If there was one thing Briar Redgrave hated most about her current profession, it was the clients.
“But I wish it to be yellow, and vibrant,” the client insisted with a shake of her head. The crown of ostrich feathers on her wide-brimmed hat convulsed as though the bird that died for fashion’s sake was near resurrection. “It is my signature color. How else will the Viscount know that the flowers are from me?”
“Madame,” Briar replied as demurely as she could manage, “you came for my expertise in the delicate art of communicating delicate matters. Yellow is a beautiful color—sincere, bright, hopeful.” The client might be hopeful, but in Briar’s opinion was neither bright nor sincere. “When the abstract is made manifest in a flower, the meaning changes. A yellow rose, mere affection. Tulip, hopeless love. And a yellow carnation all but screams no to an admirer. You do not, Madame, strike me as a woman who would scream for anything.”
Unless I were stabbing you. Briar kept a practiced smile on her face and wished the woman would let Briar do her job. “I am myself blissfully ten years wed thanks to just such a careful arrangement.” She’d used that line countless times since retiring, and it was true. She’d opened the shop on the heels of a romance that scandalized many back in the day and at just over forty still cut a dashing figure. But this ingénue? Too young to even have heard a whisper of it.
The ostrich on the client’s hat returned to a state of rest. “I suppose with a name like yours, you would know your business.”
Ah, that familiar ache of disappointment: There would be no stabbing today.
With the client’s begrudging assent, Briar set about assembling an appropriate bouquet for the would-be lover with a few pertinent yellows. Briar explained her choices as she worked: the long stalk of buttery acacia flowers for secret love, the dwarf sunflowers for admiration. Wordlessly she tucked in a single tall sunflower for pride and a scarlet geranium for stupidity when the client wasn’t paying attention. The Viscount was also a client and one passingly familiar with the fine art of floriography. He would at least be warned. She owed him that much.
So finicky, clients, and so often acting against their own interests. Days like this made Briar regret her choices post-retirement, until she remembered her prior profession wasn’t qualitatively so different—only with a better success rate.
The client at last left happy, and Briar was at last blessedly alone.
Was it happiness? When a door closed, it must surely open again. The silence always temporary, the wait always too brief no matter how much time might pass. Someone would come and buy flowers. Today, tomorrow, and the next. Forever.
Well, until someone brought a bouquet to Briar’s own grave after she’d had the temerity to die of old age, she supposed.
Nearly mid-day. Head aching from hair pinned halfway to heaven, hours yet until she might loosen it, go home, and find her young husband back from his rounds. She started to reposition the two weighty silver hair sticks—her faithful Thorns, she called them—that kept the bulk of her long, disagreeable hair tightly bound to her head when the bronze shop bell rang like an alarm. She’d be lopsided for the next customer, now! Briar longed to cut it all off, but polite society required otherwise, so for ten years her hair had grown. Her husband might be delighted with it, but still. Briar tugged her hair back into a semblance of order and reset her expression with a fresh if slightly pained smile—that slid off her face when she recognized who was framed in the doorway.
The Crimson Hawk: second-best assassin in all of Victoria’s London.
He stood there being ridiculously dashing, a head taller than her with nice shoulders, chestnut curls falling over his brow and a dimple that looked like it had been cleaved with a knife. He oozed a confidence that had as much to do with the twin pistols peeking out from under his coat on either side as it did with being born a Lord. Brash and loud, he was reported to be a natural shot, the envy of every marksman in the army, using a special gunpowder that produced a red smoke when fired.
Breath held, Briar found her hands wanting to reflexively reach for her silver hair sticks. Instead she kept herself quite still.
“I want to buy a bouquet!” This he shouted, as if announcing a coup to Parliament.
Briar, ever the professional, blinked hard once and reapplied her smile. She cut past him in a fluid movement and peered out at the street to make sure he wasn’t followed. “Private consultations are available on Sundays.” She flipped the shop’s sign from open to closed, then locked the door. “But since you’re already here…”
“Couldn’t possibly wait until Sunday.” His gaze hungrily roamed the store as his hand grappled the nearest flower, a rose so dark it was nearly black. “Not when I feel this way.”
“Of course,” Briar said, counting the bloom ruined. “Follow me.”
“Not any of these? Doesn’t it just have to be pretty?” The rose hung limp in his hand.
She hesitated. Had he stumbled onto her shop, wholly ignorant of her preferred clientele? Did he think her merely a florist for the wealthy? Had he no idea who she was?
Well, she thought sourly, who she had been.
Communicating via le langage des fleurs was a favorite way for the upper class to express interest in an object of desire, or interest’s wane to a paramour, in a tasteful, subdued and mostly secretive way. The vast majority of Briar’s clients wanted something invariably prosaic, everything from shy affection to more passionate requests.
Among assassins, her real clientele and secret thrill, flowers were a different game entirely. It had become fashionable some years ago to send a bouquet to a contracted hit. Soon enough assassins began sending them to each other for any manner of reasons: when their territories overlapped, when one stole another’s contract, or even when one had insulted another. Crafting an order for an assassin required privacy, more than her unassuming shopfront could offer.
The Crimson Hawk seemed utterly genuine. Irritatingly in the prime of his life. Taking in the shop like he was a regular customer out for a stroll. Not counting exits, not looking for traps. Had his back to her, of all things! The rankest of amateurs.
But no, she decided. The Hawk had been sent more than one bouquet since his debut mere months ago. She had the purchase orders! A firearm phenom with luck to match, he couldn’t be that ignorant of their ways and still be alive. Best to be tactful, and nudge him in the right direction, though it stung her pride that he didn’t recognize her.
“I think someone such as yourself would have…particular needs that these specimens wouldn’t suit.”
He flashed a smile. “Keen eye. Ladies first.”
“Of course,” she replied, smile brittling by degrees.
She led him to the back room behind a door designed to look like another part of the shop’s interior. Shortly after buying the place, she had split the main area in two, shrinking the storefront’s footprint to create a private garden studio with the remainder. There, the upper floor had been removed entirely, and the ceiling above replaced with greenhouse glass. A wet heat pervaded the space and every surface, horizontal and vertical, was lush with greenery held in check by wrought iron planters, stands, and trellises, punctuated with sharp bursts of color.
No roses, nor their facile counterparts, grew in the back room. A floral arrangement that promised death by the stroke of midnight took an entirely different breed of flower from the kind found in an English garden. Lilies, chrysanthemums, and bleeding hearts, while seemingly appropriate, were far too crude and obvious besides. A few of the old suspects—the tiny purple flowers of the belladonna or the deceptively fragile mandrake blossoms—had their place, but Briar’s collection ranged far wider than that. Death’s Head, Winter Cherry, Murderer’s Caul Lace, Wolfsbane, Night Whispers, Creeping Dread, Wormwood, Snakesfoot. Not traditionally pretty flowers, but each compelled the viewer’s eye. Beautiful in their own way and all capable of conveying something much more important than whether or not a viscount might deign to fuck a second cousin’s wife.
These were the tools of her trade, and familiar after all these years. It had taken bloody-minded persistence to carve out a place for herself in a new industry, even if it never felt as natural as her first. She had changed the destinies of how many political families? Blackmailed unfaithful lovers, settled trade disputes, ended entire dynasties. Now all of it was done second-hand, far from the danger, communicating the desire of others.
What of her own desires? Her own will?
Briar let her gaze fall to the floor.
She gave the Hawk a moment to take in the private room, mentioning offhand the secret entrance in the roof for guests such as himself. The rare breeds were arranged in a circle of planters. In the center, she’d taken a seamstress’s mannequin possessing her measurements, and set it in a planter of fine soil to be a trellis of sorts. It was completely overgrown with Barbed Promise vines and their fat, lurid blooms. A faceless caretaker completely rooted within the shop? The irony wasn’t lost on her, and it had long ago ceased being amusing. Briar’s place was beside the mannequin while the client circled the room and its offerings. She stepped into position, looked at him expectantly.
The Hawk paid her no heed. She might as well have been a second mannequin. Instead, he wandered the room, prattling on to no one about this and that as he gormlessly stroked at least three separate poisonous things.
She inclined her head, smiled.
Study the mark, whispered a voice very much her own but from too many years ago to bear thinking on. The voice of a person who might barely recognize Briar as she was now and would perhaps be disappointed.
Hard to pin down, this Crimson Hawk. She had heard much about him from others in the field; some were admirers, others rivals. Newly minted to the work, already infamous for his lack of subtlety. He killed a man under contract while duelling another at a masque ball, the kind of over-the-top murder that would find him fêted by a community that loved beautiful distractions.
Distractions, however, wilt as surely as any flower. Only a matter of time before a true professional tired of it. She would be sure to mention it to her husband later, after she closed up.
Until then, he was Briar’s problem. What would he likely want? This was his first visit; sooner or later every assassin darkened her door. Hawk loved duels, challenged and was challenged often, and won them frequently. Had he finally deciphered the meaning behind all those bouquets with a single Barbed Promise? Briar picked up her favorite pair of silver shears and reached for a glorious example of its species: palm-sized, suffused with petals and a heady scent, with a single thorn piercing the center. Their transaction would be quick, which suited her; she had an assignation of her own to keep.
Whatever blather had been passing his lips stopped mid-sentence at the sound her shears made while cutting the stem.
“Oh, no,” he said, clearly recognizing the flower. “Not that.”
He laughed, rich and sure of himself. “I mean, it would be a lovely day for a duel. Shame to waste the flower. But I hope that no bloodshed will be required to satisfy this party.”
“Oh.” The Barbed Promise lasted only a day after being cut. Briar found a glass bowl, filled it with honey water from a nearby pitcher, and hoped someone might be of need of the flower soon. “What did you have in mind?”
He opened his mouth to speak and then his smile vanished, replaced by a contemplative frown. “I’m not sure. I’ve never asked for something like this. Never…felt like this.”
Ah, a customer who doesn’t know what he wants. Her day kept improving.
“How are you feeling?” Briar asked mildly. “What stirs the breast of an assassin so that he does not know his own heart?” And can’t be said with a knife to the jugular. “Is it a warning you wish to send to a rival?”
“A warning! Yes, a warning of intent!” He seized on that last word excitedly.
She waited a hopeful moment, then swallowed a sigh. She would have to lead him through every step. “And your intent…is?”
He gaped, he rolled his wrists. No words came out of his mouth.
With front-of-the-house regulars, this was common. Especially among men who would grasp and ferret about for the words that expressed both love and more carnal desires without sounding either vulgar or vulnerable. Of course, he was young and clearly infatuated with—oh no.
She’d seen this happen before on rare occasion, an assassin falling for their mark. It was something of a fever, but usually passed given enough time and self-reflection. The truth of it was that coin was coin, and steel was steel, and a job simply must be done. If an assassin couldn’t complete the hit, well, one could always count on colleagues to end it one way or the other.
This Hawk was, in truth, too pretty and too young to die. She berated herself for going soft, and here she was barely over forty. Besides, hadn’t Briar found herself in similar circumstances in her youth, infatuated with a dashing young man that she gave everything up for?
They were in the wrong room if she were to build a bouquet to bare one’s heart, but he was absolutely not going to leave as he came in. What did she have on hand?
“Describe how you met,” she said, heading to a basket of cuttings from the front shop that she’d been saving for herself. Well, saving for her husband. Anniversary plans. Her fingers went straight for the roses. Pale ones, white and pink, moving them out of his reaching hands.
He sucked at a finger pricked by a thorn. “Business acquaintance.”
“He’s someone you know well, or?”
The assassin ruffled his hair while his mouth tried and failed to find an answer. Finally: “I’ve known him only a fortnight, and yet I feel as if I know him. And wish to know him more.”
Oh, not even lucky enough to be felled by mere lust. He was truly smitten! If word got out, it would ruin him. Assassins in love either became too free with their blades or gave them up entirely. No consensus among the community which fate was worse. A debate she was rather tired of, frankly.
She tried her best to steer him someplace productive: back to murder. “And this is a…warning of that desire?”
“We must meet. I wish to confess all.”
“You wish to meet?”
“All right, so we have great admiration, request to meet, and…”
The Crimson Hawk shrugged, of no help at all.
But since I’m trying to help you not get killed was usually taken poorly by paying customers, Briar persisted with a cheery demeanor. She needed to find out who his mark was and decide the danger. His folly could topple others.
“Tell me about him,” she said, her tone conspiratorial and coy.
He had sense enough to look wary at the question.
Briar gently continued. “I can’t craft the perfect message if I don’t know the man.”
The affectation of gossipy interest was enough to let his gaze slide away without seeing anything deeper. The Hawk let loose a torrent of words describing his would-be paramour — how he moved like a beast, how his blue eyes blazed, the first creep of gray into his temples, how his shoulders formed the perfect triangle to his waist, how his arms were powerfully sculpted. No open contract came to mind from his description as she listened. Familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
Ah, when was the last time she’d played this game? Often as not, a job was discreetly arranged. One couldn’t blurt it out. What if someone overheard? A clandestine meeting, carefully phrased instructions, and then the hunt was on. She bit her lip, enjoying the puzzle as though it were her own, but no gentleman came to mind.
Briar studied the Hawk instead. Careless, in the way he let his coat fall open so that the handles of his pistols could catch the light for anyone to see. He never once kept an eye on the exits, either the one they came in or the secret door he was supposed to use. Maybe it was all luck until now. So young. Irritatingly so. When had that started to annoy her? It hadn’t always. She thought of her husband, ten years her junior and still at the top of his game. Something she never failed to take pride in.
She decided on something simple: yellow-orange coreopsis for love at first sight, those yellow tulips for hopeless love, and forget-me-nots for true love. Save for the tulip, the other flowers had a youthful quality, as if plucked fresh from a field. She had one more in mind.
“The scar on his cheek,” he said, the words trailing off as if he’d been dumbstruck. “I wonder how he got it. Only a man that beautiful could sport a scar like that and be all the more handsome for it.”
Her shears were a hairsbreadth away from trimming the pale blue primrose for young love. “Scar?”
“Yes, a tiny cross.” His tone changed; all his playful idiocy gone, and instead hard amusement, an eagerness. He grinned with his eye teeth. “They call him the White Tiger. Suffocates his prey, the way a tiger would. Oh, how I want that man’s hands around my throat.”
Briar’s hands tightened around the shears as her stomach fell away to a cold place far below.
The blue eyes, the broad shoulders, the Tiger.
Ten years ago, there had been a duel. A smothering, moonless summer night. Perfume from the garden thick in their throats. She had wrestled that tiger, won that tiger, and carved that cross with her silver blade into his cheek one breathless moment before they shared a first kiss worth throwing everything else away.
Assassins only last so long in the business. Women, men, didn’t matter. Retirement was a luxury few were foolish enough to hope for, let alone live long enough to consider. How many lives had she ended, how many duels had she won, with no thought to the future? But every passing day since her retirement, those sharp shears goaded her. How nicely they fit the hand, how nimble still, her fingers. Her best years yet not lost.
Flowers were a poor substitute for the elegance of a blade. Who cares who loves or lusts, when who lives or dies is decided by the hand that casts it? Briar had spent years communicating the desires of others, hadn’t she, both before and after? Past time to communicate her own.
She set down the shears.
Briar left the simple flowers where they were. Her fingers reached for other blooms, pinching the stems with her own fingernails. It wasn’t something as simple as jealousy that moved her, but professional courtesy. Belladonna for silence, bold pasqueflowers for you have no claims, acanthus and yarrow twinned together for the art of war.
And with utmost care and gentleness, the Barbed Promise she’d cut earlier, not wasted after all.
She presented the bouquet, with the first unaffected smile she’d had in the shop since she’d traded steel for stems. “He’s quite taken, I’m afraid.”
Briar’s fingers slid the first of her Thorns from the intricate knot of her hair. The second came free with the barest of tugs, and the rest of her black hair fell to shroud her shoulders. The Thorns, made of the finest steel, gleaming like silver, with white quartz for each handle, once terrorized all of England. They were among her last vestiges of her former life, and she couldn’t bear to part with them.
As was true of her husband.
“Ah,” the Crimson Hawk said, sounding satisfied. “The Shadow Rose reveals herself.”
He knew? All this time he’d been playing with her? Cheeks burning, Briar cursed her complacency. She tightened her grip, then forced herself to loosen it.
Hawk looked her up and down with a mixture of bemused dismissal. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“Some do call retirement that. But, no. Not dead.” She widened her stance. “The White Tiger is mine.”
He laughed, albeit politely. “Are you sure?”
Ten years retired. A lifetime. Too long. Briar and her new husband had argued hotly about what they would do at the time. There wasn’t room for two master assassins in the family, and she had already ten years of professional killing on him. So London’s best assassin had stepped aside, and her husband took her place. Why tempt fate twice?
“I think he needs someone younger to tame his tiger.” The Hawk bit his lip hard as his palms rubbed the polished wood of his pistol grips. “Someone with fresh blood on their hands. Still in the game.”
Sometimes, fate tempted you.
“Shall we see who plays the game better?” Briar spun her Silver Thorns with an effortless grace. They felt so good in her hands. She couldn’t imagine now, or ever again, setting them down.
A flash of bright white teeth, followed by a flash of light.
Of course, he pulled a gun. Only one, the pompous ass, shooting over her head and striking the wood panels above. Playing with her, underestimating her, the pretty dark-haired slip of a thing, like they all used to—right before one of her knives pressed under their chin. The cold kiss, they called it. But one has to be close enough to use it. Briar took cover behind one of the garden stands as he shot into the air, the sound cracking through the private room. Smoke poured out, began to drift. He coughed and she used the sound to cover the noise she made tearing off her skirt.
Under her breath: “Amateur.”
“Ah, the old cat has teeth! Good. I didn’t want this to be just murder.”
“It’s not the teeth you should worry about, love.”
She leapt to her feet and threw one of her Thorns directly at his right eye, the one she’d caught him aiming with. Dexterous enough, he jerked left an inch and avoided the blade, though it left a lovely red line across that sharp cheekbone of his.
It also provided distraction enough to bolt to the next bit of cover, the mannequin, with the remains of her skirt in one hand and the second Thorn in the other.
Another shot, this time the light painfully bright and too close for comfort. More red smoke, its crimson particulate drifting softly to the floor while its smoke thickened the air between them, becoming a shifting gray screen. The effect was rather striking, but no time for admiration. Nor could she count on it; the smoke moved like a slow, third partner to their dance, leaving gaps, stealing breaths. Not good. She kept low to avoid the worst of it.
Somewhere in the thickening smoke, he coughed hard.
Had the fool not thought what firing one of his flash rounds in a small and airless room would do? There was nowhere for the smoke to go but up, and she wasn’t going to be opening any doors any time soon. Not until she’d taken care of business, anyway.
Use what you have, she’d told her eager husband all those years ago. Time to take her own advice.
Footsteps, those grand boots of his a drumbeat on the floor as he surveyed the room from its center. Another cough, and then: “Don’t drag this out. I have plans to meet your husband shortly to deliver the terrible news. ‘Rival assassin breaks protocol, starts a war sure to clear out half the assassins of London by the time it’s all over. I couldn’t save your lovely wife in time!’” As he spoke, the sound of shot loaded by a hand so practiced, so smooth, she almost didn’t hear it for what it was.
“I’ll be a legend after this. And all I had to do what find and kill the assassin everyone told me was dead.”
The remains of her skirt across her lap, she felt around the mannequin along well-practiced routes until she found the secret latch on the rib cage. She had built the room for such an occasion all those years ago. Was it only to honor her past, keep those mementos close, or had she secretly wished for this from the moment she first opened the shop? That someone would come and test her.
The latter, she was prepared to admit. Finally. She grinned.
“Isn’t it foolish, to tell me all your plans?”
“You won’t be alive to tell anyone else, never mind him.”
“Confidence alone doesn’t confirm a kill.” Guided by touch, she reached inside the secret compartment and grabbed her gloves, their comforting steel tips all but whispering to her. She stashed the remaining Thorn in her hair with a deft twist and then donned both gloves. Still a perfect fit.
“I’m celebrating early.”
“And what about the grieving widower? You’d do this to the man you claim to love? He’ll be heartbroken at news of my grisly demise.” She gathered up the remains of the skirt in her hands.
“I’ll console him in the most gentle and attentive of ways.”
Briar rolled her eyes, then rolled her body to the left, toward the shelter of a free-standing planter.
He wasted a shot, striking the mannequin, which went down. The smoke from his shot continued to rise; she could no longer see through the glass above, the Hawk little more than a shadowy figure save for his legs. He stepped into the center of the room and she considered, then discarded, the idea of a simple hamstring. Those guns would still be a problem. Both were up now, the set of his legs saying he was prepared to face an onslaught of attackers as he made his slow scan of the room.
Time to test those shoulders. She leapt from her crouching position, skirt between both hands like a matador ready for a gun-wielding bull. He fired one shot blindly the moment the skirt fell over his face, then twisted to grab her; she was already gone.
“Or we can make this difficult. Difficult is fun, too.” His laugh was ugly. “I was trying to be a gentleman …”
She landed right in a blasted cloud of smoke. She coughed, couldn’t help herself, and cursed for giving away her position.
Hawk didn’t waste the opportunity; another shot rang out, and this time it razed the air near her shoulder. Lucky shot indeed, since he was still pulling her skirt out of his eyes and swearing like no gentleman.
She stifled a second cough and wished she’d kept some of the skirt for a handkerchief. It would be the only way she was going to avoid inhaling much more gun smoke.
Wait. Her heart squeezed. That wasn’t gun smoke.
She dared to look for the source and sure enough, true smoke was curling up from the dried moss in one of the wrought-iron planters. One of his shots must have sparked it. Damn him! Fire in a shop made entirely out of wood, a small room besides, and plenty of fuel. Every shopkeep’s nightmare. Not that she lived or died by her earnings, it was all just a way to spend her days, but did he not understand they were nearing their end game? Winning didn’t count if you weren’t there to see it.
Up was out of the question. She could climb the iron handholds studded into the wall and thick with twining vines up to the roof exit blindfolded (and had), but through the smoke? So out was through the only door they’d both used to enter the hidden room. Behind him.
Hawk, finishing a spin on his heels as the last of her tangled skirt fell to the floor, locked eyes with her. Behind him, flowers withered in flames, coughing up the last of their perfume.
His eyes shone. “Time to pick my Rose.”
There was no running. The room, the fire, him blocking the only exit he believed she would use. She tilted her head up at him. Made those eyes. Trembled her lip on cue. Showed him her throat.
He took the bait.
Strong grip, those fingers. She winced. Her instinct to gag as he squeezed got her nowhere. When she fluttered her eyes this time, she meant it.
She grabbed him with both gloved hands, and twisted, the metal tips effortlessly cutting through his white sleeves, leaving long red ribbons in their place. Blood spurted to the floor. He let go, recoiled, and Briar made for the door. Scrambling, coughing, trying to duck under the growing smoke. Behind her, the Hawk coughed and spat, and crashed into something.
The heat! How had the fire grown that quickly? The moment she was on the other side of the door, she slammed it closed, slapped the bolt—the metal hot to touch—and leapt back as he pounded at the door.
“Open the door, little cat.”
Briar laughed. “But I’m a frail rose, all but dead!” She clicked her tongue. “Think you can fly out of that fire, Hawk?”
One hard slam, and then only coughing from the other side.
She kissed the door, feeling the heat on her lips, and fled the shop.
There was screaming in the street. The fire brigade would be along too late to do anything. The same could be said of her day dress. She tore off the last hanging shreds of the skirt and thanked herself for wearing her custom leggings. How many times had her husband told her to put them aside? He loved her legs; he’d get to keep loving them at least for a little while longer.
The shop, or what was left of it, burned, a rosy glow in the growing dusk. Was that a figure escaping out the balcony exit as the rooftop frame collapsed with an orchestra of falling glass?
“Now he uses the exit,” she said with a snort. She patted out her smouldering chemise and took stock. Not bad at all, all things considered. A bit stiff, bit of blood. Lost a Thorn, but she still had the one. No shop. How many thousands of pounds were rising in the air as the fire burned? No point in staying to watch what was a forgone conclusion, or for the inconvenient questions that would be asked once it was smothered.
Ah, but the Crimson Hawk’s escape sent her heart to happy fluttering. She looked to the rooftops, biting her bottom lip. She’d have to do something about that. About him. Glorious. Briar had such good news to tell her husband.
But first: She lifted her Thorn to the back of her neck and cut off all her hair. She held it a while, the great, heavy length of it, and then, humming, tossed it through the fire-gutted window.
Retirement was at an end.
Stephanie is a raven-brained science fiction and fantasy nerd from the wilds of Canada. She’s an alum of Viable Paradise (Go Fifteeners!) and Taos Toolbox 2017. A cat fancier, tea sniffer, and wallflower with a taste for whisky, she’ll be off hoarding office supplies but not before asking you where you got that pen. Just don’t let her borrow it.
5100 words, published September 2018, Shimmer #45
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