Red Tigress – Amélie Wen Zhao

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 Streets that had once shimmered with torchlight and writhed with bejeweled bodies and raucous revelers had been replaced by shuttered stores and empty windows.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 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 find out. “He’s missing. That’s why I came here to find you.” Olyusha’s throat bobbed against his blade. “Now, let me go, and I can explain.

” So, there was something she needed from him. Ramson shifted tactic in an instant. “A Trade, then,” he said. “You know I never give without taking, Olyusha.” “Fine,” she said, and he stepped back, pushing her far enough from him so that he was out of range of any needles or sharp, poison-laced objects she might try on him. She straightened, massaging her throat, and he noticed that her hands shook as she swept back her tresses. She suddenly looked small, tucked into her coat, which had lost some of its sheen and was now covered in a layer of gray. Ramson had remembered her dressed in the finest of furs and silks, pearls glittering in her hair as she turned her head and laughed. Ramson tapped his misericord on the marble floor. It echoed hollowly.

“You can start by telling me what happened to the Order,” he said. “What you mean by ‘what’s left of them.’ ” Olyusha sniffed. “I forget how long you’ve been out of it all, Quicktongue. After Morganya took the throne, Kerlan forced me to kill everyone associated with his trafficking business. He is intent on burying proof that it ever existed, for fear of the Inquisition.” Her eyes flashed. “Then he left with a handful of top-ranking members. He’s decided to refocus his efforts on his new Trade with Bregon.” The name of Ramson’s birth kingdom sent a shock wave through him, even as his ears perked at the news.

“What Trade? And why Bregon?” “He said it was a new development with Affinites. Besides that, I don’t know. Probably to escape the Imperial Inquisition and the new Empress’s purge on Affinite traffickers.” Ramson took a moment to digest this information. Morganya had hired Kerlan for a hit job—to kill the Crown Prince, Ana’s brother—before, but since her Coronation, she had turned with zealous fervor against Affinite traffickers. It was likely that Kerlan had caught wind of this two steps ahead, as always, and turned tail and fled. And now he was going to establish a new criminal empire…in Bregon. That was the part that didn’t make sense. Bregon had never shown interest in its Affinites— magen, they were called—who, in Ramson’s memory, had been largely left alone and unidentified. “And how do you know this?” “Because,” Olyusha said, “he took Bogdan with him.

I haven’t heard from him in weeks.” Her voice had grown quiet; her large eyes shone wet in the dark. At last, Ramson connected the dots. “You want my help to find him.” “He promised it would be a quick job. He told me he’d be back within the moon.” Olyusha swallowed. “I think…I think something went wrong.” He was getting sidetracked—he’d only come here out of an old habit, to find out what had happened to the Order and his former master. Perhaps it was indeed better to let sleeping wolves lie.

Ramson began to turn away. “I’d love to help, Olyusha, really,” he said, “but with Kerlan demanding my head, I think I have better things—” “He’s in Goldwater Port.” The words froze him, reeled him back. Slowly, Ramson turned to face her again. She was looking at him closely; at his reaction, she continued, “He told Bogdan that he would take it over, rebuild from there. No doubt he’s leveraging the trade routes to Bregon that you’ve established.” Liquid cold spread through his veins, and suddenly, all the plans he’d been spinning for himself the past few weeks seemed to dissipate into smoke before him. Goldwater Port had been center to any prospects of a future he’d dreamt up for himself. Only, Kerlan had gotten there first. He heard Olyusha speaking as though from very far away.

“I thought that would get your attention. Here’s my proposal: an alliance to take down Alaric Kerlan together, once and for all. Find him, find Bogdan, and bring my husband home to me. And in return, you’ll have my protection. Someone watching your back from the enemy’s side. Whoever from the Order is looking for you, I’ll get to them first.” Ramson was silent as he considered, his thoughts already running ahead, weaving situations and possibilities and weighing the pros and cons of it all. He’d wanted to leave Kerlan alone, to let the Order fade away as a part of his past that he’d wished to bury—but it seemed they had come looking for him, instead. And by taking Goldwater Port, Kerlan had seized the most valuable asset between them, backing Ramson into a corner. Through the broken windows, moonlight spilled onto the floor.

Even in the empty house, Ramson thought he could feel his old master’s presence, like a cold shadow looming behind him. This was all a game to Kerlan; it was Ramson’s turn to make a move. He was tired of playing the pawn. “Well?” he heard Olyusha say at last. “Do we have a Trade?” “I’m inclined to say so,” he said. “Though don’t expect me to shake with you on it.” He’d witnessed the tricks she hid up her sleeves, how one drop of her poison could paralyze a man entirely. Olyusha’s smile didn’t meet her eyes. “I knew from the start that you wouldn’t save Bogdan out of the goodness of your heart unless there was something in it for you. Seems I was right.

” “Am I really that predictable?” Olyusha shrugged. “I’m not one to lay any claims as to how well I know you, Quicktongue,” she said, picking at one of her nails, “but Bogdan and I would not have survived for so long in Kerlan’s Order without someone watching over us. Of course, you might have done those things to buy yourself insurance…but I do think that, despite everything about you, you have the propensity to be good, in your own terrible ways.” The words stirred an echo of a memory. A girl, standing beneath the softly falling snow of a new winter, her eyes brighter than the moon. You could be good. Make the right choice, Ramson. Olyusha’s voice dragged him from the memory. “Before we part, I have one more gift for you,” she said. “I know someone in Goldwater Port.

Kerlan hired her for a few shipping jobs before, specific to Bregon. She’ll have more information.” Ramson listened carefully to the name Olyusha gave. It didn’t ring a bell, which surprised him. Perhaps there were still secrets that Goldwater Port carried, buried deep beneath its sands by the man who’d made Ramson the person he had been: the person he still was. It was time for Ramson to carve his own path. He turned, tipping his cap at Olyusha. “Well met, Olyusha,” he said. “You sit pretty and focus on murdering our ex-colleagues. By the time you’re done, I’ll be back with your idiot husband.

” He heard her give a throaty laugh, the sound echoing over the clip of his boots as he walked away. “I’m not giving up on you just yet, Quicktongue.” A pause, and then: “When you do find Kerlan, promise me you’ll send him my regards.” “I don’t make promises,” Ramson replied. “That way, I can’t break them.” Yet even as he spoke, he could feel the sharp edges of a vow burying deep into his heart. Jonah had once told him to live for himself. Thing is, Ramson, he’d said, his raven-black eyes sharp with intelligence and uncanny wisdom for his twelve years of age, you can achieve everything in this world, but if it’s for someone else, it’s pointless. Yet as Ramson walked through the snow, the Kerlan Estate hovering behind him with its emptyeyed windows and broken, gaping mouth of a door, he realized that the path in front of him was still far out of reach, blocked by a shadow that grew larger and clearer with every step he took. Alaric Kerlan represented everything he despised about himself, his life, and this world.

As long as Kerlan lived, he could never be free. And right now, if Kerlan was establishing a new criminal empire in Goldwater Port, using the trade routes Ramson had built to get to Bregon, then he was the obstacle that stood in the way of the glimpse of the future Ramson had hoped for. One that involved planting the roots of the resistance in the south with Ana, and then making some semblance of a life for himself after the war was won. Ramson tilted his face to the starless sky, his breath unfurling before him in a cloud as he spoke. “I’ll find my own path, Jonah,” he said aloud. “But first, I’m going to hunt down Alaric Kerlan. And I’m going to kill him.”

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