Cursed Motives

Issue #105, Fourth Anniversary Double-Issue
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Being shipwrecked was a great deal more civilized than Safy had imagined.  She had her favorite and her second favorite hat, her lute and her fiddle both when she had feared the circumstances would make her choose between them, and an astonishing variety of fruit preserves.  She had the captain’s books to peruse and the first mate’s instruments to play with.  She could sleep in her little cabin on the stubbornly unmoving ship or out under the trees in a hammock, depending on her mood and the weather.  She had, in fact, nearly everything a young imperial princess could ask for except for functional transportation.

Safy’s lady-in-waiting Tib, who was also her bodyguard and also-also her tutor, claimed that they were not shipwrecked at all, because the crew would presently effect a repair of those parts of the ship currently unsatisfactory for their nautical progress, namely the motivator that used magic to propel the ship in the desired direction; therefore they were merely delayed.  Safy was used to Tib talking that way.  It reminded her of her cousin Tur, who would never be the Imperial heir because the Electors found him too pompous.  This was not like Safy, who would almost definitely never be the Imperial heir because the Electors found her too frivolous.

The only thing that was really unsatisfactory about the situation, Safy reflected, was that she had no opportunities to use her great gift, which was the laying of curses.  It seemed rude to complain about that, since the entertainment, the company, the scenery, and the food were first-rate.

“I expected there would be more crabs eating dead sailors’ flesh,” said Safy, chewing idly as she and Tib sat on the deck looking out at the clear blue tropical waters and the sandy shores, “instead of sailors eating dead crabs’ flesh.  It makes you wonder what else they’ve gotten wrong about shipwrecks.”

“I remind your Imperial Highness that we are not shipwrecked,” said Tib, “and also that sailors consider too much talk of drowned flesh unlucky.”

I didn’t say they had to drown,” said Safy.  She flung the bits of crab exoskeleton away from her into the ocean.  “They could burn to death for all the crabs care.  Or die of plague.  I’m told a great many ships wreck because their crews get the plague and there aren’t enough people to crew them, or else because something catches fire that oughtn’t.”

She contemplated these options with a certain grisly satisfaction but eventually had to put them aside.  The crew was jolly and let her do a great many interesting things, and she would certainly hate to lose any of them to fire or plague, even the ones who still called her Imperial Highness or Imperial Princess Safida as Tib demanded, instead of Safy as she herself demanded.  Most of them listened to Safy—possibly, she thought, because Tib was always demanding things and Safy mostly went along peering interestedly and asking questions but hardly ever favors.

“Who has been telling you anything at all about shipwrecks?” Tib demanded, reinforcing Safy’s opinion, to her private delight.

“Everyone really,” said Safy.  “It’s all they talk about at my uncle’s court.  Surely you’ve heard them.”

“Imperial Highness, were you not a princess, you would be a baggage,” said Tib.

Safy, who had not worn stockings for nearly ten days, nodded at the truth of this statement and went to wade in the sparkling blue waters with no fuss at all.

A great many people thought Safy was frivolous, not just the Electors, but in fact what she was—she felt rather certain—was level-headed.  Which would have been a good trait in an Empress if they’d only given her a chance, but she didn’t much mind.  The thing about being level-headed, as Safy considered herself to be, was that it involved refusing to fuss over things that did not require fuss.

The little lifeboat that appeared that afternoon with two foreigners in it, who were nearly dying of thirst: that was an example of another thing that did not require fuss.  Interest, to be sure, and a certain poking of her very brown Imperial nose into matters.  But definitely not fuss.

“What are you doing now?” she asked the cook, who was feeding the nearly-dead foreigners broth very slowly.  She could see that was what he was doing, but why mattered.

“They need to take it slowly or their bodies will cramp up and throw it all up, and then they’ll be worse than when we started,” said the cook.

“Have you done this before?” asked Safy.

The cook snorted.  “A time or two.  Skip along, Saf.  There’s nothing you can do here.  By nightfall they might be able to have a little bread in milk if you can get any milk out of the goat.  Come help then.”

“All right,” said Safy.  It was a very comfortable kind of shipwreck, she reflected, when you didn’t even have to kill the goat.  She hoped it would remain that way.

As a Parelian, Safy knew better than to assume that anyone was a foreigner based on the color of their skin.  Not all of her uncle’s subjects were as dark-skinned as she was herself.  The warm golden color the foreigners had was about the same as several of their own sailors, or as people she knew from the Imperial court.  But their features were different than any of her uncle’s subjects’, their noses flatter and their eyes folded differently.  She sat just outside the cabin where the cook had put them, so she could observe carefully and wait for them to wake up.

When they did, they were both very weak, but one of them could talk, and none of the sailors could understand a word he said.  Safy had been taught several diplomatic tongues, not to mention a few academic ones like Old Liran that were no longer in use.  She tried a mountain dialect of Cherivan.  She tried the form of sea Sirrovan that hadn’t been used by their sailors for three hundred years.  There was not even the slightest flicker of recognition.

One of the foreigners was trying to ask for something, but no one could figure out what it was.  It was apparently not food, water, another blanket, or help getting up to relieve himself.  Safy suggested that he could be asking for Tib to entertain him with a little song or sprightly dance.

Tib sniffed.  “Your Imperial Highness should feel perfectly welcome to practice your music lessons for these poor unfortunates.”

“Maybe later,” said Safy.  “First I’ll teach them to talk.”

She sat patiently in the room pointing at things and saying what they were, stool and table and blanket and man and Safy.  The more alert one blinked at her and said nothing.  She was about to wander off when the second one awoke and started shouting at his companion.  Safy stood at the foot of the bed and watched them both with interest.

The weaker one soon lost energy to shout, but he kept importuning his companion in broken tones until the sailors came to see what the commotion was about, and Tib hustled Safy behind her.

“I’m fine!” Safy protested.

Tib shook her finger at the foreigners.  “Don’t you dare threaten Her Imperial Highness, do you understand me?  If I can’t understand what you’re saying, I can’t understand whether it’s a threat, and I have to treat it like a threat!  Do you understand me?”  She didn’t sound violent, just annoyed, and Safy nudged her way back around Tib to stare at the foreigners.

They stared back, cowed.  Much to Safy’s surprise, the man who had not said “wall” or “door” back to her had his hands raised in a placating, defensive posture and was murmuring something soothing.  She walked over to his bed, her head cocked curiously.  He made exaggerated motions of stroking the air beside her gently but not touching her.

“Do you know, Tib, I think he’s trying to tell you he won’t hurt me.”

“Jolly for him,” Tib muttered, folding her arms and filling the doorway with tiny, impeccable menace.

“Look, they’ve stopped yelling.”  Safy peered at the weaker foreigner.  “I’m not sure this one could do any yelling.  He looks done in.  Do you think the cook—”

“The cook can bring in the goat milk you were supposed to get, you little—Imperial Highness,” said the cook, nudging past Tib with two battered tin mugs in his broad, scarred hands.  “There now.  You can stay while they drink it, and then you’ll be giving those foreign persons a rest.  Perhaps we’ll make more headway with them when they’ve had more rest and can concentrate.”

“This one looks like he’s concentrating plenty,” said Safy, looking down at the weaker one.  His eyes were closed, but his lips were still moving.  “Hey, you!  There’s goat milk, lovely goat milk!”

The cook held the mug against the weak foreigner’s lips, and his eyes came open.  He drank it down with no demur.  “Well, they’re from somewhere with goats, right enough,” said the cook.  “Now out with you, princess.”

“The other one’s still drinking,” Safy objected, and the stronger foreigner did look to be savoring his goat milk somewhat more slowly.  “I shall tell them a story.”

“Please yourself, but they’ll want rest,” said the cook.

“I’ll make sure they get it,” Tib told him softly.

Safy perched on the stool between the beds.  “Now, what story shall I tell you?  I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’ve already heard it, because you can’t understand a word of it anyway.  Still, I’d rather it was something about me because then at least it’ll be new to you and not just the Ash Maiden or the tales of the Blue Prince again.

“Do you know when I first came to the attention of my uncle the Emperor?” Safy asked the foreigners.  “No, of course you don’t, how would you.”  The weaker one made the polite listening face, which showed he had manners, to be listening when he couldn’t understand a word.  The stronger one muttered something, but since Safy couldn’t understand what it was, she chose to believe it was encouragement.

“Well.  I was eight years old, and I overheard my mother saying to my Uncle Phel—not my uncle the Emperor, you know, but a different uncle—that not everyone was cursed with self-awareness.  Even at that age, I knew that self-awareness was no bad thing, not from the way Mother said it.  So you can probably guess what comes next, I imagine.”

She waited politely.  Of course they didn’t answer, but as long as they were going to show interest, she would observe the forms as well.  “I went around cursing my uncle the Emperor’s courtiers with self-awareness.  When he finally figured out it was me, the court buzzed for days.  And my mother—well, she was exasperated at first.  She said I was always too literal.

“Then my father said that no one had managed to make it into anything other than a figure of speech before, so she ought to be proud that I’d worked something like that into curse structure at such a young age.  So then of course she was, and the Emperor was, and he asked me a lot of questions about how I’d done it.

“People have always asked me a lot of questions, actually.  Until you.”

The stronger foreigner smiled in the blank and uneasy way of people who have no idea what is going on before them but wish to get the best out of it, with which Safy was familiar from the rest of her daily life.  The weaker one appeared to be asleep.  His lips were still moving, but she could make no more sense of him sleeping than waking.

That night Safy couldn’t sleep.  She crept from her cabin to look at the stars and see whether the sailors on night duty were some of her favorites who would let her try her hand at fishing off the side of the boat or climbing in the rigging in the dark.

Instead, she heard Tib’s voice coming from the captain’s cabin.  “I don’t know what her young imperial highness and I can do,” Tib was saying, “but I will think it over.  Neither of us has ever repaired a motive device, and most of what the princess knows....”

“I am well aware of the imperial focus on curses,” said the captain wearily.  “I’m only glad you’ve managed to keep her from deploying any of them on us.”

Safy had to stifle a squeak of indignation at that.  She never used serious curses against people she liked, and even if she had, she wouldn’t be stupid and use them against the crew, whom she needed if she ever wanted to eat anything but mangoes and crabs again.

“She is a good-hearted child,” said Tib, “when she remembers to think things through.”

Safy wasn’t sure whether she should feel complimented or insulted by that.

“So there was nothing in your training about this kind of foreigner?  You really don’t have any idea who they are?” said the captain, apparently returning to an earlier topic.

“Truly, not the faintest,” said Tib.  “Probably traders from the Western Archipelago?  There are all sorts of islands there we’ve never even heard of.  It makes sense they wouldn’t have heard of us either.  Or perhaps their ship had an interpreter.”

Safy listened a bit more to make sure there was nothing else interesting about herself or the foreigners, but there was not.  She snuck back to her cabin, thinking furiously about proving to the captain that her curses were not mean and bad—or at least, being honest with herself, did not have to be.

In the morning, she shooed away all comers.  Tib clucked her tongue worriedly, but she had no excuse to fear for Safy’s safety, and even a tutor, bodyguard, and lady-in-waiting had to give her imperial charge a little privacy now and then.

It was just before lunch when she emerged, carrying her little sewing bag and smiling secretly to herself.  She fetched the captain from where he was scowling over some carven thing—probably magic—and led him and Tib to the cabin where they had stashed the foreigners.

The weaker of the two foreigners was sitting up in bed, watching the stronger take a turn around the room with his arm draped over the cook for support.  He did not look so pleased with his companion’s progress as Safy might have expected.  The stronger foreigner’s round face was too creased with concentration to express much of anything else.

“Get him seated, will you?” she asked the cook, then remembered to add, “Please.”  The cook maneuvered the foreigner into his bed.  Safy nodded in satisfaction.

“Yesterday I told them a story,” she said.  “You remember.”  Tib nodded along that she did remember.  “It was about my uncle the Emperor and how I came to his notice.  I don’t tell it much, because mostly people have already heard it.”

The captain shifted on his feet.  Safy recognized the signs of a man who was used to knowing what came next and took pity on him.  “Well, it got me thinking.  If I could curse my uncle’s courtiers with self-awareness, wouldn’t an awareness of other people in some ways be considered a curse, too?  I thought it would.”

“Well you might,” said Tib, rather loudly, and then blushed.  “Do go on.”

Safy rummaged in her bag.  “So I made something.  Now, hold this,” she said to the stronger of the foreigners.  She passed him her spindle, and he held it solemnly, with the air of one who is offering dubious assistance.

“Princess, what are you doing?” Tib gasped from the doorway.

“Just a moment more,” said Safy.  “There!”  She took the spindle back from the foreigner and smiled at him.  “Now your friend’s turn.”

“I—I understand,” said the foreigner.  “What did she do, the child?  What did she give me?”

“The child is an imperial princess,” said Tib, “and there will be no impertinence offered.”

“That’s all very well, but—”

Safy passed the spindle to the weaker foreigner, who closed his hands around it obediently.

“Thank you, child,” he said.  “You’ve no idea how annoying it is to be shut up with people who don’t have the first notion what you’re saying, except for the likes of him.”

Safy regarded the first foreigner with renewed curiosity.  “What’s he like, then?”

“Trouble,” he said darkly.

“People say that about me all the time.”

Despite himself, the weaker foreigner smiled.  “I expect they do, lass.”

Princess,” said Tib wearily.  “The lass is an imperial princess.  Not that anyone including herself can manage to keep the fact in their minds for more than five seconds consecutively.”

“A real imperial princess.  Well,” said the weaker foreigner.  “You may wish you had not told my companion that.”

“Oh, shut up,” said the stronger one, and he could say it louder and with more strength.

“I’m sure we’ll all want to know what on earth you mean by that,” said Safy, “but it’s a bit awkward interrogating people if you don’t know their names.  You see that, don’t you?”

The stronger one was Phenole, and the weaker one was Konkiu, and they each wished, if at all possible, to be housed in separate quarters.  The captain frowned.

“Now look,” he said.  “You have had a first-rate imperial curse put on you, and that may make you feel that you are in the lap of luxury.  But we’re shipwrecked.  We simply don’t have the resources to give half-drowned foreigners whatever they like.”

“We were exiled from our own people,” said Phenole, “and it was all his fault.”

“We were exiled from our own people for good reason,” said Konkiu, “and he didn’t have the sense to see it.”

Safy sat in a chair and leaned her elbows on the end of Konkiu’s bed, prepared to listen to their story.

“Er, thank you, Imperial Highness,” said the captain.  “Your curses are much appreciated, but I think we can handle the rest without you.”

“Oh, I’m fine right here,” said Safy, putting her chin in her hands and regarding Konkiu.

“I would really rather prefer, Imperial Highness—”

To Safy’s surprise, it was Tib who came to her rescue.  “I would think it would only be good sense to let her hear.  She may need to deploy her talents further for the good of all of us—limitedly, of course, dear.”

“Of course,” agreed Safy.  “Unlimited curses are stupid.”

Safy could see too much of the whites of their eyes, the captain and the cook and the foreigners all together, but no one tried to make her leave.

Konkiu took a deep breath and began.  Though his voice was weak, they stayed quiet enough that they could all hear him easily.  “I was a junior officer in the fleet of our Glorious Republic.  I worked closely with the admiral of the fleet.  And I found that he was—he was not only bent on war, but he was willing to lie to our own people to make that happen.  He has told them so many lies about your aggression, about deaths that never happened, and he—”

“He wants what is best for the Glorious Republic,” said Phenole loudly.  “You are a fool for interfering.”

“What Glorious Republic?” asked Safy.  “What makes it so glorious?”

Phenole shook his head.  “Your ignorance will soon be remedied, as the ignorance of all your people will.”

“We have only recently discovered your continents,” said Konkiu.  “Our great leaders determined that it would be best if we studied you in secret at first, and—the admiralty was using that delay, that secrecy, as an excuse to spread propaganda and misinformation.”

“And this one,” said Phenole, loudly enough that Safy felt sure the sailors out on the shore could hear him, “this one has to rail at the admiral himself, in person, and drag me into it.”

“You were the source of my information!” Konkiu protested.  “Without you, I knew nothing.”

“Without me you are nothing!” said Phenole.  “And this is the thanks I get.  Confrontation.  Exile.  Disgrace.  A little rowboat without a motivator!  Nearly death, if you had any say in it, and even if the savages here—”

“We’re shipwrecked, not savages,” Safy objected.

Phenole sneered.  “Even if these shipwrecked savages manage to get home and properly conquered by our armies, we probably won’t be accepted back into the ranks—certainly not at the rank I rightfully earned.”

“I see the problem,” said the captain gravely, “and I am sorry to both of you for your misfortunes.”

“I regret that I will be able to do nothing to prevent this war, from where I am,” said Konkiu.  “I am deeply sorry.  Your people will almost certainly suffer needlessly, and now that I know that my own officers were lying, I feel sure that you are a peaceful people, filled with joy and love and beauty.”

Tib had to leave the cabin suddenly.  Safy wondered why, but the foreigners were a more immediate problem.  “Do you mean you would like it if you could get back to your own ship?” she asked.

Konkiu sighed.  “I could do nothing further there to prevent this war, but if I was on the mainland with your people....”

“Would you do the same?”  She cocked her head at Phenole. 

“In a heartbeat.  I would explain to them again how it was all this idiot and none of my doing, and that I would never allow him to be privy to such sensitive information again.  I might be demoted, but it would be worth it to share in the triumph of our Glorious Republic.”

“Rather,” said Safy, trying to sound more impressed than she felt.  “I’ll just curse your ship off course so you can row back to it, then?  How’s that?”

“Safy!” said Tib, having returned just in time to hear this.

“Well, if they’re trying to make war on us anyway,” protested Safy.  “I hardly think anybody could object to me cursing a ship that wanted to attack us.”

“An Imperial Princess uses her curses sparingly,” said Tib, but the narrow-eyed look she gave Safy was more skeptical than remonstrative.  Safy knew that Tib doubted her affection for the arrogant Phenole very much—even more so since she had just met him—and could not see how such a curse would help Safy or anyone she did care about.  Safy smiled.  Let her wonder.

She retired to her cabin, humming, and contemplated how to make the curse reach a sailing ship in motion, one she had never seen.  It was one of the advantages of curses over ordinary spells, that they could go over the water, of course, but they still had to be structured carefully: the anchor point, the draw, the target described with the most care of all, the shape and extent....  Safy shook her head in disgust at Tib saying that a curse should not be unlimited.  Of course it should not!  If nothing else, the energy that that would require would leave people without magic for miles around, and no member of the imperial family would do that for any but the most dire of reasons.  Tib really could stop treating her like a child.

No, the question was how to work with the natural forces, to make the curse flow with the forces of nature and with the people using magic around it.  Certainly one could curse a ship to stand still in the ocean, but the disruption it would cause would be very hard to predict and manage.  Safy could do better, she felt sure.  She even had an idea of how.

When she finished attaching the foreign ship’s curse to a coconut shell, Safy pondered her next move, which she expected she would have about a day to complete.  For this she approached the captain, who was brooding again.  She felt it would be good to take him out of himself.

“How far could we go, do you think, without the motivator?”

The captain sighed.  “As far as you like, Imperial Highness, but it’s not just how far that matters, it’s in what direction.  If we just sailed around aimlessly, it wouldn’t do us much good, and we haven’t the same kind of equipment old-fashioned people used to have before they understood about using magic for navigation.”

“But—oh, say, out there a mile or two offshore of the point.  Could we get to that point pretty accurately without a motivator?”

“Certainly, at that distance the inaccuracies would not add up to anything insurmountable, and sail power would be more than enough, particularly on a fine day—no chance of getting becalmed at that distance and in these waters.”

“Well then.”  Safy smiled.  “Have the sailors make ready, Captain.  I’ll handle our motivator problems and the foreigners all at once.”

“That’s awfully kind of you, Imperial Highness, but do you think you could be a bit more... ah, forthcoming?  Perhaps?”

“No, that’s all right, Captain.  Trust me.”

From the ashen look about his lips, she did not think he was listening very well.  Grown-ups often did not.

The next morning she filled her best knapsack and handed it to Phenole.  “Here you are,” she said.  “Take one of the rowboats.  We won’t mind.  Try to catch up to your ship.  They ought to be passing by downwind about a mile out, in the afternoon—you can even make up the distance and make it sooner if you work at it.”

He looked at her suspiciously.  “How?”

Safy smiled.  It was always nicest when she didn’t have to lie.  “Remember how I cursed you to understanding, so you could speak our language?  Well, I put another curse on the knapsack and you, so that you would get what you want.  It’s one of the things we learn very early, the curse of getting what you want.”

“You have strange and primitive notions of magic, child,” said Phenole, “but I suppose I thank you.  It could hardly be worse than huddling here in the wreckage.”

Safy privately felt that the ship looked lovely, particularly as the captain was, at her advice, having the sailors prepare it for departure even without motive devices.  But she gave Phenole another sunny smile and waved as he rowed away.

“All right, we can go now,” she told the captain about an hour later.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said.  

But they had not to get very far from shore before they could see the foreign ship sinking, its crew scrambling into lifeboats as best they could.  Safy stood next to Konkiu at the rail.  “Do you like it?” she said.  “That’s one of mine.  I sent it with Phenole.”

“You cursed child!” said Konkiu.

“Cursing,” Safy corrected.  “Not cursed.”  She twisted her fingers around the deck railing, swinging gently against it.  “I thought you didn’t like your old crew.  I thought you wanted their plots thwarted.”

“Not to the point of killing them all!”

“I haven’t killed them all,” said Safy.  “Look, they’re getting in the little boats.  They’ll find the island just as we did.  Plenty of mangoes and crabs.”

“And what of Phenole?”

Safy squirmed.  One of the reasons cursing people with getting what they wanted got taught so early is that it was a classic, and known to be nasty.  “I gave him what he wanted,” she said in her youngest voice, and it sounded false even to her. 

Konkiu turned away in disgust.

“Look,” she said to his back.  “You didn’t want your people to fight us.  Now they won’t.  They’ll have a jolly time eating crabs.  I did.  And maybe they’ll let Phenole stay with them, and maybe they’ll forgive him in time.  He might have wanted quite a lot of things.  Most people do.  It’s why the curse gets so involved.”

“You are a thoroughly unnatural child,” he said, without turning around.

Safy laughed despite herself.  “Unnatural?  Of course I am.  I’m an Imperial Princess.  Do your Imperial Princesses come out ordinary?”

He was not going to speak to her.  She shrugged and found the captain standing down the rail, staring out at the sea and the wreck of the foreign ship.

“Send our sailors down to dive,” said Safy.  “I cursed them with their motive device falling straight through their hull to the bottom of the sea.  We can pick it up and use it.”

The captain blanched, and Safy realized that that was his worst nightmare, far worse than being shipwrecked with an importunate member of the Imperial family.

“Don’t worry,” she said kindly.  “I’d never do it to us.”

“Thank you, my—uh—your—uh—Imperial Highness,” said the captain.

Safy sighed.  He was likely to be tedious for the rest of the trip.  She hoped the rest of the crew wouldn’t follow suit.  “Don’t mention it to the sailors, all right?”

“No, Imperial Highness,” said the captain.  “Of course not.”

“It wouldn’t do to worry them,” she said.  “They’ve had enough to think of.” He nodded fervently along with her.

Safy skipped along the deck, looking out at the waves and thinking of all her Imperial uncle would have to say to the stories she would tell him of how she had saved their ship, and sunk an enemy one too, with just two cleverly applied curses.   


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Marissa Lingen lives in the Minneapolis area with two large men and one small dog. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed, Apex, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.

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Return to Issue #105, Fourth Anniversary Double-Issue

Comments & Scrivenings
6 Comments on “Cursed Motives”

6 Responses to “Cursed Motives”

  1. Susan Lantz says:

    Marissa- very clever use of words. I would love to share this with my DHH children- their use of sign language where many words are automatically reverse to simpler words. Can I show this to 3 of them and see how they interpret it. It was also very entertaining.

    • Susan (and anyone else!), please do share this link or read this story to students or others as you see fit. As long as it’s not reprinted without permission, having this original text shared only makes the author and editor happier!

      Joce, I might well write more Safy adventures. I know she has more adventures in her!

  2. What jolly fun! Thank you for the excellent story.

  3. edward oleander says:

    Yummy and full of creepy goodness! I’ll prolly never touch another coconut…
    :-)

  4. Joce says:

    Great Story! Can you write more Safy adventures?

  5. christina says:

    I would love to have more Safy adventures– she is sensible, cheerfully callous, and delightful to follow.

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