Part XI The Confab

Several nights later, Don Alejandro again ripped the blankets off a very sleepy Diego. “Come on, Diego, wake up!”

The sleepy Diego didn't miss how this seemed to be an echo of the night where he'd spoken with Victoria and his father in the cave. “Whatisitthistime?” he slurred out, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

“Darn Felipe and his sleeping remedies!” Alejandro swore, something he normally didn't do, but he was cranky from all these late nights (or early morning) adventures. He wondered how Zorro did it all the time.

Alejandro roughly shook his son's shoulder. “Get up, Diego. I called together the few of us who know about Zorro's identity to discuss how to kill off Zorro. We meet at the mission in half an hour.”

Diego could grasp only the bit about killing off Zorro. “If Zorro's dead, I don't have to go.” And he went back to sleep.

Completely exasperated, Alejandro propped his hands on his hips as he regarded his sleeping son. He considered throwing water on him, but discarded the idea when he realized all that would do was make for a very soggy bed. He tried coercion instead. “Victoria's in danger - she needs you, Son. Go rescue her.”

It worked at least as well as the water would have. Diego jerked up and stumbled to his corner wardrobe, muttering about his clothes being the wrong color. Alejandro almost laughed aloud at how easy it was to motivate Diego when he thought it was truly important.

Thirty minutes later found them and Felipe ambling out of the darkness at the mission. Diego dutifully dismounted from Esperanza, though he didn't quite understand why his father was along on one of Zorro's adventures. He let his father knock twice, then twice more on the mission's side door, followed Felipe and his father and the Padre down a side hallway that he almost recognized, then stumbled into a room that seemed too small to hold all the people present.

The first thing Diego noticed about the room was the bed and Victoria sitting on it. He thought for a brief moment that there should be something strange about this, but he was just too tired to figure out what that was. So he mumbled “Hola,” to Victoria sitting on top of the blankets, then promptly curled up with his head on her lap and went back to sleep.

Victoria's exasperated sigh sounded loud in the room, blending with Alejandro's own beleaguered groan when she glanced at him, clearly begging for help.

“Felipe gave Diego another one of those sleeping remedies,” Alejandro told her in a dry voice. “It's a miracle he didn't fall off his horse on the way here.”

“Just what I thought,” Victoria knowingly grunted. “Don Alejandro, will you please pour him a...

“Water?” Alejandro guessed, already grabbing a glass. “I'll get it for you to drip on him - that worked well last time. Just don't let him roll off the bed.”

Alejandro poured the water, but the Alcalde took the glass from him. Instead of passing it nicely to Victoria, he threw its contents into Diego's face, hissing in his ear, “Wake up, de la Vega!”

Diego spluttered up from Victoria's lap, spitting water and coughing, wet hair straggling in his eyes.

de Soto set the glass on the room's single desk, grinning. “Oooooh, I enjoyed that.”

Victoria lifted a soaked skirt from her now wet legs, fanning it uselessly back and forth as she looked at it, horrified. Turning on the Alcalde in anger, she growled, “Don't show your face in the tavern for at least three days!”

de Soto chuckled at the Señorita's angry expression. “It was worth it!”

Victoria's angry groan filled the tiny room, Diego choked on water, the Alcalde continued to chortle, Don Alejandro moaned in aggravation, and Felipe dropped noiselessly into the desk chair, helpless and clearly hating it.

Then Sergeant Mendoza, the last of the group, slipped into the room.

“Mendoza?” Diego quizzically asked, quickly realizing that the man's presence must mean that the friendly Sergeant knew all about Zorro's identity, too. He gasped, “When did you find out?”

Mendoza gave a jump, noticing Diego sitting next to Victoria on the bed for the first time. “Oh, I've known for years,” he answered nervously.

“For years?” Diego's voice had turned faint.

“Don't let that bother you,” Mendoza blithely assured him. “I would never have let the lancers hurt you.”

de Soto growled low in his throat at those words while Diego gaped at the Sergeant. The lancers had been unsuccessful in shooting and capturing Zorro all these years because..? It had all been due to Mendoza? And all this time, he thought the lancers always missed Zorro because Zorro was so good at avoiding their bullets. But it was because Mendoza was just that good instead. It was another deep blow to Diego's ego. Unable to vocalize the depth of this particular knowledge, Diego didn't say anything because he'd been rendered speechless.

Diego was distracted from his unpleasant thoughts when Padre Benitez bustled into the room, shutting the door behind him. The priest took one look at the room's growling, or beleaguered, or angry occupants, and gave a mournful shake of his head.

“This does not bode well for us,” the Padre said, sounding truly aggrieved. Everyone felt guilty enough at his tone to listen without question to the priest. “We're gathered here to help a man in need - unless you have something you wish to share that isn't wet?” And he significantly eyed the Alcalde until even de Soto was hiding his chuckles behind his hand.

“That's better,” continued Benitez. “Now, it's only three hours till dawn - let's not waste the time we've been given. We know why we're here - who has something to say?”

Looking around at the people crammed into this priest's cell at the back of the mission, Diego spoke first. “What is this?” Was this group of mismatched individuals really trying to kill..?

Alejandro piped up. “This is the Zorro Fan Club. I already told you - we're here to help Zorro.”

“Speak for yourself,” de Soto instantly announced, his arms belligerently crossed as he gazed at Diego, muttering, “Help Zorro, indeed.”

Coughing, Diego muttered, “Sure, you'll help Zorro - right over a cliff.”

Still with that mocking look in his eye, de Soto icily stated, “I'm just here for the thrill of paying back all those bruises and black eyes Zorro's given me over the years.” Then he glanced slyly at the glass sitting innocently on the desk. “And for the water.”

Rather than let the two combatants truly lay into each other, Padre Benitez pulled once on his rope belt and glared at the two longtime enemies. “I did not get out of bed at three in the morning to listen to you two trade insults!” he chastised. “Now, we're here - we might as well start talking. Any ideas?”

Mendoza tentatively raised his hand as if he was still at the mission's school.

The Padre turned to the Sergeant. “You have an idea, Sergeant Mendoza?”

“Yes,” Mendoza said. “Well, no. Well, it's a comment...”

“Spit it out, Sergeant!” de Soto irritably ordered.

Padre Benitez walked right up to the Alcalde and stared him in the eyes. “My goodness, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”

Surprisingly, the Alcalde glared back, clearly one of the few who refused to be cowed by the priest. “Perhaps if it was morning, I would be in a better mood.”

“In the morning, God will reward you accordingly, my son,” Benitez calmly announced.

The words, though spoken with equanimity, had an immediate effect. The Alcalde must have realized a darker meaning to the innocuous-sounding comment, for the man quickly blushed, his cheeks burning as red as Victoria's hottest sauce. “My apologies, Padre. I just have a hard time helping Zorro do anything but hang.”

“Make that four days!” Victoria exclaimed, huffing.

de Soto's glare took her in as well, then he capitulated when Victoria refused to be frightened by his most malevolent sneer. The day he couldn't reduce a woman to a wriggling mass of terror was the day he gave in. “Alright, alright! I'll stop harassing him... or we'll never get out of here.” de Soto dutifully receded into his corner of the room.

Satisfied that the man would remain silent, Padre Benitez turned back to Mendoza. “Sergeant?”

Mendoza fidgeted nervously with his tunic, anxious about being the center of attention. “Yes, well, won't Don Diego have to tell everyone that he's Zorro if he plans to marry Señorita Victoria and make little Zorros?”

Victoria's cheeks instantly blazed red at the personal aspect of the question.

Mendoza shrugged. “You said we should think about the reality of this situation, Don Alejandro. Won't it seem strange if Don Diego suddenly marries Señorita Victoria when she's said for years that she's waiting for Zorro?”

The room's inhabitants gazed at each other, all of them clearly unsure of what to say.

Then Diego spoke. “The Sergeant brings up a good point.”

“It would look strange,” Victoria agreed.

Sergeant Mendoza added to Victoria, “You have been talking about Zorro for years.”

“But what should we do about it?” Alejandro asked.

Benitez looked to Diego, sympathy etched on his face. “I'm sure you've considered this before now.”

Diego nodded in agreement, though simultaneously wincing.

Alejandro instantly suggested, “What about a public unmasking?”

Diego immediately added his own caveats to that idea. “But if I publicly unmask, won't every hothead in California be knocking at my door, wanting to duel with a legend?” He glanced at the others as they stared questioningly back. “I could be fighting for the rest of my life!”

Felipe then waved his arms in the signs he and Diego had created years before, speaking so quickly that nobody but Diego had a chance of following him.

As he was used to doing after years spent with Felipe, Diego interpreted, “Felipe points out that if I end up in sword fights for the rest of my life, there's sure to come a time when I make a mistake - he's proved often enough that I'll do that eventually.”

The Alcalde balked. “Do you mean this idiot boy can beat you when I've never been able to?”

Felipe turned furious eyes on de Soto, and Diego's face went tight with anger. “This 'idiot boy' can most certainly best me, especially when I'm tired or injured,” he insisted. “Be careful, Alcalde, or you'll have more than Zorro to worry about.”

Padre Benitez cleared his throat, again capturing everyone's attention. “Er... I'm sure that Diego doesn't wish to put the Señorita through the anxiety of watching you live through endless sword fights... am I right?”

Wordlessly Victoria and Diego nodded.

Victoria added, “And I have no wish to someday become a widow, either.”

Looking at them all, Alejandro inquired, “So, what do we suggest?”

Mendoza shrugged. “He could print a flyer, saying that he won't fight anybody, ever.”

“But a flyer won't circulate enough to stop everybody,” Alejandro objected.

“Why couldn't Diego simply refuse to fight when these hotheads visit the pueblo?” Benitez naively suggested.

The Alcalde wheezed a laugh. “Because, Padre, most of these hotheads, as Diego so colorfully phrased it, will most likely be outlaws themselves.”

“And what outlaw has ever chosen not to fight when they could?” Alejandro finished for him, nodding as he saw the wisdom of this idea.

“Besides,” Mendoza added, “even if Don Diego refuses to fight them, they will just use the Señorita to convince him that he has to fight them in order to get her back.”

Diego firmly said, “And I won't do that to Victoria.”

Alejandro shook his head, and his hair glinted silver in the lantern light. “She'll never be safe... nor anybody else in Diego's family.”

“I won't accept that,” Diego firmly said. “Living day to day is not the kind of life for me - not anymore - and certainly no kind of life for Victoria.”

Felipe waved his arms again, and Diego once more interpreted. “Felipe suggests that we permanently assign a detachment of lancers to protect my family from these future glory seekers.”

The Alcalde immediately negated that idea. “Lancers are here for everybody, boy, not just Zorro.”

The sneer was hardly off de Soto's face before Diego was telling him in a fierce, though nonchalant voice, “He has a name, you...”

The Alcalde instantly capitulated once again. “Alright, alright! I said I'd stop, and I will! No need to get...”

“Getting back to Felipe's idea,” Victoria interjected, rather pleased to interrupt de Soto's pontificating, “there's the possibility that Spain won't be in charge of California forever, either. What if the assigned lancers have to pull out in just a few years? Or ten? Or twenty?” She gazed around at the group of silent people standing or sitting in the room. “That isn't enough time to raise a family, anyway, no matter who Diego marries. What happens then?”

“So, no lancers,” repeated the Padre. “He could just let Zorro fade away.”

Diego quizzically stared at Benitez. “Do you mean that Zorro should just leave? What about Victoria?” He was thinking the Padre's suggestion meant that he let Victoria become an old maid just for safety concerns, but he didn't consider that any better than letting her be used against Zorro.

Benitez further suggested, “Perhaps Zorro and the Señorita should have a public disagreement.”

“Do you mean they should break up?” Mendoza asked. He sounded truly devastated by that idea.

However, Alejandro was excitedly gesturing to the ceiling. “So Diego can then marry Victoria in a year or so - great idea, Padre!”

But Felipe was shaking his head back and forth before Don Alejandro's excitement could infect everybody. His wild gestures followed.

“You're right, Felipe,” Diego said to him. “Someone will surely not believe that. And then we're right back to where we started, with me fighting every hothead out to make a name for himself.”

Silence settled on the group, broken at last by the Alcalde. de Soto jerked upwards, his face suddenly aglow until he was almost unrecognizable. “Or... why not purposely bring these hotheads to one big sword fighting competition, held right here in Los Angeles? If they'll come anyway, as you say, then we should bring them here all at once to...”

“Mi Alcalde,” Mendoza nervously cut him off. “How can we control such a large number of swordsmen in Los Angeles all at the same time?”

But the Alcalde had an answer ready. “By promising to give them exactly what they want - we hold a competition, winnow out the bad swordsmen all the way down to a champion...”

“And then?” Diego dubiously inquired.

de Soto eyed Diego with a knowing lift of his brows. “Zorro then fights the winner, where he unmasks - just for the winner, who must sign a decree that he'll hang if he tells.”

Diego wasn't convinced. “Hanging isn't much of a deterrent to an outlaw - most of them will hang if they get caught, anyway, and they know it. That still isn't enough to keep them from being outlaws, and I doubt it would be enough to keep them from telling Zorro's identity, certainly not if the price was right.”

Alejandro rolled his eyes. “And I'm sure that most any price would be the right price to an outlaw.”

“They'll give up something like information for a drink,” Victoria added. “I see it all the time in my tavern.”

de Soto's eyes darkened at how quickly they had shot down his idea. It never occurred to him that they meant it any way other than personally. His gaze mostly trained on Diego, he growled, “Fine. Don't unmask then. Don't get married. You can fight your entire life, for all I care!” His face turned more red and blotched with each word he spoke. “You said that you wanted ideas, and I gave you one. You didn't take it - that's your prerogative. But I've had enough - I'm going to bed. Good-night.” He pushed off the wall he'd been leaning against, strode to the door, yanked it open, then slammed it shut behind him.

“Well,” Padre Benitez said into the following quiet. “For a man not wanting to be detected, he's certainly doing everything he can to attract attention.”

“He wants to attract attention to me,” Diego grimly noted. “I bet he's hoping that even if he's chosen not to capture and hang me, he wouldn't be sorry if somebody else did.”

Alejandro slowly ruffled a hand through his hair. “ Perhaps he has the right idea, though.”

Diego's brow wrinkled in disbelief. “Father?”

“The promise of Zorro's identity would surely draw riffraff to Los Angeles,” Alejandro noted, “but it would also push Zorro's identity concerns into the open where we have to deal with them.”

“A fencing competition would bring the right minded people to Los Angeles,” Mendoza agreed. “Perhaps the Alcalde's idea has some merit.”

Nodding, Benitez added, “We must think on this some more.”

“I've thought enough!” Diego vociferously objected. “It's a rotten idea! There's no merit to it at all!”

Mendoza shrugged. “The Alcalde is right about one thing, though - you did ask for ideas.” He anxiously tugged at the collar of his uniform tunic. “We've had many ideas, yet Don Diego shoots every one of them down.”

“Often for good reason!” Diego argued back. “I'd really like to come out of this alive if I can!”

“That's not what I'm saying,” Mendoza protested, his voice soft and full of conciliation. “Are you sure that unmasking is what you want to do, Don Diego?”

Diego did a double take. “Of course it's what I want to do!” he replied automatically. “I want to marry Victoria, and I can't do that without unmasking first. I don't see as how I have much choice in the matter.”

“Why couldn't Zorro marry Victoria?” the Padre wanted to know. “Here we all are trying to find a way for Don Diego to marry, but maybe we should focus on Zorro marrying the Señorita.”

Diego sighed, as if this point should be obvious. “Zorro is an outlaw. If Victoria marries an outlaw, she becomes an outlaw, too. With my luck like it is, she would have a price on her head before the wedding ceremony was even over.” He lifted his eyes to bleakly study the others still in attendance. “I don't want to make her an outlaw.”

The Padre frowned. “So Zorro marrying the Señorita isn't an option.”

Alejandro groaned, and Victoria gave an angry huff of frustration. “There must be some way out of this.”

Six aggravated sighs issued into the room from its six aggravated occupants. A dejected silence followed the explosion of air.

“Perhaps de Soto has the right idea about going back to bed,” Alejandro at last admitted. “Sleeping will help us see this in a better light.”

“I don't see what a little sleep will do for this,” Diego crankily said in a quiet voice. “I've been thinking about this for years, and I still haven't figured out what to do about it.”

Benitez's sunny smile seemed at odds to the dark moods of the others. “The Lord will show us the way,” he benignly said.

The confidence in the Padre's voice was overwhelming. The fact that he still didn't feel convinced was a worry to Diego. Perhaps Mendoza was right, and he really didn't want to unmask? Diego's gaze fell onto Victoria sitting beside him. He knew the price of not unmasking, and instinctively knew that the price was too high; it was time that he kept his original promise to Victoria and married her.

Perhaps that original promise was the true problem? But he had said that he would someday declare his love for Victoria, and he had, just a few days before. So what was really the problem? Did he not want to get married? He could see no other reason why he was having such trouble unmasking.

Maybe Victoria was right; he was secretly worried that he would get bored... but bored being married to Victoria? She was sure to keep him on his toes... though that was certainly different than chasing bandits on a daily basis.

Perhaps he wasn't so much worried that he would grow bored, but worried that he would lose his skills if he didn't chase bandits anymore?

Not giving himself time to think, Diego piped up, “Sergeant, what to do think about this: I unmask, then volunteer - let's say - a few times a week to train the lancers?”

“Train them how?” Mendoza asked, perplexed.

Diego shrugged. “Train them in fencing, in tracking. I know I don't often shoot, but I'm a fairly decent marksman. Perhaps I can help there, too.”

“You would do that?” Mendoza inquired in disbelief. “The men could benefit from your expertise, Don Diego!” he exclaimed now that Diego had volunteered. “Could you start next week?”

Alejandro held up a hand. “Hold it. He has to unmask first, or none of this matters, and we haven't figured out how to do that yet.”

Diego rolled his eyes in frustration. He couldn't believe that for a moment, he had actually forgotten about the puzzle of unmasking. “Father's right; if Diego starts training the lancers in things like tracking, I'll get laughed out of town! Again, I don't see what choice I have but to unmask.”

Victoria put a comforting hand on his arm. “Does anybody have a better idea than the Alcalde's?” she asked them all, her tone desperate. “I'd rather live through one fencing competition than fights with a million people!”

Even Diego balked at the idea of fighting a million times. “Victoria does have a point.”

Suddenly Felipe slowly smiled, his eyes trained on the floor.

Diego was the only one who noticed the way the silent young man's face lit up. But he was used to noticing the expressions that crossed Felipe's face. His expressions had often let Diego know that Felipe had yet another diabolical plan to keep Zorro's irons out of the fire. “What's on your mind, Felipe?”

An evil grin abruptly spilled across the mute's features. He held up one finger to indicate that everyone should pay attention. Then he began signing.

Go on to part 12.

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