Authors note: This is a standalone story featuring characters from Homecoming Part 7: Arietta's Turn
"Mother, do I have to?"
Isolda sighed softly. How can it be, she thought, that I can rule and entire kingdom, yet I can't seem to get through to my own daughter? Maybe the old ways really are best.
"Etta," she said softly, "it's not like I'm asking you to do anything difficult."
"But do I have to stand with Muriel? She's a child."
"Muriel," Isolda replied, "is less than a year younger than you. She also happens to be the daughter of my Prime Minister, not to mention my best friend. When we greet the delegates, you will sit next to her, and you will be nice. Is that understood?"
"Good. Now, run along, dear. This conference is very important, and there's still so much to be done."
Pouting, Arietta turned and left Isolda's office. As the door closed behind her, her pouting expression faded, slowly replaced by a sly grin. Moving quickly, she made her way through the palace, exiting by a small side door. Moments later, she slipped inside a small, empty building not far from the palace.
"Mother says I have to sit next to that snotty nosed little brat. She also says I have to be nice."
"So," replied the building's other occupant, wrapping slender arms around Arietta's waist, "I guess you'll just have to be nice." Firm lips pressed against Arietta's in a slow, passionate kiss. When the kiss finally ended, the two simply gazed at each other.
"And for the record, my nose is not the least bit snotty."
Arietta laughed, kissing Muriel again. "Of course not," she replied, "but the best way to keep our parents from finding out about us is to make them think we really don't like each other. Mother's already planning my marriage."
"So?" Stepping back, Muriel grasped Arietta's hands. "At least you've seen your proposed husband. And he's Iznian. If this conference goes as planned, I'll be promised to the Uthrancian prince. Mother says it will bring our two lands together in peace, end generations of war between us. It also means I'll be living in Threlkeld. I don't know if I can stand us being that far apart."
"Well," Arietta said, "we still have over a week until the delegates arrive. We'll just have to spend as much time together as we can. Starting now." Stepping back, she grinned. "Well? Why are your clothes still on?"
Later, the two lay together, limbs loosely intertwined. "You know," Muriel said softly, "I would really like, just once, to do this on an actual bed, instead of blankets piled on the floor of an old shed."
Arietta laughed. "Father says hardship refines the soul," she said teasingly.
"My soul," Muriel retorted, "needs no refining, thank you very much. My body, on the other hand, does need something soft to lay on." Reaching down, she gently squeezed Arietta's ass. "At least as soft as you, anyway."
Before Arietta could answer, the door burst open. Even as the two young women tried to rise, rough hands flung them back to the floor. Both fought fiercely, but within moments, both had been securely bound and gagged. Darkness engulfed each as bags were drawn over their heads. Squirming helplessly, the two were lifted and carried away.
"Your Majesty, someone to see you. He says it is most urgent."
Glancing up from the papers littering her desk, Isolda sighed. "Can it not wait?"
"He says it concerns Princess Arietta, Your Majesty."
With another sigh, Isolda leaned back in her chair. "Send him in."
A tall, slender man entered the room. Dressed in plain, nondescript clothing, he yet carried himself with an air of quiet assurance. "Your Majesty," he said, bowing slightly.
"What is your name," Isolda asked, "and what do you have to do with my daughter?"
"My name is unimportant," the man replied. "All that matters is the message I have been sent to deliver."
"Indeed? In that case, what is this message?"
"The Princess Arietta," the man replied, "is now our prisoner, along with the Lady Muriel. They will remain in our custody until our demands are met."
"You have my daughter?" Slowly, Isolda rose from her chair. "How dare you!"
"Calm yourself, Your Majesty," the man replied. "You wouldn't want to do anything rash. Were something to happen to me, our prisoners would suffer the consequences."
Isolda sank back into her chair. "What are your demands?"
"You are to cancel the proposed conference with Uthrance," was the reply. "You will also cut all diplomatic ties. The army of Iznia is to be readied for war. There will be no peace between Iznia and Uthrance. Instead, you are to order your forces to cross the border and remove the king of Uthrance from his throne. We will then place the crown on someone of our own choosing. Uthrance will become a puppet state in all but name. Once this is done, our prisoners will be released."
"You expect us to go to war?"
"That," she was told, "is exactly what we expect. The conference was to be in just over a week. You have that long to get the first of your forces across the border. And we will be watching. Delay, or attempt to find the prisoners, and Lady Muriel will pay the price first." The man turned away. "You have much to do," he said, "and only a certain amount of time. And don't bother having me followed. We would see that as an attempt to locate the prisoners."
After the man had gone, Isolda slowly left her office, stopping at the desk of her aide. "Summon Balian, Emeric and Sabelina," she commanded. "And find Ivy. I want her here, too. Tell them it's most urgent."
"At once, Your Majesty."
Nodding, Isolda returned to her office. "Oh, Etta," she whispered, sinking into her chair, "I only hope you're alright."
* * *
"I don't understand."
Arietta paused in her struggles to gaze as Muriel. The two women sat facing each other in a small, dimly lit room. Like Muriel, Arietta's hands were bound securely behind her. her legs bound at ankle and knee. A leather collar around her neck was attached to a ring in the wall behind her with a light chain.
Muriel squirmed in her own bonds. "Your mother enjoys this?"
Arietta grinned. "And your mother, as well," she replied.
"Probably," Arietta replied slowly, "because of who does the binding." She smiled. "I think you'd enjoy it, too, if it were me binding you."
Muriel shrugged. "I like everything you do to me," she said, "so you may be right."
"Maybe," Arietta suggested with a grin, "we should try it and see, once we get out of here."
"Will we?" Muriel glanced around. "Will we get out of here?"
Arietta nodded. "Of course we will," she said confidently. "You know our parents will be looking for us."
"But they don't know where we are," Muriel protested. "I don't even know where we are."
"I think," Arietta said, "we're still in the city somewhere. They didn't carry us far enough for us to be anywhere else. And if we're still in the city, you know who'll be looking for us."
* * *
Balian glanced up from his chair. "Calm yourself, Emeric," he said softly.
Emeric barely paused in his pacing. "They have our daughters," he said, his voice harsh. "We must get them back."
"And we will," Sabelina told him, grabbing his arm and drawing him down to sit beside her. "We just need to figure out how, which is why we're here. Now stop wearing a path in the rug and pay attention." She grinned suddenly. "Or should I tie you down?"
"You wish," Emeric growled, then kissed her softly. "Ok," he went on, "I'm calm. Now, what's the plan?"
"We need to look like we're going along with their demands," Isolda told him. "If they, whoever they are, think we're going along, we can buy time to find the girls."
"Start mustering our troops," Balian said. "Regulars first, then the reserves."
"I could have men moving toward the border in three days," Emeric said. "That doesn't buy much time."
Isolda smiled. "Actually," she said, "it does if you consider we haven't been in an actual war since I took the throne. Arrange for delays in gathering supplies. Our forces can't march until they're properly equipped."
"Also," Balian added, "arrange for a show of confusion among our troops. Most of them have never been mustered for war before, so a degree of confusion would be believable."
"Understood. But how does that help us find the girls?"
"That," Isolda replied, glancing toward Ivy, "is where you come in." She smiled. "You," she went on, "and your special friends."
"Friends?" Sabelina looked confused. "I don't understand."
"That," Isolda told her, "is because you don't know what Ivy has been doing in her spare time." She turned toward Ivy. "Can you arrange a meeting? Soon?"
Nodding, Ivy rose to her feet. Her hands moved quickly, signing the reply the mute woman could never speak aloud. Watching her, Emeric frowned.
"What is she saying?"
Smiling, Sabelina hugged him. "You, my love, need to learn to sign," she told him.
"She's saying," Isolda said, rising, "that we can go now. I'll go with her. Emeric, get started with the muster. Balian, contact your spies and see if they know anything. Sabelina, halt the preparations, but make sure we can pick right back up when this is dealt with."
"And when we catch the ones responsible?"
Slowly, Balian drew his knife. "Catch them first," he replied, thumbing the edge. "Make sure our girls are safe. Then we punish." Slowly, Emeric nodded.
"Ok," Isolda said, "we all know what to do." Turning, she moved with Ivy toward the door. "So let's go get our daughters back."
* * *
"Why are we here?" Isolda glanced around the empty room. The two women stood in the entry hall of a large, empty building at the edge of the palace complex. Once used to house royal visitors, the building had sat unused since newer accommodations had been built years before. Watching as Ivy signed a reply, she nodded, then settled herself to wait.
Moments later, a small shape emerged from the shadows, a young girl approaching the pair. After hugging her gently, Ivy began making signs, the girl watching her hands carefully. After a moment, she turned toward Isolda.
"You're really the Queen?"
"Yes, dear, I am," Isolda replied, smiling as the girl curtseyed clumsily. "And what is your name?"
"My...?" The girl looked toward Ivy, who nodded reassuringly. "I'm Aya."
"Hello, Aya," Isolda said, then glanced around. "Do you live here?"
Aya's eyes widened. "Ivy said we could," she replied quickly.
"In that case," Isolda told her, "of course it's ok. Now, I need to ask you something."
Isolda nodded. "You," she said, "and your friends. I need your help."
"But you're the Queen," Aya protested. "What could you need our help for?"
"Do you know of my daughter?"
Aya nodded. "Princess Arietta," she said. "She's pretty."
"Yes, she is." Isolda paused, an image of Arietta filling her mind. Suddenly, she felt soft pressure on her fingers, glancing down to see Aya's hand grasping hers.
"Arietta is gone," Isolda said, her voice breaking slightly. "Bad men took her, along with Lady Muriel, and we have to find them. You and your friends know all the secret places in the city. Could you please look for them, and tell us if you find them?"
"You're the Queen," Aya said. "Our Queen, just as much as anyone else. Are you commanding us?"
Isolda shook her head. "Looking for Arietta and Muriel," she said, "could be risky. We don't know who has them, or what they might do if they catch you. Besides, I'm not here as Queen. I'm here as a mother, asking you to help me find my daughter."
"I never had a mother," Aya said slowly, "not one I remember." After a moment, she nodded. "We'll do it."
Dropping to her knees, Isolda hugged Aya tightly. "Thank you," she whispered.
* * *
"Street urchins?" Emeric shook his head. "You have street urchins looking for our daughters?"
Isolda nodded. "Ivy has been helping them," she said, "making sure they have a safe place to sleep, food to eat."
"This," Emeric declared, "is not a job for children."
"Those children," Isolda replied, "know every nook and cranny in this city. They've had to, just to survive. They probably know this city better than anyone. And who's going to pay attention to a bunch of street children?"
Raising her hands, Ivy signed a quick message. Watching her, Balian nodded.
"Good point. Those children probably know secret ways into just about every building there is. Which brings up an interesting point." Glancing toward Ivy, he asked, "By chance, did you start helping these children about fourteen months ago?" Ivy nodded. "I thought so. That was when petty thefts from people's homes suddenly dropped to almost nothing." He smiled. "So our quiet one has been reducing crime by being her quiet self."
Ivy signed a message. Seeing it, Isolda smiled. "Yes, dear," she said, "those children need someone they can count on, and now they have you. When this is done, remind me to appoint you Minister in charge of homeless children." Beaming, Ivy nodded.
"So will this help us find our girls?"
Before anyone could answer, a timid knock sounded at one of the office's two doors. Looking toward the door, Isolda frowned.
"That door," she said slowly, "connects to the throne room. Now why would someone...?" Opening the door, she paused, then ushered Aya into the room.
"Welcome, Aya," she said, closing the door. "Do you have news for us?"
Instead of replying, Aya stared with wide eyes at the people surrounding her. Then, seeing Emeric, she smiled, stepping forward and hugging him tightly.
"Hello, Aya," Emeric said, smiling and returning the hug. Seeing the others watching, he shrugged. "These children lead harsh lives," he said, "so I do what I can."
"He gives us sweets," Aya said.
Emeric shrugged. "I like to do my own rounds now and then," he explained. "Keep an eye on what's happening in the city. And I carry a bag of sweets with me, just in case." Glancing down, he ruffled Aya's hair. "You're being careful, aren't you? All of you?"
Aya nodded. "And we saw something," she said. "Well, Amar saw something. He saw a closed wagon leaving an old house over by the north gate about an hour ago. He said they were heading into the city, but they were moving too fast for him to follow without being seen. We're looking for the wagon now."
Sabelina frowned. "How do we know that's them? How do we even know they're still in the city?"
"Security," Balian replied. "With this conference coming up, gate guards have standing orders to search any wagon entering or leaving the city. It's possible they were smuggled out, and we have people checking the area around the city. My gut says they're still here somewhere. The question now is where."
* * *
"Well, at least you got your wish."
Arietta and Muriel lay facing each other. Each woman's arms encircled the other's waist, the rope binding their wrists secured to another rope that passed around their waists, holding them together in their enforced hug. With legs still bound at ankle and knee, the two lay in each other's helpless embrace.
"Well? You said you wished we had a bed. Well, here we are, in a bed, together."
"We're also helpless prisoners," Muriel pointed out.
"We're together," Arietta said, kissing the other woman softly. "And we're naked, which means I get to feel you touching me. Besides," she added with a smile, "there's nothing our parents can say about us being together like this."
"You know you're crazy, don't you?"
Arietta grinned. "Of course. That's why you love me."
"That's not the only reason."
"I know. Now, push forward with your hips. Like that, yes. If we're going to be stuck here, let's see if we can make it interesting."
* * *
"Maybe." Balian placed a sheaf of documents on Isolda's desk. "Last year," he explained, "Lord Ardan vanished from Uthrance."
"After a failed coup against his brother," Isolda said, nodding. "I remember that. I also remember he vanished after the coup was put down. Nobody knows where he is."
"We do," Balian told her. "We just didn't know we knew. I've been looking back through old intelligence reports, and I'm seeing mention of a mysterious guest at the estate of Lord Somna. No names, but I've met Ardan, and what few details on this guest's appearance we have match what he looks like."
Isolda frowned. "The puppet king," she said slowly. "Ardan gains the throne of Uthrance, and Somna gains... what? Ardan's support for a bid by Somna for my throne?" She frowned. "Somna's been against me since I refused to marry him to Arietta. As if that old man could ever be husband to my daughter."
"It fits," Balian told her. "Enough for me, anyway. I've arranged for someone to look into it."
"Not officially, right? If it is him, and he thinks our people are getting too close, the girls could get hurt."
Balian laughed. "I haven't always been the Queen's Consort," he said. "I was a simple soldier, among other things, and I still have friends from those days."
"Friends your Queen need not officially know about?"
Balian nodded. "In a couple days," he said, "Lord Somna's estate will, unfortunately, be robbed, along with the estates of a couple other nobles I'm not terribly fond of. The thieves will, of course, be after valuables, but if they should happen to come across any documents, correspondence, things like that..."
Isolda nodded. "But," she said, "wouldn't it be safer for him to keep anything like that at his family estate, instead of the one here?"
"Somna," Balian told her, "had been staying strangely close to the palace these past weeks. Probably overseeing this whole thing. Which means any communication between himself and Ardan has to be by courier. Which means written messages, since I don't see either of them trusting anyone to deliver a verbal message."
"Makes sense," Isolda admitted. "So, in a couple of days, we may know for sure whether or not he's involved." Turning, she gazed out the window. "I just hope the girls can hold out that long."
* * *
"I can't take much more of this."
"Of course you can," Arietta replied, not looking away from where she gazed out the small window. "You're a Wayholt, aren't you, bred to endure anything, bear any burden?"
"I can bear the burden," Muriel retorted, "just not the smell. How long has it been since you washed your feet?"
"Seriously?" Arietta glanced down to Muriel, who stood braced, Arietta's feet on her shoulders. In this high, dim room they now occupied, it was the only way to see out the window. "You're complaining about my feet? Who's fault is it we got stuck in here to begin with? If you hadn't been moaning so loud, the guards would never have caught us."
"And who's fault was it," Muriel shot back, "that I was moaning to begin with? Besides, if it hadn't been for my moaning, the guards would never have moved us here to avoid temptation. So my moaning is the reason we're here, not tied, and with a window."
"So by making you moan, I got us brought here," Arietta said, smiling. "I told you I'd get us out of those ropes."
"I should drop you right on that fat head of yours," Muriel growled.
"You wouldn't do that. Dropping the crown Princess on her head could be considered an act of treason." Grasping the window's frame, Arietta slipped her feet from Muriel's shoulders, then dropped to the floor. "Besides," she went on, "you love me too much to do something like that to me."
"Be glad that I do," Muriel retorted. "Now, what did you see?"
Arietta shrugged. "Not much," she admitted. "Small yard, high wall. Very high, actually. If I didn't know better, I'd swear this building backs onto the wall of the palace grounds, but that's crazy. No buildings back onto that wall."
"True," Muriel agreed, "but some do back onto the wall of the royal park."
"The...?" Arietta stared up at the window. "Mother loves walking in that park," she said softly. "She could be there even now, so close to us." She turned toward Muriel. "We have to get out of here."
"Agreed. But how?"
* * *
"Ok, where do we stand?" Isolda glanced at the others. "Emeric?"
"Our troops have begun to move," Emeric reported, then grinned. "Unfortunately, we've discovered we're seriously short of draft horses to pull supply wagons. I've sent out orders to have more brought in, but for now, we can only keep a small force supplied on the move. The rest of the men wait in camps until we can keep them fed on the march."
"Our intelligence gathering efforts paid off. We now have written proof that Somna is behind this. Once we get the girls back, I'll tend to him."
"No," isolda replied, "you won't. Arresting criminals is not your job. And I do want him arrested, not killed attempting to escape. Let the Watch handle him. Lina?"
"The envoy from Uthrance has been informed that there may be a slight delay in opening the conference. He's not happy, but he's not asking questions yet. Still, it's only a matter of time before he hears what's going on."
"Long enough, I hope," Isolda remarked. "Now for the most important part. Any news, Aya? Have you found our girls?"
Aya nodded. "I think so, Your Majesty. This morning, Jamella was taking a short cut through some back yards, and she saw a face peeking out of a cellar window of a building against the south wall of the royal park. She wasn't sure, but she thinks it was Princess Arietta."
"Did she say which house?"
"From the Royal Way," Aya, said, "it's right, left, right."
"How many houses from the corner?"
"I don't know numbers," Aya said defensively. "Neither does Jamella. All she said was right, left, right." Pleadingly, she turned to Ivy. "You know what I mean, don't you?"
Nodding, Ivey drew the others to their feet, moving them to stand beside each other. Carefully, the mute woman placed her right hand on Balian's chest, then her left on Sabelina's, after which she moved her right hand to Emeric's chest.
Smiling, Emeric ruffled Aya's hair. "Third house," he said.
"I know that house," Balian said, frowning. "Used to belong to a merchant. A very paranoid merchant, at that. Thick walls, high windows. It's not going to be easy getting in there."
"I might know a way." All eyes turned to Aya, who stood gazing at Isolda. "Do you trust me, Your Majesty?"
"Of course I do, dear."
"Good." Aya smiled, then grasped Emeric's hand. "Come on," she said, "let's go get our Princess back."
Several moments later, a group of children gathered outside a house beside the royal park. For a moment, they simply stared at the wall hiding the front of the building. Then, as if at a signal, they began chasing each other, yelling and screaming, yet never leaving the area in front of the house.
Seconds later, the front gate opened, a large, armed man stepping through. "You there," he yelled at the children, "get away from here with your noise!"
One of the children, a girl in her early teens, shook her head. "This is a public street," she yelled back, being careful to keep her distance. "We can play here if we want to." Smiling, the girl stuck out her tongue, then rejoined the yelling, screaming pack.
A second man joined the first, followed by a third. Quietly, they debated ways to get the children to leave. Finally, deciding there was nothing they could do, moved back through the gate, closing it behind them.
"Ok," yelled the teen, "that's enough."
"Do you think it was?"
The girl shrugged. "For Aya's sake," she said, "I hope so."
* * *
"What was that?"
The two women moved to the center of the room, searching for the source of the strange, grating sound. It came again as, to their surprise, a small section of the wall beneath the window swung open. From the darkness appeared a young girl.
"Princess," she said, "Lady, you're naked."
"Um, yes," Arietta replied, "we are." She glanced around. "But who's going to see us?"
"Only everyone," the girl replied.
"Who are you," Muriel asked, "and where does that go?"
"I'm Aya," the girl replied. "Your parents sent me to get you. This tunnel will get you out of here. But I don't know how much time we have, so please, come with me."
Shrugging, the two women followed Aya into the tunnel, watching as she pulled the panel nearly closed. "Wait here," she said, then vanished down the tunnel. At a junction in the tunnel, she met a squad of the Watch, led by Emeric.
"I need two cloaks, please." At a nod from Emeric, two of the men shed their cloaks, handing them to Aya. With a whispered thanks, she ran back to the women.
"Here, use these to cover yourselves." Once the two were covered, she led them to the junction. A vastly relieved Emeric hugged both tightly, then sent them to follow Aya to safety while he led the guards back to the panel. Slipping through, they entered the room, waiting as one of the guards quickly picked the door's lock. Silently, the group filtered from the room and began to climb, arriving at the top of the stairs just in time to surprise the three men returning from the gate. Suddenly facing seven drawn swords, the three quickly surrendered. As Emeric led the prisoners out the gate, the children on the street let out a cheer.
* * *
"In custoday," Emeric reported, "along with all his retainers. He's not saying anything, but the rest of them are. None of them want to face treason charges for helping him. I've also sent a squad of horse to his family estate. With any luck, they'll arrive ahead of any reports, and before Ardan can slip away."
"Very good." Isolda glanced to wear Balian sat with Arietta curled on his lap. Nearby, Sabelina sat on a couch, holding Muriel close. "Ardan will make a fine gift for the Uthrancian delegation," she said. "It might even soften the blow when we tell them Muriel won't be marrying the Prince."
"Won't...?" Muriel sat up, eyes wide. Grinning, Isolda glanced toward Balian, who quickly rose, sliding Arietta from his lap.
"Girl talk," he said, reaching up slightly to throw an arm across Emeric's shoulder. "I hear the kitchen just recently made a fresh batch of sweets," he said, grinning. "Think we can find someone who might enjoy them?"
Emeric laughed. "If the alternative is to stay in here," he said, "I'll happily search the whole kingdom for someone to give sweets to. But I think I know exactly where to start." Laughing, the two men left the office.
"I won't be marrying?"
Isolda smiled at Muriel. "Your mother," she said, turning her eyes toward Sabeline, "married for love."
"Well," Sabeline put in, grinning, "mostly love. There was a definite element of lust there, too, and he's just so good with rope."
Isolda laughed. "Mostly love, though," she said. "I married for the same reason. Reasons? Let's say reason and leave it at that. The important thing is that you should marry for love, both of you. Which means you, Etta, won't be marrying that young Lord. I'm just sorry our laws won't allow you to marry each other."
"Each...?" The two young women stared. "When...." Muriel began, then fell silent.
"How long have you known?"
Sabelina grinned at Arietta. "We're your mothers," she said. "We knew something was up as soon as the two of you started pretending to not like each other."
"I'm not complaining," Arietta remarked, "but, if you knew, why didn't you say something?"
Turning, Sabelina leaned over the desk and kissed Isolda softly. "We," she said, turning back toward the staring younger women, "spent the first half of our lives with only each other for company, aside from the staff. Is it any surprise that we grew up as more than friends?" She smiled. "Of course," she added, "that ended when we met your fathers. We learned to love them, and that love is strong for both of us."
"Still," Isolda said, "it doesn't stop us from loving each other. We simply don't express that love quite so... passionately these days." She laughed. "I don't know about Emeric, but Balian gives me enough passion for two women."
Sabelina echoed the laugh. "Well put."
"Eventually," Isolda told Arietta, "you'll have to marry. You'll be Queen one day, and there has to be an heir. And you, Muriel, will need to carry on the proud Wayholt name. But there's time for that. For now, you're young, and you love each other."
"But, mother," Arietta protested, "I'm older than you were when you met father. And El is older than Aunt Lina was."
"And how many years," Isolda asked, "did you spend in an isolated fortress with only one other girl for company?"
"Exactly. By tradition, you should have been sent up there as soon as you were born, but your father and I refused to allow it. And, considering what happened to me..."
Isolda nodded toward Sabelina. "Ok, considering what happened to us, my parents weren't really prepared to force the issue. So we changed the tradition. But none of that matters. What matters is that the two of you love each other. One day, you'll both need to do your duty to your families and the kingdom. Until that day, follow your hearts."
"Just follow them quietly, at least for now." Sabelina grinned. "Your fathers don't know yet, and I, for one, am not looking forward to explaining it to them." Laughing, Isolda nodded her agreement.
"One more thing," Muriel said slowly.
"Well, I never really understood before, but now I think I'd like to find out, if Etta is willing."
"Find out what?"
"Um..." Absently, Muriel rubbed one wrist. "Would either of you have any rope you can spare?"
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