Arena by Sammet
Synopsis: As Empress of Greece, Xena has a lot on her hands – two wars to fight at the same time, peasants on the verge of revolting and impertinent noblemen constantly trying to outsmart her. Fearing a slave revolt on top of everything else, Xena finds the solution to at least one of her problems in a blonde slave with angry green eyes.
Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle and everyone else you recognize belong to Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA.
Sex: This is an alternative kind-of-Conqueror story. While I'm sure there will be sex later on, I don't know how graphic it will be.
Violence: This is Xena – of course there is a bit of violence. But probably not more than in the show.
Thanks: To my Beta Kerrie.
Comments, criticism (constructive, if possible, but I'm not picky), questions, ideas or suggestions please to: Sammet82@t-online.de
Xena of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations and, for almost three years now, Empress of Greece, sat on a haystack in her private stables, howling with laughter.
„With all due respect, my Liege , this is not funny!“ Atrius complained, his face red with embarrassment.
Her guard captain was clad in wide purple trousers, a yellow tunic and a shiny green waistcoat. An obscene number of golden chains and pendants hung from his broad neck and the most tasteless, flamboyant rings in the known world adorned each of his fingers.
„I'm sorry, old friend.“ she apologized, still chuckling „But you're a person of public interest and I can't have anyone recognize us tonight.“
„I still don't see why I can't simply wear a cloak like yours!“
„Because two hooded figures might make even those morons suspicious. Besides, you move like a soldier and in this... uhm - frilly merchant's outfit no one will notice.“
„I'd two-step in there if you'd let me wear something less ridiculous!“
„Stop whining, old man! I need you to look like one of them or no one will talk to us. Now, where exactly are we going?“
He sighed, accepting the inevitable. „The villa of a local merchant named Salmoneus, it's in the southern area.“
„Good. Let's get going.“ she stood up, shaking off the hay from her cloak and took the reigns of an already saddled black stallion. Behind her a golden mare neighed in protest.
Xena patted her nose „I'm sorry, dear, you can't come along this night. Everyone knows you're mine. I'll make it up to you, okay?“
She led the stallion to the stable doors, then abruptly turned to her guard captain again.
„Oh Atrius? Don't forget your hat!“
With the demeanor of a man walking to his own execution, he donned a large purple turban. „If you were anyone else, I'd desert right now!“
A candlemark later, both of them were sitting in the front row of the small circular arena in Salmoneus' basement.
Atrius still sported a bright blush, but fortunately no one paid attention to him or the dark figure beside him. Around them the crowd, mostly nobles and rich merchants, were talking animatedly and making bets on the fight being prepared in the middle of the arena.
The host, Salmoneus, was a rounded, balding man, looking far too good natured for a rich merchant. He stood in the middle of the arena, cordially greeting his guests, but no one made the effort of pretending to listen.
Xena had decided to, finally, watch one of these slave-fights that had been bothering her so much in the last months. Her repugnance was not founded on a sudden interest in human rights, but on her unwillingness to have slaves bearing arms in her realm. She had enough problems as it was without a slave revolt in the heart of her kingdom.
Since the appearance of the Empress of Greece might have disturbed the usual procedure of the event, she had decided to come incognito, only accompanied by her guard captain who was as loyal as he was adept with the daggers he kept hidden under his atrocious waistcoat.
Her own disguise was by far more inconspicuous, a silken, richly embroidered robe of darkest blue, the hood of which she had drawn deep around her face. It looked just expensive enough for her to blend in with the finicky crowd. So far it seemed to work, no one had given them a second glance.
„I'd have expected it to be a little more sophisticated.“ she said to Atrius, the the loud crowd around them making it unnecessary to whisper „Usually they are so eager to adopt those fancy roman ways.“
Atrius nodded „Yeah, I'd have expected something along the lines of a roman feast myself, but this is little more than a bunch of dockers watching a dogfight!“
Indeed the scenery had a rather rugged look about it. The room was lit by torches, the benches set up around the actual arena were made of plain wood, the plainly dressed servants roaming the room served only port and ale. Nonetheless she had already spotted two dukes, three high ranking margraves and half a dozen of the pompous merchants who always harassed her about tax reductions.
Xena chuckled humorlessly „Probably makes them feel like real badasses. Now see if you can find out how this is supposed to work.“
In a fluid motion Atrius turned to the man to his right, a rather silly looking guy with bulging eyes wearing green silk, and gave him a beaming smile „Excuse me, my friend. I've never been to an event like this before. Would you be so kind as to explain the rules to me?“
Atrius gave him a disarmingly honest smile „I'm rather interested. But of course I'd need to know more about the conditions!“
„Great! We're always happy to see new combatants! With the same slaves all over again it gets so predictable!“ he sighed, this being obviously the most dreadful thing to possibly happen to an honest citizen like him „Anyway, the acting Champion always has the first fight. At the moment that's the pretty blonde down there!“ he motioned, cackling „If she was mine I'd have better ways to get her sweating and grunting, but Tarik's a sodomite, wouldn't know what to do with her unless she grew some additional parts.“
Atrius nodded, his clenched fists hidden in the creases of his trousers, and gave a rather forced smile. For a soldier, he had rather unique views about how to treat women. „Go on!“
„Well, the first challenger is drawn by lot. They fight till one of them is either dead or unconscious. Then the winner gets to fight the next challenger, and so on. Winner and therefore the new Champion is the slave who wins the last fight.“
„Even if it's their first and only fight this evening?“
„Well, yes! It's kind of a game of chance, too. Especially for the slave owners - the champion's owner wins the jackpot, less ten percent for the evening's host. So it can be really lucrative.“
Xena could hear well shammed greed in Atrius voice „How many slaves are usually fighting on such an event?“
„About a dozen at least.“
Salmoneus chose this moment to start the first fight and the frog's attention immediately was riveted to the arena.
The slave frog-man had talked about was a small blonde girl, barely twenty summers old. She was armed with a staff and favored her left leg, keeping as much weight as possible off the right one. Her long hair was felted, her short tunic ripped and dirty and she was way too thin. Xena had seen stray dogs in a better shape.
Atrius, too, seemed irritated, he leaned towards the frog again „But surely you don't mean to tell me this half starved slip of a girl stood up to a dozen trained fighters?“
„Nah, she got lucky. She was the last but one to fight last weekend. Beat her first opponent, but got a nasty hit to her ankle in the second fight, barely won this one, she did. I'd have given her a rest, but of course now the odds are high against her and Tarik's as greedy as they come. Bet a fortune on her winning the first fight.“
The girl's opponent was a muscular Nubian with tattoos all over his upper body and a well crafted scimitar as a weapon. He was almost two heads taller than the girl and weighed probably three times as much. He was neither injured nor underfed and after only a few moments the fight's outcome was clear.
Even though the girl fought with all that she had and didn't make it easy for him, she clearly did not have the strength to break through her opponents defense. Usually she probably made up for it by speed, but with her injured ankle, it was all she could do to stay on her feet.
Her opponent made good use of that, he was toying with her.
His well wielded blade kept her staff occupied so he could shower her small body with kicks.
Xena watched with a frown. The girl's owner wasn't only greedy, but obviously the biggest jackass of the known world. The kid had lots of talent, she could have easily been an outstanding fighter, but he chose to let her fight half starved, injured and obviously without giving her the proper training. How he hoped he could win money this way was beyond her.
As she sat watching the fight, an idea began playing in her mind. She had wanted to prohibit these fights right away, but her advisors had talked her out of it. Something about the nobles behaving like petulant children if she took away their favorite toy. So she obviously needed to go about this another way. What if she had the answer to her little problem right before her eyes? Perhaps the girl was for sale, she'd be...
A pained cry startled her from her musings, the small blonde had been disarmed and her opponent's blade sliced open her forearm.
Xena was on the verge of jumping in the ring and breaking the fight up, when a well placed punch to the jaw threw the girl to the floor, where she lay unmoving. Only the ragged rise and fall of her chest gave away that she was still alive.
As the crowd went wild with either cheers or screams of anger over lost bets, the black slave raised his fist in a short moment of victory before he left the ring to go back on his owner's chain, waiting for his next opponent to get ready.
Tarik was seething with anger as he went down to the ring to get his slave. How dare this little bitch lose! She'd never lost her first fight before and he had bet a fortune on her! Roughly he grabbed her arm. She would pay for this!
Yelling and cursing, he proceeded to drag the limp body from the arena, when a tall, hooded figure stepped in his way.
„How much for the girl?“
„She's not for sale!“ he snorted „You can have the corpse after I am done with the lazy bitch!“
„Think again!“ Xena lifted her hood and had to stifle a laugh. The silence that fell upon the room was almost deafening. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Atrius appear on her side, even managing to look impressing in all his colorful glory.
While everyone else seemed to be frozen in their movement, Tarik paled and took a quick step away from her. „Empress! I...“
„I did not ask you for a chat. I want to know how much you want for her.“
She indicated the still unconscious girl with a subtle move of her right hand and her large signet ring twinkled viciously.
Tarik swallowed hard. He couldn't possibly deny the Empress' wish, but he didn't want to give up his favourite slave either. At least not until he could punish her for the lost fight. He gave it a last, desperate try.
„She's half dead, Empress, rebellious, and you have seen how miserably she lost this fight - she wouldn't bring you much of a profit!“
A maleficent smile formed on her face. „In this case I won't have to go to expense for her. Now name your price, I haven't got all day!“
Being the Empress had its advantages. Salmoneus instantly complied as she asked for a quiet room and medical supplies. The girl was bleeding heavily and she wouldn't take the risk of bringing her to the palace first.
She carried her herself, the girl feeling tiny in her arms. Salmoneus was practically glowing as he led her to his own living room, obviously half delirious with joy that the Empress herself had chosen to grace him with her presence. Xena filed this information away for later. There weren't many among the rich and mighty who would have been happy to see her, but Atrius had to almost forcefully drag the cheerful merchant from the room.
When he turned back to Xena, his face was grim. „With all due respect, my Liege ...“
Xena sighed. That was his usual preamble if he was so not happy with her.
„... I'd prefer to be informed of a change in your plans before you go and do something dangerous!“
„I was bullying a white-livered merchant - that's hardly to be called dangerous!“
„But revealing your presence in a room full of possible opponents of your reign is!“ his face was turning red, always a bad sign „You could have been...“
Luckily at this moment a servant appeared with the requested medical supplies and Atrius abruptly closed his mouth. Xena hastily turned her attention to her new possession - if she looked busy enough, he'd perhaps delay his homily.
A quick examination showed several minor injuries like bruises and small cuts and a handful of more severe ones.
Her new slave had three cracked ribs and the deep cut in her forearm. Her jaw looked pretty swollen, but with the girl unconscious, she couldn't tell if it was broken. She carefully stitched her arm and dabbed the shallow cuts with an ointment to stop the bleeding. The girl's ankle was severely strained, but didn't sport an open wound, so she left it unattended for the moment. The injury being a week old, she'd need some of the special herbs she had at the palace to speed up the healing process.
Gabrielle woke with a start, but managed to keep her eyes shut and her breath even. In the past years she had learned that it was safer to be aware of her surroundings before she gave away that she was awake. Apart from that, she didn't want to move at all. She felt as if she'd been run over with an ox cart. Twice at least.
When she was sure she was alone and her head wouldn't explode, she cautiously opened her eyes.
She had to be in the most beautiful room she had ever seen, almost as big as her parents' whole house. Rugs, weapons and masterfully done paintings decorated every wall and even the ceiling.
She was lying on a very soft bed, the huge thing covered in red silk sheets and probably big enough to comfortably accommodate half a dozen people.
She lifted her head as little as possible to take a look around, afraid her headache would turn into nausea if she moved to fast.
Ten feet from the foot of the bed there was a lit fireplace, a banner bearing the Empress' crest over the mantelpiece. In front of it stood two leather armchairs, a low table with a bowl of fruit on it between them.
She saw bookcases filled to bursting, several display cabinets housing a few trinkets and even more scrolls, and on the far wall a desk buried under what had to be tons of parchment and yet more scrolls. There were three massive oak doors, one directly to the right of the bed, the second next to the desk and a third in the far corner to her left.
The room had to be at least on the second floor of a house, because through the open windows situated on opposite sides of the room, she could only see the sky.
House? Given the size of this room, it probably was more of a mansion and she couldn't imagine Tarik affording something like this. He wasn't that successful a merchant, as far as she could tell he made most of his money by betting on her fights.
So where in Tartarus was she? Why was she chained to a bed that looked like a harlot's dream come true? Had Tarik sold her? Not that she'd mind getting away from the stinking bastard, but at least he didn't have any sexual interest in her. The more she thought about this point, the more her panic increased. Her quickening pulse made her headache return with a vengeance.
She tried to sit up, ignoring the sickening pain in her ribs, but halfway through the straining task, she discovered that she wore a new collar that was chained to the head of the bed. Now she knew for sure she was in trouble.
Xena returned to her study to find her new possession wide awake and bordering on the edge of panic. Small hands were tugging at the chain tethering her to the bedpost, dark brows drawn together over teary green eyes.
The Empress slowly entered the room, politely knocking on the doorframe.
Gabrielle's head whipped around, her eyes widening upon seeing the dark figure next to the bed. She knew who this was. Tall, dark, icy blue eyes and an aura of death around her. Even though she had never seen her herself, the descriptions she had heard of the Empress left no doubt.
She swallowed hard, barely able to get a grip on her fear. She had been bought by the most dangerous woman in all of Greece , even worse, a woman known for her ungovernable appetite for blood and rough sex.
The Empress stepped up to the bed, looking down at her slave with an unreadable expression. Though her regal posture didn't change, her voice was almost soft. „Calm down, kid. You are safe here. No one will hurt you.“
That obviously didn't have the effect Xena had aimed for. True, the girl had stopped struggling, but now she seemed rather petrified. She had green eyes, Xena noticed, as they had grown the size of saucers and were unblinkingly staring at her.
Xena was quite used to that reaction and had a wide variety of approved responses. Somehow screaming or grimacing didn't look like good ideas though, so she decided to act as if she was talking to someone whose brain was working properly.
„Keep still!“ She saw the girl flinch, when she reached for her. „I just want to remove the chain. It was only meant to make sure you didn't hurt yourself while I was gone. No need for it now.“
Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat when the Empress bent down to her and reached out. She was dimly aware the tall woman was talking to her, but she couldn't concentrate on the words. She was sure she would hurt her, but the Empress only took the chain off, then reached behind Gabrielle's neck to remove the collar and gave it to her.
„It's not locked, so you can remove it while in here. I have to insist, though, that you wear it whenever you leave these quarters.“
This time Gabrielle had understood her and looked puzzled at the collar in her hand. It bore no resemblance to the crude metal ring she had worn before, but was a smooth, black leather choker, about three fingers wide, with an 'X' made of silver in the middle. Now that she thought about it, she had not even felt it around her neck, except for when the chain had prevented her from sitting up. It certainly was an improvement.
Xena took a seat on the bed. Perhaps she would get some intelligent answers if she was on the same level with the girl. „That scrawny jerk-off I bought you from said your name's Gabrielle. That right?“
A shaky nod was all she got for her consideration. Xena sighed. „Fine. Then I'll do the talking. You're in my palace. In my study, to be precise. Before I go into details, I want to take another look at you. I already stitched you up, but now that you're awake I want to determine that everything's gone well.“
She rolled her eyes as she saw the girl's muscles tighten when she reached for her.
„Ah ah, don't get all shy on me now.“ she admonished gently „It won't hurt. Just open your mouth a bit.“
Gabrielle followed the Empress' instructions how to move her jaw as her new owner examined the bones and muscles with astonishingly gentle hands.
After only a few moments, the Empress let go of her face. „As I thought, it's not broken. Now show me your arm.“
Hesitantly Gabrielle held her bandaged arm out to the Empress who let the wrist rest over two of her fingers.
„Careful now, kid. Make a fist, slowly... good, now spread your fingers.“
Xena nodded satisfied. While the movements made the small slave wince, she didn't seem to have trouble using her hand. „I think I did good work with this. Your movement won't be impaired.“
She placed Gabrielle's arm back on the bed. „Three of your ribs are cracked and you already know your ankle's strained, so I don't want you doing a happy dance because I bought you.“
Her humor obviously was lost on the girl who stared at her with a mixture of disbelief and repugnance.
Xena sighed. „Fine. I didn't buy you for your conversation skills anyway. So let's talk business. You will...“
The door next to the bed, the one the Empress had entered through opened again and a young girl appeared with a tray of food. Wordlessly she set it on the table in front of the fireplace, then gave a little bow to the Empress and turned to go.
Xena held her up with a motion of her hand, her eyes remaining on the blonde slave.
„Are you hungry?“
Gabrielle nodded cautiously, not sure where this would lead. Her being hungry hadn't impressed Tarik very often.
Xena glanced at her plate piled high with lamb chops and grilled peppers and then at the girls swollen jaw. „I would share with you, but right now it's probably better to get you something soft.“
Gabrielle clenched her teeth, even if it hurt. Of course she wasn't good enough to share this woman's meal. Why didn't the bitch just say so?
Xena saw something flickering in her slave's eyes. First she wanted to ask what it was about, but then decided against it. It didn't matter. Whatever had ignited the girl's anger, it meant she wasn't completely broken but had a good deal of fighting spirit left. She'd need that.
She turned to her servant. „Lita, you see the young woman in my bed?“
Gabrielle wondered about the effort to avoid the term 'slave', but didn't dare to question her new owner.
The servant nodded. „Of course, Empress.“
„Her name is Gabrielle and we are in need of an appropriate supper for her. As you can see, she is injured, so bring something soft.“
„As you wish, Empress.“
Gabrielle cringed unseen. 'Soft.' 'Appropriate.' Undoubtedly some kind of dog food. Well, she had eaten worse. In fact, her former owner had fed his dogs better than her.
Xena waited till the servant had closed the door behind her before she spoke again.
„Before you jump to false conclusions - I didn't buy you as a body slave. While you are of course terribly disappointed now, I hope you'll get over it soon.“
Gabrielle stared at her. She should be disappointed that she wasn't to be a body slave? This woman was nuts!
„You will continue to fight in the Arena.“ the Empress said slowly, her light eyes now boring into Gabrielle's. „And way more successful than before, I can assure you. I will train you personally - and I won't accept any laziness or disobedience. In return you will be fed, dressed, and have a nice warm place to sleep. I will not abuse you in any form and I promise - if you do what I tell you, you will not get hurt again.“
Gabrielle continued staring. How was she supposed to keep fighting and not get hurt again? Completely nuts!
Still no response from the girl. Perhaps she had taken one too many hits to the head. Xena reached for the goblet she had prepared earlier and held it out to her new slave.
„Here, drink this. It's a very good aphrodisiac, tastes like honey.“
„ What ? “ Gabrielle felt herself blushing and paling at the same time. She tried to scramble away, but the Empress effortlessly, and surprisingly gentle, pushed her down again.
A dark eyebrow rose. „So you're actually listening to me? And you even got a voice! Great. Now drink.“
Gabrielle just stared at the goblet as if it contained poison.
Xena sighed deeply. „Me and my smart mouth. I lied, kid, it's a pain killer! And it tastes terrible, so don't expect me to drink any just to prove it! Drink. Now!“
With her unhurt hand, Gabrielle reached out for the goblet, gripping it as if it were a life snake. Her wide eyes never left the Empress' as she took a hesitant sip and shuddered in disgust.
Xena grinned. „Told ya. Now down with it, your food should be here any moment.“
She watched as Gabrielle downed the bitter mixture, then set the goblet aside. Before her small slave had the time to panic, she had reached behind her and carefully drawn her up to a sitting position.
She kept one arm around her while she started stuffing pillows behind her back.
„The food you ordered, Empress.“
The voice startled Gabrielle, but Xena still was arranging pillows behind her very dazed slave and didn't look up. „Just put it down.“
„Of course, Empress.“ Lita answered in the usual flat tone she used when her Mistress wasn't alone. „I was also asked to...“
„Cut it out.“ Xena drawled „Gabrielle here is going to stay with us for a while, you may as well be your usual charming self.“ she settled Gabrielle back against the cushions, the girl reclining now in a half-sitting position.
The servant's voice immediately changed, giving a passable imitation of Atrius. „With all due respect, my Liege , ...“
Xena chuckled. „Let me guess - my guard captain is outside, impatient to give me the lecture he couldn't finish before?“
„That's about it.“ Lita smiled „He's pretty red in the face - did you do something stupid?“
„I'm the damn Empress! I never do stupid things!“ Xena was all hurt dignity „I think there's even a law somewhere saying so.“
„Well then, how eccentric have you been this time?“
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Nuts. Both of them.
“Hold it, kid, you can sleep later!”
Gabriel's eyes snapped open as she felt a weight on her lower stomach.
Xena carefully set the porcelain bowl on the girl's lap and, after a moment of consideration, pushed another pillow under her head.
„Take your time, once Atrius gets going, there's no stopping him before my ears fall off. Oh, and there's a cup of water on the tray in case you're thirsty.“
Gabrielle didn't listen anymore. Looking at what seemed to be some kind of stew, she drew a deep breath. If this was dog food, she didn't want to know. It was hot, it smelled delicious and there was even a spoon sticking in it, so she wouldn't have to eat with her fingers. She'd gladly be a dog to get food this good every day.
That stew really was great. The only thing keeping her from wolfing it down was her aching jaw, so she ate slowly, savouring every moment. Who knew when she would get this lucky again.
She had just finished eating and was reaching for the water when the door opened once again.
The Empress, a deep frown on her face, took a look at the empty bowl, took it from her and set it aside, wordlessly replacing it with a plate full of sweets and fruit. Then she turned to get the goblet of wine on her own tray, ignoring her food.
Gabrielle's heart pounded in her chest, when she saw the little pastries. She got a dessert! And she hadn't even had to beg for it!
Xena observed her with growing anger. The girl had obviously been treated like an animal. No one deserved that. Okay... so perhaps she could think of a few, but most of them were already dead. And the kid sure wasn't one of them.
When Gabrielle was finished with her meal, she seemed less wary and more inclined to listen, so Xena once again sat down next to her.
„Let me tell you why I bought you. You see, I plan to put an end to these slave fights altogether. In the beginning I had no problems with them - kept all those rich assholes too occupied to plot against me. But now it seems every nobleman and every merchant who can afford it has a whole stable of arena-slaves of his own. I won't lie to you - I don't give a damn how they treat their slaves.“ she paused, irritated „Well. Not too much at least. But I am not happy with dozens of angry, well-trained and heavily armed slaves in the heart of my kingdom – if that crap comes into vogue, they'll start arena fights everywhere in Greece and I just know it will get out of hand.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose, hoping to delay the headache she felt coming. The girl's persistent silence had already forced her into talking more than she usually would in a week and she still wasn't finished.
“So, brilliant as I am, I'll spoil their fun. Their fights and, above all, their bets. I will give you the training you need to win every fight for me. There won't be a single dinar for them to win in the fights and I imagine it will become pretty boring trying to bet on fights if the outcome is clear.”
Gabrielle was terrified. Every single fight? She would be dead within the first week!
Xena grinned. “Now don't panic, little girl, I know you can do it, I'll make sure of that. But first you'll have to get well again.”
Gabrielle watched her stand up and saunter over to one of the cabinets and take out a small red pouch she brought back over.
“Since you'll need a healer close by and I'm the best, you will live here. This room was the queen's chamber, and while I use it as my study -“ she indicated the desk „I never got around to having the bed removed. So it's yours now. Don't get too comfortable though - as soon as I have achieved my goals, you will be a free woman again. You have my word.“
Gabrielle stared at her. She seemed to be serious! This was too good to be true – if she didn't get herself killed, of course. „But... but - why me?“
Xena shrugged and drew a tiny glass vial from the pouch. „Call it an inspiration. You've got talent. You're young and harmless looking. And I got the idea when I watched you tonight, so I guess we're in this together. And to be honest, you're known as a mediocre fighter, so at least in the beginning no one will consider you a serious threat.“ Again she saw the green eyes turn dark with anger. She grinned. „Not your fault, I'm sure. As I said, you've got talent - and I will help you to use it. When they realize what I'm up to, it will be too late. “
Gabrielle swallowed nervously. „Won't - won't they find a way to keep you - well, me - from competing?“ Like killing me?
Xena laughed delightedly. „They can't! They thought themselves so big and important that they actually wrote down a set of rules - permitting every Greek citizen to compete. And if I'm not a Greek citizen, no one is. So they either have to accept me taking part in their little games or stop them altogether.”
She carefully measured three drops from the vial into the cup on Gabrielle's tray. “I know you're probably scared out of your mind now. So I want you to drink this. It will make you sleep peacefully and without nightmares.”
Now this would be nice for a change. Gabrielle downed the entire cup without thinking twice.
To Be Continued in Chapter 3
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