This follows on from the excerpt I posted as Amy during the June Jubilee:
Samara moved experimentally to confirm Dael’s departure, then relaxed to consider her position. Peter’s plan had started…
She’d accepted the status of Chosen willingly as a thirteen-year-old and hadn’t regretted the decision. Dael had taken over, molding her body into perfection and opening her mind to the structure of the world. She’d been content until Peter’s mind had touched hers, opening channels of communication never experienced with Dael and the other Masters.
Where they remained seperate, he’d gently explored her thoughts, promised freedom beyond anything she’d ever known, and she’d believed him. Peter would never lie. He didn't have to.
Then he’d left again, and she’d waited without impatience, just as she waited now. At worst, another five years would see the next choosing and she’d become an Elite. Free to marry and bear children, but he’d promised better.
The Masters took their sexual characteristics from their hosts, but their identities were second-hand, weaker, more easily changed. Peter was male enough that even the memory of him sent waves of warmth quivering down her spine to nest in her womanhood, waking the feelings repressed by Dael’s manipulations.
It made her pity Dael. For all her brilliant logic, dealing in concepts Samara could glimpse only imperfectly, Dael lived a soulless emptiness, without joy, without love. Samara couldn’t imagine eternity with no sense of wonder and no sex.
Peter promised more. The details might be sketchy, but all she had to do was respond naturally and he’d let her come to no harm…
“You can get up now.” It was a Commoner, a Southlander by his voice.
Samara felt the blanket loosen and sat up, shivering when the cold sea air bit through the flimsy gown she wore. She gathered the blanket around her.
“Put this on. It will keep you warm.” The sun-darkened man at the tiller held out a long sealskin cape.
“Thank you.” She shed the blanket and took the cape. Closed with toggle buttons, it covered her from head to foot.
“Come sit with me,” he said. “We’ve a long day’s sail, and you can prepare the food.”
The boat was small, only half decked, a weathered grey lugsail driving them across the ocean swell from the open sea. Samara looked astern and could see only a low brown smear of land.
“Don’t gawk!” he said impatiently. “I’m hungry. The others can eat when they wake.”
Samara recognized the wariness behind his bluff tone and hid her smile as she shifted to the after thwart, taking her place on the lee side, as a fisherman’s daughter should. The cooking fire was in a sand-filled stone pot with a cast-iron cover. She knelt and blew the embers into life, adding just enough wood from the rack under the thwart. The food locker was against the transom, close to the helmsman, and he had to move his legs for her to open it.
She could smell his unwashed body.
The familiar odor took her back to her father and his brothers coming into the cabin long after dark, jostling around the cooking fire as they warmed themselves. She smiled at the memory, twelve years of pampering by servants vanquished by its power.
“Is this all you’ve got?” It was coarse fare, the type kept on fishing boats for emergencies. “You must be poor fishermen.”
“We borrowed the boat,” the helmsman said. “The family’s gone to a wedding feast in the next village.”
“You’ll return it?” She knew what a disaster the loss of a boat could be. No one starved, but family pride was important. No one took food from the Masters without need.
“Yes. It’ll be back before they return. Pete insisted.”
Samara recognized the diminutive and her smile grew at the confirmation they were acting for Peter and not foolish thieves.
She sorted the contents of the locker, putting aside what was immediately edible. The helmsman could snack on these while she cooked the rest. A glance forward to the half-deck identified four bodies huddled together for warmth. She’d cook for six.
“Here.” She handed the helmsman a strip of dried meat covered with herbs. “Chew on this till the food is ready.”
“Good,” he said, an equivalent to thanks she’d not heard for many years.
A cast-iron pot, sluiced clean over the side and set between fid bars over the flames, was achingly familiar. Samara found pleasure in the simple task of cooking, drawing on both her childhood memories and what she’d learnt as a Chosen.
Before long, the lid of the pot was jiggling merrily, sending delicious aromas forward to cause a stir in the huddle of bodies under the half-deck.
“You cook good,” the helmsman said. “Feed them first. I’ll eat when Jac takes my place.”
“What’s your name?” His accent was from beyond the Southland Isles.
A name from half a world away. “What are you doing so far from home?”
“You know a lot for a woman.”
“I am a Chosen.”
“True,” he admitted. “They say it makes a difference.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Pete saved my life and told me to come.”
The cooking pot demanded Samara’s attention, but not her thoughts. Unlike Dael, most of the Masters never traveled, acting through the Group Mind to reach other places. Peter was unique, traveling physically and able to project himself without the limitations of the Group Mind. A man with the powers of a Master and more. She sensed an alternative to the puzzle of his nature, but it eluded her.
The huddle under the half-deck separated into four individuals drawn from afar to a common purpose. One a flat-faced northerner, another a sharp-featured easterner, plus a small brown man, and a giant as black as ebony, their Common Tongue distorted by accents myth claimed were the vestiges of individual languages.
Alike in appetite, they ate the food with grunts of approval, each man with his own spoon. With two thirds of the food gone, Jac, the northerner, took the tiller.
Torred offered Samara his spoon after sluicing it in the sea and wiping it on his jersey. “You eat.”
Conscious of the compliment of precedence over a male and the use of a personal spoon, Samara took it and ate, consuming a little less than half of what remained.
“Thank you.” She cleaned the carved whalebone spoon before returning it.
“Good.” The universal word conveyed more than thanks and a roguish grin made Samara’s cheeks warm. Rugged enough to verge on ugliness, Torred’s face mirrored his thoughts when he chose, the attribute of a successful liar. His movements in the boat betrayed him as a seaman, probably not a fisherman. There was a big-boat feel to him. The sea was his home, not a place to pillage. He probably worked on a trading vessel she thought, one of the thousands distributing the largesse of the Masters.
When he finished, Samara cleaned the pot and utensils, stowing them away in the locker. She banked the fire, adjusting the cover slide to allow just enough air to keep the embers alive.
The five men watched her; curious to see how a Chosen performed menial tasks.
“I’m not so different, am I?” She directed her challenge at Torred.
“Prettier, though.” This was definitely a seaman, experienced with women.
Samara was enjoying herself. She whispered a secret prayer Dael would not wake.
You have this day and the next. She needs rest, Peter said in her mind. She glanced at Torred, but his face showed nothing.
Is she safe? She asked Peter.
More has happened than she can understand. She needs time to put it in perspective.
She was alone again.
Samara compared Peter to the Masters and found a gulf deeper than the ocean she now sailed. He shared her humanity; they observed it, used it, controlled it.
“What did Pete say?” Torred asked. “I saw you looking inwards.”
“We have this day and the next before Dael wakes.”
“We’ll be at the settlement before then.” He smiled, as if many things could happen before then and he intended to enjoy all of them. The warmth in Samara’s face had nothing to do with embarrassment. It was twelve years since a man had looked at her as a woman. She’d matured early, but a primary qualification for the Choosing was virginity and this had kept her impulses in check until Dael’s gentle manipulations of her body had muted them.
Perhaps her changed status had reversed this. She’d responded to Peter and now Torred.
She looked out at the sea, as if searching for their destination, but used peripheral vision to study Torred. But for Dael, she’d have taken this man to her bed, first as a lover, then as a husband. A suitable catch for a fisherman’s daughter, but out of the question now, for the Elite married only Elite. In another five years, she wouldn’t notice him in the street.
Yet, she liked him.
He smiled often, cracked jokes with the others, and his stint at the tiller showed he took more than his fair share of the work. A good seaman, she felt comfortable with him. He reminded her of her brothers, the same solid body, long black hair cleaner than theirs and tied back with a twist of tarred cord, with eyes more knowing than any fisherman. The other, Peter, was more than a man. She’d give herself to him, but never share more than his bed—if a disembodied presence ever used a bed.She giggled at the thought.
“Something tickle your fancy?” Torred took the opportunity to move to the windward of her. A burst of spray, coming over the weather bow, rattled on his oilskins as he leaned close to shield her, bringing him directly into her line of sight.
She smiled. This was no fumbling amateur, yet she sensed safety in him. He’d allow her to change her mind right up to the last second about how far she wanted to go. The run of her thoughts should have shocked her, but they didn’t. She had two days of freedom, the first in twelve years, and no intention of wasting them.
She shifted on the thwart, as if to gain more shelter from his body, but really nestling into his protecting arm. “The wind’s cold,” she said.
“We can’t have that.” He reached under the half deck and found a rolled canvas dodger. “This will keep the wind out.” He wrapped it around their bodies, tucking it under them to form a cocoon with only an opening for their faces.
Except for Jac, the others had retreated under the half deck, and Torred shifted a little to hide their faces from the helmsman. “Call me before we reach the entrance,” he said, and Samara heard Jac grunt an acknowledgement.
Nothing happened for a while and Samara shifted impatiently.
“I’m warming my hands.” Torred’s whisper warmed her ear.
“Are your lips cold, too?”
He chuckled. “All in good time. We’ve another three hours, a night, and a day.”
“Perhaps a second night as well.” She was enjoying this.
“Did Pete say that?”
“Not exactly, but we might be able to negotiate.”
His fingers slipped the toggles of her cape, peeling it away from her body, and she turned, lifting her knees and swinging them over his legs. A little assistance from him and she was sitting on his knees, her legs tucked behind his and her cape enveloping them both.
“You’ve done this before.”
“I became a woman early and the boy next door worked on my father’s boat.”
“Are you ready to go further this time?” The prime qualification for the female Chosen was well known.
“Fair enough.” He wasn’t unhappy with waiting, confident in his own skill.
He didn’t rush it, taking the time to let her get used to the intimacy of his hands on her body as she buried her face against the muscled column of his neck. Callused fingers probed gently, easing the tension of back muscles before wandering lower.
“A kiss first.”
The name from her childhood distracted her enough that her eyes were still open when his lips descended on hers. She tried to say something, but lost the urge when a wave of sensations swamped logical thought. Either she remembered imperfectly, or else what had happened twelve years before had been but a pale shadow of what she felt now. She abandoned everything to enjoy the response of her body, barely aware of anything outside it.
Her fingers, tingling with the need to feel his flesh, burrowed their way through layers of clothing as if they had minds of their own. Her feet curled until she expected the toes to touch the heels. The muscles of her legs tightened, thrusting her hips forward, and her nipples tautened until they woke a gentle ache through the core of her swelling breasts, but these were distant things. The centre of her being had become her lips, and the tip of her tongue dancing a sensual arabesque with his.
She sensed him holding back, gentling his responses out of consideration for her, and damned him. She wanted everything—and she wanted it now.