Good morning all, and thanks for stopping by to read Chapter Thirty-One of The Cursed King. I woke up late today, which is why this has been posted slightly later than usual. Whilst the rain is lashing it down outside, it is nice to have as many indoor hobbies as I do to keep me occupied. Though I am hoping I’ll be able to get back into a sunny pub garden sooner rather than later.
Today’s Chapter sees us back with Nadir. With Jerimeh away and Nadir not knowing where he went, he is left with Effei, but Effei is eager to continue the investigation that Jerimeh had left dormant. Covering old ground, Nadir learns some worrying truths about the people around him and struggles to put the pieces together. Whilst coming to terms with the fact that he cannot trust anyone in this Kingdom, Nadir makes a decision that will change him forever. Thanks for reading, and Chapter Thirty-Two will be posted on May 22nd.
“It is my birthday today,” Nadir blurted out as he sipped on the fire water that King Aedvard gave to him.
Nadir had thrown all of his caution aside since he realised that King Aedvard had a tighter control on his imprisonment than King Aron did. Aedvard had the schedules of all of the guards on his duty tattooed onto his memory. The King of the Blacklands knew every movement, every action and every routine within the castle, as if he had been preparing for his capture for years. If Nadir had not known that he had at least until first light before he would need to sneak back into the walls, he would not have said a word about it. But it was the dead of night, and the two men guarding the cell were half-asleep and had no idea he was even there.
King Aedvard raised his metal cup and took a hearty swig of the drink as civilly as he could. Aedvard had asked Nadir to bring him the flask. One of his own spies within the castle had left it in a secure spot by the cliffs, which Nadir found under a rock that was far heavier than anticipated, and he pulled a muscle in his arm pulling it off the flask. Drinking it at first, Nadir wondered why the man wanted it at all. It was not sweet or tasty, but sharp and sour. It burned the back of his throat, and almost made him choke upon his first sip. Now though, after a few sips, Nadir’s belly was warm and his head felt lighter. Moreover, he felt far more relaxed around his King than he ever had before.
“Happy Birthday, Nadir. Here is to many more, and hopefully to the last in this God-awful city,” The King toasted through the bars and clinked Nadir’s cup. “How many years does that make you?”
“I am eleven.”
“Ah eleven. I have a grandson not much older than you. I believe he will be sixteen in a few more moons.”
“Prince Riechard?” Nadir asked, knowing the answer already.
“Aye, that is him. A fine lad he is too. Tall, strong, and ferocious. My spies tell me he has not long won his first battle, you know? Still, I told the little shite to stay put and man my capital, so he will know my wrath for that disobedience. I must say though, should my grandfather have told me to stay home whilst he was shackled up in chains, I doubt I would have listened either.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Miss him? I haven’t seen the boy in over a year. I suppose yes, as much as a man as busy as I am can miss anything. Though I doubt it is anywhere near to the extent you miss your mother. Now that truly was a loss that was hard to take.”
“I am sorry.”
“Oh nonsense. I am an old man, old men do not have living parents, it would take all the fun out of being old. No, that was a long time ago now. It is funny. All men take their mothers for granted right up until the day they die, and then they wonder what they ever did without them.”
Nadir wrestled with his words for a few moments. “You will find her, won’t you?”
Aedvard placed his metal cup on the floor. “Put your faith in me, lad and you will have no reason to doubt me. I have my best men on it, of that you can be certain.”
Nadir had heard it all before. Jerimeh had told him the same thing, and now Aedvard was saying it. “Jerimeh told me that…and another before him. It seems as though I am constantly being promised the same thing, and yet no one really knows. They are just saying it so that I help them.”
Aedvard nodded in agreement. “You are right to distrust people, Nadir. You are right, of course. Jerimeh has been using you for his own ends, as have I. I will not lie to you, Nadir. Should you decide not to help me, then I would, in-turn, not help you. That is what it is to be an adult. But that is what men do. We make trades. We make deals. And good men keep to their word. I intend to keep my end of the bargain, but just to be certain. How about we make a deal here and now?”
“A deal?” Nadir asked suspiciously.
“Yes. Like men do. I will make a deal with you with my hand on my heart. There will come a time soon where I will ask too much of you. I will ask something of you that will put you and I in great danger. You do not have to do it, but there will be a great reward for you if you do.”
“What is it?”
“Nadir…my armies are closing in on Silver City. Within a month or so this entire city will be under siege, and I will need help escaping this cell. I have remained here long enough. My bones are tired and my muscles ache. I am wasting away and I will be too weak to lead my men in battle should I stay much longer. What I need from you, is that when the time comes, I will send someone for you. You will follow them here. And you will release me from my cell.”
“Break you out of the cell?” Nadir tried to stifle his gasp and the shock in his voice. “If I am caught then…”
“If we are caught then we will both be put to death,” Aedvard said without any emotion at all.
“And if your men break into the city…then what?”
“Then I will win the war. I will seize The Hartlands and rule over two Kingdoms. King Aron will be executed along with his brother and all of the other Earls within this Kingdom who do not pledge their fealty. And when I win, Nadir. You will be rewarded. You will have your choice of education. I will send you to a monastery if you’d like to continue to learn letters, I will send you to my own personal master of arms if you would like to train to become a knight. Either way, you will be given opportunities far above your birth, and the freedom of the Kingdom. Of course, all of that will come after we find your mother as the first priority, if we have not done so already by then. And if we haven’t, I will lead the search personally until you are back in her arms. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like a tale my mother would tell me when I was a child. It sounds too good to be true. It also sounds like I don’t have a choice.”
“I do not make promises lightly, Nadir. All that I have said, I mean.”
“I don’t want any of that. I do not belong in this world. Your world. My life was hard. The work was tough, but it was simple, and I was happy. I am sorry, but I do not see many happy people living this way of life, and I do not want to be another unhappy person. I have come to learn that you will not help me find my mother. Jerimeh won’t help me. No one is going to help me. I am the only thing that my mother has, and she is all I have. The only person who is going to be able to find her is me. I don’t want your false promises of riches or nobility. I want my freedom. If you can offer me that. If you can offer me protection from soldiers, the freedom of the cities and towns within these Kingdoms, then I do not need anything else. If you can give me that, King Aedvard, then I you have my word. I will break you out of this cell.”
King Aedvard stood on his feet and Nadir rose on the other side of the bars. He extended his arm through them and Nadir shook the old man’s hand. “Deal,” the King said.
Nadir walked through the streets of Silver City with Effei at his side. Jerimeh had left the city again, but had not explained why, and Effei would not say a word about it. In Effei’s hands he twirled the golden coin that Jimmy the Blacksmith had given to Jerimeh months ago. Jerimeh had not said a word more about it, but Effei seemed eager to get to the bottom of it on this very day. He was shaken from his bed by the Godson, and Nadir thought that he might have vomited, with his head in a haze and his eyes stinging. The cold morning air snapped Nadir from his sickness, and he was glad to be on his feet so early in the morning.
Silver City was positively pleasant at this time. The light of the sun caused the rats and the other undesirables to scurry back into the darkness, and the fresh-faced and hard-working folk greeted them kindly as they walked down the street. Effei was in no mood for pleasantries, though he hid it well. He walked so fast that Nadir could hardly keep up, and Effei almost rolled down Smith’s Row.
“We are going to see the Blacksmith again?”
“I am going to see the Blacksmith. You are going to sit with his daughter whilst I speak with him.”
“But why are we here? Is it to do with the coin?”
“This coin means something, Nadir. More importantly, it means something to Jerimeh, but as he is off again and the Gods only know where, it is up to us to find its meaning.”
Nadir was hesitant to be doing this behind Jerimeh’s back. He had been angry with Jerimeh for so long, that he knew he had to regain his favour and trust if he was going to be able to release Aedvard from his cell. This would not help with that. “Why don’t we wait for Jerimeh to come back?”
“He is to be gone a while I hear. I am not sure when to expect him back, and with the war going so wholeheartedly against us, I must make myself useful in whatever way I can.”
“Jimmy the Blacksmith found the coin in Ellen’s pocket the day after she was poisoned. Does the coin belong to someone important?”
Nadir stopped in front of Jimmy’s home and knelt down, holding the key in front of Nadir’s eyes. “This coin is the currency of the Order of Ravens. The Order are an organised sub-society who operate throughout the New World. They hold no allegiances to Kingdoms and dedicate their lives to the study of our world, our Gods, every single thing that makes up our lives. If it exists, you will find a member of the Order who studies it. There are Ravens in Filos, Amenti, Cesara, The Twin Kingdoms and even some in Ismann and the Molten Isles. Because they hold no allegiances, they only trade with each other, only in secret…and only with this currency – it’s called Raven’s Gold. You see the Raven is not scratched in, it just looks like that, it is actually jet encased in gold. Obviously, because of its rarity, there are some men who collect them, and they are worth a small fortune.”
“If it is worth so much money, why did Jimmy give it to Jerimeh?”
Effei laughed, “you know, I have to believe that Jimmy did not know its true value. Anyone who did would not have given it away so lightly.”
“Jerimeh said that this was a coin from the Old World – that it was Antinnan.”
Effei sighed. “He might be right; he might be wrong. It would not surprise me to know that the Order’s network stretched as far as The Old World, but I doubt it. I believe Jerimeh gave that conclusion at the time because the note that Ellen was given was written in Antinnan. And simple explanations make the best lies, Nadir. It is the complex one’s people tend not to believe.”
Effei knocked on the door. Nadir pondered where the coin came from. He thought of telling Nadir about Stillius, but he could see no connection between the Order that he’d met and poisoning a young girl. It did not make sense. Besides, Nadir trusted Stillius more than he did Jerimeh and Effei. Perhaps only because Stillius had promised him refuge and had followed through with his promise. Perhaps it would be Stillius who would find his mother. It felt like Nadir had half the Kingdom searching, or at least so those around him kept promising. But if Stillius really was part of a society that stretched from the volcanic Molten Isles to the icy mountains of Ismann, there was a chance he would find her.
Ellen was reading when Nadir entered her room. She greeted him happily and pulled a stool beside her so that Nadir could read with her. It was a story that she had written on parchment. The quill was damaged and the inkwell was almost dry as Ellen scribbled her final few words on the page. “It’s a story about the war,” Ellen told him. “Well, about what is going to happen in the war. Father says that all of the news we are getting is false, and that we are actually winning the war and crushing The Blacklands army, but that King Aron only wants people to think that we’re losing so that they fight harder. I’ve written about how our brave army actually won the Battle of the Mountain Pass.”
Ellen seemed so pleased with her work, and so confident in her father’s assertions that he could not help but become swept up in her story. Despite what King Aedvard had told him, he almost wanted to believe that it was true, so that the city was protected. Nadir knew all too well what happened when soldiers stormed a city. It was the reason he was in this one, surrounded by people who felt protected by their leaders, full of hope and trust. Ellen continued to scribble on the page. “Ellen, I need to ask you something…about the night you were poisoned?”
Ellen seemed hurt by the question. As if she had been betrayed by it. “I’ve already told you everything. I wasn’t lying.”
“I know…what I mean is…is there anything you can remember now that you couldn’t before?” She shook her head, but did not look up from the parchment as she scribbled. “Jerimeh had some books…he said that one of these was written by a man who only wrote his dreams. None of it happened, but they were so interesting and people wanted to read them, because they felt real. It was as if it really happened to him, and people liked it.” Nadir pulled his chair beside her and took a fresh sheet of parchment from the desk and lay it gently upon the battle story. “Maybe you could write something like that.”
Nadir walked out of the house with Effei and tucked the folded piece of parchment away into the pocket of his habit. Ellen had cried as she wrote, but she wrote it all down for him to read. All he needed to do was find a quiet place to read it. Effei was not finished for the day. They did not go straight back to Harthelm like they usually did, but instead stopped at the priory. Nadir was used to helping occasionally. They would sit with the sick and read prayers to them, they would feed and bathe those who were destitute and help with whatever else Prior Swann needed. Effei seemed to enjoy the work. Nadir supposed that it was so different from Effei’s day-to-day as second in command to Jerimeh, that it must have been relaxing to him.
Nadir was pulled over to two monks helping to bathe an elderly woman who was caked head to toe in dirt as if she had just been pulled out from the ground. She laughed as they scrubbed her as hard as they could with rags and brushes, and the tub was thick with murky brown water. A brush was thrust into his hand as one of the monks snuck away into a back room, and before Nadir knew it, he was alone with the old woman, scrubbing the dirt from her back.
“Monks!” The woman cackled and spat into the tub. “Can’t stand the sight of a naked woman!” She cackled again.
“How did you get so grim?” Nadir asked as he scrubbed her skin so hard that he was worried that she would yell out in pain, but she remained calm as the dirt finally begun to shake loose.
“They found me at the bottom of the ocean dear, and they dragged me up through the muddy lagoons and brought me here. I’m a sea monster!” The old woman stuck out her tongue and made a growling sound.
Nadir continued to scrub, unperturbed by the cackling old woman that he scrubbed clean. Eventually, all of the dirt fell easily from her skin, and Nadir no longer saw the filthy sea monster, but a human being not much different in age as old Enid. He remembered her house burning to the ground, the hot wood on his hands as he watched her sleep silently before the fire consumed her. Marc the Reeve’s skull caved in underneath the hoof of a rearing horse. Then his mother…stuffed in a cage with Anton and the other survivors of the raid whilst he ran away from them into the woods, scared and alone.
Nadir robed the woman and she sat down at a table with others just like her. She was clean and sipped a thin broth from a wooden spoon. Startlingly, she turned to him as he stared. “Sit with me,” she commanded.
Nadir looked at one of the monks who nodded and shooed him towards the woman. He sat on the opposite bench and the woman smiled at him and winked. “My name is Joan,” she said.
“I am Nadir…did they really pull you out of the sea?”
Joan stifled a laugh this time instead of cackling. “They may have well as done given the state of me…but no. I am from a small hamlet in the region of Battlestorm. We were raided by pirates – the perils of being a coastal village, I suppose. They did what they do. They killed and raped and stole and beat the people bloody for the fun. It is a story as old as any I have ever heard. But what to do with old Joan? Oh, even the most violent man would not drive his sword through my belly or beat me silly. But they still wanted to have their fun. And so, they dug a hole in the ground whilst I screamed and screamed, and then they threw me in. In truth, I was ready to die by then. I had watched my home destroyed, and what was left of my family and friends murdered or worse. I let the dirt shower over me and drifted into sleep.”
“How did you get out?”
“I do not know, Nadir. I woke up on my way to Silver City. Only the Gods know who found me and dragged me up from the depths of the underworld. But here I am.”
“I am sorry this happened to you,” Nadir said, unsure of what else to say.
“Oh hush…this is the way of life. Very few of us are lucky to get by without a whiff of tragedy and horror. The longer you live, the more you see. When I look back, I have suffered no more or no less than anyone else. When I look forward, I am sat here with a kind boy to tell my story to and a warm bowl of soup. I am clean from head to toe. I would say I am lucky.”
“Nadir…it is time to leave,” Effei called from across the hall.
Nadir looked up at Joan. “I have to go now.”
“It would appear so. Thank you for my bath, Nadir. We will meet again.”
Nadir had become used to eating with only Effei for company. He chewed on his roasted carrots and stared into the distance for a while in silence. It seemed that Effei was doing the same before the Godson realised that it was his duty as the senior to initiate the conversation. “You made a friend today.”
Nadir looked baffled for a second and then remembered Joan. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose I did. She was a nice old woman.”
Effei laughed. “I meant Ellen. I heard you talking. You have a way with people, you know? People want to trust you.”
“What did she write?”
“You told her to write something down. What did she write?”
“She wrote a story about a girl who was kidnapped by a wolf in the woods.”
“Go on. I want to hear it.”
Nadir pulled the parchment from his pocket. “There once was a wolf that hunted in the woods surrounding a township. The people were terrified of the wolf, and would not dare go into the woods because of it. One day, a girl was playing just beyond the woods a little too close to dusk, and without warning, she was snatched away before she could even muster a scream. The wolf took her in his jaws and carried her into the darkest parts of the forest. She could not move or try to escape because if she did, then the wolf would devour her. Instead, she waited, and stayed as still as possible. The girl thought that the wolf would bring her to its pack. She did not know what it wanted with her, but she assumed that she was food for the pack. Eventually, the wolf stopped and dropped her into a patch of green grass by a stream. The wolf drank from the stream, and then gestured to the girl to do the same, which she did. After she drank the water, the wolf began to talk. She was shocked that she could now understand the wolf, but she did not think much more of it. The wolf asked her to do something for him. The wolf had a gift that he wanted to give to the townspeople to show that he was not to be feared, but worried that he would be killed out of fear if he were to enter the town. The gift was one of his own fangs cast in gold – a symbol that would protect them, and would show them that he was not to be feared. She was instructed to give the golden fang to the Town Mother. The girl told him that she would do it for him and went back to the town with the fang in her pocket. On her way back to the town, the girl suddenly felt very strange. There was a rumble in her belly and she felt like she would be sick at any moment. When she reached the gate, the girl had asked to see the Town Mother, but she was asleep and it was the middle of the night. The Watchmen were concerned that she had spent all night in the woods alone, and had noticed that her eyes were yellow and her hands were hairy. All of a sudden, when the moonlight rose above the trees, the girl lost all sense of herself. She suddenly had a craving for blood and human flesh, and her brain focused on only one thing. Find the Town Mother…and kill her. The wolf had not wanted to warn them at all. The Golden Fang was to make the Town Mother feel protected and to trust the girl, and when her guard was down, kill her and allow the wolf and his pack to attack the town whilst it was defenceless. Luckily, the Watchmen were able to subdue the girl and took her to a healer who cured her of her affliction. But it was a cautionary tale to all of them…do not trust the wolf.”
Nadir went back to his carrots, whilst Effei sipped at his wine. “She is creative. A story worthy of The Book of Life and Death itself. In fact, I believe it is.”
“It is?” Nadir asked, suddenly his attention stolen back by the Godson.
“Mmhmm. I read a scripture once. It is very old, but it follows the same lines, though with one or two edits. In the scripture I believe it is a lion, not a wolf, and the lion gives the child one of its claws and not a fang. This is a rare scripture. Only a few exist, and the only people I know who have this scripture…are the same people who trade with this coin.”
Effei pulled the coin from his pocket and gazed at it. “Perhaps so.”
“But…why would someone in the Order want to poison Ellen?”
“Clearly it was to assassinate Queen Lorne.”
“What about the note? If they were going to use Ellen to kill the Queen, then why give her a note?”
“The note was not for Queen Lorne or for Ellen…it was for Jerimeh.”
Nadir could not fathom the words that were coming from Effei’s mouth. Every answer just brought more questions. “But why would they want Jerimeh to see it?”
“It was a warning. You see, Nadir. When I told you that The Order has no allegiances, that is not strictly true. They are an allegiance to themselves. Throughout history members of The Order have been accused and have even stood trial for crimes believed to have been committed by their members. The assassination of royalty, causing tension and creating conflict. Any secretive network is dangerous. They are protected by their anonymity and their hidden spaces, but the more we investigate this crime, Nadir. The more convinced I am that they are involved.”
“We must tell Jerimeh!” Nadir said.
Effei turned away from him and looked towards the large oak doors. “Jerimeh will be gone for a while, lad. But truth be told, and I do hope that I can be truthful with you, Nadir. I am not sure that we should trust him with this information just yet. Of course, he will know, but Jerimeh has close ties to the Order. There are some Ravens who do not remain anonymous – the men you met, for example. Stillius and his men. They stay in the light in order to win friends in high places for their own benefit. I do not believe Jerimeh is involved. At least, I hope he is not, but we must wait. We must find out more before we put ourselves in danger.”
“Do you really think Jerimeh would do this?”
“No. I don’t. But I believe Jerimeh would do much to protect those who had helped him, and it is true that Stillius has helped Jerimeh. You see, Nadir, and you are not supposed to know this, but Jerimeh is Stillius’ uncle. The families of Arkgodsons are kept secret so that their allegiances cannot be questioned, but I found out the truth some time ago. I did not think much of it, but it is only right that knowing what we know, you know the truth.”
Nadir looked down at his half-empty plate. “May I be excused?”
Effei sighed. “I do not say this to hurt you. I know you and Jerimeh have become close. I do not wish to damage that. But you have been through so much, have seen so much darkness in your short life. More than most men. I think you mature enough to be treated as an adult”
“May I be excused?” Nadir repeated.
Effei nodded. “Of course.”
Nadir left the God’s Hall completely and looked over the city. It was dark and cold, but he felt the city call to him. Harthelm was safe for him. He never had to fear raiding soldiers, drunks or bandits. And yet despite that he had never felt more concerned. He was playing with fire. The people he thought he could trust had lied to him. The people who scared him the most needed him. All he wanted to do was to be back at home. He could not believe that he had been here for over a half a year, and had not met a single person that he could trust. It was the first time he had realised just how truly alone he was.
After leaving the castle, Nadir wandered down the streets. Some of them were silent, and some bustled with life. He walked towards the light of the lanterns and torches and into the busy night markets. Nadir had some coin and was still dressed as a boy who worked for the Gods. He did not know where he planned to go, but he was beginning to receive more and more attention as he walked through the streets. Women ran up to him and tried to pinch his cheeks, whilst the beggar children ran up to him and asked for his coins. Nadir managed to break loose of their attention until he reached the square. There were Hartlands soldiers outside of every tavern, drinking heavily and singing songs, giving the square a noisy atmosphere. Nadir wanted nothing more than to watch them all burn. It was the men of The Hartlands that were the cause of all of his hurt. They were the men who burned his village to the ground and kidnapped his mother.
Then, in a moment, Nadir stood frozen in the centre of the square. A figure walked past him. The figure stumbled drunkenly into the alleyway, and Nadir only caught a glimpse of his face in the lantern lights of the square, but it was enough. Nadir followed him into the darkness, but was cautious not to raise the man’s suspicion. The man tripped and paused briefly to try and regain some balance. He spat at the wall, which caused the rest of his ale to follow up from his belly and splattered against the wall. Then he looked up and Nadir was looking into his eyes. He saw the long, blonde hair and the emblem emblazoned upon his chest. Nadir could not move. Every muscle in his body was still.
“Hello,” the man said, clearly unsure of what was in front of him. “Can you help me?”
Nadir stepped towards the man and looked closer at him. “Maybe I can. What is your name?”
“My name?” The man slurred. “I’m Sir Eiruc Garrison, and I am drunk,” he laughed heartily.
Nadir felt a rage burn in his heart. Eiruc held out his hand and Nadir grasped his wrist before pushing him to the ground. Nadir threw himself on top of him and threw his fists into his head. “Where is she? Where did you take her?” Nadir wailed as his knuckles rained down upon Eiruc’s face. Though Eiruc was drunk, he had enough wherewithal to throw Nadir off of him. Nadir lay on his back and Eiruc instinctively went to draw his dagger, but it was not in the holster. Nadir looked to his side, and there he saw the dagger, twinkling in the moonlight. Nadir grabbed for it and held it out in front of him. Eiruc smiled.
“What are you going to do with that lad? Best run along now. Don’t want you getting into trouble.”
Nadir lay still with both of his hands grasped around the handle of the blade. Eiruc went to take it from him and Nadir slashed at his hand. Eiruc’s hand was bleeding, and all of a sudden, the knight jumped on top of him in anger. Nadir went to pull the knife away, but felt resistance, and as he pulled the knife, he felt his hands become wet and warm. He pulled himself out from underneath Eiruc and shuffled away towards the wall. The dagger was still between his palms as he sat there shaking. Eiruc rolled onto his back and pushed his hand over his wound.
“Help me…help me,” the knight choked.
Nadir got to his feet. “You are going to bleed out. It may take some time, but you will die. It might take all night. You don’t remember me. We have met before. In the woods outside Ashfirth. You were eating the rabbit that I caught. I saw you take my mother. I saw you take the people of my village away. What did you do with them? Who did you sell them to?”
“Hurry up and tell me.”
“We…we let them go. We let them go.”
“Don’t lie to me!”
“It is the truth. I told them to. I did not want to be there. I was following my father’s orders. Yet she still haunts me. Even though I let her go, and the rest of them, she still haunts my dreams.”
“The woman…please…please help me. Get me to a healer. I promise you. I will not tell a soul about this. You can trust me.”
Nadir looked the man in the eyes. He was sick of broken promises. He was sick of the lies. He was sick of being treated like a stupid child.
“No. I can’t,” Nadir said, and drove the blade into Eiruc’s heart.
Within a moment, a flash of light shot up from the knight’s mouth and shone into Nadir’s eyes. Nadir felt himself pulled into the void, and felt a hand tighten around his throat. He pulled away instinctively, but he was trapped. Light surrounded him as the alleyway disappeared into it.
“Find me!” a croaky voice growled. “Find me!”
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