Disclaimer: Tortall, the Gift, Alan ... none of that belongs to us. It's all the property of Tamora Pierce and we're simply playing with the toys she created. All we can claim are Savannah, Marek and other incidental characters who came from our creative minds ; )

Retribution's Curse

Chapter One

Alan gently rested his chin on his hands and stared out of the window, hoping that the Mithran priest who was currently taking the lesson wouldn't notice that his attention was waning. It wasn't as if he missing anything by not listening to the man; this was a mathematics lesson and Alan had been lucky enough to inherit his father's head for figures, rather than his mother's. He had mastered this level of mathematics years ago, but he wasn't about to tell Master Ivor that.

"Pirate's Swoop!" The priest's voice cut through his reverie and Alan took up to see the short man standing over him, looking very displeased. "I am well aware that you somehow consider this class to be beneath you but I would have thought by now that you would have learnt the maturity to hide your feelings." He smiled but there was no humour in his expression. "It appears that I was mistaken."

Alan blinked up at him, but didn't reply. There was nothing he could say; he had long ago become accustomed to the fact that his age was going to be used against him during his knight training. He wasn't the oldest to pass through, but he was by no means the youngest.

Realising that he was going to get no more from the young man, Master Ivor turned back to the lesson. Once he was sure the Mithran Priest's attention was elsewhere, Alan turned back to his idle contemplation of his own reflection that he could see in the window.

For sixteen, Alan of Pirate's Swoop was tall – having inherited his father's height rather than his famously short mother's. He had pale skin and huge hazel eyes, with such long lashes that his brother Thom has often suggested he was more ladylike than his sister Alianne. His hair was a burnished copper with streaks of pure red and gold and despite the normal page conventions, he wore it long, pulled back into a horse-tail that hung down his back. In stature he was also like his father, so slender that it belied his strength. His mother had once commented that he reminded her of a friend of old, one Alex of Tirragon and Alan hadn't known whether to be offended or flattered. By all accounts, Alex had been a darkly handsome man but then, he had betrayed the kingdom and tried to kill Alanna. So the comment was both a compliment and a curse. Privately Alan didn't want to be likeanyone – he just wanted to be himself and make his own mark.

He often wondered how different his life would have been had he begun his knight training at the correct age of thirteen, rather than three years late. He didn't fool himself into thinking it would have reduced the taunts directed his way – probably all that would have changed was the nature of the jibes. Because no matter how old he was, there was no getting past the fact that his mother was Alanna the Lioness – the King's Champion about whom an indefinite number of tales and songs had been spun. And there was really nothing Alan could do about those other pages that resented him because of this. Except ignore them – or at least try to.

A sharp jab on his arm made him wince and he drew his attention back into the classroom to find that the boy sitting next to him, his blond hair falling into his eyes as normal, was smiling at him sympathetically.

"Don't worry about the old man, Alan," the boy said. "Everyone knows he's biased towards you because he doesn't like your mother."

There it was again – that endless comparison to his mother. Alan was often relieved that he wasn't a girl; following in his mother's footsteps in training to be a knight was bad enough. Sometimes he didn't know how Aly could stand the high expectations that surrounded all of Alanna's children – especially with her being the only girl. He hadn't actually spoken to his twin for some time, but he knew that this expectation had never helped Aly's relationship with their mother.

And while there were those who delighted in the fact that one of Alanna's progeny was walking the same path, there were also some who used the opportunity to take out the grievances about her deception as a page on her son. For no matter what King Jonathon said; no matter what knights like his mother and Lady Keladry proved, there were still many in Tortall and at the palace who hated the changes that Alanna's generation had wrought upon the kingdom.

"I know," Alan replied mildly to the younger boy, refusing to be ruffled by the teacher's comments.

"Yeah," another voice whispered from behind. "We all know that you could walk through these lessons with your eyes and ears closed."

Alan smiled to himself. There were some good things about training to be a knight and these encouraging voices were two of them. Blond haired Lachran of Mindelan was the eldest son of Anders of Mindelan, and nephew to Lady Keladry – the realm's second female knight. He, like Alan, had the distinction of being ridiculed for his relations and the two boys had quickly realised they had a great deal in common, even though Lachran, at thirteen, was three years younger than Alan. The boy behind Alan, Francis of Naxen, had the dark hair and eyes of his father – Duke Gareth of Naxen, the Tortallen Prime Minister and cousin to the King. Although Francis had no embarrassing female relatives, his relationship to several different noble families meant that he probably had the bluest blood in the realm. This, tempered with his dark good looks, easy smile and open personality made him very popular among the ladies of the court, even though he was only just fourteen. These two, along with the absent Prince Liam, were Alan's closest friends among the pages.

Now there was something worth wondering about. "Francis, where's Liam today?" Alan asked, half-turning in his seat while the Mithran priest was occupied with writing on the vast slate that stood at the front of the room.

Being Liam's cousin meant that Francis was more likely to know than anyone else, but the boy shrugged. "He said his father wanted to speak to him about something."

Lachran looked worried. "I wonder if King Jonathon found out about – well, you know." He blushed and stared down at his hands as his two friends grinned at one another.

"Don't worry so much, Lachran." Alan told him languidly. "Uncle Jon wouldn't be angry about something like that. And if he is then I'll just remind him of some of the things he did when he was a page."

King Jonathon was not, of course, Alan's uncle. Due to the fact that his father had been an only child and his mother's only brother had died many years ago, he didn't actually have any blood-uncles. However, during his childhood there had been plenty of his parent's friends who had become his titular uncles – such as King Jonathon and Francis's father Duke Gareth. Alan's extended family was a formidable one – including some of the most powerful individuals in all of Tortall and beyond. While often this could be cloying – it was difficult to breathe without it being commented on by somebody – it was useful in situations such as this.

Lachran looked scandalised that Alan would talk so casually about their king, the man they would all eventually swear allegiance to.

Francis just smiled. "I think the fact that they concealed your mother's true sex makes any arguments they have moot."

Alan had to agree. The only reason that none of Alanna's friends had had their shields ripped away from them had been by the grace of King Jonathon's father. It was a subject often discussed at family gatherings and one that would, no doubt, be a part of recent history as so many other of his mother's exploits had become.

"What lesson do we have after this again?"

Francis rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Alan, how many years have we been doing this now?"

"It's history," Lachran supplied, glancing across to check that Master Ivor hadn't noticed that three of his pupils were definitely not discussing mathematics. "With Sir Myles."

Alan smiled brightly, the effect transforming his normally bored expression into one of pleasure. It was a common response to Sir Myles of Olau – the elderly history teacher who had taught Alan's mother as well as he. He was one of the most popular teachers from the pages' point of view and he also happened to be Alan's grandfather – on both sides of his family.

Perhaps this day wasn't going to be as long and tedious as he had first thought.

With the history class behind him, Alan was making his way along the hall to his final class before lunch – a class attended only by those with the Gift – when he spotted a familiar figure up ahead.

"Liam!" he called, hurrying his footsteps to catch up with the young prince, who had just emerged from a corridor on the right. At first he didn't slow and Alan was forced to call his friend again, at which point Liam turned and smiled rather absent-mindedly when he noticed Alan.

"Hello, Alan."

Alan arched a golden-red eyebrow at Liam's distracted tone. "Where were you this morning?"

The prince blinked and then shook his head. "Father wanted to talk to me," he said after a pause.

"That's what Francis said." Alan fell into step beside the prince as they both resumed their journey along the corridor. "What did Uncle Jon want?'

Liam was well used to Alan's disregard for formality and didn't so much as falter in his step. Like the rest of the Conté line, Liam was dark haired and blue eyed – although his particular looks favoured his mother rather than his father. Usually he was a cheerful, lively boy who, along with Alan, was the worst instigator of pranks amongst the pages. To see him so obviously ruffled about something piqued Alan's boundless curiosity.

"Kally's pregnant."

Alan stared at his friend and then burst out laughing. Kally, or Kalasin, was the eldest daughter of King Jonathon and Queen Thayet – and Liam's older sister. While they had been close as children, ever since Kally had married the young Emperor Kaddar of Carthak, Alan had heard little from her… and now this!

Liam shot him an annoyed glance and Alan paused mid–chuckle. "Is there a problem with that?"

"Its just … weird," the fourteen-year old admitted, pulling a face. "She's going to have a baby …"

"Lots of people have babies," Alan said airily.

"But this is Kally!"

"And she's Empress of Carthak. Stop worrying Liam."

The dark-haired boy scowled. "I'm not worried."

Alan poked him. "Yes you are."

"No, I'm not."

"Yes you are." Another poke.

"Stop that! I'm not worried, Alan." Liam dodged out of the way as Alan tried to poke him for a third time. "It's just not right!"

Alan rolled his eyes. "It's nature, Liam. Honestly, hasn't Aunt Thayet ever explained to you about babies?"

Liam's scowled darkened. "Oh you're no use when I'm trying to be serious," he complained. "Everything's a joke to you, isn't it, Alan?"

Alan shrugged. "She's just having a baby, Liam. It's not as if she's dying."

"And if it was Aly?" Liam challenged. "Would you be so flippant then?"

Alan considered his friend's question. Aly? With a baby? The mere thought of that was enough to send him off again into fits off laughter. Even their mother was more maternal than Aly!

"I'd sit back and watch my mother tear the unfortunate man to pieces," he decided.

Liam sighed and threw his hands up in the air. "I'm done with you!" he declared, striding off down the corridor. "And we're going to be late."

"Oh, so you are coming to this class are you? Because I wasn't sure …"

"Alan!" It was Liam's turn to hit his friend but Alan's words had the desired effect and the younger boy starting laughing as they ran down the corridor to their next class.

The class for the magically Gifted was small. Within the pages there were only five who possessed any kind of Gift and of the squires, only two were currently in Corus. All were already waiting patiently at their desks when Alan and Liam entered the room. It was only when all eyes turned towards them that Alan realised they were late.

"I'm sorry for our tardiness, Master Numair," Liam said politely, cutting in before Alan could speak and make the situation even worse. "We were speaking to my father."

A figure detached itself from the wall of the classroom and fixed the boys with a penetrating look. With his long dark hair, dark eyes and immensely large build, Numair Salmalín would have been a forbidding man had he not always worn such a look of detachment upon his face. One of the few Black Robes in the world – and the most powerful mage in Tortall – he was often absorbed in researching ancient magical workings or experimenting with his own power and it was rare to see him without his nose buried in a book. To Alan, Numair was simply another member of his extended family and someone he had known since childhood. Rather than laugh at the mage's absent-mindedness, he appreciated the quirks that made up the unique man's personality. At the moment however, Alan was wishing that Numair had a little less ability to put power into a simple look.

Finally the mage waved one hand towards the boys' seats. "A good enough reason, young Liam. Please, take your seats."

They hastened to sit down in their usual places and Numair began the lesson – an introduction to magical artefacts.

For once, Alan listened closely. It wasn't that Master Numair's lessons were normally boring; Alan was an indifferent student of magic, not really seeing the point of putting so much work into training something that he was never going to use. He had come to court to be a knight. If he had wanted to be a mage then he would have followed his brother's path.

No, this lesson in particular captivated his attention because his family possessed a couple of magical artefacts that he knew next to nothing about. His mother wore a burning ember stone around her neck. All that Alan knew about it was that it had been given to her during her own tenure as a page, and had come from the hand of the Great Mother Goddess herself. Alan didn't know what magical properties it had – if any – because his mother rarely spoke about it. But he knew that in terms of it being an artefact, it was priceless.

And then there was the sword his mother had owned as a young squire and knight – the one called Lightning that had later been warped by Duke Roger of Conté. The sword that, if his mother was to be believed, still remained lodged in the Duke's failed gate today – deep within the catacombs of the palace.

Maybe that would be worth seeking out, Alan mused as Numair's soft voice washed over him. He hadn't actually ventured down into the depths of the palace yet; it was simply something that pages didn't do. But then again, there had never been a page quite like Alan. He wondered whether Liam would be interested in taking a little journey later that day…

At that point, Numair broke off his lecture and indicated that the boys should take up the discussion themselves, working in small groups. Alan kicked his legs up on the opposite chair as Liam came across to join him. The younger boy sunk into a chair beside Alan but his face still had a preoccupied look about it.

"She's having a baby," Liam stated blankly.

Alan sighed and braced himself for a long afternoon in which every conversation he and Liam had would inevitably come back to the fact that his sister was pregnant. Almost instantly he wished that Master Numair didn't believe in class discussion so much and would simply continue his lecture.

"A living, breathing baby."

Why couldn't today have been tomorrow? Alan asked the ceiling as he admired its simplicity. Tomorrow their magical class would have been taught by their other Gifted teacher, the WildMage Veralidaine Sarrasri, who's lively classes gave little opportunity for idle conversation.

"I'm going to be an uncle!"

Liam had finally reached the conclusion that had come to Alan's attention immediately upon hearing the news – but he didn't sound very happy about it. Alan decided to take pity on him and he clapped his hand on the dark-haired boy's shoulder. "Yes, Liam, you're going to be an uncle. And this is because Kally's going to have a baby. And your brothers are also going to be uncles. And Uncle Jon and Aunt Thayet are going to be grandparents. And –"

"I think your conversation is getting a little off-topic, Alan."

The words were spoken gently but Alan felt his cheeks flush as two of the other pages exchanged a whisper and then sniggered at him. He looked up to see Master Numair standing over him, rather in the same fashion as Master Ivor in the previous mathematics lesson, although there was none of the Priest's rancour in Numair's gaze.

"Yes, Master Numair, sir," Alan assured him swiftly, cursing himself for being so easily distracted by Liam's baby problems. It wasn't even as if the lesson was boring! "My apologies."

Numair smiled briefly but there was a note of worry in his eyes that he couldn't dispel. But Alan pretended not to notice and straightened the parchment he was supposed to have been writing on and lifted his quill expectantly. As he had expected, Numair moved away, continuing the lecture. Alan breathed an internal sigh of relief and turned to Liam, finding that the other boy was watching him.

"You really should do some work sometimes, Alan. You don't want to make Master Numair angry."

As Liam had been the cause of Alan's distraction, he felt that the other boy's chastisement was rather unfair but when he opened his mouth to protest, Liam beat him to it.

"So, what can you tell me about magical artefacts?"

For the rest of the lesson Alan concentrated on his work for the first time that day and by the time Master Numair dismissed them, his parchment was covered in the spiky, irregular handwriting that his family had always despaired over. Even Liam looked better – he had apparently recovered from his shock at the news and as he scooped up his papers at the end of the lesson, the old sparkle was back in his eyes again.

"I think we should go tonight," he told Alan, in response to the other's question about seeking Lightning. "Mother and Father are distracted by Kally's – by Kally's news and so is Uncle Gary. That just leaves Lord haMinch and we've gotten around him before."

"I bow down to your scheming genius," Alan said, bowing theatrically and narrowly avoiding dropping all of his books on the floor.

Liam laughed and walked out of the classroom but when Alan made to follow him, Master Numair stepped forward and blocked his way, arms folded across his chest. Alan raised his eyebrows at the surprise intrusion and stepped backwards.

"Alan," Numair said, "is everything all right?"

Alan blinked at the question. What did he mean?

"Yes, Uncle," he replied, resisting the urge to tap his foot impatiently. He was hungry and if he didn't hurry to the mess hall then everyone would end up having to wait for him and his popularity would sink to an all-time low.

"I couldn't help noticing how distracted you were today, Alan," Numair pressed.

Alan shrugged. "I'm sorry, Uncle. I didn't mean to be rude." Should I tell him about Kally's baby? No, I suppose Uncle Jon will tell him when he's ready.

Numair tried again. "It hasn't just been today though. I've noticed a steady decline in your attention towards my lessons over the last several weeks. Is there something you'd like to talk to me about?"

"I'm just – " Alan broke off, aware that he was about to reveal something he didn't want to talk about. "I'm just tired," he finished lamely.

Numair smiled. "I can understand that. But I believe the reason for your distraction is somewhat different. I believe it is the fact that you do not believe there is any point in you learning how to harness your Gift."

For a man who always seemed so absorbed in his own work, Numair could be remarkably perceptive. Alan was about to deny his words with a smile and a laugh, but something in his uncle's gaze told him that Numair would not believe him.

He hung his head. "I just want to be a knight," he mumbled, hating how pathetic he sounded. "I don't care about my Gift."

To his surprise, Numair chuckled slightly and placed his big hands on Alan's shoulders. "You are more like your mother than you will ever know."

Before Alan could respond to this astonishing statement, Numair released him. "Just persevere, Alan, and I promise you that one day you will be glad that you attended my classes." He gave the young man one last encouraging smile and then left the room.

Alan scratched his neck, wondering at Numair's strange words. He would persevere of course; he wanted to be a knight more than anything. But as for training his Gift – Alan just didn't see the point in it. For his mother and brother, their Gifts were a part of their everyday lives but to Alan the power was simply something that was there, a tool to be used or to be ignored as he had chosen to do.

So while he would try his best to concentrate more in his uncle's classes – and his Aunt Daine's for that matter – he wasn't about to change his opinion of his Gift. He didn't need it to become a squire, as he hoped to do in less than a year's time, and he certainly didn't need it to become a knight. There were plenty of unGifted knights around, many like his uncle Raoul who had earned the highest honours – proving that it could certainly be done without the need of magic. While he couldn't deny what Alanna had accomplished with the aid of her own Gift, Alan wasn't his mother. And despite strange comments such as Numair's, he knew he was nothing like her and nor did he want to be.

Shrugging fluidly to the empty room, Alan cast the problem to the back of his mind and hurried out, following the smell of food towards the mess hall.

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