Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen


Carefully smoothing her riding skirt, Ania seated herself behind the table across from the desk that had been brought in for Judge Vasca. She wished she had had the chance to change clothes before appearing here in what normally was the tavern, but she realized that it probably would make little difference in the outcome today. It would have been a comforting detail, however, one of few things of comfort to her right now. She would have to ignore that and keep her mind focused on what was said and how it was said so that she could defend herself somehow.  She determinedly ignored the stares of the group of citizens who had been allowed in for the trial as she searched for Diego and Don Alejandro. Ania noticed Rosita, her eyes red from tears, sitting not far from her, but she did not see Diego anywhere. Where are they? Surely, even Rodríguez would not block them from coming. Oh, Diego, I need you now! she cried in her heart. Just knowing you are here will help me be strong.

She sat up straighter in her chair and raised her chin as she heard the crier open the term of court. She repressed a shudder as he intoned, "The matter of charges of treason against King Fernando VII and the government of Spain by Ania Cristina Valdéz will now be under consideration." However frightened she was, she was determined not to show it.

Judge Vasca looked at her as he sat down in his place and seemed somewhat surprised as he met her eyes. Somehow, she seemed younger than he expected. He quickly pushed that thought out of his mind. He supposed there had been young criminals before and he must not let looks or preconceived notions interfere with his judgment. That must be based on only the facts as they were presented.

As Rodríguez prepared to open with his statement, the alcalde slipped into the chair beside her and patted her hand. Ania tried to smile but found it impossible to do so without her lips trembling, so she gave up the effort.

"We will show that this woman, while holding an honored place in this community, a sheltered position as a representative of California womanhood, did contrive and scheme to disrupt the government and deprive her own mother country of the honor of her colonies. Señorita Valdéz, I hold in my hand a letter postmarked in the pueblo de Pensacola in the colony of West Florida. Are you familiar with that pueblo?" Rodríguez asked.

"Of course, Capitán," she answered in a clear voice. "I was raised on a plantation only a few days ride from there."

"Would you call West Florida a stable colony, señorita?"

Ania paused for a second to think about that. No doubt, this was an example of a two edged sword. No matter how she answered, he could twist her words. She supposed the truth was always best. "No, Capitán, not always."

"Oh, so there were rebellious groups active there?"

"No, it is just that many of the people have had to learn to live under several different governments. Many do not truly care which government they are under, as long as they are given sufficient leeway with commerce and taxes to be able to live," she said.

"Oh? They do not care? What of your family, Señorita Valdéz? Was their loyalty so…shall we say...blown to and fro on the winds? Was Miguel Valdéz so lacking in loyalty?"

The question about her father took Ania by surprise. "NO!" she said forcefully before bringing her voice back under control and finishing her answer. "No, my father was totally committed to the rule of Spain! He saw that we were raised with that loyalty as well."

"Hmmm, that seems odd, Señorita Valdéz. You have been heard repeatedly to state that you would never under any circumstances return to Spain itself. Is that not true?"

Ania hesitated, trying to find a middle ground in answering this one. "Sí, but my reasons are per--" she began.

"You yourself attended court functions, did you not? Fiestas and such?"

"Sí, but..." she began again.

"But you hated it all so much, hated the people so much that you could not even be ordered back there, even by our king?" Rodríguez turned to look at her.

Ania was silent again. She had never actually said it quite that way, but she had never minced words about the issue of ever going back there. She had never imagined that her words could be used against her like this.

"Answer the question!" Rodríguez ordered. "You would even disobey a summons to return, even holding a title yourself.  Did you not say that? Were you to claim it, you would hold the title of Marquésa, would you not?"

"Thankfully, I have never been important enough to His Majesty to merit a royal summons. Our connection is much too distant for that. As to your other question, sí, I could be called by that title. However, I have never desired it," Ania stated.

Rodríguez cast an incredulous look her way. "Señorita,  that, too, is very odd. I have never heard of anyone who turned their back on that sort of honor without good reason. What was your reason?"

Judge Vasca shifted in his chair. "Capitán Rodríguez, is there a reason for this particular set of questions?"

"Sí, your Honor. I was merely showing how little regard the señorita has for her heritage," Rodríguez answered.

"Well, get on with it. I think you have made that point. At this time, it is not necessary to know all her reasons. It is sufficient to know that she does have some antipathy against Spain," the judge replied.

"Sí, your Honor," he replied with a bow. "Señorita Valdéz, this is not the first time anyone in your family has been questioned as to their loyalty, is it?"

"I do not know what you are referring to."

"Felipe Valdéz?"

"My brother? No, he was never..." she began.

"No, your uncle, Felipe José Valdéz. Was he not a known traitor to the king?"

"I do not know much about that, señor. It happened before I was born."

"But there were traitors in your family before?"

Ania looked down. "Sí," she said simply. There was a soft buzz of whispers in the room.

Rodríguez turned to Judge Vasca. "My point here is that I believe that this woman’s father was also involved in that conspiracy and he bided his time. There was a time before you came here that he also was accused of disloyalty, was he not, señorita?

Ania remained silent.

"Was he not?" Rodríguez repeated loudly as he stopped in front of Ania’s table to look sternly down at her.

"Sí" she finally said, "but he was not disloyal. He merely defended the people against an unfair tax."

"Oh, but that IS one of the rights of the king, to tax as he sees fit," Rodríguez stated. "Judge Vasca, I believe Miguel Valdéz came here with the idea of spreading the treasonous mentality found in the weak colony of West Florida. When he died, his daughter refused to let the matter die with him, is that not so?" he asked as he turned back toward Ania.

Ania was horrified at the slur to her father’s honor. "NO! THAT IS A LIE!" she cried, half rising. The alcalde pulled her gently back to her chair and tried to calm her. "MY FATHER WAS NO TRAITOR!" She struggled and finally managed to bring her emotions back under control. She realized that shouting and becoming hysterical would not help her case in the least.

At this point the door burst open to admit Don Diego and Don Alejandro. "Did I not order that the door be closed to any more people?" Rodríguez asked.

The alcalde stood then and addressed Vasca. "Your Honor, these men know the señorita better than anyone else in the pueblo. Don Alejandro sponsored her when she first came here. They are the nearest thing to family that the señorita has here now, other than Ambassador Córdoba. I ask that you allow them to enter." Judge Vasca nodded and the two men hurried to find a place to sit.

Diego longed to go to Ania’s side, but that was impossible at this moment. He could only hope she felt his love for her and that it comforted her. As Ania’s and Diego’s eyes met, he was glad to see that she seemed to take strength from his presence and grow calmer once she had seen them arrive. However, it still hurt him to see the expression in her eyes. She seemed so alone and vulnerable. A lump rose in his throat again.

Rodríguez now laid the selection of letters on the table and called Capitán Cosío to the front of the room. Cosío stated how he came to have the letters. He also laid official reports from Capitánes del Guerro and Contreras on the judge’s table. He told how the men they had arrested had all said a representative of a woman had come to those already in Monterey and Santa Barbara. She had offered to put them in touch with others of like mind elsewhere in California and in Florida.

"Capitán, have you had a chance to compare these letters with the señorita’s handwriting?"

"Sí, I have. It is identical," Cosío answered.

"And what of the seal on each of the letters? It is rather unique, is it not?" Rodríguez inquired.

"Sí, it is a V with a standing griffin behind it," the younger capitán testified.

Rodríguez turned once again toward Ania’s table. "Señorita, do you own such a seal?"

Ania relaxed. She knew that that seal was not in her possession anymore. "No, I do not, not now, though my father had one that might have been similar to that. I have not seen it since I came here. It was lost in shipment from West Florida, I suppose."

"Oh?" Rodríguez looked toward the back of the room. "Private, will you please bring in the set of seals that you found this morning in the study of Señorita Valdéz’s hacienda?" Private Rómez walked up with the gilded box.

Ania’s mouth flew open when Rodríguez opened it. There in the box were all six of the golden seals, just as if the sixth seal had never been missing.

Rodríguez calmly took one of the candles from the table, allowed it to drip onto a sheet of paper. He then took the sixth seal and pressed it onto the soft wax. He then handed the fresh seal and one of the letters to Judge Vasca.

Vasca’s face grew stern and solemn as he looked from the seal to Ania’s face.

 Ania sat, pale and silent. He has planned for everything! she thought in despair.

"That is impossible! It was not there!" another voice cried. Everyone looked at Rosita as she stood and faced Judge Vasca.

"Who is this woman?" Judge Vasca demanded.

"I am Señorita Valdéz’s lady’s maid, Rosita Martínez. I helped her hunt for that seal the day that we discovered it missing. We could not find it anywhere in that hacienda! It WAS NOT THERE!" Rosita insisted without waiting for Judge Vasca’s permission to continue.

"But she could have had it hidden somewhere else, could she not?" Rodríguez demanded as he turned toward Rosita.

"No, she has said that she did not have it and she speaks the truth!" Rosita insisted again.

"But you are not in the habit of questioning what she tells you, are you? In fact, you would not really know if she HAD hidden it somewhere else, would you? She could have even had it in her pocket at that time, could she not?" Rodríguez demanded.

"But I know her. She is honest and good! I KNOW she is not lying!" Rosita cried.

"But you cannot prove it, can you, Señorita Martínez?" the capitán said quietly.

Rosita sat back down, tears flowing down her face. She knew that he had just made what she had said worthless. She had no doubt that Señorita Ania had spoken the truth, but Rosita also realized that there was no way to give the required proof.

Judge Vasca looked from Rosita to Rodríguez for a moment and then shrugged. "Please continue with your evidence, Capitán," he directed.

Ania tried to say thank you to Rosita with her eyes and as much of a smile as she could manage. However, as her eyes met Rosita’s, she read the future there and was not comforted. Things were not going well. If she could not do better than this at refuting Rodríguez’s evidence, all would be lost. Ania swallowed hard and looked back at Rodríguez.

Rodríguez closed the gilded box and left it on the table in front of Judge Vasca. He quietly stood for a moment, as the room grew silent. "Your Honor, our pueblo has been honored in recent months to be a temporary home to one of his majesty’s emissaries. Ambassador Ramón Teodoro Córdoba happens to be Señorita Valdéz’s cousin. As he had to be in California on business, he planned also to be present at her wedding. However, it appears now that he will not have that opportunity. As three of my men were on the way early this morning to search the señorita’s hacienda, they met a servant hurrying into the pueblo in search of Dr. Mendoza. Someone, at that time unknown, had attacked the ambassador with a heavy silver candlestick. The doctor was summoned. The ambassador still lives at this time, but the doctor has little hope that he will recover. My men immediately began questioning anyone there who might have seen anyone or anything out of the ordinary. Finally, they found a man, one of the señorita’s own trusted servants, trying to hide from the lancers, not because he himself did anything, but because he did not wish to tell us what he had seen earlier. After we found him, he realized that the truth must be told. Justice must be served. Judge Vasca, may I have your permission to bring this witness in now?"

Ania shot a quick look at Diego, hoping to be able to tell from his face that he had already found out who this witness was and knew how to counter his lie. However, the grim set to Diego’s mouth told her that this was not to be. Ania steeled herself for what was to come. If she could not convince the judge that the man was a liar, she had little chance of avoiding a death sentence. She knew from growing up with a father who had been a government official, that even assault on an emissary of the king was an automatic death sentence if convicted. That Ramon still lived made no difference whatsoever. She looked toward the back door of the common room as she heard Judge Vasca give the word for the witness to be brought in. I wonder what cutthroat Rodríguez has hired to appear as my servant. Surely, it cannot be anyone who works closely with me. That it could really be one of her people never entered her mind. She knew they were all trustworthy.

Her head spun and her breath seemed to freeze in her throat as her vinemaster, Tomás, stepped through the door. After a quick glance in Ania’s direction, he looked at the floor and walked to a chair near the Judge’s desk. Ania watched him with wide eyes, the hurt of betrayal clear in them.

"Would you please tell the judge who you are and how you know the señorita?" Rodríguez instructed.

Tomás looked up for a minute into Rodríguez’s eyes and then back down at the floor as he began to speak. "I am Tomás Gonzales. I am Señorita Valdéz’s vinemaster."

"And you have no reason to lie about any of this do you, Tomás? In fact, you are one of the men for whom the señorita built casas on their own plots of land, are you not?"

Tomás looked up to meet Rodríguez’s eyes once again and then said, "Sí, I do not wish to do this. I am very grateful to her." He stopped and looked across the room at his patrona. "I am sorry, patrona, but I must tell what there is to tell.  I have no choice. Forgive me."

"Tell us, Señor Gonzales, what happened early this morning," Rodríguez demanded.

"Sí.  It was early this morning," he began.  "The sun was up, maybe, an hour.  I came to the casa to speak with the senorita, to ask what work she wished me to do today.  As I passed by a window, I saw the senorita come out of the study.  She looked upset about something.  I was worried.  I wondered if she was ill.  It was then that I saw her hands."

"What was wrong with her hands, señor?" the capitán asked.

For a moment, Tomás did not go on. Finally, in a whisper, he said, "They were covered with blood." Again the room buzzed with whispers. "As I watched, she wiped her hands with a rag and left. I did not move. I could not believe what I had seen. Then, one of the house workers went into the study and found Don Ramon on the floor."

Ania sat and shook her head, eyes wide in disbelief. Finally, she could take no more. "That is a lie! Why are you doing this, Tomás? How can you make up a lie that could cost me my life?" she cried. Tomás merely hung his head in silence.

Across the room from her, Diego would have risen to his feet had his father not grabbed his arm. When he looked at his father, his eyes were already full of the horrible knowledge of what was coming. Surely, the peon had signed her death warrant with his statement. How could Tomás, of all people, be induced to lie like this?

"What happened then?" Rodríguez asked.

 "Nothing," Tomas said, still looking at the floor.  "I was afraid.  I did not know what to do.  I could only think to hide myself.  Then your soldiers came and found me."  He continued to look down.  "And here I am."  Rodriguez was satisfied and dismissed the witness.  When Tomas finally looked up as he walked away, it was apparent that he was crying.  If anything, that made his witness more powerful, more damning than before. 

"Ania sat in numb silence, looking down at the table top in front of her. Her mouth was dry and her head swam to the point where she knew that she was in danger of passing out. I will not faint! That will do me no good and will only make me look weaker than I am. I must find something else to focus on. Remembering again the use of other emotions in her ‘cloak of court’ to hide things she did not wish to show, Ania reached inward for the hatred she felt for Capitán Rodríguez. Even that would be preferable to showing her fear any more than she already had.

Unfortunately, that was not quite true in this situation. As she looked up at Rodríguez, Judge Vasca saw more than a frightened young woman sitting before him. In the hatred in her eyes, he saw the reality of a woman who was definitely capable of committing murder if she was pushed far enough. He had the feeling that if, at that moment, the capitán and she were alone, this woman would have killed him with no qualms whatsoever. It was a sobering picture that he knew he would have to consider in his deliberations.  “Are there further witnesses, Capitán Rodríguez?” he asked.

“No, Your Honor,” Rodríguez replied.  “I rest my case.”

A few minutes after this, Judge Vasca left the room to deliberate on all he had seen and heard. He was not gone long. There was a sad, but resigned, expression on his face as he sat back down in his chair. He looked at Ania for a second before ordering, "The accused will rise."

Ania tried to swallow but found her mouth too dry to do so. She numbly rose and faced him. Once more, she pulled her shoulders back and held her head proudly, trying to will herself to hold the pose no matter what.

"It is with great reluctance that I have come to my decision today. However, I fear that I have no choice. Ania Cristina Valdéz, I do hereby, as the representative of the king and his righteous justice, find that you are guilty as charged. For your traitorous acts, your lands and all within them are hereby forfeit." There was the tiniest of pauses, as if he was loath to continue. However, continue he did. "For the act of attempted murder of one of the king’s own duly appointed emissaries there is but one penalty prescribed by our law, a law that was not written to make a difference between the male and the female criminal. It is the unhappy responsibility of this court that you be sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence will be carried out at sunrise tomorrow morning."

In spite of her resolve, Ania felt her legs give way beneath her. She suddenly realized that the alcalde had her by the arm and her chair was under her once more. For her to have come so close to fainting, the room seemed oddly alive to her senses. Sounds came to her clearly from all over the room.

The crowd was in an uproar. She was gratified to realize by listening, that relatively few people seemed to be fooled by what they had heard today. Tomás had wisely disappeared, for there were shouts for his head on a pike. As she raised shock filled eyes to the people, she saw far more angry faces than uncertain ones. Somehow over the crowd, she heard Diego’s voice. Looking quickly past lancers now busy holding back the angry crowd, she saw Diego standing not far away, as if he had tried to get to her. His father once again had him by the arm, and was saying something to him. If Diego even heard what his father was saying, he gave no sign of it. As their eyes met, she saw a depth of sorrow and horror that was almost a solid, physical sensation that she could feel from where she sat. She realized that the man standing there now was not the coolly logical hero he so often was. There now was the man who loved her, a man who had just heard the woman he loved condemned to death. He was living the nightmare he had told her he had feared when trying not to involve her with Zorro. It had not happened exactly as he had feared then, but it had come nonetheless.

Ania looked away, unable to bear the look in his eyes any longer. She realized he would be determined to get her out of that cell tonight. Zorro would come, but the odds he would be facing terrified her. She knew that one way or another, she might be dead before another twelve hours passed. Perhaps there would be no way for them to change that. She accepted that possibility and could deal with it. All she asked of God now was that she not take Diego into Death’s Valley with her.

 

 

 

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