Forge of Shadows

by

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen


Two weeks later, Ania stood before her mirror looking at a woman she had almost forgotten she could be. She was clothed in a new gown of brocaded satin of a deep green that intensified the green of her eyes. The jeweled combs once again controlled her hair of almost raven darkness.

She was glad to no longer be required to wear the black of mourning, yet something seemed unfinished to her. She bit her lip as she thought about it. Perhaps it was that, even in surroundings she had never been in with either her father or brother, she still felt as if she should meet them around every corner. She was heartily thankful that she still had so much to do. More work to do meant less time to think, to brood.

She frowned at her reflection. Perhaps her discontent had not only to do with her grief but, also to the uncertainty of what she felt for Diego, or he for her. Ania sighed moodily. He was still attentive, and frequently when he sought out her company, she felt that there was more beyond the expressive hazel eyes and bright smile that never failed to cause her heart to speed up its beating, more that he could say, but for some reason, did not. Diego was so confusing. She sometimes felt that if she could look behind the image he appeared to be, like she could the reflection in this mirror, that she would see someone wholly different to what one would expect.

Until recently, Ania had been unwilling to accept that she might be falling in love with the handsome hacendado, and now that she had admitted it to herself, she was no happier, for it appeared to her that she might be falling in love by herself. The thought was not a happy one. Pridefully, she forced a carefree look into her eyes. No one must see how she felt. If friendship was what was offered, then that is what she would seem to offer back, no more. Pity would be worse than rejection, especially when it came from the one you loved.

She cocked her head for a moment to listen to the music coming from downstairs. It had, indeed, been a lifetime ago since she had danced. She was almost a different person now. Slowly the music worked its magic. Whatever the other circumstances, tonight she would smile and enjoy herself. Like the mirror image, she would reflect the gaiety around her. With a final pat to her hair, Ania picked up her lace fan and walked out the door and to the top of the stairs.

Diego stood looking over the crowded patio area. Virtually every family of good blood was represented here tonight. He had just returned the smile of a young señorita of his acquaintance and reached to take a glass of wine from a tray held by Bernardo when he noted that the manservant's eyes glanced past him and upward, towards the second floor. Quickly, he turned to see what had attracted Bernardo's attention. For a second, he stood where he was, unable to look away from the beautiful woman in green at the head of the stairs. She appeared perfectly at ease with all the attention she was receiving, as if it were merely her due. He, also, realized that looking as she looked tonight, she would have soon become the center of attention at any fiesta, be it in a small pueblo or in the courts of Madrid. He set the glass back on the tray and walked quickly to the foot of the stairs, anxious to have this beautiful creature by his side.

Bernardo smiled as he watched his young patrón look up at Ania as she came down the stairs. He honestly hoped that something would come of the affection he saw growing between the two young people. He knew the high price the young hero was paying for the protection he gave the people of the area, and he was not entirely sure things could not be different. However, the mozo also knew to what lengths Diego had gone to keep from involving his father in the dangerous responsibilities he had taken on when he returned from Spain. Diego had endured much anguish throughout the months that his father was convinced his son was a weakling and a coward. The relief he felt after he had learned that Don Alejandro knew of his alter ego's existence did not completely erase Diego's concern of what it might cost his father someday. He knew that Diego felt that danger might extend to anyone who knew he was Zorro. It was entirely possible that the more Diego came to care about this señorita, the less likely he was to willingly involve her in the deception.

Diego reached up and, as Ania lightly placed her hand on his, drew her down the last few steps. "How lovely you are tonight, Ania!" he said as he placed a light kiss on her hand.

"Muchas gracias, Diego," she responded, excitement reflected in her eyes. The slight flush to her complexion made her even more beautiful as she looked around the area. Her hand tightened on his. "I did not know there were so many people in the whole area of the pueblo of Los Ángeles. You and your father must have invited everyone between here and Monterey. I shall never remember all the names!" she whispered with a quiet laugh.

"Just smile and they will be too dazzled to realize you do not know them from Adam," he whispered back as he tucked her hand in the fold of his arm and led her to a nearby group of people and began the introductions. A few minutes later as the musicians began a slightly faster song, he turned and asked Ania if she would like to dance.

Ania was surprised at the strength she felt in Diego's arms as she moved into them for the dance. As much as she was coming to care for him, she could not have described him as very athletic. Rarely had she seen him do anything more strenuous than horseback riding. The surprising firmness of his muscles under her fingers brought to mind the other evening as she had felt the comfort of his arms around her. She wondered what it might be like to go into his arms as something other than someone needing comfort; to perhaps find love there. Suddenly, looking into his eyes, she realized that her own face was showing more than she wished of her feelings. Looking away, she wondered how much Diego had been able to read of her emotions.

Diego had indeed seen Ania’s feelings for him. Oh, how he longed to acknowledge them and encourage those feelings to grow! His own had grown as well. What am I doing? he asked himself. For her own good, this can go no further. Yet as she looked away and veiled the affection that had shone in her eyes, he knew that right now, what must be did not matter. What mattered was seeing the joy in her eyes once again and hearing her happy laughter.

As she looked down, Diego suddenly took a quick step and spun her around a bit faster than Ania expected. Laughing at the sudden move, she looked back up to see laughter and warmth in Diego's eyes.

"There, that is better. When you look up and laugh like that, the candle light makes your eyes glow like precious emeralds," he said with a seriousness that she was afraid to examine too closely.

"What, Diego, amigo mio?" Ania laughed. "From you I expected the truth, not flattery!"

"There is no flattery meant, only the truth," he said with that surprisingly serious expression in his hazel eyes.

Ania suddenly felt as if there were wings on her feet. She found herself wishing that time would stand still and the dance go on forever.

Finally, fanning herself, she had to admit that sitting one dance out sounded good. As Diego guided her to a less crowded area, an older couple joined them. "Ania, may I present Don Hernándo Marcos y Desoto and his wife, Doña Anita," Diego offered smoothly.

Ania inclined her head and did the slightest of curtsies, as the older gentleman bent over her hand. "Don Hernándo, Doña Anita, I am honored to meet you," she responded quickly.

"Would you care for something to drink, Ania?" Diego inquired as he looked back at her.

"Oh, gracias, Diego. That would, indeed, be welcome," she smiled.

"Con permiso," he said with a nod to Don Hernándo. With the grace Ania so admired, he turned and quickly made his way to where several servants were ladling cool drinks into crystal cups.

"I understand that your family was involved with the government and military matters before coming here," Don Hernándo said, by way of opening the conversation.

"Sí, that is so, Don Hernándo. My father was a government administrator and one of my older brothers was a lieutenant in the king's army," Ania responded.

Ania found that with very little encouragement, Don Hernándo could talk endlessly of the military and his thoughts and experiences with the same. He was soon expounding on a theory that one could tell the intelligence of an officer by merely examining his record of successes.

Ania managed to seem interested, yet still keep an eye on other people. Unconsciously, her eyes sought out Diego's tall form across the room.

Suddenly, Ania was startled as a deep voice spoke up from behind her. "Buenas tardes, Don Hernándo...Doña Anita."

"Ah, Capitán Rodríguez, I was not aware that you were here tonight," Don Hernándo replied. His voice was polite enough, but something about his expression indicated that he was less than pleased to see the comandante in attendance.

"Señorita Valdéz," the capitán intoned with somewhat less warmth.

Ania managed to keep a pleasant look on her face and smiled. "Comandante, I do hope you are enjoying the fiesta," she said aloud. I hope you are enjoying it on the way out the door was more what was in her mind. She could not imagine how he had come to be here. Surely Don Alejandro had not invited him.

"I had pressing business with Don Alejandro and I did not feel it could wait until morning," Rodríguez stated almost as if in answer to her unspoken question.

Ania smiled politely at him. I will just bet you did, and I am sure Don Alejandro was thrilled to see you slither through the door, she thought. The mental picture helped her hold the smile on her face. Quickly, she glanced around for Diego but his back was still to them.

"I hear that you have begun rebuilding, Señorita Valdéz." Rodríguez's eyes glistened as he gave her a hard look. "It must be a very expensive prospect to have to start over again. I fear that it could even prove to have very dangerous consequences for you. I would think that a young lady would have better uses for her time and money." The tone of the capitán’s voice was one of concern, but as Ania looked into his eyes there was no such kind emotion there. Rather, there was an intensity, which bespoke more of a dire threat, rather than advice for her safety.

Ania busied herself extending her fan and gracefully waving it in front of her. She knew she had no proof. She doubted that anyone else had seen the look he gave her. However, she felt certain now that he was the one responsible for all the trouble she had had. Does he just think I will slink away to cower in some hidey-hole somewhere? Well, he shall see just how a Valdéz reacts to such a threat! Only when she knew that her expression and voice were impassive did she look back up into the man's eyes. “You will find if you get to know me, Capitán, that I am not easily discouraged. When I want something, I do not stop until I get it. I will start over as many times as need be to do so." Her voice was impassive, yet for a second, she allowed an expression into her eyes that let Rodríguez know that she knew that he was taunting her and that she would not be pushed.

Don Hernándo and Doña Anita looked on, not quite certain what was passing between the two engaged in this somewhat odd conversation.

Looking at Don Hernándo, Ania had an idea. "Don Hernándo and I were just engaged in discussing an interesting idea, Capitán Rodríguez. Don Hernándo has stated that he has a theory about men who lead our military. Having had a brother and father who were at one time in the military, I am inclined to agree with him, but it would be interesting to see what someone active in the king’s service now would think." She looked at Don Hernándo expectantly.

"Oh, Don Hernándo? What was your theory? If I can shed light on the topic, it would be my pleasure to do so," the comandante looked at Don Hernándo questioningly.

Having been somewhat uncomfortable with the previous turn of conversation, Don Hernándo was only too pleased to reiterate his theory of the gauging of intelligence of an officer by examining his record of successes. Ania had to fight to keep a gleeful expression from her face as she heard the pompous comandante fall right in line with the logic of the theory.

"I suppose that might not always be the case. I understand that your brother was killed in one of our battles with France," Rodríguez said after a few minutes, as he turned back to Ania. Again, there was a contrast between the look in his eyes and his tone of voice.

Ania only barely succeeded in keeping her mask of decorum in place. "Sí," she managed to say in a level tone of voice. "I assure you it was no fault of my brother’s.  I suppose you could say that his commanding officer was less than brilliant." Leave it to Rodríguez to try to unsettle her by the reference to her brother, Eduardo's death. Ania determinedly kept her expression pleasant, while inside she was visualizing what she would have done to him had she been a man. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Don Alejandro exit the sala door. He looked less than happy at the moment. He started across the room, only to be stopped by an acquaintance after a short distance.

"Capitán," continued Don Hernándo, "perhaps you are proof of my theory. I have heard that you have an excellent record. After all, you seem rather young to have progressed so far in rank." He hoped that flattery would hold the capitán’s attention and prevent any more of the awkward comments to the señorita.

Rodríguez smiled cockily. "Perhaps you are correct. I have had my share of successes."

 To Ania's everlasting satisfaction, the pompous fool began describing some of what he considered the most noteworthy aspects of his career thus far. One could easily see that he was enjoying having such an appreciative audience as the older couple was proving to be. As for the señorita, well, from the sly looks he gave her from time to time, Ania was sure he thought that he was giving her an education that would bring her down a notch or two and show her that he was not a man to be treated as she had the other afternoon.

Ania suppressed a smile. This is going to be easy, oh, so easy! she thought with delight. "You must be quite intelligent, Comandante," Ania said with what appeared to be a genuine smile. "I hear that the post at Monterey was highly commended by the governor while you were in command of that garrison.

Rodríguez turned a somewhat puzzled smile in Ania's direction. Praise was pleasant to receive, but from some sources it was highly suspect. However, the temptation to brag being too great, he turned back to the older man and began to tell more details of his term in Monterey.

Diego, having returned in time to hear Ania's comment, turned a puzzled look of his own toward her. He cocked an eyebrow at her. Now what is she up to? he wondered.

She gave him a smile that said more of the cat in the bird's nest than of contentment. He handed her a crystal cup and quietly waited to see what her game was.

Ania had truly very little to do to further her plan. She merely had to say such things as "Is that so?" and "How amazing?" or "How very clever!" as she varied her tone to indicate incredulance or boredom or, very occasionally, something akin to grudging admiration, whatever emotion it took to lead the capitán to brag just a bit more. "Well, you see," she finally turned to Don Hernándo and said, "there is your proof that you can see intelligence as measured by one's success in their endeavors." She turned an admiring look on the comandante before sipping from the cup.

Ah-ha! This bothersome woman is not so difficult to handle after all, Rodríguez thought with satisfaction, fairly swelling with pride as the people who had been listening looked at him. Quite a few more had joined their circle in the past few minutes.

Suddenly, Ania raised her head and looked on him with a look almost of pity. "Why, Capitán, how unfortunate things have been for you since your arrival in Los Ángeles!"

Rodríguez looked at her in bafflement for a moment. "What do you mean 'since my arrival in Los Ángeles’, Señorita?"

Ania looked at him with a look of innocent sympathy. "Why, Capitán, you must feel so badly that your successes have fallen off so."

Rodríguez's eyes showed that suddenly he was aware of how he had left himself open to her ridicule. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the woman beside him.

"If we accept the premise that the frequency of an officer’s successes with plans he makes and carries out is a measure of how intelligent he is, we seem to have a puzzle here, señor. I mean that it seems that a common outlaw has almost been your downfall, comandante. How could a common outlaw's wit compare to yours as a trained officer of our king, señor? You have set...how many now...at least, a dozen or so traps for our infamous fox, and yet.... Correct me if I am wrong, Capitán Rodríguez...yet, not once have we seen el Zorro behind the bars of your cuartel." Ania looked up, green eyes still widened as if in puzzlement.

Rodríguez glared at her as she went on, his eyes filled with a barely controlled hatred.

"How could that be, Capitán?  Perhaps your wit is not so strong as one would think, sí?" As Ania looked up this time, she dropped all pretense. Her eyes sparkled with mischievous laughter. "He seems to be able to outwit you on any occasion, comandante. It seems that we have a true measure of intelligence in our very midst, at least of yours. It seems that one might say that he easily "outfoxes" you at every turn. If we did not already know your true measure as a gentleman, capitán, all any of us would have to do is wait and watch. Of course, something like that is sometimes easy to prove, even for a woman, is it not, mi capitán?" With a laugh, she thrust her cup at the tight-lipped officer so suddenly that he automatically grasped it. Ania then turned a bright smile on Diego. "Oh, Diego, that is one of my favorite songs that I hear. Do you suppose...?"

A bemused Diego immediately offered her his hand to lead her back among the other dancers. Suddenly, Ania stopped and looked back. "Oh, capitán, I will be watching closely your game of wit with el Zorro.  I do so love games of wit." With a low laugh and a nod of her head, she allowed herself to be swept away in Diego's arms, leaving a red faced Rodríguez glaring after her as he unconsciously held her discarded cup.

"Especially when I win," she finished quietly enough for only Diego to hear. As he threw back his head and laughed, she could not help but laugh with him.

Shortly, Ania indicated that another break from dancing would be welcome. As they happened to be close to the open gate, Diego suggested a short walk outside. Ania smiled her agreement.

They walked for a short distance to a tree at the corner of the hacienda. "You know, that might not have been a truly clever thing to do," Diego commented. "He is already your enemy. Angering him further might cause you problems."

Ania shrugged. "I do not think so, this time, Diego. All my life, I have been around military men. Almost the last thing they want is to come off of a situation looking like a fool." She leaned back against the tree and shut her eyes. Then she opened them and looked at him. "The very last thing they want is for anyone to remember that they looked like the fool. No, Diego, you need not worry about me now. I am sure our good comandante will let everything blow over this time. The sooner, the better. If he were to do anything in retaliation it would only prolong the situation. He will quietly slink off to whatever rock he hides under and pray for the world to spin just a little faster so that people will forget sooner. What, hopefully, he will remember is that a woman's tongue can be as dangerous as a man's sword. I hope he remembers it and stays away from me.  I do not like him a bit."

Diego laughed, "I seem to get that impression." He leaned against the tree beside her and admired the play of moonlight on her face as she smiled up at him.

Almost at the same moment, they each grew serious. Ania closed her eyes as gradually Diego leaned down toward her.

Suddenly, from behind them, came the sound of another couple coming through the gate on their own moonlit stroll. The mood broken, Ania laughed as she quickly swung around the tree, putting a more discreet distance between them.

Diego glanced back and then ruefully shook his head at the newcomers' timing. "Perhaps it would be best if we were getting back," he said reluctantly. There had been thus far no unseemly talk of Ania's staying in the hacienda with them, and he did not want any to start due to any carelessness on his part.

Ania sighed somewhat sadly, "I suppose that you are right." Gently, she took his arm and together they walked back through the gate to the party within.

Not long after they returned, Ania looked beyond the young man who had cut in to request a dance, to where Diego stood. His father came up to him and said something that caused his face to become serious. Looking in her direction, he started across the patio area to her...at least, she thought it was to her. But after a moment, she was not so sure, for half way there he was stopped by a lovely señorita whose name Ania could not remember. As she watched, Diego began dancing with the señorita. Ania missed a step as she tried not to be jealous. After all, there was nothing unusual about his dancing with someone other than her, even if she was the guest of honor. Diego was one of the hosts and therefore had duties to his guests.

Ania looked up and apologized for stepping on the young man's foot, Raúl or some such was his name. Ania found herself oddly forgetful right now. When she glanced back, neither Diego nor the young lady were in sight. At first, Ania discounted its importance. However, when half an hour passed and stills no sign of Diego, Ania was in despair. It was not that she lacked for dance partners. Truly she had more than she needed and, decidedly, more than she wanted. Apparently, she had misread the situation again. At first she was hurt. Then, the hurt turned into anger. She straightened her shoulders again and decided that two could play at that game. She turned her brightest smiles on the young hacendados whom she had met tonight.

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Diego hurried back up the secret passage, shedding the black garments as he came. If all of his missions would go so smoothly, he would get more rest, perhaps it would even become boring. The worse thing about this mission had been it's timing.

Bernardo had overheard Comandante Rodríguez telling a lancer who had come to find him to have some men lay in wait for a pueblo hothead by the name of Pedro López. Rodríguez needed someone to use as an example to the people who were becoming increasingly vocal about the taxes. López talked a lot and did little really. However, Rodríguez could also take a bit of his frustration out on the luckless man. López had supposedly convened a meeting to decide actions to take against Rodríguez.

Rodríguez knew where this meeting was. Indeed, a man in his pay had set the meeting up. All Rodriguez had to do was have López arrested, and--voila! --Instant example of the trouble criticizing the government got one into. As soon as Bernardo had heard this, he had come in search of Diego. Unable to find Diego himself, Bernardo had informed Don Alejandro of the problem. Together, they had gone in search of him, finally finding him standing looking out over the crowd.

At first, Diego thought to say something to Ania, but being unable to get to her, had gone quickly to intercept López before he could go to the meeting. As Zorro, he had met the man just a mile from the meeting place. As things turned out, he was able to send the intended victim back one way and he himself went another way, so that when the lancers arrived they found no one to arrest. Indeed, they did not even have any idea how close they had come to not only López, but Zorro as well.

Scarcely an hour after she had last seen him, Ania was surprised when her partner was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. Looking up, she realized that Diego had returned from wherever he had taken himself off to. She carefully hid the joy she felt as she once again danced with him. She reminded herself sternly not to read more into his attentiveness than was truly there, as she had before. As she chatted with apparent gaiety of this or that person she had met that night, he realized that her smiles no longer reached her eyes.

"Ania, is something wrong?" he asked in concern.

Ania shrugged, "No, should there be?  Though, perhaps I have developed a slight headache." Ania looked away without meeting his eyes.

Diego realized that her wall of distrust was once again very much in place.


 

Chapter Fifteen
Chapter One
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