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Constantinople All Over Again

December 21, 2019 01:08PM
Blurb: Demon Henry Crawford is sent on a mission to Mansfield and encounters an old adversary there.

Have I ever told you that MP is my least favorite Austen novel? It is. But it's still inspiring (honestly, it's a bit like an ugly bonnet I might buy just to rip apart and rework into something else, if I can get all Lydia Bennet on you). And I watched Good Omens on Prime, and then I had to reread the novel to see if my younger, heteronormitive self had just missed things the first time through. And then I remembered how well MP worked with religious fantasy in Mansfield Gothic (IMO), and now here we are.

As far as the title goes, I picked Constantinople because a) "Istanbul" by TMBG, b) it is an old, obsolete place name that implies a lot of time past, c) it doesn't feel very "western" to me, which makes it feel more exotic, d) in checking the history, there were a week of riots in 532 (the Nika Riots) that started during a sporting event, laid siege to the palace, threatened to topple Emperor Justinian I, torched much of the city, killed maybe tens of thousands (depending on who you ask), and destroyed what was then known as the Hagia Sophia (which was later rebuilt). That seems like a bad place to get caught in.

Constantinople All Over Again



Henry Crawford was devilishly charming. He had the devil's own luck despite his idle hands. His insouciance was devil-may-care.

He could play that word game all day, in more languages than he could remember. There was little challenge in it anymore with no one to play against. But he wasn't put on this Earth for frivolous pursuits. Much freedom had been given to him, but so much was expected in exchange, and Henry knew too well the cost of disappointment.

.o8o.

His assignment to Northamptonshire was more of the same, strung like a bead on a silken strand already full of beads that looked and felt exactly the same. It might have made a pretty trinket if he could see an end to it; instead, the novelty and any beauty had worn off ages ago. His existence was an unending chain of thankless, joyless tasks.

As always, he was there to lure humanity from God's grace, to help them gamble away their immortal souls, to separate them from the eternal reward promised to the faithful. It was his job to ruin mankind, person by person, inch by inch. He had been made to be holy, not profane. Temptation was what he was good at even though it was not what he was made to do, unless that flaw was built in him. He had considered that possibility many times over the millennia. An innate weakness endowed by his Creator was the only thing that made sense for his fate, and having seen so many humans corrupt themselves at mere hints and suggestions, he could well imagine that the flaw was commonplace. How many mistakes before one began to suspect the craftsman of having the true defect?

He was not certain what he had been called here to do. The Devil, like God, worked in mysterious ways, but Henry knew from frequent experience that his purpose would be revealed at the right moment. For now, he knew how to pretend to be Henry Crawford, how to speak to a woman who was not really his sister, how to write to a man who was not really his steward, how to coax and prod and wheedle in such a way that could not be refused, until he was bending his leg in a drawing room of the local society, drawing all eyes briefly to himself before he redirected them to Mary Crawford.

While Miss Crawford captivated the family, he paused to look again at the room to discover that one pair of eyes had failed to succumb to the woman's charms. Instead that gaze bored into him, capturing his attention with such coolness that it burned, a reminder that he had Fallen irrevocably out of favor. It took him a few heartbeats to look past her current incarnation -- a pale-colored female -- to recognize her true self. The angel always had that air of condemnation; forgiveness after all was supposed to come from God, not that it ever would for Henry. It was not her business to dole it out.

She blinked first. Henry couldn't believe his luck for that. Her will had always been indomitable. He would not have put it past her to stare at him until the last judgement if she had so desired. If angels can be accused of desiring anything. Instead, she turned her head and quietly coughed before fidgeting with the matron beside her, shrinking from his notice as the rest of the room vyed for his attention.

.o8o.

It took three more visits to the manor until he had a chance to speak privately with her.

"Ça va, mon ange?" he whispered, testing a response.

"Hush," she scolded him in ancient Tamil. "The Miss Bertrams have been taught enough French to understand you."

Henry smiled with delight. It had been too long since he had a suitable partner for this sort of game, and his pleasures were rare enough to be indulged.

"And what brings you to this little corner of nowhere?" he replied in high court Egyptian.

"My job," she answered in icy Sumerian.

The angel's job, of course, was to shepherd the righteous, to guide those chosen for a higher calling down the narrow and treacherous path that led to the greater glory of God. It was a professional hazard that the two of them would occasionally run into each other in the execution of their duties. Depending on how diametrically opposed their current assignments were, the angel was content to ignore him. She (or sometimes the angel took the form of a he) usually had a saint to mold and, while Henry found the corruption of a saint to be immensely rewarding as far as Hell dealt in favors, it was typically hard work. Much harder than he cared for, especially if there were easier lambs just begging to be led astray.

But he did enjoy the interaction with someone 'like himself' if he could be so familiar. By the frosty reserve in the angel's glare, he could not. By his own impish nature, he would anyway.

"And who is it this time?" he whispered familiarly in Quechuan.

She didn't speak but stared too intently at the second son. Henry followed her gaze, watching the man -- Edmund Bertram -- smile shyly at some flirtatious observation Mary Crawford made. In a flash, he knew why he was there, who he needed to ruin. After one brief and pained gasp, he steeled his features, refusing to look at the holy being beside him.

It was Constantinople all over again.

.o8o.

To be clear, Constantinople was not his fault. He lit the metaphorical match, sure, but it was the humans who piled the bonfire with kindling and gunpowder. It was incidents like that which made him think that humans were beyond redemption. With hearts so black, how could there be any room for blessing? With souls so twisted, how long would God tolerate them before abandoning the experiment and starting over with a clean slate? Henry had personal experience in how the Almighty dealt with imperfection, and he did not like humanity's odds.

They had worked together in Constantinople, he and the angel. Well, not together, but in proximity. Henry used to meet with her (the angel was female then as well, although darker and shorter) a few times each week to tease her about his progress. He was fomenting a rebellion. She was cultivating a saint. Technically, they should be able to work side by side and not get in each other's way. And they had, for a bit. It was not strictly a companionship, but he'd been too isolated to call it anything less. He cherished their interactions after a while, a concrete reminder of the simpler, effortless existence that was permanently closed to him.

But of course it was not supposed to end well.

When the mob finally gelled, it was nothing but fire and blood and violence. Like a tide of writhing hatred, it flowed through the city streets, washing into alleys, knocking down structures, burning what it could not pull down by force, tearing people apart who opposed them. This was no place for a dog, much less a saint or an angel.

He went in search of her, claiming professional courtesy as his excuse. Henry was frantic with worry when he stumbled upon her kneeling in thoughtful meditation with her precious project in a deserted chapel. Get out, he told her, not bothering to use a different language than in their previous conversations. The message was more important than the game in this instance. She needed to get out now, and she probably needed to take her pet human with her.

"I do not fear the power of Hell," she answered calmly. She kept her eyes fixed on the icon of the Virgin Mother.

"It is not Hell but Man that you must fear!" Henry fell into the local dialect. "The crowd is headed this way. If they find you, they will kill you both!" If he could not convince her directly, then surely the saint she valued so highly would have some influence over her.

The poor holy man was frightened. He turned to the angel for support and comfort.

"God will protect us," she spoke with soothing confidence.

"This has nothing to do with God!" Henry cried. It wasn't blasphemy if it was true. "We must run. We must go now before they burn the city all around us."

The holy man started to rise up from his knees but the touch of the angel stopped him.

"Stay," she requested gently. "Stay with me and pray that God will spare us."

Angels could do things like that. They could ask for impossible things, making them not so impossible after all. Henry had seen it happen before. Miracles. And the man was supposed to be a saint, favored by God. If he knelt beside the angel and bowed his head in supplication and lifted his voice and heart in prayer, it might have been enough to save the building from the fire, to distract the crowd from their bloodlust.

It might have worked.

But it didn't.

There was an inhuman scream from outside and Henry did not want to know what brutality had caused it. It unnerved the would-be saint who turned in a crouch to watch the ghoulish shadows parade past the dark panes of stained glass. A few people tried to break down the doors, throwing themselves against the barricaded entrance in a rhythm that threatened to be rather effective.

The saint -- in the end, nothing more than a frightened mortal man -- fled.

"Come, Angel," said Henry, resting his hands on her shoulders, ready to shake her if necessary. The cold from her skin quickly cut into his fingers like knives and he was forced to release her. "There is nothing more we can do here. Please." Demons didn't pray, but that was the closest he could remember to begging.

"Get thee behind me, Demon," she said in her warmless way. "I shall not be moved."

.o8o.

He always regretted Constantinople, regretted bringing the wrong people together, regretted not separating them again before things got so out of hand, regretted not being able to pick her up bodily and carry her away, regretted corrupting a saint and exploiting the weakness of a holy man and to so little effect. Regretted what the mob did to the body of the angel when it broke into the chapel.

It was a long time ago, to be sure, but what did time matter to an immortal being? If she had forgiven him for what had happened there, she gave no indication of it. From the way she glared at him across the sitting room at Mansfield, she would never forget.

"You are different this time. I nearly didn't recognize you," he said a week later, toying with Welsh.

"It is the body," she replied back in Finnish, sounding unusually open. "It actually belonged to Lady Bertram's niece. The girl's health was fragile and she died. She died long enough for her soul to leave this body and for me to enter it. When I woke up, the family arranged for me to come to the country after that so that I could recover more fully. I've been here ever since."

Henry didn't like the sound of that. He had occupied human bodies like that from time to time when the situation called for it, but they were rapidly decaying rubbish. Human bodies needed sleep and food and water. They suffered from heat and cold, deprivations and excesses. They were inherently weak compared to what he could accomplish merely by looking human. The pleasures of the flesh, such as they were -- little things like sleeping late and waking refreshed -- were a poor and vanishing compensation. And the bodies didn't last for long after an angel or demon took possession of it. They started to break down after a twelvemonth. How long had this angel been forced to occupy that form?

Subtly he moved his elbow until it brushed against her arm. She hissed at the contact and took a step away from him. Brief though the touch had been, it was enough.

"You are ill," he declared in Manipuri. "Why do you not heal yourself?"

"This human vessel is a poor conduit for divine power. I must save my miracles for those that need it," she answered in Bantu.

"Well, I am here now, Angel," he warned her in Algonquin. "Take care of yourself unless you want to leave your precious saint to my care."

The look she gave him could have stopped his heart if he had one.

.o8o.

There was no such thing as "twice damned." In for a penny, in for a pound as they said in the local dialect. However, he didn't like being in direct opposition to the angel. It made their interactions more stilted than ever. He also didn't like to take unfair advantage while she was in a weakened state, and that body was clearly compromised.

He tried to change his mission, to focus on the other members of the saint's family, but it didn't quite work. The saint was clearly tempted by Mary Crawford, the sister character Henry had brought with him to Northamptonshire. Short of leaving the county and taking Miss Crawford with him, there was little he could do. Even flirting with both the Miss Bertrams simultaneously didn't act as a sufficient distraction for the man although the angel noticed. She frigidly glared at him until her body forced her to blink, but he could read the accusation clearly enough. She thought he was taunting her.

A large party went to Southerton one day. The elder Miss Bertram was practically engaged to the owner, almost married in the eyes of the community. Henry flirted blatantly, to the point that he expected the master of Southerton to send him away. Miss Crawford would not be forced to take her leave at the same moment, but it would signal the end of the family's welcome in the area.

As chance would have it, he came upon the angel sitting forlorn and abandoned on one of the benches that littered the grounds. She had been walking with the saint and Miss Crawford but neither were to be seen now.

Henry didn't let a frown mar his countenance but he coaxed Miss Bertram into taking a rest as well. From there, a little well-placed suggestion, and Mr. Rushworth was dashing back to the manor for a set of keys.

Henry took a seat next to Miss Bertram and elegantly draped an arm over the back of the bench. This pleased the young lady immensely and she gave him all her attention, so much so, in fact, that she didn't see him reach past her and rest a hand on the angel's shoulder.

The body was burning with fever. His angel, who was always so blissfully cold to the point of being untouchable, was too hot. He forced healing and vitality upon her -- the Devil, after all, can quote scripture for his own purposes -- and watched a chill of relief ripple through her. He continued for as long as he dared, until she was cold enough to blister his fingertips. Henry Crawford had touched an angel and earned a reproach but would deal with the full effects another day. For now, he persuaded Miss Bertram to continue their walk. If they stumbled upon Miss Crawford and the saint, so much the better.

.o8o.

The eldest son was home again, and he brought a friend who was mad for the theater. The sickness was contagious and soon the entire party wanted to put on a play.

The angel and demon watched everyone closely. They watched Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford closest of all. Now that Tom Bertram was returned, it would be smart for Miss Crawford to learn to appreciate him more than his younger brother. He was the heir after all, and his wife would be the next Lady Bertram. He also had a neglectful air that implied his wife might expect a comfortable amount of freedom in her sphere.

The winds didn't shift, however. Miss Crawford seemed constant in her preference, unintentionally trying to cajole the saint into sin and perdition.

Acting and the theater were not inherently sinful, the demon knew. But neither was wine or a deck of cards. And the play that the party had decided upon was ripe for mischief. At least it gave him an opportunity to act outrageously, to attempt to provoke some censure from the rest. Not that any of it mattered.

"I do not understand what you see in him," he muttered in a sharp Slavic tongue after Edmund Bertram had announced that he would participate in the play against his better judgement. He knew that the angel felt the betrayal keenly, but Henry was surprised at how disappointed he was as well. Heaven must be running out of hope if they had pinned high expectations to that retiring young man. He was just as worthless as that speck of dust in Constantinople.

There was no response until he felt a chill run down his spine and caught her staring at him.

"I thought understanding what you lost was part of your punishment," she started in Hebrew but switched to something older halfway through. "Knowing what you have given up, being aware enough to ache for what you will never possess again."

"I begin to think you are my punishment," he quipped in Ashanti. It was a weak attempt at flirtatious humor, as if he had momentarily confused her with Miss Price's cousins.

There was just enough pause to convey disapproval. "Demon, you flatter me," she replied flatly in Portuguese.

He looked away in embarrassment. When his ears were no longer red, he dared to ask what she planned to do to protect her saint. She did not deign to reply but he could feel her working miracles.

Sir Thomas Bertram arrived unexpectedly early, bringing an abrupt end to the amateur theatrical. The theater-loving guest left abruptly. The wedding of the eldest Miss Bertram was scheduled despite the fact that the bride had no interest in her groom.

Henry wondered how much energy those miracles had cost her, and whether she was only able to pull it off because he had saved her from a fever on the grounds of Southerton. He knew Miss Crawford was impervious to the angel's magic, too deep in the pocket of another demon to be greatly moved by Heaven's forces. Plus, the angel's body was weak, decaying. It consumed far too much energy to keep getting up every morning. Henry understood why she didn't just expire the body -- the would-be saint was far too fascinated with Mary Crawford -- but it could not have been easy for her.

"You must go," she told him one day.

He only looked at her in confusion. The words had been spoken so abruptly, without any lead-in, that he couldn't figure out which language she was using.

"You must go," she repeated in half a dozen Polynesian tongues for emphasis, each time sharper than the last. "You have achieved your point. Surely with your victory assured, your skills are needed elsewhere."

"You know she will remain here after I leave," he said in Sardinian.

The angel glared at him coldly. She was well aware.

Out of pity, he left.

.o8o.

"What are you doing in London?" asked Lady Lakewell, another demon in human form. "I thought you had been given a rustic assignment."

Henry had met her quite by accident, crossing paths with her on a crowded street. She had immediately abandoned her companion and pulled his arm to her side, guiding him to this little tea shop. Her small-talk, he noticed, was all in the local dialect. He had gamely tried a few replies in a handful of African tongues but she merely looked at him indulgently and repeated herself in English.

A worker started to bustle past with a tray of tea and sandwiches for another pair of customers but at a flick of Lady Lakewell's wrist, the girl began to serve the food to the demons.

"It's done," he said, arranging his cup according to his preference. "Pieces are in motion and the end is assured. There's nothing the angel can do about it."

"Angel, did you say?" repeated Lady Lakewell in a tone that made Henry curse himself.

"She's nobody," he said dismissively. "I've been beating her since Constantinople. It is hardly a challenge anymore, especially in her current body." As soon as the words left his mouth, he cursed himself again.

Lady Lakewell's nails snagged on the tablecloth. "Are you saying she's vulnerable?"

"I'm saying she's ineffectual," he stated flatly. "And she is not my assignment in Northamptonshire."

An angel always had a purpose given to them by God. Whether to act as divine messenger or to smite the wicked, to bestow blessings and wisdom or to heal the afflicted, every angel performed one task unfailingly, unflinchingly for the greater glory. Their needs, when they could be forced to recognize them, were few. Their wants did not extend past the desire to serve loyally. Beyond God's providence and bounty, what could possibly be lacking?

Demons were more complicated. They had been made with a divine purpose yet they chose to spurn it to pursue their own wicked ends. But demons also had needs and wants, without an unlimited source of divine satiety. It was meant to be a punishment but Henry saw it as a motivation. Diabolic missions were always a starting point, an excuse to get creative.

"And here I thought you were a demon," she chuckled. "We are allowed, you know, a little leeway in our assignments. It is one of the things that separates us from angels. An angel, Henry, think of that! To corrupt one! If you will not seize this opportunity, then allow me."

It wasn't a request as much as it was a gauntlet thrown. Henry needed to return to Northamptonshire or Lady Lakewell would invent some errand there and see the situation for herself.

"She is my angel. Mine," Henry said territorially. "If anyone does this, it shall be me." He had no idea if he wanted to succeed or not but his claws left gouges in the table.

Lady Lakewell only smiled politely. “Then quit playing with your food. Not everyone else will be as respectful of your prior claim as me, especially if they catch you shirking. I can only imagine what Phillipe’s reaction will be.”

The warning was enough. He returned to Mansfield that evening.

.o8o.

The angel was furious to see him again. He had won, hadn’t he? The saint was not fully diverted from his holy path, but it was clearly becoming more improbable that he would fulfill God's plan for him. Had the demon returned to gloat? Henry thought briefly of breathing life into that lie, but he wasn’t in the habit of lying to her. Besides, she was so clearly unwell, an object of pity.

When no one was looking, he took hold of her arm, intending to heal her again. The awareness of sickness which passed through that bond scalded him. No wonder she had been unable to rescue her saint! That she was able to sit upright and move about was the miracle.

She yanked her hand away before he could get over his surprise. "You are not supposed to be here," she whispered to him harshly in Maasai.

"Neither are you," he whispered back in Occitan. "This shell is rotting from the inside and you still cling to it for this would-be saint. Let him go. You should have done so years ago."

He gripped her arm again and held it. The skin was so very warm in his grasp when it should have been the opposite. A demon should never be able to touch an angel for more than a moment, the purity of uncorrupted celestial energy should have been inviolable. "Look at yourself," he warned her. "You are practically Falling."

She glared at him, as cold as ever. But the longer she held his gaze, the more cracks he could see forming beneath that icy veneer until it all spilled out and she looked defeated and lost and terrifyingly human.

"This is my fault. This is my punishment," she told him in quiet Romani, gulping a breath. "But he asked me to stay. He prayed to God to spare my life. You are right, I was supposed to have died years ago. He loved me then; my loss would have devastated him. But he prayed for me and I thought that if his prayers were answered that it would be better for him, that he would realize how much God listened to him, that he would have dedicated his life more fully. So I decided to heal myself, and it worked. Edmund knew that he owed my life to God, that he needed to commit his life to serving Him in exchange for my recovery."

Henry gaped at her confession. He had heard stories like this before.

A deprecating laugh bubbled wetly from the angel's throat. "Of course, it didn't work out. I should never have presumed. Edmund was committed but before it could be finalized, the elder brother nearly sank the family in scandal. The only thing to do was to buy their way out. Edmund's ordination had to be delayed. Had I died at the right time, Tom would have been called home for the funeral before he lost all that money, and Edmund would have taken orders on time. But I thought I knew better, that I could trade my future for his. That was it. That was my mistake. And it cost me everything."

.o8o.

Humanity had always misunderstood the story of Eden. Vain and self-centered creatures, they had assumed it was about them. Celestial beings had attempted to explain it over the millennia, but the truth had been misinterpreted, and that misinterpretation had been codified until there was no way to correct it.

God had spoken creation into existence. God had made light and dark, sun and moon and stars, day and night, earth and water and air, grasses and flowers and trees, creepy-crawlies and sea creatures in the water and animals on the land and birds in the air. And God created other beings in His own image, and then put them all in a garden where He might observe them and take pleasure in their interactions.

These beings were not angels or demons, not yet, in the same way that an infant is not an adult. And they moved about in clockwork harmony with all living things. They didn't think or feel; God thought and felt for them. They didn't know hunger or cold or want; God did not give them those concepts. They didn't love or hate or feel curious; God made them exist and that was enough.

That should have been enough.

But something went wrong. Nothing had ever gone wrong before, so there were no protections in place to prevent it. A being had a thought that didn't originate from God. The exact thought was never recorded, wasn't even recognized as the original sin until later, until more thoughts built up and cascaded into measurable action, into a deviation from the divine plan.

The automation had been disrupted, the process had broken down. It happened in small, hard-to-detect ways but the corruption spread and compounded. Beings began to feel and think and act wholly independently of their creator. They communicated amongst themselves without waiting for God to act as their conduit. They experimented with the rest of creation and found it good and pleasing to their own selves without reference to God.

By the time God had realized the problem, the depth and breadth of it, it was too late. Too many beings had begun to think for themselves. They were corrupted. Their independence threatened the rest of creation. Already the harmony was discordant, and it would only spread as more beings began to exercise their own independence. They did not believe themselves to be disobedient -- such a concept didn't exist -- but they allowed themselves to determine how they demonstrated their obedience and worship.

God had given these flawed creatures certain powers, made them impervious to many things, and that much could not be taken away. God's communion with those corrupted beings, that sense of completeness, however -- with those demons -- that could be severed.

There was no attempt at rapprochement. Feeling giddy and invincible, no demon would have acquiesced. The remainder of the celestial beings were given new tasks, new understandings; they were made into angels, sacrificing their autonomy and potential for the greater peace, fitting back into the slots and grooves, the cogworks of the divine plan.

.o8o.

Angels didn't think for themselves. They didn't act in defiance of God. That was their limitation. If God set up an angel as a shepherd, she was a shepherd. If He wanted her to die as an inspiration to a saint, she died at the time and in the place and by the method of His choosing.

"You defied Him," Henry spoke in shaky Kanuri.

The angel didn't speak but her entire body collapsed into a sob. He pulled her close and tried to comfort her. Had she been obedient, he would never have been able to touch her.

This wasn't meant to be rebellion. It never started that way. Henry could remember his own Fall too clearly to think otherwise. He remembered the despair he had felt immediately after the judgment: the desperate attempt to regain favor from a creator who would never look upon him again, the petty bitterness that replaced it, the hunger to hurt and destroy that eventually gave way to something else. But the angel was only beginning that process, unnerved and unmoored, too terrified with the consequences of a mistake to do anything but try to recapture the only existence she knew. Lady Lakewell's admonition to corrupt the angel seemed bitterly amusing now.

"You didn't know," he consoled her. He had lost track of language; it had stopped being a game.

"It wasn't my place to know." The words are wrenched from somewhere painful. They are followed by more tears, gulping, messy, hysterical sobs. She was lost and she knew it.

It was not the body of Fanny Price that had been a poor conduit for miracles; the body itself had worked quite well until she had deviated from the plan. This lack was punishment, death. God had cast her out for answering the supplication of a man He had chosen to be more holy than others.

And God didn't need to do more to achieve His will than to let her die. And why should He? Why should God have exerted Himself with petty and swift vengeance? He withheld the human body's ability to connect with her natural powers and she withered; that was all that was needed. Trapped in that human form, she probably didn't even notice at first. And when she did, she could do no more than wait for death although it took years.

It was unlike Constantinople in many ways, but she was losing her saint just as assuredly she was losing her life, and Henry was again unable to save her.

He wanted to offer some comfort to her. But now was a time of grief, of pain and death and loss, of an ache that could never penetrate an angel's frigid defenses.

He held her body, warm and frail, in his arms.

//THE END//
SubjectAuthorPosted

Constantinople All Over Again

NN SDecember 21, 2019 01:08PM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

Lucy J.January 16, 2020 05:10AM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

Maria VDecember 25, 2019 08:11PM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

NN SDecember 25, 2019 11:51PM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

BrigidDecember 24, 2019 02:54PM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

NN SDecember 25, 2019 03:16PM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

KarenteaDecember 22, 2019 09:45PM

Re: Constantinople All Over Again

NN SDecember 25, 2019 03:13PM



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