Burning Bright - Part 2

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'Burning Bright'

 

2. The Councils

Ost-in-Edhil


“…and he has shown an interest both in your health and in Celebrimbor’s city, Normally I would suggest he travel south to visit you, but reports make me reluctant to send the Valar’s messenger on such a potentially dangerous journey. I must therefore request that you visit Mithlond instead. It has been some time since you were last here and you are, as always, greatly missed.

This brings me to another cause for concern, the growing lack of official communication between Eregion and Lindon. Since Aldarion first brought me word of the new aggression in the east and the rise of a mysterious lord, there have been increasing disturbances along the coast and on the fringes of the Misty Mountains. Yet in a time when I sense it is imperative that elven-kind stands together, Ost-in-Edhil grows ever more inward looking…”


Galadriel sat with straight-backed elegance and watched Celebrimbor pace the room with the letter she had thrust at him almost as he walked in the door. He finally came to a halt with his back to the window, still reading aloud from the sheet of expensive paper. He had arrived breathing fire at what he termed the imperious tone of Galadriel’s summons, and his posture and the expression on his face suggested the past few minutes had done nothing to ease his temper.

Pale sunlight slanted in through tall windows, bringing out the red lights in his hair and adding richness to the colours in the reception room. She had chosen the furnishings for the public part of the house carefully in a deliberate attempt to impress their guests. The drapes were gold-flecked scarlet, the paintings on the walls the work of respected artists. The furniture had been crafted to her personal specifications, the carvings intricate, the dark wood polished to a warm glow with scented beeswax. Even the intricately-woven rug on the floor had been brought from the east by a trader passing through on his way to Mithlond.

She had managed to keep quiet till now, but as he paused to scan ahead, impatience overtook her. “What in Arda do I tell my nephew that won’t make him even more suspicious than he is already? I will not lie for you, Brim, I told you that at the outset.”

“Tell your nephew to give your regards to his guest and that you have no time right now for idle gossip or long, chatty letters. Tell him you’re preparing for a visit to Tharbad, or Lorien or – somewhere equally boring.”

The cool, slightly haughty drawl sounded so like his father and several of his uncles that she had to grit her teeth to avoid saying as much. Any comparison to his father brought out the worst in her cousin. Frowning she said instead, “My nephew also happens to be High King of our people and your overlord. This was worded politely because I’m his aunt and he’s fond of me, but it still holds a warning. We should have told him when we first suspected who we were dealing with. Left this late, it looks as though…”

A muscle in Celebrimbor’s jaw twitched. “How many times have we gone over this, Galadriel? Endlessly. The threat is to Eregion alone, not Lindon or any of the smaller elven settlements. It remains our problem, and we can deal with it without crying to the High King for help.”

“Deal with it?” Her head jerked up, she had to force herself to stay seated. “Look around you. Where is the army, where are the seasoned warriors for when he sends the might of the east against us? Realism, Cousin, not fantasies. We will deal with this – how?”

She fully expected him to shout, but his voice was calm where hers had been raised, his eyes steady. “We have no army, but we need no army. We will go on with the work and when they reach us, there will be a wall around Eregion, an impenetrable barrier, held in place by the power of the Three and the will of their bearers.” He folded the letter and began tapping it idly against his hand. “No need for your nephew to get involved. In fact, if the reports I hear are even half accurate, nothing short of Lindon’s entire army would be enough, and I very much doubt Ereinion would leave his own borders undefended to aid us.”

Galadriel stared at him, finally realising he meant every word. The size of the force being mustered against them was disquieting news, but she had heard the rest before, more than once, and had put it down to bravado, words spoken to reassure his inner circle who might otherwise start packing for Lindon, thereby sparking a panic. There was no likelihood of her doing so. Before they grasped the full horror of the rage they had unleashed, she had been persuaded against her better judgement to keep Eregion’s business from Lindon, and she always kept her word. She would not go behind his back to anyone, not even Gil.

She tried to order her thoughts, to keep this from turning into yet another of their arguments. Celeborn always said she played into Celebrimbor’s hands, that losing control when they disagreed gave him the advantage. “We both know what happened the last time we tried to recreate Melian’s girdle,” she reminded him quietly. “Our efforts bore no resemblance to what I recall from my time in Menegroth, there are too many variables, the skill has been lost. And even caught unawares, he still sensed us, he could still show us his face – his true face.”

The cavern housing Celebrimbor’s workshop and forge, elves in a circle around a star etched in chalk on the floor, the circle lit by braziers placed at intervals, leaving the corners beyond the forge masked in gloom. Standing in the centre with Brim and with Tolfaen, wearing the new rings, Brim’s great work, while those forming the circle bore the earlier rings, the workings that had led up to the creation of the Three. Raising a cone of power from the earth, reaching out beyond the cavern, using the Three to direct the power, trying to weave a circle of mist and light around the city.

Darkness, red-lit, a face they all knew, the master craftsman who had guided so much of the work… hair of shining gold, compelling eyes, leaf-green shot with sunlight… then the lines of the strikingly handsome image wavering, changing, remaking themselves into the red-blond hair and black eyes of Morgoth’s lieutenant, Sauron Gorthaur of the many names. The smile… as she watched in horror with the eyes of her mind, she saw that the smile alone remained the same - mocking, intimate, hinting at all manner of sinful pleasures and illicit joys.

He held out an elegant hand, drawing attention to the plain band of gold that encircled the middle finger, and the smile deepened as he gestured and the barrier they had been trying to build shattered and splintered like glass, brittle and cutting as the laughter she heard in her mind, as they all heard in their minds…


She stepped back from the memory, shuddering at the still lingering sense of something oily and overripe brushing against her will. Celebrimbor was watching her. For a moment his grey eyes slid to her mouth, then returned to meet hers. “We weren’t ready,” he said. “This time will be different. We know who – what - we’re facing now, and the rings are stronger, we’ve had time to prepare.”

“Knowing won’t help, not against one of the Maiar, not against Morgoth’s protégée. He’s studied things most right-thinking Maiar barely know exist, and now he has an army of southern men and their necromancers, trained by him in who knows what arts of darkness…” She made no effort to hide either exasperation or unease.

“Mortals,” Celebrimbor said shortly and his lip curled. “I think we can deal with a few mortals with the bare rudiments of the thing they call magic. And an army is all very well, but it would have to find us first and the borders of Eregion will soon be a mass of shadows and whispers, mists that come and go, paths that turn back in on themselves.”

“Oh, you should have told me you’d managed to conjure Melian,” Galadriel retorted, unable resist sarcasm. “Have a care though, she’s fickle as fate and only stays so long as your interests coincide with hers.”

They glared at one another until Celebrimbor broke the impasse with a gusty sigh. “Look, I know you think we’re about to be overrun by evil easterners and die, but I founded this city and while I am lord here we will do it my way. Never forget, Cousin, that while you live here, you answer to me.”

The chair rocked back as she shot to her feet. “Gods, you sound just like your grandfather, and we know where that got him, don’t we? Power drunk doesn’t suit you, Cousin.” She had a momentary thought that it was as well they were almost of a height; looking up would have ruined the effect.

”You – need to watch your mouth,” he breathed, his hand closing around her upper arm. He shook her, not hard but enough for her almost to lose her footing. “And not a word of any of this to your damn nephew. We will do it my way in my realm, understood?”

“Take your hand off me,” Galadriel snapped, pulling back from him. “There’s no need to act like a barbarian, he’ll hear nothing from me. But the letter has to be answered. Perhaps I could send Celebrían to Lindon with my reply. She can greet Glorfindel for me and she’s too young for them to think she has any useful information.” Her voice softened.“I’d – rather my daughter was well away from here before anything more happens…”

Celebrimbor gave her a final shake before releasing her. “She stays,” he said flatly. “She stays, your husband stays, you stay. All of you. If either of them crosses into Lindon, Ereinion will think the worst, especially if you stay behind. You promised me your silence and I am holding you – and your family – to it.”

Her arm was throbbing but she refused to let him see he had hurt her. They shared a set of unspoken rules, one of which involved showing no weakness. She and Celebrimbor had clashed regularly for years, though it was rare for the confrontation to become physical. Children of the House of Finwë and each other’s equal in pride, they maintained an uneasy balance between exasperation, respect and a tension that whispered of something elemental, untamed. “The stupid part is, you’re playing with all our lives for the sake of your ego and there’s no need, just a simple letter…”

“Did he write to anyone else? I heard nothing from him.”

“Well, I don’t imagine he had much to say to you,” Galadriel pointed out. “Last time you were downright rude to his messenger.”

Celebrimbor laughed shortly. “That extra tax on wheat was an attack on our autonomy. You said so yourself, I just used smaller words. “

They shared a brief look of accord at the memory, then he stepped back from her and went to retrieve his cloak lying over the back of a chair. “We’ll try building the barrier one last time. All right? If it’s necessary after that, we can talk again, but for now we have no need of Lindon, or untimely visits from resurrected heroes.”

There had been a note enclosed for Erestor, but that was not something Celebrimbor needed to know. When her former aide received letters hidden within her own mail from Mithlond, she asked no questions, simply passed them on to him. Sometimes he shared the contents, sometimes not. In turn, he would at times hand her a sealed note with the request that she include it next time she wrote to Gil-galad.

She might be constrained from personally discussing the degenerating situation in Eregion, but nothing stopped her from facilitating the flow of that information through other means.
 

~*~*~*~


Taking advantage of the sunshine and lack of wind, Erestor was spending the afternoon outdoors. Galadriel’s garden was designed as a wilderness area, where artfully placed wind chimes of metal and wood mingled with the sounds of birdcall to create what she called a peaceful ambiance. Erestor supposed she knew what she meant. To his mind the birds could be raucous, and the chimes jangled ominously in the wind, especially when you lived in the guest cottage and the hour was late and moonless.

Currently he sat on a bench under a tree whose leaves still clung tenuously to its branches, pretending to read what was proving a cloyingly sycophantic account of King Fingolfin’s reign. Artifice was veering dangerously close to reality; he was at risk of turning into a serious scholar. Elrond would be impressed, assuming Erestor ever got back home to tell him. The Half-elven prince loved ancient lore and history, not surprising as his family featured so prominently in both.

There was no sound, but a sensation not unlike the pause before a summer storm made his skin prickle and heralded Galadriel’s approach. She came towards him with quick strides, her blue gown with its pretty pattern of silver leaves silently brushing the tops of the grass. Her expression lightened just before she reached him and she smiled up at the big tree behind him. “Still holding onto your summer gown, my friend?” she asked it fondly. “No use fighting the passage of time, the snow will come whether you will it or no.”

Erestor wondered who else’s benefit that was for, his own or hers. Though yes, she talked to trees, he knew that, and to other growing things. A princess of the Noldor to her fingertips, still she could almost pass for a woodelf in at least some of her ways. He wondered if it was her husband’s influence, but thought not. Galadriel was who she was. “I thought I heard Celebrimbor’s voice?” he asked, making space for her on the bench. “It’s not often he manages to come calling without Celeborn also being present.”

Forward, yes, but Erestor had known her since the dark days on Balar and knew how far he could go. She arranged her skirts, rolling her eyes. “Oh yes, he was here. We talked, we disagreed, he left.” She reached over and turned the book in his lap to see the title and gave a small snort of amusement before holding out a folded missive. “Flowers sprung up at his feet, yes. This came. I looked for you earlier but they said you were out riding. If there’s a reply you need to be swift, and I don’t promise the courier won’t be searched. As I said, my cousin and I disagreed. Strongly.”

“I rode up to the dwarf road and back,” he explained, taking the letter and idly turning it over while he watched two birds engage in loud jostling on the rim of the stone bird bath. Arvarad’s occasional notes, tucked in with letters sent to the first lady of the Noldor by her dutiful nephew the High King, were always impersonal and to the point, Time and recent events had left him uncomfortable about asking for news of Gil, he was no longer sure he had a right. “You’ll have had a proper letter – is everything all right at home?”

“He’s all right, Erestor. Everyone we know seems to be getting on with their lives as they should,” she replied absently, watching the avian argument with a small smile. “No, there was an – unusual situation. Ereinion needed to pass on greetings from someone I never thought to hear from again this side of the Sea.”

“Oh?” It dawned on Erestor that for once Galadriel was more interested in the contents of her own letter than in his.

She nodded. “Apparently the Valar haven’t forgotten about us after all, they just went about their business and left us to get on with things here for the last fifteen hundred years. Now they’ve sent a small token of their concern.”

Erestor waited, fascinated to see the Lady apparently at a loss for words. He had not encountered this before and doubted many others had either.

“You’re familiar with the story of the fall of Gondolin?” she asked unexpectedly.

Caught off balance, he nodded, puzzled.. “Yes of course, aren’t we all? I was a child in Sirion when the survivors arrived, I heard about it first hand I don’t know how many times.”

“Good, well then you’ll remember Glorfindel, won’t you?”

Erestor blinked. “Yes, of course. He held back the Balrog so the refugees using Princess Idril’s secret route out of Gondolin had a chance to escape. Why?”

“They sent him back,” she said succinctly.

Erestor turned the words around, looking for a hidden meaning. Galadriel was fond of riddles, though she was seldom quite this obscure. “Sorry… they what?”

“Not a metaphor, no. They rehoused his fëa and sent him back to warn us trouble was brewing – as if we couldn’t guess - and to lend us what aid he can. What one more warrior could do I have no idea, but then I never pretended to follow the wisdom of the Valar.” Her voice dripped sarcasm and the corner of her mouth twitched briefly. “I get the impression they have no idea what to do about him in Mithlond,” she added with a hint of amusement. “He has that yellow-haired, blue-eyed look the poets make such a fuss about though, so at least he’ll decorate the court prettily while they decide.”

“You knew him, Lady?” Erestor was impressed in spite of himself. The story of the great warrior buying time with his life so that the few hundred survivors of the ruin of Gondolin could escape had always appealed to his imagination and what his sister teased him was his romantic side.

Galadriel nodded, her eyes following a squirrel’s progress up a nearby tree trunk. “We’ll have to start putting out food for them to store for winter,” she remarked. “It’s been left late, Celeborn says these are the last of the warm days now And yes, I knew him quite well. He was kin to Turgon’s wife, Elenwë, so after their marriage he became one of us. I tried to talk him out of following Turgon to his refuge from reality, but he had this – loyalty to him and Idril after Elenwë died. I think he felt he should look after them for her…”

Her voice trailed off and she watched as two more squirrels came down to investigate the lawn. When she spoke again her tone was brisk. “Well, that’s all long in the past. He came with us, he followed Turgon, he fought in the Tears, he died in the Fall. And now someone has seen fit to send him back here. I suppose I’ll work out why eventually.” She sounded annoyed.

“A symbol? Could they have meant him as an… omen of some kind?” Erestor suggested. He had been reading about signs and symbols quite recently and it was fresh in his mind. Plus, it made a twisted kind of sense.

Galadriel quirked an eyebrow at him in a way so like Celeborn that he wondered who had taken the habit from whom in that tight-knit partnership. “What, to tell us we live in dangerous times? We’ve been living in dangerous times since we crossed the Ice, we hardly need an oracle.”

“There were other, greater heroes that day.” Erestor mused. “There were unbelievable stories, like Lord Ecthelion’s, but only a handful saw his death first hand. Whereas all the survivors saw Glorfindel’s final battle, every one of them could and did credit him with their lives.”

“So his name is best known, his story resonates” She frowned, considering the idea.

“Best known, yes,” he agreed, shaking black hair back over his shoulder. “But I don’t know that they intended this as a mark of doom... He overcame a Balrog, remember. Perhaps they meant his return as a sign of hope?”

Mithlond


He was given one of the guest suites at the Academy, which everyone pretended was a temporary measure until he found his feet and was ready to cross the strait to his natural destination, the palace. Glorfindel, who liked his rooms and felt at home in the quiet of South Mithlond, was in no hurry to move. He was a bit concerned by hints of tension between Gil-galad and Círdan on the subject until Elrond explained the King had been fostered in the Shore Lord’s household and that they often competed, rather as one saw between fathers and sons.

Elrond had come over on the ferry almost daily since his arrival, taking it upon himself to bring Glorfindel up to date on the history of Middle-earth since Gondolin’s end. Glorfindel enjoyed the visits, finding in Elrond not only good company, but also a link between past and present. The Half-elf’s level gaze reminded him of Idril, as did something about the way he walked. And he had Tuor’s hands. The rest – the grey eyes and web-fine hair, the quicksilver movements and winsome smile - he assumed came from Elwing, though he soon found that while Elrond was happy to share any amount of general gossip, he preferred not to discuss his own past.

It was from Círdan that he learned how Fëanor’s sons had swooped on Eärendil’s settlement while he was at sea, causing Elwing to flee, leaving her young sons to their fate. All Aman knew what had become of Thingol’s Silmaril, and it was true Elwing was rumoured to be strange and fey, though he found it hard to believe a mother would leave her children to die. The image of cynical, dark-humoured Maglor raising the twins fascinated Glorfindel, but there was no one to satisfy his curiosity besides Elrond, so he let it be.

Gil-galad had chosen to let it be known the Valar had sent the reborn hero back to Endor to share the benefit of his wisdom and experience; people, he said, always preferred simple explanations to mystery. Glorfindel had his private instructions, of course, but right now they seemed to involve waiting, so if the king wanted to portray him as an advisor, he could hardly do worse than he had in Gondolin. There, his suspicions and concerns had fallen on deaf ears, Turgon being disinclined to heed any voice that ran counter to his will.

He had been in Mithlond a scant ten days, when he was summoned to attend his first meeting of the king’s Council. A rather over-awed young warrior was sent to escort him over to the palace where, still attuned to Gondolin’s formality, he was surprised to find himself directed to an average-sized room with a mundane view of the palace’s central courtyard. An oval table surrounded by simple chairs took up much of the room, with a scribe’s station occupying a corner. A detailed map covered most of one wall above a sideboard holding a bowl of fruit, stacked cups, jugs of water and a wine decanter. It was all very businesslike and bore no resemblance to its counterpart in Gondolin or the ornate King’s Hall in Tirion.

He said as much to Elrond, who grinned. “Gil-galad’s idea of a council chamber. He reckoned these are meant to be working sessions, so he wanted somewhere without distractions. No fancy sea view or anything like that. What was it like in Gondolin?”

They were standing at one of the windows and he was watching a handcart being hauled bumpily along by a leather-clad mortal. A second was pushing from behind, the load balanced precariously between them. There was a good deal of yelling back and forth going on, the whole rather fitting his impressions thus far of Mithlond: brash, loud, utterly alive and somewhat alien to a former citizen of Gondolin, newly arrived from the Undying Lands..

“My father took me to a few meetings in Tirion, but all I remember is King Finwë lecturing his nobles. I suppose he must have asked for advice sometimes.” He doubted it. “Gondolin though. The room was bigger, there were stone benches facing the throne in a half circle and big iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Marble looks impressive but it’s no fun sitting on it for hours - the cushions could have been thicker. We’d speak in turn and then Turgon would decide who had to do what and when.”

“Sounds pretty,” Elrond said dubiously. “Did he listen or…?”

“Agriculture, manufacture, yes. He never pretended to be an expert on those. He was more interested in civil order and the army.”

“Civil order?” Elrond looked puzzled.

“Well, yes. I have no idea what you’d call it. Making sure people conform to the city’s rules, that they do the work expected of them?”

Elrond frowned. “Mainly f you don’t conform here, people talk about you and point at you on the street? And if you do something really heinous, you’re banished to one of the northern settlements. Though I suppose that wasn’t practical for Gondolin.”

Glorfindel preferred not to discuss Gondolin’s approach to crimes, heinous or other. Things had been more open in Vinyamar, but then Turgon and his father had never agreed on anything, including how to run a city. He always suspected at least part of Turgon’s decision to heed Ulmo’s offer of a safe place for his followers was a need to put his theories into practice. Though even Vinyamar had lacked the casual freedom that seemed to permeate Mithlond.

“We were living so close to one another,” he offered by way of explanation. “Most of the land was given over to farming – intensive farming at that – and the city was crowded. Not much space for individuality.”

Elrond’s expression suggested he might not have enjoyed living in his great-grandfather’s kingdom, but people had been drifting into the room while they talked, and Gil-galad had just arrived, his presence heralded by a burst of laughter from the small group walking in with him. He looked less formal than Glorfindel expected of a king about to preside over a sitting of his council, but it fitted the room and everything Elrond had said about his royal cousin.

Gil-galad hailed him cheerfully. “Well, my lord. I hope you’ve taken advantage of the good weather to look around Mithlond?” He strode over as he spoke and placed a hand on Glorfindel’s shoulder. “My lords? Those of you who have not yet made Lord Glorfindel’s acquaintance might like to stay for a cup of wine after we’ve finished?” To Glorfindel he added quietly, “Give them a chance to stare at you for an hour and get it out their systems. You don’t mind, do you?”

Glorfindel wondered, amused, what would happen if he said yes he did mind, very much indeed, and shook his head. “I look forward to meeting everyone,” he said, raising his voice so it carried. A little charm couldn’t hurt.

There was no immediate calling of the group to order; everyone wandered in, greeted friends, some helped themselves to water, one tall, thin elf decided on wine, but he drank alone. Círdan arrived last with a brief apology all round and a nod of greeting to Glorfindel with whom he had breakfasted earlier. Eventually they were all seated, Glorfindel to Elrond’s left, most with sheaves of paper or documents of some sort before them. Seated on the king’s right, Arvarad, the elf with the wine, rapped briskly on the table.

“Is everyone ready to begin? Good. Your Majesty?”

Gil-galad was writing on a sheet of paper, using a stick of graphite. Still busy he said, “Let’s get the main one out of the way first. What can you tell us about the state of the grain reserves, Critholhan?”

The words were addressed to a square-faced elf with light hair seated diagonally across from Glorfindel. There was no rising and bowing to the monarch as had been the custom in Gondolin. Instead the councillor shuffled papers and then launched into a monologue about quantities, projected consumption and general winter preparedness.

When he had finished Arvarad glanced around and said in a bored voice, ”The floor is open.” This led to an immediate flood of questions about vermin control and last year’s flooded roads, the latter subject aimed at someone whose name Glorfindel missed and whose responsibility this apparently was.

Finally the torrent of words tapered off and Arvarad swept his eyes around the table again. “Any more questions? No?” He looked across at the scribe’s station. “Got all that, you two? Very well. Next we’ll hear from…” He paused, his head inclined to the king, who spoke briefly to him. “… from Lord Súlfalas regarding the state of the roads in general this time, not just the grain route.”

Each councillor made his weekly report and was questioned with a degree of freedom unlike anything Glorfindel had ever seen.. Ereinion Gil-galad mainly stayed out of the question and answer sessions, in fact Glorfindel suspected they sometimes forgot he was there, which might well have been his intention.

At the end, responding to a nod from the king, Arvarad said, “As to matters in Eregion… Briefly, I’ve sent to Ost-in-Edhil for further news, but it will take another week or two for the messenger to return…”

“What more do we know about the stranger, Annatar?” the member who oversaw the Merchant’s Guild interrupted, to general sounds of assent.

Arvarad frowned and leaned forward with his elbows on the table, his fingers steepled. “So far as we know, Annatar is still absent,” he said, “There was no word as to when he might return and I’m told the city is preparing for possible trouble from roving bands of easterners. As I said, we’ll learn more soon enough.”

“I’ve also written directly to my aunt, though how much she’s at liberty to say is anyone’s guess,” Gil-galad volunteered, putting down his graphite.

Glorfindel looked at him, startled. “You think she might be in some danger?” he asked. “And the city?” Ost-in-Edhil had featured in Olorin’s briefing.

Gil-galad shook his head. “It would take more than Celebrimbor to threaten my aunt,” he said with certainty, “but I do suspect she defers to him in matters of policy.”

“If the Lady is constrained, does that leave us solely dependant on your informant in Ost-in-Edhil then, Arvarad?” Critholhan asked sharply. Beside him, Glorfindel heard Elrond sigh and mutter something under his breath and restrained a smile.

Arvarad offered a sour look. “There are scouts out in Eregion and beyond gathering information too, but these things take time...”

“Until we know more, we’ll carry on as usual,” Gil-galad said, his tone decisive. He got to his feet while he was speaking, folding and passing his notes to Arvarad. The subject, and the meeting, were closed.

Looking out at the mountains behind the city with his second cup of wine in hand and the sounds of the reception going on around him, Glorfindel considered the day’s events. He found it interesting, intriguing even, that this less formalised social system and style of kingship did not lead to unending chaos, but instead gave the appearance of working quite well. Sipping his wine, he decided that although he missed Elsúrië with a quiet, persistent ache, this seemed a good place to serve the future of his people. How he would fulfil the purpose he had been charged with was still unclear, but until fate’s next stroke, he was unlikely to be bored.

~*~*~*~*~

Part 3

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