Our takeoff roll was barely twenty ifourths before Ghent gave me the signal that meant we'd achieved the speed necessary for flight, and I pulled back on the yoke. The plane's nose lifted in response, and we were airborne. Since we had no particular reason to climb high I levelled her off at a height of a thousand paces or so and headed for the area of the Yalskarr Gate. Once I eased off the throttles, it was possible once again to shout above the noise of the engines.

There were pretty much always a few demons around the Gate, manesi and likaans and similar nuisances. They'd try to sneak through, eat a few humans and livestock, or maybe kidnap them for slaves and eventual meat, and run back through. I was hoping to find some live targets. The Guard kept a permanent presence in the area of about two sixty-fours, and the local residents had a reputation that would have compared favorably to most Texans and southerners back home. They stayed alert and kept weapons ready. The major difference was nobody barbequed manesi or any other demons - there was no way to make the meat palatable.

It took about half an Earth hour - neither the Swass, Nhadragh, or the C-130 they were based on were fast airplanes. Their usefulness was in other areas. Ghent tried checking in via radio with the local Guard contingent, but received no response. Not too out of the ordinary, even if everything were all sweetness and light near the Gate. Radio was vacuum tube-based here on Calmena, and much less reliable than anyone would like.

Meanwhile, I spotted what looked like a whole squad of manesi - Eight of the big ugly blue beasts. Maybe more hidden in the vegetation. The original Spectre had the guns controlled by the pilot, but developing the automation would have taken time and people we didn't have, so the Nhadragh's weapons were manned. I gave the crew a yellow light, and ten seconds later they sent back the 'ready' signal. I pointed the left wing at the area and got ready for the fireworks.

It took them a few seconds to find the targets, but then the area around the demons began erupting, explosions sprouting all around the ugly misshapen brutes. We'd never introduced tracers here in Calmena, precisely because tracers didn't have the same flight path as 'ordinary' ammunition. Earth had fought two world wars and smaller wars for decades thereafter before someone actually figured out that tracers were a good way to insure that your fire wasn't going where you really wanted it to. Not repeating that mistake had been a no-brainer.

In the Nhadragh, our gunners had the feedback of watching where their bullets and grenades hit. If their first rounds missed, they could 'walk' the aiming point on to where they wanted it, which was what happened here. That was what happened here. The first few rounds failed to compensate for the motion of the plane, but they rapidly figured out where to point the guns to achieve the desired effect, and the manesi disintegrated in a hail of bullet and grenade fire. "Not bad," Ghent admitted.

These are books in two different series taking place in the same fictional universe at roughly the same time.

Both books cover the beginning and first engagements in the long-awaited and prepared for war between the fractal demons and the Empire of Humanity, and they will be release at about the same time.

End of Childhood happens from the main Imperial perspective; how the people of the Empire fare against the demonic invasion. The technology is far advanced, as are the people - but it's been so long since there was a serious threat, many are not possessed of the skills of survival. The main viewpoint character is Graciela Juarez di Scimtar ("Grace"), an Earthwoman who happens to be married to a man from one of the most powerful families of the Empire.

Moving the Pieces takes place on Calmena, a primitive planet nominally under control of the demons but seeded with human slaves. The Empire has been using the planet as a doorway for scouting the demonic realms, and as a side project, has been surreptitiously stirring up the natives to slowly pry themselves away from demonic domination, bringing the technology from barely Iron Age up to roughly equivalent to Earth in the 1950s over a period of a little under two Earth centuries. The main viewpoint character is Joseph Bernard ("Joe"), a man who's been on the technology upgrade from the beginning.

The books take place at basically the same time - End of Childhood begins a few days earlier - and share some background events.

For everything there is a price.

Grace has married into one of the most important families of the Empire. The Scimtars are wealthy and powerful in every sense of the term. Her five children will be among the Empire's elite when they are ready, and Grace herself is not without influence or importance despite her relative youth. But Imperial politics are deadly, and the more you have, the more your rivals want what you have.

There is no shelter from The Price of Power.

*****

Ilras, quit trying to squirt your sister with ketchup. The inverse square law is on her side.

But mom! I'm just trying to teach her defense! Meanwhile, baby Imtara giggled in delight at frustrating her brother's dastardly plan.

Dear, even if she was asleep, she'd have plenty of time to wake up and divert the stream. She's well past that drill. All you're doing is giving the dogs a mess to clean up.

Ilras didn't realize it, but his sister had ally. Esteban, the oldest at six Imperial years of age (4 Earth), scooped together a good-sized dollop with matris, stealthed it with a buffer of matra and brun, and flung it at his younger brother. I usually expected better behavior from Esteban, but under the circumstances, I let it slide.

Splat! It caught Ilras right on his jawline. No fair! Ilras cried indignantly, then had the awareness to look abashed when I gave him the mental equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. Ilras wasn't ready for the drills Esteban was doing yet, and Esteban had just made use of that fact to slip a counter-attack his brother wasn't ready for under his defenses. Given the impetus of an older brother who wasn't above using his advantages, I suspected Ilras would learn quickly.

Meanwhile, Mischief, our English Cream longhair miniature dachshund, gave a plaintive whine that she'd been deprived of her snack, most of which was now plastered across Ilras' face, and looked expectantly at Esteban for a replacement. Her name really was doubly appropriate; we ended up calling her Miss Chief about half the time. How she knew Esteban was responsible for her deprivation, I don't know, but no replacement was forthcoming. Scarecrow, our chocolate and tan shorthair male, gave a muted but pre-emptory bark informing us he wanted ketchup, too. We were at the table; we studiously ignored them.

I felt a muted thunk as Tina, my assistant, slid us into the control plug of my latest contract, followed a few seconds later by a datalink message of control verified, ready for Vector. I'd chosen Tina for the job because she was my niece and already a fully qualified in-system navigator, but despite my hopes after six years nearly constant exposure to the kids, she hadn't gone operant yet, so I still had to do all the Vectoring. I relieved her, re-computed the Vector for confirmation, performed it, verified position, and (because our next pickup was in this same system) transferred the helm back to her for in-system maneuvering to our next job. It had taken all of six seconds, and I'd still had a couple of para to keep the peace at the dinner table.

Mama, how long until we can play with baby Alden? Ilora wanted to know again.

About three more weeks, honey, I told her. Truth be told, despite all the advantages of being a Guardian, I was ready for my last pregnancy to be over. Next time, I would plan on one child, two at the most. But I really had only myself to blame - I could have just used artificial gestation for Esteban, same as everyone else, and then most of the Empire wouldn't have known about the advantages of operant mothers carrying operant children themselves. I'd introduced Alden to his older siblings on several occasions, but most of the time, kept him swaddled away where only I or Asto could interact with him. Since Asto was a First Corporal, assigned as executive officer of a squadron of Planetary Surface troops out in Ninth Galaxy, that didn't happen as often as any of us liked. The rank was an almost exact match to Brigadier General in the old US Army; a squadron was 14,400 combat troops plus their support staff of roughly another 3600.

Alden, for his part, wanted out into the great wide world. It took two of my para full time to keep him occupied and learning, and he still wasn't satisfied. Can I play with Ilras and Esteban, Mom? It was tempting to just blow off the last three weeks of this pregnancy, knowing any physical defects could be fixed later, but neither I nor Asto was ready to experiment with Alden's emotional development. The Empire had tens of thousands of years of evidence children were more able to deal with the world after a full gestation, even in an artificial womb. Neither of us wanted to experiment more than we'd already done with our own children, carrying them naturally as I'd done.

Dinner was just about over, winding down with chocolate ice cream for everyone, when Asto told me, It's official!

Pregnancy is dangerous in the Empire

For thousands of years, Imperial women have used artificial gestation. But Grace was born on barbarian, pre-contact Earth. She can't call herself a mother without doing it the hard way at least once.

Grace has married into one of the most important families in the Empire - and Imperial politics are deadly at the top.

Despite the risks, she discovers that there are advantages, both to herself and to her unborn baby.

The Empire will never be quite the same again.


Later, Asto and I were in our quarters. He's a tall, thin Guardian; the body type sometimes known as 'hound' on Earth. Six feet six, broad shoulders, long legs, and thin as a whip, except for tiny little bulges here and there, intended to give him a reserve of energy if he needed it. He'd changed his skin color, darkened it slightly and added a touch more bronze than when we married, so it looked rather more like what my Earth family would think of as pure indio rather than mestizo, but his face was still on the aristocratic Northern European mold, hawk-faced and sharp, with eyes that were always alive with light whenever I saw them. That was amusing, love, he told me, watching Whelsed try and talk you out of something you've had your mind set on for most of twenty years. It was a tribute to my resolve, of sorts. Ending my commitment at twenty years had been part of our agreement with each other to work as Eyes. They might move him to solo work as a Finger, but he wasn't so much as going to hint at me changing my mind. We kept our promises to each other, always.

You do seem amused, I observed.

We've been in rapport for twentyfive years now, love. I know better than to try to wiggle out of an agreement, but I do confess I was less than fully convinced you wouldn't agree to what someone else pretended to need from you. You do sometimes let yourself be led astray by others' expectations.

Guilty as charged, I said. Of course, if I hadn't been, my life would have been completely different, and much poorer. I would never have met my wonderful husband, for instance. I take it I passed the test?
Can't ask a better score than perfect, he replied. The mental subtext was playful, and I gathered he'd changed his mind about starting early. If you still want to, how about adding one to the head of the line? he asked. He hadn't wanted to before. He'd been concerned I might change my mind when they tried to persuade me to extend, and then I'd be pregnant with more time to serve. I could always transfer the baby to artificial gestation or halt development - I was a Guardian and just as capable as any other healer - but both had their drawbacks. We had four fertilized eggs in storage, just in case. In the Empire, it was standard to use artificial gestation, but being a barbarian from Earth I didn't think I could look my sisters in the eye and call myself a mother if I hadn't done it the same way they had at least once. Besides, I'd like to surprise Anara and Gilras (and Helene and Scimtar) with an extra child to the four we had planned and in frozen storage.

What else could I do? I attacked him before he could change his mind.

Afterwards, we lay there in happy communion making certain the newly fertilized boy would be healthy, adding the last little touches to what he would become. When we were satisfied, we made love again, slow and passionate, each possessive of the other in a way that said both 'mine' and 'yours' simultaneously. We belonged to each other in ways that no Earth human would have understood before Imperial contact. We might live separate for years at a time - given that he was remaining in the military and I wasn't, we'd have no choice on some occasions - but for me, 'home' was where Asto was. And vice versa. We weren't necessarily all demonstrative about it out in public, but we didn't need to be. Our rapport, a constant mental connection to each other, left no doubts. Not that we shied away from demonstrations, either.

There's a moment on approach when you make a mental shift from thinking you're in space getting closer to the planet to thinking you're on the planet even though you're not on the ground yet. For me, it's when I start being able to make out individual features in the video feed. The nameless mountain in which Bolthole Base was embedded was usually it, followed by the small alpine meadow below the base. The mountain itself - second highest peak on the planet - was perpetually ice crowned, even though it was no higher than Mount Whitney in California and within a couple degrees of the planetary equator. There wasn't time in Calmena's short year of 145 Earth days (136 Imperial or local) for the snow that fell to melt. The lake below waxed and waned with the weather.

The pilot picked up the approach path, and slowing still further apparently headed straight towards the side of the mountain. At the last moment, the illusion of solidity melted and the viewscreen showed a massive cavern holding fifty or sixty Starbirds and cutters. The base and the cavern holding it had expanded in the time I'd been here, but it was still too small for anything bigger than cutters to land.

The base commander, Sephia, was waiting to greet us. Sephia looked like a blonde college coed of my youth, her white-blonde pageboy cut barely ruffling in the sheltered cavern. "Welcome back, my young friends!" she greeted the two of us. As soon as she opened her mouth, her attitude and manner of speaking betrayed the fact that she was old for a natural state human - perhaps a full square by now. I didn't know exactly - what I did know was she'd held a higher rank than she did now at the end of the Reunification, three thousand Imperial years ago. Except for occasional leave, she'd been base commander for over an Earth century now, and she had no intention of applying for promotion. "This is where the next war with the demons will start," she'd told me when I first arrived. Taking a promotion would mean leaving Calmena for her.

Here are the first few paragraphs from the First Draft

******

It was hard to believe she was gone.

For over an Earth century, Sephia had been the commander of Bolthole Base. She'd been the one constant, unchangeable thing about the mission on Calmena. The base was four times the size it had been when I started, Calmena itself was utterly changed, but Sephia was changeless - until this morning. She'd had a cerebral hemorrhage at some point overnight and died in her sleep. Her bright blue eyes were forever closed and I could have used a shot of her no-nonsense grandmotherly attitude. But her body had already been fed back into the converter as per standard procedure; she was one with the universe now.

Section Private Kryphan was seniormost of those in the line of command; therefore he was interim commander. It was unlikely a successor for Sephia would be more than two days in coming - today's courier run would have taken the news to Earth, almost certainly the new base commander would arrive tomorrow. But whoever it was, they'd never replace the grandmother hen who'd watched over us for the last century, kept us focused on the task, held us together through all the setbacks, and kicked us into action when it was necessary.

It had been pointless to Portal back to Bolthole Base, but every single one of the twentytwo teams currently working the Advancement Mission nonetheless made the journey, each of us making a solemn pilgrimage to the door of the base commander's office that had been hers for so long, just standing at the door looking in in silent farewell, bore executing tatzen, the Imperial gesture of respect, before turning and walking away silently. Tatzen was a variable gesture. Fingertips to upper lip was respect. Nose to the joining of the ring and middle fingers was more. Nose to wrist and palm to heart was all that and love and loss and you couldn't get any higher. Anything more than that was simple pretension, and none of us would do that to her. Sephia's absence was a burning hole in all of our hearts. She hadn't had to do anything beyond her job as commander of Bolthole Base, but she'd done everything she could to make our jobs easier as well. She would be missed.

Both Asina and I had last messages from her in our datalink queue. Likely a last farewell and whatever last message she'd wanted us to be reminded of. We'd play them back in Yalskarr.

Yalskarr was a different place, forty Imperial years on. It had been a port town when we arrived; now it was one of the busiest ports on Calmena as well as an industrial center rivalling anything Earth had had in the mid-twentieth century. Nearly a million people lived in the city itself and another four in the territory it governed, which included the oilfields to the north as well as enough farmland to feed them all. It had had growing pains but Asina as First Captain had done her best to help the area remain livable as well as defensible from demonic incursions. She was retired from that now but still consulted from time to time; administering the industrial conglomerate that built ships, airplanes, and automobiles as well as the engines to power all of them took all of her time while I worked on advancing the technology as fast as I could, largely using the blueprints from Earth's Industrial Age. The time was coming when the lives of every human on Calmena would hinge on how fast we could upgrade.

Author Update

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I'm in the finishing stages with "The End of Childhood" It's the third "Politics of Empire" book, but once finished it will be put on hold until "Moving The Pieces" has at least a completed first draft, as they share some common events.

Soon as that is finished, "Moving The Pieces" will be the fourth and final book in "Preparations for War", and likely the shortest. I'd hoped to be able to get the whole story told in "Setting the Board" but it just didn't work that way.

After that, my next project will be "Gifts of The Mother" a Gates to Faerie sequel.

There is a third Connected Realms story in the outline stages. Working title: The Crazy Lady

There is a fourth "Politics of Empire" also in the planning stages. The older children will be legal adults.

I'm looking at a story about Urona Scimtar, trying to figure out if I can make it interesting enough to justify the work of having a Seventh Order Guardian as a viewpoint character. The basic angle is make it the story Disney's "Brave" should have been - about the protagonist realizing the reasons why what her family wants her to do what they want and the costs of not doing so.

My plan from here out, once I have the current series in progress finished, is never to be working on more than two series at one time.

The forges of N'yeschlass began their beat at dawn, every day without fail. Things had changed since we began.

The town had never been officially named. The name had grown from the unofficial motto of what my wife and I and the original group of refugees cowering in the jungle had begun not quite twenty Imperial years ago. The demonic tongue of Calmena had no word for freedom. N'yeschlass translated literally as "no slaves." It was a promise to all - come to us and be free. It didn't appeal to everyone, as it included freedom to fail and freedom to starve, but those were simply the terms of life everywhere on Calmena. In the portions run by the fractal demons, slaves were eaten when they began to show signs of aging. Where the pseudo-feudal human agaani held sway, grinding poverty and recurrent famines were almost as brutal. Only in N'yeschlass and its confederated territory was there a significant chance of a human being alive on what an Earther like me would consider their fiftieth birthday.

I still worked my smithy a couple hours per day. It had seen upgrades since the day we'd built it - it was probably the equal of a mid-19th century forge on Earth now. But these days, the metal was mined out of the Collision Range and I didn't have to pretend to cart it in while pulling most of it out of a converter. We still had the secret room with all the technological conveniences underneath our forge, but these days I bought all of the metal I used. I might create the gold and silver I used to buy it out of the converter, but the metal I actually worked was honestly mined by miners who were part of our new nation. N'yeschlass the nation held better than a third of Wimarglr, the North America sized continent we'd called Continent One when we discovered Calmena, including most of the Collision Range.

There were probably twentyfive square people in N'yeschlass the city these days. After better than twenty years of thinking alternatively in demonic and Imperial systems, the former for everyday interactions with Calmenans and the latter for reports and planning to our Imperial sponsors, the decimal system and all the other standards of measurement I'd grown up with on Earth was almost alien to me now. 90,000 was a fair number of people for a city to have with this level of technology, and N'yeschlass the nation probably had four or five cities that were bigger now. N'yeschlass the city was the gateway to the mining regions in the Collision Range, a name that had stuck when I'd used it inadvertently in conversation with a Calmena native. "Collision" didn't mean anything in demonic; they just thought it was a good name. Probably half the place names on Earth came from circumstances not too different.

N'yeschlass the city had a very European feel to it. I don't mean the architecture was similar, it wasn't. That looked like nothing in my experience. By any reasonable definition, construction here was mostly wooden squalor. But the streets had grown organically rather than planned. Asina and I still owned a good bit of land, but these days most of it was in use. I spent more time managing others than working metal myself. The city was where more metal was smelted than anywhere else on Calmena. Iron, nickel, copper, tin, lead and even small amounts of aluminum and others. N'yeschlass' metallurgy was probably late eighteenth century equivalent on average. Not bad. Asina and I owned a good bit of the production, and had shown everyone else how to do it.

Asina was First Councilor of the city, and Captain of the guard. She spent almost no time working our business any longer - civic affairs kept her busy. This was by design. N'yeschlass the nation was a confederation bound by trade, mutual defense, and a common attitude towards human slavery. Other cities of the confederation had decided upon other ways to run their affairs. N'yeschlass the city maintained its primacy within the confederation by economic means thanks to Asina and ruthless adherence to the principles behind M'Don's equations. City regulation was almost non-existent, but things like sanitation were the product of ongoing awareness campaigns, and if you did something like dump your used food out on the street, your neighbors would let you know they frowned on that. Stridently. The town even had the beginnings of a rudimentary sewage system, which I'd begun by the simple expedient of digging it before I'd erected any additional buildings on our land. Eventually it would have to be expanded, but for now it discharged into a small cavern we'd found underneath a small nearby hill, not back into the river.

Even the people around me were different. I was no longer close to the tallest person around. Many of the younger men were taller than my current two ififths thirtyeight, and even a couple of the young women. Not suffering constant malnutrition as a child will do that for you. The people I could see from where I stood had some meat on their bones; they weren't in significant danger of starvation. Yes, we'd had our crop failures the last thirtyfive local Calmena years, and even lost some people in the early years, but the last real famine was almost twenty local years in the past. These days, N'yeschlass the city and its surrounding countryside were even able to export a little food, despite the primitive shipping technology. Perhaps improving those would be the focus of our next contract period with the Empire.

The view inside a time-jammer bubble is pretty.

Not that the Imperials built ships with windows. It almost defeated the purpose of having a hull, to leave a hole in it where radiation could get in or some random piece of debris could punch a hole and let your air out. If anything, time-jammers were more vulnerable to that than most Imperial vessels. Unlike Vector Drive, time-jammers actually had to travel the entire distance, and so time-jammers weren't used for anything over a few hundred light-years. But they didn't require operant mindlords to pilot them, something Earth was in short supply of at the moment. Nor could most transparent materials accept hull charge, which meant they were, comparatively speaking, fragile as ancient glass.

If you wanted to look out of an Imperial vessel, you did it electronically. The sensors weren't cameras, technically speaking, but that's what everyone called them. In a time-jammer under drive, you couldn't really see anything but the lights of the capture buffer, accretion disk, or whatever you wanted to call it. Photons got caught in the buffer, and took anywhere from about forty seconds on up to work their way clear. The capture buffer provided heavy lensing as well as drastically slowing the photons within. The upshot was the entire leading hemisphere of the bubble glowed soft, shifting pastel colors like the auroras of Earth. Traveling faster than light, the entire front hemisphere captured photons that struck the field surface. The ones that were eventually emitted inwards were spread out over the entire inner surface of the field. Photons that weren't absorbed by sensors or the dark gray hull of Golden Hind went through the whole process again.

Piloting a time-jammer was a lot like an old song from one of the rock stars my parents liked - "Driving With Your Eyes Closed." I remember it being a fun little song, but the reality not so much. The piloting sensors used direct detection of mass akin to the operant discipline of farza, which allowed the computers to extrapolate mass from natural bodies from their effects on the metric of space - in other words, gravity. Imperial gear was crazy good. Anything shields or hull charge couldn't handle would get detected in time for a good pilot who was on the ball to avoid it, even at a couple hundred thousand times the speed of light. The problem was the potential for other ships. Gravity only propagated at light speed. It's all very well and good for natural bodies which are on the course God last set for them billions of years ago. Their gravity propagation was a thing of long standing. Not so much other ships traveling faster than light. As far as any such ships were concerned, we were driving with our eyes closed.

We didn't think there were any such ships around, but we didn't know. Difficult as it was to believe, we were actually going where no humans we knew of had ever been before. When the Imperial military had come to Earth, they'd done a fast survey looking for signs of advanced civilization, but signs of anything advanced enough to worry the Empire could be seen at interstellar distances. Nobody had actually visited Barnard's Star, our first destination, or any of the other nearby star systems we were planning to visit.

Getting close to finishing this. There is a nugget in this passage foreshadowing events later on.

******

The rules of bladework sparring were simple: blade only. You were allowed to use auros to plan, but no mindbolts or anything else. This wasn't a duel; it was a test of our skills with the blade. The point continued until someone drew significant blood. When you could heal anything but brain function, lesser wounds might be painful, but they weren't life threatening. You'd heal yourself and be good as new in a few seconds - maybe a minute or two at most. The ilestar floor covering would soak up any blood that fell, and as soon as the room was vacant, one of the little robots would be along to replace the ilestar. Clothes were just as replaceable. Head protection prevented practice weapons from doing anything that couldn't be healed.

The point was that we didn't hold back. Our family could use the same sword moves we'd use in a real duel, and do so in earnest. This meant no bad habits to break in a real duel, we wouldn't be used to 'holding back'. I had no reason to suspect that the other Great Families did anything different. Swordsmanship settled roughly a third of all Imperial duels. If you were reasonably matched mentally, greater sword proficiency gave you a real advantage. It wouldn't balance out a large disparity in mental power - as I'd learned the hard way in my one duel - but it could be what allowed you to defeat an opponent that might otherwise have worn you down mentally. I had no intention of fighting any more duels - but sometimes circumstances gave you no choice. I'd learned that the hard way, too. Since I wanted to keep enjoying my husband and children for as long as the Lord allowed, I practiced with blades regularly.

Parry riposte parry riposte parry riposte, and ow! A hit on my wrist from the titanium rod meant momentary pain, and a bruise I'd be healing later, but no real injury. In a real duel, it might have been the opening for an opponent to win decisively before I could transfer my weapon to the other hand. A beat later, I re-started the engagement with a cut to his head.

Attack parry riposte remise parry riposte. He'd hit me several times before my blade nicked his elbow. Good! He acknowledged the touch, and we kept going. Unlike a real human, Asto's splinter didn't have blood - a splinter was a projection, not a real human body. Ordinary action with a sword didn't damage them. Even in a duel with a real opponent, it would have been at most a minor annoyance - healed in a moment to negligible blood loss. But it felt good to have the acknowledgement that I'd gotten some of my own back. Good enough to trust me to take our kids to meet my family?

You're going to have to talk to Mother and Grandfather about that. Children of Great Houses did not leave the security of the Residence for anything more than short excursions that could be cut short at any time. They were too vulnerable to other Great Houses. No matter what the rules said about targeting children, every time I requested an Earth visit, I was told the gains wouldn't justify the risk.

Eventually, our sparring ended. Scimtar's splinter indicated it was time for my lesson. I was already sweaty and tired, but you didn't refuse even a short lesson from one of the greatest living masters.

 



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