Diego, or rather Zorro, maintained the status quo in his relationship with Victoria. Everything was about to change when unexpectedly she got a letter saying that her father was in The Devil’s Fortress and was dying.
The attempt to obtain diplomatic approval to visit the prisoner failed. Eventually, Victoria and Ramon managed to sneak in and break into their father’s cell, and Zorro made sure they were not caught by a soldier checking that floor of the prison.
Alfonso first asked his son to tell him about his life. Ramon briefly summarized his joining the partisans and how he ended up as a vaquero in Monterey and Francisco as an officer. Senor Escalante patted his cheek. He had forgiven his sons for their recklessness long ago, although for him the search for his sons ended when he was arrested and sent to this fortress.
When all was said, Alfonso turned to his daughter. “I heard that ‘Tavern Victoria’ is the best establishment in all of Alta California with the best cook. Is that true?”
The young woman blushed. “I try my best, but there must be a lot of exaggeration.”
“Six months ago, they sent old Enrique to my cell, he sent you letters when he finished his sentence. I heard a lot of news from him. Victoria, is there any special man in your life?” he asked, although he already knew the answer.
Senorita Escalante blushed even more, and the object of her sighs entered the cell. “Sorry to bother you, but I knocked out and already tied up the second guard. They’ll be suspecting something is wrong soon.”
For Alfonso, one look at the solid figure emanating confidence was enough to recognize Diego. “Come here, son. So you’re Zorro, the man who stole my daughter’s heart.”
“Just as she stole mine, senor.” Both men looked at each other as they did years ago. Ramon, seeing that it was now his sister and her suitor’s turn, went out to give them some privacy.
The older man broke the silence first. “Have you kept your promises?”
Diego knew he was recognized, but Victoria looked from one to the other without understanding.
“I looked after her well-being and safety with all my heart.”
Alfonso seriously asked, “What about the other promise? The reputation? You romance her in the mask, and I have not heard that you are going to marry her and make her an honest woman.”
Zorro lowered his head in shame. “Senor Escalante, I once said that if one day she reciprocates my affection, I will come and ask you for her hand.”
“I remember that. Now you have the opportunity.” His harsh expression softened.
Victoria did not fully realize how Zorro and her father might know each other and what promises they were talking about, but the chance to receive a parent’s blessing was important. She stood up and put a hand on the renegade’s bicep.
Zorro looked at her sadly and turned to Alfonso. “I… I can’t. I can’t because she doesn’t reciprocate my love. I’m sorry.”
The surprised woman began to protest, but the Fox interrupted her. “You are in love with a legend, with a disguise, and not with the real me under the mask.”
Victoria violently denied. “You are the same man, whether you wear a mask or not. I would never …”
His finger on her lips silenced her. “You already have. You said that there could never be anything romantically between us and laughed at the idea. I am just too weak, too selfish and too cowardly to break up with you as Zorro. You are my muse, my inspiration. Without you, I’m no one. Forgive me, Victoria.”
He caressed her lips and cheek. Tears glistened in her eyes that threatened to fall. They both heard a grunt and turned toward Alfonso.
“You didn’t tell her who you really are? It isn’t the honest thing, you know that,” he remarked surprised.
Zorro shook his head. “It’s safer for her if she doesn’t know. There’s a reward on my head.”
“And you didn’t guess at first sight?” Alfonso looked at his daughter. He couldn’t understand it. He had only needed a few seconds.
“It is complete nonsense. You are meant for and have been in love with each other for years. Come here, both of you.”
When the pair knelt by his cot, he took their right hands and folded them together. He put his palm on top of theirs and with his other hand he made the sign of the cross.
“Victoria, mi hija, you are my joy and my pride.” Then he looked at the young man and held himself back before Diego’s name slipped out. “You, mi hijo, have my respect and trust. I bless you on a shared life-path in marriage. Have many children and tell them about their grandparents someday.”
He added less seriously, “And damn it, lose the mask finally!”
Then Ramon burst into the cell. “The guards probably figured it out. We have to move.”
Zorro was better in action than in the sphere of emotions, so he took command. “Victoria, take the keys and open all the cells, we need the distraction, and there are only political prisoners here. Ramon, take one of them to help you carry the stretcher. I will go ahead and clear the way.”
In the general turmoil, they managed to get out of the fortress safely. However, during the escape, Alfonso Escalante drew his last breath.
They quickly rented a cart and went to a nearby monastery. There they asked for asylum and told a sympathetic monk about the circumstances of their escape.
The padre was very forgiving and offered accommodation and food. The next day, he suggested a mass and a funeral. Zorro was reluctant to agree. On the one hand, he wanted to stand by Victoria and enable her to say goodbye to her father, but on the other hand it was risky for him to stay in the area for too long.
However, Ramon was aware of both the threat and the emotional effect of the couple’s conversation with his father. Therefore, he promised to take care of the funeral if Zorro and Victoria immediately returned to Los Angeles. The woman agreed hesitantly.
They bid the young Escalante farewell and went to the hideout where Tornado was waiting. They didn’t worry about Victoria’s horse. Ramon knew him and he should find him tomorrow.
Zorro assisted Victoria onto Tornado then climbed after of her. He held her tightly as they rushed through the night at a gallop. He wanted to make as much initial distance as possible before a pursuit would start. Setting the prisoners free had created a distraction but the soldiers probably had gathered their wits by now and started looking for fugitives.
They didn’t talk. Victoria struggled to come to terms with finding her father just to lose him forever. However, she was grateful to God for the opportunity to say goodbye. Meanwhile, Zorro was busy navigating their journey and choosing the fastest roads far away from the popular ones.
The day spent idly in the hideout had given Tornado the necessary rest, so he rushed through the night. But even such a magnificent stallion like him had a limit to his abilities and after a few hours he clearly slowed down. Zorro knew that they had travelled a great distance and decided to risk a stop. After a quarter of an hour, he found a small valley hidden in the bushes, which was perfect for them to rest unseen.
He pulled into it and dismounted, then helped Victoria down. The renegade was sore because the pursuits around their pueblo never lasted more than an hour. He stretched and pulled a blanket out from under his saddle and some food from a sack. Then he handed them to his beloved.
“Please, wrap yourself up. It’ll be even colder in the morning. We can’t light a campfire, and Tornado needs rest.” She did as he asked, sat on the ground and ate. She watched as the bandit unsaddled his horse and wiped him with a few handfuls of grass.
Finally, he rearranged the saddle on the ground, laid down and put his head on it. “Come here, you can use me as a pillow and we can share our body heat. You also need rest.”
Victoria laid down next to him with her head on his chest. The steady rhythm of his breath and heartbeat finally calmed her down. She noticed that he wanted to say something a few times, but each time he refrained. They lay together, but neither knew how to start, much less how to fall asleep.
“Querida, I’m sorry about your father. You thought he was long dead and …”
“Don’t be. I mourned for him years ago.”
Sleep was still not coming. The masked bandit thought about how to ensure her safety, and at the same time, he stupidly dreamed of marrying her. He still couldn’t get rid of his biggest fear – that when she found out who he was, he would lose not only her love for Zorro but also her friendship with Diego. Especially now, when he had loudly admitted that he knew what she actually thought about him. It would be devastating.
Meanwhile, the tavern owner’s thoughts stopped circling around her father and drifted to the man next to her.
“Zorro and my father knew each other well – he immediately recognized who he was. But my father went missing many years ago. So my black bandit must have been living in or near the pueblo back then. And at some time back then, Zorro made him promises regarding my security and reputation.”
A vague idea began to form in her head.
“When my mother died and my father went after Ramon and Francisco, only one person was with me and could make such promises. That would mean that …”
Even in her mind, she wasn’t ready for final confirmation, though she already knew it in her heart. Her breathing quickened. When she heard his concerned voice reaching out to her through the darkness, the same one that years ago had comforted her after her mother’s death, she was certain. Zorro was Diego.
“Victoria, are you okay? You really should sleep.” The renegade wanted to give her some support, so he hugged her tightly to his chest and started stroking her back.
“When did I say you didn’t have a chance with me?”
Zorro tensed but didn’t answer.
“It was Valentine’s Day, right? You must have overheard my conversation with the sergeant. He gave some candidates, you had to be one of them. I am not surprised you did not speak any word to me that evening. I am startled that you came at all.”
When Zorro answered, there was pain in his voice. “I should break up with you then. I should let you go so you can find happiness with someone else. This is the only honest way for you. When we get back home, I won’t bother you ever again.”
Victoria rose in his arms and looked into the depth of his blue eyes. “But no one else got my father’s blessing and acceptance. Besides, I don’t love anyone but you.” Pause. “Diego.”
Before he could absorb that sudden turn, she leaned forward and caught his lips in a passionate and long kiss. When they separated for air, Zorro was still speechless.
“Diego, I have had a crush on you since I was twelve years old. The one morning when I woke up in your arms was the most beautiful morning in my life. You don’t even know how much I wanted to kiss you when you went to Spain, or on many occasions before that, for that matter.”
The caballero finally found his voice again “But when I came back, you fell in love with Zorro, how could I stand any chance against him?”
“I fell in love with Zorro because he was acting exactly like you used to. And you have changed so much for the worse, as if you were only a poor shadow of yourself. I really regretted that I convinced you to go to university. So actually, I never really stopped loving you.”
She looked at him, the man under the mask, with such tenderness that his heart melted and his soul sang. “And you don’t hate me for lying and deceiving you for such a long time?”
“At the moment, absolutely not. I will probably make you plug away on a treadmill after returning, but for now, you don’t have to worry.”
Zorro, smiling broadly, wanted to draw her towards him and kiss her senseless. But Victoria pointed a finger at him. “Not so fast. You will first take off these black clothes and mask and put on your caballero clothing which I suspect you have in your sack. It will be safer this way.”
Diego didn’t mind, after a whole day his outfit was sweaty, but he didn’t have another black set. He turned his back to her and took off his shirt.
“You know, after thinking it over, you should hide Zorro’s clothes, but you can take your time putting on a fresh shirt and a suit.”
The caballero turned around in surprise. He met her playful smile and mischievous gaze. “Ok, I know, my reputation. I was just teasing. But it will be better if my cunning fox comes up with a solution so that I can marry Diego quickly. I’ve been waiting for him half my life and I’m already a bit impatient.”
The man joined in the banter as he put on a white shirt. “He’ll come up with something quickly. It’s not nice to make a lady wait.”
That night they fell asleep peacefully in each other’s arms, hoping for a future together. Before Diego closed his eyes, he looked at the starry sky above him and thought, “I have kept my promises and I will keep them. Victoria is my whole world. You can rest in peace, Senor Escalante. Alfonso. Father.”
AN 1: Many thanks for Mary Jo and KariTBB for patience for my mistakes, time and effort with beta reading and all suggestions on how to improve.
AN 2: This story I want to dedicate to my mum, who also left me to the better world on the threshold of adulthood, too early.
Picture of Victoria comes from www.newworldzorro.com