Authors: Lian Tanner
Despite what she had said, Petrel
want to try again, if she could only do it without risking her life. After all, the boy wasn't a part of the crew any more than she was. Maybe he
be her friend, if she could just talk to him.
At last the rats came to an agreement. Missus Slink was not entirely happy, but she seemed resigned. “Girl,” she said, before Mister Smoke could open his mouth. “Will you dig out those answers for us, if we get you close to the stranger?”
Petrel nodded eagerly.
Missus Slink's claws tapped against the deck. “This is serious business, mind. There's no telling anyone what we're going to show you. Not even if they've got a knife to your throat. Not even if they're dangling you over the side, and the Maw's gazing up at you from below, all agape for a tasty meal.”
Missus Slink turned away, saying, “Ha, she can't do it.”
“I can!” said Petrel quickly. “Iâ I'm used to keeping secrets, Missus Slink. My whole life's a secret, and there's no one else on board who can say that.”
Mister Smoke chortled. “She's got you there, Slink. She'll do.” He scrambled up onto Petrel's knee. “So, give us your promise, shipmate.”
Petrel shut her eyes, and opened them again. “I promise. I won't say anything to anyone. Ever.”
“Good,” said Mister Smoke. “You is now an honorary rat, and a servant of the sleeping captain.”
“Tsk!” said Missus Slink. “We never agreed on that last bit.”
“She can't be one without the other,” said Mister Smoke. Then he leaped down from Petrel's knee, saying, “You come with us, shipmate.”
As they made their way for'ard, they hardly saw a soul. It was just coming up to midnight, and any Engineers who weren't working or asleep were sticking close to quarters in case of an attack. The whole ship felt jittery, the way it did when the weatherglass was dropping fast and the pipes rattled with storm warnings.
“How much farther, Mister Smoke?” asked Petrel.
Mister Smoke nodded towards the for'ard store cabins. The door of the second one was ajar, and when Petrel put her head around it she saw a pile of driftwood and whale bones. They filled the cabin from deck to overhead, crammed so tight that she could barely see between them.
“How am I sposed to fit in there?”
“Maybe you won't,” sniffed Missus Slink.
“How far do I have to go?”
“Right to the back,” said Mister Smoke. “There's a cupboard.”
He scrambled up onto the nearest bit of driftwood and launched himself into the pile. Missus Slink followed him, and the two rats disappeared. Petrel edged into the dark cabin after them.
It was a tight fit, even for someone as scrawny as she was. She squeezed between the bits of wood and bone, crawling over the top of some of them and underneath others, and hissing whenever a bone-end jabbed her in the ribs. “Stupid thing, get out of my way!”
At last, bruised and panting, she reached the far wall. She was right up high by then, on top of the pile, and she had to fumble downwards to find the cupboard. There it wasâshe could feel the top edge of the door. And there, all ragged fur and whiskers, was Mister Smoke.
“You won't do any good up there, shipmate,” said the rat.
Which meant that Petrel had to wriggle down, like a seal sliding off a rock, only not as graceful.
The cupboard door was open far enough for her to squeeze through the gap. She twisted and squirmed until she was the right way up, then drew in a deep breath.
“What now?” she asked, but she was talking to thin air. “Mister Smoke? Missus Slink? Where are you?”
She heard the scrabble of claws, and Mister Smoke said, from somewhere in front of her nose, “Whatcha waitin' for? Get a move on, shipmate.”
“All right, all right,” said Petrel, and she put her hands out and fumbled blindly towards him.
There was a ragged hole in the back of the cupboard, but it did not lead to the cabin on the other side of the bulkhead, as it should have done. Instead, it opened into a cramped tunnel.
Petrel drew in a sharp breath. This was a fine secret! She had never even suspected that such a tunnel existed.
“Where does it go?” she whispered.
it go might be a better question,” said Mister Smoke.
“Will you show me? Are there other places where I could get in and out?”
“I could creep along inside the bulkhead and watch Dolph, and she'd never know I was there,” whispered Petrel. A fierce glee took hold of her. “I could watch
“Enough chatter, shipmate. Come on, keep your 'ead down and don't lag behind.”
The tunnel was not made for humans. It was narrow and cramped and pitchy dark most of the way, although every now and then there was a crack where light seeped through from a cabin or a passageway. Petrel wanted to stop and peer through those inviting cracks, but the rats hurried her on.
She felt as if she were crawling through the innards of a whale. The familiar rumblings of the ship were magnified and strange, and the darkness seemed to pulsate around her. At one point she had to stop and breathe deeply before she could continue.
Still the tunnel spun out ahead of her. Her knuckles scraped against the decking. She bumped her elbows and her nose, and flakes of rust stuck to her face like snow.
And then suddenly Missus Slink was whispering in her ear, “Nearly there, girl. Hush now. The brig's just ahead of us.”
“You come and ask those questions,” said Mister Smoke. “Slink and I'll grab 'old of the answers as he gives 'em. Come on.”
“No, wait,” hissed Petrel. Now that the moment was so close, her heart was beating right up in her throat. “What if he won't talk to me?”
“Course 'e'll talk to you. Why wouldn't 'e?”
“I don't know. My mouth's gone all dry. What if
can't talk to
?” Petrel bit her lip. It was true; her mouth
dry. She couldn't remember the last time she had spoken to anyone except the rats. But that wasn't her only reason for saying what she said next. “Maybe you and Missus Slink should stay back here. Not sure if I can do it with you listening. Not sure at all.”
Missus Slink and Mister Smoke muttered to each other, so quiet that Petrel couldn't pick out a single word. The ship gurgled and crunched. Petrel knelt in the darkness of the tunnel, thinking about the questions
wanted to ask the boy; questions that were far more interesting than the ones the rats had in mind.
At last Missus Slink turned back to her and said, “Go on then. But remember everything he says. Don't lose a word of it.”
“I won't,” said Petrel. And she crawled towards the brig.
The boy picked stubbornly at the patch of rust on the wall behind his cot. His fingers were scraped and sore, but he did not even think of giving up. He had already made a small hole. All he had to do was keep working until it was big enough to climb through.
And hope that Albie didn't come back too soon.
He had no idea where the hole would take him, or how he would find his way unnoticed through the corridors of the ship to the place where the demon was hidden. But he would do it somehow.
He dug his fingers into the rusty iron, wiggling bits of it back and forth. “I am going to beat you,” he said to the wall.
To his horror, the wall replied. “Boy,” it whispered.
His first thought was of the demon and its imps, and he took an involuntary step backwards.
“Come here,” whispered the wall. “I want to talk to you.”
With a stab of relief the boy realized that it was not the voice of a demon after all. Nor was it an imp.
It was a girl.
His mind raced. Should he reply or stay silent? What did the girl want? Was it a trick? A trap? Had Albie sent her?
It seemed very likely.
thought the boy,
I can outwit a savage girl, no matter who sent her. Perhaps I can even persuade her to help me. It would be far quicker than
trying to dig my way out through the rust
“What do you want?” he said.
“Come here,” whispered the girl. “Come close so we're not yelling at each other. That guard of Albie's has got sharp ears.”
The boy crept back to the wall, trying to pinpoint the direction of her voice. “Where are you?”
“Nowhere,” whispered the girl.
The boy put his eye to the hole he had made. There was nothing but darkness on the other side, and the oily stink of the ship's crew. He supposed the girl must be standing in an unlit corridor.
“What do you want?” he said again.
“Your name for starters. Mine's Petrel.”
“I cannot tell you any more than I told Albie,” said the boy. “I do not remember my name.”
He braced himself for an onslaught of questions, but instead, Petrel whispered, “I'm not surprised. It's hard to remember anything when Albie's shouting at you. He's the worst shouter on the ship, worse than Orca even. Course, she doesn't really shout. She just goes all quiet and nasty, but it
like shouting, 'cos it pierces right through you and you end up feeling no bigger'n a shrimp.”
Her husky voice was soothing, and the boy was still tired from his ordeal on the ice. But he knew better than to let down his guard.
“Crab's just as bad,” whispered the girl. “Only he's all buttoned up and trim, even in midwinter, which is not a trim sort of time. Now Skua's a shouter like his da. Lots of bluster and noise, only not so dangerous as Albie. You can get away from Skua if you're tricksy enough, but hardly anyone gets away from Albie unless he feels like letting you goâwhat's your name?”
The question was thrown in so neatly that, if the boy had not been expecting some such ruse, he might have answered truthfully.
But for all his tiredness, he was not fooled. With a sigh, he said, “I told you, I do not remember.”
“That's the strangest thing I ever heard,” whispered Petrel. “
don't you remember? Did the ice take it? Did it freeze inside your head and break into pieces? Did a gull swoop down andâ”
The boy interrupted her. “I do not know.”
There was a moment's silence, as if Petrel was thinking. Then she whispered, “What's it like in the sky?”
“In the sky, where you come from. What's it like?”
For all the seriousness of his mission, the boy almost laughed out loud.
How absurd these savages are,
At the same time, this was an opportunity he could not afford to miss. He gathered his wits and whispered, “It is beautiful in the sky. The food is plentiful. Everyone has full bellies every day of the yearâ”
A stifled groan from behind the wall.
“It is warm,” said the boy, “even in winterâ”
Another groan. The boy grinned nastily.
I have hooked myself a fish. Now I shall reel it in.
Aloud he said, “There is so much I wish to tell you. ButÂ â¦ I cannot.”
“Because I am a prisoner, and Albie has threatened to throw me overboard if I do not remember my name. How can I bear to think of my beautiful home in such circumstances?”
It was the smallest of sounds, but the disappointment in it was all that the boy could have wished.
“Of course, if someone should free me from this cell,” he whispered, “I would be so grateful that I would tell her anything she wished to know.
Total stillness greeted his words; he could almost hear the girl thinking. He knew he could not afford to trust her, even if she helped him escape. The whole thing might be a trick. She might be planning to deliver him to the demon. Or straight back to Albie.
But she will not succeed,
I am too clever for her.
At last the girl said, “Maybe I couldâ” She stopped, and the boy held his breath. But when she continued, all she would say was, “I'll have to talk to someone.”
“Don't be stupid,” she said.
The boy had to press his lips together to keep from snapping back at her.
You are nothing but an ignorant savage! How dare you call me stupid?
When he could trust himself to speak, he whispered, “The second dog watch. When is that?”
“Is that when Albie's going to chuck you overboard? Don't worry, that's not for hours. We've got plenty of time.”
The boy thought he heard her move. But it seemed she was not quite ready to go. “You poor sad thing,” she whispered, “forgetting your name. How about I give you one to tide you over?”
“No,” said the boy quickly.
Petrel ignored him. “Fin. That's what I'll call you.”
You cannot just
someone aâ” He slammed his mouth shut on what he had been about to say.
“Finnnnnnn.” The girl sounded pleased. “Now you've got something to tell Albie next time he asks. He can't object to a name like Fin. It could be anything, Officer, Engineer or Cook. Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if he decides to chuck you overboard anyway. He's not a man to change his mind, once he's set his course.”
And with that she was gone, leaving the boy shocked beyond belief. She had given him a name! She had
a name on him, when he had neither earned it nor wanted it!
He closed his eyes. A muscle in his cheek twitched. “I will not answer to that name,” he whispered. “You cannot make me.”