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Chapter VIII

“Lieutenant, two things came for you yesterday afternoon.” Captain Felim nodded in brief welcome as Allen entered the supply office. He held up a large brown paper envelope and a smaller, white envelope and passed both to Allen as he passed by the captain’s desk on the way to his own. “You’re popular it seems.”

“Thank you, sir,” Allen said, as he took his seat and turned the envelopes over in his hands.

The larger envelope was sealed with a black wax, and into the wax was impressed a griffin: official Guard correspondence; the smaller was sealed with a yellow wax and a symbol Allen didn’t recognize: a rod and star.

The first envelope contained his orders. Fairly routine. He was to report in three weeks to the Cavalry cohort of the 9th Legion, to serve as scout patrol leader under the command of Senior Captain Della. General Kostir was the current commander of the Legion. The letter also served as a bill to requisition supplies for his assignment, which was a good thing. His winter gear needed a few replacements. He was released from his temporary duties until he was to meet up with a supply caravan heading north in three days.

“Sir, orders came in,” he announced, holding up the envelope.

“Figured they would,” Felim replied, barely sparing a glance from his ledgers. “Guess you’re released then and I’ll have to find some new lieutenant to help out here. One more lack-witted than you, probably.” He flipped a page and then looked up at Allen. “You do good work, Lieutenant. Good luck to you.”

“Thank you, sir.” Allen saluted, his fist over his heart.

“Dismissed then,” Felim said, returning the salute.

Allen opened the second envelope when he got back to his room. It was from Juslir, the king’s secretary. It read: Lieutenant Delais, The king commends your performance in the capital and asks that you continue in this great tradition of the Guard. ~Faithfully Yours, Juslir, Secretary to the King.

That was it. He checked to make sure he hadn’t lost a leaf, but there was nothing else. He hadn’t done much in the first place, so receiving a letter at all struck him as odd. But then, so had meeting the king. There was something else going on, and no one was telling him what. Who had attacked Kilin and Jaella in the alley, and why did the king think it important enough to thank a marked guard who’d been minimally involved?

***

In the middle of his dreams, as he was asleep in his room that night, a woman’s voice seemed to whisper in his ear, urgently. Beloved, wake. It whispered through the glade where he looked up at a crescent moon, and ivy twined around the oaks that circled him.

Quickly now, the woman said. You haven’t much time. There are men outside your door.

The glade dissolved into a grainy view of the stone wall in his bunk. He dragged a hand across his face to clear his eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that the voice was telling the truth. The light at the window had not yet started to rise. The room was pitch black.

As he reached for his sword where it leaned against the wall, he heard whispers on the side of the door. The sound of cloth rustling, and keys rattled. A scuff of boots on stone. Four men, at least.

He rolled onto the floor just as the men quietly pushed the door open. He drew the blade as he rose. Streamers of torchlight shone in from the open door and highlighted the men’s armor and the short blades they carried in their hands.

“He’s awake!” one of the men shouted, rushing at him. Well, that solved the question of who they were looking for. Strangely, his mind didn’t seem to be clouded by sleep at all, and his body was moving easily. Whatever had woken him, it had done a good job of it. What had it been again? Something whispering over the floor? A scuff outside the door?

He parried the man’s attack and kicked him in the stomach, throwing him back into the doorway to trip the others who were rushing in.

One of the men tripped and fell into the room, and the others quickly stood the first man back on his feet, but he didn’t wait around for them to catch their breath. He kicked the fallen man in the head as hard as he could, and then stomped on his neck, cursing that he didn’t have his boots on. There wasn’t much room in here to use a sword. His fist thudded against a leather helmet as he punched the second man in the head with his sword hand and he slammed his elbow into the neck of the third.

Two of the men rushed forward around their fallen companion, and Allen took a kick on the thigh from a hobnailed boot. He ducked under a dagger stroke, and hacked at the man’s thigh with his sword.

A burst of pain flared in his shoulder as he turned just in time to avoid taking a dagger in the back. He slashed across the body in front of him, and the man let out a groan and dropped his dagger as he clutched at his stomach.

Allen grabbed the man by his jerkin and flung him into the path of the other man, who was limping across the room. Both fell to the ground, and he finished them with strikes to the neck.

Three more men stepped into the room. He reached down and grabbed a dagger from the floor where one of the men had dropped it. Luckily for him, the men were only carrying daggers. Perhaps they’d thought swords would be too bulky for the task. But it gave him the advantage now.

He kicked a boot off the floor and towards them, and when the gaze of one flicked down, he lunged across the room and took him in the gut. The man let out a high-pitched scream and grabbed at his stomach as the other men leapt at him, but he was back from the lunge and on guard before they arrived.

A dagger came in on his left, and he left the man’s arm and throat a ruin as he spun around to put the dying man between him and the remaining attacker.

Before the final man could figure out how to get to him with only a dagger, Allen kicked the dying man toward him, and glided in behind him. His first strike ruined the man’s hand and sent his dagger flying. The second landed on the side of his head, the flat of the blade stunning him for a moment until the pommel took him on the chin and knocked his head back as he fell to the floor.

The light from the open doorway played over the six bodies lying there, and Allen could hear voices calling to each other, summoning the watch officer to investigate the sounds of fighting.

His shoulder ached from the cut he’d taken, and the torchlight showed his upper arm was covered in blood. The rest of his body was splattered with it from the fight. Otherwise, he was in good shape and barely out of breath. The fight had been over quickly, and the Guards’ training was rigorous. These men had been rank amateurs, thugs sent by someone out for blood.

Of the six men, two were still alive. One had a broken neck, but he’d survive if the healers got to him, and the other was the last man he’d fought, who was unconscious and had a ruined hand.

He held off on healing himself and lit a lantern in the room while waiting for the guard to show up. He wanted there to be clear evidence that he’d been attacked. The king’s justice was sharp on those who broke his peace, and he’d rather none of it fell on him.

The question was who’d sent the men. Thaesil was a likely possibility. These men would have fit right into his retinue of thugs. But from the attack on Kilin and Jaella, there were other things afoot in the kingdom, and it was possible they didn’t like a certain marked lieutenant who stuck his nose into dark alleys.

He was pondering what had woken him up when the guard arrived. There’d been something familiar, like a voice, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Something he’d like to hear again, like one of those dreams that you want to hold onto when you wake but that slips away.

It didn’t take the guard long to figure things out. One lieutenant, where he was supposed to be. Six thugs, where they were not supposed to be, armed and carrying drawn daggers, and covered in their own blood. In the shortlist for rules of engagement that every Guardsmen kept at the back of his mind, that meant they’d got what they deserved. The Guard was pretty close-knit.

“Going to sleep easier now, Lieutenant, with all these ghosts for company?” one of the younger Guardsmen asked.

Allen barked out a laugh. “At least ghosts are quiet.”

The guardsman grinned, and they finished carting the attackers off. “Someone’ll probably want to talk to you in the morning, sir, if you could stay around the palace.”

Allen nodded to the young man.  “I’ll do that.” He had a few things to requisition for his new orders anyway.

When the guard finished carting off the dead men, he glanced around with a sigh. The room was soaked in blood, and it figured that Kilin had moved all of his stuff out the day before, after his promotion, since he’d been assigned new quarters. So the blood splatters had only got on Allen’s gear. At least he’d kept most of it out of the way.

He stood up. Predawn or not, he wasn’t going to be sleeping here. A shower and some food would be better.

A couple of hours later, he’d showered, healed the wound on his shoulder, and found an early breakfast before most of the rest of the barracks were awake when Juslir found him.

He stood up to greet the thin secretary. “Ahh, good morning, sir.”

“Sit back down, Lieutenant.” Juslir nodded at the table where Allen had been eating. Then he got himself some sausage and bread from the cooks before he joined him.

Juslir snapped the loaf of bread in half and began layering the sausage in it. “I hear you had an interesting morning,” he said. “Care to tell me about it?”

“Not too much to tell, sir,” Allen replied. “Six men broke into my room, attacked me. I’m not sure why.”

“Did you get rid of that ruby from Vreis yet?” Juslir asked, putting the top of the bread back on his sandwich.

“Ahh, no sir. Kilin wasn’t around yesterday, so I was waiting for him.” How had Juslir known about the necklace? He hadn’t told anyone.

“I’ve taken the liberty of removing it from your room,” Juslir said, and he pulled an envelope from his belt. “This is a script from the king’s jeweler for the worth of the gem. If you’d like to sell it, he’ll take it off your hands.”

“That would simplify things. Thank you, sir.” He didn’t know why Juslir had arranged this, but the king’s jeweler was as good as any, and probably fairer.

Juslir nodded, and pushed the script across the table. “This script is good at any bank. If you don’t have a bank, I can hold the sum for you and disburse or invest it as you direct. I manage the funds for a great number of things.”

“What’s your recommendation, sir?” Allen asked. He had no immediate use for the money.

“Assuming you don’t need it now, I’ll invest it for you. It will be there when you ask for it, recorded in the royal records and accruing a respectable rate of interest.”

“All right then, thank you, sir,” Allen said, and pushed the script back across the table.

Juslir nodded and tucked it away. “The real matter of business I came to talk about is this. As you are one of the only two Marked in the king’s service, he has a great interest in you. I’m aware that orders have just arrived to send you north. The king would ask a favor beyond that.”

He pulled a dagger out of his belt, and slid it across the table to Allen. “Serve as the king’s emissary while you are there. This dagger bears his symbol and will be recognized by those loyal to him. Orders will come to you by my hand from time to time. If necessary, they will supersede your orders to the 9th Legion, and they’ll be accompanied by letters to your officers specifying your release from duties.”

The dagger was an ornate one. Black enamel and gold wound around the hilt in the shape of a griffin, and the flat of the blade was etched with a griffin rampant. Small quillons curled down from the hilt. The blade was perhaps eight inches. He’d seen its like before. They were the mark of the King’s messengers, granting them the authority to requisition supplies and reasonable aid from the king’s forces wherever they could be found.

He was taken aback, but Juslir’s tone was matter of fact. His hand hovered over the dagger. “I don’t think I’ve done anything to earn this dagger, sir.”

“Perhaps not yet, Lieutenant,” Juslir said with a glint in his eye as he watched Allen pick up the dagger. “But you will.”

“By the way,” Juslir said, and tapped the table once as if adding a final note to a ledger. “The thugs in your room have identified themselves as working alone and declared before a priestess of Alyssa that they were after the jewel you had. I’ll take care of the rest, and you can prepare for the north.”

“Ahh, thank you, sir,” Allen said. But Juslir waved it away, returned his tray to the cooks and disappeared through the door.

Allen sat alone in the refectory, turning the dagger over in his hands and thinking about what Juslir had said. A messenger later that morning came to tell him that the remaining two men had perished from their wounds. It seemed Juslir was a dangerous man to cross.

The next three days passed in a blur. He found the time to take Jaella to the dance, but while she was good company, the dance was as Kilin had warned and full of younger nobles talking politics with each other. After that, he didn’t have a chance to see her again amid the flurry of preparation for the north.

In short order, he was at the head of a detachment of Guards and riding protection over a trade caravan headed north. It would take them several weeks to circle around the Great Forest and meet up with the forces in the north at Parm, before they headed out to the fort cities along the border.

The fourth night of the march, they made camp beside a stream that ran through the plains surrounding Rylar, and the healer attached to their company walked over to stand beside Allen. The priestess of Anya was young, but she carried herself well.

“Evening, priestess,” he said, nodding a greeting to her before he turned back to the inventory of a wagon that he was overseeing.

“Lieutenant,” she said, “I had a question for you, if you have time.”

“Go ahead,” he replied. At the moment, he didn’t have much other than time on his hands. And inventories. Lots of inventories. It seemed the quartermaster of the Legions back in Rylar who’d arranged the supply caravan wanted to make sure nothing disappeared on the way, and he’d been ordered to provide a count of the contents of the wagons each night. “This isn’t too complicated. Just making sure things are where they’re supposed to be.” The job only required matching the record on his list with what was in the wagon, and one of the Guards was climbing around in it, checking seals and calling the numbers back to him.

“I’ve heard some Marked have the ability to heal themselves,” she said.

“I can’t tell you much about others with a mark, priestess,” he replied. “Just me. But it’s true that for some healing, I can take care of it myself.”

She studied him, her eyes sliding over his body. “How fascinating. Perhaps you’d allow me to observe sometime.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her, ignoring the implicit invitation. “Priestess, if the north is anything like I remember, there will be plenty of opportunities for that. If the snow devils don’t take a chunk out of you when you’re not watching, and a Leusi knife doesn’t slice you into ribbons, there’s still the weather and the wildlife to watch out for. There are bears up there as tall as two men and as wide as this wagon. And the snow eagles don’t see much difference between a living man and a dead one. They have talons three inches long and they’re strong enough to rip a shield right out of your hands.”

“I see.” She smiled at him. “It sounds delightful. Perhaps you’ll give me a private tour when we arrive?” Apparently she wasn’t going to be discouraged.

He looked up from his list again, to get a better look at her. She was rather attractive. “I might be a little busy for that, priestess. What did you say your name was?”

“Nalia of Anya,” she replied, stretching out a hand. “Nothing more than that any longer. We give up our family names when we enter the goddess’s service.

“Pleased to meet you, Nalia,” was all he managed to get out before his response was interrupted by the whistle of an arrow passing near his head.

“Down!” he roared, and dove to the earth with her under one arm. As soon as they hit the dirt, he pushed her towards the wagon. “Stay there, and don’t show yourself,” he ordered. More arrows whistled into the camp. Some of them trailing flames. A quick glance around told him the arrows were dropping randomly. He didn’t think the attackers could see past the wagons. But the horses and the drivers were in danger if he didn’t get his men moving.

Then he was up on his feet behind the wagon, bellowing out orders. “Guards! To arms! Shields up! We’re under attack!”

Shouts from the other parts of the camp joined his, and he heard the command echoing down the line of the caravan. He swore because he’d left his shield beside his tent while he did the inventory, and that was thirty yards away. He needed to get the men into formation, and then chase down this enemy, which probably had them outnumbered if they were bold enough to attack. There was no way to guard the entire caravan in a siege. He simply didn’t have enough men. The company had been a hundred strong before this attack and he might have lost some already. The caravan had over two hundred wagons drawn together into a rough box for the night, and the wagons were three deep, which offered some protection from infantry or cavalry attacks, but the arrows were coming in right over the barrier and turning it into a trap. Which was probably the idea. He guessed that the bandits planned to shoot into the caravan until it either surrendered or the defenders were dead.

He judged the distance to his tent, which was set up inside the circle of wagons with the rest. He could probably make it. The arrows were still dropping randomly. He grabbed a sack of beans off the wagon behind him, slung it over his back for a bit of protection, ducked his head and ran for it.

There was his shield. His helm was on the ground next to it. Arrows dropped to the ground next to him as he dove for it. His men were similarly scrambling for their gear, but they were reacting with gratifying speed. Something heavy thudded into the sack of beans as he grabbed his shield and spun around. He dropped the sack of beans and used his free hand to grab his helm as he raised his shield with the other. He noticed the sack of beans had a long shaft stuck in it as he put his helmet on. Longbow shafts. His men’s armor wasn’t going to turn a direct hit.

Whoever was out there shooting at them, they were practiced archers. It took a long time to train a man with a longbow. He’d have expected crossbows from bandits. Easier to learn to fire. Crossbows also wouldn’t have been able to arc over the caravan with any accuracy. It meant this group had been practicing for a long time and knew what it was doing. Perhaps it had trained specifically for this sort of encounter. But since when had the bandits in Aciel gotten so bold as to attack the king’s Guards and a supply train? They’d be hunted down until only a memory was left to warn others. He shook his head to clear it and continued yelling out orders.

He watched the fall of arrows for a moment, and then shouted, “Shields up! Form a wall at the north gate!” The directions in a Guard camp were always the same. There were four gates, respectively called by the cardinal directions whether or not they happened to point that way. He’d insisted that the caravan follow the same pattern, but he’d left only the one gate. They didn’t have the men to defend more than that. It was time to go find the enemy and put an end to the attack.

He ran towards the gate beside his men, their shields held over their heads, and he called out on the way. “Basic defensive formation, form on the men beside you!”

Shields snapped into place along the ranks as all the available Guards arrived. They were all wearing their armor, as he had been, and it looked as if most of them were unscathed from the randomly dropping fire. Good.

He looked around and saw that most of his men had gathered their throwing spears as well. He gave a mirthless smile. It was time to see what these bandits thought of the King’s finest.

“Through the gate, four by four, reform on the other side! Shield wall!” he shouted. His men began to pour through the gate into the darkness beyond.

When he got to the other side, they were ranked up in a double shield wall. The front rank held their wall shields locked side-by-side on the vertical, and the second rank held theirs above them on a slant with the far end extending just over the top of the shield of the man in front, protecting the heads of the men in the first rank as well as their own. Just standing behind that sort of shield wall gave you confidence. These were good men. Hard trained. Now and then an arrow thunked into a shield above their heads.

He peered through a gap in the shields to see where the fire was coming from, and thanks to those trails of fire on some of the arrows, he spotted a group of archers on a grassy bank about a hundred yards away. Then he spotted another group a hundred yards from them in the opposite direction and swore. Caught in the crossfire.

“Hasir, Ileri!” he shouted, calling the names of two of his sergeants. A double staccato of “Here, sir!” answered him.

“The two of you keep your squads here with a shield wall at the entrance. Stay out of those arrows. I’ll take the rest and get the archers.” That would leave twenty men at the gate. Enough to defend it against the archers but not a concerted cavalry attack. Even if there were infantry out here, with their backs to the wagons he’d give his men even odds against three times as many undisciplined opponents on foot. He didn’t have enough troops to leave more behind.

“Aye, sir!” came the double reply again.

“Everyone else, on my call, advance three, close up, and reform the shield wall!” he shouted. He gave it a moment to sink in, and then shouted, “Advance!”

The selected men stepped forward in unison as the remaining two squads drew together behind them. The gaps in the shield wall closed almost instantly.

“Sidestep ten right! Advance four! Square formation!” he shouted. And the ranks moved in lockstep to the right until they cleared the defenders, then mushroom out into a square, with shields on every side. Some of the men would have to walk backwards to stay in the formation, but they’d practiced it in training and it was better than getting shot in the back.

He decided to head towards the target on the right since it was less obvious, which hopefully made it the right choice if they were trying to lure him out into an ambush. Guards were harder to replace than supplies.

The square advanced on the archers’ position while arrows began to thud more desperately into their shields. But the formation was good, and only one arrow made it through to graze a young man’s face. It’d make a good scar.  Their square was nine men wide and the same deep, and as they approached the archers, he ordered spears made ready.

“One volley! Back ranks only!” he shouted. And then through the gaps in the shields, he saw the archers retreating. Some of them were trying to unhobble their horses and the others were just taking to their heels and leaving their friends behind. “By Solen!” someone shouted.  “The bastards are getting away!”

There was no way to pursue them without leaving the caravan undefended and his men caught in the crossfire from the other archers. Whoever had arranged this two-pronged tactic had planned the attack well.

“One volley! Try to pin them down!” he shouted. “Now!”

The square halted its advance, and the front rank sidestepped slightly to open gaps between their shields as the second rank loosed a volley of spears at the retreating archers.

“One volley! Now!” he ordered again before the first had landed. If they didn’t pin this group down and take it out, the bandits would be running free, and they could reform as soon as the pursuit stopped, turn around, and come back to shoot at the Guards until their arrows ran out, forcing the Guard to play tag between the two groups. He didn’t want to spend all night playing cat and mouse in front of the caravan or hiding behind a shield to keep a longbow shaft out of his hair. The second rank loosed another volley of spears after the first, raining them down on the archers.

“One volley! Now!” he shouted again. It looked like there was only fifty or so archers in front of them, and the spears were doing some damage.

“Advance at a run!” he shouted. The back ranks would have a hell of a time, and it’d open some gaps in the square where the other group of archers might be able to shoot them, but the Guards had trained for this too, and the men would help each other stay up. At least the plains around Rylar were fairly level, though the long grass tried to catch at your feet. Fortunately, the front ranks would trample it down a bit for the ranks in the back to walk on.

Through the shields, he could see that the spear volleys had pinned down a number of the archers, but he noted a few of them were running away and a couple had managed to get their horses untied. He wasn’t going to give the rest enough time to join them.

The square reached the position within seconds. The remaining archers had waited too long too run. The front ranks hit them at close distance like a hammer, using their shields to slam into the archers and stun them and then pivoting so the man next to them could stab through the opening.

He gambled on there being only the two archer positions, and yelled, “Open square! Rear ranks form left! Front ranks, advance! Front sergeants, lead the attack!”

The square split open around him, reforming into two groups. The rear ranks reformed into a shield wall facing the other archer position, hopefully blocking the archers’ view of what was happening and spoiling their aim. The front ranks advanced in a line against the downed archers, hacking into them. In short order, the forty or so archers remaining were slain or unconscious. They’d been carrying swords, but it hadn’t done them much good against the Guard.

“Reform on the rear ranks! Prepare to advance!” he shouted. One more to go. But as he watched through the shields, the other group of archers disappeared into the night, accompanied by the sound of hoofbeats. He swore. They’d taken the wiser choice it seemed. Hopefully they didn’t come back.

“Hold ranks! New rear rank, search for prisoners in pairs!” The rear rank broke off and began to search through the downed archers, checking to see if any were still alive.

Two men were eventually dragged forward, both bleeding heavily and unconscious.

Allen frowned at them. “Bind up their wounds, and let’s get back to the caravan. We’ll see if they answer any questions when they wake up.”

A few hours later, Allen and the head driver of the supply caravan, Farez, sat in a tent with the two men and the priestess of Anya, who’d insisted that she be there for any questioning. Allen was nominally in charge of the caravan, but he’d found that it didn’t pay to cut people out of the loop unnecessarily, which was why Farez was there. The priestess was there because she was  living up to expectations and being a pain in the neck, like most healers. They thought part of their divine mission was to keep prisoners from being treated too badly. She didn’t have anything to worry about at the moment though. While he would have gladly wrung the neck of either bandit, he wanted information more.

They’d been talking for an hour, but they hadn’t said much of use. They were just common bandits, they declared, there to rob the caravan. They’d been looking for an easy mark, and they thought this was it. Their captain had devised the split position tactic, and it’d worked out pretty well before against smaller targets.

Allen drummed his fingers on the campaign table as he watched the two bandits. Farez had taken over the questioning for the last part. Something wasn’t right here, Allen had decided, and he didn’t like where the chain of reasoning led him. He’d run into bandits before. There were enough of them across the countryside. But there was something wrong with these two. First, what sort of bandit declared that he was a common bandit: most of them had a sob story to tell about being a poor farmer in search of food in a bad season, or a trader down on their luck who’d thought to try an easier way just this once. Some of them would claim they were mistreated apprentices or escaped serfs from the lands of the some of the worse nobles who had no other way to feed themselves. He felt some pity for the last group, but not much. The king would see to it that beggars were fed in the capital if they asked for it. Second, this group had declared their objective too easily—to rob the caravan. They hadn’t beat around the bush and claimed they were just out for an evening stroll when they suddenly fell into this group of ruffians attacking someone. Third, they’d been organized well enough as part of a large force to use an effective tactic, to know when to run, and to have someone they called a captain whose orders they apparently followed without question. So he sat there watching them and tried to figure it out. There was no way they were just bandits. His best guess was that they were some noble’s retainers, pretending to be bandits in order to disrupt trade. He just didn’t know why. Maybe he should write to Juslir and send these two to the capital with a guard.

He decided against it. It would require splitting up his already small force. They’d already lost one to arrows in the attack. The healer had got to the rest in time. The only wounds they’d suffered during the charge had been twisted ankles. No, he’d take the two with them to the next town, Cilis, and leave them in the charge of the Guard fort there. Cilis was a major city. No ‘bandits’ were going to get these two back. If he sent them back to Rylar under a small guard, the bandits might just attack again and either rescue or kill them, and they’d certainly kill his men.

He summoned the guards at the door and had them escort the fake bandits to the newly appointed prison tent, where they’d be kept under guard, before he shared his thoughts with the others.

“You think more of them are going to be doing this sort of thing?” Farez asked, worry creeping into his tone. The man had to be thinking of his livelihood, which would become much more dangerous if groups like this were out there.

Allen nod grimly. He didn’t have any good news for the man. “If they did it once, I’d say they’ll do it again. Or at least it doesn’t pay to think otherwise. I’ll send word to the king with the next messenger headed back to the capital, and then I’ll follow it up with another messenger from Cilis. I wonder if they aren’t disrupting messages as well. At least messengers are harder to catch than caravans.” And the bandits couldn’t possibly have enough men to capture every messenger in the realm. The number of men required would stagger the imagination.

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