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Constance's Mask
    by Nick T. Chan

Constance's Mask
Artwork by Jin Han

Constance hefted an axe and commanded Oscar to bow and extend his neck. The golem obeyed. She tightened her grip on the handle. Edward had betrayed her. With Oscar. Each second spent with the golem was like having a length of barbed wire jerked from her heart. The only way to stop her pain was to destroy him.

She readied a downwards stroke and the axe trembled. When Edward was away, Oscar protected her from men. If she'd been pretty, they'd only pass lewd comments. But she wasn't pretty. She'd been born with hard calcified lumps beneath the skin of her face, leaving all but her mouth deformed and immobile. Men assumed they could have her and grew violent when she refused. The blade halted and trembled above the brass hoops and rubber seals connecting Oscar's neck to his torso.

Beneath Oscar's wooden carapace was a fine network of brass tubes that carried his ink-blood. His head was roughly sanded into the shape of a human face. Only his mouth was close to human. He had a tongue made of muscled wet sponge, constantly oiled by some mysterious lubricant. Fine ivory teeth, rubber lips that were pulled by interior strings, a flexible jaw with silver hinges. A mouth that could talk. A mouth that could kiss. A mouth that could . . . the world compressed and for the next few moments her thoughts ran red.

A sudden jet of black ink hard-sprayed across the green tiled walls and his head tumbled to the floor. The next axe stroke opened his torso, revealing interlinked wooden cogs and the brass tubes that pumped ink. Constance swung again, slicing through wood and brass. Ink splattered her from head to toe. When she was finished, Oscar was a pile of splintered wood. Only his head was intact, lying on its side in the middle of a welling circle of black against the white floor tiles.

As quickly as it had vanished, awareness returned to her. Her rasping breaths echoed off the tiles. She'd destroyed Oscar. Destroying her husband's property was a sin. Covered in ink, she knelt and prayed. She prayed for respite from the rage her paralyzed face couldn't show, from the bitterness, from the heartbroken thoughts that dropped like pebbles down an endless well.

Prayer calmed her.

She dropped Edward's diary onto Oscar's remains. Edward had tried to disguise the contents by writing in the runes that formed personas. Edward had assumed she couldn't read them, but she'd copied enough of his work over the years to learn. There was no mistaking the foulness of what Oscar did. Each act took place in the basement, and the language was explicit. What Oscar did, where his hands touched, what body part was involved.

There was already hot water in the bath; she'd known the ink would splatter everywhere. Undressing without Oscar's help was a tedious process. She unlaced her corset, unfurled her many layers of clothes, and slipped into the iron bath tub like a newly born calf.

The water's heat shocked her into reality. She couldn't leave Edward. All she'd done was destroy Oscar, destroyed her only protection from the rapacious men outside.

She was physically incapable of crying. Instead she buried her head in her hands and let the bath dilute her despair.

"Are you well, Lady Constance?" Oscar said. She opening her mouth in surprise, then flailed as water caused her to choke. "I'd help you, but I have no body."

She clambered out of the bath, her feet puddling in the ink-slicked floor, and grabbed Oscar's head. It was lighter than she'd imagined. Ink dripped from Oscar's neck, between her breasts and onto her belly. "How can you still function?" she said, forcing the words past the thickness in her throat.

"There's still some ink left in my neck cavities."

Two brass tubes jutted from Oscar's sliced wooden neck and ink dripped from them. She grabbed a white towel from the railing and shoved it against the tubing. After she was satisfied that the flow of ink had stopped, she stroked Oscar's wooden brow. It was cool and slick underneath her fingers. She shouldn't ask questions in order to preserve ink, but a small and twisted part of her wanted to know the full extent of Edward's betrayal.

"I'm sorry. You can only do as you're commanded. How long has Edward done this?"

"Since Samhazai took control," Oscar said.

Samhazai? It took her a moment to remember where she'd heard the name. "You were with me when Edward and that actor Spencer Milton discussed the character Samhazai from the play The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai, weren't you?"

"Yes," Oscar said. From his mouth issued a perfect replica of Spencer's voice. "No one has the skill to write a persona for Samhazai. The character is too complex and it is the one play that cannot be acted fully by personas."

The greatest actors were literally possessed by the characters created by Gentlemen Scholars such as her husband. An actor who read aloud Edward's persona was possessed by the character for as long as the runes dictated. Mispronouncing a persona or reading the wrong one held terrible risks for the actor involved, so only the most skilled Gentlemen Scholars sold their creations. Edward would have seen Spencer's statement as a challenge.

"Samhazai is only a character in a play," she said. "Who has taken his name?"

Oscar started to reply, but his mouth froze ajar with a soft hiss of released air from his throat mechanism. She held his head upside down, hoping that enough ink would fall. No words emerged.

She pressed her lips together. Constance always re-wrote Edward's work with her neater hand to ensure whoever read it pronounced each rune correctly. Three days ago, Edward told her he'd finished his greatest persona yet, but she was still busy copying his lesser ones. Edward might be arrogant, but he didn't boast idly. If he believed it was his greatest persona yet, it was. And it must be somewhere in the house. If she found and copied it, she could sell it to an actor and leave Edward.

She considered her options. Edward's zeppelin was late. It had probably missed the wind. At best, she had a couple of hours. She washed Oscar's head and bundled him within a white towel. Still naked, she crossed the landing to her bedroom and used the full length mirror to dress. As she craned her head over her shoulder to lace her corset, her face's reflection lanced her guts.

At fifteen, she'd been orphaned after Papa died in debtors' prison. Edward had purchased what was left of her father's estate with the intent of selling it. He could have legally sold her to the wharf madams. A drunk and lonely sailor would take even a girl as hideous as her. But Edward didn't. Instead he'd tilted her chin upwards so that the light caught her face and he'd said "I'll marry you."

Once dressed, she carried Oscar in the crook of one arm and the axe cradled in the other. She searched through Edward's books for personas. Nothing.

She tried the locked desk drawers. Tugging on each drawer opened it enough to glimpse paper. She readied the axe. Within a few strokes, the first drawer split and envelopes spilt onto the floor.

She opened the nearest. Inside was a photo of Oscar and a man engaged in sexual acts. She squinted at the scratched sepia photograph. The man in the photograph with Oscar was Spencer Milton. She'd first met him at one of Edward's functions, those endless dinners where she was expected to refill drinks, keep her mouth shut, and serve meals with Oscar's help. At the last dinner, it had been only he and Edward. Spencer had bought five personas at great expense.

She flicked through more photos. There were more sinful photos with different people. Kared Halfwhistle. Francis Cambin. Havelock Ellis. Bertie Roebuck. All famous actors.

There were too many envelopes to count. Oscar was in every single photo that she examined, but Edward was in none. What had she stumbled across? She reached the bottom of the drawer. There was a set of nestled and furled scrolls. A persona. She flattened the pages on the desk. It was in Edward's messy handwriting. She mouthed the words, careful not to say them aloud, less the unknown persona possess her.

The persona was a woman; it was clear from the feminine modifiers in the first few runes. Women weren't allowed to act or be possessed. It didn't matter if a man read the female character. The possession would be so complete that within minutes, the audience would forget the actor was anything but the woman in the role.

Even reading silently, it started to claim her thoughts. She felt the spirit, the soul, the character of the woman she read about. A hideous, unnatural woman. One who did not want a man, one who thought herself better than any man. She took breaks from reading at the end of each line to stop the threat of possession. This persona was so powerful it frightened her.

Why would Edward write a character that was so in defiance of the natural order of things? And with no relief from its poisonous words? Actors were both attracted and repulsed by villains. There was fame in allowing yourself to be possessed by such dangerous roles, great fame, but evil characters could change your thinking forever. This was a persona of great danger, but it would mean everlasting fame for the actor who used it.

She continued to read, hoping that there was some hint of womanly humility and piety within the runes, but there was nothing. Every single symbol described pride and arrogance. It wasn't finished. The runes limiting the length of possession were absent. Anyone who read it would be possessed forever. If she were a man, she'd dare to think she could add the final runes herself. After all, she'd spent hundreds of hours copying them, and Edward always limited the effect to a single night.

But she was only a woman. She couldn't add the final runes.

She needed to find this man called Samhazai and ask him to add a limit. Her eyes burned from squinting at photos and close-written runes. She rubbed the ball of her hand into her sockets and when she opened her eyes, her gaze rested upon Oscar's towel-covered head. Of course.

For two years, she'd listened to Edward's lectures about his male mastery of science. The ink used to write the runes was the same as golem ink. Golem ink had to be somewhere in the house. With it, Oscar could tell her how to find Samhazai.

The Guild of Gentleman Scholars controlled the supply of golem ink carefully and stealing golem ink invited execution. Edward would keep it secure, but where?

In the basement was a boiler fueled by guildfire. Guildfire created flames that left wood and steel and stone untouched but heated iron. It burned perpetually upon water or blood. If it touched her flesh, the blood flowing through her veins would boil or catch fire. Only a golem could put its arm inside the boiler. The basement floor was painted with runes of golem compulsion and any golem except for Oscar would leave. It was the best place to hide the ink.

She left the axe at the top of the basement stairs and then un-wrapped Oscar's head so she could use the ink-stained towel to open the door to the fire chamber. The guildfire within burned steady and cold, as blue as the thinnest shaving of ice. The air close to the flames was frosty, but the iron glowed cherry red with heat. The water in the boiler's pan was cold. In the level above, the iron heated water hissed as it turned into steam.

There were a dozen flasks of golem ink within reach. If only she hadn't destroyed Oscar, he could've retrieved one of them. But she couldn't, not without badly burning herself.

Perhaps she could sell the unfinished persona? It wasn't as if the actors knew it was unfinished.

No, that would be a sin and she'd committed enough sins tonight. Maybe if she promised that it would be completed, an actor would purchase ink for her.

Upstairs, a clock chimed nine times. Edward would be home within hours and she couldn't bear to look upon him. The decision was made. She'd find an actor and promise him the role of a lifetime. Edward placed a limit of one night upon each persona. She'd promise whatever limits the actor wanted, as long as he'd buy the ink for Oscar. All she had to do was find a buyer.

She re-tied Oscar's head into the towel, slung it over her shoulder and returned to the study to retrieve the tawdry photograph of Spencer Milton. She'd never spoken to Spencer. That would be unseemly. Instead she sat in the background and served him wine. Each time she'd listened to him praise Edward with such extravagance that she was sure one of them would burst into laughter. That didn't happen. When Edward wasn't looking, Spencer's eyes were hooded and secret, but they sparkled into life whenever Edward glanced his way.

Spencer and Edward had argued over money. Spencer stating he was a poverty-stricken actor, Edward retorting Spencer owned the playhouse and the luxurious apartments above. Spencer was the most famous actor in the world as far as she knew, but he'd desperately want a new role, whether hero or villain.

She'd never left the house without Oscar by her side and never after dark. There would be no one on the streets though. What could people possibly do after the sun set? She placed the house key inside her purse alongside Spencer's photo, the obscene parts folded so only his face was visible. She slung Oscar's head over her shoulder, placed the persona inside her blouse and left the house.

The streets were illuminated by a ghostly blue light emanating from guildfire globes atop black iron poles. Each glass globe had a little stopper for draining the water, and small brass golems leapt from pole to pole, refilling the water at night and opening the stoppers at dawn.

Contrary to her expectations, there was a torrent of people shuffling along the cobblestones, including beggars and women of ill repute. Many of the beggars were disfigured and as she descended the first step, she felt a momentary tug of kinship.

When she walked down the stairs, the beggars and slatternly women moved aside. Men watched with wolfish eyes. The surveillance of men at Edward's dinner parties normally impelled her to lower her gaze, but she straightened her back. Let them look upon her disfigured face and wonder why she was not on the streets like them.

The guildfire lights on the playhouse's front burned red, yellow and blue. They illuminated a painted sign that read The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai.

She strode into the foyer. A couple hurried towards a carved set of double doors, the man flustered, the woman immaculately made-up and not caring she was late. Constance's heels clicked on the marble floor as she followed them to the theatre entrance. The doors swung open at her touch. An usher tried to stop her. She let him stare upon her face and then walked past and down the aisle.

Heads turned as she passed. There were no empty seats. She hadn't thought of that. The yellow guildfire footlights illuminated her face. Damn them all. The woman she'd read about in Edward's latest persona would stand in the middle of the theatre, heedless of men's gazes, and she resolved to do the same.

Behind the glare of the footlights, the actors continued their roles. She knew the play well. The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Samhazai was one of the few plays deemed suitable for a woman to watch and she'd sat through it a dozen times, despite the fact that the role of Samhazai was always acted out instead of being undertaken by a man possessed by a persona.

Every actor except Samhazai were all middle-aged portly men, but as soon as they spoke, it ceased to matter. Their bodies were mere shells for the truth of what they were. There was a young girl ready for Samhazai's corruption. There was Gabriel, King of Golems, struggling with the thought of fighting his brother golem. These fragile characters would live only for the night and were bound to say the play's words, but they were living and real personalities none the less.

Spencer Milton emerged from the wings, shattering the illusion. Constance knew that her female head was too empty to understand the craft of acting, but she could tell Spencer acted the role with charisma. However, it was still acting, and the fragile dream created by the play fell apart as soon as Spencer spoke.

"I'll not be a slave to men," he said in the guise of Samhazai. "I'll not serve their pleasures nor will I bend to their will. I'm no puppet for their amusement and pleasure." Spencer's robes glittered with darkstones and he moved like an eclipse across the stage, only his silver-painted hands and face visible. The play was still enjoyable, still made the audience laugh and cry and gasp. But it couldn't change their lives, not while Spencer merely acted in the central role. He was talented, but he was only a man.

The other actors departed from the stage, leaving Spencer to launch into a soliloquy. The audience couldn't suspend its disbelief and they shifted in their seats. Constance placed her hand on the cold yellow footlights and climbed.

Spencer tried to push her back with his boot as he continued to recite, then he looked at her. His pupils widened. Behind her, the crowd jeered until she turned to face them. She couldn't see beyond the lights, and the only sound was the rustle of clothes and the creak of seats.

She dropped Oscar's head onto the boards and she withdrew the persona from her purse. Spencer smiled for the crowd, indicating that everything was under control, but the smile didn't reach his eyes.

She spoke only to Spencer. "This persona wasn't written for an existing play. It's a monologue for a villain. A female villain. There has never been anything like it before. If you pay for the ink to finish it, the character will possess you for as long as you want. You can be the only one to ever play this role."

He raised his cloak and lifted it so the darkstones swallowed the footlights and they were cocooned in shadow. His painted face glittered. His mouth twisted as if he'd eaten something bitter.

"Haven't I paid enough?" he whispered. "Does your husband seek to humiliate me further?"

She was glad that her face couldn't show her confusion. "I offer you more than Edward ever offered and for less money."

His hand reached towards the persona for a moment, before he withdrew it back behind the cloak. Outside the cloak, the crowd jeered again.

Spencer's face grew as hard as hers. "Tell your husband that I'll no longer consort with his golem. I don't care if I never act again."

Before she could tell him that she'd nothing to do with Edward's photographs, he swirled the cape away, leaving her bathed in light.

"This woman," he said, projecting to the crowd, "comes unaccompanied by her husband. Her mind is clearly addled."

The jeers and catcalls deafened her. Spencer walked away, wrapped in his cloak, only his head visible. She grabbed the tied-up towel ends that bound Oscar's head and undid them. Oscar's head tumbled from the towel onto the floorboards and the crowd erupted. They must have thought Oscar's head real, black ink indistinguishable from red blood when illuminated by yellow guildlights. There were screams and shouts as the crowd surged for the exits.

Spencer stopped as Oscar's head rolled to his feet and his face held so little expression that she could've been looking in a mirror. Then he strode forward, ripped the persona from her hands and tore it down the middle.

The halves fell and she sunk to her knees to gather them. He placed his foot on Oscar's head and pressed down, the soft wood cracking. Oscar's mouth shattered, ivory teeth popping with the sound of springs being released.

"Stop!" she said. "I promise a new copy of Samhazai's persona as well." It was a desperate gamble, but she knew Edward. If Spencer had challenged him to write a persona for Samhazai, Edward would have written it. She hoped.

Spencer stopped pressing down on Oscar's head. "You've stolen it from Edward, haven't you?" He retrieved Oscar's head and compared it to hers, the golem's angular carved face against the hard mask beneath her skin. "I'd always wondered why he married you."

The hatred almost overwhelmed her then. Hatred for Spencer, for Edward, for herself for not being a woman a normal man would marry. For being a woman. If she'd been a man, she could have written personas herself. She could have written the one now shredded and scattered on the floor -- one about a woman who did not need men.

"I've left him," she said. "He cheated on me with Oscar."

The last person fleeing from theatre let the door slam. Small clockwork golems appeared from the stage wings and fiddled with the footlights, letting the water drain and dousing them. Now that she could see it clearly, she could understand the sheer size of the theatre, understood how many people had watched her climb onto the stage and beg Spencer for money.

Spencer's eyes were hard, but was that a glimmer of sympathy she saw? "I can do without this -" he swept his hand to indicate the stage and the theatre and the adulation of the crowds, "- and there's a man whom I love. If your husband chooses to reveal his photographs of me, I lose him."

For want of anywhere else to look, she fixed her gaze on the two half-pages of runes. If only she could be this woman, the one who wanted men, but did not need them. "I can give you Samhazai's persona. All these people saw you as an actor, not the character."

"You can't offer Samhazai's persona. No one has ever been able to write one that works. Edward laughed when I asked if he'd written one." He handed Oscar's head to her, using the golem's ruined mouth for a handle. "Do you love him?"

She searched inside for the truth and came back with nothing but dust where her love had been.

"No," she said. "I was never what he desired. I loved him only because he gave me a false image of myself." It was true. She'd dared to think herself attractive to at least one man and that lie had made her love him. There was no self-deception left in her. She was what she was.

"Then you don't understand what I'll lose."

She shoved the two halves of the persona into her purse. The photograph of Spencer was still there, she'd forgotten about it. Mirroring Spencer's tearing of the persona, she shredded the photograph.

One silver painted hand moved towards her purse. Constance could almost see the strings of fear and desire pulling him first one way, then another, before he finally shook his head. "The photograph may no longer exist, but your husband could easily tell Kared."

There were other actors who'd buy personas, but none tonight. She dismounted from the stage, leaving Spencer standing in darkness. Before she could leave, he unclasped his cloak and tossed it to her. The darkstones were painfully cold to touch.

"You can sell the darkstones for a little money," he said. "I know a boarding house that will take unaccompanied women."

She fastened the cloak around her neck. Spencer was tall and the cloak draped from shoulders to foot. Only her disfigured face was visible. "No," she said. "Charity I'll not take, but these darkstones are mine." She swirled the cloak about her, the motion swallowing all the light between her and Spencer, and left.

She turned when she reached the theatre doors. Spenser still stood in the stage's center as if awaiting a prompt from the wings. She raised the cloak over her face and left the theatre.

Edward was not home. Oscar's sticky dried ink-blood was still splattered all over the bathroom, the brass cogs and wooden splinters of his body in a haphazard pile. Edward's diary still lay atop Oscar's body.

She shouldn't have destroyed him. Now she couldn't even be sure that his mouth mechanism wasn't too damaged for speech.

She moved to the study. The envelopes with their profane photos were still scattered about the floor. She swept them into a high pile on the desk and set them alight. Every time the fire threatened to die, she added another photograph until there were none left. The flames cast an orange light that bent around her cloak like water around a rock in a stream. When the flames threatened to catch the desk, she was faced with the danger of the room and thence the house burning down. For a moment, she considered letting it happen, but she couldn't leave Edward homeless.

She threw her coat over the desk and the flames died. Inspecting the cloak revealed almost no damage. The darkstones absorbed light and heat. That meant she could retrieve the ink from boiler using the cloak as a shield. And then write personas. She could. As she hurried down to the basement, she noticed but did not register the open front door. She ran down the stairs, almost tripping over the axe she'd left by the stairs.

Edward stood by the boiler, holding the diary she'd dropped onto Oscar's body. He wore a dressing gown, the belt tied loosely enough for his belly to peek through, his eyes yellow with age and fine grey hairs sprouting from his ears and nose. There was something in his eyes that she hadn't noticed before. It had been there a long time, maybe as long as she'd been married to him. It wasn't guilt or fear at the discovered diary. No, it was utter fury, anger so deep and inhuman she wouldn't have recognized it if she hadn't seen Spencer act earlier.

"You read Samhazai's persona," she said, realizing the truth. "Right after you married me. The time limits require a clear hand and your handwriting has always been poor. You mispronounced your own persona and then never sold it. That's why you laughed when Spencer asked if you'd written it already. "

He inclined his head as if he was trying to hear a faint tune. He said,"I never existed beyond the pages of the play, yet I hear God telling me to submit." He flipped through the diary. "What you read was my record of how weak men are. What their petty desires will make men do. And God has the temerity to place them over me?" He threw the diary into the boiler's fire, where it did not burn but instead grew damp and then crumbled in the water. "You destroyed Oscar. You destroyed my photos. Those were my property and you're my wife. To destroy a husband's property is a sin against God," he said, his voice both sardonic and serious.

What could she remember about Samhazai from the play? He hated God for taking away the free will of golems, for making them submit to the commands of men. He fought against being a slave and forced Gabriel, King of Golems, to hunt him down. "You bought Oscar to control me. I thought you were against slavery?"

"Men are puppets. Now I make men do what is unnatural simply by offering them fame. God will see that his precious men are slaves as much as golems." The anger in his eyes sucked all life out of the air. "Give me Oscar's head. I'll buy a new body for him."

"No," she said. "Let them buy the personas if they wish, but that is all."

"Why do you care?" he said. "Each man thinks no more of you than the dirt beneath his feet."

She pressed her fingertips to her face, the lumpy flesh underneath the skin yielding slightly. "I've hidden from the gaze of men all my life." She tossed Oscar's head into the flames. It clinked against the glass ink jars and then bobbed in the water. "You might be Samhazai, but your body is still Edward's. And if you reach into that boiler, you'll burn."

"I'll hire a golem to retrieve it," he said.

"I'll be gone by then. I can write personas. You taught me to do it by making me copy them."

Edward seized her by the chin and titled her face upward, his fingers digging deep into her cheek. She gritted her teeth and bore the pain, kept her eyes on him in defiance. "God was right to make you a slave."

His eyes filled with madness and resentment. Both hands fastened around her neck and squeezed until she was forced to the ground and he was straddling her. The pain in the fragile tube of her throat reduced the entire world to nothing but the rasp of her breath and Edward standing over her, his face expressionless and the tendons in his neck so thick they could be plucked like the strings of a double bass. Somewhere nearby was the axe and she flailed her hands over her head but fell short. Then instinct forced her to try to pry his fingers away.

She clawed at his face, but he squeezed harder and the world darkened at the edges until there were only his black and glittering eyes. For a strange and clear moment she said goodbye, first to herself and then to Edward. Perhaps there had been a few days where he'd truly been Edward and had loved her.

There was a voice at the very edge of hearing. Was it Oscar? Impossible. Oscar had no ink. Still, she croaked "Oscar?"

Edward's grip loosened as he glanced backwards. The axe came to her hands like it had been placed there.

As Edward looked back, she whipped the axe's handle around, catching him across the jaw. Edward slumped sideways, his head lolling. He didn't get up.

It took her a second to stand. Each breath was a fist pushed upwards through her throat. Oscar's head still bobbed in the water, utterly inert.

She hefted the axe over Edward's unconscious body. Edward was Samhazai, the most dangerous of villains, forever seeking to free golems from men's mastery. She raised the axe, ready to split his head from his body.

I'll not be a slave to men. I'll not serve their pleasures nor will I bend to their will. I'm no puppet for their amusement and pleasure.

Oscar's head still bobbed in the boiler, his mouth still broken beyond repair. She'd loved Edward once. She understood Samhazai's despair at being a slave. As a woman, she was expected to be a puppet for men's desires. Well, she'd not be one any longer. She had the persona. Maybe the character was not a villain after all.

Constance would make copies of the persona, give it to any woman who wanted to stand as her own person and not merely a man's possession. She'd sell it to any actor who could show crowds what a free woman was like.

She wrapped the darkstone cloak around her arm and thrust it into the boiler. For a moment, the blue flames flared and died, leaving nothing but water. She retrieved Oscar's head and the bottles of ink. Selling personas would earn enough money to buy a new body for Oscar. There was enough ink to write twenty or thirty personas, enough to earn a fortune, enough to buy more ink.

Edward stirred. A long dark bruise had formed across his jaw and for a moment, nostalgia for the deformed girl who had somehow found love possessed her.

But she couldn't cry, never had.

She climbed the stairs and left the house.

Her face was a mask, but it would no longer hide who she was.

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