She would destroy him.
He didn't know it, but he was at her mercy now. She was waiting, biding her time. The right moment had nearly come. She would destroy him, and make him understand.
He looked at her, then looked down.
'Don't think you've beaten me,' he said, softly but firmly.
'Really.' Her tone was flat.
Noksalika narrowed her eyes and looked over the chessboard, calculating. The casualties were roughly even: she was without both knights and a bishop, but remained resilient. He was minus his queen.
She replied, pushing a pawn forward into the danger zone, holding the hint of a smirk in her smile. She was inviting a careless move.
Domatri stared intently at the pawn, which stood amongst a ragtag bunch of pieces from three or four different sets. The board was rough and worn, the kings were both chipped badly, and one knight was being represented by a cork. He felt himself being watched, and suddenly looked up into Noksalika's bright, alarming eyes.
Noksalika scared him a little. She was the prisoner aboard their ship. Even untied and free to walk the ship, she was powerless. Besides, he was one of the best mantrel Ethe scientists – he had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. And yet somehow, she instilled fear in him, in the dark base of his brain where instincts play-fought and growled like wildcats.
Maybe it was her face. They'd been at sea for more than two months; without the old world's calendar, the Captain had been scratching notches in the galley's wooden wall to mark the days. But even using the background Ethe of the Channelsea, her face hadn't fully healed yet. Her fine bone structure had reformed, but its eloquence was hidden under a distorted matt of red and purple flesh. Nostrils gaped through the mess of half a nose, with the cartilage still working out how to grow again. And above it all, surrounded by raw flesh and bare skinless twitching muscle, her perfect eyes glistened and stared back at him, fearless.
Maybe that scared him more. At first, she'd been a shocking mess, confined to the cargo hold. She'd been barely more than a bundle of instincts, cowering behind boxes when some food was thrown in. But as her mashed face and torn belly had begun to heal, her confidence had crept back; as her face had regrown in a darker, uglier form, so her boldness had regrown. But differently.
This wasn't the headstrong girl brimming with natural defiance they'd snatched from the wharfside in Rhajallington. This girl was darker, closed. She held a sickly kind of resistance.
'I don't need your pawn,' he said, sweeping his rook sideways.
Domatri couldn't see into her, and that's what scared him.
You can fuck me, Noksalika thought, but you'll never know what I'm thinking.
She breathed out. Chess was so primitive; you didn't even need to go online to play it. But it passed the time. She'd become better at it over the last few weeks, and had decided that "strategy" was just acting with a fancy hat on – a word that boys brought out when they played at being soldiers and generals.
As a world superstar, she was familiar with acting. It meant playing up your strengths, and playing up your weaknesses too, because especially in chess they were open for both players to see. Instead of trying to hide what couldn't be hidden, much better to highlight it, and throw it at your opponent, because when they knew you were watching all of your weak points they had to work that much harder. In chess as in acting, you made small moves seem significant and mighty ones look casual; you hid your true motives to keep your audience guessing. Or you played every move with the same cold carelessness, making them all seem throwaway, building an igloo-shaped fortress around your true intentions. Around your self.
Or maybe she was making it all up, and chess was nothing like acting at all.
And as for "superstar", well, that was on her last world in her last life. Incoming on the horizon was a new world, where she would be … nobody. It would have been bliss, if she hadn't been a hostage with a death sentence.
She came back to the present to find Domatri looking at her.
'So you were a superstar.'
Her throat made a noise that was barely audible; her ragged nostrils flared slightly.
She cast her eyes over him. For a mantrel and a pirate, he wasn't bad-looking – there were a few lines on his face, but he had character, and the messy short hair between his horns added to the sense that he had a personality. He wore nothing but a pair of loose pants and a dirty blue robe, which seemed to pass as fully-dressed amongst pirates.
Tattoos were scrawled across his hairy chest and upper body. Some had faded, slightly green with age, while some were sharp and new. They were shapes and symbols, dotted lines and runes, none of which made any sense to Noksalika. They seemed halfway between scientific formulae and religious graffiti.
'A virtuoso pianist,' he continued, 'and the most successful porn star in history. The hottest slut ever to compose a symphony. Bit unusual, right?'
She continued ignoring him, looking back at the chessboard.
Domatri leaned in over the edge of the table. 'All that success. What made you do a deal?'
Noksalika's fingers froze over the board, and she looked up at him with a sneer. 'You fuck. You put me here.'
He seemed genuinely affronted. 'Whoah. Sorry. I don't know anything.' His goat face creased with gentle puzzlement. 'The Captain gets all the details, he knows all the stuff. I'm not like—' he lowered his voice, '—I'm not an idiot like the others, but I don't know any more than they do.'
'Beeswax,' said Noksalika fixedly. 'None of. Yours.'
'Huh. Quid pro quo, "Tarabonitz",' he smiled.
'Oh how sexy,' she smiled back sarcastically. 'I love it when you talk dirty to me in a dead language.'
He shrugged, palms up, leaning back. 'Just curious. Just wanted to know. You've not exactly got many fans left. Thought you might have a story to tell…'
She ignored his persistent fishing. 'What about you?' she asked back. 'What made you suddenly decide to become a pirate? Sorry, I mean "naval business entrepreneur".'
'Ha,' he laughed, 'well I remember there was a careers fair, and they had some very convincing girls signing people up—'
'Alright sweetcheeks,' snorted a heavy voice behind Noksalika as the door swung open, cutting off the sentence. She tried not to move, neck prickling; Domatri's eyes flinched slightly wider.
The large build of the Captain stood inside the doorway, ducking his bull head to get through the doorframe. His one unbroken horn still strayed very close to the opposite wall over his head. He glanced upwards with his staring, azure eyes – a habit gained from catching the point on the woodwork too many times.
Noksalika didn't have to turn round. Her mind's eye could make out his huge minotaur's body, nearly eight feet tall and wider than many species of trees. She could see the large black mohawk that stood between his two horns, one full, one broken and worn. She could see the dirty sailor's chains bolted into his shoulders that drifted gently in the low gravity of the sea, she could see the strong, heavy muscles that built up his torso and thighs, and the loose belt and loincloth that hung lamely over them. A cold feeling flushed between her legs; she knew all too well what lay underneath that belt.
The Captain flashed a humourless grin with large, square, yellow teeth. 'Who's winning?'
'I am,' Noksalika and Domatri replied simultaneously, narrowing their eyes at each other.
'That's lucky, 'cos I don't give a shit,' the Captain grunted, grabbing her wrist and yanking her up from the chair.
He dragged her through the ship and practically threw her into his office. It was a large room with an adjoining door to his sleeping quarters, which were also spacious. She'd spent several painful nights in there. Around and above her, miscellaneous pirating and naval paraphernalia looked down from boxes and racks – strange instruments of metal and glass, even ancient maps on dusty paper.
She suspected they were mostly decorative antiques and stolen artefacts. She knew the Captain well. He was a brute, but he was no philistine: his brassy, unrefined intelligence was probably what had made him a leader in the first place, and not just an attraction in some underground amusement park.
He lowered his hefty body down behind the desk, into a large chair that had clearly been designed for him. He gave her a glance and a quiet snort.
'We're hittin' land in a few weeks.' He rocked back on chairlegs, looking around the room indifferently.
She watched him, looking over his face and the tendons in his neck. 'What then?'
His eyes turned back to her, big bulging ball-like eyes with huge bright blue irises and gaping black pupils. Another cold grin stretched across his face. 'Then we have some damn fun. I'm a captain, and I'm a damned good one, but I'm the first one to admit I'm sick of bein' at sea. I'm sick of this new crew, and even my old shipmates – ha! What's left of them anyway!' He waggled his eyebrows slightly madly, before pinning her with a heavy stare. 'And I'm sick of you an' yer ugly bloody face. Doggy style gets boring after a while.'
She felt her groin tighten instinctively at thought of sex, but tried to ignore it. 'What's … what's there?' A new world, she thought. A whole new world. Got to be better than this, whatever it is.
The Captain shrugged, throwing his huge hands up. 'Beer? Rum? Women with more than half a face? That's what I'm lookin' forward to. You'll be locked up somewhere nice an' safe.' He leant forward and pinched her raw cheek muscles with a giant thumb and forefinger. 'Ho ho ho, I'm not leaving you in the care of these dumb fucks again! Ha ha ha!'
'Ha ha ha,' she said, deadpan.
'You might run off again, like you did last time!' the Captain chuckled, leaning back on the chair again. She wished the legs would break under his bulk, a futile hope in the low gravity of the ship. 'Nope,' he continued, 'when we land, you'll be taken care of by our employers.' He narrowed his eyes. 'Our employers, who are professionals.'
'And is that the last I see of you?' she said snidely.
'Ha! You should be so lucky, missy,' he replied.
'A girl can dream,' she muttered, holding his gaze. Something wet dripped from her bare, rough nasal passages over her coarse dry lips. She wiped it away with the back of her hand, without looking at it.
'Sadly fer you,' the Captain explained, 'I'm sticking with you all the way. Part of my contractual obligations. Doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to the sacrifice though. Should be a grand show, by all accounts.'
There was a brief pause. 'These people,' she said. 'Your employers. Who are they? What do they want?'
'Lotta questions all in one go, princess,' said the Captain darkly. 'You'll find out all in good time. Right now, your face is making me feel sick. Fuck off out of my office until I want you again.'
The Ethe was weak out here in the Channelsea, but still present.
She spent most of her time exploring the ship.
It was different to the ship she'd first been kidnapped in. For some reason she'd assumed it was the same one, in those first few days where she'd hardly ventured anywhere and saw only familiar horrible faces. But this vessel was longer and wider, a large wooden capsule maybe a hundred and fifty feet long, bristling with masts and sails and rudders like a huge dirty porcupine fish. Part of her was impressed with its build and sturdiness; ships and boats weren't normally built so heavily for the low gravity of the sea. But this craft was clearly designed for the churning, hurtling waters of the open Channelsea.
There was a larger crew. Noksalika recalled with some satisfaction how, out of the original bunch of coarse pirates, less than half were still alive. But now there were dozens of mantrels everywhere. Any time of day or night there were some working the ship and taking orders from the Captain; and there were always some off-duty, lounging around, playing cards or listening to music. Like her original kidnappers, they didn't have much respect for her or her body … but somehow, they didn't seem like real pirates. They appeared more like workmen, even craftsmen, trained for a job. Maybe they'd travelled the Channelsea before.
There were dozens of rooms, mostly small and long and pokey. The designers had made use of all the space, and the mantrels had equally made use of every nook and cranny, right up to the hull. Noksalika had spent endless hours exploring and had only recently felt she knew the ship. There were two galleys, several dormitories, the Captain's office and quarters of course – these took up a lot of space – and dozens of operating spaces for controlling the ship with levers, ropes, pulleys, and other confusing controls.
There were still a few corners she wasn't entirely sure about or couldn't remember. But there was only one room in particular that she hadn't seen.
It was always locked, and only Domatri and the Captain had keys.
She lazed near the front of the ship, in a ruptured armchair surrounded by piles of junk, and looked at the room on the faint Ethe. She gave herself a headache examining its ghostly, flickering outlines, but couldn't see anything of interest: there were no labels, or none that she was allowed to see anyway. It seemed like a kind of workshop or lab – which made sense considering Domatri's role as some engineer-mage-technician, or whatever he was. But she was curious…
She turned her view outward, and saw the electronic shimmer of land approaching, eating up the distance.