The Sugar Quill
Author: Calanthe (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Vignettes 2: Of the Causes of Magic  Chapter: Default
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Vignettes 2: Of the Causes of Magic

Vignettes 2: Of the Causes of Magic.


by Calanthe Borrible.


Disclaimer: With the exception of Elizabeth Figg, all characters and settings are the property of JK Rowling; I do not have permission to use them and I am not making any profit from doing so.


Author’s Note: N.B.  This story is part of a series begun before the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  The series takes the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as its starting point, and although I intend to braid into the original concept some of the information revealed in Phoenix, not everything will be the same.


This fic was inspired by my grandmothers—because little old ladies can be heroes too, in all sorts of unexpected ways.  I’m sorry it’s taken so long; it was a difficult story to write in the first place, and it’s been a bad few months since the end of the thesis.  Still, I got there in the end…


For Spartina, in the hope that she hasn’t given up on me yet.




In the harsh afternoon light her hands were stark shapes against the pages, bones draped in rags of brittle skin: a mummy’s hands.  Her lips pinched bitterly.  She hitched her knees higher under the rug.  Old aches deepened sharply in her bones; she slitted her eyes against them, squinted down at the book in her lap. 

Light stripped the pages to yellow blanks.  She knew perfectly well what was printed on them: The author respectfully dedicates her work to her teacher and friend, Arabella Mary Buckley Figg, magistra artes magicae, with much gratitude, and so on.  But she sniffed crossly anyway.

‘Anything else I can do for you, Mother?  While I’m on my feet?’

‘I will have a cup of tea, if you’d be so kind, Elizabeth.  And pull that blind down, the sun’s in my eyes!’  Her voice was thin and cracked in her ears.  She hunched sourly over the book.

Behind her, the floorboards creaked, and a stick thumped onto the carpet.  A blocky shadow stumped past her elbow, reached up an arm to the blind.  The light muted to heavy gold, pulled Arabella’s chin down between her shoulders, weighted her eyelids.  She jerked her head up sharply.  ‘Ridiculous,’ she snapped, ‘needing that thing at your age—Not that low, you silly old woman, I can’t see a thing!’ A long dark tail curled above her toes.  Bright green eyes regarded her insolently for a moment over the edge of the footstool.  She narrowed her own eyes, glared meanly back; they blinked, and vanished, and after a moment the tail gave an ostentatiously dismissive flick.

Elizabeth twitched the blind up an inch.  ‘Better?’


‘I’ll make that tea then, shall I?  Not that I usually have tea after half-past four in my own house—’

‘Yes, yes, you do that, old woman.’ 

Now the pages were ivory, dusted with faint blurs that might be letters.  She squinted down at them fixedly; they did not grow clear with glaring, but after a few moments, she heard the walking-stick thump hard into the carpet, pivot toward the door.  From the doorway there came a sour mutter: ‘Would it be too much to ask you to wave your magic wand and conjure up your tea for yourself, Mother?’

Her breath hitched sharply; pain tore through her chest, and her head reeled.  Her fingers seized into claws.  Paper buckled under her nails—

Shadow bulked on the arm of her chair, poured onto her knees, a startling weight: she choked, gasped air into her lungs, her heart hammering painfully.   Green eyes blinked up at her in slow satisfaction.  Whiskers flicked.  A black tail whisked over her knee, curled around fat haunches.  The cat settled itself deeper into her lap, patted her leg proprietorially with one paw. 

‘Shoo!’ she wheezed.  ‘Horrid beast—’

Mother!’  A warning bellow from the head of the stairs.  ‘If I come back and find you’ve turned Miss Purrsey into anything, I shall turn you out in the street!’

Arabella’s mouth creased bitterly.  She squeezed her eyes into hard lines, knotted her fingers in the knee-rug and jerked its folds straight across her lap.  Lumps of Elizabeth’s crocheted antimacassar dug hard against her ribcage.  She made a cross, involuntary noise, shuffled against the stiff chair-back; newly-familiar pain bloomed in her spine as she moved.  She stopped, and it faded to a dull ache again, slowly.  Her breath huffed faintly in her nose.  From downstairs, she heard clattering, and a gravelly, tuneless hum that dragged her chin toward her breast, slowed her breath to a rasp in her nose.  Behind her eyelids, light shifted, puddled, streaked into colours—scarlet, poison yellow, sickly green…

A small boy slammed into a stone wall; above a chaos of shouts and spells, she heard bone splinter.  A stocky girl stumbled mid-spell and fell, clutching a purple flame to her chest, her wand tumbling from a suddenly slack hand.  Arabella closed her eyes to the sight of them, gritted her teeth, forced her wand up against a weight of dead stone, dead spells.  ‘Suscita,’ she croaked.  The noise of the battle swallowed the word.  Her lips peeled back from her teeth.  She sucked breath into tight lungs.  ‘Suscita.

Under her feet, stone quivered.  Around her, spells stirred, sank back into stupor.  She forced her chin up, pushed up her wand in a double-handed stroke of Invocation—

 A shrill scream split her ears.  Her eyes jerked open; she scrabbled weak-fingered after her wand.  The scream stopped…in the silence, she recognised a kettle’s voice, and blood forced its way into her face, a weak warmth.

She lifted a hand, scrubbed at her cheeks.  Her fingers were bare bones against crumpled skin; she pulled them away, forced her back straighter against the tortuous antimacassar, arranged her forearms deliberately along the arms of the chair, her hands like a skeleton’s atop tapestry pansies, and squinted fiercely at the window. 

After a moment, beyond the white haze of Elizabeth’s net curtain, she made out shapes: a ragged hedge, a low brick-red roof, a tall square housefront, windows that shone with reflected light—

The stairs creaked.  She huffed her throat clear.  ‘Elizabeth!’

‘What is it now, Mother?’

‘That house—come here, old woman!’  On her knees, the cat lifted its head.  The tip of its tail brushed against Arabella’s knee, sent a thread of cold chasing up her spine.

‘Which house?’ said Elizabeth from behind the chair-back.

‘That one!’  She jabbed her chin at the window.  ‘Is that the boy’s home?’

‘The Potter lad?’  Elizabeth snorted.  ‘Wouldn’t go so far as to say home.  That’s the Dursley place; he lives there in the summer.  Did you want this cup of tea or not?’

‘Yes, yes, put it there.’  She lifted one pile of bones a little, waved it at the table by her elbow, let it fall again before it could crumble to nothing.  Her head sank back towards her chest; bone whined faintly in her neck.  ‘Old fool—Albus.’  A shadow loomed above her; she flinched, sharply.  Then Elizabeth’s hand appeared over the arm of the chair, scratched behind the cat’s ears with one thick finger, and her face warmed again. 

The hand vanished, and the shadow followed it, left behind a cup at the corner of her eye.  Steam curled up from weak tea.  Crumbly currant-dotted biscuits perched on the edge of a saucer.  Arabella lifted her head.  The heavy light set her eyes swimming; she squeezed them shut, poked out her chin with a hard sniff.  Her fingers dug into the arms of the chair. 

‘I’m dying, old woman,’ she said into gold-tinged darkness.  The words were gall in her mouth. 

Beyond the curtain, she heard a bird’s wings like a distant heartbeat.  Young voices, clear and high.  The grumble of Muggle wheels and engines along Muggle streets.  The cat shifted on her knees, stilled…‘Glad to hear it,’ snapped Elizabeth.  ‘A woman oughtn’t to be outlived by her own mother-in-law, it’s unnatural.  Just don’t do it in my house, that’s all I ask.  I won’t have you haunting me, Mother!’

Her breath caught hard in her lungs.  The world blurred around her; she reeled, clawed harder at the tapestry.  ‘D’you think—I have any intention of haunting you?  Or anyone else?  I’ll die where I please—’

‘Now, don’t you be morbid, Mother.  You know what that mediwitch said.  You’ll see out two hundred just to spite me.’  The world steadied, slowly, as Elizabeth went on, ‘Now you drink up that tea and eat your biscuits, I won’t have good food going to waste in this house.’

‘Morbid.’  She scratched a finger across threads of wool, picked at the stem of a pansy with a nail.  ‘What would you know?’  Her hand crumpled, fell like a dead thing, slack and cold over the arm of the chair.  ‘I’ve lost my virtue, Elizabeth.’

There was a sour snort from behind her chair.  ‘I’ve seen your wedding portrait, Mother.  You never had any virtue to lose.’ 

‘Hold your tongue, old woman.’ Words stuck in her throat; she sniffed again, weakly, shook her head, hunched back against the antimacassar.  Silence echoed in her ears, in the space around her.  ‘I remember your wedding-day,’ she said into it at last.  Her voice was thin and tired.

Floorboards creaked, then bedsprings; at the edge of Arabella’s sight, Elizabeth lowered herself to sit on the foot of the bed.  ‘So do I.’  A cat arched against one stout calf, colourless in a bright slant of sunlight.  Elizabeth reached down one stiff hand to scratch its ears.  Her mouth in its web of wrinkles was wry.  ‘By the end of the day I thought I’d married into a madhouse.  By the end of the honeymoon, I knew I had.’

Arabella turned her face away.  ‘Never could understand what my boy saw in you,’ she muttered at the arm of the chair.  ‘My Antony.  Old woman…’  Her eyelids sank.  She forced them open, glared sidelong at the bright squares beyond the curtain.  ‘I’d have a decade yet, but for that school!  Those spells—the Foundation spells, the Headmastery—Minerva doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  I wasn’t strong enough.  What he did—the Riddle boy—he was trying to smother the spells, you understand, stifle them.  I had to wake them again, almost from dead stone.  It took everything I had.  Nothing left.  Nothing left…’ 

Elizabeth reached down to scoop up the cat, hoisted it against her shoulder.  ‘You’ll recover, Mother, you know that.  The mediwitch said—’

She snorted, viciously.  ‘The mediwitch said.  I know better.  So should you, old woman!  Nothing left in me, only dregs, no use at all to anyone…’  Her hands slid across the tapestry, fell into her lap.  She burrowed them under the edge of the rug.  Her eyelids drooped; her voice dwindled to a thread.  ‘What’s he up to now?  Young fool.  I don’t know…nobody knows.  Nothing since March, not a sound, not a sign…  But he’ll come back!’  She sniffed.  ‘And what will they do without me then, old woman?  Eh?  My boys and girls?  You’ll keep your eye on them, Elizabeth!’

At the edge of her sight, Elizabeth’s brows lowered into an ominous line.

‘All of them.  Jasper and Gertie and Peg.  Lydia.  Ancilla—she’s done well for herself, Ancilla, she’s Head of—no.’  No, that was wrong.  Her head swayed wearily from side to side…  ‘Remus—you remember Remus, old woman.’  Her voice shook.

‘Tall boy.  Grey in his hair.  I taught him how to darn his stockings.  Why you people insist on wearing such inconvenient underwear, I’ll never know—’

She reared up, swung around, chin jutting out in a snake’s strike.  ‘In my day, some subjects were not discussed by decent women!’ 

‘Well, it’s not your day any more, is it, Mother?’ said Elizabeth with sour satisfaction.  ‘Now you drink your tea and read your book, and don’t—’

‘Helen Emilia.  Did I tell you about Helen Emilia?  Nominated to the Magistracy!’  She gave a sharp nod.  ‘First causes—the origins of magic.  And not just physical causes…It’s a good book,’ she said fiercely; and then the strength ran out of her again, and the old aches and the new pains pushed her down into the chair.  She batted a hand against the book limply, through folds of rug.  ‘An important book.  Nobody’s ever thought of it before—reinterpretation.  No fixed meanings, no fixed values, only perception and use…Madam Oldfangle would never have accepted it.  But they will!’  Her voice was weak, a thread.  ‘Who would have thought it would be her, eh?  Of all my boys and girls?’ 

After a moment, Elizabeth grunted.  ‘If you’re not going to talk sense, Mother, I have ironing to do.  Miss Purrsey, you stop here and take care of your Gran for Mummy.  Mogget, Tuppence, come along now.’  The bed creaked again, slowly, as she levered herself up.  Shadow swelled for a moment, lumbered away before the new cold could seep into Arabella’s bones.  The groans of the floorboards faded into the distance.

Arabella’s lips pinched with distaste.  ‘Gran.’  She dragged a hand from under the rug, pushed folds of wool against a smug flank.  ‘Shoo, you great lump!  Off!’  But Miss Purrsey’s tail only twitched into a smoother curve.  Arabella’s mouth puckered.  She looked away.  The bright dazzle of sun on distant glass caught her eyes. 

‘Mph.’  Her voice wavered in the quiet.  She squinted against light and weariness, glared at bricks and the pale outlines of fence palings.  ‘Well…even fools can have good ideas now and again.  I suppose.’

The slant of light from under the blind eased across the carpet, edged up over the rim of the footstool, bled colour out of gaudy woolen sunflowers, thread by thread.  It crept over the toes of her slippers, brightened the last curls of steam above the cup to gold.  She chewed on silence, stared into the light, stared it down.

Somewhere in the brilliance, a shadow moved.  She blinked, squinted harder, stuck her chin out crossly—

Her back jerked against the antimacassar; a sharp ache shot between her shoulderblades.  Her nails dug into wool.  ‘Elizabeth—’  The name was a hoarse croak.  She wheezed in a breath, coughed her throat clear.  ‘Elizabeth!

‘What is it this time, Mother?’ came a blurred growl from downstairs.

The shadow reached the gate of the house, halted for a moment.  Arabella clawed at her sleeves.  ‘Where is it?  What have you done with, it, you old fool—ah!’  A thin disc came free of the cloth.  She pinched smooth wood between her fingertips, pushed down, felt fine carven lines against her skin: the phoenix emblem, the Venite

Her wrists shook violently, and her fingers went slack.  The disc slithered down her wrist, over her lap, vanished between cloth and cushion.  She hissed, clutched for her sleeve again—

At the edge of her sight there was a brief flare of colour, violet bleeding into white.  The shadow ghosted through it, toward the house, as it died. 

She caught her breath.  Her hands curled into fists, nails snagging on cloth and skin.  ‘Well,’ she wheezed at the light.  ‘Well…then we must hope that dregs are enough.’  But it was a long moment before she could free her fingers from her sleeve, stretch over the arm of the chair for her wand.  Sullen embers flared in her shoulder, elbow, wrist, but she closed her fingers as tightly as she could on the familiar wood, dragged it close and slid her feet from footstool to floor.  Lines of fire arced up her shins.  She hissed, planted her heels hard and pushed up against the arms of the chair.  Her joints whined.  The rug began to slide.  The book tumbled from her knees.  The cat clawed at her sharply, sprang away with a yowl.


She closed her eyes, drew a breath and drew strength up from her heart with it.  A schoolchild’s exercise, and what gathered in her was weak, erratic; but it would do.  She let the breath go, and the world and the light fade around her with it. 

Her heart froze in her chest.  She heard a harsh croak—her own voice gasping after breath.  Then she heard something snap.  Fire blazed up, through ankles, knees, hips—jaw—eyes—she crumpled—


Her nose was thick with the smell of dust.  Small pains dug into her palms, swelled along her arms.  Her temple throbbed where it pressed against rough wood.  A long wet trickle traced the line of her jaw, trailed into the sharp ache of her neck.  She forced her eyes open, burned a glare sidelong through a whirl of colour and dark, and her breath hissed in her teeth triumphantly.

She was on the footpath outside Number Four, Privet Drive.

She breathed in hard.  The dark haze pushed back a little.  Shadows clotted into a shape before her; it was a moment before she recognised the line of a cloak draped over high shoulders, folds of cloth falling back from an outstretched hand.  Then, beyond the shadow, a door swung back, and a woman peered out, her face sharp with annoyance.


Dark wood caught a lazy gleam of sunlight.  ‘Imperio.’

The woman’s face slackened abruptly.  Bony hands fell limp against floral frills.  Narrow eyelids drooped.  A shiver crawled down Arabella’s spine; she tried to gather herself, straighten her back, but her legs were cold and slack in the tangles of her robe.  She gathered breath instead, forced her hand to close on her wand.

‘Petunia Dursley.’  The words rang with malicious satisfaction.  ‘You’re not as strong as your sister was, are you?  A shame.  Still.  Open the door, Petunia.  Step back from your threshold.  Invite me in.’

Over the woman’s shoulder, another face appeared, round, puckered with temper.  ‘Mum?  Mum, who’s that?  Mum?  He’s—Mum, what are you doing?’

‘D-dudley?’  A tremor ran through the woman’s face.  ‘Diddums, go back inside—’

Arabella forced her wand up, began a stroke of Avert.  ‘Petunia Dursley—this is the creature that—murdered your—sister!’  She heard her voice crack and fail in the space between them.  There was a slow swirl of shadow in her eyes; red gleams lighted on her, and saw a flicker of expression like a contemptuous smile.  The wand rose negligently.  Scarlet light flooded her eyes.

Protego,’ she gasped.  Her strength vanished and her hand fell, but the light sheered away from her.  Heat stole the breath from her lungs; she slumped against the gate-post, slithered down it, toward the gravel.  Tiny petals drifted down at the edge of her sight, shrivelled and brown.  There was a long, silent moment.  Then a brief, high laugh rang in her ears, and the shadow turned its back on her, and tilted its head at the woman waiting in the doorway.

‘Open the door, Petunia.’

Arabella forced up her chin.  ‘He’ll kill you—and then he’ll kill your son—’  Sudden terror flashed through pale green eyes.  ‘And then he’ll take your sister’s boy—’

The flower-frilled bosom swelled.  The thin mouth worked for a moment.  Then, suddenly, a shrill yelp spilt Arabella’s ears: ‘You get away from my Dudley, you—you—you—freak!’

The door slammed shut.  Breath hitched in Arabella’s ribs like a laugh—

A streak of fire seared her eyes.   She hissed, braced her shoulder against the gate-post, curled her fingers stiffly around her wand…the fire died, and she saw that the door had held, but she dragged her wand up again, gritted her teeth, and aimed a shaking Casting stroke at the shadow’s heart.  Her voice grated in her ears.  ‘Pelletemere!

Strength left her with the word.  The darkness whirled on her; for one clear moment she glimpsed outraged scorn in red eyes.  Then there was a sharp crack—

Something snapped in her head, flooded her nose, slithered scalding-hot over her mouth.  She choked on the smell of rust.  Her stomach clenched, heaved violently.  A storm of dark and colour blurred her eyes, sent her reeling.  She fell—


…Small knots of pain pushed faintly, insistently, against her temple, her chin, the heels of her hands.  She forced her eyes open a crack, saw shadows and faint shapes the colour of dust, unrecognisable.

She closed her eyes again.  ‘Elizabeth.’  The name dried to ash in her throat. Old woman.  Cold gripped her by the back of her neck, shook her till gravel rattled under her ribs and hands, spilled her slack against the stones.  Ice gathered at the corners of her eyes, oozed glacier-slow onto her skin.  Then, faintly, from somewhere very far away, she heard the thump of a walking-stick on paving-stones, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes.  Breath lurched in her throat like a sob. 

Mother?  Mother, what have you gone and done now!  I thought you said—’

Silence.  High above her, a bird chattered, broke into a bright warble.  Wind rustled in dry grass. 

Thick hands gripped her shoulder and hip, heaved stiffly.  Gravel pushed against her shoulders.  Her head lolled slackly; her mouth fell open, and breath gurgled in her throat.  Light flooded her eyes.  She choked, squinted, made out the outline of a face above her—a familiar thick pucker of brows, blunt mouth drawn to a harsh point.  She felt fingers grope along her wrist, tug at an eyelid, pinch her forearm.  She closed her eyes again. 

‘Oh,’ said Elizabeth, and then, ‘Well,’ and then, sharper, ‘Well, let this be a lesson to you not to go poking your nose into other people’s business, Mother!’  Then Arabella heard a distant clatter, and the ghost of a bellow that had once commanded whole wards:  ‘Dursley!’

She forced a rasp of voice into her throat.  ‘Elizabeth.  Old woman—’

Cold brushed over her forehead.  After a moment, she recognised the touch: fingertips.  ‘What is it, Mother?’

‘Eh.’  She shifted her head, a little.  Stones dug into her skin, pressure without pain. ‘My box—you know the one.  Letters.  For my boys and girls—things they need to know.  Make sure they get them.  Gertie.  Jasper.  Lydia Carmody—thinks I don’t know what she’s about—silly girl.  One for Remus.  Helen Emilia.  Ancilla Warden—no.  No.  She—died.  Long time ago now.  Don’t bother with the letter for Ancilla, old woman—’

A large palm closed around her fingers.  ‘I’ll send your letters, Mother, you save your breath.  Dursley!’

She screwed up her mouth.  ‘Old woman—’

A scrape of wood and hinges.  ‘M-mrs Figg?’  The cold gripped her again, shook her weakly, let her go.  She shifted her fingers against Elizabeth’s palm.  There was no response.  Her mouth moved slackly.  That boy.  Not safe—like this.   Need—Secret-Keeper.

‘You took your time,’ snapped Elizabeth over her head.  ‘My mother-in-law’s just gone and killed herself for your sake, Dursley—’

Her breath stopped in her lungs.  For an instant, her heart pounded in her chest, hard as hope.  Killed myself.  For your sake.  To keep you safe.


Her lips peeled back from her teeth fiercely.  She drew a breath—another—as slowly and surely as she could.  The same child’s technique of preparation, but it served: the ghost of strength rose in her heart, drifted into her bones, skin, mouth.  She shaped a word on unresponsive lips—Immisceme—and the fence, the garden beds, the house, built themselves around her, solid lines in the gathering cold. 

‘Your—Killed? I’ll—I’ll call an ambulance…’ 

‘Don’t waste your time, it won’t do a scrap of good.  Just fetch a blanket.’

A shrill singsong; distant as it was, it grated in her ears.  ‘Dudley!  Diddums darling, be a good boy and fetch Mummy a blanket from the cupboard?  Quickly!’  Then footsteps scritched nervously across gravel.  ‘M-mrs Figg—your mother-in-law—is she—well, one of them?’

‘One of what, Dursley?’

Extende.  Faint presences, like ghosts, drifted behind the walls: the woman, the wizard, the man, the boy.  She was shivering again.  The strength to bind them was gone from her bones.

‘A—’  More fussing noises.  ‘Well—a witch—’


Breath caught in her lungs like bitter needles.  Ice oozed from her eyes, sealed the lids shut, coated her cheeks, her mouth, her throat.  Something touched her scalp amid thin braids of hair and thick pins, settled there and cradled her head. 

‘That thing.  It went away when I…am I a—witch?’

‘No. Enough that it was a wizard—or some such magical thing.  The rules are the rules, doesn’t matter if you’re as much a Muggle as I am.’  Surprise cracked Arabella’s eyes open, jolted slivers of ice out of her lungs.  She hacked weakly.  Something stroked her forehead, so light, smoothing the tremors from her bones before they could begin.  ‘What, Mother, you thought after all these years I hadn’t picked up even the basics?’ 

Something like a snort caught in her nose.  She rolled her head against the broad hand, gathered shards of breath and scraps of strength and shaped the next word: Conligate.  The ghosts drew closer, melted into the walls. 

‘Mum?’  Gravel crunched.  A voice she should know blared distantly, ‘Mum, what’s going on?  Is that old biddy having a heart attack?’  

She hauled breath into lungs stiff with ice.

‘Thank you, Diddums, now you go back inside.  Quickly!’


‘Dudley!  Inside!  Now!’

Far away, a door slammed.  The sound jolted her down into the stones.  The hand against her scalp shifted slightly; that light tough brushed her forehead again.

‘Don’t you stir yourself, Mother.  That’s right.  Just you rest, now.  It won’t be long.’  Elizabeth’s voice was harsh. 

A faint crunch of gravel.  A sharp uncertain voice: ‘Lily was—murdered?’

‘If that’s what Mother said, that’s what happened.  I wouldn’t know.’

Intranimeus—occultarcanum.  The walls quivered, melted, sank slowly down to knot at the base of her heart like pain.

‘Nobody told me she was murdered.  The letter didn’t say anything about murder!’

Vivus.  Her lips were stiff, frozen.

‘That—that thing.  Will it come back?  Will it—’


Elizabeth’s voice cracked, stone under a hammer-blow: ‘Will you hold your tongue, Dursley, and let my mother-in-law die in peace!’


Silence.  Fingers shifted faintly in her hair.  She forced her lips open a crack.  Her voice creaked out like a glacier’s voice.  ‘Fidelius—’

The touch vanished from her scalp.  Elizabeth’s voice battered at her ears, vanished behind thickening ice.  Mother!  Mother—what have you done now—Mother!—

 ‘All safe now—’  She felt the words slack in her mouth, forced them out triumphantly as the ice slithered cold into her heart and sealed the secret inside.  Tell Helen Emilia—it worked—



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