Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen


Time once again settled into its seemingly slow, yet surprisingly rapid progression as the days and weeks slipped by. Plans and arrangements began to fall into place for the wedding and the fiesta days that were to follow.

Many of the betrothal gifts, which passed between the man and woman, as well as between their families in the Spanish culture, had already been exchanged.  There were the usual exchanges of cattle and horses, as well as more personal gifts.  Ania followed tradition with her prewedding gift to Diego. She had Señor Mendez, the jeweler, cast a beautiful gold medallion for him with the image of the Holy Virgin on it.  While this was not an unusual gift, she prayed especially hard during her devotionals that the image would represent, not merely the Holy Mother’s blessing on their union, but the special favor and protection of the Virgin upon him.

The discovery of the cloth her father’d had sent to Los Ángeles and Ania's insistence on using it so as to have the wedding sooner, caused a bit of confusion with tradition as far as Diego's gift to her was concerned. Diego insisted on paying back into her estate the value of all the cloth she was using and was, of course, paying for the work of all the seamstresses, so Ania was surprised when he also had a donas delivered to her. This ornately carved wooden chest, one of the traditional bride's gifts, was filled with cloth and laces, as well as several items of jewelry.

"Where in the world did you find it all so quickly?" she had asked, knowing how seldom really fine materials were shipped into the colonies.

"Oh, that is for me to know and you to wonder about. After all, I must be allowed to keep some secrets from you!" he laughed.

Ania laughed in delight as she ran her fingers over the intricate carving of the wood. She knew that he must have sent someone to every pueblo up and down the coast to have gotten it together. Even more surprising to her was the fact that he had contacted each seamstress and had the dresses commissioned earlier delivered to him, rather than to her. He had requested of all of them that they keep this a secret from Ania, so that she would have no idea that they were finished. These dresses along with accessories for each were included in the trunk. Carefully folded across the very top of the contents was the unusual white wedding dress, with a white lace mantilla, silk stockings and satin shoes to match.

"Oh, Diego! I was hoping to surprise you," Ania had cried when she saw it.

"Believe me, you did! I do not believe I have ever seen a white wedding dress before. I should have known you would choose something a bit different. Is there a reason for your selecting white and not the black most brides would choose?" he asked.

"How could I wear black, Diego?” she asked, her face glowing with the love that filled her heart. She reached out and took his hand. “I feel as if I have spent half of my life in black, mourning for those that I loved. I am starting a new life, one of joy with you. I want no reminder of the past sadness anywhere around me on that day. My heart is far too full of happiness to want anything to do with mourning."

Diego looked at her for a moment before speaking, his expressive hazel eyes tender with emotion. Then he smiled. "Now I understand and I agree, mi preciosa. There is nothing but joy in this for both of us." He leaned forward, intending to kiss her, but their usual luck returned as Rosita came into the sala looking for the patrona. The expression on Diego's face prompted a quiet chuckle from Ania as he quickly lifted her hand and placed the kiss there instead. The chuckle became a laugh as he rolled his eyes and whispered, "I know...I know! My timing again!"

The next morning, Ania sat in her room, content for the moment to let her hands work at something, while her mind roamed where it would.  She and Rosita were approaching completion of the first night set as well as several other sets of simpler nightclothes. The creamy silk of the gown was now spread over Ania's lap as she stitched the lace to the bodice. As she finished the last stitches, she spread it upon the bed beside the robe, which Rosita had already finished. Hmmm, it is pretty, but it seems to need something else to set it all off, Ania thought as she stood looking down at it. On sudden inspiration, she walked to the dressing room where the small chest containing her family's jewelry was kept. Opening it, she took out the velvet bag containing the loose pearls from her mother's necklace.  She look down at them a moment and then took the bag to the bed. She cocked her head to the side, considering, while placing the smallest of the pearls carefully on the gown as well as the robe, accentuating the pattern of the lace. There! That is it! Just what it needed, she decided with a smile. Going to a sewing box nearby, Ania chose the finest needle from the pin cushion, threaded it and sat down with the bag of pearls and first night set, carefully stitching each tiny pearl in its place.

Daydreams drifted through her mind as she worked. She smiled as she vividly recalled the time she had spent with Zorro on the balcony three weeks before. Her body seemed to tingle at just the thought of him. His need for her had been so strong that night that her growing desire for him physically had come fully into being. The strength of those feelings surprised her, and yet also frightened her just a little, as well. There was still so much she did not know of such things. Luisa had been a widow long before Ania was even born and had never remarried. She had taught Ania far more of how to help a woman having a baby than she had ever talked to her of what went on between a man and his wife. They had never discussed such things before her trip to Spain and very little, other than Luisa's concern that Ania be happy with whomever she did marry, was discussed after she had returned. Ania supposed this was something most girls discussed with their mothers. In her case, that had been impossible. She had definitely not discussed it with her stepmother! What if there is something that I should know, but do not? Ania worried as the smile left her face. Diego deserves so much. What if I fail him?

Ania remembered overhearing whispered comments referring to "a wife's duties" and seeing knowing glances exchanged among the old tías of their pueblo. She remembered the shared frowns. Surely things could not be as difficult as all that, for on the other side of the coin, she also remembered a servant girl who had worked in their hacienda when Ania had been eleven or twelve years old, a servant girl who gave a much different picture of such things. Ania had always found it fascinating to hide nearby and listen, although she had understood relatively little of what was said.

Bonita had been the girl's name and she had the looks to go with such a name. Bonita had been the despair of the area's priests. Regardless of the preaching and penitence she received, she could not resist the attentions of the men of the area. She enjoyed the courting, but even more she enjoyed lying with them in the hay above the stables. When confronted by her father or the priests, Bonita would act contrite and appear to repent of her "weakness". However, when she thought only the other servants were around, she had talked about the excitement it all, of how good a lover this young don or that handsome caballero was. The looks shared by the servant girls and their laughter indicated that this was no mean duty, but rather something to be welcomed and experienced to its fullest.

Ania had to laugh at the irony of her confusion. There were those who had observed her at court who would hardly have believe it was true. In Spain, she had raised her ability to flirt and tease to a high art form. However, she had used it more as a weapon in the war against her stepmother than as a true way to relate to a suitor. If Leya wanted her to attract a certain one, then she would flirt outrageously with another. Or with one whose father was known to be strict, she would act forward enough to cause the parents to decide that perhaps it was best that their son not be involved with her. She had shared a few kisses in this game she played, but none had ever meant what those she shared with Diego did. No one else she had ever known had ever had such a powerful effect on her emotions, and she now had to admit, upon her senses as well. Yet beyond the kisses and flirting, she knew very little. Growing up in a household of boys and men, as well as being around the breeding of horses and cattle, had taught her some of the cruder facts of life, but surely that could not be all there was to it.

Ania stopped sewing for a minute, staring thoughtfully out the open balcony door. With both her parents dead, there had been no one to choose a padrino or madrina de boda for her. Her own godparents of birth were too far away to be any help with choosing these godparents of marriage. Ramón was the logical person to do this, but he knew few people in the area. After much thought, Ania had gone to Don Alejandro and asked if he would help her. As she had expected, he had been only too glad to do so.

The couple he chose should have been no surprise to her. Don Pedro and Doña Carlota had gone out of their way to be kind to her ever since she had been introduced to them after mass when she had first been well enough to attend. Now they treated her almost like a grandchild. Ania had been relieved when they were chosen to guide her during this time. She would be spending her last night as a single woman at their hacienda, there to be given advice as to her role in marriage. After more than thirty years of marriage herself, Doña Carlota surely would have much wisdom to share. Maybe Ania’s questions would be answered then. However, if the information was not volunteered, Ania was not sure she could openly ask them. As wonderfully caring as Doña Carlota was, Ania was not sure they were that close.

She began sewing again as she thought about Bonita's slightly wicked laughter and the excited look in her eyes as she shared the story of her latest fling with the other servants. Bonita had not loved the men she was with, and yet she had made things sound very pleasant. Surely, as much as she and Diego loved each other, things just must be wonderful for them. Is not love supposed to make everything easier? Her mind back on Diego and the wonderful feel of his muscular body against hers, his lips driving all thought of speech from her mind, Ania smiled once again, only to immediately prick her finger as her mind wandered a bit too far. "Ay!" she cried, jerking her finger away from the pale cloth. Hmmm, perhaps, instead of Diego, I should be thinking of where each pearl goes and where this accursed needle goes as well!

As she gave her hand a shake, she became aware of a horse's whinny. Someone had come to the front of the long steps to the hacienda. She knew immediately who it was and remembered with a start what they were supposed to be doing today. "Diego!" she cried. How could she have forgotten that they were to meet Ramón's coach from Monterey today? He’d had his own coach return with them to Rancho Valdéz after his ship had left San Pedro. A letter had arrived last week requesting that they meet Ramón in Los Ángeles today with a horse for him and one for each of his escort. The horses had already been sent ahead. They had only to meet his coach. Rising and folding her sewing quickly, Ania rushed to put on a riding outfit.

When Ania hurriedly entered the sala, she found Diego quietly studying the portraits on the wall. She was startled when he turned with a scowl on his face and snapped, "Well, it is about time! I suppose this sort of thing will only get worse after we are married!" Ania opened her mouth to speak, but Diego gave her no time for a reply. "I suppose you know that I have been waiting here a full twenty minutes! Have you treated all your fiancés this way?"

"I...all my fiancées?...Ah...I did not mean...ah..." Ania started, totally flustered. Diego had so seldom been angry with her, and usually only with great provocation then. "I am sorry! I forgot...I will be more careful in the fu..." She stopped speaking as Diego slowly began to smile, and then laugh. "Oh, Diego! I thought you were serious!" she exclaimed as she sighed in relief.

"The chance to tease you for doing what you so seldom do was too good to pass up," Diego laughed as he came over and took her hands. "Actually, since you rarely keep someone waiting without a reason or message involved, I was beginning to wonder if I had done something to anger you again. I decided to see what you would do if the ire was unexpectedly turned back on you. If I had known just how lovely you are when one finally manages to get you flustered I would have tried that long before now. Have all of the young caballeros who have courted you been able to fluster you so easily?"

"Only the handsome rascals from California," Ania replied, smiling up at him teasingly. "Well, now that I am ready, finally, shall we go?"

Gallantly, he offered his arm. Ania took it as though accepting a royal escort, and laughing, the two went on their way.

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Tristán Rodríguez looked down at the letter just handed to him by the man standing before him. Postal markings showed that the letter had been posted in the colony of West Florida, Pueblo de Pensacola. The script had a feminine appearance to it. Laying it flat on the desk, Rodríguez carefully eased the blade of his silver letter opener under the seal, opening it out. Hmmmmm, yes, it seems to be from that friend, Rodríguez glanced quickly at the signature, Antonia Velasco, who sent her the chest of tea just after Zorro was shot. He scanned through the rest of the letter, a smile growing as he read. This could not be better. She is actually sending another chest. I can use this! He ignored the man as he rose and paced along the side of the room, stopping before the window.

Across the plaza he could see that a coach had stopped before the tavern. He watched it idly for a moment, then removing a bag of money from his pocket, he turned back to the man. "Well done, Señor Lunas! I do appreciate your help," he said as he lay a handful of pesos before him. "I wish you now, in addition to bringing me any mail addressed to Señorita Valdéz, to watch for another small chest...oh, about so big." He spread his hands about a foot and a half apart.

"But, Comandante, such a chest is already here, tied to the back of my saddle. I was not sure if you wanted it so I waited to mention it," Lunas interrupted.

"It is here? Bueno!" Rodríguez smiled as he lay a gold piece on the desk with the pesos. "Bring it in then. Is there anything else?"

"No, señor," Lunas replied slowly, already looking ahead to all the wine he would be able to buy. 

"Then go back and watch for anything else coming to her," Rodríguez said, dismissing him. "Oh, and Señor Lunas...." Rodríguez tossed another gold piece through the air. Lunas caught it, looked at it closely, bit it, and then looked at it again. "That is for your forgetting where it was you brought these things," the capitán continued.

"Things, Capitán? You must be mistaken. I have not been to Los Ángeles in a week!" Lunas winked. Shoving the money in his pocket, he went out to his horse and returned with a chest, which he sat on the edge of the desk. Minutes later, he had disappeared back along the road on which he had come.

The capitán smiled as he walked back to the window and gazed out at the dusty plaza. His attention was riveted to the area in front of the tavern as Diego de la Vega and Ania Valdéz rode up to where the coach was now being unloaded. His smile grew even larger as he saw who got out of the coach. Ramón Córdoba had returned. He could see the man standing with de la Vega now and his escort was hurrying to get the luggage off the coach and onto a small wagon standing nearby. As the last piece of luggage was placed on it, the mule and wagon were driven northward out of town, while Ambassador Córdoba, de la Vega, and the woman went into the tavern. Sí! Rodríguez thought excitedly. Now we can begin the plan! And yet, he did not really have enough information to do so safely. I had better go over and play "friendly comandante”, he thought to himself. I would not want him to leave the area again at just the wrong time. Perhaps I had better go see how his trip went.

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Capitán Rodríguez stood quietly just inside the doorway to the tavern, casually observing the crowd gathered there. The usual mixture of classes was represented. The peons he hardly glanced at. The caballeros and the few señoritas or señoras with them received a gracious nod and a smile. Even the few deemed important enough to exchange words with received little of his time. The important group was there toward the back, at a table somewhat away from the rest of the crowd. The group seemed in a jolly mood, laughing and joking, while the four lancers escorting the ambassador lounged in a deceptively casual manner at the bar not far away. Hmmm, they are going to be a problem, but not an unsolvable one. I must plan carefully, however.

This problem filed away for later consideration, Rodríguez smiled as he walked toward the table. The four guards snapped to attention and saluted. "Buenos dias, Ambassador Córdoba, Don Diego, Señorita Valdéz. Ah, you seem to have good men here, Ambassador," he said as he returned their salutes. "As you were, lancers." The soldiers relaxed, though not to their former state of ease. They gratefully turned back to their wine.

"Buenos dias to you as well, Capitán Rodríguez. Sí, I picked these men myself. They are a very competent group. I depend on that." Ramón turned and smiled up at the officer.

Diego nodded a polite greeting, while casually observing Ania. He thought she managed things rather well, even though he had felt her uneasiness. She smiled and returned the comandante’s greeting in a cordial voice, although there was very little warmth in her eyes. Anyone knowing her less well would have missed that detail and never known of the tension between these two. As the capitán and Ramón continued talking, Diego looked over and smiled at her. From the look in her eyes as she returned his smile, she was pushing Rodríguez from her mind and giving him her full attention. The smile she gave him was very genuine indeed.

Rodríguez noticed the look passing between the two. "Well, I hear that the big day is coming soon for you two. The bans were read last Sunday in mass, were they not?"

Ania gave him what appeared to be a sincere smile for once. "Sí, that is so. Only three weeks to go after this one." Ania looked at Diego, her eyes shining. Even before this man, her enemy, she would not hide her joy.

"I wish you both the best, of course. As a military man, I have found myself with little time to search for a lovely señorita to share my life, Don Diego. I find myself envying you a great deal," Rodríguez commented.

"Gracias, Capitán. I am, indeed, a lucky man." Diego smiled at the capitán as he answered him. Yet the feeling he got was not altogether pleasant. Instead it was almost like a chill of foreboding that shot through him as he saw Rodríguez look back at Ania, as she thanked him for his well wishes. There was nothing he could actually point to as threatening. Even the man's expression was benign. As a matter of fact, Rodríguez seemed to be totally sincere, as if he had never had any ill will toward Ania at all. Perhaps that was what set Diego’s nerves on edge. For all that Rodríguez's act appeared real, it was too good to be true. As the beaded lizard's beauty hid poison, so Rodríguez's manner now hid danger. The feeling was so strong that he had an almost physical urge to pull Ania behind him and put himself, here and now, between the two. Instead, he forced himself to keep a smile on his face and respond to the conversation.

"It is too bad, Ambassador Córdoba, that you will be on the road now seeing to the King's business. You will be unable to be here for your cousin's wedding, I believe someone said. That is indeed a shame," Rodríguez said with a shake of his head.

"Oh, Capitán, I do not know who could have told you that, but they were mistaken. I very much intend to be here for the wedding. Only the King himself could drag me away from here now. I made it quite clear to the governor that I was not available for any more meetings of any kind until after the twentieth of the month. My uncle and cousins were and are very special to me. It is only right and fitting that I represent them at this happy occasion. No, señor, wild horses will not keep me away from the wedding." Ramón looked over and smiled at Ania.

"Bueno! That is very good to hear. It is indeed fitting that you attend for them. The señorita has unfortunately been through a great deal of tragedy since coming here. It is time a bit of joy came her way and that you participate in the joyous event. My best wishes to all involved," Rodríguez said with a bow. "Well, Ambassador, I am very glad to hear that the trade talks went well. However, I really should be returning to my office. My paperwork awaits me. Adios, señor, Don Diego, señorita." With this, he turned, walked to the bar and, after purchasing a bottle of wine as if that had been his reason for coming in the first place, walked out.


When Diego looked at Ania this time, she had lost her look of calm. Tears of anger and frustration seemed suddenly close to the surface. "The nerve of that devil!" she said, vehemently.  "To talk about my tragedy as if he had no part in it! How can God allow him to walk around as if he were innocent, to continue plaguing the world?" For a moment it actually appeared that Ania would lose the battle to hide her tears. He knew that she must be very upset indeed for that to happen.

He quickly reached and took her hand in both of his. "It is all right, Ania. It will not be this way forever. I promise you!" Diego vowed.

"How can you both believe this so strongly? Neither of you seem to have any proof that you can show me. I am a man of fact, Don Diego. Give me proof!" Ramón demanded.

"Ramón, listen to me. I cannot show you solid proof, but I know it to be so," Diego said fervently.  “Simply because we have not found enough evidence to send to the governor does not mean that it is not there. He is a very clever man who has covered his actions well, but I am sure he bears watching. Don Ramón, it would be wise for you to be very careful in any of your dealings with the comandante. You could find out the hard way just how right we are.”

"That," Ramón said with a laugh, "is what these men are for." He looked around at his escort. "They are here so I do not learn anything of the sort the 'hard way'."

Diego looked across the table and met Ania's eyes. After a moment, she glanced at Ramón and shook her head. "Ramón, there are times when you are entirely too stubborn for your own good."

Ramón shrugged. "Isn't that a little like the pot calling the kettle black, dear cousin?" he asked with a laugh. "Come now. Let us not talk of such somber things right now. I have yet to tell you of my most pleasant stay in Monterey. I am hoping to enjoy more of that pleasure when I return there after the wedding. Anna Maria and her father were most hospitable. They send their greetings and their best wishes to the two of you. I have a letter from them for you and also a wedding gift." With this, Ramón launched into a lively tale of the past few weeks.

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Across the plaza, Rodríguez had returned to his office and sent for Private Rómez. "Private," he said as the man walked in and closed the door tightly. "I have a job I wish you to do."

"Unofficially, Capitán?" Rómez asked, giving his comandante a hard look.

"Sí, I need you to find de Irujo in Monterey and take a message to him.  Oh, and go as a private citizen, Rómez. I do not want anyone to connect the military with this yet. Deliver this note only into his hand. Do you understand?" Rodríguez instructed as he wrote the message and sealed it.

"Sí, senor. It is time for us to begin, is it not?" Rómez asked, thinking of the money he had been promised once the capitán had what he wanted.

"Indeed! All the parts of the trap are now in place. We have only to set the parts in motion and do our jobs when the time comes," Rodríguez agreed. "Go as quickly as possible. Even with our speed now, it will probably take a fortnight or so before things really begin to happen, but happen they will!"

"Sí, Capitán," Rómez saluted and walked out to get a change of clothes and begin his journey.

Capitán Rodríguez leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. He smiled broadly at the closed door. He could almost feel the thrill of revenge already, for once all the pieces were in motion, the trap would close as irrevocably as the great traps of steel used to capture bears. "De la Vega, you had better enjoy the company of the señorita now for I fear that she will not be around for the wedding, nor will El Zorro.  Nothing shall stop us now!" He suddenly put his hands out in front of him like a hinged trap, and with a slap, brought them together as if it were closing. His laugh, ringing out in the silent office, would have been enough to freeze a listener's blood had anyone heard him.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen
Chapter One
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