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The Rat and the Serpent

an extract from the novel
by Bryn Llewellyn

Imagine a film made in black-and-white. Now imagine a novel written in black-and-white.

The Rat And The Serpent is a gothic tale relating the extraordinary fate of Ugli the cripple. Raised as a beggar in the soot-shrouded Mavrosopolis, Ugli has to scramble for scraps of food in the gutter if he is to survive. But one day his desperation and humiliation is noticed by the mysterious Zveratu, and soon he is taking his first faltering steps into the world of the citidenizens. He meets the seductive Raknia and the arrogant Atavalens; one destined to be his lover, the other his mortal enemy. But as Ugli ascends he becomes aware of a darkness at the heart of the city in which he lives. Slowly, he realises that the Mavrosopolis exists gloomy and forbidding around a terrible secret...

The Rat and the Serpent by  Bryn LlewellynNight was at hand and it was time for me to hunt for food discarded by the citidenizenry. I stood up, my tattered parasol sending a shower of soot around me, then limped down Blackguards' Passage to the Hippodrome. My crutch thudded against grime-encrusted paving slabs.

Between the din of the Hippodrome and the chaos of the harbour further south was a good area to search for scraps, but that fact was known to scores of other nogoths like me, each with their own territory, each nursing their hunger like an ulcer in the belly. I grimaced. Fights were commonplace. Yet, although I was crippled, I had one advantage. Despite my youth I had honed the discipline of crutch-to-hand combat into an art--and then there were the tiny spikes emerging from the foot of my crutch. So I moved forward. From the immense cellars of the Hippodrome a man had climbed up to the street, a dustbin on his back.

I knew the signs. I moved forward, focussing on the man as he emptied his bin into the gutter, but like a flock of crows a dozen other nogoths emerged from their hiding places to pounce on the food. The scraps were bruised and glutinous, but not rotten, potatoes and black olives and crusts of grey bread, and for a few seconds we all ate.

Then a shout. "Hey! You! Get away from that gutter!"

I looked up to see three men standing a stone's throw away. Two were ordinary nogoths, but the third stood proud beside a panther on a leash, a man with limp white hair and black eyebrows, who in stature and bearing radiated a chill pride. Most of the nogoths around me scattered, leaving me and two others. We stared as the trio advanced, the food half way between the ground and our mouths. I appraised the newcomers, afraid to move, yet more afraid of losing my meal. The men wore ragged cloaks and carried parasols, but they were unkempt and showed no signs of citidenizen make-up: they were nogoths, like me, albeit of a different standing and attitude. But the panther looked thin.

The white-haired man told the other two to halt, then strode forward until he was a few yards off. "I told you to get away," he said. "You're still here."

The pair at my side ran away, whimpering and scattering the potatoes that they had tried to hide in their rags. But I had not eaten for two days, and the taste of food in my mouth made me stand firm, though I knew it was unreasonable. The man stared at me and jangled the leash. "Do you see me?" he asked. "Do you know what I am?"

"I see you," I said, glancing down to the gutter and wondering how many potatoes I could grab before I ran.

The man repeated his question in a louder voice. "Do you know what I am?"

I looked up. "Should I?" I asked.

The man was surprised, his lips drawn back to show pale teeth. "Are you a fool?" he asked.

I heard the fury in the man's voice. "But-"

"I wield power. If I tell you to get away, you get away. This food is mine."

I took a few steps backwards, knowing that the man was a shaman, his totemic animal the panther, a corporeal example of which stood silent at the end of the leash. I looked at this beast and I saw gleaming eyes, a hint of fangs beneath the soft mouth; twitching whiskers. I felt a tension in the beast as it flicked its tail from side to side.

Yet there was food here. Desperation took me. "You must leave me some," I begged, "I've not eaten-"

"Quiet."

"-I've eaten nothing, I swear, nothing for days. Give me a potato and a hunk of bread. A few olives. Nothing more, you can have the rest."

The man said nothing, as if amazement at my outburst had struck him dumb. Then he jangled the leash and began to pull the handle from his wrist so that the panther could be set free.

I stood upright. "Wait," I said. "I too am a shaman. We should not be fighting like this, we are brothers in black."

Now the shaman's anger turned to laughter. "You? You, a shaman? Look at you, like the lowest nogoth in the smallest nogoth pack, who hasn't the wit or strength to eat--on his own admission--for days on end. You cannot treat with me. I am soon to take the citidenizen test. You are crippled dregs. You deserve to die."

I felt anger lighting up my mind, an anger so strong it was almost a pain. I found myself breathing in gasps, hoarse like a smoker. "I am a shaman," I shouted. "I am a shaman and that's the truth!"

The man took a step forward, the panther two. "Of what beast?" he asked.

I looked at the two henchmen, then at my surroundings, to see none of my scavenging kin in sight. I was alone and helpless. I turned to the man and said, "I am a shaman of the blackrat."

The response was unexpected.

Laughter took all three of the men, the leader most of all, for while the other two tittered and scratched the stubble on their chins, the shaman leaned back, looked up at his parasol and choked out gulps of laughter, his body shaking. At length he calmed, to say, "The rat? And you think your rat will be a match for the panther you see before you?" He turned to his friends to add, "We've met a fool like no other. He may be a nogoth, but he's missed his vocation. He should be inside the Hippodrome, not outside, yes, inside, entertaining the citidenizens with nonsensical tales." He screeched another few laughs. "Tell me more, rat boy! Tell me how your rat will take on my panther. Describe the battle and spare me none of the details!"

All three men were now convulsed with laughter. I stood motionless, awash with fear, with despair, aware now that I had acted like a naive. The humiliation was intense. I dropped my parasol so that my face was hidden and turned to face the building opposite the Hippodrome, but there I saw other pale faces emerging from the murk, nogoths like me, some baffled, others amused.

The humiliation was complete.

The shaman jangled the chain a final time, removing the handle from his wrist and letting it fall to the street, and even I, torn between the courage of despair and the pain of starvation, knew it was time to run. So I ran as best I could, my crutch thumping against the street. The panther did not bother to catch me; it ambled. But the shaman and his friends stretched out their hands, showed their front teeth, and, skreeking like a horde of rodents, pretended to give chase, until I was back in Blackguards' Passage and the stink of the Hippodrome was lost in soot and shadow.

I wept. I had no food and no hope of returning to find scraps. And the tale of my humiliation would leap from nogoth to nogoth, from Hippodrome packs to harbour gangs, until I was forced to make the move from poverty to utter despair, and then, like so many others before me, to final rest in my grave.

I was a nogoth. I had no future.

Life as a nogoth was meaningless, it was just existence: life by accident.

In the madness of my retaliation I had dropped my parasol. Now I stared up into the mist of soot falling so fine yet so strong from the night clouds, and I yelled, "But I am a shaman! I am Ugli the blackrat shaman. Why am I here in this gutter?"

My voice faded into a hoarse retch as emotion took me. I sat and put my head in my hands.

I looked up to see a pair of rats emerging from a sewer grille. They stared at me, noses twitching. Certain they were mocking me I leaped up and ran over, kicking out in an attempt to smash them against a wall. But they were too quick, skittering away, squeaking. I wailed, aware that I had acted against my principles. In humiliation I was becoming what the white-haired man had said I was: no shaman, turning against myself, a nogoth without hope, denying my own existence because that was what others were doing. Deserving of death.

I fell to the street. Yet even that was a meaningless gesture, for there was nobody to watch me collapse, not one single person. The citidenizens of the Mavrosopolis had long since moved from wherever they slept during the day to wherever they lived at night.

So it was that my thoughts turned to these people, with their make-up and their undamaged parasols, living lives about which I knew nothing; healthy and at peace, or so I assumed. Never hungry, or so the stories ran. Suddenly I imagined myself from the perspective of a high window--a small figure, but alive. And I was a shaman. That made me an outsider even in nogoth society, but being a shaman meant that I had something to give to others, and something to do in life. I knew wrong when I saw it, none better, since my years had been one long struggle, with my gaze turned ever upward to the promise of better times; and I knew that wrong had to be transformed into right. More than that, I knew from some well in my heart that wrong could be transformed into right. Even nogoths knew a concept of hope.

I had to do something. This day must be a turning point. The three men thought I was bluffing, but I never lied. I had told the truth about my rat guides.

Again I looked up into that familiar blackness. "I must change all this," I muttered at the sky. "There must be more to living than hunger and pain."

A thought entered my head, borne on the scornful voice of the panther shaman: you cannot treat with me, I am soon to take the citidenizen test.

Yes! Becoming a citidenizen was possible. Many nogoths took tests to become citidenizens of the Mavrosopolis, but I, who had all my life floundered in dark streets and passages, had no concept of such a leap, and so I had never considered it. But tonight was different. Humiliation burned in my body. Isolation was sending me mad. I had to raise myself before the grave claimed me. I had to become a citidenizen. It would bring meaning to my life, it would bring an end to tortured days.

And then a voice wound its way into my mind. "Did they offer you any food?"

A croak of a voice. I looked up to see the silhouette of a man against the lamps of distant Divan Yolu Street. I jumped to my feet. "Who are you? From the panther shaman?"

"No."

Nothing more followed by way of an introduction. I shrank against the wall, every nogoth instinct telling me to flee, but I was transfixed as if by sorcery.

"You have nothing to fear," said the voice.

I relaxed a little. There was a whisper, a hiss, then the flare of a lantern shining through the soot. The light revealed a tall man, old, with tufts of white hair emerging uncombed from a balding pate; a cadaverous face with black eyes from which the rheum ran. He carried a small parasol.

"Did they give you the food you asked for?" he repeated.

I shook my head. "Who are you?" I asked.

"My name is Zveratu. I am not here to harm you. Look at me--I am an old man."

I noticed a gleam at the belt under Zveratu's cloak. "You carry a longsword," I remarked.

"For defence only," came the reply.

I studied Zveratu's pale and wrinkled skin. It was difficult to tell in the flickering light, but the old man seemed to be wearing make-up, a foundation of white, and kohl around his eyes: black surrounding a dark gaze.

I summoned up my courage to say, "You don't look like a nogoth. You're not one of us, why should I listen to you?"

"Because I have something to say, something that I think you are well suited to hearing. But you are in a hurry? You can run along if you want to."

I smacked my crutch against the wall at my side. "I cannot run. Instead I hobble fast."

"Do you wish to leave then?"

I frowned. "Are you toying with me? I'll throw you into the Propontis."

"You would have to lift me first."

"I have friends who would help."

Zveratu said nothing, but at length he remarked in a soft voice, "Are these the friends who deserted when you faced the panther shaman?"

I grimaced, glancing back down the passage. "You're just playing with me. I bet you work for that man, just driving the knife deeper in. Well I have had enough!"

"Indeed you have, Ugli," said Zveratu, without any change of expression, "and that is why I sought you."

"Then what do you want?"

"One of my many tasks is to seek nogoths suitable for the citidenizenry. I believe you to be one such. I am here to encourage you."

I stuttered, "No, you can't be. You're toying with me again. Well, I can't stand it." My voice began to wail as I said, "I've got to get out of here before it's too late! I'm not ready for my grave."

Zveratu nodded. "That is one of the tragedies of life. Nobody is ready for the grave."

"So who are you?" I asked, the emotions churned up by desperation making my eyes water and my throat ache. "Who are you, really?"

"I think you should make a commitment to passing the test that would lead on to you becoming a citidenizen."

"What is this test? I'll pass it--anything!"

Zveratu raised a hand. "Enough. Any test is a month away. First you have to become visible to citidenizens and to those nogoths taking or about to take the test."

"I am the lowest of the low."

Zveratu approached. He put one hand to my chin, appraised my face, then said, "In a sense. But there are many other senses."

"You speak in riddles. You must be a citidenizen. You're wearing make-up, aren't you?"

"What happens to nogoths who wear make-up?" Zveratu countered.

"They vanish."

"The citidenizenry deals with them. That is all you need to know."

I shrugged. "So what do I do? Who do I see?"

"The time for seeing people is later. First we have to decide if you are ready for the commitment, if you are ready to make a serious promise."

"I am ready!" I yelled.

Zveratu nodded. He looked along the passage, then glanced up at the surrounding buildings and towers. "In which direction would you say the citidenizenry lay?"

"Up," I replied without hesitation. "It has to be up."

Zveratu shook his head. "First we go down," he said, pointing to the street slabs. "Follow me."

Zveratu led me along the passage until we stood at the edge of Divan Yolu Street, which lay sparkling like opals behind a hallucinatory mist of soot. The glittering lamps of a thousand windows shone in a serpentine curve, east towards the Gulhane, west into Yeniceriler Street. In this street hundreds of parasols jostled as the citidenizens of the Mavrosopolis went about their evening business, while--hardly visible to them, though clear me--half as many nogoths lay like discarded packages in the doorways and the gutters. Many of these nogoths seemed contented, and some were chewing food. They had rich pickings. But competition for the best places was intense, and only the most cunning survived. Crippled from birth, I had no chance of winning any such competition.

I studied the nogoths. I realised that by taking territory on this street every one had rejected the possibility of citidenizenship. Not I.

Zveratu turned left and strode at speed along the street. A few nogoths raised their heads to stare at us, and some shouted at me to leave them alone, but I ignored them; though Blackguards' Passage met Divan Yolu Street they were like foreigners to me, the intense localisation of street life separating brother from brother. We passed the Forum of Constantine then entered Yeniceriler Street, Zveratu glancing over his shoulder every few minutes to check that I was keeping up. My crutch thunked against paving slabs, while Zveratu's boots click-clacked against the stones. At the Forum of Tauri, we halted.

Zveratu raised one arm to indicate the structure. "What do you make of that?"

"It is Tauri's Forum. There citidenizens debate matters... I don't know what matters, but they must be important."

"Our goal lies underneath."

"Is it dangerous?"

"The Mavrosopolis is perilous indeed." Zveratu glared at me. "Surely you are not afraid of subterranea? You, with your guides?"

"I am not afraid," I replied, "but I am concerned."

"You do right to feel concerned. It is a mark of wisdom."

I had never before been complimented, except by my mother. I began to feel that something here was wrong, yet I could not stop myself following Zveratu, for I knew that he represented my best chance of ascent.

We entered a narrow alley set between the Forum and a terrace of buildings, the towers and arches of the Forum rising into heavy soot clouds. The alley was cobbled, and the sound of our passage echoed ahead of us. Pale lamps shone behind twinkling windows. The unintelligible signs of citidenizen houses hung like glowing white leaves from poles set perpendicular to the walls, each one marked with a single black symbol. I was assailed by unattainable meaning. I longed to know what the signs meant. I longed to ask Zveratu, but I dared not, for I knew citidenizenship was far away and I had taken only the first step on a long path.

Zveratu broke my reverie by saying, "This is the door through which we enter the bowels of the Forum. Follow me, and do not be afraid."

I looked at the black hole before me. I did not want to enter. "Wait," I said. "Will we be gone for long?"

"Possibly."

I screwed my face up and moaned, "But I haven't eaten for days. I must have food." My eyes misted. "Please."

Zveratu glowered, but then his face softened. "I suppose you must," he said. He looked at the buildings opposite the Forum then added, "I can buy you food." From his pocket he withdrew several clinking metal disks, which he examined, then bounced in his outstretched palm.

"What is that?" I asked.

"It is called money. You will have to come to terms with it if you become a citidenizen."

"Is it sorcerous?"

Zveratu's face fell, as if I had made a crushing retort. "There are almost no citidenizens who do not believe that money is sorcerous," he remarked. "But no, it is not, at least not in the way that you meant."

He walked across the alley to a door left ajar, which he pushed open with his boot before calling, "Are you open yet, victualler?"

A fat face appeared at the door. "I'm closed right now. I was jus' cleaning out. What you want?"

"Take these," Zveratu replied, pushing some of the money into the man's hand. "Bring us good food that we can eat without cooking." He handed over another disk. "And take that for your trouble."

Grumbling, the fat man returned to his shop, to appear five minutes later with a box. Zveratu checked the contents, then nodded. "Thank you."

A shrug was the only reply.

I took the box and with drool running from my mouth examined the contents: blackberries, grey bread, salted olives, a crumbling cheese that looked like chalk. I ate without thought for Zveratu, stuffing the food into my mouth. Too soon, it was gone.

"Better?" Zveratu enquired.

I looked at him. This man had given me a free meal; and thinking about it, with the food in my stomach, that was all I had wanted. I glanced at the Forum door and found the prospect of subterranea unwelcoming. I did not trust this strange man.

"Got to go piss," I said, clutching my groin.

Between the fat man's door and the next building lay a narrow alley, which I entered, hurrying along until I saw light at the far end. I did not expect any of the locals to stop me, so I stepped out into the street not looking left or right--to see a silhouette before me.

An outstretched arm pointed in the direction from which I had come. "The Forum is that way."

I stared at Zveratu. For some time I was speechless, until I managed to ask, "How did you get here?" I turned, to see that there were no other passages. I turned back, to add, "You're a sorcerer. That's why you want me."

"I am Zveratu," came the impassive reply, "and that is all you need to know for the moment."

"You want me for sorcery."

"I want your commitment, Ugli. Did I not make that clear?"

We stood in stand-off for a few moments, before I sagged, knowing that I had done a stupid thing. "Sorry," I mumbled.

Without reply Zveratu entered the alley, and soon we stood again before the Forum door. "This leads into a cellar," Zveratu explained, "from which we locate the catacombs."

"What will we find there?"

No answer. Zveratu strode into the blackness, and I followed.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a radiance emanating from Zveratu's parasol--the old man had not closed it--so that we seemed to be walking under a moon of white mist. I halted whenever Zveratu paused to get his bearings. I smelled mould and dust. From the sound of the echoes I thought we might be in a long corridor.

"There are steps ahead," Zveratu warned.

We continued. I was desperate to know more about our destination, but I dared not ask any questions. After a few minutes we began to descend spiral stairs, the stone under my hands cold as ice, and clammy, with the echoes of bootsteps and crutch snapping back at me. I felt my guts churn. I swallowed, then belched. The sound made Zveratu halt.

"What was that?" he asked.

"Me," I replied, grateful that the gloom masked by embarrassment.

"No shaman of the blackrat should fear subterranea," Zveratu said. "Believe in your guide. You will prevail."

"How did you know about the rats?"

"I observed you before we met."

I had noticed that as the night progressed Zveratu became imperious, almost terse; either this was because his plan was coming to fruition and he was nervous, or because a natural arrogance was showing through. As we followed the corridor I again felt the need to run and hide, an urge that brought panic to my mind. I stopped. Zveratu stopped. I walked on. I heard cockroaches crunching under my boots.

At the end of a short side-passage we rested. The echoes changed, became lusher, longer, as if we were inside a cavern.

"Where are we?" I whispered.

Zveratu took a tiny lantern from his pocket, whose pure radiance lit a tunnel; arched brick above us, passages to either side. Before us lay a channel filled with dust, soot and larger pieces of debris--bones, the pommels of swords long since disintegrated, the remains of carts and caravans.

"This is but a tiny part of the sewer and catacomb system of the Mavrosopolis," Zveratu replied. "Your emotional home is down here." He pointed with one bony finger. "Do you see movement on the other side of the channel? Rats."

I nodded. "There are rats everywhere." I knew this was true because I could feel them.

Zveratu turned to look at me. "How many would you say there were?"

I tried to survey the path to either side, taking the lantern and raising it above my head, but its light was too weak. "There do seem to be far more than I'd have expected," I remarked. I sniffed the air. "But no stink of rotting food or anything."

"These rats are a force," said Zveratu, in doomy tones. "They respond to what happens above. Excess food discarded by the Forum of Tauri descends to these levels and causes a population explosion."

I grunted at this. "I've got bitter experience of the so-called force of rats. It is the power of humiliation and pain. I will never again tell anybody I am a shaman of the rat."

"You will," Zveratu said. "Allow me to demonstrate. Pick up that hide from the floor."

I did as I was told, releasing a horde of cockroaches and beetles that scuttled away to vanish into crevices. The tattered leather seemed once to have belonged to a dog. I held it at arm's length.

Zveratu proceeded to pummel the hide with his fists, sending up clouds of dust, and scattering pieces of fur to the ground. "As you see," he said, "I am unable to damage the hide with the power of my fists. But watch." There was a clink, then a scraping sound as of metal against metal. He raised his right hand to expose a framework of silver, five jointed metal bars along the undersides of his fingers, a disk in the palm, a hoop around the wrist; five sharp claws at his fingernails. There was a motion, and most of the hide fell away, leaving me holding a fragment.

"Do you see?" Zveratu asked.

Though shocked at the speed and effortlessness of the gesture, I had enough wit to realise that I was learning a lesson. After a moment I said, "You made a small thing more powerful than your fist."

"Five small things," Zveratu corrected. "Imagine what I could do with two of these devices."

Dimly, I understood. "I see what you mean," I said in the most confident voice that I could muster. "I should not underestimate the power of small things."

"Indeed."

Zveratu led me along the sewer channel until we came to a junction. We followed many more passages, descending by means of crumbling steps, until the air was so cold I began to shiver. Again I wondered why this man was taking such trouble over me.

"Is it far?" I asked.

"No."

"Why are you doing this? I want to get back to my alley."

"Those days are gone," Zveratu said. He paused, then added, "But it is right for you to feel dislocated. You must realise that your desire to become a citidenizen of the Mavrosopolis means you will be wrenched from the alley you call home. If your desire is true-"

"Oh, it is!"

"-then you will overcome the difficulties of your ascent. Have courage. Do what is right." Again he hesitated. "And do not suppose that you are the only one I have looked kindly upon."

I recalled what Zveratu had said when we first met. "Have you raised many nogoths into the citidenizenry?" I asked.

Zveratu pointed to a dark chamber ahead. "There is our goal. There we will make a pact that will help you complete the great journey ahead."

"You and me?"

"You and me and one other."

Again I shivered.

Inside the chamber I examined every nook and corner. I found nothing and nobody. It was a rough cavern twenty feet on a side, a tunnel leading in and out, bones and stones covering the floor, the remains of murals upon the walls. It smelled of dust and mould.

"What is this place?" I asked.

There was no reply. Zveratu was a silhouette at the entrance, his face in shadow, tufts of hair like a halo around his head, the silver claws gleaming upon his right hand. I could not have imagined a more menacing figure, as if this man was somehow at one with the Mavrosopolis, as if he was its soul.

Terrified, I shrank back against the wall. "You're going to kill me," I whispered, leaning against the wall and raising my crutch. "I can use this," I warned.

"Use it to walk," Zveratu replied. He raised his gaze to the ceiling then said, "Remain silent."

The atmosphere of the cavern changed in an instant.

From the air in the centre of the chamber motes of purest white dropped, like snowdrops illuminated from the inside, forming a pool on the ground that rippled as if responding to motion deep within. From this pool questing whiskers emerged, then a pointed nose, then a face, then in a single leap a rat of white light: black eyes, black claws, black teeth. I fell to my knees before this incarnation of my shamanic totem. I felt heat in my arms and legs as if I was being infused with emotional power. My face felt flushed. My ears were singing, my teeth throbbing in their gums.

"Swear before this semblance of your totem," intoned Zveratu.

Looking up through my eyelashes, I nodded once.

Zveratu continued, "It is my true desire to become a citidenizen of the Mavrosopolis."

I repeated this in full. It was true.

"And I will do my best to ascend from nogoth to citidenizen, I will believe that I deserve it, I will assist other nogoths who deserve it."

I repeated this too.

"And when I am a citidenizen, noble and good, I will wear my make-up with joy, knowing that a new meaning has been brought to my life. And I will do what is necessary for the good of the citidenizenry and for the good of the Mavrosopolis."

I said every word, then let my gaze drop to the ground. Shadow swept into the chamber. It was cold and silent.

I heard the sound of robes swishing. "Good," said Zveratu as he turned to leave.

...continues

Afterword

And so Ugli takes his first steps into the world above him. He finds that most people are prejudiced against him because he is a cripple, but, as he struggles, he meets some who are prepared to take him as he is. He also discovers the curious stratification of the Mavrosopolis society, which, it turns out, is linked to its dark heart. And while he has no destiny, he does have spirit, a goal, and a mentor...

Bryn Llewellyn says, "I felt that the tale of Ugli in the Mavrosopolis was gothic enough to consider writing in black-and-white. Completing the first chapter was difficult--it is not easy to restrict yourself to objects that are white, clear, black or grey--but soon I had got into the swing of it. The hardest thing was not mentioning blood. Ugli finds himself fighting one or two people as he rises through Mavrosopolitan society, and these fights had to be bloodless. But I particularly enjoyed writing the fight that takes place in complete darkness."


© Bryn Llewellyn 2005.

The Rat and the Serpent was published in February 2005 by Prime Books; ISBN: 1930997833.
The Rat and the Serpent by Bryn Llewellyn

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