The Doomsday Book of Labyrinths - Uncharted

The Doomsday Book of Labyrinths

By LM Zaerr

If Crispin wanted to buy a labyrinth (and he didn’t), Flat Rainbows was the shop he’d choose. Rainbows should be flat, easy to measure with calipers, each straight strand the same length as all the others. It would be a pleasure to assess the taxes here. He expected a polished floor, a goateed shopkeeper, well-maintained labyrinths.

Crispin pushed his rolling desk over the threshold and immediately had to clutch it so it wouldn’t tip over. A pile of laundry blocked his path, and other low-value objects cluttered the floor: a stick, a chest of fish bones, a floppy cloth rabbit that reminded him of little Pierre. A pang of grief startled Crispin. He murmured, “librae, shillings, pence,” to comfort himself, to focus his mind on his task. Half-open labyrinth pouches lay scattered everywhere, and the wooden pegs were missing from the walls.

A boy about eight sat on an empty tortoise shell. He was playing a three-foot-high harp, the gilt frame carved in twisting strands, a wooden gerbil on the crown, its tiny mouth wide open, biting into a gilt turnip. It made Crispin’s teeth hurt to look at it.

The boy’s gaze was blank with concentration, spikes of tightly curled hair radiating around his face. His dark fingers blurred through a passage nearly as complicated as section 89d of the tax code.

Crispin waited politely for a pause between phrases and said, “I’m assessing taxes for all the shops in the Labyrinth Market. Could you please get your father or mother?”

“No,” the boy answered, still playing.

Crispin repositioned his goose quill pen on the desk, annoyed with himself. Assumptions were the bane of precision. “Well, call whoever owns the shop.”

“Don’t need to.” The boy played a descending glissando, and the final note rang low and loud.

Crispin didn’t dare guess again. He was afraid he’d be right. “Who owns this shop?”

“I do,” said the boy.

Precise detail work, that was all Crispin needed to make sense of the world. He dipped his quill in the inkpot. “Let’s start with your name,” he said.

“That’s the Doomsday Book, isn’t it?” The boy rocked the harp to the floor and cartwheeled closer to Crispin, somehow finding gaps for his hands and feet among the detritus. “Why do they call it that?” he asked.

Crispin felt flattered enough to answer. “My oak gall ink bites so deep into the parchment that this record will last until Doomsday. No entry can be erased.”

“What if you make a mistake?”

“A mistake?” Crispin echoed, offended. “I know the value of every pig, goat, salt-house, and meadow, down to the last penny.”

“Everyone makes mistakes.” The child picked up a leather ball, bounced it hard against the wall, caught it in a slingshot motion that sent it back even harder.

Crispin edged his desk out of range of the ball in case the boy missed. “Only second-rate assessors slash through an entry,” he said. “When I make a mistake, and it isn’t often, I inscribe tiny dots below the faulty information to indicate that the entry should be ignored. Now tell me your name.”

“Flat Rainbows.”

“That’s the name of your shop. What’s your name?”

“The shop is named after me. Everyone calls me Rainy.”

“They should call you Lightning,” Crispin grumbled. He wrote, Flat Rainbows holds Flat Rainbows as a labyrinth shop. He picked up a pouch at random, unlabeled of course, and dumped it out.

Colored cubes clattered to the floor, blue-green and gold. They grew, converged, stretched around an opening. The gold faded, and the labyrinth entrance took shape between a suit of armor and a toy wheelbarrow. The portal was promisingly clean, an orthogonal glass rectangle. He pushed his desk through into a blue-green corridor. Wavering strands of light moved across the glass surfaces.

Crispin relaxed. His encounter with Rainy had led him to expect chaos, but this was a perfectly ordinary labyrinth. Through the glass floor, he saw brilliant angelfish, parrotfish, tangs, and several reef sharks. They’d be difficult to count, but he could watch for patterns and keep a running tally in the Doomsday Book.

He wrote, Marine Labyrinth, and set out, the desk rolling smoothly on the glass floor. It didn’t take him long to get to the center, where he found a hole in the floor and a whale circling beneath. He threw the leather rain guard over his desk just in time. The whale spouted through the hole and drenched him. Crispin didn’t like this labyrinth.

He pushed back into the maze where it was dry and wrote, Center: spouting whale – 1 l 7 s 2 p. He moved back toward the entrance,his gaze down, verifying all the fish and marine mammals and coral. But when he looked up, he was back at the center.

Crispin never succumbed to frustration. Frustration was the nursemaid of error. He worked methodically through all the possible combinations, but always he came back to the whale. In fact, the corridors offered fewer and fewer options until one undivided corridor led in a tight circle back to the center. He closed his eyes to think.

Someone tugged on his hand. Rainy. The boy pointed up. “It’s a trick labyrinth.”

Always look up, down, and around. That was one of Crispin’s chief rules, but the Flat Rainbows shop had thrown him off. Now he saw letters engraved in the ceiling in a fat uncial script: SINGTOTHEWHALE.

“No,” said Crispin.

Rainy jumped through the center hole, hugging his knees against his chest, splashing Crispin with more water than the whale had ever managed. The boy hoisted himself back up and sat on the edge. He shook the wetness out of his hair and kicked his feet in the water. “You have to sing to the whale, or you’ll never get out.”

Crispin took a deep breath, leaned over the hole, and chanted the only song he knew:

Three bees are worth a penny.

Three pigs are worth a pound.

Three bricks are worth a shilling.

Your record must be sound.

Nothing happened.

“Whales don’t care about taxes,” Rainy scoffed. “I’ll show you.” He shaped his mouth into a ring and began a sliding vowel up and down, shrinking and expanding his lips. He ended abruptly and began again, several clicks and squeaks, then a low hoom. The whale answered him, repeating the song. Rainy swung his feet under him and sauntered out into the labyrinth.

Crispin followed, but the boy was already gone. He circled back to the center. Apparently, he would have to sing the whale song himself.

He tried a tentative Hoo. The whale didn’t answer. He tightened his lips as round as he could and sang a descending vowel. The whale spouted, barely missing his face. Crispin didn’t like the whale song, not at all, but he had a well-trained memory and he wanted out of this miserable labyrinth so he could move on to the next pouch. He tamped down his distaste, thought through Rainy’s song, and let go of everything but that pattern. Before his mind could rebel, he belted out the song, and the whale answered him.

A massive gurgling echoed through the chamber. The water level dropped abruptly, and the light shifted from blue-green to gold. The whale, too, turned gold. Its blowhole rose and became a large hump; its blunt snout stretched into a curving neck with a long-nosed head and drooping eyelids. By the time Crispin realized that the whale had become a camel, the water had drained away. The beast stood on four broad hooves on dry sand that had once been the ocean floor twenty feet below him.

Before the transformation could fade, Crispin shoved his desk out into the maze, and now he saw an open path above dry desert. He trundled quickly over the glass floor, noting how the fish had turned into scurrying rodents, foxes, and meerkats. In no time, he reached the exit portal and emerged, gasping and dripping with sweat and sea water. He ran his comb through his hair and wrung out his cassock as well as he could.

Rainy was playing harp again. Crispin ignored him and rolled back the water guard. The Doomsday Book was safe, the inkpot well stoppered, the quill still in place. He stared at his original entry. Marine Labyrinth. He wrote and Desert above and inserted a caret after Marine. Messy, but better than eradicating the entire entry with tiny dots.

The desert features were marine features redone, so he simply added, Comprehensive transformation spell 2 l 9 s 2 p. He added up all the numbers, twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a libra. He did it all in his head and concluded, Value 9 l 16 s 3 p. One labyrinth done, but it had taken all day.

As Crispin trundled his desk to the door, Rainy stopped playing. “Are you leaving?”

“Yes, of course. It’s late.”

Rainy sprinted past him and blocked the door. “Please stay.”

“Whyever would I stay here?” The boy might as well have asked him to play hopscotch in the street.

“There are bedrooms upstairs.” Rainy kicked a flowerpot, and it tipped over and broke.

Crispin crouched down and picked up the pieces. He hated broken things lying around. “Look, whoever takes care of you won’t want an extra person.” He looked around for a place to put the broken pottery.

“No one takes care of me,” said Rainy. He squirmed, one hip up and then the other. “I’m scared of the dark. Please stay.”

Crispin stared at him. Children were always taken care of. “Who feeds you?”

“The neighbors. Mum died when I was five. I guess.”

“I’m sorry about your mother.” Crispin knew the appropriate thing to say, and he added, “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark.”

He maneuvered the desk adroitly around the boy and out the door, refusing to look back to see if Rainy was still there. The boy wasn’t his problem.

The guesthouse was at the other end of the flagstone street, so he had to pass all the other shops. When he came to Labyrinths for Wayward Teens, a youth shouted, “Northman, go home.”

Crispin swerved across the street and skirted the fountain.

“Put this in your Doomsday Book.”

He hunched forward to protect his ledger, just in time. A ball of mud hit his cheek. The gritty cold carried him back to the battlefield, to the arrow yanked from his brother’s neck, the mail dragged over his brother’s head and poured onto a pile of dead men’s armor.

Crispin, half blind with mud and tears, fumbled to the fountain and scrubbed his face until all the grit was gone, then combed his thinning hair. It wouldn’t do to appear bedraggled.

At the guesthouse, he found a letter from Marie. The parchment was soggy with rainwater, the ink smeared, an inferior kind of ink. He could make out one sentence, though. You’re a grandfather now, dear Crispin. Little Pierre was just five when he left.

Crispin raised the letter to his face, breathed in the memory of honeysuckle from Marie’s garden. How could he go home to his family when his brother could never return to his? He folded the ruined letter and put it back in his pocket, focused on his open ledger, horizontal lines for rows and vertical lines for columns, beautifully prepared by snapping chalk-coated strings held taut with pins.

He dined on mutton stew and slept in a hard, narrow bed in a chilly room barely big enough to hold his desk. He dreamed of men lying in muddy grass, their bodies twisted and bloody—the field of victory, the victory of the Northmen.

When Crispin returned to Flat Rainbows in the morning, he assumed the boy would be sullen or angry, but Rainy greeted him cheerfully. “Have a croissant.”

It wasn’t strictly appropriate to accept food from a shopkeeper, but it smelled delicious. “Thank you, Rainy.” Crispin savored the croissant, elastic, and fresh from the oven. He had to brush flakes from his chest and wipe his buttery fingers on his gown, but he didn’t regret accepting the pastry.

The Marine and Desert Labyrinth lay on the floor, still unlabeled. “Right,” said Crispin. “There are holes drilled into the walls. What happened to the pegs?”

“I use them for rollers.” Rainy was kicking a chest of pine needles. Crispin now recognized kicking as a sign the boy was embarrassed.

“Show me,” said Crispin, trying to be kind. It would be far easier to assess Flat Rainbows if he could organize the shop as he went.

Rainy led him up a flight of stairs to a cluttered bedroom, where a chest lay open on the floor, filled with clothes and toys for a much younger child. The room was so grimy that the clean duvet on the bed seemed to glow in contrast. Crispin remembered holding his son, heavy with sleep, laying him on a bed like that, wrapping the cover around him.

Crispin shook the memory out of his arms, refusing to be distracted. “Where are the pegs?”

“I roll the chest under my bed at night.” Rainy pushed the chest to demonstrate, revealing dozens of wooden dowels. The chest filled all the space under the bed.

“Why?” Crispin demanded.

Rainy kicked at the chest. “So the monsters can’t go under my bed.”

“There’s no such thing as monsters,” said Crispin.

“There are in the labyrinths.”

Crispin didn’t want to get caught in that conversation, so he said, “Let’s stack your clothes and toys on that bench, and then you can keep the chest under your bed all the time.”

Rainy jumped on his bed while Crispin emptied the chest, gathered the pegs, and shoved the chest under the bed. It took all his strength without the peg rollers, and he couldn’t help admiring Rainy’s ingenuity.

Downstairs, Crispin reinserted the pegs in the holes, reaching around a grandfather clock, hovering over a stack of books, standing on a chair he released from a heavy burden of cowbells. He found a bottle of ink for leather on the counter, and he carefully labeled the pouch he’d already assessed so the label wouldn’t spoil the trick. Marine Labyrinth. He hung it on a peg.

He spent the afternoon gathering labyrinth pouches and hanging them on the pegs. He went back upstairs to get the labyrinths from Rainy’s room, and when he came back down, Rainy was squatting next to a platter of bread and chicken, chewing on a drumstick. “Have some,” the boy said with his mouth full.

Crispin was fairly sure he’d missed dinner at the guesthouse. “Alright, but let’s not gobble off the floor.” He dumped the clutter off a table and lifted the tray onto it. Wind howled outside while they ate.

“Please stay tonight,” said Rainy. “Please.”

Crispin thought of the cold walk back to the guesthouse, the lumpy bed, the bland breakfasts. He could get to work faster in the morning if he stayed here. “Let’s see the bed, and then I’ll decide.”

Rainy led him to a cozy room with a large bed, crisp sheets, and a dusty candle on a bedside table. “Was this your mother’s room?” Crispin asked.

Rainy kicked the table so hard that the candle fell on the floor and broke. “Yes.”

“Why is all the linen clean and fresh?”

“Mum left money. I push the laundry out the door every week. It comes back clean.”

“What happened to your mother, Rainy?”

Rainy plunked down cross-legged on the floor facing away from Crispin. “She’s gone.”

Crispin didn’t want to cause him pain, but he needed to know the legal ownership of the shop. “Did she die?” he asked, trying to imitate the gentleness he’d heard in other people talking about death.

“She went into a labyrinth and got lost,” Rainy wailed. He got up and kicked the bed frame savagely until he had to hop up and down on the other foot, holding his injured toes in both hands.

“What labyrinth?” Crispin asked.

Mud and Roots.” Rainy rubbed his fist across his eyes. “She blocked me out before she went in. She left me.” He ran across the hall to his bedroom.

Crispin followed him. “I’ll go into Mud and Roots tomorrow morning.”

“You’ll get lost, too. Then there’ll be no one again.”

Crispin was taken aback. He was a tax assessor, not a nursemaid. He had to go into Mud and Roots, though, to assess the value and also to verify the shop ownership. He’d tell Rainy the next day.

Rainy leapfrogged into bed and said, “Read to me.”

It wouldn’t hurt. Crispin lugged the Doomsday Book upstairs and read the entries for Sugar Plum Confections, the children’s labyrinth shop. Before he’d finished one page, Rainy was sound asleep. Crispin checked to make sure the chest was secure and then went to bed. He had to stop himself from checking under the bed for monsters.

Crispin slept better than he had slept for years. When he went downstairs the next morning, he said, “I haven’t seen any customers.”

Rainy kicked a glass float, and it smashed against the grandfather clock, leaving a gash in the polished mahogany. Crispin felt partly responsible for the damage, so he swept up the glass shards and dumped them in a bronze urn. “You don’t have customers, do you?” he said, realizing as he spoke that he could have been more tactful.

“No one comes in here,” Rainy shouted. “You’re the first person since Mum left. The neighbors shove the food and laundry through the door.”

“Oh,” said Crispin. He repositioned the Doomsday Book, straightened the quill, swirled the ink bottle to keep sediment from settling. Best to be honest. The boy deserved the truth. “The shop is a mess. No one wants to trip over pinecones and unlabeled pouches.”

Rainy sulked, so Crispin couldn’t properly enjoy the rolled panny cakes with raspberry jam. He ate quickly and said, “Well, show me Mud and Roots.”

“Fine,” snapped Rainy. “I don’t care if you get lost and never come back, ever again. I hope you die.” He dragged a chair to the suit of armor so he could reach the helm. He slammed up the visor, pulled out a pouch, and flung it at Crispin as hard as he could.

Crispin caught it in one hand, a skill he’d gained from years of experience with angry shopkeepers. “Rainy, I’m doing my job,” he said in his chilliest voice. “I’m not here to rescue you from monsters.”

As soon as he said it, he regretted it. He told himself he was angry with himself for being unprofessional, but he couldn’t pretend that was why he felt bad. The boy’s shoulders were shaking, and a big tear hung from the end of his nose. Or maybe it wasn’t a tear. Crispin didn’t need to hurt Rainy worse than he already was.

He almost said, “I’m sorry,” but at the last minute, he decided that would give Rainy false hope. Instead, he said, “I’m going in,” shook out the contents of the pouch, waited for a portal made of sticks to take shape, and strode in.

He realized instantly that he’d left his desk behind in the shop. Never let emotion affect your judgment; that was his truest rule. Fortunately, he had a logical reason not to go back out and face Rainy. The desk was utterly impractical in Mud and Roots.

A single path, muddy and crisscrossed with massive roots, led into the heart of the labyrinth. The forested terrain dropped off steeply on the left and rose into a cliff on the right. Sunshine slanted through fir trees, but the air was cold. Crispin shivered and set off, placing each foot carefully between the roots. When there wasn’t enough room in the mud, he stepped on a root, choosing the most horizontal, testing to make sure he wouldn’t slide.

Despite all his care, it wasn’t long before the hem of his gown was muddy, and a blotch of heavy clay marked where his knee had gone down. He’d long since given up keeping his shoes clean. The soggy battlefield from nineteen years ago shivered in his mind. His soles accumulated mud until he carried two extra inches with each step. This labyrinth contained a fortune in mud, and Crispin hated mud.

Diagonal paths branched steeply left and right. At first, he could see where they ended. Then the terrain changed, and he had to choose between a downhill path nearly overgrown with salal bushes, and an uphill climb that began with a creek crossing on a log. He chose the climb but waded through the creek instead of attempting the treacherous log. Some of the mud came off his shoes, but it was quickly replaced.

As he tallied features in his mind, Crispin tried to imagine what could have happened to Rainy’s mother. She’d owned a labyrinth shop, so she’d be used to more dangerous features than a tricky landscape. What would it take to leave a boy full of life to his own devices? Crispin felt himself getting angry, so uncharacteristic of him, so inappropriate. He hardly knew the boy.

The path got steeper, zigzagging up through the forest. At every branch, Crispin chose the uphill track. Then, a waterfall blocked the path. He almost turned back, but then he found a way across on slippery rocks, emerging soaked at the base of a ladder of roots writhing across a clay cliff. By the time he had scaled the ladder, he was saturated with mud and water and bruised all over from misjudged footing. He hated this labyrinth, but he had to admit that it was worth at least nine librae for difficulty.

At last, he reached a sunny headland, where a narrow path channeled through salal bushes towering above his head. He chose the narrowest way at every intersection until the hard stems tugged at his gown on both sides and scraped his arms.

He emerged at the tip of a headland. Between scrubby firs, the silver ocean stretched to a horizon where the sea met the sky. Waves boomed on black rocks far below. Crispin smelled smoke and fish. Across a freshwater rivulet stood a cabin made of driftwood. In front of the cabin, a woman rotated a salmon on a stick over a fire. She wore a rawhide tunic, and her tangled hair formed a blond labyrinth around a leathery face. Rainy’s mother? No assumptions this time.

Crispin stepped over the brook. “Good afternoon.”

The woman jumped and the fish dipped into the coals. She dropped the stick. “How did you get here? Who are you?”

He was on familiar terrain. “I’m a tax assessor,” he said, braced for a litany of the low value of her possessions.

“That explains it,” she said. She picked up the singed fish by the tail and flung it over the cliff.

Crispin hated to see food ruined, and he felt responsible. “Explains what?” He tried to imagine every possible pattern she might fit so she couldn’t ambush him with the unexpected.

“How you got here. I blocked customers from entering Flat Rainbows, customers and artificers, but you’re not either.”

“I’m Crispin,” he said to delay the conversation while his mind caught up.

“Makes sense,” she said, adding sticks to the fire, “that you’d be the one to find your way in. Your Doomsday Book is famous.” He felt vaguely flattered until she added, “Do you have any idea how many shopkeepers you’ve ruined with that book?”

“Look,” he said. Finally, he knew exactly where he stood. “I’m just doing my job, and that means sorting out the ownership of Flat Rainbows. Now tell me, does the boy called Flat Rainbows own the shop, or do you own it? If you are the owner, I’ll need to record your name.”

“I’m the owner.” The fire flared up. “I’m Coralie.”

He’d have to underscore the boy’s name with tiny dots and replace it with Coralie. The page already had one correction, and it was all this woman’s fault. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. “Your shop is a mess, and that child lives in squalor.”

“Do you think I meant to stay here? How dare you assess my life. My son’s life.”

Crispin wished he could put dots under what he’d said, make it as if he’d never spoken. “I overstepped,” he said. “I’ll go back to your shop, finish the Flat Rainbows entry, and leave.” He strode away, dry mud cracking on his cassock.

“No, wait,” she called after him. “Don’t leave me here if you know how to get back.”

Crispin sat down on a large root looking over the sea, and Coralie sat down beside him. He handed her his comb, and she began working tangles out of the ends of her hair. She spoke just louder than the wind. “When I opened the shop, I called it Fresh Starts. All my labyrinths helped people see their lives in new ways, so I had a bustling business, and I did all the maintenance myself. The shop kept me too busy to have a lover, much less a child.”

“That was wise,” Crispin agreed. If you don’t have a family, you can’t be hurt.

Coralie tugged at a tangle. “I worked hard, and in five years, I had established a fund to provide for my needs in perpetuity. The best cooks in the town brought food to my shop. Every week, I pushed my laundry out the door, and it came back clean by evening. I never had to leave the shop, and I never got bored because I had so many labyrinths to explore, always new ones because artificers came and stayed in the guest room. They enjoyed the fine food and supplied me with new wares. I kept every pouch in its place, clearly labeled, impeccably maintained.”

“What a perfect life,” Crispin exclaimed. “People would be so much happier if they followed your path. And?”

“I had a disagreement with an artificer over a faulty safety option.” Coralie tossed a wad of hair into the wind. “When he left, I found Mud and Roots lying on the counter. I should have run after the crooked artificer to give it back, but I was curious.” She stopped talking, stopped combing. Her shoulders slumped forward.

“What happened?” As soon as Crispin said it, he wished he hadn’t. He didn’t need someone else’s pain, not when he worked so hard to banish his own. And he was so close to finishing the most spectacular tax assessment anyone had ever accomplished. He pictured the Doomsday Book to keep his purpose clear.

But it was too late. He’d asked the question. “I heard a baby crying in the driftwood cabin,” said Coralie. “Sunlight shone through the beveled window, casting swaths of horizontal rainbows all around him. I brought him back with me and named him Flat Rainbows.

“I nurtured his growing and taught him to play the harp. I thought I was giving up my life, but my shop thrived. I renamed the shop after him, and customers loved entering our home.”

Crispin didn’t want to hear anymore, but Coralie kept speaking, slow like a dream, “When Rainy was five, the artificer returned. ‘I created this child and left him to trap you,’ he gloated. ‘You sacrificed your life for a labyrinth feature, and now I’ve had my revenge.’

“‘I don’t believe you,’ I said.

“‘Go back and see for yourself,’ he said. ‘For proof, I hid the mold for the baby under the bed.'”

“A monster under the bed,” Crispin murmured.

Coralie glanced at him. “The artificer laughed when he left. I was desperate to prove he was wrong, so I sealed the shop to keep Rainy safe and headed back into Mud and Roots.”

Coralie stood up and the wind blew her hair into new tangles. “Under the bed, I found two halves of a metal form, the shape of a baby with his arms crossed, his knees pulled up close. I knew the truth then, not what the artificer intended. Rainy started out as a feature, but he became my son.

“I turned to leave. But the artificer had tricked me, muddied my mind, and trapped me. I can’t find my way back.”

“I’m trapped in a different labyrinth,” said Crispin. “I can get out of this one.”

He led her back through the paths, finding the way, as he did, through his own battlefield. They were both covered with mud, scrapes, and bruises when they emerged from the portal.

Rainy knocked over the harp and catapulted to Coralie.

Crispin tried to ignore the snuffles and murmured endearments. He dipped his quill in the oak gall ink and headed a new page. Mud and Roots Labyrinth. Below, he itemized the features:

mud                 7 l

roots                4 l        8 s        3 p

ocean               3 l        18 s

cabin               1 l        4 s        7 p


He paused, quill poised. Precise detail work, that was all he needed to make sense of the world. He could overcome the chaos of the Labyrinth Market only when he assessed the value of every labyrinth feature, and Rainy was a feature. What was the boy’s value?

Crispin put down the quill. Marie was waiting for him, and little Pierre all grown up, and the grandchild he’d never seen.

“Keep the Doomsday Book,” he called as he left. “It’s good for bedtime reading.”

About the Author

LM Zaerr is a writer and medievalist. As a professor, she wrote a book on medieval storytelling, sang forgotten tales, and lured students into medieval legends and abandoned them there to challenge dragons, rescue Lancelot, and figure out how to play gwyddbwyll. Now she finds new stories and transforms old ones. Her work has appeared in New Myths, Wyngraf, and The Overcast, among other venues.

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