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By Frances Teagle
Page 2 of 14

A little later, he met the other two members of Ursa's crew, Margit and Lucien.
      "Well, we can't just leave this evening without hearing a full account of your doings, Blake," said Margit. "We shall have to stay at least another day, won't we, Lucien?"
      She stood squarely in front of Blake, hands on hips, assessing him with frank enjoyment, as if daring him to show embarrassment.
      He laughed. "Interrogate me for long enough and I'll tell you everything," he parried, returning her scrutiny with his own. Jenna's cousin was quite formidable - practically his own height, broad-shouldered and athletic. She was probably six or seven years older than Jenna, but in spite of short dark hair, the Stannis resemblance was plain.
      Beside her, Lucien, the temporary crewman, was regarding Blake much more respectfully. A stocky fair-haired man, a bit younger than Blake, his wide blue eyes were fastened on him in obvious admiration.
      Jenna had explained during her introductions that the usual third member of Ursa's crew, indeed, the ship's owner, was Margit's elder brother, Brig Stannis. He was presently recovering from wounds received in a raid on Federation premises.
      "The Feds shot a chunk out of his leg, so he's been on a tissue regenerator, growing replacements," was how Margit put it. Blake could see that she specialised in plain speaking. For a moment he diverted himself by imagining what she would have to say to Avon.
      True to his jesting word, Blake let Margit interrogate him about his recent activities, which she did with gusto. Jenna sat in the background and listened, mostly with her eyes closed. She had already given Blake a sketchy account of her own movements, including her return to Keledon to renew her contacts with her remaining family, Brig and Margit, and her meetings with their uncle and silent partner, Mikhail Brand, a wealthy and influential businessman whose trade routes stretched into the Federation itself.
      When Margit had finished questioning Blake, she turned her attention to filling in what Jenna had omitted, describing Jenna's flight from the Amagons on Hadramut and their agent Dermod's attempt to deliver her head to Tarvin's vengeful mother for a bounty of one million credits.
      The talk moved on to their combined anti-Federation operations with the Vilkonen clan. Lucien related with pride his sister Erryn's role in sabotaging the computer-controlled production lines of several of Space Command's shipbuilders and suppliers. Jenna held her breath in case Margit let rip with her own frank assessment of that difficult young lady, but she remained silent and preserved a straight face. Erryn was a member of the group of hackers who kept the freetraders supplied with Federation movements, decoded from Space Command's own signals and various security service databases. Ursa's crew had been making good use of her talents. Blake remembered Jenna mentioning the service in their Liberator days. Now, deprived of Orac, he was keenly interested and enquired how to contact it.
      "It'll cost you some money," Margit warned, with a grin.
      "I'll pay for it," said Jenna firmly. "At least, until Blake's got some financial backing," she added hastily, seeing her cousin about to object.
      It was Lucien who put forward the next proposal: "Why don't you stay here, Jenna, while we go to Riksos to pick up the next cargo? We can collect you on the way back. That'll give you the opportunity to plan your next moves with Blake."
      From the background, Jenna observed Margit's grin widen as she contemplated the other opportunities it offered.
      She nodded thoughtfully. "Or would you prefer to come with us to Riksos, Blake?" she offered.
      "I wouldn't recommend that," said Margit. "The place is riddled with Fed spies and informers. Jenna would have to skulk aboard ship to avoid being recognised, anyway. Ursa only picks up legitimate cargoes there."
      "How much of your trade is legitimate?" Blake asked interestedly.
      "A good seventy percent. There's a general shortage of cargo vessels since the invasion, we need the cover, and trade's trade, when all's said and done."
      "Margit's right," said Lucien seriously. "Riksos is no place for you. Wait a month and we'll be back. Keledon would be much safer."
      Blake looked at Jenna. "Well?"
      "Agreed. But if Avalon is contemplating any guerilla action, you had better not join in," said Jenna firmly. "You're not fit."
      Avalon nodded. "We'll keep him out of trouble for the time being. But I have the feeling that he'll go looking for it before long."
      Blake laughed. "Coming from you two, that's comic."

"That eyelid is a dreadful mess, Blake," said Jenna, as she put down the dressing she had just removed. "Somebody really botched it." She peered closely at his newly exposed left eye, anxious to assure herself that it was not damaged. It was bloodshot, but otherwise looked normal enough. She extended her index finger and moved it across his line of vision. To her relief, he followed it easily.
      "Yes," he said, reaching up to take hold of her hand, "my vision is all right. I can see the lid out of the corner of my eye, but no doubt I'll soon become accustomed it." He gave her that special look that still made her feel weak at the knees.
      "Yes, but in our - `profession', shall I call it? - it's as well to have good peripheral vision, if not eyes in the back of your head," she answered. "I should get you to a plastic surgeon."
      Blake laughed. "That might be difficult. I don't think I can just walk into a clinic and get it done on request, do you? And I certainly don't want to go to one of the butchers who usually cater for fugitives like me."
      "Well, I could always abduct one of the good ones for you," Jenna said, with a chuckle. But she wasn't entirely joking, as Blake well knew. He carried the hand he was holding to his lips.
      "What are you two laughing about?" demanded Margit, coming in with a couple of bags slung from her shoulders.
      "Jenna wants to kidnap a plastic surgeon for me."
      "Good idea. I'll get Erryn to research likely candidates." Margit put down the bags. "Here are your things, Jenna. We're off now."
      Blake stood up. "We'll come and see you off."
      Margit caught Jenna's eye and returned a naughty smile. Jenna was well aware that Blake was very much to Margit's taste and she felt a certain relief at her imminent departure. She wasn't sure what she would do if her adventurous cousin tried to seduce him. While she thought that Blake was too much the gentleman to give way to temptation in her presence, and she hoped that Margit felt too much regard for her feelings to put her mischievous impulse into practice, she was uncomfortably aware that her much-married cousin had a considerable track record in such matters.
      Lucien was waiting for them beside the ship, and Avalon's crew stood by to remove the camouflage nets. Jenna was slightly amused to note the way his hero-worshipping eyes fastened on Blake. The night before, he had sat at Blake's feet, raptly following every word in a way that would have given Avon a severe pain. She could just hear that mocking voice - Another idealist, poor but honest. There were times when she missed Avon.
      Blake shook hands with both departing freetraders.
      "I can't tell you how much it means to me to have met you, Blake," said Lucien earnestly. "If there's any way I can help, say the word."
      As she followed him aboard, Margit flipped a casual hand in farewell. "So long Jenna. Enjoy." She entered the cargo hold and closed the hatch.
      The nets were lowered and everyone retreated under cover for the ship's blast off. There was a deep thunder and she rose into the cloudy sunset and was soon lost to view.

Turning away from the launch site, Blake and Jenna linked arms and strolled down the valley towards the stony little river.
      "We should be making some plans," said Blake rather cautiously.
      Now was the time, it must not be put off any longer. Jenna took a deep breath.
      "I've got something rather painful to say, Blake."
      He stopped and turned his head to look straight at her face.
      "I'm not exactly rejoining you, I'm going to continue freetrading." That sounded treacherously selfish in her own ears. She ducked her head and went on. "I'll be your supplier and blockade runner, but these revolutionary operations are not for me. I have to follow my own path."
      To her surprise, Blake laughed.
      "Don't look so tragic, Jenna. It's all right. A good blockade runner is exactly what I need, particularly someone who can act so well on her own initiative." He tilted her face towards him with a gentle hand under her chin and smiled into her eyes. "We can have lots of happy reunions."
      "That will be nice," murmured Jenna, her spirits lifting in spite of herself.
      "And when we've overthrown our enemies," he went on, in a mock-soulful voice, "we can mount the imperial throne hand in hand, and raise squads of little freetraders and political criminals."
      Jenna threw back her head and shouted with laughter.

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Frances Teagle

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