فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Chapter 7

At two-fifteen I was ripped from sleep by a terrible sensation of drowning. Flailing my way out from under the covers, transformed into heavy, wet seaweed by the power of the dream, I moved toward the lighter water above me. Just when I was making progress, something grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me down deeper.

As usual with nightmares, I awoke with a start before finding out who had caught me. For several minutes I lay disoriented, my body drenched with sweat and my heart sounding a staccato beat that reverberated through my rib cage. Gingerly, I sat up.

A white face stared at me from the window with dark, hollow eyes.

Too late I realized that it was just my reflection in the glass. I barely made it to the bathroom before being sick. Then I spent the next thirty minutes curled into a ball on the cold tile floor, blaming Matthew Clairmont and the other, gathering creatures for my unease. Finally I crawled back into bed and slept for a few hours. At dawn I dragged myself into rowing gear.

When I got to the lodge, the porter gave me an amazed look. “You’re not going out at this hour in the fog, Dr. Bishop? You look like you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, if you don’t mind me saying so. Wouldn’t a nice lie-in be a better idea? The river will still be there tomorrow.”

After considering Fred’s advice, I shook my head. “No, I’ll feel better for it.” He looked doubtful. “And the students are back this weekend.”

The pavement was slick with moisture, so I ran more slowly than usual to make allowances for the weather as well as my fatigue. My familiar route took me past Oriel College and to the tall, black iron gates between Merton and Corpus Christi. They were locked from dusk until dawn to keep people out of the meadows that bordered the river, but the first thing you learned when you rowed at Oxford was how to scale them. I climbed them with ease.

The familiar ritual of putting the boat in the water did its work. By the time it slipped away from the dock and into the fog, I felt almost normal.

When it’s foggy, rowing feels even more like flying. The air muffles the normal sounds of birds and automobiles and amplifies the soft thwack of oars in the water and the swoosh of the boat seats. With no shorelines and familiar landmarks to orient you, there’s nothing to steer by but your instincts.

I fell into an easy, swinging rhythm in the scull, my ears and eyes tuned to the slightest change in the sound of my oars that would tell me I was getting too close to the banks or a shadow that would indicate the approach of another boat. The fog was so thick that I considered turning back, but the prospect of a long, straight stretch of river was too enticing.

Just shy of the tavern, I carefully turned the boat. Two rowers were downstream, engaged in a heated discussion about competing strategies for winning the idiosyncratic Oxbridge style of racing known as “bumps.”

“Do you want to go ahead of me?” I called.

“Sure!” came the quick response. The pair shot past, never breaking their stroke.

The sound of their oars faded. I decided to row back to the boathouse and call it quits. It was a short workout, but the stiffness from my third consecutive night of little sleep had lessened.

The equipment put away, I locked the boathouse and walked slowly along the path toward town. It was so quiet in the early-morning mist that time and place receded. I closed my eyes, imagining that I was nowhere—not in Oxford, nor anywhere that had a name.

When I opened them, a dark outline had risen up in front of me. I gasped in fear. The shape shot toward me, and my hands instinctively warded off the danger.

“Diana, I’m so sorry. I thought you had seen me.” It was Matthew Clairmont, his face creased with concern.

“I was walking with my eyes closed.” I grabbed at the neck of my fleece, and he backed away slightly. I propped myself against a tree until my breathing slowed.

“Can you tell me something?” Clairmont asked once my heart stopped pounding.

“Not if you plan to ask why I’m out on the river in the fog when there are vampires and daemons and witches following me.” I wasn’t up for a lecture—not this morning.

“No”—his voice held a touch of acid—“although that’s an excellent question. I was going to ask why you walk with your eyes closed.”

I laughed. “What—you don’t?”

Matthew shook his head. “Vampires have only five senses. We find it best to use all of them,” he said sardonically.

“There’s nothing magical about it, Matthew. It’s a game I’ve played since I was a child. It made my aunt crazy. I was always coming home with bruised legs and scratches from running into bushes and trees.”

The vampire looked thoughtful. He shoved his hands into his slate gray trouser pockets and gazed off into the fog. Today he was wearing a blue-gray sweater that made his hair appear darker, but no coat. It was a striking omission, given the weather. Suddenly feeling unkempt, I wished my rowing tights didn’t have a hole in the back of the left thigh from catching on the boat’s rigging.

“How was your row this morning?” Clairmont asked finally, as if he didn’t already know. He wasn’t out for a morning stroll.

“Good,” I said shortly.

“There aren’t many people here this early.”

“No, but I like it when the river isn’t crowded.”

“Isn’t it risky to row in this kind of weather, when so few people are out?” His tone was mild, and had he not been a vampire watching my every move, I might have taken his inquiry for an awkward attempt at conversation.

“Risky how?”

“If something were to happen, it’s possible nobody would see it.”

I’d never been afraid before on the river, but he had a point. Nevertheless, I shrugged it off. “The students will be here on Monday. I’m enjoying the peace while it lasts.”

“Does term really start next week?” Clairmont sounded genuinely surprised.

“You are on the faculty, aren’t you?” I laughed.

“Technically, but I don’t really see students. I’m here in more of a research capacity.” His mouth tightened. He didn’t like being laughed at.

“Must be nice.” I thought of my three-hundred-seat introductory lecture class and all those anxious freshmen.

“It’s quiet. My laboratory equipment doesn’t ask questions about my long hours. And I have Dr. Shephard and another assistant, Dr. Whitmore, so I’m not entirely alone.”

It was damp, and I was cold. Besides, there was something unnatural about exchanging pleasantries with a vampire in the pea-soup gloom. “I really should go home.”

“Would you like a ride?”

Four days ago I wouldn’t have accepted a ride home from a vampire, but this morning it seemed like an excellent idea. Besides, it gave me an opportunity to ask why a biochemist might be interested in a seventeenth-century alchemical manuscript.

“Sure,” I said.

Clairmont’s shy, pleased look was utterly disarming. “My car’s parked nearby,” he said, gesturing in the direction of Christ Church College. We walked in silence for a few minutes, wrapped up in the gray fog and the strangeness of being alone, witch and vampire. He deliberately shortened his stride to keep in step with me, and he seemed more relaxed outdoors than he had in the library.

“Is this your college?”

“No, I’ve never been a member here.” The way he phrased it made me wonder what colleges he had been a member of. Then I began to consider how long his life had been. Sometimes he seemed as old as Oxford itself.

“Diana?” Clairmont had stopped.

“Hmm?” I’d started to wander off toward the college’s parking area.

“It’s this way,” he said, pointing in the opposite direction.

Matthew led me to a tiny walled enclave. A low-slung black Jaguar was parked under a bright yellow sign that proclaimed POSITIVELY NO PARKING HERE. The car had a John Radcliffe Hospital permit hanging from the rearview mirror.

“I see,” I said, putting my hands on my hips. “You park pretty much wherever you want.”

“Normally I’m a good citizen when it comes to parking, but this morning’s weather suggested that an exception might be made,” Matthew said defensively. He reached a long arm around me to unlock the door. The Jaguar was an older model, without the latest technology of keyless entries and navigation systems, but it looked as if it had just rolled off the show-room floor. He pulled the door open, and I climbed in, the caramel-colored leather upholstery fitting itself to my body.

I’d never been in a car so luxurious. Sarah’s worst suspicions about vampires would be confirmed if she knew they drove Jaguars while she drove a broken-down purple Honda Civic that had oxidized to the brownish lavender of roasted eggplant.

Clairmont rolled along the drive to the gates of Christ Church, where he waited for an opening in the early-morning traffic dominated by delivery trucks, buses, and bicycles. “Would you like some breakfast before I take you home?” he asked casually, gripping the polished steering wheel. “You must be hungry after all that exercise.”

This was the second meal Clairmont had invited me to (not) share with him. Was this a vampire thing? Did they like to watch other people eat?

The combination of vampires and eating turned my mind to the vampire’s dietary habits. Everyone on the planet knew that vampires fed on human blood. But was that all they ate? No longer sure that driving around in a car with a vampire was a good idea, I zipped up the neck of my fleece pullover and moved an inch closer to the door.

“Diana?” he prompted.

“I could eat,” I admitted hesitantly, “and I’d kill for some tea.”

He nodded, his eyes back on the traffic. “I know just the place.”

Clairmont steered up the hill and took a right down the High Street. We passed the statue of George II’s wife standing under the cupola at The Queen’s College, then headed toward Oxford’s botanical gardens. The hushed confines of the car made Oxford seem even more otherworldly than usual, its spires and towers appearing suddenly out of the quiet and fog.

We didn’t talk, and his stillness made me realize how much I moved, constantly blinking, breathing, and rearranging myself. Not Clairmont. He never blinked and seldom breathed, and his every turn of the steering wheel or push of the pedals was as small and efficient as possible, as if his long life required him to conserve energy. I wondered again how old Matthew Clairmont was.

The vampire darted down a side street, pulling up in front of a tiny café that was packed with locals bolting down plates of food. Some were reading the newspaper; others were chatting with their neighbors at adjoining tables. All of them, I noted with pleasure, were drinking huge mugs of tea.

“I didn’t know about this place,” I said.

“It’s a well-kept secret,” he said mischievously. “They don’t want university dons ruining the atmosphere.”

I automatically turned to open my car door, but before I could touch the handle, Clairmont was there, opening it for me.

“How did you get here so fast?” I grumbled.

“Magic,” he replied through pursed lips. Apparently Clairmont did not approve of women who opened their own car doors any more than he reportedly approved of women who argued with him.

“I am capable of opening my own door,” I said, getting out of the car.

“Why do today’s women think it’s important to open a door themselves?” he said sharply. “Do you believe it’s a testament to your physical power?”

“No, but it is a sign of our independence.” I stood with my arms crossed, daring him to contradict me and remembering what Chris had said about Clairmont’s behavior toward a woman who’d asked too many questions at a conference.

Wordlessly he closed the car’s door behind me and opened the café door. I stood resolutely in place, waiting for him to enter. A gust of warm, humid air carried the smell of bacon fat and toasted bread. My mouth started to water.

“You’re impossibly old-fashioned,” I said with a sigh, deciding not to fight it. He could open doors for me this morning so long as he was prepared to buy me a hot breakfast.

“After you,” he murmured.

Once inside, we wended our way through the crowded tables. Clairmont’s skin, which had looked almost normal in the fog, was conspicuously pale under the café’s stark overhead lighting. A couple of humans stared as we passed. The vampire stiffened.

This wasn’t a good idea, I thought uneasily as more human eyes studied us.

“Hiya, Matthew,” a cheerful female voice called from behind the counter. “Two for breakfast?”

His face lightened. “Two, Mary. How’s Dan?”

“Well enough to complain that he’s fed up being in bed. I’d say he’s definitely on the mend.”

“That’s wonderful news,” Clairmont said. “Can you get this lady some tea when you have a chance? She’s threatened to kill for it.”

“Won’t be necessary, dearie,” Mary told me with a smile. “We serve tea without bloodshed.” She eased her ample body out from behind the Formica counter and led us to a table tucked into the far corner next to the kitchen door. Two plastic-covered menus hit the table with a slap. “You’ll be out of the way here, Matthew. I’ll send Steph around with the tea. Stay as long as you like.”

Clairmont made a point of settling me with my back to the wall. He sat opposite, between me and the rest of the room, curling the laminated menu into a tube and letting it gently unfurl in his fingers, visibly bristling. In the presence of others, the vampire was restless and prickly, just as he had been in the library. He was much more comfortable when the two of us were alone.

I recognized the significance of this behavior thanks to my new knowledge of the Norwegian wolf. He was protecting me.

“Just who do you think poses a threat, Matthew? I told you I could take care of myself.” My voice came out a little more tartly than I had intended.

“Yes, I’m sure you can,” he said doubtfully.

“Look,” I said, trying to keep my tone even, “you’ve managed to keep . . . them away from me so I could get some work done.” The tables were too close together for me to include any more details. “I’m grateful for that. But this café is full of humans. The only danger now would come from your drawing their attention. You’re officially off duty.”

Clairmont cocked his head in the direction of the cash register. “That man over there told his friend that you looked ‘tasty.’” He was trying to make light of it, but his face darkened. I smothered a laugh.

“I don’t think he’s going to bite me,” I said.

The vampire’s skin took on a grayish hue.

“From what I understand of modern British slang, ‘tasty’ is a compliment, not a threat.”

Clairmont continued to glower.

“If you don’t like what you’re hearing, stop listening in on other people’s conversations,” I offered, impatient with his male posturing.

“That’s easier said than done,” he pronounced, picking up a jar of Marmite.

A younger, slightly svelter version of Mary came up with an enormous brown stoneware teapot and two mugs. “Milk and sugar are on the table, Matthew,” she said, eyeing me with curiosity.

Matthew made the necessary introductions. “Steph, this is Diana. She’s visiting from America.”

“Really? Do you live in California? I’m dying to get to California.”

“No, I live in Connecticut,” I said regretfully.

“That’s one of the little states, isn’t it?” Steph was clearly disappointed.

“Yes. And it snows.”

“I fancy palm trees and sunshine, myself.” At the mention of snow, she’d lost interest in me entirely. “What’ll it be?”

“I’m really hungry,” I said apologetically, ordering two scrambled eggs, four pieces of toast, and several rashers of bacon.

Steph, who had clearly heard far worse, wrote down the order without comment and picked up our menus. “Just tea for you, Matthew?”

He nodded.

Once Steph was out of earshot, I leaned across the table. “Do they know about you?”

Clairmont tilted forward, his face a foot away from mine. This morning he smelled sweeter, like a freshly picked carnation. I inhaled deeply.

“They know I’m a little different. Mary may suspect I’m more than a little different, but she’s convinced that I saved Dan’s life, so she’s decided it doesn’t matter.”

“How did you save her husband?” Vampires were supposed to take human lives, not save them.

“I saw him on a rotation at the Radcliffe when they were short staffed. Mary had seen a program that described the symptoms of stroke, and she recognized them when her husband began to struggle. Without her he’d be dead or seriously incapacitated.”

“But she thinks you saved Dan?” The vampire’s spiciness was making me dizzy. I lifted the lid from the teapot, replacing the aroma of carnations with the tannic smell of black tea.

“Mary saved him the first time, but after he was admitted into hospital he had a terrible reaction to his medication. I told you she’s observant. When she took her concerns to one of the physicians, he brushed them aside. I . . . overheard—and intervened.”

“Do you often see patients?” I poured each of us a steaming mug of tea so strong you could stand a spoon up in it. My hands trembled slightly at the idea of a vampire prowling the wards at the John Radcliffe among the sick and injured.

“No,” he said, toying with the sugar jar, “only when they have an emergency.”

Pushing one of the mugs toward him, I fixed my eyes on the sugar. He handed it to me. I put precisely half a teaspoon of sugar and half a cup of milk into my tea. This was just how I liked it—black as tar, a hint of sugar to cut the edge off the bitterness, then enough milk to make it look less like stew. This done, I stirred the concoction clockwise. As soon as experience told me it wouldn’t burn my tongue, I took a sip. Perfect.

The vampire was smiling.

“What?” I asked.

“I’ve never seen anyone approach tea with that much attentiveness to detail.”

“You must not spend much time with serious tea drinkers. It’s all about being able to gauge the strength before you put the sugar and milk in it.” His steaming mug sat untouched in front of him. “You like yours black, I see.”

“Tea’s not really my drink,” he said, his voicing dropping slightly.

“What is your drink?” The minute the question was out of my mouth, I wished I could call it back. His mood went from amusement to tight-lipped fury.

“You have to ask?” he said scathingly. “Even humans know the answer to that question.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.” I gripped the mug, trying to steady myself.

“No, you shouldn’t.”

I drank my tea in silence. We both looked up when Steph approached with a toast rack full of grilled bread and a plate heaped high with eggs and bacon.

“Mum thought you needed veg,” Steph explained when my eyes widened at the mound of fried mushrooms and tomatoes that accompanied the breakfast. “She said you looked like death.”

“Thank you!” I said. Mary’s critique of my appearance did nothing to diminish my appreciation for the extra food.

Steph grinned and Clairmont offered me a small smile when I picked up the fork and applied myself to the plate.

Everything was piping hot and fragrant, with the perfect ratio of fried surface to melting, tender insides. My hunger appeased, I started a methodical attack on the toast rack, taking up the first triangle of cold toast and scraping butter over its surface. The vampire watched me eat with the same acute attention he’d devoted to watching me make my tea.

“So why science?” I ventured, tucking the toast into my mouth so he’d have to answer.

“Why history?” His voice was dismissive, but he wasn’t going to fend me off that easily.

“You first.”

“I suppose I need to know why I’m here,” he said, looking fixedly at the table. He was building a moated castle from the sugar jar and a ring of blue artificial-sweetener packets.

I froze at the similarity between his explanation and what Agatha had told me the day before about Ashmole 782. “That’s a question for philosophers, not scientists.” I sucked a drop of butter off my finger to hide my confusion.

His eyes glittered with another wave of sudden anger. “You don’t really believe that—that scientists don’t care about why.”

“They used to be interested in the whys,” I conceded, keeping a wary eye on him. His sudden shifts in mood were downright frightening. “Now it seems all they’re concerned with is the question of how—how does the body work, how do the planets move?”

Clairmont snorted. “Not the good scientists.” The people behind him got up to leave, and he tensed, ready if they decided to rush the table.

“And you’re a good scientist.”

He let my assessment pass without comment.

“Someday you’ll have to explain to me the relationship between neuroscience, DNA research, animal behavior, and evolution. They don’t obviously fit together.” I took another bite of toast.

Clairmont’s left eyebrow rose toward his hairline. “You’ve been catching up on your scientific journals,” he said sharply.

I shrugged. “You had an unfair advantage. You knew all about my work. I was just leveling the playing field.”

He mumbled something under his breath that sounded French. “I’ve had a lot of time to think,” he replied flatly in English, enlarging the moat around his castle with another ring of sweetener packets. “There’s no connection between them.”

“Liar,” I said softly.

Not surprisingly, my accusation made Clairmont furious, but the speed of the transformation still took me aback. It was a reminder that I was having breakfast with a creature who could be lethal.

“Tell me what the connection is, then,” he said through clenched teeth.

“I’m not sure,” I said truthfully. “Something’s holding them all together, a question that links your research interests and gives meaning to them. The only other explanation is that you’re an intellectual magpie—which is ridiculous, given how highly regarded your work is—or maybe you get bored easily. You don’t seem the type to be prone to intellectual ennui. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Clairmont studied me until the silence grew uncomfortable. My stomach was starting to complain at the amount of food I’d expected it to absorb. I poured fresh tea and doctored it while waiting for him to speak.

“For a witch you’re observant, too.” The vampire’s eyes showed grudging admiration.

“Vampires aren’t the only creatures who can hunt, Matthew.”

“No. We all hunt something, don’t we Diana?” He lingered over my name. “Now it’s my turn. Why history?”

“You haven’t answered all my questions.” And I hadn’t yet asked him my most important question.

He shook his head firmly, and I redirected my energy from ferreting out information to protecting myself from Clairmont’s attempts to obtain it.

“At first it was the neatness of it, I suppose.” My voice sounded surprisingly tentative. “The past seemed so predictable, as if nothing that happened there was surprising.”

“Spoken like someone who wasn’t there,” the vampire said drily.

I gave a short laugh. “I found that out soon enough. But in the beginning that’s how it seemed. At Oxford the professors made the past a tidy story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Everything seemed logical, inevitable. Their stories hooked me, and that was it. No other subject interested me. I became a historian and have never looked back.”

“Even though you discovered that human beings—past or present—aren’t logical?”

“History only became more challenging when it became less neat. Every time I pick up a book or a document from the past, I’m in a battle with people who lived hundreds of years ago. They have their secrets and obsessions—all the things they won’t or can’t reveal. It’s my job to discover and explain them.”

“What if you can’t? What if they defy explanation?”

“That’s never happened,” I said after considering his question. “At least I don’t think it has. All you have to do is be a good listener. Nobody really wants to keep secrets, not even the dead. People leave clues everywhere, and if you pay attention, you can piece them together.”

“So you’re the historian as detective,” he observed.

“Yes. With far lower stakes.” I sat back in my chair, thinking the interview was over.

“Why the history of science, then?” he continued.

“The challenge of great minds, I suppose?” I tried not to sound glib, nor to let my voice rise up at the end of the sentence into a question, and failed on both counts.

Clairmont bowed his head and slowly began to take apart his moated castle.

Common sense told me to remain silent, but the knotted threads of my own secrets began to loosen. “I wanted to know how humans came up with a view of the world that had so little magic in it,” I added abruptly. “I needed to understand how they convinced themselves that magic wasn’t important.”

The vampire’s cool gray eyes lifted to mine. “Have you found out?”

“Yes and no.” I hesitated. “I saw the logic that they used, and the death of a thousand cuts as experimental scientists slowly chipped away at the belief that the world was an inexplicably powerful, magical place. Ultimately they failed, though. The magic never really went away. It waited, quietly, for people to return to it when they found the science wanting.”

“So alchemy,” he said.

“No,” I protested. “Alchemy is one of the earliest forms of experimental science.”

“Perhaps. But you don’t believe that alchemy is devoid of magic.” Matthew’s voice was certain. “I’ve read your work. Not even you can keep it away entirely.”

“Then it’s science with magic. Or magic with science, if you prefer.”

“Which do you prefer?”

“I’m not sure,” I said defensively.

“Thank you.” Clairmont’s look suggested he knew how difficult it was for me to talk about this.

“You’re welcome. I think.” I pushed my hair back from my eyes, feeling a little shaky. “Can I ask you something else?” His eyes were wary, but he nodded. “Why are you interested in my work—in alchemy?”

He almost didn’t answer, ready to brush the question aside, then reconsidered. I’d given him a secret. Now it was his turn.

“The alchemists wanted to know why we’re here, too.” Clairmont was telling the truth—I could see that—but it got me no closer to understanding his interest in Ashmole 782. He glanced at his watch. “If you’re finished, I should get you back to college. You must want to get into warm clothes before you go to the library.”

“What I need is a shower.” I stood and stretched, twisting my neck in an effort to ease its chronic tightness. “And I have to go to yoga tonight. I’m spending too much time sitting at a desk.”

The vampire’s eyes glinted. “You practice yoga?”

“Couldn’t live without it,” I replied. “I love the movement, and the meditation.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “That’s the way you row—a combination of movement and meditation.”

My cheeks colored. He was watching me as closely on the river as he had in the library.

Clairmont put a twenty-pound note on the table and waved at Mary. She waved back, and he touched my elbow lightly, steering me between the tables and the few remaining customers.

“Whom do you take class with?” he asked after he opened the car door and settled me inside.

“I go to that studio on the High Street. I haven’t found a teacher I like yet, but it’s close, and beggars can’t be choosers.” New Haven had several yoga studios, but Oxford was lagging behind.

The vampire settled himself in the car, turned the key, and neatly reversed in a nearby driveway before heading back to town.

“You won’t find the class you need there,” he said confidently.

“You do yoga, too?” I was fascinated by the image of his massive body twisting itself through a practice.

“Some,” he said. “If you want to go to yoga with me tomorrow, I could pick you up outside Hertford at six. This evening you’d have to brave the studio in town, but tomorrow you’d have a good practice.”

“Where’s your studio? I’ll call and see if they have a class tonight.”

Clairmont shook his head. “They aren’t open tonight. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday evenings only.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “What’s the class like?”

“You’ll see. It’s hard to describe.” He was trying not to smile.

To my surprise, we’d arrived at the lodge. Fred craned his neck to see who was idling inside the gates, saw the Radcliffe tag, and strolled over to see what was going on.

Clairmont let me out of the car. Outside, I gave Fred a wave, and extended my hand. “I enjoyed breakfast. Thanks for the tea and company.”

“Anytime,” he said. “I’ll see you in the library.”

Fred whistled as Clairmont pulled away. “Nice car, Dr. Bishop. Friend of yours?” It was his job to know as much as possible about what happened in the college for safety’s sake as well as to satisfy the unabashed curiosity that was part of a porter’s job description.

“I suppose so,” I said thoughtfully.

In my rooms I pulled out my passport case and removed a ten-dollar bill from my stash of American currency. It took me a few minutes to find an envelope. After slipping the bill inside without a note, I addressed it to Chris, wrote “AIR MAIL” on the front in capital letters, and stuck the required postage in the upper corner.

Chris was never going to let me forget he’d won this bet. Never.

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