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Chapter Two, Inside Out
The parents were getting paranoid. Rumours of unprecedented child abductions were rampant, making parents keep their children with them as much as possible, and when twenty children went missing on the same night in the slums, they had all snapped. They were pulling their kids out of school left and right, and Mr. Sans’s income kept going down and down and down, until he was getting less than a hundred gold coins a month, total, in school fees. Only about thirty children remained, out of the original five-hundred ninety-six. Even though he got little more than enough to keep the school running at all, he still paid Sarephina the same wages that she had been getting since she started working with him. Even though she could barely afford to be making less than she did now, teaching at the school being her only job, she hardly found it fair. He was still one of the wealthiest raspberry farmers in Deshale, maybe even Nobellus, but it just didn’t seem right. She had brought it up with him many times before, but each time he had insisted that she deserved fair pay, even if only three percent of the original student body remained. It didn’t sit well with her. She had even tried to give some of the money back, which had offended the poor old man to the last degree. Finally, today, after riding to work for only the thousandth time, she got an idea that was so obviously simple she hardly knew how she hadn’t thought of it before.
She had hesitated when she had gone to knock on his door, remembering with great embarrassment what had happened today in her classroom. Would it be too much to ask right away? Even if it was as a favour to him? Maybe he wasn’t as fond of her as he had shown Vifren’s sister that he was, and maybe he was truly quite bothered by the bad publicity she always seemed to bring him. Her indecision had lasted the amount of time it had taken him to sense her behind his door, and then she had no choice but to walk in. Mr. Sans’s office was modest, unobtrusive, and unimposing, so much that sometimes the kids liked to play in there. The walls, the filing cabinets, his desk, everything, was made of wood from the deepest part of the Ologan forests, and emitted warmth when it was freezing rain outside. On his many bookshelves were the trinkets, statuettes and figurines and whatnot that he liked to make, along with decorative jars and bottles of his famous raspberry spice wine. The shelves were painted with hasinite to prevent theft of his treasures. He took one of these bottles down from the farthest shelf, the highest, where he kept his oldest and best wine so the children couldn’t get it. While the wine hovered in the air, he retrieved a glass from a secret compartment under an old wooden bench, and poured her a glass. Even though he was a shagar brewer, it was an inherited business and he hadn’t quite acquired the taste for it.
Sitting stiffly in the chair and trying not to crush the wine glass, she took a deep breath. Let me work with you in your raspberry business, she said, keeping her eyes and mind steady on him, gauging his reaction. At least then I will be doing enough work to deserve the amount of money you pay me.
Mr. Sans furrowed his brow. Usually he was able to make his blind eyes focus on people like he could see them, but when he was deep in thought they wandered. I’m not sure what I would have you do. I have everything under control.
Good, he wasn’t angry; this wasn’t going too badly yet. There must be something I can do! I am willing to do anything, she insisted courageously.
He rubbed his chin. Well…I suppose you could clean the brewery every night. I have never hired an official person to do that, but there is no reason that you couldn’t do it.
She nodded and drank the rest of her wine in one shot. Thank you, Mr. Sans. When should I start?
If you come by after dinner tomorrow, I will have one of my other workers show you what to do.
Alright. I will see you tomorrow, then. She stood.
Wait, Sarephina. Grimacing, she stopped. I will only allow you to work at the brewery if you allow me to raise your pay. Cleaning is a big job, and it is definitely not worth ten gold coins a month. It was hard to keep the disbelieving protest from her essence. Would this battle never end? Twenty gold coins a month, declared Mr. Sans.
Fifteen, she countered.
Seventeen, Sarephina, and that’s as low as I am going to go. He laughed suddenly. Why do you always question the amount of pay I give you? Do you not consider me a fair and honourable man?
Blushing, she looked down, not able to stare at those milky eyes any longer. No, Mr. Sans, of course not. You have always been more than fair. You always give me more than I deserve.
That is for me to say. He smiled to soften the words. Now, go on, school is out, go have fun.
She didn’t want to tell him that this was surely not going to happen. Thank you very kindly, Mr. Sans. Tomorrow!
Seventeen gold coins a month? That was enough to buy food for a year! She would have enough left over to buy the house she had been looking at, and maybe even pay to have a small barn built for Hopfin. She ran down the steps of the school, privately floating on air for a moment. She snatched her satchel from the top of the highest tree in the school yard. As it floated toward her, she telekinetically made a quick inspection through it to see what had been stolen this time. She cocked her head in confusion. Everything was still there. That wasn’t right. They always stole something, or hid her bag. They always did something to show they hated her guts. She shrugged to herself, trying to convince herself they probably just found something more mature to do with their time, but she couldn’t ebb the apprehension that crept into her veins.
It was silent in the barn. Everyone else had taken their horses and left, and not even Lahela, the stable worker, could be heard.
Nor could Hopfin, who always called to her when she entered the barn. Something was definitely not right.
She quickened her pace, her mind reaching ahead of her to Hopfin’s stall. She couldn’t feel anything there.
Now she was sprinting. She got to the stall in three seconds to find it unoccupied. So they were stealing horses now. She thought of a million Gedian curses for the Leban imbeciles as she paced the stall, trying to find anything that could lead her to her horse She wished now more than anything that horses could use telepathy, or even just if they had an essence so she could follow it. Actually, if she could have had a wish right then it would be that the Leban’s would leave her alone. She was powerless to do anything about it, but did they have to bring poor Hopfin into this, too? Closing her eyes in the utmost concentration, she searched for the essences of the people who had been in the stall this afternoon. Since the essences were only a few hours old, they were easy to pick up. Besides Lahela, someone with an aura of mischief, revenge, and anger had been here. Great, so that was just about everyone in Despartus. Who wasn’t mad at her or seeking vengeance for the happenstance of her birth? She concentrated harder; she just needed to identify the underlying motive for the person stealing her horse. This person’s Trace was tangled and mixed too evenly together, like sugar water that just looked like water. This was a child, someone who still hadn’t made sense of themselves. So it was most likely someone from this school, she guessed.
A shooting pain went through her head. The effect of thinking too hard. She sighed, wincing as the action produced another imaginary blow to her head. This wasn’t going anywhere, and she was wasting time. They could be taking Hopfin to Ologo Mountain right now, whoever they were. She trumped back out of the stable and back to the school yard. She had no choice but to go around calling for him like the village idiot.
“Hopfin!” she whispered tentatively. The people milling around the dress shop beside the school looked around curiously, then glared when they realized it was her. They turned away, noses in the air. Fighting her blush, she walked on, calling for Hopfin, disturbing the peace. Every once in a while she even shot out the random inquiry of knowledge of her horse’s whereabouts in case someone would help her, just this once. It was a high hope, too high to reach.
The question was, had they taken him or simply set him free? Had they injured him and left him somewhere, or even…she stopped herself right there; the thought brought tears to her eyes, and damn if she was going to let these people see her cry. She had to be rational, and hurry it up. If it had been her that was missing, Hopfin would have found her by now, and she owed him as much.
If he were able he would be answering her, and in the dead silence of the city she would be able to pick up a whinny from a mile away. And if they had simply opened the gate he wouldn’t even have left, or would have been waiting for her nearby. So they would be walking with him somewhere, and he would have to have been fighting them pretty hard, since he didn’t let anyone touch him but her.
She was contemplating this when she heard what she had been longing to hear for the past half hour: a high-pitch, terrified neigh, and the pounding of hooves. Hopefully, she turned to see Hopfin galloping toward her over the cobblestones, foaming at the mouth and bleeding from cuts on his neck. He whinnied again and picked up the pace, nearly knocking over a person on the street.
She realized that he wasn’t the only one running a red streak down the street. Two teenage boys and a young girl were chasing him, shouting at him: “Come back, you filthy animal! Come back!” Hopfin reached her first, knocking her backwards. He reared and pawed the air, scaring her for a moment before she scrambled to her feet. His front feet hit the ground again, and he quickly pivoted to face the children approaching them. Hiding behind her, he draped his heavy head on her shoulder and snorted loudly at the kids. They stopped and all crossed their arms at the same time. It was a face-off. It was then that she recognized Vifren. These must be her brothers, or her friends. If it was possible for the little viper to have friends. Sarephina took a breath and put on her teacher face.
Vifren, she thought to the girl. What happened to my horse?
We found him in the street and thought we should return him to you, but then he ran away.
In her thought, Sarephina could feel the lie like a wet and slippery slug. Are you sure that’s what happened? she said, stroking Hopfin’s nose. She could feel the blood from his neck spreading warmth over the back of her cloak.
Vifren snorted, and opened her thoughts to the rest of the people watching the scene. So it’s not enough that you have to be mean to me at school, you have to accuse me of stealing your stupid horse, too?
Hopfin snorted again, louder, and stepped out from behind her. She realized how much Vifren sounded like a horse when she snorted. Sarephina put her hand on Hopfin’s flank, to keep him from running the girl down. What could she do? Everyone was shaking their heads at her, looking disgusted. That was what they mostly felt about her: disgusted. There was no way she could confront Vifren here. Sarephina smiled, though the expression felt incredibly wrong. No, not at all, Vifren. I was just worried about him; thank you very much for bringing him back. She swallowed, blinking her eyes. I’ve really got to go. Come on, Hopfin. With her loyal horse trotting beside her, she walked briskly passed the people who turned away from her, and ran the rest of the way out of the city.
Hopfin and Sarephina reached the lake, the place where they usually came after work and before dinner to contemplate what to do in their spare time. She checked the bleeding cuts and saw that they were rope burns. “Poor baby,” she said. “Come here, let’s wash those cuts.” She motioned to the water, and when Hopfin just looked at her doubtfully, she hiked her skirt and dipped her feet in. She rarely wore shoes in the summertime. “Come on, Hopfin, you know you want to!” Hopfin put one foot in, and then the other, until he was up to his belly. He was so trusting. As she rinsed his cuts, she promised him that she would never let anything like that happen to him again. When she was done, she climbed back onto the bank and sat, staring at the water. Hopfin jumped out of the lake and trotted off. She was worried for a moment, but then she remembered that he was free, and he could run back to her if anyone tried to get him. She turned her attention back to the water. Across the lake, a couple was getting married. The bride glided up the steps of the gazebo to where her husband awaited her, gazing at her in total rapture. She wasn’t that pretty, yet he looked at her as though she were the moon and the stars. The bored priest’s lips moved in a monotonous pattern, and then the crowd erupted after they both said “I do.” Their kiss was sweet and passionate, gentle yet laced with a thousand promises of their future and years to come.
Sarephina snorted. What a joke. Feeling through the trees behind her, she found the fishing pole she hid there. She seized it without taking her eyes from the wedding party. The bride and groom turned to wave at their friends before descending the steps together, his arm around her waist and hers around his neck. There was a warm breeze that gently rippled the water and played in the bride’s adorned hair. They kept looking at each other with wide, proud smiles, as though it was the happiest day of their lives. Sarephina sneered and cast her rod, tuning out the excited buzz of the wedding party. What was the point of marriage, anyway? To make sure you were never alone? Yeah, right. Where does love go when beauty fades away, when the face you married is no longer the one staring at you, but the face of some stranger, one you wouldn’t know from images of the past? Do people really expect someone else to love them “until death do us part”? (Until I get tired of you and kill you off so that I’m not legally bound to love you anymore). What egos of those who think someone could really love them that long. No, marriage was pointless, nowadays, anyway, just a way that people have to live together and split the cost of keeping up a house, so that someone else has to help you harvest raspberries in the fall. And if they did die, well, that’s too bad, there’s probably someone else just dying to find out how long “till death do us part” really lasts.
She knew the couple getting married. Havalta Brumgude was a widow, and Albany Frastel was a pumpkin farmer in nearby Rimdom. When Havalta’s husband died, it hadn’t taken her long at all to fall all over Albany, and now, two months later, here they were getting married. That’s how long love lasts after the marriage expires.
The afternoon wore on. Sarephina was letting the hook hold her line in the water, with no intention of catching anything. Her fishing charade helped cool her thoughts so that they wouldn’t explode out of her brain. It gave her something to do besides give the people of Deshale a piece of her mind as they walked by her on the path, shooting lewd comments and snickering behind her back. Every once in a while, someone would use telekinesis to splash her with water, and a few boys had made a game of it until she had turned to glare at them. Having been at the lake now for more than half an hour, she was soaking wet.
No one really owned a fishing rod around here. It was just another thing that made her stand out. The only reason she had crafted one for herself was memories of fishing with her father when she was little. He said that using telekinesis to catch fish was cheating. It didn’t give the poor thing a fair chance to get away. It made her nauseous to see the other people fishing this way. A few metres away from her, a boy stood, arms crossed, peering into the lake. A pimple appeared on the surface of the water, emerging slowly until it was revealed to be a large fish trapped inside of a water bubble. It swam in circles inside of its bubble, its wide fish-eyes asking how it had gotten there. Smiling proudly, the boy killed the fish. All it did was jerk once, and then float to the top of the water bubble, eyes bugged. Gripping the fish in his hands, the boy let the water fall back into the lake. Whistling, he strolled off down the path, fish in his hands.
Sarephina shuddered and gripped the pendant around her neck that kept people from killing her in the same way, despite their obvious desire to. Desparatans took “if looks could kill” to a whole new level.
Suddenly losing her aptitude for sitting by the lake, she took one last look at the wedding party and gathered her fishing rod, dismantling it and sticking it into the satchel under her tattered cloak. What could she do now? It was too early to go home. It was the time between work and dinner that she was clueless as to what do, and it drove her crazy. She kept her head down as she deliberated, to avoid scornful looks. She couldn’t help going back to what had happened at the school that afternoon, how Vifren’s big sister had come and taken her from school. Vifren, the hateful little viper, had told her sister that Sarephina beat her when she didn’t do well enough in her lessons. The ordeal had involved a lot of screaming, and though Mr. Sans had taken her side and she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, she had turned bright red and stuttered as she tried to deny the accusation, making her seem all the more guilty.
Sarephina wasn’t sure why Mr. Sans kept her around despite all the trouble she caused for his school. She was grateful, though. The people of Nobellus despised her, simply because her father had been a Xarthan, and the people of Xarathus despised her because her mother was a Leban. When she was younger, no one had wanted to be her fireball trainer, and after the sixth or seventh refusal coupled with a stinging insult, she had given up. Though she had finally found a trainer, five years later, it didn’t matter in their eyes. They had said she was spoiled and that she thought she was too good to learn to play fireball. When everyone else from the age of twelve and up had been out training with their mentors, she had stayed home, playing with Hopfin and wondering why everyone was so mean to her. Five years later, she was still considered lazy and untrustworthy; nobody wanted to hire a fickle half-breed. She had walked into the old, historical school with plans to run away from the country if they refused her here, too. Mr. Sans had asked what her name was, and then, her dreaded number. She had been tempted to lie and say that she was a 2 and not a 3, but she had told the truth. He hadn’t even blinked. He asked her why she wanted this job, and she had impulsively decided to tell the truth about that, too: she was desperate. He had laughed and said she could join his club, since he was desperate too. She had stared at him blankly, compelling him to explain that he didn’t know why everyone was so prejudiced towards her. When asked what the parents would think, Mr. Sans said that seeing as she hadn’t done anything wrong so far, it wouldn’t be any of their business who he hired until she proved herself not fit to work with children. And that had been his attitude toward the endless riling ever since.
At first it had been awkward, but she soon found that she was quite good with children (besides Vifren). It was a little difficult to gain respect from them since their parents had so poisoned their minds, but Mr. Sans quickly erased all notions that she was any different than they were. People both loved and hated Mr. Sans, since he always stood up for what he felt was right, no matter what the popular belief. It sometimes made them feel like insensitive curs, but it also came in handy when someone was being put down for no reason. It went without saying that Sarephina worked her hardest for him.
Ever since she started training with Zydar, her days were always the same. She woke up hours before dawn, took Hopfin for a ride and then fed him. After her own breakfast, she woke up her mother and helped her pick fresh apples from their small orchard to sell in the square. Then, she galloped off on Hopfin to wherever Zydar had told her to meet him that day. Training usually lasted all morning, five gruelling hours that never seemed to end. Running up and down mountains, learning to manipulate fourteen things at the same time with her mind, lifting three ton weights without touching them. That morning, they had touched on how to use orbalites. After training, she took Hopfin to her mother in the square, grabbed an apple for their lunches, and rode to school. Three hours spent teaching history, survival skills, and basic fireball skills. Then there was limbo. Work was over, and for now she had to figure out what to do with her spare time. She decided the best thing she could do was take Hopfin for another ride before she had to help her mother with dinner. That horse could never get too much exercise. He came when she called, and she rode him home, turning him loose in the field. Once in her room, she peeled off her bloody, damp cloak, donned her shortest dress, a long, flowing blue cape with a cowl, and a pair of thick boots before tromping out to the field to catch Hopfin and brush him down. No point looking like a tramp today.
“Oh, Hopfin!” she sang, leaping over the wooden fence. “Where are you? I’ve come to take you out for another ride!” She knew exactly where he was, of course. Hiding under his favourite tree, waiting for her to come find him. She wandered around, calling his name, circling closer and closer to the tree. It was ancient, taller than the eye could see and too leafy and broad to see the top anyway. It was big enough around that a horse could hide. Hopfin walked around the tree as she did, keeping out of sight. She tiptoed up to the tree, pressed her hands onto its rough bark, and peered around. She heard a soft snort, and the swish of his red tail disappeared around it. Taking a few quick steps, she jumped to the other side, keeping her front to the trunk of the tree. Nothing.
“Well, looks like you got smart on me,” she muttered for his benefit. She knew that he couldn’t understand anyway, but she always felt the need to talk out loud to him, since it felt rude to expect him to read minds like everyone else. She wished one day someone would find a stone that would allow people to communicate with animals. With the intent of catching him in the other direction, she turned around and there he was! He snorted when she screamed, rearing up on his stocking legs and lipping up a mouthful of her hair.
“Hopfin! Cut that out! You scared me!” she squealed. Laughing, she flung her arms around her horse, careful not to touch his sores. “Race you to the barn?” she challenged, hands on her hips and looking at him mockingly. He pricked his ears, and without warning, spun and galloped toward the barn, kicking grass in her face as he did so.
“Hopfin, you’re such a cheater!” She ran after him, coughing and choking on her own laughter. If there was one thing that could make her feel better after a rough day in the real world, it was Hopfin.
Hopfin loved to pretend that being brushed was inhumane torture. He squealed in mock terror as she advanced with the metal bucket of brushes, backing up and snorting like a steam engine. The moment she started stroking him with a curry comb, he started trembling, rolling his eyes and trying to get away. If he wanted to, he could have, as she never tied him when she brushed him. He was just an overdramatic phoney.
“Okay, you big baby, if you’re done we can go now.” He shook his mane out, dancing on his front hooves. He followed her to the fence where she opened the gate, let him walk through into the yard, and then got on. Turning his nose eastward, she considered the foothills of Mount Ologo that stretched and preened in the distance. Their deep green invitingness was like euphoria for the eyes, making her decision for her. The minute Hopfin figured out where she wanted to go, they were off.
Holding on for dear life with her entire body, she waited for Hopfin to get himself together and behave. He shied at every breath of wind that touched him, jumped when he saw the shadow of a cloud in his path. When he realized that the world wasn’t a big monster waiting to eat him, she was able to stretch out her arms, bring him up to a leisurely pace, and enjoy the ride. Impulsively, she let out her waist-length strawberry blond hair like a banner of freedom behind her, and with it went her qualms and cares.
The ride took them through the forest brush of the foothills, through lakes and streams, along the shore of the ocean. Once they had completely made the loop surrounding the city, they climbed the shallow sea cliffs growing from the sand, and raced across the grass on top of it. Hopfin was breathing like a rasp, and sweat was making her legs stick to his side. She hopped down and let him amble after her as she walked in no particular direction, stretching her legs. She soon realized that the lake path was up ahead. She could see her usual fishing spot on the far shore, and the gazebo where Havalta and Albany had been wed was merely a stone’s throw away. Quickening her pace, Sarephina led Hopfin around the lake to the pine woods behind the water’s edge. Nobody even looked at her, but she could feel their sneering auras.
She had never been very far into the woods behind the lake. Beyond the woods were the Ologan Mountains that bordered Geneya and Xarathus as well as Nobellus, and from them a cool breeze blew. She tightened her blue cape around herself. Running her hands along the tree trunks, she kept going deeper and deeper, until the blue of the lake no longer showed through and she was thoroughly lost. Satisfied, she mounted Hopfin again and let him take her wherever he wanted to go. Her dark thoughts were coming back again. The sun eased from the sky as they wandered through the forest, and Hopfin didn’t stop until they reached a large clearing with an unobstructed view of the sunset-splattered mountains. Slipping from Hopfin’s back, Sarephina slumped down into the grass, no longer seeing the fun in riding anymore. She thought of how Vifren had accused her, and felt the other hostilities of the people coming back to her as well. It just wasn’t fair! Why did her mother and father have to fall in love and produce her, a useless, trouble-causing child? Didn’t they know that Defenders and Oppressors were supposed to stay away from each other? They were too different. Oppressors were ruthless and cunning, whereas the Defenders were haughty, conceited, and high and mighty. They were meant to be adversaries, not husband and wife! And so, what was she? She didn’t feel egotistical or insidious, simply ostracized, foolish, and worthless.
Zydar, her fireball trainer, said she was coming along “surprisingly” well with her training. Apparently, she had gotten through a year’s worth of training in eight hard weeks, and was doing better than most with that amount of training in the first place. Once he had told her that perhaps being a half-breed meant she had the better of both worlds within her, making her more and not less. Laying in the meadow and feeling like nobody wanted her, she had to disagree. What was the point of being the best at something you never wanted to do, and proving inadequate in almost everything else?
Hopfin’s face appeared above hers, his hooves inches from her head. “Don’t step on me,” she warned. From this angle, he looked so comical that she nearly smiled. In his favourite amorous gesture, he lowered his head and took up a mouthful of her hair, chewing on it thoughtfully. “Ow! Hopfin, LET GO!”
He bolted to the end of the clearing, she hot on his heels. She was certain she felt steam coming out of her ears. Sliding to a stop before he rammed into one of the trees, he whirled back to face her, darting back and forth for an escape. She charged on, ready to pummel him, when a movement caught her eye. Skidding to a halt, she turned quickly enough to see a face pull back behind a tree. Her heart slammed. Hopfin skipped away, tossing his glossy red mane.
Hello? she called, feeling cautiously forward for the person’s essence. Emboldened that whoever was hiding behind that tree was just as surprised and afraid as she was, she crept forward a little farther, keeping her mind on the essence, waiting for the person to move. She called to him again, adding on that she wouldn’t hurt him or her. She stopped a hairsbreadth from the tree, trembling all over and breathing with great difficulty. She swallowed many times.
Carefully, slowly, the face came back into view. It was a man who didn’t seem to be any older than she was, though his wide, childlike blue eyes made him seem younger in a way. Long, dark lashes added to this effect. The silky hair hanging far too long, nearly to his shoulders, was the colour of bright gold in the setting sun, and it sparkled as though lit from within. His smooth, creamy skin showed soft stubble on his cheeks and above his dimpled upper lip. She was surprised that a man could have skin so clear and rosy, but he somehow pulled it off. She had never seen a man more beautiful, at least not one who could look into her eyes the way he was. Their gazes held for only a few seconds, but to her it was like her entire lifetime had gone by and come full circle; then, the moment ended, and to her surprise, he sprang away from the tree and sprinted off.
Hey! Where do you think you’re going? She rushed after him. In the sudden dimness of the trees, her eyes automatically went to the brightened figure darting in and out of view in front of her. He was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, which brightened him considerably; she still had trouble following the quick and darting movements he made. She crashed through the trees, calling after him to stop. Why was he running away? He looked over his shoulder, and saw she was still there, and gaining on him too; terror shot across his beautiful face. Suddenly, he veered to the left, disappearing through even denser trees. She heard hoof beats, and a second later, Hopfin kept stride alongside her. She vaulted onto his back and turned after the man.
She looked left, then right, trying to see through the darkness and the trees. Slowing Hopfin down, she peered carefully into the groves of pines. He wasn’t there. She couldn’t see him in the treetops overhead, though she doubted he could climb that fast. She slumped, confused and disappointed. It seemed she was alone again, like the boy had been a ghost or a dream, gone with the snap of her fingers.
Or the sight of a halfbreed, she thought, glaring darkly at the sunset. Sharply, she turned Hopfin and they made for home. She knew she could never really get lost around here; the mountains were always there, telling her which way north was, like a compass that you couldn’t forget at home. It was almost time for her mother to be home, anyway. She would come back tomorrow, after work at the brewery, and see if she could find the boy again. This was not over.
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