Red Tigress (Blood Heir Trilogy #2) - Amelie Wen Zhao

To Arielle, my Sister Dearest

Novo Mynsk reeked of death.

It always had, but to Ramson Quicktongue, the city had also held the stench of power and corruption, of murder and survival, swirling together in an intoxicating redolence that corroded one’s soul. It was no different now, save for the eerie darkness and silent snow that blanketed it.

Ramson navigated the narrow alleyways of his childhood haunts with quick, precise steps. The last time he’d been here had been with Anastacya Mikhailov during the Fyrva’snezh at his former master’s mansion. It had only been a little over one moon since the celebration of the First Snows, but now, that world felt almost utterly unrecognizable.

In just four weeks, Novo Mynsk had transformed into a ghost town, abandoned by most of its residents as they sought to flee the new regime. Streets that had once shimmered with torchlight and writhed with bejeweled bodies and raucous revelers had been replaced by shuttered stores and empty windows. Bodies littered the streets in areas where gangs had scrapped over bits of food, and snow had blanketed them, leaving only glimpses of clothing or a protruding boot as macabre grave markers.

It was not an unfamiliar sight over his travels from town to ravaged town with Ana. Since Morganya had ascended the throne, much of Northern Cyrilia had fallen to her control. From newspaper pieces and torn posters in abandoned villages, Ramson and Ana had learned of the Imperial Inquisition, a wide-scale hunt for non-Affinites who were accused of any affiliation with Affinite trafficking. Led by Affinites fiercely loyal to the Empress, it was a movement that had come to define Morganya’s regime.

The south, though, remained free from the tightening grasp of Morganya’s rule. That included Goldwater Port. According to Ana, the Redcloaks had established their base there, as it remained one of the last standing free havens for Affinites and non-Affinites alike. It was there that Ana traveled to begin her resistance movement with the Redcloaks.

And it was there, Ramson had slowly begun to think, he could fight for some semblance of a life again after all this was over. He’d once been the Portmaster; under his former master Alaric Kerlan’s rule, he’d built a city teeming with commerce and crime and underground networks, the kind of place he’d dreamt of calling his own one day.

He hadn’t told Ana explicitly where he was going tonight, because it wasn’t explicitly a task for her—their—mission. Rather, Ramson had felt the silent call of this place as soon as he’d set foot in Novo Mynsk, the phantom pull of a connection he hadn’t quite managed to sever yet.

He’d come to find out, for himself, what had happened to Alaric Kerlan and the Order of the Lily. And he’d come to bid the torn wreckages of his past good-bye, once and for all, as he turned down a new path.

The tapping of his freshly sharpened misericord against his hip came to an abrupt stop when Ramson turned the last corner and slowed. He found that he was suddenly glad for the sharp knife at his waist.

The Kerlan Estate stood alone in the middle of a snow-covered street, half-buried by the snow, its battered golden gates yawning wide. Gone were the rows of liveried guards; gone were the diamond-glass lamps spilling haloes of light onto lush lawns; gone were the brightly lit windows burning into the darkest nights.

Ramson touched a leather-gloved hand on the broken railing of the gate and hesitated.

Even now, the sight of the Kerlan Estate did not fail to elicit a muddy swirl of emotions in him. He’d known pain here—so much pain, still seared into his flesh in the shape of the brand of the Order of the Lily. He’d seen growth, sharpened by that hunger and fear and driven by the knowledge that he had to do whatever he needed to in order to survive. And he’d tasted happiness, fleeting as bursts of color in the Empire’s gray skies, in the blood trades he’d made and the honors he’d gained, paid for with the lives of other men as he upheld Alaric Kerlan’s rule.

Ramson’s heart pounded in his throat as he hurried up the snow-covered path. When he reached the mansion, he saw that one handle of the giant mahogany double doors had broken; the other seemed to have been hacked clean off by a serrated blade of some sort. The wood creaked as he pushed them open and stepped inside, the mansion yawning wide