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Darkness Descending

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Darkness Descending

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Earthlight UK, 2000
Tor, 2000
Series: Darkness: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Now Turtledove returns to the story of a World War in a world where magic works, with this moving second volume. Algarvian soldiers corral Kaunians to send them west, towards Unkerlant, to work camps. The Kaunians left behind are worried about what the work camps might mean, but are assauged by Algarvian lies.

In Kuusamo, scholars race to find the relation between the laws of similarity and contagion. Rumors abound about the Algarvian work camps, rumors most cannot believe as true. But the mages know, for they can feel the loss of life in their very souls.

Turtledove's cast of characters takes on its own life as the reader sees the war from all sides and understands how the death and destruction benefits no one, not even the victors.



Tealdo slogged west across what seemed an endless sea of grass. Every so often, he or his Algarvian comrades would flush a bird from cover. They'd raise their sticks to their shoulders and blaze at it as it fled. They were ready to blaze at anything.

Sometimes they would flush an Unkerlanter from cover. Unlike the birds, the Unkerlanters had a nasty habit of blazing back. The Unkerlanters also had an even nastier habit of staying in cover till a good-sized party of Algarvian soldiers had gone by, and then blazing at them from behind. The ones Tealdo and his comrades caught after stunts like that did not go east into captives' camps, even if they tried to surrender.

"Stubborn whoreson," Sergeant Panfilo said, dragging one such soldier in rock-gray out of his hole once he'd been stalked and slain. His coppery side whiskers and waxed mustachios were sadly draggled. "Don't know what he thought he was doing, but he isn't going to do it anymore."

"He wounded two of ours, one of them pretty bad," Tealdo said. "I suppose he figured--or his commanders figured--that's fair exchange." His own mustache and little chin beard, about as red as Panfilo's, could also have used sprucing up. No matter how fastidious you wanted to be, you couldn't stay neat in the field.

From up ahead, Captain Galafrone called, "Come on, you lazy bastards! We've got a long way to go before we can take it easy. Unkerlant isn't much of a kingdom, but it's cursed big."

"And that's the other thing this fellow was doing," Tealdo said, stirring the dead Unkerlanter with his foot: "Slowing us down, I mean."

Panfilo swept off his hat and gave Tealdo a sardonic bow. "I thank you for your explanation, my lord Marshal. Or are you perhaps pretending to be the king?"

"Never mind," Tealdo said. Arguing with his sergeant didn't pay. Neither did showing Panfilo up.

They started marching west again, toward a column of smoke that marked a burning village. A young lieutenant with soot streaking his face came up to Galafrone and said, "Sir, will you order in your men to rout out the last of those miserable Unkerlanters in there?"

Galafrone frowned. "I don't much like to do it. I'd sooner leave 'em behind and push on. If we fight for every miserable little village, we'll run out of men before King Swemmel does."

"But if we pass them all by, they'll harass us from behind," the lieutenant said. Then he noticed that Galafrone, while wearing a captain's badges, had none that proclaimed him a noble. The young officer's lip curled. "I don't suppose commoners can be expected to have the spirit to understand such things."

Galafrone knocked him down. When he started to get up, the veteran knocked him down again, and kicked him for good measure. "I don't suppose they teach juniors to respect their superior officers these days," he remarked in conversational tones. "But you've just learned that lesson, haven't you?"

"Sir?" the lieutenant wheezed, and then, "Aye, sir." When he got up again, Galafrone let him. He took a deep breath before resuming, "Sir, you may not care for my tone"--which was, Tealdo judged, a pretty fair understatement--"but the question remains: how can we leave the Unkerlanters behind us?"

"They'll wither on the vine once we pass them by,"Galafrone said. "We've got to knock this whole kingdom flat, not fight through it one village at a time."

"If we don't capture the villages, sir"--the young lieutenant was careful now to speak with all due military formality, but did not back away from his own view--"how are we going to knock the kingdom flat?"

Despite the fellow's earlier insolence, Tealdo thought it a decent question. Galafrone didn't hesitate in answering it. Galafrone, as far as Tealdo could see, rarely hesitated about anything. "We've got to smash the big armies," he said. "These little village garrisons are just nuisances, and they'll be bigger nuisances if we let them." He waved to indicate a path around the village. "Come on, men," he called, raising his voice. "We've got to press on."

"Captain," the lieutenant said stiffly, "I must protest, and I shall report your conduct to higher authority."

Galafrone gave him a wave of invitation so elegant any noble might have envied it. "Go right ahead. If you care to let people know your favorite way to knock down a stone wall is by ramming it with your head, that's your affair." He waved again, this time getting his company moving in the direction he judged best. The lieutenant watched them go, his hands on his hips, the picture of exasperated frustration.

Coming up alongside of Trasone, Tealdo said, "I hope those Unkerlanters don't break out of there and kick us in the arse when we're looking the other way."

"Aye, I can think of things I'd like better," Trasone agreed. He pointed ahead toward a tangled wood of oaks and elms. "I can think of things I like better than heading through that, too. Powers above only know what the Unkerlanters have got lurking in there."

Several unpleasant possibilities crossed Tealdo's mind. Evidently, they crossed Galafrone's mind, too, for the captain ordered a halt. Now he looked unhappy. "They could have a whole regiment in among those trees," he said. "I don't care to bypass them, not even a little I don't." Hisface grew longer still. "Maybe that cursed lieutenant wasn't as stupid as I thought."

Now Tealdo did see him have trouble making up his mind. Before he could give any orders, a man emerged from the woods. Tealdo threw himself flat and had his stick aimed, ready to send a beam at the fellow, before noticing he wore tunic and kilt of light brown--Algarvian uniform--not an Unkerlanter's rock-gray long tunic.

"It's all right," the soldier called in Algarvian with a northwestern accent much like Tealdo's. "They threw us out of here day before yesterday, but not for long. A few of the whoresons may still be running around loose off the paths, but you shouldn't have any trouble getting through."

"That sounds good enough," Galafrone said. He waved his company forward. "Let's go! The sooner we're through, the sooner we can hit the Unkerlanters another lick."

Tealdo rapidly discovered the Algarvian soldier who'd told him the woods were mostly clear of Unkerlanters was a born optimist. Some paths through the woods were clear. The Algarvians already in among the trees kept those paths clear by posting guards along them. One of the guards called, "You go off the road to squat in the bushes, you're liable to get blazed or get your throat cut or have something worse happen to you."

"Who does hold these stinking woods, then?" Tealdo called back.

"Wherever we are, we hold," the guard answered. "Eventually, they'll run out of food and they'll run out of charges for their sticks. Then they'll either surrender or try and pretend they were peasants all along. In the meantime, they're a cursed nuisance."

Galafrone swore. "Aye, maybe that lieutenant did have a point." A moment later, though, he snorted and added, "Besides the one on top of his head, I mean. Thought he was a noble, so his shit didn't stink." He turned back to hismen. "Hurry along, you chuckleheads, hurry along. Got to keep moving."

"Got to keep moving is right," Trasone grumbled. "Sounds like we're nothing but targets if we don't."

They turned out to be targets even when they did keep moving. A beam slammed into the trunk of an oak in front of Tealdo. Steam hissed out of the hole charred in the living wood. It would have hissed out of a hole charred in his living flesh the same way.

He threw himself off the track and behind a log. Somewhere behind him, a comrade was screaming. Off to the other side of the path, the Unkerlanters were shouting: hoarse cries of "Urra! Urra!" and King Swemmel's name repeated again and again. More beams hissed through the air above Tealdo's head, giving it the smell it had just after lightning struck.

From behind a nearby bush, Trasone called, "I'm sure glad we cleared the whoresons out of these woods. They must have been standing on each other's shoulders in here before we came through and did it."

"Oh, aye." Tealdo hunkered down lower behind his log as the shouting on the other side of the path got louder. "And now they're going to try and throw us out again."

Still shouting "Urra!" Unkerlanters swarmed across the path. Tealdo blazed one down, but then had to scramble back frantically to keep from being cut off and surrounded. All at once, he understood how the Forthwegians and Sibians and Valmierans and Jelgavans--aye, and the Unkerlanters, too--must have felt when King Mezentio's armies struck them. He would sooner have done without the lesson.

Mezentio and the Algarvian generals had outplanned their foes as well as beaten them on the battlefield. The Unkerlanters here in this stretch of wood showed no such inspired generalship. All they had were numbers and ferocity. Tealdo tripped over a root and fell headlong. Those were liable to be enough.

"Rally by squads!" Captain Galafrone shouted, somewhere not too far away.

"To me! To me!" That was Sergeant Panfilo. Never had his raucous voice seemed so welcome to Tealdo.

As Tealdo made his way toward Panfilo, Galafrone shouted again, this time for his crystallomancer. Tealdo's lips skinned back from his teeth. One way or another, the Unkerlanters were going to catch it.

He only hoped he didn't catch it first. Along with Trasone, he found Sergeant Panfilo. They all had to keep falling back, though, ever deeper among the trees. Tealdo began to wonder if they would run into still more Unkerlanters there. He would hear cries of "Urra!" and "Swemmel!" in his nightmares as long as he lived. He hoped he lived long enough to have nightmares.

He cheered when eggs started falling among the Unkerlanters who'd broken the Algarvian grip on the path. He cheered again when shouts of "Mezentio!" rang out from the east, and yet again when the Unkerlanters started yelling in dismay rather than in fury.

As Algarvian reinforcements struck the Unkerlanters, the pressure on Galafrone's company eased. "Powers above be praised for crystallomancers," Panfilo said, wiping sweat from his face.

"Aye." Tealdo and Trasone spoke together. Trasone went on, "Say whatever you want about these cursed Unkerlanters, but going up against them isn't like fighting the Jelgavans or the Valmierans. We'll lick 'em, aye, but they don't know they're licked yet, if you know what I mean."

"That's the truth." Tealdo turned around, still nervous lest some Unkerlanters come at him from behind. "Uh-oh." He caught a glimpse of light brown kilt behind a bush. By the way the Algarvian soldier lay, Tealdo knew the fellow had to be dead. He looked around, but all his companions--all the men who'd rallied to Sergeant Panfilo--were still standing. He took a few steps forward, then stopped in his tracks.

Panfilo and Trasone followed him. Trasone gulped. "Powers above," Panfilo said softly.

The Algarvians, half a dozen of them, looked to have been dead for a couple of days. Maybe they'd been caught in the earlier Unkerlanter counterattack in the woods. The guard on the path had had the right of it. They hadn't been blazed. They hadn't had their throats cut. They'd been gruesomely and systematically mutilated. Most of them had their kilts hiked up. What the Unkerlanters had done down there ...

In a sick voice, Trasone said, "We haven't fought a war like this for a long time."

"Well, we are now," Tealdo said grimly. "I don't think I want to be taken alive, doesn't look like. If I can't find some way to kill myself, I'd sooner have a friend do it than go through ... that." One by one, the other Algarvians nodded.

Waddo strode out into the middle of Zossen's village square. Garivald, watching from the edge of the square, found the stocky village firstman's walk curious: half the limping swagger he usually used, half a nervous, almost slinking step, as if Waddo also feared the pride he so often displayed.

Garivald, for once, felt a certain sympathy for the firstman. Waddo had been reporting the iniquities of the Algarvians, all of them lovingly detailed on the crystal that had recently come to the Unkerlanter village. Like everyone else in Zossen, Garivald had expected the next bombastic announcement would be of the Unkerlanter invasion of Algarvian-occupied Forthweg, and probably of Yanina as well. Instead, a few days before, the crystal announced that the Algarvians had without warning attacked Unkerlanter forces engaged in no warlike activity. A palace spokesman had declared that the Algarvians would be beaten. He had not said how.

Since then, silence.

Silence till now, silence that let fear build, especially among the older villagers who remembered how the Algarvians had hammered Unkerlant during the Six Years' War thirty years before. Gossip and rumor filled Zossen--and doubtless filled every other peasant village throughout the vast length and breadth of Unkerlant. Garivald had taken part, cautiously, with people he trusted. "If things were going well," he'd said to Dagulf, "Cottbus would be shouting its head off. It's not. That means things can't be going well."

"Makes sense to me," scar-faced Dagulf had said: also cautiously, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one, not even his wife, could overhear.

Now Waddo stood in the center of the square, waiting to be noticed. He struck a pose that guaranteed he would be noticed. "My friends," he said in a loud voice. A couple of people looked his way, but only a couple; he didn't have a lot of friends in the village. Then he spoke again, even louder: "People of Zossen, I have an important announcement. In one hour's time, I shall bring our precious crystal from my home to the square here, so that you may listen to an address by our famous, glorious, and illustrious sovereign. His Majesty King Swemmel will speak to you on the state of our war against the barbarous savages of Algarve."

Off he went, trying to look important. He had a right to look important: through his crystal, the king would speak to the village. Garivald had never imagined such a thing. If he got close enough to the crystal, he might actually see King Swemmel, though the king would not see him.

That was exciting. But, try as Waddo would to walk with the best swagger he could with his bad leg, that nasty, slinking hint of fear stayed in his step. It had nothing to do with the limp, either. Garivald didn't like it. If Waddo was afraid, he probably had good reason to be afraid. Garivald wondered what the firstman had heard on the crystal and then kept to himself.

Whatever it was, Garivald couldn't do anything about it. He hurried back to his own house to tell Annore and Syrivald the astonishing news. "The king?" his wife said, her dark eyes going wide. Like Garivald, like most Unkerlanters, she was solid and swarthy, with a proud nose. She repeated herself, as if she couldn't believe it: "King Swemmel will talk to our village?"

"Powers above," Syrivald added around a crust of black bread. Leuba, a toddler chewing on another crust, was too little to care whether Swemmel spoke to Zossen or not.

"I think he's going to be talking to the whole kingdom," Garivald said, "or to as many places as have crystals, anyhow."

"Will we go see him?" Syrivald asked.

"Aye, we will," his father answered. "I want to find out what the truth is about this miserable war we've got ourselves into with Algarve." After he'd spoken, he paused to wonder how much of the truth King Swemmel was likely to tell.

Annore said, "If we're going to go, we'd better go now, so we can get up close to the crystal." Suiting action to word, she scooped up Leuba and carried the toddler out of the house. Garivald and Syrivald followed.

They weren't the only family with the same idea. The square got as crowded as Garivald ever remembered seeing it, and then a little more crowded than that. Not everyone in Zossen had heard Waddo's announcement, but no one could miss friends and neighbors and relatives heading for the square. People jockeyed for position, stepped on one another's toes, and loosed a few judicious elbows. Garivald caught one, but he gave it back with interest.

"I don't know what we're squabbling about," somebody said. "Waddo's not even here with the crystal yet." That comment produced a brief, embarrassed pause in the pushing and shoving, but they soon resumed.

"Here he comes!" Three people said it at once. Everybodysurged toward Waddo, who carried the crystal on a cushion whose cover his wife had embroidered. "Make way!" That was three different people.

Waddo hadn't had such an eager, enthusiastic reception since ... Thinking back on it, Garivald couldn't remember the firstman ever getting such a reception. But, of course, it wasn't really for him; it was for the crystal he bore.

"Don't drop it!" someone told him.

"Set it on a stool," someone else said. "That way, more of us will have a chance to see."

Waddo took that suggestion, though he ignored the other one. "It won't be more than a few minutes before his Majesty speaks to us," he said. "He will set our minds at rest about the many things that trouble us."

Garivald doubted whether Swemmel would do any such thing. But he shouldered his way through the crowd till he stood in the second row and could peer at the crystal over the shoulders of the people in front of him. Inactive at the moment, the crystal might as well have been an ordinary ball of glass.

Then, abruptly, it ... changed. Garivald had heard stories of crystals in use, of course, but he'd never seen one work till now. First, light suffused it. Then, as the brief glow faded, he saw King Swemmel's long, pale, narrow face looking at him. But the other villagers' exclamations, they all saw the king looking at them, too, even though they surrounded the crystal. After the magic that made the crystal work, Garivald supposed the one that let it be viewed from any direction was a small thing by comparison. It impressed him just the same.

Swemmel stared out as if he really could see the peasants gaping at him from one end of the kingdom to the other. After Garivald's first astonishment and almost involuntary awe faded, he saw how haggard the king looked. Beside him, Annore murmured, "I don't think he's slept for days."

"Probably not since the war started," Garivald agreed. Then he fell silent, for King Swemmel had begun to speak.

"Brothers and sisters, peasants and townsmen, soldiers and sailors--I am speaking to you, my friends," Swemmel said, and Garivald was astonished yet again: he had never imagined that the king would address his subjects in such terms. Swemmel went on, now with the first-person plural instead of that astonishing, riveting first-person singular: "We are invaded. The vile hosts of King Mezentio have plunged their dagger deep into us, and Algarve's dogs, Yanina and Zuwayza, course behind their master. The enemy has stolen much of that part of Forthweg that we reclaimed for our kingdom summer before last. Our own long-held territory farther south also groans under the foe's heels."

Swemmel took a very visible breath. "But we must also tell you that only on our territory have the Algarvians, for the first time, met with serious resistance. If a part of that territory has nevertheless been occupied, let that serve as nothing more than a goad to our recovering it. The Algarvians, may the powers below eat them, caught Unkerlant by surprise. Let all Unkerlanters now take the accursed redheads by surprise as well."

Garivald raised an eyebrow at that. He thought King Swemmel had been getting ready for a war with Algarve. But Swemmel, after sipping from a crystal goblet of water or pale wine, was continuing: "Our kingdom has entered into a life-and-death struggle against its most wicked and perfidious foe. Our soldiers are fighting heroically against heavy odds against an enemy heavily armed with behemoths and dragons. The main force of the Unkerlanter army, with thousands of behemoths and dragons of its own, is now entering the battle. Together with our army, the whole of our people must rise to defend our kingdom.

"The enemy is cruel and ruthless. He aims at grabbing our land, our wheat, our power points, and cinnabar. Hewants to restore the exiled followers of Kyot the usurper, and through them to turn the people of Unkerlant into the slaves of Algarvian princes and viscounts.

"There should be no room in our ranks for whimperers and cowards, for deserters and panic-spreaders. Our people must be fearless and fight selflessly for Unkerlant. The whole kingdom now is and must be for the service of the army. We must fight for every inch of Unkerlanter soil, fight to the last drop of blood for our villages and towns. Wherever the army may be forced to retreat, all ley-line caravan cars must be taken away and the lines wrecked. The enemy must be left not a pound of bread nor an ounce of cinnabar. Peasants must drive away their livestock and hand over their grain to our inspectors to keep it out of the Algarvians' hands. All valuable property that cannot be moved must be destroyed.

"Friends, our forces are immeasurably large. The insolent enemy must soon become aware of this. Together with our army, our peasants and our laborers must also go to war against the treacherous Mezentio. All the strength of Unkerlant must be used to smash the foe. Victory will be ours. Onward!"

King Swemmel's image faded from the crystal. Light filled it again for a moment. Then it was, or seemed to be, simply a round lump of glass once more. Garivald shook himself, like a man awakening from a deep, dream-filled sleep. Instead of seeing the whole kingdom, as Swemmel had made him do, he was back in tiny Zossen, filled with the village he'd known all his life.

"That was a great speech," Waddo said, his eyes shining. "For the king to call us his friends ..."

"Aye, he sounded strong," Garivald agreed. "He sounded brave."

"He did indeed." That was Dagulf, who had no great use for the king.

Neither did Garivald. Neither, so far as he knew, did anyone in the village, save possibly Waddo. Even so, hesaid, "I may fear Swemmel more than I love him, but I think the redheads will come to fear him, too."

"He is what the kingdom needs right now," Annore said.

"We will fight them," Waddo said, sounding very fierce for a heavy man with a bad ankle. "We will fight them, and we will beat them."

"And once we have beaten them, we will make songs about it." That was Annore again. She glanced over toward her husband in confident anticipation.

No song rose up in Garivald right at the moment. He began sifting words in his mind, looking for rhymes, looking for smooth flows from one thought to the next. He frowned. "I don't know enough yet to make any songs."

"Nor shall you learn," Waddo said, "for surely our brave warriors and fliers shall drive back the Algarvians long before they enter Zossen." He looked toward the east with complete certainty.

"So may it be," Garivald said from the bottom of his heart.

Unlike so many Zuwayzin, Hajjaj was not fond of the desert for its own sake. He was a city man, most at home in Bishah or in the capitals of the other kingdoms of the continent of Derlavai. And he loathed camels with a loathing both deep and passionate, a loathing based on more experience than he cared to remember. Riding on camelback through the desert, then, should have been nothing but ennui and discomfort.

Instead, he found himself smiling from ear to ear as he rode along. This waste of thornbushes and sand and yellow stone had been seized by Unkerlant more than a year before. Now it was back in Zuwayzi hands, where the Treaty of Bludenz said it belonged--not that King Swemmel had paid any attention to the treaty when he invaded Zuwayza. That made it worth seeing, worth riding through, even if it was full of scorpions and lizards and bat-eared foxes just like any other stretch of desert.

Hajjaj's escort, a colonel named Muhassin, pointed to corpses from which vultures and ravens reluctantly flew as the camels ambled past them. "Here, your Excellency, the Unkerlanters made a stand. They fought bravely, but that did not save them."

"They are brave," Hajjaj said. "They are mostly ignorant and ruled by a king half a madman, but they are brave."

Muhassin adjusted his hat, which bore four silver bars--one broad, with three narrow ones beneath it--to show his rank. Zuwayzi officers had trouble making themselves as impressive as did their counterparts in other kingdoms, being limited to their headgear as an area for display: like Hajjaj, Muhassin wore hat and sandals and nothing else covering the brown skin between the one and the others. "They are dead now," Muhassin said, "dead or fled or captured."

"It is good," Hajjaj said, and the colonel nodded. The Zuwayzi foreign minister stroked his neat white beard, then went on, "Do I understand correctly that they were not here in great strength?"

"Aye, your Excellency," Muhassin replied. "Of course, they are somewhat occupied elsewhere. Otherwise, I have no doubt, we should not have enjoyed such an easy time of it."

"Powers above be praised that we did catch them unprepared to fight back hard," Hajjaj said. "Perhaps they did not believe everything Shaddad told them. My own secretary! Powers below eat the traitor! I had a scorpion in my own sandal there, and did not know it. But he did less harm than he might have."

"Perhaps it did not matter so much whether they believed him or not," Muhassin said. Hajjaj raised an eyebrow. The broad brim of his hat kept Muhassin from seeing that, but the colonel explained himself anyway: "If you were about to fight Algarve and Zuwayza at the same time, where would you place most of your warriors?"

Hajjaj considered that for a moment, then chuckledwryly. "I don't suppose King Swemmel crouches under his throne from fear of our parading through the streets of Cottbus on these ugly, mangy, ungainly brutes." He patted the side of his camel's neck with what looked something like affection.

Muhassin stroked his camel with what was obviously the genuine article. "Don't listen to him, Sunbeam," he crooned. "Everyone knows you're not mangy." The camel rewarded that limited endorsement by twisting around and trying to bite his knee. He smacked it in the nose. It let out a noise like a bagpipe being horribly murdered. Hajjaj threw back his head and laughed. Muhassin gave him a wounded look.

A column of glum-looking Unkerlanters came toward them. Naked Zuwayzi soldiers herded the men in rock-gray along. The Zuwayzin were in high spirits, singing and joking about the victories they'd won. They also made comments their captives were lucky they could not understand.

"Stop them for a moment, Colonel, if you'd be so kind," Hajjaj murmured to Muhassin. The officer called orders. The captives' guards shouted in broken Unkerlanter. The light-skinned men halted. In Algarvian, Hajjaj asked, "Does anyone speak this language?"

"I do, sir," an Unkerlanter said, stepping forward.

"Don't you wish your kingdom would have let mine alone?" Hajjaj asked him.

"I don't know anything about that, sir," the captive said, bowing low as he would have to one of his own nobles. "All I know is, they told me to come up here and do my best, and that's what I tried to do. Only trouble is, it didn't turn out to be good enough." He looked warily at Hajjaj. "You won't eat me, will you, sir?"

"Is that what they tell you Zuwayzin are like?" Hajjaj asked, and the Unkerlanter nodded. Hajjaj sighed sadly. "You don't look very appetizing, so I think I'll be able to do without." He turned to Muhassin. "Did you follow that?"

"Aye, I did," Muhassin answered in Zuwayzi. "He's no fool. He speaks Algarvian well--a better accent than I have myself, as a matter of fact. But he doesn't know anything about us." He chuckled in grim anticipation. "Well, he'll have his chance to find out."

"So he will. There's always work to be done in the mines." Hajjaj gestured to the column of captives. "They may go on now."

Muhassin spoke to the guards. The guards shouted at the captives. The captives shambled forward again. Muhassin turned back to Hajjaj. "And now, your Excellency, shall we go on toward the old frontier, the frontier we are restoring?"

"By all means, Colonel," the foreign minister said. His camel wasn't so interested in going on, but he managed to persuade it.

"Here and there, we're already in position to cross the old frontier," Muhassin said. As if to underscore his words, a squadron of dragons flew by overhead, going south. Muhassin pointed to them. "We couldn't have come so far so fast without help from the Algarvians. Unkerlant hasn't got but a few dragons up here in the north country."

"Cross the old frontier?" Hajjaj frowned. "Has King Shazli authorized the army to invade Unkerlant itself? I had not heard of any such order." He wondered if Shazli had given the order but not told him for fear of angering or alarming him. That would have been courteous of the king--courteous, aye, but also, in Hajjaj's view, deadly dangerous.

To his vast relief, Muhassin shook his head. "No, your Excellency: as yet, we have received no such orders. I merely meant to inform you that we have the ability, should the orders come. A fair number of folk south of the old frontier--and east of it, too--have dark skins." He ran a dark finger along his own arm.

"That is so," the foreign minister agreed. "Still, if a small kingdom can take back what rightfully belongs to it,it should count itself lucky, the more so in these days when great kingdoms are so mighty. We would need something of a miracle to come away with more than we had at the beginning."

"It is with feuds among kingdoms as it is with feuds among clans," Muhassin replied. "A small clan with strong friends may come out on top of a large one whose neighbors all hate it."

"What you say is true, but the small clan often ends up becoming the client of the clan that befriended it," Hajjaj said. "I do not want us to become Algarve's clients, any more than I wanted us to be Unkerlant's clients back in the days before the Six Years' War, when Zuwayza was ruled from Cottbus."

"No man loves this kingdom more than you, your Excellency, and no one has served her better," Colonel Muhassin said, by which flowery introduction Hajjaj knew the colonel was about to contradict him. Sure enough, Muhassin went on, "We have had the accursed Unkerlanters on our southern border for centuries. Our frontier does not march with Algarve, and so we have less to fear from King Mezentio than from King Swemmel. Is this not your own view as well?"

"It is, and Mezentio is a far more sensible sovereign on his worst day than Swemmel on his best," Hajjaj said, which made the colonel laugh. But the Zuwayzi foreign minister continued, "If the war goes on as it has been going, would you not say our frontier is liable to march with Algarve's before long?"

"Hmm." Now the corners of Muhassin's mouth turned down. "Something to that, I shouldn't wonder. The Algarvians are moving west at a powerful clip, aren't they? Still and all, they'll make better neighbors than Unkerlanters ever did. Aye, they wear clothes, but they have some notion of honor."

Hajjaj chuckled under his breath. It wasn't that Muhassin was wrong. It was just that what the Zuwayzin and theAlgarvians had in common was a long tradition of fighting their neighbors when those neighbors were weak and fighting among themselves when their neighbors were strong. It wasn't that the Unkerlanters didn't fight; they did. Zuwayza would not have been free but for the Unkerlanters' Twinkings War, when both Swemmel and his brother, Kyot, claimed to be the elder, and so deserving of the throne. But Unkerlanters did not fight for the sport of it, as both Zuwayzin and Algarvians were wont to do.

"Come on, your Excellency," Muhassin said. "The encampment is over that rise there." He pointed and then booted his camel back into motion. The beast's complaints at having to work once more sounded as if it had been given over to the king of Jelgava's torturers. Hajjaj also got his camel going again. It too sounded martyred. He had little sympathy for it. Though descended from nomads, he greatly preferred ley-line caravans to obstreperous animals.

But the Zuwayzin had done their best to sabotage the ley lines as the Unkerlanters drove northward. King Swemmel's sorcerers had repaired some of the lines, only to sabotage them in turn when the Zuwayzin began pushing south once more. These days, naked black mages worked to undo what Swemmel's wizards had done. Nobody could sabotage a camel; the powers above had already taken care of that. However revolting the beasts were, though, Hajjaj would rather have gone by camel's back than by shank's mare.

At the encampment, a comfortable tent and a great flagon of date wine awaited him. He drank it down almost in one long draught. In Algarve, he'd learned to appreciate fine vintages. Next to them, this stuff was cloying, sticky-sweet. He didn't care. He always drank it without complaint whenever it was served to him in Zuwayza, as it often was. It put him in mind of clan gatherings when he was a child. Visiting Algarvians might turn up their noses at the stuff, but he was no visiting Algarvian. To him, it was a taste of home.

Colonel Muhassin's superior, General Ikhshid, greeted Hajjaj after he had begun to refresh himself. The general gave him more date wine, and tea fragrant with mint, and little cakes almost as good as he could have had in the royal palace. Hajjaj enjoyed the leisurely rituals of hospitality for the same reason he enjoyed the date wine: lifelong familiarity.

Ikhshid was not far from Hajjaj's age, and quite a bit paunchier, but seemed vigorous enough. "We drive them, your Excellency," he said when small talk was at last set aside. "We drive them. The Algarvians drive them. Down in the south, even the Yaninans drive them, which I would not have reckoned possible. Swemmel heads up a beaten kingdom, and I am not the least bit sorry."

"Few in Zuwayza would sorrow to see Unkerlant beaten," Hajjaj said, and then, meditatively, "I would like our allies better if they ruled less harshly the lands they have conquered. Of course, I would like the Unkerlanters better if they were less harsh, too."

"When you have to choose between whoresons, you choose the ones who'll give you more of what you want," Ikhshid said, a comment close in spirit to Muhassin's.

"That is indeed what we have done," Hajjaj said. He looked toward the east, the direction from which the Algarvians were advancing. Then he looked toward the south, the direction in which the Unkerlanters were retreating. He sighed. "The most we can hope for is that we have made the right choice."

When the ley-line caravan in which Fernao was traveling reached the border between Lagoas and Kuusamo, it glided to a halt. Kuusaman customs agents swarmed aboard to inspect all the passengers and all their belongings. "What's this in aid of?" Fernao asked when his turn came, which did not take long.

"A precaution," the flat-faced little inspector answered, which was more polite than None of your cursed businessbut no more informative. "Please open all your bags." That, too, was more polite than a barked order, but left the Lagoan sorcerer no more room to disobey. When the Kuusaman customs agent came upon the letter of introduction from Grandmaster Pinhiero to Siuntio, he stiffened.

"Something wrong?" Fernao asked with an inward groan; he'd hoped the letter would save him trouble, not cause it.

"I don't know," the Kuusaman answered. He raised his voice: "Over here, Louhikko! I've got a mage."

Louhikko proved to be a mage himself: probably, if Fernao was any judge, of the second rank. The spells he used to examine Fernao's baggage, though, had been devised by sorcerers more potent than he. He spoke to the inspector in their own language, then nodded to Fernao and left.

"He says you have nothing untoward," the customs agent told Fernao. He sounded reluctant to admit it and demanded, "Why do you come to see one of our mages? Answer at once; don't pause to make up lies."

Fernao stared at him. "Is this Kuusamo or Unkerlant?" he asked, not altogether in jest: such sharp questions were most unlike the usually easygoing Kuusamans. "I've come to consult with your illustrious mage on matters of professional interest to both of us."

"There is a war on," the Kuusaman snapped.

"True, but Kuusamo and Lagoas are not enemies," Fernao said.

"Neither are we allies," the customs agent said, which was also true. He glowered at Fernao, who made a point of staying in his seat: a lot of Kuusamans did not care to be reminded that they ran half a head shorter than Lagoans. Muttering something in his own language under his breath, the Kuusaman went on to search the belongings of the woman in the seat behind Fernao.

The inspection held up the caravan for three hours. One luckless fellow in Fernao's car got thrown off. The Kuusamanspaid no attention to his howls of protest. Only after they got him out of the car and onto the ground did one of them say, "Be thankful we didn't take you on to Yliharma. You'd like that a lot less, believe me." The ousted man shut up with a snap.

At last, the ley-line caravan got moving again. It glided across the snow-covered landscape. The forests and hills and fields of Kuusamo were very little different from those of Lagoas. Nor should they have been, not when the kingdom and the land of the Seven Princes shared the same island. The towns in which the caravan stopped might for the most part have been Lagoan towns as readily as Kuusaman. For the past hundred years and more, public buildings and places of business had looked much alike in the two realms.

But when the caravan slid past villages and most of all when it slid past farms, Fernao was conscious of no longer traveling through his own kingdom. Even the haystacks were different. The Kuusamans topped theirs with cloths they sometimes embroidered, so the stacks looked like old, stooped grannies with scarves on their heads.

And the farmhouses, or some of them, struck Fernao as odd. Before the soldiers and settlers of the Kaunian Empire crossed the Strait of Valmiera, the Kuusamans had been nomads, herders. They'd learned farming fast, but to this day, more than fifteen hundred years later, some of their buildings, though made from wood and stone, were still in the shape of the tents in which they had once dwelt.

The day was dying when the ley-line caravan pulled into the capital of Kuusamo. As Fernao used a little wooden staircase to descend from the floating car to the floor of the Yliharma depot, he looked around in the hope that Siuntio would meet him and greet him; he'd written ahead to let the famous theoretical sorcerer know he was coming. But he did not see Siuntio. After a moment, though, he did spot another mage he recognized from sorcerous conclaves on the island and in the east of Derlavai.

He waved. "Master Ilmarinen!" he called.

Ilmarinen, he knew, spoke fluent and frequently profane Lagoan. Here this evening, though, the theoretical sorcerer chose to address him in classical Kaunian, the language of magecraft and scholarship: "You have come a long way to accomplish little, Master Fernao." He did not sound sorry to say that. He sounded wryly amused.

Ignoring his tone, Fernao asked, "And why is that?" If Ilmarinen told him the reason he was bound to fail, perhaps he wouldn't.

But Ilmarinen did no such thing. He came up and waggled a forefinger under Fernao's nose. "Because you will not find anyone here who knows anything, or who will tell you if he does. And so, you may as well turn around and go back to Setubal." He waved a mocking good-bye.

"Can't I eat supper first?" Fernao asked mildly. "I'd gladly have you as my guest in whatever eatery you choose."

"Going to quibble about everything, are you?" Ilmarinen returned. But for the first time, he seemed amused with Fernao rather than amused at him. Stooping, he picked up one of the bags at the Lagoan mage's feet. "That may possibly be arranged. Suppose you come with me." And off he went. Fernao grabbed the other bag, slipped its carrying strap over his shoulder, and followed.

He had to step smartly; Ilmarinen proved a spry old man. For a moment, Fernao wondered if the Kuusaman was trying to lose him and make off with the bag--it was the one in which he'd brought what little sorcerous apparatus he had. He didn't think Ilmarinen could learn much from the stuff, but Ilmarinen wouldn't be able to know--he didn't think Ilmarinen would be able to know--that in advance.

As they were leaving the large, crowded depot, the Kuusaman theoretical sorcerer looked back, saw Fernao right behind him, and said over his shoulder, "Haven't managed to make you disappear, eh?" Was he grinning because he was joking or to hide disappointment? Fernao couldn't tell. He didn't think Ilmarinen wanted him to be able to tell.

Fernao looked around. Yliharma wasn't one of the great cities of the world, as Setubal was, but it stood in the second rank. Buildings towered ten, some even fifteen, stories into the air. People dressed in almost as many different styles as they would have been in Setubal crowded the streets. They hurried into and out of fancy shops, sometimes emerging with packages.

As most Kuusaman towns did to Fernao, it all looked very homelike--except that he could not read any of the signs. He spoke Sibian and Algarvian, Forthwegian and classical Kaunian. He could make a fair stab at Valmieran. The language of the principality next door to his own kingdom, though, remained a closed book.

"Here," Ilmarinen said, still in Kaunian, after they'd walked a couple of blocks. "This place isn't too bad." The words on the sign hanging above the eatery were unintelligible to Fernao. The picture, though, made him smile: it showed seven reindeer in princely coronets, sitting around a table groaning with food. He followed Ilmarinen inside.

In Priekule, the capital of Valmiera, the waiter would have fawned on his customers. In Setubal, Fernao's hometown, he would have been more stiffly servile. Here, he might have been Ilmarinen's cousin. He addressed Fernao in singsong Kuusaman, a mistake made all the more natural by Fernao's narrow, slanted eyes--Lagoans, though primarily of Algarvic stock, had some Kuusaman blood in them, too. Fernao spread his hands. "I'm sorry," he said in Lagoan. "I don't speak your language."

"Ah. That makes you easier to gouge," the waiter answered, also in Lagoan. His grin, like Ilmarinen's, might have meant he was joking. On the other hand, it might not have, too.

The menu also turned out to be incomprehensible Kuusaman. "Three specialties here," Ilmarinen said, now deigning to speak Lagoan himself. "Salmon, mutton, or reindeer. You can't go too far wrong with any of them."

"Salmon will do nicely, thanks," Fernao answered."When I was in the land of the Ice People, I ate enough strange things to put me off them for a while."

"Reindeer is better than camel, but have it as you will," Ilmarinen answered. "I'm going for the mutton chop myself. Everyone calls me an old goat, and this is as close to eating my namesake as I can come without horrifying the Gyongyosians." He waved to the waiter and ordered for both of them in Kuusaman. "Ale suit you?" he asked Fernao, who nodded. Ilmarinen turned back to the waiter, who also nodded and went off.

Fernao said, "I shouldn't think offending the Gyongyosians would worry you, not when Kuusamo is fighting them."

"Because we're fighting them; they're too easy a target," Ilmarinen replied, which made an odd kind of sense to Fernao. The waiter returned with a large pitcher of ale and two earthenware mugs. He poured each one full, then left again.

"Good," Fernao said after a sip. He looked across the table at Ilmarinen. "It struck me as odd that none of the top theoretical sorcerers in Kuusamo has published anything lately. It struck Grandmaster Pinhiero as odd, too, when I pointed it out to him."

"I've known Pinhiero for forty years," Ilmarinen said, "and he's so odd himself, it's the normal that looks strange to him." He studied Fernao. "I'm too polite to explain what that says about you."

"No, you're not," Fernao said, and Ilmarinen laughed out loud. After another sip of ale, Fernao went on, "And I had expected to see Master Siuntio, not you."

"He sent me," Ilmarinen answered. "He said I was better at being rude than he was. Bugger me if I know what he meant." His chuckle displayed uneven yellow teeth.

"Why would you want to be rude to me?" Fernao asked.

"That's just it--I don't need a reason, and Siuntio would." Ilmarinen's eyes lit up. "And here's supper." For a while, he and Fernao paid attention to little else. Fernao's salmon steak was moist and pink and flavorful. He did notenjoy it so much as he might have, though, for he'd become convinced he wasn't going to learn anything on this journey. He'd also become convinced there were things he badly needed to learn.

"More ale?" he asked Ilmarinen, hefting the pitcher.

"Oh, aye," the Kuusaman mage answered, "though you'll not get me drunk." Fernao's ears burned, but he poured anyway.

"What would happen if I ignored you and did go to see Siuntio?" he asked.

Ilmarinen shrugged. "You'd end up buying him supper, too. You'd be even less likely to make him drunk than you are me--I enjoy it every now and again, but he's an old sobersides. And you still wouldn't find out anything. He'd tell you there's nothing to find out, the same as I'm telling you now."

"Curse you both for lying," Fernao flared.

"If Pinhiero's curses won't stick to me--and they won't--I'm not going to worry about yours, lad," Ilmarinen answered. "And I say I am not lying. Your own research will prove the truth of it, as the exception proves the rule."

"What sort of research?" Fernao asked.

Ilmarinen only smiled again, and said not a word.

These days, Vanai feared every knock at the door. Most Kaunians in Forthweg did, and had reason to. She had more reasons, far more than most. Major Spinello had kept his part of the bargain: her grandfather no longer went out to labor on the roads. And she had to keep her part of the bargain, too, whenever the Algarvian officer chose. For Brivibas' sake, she did.

It no longer hurt, as it had the first time. Spinello was not cruel that particular way. In fact, he kept trying to please her. He would caress her for what seemed like forever before doing what he wanted. She never kindled. She never came close to kindling. She despised him far too much forthat. Even resignation wasn't easy, though at last she managed it.

Instead of by wounding her in the bedchamber, Spinello took his nasty pleasure by ostentatiously leading her to that chamber and closing the door in Brivibas' face. He didn't bother barring it. Once, in a transport of impotent fury, Brivibas had burst in. "Come to watch, have you?" Spinello asked coolly, not missing a stroke. Vanai's grandfather reeled away as if blazed through the heart.

It was after Major Spinello left that the fights would start. "Better you should have let me die than to do such a thing!" Brivibas would shout. Vanai knew he meant it, too, which was twisting the knife.

She always answered the same way: "In a while, this will be over. If you died, my grandfather, that would be forever, and I could not bear it."

"But how does this make me look?" Brivibas cried one day. "Preserved alive because my granddaughter gives herself to an Algarvian barbarian? How am I to hold my head up in the village?"

He spoke in terms of himself, not in terms of Vanai. His selfishness infuriated her. She said, "I have not been able to hold my head up in Oyngestun since you first grew friendly toward the Algarvian barbarian--which is not what you called him when he began meeting with you--how he admired your scholarship! I shared your shame then. If you share mine now, is it not part of the bargain you made?"

Brivibas stared at her. For a moment, she thought she'd made him see things through her eyes. But then he said, "How, after this, will I be able to make a proper marriage alliance for you?"

"How, after this, do you think I would ever want another man to touch me?" Vanai retorted, at which her grandfather flinched and retreated to the safety of his study. Vanai glared after him. He hadn't thought about how she might feel about being married, only about the difficulties her behaviormight cause him. A poisonous thought sprouted in her mind, tempting and lethal as a death-cap mushroom: I should have let him labor till he dropped.

She shook her head violently. If she blamed him for thinking only of himself, how could she let herself do the same? By all the logic Brivibas had so carefully taught her, she couldn't. And once in the open, the thought sickened her. However much she wanted it to, though, it would not go away.

When she had to go out in the streets of Oyngestun, she held her own head high. That stiff, straight carriage--and the trousers she wore, still stubbornly clinging to Kaunian styles--drew howls and leers from the Algarvian soldiers who passed through the village these days, marching west toward the fight with Unkerlant down roads her grandfather had helped pave. The men of the small local garrison, though, stopped bothering her. She wished she could be happy about that, but she understood why all too well: they knew she was an officer's plaything, and so not for the likes of common soldiers.

Only little by little did she notice that the Kaunians of Oyngestun were slower to curse her or turn their backs on her than they had been the summer before. When she did notice, she scratched her head. Then all she'd done was eat some of the food Major Spinello lavished on her grandfather and her in the hope of getting Brivibas to say how happy he was with Algarvian rule. Now she was indeed Spinello's plaything, was the harlot she'd been accused of being then. The villagers should have hated her more than ever.

She got part of the answer one day from Tamulis the apothecary. Brivibas had sent her forth because he was down with a headache--he seemed to come down with headaches ever more often these days--and they had no powders in the house. Handing her a packet, the apothecary remarked, "I'm cursed if I think the old buzzard is worth it."

"What? Headache powders?" Vanai shrugged. "We can afford them--and, except for food, there's not much to spend silver on these days."

Tamulis looked at her. After a moment, he said, "I was not talking about headache powders."

Vanai felt the flush climb from her throat to her hairline. She couldn't even say she didn't know what he was talking about. She did. Oh, she did. She looked down at the dusty slates of the floor. "He is my grandfather," she whispered.

"By all the signs I've seen, that's his good fortune and none of yours," the apothecary said, his voice rough.

Tears filled Vanai's eyes. To her mortification, they began dripping down her cheeks. She was powerless to stop them. She'd spent so long and put so much effort into inuring herself to the villagers' scorn, sympathy struck her with double force. "I'd better go," she said thickly.

"Here, lass--wait," Tamulis said. Blurrily, she saw him holding out a square of cloth to her. "Dry your eyes."

She obeyed, though she didn't think it would help. Her eyes would still be red and swollen, her face blotchy. When she handed the cloth back, she said, "These days, we all do what we have to do to get through."

Tamulis grunted. "You do more for that long-winded old foof than he would ever do for you."

Vanai had a vision of a statuesque, brassy-haired Algarvian noblewoman demanding that Brivibas--whose own blond hair was heavily streaked with silver--make love to her to keep his granddaughter out of a labor gang. She held that vision in her mind for a couple of seconds ... but for no more than a couple of seconds, because after that she exploded into laughter almost as involuntary as her tears had been. Try as she would, she couldn't imagine an Algarvian noblewoman with such peculiar tastes.

"And what's so funny now?" Tamulis asked.

Somehow, explaining to the apothecary why she'd laughed would have embarrassed Vanai more than having the whole village know Major Spinello spread her thighswhenever the fancy struck him. Maybe it was that she couldn't do anything about Spinello, not if she wanted Brivibas to stay safe in Oyngestun. But maybe, too, it was that explaining would have meant admitting she'd had a bawdy thought of her own. She took the headache powders and left in a hurry.

"What kept you?" Brivibas demanded peevishly when she gave him the powders. "My head feels as if it were on the point of falling off."

"I brought them to you as quickly as I could, my grandfather," Vanai answered. "I am sorry you are in pain." She kept her voice soft and deferential. She'd been doing that around Brivibas for as long as she could remember. It was harder now than it had been. She sometimes felt he ought to keep his voice soft and deferential around her, considering who owed whom what at the moment.

She shook her head. Brivibas had been father and mother both to her since she was no more than a toddler. All she was doing when she lay still for Spinello or sank to her knees in front of him was paying back a small part of that debt. So she told herself, over and over again.

And then Brivibas said, "Part of my pain, I have no doubt, comes from my grief and sorrow at your fall from the proper standards of Kaunian womanhood."

Had he said, at what you are enduring for my sake, everything would have been well. But that was not how he measured things. To him, the standards were more important than the reason for which they were broken. Vanai said, "I can meet your expectations, my grandfather, or I can keep you alive. My apologies, but I do not seem to be able to do both at once." She turned on her heel and walked away without giving him a chance to reply.

They did not speak to each other for the next several days.

They might have healed the rift sooner, but Major Spinello chose that afternoon to pay Vanai a visit. Brivibas retreated to his study and slammed the door. Spinello laughed. "The old fool does not know when he is well off,"he said. As if to declare the rest of the house his to do with as he chose, he took Vanai on the divan in the parlor, under the eyes of the ancient statuettes and reliefs displayed there.

Afterwards, sated, he ran his hand along her flank. She wanted to get up, to wash away the feel of his skin slick against hers, but his weight still pinned her to the rather scratchy fabric of the divan. With a wriggle and a twist, she let her exasperation at that show. She'd seen he didn't mind, or not too much.

This time, though, he didn't let her go free right away. Looking down at her face from a distance of about six inches, he said. "You were wise to yield yourself to me. The whole of Derlavai is yielding itself to Algarve."

All Vanai said, rather faintly, was, "You're squashing me."

Spinello took more of his weight on his elbows and knees. He stayed atop her, though, his legs between hers, imprisoning her. "Forthweg is ours," he said. "Sibiu is ours. Valmiera is ours. Jelgava is ours. And Unkerlant crumbles. Like a child's sand castle when the tide rolls over it, Unkerlant crumbles."

Boasting of his kingdom's conquests excited him; she felt him stir against her inner thigh. He bent his head to her breast. She realized he was going to have a second round. With a small sigh, she looked up at the rough plaster of the ceiling till he finished.

As he got back into his kilt and tunic, he went on, "The war is as good as over. You need have no doubt of that. Our time, the Algarvian time, is come at last, the time of which our forefathers dreamt even in the days when they dwelt in the forests of the distant south."

Vanai only shrugged. What seemed a golden dream to Spinello was her nightmare brought to life. She shuddered to think of Algarvians free to torment Kaunians for the next hundred years. She also shuddered to think ofSpinello free to come back here tomorrow or the next day or a week from now to make her do whatever he wanted.

She could do nothing about Spinello. She could do nothing about the war. As the Algarvian major had boasted that his kingdom's armies were overwhelming the Unkerlanters, so the war had overwhelmed her.

Spinello chucked her under the chin--one more liberty she had to let him take. "Until I see you again," he said with a bow, as if he imagined she might want to see him again. "And do give my best regards to your ever so learned grandfather." Out he went laughing and whistling.

He was happy. Why not? He'd satisfied himself, and Algarve's armies stood everywhere triumphant. Vanai, despised by the large Forthwegian majority in her own kingdom, despised even more by its conquerors, went off to get a rag and a pitcher and to do her best to scrub the memory of his touch from her body. She despised herself most of all.

Copyright © 2000 by Harry Turtledove


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