Location: The city of Kleirag, Hamsworth
As tradition dictated, Kleirag Public Middle School's graduation day has always been a sort of big holiday for the students. It took place in the school yard and was completed with all sorts of fun activities, ranging from talent shows, sport competitions to celebratory feasts, everything that could give the graduating students the most memorable experience possible at this place.
The people of Kleirag have been reeling from a scorching heatwave for a few days now. The heat was so intense that any egg accidentally dropped onto the road could end up as a beautifully cooked sunny-side-up dish. Hordes of chubby, smiley-face serf-drones were mobilized across the entire town to control the heat, hovering overhead to keep the population hydrated and in working condition with their conjured cooling mists and frequently-chanted (in sweet children voice) motivational jingles. The perfectly lined formations of little serf-drones wheezing merrily across the streets while constantly singing catchy, encouraging melodies was quite an adorable sight to behold and a daily dose of cuteness really helped the people to temporarily forget all their burden and appreciated such wonder in life.
Naturally there would be concerns over organizing an outdoor event in the middle of a scorching heatwave but as the school has no indoor space large enough to accommodate the entire setups so the only option was to proceed as tradition demanded. Knowing the importance of graduation day to the students, the school board has commissioned the use of a cloud generator to ensure the event's success, even when it would cost them quite a hefty amount of coin, given such a device are few and highly sought after. For that reason, everything must proceed perfectly according planned.
In the eve of such an important event, it came to no one's surprise how excited the students could be, perhaps a little bit too excited even. But while such enthusiasm was usually just limited to tossing and turning at night or eating more candies than usual, a couple of students has decided to take that to a whole new level. A couple, as in exactly two persons.
Rais, a fifteen years old boy, graduate-to-be of Kleirag Public Middle School, was often described as plain-looking by most people who knew him. With short black hair, blue eyes, average height and no distinctive feature whatsoever, he was never someone that could stand out in a crowd. In short, there was not much to say about him, for he simply wore uniform like every other student and spoke the same gentle way to everyone.
Gweny, on the other hand, was the one kid whose name could pop up immediately in anyone's mind at the slightest hint of her appearance. She could always be seen sporting a hooded cloak, baggy trousers and a pair of large combat boots. Every teacher at Kleirag Public Middle School has come to a conclusion that Gweny's choice of attire was a thing in life and could not be bothered to reprimand her for not wearing any sort of uniform at school. Her dirty blond hair was tied into two pigtails right above her neck, slumping down both of her shoulders. Her ears were adorned with numerous piercings but on closer inspection, one could see that what passed for those piercings were actually pieces of scrap metal, varying in shapes and sizes. In short, she was quite a peculiar girl who could be instantly recognized even from miles away.
These two have been inseparable friends for a long time and were rarely ever seen without the other in any of their endeavor. And this time was no exception. They wanted the honor of being the first students to arrive at school on graduation day, and thus, effectively be "graduated" before anyone of their peers.
As planned, the two kids left, or rather sneaked out, of their home at 5 in the morning, when most of their fellow students were still soundly asleep. However, as predictably unpredictable the weather could be, no one had expected it to shift so suddenly and so drastically. Out of all the times possible, Kleirag Public Middle School's 10th annual graduation day had to be held on the coldest day ever in the school's relatively novel history. The extreme heat that has been torturing the town for days has been replaced with waves of cold harsh wind. Instead of a cloudless sky and raging sun, the sky this time was painted by a dark color and the sun was nowhere to be seen. While Rais and Gweny, as well as anyone else in this world, were no strangers to the climate's erratic nature, they could not quite get used to it in any way. As they met each other at the rendezvous point, the city's number 5 tram station, both kids were shivering from the cold, having left in a hurry without bringing any sort of clothing for this kind of weather.
They exchanged greetings and hurriedly moved toward the ticket counter. The ticket seller, a plump middle-aged lady who they have made acquaintance during their 4 years at middle school, stood speechless for a moment when they came to buy their tram tickets.
'Is something wrong, Mrs. Siggerd?' Rais asked, feeling a little anxious at the awkward silence.
Rais question snapped the ticket seller out of her trance.
'Oh, everything's fine, dear. Thank you very much.' She replied and pulled a lever on the ticket printer twice, causing two fresh tickets to roll out of the machine.
'Our monthly passes are out so gotta go with the traditional way.' Gweny said. 'A shame they had to expired on our last day at this school.'
'Shame indeed.' Mrs. Siggerd nodded and handed the kids their tickets. Then, she asked, concerning. 'I know today is your school's graduation day but isn't this a little bit too early? School hasn't even opened yet. And shouldn't you children be wearing coats in this kind of weather?'
'We should. But sadly we didn't.'
As Rais recounted their plan to become the first graduates, Mrs. Siggerd handed Gweny her mug of hot milk, which the girl eagerly took and drained it to the last drop in just one go, causing a shade of red to return to her cold, pale face.
'She didn't say you could drink all of it.' Rais chided.
'Oh you shut up. I was dying from the cold here and that milk hit just the spot.' Gweny snapped back with a playful tone.
'Always the good one of the two, aren't you Rais?' Mrs. Siggerd smiled kindly, pouring another cup of milk from a huge bottle. 'Don't worry I have plenty of that. You should also help yourself to some.'
'Thank you. I was afraid that this unruly girl drank all of your milk there.' Rais bowed politely before taking his share of milk. 'And you should at least show your appreciation, Gwen.'
'Yeah, yeah, I know. Thanks a bunch, Mrs. Siggerd.'
'You're welcome.' The ticker seller nodded and took a look at the clock hanging above. 'If I'm correct then the next tram should be arriving in about a minute. I supposed it's gonna be warmer in there.'
And as if on cue, the tell-tale sound of the running tram could already be heard. Once the tram stopped and its door opened, Rais and Gweny wasted no time rushing inside it, not forgetting to say goodbye to Mrs. Siggerd, who had even given each of them a free pack of cookies as "graduation gifts". They stamped their thumb onto the tickets and then put them into a slot on the checker. As the tickets were consumed in a burst of blue-ish spark, the sound of a merry jingle signaled their information has been registered onto the tram's system. Plopping down onto one of the empty tram's seats, Rais laughed weakly, a laugh laced with both relief and regret, plus a small hint of irony.
'Last night, I made a prayer to Zetar, wishing to end the inferno that has tortured us these past few days. As expected of the Saint of Delivering Wind, He really did deliver us from the scorching heat.'
'Yeah right.' Gweny whined while stuffing several cookies into her mouth. 'And look what He delivered us. Chill wind. If anything He seems more like the Saint of Chilling Wind to me.'
Despite her annoyance with their current predicament, Gweny could not help but chuckle smugly at the amusing nickname she just came up with on the spot. Rais instinctively looked warily around the empty tram, feeling lucky that the city tram was automatically operated so they did not have to worry about having a driver accidentally hearing any of Gweny's trash talk.
'Maybe it's because of your blasphemy that we all got punished so.' Rais sighed. 'The Code exists for a reason you know.'
'Hang your Code! Gotta have fun whenever you can!' Gweny shouted, her mouth still full of cookies. 'You're gonna end up like those grumpy guys at the church at this rate.'
Their conversation was interrupted when the tram's serf-drone came between them, chiming in a cute voice. 'Please present your identification.'
Rais and Gweny stamped their thumbs on the sheet of rune hanging on the serf-drone's head like they did with the tickets. As the magical piece of paper glowed, the serf-drone confirmed their registered identity and returned to its hatch, with the supply cord trailing behind it like a tail. It then announced, again, in its signature child-like voice.
'Tram set to move now by operator Elna Siggerd. 2 minutes ahead of schedule. Destination: Kleirag Church of the Six Saints. Kleirag City Tram is happy to serve. Enjoy your ride.'
Once the serf-drone's announcement ended, the tram's machinery came to life and it started rolling. Station 5 was not too far away from Kleirag Public Middle School so they only had a short span of time to enjoy the city's scenery from inside the warm and comfy tram before having to brave the cold again.
'I wonder if there is any place in this world that people don't have to live with this kind of shifting weather?' Gweny questioned as she looked at the blackened sky. 'If there is then it must be a pretty nice place to live.'
'From what I've heard.' Rais chuckled. 'There is one such place.'
'Where? Is it nearby? If it is then I will totally move there, no question!'
Rais replied with a story. 'People said at that place there has never been a day of snow or scorching heat, as there is only warm sunlight and gentle breeze. It is a place full of wonders, where magical forests stretch for miles, where the sky is always bright and clear, where the rivers and ponds are always full, where the hills and valleys sing at the dawn and dusk.'
'Already sounds like the best home ever to me. Wherever it is it should be better than the junkyard.' Gweny's eyes glittered with hope and delight.
Seeing his friend in such a joyous mood, Rais continued. 'It is a place where the soil is always fertile, so fertile that trees can be the size of an entire house, or even greater. It's a place where food is so plenty all you need is to stretch your hand out to take them, and the livestock never go hungry.'
At this point, Gweny's eyes suddenly widened, as if she just realized something very important. It was not even half-way there but the tale was getting more and more familiar. It was an old tale they told small children so that they wouldn't wander around and get lost.
'You don't mean it's B…' Gweny gulped.
'Wow, don't say the name!' Rais quickly covered Gweny's mouth so she would not accidentally say the taboo word. 'Today's weather is already bad enough but you don't want our whole day to be cursed, do you?'
'Alright, alright. I changed my mind. Geez, the junkyard is still better than that place after all.'
'All the more reason to show our appreciation to the Six Saints for what we have.' Rais smiled, patting Gweny's back. 'We might not have everything we want but at least we are not born in The Cursed Land. That's already a great blessing. Zetar delivers us.'
'Zetar delivers us.'
Rais and Gweny both pressed the fingertips of their two hands together, creating the sign of Zetar.
As they finished praying, Rais and Gweny unanimously agreed to stay silent for the rest of the journey and stuffed their stomachs with all the cookies available, as they knew they were going to need every ounce of energy for one final endeavor: reaching their school. Getting from their station to the drop site on a tram was easy. Slogging from the church to school on foot, through a series of winding streets in this frigid weather, not so much.
But the moment Rais and Gweny arrived at their destination and got out of the tram, the challenge seemed to have grown tenfold.
'Snow?' Gweny exclaimed as she felt the cold of snowflakes on her face. 'Oh great. Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse.'
Gweny would go on and groan even more when she moved her feet and realized the snow was building up very quickly on the ground. The brief time they stayed on the tram was all it took for the weather to take quite a spectacular turn, and a very bad one for them at that.
'This is insane.' Gweny said, starting to grow panic at the situation. 'We need to leg it real fast before we get buried in the coming snowstorm.'
'Now, now.' Rais reassured his friend. 'I know the situation is not ideal but it might not be that bad. The snow is hindering visibility so we have to be careful when crossing these streets. Have to do it slow and steady.'
Just as Rais finished his sentence, a block of metal suddenly ripped through the sky and fell right behind him, missing his head by just a few inches. Gwen stood there mouth agape while Rais's face seemed to have been drained of blood. He slowly turned his head to see that block of metal was in fact a half-frozen, snow-covered serf-drone. Its frame has been shattered, exposing the glowing, but slowly fading, arcane core that powered it. The serf-drone sang its last motivational quote in a distorted, broken voice, which sounded awfully like a dreaded parody of one's final breath.
'…study…hard, work hard…and always…go…the extra…miles…so that…you won't…die…'
Normally the last part of that quote would be "won't die with regret" but as the serf-drone's last bit of energy has been expended, it could sing no more to complete what intended to be an inspiring quote of the day and instead, left it on an eerie note that somehow went perfectly well with Rais and Gweny current situation.
'Forget what I just said.' Rais took a deep breath and said calmly. 'We're sticking with your plan on this one.'
'Then run already!'
As Gweny screamed, both of them started rushing across the street, paying no heed to the surroundings. Fortunately for them, the escalating snowstorm discouraged people from going outside, so the roads were pretty much empty. Unfortunately for them, the piling snow also hindered their movement as well. Even when they were trying to run at top speed, they found the ground becoming more and more slippery with every step, their vision blurred by a screen of white snowflakes. Plus, the cold was not doing them any favor either. Aside from torturing their lightly clothed frames, it also caused environmental hazards in the form of falling serf-drones. The sudden drop in temperature and shift in climate has caught some wandering serf-drones off-guard while they were still on duty. These unfortunate machines, without proper configuration and equipment for the weather, were mercilessly struck down by the harsh wind and became potentially lethal rain of metal. Panic further set in their heart and they no longer cared about anything else. For a span of time they forgot about the burning cold, the slippery ground, possibly approaching vehicles hidden by the snow… Running as fast as possible was the only thing that matters to them, until the school gate's blurry image came within their sight.
From his post next to the school gate, the school's old and trusty proctor, whose eyes still saw far and clear in spite of his advanced age (most likely due to him constantly looking out for even the tiniest sign of misbehavior among the students), was able to spot Gweny, one of the school's most frequent troublemakers, even with all the snow falling around. He was baffled to see them coming to school in the midst of a snowstorm but knew that questions were best left for another time. The proctor hurriedly opened the school gate and brought the quivering but very much alive children inside while calling the rest of the school staff – or at least a handful of the most dedicated people who had braved the weather to come to school, hoping they could still somehow salvage the school's graduation day.
With both Rais and Gweny finally clothed in thick layers of coat and enjoyed another mug of hot milk inside the principal office, the school staff went on to question their appearance at school, seeing that they were the only students to come. As the two kids confessed their plan and apparently narrow survival, the teachers felt they should reproach them for their foolish decision but at the same time, also admired their spirit. So instead, they sadly informed Rais and Gweny that this year's graduation day party would have to be cancelled, as all of their preparation efforts have gone down the drain due to the weather. The cloud generator turned out to be a total waste of coins, as it hardly had any use against the shivering cold, just making things worse if anything. Snow has already covered the entirety of the school yard and the decorations they had worked so hard to put in place just for this one day were in total ruin. The food they ordered for a celebratory feast could not be delivered and even if they could, there was not a single student at school, saved for the two idiots who just barely survived their foolish attempt to brave the snowstorm, at school to enjoy them anyway. As the school could not afford to organize another grand event anymore, this year's graduation day would just be limited to teachers doing what the serf-drones have been doing every day: quoting inspirational lines (without the cute children voice of course) and congratulating the students on their success, hoping they have a bright future ahead of them. The end.
'Sadly that's how thing's gonna be done here.' The principal sighed as he looked out the window at the mess that once were colorful decorations they spent so much time preparing and refining. 'As usual, Kleirag Prestige Middle School's graduation day this year was going to be even bigger than last year. Their efforts at preparation failed as well but we all know they have more than enough coin to re-make that party two or three times over. And we, a school for children of the middle-class and the poor, don't quite have that luxury.'
And so it was on that fateful day Kleirag Public Middle School's most prestigious event and tradition for the first time was botched spectacularly. Instead of being able to bask in excitement and joy participating in numerous games and watching young talents at work, the students were told to stay at home to wait out this freezing storm. An unforeseeable and sad outcome for what should have been one of the most memorable days of many students' life.
'We are sorry. You have spent so much time and effort to prepare for this day and it turns out like this. Must be quite a letdown.' Rais said.
'It is more of a letdown for the students than it is for us.' The old proctor shook his head. 'We wanted this to be the best day of your middle school life, a day that you can always remember. Instead we're going back to the old boring stuffs.'
'But it is what it is.' The principal shrugged, accepting defeat. 'Let us pray to the Six Saints so that this kind of tragedy does not repeat itself again.'
And so Rais, Gweny and all the school staff present had a moment of silence, praying for the beautiful tradition of Kleirag Public Middle School to live on forever.
'So… what are we doing now?' Gweny idly asked after everyone has finished.
'Before you guys came we were planning for the storm to subside then clean up the ruin in our yard. Quite some messy stuffs, I would say.' One of the teachers replied.
'We can help with that.' Rais chimed eagerly, only for the principal to say.
'No. You kids are going to stay here. While your unwise decision certainly calls for reproach, I think you've had enough trouble for today. Plus, today is supposed to be graduation day so enjoy it. After all, you kids technically are the first to graduate among your peers, so congratulation.'
Rais and Gweny were basking in the school staffs' applause when the principal added.
'But I'm still going to call your parents for this. And you kids still need to come on the official graduation day so don't miss it.'
When the snowstorm finally subsided, it was already afternoon. The storm has weakened quite a while ago but for safety reason the school staffs insisted that Rais and Gweny stayed put until it was officially over. Despite their insistence to help out with cleaning the school yard afterward, the two of them were sent home anyway, along with a pack of cookies given to them by the principal as "graduation gifts". While the streets were still covered in snow and ice, people have started coming out of hiding. Serf-drones and heavy machines were deployed in numbers to clear the snow, as well as the remains of their unfortunate kin that were crashed during the snowstorm. The snowstorm was the terrible part but when it was over, people could finally enjoy the cool atmosphere that they have been waiting for so long while being tortured by the heatwave. Kids swarmed the streets to waddle in the snow, slide around on home-made sleds and build snowmen while the adults strolling around the city and going to the church. As Rais and Gweny returned to the Church of the Six Saints to catch the tram back home, they decided to enter for a praying session as well.
In almost every city, the local churches were usually the most opulent, magnificent building to be found and Kleirag is no exception. Its church was made from the finest white marbles and crimson wood, complete with sophisticated ornate decorations and jewelry. While being perhaps the oldest building still existing in this city, it never failed to appear in perfect condition, even more so than the most recently built resident houses. As with every Church of the Six Saints, lying in the center of this structure are the figures from which its name was derived from - the statues of the Six Saints themselves. Surrounding them were masses of faithful followers coming to pay homage and attend the daily rituals.
Due to being held back by the teachers, Rais and Gweny were late for the afternoon sermon, as the head priest's speech was coming to an end the moment they came in.
'… and so my fellow devotees, let us give praise to our great Saints: Vals of Brilliant Light, Leesar of Passionate Flame, Zetar of Delivering Wind, Shala of Bountiful Sea, Marek of Brave Lightning and Tessa of Merciful Earth. Let us forever remember their deeds as humanity's greatest champions who have cast down the ancient evils, freeing mankind from the bonds of slavery and laying the foundation for our nations. Each and every one of us must strive to follow the examples left by our great Saints, for they were the paragons that represent humanity's greatest virtues and by honoring their legacy we can make this world a better place for all mankind. All hail our Saints and Saviors!'
'All hail our Saints and Saviors!'
The countless prayers echoed in unison across the church's hall, signaling the end of the sermon and the beginning of the Honoring session.
The Six Saints' statues were arrayed in the way that they formed a perfect circle and in front of each of them was a pedestal filled with tributes from faithful followers, ranging from a few coins or candies to expensive jewelry. While officially one should worship all the Saints equally, it was hard for people not to play favorite. Rais and Gweny had to navigate their way through the long lines of Vals's and Leesar's devotees that were waiting eagerly for their turn to honor these Saints, to reach the statue of Zetar nearby. Compare to Vals or Leesar, the two most favorite Saints in all of Hamsworth, whose lines of devotees could stretch all the way to church's courtyard and pedestals flooded with piles of treasures, Zetar and Marek were followed by a much lesser amount of devotees, which meant Rais and Gweny did not have to wait long for their turn even when they came late. They took turns standing in front of their Saint's statue, doing the finger-pressing salute, bowed and put a few coins on the pedestal before moving out of the line, making way for other devotees to come forth and do the same ritual. As Rais and Gweny headed out, they looked on with pity at the handful of devotees, many among them were children or slum-dwellers, quietly honoring Shala and Tessa, offering their Saints candies, pieces of scraps and rarely a coin.
The two youths exited the church and walked toward the tram station right outside, ready to go home after a long and troublesome day. Just when Rais prepared to board the tram after Gweny, he felt a hand knocking on the back of his head. He turned back only to see three boys of his age, each wearing spotless, pristine clothing and riding an autocart, the stuffs that screamed they were unmistakably sons of the richest noble families in Kleirag. Knowing Rais was looking, one of them, a tall and buffed boy with smoothly combed blond hair, jeered at him.
'We've heard about you and the junkyard girl. Great idea you guys got there. How does it feel slogging in the midst of the snowstorm? Must be pretty cool, eh?'
'Oh, Nice one there!' Another of the gang, a fat boy, chimed. 'Did you get to graduate early as planned, Rais?'
'Sadly no.' Rais shrugged. 'I still have to come to school for the official graduation day.'
'Right.' The tall boy said, his voice laced with contempt. 'Except your loser school was so broke they don't even have enough coins to make a proper party anymore. Hope you enjoy your indoor graduation day with that tramp.'
The three boys then rode away on their autocart, howling with laughter and turning their attention toward throwing snowballs at unfortunate passerby. Rais shook his head before entering the tram's waiting door.
After having their identity checked, Gweny asked Rais.
'So what did those goons say this time around?' There was not a single hint of inquisitiveness in her voice.
'You know, just the usual trash talks.' Rais replied. 'Mocking my stupid plan. Mocking our school. Different excuses but nothing I haven't heard.'
'Uhuh. And I think I also heard them mentioning a certain junkyard girl or tramp or whatever they call her.'
'Guess having good hearing isn't that great after all.' Rais sighed. 'Sometimes you can't help but having to hear those kind of things.'
'True. But like you said, nothing we haven't heard. They are just salty about you having such a great friend.'
'Don't get ahead of yourself.' Rais smiled. 'But I will admit ditching those guys was one of the best decisions I've ever made.'
When they got off the tram at station 5, it was already dark. Rais and Gweny bid each other farewell and went separate ways. Rais strolled slowly along the marble road, passing one of the city's slum where a bunch of children in dirty and ragged clothing were running around and throwing snowballs at one another. He approached the quieter group of children who were sitting on the ground watching their mates playing or building snowmen. As they looked up at him curiously, Rais knelt down and pulled from his pocket the pack of cookies he received from the principal and gave it to them. The children just sit there, reserved and unsure of his intention, as people did not generally come to the slum to give them cookies. Rais took a cookie out of the pack and showed them to the children while giving them a kind smile. Finally, a wee girl, seemingly just five to six years old, with ruffled black hair who was sitting at the back of the group stood up and approached Rais. She smiled back at him and took the cookie, breaking it into several small pieces to share with her friends. The group of playing children has stopped their snowball war and joined in as well. The biggest one of them, a boy with ruffled black hair, ran toward the little girl and gave her a piggyback ride. The boy looked at Rais, who was offering him the whole pack of cookie. He took a glance at the joyous little sister on his back before taking the pack from Rais's hand. The group of children cheered resoundingly at this as the boy proceeded to share the cookies among them.
Rais smiled at the heartwarming scene. But just as he stood up and turned around to take his leave, he felt a little hand tugging at his sleeve. The wee girl, still riding on his brother's shoulders, was holding a very small, armless and faceless snowman on her outstretched hands, seemingly offered it as a gift to Rais. The big brother smiled and gave Rais a nod. Rais returned the gesture and took the little snowman, gave both siblings a head pat and finally left the slum, now filled with the sound of the children's joyful laughter and munching of cookies.
On his journey home, the marble road led Rais to a great mansion that stood out from the rest of the buildings on the street. He stepped through the large wooden gate, into the spacious courtyard filled with a myriad of exquisite ornamental plants, complete with an artificial pond and lanterns of extremely graceful designs. As Rais walked deeper into the courtyard, he was greeted by a tall but hunching elderly man in a refined grey suit.
'Good evening, Mr. Eisher.' Rais said. 'Has your back gotten any better?'
'Thank you, young master. The pain is still there but thanks to the Lady's medication it's much better now.' The elderly man replied. 'And speaking of the Lady, she has been expecting you, young master.'
'Right. I'll go see her now. You should take your rest already, Mr. Eisher. It must have been a tiresome day for you with the storm and everything.'
'You really took after the Lady, young master.' Mr. Eisher smiled. 'Dinner is already prepared so you might want to have a taste while it's still hot.'
'Please send your wife my appreciation. She always made the best food.'
'And she's always happy to hear your praise. Have a great meal, young master.'
'Oh right. I almost forgot.' Rais handed Mr. Eisher the small, partially-melted snowman he had kept all the way from the slum. 'Can you find a way to keep this thing in good shape? It's a bit ugly but it means a lot to me.'
'As you wish, young master.' Mr. Eisher inspected the snowman briefly before replying. 'I will have it kept in the freezer for now, then we will figure out the way to preserve it.'
'Thank you so much, Mr. Eisher. I know I can count on you.'
Rais then moved on and entered the dining room. Inside two maids were busy putting a few modest plates of food on a large wooden table. Upon seeing Rais's entrance, the maids bowed and greeted him before excusing themselves, leaving him and a fair, silver-haired, silver-eyed middle-aged lady the only two persons in the dining room. He looked at the food on the table and realized that they were cold, having been made hours ago. From there on, Rais knew things would not go well for him.
As Rais took a seat opposite her, the lady spoke softly.
'Good evening, my dear son. How was your graduation day?'