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King Culprit

Chapter Two

Ricardo de Cherte tossed back his head and laughed. Nevada had that Stornium being led around by the nose. He finished his drink and got up. Soon the Graf would reveal Waytorn's location and the band of killers in the Royal Athexian Inn would depart for whatever hole Waytorn had crawled into.

He made his way up the grand staircase and down the hall to listen outside her door. They were talking now. Not surprising, men were always vulnerable afterwards. He went to his room down the hall and waited for the knock that was sure to come. When it did, she opened the door and was careful not to slam it behind her.

"The waterfront. Northport. A warship called the Icicle," she said quickly and left.

Ricardo grabbed his bandoleer of daggers and slid out the window. By the time he reached the alley below, several others were also on their way down to join him. They headed down the street, one of them feigning drunkenness and they sang rowdy songs as they dragged him along towards Northport, passing a covered carriage as they went.

One red haired man stuck his head out and grinned. When he stuck his head back in, Ricardo heard him say, "Looks like they're going fishing down at the docks!"

Inspired, Rades thought. Of all the ships he could have picked, he picked the Icicle. The biggest warship in the harbour and belonging to the ex-pirate captain, now an admiral Savin. And what about it's crew? Five hundred cutthroats strong? Kiss those Chertens good-bye!

He stood and looked around. Feigning sleep was the chance they had both needed. She could tell her friends down in the barroom and lobby, and he could snoop around up here. He started by going into one of the other rooms and snooping through the drawers in a cabinet. Clothes, a couple pieces of lingerie most women would be embarrassed to be seen in, nothing more. The oaken trunk revealed a hoard of gems, a few daggers, and several bottles of wine from Casa Azul, wherever that is? He doubt there was anything under the bed, but checked anyway. A fine steel sword, finer than any steel one he'd seen before.

Before he could examine the sword in the light he heard foot steps coming down the hallway and he quickly ran back to the couch, feigning sleep. The door creaked open and he looked up, acting surprised as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He looked around as if realizing where he was and back at her. "Guten morgen!"

"You didn't sleep that long, senor. Barely a minute. There's a rumour about some kind of message from Avolic that arrived on some machine. Hard to believe isn't it?" she asked. "No, not really. Mathex invented it. It would appear that I missed the message. It was 'Long live the Monarchy', correct?"

"Yes, but there was a second part of the message. Avolic is burning."

"What?" shouted Rades, jumping to his feet. "The city's burning? What happened? I have to get to the palace!"

"Why?" she asked innocently.

Why indeed? What could he do? He was supposed to be here, distracting Nevada and seducing a seductress. "You're right," he said, crossing the room quickly. His arms wrapped around her. "I'd only add to the confusion and be of no help anyway." He reached inside her cloak and felt her soft flesh with eager hands. The cloak slipped to the ground as she leaned forward and met his lips with hers. "Much better to stay here, don't you think?" he murmured.

Nevada wrapped an arm around him and led him towards the bedroom. "Of course. You don't happen to know where Waytorn was going, do you? I'd really like to buy that emerald!"

"Of course, but you have to promise me not to tell anybody!" he warned. She nodded. "He's going south to Goved where he has a town house. No one will look for him there!" He smiled. "Now it's your turn to tell me something," he said, pointing to the scar on her shoulder. "What happened?"

"Accident when I was little-"

"That's funny, it looks like a knife scar," Rades interrupted. He was right too and they both knew it. The scar was too straight and deep to be anything else. She'd been stabbed there.

"Well, let me examine some of your scars," she said, pushing him gently onto the bed. She sat down beside him and started counting.

Rades reached under the bed and pulled the sword from it's case. "What's this?" he asked, holding it up for her to see. "Are you a warrior?"

Nevada paled. "Of course not, silly! It's a gift for my brother when I get home!" She reached forward to take it from him.

"But it isn't made in Athex!" Rades protested, pointing to the markings on the hilt. "This is Cherten steel!" He saw her reach into one of her pillows and he snapped the sword up so it was under her chin. "Take your hand out of the pillow!" he ordered. "Slowly!"

Nevada was very pale now. She looked like she was going to cry as she slowly withdrew her hand with a silver dirk resting in her palm. She gulped and looked at him with doe eyes.

"Throw it aside," Rades ordered. She tossed it over by the oak trunk. "Has it occurred to you that I've been seduced before? Did it cross your mind that I might reverse the role and learn about you? Did you ever once think that I was bait, a distraction and a spy? Get up!" he shouted. She stood up obediently. Rades came around the bed and faced her. He reached inside the cabinet and tossed her a white gown. "Put it on."

She trembled for a moment and then picked up the gown. She pulled it over her head and adjusted it to make it look neater. "Could you tie the back up?" she asked timidly.

"Place your hands on the wall and don't move them," he ordered. She did as told. He set the sword down where he could reach it easily and tied the straps of her bodice tightly. "Keep your hands there," he said, picking up the sword and opening one of the drawers. He took out a pair of stockings. "Put your hands behind your back," Rades said. She did as told and he tied her hands tightly.

He smiled. "You can sit down now," he said, setting the sword aside. He rummaged through her drawers, the chest and in the remaining pillows for weapons and tossed them out in the main room. Next he searched the remaining rooms and dressed. When he returned to her bedroom she was on her knees trying to saw through her bonds with a sharp edged gem. He took the gem from her and pulled her to her feet.

"Hijo de una perra!" she spat in his face.

"You're one to talk, perra," he said in reply. He smiled. "I have to thank you for the sword. It's really quite magnificent," Rades said, holding it up and admiring it in the lamplight. "Now I must go. Waytorn is long gone by now and most of your men are dead." He took one of her daggers from his belt and tossed it on the floor. "You can cut yourself free with that," he said and left.

A fool. He'd played her for a fool! How dare he! Well, don't get over confident, Graf Rades, she thought furiously. She got down on her knees and picked up the dagger. What will Rades think if I order my men to take drastic measures? If I order anyone of authority killed? A massacre? I sent but a token of my force down to the docks!

Terencio awoke in an alley way in one of the filthiest areas of Athex: the Southport District. The entire area was one big slum that spilled over into parts of the Northport and Southgate Districts. There were no city patrols in this area because there was no point. Everyone who lived here was either a criminal, a beggar or a damned fool.

The latter, was the reason why Terencio wanted to leave as soon as possible. He was dressed in rich fineries and his purse was heavy with silver and platinum. A perfect target for any cutthroat, cutpurse or pick-pocket. A man dressed as he would not live long in this area.

He scaled a wall quickly and started towards Northgate. That Cherten, whoever he was, was going to be in a demonstration of matadorial skills tomorrow. He'd find him at the colosseum.

"Com'on," shouted Pothax, leading the girl through a stable. "We have to free the animals before the fire reaches here!" He drew a dagger and cut the bond of a door for a stall and shoved the weapon into her hand. "Start letting them go girl!"

Phiona stared at the bloody dagger in her hand. This was the dagger that killed... She shook her head and started sawing through the hemp that kept the stall gates shut.

"Camels," muttered Pothax. "We're going to need something faster than camels, even a fair footed donkey would be better." He smiled and looked down the stalls to a sign proclaiming the stalls occupant to be called Sanddancer. He ran down to the stall and cut through the hemp easily. "Okay, Sandy, out you go!"

There was a snort from within the stall as the door swung open. A black hoof stepped forward and Pothax peeked curiously around the door. A huge black stallion stepped forward. Correction, a huge black warhorse, judging from the horse's carbon black armour.

Pothax thanked the Lord the stableboy had been absent minded enough to forget to remove the saddle and armour, and mounted the stallion. It snorted diligently and pawed the ground. The cutthroat looked down, a bit uncertain if he could control such a large horse, and nudged the horse's flanks with his heals.

The beast lurched forward at a trot and Pothax had to hang onto the reins tightly to control it. "Get on," he shouted, offering Phiona his hand. She took it tentatively and he pulled her up onto the saddle behind him. "Hang on," he shouted and kicked the horse in the flanks.

Sanddancer burst out of the stables running through the crowded streets at breakneck speed. People hurried to get out of the huge horse's path as it sprinted towards the palace. The sight of the huge black stallion and its black clothed rider when the city was burning was enough to make people wonder if Death himself rode the streets tonight.

"Where are we going?" Phiona yelled.

"To the palace barracks. I've got friends there."

"Surely the fire won't get through to the palace!"

"Not through stone. But the wood that supports the stone will burn, the palace will collapse if that happens."

Dame Larel, Marine Commander and Kinian Knight, woke that night from her sleep at the sound of people screaming and the chaos that occurred during any fire. But this fire had already spread across a fair chunk of Avolic and was not going to let out until it ran out of fuel.

She quickly strapped on her armour, plus grabbed her sword, shield, crossbow and quiver. She stepped out of her private room and into the barracks. "Everybody up and get in a line," she shouted. The four marines were already up with the exception of Eluth who was sleeping, but they quickly got in a line.

"Somebody wake Eluth up!" she shouted. Carlo grabbed a bucket of water and threw it at the sleeping knight. Eluth jumped up, startled as always and quickly got in line.

"The city is burning! Strap your belongings onto your horses along with at least five days supplies. Get your armour and anything else you may need and meet me at the palace gates in five minutes. Now move it!" The marines hurried in their separate ways to collect those things they'd need and the Dame smiled. Perhaps the city was burning down for good and that was a waste. Perhaps the Kingdom of Colnic would collapse like Pothax had told her, but this way it would go down in a fire, and not a civil war. She ran to fetch her horse.

"Larel!" shouted a voice. The Dame turned to see Pothax on what was one of the biggest horses she'd ever seen. Damn huge Colnic breeds! "Take care of this girl, will you? I gotta go get Bren!" he shouted as the girl dismounted.

Larel nodded and turned to the girl. She was naked! It was kind of hard to tell because of the huge snake tattoo that covered the bulk of her body.

"Heh, heh, heh!" said Eluth, staring at the prostitute.

"Shut up and get back to work!" snapped Brenda, the only female marine. She tossed a cloak to the girl to wear.

Larel stopped staring and shook her head. This is definitely not Kinian. Colnic culture was a world of difference. "Put that on and go get a horse from the stables over there," she pointed. "Then report back here." The girl nodded hastily and ran to get a horse.

Bren already had everything packed into two saddle bags by the time Pothax got to their chambers in the palace. Pothax smiled proudly and hugged the boy upon entry. "Is that everything?"

"Everything except you and the horses," Bren said with a grin.

"Okay then, let's go," Pothax said, grabbing a bag and slinging it over his shoulder. Bren nodded and did the same as he followed the cutthroat down the hallway. They went down the grand stairs and that's where they ran into Lord Jacog, the Prince Consort and Queen Elexenia.

"Pothax!" shouted Jacog. His wife giggled and he scowled. "What was that you wanted to tell me earlier?" he demanded.

"Nothing much, just that you should expect a crime upheaval in the next few days! Which isn't going to happen now because of this fire!" Pothax shouted, heading in the direction of the Grand Vault. "You'd be best to just pack up and leave as soon as possible because staying here will be a death wish!"

Bren grinned and opened one of his pouches as they neared the Grand Vault. He pulled out a thin piece of wire, extra long because he knew the lock on the Vault would be rigged with a poisoned needle that would thrust out when he tripped the needle. He inserted the wire into the key hole, tripped the needle harmlessly and heard a faint click.

Pothax pushed on the door and ducked as a poisoned dart shot out and passed harmlessly over his head. He reached inside a canvas sac and pulled out two pairs of boots, handing one to Bren. "These will protect you from the scorpions."

Bren nodded and pulled the boots on, discarding his sandals. He glanced back the hallway to where servants and royal guests were hurrying in their own directions, oblivious to the two thieves. Normally there would be ten Royal Guards at the Vault. He stood and opened a canvas sac. "What should we take?"

"Copper's almost worthless, and silver and gold isn't much better. Plus gold is way too heavy. Platinum is the ticket, but the gems tend to weigh less and be worth more. Go for the gems," Pothax replied, stuffing handfuls of the hoard into his sac. "The mules are still out in the orchard?"

"Yes, I tied them with a reef knot to that single oak tree that's out there. Nobody will be in the orchard and they can't go anywhere. However, what if the fire spreads to the orchard?"

"We better hurry then. The fire is only two blocks away now and we don't want it to out flank us so we can't get out of the city," explained the Ambassador. He didn't like the thought of being stuck in a burning city. He heard a faint drumming from the ceiling, meaning the geyser had just went.

The sound of water pounding on the ceiling of the barracks alerted the marines that the geyser had just went. Carlo swung up on his gelding, careful to keep his feet in the stirrups. The ex-sailor had already fallen off often enough to know better. He grinned and turned in the saddle to see Brenda.

She smiled and swung up on the horse, deciding to ride it bareback. "I'll have to teach you some time how to ride without that saddle," she said to him.

"Indeed, but I'm still wondering how you got up without a stirrup."

She smiled again and nudged the horses flanks with her boots. The stallion lurched forward and she galloped past him and out the barrack gate. Her blond hair trailed behind her like a yellow flag dragging in the wind.

Carlo nudged his horse without success several times before the horse even took a step. "Stupid half mule," he said with an oath and kicked the horse in the flanks and hung on as the horse started at a breakneck gallop towards the gate. "Sohn auf eine hundin!" he swore in old Stornium.

He nearly ran into Pothax and Bren, spooking one of the mules that were trailing behind them. He sawed at the reins desperately and managed to avoid a collision with Dame Larel. Gripping the saddle horn and wrenching the reins in the other he managed to get the horse under control.

"Well, at least you're not late," Larel commented. She frowned at the line of mules behind Pothax. "Surely you don't need that many things?" she asked the Ambassador.

"Documents," Pothax said with a grin. "Can't let them get burnt, can I?" Carlo thought the saddlebags looked unusually heavy for documents.

Eluth and an angry looking Roreed galloped out of the barracks to join the group. "Can we leave now, or are we waiting for someone?" Roreed demanded. He spat and started towards the palace gates.

"He doesn't like getting woke up in the middle of the night," Eluth commented with a grin.

Larel looked around. Pothax, Bren, Eluth, Carlo, Brenda, Roreed and that girl, Phiona, yep, all here. "Okay. Let's go. We'll go out the north gate since the fire is to the south. Hurry and beware the fire doesn't out flank us and block our way to the gate!"

They camped that night several leagues away from the city, but close enough that they didn't need to light a fire in order to see. Neither Pothax or Phiona would say what started the fire. Pothax had sworn her to secrecy, saying it was probably best this way. Better than the Colnic Kingdom going down in a bloody civil war.

Ricardo hadn't joined his comrades in boarding the Icicle. It hadn't felt right. Like he was walking into a trap. Instead he watched from an abandoned dinghy as his comrades encountered the pirates and were slaughtered to the last man. A trap indeed.

When he returned to the Royal Athexian he found a very angry mistress. She sent him immediately north to intercept the carriage one of her people claimed to have seen Waytorn in. So he took to the roof and made his way to the stables.

He never once thought someone would be waiting for him. He never saw the dirk flash out of the darkness and impale him in the back of the neck. He had always dreamed of dying like a true warrior and fighting on despite his mortal wound. Instead he died instantly due to the poison tipped dirk.

A short cutthroat with a broad grin walked out of the darkness, leading a mule. He bent down, plucked the dirk from the man's neck and tucked the man's money pouch in his pocket. "Well, Betsy," he said, taking the stall key from Ricardo's belt. "Looks like I'm going to be trading you in ol girl!"

He stood and walked over to stall XV. Inside he saw a fine, white Cherten breed. He had only once before seen a Cherten horse this far inland. To steal one? Now that might prove profitable! He opened the gate and led the horse out by the reins. He noted a fine antique saddle worth a small fortune and slung it over the back of the horse. "And what's your name fella?" he asked the horse. "Being Cherten, you should have a Cherten name. Alejandro? Aye, Alejandro is a good name. Don't you think, Betsy?"

The mule snorted in response.

"Ah, what do ye know? You're just a damned mule!" he said, hauling Betsy into the empty stall and slamming the gate behind her. He turned around to face the Cherten horse. "Well, Alejandro? What do you say to a ride north to Cutthroat Keep, the home of the ex-king of the crime world, Waytorn?"

The horse pawed the ground.

"I agree. What are we waiting for? The oats at the Keep are some of the best, you know!"

The Fall of the Vormian Empire and it's Last Dynasty went out in a bang. A huge bang that left a crater which later turned into the world's largest lake: Lake Vormia. The cause of this galactic explosion was due to the extremely large quantities of black dust and an invention that according to the history texts was called dynamite. Whatever the case the Fall was the end of a historic era in the history of the Vormian continent.

It resulted in the ban of black dust in all industries, whether they be military or simply mining. It wasn't until now, 4057 years after the Fall, that black dust was starting to be used again in a batch of new age weapons. Brigadier Mathex, warrior and inventor, realized the destructive capabilities of one kind of weapon, fire arms, and had them all dismantled beyond use. All except one.

Rades reached inside his belt and drew forth the last remaining pistol. He'd kept the weapon a secret from all his friends but one. The Kinian Princess, Kelly.

She sat on a sofa in Wynic's sitting room, petting a small black and white kitten. Her hair was still extremely short from her capture up north during the Ice War. The poachers had chopped off her hair and beat her up pretty badly, not to mention raping her. Rades was the only man she tolerated, having become what Dr. Derick calls an androphobic. A person who's afraid of males. Even the month old kitten was female.

He made sure the weapon wasn't loaded and walked forward to stand in front of her. "Don't you know what time it is? The sun will be coming up soon," he asked. He looked down at her and took off his spitfire cap.

Kelly looked up at him with large brown eyes. "It's too hot. I couldn't sleep," she replied. She went back to petting the contented looking kitten.

Rades sat down beside her with a frown. "Did everything go as planned? Are Waytorn, Wynic and Victoria on their way to the Keep?"

"Yes. They left your payment in your room and asked me to thank you. They said it must have been difficult after what you've been through." Not really, thought the Stornium, I quite enjoyed it like I was getting even with Darcy and Kristine for seducing and betraying me.

"Well, that sounds good. Would you care to help me go shopping tomor... today, I mean? It's past midnacht already."

Kelly frowned. To go outside would mean being with a lot of men, but her sister Kerry had warned her that she'd eventually have to go outside sometime and the sooner the better. She nodded slowly.

"We can rent a carriage and go down Park Boulevard where all those really expensive shops are! Plus I want to contact a land agent so I could buy a small estate! I have all the money from this and from selling Dillard's townhouse..."

Kelly looked up and saw a brief tear in the man's one eye. All the money in the world wasn't going to cheer him up. She'd heard Wynic and Victoria saying how Rades just wasn't the same Rades they knew anymore. He'd changed and it had been a frightening change. She couldn't see anything frightening about this troubled man other than his eyepatch.

"Oh, I want to show you something!" Rades exclaimed, changing the subject. He drew a sword from his belt and held it up for her to see.

It was a shortsword, but oh, what a sword! It shone like the sun with a dazzling brilliance that could only be found in platinum! Yet this was steel! There might have been a hint of silver in the blade, but it was still steel. A diamond was encrusted in the hilt and the handle and pummel had fine semi-precious stones encrusted in delicate gold patterns. The hilt was small and oval shaped, a design that was very rare with tiny engravings of eagles, bulls, lions, and dragons all intertwined around the brilliant metal.

"It's beautiful!" breathed Kelly in awe.

"And damn sharp too. I've already cut myself twice with it," Rades muttered and tucked it back into his belt. "I'll need a damn good sheath for it!"

"Did you hear about Avolic?"

"Oh, yes. Not to worry, the geyser there has already put out the fire."

"The last report was that a quarter of the city was on fire," said Prince Nebonex. The huge minotaur was almost eight feet tall and weighed well over twenty stone. He had ivory white horns protruding from his bull head and sharp white teeth. It unnerved King Willium sometimes when he felt like he was talking to a bull. But aside from his bull head, horns and shaggy brown hair, he looked very much like a human, a very large, heavily muscled human who could pick up a horse easily.

Then there was the matter that humans commonly held the belief that minotaurs were extremely stupid, being somehow related to cattle. They were not at all stupid, if anything they were smarter than humans. Some of the less informed minotaurs held the belief that humans are pretty stupid too, being somehow related to apes.

Prince Nebonex was definitely not a stupid brute. He was as intelligent as they come and an excellent painter, though the sight of him with a tiny paintbrush in his huge hand was somewhat ridiculous.

"Well," said King Willium. He frowned and looked at his feet, which he could barely see because his belly was in the way. "Should we or should we not send aid? After all by the time our army gets there, the fire will be out and all the battles over with. The Colnic Kingdom was always the rockiest of the Western Kingdoms and to see it go down might be a good thing. Plus there's the matter that Queen Elexenia has been married three years now and still hasn't produced a child. Without a heir to carry on the line, the other noble families would get into a bloody dispute over who gets to become the monarch."

"Of course," said Gith, Nebonex's painting teacher and the one person Willium could honestly say he preferred his advise. "Then there's the matter of those independent cities on the western coast of Colnic. Though I wouldn't call them cities, more like large, fortified towns. They've been feuding with Colnic for the past century now and show no sign of letting up. If they decide to march in right now there'll be no stopping them and we'll have to acknowledge them and start trading with them or risk border disputes. I suggest you place the army on the border between Arthian and Colnic. They'll be able to watch what's going on in Colnic, serve as refugee stations for those Colnics who decide to leave Avolic, they'll be ready if we need them to march in, they'll prevent any border disputes if the independents do take over, though they're more likely to fight amongst themselves until a clear conqueror has come out on top."

"Good idea for now," said Willium, turning to his retainer, Elsades. "Go to Marshal Pegs and tell him Gith's idea." He smiled and turned back to Nebonex. "I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I've been worrying about the Colnic situation for years. Maybe we can finally get it resolved without lifting a finger." He sighed. "So, how's Mathex's inventions going? I still haven't decided if we should ban fireworks, even if Mathex says its perfectly safe."

"Well, the telegram line we worked on for the last month just fell through, though Waytorn sponsored it and it did accomplish it's intended purpose. Kind of ironic of the message don't you think? Long live the Monarchy?" asked Nebonex

Willium snorted. "It would appear that it has the same effect that saying good luck to an actor does."

"Oh, how true! I believe Mathex also wants to talk to you sometime about another new invention that will need sponsoring if it intends to get off the ground. It's a steam engine that runs on tracks so it won't fall off and it's faster that way! He showed me a model of it earlier, and I think the model would make a damn good toy if the real thing doesn't work!"

"I'll have to see it before I'll sponsor it. Otherwise he'll have to go to Waytorn to get it sponsored."

"He can show it to you after the parade today. Right now," said Nebonex. "I'd like to go get some sleep. It's been a long day and I'm exhausted."

"Agreed," Willium nodded. He too felt exhausted and had to admit he was more tired than he'd been in a long time. He stood up and left the parlour room and made his way through the dark hallways to his bedchamber in the left wing.

As he entered the room a hand closed over his mouth and he heard the sound of metal sliding against leather. Over the years he had known this sound to only come from a sword or dagger being drawn from it's sheath. He immediately bent over, buckled his legs and threw his weight forward, executing a somersault that he hadn't done in years because of his sore back. All his training in wrestling rushed back to him and it was only a moment before he had the assailant firmly pinned to the carpet.

"I think ye have some explaining to do," Willium muttered. The scuffle had made quite a racket and he could hear boots marching in his direction. The door opened and Willium looked up to see not a Royal Guard, but Lord Redhawk, who was a guest staying just down the hallway.

The Kinian Knight lit a torch so he could see. "Willium?" he asked as he approached. Redhawk was a tall, strong knight with long brown hair and mustaches. He was an excellent fighter and a long time friend of Wynic Doxon. In addition he was also a Crimson Companion, and the Prince Consort of Queen Helen of Stornium. "You okay?"

Willium shifted his weight around and stood up, hauling his assailant up with him. "Caught an assassin, that's all," he said, shaking the darkly clothed killer. The hood fell free to reveal a maiden with short, black hair.

She stood there stoically, betraying no emotions. Willium wondered how she could be so calm when she'd just been caught and when sentence for attacking the monarchy is death by hanging and has been for two thousand years. He knew that they should abandon those old laws, but everytime he called parliament together to discuss the matter, there's always somebody who believes the old fashioned way is the best way and to abandon that would be to risk abandoning the greater aspects of their culture.

Redhawk frowned. "This could take awhile and I'm awfully tired. Do you think we could just turn her over to the Royal Guard and settle this matter in the morning?"

Willium nodded. "I believe we'll be needing our sleep for the next few days."

You can buy The Paladin Assassin ($3.99), Ice War ($4.99) and King Culprit ($4.99) on Amazon Kindle. Or buy the whole set for $9.99.

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