A chime sounded in the air about the don's head, and she spoke a command to create a circular area of one-way translucence in her door. It was a handy little spell her chief Sorreter had provided her, and to her knowledge, she was the only don in InterGang who had this one. Most others relied on personal assistants or simply on intercoms.
She activated her own intercom, and said, "Yes, Chief Milkman, what is it?" She was always tempted to just call him by his first name, Bradford. She didn't usually mind if her people chose to go by their clans' surnames, instead of choosing their own; but 'Milkman' just always seemed a bit too inappropriate for a spy in a major gang. An Adult, certainly, maybe even a dealer; but not a spy. Still, she put great stock in formality, and adhered to it even when it was sometimes annoying to her. And despite his name, he was good at his job. Besides, it would hardly do for a spy to advertise his or her profession with a truly appropriate name, she supposed....
"By your leave, Don Illuminatus, I would make my report."
At her words, the door opened, and Bradford Milkman entered the room. He knew from years of experience that when anyone approached the door, the don would be alerted, and that despite its constant appearance to outside observers as an ordinary wooden door, she would see through it. He also knew of the automatic intercom, with no buttons for visitors to push, and of the magic that would swing the door open at her command. Nevertheless, he rarely if ever came across such magics elsewhere, and it never ceased to amaze- and somewhat unnerve- him.
Of course, he often came across other things to amaze him elsewhere, things which would not be found here. He seldom allowed his amazement to show, especially in the presence of his don. He stopped in front of her desk, bowed, and spoke.
"My don, I am informed of the arrival in Tonad of Darius Lonewander, the Band, and their companions. They are staying at the Apple-Spruce Inn, and are expected to continue in the morning towards Shipsister. My spies are not aware of Don Breakhead's spies having yet become aware of their arrival, but no doubt they soon will, and make their report to Don Chieftain of Plist."
"Thank you, Chief Milkman. Keep a watch on them. I will have Chief Enforcer Bipolar report to you at the Apple-Spruce presently. You may then coordinate your efforts to carry out the instructions with which I will be providing him."
"Very good, my don." The chief spy bowed again, pivoted on his heel, and exited.
Don Manager of the Plist branch of InterGang had recently contacted their gang's capo to inform her that his spies had noticed his nemesis (LandOrder's don in Plist, Don Chieftain) having taken an interest in the odd party of adventurers who had now arrived in Tonad. Personally, Don Larami Illuminatus couldn't care less about them, especially since Seth Manager was interested in them. She couldn't stand the man, with his petty jealousy of Chieftain. In fact, it seemed Don Chieftain was pretty much disinterested in his InterGang counterpart, and no reason he should care about him. But Manager considered Chieftain and himself to be arch-enemies. In Illuminatus's opinion, it was a lucky thing for Manager that Chieftain didn't feel that way, for with his superior intellect, finesse, and far greater loyalty from his people than Manager would ever command in his, if Chieftain ever decided to he could probably sweep InterGang out of Plist entirely, in short order. Illuminatus almost wished he would.
Still, she felt lucky that the situation was reversed in her own village. While she didn't think much of Seth Manager, he was at least more intelligent than LandOrder's don in Tonad, Xander Breakhead, so Don Illuminatus didn't have much trouble keeping the upper hand here for InterGang. On the other hand, Breakhead did allow his people more freedom to operate on their own than did Manager, and they were mostly clever and talented people, and loyal to their don; so she couldn't ignore her ostensible chief adversary altogether. Which at least kept her from getting too bored with her duties....
...After Don Manager had contacted Capo Mysshroudedtery (a brilliant leader, but in Illuminatus's opinion, she had the most groan-inducing sense of humor), the InterGang capo had contacted all her dons and instructed them to keep an eye open for these adventurers. The trouble was, Don Illuminatus thought, sometimes the capo simply indulged Don Manager's insignificant little whims, and sometimes she seemed to suspect he had accidentally stumbled onto something important; his dumb luck was probably the only reason the capo kept him in power. And Illuminatus was rarely sure which was the case, though she was generally inclined to suspect the former, more often than not. Either way, she remained essentially loyal to her capo, and would always obey specific orders to the best of her ability.
She activated a t-mail bubble to summon her chief enforcer, Thom Bipolar. She sighed as she did so. Yet another surname she didn't like- advertising his own psychological affliction. Still, perhaps sometimes even that could be strategically utilized. And besides, like Milkman, he was good at his job. She would hardly employ anyone who wasn't.
A tall, burly man, who looked at least a decade older than his thirty-six years, briskly sauntered up to Chief Bradford Milkman. From years of experience working with the enforcer, Milkman knew that was how Thom Bipolar usually moved, especially when he was upset, but he always wondered how the hell he did it. He was sure "brisk sauntering" must be a contradiction in terms, but nevertheless, he could think of no way more aptly of describing the man's walk.
Having caught sight of him immediately, he began to worry the enforcer was in a bad mood. One could rarely tell by his face, as he almost always wore an expression somewhere between depression and annoyance, even when he was happy. But as he came within earshot, Milkman's fears were confirmed by Bipolar's muted grumbling.
The chief enforcer approached the chief spy and said, "By your leave, and all that shite. What the hell am I doing here, anyway? It was my understanding that the capo's instructions were that we should observe and report, only. That's your job."
"I had been wondering the same thing, myself, Thom. And I had hoped Don Illuminatus would've given you an explanation you might share with me."
"No doubt she has a reason. Never does anything without a reason, does she? But hell, this is supposed to be my day off. Well, the next few days, actually. You know I haven't had a serious downswing in my mood in a couple weeks? I'm about due, is why I scheduled this time off. And now she goes and cancels it, and has me working late, ta boot. This is just the kind of thing to set me off, too."
"I hear LandOrder's got a new drug coming out soon that's supposed to be pretty effective against depression. I'm sure no one would mind if you tried it out, even if it is giving the competition a little business."
"Well, it ain't just depression. That's how it starts, but it's a whole sort of feeling of unfairness about life, and the world, and all. And it leads into resentment and anger and hell, maybe I should just go work for Breakhead, uh?" He flashed a rare, fleeting grin. "I can about turn into him, like, on my worse downswings."
"Hmmm...." Milkman's brow furrowed, his eyes half closed and his gaze shifted to nowhere, and he raised his forefinger to his lips. Bipolar recognized the spy's gears turning, and awaited some insight into... something. There was always something, when Milkman took this pose.
Before long, he had rejoined the world, and said, "You know... InterGang is taking an interest in these people on Don Manager's recommendation. And we all know what Don Illuminatus thinks of him. It could be that she's sent in a few enforcers in the hopes that things might become... a bit more interesting. What exactly did she tell you, anyway?"
"Not much. You and your people are supposed to keep watching them, and me and a few of my boys are supposed to be around in case there's any trouble, and stay in contact with you. I asked what kind of trouble she might be expecting, and she just said it seemed likely LandOrder would notice us watching the folks they were supposed to be watching, and they might try to stop us from watching. Something like that. You always get the feeling she's thinking something she's not saying, though. You got any idea what that might be, this time?"
"She's said nothing to me."
"Well, I often get the same feeling with you as with her, that you're not saying something. Still, I reckon I can trust you to tell me anything you think it's important for me to know."
"Naturally, Thom. Not to worry, never to worry."
"I'll try not to. But I really could use a drink, a good night's sleep, and my frickin' days off." He sighed. "Anyway, I'll be hangin' around the bar, tryin' to look like I'm havin' more fun than I am. Call me if ya need me, Bradford."
"That I shall. Do try to have a bit of fun."
Bipolar sauntered off again, grumbling.
After checking in and then getting settled into their rooms, the Chaos party came back downstairs to get some supper. They sat around talking for a bit, and letting the meal settle, before the Band went up on stage. Anywhere they went in the world, they had standard arrangements at various inns, restaurants, and taverns- as did many traveling performers on the Land- to play in exchange for either free room and/or board, or at least reduced rates. This was if they were making merely a brief stopover in a village; if they would be staying for a while, they would get a regular booking with full pay. Tonight, the Band would be staying free, but they would pay for their meals. The others in the party would have to pay for their own rooms, except Tiejo, who preferred to stay outside. Of course, the Band would most likely also receive some degree of gratuities from the audience.
Darius, Tom, and Tiejo stayed at their seats to enjoy the show. There were just four in the Band for now; they hadn't seen Tino since before leaving Plist. In the middle of the second song, Darius turned to Tiejo to ask, "Are you sure you don't want me to get you a room? It's no trouble."
Tiejo just kept staring at the Band and swaying. One couldn't say he was swaying to the music, exactly, for his rhythm never changed. Whenever they, or other musicians he liked played, he would go into something of a trance (though Tom would claim it wasn't significantly different from Tiejo's normal state). Still, he would respond, abstractedly, to questions. "Appreciated it is, your offer, as much as my accepted meal, kind Lonewanderer. My preference I told you."
"I know, it's just that-"
"Knowing you must be that lie I would not for any reason." Darius opened his mouth to respond, but Tiejo went on. "Likings not changing in short order. Taking months or years to change if ever. Not minutes or hours."
Darius sighed, and then smiled. "Of course you're right, Tiejo. But if you ever change your mind- in hours or years...."
"If situation suggests it, first person I talk to you will be. With more appreciations."
"Um... you're... welcome, I think."
The third song was starting now, and they all sat back and enjoyed it. Tonight the Band was playing mostly a few of their favorite songs from Earth. Emma had told Darius they might play the song God had mentioned in the book of Julia, from the O'Gas; but only if Tino happened to show up, which he didn't. Still, the songs they did play were pretty good, and most of them Darius hadn't heard before.
After a few Earth songs, they did one from a world no one in the audience had ever heard of, a place called Xallambriad, which Zephrey had once told Ginger and her companions about. Emma had said the name reminded her of one of the original fifty Elves on the Land, who was called Xallem. She said he was one of the longest-lived of them, and that among other jobs, he had been a musician. At which point Zephrey had said Xallambriad had some damned fine music, of all sorts, some of which would be right up the Band's alley. He gave them recordings (in the Land's magical format) of a few songs he thought they could perform well, and they played one of those tonight, the title of which (roughly translated from the Xallambrian) was "Bring Not a Galluzing Aktoad, My Love."
The Band always introduced all their less-familiar songs, by planet of origin, and such. But this one took longer, because they felt they had to explain some words in advance, for it to be completely effective, emotionally. And because they usually sang an entirely translated song, rather than leaving in a few of the original words. However, there were a few words scattered throughout this song which seemed to be best left untranslated, in the singing itself, for they were complicated words, whose translation would be a bit more awkward than they liked. Of course, they first had to briefly explain the concept of languages, but some were already familiar with the idea. And the audience's natural ability to learn new subwords (of Terran origin, usually) certainly helped.
Introducing the song to the audience, Ginger said it may sound like a funny title, but it was really a beautiful love song. An "aktoad," she explained, was a kind of creature which was very much akin to toads of other worlds, but when translating its actual name (aklarik) to "toad," they left on the "ak" part (meaning, roughly, "salve") to differentiate it from other kinds of toads. The biggest difference about aktoads, she said, is that they do something called "galluzing," which is a sort of combination of croaking and weeping. They aren't really sad when they galluze (an onomatopoeic word), but merely releasing a chemical their bodies produce an excess of. Failure to rid themselves of this chemical, called chirinidrum, will result in great pain and eventually death for the aktoad. And yet they need to retain a small amount of chirinidrum in their systems at all times. It is an important part of their immune system, as well as a pheromone. Chirinidrum can also have several effects on Xallambrians. Mixed into food or drink, it has a very pleasant, intoxicating effect. It can be used as a salve on certain kinds of wounds, to preserve life until one can receive proper treatment. It may also be used as a kind of aphrodisiac, which not only stimulates desire, but also enhances physical pleasure. All these possible uses for chirinidrum play into the song, in turn.
With the title out of the way, Ginger now explained some of the lyrics. To "axtrall," she said, means to come as close as humanly possible to one's ideal type of person. It might refer to yourself or to another. It might mean having many things in common: likes, dislikes, beliefs, personality, and more. It might mean someone is more like how you'd like to be than you are yourself. It might simply refer to how you want other people to be. It need not refer to someone you know, but simply someone you know of. You might say that a favorite celebrity or politician, someone in the public eye who you might learn alot about, might axtrall. Or it could be a very close friend and confidant. In its truest sense, it means someone you can't help falling madly, desperately in love with, to a degree far beyond the vast majority of people who are ever truly in love. Most people never find someone they'd say truly extralls them, or that they themselves extrall, though they might use the term loosely (and incorrectly), simply to express a strong feeling.
"Xarlich" translates most nearly as "love-making," but with a much stronger emphasis on the emotional aspect. It has a connotation of being extremely in love. It is a word people use to say that they don't ever want to have any kind of sex unless they're in love. It could, however, be used derisively. To say you don't need it could mean you're perfectly satisfied with just sex, but in the context of this song, it means that was the only kind of sex he'd ever want- but he believed he'd never have it, and didn't mind. The literal meaning of the line in which the word appears is that the speaker is celibate, and he's okay with that.
"Olombly" literally translates as "completely," or "perfectly," but to get across the full intensity of the meaning, one would have to probably stand around for thirty centhours spouting any synonyms he could think of, gesturing wildly, taking dramatic pauses, trying to speak and stopping out of frustration with his inability to adequately express himself. The Xallambrians, Ginger said, are a people who desperately want to be precisely understood, and be able to convey intense meaning or feeling as simply as possible. Therefore they create many words whose meanings are just that: roughly synonymous with a more common word, but felt more intensely than one can possibly hope to express. Some philosophers and wiseguys say that accomplishing the purpose defeats the purpose, but most people simply try not to abuse such words, so that they retain their value.
The word "arryze" is another such word. It means to understand, but to do so in an absolute way, to know every single thing about someone or something, and for the whole to make perfect sense to you. Of course, no one can ever truly arryze anyone or anything, but it is frequently used artistically by the Xallambrians. It usually means to know someone better than you do anyone else in the world, better than anyone knows you, and at least as well as you know yourself. It also is used to suggest a person is a little or a lot harder to understand than most people are; to call another or oneself different, abnormal. To suggest no one can understand a particular person.
To "irritize" is sort of to reunite, to reconfirm, or to strengthen some bond or belief. To bring estranged friends or family back together, to come home, to recover from a long illness, or to better understand or better love someone or something you never truly appreciated. To... return to a place you've never been. In this song, it seems to mean the subject and the object have never fit in well with the world or with their families, though they have loved them. But because they've finally found each other, and make more sense to each other than anyone else does, everyone else finally begins to make a bit of sense, as well.
"Dubrand" means... to compel one to adhere to old, routine necessities, usually considered unpleasant. No matter how much changes in life, some things can never be escaped.
A gorlahng is a Xallambrian creature something like a dragon crossed with a bear. In the time when this song was written, hunting and slaying them was still a common occupation for people who wanted to spend a lot of time alone, and were easily bored with normal jobs. There were various other reasons to do it, but the main thing was that somebody had to do it. Here, it has two purposes, the first of which is to inject a note of humor into the song. The other is to let the listeners know what the subject's job is, as the writer soon does with the object.
To "kahlour" refers to fire. It means to warm very quickly, intensely, but... perfectly, comfortably. It may mean cooking certain kinds of dishes to perfection, or, as here, to ignite an irresistible physical and/or emotional passion.
"Larent" means impossible. One aspect of Xallambrians' desire to express ideas or feelings with great intensity and accuracy, is their tendency to create unnecessary synonyms. That is, a word may already be absolute, but they feel like people will fail to fully grasp the absoluteness of the original word. So they invent a new one, to convey that absoluteness, even if so doing suggests that the original word was somehow less than absolute- which it wasn't. Impossible is impossible, simple as that. But using "larent" makes damn sure the listener knows you mean utterly, irrefutably, absolutely impossible. (The Band added "ations" to make the word mean "impossibilities"; the actual word in Xallambrian is "larentigin." It was standard practice to alter alien words' forms with Landish suffixes.)
Saying finally that the song was much more beautiful, and flowed more smoothly (and rhymed), when sung entirely in the original Xallambrian, but that she'd explained quite enough words for now, they began to play:
Tell me not that I shall one day wed, Mother
Say you neither, Father, that I shall love
For such is not my way
Know you just that I am happy as I am
Know I shall not be alone, loving parents
For I have always you, my family; and my friends
But I am not a normal man
And I want not a normal bride
Far across the world have I traveled
Many strange and wondrous people have I met
But not a one has axtralled me
Friends may they be, and nothing more
Forty years did pass and I was happy
With my work, my friends, my self
Never was I slightly lonely
Never needed I xarlich to make
Then I met my dear Elzambra
And we each other olombly did axtrall
Bring not a galluzing aktoad, my love
For your company is the only drug I need
Let us walk, and talk, and simply be
The world does not arryze us
Let us each other's true escape be
And escaping, irritize us
Though the world may seem to change
Naturally it does not
Though you and I may see anew
Reality us still dubrands
And so to work we must return
Gorlahngs slay not themselves
But when the day's beasts are slain
And when you've sold your wares
Relax shall we by fireside
For rest, for sup, for talk and company
And when that's done we may retire
And find some other fun
Bring not a galluzing aktoad, my love
Our xarlich could no sweeter be
Our pure emotions flow in our hearts' blood
Which olombly kahlours both loins and love
Were Paradise half so beautiful
Ten thousand years' wait amply rewarded would be
Ten years pass and love but grows
Quite a feat, when starting from perfection
And yet love need know no sense or logic
With regularity, larentations do come true
But know we that nothing forever lasts
And know we how cruel can fate be
It comes as no surprise but this:
That our happiness this long has lasted
No mortal thing our love could end, save one
No mortal thing but death
Though your love has kept me young
In truth, old, weary, and slow must I have grown
Bring not a galluzing aktoad, my love
Though one beast has finally won
'Tis only fair, he takes me from you
As so many of his kin I took from him
And weep not, I say to you, my love
For it will not be ten thousand years
Until we meet again
They had promised to play three more songs; after the Xallambrian one, they played another from Earth, and were going to finish with a couple of their own. They never got a chance to finish, though.
Thom Bipolar was listening from his stool at the inn's bar. The songs were starting to depress him, and finally he ordered a drink- something he normally would never do when on duty; but of course, he didn't feel that he should even be on duty now. Sometimes alcohol would help dull his emotional pain, and sometimes it would sharpen it. Tonight, it was sharpening it. He ordered another bottle and moved to a booth. At least it was one from which he could keep an eye on both the Band and their companions, but he soon began paying less and less attention to them, and more to his own thoughts.
Meanwhile, Cabbit Atwater entered the inn and spotted the Band immediately. Glancing around the room, she quickly found the others she sought, as well as a few familiar faces from InterGang. Finding as concealed a spot as she could, she quietly contacted her chief, Jasp Underground.
"Yes?" came the voice from Cabbit's t-mail bubble.
"Chief, it's Atwater. The Band an' them are here at the Apple-Spruce. Also some InterGang spies and enforcers, maybe more than I've seen. I can say for sure chief Milkman and two of his people, and a couple enforcers. What should I do?"
"Keep an eye on them. Report if anything happens. I'm coming, and I'll bring a few of our enforcers with me."
"Yes, sir. Atwater out." To her bubble she said, "Close and vanish," and it immediately complied.
Unfortunately, one of Milkman's spies- one she hadn't noticed- had overheard her conversation, and reported it to his own chief. Since she was keeping an eye on Milkman, Cabbit became aware she'd been spotted. There was nothing for her to do but keep watching pretty much everyone and everything in the common room, but mostly her eyes kept going to the door, waiting for reinforcements.
Meanwhile, Bradford Milkman let his people watch things, while he let his mind focus solely on what to do now. Part of him said to call Don Illuminatus, but he knew from experience that until anything actually happened, she'd want him to make decisions on his own. And even then, whatever happened would have to be something pretty big before she'd want him to call. Besides- Thom had been entirely correct, he had suspected Illuminatus's motive, and thought it best not to share his suspicion with the chief enforcer, lest he spoil his boss's plan. Whether he agreed with it or not.
In his booth, Bipolar was quite unaware of any of this. His mood was quickly going into full downswing, and it wouldn't take much to set him off. The Band was now in the middle of their penultimate song for the evening, and it was reminding Thom of a girl he'd once loved and been left by. He was sobbing now, and when he had finished his latest drink, he hurtled the bottle at the stage. It shattered, throwing shards of glass in all directions. Ginger was hit in the leg by one shard, and though not too serious, her cut began to bleed.
They stopped playing at once, of course. Cameron helped Ginger to a seat, and worked on dressing her wound. Alecstar and Emma jumped off the stage and followed Darius, Tom, and Tiejo toward the large man who had thrown the bottle. He jumped up and drew a dagger from his boot, and slashed about with it in their general direction.
Luckily, he was now drunk enough that his movements weren't particularly coordinated, and he was stumbling. While the others weren't too worried about his ability to do them any great harm, they were nevertheless cautious; but Tiejo stepped right in and grabbed the blade away from him. Then Darius took hold of his arm and twisted it behind his back. The others drew daggers of their own, while Tiejo tucked Bipolar's away somewhere.
Drunk though he was, the chief enforcer's body was trained almost to the point of instinct, and without quite thinking what he was doing, he flipped Darius over his shoulder, towards the daggers the others had pointed at him. They swiftly drew back to avoid stabbing Darius, and Thom kicked the blade from Tom's hand. The enforcer ducked and rolled in the direction the dagger had gone, and picked it up. Rising, he backed towards the bar, picked up another empty bottle, and smashed it against the bar to make a weapon for his other hand.
Darius was back on his feet, and Tiejo had decided to take his stolen dagger back out and given it to Tom. But behind them, Bipolar's enforcers were closing in to help their chief. From where he was treating Ginger, Cameron shouted to his friends to watch their backs. They turned to find themselves at least evenly matched. Darius shouted to the bartender to ask if he'd called the police yet. He hadn't, but that shook the man out of his stupor enough to go for a t-mail bubble to do so.
Meanwhile, InterGang's enforcers were closing all around them. Whether the Chaos members would win or not, they'd be coming out of this in bad shape.
Just then, the door burst open, and in rushed five enforcers from LandOrder, along with several spies and Don Breakhead himself. The latter headed straight for Bipolar, for he knew he was the one who most evenly matched InterGang's chief enforcer in strength. The others went to help against the rest of InterGang's enforcers, while Milkman contacted Illuminatus to let her know what was happening. She seemed (as Milkman had expected) to be unsurprised, and to be rather poorly hiding her pleasure at the turn of events. All she said, however, was that she'd send reinforcements straight away.
Meanwhile, the battle was going in LandOrder's favor, and Chief Underground escorted the Chaos party outdoors. Tom was shouting that they needed to get their things from their rooms, and Ginger added that they'd left their instruments behind, too. But Underground said it was more important to get out with their lives, and more enforcers from InterGang were likely to get here before the police.
Sure enough, as they headed for their conestoga, they saw it was already in enemy hands. They headed back towards the inn, and Don Breakhead came out, limping and bleeding in several places. He reached them and rasped out, "You... should see... the other guy." He tried to grin, but it came out as more of a wince. Then he got serious. "Gonna... talk to... Chieftain. Maybe... Primus. If..." He stopped to cough, and mumbled, "Water..."
Underground wasn't sure if he meant he needed a drink, or if he was trying to say something about Cabbit Atwater, who was still inside, and for all Jasp knew could be dead. But he shook his head and said, "Don, if they knew we were watching these people, our transcommunication may be compromised. If you're going to talk to Don Chieftain, you should send a messenger. You're obviously in no condition to translocate."
Breakhead did his best to nod, and glanced toward the inn for a moment, before turning back to his chief spy. "Good... thinking. Get... Woodrat. He's... in town... yes?"
"Yes. You should get somewhere safe, though, Don, and get some attention. But first, InterGang has their wagon. What should we do?" He glanced back the way they'd just come, and saw more enforcers coming, joining those at the Band's wagon and- some of them- breaking off to head towards the party just outside the inn.
"Wish... I could... talk to Chieftain... and Primus, first." He glanced in the direction of the approaching enemies, and shook his head. "No time. I'll go... back in. Get someone... to help me home. You... get them in... one of our... wagons. Go with them... report when... safe. Or await... instructions."
"Yes, Don." Turning to the others, he said, "Follow me."
They did so, hurrying up, but then Darius asked, "Hey, where's Tiejo?"
A head popped out of the wagon they were heading for, and replied, "Here Tiejo is! Hurry! Some stuffs I brought from rooms!"
They all piled into the back of the wagon, and Underground climbed into the cockpit. Behind them, the InterGang enforcers were now running to catch them before they could take off. In the distance the police were coming, but it looked like they'd be a bit too late to help. But Cameron chanted a quick incantation, and tossed a fireball at their pursuers, pushing them back. Those directly behind the lead enforcers fell back like dominoes, and the wagon took to the air.
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