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The Lightning Road cuts far across the Cosmos, a streak of dazzling gold amidst the star-studded void. Paved in otherworldly stone, the road climbs over sleeping giants, past ringed planets and frozen worlds, connecting one unknown to the next. Xiaofei used to like watching it from the hills outside home, the grass soft beneath her bare feet as fireflies sang in the night. This time, she walks along the celestial route herself. Her sneakers crunch over the gravelly path.

“Oh, my! What a cute little girl you are. Traveling by yourself?”

Xiaofei peers up to a stranger in the crowd—an older, smiling auntie dressed in the common festival garb, red shirt with dark pants. The marching band leads far ahead of them, the beat of drums muffled by the long procession, though Xiaofei jolts at the sudden screech of trumpets.

“Is this your first time?” the auntie asks.

“Yes, ma’am.” Xiaofei hunches into herself, hair falling over her face. She pulls on the straps of her backpack. “The dogs and cats can’t leave home, so I had to come alone,” she says. “It’s my first time joining Matsu’s festival. I heard—if you bring a small statue in the goddess’s image, she’ll imbue it with spiritual power. Is that true?”

The auntie grins wide. “You bet it is! But if you want to steal some of Matsu’s power, you should get up to the front. The closer you are to her palanquin, the better.”

“Oh no, I don’t mean to steal—” Xiaofei flounders. “I mean, I thought everyone just asked, or something like that. I swear I’m not a criminal!”

Chuckling, the auntie pats the top of Xiaofei’s head. “You’ll be fine. The goddess is kind; she won’t turn you away for needing some of her strength. In fact, she might just be looking out for the brave ones like you.”

“Really?” Xiaofei straightens. “The goddess thinks I’m brave?”

“Well, you know, it can’t be easy coming out here alone—especially at your age.”

“It’s not all that hard.” Xiaofei wipes at her face with a hand towel, damp and crumpled from days of use. She’d packed light for the trip, though her shoulders still ache from carrying the goddess’s statue in a backpack.

A group of other women call for the auntie, waving a hand-sewn banner in honor of the goddess’s day. Each member is meant to hold part of the banner, and the auntie doesn’t delay them for much longer.

“I’ll be rooting for you, kiddo! Give my regards to Matsu when you meet her,” the auntie says and winks in a quick farewell. Xiaofei stares, and then hastily bows in return.

The beating drums sound almost like gunfire, and the ringing trumpets like tornado sirens—sounds that send a quivering through Xiaofei’s limbs. Emboldened by the auntie’s words, however, Xiaofei walks with a new skip to her step. The weight on her back feels lighter. Kind as she must be, the goddess wouldn’t deny Xiaofei’s request. Xiaofei has come all this way, after all. She takes long strides forward, eager to receive bountiful blessings.

She trips on a crack in the road and falls flat on her face.

 


 

The festival procession arrives at a massive bridge of bright red iron. Summer spirits—the siohong with their flickering tails—play and dance high overhead. Paper lanterns float between tiered pagodas, and the bridge leads to a temple complex, sprawling across cosmic isles over a sea of white asters.

Xiaofei enters through the smaller gate by the right. Clutching her bag, she is careful not to step on the raised threshold, so as to avoid disrespecting the temple spirits. Though her nosebleed stopped an hour ago, she still has tissues wedged up her nostrils.

“We just ran out of beds in the common areas,” an elderly nun says to Xiaofei. “But there is plenty of room in the courtyard.” She gestures to the open space by the gardens, where a few devotees have set up small tents to spend the night.

Xiaofei bows her head and picks a spot under the plum tree to rest. Lacking a tent of her own, she stretches out on a borrowed mat to poke at fresh blisters on her feet.

“Ow.” Xiaofei grimaces at a particularly mean bubble, right at the edge of her pinky toe. She’d made sure to wear proper shoes and socks, too.

A fellow freeloader pokes their head out of a sleeping bag two mats over, whistling low to catch her attention. “You got here late, little girl. The nuns served food for everyone in the dining hall. There should be leftovers—vegetable soup with fresh herbs from the mountain, plus three kinds of mushrooms. Be sure to eat and regain your strength.”

“Thank you.” Xiaofei sniffles. She wraps a bandage over her swollen pinky toe.

“Now that looks painful.” The freeloader wiggles their pale arms out, propping their head up for a better look. They’re a pink-faced teenager with short, shaggy hair and buck teeth. “You must have been walking for a long time.” They’re picking their nose as they speak. “Most tourists don’t walk in the procession until the skin falls off their feet. But you’re not like the other tourists, are you? Oh—you can call me Big Sister, by the way.”

“Did you come to ask for the goddess’s power, too?”

“Eh, I like free meals. And I’m bored.” Big Sister rolls on her back. The temple bells chime softly from afar, and the trees sway against warm stellar winds. “Matsu supposedly grants strength and protection against any danger, right?”

Xiaofei nods.

“I hear she has healing powers too.”

Another nod.

“So? How was it? Did you get a piece of Matsu’s spiritual power?”

“Oh, I, um.” Xiaofei twiddles her thumbs. “I haven’t seen the palanquin yet.”

At that, Big Sister sits up fast. “You haven’t seen Matsu? But it’s been seven days! The festival’s gonna end soon y’know?”

“There’s still two days left.” Xiaofei laughs weakly. “I’ll manage somehow. I have to! There’s no other choice; my cats’ and dogs’ lives depend on it. Poor Baobao hasn’t wanted to go on walks with me since she stepped on shrapnel last month. And Lulu hasn’t been eating well, but she’s just about to give birth to her kittens. I’ve made it this far—how hard could it be to meet a goddess? I’m sure she’d hear me out, even though I haven’t been praying much to the altar in my house.”

“It’s a statue.” Big Sister snorts and plops back onto her bedding. “The palanquin holds a statue. Nobody’s gonna scold you for not praying, or whatever.”

“I know that.” Xiaofei shrinks into herself. “But still.”

“Silly girl.”

The wind settles. The temple grows very quiet. Most devotees are sound asleep. The nuns have retired into their quarters. Even the siohong have dispersed, the shapes of their tails like scorch marks against celestial skies.

“Wait, what are those people doing?” Xiaofei points to the worship hall across the courtyard. Big Sister snores in response. The lanterns’ light is dim, but Xiaofei can clearly make out the palanquin’s sparkling shape, and the handful of people carrying it through the doorway.

Thieves.

Xiaofei stumbles onto her bare feet, no time for shoes or socks. But she doesn’t even make it three steps before a bunch of people rush in, having feigned their sleep.

“Halt!”

“Unhand the goddess, you fiends!”

A crash echoes through the hall. Thrashing noises and angry shouts. Another crash, and splitting wood. Xiaofei dives low to the ground, curling into a ball. She flinches with every sound. Bang, crash, snap. She cowers—as if bullets will reach her any moment, as if flying shrapnel will cut into her face as a hundred bombs drop in from high up, they’ll wreck the ceiling, tear walls and floors, and drive throbbing wounds into the earth.

“Make it stop,” Xiaofei whimpers, “make it stop.”

Something light and fluffy falls over Xiaofei. The sounds fade instantly. When she tries to peek up, the translucent fabric hides most of her view, leaving only glowing shapes and blurs.

She hears a new voice beside her, calm and soothing. It sounds almost like her mother’s voice, if she could still remember it, but not quite.

“Hush, dear child. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, precious one, for all will be well, and well again.”

A gust of wind blows through the worship hall and sends every thief and devotee reeling out to the temple gates, along with the palanquin. As the magical blanket flutters away from Xiaofei, she finds a full-figured woman kneeling close beside her, dressed in red robes with a tall headdress, its nine beaded tassels hanging over her eyes. Her brown skin is even darker than Xiaofei’s own. Woven from cloud, her ribbons flow through the air like it’s water.

And when she looks down to meet Xiaofei’s eye, her smile is faint, gentle, unwavering.

The wind pushes the palanquin all the way out of the temple and onto the iron bridge. Both thieves and devotees cease their squabbling and cling to each other for life. The siohong giggle as they watch everything from above. The wind stops soon after, sparing the people, though the palanquin crashes straight into a thick beam. Splinters scatter onto the road. The lacquered pieces fall apart, revealing the original statue of the goddess Matsu. The very first one. It looks a lot like the small statue in Xiaofei’s backpack, except it is about thrice the size, older, heavier, and carved from rare wood.

The original statue flies in a great arc and disappears down into the sea of asters, lost to the cosmic tide.

 


 

“Matsu! O, Matsu!”

“The goddess has left us!”

“Matsu! O, Matsu!”

“We’ve lost our goddess!”

The people cry out in anguish. They crowd against the railing and reach desperately to the sea, but none of them would ever return upon plunging into the Wild of the Cosmos, infinite corridors yet unexplored and rife with dangers. Back at the temple, Xiaofei flits her bewildered gaze between the clamor outside and the woman in red. Other devotees gawk at the glowing figure beside Xiaofei.

“My oh my, there appears to be a situation at hand.” When the woman shakes her head, the beads by her forehead tremble.

Too stunned to move, Xiaofei flaps her mouth. “The goddess—statue—Matsu—”

“Yes, indeed! This won’t do. This won’t do at all! The festival cannot proceed without the main star!”

The shouting from the bridge grows louder, and the glowing woman holds a hand out to Xiaofei. “Will you lend me your strength, brave child?”

Though Xiaofei hesitates for just a second, her own small hand moves by itself, as if she had always been grasping hopelessly at the void, desperate for aid. Once linked, the woman summons another powerful wind. It whisks them both out through the temple’s center gate, and they glide high over people’s heads—higher over the bridge’s iron towers. Xiaofei shrieks from the sudden rush, but she pries her eyes open just in time to see white aster petals erupting from the sea’s surface.

“Hold on tight!”

The currents easily take them in. Pressed close to the woman’s side, Xiaofei gasps at whirling birds and umbrella ghosts, the coral colonies and schools of flying fish. Far off one side, the black-winged Piaget quarrels with the child-eater Alikakay, their giant bodies tumbling over stardust dunes. The sharkdeer spins fast to change forms—cloven hooves shifting into long fins—and wild packs of skyhounds race like burning comets. Colossal turtles move entire islands atop their shells. Around them, huge silver streams of moonlight thread unravel—handiwork by none other than the unseen Weaver of the heavens. Xiaofei thinks of her beloved Baobao’s gray-speckled fur, and wonders if an old dog’s coat can hold a piece of the Cosmos, too.

Next, Matsu points to two sparks of light, one red and one green, hurtling right beside them like firecrackers.

“My assistants!” The glowing woman calls out to the pair: “What do you see, Qian Li Yan, with your Thousand-Mile Eyes? What do you hear, Shun Fong’er, with your Wind-Following Ears? Lend us your aid, my dear companions!”

Red and green sparks surround them, a spell. For a brief moment, Xiaofei sees as the Thousand-Mile Eyes, and time slows. She hears as the Wind-Following Ears, and the cacophony stills.

And there, she spots the goddess’s original statue—wedged between the thick hairs of a third warrior-giant, the bully Tnamay.

“Over there!” Xiaofei points above them.

The spell breaks, and chaos reigns once more. But the glowing woman glides fast through every obstacle and snatches the statue back, escaping quick before Tnamay can bring down a hairy arm in rage.

With one final burst, the glowing woman summons a great tidal wave. Xiaofei holds her breath but finds that she doesn’t need to. They break through another layer of the Cosmos, like a single raindrop splashing onto a still puddle, and then land safely atop the gray sands of cosmic shores.

Slowly, Xiaofei releases her grip on the woman’s crimson robe. The air smells of saltwater and warm nostalgia.

She turns back to the woman and finally asks. “Are you the real Matsu?”

And Matsu grins.

“The one and only,” she says.

 


 

High off the thrill of adventure, Xiaofei hops up and down the sand, shrieking with glee.

“It’s Matsu! Matsu’s here!”

“Correct!” Matsu strikes an impressive pose, knees bent low at a ninety-degree angle. Her large sleeves fan out wide like butterfly wings.

“It’s really, really Matsu!” Overcome with excitement, Xiaofei takes in huge gulps of air and accidentally chokes on her own spit.

“Oh dear! Are you all right?”

Xiaofei coughs madly as Matsu rubs her back in soothing circles.

“I’m okay!” Xiaofei sniffs. “I’m okay.”

“We had quite the wild ride back there, didn’t we?”

“Yes—yes we did! It was so very fun!”

“I hope I didn’t give you that big of a fright?”

“No, no—not at all!”

Matsu smiles. “And your feet?”

“Huh?”

“Are your wounds still hurting?”

Xiaofei glances down to her bare feet. When she rips off the bandages, the blisters have already healed.

“Wow.” Xiaofei looks back at Matsu in hushed awe. “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” she says.

“Good, good!” Matsu claps her hands. “We need you in tip-top shape, after all. The journey hasn’t ended yet, and our destination is still a ways to go!”

“Oh, right!” Xiaofei straightens her back. Even without its palanquin, the original statue must complete its symbolic journey home so the festival can end on the ninth day. Since no other devotees are present to carry the statue, Xiaofei elects to carry the bulky thing herself. It’s much lighter than expected—almost weightless.

Matsu smiles again, and she gently brushes the hair from Xiaofei’s brow. As they begin to walk, the shore glistens around them with the light of stars.

“Is this beach part of the Lightning Road too?” Xiaofei peers back to their footsteps disappearing on the wet sand.

“An offshoot,” Matsu says. “But if we keep moving forward, we’ll reach the place we’re meant to be, sooner or later.”

Xiaofei hums. “I wonder if we’d end up at my house.”

“With your dogs and cats?”

“I put out enough food and water for while I'm gone, but—oh, they’ve never been home alone for so long. What if they think I’ve abandoned them?”

“You must care so much for those little ones.”

“They’re my only family now.” Xiaofei hugs the statue close. “I have to protect them. Everyone else went away. After the first missile strike, lots of people were scared. They abandoned their homes, too. The world is empty now, but I don’t want to leave the house my mom and dad built. The first tree I ever climbed. The well that gives us water. The sunset seen from the garden, and the rainbow after a storm. I don’t want to lose them. I don’t ever, ever want to lose any more precious things.”

Matsu grows quiet. Her steps slow, and she watches the small width of Xiaofei’s back moving further ahead. Small, yet unwavering. With tears in her eyes, Matsu catches up, and they continue on their journey together, side by side across infinite shores.

 


 

“Come out and show yourselves now,” Matsu calls aloud. “It’s rude to eavesdrop for so long.”

Xiaofei quirks her head sideways. “Who’s eavesdropping?”

“My assistants.” The air stirs around them. “Well? Why don’t you say hello—Qian Li Yan, Shun Fong’er?” Matsu plants her feet in the sand, arms folded. A sparkle of light passes briefly across their sight. It shines for a second, then fizzles back into nothing.

But then a deep, gravelly voice speaks.

“Excuse our lack of manners, Madam, but we do not wish to frighten the Little Miss.”

“Aw, don’t be silly. She won’t be frightened—” Matsu looks over to Xiaofei. “Right?”

“Huh? Oh, yes.” Xiaofei shifts the statue in her arms.

When she lifts her head, two hulking figures have suddenly appeared before her. Packed with muscle and dressed only in flowing skirts, the demon brothers nod politely in greeting. Their long fangs protrude from their lips, the mark of ferocious beasts.

Xiaofei squeaks like a startled mouse.

“Don’t stare so hard, brother. You’re scaring her,” Shun Fong’er says. His skin is bright red, and his large ears are filled with multiple piercings and gauges.

“I am not staring,” the green-skinned Qian Li Yan retorts, unblinking. He has numerous tattoos from head to toe, swirling lines and floral patterns.

“Yes, you are! With your buglike eyes! It’s scary!”

“And you’re being too loud.”

“No I’m not!”

“Then let me ask you, ‘Wind-Following Ears,’ do your eardrums not hurt from how loud your own voice is?”

“That happened once—”

“Ahem.” Matsu clears her throat.

“Oops, sorry about that,” Shun Fong’er says, then turns back to the gaping Xiaofei.

She bows in a stiff, serious greeting.

“Hello, uh—you must be Qian Li Yan, and Shun Fong’er.” Xiaofei mistakes one brother for the other, though her earnestness makes up for it. “I’m Xiaofei, a flow—a follower of Matsu.” She stumbles on her words once and looks away in embarrassment. Matsu gently pats her shoulder.

“Ah, it’s so great to finally meet!” Shun Fong’er beams. “I’ve heard much about you, and your quest to gain our goddess’s blessing. The siohong speak highly of you, especially—they’re very big fans!”

Qian Li Yan elbows his rowdy brother aside.

“And I have witnessed your long journey across the Cosmos,” he says. “It must be difficult to travel so far away from home, facing trial after trial. Your efforts are admirable, indeed.”

“Oh.” Xiaofei keeps her head down, smiling weakly. “I couldn’t have done any of it by myself,” she says. “Besides, it’s thanks to you two that we were able to find Matsu’s statue so quickly. Those sparkles of light from your bodies—they’re really pretty, like fireworks. I just wish I could be half as amazing.”

The brothers exchange wide-eyed looks.

Qian Li Yan crouches level to Xiaofei’s eye, and speaks ever so softly.

“You are far stronger than you believe, Little Miss. If you would allow us the honor, we shall gladly serve as your Eyes and Ears.”

“Right!” Shun Fong’er echoes. “And we’ll do our very best to return the statue to its rightful place on the shrine! You’ll be back home in no time.”

“You’d really do all that for me?” Xiaofei chokes up, holding back tears.

“Of course! Your family is waiting for you, aren’t they? Baobao, Lulu, and all the other fur babies!” Then Shun Fong’er rifles through his pocket, pulling out a single gold coin. He places it in Xiaofei’s hand, a gift to stop her tears. As she carefully unwraps the gold foil, her eyes light up.

“It’s chocolate!” Xiaofei gasps. She takes a nibble out of the chocolate coin, and the creamy-sweet taste coats her mouth.

Matsu looks over her with a warm smile of her own, eyes crinkling in the corners. “Shall we move on then, my dear?”

 


 

The gray sands of the Cosmos wind around secret constellations, starling nests, asteroid cliffs, and lunar fields. Familiar yellow lanterns hang from long poles. Small houses and buildings crop up along the roadside, wooden storefronts and vegetable displays. Walking from town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, Xiaofei dutifully carries the statue on her back, strapped to a makeshift litter. Her limbs do not tire. Yet every now and then, one of the demon brothers lifts Xiaofei high on his shoulder. When she passes small shrines and forgotten temples, she stops to share Matsu’s spiritual power.

By the second temple, word has spread of the sole child keeping Matsu’s festival alive. People flock around Xiaofei’s route, offering local produce and handicrafts, huge watermelons and piles of socks.

“Such high quality!” Matsu marvels over a pair of cotton socks. She has put on three pairs at once—two pairs layered on her feet, and one long pair worn like gloves over her hands. She skips ahead and strikes a dramatic pose, which earns a bubbling laugh out of Xiaofei.

“Look over there.” Qian Li Yan points far across the rolling hills, past the towering wind turbines and towards the river docks.

“What do you see,” Matsu says, “with your Thousand-Mile Eyes?”

Sitting atop Qian Li Yan’s shoulders, Xiaofei squints into the distance. A sparkle of light pulls her vision fast towards the swollen river and its jumping current.

“The winds are anxious,” Shun Fong’er chimes in with a listening ear. “Some riverboats should be arriving soon from another town,” he says, and Xiaofei feels a rush of air against her face, hears splashing waves and rumbling motors.

Matsu cups her socked hands together and raises them to her lips. Gently, she blows warm air over the invisible surface, and the river calms instantly. Balls of orange light rise up from its waters like glowing beacons—an assurance of safety.

“Now then,” Matsu says with a cheeky smile, “shall we go for a boat ride next? I hear conditions are perfect for sailing.”

“A boat ride! I want to go!” Xiaofei nearly drops the statue by accident, but Matsu does not scold her. She only laughs and leads their little group down the hill, singing folk songs and bothering her assistants, and it’s so much fun that Xiaofei almost wishes their journey would never come to an end.

 


 

They make a stop at another small temple for the night, run solely by an elderly man and his granddaughter. Dinner is livelier than usual, and everyone helps set up the round table outside, a feast of several vegetable stir-fries, soups, and steamed dumplings. Their bellies full, the girls gather in the corridor to play a game of cat’s cradle. The long string pulls into complex webs, criss-crossing between their fingers. Later, Xiaofei teaches the demon brothers how to play too. Though their hands are thick and brawny, they handle the string with even greater care, forming star shapes and zigzag patterns.

When the hour grows too late, the elderly man quietly carries his dozing grandchild to bed. Xiaofei sprawls out sideways on the temple floor, her eyes slowly falling shut. Drifting halfway to sleep, she suddenly jolts awake at the sound of a hundred temple bells jingling from next door. The clanging tune reminds her too much of the gunfire.

“Hush,” Matsu sings softly, cradling Xiaofei in a warm embrace. “Sleep now, dear child, sleep now. There is nothing to fear. When the ground shakes beneath us, look only to the slumbering oxen, rolling on their backs again. Rest now, precious one, rest now. Safe and sound, here in my arms.”

Out in the road, the lanterns glow bright like a trail of fireflies. The cosmic wind brings a shower of white petals, the scent of sea salt, and memories of carefree summers.

When Xiaofei sleeps, she dreams of home.

 


 

In the morning, Xiaofei wakes alone to the sound of birdsong. Her shoes and socks have been set out on the entryway, and a warm bowl of porridge waits for her on the table outside. Courteous as always, she makes sure to put away the bedding and thank the temple owners for their hospitality. It doesn’t take long before she returns to the Lightning Road by herself, the statue strapped securely to her back.

High overhead, a burning comet traces a bright line across nebular clouds. Stellar streams flow far on either side of the road, and a migrating flock of magpies pass right below it. Xiaofei keeps a steady pace. She does not trip even once, her steps sure and solid. She hears music in the distance, a lively melody that rises with the familiar colors of a homemade banner. People gradually fall in step behind her—the friendly aunties and rowdy youths, and all the other devotees who’d been waiting for Xiaofei’s return. Together, they complete the last leg of the journey, returning Matsu’s statue to her main temple atop a sacred hill. The ceremonies pass, and goodbyes are exchanged among new friends. With a now-empty load on her back, Xiaofei pays her respects one last time, bowing low at the wooden gates.

The train ride home is quieter than usual.

Through cracked glass, Xiaofei watches the orbiting planets move further and further away, shimmering trails of ice and dust. No other passengers ride with her, all bare and empty seats down the traincars.

The rickety train enters a deep tunnel. All is dark for a long time until it emerges to blue skies and green pastures. Xiaofei squints against the sunlight. Ruins of a city, covered in vines and moss.

A slight tremor shakes the concrete.

The train pulls into a flooded platform. Faded adverts hang from the ceiling, falling loose as the tremors grow. Undeterred, Xiaofei wades through ankle-deep waters. She makes the twenty-minute walk through the city district until she reaches a house in the middle of a field, half-torn down, with huge tarpaulins covering exposed portions. The grass is trimmed along the front. Beside colorful succulents sitting out in their little pots, the hibiscus are in full bloom.

More shaking. The vibrations are stronger, now. The city sirens screech up to a deafening volume before dying down with a crackle. The dogs are barking nonstop. The cats have hidden in their spot below the porch. The wind howls, and nearby buildings rock back and forth with every explosion that drops in from the skies.

When Xiaofei turns to run inside, she is met by a smiling Matsu, her arms spread wide open.

“Matsu!” Xiaofei buries herself in the embrace. Like a blanket swathed around her, warm and soft. The feeling stays with Xiaofei, even as Matsu lets go and rises to the air, her spirit growing to a colossal size. In her divine form, Matsu’s brown skin turns to a bright gold. The patterns on her robes shift like ocean tides, and the beads on her headdress sparkle like precious gems. She towers over the city, reaching for the blue sky. As Xiaofei runs after Matsu, two sparks of light run alongside her, one red and one green.

With the Thousand-Mile Eyes, Xiaofei sees far above her—a glowing Matsu, catching warheads in her cupped hands as if they’re raindrops. She carries them higher to the heavens, higher and higher, where they burst into a thousand-petal song.

When the cosmic wind reaches Xiaofei’s ear, she hears Matsu’s voice once more, singing that same soft lullaby. An eternal love that wraps around Xiaofei’s world and all the precious things inside it.

Hush now, dear child. For all will be well.
Safe and sound, right here in my arms.

 


Editor: Kat Weaver

First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Caroline Hung writes surreal fantasies, walking nightmares, and poems about love. Her story “Thousand Petal Song” is inspired by the goddess 媽祖 Ma-tsu, a major deity in Taiwan. For more info, see carolinehungauthor.com.
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