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“Sir?” Twitch said, recalling Ferumbras to the present.
“That’s lovely, lad,” Ferumbras said. He was fairly certain Twitch had just revealed that he enjoyed gardening more than grooming. “Perhaps when we return to the Smials, I can speak with the master gardener for you.”
Twitch’s smile was surprised and hopeful. “Really?”
“Certainly,” Ferumbras said, glad he had heard correctly.
“Thank you, sir,” Twitch said, warming up to him for the first time.
Ferumbras supposed it was time to offer some answers of his own. He cleared his throat and met the lad’s gaze. “I’m sure you’re full of questions about why we’re here and where we’re going. There is a settlement not far from here. Your father took me there once, a long time ago. If he were not retired, he would be taking me again. Or perhaps not. Who am I to say, really? Still, I think he’d be pleased that you are able to accompany me today.”
“My father?” Twitch asked. “What does he have to do with this?” He was so astonished by the Thain’s announcement that he forgot to add ‘begging your pardon.’
Ferumbras smiled wistfully. “Quite a lot, actually. I suppose he never told you about the time he brought me out here? Your parents weren’t even married then.”
“I know nothing of it, sir,” Twitch said, his curiosity growing by leaps and bounds.
“Of course not. My mother saw to that,” Ferumbras said, a bitter note in his voice. He considered the young hobbit across from him, watching him for longer than was comfortable. Then he nodded, as though coming to some great decision. “I think we are far enough from the Tooklands now to speak of it safely, and you should know some of it, before we get there. It’s best to be informed as much as you can, I’ve learned.”
Twitch nodded and settled in to hear the Thain’s tale.
Chapter 15 - A Conspiracy Unmasked
Ferumbras made it to his father’s study in under two minutes. He knocked once and entered without waiting for an invitation. He paused when he saw his mother there, but refocused immediately on Clematis and Adalgrim, both of whom were mid-sip in their tea and appeared relatively calm, not panicked and fretful as he expected they would be.
They were all watching him, waiting for him to explain his presence. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to regain his own composure. He smoothed out his waistcoat and approached an empty chair around the tea table, where they all were sitting. He took his seat and met his father’s eyes.
“Gorton found me.”
“Have some tea, dearest,” Lalia said. Her tone was neutral, never a good sign.
Rumbi poured himself a cup, added cream and sugar, stirred and sat back. He met first Adalgrim’s then Clematis’s eyes. He saw then that Clematis was slightly red-eyed, and Adalgrim’s mouth was pinched at the corners. Even his father seemed to have more wrinkles around his eyes than he normally did. “I am sorry I failed in my promise to keep watch on her,” he said.
Adalgrim’s pinched mouth attempted to smile. “It’s not your fault, lad. Ami was just too clever for all of us.”
“Perhaps I could still track her,” Rumbi said. “Does anyone know what direction she was planning to head first?”
“No,” Clematis said, her voice softer than normal. “Esmeralda didn’t know what her plans were. If Darling were to tell anyone, it’d be her. We asked Marcho too, of course, but he doesn’t know anything either.”
“Did he know Darling was planning to go on an Adventure?” Rumbi asked.
Adalgrim nodded with a sigh. They had clearly gone over all this already, but they would go over it again for Rumbi’s benefit. “He knew. He was hoping to propose before she could leave, but he says he’s content to wait until she returns. We checked with all her friends, just to be certain, but none of them know anything either.”
“What about the ostlers?”
“The ostlers?” Lalia repeated, making sure she heard correctly.
“She did have to go to the barn to get the pony,” Rumbi pointed out. “One of them might have helped her to prepare the pony, or least been awake to see which way she went. Has anyone asked any of them?”
“Gorton didn’t say anything,” Fortinbras said.
“He might not have asked,” Rumbi said.
Lalia sniffed. Rumbi knew that sniff well. It meant she would hardly be surprised that one of the help didn’t take initiative to discover such important details on their own. She reached for the bell she kept on the table and rang it. Rumbi gritted his teeth; he detested that dratted bell.
A few seconds later, the door to the adjacent room opened and Gorton appeared. “Yes, Mistress?”
“Did you ask any of the ostlers where Amaryllis might have gone?” Lalia asked. Her tone suggested she already knew what the answer would be and she wouldn’t be surprised to hear it.
She was surprised however, though she didn’t show it. “I did, ma’am. Most of them were still at the festivities, and those who were in the stables were fast asleep. No one heard or saw anything.”
Still, that didn’t mean that none of them knew anything. “What about Sprig? Ami is friendly with him. He might know something,” Rumbi said.
“I can send for him, sir,” Gorton said.
“No, best to speak with him at the stables,” Fortinbras said. Having a groom escorted to the Thain’s study would only cause more whispers, and there was whispering enough already.
“I’ll go,” Rumbi offered, already standing. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Lalia watched her son depart and then waved for Gorton to be dismissed. Once they were alone again, she studied her husband. They had been here going over the plans for the end-of-summer ball when Adalgrim and Clematis had arrived. They had hesitated when they saw Lalia, but she had insisted they stay and say what was on their minds, for clearly something was amiss. She listened in astonishment as they explained Ami’s sudden departure. Her astonishment only grew as Fortinbras issued his orders to Gorton - check the stables, check with Ferumbras - and she realized that he had already known about this. That meant Ferumbras already knew as well, which he confirmed as soon as he arrived, and yet no one had thought it important enough to inform her. No one had thought that she, the Lady of the Tooks, needed to be informed when one of the fold was planning to skip away on some foolish Adventure and make the Family a spectacle in front of the whole Shire.
“Why would she want to go on an Adventure?” Clematis said into the silence. “This is all Bilbo’s fault, filling their heads like he does.”
“I don’t know about that,” Adalgrim said. “She enjoys his stories, but she’s never shown the least bit interest in Adventuring until a few weeks ago. I just don’t understand what happened, nor why she failed to tell us she was leaving. She promised to tell us.”
“I’m sure she just forgot,” Lalia said, and bit down on the rest of her statement, ‘like she does with everything else.’ If Rumbi still could not see how fortunate he was that Ami had refused his hand, then he was more blind than Lalia had thought. And now Ami was, in effect, rejecting even Marcho Hornblower’s hand, though everyone but her failed to see that as well. Of course Ami was rejecting Marcho, for he had no other reason to be here than to propose to the lass, and he was content to wait? What was it about Darling that made everyone blind to her snubs and disrespect?
Lalia drank her tea and hoped, guiltily, that Ami would never return.
Sprig was cleaning out the stalls with his fellow junior ostlers when Rumbi entered the stable. The master ostler called Sprig over at Rumbi’s request and Rumbi went outside, to the far end of the paddock where they would not be easily overheard. When Sprig stood in front of him, Rumbi paused, both to compose himself and to figure out the best way to get the information he needed.
“I promise, Mr. Ferumbras, I’ve been doing as you asked,” Sprig said before Rumbi could put two words together. “I make sure as she’s at her rooms by nine o’clock every night, and we’ve not been alone.”
“This is about Deliah?”
“Who? Oh, no. This is about Darling. Miss Amaryllis,” Rumbi said. “She took the pony in the middle of the night and left.”
“Aye. We told Gorton as much.”
“You know where she went.”
Sprig stepped back in shock. “I don’t, sir,” he insisted.
“She’s been writing to you, all through the last year. Then she comes here to look after the pony and prepare for her journey, and she talks to you about the best one to take. She’s been keeping her supplies in the stall, packed and ready to go at any moment. She didn’t talk to you? Tell you anything?”
Sprig shook his head, shock still evident. He didn’t dare question how Ferumbras knew about the letters. They were innocent enough, but it rattled him that anyone outside the stables knew about them. Had Ami told Ferumbras? Why? “No, sir. She said as she’d got permission from her folks to go.”
“She did have.” Sprig relaxed considerably at this affirmation. “However, she was supposed to tell us when she planned to leave.”
Sprig shrugged. “She said she was leaving in Afterlithe. It is Afterlithe, sir.”
Rumbi grudgingly admitted that Sprig had a point. Still, to leave before the first day was over? Indeed, to leave when the first day had barely just begun? “She must have told you something to have written you so often.”
Sprig’s expression turned sour. “I’ll retrieve the missives if you wish to read them, sir.” His tone suggested he would rather eat rotten eggs. “I assure you, she said naught to me of her plans.”
Rumbi paused. No, he realized, she would be more subtle than that. “Did she ask you about any places she might visit on her journey? Who she might be able to stay with in certain places?”
Sprig paused, considering. He glanced back at the stables and saw Nab watching from the shadows.
“Sprig, this is important,” Rumbi said. “What did she ask you?”
Sprig let out a huff. “She did ask for the quickest routes to certain places: Hobbiton, Pincup, Budgeford. She’s family of some sort in all those places. I’d assume she would stay with them.”
That made sense enough. Rumbi tried a different track. “Did she seem inclined towards one place over the others?”
“She didn’t say which one, but she did ask about Pincup again the other day. Her aunt’s a Banks, ain’t she?” Sprig met Rumbi’s eyes, his own troubled. “Do you- You don’t think as she’d get into trouble, do you, sir?”
“No. No, of course not. What could happen to her in the Shire?” Short of falling, breaking an ankle and being unable to get herself to help. Why had Adalgrim permitted this? Not that Ami would have been stopped by that, but it at least would have made her planning more difficult. “Thank you, Sprig.”
Ferumbras returned to his father’s study and conveyed the news. In the end, it was decided to send out riders to attempt to pick up her trail. Rumbi would ride towards Pincup, which seemed the most likely destination. Adelgar would head for Budgeford and Adalgrim for Hobbiton. They would search for the trail for two hours then return to report their progress. If the trail wasn’t found in that amount of time, it was unlikely to exist. Once they knew for certain which way Ami had gone, Adalgrim and Clematis would decide if they still wanted Rumbi to follow her or not.
Rumbi went in search of his friend and Adalgrim went to have ponies readied. Clematis needed to find her other children and tell them what was happening, and Fortinbras had other duties to attend to. Lalia went to find Marcho. She wanted to hear it from the lad himself that he was all right with Ami’s disappearance.
Lalia went to the guest quarters, but the Hornblowers were already out and about for the day. She looked in some of the sitting rooms and parlors, with no luck. If she came across any tweens, she asked after Marcho, only to get a shrug and a blank stare. One lad thought he saw Marcho heading out over the fields earlier that morning but couldn’t be sure.
Giving it up for the moment, she returned to the study to do some crochet and wait with Clematis for the riders’ returns. Adalgrim returned first, just after two. He had found no trail leading from the Smials to the north, and he had looked thoroughly, even getting off his pony from time to time whenever he saw something likely. He could only conclude that Ami had not gone that way. Adelgar returned shortly before three, with the same news. Rumbi arrived a half-hour later.
“I found her trail,” he said. “She’s headed for Pincup. If I hurry, I can get there by nightfall. If she’s visiting kin, it’s unlikely she’d have moved on yet. I can still catch up with her.”
Clematis and Adalgrim shared a glance. “I’ll write a missive to the Banks and ask them to make certain they find out where she’s going next and send word to them. Perhaps we can keep track of her that way,” Clematis said. “We knew what we were agreeing to. I suppose we’ll simply have to become accustomed to worrying until she comes back.”
“I can deliver the missive myself. I really don’t mind,” Rumbi offered.
“But she will,” Adalgrim said. “She’s not the only one who can be wily. So long as she doesn’t change destinations from one place to another, we should be able to keep track of her without her being any the wiser. Thank you all for your help, and for getting this information for us, Rumbi. Now, we’re to have tea with Gardenia. If you’ll excuse us.”
“Of course,” Fortinbras said.
Adelgar and Rumbi left with them to go to their own teas, leaving Fortinbras and Lalia alone. Fortinbras studied his wife. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Marcho hasn’t been seen since this morning,” she said. “He could be back by now of course, now that it’s coming on teatime. If he’s not...”
“Yes, if he’s not, there could be implications,” Fortinbras said. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. We’ll wait for dinner. If he’s not returned by then, we’ll speak with the Hornblowers.”
The Hornblowers were all in attendance at dinner. Lalia waited until the first servings had been eaten before excusing herself from the head table. She caught Clematis’s attention and together they approached the Hornblowers, where they sat with some Boffins visiting from The Yale.
“Jonquil, dearest,” Lalia said, approaching them. “Might we have a word with you and Marcho?”
Jonquil looked up, her eyes round. She nodded, having just taken a bite of roast. She swallowed hastily and with a glance at Marcho, stood. Marcho followed them to the adjoining ballroom, empty and silent, lit only by the waning sunlight outside. The room glowed golden and dust motes danced in the rays of sunlight lingering near the ceiling.
“I’m sorry to pull you away from your meal, but I thought it best to speak in private. It shouldn’t take long,” Lalia said.
“Of course,” Jonquil said. “What is the matter? Has Ami returned already?”
“No,” Clematis said, “but we know now she was headed for Pincup.”
“You do?” Marcho asked, sounding more surprised than relieved. Lalia watched him closely.
“I’ve forwarded a missive to Reynard Banks, though surely they must know she’s there by now.” Marcho paled considerably at this announcement. If he’d been sitting down, he’d be squirming. “I cannot express my sympathies enough at my daughter’s rash behavior. I know what this visit meant to you both.”
“It’s not a worry, dear,” Jonquil assured. “No disrespect, but she is a Took. I warned Marcho, Tooks love Adventures. He just laughed it off. Best she get it out of her system now, don’t you agree?”
“Even so,” Lalia said, “you’re taking your intended’s departure in good stride, lad. To leave so suddenly and unannounced, one might consider it rude.”
“Ami is never rude,” Marcho said. “And it’s not sudden or unannounced. She’s been planning this for months.” He realized his mistake as soon as the word left his mouth. He clamped his lips shut as though to keep anything else from escaping them.
“Months?” Clematis repeated. “She only told us a few weeks ago.”
“What do you know, lad?” Lalia asked. “Are Reynard and Nomina Banks going to have any idea what that missive is about when it reaches them?”
If it were possible, Marcho paled even more. “I don’t--”
“Before you finish that sentence, boy, you should know I do not tolerate liars or deceivers in my house,” Lalia said, her voice cold. “Now what do you know?”
“Marcho?” Jonquil asked, looking at her stricken son.
Marcho let out a breath and considered the Lady before him. Then he looked at his mother and Clematis and took another deep breath. “I’m sorry. I will not betray Ami’s confidence.” He turned and left for the tunnel, rather than the dining room. The door closed softly behind him, leaving the room in silence once more.
“This begins to sound like a conspiracy.” Adalgrim lit his pipe and paced the parlor. “How does Marcho know something that Esme does not?”
“Perhaps she’s merely a better conspirator,” Clematis said. “What is Ami up to?”
They had gone over every possible scenario they could think of and were no closer to figuring the riddle out than they had been that morning. If Marcho had disappeared as well, the riddle would have been simple - he and Ami had run off to elope. When Marcho went missing mid-morning, that’s what everyone had thought had happened. Now Marcho was back from having gone fishing and Ami was still nowhere to be seen. She was headed for Pincup, but whether or not she would visit her kin while she was there was anyone’s guess. One thing was clear: this was not a simple Adventure.
“It’s not too late to send Rumbi,” Clematis said.
“He won’t be able to see anything at night. If she didn’t go to Pincup, he could lose her trail,” Adalgrim said. “Esme has to know.”
Esme had made plans to stay with Dicentra that night, so Adalgrim had left a message with Sigibert to send Esme home at once. He’d left a similar message with Ingilbold, in case Esme and Dicentra decided to stay with Verbena instead. When night fell and she still wasn’t home, they sent Pally out to search for her. He was gone only a few minutes when she arrived with Amber and Heather. Pally was right behind them with Arlo in tow.
“What’s the fuss, Da?” Esme asked.
“As if you didn’t know,” Clematis said. She pointed to one of the chairs and Esme sat. “We know Ami has been planning this little Adventure of hers for more than just a few weeks. Is there something else we should know?”
Sensing trouble, Amber and Heather took seats on the settee and Pally pulled Arlo onto the other chair. They sat still and quiet, watching their parents and Esme with great interest.
“Oh, you know Ami,” Esme said with a wave of her hand. “For all that she’s impulsive, she can fret over a thing for ages before she does anything about it. She’s been talking about wanting to go on an Adventure for months, that’s true, but she didn’t seriously start to plan for it until a few weeks ago. That’s when she told you about it.”
“If it were that simple an explanation, Marcho would have told us,” Adalgrim said. “Instead, he closed up like a trap and wouldn’t let out another peep. There is something else at work here and we want to know what it is.”
“I wouldn’t know what she’s told Marcho,” Esme said.
“You two tell each other everything,” Clematis said. “We may not be able to get Marcho to talk to us, but you have little choice. What is Ami doing in Pincup?”
Esme’s eyes widened. “You know about Pincup?”
“Of course we know about Pincup,” Adalgrim said. Taking a poke in the dark, he went on, “Just as we know she has no intention of stopping there. So where is she really going?”
Esme began to open her mouth but stopped. She fingered the hem of her dress and stared at her feet.
“Esmeralda Took,” Clematis said, a stern warning in her voice. “Out with it. Now!”
“She went to Nohill.” Esme spoke so softly, they almost didn’t hear her.
“Nohill?” Paladin asked. “Where in all the green Shire is that?”
“Just outside of Pincup.”
“And what’s in Nohill?” Adalgrim asked.
“Who?” Amber repeated.
Esme let out a deep breath, one she felt she had been holding for months. When she next spoke, she let out the entire story. Marcho, despite appearances, hadn’t wanted to court Ami again, nor had she wanted to court him. When Marcho arrived to help with the reconstruction and they were forced to interact, they came to a quick realization and had struck a deal. Marcho had been trying to gain the interest of Rosalie Chubb with little results, and Ami had her heart set on another as well. They agreed to help each other in their endeavors. He would pretend to court Ami to keep other lads at bay and assist her with her scheme, and she would help him win the favor of Rosalie. Ami befriended the other lass and raved about Marcho to her at every opportunity and passed on key pieces of information to Marcho about his secret love. He then helped her, going over their schematics and design books that had nothing to do with the construction in Whitwell. The last stage of the plan was getting away on an Adventure to give her time to carry out her scheme.
“But who did she go there to see?” Heather asked.
“It’s a lad she met at the Fair last year. She thinks she loves him. I told her she was being daft, but then I thought, maybe it was best if she go and see for herself that she was mistaken. She’d be back the next day and no one would be the wiser.”
“Who is this lad?” Clematis asked, her stomach dropping. Surely not the shepherd lad?
“His name is Perry Nettleburr. He was the one who had those sheep.”
“You’re joking,” Pally said, not amused.
“You knew about this and you said nothing to us?” Adalgrim asked.
“I figured she’d come straight home once she realized what a mistake she was making, and if anyone tried to talk her out of it, well, you know how stubborn she can be,” Esme said. “She’ll be back by this time tomorrow, you’ll see. There’s no way would she want to stay in that place once she gets a look at it. Just hearing about it gives me the shivers.”
“I’m still not clear on what is going on,” Amber said.
“Ami’s lost her mind, that’s what’s going on,” Pally said, standing up. “I think the curse has caught up to her at last. I’ll go and see to readying some ponies.”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” Adalgrim said, surprising them all. “We should give Ami time to reconsider her actions and return on her own.”
“And if she doesn’t?” Clematis said. “This afternoon, everyone thought that she and Marcho had gone off to elope. How do we know she hasn’t gone off to elope with this lad instead?”
“She wouldn’t do that!” Esme said. “Her plan was to help them rebuild their town, get them proper homes and all that. Then she’d bring him here and ask to be married. She figured it would take maybe a year.”
“And where is she planning to stay during this year?” Clematis asked. “Certainly not with him!”
“No! She figured she could stay with someone else, someone with a daughter,” Esme said. “But she’ll be back tomorrow, you’ll see. She’s probably headed back already.”
“Probably?” Pally repeated. He was still poised for heading out the door at a moment’s notice. “She’s been planning this for months! When have you ever known her to keep her mind on something for that long and not go through with it? She’ll stay out of pride if nothing else.”
“I’m taking it that this lad isn’t well off, then?” Heather asked. She and Amber were still trying to follow along and wondering how they could have missed all this to-do while they had been staying in Whitwell. How had they missed when Ami had been staying in their apartment here? They were clearly the only ones who had no idea who Perry Nettleburr was.
“He’s a derelict,” Pally said. He was more disappointed than angry. He had thought Ami was smarter than this. “I told her to stay away from him. She promised she would. How did this happen? She couldn’t have possibly fallen in love with him over a loaf of bread.”
“She came across him a couple of other times,” Esme said. “That night when Arlo was ill, and then she snuck out to meet him the morning we left the Fair.”
“And you knew all this?”
Everyone looked at Esme. “It’s not my fault!”
“That is enough,” Adalgrim said, raising his voice but keeping his tone calm. “Children, to your rooms please. Your mother and I must discuss what we intend to do.”
Amber, Heather and Arlo said goodnight and returned to their apartment, and Pally and Esme retreated to their rooms. Clematis and Adalgrim stood for a time in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Without speaking, they went to their own room and readied for sleep. Once they were abed, Clematis took her husband’s hand, a silent request for him to go first.
“So she feared we would disapprove of her choice,” he said. “She could at least give us the benefit of the doubt and let us meet him before she ran off.”
“I fear I may not have helped. She spoke to me and I dismissed her feelings. I was certain it was merely a whim, or I was hoping it was.”
“You only wanted her to think things through. She should have told us her intentions. Perhaps we should find this Nohill, meet with Nettleburr, see what he’s like.”
“We can’t very well leave her there. Imagine the scandal if anyone found out she was staying with a lad not of our kin?”
“So we’ll go. If she doesn’t come back tomorrow, we’ll go.”
“We’ll go tomorrow. If she does come back, we’ll meet her on the road.”
“We don’t even know where to go.”
Clematis was silent a moment. “Rumbi seemed to think that the groom Ami was exchanging letters with might know something. He’s from Pincup as well. His mother works as a maid for Fiona’s cousin. He may know where to find it.”
“We’ll ask him in the morning. If he doesn’t, then perhaps Fiona will.”
“If we talk to Fiona, she’ll tell Flambard and then it will be mere minutes before all the Tooks know what Ami has done. We can’t do that to her.”
“Agreed,” Adalgrim said. “Let’s talk to Sprig first. We’ll worry about the rest later.”
Their decision made, they settled down to sleep at last.
“I would like to come,” Rumbi said the following morning.
“I appreciate the offer, lad, but this is a family affair,” Clematis said. “We only require the groom, Sprig.”
Fortinbras nodded. “Of course. Rumbi, go with Pally and see to it they have enough supplies for a three-day journey, and have them ready four ponies.”
Ferumbras and Paladin left the Thain’s study, leaving Adalgrim, Clematis and Fortinbras behind.
“Thank you for helping us, Peanut, and for your discretion,” Adalgrim said.
Fortinbras leaned back in his chair and eyed his cousin, his gaze keen. “I do not like to admit this, but I begin to see what Lalia meant all these months. Darling has grown increasingly impulsive and irresponsible. She put herself not only in danger by setting out alone, without leaving word of her destination, which she had promised as a condition of being permitted to travel, but she now jeopardizes her reputation and the good name of the Tooks. To think that she spent the night in this lad’s home, it is beyond imagination.”
“Esme assured us that Darling did not intend to house with the lad while she was there,” Clematis said.
“It hardly matters. Folk will think what they want to think, should this get out and become general knowledge. Discretion is required on all of our parts.”
“We understand. Believe me, none of us will be saying anything about it,” Adalgrim said.
Lalia entered from the adjoining room, her parasol in hand. She was coming to inform her husband that she would be going into town with Gardenia and Calluna and had caught only the last remark. Sensing trouble, and seeing Clematis and Adalgrim there, she assumed this meeting must have something to do with their wayward daughter.
“Has Amaryllis yet to return to the nest?” she asked.
“We have decided to go and retrieve her,” Adalgrim said. “We erred in permitting her to go. We should hopefully be back by tomorrow, the day after at the latest. Thank you again, Peanut.” He and Clematis said their farewells and left, Lalia’s gaze boring holes in their heads as they retreated.
Lalia waited for the door to close before addressing her husband. Her tone terse, she said as easily as she could manage, “So they figured out where she was headed then?”
“They believe so,” Fortinbras said. He sat forward and returned to his correspondence with an air of finality. He had effectively dismissed Lalia and ended the conversation. Lalia sniffed, clutched her parasol and left without another word. Let him figure out where she was going, if he was so good at it. Meanwhile, she would do what she did best and find a way to get Marcho Hornblower to talk.
To be continued...
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