Nicole Williams is an Arete—a fourth child with magical abilities—yet no matter how hard she tries, she can’t Channel her power. In fact, she seems to be the only student at Katon University who fails at magic.
This doesn’t stop her from competing to be included on a university-led expedition to Arches National Park. She is determined to show everyone, but mostly herself, that she does belong. Yet, to qualify for the trip, she must produce at least a speck of Wind magic, and that appears to be impossible.
Nicole turns to her best friend, Lizzie, for help, along with fellow student Austin Young, who is considered by all a magical rarity. He also happens to be the hottest guy on campus and just might be interested in her.
As the competition progresses, Nicole wonders if she’s making the right choice—especially when she learns that the strange fossils they’ll be studying in Arches might not be as dead as everyone thinks.
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Nicole pulled her car into the parking spot and rested her shaking hands on the wheel. How had this day crept up on her so quickly?
She lowered her forehead to her hands and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply for several moments before grabbing her marked-up map of campus from the seat next to her and studying the notes she’d made the night before. Nicole wanted to be absolutely certain she knew where to go. Asking for directions—looking like she wasn’t already used to being on campus, like she really was a freshman—would destroy the confidence she was trying to build inside.
If only Katon University were a normal college. That she could handle. But Katon was an Arete university. This was a completely different arena—a magical one. Instead of only studying the basics of English, math, and history, Nicole and the other students would be learning how to control the elements using their Arete powers.
Nicole’s cell phone rang from deep inside her purse, and she dug past pens, her wallet, gum, ChapStick, and a bunch of small notepads to get it.
“Hey, Lizzie,” Nicole said, tucking her blond hair out of the way of the phone.
“Where are you? You told me you wanted to be here early.” Lizzie dropped her voice to a whisper. “There’s a lot of eye candy in class already. You should hurry.”
Nicole smiled. “I’m coming. Just parked.”
They ended the conversation, and Nicole shoved her phone inside her purse before getting out of her car. She zipped up the hoodie which Seattle’s humid, chilly weather demanded. Chilly in August. She shook her head. Texas was not chilly in August.
The walk to class would’ve probably felt short if not for Katon University’s buildings. They loomed over her, dark blots against a cloudy sky. Some of them had so many water stains, it was nearly impossible to tell the original color of their bricks. Gargoyles perched along the edges of the roofs, and more than once, Nicole felt as if she was being watched.
She shivered in her hoodie and hugged her purse to her chest, then forced herself to stop looking up.
A bell rang somewhere, and students began pouring out of the buildings. It didn’t take long for her to notice them noticing her. Nearly all of the students made eye contact—some even outright stared. Was her mascara streaking from the rain? Could they tell she was a freshman?
She wanted to yell at them to stop staring. Instead, she began jogging, taking a shortcut across a patch of grass, but slipped and almost fell. Curse the rain! And curse the gross, slimy, disgusting moss that grew everywhere, even in the grass!
Twelve minutes after leaving her car, she entered her very first college class—math. She’d tried everything not to have it scheduled first, but with no luck. Nicole sank into the seat next to Lizzie, grateful to be alive still, though feeling silly for the exaggerated emotion.
Lizzie’s red curls bounced as she spoke animatedly to the brunette sitting to her left.
She finally noticed Nicole and spun. “You’re here!” Lizzie grabbed Nicole’s arm, her face serious. “Figured anything out yet?”
“It’s only been an hour and a half since I last saw you. Of course I haven’t.”
Lizzie frowned. “Man, I’m sorry. I expected being here would trigger it.”
“I know. Everyone stared at me on the way to class. I’m positive I’m the only Arete on campus who hasn’t found a focus and can’t Channel.” Most people found their focus—the object or action that helped them control magic—within days or weeks of Restarting.
Lizzie shook her head. “No, you’re not. The chick I’ve been talking to hasn’t even Restarted yet and she didn’t know about Channeling.”
Nicole’s shoulders fell. “That hardly counts—my Restart happened months ago! And I’m no closer now than when it happened.”
Lizzie patted her arm sympathetically.
Nicole shrugged and turned her attention to the professor who’d just entered the room. He didn’t introduce himself, didn’t make eye contact with any of the students, and started going over the course objectives immediately, without waiting for anyone to figure out where he was beginning.
Nicole’s thoughts quickly left the classroom at the sound of his monotonous voice. She glanced at the brunette sitting by Lizzie, her heart swelling with pity for the girl.
Restarting late was painful—Nicole would know. She’d been late by two months and it had been awful, especially since the high school she and Lizzie attended only had one other Arete. Both he and Lizzie Restarted close to their eighteenth birthdays, and everyone else had watched Nicole constantly, waiting for her to do or say something that showed she sensed and controlled magic. But Nicole seemed destined to be slow with everything magical in her life. And after several weeks passed with no sign of Restarting, some people questioned whether she really was a fourth child.
Then it finally came. Nicole blushed, pushing that memory away. It still embarrassed her to think of it.
The teacher droned on. Nicole looked at the syllabus on her phone and sighed, leaning back in her seat. This particular math class would probably be boring. As much as she disliked math, she’d always been a good student and was ahead of the material already. Maybe they’d let her test out of the required class.
After the teacher’s long review of the order of operations, the bell finally rang and Lizzie checked her phone, tucked it into her backpack, and stood. “I can’t wait—we’ve got Magical Items throughout History next.”
“I know. I read up on the professor this morning. He’s supposed to be really good, and the student reviews on him were almost all positive.”
Lizzie mock-glared at Nicole. “That’s what you were doing instead of helping me kill spiders?”
Nicole grinned. “Sorry. I’ll join you next time.”
“There might not be a next time,” Lizzie said, leading the way out of the room. “I’ll probably end up dead, like pretty much everyone else who’s lived in our building.”
Nicole grabbed her shoulder. “You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding.”
Lizzie only paused for a moment. “Well, kind of.” She started walking again. “There have been deaths, but not for a while.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Lizzie shrugged. “It gives the place character.”
“No, it gives the place a bad feeling. No wonder I get the creeps every time I go in it.”
“The spiders give you the creeps, not the apartment.”
“Who died? And how long ago?”
“The last one was a man. A Jake Smith or something. It’s been a couple years.”
Nicole glanced at Lizzie. “How did he die?”
“Don’t know—they found him in his apartment. No bullet wounds or anything like that. It didn’t look like murder and I didn’t finish reading the article.”
Nicole rolled her eyes at Lizzie’s casual attitude. People dying was a big deal.
They walked in silence for a moment, exiting the building. Nicole’s thoughts returned to the brunette Lizzie had been sitting next to, and again, feelings of empathy filled her heart. The poor girl. It wasn’t until Nicole Restarted that people stopped questioning whether or not she was an Arete. And though she’d been able to hide the fact that she had no idea what focus she’d need to use to Channel while in high school, she realized that college was a completely different scenario.
Channeling didn’t start at the same time for everyone. But why did she have to be the one who struggled? It was so embarrassing. At least Mother and Dad didn’t really care. Or, if they did, they didn’t show it. But neither of them was an Arete, so it wasn’t terribly important to them. Mother was the first child in her family, and Dad the second in his.
Nicole took a deep breath of humid air and pulled her hoodie closer around her. “How long ago was that girl’s birthday?”
“It’s been a week.” Lizzie dug out a bottle of juice from her purse and offered some to Nicole.
Nicole shook her head, and Lizzie took a drink.
“For her sake,” Nicole said, “I hope she doesn’t Restart the way I did.”
Lizzie choked on her juice, then wiped her mouth, laughing. “You mean, throwing up in class in front of your brand-new boyfriend and passing out in your own puke? Yeah, I hope she doesn’t have to experience that.”
“I’ll never forget the expression on his face when I came to.”
“Shortest relationship I’ve ever been in.”
The girls chuckled. Nicole relished the feeling—it had taken a long time for her to find humor in the experience.
She put her hands in her back pockets, purse strap over one shoulder. “At least I knew what was going on.” And she had—she’d stayed up late one night, reading about what happened when an Arete’s magic manifested itself. The Arete body could only handle so much sensory overload—passing out was the natural way to adjust to the change. That moment was called Restarting. And it was never fun.
Of course, throwing up didn’t usually happen. Nicole was just lucky that way.
“The idiot thought I was a freak.” She sighed. “I’m sure puking didn’t help.”
“He also knew that most Aretes are only unconscious for five minutes. You were gone for ten.” Lizzie flicked her eyes to Nicole. “Do you still think that being unconscious that long is connected to what’s keeping you from finding your focus?”
Nicole shrugged. She hadn’t talked to Lizzie about her feelings for a few months now. She and her parents had vacationed in Europe during the summer, while Lizzie had stayed in Texas. They’d tried to keep in contact through calls and email, but it started getting really expensive, and Nicole didn’t usually have Internet or cell coverage while she and her parents were out hiking and sightseeing.
The girls arrived at the building for their next class and entered the double doors, making their way to the correct room. It was a small auditorium with enough seating for fifty people. They sat on the second row and watched as a man with dark hair and thick, bushy eyebrows entered the room, carrying a box. The classroom got quiet as everyone realized this was their teacher.
Nicole knew his name was Professor Coolidge, that he was a world-renowned specialist in magical items. He spent half his time teaching at Katon University and the other half traveling, doing whatever things important people did. He was supposed to be one of the most powerful Aretes in the world.
Coolidge set the box under the desk, grabbed a dry-erase marker, and wrote his name on the board. His handwriting was big, bold. He used all uppercase letters. While he was writing, the students started talking again, and several more shuffled inside. Coolidge sat on his desk and waited for everyone to settle in.
“Welcome to your first Arete course. You’ll find my bio online, if you’re interested.” He folded his arms. “Things at Katon University are changing this year. It seems too many students are focusing so much on their ‘excellence in magic’ goals that they’re getting horrible grades in the very basic classes of math, science, history, and English.
“Completely unacceptable,” he said. “All Arete classes you’ve signed up for this semester, you’ll be allowed to keep. But if you receive a C- in any class, you won’t be eligible for any Arete classes come winter semester. And from there on out, if you don’t maintain satisfactory grades in your core classes, you’ll be automatically dropped from all Arete courses.”
Lizzie’s mouth popped open. “That’s so not fair.”
Nicole didn’t respond. She’d definitely have to work hard if she wanted to enjoy the same grades here as she had in high school.
Professor Coolidge waited for the buzz of whispering to die down, then grabbed the cardboard box from under the desk.
“Here, we’ll be focusing on the history and use of magically charged items.” He set the box on top of the desk and looked out over his students. “Since it’s a freshman course, the following question will be relevant. How many of you have had your Arete powers manifest already?”
Nicole couldn’t see anyone whose hand didn’t go up.
Coolidge sat on the desk next to the box. “How many of you had your powers manifest before eighteen?”
Around two-thirds of the class raised their hands, including Lizzie. Apparently, that one day before her birthday really meant a lot to her.
“Six months early?” He watched as about ten students raised their hands.
Professor Coolidge paused. “I need two students to help with a demonstration, so keep your hands up.” He pointed to a girl with really dark hair—obviously an Earth Arete. Then he inspected the others. “You,” he said, pointing to a guy, also dark-headed.
“Why didn’t he pick someone with a different hair color?” Lizzie asked. Her eyes widened as she stared at the guy. “Wowzers, he’s hot.”
Nicole couldn’t help but stare too. The guy had a five o’clock shadow, emphasizing his strong jawline. He held his broad shoulders back and walked with a confidence she’d never seen in high school. His eyes were as dark as his hair and they glanced across the students, landing on her for more than a second before moving to the board, where they stayed.
Nicole felt her cheeks flush at his attention and hoped no one noticed, especially Lizzie.
“Definitely up your alley,” Lizzie whispered.
Nicole hushed her, wanting to see why Coolidge needed volunteers, but she blushed even more at what Lizzie had said. Would a guy like that really go for her?
“What’s your name?” Professor Coolidge asked the girl.
She sniffed, flipped her hair back, and folded her arms. “Judith Ann Jackson.”
She said it so quietly, Nicole wondered about her body language. She acted stuck-up and pretentious. Usually, people like that were loud-spoken.
Professor Coolidge waved to the guy. “And you?”
“Austin.” His eyes didn’t leave the board.
Coolidge got off the desk. “Time for a demonstration. Both of you, out in the hall. Judith, I’ll have—”
“It’s Judith Ann.”
Coolidge looked like he wanted to roll his eyes. “Fine. Judith Ann. I’ll have you come in first. Both of you, please leave the classroom.”
As soon as the door shut behind them, Professor Coolidge started pulling objects out of the box and setting them on the desktop.
Several students got to their feet, wanting to see. Nicole and Lizzie were close enough that they didn’t have to stand, but they leaned forward.
The items didn’t appear to be anything special at first. A cup. A mousetrap. A necklace. Two skeleton keys. A fraying green beanie that looked like it was someone’s first crochet project. Then Coolidge pulled out a leather book. A slight glow around it caught Nicole’s eye, and she stared at it. It was definitely powerful—even she could sense its magic.
Suddenly, an intense feeling nearly overcame her. She wanted to jump over the row of chairs in front of her and steal the book from the professor. To protect it from him. She shook herself, pushing the desire away. What was wrong with her?
Coolidge fingered the leather cover for a moment and glanced at Nicole. Her cheeks burned and she dropped her eyes to her purse in her lap. Why was he looking at her? Could he sense her feelings? Impossible—no Arete could read minds or emotions.
Coolidge dropped the book on the desk, and Nicole looked up in time to see him motion to a girl near the doors.
“Have Judith Ann come in, please,” he said.
The girl did so, and Judith Ann strode inside. Coolidge waited for the doors to shut behind her before speaking.
“Arrange these objects according to their magical strength or importance.”
Judith Ann nodded, tucked a strand of dark hair behind an ear, and approached the desk. She started by waving her hands over the items one at a time, then picking them up and inspecting them. She turned the beanie inside out and righted it. She played with the cup and held the mousetrap for several seconds, an intense expression on her face. A minute passed. Two minutes. Five. She arranged the items, then rearranged them.
Students began to whisper, probably growing bored. But a look from Coolidge silenced them.
Finally, Judith Ann turned around, resting her hands on the desk behind her. “That was hard. Too hard. Should you really be testing freshmen like this?”
She seemed oblivious to everyone watching her. Professor Coolidge raised a bushy eyebrow. “It’s my class.”
He approached the desk and looked at what she’d done. He turned. “This was a good attempt, but incorrect. And that’s fine. No student gets it right the first try. When did your Arete powers manifest?”
She smiled. “Four months after my seventeenth birthday.” Her expression left no doubt in Nicole’s mind—the girl was very impressed with herself for her early accomplishment, even though she had absolutely no control over when it happened. No one did.
Coolidge didn’t seem very impressed, though. “Have you found your focus for Channeling?”
Lizzie snickered. “Like a kid.”
Nicole didn’t respond but definitely agreed with Lizzie. What an embarrassing focus.
Coolidge put the objects in a pile and glanced at Judith Ann. “Go ahead and return to your seat. Let Austin in on your way.”
Once Austin had entered the room, Coolidge gave him the instructions and sat back to watch.
The first thing Austin did was toss the mousetrap on the floor.
Then he spent less than ten seconds—literally, less than ten—putting the objects in order. He didn’t inspect them, hold them, or stare at them. He simply put them where he thought they should go.
When he finished, he returned to his seat and pulled out his phone.
Coolidge stared at the items, an expression of disbelief on his face. He cleared his throat. “Austin . . . you are completely correct. The mousetrap is ordinary—not magical.” He listed the order Austin had placed everything else in. “Cup, necklace, beanie, book . . . and this is definitely a first.” He stepped away from the desk and motioned to it. “Students, see what he’s done with the Keys of Kilenya and Ayunli?”
Nicole stared, still on the edge of her seat. Austin had put one key above the other.
Professor Coolidge looked at Austin. “Why did you do this, when you placed the others left to right?”
Austin didn’t look up. “Because the keys are the exact same in magical powers. Neither is better than the other.”
Coolidge raised his eyebrows. “That is correct.” He folded his arms, examining Austin, who still didn’t look up. “You’re the first student to sense this. Not even I can tell that they’re exactly the same, and I’m the foremost authority on magical items in the country. My knowledge of their history is how I know they’re the same in power.” He looked at the objects and back to Austin. “When did your magical powers manifest themselves?”
“Two months before my sixteenth birthday.”
Murmurs flowed through the auditorium and Coolidge dropped his arms, looking just as shocked as everyone seemed to feel.
Lizzie glanced at Nicole. “Any chance he’s lying?”
Nicole shrugged. How could she know?
Professor Coolidge didn’t say anything for several seconds, then whispered, “That’s nearly unheard of.”
“But not completely so,” Austin said.
“And how long did it take to find your focus?”
“I’ve never needed one.”
This time there were audible gasps. Nicole and Lizzie looked at each other again.
“Is that possible?” Lizzie asked.
“It must be,” Nicole said, though she couldn’t fathom not having a way to Channel. How did he grasp the magic that flowed around them? The slight pulsings that she’d grown accustomed to but which had always avoided her control?
Coolidge’s face was straight as he studied Austin. “Any family history of Aretes?”
Austin hesitated before responding. “My parents. And before you ask, yes, they were also fifteen when they Restarted. And no, neither of them used a focus.”
“A fourth child born to parents who are also Fourths? Rare, very rare.”
Austin glowered. Nicole knew that Aretes frequently married each other, but even they almost never had three, let alone four children.
“What’s he so angry about?” Lizzie asked.
“I don’t think he likes the attention,” Nicole said.
“So why’d he go along with the test thing?”
Nicole shrugged. “Coolidge didn’t give him much of a choice, did he?”
Professor Coolidge finally turned to the rest of the students. “Well, this object lesson leads us to the point of class today.”
Nicole looked at the clock on the wall. Because class had started late, there were only fifteen minutes left.
“For a large portion of the semester, I’ll be using a substitute.” He paused when everyone started talking and waited for silence to return.
Nicole leaned back in her seat and folded her arms, waiting for more.
“Have any of you heard the recent news of an expedition that will be taking place to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah?” Professor Coolidge asked.
Some people nodded, but most shook their heads. Nicole hadn’t heard anything of it.
“Magical pulsings have been sensed repeatedly by Aretes as they’ve hiked around some of the arches, and for several hundred years, people have gone missing while living or camping there. We’ve finally received permission from the government to head up an exploration party to figure out what has been going on.”
Nicole leaned forward. This sounded interesting.
“Naturally, I’ve been asked to take charge of the magical items on the expedition. They believe something is buried in the sand and rock there, and I’m determined to find out what. I’ve invited a colleague from Armitage University to accompany me.”
Several boos and hisses sounded through the auditorium. Nicole smiled—being from Texas, she had nothing against the Arete university there, but she understood the competition.
Coolidge continued. “The expedition team will be gone the last half of September through the end of November.”
Nicole blinked. That was a long time to have a substitute.
“I’m bringing several of my upper-grad students, but have decided to open the opportunity to three undergrads who will compete to be a part of the group.”
Nicole grinned. Mystery? Competition? Sounded like her kind of thing.
“Those who are interested will be required to perform four tasks similar to this one. The tasks won’t be a part of your grade, so don’t allow them to force you behind in your studies. Because those who do pass will need to drop their classes this semester, the university is considering the expedition as an internship.”
He pointed to Austin. “I expect you to be one of the students who competes.”
Austin nodded as if he’d known all along that Coolidge would ask him. Nicole wanted to wipe the smug expression off his face. Or kiss it off. Either worked for her.
“If you’re interested,” Professor Coolidge said, “I’ll be having a meeting here on Thursday at four thirty in the afternoon. We’ll go over the particulars of the tasks then.” He started putting the objects back in the box. “Your assignments this semester involve . . .”
Nicole didn’t pay attention to anything else, knowing she could look it up online later. Her breath caught in her throat as she considered competing to go on the expedition. Her pulse started racing. A competition of skills.
Should she do it? She’d never resisted a challenge before. And oh, how she yearned to prove herself. To be powerful. To show that she had talent, even though she had yet to unlock it.
She slumped in her chair. Why couldn’t she figure out her focus? Was something wrong with her? Something she’d missed in conversations with Lizzie, who knew so much more about being an Arete?
Nicole had been completely unable to produce one wisp of wind while Lizzie had already created fire. Even though it was only a spark, it was magic, and Lizzie had Channeled it.
Nicole’s eyes wandered to Austin at the end of her row, studying his phone. His dark hair and tan complexion looked great against the light blue shirt he wore.
How would it be never to use a focus? To be free of all crutches? And how would he have known he didn’t need one? Oh, yes—through his parents. With both of them being Aretes, he would know a lot about this world. In Nicole’s experience, most non-magical people were intimidated by and even fearful of practicing Aretes and didn’t speak of their world much. It drove her nuts that her own parents fell into this category.
She realized she was still staring at Austin and looked away, flushing. Had he noticed? She sneaked a glance at him, but he was still absorbed in his phone. Nicole bit her lip as a thought occurred to her. Maybe . . . maybe she didn’t need a focus. Maybe Austin knew of a way to encourage things to move forward without one. He probably would, given his experience. Maybe he’d be willing to help her.
She had to talk to him.
The bell rang and Coolidge dismissed class. Nicole jumped to her feet, snatching up her things.
“What’s the hurry?” Lizzie asked.
“I’m going to talk to Austin. Come on.” She hiked her purse over her shoulder.
Lizzie grinned. “Yeah, I figured you’d think he was hot.”
“It’s not that—I want to know how he did it.”
“Nicole . . .” Lizzie said, eyebrows knitted.
Nicole didn’t wait to hear Lizzie’s complaint. She rushed through the throng of students as people flowed in and out of the auditorium. Where had he gone? She looked both ways, trying to see through the crowds. Finally, she spotted the back of his dark head to the right.
Nicole dashed that way, not questioning her decision. She had never been shy or had problems getting people to open up to her, to want to help her when she needed assistance. This wouldn’t be any different—she was sure of that. And perhaps, after he helped her learn to Channel without a focus, they could get ready for the four tests together. She smiled, thinking about study sessions and time alone with him.
Okay, so maybe it was fine to be a little boy crazy. Lizzie couldn’t have all the fun.
She caught up with him and casually matched his stroll. “Hi, I’m Nicole. I just wanted to tell you that was pretty cool—what you did back there.”
He glanced at her and grunted.
She put her hand on his arm, stopping him. He froze beneath her touch and turned toward her, looking somewhere above her head. His dark expression was intimidating, even though it wasn’t directed at her. Was he mad? She pulled her hand back. “Um . . . I . . .” Out with it, Nicole. “How did you learn to Channel without a focus?”
Austin didn’t answer at first. He didn’t even look at her. “Figure it out yourself and stop harassing people you don’t know.”
He glanced at her briefly, a deep scowl on his face, eyes angry and bitter. “And no, I’m not going to help you.” He spun and strode into the classroom next to them.
Nicole’s mouth popped open. She stared at him until he disappeared behind closing doors. What a . . . a presumptuous jerk! She hadn’t even asked him to help her! It didn’t matter that she’d planned to—his assumption was rude and . . . “Argh!”
Lizzie caught up with her. “Um, so, even from down the hall, I could tell that didn’t go well.”
“No, it did not! He totally assumed everything. And Lizzie, he was so angry. I have no idea what I did to make him act that way. The . . . the jerk.”
She glared at the doors, ignoring people as they pushed past on either side. “I can’t believe it! Oh!” She yanked her bag higher up on her shoulder. “That’s it. Now I have to make the expedition.”
“Oh, no. Please, Nicole, no.” Lizzie put her hand on Nicole’s elbow. “You can’t do that to yourself. It’s your first semester of college and you haven’t learned how to Channel and you’ve got too much on your plate already! Weren’t you going to try out for that symphony orchestra thing? Isn’t the cello enough? And besides, I don’t want to spend my freshmen year watching you get into another battle of skills! Especially when the expedition is something you’ve never done before!”
Nicole glared at Lizzie. “With or without your support, I have to do this.” She fumbled around in her purse, glad that most everyone had cleared from the halls, and pulled out her phone. “Where to next?” She was too flustered to remember.
“Arete history,” Lizzie said. She pointed at the door Austin had just stormed through.
“Great. Just great.”
Nicole breathed deeply for a couple of seconds, put on some lip gloss, and fingered through her blond hair, making sure it wasn’t a mess.
Then she squared her shoulders and entered the classroom.
About The Author
Andrea Pearson graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor of science degree in Communications Disorders. She is the author of many full-length novels (the Kilenya Series and Katon University series), and several novellas. Writing is the chocolate of her life – it is, in fact, the only thing she ever craves. Being with her family and close friends is where she’s happiest, and she loves thunderstorms, the ocean, hiking, public speaking, painting, and traveling.
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