Forge of Shadows

by

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen


With the servants busy elsewhere and Diego still abed, Don Alejandro was enjoying a quiet breakfast before beginning the business of his day. He looked up in surprise as Ania came into the dining room. She was dressed in a richly detailed dress and her hair was held in place by ornate combs. Despite still being in mourning officially for another week or so, she was dressed as she would for receiving guests.

Instead of saying a smiling "Buenos dias!" as she usually did, Ania startled him even further by stopping by his chair, dropping into a deep curtsy, and bowing her head.

"What is this, Ania?" he asked in surprise.

"Don Alejandro," Ania began, without raising her eyes, "I do truly regret my actions and words of last night. Neither was worthy of one who had shown me nothing but kindness since fate dropped me upon your doorstep. I would gladly take back both the words and the actions if there was such a way that I could. As there is none, I do most humbly beg your forgiveness."

For a moment, Don Alejandro could only sit and wonder at what had just transpired. He had expected that Ania would apologize after she had rested and thought things through. However, what he expected was a simple "I am sorry". The apology that she had just offered was of a type and formality, which he had never seen outside the royal circles. Don Alejandro had only observed one like it, many years before when he had served the king and mingled with the royal family for a time. How had a young woman from Spain's colony of West Florida come to be trained in so formal a custom? Realizing that she was still waiting for his response, he rose from his chair, and taking her hand in his, raised her from her curtsy. "Ania, my dear, of course you are forgiven. Your offense was not so serious as you seem to believe."

"Don Alejandro, you went out of your way to help me. Had it not been for you offering to take legal responsibility for me...and, yes, I know," she said as he tried to object to the need. "I know that by law I should not have needed it to be done, but the fact is that you did it out of the goodness of your heart. Without your doing that I would have been given no chance to do what I have done to bring my father's dream into being. The least, the very least, I should do is give you the respect that my real father would be due. In speaking to you as I did, I failed to do that."

Directing her to a chair, he sat next to her. "You were upset, Ania. Do you not realize that I would have recognized that fact when considering your words?" he said quietly.

"That still does not excuse my disrespect, Don Alejandro," Ania stated.

"Very well, we will let that stand as fact if you can but answer one thing for me?" Don Alejandro conceded.

Ania frowned nervously. "And what is that, sir?"

Don Alejandro looked at her intently. "Can you truly say that you never at any point, shall we say, disagreed with your real father in such a way?"

It was almost on Ania's lips to say that "No, I have not" but she wished to be truthful with him. "Yes, I did," she said as she looked up, "but...." she was silent as Don Alejandro raised a finger and cocked his head to stop her.

"And your father, I can assume, never seemed particularly outraged at your behavior on those occasions?"

Ania could only shake her head.

"Then if he could forgive and overlook such behavior under what I assume was more normal circumstances, why should I not do the same when the circumstances through which you had just come had been anything but normal."

"Thank you," Ania finally said simply.

Alejandro smiled at her. "Come and have breakfast with me then. While we eat we can discuss what is to be done about this dangerous situation in which you seem to find yourself. I think you will be surprised at how reasonable I can be. I, too, would like to see you honor your father's memory by succeeding at building this dream, as you call it." He then looked at her more seriously, "However, I want even more to see you live to enjoy your success."

"Now," he said as Ania visibly relaxed, "I have just one more question for you and we can get on with our breakfast. How is it that you are trained in customs and manners that are rarely seen outside of high circles in Spain?"

For a second, Ania froze and she took so long answering that he decided that, for some reason, she did not wish to answer. Finally she looked down at her hands clasped in her lap and said, "When I was fourteen, there was open revolt in the area of West Florida in which we lived. My stepmother declared her wish for Papá to send her and me to Spain until such time as conditions improved. He did so. While we were there, she was determined that she would create a lady out of what the Americanos call a tomboy." Ania's eyes when she looked at him held an odd bitterness. "She had, let us say, high aspirations for me. She made sure I was trained for the part."

Surprised by the intensity of the emotion he saw in Ania, Don Alejandro asked, "Was that such a hard thing?"

"She made my life in Spain a misery, Don Alejandro. There was no love lost between us. I do not speak of her when I do not have to."

Don Alejandro felt that there was more that she could tell if she would. However, he honored her wish and changed the subject. They were still discussing how Ania could go about rebuilding her property when Diego came downstairs later.

Diego smiled at the sight that greeted him as he entered the dining room. The morning sunlight on the unaccustomed colors of Ania's clothing and bejeweled combs made her appear like a rare jewel. For if she had been considered attractive in the black of mourning, she was now breathtaking. For a brief moment, he wished that time could be turned back to a time when there had been no Monastario, nor any of the others like him that had followed, a time when there was no need for Zorro or for the choices that he had made. But the need was there and, as long as the need was there, so would Zorro be. Such was the way things were. He realized that, at least, some of what he was thinking had shown on his face, as Ania looked down and smiled. His father, he saw, was watching the both of them with a pleased expression on his face.

"Ania, what a beautiful way to start the day!" he finally said as he took the chair across for her.

"Gracias, Diego. I know I should not be out of mourning yet, but this morning, I felt the need to dress somewhat differently," she said with a look at Don Alejandro.

"Ania has reconsidered our discussion of last night, Diego," Don Alejandro said. "We were just discussing how best to proceed, safely, with the rebuilding."
"Don Alejandro and I have agreed that I may continue overseeing my rancho, but I shall limit my time there. I am to continue taking Bastián with me every time I go out anywhere," Ania summarized. "However, I was just about to bring something else up." Both men looked at her as she paused for a moment to take a sip of tea.

"As there have been no further attacks on me physically, I feel that Bastián may, indeed, be of some use. It seems now that my property should be guarded as well. However, events yesterday have made me realize something.  It appears that those that I hire may be in as much danger as I from whoever this is, yes?"

"Sí, that is more than likely so," Diego admitted, wondering where she was leading.

"It seems to me that money is a very poor thing for a man to risk his life. Perhaps there comes a time when the guard decides that it is not worth it and therefore holds back in his defense," Ania pointed out.

"Sí, that is likely also," he said.

"But, that same man, if he were protecting his own land, would he not be more determined to defend it?" Ania pointed out.

"Yes, that is granted.  What is your point?" he asked.

"The point is this. I have five smaller valleys that lead off of Papá's valley.  Three of them are large enough for a homestead and garden plot, perhaps for even vines of their own. Let us say that I offer some of my workers, who have shown their dependability and trustworthiness, each one of these valleys. Perhaps they will have extended families who are willing to lend support to their kin to see that they get their own land," Ania speculated.

"That might be true, Ania, but are you sure you wish to offer some of the land. Actually, it is not yours to offer yet, until the provisions are met," Don Alejandro commented.

"Sí, I suppose you are correct," Ania said, "but, what better reason for them to see that I succeed with my plans, than that they should know that unless I do succeed the land cannot be theirs. Beside, I would feel better if I can offer them more than money."

"All right, I will support your decision, if you feel so strongly about it," Don Alejandro said, after a moment's consideration.

"Good," Ania smiled. "Then I shall ride out later and talk to Tomás and the two others about it. All three of them have large families, with several boys old enough to help their fathers," she continued.

"There is one other thing," she began after a moment. She kept her eyes down as if nervous to bring the new topic up. "I have used a great deal of the money we brought with us from Florida. In the long run, that will be no problem.  I have already posted a letter to a cousin of mine in St. Augustine and have asked him send more of what my father left in trust. I had planned to have the bulk of the trust transferred to me here anyway. I see no reason for me to spread my assets on both sides of the continent. However, if I am to do as I wish with the land, then some things will have to wait so that others can be done. It will, after all, take several months for my cousin to respond."

"To which things do you refer, Ania," Don Alejandro queried.

"The stables must be rebuilt immediately, as will the quarters for the vaqueros, but I feel that building the main hacienda should wait," she replied. "You see I have decided to also offer to build adequate casas on the land for each of the families." She paused, watching Don Alejandro's reaction.

"Casas? That is very generous, Ania, but do you think it necessary?" Surprise showed in his voice.

"Necessary? Maybe not, but I feel that it is something that I should do," she said.

"You feel strongly about this?" Don Alejandro asked.  At her nod, he continued, "Very well, then."

"Ania, you realize that if you need more money, you have only to ask.  Father or I would gladly loan you whatever you need," Diego offered.

"Gracias, no, Diego, I could not accept that. I must do this on my own, and I can, if I just do not try to do everything at once," Ania said proudly. "All that I would ask is that I be allowed to continue imposing on your hospitality for a while longer.  Although if the imposition is too great I can rent quarters in the pueblo."

"Ania, you know that will not be necessary," Don Alejandro objected. "Rather than an imposition, it has been an honor to have you here."

Ania looked relieved, "I thank you both." Alejandro saw her cast an almost secretive glance at Diego. To his irritation, his son said nothing further, although his expression showed his pleasure at the idea of Ania's remaining with them for an additional period of time. Alejandro frowned slightly. Would these two never stop playing games?

Gradually the conversation turned to other subjects.

"Ania," Don Alejandro said a few minutes later, "you have still met very few of our neighbors, have you not?"

"Sí, except for those few I have met at mass, and the others to whom Diego introduced to me at the auction," Ania replied.

"As you are coming out of mourning in less than a fortnight, it has occurred to Diego and me that perhaps a fiesta in your honor is in order. You could meet others of our area and celebrate the end of the period of mourning at the same time," he continued.

"I seem to remember someone who loved music and dancing," Diego teased.

Ania's eyes took on a dreamy sparkle. "You can not imagine how good that sounds!" She returned Diego's smile.

As the two young people smiled across the table at each other, Don Alejandro also smiled. Perhaps he merely needed to be patient as these two found their own way.

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Later that morning, once again dressed in black, Ania stood in front of the ruins of her stables, talking with Tomás, Demetrío, and Níco. Diego lounged nearby as he watched Ania discussing her plans with the easy authority and presence of one long accustomed to dealing with servants. She allowed none of the unease he knew she felt after the last 24 hours show in her manner as she made her offer to the three men. When they expressed their astonishment at it, she openly admitted the danger into which she suspected she was putting them. "If any of you wish to refuse this and quit now, I will understand. But for those of you willing to remain on the land as I rebuild and especially to safeguard the grapes now ripening on the vines behind the hacienda, I promise to also build a casa on land that will officially be yours as soon as the provisions of my grant are met. I need to know now what your decision is. If you will not guard my property then I must find others who will."

There was a silence as the men thought it over. Those with older sons knew that their decision affected not only their own safety, but that of their sons as well.

During the silence, Diego looked around to spot the bodyguard, Bastián. For appearance sake, he had required that he come with them as well. The rough vaquero stood some yards away, scanning the nearby hills. Diego felt better that Ania had seemed to accept the necessity of Bastián's presence. After all, Zorro could not be everywhere. He brought his attention back to the group close at hand.

"I will accept your offer, señorita," Tomás announced. He had lost his own land some months before, being unable to pay the taxes on it. The desire to possess land again shone in his eyes.

Níco and Demetrío nodded their agreement. "Your offer is very generous, patrona," Níco said.

"Sí, and perhaps the danger will not be as great as you think," Demetrío said thoughtfully. "After all, Patrona, el gato escaldado huye del agua frio. And like that scalded cat, we will be on our guard this time. We will not be so easily overcome and can work together to protect each other if the need arises."

Ania favored them with a bright smile. "That is exactly what I hoped you would say. I knew I had chosen well. Now, Tomás, I want to ask you to continue seeing to the vines and, see that presses and barrels are obtained for the harvest, por favor. You may hire as many workers as you find that you need to get the work done. You will oversee them. Níco, I wish you to be head vaquero, with the same authority as to workers with the herds that Tomás has over the vineyard and winery workers. And, Demetrío, I have noticed how much enjoyment you had from constructing the buildings before. Well, as they seem to need to be rebuilt now, you will have that pleasure again, at least with the stables and quarters." Ania smiled a bit grimly here.

"And the hacienda, patrona? When will that be started?" Demetrío asked.

"That will wait until your casas are completed," Ania stated firmly. "I am fine where I am for now."

The three men looked at her in surprise. Ania held up her hand to forestall further comments. "Now I suggest that we all get started, if there are no further questions about your duties.  Oh, and be sure to tell the workers under you that their wages will be one and one-half times what it was as long as I feel the danger lasts. "

"Perhaps it will not be so bad, having others help oversee this place, after all," Ania said quietly as the three workers scattered to resume their work.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen
Chapter One
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