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Dol Amroth, 3020 Third Age – eight years later
The ocean stretched below him, vast and empty except for a few fishing boats bringing home the day’s catch. Éomer paused on the ramparts of the castle, contemplating the blue immensity of the Bay of Belfalas, its colour slowly changing to gold in the light of the setting sun.
Seeing it for the first time that morning had taken his breath away, like a bodily shock running through him. Gulls swooped past him with raucous cries, and as he watched them dive off the cliff something tugged at his soul. At last he understood his friend Legolas’s sea-longing.
But he wanted to see the sea up close. Where was that gate Amrothos had mentioned? A moment later he spotted it at the foot of one of the sentry towers. Recognising him, two guards saluted as he approached. A third man sitting in one of the embrasures giving a view of the ocean looked up. He had been polishing his sword, but now lowered it to his lap, where rested another blade, and regarded him piercingly.
Éomer nearly stumbled. Not a man but a woman. And one who handled the long, curved scimitar as if she knew how to use it. A shieldmaiden here in Gondor? He had never heard of any, and this one, all dressed in black, had the look of a veteran, tough and sinewy. Her eyes assessed him, no friendliness in them at all. Instinctively he sought the hilt of his own sword. However, after a moment she bent back to her task, ignoring him.
“You’ll be wanting to go down to the beach, my lord?” one of the men asked, swinging the gate open. “Just be careful, the path is steep.”
Éomer thanked him, half his attention still on the woman. Not until he was on the steps leading down to the seashore did he relax again. Which was ridiculous. To be allowed to bear weapons inside the castle of Dol Amroth, she had to be one of Imrahil’s guards, an ally. And yet he knew a threat when he encountered it.
Shaking his head at such wild fancies, he concentrated on the stairs instead. They were steep indeed, but a rope had been strung to serve as a handrail, anchored to the rock every few steps. Below, a strip of sand beckoned, sheltered by a breakwater stretching out into the sea. Amrothos had told him the beach was fairly private, overlooked by the sentries above, but accessible only from the castle or by boat.
Soon he stepped out onto the beach, the unfamiliar tang of salt in the air even stronger here, while sand stretched out before him, washed clean by the sea. The water lapped the shore gently, each wave receding with a soft sigh, but seeing the way the ocean had gnawed at the rock on which the castle stood, he could well believe it wasn’t always so.
He didn’t have the beach completely to himself though. Out on the breakwater stood a woman, watching the setting sun. To Éomer she was nothing but a slim, graceful silhouette against the darkening sky, the wind teasing her long black hair. She hadn’t noticed him, and he enjoyed the sight for a moment, but then strolled along the seashore the other way to give her privacy.
Clumps of seaweed dotted the beach, and crabs scuttled away at his approach. After a few steps Éomer took off his boots and wriggled his toes in the sand, still warm from the sun. Back home in the Riddermark winter still ruled, but in this southern land spring had already arrived. The water was cold though he found when he waded through the surf.
From up ahead he suddenly heard voices. Passing a rocky outcropping, he came upon another crescent shaped beach with a small stream trickling down the steep cliff face and into the sea. Two young boys were busy piling up stones to dam the water and redirect it into the moat of their sandcastle.
At his approach they looked up. Éomer recognised Alphros, Prince Elphir’s son. He had met the whole family the year before at the celebrations on the Fields of Cormallen. There the boy had been impeccably turned out, but now he looked like an urchin, his clothes full of sand and hair in a wild tangle. As for his companion, who seemed to be about the same age, he was wet and muddy all over, as if he had fallen in a puddle.
“King Éomer,” Alphros exclaimed. As one who had been drilled in manners from the moment he could walk, he executed a very creditable bow.
“Don’t let me interrupt you,” Éomer told him. “That’s a splendid castle you’re building.”
“Thank you,” Alphros answered. “It’s Minas Tirith, but better, with a moat.” He pointed to a stick with some desiccated seaweed on top. “And that’s King Elessar.”
Suppressing a grin, Éomer duly admired his friend’s likeness. Straightening up, he found the other boy regarding him critically. Darker skinned than Alphros, he had the same easy self-assurance as his friend. The son of one of Imrahil’s knights?
“I’m a king too,” the boy suddenly announced
Alphros elbowed him in the side. “Tarcil, you’re not supposed to say that.”
Tarcil lifted his chin. “I am though. Mother says I shouldn’t tell people, but since you’re a king too, I can tell you.”
Éomer smiled. It seemed a harmless enough fantasy. “In that case I’m honoured to meet a fellow ruler.”
The boy gave him a brilliant smile. “Me too.” He put his head to one side. “Mother also says that it’s boring being a king, that you have to sit around all day, listening to advisers.”
Éomer had to grimace, thinking of the hours spent in the council chamber. Especially lately there had been no getting away from having to discuss the virtues of the many candidates to his hand. “Your mother is wise.”
“When I grow up,” Alphros declared, “I will be the Prince of Dol Amroth. That’s much better. Then I can stay up as long as I want to.”
His friend looked envious. It seemed being a Prince of Dol Amroth trumped being a king.
That moment the sound of a trumpet rang out from the ramparts above. The boys looked with regret at their unfinished castle.
“We have to go back,” Alphros said. “That’s the sign to get ready for the evening meal.”
“Mother promised there will be custard pies for afters if we’re good,” Tarcil reminded him.
His mother seemed to be not only wise, but also well versed in the art of bribery, for the two picked up their discarded shoes and headed back towards the path up to the castle. Éomer accompanied them, amused at their chatter. They reminded him of his friend Éothain’s lively brood of children.
When they got back to the main beach, they found the woman who had stood on the breakwater making her way back towards the shore. He didn’t think she had seen them yet, for she was concentrating on hopping from one rock to the next. Éomer had thought he had been introduced to all Gondor’s womanhood, at least the marriageable part, but he had never met her before. A shame, he thought, when he got a glimpse of a shapely leg.
As if she had felt his eyes on her, she froze and looked up, wary as a deer hearing a hunter’s step. But it was only for a moment, then she lightly ran the last few yards and jumped down on the sand.
Turning to face them, her face lit up with a beautiful smile, eyes sparkling and full of joy. For the second time that day Éomer’s breath caught in amazement and wonder. He felt as if somebody had hit him in the chest.
Tarcil went running. “Alphros and I built a castle,” he called. “And we caught a big crab.”
Still smiling, the woman knelt down and spread out her arms. “Did you let it go again?”
“Of course, Mummy. We put it back where we found it, like you always tell us to.”
The words were like a punch to the stomach. This was Tarcil’s mother, who thought kings led boring lives. She was married. He was too late.
Éomer shook his head, which was ringing as if he had fallen from a horse. What had got into him?
She straightened up and took the boy by the hand, holding out the other to Alphros. “Look at the two of you. What have you done, wallowed in the mud like piglets?”
The boys grinned at her, not the least fooled by her stern tone.
Tarcil tugged at her arm. “He’s a king too,” he confided in a loud whisper, nodding at Éomer.
“Ah.” Her eyes measured Éomer thoughtfully. She was elegantly but sombrely dressed in dark grey, and at her throat gold glinted, a heavy torc the like of which he had never seen before. It seemed an unusual adornment for a Gondorian lady, but he had to admit it accentuated the graceful line of her neck.
Sinking into a quick curtsy, she gave him a polite smile. It had none of the radiance and love lavished on her son in it, and Éomer felt a pang at the lack.
“King Éomer of Rohan?” she asked. “I’m honoured to meet you.”
His manners belatedly caught up with him; he bowed. “The honour is mine, Lady…?”
“I’m Lothíriel of…” She paused a moment. “… of Dol Amroth.”
What did that make her? A relative of Imrahil’s herself or the wife of one? She had the easy self-assurance that came with high rank, strangely at odds with the wariness she had displayed upon first catching sight of him. But perhaps he had imagined that.
“It’s a lucky chance I should meet you here,” she now said. “I had meant to talk to you.”
He realised he was still staring at her and berated himself. He had no business ogling another man’s wife. “Yes?” he asked. What could she want from him?
She hesitated. “We will be expected at dinner, but perhaps I might have a few moments of your time later.” She straightened her shoulders. “I have a favour to ask.”
“Anything you wish.”
She gave him a startled look.
Éomer tried to gather his scattered wits. “Eh, I mean I’m happy to assist any friend of Imrahil’s.”
She inclined her head. “You are very kind, my lord. It’s not urgent, but if I may, I will seek you out sometime before you leave.”
“Please do. I’m here for a week.”
A moment later Éomer thought that she surely knew as much, since Imrahil had planned a series of entertainments. She would think him a dimwit. However, she just inclined her head again and while leading the way back up to the castle engaged him in the kind of polite conversation Gondorian ladies excelled at, asking about his journey from Emyn Arnen, the weather and enquiring after fellow acquaintances.
Usually that sort of talk drove him to distraction, but for once he was grateful. Hopefully it would give him the time to regain his wits.
In all the time he’d known his friend, Éomer had never seen Imrahil flustered. The man was as much at home on the battlefield, gallantly facing down an orc horde, as in the Hall of Feasts in Minas Tirith, making polite conversation to an elf lord. Yet when he turned up in the dining room in Lady Lothíriel’s company, his friend looked distinctly put out.
To Éomer’s surprise the two boys had been whisked away to a bath and their own meal by the woman warrior waiting at the top of the stairs to the beach. This unlikely nursemaid had exchanged a nod with Lady Lothíriel and taken them in charge. Wisely neither of the boys had protested, though Tarcil had secured the promise of a bedtime story from his mother.
Éomer had already got to know Imrahil’s family at Cormallen, including the wives of Elphir and Erchirion, so it was all familiar faces that gathered in the dining room.
“I see you’ve met Lothíriel,” his host said, handing him a glass of wine.
Éomer took an appreciative sip, Imrahil’s wine cellar being legendary. “Yes,” he said, feeling more like himself again. “I wanted to have a closer look at the sea. She was down on the beach too, so I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.”
Lady Lothíriel had gone to greet Amrothos and was speaking to him with some animation. She couldn’t be married to him though surely? Not once had his friend mentioned a wife, let alone a young son. But no, that peck on the cheek she bestowed on Amrothos, though affectionate enough, had nothing wifely about it.
Éomer realised that he was ogling her again and forced himself to look away. This had to stop. “She had two lively boys with her,” he remarked to Imrahil.
“Ah yes, my grandsons.” Imrahil smiled affectionately. “Scamps, both of them.”
Grandsons? So she was Amrothos’s wife after all. With sudden anger he remembered Amrothos flirting with every pretty woman that crossed his path at Cormallen. Was that why she had such a reserved manner?
Imrahil cleared his throat. “You’re probably wondering why we’ve never mentioned her before.”
Éomer tried hard to keep any trace of his anger out of his voice. “Not at all. It’s none of my business.”
His friend sighed. “The thing is, ever since her husband’s death, my daughter has been living a very quiet life with her aunt.”
Éomer choked on his wine. She was Imrahil’s daughter?
“My friend, are you all right?” Imrahil asked anxiously.
“I’m fine,” Éomer coughed. “Just something going down the wrong pipe.” It seemed to be a day of one shock after another. He really hoped this was the last one.
She was a widow. Of course, her grey clothes should have told him as much, dolt that he was. A sudden spark of joy ran through him, just as instantly followed by guilt. He should not rejoice at another man’s death, perhaps a brave swan knight, a brother in arms.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did I ever meet her husband?” He had got to know many of Imrahil’s men on their march to the Black Gate.
A shadow passed across his friend’s face. “No. It’s a long story, better told another time. But I think dinner is ready.”
At the table, Éomer was seated to Imrahil’s right, in the place of honour. Even though it was only a family meal, the occasion had a formal air, with a host of servants attending and guests sorting themselves out according to precedence. All except Lady Lothíriel, who took the seat opposite him, on her father’s other side, reserved for the highest ranking lady.
Éomer shot a quick look at Elphir’s wife. He had found that Gondorians set ridiculously great store by that kind of thing, so much so that sitting in the wrong chair could be the start of a life-long feud. However, Lady Aerin ignored this usurpation of her rightful place and instead sat next to him with a polite smile.
Imrahil was a genial host and the food excellent, as always. Conversation flowed easily, with Lady Aerin detailing some of the planned entertainments, Imrahil holding forth on the current political situation and Elphir promising a visit to one of the Dol Amroth galleys currently in port. At this point Amrothos chimed in with trying to entice him to go sailing with him, but Éomer wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to take his friend up on this offer.
Lady Lothíriel, he noticed, kept her contributions to the bare polite minimum. She had a standoffish air, holding the world at arm’s length. It was as if she didn’t quite fit into the family circle, and they all knew, but refused to acknowledge it.
Her muted grey clothes set her apart from Erchirion’s wife in bright primrose and Lady Aerin in a fresh spring green that made her copper ringlets shine. And while the other ladies had adorned themselves with beautiful but very delicate jewellery, she just wore that single massive golden torc. Even their eating knives were different: hers sharp and utilitarian, those of the other two prettily jewelled.
But it wasn’t just that, Éomer thought, observing her surreptitiously. Unlike her sisters-in-law and even her father and brothers, she stayed aware of her surroundings always. A reflexive vigilance that made her glance up when a servant entered the room and tense imperceptibly when one passed behind her chair. He wasn’t even sure if she was conscious of it herself or just did it instinctively.
He remembered the way she had frozen upon first catching sight of him. That had not been surprise, he realised in retrospect, she had checked if he constituted a threat. Then it hit him: she did not feel safe, even though this was her home.
The sudden mad impulse to assure her that nothing bad would ever happen to her, that he would protect her always, rushed through him. Éomer looked down at his plate. What had got into him? He really needed to get a grip on himself. He didn’t even know the woman, had not exchanged more than a few polite words with her. For the rest of the meal he grimly concentrated on his food and on talking to his host.
After dinner, they moved into an adjoining room, as was the custom in Gondor. Lady Aerin sat down at a harp and began to play softly, while the others settled in comfortable chairs and chatted. Éomer had resolved to sit as far away as possible from Lady Lothíriel, but that turned out to be unnecessary, as she slipped out quietly, presumably to redeem her promise to her son of a bedtime story.
Imrahil followed her with his eyes. “Éomer, my friend,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to discuss something with you. Could I have a moment of your time?”
“Of course,” Éomer agreed.
“Let’s go to the library,” his friend suggested.
This was a cosy room overlooking the Bay of Belfalas, with bookshelves lining the walls floor to ceiling. Of course no open flames were allowed near the precious books, but a brazier warmed the air and lamps shed their mellow light. On one of the walls hung a row of family portraits, the former Princes of Dol Amroth all looking very serious and staid. A single picture was different, a view of the castle from afar, fresh and bold, drawn in light colours instead of the dark oils.
Imrahil settled down in an enormous worn leather chair and waved him to another, then waited while a servant set down a tray with more wine and retired, softly closing the door behind him. Éomer found that somehow all three of Imrahil’s sons had chosen to come along as well, Elphir taking another chair and Erchirion and Amrothos leaning against the wall. What was this all about?
Imrahil handed him a glass of wine. “It concerns Lothíriel,” he said abruptly.
Éomer tensed. Had they noticed him staring at her? “Yes?”
“I have a favour to ask.”
On his guard, Éomer did not rush into any promises. “What is it?” Was this the same favour Lady Lothíriel had mentioned earlier?
Imrahil studied his glass. “In order to explain, it will be necessary for me to go into some painful family history. Please bear with me.” He took a deep breath. “You asked about Lothíriel’s husband earlier on. He was the King of Harad.”
“What?” Éomer was glad he had not tried the wine yet, or he would have choked again. Surely he had misheard. “Did you say…?”
His face grim, Imrahil nodded. “Yes. The King of Harad.”
Éomer could only stare at him stupidly as the words sank in. It was one shock too many. “How?” he croaked.
“Denethor,” Amrothos spat.
His father sent him a frown. “Yes, it was the Steward’s doing, but we all have our share of the guilt.” He turned to Éomer again. “Nine years ago the Haradrim sent an ambassador to Gondor, offering a peace treaty in exchange for a high-born bride for their crown prince. Denethor agreed.”
Anger flashed through Éomer. “You forced her to marry one of those fiends?” He could not believe it.
Imrahil’s mouth twisted into a thin line. “We did no such thing. I tried to stop her, but Lothíriel was absolutely determined to go through with it.”
At his look of disbelief, Amrothos gave a bitter laugh. “You’ve never met our dear Steward. The man could have convinced you that jumping off the Tower of Ecthelion was for your own good.”
“It was all settled before I even knew of it.” Imrahil sighed. “Oh, not all the details, but the choice of bride. Lothíriel was afire with the idea of buying peace for her country.”
“You’re her father, you could have refused the match,” Éomer shot back.
Imrahil lowered his head. “Yes. But breaking our word would have meant immediate war with Harad. We could not afford that.”
And so he had sold his daughter into virtual slavery. Éomer felt sick. No wonder she was so wary after what had to be years of abuse. He yearned to kill somebody, with the Harad King his first choice, but Denethor close behind. Unfortunately they were both dead. He was too late – years too late.
Imrahil took up the story again. “Erchirion travelled with her to the City of Serpents and saw her married, and then she just disappeared. The Haradrim do not allow their royal ladies any outside contact. Only once did we receive a letter, informing us of the birth of Tarcil.” His voice cracked. “A single sign of life in six years and that a formal announcement from her husband.”
“So how did you rescue her?” It had to be hundreds of leagues to the City of Serpents, how had they ever managed that?
“We didn’t,” Amrothos answered.
“In the summer two years ago, we got a message that she was in Pelargir,” Imrahil explained with a frown. “Lothíriel was not very clear how she had escaped, and of course it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to talk about it. Her husband succeeded to the crown after the old king’s death, but he actually held it only very briefly, less than a year, before he was assassinated on the orders of his own brother.”
A fitting end for the brute. Éomer only regretted that this had robbed him of the opportunity to cut down the man on the Pelennor Fields himself.
“After her husband’s death, Lothíriel took her son and fled north, managing to somehow make it to safety by sheer luck. She had help from one of her husband’s retainers.” Imrahil hesitated. “A woman warrior actually. I have to admit she makes my men nervous, but what can I do, Lothíriel insists we owe her Tarcil’s life.”
Éomer gave a curt nod. “I’ve met her.” The woman would make anybody nervous.
“Soon after that the war started and we were called to Minas Tirith,” Imrahil continued. He sighed. “I did not have as much time to devote to my daughter as I wished. She’s found it difficult to settle back in here, to take up her old life.”
Éomer bit down on a sharp reply. The Haradrim had a reputation for cruelty. Her family could hardly expect her to simply forget years of having to endure that. But it was pointless saying so and would only add to his friend’s guilt.
“My aunt Ivriniel convinced her to go and live with her up the coast in Edhellond, for a bit,” Elphir put in. “It’s quieter there, and we thought female company would be good for her.”
“Did it work?”
“No,” Amrothos snapped. “Nothing works. She just won’t talk, won’t tell us what that fiend of a husband did to her.”
“Peace, Amrothos,” Imrahil intervened. “Lothíriel and him are twins, they used to be very close,” he explained to Éomer. “But her time amongst the Haradrim has changed her.” He made a helpless gesture. “At times I feel like I do not know her anymore. I understand that she will not talk disparagingly of her husband in front of Tarcil. After all it would be cruel to shatter the boy’s rather idealistic image of his father. But also when it’s just the two of us, she doesn’t open up. Why, at first she even used to defend the man.”
“And she refuses to take off that golden torc the man yoked her with,” Amrothos said.
Grim silence descended.
“What is the favour you want from me?” Éomer asked abruptly. Did they want Rohan’s assistance in a war against Harad? That he would give with pleasure. Let those beasts learn to fear the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark.
“We would like you to offer her your protection in Edoras for a while,” Imrahil answered.
“What? Why do you want that?”
“The whole situation is highly problematic,” Imrahil said. “You see, with his father’s death Tarcil has become the rightful King of Harad, and Lothíriel of course would be the Queen Dowager.”
Éomer lifted an eyebrow. “Surely those are empty titles?”
Elphir took a sip of his wine. “Not so empty. Technically my sister outranks every other lady in Gondor except for Queen Arwen. It’s rather awkward.”
Éomer wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. They worried about that kind of thing? “That’s why you want me to take her away?” He was tempted to carry her off that very moment.
Imrahil frowned at his eldest son. “Of course not. Anyway, Lothíriel has no wish to join the court at Minas Tirith. But the fact remains that when he comes of age, Tarcil will by right be the absolute ruler of Harad.”
Amrothos sighed. “She’s been worrying that the Haradrim might suddenly take an interest in him again.”
An interest presumably meaning an attempt to kidnap or get rid of the boy. “Does she have any grounds for worry?”
Imrahil shrugged. “We still occasionally trade with them, and there have been reports of a new ruler there. However, personally I feel that she’s overreacting. Not surprising, really, after the ordeal she’s been through.” He rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking old and tired. “I was hoping it might ease her mind to be in different surroundings, a place that holds no painful memories of happier times. Somewhere she can forget everything and become her old self again.”
It seemed a futile hope to Éomer. Some things, once broken, could not be made whole again, only mended as best as possible. But for friendship’s sake, he was willing to help in any way he could.
He opened his mouth to say as much when there came a knock on the door to the library.
A moment later Lady Lothíriel entered. Her cool grey eyes took them all in. Éomer wondered if he looked as guilty as the others at being caught discussing her.
“Deciding my future, Father?” she asked in a mild voice and swept across the room to the table to pour herself a glass of wine. Again, hung in the air.
“Of course not, dearest,” Imrahil stuttered. “I was just setting out the situation.”
Her mouth tightened. “I see.”
Éomer belatedly remembered his manners and jumped up to offer her his chair. However, she shook her head.
“My lord,” she said, “as I mentioned earlier on, I meant to talk to you. But it seems my family has forestalled me.”
“Only to spare you painful explanations,” Imrahil interjected.
Éomer had never seen his friend so rattled before. At another time it might have been amusing, but he could fully sympathise. She really had the manner of a queen, holding herself straight as a drawn blade.
He cleared his throat, determined to prove that he could lead a rational conversation with her and not sound like a simpleton. “My lady, your father was saying that you wished to visit Rohan for a while?”
The look she turned upon him was a lot more friendly than that she had bestowed upon her family. “Yes, that is so, my lord king. You would oblige me very much if you extended your hospitality to Tarcil and me. But I assure you that otherwise you need not concern yourself with us at all, I just want to…” She hesitated. “…to get away from this coast and its traders.”
“You are worried about your boy?”
“Yes. Some people might call me fanciful.” She shot a look at her father and brothers. “But my aunt is no fool and she keeps her ears open. She says there have been questions asked in the harbour, both here and up the coast in Edhellond, where we live. That’s why I believe it would be best for us to disappear from sight for a while.”
Éomer made up his mind. “My lady, you’re welcome to stay in the Mark for as long as you wish.”
That earned him a warm smile. “You’re very kind. When would it be convenient for me to come?”
“Any time,” he answered reflexively. Why, for that smile he would have set out with her that very moment.
She blinked. “Oh. In that case, if you don’t mind, I will join you when you return to Rohan at the end of the week.”
He was surprised, but gave a polite bow. “If you wish so, of course.”
“So soon?” Imrahil asked, startled. “Dearest, I thought that perhaps Amrothos could take you there later in the year. Remember, it will still be chilly in the mountains and also you have to pack your things.”
“I can extend my stay here a few days if you need more time to get ready,” Éomer offered.
“Not at all,” she answered. “And in fact I would appreciate your and your men’s company on the journey.” She looked towards Amrothos and they seemed to understand each other without any words exchanged.
Her brother inclined his head. “I’ll sail you to Edhellond on the morning tide.”
“Good.” She nodded decisively and turned to her father. “May I leave Tarcil here while I go and collect our things? You’ll keep an eye on him?”
“Of course, dearest, but–”
“That’s settled then.” She swept Éomer a deep curtsy. “Thank you very much, my lord king. I assure you, we will be no burden to you. All I want is to live quietly; we will not disturb you in the least.”
He wasn’t so sure about the last, she had disturbed him plenty already. But he gave another bow. “You could never be a burden, my lady.”
Another dazzling smile, this time even spilling over onto her family, and she left. Éomer slowly released his breath, feeling a bit stunned. He sincerely hoped that the effect she had on him would fade with time and exposure.
Silence descended, only broken by a soft crackle from the brazier.
Erchirion, who had said nothing all this time and just stood leaning against a bookcase, looking indifferent and aloof, suddenly smashed his fist against the wall. They all jumped.
“Six years,” he ground out. “Six years she bought us. Three more than Denethor had reckoned on.”
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