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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 38: Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines“It was my fault,” Adara said from where she sat at the end of the table. “I feel as though I've shamed my sister’s reputation by talking her into keeping silent.”
“We don’t place blame in this family, Addie,” I replied as I popped another olive into my mouth.
“I don’t know, Xena still blames me for falling on her that time we climbed out the window,” Selene added, nudging her sister with an elbow.
“Well, these two are an exception,” I said, winking at Adara.
I felt like having my family around me. I asked Breena if an impromptu dinner party would be an imposition for the kitchen and she simply chuckled. She hustled me out of her kitchen and told me that the Snowy Mountain clan was always prepared. I began to wonder if my old friend Delia had some Amazon blood in her, so like hers were these Amazons' traits.
By the time everyone arrived for dinner, a most sumptuous feast had been laid out on a large table Breena had sent over for the occasion. I felt as a Queen in her palace rather than entertaining my own family high up in a tree. The walls all around us glowed a warm, burnt copper color as the lamplight danced against the smoothly hewn wood. I had thrown all the shutters open to let in the end of summer breezes, noticing earlier in the day that the leaves on many of the trees had already begun to turn with color. The summer had seemed to pass all too quickly.
The casual banter and close-knit atmosphere even drew in Ephiny and Adara. I could tell that they had both begun the evening feeling uncomfortable, but I was determined to make them feel better about themselves. I could only accuse them of thinking of their tribe, and I refused to think too harshly on them for that. Besides, I was having too good of a time watching Ephiny and Selene, and the sly looks they gave one another.
My daughter sat beside me in a chair specially designed for children of her age. It's long legs allowed her to sit at our height, and it eased my hurt soul to see her healthy and happy. Anya and Atrius's daughters, I learned, had spent the day in classes and play with Amira. They were now fast friends, and that also made me feel better. At least Amira would have friends her own age around her in Corinth.
"Can I have some more?" Amira asked, holding her plate out to me.
"May I have some more," I said.
"Yer hungry too, huh."
Xena laughed aloud, but quickly covered it up after I glared over her way. Then Selene laughed at Xena's reprimand, and I felt as though I was dealing with more than just one child.
"I'm going to make both of you give the girls a class in etiquette," I said. They both looked properly chagrined and I turned back to Amira. "Now, what do you say?"
"I…uh…" She looked over at Xena. "I forget, Mama, but I'm still real hungry."
Xena roared with laughter and I have to admit that most of the table smiled this time. Xena tried to make up by speaking to Amira. "She meant that you were supposed to say, may I have some more."
"Oh, yea, that's it. May I have some more…please?" She smiled in a way that showed all her perfect little baby teeth.
How could I reprimand such an attempt at good behavior? I chuckled myself. "Come here you." I kissed her lightly and filled her plate once more. She was nothing if not her mother's child.
Once everyone had eaten their fill, one of the girls from Breena's kitchen brought in two platters full of sweet treats and fruits. There was a marvelous honey cake that even Cyrene declared she would beg Breena until the Amazon gave up her recipe.
Darkness set in fully and we tucked all three girls into the large bed in one of our rooms. Petra felt quite important, being allowed to sit with the adults. Atrius explained to the youngster that being a man meant keeping a closed mouth about things heard within adult discussions. Petra looked so serious about being included that I knew he would never repeat our conversations. Perhaps that was why I felt rather free to comment about Prax's situation.
"She still needed her butt kicked," Xena said after I made her aware of what I had discovered.
"Here, here," Atrius and Ephiny's voices added in unison.
"Consider her situation, though," Cyrene said. "Prax was in love enough to wish to marry a girl, then the young girl dies tragically. The child's never grieved, or been allowed to grieve. It's been a secret. Has she had anyone to tell how she's felt?"
Everyone looked somewhat guilty, and we remained silent for a few moments.
"It must be sort of hard to go through something like that all alone," Selene said.
"At least she had her mother," Xena replied.
"Oh, yea," Selene quickly answered. "Every teenage girl wants to bare her feelings to her mom. Sorry, mom, you know what I mean," she apologized to Cyrene and the older woman nodded.
"When all's said and done, I suspect she does deserve a certain amount of sympathy," Xena said thoughtfully. "It would have been hard on anyone, but she's still more child than woman."
"Not just sympathy, but forgiveness and kindness," I added.
"And I suppose you'll be the one to show her all this?" Xena asked. When I looked over at her she wore that knowing sort of expression she has. Whenever she looked at me that way it usually meant that she already had an idea of what I was going to do. In this case, I wasn't all that certain she was correct.
"I'm not really sure I'm the one she needs it from. Let's face it; we don't have the sort of history that's conducive to beginning a life-long friendship."
"I think, of all people, you have the ability to be Queen as well as friend," Ephiny said.
"Thanks, Eph. I'm not really positive, but I have the notion that Prax needs a clean parchment, so to speak. It might help if it was someone who could be a friend, who doesn't really know her, or at least how she's been since Timara's death."
"That's a tall order," Adara said.
"Indeed," Xena agreed. "You're basically asking for someone who was just plopped into the middle of the tribe from outside."
Adara smiled at Xena. "Someone who wants to do their part for the tribe…to help a sister…"
"Especially someone Gabrielle already knows and trusts, someone who won't lead Prax into more trouble." Xena’s grin grew larger.
At first, I was unaware of what Xena and Adara were doing. I knew they were up to something, but it wasn't until nearly every eye moved in Selene's direction that I fully understood their plot.
"What?" Selene said, having suddenly looked up from playing with a loose thread on her skirt. She saw the stares and the smile on her sister's face. "Oh, no you don't! Not me."
I smiled myself. "You would be perfect, Selene."
"Oh, Gabrielle, don't say that."
"Because you know I can't say no to you."
"I know no such thing." I admit that it was a feigned look of miscomprehension I gave her. I knew that Selene liked me and felt an odd sort of indebtedness for the way I had helped the relationship between she and her mother.
"I don't think I'm the right choice," Selene said. "Besides, Gabrielle, you know Xena just brought this up to set me up." She glared at her sister.
"Now, Selene, give your sister a little more credit than that—"
"Ow," Xena cried out.
Yes, I did kick Xena under the table in order to get the massive, gloating grin off her face. As usual, however, she made much more of it than there actually was.
"I have to agree," Ephiny added. "I don't think Selene is the right person for this."
I wondered how long it would take Ephiny to play the overprotective suitor. There was nothing official between she and Selene, but it did appear to me that it was only a matter of time. The way Ephiny and Selene felt about one another might come as a surprise only to the two of them. It looked rather obvious to everyone else. I was certain that I didn't stand alone in that thinking.
"And why is that?" Adara questioned her sister. "She's right around Prax's age." Those two were as bad as Xena and Selene. Adara was just egging her sister on.
"I just—I uh…" She looked around the table, then at Selene. What could she say without revealing her feelings? "Well it could be dangerous!" she blurted out.
I winced inwardly. Gods, were Xena and I that bad when we fell in love? My Xena, being as thoughtful and full of tact as any warrior could be, burst into laughter.
"Prax is lying there with half her bones broke. As unskilled as Selene is in the art of combat, I should think even she could hold her own should Prax be able to muster the strength for an attack." She continued to laugh. "Ow!"
She shot me a look, which I pretended not to see.
"I'm gonna get a bruise there,” she muttered, so that only I could hear.
"I wouldn't be so unskilled, you know, if someone would teach me to use a weapon," Selene said to Xena.
"I'm not sure that over dinner is the appropriate time for that conversation," Cyrene said, glancing between her two daughters.
"You're right, Mother. Sorry, Gabrielle," Selene said.
"Don't worry about it," I answered. "Just tell me what you honestly think, Selene. Do you think you might meet with Prax?"
"And do what?"
"I'm not sure, talk to her, maybe read to her?"
"I suppose," she answered slowly. "I don't know what good I can do, if any at all, but I'll give it a shot."
"I can't ask anymore than that. Thanks, Selene," I said and gave her a wink.
"You don't look too confident in this scheme," Xena whispered in my ear.
"Oh, sorry," I answered in a distracted fashion. "I guess I'm just not looking forward to my next meeting with Prax. I have to give her the necklace she made for Timara…their betrothal necklace."
So long have I written here in these journals meant for the Conqueror's tales. Xena is fond of saying that without me, she would have no life of which to tell. I'm not certain how much I agree with her on that point. I will say, with a touch of humor, that without me, Xena would indeed have steered clear of many an embarrassing or even foolhardy situation. Never has she reminded me, however, of my foibles or bad judgment. I truly believe that with age, Athena granted me wisdom. It was a bit in short supply when I first became Queen of the Empire, as some of my writings stand as proof to.
I do not know how much of these words, what happened to me personally in Amazonia, will eventually end up in the official archives, but I write it all down so that at least one copy will exist for the library in Corinth, or even Xena's private library. You, the reader of this original copy can see that this scroll is much stained as though from water. In fact, the marks are from my own tears. I suppose I could have merely selected fresh parchment, but, not only do I abhor the waste of a good scroll, I thought that perhaps the tear-stained parchment would show more than my words ever could.
I woke the morning after our impromptu dinner party to even stiffer muscles than the day before. My right arm and ribs had paid the dearest during my fight with Prax. Being unused to battle, I wondered how long it would take for these aches and pains to ease.
I mixed myself a medicinal tea from what few of the herbs I had with me. It reminded me to ask Yu Pan for some of his ever-plentiful supplies. He never traveled without a full compliment of herbs and powders, always seemingly prepared for anything. I sipped on my tea and remembered the loving kiss I had received from Xena earlier in the morning.?
Full of secretiveness, she and Ephiny had appeared when they left me quite drowsy, my body beckoning for more sleep. They said it was for sparring practice, but I knew that look in their eye. To put it in the crudest terms possible; they were up to something. The day before I had asked one of my guard where the two had gone off to at midday. The young woman had simply said that the Conqueror had to learn the requirements necessary to carry out to completion the marriage ceremony to an Amazon Queen. An odd answer, but I could learn no more.
I began to feel better, the tea reducing some of the pain and swelling. I didn't look forward to my task of returning Prax's necklace. I had no idea as to how to approach Prax or even how to help her handle such emotions of pain and grief. There was only one person I could call on for assistance, only one person who Prax might allow to comfort her. I sat down and scribed a quick note, calling on the closest guard outside our quarters.
"Find the elder, Lexa, and give her this," I said.
After all, I thought to myself. There are many people to call on during a crisis, and even though I had never known what it was like, most might agree that a child's mother can help to assuage any hurt. I certainly hoped that opinion held some truth.
I set out to meet Lexa at the place I'd appointed in the message to her. Halfway to the hospice, I ran into her walking down the path to meet me.
"Well met, Your Highness."
"It's Gabrielle to you, Lexa, and good morning."
She smiled and I realized I looked at a much-changed woman than the one I had met when I first arrived in the village. Her shoulders slumped a bit and her smile looked tired, defeated, or perhaps a combination of both. I know she had spent long hours with Prax and the dark circles under her eyes indicated that she could have used a good night's sleep herself.
"I'm glad you came, thank you," I said, as we walked down the path side by side.
"How could I not? I'm her mother."
I nodded, but held my tongue. I knew nothing of these people, certainly not enough to judge them, even if I felt inclined to, which I didn't.
Lexa lightly grabbed my elbow and as we stopped, I turned to face her.
"I'm not a bad mother, Gabrielle."
"I know you're not," I answered. Come on over here, let's sit for a moment," I said, leading us off the path.
We sat down on a grassy knoll that looked down upon the center of the village. It would be a hot day again today, the air around us already felt warm against my skin. If I strained my ears, I could hear the faint sound of water as it thundered over the great falls near the edge of Amazon land.
"You don't even know me, Gabrielle, not well enough anyway. How can you know if I'm a good mother or not?"
"Because I don't think you'd be here if you weren't."
"Don't kid me, Gabrielle, because I'm not the sort to fool myself. I know what kind of a woman I am, at least what kind I've been. I'm arrogant and proud. I suppose I've always wanted more out of life than I was given. I won't say that I don't enjoy position and power. Now, how can a woman like that be a good mother?"
I don't know what it was that made me want to encourage her. Perhaps it was the thoroughly defeated expression on her face. I think most of all it was the fact that I knew she loved her daughter. Maybe she had made mistakes, but what parent hasn't? I heard the love for Prax in her voice along with a hint of failure. Any woman who questioned her competency as a parent as vehemently as Lexa did must have felt badly about the past and wanted to do better in the future.
"Well, first of all, you talk about yourself in a manner I don't understand. You talk about vanity and arrogance, but I don't see that now, not in the woman before me."
"The circumstances of the last couple of days has taken a lot out of me." She smiled wryly.
"Seems like a changed woman to me."
She barked out a laugh with a sardonic ring. "People can't change how they've been for so long, not like that."
I smiled to myself, knowing how wrong she was. "If I believed that I never would have fallen in love with one of the most wonderful women in the world. Although biased I might be."
She gave me a genuine smile that time and I saw something in her eye. "This isn't the first time you've thought of changing, is it?" I asked.
"Are you sure you're not a seer, Gabrielle?"
I started for a brief moment, wondering what she knew of me. It took only another heartbeat to realize that she meant that as an agreement of sorts. She went on and I breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn't noticed anything odd about my demeanor.
"I didn't think it possible to lose that arrogance, but all of a sudden I woke up the other day and it was gone, but as though it had been ripped from me leaving nothing else in it's place. Now I only feel shamed and inept. I never thought I was being a bad mother, Gabrielle," she said, covering her face with her hands.
I had no idea how to show compassion in this instance, knew no words to make it right. What could I say? Didn't I agree that she had raised Prax poorly? But, wait. Had she? Really? Pride, while not an altogether attractive attribute in too large a quantity was not that great a transgression. Granted, Lexa had taught Prax to think herself better than those around her, but I remembered that Ephiny said Prax's behavior hadn't actually changed until Timara's death. So, didn't that mean that Lexa's guilt was mostly in her own mind?
"I don't think you were a bad mother," I told her.
I reached out and placed my hand on her back and I was jolted from the shock of it. Only rarely had I seen visions in my waking moments. Lately, I had dreamed of none at all. It seemed so much more than a dream. I looked around, knowing this wasn’t happening, but partly feeling as though I was in the moment.
I stood in this very village, but it was an area of the forest of which I was not familiar. Xena stood beside me, surrounded by many of our family and friends. It seemed as if the entire village stood around us, even people I did not know. It was evening and all about us glittered, as the lamps in the trees reflected the golden leaves from a tree that I did not think could have existed in real life, so beautiful it was.
I looked down and at my feet knelt Prax, her sword lying atop her outstretched palms. Her face still bore some discoloration, but her hands looked quite mended. I looked around me, but I appeared to be the only one who had no idea of what was happening.
“With my body and sword, I swear fealty to my Queen. I vow to protect her with all my powers, trading my life for hers if the need should arise. I swear this before all my people, to place my life in the Queen’s service until my death or should she release me from my bond.”
“...abrielle? Gabrielle? Are you all right?” Lexa’s voice brought me back to where I had been sitting all along.
“I’m sorry. I thought I...heard someone calling. What did you say?”
"That I'd take it all back if I could. I should never have told Prax to keep her betrothal to Timara secret."
"I wanted to ask you that, but thought it too much. Why did you?"
"I think at first, I just didn't want Prax to have to answer anyone's questions. I think back on it and it would have been so much better if she had had people to share her grief with. And okay, I didn't really want to have to go through what I knew would come. I just imagined that the tribe would think it was all a lie; that I'd come up with the whole thing because there weren't any witnesses to deny it. If only I could have seen ahead. If only I'd thought of someone besides myself."
"If only…words that carry a heavy burden with them. You seem like you're taking a step in the right direction. Don't allow your guilt, and wondering what might have been, to push you backward. I know that's a lot easier to say than to do..."
"Yes, but it's sound advice you offer. I only hope I'm strong enough to carry through."
"Lexa, my friend, I don't think determination will ever be a problem for you, and you can take that as a compliment because I mean it in a good way."
We both smiled at that.
"I feel rather lighter since talking to you. Thank you, Gabrielle. After the way I treated you, I have no right to expect kindness."
"On the contrary, everyone has such a right."
We sat in silence for a few more moments, and I wondered if she was dreading moving on as much as I was. I believe I used the peaceful scenery as an excuse not to move on. I glanced over at Lexa to find her already staring at me with a sort of understanding expression.
"I know what you're thinking," she finally said. "And I agree. I'm not looking forward to this much myself."
I nodded without speaking. Finally, when I could not talk myself into delaying any further I took in a deep breath and stood up. "I know how painful it must be to see Prax like this and this meeting won't be an easy one," I looked down at her to say. "If you'd rather not come with, I won't think badly of you."
She stood and brushed grass from the breeches and leggings she customarily wore. She graced me with a smile, and I admit that it did a great deal more for her than the scowl she had sported in days past. "How very like you to make me such an offer, but no, I'll go with and do what I can. I owe that much to my daughter."
We continued in an agreeable silence, but our hearts grew heavy with every footstep.
Prax's expression changed to an almost enthusiastic one when she saw her mother. I walked in behind Lexa just in time to see Prax's features tighten and her mouth turn downward in a scowl.
"You again. Gods…can't you…give me a…moment's peace?" Prax had to pause after speaking two or three words in order to take a breath. She spit out the words from between her clenched teeth.
I knew that a broken jaw caused considerable pain upon opening the mouth too wide, but Prax looked as though she suffered much more than I thought was normal. Even her breaths were short and rapid, as one will breathe when injured.
"I know you don't want to see me Prax, but—"
"You're right…get out."
"Stop that talk, Prax," Lexa said upon settling herself in a chair beside her daughter's bed. "I won't have you talking that way to Gabrielle, not any longer."
"So…she has you…fooled, too."
"You ought to be familiar enough with me to know that few people fool me. I've seen some things in myself, child, some things that I didn't like and I’m trying to change. I'd like to think that I've become a big enough person to admit when I've misjudged someone. I was wrong, Prax. Wrong about a number of things, one of them being Gabrielle."
"She's done…something to you! She's some…kind of…witch."
"That's enough, Prax! I'm serious. You not only hurt yourself with such words, but you shame your family name. You shame me."
Prax gave some indication that at one time, she had been a dutiful daughter. She appeared embarrassed by her mother's remarks and hung her head in silent submission. I wondered how long that behavior would last.
Danae startled us, but she appeared just as surprised to see us. "Well met to you all, Your Highness."
We exchanged greetings and a few pleasantries.
"I won't stay in your way, but I came to give Prax something for that pain."
"It doesn't do…any good. What's…the point?" Prax added.
"I thought maybe she wasn't taking anything," I said. "She seems to still be in a great deal of pain.
"I know, but she's taking a dose that I made myself for a girl of her size. It's as much as I dare give her."
"Willow bark and alianthus leaves?" I asked.
"You know a bit of the healing arts?" Danae asked.
"Just a bit. Over the seasons, I picked it up from a friend. I remember being told that such a painkiller isn't effective on everyone, however. Is there truth to that?"
"True, but that would be a rare case indeed. I suppose I could try something different if it's really not helping the girl."
I could understand Danae's unwillingness to believe entirely in Prax’s word. The young woman hadn't exactly been an agreeable patient for Danae.
I frowned in thought. "How about trying to boil the willow extract with a combination of bloodroot and peony?"
"You do know your plants. I'm not sure about—"
I took Danae's arm, pushing her toward the door. "Let me describe exactly what I mean…outside."
We walked a small way from the room and stopped. Danae looked at me, fully grasping my intention to converse in private.
"You do know that combination will make her quite drowsy rather quickly," Danae said.
"I was sort of hoping for that effect. Not only does she look as though she could desperately use some pain-free sleep, but I have some news that Prax probably isn't going to take well. It might be easier on her if she can't hurt herself or anyone else."
Danae agreed, thankfully without any further explanation from me, and rushed off to fix the elixir. When I returned to the room, Lexa had been explaining some of the local happenings to Prax. I let the two of them talk, with Prax doing most of the listening. True to her word, Danae returned more quickly than I would have thought possible. She gave the new medicine to Prax, and the young woman sipped it from a shallow bowl with a reed.
"It's sweet," Prax said.
"That's the peony in it," I replied.
“I hope it does the trick. I want to ease her pain, especially so we can assure those bones in her wrist are set properly. I’ll admit right off, Lexa, no one here is as skilled with broken bones as Castra was.”
Castra?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” Lexa said. “Castra was a very skilled Healer. She’s traveled south with two of the new apprentices, though, to help a growing tribe who had no Healers at all.”
I didn’t want to offend or overstep my area of expertise, but I could think of no one better. I saw an image in my mind of Solan, lying in a bed with his hands similarly bandaged.
“Danae, would it offend you if I asked a Healer who is traveling with me to visit with Prax? Of course, as long as everyone else agrees.”
Lexa nodded, proving her newfound trust in me, Prax simply lay there with her eyes closed, but Danae’s reaction surprised me the most.
“The Master Yu Pan?”
“Why...yes. You know him?”
“Only of him. His reputation as a Healer is without equal. I would be honored to learn anything that he would be willing to teach.”
“I’ll contact him today, then.”
Danae stayed just long enough to see that Prax didn't suffer any unfavorable reaction to the new medicine. She eventually took her leave, and Lexa and I made small talk for some time. Prax seemed content to listen, but at last, I saw her yawn as best she could without opening her mouth too wide.
I nodded to Lexa and pulled my chair beside Prax's bed, on the opposite side from Lexa. "Prax, I'm glad the new medicine is helping you. Your body should begin to feel much better as the days wear on. I'm not here for merely a social visit, though."
I reached into my leather bag and withdrew the small box. I held it in my lap for a moment and watched as Prax stared with tired eyes at the object. She hadn't yet spied Timara's mark on the lid. It took only moments for her to recognize it, however, and she sat up a little straighter. She didn’t move as I opened the box and placed it on the blanket covering her lap. I removed the necklace and laid it as lovingly as I could over the open box, then I gave her the letter.
She took it awkwardly in the two fingers of her left hand that the splint and bandages hadn’t covered. Her chin quivered and I was certain she wasn’t even reading the words. She knew what it said, more or less.
“I’m so sorry, Prax...for all of this. I wish I’d known about you and Timara, wish I’d known before it had to come to this—between you and me.
She continued to look at the letter with tears in her eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she even heard me or not, so I went on.
“If I’d known about you—about the two of you, I would never have read the letter. I was only doing my duty, though, and I had no way of knowing that—“
“You read it?” Prax said.
“It was my job, Prax. I couldn’t tell—“
“You read my letter?” She didn’t have to shout for me to react as though she’d slapped me. There was nothing but hatred in that voice.
It was obvious, at that point, she could no longer hear me. Caught up in her personal pain and anger, Prax ignored the splint on her left hand and crushed the parchment into her fist. Either the medicine had made it tolerable, or she simply ignored the pain that bending her broken bones must have caused.
“Get out!” She did shout this time. Using her splinted hand, she swiped the box and necklace from her lap. “I hate you!”
I stood up, unsure of how fast Prax might be able to move in her condition.
“I told you that she was a witch!”
I took a step backward. I had honestly never felt such abhorrence directed at me, and certainly not from a young woman.
“Prax,” Lexa said. She looked at me helplessly.
“I told you she was mother. It was...all her fault!”
Lexa looked back at me and appeared every bit as confused as I was by Prax’s remark.
“I don’t understand. What did—“
“It’s all your fault!”
“Prax, what are you talking about,” Lexa asked. “What’s her—“
“All of it! It all happened because of her. I hate her. It was because of her they went. If Timara hadn’t gone, this never would have happened. All because of her and—“
She couldn’t go on. That’s when Prax’s shouts turned into tortured cries. Lexa sat on the bed and gathered the crying girl into her arms. She wept along with her daughter, and I cried for the both of them. I just stood there with tears rolling down my cheeks, unable to move, Prax’s wails echoing through the room. I tried to hold on to the idea that at last, she could grieve, but that was little comfort to me.
I was actually quite astounded that the reason behind all of Prax’s hate and anger had been that she had blamed me for it all. I had been some nameless, faceless entity on which she could place all her blame. She had probably included Xena into the mix, but Xena hadn’t suddenly shown up as her Queen. I had become real to her, and it finally gave her the opportunity to let loose everything she had kept inside.
Finally willing my body to move, I walked over and picked up the box and necklace that Prax had knocked to the floor. I wanted to do so much more, but I knew there was nothing I could say or do to help the situation, not now. I placed the forsaken objects on Prax’s bedside stand and silently left the room.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
To be continued in : Chapter 39: In A Valley Of This Restless Mind…
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