Posts tagged ‘Rachel Downing’

August 31, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter VII

by Mallard

It felt like I sat there for two years, motionless, before a voice barked “Stand down!” and a moment later Hattie stepped forward, her face white in the glow of the flood lamps, her left arm covered in a red-soaked bandage. She stopped next to me, and stared upward at the tiny twinkling star against the clouds.

“Serah?” she said softly.

I shook my head and pointed.

“Damn that woman,” my superior said and clenched her first on my shoulder. She withdrew her hand and, a moment later, my right ear exploded in pain.

“Ow!” I shouted, stumbling to my feet. “What in the hells–”

“Do you think you’re doing?” Hattie roared, turning my own words against me. “We have no time. That damned airship is escaping, and you’re sitting here moping like a little girl. Are you a little girl, Victor? So weak, unable to do anything to stop the pirates? Casting great damned big birds at them is the best you can do, huh?”

I tried to protest, but Hattie hammered on. “And when you fail, you just sit there and cry? I thought you were a little stronger than that, Victor. I guess I was wrong.”

She turned and stalked away, and I stared after her.

(Ah, it looks like I was too late,) Kristopher whistled idly above me. I shot him a glare. (Your Hattie beat me to it.)

“Damn you both,” I muttered, then straightened up and took a good look at who had surrounded me.

They weren’t Peace Workers. Not even close. The standard khaki uniforms of the Kestral Armed Forces surrounded me, some standing in a stiff parade rest, others staring openly at the sky and the flood lamps that still glowed brightly on the rooftop.

I followed their gaze, and I could still see the tiny glowing light that was Serah’s beacon, though only because I knew where to look. In a few moments, it would be gone. Which gave me no time.

“Right,” I said, snapping back to business. I turned to Hattie. “We need to get in the air and follow them. That’s what Serah put that beacon up for, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let them just waltz away.” Never mind that, thirty seconds prior, I had been about to do just that.

Hattie nodded, but before she could speak, one of the regulars stepped forward.

“Actually, we’ll be taking over from here, Specialist Haas, Sergeant Major Morrison. You should probably get back inside and await debriefing.”

I stared at him. Who in the hells did this guy think he was? I was the one who had run to stop the pirates, who had risked his life to escape their notice. And Hattie had been shot! We had every right to be a part of any forthcoming operations, even if technically it fell under the army’s purview.

I expected that Hattie would say something along those lines, and so it was with some surprise that she said nothing of the sort.

“I don’t recall seeing any notices that this had been transferred,” she said, her voice like ice. It was the sort of voice that usually meant I was in for a dressing-down, the sort of voice that stilled subordinates in their tracks and made the recipient feel an inch tall.

The sergeant–I could just make out his rank in the shadows where he stood–stepped back involuntarily at Hattie’s tone. He opened his mouth, but Hattie didn’t let him speak.

“This started out as a Peace Worker operation. It remains a Peace Worker operation until someone higher than me–which you are not–orders me otherwise. So unless you are willing to help us, get the hell out of my way.”

Not for the first time that evening–and surely not for the last–I found myself confused. What did Hattie mean that this had been a PW operation? We had been at the ball as representatives, and true we had been the first responders, but that hardly gave us authority over it, right? And there was nothing about the situation that particularly screamed Peace Workers at me. The kidnapping of the mayor and the minister–and Serah–was a devastating blow, but still fell well within the jurisdiction of the standard guard.

Then again, Hattie has been known to occasionally bully others into getting her way, combining her personality–no mean weapon–with her rank.

To his credit, after his initial fall-back, the army sergeant held his ground. He gritted his teeth, as if unwilling to say his next words, forcing each one out individually. “I’m sorry, sir. But right now, it’s a matter of logistics. You have two people; we have ten. You just don’t have the manpower to deal with this, sir.”

Hattie gritted her teeth. “We’re coming with you,” she said by way of acknowledgement. Which meant that I didn’t have to. It was a predetermined course of action for me.

The sergeant shook his head. “This isn’t your jurisdiction. We’ll handle this. You–”

“I said, we are going,” Hattie repeated, her voice low. I took an involuntary step backward. “So unless you–”

The sergeant opened his mouth to begin arguing with her more–he seemed to have lost his fear when he won the first argument–but a third voice rang out shrill above them both.

“If she wants to go, let her go! Who do you think you are, to be bickering like children over who gets the last piece of cake? They took my husband! Your mayor! Have you no shame?”

Rachel Downing stood in the doorway, half bent over and panting with effort, one hand still held over the slight bulge in her belly. Her makeup had run, black streaks dripping down her cheeks, and her hair was matted to her forehead with sweat. She no longer looked the beautiful arm piece of the mayor, and something in her eyes had changed. She looked wild, like a caged animal, ready to rip out throats if only she could get her claws on the ones responsible. Hers had not been a marriage of convenience, and however I might dislike Joel Downing, she loved him. And he had been taken from her.

I could understand her upset.

“We’re going, that’s final, and we’re wasting time arguing about it,” I interjected smoothly into the silence that followed Rachel’s outburst. “You can always use two more bodies.” And, I almost added but restrained myself, if you keep arguing about this, I’ll blind you and make you stay behind.

The sergeant grimaced, as if I had forced him to bite into a lemon, then nodded sharply. “You will follow my commands. If you disobey or fall behind, I’ll leave you.”

Ah, the last refuge of those who know they have lost. The final exertion of what little power he had left. I didn’t bother agreeing–I half expected that I would be disobeying him before the night was out, if not in the next ten minutes–but he took my shrug to mean something, and turned to bark orders to his crew.

We turned and filed back through the doorway, past the frantic eyes of Rachel Downing. I paused in the doorway and stared back into the night sky, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Serah’s beacon. But it was gone, swallowed up in the night, and it was a heavy heart that pulled me down the stairs I had raced up so soon before.

 * * * * * * * *

The army had arrived in a convoy of three identical black automobiles, sleek and fast and fully armored. The windows were a dark glass that made the insides impossible to make out, especially in the spotty light of the gas street lamps outside the mayor’s home, and the entire vehicle was fully enclosed, the rear bulging with a hidden boiler and steam engine, only a small pipe sticking up vertically to vent. This was the only point at which the insides of the auto were exposed to the outside, and even it appeared to have a hefty one-way valve to limit access.

These were expensive vehicles, halfway between a standard open automobile and a tank, suitable for driving around in cities and protecting the occupants from the bulk of most dangers, but not something one would drive into an actual battlefield.

Each auto sat four, including a driver, and there had already been a dozen army men. So I was treated to the uniquely unpleasant experience of sitting crammed between two large uniformed men in the rear of one vehicle, straddling a recess that held their rifles. Let me tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than sitting astride two loaded weapons and driving at top speeds through the city at night.

And we were driving fast. The automobile’s air horn blazed almost continuously, roaring our challenge to the other vehicles on the streets of Kestral, letting them know that if they did not move, they would without a doubt be flattened.

Most took the hint. Not always quickly, however, and shouts of alarm and curses filled the air as pedestrians and cyclists leapt to one side. Monowheels tilted dangerously far as they fought against their own momentum, automobiles slid and scraped against stone and wood walls, and the sleek half-tank slid through the morass, skipping through gaps that should have been impossible.

At night, the enormous cargo walkers came out, ferrying goods and equipment to distant cities, eight steel legs pounding the ground as they crept ponderously along, supporting gigantic cargo bays, vehicles, and in one case most of a small house on their backs. These walkers were not much faster than a running man, and had the maneuverability of a charging rhinoceros. It took obscene amounts of fuel to even get one of them moving, and once it had taken its first few steps, it was no mean task to stop it. The pilots had to plan turns and stops well in advance, and a careless mistake, a single sleepy moment, could have disastrous consequences. I had been witness to cargo walkers out of control before. One of the great steel beasts had taken a turn a little too sharply and simply torn the corner off a sturdy brick building, spilling desks, papers, and filing cabinets out into the dark night. No one had been inside, fortunately; one of many reasons the cargo walkers rarely moved during the day.

The walkers obviously couldn’t dodge the pseudo-tank, and didn’t bother trying. The army drivers wove their cars between the pounding legs of the giant autos, and though I knew their skills were more than up to the task, it was still sobering to feel the ground shake as a foot half the width of the automobile itself struck down just moments after we had passed.

Most automobiles can manage an easy thirty or forty miles per hour at cruising speed, and some of the more powerful ones can go as high as fifty or sixty. We must have been cruising at similar speeds through the narrow streets of Kestral, and while the army folk were strapped in and had hefty hand-holds to grab onto, I had nothing but a pair of rifles between my legs and two burly men beside, neither of whom liked me. It was not a pleasant trip.

We slowed down well before we reached our destination; an inevitable side effect of trying to reach Candlepark Station.

The station is the largest and most active transportation hub in all of Kestral, and the nearest to the mayor’s mansion. Every rail line that webs the sky runs into it at some point. Every airship that visits the city docks there at least once. The subway tunnels that had been abandoned beneath the city formed a wide hub beneath the station, and had they been completed, the underground would have swarmed as mercilessly as above.

Though the station quieted some at night, it was a relative thing. Something akin to trying to fit a great lake of water into a swimming pool, as opposed to only a bath tub. Strictly speaking, one was more doable, but practically, both were equally impossible.

The streets around the station were always congested. More than congested: stopped solid. It was the next best thing to a parking lot, and some people in a hurry tended to treat it as such, which only exacerbated matters. Only a bare fortnight ago, I had fairly flown through the crowd, as Scott Casterly had carried me in the most rickety and unstable walker I had ever had the misfortune to ride. Fast, surely. But it does no good to get somewhere quickly unless you also get there in one piece.

This was something the men in the army had also yet to learn, and though we slowed down, it was not nearly as much as I would have thought reasonable.

But then, my own stakes in this matter were as dire as theirs. Hells, more so in my opinion. Let the mayor burn; I was taking Serah back.

The vehicle plowed into the morass of autos, bikes, walkers, and just plain old people, blaring its horn and looking like nothing so much as a sleek black demon breathing smoke from its rear.

The outer edges of the mess were thin enough to allow us to progress a little, but eventually even the armored half-tank had to stop.

“Now what?” I asked. We were still some distance from the station.

“Now,” said the driver, turning and grinning. “We walk.”

The doors struck the side of the neighboring vehicle, and we squeezed out into the bare inches between us. I looked around in the suddenly brighter light of the gas lamps, no longer dimmed by the tinted windows of the auto. The lamps were thick here, lighting the place up to near daylight as a thousand fires burnt from street lamps, from lanterns within the vehicles, and from the station itself. Every window in the station was bright, every gaping maw glowing a cheery yellow and white. Red and blue signal lights burned high atop the building–less a building, and more an enormous termite colony, built and added upon as necessity demanded over the years.

We ran, threading our way between stopped cars, hand-held horns and deep-throated shouts warning those ahead of our coming. I slid through the slim space between two bikes, ran across the exposed back seat of a topless automobile, danced beneath a walker’s spindly legs. Despite my long legs, I was not used to this sort of frantic maneuvering, and the army men beat me to the station proper by several seconds. As promised, they did not wait, and I raced after them, past a congested and perpetually under construction parking space and through a pair of hanger-sized doors that led into the station proper.

Inside, the station appeared much less crowded, simply by the shear scale of the place. A great central space rose several stories high, surrounding by rings of platforms laden with travelers rushing to catch their train or to escape the incoming crush. The army men and I raced across the expansive marble floor for the far wall, chipped and stained by decades of abuse. Murmurs of confusion rose and fell amid the constant ambient echoes from thousands of travelers all throughout the station, voices echoing off thin steel walls, bouncing off decorative marble and filling the air with a low roar.

The far wall of the enormous space held a bank of elevators, constantly in motion, rising up to the various train platforms, and higher still to the levels of the airship towers. And as massive as this room was, I knew the station extended much further back than we could see, occupying the whole of the park that had once been the largest in the city, and that which had given the station its name.

The wait for an open elevator was interminable, and I wanted nothing more than to break away and race up the stairs, just to be doing something, rather than standing and waiting, letting precious seconds seep through my fingers. But the station stretched high, high above the city, and I would collapse in exhaustion long before making it to the top of the spires where the military airships awaited.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a space large enough for most automobiles, and we piled in. Just as the doors began to slide shut, Hattie shoved her way inside, her face set in a pale grimace, the stained bandage now entirely red. Kristopher circled above her injured shoulder in a slow, fiery halo, humming to himself. I opened my mouth to suggest Hattie stay behind–she looked about to collapse–but I didn’t let the words out. She would take it as an insult.

The elevator rose with speed, powerful engines driving the cables that pulled it up and up, to the base of the tower levels. The military tower was further back in the station, but this level was largely empty and for the first time we were able to run all out. My long legs gave me the advantage here, and I did not have a rifle to carry, so I had no trouble keeping pace with the army officials. Hattie again fell behind, but I couldn’t stop to wait, couldn’t risk losing these men. A second, much smaller elevator awaited us, and as we piled into it, she shouted at us, but the men ignored her. I watched her run with a grim look on her face, and I sympathized…but I couldn’t stop and wait. It was for the best, I told myself as the doors cut her off from view. She needed a doctor and rest, though she would never admit it.

When the doors opened once more, it was to a metal platform, the floor corrugated to give some traction against the frightful winds that roared this high above the city. A low fence rimmed the platform, as if that would prevent the gales from picking a person up and throwing him to the ground so far below. I kept well back from the edge. As a rule, heights don’t bother me overmuch, but there’s a difference between standing in Jedediah Millston’s office atop the university and looking out across the city…and this insane platform atop a spindly tower that seemed hardly capable of supporting its own weight. That I knew it had been designed and built by army engineers who had a clue what they were up against did nothing to alleviate my fears, primal and unreasonable.

A covered ramp led to the airship gondola, not unlike a ramp from an ordinary dock to one of the many steamers that called at the Kestral ports…except a misstep here would have far more dire consequences. Yet, people traveled like this every day. Were they insane? Was I?

The soldiers seemed to have no qualms, and led the way onto the ramp that was shockingly stable. Once on it, I could see the heavy steel cables and girders that locked the ramp to the spire, not suspended in midair as I had originally thought. Even if it swayed some as we ran across it, I could almost imagine it was just the breaking of waves rocking the ship we were about to board.

The airship broke away from the spire almost before we were all aboard, and the sergeant pulled the door shut and spun the wheel to lock it as we crept from the dock, the airship’s propellers spinning up to a whine, then a roar.

Inside, the gondola was sparse, utilitarian. Metal floors and benches, where most airships were lavish with elegantly carved wood, thick colorful carpets, paintings across the walls. Traveling was an experience, and the goal was to make it as pleasant and enjoyable a one as possible. But the army had to move large amounts of people and equipment quickly; they had no room for frills. Behind us, the great engines shivered and growled, keeping the airship moving, cruising at speed through the air, though from within I could barely sense our motion. Most of the soldiers sat, to take what rest they could before the upcoming confrontation, but I was too restless to remain still. I made my way to the forward of the gondola, where the pilot sat peering through thick glass at the darkness outside, guiding the airship by a eyesight, aided by a series of dials and gauges. It was a frightening business, at least to me. Near a port, an airship pilot could rely on a nearby spire to communicate via flashing lights, transmitting weather conditions, docking instructions, and so forth. But out between cities, an airship pilot was alone; there was no support he could call in, and if the airship went down, the lives of everyone aboard were solely in the hands of this one man, who in the end, could only do so much.

He was peering at the compass now, steering the airship toward the last place we had seen the beacon. I was surprised he remembered.; I had gotten turned around on the frantic rush to and through the station and had not the slightest idea which direction to fly. It was frightening to think that, had I been in charge, we would never have gotten past this first stage, never have a hope of catching the pirate airship.

After a few minutes, the pilot let out an exasperated sigh and spoke, his eyes never wavering from the instruments. “Look, do you want something?”

“Um,” I said. Of course I wanted something. I wanted him to be faster. I wanted Serah safe and in my arms. I wanted to sit at home with a mug of hot tea and a good book, a plate of Annabella’s blackcurrant scones fresh from the oven, Kristopher singing quietly to himself in the fireplace.

“You’re one of them, right, magic guys?” the pilot asked when I didn’t continue.

I nodded, then said “yes,” when I realized he still wasn’t looking at me.

“Can you do anything to help? Track that beacon, make us move faster, anything?”

I thought for a second. “I could…give us some light?” Maybe that would make it easier to see the pirates if we got close enough. The pilot snorted.

“About the opposite of what we need, then. You catch a glimpse of the airship before you got in?” It took me a moment to realize he was asking about the one we were currently flying, not the one we chased.

“Not really.”

“Well, if you had, you’d know it was a stealth gal. No insignia, no colors, no lights. Last thing we need is a great bright light to show the pirates exactly where we are. If they go to ground, we’re done for. Now, unless you’ve got a spyglass in that coat of yours, I’d prefer you get back with the others. You’re distracting.”

I turned to go. Then stopped. Not a spyglass, but…

“You still here?” he said, a note of annoyance creeping in his voice.

“Yes,” I said, looking past him out the window. “Shut up for a second, please.” I stepped closer to the plates of glass that made up most of the front of the gondola. I focused beyond that, to the dark air outside the airship. The night seemed to grow brighter in my sight, as my senses came alive, showing me the rays of light passing from every which way through the air and the glass. Light from below us, ambient light of the city we were still passing over; light from the stars and the moon, what little made it through the dense cloud cover; and somewhere out there, the light of that lone lantern Serah had rigged to mark the pirate airship.

I saw the rays of light, and carefully, delicately, reached out to bend them. First to converge and concentrate them, then to diverge them back to parallel. This was a much finer art than the periscope effect I had used so disastrously a few weeks previous to peer around corners at the group of terrorists who had kidnapped a little boy. Lensing was necessarily a delicate business, and it always took a bit of time to get right, adjusting it incrementally until, suddenly, the rays bent in just the right way and we had a working spyglass before us. There was nothing to see yet beyond the dark clouds, but the pilot could tell that something was different, and he spoke, a frown in his voice.

“What the hell did you just do?”

“You wanted a spyglass,” I said absently, concentrating on keeping the effect in place, scanning the sky in front of us for a pinpoint of light lower than stars, higher than a house. Vague shapes leapt out at me from the dimness: tall trees and buildings, low fuzzy stars on the horizon, and there, out in the distance, a tiny pinpoint of orange.

Hardly breathing, I stretched the lenses, pulling them larger to get more light. The focus failed, and for a moment I lost the spot entirely, but I took my time to readjust, and several seconds later it floated back into being.

I couldn’t tell how far it was, or how fast it was moving, and the image was too fuzzy and dim to see the airship itself, but at least now we had a direction.

I allowed myself to relax a little, no longer needing to fine-tune the “spyglass,” and I sank into the empty copilot’s seat. The pilot said nothing, seeming to understand what I had done, and simply steered the airship toward that distant point, flickering in the blackness of night.

* * * * * * * *
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August 2, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter III

by Mallard

A cool silence descended between the two officials, an island of tense calm amid the sea of conversation that filled the ballroom. Mayor Downing was no longer smiling, his lips pursed in a displeased expression. Martha Chorice kept up her polite facade, unwilling to let her mask slip. She was a Minister of Cest-Weldersheen’s Council of Governors, of which the mayor was also a member, though on a lower tier. And though she was newer to her office than Downing, she had seemed to enter the role fully developed for it, bringing vigorous change to the incumbent government at the time they most needed it.

The silence stretched, and at last it looked like Downing would give. He sighed, but before he could speak, Hattie moved in smoothly, stepping between the two and addressing the Minister of Internal Affairs. The move that surprised me, as it could be taken as a deliberate slight to the mayor. In a similar manner actually, as her showing up at his celebratory ball in full uniform. It was nothing that he could reprimand, of course, but it was a slight nonetheless. I found I was suddenly feeling a little warmer toward my superior.

“Minister Chorice,” Hattie said, her voice soft and respectful. “May I have the honor of introducing to you one of our most talented agents? This is Victor–”

“Haas,” Chorice finished Hattie’s sentence and turned to me. Her voice was not very feminine, low and almost gravely, but it was a voice that one would not rashly go against. She spoke with a carefully measured cadence, as if the language was not her native tongue, and she had forced herself to learn it perfectly, if not colloquially. “I have indeed heard of you, Mr. Haas.” She turned back to Hattie and gave a much warmer smile than she had graced the mayor with. “It is stories such as those of Mr. Haas, and of your entire division in Kestral, that give me cause to believe I argued for the correct side.” She glanced significantly at the mayor. “Against heated opposition.”

Mayor Downing frowned, and shifted his weight uncomfortably. “That was two years ago, Martha. Times have changed. I have changed. I will freely admit that I was wrong, if that will please you. I, too, have seen the results of our local Peace Workers, and I am in a position to know well the state this great city might be in without them. Please do not think that I, for a moment, regret the success with which you argued in the Council two years ago.”

Minister Chorice raised a thick eyebrow, then nodded once. “Perhaps you have changed,” she acknowledged. She paused, then, “I have heard that Kestral has had some minor financial difficulties in the past year. Nothing serious, I hope?” It was a minor concession, a willingness to speak to the mayor on cordial, if not friendly terms.

The two fell into talking politics, moving from the state of the city’s economy to trade routes and crime rates, and Hattie’s smile began to look forced. I edged away half a step, then another, pulling Serah with me. She came willingly, no doubt eager to distance herself from the most powerful man in the city, and one of the most powerful women in the entire nation. Perhaps we could sneak off just for a moment, on the pretense of getting drinks…

A loud gong made me jump as an enormous brass clock on the wall began to call out the twenty-first hour. Nine loud booms echoed in the enormous ballroom, swallowing conversation, stilting laughter, and turning all heads toward the dais underneath the clock. Mayor Downing excused himself quickly and led his wife in a quick not-quite-jog to the raised podium. I slumped in relief that he was gone, and turned to lead Serah away. I really could use a drink.

“Mr. Haas,” the minister’s voice called. “Please stay for a while. I would very much like the opportunity to speak with you.”

I winced, and glanced at Hattie, who nodded firmly. Of course. The reason I was there, after all, was to represent the Peace Workers. I glanced at Serah and shrugged apologetically. “Sorry.”

Serah rolled her eyes and steered me back toward the minister and my boss.

The final gong sounded and, as the brassy notes faded into silence, the mayor’s voice, amplified through some device, sounded from all corners of the room.

“Friends and associates, citizens and visitors, welcome! I am Mayor Joel Downing, and it pleases me beyond all measure to have you here this evening. Tonight is a special night for me, as I celebrate a change in my life, and that of my wife. One we have desired for many years. Long have I worried that I would not have a child, that I would not have an heir to the Downing estate. But today, I lay to rest all such worries! Today, we celebrate the most proud news any husband has ever had the pleasure to express.”

He gestured to Rachel, and his beaming wife joined him on the stage, handing him a glass of champagne. He took it and pulled her close to him, folding his arm protectively around her shoulders. “Today, we celebrate the pregnancy and impending birth of Joel Downing Junior! Or perhaps Joanna! It’s too early to tell!” A polite titter rippled across the crowd, and Downing’s grin widened.

“Tonight, let all barriers of birth and wealth, station and responsibility vanish. Tonight, we celebrate the most basic emotion of any couple, of any father: pride at the addition of a child to his family. A toast!” he raised his glass, and crystal sparkled across the room as hundreds more joined his in the air. “A toast to the miracle of birth, a toast to the great city of Kestral, and most of all, a toast to Mrs. Rachel Downing, the most magnificent and beautiful woman I have ever known!”

In one gulp, he drained his glass and gestured grandly at the mechanical quintet, which started up at once, filling the air with lively notes. Downing led his wife down the steps of the dais to the center of the dance floor, which cleared before him. It was not a gentle and slow dance, and gasps filled the air as Joel lead his wife around in a wild waltz. Fans of rich paper and colored feathers fluttered as the mayor and his wife stepped, whirled, leapt, and bent backwards almost to the floor, stepping up the tempo until, following a resounding crescendo, the music vanished and Downing kissed his wife deeply. Cheers and laughter filled the air, and the two broke apart, beaming. A few moments later, the music began once more, and couples began to file to the dance floor to join the mayoral pair.

I was sorely tempted to join them, but I held myself in check, turning instead back to Minister Chorice and Hattie Morrison, the former of whom was, to my surprise, chuckling freely and waving a glass of white wine through the air.

She caught my eye and her own twinkled, forming wrinkles at the corners that reminded me of the woman’s age. “Is it not odd,” she said, rotating the glass in her hands, the crystal catching and throwing the light in brilliant sparkles. “That Mayor Downing speaks of breaking down barriers between class and wealth, yet not a one here is from the streets or the docks? Every man and woman at this soirée are from the upper class of this city, and the only class barriers that can be ignored are those between the merely rich, and the obscenely rich such as himself.” She shot a smile at Serah, who started. “Be proud, Ms. Villifree. You are the sole representative here of the working class of Kestral.”

“I–” Serah started, and Chorice shook her head.

“No, no. Swallow whatever formality you are about to say, my dear. While I do not agree with Downing on many things, his words, at least, sound good. No barriers tonight; speak to me as you would any other woman.”

I coughed, and Serah elbowed me in the ribs, glaring. “Of course, Minister Chorice,” she said.

The minister’s smile turned almost wistful, her eyes a little less cheerful. “It is not possible, I suppose. It is a trapping of power that I have never learned to enjoy: the erection of impassable walls between those who wield the power, and those who are affected by it.”

She turned back to me. “I did not exaggerate when I said I know of you, Victor.” She paused. “You are a curious case. You are one of the few Peace Workers who came to our side of your own free will, before the amnesty. It was you who helped convince me to stay true to my course of action, rather than give in to pressure. It was a close thing, you should know. I was young and new then, and had not the fortitude I have now.”

That was a sobering thought. The minister had spoken with such passion two years before, when she had argued boldly for a general amnesty of all members of the Republican Guard. She had faced violent opposition, including numerous threats to her life and loved ones, for the last months of the war had been charged with tension. Those of Cest-Weldersheen held no compassion for the traitors, as they called the Republic. The civil war had been bloody for both sides, as the magic of the south battled against the great steam tanks of the north. In the end, the war machines of the Royal Army had conquered the smaller nation, tanks the size of small factories rolling through all opposition and razing entire cities to the ground.

It shouldn’t have been like that, of course. The Republic had not been formed with an intent to wage war against its parent nation. It had been mostly symbolic, in the beginning. A protest against the power-mad and out-of-control army.

You already know that I played a part in the war, a role I regret deeply. I joined the army shortly after the Patchwork Folk invaded, seeing it as an opportunity to escape from the monotony of the printing press where I had worked. I had been stationed near the city of Sainted Isles, some distance south of Kestral.

Cest-Weldersheen had profited from decades of peace, and the army had been minuscule when the Patchwork Folk landed and began their march of terror, and the Council of Governors had responded with a draft, putting thousands of poorly trained and unwilling soldiers into the field. Taxes had risen alarmingly, especially in the rural south, as the government took more and more resources to support the growing army. Drunk with power and lacking in discipline, the newly conscripted soldiers began to take what they felt was rightfully theirs, stealing from and terrorizing the very people they were charged to protect, committing crimes that the Council refused to acknowledge.

Eighteen months into the war, Sainted Isles had seceded, and having lived through what they had, I went with them. They formed the first city in the Republic, a child nation that had been meant only as a symbolic and temporary protest.

The Council had responded by withdrawing armed support, and for a time the city knew peace, far enough behind the front lines to be out of danger from both the Patchwork Folk and the Royal Army.

But as more cities followed suit, and as the Council continued to withdraw support, the danger became more pronounced. Eventually, it became too much and several cities banded together and bartered with the savages to allow them safe passage into the greater nation of Cest-Weldersheen in exchange for immunity.

This act of treachery brought the Council’s attention back with a vengeance, and at once we of the Republic found ourselves fighting a war on two fronts.

The false moniker of the “Mage Wars” was purely propaganda by the north. The Republic consisted of mostly agricultural communities, and had none of the industry of the greater nation. Thus, our greatest weapons were those of magic, to combat the fierce beast-like forces of the Patchwork Folk, and the powerful war machines of Cest-Weldersheen. Magic became the curse to pin the blame on, and the Republican mages became the cursed.

When the Patchwork Folk were finally driven from our shores, and the Republic was crushed, many of the Council of Governors–including Mayor Joel Downing–had argued for mass executions of the soldiers of the Republican Guard.

I fought on the side of the Republic throughout the war, at first out of solidarity for their plight, and later out of necessity, for I would be hunted by both sides if I left. But I could not make myself as hard as was required to fight my own people, and in the final months of the war, I ran. I left behind both the Republic and Cest-Weldersheen, and made my way to the fireswamps of the southeast, there to hide among the flames that fit the intensity of the crimes I had committed.

Kristopher found me there, and without him, I truly believe I would have died. He rekindled my desire to live and to atone for my sins. He led me to safety, beginning the long and seemingly impossible process of healing my broken psyche.

Thus, in the final months of the war, I became an agent of the Royal Army, feeding them what information I could in order to end the war as quickly as possible, to reduce the number of men and women who had to die.

Even so, I would likely have been executed with the rest, if not for the newly elected Minister of Internal Affairs, an inexperienced but passionate woman named Martha Chorice, who had the courage and charisma to argue for a general amnesty for those who would accept it, and imprisonment rather than death for those who would not.

As I said before, nearly all of us in the Peace Workers owe Martha Chorice our lives.

“I am honored to be known to you,” I said, and it was the absolute truth. I freely admit I don’t hold much respect for authority, but Martha Chorice is one whom I would do anything for. “Though,” I added. “You’ll have to thank Kristopher as well if you thank me; without him I would never have made it back.”

The minister nodded and glanced at the salamander, who was orbiting in lazy circles above Serah’s head. Martha opened her mouth, but rather than speaking, she whistled a tune in a crude imitation of Kristopher’s song.

Kristopher wobbled and nearly fell out of the air.

(Who is this woman?) he demanded, just then taking notice of her. Of course, to him, a government official is no more interesting or meaningful than a statue.

Chorice blushed slightly. “Did I say it wrong?” she asked me. I was staring open-mouthed at her, never having heard salamander song from a human throat before. Even I can’t duplicate it, though I’ve never been praised for my singing voice.

(She said nothing,) Kristopher said, flying in agitated arcs back and forth, causing Serah to glance up nervously, and crouch ever so slightly. She has good reason: when Kristopher is excited, he tends to forget which things are flammable, and has been known to singe hairs.

(But it was a greeting, nonetheless,) he conceded, settling back into an orderly circle, though moving more rapidly than before. (She both said hello and expressed gratitude.)

I frowned up at him. “I thought she said nothing?”

“Oh dear,” Martha said, covering her mouth with both hands. “I did do it wrong. It has been so long.”

(To me, she spoke a greeting,) Kristopher said. (To other salamanders, she has said nothing). Which, after I thought about it for a moment, made sense. As I’ve said, I don’t actually hear Kristopher in words, but in ideas. Martha had simply expressed an idea, but so crudely that no salamander could tell what she meant. But Kristopher, who has spent the last two years constantly surrounded by humans, could understand her gist, as I understood his.

I relayed his message as best I could, and Chorice laughed delightedly, like a young girl.

“I have heard so much of you, and your friend,” she said. “But not of how you met. Most of what I know is from after the war. Please, I would like to understand you, one of the few who not only switched sides, but did so out of conscience rather than fear. You may not be aware, but because of your actions, the war may have ended as many as two or three months earlier than otherwise.”

This last I hadn’t known, and I found I didn’t know how to respond. Emotions welled up in me: the old shame and grief, but colored now by a silver outline of relief and pride. Pride that, despite all I had done, I had in the end made a difference. I blinked furiously as my eyes watered, blurring the room.

Serah must have seen some of this on my face, and she tightened her fingers around my arm and leaned in just a little. I took a deep breath, and nodded.

Martha listened in silence as I told my tale, speaking slowly and carefully, omitting enough to progress the tale quickly, but making sure to include the important details. Serah already knew my past, but it was still gratifying that, rather than pulling away when I described my time in the Republican Guard, she pressed in closer, a silent comfort.

“I don’t like what you did, or who you once were,” she had said to me when I first told her the story. I had been full of fear back then, that she would leave me once she knew the truth. “But I know who you are now, who you have become, and I do very much approve of that man. I…think I might even love him.” It had been the first time she had said that to me, blushing and looking down at her overalls, and this memory helped me make it through my tale this second time.

Martha nodded once I came to the end, her face grave. “Thank you, Victor. I have watched the Peace Workers closely since I first established them two years ago. There have been many problems, many backslides, and at times I began to lose faith that it would work. It is those like you who give me the strength to believe I have made, and continue to make, the correct choice.”

She smiled suddenly, and like the sun, it chased the shadows from her face. “Enough now of the distant past. Neither of us are great fans of Mayor Joel Downing, but what a shame it would be to waste such a party, would it not? You are young, and you have a beautiful woman on your arm, Victor. One who is very patient to have sat through all this. Go, dance! I would like to opportunity to speak with Hattie Morrison, and I’m sure you have no desire to listen to more dreary talk.”

That wasn’t strictly true, but I was experienced enough to know when I was dismissed. It took me a moment to shake the shadows of the past from my head, but the bright colors of the dancers, the gentle music of the golem quintet, and Serah’s dazzling smile were quite enough.

“Well, then,” I said, turning to Serah as Martha began to pull Hattie away. I took my Serah’s gloved hands in mine. “May I have this dance, fair lady?”

Serah laughed, her blue eyes sparkling in the bright lights of the ballroom. “Of course, good sir,” her grin was addicting, and I felt my own lips lift upward as Serah pulled me quickly toward the now-crowded dance floor, Kristopher streaking above our heads like a shooting star.

* * * * * * * *
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July 25, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter II

by Mallard

I stared, and Serah laughed and flushed red. Which only made me stare harder. Serah does not blush. Or perhaps I just never notice it, as her face is ruddy from sunlight and welding, and always covered in a thin layer of grease. Seeing her freshly bathed, with her hair brushed out and flowing down her back, dressed in a midnight blue gown I had never seen before, well, it was like seeing another woman entirely.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked after I had remained silent for some time, frozen outside her door. Her face was a delicate pink up to the tips of her ears.

I coughed and blinked. “Right. Yes.”

She laughed again, a little uncomfortably. “Why, I ought to be upset, Victor. It’s almost as if you don’t normally think of me as a woman.”

“Oh that’s too much!” I sputtered, the moment of surprise broken, but she snickered and stepped forward to hook her arm through mine.

“It’s only fair,” she murmured. “You surprised me, too.”

Which was reasonable. After all, I rather surprised myself.

The suit I wore was a dark charcoal, with a lighter gray waistcoat over a pearl white shirt, finished off with a black satin bow. My hands felt strange in pristine white gloves, doubly so when I laid them on Serah’s, clad in thinner gloves of powder blue. It was strange to find two layers where normally there were none.

I couldn’t really take credit for the suit, though, and said as much. It had been Kristopher who had found the shop, tucked away in some corner where no one could find it. The tailor had been almost embarrassingly glad to see a customer, and had brought out his best work for me, performing in one evening what would have taken a busier or more popular shop several days at the least.

I hadn’t worn a tuxedo in years. Not since my college days, in fact. I just never had the opportunity. During the war, it was the uniform, unless I was traveling incognito–a euphemism we used for spying. And afterward . . . Many of the places I go just don’t lend themselves well to a suit. Imagine me, walking through Kestral’s sewer system in a silk tailcoat and a top hat. It doesn’t work, does it?

The coachman waited silently through our exchange, though the midnight steed in front stamped and puffed in impatience to get moving. It had been raining off and on most of the week, but the puddles around Serah’s warehouse had mostly dried, and we didn’t have to worry about her gown dragging in the mud. I helped her into the carriage and stepped in after, sitting on the opposite bench to face her. The coachman whipped the reins and his horse started into motion, jolting the carriage forward before settling into an even pace that sent us rumbling across the cobblestones.

Dark had fallen by now, and the lamplighters had been about their business so that shadows alternated with glowing orange from without the dark coach. An uneven emerald teardrop hung on a silver chain from Serah’s neck, and the gem caught and played with each bit of passing firelight. She saw the direction of my eye, and smiled fondly.

“It was a gift from my father,” she said. “One of the miners gave him the stone as a thank-you gift last year. It was still rough, so he polished it into this shape, set it on a chain, and gave it to me on my birthday.” She reached up and rubbed the stone fondly with her thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but smile. It fit my memory of the old man perfectly. He had grown up poor, and though he now ran a profitable business repairing mining equipment on-site, he had never grown out of his old habits. Why buy a fancy necklace when he could make something unique and meaningful by hand, paying nothing but his own time? He had a creative and active mind, and it was he who had taught Serah all she knew about machines, instilling in his daughter his own deep love for them.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Serah glowed at me.

 * * * * * * * *

Hattie stood by the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her foot impatiently as the carriage slowed to a stop in front of the mayoral mansion. She didn’t look happy, but then, she rarely does.

“Specialist,” came her curt greeting, which startled me almost as much as her manner of dress. Her lack of a dress, rather. Despite the evening’s purpose, Hattie Morrison looked every inch the sergeant major, from the tips of her highly polished leather boots, to her brown hair done up in a tight bun that allowed no single strands free will. Medals glittered across her chest, commemorating a dozen recognitions. I hadn’t known she was so decorated, and frankly it surprised me a little. The most I’ve ever seen Hattie do is sit behind her desk and give me orders. The military saber at her waist was the closest I had seen her to a weapon. But she wore it well, as if used to the weight, and that disturbed me more than it should have.

I suppose I knew Hattie had been an active soldier. She hadn’t gotten to be head of the Peace Workers without being someone of note in the army. I had just never thought about it. She had very possibly fought against some of my comrades in battle, and I had no doubt that she had tousled with the Patchwork Folk at least once. Anyone in a uniform during that war, whether of the Republican Guard, or one of the Royal Army’s many divisions–such as the Kestral Armed Forces–had fought against the Patchwork Folk.

“Why are you late?” Hattie asked after I had helped Serah out of the carriage. My superior’s eyes roved over my suit and her mouth turned down in a frown. “And why are you not in uniform?”

I blinked. “It’s a ball, Hattie,” I said. “You don’t wear a uniform to a ball.” I paused. “Well, you do, I guess, but–”

“It’s ‘sir,'” she barked. “Show some respect, Haas.”

I frowned, and felt Serah tense beside me. “What’s going on, Hattie?” I asked slowly. “Have I done something to upset you?”

Her frown remained in place for several seconds, then she sighed and glanced skyward. “I apologize, Victor. I’m a little nervous tonight.”

I didn’t laugh. I truly didn’t. But it was a close call. Hattie Morrison, nervous? Of a fancy ball, of all things? Don’t get me wrong; I was nervous too. But that was largely because I haven’t been to such an event in years, and because I had this beautiful creature on my arm who claimed to be the same Serah Villifree I had led around a machine shop just the other day, but who couldn’t possibly. After all, I’m supposed to feel comfortable around Serah.

Hattie glanced at me sharply. “Is something funny, Victor?” At least she was back to calling me by my first name.

I shook my head quickly. “No, sir.”

“Good.” She paused and fixed me with a stern gaze. “And inside, for the sake of appearances, you should continue to call me sir. Or at least don’t act so damned familiar.”

“Me, familiar with my superior? Never.” I kept my voice as deadpan as possible, but still earned a glare from Hattie.

“Better not be,” Serah muttered by my side, and I blinked in surprise. I’ve never heard Serah express any hint of jealousy or annoyance at my interactions with other women. It was as if the gown, in addition to changing her appearance, was also changing her attitudes. If she started simpering, I would probably have to leave.

Hattie nodded once, turned sharply, and stalked inside, her heavy combat boots striking a loud beat upon the tiled entry hall. A butler in a finer suit than mine greeted us at the door and directed us down a short hallway. It was lit brightly with ornate gas lamps, and richly carpeted in some thick red fabric that I imagined would feel amazing were I barefoot. Several doors led off the hallway, all closed, brass handles shining in the gaslight.

The hall ended in a cross hall, but another butler stood there to direct us past a darkened staircase, around another corner, and through an opened set of teakwood doors, carved into abstract patterns of swoops and swirls. Through the doors, and suddenly we were standing at the top of a short entry staircase to the ballroom, and everything else paled to insignificance.

The ballroom must have taken up most of the rear of the enormous mansion. The ceiling soared to the skies, and I could have thrown a rock and still not hit the far windows. The walls were carved much as the doors had been, some depicting scenes from myth or history, others merely space-filling trifles. Filigreed glass doors lined the far wall, leading out into the garden, lit by further lamps outside. Music filled the air, and I looked to one side to find a string quintet of golems playing on a low stage, mechanical fingers dancing delicately across strings and keys, small puffs of steam escaping in time to the music. I glanced at Serah, certain her eyes would be upon the musicians, but she as staring at the floor with an expression akin to panic. I looked quickly to see the cause of her alarm.

Large as the room was, it seemed almost too small, crowded to the walls with elegantly clad figures. Various shades of gray and black intermingled with brilliant colors and patterns. Gowns sparkled in the bright yellow ambient light, some long with flowing trains, others slim and short. Lace and ribbons, silk bows and feathers adorned every woman in the room, accenting jeweled tiaras and exotic precious stones hanging from chains of gold and silver.

I felt Serah step back in astonishment at the sheer display of wealth and extravagance, and her gloved hand rose to finger her own single emerald. Next to many of the women in the crowd, her dark blue gown looked plain and poor, her necklace cheaply made, and I could well imagine what she was thinking. I said before that Serah does not care about appearances. But it seemed the gown had worked its wiles on her once more.

“How . . . excessive,” she whispered, but I could see her face fall ever so slightly.

I forced myself to laugh heartily, and Serah turned a stricken eye to me. “Absolutely,” I agreed boldly. “Extravagant, excessive . . . and unnecessary. If you had dressed like that, why, I wouldn’t be able to find you amid the perfumes and lace. Besides, you don’t have to worry. I’m the one who will have to deal with every man’s jealousy when he turns his head our way and spies the midnight-clad beauty on my arm.”

Serah rolled her eyes, but she smiled and tightened her grip on my arm, and her eyes lost their frightened cast. Behind us, I heard a gagging sound.

“I thought we were being professional tonight, sir,” I said without turning.

“Yes, well, it’s hard to be professional when you’re pouring sap down my throat, Haas. Now move your bulk out of the doorway; you’re not the only ones trying to get in.”

Serah and I stepped forward and descended the short flight of steps to the dance floor proper. No one was dancing just yet, as the ball had not officially begun. Many were simply milling around, or standing in clusters of friends and acquaintances. I recognized several members of the army, though none were Peace Workers and only a handful bothered with the full uniform like Hattie. There were also several members of the Mayor’s cabinet, though I didn’t know their names, and many of the most influential or wealthy merchants in the city. It wasn’t the sort of crowd I tend to associate with socially, but I could still recognize many of them by sight. The Peace Workers interact with all manner of people, from the beggars on the street to the wealthiest men and women, and I’d spoken with more than a few of the guests at one point or another.

Several of these glanced my way and waved or nodded, but most didn’t acknowledge me. Which suited me fine. Though, there were a few who I would have preferred to leave me in peace.

“Oh dear, surely it isn’t Victor Haas? Please, assure me you are not here to protect the mayor’s home and assets. I fear none of us will survive the evening if that is the case.”

I rolled my eyes and turned. “Evening, Jedediah.”

The dean of KAMA smirked and stuck out a hand, which I took with some trepidation. “And you must be Ms. Villifree,” he said, turning to Serah and holding out his hand once more. She reached for it, but he twisted her wrist deftly and brought the back of her glove to his lips. “A pleasure to meet you,” he murmured. “Your beauty rivals that of the Lady Autumn herself.” The dean is likely old enough to be my grand-sire, but he’s still a charmer.

Serah flushed and I quickly stepped in. “Jedediah, have you met Hattie Morrison? Head of the Peace Workers division of the army.” I gestured and Hattie stepped forward, though she shot an irritated glance my way.

Jedediah nodded and reached for her hand, repeating his previous routine. “A pleasure, Ms. Morrison. I’ve heard quite a lot of your work, and you have my utmost admiration.” He glanced at me and frowned. “Though your boy here causes me no end of headaches.”

“Jedediah Millston,” Hattie said, nodding in recognition. She paused, then her mouth curved up in the tiniest of smiles. “Believe me, your headaches are nothing next to mine.” The two shared a loud laugh at this, and even Serah sniggered quietly in a very unladylike fashion. I rolled my eyes again.

“Truly good to meet you, but I am probably keeping you from the mayor,” Millston continued, to which Hattie nodded. “Then I will bid you a good evening.” He turned and looked me up and down once, then nodded. “It’s good to see you doing better, Victor,” he said, before turning and meandering off. The last time the dean had spoken with me, I had been nearly passed out, covered in soot and smoke, chafed by manacles, and worn out emotionally and physically from having narrowly escaped death in the basements beneath his school. It was nice to know that the old bastard cared, in his own gruff way.

The mayor and his wife were not hard to find, surrounded as they were by a knot of well-wishers and friends, both political and social. His wife hung on his arm, practically glowing with pride and pleasure. Her pregnancy barely showed, pushing out her belly only the slightest bit through the thin fabric of her gown, but it was enough. She stood half a head shorter than her husband, who was on a level with me: a tall thin man dressed in a white suit, with his black hair slicked back behind his head. He was in his middle forties, but could have passed for someone quite a bit younger. His wife was at least a decade his junior, but she held herself regally beside him, her hair flowing in waves down to her waist. One hand rested on her husband’s arm, the other on the tiny bulge in her belly.

Hattie didn’t bother to stand in line to congratulate the mayor, but stepped confidently to the front. The party-goers separated before her, unsettled by her manner and appearance, and Serah and I stepped easily into the gap behind.

“Ms. Hattie Morrison!” the thin man said in a delighted voice, always deeper than I expect from his thin frame. “A pleasant surprise!”

I found that hard to believe, but said nothing. The mayor bent his tall frame over Hattie’s hand and kissed it delicately, as he had no doubt done a hundred times already during the evening. He straightened up and pulled his wife a step forward. “I believe you’ve met my wife before. Rachel, you remember Ms. Morrison, I trust?” The tall woman smiled and greeted Hattie warmly.

“A pleasure, as always,” she said in a soft voice. “I have heard much of your activities from my husband. You are quite the inspiration to the women of this city.”

Hattie smiled thinly. “It pleases me to hear you say that.” She turned back to the mayor and motioned me forward with one hand. “Mayor Downing, I would like to introduce you to Victor Haas. A reformed member of the Republican Guard, as are many Peace Workers, and one of our top agents. He was very recently involved in foiling a plot to destroy our great center of learning in Kestral, as you may recall.” Mayor Downing smiled and nodded, and I stifled a snort. It had not been a Peace Worker mission–as I had been reminded when I had submitted a reimbursement request–but I was not surprised to see Hattie take credit all the same.

I stepped forward, unsure whether I should bow or shake the mayor’s hand. I didn’t particularly want to do either, but he made the choice for me, sticking out his hand and grasping mine with a surprisingly firm grip. He shook my hand vigorously for several seconds, and I withdrew the instant he let me. I wanted to rub my palm on my pants to clean it, but admonished myself not to be so petty. “Victor Haas,” Mayor Downing said. “I have indeed heard much of you, especially after this incident at the university. And this must be the infamous Kristopher the salamander.” At this last, he reached tentatively for Kristopher, but the salamander darted out of the way.

(You do not like this man,) Kristopher observed. I smiled. “He says it is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” I said.

The mayor laughed. “I am glad to hear it. And please, don’t bother with ‘sirs’ and ‘madams’ this evening, Victor. Call me Joel. And please, allow me to introduce you to my wife, Rachel.”

I had nothing against Mrs. Rachel Downing, and my smile was honest as I greeted her and congratulated her on the pregnancy. She took the compliment with the tired smile of one who has heard the same thing a hundred times already, and not for the last time, either.

The mayor opened his mouth to say something further, but nothing came out. His eyes focused on something in the distance over my shoulder and they lost some of their sparkle. “Oh dear,” he sighed, and motioned to the crowd to make way. I turned, unable to help myself, though it was probably poor etiquette. At first I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and was about to turn back when the woman stepped into view, and I wondered how I had not seen her before.

She was dressed as extravagantly as the richest of the women in the room, but it was coordinated well, and suited her perfectly. The lace about her neck was complimentary rather than gaudy, and the pearls of her necklace were of a pleasant sheen and tasteful size.

She was shorter than I by a good foot, but she held her head high, curly blond hair framing a face full of good humor and relentless determination. It was a face I knew very well. All the Peace Workers did. Without it, most of us would not still be alive.

I smiled warmly, as the mayor recovered his own mask.

The woman stepped forward and nodded at him, and though her lips were turned up in a smile, her eyes were cold. “Mayor Downing. A pleasure to see you again.”

“Likewise,” the mayor said, his expression no more genuine than hers. “It is always a pleasant surprise when Mrs. Martha Chorice, the Minister of Internal Affairs, graces my home with her presence.”

* * * * * * * *
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