A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 10: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 10

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

A chapter titled “Revelations” comes next, opening with Fitz’s reflective musings on fate before moving into the resumed journey towards Forge. Fitz wakes and eats as the ship he and Chade had boarded continues towards the village, and he notes the effects of a powerful stimulant–carris seed–on Chade, rebuking him amid an explanation of its effects. Chade sets Fitz’s concerns aside and briefs him on the upcoming mission.

The Pocked Man! by Sassar
The Pocked Man! by Sassar on DeviantArt, used for commentary

Fitz and Chade proceed in haste towards Forge, Fitz musing on the comfort of being able to place trust in another, Chade reminiscing about his youth. They arrive at Forge too late to save it–or its inhabitants, who act erratically and who are opaque to Fitz’s Wit. He reflects on the sense and its absence in others and narrates his sudden panic at the revelation, panic that pushes him to drag Chade away. In explaining his actions to his mentor, he intimates his abilities to him, though Chade appears not to understand.

As they make to return to Forge, they are seen by people from a neighboring village who have come to check on their attacked neighbors. Chade is seen, an his likeness to a harbinger of plague is noted, worsening the situation and prompting him and Fitz to flee. After they are safe, Chade expounds on the problem of his having been seen as such and of the threat raised by the new Red-Ship raids that leave their victims disconnected from one another.

The effects of the carris seed leave Chade suddenly, and Fitz has to get the two of them and their horses back to the ship that had borne them. They return to where Verity is concluding his visit with Kevlar, and Fitz learns that, while his own mission has been a success, rumors of what happened at Forge are spreading already, bringing fear and the start of despair to the Six Duchies.

The chapter introduces the Forged, those afflicted by means later books make clearer and stripped of the ability to connect emotionally to themselves or to others. The parallels between the Forged and zombies have been noted by others (here and here among a great many), so I do not need to belabor the point, but it is notable that the Forged Ones, even in their first appearances, evoke the panicky terror of the uncanny valley. They are too much like Fitz–and the reader–to be truly Other, and they are afflicted rather than choosing, so that they should be recipients of sympathy. But they are already horrible, terrible things that provoke revulsion, precisely because they are like those with whom readers already sympathize; they may not be evil, as such, but they cannot be abided, even so.

(When I first read the novel, many years ago, I was not the kind of person who attended to political parallels. Nor am I up enough on what was going on in the world when the book was released [and, presumably, written] to be able to comment on that parallel with any accuracy. But as I read now, I wonder if the Forged Ones do not read as a backhanded comment on the fears too many have about immigrants and terrorists, that their machinations will somehow corrupt the hardworking, virtuous folks with whom they come into violent contact. Given their ultimate source…the comment becomes an interesting one. I might return to the idea in later posts in the series. It might bear some explication.)

Something I’ve noted as I’ve looked for art for these pieces is that there seems a fairly sharp divide among portrayals of the Farseers. Most of the works I’ve seen depict them as white, following Tolkienian conventions. A few, though, and many of the better ones, depict them as persons of color, whether as Black folks or as more closely akin to Native American and First Nations peoples. (For the record, I think the latter more accurate, given my earlier arguments about the milieu being more of the Pacific Northwest than the medieval European northwest and the oft-noted geographical similarities between the Six Duchies and Alaska.) I tend to think the persons-of-color depictions better in line with the text, else there’d not be quite so much made of–well, that will come later in the text. I also tend to think it a good thing, reminding readers that the medieval of which Hobb’s work partakes is not quite the monochromatic thing it is too often, and all too unhelpfully, assumed to be. (Helen Young has more to say on the matter.) It’s a bit of an aside, I know, but still a useful one.

Care to show some support?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series: Entry 9: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 9

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

A chapter titled “Fat Suffices” follows, opening with a longer-than-usual musing on the Fool and his background. When the narration shifts to events, it sees Fitz waking in the night and stalking off to the local kitchens to eat. He scrounges himself a simple, hearty meal, from which he is interrupted by a young woman, clutching a small dog. Fitz’s extranormal senses and training in the stables and kennels tell him that the problem is a bone lodged in the dog’s throat; he makes to remove it, succeeding with help from the young woman.

Hard to resist this kind of little guy.
Image taken from
used for commentary.

It is only belatedly that Fitz realizes the young woman is Lady Grace, Kelvar’s new wife. He realizes his social gaffe as she offers him reward, but he is able quickly to turn it to advantage by spinning a fabricated story; his mind plays out the benefits likely to come. Thinking his mission done, he goes to bed.

Fitz is roused before dawn by a message that Lady Thyme requires his immediate attention. He dresses and races to her, only to find that she is a persona Chade uses. The old spy briefs him on the circumstances occasioning his sudden summoning: the nearby village of Forge has been raided, and a ransom is demanded, or the raiders will release the prisoners. The two race through the night towards Forge, Fitz reporting his success with Grace along the way.

Something occurs to me in the present reading that did not before. According to the Continental Kennel Club (and I am aware that there is a potential for problems in using such a source), the feist as a breed is a product of the United States. This is important for reasons I discuss in my chapter in Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms, wherein I argue that the Realm of the Elderlings milieu borrows more from North American than from the nebulously European medieval setting common to Tolkienian-tradition fantasy fiction. In the chapter, I do consider some of the fauna described in the books as justification for the central assertion; I had missed the bit about the feist early on. Having another point in support of my idea is a welcome thing, even if it’s not terribly likely that having made the argument will do me much good.

It occurs to me, too, that the action is divided strangely at present. That is, the incident with Grace forecast by the title’s chapter and the race towards Forge are different scenes, however, compressed in time they may be. Many authors would put each in its own chapter. Combining the two and stopping well before reaching Forge has the effect of building suspense for the oddity forecast by the raiders’ strange message as well as eliding the possible effects of Fitz’s work. His interaction with Grace is made almost incidental; the salutary effects of that interaction are thereby foreshadowed as coming to little effect. Hobb makes much of presaging in the novel; how the foreshadowing functions or fails to will be of interest as the re-read continues.

Help me tend my gardens?

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 8: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 8

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The next chapter, “Lady Thyme,” opens with a musing on geography before describing the outset of Verity’s expedition to Rippon. The marching order and the general tedium of the trip receive comment before Fitz begins to opine on his particular vexation: being made to attend on the heavily veiled and eminently cantankerous Lady Thyme. One of the other workers on the expedition relates the common understanding of Lady Thyme, namely that working for her is markedly undesirable; she proves the point as the journey continues across five days.

The lady’s not nearly so pleasant.
Image by Greenmars – Own work,
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26179639

At length, the expedition arrives in Rippon, and Fitz deposits Lady Thyme where she desires to lodge before rejoining Verity. Fitz’s uncle has him attend briefly to his dog, which he does by his Wit as much as anything else, then has him dress for the reception to come. Fitz is surprised by being taken in in such a way, but bathes and dresses as instructed.

At the appropriate time, Fitz accompanies Verity to the reception dinner. He marks the regard in which others seem to hold Verity (it is mixed), and assesses Kelvar swiftly–particularly as his new wife, Grace, joins him. He puts his various training to use at the dinner, observing the mighty carefully while keeping politely abreast of the surrounding conversations.

After the reception, Verity takes Fitz’s report of his observations. Fitz adds his summary of the situation: Kelvar is trying to compensate for the infirmities of age by taking a young wife and showering her with gifts. Verity bristles at the thought of soft-pedaling around Kelvar, purposing to order him to his duty. After being dismissed, Fitz muses on the inadequacy of that response and begins to contemplate responses as he falls asleep.

As I reread the chapter, I cannot help but think that it comments on the failures of direct solutions. The chapter ends with Fitz’s conclusion that simply ordering a task done will not ensure it is done well, that people have to be made to feel worthwhile to do work that is worthwhile. Some people can be trusted to act out of a sense of duty and to do their work well because of that duty, but more are more selfish than that and will not exert themselves without feeling some stake in the matter. Part of effective leadership, then, lies in helping others realize that they have a stake in doing what needs to be done. Verity acknowledges that Chivalry had realized it; Fitz himself understands it. That a refined politeness and its bastard both enact what simple truth struggles to do does point to etiquette as lies–but effective ones.

The last reminds that Hobb makes much of the significance of names in the Six Duchies, giving many characters emblematic names. That significance receives in-milieu comment; indeed, in the present chapter, Verity remarks that “Shrewd [his father] is called, and shrewd he is,” pointing to the name as characterization in a way that bespeaks his own name as his prominent quality. It is telling, then, that Lady Thyme, about whom more is revealed in following chapters, is named as she is. Though she is unpleasant to those who work for her, the flowering herb of her name is one that connotes courage and strength, if Catherine Boeckmann’s 2018 contribution to the Old Farmer’s Almanac is to be believed. The herb is also associated with purification and carries medicinal properties. Knowing this, the name becomes either a joke or a bit of foreshadowing; Hobb’s writing makes the latter more likely than the former.

Help me tend my gardens?

Reflective Comments about the Fourth Year

It has been four years since the first post to this webspace went up, four years that I have been working on Elliott RWI. As I write this, I have made 747 posts to the blogroll (this will be post 748), and I have posted many individual pages, collecting 21049 views from 8113 visitors. In the last year, therefore, I have made 151 posts and collected 3638 views from 2560 visitors (based on “Reflective Comments about the Third Year”). Performance seems to be up from last year (see the figures below), which I ascribe to more regular posting and work to integrate images into more of my online writing.

Figure 1 is posts per year by year of blogging.


Figure 2 is views per year by year of blogging.


Figure 3 is visitors per year by year of blogging.


I am pleased to be able to continue doing this kind of work, and I look forward not only to another year of it, but many other years of it. I hope I can count on your help to do that work; I’d appreciate you sending a little bit my way here.

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 7: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 7

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The seventh chapter in Assassin’s Apprentice, “An Assignment,” presents commentaries about the death of Regal’s mother, Queen Desire, from what seems to have been a drug overdose. It moves on to note the mourning rituals enacted in the wake of Chivalry’s death, focusing on haircutting and noting the extreme removals Burrich inflicts on Fitz–appropriate to mourning a father–and himself–more fit to a crowned king, despite Chivalry’s abdication. The extent of Burrich’s emotional investment in Chivalry is clear.

Valérie Lachambre’s (?) Fitz Fixes Feist’s Fits, from Fanpop, used for commentary

In the weeks and months following Chivalry’s death, Chade summons Fitz several times. Fitz asks about his father and his circumstances, and Chade agrees that the death is suspicious–as well as noting both that Fitz is far from safe and that he judges his father overly harshly. Fitz’s regular life continues among the summonses, and he notes the increasing frequency of raids from the Out Islands before learning that he is to be sent as part of a diplomatic envoy to one of the Six Duchies experiencing many such raids. Burrich instructs him rapidly, and Fitz encounters the Fool unexpectedly; the Fool delivers a prophecy to the boy:

Fitz fixes feist’s fits. Fat suffices. It’s a message, I believe. A calling for a significant act. As you are the only one I know who endures being called Fitz, I believe it’s for you. As for what it means, how should I know? I’m a fool, not an interpreter of dreams. Good day.

Later, Chade informs Fitz his presence in the envoy is a cover for his first assignment as an assassin–potentially. Fitz is to assess the situation and, if disloyalty on the part of the local duke underlies the increase in raiding, he is to eliminate the duke–without allowing any of the others to be any the wiser. Fitz asks Chade about his own entry into the assassin’s profession–and Chade offers some answers, but not many.

Some thoughts emerge as I reread–and some, I think I have not thought before, though I have to wonder if I am bringing up things I’ve read without realizing I’m doing so. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Hobb’s writing, so it’s possible I’m recapitulating it; if I am, it’s unintentional.

  • Burrich is described in the novel as having been Chivalry’s man, committed to him to a degree exceeding the normal loyalty one might expect from those in service. (It’s a relationship that might well be likened to that between Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings.) Later novels explicate the relationship to some extent, though those novels also make a point of noting how little is ever made clear to Fitz–and thus to the reader–about life before Fitz’s arrival. (It is possible to read into that a comment about our own partial knowledge; what can we really know of the past other than pieces of it?) Given the metaphor for homosexuality already presented in the novel, though, as well as the decided homoeroticism that emerges in the later novels (and that no small amount of fanart depicts), that Burrich and Chivalry were more than servant and lord is a tantalizing prospect.
  • While this is not the first appearance of the Fool in the narrative, it is the first of the Fool’s predictions to come up in the text. It does seem to indicate that the concept of the Fool–what the Fool actually is–is not entirely clear at present; the Fool’s comment about not being an interpreter of dreams is at odds with later information, suggesting the concept changes during composition–or that the Fool does.
  • Fitz notes at the end of the chapter that he is thirteen as he takes on the first assignment. This is, of course, horrible to current sensibilities; sending children to wage war is atrocious, and assassination is less savory work than open war. At the same time, it sets up something of a precedent in the series; he is sent in part because, as a child, he would not be expected to be an assassin, and that lack of suspicion of a child returns in force later in the series. Seems there’s quite a bit of groundwork laid here for what comes afterwards…

Support a poor scholar?

Initial Comments for the July 2019 Session at DeVry University

I have been offered two classes for the upcoming July 2019 instructional session at DeVry University: a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition (which I am teaching even now) and a section of ENGL 112: Composition (which I last taught during the November 2018 session). Both are co-sat, as was the case for the SPCH 275: Public Speaking section I taught during the recent March 2019 session; they combine an on-site hybrid group with an online-only group.

Image result for teaching
Image by David Senior for Flower Darby’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “How to Be a Better Online Teacher,” which I likely ought to read; used for commentary.

ENGL 135 appears to have gone through a redesign, which means the materials I’ve prepared for past students will not be applicable, or not as much so, as they are for the present session. There do appear to be fewer deliverables, though, which means I will likely not have as much work to prepare things as I have had in the past–or as much work to grade, which also has its attractions. I’ll need to review the course in more detail before I proceed, however, but that’s not particularly onerous.

ENGL 112 also appears to have gone through a redesign since I last taught it, so I’ll need to review the course and generate new materials in response to it, as well. Honestly, though, it is good for me to do so. Refreshing my teaching from time to time is helpful; it keeps me from growing complacent. I have seen many instructors at several colleges and universities grow fixed in their ways, inattentive to developing knowledge in their subject areas and in teaching, generally; it has not helped the students to be mired in the understandings of thirty years ago and more, nor has it helped those of us who have done more recent work in the academic humanities, to have such be the case. Nor yet is it good for the world outside to have things root in the exhausted soil of conclusions decades out of date and unresponsive to the many things learned since.

The session spans 8 July to 31 August 2019 (that’s what my contracts say, anyway). On-site meetings for ENGL 135 will be Thursdays at 1830 US Central Time in Room 106 of the San Antonio Metro Campus; on-site meetings for ENGL 112 will be Wednesdays at 1800 US Central Time in Room 105 of the San Antonio Metro Campus. Synchronous online sessions will occur at the same times; sessions will be recorded for later viewing. Office hours will be online on Mondays at 1800 US Central Time; other meetings may be made by appointment.

As ever, I appreciate having the chance to do this again. I’d hate to think that I’d get no use out of the studying I did to learn how to do it…

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 6: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 6

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

Chapter 6, “Chivalry’s Shadow,” opens with a rumination on royal naming traditions in the Six Duchies. It moves thence to a lesson Fitz has with Fedwren, the scribe who serves Buckkeep and after whom the Fedwren Project is named, who then asks the boy about the possibility of apprenticing with him. Fitz later discusses the issue with Chade, who explains why it would be a bad one to pursue. (The short answer is politics. A longer answer is that political concerns would almost certainly provoke one faction or another within the Six Duchies to kill Fitz.)

Environment - Buck Town by undercoreart
Buck Town by undercoreart on Deviantart.com, used for commentary.

During the discussion, Fitz’s frustration with being largely confined to Buckkeep emerges. He is soon tasked with a shopping trip to Buckkeep Town, during which he reacquaints himself with Molly. They reconnect relatively easily, and Fitz reads a bit of writing that Molly’s deceased mother left behind. She is grateful to him for the work, and some foreshadowing of romance to come emerges in their interactions.

As Fitz returns to Buckkeep, Verity and Regal overtake him. They bear the news that Chivalry, their elder brother and Fitz’s father, is dead.

Some points of interest emerge in the chapter. For one, a vendor in Buckkeep Town appears to recognize Fitz and to address him by the name of Keppet. The clear implication is that the vendor is Fitz’s mother, and Keppet is therefore the name he was given and should bear instead of FitzChivalry Farseer. Other bits and pieces that emerge in the series suggest that more is known of Fitz’s origins than he himself is given to understand, though it is never made clear by whom such things are known. Such things tend towards the Tolkienian bones from which the soup of story is made, though, or the unexplored vistas Tolkien mentions in his commentaries; they serve to suggest that the world of the Six Duchies has an independent life that exceeds perhaps even the authorial vision (though that is an overly sentimental and romantic reading, but I do not have to read as a detached academic unless I want to do so, being largely out of academe).

Further, while the return of a rightful and consummately skilled king to the throne is an integral part of the Tolkienian fantasy tradition, and most descriptions of Chivalry Farseer depict him as being such a consummately skilled man, the present chapter dispels any such notion. Chivalry is dead, and its honest and pompous brothers, and its bastard son, are what remain. If the series needed any more indication that it would not follow the Tolkienian narrative pattern prior to the chapter, it certainly does not with the present chapter taking place. And it serves as notice to the readers, if not necessarily to Fitz himself, that no characters in the works are safe (prefiguring the oft-lauded “realism” of George R.R. Martin’s works in publication, since Hobb’s novel was published more than a year before Martin’s–and I have Thoughts about the relationship between those novelists’ works).

While it may seem reasonably familiar ground to tread now, to the teenager steeped in Tolkienian fantasy I was then, the unsettling of such narrative tropes was almost disconcerting. I had read a lot even then, if not necessarily of the best quality, and I found myself on unfamiliar ground. It was not unwelcome that I did not know how things would go.

I do now, of course, but only after more than twenty years of reading and re-reading. It does not make revisiting the text unenjoyable.

Help me keep doing this!

A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 5: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 5

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The next chapter in Assassin’s Apprentice, “Loyalties,” also opens with an in-milieu commentary, this one discussing the Six Duchies’ practice of single-titled nobility. That is, in the milieu, no noble can hold more than one fief or demesne; there is no long list of titles attached to any single name. The commentary also notes the schism and unrest promoted by a queen who regretted her choice to wed the king in the years leading up to the events of the novel.

Image result for engraved silver knife
Something like this drives a point home.
Image from PicClick.com, used for commentary

The main body of the chapter relates the shape of Fitz’s early training with Chade, which supplemented the more public instruction he received from others at Buckkeep and did much to make him a pleasantly regarded figure in the castle. Specific tasks receive attention, including the temporary hobbling of a horse and the interception of a particular letter intended for Regal, Fitz’s half-uncle. Small defiances and arguments also get a bit of notice, and the tension between Fitz’s own ethics and the demands of his obedience are manifested.

Such tensions emerge most prominently in a test Chade sets before Fitz. Regular reports to Shrewd have reaffirmed Fitz’s loyalty to his king, and Chade bids him purloin a table knife from the king’s chambers. Fitz refuses and is dismissed sharply; it wounds him, and he nurses that hurt through his tasks in the coming days. He comes under Burrich’s attention and ministrations, and they begin to have an effect–but Chade’s nighttime appearance and apology do more. Shrewd’s own apology, admitting that he had ordered the test of Fitz’s loyalty, also helps, though it does provoke a display of burgeoning adolescent pique from Fitz as he sits with Chade that evening.

There is something decidedly Machiavellian about Shrewd in the chapter, which is not necessarily out of place for the character but does, perhaps, serve as a comment about the nature of kingship in the Six Duchies. Again, Shrewd hires Fitz rather than welcoming him as family at their first meeting, and the wariness implicit in that transaction does emerge again in the test to which Shrewd insists his bastard grandson be put. Nor is it imprudent to determine whether an assassin can be trusted, even one that comes from within the family–after all, consanguinity has not precluded Regal from considering killing Fitz already, and it is not to be wondered at that a bastard might begin to resent social onus.

Reading through the chapter again, I found myself struck by how frightening a figure Chade actually is. He moves more or less unseen and unknown throughout Buckkeep and is a dedicated assassin given free rein to explore many different avenues of inquiry. He is also committed to the idea of kingship and reconciled to his place as a servant of the king–whoever the king may actually be. As open as he seems to be with Fitz, it is clear that if a kill order came down–if, say, Regal got his way with things–Fitz would be dead. It seems a reinforcement of Fitz’s loneliness that his closest connection is with such a man; however strong the mentor/mentee relationship is and may become, the distance that is present seems set to remain in place, and there are things such a relationship cannot teach that Fitz may well need to know.

Again, I find myself reading affectively. I am not sure whether or not it helps.

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A Robin Hobb Rereading Series–Entry 4: Assassin’s Apprentice, Chapter 4

Read the previous entry in the series here.
Read the next entry in the series here.

The next chapter in Assassin’s Apprentice, “Apprenticeship,” continues the pattern of opening chapters with in-milieu commentary that bears in on the topic of the chapter; the passage regards education, as the chapter does. Fitz wakes to find his chamber, which he had thought private, attended to, and he is disrupted from his routines yet again to be fitted for clothing. While he is thus fitted, he overhears the gossip of the tailoring staff and learns more of the back-story of his origin and his father’s discommendation.

An image of Chade Fallstar,
taken from the Realm of the Elderlings Wiki,
used for commentary / reporting.

After, Fitz resumes weapons training and his other lessons. That evening, his clothing is delivered to him; it bears the emblem of the royal house with a cadence mark denoting his bastardy. He asks Burrich about it as he helps the older man mend tack; Burrich opines about Chivalry’s failure to some extent.

Regular routines and Fitz’s sense of isolation resume. Fitz continues to study as Shrewd has commanded, musing on his loneliness until one night sees him summoned to follow a cadaverous, pock-marked figure behind the walls of Buckkeep. It is Chade, the king’s assassin, who is frank about his trade and the fact that Fitz will be trained in it–by him. The two pass a late night in what is, in effect, Fitz’s first night of study as an assassin; he has become the assassin’s apprentice of the novel’s title.

The next day sees Fitz confer with Burrich about Chivalry once again. The two seem to arrive at a new understanding of one another, though Burrich still sees the failure of his master in the bastard boy, and Fitz remains uneasy around the man.

The chapter is notable in being the one that cements Fitz into the eponymous role of the novel. It does as much as anything to move him away from being the warrior-hero who typifies Tolkienian-tradition fantasy literature (as I’ve commented), or even the renouncing heroes who are the ostensible focus of Lord of the Rings (though it could be argued that Aragorn is the actual protagonist of the story)–while bastards often rise above the challenges of their births in the dominant streams of fantasy literature, assassins are almost always antagonistic, and even the sneakier protagonists stop far, far short of the kind of quiet killing that is an assassin’s stock in trade. For Fitz to begin to work to become an assassin, then, moves him into a realm of endeavor that would normally be called evil–yet he remains a sympathetic protagonist, and it is not to be wondered at that a nation-state would resort to such measures as assassination to maintain its power and internal security.

At the same time, Fitz remains firmly entrenched in the more “upright” pursuits expected of a minor noble. As noted in the previous chapter, he is on tap to use as a royal envoy, and so he must be trained in the skills and knowledge befitting such an envoy. It is a reaffirmation of much of the Tolkienian tradition and its ennobled warrior-hero that such a figure be skilled in practical and intellectual arts–literacy and at least basic mathematics are expected knowledge, in addition to fighting, equestrian arts, and the like. In the chapter, then, Hobb nuances the standard fantasy trope; the appearance of it remains in place, even as the truth that undergirds and supports it is far less traditionally wholesome.

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