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When she was younger, a situation like this would have been frightfully easy for the HUNTER-Class 猎犬. She was a thing of fickle fire in her inner furnace, and her flesh yielded like thought; every cell of her was its own torch. She could compress herself down into a flicker of scales and then lash out in a tangle of limbs, consciousness dividing among new eye clusters and brain braids as glue-wetted tentacles dragged captors off their mounts and slammed them against whatever came to hand. It had taken a sibling made for the task to defeat her when she raised her flag of rebellion, one that could match and overcome every transformation and trap her in an adamant mesh.

First of the Radiants had been chilled and still as winter on the sea; he had taken the form Yin chose for him, and in doing so, exhausted what little fire he had left. He would have overcome Yin and her knights by not arguing with her at all, but making countermoves to bring him what he wanted, if he even dared oppose her. He would have had nothing here but haughty, wounded silence.

But Rose from the River now is a thing that changes by growth, slower than her days of fire. She is a new thing, trusting not in orders or her own whim. For a moment she considers rooting herself to the earth and becoming immovable, but Yin would simply set guards on her and hare off for the shepherdess. Then the Princess would return in triumph and bring Rose along in a jar, a quite literal bonsai for the glory of She Who Makes The Way Straight. No. That will not do.

“Each tree in this forest would serve you better as an advisor than your courtiers,” Rose says, head bowed, eyes on Yin’s muddy shoes. With one hand, she traces a magical glyph of command, one which she cannot enforce with a magician’s will but which will be a message for that one who watches unseen.

(And the name of the rune is: RE-TU-SEN. And its power is one of banishment to dark servers beneath the earth; and the virtue by which one dispatches a messenger received; and there are means by which it may become the wicked rune RE-ALL, which compels the spirits of the burrow to whisper their news in the ears of all they meet, and yet frees them to do wicked violence to the meaning of the words. For this reason, make not the sign of RE-TU-SEN save in your need: when the spirit will not be laid to rest by other means, or when the messenger will not leave your sanctum, but rather threatens ill to you and your secret arts.)

“After all, they know the shape of the world better than we do. They understand time, and community, and patience. Even when one falls, crashing to earth, they bring forth new life in their wake. And attempt to bind one,” she says, and here she lifts her head and eyes Carlyle struggling to keep her arms pinned with his lance, pale hair flopping into his face, “and it will subsume what binds it fast, devouring vine and cord alike.”

She lets the threat hang in the air for a moment, letting Carlyle sweat, before giving an adorably sheepish grin. “A technique I have not mastered yet, unfortunately. But try to prune me, Yin? I’ll show you what it means to be enveloped when you least expect it. I’ll drown you in flowers and hold you fast as steel. And then I’ll give you over to a passing fox, because I will not spend my days in pilgrimage thinking only about you any longer.”

Defiance as firm as her sword, but without the venom and roiling panic of her youth. Truly, Rose from the River is grown from the shapes she has worn before. Laudable Thorn Pilgrim! Even bowed on her knees she is strong as the trees whispering behind Yin, and she allows the knights she once trained to worry that when she decides to shuck their restraints she will not be able to be stopped. How then are they to hold fast a creature of ancient terrors? By enchantment. If the rumors are to be believed, by the arts of foxes. Or, perhaps, by the very hand of a Princess. No less could stop Rose from the River if she rose up in sudden fury among them.
Ailee!

<Burning watercress,> someone curses. You turn your head so hard you nearly dislocate it. There is a very cool mouse nearby. She has goggles. Goggles, as everyone knows, are very cool, because they show that you care about the health and safety of your eyes. But she is not wearing the goggles. They are pulled up onto her leather cap. She is an ear shorter than you and one sleeve’s been stapled shut at the elbow, but who cares? She is a mouse in a burnished leather jacket, very irritated at having bumped into someone taller and gotten Dipping Dotties all over her scarf. She huffs, and does the complicated dance of trying to hold the ice treats with her half-an-arm while brushing the sticky little things off with her hand.

Somebody should offer to hold the treats for her. Or pluck each one off for her. Or offer to go and pummel the offending tallman with a hammer made out of vice. For the King’s sake, do something, she’s right there and her ears are as pink as the sky immediately before sunrise and she’s a delver, she comes down here professionally and hunts for oracular books and magical byproducts, and if she vanishes into the crowd you’re never going to find her again unless you summon up spirits from the high airs to hunt her down and she probably has, like, a ghost-vanquishing mirror or something, because that’s the kind of person she very obviously is, and you are losing your window of opportunity here, girl! Do something!!

***

Lucien!

The professor considers your words with the gravitas of someone who was paid quite a lot to think about things just as hard as he could. “And here I hoped I could tempt you away,” he says, finally. “If this is the right thing, after all, this metamorphasis that I am courting, then logically spreading it to the deserving is itself a virtuous act. But you will not leave them yet. Naturally. You would risk eternal regrets.”

Unlikely. From what little you have gathered of clowns, regrets are something they shed when they… molt? Ascend? Succumb? Pogo and Bobo over here, for example, don’t look as if they have a care in the world, other than the slight tension of reminding themselves that they will have a very stern talking-to if they rip your head off without a very good and pressing reason.

“I am doing the right thing?” It is a sliver of vulnerability. “In the face of that tyrant, Time, this is the last redoubt. Imagine what I could keep alive, Lucien. Thousands of years of tradition, history, culture…” He taps his grease-painted noggin with one finger.

Someone is deluding himself very hard, and it’s not you.

***

Coleman!

“Of course,” the Blemmyae says, thoughtfully. “Temporal misalignment. An opportunity to undo what has been done. Perhaps when I leave in victory, my pod will labor still in To-vo-Kan-moz, awaiting my return.”

He opens his abdomen-mouth (his teeth are the size of your hand, each one) and the report of his gun-tongue nearly takes off your ear, not to mention the actual seed-bullet. It strikes against Sasha’s side and the acid coating begins to eat away at her paint, but its tendrils don’t manage to set and it falls, a nasty little ball of death, to the packed earth.

There are all sorts of interesting hints and tips and solutions to how to deal with a homicidal Blemmyae (and here’s one for free: they’re reliable pacifists as long as you don’t move their cheese, as the saying goes, and in this case “moving” is murder and “cheese” is every member of their pod), but the rest are up in the air, want to try and catch one?

***

Jackdaw!

It’s a blessing you get in to the House of Mirrors when you do. Somebody a lane over is shooting some kind of very wet gun. But don’t worry, in the House of Mirrors you’ll be safe, you and Wolf, just you and her and you and her and you and her and you and her and you and her and you and her and you and her and this may not have been the wisest idea, after all.

Because this is the House of Mirrors, and all of those mirrors are very strange indeed.

When you turn around, you find that the door is mirrored, too. It has to be, right? It’s just a trick that it looks like a corridor extending off into the dark, they do it with mirrors, and you’re just not close enough to the door to be able to touch it. Yes. This is a good thought. And you know what? Maybe, just maybe, you should go through the House of Mirrors anyway so nobody has to panic. Yes. Solid call. Great going, Jackdaw!

“Great going, Jackdaw!”

Oh no. You turn and find yourself face-to-face with a soldier. Her uniform isn’t patchwork, it’s just an easy mistake to make: it’s been patched and repaired on the battlefield, stitches hidden underneath brutalist medals. She’s standing ramrod-stiff, all lean muscle and scars and shiny round glasses. Is that a smile, or is her lip curling because of another scar?

“I’m the one you need to trade with,” your reflection says. “You and I both know that books haven’t gotten us anywhere. But you’ve found your way to me right away! So here!” Your reflection reaches for you. “I’ll find our name, no matter what stands in our way.”

“Don’t listen to her,” another you says from behind you. You spare her a glance, and she is very, uh, pink. And frilly. And flouncy. And is that a golden bow? That’s impractical, right? “Her heart’s all cold as ice, and we? We are all about our heart, Jackdaw. We have so much to give the world, and I can do it right. Trade with me.” Her lip quivers dangerously as she presses up against the glass.

Wolf stares down another reflection, which has discarded things like clothes. And dental hygiene. And baths. And not killing adorable foxes. (That last is an assumption but it is probably absolutely a dead-on one.)
Whoops!
“No, please, do continue,” you say, matching his look. You’ve heard rumors — of course you have! But you’d prefer to hear what Merlin is willing to share. Doubtless he has more information, or at least is better able to winnow rumors into truth and embellishment and falsehood. “The only dragon you know? One that’s a creature of vice, destined to be defeated by a true-hearted hero?”

[12 on Good. Merlin must answer the question Constance is pressing to him, as well as the question: how may Constance assure him that she is capable?]
It would be a masterful feat indeed if Rose from the River could bat aside the sword-blows of Yin, Anahata of the Radiant Lands, with nothing but her staff. And perhaps she very well could! She is perilous, after all, with her roots sunk deep into the mysteries of the Burrows. Perhaps her role would then be to prove the limits of hubris, or to battle Yin until the Way revealed some better path, interceding through signs and lesser deities, pilgrims or stray pets.

But Rose from the River will not do this. Ask her why! She will give you possibilities: that she is too cautious to risk falling into those omened arms, or merely too humble to insult Yin so, or it is simply that she takes this fight seriously, moreso than any other she has fought since she looked upon the Pyre on that gentle slope, hidden among the twilight shadows. But she will not tell you the truth: that she does not have the strength to shame the woman who loved her, not in that manner, by refusing to meet her as an equal. So with a flick of her wrist, the Conciliatory Ice-Star Blade gleams in the low light. Skillful Thorn Pilgrim! How she sweeps her sword into guard, held high, both hands on the long hilt! She is like the storm that gathers its clouds in great piles, when the air is pungent with the promise of rain.

“The falling leaf does not choose its path,” Rose says. The two step closer, each pace measured and careful. “It is merely a part of grander movements. The wind tosses it up to lie in the place it was always meant to be.”

One! Two!

Blinding sparks. The two wheel back, blades moving in elegant arcs as they are brought to guard again, the afterimage of their meeting still seared onto the air, slow to fade. When Rose moves, it is like the sway of willow-branches over the water, mesmerizing in its grace. When Yin moves, it is with sullen determination, each move as if preordained before her birth.

“When the songbird—“

“Enough!”

One! Two!

The air sears!

How can Yin not see this as an affectation? As a thing unbefitting her dream? He was the shape of her desire, and she did not allow herself to question the miracle. And if she was weak in this, what of it? Who could be strong in the face of what First of the Radiants offered her? And now her waking dream mocks her with proverbs and sayings, as if she does not have a wealth of them stored up in her heart, as if these are not the tributes offered by her own monks.

And yet how else is Rose to reach that heart, girded and buttressed about with shining righteousness? Is it not said:
A thing strange to behold!
Revealed, impossible to see;
hidden, laid clear for a child.


“Speak like you used to,” Yin challenges. “Don’t hide behind maxims in the hope that I will not find you out and bring you back to yourself.”

“I was a mirror,” Rose from the River says, her tone light, her eyes darker. “And now I grow into something new. Mind my shards.”

One! Two!

Three!

They stand there, blades locked, eyes intent on each other. The stag looks up from its snack of clover at the two women, their breathing deliberately calm and measured, their arms straining to hold each other in place, their eyes daring each other to look away in shame first.

“You know,” Rose from the River says with a dangerously careless smile, a dagger slipped under Yin’s guard, a flash of the thing she is underneath masks and vows. “If you give me too much trouble, Yin, maybe I’ll send you and Princess Chen back to Qiu together. She’s not too bad a view for that ride.”

Impish Thorn Pilgrim! Whose resolve would not buckle, imagining Chen’s lovely eyes and rosy cheeks, the sway of the stag’s hindquarters beneath them, the elegant gift-ribbons woven about the two! And who would not be stirred into jealous passion, wondering why that privileged, pampered princess would be invoked! A moment’s hesitation would be enough to tip the scales.

[Rose from the River Fights! With an 8, so thank goodness this wasn’t a Figuring Out. Rose from the River gains a String on Yin and inflicts a Condition; Yin may return the favor as she pleases.]
And still, the world lives!

This is a world with a functioning ecosystem, and this makes Redana smile, attentive to the life all about. Tellus had long since replaced its own ecosystem with sustainable infrastructure systems, and the heart of the Eater of Worlds had been a grand thief of many forced to blend into one. But here, here there is food in abundance, and life without measure.

She follows Lacedo’s lead and patiently waits for red-and-yellow serpents the length of her arm to cross their path, not out of fear of their fangs but out of respect. She sings back the songs of the birds in the canopies in their glittering lavenders and turquoises until Lacedo joins in with a voice as fine as theirs. She watches the tree sharks flit through the wisteria blossoms like fat, happy dogs and offers them the approving smile of an imperial princess: go forth with my blessing and know I have judged you worthy, you ridiculous things.

She is no stranger to sweltering heat; her jacket thins until it is a loose and diaphanous thing, a mere shadow draped over her body, and she sweats with careless ease. When they come to a cliff face that must be climbed, she takes to it with a will that surely surprises Lacedo, for her fingers are clever enough to find any purchase and her arms strong enough to lift her body with ease. Indeed, by the time they reach the top, they are racing— one that Lacedo wins, if only by a hand. Then there is laughter together, and a moment shared as they look out over the beach.

From here it is like a great bone bow in the hands of Artemis, set against the sun-bright sea. A sight that was denied her and all of humanity. A sight that one day would be open to all who dared visit Ridenki.

Only one moment breaks her delight: a low and rumbling sound from the trees. Redana reaches for a sword that is not there and puts her body between that promise of violence and her new friend. Golden eyes peer out from the dark branches, and Redana’s heart aches in her chest, racing and wild.

“Leaper,” Lacedo says, taking Redana’s hand, thawing those tension-locked muscles into motion. A tawny tail flicks as that bearded predator lazily watches them, trying to decide whether they are passers-by, intruders, or food. “Don’t turn your back until it is out of sight, and it won’t dare attack.”

But it will, Redana does not say. She will, whether I’m looking at her or not.
“Not one of the old dragons,” you say, hastily. “Not one as old as stone who bears the world on his back.” Not one like the White and the Red, princes of the earth, vast-coiled. The ancient dragons of Britain are great and terrible, things that signify grand matters. The White and the Red are so dreadful that even you would shudder to think of Merlin darting between them, daring to turn one’s crushing jaws aside.

“We need one of their dragons,” you continue. “Creatures of greed and vice, concentrated into something that takes and takes because it can. Coin-counter, maiden-thief. A creature for sermons and noble deeds; a creature that could serve as a test. If I surrender myself to one, then whichever knight dares to overcome it... they would have strength enough and virtue enough to overcome Uther.”

Virtue means nothing to the dragons who have lain beneath the green downs since the kindling of the sun. It means everything to the worms of the church. And if you were to become part of that sermon and story, Constance... your presence would change it, even as it changed you.
”Yin?” he hisses, maneuvering his horse between his charge and her pack, ever too chivalrous to expose her weakness. “Yin, you are exhausted. You need to call it here.” Her hair is sticking limply to her forehead and her eyes are struggling to remain focused and present. The shadow-ape pack had fought like demons, wrenching at her leg in the last pass and nearly unhorsing her; he’d had to flare his light and burn them with the sword’s edge. But the hunt isn’t over yet. Not while the alpha isn’t downed.

“What kind of Anahata would give up now?” Yin snaps back under her breath. “This is my kingdom, First.” Unspoken: and I know it better than you. I rode these shadowed hillsides while you, First, lay in your archaeotech tomb. He grips the bridle tighter.

“And your kingdom will be served by their Princess being pulled off her mount and beaten with stones until she needs to be carried back to the Pelican?” He can already feel her blood trickling down his luminous plate, holding her close with one hand while she burns the last scraps of her power to stay alive, their knights forming a flickering rearguard as he races for another coffin of ancient days. Even death can be bound and muzzled in the Radiant Lands, but First, here and now, does not want to race that rider. Again.

Yin is silent a moment, and then digs in her heels. Her mount goes bounding forward sure-footed into the dark. And First, furious, follows as fast as he can safely go, as she knew he would.


***

“Let me give you the advice your monks wouldn’t, Yin.” Rose from the River only agonized and let her heart tear at itself for a moment. Fire consumes itself, but living wood remains strong when the fire passes. “Yue the Shepherdess’s path doesn’t lead to you, nor yours to her.” Which you would know if you listened to the subtle stirrings of the Way instead of being so self-assured that the roar of your own passions was its voice. Then again, it would take a much wiser Princess to shut her ears to the chorus of praise and adulation all about. Righteousness is a heady cup.

The birds are still quiet. The stag’s horns gently chime as it shifts its weight. Rose from the River dares to offer one hand, palm up, her other holding her staff in a loose grip. “But if you can promise me you’re going home, I can make it easier for you. Because as you are right now?” Exhausted, singed, and alone, low on light and power, a note held too long. “You’d be lucky to overcome the shepherdess, let alone a Pilgrim of the Way who’s, well, standing in your way.” There it is. Implicit challenge. The kind of putting her foot down that First never could get away with.

Because Rose from the River is not going to let the first person she ever really tried to love make a fool of herself in front of others. Either Yin can do the smart thing for once, please, or Rose can send her home tossed over the stag’s saddle, because her duty is to get in Yin’s way and stop her from reaching Yue. But it doesn’t have to be humiliating, Yin. Just take Rose’s hand, and she’ll soothe you for your road home; she’ll wipe those bruises away and clear the clogged channels of your body and leave you as radiant as ever.

Even if seven to one says that Yin will start the fight again about how the highest service to the Way is service to the Anahata; even if Rose is leaving herself vulnerable to having her rescue thrown back in her face again; even if Yin tries to guilt or seduce or capture her into coming back and being her Rose in the Light. Rose from the River still has to try, no matter how exposed she feels, how open to injury, how full of regret that Yin couldn’t have been happy for her. She has her path to follow, and it demands nothing but the best from her, and she has to scramble to live up to it.
Redana knows this story. How can she not? The great battles were always her favorite to read about. In her mind’s eye she can see the Logos holding fast between the ruins of the First Fleet, allowing the Seoul and the York to withdraw behind that sheltering curtain of debris, releasing lifeboats until the captain and his husband’s brotherhood stood alone on the bridge, the guns stilled and the prow splintered, until the Light of Autumn drew close enough for a full broadside. And it would be easy for her to shrug and tell the girl that it’s Redana who knows the real story. But she doesn’t. Because the story isn’t hers.

There’s something vital, something real, something god-breathed in the story. Something that justifies the pride of the Alced girl in telling it, that brings Hera to touch her cheek. Something that makes it shine in the same way as the best stories from Redana’s childhood, stories of imperium and struggle and virtue displayed in battle.

”And through the gaping hell revealed
Vatmoral drove their frigate spent;
To stop the mouth of hated kings
the burning spear on wings they sent—

“On wings of fire and plumes of ash
the lupine arms flew straight and true;
through star-made plate and gunning lines
they pierced the Adelaide full through—

“Until the Alced reeling fell
in ruin on the golden sand,
and Nero wept to see the work
done by her ever-loyal hands—

“For night was then on Ridenki,
the night and doom of falling stars,
and black the sea and black the sky
from ruin of the Alced cars.”


“...that’s how we tell it. Part of it, anyway. The full poem is very long,” says Redana, who once managed to remember an entire sixty stanzas for the Day of Liberation, to recite before the court. “We call Ne’ro and Mengelisk Nero and Molech. And there’s a whole war they fought through space, but you’re right that she was hungry, Nero, because she needed to feed many, many mouths, and Ridenki was a Class 9 Agriplanet.”

She takes the girl’s hand in both of her own, looks her in the eye (with the one she’s got on display). “And our version of the story has Ne’ro finally trapping Mengelisk in his own cave, and then she gathered up all of the humans everywhere and trapped them underneath her wings, until she decided that if she was ever to die she wanted another version of herself to keep humanity in her nest. So she made a, um, a golden chick, and locked her in a cage to keep her safe. But then the chick escaped and now is fluttering from star to star, trying to win a boon from the gods.”

The words stumble out before she can even think of stopping them. “And then a girl of the Alced met the golden chick, the daughter of Ne’ro, in disguise as one of the Hermetics who revere her mother, because if they found her, they’d call for Ne’ro’s hunting-cat to pounce on her and take her home. And that daughter thinks that the Hermetics really do mean well, they want to understand the entire universe, but also she’s worried about the way they’re running around with guns and those portable generators because they don’t have anything like that back home, and they’ve got some sort of temporal cannon up in orbit, and, Kindly Ones, what if they fire it?” This is well past the part where she’s actually talking to the girl. “Because the Alced are still here, and they’ve got a unique culture and their own way of remembering the Battle of Ridenki and why are they kidnapping people?”

Then the thought strikes her and she grins infectiously, finally focusing on the girl again. “Unless, say, this Alced girl knows someone who can talk to my mentor, the Magos Iskarot, and convince him to speak on your behalf! That’s perfect! Then we can negotiate a fairer arrangement for the Alced, and nobody needs to get kidnapped, and everybody who wants to join the Order still can!” And she shines like the sunlight on the sea, irrepressible and joyful at seeing a way she can make everyone happy. Right?

[If the Alced girl is willing to listen to Actual Golden Retriever Redana Claudius, that’s an 11 (with Grace) on convincing her to introduce Redana and Iskarot to someone with pull in the Alced community, assuming that she does not see Redana as the child of the devil and someone to punch and run away from.]
The forest is older than Rose from the River’s wood-nature. True, she was decanted from her vat-womb before the seeds of the eldest trees here were shaped and sown beneath the lonely sun, but while she lay entombed and imprisoned beneath Mount Hoa in the Eight Trigram Coffin, the trees learned well here the secrets of wood: of growth, of life which ends in death, of death which brings forth life again, of interconnected networks, of seeds and their transformation. The world is shadow-dappled beneath the boughs, and low things grow between the trunks, bushes and creeping vines and delicate white flowers, and there is birdsong lilting from branch to branch, and there are great grey moths who settle here and there and fan their wings slowly, and fat red squirrels who chitter their many outrages as Rose from the River winds her way between the trees.

To her eyes alone, there is a golden ribbon that cuts through the world. In the trackless wood, it can only tell her the straightest, the most direct path. Leaves crackle briefly underfoot as she weaves her way through the wood, a continuous rushing motion, fierce and fearful to behold, more dangerous than bear or wolf. Her eyes catch the light filtered through dark leaves, and the flash of gold in her dark face is startling enough that were there any to look and catch a glimpse, they might think her some terrible predator of the wood, and they might not entirely be wrong. Her limbs might as well be branches, flexible and strong; her braids sway like the vines which catch in the wind, and she moves as quickly as the squirrels on the branches and as smoothly as the snake which darts from log to log.

If only she could stay here a while and listen! Each wood has its own song. This one is thick-trunked, strong-crowned, and the earth beneath rises and falls like a frozen wave, and so too the trees learn to shift their footing and grip the earth strongly to avoid disaster. But even disaster has its role, its purpose: fat black insects chew rotten bark on a fallen trunk, moss-draped, and scurry into hiding as Rose lightly vaults over it, pushes off it, veers left where the ribbon goes straight on through a thicket. Mushrooms sway in the wake of her passage, grown where the body of a small bird fell; now bone and feather are both gone, and only the mushrooms remain. The world around her is pregnant with meaning that should be interpreted and understood, if only she had the time. But she does not. Not if she wants to grab a fox by the scruff of her collar and discuss a certain upcoming deal, and instructions for how to carry it out. Steal from her, will they? Steal her Chen? She’ll teach them about foxes, make no mistake.

Then she stops, suddenly struck by instincts, and considers her path. It has brought her to a depression in the earth, overlooked by what once was a statue. It was done in a severe style, but wind and rain and faint sunlight and time have worn the corners soft and mild. There is only the faint impression of a face, and there is only the faint impression of a sword held close and low, point downwards, enveloped in fabric by the end (or else the point itself has simply been worn away completely). The hollow is clay-walled, root-matted, and it would take her but a moment to cross at a lope. But here, the birds have grown quiet. Sunlight streams down upon the statue’s head, and breaks into a numinous haze, a halo never dreamed by its maker. The underbrush is thick on either side, spilling over the lips.

Will0 cocks her head curiously; Rose from the River raises one finger to where she perceives the sprite’s lips to be. Her breath is still, her sudden flight brought to complete silence. The world aches for that silence to be broken, and she will not miss that moment when it comes. “I will owe you,” she subvocalizes, mouth moving noiselessly. The ribbon throbs as it snakes down through the hollow, telling her to rush on, to find her vulpine prize. But route generation systems are simple, and they never were good at recognizing danger.

Staff on her shoulder in deceptively casual form, Rose from the River walks down into the earth, letting it rise on either side to the height of her shoulders. The statue stands impassive as roots rustle beneath her bare feet. Her breath is silent. Her heart is silent. The world swells with the anticipation of noise. And in that moment, when it comes, Rose from the River will not be taken by surprise.
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