Tag Archives: historical fiction

Harēna, Nicole Crichton

Harēna (Latin)

Sand

Sandy desert, waste

A sanded place, ground marked off for combat, amphitheatre or arena.

 

Dearest Aemilius,

The wine here is most comparable to your family’s orchards. Who would have believed that grapes from Syria would taste as good as grapes from Rome? The Roman army too is thriving in the desert and we expect that soon the Emperor Shapur will fall in battle, his desert empire ripe for harvest! Won’t you come to Dura Europos to taste glory, Aemilius, like Alexander the Great? And then perhaps we will drink like him too!

Domitius.     

 

*

 

They heard the Parthians before they saw them. Their deep rumbling made the Roman cavalrymen whisper to their gods and their horses nicker nervously to one another. Aemilius expelled a shaky breath and willed his hands to steady as his brown stallion flung his head backwards and shuffled his hooves. He ignored the stares of the men around him, their eyes transfixed on the blood and ink staining his arms and iron scale armour. Though, at their commander’s signal, their staring was cut off and the meagre force charged into the open wasteland.

Swarming across the endless sand were thousands and thousands of Parthians. Both man and horse were draped in robes of armour, the metal shimmering like a mirage.

You promised me glory, Aemilius thought as he blinked sand out of his eyes.

‘You assured me domination of the barbarians,’ Aemilius whispered as hundreds of pounding hooves rattled his bones.

‘I had imagined an emperor’s welcome in the streets of Rome!’ Aemilius raged as he was submerged into the shimmering army.

Arrows shot all around his head and buried into his legs.

His sword clashed and pierced through armour.

He swung from side to side to avoid the bucking hooves of riderless horses.

Aemilius wrenched the reins, narrowly avoiding a collision with another Roman, but steered himself into the path of a galloping Parthian, his arrow poised to release directly into Aemilius’ head…

 

*

 

Aemilius exhaled deeply into the hot darkness. The blackness felt solid. He shifted uncomfortably in the large, empty bath, his back scraping against the rough rocks and the water sloshing gently at his movement. Cupping his hands in the water, Aemilius brought the perpetually warm liquid to his face. Massaging the water into his dry skin, he tried to ignore how bony his cheeks and chin had become, and he swore that his eyes had never been this sunken. Some of the water trickled into his mouth and Aemilius pulled it around his tongue and from cheek to cheek. With an aggressive ptt, he spat it out over his shoulder, but it was never enough to dislodge the grains sticking to his gums, wedged between his teeth and clinging to the back of his throat.

‘I confess that I have not found the same adventure that you…’ Aemilius rehearsed, his voice trailing off into the darkness. Letting his head fall backwards, Aemilius imagined the bath at his family’s villa with its painting of Vesta on the ceiling; the plump goddess with pale skin lounging above the water, her red lips a shy smile and robe enticingly askew. As a boy, Aemilius used to sink his body below the surface, the rippling water making him feel like they were swimming together; a boy the guest of a goddess.

But this dark bathhouse was not Rome.

Aemilius felt bile rise to his throat. He swallowed it as he rose out of the water. His worn muscles trembled as he dressed his wet body in his faded red tunic, iron scale armour and leather sandals. Fitting his sword into his weathered belt, Aemilius reached down again but felt only rough stone. He shook his head, he’d lost his grandfather’s silver clasp days ago, and he’d already searched the bathhouse. With a pain in his stomach, Aemilius thought of the tiny treasure; five people on a ship with several oars reaching the bottom of the hull, the bow rearing back like the neck of a gigantic sea-monster.

‘Wishing you a safe tide for your journey to Dura, and a safe tide home,’ his father had said as he fastened it to Aemilius’ tunic. Aemilius had simply smiled past the obvious incongruity that he would be riding to Dura Europos, not sailing.

Home. Aemilius’ stomach churned at the prospect as he calculated, for the hundredth time, how long it would take him to saddle his horse and ride north along the Euphrates until he reached Cappadocia, and then west, and west and west; following the coastline all the way past Cyprus and Greece, and then into Gaul before turning south into the alps and home. Aemilius closed his eyes and conjured an image of the Italian countryside stretching out before him, of endless fields turned golden by the sun; a paradise for his eyes after the harsh glare of the desert.

I confess I will not miss the desert’s…’ Aemilius began as he willed himself to remain calm, and walked out of the bathhouse.

The desert sun dried his skin the instant he walked under its searing rays. A cacophony barrelled towards him, shouts and cries of barbarians and Greeks as they scurried about the stone-walled city, brandishing papyri or hauling food to sell or worshipping to their gods; foreign gods with bulbous bodies and bunches of round hair. Aemilius cringed as the shouting between an older Greek man and a younger barbarian crashed into him, the pair gesturing wildly to one another.

‘I have the grapes and the wine, you want wine? For some oil you’ll get some wine….no, no spices won’t do, for some oil you’ll get some wine…Wine from here is good…for oil you’ll get some barley and some wine…’

‘I confess that I prefer Homer to…’ Aemilius started, remembering a boyhood spent repeatedly reciting and copying sentence after sentence of The Odyssey under the strict instruction of a permanently bristled Athenian, a boyhood spent with – Aemilius shook off the memory and wandered away, eyes scouring the sand and hand reaching for the fabric at his neck. Had it been months, not days since he’d lost it? Of all the places for the clasp to be lost, out of all the men in his family to hold it in their possession –

Aemilius gulped, guilt thick like sickness.

A flash of white caught his eye and Aemilius froze, gaping at a figure standing in the middle of the small amphitheatre. Drapedin a blinding white robe, the man pointed an accusing finger at Aemilius, eyes glaring.

‘No, not you again,’ Aemilius whispered, but he was unable to turn away from Elpidephorus, the tragic-actor. Whipping a hand behind his back, the actor pulled out a long, shining blade. Aemilius blinked rapidly, trying to – but it was too late. Elpidephorus turned the blade towards himself and plunged the shining metal into his stomach, over and over and over again. Aemilius heaved as he watched the actor’s blood stain his robe and spill onto the sand, tasting that metallic tang on his tongue.

The actor vanished.

Aemilius gasped for breath.

‘W-Why? You’re d-dead,’ he rasped, ‘I buried you in the desert.’

Sweat dripped off Aemilius’ face and he felt his tunic wet against his skin again. He braced his hands on his knees as his head fell, eyes cast again upon the sand.

How long had it been since he’d lost it?

Aemilius shook his head. Forcing himself to cut off his eye’s hopeless searching, he drew his gaze upwards and saw Domitius’ quarters, a large stone building, loom above him. A coldness swirled in the pit of his stomach that even the desert could not thaw.

‘It’s time for your confession, Domitius,’ Aemilius breathed.

 

*

 

Domitius stood hunched-over at the window of his private room, hands braced on the hip-high wall and gazing out at the rushing Euphrates; an apt station for The Commander of the River Bank. Aemilius stared at his – he shook his head and raised his knuckle.

Knock, knock, knock.

Domitius swung around and skittered to the side, eyes wide.

‘Aemilius?’ He asked, voice shaky.

The cavalryman nodded. He noticed ink stains on Domitius’ fingers and tunic.

‘I-I was not expecting you,’ he said warily.

‘I sent a message,’ Aemilius lied.

Domitius pursed his lips, trying to decipher Aemilius’ steady expression.

‘I must have lost it,’ Domitius replied, gesturing to the room around him. Aemilius briefly scanned the papyrus cluttering every desk and chest, some spilling onto the floor. After a pause, Domitius approached him and tentatively wrapped Aemilius in a loose embrace. Aemilius kept his arms hanging by his side. Domitius lingered for a few seconds before inching away, their faces so close that Aemilius could see grains of sand in the lines below his eyes.

‘Wine?’ Domitius asked, glancing to a clay orange jug sitting on a table, its spout barely visible above the mountain of papyri.

Aemilius nodded.

Domitius continued to scrutinize his gaze as he took a few steps backwards to the table and pulled out the jug and two matching cups, causing more papyri to tumble to the floor. As Domitius poured the dark liquid, Aemilius thought of Caecilius, his younger brother, meticulously tending to the family orchard; one hundred and eighteen rows of the sweetest, plump grapes – grapes that Aemilius had been banned from harvesting nine years ago. He smiled as he felt a familiar pain in his right hand. Aemilius had yet to see a man as livid as Caecilius had been when he discovered that not all of the grapes would become wine. How many times his brother had punched his thieving hand, Aemilius could not remember, but he had spent the afternoon soaking it, as purple and blotchy as the grapes, in the cool of the garden fountain; the sweet taste still on his tongue.

But this was not sweet, and the orange cup made the wine look black.

‘What are you doing here?’ Domitius asked, voice light as he placed the jug back on the table. Aemilius took a long breath.

‘I was here for victory,’ he replied.

Domitius’ cautious gaze stiffened and he looked quickly down at the papyri, eyes scanning their contents so rapidly that Aemilius doubted he read a single word.

‘I was here to dominate the desert like Rome’s forbearers – like you promised we would.’

Domitius searched for a pen, dipping the point of the reed into the pot of ink so forcefully that he knocked it over. Hissing, he grabbed handfuls of papyrus and attempted to stem the stain, the blackness spreading all over his hands as he worked.

‘I lied about the messenger. But you also lied in your letters to me.’

Domitius swallowed nervously and shook his head. Aemilius was unsure if he was denying his claims or trying to shake his words away.

‘You were aware that Emperor Shapur was laying waste to every Roman city he encountered; burning them to the ground and taking whoever was left as prisoners.’

The stain now contained, Domitius plucked pieces of papyrus at random and signed them.

‘Had you always known that we would never return to receive cheers like victors – that we would never have glory?’ Aemilius raised his voice, stilling Domitius’ writing. He looked up to the cavalryman, brow furrowed.

‘Glory is in death, Aemilius – we will receive an applause worthy of emperors when we arrive at the Elysian plain,’ Domitius replied, and then looked back down to the papyri. A tremble ran through Aemilius’ body, causing wine to spill over his fingers. Blood running hot, he tried to compose anger into a courteous reply.

‘I confess that I shall not be receiving that applause with you, Domitius.’

Domitius looked up to him again, eyes narrowed, and Aemilius wondered for a brief moment if he could sense its rehearsal. Even so.

‘I have no taste for glory, only for good wine, and plan to be riding north shortly.’

The men stared at each other. Aemilius felt his heart pound in his chest and took another breath.

‘Our family will drink to you, and I hope that Elysium is all that you’ve desired – I am not enough of a warrior for us to meet again.’ Placing the cup on top of a stack of tax records, Aemilius turned on his heel, footsteps light as he headed for the door. He reached again for where the silver clasp should have been pinned, for the curl of the sea-monster’s neck, feeling nauseous at the thought of his father’s expression when he would return without it.

‘The die is cast, Aemilius,’ Domitius said, voice almost echoing in the stone room. Aemilius paused, the flicker of rage reigniting in his chest. He strode back to Domitius and seized him by the robe at his neck.

‘How dare you even think of Caesar?! Though even he misjudged how many friends he possessed!’

Domitius cringed, smudging Aemilius’ arms and armour with ink as he tried to push him away.

‘A-Aemilius,’ Domitius gasped, ‘the d-die is c-cast,’ he spluttered, clutching a crumpled piece of papyrus. Aemilius snatched it out of his grip and read:

Their army stretches further than the desert itself.

Aemilius felt his muscles turn to liquid.

‘The P-Parthians will lay siege s-soon,’ Domitius whispered as Aemilius stared at the message.

‘There is no time to ride north, Aemilius; nor south nor west nor east,’ Domitius gripped Aemilius’ shoulders and pulled himself upwards, ‘there is only away.’

Aemilius could no longer swallow his rage.

‘You have condemned me to death!’ he roared, lunging forward and drawing his sword. Domitius pleaded incoherently and held up his hands as he scuttled backwards, knocking the table.

Crash!

The rough, clay jug and the cups fell off the table and smashed into pieces, wine pooling on the stone floor and soaking papyrus.

Aemilius gripped one of Domitius’ writhing arms and pricked his side with the sword.

‘P-Please A-Aemilius, l-let us s-sail to E-Elysium t-together!’

Anger burned through Aemilius’ veins, a searing harsher than the desert sun.

‘The die is cast, Brutus,’ Aemilius whispered, staring into Domitius’ wide, terrified eyes. Face slackening, great heaves wracked Domitius’ body but his scream was cut short into blabbering chokes as Aemilius’ sword pierced his stomach. He convulsed violently and Aemilius felt sticky blood cascade over his hand. Domitius frantically attempted to pry Aemilius’ fingers off the handle. Legs weakening and choking mute, Domitius fell. His twitching muscles stilled.

Between long, heavy gasps, Aemilius felt his white-hot rage evaporate as he stared at the stranger splayed on the stone floor, eyes still open. Hands trembling, he backed away, almost slipping in the pool of blood around him, and ran out of the stone house. Heartbeat pounding in his ears, Aemilius was deaf to the panicked chaos of people fleeing a city about to be besieged.

 

*

 

The Parthian’s grip on the bow and arrow were deadly still. He seemed blind to the carnage of arrows, bodies and blood; seeing only the Roman cavalryman. Aemilius felt his blood run cold, a numbness washing over him like water.

‘The die is cast,’ he whispered, and closed his eyes.

 

 

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The Emperor’s Path, Nicholas Wasiliev

Thirty days have September,
April, June and November
February is alright,
It only rains from morning till night,
All the rest have thirty one,
Without a single day of sun
And if any month had thirty two,
They’d be bloody raining too!
- Anonymous, Kundasang War Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia

We are forgotten.

Alfie and Howard call out. Think they’re being pushed somewhere.

‘Keep it up Harvey!’

‘Don’t let that cage get to ya mate!’

So fucking good to hear them. I put my eye to the widest slit between the bars of bamboo. Can only see the outline of the same Jungle Pine that I saw yesterday.

Fucking bamboo. Every fucking sturdy building here is made from it. The locals make use of it in bloody everything. Wish the Japs designed this cage so I could stretch my legs without crushing my neck.

Think it has been three days in here. It’s hard telling the time when you can barely see the sun. The heat and humidity helps: it’s midday when the heat gets to you; after that it’s afternoon. And at night you’d freeze, of course.

You know it’s morning when you hear our fellas walking on their way down to make repairs to the airfield that we built back three years gone, when we got here after Singapore. You never hear them coming back; Japs make sure we work.

Mornings are the best. Just hearing those boys going past, particularly Alfie and Howard. Reminds me of where I am, cause sometimes this cage does things to you.

We’re members of 2/15th Regiment, and have been since we joined up in 1940. Alfie is a Queenslander, a league boy like me. He signed up because he wanted to check out his mother’s roots. She was a Scottish girl before she emigrated and had him, so Alfie figured that because Europe was where the war was, he could go ‘home’ whenever we got leave.

Howie’s a Victorian, his father played in the VFL for Collingwood. He signed up for the same reason I did; both our fathers had served in the Great War, our grandfathers the Boer War before that. So we got on pretty quickly.

We did basic together in Singapore; that’s when Pearl Harbour happened. So when we were told that we were at war with Japan, we thought it would be a walk in the park. Then Singapore happened.

As guests of the emperor, we were put on a ship to Sandakan, this little hidden pocket of nowhere, to build an airstrip. We quickly found out how hospitable Japs were.

Those fuckers remove any honour we have; they just try to break us. They even started making up rumours that Australia was being invaded.

Three days back one high’n’mighty little Jap came by the mess hall while Alfie and I were sharing the most heavenly cig that we’d exchanged with a Sandakan fella. So this Jap started sounding off about our cities being bombed. One bloke asked about Sydney.

‘Sydney yes!’ came the answer, ‘boom, boom, boom!’

‘Brisbane?’ Alfie asked.

‘Yes, Brisbane! Up in flames! Boom!’

‘Bullshit?’ I asked.

‘Yes, Bullshit, boom, boom, boom!’

Our blokes couldn’t stop laughing. So, after a typical beating that yellow-stained shit throws me in this cage for being a smart arse. Speak for himself!

We never believe their crap. The locals had come by our camp a few months back and exchanged a broken radio with Howie for two of his gold teeth. We got it working and found that the Yanks had turned the war.

We spread the news, telling our blokes ‘…what the kingfisher was telling us’, so the Japs had no fucking clue that we knew they were losing. Made us think that maybe one day, our fighting lads will come save us.

It’s easy to get carried away thinking like that. I did it myself last night!

As always, the Japs checked the cages as always to see who was dead. Then they gave me my first drink in three days.

But the Japs are no problem. It’s the silence, when it’s not broken by the occasional shot. Only sounds are the jungle: soaking rain that comes down in the afternoon and doesn’t stop till the next morning, and the heat that sticks, rips and rots the seams of whatever is left of your uniform and boots.

The silence makes you listen for our boys. You hear them coming, flying in like angels, raining hell on these gits, then taking us far away from this hell-hole.

I hate waking up after that dream. See what I mean?! This cage does things to you. Hope. My best friend and worst enemy—

A Jap unbolts the lock, and flings the cage door open. ‘Speedo, Speedo,’ he barks.

The light fucking blinds me. The Jap grabs my arm in his fist and I fly into the mud. I look for some sort of landmark, and see that lifesaving Jungle Pine. Eyes on it, I get myself to stand up. It’s helping my eyes adjust.

The Jap pulls out another bloke from the cage next door. He’s got ulcers on his ankle larger than a 50p piece. And I see his fucking bone. Looks like he has the runnies too. Must be cholera. Half the boys have it.

The Jap beats him to get him up. He isn’t moving. So the Jap shoots him in the head.

He pulls more of us from all the cages, one-by-one, putting a bullet in anyone who doesn’t get up. Doesn’t matter whether they’re sick or injured.

Another Jap makes us walk. Fucking hurts to put one foot in front of the other, but it’s good to be out of the bloody box. The view down this path stretches out to an open muddy space outside the mess hall.

This view always reminds me of the view from my veranda back home, with the huge paddock of brown grass, and old pine trees lining the driveway. My brother and I used to call them pines ‘carrot trees’, cause they looked like giant green carrots sticking up out of the ground. Was peaceful there too, apart from the sounds of Dad shooting rabbits—

There’s a couple hundred of us outside the mess hall, all shunted in here like beef cattle. I see Howie and Alfie.

‘You little bastard! Nice of you to join us for our little gathering,’ Alfie laughs.

Howie offers me a cigarette. ‘You have to suck the Jap’s cock to let you out?’

‘Nup, just used charm. Bet you would’ve done that.’ I missed these buggers.

A Jap shouts at us to move into two lines, taking my cig before I can light it. ‘No smoking!’

We all squeeze up; they start walking us, out of the camp towards the jungle.

I remember seeing some of our guys being led out like this a month or so ago. Apparently the Japs want to move us inland somewhere, to some place called Ranau. Probably cause our air force boys are getting ready to kick the shit out of them. Well, sorry Japs, but marching us a few kilometres inland ain’t gonna do much when you’re flying in a fucking plane.

I hate jungle. Of all bastard places, this is the greatest bastard. It’s always raining, and on the rare occasions it isn’t, the humidity makes you wish it might as well be. The scrub sticks into you more effectively than barbed wire – any cuts from that always get infected. That and the mozzies that eat you alive, and you can barely see due to how thick the canopy is. Jungle works better than any fence; we knew if we ever escaped in our malnourished state we’d be dead within a day. That was if we weren’t caught first.

We’re being led up a steep path, looks like it has been recently cut. The mozzies feast on us as we all climb; humidity crawls its way into us through our breathing and weighs us down. We’re weak, tired, injured, and sick. How do they expect us to climb this?

We march a few hours. How we do that, I don’t know.

Then there’s a foot in my periphery. A bloke has collapsed, his body wrapped in beri-beri by the looks of it. A few boys try help him up, but a Jap pushes us on ahead.

A few minutes later we hear piercing echoes from behind us cut through the trees. Soon, that same Jap walks past us, his gun sizzling from falling water droplets. He looks down and wipes bits of brain off his lapel, then grabs a dirty white handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his face.

If I ever get outta this, I’m gonna put thirty bullets through that fuckers forehead.

He walks on ahead. I see above him through the canopy a mountain, towering above the rest of the hills we’re travelling over. We know this mountain. The local fellas praise it like no tomorrow, cause some mountain spirit is there. Its slopes are steep and monoliths of rock strut out on its summit, like a crown of thorns.

I fucking hate this mountain. Feels like it’s looking down at us, contempt little toy soldiers! Fuck you!

I see Howie; his eyes are to the ground, breathing hard.

‘You see Alfie?’ I ask between breaths.

‘Haven’t seen him since we left. He’s probably behind us,’ Howie spits in the mud. He’s struggling.

‘Keep it up mate. Think about your girls Double-Ds, that’ll put a spring in your step.’

‘Fuck you.’ Howie shakes his head.

Howie had a missus for close to two years. He’d been planning to marry her before the war got in the way. He didn’t like it when Alfie and I try to get him to talk about her; he liked to keep her for himself. Lucky bastard.

I’ve never been with a girl. Not even a smooch. Mother told me I had to be a gentleman to women when I moved from home to the city. First girl I’d spoken to properly was a girl who watched my first Manly Colts game. Her brother was the captain. We didn’t talk about much outside of what happened on the field.

Eventually, after a few more mountains, the night arrives quietly, but with it the rain. We stop for a break, which is a blessing. Howie collapses. Come on you!

I steady him on a stump next to me, before falling against a tree myself. I listen, hoping to maybe hear our fighter planes. Fucking silence makes you think like that. I drift out quickly.

I’m back home. Dad is showing me how to use his old sniper from the Great War. Think this was from a few years back. He likes shooting rabbits to stop them eating his beef cattle’s grass. Those gunshots across the farm are such comfort, means Dad is home; making rabbits drop like flies. He never misses.

Mother doesn’t like him showing us how to use his sniper; she said he spent more time polishing it than he did with her. But we still love him. At dusk everyday he’d march back home, rifle over his right shoulder, with half-a-dozen rabbits for that nights stew. We marched behind him; playing toy soldiers. At night, we’d eat with Mother inside, but Dad sits out on the front porch, eating by himself. He’d be there all night. We’d always drift off to sounds of him wiping his nose with his old handkerchief. He always sniffled at night—

The jungle welcomes me back. A Jap is beating everyone awake to be on their feet.

I’m alive? I genuinely thought I would not wake up. How unbelievable. I look over at Howie on the stump next to me, his body deathly still.

I poke him to get him up. Doesn’t move.

‘Howie?’ I poke him a few more times.

Then I get it. I’m not bullshitting myself.

I’m glad he didn’t have to wake up to this again.

We start walking in lines, going past the lucky ones who didn’t wake up. I don’t know how I’m still going. I’m just walking. One foot. Then the other.

All Japs are bastards, especially their emperor. Suppose this is how they do it in Japan, make a path just to watch how many of us drop. It’s probably some cultural thing. I remember in basic training when they talked about the psychology of the Jap, how they all had the mentalities of dark-age warriors. I almost feel sorry for these Japs around me, they probably did not even know what a gun was till the war.

There’s a mist coming down. I hear shouting up ahead. There’s a boy leaning on a bamboo tree. His eyes are staring into the canopy, dunno what he is looking at.

A bunch of boys are trying to get him to stand up. You can do it mate. Come on! Why aren’t you getting up?!

Two Japs shout at him. He keeps staring. So they bayonet him a dozen times. His eyes are still looking in the same place.

I’m just walking.

A few hours later the man in front of me collapses, so a Jap blows him away through the back of the neck. He gasps, air escaping from his lungs as he desperately tries to take a few last breaths.

One foot, then the other.

This fucking mist. The fucking trees. The fucking rain! More mud and more fucking rain. I’m just walking.

Minutes go by…

Hours go by…

I’m just walking…

Hours…

Hours…

No one’s coming for us. No one will ever come. They’ve left us here. Alone.

Are we nothing? Just absolutely fucking nothing?! I guess to you we are.

I feel a bit dizzy; there’s mud… around my knees, I think. I’m just looking through the mist, looking… For something.

Is that…?

I think I can hear engines. It’s our boys! There’s a Jap shouting at me, but he doesn’t matter. It’s over for him.

I’m saved! I can’t wait to see home – Dad and Mother will be waiting for me. I’ll be with my brother. We’ll see Dad’s face at the sight of his sons in uniform marching up the hill towards him. No toy soldiers anymore, now we are real men. They’ll sit us down to a beautiful roast chicken, with pumpkin, onions, and boiled potatoes. And Dad won’t be out on the veranda anymore. He’s with us. We’ll sit and eat as a family.

There’s something cold touching the back of my neck. A sound pops my eardrums. I feel a sudden need to grab the back of my head, I have to stop something flowing—

It stopped.

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today’
- Australian Kundasang War Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia

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