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Aug 5, 2013

Barrenlands by Doranna Durgin

What? You haven't read Dun Lady's Jess yet? Fly, you fools! And go read it at once. And then read the other books in this wonderful series.


Before there was Dun Lady’s Jess…

When Ehren’s sovereign and friend was killed, Ehren, First of the King’s Guard, was far away — sent on a wild goose chase by the First Level Ministry, whose number he now believes must contain at least one traitor.

When a First Level wizard orders him to stop searching for the assassins and instead to find and neutralize the dead king’s distant family, his suspicions deepen to near certainty.

And Ehren is determined to find those exiles – if only so that he may guard them with his life.

Other books in this series: Dun Lady’s Jess, Changespell, Changespell Legacy

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Excerpt

BARRENLANDS

PROLOGUE


Answers at last. And maybe... maybe, a chance to eliminate the Barrenlands.

Benlan tried to turn his hope into something more objective. An experienced king ought to know better, at least until he learned just what this clandestine meeting might yield.

He walked the muddy path from the lodge stables to the hunting lodge itself, striding through a spring day with the sun coming on strong through the barely budding branches of the trees. Behind him, the silence of the King's Guard shifted to quiet conversation.

"Where's Ehren, anyway?" Gretna's low voice wasn't meant for Benlan's ears. "He's the only one of us not here."

"Some foolish errand for the Upper Levels." Herib sounded grumpy. Well he might, as a master of guards who'd had no say in the matter. "A favor."
"It's odd," Gretna said, while others murmured agreement around her. "Just like this trip."

"He don't think this is the regular spring lodge inspection, either," a third guard added. "The queen always comes along for that one."

"That's why Ehren should be here," Herib said sharply. "There are a lot of things that make this—"

"Odd," Greta said again.

Benlan smiled, knowing they couldn't see it. His Guard was nothing if not devoted— and they were right, too. After months of subtle clues and warnings, he was finally taking the first aggressive steps to deal with the underlying uneasiness at court. True, the information he would get here was old— generations old— but court conspiracies had their own lives, passing down from one set of ministers to the next. He might learn nothing of importance here today— and he might learn everything.

Benlan stopped outside the lodge, breaking a sweat in spite of the chill spring day— taking a deep breath of the crisp air, savoring the potential of the moment. Peace— and a chance to break the silence with Therand. The notion was as invigorating as the season. The Guards stopped a fair distance back from him, creating a barrier.

The air stirred, a scraping gust on this otherwise still day. Benlan stood straighter. Magic? First Level wizard Varien had assured him the area would be shielded— but it was a strong shield indeed, if Benlan could sense it.

Ehren should be here. Ehren, who offered not only the best protection any other man could give, but friendship and unquestionable personal loyalty as well. When the king's best interests conflicted with the politics of a situation, Ehren did what had to be done, without hesitation. The others were cautious in the presence of the Upper Levels, and Benlan supposed that was just as well. It wouldn't do to have a whole Guard full of Ehrens causing trouble.

But it was very nice indeed to have the one.

One of the Guards harrumphed, as if to remind the king he was still standing at the lodge, doing nothing. Benlan acknowledged him with distraction, marshaling his thoughts and his composure. If his informant was right, the material he offered would create an opportunity to work with Sherran of Therand. Benlan had heard she was strong and protective of her country— but reasonable as well. Not that he'd know; not with the Barrenlands between them. She'd taken the role of ruling T'ieran years earlier, but they'd never met; they'd never so much as sent delegates.

The Barrenlands were an abomination, an ugly, dead region where nothing grew and no living creature stayed for long. No man could tread that ground, save for the ruling family in either country and those to whom they gave limited dispensation— and it wasn't easy at that.
Magic rippled around Benlan, making the Guards stir uneasily— and Benlan along with them. Varien had declared the informant's numerous notes free from any hint of magical influence— even those faint blushes of association that trickled through to the paper a wizard used.

Magic rippled…

A shout came from the stables. Benlan jerked around, drawing his far from ornamental sword as that alarm turned to an unmistakable death cry. His Guards immediately moved into closer formation around him— but soldiers in unfamiliar uniform already glided out of the woods— solidifying into flesh from air, coalescing into shape already on the run, swords raised—

Benlan's Guards didn't have a chance. Neither did he.

Ehren! Benlan blocked a death blow and missed the second stroke, the one that sank deeply into his arm. He was alone, the Guards outnumbered by two and three to one, their cries of anger and agony filling the air. Ehren, I need you! His sword sank deeply into the side of the man who would have hamstrung him, notching bone to stick there.
Benlan wrenched the blade loose and staggered around just in time to look into the fiercely grinning eyes of the woman who sank her blade into his belly.

The strength drained from his legs and pooled onto the ground with his blood; he fell to his knees. Beside him, a Guard thumped face down to the ground, dead before the liquid mud oozed into her mouth.
Someone jammed a knee between his shoulders and wrenched his head back, exposing his neck to the tickling warmth of spring sunshine. Warmer yet, then, as blood coursed down his skin, sprayed up against his jaw, pulsing from a cut so clean he'd barely felt it slide across his throat.

The bracing leg disappeared from his back; the hand on his head shoved him down to the ground.

Treachery. Peace... the Barrenlands…all lost.

Benlan lay in the mud while his blood drained away. But as his body turned into a remote, lifeless thing, he was suddenly aware of more magic— of someone watching him. Of the cold satisfaction in those eyes, the cruel dispassion for the slaughtered Guard.

The eyes of someone he knew.


CHAPTER ONE


Spring in Kurtane was as it had always been. The courtyards and gardens were awash in green, the white flagstone pathways sluiced clean by rain. This day was pleasantly cool with just the faintest of breezes, barely enough to stir the fronds of the vine-draped arches shaping the trafficways of the palace yards. The odor of the stables barely penetrated the sweet scents of carefully tended flower beds; a child laughed in the distance.

The kind of day to be savored.

Ehren sat on a comfortable wooden bench in the midst of it all and wondered when Kurtane Keep had ceased to feel like home.

Not that it had ever been his home, as much time as he had spent here. But there had been a time when he fit. Now, the flirting young nobles strolling these famous walkways gave him glances of polite disregard instead of respect. His dark grey gaze was hard in return, and they invariably contrived to forget they'd been looking at him at all.

He knew what they saw. One of King Benlan's men, out of place in what was now his successor's court. A dark blue shirt of fine material that nonetheless showed wear— the shirt of a working man. Tall boots that were about ready to be resoled again, with worn straps hanging loose at the calf and ankle where metal greaves were often buckled on. Ehren's black hair, tied back for the moment, hung well past his shoulders; his honor feather hung on a long braid.

These days the members of the King's Guard tied their feathers to wool caps, since not one of them had enough hair to take a braid— and fewer had a feather at all. But his worst offense, Ehren knew, was something he about which he could do nothing.

Most of Benlan's sworn had been killed in the fight that took the king himself— the fight Ehren had missed. Now the faint lines beside his grey eyes, the hardened quality of his face, the number and age of the scars he carried…they all spoke of a maturity that King Rodar's young sycophants lacked.

Their problem. His was to figure out why Varien had summoned him. Had summoned him some time ago, in fact.

Most of that time Ehren had spent on this bench, his arms spread along the delicate curving back of the seat, his leg crossed ankle over knee, his broad shoulders relaxed against the wood. Watching Rodar's court, marking the new faces as he had not had a chance to do while scouring the coastal villages this past year, hunting for remnants of the faction that had caused Benlan's death. Wondering why the court wizard had need of him, when their paths had scarcely crossed before.

Well, that was perhaps not strictly true. They had seen enough of each other. They had simply never had any use for one another.

Ehren uncrossed his leg and let the foot fall to the ground with a thump, rising to stretch as though there weren't three sets of eyes on him— at least two of which most certainly thought they were unobserved. He settled his sword belt a little lower as it slanted across his hips and moved with unconcerned strides into the first of the open archways that preceded the palace proper. There were seven of these, placed closer and closer together until they merged into the building, a beauty of symmetry and precision. The guards stationed at the final two arches had been critical positions in Benlan's court; in Rodar's time they had already become more decorative than functional, matched in feature and form. Ehren nodded at them and walked on without waiting for permission.

He could hear their hesitant step of boot on stone, could sense their struggle for decision— call him back or let him go? But these men were from the Kurtane Ready Troops— the Reds— and Ehren was ranking King's Guard. Their intense, muttered conversation died away.
Ehren smiled a tight, private smile, and turned down the airy hall that led to Varien's suites. He passed no less than three work crews that were, as far as he could tell, gilding perfectly good stained wooden crown work.

Changes. Inevitable. He shook his head; he couldn't help it. It seemed to him that his steps echoed too loudly as he came to the open door of Varien's anteroom.

Varien's apprentice measured a small quantity of dried leaves on a tiny scale, engrossed. When she noticed Ehren, she fumbled her weights. The scale platform jerked; the dried matter spilled over her blotter-covered desk. She bit her lip, glancing over her shoulder to the closed door behind which her master waited. "We were expecting you earlier."
"What made you do that?" He leaned against the door frame and rested one relaxed wrist over the stirrup hilt of his sword. She was in mid-adolescence, blond and light-boned, and looked small among the plain but heavy furnishings of the room.

She nibbled her lip again, casting another furtive glance at that closed door. "He sent for you some time ago."

"Yes," he agreed. "And I'm here. But I've never jumped at his bidding."
She stared at him, aghast.

"You're new, aren't you?" Ehren asked. New, young, and completely intimidated. "He does go through apprentices quickly. Don't worry about it— you just do what you have to when the time comes."
She dropped her gaze to the spilled plant matter. "I'm here to learn from a master," she said resolutely. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime. You do Master Varien a great disservice to suggest otherwise."
He smiled. "Do you want to tell him I'm here, or shall I just walk in?"
"I'm sure he already knows you've arrived." But she went to the door and knocked quietly anyway.

Ehren couldn't make out the words of the muffled response. The girl winced, then smoothed her features and pushed open the door, stepping back and giving a slight curtsy as Ehren passed.

He paused in the doorway, very close to her. "Don't take it all so seriously," he told the top of her bowed head. When she lifted her eyes, surprised, he smiled. Her surprise turned to a sudden shy smile of response, and he left her standing there, looking after him.

He'd never known a wizard as neat and organized as this one, with shelves and orderly books, and instruments tucked away in cabinets and drawers. The chamber was meticulously appointed, from the thick carpeting to the matching seat cushion on the desk chair to the distinct walnut grain of each piece of furniture.

It was a place Ehren had been but half a dozen times, and one he meant to avoid in the future.

Varien stood by one of the heavily curtained windows, his hands clasped behind his back... his knuckles white. Like everyone else in Rodar's court, his hair was nearly shorn— a new style for the wizard, but one that went far toward hiding the grey in his dark blond hair. It was difficult to remember that the wizard was in his ninth decade; he looked only ten years older than Ehren's thirty-three years, but he had seen the reign of Benlan and his father before him…and now Benlan's son. Or rather, his second son, as the first had been feeble in the mind, and not survived childhood.

Ehren stopped before the dark wood of the substantial table between them. "What can I do for you?"

Varien turned. "You can start by not ignoring my summons," he said, biting the words off as precisely as he'd decorated the room.

There were many things to say to that. I'm not yours to command was the most polite of them, so Ehren said nothing. After a moment he raised an eyebrow and put the conversation back in Varien's hands.
The wizard turned back to the window. He was a small man, but not one Ehren took lightly despite the understated subtleties of his magics. "Benlan has been dead a year now."

"Nearly."

"And you've been given the freedom, since his death, to track down those responsible for it. I'm given to understand you've had no success."
"That depends on your definition of success," Ehren said. A clear lead to a dozen conspirators, scattered throughout the coastal cities, questioned and formally executed. And the trail? The trail was so dead that he knew he'd looked in the wrong direction from the start, been led in the wrong direction.

His return was not an admission of failure. After a year, someone here was bound to figure they were safe and let down their guard— and here he was, to pick up the trail anew.

"My definition of success is the same as anybody else's," Varien smiled, but didn't elaborate. "In any event, your current chances of discovering Benlan's killer are remote. And there are other things that need to be done, things more crucial to the security of Rodar's rule."

Ehren pulled out a chair, invited himself to sit, and rested his forearms on the table. "As you said, I've been away. So maybe you'll excuse me if I'm blunt." He paused, leaned forward, and said, "Why am I here? This conversation is not yours to hold."

Varien's laugh was short. "Whose, then?"

"The Guard answers to the king, as well you know."

"Rodar is seventeen years old." Varien seated himself opposite Ehren, placing a small silver ring between them. It had been Benlan's, a token from Queen Wilna. She hadn't wanted it back. She hadn't wanted anything to do with Ehren, or the court. She was gone, and only rumors told where.

Varien said nothing of the ring, but regarded Ehren with his head tilted, considering. "You know as well as I that our young king is slow to mature. He yet plays with his powers, delighting in his effect on the most shallow aspects of this court. That Solvany remains stable is a testament to Benlan's legacy. If it seems to you I have stepped out of place, well... perhaps it is so. But it is how things are now accomplished in Kurtane."

Ehren measured the expression on Varien's face, discovering its sincerity somehow grating. That a wizard should have even the faintest hint of decision-making power sat ill with him. Varien's only official duty requiring such initiative came with the maintenance spells on the Barrenlands.

The other First Levels— the Minister of Diplomacy, the High Secretary, and the Military Commander— had plenty of influence over any monarch's rule. When banded together, few were the kings and queens who would— or could— go against them. But the wizards had always been held apart. Most reckoned a wizard of the Upper Levels had enough power already.

Ehren was among them.

He picked up the ring, a delicate thing set with a beveled emerald and a band of intertwining ivy. A woman's ring. It had always looked like it belonged with Benlan in spite of that, right along with Wilna's love.
Ehren placed it back on the table, not ready to ask how the ring came to be here. "So," he said. "There are other things more crucial to Solvany than punishing the conspirators who killed her king. Enlighten me."
"I'm surprised to find it necessary. You, after all, are the one who has been traveling through the land. Surely you have observed the unrest, the dissatisfaction with Rodar's rule— such as it is. Surely you have heard Dannel's name come up, again and again."

Unrest, indeed... Ehren had fended off three ambushes on the way home. "There are always dissatisfied voices when something changes. It happens every time one of the First Level ministers is replaced. It happened when you replaced Coirra, if you remember."

"I do," Varien said. "But I'm surprised that you do. You can't even have been born."

"I wasn't." Ehren let the words sit there a moment, making their point. Then he said, "Dannel is gone. Benlan talked of his older brother often enough; the man wasn't suited to rule, even before he fell in love with a Therand T'ieran's daughter and ran off to who-knows-where. He won't be coming back to snatch the throne away from Rodar."

"And his children?"

Ehren snorted again, showing a little more derision this time. "That's what this is all about? You're worried Dannel's children might make some sort of play for the throne?"

Varien's eyes narrowed. "There will be no better opportunity."

"Granted. A good reason for all Rodar's ministers to be prepared with their best rhetoric. Supposing these hypothetical children should appear."

"We have no intention of waiting for them to appear," Varien snapped.
Finally, then, here was some of the temperament Ehren knew to be Varien's. He gave the wizard an even smile. "Most of the Guard is unblooded. Half of them haven't spent three nights in a row under the stars. If you want to waste time and Guards looking for Dannel, you might as well get some training done while you're at it. Which brings me back to my original question— why am I here?"

Varien didn't answer right away; he seemed to be tucking his temper away. Ehren's eyes narrowed at the satisfaction that found its way to the wizard's soft features. Varien said, "You will be doing the searching, Ehren."

While Benlan's killers still live? While the conspirators who had seen to the death of half his fellow Guards, his friends, still gloated over that victory?

Ehren's jaw set hard; he forced a deliberate calmness— of sorts— into his voice. "If you're concerned about the king's safety, this is where I need to be. If those First Level fools hadn't sent me off on a trivial errand last spring, Benlan might yet be alive." Ehren's bitter voice held accusation. "Do you want to make the same mistake again?"

"I've heard you say this before," Varien said coolly. "Do you really think your presence would have made the difference, simply because Benlan considered you friend? And do you really think the ministers care to deal with you, ever reminding them of the possible truth behind your words? Do you think the new Guard is eager to have you here, breathing over their shoulders and reminding them they have no experience?"

"To the lowest Hell with what they want," Ehren said. "The important thing is the safety of the king."

"It will be hard to keep the king safe if his ranks are in disruption," Varien said. "Your very existence reminds everyone that you were Benlan's man. And there are plenty who will remember how difficult you were, even then. Who do remember, and don't want you here."
Difficult? Perhaps. He did what was necessary to keep Benlan safe. Ehren sat back in the stout chair, holding Varien's gaze. "Difficult will be as nothing, if you consider sending me on another fool's mission while Benlan's killers run loose and Rodar turns this throne into an adolescent fantasy."

"It's been a year, Ehren!" Varien stood and leaned over the table. "What do you suppose that looks like? A year, and you're still searching? You're already on a fool's mission!" He took a deep breath and straightened, resting his hands lightly on the back of a chair. "Frankly, you don't have much choice. There are plenty of First and Second Level people who see you as a threat— a disruption that Rodar's rule is not capable of handling. Don't underestimate the lethal dangers in those scheming Levels— forced resignation is the least of what you're facing. I hope I make myself clear."

So that's how it was. Take this assignment, and lose his chance to track down the conspiracy— or refuse it, and lose everything.

Ehren stayed where he was, leaning back in the big chair, eyeing Varien, barely aware that his jaw was set. "Are these your words?"

"They're my words, yes. But they come from the mouths of others as well. In fact, it was my idea to give you this last chore. You'll be gone some while, and perhaps by the time you return, things will have settled. Consider this before you refuse us."

He'd consider it, all right. He'd consider the fact that he'd never judged Varien a man to do something that benefitted only one person, unless Varien was that person. If searching for Dannel was Varien's idea, there was more to it than one last face-saving assignment for Benlan's favorite Guard.

Which, perhaps, was reason enough to do it. How else to discover what the wizard was up to? Besides, once he was through, he could return here and pick up where he left off. Someone here in Kurtane was frightened enough of him to drive him out, and that was the best lead he'd had in months.

Ehren leaned forward, picked up the ring, and studied its flawless emerald. "Tell me about the ring."

~~~~~

"Lain-ieee!"

"Not now, Shette." Laine frowned at the slight shimmer of the ground in front of him, barely discernible in the morning light. It wasn't Shette's fault she couldn't see it— but her timing was characteristically awful.
The caravan stretched out behind Laine, several dozen uninspiring but sturdy wagons carrying Therand goods bound for Solvany via the bordering mountains of Loraka. The merchants waited with an impatience that was almost palpable.

But it was Laine's job to guide them through the leftover magics of this tricky, hard-country route, and their hurry was of little concern when he felt something amiss before them.

The spells of the area were several hundred years old, things that had been loosed during the same war that had wrought the lifeless, magic-made Barrenlands between Therand and Solvany. The Barrenlands made travel between the countries impossible; the spells made travel through the mountains perilous. But there would always be a market for fine Therand cloth goods and precision trade work in Solvany, just as Therand took in a steady supply of hardy northern breeding stock and quality wines from Solvany. Commerce always found a way.

In Laine's childhood, that way had been a triangular route along the Lorakan Trade Road— a slow and costly journey capped with tariffs. And then Ansgare had stumbled on to Laine and his Sight, and his quick merchant's mind had divined a way to take advantage of the younger man's idiosyncratic skill.

Lingering spells made Laine twitch.

It didn't matter what they were. They could be traps meant to slow the enemy by tripling his weight, or by turning his boot soles ice-slick— or worse, but not usually; generations earlier, no one had wanted to risk his own troops with such things. Seeing through them took a careful balance of not looking too hard at any one thing while concentrating on all of it— and Laine had learned not to hurry.

"Lain-ieeee." Shette's voice, drawing out the last syllable of his name again, knowing how he hated it. This was her first trip away from their family's mountainous pasture land, and she had yet to acquire patience when it came to waiting out his Sight.

Or when it came to waiting for anything, for that matter.

"Not now, Shette." Laine eyed the rutted road ahead, heeding the silent, disquieting voice that warned him of magic tangled in their way. The ground shimmered faintly, subtly. After three years of guiding the caravan through this route, Laine had come to recognize the flavors of the old Border War spells drifting through this region— but this one felt new…harder edged. It made some spot behind his eyes twitch, and put a cold, hard knot in his stomach. And with his younger sister standing at the wagon behind him, he wasn't about to get careless.

Slowly, he closed his left eye, the blue one, and after a moment switched and closed the right. The old habit seldom worked, but sometimes…

Behind him, a mule grumbled, punctuating displeasure with an explosive snort. Shette made an equally explosive sound of dismay. "He did that on purpose! You know he likes to snort all over me! Laine, why do I have to—"

"Shut up?" he finished, rounding on her where she stood by Spike, the near-side mule, in front of their small four-wheeled wagon. She was the picture of irritated sibling, her loose trousers rolled up to the knee, her sandy hair tied off at the base of her neck, and her expression displaying graphic revulsion as she vigorously rubbed her shoulder against the mule's lower neck.

The mule did indeed wear a half-lidded expression of satisfaction. It had probably been as tired of Shette's whining as Laine. "If you're not quiet, we'll be here for the rest of the day while I sight this out. Do you want to explain that to Ansgare?"

Sometimes the five years between them seemed like a century.

Shette made a face and pushed the mule's head away from her; he swung it back with a sleepy innocence, perfectly aware of her still hesitant authority. His partner, Clang, was happy to follow Spike's lead in the matter.

Even now Spike flopped his jagged namesake of a mane back and forth to rid himself of a fly, and gained a sneaky foot in the doing of it. "Shette," Laine said, and his teeth ground together a little as he strode forward, caught the mule's lines under the animal's chin, and backed him the exact step he'd stolen, "you've got to watch him. If I can't trust you to keep him back, I'll swap you with Dajania— she doesn't let him pull anything. You can ride with Sevita."

"Laine, I don't want to ride in a whore wagon!" Shette said, truly horrified.

Her reaction was so satisfying that Laine regained his normal good humor at once, and merely smiled at her despite the threat of the spell tickling at his back.

"It's all your fault, anyway," she grumbled with embarrassment, perhaps remembering that the women in question had actually been quite kind to her on this trip. "There's nothing up there, and Spike knows it."

"Laine." A new voice, startling him from behind the wagon. Ansgare. Of course. Riding his big cat-footed pony. "Seems we've been here quite a while."

Laine gave Shette a quick warning look and eased along the wagon to meet Ansgare; there was no room for the little horse to come forward. On one side, granite jutted far above their heads, and on the other lay such a jumble of fallen rocks and tall grasses that riding it begged a broken leg.

It hadn't been easy, finding a decent route through the Lorakan mountain chain.

Laine put his back to the rear panel of the wagon and gave Ansgare a shrug as he rolled his long sleeves up around his biceps. Even at twenty, Laine's was a casual approach to life, reflected by the frequent humor in his eyes. "Whole trip is going slow this time, Ansgare— someone's been playing with these mountains. Loraka's turning apprentices loose to practice, I'll bet."

"It doesn't take this long to unscramble apprentice spells." Ansgare rubbed a hand over his short, grey-shot beard, glancing over his shoulder. Kalf's squat, solid wagon of fine Therand mercantiles blocked the view, but Laine knew Ansgare was mentally placing the caravan's strongarms— Machara and her two men, Dimas and Kaeral. Likely they were spread evenly among the wagons, as was their habit. When Ansgare turned back, it was with a shrug— as though, defenses set, he could afford to take Laine a little less seriously. "Loraka's never minded us here before. Take a drink, close your eyes a few minutes. See if it's still there."

"Have I ever been wrong?" Laine asked, more amused than offended.
"No, son, but Guides grant us, things change. It never was natural, you being able to see things with no training, and no call to magic."

"Natural, maybe not. But the Sight's always been there, and it's shown no signs of fading." Laine grinned at the man, knowing the merchant's thoughts well after their years together. "Patience, Ansgare. Your goods won't spoil. You're just restless from winter."

"That's a certain fact. And so's this— your old Spike mule decided to move ahead without you."

"What?" Laine spun around to see the wagon creeping away from him.

"Damn," he said, slapping a hand to his utilitarian short sword.

"Shette— !"
Her rising voice added a note of panic to its frustration. "Spike, whoa, you stupid mule!" A loud grunt of effort, no doubt from a correction Spike didn't even notice. "Spike, would you just— !"

Laine scrambled alongside the wagon, stumbling on the stones there, as Shette's words stopped in a gasp, then escalated. "Spike, get back, get back, get—" Spike's alarmed snort overrode her, and Laine was just close enough to glimpse his sister over Clang's back when she screamed.

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