Droplet Drummers

Droplet Drummers

Cool breeze through the kitchen window. Jezi smiled wistfully as she raised her mug to her lips—not to drink, just to breathe the steam. Today, every sensation she experienced at a heightened state. Late-summer’s radiated warmth, yes, and the coming of fall’s chill to tickle the senses; but also the wedding.

“The wedding,” Papa said, filling the kitchen doorway. He raised his arms and pursed his lips in a smile hiding tears. “My love, you glow.”

“I always glow, Papa,” Jezi said, smiling too, her own tears threatening to burst out in sobs. But she contained it—as she always did, for Papa. “I am Valgni.”

“The most beautiful daughter of Valgni.” Papa touched his beard, and then he couldn’t hide his tears anymore. He let two run away, one down each broad cheek. “My Jezi.”

She pinched her lips together. Then, tasting the words, trying them out in the softest possible voice, as if afraid that volume would grant too much reality: “Jezi Ziell.”

Papa’s face froze. He might have been a statue in the gardens, diplomatic and timeless, carefully arranged to share no emotion with his viewers.

But Jezi knew. She set her tea on the counter and crossed the kitchen in four light steps, capturing as much of Papa’s broad shoulders as her arms could encompass. “Papa. I will always be your Jezi Valgni.”

His chest heaved under hers, and she could feel his beard growing damp against her cheek. She held him tighter until he finally took a deep, shuddering breath. Papa rested his forehead against hers, keeping his eyes closed.

“I can only think of how I asked you to do this, my daughter,” he whispered, so softly she had to lean in to catch it.

Jezi’s chest tightened and she rested her head against Papa’s chest. He smelled like Old Spice and woodsy sweat. Then a laugh bubbled up and tumbled out of her before she could stop it.

“Papa, yes, but I am the one who decided it was better than feigning love to The Douche Canoe.”

That set them both off, spinning apart with the force of their laughter, the merry sound billowing until it filled the little kitchen. Jezi hopped up on the counter next to her tea, swinging her legs, still chuckling.

Papa winked at her, gripping the back of a dining room chair to keep from falling over in his amusement. “I do not think your ability to fake attraction to Rhexi would have lasted as long as it needed to. I am sorry, you are simply not enough of an actress.”

Jezi’s characteristic snort blasted out of her. “Oh, absolutely not. I am far too gay to even hold that dead fish of a hand of his.”

They giggled until the joke was spent.

Jezi took a sip of her tea and lifted one foot up onto the counter. “I wonder—”

“Young lady,” Papa said.

Jezi dropped her foot back and flipped her long braids out of her face, fluttering her eyelashes at him. “Really? I’m a grown woman. I keep a clean foot these days.”

“Just be careful where you stand,” Papa said, and their eyes met.

Jezi Valgni, Jezi Ziell. A transformation nearly unheard of before today.

Nervous moths clustered in Jezi’s belly, and she finally broke eye contact. “I will always be your Jezi Valgni,” she said again.

She heard, rather than saw, Papa’s grave nod. “Yes. Always. Your family… your kingdom… it will always belong to you.”

Forcing the rush of melancholy away, Jezi smiled through the sunbeams. “I love you, Papa.”

“I love you, Jezmara.”

She raised her fingers towards him, wisps of light dancing on their tips. He lifted his hand, and an iris made of luminance grew as if planted in his palm. Jezi’s strands of light poured towards her father’s flower, wrapping it in an embrace of sparks and brightness, brighter than the sun smiling through the kitchen window.

**

Jezi poked her head around the tall, well-manicured hedge, but her mother’s gray head was nowhere to be seen. Her hand dropped to the pocket of her tracksuit pants where she kept her phone, ready to send a “Where are you?” text to Sena, when the older woman stalked magnificently out from behind the massive fir tree, deep in conversation with the groundskeeper.

“Now. You mentioned there would be geodes, but I have yet to see them.”

A patient laugh from the groundskeeper, a woman clearly Sena’s elder. “That is because it has not yet become dark, Madame Valgni.”

Sena hmphed. “And the bouquets? Fresh from these very gardens? Those were not on the tables when I left the reception hall.”

Still hiding behind the hedge, Jezi winced.

“Would they be so fresh if we cut them now as if we cut them three hours from now, Madame Valgni?” the groundskeeper said gently.

Another sound of dismay from Sena, and Jezi decided to spare everyone by stepping into the lawn spread with chairs at the center of a natural maze. “Mother!” she called. “There you are, I have been looking for you all over.” She blinked in what she hoped was a meaningful way at the groundskeeper. The groundskeeper smiled placidly back.

“I can still receive text messages, my dear,” Sena said, a bit icily. Jezi knew why, though, and she didn’t take it personally. “You could have asked.”

“Did you need help with any last-minute choices?” Jezi asked, trying to deflect—successfully, because her mother’s beautiful eyebrows shot straight up.

Need help?” Sena echoed. “If you meant ‘wish for input,’ perhaps. If you have an opinion, it is your wedding, and you should voice it.”

Jezi opened her mouth, thought better of her protest that she did not feel particularly involved in the planning of her wedding, and closed it again.

It was then that Baalik barreled into her, grabbing Jezi around the waist with his small, thick arms. “JEZI! Jezi, Jezi, chase me, you have to chase me!”

Half-winded, half-laughing, Jezi ruffled her kid brother’s hair as best as she could without messing up the painstaking work his nanny had done to tame it. “Oh, Baalik, not right now. Mother and I are getting ready for my wedding. Aren’t you going to be helping Babba and Mother cast the binding spell?”

At that, Baalik’s whole face screwed up and he looked like he was going to burst into tears. Jezi chomped down on the inside of her lip, knowing she’d hit a sore note; since the day he’d found out his big sister was pledged to a woman who would take Jezi away to Ziell lands, where it would be nigh-impossible for Baalik to visit her, he had been inconsolable. The only way they had gotten him to set foot on the ferry to go to the wedding venue had been through massive bribery: he would have a new gaming console soon enough.

Baalik’s near-tears turned suddenly to a fiery anger. His face turned red and he scowled darkly up at Jezi. His tiny fingers curled into claws, digging into her skin through the tracksuit.

“Jezi, you have to chase me!” Now he was screeching, shaking her so hard she almost lost her balance.

Jezi’s flush crept up her neck and she tried to grab her brother’s hands off her. “Baalik, stop it.”

He snarled and shoved off of her, lunging and tripping away across the grass, knocking over several chairs in the process. Jezi put the back of her hand to her mouth. If the reasons for it weren’t so sad, this would be comical.

Baalik recovered and whirled around, putting one hand on his hip and pointing his other in the air, shaped like a gun. “FIREWORKS!” he roared, and sparks sputtered from his chubby fingertip. Then the sparks bloomed into a fountain, a spray of fiery light that Baalik was too small and angry to control.

The fire spewed towards the hedges, which had started to crisp from the summer’s heavy sunlight. Jezi’s eyes widened and she lunged. The groundskeeper whirled around faster than her age belied, gasping in horror.

A gentle wall of lush ivy rose up between Baalik and the hedges, forming a half-circle around him that carefully diverted the sparks like the flow of water over the waxy leaves.

Baalik was so startled he dropped his hand and the sparks ceased. Instantly the ivy began to curl in on itself and fold back into the earth.

Behind the wall stood a tall, broad-shouldered woman in a t-shirt and jeans. Her face was carved by lines that could have easily held a great sternness, but right now tugged the corners of her mouth as she winked mischievously at Baalik. Jezi couldn’t help but purse her lips in delight at that wink.

She had to admit, Ranna Ziell was quite the handsome woman.

“Careful there, young man, or you’ll send this whole place up. And then!” Some of that sternness Jezi had detected crept into Ranna’s voice, and was just as swiftly banished by laughter. “Then you would be paying for it with your allowance for the rest of your life.”

Baalik’s eyes widened and he shoved both hands behind his back. “I only get five dollars a week,” he said, his voice shaking as if with the weight of his mental math.

Ranna gave him a pointed, slow nod that made her tight black curls bounce solemnly.

Baalik covered his face with his hands and groaned. “Awww, naww.”

“It’s OK, though. You stopped just in time. Well done.” Ranna offered Baalik her hand and Baalik swiped it with all the ceremony of a six-year-old boy. Then Ranna looked over Baalik’s dark head and winked broadly at Jezi. “He’ll be all right, this one,” she said. “Has all the right role models.”

Both Sena and Jezi straightened at this, and Jezi felt her flush drop well below her neck as her soon-to-be wife’s full lips smiled right at her.

**

This was not the first day Jezi wished her cousin Zarka would keep her damn hands to herself, and it would likely not be the last. Jezi shut her eyes tightly and pretend she was out in the gardens again, perched on a sun-warmed rock bench, tipping her face back to soak up summer’s last warmth—not having her hair fussed over and partly ripped out by Zarka and the rest of her finnicky entourage as they tried to pin it up fashionably.

“Let it fall,” she said again, for probably the eighteenth time. “Just let it do whatever it wants. Miana already did an amazing job with the braids.”

“But it won’t be—”

“But we have to—”

“But you should—”

The chorus of insistence was interrupted by an outer door banging open. The door to the dressing room opened more cautiously. A tall, balding young man backed in two steps, careful not to look over his shoulder.

“Ah, Jezi, miss—there is a small problem.”

Jezi didn’t bother turning around. “I’m halfway dressed, Zuf, can’t you see?”

“I—I am not looking,” Zufer stammered. “Miss. Please. It is… I am afraid I must ask you to come outside.”

At last Jezi opened her eyes and twisted around in her chair. She saw the tremor in Zufer’s hands and knew something had badly scared her childhood neighbor. “I’ll be right there.”

She pushed Zarka and the entourage away, hiked up the bottom of the stiff white gown, and shuffled after Zufer as fast as she could. Before she could make it out of the lodge, she could hear Aunt Minja’s bellowing voice above a modest din.

“—think this means I will not despise you? That I am forced to welcome you to my home with open arms, to feed you my roasts? Get lost, you addled children!”

Jezi burst out of the lodge, the door banging like a drum announcing her presence. Almost everyone turned to gawk at the half-dressed bride.

Almost everyone. Aunt Minja, infamously the most argumentative at any Valgni family table, had struck up such a pose as to bodily threaten two Ziell men who were barely into adulthood, and she didn’t flinch at the sound of Jezi’s arrival. To their credit, or perhaps simply because they were stupid, neither of the Ziell boys seemed ready to back down either.

The slightly older one puffed up his chest and tipped his chin back. He raised his hand in front of his face, his wrist jutting comically pale out of his ill-fitting leather jacket as he spread his fingers wide. Tiny vines curled out of his fingernails and wrapped around his hand. He and his companion both smiled tight, unfriendly smiles without showing their teeth.

“You don’t belong in these lands,” the Ziell with the vines in his hand snarled. “You never have. One marriage contract doesn’t change that.”

The words, though spoken quietly, echoed into an unnatural silence, so that everyone heard them: the Valgni elders, sipping sangria under the lodge’s generous canopy; the throng of mostly Valgni youngsters playing freeze tag through the rows of chairs; the congregation of Ziell brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles, pouring out of three towncars. All froze and looked at Aunt Minja and the Ziell boys—or were they looking at Jezi, standing six stairs above them?

A rustle at the lodge’s side door, and then a change in the scent on the hot breeze: fruit and lavender and heady confidence, overriding the smell of hot oil from the caterers. The assembled people shuffled and pretended not to be looking, but Jezi turned fully to face the other half-dressed bride standing with one hand on her hip.

Ranna caught Jezi’s look and matched it with a nearly imperceptible double blink. Then she tilted her chin at her relatives.

“I see you have decided I mean nothing to you.”

“Ranna, please,” the younger Ziell started, but Ranna stopped him by flicking her hand out to her side and making a fist around a thick, green branch that hadn’t been there a second before.

The young Ziell men flinched. Aunt Minja folded her arms across her chest and rotated to glare at Ranna.

“You going to hit me with that?” she demanded, pointing with her chin at Ranna’s staff. “You call that a treaty?”

Ranna met Minja’s stare for a long time, then slammed the butt end down against the wooden stoop. It made a harsh thudding sound that startled almost everyone present. Even Minja flinched.

Jezi’s heart leapt into her throat. In the sheath-like white under-dress, clutching the staff she had produced from the air, Ranna had the air of a forest goddess. Her eyes flashed with gold amidst swirls of green and brown.

“Does anyone need to be reminded that we are here to dance? To celebrate? To uphold life, with our faces turned away from the death and strife we once caused each other?” Ranna took a stalking step forward, and everyone in both families shifted back on their heels.

Words tumbled like clothes in a dryer behind Jezi’s lips, which she pressed tighter together. She looked down at her feet, and when her gaze came back up, it was to meet Ranna’s steady one.

As if Ranna had willed her to speak, Jezi let the words flow. “Maybe it was your father, or your father’s father, who fought Valgni or Ziell to his last breath. Maybe it was your mother, or your mother’s mother, who wove spells of deceit and treachery to kill Valgni or Ziell in their sleep or at their table.” She hiked up the dress again and shuffle-stumbled along under the lodge’s awning, past her grandparents and great-uncle, until she stood as high as she could above the lawn and gardens. “Do you want that again, for your children, and your grandchildren? For us Valgni, there is nothing stronger than the bond of family. I believe it is true for you Ziell also. If we create one family today, the bloodshed will be over.”

She turned and raised her left hand in a sign of peace, which Ranna returned with a smile.

The gathered family members grumbled amongst themselves, but Jezi could feel the thick tension dissolving, settling, not forgotten but abated for now. One of the Valgni girls ran over to the Ziell children who had followed their parents out of the towncars and tugged on the wrist of a boy about her age.

“Come on!” she cried, and when the boy grinned and sprinted after her, another cord of hostility fell severed into the grass.

“Yes, Jezmara, come on,” said Zarka’s voice, far too close to Jezi’s ear for her liking. “You and Ranna have both broken tradition today.”

“Yeah, well,” Jezi said, tossing one last look at Ranna’s strong retreating back, “I think tradition is something we could all afford to break now and then.”

Even when she stumbled in the dress’s awkward tightness, Ranna lost none of the magnificent pride she bore in her well-cut shoulderblades. Jezi touched her own lips and smiled to herself, filled with a warm glow of adrenaline and excitement.

No matter that they knew so little of each other. This noble woman could give her a good life.

**

Jezi clutched the bouquet of wildflowers against her sternum, trying to keep breathing normally. The afternoon sun, the occasional eye contact of nearly two hundred people, and the tightness of her dress conspired against her. At her right arm, Papa stood stiff, trying to keep his emotions in check.

Jezi thought about leaning over and whispering something to make him laugh, but she wasn’t sure it wouldn’t simply make him burst into tears. Instead she swayed just enough to make her hip bump against his, and he shot her a grateful smile.

She dared to look across the way, on the other side of the lawn, where Ranna and her mother stood side by side. Ranna was taller than her mother, even without the aid of heels, so when she leaned over to kiss the older woman on the forehead, the sight melted Jezi’s heart.

Between them were two aisles of people, split more or less by last name. Those who had chosen to sit closest to their rivals stirred and muttered the most.

Then a sharp, shrill voice cut across the murmuring. “Let the families of Valgni and Ziell fall silent.”

The only holy woman that the two squabbling sides could agree on, Nishim of the Temple of Gyddis, materialized from a cloud of smoke before the ceremonial altar. She raised her hands above her head, encompassing the arch of flowers and vines and candles she stood beneath.

“Will the parents of the brides please unbind them from their familial ties?”

Jezi squeezed the flower stems so hard she could smell the sharp tang as the fibers broke and oozed. She turned to Papa, who with painstaking care rearranged each of the dress’s gold filigree sleeves, unwilling or unable to meet his daughter’s eyes.

“I will always be your Jezmara Valgni,” Jezi whispered.

“You,” Papa started, then stopped because he had to take in a slow, deep breath. “You are freed of your Valgni ties. You are Valgni but you are also Ziell. You are my daughter but you are also Ranna’s wife. May your light shine, and—may your path be green.” He rushed through these last words, the words of Ziell.

Jezi knew that across the way, Ranna’s mother was speaking similar words: “You are freed of your Ziell ties. You are Ziell but you are also Valgni. You are my daughter but you are also Jezmara’s wife. May your path be green, and may your light shine.”

They were words that had never been spoken before now.

They hung, thick as the summer air, and those nearby shivered as if touched by ghosts.

Maybe there were ghosts, visiting from the battlefields of the familial feud: streets ravaged by multiple direct hits of lightning; office buildings ripped from their foundations by massive vines; a convenience store overrun with poison ivy and spurting fire from the roof.

These specters must have hung over every attendee, because expressions darkened and a sharp, hard energy sprang up. Hands shifted to waists or shoes, where blades and tiny firearms inevitably were stashed. A familiar terror rose in Jezi’s middle, coiling around her legs and hanging onto her ankles like weights. Could she truly go stand up there and pledge herself to the bosom of her lifelong enemy?

Then came the sweet, soothing wave of light, the one she had known since she was a small child as the manifestation of her father’s most gracious and authentic presence. Like a wide ribbon of shimmering fabric, it twirled in the air around Jezi until she was tucked inside a tunnel of peachy, rosy light, twinkling with pinpoints of star-like brilliance.

The light blocked away the world, the wedding, the weight of it all and embraced her with her father’s love. Jezi loosened her grip on the bouquet and let her arms fall to her sides, turning slowly at first, then faster and faster until she was twirling like a child, giggling uncontrollably. Her strapped sandals tripped her up a few times, but the tunnel of light didn’t let her fall. It swept her along to the arch, pausing a respectful meter away.

The laughter and the light faded at the same rate, until Jezi was left standing under her own power, surrounded by a soft halo of sparkles. A great sense of loss swept over her as her father’s magic retreated, and she struggled to hold her head up.

To distract herself, Jezi faced Ranna. The Ziell woman stepped out of a delicate basket of woven vines, her hair supporting a magnificent crown of interwoven evergreen boughs. Her mother had clearly carried her to the altar on her best magic as well.

“Draw near, free people, near to the altar to make your choice.” Nishim beckoned both women to her with wizened fingers. True to ceremony, Jezi bowed her head and took small, hesitant steps until she stood within half a meter of Ranna.

She looked up into Ranna’s eyes. Ranna smiled, and Jezi saw something in that smile she’d never seen before: a promise of trust and shared secrets, not because there was no other way to preserve the line between one kind of magic user and another, but because there was no other way to cross that line.

Any last hesitance poured away from Jezi, and she tossed her braids off one shoulder with an audible laugh. She felt the whole audience relax too, and then—

THUNDER!

It came without lightning, clearly not born of any Valgni magic. The skies opened up and droplet drummers pounded out a furious tattoo, drenching everyone instantly.

There was laughing, and screaming, and someone organized enough strong people to haul the arch and the altar inside the reception hall, the only room large enough to accommodate the whole structure. Chairs were dragged out of the way and everyone stood on the dance floor while a dripping Nishim summoned the brides, one at a time, out of the curtains of rain. They stood, sopping and laughing uncontrollably, and Nishim’s words blurred in Jezi’s ears as if she’d been drinking mimosas all morning, and then everyone was clapping and she knew what to do.

She leaned forward and caught Ranna’s cheeks up in her fingertips, rewarded by a rush of air as Ranna released a helpless laugh of delight before pressing her lips softly against Jezi’s.

The clapping grew wilder and erupted into the foot-pounding drumline of Jezi’s favorite song.

Jezi and Ranna broke the kiss together as the press of sudden dancers of every age bumped against them, pressed them bodily together. Jezi’s ear landed against Rana’s chest.

For one eternal heart-stopping moment, Jezi listened to Ranna’s heartbeat. For all her external calm, Ranna’s heart was thudding. Her whole body was warm and soft beneath the dress. Jezi let herself breath slowly, taking in Ranna’s lavender and orange oil and musky sweat, fiercely rooted in the now and thinking about forever.

Then someone grabbed Ranna’s wrist, and someone else took Jezi’s hands, and just like that the brides were swept apart. Jezi became part of a crowd of her closest relatives, spinning her around and trading off being her dance partner, and it reduced her to breathless giggles. Someone pressed a glass of white wine into her hand, and someone else gave her a few bites from the caterers’ spread. Jezi’s head spun. She let it take her away, focusing not on the sum of it all but of the images she would never forget.

Papa’s tender dance with Mother. Baalik sobbing into Jezi’s middle, telling her over and over how glad he was that she was happy. Aunt Minja so drunk on champagne, she danced with one of the Ziell boys to a slow song.

Every few minutes, Jezi searched the crowd for her wife. Once she spotted Ranna talking earnestly with several other Ziell her age; another time, Ranna and her mother held each other at arm’s length to spin as fast as they could at the center of a circle comprised of Ziell and Valgni.

And now and again, Jezi would look up to find Ranna’s eyes searching for her, too.

**

Eventually, it was all too much. Buzzed and buzzing, Jezi stumbled out of the reception hall, laughing and waving off her friends. The fresh air, tinged with autumn’s sharpness, enveloped her and cleared her head immediately.

Still, she relished the silence and the space from everyone else. It was so much, the laughter and the physical closeness and the drunkenness and the potential magic, all bottled up in one space.

The hedges rose up to meet and guide her as she approached the gardens. Now she saw the geodes that the groundskeeper had insisted were present—bright, colorful, twinkling and spilling with blue and green and purple light at foot level, to keep her on the paths. The effect reminded her so much of Valgni magic that Jezi knelt down to brush her fingertips against the geode to see if it was, indeed, a spell. It seemed it was some trick of LEDs and real cracked geodes, and to her surprise, that made its magic all the more appealing.

Shimmying to accommodate the restrictive shape of her dress, Jezi moved as fast as she could manage down the path. The solitude was going to her head, almost as much as the alcohol had. She sucked in lungful after lungful of the summer air and giggled.

Then she heard someone else, laughing or breathing heavily, and she ducked behind the same fir tree she’d found her mother near earlier that day. Peering around, she saw a familiar curly head and a disheveled crown of boughs.

Suddenly shy, Jezi stepped around the trunk of the tree, pressing her shoulderblades into the scruffy wood.

“Hi, Ranna,” she said, not daring to project her voice too much.

The quiet of the island evening was so complete, however, that even with the lodge thumping away in the background, Ranna heard Jezi. She looked up and caught sight of her bride.

Something happened to Ranna’s shoulders then. It wasn’t that her confidence was gone, merely that she visibly stashed it away and let a more vulnerable Ranna step forth. She seemed almost bashful, Jezi thought. It gave her the courage to push off the fir and cross the distance between her and Ranna.

They were close now, so close, and Jezi had no idea what to do with her hands. She stretched them out in front of her, staring fiercely at them because the alternative was to meet Ranna’s eyes.

Ranna threaded her long fingers between Jezi’s and pulled their palms together. Now, Jezi locked eyes with Ranna.

Jezi wanted to say something, the right thing. Instead, Ranna dropped one hand to Jezi’s waist, pulled their still-entwined hands up behind her own head, and closed the last of the distance between them for a real kiss.

This one was real because lightning ran through Jezi’s body. Her fingers curled into claws against Ranna’s smooth knuckles and her other hand came up to grab on to Ranna’s powerful shoulderblade.

They only broke the kiss because Jezi had to gasp for air, her throat and body tight. “My God,” she managed. Her lips felt thick and clumsy, and only wanted to be kissed again and again.

Ranna chuckled and ran the tip of her nose along Jezi’s cheekbone. Jezi shivered and couldn’t stop a slight moan from escaping her mouth. She pawed at Ranna’s hand and again intertwined their fingers.

Without meaning to, Jezi leaned into the sensation of magic in their embrace.

Sparks fluttered from her fingertips. Ranna hissed and tried to pull her hand away from the sudden heat, but her own fingers had shot out vines that knotted their wrists together.

Jezi’s arousal started to hone into panic as she realized her magic was out of her control. Somehow, her palm pressed up against Ranna’s had created a field of energy that kept her from her usual strict manipulation of the Valgni light magic.

Ranna’s face, too, showed signs of fear, and Jezi registered that the vines crawling around their wrists had not stopped and were now slithering down their bodies, lashing them tightly together.

“Breathe,” Jezi said instinctively, tipping her head to catch Ranna’s eye. “We have to breathe. Slowly. Steady.”

The two woman controlled their breath until their chests no longer heaved, but rose and fell in time. They did not drop their contact.

Jezi looked back at their hands and gasped.

Before, her fingers had spilled sparks and Ranna’s had oozed vines. But now there was something springing up like a geyser from between their hands: a fountain of living light. Jezi had no other term for it: it flowed like water, brilliant and shining as if made up of stardust, forming into patterns of leaves and trees and bushes and grasses.

The women stared at one another, the light of their entwined magic dancing in their eyes.

“Never,” Jezi whispered.

“Nothing like it,” Ranna whispered back. Then they both broke into giggles and smiles, savoring the taste of a shared, powerful, wonderful secret between them.

**

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