It begins here: near the edge of the City, where the cathedral abuts the shanty town, in the packed auditorium on Thorn Street, three rows from the front, in the mind hidden behind the polished, marble eyes of Janet Keeler.
She is here to watch Artemis perform the Rhyming, and it is this which reopens the long rents in her mind. After every performance Janet swears she will never come again, but each time she finds herself returning. It is as if she sleepwalks the rest of her life, and waking, finds herself in the auditorium once again, her oath broken. As if her presence here is destiny.
The audience wait in a silence like the stillness of space. The last of the grains in the hourglass can be heard tumbling to the end of their journey.
Finally Artemis stands. Until she raises her head, there is nothing but darkness - the black of her cloak, the chestnut waterfall of her hair. And then her face is the moon against the night sky, dazzling. Lips move with a last murmur, and Artemis reaches across the table for the knife. She pulls back one sleeve, baring an arm whose pale smoothness is blighted by scars.
Her mouth becomes a thin black line as once again she splits the skin across her forearm. The sound of the knife as she drops it back onto the table is as loud as the first peal of unexpected thunder. She allows enough of the blood to run down to her elbow and into the goblet; then, with her right hand and teeth, ties a rapid tourniquet.
All is haste. The goose quill is in her hand, the parchment before her. She dips into the blood and feverishly begins to write. Still her eyes are shut. She does this, Janet thinks, to prevent the vision in her mind from being tainted by any glimpse of the imperfect world beyond.
At last, it is done. Artemis stands, opens her eyes, reads aloud what she has composed.
And Janet discovers all over again why she must be here when Artemis performs. She is famed for her ability to deal with complex meter, and to rhyme in a way that is unpredictable and yet utterly apt, but, as always, it is the force of her passion that steals the breath of her audience. Read by another, the piece would be brilliant, but from the lips of Artemis it seems to speak directly to Janet; was surely composed for her alone. It is the essence of beauty; a raw slice of soul.
As if waking from amnesia, Janet remembers exactly what she will feel. First there are the tears, but in this she is not unique, for much of the audience join her. This is Artemis' payment - more honest than mere applause. It is what comes after that sets Janet apart from the others - the feeling that a part of her has died. Because it is not Janet on the stage, not Janet performing, not Janet who commands the tears and adulation of the audience. She can pretend for a moment - if she imagines hard enough - that she is Artemis, but inevitably there is a time when she must return to herself, the boredom of herself, the nothing of herself.
It cannot go on like this, she thinks, for the hundredth, the thousandth time. There must be a way to break the cycle.
And it comes to her, like an unexpected gift - a challenge to the script in her mind that demands to be followed; the script that each time brings her to disappointment and depression. Something in her protests at the idea, but it is swamped by a wild hope that blossoms with each passing second. A way to break the cycle. She finds herself revelling in the audacity of it.
This time, Janet is first to leave the auditorium.
She waits in the mouth of an alleyway which separates a jeweller's from a tannery and presses her back to the black of the rain-slick stone. The anticipation makes her tremble, and there is a wrenching sensation in her head - the desire to walk away, back to the safety of her home, is strong. But while she stands here, fortified by stubbornness, there is hope.
Preceded by the pad of footsteps, Artemis appears. She wears a cloak that hides her from the weather, from the world; and the ponderous buildings respond in kind, windows narrow and dark, and reflecting only darkness.
Janet observes the way she walks: bowed, shrunken, as if the burden of her life were too much to bear. This is how it is for them, she thinks: not wanting for talent or fame, but convinced through some reasoning she cannot understand that their lives are empty. She feels the ridge above her eyes knotting with anger - an anger she nurtures, because she knows it will help with what she is about to do.
She waits until Artemis crosses the alleyway, and at the last instant almost denies herself the opportunity. But no - she has torn up the old script. A new one is in the writing.
"Artemis," she whispers. The Rhymer's step falters, and she starts to turn before realising that she must not stop, not for anything, and in that instant Janet jerks the length of wood across the side of her head. Too soft, she thinks, having pulled the blow at the last moment, then: too hard, as a glistening darkness appears from beneath her hair. Artemis takes a step back, listing to one side. In an effort to regain balance, she pushes herself into Janet's waiting arms. They fall to their knees as one and Janet clamps both arms around the body of the Rhymer to protect her from further harm.
With her face buried in the beautiful chestnut hair, she feels Artemis' warmth, even through the waterproof cloak. She rocks the unconscious woman back and forth, like a baby. The rain touches their faces.
It will not be real, Janet tells herself, until Artemis opens her eyes. I have done nothing until she wakes. She paces her cellar, wall to wall to wall, before making sure once again that everything is present, everything correct: a plate with bread and cheese, a large bowl of water, a bucket in one corner, a small table; and yes, the chains are tight around her ankles, and yes, they are fastened securely to the iron hoop set in the wall, and yes, it has all been checked a dozen times already. There is only the endless waiting.
At first it is only the smallest of sounds. Then a flutter of eyelids, like petals in a breeze.
Janet is prepared for the look of fear, the trapped animal confusion. She half expects a scream, a violent struggle, something that will rudely banish the Rhymer's sense of grace. But Artemis remains composed.
"Why?" she asks Janet, in a voice full of resignation, as if kidnapping and imprisonment are things she experiences daily.
And Janet finds that she cannot reply. It is suddenly all alive and real and done. Vistas open up in her mind's eye of futures where she has become enough like this woman to create beauty in words, and to be revered for it. She has dreamed these things before, but never with such a sense of hope. These thoughts are so far removed from her daily experience that she is intoxicated by the possibilities they conjure.
She is on her knees, she realises, and the words she has been waiting to deliver, the words she has so carefully chosen, are lost.
"You're here to teach me," she blurts. "You're here to tell me how you do it. Because no-one performs the Rhyming like you."
Artemis' eyes are unmoving.
Janet feels a sudden disappointment with herself. The great Rhymer deserves something better than these first few feeble sentences.
She stands and turns and runs up the wooden staircase to the trapdoor, climbs out, closes the hatch and slides both bolts home - all, it seems, in the space of a single heartbeat - because she cannot bear to be in the presence of such radiance for a moment longer. She moves the rug over the trapdoor and lays face down upon it, her heart beating against the floorboards, holding the brightness within.
A long and intimate acquaintance with failure had seduced Janet into the belief that anything she wanted would be denied her. Now, having spoken those few words, she feels that dealing with Artemis will become easier; that she can build on this success, and the next, and the next. For the first time, the idea of performing the Rhyming seems less a fantasy and more an ambition; something she might almost be capable of achieving.
Today she brings down parchment, ink and a quill for the first time. She carries them on a silver tray, which she places carefully on the table in front of Artemis. Her excitement helps her to face the Rhymer, who inspires no less awe for being chained.
"Show me how you do it," Janet says, holding her breath on the last word.
"The methods are secret."
"I realise you have to say that, but Artemis ... I know you're the most generous person in the City. When you perform you give your audience a great gift. I know you won't refuse an opportunity to pass on your knowledge to someone who longs to perform the Rhyming."
If the appeal to her benevolence is not enough, perhaps the flattery will persuade her.
But Artemis is shaking her head.
"I can't tell you."
"I won't let anyone know. It can be our secret."
"You don't understand," she murmurs. Then: "You know that, even now, people are searching for me."
"Of course. But no-one saw what happened on the street. We won't be interrupted here. We have all the time we need."
Artemis shakes her head, a gentle movement, but so decisive that Janet feels her control of the situation slipping.
"You must tell me. That's why I brought you here."
"You can't leave until you do."
"Then I'm to rot here," Artemis says, and turns her head aside. For her, the conversation is finished.
Janet feels her fingers twitch against her thighs. She would be impressed by this display of stubbornness if she were not so angered by it. What can she possibly do to sway someone of such resolve?
Of course, there is an answer, but Janet had so hoped they could be friends. Perhaps she was naïve to think it. Artemis is not a thing of perfection: like anyone else, she is capable of obstinacy and selfishness. Well ... there is an answer.
"Let me know when you change your mind," she says, getting to her feet. She takes the food and the bowl of water, and retreats up the stairs to the trapdoor.
Although her life has changed in ways which, until recently, she would have thought impossible, her work on the production line is no different. Conveyor belts tirelessly supply her with components: each a challenge to her patience, and each a reminder that she is the most fallible part in an otherwise mechanical process. The purpose of the objects she assembles is a mystery to her - they might be medical tools, or weapons of mass destruction; she simply cannot tell. Perhaps they are broken into their constituent parts and returned to her for reassembly. At times she feels like the brunt of an elaborate practical joke which never quite reaches its punchline.
Surely the world will shrivel and die before her day comes to an end.
When the bell finally rings, she almost stays behind, feeling unworthy of such sweet liberation. She stumbles home through streets stained with the last light of a bloated, bloody sun. Her mind runs ahead of her, so that only peripherally is she aware of the harlots, the beggars, the starving children that litter the alleyways and street corners.
Home, she stops to grab the food and takes a deep breath before opening the trapdoor. This time, she will be like stone before Artemis: undaunted, unshakeable.
"If you want to eat," she says, looking down at the Rhymer, "you'll have to teach me. It's as simple as that."
She is still unsure that a day without food has had any effect.
"You don't understand," Artemis says finally. "It's not the way you think."
Hearing this, and hearing in it the hint of resignation, Janet already knows she has won. The threat of starvation is more potent than she imagined.
"So you'll teach me?" The grin is involuntary, stretching her lips tight.
Artemis looks away and Janet allows the smile to fall. She takes a step backward, still holding the plate and bowl in her hands, and sees Artemis' eyes flicker towards them.
"Yes. I'll teach you."
"But you don't understand what it's like."
"Then tell me."
"You have these lofty visions of riches and fame and universal adoration. Don't deny it; I've met dozens like you."
The words are soft, as is everything the Rhymer says, but there is a force behind them. Artemis is a dam, holding back a million tons of water.
"I know what you're doing," Janet says sweetly. "You're trying to protect yourself. You're afraid that if you teach me, I might surpass you." It makes her dizzy to say such a thing. "That's very flattering."
"You have no idea!" There is open annoyance on Artemis' face. "Every aspect of my life is controlled by my mentor. Everything. Each waking hour I must endure pain or fear or boredom or whatever Imogen thinks is necessary to perfect my art. And my only reward is that I'm successful. There is no money, no comfort and never - never - anything approaching luxury. You are deluded."
Janet glances down at the plate and bowl she still holds. "Don't stop. You have to tell me everything."
The Rhymer lowers her head and the curtain of hair falls across her face. Perhaps there are tears behind that veil, or an expression of shame at the secrets she is about to reveal. Janet finds herself uncaring. As long as the secrets come.
"Imogen is paid handsomely to make me suffer. All mentors must do this. Sometimes I'm locked in my room for days with no human contact, or left in the freezing rain without clothes."
"Is that all? I've been alone before. I've been cold."
To this, Artemis reacts beautifully.
"You think you suffer as I do? Perhaps you would prefer to be poisoned, to have needles pushed under your fingernails, to be tied up, or beaten, or prostituted. Everything is sacrificed for the performance." Her eyes are shut tight. "And you want this?"
"Yes! Do you think there is anything I wouldn't do to perform the Rhyming like you? What you don't understand is how hard it is to be poor, and ordinary and ... and ignored. People worship you - everybody worships you. Yes, I want it!"
Artemis is alabaster still, and Janet hears in the echoes of her voice that she has been shouting. She feels guilty, shocked even, that she has spoken with such force to her idol. She waits for her anger to abate, and her next words are gentler; a kind of reconciliation.
"Why does Imogen do these things to you? Does she hate you?"
"The Rhymer has to touch the heart of every person in the audience. To do that, we have to understand their pain, and we understand it by experiencing it. Without empathy, the Rhyming would be worthless."
"And cutting yourself? Writing with your own blood?"
"If the Rhyming were easy to perform it would have little value. The pain is a measure of our commitment."
"But if it causes you such pain, why do it?"
"You wouldn't understand."
"Tell me anyway."
Artemis' silence is more eloquent than any reply.
Janet nods. "You do it because you have to. You do it because you're good at it, and people will love you for it. I understand."
And again, the lack of words tells her everything.
"Why does someone else have to cause the pain?"
Artemis looks distant for a moment and her voice drops to a murmur. "It takes another to be so cruel. No-one could be that harsh with herself."
Janet puts the bowl and plate on the floor and takes up the quill and parchment in their stead.
"Oh, I think I can. I really do."
And the lessons begin.
Janet can hear the blood rushing in her head as she finishes the last line and lowers the parchment that bears her first composition. She waits for Artemis to speak with a feeling that she will die, whatever the verdict.
"It's very good."
Janet feels something snap in her head - a kind of relief that she no longer has to wait for the inevitable disappointment. Her fury is so comfortable after the agony of anticipation.
"Don't lie to me - this is nothing like your work, nothing like it!" She takes hold of Artemis by the hair and shakes. "If it were any good, you would weep!"
The teaching continues, often after further threats of starvation. Each time, Janet brings the session closer to the true nature of the Rhyming: the period of meditation, the use of the knife, the cloak, the goblet. She studies Artemis in the minutest detail as she performs the ritual, taking note of body posture, breathing patterns, the way the quill is held, the tourniquet tied. She examines Artemis' work for rhyme and rhythm, form and phrasing.
The work consumes her. After several days in which she fails to appear at the factory, she resigns. The manager is furious, but she hardly notices his tirade: already her thoughts are back in the cellar with Artemis. From this point on, she leaves the house only when lack of food forces her.
She lets her hair grow longer, dyes it, curls it, loses weight; as far as she is capable, she becomes Artemis. At times she finds it difficult to believe that they are two distinct people, so completely does she immerse herself in Artemis' psyche.
Her abilities improve, but greatness eludes her with every stanza. Pushed to the very back of her thoughts is the notion that the Rhymer's magic is exactly that: a kind of sorcery, free from all possibility of analysis or understanding. But to believe this would be to admit that her efforts are in vain. It cannot be true.
She suspects two things of Artemis. The first is that she must be attempting escape. And yet each time she returns to the cellar, Artemis sits in the same place on the floor, hands in her lap, her eyes raised to the ceiling, as if watching the stars. The second suspicion is that Artemis is yet withholding a vital piece of knowledge about the Rhyming. If this is the case, it seems she will take it to her grave, for further starvation, and threats of punishments far worse, seem unable to dislodge it.
Where once dreams of wealth and fame and adoration flowered, now there is only the cancer of failure, spreading throughout her body, corrupting. After six weeks of intensive work - and much parchment, and much blood - Janet can no longer allay the suspicion that she has reached the ceiling of her abilities.
She confesses this to herself in a fit of self-pity. There is a long knife in the kitchen, a knife with an eager edge. It would be so simple.
But behind the anguish, she finds her mind is working at a furious pace to find another solution. This shouldn't surprise her - after all, has she not survived orphanhood, and friendlessness, and the crippling boredom of her job?
It is the same thing that caused the revelation in the auditorium; that same brash, dizzy feeling that heralds the opening of the floodgates. It has grown fat in recent days on a diet of frustration and jealousy, and has decided that she must act.
It whispers to her, and she delights at her own seduction: Artemis is keeping something from you.
So: the rage which until recently was chaotic, self-destructive, suddenly becomes tightly focused. She moves to the kitchen, and there, the length of white cloth and the sharpened axe find their way into her hands. She is at the trapdoor.
At the bottom of the stairs she allows Artemis several seconds in which to confess her secret: those magic words that have the power to transform Janet into the object of her aspirations. The Rhymer's eyes are fixed on the blade, but she offers nothing.
The operation is simple: Artemis holds her arms up in front of her face for protection, making it easy for Janet to take hold of a hand and place it on the writing desk. She is vaguely aware that beyond the hand, somewhere far away from the focus of her attention, there is a struggle. But her only interest is the hand, and the axe as it bites. There is no sound at all except the echo of metal on wood. Artemis' eyes close and she slumps against the table. Janet finds it necessary to move the Rhymer's head aside - she could never bring herself to damage that beautiful hair - before removing the other hand. She quickly stops the bleeding and dresses the wounds.
The moment finally comes when Artemis stirs from unconsciousness. Janet waits for the eyes to focus, for awareness to burn away the fog of sleep, before she speaks her carefully prepared lines:
"You see what I've done? You'll never perform the Rhyming again. Now there's no reason to hold back your secrets - you can tell me everything and it won't matter."
She finds the right response in Artemis' face - trembling lips, incipient tears. She stares down at the ends of her arms, now bandaged, and says groggily, "Never perform again."
"That's right." Sharp, sharp satisfaction.
"Thank you," Artemis says. "Thank you."
Janet rises from her crouch and steps backwards. Artemis is delirious; doesn't know what she's saying. She must be delirious from the pain ... or she's lying, trying to distract me.
But the truth burns through her feeble excuses - Artemis means what she is saying. The Rhymer is weeping with ... joy? relief? All Janet knows is that it is not the regret she expected, the regret she should feel for not having told everything.
Her behaviour is incomprehensible, blasphemous.
Artemis, not yet wholly recovered, lapses back into unconsciousness, leaving Janet to the torture of her confusion.
For a moment, panic fills her world - surely she is drowning. Artemis struggles to rise from fathomless depths, through waters black as tar, towards light.
Or a kind of light. Her eyes snap open to meet a place of dark stone - a room, a cellar. Ah, she thinks with cutting disappointment: still here. The oblivion from which she has so recently surfaced is, perhaps, not so terrible after all.
She reaches for her face to feel the flesh there, to confirm that she is truly here and not floundering in the sea, breathing water.
But her skin is met not by fingers but bandages crusted with blood, and the memory of what has occurred returns to crush her. Had she really rejoiced at the loss of her hands? Yes, and for good reason: she is free from the tyranny of the Rhyming; unable ever to perform the ritual again. Many times she has dreamed of ending her career, but the Rhyming is so much a part of her that the prospect of living without it filled her with trepidation. Now, the decision has been made for her, and permanently.
But her delight at suddenly finding this freedom imposed on her had overshadowed something more important, more fundamental: the idea that she will never touch anything, never hold anything, never feel anything again. If she escapes, her reliance on Imogen will be greater, not less. She finds it difficult to believe that in the wake of her pain she thought this a liberation.
Janet is here, eyes lost in shadows cast by dark brows. In her hands, yet another parchment. Fear spurts through Artemis, so familiar it feels almost like boredom.
"What?" she asks wearily.
"You talk in your sleep."
In the light of her loss, she finds herself uninterested.
"In fact you compose in your sleep. I wrote it down." Janet raises the parchment and reads it tremulously.
Artemis must confess that it is one of her best. Metrically, it is loose, but still solid, vibrant. The piece is shot through with the characteristic imagery of dreams, pervasive as veins in marble. She finds herself strangely moved by her own creation, and yet remembers nothing of speaking it.
That her talent goes deeper than consciousness causes her an inexplicable sadness.
"Well?" Janet asks.
Artemis knows that it is hers; Janet could not have produced something so beautiful. "I don't know what to say."
"You could tell me how to do this," Janet says through gritted teeth, shaking the parchment in her face.
"I've taught you what I can."
"But I still don't come close! Do I?"
What is the best thing to say to calm her down?
"Do I?" she bellows.
"What are you keeping from me?"
Helplessly she says, "Nothing," knowing this is what Janet least wants to hear.
Endless seconds pass, in which Artemis plumbs new depths of dread. The light paints only the merest hint of colour on Janet's face: the rest is shadow.
"What else is there? I've done everything - followed the ritual in every detail."
Artemis knows it is true. This woman has given up her job, her sleep, all contact with the world outside. She has attempted all of the most potent means of meditation and purification known, her arms bear the stigmata of innumerable failed writings, and still she cannot summon the magic. Artemis is forced to conclude that there is indeed such a thing as innate talent; a quality which Janet does not possess and which she can never be taught. She knows also that to speak these words would be her death.
Janet says, "I take away your ability to perform, and what happens? You compose better than ever. Better - " suddenly she is on her feet. Her expression has relaxed into something quieter but no less terrible than her fury. She runs up the stairs, flinging the trapdoor wide, neglecting to close it behind her.
Artemis pushes herself backwards with her feet, only to find that she is already wedged into the corner. The rectangle of the open trapdoor stares at her, accusing. If she could shed her chains now - make a final, supreme effort to force her feet through them... She pulls with one foot, and the iron bites deep into an ankle already chafed raw. Filling her lungs to capacity, she tries again, breaking the skin, bleeding.
Janet returns with the axe.
Artemis ceases all movement; not even blinking, not even breathing.
"Pain." Janet rasps. "It's pain. That's why this," she snatches up the parchment, "is so good."
The axe drops onto the table between them.
"You said no-one could be harsh enough with themselves, didn't you?"
Even if she were able to do so, Artemis knows better than to speak.
Janet is hyperventilating as she picks up the axe, her mouth a tiny scar, the eyes wide as those of a panicked horse.
She thumps her left arm onto the table and brings the axe down with enough force to separate the hand. Behind blade and blood, Artemis sees a grimace of triumph. Janet tries to pass the axe to her other hand, to complete the job. But her hand is no longer fit for this purpose - it rests on the table, red and white, splayed and spiderlike; no longer a part of her body. There is fear on her face for the first time, so potent, so candid that Artemis can almost feel sympathy.
"Help me!" Janet pleads. "I have to be like you; exactly like you."
But Artemis is in the corner again, hiding behind her own ruined arms, trying to wish herself away.
Janet grasps hold of the bandages and tries to stop the flow of blood; but with only one hand, and with her coordination shattered by pain, she finds it impossible.
Sinking to her knees before Artemis, her face betrays a pathetic expression of hope. She squeezes two and a half lines of uninspired verse from her lungs, hoping to find her muse in the paramountcy of pain, before her face becomes white, her eyes defocus, and she topples forwards into death.
If not for the lack of food and water, there would be all the time in the world to work on her chains. But Janet left her only a bowl of water and half a loaf for sustenance each day.
Artemis still cannot pull her feet free. And this is not the only frustration: her numerous searches of Janet's corpse yield no key, and her shouts for help are absorbed by the walls of the house. If she still had her hands, she would use the axe: to cut through her chains; to break the bones in her feet and slip them through; ultimately, perhaps, to finish herself. Fate has denied her all three.
She comes to hate the blank stare of the open trapdoor, its mocking promise of freedom.
The fear now is a very different thing: no longer the stabbing sensation that accompanied Janet's outbursts; instead, it is the torpid dread of starvation, dehydration.
Hours, days, become a blur, punctuated only by the delirious pleasure when she allows herself a scrap of bread, a sip of water.
Her supplies dwindle to nothing. Awareness recedes, and with it, hope.
It is a dream, she is sure, when she hears her name called for the first time. But, raising her head, she hears an identical sound and although the texture of her name is like something foreign, the voice itself seems familiar.
"Here," she says, the word like untanned leather in her throat. She wonders how long it has been since she last called for help.
She sits up, hearing movement above her, and a figure descends the stairs.
Familiar. So familiar. Imogen's face is an angel's. Each step she takes is a declaration of her freedom, and her ability to bestow it. Artemis falls onto her elbows and knees, and weeps. If she has ever doubted her mentor, she repents, and curses herself for such ingratitude.
"Your hands..." Imogen says, stopping abruptly.
"It's all right -"
"Your hands. How will you perform the Rhyming?"
"I can still compose."
But Imogen is shaking her head. "You expect to continue like this? They will never accept it." She stares, as if Artemis is something abhorrent.
"There are other ways to -"
"How could you allow this to happen? You've ruined us." She retreats, shaking her head, as if trying to turn away from what she sees. And already she is at the stairs, turning, beginning to ascend, stiffened with disbelief.
"There is nothing more to say."
Seeing her last hope disappearing, Artemis arrests Imogen the only way she can - by saying the thing she has promised never to utter, no matter what the circumstance; the secret that Janet had sought so desperately, even though such knowledge was worthless to her.
She says, "Mother," and Imogen halts on the third step.
She turns to face her daughter. "You agreed never to say it."
"But why? Because it hurts more to have a mentor who is also my mother?" And suddenly, the answer comes to her; it is laid before her like a raw heart. "You feel guilty."
Imogen looks away, and Artemis believes for a moment that she has shamed her. But when she turns back, there is a simmering disgust in her eyes.
"I made you the success you are today, Artemis. Who has done more for their daughter? The whole City loves you."
Even to herself, Artemis sounds like a child as she says, "I wanted you to love me."
As they leave her lips, she is aware that these words are the truest she has ever spoken - all her Rhymings are as nothing next to these few simple syllables.
Imogen's face mirrors the blackest of Janet's moods as she climbs the remaining stairs.
Artemis says, "Mother."
The trapdoor slams. The bolts are shot.
It ends here: in the despair of Artemis the Rhymer, in the cellar of a house not far from the packed auditorium on Thorn Street, where the cathedral abuts the shanty town, near the edge of the City.
© Richard Salsbury 2001.
This story was first published in World Wide Writers.
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