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Authors: Lian Tanner

Icebreaker (9 page)

BOOK: Icebreaker
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“You nearly got us killed!” she hissed. “Staggering around the foredeck like a sick penguin.” She shook her head in disgust. “Don't know why I bothered getting you out of the brig in the first place.”

The morning, with all its torments, spun around the boy, and for a moment he felt his own temper rising …

No, stop it! Torments do not matter. The girl does not matter. Nothing matters except the demon!

With an enormous effort, he managed to smile apologetically. “I am sorry—” he began.

But even as he spoke, the pipes around him started to clang, so loud and insistent that the boy was deafened. He jammed his hands over his ears, but still he felt as if he were in the middle of a storm, and the ship tumbling down around him.

“What is happening?” he cried.

“It's a message,” shouted Petrel over the noise. “For the whole ship.”

“What does it say?”

“Murder … disaster … mutiny…” The dreadful sound stopped, and Petrel stared at the boy, her mouth agape.

“What is it?” he said.

Petrel swallowed. “First Officer Orca's been murdered! Someone just found her in her cabin with her throat cut. And whoever's sending the message swears—they
swear
that it was you who did it!”

 

CHAPTER 9

MURDER!

Dolph, only child of First Officer Orca, stood at the door of her mam's cabin and could not speak.

This isn't happening,
she thought.
It's not possible. Other folk die, but not Orca. Not Mam.

At her shoulder, Second Officer Crab murmured, “A dreadful shock! Dreadful! For all of us.”

Dolph didn't want to talk to Crab, didn't even want to look at him. She kept thinking that her mam would stride into the cabin and take command of the situation. Fix things. Make them better.

Except nothing could make
this
better.

A shiver ran through Dolph. Her heart was boiling over with fury, grief and love, and she didn't know which one to grab hold of. Which one to give voice to.

Crab cleared his throat. “Her last thought was for the ship, did you see?”

He pointed, and Dolph's unwilling gaze followed his gesture to where Orca's hand rested on the deck. Her fingers were coated with her own blood, and bloody marks on the floor showed where she had scrawled something before dying.

“Obviously she didn't want the
Oyster
torn apart by suspicion,” murmured Crab. “She didn't want us looking in the wrong direction for her killer.”

Dolph tried to focus. She shook her head and wiped her eyes. She made herself look at the last message from her mam, a single word written in blood.

STRANGER

Second Officer Crab was nodding to himself. “She was a great First Officer,” he said softly. “Quite possibly the greatest the
Oyster
has ever known. As such, we will honor her in death as we honored her in life. We will hold her funeral first thing tomorrow morning. And then—” His voice rose. “And then we will find the stranger and throw him overboard!”

“Yes,” said Dolph, finding her voice at last.

And with that, all her grief and uncertainty seemed to vanish, and the only emotion left inside her was hatred.

*   *   *

It took Petrel a moment to catch her breath. But when she did, she was furious. “How could you be so
stupid
?” she demanded. “Did you think they wouldn't come after you? Did you think you could walk right into the middle of Braid and murder the First Officer, and no one would—”

“Stop!” cried Fin. “I do not know what you are talking about!”

“You do!”

“No! I did not murder anyone! When could I have done it? I was locked up until you freed me!”

Petrel didn't believe a word he said. As she glowered at him, the pipe messages started up again, carrying shock and anger from every part of the ship. Not a single person in Grease Alley or Dufftown had liked Orca when she was alive, but that no longer mattered. With one fell act all the blame and hostility of the foredeck had vanished. This wasn't a case of tribe against tribe. This was the crew against murderous strangers. The ship against the rest of the world.

“Well, everyone thinks it was you,” snapped Petrel, listening to the messages. “And they don't like it one bit! It'd be bad enough if
Albie
had crept in and done the deed. That'd set Braid against Grease worse than ever, but at least it'd be something folk could understand.” She glared at the boy. “Not like this. You're a stranger, and you've no business murdering anyone!”

“I did not do it!” said the boy.

“Why are they saying you did, then? They must have good reason.”

“I do not know their reason! But I could
not
have done it. I was in the brig.”

“You must've sneaked out somehow, then sneaked back again.”

“But I did not! I promise you! I— When did this murder happen?”

Petrel listened again. “No more than a half turn of an hourglass ago.”

“There, you see? I was with you on the open deck, fishing.”

“So you were…” As her anger died, Petrel began to think more clearly. She pulled a face. “Hmph. Don't spose you could've done it, not really. You'd never have got all the way up to Orca's cabin without being caught, not by yourself.”

She tapped the boy's arm. “But Crab's not gunna worry about that.
He'll
be First Officer now, and he'll be after your neck. So will everyone else.”

“Then you must tell them!”

“Ha, they wouldn't listen to
me
! Specially not when there's blood to pay back. Any minute now they'll declare Truce, so they can hunt for you. Which means—”

She glanced around the abandoned workshop with its single entrance. “Which means we can't stay here.” She grabbed her outdoor clothes. “If they trap us, you're a goner and so am I. Come on.”

They hurried back down the walkway side by side. “Nowhere's gunna be
really
safe,” whispered Petrel, “not with the whole crew in a fury. I reckon we'll have to move from hidey-hole to hidey-hole, and try to keep one step ahead of 'em.”

Fin nodded, his face pale. “Do you know where to find these—these hidey-holes?”

“Course! There's no one else knows the ship like I do.”

It was not an idle boast. Petrel had learned many things in her short life. She knew how to survive loneliness, and how to make more-or-less warm clothes out of rags and feathers. She knew instinctively when night was about to end, and when the sun would rise above the horizon. She knew the
Oyster
from stem to stern, and could tell exactly where she was on the ship, even in pitchy darkness.

It was this last knowledge that helped her now.

The passage she led Fin to—listening every step of the way—had lost all its lights generations ago, and was as black as midwinter.

Petrel grabbed the boy's hand and pulled him along, whispering, “Watch your head. There's a couple of pipes sticking out. Here's the first … and the next. Now keep right to the side 'cos there's a hole in the deck … there, we're past it.”

Near the end of the passage was an old rope locker. It was long and narrow, and half filled with bits of broken machinery, and there was another locker above it, and two more on the other side of the bulkhead.

What no one except Petrel had realized was that rust and time had turned four separate lockers into one, and that if an outcast girl and a hunted boy squirmed past the broken machinery, they would find themselves in a room of sorts, with several exits. There was even a little light, seeping through cracks from the deck above them. It was cramped and uncomfortable, but right now safety mattered a lot more than comfort.

Petrel rolled her outdoor clothes into a bundle and tucked them in a corner. Then she squatted on the rusty floor, with nuts and bolts scattered around her, and said, “Show me your arm.”

The boy peeled back his sleeve, and Petrel winced. The cut was deeper than she'd thought. She handed Fin a not-very-clean rag to wrap around it, and said, “I'd better go and find a needle to sew you up. And something to wash your arm with.”

She rummaged in the corner and brought out a battered cup with a lid. Then she crawled to the sill, whispering over her shoulder, “Don't you wander off while I'm gone! Your life won't be worth living if they catch you.”

“I will not wander,” said Fin. And he lay down on the floor of the locker and closed his eyes.

*   *   *

Where am I gunna get a needle and thread?
wondered Petrel, as she crept back along the passages.
It's no use asking Missus Slink. She doesn't approve of Fin.

Neither, clearly, did anyone else on the ship. The toothies had come, and folk
should
have been happy. But instead, they ground their teeth, swearing that they would soon find the stranger, and when they did they would kill him.

Petrel skittered through the upper reaches of Grease Alley with her heart in her mouth. But today, not even Skua bothered with her. Everyone had more important things to think about than the Nothing girl.

At least they haven't started a proper search yet,
she thought, as she climbed the Commons to Dufftown.
Which is just as well, seeing as Fin's down there on his own and won't know where to run if they come for him.

The Dufftown border guards were as absorbed as their Grease Alley counterparts, and Petrel scuttled past them unnoticed. As she approached the galley, the smell of fried fish hit her, rich and compelling.

She peered around the hatch. The galley was always the hottest part of the ship, apart from the engine rooms. But now it burned with anger as well as fish oil. Dozens of Cooks hurried back and forth with trolleys and baskets, talking furiously to each other. Dozens more gutted, filleted and fried, their faces grim, their knives flashing.

Head Cook Krill stood, sharp-eyed, on a little platform in the middle of it all. “Burner four for Braid!” he shouted. “Come on, snap to it! Murder or not, folk must be fed!”

Several Cooks rushed to burner four, flipped the cooked fish into baskets, piled the baskets onto a trolley and rolled them to the mechanical hoists, muttering all the way.

“Did Grease's fish come down?” shouted Krill. “Or did Albie decide he prefers 'em raw?”

“I don't think Albie's too bothered about fish right now,” replied a woman.

“Course he is,” cried the Head Cook. “He can't hunt for the murderer on an empty stomach! Are they down?”

The woman nodded.

“Good,” said Krill. He spun around. “Burner two, you're done.”

Petrel licked her lips and wished for the thousandth time that she belonged to one of the tribes. Not because she needed them or liked them; she didn't need anyone, and she certainly didn't
like
anyone except Mister Smoke and Missus Slink. But the fact was, while the cooked toothies would go up the hoist to Braid and down to Grease Alley, there would be none for Petrel, not unless she begged for them. Or stole them.

Squid was attending to one of the burners, sleeves rolled up and hair dragged back from her face. She was one of the few people who didn't look angry. As Petrel watched, she flipped a dozen fillets over and wiped her arm across her forehead. Then she raised her hand. “Burner three for Braid,” she shouted.

“Burner five, you're ready,” cried Krill, spinning around on his toes. “Six, get a move on with those baskets!” His voice rose to a bellow. “And belay that muttering! Right now our job is to feed the ship. When we've done that, you can mutter all you like!”

A dozen barrels rolled past Petrel, filled to the brim with raw fish. Petrel crept after them, her pulse pounding; she crept right into the heart of Dufftown, hoping the noise and the bustle and the fuss over Orca's murder would keep folk from noticing her.

Squid was already cooking the next lot of fillets. When she saw Petrel, tucked in small and silent behind her, she smiled and said, “Hello, Miss Nothing. We don't usually see you here in the middle of the day. I spose you're hungry?”

Petrel didn't move. But her mouth watered.

“Hang on a bit then,” said Squid, and she turned back to the burner and flipped the toothies over.

Krill's bellow had stopped the muttering for now, but the anger still sizzled from one side of the galley to the other. Petrel licked her lips, wondering how quickly she could get out of here. Wondering what Squid would want in exchange for a piece of fish. Some mockery, maybe, to take folk's minds off the murder? Whatever it was, Petrel wasn't about to turn down a feed.

Behind her a hard voice said, “What's that bratling doing here? She's not Duff. You, Nothing Girl. Get out.”

Petrel sighed. She should have known it was too good to be true. But before she could scurry away, Squid grabbed her arm and frowned at the man who had spoken. “Leave her alone. She's doing no harm.”

“She doesn't belong here,” said the man, his arms full of baskets. “Who knows what she's up to? And besides, she's in my way.”

“Then walk around her,” snapped Squid, “and don't make such a fuss—”

“Burner three,” bellowed Krill.

“Oops!” said Squid, turning back to the fish. She raised her hand. “This lot for Grease Alley!”

But when the trolley came, she kept back two large fillets, saying, “These are burned. Better not send
them
to Albie, not with a Truce in the offing.”

The basket carriers hurried off to the hoists. Squid grabbed a bit of seaweed paper, wrapped it around the two remaining fillets (which were not burned at all), and gave them to Petrel. “Here,” she whispered.

BOOK: Icebreaker
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