LITTLE LION WOMAN
Odette put Thanatos from her mind. Tarrying – she couldn't. Weak, she said. She made her choice, not to forget, but to strive ahead.
The few days after waking on that fateful day, she spent packing and preparing for the police academy exam. On the third day, she left with the other students for La Norrium, despite the nurse's desire that she stay, rest, and recover. Grieve. Like a long lost uncle, she bid Maor Haya farewell and greeted youth hostel in the slums as her new home. On the fourth day, she took the exam, finding a week later she passed – not the best, but not the worst.
Not good enough, Odette berated.
With every breath she loathed the shadow men and Mr. Death for what they did to him because he knew the truth about Mr. Death and burned him for it. Odette found herself at square one: alone, seeking some sort of justice. No thoughts of stopping crossed her mind.
No one could just walk into the best police academy in La Norrium, Cadet School of Horseman's Yard. You had to have more than a decent recommendation so the instructors knew they weren't training three-year-old wannabes crawling straight from mommy's or daddy's beds. Caliga was a military country, too prideful in their strict regiments, their guns, and their honors, but Odette hinged onto it.
Giving a patient smile to the police academy recruiter, Officer Hob, he said, "You're applying for cadet school, yes?"
"At Horseman's Yard, officially. Three years trainin' by them proper police follies, yeah?" Odette said. She sat across the desk from the young man, biting her tongue. Not some crack-shot half-baked law school. This school smelled of laziness.
Irritation crossed the recruiter's face. "Then why come here?"
"Well…" Odette began. "What's the harm in tryin'? Apply many schools 's possible. See what's the right fit and all."
Officer Hob flipped through several papers before him, a slight not. "Your father's a senator in Torbjorn."
Odette inwardly groaned.
"Why don't apply to your country? Where your family is?" Office Hob squared himself, hands clasped together on the desk. "Or directly to Horseman's Yard. With your father's connections, you'll get in with no issues."
Odette glanced away, chewing her lip. An expected question, but hardly a desirable topic. Caliga and Torbjorn were brother countries. People from either country could apply for work with barely a hitch. Her eyes trailed back to the officer.
"By blood, them's me fam, but… they're not really it. My fam's in Libitina. Them's graves. Them's lives. And I shan't say anymore. What I want most is proper trainin' and to get in on my own merit. Not daddy's name. All I need is a recommendation."
Officer Hob stared Odette down for a near minute. She too stared back. He glanced away. "I'll put one in for you to join Horseman's Yard, don't think it's a free pass."
Odette straightened in shock as Officer Hob scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to her. "Be at this address at eight o'clock in the morning next Monday. I suggest you study harder next time. I'll have the letter sent to the academy."
"Thank you." She took it and started heading for the door.
"Have you considered your department?"
Odette paused with a hand on the door. "Homicide."
And she disappeared.
Several days later and Odette found herself striding up the table at the head of a lecture hall outfitted with a small stage and descending rows of stairs. She paused, realization that Officer Hob might've been just humoring her, letting her walk into a trap of humiliation: nothing left but a half-thought out scrawled note saying, "Go Home." The image filled her mind and for the second time her life, Odette was scared speechless.
Then there was Thanatos in the back of her mind, laughing. "Who could deny the great and powerful Odette! Seriously, you're terrifying. If they don't let you in, it'll only be because of that mouth of yours."
Yet Odette knew it was only her subconscious speaking, using Thanatos' form, hinting why.
"Ma'am. Name's Odette Scats. I –" Odette said presenting her papers to the frowning woman behind the table. "Did Officer Hob send his recommendation letter for my application into the cadet school?"
The woman snatched the papers from Odette's hands, flipped through a secondary pile and pulled out a sheet near the bottom. She paused, reading it, glancing at Odette every so often. Odette ground her teeth, resisting the urge to ask a spew of questions, resisting shifting from foot to foot. The woman shuffled the papers together and nodded towards the chairs, "Take a seat. The exam starts in thirty minutes."
Odette breathed a sigh of relief. Holding her breath became her state: the anticipation of being on the edge of constantly failing – losing it all – and succeeding as if the slight wisps of air regenerated her dying body, if only to begin dying once again. Again success at passing the exam. Again relief and again the fear welled up. Odette didn't hate the fear, curse it, and sit shivering, but embraced it. It kept her going.
Each month was a march, the first wading through insults, jeers, and challenges for being a woman – a young woman – from that "backwater brother," and for her dark ebony skin. The second march, Odette fought back with her own pranks and endeavors to be at the top of the class. With it came the uneasiness of friends granted by mutual respect. But could she call them friends?
The third march, a foreign exchange meeting was held, just to see what other schools where doing, how they did it. With it came the Burcuian Boy, Atillio, and like most people from there, his face was statuesque, blonde with the palest blue eyes.
"And who might you be?" Atillio asked. He hung outside the entrance smoking cigarettes and talking with his buddies. He hopped in front of Odette.
Odette scowled. "What's it to you?"
"It's the weekend!" He smiled. "Which means freedom and I would like to take you out for a drink, little miss Torbjorn."
"Got plans," Odette said, pushing past him. "Beside, with the likes of you, I'd prefer to date a shadow man."
"You're the conspiracy girl, aren't you?" Atillio turned to his equally pale friends who laughed.
Odette strode away, not bothering to look back or be irritated. She was late anyway.
"Ah wait, c'mon!"
Her father had apparently come to La Norrium. For whatever reason, Odette didn't care. He was always coming and going when she was a child. Odette arrived at the address sent to her in the mail, a brick row house in the finance district. She rung the doorbell and seconds later, her father let her in.
"Come'n, sits." He said gesturing towards the kitchen. "Gots tea on the kettle jus' now."
"Papa," Odette said. "Was this 'bout?"
He sighed, reaching out his hand, "Come. Sit."
Odette took his hand and he led her into the kitchen where a tiny cake sat on the table with two little forks, two little plates, and two little cups.
"Happy Birthday!" Her father produced a small package.
"Papa, was this all 'bout?" Odette couldn't believe her eyes. Birthdays weren't a big thing growing up and it certainly wasn't the reason her father came to visit. He was not the sentimental type.
And so Odette did. The tony box produced a dagger, beautifully made with a leather sheath and belt strap.
"Now, let's eat." He cut the cake and poured the tea. He asked what she was up to and Odette gave her noncommittal answers, yet he seemed happy.
When they finished, Odette pushed away the plate. "Now, paps, this ain't like you. Was you want?"
"I want you to come home. You can finish your academy training there."
"Really?" Odette laughed. "This is a first. What's got your panties in a twist then? Bro and Sis being too old to control? I made my choice 'n I'm stayin' put."
"Odette Chibuike Scats! You will do as I say." He jabbed his bony finger into the table. Knock, knock, knock.
"Why? I'm adult, by rights. Don't depend on you. So why?" Odette crossed her arms and settled back in the chair.
"None of your concern." Knock, knock, knock.
"It does if you want me to go back. I got a nice set-up here and don't 'tend on leavin' till I gets proper reason."
His hand curled, eyes downcast and Odette knew she won the argument. "There's a darkness coming up from the south, close by that Libitina. I –….We need everyone home is something happens."
"What? So, jus' a soldier to you." Odette stood. "Right. Thanks, paps. If something happens, I'll come, but I won't leave. Not now."
Odette left without another word. She assumed her father spoke of something recurring, the ghost story with the Aina. Thanatos' death. She could go back, but Odette also knew she would never again gain the chance, the training, experience, to catch the shadow men.
She returned, avoiding Atillio's snide remarks.
"Fancy new blade you got there."
Odette looked down, forgetting she'd strapped the gift to her belt.
"You want it?" She asked.
"Serious?" Atillio dropped his cigarette. "What's the catch?"
Odette unstrapped it and hefted it in her hand. "Brand new, sharp. Specially designed with a black blade. Let's say, 75 plus latrine duty tonight."
"Price is high," He said. "60 and no duty."
"I don't like being bothered." Odette began strapping the knife back to her belt.
Atillio glanced between her and the blade. He pulled out his wallet. "Fine. Here's the 75."
He made a reach for the dagger, but Odette slapped his hand away. "After duty tonight, you'll get it."
Off she strode. That night, Atillio fulfilled his end of the deal and by the next day, the Burcuian boys went home.
Enter the forth march and Odette fell into the rhythm of the academy, the early mornings and cold shower, left most hours to peruse textbooks and tactics, forensics and blasting the nights away shooting stars into paper men. The spring thaw brought lighter clothing and more outdoor work, and the instructor from hell: Sergeant Love. (Not that kind of love.) He drilled Odette and four other cadets as his personal team.
"Hawkins, failed. Nov, failed. Juniper…passed. Scats, failed. And where is Cadet Marius?"
"Sick sir," Nov said. She was bright red-headed wonder girl and Odette enjoyed her company, but not the most studious.
Sergeant Love grumbled something, "All of you, janitor duties for the next week."
"Sir," Juniper, a cheeky-face boy called.
"But I passed."
"This is a team. The team failed. Now go."
He was usually nicer than that.
The summer blazes took hold of the fifth, sixths, and sevenths marches with an iron ring and hung them about the cadet's necks. Odette decided she really didn't like running as much as she thought she did. In the eighth march came new classes, law again, first aid, and emergency response. They blurred together. Odette felt in her bones the oncoming of winter. Just as the leaves started falling at the end of the ninth march, her loud voice retreated into books, attempting to forget. As such did pass the tenth march while the eleventh, Odette flurried about testing nonstop, where the fear grasped her heart with renewed fervor. She couldn't forget anymore, but neither could she be left to complacent grieving thoughts.
Holidays paused the marches for the twelfth month. No classes and no training and Odette deemed it best to return to Libitina than go to Torbjorn.
Her feet had a funny habit of thinking for themselves and no more than a few days later, she stood on the platform being greeted by Maor Haya and Mrs. Tete.
"How was your trip?" Maor asked, taking her bag.
"Quiet," Odette said. "I'm glad to be back."
"Your accent's gone," He said. They walked down the tiny dirt road leading to the gates of Libitina.
"Still there," She grinned. "But 's not fittin' for an officer, Sgt. Love says. Downplays me intelligence."
They passed the gates and into the lightly bustling town. A snow had falled the night before.
"I like you just the way you are." Maor laughed. "But he is right. If you want to catch criminals, people need to take you seriously and that includes control of your tongue."
"I know," Odette said as they stopped outside the tea parlor. "Think I'm gonna have a bit of a wander before supper. See this ole' town once again."
What shadows Odette recalled no longer jumped out. Maybe training changed her. Maybe growing up gave her new eyes, even if it was only a year. Maybe she didn't care as much anymore. She passed the old orphanage, the little brown academy, the backers and the millers, the tailors and the church. In the graveyard stood a figure, one she had not expected to see. The creak of the gate gave warning to her presence and Damian looked up. He gave Odette a soft smile as she moved to stand next to him.
Two graves and two names. No surname to either.
Damian seemed to want to speak, but his jaws flopped open and closed.
"'s all right," Odette said. "Just unexpected."
"Thanks." He sighed. A silence stretched between before he spoke. "You know…I'm from here, born and raised, my entire family. Every one of us farmers. I thought I was better than you all."
"Someone knock you 'round the head, mate?" Odette asked. She leaned close to him. "Your eyes bit unfocused, they are."
Damian laughed. "I'm trying to say I'm sorry."
"Kid's stuff," Odette smiled. "You were fun prankin'"
"That was you?" Damian's mouth dropped. "Thought it was just Thanatos."
"Really? That idiot? I gave him all his ideas."
Damian huffed, hiding his grin. "Not fair. Two against one. Not fair."
Odette nodded, gazing at Damian. Before he might've been angry, throw a temper tantrum, but this Damian reminisced and enjoyed. She frowned. "You were a bully."
"True," the word came out in a whisper. Damian's eyes drew back to the graves. He bent down, brushing the snow, dirt, and grime from the tops. On Thanatos' grave, fresh lavender flowers rested. Odette watched him, a mask cracked revealing sadness she'd never thought she'd ever see Damien display.
"It's too late," he said. "to say sorry, I suppose. Too late to be friends. I was always wondering what he was reading. I think deep down, I pitted him. I hated that feeling."
"I feel numb." Odette blurted interrupting her crouched friend. They looked at each other.
She bent down too. "I've put off grieving for so long, I don't know how to cry anymore. But I don't blame you, Damian. You've got no need to say you're sorry."
"Taking life seriously changes people."
Odette nodded and resumed standing. Damian followed her.
"What you doin' then, this past year?" She asked.
"Joined the royal guard. Still in trainin' though. It's hard, but good. You?" He shifted from foot to foot. Damian was not one for small talk.
"Joing the finest police academy, Horseman's Yard. Adet school for now. 'ventually a detective."
"No kidding," Damian laughed. "So…you."
"Thought you said I was different."
"But you're still you."
Odette shook her head, beginning to walk away. "Right, I best be off before Mr. Haya has my head for bein' late. You're welcome to come."
"Got my family." He called. "Before you go. What's your plans these holidays?"
Odette shrugged. "Nothing but vistin' Grover's Hill – "
"Don't go," Damian's voice hardened. "No trains go there anymore. People are leavin'. It's that swamp. Something dark and foul lives there. Don't ever go back there, Odette."
Stricken, Odette nodded. She whispered, "I won't."
As she walked back to the tea parlor, Odetted wondered when in her place, the ghosties and salamanders took Thanatos in her stead. Neither was it a silly fear of her father's to fear the south. But with no road there, she could never know.