Chapter Six
Sea of Trees

... MINIMUM INHABITANT AWARENESS, ...

...... Igthorus saw the people in the distance, as they hurried away from the rocky lowland which jutted out into the lake. The small group rushed furtively into the forestland beyond the point. At the very tip of the land, a three-story windmill and its ten- bladed wheel stolidly ignored the rising cold wind which blew off of the lake. The weathered, fabric blades slowly turned, as they always did.
...... Without hurry, he followed the shallow ruts, which designated the roadway along the shoreline, to the granary mill. Wind- driven waves lapped at the base of the stone building's walls, a crude fence which enclosed a well-kept vegetable garden swayed against the wind's gusting force, and a line of optimistically drying laundry pulled at its crude wooden pole.
...... Stopping in front of the mill, he slid off of the riding mule, tethered it to the nearest of the fence posts, walked to the single wood door, knocked four times, then opened it and stepped inside. The sparsely furnished, windowless, ground-floor room was overheated and illuminated only slightly by a large brick oven, built into the far wall.
...... "Sorry to disturb your day's routine," he apologized to the old woman, who was scooping small loaves of bread out of the oven with a wooden paddle. Overhead, the mill stones shook the ceiling in a constant rumble.
...... She waved toward a worn bench by the long, stained, flour-dusty table. "Hnrii!" she hollered over the noise, before continuing with her work. The room was filled with the odor of toasted bread crust.
...... The old Miller came hurrying down the steep stairs, a white wake following him. "Oh, hello! Please sit down." He motioned to the four three-legged stools, which stood around the front side of the bare-plank table. "My wife has fresh bread, if you would like some. There's also some cider." He slapped his white-coated hands together, raising another small cloud.
...... "Thank you. But neither, if you don't mind. I was ordered to inspect the mill, so I'm here inspecting the mill. And everything is perfect," Igthorus chuckled, waving that away. "I hope you received a fair price," he added.
...... The Miller looked puzzled, his hands hanging limply along the sides of his flour-covered homespun smock. "I saw the people leaving," Igthorus explained. "Going back into the forest." Smiling sheepishly, the Miller sat on one of the uneven stools, resting his arm on the table. "Two men, eleven women, and nineteen children. They had nothing, were starving." He opened one hand. "We can afford it."
...... "Merely, be sure that no one else hears about it," Igthorus warned. "Other people are not so generous."
...... "Yes. Of course. We'll be discrete." The Miller vigorously nodded in agreement. "The Out . . . they insisted on trading what little they had," he continued, stooping down under the table. "Look here." He picked up a large box and opened it. "Everlast Candles! If I can find someone to activate them, one or two might work." He brushed at his hair, raising a small white cloud. "There are people up the hill who have not had real light in a year or more."
...... Igthorus eased himself down on the next stool, favoring his lame leg. He picked up each Candle in turn and ran his stubby fingers down the side. "Apparently, you are very lucky. All ten of these are in working order. They just need lit." He put the last device back into the lined, form-fitted box. "Where are you planning to market them?"
...... The Miller glanced at his wife, then looked back. "There are nine families without light. That would be one for each of them, and one for a fee for the FireCaller." He put the box back under the table. "We thought that would be better than putting them on the market."
...... "Saves paying the marketing tax too," Igthorus agreed, laughing and standing again. "I'll speak to someone reliable. Someone who I personally know quite well. And tonight, someone will come to activate them." With a slight bow, he turned and left, closing the door behind him.
...... For the Miller and his wife, the day continued in the same routine as every day before. He tended the millstones, moving the grain and sacks of flour, and she baked bread for all the villagers' needs -- while the fire popped and crackled in the huge oven, and the thick timber ceiling rumbled and shook beneath the working millstones.
...... At dusk, when the gray light diminished in the gray sky, the Miller trudged down the narrow staircase for his only substantial meal of the day. Before he could seat himself at the splintered table, a soft knock sounded at the door -- four quick raps. His wife put down the stew kettle and rushed to the entry to answer it.
...... "I was told that you have a task for me." A tall woman in a dark, hooded cloak slipped inside. "I was told that you would be expecting me." She quickly glanced around at the old, worn furnishings, dimly seen in the red firelight from the oven.
...... Anxiously, the Miller moved their one proper chair from its corner position up to the table. "Yes. Yes, of course! About what we found. We were about to have our meal. Will you join us?" He gestured to the wooden bowls and blackened kettle.
...... "Your hospitality is most appreciated," she answered, smiling. "But no, thank you. I'm pressed for time, and it'll take only a few minutes to do my work. You have the Candles here?" With another smile, she tossed her fine-embroidered cloak to one side and accepted the offered chair.
...... While his wife wiped the table, the Miller dragged out the finely-crafted box. Carefully opening it, he handed the Candles to the tall woman, one at a time.
...... She stroked each of them along unseen facets, then cupped the tip of each in her hands. Each time she opened her hands, a tiny point of white light appeared at the Candle's tip. Quickly finished, she stood and retrieved her cloak.
...... "Your fee." The Miller respectfully held out the tenth Candle.
...... "I was told that you would be giving these to families in need, up the mountain," she remarked, adjusting the cloak's hood over her head.
...... The Miller looked down and scuffed his boots on the plank floor. "There are nine families there, who have been without a proper light for well over a year." He motioned toward the box. "These will go to them, tomorrow morning."
...... The woman nodded, holding the tenth Candle. "It's always appropriate to give to the poor." She ostentatiously looked around the room. "But you seem to have no light of your own here." Placing the Candle in the center of the stained table, she stroked its side. Brilliant white light filled the room.
...... "And now I can see my own way out." Quickly walking to the door, she added: "May you have a good evening."
...... Standing beside the table, the Miller gestured to the Candle. "We thank you. My wife and I. Thank you very much. I . . . we . . . I don't know what to say."
...... Holding the door open, the tall woman momentarily stopped on the threshold, as gusts of wind blew coldly into the room. "Don't thank me. But when you say a prayer, please remember the one who sent me. One of our Five Administrators, Lady Xyly." Swiftly, she closed the door behind her.

* * *

...... Pushing her way through another thick bush, which had overgrown the trail, Misty called back over her shoulder: "Like I said before, I never knew adventure could be so boring. If this is adventure, forget it!" She kicked at the lowest branches, causing leaves to fly in all directions.
...... "This isn't adventure," Justin retorted, maneuvering the packhorse through a mass of loose pebbles. "This is work!"
...... A trickle of water flowed through the center of the bed, leaving enough moisture to grow a wide swath of slippery moss. "Isn't there one decent road in the whole of this country?" he demanded. Following an echo of faraway thunder, the dripping of the overhead foliage increased to drenching proportions.
...... "Not a one! The people at the top think they have better things to do." Kicking at the base of another branch until it broke, she twisted it out of the way. "Such as chasing each other in ships, and bartering for scraps of rusty sheet metal." She paused to rub her nose. "These are much better trails than I expected to find here, actually. And a lot more of them!"
...... He stopped behind her to break away a few more branches, widening the gap. "Just who is in charge of this place?" he inquired peevishly. "Who is the government here?"
...... "There are four Estates . . . ," she began, shoving her way through the last of the shrubbery.
...... "Samstrx, Quardain, Mercadoratius, and Tallpinin," he listed, while pulling at the packhorse, which had stopped to nibble at the youngest leaves on the remaining branches.
...... "Correct! I didn't think you'd been listening." She paced to the packhorse to untie a water jug from the load. "Each is a family, a clan basically. And each sends four representatives to form the Council at Center. A total of sixteen governors." Prying the wood stopper from the jug, she took a long drink. "They elect an outsider to be the Advisor, who breaks the ties if the sixteen can't agree . . . which is usual."
...... "So that's the top." He yanked on each of the ropes holding the pack and found none of them loose. "How does downward go?"
...... She held out the jug, and he shook his head.
...... "The real political power belongs to the heads of the four families. Each family, by one method or another, appoints stewards and headmen to the various villages and other functions." After shoving in the stopper, she retied the jug into place. "The headmen are local government for the farmers, and the stewards watch over the artisans and traders. The village headmen can be women, and some of the best ones are. The artisans have guilds, whose stewards stay in Center, but they don't have much power, except for the Witches. And there are men Witches too," she added, as an afterthought, while frowning at a tear in her shirt where the previous repair had torn away.
...... "And the Witches hold esoteric but necessary skills, and they can do a boycott if needed." He jerked at the tether and started along the half-overgrown trail once more. "They're also the bankers for the society."
...... "The Witches have a group of Five Administrators, and each of them has a veto vote over anything proposed by the others." She started along the muddy path after him. "It works surprisingly well. Much better than the regular government. I suppose it depends mostly on the people themselves." At a wide spot in the trail, she started to run -- passing the packhorse and slowing when she was in front of him.
...... "It's very hard to find people who use power in the best interest of others than themselves," he agreed, yanking extra hard on the packhorse's tether. It snorted and tossed its head.
...... "The Witches Guild is an ascetic group, which practice a difficult discipline. Personal wealth is frowned on, and charity and duty have a very high position." She picked up a broken branch and swished it idly along the edge of the path. "Because all the Guilds are there, including the Witches, Center is a sort of neutral ground. Anyone can go there in safety, even the Outlaws. No one dares attack anyone else, no matter what the provocation. The Five Administrators don't like turmoil in their precincts!"
...... "Then who are these SeaLords, and where do they fit in?" He quickly looked over, as something cracked unseen in the forest.
...... "They are the governors of the trading fleets." She shook the branch, rattling the dead leaves. "A bunch of ill-mannered, landless, uneducated peasants, as far as I'm concerned. Although each one is related to one of the four main families. In general, the SeaLords have mildew of the brains." She broke twigs from the branch and tossed them away over her shoulder.
...... "In this weather, I can understand it." He paused to wring water out of the end of one sleeve. "I don't suppose the farmers and small artisans much like the system, considering the number of Outlaws there are here." He looked upward at the thick, green, dripping foliage and sighed.
...... "The tenant farmers are always grumbling, but they can't get organized enough to do anything." She waved the bare branch for emphasis. "And the Outlaws are too busy squabbling among themselves to get anywhere. Them and their looting and their slave raids of other villages. Civilized people, like us, don't have slaves." Slipping on a stretch of mud, she steadied herself with the branch. "Not that an Outlaw's slave lives any different than the Outlaws themselves."
...... "Wage-hour slavery does have its economic incentives," he grumbled and again yanked very hard on the leather lead. Suddenly, he stopped. "Hold up! I hear something."
...... "Bells! There must be a caravan coming this way." She looked at her torn shirt, tugged at the loosening stitches, then hurried to the packhorse to locate her pen box. Finding it, she looped its carrying strap over her shoulder.
...... A short distance on, they vacated the path to sit on a nearby rock under a somewhat rain-sheltering overhang. Nibbling at a cold meal, they waited to watch the caravan go by.
...... Around the next bend in the trail, the caravan came into view -- a long, single-file line of mud-stained packhorses, mules, and people, all of them loaded down with anything small enough to be carried. The four, rain-soaked guards, who stolidly marched at the front of the parade, shot them a suspicious glance but continued onward.
...... Very soon, people were stopping and asking about the pen case and whether she would write letters.
...... Gulping the last of the crumbly cheese, she handed him the remaining bit of bread. "You just stay here."
...... Justin nodded, slid off of the rock, and went to the pack-horse to locate his materials for arrows. He spent the time cutting and gluing feathers onto shafts.
...... The main body of the caravan passed by, followed sporadically by hurrying stragglers. In slightly over an hour, she was back, carrying a big bundle in both arms. Her stained garments had been replaced by new, bright clothes -- carefully crafted of a dyed, fine leather.
...... "Very nice," he offered, as he stirred his small pot of glue.
...... "Because you insist that I don't go out foraging for my share of the food, these are for you." She put down the bundle in front of him. "And I don't want to hear any stupid arguments!"
...... He looked down at his own worn and fraying clothes. "At this point, you won't hear any arguments, stupid or otherwise." He grinned and gestured with one glue-spotted hand. "Thank you, Little One. I do appreciate it."
...... She smiled before turning back. "It's just that people of my stature don't associate with ragged barbarians like you," she tossed over her shoulder, as she hurried down the trail. "I'll return in a few minutes. Don't go away."
...... Gathering up his fletching materials, he looked over at the packhorse, which was grazing on the ferns beneath the trees. "And just where in this god-forsaken toothpick factory does she think I have to go?"
...... Unwrapping the fabric packaging of the bundle, he uncovered a set of new leather garments. Spreading them out, he estimated that they were a reasonable fit. By the time she returned, carrying a tiny keg, he had donned the new clothes and was carefully folding up the heavy blanket.
...... "Very nice." Handing over the keg, she explained: "This is a container of iron nails. My fee payment, for when I book passage on a ship to Center. If you would add them to the trade goods, please?"
...... He roped the tiny, sealed keg securely into the pack.
...... They continued on their way down the trail and into the next valley. The little brook, which ran along the valley bottom, was shallow and twisting. It was easy to cross from rock to rock without becoming soaked -- except for the perpetual sprinkle of rain.
...... "You seem so silent," he remarked, tramping up the muddy path on the other side. "Anything bothering you?"
...... "Oh, no." She absently tugged at her braid, while staring at the ground directly in front of her boots. "Just thoughtful."
...... At the crest of the ridge, he motioned to a small gap in the branches. "Look over there. It looks like one of those sailing ships." He pointed at a streak of dirty white against the gray sky at the top of the next ridge, its silhouette partly obscured by the trees.
...... Without looking up, she simply nodded and continued to march along the trail. He shrugged and pulled on the tether, following the obscure path through the straggly vegetation.
...... "I was thinking about home," she acknowledged at last. "And trying not to complain about my betrothal. Which is going to be changed, as soon as I get at those Five Administrators. One of them in particular should have vetoed that action." She waved a fist. "We are not chattels to be handed around from man to man!"
...... "Won't someone at your home miss you?" he suggested, skirting a shallow puddle. "Your parents? Brothers, sisters?"
...... "Not really. I'm an only child." Still looking at the ground, she shook her head. "The one person, who took a real interest in me, was my governess. And that ended years ago. Obviously!" Pausing, she kicked a loose rock out of her way. "Most of my education was at boarding school at Center. Which is where I started with the White Witches." She shrugged her shoulders. "I've got nothing to complain about. Nothing much."
...... He remained silent, shoving through another overhanging bush.
...... "I've traveled on ships several times," she spoke quickly, changing the subject. "They're comfortable enough, and fast. Some are larger than others, but they're all two-masted ships. There's a main cabin in the middle, with a two-level bow area for the crew and for storage. The aft also has two levels, with tiny cabins just below the deck, and storage beneath them. Set right down above the keel is the working area for the Repeller Stone cradle."
...... "You said they are housed in the lakes," he reminded her.
...... She glanced into the depths of the forestland. "The ships' hulls are built water-tight. Everywhere they call, there are ramps done in vegetation to let them down into the water." She pushed a tree limb out of the way and ducked the spray, when it flipped back. "All of the bigger villages have at least one wharf, and cranes for loading and unloading cargoes. The waterweeds in the lakes are too far below the surface to work with the Stones."
...... "With so many rivers in these parts, don't the ships have to go a long way around most of the time?" He carefully negotiated a somewhat dry stretch of sharp stones, which shifted under his weight.
...... Without looking back, she shook her head. "Somewhere, across most of the rivers along the trade routes, there are ship's bridges. Wherever the ancient peoples had bridges, the piers are still standing. Just like the ones we saw." She gestured toward the previous ridge. "Timber beams are put across the piers, and the bottom and sides are boarded in. Like big pots. Soil is spread, and plants are planted. Then ships can cross over the bridges, being held up by the grass and bushes."
...... "Sounds like quite an engineering job," he mused, detouring around a dead tree which had fallen across the path.
...... "It's not easy to rebuild a bridge." She hopped on top of a large boulder, then jumped down on the other side. "Usually, there's a village at one end of the bridge. The villagers collect a toll for each ship using it. The people there tend the plants and guard the bridge against any sabotage."
...... "With timber construction, I suppose destruction by fire would be all too easy," he allowed.
...... "Very much all too easy!" She stopped to adjust her boot. "I can remember one bridge which was destroyed by lightning, and another which had been touched by a forest fire. Because of their locations, those villages have become trading centers and often the homes of merchants." She shook one sleeve, then pushed her braid back over her shoulder. "That's why a lot of Scribes are needed, and there's always work for letter writing."
...... Justin nodded without comment, and they continued on in companionable silence.
...... "Over there! See that," she suddenly called, interrupting his thoughts. He halted to look.
...... At the top of the ridge, they could see a ship hovering over the trees beside a rocky clearing. All but one sail was furled, and it was draped loosely. A heavy net hung from amidships to the ground, where people and various tradegoods were scattered along the outcropping.
...... "Trading. Illegal trading with the Outlaws," she declared, as they watched from the shelter of the forest. "I've heard it was done regularly."
...... "Then it's also a chance for me to do a little trading of my own," he advised. "We could use some more supplies."
...... "As always." She looked around. "There's a comfortable spot over there. You go ahead, and I'll stay here. There may be a Navigator aboard, and I sure don't want to be recognized." Idly, she pulled the clasp off of her braid and rehooked it higher up.
...... He tilted his head in puzzlement but ignored the title word. "In that case, you keep the horse here, and I'll backpack what I want to trade. Keeps down the temptation," he chuckled.
...... Tying a few bundles together into a pack and heaving them up on his shoulders, Justin hiked over the rough ground into the clearing. On the outskirts of the informal market, he found a flat, vacant rock, spread a small groundsheet, and set out a large bundle of arrows, two bows, several knives, and one sword. On one corner of the canvas, he positioned his tools and began to shape a knife blade with a long whetstone.
...... In time, numerous people walked by, inspecting what he had for sale. Several of them stopped to examine particular items and to argue more favorable prices. He sold some items outright and was involved in three-way or four-way barter for others. Two people purchased knives with silver coins.
...... A well-dressed man knowledgeably inspected the one sword which was on display. "Nice workmanship," he offered, then squatted down to study each of the knives. "You've been traveling far?" He adjusted the narrow hat which he wore as protection from the light rain.
...... "From the north. I have a religious obligation," Justin explained, intent on shaping a difficult section of the blade. "I'm a weaponsmith by trade, and this suffices to pay my way."
...... "Seen any other travelers?" the man inquired. He picked up one knife. "The price isn't too bad for this one. I'll take it."
...... "Many others. Alone, in twos and threes, and in caravans." He scooped up the proffered silver coins and dropped them into the small leather bag at his side.
...... "Have you seen a woman?" the man inquired, standing and putting away his purchase. "Traveling alone, most likely. Blonde, nearly white, long hair. Blue-green eyes." He held out a hand. "About this high. Slim. Well-dressed in good quality leathers."
...... Carefully, Justin looked up at the man and slowly shook his head. "No one like that. Not that I would mind meeting her." He set the rough blade aside and cleaned the whetstone.
...... "If you should happen to find out where she is," the man continued, "my ship'll be in this area for several more days. I would pay well to find this woman. Very well. Two gold pieces, in fact." He took off his hat, shook the water from it, studied it, then shoved it back on.
...... "I'll keep a watch." Justin rearranged his tools and selected a smaller whetstone.
...... "You do that," the man agreed, before drifting away to speak to other merchants.
...... After another hour of sitting in the slow rain, Justin gathered up his profits, what remained of his tradegoods, his tools and materials, and his own bartered purchases. He packed them together in bundles, roped the group into one mass, hefted it onto his shoulders, and hiked back into the forest area. Just downhill from the trail, he saw her sitting on a rock and trying to comb some of the tangles out of her damp hair.
...... "Now I know what you're worth," he laughed, noisily coming up behind her. Shrugging off his backpack and sitting on the heap of dead leaves beside her rock, he repeated his conversation with who he presumed was the ship's captain.
...... "Two gold pieces," she repeated, combing her hair for several minutes while she silently thought. "It's hard for me to imagine that I'm wanted that much." Dropping the comb into her lap, she bunched her hair behind her head and began braiding it. "And, if an exalted captain of a ship offered a lowly barbarian from the far north two gold pieces, someone somewhere must be offering an actual reward of five to ten." She finished the braid and added the clasp.
...... "I had similar thoughts. Apparently, your intended marriage is very much an important matter of State." He stood to brush off the seat of his pants.
...... "The SeaLords, headed by Merc, are finally binding an agreement of all sorts of arrangements with the head of the land-owning families, Tallpinin. My betrothal is more symbolic than anything." Picking up the comb, she angrily waved it for emphasis. "And nonsensical! It's not that I really dislike Merc. He's just a bore and a boor! We have nothing in common. Not that couples of upper class marriages ever have much in common," she added in a disgusted tone. "Most of them are mergers, not marriages!"
...... He simply nodded acknowledgement and glanced over at the trail.
...... She jumped off the rock, scooped up her comb and other items, and strode toward the grazing packhorse. "Well, yes. Let's get going out of here, in any case. Haul your packages over here."

* * *

......al Halting in the middle of the trail, Misty peered at a wisp of steam in the distance. "We're quitting early today," she announced, bounding through the small shrubs.
...... Justin studied the positions of the tree trunks and found an easy way to lead the packhorse into the bushes. He caught up with her at the edge of a warm pool of clear water. "For today, I'm ready to agree."
...... Going about their usual chores of unloading the horse, collecting wood, building a fire, setting up the tent, fetching water, and fixing a meal, Misty stopped him in passing. "I forgot to say thanks for not turning me over to them."
...... "Never," he stated, shifting the full water bucket between hands. "I have other things to do. This country's problems are at the bottom of the list. My list, that is."
...... "Still, thank you," she repeated, as she walked away in the direction of the warm water pond.
...... He finished the last of his tasks and hurried over to the warm water himself. Wading out to the deeper end, he sat on the sandy bottom, leaning against the rocks at the edge. "I think I might consider the vague possibility of continuing to live," he commented, closing his eyes.
...... "It is becoming a more desirable option," she tossed back.
...... "Hot water. All the comforts of home," he agreed, adding a long sigh. "And it's even stopped raining."
...... "Like I said before," she countered. "Wait two minutes."
...... She splashed for a while in the shallows. "This does remind me of home," she finally remarked. "There was a hot spring out back, closed in as a fountain. The cook used to warm things there. As a child, I'd sneak back there and play in the water."
...... "Until the cook chased you away," he idly suggested.
...... "Until my governess noticed my absence. See!" she laughed, as the foliage overhead began to drip again. "There was two minutes!"
...... He answered with a long sigh and closed his eyes again.
...... She splashed at the shallow end of the pond for some time, before continuing: "My governess was a Witch, also. And that's most likely why I decided to become one, too." She poked at a floating twig, bouncing it around on hand-made ripples. "She used to laugh at herself, calling herself history's worst WindCaller. She's an excellent Administrator, though."
...... They soaked in companionable silence for over an hour, ignoring the dripping of the trees and the occasional odor of wet mud, which drifted in on eddies of the soft breeze. Finally, as full night was falling, they climbed out of the warm pool.
...... After drying off as much as was feasible, they shared their simple, one-kettle dinner, then washed the utensils. While he was undoing the two bedrolls, one on each side of the tent, she looked in.
...... "When you're done with that, come along," she requested, motioning with a white wax candle. "I'll allow you to watch me doing something."
...... He walked with her to a tiny, rock-filled clearing, where the overhead tree limbs thinned enough to see bits of gray sky. In front of a flat-topped boulder, she laid out a folded, green blanket. Kneeling, she placed the candle on the rock and cupped her hands around its tip for a few seconds. When she moved them away, a small yellow flame hovered on the wick, swaying easily with the gentle breeze.
...... Grinning, she turned to look over her shoulder at him.
...... "Very interesting," he admitted, sitting crosslegged on the wet ground five yards away.
...... She nodded, then ordered: "Now be quiet! I need to practice, and I don't want any distraction." Turning back to the burning candle, she put her hands on her knees and gazed past the wavering flame into the thick mass of trees beyond.
...... Within a minute, a strong wind began to whistle through the surrounding foliage, bending the small branches of the shrubs -- a cold north wind. As the moments passed, measured by the flickering of the candle flame, the wind shifted direction -- northeast, east, south, west, northwest, then north again.
...... Suddenly, accompanied by a long, loud roll of thunder, a drenching wave of rain fell almost as a single sheet, soaking them both but leaving the candle's flame unaffected.
...... Laughing, she blew out the flame, turned and rose, scooped up the blanket and candle, and stood watching him. "Well?" she demanded, obviously trying not to grin.
...... "I'm impressed." He stood up also, his hands braced lightly on his belt. "Very much impressed. That was quite a show."
...... "You ought to be! This demonstrated eight years of very hard study." She carefully folded the blanket. "WindCalling is the proper name for my own level of professional expertise."


chapter five CHAPTER SIX chapter seven

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PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)

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