فصل 02

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CHAPTER

2

“I want to go.”

“No.”

I crossed my arms, tucking my tattooed hand under my right bicep, and spread my feet slightly further apart on the dirt floor of the stables. “It’s been three months. Nothing’s happened, and the village isn’t even five miles—”

“No.” The midmorning sun streaming through the stable doors burnished Tamlin’s golden hair as he finished buckling the bandolier of daggers across his chest. His face—ruggedly handsome, exactly as I’d dreamed it during those long months he’d worn a mask—was set, his lips a thin line.

Behind him, already atop his dapple-gray horse, along with three other Fae lord-sentries, Lucien silently shook his head in warning, his metal eye narrowing. Don’t push him, he seemed to say.

But as Tamlin strode toward where his black stallion had already been saddled, I gritted my teeth and stormed after him. “The village needs all the help it can get.”

“And we’re still hunting down Amarantha’s beasts,” he said, mounting his horse in one fluid motion. Sometimes, I wondered if the horses were just to maintain an appearance of civility—of normalcy. To pretend that he couldn’t run faster than them, didn’t live with one foot in the forest. His green eyes were like chips of ice as the stallion started into a walk. “I don’t have the sentries to spare to escort you.”

I lunged for the bridle. “I don’t need an escort.” My grip tightened on the leather as I tugged the horse to a stop, and the golden ring on my finger—along with the square-cut emerald glittering atop it—flashed in the sun.

It had been two months since Tamlin had proposed—two months of enduring presentations about flowers and clothes and seating arrangements and food. I’d had a small reprieve a week ago, thanks to the Winter Solstice, though I’d traded contemplating lace and silk for selecting evergreen wreaths and garlands. But at least it had been a break.

Three days of feasting and drinking and exchanging small presents, culminating in a long, rather odious ceremony atop the foothills on the longest night to escort us from one year to another as the sun died and was born anew. Or something like that. Celebrating a winter holiday in a place that was permanently entrenched in spring hadn’t done much to improve my general lack of festive cheer.

I hadn’t particularly listened to the explanations of its origins—and the Fae themselves debated whether it had emerged from the Winter Court or Day Court. Both now claimed it as their holiest holiday. All I really knew was that I’d had to endure two ceremonies: one at sunset to begin that endless night of presents and dancing and drinking in honor of the old sun’s death; and one at the following dawn, bleary-eyed and feet aching, to welcome the sun’s rebirth.

It was bad enough that I’d been required to stand before the gathered courtiers and lesser faeries while Tamlin made his many toasts and salutes. Mentioning that my birthday had also fallen on that longest night of the year was a fact I’d conveniently forgotten to tell anyone. I’d received enough presents, anyway—and would no doubt receive many, many more on my wedding day. I had little use for so many things.

Now, only two weeks stood between me and the ceremony. If I didn’t get out of the manor, if I didn’t have a day to do something other than spend Tamlin’s money and be groveled to—

“Please. The recovery efforts are so slow. I could hunt for the villagers, get them food—”

“It’s not safe,” Tamlin said, again nudging his stallion into a walk. The horse’s coat shone like a dark mirror, even in the shade of the stables. “Especially not for you.”

He’d said that every time we had this argument; every time I begged him to let me go to the nearby village of High Fae to help rebuild what Amarantha had burned years ago.

I followed him into the bright, cloudless day beyond the stables, the grasses coating the nearby foothills undulating in the soft breeze. “People want to come back, they want a place to live—”

“Those same people see you as a blessing—a marker of stability. If something happened to you … ” He cut himself off as he halted his horse at the edge of the dirt path that would take him toward the eastern woods, Lucien now waiting a few yards down it. “There’s no point in rebuilding anything if Amarantha’s creatures tear through the lands and destroy it again.”

“The wards are up—”

“Some slipped in before the wards were repaired. Lucien hunted down five naga yesterday.”

I whipped my head toward Lucien, who winced. He hadn’t told me that at dinner last night. He’d lied when I’d asked him why he was limping. My stomach turned over—not just at the lie, but … naga. Sometimes I dreamed of their blood showering me as I killed them, of their leering serpentine faces while they tried to fillet me in the woods.

Tamlin said softly, “I can’t do what I need to if I’m worrying about whether you’re safe.”

“Of course I’ll be safe.” As a High Fae, with my strength and speed, I’d stand a good chance of getting away if something happened.

“Please—please just do this for me,” Tamlin said, stroking his stallion’s thick neck as the beast nickered with impatience. The others had already moved their horses into easy canters, the first of them nearly within the shade of the woods. Tamlin jerked his chin toward the alabaster estate looming behind me. “I’m sure there are things to help with around the house. Or you could paint. Try out that new set I gave for you for Winter Solstice.”

There was nothing but wedding planning waiting for me in the house, since Alis refused to let me lift a finger to do anything. Not because of who I was to Tamlin, what I was about to become to Tamlin, but … because of what I’d done for her, for her boys, for Prythian. All the servants were the same; some still cried with gratitude when they passed me in the halls. And as for painting …

“Fine,” I breathed. I made myself look him in the eye, made myself smile. “Be careful,” I said, and meant it. The thought of him going out there, hunting the monsters that had once served Amarantha …

“I love you,” Tamlin said quietly.

I nodded, murmuring it back as he trotted to where Lucien still waited, the emissary now frowning slightly. I didn’t watch them go.

I took my time retreating through the hedges of the gardens, the spring birds chirping merrily, gravel crunching under my flimsy shoes.

I hated the bright dresses that had become my daily uniform, but didn’t have the heart to tell Tamlin—not when he’d bought so many, not when he looked so happy to see me wear them. Not when his words weren’t far from the truth. The day I put on my pants and tunics, the day I strapped weapons to myself like fine jewelry, it would send a message far and clear across the lands. So I wore the gowns, and let Alis arrange my hair—if only so it would buy these people a measure of peace and comfort.

At least Tamlin didn’t object to the dagger I kept at my side, hanging from a jeweled belt. Lucien had gifted both to me—the dagger during the months before Amarantha, the belt in the weeks after her downfall, when I’d carried the dagger, along with many others, everywhere I went. You might as well look good if you’re going to arm yourself to the teeth, he’d said.

But even if stability reigned for a hundred years, I doubted I’d ever awaken one morning and not put on the knife.

A hundred years.

I had that—I had centuries ahead of me. Centuries with Tamlin, centuries in this beautiful, quiet place. Perhaps I’d sort myself out sometime along the way. Perhaps not.

I paused before the stairs leading up into the rose-and-ivy-covered house, and peeked toward the right—toward the formal rose garden and the windows just beyond it.

I’d only set foot in that room—my old painting studio—once, when I’d first returned.

And all those paintings, all the supplies, all that blank canvas waiting for me to pour out stories and feelings and dreams … I’d hated it.

I’d walked out moments later and hadn’t returned since.

I’d stopped cataloging color and feeling and texture, stopped noticing it. I could barely look at the paintings hanging inside the manor.

A sweet, female voice trilled my name from inside the open doors of the manor, and the tightness in my shoulders eased a bit.

Ianthe. The High Priestess, as well as a High Fae noble and childhood friend of Tamlin’s, who had taken it upon herself to help plan the wedding festivities.

And who had taken it upon herself to worship me and Tamlin as if we were newly minted gods, blessed and chosen by the Cauldron itself.

But I didn’t complain—not when Ianthe knew everyone in the court and outside of it. She’d linger by my side at events and dinners, feeding me details about those in attendance, and was the main reason why I’d survived the merry whirlwind of Winter Solstice. She’d been the one presiding over the various ceremonies, after all—and I’d been more than happy to let her choose what manner of wreaths and garlands should adorn the manor and grounds, what silverware complemented each meal.

Beyond that … while Tamlin was the one who paid for my everyday clothes, it was Ianthe’s eye that selected them. She was the heart of her people, ordained by the Hand of the Goddess to lead them from despair and darkness.

I was in no position to doubt. She hadn’t led me astray yet—and I’d learned to dread the days when she was busy at her own temple on the grounds, overseeing pilgrims and her acolytes. Today, though—yes, spending time with Ianthe was better than the alternative.

I bunched the gauzy skirts of my dawn-pink gown in a hand and ascended the marble steps into the house.

Next time, I promised myself. Next time, I’d convince Tamlin to let me go to the village.

“Oh, we can’t let her sit next to him. They’d rip each other to shreds, and then we’d have blood ruining the table linens.” Beneath her pale, blue-gray hood, Ianthe furrowed her brow, crinkling the tattoo of the various stages of a moon’s cycle stamped across it. She scribbled out the name she’d dashed onto one of the seating charts moments before.

The day had turned warm, the room a bit stuffy even with the breeze through the open windows. And yet the heavy hooded robe remained on.

All the High Priestesses wore the billowing, artfully twisted and layered robes—though they certainly were far from matronly. Ianthe’s slim waist was on display with a fine belt of sky-blue, limpid stones, each perfectly oval and held in shining silver. And atop her hood sat a matching circlet—a delicate band of silver, with a large stone at its center. A panel of cloth had been folded up beneath the circlet, a built-in swath meant to be pulled over the brow and eyes when she needed to pray, beseech the Cauldron and Mother, or just think.

Ianthe had shown me once what the panel looked like when down: only her nose and full, sensuous mouth visible. The Voice of the Cauldron. I’d found the image unsettling—that merely covering the upper part of her face had somehow turned the bright, cunning female into an effigy, into something Other. Mercifully, she kept it folded back most of the time. Occasionally, she even took the hood off entirely to let the sun play in her long, gently curling golden hair.

Ianthe’s silver rings gleamed atop her manicured fingers as she wrote another name down. “It’s like a game,” she said, sighing through her pert nose. “All these pieces, vying for power or dominance, willing to shed blood, if need be. It must be a strange adjustment for you.”

Such elegance and wealth—yet the savagery remained. The High Fae weren’t the tittering nobility of the mortal world. No, if they feuded, it would end with someone being ripped to bloody ribbons. Literally.

Once, I’d trembled to share breathing space with them.

I flexed my fingers, stretching and contorting the tattoos etched into my skin.

Now I could fight alongside them, against them. Not that I’d tried.

I was too watched—too monitored and judged. Why should the bride of the High Lord learn to fight if peace had returned? That had been Ianthe’s reasoning when I’d made the mistake of mentioning it at dinner. Tamlin, to his credit, had seen both sides: I’d learn to protect myself … but the rumors would spread.

“Humans aren’t much better,” I told her at last. And because Ianthe was about the only one of my new companions who didn’t look particularly stunned or frightened by me, I tried to make conversation and said, “My sister Nesta would likely fit right in.”

Ianthe cocked her head, the sunlight setting the blue stone atop her hood glimmering. “Will your mortal kin be joining us?”

“No.” I hadn’t thought to invite them—hadn’t wanted to expose them to Prythian. Or to what I’d become.

She tapped a long, slender finger on the table. “But they live so close to the wall, don’t they? If it was important for you to have them here, Tamlin and I could ensure their safe journey.” In the hours we’d spent together, I’d told her about the village, and the house my sisters now lived in, about Isaac Hale and Tomas Mandray. I hadn’t been able to mention Clare Beddor—or what had happened to her family.

“For all that she’d hold her own,” I said, fighting past the memory of that human girl, and what had been done to her, “my sister Nesta detests your kind.”

“Our kind,” Ianthe corrected quietly. “We’ve discussed this.”

I just nodded.

But she went on, “We are old, and cunning, and enjoy using words like blades and claws. Every word from your mouth, every turn of phrase, will be judged—and possibly used against you.” As if to soften the warning, she added, “Be on your guard, Lady.”

Lady. A nonsense name. No one knew what to call me. I wasn’t born High Fae.

I’d been Made—resurrected and given this new body by the seven High Lords of Prythian. I wasn’t Tamlin’s mate, as far as I knew. There was no mating bond between us—yet.

Honestly … Honestly, Ianthe, with her bright gold hair, those teal eyes, elegant features, and supple body, looked more like Tamlin’s mate. His equal. A union with Tamlin—a High Lord and a High Priestess—would send a clear message of strength to any possible threats to our lands. And secure the power Ianthe was no doubt keen on building for herself.

Among the High Fae, the priestesses oversaw their ceremonies and rituals, recorded their histories and legends, and advised their lords and ladies in matters great and trivial. I hadn’t witnessed any magic from her, but when I’d asked Lucien, he’d frowned and said their magic was drawn from their ceremonies, and could be utterly lethal should they choose it. I’d watched her on the Winter Solstice for any signs of it, marking the way she’d positioned herself so that the rising sun filled her uplifted arms, but there had been no ripple or thrum of power. From her, or the earth beneath us.

I didn’t know what I’d really expected from Ianthe—one of the twelve High Priestesses who together governed their sisters across every territory in Prythian. Ancient, celibate, and quiet had been the extent of my expectations, thanks to those whispered mortal legends, when Tamlin had announced that an old friend was soon to occupy and renovate the crumbling temple complex on our lands. But Ianthe had breezed into our house the next morning and those expectations had immediately been trampled. Especially the celibate part.

Priestesses could marry, bear children, and dally as they would. It would dishonor the Cauldron’s gift of fertility to lock up their instincts, their inherent female magic in bearing life, Ianthe had once told me.

So while the seven High Lords ruled Prythian from thrones, the twelve High Priestesses reigned from the altars, their children as powerful and respected as any lord’s offspring. And Ianthe, the youngest High Priestess in three centuries, remained unmarried, childless, and keen to enjoy the finest males the land has to offer.

I often wondered what it was like to be that free and so settled within yourself.

When I didn’t respond to her gentle reprimand, she said, “Have you given any thought to what color roses? White? Pink? Yellow? Red—”

“Not red.”

I hated that color. More than anything. Amarantha’s hair, all that blood, the welts on Clare Beddor’s broken body, spiked to the walls of Under the Mountain—

“Russet could be pretty, with all the green … But maybe that’s too Autumn Court.” Again, that finger tapped on the table.

“Whatever color you want.” If I were being blunt with myself, I’d admit that Ianthe had become a crutch. But she seemed willing to do it—caring when I couldn’t bring myself to.

Yet Ianthe’s brows lifted slightly.

Despite being a High Priestess, she and her family had escaped the horrors of Under the Mountain by running. Her father, one of Tamlin’s strongest allies amongst the Spring Court and a captain in his forces, had sensed trouble coming and packed off Ianthe, her mother, and two younger sisters to Vallahan, one of the countless faerie territories across the ocean. For fifty years, they’d lived in the foreign court, biding their time while their people were butchered and enslaved.

She hadn’t once mentioned it. I knew better than to ask.

“Every element of this wedding sends a message to not only Prythian, but the world beyond,” she said. I stifled a sigh. I knew—she’d told me this before. “I know you are not fond of the dress—”

Understatement. I hated the monstrosity of tulle she’d selected. Tamlin had, too—though he’d laughed himself hoarse when I showed him in the privacy of my room. But he’d promised me that though the dress was absurd, the priestess knew what she was doing. I’d wanted to push back about it, hating that though he agreed with me, he had sided with her, but … it took more energy than it was worth.

Ianthe went on, “But it makes the right statement. I’ve spent time amongst enough courts to know how they operate. Trust me in this.”

“I do trust you,” I said, and waved a hand toward the papers before us. “You know how to do these things. I don’t.”

Silver tinkled at Ianthe’s wrists, so like the bracelets the Children of the Blessed wore on the other side of the wall. I sometimes wondered if those foolish humans had stolen the idea from the High Priestesses of Prythian—if it had been a priestess like Ianthe who had spread such nonsense among humans.

“It’s an important moment for me as well,” Ianthe said carefully, adjusting the circlet atop her hood. Teal eyes met mine. “You and I are so alike—young, untested amongst these … wolves. I am grateful to you, and to Tamlin, to allow me to preside over the ceremony, to be invited to work with this court, be a part of this court. The other High Priestesses do not particularly care for me, nor I for them, but … ” She shook her head, the hood swaying with her. “Together,” she murmured, “the three of us make a formidable unit. Four, if you count Lucien.” She snorted. “Not that he particularly wants anything to do with me.”

A leading statement.

She often found ways to bring him up, to corner him at events, to touch his elbow or shoulder. He ignored it all. Last week, I’d finally asked him if she’d set her sights on him, and Lucien had merely given me a look, snarling softly, before stalking off. I took that as a yes.

But a match with Lucien would be nearly as beneficial as one with Tamlin: the right hand of a High Lord and another High Lord’s son … Any offspring would be powerful, coveted.

“You know it’s … hard for him, where females are involved,” I said neutrally.

“He has been with many females since the death of his lover.”

“Perhaps it’s different with you—perhaps it’d mean something he’s not ready for.” I shrugged, searching for the right words. “Perhaps he stays away because of it.”

She considered, and I prayed she bought my half lie. Ianthe was ambitious, clever, beautiful, and bold—but I did not think Lucien forgave her, or would ever forgive her, for fleeing during Amarantha’s reign. Sometimes I honestly wondered if my friend might rip her throat out for it.

Ianthe nodded at last. “Are you at least excited for the wedding?”

I fiddled with my emerald ring. “It’ll be the happiest day of my life.”

The day Tamlin had asked me to marry him, I’d certainly felt that way. I’d wept with joy as I told him yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and made love to him in the field of wildflowers where he’d brought me for the occasion.

Ianthe nodded. “The union is Cauldron-blessed. Your survival of the horrors Under the Mountain only proves it.”

I caught her glance then—toward my left hand, the tattoos.

It was an effort not to tuck my hand beneath the table.

The tattoo on her brow was of midnight-blue ink—but somehow still fit, still accented the feminine dresses, the bright silver jewelry. Unlike the elegant brutality of mine.

“We could get you gloves,” she offered casually.

And that would send another message—perhaps to the person I so desperately hoped had forgotten I existed.

“I’ll consider it,” I said with a bland smile.

It was all I could do to keep from bolting before the hour was up and Ianthe floated to her own personal prayer room—a gift from Tamlin upon her return—to offer midday thanks to the Cauldron for our land’s liberation, my triumph, and Tamlin’s ensured dominance over this land.

I sometimes debated asking her to pray for me as well.

To pray that I’d one day learn to love the dresses, and the parties, and my role as a blushing, pretty bride.

I was already in bed when Tamlin entered my room, silent as a stag through a wood. I lifted my head, going for the dagger I kept on the nightstand, but relaxed at the broad shoulders, at the hallway candlelight gilding his tan skin and veiling his face in shadow.

“You’re awake?” he murmured. I could hear the frown in his voice. He’d been in his study since dinner, sorting through the pile of paperwork Lucien had dumped on his desk.

“I couldn’t sleep,” I said, watching his muscles shift as he moved to the bathing room to wash up. I’d been trying to sleep for an hour now—but each time I closed my eyes, my body locked up, the walls of the room pushed in. I’d gone so far as to throw open the windows, but … It was going to be a long night.

I lay back on the pillows, listening to the steady, efficient sounds of him preparing for bed. He kept his own quarters, deeming it vital for me to have my own space.

But he slept in here every night. I’d yet to visit his bed, though I wondered if our wedding night would change that. I prayed I wouldn’t thrash awake and vomit on the sheets when I didn’t recognize where I was, when I didn’t know if the darkness was permanent.

Maybe that was why he hadn’t pushed the issue yet.

He emerged from the bathing room, slinging off his tunic and shirt, and I propped myself on my elbows to watch as he paused at the edge of the bed.

My attention went right to the strong, clever fingers that unfastened his pants.

Tamlin let out a low snarl of approval, and I bit my bottom lip as he removed his pants, along with his undergarments, revealing the proud, thick length of him. My mouth went dry, and I dragged my gaze up his muscled torso, over the panes of his chest, and then—

“Come here,” he growled, so roughly the words were barely discernable.

I pushed back the blankets, revealing my already naked body, and he hissed.

His features turned ravenous while I crawled across the bed and rose up on my knees. I took his face in my hands, the golden skin framed on either side by fingers of ivory and of swirling black, and kissed him.

He held my gaze through the kiss, even as I pushed myself closer, biting back a small noise when he brushed against my stomach.

His callused hands grazed my hips, my waist, then held me there as he lowered his head, seizing the kiss. A brush of his tongue against the seam of my lips had me opening fully for him, and he swept in, claiming me, branding me.

I moaned then, tilting my head back to give him better access. His hands clamped on my waist, then moved—one going to cup my rear, the other sliding between us.

This—this moment, when it was him and me and nothing between our bodies …

His tongue scraped the roof of my mouth as he dragged a finger down the center of me, and I gasped, my back arching. “Feyre,” he said against my lips, my name like a prayer more devout than any Ianthe had offered up to the Cauldron on that dark solstice morning.

His tongue swept my mouth again, in time to the finger that he slipped inside of me. My hips undulated, demanding more, craving the fullness of him, and his growl reverberated in my chest as he added another finger.

I moved on him. Lightning lashed through my veins, and my focus narrowed to his fingers, his mouth, his body on mine. His palm pushed against the bundle of nerves at the apex of my thighs, and I groaned his name as I shattered.

My head thrown back, I gulped down night-cool air, and then I was being lowered to the bed, gently, delicately, lovingly.

He stretched out above me, his head lowering to my breast, and all it took was one press of his teeth against my nipple before I was clawing at his back, before I hooked my legs around him and he settled between them. This—I needed this.

He paused, arms trembling as he held himself over me.

“Please,” I gasped out.

He just brushed his lips against my jaw, my neck, my mouth.

“Tamlin,” I begged. He palmed my breast, his thumb flicking over my nipple. I cried out, and he buried himself in me with a mighty stroke.

For a moment, I was nothing, no one.

Then we were fused, two hearts beating as one, and I promised myself it always would be that way as he pulled out a few inches, the muscles of his back flexing beneath my hands, and then slammed back into me. Again and again.

I broke and broke against him as he moved, as he murmured my name and told me he loved me. And when that lightning once more filled my veins, my head, when I gasped out his name, his own release found him. I gripped him through each shuddering wave, savoring the weight of him, the feel of his skin, his strength.

For a while, only the rasp of our breathing filled the room.

I frowned as he withdrew at last—but he didn’t go far. He stretched out on his side, head propped on a fist, and traced idle circles on my stomach, along my breasts.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” he murmured.

“It’s fine,” I breathed. “I understand.”

Not a lie, but not quite true.

His fingers grazed lower, circling my belly button. “You are—you’re everything to me,” he said thickly. “I need … I need you to be all right. To know they can’t get to you—can’t hurt you anymore.”

“I know.” Those fingers drifted lower. I swallowed hard and said again, “I know.” I brushed his hair back from his face. “But what about you? Who gets to keep you safe?”

His mouth tightened. With his powers returned, he didn’t need anyone to protect him, shield him. I could almost see invisible hackles raising—not at me, but at the thought of what he’d been mere months ago: prone to Amarantha’s whims, his power barely a trickle compared to the cascade now coursing through him. He took a steadying breath, and leaned to kiss my heart, right between my breasts. It was answer enough.

“Soon,” he murmured, and those fingers traveled back to my waist. I almost groaned. “Soon you’ll be my wife, and it’ll be fine. We’ll leave all this behind us.”

I arched my back, urging his hand lower, and he chuckled roughly. I didn’t quite hear myself speak as I focused on the fingers that obeyed my silent command. “What will everyone call me, then?” He grazed my belly button as he leaned down, sucking the tip of my breast into his mouth.

“Hmm?” he said, and the rumble against my nipple made me writhe.

“Is everyone just going to call me ‘Tamlin’s wife’? Do I get a … title?”

He lifted his head long enough to look at me. “Do you want a title?”

Before I could answer, he nipped at my breast, then licked over the small hurt—licked as his fingers at last dipped between my legs. He stroked lazy, taunting circles. “No,” I gasped out. “But I don’t want people … ” Cauldron boil me, his damned fingers—“I don’t know if I can handle them calling me High Lady.”

His fingers slid into me again, and he growled in approval at the wetness between my thighs, both from me and him. “They won’t,” he said against my skin, positioning himself over me again and sliding down my body, trailing kisses as he went. “There is no such thing as a High Lady.”

He gripped my thighs to spread my legs wide, lowering his mouth, and—

“What do you mean, there’s no such thing as a High Lady?”

The heat, his touch—all of it stopped.

He looked up from between my legs, and I almost climaxed at the sight of it. But what he said, what he’d implied … He kissed the inside of my thigh. “High Lords only take wives. Consorts. There has never been a High Lady.”

“But Lucien’s mother—”

“She’s Lady of the Autumn Court. Not High Lady. Just as you will be Lady of the Spring Court. They will address you as they address her. They will respect you as they respect her.” He lowered his gaze back to what was inches away from his mouth.

“So Lucien’s—”

“I don’t want to hear another male’s name on your lips right now,” he growled, and lowered his mouth to me.

At the first stroke of his tongue, I stopped arguing.

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