The Bloodprint

A dark power called the Talisman, born of ignorance and persecution, has risen in the land. Led by a man known only as the One-Eyed Preacher, it is a cruel and terrifying movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and subjugates women. And it is growing.

But there are those who fight the Talisman’s spread, including the Companions of Hira, a diverse group of influential women whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. Foremost among them is Arian and her fellow warrior, Sinnia, skilled fighters who are knowledgeable in the Claim. This daring pair have long stalked Talisman slave-chains, searching for clues and weapons to help them battle their enemy’s oppressive ways. Now they may have discovered a miraculous symbol of hope that can destroy the One-Eyed Preacher and his fervid followers: the Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world.

Finding the Bloodprint promises to be their most perilous undertaking yet, an arduous journey that will lead them deep into Talisman territory. Though they will be helped by allies—a loyal boy they freed from slavery and a man that used to be both Arian’s confidant and sword master—Arian and Sinnia know that this mission may well be their last.

Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of the acclaimed mystery The Unquiet Dead, delivers her first fantasy novel—the opening installment in a thrilling quartet—a tale of religion, oppression, and political intrigue that radiates with heroism, wonder, and hope. The Bloodprint is available October 3rd from Harper Voyager.

 

 

Chapter 1

Seven. Eight. Six.

Arian traced the numbers in the sand. She was crouched behind a dusty ridge, surveying the land ahead. The wide, flat plains extended in every direction, broken in places by sparse shrubs, the faintest traces of greenery and life. She passed her field glasses to the coal-skinned woman perched to her right.

“Do you see it?”

“Yes. Four Talisman. Two at the front, two at the back. And a boy who takes the tally.”

“Yes.” Arian’s voice was thoughtful. “They beat him nearly as much as they beat the women.”

The other woman stretched to her full height. She summoned the horses with a low whistle.

“It doesn’t seem to have taught him any kindness. His whip is as swift and furious as theirs. What is your judgment, Arian?”

Arian was the older of the two women, also the more seasoned. She carried the senior rank. Companion. First Oralist.

“We do what we always do with slave-chains—we break them. Get ready to ride, Sinnia.”

Through the eerie quiet and the dust, the khamsa mares approached. Both women mounted, cloaks thrown back, arms bared to reveal the gold circlets they wore.

Arian spurred her black horse to the left, her green cloak stirring in the wind. She nodded to the slavers below. “Let’s not give them warning. Let’s fly.”

They descended down the ridge, the khamsa surefooted, hungry for speed. The thunder of their hooves was swallowed by the sand, little whorls of dust rising into the sun.

Soon they were spotted by guards at the rear of the slave-chain. The guards turned, braced themselves in a synchronized movement, bringing up their swords. Sinnia let loose two arrows, aiming for the neck.

The guards fell. A startled cry rose from the long line of women, robed in the sorrowful blue of dusk, their pale eyes tasting light for the first time that day. The women were chained together in pairs, and now Arian and Sinnia parted at the rear to outpace the column on either side. The tally-taking boy with the whip sprang into Arian’s path, his crop glancing off the flanks of the black horse.

“Take him,” Sinnia shouted, but Arian left the boy. The man at the head of the slave-chain was a more formidable target. Clearly battle-tested, he had gained the saddle of his war horse at the first sound of unrest. Instead of a sword, he chose a shield, parrying the thrust of Arian’s quick, silver daggers. He was too big for her to match in direct combat so she feinted beneath the outthrust of his sword to slice through the girth on the flanks of his horse. When the saddle slipped, the horse stumbled under its rider’s weight. The slave handler went down, his foot caught in the stirrup as the horse bolted. Sinnia’s arrow took him in the distance.

That left one, apart from the boy.

The man was on his knees before Sinnia. She lashed the man’s hands behind his back with a thick fold of softened leather. Then she spooled out the strips of leather and staked them in the hard, cold ground. The boy rallied to his master, brandishing the only weapon at his disposal, but a flick of Arian’s wrist sent his crop into the dust. She held up a hand to motion him to stillness, and as she did, the sun glinted off the gold circlet on her upper arm. A murmur of astonishment whispered through the slave-chain at the sight of it.

The boy, scrawny and dirty in his tattered rags, fell back from his master, his blue eyes bright in a wind-reddened face.

With slow, considered movements, Arian slipped to the ground while Sinnia unhooked the ring of keys from the belt tied at the slave-master’s waist. One by one, she unlocked the iron rings that had bound the long row of women to the slave-chain and each other. As Sinnia moved up and down the ranks of the women, she saw scarred wrists, broken fingers, bruised arms, and shadowed, weary faces emptied of expectation.

She touched each woman with a soft word and a kind gesture, and as she passed down the line, she ripped the dust-blue netting from each face, freeing the women’s skin and eyes to the brush of wind and sun. Muted cries followed in her wake.

This is the legend, the women whispered back and forth. It cannot be real.

Arian pushed back her hood, her dark hair falling loose about her shoulders. The familiar gasp of surprise followed her action as she came to stand before the slave-master.

He turned his bearded, sun-burnt face up to hers, his eyes narrowed against the sight of skin and hair uncovered, the gold circlets closed about Arian’s upper arms with leather ties, in the manner of the Companions of Hira.

She had done this many times before, but Arian still took a breath to fortify her courage before she spoke.

“Do you know who I am, slave-master?”

He seemed stunned by the sight of her, straight-backed with confidence, unfettered. He struggled to speak.

“How have I offended, Companion? Why did you kill my men?”

He spoke the Common Tongue with the guttural accent of his native dialect.

“Why have you chained these women?” she asked by way of answer. “Where were you taking them?”

The man looked angry. Arian felt the tension of the boy who stood poised behind her, his mouth agape at the sight of Arian’s hair. She felt a twinge of empathy. The boy was unloved, abandoned, enslaved. He would be used until broken, then discarded, no fate for a child to face. Pursuing the slave-chains was Arian’s means of disrupting that fate.

The man on his knees studied her. “Do you not know the laws of this country? These women have no guardians, no homes. They pollute the public square with their hands held out for alms.”

“Because you killed their men and their children,” Arian concluded.

The slave-master tried to struggle to his feet. With one gesture of her hand, Arian sent him to his knees again.

“Instead of feeding them, you enslaved them, and you take them elsewhere, far from their homes for some deadlier purpose. What purpose, slave-master? I wish to know it.”

The man’s face darkened. As with all the men she had dealt with before this one, Arian could read his anger in the rigidity of his limbs, just as she could feel his urge to strike and strike hard.

Arian pitied that anger.

“I do not answer to you, Companion. I serve the Immolan.”

Arian rubbed her forehead, then turned to her friend. “Have you finished, Sinnia?”

“I have.”

The blue-robed women gathered in little clusters behind Sinnia.

“What do you want to do with this one?” Sinnia prodded the boy.

Arian’s eyes found the boy, read something in his face, then glanced at the women.

“I do not think this man will prove to be any different than the others.” She motioned to the pack horses that accompanied the slave-chain. “My sisters, take what you wish from these horses, and flee from here as quickly as you can. Find your families, but do not head east. These men have taken the eastern road, and everything that lies beyond it.”

The women scattered at her words, the slave-master watching the dismantling of his supplies with impotent rage.

“Haramzadah!” He shouted the filthy epithet at the boy. “Is this how you serve me? I should flay you alive!”

The threat touched something inside Arian.

“You think I would let you?” she asked, her voice cool. “Do you think I would leave you alive to visit any more pain on this boy? Sinnia.”

Before the boy could speak, his master’s blood was on the sand, startling a bewildered sob from the boy’s throat. Gently, Arian touched the boy’s shoulder, forgetting for a moment that he would flinch. Fluid leaked from his eyes and nose. He rubbed it aside with his dirty hands.

“He kept you, so you were grateful,” she told him. “But this was not kindness to you. When you had served your short life of labor, he would have killed you in the street.” She motioned at the women who’d fled in all directions. “Nor was that kindness, to wreak violence upon the helpless. Take your freedom,” she told him. “Find what happiness you can with it.”

He stared back at her. Perhaps he had heard of the Companions, heard of their magic, and waited to see if she would use it against him. But there had been no call for the Claim, no use to try and persuade the guards or the boy with the magic she’d been blessed with, no sense in re-working their understanding of the Tradition. It was lost now, all of it. When the lands of the Far Range had been devastated by war, all of it had been lost. The most that she and Sinnia could hope for was this continued disruption of the slave-chains.

She had killed many men in this effort.

And did not regret it.

But she would leave the boy with blue eyes. The boy had raised his crop and his voice, he’d shown no more mercy than he’d been shown, and if left to himself, he would resort to cruelty again. Yet she could sense the innocence of the boy, the bewilderment of his blind obedience, his hunger for something else.

Arian hungered for it, too. Because unlike the boy, she had felt it once. Not now. Not in the lands she had once roamed freely, where cruelty and violence were all there was.

We live in the age of secret and fear.

We live in the age of Ignorance.

She searched for one item in the slave-master’s pack, her hands careful and thorough. The boy did not leave. He watched her helplessly, sobs shaking his slight frame, until her search uncovered the Talisman flag, the only flag flown in these lands.

Sketched on the field of the flag was a book, opened to two facing pages.

It was far from a symbol of literacy.

The book’s blank pages were marked with blood.

And the Talisman fist had set it on fire.

 * * *

Arian suited symbol to action. She burned the flag, planting it in the ground beside the body of the slave-master. She felt no contempt for the dead, but the pity she afforded them was of a lesser shade than her feeling for their victims.

The boy had stopped crying, yet remained. As she and Sinnia drew their cloaks close around their naked arms, he raised a dirty fist at them.

“You’ll know blood and loss before this day ends.”

“Boy,” she said softly. “There is more to life than blood and loss. May you find peace in their stead.”

He wouldn’t, she knew. Who in these lost lands of Khorasan knew peace anymore? Who knew safety or truth, or the innermost kindling of joy?

These were the days of the Talisman fist.

The fist that crushed everything to dust.

 


Chapter 2

Arian looked up at the sound of a cry on the wind. Sinnia raised her left arm, clothed at the wrist in a gauntlet. In a moment, a falcon had descended to alight at Sinnia’s wrist.

Sinnia read the message gripped in its talons with a grim look. She spoke the name Arian had anticipated at the falcon’s first cry, a name Arian never heard without a sense of foreboding.

“Ilea. The High Companion has summoned us to Hira.”

Arian’s heart misgave her. Ilea’s Summons meant censure and disparagement. Rarely had the Council offered her encouragement.

She did not want to go.

She could not disobey.

She scanned the dull hills of the surrounding countryside. The blue-robed women were specks in the distance, fleeing from the ruins that were Arian’s destination.

Sinnia slowed her mare. “Do you not intend to heed the Summons?”

“I came here for the Cloak. I will not leave without it.”

“We will not have as easy a time of it inside the walls of Candour,” Sinnia cautioned. “The slave-chains in the city are guarded by whole companies. They will be heavily armed. Swords, maces, fire-lances.”

But Arian knew that none of these could stand against the power of the Claim, the power that sustained her campaign against the Talisman. Sinnia had been at Arian’s side for months now. She was a trusted friend who obeyed Arian’s orders with diligence and resolution, if not without question. And Arian had learned to welcome her questions. They spoke of a mind unconstrained by fear. Yet, it wasn’t the exchange of equals. Sinnia knew nothing of the forbidden knowledge Arian carried inside her head because knowledge, like love, was a weapon. It was too dangerous a burden to share. If that made her seem remote in lieu of a greater closeness, it was something Arian could accept.

“The Talisman have taken Candour,” Sinnia continued. “Is that not a fight best abandoned?”

“I will not surrender the women of Candour. We will move on to Hira once we have the Cloak.”

“What of its guardians? The Ancient Dead?”

“None that I know of survive. No, the Sacred Cloak is under Talisman guard, nothing more. And they dare not touch it or bring it to light. They fear its power even as they use it to strengthen their legitimacy.”

“Then how can you hope to retrieve it from their stronghold?”

“The Blue Shrine isn’t a Talisman stronghold. It will yield its secrets to us.”

Sinnia was unconvinced. Sinnia was at best a minor Oralist, with scant knowledge of the Claim, or its powers. She had been selected as Arian’s adjutant by Ilea, the highest member of their Order. She could not know the things known to Ilea and Arian, the deeper traditions buried beneath the High Tongue, the sacred language known only to the Oralists, the magic and power of its rites.

Arian couldn’t reassure her friend, much as she wished to. She could only show her.

She nudged her horse Safanad, the steadiest mare of the khamsa, on a straight course to the ruined city’s gates.

“Keep your arms covered but your head bare,” she reminded Sinnia.

There was no idle decoration about either woman. That they were mounted would be cause enough for disturbance—women didn’t ride in Talisman territory. They covered their heads, their faces, their bodies. Their voices were silenced, oftimes by a Talisman dagger, while others who survived were shackled and sent away. And though Arian had been raiding the trains for months, the destination of the slave-chains was still unknown to her. She hoped coming here would bring her closer to the truth.

A crowd had gathered about the old gates. These gates had possessed other names once, names rich in beauty. Gate of the Pomegranate. Gate of the Apricot. Gate of the Poppies. Now they were in disrepair, ravaged like the city by centuries of war. The Talisman were the last in a long line of despoilers, the victims the same in every era:

Women.

Children.

Joy.

She brushed the thought of the boy aside—the chin that trembled, the blue eyes that had questioned her actions. The spies of the Talisman would reach their masters quickly, and if the boy chose not to seize his freedom, he would soon find a new master, whose fist would bludgeon just as well, whose crop would rise over his shoulders a thousand times a day. He would drink when his master had finished drinking, and would be fed from the remnants of his master’s plate.

If at all.

In the age of Ignorance, the Talisman held a monopoly on food supplies. The rest of Khorasan was gripped by a famine created by the Talisman, rugged and fierce warriors whose code determined who would live, who would die, who would eat, who would starve, while the banner of their bloodlust flew before their hordes, each orchard, each fig tree guarded by the sword of a petty and joyless tyrant.

Sinnia was tense beside her as they rode down the main thoroughfare of the ancient capital, so long ago festooned with fruit trees. Everything about the city was brown or gray—the streets, the worn shopfronts, the derelict houses, each flying a Talisman flag. A crowd composed of wild-eyed boys and belligerent young men followed the course of their horses.

As the road climbed to meet the horizon, the blue dome of the shrine spread a marbled glow across the lower half of the sky. More men gathered, their faces shadowed beneath their turbans.

Sinnia’s dark skin was glowing with beads of sweat. The young Oralist was afraid, a thought that awakened Arian’s compassion. She was so bent on her own purposes that she seldom stopped to consider the cost to Sinnia, who was as loyal as any of the khamsa.

“You need not fear. The Oralists have never traveled a land without friends.”

But Sinnia was pointing to the burnt out shell of a building behind the shrine.

“They’ve destroyed it,” she said. “The Library of Candour.”

That was only the first of our losses.

Arian didn’t say as much aloud. Sinnia had come to her in recent months. In the decade that had passed before, Arian had traveled with great difficulty through towns and villages that had fallen to the Talisman, while further west, the Empty Quarter had been seized by the Rising Nineteen. Sinnia didn’t know that from the mountains to the east, there was nothing other than silence. Sinnia came from the lands of the Negus in the south, well beyond the Empty Quarter.

She had been summoned from those lands by the High Companion herself, to be presented to Arian as an ally of consequence. Impulsive, sardonic, brave beyond measure, she possessed the kind of strength that was as beautiful to Arian as it was indispensable in the country held by the Talisman.

The destruction of the Library of Candour had been the first act of the Talisman, the white flag raised as a desolation above its storied arches. The blood-stained page on the Talisman flag spoke to a limitless capacity for ignorance. A thing to be pitied, a loss to be grieved. Something of that feeling was in Arian’s voice when she turned in her saddle to face the mob. She pronounced a phrase in the High Tongue.

They wouldn’t know its meaning, nor even how to form the words themselves, but the Claim held an abiding power, deep in the bones of the people of Khorasan. The men fell back from the khamsa, their faces reflecting a mixture of awe and terror.

Yes, Arian thought. These words have been the terror of an age.

She halted the progress of her mare before a tavern with a broken door.

“What are we doing here?” Sinnia whispered fiercely. “The Talisman have forbidden all means of intoxication.”

Arian pointed a slender finger upward. The Talisman flag was nailed above the door.

“Except for the members of their command, who do as they please. We’re not here to drink, though. I have a friend here. He will help us gain access to the Cloak.”

A disquieting sense of hope beat against her thoughts, the lie fluttering in her chest.

She wouldn’t describe the man she was searching for as a friend.

He was a beautiful, dark mystery.

And his absence from her life was a ceaseless bereavement.

 * * *

Sinnia slipped into the squalid room behind Arian. Inside, a handful of men were gathered at a table, drinking from hammered metal cups. Their heads turned at the sight of two unveiled women, the tallest man in their midst rising to his feet at once. He was dressed in the loose-fitting garb of the Talisman, a thick wool pagri settled on his skull, his pointed beard reaching to just above his chest. A sharp array of knives hung from the belt at his waist. His shrewd eyes were set deep in a narrow, tapered face.

Before he could speak, Arian grasped Sinnia’s hand and led her to the bar, disarranging their cloaks as they passed. The gold circlets on the women’s arms shone in the firelight. The man’s companions whispered together, until the man with the pagri slammed down his fist on the table. Watching the women, he came no closer.

At the bar, the man who tended the needs of the Talisman didn’t look up. He passed a grimy cloth over a grimier surface, darkened by soot and ash. Sinnia braced her arms on the bar and waited.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the man with the cloth said. “What do you want?”

He was dressed in clean riding clothes. His head was bare, his dark hair loose around his skull, his beard shorn close to his jaw. In every swipe of the cloth over the bar there was anger and intimidation.

Arian drew a nervous breath before speaking. “I’ve come for the Cloak.”

“Have you, indeed?” A silver flash of the man’s eyes moved from Arian to Sinnia, to the hostile group of Talisman gathered at the table. A rumble of noise from the street battered the tavern’s door. “Veil yourselves, you fools, and get out of here before you cost me the little custom I have.”

“They won’t touch us,” Arian said, with less assurance than she felt. Her heart was thrumming inside her, the words dry in her mouth. The man at the bar was still here, whole and unharmed. Until this moment, she hadn’t known what that would mean to her.

“Things have changed since you were last here.” He looked at Sinnia, who gasped. The man’s eyes were a bright, glancing silver in a face so strikingly beautiful, the squalor of his surroundings couldn’t diminish it. “Tell your friend she’s risking your life by bringing you in here.”

Sinnia grinned in response. “She risks my life every moment of every day. She said you were a friend. I was hoping the odds might have changed.”

A cold smile settled on the man’s lips.

“For your sake, I’m sorry they haven’t. The color of your skin won’t protect you here. They take every kind of woman for the slave-chains.”

It was a new thought for Sinnia. She had seen no black-skinned women in Khorasan, and she had freed none.

Arian intervened.

“Tell me how to get the key to the box that contains the Cloak, then we’ll go. I won’t ask for more of your help than this.”

He turned his back to them both.

“The man at the table is the Immolan. He became the ruler of Candour after the Talisman proclaimed the Assimilate. He also runs their prisons. If you don’t leave now, you’ll end up in one of them.”

The words were meant to frighten Arian, to send her and Sinnia from Candour without the Cloak, because by any consideration the pursuit of the Cloak was a reckoning waiting for the dead. Particularly when the Talisman’s proclamation had been forcibly memorized by every citizen of Khorasan, young and old, rich and poor, male and female.

There is no one but the One. And so the One commands.

The proclamation of the law known as the Assimilate burned every corner of the earth the Talisman had reached. Those who differed in thought or practice met a swift, unmerciful fate. Save for the Companions of Hira, well able to defend themselves. “How do I get the key? There must be a way, Daniyar.”

Behind them, the Immolan had reached a decision. He and his men made for the door.

“Do you still ride the khamsa?” the man named Daniyar asked, swinging back around.

Arian nodded. There had been a time when she, like Sinnia, had been vulnerable to beauty, astonished by its existence in the midst of ever-present darkness, the lost time, before the rise of the Talisman. Now she could look at Daniyar, read the rage that colored his every gesture, and want no more from him than the information that would see her through this day.

His warmth is not for me, she told herself. I no longer wish for it.

But when he looked at her, she could only think of him. It was an effort to remember the Shrine of the Sacred Cloak. And it was more difficult than she had expected to force her thoughts back to her mission.

No woman had ever beheld the Cloak or touched its soft folds. Arian would be the first, and in that action, she would break everything the Talisman had wreaked in a war-ravaged decade. The Assimilate would fall, the slave trade would die, and the Talisman’s prisons would burn to the ground.

If Daniyar would help her now.

He faced her squarely, without compassion.

“If you’re planning to go to your death, don’t look to me for rescue.”

The words hurt as they were meant to. But there would be another time to think on why. She touched her hand to one of the circlets, a reaction to his indifference.

“Your tahweez won’t work on me,” he said coldly.

“I wasn’t going to—”

“The key is held by the Akhundzada,” he interrupted.

“I thought none of that line survived.”

The noise in the street had doubled and re-doubled. It was more than the shouts of the mob. It was the sound of glass breaking, the rumble of wheelbarrows in the street, the hungry lick of flame. Smoke seeped in through gaps in the tavern door.

Daniyar reached down behind the bar for his sword, its t-shaped blade formed from black steel, its short handle undecorated. Arian recognized it as a salawar, common to these parts. It wasn’t the sword she knew from the past, the allegorical sword with a history and legend of its own. She also knew in his hand, any weapon would be deadly.

“I’ve given you what you want, now go. Call the khamsa, leave from the back.”

“Where do I find the descendant of the Dead?”

A fiery bottle smashed through the tavern’s window. Daniyar glanced at Arian. She felt the heat rise in her limbs.

“He allied himself with the Talisman as a means of self-protection. He’s the Immolan’s right-hand man.” He threw down the planks he’d gathered to shore up the window and door. “This place is lost now.” His anger was evident as he turned back to Arian. “Tell me what you want with the Cloak.”

Arian’s reply was swift.

“The Talisman have made it the symbol of their authority. If I can reclaim it for Hira, perhaps the people will begin to doubt the Talisman’s legitimacy.”

The crowd was pressing against the door. Daniyar led them through a series of cramped passageways, each riddled with tiny sinkholes that stank of rot and filth. As they passed through a crowded storeroom with a ceiling that sloped to the ground, he grabbed two rounds of bread from the shelves. At the tavern’s blackened exit, he handed them to Sinnia.

With sympathy he said, “For the road.” But his words to Arian were filled with contempt. “No one submits to the Talisman out of choice. The Cloak will make no difference. If you won’t think of your own life, you should trouble to think of your friend’s.”

He didn’t wait for them. He kicked the door open and disappeared down a mud alley, the sword belted at his waist.

“You think of me, too,” Sinnia called after him, but her jest didn’t lighten Arian’s spirits.

He despises me. He thought I would use the Claim against him.

But I could never raise my voice against him.

As they took their own path and re-mounted the khamsa, the tavern exploded into flame. The fire roared on, rapacious in its greed.

“What else in this city is left to burn?” she muttered to Sinnia.

She had her answer, as the alleyway curved between rows of houses that shrunk away from the noise and flame. The Immolan was sending her a message. On the doorstep of the once-renowned Library of Candour, a mob of men had gathered the last few remnants of the library’s manuscripts. The Immolan was poised on a platform above the smouldering layers of Khorasan’s history, beauty burnt to ash at his command. The written word had long been banned under the Assimilate.

There is no one but the One. And so the One commands.

The Immolan’s scaffold was suspended over the blaze by four cables. Behind the swaying platform, two tall and slender men dressed in Talisman garb waited to receive the Immolan onto the dais that had once been the entrance into the Library of Candour.

An age without candour, without hope.

She stared at the other two men. Which one was the Akhundzada?

“Sinnia.”

Sinnia’s bow was at the ready, her steel-tipped arrows launched. She aimed for the cables at the front, catching them at the juncture. The wooden platform tilted amid sounds of chaos. A flicker of blue behind the rubble of the library danced for a moment in Arian’s vision. The Shrine of the Sacred Cloak, isolated on a dreary plain, shimmering like a jewel.

The Immolan lost his balance as the platform tipped forward. With a cry of fury, he fell onto the burning mound. Behind him, Arian caught a fleeting gesture before the Talisman guard checked himself. The green-eyed man to the left had raised his hand to tip the platform. His hennaed beard was unmistakable.

“That one,” she called to Sinnia. “He won’t stay there. His last duty is to the Cloak.”

 Excerpted from The Bloodprint, copyright © 2017 by Ausma Zehanat Khan.

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