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Dawn broke the next morning behind thick clouds. For once, Julie woke before Sammy, her sleepy gaze slowly taking in the sights. Seeing Sammy hugging those pillows between them, Julie wondered with humour if that was why Sammy hadn’t woken up yet.

As if hearing that thought, Sammy started to stir, tightly squeezing the pillow in her grasp, and then frowning as it felt too soft. Her eyes fluttering open, she settled into a pout. Then the pleasant dream she had been living melted away and her expression softened back to neutral.

Having watched Sammy closely that whole time, Julie found the sight adorable. Yet she could not dwell on that feeling as Sammy reached over, gently caressing her cheek, smiling. “Good morning, Lia.”

Still half-asleep, Julie didn’t hate the touch, even leaning into it. “G’morning, Sammy.”

Although Sammy soon took back her hand, the two of them continued to lie there, content to simply gaze into the other’s eyes. Yet the call of nature proved unyielding and eventually dragged Julie out of bed. Away from the warm covers, she lost that drowsy state of mind and a splash of cold water on her face woke her up entirely.

When she returned to the bedroom, Sammy had changed into a dress. Julie’s gaze lingered, mind at a stop, taking in the sight. She had known Sammy to be beautiful and slender and well-proportioned, yet seeing that so clearly now held her attention unlike before.

After a long moment, Julie broke free from her stupor and rubbed her eyes. Her awareness back, she walked over to their packs, only daring to glance at Sammy. With day clothes in hand, Julie retreated to the bathroom to change.

From there, the morning proceeded expectedly enough. A maid called them for breakfast and afterwards they went into the city with Mary, first to check on their horses, then to go to the hotel Mary’s cousin ran.

The hotel itself stood four storeys tall and as wide as four townhouses too. Yet it otherwise had an inconspicuous appearance, no different to its neighbours but for the neat sign over the entrance and two door-staff standing by. Mary led the way inside where a grand lobby stretched out. Covering all the floor space on one side was a sprawling lounge, many couches and armchairs put out in differing arrangements, various tables placed around. On their other side, a wall cut off the floor and, above the door, a sign designated it the dining area. Ahead of them was the reception, women with polite smiles behind the counter, their neat uniform consisting of a modest black dress (that still flattered their young and slim bodies) and a white cap (not unlike what maids and commoner women wore, but made of slightly lustrous silk).

Before they reached the counter, the staff had recognised Mary; a pair of valets came to take the packs from Mary’s footman, and the chief concierge greeted her, informing her that “the master” would be arriving shortly. He then guided them to the lounge area, seating them. “May I offer any ladies a drink?” he asked, his broad smile squashing his eyes.

Mary declined and, after looking at Julie, Sammy declined for the both of them as well. So he left, apologising on the master’s behalf for the delay as he walked away backwards.

Despite that, he hadn’t made it back to the counter before a man appeared on the stairs. That man’s finely tailored suit and bearing setting him apart from the staff. As he approached, Julie could notice a mild resemblance between him and Mary, but she couldn’t say whether that was from them being related or simply both being of nobility. Regardless, he reached out to Mary first, warmly saying, “Cousin, it is good to see you.”

His greeting was a bit familiar, but she seemed not to mind. “Christopher, we have company,” she said.

He waved her off. “You said they are friends of yours, thus they are friends of mine, and who are you to chide me in front of my friends?”

Mary giggled, and Julie thought it seemed a bit more than a polite giggle. “Your wit is as sharp as ever, I see,” Mary said.

“Your skin is just too soft. I tell you, we must dance more and toughen you up, otherwise I dread to think how your husband will bully you,” he said.

Although she tried to show him a look of disapproval, her mouth wouldn’t cooperate. Instead of playing his game, she turned to Sammy and said, “You know, when I was young and yet to understand things, I wished you would marry him so we could be cousins.”

Hearing that, Julie squeezed Sammy’s hand without even realising she had. As for Sammy, she put on a polite smile, saying nothing.

Mary quickly read the mood and laughed off what she’d said. “Oh, how silly children are.”

Sammy gave a small but warm reaction, and then turned to Christopher, speaking softly. “Has Lady Mary explained our circumstance?”

He nodded, bringing his hands together in muted clap. “You are in need of a room, I have empty rooms—anything more is unnecessary,” he said, gesturing as he spoke.

Sammy bowed her head in silent thanks. However, she brought her other hand over, resting it on top of her and Julie’s entwined hands; “We are lovers—is that an issue?”

His reaction seemed natural as he waved off her concern. “The guests who come here, let me say they do not travel to a place where no one knows them for the events. So two women is great, very little mess, neat and tidy. Now two men—I dare not let the young maids enter until someone has checked if it is safe. When it comes to three—”

“That is quite enough, thank you,” Mary hastily said, cheeks red.

He chortled, patting his stomach. “I do apologise. As the saying goes: wrestle with pigs, get covered in muck, and there is much mucking behind the scenes here,” he said.

Mary huffed. “You could at least act contrite,” she said.

“We are all friends here, so I would rather act sincere.” Despite saying that, he then turned to Sammy and Julie and said, “If I have been too frank in my speaking, please forgive me.”

Julie left Sammy to respond for the both of them. “Oh, there is no need—we are in your care.”

Such polite words and yet they cut through the conversation; after a moment, he asked, “May we show you to your room now or later?”

“We shall be seeing some of the sights, most likely returning in the afternoon,” Sammy said.

So it came to be that Sammy and Julie left the building under a gifted umbrella. In silence for a bit, they walked to the end of the street, then headed towards the distant sounds of a market.

Julie was still feeling somewhat quieted by the earlier exchange. There had been something unsettling, a faint notion of aggression, yet it was something she could only pick up in the moment. What words had stuck with her now sounded all too innocent. She was not afraid of arguing—barely a day had gone by at the garrison without harsh words said—but that kind of layered conversation, it invoked a childish sense of helplessness in her.

Feeling that unease in Julie’s hand, Sammy led them over to a quiet alcove that was covered by the building’s overhang. A small space, it brought them closer together, but she chose it because it narrowed the world to only in front of them. With how attentive Julie had been trained to be, Sammy thought this safe place might help settle her.

Although unaware of Sammy’s consideration, after a couple of minutes, Julie did recover.

“Did he upset you?” Sammy quietly asked.

The question surprised Julie and she answered, “No.”

In the silence that followed, she understood that Sammy wanted to know what had upset her, yet didn’t want to pressure her. It wasn’t something Julie felt she needed to keep secret, so she shared it.

“The, um, way you spoke to him—I guess it scared me a bit,” Julie said.

Sammy heard that answer and it set off a tangled web of emotions. “I am sorry about—”

“No! No,” Julie said, quickly interrupting her, but then needing a moment to put her words together. “It’s not that you scared me, just… I haven’t seen nobles argue before.”

That gave Sammy some relief, yet she felt it hadn’t closed the issue. “I wouldn’t say we were arguing. Rather, he is the sort who would talk for hours and I wished to not.”

Julie’s brow furrowed. “You don’t dislike him?” she asked.

“I have no strong feelings for him. He seems nice enough, but I have little interest in men and he gave me no reason to be interested. Put simply, I prefer to be here now with you,” Sammy said.

It would have been a lie for Julie to say that the last part hadn’t affected her. Those words made her conscious of the hand in hers and the warmth therein, made her remember the evening before, that moment when they had nearly kissed. Her cheeks were already rosy from the chill that accompanied the rain, but they now became hot too, and her lips again felt dry.

Not knowing how potent her words had been, Sammy squeezed Julie’s hand. “Shall we carry on? There is much I hoped to see together,” Sammy said.

Brought back to the present, Julie quickly sobered, and she nodded.

Walking closely together, they ventured out into the city. As the capital, it had an extensive offering of shops and stalls, catering from commoners to the upper echelons of the nobility. A particular side-effect of that nobility was the pervasive smell as, regardless of how many street urchins were employed to muck, there were many horse-drawn carriages around. The rain helped, but they otherwise got used to it on the way to the busier parts.

With most of the residents being on the poorer end, the busier parts were where the cheapest goods were sold, and Sammy and Julie ended up in such a place, stalls selling vegetables and game meats and plain clothing and household goods.

While they had no need for any of it, Julie took note of the prices, getting a feel for how much the foodstuffs cost—they wouldn’t always be able to rely on inns for meals. Sammy’s interest was more superficial, observing the people who were around. After a lot of dawdling, they found an inn that served meals, having a simple lunch along with small beer.

Then Sammy looked around for workshops and, again confounding Julie, she placed an order at a glasshouse. That apparently her only task, she took Julie wandering afterwards.

In the middle of the afternoon, they returned to the hotel; the staff recognised them and sent them up to their room. It was a room not too different to the one they had stayed in at Mary’s residence. Spacious, it had a broad bed with a canopy and curtains, and furniture for dining, as well as a pair of couches either side of a coffee table. Wooden shades and red velvet described the furniture and flooring, while the walls were a soft purple, decorated with lavender motifs and paintings; a vase of fresh lavender sat upon the coffee table too.

It also had an en suite bathroom. Although a smaller room than the one at Mary’s, the bathtub was easily large enough to fit two people, and there were a pair of chairs angled towards it. Despite being a busier room, the broad windows—fitted with a kind of opaque glass Julie hadn’t seen before—kept it from feeling cramped.

Of course, all Julie cared about was that it had hot water. Seeing Julie’s look of glee at the discovery, Sammy asked, “What is so pleasing?”

As if chided, Julie pressed her lips together to hide her smile. Once her mouth was under control, she said, “Warm water is… a really nice luxury.”

“Oh? I shall keep that in mind,” Sammy murmured.

After finishing their tour, they settled into old habits. Sammy sat by the bedroom’s window and watched the currently gentle rain while Julie checked their packs. Finding nothing spoiled and everything present, Julie tidied up and then joined Sammy, pulling a chair right next to her.

That small action rather pleased Sammy. It had not yet been a week since they had departed, but she felt confident in their relationship. Julie was all too comfortable to hold her hand and, even after their kiss had been interrupted, Julie had shown no sign of disgust, had in fact volunteered that bit of affection and indulged Sammy with a second bit.

For Sammy, it truly was bliss to simply be able to hold the hand of another woman with her romantic intentions known. A small yet significant act of intimacy—not a childish act, not a friendly act—she greatly cherished it. It was exhilarating to be accepted.

Julie’s pondering was not dissimilar. The rain pausing their travels, she had gathered loose thoughts throughout the day and was now introspecting. Never mind what it meant for two women to be lovers, she had little understanding of what it meant for a man and woman, had never had much interest in such topics. What she did know, well, she knew that such an act was impossible for two women.

Other than that, she had some rough ideas—pet names, kissing, hugging, sharing a bed, reading poetry, exchanging gifts—but they weren’t in any kind of order. It was daunting. Even though she’d felt it had been the right time to kiss Sammy the night before, had even wanted to kiss her, she now felt a kiss would be too embarrassing, somehow taking a step backwards despite nothing bad having happened.

That sense of uncertainty spread to her other thoughts.

If kissing would be too much, she considered hugging, yet that also felt too intimate to her imagination. She didn’t know any poems off the top of her head, only coarse limericks. It didn’t seem right to her to give Sammy a gift out of their shared money. And even though they had shared a bed, it had been more like—as Sammy had said—they’d pushed together two single beds.

As for pet names, she sort of liked it when Sammy called her Lia, the thought of being called something like “honey” or “sweetie” unpleasant in comparison. And she liked calling Sammy by that name, a nice name to say. Besides, considering Sammy was a princess, that Julie could even call her by a nickname already felt intimate.

That all left her in a rut, feeling impotent. It wasn’t that she wanted to move forward in their relationship, but that she wanted to be prepared for what Sammy would do next—or so she told herself. In truth, she wasn’t sure if her feeling was anxiety or anticipation.

Eventually, she was pulled out her thoughts by a knock on the door, and a maid said, “There is a package for the guests.”

With no clue what it could be—only that Mary or Christopher must have sent it—Julie let Sammy go to receive it. A large cloth bundle in hand, Sammy turned to Julie with a broad smile and a twinkle in her eye.

“What is it?” Julie asked, curious in spite of the Sammy’s worrying enthusiasm.

“Such an establishment has a certain code of dress,” Sammy said as she brought the bundle to the bed.

Julie joined her there, watching as she undid the string around the cloth and the bundle fell open. Inside was more cloth, but the very fine cloth of neatly folded clothing, a satin sheen glistening.

“Now, would you rather wear a dress or a suit?” Sammy asked.

Julie heard the question and entirely blanked. While her mind stuttered, Sammy carefully laid out the lustrous dress of vivid magenta and beside it put a pair of trousers, a buttoned shirt, a vest, and a dining jacket.

“I think you would look rather beautiful in this”—Sammy indicated the dress—“and so dashing in this,” she said, indicating the suit. “Really, I would love to see you in either, or even both.”

Having had time to recover, Julie tentatively tried to put together a thought. However, she failed. The dress simply looked far too extravagant for her to wear, and yet she had some reluctance to wear the suit, knowing that she was, in fact, a woman. Although she wore trousers and shirts, it was her uniform and a practicality as a guard. So, with no clear path forwards and Sammy’s mention of a dress code also pressing at her back, she felt boxed in.

Sammy wasn’t unaware of the struggle Julie faced, and she quickly adjusted. “Of course, we can always have food brought to us—there is no particular need to dress up,” she said.

That took the pressure off of Julie. Without it, her eyes naturally drifted over to the dress, admiring it.

“Do you want to try it on anyway?” Sammy asked.

“No, I can’t,” Julie mumbled, stepping back.

But Sammy caught her by the shoulders and stilled her. “Whether or not worn, it will be thrown out or given away once we leave here, so you should do what you want to do.”

Julie was (as always) weak to Sammy’s reasoning, feeling her hesitation crumble. After all, it wasn’t that she didn’t want to wear it, but that she thought it would look worse for being on her—such a beautiful dressed needed someone beautiful to wear it. If it would just be between the two of them, though, her curiosity outweighed her insecurity.

Still, it took one last little push from Sammy to convince her. “If you choose to, I would be very happy.”

Julie took the dress to the bathroom and changed.

It was a more amazing dress than she’d thought, beautiful not just to the eyes, but to the hands as well, so pleasing to touch, so pleasant when worn. Every movement she made was as if being caressed, the smooth fabric gliding over her skin. Even her nose noticed a weak scent of lavender and she realised the dress itself had been perfumed.

Overwhelmed with excitement, she looked at herself in the full-length mirror, admiring how the fabric shimmered. And she found that the reddish shade of purple blended well with her skin’s coppery tone. It still looked out of place on her, but she didn’t detract from it, she thought.

Of course, Sammy could only wait so long before knocking. “May I see?”

It was one thing for Julie to see herself in it, another for Sammy to see her. Staring wide-eyed at the door, Julie hastily said, “Just… give me a moment.”

“Whenever you are ready,” Sammy replied.

Julie took a couple of deep breaths to calm down, and then gathered her courage, slowly walking to the door. She paused there for a handful of seconds before finally opening it. Rather than finding Sammy right in front of the door, Julie saw her sitting by the window. She took a step into the bedroom, hesitant to go further, feeling like she might need to hide in the bathroom depending on Sammy’s reaction.

Yet, beneath that fear, she also felt excited, wanting Sammy to see her.

And see her Sammy did. Even from across the room, she felt Sammy’s gaze, her cheeks growing hot and heart thumping. Despite the intense urge to fidget, that sharp stare held her still. Then, in slow and measured steps, Sammy walked over with her gaze now settled on Julie’s eyes.

No more than a pace away, Sammy stopped. She reached over and took Julie’s hand, bringing it up, and she left a light kiss on the back of it. “You look stunning,” she said, her voice soft yet deeper than usual, almost breathy.

Julie felt her blush turn into a flush, more of her skin prickling hot. A headiness came to her thoughts and she could do no more than bathe in the euphoria that followed such praise. Lost to that pleasure, she would have gladly acceded to any of Sammy’s requests.

“Do you still want to have dinner here, or should we dine downstairs?” Sammy asked.

Knowing what answer would please her, Julie said, “Downstairs is fine.”

Sammy smiled, and she brought up her hand to cup Julie’s cheek for a moment. “We need to prepare, then,” she said.

That preparation began with Sammy changing into a similar dress, the colour more of a dark crimson that contrasted with her pale skin, and she applied some makeup, adding rouge to her cheeks and eyelids, coating her lips in a waxy colour that matched Julie’s dress. She finished by putting up her hair, leaving bare her nape while loose strands framed her face.

When it came to Julie, Sammy deliberately explained the different kinds of makeup and asked if Julie wished to try them. Although Julie had come out of her daze, she still agreed to everything Sammy offered, wanting to look if just a little prettier for when she would sit with Sammy. Sammy also tidied her hair afterwards, decorating it with a cute hair clip.

For the final touch, Sammy took out the paired ribbons she had bought them a few days ago, and she and Julie wore them as chokers. There wasn’t much length to spare, but they weren’t uncomfortably tight.

Gazing at Julie, Sammy murmured, “Oh, you really are gorgeous.”

More herself at this time, Julie said, “You’re too easily pleased. Besides, haven’t you seen yourself? Everyone will be looking at you.”

Sammy let out a titter, her eyes bright. “As long as you are looking at me, I care for no one else,” she said.

Conceding defeat, Julie turned away with glowing cheeks that had nothing to do with the rouge.

A tug of a lever soon brought up a maid and, hearing their request, she guided them down to the dining hall; a waiter seated them and took their order. The hour fairly early, few were present at this time, but Julie noticed they were all dressed in a more formal manner.

Sammy touched her hand. “They will be going out after this,” she whispered. “As we are not leaving the building, we may be less formal.”

Nodding along, Julie took that explanation as the truth, no reason to doubt Sammy.

Their dinner was soon served; Julie eyed the glass of wine, not wanting to unintentionally indulge this time. Picking up on that, Sammy had the waiter serve them water once they finished their glasses.

Towards the end of their meal, the dining hall became more lively, and a small ensemble walked out to a stage at the far end. Gentle music soon played and some people rose to dance. Julie noticed Sammy watched them, yet she thought she couldn’t stand in front of them while not knowing how to dance, just considering it stressing her out.

However, the thought of Sammy asking someone else to dance also pained her for a reason she couldn’t put to words. Stuck in that selfish contradiction, her mood soured, face showing her complicated emotions.

When Sammy looked over and caught that expression, she softened into a smile. “Shall we retire?” Sammy quietly asked, giving Julie’s hand a squeeze.

Julie nodded.

A concierge guided them back to their room and checked there was nothing they needed. Left alone, the two of them stood in the middle of the room. Julie didn’t know what to do. It was too early to sleep, yet the only chore she had was checking the packs and she had already done that.

Fortunately, Sammy had a suggestion to pass the time. “Shall we practise dancing?”

“W-what?” Julie asked, stepping back.

Sammy’s hold on her hand stopped her from going any further, though. “We are dressed up, there is no one watching, and we have time to spare—is now not perfect?”

Unwilling to agree so easily, Julie kept her mouth shut. But, rather than Sammy’s reasoning, it was that look of longing Sammy had shown earlier, staring at the others dancing, that so moved Julie. She didn’t want to be the cause of Sammy’s unhappiness.

Eventually, she asked, “How will we dance without music?”

“I can hum a beat for us to follow,” Sammy said.

Julie looked down shyly. “And you really don’t mind that I’m rubbish?” she whispered.

“Dancing is all about who you are with, not how you do,” Sammy said.

So Julie finally gave in, offering Sammy her other hand. “Can you teach me how to lead?”

“You wish to lead?” Sammy asked, surprised. “I do not mind, but—”

Not wanting to drag it out, Julie said, “It is the man’s role, so I don’t want you to do it.”

Hearing that, Sammy smiled warmly. “Well, what if we have our own dance, one where neither of us has a man’s role?”

Julie’s nose scrunched up, thoroughly confused. “How?”

Guiding Julie’s hands, Sammy got them into position, standing close together with their hands on each other’s waist and shoulder. “Let us simply sway, learning our natural rhythm,” she said, doing as she had said.

Julie shortly joined her, matching how she swayed.

“And when the mood takes us, let us move a step,” Sammy said. She moved her foot to the side and waited for Julie to follow, then moved her other foot to straighten up. So they swayed and, from time to time, Sammy shuffled them over a step. “You try.”

Having been using her focus to copy Sammy, Julie panicked at suddenly being asked to lead. She hesitated, her sway interrupted, and then jerked her foot to the side. Sammy giggled, turning Julie’s ears red.

“Relax, let yourself move however you want to,” Sammy murmured, and then she fell back into the soft yet regular hum.

Once Julie’s embarrassment settled down, she tried to do as Sammy had said. Slowly, she learned, beginning to lose herself in Sammy’s eyes, feeling more than hearing the gentle beat. Neither one leading, they followed the small movements of the music and shuffled around as if in a small circle. Unconsciously, they came closer together, their hands on the other’s waist moving to the small of the back, the hands on their shoulders looping around. Julie felt as if she wanted to see the whole world in Sammy’s eyes, a constant pull bringing her closer.

And Sammy, more aware, felt her desires surge, wanted that kiss that had been taken from her. Their lips only a hand apart, she held off as long as she could before leaning in. This time, she didn’t wait for Julie, going all the way.

And Julie watched, her heart pounding. Yet, once Sammy crossed some indiscernible barrier, that anticipation turned to panic. Before their lips met, she turned away.

Sammy kissed her cheek and then pulled back, feeling upset and frustrated—but with herself. She hated herself for being responsible for that expression Julie made. She knew that, as the aggressor in their relationship, she could never force anything, could only make Julie comfortable to take that step herself, yet she had shamefully lost herself in the moment.

“I’m sorry,” Julie muttered.

Sammy brought up her hand to stroke the back of Julie’s head. “No, I am sorry,” she said, and her apology sounded so much heavier. “If I ever do anything you dislike, tell me to stop and I will.”

Yet Julie didn’t look reassured by those words.

Sammy thought it over for a moment, and then thought of something. “Say, do you remember why we properly met?” she asked.

The question distracted Julie, but the strangeness of it stopped her from giving an immediate answer.

Not wanting her to answer, Sammy continued. “You looked uncomfortable from that squire’s advances and I hated that. Now even more than back then, I want you to always be smiling. So if I make you feel unpleasant, I want you to tell me, because what I want more than to feel good myself is for us both to feel good. In fact, since we are lovers, I cannot feel good by myself. Your joy is my joy, your sorrow mine as well.”

Julie listened closely and, especially from those last words, felt herself understand their relationship a little better. After all, she keenly knew that sense of wanting Sammy to be happy; that that sense was reciprocated did surprise her, though. She hadn’t exactly thought about it, just that she was used to seeing Sammy act in that way, always fawning over a woman. It never occurred to her that Sammy’s kindness was sincere and not simply a part of that act. Or rather, she had felt such kindness was because she was a woman and not because she was Julianne.

She wasn’t entirely sure she understood this new understanding quite yet; however, Sammy’s sincerity had been felt, settling her heart.

Wanting to convey that and to lighten the mood, Julie turned her head to the side. “My other cheek feels left out.”

With a warm smile, Sammy leant forward and left a light kiss on her other cheek. More conscious of it this time, Julie felt the gentle touch, the tickle of breath, and the soft sound of the kiss teased her ear.

No more words spoken, they resumed their dancing and swayed to Sammy’s melodic humming. Time losing all meaning, it might have been an hour later that they stopped as far as Julie knew, but her legs complained and throat was dry.

While she relaxed, Sammy went to bathe. Sitting by the window, Julie didn’t think, her mind still in that state of dancing. Although she would be too afraid to dance like that in front of other people, she rather liked doing it alone with Sammy.

Soon a sharp sound—metal on porcelain—jerked her out her thoughts. After a moment to switch her state of mind, she rushed to the bathroom door. “Is everything okay?” she asked, pressing her ear to the wood.

“Yes,” Sammy loudly said, her voice husky and strained.

Julie hesitated. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Hearing a hint of annoyance in that response, Julie shuffled back.

It was a while later that Sammy left the bathroom in her nightgown. Julie looked over her for any bruises or cuts, but couldn’t see anything wrong with the shown skin. “Did you drop something? It sounded strange,” she said.

Sammy’s mouth curled into a lopsided smile. “Yes—my massager.”

Julie was about to ask more, but that smile worried her and she held back her curiosity, choosing instead to take her nightgown through and bathe herself. She still didn’t indulge in the actual bath, but again found the hot water incredibly pleasant.

Clean and changed, she returned to the bedroom; seeing Sammy reading on the couch, Julie joined her there. When evening proper fell with yawns slipping out, they retired to the bed, again organising a wall of pillows between them.

“G’night, Sammy,” Julie murmured from her side.

“Goodnight, Lia.”

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mialbowy

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