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Two Knights of Indulgence by Alexandra O'Hurley

Two Knights of Indulgence

Knights of the Temple, Book 2
by Alexandra O’Hurley

Evernight Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-77130-267-8

Two Immortal Knights are brought down my a very mortal weapon. Can Britt’s healing magic draw the evil from within them or will it destroy her before they can explore the attraction they feel?

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Chapter One

Normandie, 1280
Matthias de Rancort ran across the barbican to the crenellated wall, looking down through the slit as his father approached the gates with his men. The majestic lion on his father’s dirty, torn pennants fluttered in the strong winds blistering over the plowed, fallow fields. Fear settled low in his belly as his gaze narrowed on his father’s head, bouncing along with the horse’s slow gait. That fear also mixed with anger, knowing the lousy swine had left them to fend for themselves for nearly a year. At nine, Matthias had been forced to become the master of the keep, helping his mother ensure they survived the approaching winter.
The group funneled through the first gate below the barbican, and Matthias could hear the hooves beating across the bridge over the moat as they entered the bailey, the rhythm reverberating in his ears. Matthias closed his eyes and hoped to awaken from the nightmare. Humbert was back to abuse them, by fist or by word. Then his men would eat what little supplies they’d managed to stock for themselves, and they’d never make it through till spring.
“Had those men been home where they belonged, we would have much more meat from the hunt, salted and hanging in the larder to feed their number. Instead, they were more interested in tournaments and games,” his mother said from behind him, her hand coming to rest on his shoulder as she released a deep sigh. “I am sure he comes home empty-handed, having drunk away any gold he managed to win.”
“Clarisse!”
Matthias jumped as he heard his father bellow from inside the bailey, the sound echoing through the entire castle. He turned to look at his mother’s face, and the knot of fear grew larger when he saw her face grow ashen.
“Clarisse! Come welcome your husband!”
His mother’s jaw firmed, and she rolled her shoulders back, extending a hand to him. “Come, Matthias, let us greet your father.”
Matthias didn’t want to go down. The last time he had welcomed his father home, he had gotten a boot to the chest and ended up sitting in mud, his father and his men laughing around him as he tried to pull himself from the muck. His gaze met his mother’s, and he saw her insistence and captured her hand. She was soon pulling him toward the bailey, running down the barbican steps. As they closed in, he watched the men dismounting, the cold breeze billowing their furred cloaks out behind them.
That knot of his grew larger as the men turned and took notice, their evil grins and chuckling making him feel left out of a joke they knew was about to be played. He and his mother wormed their way through the men and their horses, pushing through the pack to get to the front.
His father was still mounted in his saddle, a grim look to his face. “You do not see me for a year, and this is the welcome I get?”
“I am sorry, my lord. We had taken to the barbican to watch your … triumphant … return. It took us a moment to take the steps down. You would not want me to twist an ankle, would you?” Matthias’ mother had always had a way of twisting the truth when it came to his father. Had it not been for her protecting them, he was not sure what would have become of them.
Humbert stared coldly at his mother, his gaze roving over her features before turning to Matthias. “Boy. You are the reason I have returned. Go, gather your things. I have found you a foster.”
“A foster? No! He’s still a child.”
“I was fostered at six. Matthias is nine and well past time for him to learn to be a man.”
His mother clutched him to her bosom, her arms tight as iron. “He is needed here. He has helped us prepare for the winter. Without him—”
“Stop! It is done. There is no argument.”
“No! I will not let you take my son.”
Humbert leapt from his saddle, the ground shaking as his booted feet hit the ground. Wind whipped up, twisting his surcoat, his cloak billowing out behind him, and in that moment, Matthias was sure the devil had just shown himself within his father. Humbert struck his mother, knocking her to the muddy earth. Matthias leapt forward, pushing his father away, his fists hitting his father’s gut. Humbert’s chainmail crunched under his hand, deflecting the blows.
Humbert laughed above him. His father grasped his upper arms and threw him over his shoulder. Moments later, Matthias was sitting before Jerar Deon, clasped in the knight’s strong arms as they rested on his horse. Matthias struggled, but it was impossible to move an inch. Tears of frustration stung the back of his eyes, and he looked to his mother as she sat on the ground, weeping.
“Tears? Are you going to cry like a little girl, Matthias? Cry for your mama?” His father gazed at him and grimaced before turning back to his mother. “Look at your son! He weeps like a woman. This is why he needs to be fostered. He will never grow to be a man at your bosom.”
“Perhaps if you were here to show him the way—” His mother quieted as another fist flew at her face. Matthias winced at the impact, then struggled to go to her and save her. Jerar’s arms tightened around him and prevented him from saving his mother. Once Humbert stepped back, he could see the blood drizzle down her chin as she grew solemn. She was silent a few moments as she appeared to gather herself. “At least tell me where he’s going.”
“Sir Eustache has agreed to take on the boy.”
“Eustache! No! He’s more evil than you are.”
Humbert grasped his mother by the hair and lifted her from the ground. “You think me evil, do you? Perhaps I should show you how evil I can be.”
“No!” Matthias struggled against Jerar’s grip to no avail. “Don’t hurt her.”
Humbert turned to Jerar. “Take the whelp to Eustache while I teach my wife a lesson.”
Matthias felt Jerar’s chuckle reverberate through him prior to his deep voice doing the same. “Yes, my liege.”
Jerar turned his horse and began to trot out of the bailey. Matthias attempted to turn, hoping to get one last look at his mother, but couldn’t wrench free enough to see her. The hot sting he’d felt now turned into tears in truth. They silently fell down his face as he heard his mother scream for him.
“Do not worry, my little liege. One day, you will know this was for the best.”
Somehow, Jerar’s words didn’t soothe him. As Matthias looked toward the slowly setting sun, he began to grieve for the life he’d just lost, knowing no matter how much they had struggled, it would pale in comparison to what he faced now.
****
Near Paris, 1285
Nicolas de Campion thrust his wooden sword forward, a battle cry ripping from his lungs as his weapon struck his sister’s. She deflected the strike and twisted her sword to swing back in attack. He moved his feet back, lowering his center to take the blows before repelling her strike. They danced along the bailey, their swords crossing over and over, Sybille’s blows becoming stronger and harder for him to fend off. Nicolas jumped to the stairs, leaping over a coiled rope and out of Sybille’s reach.
“Nicolas! Stop with the theatrics. I’m trying to teach you the basics.”
“I don’t need basics. I’m an expert swordsman. Felix and Gui showed me all I need to know.”
“Gui is seven, and Felix is eight. They have not learned much at all yet. And who do you think taught them what they know?” Sybille crossed her arms over her surcoat, her sword dangling from one hand. “You are no expert, little boy. Now come back here and face me.”
Nicolas was already tired of playfighting with wooden swords. He wanted a real sword with gleaming gems, like the one he had once spied in his father’s room. “But I’m not supposed to fight with girls.”
Sybille looked down at herself and back to him. “Do I appear to be a girl today?”
Nicolas snickered as he gazed at her standing before him in their father’s chainmail and surcoat, her hose-covered legs peeking out below. Their father would likely be angry if he knew she had spirited them away before they left for Paris. “No, you look like a very ugly man.”
“I suppose I do not make an attractive knight.” Sybille laughed as she glanced down at herself once more. “But with our parents away, this is the best I can do to teach you to protect yourself. So come down here and let us start over.”
Nicolas jumped back down to the ground, widening his stance and preparing for her attack. The bailey was empty but for them. Gui and Felix leaned against the tower wall above them, watching the fight.
“When will our parents return, Sybille?”
Sybille paused, a frown marring her face. “I do not know, Nic. I wish I did. Each day that passes I fear for the safety of our home.”
“We have Guillame and Petior to defend us.”
“They are no longer young men, Nic.”
“They are strong knights and will keep the bandits at bay. Father told me so before he left.”
“They are the only men left, besides the three father took to protect them as they went to Paris. All the others either left for the Crusades or left when the gold dried up.”
“The gold dried up?”
“It is about time you knew we are destitute.”
“What does destitute mean?”
“Poor.”
“We live in a fine castle. We are not poor.” Nicolas laughed. His sister was so silly. He’d seen the beggars in town when they had gone, children in rags asking for bits of bread or cheese. They were not like those children, so they could not be poor.
“Do you see any people here? We have one old servant and two old knights. They only remain because they are too old to leave. No one works our meager fields. We have no tapestries to keep our hall warm, no candles to light the night, no animals to get meat or milk from. Our parents and brothers have left with every item of value to sell in Paris while we sit here waiting for anyone to barge in and take over our home. So this is why you need to learn to protect yourself, Nicolas.”
“Sybille, men approach!”
Nicolas turned to his brothers, who were now standing close to the tower wall. Both boys ran down the tower steps and rushed through the bailey, across the bridge, and up the barbican steps. Nicolas followed suit, reaching the barbican steps within seconds. He took two steps at a time as he rushed to see who was coming. He fell into place beside Felix and gazed out across the withered ground surrounding the castle. Riders on black horses were coming at a full gallop, a cloud of dust surrounding them, making it impossible to see how many rode in the cluster. Sybille arrived, out of breath because of the chainmail, gazing over their shoulders at the riders.
“What do we do, Sybille?” Nicolas was afraid. He liked to play the brave knight, but he knew he could not fight those men.
“Felix, go get Guillame and Petior. They are probably asleep in the kitchen.” Felix ran for the stairs, Nicolas’ gaze following him until he was out of sight.
“They will protect us?”
Sybille looked down at him, her frown returning. “They are all we have, Nicolas.”
Nicolas stood frozen to the spot, watching as the men grew close. Once they were nearer, Nicolas could see there were nearly two dozen men, all on horseback and in full armor. Guillaume and Petior arrived, standing behind Nicolas and the others on the barbican, looking down.
“That’s Sir Eustache’s flag,” Petior said from behind them.
“The devil in black, just what we need here,” Guillaume added.
Both knights turned on their heels and went down the barbican steps as Nicolas turned back to watch the raiders stop at the gates below. Guillaume and Petior exited the gates and began to talk to the man at the head, a towering man who appeared too large for his enormous horse. The large man handed Guillaume a piece of vellum. Guillaume handed it to Petior since he could not read, and Petior broke the seal. Petior’s eyes grew large as he read over whatever was on the page, his gaze rising as he looked to the barbican wall.
Nicolas strained to hear the conversation that followed, but they spoke too softly and the words wouldn’t glide up the stone walls of the fortress. After a few moments, Guillaume and Petior dropped to their knees before the large knight. Nicolas gulped as two of the raiders slid from their saddles and approached Guillaume and Petior, plunging their swords into the older men’s necks before the writhing bodies dropped to the ground, blood gushing out and soaking into the hard earth.
Nicolas had never seen a man killed, and he couldn’t take his stare away. Blood rushed from the bodies onto the ground, the sun shining on the dark red. Then the men did something surprising. They laid the men on their backs and crossed their arms over their chests, placing the dead men’s swords within their grasp. Each was then put on a pallet and carried through the gates.
Sybille let out a sob and grasped his and Gui’s hands, rushing down the barbican’s steps and heading for the keep. Nicolas stumbled and fell in the lower bailey, making them stop. A tearing sound echoed through the inner walls as the iron gates were ripped away. The only thing that stopped them now was the unguarded drawbridge, and it would only be a matter of time before the bandits made it inside the castle.
Sybille threw them both into their parents’ bedroom. “Hide in mother’s chest. You both should fit inside. I’m going to find Felix.”
“No! Don’t go, Sybille!”
Sybille turned at the door, half her body already outside the room. “Get in the trunk and be quiet. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Gui opened the lid and drew Nicolas inside before closing the top, leaving them in utter darkness. Nicolas didn’t like the dark. He wanted a candle lit each night, but Sybille wouldn’t allow him to, saying it cost too much. He had to rely on the moon to illuminate his room, and on some nights, that wasn’t enough as dark clouds wrapped themselves around the heavenly body. Nicolas could see nothing now and could only hear his heartbeat rushing through his ears and he and his brother’s raspy breathing.
“Stop breathing so loud. If they come in, they could hear,” Gui whispered.
Nicolas did everything he could to calm himself, but his whole body trembled in fear. He was afraid he would shake the whole trunk and one of the bandits would see it moving about his parents’ room. Biting down on his lower lip to quiet his terror, he soon tasted blood in his mouth, the coppery tang bitter on his tongue. They sat in the chest for what felt like hours, the musty scent inside making Nicolas feel ill. The stale air was hot, and he felt trickles of sweat run down his back and belly.
Footsteps approached, shattering the silence of the room. Nicolas wrapped a hand over his trembling lips and squeezed his eyes shut tight, hoping the men would never find them. Bright light burst as the lid opened and firm hands wrenched him free of the space. He took a deep breath of fresh air before screaming as loud as he could.
A large palm slapped across his mouth. “Be quiet, boy, if you want to live.”
Nicolas struggled against the hold but couldn’t break it. He maneuvered his face away, trying to bite the fingers over his mouth, without much luck. The man carried him out of the room and down the winding keep stairs, out through the hall, and back outside to the lower bailey before depositing him on the dusty ground before the large man’s feet. Gui was dropped beside him and as he peered around, he saw Sybille, Felix, and their servant, Magda, being held by a man each.
“So these are the last of de Campion’s whelps?”
“He claimed to have seven sons and had four with him in Paris, yet we find four sons here,” came from the man who had held Nicolas. Nicolas turned to scowl at the bandit and was shocked to see he was not as old as he’d thought. He was probably less than Sybille’s eight and ten, but his strength had opposed his age.
“What of the daughter?” asked the big man.
“I do not know. We did not see any other souls here.” The younger boy pointed toward Sybille and the others. “Perhaps we ask them. These little ones will not help much.”
The bandit strolled over to Sybille, drawing her free from the man who held her and lifting her into the air to face him, her feet dangling in the air. “Where is the little wench?”
“I am a lady, not a wench.”
The big man chuckled before ripping her helm off, allowing her golden locks to fall about her face and shoulders. “The lady thinks herself a boy?” He looked closely at her as he dropped her to her feet and caught her face in his grasp. “You are as fine as your mother. You will warm my bed well.”
“I will do no such thing!”
“Did your parents not send word? I have won your hand as well as these lands. All here is now mine, including you and your brothers. Be good to me, and perhaps I’ll spare their lives.”
“My parents sent no such word.” Sybille gazed at Nicolas, her eyes widening before looking back at the bandit. “And may I ask whose hand I have supposedly been given to?”
“The name is Sir Eustache of Rouen, at your service.” The man bowed to his sister and then rose to his full height, head and shoulders above Sybille. “Your parents were so relieved with the bag of gold I thrust into their hands, I doubt they stopped counting the pieces long enough to send you word.” He thrust the same vellum at her that he’d shown to Guillaume and Petior before they’d killed them. She didn’t reach and grasp it, her eyes looking to him fleetingly.
“Take it, here’s your proof.”
Sybille’s fingers shook as she read over the paper, her eyes growing large. She looked to Nicolas and Gui once more before turning back to the large knight.
The man walked away and turned his back on Sybille, looking at Nicolas and Gui. “How old are the brats?”
“The—brats—have names.”
Sir Eustache stomped back to her, anger tightening his shoulders before he grasped her face once more, pulling her close. Nicolas held his breath, the action reminding him of the times his father struck his mother. Nicolas screwed his eyes tight for a moment, but opened them a short time later when he heard no resounding slap. “I have no time for this. I asked a question, wench.”
“Felix here beside me is eight summers.” Sybille wrinkled her nose like he did when they had liver for their supper. “Gui is seven. Nicolas is six.”
“Ahh, perfect. I will put them to work with my men instead of fostering. I’ve already paid too much for you and this land, as is. Time for little boys to become men.”
“Can I have the youngest to foster?” asked the boy behind Nicolas.
“You are still but a squire yourself. What do you know of fostering?”
“He’s too young to do much yet, and he’ll be underfoot, a bother to you. Let him help me with my work to give him strength and understand what will be expected of him. I’ll be responsible for him until he grows a bit older.” The squire glanced at Nicolas, and there was something in his gaze that told Nicolas he would be kind to him, kinder than the other men there.
Sir Eustache stared at the squire long and hard before speaking. “You are wise beyond your years, Matthias. Fine, take the runt under your care for now and keep him out of my way. Claude, figure out who will take the other two.” Sir Eustache dragged Sybille to him. “As for me, I think I shall acquaint myself with my bride to be.”
Nicolas watched as Sir Eustache dragged Sybille into the keep, the men surrounding them laughing. Nicolas wanted to cry, even more so when he saw fat, wet tears sliding down her face, but he held them back. He looked up to Matthias, unsure what would come next.
“Do you know how to care for horses?” Matthias asked softly.
“We sold our horses a long time ago. They had soft tails. All we had left were two asses. Their tails were rough.”
“Follow me. We will take the horses into the stables and find them homes, then unsaddle and brush them.”
Happiness suddenly filled Nicolas, some of the fear washing away with the prospect of helping with the horses. Perhaps he would be allowed to ride one of the strong animals. “I like horses.”
“You do? Well quite soon, you will not like them so much, not after you have had to shovel their dung all day. But you must learn to care for the animals that serve us.”
Nicolas did not care for that idea very much, but another thought entered his mind. “Will you show me how to fight with a sword?”
Matthias smiled. “Let’s worry about the horses and maybe then we can teach you a little swordplay.”
Nicolas smiled, his day much improved now that he wasn’t facing death at Sir Eustache’s hands, until he thought of Sybille once more. “Will Sir Eustache hurt my sister?”
“Not if she does not fight him.”
****
Constantinople, 1307 AD
Matthias heard his brother-in-arms fighting close to him in the crowd, the clash of his steel and his deep guttural roar undeniable. They’d gotten separated somehow. Moments before, they’d been back to back, facing down the overwhelming odds together. Ten to two was not a good set of odds, especially against the Turks. The Turks fought with much vengeance, although they were less organized after the fall of Constantinople.
What they lacked in organization, they more than made up for with pure, raw anger. Crusaders were scorned as they moved through their city on their way back and forth from Jerusalem, which was why Matthias and Nicolas were there. They were traveling to meet a French family of noble birth and escort them back to Paris. They were late, coming into the Ottoman city after nightfall, which was not a good idea, but had they remained on the fringes of Constantinople, they could have faced worse foes. Bandits and raiders circled the edges, looking for easy prey. Matthias and Nicolas were not easy prey, but if outnumbered as they were now, it would be up to fate as to who won and who lost. Perhaps they should have stayed in the fringes and hoped they found luck there, instead of assuming the city would be safer.
Matthias struck one of the men in the gut with his sword, piercing the throat of another with his small blade. His mind was on automatic, his body honed to be the killing machine he’d become through years of training. He took no pride in what he did; he was an instrument of the Catholic Church, a dealer of death to protect the innocent, a means to an end, just as he’d been a killer for Eustache until the man had underestimated him one day. There was no failing in his path; he would eradicate any obstacles to his end purpose. There was a fine French family awaiting his protection. He didn’t care how many Turks he’d have to kill to get there.
Nicolas was one of those innocents. Yes, he was a Templar as well and fully trained to fight off their enemies, just as Matthias was, and Nicolas had killed his share. Matthias had spent years honing Nicolas to be a strong fighter, but there still lay something softer inside the younger man. He was not as strong a fighter as Matthias, nor would he ever be, as Nicolas could not turn the switch off in his mind and become the thoughtless killer Matthias could. Matthias had spent the years carrying the larger load, hoping Nicolas would never become what he was. Death incarnate.
Matthias pushed down the fear that rose in his belly, knowing it would become a liability if he allowed it. Nicolas had fought many a battle, and if this was the day he would meet his maker, then so be it. A blade in his hand, the sun settling down over his body, the Lord above smiling down on them as they fought for the name of all Christendom, this was the way a Templar Knight was meant to face his end.
Even as the thought crossed Matthias’ mind, he knew it to be a lie. Nicolas was more than a friend, more than a brother. Matthias wasn’t ready to say goodbye, nor would he ever. Nicolas might have been more a lover than a fighter, but he balanced Matthias. He was the light to his darkness, and Matthias was bound and determined to keep it that way. Fear spiked a bit more, and his sword swirled through the air, ripping through the necks of two more of the Turks. The heathens might be ruthless and hardy, but no fighter was more ruthless and bloodthirsty than Matthias.
The last standing of his five stared at him, fear beginning to shine in the Turk’s gaze. “You are a white devil,” he spat, his words deeply accented from his native language.
A smile twisted Matthias’ lips. “You have not seen me at my best yet, Turk.”
The man barely had time to run before Matthias’ blade sunk deep into his chest. Matthias wasted no time, pulling the blade out and jumping in to fight the two left standing around Nicolas. His friend had felled three, but was showing signs of fatigue. Matthias caught the first unaware, slicing through his throat as he awaited his chance to sink his blade into Nicolas.
The final Turk suddenly realized he was the lone survivor. He spun in a circle, gazing at his fallen comrades. He then looked to Nicolas and Matthias, his eyes wide, the whites glowing brightly against the light brown of his skin. The bonfires surrounding them glistened in his stare as he watched them intently.
“You knights have killed too many of my people.”
“We had no fight with you tonight. You brought it on yourselves. We only sought safe passage.” Nicolas stood tall, his stance still wide and ready to pounce.
“You kill our people. You take our cities. You stroll through like kings, and we are to simply let you pass?”
Matthias saw the uneasiness settle across Nicolas’ face. Stories of what some of the Templars and other orders had done to some of these people held truth in them. They both knew there was corruption within their group, but they had no proof. There was little they could do but stand tall and not compromise their vows.
“We had no fight with you. You could have just let us pass. We had to protect ourselves.”
“We avenge our fathers and brothers. Our mothers and sisters. Our pride and our respect. We avenge that which you have taken from us.” The Turk lifted his sword, a maniacal glow lighting his gaze as he began to run in their direction. Matthias lifted his sword and turned to see Nicolas at ease. He wasn’t raising his arms to protect himself.
“Fight, damn you. Raise your weapon.”
“I have no fight with him.”
Matthias pushed in front of Nicolas, sliding his sword deep into the Turk’s chest. He held the man close, the propulsion of his run pushing him even deeper onto the blade.
“We will have vengeance on you both …”
Matthias yanked his weapon from the man and laid his dying body on the ground at their feet. He wiped the blood from his blade on his under tunic and then placed it back in the sheath, anger riding through his body. He wasn’t angry with the Turk; he was angry with the man still standing quietly behind him. “Were you going to let him kill you?”
“He would have stopped. If I did not raise my arms, he would have stopped.”
Matthias whirled around to face his friend. “No! No, he would not have. He would have cut you down, and then I would have had to kill him to protect myself. Instead of one dead, there would have been two.”
“At some point, someone has to stand up and stop this insanity.”
“And you think you are the man to do it? The world is as it is. Fighting and dying, it is the only thing men know how to do.”
“So we just accept that and do not try to change it?”
“There is no changing it. You either fight or you die.”
“I cannot accept that. There has to be a breaking point. People should not have to live in fear. They should not live for vengeance. They should not die for it, either.”
“You have seen enough of death and dying in your short life, yet you strain to ignore the truth.”
“I do not ignore it. I just don’t accept this is the only way. We took vows to strive for peace. There has to be a way to find it, to stand up to death and say not today.”
“You cannot stand up to death. It will come for us both eventually. It is the way of this world. Open your eyes or die with it.”
A movement caught Matthias’ eye, and he spun on his heel, his weapon ready. Shock floored him as he watched one of the men he’d killed rise from the ground, staggering as he moved. Matthias might have fought for the church, but he was not a deeply religious man, especially with what he had seen over the years. He made the sign of the cross over his chest as he watched another of the men awaken from death’s slumber.
“What witchcraft is this?” he heard Nicolas whisper from his right.
Matthias didn’t wait to answer, but rushed in with his sword raised, hoping the night wouldn’t be the end of them both. The battle began again, slowly at first as man after man rose from the ground. He was weary, and his arms felt wobbly, barely able to lift his sword once more. After what felt like hours of battle, Matthias realized the two men he’d beheaded never rose again.
“Nicolas! Cut off their heads.” Matthias punctuated his point by severing the head of the man before him, the thing falling to the ground with a thick plop. He struck them down, one by one, slicing through their necks.
Once it was over, Nicolas stood with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. “What was that?”
A form materialized before them, bathed in white light, and a female stepped from the illumination. Matthias squared his shoulders and his feet, raising his sword before him.
“Matthias, drop your sword.” The woman’s voice echoed in his mind, yet her lips never moved.
“Mary?” Matthias dropped to one knee, planting his sword in the ground before him. Nicolas did the same, he vaguely noted.
“No, I am not your Mary. I am Gaia, and I am here to save you.”

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