Red Tigress (Blood Heir Trilogy #2) - Amelie Wen Zhao Page 0,1

like a dark, silent trap.

The Kerlan Estate looked as though it had been mauled. The marble walls had been stripped of the gold-framed paintings, and the lapis lazuli vases had disappeared along with the many other items Kerlan had deemed “exotic.” Someone had shattered the glass ceiling, and one of the crystal chandeliers had plunged into the middle of the banquet hall, creating a mess of glass and crystal that glinted in the moonlight. Drifts of snow carpeted the hallways, and Ramson’s breath plumed before him in the subzero temperature.

When Ramson turned a corner and almost tripped over the dead man, his alertness pricked.

The body was covered by the snow; he could make out only a sleeve and a blackened hand sticking out. Ramson knelt by the corpse, sweeping off the freshly fallen snow to unearth the man’s left arm. Just as he’d suspected, a tattoo of a lily of the valley was inked on the inside of the man’s left wrist.

He had been a member of the Order.

Instead of fear or grief or even pity, Ramson examined the frozen hand with a clinical curiosity. Skin, blackened evenly, suggested internal bleeding. Farther up, on the forearm, raised flesh—evidence of a rash.

He had been poisoned.

Ramson pushed away more snow, revealing the dead man’s face.

It was twisted in pain, bruised to a hideous purple and sunken with time, yet perfectly preserved by the cold. Ramson studied the face for several more seconds before deciding it wasn’t a man he’d known in the Order. The corpse of a low-ranking grunt, a nobody, left to rot once winter swept its snows away.

And though their common master was nowhere to be seen, his voice tided over Ramson in phantom echoes.

I suppose you’ll die unknown and irrelevant, your unmarked body rotting along the sewage of the Dams.

Ramson stood sharply to his feet, the whispers dissipating as his senses picked up on something else.

In one motion, he drew his blade, swung his arm out, and pivoted.

A startled cry; his blade connected with soft flesh, exposed throat. And…long, wavy hair.

Ramson closed his fist around a handful of hair and pulled the intruder’s face into the moonlight. His apprehension turned to surprise. “Olyusha,” he said as the woman struggled against his grip. “Damn hells.”

“Let me go,” she gasped, but Ramson only drew her closer, angling the misericord against her delicate neck.

“I don’t think so,” he said. Hells, he hadn’t been planning on running into anyone here—but as Ramson Quicktongue well knew, things rarely went according to plan. “Should’ve known this was your handiwork. Nightshade?”

“Oleander,” she rasped. “You’ve gotten rusty, Quicktongue.”

“Try anything and we’ll see just how rusty my skills are with a blade.”

He’d first known of Olyusha as an Affinite working at the Playpen, specializing in poisons and needles tipped with toxins. And though she didn’t know this, he’d used her as a bargaining chip against Bogdan, the affable yet stupid Penmaster of the Playpen, the infamous club where Alaric Kerlan had run shows with indentured Affinites.

That she was here, amid buried corpses showing signs of poisoning…Ramson had an inkling he was very close to sniffing out the truth of what had happened to the Order.

Olyusha hissed, but he felt her swallow against his blade. “Then perhaps we’ll both join the corpses at our feet,” she sneered. “Let me go. I didn’t come here to kill you.”

“So why are you here?” Ramson asked pleasantly, digging his blade into her skin in a way that he knew would be uncomfortable but would not cut.

“To warn you. Kerlan wants you dead, and he’s set a high price on your head. The whole Order’s probably out for your blood, Quicktongue.” She paused. “What’s left of them, anyway.”

At that, he glanced up, a thread of caution tightening inside him. The hallways stretched empty in front of and behind them. “And why would you want to warn me? We’re cut from the same cloth, Olyusha, so spare me the ‘out of the goodness of your heart’ act.”

“Because I need you.” The sharpness to her tone became tinged with desperation at her next words: “Bogdan is gone.”

This was news to Ramson. “What do you mean?”

The few times he’d run into Olyusha after her stint at the Playpen, she had been soft-spoken and doe-eyed, clinging to the gold-emblazoned sleeve of Bogdan. The Penmaster had rescued her from a lifetime of performances served under a forced contract—and he’d married her. It was Ramson who had helped cook Kerlan’s books so that Kerlan would never