DEROBEMENT
 
20
 
 
 

     The de la Vega household stayed at home the few days following the duel; none of the family members was eager to fuel pueblo gossip.  News of the duel continued to be the topic of conversation in town, yet no one knew the outcome.  Surely Don Diego had been killed if the combatants had met.  No, argued others, for Don Alejandro would have demanded the arrest of young Costilla, and the rancher had not been seen in town either.  Perhaps the duel had been called off.  Ha!  Now that sounds like Don Diego!  But what man would swallow such an insult to his wife, even if it was true?  Who said he swallowed it?  Doesn't a solid blow to the nose satisfy honor as much as swords or pistols?  That's how a quarrel should be settled, amigos!--with a fist to the face!
     Ramón Escalante was concerned for his sister's sake, but his duties at the tavern kept him pinned there until late each night.  He had tried, with Victoria's rebuke ringing in his ears, to shoulder more of Perdita's responsibilities.  His little wife took naps in the morning and afternoon and still went to bed early!  Did all women in the family way require so much sleep?  He shook his head, thinking how little he still knew about the woman he loved, the one who was carrying his child.  As pleased as he was with the coming baby, he could wish for different timing.  Less than a handful of days until the fate of California and all of New Spain would be decided.  Perhaps he should send Perdita to his sister's house to keep her out of harm's way.  He doubted she would go willingly, and he could not bring himself to use bodily force on her should she insist on remaining with him.   He took a deep breath while sweeping the taproom floor, trying to calm his nerves.  Very soon he would have an important role to play.  Men's lives and futures depended on him.
     A recent development in his subterfuge strategy had surprised him.  His sister, he learned, had not abandoned the rebel operations but had contributed her efforts in a most helpful way.  Several times he had observed the widow de Farral on the arm of Alcalde DeSoto.  The couple had eaten at the tavern together, and her barouche had been seen outside the garrison's office on two occasions.  Another time Ramón noticed the officer riding solo out of town, dressed in an elegant merino suit and silk cravat.  The taverner smiled, satisfied.  The little romance had occupied the commandant's time so nicely that few of Escalante's caballero supporters had been contacted concerning the oath of allegiance.  Sleep, Alcalde, he wished, and keep sleeping.
     The front door of the tavern opened mid-morning, and Ramón looked up in surprise.  His expression hardened, however, when he recognized his visitor.
     "Señor Costilla," he greeted coolly as Carlos approached.  "I think under the circumstances that our association is at an end."
     "Hardly," snapped his guest.  "We have a deal."
     "And I have fulfilled my end of the bargain.  But our deal did not include the defamation of my sister.  Get out."
     Costilla raised his right hand, and Ramón saw that it was swathed in heavy bandages.  Diego had hit his opponent apparently, and the innkeeper smiled grimly.  But how had his brother-in-law faired?
     The visitor caressed his bandage.  "The money, amigo.  Now.  Or I turn you in to the alcalde."
     "I reimbursed you for the rifles.  You said the other supplies were a donation!"
     "I've changed my mind.  Your quixotic little venture has lost its appeal."  He drew a small pistol from his left pocket and pointed it at Escalante.  "Get the money, or I'll turn you and your little wife in as traitors."
     "And what of your own involvement?  You're in this as deeply as we are, perhaps more!  Do you think the alcalde will overlook that?"
     "And what can he prove?  We were innocent citizens duped by rebels!  We have paid our property taxes early!  Oh, the alcalde likes that!  He knows that the Costillas are law-abiding citizens, and he knows the Escalantes are rebel sympathizers.  He'll believe us, not your wild accusations!"
     The innkeeper blanched.  "But I can't possibly get that much money!  There isn't that much in the bank account!"
     Perdita entered the taproom from the kitchen and stopped short with a gasp of horror.  Carlos swung the pistol's muzzle toward her.
     "Then I suggest you persuade your sister to part with the tavern.  I'll take that in exchange for your wife's life."
     A sharp crack startled the three occupants of the floor, and a black leather braid coiled around the left arm of Costilla and jerked it toward the ceiling.  The pistol discharged.
     "Zorro!" snarled the young man.
     "You're not a very nice fellow," noted the masked outlaw from the balcony as he recovered his whip.  "Threatening some women, slandering others.  I really suggest you find another place to do business."
     Carlos belatedly realized that he was without pistol or sword, and was unable, handicapped as he was, to present a challenge to the famous bandit who was strolling down the stairs.
     "I'll deal with you later!" he spat.  "All of you!   And your fine brother-in-law too!"  He hurled himself out the door.
     "He'll go straight to the alcalde," guessed the man in black.  "Are you all right, Señora?"
     "Sí, gracias."
 "Gracias a Dios that you were here, amigo," breathed Ramón.
     Zorro smiled wryly.  "You should have trusted me before.  I have put almost all the pieces together without your help, but it would have been easier with it."
     Escalante's face revealed that the rebuke had registered.  "I'm sorry.  We just didn't know where you would stand."
     "With my friends, as always," the masked man replied.  His ears caught the sound of footsteps running across the plaza.  "Here come the soldiers.  If you'll excuse me."  He darted past them and through the kitchen curtain as the front door opened again, and Alcalde DeSoto entered with several lancers.
     "Search the tavern!" he ordered his men.  "Where's Zorro?" he demanded of the young couple.
     "Gone!" declared Escalante.  "You should be arresting Carlos Costilla!  He's the criminal!"
     "Costilla?  He told me that Zorro had held him up at the tavern and had taken all his money!"
     "Ha!  That's a bald-faced lie!  Señor Costilla held us up and demanded money, or he'd shoot my wife!  There's his pistol, and there's the hole in the ceiling where his ball struck when Zorro deflected his aim!  How can Los Angeles be a safe place to live when you allow well-dressed gentlemen to oppress honest businessmen?"
     The officer was about to retort when his corporal called from the balcony, "He's not here, Alcalde!"
     Glaring at the Escalantes, DeSoto ordered his men, "Back to the cuartel!"
     Perdita exhaled a sigh of relief when she and her husband were alone again.  "At least Don Diego is safe."
     "He must be," mused her husband.  "Imagine that!  Diego won the duel!"

     Zorro's watching the movements of the Costillas had at last paid off.  Since the duel he had kept the family under surveillance.  For the most part they had stayed indoors at the la Cruz hacienda, which was perhaps a testimony to the severity of Carlos's injury.  Antonio had gone out alone several times alone, but his errands appeared to be harmless.  Armando had walked outdoors with Don Bernardo, but otherwise had not been seen.  It was only when Carlos emerged from the confines of the house that the masked man had cause for concern.  His hunch had paid off, for the vicious young man had ridden straight to the tavern.
     Now indeed the outlaw had most of the puzzle pieces.  Ramón and his followers were being financed by the Costillas!  How odd that no suspicion of treasonous sentiments had attached to that family!  Certainly the general who had written the list to Colonel Fuergun was unaware of the Costillas' aid to the rebels.  The masked man shook his head, for Armando seemed no more like a independence extremist than a tavern owner.  The outlaw's work was not likely over yet.

     The Guardian was selling the following Friday, and Felipe manned the booth in the plaza.  The crowd that thronged about him, laying their twenty-five centavos in his palm, eagerly seized papers from the stack in front of him.  It dwindled rapidly.  The readers dispersed then, clutching their copies, and congregated in the tavern to discuss the news.  Only Ramón Escalante lingered nearby.
     "Ah, good!  Very good!" he commented in Felipe's direction.  He knew the teen could lip-read, and like most of the pueblo, Escalante exaggerated the shape of his letters when attempting to communicate with someone he believed deaf as well as mute.
     "Do you like the paper?" the young man asked with signs.
     The taverner nodded uncertainly.  He had seen Diego communicate flawlessly with Felipe, but Ramón was never certain that he had understood the boy's gestures correctly.  But he slipped a sealed note from his pocket and spoke directly at the teen.
     "Felipe," he began, certain at least that Diego's companion could recognize the shape of his own name, "give this to Victoria."  He pointed to his sister's name written on the paper.  "Victoria."
     The teen nodded and took the note, and Escalante slipped him a peso before returning indoors to his customers.  What Felipe thought of being paid like a messenger boy was not hard to discern in his rare, sardonic expression.  He flipped the coin in the air before tucking it and the note in his sash.  Oh, certainly he would pass the note to Doña Victoria, but Diego would hear about it first.  A message from the rebel leader to his sister might be harmless conversation, but it could be entirely more momentous.
     The Guardian's editor was pulling a freshly inked page from the press when his companion walked in.  "Are you out already?  I have ten more copies here.  Have you noticed that our circulation is up?  Fifty copies used to be plenty; now we need closer to sixty."  He waved the paper gently to and fro to speed the ink's drying.  "I'll save some for Padre Benitez; he has been using the newspaper as reading practice for his students.  Isn't that wonderful?  Now they can tell their parents."
     The teen laid a hand on Diego's arm to get his attention.  Producing the note, he indicated it was from the señora's brother.
     "Ramón is using you as a go-between?  That's unusual.  Why not just ask me to pass on a message?"  He held the note up to the light of the window.  "I wish I knew what it says."  Regretfully he handed it back to Felipe.  "Give this to Victoria privately when we get home.  Maybe she'll tell me about it."  And if she doesn't, I know where to find it.

     Maria sat on the kitchen patio with a bowl of bean pods in her lap.  The hacienda's walls and roof provided cool shadows, and she was thankful that the patrón's father had been wise enough to face the kitchen away from the summer's fierce heat.  Her iron gray hair was bound in a style even more severe than Victoria had adopted, and the dour dress she wore was serviceable rather than cool.  She shelled the beans efficiently and glanced at the young doña across from her, likewise occupied with a bowl of beans.  Most young brides were inept in the kitchen, but such was not the case with Master Diego's wife.  The housekeeper had been afraid that, given the formidable cooking reputation of the señora, she would try to take over the management of the kitchen and change the way Maria had done things for years!  And the proud housekeeper could not have tolerated that.
     So far her fears had proved groundless.  Doña Victoria had not tried to interfere with Maria's domain; she merely volunteered to assist as she was doing with the beans.  Despite her reputation for being outspoken, the bride was rather quiet for the most part.  A becoming air of humility sat on those slender shoulders.  The surprise marriage of the young master and the tavern owner had seemed like a recipe for tragedy, but the couple was growing closer together and finding happiness.  Or they had been, until this recent business with the duel.  An aura of sadness had surrounded Master Diego's wife the past few days; Doña Victoria looked like she was about to cry into her bowl of bean pods.  Poor, silly girl!  Fell in love with the wrong man, even though he was a dashing local hero.  But what else could be expected when a girl is left motherless and has to make her own way in a man's world?
     Maria's stiff manner unbent a little.  "It was not your fault, Señora," she said gruffly.
     The doña's lower lip quivered.  "Yes, it was," she refuted.
     "Men will do remarkably foolish things if given the chance.  Have you ever heard of two women settling a quarrel by shooting at each other?  There now," the housekeeper added at Victoria's quavering smile.  "The young master will be home soon, and he mustn't see a sad face."
     Juan had been quick to spread the story at the large ranch, and all the dependientes were feeling vicarious pride at the success of the young patrón.  Shot that smart-mouth Costilla's hand clean off!  And Master Diego as cool as a winter wind!  Ha!  That will teach others to challenge a de la Vega!  The story was further embellished as the days passed, which did not diminish the satisfaction at the estate.
     The back door opened, and Felipe skipped on to the kitchen patio with a smile.  He took rapid stock of the available food and snatched a handful of freshly made tortillas, earning a habitual scold from Maria.  The teen grinned unrepentantly at her and tried to sneak a handful of raw beans from her bowl.  As expected, his hand was soundly slapped by the housekeeper, who grumbled about his teasing ways and bottomless stomach.
     Diego followed the boy to the patio and greeted Maria with customary consideration.  Then he turned to his wife.
     "And how are you today, my dear?" he asked, bowing over her hand.
     Still formal!  He never kissed her in public, and she wished he would.  Such a gesture would have gone far to comfort her.
     "I'm fine, gracias.  I hope your day went well."  Why did everything that came from her mouth sound so stupid?  Why did her tongue dry up just like a schoolgirl's in love?  She had told him plainly that she loved him, but he had not responded that night with a repeat declaration.  Since that hateful day of the duel, neither had he used one term of endearment toward her.  Maybe the duel had forced him to see her in a different light.  Maybe he had changed his mind.
     Still at arm's length!  He could not seem to draw anything more than a polite response from his wife.  Her spirit had withdrawn from his since the duel, and his own guilt over Zorro's secret had become an intolerable burden.  But Victoria had opened a line of conversation that he might pursue to some point past a stilted exchange of words.
     "Very well, thank you.  We got the paper out by the end of siesta, and I had to print up extra copies.  Our circulation has increased a little, and the padre has requested some papers for his school.  I brought home some copies for your class also; they're on the table."
     Of course!  Today was newspaper day!  How could she have forgotten?  "Thank you for thinking of the children.  I'll try to read the paper this evening."
     She continued to shell beans and made no move to see the efforts of his hard work, which disappointed him.  Whatever his wife had to say about the paper, whether good or bad, was always valid.  In the weeks since their marriage, he had found himself looking forward to her comments and especially her praise.  Her words of admiration and encouragement fed his hungry heart and seemed more believable to him than her declaration of love.
     "Then I'll change for dinner.  If you'll excuse me, ladies."  He left the patio, casting an instructive glance at Felipe, who was munching tortillas near Maria.
     The teen understood the reminder; he was to give Ramón's note to the doña when Diego was not there.  Should Maria see it?  He did not think so.  Felipe approached Victoria, blocking the housekeeper's view, and handed her the note from his sash.
     The doña took the envelope hesitantly and glanced at the boy's solemn face.  He put a finger to his lips.  She understood then that he was shielding the exchange from Maria.  Slipping the note beneath her bowl, she nodded to Felipe, who then skipped away.
     The message was from Ramón; she had instantly recognized his handwriting.  Was this the warning of revolution that he had promised to send?  A ton of further worries crashed down on her shoulders.  Her brother and Perdita would be in danger; no, they could be killed.  Don Alejandro and Diego could be drafted any moment by the military.  Padre Celestial!  Will all the people I love be at risk?  She prayed on, impatient with rote petitions, her fear-driven mind scrambling.  Her fingers opened the pods frantically, and the raw beans spilled into the bowl.
     "There, Maria.  I think that's all in my bowl.  If you'll excuse me, I'll get out of your way now."
     The doña set the bowl on the table while secreting the note in her hand.  Inside the library, she broke the wax seal and read the message.  In Ramón's handwriting was scrawled, "Vic, I thought you were going to remain neutral!  Thanks, though, for the boost!  You've no idea how much it has helped!  But stay away from town on Monday.  Do not leave the hacienda until you hear that the pueblo is safe again."  There was no signature at the bottom.
     So the freedom fighters were attacking on Monday--less than three days away!  His reference to her help puzzled her; she could not think what he meant.  Closing the note in her hand, she glanced around.  No one was in the main rooms with her; she would secure the message in her desk's secret compartment.  Having done so after her husband finished dressing, the doña felt safer.  No alert to the alcalde's forces must come from this royalist house!  Despite her stand with her new family, she could not bear the thought of harm coming to her brother.
     Diego's hope that his wife would share the contents of Ramón's message was denied that evening, though Felipe indicated that she had received it.  She had not burned it, which was always the best choice in the case of treasonable correspondence, for the only fire lit in the summer was the cooking fire outdoors.  He knew that she had gone into her sitting room for a few minutes before supper, and suspected he could find what he sought there.  But she still might confide in him in the privacy of their bedroom later.  If not, he would have to wait until the next day when she was occupied with her students or out of the house.
     The night of sleep clarified something for Victoria; it was apparent that her sister-in-law intended to stay in town with Ramón through the danger, and that was a piece of nonsense!  Even if she was brave for herself, Perdita had a baby to consider.  The doña woke up, fully resolved that her petite relative would be safely at the de la Vega hacienda when the shooting or whatever began.  She dressed, and to her surprise Diego got up also.  He had breakfast with her and his father, and politely asked his wife about her plans for the day.
     "I'll teach the children as usual, then I'll visit Ramón and Perdita for a little while."
     He nodded.  The note must have contained information important enough for Victoria to follow it up with a face-to-face visit.  He would wait, though, to search for the note until he was certain she had left for town.
     He stayed nearby during the lesson, quietly reading in the library but able to overhear the exchanges between her and her students.  She was leading them painstakingly through the newspaper, an exercise that her students evidently enjoyed.
     "Now 'Doña Corazon'!" insisted Teresa.
     "Perhaps on your own," said her teacher.  "Let's stay with the news for now and the editorial.  Don Diego puts a lot of thought into those articles, and they are to help you think about important things.  Manolo, begin with the first paragraph here."  She pointed to the article.
     As the boy read haltingly, the editor smiled.  It was pleasing, comforting, and encouraging to know that his words and thoughts could influence his little corner of the world.  Words could win battles, perhaps even more effectively than a sword.  And where did that leave Zorro?  If only all mighty deeds could be accomplished with words!
     The reminder that some things were worth fighting for came abruptly.  "Within the month" was the indication he had gotten from Jesu over three weeks ago.  Diego hoped that Ramón's forces could take the garrison by surprise, otherwise he and his father would be called by the alcalde to take up arms for the king.  Could the coup take place bloodlessly?  Dear God, please!  The faces of the pueblo's people flitted before his mind's eye, and his soul shuddered at the thought of even one person slipping suddenly into eternity.  Who would it be--a father, a son, a mother, a child?  A morbid fear, unnatural for the optimistic caballero, settled over him.  Someone was going to die when the freedom fighters attacked, someone he knew and cared about.
     He was unutterably grateful when his wife's pupils dispersed to their daily chores.  Without a word to him, Victoria gathered the school materials from the dining table and disappeared into the back hallway.  A few minutes later she emerged, wearing a hat and jacket to protect her skin from the sun.
     "Leaving for town?" he questioned politely, looking up from his book.
     "Yes.  I shouldn't be long, but if Perdita needs help I will stay a while.  Adios," she bid him and exited from the front door.
     He waited until he saw her canter Cielo toward town with Pepe following faithfully behind.  Leaving the book on the sofa, he sprinted to his wife's sitting room.  Her desk was locked, but he jimmied the mechanism with one of Victoria's hair pins.  After dropping the writing surface, he removed one of the drawers and tilted out the secret compartment.  Yes, the note was hidden there!  Only a small tinge of conscience troubled him about invading his wife's private correspondence.  It was unfortunately necessary, he justified, unfolding the note.  His eyes rapidly took in the contents, and his mouth hardened.  Not only was a violent overthrow being planned, but his wife had apparently continued to play an active part in aiding Ramón despite Diego's warning to keep his wife uninvolved!
     He too had a few things to say to Ramón, and if he hurried, he could arrive in town before Victoria.  But not as Diego, for he could not explain that he had read the note meant for his wife.  Zorro would ride and confront the rebel leader about his plans for the pueblo, but not mention the further involvement of Señora de la Vega, about which the Fox should have no knowledge.

     The reins chafed Victoria's hands before she had ridden a hundred yards.  Her hands, softened by easier workdays and the relentless application of chamomile lotion, needed extra protection as much as her face needed the hat.
     "Wait, Pepe," she called, circling Cielo around.  "I forgot my gloves.  Let's go back for just a minute."
     She dismounted at the gate while her young escort stayed in the saddle.  Was Diego still in the library?  If so, courtesy demanded that she speak to her estranged husband.  But when she had crossed the threshold, a glance to her right showed that her husband had abandoned the couch and left only his book behind.
     Then the oddest movement caught her eye.  Her bemused senses thought she had seen a wall behind the fireplace pivot to seal off a space.  She shook her head and looked again, her curiosity aroused.  Her closer inspection seemed to show a solid wall of adobe plaster, yet certainly no mortar sealed its edges.  Was a secret room behind this wall?  Her imagination fired by memories of her mother's bedtime stories, she tried to no avail to pull out the panel with her fingernails.  If it opened and she had not been hallucinating, then certainly there was another way.  She stepped back over the empty log grate and ran her hands over the mantle.  In the adventure stories there was always a filial or some such thing that had to be pushed, pulled, or turned to open the panel, but the white-washed pine frame offered no obvious device.  Maybe the catch was on the side.
     Forgetting about Pepe waiting at the gate, Victoria wondered if Diego, her father-in-law, and Maria knew about the hidden door, if indeed it was a door.  Perhaps she could discover something about the hacienda that would astonish them all--yes, a secret lost through time that old Don Sebastian, the house's builder, had failed to pass onto the next generation!  Romantic possibilities ran rampant as she slid her hands up the side support:  chests of gold, dusty skeletons, Indian relics, land grant parchments worth thousands of pesos, conquistador armor!  When her fingers reached the top support, it seemed to give slightly beneath her hand.  Either the trim was loose and needed the services of the hacienda's carpenter or--
     Her breath caught in her throat as the panel swung open and then silently shut on its oiled hinges.  She pressed the loose trim again, and the fireplace wall repeated its strange performance.  The space beyond the wall did not seem dark and foreboding, however.  It emanated a light of its own, though how that was possible Victoria could not guess.  Dare she proceed through the panel?  What if there was no way out, and she was trapped, entombed behind the adobe?  Her sterner self brushed aside such craven fears; surely the builder had provided an opening mechanism on the other side as well.  And she could scream loudly enough to be heard through the wall if nothing else availed.  Discretion cautioned her to alert another person of her discovery before proceeding, but Don Alejandro was riding the range, Diego was who-knew-where, and Maria was last seen weeding the kitchen garden.  Pepe remained outside, but the señora was reluctant to call him.  No, she wanted to be the one to make the astonishing discovery of what lay beyond the door, hidden from the world for years until her cleverness brought it to light!  Checking once behind her to make certain she was alone, she pressed the panel again and ducked beneath the mantel.

     Diego knew he had to persuade his brother-in-law that lives were not to be put at risk in the coup attempt and began mentally marshaling his arguments.  He lifted his sword belt and its silver scabbard from the new clothes tree and buckled it over his black sash.
     "Thank you, Felipe," he said to the teen, who had finished tacking the stallion and was stroking Toronado's long nose.  "Just a brief talk with Ramón should do the trick.  He'll either give me his word about danger to innocent people, or I'll know what I have to do on Monday."  He reached for the mask and smoothed back his hair.
     "Zorro!"
     The scratchy cry of alarm had come from his mute companion.  Only once before had the hero heard him speak, and even then it was a warning.  Diego's head snapped toward the stable to look at Felipe in wonder, but the boy was not watching his mentor.  His finger was pointed toward the rock staircase, and his eyes were bulging with shock.  The caballero in black swung about quickly, hand already drawing his sabre.
     There on the steps stood his wife, her face paler than the chalky caliche behind her.  One small hand gripped the stone wall as she swayed, then leaned against it for support.  Victoria said nothing; she just stared with a horrified expression on her face.  Diego was stunned into silence as well.
     Felipe glanced from one to the other, wondering what to do, if there was any way to dissemble.  Impossible this time!  She was here, she had found the cave, she could see everything:  the lab tables, the sword rack, Toronado saddled in the stall, and Diego dressed in black.  No slick lie would serve this time; the truth was going to come out, and Felipe wished he could be anywhere else!
     Victoria pointed a shaking finger at her husband.  "You--You're Zorro?" she croaked.
     "Felipe, leave us, please."
    Diego's curt command was obeyed immediately.  The boy sprinted up the stairs past Victoria without a backward glance.  He was no coward, but the brewing explosion was one he did not care to witness.
     Diego carefully laid the black mask back over the clothes hook.  "Yes, I'm Zorro."
     "Have you always been Zorro?  From the very beginning?  Was there ever anyone else?"
     "No, no one else.  Only me."
     Her head reeled as she tried to take it in.  Zorro and Diego one and the same?  It was Diego in disguise that she had loved all those years?  Diego she had kissed in the moonlight?  Diego who had fought his way into Fortin del Diablo so she could see her dying father?  Diego who had done a hundred brave deeds that she had admired?  The daring, the cunning, the consummate swordsmanship, the adroit manipulation of the soldiers, the impudent smile, the nimble wit--all came from quiet, scholarly Diego?  Her husband, whom she had come to trust and to whom she had given herself?  A wave of nausea climbed her throat until she could taste the bile.
     "Don't you think I deserved to know?" she hurled at him.
     "I tried to tell you; you didn't want to talk about it."
     "You could have told me!  You should have ages ago!  You didn't really want me to know, did you?  It was your little secret!  Your game, your fun!  Except everyone else in the house knows!"
     "No, that's not true!  Not even my father knows--only Felipe."
     His placating effort went wide.  "You trust Felipe, but not your wife!  All your talk about trusting you!  Did you trust me?  Did you share who you really were with me?  No!" she spat.  "You enjoy deceiving people; it makes you feel so clever and superior.  You must laugh up your sleeve every day thinking of all the people you've duped!"
     "That's not the way it is!" he protested.
     "Isn't it?  I can't think of any reason you could possibly put forth that could excuse such despicable behavior!"  To her horror tears flooded her eyes and threatened to spill over.  "You've manipulated me just like everyone else for your own selfish ambitions!"
     "That isn't so!  I had to think of your safety!  In case you've forgotten, there's a price on my head!" he retaliated, nettled by her merciless barrage.  "And being hanged side by side isn't my idea of romance!"
     "Ha!  What a sob story!  You should be playing your violin to set the proper mood!  If you had any concern at all for my safety, you would have told me before the wedding what the risks were, so I could choose!  Now I'm roped in whether I like it or not!"  She sank down on the steps, reeling from the faintness that was clouding her vision.  Her pallor faded to a ghastly white, and her lips were tinged with blue.
     Concerned, he stepped toward her and reached out his hand.  "Victoria?"
     "No!" she shrieked, shrinking from him.  "Don't come near me!  Don't touch me!  Liar!"
     Diego recoiled.  "I don't think you need to revert to name-calling just because I felt it best to keep something from you.  Where in the marriage vows did it say that I have to tell you everything, especially something dangerous?  And speaking of that," he added, warming to his theme as a new spark of anger flared in him, "I trusted you when you told me that you were not helping Ramón.  But you are, and apparently quite a lot, since he felt it necessary to thank you for it!"
     "You read my note?"  Her eyes narrowed--burning, dark sockets in the bloodless face.  "How dare you!  That was private!"
     "And you would have let me and my father and Felipe--anybody here--walk casually into a confrontation between the rebels and the soldiers?  Do you care for us so little?"
     "You are one to talk!" she shot back, her voice quaking with emotion.  "You said you loved me, but it's obvious that your feelings for me don't run nearly as deep as your love for your masquerade!"
     "Just for the record, I didn't believe your declaration of love, either!  And a good thing, too, for I see now how you planned to betray us all!"
     "Betray?  An apt word choice from the master of all betrayers!  You have betrayed me," she hissed.  "Deceit is your native tongue, and the only legacy you'll ever have!"
     The doña lurched to her feet, scrambling up the steps, stumbling over her skirts.  He reached out to stop her, but in her fury Victoria was able to connect her palm solidly to his face.  The stinging slap forced him to retreat, and in that instant she made good her escape.  At the top of the stairs she twisted the lever that opened the fireplace door from the inside and catapulted herself through the exit.
 

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