Retribution's Curse

Chapter Two

It was a beautiful morning in Tortall. Although the grass was still green, the treetops were now painted the deepest shade of autumn-red. Sunshine burnished the leaves a deep red-gold and they danced on their branches like a thousand flickering candle-flames. Birds twittered; squirrels chattered; and rabbits scampered playfully across the grassy floor.

Savannah wanted to wring their furry little necks.

She scowled, black eyes snapping with discomfort. She had never been so filthy in her life! Grime and sweat streaked her face, and her dark hair – normally so sleek and shiny – was fused with knots. Dirt caked her nails, now ripped and torn, and her skin itched dreadfully from the coarse travelling clothes she wore. She shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, limbs aching from spending so long on horseback without rest. No one, not by even the furthest stretch of the imagination, who saw her now would know her to be a princess of Tusaine.

A bird warbled happily from a nearby tree, earning an accusing glare from the young princess – as if it had offended her in some way.

Why? Savannah wanted to know. Why was the sun shining so brightly? Why was the sky so clear instead of being covered with bleak, grey rain clouds? And why did everything seem so happy? It was annoying. In fact, everything seemed twice more irritating to her than usual.

The stupid, happy little bird should be miserable – like her.

While normally rather bad-tempered, the long hours on the road to Tortall's capital had seen her descend with an almost alarming speed into a black mood from which she had yet to emerge. But Savannah doubted that she would any time soon – unless by some miracle a hot, perfumed bath and a clean silk gown magically materialised in front of her.

For some reason, she was highly sceptical of that.

"Enjoying yourself, Princess?" said a derisive voice behind her.

Savannah started, making Galeo, the chestnut gelding she rode, toss his head and snort. Briefly she glanced over her shoulder and then back again, her body suddenly rigid. She had been so preoccupied with her own gloomy thoughts that she had almost forgotten he was there – the foremost source of her misery and woe.

Sharply handsome, Lord Marek of Fhoraine looked not unlike her with his narrow face and dark, chiselled features; but his otherwise pleasing appearance was ruined by the look of scorn that had manifested in his blue eyes. She didn't like him riding behind her where she could not see him – it made her feel as if she were about to be attacked.

"Immensely," she replied stiffly at last. "Although why you would concern yourself over my delicate emotional state is anyone's guess."

Suddenly Savannah was glad that he was behind her; that way he could not see the hatred and loathing stamped across her face. Despite the fact that Marek was a distant cousin of her father's – and one of his more favoured advisors – Savannah disliked him intensely. He unnerved her, especially when he looked at her with his cold, predatory eyes; but at least back at the Tusaine court she could escape him whenever she wanted.

Now it was nigh on impossible.

"Your words wound me deeply, your highness," Marek said mockingly, drawing abreast of her on his sleek black horse. "I am hurt that you think I care nothing for your happiness."

Savannah's lip curled in a bitter sneer. "Oh really? Then since you are so mourning my distinct lack of happiness, you will turn around and escort me back home at once. I could think of nothing that would please me more." Except to be rid of you, she added silently.

Marek gazed at her coolly. "My dear, even I cannot gainsay the direct orders of my king."

"Well, no matter what my king says, I am not spying in Tortall for anyone!" she snapped furiously.

Her whole body was now trembling with rage. Initially she had not believed her father when he had proposed his plan. In fact, she had laughed out loud at the idea – something she should have known better than to do. When it came to matters concerning Tortall, King Raphan was unreasonable. Tusaine had always jealously guarded its hatred of Tortall and its people – a hatred that had first begun with her grandfather, King Ain, almost forty years ago.

During that time, they had been at war with Tortall; the fighting caused by the occupation of the Drell River Valley – a stretch of stolen land Tusaine been attempting to reclaim. Unfortunately, the kidnapping of her late great uncles – Duke Hilam and Count Jemis – had ensured Tortall's victory, also promising that there would forever be bad blood between the two kingdoms. And it was not only that. The loathing that had been bred into her father especially concerned one person in particular:

Alanna the Lioness.

Savannah had heard many tales concerned the Tortallan King's Champion, each more fantastic than the last – and many rather unbelievable. But what was cemented in truth was that Alanna had won her shield disguised as a boy and had become the first female knight in over a hundred years. Rumoured to be god-touched, she was unbeatable with a sword and had slain many formidable foes to date. Indeed, her reputation as being both brave and fearless had led to her name being used as a weapon to strike fear into enemy hearts.

King Raphan always said that if any woman tried that in his court, he would have them executed for treason. He – along with many of the Tusaine nobles – were outraged by the suggestion of a female knight. In their opinion, the Lioness had gained her shield by simply using her feminine wiles to trick and deceive. More likely she had asked for favours in payment for bedding powerful nobles – even the current Tortallan king's. It was common knowledge after all: women cannot fight, nor can they lead. The idea of a lady knight was simply ludicrous!

While Savannah too shared most of her father's opinions about the King's Champion, there was one thing that intrigued rather than appalled her: the Lioness was also said to possess a very strong Gift and a talent for healing. Stories of Alanna's use of magic fascinated her, for Savannah herself had always secretly dreamed of becoming a great sorceress.

Like the heroic Lioness, she had also heard a myriad of wild and exciting tales about the Tortallan mages. Although Savannah too harboured a dislike of Tortall, the express desire to visit the famed City of the Gods and study at the royal university in Corus far outweighed her enmity. Of course, her father's hatred of their western neighbour made this impossible, so Savannah had done the next best thing – studied magic herself.

Tusaine's university possessed a wondrous library, containing maps, books, scrolls and scriptures on almost every topic imaginable. It was there that Savannah had spent most of her spare time – hidden away in a secluded corner as she read anything of magic she could get her hands on. Unfortunately, this was not much. Although the Gift was abundant in her family, her father was so adverse to the magical heritage of Tortall that he had forbidden any family member's practice of magic – not that that had stopped Savannah. She was eager to develop her Gift all she could, even if it meant defying royal decree. Secretly she had practised in her chambers, late into the night, the magic and spells she had tried to learn from the books she found, free from the fear of being interrupted and caught. At just sixteen years of age, Princess Savannah was already possessed of an impressive store of magical knowledge.

"Would you have your father behead you for committing such treason?" Marek's cold, cutting voice abruptly startled her from her thoughts.

Savannah laughed humourlessly. "I am the crown princess and his only heir. You cannot really think that he would behead me," she scoffed. "Pigs might fly!"

Marek's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You will stem that insolent tongue of yours before we reach Corus or I'll – "

"Or you'll what?" she challenged, fury making her reckless. "You have no right to order me about – I am not some common serving wench And while we are on the subject, I order you to turn around and take me back home at once!"

But instead of becoming angered by her words, Marek sent her a thin-lipped smile. "On the contrary, your highness, for may I remind you that Raphan placed me in complete charge of this mission, and you under my command. I can do what I will with you as I see fit."

"I don't care what my father said. I am following no orders of yours!" Savannah yelled furiously. Her hands clenched the reins so tightly that her knuckles turned white.

"Including," he continued smoothing, ignoring her, "taking whatever means necessary to ensure your absolute obedience."

Savannah froze. A cold, clammy hand of apprehension suddenly gripped her heart. The oily smoothness to his voice had vanished. Instead it was now hard and fierce, his tone that of someone who would not hesitate to carry out their threat. Slowly she turned to look at him, fighting in vain to keep the fear from her eyes.

Marek's cold blue gaze pierced her like a knife, tearing at her skin like a viper's fang. The quiet menace she had always felt emanating from him had suddenly erupted into something more sinister and cruel. Her heart thumped loudly against her chest. She looked away, nervously chewing her lip. Galeo sensed his mistress's anxiety and pranced restlessly beneath her.

"My Gift is much stronger than yours, my dear," he said softly, malice coating his every word. "It has been trained and honed by sorcerers of power you cannot even begin to comprehend. You would not resist me long if I were to have you… disciplined."

Savannah's head snapped up and she stared at him in undisguised horror. "That's forbidden," she whispered hoarsely, her voice shaking. "Torture through magic is forbidden. Father would never have allowed this. It-it abuses the code of honour! Don't you dare sit there and tell me that he knows of your – your – "

A derisive smile curled the edges of his mouth. "Oh, but he does. In fact, his majesty was actually the one who suggested it. You are not entirely stupid, princess. I think you know what will happen if Raphan should come to hear of your continuing rebelliousness…"

Savannah paled. Yes, she did know – and all too well for the King of Tusaine had told her himself: should she jeopardise the mission in any way, her Gift would be permanently blocked and herself married off the instant she set foot back on Tusaine soil. She had often suspected that her father somehow knew of her late night practising with magic, even after he had forbidden it. But it was only when he had threatened her with that fate, however, had she been completely sure – punishment for her disobedience. How he could have discovered her secret, she didn't know. Unless, someone had told him…

A black wave of helpless fury suddenly surged through her body. "Marek, you evil snake! What words of poison have you been hissing into my father's ear to have reduced him to such low-life extortion?" Savannah snarled, only half realising what she was saying as an uncontrollable rage took hold. "Blackmail is something I would have expected from you, not him!"

Marek's hand shot out so fast that she had no time to react. She cried out as his fingers dug painfully into her arm. He wrenched her half out of the saddle towards him. With his other hand, he bent her head right back so that she was forced to look him fully in the face. What she saw there nearly made her faint in terror.

"You forget yourself, Princess," he whispered silkily. Despite how angry Savannah knew he must be – she could see it burning in his eyes – he wore a lazy smile. That frightened her more than anything. No one could be that angry and keep that calm…

Savannah was so terrified that she could not move; could not struggle against the inhumanly strong grip with which he held her. Instead she remained transfixed in his grasp – a rabbit caught in a hunter's snare.

But all of a sudden, Marek frowned. "Oh yes," he began slowly, "I had forgotten your Gift."

Surprise made Savannah momentarily forget her fear. "My Gift?" she asked in confusion, but then blanched as he chuckled softly. The sound chilled her blood.

"Yes, the problem with your Gift; or have you so readily forgotten the distinctive colour so attributed to Tusaine's crown princess?"

She had forgotten. Both her parents, King Raphan and the late Queen Calandre, had possessed the Gift; yet instead of having inherited just one colour, she had been gifted with a peculiar combination – a deep ruby red tinged with silver-white. Only one other that she knew of had been blessed with two colours of magic, and that was the famous, and most powerful, Tortallan mage – the Black Robe Numair Salmalin. Although the precise meaning of this phenomenon eluded her, she was proud of being so unique.

But, although she hated to admit it, Marek was right – it was a problem. It was common knowledge that Princess Savannah of Tusaine's Gift was an extraordinary colour – even in Tortall. It was the very thing that would give her away as a royal Tusaine spy.

Something very much akin to relief washed over her. "Well then. It appears that I am unable to spy in Tortall after all," she said in what she hoped was her most haughty tone, although the slight tremor to her voice betrayed her true feelings. A little of her lost confidence was restored. "The Tortallan nobles would recognise me the moment I used it."

Yet her temporary conviction waned as Marek smirked. "Oh, I think not, your highness, for I have a very simple solution to this little problem of ours."

Savannah said nothing; but as soon as she saw his sly smile, her nervousness intensified. She winced as his fingers unexpectedly tightened their grip. A dark blue light flared around them. "Drop your mindshields," he ordered, voice hard.

"No!" His words broke her trance. "She began struggling to get away with all her strength, but his grip was made of iron. Galeo whinnied nervously and half reared on his hind legs, almost throwing her to the ground.

A peculiar presence began clawing inside her head. It was so foreign; so cold and frightening that she recoiled in horror and disgust.

Don't make me force you, Marek's serpentine mind-whisper brushed against her thoughts. She shuddered, beads of sweat trickling down her face. Her skin burned where he gripped her. She whimpered with pain. Her arm pulsed with magic, so much magic that she felt as if she would explode.

"Stop it!" Savannah screamed, eyes tightly shut. Tears of agony burned her eyes.

Stop fighting. Obey and give me entrance!

"No…" Her protest was but a mere whisper – softer than a breath of wind. At last, with a low moan, her defences collapsed and she felt Marek's Gift invade.

When at length she felt his presence leave, she was limp and shaky – hanging half out of the saddle. She felt unclean, dirty and violated. The urge to scour her skin of this unseen filth almost overwhelmed her.

Marek shoved her away in contempt, a sneer twisting his lips. "Foolish girl!" he snarled as she slowly righted herself. "I sought only to disguise your Gift – not read your half-witted thoughts. Nevertheless, your feeble attempts at defiance have shown me that it would be easy to do so, should the need arise."

Her face whitened. The thought made her weak with terror. And no ordinary man with the Gift could do what he just did. Her face cleared in sudden realisation – Lord Marek of Fhoraine was a sorcerer.

"You wouldn't," she whispered feebly.

Marek flashed her a narrow-eyed look. "I will if you give me reason to, or I believe it necessary. You are weak, Princess. I wonder now if you are strong enough to convince the Tortallan mages to accept you."

"Then why use me at all?" Savannah rasped, still breathing heavily. "Why not use someone with a stronger Gift?"

He looked at her coldly. "Your Gift is sufficient enough for our purposes," he said curtly at last. Marek then leaned in closer to her and she cringed. His face – filled with malevolence – was but a mere hand-span from her own. Again his eyes trapped her. "Next time I will not be so lenient with you. Do not make the mistake of thinking that that was the extent of my power." His voice was slow and deliberate, striking fear into her heart. "Believe me, my dear, I am capable of much, much worse."

Wordlessly Savannah nodded, her throat too dry with terror to speak. A complacent smile then curved his mouth. "Good. I see we at last understand one another. Now, show me your Gift."

Without hesitation, Savannah coloured the air around her. She was only half surprised. Instead of its usual ruby and silver aura, her Gift was now a murky purple, brushed with streaks of cobalt blue.

Contaminated, she thought scathingly and glared at Marek. Quickly she made it disappear, unable to stand the sight of it any longer.

Marek nodded in satisfaction. "You still have two colours, but even so, no one will suspect your true identity. It takes powerful magic to change one's Gift colour, even though it is only temporary. I will have to enforce it every week or so to keep up our disguise. Now, who are you?"

She glared at him before saying dully, "My name is Kera Mintaré. You are my father, Lothar Mintaré, and my mother died whilst giving birth to me. We are poor commoners from a small village near the Drell River Valley, and have just recently come to Corus, looking for work."

"See you do not forget." Marek gathered up the reins of his horse. "And you will curb your insolence. If you don't, you will discover very quickly just how little I will tolerate it." He eyed her glowering face as he trotted past. "You had better accustom yourself to obeying orders, my dear. Here you are no longer a princess of Tusaine."

Shaking as much from relief as from rage, Savannah watched him go. The more distance between her and Marek the better she would feel. The coppery taste of blood then filled her mouth and she realised that she had bitten right through her lip. Grimacing in disgust, she spat it out onto the side of the road.

If I am no longer to be a princess, I may as well stop acting like one, she thought as she nudged Galeo forward.

Yet secretly, she was somewhat relieved. Back at the Tusaine court, proprietary had governed her with a firm hand; her movements severely restricted. But here, out on the road to Corus, she felt free – although in reality she was far from it. A cage with invisible bars contained her. A boundless prison. She wondered if things would have still worked out this way if Sean were still alive.

Thinking of her elder brother stabbed her like a knife. Even after his tragic death four years ago, Savannah still missed him terribly. Although he had been six years older than her, so similar had they been in looks that they could have passed for twins: the same dark brown hair, black eyes and sharp, stubborn chins. The difference in their personalities, however, had been infinite.

Sean had been patient and fair, his slow temper never gaining the upper hand. He was an excellent fighter in all forms of combat and quick to laugh and smile when something amused him. While steadfast in his beliefs, he was always ready to hear differing views and opinions, carefully weighing up both sides of an argument before reaching a decision. This had earned him the respect of their father's armies at an early age. Nevertheless, he was generally reserved in temperament; more inclined to listen than speak, although this had simply made him all the more cautious. Whilst training to become a knight, he had already been showing signs of becoming a strong leader; and all the more importantly – he had not shared their father's violent hatred of Tortall.

Sean would have made a good king.

Savannah swallowed, fighting to keep her emotions at bay. It had not been more than a week or two after he had won his shield when he embarked on a hunting expedition – from which he never returned. The men who had accompanied him claimed that the crown prince had somehow become separated from the group without anyone realising. Duke Jethrold of Hevahn, her and Sean's uncle, had been the one to find him – Sean had plummeted to his death over a cliff, his body found shattered and broken on the rocks below.

She had been twelve years old then. Even now, at sixteen, Sean's death still hurt her. He had always been there for her. No matter how many times she managed to get into trouble, or how many times she suffered their father's wrath, Sean was there to defend and comfort her. No matter how many times she lost her temper with him, even for no particular reason, Sean not once raised his voice in return, instead somehow managing to tease her out of her bad mood. Her brother could make her laugh. Since his death, Savannah had found little reason to laugh.

Sean had been the second member of her small family to greet the Black God. Her mother, Queen Calandre, had died giving birth to her. Although Savannah had never known her, she had heard much of her mother's kindness and grace from some of the older courtiers. It was said that Savannah was much like the late queen herself, especially with her long dark hair, smoky black eyes and white skin. But the princess had seen the portraits for herself and fully disagreed. While they did appear to share many of the same features, what made Queen Calandre beautiful made Savannah simply ordinary. While the queen had been tall and slender, she was very short and skinny. While her mother was said to have been graceful, she was awkward and clumsy at the best of times. And while Calandre had been kind and gentle, Savannah was short-tempered, moody, and possessed of such a streak of rebelliousness that she had earned the reputation of being impossibly difficult.

The continuous praise of her mother being the perfect lady and queen made Savannah feel that she was considered something of a disappointment. Even her father ignored her, or at least when he was not berating her for her latest bit of mischief or outburst of temper. It had only been Sean who had seemed to accept her for who she was and not condemn her for it. But he was gone, leaving Savannah quite alone.

She had discovered her magic shortly after her brother's death – a good thing perhaps, for it had distracted her from the ache of grief that had burdened her for the past four years. The Duchess Astera of Tarrem, chief healer at court, had quickly realised that she was in need of magical instruction and willingly gave it. Even after the king's prohibition on her practising magic, Astera had continued to teach her in secret. While Savannah had been initially reserved, the healer's patience and warmth finally won her over and the two had become close – so close that Savannah now fondly thought of the duchess as being her surrogate mother.

Thinking of the grey-eyed healer made her smile slightly. Their secret had bound them together. And yet, even with Astera's training, the woman's Gift was centred on the art of healing. Even with Savannah's own studies in magic, she had not been able to understand all she read and the duchess was unable to help. Much of the magical arts still remained unknown to her.

Tortall, however, was famous for its mages and sorcerers – people who could teach her to unravel the mysteries that she had tried and failed to uncover herself. This, she thought, was perhaps her only consolation. Savannah's eyes then hardened as the reality of her situation once more assaulted her. She must not – could not – forget the real reason why she was in Tortall. The Tortallans were her enemies, and she was there to spy. And no matter how unwilling she was, Marek would make sure she obeyed.

As her gaze travelled the road ahead, her heart leapt frantically in her chest. The city of Corus was no longer a small black speck on the horizon. Now she was close enough to see its tall stone walls, silhouetted against the afternoon sky. The sight of Tortall's famous capital sent excitement mingling with dread coursing through her veins.

Marek had halted a little way ahead and was waiting for her, his narrow face impassive. Savannah refused to look at him. They did not speak to one another as they rode the last leg of the journey up to the city gates.

She was almost overwhelmed by the sheer size of the city. Tusaine was not a large kingdom, and Corus was far bigger than anything she had seen before. The marketplace of the Tortallan capital was awash with colour and noise, everything seeming to happen at once. The smell of horses, food, spices and smoke filled the air, and the sounds of people laughing and shouting rose against the clang of blacksmiths and the jingle of coin as it exchanged hands.

Marek led her steadfastly the thick crowds, apparently unmoved by the sights and smells. Savannah suddenly felt very conspicuous as she slowly edged Galeo through the masses, somehow convinced that everyone knew who she was and what she was about to do. Swallowing nervously, she kept her eyes trained on Marek.

It was so crowded that it was a good half-hour later before they finally emerged from the marketplace into a less populated area. She ventured a fleeting look at the people passing them, but none even so much as glanced at her. Relaxing, she felt the tension slowly leak away from her muscles.

Marek seemed to be searching for something, glancing down each street as they passed. Eventually he stopped at the opening of a very dirty alleyway. He beckoned her to follow him. But Savannah stopped at the entrance, her nose wrinkled in distaste.

"Follow me, Kera."

She started, as much from the warning in his voice as his usage of the unfamiliar name. Hurriedly she moved to obey him, her eyes shifting over her surroundings uneasily. She had never seen – or smelled – such a horrible, dirty place.

After riding for several long minutes Marek suddenly halted. He dismounted in one fluid movement and looked back at her, a cunning smile twisting his mouth. "This will do fine."

Savannah felt her anxiety mount. "What will?"

"This alley is where you will relinquish all control of your Gift."

She blinked at him in horror. "Relinquish my – my control?" she stammered. "But – but that could kill me! I can't – "

"You will release your control," Marek cut in icily, eyes narrowed, "or you will have a much greater problem to contend with."

Savannah blanched but was silent.

"The burst of your magical Gift should alert the mages to our whereabouts," he said as she dismounted from the saddle. "After they come, I trust you will know what to do."

"What – what if they don't sense anything?"

"Oh, they will," he promised her softly, his voice making her shudder. "They will. Now, give me your hand."

Reluctantly Savannah did as he bid, fighting the overwhelming urge to rip her hand away the moment he grasped her fingers. His hand was cold. It felt like she had grabbed something rotten instead. She glanced uncertainly at him. Marek's eyes were closed and the air around him was already coloured with the cobalt blue light of his Gift.

Release…

Her breath caught in her throat when she heard his voice whisper inside her mind. Her heart pounded. There was no turning back now. Once she did this, there was no way out. She couldn't go back.

Release…

She closed her eyes, gritting her teeth so tightly that her jaw hurt. She had no choice. Focusing, she called to her magic and the flickering ball of light that was her Gift materialised in her mind. Once ruby and silver but now predominantly blue, it jerked and twisted violently. Momentarily she paused. It had never acted this way before, nor had it been so large.

RELEASE!

She hesitated for only a fraction of a second more. Savannah dropped her shields and a ferocious wave of power surged up through her body and across the city.


A/N: Hey, sorry for the wait :) Thank you all for being so patient and we hope that you liked this new (and revised) chapter. Please R&R so we can know what you think! Also, mainly for the Alan chapters, we've tried to keep it as faithful as possible to TP's books as possible. If there's anything out of sync, let us know!

JoeyStar and naughty little munchkin

Review responses:

Zerrin of the Wind: I think Alan is a cool character as well :) We thought it was about time someone wrote about him. What did you think of Savannah in this chapter?

Gaerwen: Hey, thanks for reviewing :) Have you read TP's next book after the Keladry series? Trickster's Choice? Alan actually starts as a page 3 years late. We're trying to be faithful to what she writes so not to get a bunch of very pissed-off readers on our hands :) Hope you tune in for later chapters.

pineapples rok mi sox: thanks heaps for your review :) lol we better have left out the americanisms - I'm Australian and JoeyStar is English! There's no two people more fussy than keeping to our own versions of the English language :P Hope you enjoyed this chapter.

Syl Rose: Hi there - here's an update to keep you happy. Sorry for the wait!

Letselina: Hey, an old reviewer come back! Yay! So good to see/hear from you :) We've planned this story much more than the older version so it'll be improved without a doubt. Lots of exciting stuff will happen in the future so keep with us! Hoping to hear what you think about the revised chapters.