Alike in Dignity

by Michael Arram


Della Ortolan was waiting for Yuli and Roman at the doorway to Klara's apartment block the Thursday morning after the scandal broke. She handed a copy of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt to Roman, who struggled to read the front page as they walked to their gymno. His expression was grim when he folded the paper and passed it on to Yuli.

'Mutta was arrested yesterday. She's been held overnight and won't be released immediately as she's reckoned to be a flight risk. Vater is still at his desk. The CDP won't move to suspend him unless he's arraigned over the Martzfeld business.'

'Are you going to call your Vater, Romesczu?' Della queried.

'I've tried and tried, but there's never any answer. Do you think he's blocking me?' The boy looked woeful.

'Don't get guilty, leblen baby,' Yuli frowned. 'None of this is your fault.'

'Yuli's right,' Della agreed briskly. 'What can your Vater complain about? Only that you stood up to him over your choice to have a boyfriend not a girlfriend. It's time he came to terms with it, considering how shaky his own choices seem to have turned out to be.'

'Er … mmm.' Yuli was never sure that Della's decisive take on life was necessarily the best tack, honest though it was. 'Keep on trying, Romesczu.'

No progress had been made by the time they reached Sudmesten Central and were joined by Willem, who was still a little under the weather from the celebrations the Lucics and Krals had indulged in the previous evening. 'Wished you were there, Yuli. You could have restrained my alcoholic tendencies. The state of your mutti …!'

The rehearsal room was packed with their friends, fans and even a couple of the music faculty. A synthesiser keyboard and a camcorder stand were being set up by Bolo. Yuli checked the settings on the borrowed instrument as their audience buzzed with gossip and giggles. It was mostly female.

Sympathetic applause broke out when Roman appeared, gripping a mic. He blushed, making Yuli fear he would walk out again, but mastered himself and looked over at his boyfriend, who gave him an encouraging smile.

'Hey guys!' he called out as the hubbub subsided. 'You know our problem. Starcrossed is short of a hit number for the national finals of the Song Contest, since we've had to drop Edler Herz. Yeah, yeah! Sad, I know. But we've got three tunes which may do the deal. Romesczu and I need your verdict 'cos we're a bit too close to them to really judge, as Willemczu and our manager Mister Davey have explained to us. So which of the three has instant appeal? Simple as that. Bolo'll be passing round voting forms. Okay? Then here we go. Three. Two. One.'

Henry left the Strelsenermedia office with some relief that morning, after an intense meeting with the design team for the big event on 21 May. He was dazzled by the plans for the night as much as by the technical demands. These last were way over his head, though his director, Moricz zu Geleberh, seemed pretty cool about it all and fully on top of things.

He headed down the hill for a lunchtime engagement he had been looking forward to, and had been mildly surprised to find in his diary. His appointment was waiting for him on the doorstep of the Kirchehaus am Domshorja, and even favoured him with a smile and a handshake.

'Prosim, Herr Staroman,' Henry greeted him politely.

'I think after what's happened you should call me Radek, and I will call you Henry. Is that alright by you?'

'Certainly is. That's two politicians I'm on first name terms with. I don't include Oskar von Tarlenheim. He's far too grand to do something as common as politics.'

Herr Lucic obligingly chuckled. 'And who's the other?'

'Leon Gratzke. Oddly enough it more or less came about the same way. He too had a brush with the odious Vitalij Breczo, who tried to set him up.'

'Hmm. Leon and I've not got much else in common, I think. Come on in, Henry. You know this place?'

'Indeed I do. I even have a favourite table.' The young ladies at the desk greeted him with broad smiles, and ushered them both to the window looking out on the square. It appeared that they knew Herr Lucic even better, for he called them all by name. Henry reckoned that the best politicians were not the ones who could just schmooze people, which he'd learned to recognise as a cheap skill and a false front for most of them. Radek Lucic by contrast knew these girls, their families and their individual circumstances, and apparently had done since they were children. Henry's opinion of the Staroman accordingly rose. He valued genuineness highly.

The menus arrived and their orders for drinks were taken. Henry smiled into the considering gaze of the older man across the table, who commenced the conversation with 'This is something of an apology, Henry.'

'Oh yes? And what have you got to apologise about?'

'When we first met, I took you for an irritating busybody of a foreigner. But it appears I was wrong.'

'Not entirely. I pride myself intensely on being irritating.'

The Staroman laughed. 'But it seems you are a man of principle and a scrupulous journalist. I've had a chance to look at your work in my recent … er … enforced vacation, and it is all impressive. You are a crusader of sorts I think; a man looking for causes so as to set wrongs to right. I admire that. It's the better part of my own job.'

Henry rolled his eyes. 'If you'd had the morning I've had, you'd realise my job has other elements than the cause of truth.'

'Ah yes. And there again our paths have crossed. My Yuli and Romesczu are very serious about representing Rothenia in the Song Contest.'

'You approve?'

'Henry, the boy's talents are beyond my understanding, and neither Maria nor I have any idea where they came from, but they're miraculous.'

'He's a lovely kid and you have every right to be proud of him. I don't know his Roman that well, but they make a rare match as far as I can tell, and not just musically.'

'Ah! So, you bear no grudge towards Yuli then?'

Henry raised his eyebrows. 'Pardon me?'

'You don't know?' Herr Lucic grinned a grin not unlike his son's. 'Weren't you attacked by a goat at Zenda last Christmas?'

'What? How did you …?' Comprehension dawned in his eyes. 'The Starboy! That was Yuli? He owes me a bearskin cap, dammit. I've still not got the quartermaster to cough up for it even though I had a reasonable case that it was lost in the king's service. I'm gonna have to buy it myself and they're not cheap, even though I don't think they're made out of real bears.'

Drinks arrived and food orders were taken. The talk inevitably switched to what Henry politely called the 'Strelsenerwald case', just catching himself before he called it 'North Martzfeld'. He had a certain professional interest in what the Staroman might be willing to share at this point.

Radek Lucic seemed upbeat and not unhappy to be asked. He just shrugged when Henry pointed out that the judgement in the Supreme Court would take no account of the current corruption scandal hanging over the Prefecture of the Nuevemesten. 'We'll see tomorrow when the justices publish their argument. And so what? There's still the European Court of Justice.'

'Won't that be expensive?'

Herr Lucic shook his head with a certain irritation. 'We have to defend the interests of the Staramesten, Henry. Years of under-investment and indifference from the central government have to be undone, and this is the best chance we're ever likely to get.'

'I understand, Radek, I really do. But when does it become a zero-sum game?'

'The returns will compensate us,' he countered firmly. Then the food arrived and the talk turned to more culinary concerns.

Willem was on his new Motorola, courtesy of Skipper Associates, when Yuli and Roman joined him at the lunch table for a post mortem on their presentation. He hung up.

'Where's Bolo?' Yuli asked.

'Gone across to the Technische,' came the reply.

'The Technische?'

Willem shot him a narrow look. 'Haven't you been picking up the signals? The boy's developed ambitions.'

'I thought he was joking. He really wants to be a lawyer?'

'Oh, he meant it alright. He's had his preliminary interviews for the law school, and he's in the running for an internship as a document stapler at a chambers in the Nuevemesten this summer. It's with the criminal attorneys who've represented his family for the past twenty years. They're giving something back to the Wyzinskijs, he says.'

'Well I never. Great! I put it down to you.'


'Come on, Willemczu. You've always believed in him. He's been infected by your drive. All he needs to do now is lose some weight and give up the weed.'

Willem scoffed. 'Anyway, I've been on my shiny new handij to head office in London. I hope Saturday's free, as Skipper Associates want a recording of Edler Herz cut by next week, before the national final, win or lose. Mister Davey's struck a deal with a local studio who'll produce a track then send it to London for work with a couple of professional mixers. He's planning an EP release. That's serious. After that he'll manage the distribution in Central Europe and feed it to the Ibiza crowd. You're going to be only his second upload to iTunes after Live Action. He has a wide release in mind. He's got an English translation of the lyrics, which he'll e-mail to Roman to okay.'

Roman raised his eyebrows. 'Me?'

'He's worked out that you're the brains of the pair, Romesczu.'

'Oh … well … er.' The boy stammered and flushed red as he shot a covert look at his lover.

Yuli laughed delightedly. 'He's not wrong there, leblen baby. Of course you should look at the lyrics. You're far better at languages than the rest of us. Words are your job. Music is mine. Good. That's settled.'

Willem gave a subdued hurrah. 'So tell me you've settled the song for the national final after this morning's audition.'

Yuli pulled a sheaf of papers out of his jacket pocket. 'The voting is pretty straightforward. The musical elite of Sudmesten Central have spoken. They chose the one where Romesczu and I came alive … so they said.'

Roman look puzzled. 'When did that happen? I don't recall being any more alive on one song than another.'

'Hah!' Willem scoffed. 'I know the one they meant. It's Ruce en Ruce, isn't it.'

'So we came alive did we?' Yuli queried.

'You gave a little grin at each other in the second chorus. It meant something to you both. Not sexual is it?'

'For heaven's sake!' Roman sighed.

Yuli allowed himself to be irritated. 'No! Idiot. It's just it's the song I wrote that day I first sat down next to Romesczu in the dining hall, and realised quite how …'

Willem held up his hands. 'Okay, okay. I get it. It's your song. Anyway, the point is it sparked something between you when you performed. All your songs are great. But that one had something extra when you two sang the harmony. Something personal. So it has my vote too. Now, about Saturday. We have to be at the recording studio down in the Ninth District by eight.'

Yuli was on page-turning duty at rehearsals in the Hofkapelle that Thursday night, so had leisure to simply listen to the choir hard at work preparing for Holy Week and Easter, which were fast coming up on them.

'Bigger even than Christmas in the choir calendar,' Matthias observed while he played. 'Our fingers will be worn to the bone on the ivories, believe me.'

'Amazing mass setting Herr Pelikan's chosen. Palestrina. You'll have your work cut out,' Yuli observed.

'So will you, kid. Dupré's Prelude and Fugue in B Major for voluntary: that's at least two men's work, I may have to ask Stanislaw from the Rodolfer chapel over to help. I'm very happy to resign it to your capable fingers. Must be one of the toughest in the repertoire. Romesczu'll have a long wait for you after the choir's finished. It'll be after ten before you two can head off back up the Domshorja. I'd get a taxi if I were you.'

As the choir took a breather Matthias asked how he was managing to juggle his scholarship, baccalaureate and burgeoning pop career.

'Oh, not wanting to be mushy and all, but Romesczu makes it easier. Sitting together keeps us both at our course work. He is so organised, and he does it for us both. Then Willemczu has the Eurovision stuff under control. All I have to do is turn up and perform. Things are so much happier at home too now tatti's been cleared. It's a relief for everyone.'

'And how about Romesczu and his family? I hope you don't mind me asking. It's not easy to ask him.'

'He's tried to call his father but he doesn't answer. It's getting him down. Seems to me like they're punishing him for it all, but he's never done anything wrong. It's his mother's greed and his father's ambition that's got them in this mess.'

'You've told him that?'

'In so many words. He just shakes his head.'

Herr Pelikan called up to the loft and the two got back to work, changing places on the bench as the choir began work on the Tenebrae for Good Friday.

It had long been dark by the time Yuli left the Hofkapelle with Roman. There had been an intense two hour session in the loft with Matthias and Herr Pelikan. Roman had sat in a corner oblivious as he finished his English coursework. It was a gift he had for closing out the world around him that Yuli occasionally envied.

Finally they were out on the Brückestrasse, the police on the gate giving them a cheery farewell. They decided to take the long way home, down to the bridge. The lamps made golden trails on the dark waters below. They stood looking down on the river for quite a while, hand in hand. Eventually, with a squeeze, Yuli led Roman up the long climb along Amstelgasse through the villas and apartment blocks of a quiet and sleeping Strelsener Anhöhen.

'It's the nicer part of tatti's kingdom,' Yuli observed. 'There was a time mutti was dead keen on moving here, but tatti would never do it. I'm glad he dug his heels in. Our house may be small but all my childhood is wrapped up in it. Great memories. And of course since I met you, even more of them. It's where we both lost our virginity. But it must seem quaint to you.'

Roman laughed. 'The mansion of the Staufer von Ebersfeld in the Sixth is larger and very different of course, but it was always more of a statement than a home, so I began to realise when I was a young teen. All that was homely about it was Klara's hug for me at the end of the school day. Otherwise it was a setting for my parents' social ambitions and a declaration of their rise. It means a lot to my Vater. He grew up in a decaying Victorian apartment block in the not-so-nice parts of Strelfurt. I went there a few times when my grandparents were still alive, it embarrassed my mutta to have parents-in-law living in such a place, even though Grossvater was a baron. She was all too conscious that her family's main title went all the way back to a grant by the king of Aragón, one of the oldest in Sardinia.'

'Really? I never thought to ask. I mean, you're a Freiherr and one day you'll be the Baron Staufer yourself won't you? Don't your people go back to the fourteenth century?'

'Hmm. But mutta's family holds three Sardinian titles, all marquisates, and her grandfather Alonzo, he was a duke and prince by the grant of one of the old popes.'

'So she is very proud of her blood. You don't seem to care less, leblen baby.'

'I wouldn't go that far, Yuli mine. But then my father had a hard time when he was young, and so material success means a lot to him. But I've never known a time when we weren't well off, so I just take it for granted. King Rudi's like that. When you meet him he's relaxed and modest, but I'll bet if you crossed him and took advantage you'd soon discover he's the direct descendant of Ruric the Rothenian and King William the Conqueror of England.'

'Has it occurred to you that if Mister Davey's plans come off, we might well end up pretty damn rich ourselves.'

Roman chuckled. 'That's a big if, Yuli mine. Maybe we'll just be a one hit wonder, if even that.'

'Or maybe not, and that worries me a bit.'

'How so?'

'I love making music, Romesczu. That must be obvious. I'd even go so far as to say that sometimes it seems that the music is making me. As if it's a force that's got me in its grip. And if I have any sense of where it's taking me it isn't to recording studios and … what's that place in England with the pyramid stage?'

'Er … Glastonbury?'

'Exactly. I like our sweaty little clubs here in Schustergasse in Strelzen, and making people I like dance and smile. But vast sound stages and festivals and marketing? That's just not me.'

'Does Willem know this? He may have you in mind as his best chance of being a multi-millionaire before he's twenty-five.'

Yuli shook his head. 'You said it yourself, leblen, when we were making our college plans, remember? It's not the money. Willemczu's in it for the excitement of enterprise and the fun of working and scheming with people. The cash is just a by-product.'

'He's a very unusual man, I've noticed that. Not at all like the horrible capitalists that sat and brayed round mutta's dinner table. Ugly immoral men, never happier than when they're telling stories about cheating people. But how far will we go with this Eurovision thing, Yuli? It could snowball if we win in May. What then?'

Yuli laughed. 'Well, we can comfort ourselves with the reflection that barely a handful of Eurovision winners have ever got any recognition outside their own country.'

'It may all be over a week on Saturday in any case,' Roman reflected.

'Somehow I don't think so, baby mine.'

The morning of the Supreme Court decision, Marek Toblescu was looking a lot smarter than he had since Henry first met him. His raincoat was in fact stylish and his hair had encountered a professional recently. His spots were nearly all gone, as was the faint smell of stale clothes that had hung about him in his days of squalor in the Sixth District dive he had inhabited as a wage slave in the accounts department. Henry complimented him as they met up for the tram ride to the Government Quarter.

'Oh well, it had to happen,' he said. 'Tomas auditioned me for a spot of feature presenting. So I may end up in front of camera. Scary. It gives me nightmares if I think about it. How do you seem so cool when you do it?'

'Me? Cool? Not a word my friends use of me. Cool is what Davey Skipper does.'

'Oh yeah! Mister Davey at Lisztomania. He's definitely cool in a jet-setting way. But there's cool and cool, and you have this sort of thing about you once the camera's on.'

'Yeah well, Mareczu, a lot of that is to do with the fact that the great public of Central Europe can't tell from the screen that I'm an unimpressive dwarf behind my desk. But the Eurovision Song Contest is soon going to disabuse them of the notion that I'm a standard issue human being.'

'Don't do yourself down, Henry. You've definitely got something, whatever it is. So today maybe the Supreme Court will finally wrap up the war between the Staramesten and the Nuevemesten.'

'Hmm. Not so sure. I've had a recent conversation with Herr Lucic, and he's got no intention of giving up the struggle whatever the verdict.'

'Odds are that he'll walk away the winner. The Nuevemesten is in the shit lately thanks to yours truly and my big friend Rolf. So maybe the justices will flush his lordship the Burgomeister down the can to join his missis in the sewer where they belong.'

'That's a bit harsh, Mareczu. I know she's a piece of work, but he's yet to be charged with anything.'

'Is this you telling me to be an objective journalist, my mentor?'

Henry shrugged. 'Passion has its place in the job, Mareczu. But you have to be anchored in rationality or you just end up manufacturing op-eds. That's not the Eastnet way. Will Vincent founded it to bring the highest standard of journalism to lands that had known nothing but state propaganda for over four decades.'

'Understood, boss. Put it down to my pampered post-Communist youth. Excuse the lapse.'

The steps of the Supreme Court were thronged with lawyers and bureaucrats, amongst whom Henry caught the aquiline profile of Alfons Hadjek in a gaggle of suits. The Baron Staufer von Ebersfeld was nowhere to be seen however. The great bronze doors rolled open and Henry and Marek joined the crowd filtering through the portico and into the echoing hall beyond. There was a large queue of journalists at the press gallery entrance, and Marek got cheerful greetings from several of them, especially the ladies. It seemed the boy had learned to network and was well aware of his charms.

They found places amongst the gossiping crowd of journos, and half an hour later all rose as the Justices of the Supreme Court filed in. The recent troubles of the Nuevemesten had added interest to the case, and State TV cameras were present. Cameras let off a volley of flashes as the justices seated themselves and all present took their seats.

The Chief Justice delivered the judgement. He took half an hour to present a precise summary of the case and then detailed the constitutional complications it raised. Having paused he opened the black document folder and began reading the judgement which was the majority opinion, he said. The minority opinion would be available from the clerks of the court at the end of the session.

The verdict was clear enough. The justices had considered the long possession of the Strelsenerwald by the Staramesten of Strelzen, but could not ignore the surrender of the tenement to the Nuevemesten under the Second Republic. Professor Lange's argument that the transfer was void since the Nuevemesten had failed to undertake the works promised and left the Strelsenerwald waste was not valid, since the Staramesten had made no legal move to reclaim it under the Second or the Third Republic.

The Chief Justice rapped his gavel on the table and the justices rose, as also did the hubbub from the court.

Marek shrugged. 'Though I thought the Staramesten would win, Dr Rolf said this might happen. I've already written my story for the newsdesk either way. All I have to do is press the button to send the relevant version on its way. So I'm heading back to the office. Coming?'

Henry shook his head. 'I'll try and get a comment or two from the Staramesten people. I'm pretty sure Professor Lange will be fulminating on the court steps in a couple of minutes. You might hang around to listen. Then I need to get down to the Arena. The national finals for Song for Rothenia are coming up fast. The EBU inspection team arrives next week to view what we've done with the staging. So much to do!'

'This is fun.' Willem was full of it on his first day of active work for Skipper Associates.

They were awaiting the local tram on the Rodolferplaz to take them down to the studio that had been booked, in an enterprise zone north of the Tildemann International Airport.

The studio turned out to be in an anonymous metal barn in a row of other barns in a part of their city they had never known existed. They had to trek through a maze of light industrial developments and distribution centre lorry parks.

'Could be anywhere in the world,' Roman sniffed. 'It's not Rothenisker,' he added dismissively.

'I don't know what you were expecting, Romesczu,' Willem responded. 'It's just a facility, not a temple to music.'

'And doesn't it just advertise its functionality,' Yuli grunted. 'Let's get this done.'

Pressing the buzzer to the entryphone got them inside, where there was a foyer not unlike a car rental place, including a towering rubber plant. But the guy that eventually lounged into the room did at least match the purpose of the place. He wore Converse sneakers and a tee shirt celebrating French cinema, and sported a wiry beard and large plugs in his earlobes.

He did a double take when he saw Yuli and Roman, and then introduced himself as Yazz. The double take was followed up with another covert stare in their direction, and Yuli briefly registered that he knew this guy from somewhere. The boys were then ushered into the corridor beyond, which opened on to several numbered studios. They were taken into Three and offered seats in a small control kiosk crammed with technology.

'Okay, guys!' The conversation for some reason began and carried on in English. Yazz affected an American accent. 'So this is my Kingdom of Sound. The Skipper man says he wants just one track from you this time.' He checked a clipboard. 'Edler Herz? Noble Heart? Like it! We've got a few hours, so go warm up through there while I check the sound levels. You're just using a keyboard, right? Not so much as a tambourine otherwise. Makes it easier I guess.'

The session in fact involved dozens of takes before they were let go. Outside, a bemused Willem asked 'What sort of style was he in?'

'Hipster,' Roman replied. 'Very fashionable in London and New York at the moment.'

'But he wasn't English or American, even though English was all he'd speak.' Willem shook his head.

'Wannabe Anglo,' Yuli laughed. 'But I knew him from somewhere, somehow.'

'Me too,' Roman agreed. 'Didn't you see the way he was staring at you, Yuli. D'you remember that time by the Stadtbad last year when we …'

Yuli blushed despite himself. 'Oh God! He was one of the two guys on the lawn who were watching us. All he saw of you was your pretty little butt moving as I … y'know, but he saw my cum face.'

'Er, 'scuse me!' Willem frowned. 'Am I missing something here?'

Yuli and Roman slept at the Lucic house on the Friday night before the national finals, and were up early on Saturday. The whole family was heading down to the venue, which was in the Strelsenermedia studios in the Martzfeld district. Yuli loaded the car with his keyboard. Roman and Della had debated how to dress for the occasion, but in the end had decided on just the boys' best casuals.

'The other acts will dress up outrageously to make up for their lack of talent, you can bet,' she concluded. 'The main thing is to get your hair right.' The boys at Le Snip had as a result gone to town, delighted to have a potential Eurovision act amongst their clientele. They didn't reduce their prices however.

It was when they got to the studio complex that for the first time Yuli's heart lurched. Big banners with the Eurovision logo and scenes from past contests draped the building's front. Long queues stretched down the pavement, even though it would be four hours before the doors opened. His eyes caught Roman's. This was definitely a big step up in the entertainment industry.

Radek Lucic dropped them off at the rear service entrance, where a crowd of fans and supporters were waiting and cheering the arrivals. Yuli didn't recognise anybody from school. Yuli and Roman carried their stuff indoors to be checked off by security staff. Moricz zu Geleberh, whom they recalled from the regional competition, was clearly in charge and he took them off to one side.

'Okay boys. Thanks for sending in the CD of your song. It had us nervous for a while, but you didn't let us down. It'll do nicely. Now you know that the final here isn't conducted according to the same rules as the Song Contest. You'll be using your instrument live today. But if you go through to 21 May it'll only be a dummy keyboard. So I want you to get up on stage first for a sound test. The technicians are waiting for you. Then Herr At-vood who's today's presenter will want a chat. After that we'll have a closed rehearsal in the main studio. Big place. There'll be a capacity audience of 3,000 this afternoon, besides all those watching on TV. Anything else? Oh yeah, this time we have a proper green room, unlike that smelly place in the Strelzen heat.'

An assistant took charge of them, and soon they were on the main stage, dealing with the studio technicians. A smiling Henry Atwood appeared in the wings and beckoned them over.

'Hi, guys. Well, I don't think I need your life stories, or to ask you about your plans to make the world a better place, do I? So how're you doing?'

'It's scary, Herr At-vood,' Roman was quick to confess.

'Oh, just be yourself boys,' Henry shrugged. 'It's crappy advice, but traditional in the circumstances. Other than that, commend your souls to God, take a deep breath and sing your hearts out. I've heard the song. Seemed okay to me. Which is a good sign, I'm actually more or less tone-deaf you know. If I think it's okay, it's probably sensational. So why Ruce en Ruce by the way? "Hand in hand" in the English version I see.'

It was Yuli who replied firmly. 'It's a song I wrote for Romesczu, the day I discovered what love is.'

'Hmm. That'd make a good story for the audience, but thing is – and remember I'm a gay man who's saying this – you want to think carefully about how you present yourselves today and in further Eurovision activity, if any, and for all sorts of reasons. Gayness in the Song Contest is fine with the EBU but not so fine with several of its national affiliates. Out gay artists are no longer uncommon, but you still might find yourself caught in the trap of being important more for your rainbow banner than for your song. Maybe that's not such an issue in today's event, but it might be down the line. Your Mister Davey will have plenty of good advice and experience to offer. Okay?'

'Yes, sir,' they chorused.

'And one other thing, Yuli.'


'You owe me 1,200 krone for a fur hat, you vandal.'

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