Chapter One: Rheela
She knew he was coming before she even saw him.
It wasn't unusual for her to feel that he was approaching. Truth be known, most days she would get a cold feeling in the base of her spine. At those times, wherever she was -- whether it be doing chores in her run-down abode or standing on the cracked and arid plain that constituted what she laughingly referred to as her property -- she would stop what she was doing and wait to see if some sign of him appeared on the horizon.
Most times, it did not. On such occasions, the feeling would pass, and she would return to whatever it was that she had been doing. In short order, she would forget that she had felt any sense of dread at all.
This time, however, when she did
see him making his approach, all those false alarms were naturally forgotten. Instead, all Rheela could think was, I knew it. I can always tell when he's coming.
A gentle breeze was wafting across the plain, which was an unusual enough event in and of itself. She straightened the strands of green hair that were blowing in her face and turned back to the house. "House" might have been far too generous a term; it was not much more than a hut, although it was built of sturdy enough materials that it managed to keep the interior remarkably cool, despite the crushing heat. Just to provide a bit of style, she had even constructed a small porch on the front of the hut. She now sat on the edge of the porch, arranging her hands neatly in her lap and staring out at the emptiness of her land. Every so often, she would glance down at her hands, turning them over and studying them as if she was looking at someone else's hands. They were leathery and weather-beaten. When she had been a little girl, her skin had been so fair, so pale; but now it was such a dark brown that it seemed as if the sun had baked her as thoroughly as it had the land around her.
It was amazing, though, that the vegetation -- her crops -- was still fighting resiliently for life. They poked up through the cracks, green and brown cacti-like plants that seemed determined to ignore the untenable nature of their respective situations. They were going to need water, though, and very soon. It wasn't just her crop, either; she'd been hearing as much from other steaders as well. They spoke to her, as always, with that telltale look of annoyance and resentment, even as they talked wistfully of the rain that was needed in order to salvage their crops.
She looked to the sky, trying to feel the moisture in the air, in her bones. Nothing was forthcoming. But she could have sworn that the intensity of the heat was growing, rolling in waves off the land. Not for the first time, she felt a sense of vague despair. She didn't simply reside on the world of Yakaba. She fought it. She struggled with it every single day, the way that a germ cell would battle the white blood cells that strove to kill it. It wasn't her favorite analogy, though, because that, in essence, made her the infection, and she didn't fancy thinking of herself in that way. But perhaps that was how the planet thought of her.
The wind was picking up, and she heard a distant rolling. Although she continued to sit on the porch, still she shielded her eyes with one leathery hand while studying the horizon line. Ironically, she knew what she was going to see before she actually saw it. Sure enough, there he was: Tapinza.
Tapinza's skin was not a golden bronze color despite the sun. Instead, much of the paleness that was typical for those of the Yakaban race was still present. Not unusual, then, that Tapinza was clad appropriately, with a wide-brimmed hat and long coat that flapped in the steady breeze as he sped toward Rheela's stead. He was clutching the rigging of his customized sailskipper, guiding it with an expert hand. Rheela had to give him that much: When it came to sailskippers and similar desert transportation, Tapinza was second to none.
What did surprise her, however, was the smaller form that was also clutching the main mast of the sailskipper. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, not quite believing what her eyes were informing her she was seeing. "Moke," she called cautiously toward the house behind her, and when there was no immediate answer, she repeated, louder this time, "Moke!"
Still no reply. She got up and went into the house to look around for herself, and, to her utter shock, found that Moke was, in fact, not there. She had been absolutely positive that her son had been indoors napping, and the fact that he was not was, to say the least, disconcerting. What brought it several levels above
disconcerting was that it meant her eyes had not deceived her. It was unquestionably Moke clutching the sailskipper, the increasing breeze driving the skipper along faster and faster. And even from this distance, she could now hear the child's voice calling, "Maaaa! Look, Maaaaa!" across the broken plains.
"Hold tightly, boy," Tapinza warned him, "we have quite a few solid gusts propelling us toward your mother." Then he laughed quite heartily. Rheela had never liked the sound of his laughter. It sounded...cultivated. As if he had stood in front of a mirror for hours on end and practiced delivering a confident-yet-unthreatening laugh of which he could be proud. Everything about him seemed manufactured. For a woman whose very existence depended on nature, someone as "fabricated" as Tapinza could not help but set off all manner of mental warnings within her.
Tapinza had a fierce scar that ran from the top of his forehead to just under his nose. How he had acquired it was something of a mystery; in all the years he had resided on Yakaba, he had never once hinted at the mishap that apparently had laid open part of his face. His brow was a bit sloped, his eyebrows thick and green, and the overall effect was to give him the air of a primitive.
Rheela's impulse was to take issue -- very loudly and very intently -- with the fact that Tapinza had been reckless with her son's safety. Ultimately, however, she decided to try and tone down her ire, because it was so rare that Moke looked as happy as he did at that moment. She actually heard that rarest of commodities on Yakaba -- rarer even than water -- namely, her son's laughter, echoing across the plains. As opposed to the "manufactured" sound of Tapinza, Moke laughed with pure childhood abandon. There was such joy in it that Rheela felt a tightening in the pit of her stomach. She almost felt grateful to Tapinza, and she had to remind herself that such sentiments could prove disastrous if left unchecked.
Moke looked like a miniature version of his mother, so much so that she derived some amusement from it. She had yet to cut his hair; it hung in ragged braids, framing his face when he was at rest (which was seldom). As it was now, it fairly flew behind him as he whipped along across the desert, holding on for dear life while simultaneously celebrating a life most dear.
For a moment Rheela was convinced that the sailskipper was going to crash into the side of the house, and then Tapinza whipped it around. The wheels scudded across the plain, chewing up dirt and sending a small cloud scattering. Moke jumped off the sailskipper and ran excitedly to his mother. "You should ride it, Ma!" he said without preamble. "Maester Tapinza said he would take you!"
"Titles are never necessary among friends. A simple 'Tapinza' will do," Tapinza said to him. But as he spoke, his gaze was not upon the son, but instead upon the mother. The comment was obviously being delivered to her, and the small child was, of course, unaware of the subtleties of what was happening around him.
"Quite expertly guided, Maester Tapinza," said Rheela; continuing the use of the title, she was sending a message so clear that a blind man could have read it from ten feet away. "However, considering I was under the impression that my son was indoors, I am most curious as to what he was doing sailing around the desert with you."
"You're asking the wrong person, Rheela," he replied. "I was simply out and about, minding my own business. I happened upon young Moke, wandering about on his own. I thought that it would be only appropriate to return him to you." Just to be extra dashing, Tapinza removed his hat and bowed deeply, sweeping the hat across the arid ground. The gesture kicked up a bit of dust.
Rheela shifted her gaze to her son, who had suddenly developed a great fascination with the tops of his own feet. "Moke," Rheela said very slowly, very distinctly, "what were you doing out? It's the hottest part of the day. You should know better."
"Moke, what would you have done if Maester Tapinza hadn't picked you up?"
He shrugged again. Much of his vocabulary seemed shaped by shrugs.
She should have let it pass. But instead, Rheela felt -- as unreasonable as it sounded -- as if the boy was showing her up somehow. Being defiant of her while in the presence of a man in front of whom she did not wish to be defied. This time, she resolved, shrugs would not be sufficient. She took Moke firmly by the shoulders and asked once more, "Why were you out?" trying to make it clear by her tone of voice that an articulated response would be the only acceptable one.
Moke took a deep breath, and then looked her squarely in the eyes. "Looking for Dad," he said.Well, you deserved that,
thought Rheela. She didn't release the boy so much as her fingers simply slipped loose of him. He didn't step away from her, though, but just stood there and eyed her with curiosity.
"I didn't find him," Moke added, almost as an afterthought...and then he looked curiously at Tapinza and back to his mother. "Did I?"
"No," she said tonelessly. "No...I'd wager you didn't."
"'Cause I thought maybe Maester Tapin -- "
"No." This time she spoke much more quickly, and with far greater force. It was so loud, in fact, that Moke jumped slightly. "No...Maester Tapinza is not Daddy."
"Are you sure?" He sounded a bit regretful.
"How do you know?"
Rheela didn't quite have an answer ready for that one. Surprisingly, it was Tapinza who stepped in and said firmly, "Because if I was your father, Moke...I would never have left."
Much to Rheela's relief, the response seemed to satisfy the boy. Feeling drained of any energy to continue conversation along these lines, Rheela ruffled the hair on his head and said, "Go in now. You're overheated as it is. I want you to keep cool...at least, as cool as you can." Moke nodded, then impulsively hugged his mother before darting into the house.
"My home is considerably cooler," Tapinza observed. "I have a cooling system now. You are welcome any time."
"Yes. I am well aware of that, Maester," she said, with a laugh that was equal parts amusement and bitterness. "It is difficult to be unaware of that which goes on in your home. It is...quite impressive."
She rose from kneeling, dusting herself off as she did so. "It was not intended as a compliment. However, you did bring my boy home...and I was not even aware that he was missing. For that, I do owe you my thanks. So, I suppose it all evens out."
"The boy," Tapinza said slowly, "does
deserve a father, you know."
"Very little in this life has anything to do with what is deserved, Maester. If I have learned anything in my time in this sphere, it is that. If you'll excuse me..."
She turned to head back into the house, but then realized that Tapinza didn't seem to be showing any intention of departing. She turned back to face him, one eyebrow cocked in curiosity. "Something else, Maester...?"
"Is it really so necessary that you address me formally?"
"I do very little in this world that I don't deem necessary, Maester."
Tapinza gestured toward the house. "At the very least -- even if you have little regard for what is deserved -- the child should be entitled to know who his father is."
"That is between Moke and me."
Her temper flared, and she took a step down from the porch. "What do you mean by that?"
"I asked him if he knew. He said he did not." Tapinza idly moved his hat from one hand to the other. "I asked him, if he did not know who his father was, how he would recognize his father if he did meet him. He said that he hoped that, instead, his father would recognize him. It was somewhat sweet, actually."
"Perhaps it was, but I will thank you not to discuss such matters with him. Ultimately, they can only serve to upset him."
"I would not do that for all the world."
"Maester," and she came down the last step, standing eye to eye with him, "I think there is very little you would not do for all the world."
his father? I know beyond a doubt that it is not I," and he smiled mirthlessly, "having never had the pleasure of -- "
"Shut up," she said sharply, and then inwardly cursed herself for allowing him to rattle her so easily.
"The people of Narrin are likewise curious."
She shook her head. "The people of Narrin must have very little of true import on their minds, to worry about matters that are none of their affair."
"You fascinate them, Rheela. Fascinate them and frighten them, because they depend on you so, yet they know little about you. People fear that which they do not know."
"I do not see the good people of Narrin flocking to my door to try and learn more of me," she replied. "If they are so overwhelmed with curiosity, let them ask. Otherwise, they -- and you -- are cordially invited to attend to your own business and leave me to mine." She paused, and then said in exasperation, "What do you want of me?"
"You know what I want, Rheela. We have discussed it innumerable times."
"No. We've 'discussed' nothing. You've spoken of it, and I have turned you down. That does not fit any definition of 'discussion' that I know."
He sighed heavily. "You provide a service, Rheela. A service for which you charge nothing. That is foolishness."
"Is it?" She was only half-listening to him now. Instead, she was starting to detect the first bits of moisture. They were meager and spare, but it was enough to work with. She could almost sense the desperation in her crops. The juices that were nurtured inside the plants were still there, but they would not last much longer if some sustenance was not provided, and soon. She licked her dry lips and looked to the skies, reaching out, gathering strength.
Tapinza was clearly oblivious to what she was up to. "Part of the reason people fear you is because you act in an altruistic manner. The average person does not understand altruism."
"But you are not an average person. You are the most successful businessman in Narrin Province...possibly in all of Yakaba. So you would be far more likely to understand it, yes?"
"Oh, yes. Likely
to understand. That does not mean that I endorse it, however, or think it to be anything other than foolishness. And you seem like such a bright woman, Rheela..."
"Do I? If I am so bright, then why did I allow Moke's father -- whoever he is -- to get away?"
"Even bright women have their lapses. For they remain women, after all."
"Your sympathy is appreciated," she said with rich sarcasm.
"You seek to help people out of the goodness of your heart. In that way, you hope to raise them up to your level. But people do not like to be raised, Rheela. It is much too much effort. They would far prefer to drag you down than to be lifted up themselves. When you treat people with such compassion, they are reminded of their own shortcomings. That will not endear you to them, no matter how much you would wish it otherwise. Now, commerce, trade, self-involvement, self-benefit...these are things they can appreciate and respond to. Since you do not charge them for the gifts you give them, they ascribe no value to them. If you charged them..." He smiled broadly. "They would come to love you."
"Perhaps, Maester, I care more about being loved by myself than I do about being loved by others." She took a deep breath to steady herself, channeling the effort. The skies began to darken slightly.
"I would not want you to do anything that would be at odds with your conscience," said Tapinza. "That is why, as always, I would be happy to serve as your agent in the matter."
"For a reasonable commission, I would broker your services to the residents of Narrin Province. They would pay handsomely, willingly. Plus, I am greatly respected in these parts, as you know."
"Respect and fear are not the same thing."
"They are when they need to be. In any event, people would view you in a different light by dint of your association with me. Of course...there are other associations that could accord you even greater respect and esteem in the eyes of others..."
"I have my own eyes, Maester, which serve me quite well. I do not feel a need to concern myself with the eyes of others." She spoke in a very distant voice, as if Tapinza were no longer there -- or, at the very least, of no real consequence to her. The wind was now whipping up in a most satisfactory manner, and small dust devils were already whirring across the plain...a sure sign that matters were progressing nicely.
Tapinza, for his part, didn't seem to be paying attention. He was much too caught up in his own words, his own vision of things. "We have spoken of this oftentimes before, Rheela, but talk becomes tiresome. It saddens me to see you so stubborn, needlessly inconveniencing yourself. I do not know what is in your eye when you look around you, but allow me to tell you what I see. I see a woman who made an error with some unknown man...A woman who came to this province with barely enough money to start her own homestead, a child in her belly, and a talent that could take her so far that it would be beyond her imagination. You have no long-term goal, Rheela. You have no plan, no great vision. I have none of your natural talent or ability, Rheela, but vision I have in abundance. I saw myself in a position of power, and now look at me. I have that power. I was able to reshape myself. Reshape my reality into something that more suited my desires. I can do that for you...provide you with a better home, better opportunities for yourself, for Moke. You have no reason not to take advantage of that which I'm offering you."
"No reason except that I do not trust you, and therefore would not join you in business...and I do not love you, and therefore would not join you in bed. As for what I have to offer the people of Narrin...my talents are as much from nature as anything else is. I will not charge them for that with which I was fortunate enough to be blessed. You are correct about one thing, Tapinza. I do have a conscience. It can be something of an annoyance at times, but I have learned to live with it. And if the people of Narrin have to live with it as well...then so be it."
Tapinza was about to reply when the first crack of thunder startled him. He looked up and around, and noticed the darkening of the skies for the first time. The wind was coming up even more fiercely than before. Then there was a noisy, scraping sound, and Tapinza saw that his sailskipper was starting to roll, the fierce winds having caught up the sails and started propelling the vehicle away. Even as he bolted for it, large droplets of water began to fall from the sky, first individually and then in clusters, and finally in great waves.
By that point, Tapinza was clutching the sailskipper, having given up any hope of actually managing to steer it. The sail vessel was not designed to handle easily in such fearsome winds. All Tapinza could do now was hang on for the ride. And the winds were more than happy to give him that ride, shoving him back across the plains over which he'd come. As for Rheela, for the first time in quite a while, she felt the urge to laugh without question or restraint. For a moment, all her concerns, her murky future, and the suspicion in which all those who dwelt in the province held her...all of that didn't matter. All she cared about was the glorious moisture falling upon her, and being eagerly soaked up by the living things near her. The flora did not care in the least about her past, or Moke's father, or anything except what she could provide for them.
The rain came down even harder, and still she remained outside, allowing it to soak her through.
"Ma!" came Moke's voice. She turned to him, standing on the edge of the porch, and gestured for him to come down to her. He vaulted off the edge, ran to her, clasping her hands in his small ones, and they danced with one another in delirious circles of joy as the rain pelted them with moisture and life. The rain would not last long; not even her abilities could completely overcome the tendency toward drought that gripped Narrin Province. But, at the moment, it was enough, and after all this time, Rheela had learned to live for the moment.
In doing that, she didn't have to give a moment's thought to the threat that was implicit in Tapinza's tone, if not his words. For it was very clear to her that, as far as Tapinza was concerned, if she was not with him, then she was against him. It wasn't true, but if that was his perception, well, there was nothing she could do about that. And, of course, if he decided that she was against him...then he might very well take combative action. She could do nothing about that, either. That was for another moment...and she stubbornly refused to budge from the one that she was in.
She and Moke kicked off their shoes, skidded in the newly formed mud, and continued to dance in the soggy moment that was theirs.
* * *
The rain was coming down just as fiercely in the city of Narrin (as opposed to the province), and Maestress Cawfiel was not impressed.
She watched through her window with disgust as, all through the streets of the small town, people were running about as quickly as they could, turning and somersaulting. Many had already stripped down to their undergarments (and, in the case of a couple of drunken revelers, even less) and were dancing about like mindless heathens. In the meantime, the water collectors were doing their job; the structures were turned up toward the sky, catching as much of the precipitation as possible in their funnels, to be stored for future use. A full fifty had been built over the past year around the perimeter of Narrin, and the town budget called for at least ten more. All of them fed into the underground reservoir from which the residents of Narrin, as well as the farmers in the outlying regions, got their supply of H20.
The reservoir had, in recent years, dropped lower and lower, to the point where there had been discussion as to whether Narrin could possibly survive. But then had come Rheela, and everything had been different.
However, the Maestress knew better than anyone that different was not always better. She continued to watch out her window, did Maestress Cawfiel, until she could endure it no longer. She bolted out the front door and into the street. Her feet sunk partway into the mud, and as she slogged her way through there was a distinct thwuk noise every time she managed to pull a foot out.
The revelers did not see her at first, but then someone noticed, and, very quickly, the word spread. Maestress Cawfiel was not one to mindlessly join in the celebrations of others. That was neither her place nor her function. So the celebrants knew that if the Maestress had entered the street in the midst of the cavorting, it was certainly not for the purpose of endorsing it, or even -- heaven forbid -- joining in.
She did not speak immediately. Instead, she just stood there, not even trying to move her feet anymore, because to do so was clumsy and not particularly dignified. She waited, for she had more patience than did anyone else in the city. ("City" might have been something of a misnomer, since Narrin had exactly one main street, and she was standing on it. The street itself was no more paved than any other part of Narrin Province; none of the buildings were higher than two stories, and were -- for the most part -- rather ramshackle. The place ran about two miles from end to end. In short, impressive it was most definitely not. But it was the only thing resembling civilization for miles around, so the inhabitants thought of it as a city, and there was none around to gainsay them.)
The patience of Maestress Cawfiel came as a result of her age, and that she had likewise in abundance. The Maestress was said to be older than dirt, and considering the amount of dirt they had in Narrin, that was pretty damned old. She was half a head shorter than the shortest adult in town, and yet, through the sheer force of her personality, she loomed large over it all. Her skin was so light as to be almost translucent, a sign of how rarely she came outside. The rain plastered her short, sensible green hair to the sides of her face, and water dribbled into her eyes, but she made no move to wipe it away. Instead, she just continued to stare, her head swiveling back and forth on her scrawny neck like the top of a short conning tower.
Bit by bit, the noises of celebration ceased, until all attention was focused on her. Once it had reached that point, she afforded a glance upward and smirked to herself. Just as she had expected...the clouds were already beginning to dissipate.
"Look at yourselves," she said in disgust.
Many of them could not bring themselves to do so, but a few of them did. Whether they were truly appalled at their sodden condition didn't really matter. If the Maestress felt they had reason to be, then they were.
"Look," she repeated. "Dancing about in the rain. Gallivanting around like imbeciles. Giving her exactly what she wants: your dependence."
There was some uneasiness among the erstwhile revelers, and then a man stepped forward. He was an older gentleman, and Cawfiel knew him instantly, of course. He was, after all, Praestor Milos, the town's political leader. Duly elected for ten years in a row. Everyone was more than happy with the job he was doing, which didn't surprise Cawfiel in the least. Praestor Milos excelled, above all, at being beloved. But even Milos knew enough to stay out of Cawfiel's way if matters became truly difficult. He was, after all, concerned with their political life and the survival of their bodies. It was Cawfiel who had to attend to the survival and growth of their morality. Of the two, she had by far the harder job, and she never missed an opportunity to let Milos know it.
"Maestress," Milos said, making a visible effort to choose each word carefully. "The people are merely celebrating. Celebration is good for the soul...is it not?"
"Not when that celebration stems from obvious efforts to corrupt morality," shot back Cawfiel. "And we all aware of the immorality that poisons the woman called Rheela."
"We don't know for certain that Rheela was responsible for this rain," said Milos. It was an unconvincing statement, and everyone there knew it. No rain had been sighted, no storm fronts had been moving in of their own accord. Any storm that was this abrupt, and this encompassing, almost had
to originate with Rheela, whether the Praestor wanted to admit it or not.
"Do not waste my time with such foolish comments," replied Cawfiel. She surveyed the people once more, looking with unveiled disgust at the sheer bits of clothing that were sticking, drenched, to their bodies. "Look at you. Look at you!
You should be ashamed. Ashamed, I tell you! I see these sorts of displays, and I wonder about the future of our people. I wonder where it will all lead." The rain had tapered off to almost nothing. "I am a Maestress, by birthright, by training, by tradition. Am I to stand by and watch you make fools of yourselves, in celebration of a woman who is not entitled to such worship? To any
worship? You know the evil of her...you all do. There is a darkness about her, which you are all willing to overlook because it suits you to do so. Her and that...that child of hers. And her powers that can only come from darkness."
"How do we know?" The question had come from someone in the crowd, but it wasn't clear who.
"How do we know her powers come from darkness?" The Maestress could scarcely believe the question, since the answer was so clear. "Isn't it obvious? We are, all of us in this town, Kolk'r-fearing, good people. If beings such as us were meant to have such powers...why wouldn't right-thinking, upstanding, morally straight people be given them? Why not me? Or the Praestor, with whom I may have my share of disagreements, but who still seems to me a good and right-thinking man when all is said and done."
"High praise indeed, Maestress," said Milos, bowing deeply. Water dripped off the top of his head when he bowed, and, self-consciously, he brushed it away.
"Isn't it obvious," she continued, "that the very fact that she has this ability and we
do not means that it is inherently evil?"
There were murmurs of acquiescence. There was certainly no denying that logic.
"Do not," the Maestress continued, "let yourselves be caught up in her obvious chicanery." Her voice turned soft and sympathetic. "I know how difficult it is. I know how tempting it is to embrace the convenient. My lips know the same thirst, my throat the same parched sensation as your own. If we suffer, we suffer together. But we should not allow the temptations of one woman sway us into thinking, even for a moment, that Kolk'r above would support such...such abominations. And have you not considered the fact that, since Rheela came here, the rainfall has been even less than usual? Who is to say that she herself is not causing the extreme conditions? After all, if she is capable of bringing us rain...why is it so difficult to believe that she can also deprive us of it? I tell you that if you continue to embrace that which she provides you, it will end in death and destruction for this entire town."
As the rain tapered off and her words sunk in, the citizens clearly began to feel some degree of embarrassment. They covered themselves, picking up fallen pieces of clothing now caked with mud.
"Go to your homes," said Cawfiel. "Get cleaned up. Go about your business."
"And forget any of this happened," added the Praestor.
But to his obvious surprise, Cawfiel immediately countermanded him. "No. Do not forget this. Not even for a moment. Burn this into your memories for all time, as firsthand evidence of how those wielding powers of darkness can convince anyone -- no matter how pure and good-hearted -- to revel in evil. Only by remembering the mistakes of the past can you avoid them in the future."
There were nods and grunts of affirmation, and the people of Narrin headed for their homes. The Maestress did not move but, instead, simply stood there and watched them go. She knew them. She knew them all too well. Oh, they would make noises of repentance and claim that they felt badly for what had transpired. But the truth was that they were willing to tolerate Rheela, and this was just the latest evidence of that forbearance. At the times that Rheela came into town, some would look away or give her a wide berth. But there were others who greeted her civilly, if stiffly. And no one gave the slightest thought to forcing her to pack up her farm and get out of the Province. The Maestress knew exactly why that was. Despite whatever claims to the contrary they might make, the people had grown horribly dependent upon her in a depressingly short amount of time. Cawfiel felt as if she had let her people down on that score. And she knew that the time would come when she would have to do something about it.
She had simply not yet made up her mind precisely what that something would be. But when she did...that would definitely be the last that anyone heard of the weather witch who called herself Rheela.
"Pathetic little witch," she murmured. "Who could possibly help you now?"
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