Nameless grunted in pain as a bump in the road sent his head slamming against the reinforced wall of the vehicle. He growled and glanced at the barred grate separating him from the driver, wishing he could take a shot at Ol’ Boggi, the village constable to remind him how to drive.
Boggi took the growl as an invitation to comment on Nameless’s situation, which only served to aggravate him further. “You know, boy . . . it’ll only be for a few years, then you can come back out, if’n that’s what you want.”
“Pfft . . . why would I ever?” Nameless replied, settling back into a more comfortable sitting position in the bed of the truck, becoming all too aware again of the darkness of his cage. He preferred the dark—with his dark hair and ebony skin, he could blend into the shadows with ease, making it easy for him to steal whatever he needed to survive.
A tiny sliver of light fed through the window leading to the cab where Boggi sat, spoiling the darkness for Nameless. He spat, trying to reach the window from his current position and failing. “Ain’t nothing there for me now, Boggi,” he said as the spittle hit the wall a foot below the window.
If Boggi heard Nameless spit, he didn’t show it. “Sure they is, they’s all there for you.”
“They’s? Not we’s?” Nameless laughed. “If’n you think I don’t know the dif’rence, you don’t know nothin’, Boggi.” He smirked and rested his head against the wall again. “You can’t wait to be leavin’ me in Kob. I just keep on causin’ you trouble. Well, I ain’t none yours now, Constabli.”
“Now, Jurka, there ain’t no need for that. You’s be welcome, when you’s done your time,” Boggi replied.
“My name ain’t Jurka no more, Boggi,” Nameless replied.
Boggi scoffed. “Who are you, then?”
Nameless didn’t have an answer, not anymore at least. Jurka had never seemed like much of a name, and it wasn’t even the one he’d received at birth. It meant ‘brown-eyed’, as unoriginal as the people who’d chosen it. Whatever his mother had called him died with her, when he was too young to remember even her face. Tobrig—a man claiming to be his father—had taken care of him for his first fourteen years and called him Jurka, but he later learned Tobrig had kidnapped him as a baby and raised him to do his dirty work.
Nameless hadn’t minded, as at least Tobrig kept him fed. He’d also taught Nameless everything he knew about thievery and swindling, but Tobrig died a year ago after being caught in bed with another man’s wife. Nameless didn’t care for the name ‘Jurka’ after that, preferring to distance himself from Tobrig’s memory in the eyes of his neighbors.
But that left Nameless without much of an identity, only a great deal of unsavory character, which his neighbors refused to tolerate regardless of any changes he made. Stealing to survive or swindling unsuspecting travelers were the only skills he had, but those skills didn’t give him a name.
Boggi deserved an answer though, one fitting to the aggravation he caused Nameless. “I’m the nameless wind, and I’m gonna slip right through these bars, and I’m gonna cut you so good, you’s be praying for a doctor, ya hear?”
“I been nothin’ but kind t’ you, boy. You stole eggs, that’s a crime,” Boggi replied in exasperation.
“Ain’t no crime to feed yourself.”
Boggi sighed. “You’s stole enough eggs to feed yourself twenty times over, then sold ’em t’ unsuspecting people ’cause no one else had them’s eggs. If it’d been the first time you’s had done somethin’ the like, I mighta looked down the south road and let you’s go north, but it ain’t. You’s a thief, boy, and it’s time you’s worked it off.”
“Keep your backwash justice, Boggi,” Nameless said. “I ain’t talkin’ t’ you no more.”
And he didn’t, no matter how many times Boggi tried to start a conversation. In a few hours they’d arrive at Kobinaru, the regional capital of Tehir Province, the largest province in Ultaka. Nameless had never seen the ocean, but if he ended up indentured on the Kobinaru docks he’d get to see it. Tobrig had once said he learned his best tricks on the Kobinaru docks.
But Nameless doubted it. Even though he’d never worked a day of farm labor, his village was known for few things other than livestock and farming. He’d be sold on the market as a farm laborer, making a little profit for Ol’ Boggi, but any price would appease the neighbors back home. He’d work off his cost for pittance wages until he could buy his freedom and go wherever he wanted.
Not that he wanted to go anywhere. He never had much interest in doing anything but surviving and having fun doing it. Riding in the back of a prison truck and getting sold into labor were neither of those things. The world was a mess, everyone knew it, and he saw no reason to participate in the madness.
Eventually Boggi turned off the dirt roads of the Dorram countryside and onto the paved main road to Tehir. As the ride smoothed out, Nameless settled back against the wall of the cage to sleep. It would be several hours before they arrived at Kobinaru.
A jolt disrupted his troubled dreams some time later, and he crashed against the truck bed, awkwardly catching himself with his handcuffed arms. He growled in annoyance, about to question Boggi’s driving skills again when a gruff voice spoke from the cab area.
“Papers.” The accent marked the male speaker’s origin as Southern Ultaka. Nameless crawled across the truck bed as far as the chain around his ankle would allow, and by stretching out his leg he managed to peer out the window, seeing the speaker through the bars. Sure enough, the soldier in his black uniform had the olive skin of a Southerner. He had short, reddish-brown hair, though a peaked cap obscured most of it. In another situation, Nameless might have even found the soldier attractive, though a bit too old.
Boggi handed over his permits, and as the soldier read through them Boggi said, “Aye, as you’s can see, sir, I’m a constable, out in the Dorram.”
“The village of Choballa,” the soldier said, smiling politely. “You make good wine there.”
“Uh . . .” Boggi said, shaking his head, “no, sir. We’s honey, wheat, and egg farmers. Mead, sir.”
The soldier nodded. “I knew that, Dorrami. But if you’d not, I would not have let you through the gate. Oligan has been sending their agents through regularly, so we’ve instituted additional screening measures,” he added, gesturing ahead to the large, reinforced gates in the cement wall surrounding Kobinaru proper. “If you’ll please follow Lieutenant Skelbran, he’ll take your vehicle to be searched.” Another soldier stepped briefly into Nameless’s view, waving the truck forward as the gates creaked open.
“Searched?” Boggi said, shaking his head. “Oh, sir . . . my prisoner, if you let him have a chance at freedom, he’ll run.”
“I’m afraid that is out of my hands,” the soldier replied.
“You’s don’t understand—” Boggi started, but the soldier’s patience wore thin and his smile disappeared in an instant. He handed the permits back to Boggi and growled menacingly, pointing through the gate. Several armed soldiers brandishing their standard-issue heat-rifles stood waiting for them to arrive.
Nameless grinned. The opportunity he’d been waiting for had arrived. Boggi was right to warn the soldiers, though he could tell from their confidence they had no idea what they were up against.
He slid his hands along his belt until finding the little fold of cloth in the backing, carefully removing the slightly-bent pin tucked inside. As Boggi drove through the gates to where the soldiers indicated he should stop for inspection, Nameless worked at picking the lock on his handcuffs.
The right side clicked and Nameless had nearly finished with the left by the time the truck came to the stop. Another click later and Nameless had his pin tucked back into its hiding spot just as the soldiers ordered Boggi to leave the vehicle. “Step this way, sir.”
Nameless assumed a mask of apathetic resignation as he waited for the soldiers to take the keys from Boggi and open the back of the truck. He blinked into the sunlight as the doors creaked open and a soldier climbed inside, his heat-rifle leading the way. Another soldier stayed just back from the truck, his heat-rifle trained on Nameless.
Without a word, the first soldier unlocked the ankle restraint and motioned for Nameless to disembark the vehicle. He complied, walking on cramped legs, using the excuse to stretch and prepare for his escape. The guard escorted him to where Boggi waited with two soldiers, nervously glancing back at the truck.
Nameless took quick stock of his surroundings. At least thirty soldiers stood on this side of the checkpoint, though most resided on the towers above them, watching the outside of the city. Including the two next to him and Boggi, a dozen stood on the ground, half of which were searching the vehicle. The remaining four were split evenly between the right and left sides of the gate, and were watching the streets, rather than the gates.
He stood about thirty feet from his closest point of cover—a low wall made reinforced bags of unmixed cement, hastily constructed until a permanent structure could take its place. If he could make it to that, he’d only have to move five feet from cover to cover until he could access the busy city streets.
But first, he needed to be spry enough to move quickly. He stretched out his legs some more as he stood next to Boggi. “How’s that backwash, Boggi? Tastin’ as good goin’ back down?”
“This is serious, Jurka,” Boggi said. “If they find anything wrong at all, we could be detained for a long time.”
One of the soldiers—the aforementioned Lieutenant Skelbran, Nameless believed—approached Boggi and stuck his hand out expectantly. “Papers.”
As Boggi handed over his permits for the second time, Nameless took his opportunity. He purposefully overextended his leg on his next stretch, causing him to stumble convincingly in the direction of the makeshift cement barrier. He managed to cover half the distance before one soldier shouted, “Boy, stop where you are. Now! I will not ask twice!”
Nameless let himself fall forward, rolling into the dirt to cover another seven feet, leaving him only eight feet away from the barrier. He rolled onto his back and managed to gain another foot of ground in the movement, then stopped and waited for the soldier to come to him.
“Sorry, sir, my legs just stopped workin’ from bein’ caught up in that cage all day. I didn’t mean to fall. Could you’s help me, sir?” He asked, raising his loosely-cuffed hands toward the soldier with his most-practiced innocent expression.
“Watch him. He’s gonna run, he’s . . .” Boggi warned, sensing the impending escape, but the soldier paid him no heed and bought into Nameless’s innocence, reaching down to lift him by the offered chain connecting the two cuffs. Nameless went along with the movement, doing most of the work until the soldier committed his strength to lifting, then Nameless pulled back, letting the loose cuffs slip from his wrists as the soldier staggered back from the reversed momentum.
Nameless wasted no time in heading for cover, veering toward the first makeshift wall. He made good enough time to risk heading for the second barricade instead, changing his angle and rolling behind cover just as the first shots angled his way. He was already moving to the next barricade, darting back and forth between cover until he reached the second to last barricade. Ignoring the last barricade, he turned and ran straight for the crowd, betting on the soldiers anticipating the opposite.
“Jurka! Stop! They’s gonna kill you’s!” Boggi cried as the soldiers readjusted their aim, but no shots were fired. By the time they realized Nameless wasn’t going for the last barricade, he was already too close to the crowd for them to risk firing after him.
He sprinted through the crowds for the first two miles, taking whatever turns afforded him enough room to run while keeping the wall of people thick around him. Most of the roads were paved smooth, though the one he traveled on now was cobbled, an ancient thoroughfare preserved despite modernization. The deeper into the city he ran, the older the city appeared, and the historic sights distracted his footing. He stumbled over a loose stone before he finally slowed and tried to merge into the crowd.
Music sounded in the distance, the bright and happy melodies of a festival. People cheered and laughed all around him, and he made his way through their midst. A huge parade was making its way toward his position, musicians carrying instruments from flutes to fiddles to drums as they marched on, all playing the raucous beats of a dance hall.
Clouds of paint exploded all around the musicians, as shirtless common folk joined the parade. Newcomers threw bursting bags of color into the air all around them as they danced. Nameless thought the dancers foolish, though not a one of them seemed to care how silly they appeared.
He had no time for them; he had to find a place to hide. On the other side of the street he saw an open alleyway next to a truck piled high with the same powdered paints being used by the dancers. As he made his way toward it, shouting erupted behind him, and glanced over his shoulder to see soldiers searching the crowd.
Spurred on by their presence, Nameless hastened toward the alleyway as quickly as he could, failing to watch ahead. As he came around the corner of the truck, he crashed straight into someone and ended up in a tangled heap in the mouth of the alleyway.
The Fedain’s small frame made him seem younger than Nameless, though as soon as Nameless had a chance to consider the Fedain’s pale blue eyes, he detected a level of experience to match his own. The intricate braid of his shining, platinum-colored hair befitted royalty, though he dressed simply in a plain white shirt over black pants.
With a surprisingly firm grip, the Fedain clutched onto Nameless’s arm as he stood, saying, “Whoa, you came out of nowhere! Are you all right?”
“Let go of me!” Nameless said, ripping his arm away and stepping backward until his back hit the wall of the alley.
“You’re running from someone?” the Fedain asked, his eyes darting nervously to the street outside. The parade was just starting to come into view, and he shouted over the music and moved closer to Nameless. “Are you in danger?”
“You’s can’t help me,” Nameless said, shaking his head firmly.
The Fedain’s eyes lit up as he replied, “Of course I can!” He stepped back to the truck and grabbed two bags of powdered paint, tossing them to Nameless. “Here. Cover yourself in these!”
“What are you—” Nameless started to ask, but little flecks of paint escaped from the bags, showering him in green and blue. The Fedain tossed another bag of paint at him and Nameless backhanded it against the wall. It exploded and showered him from the side in red. “Stop it! I’ll stand out.”
“Only if you don’t dance,” the Fedain said, grabbing three more bags from the truck. He set them aside and ripped his shirt, tossing it aside, revealing his lithe yet athletic form beneath. “Come on! It’s traditional to go shirtless, and they’ll never expect it!”
Nameless hesitated for only a second before buying into the crazy plan. Something in the Fedain’s eyes reminded him of Tobrig whenever he’d suggest a new scam. It filled him with the confidence unique to rogues, the willingness to risk everything on the chance of a daring escape from the law.
The rags of his shirt joined the Fedain’s a second later, and he smashed the two bags of paint in the air, coating him in green and blue powder which stuck to his sweat and dripped in dark, colorful rivulets. The Fedain did the same before extending his hand to Nameless.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Nameless put his hand in the Fedain’s, and a warmth unlike anything he’d ever experienced before spread through his body. His fears subsided, and he gave his trust completely to the youth before him. With a giggle and a skip, they rushed out into the street, joining the dancers moving behind the musicians.
Nameless danced like he’d never danced before, although he couldn’t remember the last time his life had depended on it. The danger of the soldiers seemed far away now. Every few steps the Fedain would brush against him, and the skin contact calmed his nerves in ways he couldn’t understand.
It was almost supernatural, and Nameless tried to push it from his thoughts, losing himself to the dance instead. Though the dancers seemed foolish before, he enjoyed himself now, loving every step and every beat of the music. The company only made it better, for as strange as it seemed, he found himself growing increasingly infatuated with the Fedain.
As the parade continued, drawing them farther and farther down the street, Nameless danced to the best of his ability, but the Fedain’s dancing ability mesmerized him. He danced like a true performer on the stage, with grace and skill leading the way at every turn and spin.
He lost track of time, working up a sweat as clouds of paint continued to erupt overhead, showering them all in color. By the time he grew too exhausted to dance, his skin was a rainbow mosaic, dripping with color.
A large bridge crossing over the road came into view, and the parade funneled into the arch. Nameless and the Fedain stayed with them as they traveled into the dark archway, but their tired faces expressed mutual exhaustion as they came back into the light.
The parade continued beyond the bridge, but the pair of boys pulled off into the deepest shadows beneath the arch and then back onto the street, coming to rest on a pair of crates next to a fresh fruit merchant’s stall. The merchant eyed the two panting, shirtless boys with suspicion, but resumed hawking his wares after a moment.
“That was fun!” the Fedain said. “Thank you. I’ve always wanted to dance in the Bazarat Festival, but my tutors never let me. My name is Grim, by the way.”
Nameless nodded and smiled, though he silently tasted the name on his tongue. He wanted to do even more to Grim with his tongue, his lips, and his body, but he repressed the urge to make a move. For all his brash and roguish courage, he’d never been intimate with anyone.
“What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?” Grim said, smiling as he stretched his arms and back. Nameless analyzed Grim’s lean form in stunned silence, wanting to run his fingers through the rivulets of sweat and color dripping down Grim’s back.
Before the awkward silence compelled him to speak, another Fedain came running up to them, eyes frantic and breathing heavily. He was older, with thick spectacles hanging on the edge of his nose. Opulent robes of gold and red adorned his shoulders, marking him as a high-ranking official of the Church of the Blood, the religion nearly every Fedain practiced.
To Nameless’s surprise, the priest dropped to one knee in front of Grim and said, “By the blood! Thank goodness that witness who saw you dancing was correct!” He met Grim’s eyes at last and added, “Lord Grim, you ran away from us. You know you shouldn’t do that.”
Lord Grim? Nameless thought, and reality came crashing back in on him. The boy of his dreams was a nobleman, and that made him completely inaccessible. Nameless sighed deeply, already planning his next move. He’d have to find a place to lay low now, somewhere he could forget this ever happened.
Grim stood and shook his head, motioning for the priest to stand. “Sharis, I’m not sure why you think you can tell me what to do. You may be my tutor, but you have no authority over my leisure activities.”
“The Duke would not approve, Lord Grim,” Sharis said. The edge in his voice gave Nameless pause and he returned his full attention to the conversation.
“My father does not dictate my pleasure activities, either,” Grim replied.
Nameless found his courage and stepped to Grim’s defense. “Is this guy givin’ you’s trouble?” Several soldiers moved toward their position, though different than the ones he’d seen at the gate, Nameless immediately stiffened at their presence.
“You really don’t have to do anything,” Grim replied.
“If you’s say so . . . I’ll be over here, cleaning up.” He inched backward, keeping a wary eye on the soldiers while searching for the perfect escape route to slip back into the city.
Four soldiers approached Grim and bowed deeply, staying just behind Sharis. “Lord Grim, there are reports of a dangerous criminal on the loose. We need to get you home as soon as possible, as you may be in danger.”
Grim scoffed. “That’s ridiculous. No one is going to harm me.”
Nameless moved even farther back, coming up against the fruit merchant’s stall when a soldier called out to him. “You, stop there!”
Acting on pure impulse, Nameless snatched a small knife from a plate of cut fruit and dashed back to Grim, snaking his arm around him and putting the blade to his throat. “If any you’s come closer, I’ll kill him,” he said, meeting the eyes of Sharis and the soldiers.
“Why are you . . .” Grim started to ask as Nameless tugged him backward. “Oh, I understand . . . you’re the one they’re looking for.”
Nameless whispered in Grim’s ear, “Listen, I appreciate you’s help, but I need to get outta here.”
“Then you should’ve run when you had the chance. If I could let you go, I would, but by taking me hostage, you’ve just ensured you’ll never get out of this city. It’s better to let me go,” Grim replied calmly. If he felt threatened at all by Nameless’s blade, he didn’t show it.
“You’d let me go?”
“I know you don’t want to hurt me. Fedain can sense emotions through physical contact if they’re strong enough, and all I sense from you is fear,” Grim said. “We’re friends now. You know that, right? We danced in the Color Parade together. That’s something only friends do.”
The soldiers were getting anxious, their fingers resting against the triggers of their guns. Sharis was beside himself, not sure if he should attempt to command the soldiers to negotiate with Grim’s captor. Several long seconds passed before two more people moved through the gathering crowd.
One was a blonde soldier with narrow eyes, dressed in the same black uniform as the others but with several medals on his right breast, and the red and purple captain’s colors banded to his left arm. The other was dressed in simple, brown robes held taut against his waist by a red sash. He walked with a warrior’s grace, his hands tucked behind his back as he eyed the situation with an expressionless olive-skinned face.
“What’s all this?” The latter asked, his voice as calm as his expression.
“Grandmaster Valkean,” Sharis said, sighing in relief. “We have a situation.”
“Who’s that?” Nameless asked.
“He’s the Keeper of the Temple of the Mountain,” Grim replied.
“What mountain? There’s no mountain near here. It’s all flat.”
“They’re an order of monks. The mountain is figurative,” Grim explained.
“Figlative?” Nameless asked. “What’s ‘figlative’?”
Grim continued as calmly as ever, pressing his body against Nameless’s as if resting against him. “Figurative,” he repeated. “It means its not real, it just represents something. Like a story, or a myth.”
Nameless met Grandmaster Valkean’s eyes and said, “He’s lookin’ at me.”
“That’s probably because you’re threatening to kill me,” Grim said, chuckling.
“You’s laughin’? Why?” Nameless asked, perplexed at his captor’s strange behavior.
Grim only laughed harder and said quietly, “Whoever you are, I like you. However this resolves, I hope I’ll get to see you again.”
“Wha—” Nameless started to say, but Grim moved far too quickly to allow him to finish. Grim grabbed Nameless’s wrist, pressing it hard against his breastbone. He ducked underneath Nameless’s arm, twisting it as he stepped backward, forcing the knife to drop to the pavement. With a calm and fluid flick of his wrist, Grim sent Nameless sprawling forward to land at the feet of Sharis and the four soldiers.
“Thank you, everyone!” Grim said grandiosely. “My friend and I were just playing around. We planned it during the festival and thought it would be a nice spectacle. See? He’s not my enemy, we’re friends.” He took a step forward to help Nameless to his feet, but Sharis stepped in his way.
“Lord Grim, step away from the commoner at once,” Sharis said firmly.
“Don’t hurt him. That’s an order, to all of you,” Grim said testily.
“He took you hostage!” Sharis insisted.
“He did no such thing. Clearly, I was never in any danger,” Grim replied. “I’m sure he’s not the fugitive you were looking for, it’s just a joke gone wrong.”
The captain stepped up and said, “I’m afraid he is the one we want, Lord Grim. I recognize him from the surveillance at the gates.”
“Captain Tson. You’re saying this is the boy who escaped your guards?” Grandmaster Valkean said. The smile on his face seemed out of place to Nameless.
“That’s right. And he will be dealt with accordingly. We will send him to Fordus, twenty years labor for this,” Captain Tson said.
“No.” Valkean said.
“You do not have the authority to . . .” Captain Tson said but stopped as Valkean lifted his hand to stall him.
“I came to the Prisoner’s Market today to pardon two Prisoners for my tutelage. I am allowed two pardons per season, provided I take responsibility for them, under Ultakan law. As either Lord Grim or the Esteemed Sharis could verify for you, in case you’ve forgotten your knowledge of the law you’re sworn to uphold,” Valkean replied.
“But you can’t be serious!” Captain Tson protested. “This boy has done nothing but cause trouble since he arrived, and he has proved treasonous intent.”
“On the contrary, Lord Grim has indicated otherwise. Do you doubt the words of your ruler?” Valkean retorted.
“Lord Grim is known for his . . . pranks, Grandmaster,” Captain Tson said, pointedly avoiding Grim’s heated gaze.
“Then you should embrace the marvelous spectacle for what it was,” Valkean said, nodding as he regarded Nameless curiously. “I believe the boy’s original crime was petty theft? That’s what I heard from the soldiers who let him escape, anyway. That’s three years. Plus evading arrest. At maximum sentence, that’s an additional seven. I’ll take him in on a ten year sentence.”
“You usually take petty criminals,” Sharis observed. “Why this one?”
Valkean’s mouth twitched as if fighting a huge grin. “He seems . . . colorful.”
“You’ll take him on a twenty-year sentence,” Captain Tson said.
“Shouldn’t there be a trial?” Grim asked insistently. “Ultakan law is clear.”
“We just had one, Lord Grim.” Sharis said, raising his hand to stop Grim from speaking further. “And I would recommend you hold your tongue. You’ve already given the Duke enough grounds to keep you in the palace until you’re of age.”
“I’ll take him on twenty years,” Valkean agreed at last, regarding Nameless with a polite smile. “Boy, you’re now in my charge.”
“I’ll just run away,” Nameless said.
“I’ll just bring you back,” Valkean said, chuckling. “What’s your name, boy?”
“I don’t have one.”
Valkean nodded to himself, considering Nameless for a moment. He then glanced to Grim and nodded again. “Prism. Where light and color meet,” he said. “Yes, that is indeed the perfect name for you, and I’ll call you nothing different.” Keeping his eyes on Grim, he said, “Grim. With your leave, I’ll be taking Prism into my custody.”
“Of course, Grandmaster,” Grim said, smiling and bowing to Valkean. “And thank you.”
“You must come to the Temple and resume your training, Grim. You’ve grown hesitant,” Valkean observed.
Grim laughed and said, “Opportunities to practice are rare, Grandmaster.”
“Of course.” Valkean bowed low and added, “We must arrange more for you, then.”
“Good day to you, Grandmaster,” Grim said. “Everyone follow me back to the palace. We’ll leave Prism to the Grandmaster’s charge.”
Now that Grim had said the name, Nameless basked in the beauty of it. Prism. It would be an adjustment, but he could learn to use it as his own, and would, in time.
“And you, Grim,” Valkean said, then turned to Captain Tson. “I suggest you follow Grim’s orders, Captain Tson. I can handle the prisoner on my own.”
As the soldiers moved away, Prism saw an opportunity to escape, rising as he aimed for a nearby alleyway. Before he made it to his feet, Valkean’s booted foot collided with his back, sending him sprawling back to the ground.
“Lesson one, Prism. Learn to bet only on risks you stand a chance of winning,” Valkean said as he approached Prism, placing his foot squarely in the center of his back and driving his heel between two of Prism’s vertebrae. “This is your first of many lessons, but I will make sure you learn it before we move forward.”
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