Mali was struck with fever when she was but three. Sent her into a fit of chills before blanketing her in sleep. That was the time of the Gundarian flu and doctors didn’t know which way she would fall. Blackened limbs? Blood from the pores? They shook their shrouded heads in pity. So young. So young.
Winter had crawled in early that year, her mother said, and cast the world in endless shadow. At night, she’d lay damp cloths on Mali’s forehead and chest, hoping to put the fire out. Nothing helped, though. Certainly not the swamp water the doctors tinctured into stoppered bottles. When Mali’s skin flushed red and purple, her mother threw open the window and shouted for the snow to come settle on her child.
What she got, though, was a waxwing.
“A waxwing,” her mother whispered, her eyes long blind. Mali sat at her beside and caressed her mother’s withered hands. The skin held little warmth and the pulse kept unsteady time.
“Tell me about the bird,” Mali said, leaning close, feeling the end closing in. Footsteps thundered down the hall, outside the chamber door. Under the cot, her foot kept contact with the gun’s metal casing.
“It sat on the edge of your crib.” Her mother’s eyes moved as if seeing. “Looked at me. Hopped to you. Touched your forehead with its beak. That’s how I knew.”
“How you knew what?”
But the answer didn’t come. What came instead was a final breath and stilled pulse. Mali’s face set like stone, the last whisper of warmth gone. She smoothed her mother’s eyes closed, then touched the blue-inked bird inside the woman’s wrist. Though the lines had grown faint in the paper-thin skin, she pressed her own wrist against the sign. She inhaled and waited for the answer, knowing when she opened her eyes again, the waxwing would be sitting in her own skin.
When she exhaled the answer came, in three loud knocks at the chamber door.
The waxwing shimmered on Mali’s wrist, its tattooed feathers almost fluttering with life. It called to her, offering something she couldn’t comprehend. Why had her mother taught her about the other avian clans yet held back the secrets of their own?
Three more knocks sounded through the heavy oak door, insistent this time. A gravelly voice murmured something she couldn’t make out. It’s him. Mali’s heart skipped a beat. The man who’d followed her for days – the one with a peregrine falcon on his wrist. Among all the riddles and cryptic warnings Mali’s mom had fed her over the years, only one had sounded plain and true.
“If you see a peregrine falcon, RUN.”
A single, heavy blow rattled the door. She flinched and backed away as the door frame groaned in protest. The man must be a peregrine – everyone knew they were strong. They also never lost their prey. Another thunderous boom echoed and the door bowed inward.
Mali scanned the room. The open window to her right offered escape into the misty night, but it was a three-story drop to the stone alley below. Her mother’s thick walking stick would be good for one swing at most. Her eyes fell to the flintlock pistol hiding halfway under the bed. She’d been comforted by its presence before, never expecting to actually use it. Would the weapon even stop someone like him?
She heard a shout and the door shook as if struck by a blacksmith’s hammer. A crack opened down its center. Mali dove to the floor and scooped up the pistol. Holding it the way her mother had instructed, she backed away from the door and took aim. Whatever happened, she would go down fighting.
A warm breeze rushed through the open window. From the corner of her eye Mali noticed the drapes fluttering. Then it hit her – there were no drapes over the window. With a yelp, she whipped around to behold a man crouching on her window sill, swathed in flowing black and grey fabrics.
Mali pointed the gun at his head, breath frozen in her throat. He regarded her calmly and placed one delicate finger over his lips. His other hand extended toward her, open and beckoning. As his sleeve slid upward, she spotted the dark outline of a cormorant on his wrist. Her mother had spoken reverently of them. But did it mean this one could be trusted? Why had he chosen to appear only now?
The door began to splinter under the peregrine’s assault. Mali could feel each blow in her chest. As she aimed the weapon back toward the widening gap in the door, the cormorant caught her eye and shook his head. His beckoned to her again.
A fist punched through the buckling wood and Mali fell back. The cormorant abandoned subtlety and wildly waved her over. Caught between choices, she glanced frantically from door to pistol to mystery man, unsure which path to choose. Fight, or run?
She chose both.
The door caved inward. Mali fired into the maelstrom of wooden shards, striking the leader in the chest, then dropped her pistol and bolted toward the window. Halfway there, she sprang into a flying leap and careened into the cormorant’s open arms.
As the peregrines piled into the room, she and the cormorant tumbled backward through the window. Mali’s orientation disappeared as they spun through the rushing air. Then she felt a whoosh and a flutter almost like wings.
The misty night embraced them.
Mali followed the cormorant into the night sky. Though she grieved the loss of her mother, she relished in the power she’d inherited, her wings beating the air. Ordinarily she would not have been able to see the cormorant’s dark body in the night, but his underbelly was lit up with an orange glow. Mali looked down. Fires burned in the city below. What was going on?
The cormorant winged his way to the outskirts of the city, where the richest made their homes, and roosted on an opulent rooftop patio. He began to change, and Mali averted her eyes, as was custom, before changing herself. When she stood a girl again, she was startled to see the man the cormorant had become watching her as if he had the right.
“Do you like it?” He asked in cultured accents, raising his hands to indicate the property around them. “We call it the Linden Tree. Been in my family for generations.”
“Who are you?” And what do you want from me?
“Why, I’m George Linden, of the Rutherford Lindens. Your mother and I are old friends.” He put a manicured hand on her shoulder and steered her towards a small table overlooking the edge of the rooftop. Meticulously landscaped grounds stretched as far as she could see. From here, one would never know the turmoil of the inner city.
“Please sit. You must be tired and thirsty.” He picked up a carafe from the table and poured her a glass of something translucent that smelled of anise.
“Thank you.” Mali said, taking the chair but not the drink. “I am sorry to say that my mother is no longer with us.”
Linden bowed his head. “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane.”
Though the words were beautiful, they chilled Mali to the bone. How had Linden known the falcons were coming for her? Perhaps they were working together, the obvious evil pushing her into the arms of the subtle. She rubbed her new tattoo and looked at him, waiting.
“It is a great loss. Your mother was a revolutionary. Truly one of a kind. Did you know anything of her work?”
“She never talked about it. She never talked about anything.”
“Your mother loved you very much. She only wanted to protect you. After you survived the Gundarian epidemic, she swore she would never leave your life to fate again. Thus, I was named your guardian, in the event of her untimely death.”
“Untimely? You make it sound as if she were murdered. She was elderly, Mr. Linden. She’d earned her peace.”
“Elderly?” Linden laughed. “She was thirty-two.”
Mali stared at him in horror. Mother’s skin had been like tissue paper roped with knotted blue veins. Her snow white hair so thin it revealed her scalp. “You lie.”
“Mali your mother sheltered you from some hard truths.”
“Like the fact she was a criminal.” A peregrine stepped out of the shadows, his gun trained on Linden. His face was streaked with sweat, and he smelled of the blood and ashes that stained his clothing.
“You!” Linden rose from his seat, face contorted with fury.
“Sit,” said the kestrel. He turned to Mali. “Your mother went blind because she’d dared look upon what no eyes should behold. She spent years gathering occult powers into herself, heedless of the toll. And when she died she passed those powers into you. And it’s ”
“It’s true,” Linden interrupted, spreading his hands wide. “The city is falling into ruin. It needs a strong leader. With my guidance, you could be that leader.”
“Don’t listen to him, he only wants to use you. He’ll ruin you.”
“And you won’t?”
“Mali, you fell from innocence the moment your mother’s power transferred to you. The corruption can be cleansed; but only by an act of selflessness.”
“What was the very first thing you did as a Waxwing? You shot my brother in the gut. He’s dying.”
Mali gasped. She had. And she’d forgotten. How could she have forgotten?
“You haven’t even thought of him once, have you? If you want to save yourself, you must save him.”
Mali swayed on her feet. The world felt like it was closing in on her. Just hours ago she was saying her last goodbyes to her mother. And now? Now she was to choose between the peregrines hunting her down and the cormorant wanting to teach her to rule.
She took a step back to catch herself on the table. The peregrine stepped forward. His words sounded so distant, like they were coming from some place far away. Something about a brother here soon and demanding… what? She could feel her knees, but could not command them. They were going to give.
There, in between consciousness and un, the bird landed on the very table she desperately held to keep her standing. Its eyes were striped in black, and its wing tips looked as if dipped in sealing wax.
“The waxwing,” she gasped.
Her voice sounded as far away as the cormorant and peregrine. Both of whom still argued without noticing her or the bird. All Mali could do was stare at the new strangeness that hopped closer and closer. The tattoo on her wrist stirred, the ink more vibrant. The waxwing cocked its head to look at Mali with one eye, and as quick, pecked at the tattoo.
The world stopped. She could see the spittle suspended mid-flight from the lips of the peregrine and the almost too calm and collected posture of the cormorant. The bird was gone. In its place stood her mother. Not the wrinkled, bleach-eyed shell she had left hours ago. Her mother’s youth had returned. Eyes bright and a starburst of color. Her hair, healthy and shining. The tattoo fluttered across her skin, up her arm, disappeared under her dress, and reappeared at her neck.
Mali froze in fear. Her tattoo came straight from her mother as all Avians are passed. This couldn’t be her mother.
“To an extent,” her mother said. “I’m not your mother as you knew her. More like the memory.”
“And why should I trust you and not one of them.”
She pointed to the two men.
“I’d say search your heart, but really it’s in the tattoo. It will never steer you wrong.”
Mali covered the tattoo with her hand. A feeling of comfort emanated from it and surged throughout her body. Her mother spoke the truth.
“And this will work on others?”
Her mother followed her gaze to the warring Avians and shook her head.
“Not like you think. The mark of the waxwing will guide you in ways of the waxwing. It does not detect the lies or false hopes of others. It can only guide you along the path of the waxwing based on what you perceive as truth.”
For the next several hours Mali’s mother told her the ways of the waxwing and yet only gave her the basest of understandings. The tattoo was the shared knowledge of the waxwing clan. As long as she had it, everything known from the first waxwing to the current, was hers to access.
“Will I age as you did?”
“No, my Mali.” She smiled and sadly shook her head. “My circumstances were unique unto me. I was never intended to be a waxwing.”
“But you are! You have– had the tattoo.”
“The night I almost lost you, my Mali, the waxwing did not come to me. She came for you, but you were far too young and weak to accept it. So I made a deal.”
She explained how she offered to host the waxwing until Mali could assume the duty. And the toll it would cost her mother. The waxwing tattoo could only be inherited by the passing of the previous host.
“And that’s why I sought the occult and owl clans. Once you were free from the Gundarian flu, I felt the waxwing tearing my body down. It wanted you for its host, and I stood in its way.”
A small quaver crept into her voice.
“I did not want to lose you just as I fought to gain you back. So I learned the arts that would give me longevity. It worked to an extent. I might have been thirty-two when I died, but my body was well over four hundred years old.”
Mali wanted to continue talking with her mother. Spend years catching up with what the waxwing took away. She looked over her shoulder at the peregrine and cormorant. They needed to be taken care of first. There would be time for her mother once she dealt with them.
“May I offer some assistance?”
“Isn’t that what you said you were here for, mother?”
After talking a bit more, Mali embraced her mother. It felt real. The tattoo fluttered over her mother’s skin and came to her shoulder where Mali’s tattoo pressed against her mother. The tattoos touched, and her mother was gone. The loss of her mother had her reaching for the table to catch herself from falling.
“Respond, girl!” shouted the peregrine.
The world resumed and the effect was dizzying. Mali steeled herself and stood free of the table.
“Bring your brother to me, and I will see to him.”
“Mali, no,” said Mr. Linden. “Your mother would not want this of you.”
Mali looked him in the eye.
“Do not presume what my mother would want.”
His mouth flopped open and wobbled as his words failed him. Before his composure could be regained, a cacophony of flapping hit the rooftop patio. A gurney held aloft by a cast of falcons came into view and landed on the table, setting plates and glasses to shattering on the floor.
“If he dies, you die.”
“Is that not what you had intended in the first place?” Mr. Linden finally found his voice. “What kind of bargain is that?”
Mali stepped to the dying man and said, “There will be no bargain, Mr. Linden.”
The peregrine smiled and crossed his arms as Mali placed a hand on the wounded peregrine’s head.
“There will be no bargain because what happened cannot be contested. My intent was to kill this man without knowing him or his business.”
Mali removed her hand and unbutton the cuffs of his shirt and rolled them up.
“But I did know his intention. He intended to kill whomever was on my side of the door.”
She unbuttoned his shirt and peered under his collar. There the man’s peregrine tattoo had already lost most of its luster. He wouldn’t have long to live.
“At that time, I was an innocent and protected myself as such.”
The peregrine’s arms slowly uncrossed, eyes widening.
“In such an act, he took my innocence by force and must pay an ink price.”
Mali pressed her tattoo against the wounded man’s tattoo. The ink price in such a crime normally would only take a small bit, transferring the living vibrancy from one to the afflicted. In this man’s case, that was more than he had left.
And she took it.
With it came the complete living knowledge of that peregrine’s line. The look of terror on both the cormorant and peregrine’s face showed that they knew it, too.
For the second time that day, she removed her hand from a now dead body. A peregrine inked next to her waxwing left no doubt on what happened. No one since Queen Avery the Second claimed more than a single avian tattoo. Now nearly a century later, a commoner has two.
“If you think of following me. Either of you,” she added looking at Mr. Linden. “If either of you think I do not know what I am capable of, follow me, and find how sadly you are mistaken.”
With that, Mali chose the form of the peregrine and took flight from the rooftop patio. Neither Avian followed.
Much later as she rested on a hillside, the burning city a mere streak on the horizon, Mali made plans. Plans that brought ease and comfort to both tattoos.
And the ones she would claim next.