A Dance for the Fallen

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Elohim

Said the Holy One to Adam, ‘If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.’ The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God’s word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, ‘We shall drown you in the sea.’

--The Alphabet of Sira


Ninsun

I thought I had only loved one being in all my life, before my husband. With Lugalbanda’s confession, I now knew it was simpler than that: I had only loved one being in all my life, and his name was Saraquel. Father had returned him to me. More than that, He had made him a man, a wonderful man who told tales, played music, who was clever and handsome and strong. Any fears I had for Gilgamesh faded after his confession. If Saraquel had truly been reborn like this, as my general and then my king, then his son could not be cursed. Father wanted us together; nothing Michael or his “Sons of Light” could threaten would make me regret my choice.

Not that the idea of Lugal as my beast didn’t take time to adjust to. Some of his habits that I had dismissed as personal quirks were now explained, with that explanation leading to some uncomfortable revelations about myself. For instance, he enjoyed licking and biting me. I should have found that strange, and probably discouraged it. Instead I shivered and pressed my thighs together when his tongue traced behind my ear, or his teeth nicked my collarbone, or anywhere lower. Now that I knew why he licked and bit, I flushed red when he tried it, hating myself for not stopping him. I should have been encouraging him to be more like a man, to leave the animal part of him far behind so that it could just be an uncomfortable tale for our grandchildren. The worst thing was realizing that for whatever reason, maybe even the trauma of how Saraquel was taken from me, I liked how much of the beast remained. I liked the rumble of a growl that brewed in him when he was frustrated, the hunger in his eyes when he was wanting, how quickly he switched from words to brute force when a man tried to challenge his authority.

I think he spent a long time trying to make himself someone he thought I would want, learning skills and phrases and the like, but the truth was he never had to be more than he already was. He was beautiful to me, a devoted partner and soon, I could see, a doting father. Others told me he was brash, smart-mouthed, unapproachable, stubborn, but in my eyes he had no faults. It had taken two lifetimes, but he had won me, body and soul.

Of course, our worries didn’t end after Lugalbanda confessed. After that ominous letter, Heaven remained quiet. It seemed they would make no move until the child was born. That gave me some comfort, since I would have liked to handle life-changing situations one at a time, but I still wanted to prepare for what laid ahead. I asked Semes to meditate on the situation, to see what he could gleam from the shadows cast by Heaven across the veil. The day I was to hear his report, my mind was on it, even while Lugalbanda tried to distract me.

“Ninsun,” he grunted.

His middle finger slipped inside me beneath his member, stretching me, making me stutter. He had my attention.

“What?”

“Stop thinking.”

Lugal was standing, I with my head buried in my arms as my knees and stomach propped me on the bed for him to mount me. He removed his finger and flipped me over, and pulling me so my legs dangled over the edge, where he could grip them around his waist and press in further. I rest back on my hands as he leaned down, sucking in my peak, a shudder running through me as my confused body leaked white nectar at his whim.

“It’s supposed to be for our son,” I murmured.

He responded with a trail of milk trickling down his lips.

“He doesn’t need it yet.”

Cupping the small of my back, he moved slowly within me, matching the pace he sucked. My stomach was so large I couldn’t possibly see his member, yet I was intensely aware of its width, my walls tensing and trembling as his teeth traced my areola, his tongue flicking a nub. I closed tight around him, gripping the sheets.

His mouth released me suddenly. He clenched his teeth and pressed his forehead against the mound, tightening his hold on my thighs as I felt him explode within me. I climaxed suddenly after, shivering, holding him inside moments longer. He kissed me, loosing his dripping organ from my loins.

“Now you can think,” he said.

“Can I?”

He chuckled.

We laid together on the bed after that, me fending off sleepiness as he stared towards the window, watching two little brown birds perched on the ledge outside. I wondered if he wanted to admire them, or eat them.

“What does it taste like, when you drink?” I asked.

He laughed under his breath.

“Sweet. Probably because everything you eat is sweet.”

He kissed my forehead, making me blush.

“You tell me to eat what I like,” I said, embarrassed.

“I’m not complaining. Baby is strong, he’ll just come out plump. With milk like that he’ll stay that way.”

“Cruel,” I pinched his side; he scrunched his nose in mock-pain.

“Obviously, I just don’t know any better.”

“This is why Aya won’t talk to you,” I said. “You can never be serious when you’re not upset.”

“Then tell her to make me more upset,” he shrugged.

I rolled my eyes, then cringed, our son deciding it was time to start playing. The baby was big enough now that he was pressing on both my lungs and my liver, stealing my breath while giving me all kinds of strange pangs. His head nestled in my pelvis, his kicks now tensed my upper abdomen, while somehow also straining my back. I was ready for him to be born by now, but he was taking his time.

His father, noticing my quiet, must have guessed what was wrong. He pressed his palm over the baby’s foot, discouraging him from sticking it out any further. His thumb softly caressed it until it eased away from my skin.

“He’s out of room,” he murmured.

“I’m surprised he made so much room for himself already,” I sighed.

“It won’t be much longer now.”

He allowed a time of silence, the two of us spending time with our boy the only way we could. Lugal’s affections soothed me. Although I did love being pregnant, I wondered if I truly loved this state of being, or if what I loved was carrying his child. I could imagine no other man beside me like this, loving me in spite of a figure far distorted from what it had been, enduring my nausea, night sweats, fluctuating appetite, random bouts of mania with little more than a shrug. If he resented it, he hid it well.

“You’re the same, you know,” he said suddenly.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not serious unless you’re upset. You pretend you’re angry with me when I’m boorish, but you’re not. Other people just put you in a constant state of upset, when they’re around.”

Despite myself, I knew he was right: people made me anxious. When it was just the two of us, I could make light of anything.

“What’s your proof?” I asked.

“Tell me the most terrible thing happening in Sumer.”

I thought for a time, resting my head against his chest. His arm wrapped around my waist, keeping me near.

“Fires in the south,” I said at last. “People are suffering. Whole villages are burning faster than General Jephat can reroute the river to save them.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Sounds like a pretty heated situation.”

“It--”

I sat up, watching him as my lips pressed tight. I should have been horrified. But as I shoved a pillow over his face, rightly punishing him, I really was trying not to laugh.

“You’re the worst. Father help me, Lugal...”

He easily overpowered me and my pillow, tossing it aside and pulling me into his lap, kissing me to muffle my protests. Pleased with himself, he brushed my tangled hair from my face.

“You see?” he asked. “We’re just alike.”

At first I resisted his kiss, but when he stole a second, I softened.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care about those people. Doesn’t mean that you don’t. It just means that we’re better at distracting ourselves from pain, because there’s too much of it in life. If you don’t laugh when you can, you cry.”

His palm was warm against my cheek.

“We choose to laugh,” he said. “That’s all.”

I confess, those words were a comfort.

“That’s why Michael’s punisher puts on masks and dances for children,” I said, teasing gently.

“Exactly.”

I understood us both better, then. It explained how he could say such ridiculous things, and still my heart was overwhelmed by love. Slowly, I also began to understand Semes’ steadfast smile, when his eyes knew too much.

“Help me dress,” I said. “I have an appointment soon.”

“As always,” he sighed, disappointed. But he would do as I asked.

It always brought me some embarrassment that I now needed him to help me do things as simple as fastening clips and tying my sandals; I was grateful that he never teased me over that. He kissed my knee as he finished my shoe, then helped me stand on my own two feet. After a moment stolen while he held me from behind, holding my belly and nipping my ear, he let me go.

“Don’t let him keep you,” he said. “You need rest.”

“I won’t. I know.”

It was pointless telling him I felt fine, he wouldn’t hear it. He watched over me like a wolf paced around its mate, paranoid of the wild. I loved that, too.

Semes would be in his temple, which then was only a small room set aside for his days of meditation. For all his philandering, he remained surprisingly devout to our Father in this life, even after our loss. Unlike the Chapel of Anu, which had been primarily stone, his chamber this time was built with glass walls, painted black so that the only thing a person could see looking at them was their own reflection. The floor was an elaborate tapestry, woven over many moons by talented women in Uruk: upon it was a creation story in pictographs, cyclical, circling a brilliant red sun. In the center of that sun Semes sat, awaiting me. Tall candles were lit on either side of him, dimly lighting his smile.

He gestured for me to sit before him, a pillow already prepared for my arrival.

“My queen, you’re looking fertile as ever.”

I grimaced.

I would have preferred not to sit on the floor, but not wanting to admit my newfound clumsiness, I wouldn’t complain. Still, I was grateful when he let me hold his hand as I lowered myself down.

“At least he’ll be here soon,” I sighed.

“Before you know it.”

Semes let me adjust, folding my legs beneath my belly, gripping my knees tight while my back groaned at this position. When I was as centered as I could be, he spoke again.

“I did meditate on Heaven’s threat,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’ve found. Although, I am surprised you didn’t ask me about your son’s future, considering the truth about his father.”

“I thought that...”

I remembered that we had not told anyone Lugalbanda’s true identity, nor did we intend to. My jaw tightened, anger filling me, though I can’t say I was surprised.

“You knew. All along.”

“Guilty as charged,” Semes laughed.

“You--” I couldn’t form words. Did he get off on keeping us all off balance?

“Breathe, your highness,” he urged, gentle. “You don’t want to stress the little prince.”

Fighting my irritation, I took deep breaths, knowing better than to think anger would get remorse from my advisor.

“What’s your game, Semyaza?” I asked, his fallen name the only way I could bite back. “Father talks to you, we all know that He does. You don’t try to deny it. Why did we lose the war when Father favors you so?”

“I have no ‘game’,” he replied. “Father watches, he does not interfere. We were removed from Heaven fairly; He mourns for that. But who’s to say it is we who lost? We were given the Earth--here we know the pleasures that Heaven cannot offer, children and families of our own, the grief of mourning and the joy of birth. I would argue it is our brothers above, having surrendered Earth and the possibility for flesh to us, that have truly lost.”

At this, I hesitated. This was not an idea I had entertained. Yet, it was true. If I had not fallen from Heaven, I would not have built this empire--I would not know the happiness of playing with little Erua, or dancing with my generals around a fire, or the thrill of Lugalbanda’s power. The babe within me would never have been conceived. Knowing all I knew now, I couldn’t go back to Heaven, nor would I want to.

“I suppose that’s one way to see it,” I admitted.

“Indeed.”

He held his palm out before me. As I watched, the air flickered above it, forming a small silver sphere.

“Now, for my report.”

The silver sphere expanded, large enough to occupy the full space between us. It was a beautiful structure of glowing lines, linking and unlinking, alive with movement.

“Heaven does despise your child. As for why, it is reason grounded in sound judgment.”

The sphere flickered.

“When Father began to shape Earth, he made around it a silvery web of consciousness, from which all souls of mankind would be plucked. When a human dies, if it is content, it will float about and eventually reintegrate itself into this web, assimilating and forgeting that it was ever separate. Those that are discontent remain, seeking a new life for themselves--they will find a conceived body that their soul harmonizes with, and they will be reborn as that new flesh. Should a child be conceived that is incompatible with any displaced soul, a fiber of the conscious web becomes active, separating itself to become that infant’s soul. The process then continues.

“Now, we angels are made of a different stuff. We are finite, each of our souls shaped by His hands. Our bodies were made to suit our souls, not vice versa. We will never not exist, nor have we any ‘oneness’ to assimilate to. Should any of us truly wish to vanish, we would have to feed ourselves to the Chaos at the edge of the universe, becoming part of their void and losing the soul our Creator shaped.”

In his other hand he illustrated this, creating six hundred sixty-five spheres of light, swirling around each other in patterns, clashing and regrouping, but each forever separate.

“We and man are different at our core. For that reason, the nephilim born of our seed are marked, changed by our difference. They begin of the same ‘soul stuff’ as humans, a thread plucked from the web of consciousness, but they become energized beyond that of an ordinary thread. They are mutated--thickened, perhaps, that makes them incompatible with the web they were plucked from.”

The angelic spheres vanished from his other hand. He reached into the silvery sphere, withdrawing a fiber that he then stretched between his two fingers like putty. It became wider, and then longer, glowing far more brightly than the others left in the sphere.

“When they die, they can be reborn, but the only flesh that will harmonize with theirs will be the flesh descended from our seed. Their own bloodline, or lacking that, the bloodline of a fellow nephilim. But they will never be able to return to the ‘oneness’ that they left. Their only hope for respite will be Heaven, for their souls are more like ours than their human brethren. However, that is a battle for another time.”

He released the thread, which swam back towards the sphere; however, unable to fit between the twisting lines, it began to circle the web. Its lonely orbit continued, infinite, like the spheres circling one another in Heaven.

“Then, there’s the matter of your child. His is a soul made from a different kind of union. It is neither plucked from the web nor shaped by our Maker’s hands--it is a consciousness formed by the joining of two minds, the way flesh is formed by the joining of two bodies. One combination of infinite combinations of your soul and Saraquel’s, the first of its kind. He will be an angelic consciousness, born into a body of flesh. You have done something Heaven thought impossible--you have made another one of us. Neither human, nor nephilim, nor truly an angel, Heaven has come to call your son ‘Elohim:’ god among man.”

I was aware of this, at least in theory--I knew that my womb could create a soul, that was its design. Yet, a part of me had doubted my handiwork, uncertain that such a thing was even possible. To hear confirmation like this, I was glad, but...afraid. Fear was never far from me, in this state.

“Why does it matter to Heaven?” I asked, gripping my knees tight. “Angel or not, I know he will never leave this plane. I will make sure he does not seek his origin, if that will sate them.”

“It is not a matter of him seeking Heaven, unfortunately. It is a matter of his father.”

The sphere vanished, replaced now by the many spheres of light.

“There were six hundred sixty-five of us, some of stronger mettle, some of less. Michael, one of His strongest, needed a servant when he came to Earth. Finding none among our numbers who suited his needs--for we all are much less adaptable than our human cousins and whatever our skills, they tend to remain constantly the same--Michael took it upon himself to commission a servant that would think like an angel, but feel like a man. For he needed a creature that could judge, and one cannot judge what one is incapable of experiencing. So Father gave him Saraquel: a beast who could learn the whole of the human mind, its every base impulse and its grandest ideals, and knowing them, he would guide Michael’s hand.”

A new sphere of light appeared in the center of the collection, flickering more strangely than the rest.

“Michael may not have thought of this creature as an angel, but that was what our Father had made. And when his body of flesh perished, he was released, joining our numbers for the first time. He was the first angel made after the first Making, and he was not like any of us--that was his purpose. For this angel had desires: hunger, lust, fantasy. He who had never known a changeless world wanted to shape his own reality, the way that humans do. Yet for all of his differences, the difference that terrifies Heaven most is his ability to lie. Deceit is a curse of humanity, a way that they seek to shape the world around them in spite of their rational mind. Like them, Saraquel lies to further his desires. You can never fully trust any being capable of that.”

I wrung my hands, uncomfortable with this line of reasoning. While Lugalbanda’s lies had never sat well with me, I understood why he had said them. Had he told me he was my general, I would have sent him away; and though I never would have rejected him as Saraquel, I saw enough of his fear to know that in his mind, to have confessed any sooner would have meant losing me. His lies were for my benefit, in his way. Still, I couldn’t say if that made them right.

“Any one of us can lie,” I said. “You lied by not telling me who he was sooner.”

“I don’t lie, I withhold,” Semes chuckled. “Try it now. Say something blatantly untrue.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Tell me the sky is anything other than blue.”

“The sky is...”

I tried to say ‘green,’ or ‘maroon,’ or anything, but nothing would come out. I finally managed to say, “The sky is gray.”

“But it is sometimes gray, isn’t it?” Semes said. “Therefore it is sometimes true. That is the only reason you can say it.”

He sighed, as if personally disheartened by this fact.

“I think that we will, in time, be able to speak untruths. But right now our minds and mouths cannot manage it. We can withhold, or stretch truths, but we cannot truly lie. I doubt most of us even consider the possibility that we might lie, or that man might lie to us; that is a weakness. Saraquel, however, has never had that weakness. And of all of us, it is he who you chose to pair with to create this new life, a life that following its time of flesh, will become the same as us.

“Not that our Father might give him a body in Heaven--but we retain power on Earth, when our flesh is gone. We can manipulate the elements, not unlike that piece our Father left behind, Yahweh, who terrorizes the countryside. You have seen this. At the very least, your son will have that power. Your son, a creature made from an angel who none can understand--can you see why Heaven might be afraid?”

I tried not to agree with him. But I felt it, in my heart. I understood my brothers’ hatred.

“Is it wrong that I love him?” I asked, quieter. “Knowing that he lies?”

Semes regarded me almost gently, as the sphere of lights faded into the air.

“It is for you to decide,” he replied. “Even his lovely stories are, in a sense, lies. Yet at the core of it all is sincerity: it is for love of you that he gave up all that he was, remaking himself in the image that he hoped would find favor in your eyes. It is interesting though, that he was made to understand man, and you are mankind’s shaper. Perhaps it was inevitable that his sights would come to settle on you.”

“So you think that his love for me is an extension of his purpose? It’s not real?” I asked, anxiety mounting.

“No--it is certainly real.” Semes sighed, seeing that he was upsetting me. “If you must hear my thoughts further, I will say that I have never seen such a love as the one that exists between you and he. It is a courtship of souls, entwining themselves so tightly that parting them would ignite worlds. That makes it difficult to criticize, even for me. Still, I do not share our heavenly brothers’ fears about the prince. I say that the fruit of such a union has to be good, or else our Father would not have allowed it.”

“But what do they threaten?” I was growing tense. My stomach ached with the fear of it, my child uncomfortably still.

“They will not allow him to become a man. They keep secret their intentions, perhaps not fully knowing them in hopes that you will yet give in to their wishes; however, upon the veil I see the shadows of rain drops. Whatever their last resort, it will be announced by rainfall.”

Rainfall. I had been seeing it in my dreams, a trickle from the sky that becomes a downpour, washing everything into the river. To think of it in the light of day gripped me with such dread that my pain intensified, almost too strong for me to bury it.

I thanked him, as he helped me to my feet. He squeezed my hand, then bent to kiss it, as he had often had.

“Be well, my queen,” he said.

“I shall.”

“Do not let fear overtake you,” he pressed. “Fear is the tool by which Michael imposes his order. Reject it, and he has no power.”

“I know,” I said, quietly.

I had already opened the doors, letting light from the halls pour in, when he spoke gently from where he resettled on the floor.

“You’re leaking, your highness,” he said, referring to the fluid I hadn’t felt trickling down my leg.


There were underground pools beneath the palace, the same that we would one day rebuild in Rome, where the ground was all stone warmed from the earth and the water cycled in clean and blue from the river. I decided it was there I would give birth to my son. Semes escorted me back to Lugalbanda, who I informed of this; after a surreal three seconds of panic, my husband promptly carried me there.

Labor should have been more difficult, I know. Yet with us both naked in the warm water, Lugal’s kisses calming me after each moment of tension, I found it an uncomfortably pleasing process. I felt such pride, feeling this body I had made successfully opening between my thighs, my hips effortlessly cradling the child’s large head, and then its shoulders. Lugalbanda lifted me onto the edge of the pool, my legs on his shoulders where he stood submerged, his hand cradling the skull as it pressed from the safety of my flesh.

“He’s blonde,” he laughed softly, and already I saw love in his eyes.

Push. Push. The baby was impossibly big, my stomach a mountain, tight as a drum. My breasts ached. Nothing felt real. Even after I moaned my way to his neck, his torso pried free by wide shoulders, I was left trembling in a half-remembered dream. Only when I heard his cry, loud and strong, was I struck conscious. Tears stung my cheeks as I watched Lugalbanda tie the cord with one hand, then rip it with his teeth (I would ask him later where he had learned to do either of those things). With a bloody grin, he settled the child in my outstretched arms.

“C-clean yourself up,” I managed, adjusting to the heavy, writhing bundle that was our first-born child.

“You’re one to talk,” Lugal laughed, and left a bloody kiss on my cheek. I blushed and rubbed it away.

I slid to stand in the water, letting it cleanse me while Lugal gargled and spat. At last, I let myself see the child we had made, who screamed and clutched at the air, distressed by his own birth.

Handfuls of water cleaning the grime from his skin, I was overwhelmed to find how beautiful he was. He was perhaps a shade darker than I, yet his skin was surprisingly pale so soon after birth, creamy as a two month old’s at least. He had the shape of his father’s eyes, almondlike, with their color a bolder violet, nearing indigo. His jaw was his father’s, strong and thick, but he had my understated nose and chin. He was indeed blonde, taking after me--a surprising amount of golden hair lay flat against his round skull, swirled and clumped. I began to unwind it gently, my heart warming as his cries began to lessen, those startling eyes settling on me. When he gave a toothless grin, I melted to see it was almost Lugal’s smile.

“Welcome to life, Gilgamesh,” I whispered.

He squeaked, waggling his toes.

When I was able to leave the pool, the afterbirth collected to later be consumed, we wrapped him in his father’s shirt to carry him to his room, prepared since just the week before. We had dried well enough, though my hair still dripped into my ill-fitting dress, and Lugal had refused his shoes to track wet footprints through the fine halls.

He stole Gilgamesh from me twice on the long journey up, nuzzling his nose, playing with his hands, until he surrendered him to me to be nursed. We couldn’t say a word to each other, too overcome by love. We tried to learn the language of his squeaks and whines. Far away were thoughts of Semes’ warning, of nephilim and elohim, dreams of rainfall, or even my own aching body. Little Gilgamesh, Prince of Uruk, had our full attention.

The next day we would arrange some formal ceremony to present him to the people; for now, we both needed rest. I laid him in his crib, padded with sheep’s wool, with bars Lugalbanda carved from a fallen cedar. His father remembered to wrap him tight in a loincloth, which made the baby cry again; I knew he would tug at it all night. I almost took it off him, but Lugal was stern about keeping me from it.

“For his good and ours,” he muttered. “Miracle baby or not, he can and will piss on everything.”

I compromised, soothing the babe by rubbing his belly, until at last he settled down. I was still leaning in the crib when his eyes closed, giving in to carefree dreams. Biting my lip, I tried not to cry--happy, and tired, and so many things at once.

Lugalbanda wrapped his arm around my waist, guiding me gently from his side. He kissed me softly.

“Lay down,” he whispered. “I’ll stay with him.”

“How are you so calm?” I asked.

“I’m not. I’m just better at hiding it.”

He nipped my ear, then pushed me towards the door.

“Sleep, Ninsun.”

Reluctant, I would go. My room was only across the hall, but it felt like miles. Unable to summon the strength to braid my hair or change my clothes, I collapsed atop the sheets, curling my sore muscles as I clutched my legs to me, bleeding into a rag between my thighs. Exhausted, I lasted a minute, maybe two, listening for sounds from the open door. I thought I might dream, for just an hour.


A commotion startled me awake. I heard wood splinter against stone, shrieking-cawing that could only be a hawk, before they were drowned out by the bellows of a man, then the screams of a child.

I was at my feet, rushing back to Gilgamesh’s room. I found the window open, Gilgamesh crying in his crib, and a gruesome mess across the floor. My husband stood covered in guts, part of a great hawk lying at his feet with a broken table, Lugal’s hands still deep in the rest of it. He spat the beak from his mouth, before looking at me with horrifying, wild eyes.

I could have been sick; I wasn’t. I held his gaze, breathing with him, until the bloodlust faded to match my horror. He dropped the bird.

“Explain,” I whispered.

“...I opened the window,” he said, going back to the window by Gilgamesh’s crib, streaking blood across it as he pulled it shut. “The hawk came in. He went for our son. I...stopped him.”

All I could do was try to step around the gory mess, going to lift the baby into my arms. I tried to soothe him, even as I could barely be soothed. My lungs gasped for air, my breath so shallow I might have passed out, had Lugalbanda not wrapped me in his arms. He held me from behind, reminding me I was alive.

“I will never let anything happen to our son,” he said.

I nodded, though I could barely manage the movement. Even my son didn’t believe me, my soothing unable to stop his cries. Only Lugalbanda could be calm--he needed to be calm, because I was about to scream.

“...promise me,” I said, unable to smother my rage, beginning to shake with it. “Promise Heaven will never touch him.”

“On my life,” said the king, holding me tighter. “So long as I breathe, nothing they send will harm him. Our enemies will cower in fear of my name.”

He leaned around me, lifting my chin in his red hand. He kissed me, with lips that tasted of death; like a woman half mad, I returned it. In my arms, sensing peace restored, our child was calmed.

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