فصل 12کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 12
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I WOKE TO THE RED OF MY EYELIDS STRAINING OUT THE SUN. I was cold, my right shoulder exposed to the breezes of the window, the one that faced the sea. The space beside me on the bed was empty, but the pillow still held the shape of him, and the sheets smelled of us both.
I had spent so many mornings alone in this room, as he visited his mother, I did not think it was strange to find him gone. My eyes closed, and I sank again into the trailing thoughts of dreams. Time passed, and the sun came hot over the windowsill. The birds were up, and the servants, and even the men. I heard their voices from the beach and the practice hall, the rattle and bang of chores. I sat up. His sandals were overturned beside the bed, forgotten. It was not unusual; he went barefoot most places.
He had gone to breakfast, I guessed. He was letting me sleep. Half of me wanted to stay in the room until his return, but that was cowardice. I had a right to a place by his side now, and I would not let the eyes of the servants drive me away. I pulled on my tunic and left to find him.
HE WAS NOT IN the great hall, busy with servants removing the same platters and bowls there had always been. He was not in Peleus’ council chamber, hung with purple tapestry and the weapons of former Phthian kings. And he was not in the room where we used to play the lyre. The trunk that had once kept our instruments sat forlorn in the room’s center.
He was not outside, either, in the trees he and I had climbed. Or by the sea, on the jutting rocks where he waited for his mother. Nor on the practice field where men sweated through drills, clacking their wooden swords.
I do not need to say that my panic swelled, that it became a live thing, slippery and deaf to reason. My steps grew hurried; the kitchen, the basement, the storerooms with their amphorae of oil and wine. And still I did not find him.
It was midday when I sought out Peleus’ room. It was a sign of the size of my unease that I went at all: I had never spoken to the old man alone before. The guards outside stopped me when I tried to enter. The king was at rest, they said. He was alone and would see no one.
“But is Achilles—” I gulped, trying not to make a spectacle of myself, to feed the curiosity I saw in their eyes. “Is the prince with him?” “He is alone,” one of them repeated.
I went to Phoinix next, the old counselor who had looked after Achilles when he was a boy. I was almost choking with fear as I walked to his stateroom, a modest square chamber at the palace’s heart. He had clay tablets in front of him, and on them the men’s marks from the night before, angular and crisscrossing, pledging their arms to the war against Troy.
“The prince Achilles—” I said. I spoke haltingly, my voice thick with panic. “I cannot find him.”
He looked up with some surprise. He had not heard me come in the room; his hearing was poor, and his eyes when they met mine were rheumy and opaque with cataract.
“Peleus did not tell you then.” His voice was soft.
“No.” My tongue was like a stone in my mouth, so big I could barely speak around it.
“I’m sorry,” he said kindly. “His mother has him. She took him last night as he was sleeping. They are gone, no one knows where.”
Later I would see the red marks where my nails had dug through my palms. No one knows where. To Olympus perhaps, where I could never follow. To Africa, or India. To some village where I would not think to look.
Phoinix’s gentle hands guided me back to my room. My mind twisted desperately from thought to thought. I would return to Chiron and seek counsel. I would walk the countryside, calling his name. She must have drugged him, or tricked him. He would not have gone willingly.
As I huddled in our empty room, I imagined it: the goddess leaning over us, cold and white beside the warmth of our sleeping bodies. Her fingernails prick into his skin as she lifts him, her neck is silvery in the window’s moonlight. His body lolls on her shoulder, sleeping or spelled. She carries him from me as a soldier might carry a corpse. She is strong; it takes only one of her hands to keep him from falling.
I did not wonder why she had taken him. I knew. She had wanted to separate us, the first chance she had, as soon as we were out of the mountains. I was angry at how foolish we had been. Of course she would do this; why had I thought we would be safe? That Chiron’s protection would extend here, where it never had before.
She would take him to the caves of the sea and teach him contempt for mortals. She would feed him with the food of the gods and burn his human blood from his veins. She would shape him into a figure meant to be painted on vases, to be sung of in songs, to fight against Troy. I imagined him in black armor, a dark helmet that left him nothing but eyes, bronze greaves that covered his feet. He stands with a spear in each hand and does not know me.
Time folded in on itself, closed over me, buried me. Outside my window, the moon moved through her shapes and came up full again. I slept little and ate less; grief pinned me to the bed like an anchor. It was only my pricking memory of Chiron that finally drove me forth. You do not give up so easily as you once did.
I went to Peleus. I knelt before him on a wool rug, woven bright with purple. He started to speak, but I was too quick for him. One of my hands went to clasp his knees, the other reached upwards, to seize his chin with my hand. The pose of supplication. It was a gesture I had seen many times, but had never made myself. I was under his protection now; he was bound to treat me fairly, by the law of the gods.
“Tell me where he is,” I said.
He did not move. I could hear the muffled batter of his heart against his chest. I had not realized how intimate supplication was, how closely we would be pressed. His ribs were sharp beneath my cheek; the skin of his legs was soft and thin with age.
“I do not know,” he said, and the words echoed down the chamber, stirring the guards. I felt their eyes on my back. Suppliants were rare in Phthia; Peleus was too good a king for such desperate measures.
I pulled at his chin, tugging his face to mine. He did not resist.
“I do not believe you,” I said.
A moment passed.
“Leave us,” he said. The words were for the guards. They shuffled their feet, but obeyed. We were alone.
He leaned forward, down to my ear. He whispered, “Scyros.”
A place, an island. Achilles.
When I stood, my knees ached, as if I had been kneeling a long time. Perhaps I had. I do not know how many moments passed between us in that long hall of Phthian kings. Our eyes were level now, but he would not meet my gaze. He had answered me because he was a pious man, because I had asked him as a suppliant, because the gods demanded it. He would not have otherwise. There was a dullness in the air between us, and something heavy, like anger.
“I will need money,” I told him. I do not know where these words came from. I had never spoken so before, to anyone. But I had nothing left to lose.
“Speak to Phoinix. He will give it to you.”
I nodded my head, barely. I should have done much more. I should have knelt again and thanked him, rubbed my forehead on his expensive rug. I didn’t. Peleus moved to stare out the open window; the sea was hidden by the house’s curve, but we could both hear it, the distant hiss of waves against sand.
“You may go,” he told me. He meant it to be cold, I think, and dismissive; a displeased king to his subject. But all I heard was his weariness.
I nodded once more and left.
THE GOLD THAT Phoinix gave me would have carried me to Scyros and back twice over. The ship’s captain stared when I handed it to him. I saw his eyes flicking over it, weighing its worth, counting what it could buy him.
“You will take me?”
My eagerness displeased him. He did not like to see desperation in those who sought passage; haste and a free hand spoke of hidden crimes. But the gold was too much for him to object. He made a noise, grudging, of acceptance, and sent me to my berth.
I had never been at sea before and was surprised at how slow it was. The boat was a big-bellied trader, making its lazy rounds of the islands, sharing the fleece, oil, and carved furniture of the mainland with the more isolated kingdoms. Every night we put in at a different port to refill our water pots and unload our stores. During the days I stood at the ship’s prow, watching the waves fall away from our black-tarred hull, waiting for the sight of land. At another time I would have been enchanted with it all: the names of the ship’s parts, halyard, mast, stern; the color of the water; the scrubbed-clean smell of the winds. But I barely noticed these things. I thought only of the small island flung out somewhere in front of me, and the fair-haired boy I hoped I would find there.
THE BAY OF SCYROS was so small that I did not see it until we had swung around the rocky island’s southern rim and were almost upon it. Our ship narrowly squeezed between its extending arms, and the sailors leaned over the sides to watch the rocks slide by, holding their breath. Once we were inside, the water was utterly calm, and the men had to row us the rest of the way. The confines were difficult to maneuver; I did not envy the captain’s voyage out.
“We are here,” he told me, sullenly. I was already walking for the gangway.
The cliff face rose sharply in front of me. There was a path of steps carved into the rock, coiling up to the palace, and I took them. At their top were scrubby trees and goats, and the palace, modest and dull, made half from stone and half from wood. If it had not been the only building in sight, I might not have known it for the king’s home. I went to the door and entered.
The hall was narrow and dim, the air dingy with the smell of old dinners. At the far end two thrones sat empty. A few guards idled at tables, dicing. They looked up.
“Well?” one asked me.
“I am here to see King Lycomedes,” I said. I lifted my chin, so they would know I was a man of some importance. I had worn the finest tunic I could find—one of Achilles’.
“I’ll go,” another one said to his fellows. He dropped his dice with a clatter and slumped out of the hall. Peleus would never have allowed such disaffection; he kept his men well and expected much from them in return. Everything about the room seemed threadbare and gray.
The man reappeared. “Come,” he said. I followed him, and my heart picked up. I had thought long about what I would say. I was ready.
“In here.” He gestured to an open door, then turned to go back to his dice.
I stepped through the doorway. Inside, seated before the wispy remains of a fire, sat a young woman.
“I am the princess Deidameia,” she announced. Her voice was bright and almost childishly loud, startling after the dullness of the hall. She had a tipped-up nose and a sharp face, like a fox. She was pretty, and she knew it.
I summoned my manners and bowed. “I am a stranger, come for a kindness from your father.”
“Why not a kindness from me?” She smiled, tilting her head. She was surprisingly small; I guessed she would barely be up to my chest if she stood. “My father is old and ill. You may address your petition to me, and I will answer it.” She affected a regal pose, carefully positioned so the window lit her from behind.
“I am looking for my friend.”
“Oh?” Her eyebrow lifted. “And who is your friend?”
“A young man,” I said, carefully.
“I see. We do have some of those here.” Her tone was playful, full of itself. Her dark hair fell down her back in thick curls. She tossed her head a little, making it swing, and smiled at me again. “Perhaps you’d like to start with telling me your name?” “Chironides,” I said. Son of Chiron.
She wrinkled her nose at the name’s strangeness.
“I am seeking a friend of mine, who would have arrived here perhaps a month ago. He is from Phthia.”
Something flashed in her eyes, or maybe I imagined it did. “And why do you seek him?” she asked. I thought that her tone was not so light as it had been.
“I have a message for him.” I wished very much that I had been led to the old and ill king, rather than her. Her face was like quicksilver, always racing to something new. She unsettled me.
“Hmmm. A message.” She smiled coyly, tapped her chin with a painted fingertip. “A message for a friend. And why should I tell you if I know this young man or not?” “Because you are a powerful princess, and I am your humble suitor.” I knelt.
This pleased her. “Well, perhaps I do know such a man, and perhaps I do not. I will have to think on it. You will stay for dinner and await my decision. If you are lucky, I may even dance for you, with my women.” She cocked her head, suddenly. “You have heard of Deidameia’s women?” “I am sorry to say that I have not.”
She made a moue of displeasure. “All the kings send their daughters here for fostering. Everyone knows that but you.”
I bowed my head, sorrowfully. “I have spent my time in the mountains and have not seen much of the world.”
She frowned a little. Then flicked her hand at the door. “Till dinner, Chironides.”
I spent the afternoon in the dusty courtyard grounds. The palace sat on the island’s highest point, held up against the blue of the sky, and the view was pretty, despite the shabbiness. As I sat, I tried to remember all that I had heard of Lycomedes. He was known to be kind enough, but a weak king, of limited resources. Euboia to the west and Ionia to the east had long eyed his lands; soon enough one of them would bring war, despite the inhospitable shoreline. If they heard a woman ruled here, it would be all the sooner.
When the sun had set, I returned to the hall. Torches had been lit, but they only seemed to increase the gloom. Deidameia, a gold circlet gleaming in her hair, led an old man into the room. He was hunched over, and so draped with furs that I could not tell where his body began. She settled him on a throne and gestured grandly to a servant. I stood back, among the guards and a few other men whose function was not immediately apparent. Counselors? Cousins? They had the same worn appearance as everything else in the room. Only Deidameia seemed to escape it, with her blooming cheeks and glossy hair.
A servant motioned to the cracked benches and tables, and I sat. The king and the princess did not join us; they remained on their thrones at the hall’s other end. Food arrived, hearty enough, but my eyes kept returning to the front of the room. I could not tell if I should make myself known. Had she forgotten me?
But then she stood and turned her face towards our tables. “Stranger from Pelion,” she called, “you will never again be able to say that you have not heard of Deidameia’s women.” Another gesture, with a braceleted hand. A group of women entered, perhaps two dozen, speaking softly to each other, their hair covered and bound back in cloth. They stood in the empty central area that I saw now was a dancing circle. A few men took out flutes and drums, one a lyre. Deidameia did not seem to expect a response from me, or even to care if I had heard. She stepped down from the throne’s dais and went to the women, claiming one of the taller ones as a partner.
The music began. The steps were intricate, and the girls moved through them featly. In spite of myself, I was impressed. Their dresses swirled, and jewelry swung around their wrists and ankles as they spun. They tossed their heads as they whirled, like high-spirited horses.
Deidameia was the most beautiful, of course. With her golden crown and unbound hair, she drew the eye, flashing her wrists prettily in the air. Her face was flushed with pleasure, and as I watched her, I saw her brightness grow brighter still. She was beaming at her partner, almost flirting. Now she would duck her eyes at the woman, now step close as if to tease with her touch. Curious, I craned my head to see the woman she danced with, but the crowd of white dresses obscured her.
The music trilled to an end, and the dancers finished. Deidameia led them forward in a line to receive our praise. Her partner stood beside her, head bowed. She curtsied with the rest and looked up.
I made some sort of sound, the breath jumping in my throat. It was quiet, but it was enough. The girl’s eyes flickered to me.
Several things happened at once then. Achilles—for it was Achilles—dropped Deidameia’s hand and flung himself joyously at me, knocking me backwards with the force of his embrace. Deidameia screamed “Pyrrha!” and burst into tears. Lycomedes, who was not so far sunk into dotage as his daughter had led me to believe, stood.
“Pyrrha, what is the meaning of this?”
I barely heard. Achilles and I clutched each other, almost incoherent with relief.
“My mother,” he whispered, “my mother, she—”
“Pyrrha!” Lycomedes’ voice carried the length of the hall, rising over his daughter’s noisy sobs. He was talking to Achilles, I realized. Pyrrha. Fire-hair.
Achilles ignored him; Deidameia wailed louder. The king, showing a judiciousness that surprised me, threw his eye upon the rest of his court, women and men both. “Out,” he ordered. They obeyed reluctantly, trailing their glances behind them.
“Now.” Lycomedes came forward, and I saw his face for the first time. His skin was yellowed, and his graying beard looked like dirty fleece; yet his eyes were sharp enough. “Who is this man, Pyrrha?” “No one!” Deidameia had seized Achilles’ arm, was tugging at it.
At the same time, Achilles answered coolly, “My husband.”
I closed my mouth quickly, so I did not gape like a fish.
“He is not! That’s not true!” Deidameia’s voice rose high, startling the birds roosting in the rafters. A few feathers wafted down to the floor. She might have said more, but she was crying too hard to speak clearly.
Lycomedes turned to me as if for refuge, man to man. “Sir, is this true?”
Achilles was squeezing my fingers.
“Yes,” I said.
“No!” the princess shrieked.
Achilles ignored her pulling at him, and gracefully inclined his head at Lycomedes. “My husband has come for me, and now I may leave your court. Thank you for your hospitality.” Achilles curtsied. I noted with an idle, dazed part of my mind that he did it remarkably well.
Lycomedes held up a hand to prevent us. “We should consult your mother first. It was she who gave you to me to foster. Does she know of this husband?” “No!” Deidameia said again.
“Daughter!” This was Lycomedes, frowning in a way that was not unlike his daughter’s habit. “Stop this scene. Release Pyrrha.”
Her face was blotchy and swollen with tears, her chest heaving. “No!” She turned to Achilles. “You are lying! You have betrayed me! Monster! Apathes!” Heartless.
Lycomedes froze. Achilles’ fingers tightened on mine. In our language, words come in different genders. She had used the masculine form.
“What was that?” said Lycomedes, slowly.
Deidameia’s face had gone pale, but she lifted her chin in defiance, and her voice did not waver.
“He is a man,” she said. And then, “We are married.”
“What!” Lycomedes clutched his throat.
I could not speak. Achilles’ hand was the only thing that kept me to earth.
“Do not do this,” Achilles said to her. “Please.”
It seemed to enrage her. “I will do it!” She turned to her father. “You are a fool! I’m the only one who knew! I knew!” She struck her chest in emphasis. “And now I’ll tell everyone. Achilles!” She screamed as if she would force his name through the stout stone walls, up to the gods themselves. “Achilles! Achilles! I’ll tell everyone!” “You will not.” The words were cold and knife-sharp; they parted the princess’s shouts easily.
I know that voice. I turned.
Thetis stood in the doorway. Her face glowed, the white-blue of the flame’s center. Her eyes were black, gashed into her skin, and she stood taller than I had ever seen her. Her hair was as sleek as it always was, and her dress as beautiful, but there was something about her that seemed wild, as if an invisible wind whipped around her. She looked like a Fury, the demons that come for men’s blood. I felt my scalp trying to climb off my head; even Deidameia dropped into silence.
We stood there a moment, facing her. Then Achilles reached up and tore the veil from his hair. He seized the neckline of his dress and ripped it down the front, exposing his chest beneath. The firelight played over his skin, warming it to gold.
“No more, Mother,” he said.
Something rippled beneath her features, a spasm of sorts. I was half afraid she would strike him down. But she only watched him with those restless black eyes.
Achilles turned then, to Lycomedes. “My mother and I have deceived you, for which I offer my apologies. I am the prince Achilles, son of Peleus. She did not wish me to go to war and hid me here, as one of your foster daughters.” Lycomedes swallowed and did not speak.
“We will leave now,” Achilles said gently.
The words shook Deidameia from her trance. “No,” she said, voice rising again. “You cannot. Your mother said the words over us, and we are married. You are my husband.” Lycomedes’ breath rasped loudly in the chamber; his eyes were for Thetis alone. “Is this true?” he asked.
“It is,” the goddess answered.
Something fell from a long height in my chest. Achilles turned to me, as if he would speak. But his mother was faster.
“You are bound to us now, King Lycomedes. You will continue to shelter Achilles here. You will say nothing of who he is. In return, your daughter will one day be able to claim a famous husband.” Her eyes went to a point above Deidameia’s head, then back. She added, “It is better than she would have done.” Lycomedes rubbed at his neck, as if he would smooth its wrinkles. “I have no choice,” he said. “As you know.”
“What if I will not be silent?” Deidameia’s color was high. “You have ruined me, you and your son. I have lain with him, as you told me to, and my honor is gone. I will claim him now, before the court, as recompense.” I have lain with him.
“You are a foolish girl,” Thetis said. Each word fell like an axe blade, sharp and severing. “Poor and ordinary, an expedient only. You do not deserve my son. You will keep your peace or I will keep it for you.” Deidameia stepped backwards, her eyes wide, her lips gone white. Her hands were trembling. She lifted one to her stomach and clutched the fabric of her dress there, as if to steady herself. Outside the palace, beyond the cliffs, we could hear huge waves breaking on the rocks, dashing the shoreline to pieces.
“I am pregnant,” the princess whispered.
I was watching Achilles when she said it, and I saw the horror on his face. Lycomedes made a noise of pain.
My chest felt hollowed, and egg-shell thin. Enough. Perhaps I said it, perhaps I only thought it. I let go of Achilles’ hand and strode to the door. Thetis must have moved aside for me; I would have run into her if she had not. Alone, I stepped into the darkness.
“WAIT!” ACHILLES SHOUTED. It took him longer to reach me than it should have, I noted with detachment. The dress must be tangling his legs. He caught up to me, seized my arm.
“Let go,” I said.
“Please, wait. Please, let me explain. I did not want to do it. My mother—” He was breathless, almost panting. I had never seen him so upset.
“She led the girl to my room. She made me. I did not want to. My mother said—she said—” He was stumbling over his words. “She said that if I did as she said, she would tell you where I was.” What had Deidameia thought would happen, I wondered, when she had her women dance for me? Had she really thought I would not know him? I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.
“Patroclus.” He cupped my cheek with his hand. “Do you hear me? Please, say something.”
I could not stop imagining her skin beside his, her swelling breasts and curving hips. I remembered the long days I grieved for him, my hands empty and idle, plucking the air like birds peck at dry earth.
“You did it for nothing.”
He flinched at the emptiness of my voice. But how else was I to sound?
“What do you mean?”
“Your mother did not tell me where you were. It was Peleus.”
His face had gone pale, bled dry. “She did not tell you?”
“No. Did you truly expect she would?” My voice cut harder than I meant it to.
“Yes,” he whispered.
There were a thousand things I might have said, to reproach him for his naïveté. He had always trusted too easily; he had had so little in his life to fear or suspect. In the days before our friendship, I had almost hated him for this, and some old spark of that flared in me, trying to relight. Anyone else would have known that Thetis acted for her own purposes only. How could he be so foolish? The angry words pricked in my mouth.
But when I tried to speak them, I found I could not. His cheeks were flushed with shame, and the skin beneath his eyes was weary. His trust was a part of him, as much as his hands or his miraculous feet. And despite my hurt, I would not wish to see it gone, to see him as uneasy and fearful as the rest of us, for any price.
He was watching me closely, reading my face over and over, like a priest searching the auguries for an answer. I could see the slight line in his forehead that meant utmost concentration.
Something shifted in me then, like the frozen surface of the Apidanos in spring. I had seen the way he looked at Deidameia; or rather the way he did not. It was the same way he had looked at the boys in Phthia, blank and unseeing. He had never, not once, looked at me that way.
“Forgive me,” he said again. “I did not want it. It was not you. I did not—I did not like it.”
Hearing it soothed the last of the jagged grief that had begun when Deidameia shouted his name. My throat was thick with the beginning of tears. “There is nothing to forgive,” I said.
LATER THAT EVENING we returned to the palace. The great hall was dark, its fire burned to embers. Achilles had repaired his dress as best he could, but it still gaped to the waist; he held it closed in case we met a lingering guard.
The voice came from the shadows, startling us.
“You have returned.” The moonlight did not quite reach the thrones, but we saw the outline of a man there, thick with furs. His voice seemed deeper than it had before, heavier.
“We have,” Achilles said. I could hear the slight hesitation before he answered. He had not expected to face the king again so soon.
“Your mother is gone, I do not know where.” The king paused, as if awaiting a response.
Achilles said nothing.
“My daughter, your wife, is in her room crying. She hopes you will come to her.”
I felt the flinch of Achilles’ guilt. His words came out stiffly; it was not a feeling he was used to.
“It is unfortunate that she hopes for this.”
“It is indeed,” Lycomedes said.
We stood in silence a moment. Then Lycomedes drew a weary breath. “I suppose that you want a room for your friend?”
“If you do not mind,” Achilles said, carefully.
Lycomedes let out a soft laugh. “No, Prince Achilles, I do not mind.” There was another silence. I heard the king lift a goblet, drink, replace it on the table.
“The child must have your name. You understand this?” This is what he had waited in the dark to say, beneath his furs, by the dying fire.
“I understand it,” Achilles said quietly.
“And you swear it?”
There was a hairsbreadth of a pause. I pitied the old king. I was glad when Achilles said, “I swear it.”
The old man made a sound like a sigh. But his words, when they came, were formal; he was a king again.
“Good night to you both.”
We bowed and left him.
In the bowels of the palace, Achilles found a guard to show us to the guest quarters. The voice he used was high and fluting, his girl’s voice. I saw the guard’s eyes flicker over him, lingering on the torn edges of the dress, his disheveled hair. He grinned at me with all his teeth.
“Right away, mistress,” he said.
IN THE STORIES, the gods have the power to delay the moon’s course if they wish, to spin a single night the length of many. Such was this night, a bounty of hours that never ran dry. We drank deeply, thirsty for all that we had missed in the weeks we were separated. It was not until the sky began to blanch at last to gray that I remembered what he had said to Lycomedes in the hall. It had been forgotten amidst Deidameia’s pregnancy, his marriage, our reunion.
“Your mother was trying to hide you from the war?”
He nodded. “She does not want me to go to Troy.”
“Why?” I had always thought she wanted him to fight.
“I don’t know. She says I’m too young. Not yet, she says.”
“And it was her idea—?” I gestured at the remnants of the dress.
“Of course. I wouldn’t have done it myself.” He made a face and yanked at his hair, hanging still in its womanly curls. An irritant, but not a crippling shame, as it would have been to another boy. He did not fear ridicule; he had never known it. “Anyway, it is only until the army leaves.” My mind struggled with this.
“So, truly, it was not because of me? That she took you?”
“Deidameia was because of you, I think.” He stared at his hands a moment. “But the rest was the war.”
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