture, but no one was fooled by the casualness if his appearance. Let's go home, he quietly suggested, then twined his free arm around Felipe. I heard that Maria made an admirable breakfast, and now that everything is over, I can actually eat it. With that, he carefully led the group to their waiting horses. You know, Don Alejandro went on in a chattier tone of voice than he'd used in days, Los Angeles will need a new alcalde now that the office is free. I was thinking. He pulled the reins from the tavern's hitching rail. Why don't we nominate you, Diego? He placed one foot in a stirrup. That way I can run the ranch, which I'm good at, and you and Victoria can move to town so Victoria can tend the tavern, which she's good at, and you can fight banditos, which you are undeniably good at, without putting anyone to any trouble at all. How does that sound?

Diego's eyebrows rose at the suggestion, the only indication that he was even listening as he pulled Victoria up onto Toronado so that she could sit in front of him in a soft, alluring bundle that he could spend his time protecting and cherishing to his heart's content. Relieved, but not wanting to admit it, Felipe just followed his father and grandfather's moves.

Other than that, no one was fooled by the easy actions for an instant.

With a quiet sigh of relief, the four began the two mile journey home to the hacienda, and the citizens trickled back to their business or pleasure, whatever had been interrupted, as a new idea began to build in their collective subconscious.


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