At last the day came. Trunks were stacked outside the front entrance for the carrier, for Gilles and Felix were proposing to make the whole journey to university on horseback.
'Naked?' Ruprecht queried.
His brother grinned. 'Wouldn't that be exciting? I somehow don't think we'd get away with it, though. I don't suppose we'll be able to at the Casa Levitica either … pity.'
'I'm sure you'll find other ways of having unconventional fun as long as Mutta isn't looking.'
Felix looked amused at the thought. 'We're actually undertaking a survey of Southern Bernician early sites for Dr Joerg en route. Now we know what we're looking for, he has the idea for a national survey of antiquities and ancient settlements. He's very keen to extend it into Ardhesse, since he has the manpower at the Institute. He's given us an itinerary and a camera to play with.'
'And His Imperial Majesty?'
'Gillot and Fran are down by the pool having a serious heart-to-heart.'
'Are you getting jealous, Kreech?'
'Me? Why would you say that?'
'The past week has been very intense for you two. Gilles has found a brother whom it's pretty obvious he loves deeply, and it's mutual.'
Felix flashed his own brother an unusually serious glance. 'Rupe, you can love your brother deeply and still have plenty left for your husband. Trust me. I know.'
For once, Ruprecht found himself on the back foot in an exchange with Felix, who had just demonstrated an emotional maturity that he usually did not choose to display. For a few moments, it was borne in on Ruprecht that he had taken the easy way and accepted Felix as he presented himself, happy-go-lucky, fun-loving and humorous. He had forgotten the quicksands on which Felix built his façade. His life could tumble into the abyss at any point; one day it would, and no hand outstretched could save him. While he yet lived, Felix enjoyed his life, and his loves were the more poignant and deeper for the sentence which hung over him. His insouciance was just one more defence, but one he put up for those who loved him, not for himself. Ruprecht reached out and took Felix in his arms, hugging him silently. What was there to say?
The two Francien boys came round the corner of the schloss ten minutes later, talking earnestly. The faces of both lit up with an identical look when they saw Felix, and Ruprecht felt like an idiot. There was no danger there; anything but. If the minds of the Francien boys were telepathically linked in some way, then Gilles's brimming love for Felix simply overflowed into François. Jealousy was an impossibility, and Felix was doubly loved.
'You two pretty boys finished?' Felix chirped.
Gilles took the emperor by a shoulder and hugged him close. 'We think we've sorted out a secure way for us to communicate. Fran's people have a network of telegraphic addresses up and down the East Coast which act like mailboxes; they also use them to keep in contact with his agents still in the Imperium. He's given me my own cipher book, which is unique to us two. He's going back to the Protectorate States where his government-in-exile is. But we'll be able to keep in touch about Herd business.'
François nodded vigorously. 'Gillot and I are the heirs of the Great Bulls. We protect the Herd. That was always my family's main business, often as we forgot it. But no more. The Mind has awoken in us, and the Herd walks again in mortal minds.'
'Does that make me the Great Cow of the Plains?' Felix was Felix once again.
François laughed. 'It doesn't work that way, Kreech. You're our herd brother, sworn to our mission … as soon as we know what it is.'
'That's the thing,' Gilles affirmed. 'University or not, we need to discover what it is we can do to reawaken the Mind and bring it back fully into this world, whether it's by visions, books or digging in an archaeological trench. Dr Joerg's road mission for us in southern Bernicia is just another step on the way. Who knows what we might uncover? You and Dr Joerg are in it too, Rupe. You have to help us.'
'Oh, I think you can be sure of us,' Ruprecht replied. 'It's as fascinating a mystery for us as it is for you two. Our problem is that the Leopard Emperor is looking over our shoulder.'
François was struck by that remark. 'Leopard Emperor! A great code for Kristijan, Gillot. Add that to the book. Kristijan is the Leopard. Now kneel.'
'Kneel before me, Gilles von Aalst-Parmentier, Ritter von Blauwhaven, Consort of Ostberg, scion and heir of Armand, de jure Prince Imperial and King of the Franciens, brother of the First Emperor.'
Looking puzzled, Gilles knelt before the Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, who took his hands between his and said solemnly 'Gilles Parmentier, little though I have left in land and authority, yet I name you my own true and loving brother and Prince Imperial of my realm, King of the Franciens, second in dignity only to the Imperial Throne. Arise, Monseigneur.'
Gilles rose, and as he did Felix and Ruprecht fell to theirs. 'Long live Your Francien Majesty,' Ruprecht found himself saying with bowed head. 'Amen,' echoed his brother.
Ardheim was gloomy and oppressive under a brassy sky and sullen clouds when Ruprecht and Gilles arrived at its Hauptbahnhof. Ruprecht picked up a sheaf of newspapers and perused them in the cab on the way to their villa. They found it aired and made ready for them by Erwin and Matthias, who had preceded them.
'Tea's a possibility, Excellency,' Erwin stated as he took his master's valise. 'But the milk is spoiled by this horrible weather. It should have broken in a thunderstorm by now, but it just gets more and more humid. When the lightning begins we'll have quite a show across the city, I don't doubt.'
Joerg went out into the shade of their small back garden with a book. Ruprecht continued poring over the papers, looking for a sense of what was going on in Ardhesse. Press censorship meant that little was said openly other than in adulation of the emperor-king, but between the lines it was clear that Kristijan was planning further ventures.
Editorials ranted on about the East Kingdom as a nest of fratricidal treachery against the 'rightful emperor of the Allemanic people', by which seems to have been meant Kristijan's claim to rule the entirety of Terre Nouvelle as Allemanic Emperor. The Protector of Bernicia and the Grand Duke of Hochrecht came in for their own share of vituperation, while military provocations were alleged against the Alleman Empire by the pygmy nations of the Protectorate States, allegations whose veracity Ruprecht seriously doubted.
Ruprecht went out to Joerg, who raised an eyebrow in query. 'He's stoking warfare all around the eastern boundaries of his self-proclaimed empire,' Ruprecht told his lover. 'Someone's going to get it, and at the moment it looks like the East Kingdom is in his sights, with the first broadside to be directed at its protectorates so as to oust Dreiholmtz from the Mainland and take full control of the north bank of the Great River estuary.'
'Wouldn't it be a bit odd if his General Staff's plans are so easily to be read; available on the street corners of Ardheim?'
'I'm sure you're right, little one. But war of some sort is planned, and Kristijan's whipping it up. He enjoys it too much to want it to end. The question is how soon he intends to unleash it.'
'He's setting up a difficult target this time. How can he reach the Three Islands? They've never been conquered.'
Ruprecht demurred. 'The Easterners have had their civil wars, and I seem to recall that in the sixth century, an emperor – was it François VI? – actually landed on Mittelinsel with an army in support of Prince Moritz's claim on the throne …'
'You can be a pedant, Rupe. Anyway Moritz eventually lost and Queen Wilhelmina remained on the throne, so technically it was an unsuccessful invasion. It doesn't count.'
Ruprecht smiled fondly at his lover. 'I love our arguments. They usually come down to points of genealogy, not home décor or finances. I wonder what Kreech and Gillot argue about.'
Joerg laughed. 'Not much I think, though now they might fall out over rank. Felix is now at least ten levels of precedence below our own Vieldomainois potboy. The Prince Imperial and titular King of the Franciens is the third highest ranking human being on Terre Nouvelle, and is placed above even the Four Kings on the Golden Ladder, with his own throne on the dais of the Imperial Seat at Aix; the only man apart from the Emperor who may sit in the presence of the Patriarch. Our Gillot can even look down on Kristijan of Ardhesse!'
'Just as well it's all nominal then. It'll never have any reality, even if François regains his throne. He did it for love and affection. The Imperial Council and Assembly would never allow Gillot's elevation to be ratified. Still, I like François all the more for the gesture. He must have sensed Gillot's lingering insecurity about the position I placed him in. Gillot hides it well, but if I can detect it then it will be perfectly transparent to François, his herd brother. By speaking one sentence, François eliminated any lingering feeling of inferiority the boy might feel in anyone's presence.'
Matthias came out with a sheaf of mail for Ruprecht along with a jug of chilled fruit juice. The envelope bearing the crest of the Allemanic Emperor did nothing to improve Ruprecht's day, and as he slit it open lightning ripped across the heavy sky above him; the rumble of thunder that followed in its wake was like the detonation of distant artillery.
The imperial equerry who took charge of Ruprecht and Joerg in the outer courtyard of the Hendrijksborg Castle was not catamite material to Ruprecht's eye. He was blond, well-built and obviously a nobleman. If there was a pronounced bulge in the crotch of his cavalry breeches, to which Ruprecht's eye automatically wandered, then that was the only feature of the equerry's appearance that he thought would appeal to Kristijan's tastes.
Major the Graf Willem-Kristof von Arteveldt was indeed a nobleman, and as he made polite conversation on their long walk along the passages of the royal fortress of Ardhesse it turned out he was a soldier of some considerable experience for his age, which Ruprecht estimated at the late twenties. He also clearly idolised his emperor, to whose eccentricities he seemed entirely blind.
Ruprecht was worried at the imperial command that he should bring Joerg to the meeting. He did not in the least like the thought of subjecting his lover to Kristijan's wild humours. But at least this time the meeting was to be in the heart of the capital, not in the Waltherborg Palace where Kristijan acted out his dangerous and sick fantasies. And indeed when they reached the anteroom to the royal apartments, Ruprecht found it full of general officers and frock-coated councillors, as a meeting was breaking up. Kristijan was among them in affable monarch mode, acting the part of a sane man rather well, apart from the tendency of his gaze to dart about restlessly.
As he spotted Ruprecht he burst out loudly 'Ah Excellency! Professor! Do come through! Such a pleasure to cast aside the cares of state for just a moment.'
Kristijan awaited their respectful bows, and then was so condescending as to put a friendly arm around Ruprecht's shoulder and usher him past the grenadiers and into his private study, where he took a seat behind his desk and steepled his hands. Ruprecht and Joerg remained standing, as they must.
'My dear Rupe,' he smiled, 'and this is the little fellow I've heard so much about. I've enjoyed your reports, my dear professor. Perhaps a little dry, but nonetheless most illuminating. And the good Colonel von Ampfeld is most complimentary about the way you manage your assistants and the expedition with which you accomplish your work plans. He believes my investment is paying off very nicely. Well, come along, take seats.'
Ruprecht sat and enquired innocently after the health of their mutual friend, Jacki. The emperor-king frowned and glanced at Joerg.
'I had to discharge the boy from my service, Rupe. He was … well, tiresome will do as a description.'
'Did he return to his previous occupation, sire?'
'I have no idea and could not care less,' Kristijan retorted. 'Now the reason we are here is for you to explain what the next stage should be, after the successes of the Nordrecht expedition. You tell me, Rupe.'
'Sire, the natural scientists at the Carolinaean are bemused and intrigued by the Ancient technology we shipped south. They've come to the conclusion that – as we first surmised – the machinery must be powered by voltaic energy, though what it does is a mystery. Their best guess to date is that one of the boxes may well be some sort of communications array, but it's only a guess. They tried to apply a voltaic current to it but after all these centuries no result could be expected, and none was achieved.'
'So what next?'
'Hartland, sire. The English prefecture, or New London, as they once called it, is the key to it all, and what lies under the hill may be the treasure vault. We found nothing like it at the Francien or Alleman prefectures. We have to get back there.'
'Yes, but unfortunately our Montenard friends are not in the least sympathetic to our scientific curiosity. It is most annoying, indeed frustrating. I suppose I could lead an army into the Republic to be massacred, as my ancestors so often have done, but I have better things to do with my troops. So I'm expecting suggestions. Professor?'
'S-s-subterfuge, Imperial M-m-majesty.' The re-emergence of the stutter told Ruprecht all he needed to know about Joerg's state of mind.
'Perhaps you could u-u-unpack that g-g-gnomic reference, professor?' Kristijan was unable to resist the temptation to mock the impediment. Ruprecht gritted his teeth.
'W-w-we c-c-can only … m-m-masquerade as … s-s-something else.'
Ruprecht hated the malign turn on the emperor-king's lips, because the glance he got from Kristijan revealed it was Ruprecht's discomfort that he was aiming at not Joerg's, and he achieved his aim as Ruprecht butted in.
'Neither the professor nor I are Ardhessian citizens, sire, and we have good relations with the locals. We can go back in under false colours as we are known locally as Bernicians; the problem will be our Ardhessian team.'
Kristijan leaned back in his chair. 'You'll understand that they have to accompany you. I pay the costs, gentlemen, and I make the terms.'
'We realise that, sire. But if a group of Ardhessians appear in the southern cantons of the Republic after the events of last year they will be immediately interned as suspected foreign agents.'
'Didn't the colonel nonetheless make a stay in Hartland earlier this year? I believe that's in your report.'
Ruprecht was quite sure that his deputy director, affable and decent fellow though he was, was making separate reports about the Institute's work and activities to the Ardhessian government, but he was willing to pretend otherwise. 'He travelled in the guise of a private citizen, sire, and I believe he went so far as to make his site visit part of a supposed walking tour of Hartland. He was interrogated thoroughly on his crossing into the Republic and encountered police agents at suspiciously regular intervals. The Montenards take their security seriously, sire.'
The emperor-king frowned. 'Find a way round it, Rupe. I want results by the new year.'
'I have some ideas, sire.'
Kristijan cocked his head and gave a less sardonic smile. 'I don't doubt it. I have high expectations of you, gentlemen. Send me the details of your scheme within the next two weeks. Now do forgive me, things are a bit busy today. My armies occupied the Protectorate States this morning, and not a shot fired. The Easterners just declared war on me. I do hope for your sake that the Confederacy doesn't follow suit, or you two will be enemy aliens.'
'Any news from the boys?' Joerg had joined Ruprecht in the small kitchen in the conciergerie of the Institute. It was the only place there where it was safe to talk freely.
'A chatty letter from Kreech this morning, during the course of which he confided the rather significant morsel that "cousin Franz" has made it down to the Casa Levitica for their Reading Week house party.'
'Cousin Franz? You don't mean …?'
'François got away from his place of exile in the Duchy of Pasgau before Kristijan's troops seized it. He's lying low in the Holy See with Gillot and Kreech.'
'Isn't putting that sort of information in a letter dangerous?'
'Not really, I think. We do have a Cousin Franz; my uncle Colbrand's third son, a nice kid who's Kreech's age. But it wouldn't be him at the Casa Levitica, as he was born blind and he's not often out of the house at Gieleborg. I imagine one of the Baron's people will have seen this letter and whoever it is will have been briefed on the Von Aalst genealogy, so Kreech's snippet is designed to seem credible enough. But there's more. Kreech diffidently suggests we join the house party to please Mutta. And that's as good as telling us that he desperately wants us there.'
'Are we going?'
'Oh yes. But I'll reply just as diffidently. So François is in the Holy See? Why not Dreiholmtz? I suppose he doesn't want to be seen as yet another pretender at the court of Her Eastern Majesty alongside Horst the Odious of Ardhesse. Knowing him now the way I do, I can see how a boy like François, with such a high idea of his position, would find taking refuge in the East Kingdom humiliating.'
Joerg shrugged. 'He can hardly afford that sort of pride. He's also bringing our two boys into some danger.'
'Kreech is a Von Aalst. He will see his honour as demanding that he give sanctuary to François and damn the consequences, and as another Von Aalst I entirely agree with him. We'll take the train this weekend.'
The train journey to the Holy See was uneventful, and when the fiacre brought them up to the Casa Levitica there was no sign that a refugee emperor was in residence; no guards, flags or scurrying minions. As Ruprecht and Joerg greeted Mutta in the loggia he asked where everybody was.
'Gillot and Kreech are dutifully pursuing their studies at the Patriarchal Library.'
'And … er … Cousin Franz?'
Mutta gave a little laugh. 'By the pool. A handsome sight, and of course the very image of our own beautiful Gillot.'
'Did they explain it all to you, Mutta?'
'Yes, Rupe, and I have to say I was enthralled. What wonders! And I thought all your pottering about the past was no more than dilettantism.'
'Mother! I'm hurt!'
She laughed and took his and Joerg's arms to walk them out on to the poolside, where they found François in a light silk robe, with a book. He looked up and smiled Gilles's smile at the arrivals. Ruprecht and Joerg bowed low.
They took seats under an awning, which belled and flapped gently above them like a sail in the sea breeze. Young Ludwig, in a fetching white and plum livery robe, brought out chilled drinks.
'Tell us how you got here, sire,' Ruprecht asked.
'The Allemanic forces crossed the frontiers of Pasgau unopposed before dawn a week ago. It was not unexpected, and the Duke had already prepared a launch to escape from his Residenz, which backs on to the harbour. The Dreiholmtz navy was offshore to discourage any attempt by the Imperial Fleet to blockade us into the port. As it happened the Duke chose to stay in his little realm, but he had me, my household and the ducal and imperial confidential papers hurried on board the launch to be taken out to the flagship of the Inner Seas Fleet. The High Admiral wanted to take me to Mittelinsel but I wasn't going to put myself in Eastern power: my ancestors would have risen from their graves in protest! The admiral was civil enough to put me on a destroyer, which conveyed us to your native land, Rupe. And that's where the imperial government-in-exile now resides, giving out that His Imperial Majesty is closeted in Gieleborg Castle, not far from your own Freiborg.'
'But you are in fact here, sire.'
'Indeed. The day after we arrived at Gieleborg, I ordered a valise packed and told my people to keep up the pretence that I was moping around Hochrecht and deny anyone an interview. So with one bodyguard and the valise, I took the train south to the Holy City with the papers of no less than your cousin Franz von Aalst. Your uncle Colbrand was most helpful.'
'I miss my brother Gilles … seriously. When we're together our minds interlock in some arcane way and our happiness in each other spills over between us. We've found that distance breaks the link. Our dreams are getting more urgent too.'
'What's happening in the dreams?' Joerg asked.
'We walk the woodland path and meet the hybrid child as before, but the Three Sisters in the night sky above us blaze brighter, and the voices in our heads are louder. At times they even seem intelligible, though we can never remember what's said when we wake up.'
'Anything new at all?'
'As before, we share the dream without needing to be in the same bed. But last night …'
'Last night?' asked Joerg.
'Wait till Gillot and Kreech are back. We need your advice, yours and Rupe's, doctor.'
Gilles and Felix arrived late in the afternoon in white linen summer suits, sporting flowers in their buttonholes but wearing the regulation student caps. They hurried out into the gardens, pausing only to greet Mutta before joining François on his recliner, the emperor kissing both of them.
'We're ready for the pool, Mutta!' Felix announced.
'That sounds like a dismissal, my dears. Very well. Dinner is at seven, so be ready for it: full festal dress, remember.' She took up her parasol and disappeared within the villa. Ruprecht was already undressed by then, and Joerg jumped after him. The three boys whooped as they leapt in as soon as they were out of their clothes, and there was a romp for a while; afterwards they all lay out under the awning, though unlike Joerg Ruprecht found it difficult to join the siesta. François, Gilles and Felix on the other hand drifted off, Felix lying between the other two.
Ruprecht had finally fallen into a doze when a shout brought him back from his siesta. He sat up. Joerg too was just coming around but Gilles and François were wide awake and staring into each other's eyes.
'What?' Ruprecht asked groggily.
'It happened again!' François exclaimed.
'It wasn't the hybrid boy in the dream we had yesterday, but a real human kid of about fourteen, dirty and naked, his hair all over the place, with a pistol hanging around his neck on a lanyard shouting at us both urgently. Gilles and I were together on the path this time, not alone. But we couldn't hear a word the kid was saying. It was a bit horrible … he was pleading with us, but no words came.'
'I know who it was!' Gilles asserted. 'It was the J-C of the bunker at Val de Rougiet, with the gun he scavenged on the way to find his mother and sisters. We were supposed to help him.'
Gilles gave him a determined look. 'I don't know, but it's now we have to do what the Great Bulls our grandfathers told us. We've already discussed this with Felix, Rupe. I know you're going to tell us we're not to go, but we all three have decided we must head towards Vieldomaine tomorrow. And we go on our own, not with you or Dr Joerg. We're being called there.'
Ruprecht took a deep breath. 'Fine. I can't stop you two, insane though what you're planning is, but please not Felix. He has to stay.'
'No!' Felix exclaimed. 'Not a chance. Fran and Gillot say they need me for this, and you can't stop me.'
'Please Rupe,' the young emperor urged. 'Gillot won't go without Kreech, and I can't go without Gillot.'
'Had you thought what would happen if you fall into Ardhessian hands, sire?'
'Of course I have. But running and hiding gets my cause nowhere. My ancestors did not do things that way.'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'I feel as though I should be locking you in a cellar, but there are forces at work here that won't be denied. I can only hope they'll give you some sort of protection too. You'll do your best to keep us informed by telegraph, right! If you're going to be Franz von Aalst, François, I suggest you work on your Allemanic accent. Gillot will help; his is impeccable. You on the other hand sound like a Francien tourist, and a supposedly Allemanic lad sounding like a Francien can only be suspicious. In fact you had better let Gillot do all the talking in Vieldomaine. Then there's your appearance. Your face is not exactly unknown in Chasancene, sire.'
'How long do you think your mission will last, Gillot?' Joerg asked.
'We just need to get to Val de Rougiet and hope we can trigger whatever it is we're being asked to do, Dr Joerg. We'll know soon enough if it works. So it could be only a few days, though I'd very much like to call in on maman, papa and Cecile, and let them meet Fran. He'll stun them.'
Joerg continued. 'I ask because we have to get back to Ardheim. Kristijan wants to hear our plan to get our team into Hartland and finish off the exploration of the English prefecture. We can't afford not to deliver the scheme. So if things go wrong in Vieldomaine, we won't be best placed to help.'
'Also, you only have a week's holiday available from your university course,' Ruprecht reminded his charges.
At dinner later, Ruprecht found he could not share the suppressed excitement around the table and for once he fully shared his mother's trepidation when she heard what was being planned. But the boys went directly from the table to pack, or rather to get Ludwig to pack for them.
The villa was bustling before dawn, and cabs were ready to take the Val de Rougiet expedition to the station. All the adults could do was to wave the boys off. They had at least dressed down, and François had adopted a broad-brimmed hat to shade his face. He regretted that he did not have time to grow his first moustache, but a pair of tinted wire-rimmed spectacles offered some small disguise. Ludwig went with them, dressed like a decidedly scruffy lower servant. Ruprecht was quite taken with the servant boy's sensitivity to the situation.
After the cabs had disappeared into the dawn, Mutta, Ruprecht and Joerg returned to the house for a sombre breakfast on the terrace. She was still unhappy. 'Call me foolish, my dears,' she said, 'but I have a distinct feeling this little adventure of theirs is going to turn out to be more complicated than they expect.'
Joerg looked up at Ruprecht across his worktable at the Institute. Hextie and Della were on the other side of the room, cataloguing the contents of another Ancient cabinet full of enigmatic machinery.
'So you cheated?'
'Of course I did. As soon as I saw they'd never listen to sense, I just made token protests and sent Ludwig to wire Grossmutta with the news. Chasancene is now full of Bernician agents. The available rooms in the Auberge aux Falaises have all been taken by our operatives. No one's going to get close enough to François to recognise him as the emperor if they can help it. Erwin's in Val de Rougiet; he got very friendly with Monsieur Lemarignier, and he's arranging the boys' trouble-free and exclusive access to the site. It'll be closed to other visitors while they're there; cost me a bit, but better safe than sorry.'
'I'm relieved. I hope you've told Mutta.'
'I did. She was very worried and rightly so. Kids. You can never tell them anything, so I didn't bother trying. They're convinced nothing can touch them.'
'It's their stage of development. I've read a paper on human physiology which suggests that organic chemicals released into the body in adolescence do some very odd things to the male brain: delusions of invincibility, mood swings and so on. A professor in Aix has been doing some interesting work dissecting the corpses of the younger soldiers. There's been no shortage of them recently.'
'Erwin's been wiring me twice a day. The boys have been staying at the Auberge for the past two nights and so far have kept their heads down and stayed out of trouble. They sent a note to Monsieur Lemarignier asking his permission to revisit the site, claiming falsely to be working for the Royal Institute. Erwin had a laugh over that.'
'My word! The imposture! Have they no shame?'
'Apparently not. The good farmer has of course readily allowed them access. Hopefully they'll be in and out today, and then be on their way home. In fact, by my calculation they should have finished whatever they want to do by now.'
'Good,' Joerg said. 'You wonder what precisely they might meet there. So far all their visions have been true ones. Mad though their little expedition might be, the results could be as intriguing as their previous adventures in the mind.'
They carried on working, and it was at the ninth hour when a strange noise intruded into their consciousness from across the work room: a protracted hum followed by an uncanny squeak, repeated four times.
Hextie shrieked. 'Chief! Professor! The Ancient box! There's a green light come on inside it!'
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