by Harry Turtledove

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Publication date: July 1995 in mass-market paperback
Copyright 1995 by Harry Turtledove

Chapter One

From the battlements of the stronghold, Abivard looked north across the broad sweep of land his father, Godarz, held in the name of the King of Kings. Out beyond the village that surrounded the stronghold, most of what he saw was sere and brown from high summer; only near the Vek Rud River, and in the gardens nourished by the underground channels called qanats, did green defy the blazing sun. Off to the east, the Videssians, Makuran's longtime foes, gave reverence to the sun as a symbol of their god. To Abivard, the sun was too unreliable for worship, roasting the highland plateau of Makuran in summertime and then all but disappearing during the short, cold days of winter.

He raised his left hand in a gesture of benediction familiar to his folk. In any case, the Videssian god was false. He was as certain of that as of his own name. The God had spoken to the Makuraners through the Prophets Four: Narseh, Gimillu, the lady Shivini, and Fraortish, eldest of all.

Whom are you blessing there, son? a gruff, raspy voice asked from behind him.

Abivard whirled. I greet you, Father. I'm sorry; I didn't hear you come up.

No harm, no harm. Godarz let loose a few syllables of laughter, as if he held only so much and didn't want to use it all up at once. Abivard sometimes thought his father was a mold into which he himself had been pressed not quite hard enough. They had the same long, rectangular faces; the same proud noses; the same dark, hooded eyes under thick brows; the same swarthy skin and black hair; even, these past five years or so, the same full beards.

But Abivard's face still lacked the lines of character the years had etched across Godarz's features. The creases in his cheeks told of laughter and sorrow, the furrows in his forehead of thought. By comparison, Abivard seemed to himself a house not yet lived in to the fullest.

There was one furrow the years had not put in Godarz's face: the scar that seamed his left cheek came from the shamshir of a Khamorth raider. That mark vanished under his beard but, like a qanat traced by the greenery above it, a line of white hair showed its track. Abivard envied him that mark, too. Whom were you blessing? Godarz asked again.

No one in particular, Father, Abivard said. I thought of the Four, so of course I made their sign. Good lad, good lad. Godarz was in the habit of repeating himself. Abivard's mother, Burzoe, and the dihqan's other wives teased him about it all the time. He always took it good-naturedly; once he had cracked, The lot of you would be less happy if I hadn't cared to repeat my vows.

Abivard said, If I asked the Four to ask the God to bless any part of this domain in particular, I suppose I should ask his favor for the flocks.

You couldn't do better. Godarz thumped Abivard fondly on the shoulder. We'd be poor thieving nomads take poor, son; we'd be dead without 'em.

I know. Away from the river, away from the qanats, the land was too dry to support crops most years. That was true of most of the highland plateau. After the spring rains, though, grass and low shrubs carpeted the hills and valleys. Enough of the hardy plants lived on through the rest of the year to give fodder for sheep and cattle, horses, and camels. From those the dihqans the lesser nobility and all who depended on them made their livelihoods.

Godarz scratched at the puckered scar; though it was years old, it still sometimes itched. He said, While you're about your prayers, you might do as I've done and beg the Four to give us another year of peace along the northern frontier. Maybe they'll harken to the two of us together; maybe they will. His expression grew harsh. Or maybe they won't.

Abivard clicked his tongue between his teeth. It's as bad as that?

Aye, it is, Godarz said. I was out riding this morning, giving the new gelding some work, and I met a rider homeward bound toward Mashiz from the Degird River. The Khamorth are stirring again, he says. A messenger from the King of Kings? Abivard said. Why didn't you invite him to refresh himself at the stronghold? Then I'd have had a chance to talk with him, too, instead of getting my news secondhand, he thought.

I did, son, I did, but he said me nay, Godarz answered. Said he grudged the time; he'd stop to rest only at night. The news for Peroz King of Kings was that urgent, he said, and when he gave it me, I could but bob my head up and down and wish him the God's protection on his road.

Well? Abivard practically hopped with impatience and excitement. Concern rode his voice, as well; not too many farsangs east of Godarz's domain, the little Vek Rud bent north and flowed into the Degird. The frontier and the steppe nomads who dwelt beyond it were close, close.

He learned why the tribes are stirring, Godarz said portentously. After another pause that almost drove Abivard mad, the dihqan went on, The tribes are stirring because, by the Four, Videssos is stirring them. Here? Abivard exclaimed. How could that be?

Godarz's face went harsh; his scar, normally darker than the rest of his skin, turned pale: rage. But he held his voice under tight control. The Pardrayan plain runs east almost forever. Videssos could send an embassy across it not quickly, but it could. And, by all the signs, it has. The God, for reasons best known to Himself, has made Videssos rich in gold.

Abivard nodded. His father's treasure horde had more than a few fine Videssian goldpieces in it. Every nation in the world took those goldpieces and was glad to have them. The corruption and deviousness of the Empire of Videssos were bywords in Makuran, but the imperials kept their coinage honest. No matter which Avtokrator's face graced a coin's obverse, it would be pure gold, minted at seventy-two to the pound.

Makuran coined mostly in silver. Its arkets were good money, but money changers always took a premium above their face value when exchanging them for Videssian gold.

I see I've no need to draw you a picture in the sand, no need at all, Godarz went on. The cowardly men of the east, not having the kidneys to fight us as warriors against warriors, bribe the nomads to do their work for them.

They are no fit warriors, then they're no better than assassins, Abivard said hotly. Surely the God will open a pit beneath their feet and drop them into the Void, to be nothing forevermore.

May it be so. Godarz's left hand twisted in a gesture different from the one Abivard had used: one that condemned the wicked. The dihqan added, Vicious dogs that they are, they know no caste. Abivard copied the sign his father had used. To his way of thinking, Godarz could have pronounced no curse more deadly. Life in Makuran pivoted on its five castes: the King of Kings and the royal household; the priests and the Seven Clans of the high nobility; the lesser nobles like Godarz Makuran's backbone, they called themselves; the merchants; and the peasants and herders who made up the bulk of the populace.

The Seven Clans and the dihqans fought for the King of Kings, sometimes under his own banner, sometimes under one of the high nobles. Abivard could no more imagine paying someone so he could evade that duty than he could think of taking a knife and cutting off his manhood. He would lose it no more one way than the other.

Well, if the Videssians were hucksters even at war, the nobles of the plateau would surely teach the nomads they had bought where true honor lay. Abivard said as much, loudly.

That brought back his father's smile. Godarz thumped him on the back and said, When the red banner of war returns from Mashiz, blood of my blood, I think it likely you will ride with me against those who would despoil us.

Yes, Abivard said, and then again, in a great shout: Yes! He had trained for war since he was a boy who barely reached Godarz's chest. He had learned to ride, to thrust with the lance, to bear the weight of armor, to wield a scimitar, to wield the bow.

But Makuran had been unwontedly peaceful of late. His lessons remained lessons only. Now at last he would have the chance to apply them against a real foe, and one who needed beating. If the nomads swarmed south over the Degird, as they had a way of doing every generation or two, they would kill, they would steal, and worst of all they would wreck qanats so people would go hungry until the underground channels were laboriously repaired.

Godarz's laugh was the small, happy one of a man well pleased with his son. I can see you want to get into your mail shirt and clap on your helmet this very moment. It's a long way to Mashiz and back we shan't be riding out tomorrow, or next week, either. Even after the red banner warns of war, it will be awhile yet before the army reaches us and we join its ranks.

Abivard shifted restively from foot to foot. Why doesn't the King of Kings have his palace in Makuran proper, not on the far side of the Dilbat Mountains overlooking the Thousand Cities?

Three reasons, Godarz said, sounding like a pedagogue though Abivard had only been venting spleen. First, we of Makuran are most likely to be loyal to our lord, being of his blood, and hence require less oversight. Second, the land between the Tutub and the Tib, above which Mashiz sits, is full of riches: not just the famous Thousand Cities but also farmlands more fertile than any the plateau boasts. And third, Mashiz is a hundred farsangs closer to Videssos than the plateau, and Videssos is more important to us most times than our northwestern frontier.

Most times, aye, but not today, Abivard said.

No, today the Khamorth tribes are stirring, or so it's said, Godarz agreed. But who set them in motion? Not their own chieftains.

Videssos, Abivard said.

Aye, Videssos. We are her great rival, as she is ours. One day, I think, only one of us will the left standing, Godarz said.

And that one will rule the world, Abivard said. In his mind's eye, he saw the King of Kings' lion banner floating above the Videssian Avtokrator's palace in Videssos the city, saw priests of the Prophets Four praising the God in the High Temples to false Phos.

The setting for the capital of Videssos remained blurry to him, though. He knew the sea surrounded it on three sides, and he had never seen a sea, not even the inland Mylasa Sea into which the Degird River flowed. He pictured a sea as something like one of the salt lakes that dotted the Makuraner plateau, but bigger. Still, his imagination could not quite grasp a body of water too vast to see across. Godarz smiled. You're thinking we shall be the one, aren't you? As do I, son, as do I. The God grant it be so.

Yes, Abivard said. I was also thinking if we conquer, Father, I'll see the sea. The sea around Videssos the city, I mean.

I understood you, Godarz said. That would be a sight, wouldn't it? I've not seen it, either, you know. But don't expect the day to come in your time, though. Their border has marched with ours for eight hundred years now, since the Tharpiya hillmen ruled Makuran. They've not smashed us yet, nor we them. One day, though

The dihqan nodded, as if very sure that day would come. Then, with a last grin at his son, he went on down the walkway, his striped caftan flapping around his ankles, every so often bending down to make sure a piece of golden sandstone was securely in place.

Abivard stayed up on the walk a few minutes more, then went down the stairs that led to the stronghold's inner courtyard. The stairs were only a couple of paces wide and had no railing; had a brick shifted under his feet, he could have dashed out his brains on the rock-hard dirt below. The bricks did not shift. Godarz was as careful and thoroughgoing in inspecting as he was with everything else.

Down in the courtyard, the sun beat at Abivard with redoubled force, for it reflected from the walls as well as descend- ing directly. His sandals scuffed up dust as he hurried toward the shaded living quarters. The stronghold was a rough triangle, taking advantage of the shape of the rocky knob on which it sat. The short wall on the eastern side ran north and south; the other two, which ran toward each other from its bottom and top, were longer and went northwest and southwest, respectively. The living quarters were tucked into the corner of the eastern wall and the one that went northwest. That gave them more shadow than they would have had anywhere else.

Abivard took a long, happy breath as he passed through the iron-faced wooden door the living quarters, of course, doubled as citadel. The thick stone walls made the quarters much cooler than the blazing oven of the courtyard. They were also much gloomier: the windows, being designed for defense as well as and ahead of, were mere slits, with heavy shutters that could be slammed together at a moment's notice. Abivard needed a small stretch of time for his eyes to adjust to dimness.

He stepped carefully until they did. The living quarters were a busy place. Along with servants of the stronghold bustling back and forth, he had to be alert for merchants and peasants who, failing to find his father, would press their troubles on him. Hearing those troubles was one of his duties, but not one he felt like facing right now.

He also had to keep an eye out for children on the floor. His two full brothers, Varaz and Frada, were men grown, and his sister Denak had long since retreated to the women's chambers. But his half brothers ranged in age from Jahiz, who was older than Frada, down to a couple of brats who still sucked at their wet nurses' breasts. Half brothers and half sisters under the age of twelve brawled through the place, together with servants' children, shepherd boys, and whomever else they could drag into their games. When they weren't in hot pursuit of dragons or evil enchanters or Khamorth bandits, they played Makuraners and Videssians. If Videssos had fallen as easily in reality as in their games, the domains of the King of Kings would have stretched east to the legendary Northern Sea centuries ago.

One of his half brothers, an eight-year-old named Parsuash, dodged around Abivard, thwarting another lad who pursued him. Can't catch me, can't catch me! Parsuash jeered. See, I'm in my fortress and you can't catch me.

Your fortress is going to the kitchens, Abivard said, and walked off. That gave Rodak, his other half brother, the chance to swoop down for the kill. Parsuash screeched in dismay.

In the kitchens, some flatbread just out of the oven lay cooling on its baking pan. Abivard tore off a chunk of it, then stuck slightly scorched fingers into his mouth. He walked over to a bubbling pot, used the piece of flatbread to scoop out some of the contents, and popped it into his mouth.

Ground lamb balls and pomegranate seeds, he said happily after he swallowed. I thought that was what I smelled. Father will be pleased it's one of his favorites.

And what would you have done had it been something else, son of the dihqan? one of the cooks asked. Eaten it anyhow, I expect, Abivard answered. The cook laughed. Abivard went on, Since it is what it is, though He tore off another piece of flatbread, then raided the pot again. The cook laughed louder. Still chewing, Abivard left the kitchens and went down the hall that led to his own room. Since he was eldest son of Godarz's principal wife, he had finally gotten one to himself, which led to envious sighs from his brothers and half brothers. To him, privacy seemed a mixed blessing. He enjoyed having a small place to himself, but had been so long without one that sometimes he felt achingly alone and longed for the warm, squabbling companionship he had known before.

Halfway down the hall, his left sandal started flapping against his foot. He peered down and discovered he had lost the bronze buckle that held a strap around his ankle. He looked around and even got down on his hands and knees, but didn't find it.

It probably fell into the Void, he muttered under his breath. Moving with an awkward half-skating motion, he made it to his doorway, went into his room, and put on a new pair of sandals.

Then he went out again, damaged sandal in hand. One of Godarz' rules which, to his credit, he scrupulously followed himself was that anything that broke had to be set right at once. Let one thing slide and soon two'll be gone, two lead to four, and four well, there had better not be four, there had better not, he would say.

Had just a bit of leather fallen off the sandal, Abivard could have gotten some from the stables and made his own rough repair. But to replace a buckle, he had to visit the cobbler in the village that surrounded the stronghold.

Out into the heat again, then. The sun smote him like a club. Sweat sprang out on his face, rolled down his back under his baggy garment. He wished he'd had farther to go; he wouldn't have felt foolish about getting on his horse. But if his father had seen him, he would have made sarcastic noises about Abivard's riding in a sedan chair next time, as if he were a high noble, not just a dihqan's son. Abivard walked. The gate guards pounded the butts of their spears against the hard ground as he went by. He dipped his head to return the salute. Then he left the stronghold and went into the village, an altogether different world.

Homes and shops straggled down to the base of the hill the stronghold topped and even for a little distance out onto the flat land below. Some were of stone, some of mud brick with widely overhanging thatched roofs to protect the walls from winter storms. Set beside the stronghold, they all seemed like toys.

The hill was steep, the streets winding and full of stones; if you tumbled, you were liable to end up at the bottom with a broken leg. Abivard had been navigating through town since he learned to toddle; he was as sure-footed as a mountain sheep.

Merchants cried their wares in the market square: chickpeas, dates, mutton buzzing with flies; utterances of the Prophets Four on parchment amulets said to be sovereign against disease, both as prevention and cure; Abivard, whose education had included letters but not logic, failed to wonder why the second would be necessary if the first was efficacious. The calls rose from all around: knives, copper pots and clay ones, jewelry of glass beads and copper wire those with finer stuff came to sell at the stronghold and a hundred other things besides. The smells were as loud as the shouts.

A fellow was keeping a pot of baked quinces hot over a dung fire. Abivard haggled him down from five coppers to three; Godarz was not a man who let his sons grow up improvident. The quince was hot. Abivard quickly found a stick on the ground, poked it through the spicy fruit, and ate happily on his way down to the cobbler's shop.

The cobbler bowed low when Abivard came in; he was not near enough in rank to the dihqan's son to present his cheek for a ceremonial kiss, as a couple of the richer merchants might have done. Abivard returned a precise nod and explained what he required.

Yes, yes, the cobbler said. Let me see the good sandal, pray, that I may match the buckle as close as may be.

I'm afraid I didn't bring it. Abivard felt foolish and annoyed with himself. Though Godarz was back in the stronghold, he felt his father's eye on him. I'll have to go back and get it.

Oh, never mind that, your Excellency. Just come here and pick out the one that nearest suits it. They're no two of 'em just alike, anyhow. The cobbler showed him a bowl half full of brass buckles. They jingled as Abivard sorted through them till he found the one he wanted.

The cobbler's fingers deftly fixed it to the sandal. Deft as they were, though, they bore the scars of awl and knife and needle and nail. No trade is simple, Godarz would say, though some seem so to simple men. Abivard wondered how much pain the cobbler had gone through to learn his business.

He didn't dicker so hard with the cobbler as he had with the fruit seller. The man's family had been in the village for generations, serving villagers and dihqans alike. He deserved his superiors' support. Sandal repaired, Abivard could have gone straight back to the stronghold to escape the worst of the heat in the living quarters. Instead, he returned to the bazaar in the marketplace and bought himself another quince. He stood there taking little bites of it and doing his best to seem as if he were thinking about the goods offered for sale. What he was really doing was watching the young women who went from this stall to that dealer in search of what they needed.

Women of the merchant and peasant castes lived under fewer restrictions than those of the nobility. Oh, a few wealthy merchants locked their wives and daughters away in emulation of their betters, but most lower-caste women had to go out and about in the world to help feed their families.

Abivard was betrothed to Roshnani, a daughter of Papak, the dihqan whose stronghold lay a few farsangs south and west of Godarz'. Their parents having judged the match advantageous, they were bound to each other before either of them reached puberty. Abivard had never seen his fiancˇe. He wouldn't, not till the day they were wed.

When he got the chance, then, he watched girls the serving women in the stronghold, the girls in the village square here. When one caught his eye, he imagined Roshnani looked like her. When he spotted one he did not find fair, he hoped his betrothed did not resemble her.

He finished nibbling the quince and licked his fingers. He thought about buying yet another one; that would give him an excuse to hang around in the square awhile longer. But he was sensitive to his own dignity, and whenever he forgot to be, Godarz made sure his memory didn't slip for long.

All the same, he still didn't feel like going back to the stronghold. He snapped his slightly sticky fingers in inspiration. Godarz had given him all kinds of interesting news. Why not find out what old Tanshar the fortune-teller made of his future?

An additional inducement to this course was that Tanshar's house lay alongside the market square. Abivard could see that the old man's shutters were thrown wide open. He could go in, have his fortune read, and keep right on eying the women hereabouts, all without doing anything in the least undignified. The door to Tanshar's house was on the side opposite the square. Like the shutters, it gaped wide, both to show the fortune-teller was open for business and to give him the benefit of whatever breeze the God chose to send.

One thing Tanshar certainly had not done: He had not used the prophetic gift to get rich. His home was astringently neat and clean, but furnished only with a much-battered low table and a couple of wickerwork chairs. Abivard had the idea that he wouldn't have bothered with those had he not needed to keep his clients comfortable.

Only scattered hairs in Tanshar's beard were still black, giving it the look of snow lightly streaked with soot. A cataract clouded the fortune-teller's left eye. The right one, though, still saw clearly. Tanshar bowed low. Your presence honors my house, son of the dihqan. He waved Abivard to the less disreputable chair, pressed upon him a cup of wine and date cakes sweet with honey and topped by pistachios. Not until Abivard had eaten and drunk did Tanshar ask, How may I serve you?

Abivard explained what he had heard from Godarz, then asked, How shall this news affect my life? Here; let us learn if the God will vouchsafe an answer. Tanshar pulled his own chair close to Abivard's. He pulled up the left sleeve of his caftan, drew off a silver armlet probably worth as much as his house and everything in it put together. He held it out to Abivard. Take hold of one side whilst I keep a grasp on the other. We shall see whether the Prophets Four grant me a momentary portion of their power. Busts of the Four Prophets adorned the armlet: young Narseh, his beard barely sprouted; Gimillu the warrior, a strong face seamed with scars; Shivini, who looked like everyone's mother; and Fraortish, eldest of all, his eyes inset with gleaming jet. Though the silver band had just come from Tanshar's arm, it was cool, almost cold, to the touch.

The fortune-teller looked up at the thatched roof of his little cottage. Abivard's gaze followed Tanshar's. All he saw was straw, but he got the odd impression that Tanshar peered straight through the roof and up to the God's home on the far side of the sky.

Let me see, Tanshar murmured. May it please you, let me see. His eyes went wide and staring, his body stiffened. Abivard's left hand, the one that held the armlet, tingled as if it had suddenly fallen asleep. He looked down. A little golden light jumped back and forth from one Prophet's image to the next. At last it settled on Fraortish, eldest of all, making his unblinking jet eyes seem for an instant alive as they stared back at Abivard.

In a rich, powerful voice nothing like his own, Tanshar said, Son of the dihqan, I see a broad field that is not a field, a tower on a hill where honor shall be won and lost, and a silver shield shining across a narrow sea.

The light in the silver Fraortish's eyes faded. Tanshar slumped as he seemed to come back to himself. When Abivard judged to fortune-teller had fully returned to the world of rickety wicker chairs and the astounding range of smells from the bazaar, he asked, What did that mean, what you just told me?

Maybe Tanshar wasn't all the way back to the real world: his good eye looked as blank as the one that cataract clouded. I have delivered the prophecy? he asked, his voice small and uncertain.

Yes, yes, Abivard said impatiently, repeating himself like his father. He gave Tanshar back the words he had uttered, doing his best to say them just as he had heard them.

The fortune-teller started to lean back in his chair, then thought better as it creaked and rustled under his weight. He took the armlet from Abivard and put it back on his parchment-skinned arm. That seemed to give him strength. Slowly he said, Son of the dihqan, I remember nothing of this, nor did I speak to you. Someone something used me as an instrument. Despite the bake-oven heat, he shivered. You will see I am no youth. In all my years of telling what might lay ahead, this has befallen me but twice before. The little hairs prickled up on Abivard's arms and at the back of his neck. He felt caught up in something vastly bigger than he was. Cautiously he asked, What happened those two times?

One was a skinny caravaneer, back around the time you were born, Tanshar said. He was skinny because he was hungry. He told me I foresaw for him piles of silver and gems, and today he is rich in Mashiz.

And the other? Abivard asked.

For a moment, he didn't think Tanshar would answer. The fortune-teller's expression was directed inward, and he looked old, old. Then he said, Once I was a lad myself, you know, a lad with a bride about to bear him his firstborn. She, too, asked me to look ahead.

So far as Abivard knew, Tanshar had always lived alone. What did you see? he asked, almost whispering.

Nothing, Tanshar said. I saw nothing. Again Abivard wondered if he would go on. At last he did. She died in childbed four days later.

The God give her peace. The words tasted empty in Abivard's mouth. He set a hand on Tanshar's bony knee. Once for great good, once for great ill. And now me. What does your foretelling mean?

Son of the dihqan. I do not know, Tanshar answered. I can say only that these things lie across your future. When and where and to what effect, I cannot guess and shall not lie to claim I can. You will discover them, or they you, as the God chooses to unwind the substance of the world.

Abivard took out three silver arkets and pressed them into the fortune-teller's hand. Tanshar rang them against one another, then shook his head and gave them back. Offer these to the God, if that pleases you, but not to me. I did not speak these words, whether they came through me or not. I cannot accept your coin for them.

Keep them, please, Abivard said, looking around the clean but barren little house. To my mind, you stand more in need of them than the God.

But Tanshar again shook his head and refused to take the money. They are not for me, I tell you. Had I read your future in the ordinary way, gauging what was to come by the motions of the Prophets' armlet between your hand and mine, I should be glad of the fee, for then I had earned it. For this no.

One of the things Godarz had taught Abivard was to recognize a man's stubbornness and to know when to yield to it. Let it be as you say, then. Abivard flung the arkets out the window. Where they go now, and with whom, is in the God's hands.

Tanshar nodded. That was well done. May the foretelling you heard through me mean only good for you.

May it be so, Abivard said. When he rose from the chair, he bowed low to Tanshar, as he might have to one of the upper nobility. That seemed to distress the fortune-teller even more than the prophecy that had escaped its usual bounds. Accept the salute, at least, for the God, Abivard told him, and, reluctantly, he did.

Abivard left the fortune-teller's house. He had thought to linger in the bazaar awhile longer, buying more small things he didn't really need so he could look at, maybe even talk with, the young women there. Not now, though.

He peered out over the sun-scorched land that ran out toward the Vek Rud River. Nothing much grew on it now, not at this season. Did that make it a broad field that was not a field? Prophecy had one problem: how to interpret it.

He turned and looked up the slope of the hill on which the stronghold perched. Was it the tower where honor would be won and lost? It didn't look like a tower to him, but who could judge how the God perceived things?

And what of the sea? Did Tanshar's words mean he would see it one day, as he hoped? Which sea had the fortune-teller meant? Who would shine a silver shield across it?

All questions no answers. He wondered if he would have been happier with an ordinary foretelling. No, he decided. If nothing else, this surely meant he would be bound up in great events. I don't want to watch my life slide by while I do nothing but count the days, he said aloud.

For all his father's teaching, he was still young.

In the days and weeks that followed, Abivard took to looking south and west from the walls. He knew what he was waiting to see. So did Godarz, who teased him about it every so often. But the dihqan spent a good deal of time at the corner where the eastern and the south-facing walls met, too.

Abivard felt justified in haunting that corner when he spied the rider approaching the stronghold. The horseman carried something out of the ordinary in his right hand. At first, Abivard saw only the wriggling motion. Then he recognized that a banner was making it. And then he saw the banner was red. He let out a whoop that made heads turn his way all about the stronghold. The war banner! he cried. The war banner comes forth from Mashiz!

He didn't know where Godarz had been, but his father stood on the wall beside him in less than a minute. The dihqan also peered south. Aye, that is the war banner, and no mistake, he said. Let's go down and greet the messenger, shall we? Let's go.

The horseman who carried the token of war was worn and dusty. Godarz greeted him with all the proper courtesies, pressing wine and honey cakes on him before inquiring of his business. That question, though, was but a formality. The crimson banner, limp now that the messenger no longer rode at a fast trot, spoke for itself.

Still, Makuran was built on formality, and just as Godarz had to ask the question, the messenger had to answer it. He raised the banner so the red silk fluttered again for a moment on its staff, then said, Peroz King of Kings, having declared it the duty of every man of Makuran entitled to bear arms to band together to punish the Khamorth savages of the steppe for the depredations they have inflicted on his realm and for the connivance with Videssos the great enemy, now commands each high noble and dihqan to gather a suitable force to be joined to Peroz King of Kings' own armament, which shall progress toward and across the river Degird for the purpose of administering the aforesaid punishment.

Getting all that out in one breath was hard, thirsty work; when the messenger had finished, he took a long pull at the wine, then let out an even longer and happier. Then he drank again.

Ever courteous, Godarz waited till he was comfortable before asking When will the armament of the King of Kings may his years be many and his lands increase reach the river Degird, pray? In effect, he was asking when it would reach the stronghold, which lay only a couple of days' journey south of the frontier. He was also asking with perfect discretion how serous the King of Kings was about going on campaign: The slower he and his army traveled, the less they were likely to accomplish. The messenger answered, Peroz King of Kings began mustering his forces the day news of the plainsmen's insolence reached him. The red banner began its journey through the land that same day. The army should reach this neighborhood inside the month.

Abivard blinked to hear that. Godarz didn't, but he might as well have. He is serious, the dihqan murmured. Serious.

The word ran through the courtyard. Men's heads, long-faced, bearded: basically cut from the same cloth as Godarz and Abivard solemnly bobbed up and down. The King of Kings of Makuran had great power, and most often wielded it with ponderousness to match.

Peroz King of Kings does want to punish the steppe nomads, Abivard said. He got more nods for that, from his father among others. Excitement blazed in him. He'd been a boy the last time the King of Kings it had been Valash then, Peroz's father campaigned against the Khamorth. He still remembered the glorious look of the army as it had fared north, bright with banners. Godarz had gone with it and come back with a bloody flux, recalling that took some shine off the remembered glory.

But still ... This time, he thought I'll ride with them.

Godarz asked the messenger, Will you lay over with us tonight? We'll feast you as best we can, for your own sake and for the news you bring. We on the frontier know the danger from the plainsmen; we know it well. One hand went to the scar he bore; a forefinger tracked the white streak in his beard. The dihqan is gracious, the messenger replied, but he shook his head. I fear I cannot take advantage of your generosity. I have far to travel yet today; all the domains must hear the proclamation of the King of Kings, and time, you will have gathered, is short.

So it is, Godarz said. So it is. He turned to one of the cooks, who stood in the courtyard with everyone else. Go back to the kitchens, Sakkiz. Fetch pocket bread stuffed with smoked mutton and onions, aye, and a skin of good wine, as well. Let no man say we sent the mouth of the King of Kings away hungry.

The dihqan is gracious, the messenger said, now sincerely rather than out of formal politeness. He had meant what he had said about his journey's being urgent: No sooner had Sakkiz brought him the food and wine than he was on his way again, urging his horse up into a trot. He held the war banner high, so it fluttered with the breeze of his motion.

Abivard had eyes only for the crimson banner until a bend in the road took it behind some of the village houses and out of sight. Then, as if awakening from a dream, he glanced toward his father.

Godarz had been looking at him, too. Abivard had trouble reading the expression on his face. The dihqan gestured to him. Here, step aside with me. We have things to talk about, you and I.

Abivard stepped aside with Godarz. The folk of the stronghold stood back and gave them room to talk privately. Makuraners were a polite folk. Had they been Videssians, they probably would have crowded forward to hear better. So tales from the East said, at any rate. Abivard had never set eyes on a Videssian in his life.

I suppose you expect to come with me on this campaign, Godarz said. I suppose you do.

Yes, Father. You said I would. Abivard gave Godarz an appalled stare. Could his father have been thinking of leaving him behind? How could he hope to hold his head up in the stronghold, in the village, if he was judged not enough of a man to fight to defend the domain?

I can ill spare you here, son. Godarz said heavily. The God only knows what would befall this place if one of us, at least, did not have his eyes on it.

Hearing that, Abivard felt his heart drop into his sandals. If his father didn't let him go, he would ... He didn't know what he would do. He needed a gesture full of grand despair but couldn't think of one. What he felt like doing was bursting into tears, but that would only humiliate him further.

Godarz chuckled at his expression. No need to look like that. I am taking you along, never fear what I say I will do, I do. You should get a taste of war while you're still young.

Thank you, Father! Now Abivard wanted to caper like a colt. His heart returned to its proper place in his chest and began pounding loudly to remind him it was there. Of itself, his hand made slashing motions through the air, as if he were hacking a steppe nomad out of the saddle.

The God grant you thank me after we come home once more, Godarz said. Aye, the God grant that. Once reason I want you to go to war, lad, is so you'll see it's not all the glory of which the pandoura players sing. It's a needful business at times, that it is, needful, but maiming and killing are never to be taken lightly, no matter how much they're needed. That's what I want you to see: there's nothing glorious about a man with his guts spilled out on the ground trying to slit his own throat because he hurts too bad to want to go on living.

The image was vivid enough to give Abivard a moment's pause. He knew you could die in battle. When he thought of that, though, he thought of an arrow in the chest, a moment's pain, and then eternity in the loving company of the God. A long, tormented end had never crossed his mind. Even now, he could not make himself believe it, not below the very surface of his mind.

You think it can't happen, Godarz said, as if reading his thoughts. Abivard didn't answer. His father went on, I see you think it can't happen. That is one of the reasons I want to take you to war, to show you it can. You'll be a better man for knowing that.

Better how? Abivard asked. What could an intimate acquaintance with war and brutality give him that he didn't already have?

Better because you won't take war lightly, Godarz answered. Men who don't know it have a way of getting into it too easily, before they think carefully on whether it answers their need. They kill themselves off that way, of course, but they also kill off too many excellent retainers bound to them by kinship and loyalty. When your day here comes, son, I'd not have you be that kind of dihqan. As you say. Abivard's voice was sober: Godarz's seriousness impressed him. He was a few years past the age when he would think anything his father said, merely because his father said it. His brother Frada and some of his older half brothers were still caught up in that foolishness. Having come through it, Abivard had concluded that his father generally had a good idea of what he was talking about, even if he did repeat himself.

Godarz said, I don't forget it's your first time, either. I just want you to go into it with your wits about you. Remember your first girl, all these years ago? You weren't the same afterward. You won't be the same after this, either, but it's not as much fun as your first woman, not unless you have a taste for butchery. I don't see that in you, no, I don't.

Abivard didn't see it in himself, either, nor did he look very hard. He remembered how exalted he had felt after he left a bit of silver at a certain widow's house down in the village. If he felt that way after a battle ... Godarz's last few sentences undermined the lesson he had tried to get across.

Godarz ceremoniously inserted a long bronze key into the lock that held the door to the women's quarters of the stronghold sealed. He turned the key. Nothing happened. He scowled, pulled out the key, glowered at it, and inserted it once more. This time Abivard heard a satisfying click when the dihqan turned it. He raised the bar and pushed open the door.

A sigh ran through the men who gathered together at a respectful distance down the hallway. Abivard tried to remember the last time his female relatives and Godarz' secondary wives came forth from their seclusion. It had been years; he knew that.

As was her right, Burzoe led them. Abivard's mother had to be close to Godarz in age, but did not show her years. Her wavy hair remained black, with none of the suspicious sheen that would have pointed to the dyepot. Her face was a little broader than the Makuraner norm, and fairer, though being secluded and seldom getting the chance to go out into the sun kept well-bred women paler than their toiling sisters. Burzoe walked out into the courtyard with a queen's pride. Behind her, another coin stamped from the same die, came Abivard's sister Denak. She grinned when she saw him and stuck out her tongue. They had been born hardly more than a year apart, and stayed almost as close as twins until she became a woman and had to withdraw from the eyes of the world.

After Denak came the parade of Godarz's secondary wives and those of their daughters old enough to have gone into seclusion. The last couple of wives were no older than some of the daughters. Had it not been for the set order in which they came forth, Abivard would not have known into which group they fell.

The sun flashed from gold bracelets and rings, from rubies and topazes, as Burzoe raised her right hand to show she was about to speak. Silence at once fell over the courtyard. The dihqan's principal wife rarely appeared in public; she was, after all, a respectable Makuraner matron. But she was also a person of great consequence in the stronghold. Her body might be confined to the women's quarters, but through Godarz her influence extended to every corner of the domain.

My husband, my sons, their brothers go off now to war, she said. The army of the King of Kings in nigh; they shall add their strength to his host so he can cross into the plainsmen's country and punish them for the harm they have done us and the greater harm they plan.

Also, Abivard thought, the sooner we join the King of Kings' army and the sooner that host moves on toward the frontier, the sooner they stop eating our domain out of house and home. His mother had a glint in her eye that said she was thinking the same thing, but it was not something she could say out loud.

Burzoe went on, Our clan has won distinction on the field times beyond counting. I know the coming campaign will be yet another such time. I pray to the God that she grant all the sons of this house come home safe.

May it be so, the women intoned together. To them, the God was a woman; to Abivard and those of his sex, a man.

Come home safe from the broad field beyond the river, Burzoe said.

Safe, the women chorused. For a moment, Abivard listened to his mother going on. Then his head whipped around to stare at her. Was it coincidence that she used that phrase to describe the steppe country north of the Degird? Tanshar had seen a broad field in Abivard's future, too, though he had not known where it lay.

Go swiftly; return with victory, Burzoe said, her voice rising to a shout. Everyone in the courtyard, men and women together, cheered loudly.

Godarz walked over, embraced his principal wife, and kissed her on the lips. Then he hugged Denak and moved down the line of women, hugging and kissing his wives, hugging his daughters. Abivard and his younger brother Varaz, both of whom would accompany the dihqan to the camp of the King of Kings, embraced Burzoe and Denak. So did Frada, though he was sick-jealous of his brothers because Godarz would not let him go fight.

A couple of Abivard's half brothers were also joining the King of Kings' host. They hugged their mothers and sisters, too, as did their siblings who would stay behind in the stronghold. When the dihqan's women showed themselves in public, such greetings were permitted.

As the wife of your father the dihqan, I tell the two of you to fight bravely, to make every warrior in the host admire your courage, Burzoe said to Abivard and Varaz. Her expression lost its sternness. As your mother, I tell you both that every moment will seem like a year till you come back to me.

We'll be back with victory, as you told us, Abivard answered. Beside him, Varaz nodded vigorously. His younger brother had something of the look of Burzoe, though his burgeoning beard helped hide that. He was wider through the shoulders than Abivard, a formidable wrestler and archer.

Denak said, I'm wed to no dihqan, so I have no special pride to uphold. That means I can tell both of you to make sure you come back, and make sure Father does, too.

She spoke to both her brothers, but her eyes were chiefly on Abivard. He nodded solemnly. Though she had stayed behind the doors of the women's quarters since her courses began, some of the closeness she and Abivard had known as children still remained. He knew she chiefly relied on him to do what she had asked, and resolved not to fail her.

Varaz said, They work gold well out on the plains. We'll bring back something new for the two of you to wear.

I have gold, Burzoe said. Even if I wanted more, I could get it easily enough. Sons, though, sons are few and precious. I would not exchange a one of them for all the gold in the world, let alone on the steppe.

Abivard hugged his mother again, so tightly that she let out a faint squeak. He said, Have no fear, Mother. When the Khamorth see the armament we have brought against them, they will flee away in terror. More likely than not, our victory will be bloodless.

May it be so, my son; may it be so, Burzoe said.

Are you repeating yourself now? Abivard asked her.

She smiled, looking almost as young as Denake beside her. But then she grew serious again, and time's mark showed in her concern. War is seldom bloodless; I think you men would esteem its prizes less if they were more easily got. So I say again, take care. She raised her voice to speak to everyone, not just her sons: Take care!

As if that had been a signal and so it may have been's youngest and most recently married wife turned and walked slowly into the living quarters of the stronghold on her way back to the women's chambers. Behind her went the next most junior wife, then the next and her oldest daughter.

Denak squeezed Abivard's hands in hers. It'll be my turn in a moment, mine and Mother's. Come back safe and soon. I love you.

And I you, eldest sister. Everything will be all right; you'll see. Everyone was making such a fuss about coming home safe and avoiding disaster that he wanted to avert any possible bad omen. As Denak had said, her turn to withdraw soon came. She and Burzoe walked with great dignity back toward the entrance to the living quarters. Godarz waited for them there, the key to the women's chambers in his right hand.

Burzoe said something to him, then, laughing, stood on tiptoe to brush his lips with hers. The dihqan laughed, too, and made as if to pat her on the backside. He stopped well before he completed the motion; had he gone through with it, the stronghold would have buzzed with scandal for weeks. That he even mimed it showed how close to the frontier his holding lay. Closer to Mashiz, manners were said to be more refined.

Denak went into the living quarters. A moment later, smiling still, so did Burzoe. Godarz followed them inside. After a couple of steps, they seemed to disappear into shadow. The doorway looked very dark and empty.

Abivard felt he had put on a bake oven, not his armor. Sweat ran down his face under the chain mail veil that hid his features from the eyes down. A similar mail hood attached to the rear of his tall, conical helmet protected the back of his neck and his shoulders.

And yet, compared to the rest of him, his head was well ventilated: the breeze could blow through the mail there and cool him a little. Under the leather backing for the rest of his armor, he wore cotton batting to keep a sword blow that iron might block from nonetheless breaking his bones.

Mail covered his rib cage, too; below it, two vertical rows of iron splints protected his belly and lower back. From the bottom of the lower splints depended a short mail skirt; his leather sleeves and trousers bore horizontal rings of laminated iron armor. So did his boots. Semicircular iron guards projected from the ends of his armored sleeves toward the backs of his hands; only his palms and fingers were free of armor.

His horse was armored, too, with a long scale-mail trapper open at the front and rear to let its legs move freely. A wrought-iron chamfron protected the animal's face. A ring at the top of the chamfron held several bright red streamers. A similar ring at the crown of his own helmet held others of the same shade. He carried a stout lance in a boss on the right side of his saddle; a long, straight sword hung from his belt. The strength of Makuran lay in its heavy horse, armored to take punishment until they closed with the foe and gave it in return. Videssians fought mounted, too, but were more often archers than lancers. As for the steppe nomads ...

Half the plainsmen's way of fighting lies in running away, he said.

That's so, but it's from necessity as well as fear, Godarz answered. The dihqan was armored much like his son, save that over his mail shirt he wore an iron plate bound to his breast with crisscross leather straps. He went on, They ride ponies on the far side of the Degird: they haven't fodder enough to raise big horses like ours. He set an affectionate hand on the side of his gelding's neck, just behind the last strap that held the chamfron in place.

We'll smash them, then, when we come together, Abivard said.

Aye, if we can make them stand and fight. That's why they generally come to grief when they raid south of the Degird: We concentrate on them and force them to fight on our terms. Out on the steppe, it's not so easy our army is like one dot of ink on a vast sheet of parchment.

The horses clattered out of the stronghold, Godarz first, then Abivard and Varaz, then their eldest half brother Jahiz, and then two other half brothers of different maternal lineages, Arshak and Uzav. Godarz' domain did not yield enough to support more than half a dozen fully armored riders. That made it a medium-size fish in the pond that was Makuran.

The King of Kings' encampment had sprung up between the stronghold and the Vek Rud. Pointing to the sudden vast city of canvas and heavy silk, Abivard said, That will be one dot of ink, Father? I cannot believe it.

Among the tents, men boiled like ants on spilled food. Some, maybe most, were warriors; the sun kept glinting off iron down there, although many soldiers, like Abivard and his kin, wore baggy caftans over their mail to keep themselves cooler. But along with the fighting men would be wagon drivers, cooks, merchants, body servants, and likely women, as well, to keep Peroz King of Kings and his more prominent warriors happy of nights. More people milled in the camp than Abivard had imagined in Mashiz.

But Godarz laughed and said, It's different on the far side of the Degird. You'll see, soon enough. Abivard shook his head, disbelieving. Godarz laughed again. Varaz said, I'm with you, brother mine. That's not an army; that's a country on the march.

Jahiz said, Where are the villagers? I expected they'd cheer us on our way. Abivard had expected the same thing, but the narrow lanes were almost deserted. Getting a wave from a toothless old woman with a water jug balanced on her head was not the send-off he'd looked for.

They have more important things to do than wave good-bye to us, Godarz said. Everyone who's missing here is sure to be down at the camp, trying to squeeze arkets from the soldiers as if they were taking the seeds from a pomegranate. They won't have another chance at such riches for years to come, and they know it.

He sounded amused and pleased his subjects were making the most of their opportunity. Some dihqans would have turned a handsome profit themselves, squeezing as much of their people's sudden wealth from them as they could. The motto Godarz had repeated until Abivard grew sick of hearing it was Take the fleece from the flock, not the hide.

Down off the stronghold's knob rode Godarz and his five sons. Abivard's heart pounded nervously. All his life he had been something special, first son of the domain's dihqan. The nearer he got to the camp, the less that seemed to matter.

Banners marked the pavilions of the the marzbans of the Seven Clans, who served as division commanders under Peroz King of Kings. Abivard's head went this way and that, searching for the woad-blue flags of Chishpish, in whose division he and his family were mustered. There! he exclaimed, pointing.

Good for you, lad, Godarz said. You spotted them before any of us. Well, I suppose we'd best go pay our respects to his High and Mightiness, eh? He urged his horse forward with the pressure of his heels against its barrel.

Behind Abivard, Jahiz let out a half-strangled cough. Abivard was a little scandalized himself, although he had heard his father speak slightingly of the high nobility before. As far as Godarz was concerned, the dihqans were the most important caste of Makuran.

The camp sprawled across a vast stretch of ground, with no order Abivard could see. Spotting Chishpish's banner from afar didn't mean he and his relatives could get to it easily. They had to pick their way around tents pitched at random and through groups of warriors and hangers-on intent on their own destinations.

At last, though, they stood before the entrance of the big silk pavilion. A pair of guards in armor fancier than Godarz' barred their way. Who comes? one of them asked as Godarz dismounted and tied his horse to a stake pounded into the rock-hard ground. The fellow spoke with a mincing southern accent, but Abivard would not have cared to have to fight him; he looked toughter than he sounded.

Godarz answered with flowery formality. I am Godarz son of Abivard, dihqan of Vek Rud domain. He pointed back toward the stronghold. I bring my five sons to kiss the feet of the marzban Chishpish, as we shall have the ineffable honor of fighting under his banner.

If you fight as well as you speak, the marzban will be well served, the guard answered. Abivard sat up straight with pride. Godarz waved his hand to acknowledge the compliment, then turned to his sons. At his nod, they also got down from their horses and tethered them. The guard pulled up the tent flap, stuck his head in, and declared, Godarz dihqan of Vek Rud and his sons.

Let them enter, a voice from within said.

Enter. The guard and his companion held the flaps apart so Godarz, Abivard, and the rest could easily pass within.

Abivard's first dazed thought was that Chishpish lived with more luxury in the field than Godarz did in his own stronghold. Light folding tables of fragrant sandalwood inlaid with ivory, silver bowls decorated in low relief and piled high with sweetmeats, a richly brocaded carpet that was to Abivard's mind far too fine to set on bare dirt, a small Videssian enamelwork icon of some Phos-worshiping holy man ... it was as if the high noble had simply packed up his home and brought it with him on campaign.

He should have used the elephant for something more than its ivory, Abivard thought impolitely as he caught sight of his leader. Riding, for instance. Chishpish was heavy enough to strain any horse, that was certain. His flesh bulged against the fabric of his caftan, which sparkled with silver threads. His pilos, the bucket-shaped Makuraner headgear, had rings of bright colors broidered round it. He smelled of patchouli; the strong scent made Abivard want to sneeze.

For all his bulk, though, he had manners. He heaved himself to his feet and offered a cheek for Godarz and his sons to kiss. Not all high nobles would have conceded that a dihqan and his scions were but a little lower in rank than his own exalted self; Abivard had expected literally to have to kiss the marzban's feet.

I am sure you will fight bravely for the King of Kings, Godarz of the Vek Rud domain, Chishpish said. Your sons are ...?

Abivard, Varaz, Jahiz, Arshak, and Uzav, Godarz answered.

The marzban repeated the names without a bobble, which impressed Abivard. The fat man did not look like a warrior he looked more like two warriors but he did not sound like a fool. Being Godarz' son, Abivard feared fools above all else.

Outside the tent, a trumpet blew a harsh fanfare. A herald bawled, Eat dirt before the divine, the good, the pacific, the ancient Peroz, King of Kings, fortunate, pious, beneficent, to whom the God has given great fortune and great empire, giant of giants, formed in the image of the God. Eat dirt, for Peroz comes! The fanfare blared out again, louder than before. Chishpish's guards flung the tent flap wide. Abivard went down on his belly on Chishpish's fine carpet, his forehead pressed against the wool. His armor rattled and clanked as he prostrated himself. Around him, his siblings and father also went down into the posture of adoration. So did Chishpish, though his fat face reddened with the effort the sudden exertion cost him.

Rise, Peroz said. Abivard's heart beat fast as he returned to his feet, not from having to stand while burdened with iron and leather but rather because he had never expected to encounter the King of Kings face to face.

Despite the herald's formal announcement, Peroz was not ancient, was not, in fact, much older than Godarz. His beard was mostly black; his mustaches, waxed stiff, stuck out like the horns of a bull. He wore his hair long, and bound with a fillet in back. His cheeks seemed unnaturally ruddy; after a moment, Abivard realized they were rouged.

Chishpish of the Seven Clans, present to me these warriors whom I find in your tent, the King of Kings said.

As your Majesty commands, so shall it be, Chishpish answered. Here first we have the dihqan Godarz of Vek Rud domain, our present home. With him he brings the army his sons Again the high noble rattled off Abivard's name and the rest. His memory swallowed as much as his mouth which, given his girth, was no mean feat.

You are well equipped, and your sons, also, Peroz told Godarz. Those are your horses outside the pavilion? At Godarz's nod, Peroz went on, Fine animals, as well. Makuran would be stronger if all domains contributed as yours does.

Your Majesty is generous beyond my deserts, Godarz murmured. Abivard marveled that his father could speak at all; had the King of Kings addressed him, he was sure his tongue would have cloven to the roof of his mouth.

Peroz shook his head. You are the generous one, offering yourself and your five stalwart sons that the kingdom may flourish. Which is your heir?

Abivard here, Godarz said, setting a hand on his eldest's armored shoulder.

Abivard son of Godarz, look to your father as a symbol of loyalty, Peroz said.

Aye, your Majesty; I do, Abivard said. He could talk, after all.

Good, Peroz told him. The God grant that you never need to put forth a like sacrifice. Should this campaign progress as I plan, that may come true. I aim to go straight at the nomads, force them to battle, and crush them like this. The King of Kings ground one fist against the palm of his other hand. May it be so, your Majesty, Abivard said there, he had spoken twice now! All the same, he remembered what his father had said about the difficulties of fighting the plainsmen on their own ground. The wisdom of the King of Kings was an article of faith among Makuraners; the wisdom of Godarz, Abivard had seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears.

Peroz turned back to Chishpish, whom he had truly come to see. Chishpish of the Seven Clans, on you will fall much of the responsibility for bringing the Khatrishers to bay. Is all in readiness in that regard? It is, your Majesty. We shall burn great swaths of steppeland, compelling the nomads either to face us or to lose their pasturage. Thousands of torches await in the wagons.

A torch, a bright one, flared inside Abivard's head. North of the Degird, the Khamorth lived by their flocks and herds. If those animals could not graze, the plainsmen would starve. They would have to fight to prevent that. He glanced over at Godarz. His father was slowly nodding. Abivard nodded, too, his faith in the wisdom of the King of Kings restored.

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