Questioning - Part XV

Burgomaster Agee was as good as his word. After bringing Sir Lech Poznan and his companions within the largest house in the small town, a rough edifice fashioned from wood and raised slightly off the ground as they all were – being as close to the river as they were it likely flooded later in the Spring – he proceeded to regale them with the tale of the Magyars and Kashin when they had stopped there a little less than two months ago.

The inside of Agee’s home was cramped, despite its apparent size. But that was only in contrast to the many other homes that filled the small town, each shanty no larger than a monk’s quarters in the monastery in Stuthgansk. Agee’s home was thrice that size, but even still, Sir Poznan’s boyhood bedchambers dwarfed it, the bed itself so large it could not have fit within the main room they now reclined in. Agee possessed a small table that he kept flush with one wall, one side so close to the front of the house that not even Skowicz could have squeezed behind it. Only Father Athfisk fit, and he had to stand.

For chairs, Agee possessed a few stools that were normally pushed beneath the table, where a medium built hound curled, drooping eyes staring up at the newcomers with a sullen intensity. Sir Poznan had sat on the long side of the table with Sir Ignacz, while Athfisk uncomfortably fidgeted as he leaned against the wall. Skowicz stood a pace behind them, even as one of the Burgomaster’s brutish guards also kept watch. Agee himself took the other end of the table, reclining in a chair with rough cushions that appeared to have seen a great deal of use.

While Agee told them what he knew, the Burgomaster kindly provided Sir Poznan and his fellows with a bit of bread and potato. The brew that Agee offered was very potent, so potent that Athfisk had difficulty not spitting it out at first taste. Poznan could feel the buzz of drunkenness coming on quickly, far more quickly than he would have liked, and so he drank only enough not to offend the Burgomaster.

The tale of Kashin and the Magyars as they arrived at Doltatra, stayed and put on a costume show, and then did battle with the Tagendend was very interesting. It was strange to hear of a man who had once protected the Patriarch himself dancing and cavorting about as a brutish ogre. But it was just one more evidence of how far the Yeshuel had fallen in abandoning his role. That he would even dare to wear a colourful jerkin instead of the customary black stirred Sir Poznan’s heart with anger. Father Athfisk had resorted to mumbling prayers in the Ecclesia’s tongue to calm himself at hearing of such disrespectful behaviour.

But there was much more to know than simply this. The bread and potatoes finished, Sir Poznan sloshed the vile froth back and forth in the wooden cup. “Where the Magyars travel do you know?”

“They dost pass this way every year. If thee wishes to find them, thou must head due East till thee reaches the great mountains.”

“Landmarks along the way will there be?” Sir Ignacz asked gruffly, his voice a little slurred from the concoction that Agee had foisted upon them. Whatever pagan secrets had gone into its distilling, Sir Poznan hoped would die with this town.

The burly guard caught his breath, and grunted unpleasantly behind them. Agee nodded very slowly to the question, obviously unsettled by something. “Thou wilt see the mountains.”

Sir Poznan narrowed his eyes, his hands straining to maintain their firm grip on the decanter, even though he had no wish to drink any further. Even the scent of the brew was enough to make his head swim. He felt as if the floor beneath him were twisting about much like the deck of the sailing vessel that had brought them to this heathen northern land. He could not understand how a place that was geographically loser to Yesulam than even Stuthgansk could remain one dominated by pagans such as the Tagendend or the people of Doltatra.

“How long until the mountains they reach?” he asked, finding his tenuous grip on the twisting syntax of the northern tongue slipping.

“What I hath heard from others is a month’s journey from here to the mountains’ feet.”

“How the Magyar do travel?”

Agee’s face furrowed in confusion. “What dost thee say, good knight?”

Sir Poznan inwardly cursed, and pushed the wooden cup aside, drumming his fingers heavily across the table. It was fashioned from the same wood as were the houses, though it appeared to be of slightly finer quality. “How do the Magyar travel?” he asked, his voice thicker this time.

With a heavy nod, the Burgomaster leaned back in his chair. “They hath wagons hitched to pairs of Assingh.”

“Like what do these wagons look?”

Agee pointed to the ceiling with one thick finger, his other hands stroking his beard. “They art as tall as my home, and a bit longer and wider than this room. Borne upon wheels as tall as thy chest, good knight.”

Turning about in his seat to regard his quire, Sir Poznan asked in his native tongue, “How long will it take us to cover the distance to the mountains?”

Skowicz was surprised, but also quick with his tongue. “A fortnight at worst, Sire.”

Sir Poznan nodded in approval, and then returned his gaze upon the slovenly Burgomaster. “How many Magyars there are?”

Taking a quick drink from his own brew, Agee considered the question for a moment. “They hath twenty to thirty men, good knight. A good number of women and children as well, though I ne’er seen them all. They hath hidden them within their wagons when they didst stay here.”

“Able bodied warriors they are?”

Agee nodded. “Most of the men hath great skill in some weapon.”

Sir Poznan grunted at that, and drummed his fingers some more. He could not imagine the Magyars taking their wagons up into the mountains themselves, not when they were as large as Agee claimed. It was more likely they travelled along the foothills. Perhaps that would better enable them to pin the vagabonds down and slaughter them. While their numbers might make them a challenge for Sir Poznan and his men, once Sir Czestadt and Sir Petriz brought the rest of the knights of Driheli to bear, no force on Earth could save them.

And then, much to Sir Poznan’s surprise, Father Athfisk spoke in terse tones. “And what of the blue star on the Eastern horizon at dusk we saw? What that is?” The Knight Commander remembered that flickering blue light that had suddenly appeared when the sun had finally dwindled to the West. For a moment it tantalized the eyes, like some distant lighthouse, and then vanished into the black curtain covering the sky. He’d thought it just another star, but the priest was far more versed in the astronomical arts than he. If Athfisk felt it important enough to ask about, then it might very well be.

The look that came to the Burgomaster’s and his brutish companion’s faces was one of frightful trembling. They looked much like mice hiding in their den, knowing that the cat was stalking about their hole, waiting for them to emerge so that they might make a pleasant snack. Burgomaster Agee shook his head firmly, and rapped his hands upon the table. “Of that, none shalt speak. ‘Tis evil.”

Father Athfisk’s eyes narrowed at that. “Doubt of that none I have. What that is?”

“His question answer,” Sir Poznan added, his voice firm and level, despite the swimming sensation he still felt from the potent brew.

Agee leaned in closer, breathing a heavy sigh, his eyes noting the immediacy of the knight’s weapons. “Thee should not speak of it!” Despite the general chill of the late winter air, sweat beaded on the man’s brow. “‘Tis evil, and it hears its name.”

“Then its name do not speak,” Sir Poznan said, his voice heavier now, each syllable pounding from his tongue like a mallet. “What it is?”

His voice now a whisper, Agee breathed shallowly, his eyes wide as if he were that mouse sent by his comrades to check to stick his head out of the hole and see whether the cat was gone. “A mountain. A dangerous and evil mountain. Do not go there lest ye die.”

“Where it is?” Father Athfisk asked, his eyes tighter, appearing ready to pop from his sockets.

“Halfway to the mountains, and a little to the North.” Agee said in his throatiest whisper. “I hath said too much. I wilt not speak of it anymore. Please, I beg of thee, do not ask me anymore of it, good knight!”

Sir Poznan grimaced, and nodded his head. He had heard all that he wished to as it was. Turning to Sir Ignacz and the priest, he asked in his own tongue, “What do you think of this, this mountain?”

Father Athfisk sneered, lip curling derisively. “A pagan superstition. We are men of Eli. We have nothing to fear.”

But to this Sir Ignacz gently shook his head, his eyes a bit bleary form the brew. “I think we should stay away, good Father. A pagan superstition surely, but even men of Eli should not..” he paused, but could not find the word he sought. “We should not go into such places.”

The Knight Commander glanced once to his squire, who agreed with the knight, and then nodded. There was little reason to tempt the powers of darkness further on this mission for the Ecclesia. Turning back once more to the portly Burgomaster, he offered a forced smile. “For your hospitality you I thank. For the night beds could you arrange?”

“My house is thy house, good knights,” Burgomaster Agee said, rising to his feet. The knights did as well, creaking in their mail shirts. When the man offered his hand to shake, Sir Poznan took only after a moment’s reluctance. He would prefer to run his sword through this pig’s guts, but he could not risk slaughtering these pagans just yet. He needed all of his men in full health for when they would face the Magyars after all.

“And while it appears,” Malisa said, her voice laden with caution, “that while our strike up North gained us the respect and admiration of many of the knights and soldiers within the duchy who have not become victim to the curses, some members of the nobility have only become further estranged. The Lord Mayor of Sorin has only sent in one third in taxes these last two months.”

Thomas tapped his hoof-like fingers brusquely against the arm of his chair as he considered his daughter and Prime Minister’s report. They were all ensconced within the Duke’s meeting chambers, the wide mahogany desk adorned by bright red and white linens with gold trim, and six inch tassels at each corner. The table was arranged lengthwise, so that Thomas sat in the centre of one of the sides, while his three closest advisors, Malisa, Steward Thalberg, and the newly minted Intelligence Chief Andwyn occupied the other.

Around the room, all of the lamps were lit, flames steady, so that a pleasant ambiance filled the warm chambers. The window panes were shut, though no curtains were drawn. Even if the glass were not marred by whorls and crowns that distorted all beyond, the prevailing fog that had barely lifted would have prevented the masters of Metamor from seeing aught outside. Nor did the nebulous and lightless grey outside provide any additional brightness to the room. The evening hour was fast approaching, and the sun, could they have glimpsed it, was already beginning to dip behind the tallest peaks in the Dragon Mountains to the West.

The four of them held meetings together generally once a month. It gave them each a chance to exchange what information they knew, and perhaps learn of something that they had not known, and then apply it to their own duties. Steward Thalberg usually found that most of the political manoeuvring to the South largely immaterial in his own day to day affairs, but when the time came to make trade deals for grains or produce, it was practically the only consideration to be made.

And the news that some of their southern neighbours were not paying proper tribute was ill news indeed. Not only had Nasoj’s attack cost them many valuable lives both to defend Metamor and to serve her, but it had incurred a financial burden that would not be easy for the Duke to bear. Those headaches were serious, and he could understand how they could wear on Thomas. But they had been through such hardship before, and the Steward had never seen his Duke falter so greatly as he had in the past fortnight.

But now, as Thomas gravely considered the words from his advisors, Thalberg could feel the strong man that he admired and was proud to serve coming back to the surface. The calm deliberation was in that equine muzzle, eyes focussed on the matters at hand, seeing the way through to a possible solution, or at least, to ameliorate the burden. With the sleeping draught that Healer Coe had made, Thomas’s recent convalescence must have worked wonders.

“Has Lord Mayor Grinsun given you any reason why he has not paid his taxes?” Duke Thomas asked, voice stern, though the faintest hint of uncertainty remained. More full nights of sleep would bring him back to his old self again, Thalberg felt sure.

Malisa nodded, but her expression was sour. “He claims that the recent events have drained his treasury, and he cannot afford to pay any more at present.”

The horse snorted, demonstrating how little he believed the words. “Andwyn?”

His name called, the bat stirred up from his juice drink. His flat nose twitched slightly, small beady eyes narrowing. One of the two pages that occupied the room with them moved to refill the bat’s drink. “My sources tell me that Lord Mayor Grinsun did suffer some losses earlier in the year. He thought to line his own pockets by establishing two more trade routes by sea. The Dock Worker’s Guild rioted demanding higher pay. Just when some of his troops had come North to aid us, so he had to accede to their demands.”

Thomas tapped his hoof-like fingers on the chair arm again. “I cannot image that took so much from his treasury that he can only pay one third of his taxes.”

Andwyn shook his head. “According to my source, no, it has not. But the Lord Mayor has just recently worked out an arrangement with the Wool Merchant’s Guild which will increase his profits for every new trade route he is able to arrange for them. So far, it is paying handsomely.”

“Interesting. Have you heard of this?” Thomas turned back to his daughter.

Malisa shook her head. “The Lord Mayor neglected to mention it to me in his last letter. But we need his tribute. Merchants will not come here if they do not think us prosperous. We have been dipping all too often into the royal treasury lately.”

“What say you, Thalberg?”

The alligator shifted about in his seat, his long tail swaying behind him. Leaning forward, he spread his scaled paws upon the table, black claws digging against the table cloth. “He is a blackguard if he thinks he can withhold his tribute unless we buy more of his wool. We have enough at present, as do our neighbours in the Valley.”

“What of our neighbours to the North?” Andwyn asked suddenly, one of his large ears twisting to catch some sound that none of the others heard. “We have resumed trade with Starven. Could they use the wool?”

“Perhaps,” Thalberg admitted. “I was under the impression that they were not politically stable.”

“They aren’t,” Malisa assured them all. “And asking them to buy wool through us from Sorin at the already inflated prices that Lord Mayor Grinsun will be asking, it would ruin them.”

Thomas continued to tap his arm chair. His ears twitched once or twice in thought, his gaze crossing over the table to his wine goblet. It was half-empty, and had been that way for some time now. Those brown orbs stayed upon the red liquid within, glistening in the lamplight as if it were a thick jelly.

His voice was slow, as if he were a schoolboy speaking cautiously so as not to offend his instructor. Yet there was a certainty to it as well that was far more familiar to those assembled. “We do need to stabilize Starven. Perhaps we can offer them some of the wool as a gift, and then over the Summer bring the price up to where it should be? By then relations should be normal,”

Malisa considered those words, her face drawn tight. “That is risky, Father. We would be making a commitment to them that we may not be able to keep. What if their situation grows more unstable, or they suddenly decide to renege on their agreement to trade? What then?”

Thomas shook his head. “But if we do this right, we will not take the risk, Lord Mayor Grinsun will.”

Her eyes became interested, and she leaned forward, a conspiratorial smile beginning to crease her lips. “Explain?”

Thomas smiled as well, a soft assuring look that filled Thalberg’s heart with secret delight. This was the Thomas of old, the one that he knew well, the one that he called friend and his Duke. “Write back Lord Mayor Grinsun, remind him gently of his fealty to the House of Hassan. Express sympathy with his recent hardship. But also tell him of a new trade route for his wool that we have discovered. The cost of moving the wool from Sorin to Metamor will be deducted from his taxes, and a portion of the profits from selling to Starven will go back to him.”

The horse lord leaned back in his seat. “He’ll be able to charge his wool merchants on the price of the taxes he will no longer have to pay, and he’ll benefit from every transaction we make. But we only risk the amount of money it takes to transport the wool, nothing else. If we cannot sell to Starven, then the cost of wool in Metamor will go down, making business in Metamor more profitable for foreign merchants. How could he refuse this opportunity?”

Thalberg offered his version of a frown, which amounted to a narrowing of his yellow eyes, and a tightening of his jaws. “I doubt he will. But how will this force him to pay his proper tribute. It only seems to let him pay less.”

“Naturally,” Thomas said, resting one hand upon the tablecloth. “We will state that to arrange this trade route will require some assurances from the people of Starven, and so we will need more from him. Gently suggest that paying all he owes will accomplish this. The longer he waits, the less money he will make.”

Malisa nodded slowly, smiling even more openly. “Yes, I see. Would you like to write the letter or should I?”

Thomas shook his head. “You may write the letter. I will affix my insignia when it is prepared.” He then took his goblet and finished off the last of the wine. The other page approached quickly, and refilled the chalice from his ewer. The horse lord smiled his thanks to the boy, but did not yet drink of the newly poured red wine. At seeing the silence of his advisors, Thomas asked, “Is there any other business?”

“No, your grace,” Andwyn said, dipping his snout once more to his goblet. His hands were stretched out at great length because of his wings, even in his most human of forms, rendering them useless for fine manipulation. All of his letters were dictated, as he lacked even the skill in writing with a pen held between his teeth that Phil had mastered. But no one at Metamor would ever begrudge him because of that.

“I think that covers what I had to say as well,” Malisa admitted, shifting backwards in her seat, waiting for her Father’s word so that she might get to writing that letter.

Thalberg grunted and nodded. “I have but one question.” When Thomas gave his approval to proceed, the alligator asked, “The Questioners are to leave this Saturday, two days hence. Do you wish for me to prepare a banquet for tomorrow, one that they cannot refuse to distract them from their work?”

Andwyn let out a short laugh at the notion, but otherwise kept a firm grip on his expression. Malisa’s eyes widened in surprise at the devious suggestion. She glanced to her father, the clear lines of her face letting Thomas know of her approval. But the horse lord shook his head. He remembered the foulness of their presence, and had no wish to entertain it again. His flesh nearly began to shudder at even the memory of their wraith-like appearance. A common horse would not need to worry about such things, as his rider and master would dispel them. As Duke, he had no such protector.

“That is an interesting idea, Thalberg,” Thomas admitted, keeping as firm a grip over his voice as possible. “But it is too risky. At a dinner, somebody might say something that will give the Questioners reason to doubt us. We should do nothing to interfere with them. I do not want them to leave here suspicious.” Thomas was honestly not sure he wanted them to leave Metamor period. After all, once they had left, Dame Bryonoth would summon him once more, and she had said she would shoe him the next time.

“I will be glad when they are gone,” Malisa admitted, though it was not a surprising revelation. “I think everyone at Metamor will breathe a little easier once Saturday comes.”

“What do we know of them?”

It was the bat who shrugged, his wings rustling drily. “Very little. We do know that they have grilled all who have come before them very thoroughly. We also know the content of most of these conversations. But when the talk amongst themselves, they use a language that none of us know. It is not quite the language of the Ecclesia either, but a variant I think.”

Andwyn could get no further because at that moment, a knocking sounded upon the door. Thomas rose form his seat, as did his three advisors. “Who is it?” Thomas asked as one of the pages walked to the door to find out.

The boy’s face had gone deathly pale when he turned back around. “It’s the Questioners, your grace.”

Thomas felt his legs very nearly give out from underneath of him. He gripped the table in both hands, holding himself up right as best he could. “Let them in,” Thomas called, his voice wavering, breath coming far more raggedly than before.

The three black phantasms glided into the small chambers, their cloaks catching the light subtly, giving the wool the sheen of a black viper. The red cross in the middle of their chests seemed a gaping wound. They quickly assembled into a line of three, their cowls pulled up over their faces. The centre figure spoke, his voice dull and lifeless. “Greetings, Duke Thomas. We will not disturb you for long. We have but one question to ask you at this time.”

Thomas swallowed heavily, his eyes wide, the whites showing. “What is it?”

The Questioners had their arms tucked within their sleeves, giving them the appearance of penitent monks on their way to confessional. But there was also a subtle power in their stance, an alien quality that no monk would ever possess. “We have been told that the mage Wessex had a journeyman that is still alive. Who is this journeyman?”

Thalberg cast one yellow eye in the Duke’s direction. Thomas was doing his best to keep his flesh from trembling, but the quaking of his skin was clear to his Steward. With crackling voice, the horse lord replied in answer, “Jessica. Her name is Jessica. She’s a hawk.”

All three Questioners bowed their heads as one. “We thank you, your grace.” And then, just as they had entered, the three priests began to slide from the room, the hems of their robes undulating across the floor like so many snakes. When the door finally shut behind them, all six in the room let out a sigh of relief.

“Why did you tell them her name?” Malisa asked, her own voice strained.

Thomas blinked, the whites in his eyes remaining. “I didn’t have a choice.” His face then began to hang low, and his flesh shivered visibly. “I did not want to...”

The alligator exchanged a quick look of concern with the Prime Minister. Glancing then to the bat at his side, he could see too that Andwyn was also oddly disturbed by this. But the bat hid his feelings very well. After several moments of uneasy silence, Thomas returned his own gaze upon them all. “I think I need to rest. Please, excuse me, my friends.”

Thalberg nodded to the Duke’s page. “Go back to the Duke’s bedchambers and prepare the sleeping draught for his grace.” As the boy left to see to the task, Thalberg regarded the horse lord with concern. “It is my dearest hope that you will be well tomorrow, your grace.”

Both Andwyn and Malisa offered their concern for his health as well, and then, the three of them each bid their farewells and left the room. Thomas said little to them, simply waving one hoof-like hand weakly. The three advisors said nothing to each other as they left that hall, faces dour, each thinking thoughts too terrible to share. Thalberg knew that while Thomas may get a good night rest that eve, he would not.

Sir Egland and his squire Intoran were about to share their evening prayers when Dame Bryonoth returned from her evening ride. Despite the occluding fog that had wrapped the valley in a firm blanket of greyness, the knight had made clear her need to be about on horseback that evening. Given the rigorous treatment she must have received from the Questioners the day before, the elk morph who had been her closest friend ever since they had journeyed together to Yesulam to be made knights of the Ecclesia made no objections.

Intoran was still using his small wooden set of beads hung from a frayed bit of string. It had been all that the oryx could afford in his younger days. Both of his parents had been killed during the Battle of Three Gates after only a few years of living at Metamor. He’d been on the cusp of being a lanky teenager at the time, and only a year later was claimed by the curses. Like most of the animal morphs, he’d lived within the Keep, working whatever he could do, never losing his boyish enthusiasm despite the death of his parents. To Sir Egland, it was as if Intoran had never been taught how to grow up.

But with what little he’d had, he’d never been able to procure a finer set of prayer beads. Sir Egland had already asked Father Hough to prepare a set ore fitting for a knight, and they were already completed. But the elk had not yet given them to his squire. After all, the Easter season was fast approaching, it would arrive in a week’s time. On that most holy of days, Egland intended to give the prayer beads as a gift, one that he was sure would delight his intimate charge.

It did pain him that he could not speak of his feelings for his squire openly. Only a handful knew the real truth, Dame Bryonoth, who had long known of his predilections, Dream Serpent, who had visited him regularly after he’d been trapped at Metamor, and also Sir Saulius and Duke Thomas, who were there when the evil spirit led Bryonoth to confess such things during the assault. But they all cared for him still, and for that he was grateful.

In fact, there were few secrets that Sir Egland kept about himself that he did not share with both Dame Bryonoth and now Sir Saulius. And so it pained him when either of them kept secrets from him. When he looked up and saw the familiar face of his Yisaada, he had hopes that she would tell him at last of what had happened, but they did not last for more than a moment. Her face was still slack, eyes lost as they wandered across the wooden timbers of their home, before finding Egland and Intoran and staring at them as if wondering who they might be.

“Yisaada,” Sir Egland said, rising from his kneeling position. He wrapped the metallic links with the wooden beads around his arm. “I am glad to see you back. Did you enjoy your ride?”

Dame Bryonoth let the air flow from her chest and she offered a slight, but not convincing smile. “‘Twas pleasant to feel the wind.”

Egland gestured down to where his squire Intoran was already clumsily rising to his hooves. “I am glad to hear that. I wish that I could have joined you upon horseback. Intoran and I are just readying for our evening prayers. Would you care to join us, Yisaada?”

It was quite normal for the three of them to pray together before retiring to their chambers for sleep. However, the Steppe-born knight had become increasingly erratic of late, especially after agreeing to cart onions for Master Derygan. So it did not come as a surprise to the elk when Dame Bryonoth shook her head. “Nay. I thank thee, but nay.”

Bryonoth was now crossing into the sitting room with Egland and Intoran, but she did not stop to greet them, but began to slide past towards the staircase off to one side. The elk cleared his throat and said, “Master Derygan stopped by this afternoon while you were out.”

This caught Bryonoth’s attention. She turned and blinked. “What hath he to say?”

Sir Egland smiled slightly, glad to have her focus once more. In that moment, there was quiet intensity to her gaze that was far more pleasing than the distant and defeated expression she’d worn since her meeting with the Questioners. Whatever wounds that those priests had inflicted upon her were sure to heal with time. “He asked me to tell you that he has already seen to last night’s shipment of onions. But he will be glad to have you tend to next week’s if you wish to do so.”

The knight nodded, smiling slightly on her narrow lips. “I thank thee. I bid thee good night and good sleep, Ts’amut.”

Egland forced a smile upon his cervine muzzle, and returned the fond wishes. After Bryonoth had disappeared up the stairs, and the sound of boots could no longer be heard through the timbers, Egland began to unwind his prayer beads, his face downcast.

The oryx’s face reflected Egland’s feeling almost like a mirror. Lowering his head slightly, long horns slicing neatly through the air, his squire asked, “Should we pray for Dame Bryonoth too, sire?”

Several moments passed as the knight continued to stare at the bottom of the staircase where Bryonoth has ascended a few minutes before. His hoof-like fingers continued to trail over the wooden beads, rubbing them gently as a carpenter might, feeling for imperfections. There was something wrong, and not just the Questioners treatment of his Yisaada. But he had no idea what it might be.

Turning at last, Egland nodded to his squire. He knelt before him and held out his prayer beads. “Yes, Intoran. Let us pray for Dame Bryonoth.” Solemnly, the oryx nodded as he drew out his own beads, the first words of the ritual prayers already upon his muzzle.

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