Chapter Thirty-Five
Submission

 
“I came ahead of the rest of the Council... as a matter of fact, as fast as I could,” Durante said. They had dismissed the servant, and gone to the foot of the tower. Strolling the grounds in the early morning light, the grass still not yet done gathering dew, it felt like Cole was eighteen again, a cadet with his ollamh, desirous of advice and as much as part of the grounds as the trees, or the grass, or the very stones of the walls themselves.

“I could see there was going to be some trouble, after General Hammerlyn left with such haste. But truth told, I hoped I might be able to arrive in time to beat the Comid reply, keep us from perhaps stumbling into further war instead of the necessary peace. We are yet in an uneasy time.”

Cole nodded, walking in attentive silence.

“In addition, we were receiving some alarming reports from Major-General Ghent, that while undoubtedly false, required some rather expeditious attention.” Durante gave him a conspiratorial grin, and Cole could readily imagine what Ghent had sent their way. “Reports like 'The Tower collapsed on the brothels and they are refusing services until we fix it' and the 'the refectory burned to the ground and all the pigs have run away so cadets are dying of bacon deficiency.' Ghent's usual somewhat forward 'humor', in an attempt to encourage haste. Of course he wasn't serious, but to be so insistent was worthy of attention.”

'Sent a runner myself' indeed, Ghent. He might nicknamed ‘Old Oak’ but Ghent was significantly less staid than that name implied. Cole grinned back at Durante – he couldn't help feel as if he had to look up to do so.

“He was concerned,” Cole replied. “The situation in the Capitol was...”

“Concerning,” Durante supplied. He smiled. “Not yet dire, but easily approaching it.”

Sensing that Durante did not quite approve, Cole mounted a tentative defense. “Can you blame him? He lacks faith in Hammerlyn's judgment–”

“A lack which you share,” Durante interrupted, giving Cole a hard stare. Cole fell silent, guilt, though not repentance, evident on his face.

“You remember, of course,” Durante went on, “that it is the rank to which we show our respect, not necessarily the man.”

He wasn't a First Year cadet, fresh at the gates. “A man who acts repulsively, with his rank as his shield–”

“Then we take his shield from him. Esras,” Durante turned his hard stare into a merciful one, “you should have waited to act until the Council arrived.”

“I don't have time to wait,” even Cole found the impatient edge to his voice surprising. “General Durante, you know what's going to happen–”

Durante held up a silencing hand.

There were two people who set themselves the task of dealing with Cole’s temper – Nika called it passion, but it was temper to Durante. Passion was fine, for romantic entanglements, but temper was a base weakness in both war and politics. Durante had called Cole's passion his potential, and thus turned 'control' into 'realization' – he had taught Cole how to take his feelings and plunge them into the ice of strategy, the firming cold of an image of himself, always distant from what he truly to felt, in order to protect his interests. Nika had his passionate heart, but Durante molded his instinctual mind.

So he could hold up a hand – or less, even – the twitch of an expression could conjure silence. Durante had long since told Cole they were no longer mentor and protégé, but Cole doubted he would ever stop asking the old man's advice.

“General Hammerlyn has acted unwisely, and the Council will deal with him as we must. You've forced us to be a little more public about it than we generally like, and earned yourself an eternal enemy in him...” Durante allowed himself a small smile. “I don't think there's a broadsheet out today whose front page is not spattered with an account of his humiliation.”

“I said nothing untrue,” Cole said.

“Indeed – but you may have said more than you should have. Certainly more than you should have publicly.”

Cole went over his own words in his head. With the kind of obsession Ghent had implied Hammerlyn had for Nika – accidentally, recounting other disgraceful conduct for an Academy member… Well, somehow Cole still found his actions too merciful and restrained.

“We did not need any more expression of the opinion that the Military has grown stagnant, or less attentive to the standards of the past. We did not need to have one of our own express that opinion, especially. Esras, it is perhaps my fault you are not as well informed on the political situation as you should be.”

Raising a brow, Cole watched the sunrise for a moment. “I've been busy.”

Durante chuckled. “With the minor problem of settling the war, yes. That is why there is a Council, and there are Executive officers; the Council was taking care of much while you were busy routing the opposition. Surely you've noticed the Hawath skulking about the halls lately?”

Cole nodded, bringing her face to mind. He had also noticed that she seemed to have taken an interest in him – which maybe Durante knew, or maybe he didn’t, since he had only just arrived – but more pressing matters were on his mind.

“And you are aware that the Six Nations hinge upon the matched strength of Adineh and Ainjir.”

“I remember my lessons,” Cole said, and withstood the sort of expressionless start that would have withered him as a cadet. Right now, though, he was not a cadet – and he was tired, and he was worried, and he had much, much more pressing matters on his mind.

“It is no question that the Rebellion has weakened us. It is a significant question whether we can continue to afford fighting off the rebels, no matter how nominal their force.”

“The Comids grabbed first at some of our most productive land – the mines, the pastures for our herds, the Guise and its transport,” Cole said. “I know how much the war cost; I did not relegate myself so far to strategy that I forgot the sinews of war. It matters very little, though, as long as the rebels do not maintain control of these lands, which they cannot do without an army, which is precisely what Nika gave us in the surrender.”

Durante nodded, unprovoked by Cole's impatience. “Indeed, but we captured no other representative of the actual Comid government – they he let escape, including whoever was behind 'Gaius' and his propaganda.”

“He was surrendering!” Cole snapped. “It implies a certain amount of disorder.”

Nodding again, Durante spread his hands. “I am aware. You aren't going to slam me against a wall for disagreeing with you, are you?”

Cole's cheeks flushed before he could push it down. Durante gave him a forgiving smile.

“Esras, you must listen to all sides of this. General Hammerlyn, wrong though he was to perform the actions he did, is not alone in his feeling about General Galen.”

It took a moment for Cole to realize why that struck oddly on his ears; he had half expected Durante to call him 'Cadet Galen'. Hearing his mentor address his lover as an enemy officer filled Cole with an icy dismay.

There were a hundred things he could have said, a hundred dodges and delicate feelings-out and lead-ins, but Cole cut through them. He didn't need them with Durante.

“Surely that isn't how you feel,” Cole said, watching his mentor's face.

“Surely,” he added, when silence was his only reply.

Durante's brows together, his face unhappy. “Esras, Ainjir cannot afford even the appearance of weakness.”

“I fail to see how quashing rebellion makes us ‘appear weak,’” Cole said.

“Don’t let your defense start now, Brigadier – you are yet a commander and not a lawyer.”

Cole bit his tongue, putting a hand over his face. Closing his eyes made them burn. “I’m sorry, sir… I’m tired.”

“Yes,” Durante said, in soothing acknowledgement. “And I wish there was time for you to rest.” He put a light hand on Cole’s shoulder. “But there isn’t – I know you have spent years in the fight against the Rebellion, and find yourself fighting still, for your own personal reasons – but the wider world has not waited to see how this war would come out.

“And,” he said heading off Cole’s interruption, “it isn’t just Adineh and its portentous ambassadors. For the past year, there have been rumors of the fall of the castles in the west – in Teorainn. Rumors of barbarians wielding black powder weapons – gun and simple mortars. Rumors too exacting to be wholly false…”

For a moment, concern overtook Cole, wakefulness like shocks traveling down his limbs. His tired mind dredged up Guy – the spy – the archives – but at the last second, for no obvious reason, he swallowed it down.

And Durante, unnoticing, registered only his shock, and went on. “Nothing as sophisticated as our research. The western barbarians haven’t come near our metallurgy, and without it, they will never get very far. But this is the very trouble with black powder the Founder foresaw,” Durante said, falling almost into his teaching voice.

“They don’t need to be better, they only need to be ahead. Every one of the Six Nations has its own hidden enclave in which they research, and we all know we all do it. No one is fooled by Wulsh’s fondness for fireworks. The Ban was never about halting development, but controlling and complicating production.”

This, of course, was immensely arguable, and Cadet Cole – or perhaps even slightly-less-tired Cole – might’ve argued it. In the present, Cole’s thoughts had descended into a confused babble, and he clung to Durante’s words if only to have something make sense.

“You've seen some of our testing yourself,” Durante said. “Even the most basic black powder weapons would be enough to turn the tide of battle, if the relative force – in numbers of weapons, or quality of wielding – is greater on one side than the other.

“But we have exited the realm of theory, Esras. Teorainn has submitted an 'informal' request to the Six Nations to violate the Ban, for our collective defense.”

Informal, in this case, meant strictly secret – strictly, or perhaps, deathly. Not a general in the Six Nations would peaceably accede to the notion of one of the others utilizing black powder in the field. Violation of the Ban would immediately overturn all balances of power. Even any toying with the notion had the potential to explode the Ban – and the Six Nations treaty – entirely.

“We all know that we all have our secrets,” Durante said, cooly. “The Ban is at best only nominal anyway, as bound to honor as the Conventions.”

“Any of the Six Nations caught using black powder openly in the field of battle would face the combined wrath of the other five, if only because none would trust the others not to seize any weapons for their own use – that's hardly merely honor-bound,” Cole said.

Durante smiled his approbation at Cole's slight pushback. “Teorainn has always acted as our barrier, against the tribes to the West, in exchange for our protection on their remaining borders, and a certain ...leniency with our attentions, but they will see precious little reason to maintain a handshake agreement limiting their defensive capabilities if it comes down to a question of their survival. And though four more may come eventually, only Ainjir is close enough or has enough mustered strength to react in less than a matter of months. They will violate the Ban with or without our approval.”

“We would be compelled to give them our approval,” Cole said, disbelieving. “We need Teorainn.”

“Perhaps,” Durante said.

“This is what Teorainn trades on – they will be counting on Ainjir’s dependence on them to force Ainjir’s support,” Cole said.

“Perhaps were we at full strength,” Durante went on, as if he hadn’t spoken, “but even then it is not so simple. Every time Ainjir has turned to the west, it has suffered – either Geron or Adineh will push its advantage.”

“A hundred years or so ago, yes–”

“Esras,” Durante said, with a heavy sigh, “listen.”

Again, Cole’s headache swam to the fore. He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple – he had spent much longer than this sleepless, much longer under life-threatening stress – but then, that had just been his life. He was resisting Durante adding new information to his already-full skull, as if he might lose sight of his own problems. Taking his hand down, he gave Durante an apologetic smile, and nodded for him to continue.

Durante could have scolded him – Cole knew he would have deserved it. Instead he took a step, reminding Cole they had stopped their gentle walk, and let him spend a few paces in peace before he started again.

“Teorainn is a difficult country to assault. If the border castles have already begun to fall, Teorainn has been disguising the severity of their condition. It would be the wise thing to do. Without cooperation or additional forces from the other Six Nations, there is no chance Teorainn will hold defensively, especially not long enough for the forging and delivery of suitable black powder weaponry to use in their defense. The representatives from Teorainn are never forthcoming, and never speak for the whole nation, and the time it takes to travel to the Capitol is far too long for their information to be up to date – these are merely the most desperate or the most savvy making this request. Odds are the request is a formality only.”

A few deep lung-fulls of the bracing morning air, and Cole felt himself sluggishly begin to keep pace with Durante’s thoughts. Politics were not taught at Academy – unless one had the interest, and unless one caught the favor of a mentor, and even then, only if that mentor was Durante.

“Teorainn has already violated the treaty, and likely lost some of their weaponry. How else would the barbarians get a hold of the technology, and why else push into the country when they normally only raid? Teorainn needs armed support...”

“Which we are in no position to give, as long as we dither with this Rebellion. We may have their army, and their general, but we let the Comid Hierarchy slip through our fingers. As long as there is an active uprising within our borders...”

“We are weakened in the eyes of the Six Nations, at a moment when they need us as our strongest.”

Durante folded his hands behind his back. “If Teorainn falls, we become the vanguard of the West, and if we are too weak, we will fall.”

“If we fall, the Six Nations fall.”

“We haven’t shared the news, though the other nations will have their ways of finding out. Principally Adineh, of course. Ambassador Hawath being here is a sign of Adineh's concern – the fact that she is a Hawath speaks to the strength of that concern. Upon receiving the intelligence, in fact, I assumed the elder Hawath had returned, which prompted some of my haste; it would have been nice to see an old friend, if not quite a relief, and the sooner we were on the same page regarding the situation, the better. I haven't the measure of his daughter, but elder or younger, I can guarantee the Hawath is no fool. She is here because Adineh is watching us closely indeed, because Adineh will decide on her word whether to intervene or not. Their intervention is something our country would very likely not survive.”

“Not conquest,” Cole said, reflexively. His shoulders felt heavy. “They couldn’t, anyway…”

“They don’t need conquest where they can cut the weak branch,” Durante replied, precisely clipping his words. “The weak branch, right now, could be either.”

For the first time in many hours, Cole did not feel the press of time. He watched the sun, crawling over the buildings of the city, lighting the sudden-speaking birds and waking leaves and grass from sodden slumber, and didn't feel the tug of a deadline at his shoulders. This was too large for his tiny fistful of hours. Or, it might have been that his tiny fistful of hours were held too tightly, too vital to his heart.

There was a difference between his own thoughts of conquest and the idea of watching a foreign army march onto his native soil. Ainjir was a war-like place, and wasn’t often without one kind of conflict or another. Even with the Rebellion’s scale, it didn’t seem like the sort of thing to put Ainjir, herself, in danger. Ainjir suffered the rise of her children patiently, if they treated her patiently in return; that was the cycle of power.

A foreign army would have no patience – they would not live on the land they trampled, after all. They would not care to tread lightly where lightness would be tolerated, or strike hard only where violence was necessary. Rebellion – even revolution – promised something short of destruction and invasion.

“Esras, I am aware that your decision is a difficult one, but you must understand the full scope of things.” The old man beside him sighed, taking his own look at the sunrise in sympathy to his once-student.

“What decision,” Cole asked, the question coming dead to his lips, for he hadn’t even thought it first. He knew only that he had mentioned no decision to his ollamh – not a word.

Durante stopped their ambling walk and looked at him, searching Cole’s eyes for something, as Cole found himself suddenly, inexplicably, short of breath.

“The Six Nations, the Ban, Teorainn – all of this happens anyway,” Cole said to that searching gaze. “None of it requires that you torture and kill Nika.”

Durante heaved another heavy sigh, dropping his gaze as if to hide the pity in it.

Cole didn’t need pity. “When you ask me to lead our troops to Teorainn, then I will have my plans set for that and for the Six Nations, but that will not happen in the next three days. What will happen is that, without your pardon, they will begin to torture the man I love, and then they will kill him. This is something I will not abide, come the Six Nations clattering down around my ears.”

“You don’t understand…” Durante began.

“Understand me,” Cole repled. “Command all you like, but if Nika dies, there will be nothing left of me to lead your armies, sir.”

Durante's eyes narrowed, brows bunched with concern, but he did not bow his head knowingly and acquiesce. He did not make excuses and try to argue. Cole's mentor re-folded his hands behind his back, and looked off at the sunrise.

“You have already been provided with a solution to that, Esras.”

Cole's heart pounded in his chest. If not trained by reflex to control himself, his mouth would have opened to issue no sound, his head would be shaking as if he did not trust his ears. It was fortunate he was trained, or he would look a fool; his eyes remained on Durante.

Durante who had trained him so in the first place.

“How do you know about that?”

“Esras,” Durante said patiently, “I have known since your graduation. You have been set to succeed me since your Second Year. Though I have worried about it – about you – often enough, I have never doubted this plan. Throwing away the opportunity the Prince presented to you at graduation...”

“You supported my decision, then,” Cole said. “You agreed.”

“What else could I do?” Durante shrugged. “You had already offended him in your refusal. It was the only time I truly wondered if I had over-estimated your desire to succeed. It wasn’t, after all, the only time you let Galen stand in your way.”

“Nika never stood in my way,” Cole almost spat, feeling old anger bubbling up – this wasn’t the only time Durante had made such an accusation. “He earned First, of his own merit. He beat me, and fairly, and you never truly trusted him enough to believe that – and he knew it. He wouldn’t admit it, but you didn’t hide it. And he would not be in this danger, if you had trusted him from the start, treated him with the respect he earned as best of the cadets. It was because of you and the rest of the Council he doubted himself, because of you he forfeited his place, trying not to let your predictions come true.”

The picture of being a cadet again was complete; had he been less tired, maybe Cole would have felt more shame. This was certainly an old argument between him and Durante, but he had never been quite so blunt in stating his case.

“I accept that you consider me, in part, responsible for Galen’s departure,” Durante said, patiently, “but I thought you respected him too much to think I could force such a momentous decision on him.”

Too tired to control the reaction, Cole winced, sucking in a breath as if too-hard struck in a practice bout. “Yes – I… Yes, I know – I do. But you could have thrown your support behind him – trusted him more.”

“Perhaps – but what difference would it have made?” He pressed his lips together as Cole started to speak, asking for a chance to go on, and Cole fell silent again.

“You think I am far more powerful than I am. Would my support have made the rest of the army forget we fought his people? For the sake of my support, would he have warred against his people?”
Durante sighed, Cole’s anger evident to one who knew him so well no matter how he hid it. “Esras, I readily admit of Galen's brilliance, but he was hampered by who he was. I told him only what I thought was true, which was that he would always be suspect in a war against a Midraeic force. That it would be the proving grounds of First and Second Year over again, only with death on the line. I treated Cadet Galen exactly as he needed to be treated – exactly as I treated every other cadet graduating with a high enough rank – a fact which he understood. Or does he blame me, too? Or did I not also speak to you about your weaknesses before graduation?”

Cole had to look away – no, Nika didn’t blame Durante. And yes – Cole remembered well the weaknesses Durante had outlined for him at graduation.

“I gave him the same attention I gave all the others,” Durante said, “and he responded according to his own wants, and needs. It happened to be to leave.”

“Oh, please,” Cole growled, his anger too much to let him look away any longer. “You didn’t know him – you never wanted to know him. You did your best to only know him through me, and very nearly drove us apart in the process. Whatever you might have known, you had only second-hand intelligence – assumptions. Based on his beliefs. Based on his people.”

“Are you saying that you didn’t know him well enough, then?” And when Cole rounded again to respond, Durante’s cold, still, straight-backed posture was enough to chill Cole’s fury with shame.

“All of you cadets,” Durante said, his voice quiet, low, and soothing, “and all of us, Esras, have our faults. I will admit that now I see my choice to let Galen leave was short-sighted, but, surely, you can see it for the sign of confidence it was. I trusted Galen to make the best decision for himself. I advised him based on the best information I possessed. Which – yes – was based on the limits of the political climate at the time. Galen always knew that even if he earned the same honors, fought the same fights, he would never achieve as much as you could with those same successes, and he accepted that fact. General though he might have been, he was no leader, had no political skill – you alone had both.”

“You didn't fight the armies he led,” Cole felt the bite in voice, heard venomous emotions he could hardly subdue. “High Command never deigned to speak with soldiers. You never had to hack through dead men rising only because he told them to keep fighting.”

And that was too much. He had't slept enough. Cole had to close his eyes, put hands over them, to listen to the birds, to remind himself that he was here, at the Academy, and not there, on the battlefield.

Durante had the decency to let him regroup, his hand laid comfortingly on Cole's shoulder, grounding him even in anger. When Cole was ready, he took it away.

“We can only act on what we know at the time. Perhaps we both would make different decisions if we could return somehow. But at the time, he would not have fled if he did not accept that his usefulness to the cause of the country was far outweighed by the amount he would hold you back with his presence. Or did you not think he presented his case honestly when he pleaded – as he had to – for permission to leave?”

Cole felt the pain of it like the snapping of the cane. Of course Cole hadn't been allowed to attend the conference with Council in which Nika had informed them of his decision. He had been half-consumed with his own fears, fears that Nika would leave and fears that Nika would stay. He had as little desire to face the possibility of seeing Nika die in battle as to see him walk away right then, despite the disparity in the two choices which his reason begged his heart to understand. After hearing the decision, it had hurt too much to ask why. It made sense, though, what Durante had said. Too much sense.

Nika had never blamed him, but Nika had always said Durante would never trust him. Not so much because of who he was, but because of who he was to Cole.

Perhaps because the fires – of anger, or of anything – had gone out in Cole’s eyes, Durante again put fatherly hands on his shoulders. “Esras, you have been presented with an opportunity that far outshines even what we expected you to achieve. You are proud of Galen, as you should be, but you must realize his place in all of this, as I assure you he has. You have been given the chance to save him, and yourself. It grieves me to think you will refuse for the sake of your pride.”

Something in those words rang in Cole's over-full head. Of course, Durante could pick and choose on words Nika had said himself; there was plenty of time to study it, teaching him as a cadet. It wasn't Nika's voice that responded in echoes; it was Diarmaid's.

He had heard those words in nearly the same form, only hours before. Cole felt the ice-pick pain of his headache's return, stomach turning with a sickness only half emotional, his hangover a felicitous somatic sympathy. All pretense of his subdued facade was broken.

“You set this up,” said Cole, mouth faster than his still-denying mind. “You negotiated this with the Prince. You gave him the words and the power to use me.”

He could see the quick decision on Durante's face, between denial and truth. “It is more important than ever that Ainjir present a united front, to the Six Nations, and to the remaining Rebels. You will fulfill your destiny, and save your lover in a single motion. Accept the deal, Cole. It is as generous a deal as any could get.”

“None of this is necessary,” Cole said, but he could hear its hollow echo back as soon as he said it.

Durante was the wall which bounced his own voice back. Cole could not help but throw his words out, all the same; he had worked too hard, he and Guy and Faer had all worked too hard, fought too long... and even Nika, Nika had fought, was fighting, right now.

“You can pardon Nika,” Cole said. “He won’t continue to fight for the Comids, we have proof to clear him of charges of treachery. He tried to help us – he risked his own life to try to help us. And I have every intention of fighting for you, for the Six Nations, against whomever you wish. To ally with the Nobility isn’t necessary. To be Consort isn’t necessary. To imprison Nika isn’t necessary.”

Durante closed his eyes, as if having to elaborate pained him. “Esras, you are possessed of only one great foolishness in life, and I have seen you throw away, and be willing to throw away, too much on that one foolishness to trust your words now. Or did you not just say it yourself – that if Galen dies, there’s nothing left of you – that you would sacrifice all of Ainjir, all of the Six Nations for a lover who left you rather than war against his own people? What does it matter what his intentions were at the time? If Galen could be convinced to turn once, what will keep him from being convinced again? Did you think I would not know that he denies your pleas not to confess? That he takes full responsibility for his actions? He is, and always has been, aware of the danger he presents; do you think you could fight a war against him twice?”

Cold denial rose through Cole's spine, turned his stomach to ice, filled his throat with bile. He could not fight the war all over again. He could not take seeing Nika fall at his feet, beaten and bloody, twice. He could see it all, from Durante's perspective, and it all made too much sense.

Durante had always favored Cole; his plans for him – his investments in him – now stretched back years. And whoever controlled Nika controlled Cole. So the kingdom would take control of Nika however they had to – otherwise, Nika was of very little use to anyone but their enemies. In that case, it was better he were dead.

“No,” Cole said. “I will not do this. You would not do this.”

Durante's coaxing grip turned insistent, his voice commanding. “Accept the deal, Esras.”

“No,” Cole said, but his voice was empty, his response reflective of the cold in his chest.

Durante let him go, turning towards the newly-risen sun.

“Accept the deal.” The look he spared Cole was emotionless, as perfect a study in the stone heart as Cole could ever wish for.

“Whatever your plea, the Council will rule against you.”
Chapter Thirty-Four  by OllamhRemi
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Artist's comment:
[icon by the incomparable StGibbs [icon=???]]

Warning! This story eventually includes these elements:
Violence (battles and rough sex, a twofer); Homophobia (internalized and familial, but no slurs or violence, the world is too gay for that); Religious Intolerance (mostly language and for fantasy religions); Explicit Sex (obvs); Female characters in non-sexual, plot-central roles (just minding the TOS here)

Individual chapters will be tagged with relevant filters but be forewarned and consume at your own discretion.

Start at the Beginning: Chapter One

AN: And with this, we're in the Final Countdown *guitars*

It's a long one, and a bit of a doozy, but I hope it's effective. We're either ten or eleven chapters from the end. I can't remember. And I hope that some of them will end up much shorter than they are. Maybe we'll cut one. Anyway.

FINAL COUNTDOWN *guitars*
 
 
Content details:
• Category – Literature
• Critique – Optional
• Filter – N/A
• Series – Original
• Theme – Rivalry
• Theme – Romance
• Theme – Supernatural/Fantasy
• Time Taken – Who knows?
• Tools – Literary Work – Prose/Stories
 
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Posted on 2021-02-06 @ 3:36 AM
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