“Coming up to the checkpoint,” said Essea into the back of the bed wagon where Aase and I were relaxing. I had given orders to Essea to give the two of us prior warning of our arrival at the gate leaving the city, and warning should anything go the way I didn’t want it to. She was to be silent and coach the wagon otherwise.
Aase turned over from her fully reclined position and got on her hands and knees on the mattress, bringing her face closer to the heavy cloth privacy flap to try and look through in order to get an idea of what was going on outside. I remained lying on my back, and only worked at listening as hard as possible. I tried for a moment to do that eavesdropping magic I did before, but without being able to tell where to send it to listen in on conversations, it meandered meaninglessly. I gave up on using the magic after hearing some woman talking about her terrible toe fungus. With that having failed, I just focused on my normal hearing, like I use to do when I was backstage during a play performance, just waiting for a cue and for anything and everything to go wrong.
I was able to pick up a few tones that sounded like Gina’s voice, muffled and distant. A male voice that was so ordinary it seemed to blend with the background to near obsolescence. After what felt like minutes, I heard Gina call, “Move out!”
There was the creak of strain against wood beams, some slight shaking, and then the thump of a rump against a wooden plank. It was Gina taking a seat on the bed wagon next to Essea, and after a few moments for what seemed like her checking for any observers, she said, “We’re in the clear, I think.”
“Good,” I said in a projected stage whisper. “Any trouble?”
“The guard wanted to know our destination for the records, but I pulled military secrecy.” Gina’s voice sounded amused. “I had to tell him we were going south, though.”
“No other trouble?”
“Nope. Guys seemed bored, too. I’m guessing he wasn’t told to look out for us.”
Aase asked, “Is that a good sign?”
“I think so,” I said in response. Then I turned my head to give Gina a more directed thanks for getting us through the city gates. “Thanks for the good work, Gina. …Wait, you have a tail?”
A slim feline tail of various browns and blacks had slipped through the flap that Aase was holding open. I moved a little, picked up the hanging corner of the flap, and opened it up wider to get a good look at Gina’s backside. Holy crap. Gina really did have a tail, and her uniform pants kinda had a tailored split down the back that had a button closing it tight around the tail just under the belt looping around her waist.
“Holy, crap,” I said aloud, and then repeated, “You have a tail?”
Aase turned a confused face towards me, and Gina opened the wagon flap from her side stating, “Of course I have a tail!”
“You didn’t notice,” asked Aase, though it sounded like a statement.
I asked back, “Are you telling me you did?”
“Of course I did. Who wouldn’t notice someone with a cat tail?”
I released a sound that was something like a revelatory “huh,” and took a closer look at the discovery. Gina’s tail curled around with the same lazy self governed grace as a regular cat’s tail, retaining its relatively narrow width all the way to where it joined with Gina’s lower back, just above her rump. A very nicely proportioned rump, that looked both sturdy and soft. Athletic with a cushioning rounded layer of flesh that one would be lucky to wrap both hands around and- what the fuck was I thinking?!
I snapped my attention away from Gina’s really lovely butt, and worked my brain back to the angle of the tail, and a question formed that I instantly asked to get my mind to a more gentlemanly state. “Does Callic have a tail, too?”
Aase looked at me like there had to be something wrong with me, before saying, “Yes, he does. He has a fluffy tail the same color as his hair. Are you really telling me you didn’t notice that Gina and Callic have a tail, after all this time?”
“I guess I am,” I said, looking over at Aase.
“I… I can’t believe you didn’t notice. I don’t understand how you could pay so little attention to the world around you that you’d fail to notice something like that,” said Aase, but I really wasn’t listening. Because the thumps vibrating up from the wheels of the wagons from crossing over seams in the slab laid stones were causing a side effect that drew my attention like a magnet. With each bump and drop, Aase’s chest moved and bounced. Aase was still in the four legged pose, with her bust being pulled down by gravity. Her chest seemed to jump, then bounce in rhythm, a rhythm that made me imagine myself laying under her as a slow but powerful piston rhythm moved us both in unison until- FUCK! Damn it, me! Brain out of the gutter!
I forcefully pulled my attention from Aase’s beautiful anatomy and brought my hands up to drag down the length of my face, giving me a tactile diversion while I started a staring contest with the roof of the wagon. “Sorry,” I voiced out. For various reasons, but it seemed like the word that would most accurately fit my position in whatever was being said while I was out of it.
Gina peeked back into the wagon bed asking and then remarking, “So you really never once checked out my ass? I’m feeling a bit insulted. You’re into women, right?”
A part of me was utterly irritated that when a confident woman sees a guy who’s not into her, the first thing she thinks is that he’s gay. Bah! “Yes, Gina, I’m into women! I am VERY into women!”
I thought I might have heard Aase say something close to “That’s good to know,” but in my irritation I wasn’t really registering it. Because I hated thinking this way, treating women like they’re vessels for instinct and fantasy. I shouldn’t still be thinking like this unless I… Oh, shit.
I pulled my hands away from my face which had contorted from a pain filled epiphany. For in that moment, I realized… I had forgotten to masturbate while I’d had the privacy of a hotel room last night. “Shit,” I hissed out through clenched teeth. The entire point of having a night to myself and I was too busy crushing a criminal network to remember to release the pressure so I would stop thinking like some horny highschool jock! I flicked my eyes to my left and saw Aase and Gina, their worried faces and their T and their A respectively. For my peace of mind, I had to get out of that bed wagon.
“Okay, Gina, go ahead and start organizing for the people to sleep on the wagons in shifts. We’ve all had a long night and everyone deserves some rest. You and two other women can use the bed wagon for the first sleep shift.”
I’d be damned if I let the guys sleep in my bed, though.
“Oh, thank you, Boss,” said Gina, using the term that Zent had used when he woke me up that morning. Meh, it was fine. I didn’t have a better title to use. I registered Gina’s gratitude and hopped out of the back of the wagon, asking if Aase wanted to come with me. I saw the medical wagon which Daphne was coaching, as usual.
Well, Daphne and Aase seemed like they’d been getting along well recently, and Daphne was one of the people who’d had the chance to sleep the previous night.
“Wanna ride with Daphne for a while?”
Aase gave an affirmative to my question and we climbed aboard the coach seat of the wagon, Aase having me go first leaving me sitting in the middle. Or, as some rough necks would say, I was sitting bitch. I pulled my shoulders in for the comfort of the ladies while giving the normal salutations. …If I had wanted to get out of a situation where I was thinking about women, perhaps I shouldn’t have sandwiched myself between two of them.
Quick! Start talking about distracting things!
“So, Daphne,” I started out, a subject that had been bothering me jumping to my mind. “What was it that Lord Bowel was talking about this morning? Something about a rose?”
“Oh? I’m sorry, Xander, I wasn’t at the square this morning if you’ll recall.”
Oh, yeah. Daphne and Mercy were staying at the inn, with the wagons.
“Ja, I remember that, too,” said Aase. “He said he’d adorn those criminals with a red rose. I figured he was being poetic, but everyone else seemed to think it really meant something.”
Daphne laughed aloud, her smile causing her eyes to squint a tiny bit and her nose to crinkle in a cute way. She smelled good, too, like fresh peaches. Crap, she was already wearing the perfume I gave her!
“I suppose you could think of it as poetic. It’s our justice system, created by the Goddess, and administered by The Faith. When someone is found guilty of a crime, a priest tattoos a rose above the heart of the criminal. It’s a yellow rose for a small crime, and they are sentenced to public service. Volunteering for the church functions, or cleaning the city or the like.”
“Community service, huh? Do they wear orange vests for it?” I looked over to Aase to see if she got the joke, but looking at her from close up I only got a good look at the clean lines of her face and the pale beauty of her hair. I also remembered somewhere in the less rational part of my mind that she was still braless and sitting very close. Damn.
“No,” said Daphne, “Just the yellow of the tattoo. If people are found guilty of major crimes, like assault, robbery, and the like then they are adorned with the red rose. They are then sold into slavery by a nationally licensed broker to serve their sentence under the supervision of whoever purchases them.”
“You have slavery here,” demanded Aase, very upset.
“Yes, of course we do,” said Daphne, a little taken back. “It’s far more humane than the alternative.”
“More humane than, what? Reform and parole?”
Daphne seemed more confused. “I’m sorry, Aase, but parole is only for military prisoners. What kind of system did you have in your world?”
I interjected to settle things down. “Hold on. Daphne, what was your justice system before the Goddess herself gave you slavery?”
“All criminals were executed.”
“Isn’t that a little harsh,” asked Aase, barbs still in her voice.
“There was no other way to deal with criminals at the time. Simple punishments were only a slap on the wrist, or a reason to antagonize the criminals.”
“So a prison system wouldn’t have worked,” I asked.
“Not at all,” said Daphne. “It would mean taking soldiers away from active highway patrols, town security, and monster subjugation,” Daphne’s hand made big loops in the air as she listed off the demerits, “And it would cost a fortune to house and feed the scum. Many a nation would have gone bankrupt doing such a thing. So, convicted criminals were executed.”
“Well that is hardly ideal,” said Aase testily.
“I agree,” said Daphne, trying to defend her world, “So, the priests started petitioning the Goddess for a more humane means of dealing with criminals. It wasn’t long until the Goddess granted The Faith with the ability to tattoo criminals with the roses, whose color and power fades once their crimes have been paid for. Yellow roses perform their penance during their personal time, red roses are sold, funding the nations that sentenced them and putting the burden for their food and shelter on those who purchased them in exchange for manual labor. And black roses are sentenced to the hardest labor or the… less savory forms of slavery.”
“Black roses,” I asked before Aase could say something else about Meaorh’s system of government.
“Yes, those are given to murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and traitors that are not executed,” said Daphne, visibly losing her happiness from reciting the list of crimes. “Those poor people don’t have their roses fade, or the power inside them, so they are never freed from their slavery.”
“Power inside the rose,” asked Aase.
“Yes. It’s a safety measure to keep the rose marked from trying to free themselves. If they try to escape their owner, the rose begins to heat until it burns the heart from their chest. If the slave turns on their master, then the rose ignites without delay.” Seeing the faces on me and Aase, Daphne adds quickly, “Oh, you don’t have to worry. The magic in the tattoos also outlaws a master from doing inhumane acts to their slaves, heating the owner’s blood instead if they violate the contract. So a slave owner can’t needlessly beat, kill, or do any other terrible things to their slaves… unless they have a black rose, of course.”
“What can be done to people with a black rose,” I asked, partially fearing the answer.
“Anything. Everything,” said Daphne.
“Sexual slavery,” I inquired.
“Yes. And underground arenas. Medical experiments. Or even torture for no reason whatsoever at the hands of their owner. Or someone willing to pay the owner for the right.”
Aase said something in Norwegian that sounded damning.
“I know it sounds terrible, but these are people who have, by law, forfeited the right to live in society ever again. Forfeited their lives. And as a deterrent, it works.”
“I’d say it would require a large scale scientific study to determine that,” I said before trying to change the subject away from torture. It was doing a good job getting my mind off the two hot women I was sandwiched between, but rather, too good a job. “You said the magic fades? What happens when it’s gone?”
“Yellow rose criminals get a handshake, a thanks for their service, and just go on with their lives. Red rose criminals often get severance pay, or stay on with their employer instead of leaving to look for new work.”
“So it’s a system that only truly victimizes murderers and rapists,” I said. I hated to admit it, but it seemed like an effective system. Assuming there really was a Goddess in this world, she did a good job creating a simple and sustainable system of criminal management. One that had convicts without the need for prisons.
“Are you taking her side,” asked Aase, perturbed.
“Side?” I was suddenly wary, confused, and frightened. It was the same kind of feeling as if I’d been walking along completely carefree in life, and then heard a metallic click under my foot.
“Yes! According to Daphne here my grandfather would have-” Aase cut herself off and turned away, nibbling on her lip.
Damn. So that was it. Aase was imagining her grandfather at the receiving end of all those punishments for killing Ida’s rapist father to keep her safe. I spent a few seconds considering our relative positions to each other, and which acts of comforting I could do without breaking my shoulder, and eventually reached out a hand to place on top of Aase’s own that was sitting on her lap.
“Aase, nothing is going to happen to your grandad. And if the same thing happened here in this world, it’d be the pervert that got the black rose. Do you think that Ida’s father deserved to die horribly?”
“You know I do,” said Aase a bit sulkily.
“Then imagine that it’s him wearing that rose instead of your grandad,” I said with a hint of finality, demarcating the poetic justice of such a fate.
“I’m sorry, Aase,” Daphne said across from me, leaning in for her face to be seen while she made her apology. It ended up putting her a lot closer to me than she was before. I got a large whiff of the perfume mixed with her natural scent as she did so. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I can understand being worried about your family.”
“No, I’m sorry, Daphne,” said Aase, taking her hand out from under mine to grip Daphne’s. It was an act that led her to lean closer to me. Her C Cup pressed against me, the softness palpable through her blouse and my shirt sleeve. I won’t be able to calm down enough to sleep tonight, will I? Completely ignorant of my plight, the two women made up. Aaaand now I think I’m hallucinating.
While Aase and Daphne were getting back on good terms with each other I was effecting the thousand yard stare. We were passing through an outlying village at the time and I caught sight of what I assumed was a wife kissing her husband goodbye for the day at the front door. Thing is, the woman kissed two men goodbye for the day, at the same time, the two men standing next to each other.
“The hell,” I intoned to the air.
“Hmm, what is it,” asked Aase. I described what I saw and Daphne said, “Oh, it’s just a woman kissing her husbands goodbye for the day.”
“Hus-bands,” asked Aase.
“Plural,” I finished up.
“Yes. You don’t have marriages on Arth?”
“It’s Earth,” I corrected. “And we do have marriages. But we only have married couples. As in, two people per marriage.” Except in Utah. But that was NOT a part of my world I wanted to try and explain.
“Oh, we use to do it like that as well,” said Daphne as though recollecting an old anecdote that happened to her. “Until Empress Garta of the Currain Empire found herself with three princely suitors from the territories, and she got along with all three so well she could not decide who she should wed. So she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Capital to beg the Goddess to help her choose. She laid out her troubles and worries at the altar for a month until The Herald descended and told her The Goddess’ message. ‘If thou dost not have any complaints about any of the three, then why dost thou not marry them all?’ And so, with the Goddess’ blessing she took all three princes as her bridegrooms, and the church recognized the union of multiple partners.”
I was struck speechless for a moment, not from awe or understanding, but by just how retarded it sounded. It felt less like their deity gave a divine inspiration and just more like she just told her annoyingly moody friend something random to get her to shut up about her relationship problems. Throw in a drunk phone call at 2 a.m. and it would be an exact fit.
Aase then mumbled, “Reminds me of a friend of mine. Would always go on and on about her ‘boy troubles.’” Then aloud, Aase said, “Sounds like it would have been chaotic in the bedroom.”
Daphne brightly denied it, saying, “Oh, no. By all accounts the four of them got along wonderfully. The Empress had a great many heirs by the time she stepped down from the throne.”
I decided to clarify the situation, just to make sure. “So. In this world, any man can have as many wives as he wants? And any woman can have as many husbands as she wants?”
“As long as there is love and all the parties consent, yes,” said Daphne brightly. “Ah, but for those who are priding themselves on their bloodlines and inheritances, they typically stick to one spouse to prevent confusion. Otherwise, anyone who can support a large family is free to do so. In reality, you don’t see multiple marriage partners as often as you could, since it’s hard for several people to get along romantically.”
“I can only imagine,” I said to the air. I’d had a hell of a time in high school, and that was with only one woman. Can you imagine trying to keep a solid relationship with two? With more? …Shit, I’d started imagining having “relations” with two women at the same time, Aase and Daphne specifically. Damn. I really needed to find an opportunity to masturbate before my sex drive drove me insane. Well, let’s try distracting myself again.
“So, Daphne, tell us about the ‘Four Brothers’ that those mountains are named after,” I asked as we travelled down the road leading south out of town.
* * * * *
The white figure humans knew by the “name” of Blanc slowly strode down the road south of Rogert, unhurried and at an even pace. His coat was white. His shirt was white. His pants, boots, and belt were white. And it made sense that they were, for they were all made from the man’s own body. Since he was a dragon in human form, it made sense for him to adorn himself in clothing made from his own scales, hair, and leather. And for him to wield a bastard sword made from one of his own fangs.
And as a dragon, he had as much of a lifespan as he chose to live before him. Therefore, he was unhurried to go anywhere, and never felt pressed for time under any situation. He’d once been impatient when he was a whelp, but the ages had worn those rough edges off of him. Now, he merely passed the time until he encountered the next item of interest on Meaorh.
One of those interesting things was the man he’d had the brief encounter with in Rogert. The one the dragon known as Blanc had tested while passing through the city. It had been a mild curiosity, really, but the man’s magic seemed unusual to Blanc’s senses. Different in some way to nearly any other he’d felt. Yes, the magic of him, and the woman beside him, were mere curiosities.
His reactions to Blanc however, were what had piqued the dragon’s interest. The human had not been afraid.
Blanc prized reactions like those. The average human, upon meeting him, would cower and seek to safely escape his presence as quickly as possible. Rarely, Blanc would encounter people who either did not know what he was, and therefore had no idea that they should be frightened, or knew what he was and still treated him as something other than a natural disaster incarnate. Almost unerringly, these kinds of people were either children, or fools.
Blanc liked children. They often said interesting things. They were worth allowing to play with him..
Fools however, Blanc played with them.
That was why Blanc had played his little joke, ruining the man’s drink and demonstrating how fragile his life was in Blanc’s presence. Blanc had been expecting the man to perform some of those disgusting bodily functions humans tended to do when he toyed with them. Instead, though, the man had prepared himself to fight.
Blanc’s face split in concealable mirth as he recalled the dark haired man’s facial features of surprise, confusion, and fear as he stood up, his body taking on a combat stance. Blanc knew the man understood he had no way of fighting against a dragon, but he would have done just that if Blanc had continued his little game. The man would have desperately fought Blanc instead of running away.
Blanc could not remember the number of decades since he’d encountered a person like that. I reminded him of the nature of his dearly departed friend, the one who’d given him the “name” of Blanc, the man the world had hailed as a Hero. Blanc liked Heroes. They were few and far between, and every one of them was interesting in their own unique way.
None of them had been afraid of him as well. Until after they’d fought him.
The dark haired man reminded him of those Heroes. Fledgelings just freed of their confining shells of normalcy. Fresh to a world where they could grow to their greatest strengths and abilities. And once they had reached their plateau of might, Blanc enjoyed fighting them again.
Perhaps the dark haired man would be someone Blanc could fight to their combined full potential some day in the future? Blanc would have to remember the man’s smell for when that day came, so he could stalk him down for a confrontation.
Speaking of smells, Blanc could make out the village of… well, what’s in a name. The next village was a few miles down the road from him and was a stopping point for a meal on his way to the border of Fulchas and Rennou, where a whelp of his kind had been misbehaving recently. The Mercenary Union had asked him to take care of the matter. Blanc had no reason to accept their request, which the Mercenary Union knew. But it was something to do, so he’d accepted.
There was a rustling of shrubbery and four men lept out of the shadows of the dense forest on either side of the road. They were burly, ignorant looking men who seemed to live on their strength alone, predating on other humans as there was no scent of wild game upon their bodies. There was the scent of stale alcohol all over them, though. Blanc had smelled them long before he came upon them, but even he had not thought they would be foolish enough to try and ambush him. For a moment, Blanc came to a halt, stunned by their idiocy.
It seemed their leader mistook Blanc’s rigidity for fear, as he proudly proclaimed, “If you want to pass this point on our road, you’ll need to pay the toll.”
The three other men smiled wickedly, with full faith in their numbers to intimidate a lone traveler like Blanc, despite the fact that he was obviously armed.
Blanc returned their smile.
It would seem he’d found something to play with for the day.
* * * * *
Some hours later, a produce merchant was returning to Catella, the farming village half a day’s travel south of Rogert by cart. He’d been able to sell all the farmer’s goods this time as well, with very little spoilage. But he was not looking forward to having to pay Buth’s toll. He could afford it, but it cut into his profits and slowed the passage of travelers and other merchants through Catella, which was an abhorrent idea to the merchant. But since the highwaymen who had migrated to the area some weeks ago had not yet killed anyone, there was no real urgency with the Rogert military to dispatch the bandits who’d settled on the small and not oft used road.
The merchant was in the habit of looking about him constantly, always ready to snap the reigns and hurry his horses to a gallop should beasts or monsters jump out of the woods around him, and he noticed the subtle landmarks that denoted Buth’s stretch of the road. The merchant slowed his horses a bit more so it didn’t look like he was going to try and run from Buth’s men. They’d paid the merchant a visit at his home the last time he’d done that, and collected their fee in front of his terrified wife. Thank the Goddess they’d not done anything to her. Though the promise of a Black Rose had probably been more of a deterrent than their morality.
The merchant hated dealing with Buth’s highwaymen. But unless Buth made a mistake and earned the wrath of the military, the merchant was stuck with them. Much like he was with his wife.
The merchant saw the sign of someone on the road ahead of him, pulled his horses to a halt, dismounted, and led the horses by the bridles instead of the reigns to approach as slowly and helplessly as possible. It made the process easier.
At length, the merchant finished his approach towards the figure, finding one of Buth’s men standing stock still in the middle of the road. The bandit had his heavy bladed axe head cupped in his left hand. The bandit didn’t spout any of the group’s usual mockeries at the merchant as he approached, and merely stood silently. While out of the norm, the merchant appreciated it. It made his submission to the men more palatable. Coming close, the merchant asked the man, “Well, where’s Buth? I’m like to be home in time for supper.”
The bandit did not answer.
At length, the merchant asked again, “Where’s Buth?”
After the bandit’s continued silence, the merchant seemed to realize that the man was not looking him in the eyes and just kept gazing at some point in space. The merchant waved a hand in front of the direction the bandit was looking towards, and seeing no response, stepped closer. After some inspection, the merchant found a thin layer of shiny film over the top of the bandit that he’d originally mistook as the sheen of sweat. The merchant found the bandit was not breathing, and risking the touch through the bandit’s cloth vest, found the man was colder than ice.
The merchant stepped back, startled, and started looking around himself again, like he had been doing before resigning himself to being victimized by the bandits. He soon found something red and stringy hung up on the trees to one side of the road. After looking carefully, the merchant realized that it was another bandit, the upper and lower halves of his body torn from each other, though still connected by the bandit’s internal organs. The mass was limply hanging from the multiple tree boughs they were entangled in.
The merchant took several retreating steps back, tasting bile in his throat. He felt and heard something crack and snap under his feet. Looking down, the merchant saw the remains of a human’s hand, shattered under the weight of his body like it was glass. The merchant looked back up at the first dead bandit, and saw both of his hands were still intact. Slowly, the merchant looked back down and saw more shattered bits, randomly strewn about the ground in the direction of the other side of the road from the red horror hung upon the trees. Slowly, the merchant realized the fractured odds and ends were enough to make up the full body of yet another of the bandits.
The merchant had had to skirt the field of human debris to come to that conclusion though, moving away from his cart and the first bandit in the process. In doing so, he eventually found Buth himself. Or at least his legs from the knees on down. The body parts fascinated the merchant, for there was no blood, giving the merchant a strange sensation that the body parts couldn’t be real. Upon closer inspection, there was a kind of shriveled, parched, dry patch at the end of the lost limbs that had been cut through with razor sharp precision. If a chemist had seen those marks, he’d have been able to instantly determine that it was the after burn effect of a freeze drying process.
The merchant then saw some kind of drag marks on the ground, with torn up patches on either side like a man had been crawling there, leading away from the legs. Following the trail, the merchant found Buth, from just above the knees, to just under his rib cage, also sporting precise freeze drying marks. And more drag marks and signs of two hands clawing the earth. Then, the merchant found Buth’s left arm. Freeze dry marks. The signs of dragging, and one set of hand marks clawed into the earth.
The merchant eventually found Buth’s other arm, precisely freeze dried at the severed spot, laying next to the second half of Buth’s torso. The head was a few feet further along. As though bewitched, the merchant approached the severed head that had not a drop of spilled blood upon it, and picked it up to look into it’s face. He needed to confirm who it had been. He didn’t want to, but he needed to.
It was Buth. His face was contorted in pain, fear, and disbelief. But his eyes were not looking upwards towards some phantom attacker. They were locked in place, downwards, as though looking for his missing body. Suddenly, the merchant was fully convinced that the manner in which the man died had left him a few moments of life as nothing more than a head, allowing the bandit his terrified few seconds to understand his own decapitation.
The merchant dropped Buth’s head, and in wrenching heaves, emptied himself of all that was inside of his body. It was several minutes before he was able to stop, and another ten before he summoned the nerve to search the bandits for their Sul. The coins they had were taken from him after all, and he’d like them back.
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