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The City itself

Let's assume we have a city of the size of the Peloponnese (round about 22'000 square kilometers) which is very dense populated (by medieval terms) and is isolated from the rest of the world (think of something like an ocean surrounding the island). The city wasn't 'planned', it just grew bigger and bigger so the city layout itself is a bit flawed (e.g. bad street layout). Let's for simplicity assume there is enough food for (nearly) everyone.

The Population

All citizens use the same common language, although many dialects do exist. Nevertheless it's a multi-ethnic population with different religions an different customs. Sometimes the tension between these different culture groups leads to nasty crimes but all in all the situation could be considered as stable. Wealth is distributed pretty bad (as usual) but there is no particular cultural group having a much greater share of wealth than the others.

The Government

Now that’s the questions. I'd like to have a central ruler sitting right in the middle of the city. Given the size of the city, a direct rule however is deemed to be impossible. Therefore, a greater deal of decentralization appears to be required.

Ideas so far

Feudalism

This is the first thing I had in mind: Have a single king with multiple vassals, which in return have multiple vassals themselves. You get a high decentralization with an acceptable control from the central government/ruler and you get a decent degree of stability. Feudalism also allows for some interesting storylines regarding counts, bloodlines and similar stuff. There are some fatal problems though...

  • Feudalism was built on an agricultural society. The lower vassals had a large mass of peasants beneath them. Feeding people was hard so agricultural land was expensive.

  • Feudalism needed a constant change in borders. The liege gave its vassals land in return for favors or good work which the vassals children inherited on death. Works fine until you got no more land to distribute. I'd like to dispose the idea of the civil war emerging every 100 years because the vassals get greedy for more land or the idea of extreme balkanization of the city until every citizen is a landlord himself.

'Mayorism'

This approach features more bureaucrats and fewer nobles. Each district has a mayor and a smaller council designated to govern the pile of land he's been assigned with. A mayor is not of noble blood but excels in administrative skills. Each mayor may rule until death, after which he is replaced by any other administrative professional from anywhere, or until another person has been assigned to do his job (because the former mayor was incompetent, corrupt or....). There are no elections for the mayor as we don't want the citizens to get a taste of democracy and get uppity against the crown-authority. Up to this point the system would prove pretty stable, but here are some problems:

  • The king most likely has better things to do then to assign each of his thousands of mayors day to day anew. Like in feudalism he'd install multiple layers of administration, that in the end a group of let's say 10 people assign the jobs for him. This would then lead to a concentration of power in the hands of very few people which in return could get come to the conclusion a council of ten people is better than a single king.

  • Bureaucracy was on the rise late 17th or early 18th century which is clearly not an option for a medieval based setting. Writers in ancient Egypt did a similar job and different empires had different people doing the same job too, but all of them used a more or less centralized approach. Using common people for administrative jobs became fancy after bourgeoisie was on the rise and enlightenment was more widely accepted.

EDIT

As there were many question regarding the city. First of all, it’s a fantasy setting. The size is absurd, but that’s what it’s all about and that’s why it’s interesting in the first place. No some answers:

Underground caverns/tunnels

Get yourself some underground cave system with some tasty mushrooms and some solid building material to mine. If you’d go crazy you could use your poo to fertilize the mushrooms and build underground farms etc. but I’d rather like to keep the details out of here. Just dig down, eat mushroom and be happy. One could also dispose corps into catacombs. The risk of plagues a heavy disease is still high, but on the other hand side a city of that size probably won’t be a nice place in the first place. Constant mining may also lead to parts of the city to collapse into the depths below, requiring the city to be constantly being renewed.

Outer world

The city is isolated because there is virtually nothing out there. Total wasteland, nuclear fallout, giant metal dome, isolated island – you know what I mean. Nobody wants to go outside, because there is nothing to go to.

How to maintain order

Having a high revolt risk and a high population density some nasty uprisings should be pretty common. But then again it’s not utopia. The ruler keeps an entire army to keep his citizens ‘happy’. In other words were maintaining order with shock and awe. No bad intention here from the ruler, but the alternative is anarchy which is probably a lot worse

How to communicate

This is a problem for sure. Even if you’d use a mounted express line as suggested (which is exactly what I was planning to do), getting through the crowds will prove rather difficult, even if the horsemen were ruthless and wouldn’t care about the citizens surrounding them. An alternative for must-receive-immediate messages are carrier pigeons. However getting a message delivered in a matter of hours shouldn’t be as important as getting the message in a reasonable time. Sending messages in the middle age took it’s time too. In fact, waiting for messages was most common for that time. Governors would need to be able to take care of themselves (and their realm) without getting orders constantly from the central government.

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    $\begingroup$ At this size and a medium population density, this city could easily have upwards of a hundred million inhabitants. I'm not sure whether any kind of medieval government system would be able to handle that. $\endgroup$ – Erik Mar 17 '15 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ No city can exist without a size of land proportional to the city's population surrounding it that provides any resources that it requires (carbon footprint if you will). If this city is on an island with an area not sufficient to sustain the city, then it must get its resources from the coast. $\endgroup$ – Neil Mar 17 '15 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik: Not so. The population of China exceeded 100 million between 1100 and 1200 AD. The government functioned perfectly well for its time, over much greater distances than in the OP's hypothetical city. $\endgroup$ – Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 17 '15 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ If there is no agriculture and the city is isolated (limited trade) where does the food come from? What is the main occupation of its inhabitants (I would assume trade, but again - the isolation)? Is the city an independent state? All these factors are important in determining who has the power. $\endgroup$ – Chanandler Bong Mar 17 '15 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ A city the size of Peloponnese does not make any sense even with modern cities. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Mar 17 '15 at 15:12
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The form of government will depend heavily on the history and economy of your city.

Ancient Rome had an estimated population density of 36,000/km^2. Your city of 22,000 km^2 would then have a staggering population of roughly 792 million. Roughly speaking, this is the equivalent of crowding double the population of the modern USA into the state of New Hampshire; or similarly, the whole European Union into Belgium.

Since you specify that it's "densely populated" by medieval standards, this is an absolutely huge city.

Some obvious considerations:

  • How do people eat? You say "assume adequate food," but where does it come from? 700 million people won't be fed with rooftop gardens and fishing the nearby seas. Are there massive food imports, or is there some sort of magical solution? Where does the food arrive, and how is it distributed?
  • In a broader sense, where do resources come from? The city needs raw materials such as fuel, wood, cloth, and metal.
  • What about pollution and sewage? If it's a medieval city, the smoke from 700 million cookfires alone might make it uninhabitable. I won't even try to address the logistical challenge of handling the sewage from that number of people.
  • How is order maintained? If the citizens decide to riot, a very large and destructive mob can form very quickly.
  • What relations (if any) does the city have with the outside world? Is it open to trade and visitors, like Victorian London; or closed off to outsiders, like Tokugawa Japan?

It is possible to govern very large numbers of people without modern technology -- China in the 19th century managed it with a population of between 300 and 400 million. However, the unique challenges of such a dense population would require an extremely stable and well-organised government. Feudalism seems unlikely to do the job. Some sort of highly centralised bureaucracy, on the model of medieval China or the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, seems more plausible.

The figure(s) at the top of this government might be selected in all kinds of ways: A hereditary emperor, council of aristocrats, prime minister promoted from within the bureaucracy, or some other way.

To sum up: It would be best to think about this city's government from the bottom up. Who distributes the food, maintains the infrastructure, puts out the fires, and quells the riots? Once you have answers to these questions, you can work upward to the Grand High Exalted Overlord.

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    $\begingroup$ I know the question assumes it's possible, but would it actually be reasonable to feed a city of ~800 million with medieval technology? I have a hard time imagining it without modern refrigeration and transportation tech. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 17 '15 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @DanSmolinske: Almost certainly impossible, without some form of magic. I suppose if the city grew a lot of fresh produce within its borders it might just about be done, but it's really pushing the limits. I think it would be a struggle even now, modern urban areas top out at around 25-30 million inhabitants. $\endgroup$ – Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 17 '15 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ I feel it would be potentially possible with today's tech, just ruinously expensive. Although it the entire city is an island - maybe if they don't pollute the water and the fish in the area are incredibly fecund? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 17 '15 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ You summation makes an excellent point on how to build such a system. Would absolutely have to be bottom up. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 17 '15 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ Bottom up construction is a must have. Dividing up the citiy into 'small enough to administrate' pieces and putting those pieces into bigger administrative entities ain't the problem either. The problem I see however is to whom you want to give the power and how you want to ensure all of this is stable, since this one of the most critical aspects as you've said. I may be way to paranoid, but I'm curious if one could distribute power on such a limited space without losing your throne or authority and to not lose your city to riots etc.. $\endgroup$ – Maximilian Conroe Mar 18 '15 at 14:06
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So I will write the dissenting answer here and simply say it is not possible. Ok it won't be that simple I have to explain...otherwise I would just comment.

Some of the problems have been listed in other answers so a nod to those folks.

Issues

  • First and foremost the isolation aspect. A city that size would not be able to support building itself in the first place. The amount of wood, stone, clay and other building materials needed would destroy the habitat and the resources would disappear.

If we skip the building aspect there are still a whole host of problems.

  • Food and water. Where does it all come from?!? Keep in mind that the water recapture and agricultural technology we have today is not available...and even today the largest metropolitan area in the world is only: 36,000,000 If we accept @Royal Canadian Bandit's 790,000,000 person estimate that puts you at around twenty-two times larger.

  • Waste and pollution. No powerplants, no electricity, no modern sewage removal, no running water. People in the medieval era were completely filthy from King to peasant by modern standards. If this city existed it would be rife with plague...and then where would the bodies go?!?

  • Infrastructure, communication and transportation. The magical food arrives...how do you get it from the fields to the center of town? It would take days to get food to the center of the city not to mention there is no refrigeration so it would be rotten by the time it got to consumers in many cases. Communication would be virtually impossible, especially since you mention the city is not well laid out. IF there was a planned city with major thoroughfares then MAYBE you could effectively communicate but still...at horseback speeds you are still talking several days to traverse the city.

  • Bureaucratic nightmare. How many city employees would you have to have to run this place, let alone maintain, build and expand. The response time of a government managing a city this size would be so very very very slow. It could take two weeks for a problem to traverse the city and layers of leadership to get to the supreme honcho man.

Should it be done...

If you simply must have this city, it demands magic, and not the kind where we have to discuss conservation of energy etc. The magic is necessary for a couple things.

  • Raw materials...you need so many you need to be able to conjure them out of thin air essentially. Same goes for food and clean water.
  • Communication. To make the bureaucracy, particularly the upper levels, effective without modern communications technology you would need to be able to scry on a massive scale.
  • Sanitation...I don't feel I need to elaborate here..but I will... waves wand "crappus vanishicus"

Combining powerful magic and a Romanesqe system of layered management would be my only suggestion...but even then the initial level of disbelief is going to be tough to overcome from a user/reader perspective.

The numbers.

It takes 1.2 acres per person to support modern American dietary standards. I think we can safely assume that your in your medieval setting that standard wont be met so I am going to drop that down to about .9 acres per person. (1/4th less).

TL:DR At 790,000,000 people and .9 acres per person that results in 711,000,000 acres which works out to 2,877,314.91 sq/km...which is kinda why I started out saying... it can't be done. That is over 100 times larger than your total landmass...

If we drop it down to 2/4ths and go with .6 acres you are still looking at a total needed landmass of 1,918,209.94 sq/km...just for farming.

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    $\begingroup$ And then they need a source of firewood for cooking and heat... $\endgroup$ – Zither13 Apr 26 '15 at 13:24
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Since the city grew organically you could assume a mix of low level spontaneous organization and high level dictates of the king melding to work together.

So at the low level you would have individual neighbourhoods that choose some of their number to represent themselves and handle administrative duties. If there is a heavy prejudice against democracy these representatives can be chosen by the next step up, but there is no real benefit. In practice such administartors would either be people respected by local community or deal with the people respected by the community. So barring an ideological reason it is easier to simply let people choose a small group, let that group deal with the commoners and their problems, as well as communication with the higher levels of the hierarchy. These councilmen would be assisted by locals chosen by lot or some other fair method in performing their duties and be responsible for keeping the peace and upholding the laws.

For example see the Roman vicus. In general, if it worked for the Romans, it is probably close to as good as you will get.

Due to the insane size of your city, you'll need lots more layers above this local neighbourhood level, but if you take the neighbourhoods to be equivalent of the medieval village, which the Roman vicus kind of was, you can use feudalism for that. This would probably result in a patchwork map of vicus owned by different patrons, but that is how it was in Feudalism.

Romans actually had a system of clients and patrons similar to feudalism that could be adapted to this purpose. And probably would be a better model than the medieval feudalism based on equippind mounted military forces. Such forces would be of limited use in an isolated urban area. So the noble families would more likely be based on commercial relationships?

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree with your idea of the Roman vicus and the necessary layers above them. I also like the idea of the patchwork tiles spilt between many noble families. Unfortunatley I have some concerns too. Lets look at Rome again. It was 'merely' the capital of a vast empire. This city however is isolated. If the nobles inside rome would plot against the emperor, you could get help from the outside. If the nobles of the city-state would take on the emperor, he had no chance but to give in. $\endgroup$ – Maximilian Conroe Mar 18 '15 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Why would the emperor let the nobles ally against him? And if he did would it not be in common interest that such an incompetent emperor would be replaced asap? The issues are same as they would be for any other feudal system and the solutions are also the same. The system might actually be more centralised as the royal bureaucracy might have a direct connection to the local (vicus) level because of the comparatively shorter distances and lack of external threat would make it practical for the king to have near monopoly in military power. Something which in normal feudalism was impractical. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 18 '15 at 22:20
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It's called a bureaucracy. Ever hear of Byzantine used as an adjective? The Byzantine Empire is renowned for it's bureaucracy it grew to manage/rule it's empire. A City of that size could run very smoothly as long as the wheels were kept greased (and many palms).

Delegation and splitting of responsibilities are the only way it even has a chance. after a couple generations the king would be mostly a figurehead.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point, but leaving the king powerless is exactly what I don't want to happen. $\endgroup$ – Maximilian Conroe Mar 18 '15 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MaximilianConroe the one way to prevent it would be that the king keeps himself the head of the bureaucracy, all the heads have to come to him and if he can keep them fighting among themselves looking for his favor, it could go on a long time. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Mar 18 '15 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ @bolturner which is what most feudal kings did. Divide and rule. Same problems as ever: Don't you divide your power or you'll end up being a figurhead. Granted the ruler is smart enough not to let all power slipt out of his hands - what favors should he grant the nobles? He can't assign land, as it is limited, he can't give them power, as he want's to keep it. The only way I could see this to work is to take and give - constant power shift so to say. If we'd go that way, our king may soon be surrounded by nobles realizing they haven't been rewarded, but just got their property redistributed. $\endgroup$ – Maximilian Conroe Mar 18 '15 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ a bureaucracy doesn't have Nobles, it is run by 'ministers' who have assistant ministers who have specialists who have clerks... $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Mar 18 '15 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ Got your answer mixed up with the one of Ville Niemi while answering your comment. I've never thought about letting the ministries fight each other, as I've just naturally assumed they'd work hand in hand like in Germany. I've completly forgotten about the USA system - checks and balances. Turning the balances part into constant fighting might work as well. Using the US-executive system you'd just have to figure out how to keep that system stable after replacing the president with a dictator while getting rid of the control functions. But what about the legislative? Can't do it all yourself. $\endgroup$ – Maximilian Conroe Mar 18 '15 at 14:20
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A historical/biblical answer that might work...
During the 40 years in the wilderness Moses is leading well over a million people through the desert, and he's just about killing himself trying to deal with all their squabbles and problems. So some of his key people come to him and say, "Moses, this is not good. You are wearing yourself out dealing with all these petty problems when you should be focusing on the big stuff." So they set up a system kind of like our modern judicial system. Captains over thousands of families, and under those captains over hundreds of families, and under those captains over tens of families. If there is a problem it would go to the lowest level, and if the problem was difficult it would get bumped up the chain to that captain's captain. The most difficult problems would get to Moses, kind of like a supreme court. And it pleased the people.

In your case, your city could be divided into districts with a district manager. Each district is divided into neighborhoods with an overseer who is respected in the neighborhood. The overseer is charged with keeping peace in his area. If the people have problem they take it to him first. If he can't handle it, or if the people don't like his decision they can take it to the district manager.
The district manager is in tasked with keeping his overseers in line and honest, dealing with the bigger problems brought by overseers, and responding to complaints that people bring against overseers. He would want to know if an overseer is overstepping, but wouldn't have much patience for false complaints.
If a district manager comes up with a problem that he can't deal with, or if the people don't like his verdict they can go to the king, with the understanding that they better have a really good case, because the king's time is valuable.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is not really a historical answer, there is no evidence the exodus ever took place. $\endgroup$ – Erik Mar 17 '15 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik Really? That's the part you're focusing on? I don't see you answering the question. Why don't you try doing something useful? Whether it was real or not isn't really the point I was trying to make, and it is a good system for organizing groups of people. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Mar 18 '15 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ AndyD273 - I agree that @Erik's issue is pretty small, but it'd be easy to fix by replacing "historical" with "biblical". $\endgroup$ – Bobson Mar 18 '15 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Bobson Heh, I actually debated that when I was typing it out, and though people would object to biblical more than historical... Some people reject ideas because of the source, not the ideas themselves. Hopefully Erik isn't that closed minded. Either way, his reaction doesn't really bother me, though it's a little annoying to have the whole thing dismissed based on the least significant line. I guess I didn't realize it was that debated of an event. Of course people walking across sand isn't going to leave evidence once the wind blows. It's not like they built a city or something. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Mar 18 '15 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ It's more that I think that if you say "historical" it comes across as "look, this has been done before and it works like this", when this is simply not the case. While your answer might potentially work, it's (from an objective point of view) an answer from fiction, not history. I should have probably clarified. It looks better after the edit. $\endgroup$ – Erik Mar 18 '15 at 20:44
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As your city is so vast it is like an empire within an empire. I think you look at how ancient empires maintained control. Intelligence and soft power would be used a lot. They often controlled the courier or primitive 'postal' network which doubled as spies. This city would obviously need some courier network. You have already mentioned that the army is essentially royal or imperial, and that is under the direct command of the ruler.

You would want to keep the army happy like dictators do, but also diffuse their power a bit so you would want to keep different generals in competition with each other over various sectors of the city.

Strong centralized empires and rulers who want to maintain tight control directly appoint officials. This bypasses nobility and insures you have direct line of authority. So you would want your ruler to directly appoint your own governors or various district leaders.

Since this is a city, then you would maintain centralized control, especially of critical infrastructure. This is typically expressed in different settings by the central government having tight control over food, water, electricity, and basic resources. This is also how dictators maintain control. Your ruler would have absolute control of the critical infrastructure of the city and could cut power as well as other needs. You may also have tight control of surveillance if that technology exists, but if not then you would use couriers as well as spies among the population. Agents who are handlers can handle multiple informants, and a whole network of informants can be created.

Your king should control trade and commerce. Minting coins and currency would be under the control of your king. That way the coinage would reach all sectors of the city. All other currency would be suppressed.

Gateways between districts of the city and control of passage would also be important. Your king's government would control trade, taxation, and passage between sectors of the city.

Your king and his spymaster among others would be skilled in learning the informal networks of power in the city. That is who are the more prominent citizens, merchants, neighborhood leaders, elders, and others in each neighborhood of the city. You would make sure that your government and governors kept close track of these informal leaders. You could even institute a type of millet system for various ethnic groups if there are particular areas of the city where they reside and if they demand to be governed by their law.

Sci-fi often depicts governance over small cramped domains in space. The series Battlestar Galactica shows what control and rebellion in a small tight space look like as early on the government is primarily governing a few cramped ships. Babylon 5 also depicts a government over a confined space. Control of critical infrastructure is often a theme.

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Magic... Magic for everything!

Magic is the only thing that can make your city work.

Food and other raw materials

First of all, get a lot of replicators. They will be essential for producing all foodstuffs and materials needed for maintaining the city and her population. It would make sense to conjure only raw materials and do not allow duplication of manufactured goods. Replicators do not have to be machines.

A sensible solution would be creating a network of temples that have replicators. You can choose between a machine, divine help, or magic-wielding priests. I would go with the latter.

Local governing

Organised religion is great for controlling masses. Especially, if it is also in charge of food and other materials. Make your king the head of the church and use church hierarchy as an additional brunch of bureaucracy and spy network at the same time.

Supplement your church with any other system of governing to create some balance. I would go with something similar to scholar-officials of the Imperial China. They would be perfect for maintaining cultural unity and common language. They would also take care of standards, local regulations, local disputes, etc. Mandatory rotations will prevent them from gaining too much power.

Keep churches, scholars, and local populations demilitarised. Make military service a privilege for noble born.

Organise all citizens into some kind of restricted societies. Medieval guilds are one of the possible options. Guilds would keep an eye on their members, take care of propagating standards, and maintain order within their ranks. Guilds are also great for dīvide et īmpera approach. If they try to become labour unions you can always bring some guns/cannons or just cut their supply of materials off.

Communication

Magic will also solve the communication problem. You can opt for magical teleportation, or limit yourself to FTL magical communications via orbs, scrying bowls, mirrors, whatever suits your setting.

Things to kill for and to die for

Obviously, in a world with replicators, the only things that will have a real value are magic and time.

You can keep the system more or less stable if only the ruling class can use magic. The easiest way to do it is to link magic with blood, i.e. only people born to two noble parents (to limit magical abilities of bastards) can initiate magic. You can also invent some kind of a ritual to 'activate' this blood bond/ability to prevent the unnecessary and inconvenient spread of magical abilities outside the circle of the Chosen people.

Time becomes even more valuable if only raw materials can be produced by magic.

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