Waxwing (Part 4)

If you haven’t already, please read the first three installments before continuing. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are well worth revisiting even if you have read them. Now to conclude our story…

Part 4

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.