Chapter 1

The sound of steel meeting steel tore through the night air, drowning out the echo of the soldier's cry. "He's mine!" the soldier had snarled upon recognizing the inky shadow in the coal black night, who had stopped the escort of a royal carriage, travelling to the Pueblo de Los Angeles to deliver a new comandante.

Four soldiers accompanied the wagon carrying Colonel Tadeo de Cordoba to his designated post, amongst them two higher-ranking officers. Lieutenant Hérnan Méndez Guerrero was busy picking himself off the floor, avoiding his frightened steed's hooves. The privates were rooted to the spot, looking as if they had just seen a demon, while the remaining officer, a capitán, called the challenge out to the masked highwayman, who'd held up the small troop in the dead of the night.

Pale moonlight illuminated the two figures as their swords met again. The masked man urged his black steed forward, upping the pressure from his own blade, which unbalanced the capitán. The next charge of the bandit's stallion unseated the soldier. He rapidly scrambled to recollect his blade, which he had dropped to break his fall. As he straightened up, raising his sword as a guard, he immediately felt the resistance of the other man's blade. The bandit had abandoned his mount, evening out the superior agility the fighter had on foot. The blades sang as they slid along each other, coming to a standstill as one hilt met the other.

Their faces were close enough for the soldier to feel the bandit's breath on his face, when the man broke into a big smile, breaking out of the deadlock by shoving back the soldier. "As you wish, mi capitán," he called. "I'm all yours. En garde!"

Smothering a growl, the capitán attacked, using his great ability with the blade to drive back the masked devil. How he had dreamed of running the man through during the months of his imprisonment. Desire to revenge his humiliation spurred the soldier on, speeding up his slashes, which the masked man blocked and parried with ease, smiling that infuriating smile that had haunted the capitán's dreams. Advancing again, the king's soldier stumbled over a small rock he hadn't seen in the blackness of the night. Instantly he felt the tip of his opponent's foil pressing against his chest.

"I'm not here to kill anyone, Capitán, only to send out a fair warning. The people of Los Angeles have suffered their share of corrupt and unjust leaders. If your superior seeks to exploit my people the same, he would do better to turn around this instant. I will not tolerate any injustice imposed on the good people of Los Angeles any more than I did before."

"Who are you to speak of injustice, Señor Zorro," the capitán spat, mindful of the outlaw's blade. "You're only a free man because I made a mistake. You may not be Diego de la Vega, but this time I promise you, I won't repeat my mistake. This time I will capture you in disguise, and then we shall see who you are. And you will hang, de la Vega or not, for this time there's no viceroy to save your treacherous hide!"

The impression of his words on his opponent was immediate. The pressure of the blade lessened, as the masked man's face briefly displayed a shocked recognition. Satisfied, the soldier used his chance and, retreating slightly while thrusting up his sword, he succeeded in deviating the masked man's blade. With a swift flick of his wrist, he circled around the stunned man's block, aiming for his chest. At the last second, the masked bandit recovered and managed to deflect the attack.

Rage filled the capitán's mind and he proceeded to attack erratically, despite knowing better. Soon the smile returned to the outlaw's face and the soldier realized he had missed his chance of surprise. Taking charge, Zorro drove his opponent back, feinting and charging as fast as lightning, leaving the soldier no time to breathe unless he wanted to be impaled on the fox's blade. Trying to avoid the bandit's sudden swift lunge, the soldier reacted in a hasty retreat, tripping yet again over a rock. Landing on his backside, sword falling from his hand as he attempted to catch himself, the soldier cursed until he felt the black demon's blade scraping across his throat.

"Let this be my one and only warning. If you came to pick up where you let off the last time, you better leave now, for this time I won't be so lenient with you." Zorro's voice left no doubt about how serious his words were meant. Before the capitán could think of a suitable reply, three swishing noises, accompanied by the sound of tearing material, told the man he had once again been marked by Zorro. Glancing at his right shoulder, which was now sporting a big, white Z in the blue of the uniform, easily visible in the pale light of the moon, he then glared up into the smiling, masked face.

"Until we meet again, Monastario," Zorro taunted, kicking the capitán's blade out of his reach. A shrill whistle sounded and the shadow of the great black stallion appeared at the bandit's side. Swinging himself up with ease, Zorro saluted, still grinning, and raced off into the night. Against the moon, the silhouette of the rearing stallion was the last thing the soldiers saw before the night around them stilled once more.

***ZzZ***

The rustling of the vines alerted Bernardo to Zorro's return. The manservant had been waiting in the secret cave for his friend, seeing that everything was ready. It was just before sunrise and he quickened his step to reach Tornado's stall with the apples he'd been fetching. Zorro had already dismounted and was busy removing the saddle from the stallion's back. When the masked man was aware of the mozo's presence, Zorro turned to him, his face showing that something unusual, unexpected, had occurred. Bernardo frowned, which elicited a brief chuckle from Zorro.

"Sí, my friend, that is exactly what I thought earlier on." The words of his master created more puzzles for Bernardo than explanations. His gestures made it clear he wanted to find out what happened during Zorro's nocturnal escapades.

"Believe it or not, mi amigo, I don't know how or why, but Monastario is back." Zorro's voice was strained. He'd been riding all night to intercept the carriage that was bringing the new comandante for the pueblo, as Sergeant Garcia had happily announced the previous evening. Zorro had decided that after all those torrid experiences with new commandants, he'd dish out his warning before the man even arrived. Bernardo's face displayed the same shock Zorro had felt when he had recognized the former comandante on the highway.

"At least this time he isn't here as the new comandante. Still, his presence can only spell trouble and if the colonel he's escorting is made from the same chip of wood as our capitán, I dare say Zorro has his work cut out for him." Bernardo frantically signed a series of questions.

"Sí, I will tell my father before we ride into the pueblo together. I have a feeling it will be a very interesting welcome for the new officers. Our good sergeant is merely expecting Colonel Tadeo de Cordoba as comandante, along with two higher-ranking soldiers, whose names were left unmentioned. Rest assured, the sergeant won't be any happier about Monastario's reappearance than we are. It is imperative for us to find out how he got out of jail and got reinstated in the army - how he even could keep his rank. I don't know about you, Bernardo, but I think Capitán Monastario is here for a reason. A reason that can't be good for our pueblo."

All the while he was talking, Zorro had been walking up the stairs to the secret room, taking off the bandana, mask and gloves, his manservant right on his heels. Reaching the secret room, Zorro unstrapped his sword and sash. He had started to unbutton his shirt when he was stopped by Bernardo's hand on his arm. A few quick signs relayed his question to his master.

"Does he still suspect me to be Zorro?" Diego translated the gestures. Bernardo nodded eagerly. "I'm not certain." Another frown appeared on the mozo's features and he threw up his hands in another question. "I do know he is still obsessed with capturing Zorro. I will have to be very careful. He might have been put off the idea that idle Diego could really be Zorro, but he's not convinced. He promised me he'd catch me in disguise this time."

By now Diego had finished changing clothes and was ready to meet his father for the trip to the pueblo. As he was about to leave his room he smiled and halted.

"Bernardo, I think you should bring a change of clothes for me. I have a feeling a certain outlaw will want to reassure Garcia he's not alone in facing Monastario again. And I want to let that man know I won't let him out of my eyes." Smirking, the manservant drew a Z in the air, swishing along with it. Diego winked at him and disappeared through the door.

***ZzZ***

Sergeant Demetrio Lopez Garcia was pacing nervously in front of the cuartel gate. On short notice he'd been told to expect a new comandante this very morning. He had hardly had time to inform his lancers, let alone to prepare a welcome. Luckily his friend, Diego de la Vega, had been present at the moment the courier arrived. By the looks of it, the young don had been able to spread the news because several landowners had arrived to welcome the colonel, as well as several vaqueros and peons.

Garcia was inspecting the row of lancers he had lined up for the arrival, when he heard horses approach. He turned, a big smile forming on his face.

"Buenos días, Don Alejandro, Don Diego", he beamed, waving to the mute mozo, Bernardo. The de la Vegas dismounted and Bernardo gathered the reins to lead away the horses.

"Buenos días, Sergeant," the older don greeted. "I see you have managed to polish up your men despite the odds. Well done, Garcia." Slapping the sergeant on his broad shoulders, Don Alejandro turned to join the other dons, who seemed to be waiting for him.

Diego's voice drew Garcia's attention to the young man, "Ah, Comandante, it's a beautiful day to welcome a new leader. Let's hope there are no such disturbances as the last times, when they sent a new one."

"Sí, it is a beautiful day, Don Diego," Garcia confirmed, the smile of his face fading slightly. "But do not call me comandante anymore, por favor. The comandante is about to arrive."

"That is true, my friend, but until he does, you are still acting comandante," Diego explained with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

"Sí, you are right, Don Diego," the big soldier beamed. A murmur arose amongst the peons and townspeople when two soldiers trotted onto the plaza, closely followed by a carriage and another two soldiers. Right in front of the garrison gates the group stopped. The lieutenant urged his horse towards Sergeant Garcia.

"Sergeant, I am Lieutenant Hérnan Méndez Guerrero, escorting your new comandante, Colonel Tadeo de Cordoba, to his post. The colonel is fatigued from the long night's journey and wishes to enter the cuartel without leaving his carriage. Please, be kind enough to clear the gates for him."

"Of course, Lieutenant. Immediately. Lugo, Chato, you heard the man. Clear the gates, clear the gates."

The crowd stepped back a few steps and the lancers lined the entrance so the lieutenant and the carriage along with the two rear guards entered the cuartel. Only the capitán remained outside. Confused, Sergeant Garcia looked at the man. He had his hat pulled deep into his face and even from below Garcia couldn't make out the man's features. Only the dark tip of what must be a goatee was distinguishable.

"Please, won't you enter as well, Capitán... I'm sorry, I don't think the lieutenant gave your name." Garcia tried ushering the officer in.

"Baboso, I see you were still acting comandante in this miserable nest, you bumbling mass of incompetence. Don't you recognise your superior?" At Garcia's astonished gasp the capitán slowly pushed his hat back, earning collected gasps from soldiers and civilians alike.

"Capitán Monastario!" Garcia's jaw dropped and he struggled to regain his composure, as the murmuring in the crowd gained in strength. A satisfied, evil smile spread on Monastario's face, until an angry shout from the crowd silenced the people.

"Petty tyrant! Oppressor! Take this!"

A moment later, just as Monastario turned his head to make out the heckler, an over ripe tomato landed on his shoulder, quickly followed by another. As the capitán drove his heels into his mount's side to quickly seek safety inside the cuartel, Lieutenant Guerrero, who had spotted the supposed troublemaker, dashed out and quickly seized the angry peon. He pushed over the cart of tomatoes and dragged the man after him by the scruff of his clothes, not caring about the shouts from the crowd to release the man.

Diego and his father had witnessed the scene and started after the soldiers, only to be met with the closing gates right in their faces. The people gathered right in front of the gates, calling for the colonel, demanding the release of the peon. But the gates remained closed and slowly the crowd disintegrated.

Don Alejandro raised his voice, trying to calm the people, but his voice was drowned out by the shouting of the peons. A hand grabbed the don by the arm and pulled him aside. Exasperated, Don Alejandro yanked his arm to pull free, when he realised it was his own son trying to lead him out of the crowd. Diego led his father to a small group of dons who had gathered a few yards away. They were discussing how to resolve the situation as well as sharing their disbelief in seeing their former comandante back in the pueblo he had treated so unjustly.

"Señores," Diego started, drawing the attention of the dons to him. "Before we do anything, we must..." The young don trailed off when he heard a loud voice from behind the cuartel walls shout orders that were unintelligible to them. A moment later it was evident what those orders were when buckets of water were poured onto the riled up crowd, followed by some shots in the air, dispersing the peons quickly.

The group of dons observed the events, seeing the gates opening once the last peon left. A soldier, all dressed up in his shiny display uniform, walked out, followed by the lieutenant and Capitán Monastario. Before Diego could hold back his father, Don Alejandro swiftly strode towards the officer.

"Colonel de Cordoba, I presume." The officer sized the don up and nodded. "What is all this about? This is no way to treat the people of the pueblo you are just taking command over. How do you expect them to show you any respect if you treat them like animals?"

"Señor..." the colonel began. "I'm sorry, but I don't think I caught your name."

"Try Alejandro de la Vega," Capitán Monastario said icily, stepping up next to the colonel, a sickly sweet grin on his face.

"De la Vega?" the colonel queried. Don Alejandro confirmed with a nod. "It seems I have heard a lot about you. Do you still see yourself as the leader of a civilian army?" The colonel's tone clearly stated his disapproval and Monastario's grin grew wider.

"Colonel," Diego interjected, stepping up next to his father. "This army, as you call it, was brought on by the necessity of the time. Be assured there won't be such a thing if you show moderation and justice in your reign here."

The colonel turned his gaze on the young man. "And you are?"

"He's my son, Diego," Don Alejandro explained. De Cordoba squinted his eyes slightly, giving Diego a questioning look. Then he turned towards Don Alejandro again.

"Señor de la Vega, I propose a meeting this evening in the tavern. I will bring Capitán Monastario, Lieutenant Guerrero and Sergeant... what's his name again?"

"Garcia," Monastario grumbled.

"Sí, and Sergeant Garcia. You bring whoever you think is important to this pueblo and we will discuss our wishes and expectations to see if we can find common ground to build a peaceful relationship between the people and the military." De Cordoba briefly glanced at Diego. "You may even bring your son, if you wish."

"Gracias, Colonel," Diego chimed in before his father could reply. "But since your arrival here came on short notice I'm afraid I already made other arrangements. Maybe another time."

"Ah, planning on your disappearing act again, are you, Don Diego?" Monastario stepped closer, a menacing vibe resounding in his words. "Just who will you pay a surprise visit?"

"Not at all, Capitán," Diego replied pleasantly. "I am meeting Padre Felipe for lunch and we will pass the afternoon and night with some undisturbed hours of chess. I believe today Padre Simeon will join us as he is visiting with Padre Felipe. Go ahead and find out," Diego nodded towards the church. "Padre Simeon has gone into the church only moments ago. He will confirm my words."

"I'm sure that won't be necessary, will it, Capitán?" De Cordoba had raised a curious eyebrow at the intermezzo. "Another time then, Señor de la Vega," the colonel nodded at Diego and without further words he turned to retreat into the cuartel. Capitán Monastario glared at Diego and turned to follow the colonel and the lieutenant.

When the gates closed again, Diego placed his hand on his father's shoulder. "I will get going then, Father. I mustn't keep Padre Felipe waiting." With a wink and a smile, he walked to his horse, where Bernardo was waiting for him.

***ZzZ***

"Capitán," Lieutenant Guerrero called. Monastario stopped in his tracks. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were trying to bait out the young de la Vega."

"Sí," Monastario smirked. "I see why El Sigilo chose you to help me. You are very perceptive, unlike the colonel."

"Do you know what El Sigilo's plans are, or who he is? And why did he put de Cordoba in charge when he doesn't appear to be interested in the project?"

"You have to be careful, Lieutenant. You ask too many questions." Monastario looked around, making sure no other lancers were in earshot. "Be assured El Sigilo knows what he's doing. And as for baiting out Diego de la Vega, El Sigilo asks of me to get rid of the only threat to his plans... El Zorro."

"El Zorro?" Guerrero gasped. "I see the threat El Sigilo fears, but what does this have to do with de la Vega?"

"Some time back I was the comandante of this... sad pueblo. El Zorro appeared and thwarted my plans to become more than just a comandante in the dusty California desert. Nobody knew who he was but in time I began to gather clues. That young scoundrel pretends to be a weakling, but I'm sure he isn't. I thought I had enough evidence to prove he is Zorro, but he had his lucky day when the viceroy at the time visited. De la Vega is full of tricks and just when I had my blade on his throat, Zorro saved his miserable hide." Monastario's features distorted in anger as he recounted the worst day in his career.

"So you were wrong," Guerrero stated dryly.

"I still think it was just a trick," Monastario snarled. "But even if he really isn't Zorro, he's the key to Zorro. It's imperative to dispose of him. Catching Zorro in disguise will be hard, but not impossible. I will chase him down like a bloodhound even if it's the last thing I do. But don't let yourself be lulled by de la Vega's docile act. And don't let yourself be lulled by El Sigilo's choice of whom to put in which position. The man is determined to make California an independent country that he can rule, and he knows what he's doing."

"So, what is in this for you, mi capitán?" Guerrero pondered aloud. Monastario merely smirked, refusing to provide an answer.

"Get the peon who besmirched me. I will deal with him now."

Guerrero saluted and turned to carry out the capitán's order. A few moments later, a confused Sergeant Garcia led the still ranting peon into the office. Lieutenant Guerrero was getting himself acquainted with the cuartel while waiting for the capitán to decide a punishment. Colonel de Cordoba had made it clear he would leave those types of things to Monastario. Guerrero heard the door open noisily and turned to see the sergeant leading the peon back out. Then Monastario appeared in the doorframe.

"And remember, I don't care how you do it, peon, but if you can't pay your fine of thirty pesos by ten o'clock this evening it will be a lash for each peso."

"Back to your old ways, are you, Monastario?" A loud, firm voice boomed from the rooftop of the garrison. Surprised, Lieutenant Guerrero looked up to see the masked bandit of the previous night towering over the cuartel. Monastario didn't look surprised, more pleased. Everything was working to plan.

Sergeant Garcia's expression clearly stated relief. The fox would see to it that justice was done. Sure, assaulting an officer of the king by throwing tomatoes had to carry some punishment, but thirty pesos was a rather large sum for a poor peon to pay. And thirty lashes instead would probably kill the man.

"Zorro!" Garcia called cheerfully, and the fox obliged with a salute.

"I warned you last night, Capitán. You cannot count on my leniency so be sure to rethink the fine for the peon, else your spare uniform will also sport my mark."

"How about you rethink your interference, Señor Zorro, for this time I have a soldier who's a very good shot! Open fire, Lieutenant!"

Guerrero grabbed a musket from a nearby lancer and took aim. His target stood very still, almost like rooted to the spot. Squinting his left eye, Guerrero pulled the trigger. The shot rang out and the black shape on the roof collapsed. An eerie silence fell over the cuartel.

Monastario glanced up to the still form on the roof in disbelief. This was almost too easy. His eyes told him he'd got the fox, but his mind kept yelling it's a trick at him. He stepped out into the courtyard, unsure for once how to proceed.

"What is going on here? Who fired the shot?" Colonel de Cordoba emerged from his quarters to find the source of the commotion.

"Lieutenant Guerrero shot Zorro, mi colonel," Sergeant Garcia reported with a shaky voice, pointing up to the roof. De Cordoba gazed past the sergeant's outstretched arm to rest his eyes on the black shape sprawled on the terracotta tiles.

"Well, what are you waiting for? Get him down." In response to the colonel's words, Lieutenant Guerrero went to fetch a ladder. He had just set it up against the roof and started climbing it when the black clad man jumped up, clambering towards the ladder and pushing it away from the roof.

***ZzZ***

Zorro stood tall, awaiting the shot from Monastario's new henchman. If the lieutenant was as good a shot as Monastario claimed, he'd better watch the man's every move. When he saw Guerrero's finger squeeze the trigger, Zorro dropped himself to the roof at the same time the shot rang out. The rush of air by his head told him how close he had come to being shot. That man's aim was not to be taken lightly.

Hitting the tiles, Zorro lay still. No sound reached his ears and he opened his eyes to tiny slits to gauge the reaction below. Monastario's apparent shock regarding the success was so comical that Zorro could hardly keep himself from chuckling. It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Monastario took a step forward and then the silence was shattered by the colonel questioning the events. Zorro couldn't risk anyone climbing up to get him so he waited for the lieutenant to be half way up the ladder before jumping up to tip the ladder over. The lieutenant realized what was happening and jumped off before the ladder smashed him into the ground.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Monastario, but maybe your new man isn't quite as good as you thought. It was very interesting to find out, however, how you react when you think you caught a fox. My promise stands, Capitán. Apply a fair fine and I will stay out of this. Pick up the whip, and you shall taste it yourself! Adios, señores!" He saluted and bowed before turning to run across the roof to safety.

"Pick up your weapons and shoot, you fools!" Monastario shouted at top of his lungs. Shots cracked all over the place but none even came close as the fox dropped himself on top of his steed and raced off, cape flying behind him.

***ZzZ***

The afternoon had progressed and Padre Felipe had just suggested they should share a game of cards now over some wine. Diego de la Vega had been most generous in bringing a dozen bottles of their vintage for the mission and Padre Felipe thought it would be nice to sample some along with Diego. The young man had taught the padres a card game known as skat, which he had learned while in Spain from a fellow student who was German. He had enjoyed it so much, he'd taught Padre Felipe how to play so he and his mozo Bernardo could continue playing this card game for three. In the meantime, others had also learned how to play and Padre Simeon was particularly fond of this test of wits.

As the afternoon turned into evening, the talk in between the games had revolved around Capitán Monastario's unexpected reappearance. By dusk, the three men had emptied a couple of wine bottles and the mood was quite jolly. Padre Felipe was not a big drinker but even he had had more than his usual singular glass of wine. Padre Simeon had enjoyed more wine than the others, but the young don certainly seemed more befuddled by the alcohol he consumed.

As he wanted to ride home Diego had been swaying so badly that Padre Felipe had called Innocente, one of his mission Indians, and asked him to drive the young haciendado home in his buggy. Only after Innocente had returned and reassured the padre that the young man had made it safely home to bed, Padre Felipe allowed himself to retire. The cleric was sure Diego hadn't drunk as much as he had made believe, but he had a slight hunch the young man, who usually merely sipped on his wine, was pursuing a purpose.

***ZzZ***

"So, you are saying despite not agreeing with the severity of the punishment, you won't overrule Capitán Monastario's decision?" Alejandro de la Vega was livid, glaring at Colonel de Cordoba. The meeting had started out quite pleasantly but heated up after the meal when Don Nacho Torres had recalled the morning's events with the peon. Capitán Monastario was smirking at the dons' exasperation. Don Alejandro certainly wasn't alone with his opinion the punishment was too harsh.

"As I said before, Señores, the viceroy himself appointed these two capable officers at my side with the order for me to just see to formalities. I'm past my military fighting days so it is welcome that younger men can take over the physical duties. I have talked to the capitán and I believe since he has had previous experience with the handling of this particular pueblo, he is fully capable of drawing up the correct actions."

Don Alejandro and Don Nacho stared at each other in disbelief. The other dons bore the same expressions. The meeting had started out well enough with the colonel giving the impression of being a reasonable man. Now, however, it looked like he wasn't going to help by pulling rank on his inferiors.

"If you think like that, Colonel, and I'm speaking for all of us now, there is no point in continuing this meeting. Con permiso." Grabbing his hat and cloak Don Alejandro rose and left the posada, in his wake following another half a dozen dons.

***ZzZ***

"Lieutenant Guerrero?"

Guerrero turned to see his superior, Capitán Monastario, striding over to him. It was quite dark by now, and the cuartel yard was merely lit by a few lanterns. The soldier glanced in the cell behind him and caught the defying glare of the peon who inhabited it.

"Has the prisoner managed to raise the money to pay his fine?" Monastario growled, his hand on the hilt of his saber.

"No, mi capitán," Guerrero replied. "In fact, nobody has been here to see him, unless you count this Alejandro de la Vega, who offered to pay the fine."

Enrique Sanchez Monastario chuckled. It was just like the de la Vegas to try and get other people out of trouble by paying their fines. But this time the refusal to accept it had come from the colonel himself. Still the old man's eyes had shot daggers at him. In the plaza the patrol called out the time, which meant the peon's deadline had passed.

"Lieutenant, get the prisoner and tie him to the gate," Monastario ordered calmly, his eyes scanning the dark roofs. He was expecting Zorro to try and enter the garrison the way he usually did. The back wall had hidden guards and lancers had been posted on the other parts of the wall. There was no way in for the black demon to spoil his whipping. A glance towards the peon, who was being tied up by the lieutenant, evoked an evil grin on the capitán's lips.

"Corporal Reyes," Monastario called. "Hand me the whip." The corporal did as ordered and took a step back, scanning the night as the capitán had done, but with a different hope.

"Capitán," the voice of Colonel de Cordoba suddenly broke the silence. "I see you are ready to carry out the sentence. Proceed." Monastario nodded and unrolled the whip, letting it sing through the air while testing its feel. Satisfied, he turned towards the peon.

"Thirty lashes, peon. I dare say those tomatoes you threw came with a prize." Without warning, he ripped down the peon's shirt to expose his back. Taking a few steps back, he once again scanned the rooftops, before curling his arm back in preparation for the first lash. A moan escaped the peon's lips when the first lash hit home. A red line formed on his back where the whip had touched. Taking deep breaths to steel himself for the next strike, the peon closed his eyes. After five lashes, Monastario paused.

"Ha, you were expecting Zorro to save you, weren't you? As you can see the fox doesn't care for a mere peon. Why, he's probably just hiding because he realized the bullet earlier was closer than ever."

"Are you sure I'm hiding, Monastario?" The firm voice made the capitán's blood run cold. Turning his head towards the source of it, he caught sight of Zorro stepping out of the shadows of the colonel's quarters.

"How did you get in here?" the soldier growled.

"Oh, you see, I'm flattered that you organised such an illustrious welcoming committee for me, Capitán, but the wall and the roof aren't the only ways to get in here." Zorro glanced at the lancers. They all kept their spots, hands on muskets.

"But you realize, Señor Zorro, that you are trapped now. One of the lancers is poised to hit the target tonight."

"Tell you what. We'll make it a fair fight, like you always wanted it, Monastario. Since your bullets outnumber mine, you've got nothing to lose. Let's cross blades, just you and me. If I win you let the peon go."

"Very well, Señor Zorro. En garde!"

With a few steps, Zorro advanced on the capitán, his sword drawn in anticipation. He was determined to end this fight quickly. Grinning, the masked man tried out a move to Monastario's shoulder, which was swiftly blocked by the soldier. Then Monastario advanced on Zorro with a ferocity fueled by frustration. The clashing of the swords was the only noise that filled the cuartel as the other lancers stepped back to give the combatants room, although their hands never let go of their muskets.

A grin crept onto Zorro's face as he started to enjoy the fight. He found himself toying with the man despite his resolution, letting Monastario advance on him until he was almost with his back to the wall. The capitán lunged with a growl and Zorro only barely managed to deflect the blade, breaking away in a circle that brought him closer to the still tied up prisoner. The capitán lunged again but much to his chagrin, the fox yet again deflected his blade, in such a manner that the force of his blow carried his blade further, effectively cutting the peon's ropes. Cursing under his breath, Monastario tried to collect himself.

"How nice of you to free the prisoner, Capitán," Zorro taunted with a throaty laugh. "I do hope it doesn't mean you concede defeat."

"You wish, Señor," Monastario pressed through clenched teeth, swirling his saber before attacking. The blades clashed violently and once again they rested hilt to hilt. The peon tried to make the best of the situation and started unbarring the gates but stopped short when he realized there were at least ten muskets trained at him. Noticing the scene from the corner of his eyes, Zorro smiled tightly. With an almighty effort he pushed free of the capitán, using the man's imbalance to swish his sword, marking yet another uniform with a Z.

"Diablo," Monastario cursed, aiming his thrust to the fox's chest. With a short flick of his wrist, Zorro managed to dislodge the saber from Monastario's grip and it flew high through the air, out of the soldier's reach.

"You seem to have lost, Capitán," Zorro observed, pressing the tip of his foil against Monastario's chest, never letting any of the other soldiers leave his sight. "Let the peon go free."

Lieutenant Guerrero walked to unbolt the gate and the peon hastily scrambled away, after mumbling a quick gracias in Zorro's direction. Guerrero immediately closed and barred the gates again, picking up his musket.

Zorro quickly assessed the situation, seeing an opening to escape exactly the same way he had entered the cuartel. He grinned broadly at Monastario and then shoved the man backwards into his own men, who fell over. Grabbing the whip from the ground, Zorro flicked it at the soldiers, relieving more of them of their muskets.

Ducking instinctively, Zorro almost felt a bullet whiz past him before he heard the sound of a musket being fired. A look over his shoulder told him it was Guerrero's shot that had missed him yet again. Seeing the latter drawing his saber, Zorro quickly grabbed hold of Colonel de Cordoba, who had been standing there more or less observing the action in disbelief, and shoved him into Guerrero's path. He sprinted towards the colonel's quarters and paused to turn and salute the lancers, before closing the door behind him. Quickly he jammed a chair under the handle and climbed through the window right onto Tornado's back. The rapid hoof beats of his stallion told the soldiers inside that their fox had escaped yet again.

***ZzZ***

Don Alejandro had just finished breakfast the next day when he was startled by soldiers bursting into his patio. He hurried out to the patio himself. Capitán Monastario stormed towards him, followed by Lieutenant Guerrero and two lancers.

"What is the meaning of this, Capitán?" Don Alejandro demanded.

"Where is your son, old man?"

"I believe he is still asleep, not that it's any of your business," the hidalgo replied.

"Asleep? At this time? Could it be that he was busy in the pueblo until late last night?" Monastario's voice didn't hide any of the venom in his words.

"I'm afraid you are mistaken. Since you've obviously come again to accuse my son of being an outlaw, I must inform you that he arrived home shortly after I returned from that ridiculous meeting and he hasn't left his room since."

"And how can you be so sure about that?" Monastario growled.

"Because when he was dropped off here by one of Padre Felipe's Indians he could barely stand on his own two feet. Apparently, they sampled some wine while they played chess and cards. I believe when he'll wake up he'll be sick as a dog." Alejandro de la Vega grinned when he saw a look of disappointment rush over Monastario's features, but quickly sobered to keep a straight face. Just then, the door to Diego's room opened and Bernardo emerged. Seizing his chance, Monastario raced up the stairs to intercept the mozo.

Exasperated, Don Alejandro stormed after him. He caught up when the capitán demanded to see the contents of the bucket Bernardo was carrying. The mute, pretending deafness, looked confusedly from Monastario to Don Alejandro. The soldier turned to the hidalgo, almost seething.

"Don Alejandro, would you please make this... idiot understand that I demand to see Don Diego."

Shaking his head, Don Alejandro waved his hands in front of Bernardo's face. When the mute looked at him he asked while signing. "Bernardo, how is Diego? Is he still sleeping?" Bernardo's hands went in a flurry of signs that Don Alejandro translated as Diego being sick from the wine, and suffering from a major headache.

"I don't care if he has the mother of all headaches," Monastario growled, grabbing the bucket while pulling away the lid. He speedily changed his mind and closed up the bucket again, looking a bit green around the gills. Just as he was about to enter Diego's room, the gate to the patio opened and in strolled Padre Felipe. The cleric noticed the party on top and climbed the stairs to join them.

"Buenos días, Don Alejandro, Bernardo," he greeted. Then he looked at the soldiers, nodding. "I can't say I want to wish you a good day, Capitán. What are you doing here?"

"I could ask the same of you, padre. What brings you out here to the hacienda?" Monastario asked askance.

"I have come to bring Diego a remedy for the headache he's bound to have after yesterday. I feel somewhat responsible for his condition. I take it he's still resting?" Don Alejandro confirmed the padre's question by nodding. "And the capitán, I take it, has had a visit from Zorro and tries to prove your son is him, again?"

"Nobody has convinced me of the opposite so far, Padre. Anyone can pretend to be a weakling. Anyone can pretend to be suffering from a hangover..."

"Let me assure you, Capitán," Padre Felipe interrupted Monastario's ranting, "that the man you accuse of being California's most famous bandit was hardly in the shape of riding home in the buggy last night, let alone riding on a horse. Innocente told me he had to help Don Alejandro carry his son up to his room, because he had all but passed out upon their arrival here."

At this point, the door to Diego's room opened and the subject of the heated debate showed up on the threshold. He was a pitiful sight. His hair was disheveled, his face showing all the signs one would expect from a hungover man.

"What's all this noise about, Father? Can't you discuss your differences elsewhere? My head feels like a drum already without all that shouting." His voice sounded weak and plaintively miserable. Lieutenant Guerrero grabbed Monastario by the arm and pulled him away, showing his superior it would be better to follow. Reluctantly the capitán agreed.

"Capitán, I don't know how you can't see it, but it's plain obvious that this man was in no shape to ride and fight like Zorro did last night. Let's go."

Soon, the receding sound of hoof beats could be heard leaving the hacienda. Padre Felipe gave Don Alejandro the small vial containing a herbal remedy and excused himself cheerfully. Bernardo, who had taken the sick Diego back to bed, almost collided with Don Alejandro, when the older man entered his son's bedroom after everyone had left.

"Bernardo, you gave me a fright." Bernardo giggled and walked around him to dispose of the bucket for real this time. Alejandro watched the servant's retreating back, shaking his head. "As did you, my son. You looked horrible. And just what was that in the bucket?" Diego grinned.

"Student recipe for a university free day." When Don Alejandro just raised a questioning eyebrow, Diego chuckled. "A mixture of wine and vinegar, left overnight next to the fireplace. Convinces even el doctor that you are sick."

At his father's horrified expression, Diego burst out laughing and winked. Finally, his father joined in the laughter. "You're really as cunning as a fox, mi hijo."