Assassin's Apprentice

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his throat and solemnly pushed it through the simple wool of my shirt.
    “Now you are mine,” he said, and made that claiming of me more important than any blood we shared. “You need not eat any man’s leavings. I will keep you, and I will keep you well. If any man or woman ever seeks to turn you against me by offering you more than I do, then come to me, and tell me of the offer, and I shall meet it. You will never find me a stingy man, nor be able to cite ill use as a reason for treason against me. Do you believe me, boy?”
    I nodded, in the mute way that was still my habit, but his steady brown eyes demanded more.
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Good. I will be issuing some commands regarding you. See that you go along with them. If any seem strange to you, speak to Burrich. Or to myself. Simply come to the door of my chamber, and show that pin. You’ll be admitted.”
    I glanced down at the red stone that winked in a nest of silver. “Yes, sir,” I managed again.
    “Ah,” he said softly, and I sensed a trace of regret in his voice and wondered what it was for. His eyes released me, and suddenly I was once more aware of my surroundings, of the puppies and the Great Hall and Regal watching me with fresh distaste on his face, and the Fool nodding enthusiastically in his vacant way. Then the King stood. When he turned away from me, a chill went over me, as if I had suddenly shed a cloak. It was my first experience of the Skill at the hands of a master.
    “You don’t approve, do you, Regal?” The King’s tone was conversational.
    “My king may do whatever he wishes.” Sulky.
    King Shrewd sighed. “That is not what I asked you.”
    “My mother, the Queen, will certainly not approve. Favoring the boy will only make it appear you recognize him. It will give him ideas, and others.”
    “Faugh!” The King chuckled as if amused.
    Regal was instantly incensed. “My mother, the Queen, will not agree with you, nor will she be pleased. My mother—”
    “Has not agreed with me, nor been pleased with me for some years. I scarcely notice it anymore, Regal. She will flap and squawk and tell me again that she would return to Farrow, to be Duchess there, and you Duke after her. And if very angry, she will threaten that if she did, Tilth and Farrow would rise up in rebellion, and become a separate kingdom, with her as the Queen.”
    “And I as King after her!” Regal added defiantly.
    Shrewd nodded to himself. “Yes, I thought she had planted such festering treason in your mind. Listen, boy. She may scold and fling crockery at the servants, but she will never do more than that. Because she knows it is better to be Queen of a peaceful kingdom than Duchess of a Duchy in rebellion. And Farrow has no reason to rise up against me, save the ones she invents in her head. Her ambitions have always exceeded her abilities.” He paused, and looked directly at Regal. “In royalty, that is a most lamentable failing.”
    I could feel the waves of anger Regal suppressed as he looked at the floor.
    “Come along,” the King said, and Regal heeled after him, obedient as any hound. But the parting glance he cast me was venomous.
    I stood and watched as the old King departed the hall. I felt an echoing loss. Strange man. Bastard though I was, he could have declared himself my grandfather, and had for the asking what he instead chose to buy. At the door, the pale Fool paused. For an instant he looked back at me and made an incomprehensible gesture with his narrow hands. It could have been an insult or a blessing. Or simply the fluttering of a fool’s hands. Then he smiled, waggled his tongue at me, and turned to hurry after the King.
    Despite the King’s promises, I stuffed my jerkin front with sweet cakes. The pups and I shared them all in the shade behind the stables. It was a bigger breakfast than any of us were accustomed to, and my stomach murmured unhappily for hours afterward. The pups curled up and slept, but I wavered between dread

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