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The first step of Sammy’s and Julie’s preparations was for Sammy to politely ask Pam to leave the room. “My Julie is the only one I want to see me,” she said, her tone light and a mischievousness in her eyes.

Pam, again blushing, shuffled out while saying, “O-o’ course.”

Once the door closed, Sammy turned to Julie and let out a little giggle. Not for the first time, Julie noticed how—now it was just the two of them—Sammy made no move to cover her mouth as she laughed. Sammy also looked rather beautiful with laughter on her lips, giving Julie’s gaze reason to linger.

However, sweet moments of innocence were often fleeting with Sammy around, and this time was no exception. No sooner did her laughter stop than a sly smile emerged, her hand crawling up her body.

Before Julie realised what was happening, Sammy had tugged down the neckline of her riding habit, nimble fingers undoing the top button. A burst of shyness flushed through Julie’s mind, yet she didn’t—couldn’t—look away. The pale skin and slight curves captivated her.

Then her senses finally returned and she looked away. Not helping her embarrassment, Sammy let out another round of giggles.

“Indulge as you wish,” Sammy whispered, her voice deeper than usual, alluring, as it carried across the room.

A shiver ran down Julie’s back, and she swallowed the lump in her throat. “No, thanks,” she mumbled.

Silence lingered for a second as Sammy silently closed the distance to Julie’s back. “Then, may I indulge as I wish?” she asked, her words caressing Julie’s ear.

Letting out a shuddering breath, Julie felt her heart race in her chest—whether out of surprise at Sammy’s sneaking or from the words spoken, she didn’t know. “If that’s what you want,” she said, barely a whisper.

Left in silence, unable to see Sammy, Julie’s heart became only more restless, anticipating, afraid, unsure how she felt. And Sammy could see right through her, so tense and almost cowering, shoulder’s hunched and breath held.

Rather than unsure of her own feelings, Sammy simply had a myriad of emotions and desires swirling around inside of her. Oh how she wanted to truly indulge, to hold Julie close and leave kisses along that bared nape, to nibble on those cute ears, to feel Julie melt in her embrace. And she wanted to stroke Julie’s head and tell her she need not be so brave, comfort her. And Sammy wanted to do everything in-between.

But Sammy held steady, acting thoughtfully rather than impulsively. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked, her tone not accusing.

Julie didn’t know exactly how to answer that question. As unsteady as her heart was, she trusted Sammy, didn’t hate the little touches and kisses they’d shared. “It’s more that… I don’t know what’s gonna happen, so….”

Although Julie didn’t finish her thought, she’d said enough for Sammy to understand. And Sammy understood. She knew how much other people liked order and routine and hated things like adventures and upsetting gender roles. Of course, as someone of high standing and affluence, she herself was somewhat shielded by being branded an “eccentric”.

Still, she had plenty of experience nudging others off the path of normalcy.

“May I kiss your neck?” Sammy whispered.

“You don’t have to ask,” Julie mumbled.

Sammy let out a note of pleasant laughter. “Being lovers means we are sharing our bodies with each other, not simply taking. And it is most wonderful hearing you tell me I may. I yearn for the day you do not merely give me permission, but beg for my kisses, for my touch. Feeling desired is… perhaps the most beautiful one can feel.”

From behind, Sammy happily watched as a touch of red coloured Julie’s tanned neck—not simply embarrassment, but an inner heat that could not be contained. That thought was confirmed when Julie quietly said, “You may.”

Sammy wasted no time; she leaned forward and left a light kiss on that enticing nape, earning the softest gasp from Julie.

“Did you like it?” Sammy asked, her voice husky.

After a long moment, Julie said, “I didn’t dislike it.”

Chuckling, Sammy tore her gaze away and took a step back. “Let us not keep Pam waiting.”

“Y-yeah,” Julie said.

In a silence thick with unspoken words, the two undressed and then put on the borrowed clothes—light dresses, the muslin fabric suited to the warm weather. Next, with each other’s help, they put on their ribbons as chokers (the colours almost matching their dresses).

At that point, Sammy invited Pam to join them again. Based on her face, she may have heard some of what they had said, or perhaps had simply indulged in her imagination; whatever the reason, Julie found the embarrassment infectious and tried to busy herself while Sammy talked to Pam about hairstyles.

So Julie idly rifled through her pack. As well as a handful of uniforms she’d brought with her, it had some medical supplies, her papers, and a few other bits.

But one of those bits gave her pause: the hair clip Sammy had bought her. She hadn’t worn it since they’d left the capital, afraid to lose it. Since they were dressing up, she thought she ought to wear it, yet she was still worried about losing it, a festival hardly a calm place to be.

However, that decision soon left her hands.

“Oh my, how did you know what I wanted to ask you?” Sammy said. She plucked the hair clip from Julie’s hands. “Come, let me brush your hair and then we shall put it in.”

Sammy sat on the edge of the bed behind Julie. She’d brought a brush over with her and got to work with it, and Julie couldn’t help but feel Pam’s gaze, suddenly this innocent ritual they had done several times in the capital feeling illicit. It was as if Sammy was running her fingers through Julie’s hair like lovers do, every touch full of contradiction, both embarrassing and calming, melting under Sammy’s ministrations while aware that she shouldn’t do so in front of Pam.

Regardless of what she thought, she couldn’t muster the presence of mind to do or say anything. Every stroke of the brush broke up her thoughts, pulling her into the moment, keeping her attention on the pleasant sensation.

All too soon (or so it felt), Sammy stopped. Before Julie could finish letting out a long breath, Sammy was on her feet and in front of Julie, leaning down to neatly put in the hair clip. “Perfect,” Sammy murmured.

Julie heard the praise and it went straight to her cheeks. Before she could even think to play it down, though, Sammy spoke again.

“May I kiss you?” Sammy whispered close to Julie’s ear.

Immediately, Julie’s gaze snapped to Pam, breath hitched.

“She won’t mind,” Sammy said.

Julie forced herself to take in a deep breath and then carefully let it out. That seemed to be enough for her to calm down, and the answer was easy for her to give. “Okay.”

Again, Sammy didn’t dawdle, bringing her lips to Julie’s forehead for a heartbeat. “How about another?” she asked.

This time, Julie couldn’t help but let out a note of laughter before she caught herself, chuckling into her hands. “You’re terrible,” she said.

“You make me like this,” Sammy replied, one hand up to just touch Julie’s cheek.

That touch quickly grounded Julie, humour replaced by a warm gaze she shared with Sammy. Who knew what such a gaze may have led to if not for Pam sneezing. Sobered, Julie ducked her head, the flush that had coloured her for so long now irritating in its prickliness.

As for Sammy, she smiled as she turned to Pam. “Bless you.”

“Ta,” Pam mumbled—by far the reddest of the three.

The moment of flirting finished, Sammy gave Julie the brush and sat nicely for her. Although it was the first time Julie had been given such a monumental (in her head) responsibility, she’d brushed her own hair before and it wasn’t exactly difficult, but she was overly careful all the same.

It also gave her the chance to inspect Sammy’s hair up close for the first time. Ever since they’d met as children, she had admired the long, blonde hair that every princess in every story had. How many ways she’d heard it described—spun sunlight, threads of gold, buttery silk—and none came close. Well, it was just hair, boringly normal, yet that didn’t take anything away from it. So pleasant to brush, smooth, fairly clean despite their days travelling, and a beautiful colour, almost brown when in the shade and pale in the light, more like wheat than gold.

Unable to hold back, she ran her fingers through it after finishing a stroke with the brush. It was oily, leaving a slight residue on her hand, and wonderful all the same, begging her to comb it with her fingers some more. But her senses returned too quickly, hastened by Sammy’s giggle.

Swallowing her embarrassment, Julie carried on brushing in a calm manner, unsure when to stop. Fortunately, Sammy soon decided it was enough.

Turning to Pam, Sammy asked, “Shall we put my hair up?”

Broken from the daze she’d been in, Pam took a moment to reply. “Um, didn’t I say? Us girls ’ave our hair loose.”

“That is for maidens, no? I am very much parly pou,” Sammy said, slipping in a Sonlettian phrase as she pointedly looked at Julie.

Again, Pam had to pause to process the words before replying. “Ah, yeah, o’ course,” she mumbled, nodding.

A silence settled then. Julie could only watch as Pam skilfully arranged Sammy’s hair, acknowledging that she herself had no clue how to do anything with hair but brush it, her own having never been longer than her shoulders (and usually much shorter). Still, she felt uneasy and didn’t know why. In the end, she turned away, occupying herself with taking inventory of their packs.

It was a few minutes later that Sammy grabbed Julie’s attention with a question. “How do I look?”

That discomfort in her chest lingering, Julie had to force herself to turn around, only for the feeling to be immediately overwhelmed by the sight. As well as the beautiful hairstyle, some colour warmed Sammy’s cheeks, a thin shadow around her eyes framing them, making them all the more vivid, eye-catching. Even wearing a (by royal standards) cheap dress, Julie couldn’t help but say, “Like a princess.”

Sammy rather liked that answer, her smile widening.

Dressed up now, they were nearly ready to leave. On the topic of money, Pam helpfully said, “Ah, we can swap some if ya want. This near the border, everyone likes Starlings.” Sammy conveniently knew the rough value of the coins, so she was comfortable to exchange a handful of the silver coins with small birds on them for Sonlettian currency (branded with the King’s face).

Finally, they left, sent off by Marge’s reminder: “Don’t sneak so many drinks ye wake up in a ditch with yer knickers ’round yer ankles.”

To which Sammy whispered to Julie, “I shall make sure to sew pockets onto our dresses so our knickers will be safe after a night drinking beneath the stars.” To which Julie ducked her head, caught between laughter and embarrassment—the Sammy special.

With seemingly the whole village celebrating, the muffled sound of good cheer greeted the three of them outside. Although dusk had settled, it was busier on the street than when they’d come earlier; Sammy rather naturally ended up at Julie’s side, holding her hand. After having done so so many times before, Julie wouldn’t have even noticed if Sammy hadn’t given a small squeeze.

“If ye like, I can show ye ’round the stalls and stuff,” Pam said, walking a step ahead of them.

“While we appreciate the offer, we would like to spend our time alone with each other,” Sammy said.

Julie had to admire how honest and straightforward Sammy could be at such times.

As for Pam, she swallowed the words she was going to say, taking a moment to reply. “Ah, o’ course,” she said, cheery tone forced.

Though Sammy picked up on that, she had nothing else to say. It wasn’t in her nature to coddle someone she wasn’t courting and she had no need to dance around topics, unafraid of how others saw her. Yes, she preferred to be direct, to be hated for who she was than tolerated for who she pretended to be.

Besides, it was enough for her that Julie liked her as she was.

They walked towards the square in silence, meandering around the people hanging outside their houses and chatting to neighbours, drinks in hand, small children clinging to their legs. Pam struggled to keep moving—often because someone called out to her—so Sammy and Julie left her behind with a few parting words eventually.

The crowd at the edge of the square was thick, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, looking on. Of course, even that proved no obstacle to Sammy’s keen senses and they soon broke through into the square itself.

Less of a crowd here, the (mostly) older teens shuffled from stall to stall and clumped in patches of friends. Still, there was such noise, incomprehensible, loud chatter blended with squeals and screams, covering the music but for the powerful beat of a drum. Julie took care with every step, always someone to bump into or bump her nearby.

It was all a kind of chaos Julie had never experienced before. Even the dances the garrison had thrown were modest, too close to the palace to be rowdy. An hour or two standing to the side, acting inconspicuous and trying to avoid catching any man’s eye, a drink of water, a nibble of whatever, and then going back.

Yet there was such energy in this place, an infectious mood that tempered how intimidating it was for Julie. It felt fairly similar to the times when Sammy had swept her up in some mood, the voice in her head quieting, her body acting on instinct as she couldn’t process everything.

Sammy negotiated the fickle crowd with ease as she led them towards the stalls; Julie followed closely behind, Sammy’s hand reassuring her.Lit by flickering candles and oil lamps, half of the stalls were devoted to foods and drinks: from the beer and battered snacks they’d seen earlier, to fresh fruits and berries, baked goods, soups, stews, pastries. The other stalls sold trinkets of flower crowns and garlands, various things carved out-of or in-to wood, and one even had jewellery.

“Shall we have some fruits? I have been constipated these last days,” Sammy said, tugging Julie along. That sentence lingered in Julie’s mind for a moment before she dismissed it.

While they had some fruit first, Sammy made sure to pry out what Julie wanted to try too, ultimately filling themselves on a mix of sweet and fat. The beer battered onion rings and potato fries came dripping in oil, and the latter with a dollop of mayonnaise that had such richness to it. Julie, already bad with rich food, could barely dip her chips in the sauce—something which Sammy had no problem with, her last few bites more mayonnaise than chip as she didn’t want to waste it. Some small beer washed it all down, thoroughly pleasant after nearly a week drinking boiled river water.

Now fed, Julie felt more conscious about everything going on around them. The people were dressed lightly, the young women in dresses much like she and Sammy were wearing, the men in shorts and shirts (barely buttoned up halfway). Where they were, most people were, like them, milling around as they ate and drank. However, she picked out glimmers of distant dancing where the music was coming from.

“Shall we?” Sammy said.

Even amongst all the noise, Julie picked out that voice easily, turning to look at Sammy. “Yeah.”

With a smile, Sammy shuffled through to the bonfire, Julie close behind her. Without anyone in the way, the music became louder, strings twanging and woodwinds whistling, accompanied by the heavy beat of a drum almost as tall as the man banging it. But there was also the clapping of the watchers, many of them chanting along to the upbeat melody—a far quicker, cheerier piece than she and Sammy had danced to.

As for the dancers, they were all young women performing a routine. While graceful, their dancing had a humour to it, almost a play with how they acted so playful. Julie could very easily imagine Sammy joining in, as if someone had made a dance based on her.

“Aren’t they pretty?” Sammy said, mouth close enough to Julie’s ear to tickle it.

Julie suppressed to the urge shiver before giving the question consideration. “Yeah,” she said, only to then worry if she’d said it loud enough for Sammy to hear.

“Do you think they would mind if we joined in?” Sammy asked.

Jerked away from her worry, Julie could only pause and take a deep breath, unable to give an immediate answer. “You probably could, but I definitely can’t.”

“Well, if I cannot dance with you, then I shan’t,” Sammy said.

And Julie almost laughed, how Sammy had spoken sounding quite childish and petulant. Really, it reminded her of how Sammy had been back at the palace, only for her heart to become unsettled. She didn’t understand why, but the feeling quickly dried up as Sammy squeezed her hand.

The two of them stood and watched the dancing as darkness proper settled. Although the lamplighters had been around, the candles barely softened the night; fortunately, the bright moons and stars supported the twilight.

Then cheers arose, deafening, and Julie unconsciously drew near to Sammy, squeezing her hand tightly. Sammy brought over her free hand, stroking the back of Sammy’s hand.

Nearly a minute from when the cheers began, someone holding a flaming torch emerged from the crowd, walking over to the bonfire. In disjointed unison, everyone began counting down from ten in Sonlettian; Sammy whispered the numbers in Schtish for Julie’s benefit, her gentle voice caressing Julie’s ear, clear amidst the chaos and so very soothing.

“—one.”

The person set down the torch and the hungry fire lurched this way and that, taking to the straw like, well, a flame to tinder. Painfully bright, Julie had to look away, but the sound of crackling quickly competed with the crowd’s cheers and, some dozen paces away as she was, felt the heat radiating from the young fire.

Once her eyes had adjusted a bit, she looked back over. Flaming tongues reached high into the sky, enveloping the huge pile of wood in a brilliant light, flickering, yearning for more. And the dancers had returned, their light clothes trailing behind them as they moved, wispy, pale colours dyed by the fire. Rather than the earlier humour, there was now simply grace and beauty, an ethereal touch as if they were some kind of spirits devoted to the fire, perhaps even summoning it.

Meanwhile, Sammy had found an even more incredible sight: her precious jewel. In the glow of the fire, Julie glowed as if lit by an inner light, eyes sparkling, skin like honey, sweet, begging to be tasted.

Even after taking in a deep breath, Sammy couldn’t pull her gaze away. It really had been too long since she’d last addressed her urges.

As if feeling Sammy’s heated desire, Julie looked to her side, breath hitching as their eyes met. It wasn’t simply that she understood what Sammy’s gaze meant, but that the firelight glittered as it fell on Sammy’s fair skin coated in a sheen of sweat. If the dancers looked ethereal, then, to Julie, Sammy looked divine, glistening marble brought to life and coloured by the fire’s dusky colours, warm and vibrant.

Amidst the hundreds-odd crowd celebrating around them, they were in their own world.

Despite Sammy feeling the pull of Julie’s lips, she didn’t lose sight of Julie, mindful of the boundaries she had gradually marked out in their relationship. So Sammy didn’t go to take those lips, but brought up her hand and cupped Julie’s cheek, a rush of euphoria coming from how Julie leaned into the touch.

The moment lasted but a handful of seconds, yet felt an eternity to the two. Then the crowd shifted around them and brought them back.

Rather than a spell broken, Julie held on to those warm feelings, her mouth settling into a broad smile, eyes pinched by it. Sammy quite liked the sight, a beautiful contrast with Julie’s usually-stoic expression. Oh she’d seen Julie embarrassed and shy more times than she could count on both hands, but rare were these smiles, this unbridled joy. She even spent a second trying to memorise every detail of the sight, hoping she could recall it for the rest of her life.

As they slowly returned to the rest of the world, they noticed that, now, the festival had truly begun. Around the bonfire, all sorts of people danced in all kinds of manners: couples swayed with wandering hands; a group of women did a kind of jig together, seemingly well-practised; some men egged on their friends as they tried an exaggerated dance, often stumbling, sometimes falling right over. And there were all sorts in-between, all sorts watching, giggling and chuckling, nervous and boisterous.

“Shall we join them now?” Sammy quietly asked.

Julie hesitated, but, when she thought about it, dancing together at the hotel had been much harder. No one would watch them in the same way here, and there were already some women dancing together—albeit clearly as friends. Still, that moment of thought had settled her instinctual reluctance.

“Sure,” Julie said.

So Sammy led them into a space nearer the bonfire, the heat more intense, music louder. As they settled into their starting position, Julie couldn’t help but glance at the crowd. And no one was giving them any attention. Everyone there, faces lit by flames, were too busy talking to each other or watching the little shows others were putting on.

“Eyes on me,” Sammy whispered.

As if a spell, Julie’s gaze snapped back and she took all of a second to lose herself in Sammy’s beautiful eyes. She didn’t even notice when they started dancing, naturally following Sammy’s small steps: their dance.

Although slow at first, they gradually sped up to match the upbeat music, but that meant they couldn’t hold each other close. Sammy didn’t mind too much, an out of breath Julie with a slight sweat a valuable treat in its own way. But it did mean that, after a very long while (Julie hardly had poor endurance), they slowed to a stop.

Sammy insisting, they shuffled back to the stalls for a cool drink. Away from the bonfire, the world looked rather murky to Julie, her eyes adjusted to the bright light. It sounded quieter too. The music was muffled, no more crackling of the fire in the background. Even the people, while still merry, were busy eating, drinking, or having conversations rather than singing.

Sipping, it took the two of them a while to finish their cups of water. In that time, Sammy had chosen a pair of garlands for them to wear; the carnations on hers were arranged in a beautiful gradient from pink to purple, while Julie’s went from orange to red.

Of course, she then also had to buy a white rose for Julie; she responded to the stall owner’s insistence that white roses were what men bought for their fiancées with a simply said, “I know.”

That conversation taking place in Sonlettian, Julie was none the wiser. Holding the rose in her free hand, Sammy once again held her other and led her around by it, exploring the rowdy crowd.

With everyone more spread out now that the bonfire had been lit for a while, Julie felt her breath come easier, her world not so constrained. Nothing in particular caught her eye, but that wasn’t true of Sammy who navigated them towards the edge of the square. Despite looking around, Julie didn’t notice anything, but her heart started to race when she noticed that, in the alleys adjoining the square, many couples had slipped into the shadows therein.

Yet Julie’s heart barely had the chance to quiver before Sammy stopped beside a group of young men. Though the smell of beer lingered in the air, they stood up straight, their chatter coherent.

And that chatter came to a stop as Sammy approached, her presence tangible even in the half-lit gloom. With a pleasant smile, she spoke to them in Sonlettian, saying, “I think your friend over there may have had too much to drink.”

They followed her gesture (as did Julie) to one of the couples nearby. Only, now that Julie’s attention was focused there and the young woman’s face came into focus, she could see clearly something she couldn’t easily put to words. Oh the woman smiled, and she was hardly pushing away her partner, but there was a tension—a tension in her smile, in her posture, the discomfort infectious.

One of the men turned back to Sammy and said, “Ah, we do not know him well at all. So, calling him a friend’s a bit much, no?”

“Nor do I know her. However, are we not all friends tonight?” Sammy said, her tone light. Then she leaned closer and whispered, “Besides, if you will not intervene, then I shall have to.” Sammy punctuated her statement with a smile that sent a shiver down their spines.

Quickly enough, they awkwardly laughed and then did as she’d asked, walking over to the couple and talking to the young man like they really were close friends. Just behind them, Sammy and Julie followed.

While the men handled the man, Sammy slipped around to talk to the young woman. She naturally positioned herself and Julie between the woman and the men, and greeted the woman with a gentle smile.

“I hope I have not overstepped,” Sammy said softly.

The woman shook her head as a relieved smile graced her lips. “No, thank you.”

Sammy looked pointedly towards the square and said, “Shall we?”

“Ah, yes,” the woman said.

So they left the men behind, Sammy and the woman talking as they walked. They exchanged names and Sammy introduced her to Julie and vice versa; the woman—Louise—couldn’t speak Schtish, so Sammy made sure to translate for Julie’s benefit.

As for Louise, she lived nearby and had visited the village many times over the years, the man a childhood friend who had invited her to celebrate. She had apparently misunderstood his intentions and he had seemingly drunk away his nerves—and drowned his wits in the process.

Sammy listened to the story with a smile, offering her measured condolences at the end before speaking her own bit. “It is a bit late for us, but we happen to know someone here—a very sweet girl. Would you like to meet her?”

Nodding, Louise said, “Oh, if it wouldn’t be a chore.”

Sammy relayed that answer to Julie as she led them towards the bonfire, her gaze darting from person to person. Julie was surprised, though, having not seen Pam at all whereas Sammy mentioned having seen her a few minutes earlier.

Well, Julie was getting rather used to being the one being guarded; comparing herself to Sammy had never been a good idea.

Sure enough, Sammy soon picked Pam out from the crowd—one amongst a group of friends. Even from a few paces away, Julie couldn’t much tell Pam apart from anyone else, little more than silhouettes, shadows constantly dancing across their faces as the fire waved back and forth.

Then Sammy started speaking Sonlettian again, taking hold of Julie’s attention and refusing to give it up. Just the way Sammy spoke, Julie really did think it sounded like a lullaby, pleasant sounds strung together, so soothing. When Pam replied, Julie thought it sounded pleasant too… but not as pleasant.

Since the other three were conversing in Sonlettian, Julie didn’t have anything better to think about as she just stood by Sammy’s side. At the least, she had the white rose to twirl with her free hand, unaware of the looks Pam’s friends were giving her, their gazes glancing between the rose and linked hands. If that wasn’t enough, once the conversation between Sammy, Pam, and Louise finished, Sammy informed Pam that, “My Julie and I will be returning to our room now,” and punctuated the statement with a smile directed at Julie.

And Julie, having heard her name, looked at Sammy, naturally returning the smile even though she didn’t know what else had been said.

Pam, face stiff and eyes clouded, said, “Ah, okay.”

So Sammy’s and Julie’s first festival together came to an end. Julie had nothing to ask, Sammy nothing to say, the streets similarly quiet at that hour on the walk back. But, once they arrived, Marge admonished them with a lightly said, “Ain’t the night young fer youngsters, ey?”

Sammy laughed it off, a few words settling the old woman before they headed upstairs. It was only when the door closed that, seeing Sammy’s posture slip, Julie realised that Sammy had been up for some twenty hours by now, no doubt exhausted.

Yet, when she asked, Sammy replied, “I rather enjoyed tonight.”

Julie smiled awkwardly, trying to put aside her worry. “Me too.”

Pushing off bathing until the morning, they took care of other necessities and then crawled into their beds—such a luxury after days sleeping on the floor. With the candle extinguished, Julie could barely see Sammy by the light of the moons. However, she felt Sammy’s gaze on her, returning it even though she couldn’t truly see Sammy’s eyes.

“Goodnight, Lia,” Sammy whispered.

A natural smile came to Julie. “G’night.”

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mialbowy

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