There are some secrets sisters aren't meant to share. Because when they do, it destroys them. This stunning conclusion to Michelle Zink's Prophecy of the Sisters trilogy will make saying good-bye bittersweet for readers.
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Circle of Fire (Prophecy of the Sisters, Book 3)
By Zink, Michelle
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2011 Zink, Michelle
All right reserved.
The gowns are heavy in my arms as I leave my chamber. There are no windows to gather light, and I make my way carefully down the richly papered hallway by the light of the sconces flickering along the wall. Milthorpe Manor has been in my family for generations, but it is still not as familiar as Birchwood, the home in New York where I was born and raised.
Even still, this house does not harbor the ghosts of the past. Here, I do not have to remember my younger brother, Henry, as he was before his death. I do not have to wonder if I will hear my twin sister, Alice, whispering from the Dark Room as she conjures frightful, forbidden things. If I will see her, prowling the halls, at any hour of the day or night.
Not in the flesh, in any case.
It is Aunt Virginia’s idea that I should seek advice from Sonia and Luisa regarding which gown to wear to tonight’s Masquerade. I know my aunt is trying to help, but it is a testament to the changed nature of my friendship with both girls that I now must brace myself to be in their presence. Or, more accurately, in the presence of Sonia. Although she and Luisa returned from Altus weeks ago, the tension felt in the early days of their return has not abated. In fact, it seems to grow with each passing day. I have tried to forgive Sonia her betrayal in the wood leading to Altus. Am still trying to forgive it. But every time I look into the chill blue of her eyes, I remember.
I remember waking, Sonia’s kind face above me, her warm hands pressing the hated medallion to the soft skin at the underside of my wrist. I remember her voice, familiar from many months of shared confidences, feverishly whispering the words of the Souls who would use me as their Gate to bring forth Samael.
I remember it all and feel my heart harden just a little more.
The Society’s Masquerade is one of the year’s most celebrated events. Sonia, Luisa, and I have been anticipating the event since they returned from Altus, but while they quickly settled on costumes, I have remained indecisive.
My mask, chosen and created long ago, was not difficult. I knew immediately what it would look like, though I have never attended a Masquerade and make no claim of creativity in matters of fashion. Nevertheless, it came to me as easily and clearly as if I had seen it in a store window. I commissioned it shortly thereafter by describing it to the seamstress and watching her sketch it on a thin piece of parchment until it looked just as I imagined it.
But while I set upon the idea for a mask quite easily, my indecisiveness forced me to give up the possibility of having a gown made. Instead, I chose two from those already hanging in my wardrobe. As Aunt Virginia suggested, I will ask Sonia and Luisa for assistance in deciding, but while it was once a ritual of friendship I would have relished, now I only dread it. Now I will have to look into Sonia’s eyes.
And I will have to lie and lie and lie.
Arriving at the door of Luisa’s room, I lift my hand to knock but hesitate when I hear the raised voices coming from within. I place one of them as Sonia’s and hear my name spoken in frustration. Leaning in, I do not even pretend that I’m not going to listen.
“There is nothing more I can do. I have apologized over and over. I have submitted without complaint to the rites of the Sisters on Altus. Lia will not forgive me, whatever I do. And I’m beginning to believe that she never will,” Sonia says.
The rustle of fabric is followed by the thud of wardrobe doors before I hear Luisa respond. “Nonsense. Perhaps you might try to spend time alone with her. Have you asked her to ride with you at Whitney Grove?”
“More than once, but she always has an excuse. We haven’t been since before you arrived from New York. Before Altus. Before… everything.”
I cannot tell if Sonia is angry or only sad, and I feel a moment’s guilt as I think of the many times she has asked me to Whitney Grove. I have denied her even as I have gone alone to practice with my bow.
“You simply must give her time, that’s all.” Luisa is matter-of-fact. “She bears the weight of the medallion now—in addition to the burden of decoding the final page of the prophecy.”
I look down at my wrist, peeking out from the yards of silk and lace. The strip of black velvet taunts me from beneath the sleeve of my gown. It is Sonia’s fault that I must bear the medallion alone. Her fault that I must worry it will make its way to the mark of the Jorgumand, the snake eating its own tail with a “C” in its center, on my other wrist.
No matter how many excuses Luisa makes for Sonia, these things will always be true.
My inability to forgive brings with it a powerful blend of resentment and despair.
“Well, I’m getting tired of pandering to her better nature. We are partners in the prophecy. All of us. She is not the only one who feels its burden.” The indignation in Sonia’s voice stokes the fire of my anger. As if she has any right to feel indignant. As if forgiving her should be that easy.
Luisa sighs so loudly that I hear it from the hall. “Let’s try to enjoy the Masquerade, shall we? Helene will arrive in two days. This is our last night to be friends as we once were.”
“I am not the problem,” Sonia mutters from within the room. A rush of blood heats my cheeks, and I attempt to check my temper before raising my hand to knock on the large wooden door.
“It’s me,” I call, trying to smooth the tremor in my voice.
The door swings open and Luisa stands in its frame, her dark hair lit with burgundy from the lamplight and fire in the room.
“There you are!” Her cheerfulness sounds forced, and I imagine her trying to push aside the conversation she has just had with Sonia. For one irrational moment, I feel that she is complicit in Sonia’s betrayal. Then I remember Luisa’s loyalty and the pain she must feel standing between Sonia and me. My petulance dissipates, and all at once I am surprised to find that it is not so difficult to smile.
“Here I am. And I’ve brought two gowns for inspection.”
Luisa’s eyes drop to the armful of fabric in my hands. “I can already see why you cannot make up your mind. They’re both beautiful! Come.” She steps back, allowing me entrance.
Sonia’s eyes meet mine as I enter the room. “Good morning, Lia.”
“Good morning.” I try to feel the smile I give her as I cross to the carved mahogany bed at the center of the room. The shyness around my dearest friend is new, for once we spoke of everything and nothing. Once, it was Sonia and I together in London while Luisa remained in New York with Aunt Virginia and Edmund, our family driver and trusted friend. Recalling the many days Sonia and I spent riding at Whitney Grove, speaking of our hoped-for futures and laughing over the too-proper girls of London society, is one of the many ways I try to remember my love for her. “I come bearing dresses!”
She approaches the bed as I lay the gowns across the coverlet. “They’re gorgeous!”
I stand back, eyeing the two dresses critically. One is crimson, a daring choice for any young lady, but the other, a deep emerald, would set my eyes off nicely. It is impossible not to think of Dimitri when I imagine myself in either of them.
As if reading my mind, Luisa says, “Dimitri will not be able to take his eyes off you, Lia, whichever gown you choose.”
My spirits lift ever so slightly as I think of Dimitri’s eyes, dark with desire. “Yes, well, that is the idea, I suppose.”
Sonia leans over, fingering the fabric, and for the next thirty minutes we speak of nothing but dresses and masks until I finally decide upon the scarlet silk. For the next thirty minutes we pretend that all is as it used to be and that the workings of the prophecy do not stand between us. We pretend because it will do no good to say aloud the thing we all know—that nothing will ever be the same again.
I sit at the dressing table in my room, clad only in a chemise and stockings as I prepare for the Masquerade.
It is with some scandal among the household staff that I have shirked the use of corsets and maids since my return from Altus nearly three months ago. It was not my intention to shun the trappings of modern fashion. For a time, I allowed a maid to help me dress for formal occasions, as is proper for a young lady of my stature. I stood silent and resentful as I was bound and laced into a corset, my feet shoved into elaborate shoes that pinched until I had to fight the urge to throw them across the room.
But it was no use.
I could think only of Altus silk, a whisper against my bare skin, and the luxurious freedom of bare feet or sandals.
Finally, after a particularly long night socializing with the spiritualists, Druids, and psychics of the Society, I came home to Milthorpe Manor and announced my intention to dress myself from that moment forward. There were only token protests. Everyone had already noted the changes in me. Nothing I did came as a surprise, and the staff seemed resigned to having an eccentric mistress.
I reach for a pot of powder, gazing into the mirror as I sweep the fine particles across my forehead, my cheeks, my chin. The young woman staring back at me is hardly recognizable as the girl who first came to London. The girl who fled her home, her sister, the man she loved.
And yet, it is this new person who seems most familiar. Her emerald eyes flash like those of my dead mother, the angular cheekbones pronounced as if to remind me of the sacrifices I have made on behalf of the prophecy.
It is no wonder the round-faced girl who first came to London is nothing but a memory.
The dull sheen of Aunt Abigail’s adder stone catches my eye in the mirror. I reach up, closing my fingers around the rock and wondering if it is my imagination that it is only warm.
It has become a daily ritual—testing the temperature of the powerful stone given to me by Aunt Abigail—for even as my own strength has grown, I remain convinced that little else stands between the Souls and me. Aunt Abigail gave her life for my protection, imbuing the stone with every ounce of her remaining power as Lady of Altus. When the stone’s heat is finally gone, any protection received from it will be gone as well.
And it grows colder by the day.
I turn away from the mirror. There is no point thinking about the things over which I have no control. Instead, I pace the room as I contemplate the mystery of the prophecy’s final page. The page itself, found in the sacred cavern at Chartres, is gone forever, burned to ensure it never falls into the hands of Samael or his Lost Souls. Even still, the words inscribed on it are a mantra I never forget. A reminder that there is still the possibility of a future in which the prophecy does not stalk my hopes and dreams.
I remember it almost without consciousness, reciting the words in my mind as I ponder their meaning.
Yet from chaos and madness One will rise,
To lead the Ancient and release the Stone,
Shrouded in the sanctity of the Sisterhood,
Held safe from the Beast, and
Setting free those bound by Prophecy’s
Past and impending doom.
Sacred Stone, released from the temple,
Sliabh na Cailli’,
Portal to the Otherworlds.
Sisters of Chaos
Return to the belly of the Serpent
At the close of Nos Galon-Mai.
There, in the Circle of Fire
Lit by the Stone, bring together
Four Keys, marked by the Dragon
Angel of Chaos, mark and medallion
The Beast, banished only through
Sisterhood at Guardian’s door
With the rite of the Fallen.
Open your arms, Mistress of Chaos
To usher in the havoc of the ages
Or close them and
Deny His thirst for eternity.
There are things we know. That I am the one called to find the Stone once hidden by the Sisters of Altus. By my ancestors. That freeing those bound by the prophecy means freeing myself as well as the keys—Sonia, Luisa, and, now, Helene. That it means freeing future generations of Sisters and liberating mankind from the dark chaos that would ensue should Samael arrive in our world.
And that Alice is working even now to prevent that liberation.
But it is the location of the Stone that Dimitri and I cannot seem to decipher, and I must have it to complete the Rite at Avebury. We have so far assumed that “shrouded in the sanctity of the Sisterhood” means it is hidden at a site deemed spiritually significant. It is possible we are wrong, but since the final page of the prophecy was buried in the cavern at Chartres—one that also housed an underground temple revered by Sisters past—it seems the best of all assumptions.
The mantel clock chimes seven times, and I cross to the wardrobe, removing the scarlet gown from its depths as I continue thinking about the possible locations we have eliminated and the nine that are left. Pulling the gown over my head while I try not to disrupt my pinned hair, I chafe against the frustration that we cannot entirely discount even those sites we have crossed off the list. We have been looking for a place deemed important by our ancestors—one that can be linked to the history of our people or the prophecy. But we have only our research on which to base our conclusions. The smallest piece of forgotten history could change everything.
And there is something else that stands in the way of our deciphering the final page.
Return to the belly of the Serpent at the close of Nos Galon-Mai.
It is clear from Avebury’s previous significance that the belly of the serpent is there, but we have been unable to find reference to the eve on which we are supposed to gather to close the gate to Samael. I had hoped to find it in one of Father’s many reference books, but we have searched every book in the house and scoured the bookshops of London to no avail.
A knock at the door causes me to start.
“Yes?” I call out, looking for the shoes I had custom-made to be both comfortable and passably fashionable.
“Edmund is ready with the carriage,” Aunt Virginia says through the door. “Do you need help dressing?”
“No. I’ll be down in a minute.”
I am relieved when she doesn’t force the issue. Dropping onto the bed amid a rustle of silk, I spot my shoes peeking from under the mattress. I spend only a moment wishing for the comfort of bare feet before slipping into the little heels.
It could be worse. And there are some things even I cannot change.
I am in the carriage on the way to the Masquerade when I think I see her.
We are making our way through the streets of London, Sonia and Luisa sitting across from me as we clutch our masks. The lush fabric of our gowns fills the carriage, Sonia’s deep blue rustling against Luisa’s plum-colored silk. I look down at my own crimson skirt, feeling strangely unmoved by my decision to wear it. A year ago I would have chosen the emerald in an instant. I tell myself the scarlet gown was the only suitable choice for the mask I had commissioned before I began considering dresses, but I know it is only half true.
The red gown is more than a simple match for the mask. It is a mirror to my own feelings of power since Chartres. Since fighting off one of Samael’s deadliest minions, one of his Guard. I wonder how I can revel in that power even as I am uncertain it will be enough to face the future.
This is what I am thinking as I turn my gaze out the curtained window to the bustling streets. Darkness stalks the city, seeping from its corners toward the center of town. London’s many citizens must sense its presence, for they seem to hurry ever faster as they make their way to their homes and places of work. It is as if they feel its breath on their neck. As if they feel it coming for them.
I am shaking this dark notion from my mind when I see a young woman standing under the gaslight near a busy corner. Her hair is arranged in a style that would be considered elaborate, even by Alice’s standards, and her face is leaner than I remember my sister’s. Still, I have not seen her in person for some time, and every morning I am faced with my own changing reflection.
I lean forward in my seat, uncertain if it is fear, anger, or love that gallops through my veins as I hope for a better view of the woman. I am half-ready to call her name when she turns slightly toward the carriage. She does not face me. Not entirely. But she turns enough so that I see her profile. Enough so that I am quite sure it is not Alice after all.
She turns to make her way down the street, disappearing into the smoke from the street lamps. I press myself back against the carriage seat, not knowing whether it is relief or disappointment that presses against my heart.
“Lia? Are you all right?” Luisa asks.
I steady my voice, aware that my pulse is racing. “Fine, thank you.”
She nods, and I attempt a smile in the moment before closing my eyes, trying to calm my quickened breath.
It was only your imagination, I tell myself. You have too long been sought by Alice and the Souls. You see them on every corner, every street.
I wish suddenly that Dimitri was next to me, his muscular thigh pressed against mine, his hand caressing my fingers beneath the folds of my gown. Yet, even as I wish it, I force my breathing to slow, my mind to clear. It is unwise to rely too heavily on others.
As Edmund pulls the carriage up to St. Johns, I cannot help but marvel how normal everyone looks. Of course, the members of the Society are normal in many respects, but even still, I have never seen so many of us in one place at one time. I almost expect there to be a glow, a hum, something to mark the sheer number of those with supernatural powers in attendance.
But no. It looks like any gathering of London’s wealthy and overdressed.
“How on earth did Elspeth manage a church?” Sonia’s voice is very near my ear, and I realize that we have all leaned forward, craning our necks at the window in an effort to get a better view of the men and women stepping from carriages and making their way up the stone walkway.
“I have no idea how Elspeth manages half the things she does!” Luisa laughs aloud, that dear, unselfconscious laugh that brings to mind the birth of our friendship more than a year ago.
“I must confess that I asked no questions about the Masquerade’s venue, but now I find I’m quite curious,” I say. “Surely the Queen would be displeased to find a gathering of such heathens at one of London’s churches.”
Sonia makes a “Psh!” sound before continuing. “Byron told me many concerts and balls are held at St. Johns.”
Her words are delivered with such calm that it takes me a moment to register what she has said. It must take Luisa the same moment, for at once, we both turn to Sonia.
She blushes, and I am surprised to find that after all that has happened, Sonia can still blush at the mention of a gentleman.
“I saw him at the Society after we returned from Altus.” Her gaze cuts to Luisa. “He’s the one who first told me about the Masquerade.”
A burst of cold air assaults the interior of the carriage as Edmund, very dapper in formal attire, opens the door. “Ladies.”
Shivering, Luisa pulls her wrap tight around her shoulders. “Let’s go, shall we? It seems Dimitri isn’t the only gentleman eagerly awaiting our arrival!”
It is easy to offer her a smile. No one but Luisa could be so gracious as to wish Sonia and me well when she has left her own beau in Altus.
The thought of the island is a warm breeze across my heart—a series of lightning-fast impressions. The smell of oranges, waves crashing against the rocks below the Sanctuary, silk robes against naked skin.
I shake my head, willing myself toward the one person who brings me closest to all of it, though I am worlds away.
We don our masks in the carriage before stepping from its warmth and making our way to the cavernous hall. Slipping through the crowd packed at its periphery, I cannot help but feel I am in a strange kind of sideshow. The costumed faces of those around me seem suddenly garish, my own mask too snug against my face. The masks make conversation difficult, and I am relieved when a man, tall and thin as a rail, removes his disguise to reveal himself as Byron. He bows, taking Sonia’s hand, and she smiles shyly as they move to the dance floor. A moment later Luisa departs with a fair-haired gentleman who cannot take his eyes off her. I watch my friends sparkle under the adoring gazes of the men twirling them across the floor and can hardly fathom that we are the same three girls who met in New York not so long ago.
I am considering the merit of making my way to the refreshments when I notice a man standing amid the crowd some distance away. I know it is Dimitri, though we agreed to keep our masks a secret from each other until tonight. It is his shoulders, I think, and the way he holds his body, as if ready to defend himself—and me—that make me certain it is him.
He turns, his eyes holding my gaze in the moment before he begins striding through the crowd with single-minded purpose. His mask is exquisite, large and adorned with onyx stones set amid shimmering silver glitter and deep red feathers.
As if he knew I would choose the scarlet gown all along.
When he reaches me he takes my hand, but he does not bend to kiss it. Dimitri does not pretend to follow London’s rules. His big hand enfolds my smaller one, and he pulls me close until I feel the hard plane of his body. He stares deeply into my eyes in the moment before he lowers his mouth to mine. His kiss is passionate and lingering, and without thinking, I bring my hand up to touch the dark hair curling at his neck. We part reluctantly, some of the people closest to us raising their eyebrows before turning back to their own business.
He leans toward my ear, his voice a secret meant just for me. “You look ravishing.”
“Why, sir, how very forward of you!” Lifting my chin to look in his eyes, I bat my eyelashes, pretending to be coy. I give up, laughing, a moment later. “How could you be sure it was me?”
“I might ask you the same thing.” He favors me with a grin. “Or am I to assume that you gawk at every gentleman in a feathered, bejeweled mask?”
“Never.” My voice becomes serious. “I only have eyes for you.”
Dimitri’s eyes darken. I recognize the expression as desire from the many hours spent locked in each other’s arms since our return from Altus.
“Come.” He holds out a hand. “Let’s dance. It won’t be quite as it was on Altus, but if we close our eyes, we might pretend.”
He pulls me through the crowd, carving a pathway with his mere presence. As we near the dance floor, Sonia whirls past in Byron’s arms. She looks happy, and in this moment I do not begrudge her the enjoyment.
“Good evening, Miss Milthorpe. I heard you might be in need of a particular kind of expertise.” The voice, coming from just behind me, is not loud, but it gets my attention nonetheless.
Tugging on Dimitri’s arm, I stop my forward progress through the crowd and turn to the man standing amid the revelers. He is aged, as evidenced by his white hair and the wrinkles that fold across his hands. His mask is black and green and surrounded by peacock feathers, but it is the midnight blue robe that gives him away, for he is fond of wearing it even at the more intimate gatherings of the Society.
“Arthur!” I smile as I recognize the elderly Druid. “However did you recognize me?”
“Ah, Miss. My senses are not what they once were, but I’m still a Druid, through and through. Even the extravagance of your costume could not hide your identity.”
“You are wise, indeed!” I turn to Dimitri, trying to speak above the crowd without shouting. “I imagine you’re acquainted with Mr. Frobisher, from the Society?”
Dimitri nods, holding out a hand. “We’ve met on several occasions. Arthur has been most welcoming since I’ve taken a room there.”
Arthur shakes Dimitri’s hand, admiration shining in his eyes. He speaks softly, leaning in to be heard. “It is always an honor to extend hospitality to the Brotherhood.”
The introductions dispensed with, I remember Arthur’s earlier words. “You mentioned expertise?”
He nods, pulling something from his pocket and holding it out toward me. “There is word underground that you are looking for information. This is an address for some acquaintances of mine. They might be able to assist you.”
I reach out, feeling the smooth, crackly surface of folded parchment as it is placed in my palm.
“Arthur, who told you about our need for information?” Worry shades Dimitri’s eyes. “Our inquiries are supposed to be kept in the strictest confidence.”
Arthur nods, leaning in again as he clasps Dimitri’s shoulder with a reassuring hand. “Not to worry, Brother. Word travels slow and careful in these circles.” He straightens, gesturing to the parchment in my hands. “Call on them. They’ll be expecting you.”
Turning to go, he disappears into the crowd without another word. I would like to open the paper now, to see who might be the keeper of the answers we seek, but the name and address will be impossible to read while I am being jostled about at the Masquerade. Dimitri watches me as I fold the paper twice more before opening the drawstring bag that swings at my wrist. I set the paper amid the silk lining and tug the ribbons shut.
Its presence steals the lightheartedness I felt only moments ago. It is a reminder that there is still much to do. That no Masquerade, no ball, no dark-eyed man can render me free of the prophecy. That is something only I can do.
As if sensing my worry, Dimitri reaches for my hand once again. “There will be time enough for that tomorrow.” His eyes hold mine. “Come. Let’s dance.”
I let him lead me forward, to the center of the great room, where he does not hesitate before pulling me onto the dance floor. There is no room for worry as we spin among the brightly colored gowns, the feathers and jewels of the masks passing in a blur. Dimitri’s strong hand is at my waist, and I give myself over to his lead, relieved to allow someone else to be in charge, if only for a dance.
The music builds to a crescendo and then turns into something else entirely. This time, I am the one tugging on Dimitri’s hands, pulling him off the dance floor.
I speak close to his ear. “Let’s get something to drink, shall we?”
He nods, grinning. “Have I made you thirsty, my Lady?”
I raise my eyebrows. “You might say that.”
He throws his head back and laughs. I hear the echo of it even over the music and conversation in the hall.
We are making our way through the crowd toward the refreshments when a flash of cheekbone catches my eye. Angular and feminine, it rises to eyes so green I see them flash from across the room. I should not feel the jolt of recognition. Not from so far away. Not for someone whose face is almost entirely masked by swirling gold glitter and purple jewels.
And yet, I am almost certain, and I begin moving in her direction without so much as a word to Dimitri.
“Lia? Where are you—” I hear his voice calling out behind me, but my feet move of their own accord without care for anything but the woman standing in an uncannily familiar manner just a few feet away.
I grab for her arm when I reach her, not even considering that I may be wrong.
She does not seem surprised. Indeed, she does not bother to look down at my hand, encircling her thin upper arm. No. She turns slowly toward me, as if my finding her is no surprise at all.
I know before she has fully turned. I see it in the proud line of her chin. The challenging flash of her eyes.
“Alice.” I breathe her name. It is not a question. I have seen her in the Otherworlds, and in my own. I have seen her spirit presence during the months when her power grew strong enough to allow her passage from one world to the other. I slept beside her as a child and listened to her soft breath in the night. Even beneath the mask, I am certain it is Alice.
Her smile is slow and unsurprised. My sister has always enjoyed the subtle brand of power that comes from knowing things before others. And yet, there is something else there, too. Something guarded and indefinable.
“Good evening, Lia. Fancy meeting you here.”
There is something in her eyes, something dark and secret, that frightens me more than the knowledge of her considerable power now residing in London.
I shake my head, still recovering from the shock of seeing my sister in person for the first time since leaving New York. “What are you doing here? I mean… I… Why have you come?”
There are other things I should say. Things I should shout and demand. But the Masquerade and my shock conspire to keep me polite, even as a scream threatens to wrench its way free from my throat.
“I’ve come to do some shopping. To make preparations.” She says it as if her purpose is obvious, and I cannot help but feel I have fallen into the Otherworlds, to a place that looks and sounds like my own world but is, in fact, a version twisted and wrong.
“Preparations? For what?” I feel like the village idiot. It is obvious Alice is toying with me, and yet I am helpless to walk away. She has me in her grip, as she always has.
Even here. Even now.
She smiles, and for a moment I almost think her sincere. “For my wedding, of course.”
I swallow the foreboding that rises like a stone in my throat as she turns to the gentleman beside her. I have been so focused on her that I have not noticed her masked escort.
But I notice him now. I notice him and feel my insides hollow out in the blink of an eye.
He is already reaching up to remove his mask. It takes too long, his face and hair revealed inch by inch until I can no longer hope that I am wrong.
“Lia? Is it really you?” Shock is evident on his face, and his eyes search mine for answers I cannot give him.
“You remember James Douglas, don’t you?” Alice takes his arm, possession clear in her grasp. “We’re to be married in the spring.”
And then the room tilts madly, the faces of the masked guests distorting into something strange and fearsome.
I am not the kind of young woman who swoons. I have traveled roads terrifying and dangerous. I have defended my life and the lives of those I love. I have sacrificed everything in the name of the prophecy and the fate of the world.
But this almost brings me to my knees.
I did not notice Dimitri’s arrival, but he is there as my arm flings out of its own accord, searching blindly for something to grasp as I will myself to keep my bearings.
“Oh!” Alice says. “Is this your beau?”
I cannot look at James, but when I turn to Dimitri, confusion coloring his expression as he gazes from James to me and back again, I cannot look at him, either. I settle on Alice and fight the inappropriate urge to laugh aloud. The situation is dire, indeed, if I prefer to gaze at my sister over either man.
“This is Dimitri. Dimitri Markov.” I swallow my shame and continue. I owe Dimitri, and James, this much. “And yes, he is my beau.”
Alice holds out her hand in Dimitri’s direction. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Markov. I’m Alice Milthorpe, Lia’s sister.”
Dimitri is not surprised by the introduction, for who else would have a face exactly like mine? But he does not take her hand. Instead, he leans in so that the others standing nearby might not hear him speak.
“I cannot imagine what you’re doing here, Miss Milthorpe, but I suggest you keep your distance from Lia.” There is a hard edge to his voice.
“Now, listen here,” James breaks in. “There’s no reason to be impolite. I would like for us to get along—despite the strangeness of the situation—but I cannot stand by while you insult my fiancée.” His voice is halting, confused. And then I realize why.
He doesn’t know, I think. Alice has not told him about us. About the prophecy. About the thing that stands between us.
The knowledge that James is engaged to my sister is difficult enough to accept; that he is engaged to my sister with no understanding of the danger in which he has placed himself is unimaginable.
I turn to look at Alice, searching her face for the malice that must be there. She has seduced James, brought him to London, thrown their engagement in my face without warning. All of it, to spite me. There is no reason for her to promise herself to the man I loved, the man I once planned to marry, other than to take something I once held dear. As if she has not taken enough from me already.
Yet, as she gazes up at James, I see none of it. There is only softness in her eyes.
But then I think of Henry. I think of his gentle smile and his little-boy smell and am reminded anew of what Alice is capable.
Pulling myself up straighter, I take Dimitri’s arm. “I’d like to go now, please.”
He nods, putting his hand over mine.
As we turn to go, James’s voice sounds behind me. “Lia.”
I look back to meet his eyes and see my own feelings of futility reflected in his gaze.
He sighs. “I’m glad you are well.”
I can only nod. And then Dimitri is rushing me toward the front of the hall.
“But what is she doing here?”
The carriage is dark on the way back to Milthorpe Manor, and Sonia’s voice drifts from the shadows across from me. Dimitri offered to accompany us home, but it is difficult enough to address the questions of Sonia and Luisa. I am not sure I have the courage to face those in Dimitri’s eyes. Not tonight.
I am grateful when Luisa breaks in before I have time to answer. “I’m sure Lia has no idea what Alice is doing here. How can anyone know what Alice is thinking? Have we ever known?”
“I suppose not,” Sonia says.
“There is a purpose to everything Alice does,” I say. “I simply don’t know what it is yet.”
“I cannot believe—” Luisa starts but then stops abruptly.
I shake my head in the darkness, watching the smoky streets and the faceless figures that walk them. “Nor can I.”
“I put nothing beyond Alice, but… marrying James?” Luisa says. “How could she? How could he?”
“I left.” My voice is a murmur, and I wonder if I want Sonia and Luisa to hear me at all. If I want anyone to hear the truth about my abandonment of James. “I left without a word. I never even responded to his letters. He owes me nothing.”
“Maybe not,” Sonia says. “But of all the girls in New York, how could he marry Alice?”
I turn away from the window. There is only more darkness beyond its glass. “He doesn’t know.”
I feel Luisa’s shock in the moment before she speaks. “How can you be certain?”
“I simply am. He has no idea of the thing that stands between Alice and me. No idea of the life he will lead with Alice if she has her way.”
Sonia leans forward in a rustle of silk until her face is illuminated by the weak light of the street lamps. “Then you must tell him, Lia. You must tell him, to save him.”
Despair rises in me like a flood. “What if he won’t believe me?”
Sonia reaches out and grasps my hand. “You must make him believe you. You must.”
I look down at our intertwined hands, pale against the blue of Sonia’s gown and the red of mine. Resting my head against the seat, I close my eyes. I close them and see Alice, standing like a queen in emerald silk, a perfect foil to the scarlet gown draped across my own shoulders and hips.
Of course, I think. Of course.
In the deep green gown, with James on her arm, Alice is the Lia that might have been. I see the two of us standing side by side at the Masquerade, and in my mind’s eye it is difficult to tell which girl is my sister and which is me.
Standing outside the door in my nightgown and robe, the cold of the floor seeping through my slippers, I am startled to hear voices coming from within the room.
I waited patiently for the house to quiet before making my way to Aunt Virginia’s room, but it seems I have not waited long enough. Still, going back to my chamber is not an option. I need my aunt’s counsel. More than that, I need her understanding, for only Aunt Virginia can truly understand my horror at standing next to Alice as she explained her engagement to James.
Raising my hand to the door, I knock as quietly as possible. The hum of voices ceases, and a moment later Aunt Virginia opens the door, a look of surprise on her face.
“Lia! I thought you’d gone to bed!” Her hair, unbound, tumbles nearly to her waist. She looks quite young, and I flash on the painting of my mother over the fireplace at Birchwood Manor. “Come in, dear.”
She steps back, holding the door as I enter her chamber, scanning for the owner of the other voice. When I find it, I am more than surprised. I am not sure who I expect, but it is not Edmund, sitting comfortably by the fire in a tall-backed chair covered in thick burgundy velvet.
“Edmund! What are you doing here?”
Aunt Virginia laughs softly. “Edmund was simply telling me about Alice’s appearance at the Masquerade. I’m glad you’re here. Doubtless you will be able to tell me more.”
She casts a glance at Edmund, and I have the distinct impression that this is not the first time they have conversed in Aunt Virginia’s chamber in the dark of night.
Moving farther into the room, we sit on the small sofa in front of the fire. We do not speak right away, as we each ponder our own thoughts. It is Aunt Virginia who breaks the silence, her voice full of tenderness beside me.
“I’m sorry, Lia. I know how much James meant to you.”
“Means to me,” I say, gazing into the fire. “Just because I was forced to set him free—because I have since found Dimitri—doesn’t mean I no longer care what happens to James.”
“Of course.” She reaches over to take my hand. “Had you no idea about his relationship with Alice? Didn’t he mention it in any of his letters?”
I shake my head. “We stopped corresponding some time ago, even before I left for Altus.”
“I simply don’t understand how he could become engaged to Alice. The last time we saw her before coming to London, she was well beyond the point at which I could reach her.”
“James Douglas is a good man. A smart man,” Edmund says. “But he is a man. Alice looks like you, Lia. And James was very lonely when you left.” There is no accusation in his eyes. He is simply stating the facts.
“Edmund tells me you don’t believe James knows about the prophecy,” Aunt Virginia says. “What makes you think he doesn’t?”
I look into the fire, remembering James. His gentle smile as he touched his lips to mine. His eagerness to protect me from harm. His simple goodness.
Turning back to Aunt Virginia, I am more certain than ever. “James would not be party to such a thing. Not to Alice’s place in it.”
Aunt Virginia nods. “If that is true, can you not simply tell him? Tell him everything, and beg him to get as far away from Alice as possible, for his own good?”
I worry my lower lip between my teeth, trying to imagine telling James about the prophecy.
“You think he won’t believe you,” Edmund says.
I meet his eyes. “Do you?”
He speaks slowly, considering his words. “You didn’t trust him once before, and it does not seem that you’ve made peace with it. Perhaps it’s time to try something else.”
I look down at my hands, at the hated mark on one wrist, the medallion around the other. “Perhaps.”
We sit in silence for another moment before Aunt Virginia speaks again. “And what do we do about Alice? Do you think she’s come because we’re close to having all four keys?”
“Even if she knew, it would seem too small a thing to bring her all the way to London. Having almost all of the keys is hardly enough to worry Alice. We could spend years looking for the last one, to say nothing of the Stone.”
“And the Rite,” Aunt Virginia says, referring to the ritualistic ceremony required to bring about the end of the prophecy at Avebury—a ceremony of which no one seems to have heard. “Although I’m having tea with Elspeth at the Society tomorrow to go over some of the old books on Spellcasting there. Perhaps I will find mention of it in one of them.”
“I hope so.” I stand to leave, suddenly exhausted and overwhelmed at the thought of the tasks still ahead. “Arthur Frobisher gave me an address for someone who might have knowledge of the Stone’s location. Dimitri and I are going to see what we can find, though I do wish Arthur had given me a name in addition to the address. I’d rather like to know whom I’m meeting.”
“Well, if you don’t, you’ll be meeting them with me by your side,” Edmund says. “I can’t have you traipsing about meeting strangers without protection, especially now.”
I do not remind him that I fought the Guard at Chartres. Instead, I simply smile my thanks, bidding them good night and making my way toward the door.
“Lia?” Aunt Virginia’s voice stops me before I step into the hallway.
“What will you do about Alice? She is undoubtedly waiting for you to make a move.”
I contemplate my options before speaking.
“Let me give it further thought,” I finally say, my voice hardening. “I’ll not allow Alice to push me toward a decision I’m not ready to make.”
Aunt Virginia nods. “Perhaps we will both make progress tomorrow.”
“Perhaps.” I leave the room, closing the door behind me without voicing the thought that springs to mind. We must. We must make progress now. Whatever it takes.
I am preparing to close the door the next morning, the cold London air stealing my breath, when I hear Luisa’s voice behind me. “Where are you off to so early?”
She is standing on the bottom step of the great staircase, her midnight blue gown making her full lips seem even redder than usual. I try to ignore the almost-hidden note of accusation in her voice.
“I have an errand I must run with Dimitri.” I smile at her, already feeling guilty. “It’s just a quick outing. I’ll be back in time for tea with you and Sonia, and we can talk all about Helene’s arrival tomorrow.”
“And would your errand have to do with the prophecy?”
Her resentment is suddenly obvious, and my own temper flares.
“What does it matter, Luisa? If it pertains to you and Sonia, I’ll fill you in later.” I know how much this hurts her, how much it would hurt me, even as I say it.
A bitter sound escapes her throat. It is nothing like her usual carefree laughter. “What does it matter? I cannot believe you would say such a thing, Lia. It matters because once, we shared all things related to the prophecy. Once, you recognized its burden on all of us and sought to ease our fear as you sought to ease your own.”
Her words find their way through the armor around my heart. I know they are true, however much I might wish to deny them.
“Lia? Is something wrong?” Dimitri’s voice calls out from near the carriage. I turn to him, grateful for the few extra seconds in which to find an answer to Luisa’s accusation.
I hold up a hand, telling him to wait.
Turning back to Luisa, I say the only thing I can. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to forgive Sonia so that we might all be friends as we once were. It is…” I look down at my boots while I try to find the words. “It is not as easy as it sounds.”
She steps off the staircase and makes her way to me. I expect her to be kind. To offer an embrace of friendship and patience, as she always has.
But Luisa’s patience is at an end. “I am not Sonia. I did not betray you. I don’t need to seek your forgiveness.” Her voice is as icy as the wind blowing into Milthorpe Manor from the streets of London. “But if you are not careful, you will find it necessary to seek mine.”
She turns and makes her way down the hall, leaving me in the chill morning air. Her words drop like a stone on my heart, and shame heats my cheeks despite the cold.
Straightening my spine, I close the door and make my way down the path to the carriage.
She does not understand, I think. I keep things from her for her own protection. For her own peace of mind.
But even as I think the words, I know they are a lie.
Dimitri and I sit side by side in silence as Edmund guides the carriage through the city. It is some time before Dimitri speaks.
“I’ve been aware of your previous relationship with James Douglas for some time, from the weeks when I was watching you in New York on behalf of the Grigori.”
I nod, gazing out the window. “I know.”
“You needn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed,” he says.
I turn to look at him, indignant that he would think me either. “I’m not. And it is insulting that you would think such a thing. Should I be ashamed for loving someone before you? Embarrassed that I’m not a delicate English flower with no knowledge of men?” My words bite through the shadows of the carriage.
He does not seem surprised at my outburst, and it almost makes me angry that he knows me so well. “Of course not. I’ve never expected you to be a… what did you call it?” A smirk begins to lift the corners of his mouth. “A ‘delicate English flower with no knowledge of men.’ ”
Something about the way he says it causes me to fight the urge to laugh. But it is no use. He sees the smile sneak its way onto my lips despite my effort to repress it. Soon my shoulders are shaking with the strain of stifling my laughter.
“I must admit,” he says, his own laughter escaping heartily, “that I’ve never thought of you in quite those terms!”
Now we are both laughing hysterically, and I reach over to swat his arm. “Why, thank you! You likely…” I am laughing so hard I can hardly get the words out. “You likely say that to all the girls!”
This brings about a fresh howl of laughter, and I clutch my stomach until our merriment dies down a few moments later.
“Lia.” Dimitri moves closer, his breath still coming fast on the heels of our laughter. He reaches for my hand. “I only wanted to say that I’m sorry for last night. For the way things have happened between your sister and James. It must be very difficult for you. And I never want anything to be difficult for you.”
I meet his gaze. “Thank you. But it… Well, it was a long time ago that I thought my future was with James.”
He brings my hand to his lips, opening my fingers and kissing my palm. The sensation sends a lick of fire from my stomach all the way up my spine. “Yes, but old feelings are not so easy to extinguish, I imagine. It would be impossible to put aside my feelings for you. Ever. I wouldn’t blame you if some of yours for him remained, even after so long a time and all that’s happened.”
I hear the hesitance, carefully disguised as understanding, in his voice. Pulling my hand from his, I take his face in my palms and look into his eyes. “It’s true that I once loved James. But that love was based on a part of me that no longer exists. Even if I end the prophecy, I’m not the same person. I can never go back to the Lia I once was. Too much has changed. And this Lia, the one who walked Altus’s rolling hills and kissed you in its groves and lay with you beneath its flowering trees… Well, this Lia would not be happy with James.”
I am surprised to feel the truth of it. Surprised that I mean it with such certainty, despite my lingering affection for James.
The relief in Dimitri’s eyes is obvious, and I lean forward, touching my lips to his. Our kiss, meant to be a gentle reminder of my loyalty and affection, quickly turns passionate. The rocking of the carriage and the shadows within it only serve to transport me further from reality, to a place where nothing exists except Dimitri’s mouth on mine, his body pressing against me until I am almost lying down in the back of the carriage.
I do not know how much time passes before we feel the carriage slowing, but its changing pace brings us both back to reality. We pull apart, hurriedly straightening clothing and hair just in time for Edmund to bring the carriage to a complete stop.
Leaning toward me, Dimitri gives me one last kiss just before Edmund opens the door. As I step from the carriage, I make small talk in an attempt to ignore the feeling that he knows exactly what has transpired during our ride.
“Where are we, Edmund?”
He looks disapprovingly at the dirty street and rough men hanging about the walk. “Nowhere good. But this one,” he tips his head at a dingy stone building, “is the address on the paper given to you by Mr. Frobisher.”
Peering up at it, I would swear it is leaning just the slightest bit to the right. Even still, after everything I have experienced, it will take quite a bit more to strike fear in my heart than an old building and questionable company.
“All right, then. I suppose that is where we must go.”
I take Dimitri’s arm as we follow Edmund across the dirty ground and up the crumbling stairs toward a wooden door painted a surprisingly crisp shade of red. It has nary a mark or scuff and stands in stark contrast to the neglected neighborhood around it.
Edmund looks none too pleased, despite the jaunty door. “Mr. Frobisher should not have sent a respectable young woman to this part of town without so much as a name,” he mutters, lifting a hand to rap on the door with his knuckles.
His knock is met with silence, and he is lifting his hand once more when we hear the sound of footsteps making their way toward the front of the house. I cast a nervous glance at Dimitri as the steps become louder. All at once the door is pulled open to reveal an elegant woman, as smartly dressed as if she were on her way to tea. She surveys us with a patient smile and not a single word.
It takes me only a moment to place her. When I do, I meet her smile with one of my own. “Madame Berrier? Is it really you?”
Her smile widens. “But of course. Were you expecting someone else?”
Madame Berrier steps back to allow us entry, her twinkling eyes speaking of a secret kind of mischief. “Come. The gentlemen on the street will do you no harm, but it would still be wise to keep our own counsel, would it not?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” I am still disoriented by the fact that Madame Berrier has made her way from New York to London and is standing before me at this very moment.
We follow her into the town house and she closes and locks the door behind us. Edmund, looking entirely unfazed, says nothing, and I wonder if he remembers Madame Berrier from our first meeting, when she revealed my identity as Angel of the Gate.
Turning back to us, Madame Berrier nods appreciatively at Dimitri. “And who might this be? Hmmm?”
“Oh! I’m sorry. Madame Berrier, this is Dimitri Markov. Dimitri, Madame Berrier. She was of great help to me in figuring out my place in the prophecy.” I turn back to Madame Berrier. “And Dimitri has been of great help to me since.”
She smiles slyly. “I’m quite sure he has, dear.”
My face heats at the innuendo, but I do not have time to come up with a witty retort before Madame Berrier turns, making her way down the central hall toward the back of the house.
“Come along. I expect the tea will be ready by now.” Her voice, accented with the mysterious mixture of French and something else I am still unable to name, grows steadily fainter as she moves away from us.
Edmund, Dimitri, and I walk quickly to catch up, and I hope for Madame Berrier’s sake that the rest of the house is better appointed than the hallway. It is dismal, lined with peeling wallpaper and lit only by the frail light leaking in from the adjoining rooms.
But I needn’t have worried. Madame Berrier turns to enter a parlor on the right, and I suddenly feel as if I have landed in a strange fairy tale. The room is lit with several beaded lamps and the glow of a fire flickering in the firebox. The furnishings are well worn, but it is apparent that in this room, at least, Madame Berrier has made herself quite comfortable.
“Goodness, the tea smells delicious!” She makes her way to a small table set with cups and saucers in front of the sofa. “You are a dear for preparing it.”
The comment catches me off guard, and from the confusion on Edmund and Dimitri’s faces, it is obvious that I’m not alone. We glance at one another as Madame Berrier settles herself on the sofa. She prepares to pour tea from the pot sitting on a silver tray as if there is nothing at all strange about her thanking someone who isn’t there.
But as I peer more closely at the shadows lurking around the edges of the room, I realize that we are not, in fact, its only occupants. In the corner, near a bookcase with shelves sagging from the weight of many books and indiscernible objects of all shapes and sizes, is a slightly stoop-shouldered silhouette. Edmund and Dimitri follow my eyes to the figure, both of them tensing when they realize someone else is in the parlor.
Madame Berrier turns her head in the direction of the figure. “Put your musty books away and join us, will you? I’m quite certain it is you Miss Milthorpe has come to see, although I am, of course, delighted by her company.”
The figure nods, turning. “Aye. My apologies for being coarse.”
I did not think it possible for Edmund and Dimitri to become more tense, but as the figure makes its way out of the shadows, I can almost feel their defenses rise around me. I have to bite my tongue to keep from reminding them that I protected myself at Chartres and am not in need of rescue every time a stranger enters the room.
It is obvious the figure is a man, and he shuffles somewhat slowly forward, becoming visible all at once as he steps into the light of a lamp atop one of the many small tables.
“There you are, then! It has been some time and many miles since I’ve seen you!”
I blink for a moment, rooted to the floor as I try to take in yet another surprise.
“Mr. Wigan?” My voice rises shrilly, and I think I must sound a fool, for, of course, it is Mr. Wigan.
His laughter is welcome music in the silence of the room. “It is me, indeed! Come across the sea with my dear Sylvia, I have!”
He continues to the sofa, settling himself comfortably next to Madame Berrier as she hands him a cup of steaming tea.
Dimitri and Edmund stand stiffly and politely by, but shock has stolen my manners. I move toward Mr. Wigan and Madame Berrier, dropping without pretense into a chair across from the sofa.
“I am afraid we’ve caught her off guard, darling.” There is humor in Madame Berrier’s voice. “And here I thought we were being indiscreet while in New York.”
“Indiscreet?” I repeat. “Darling?”
She takes a sip of her tea before answering and becomes distracted by something in its brew. “Alistair, dear, what is it I taste today?”
A smile breaks out across his broad face. “ ‘It’s almonds, my love. And a wee bit of chocolate.”
Madame Berrier nods approvingly. “Most delicious.” She meets my eyes and continues. “I’ve never liked tea. But Alistair is simply magnificent at brewing it. We have been… together for some time now. It was one of the many reasons I was shunned by the people in that narrow-minded little town in New York. And one of the many reasons I was in need of a change.”
She looks up at Edmund and Dimitri in surprise, as if she has half-forgotten they are there. “Do sit down. I should think it obvious that we do not stand on ceremony.”
They sit on command, and I turn to Dimitri, gesturing to the little man sipping tea contentedly across the table. “This is Mr. Wigan. From New York. He helped us figure out that Luisa and Sonia were two of the keys.” I look at Mr. Wigan. “And this is Dimitri Markov, Mr. Wigan. He is a… friend.”
Madame Berrier gazes at Mr. Wigan mischievously. “I daresay they are ‘friends’ much as we are, darling!”
My cheeks flush hot with embarrassment and I avoid Edmund’s eyes, though surely he understands the nature of my relationship with Dimitri better than anyone after traveling all the way to Altus in our company.
“I am happy to see you both,” I say, seeking to change the subject. “But I don’t understand why Arthur sent us here.”
Madame Berrier places a cup of tea in front of me, handing some to Dimitri and Edmund as well. I remain silent as she busies herself passing them cream and sugar, having no doubt that she will continue when she is ready.
But it is Mr. Wigan who speaks first. “I wouldn’t like to sound excitable, but I might be just the person to help you. That is, I do lay claim to knowledge not held by every man.”
Hearing the indignation in his voice, I realize that I have wounded his pride. I set my tea down and smile. “Why, of course you do, Mr. Wigan. In fact, had I known you were in London, you would have been the very first person I would have called upon for answers.”
He hangs his head modestly. “Not that I know everything, mind. But this particular question, well, you might say it falls into my area of expertise.”
“It certainly does,” I say. “How much has Arthur told you, then? And how did he come upon you?”
“He found me through an old associate.” Mr. Wigan bites into a cookie, turning to Madame Berrier. “These are quite good, my luscious. Quite good.”
Edmund shifts uncomfortably next to me.
“Mr. Wigan?” I ask.
He looks up, his eyes far away. “Yes?”
“Arthur? And how much he told you about our quest?”
“Oh, yes. Yes! Most certainly!” He polishes off the cookie in one bite, chewing and swallowing before continuing. “I didn’t speak with Mr. Frobisher. Not directly. He made inquiries, you see, discreetly to hear it told, about the matter at hand. But no one was able to help him. Each person passed the question on to someone else until it finally made its way to me. When I heard the nature of the information being sought, I knew right away that you must be behind the matter, what with all that business in New York.”
Madame Berrier leans toward him. “What you mean to say, my dear man, is that we knew right away.”
Mr. Wigan nods vigorously. “Quite right, my ravishing rosebud. Quite right.”
“So, can you give us the information we need?” Dimitri’s voice surprises me. I almost forgot he was in the room, so focused was I on the exchange between Mr. Wigan and Madame Berrier.
Mr. Wigan shakes his head. “Oh, no. I’m afraid not.”
“I don’t understand.” I try to recall the conversation in which Arthur said he had found someone who might have the answer to my question. “I’m quite sure Arthur said you could help us.”
Madame Berrier nods. “But of course we can.”
“Then I don’t… I don’t understand.” I feel helplessly lost, as if I have landed in a strange country in which everyone speaks a foreign tongue and looks at me as if I should know perfectly well what they are saying.
Mr. Wigan leans forward. His tone is conspiratorial, as if he’s afraid someone will overhear. “I didn’t say I couldn’t help you. Only that I don’t have the answer myself.”
Madame Berrier rises, smoothing the skirts of her gown. “Seeking answers elsewhere has served us quite well in the past, has it not?”
I look up at her, wondering what she means to do. “I suppose so.”
“Come, then. I presume you have use of a carriage?”
Excerpted from Circle of Fire (Prophecy of the Sisters, Book 3) by Zink, Michelle Copyright © 2011 by Zink, Michelle. Excerpted by permission.
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