"Si, Alcalde," replied Zorro, a slightly amused expression on his masked face.  "I thought I would retire early tonight so I could enjoy the Carnaval in the morning."

     "I am sorry to say," sneered de Soto, not one drop of sympathy in his voice, "we have other plans for you, Zorro."

     Muñoz rolled his eyes in disgust.  "No wonder you have failed to apprehend this outlaw.  You only fight with words.  I prefer action."  He started to squeeze the trigger.

     "So do I," remarked Zorro as he kicked the man's hand upward.  The gun discharged into the ceiling.  Then he booted de Soto in the face, knocking him backwards through the open cell room door.

     Muñoz ripped his sword from its scabbard.  "En garde," he challenged.  Zorro barely had time to withdraw his saber before the other man swung his blade at his ankles.  The masked man jumped out of the way just in time, then leapt onto the floor.  He flashed his opponent a quick salute.

     He smiled insolently as Muñoz lunged forward, an attack easily thwarted.  The two men circled each other warily, each waiting for the other to make another move.  Muñoz' patience was thinner and he thrust again at Zorro.  The masked man let his challenger take the offensive, only doing so himself when necessary.  The fight  progressed out of the office and into the plaza.

     The Alcalde struggled to get back to his feet, clutching his aching face.  Seeing the combatants had moved outside, he got to his feet and stumbled after them.  Once on the porch, he tried to join the fray.  Muñoz had other ideas.  "He is mine, Alcalde," he announced coldly and punched de Soto's already throbbing face, sending him sprawling to the ground.  The assassin resumed with his battle with Zorro.

     After waiting at the tavern door for several minutes, Victoria had returned to the kitchen when nothing of  interest had transpired.  She was busily slicing tomatoes when she heard a faint sound.  What is that, she wondered, frowning at little.  It sounded like metal striking metal.  Madre de Dios!  She ran out of the kitchen to the front door again, still grasping her knife.

     Zorro!  Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him, his silver blade flashing in the moonlight. Dios mio, he was fighting Muñoz.  Without a second thought, she darted out onto the porch.

     Her hero saw her out of the corner of his eye, distracting him for only a second as he was concerned for her safety.  A second was all Muñoz needed to lunge straight at Zorro's heart.  The masked man deftly eluded the sharp blade at the last moment, causing it to miss its mark but cutting a slice in his left sleeve.

     The violent thrust caused Muñoz to stumble nearly head first to the ground.  He agilely regained his footing and smiled malevolently, thinking he had drawn first blood.  Zorro disabused him of this notion by showing him the tear in his sleeve and the unmarked skin underneath.  He vigorously renewed his attack of the masked man.  The clashing of steel echoed loudly throughout the empty plaza.

     Zorro sensed however that Muñoz was beginning to tire.  Although both men were about the same height and weight, the assassin was several years older.  He also remembered Victoria's remark about the man's bottles of whiskey.  With that in mind, he continued to let Muñoz be the aggressor.

     The ploy worked as the man began to breathe heavily as he lunged again and again at his masked opponent.  Zorro easily warded off every blow.  Muñoz backed off for a moment, trying to regroup his strength.  Then suddenly his weapon thrust forward, narrowly missing Zorro's right cheek by less than an inch as he sidestepped the sharp blade.  Por Dios, that would have been the end of Zorro.  He and Don Diego could hardly go around with the same scar on their faces.

    He launched a counter riposte that his opponent could not defend and he unintentionally jabbed Muñoz' left shoulder.  This so enraged the injured man he sought to thrust his prey through the heart once more.  Their battle had taken them to the front of tavern where Victoria stood in the chilly night air.  Zorro eluded the other man's weapon again causing Muñoz to fall against the tavern porch at Victoria's feet.

     She jumped back in horror.  Zorro tried to step forward, intending to move her out of harm's way.  But before he could do so, Muñoz sprang to his feet and seized Victoria around her waist, bringing his sword up to press against her throat.

     "Drop your sword, Zorro," instructed the assassin, lifting Victoria's chin with his blade.

     "Let her go first," the masked man bargained, lowering his saber.  "Then I will."

     "What, you will give your ‘word'?" sneered the other man contemptuously.  "Your promises mean nothing, outlaw."  He leered down at his captive.  "Such a pretty face.  I would hate to kill her."  He moved up the hand that he had about her waist to cup her breast.  "I do so wish to enjoy her charms later."

     He smiled evilly as he got the expected response from his opponent.  The masked man's eyes burned with fury and his grip on his sword tightened.  "Over my dead body, Señor," he forced through clenched teeth.

     Muñoz' hand roughly squeezed the soft globe of flesh it held.  "Exactly what I had in mind, Zorro."

     Victoria took exception to being manhandled.  She drove her heel sharply into her captor's shin at the same time she thrust her elbow into his stomach.  He let go of her as the dual blows both surprised and hurt him.  She immediately ran to Zorro who embraced her briefly, then stood in front of her.

     "I have always thought a man who hides behind a woman's skirts a coward," he drawled antagonistically, his sword raised.

     It was Muñoz' turn to be enraged. He came straight for the masked man and the fight renewed.  Most of the assassin's thrusts were wide of their target, due to the combination of fatigue and anger.  Zorro did not even had to defend himself from about half of them.  Finally, worried about Victoria's safety, he executed a complicated redoublement, circling the other man's weapon until it flew from his hand.  It landed, point down, just inches from where the now groggy Alcalde stood, holding his bleeding nose.

     The masked man pressed the cold steel of his saber to Muñoz' neck.  "I don't know who you are and what your purpose is here in Los Angeles, but I strongly advise you to leave before I am forced to do something we'll both regret."  He lowered his blade, made three quick slashes, leaving a large ‘Z' on the front of the man's vest.

     Zorro pivoted to face the Alcalde, aiming his sword at his throat.  "Rescind the Carnaval tax," he demanded.

     "I. . .  I. . ."  For once de Soto was speechless.

    With everyone distracted, the assassin reached down into his boot and withdrew a small pistol.  At the same time, Victoria suddenly remembered she had her knife in her skirt pocket.  She pulled it out as Muñoz pointed the gun at Zorro's back.

     The masked man spun around to see the deadly weapon in the other man's hand.  Still holding his saber, he cautiously raised his hands.   "Señor, there is no need for. . ." he started to say but was interrupted by the cocking of the pistol.

     "Silencio, Zorro," snarled Muñoz.  "I have been hired to kill you and that is exactly what I intend to do."

     "Hired?" repeated the man in black.  "May I at least know the name of your employer before I die?"

     "Colonel Palomarez," replied Muñoz.  "Or I should say ex-colonel."

     "Palomarez."  Zorro shook his head.  It made sense now.  The colonel knew he would be a dead man if he ever returned to California.  He wondered at the deep hatred that drove the humiliated soldier to have hired this assassin to exact his revenge.

     "It seems the colonel fell on hard times after you drove him out of Los Angeles.  He was cashiered out of the army, stripped of his rank and honor," explained the other man.

     "Palomarez was a corrupt, power-hungry mad man who got what he deserved," stated Zorro.  "He must not be too bad off if he had the means to pay for your services."

     "I lowered my fee," Muñoz sneered, then turned to the Alcalde.  "There is still a six thousand peso bounty on this outlaw, dead or alive?"  He emphasized the word ‘dead', causing Victoria to shudder.

     "Si," answered DeSoto, "although I should be entitled to half.  I did help you trap him," he protested childishly when Muñoz chuckled at the notion.  He face the masked man once again and aimed the gun at his heart.

     "Vaya con Dios," he mocked as he squeezed the trigger.  The shot went wide though as a knife plunged into his hand the moment he fired. He dropped down on one knee.  Everyone whirled around to look at a pale faced Victoria, her hand still raised.

     "You bit. . ." Muñoz started to growl angrily, stopping when Zorro held his blade up against his throat.

     "Watch your tongue, Señor," he snapped, "that is no way to speak to a lady.  Especially one who saved my life."  He glanced over at Victoria and smiled quickly before returning his attention to the assassin.  "On your feet."  He roughly yanked the knife from the other man's hand, pulled him upward and shoved him at de Soto.

     "I suggest you arrest this man again, Alcalde.  I am sure he is a wanted man somewhere, with a price on his head," Zorro recommended strongly.

    De Soto's eyes lit up.  He motioned for Mendoza and Sepulveda, who had left their gatekeeping duties to watch the fight.  They dragged Muñoz toward the cuartel.  The big grin on the Alcalde's face faded as he felt the tip of Zorro's saber against his chest.

     "As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted," drawled the masked man.  "Rescind the tax and return all money collected.  Now."

     "Oh, what's the use."  The Alcalde threw up his hands in disgust.  "Si, si, the taxes are canceled.  Arrest Zorro!" he shouted at the lancers who were peering out of the garrison to see what the commotion was outside.

     The man in black whistled sharply.  Toronado soon trotted into sight.  Seeing the blue coated soldiers advancing on his master, the huge Andalusian reared up, whinnying loudly.  The men immediately backed away, not wishing to be hit by a flailing hoof.

     As soon at the stallion settled onto all fours again, Zorro swung up onto his back.  He gave the Alcalde a mock salute and urged Toronado forward.  "Shoot!  Shoot!" commanded the enraged de Soto, but suddenly changed his mind.  "Stand down your weapons!"

     Zorro had circled around the plaza, slowing down enough to pull Victoria up into the saddle in front of him.  He then nudged the horse's flanks and they sped out of the pueblo, leaving the Alcalde sputtering with frustration.
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      Zorro and Victoria rode about a half a mile out of town before the masked man swung the stallion around and doubled back.   Zorro dismounted behind the tavern then assisted Victoria down off Toronado's back. He embraced her tightly for a moment before reaching down to kiss her lips.  Both were breathing raggedly by the time they drew apart.

   "Dios mio," they whispered together.  Zorro smiled at her.  "That was some throw, querida." he commented, a hint of amusement in his voice.  "Gracias."

     Victoria began to tremble as the night's events came rushing back.  "Oh, Zorro," she said, then closed her eyes.  "I almost lost you again. I don't know if I. . ."

     "Shh. . ."  He kissed her again.   This time when they broke away, Zorro could see the invitation in her eyes.  And he was tempted, oh, very tempted to take up the offer.  He had to wrestle with his conscious before he trusted himself to speak.

     "Victoria," he said, holding her tight, "I cannot stay."  He paused as he saw tears welling up in her dark eyes.  "I would love nothing more than to end this masquerade and claim you as mine.  But not yet, not now, not like this."

     She knew she could not convince him to change his mind.  Sometimes he was too noble, too gallant.  "I know," she replied, a wistful smile on her lips.  "I may not like it, but I understand."

     "There will be a time for us," declared Zorro fervently.  "Fate cannot be so cruel as to deny us."  The threatened tears began to fall down her cheeks.  "Oh, querida, don't cry."  He wiped her face with his hand then gently kissed her lips.

     "I love you so much," Victoria stated.  "Are you sure you cannot. . ."

     "Yes, I'm sure," he cut in before his resolve left him.  "I must go.  You will be strong, mi corazon, for you are the most courageous person I know."  They kissed one more time before he remounted Toronado.  "Adios, querida."

     She watched him go, her heart nearly broken in two.
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     The Carnaval went smoothly despite the late night adventure.  Victoria's booth selling enchiladas and empanadas did quite well, allowing her to make a sizable donation to the orphanage.  There had been one unusually generous contribution Victoria discovered when she had been setting up that morning.  A large pouch of pesos that looked suspiciously like the one Muñoz had hidden under his mattress had been left among her dishes.  The fact that a small ‘Z' had been etched into the leather confirmed Victoria's guess of whom had left it.

     It was much later in the evening when the de la Vegas, the Ortegas, Victoria and Sergeant Mendoza found themselves all seated at the same table, listening to the music and watching as their friends and neighbors danced.

     "It turns out that Señor Muñoz is wanted in both Spain and Venezuela," Mendoza told them.  "The reward in Spain is larger but Venezuela is closer.  The Alcalde does not know which one to chose."

     Everyone was amused at de Soto's dilemma.  Victoria shivered a little and not from the cool night air.  "I had hoped we had heard the last of Palomarez long ago," she remarked.  "I hate to think he could still try to get his revenge on Zorro."

     "Don't worry," replied Don Alejandro.  "Once he realizes this latest plot has failed, I doubt he will attempt anything ever again."

     "Especially since he has fallen on such hard times," commented Diego absently, taking a sip of his lemonade.

     Victoria glanced at him sharply.  "How did you know that about Palomarez?"

     Diego sat up straighter as he realized only Zorro, Victoria and the Alcalde had heard that part of Muñoz' story.  He quickly came up with a plausible reason, something he was getting much too good at doing.  "Ah, I overheard de Soto telling someone about it earlier," he lied then returned to his refreshment.

     Luckily, everyone seemed to accept this.  Felipe, hoping to diffuse the situation, stood up and held out his hand to Ana Maria, silently asking her to dance.  She beamed as he led her away.

     A nervous Mendoza also arose and bowed stiffly at Leonora.  "Señora, it would honor me greatly if I could have this dance," he requested formally, trying to remember his best manners.

     Leonora agreed and they soon joined the other dancers in the plaza.  Diego sensed his father was about to ask Victoria to dance, stood and extended his hand to her first.  "Shall we?" he asked with a smile, ignoring the elder de la Vega's bemusement.

     They had not danced long when the music's lively tempo changed to a much slower beat.  Victoria somewhat reluctantly moved closer to her companion.

     "I also heard a rumor that Zorro made a donation to the orphanage," remarked Diego, trying to put her at ease.

     "Si," she replied.  She looked up at him and sighed.  "Diego, do you think Zorro and I will ever be together?  That one day Los Angeles will be free from the oppression that keeps us apart?"

     Diego had to suppress a strong urge to draw her closer and kiss her.  He closed his eyes.  "Someday, Victoria," he said quite passionately.  "I hope someday very soon."

     Her head snapped up, a puzzled expression on her face caused by his ardent answer.

     "That we will be free from oppression, I mean," he replied, once again covering his slip.  Changing the subject, he inclined his head.  "Looks as though the good sergeant is in love."

     Victoria smiled as she watched the soldier holding Leonora in his arms as they danced close together.  The dreamy look on the señora's face matched the sergeant's.

     Victoria sighed.  If only she and Zorro could be together like that.  Maybe soon, as Diego had said.
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