To her family, Mai Redstone is weak. Her shape-shifting power is nowhere near as impressive as their abilities to literally alter the world around them. But when she puts on the costume to become Mercy, a rooftop-climbing chameleon with a thousand disguises and at least nine lives, she feels almost invincible. When a local politician is murdered and the police call Mercy in to help, the stability Mai has built out of past pain threatens to crumble. The dead politician turns out to be her uncle, a man who made her childhood a living hell. Caught between giving a medal to the killer and being forced to find the murderer for her family, Mai must make the difficult choice between family loyalty and self-preservation. Mercy is a blade that can cut both ways.
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Mai stood on the roof of the twenty-story building, naked except for the cloak of her restlessness. Faint pain throbbed in her back — scratches from the anonymous woman she'd taken to bed barely two hours before — her thighs ached from the work she'd put into bringing them both pleasure, and the muscles in her arms still burned. The city of Atlanta, studded in starlight above and in bright lights below, hummed its particular late-night songs. A whisper of street traffic. A distant chopper. The thumping baseline from a rap song as a car cruised past.
The woman she'd gone home with still slept peacefully in her bed one flight below, but that same peace escaped Mai. Earlier that night, a familiar restlessness had pushed her into her favorite local bar, a place dark enough for private pleasures yet with a wide-open patio for fresh air and a bar well-stocked enough to drown even the deepest of sorrows. But she didn't go there for sorrow or for fresh air.
The woman she found wasn't exactly what she craved, but in that moment, with familiar demons pulling at her, the lush form with a head full of springy coils had been enough. She tasted like forgetfulness, pain subsumed, pleasure without the consequence of a tomorrow. Starved for what the stranger had offered, Mai had devoured her — the wet flesh between her thighs, her mouth gasping and plush, her breasts like summer-ripe mangoes.
But afterward, Mai was still keyed up. Tight. The big muscles in her arms and thighs jumped just under her skin, ticking away the moments toward an implosion she didn't want to happen. She rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck, spread out her senses to feel FIONA ZEDDE what was going on in the city below. It all rushed up to her in a wave of sound and color:
Couples whispering intimately to each other while their bedsheets beneath them rustled to the rhythm of their lovemaking.
A police car roaring down the city streets with sirens screaming and blue lights ablaze. Even young children were awake and playing in a nearby courtyard, which was odd for the early fall, when schools were in session. And it was more and more of the same, in a rolling tide of awareness of murder, sex, cruelty, and laughter. The tapestry of a large city.
Mai felt it all, the ceaseless movement of Atlanta — a wild organism in constant flux that could not be tamed. All these things unfolding below her were too far away or too late for her to change.
Other things ... Mai tilted her head toward the sound of screams pulsing beneath her conscious hearing.
Screams of terror.
Mai's breath hitched, and her body unconsciously swayed toward that blast of heat barely two miles away. She narrowed her gaze toward the fire, sharpening her hearing. No sirens headed toward it.
Not yet. She wasted a moment wishing for the phone she'd left in the pocket of her discarded jacket somewhere on the stranger's floor.
Then she jumped.
Air rushed up to meet her, a gust over her face and bare body, both cooling and heating her as the adrenaline turned her body temperature all the way up to scalding. Everything was loud. Screams rang like church bells, and her body throbbed to the heat radiating from the out-of-control fire.
Falling, Mai grabbed for the stone façade of the next building as it surged up to meet her, bare inches from slamming into her if she miscalculated her headlong rush. She was far from invulnerable, but sometimes it was that vulnerability to death that made these risks worth it.
Closer to the fire, her body tingled, a flush of heat and excitement.
She sprinted across a flat roof. Jumped to another.
THE POWER OF MERCY
She flew past a couple pressed together on a blanket, the girl's blouse off, her pert breasts showing, her lover intent on mouthing between her spread thighs.
"Jesus! Did you see that?"
"What?" Her lover emerged, face wet, eyes only for the woman beneath her.
"A naked chick. She just ran past us."
Naked. Right. Mai shifted, felt her skin ripple, hardening and stretching in places. It was only a surface change. She still felt the wind as it brushed her bare skin. Contrary to the illusion she crafted, her hands were gloveless as she grabbed the next rooftop and slung herself over an angled flagpole. There was no sleek catsuit covering her from neck to toe. No high boots. And no mask over the top half of her face, hiding everything but the tight line of her mouth. Any potential witnesses would see what she wanted them to see, not a naked woman streaking across the Atlanta skyline, treating it like her personal sorority house.
Instead, she was Mercy.
Face masked. Body covered. No secrets exposed.
She ran on toward the fire, sliding down into back alleys and darkened side streets when she ran out of roofs, the curse of living in a city with such a jagged and unpredictable skyline. Soon she was close enough to feel the flames, like invisible tongues lapping at her skin. The building was a new construction. Tall and flammable, tempting for any pyromaniac. She could smell the deliberately set fire. Probably someone who was just curious, then shocked when it all went wrong so quickly. She smelled the accelerant and the melting plastic from a disposable lighter, their scents overlaid with panicked sweat and regret.
The building was glorious. Yellow and amber flames swirled in its corners and crevices, holding it tight like a too-ardent lover. Mai took it in all in an instant — the shouts of panic and ringing alarm bells, people hanging out of the smoking mouths of open windows, their whispered or shouted prayers for deliverance.
She listened, dropped to the ground, and ran, her feet pounding the pavement, then leaped UP! Heat lashed her skin, and it was hard not to let it touch her and do what it wanted. The outer wall of the building was hot under her hands and feet.
"Mercy!" someone cried from below. Then a chant rose up — a sound of relief, a sigh, and praise. Just as with the flames, she had to pull herself away from the seduction of the name they had given her.
The lure of their raised voices.
A child perched on a window ledge, eyes wide with terror but more afraid of falling the seven stories than of the fire eating his room, bit by relentless bit. Outside the room and screaming in terror, a woman — his mother, Mai guessed — was trying to break down the door. The woman rammed it with a wooden chair already on fire, trying to get to the boy. Smoke choked the woman and the entire apartment. Already she was weakening, nearly passed out from the smoke.
Mai jumped through a nearby window and fought her way into the apartment. She grabbed the woman.
"No! My son!" She whirled at Mai, fighting to stay in the fire, her fist slamming into Mai's face. Mai winced but bore the pain. A whip of flame lashed against her back, and she hissed, protecting the woman from the fire even as her own skin burned. The pain of it was oddly sweet.
Mai grabbed the woman's arms and pinned them behind her back. "I'll get him next if you calm down." She didn't shout. "If you don't stop fighting me, I won't be able to get him."
The woman stilled at once, and Mai threw her over her shoulder, covered her head with a wet towel she'd grabbed from the bathroom on the way in, and sprinted the way she'd come, with the woman's weight bouncing halfway down her back.
She rushed through the fire and out the window and dropped the woman across the street among the gathered crowd.
"Ty! Get my son!" The woman stumbled back toward the building, but her neighbors grabbed her.
THE POWER OF MERCY
Mai quickly assessed the fire, listened for the signs of life still in the building. A woman on a higher floor was in danger of suffocating in her closet. An older couple clung together even higher up and fading fast. Mai ran toward a nearby building miraculously free of the blaze, scaled its outer wall, and leapt from it to the flame-enshrouded condo complex.
She quickly found the woman in the closet, unconscious and clutching a Bible with burned hands. Up and over her shoulder.
Mai did the same thing five more times, the smoke overwhelming her a little more with each rescue, the fire both weakening and strengthening her as she made her way through the building, grabbing limp bodies, resisting bodies, alive bodies. Like an assembly line, one after the other. She left the dead ones to their rest.
"My son! You said you'd save my son!" The woman still struggled in the arms of her neighbors, her thin nightgown dark with smoke and falling off her narrow shoulders. Her teeth were sharp and fierce in her face, stripped down to the basic drive of a mother wanting to protect her child. It wasn't something Mai was familiar with, but she'd seen it in documentaries.
A blush of shame rushed through her. Up and up, perched at the top, the boy huddled frozen in terror. All he had to do was jump, but it was not going to happen. He was too scared.
Shit. She'd gotten distracted. Firefighters were coming. But they wouldn't get to the boy in time.
"Jump!" the woman screamed to her son. "Ty! Please, just jump!" More people gathered below the window despite the flames spouting from the top of the building, encouraging him to jump with the outstretched protection of their arms. Not the most brilliant idea.
Mai cursed again, then ran back into the building.
Her lungs were already tight and scorched from pulling in too little oxygen. Her senses swam. It was too late. She knew it when she 5 FIONA ZEDDE reached through the fire, clambering up the superheated bricks that lit up the palms of her bare hands with pain. She'd screwed up and left the boy waiting too long.
His room door was cinders now. The flames flew across the carpet of his bedroom, devouring everything it could. Bedsheets.
Toys. Posters of cars. His flesh teased the fire. It, too, would easily burn. All of him would burn.
The window felt even farther than before, its ledge practically glowing with heat. How could the boy sit in a heat so intense?
When she finally got to him, she knew how. He was a statue of flesh transformed by terror into a panting but otherwise frozen thing.
"It's okay." She said the words even though she barely believed them. She wrapped the boy's body with her own and jumped, a quick breath up and out the window just as a fireball exploded in the room and blasted them out into the cool air.
Mai clutched the boy, whimpering now, as they flew through the air. She heard a rising tide of gasps below and controlled her own exhalation, used the momentum of the blast, and turned them in the air, keeping as much of her own body as possible wrapped around him. Something hard slammed into her back, drove the breath from her lungs. The side of the nearby building. She held on to enough presence of mind to roll down and cushion their fall with her body, leaving the boy untouched.
Mai felt rather than heard the people flooding toward them in concern. She stood, cursing her own stupidity, and lifted the boy, barely any weight at all, as she looked through the crush of people for his mother.
"Thank God!" The woman screamed her son's name and reached for him, the tendons of her neck etched in stark relief. Her nails scraped Mai's hands as she clutched her son.
Mai stood still long enough to make sure the woman easily bore the burden of the boy, then she spun away, ignoring the cries of the crowd shouting her name to finally pay attention to her body's aches and wounds. One alley, then two. Her arms stretched and burned as she reached up to lever herself higher and higher. By the time 6 THE POWER OF MERCY she reached a tenth-story rooftop, she felt better. The boy was alive.
Traumatized, but she'd blame that on the fire instead of her own carelessness.
Before long, she was back where she started. A rooftop downtown.
In the aftermath of the fire, her breath heaved and her muscles were loose and warm. Pleasure sang through her veins. This was what she had needed. This combination of usefulness and danger.
Accelerated heartbeat and eased fears.
Going home to her own bed would be another pleasure. But only after she shared a different kind of pleasure with the stranger downstairs. She imagined waking to the softness of the woman's body, a moaning greeting, and then an explosive climax in the heat of her lover's embrace. A perfect bookend to the night.
Mai quickly descended to the woman's room. As quietly as she could, she showered the stink of adrenaline and smoke from her skin and slipped between the sheets, curling the length of her body around the resting woman. Sleep came as easily as the next breath.CHAPTER 2
"And that's all there is to know about incest in royal European families, ladies and everyone else. See you next week."
Mai took off the glasses she didn't need — the equivalent of closing her instructor's copy of the textbook — and waved her students away with them.
The group of mostly sophomores quickly gathered their books and rushed toward the door, obviously glad for the Friday evening seminar to be over. Two or three stragglers hung back, talking with each other, and a few more made a beeline for Mai's desk, naked worship and hope in their faces.
She kept her expression professional yet casual, not filled with the seductive invitation a few of her colleagues regularly practiced on the impressionable group of students.
"Can I come see you during your office hours, Professor Redstone?" Beatrice Aarondale, one of her more intelligent students and coincidentally one of Mai's ardent pursuers, cocked her hip and gave her a honeyed smile. Blue lipstick and smoky eye makeup highlighted her already-pretty face. A white off-the-shoulder dress hugged her thick breasts and hips. "There are a few points from the class I'm not clear on."
Mai resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Of course. Check for the availability of office hours with my TA." She tipped her chin toward Carol, who sat in the back of the room, already looking over the papers she'd collected from the students at the beginning of class.
"Okay, thanks." But Beatrice still stood there, aggressively sexy, until one of her friends nudged her in the back and fought his way in front of her to hand Mai a book he'd borrowed the previous class.
THE POWER OF MERCY
Mai accepted the book with a smile and slid it into her slim leather briefcase. As she looked up from putting the book away, a figure passing the open door of her classroom caught her eye. Her stomach dipped.
Xóchitl Bentley. A suitably complex name for the seemingly complex woman who'd come to the campus a semester before from one of Atlanta's biggest and best private universities. Mai had heard through the grapevine that she spent the first class of each semester teaching her students how to say her name.
Xóchitl. Show cheel.
The day Mai stumbled into Xóchitl Bentley, she'd literally lost her breath, left quietly panting by the fist of desire in her belly that had been both powerful and unexpected.
In the hallway outside Mai's classroom, the woman swept through the wave of students like they weren't even there, graceful and cool like an iceberg sitting in winter waters and careless of the ships or high waves or anything else nearby. Mai grew weak just at the sight of her.
Tonight, Xóchitl wore a dress — loose-fitting cotton in all white, but with an incongruous Guatemalan print satchel over her shoulder.
On her feet, bright yellow high heels tapped an insistent rhythm that echoed in the pit of Mai's stomach.
Xóchitl was graceful, delicate, and gorgeous. And she wasn't the least bit interested in Mai.
Once her own interest was established and nothing overtly reciprocal came from Xóchitl, Mai thought the other professor wasn't into women. But an illicit night on Facebook had yielded evidence to the contrary. The very next moment, Mai had thoughts of trickery, sudden and innate, of shifting some small thing about herself, her face, her figure, downplaying the femininity of her walk to change and become something more like the AG, or butch, women she'd seen on Xóchitl's arm online. This was something she could easily accomplish as a Meta human, a minor bit of manipulation compared to what she'd seen others do.
But the thought both disgusted and terrified Mai. She didn't want to be like most of the Metas she knew, ruthlessly exploitive and remorseless. So she avoided Xóchitl from that day on. It didn't stop her from looking, though.
Mai blinked away from the tempting vision in the hallway when someone touched her arm, then abruptly let go.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Power of Mercy"
Copyright © 2017 Fiona Zedde.
Excerpted by permission of Ylva Publishing.
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