By stable hand's second step, the man suddenly on the move. The horse morph watched him go with no visible emotion and then nickered to himself his own version of a chuckle. What a strange series of thoughts he'd just had. He rubbed the nose of the simple beast he'd been feeding and it nudged him back playfully, perhaps hopeful for an apple. "That was the man from the alley I told you about," the stable hand told the horse.
He'd lost a lot of sleep last night worrying over the fate of his family and much of this day wondering if he had done the right thing, turning his father and brother in. Obviously, the man had come by to thank him but had lost his nerve at the last moment for some reason.
Clay was surprised he found that... cute.
Donny gave Wheeler his first drink free by way of apology for not warning him about the tiger. The honey-thick mead turned out to be a good business decision, too. The variety of tongues and palates at the Keep inspired many strange concoctions at the pub, and Wheeler was more than willing to taste each and every one of them. Each brew reminded him of a distant port and the stories began to pour out of him just before nightfall. First a trickle and then a full torrent that burst into the pub and carried most of the patrons one by one to the bar and then to distant lands like Quoroom and Os-Var-Khai.
The drinks came as fast as the stories and, more often than not, a coin appeared from some other place besides Wheeler's purse. It was a reaction Wheeler had gotten before but never to such a degree! It was a bit of a mystery to him, but not one he was willing to question.
Hours later, Donny was closing up, or at least going through the motions and Wheeler found himself alone at the bar with a blondish dog who stared into his mazer, as if waiting for it to fill itself. "So," he said when the silence got unbearable, "What's a nice doggie like you doing in a place like this?"
"Coyote," the canine morph corrected gently.
"Sorry." Wheeler said sincerely. It was hard to be anything but sincere with this much drink in him.
"Thas'alrite," The coyote mumbled. "Never seen one myself 'til I got here. Gods like their jokes, and who can blame them?"
"Joke? How so?"
"I was a Solfire monk. Vegetarian, no meat." The coyote smiled weakly and then frowned that his mazer was still empty. "I came here from the Southlands, hoping to preach gleeping nature's balance. You'd figure a Keep full of animal people would be a good place t'startsomedin'... something like that."
"You'd think." Wheeler agreed sagely. "So what happened?"
The coyote laughed at that after staring at him a full five seconds and clomped him on the back, hard. The smile left his face when he noticed his mazer was empty. The coyote spun around to complain to the bull that ran the place and fell flat on his tail. "Jus' be careful what you wish for, thas all ah'm sayin, he said from the floor.
Good advice, the unchanged man thought. Wheeler remembered his visions and idylls of being manhandled. That was why he was always a victim. That was going to have to stop. He was getting too old for that crap, anyway.
With the snoring coyote leaving a puddle of drool on the floor, Wheeler left Donny a generous tip and wandered up to his room. He was vaguely aware that the whole evening had barely cost him a cooper and as, he stripped for bed, he told himself that tomorrow he would take charge of his life for a change. No more sex. No more of this silliness.
He was asleep before his pants were off.
The problem was, he'd made those promises to himself before and when he woke up he knew he did not want to live the life of a monk. As before, he remembered the rambling drinking adventure he'd been on last night without leaving the bar with crystal clarity.
He broke fast at the bar and found himself the center of interest of most everyone there. He was about to retire back to his room when an otterish morph waddled up to him. "Excuse me, my lord," the otter said with a wavering formality that may have just been his voice or a bit of nervousness or even the way he was brought up to speak to his betters. That thought did not sit comfortably with Wheeler. He nodded, not knowing what to say or if saying anything would make his head hurt worse than it did.
The otter nodded in turn, and took off a tiny hat. The morph was barely three feet tall. "I heard tell you'd been to Quomoor rather recently."
Wheeler shook his head. "Not for about three years, my friend. I'm afraid I have no recent news to bring you. And, please call me Grey."
The otter shook his head sadly and his voice wavered and then broke, "Please, I have been stuck here six years and can not leave this hellhole. I have not set my eyes on Qupmoor's harbours for two years longer than that. I-I know nothing of my family and I have been too shamed to tell them of my travails. Tell me what you saw, and I will be your most humble servant."
Wheeler thought of the unrest there and the suffering of its people. He'd seen fire and rape and those had been the highlights of his trip. The low points he didn't even want to think about. Dramm was lucky to get out alive with any gold. He could find nothing in his memory that could please this otter.
He opened his mouth, but it was his heart that spoke. "I remember the fishing fleets coming in on the morning dawn. In and not out, that was most strange."
The otter nodded sagely, "Pirates is always after Quoroom ships, as if we all have gold in our bellies. Night time is safer for fishing for us."
Wheeler nodded. "The dawn was painted red and yellow and the sea looked black and as bleak as Quoroom's blood stained sewers. Yet, the boats came in with their white sails high and a flock of birds chasing them. Maybe a dozen of men at the back of the boats were dressing fish and tossing the heads up in the air and never did one land in the water. Some hungry gull would catch it before that could ever happen. The docks were all bright and new having been rebuilt only several months ago when a fire took them out."
The otter's eyes went wide at that. "They's feeding the chickens, they call that." The Keeper seemed surprised to have remembered that.
Wheeler launched into the story he'd only overheard once briefly, but he padded the tale as best he could, adding the panic at Madame MacRae's for colour, and wrapped it up by citing that only one man had died in the fire and it was the gods' justice that that one man should be the arsonist himself. "The sun poked up just as the first ship came along side its berth and the ocean was suddenly glittering with gold flecks. Staring at the water glittering like that, I knew what kept its people there when all else might tell them to run, run away." The otter seconded the beauty's holding power, though, of course, at the time, Wheeler had been thinking of its gold. He nodded sagely. "That first boat, I forget it's name, but it was an older boat, at least 10 years old and battlescarred."
The otter's eye went wide. "Was it a four masted vessel?"
"Yes, but not a whaler, it had a woman on its prow..." Wheeler made hand cupping motions over his chest as if trying to recall just the right details...
The otter could not wait but a second before bursting out with a question, "Was it a blue dress that became waves at her feet?"
Wheeler snapped his fingers and pointed at the otter excitedly. "Yes, that's it... a blue dress made as if from the sea itself... I did not know how to describe it, thank you." Of course he didn't know how to describe it, for he'd never seen such a boat in the harbour of Quoroom. They had all burned in the dock fire he had glossed over. Quoroom vessels were much smaller now and made of pine. No goddesses graced their plows now, the general feeling being that the gods had pretty much abandoned them years ago.
Maybe they had, for all he knew.
"That was the Falling Star! That was my brother's ship! He's still alive, then!" The otter was now terribly animated.
"More likely as not, if he is as solid as the ship he sails upon."
"Oh he is, for he is such a great big man that were he to come here, he would as like as not be confused with Christopher the bear. Once, had as it is to believe, I was as large a man, larger, but the curse took from me everything."
Wheeler shook his head. "Quoroom does not make less than the heartiest men in the world. Your Quoroomian soul can not be diminished while lesser souls break under the weight of the curse." That was true. Slaves from Quoroom were valued highly by the likes of Dramm simply because they were the most difficult ones to break to one's will. "You will survive or die trying."
The otter nodded quickly and then threw himself at Wheeler's feet. "Your news gladdens my heart more than I can say. My exile is now once more bearable for your words. What can I do to repay you." A brief fleeting image of a stripped down ottermorph wearing only a leather mask tying Wheeler to his bed flashed through his mind. It was so stunningly ridiculous, that Wheeler burst out a guffaw. That otter looked stricken and then hurt. Wheeler, luckily knew the proper protocol for this, "Sorry, your joy's just a wee bit infectious. Tell you what, let me buy you a beer and we'll call it even."
The otter looked stricken again, but there was a kind of satisfaction to it.
"You buy the drinks?! Never! Donny! Two mugs of the frothy piss you pass off as the good stuff." Wheeler turned his head and smiled. Being otter cute must been an incredible burden for that poor Quoroomian. His thoughts began to turn to ways he might make his new friend feel like a man again, but he promptly squashed them. No more of that.
No more of that.
He raised a mug nearly as big as the otter and toasted Port Quorum.
Three days had past since Clay had his father and brother arrested and he still hadn't been down to the dungeons to visit them. He was sure they'd be sober by now, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He could handle the verbal abuse -- he'd experience enough with that over the years - but his main fear was what seeing them locked up would do to him. Misplaced empathy he did not need.
He had thrown himself into his work at the stables lately and wondered if he'd be ready for the trial. Too bad he found himself with so much time on his hands. The royal row was a breeze to maintain now that it was practically empty, and Doug, the stable master, had ordered him to stay from the other side of the stables. Clarabell was in season, and Clay's proximity affected her badly. He was going to miss the studding, a very important lesson in horsemanship. He'd live. He didn't really want to be there for the joking he was sure would occur at his expense.
He did not think of himself as a horse, despite his appearance. Yet, he had to admit there was a resemblance. He was still human, not an animal. The body was only a container, a vessel. Form and function: that was his father's logic, not his. His father was now a carnivore and he seemed to truly believe that gave him license to become a predator within the Keep.
But still, as he put away the last of the tack he'd just cleaned, he found himself holding a bit in his hands. The metal and leather object felt cold and heavy in his hands. It was something he'd seen a hundred times before. It was something he had to remove or put on horses like Clarabell a hundred times a week.
Not too long ago. he had a dream where a silver haired fairy had come to him with a halter that he allowed her to slip over his head. When his eyes opened, he was on all fours prancing like a parade pony, with the wind whispering in his ears and a gentle weight on his back that was a little feminine slip of a nymph on his back. He was an engine of speed and the world was a blur at his feet.
Clay was alone now, in a vacant stall. Everyone would be out back in the paddock area, watching the studding. Clay slowly brought the bit up to his mouth and pulled his lips back. He lips were huge and there were so many more muscles in them than in his old human lips, he still wasn't used to them. He needed both hands to slide the bit into his mouth. His cheeks fought with the bit, and they pinched horribly on the corners of his lips. The urge to gag was overwhelming as they slipped into place behind his teeth. Someone he managed to get them in without choking on his own tongue. Talking with these on would be next to impossible.
But that was ok, he wasn't expecting to be bothered.
Controlling his swallowing was difficult, but Clay managed. It irritated him a bit, but his mouth wasn't quite shaped like a true horse's would be so that was to be expected. He wondered if he could try to morph into his full Draft Pony form with the bit in his mouth and felt oddly excited about that. He wondered briefly if the Duke himself ever allowed himself to be rigged up. Then he felt incredibly guilty that he should even be having such thoughts. The Duke wasn't like him. He was royalty.
He took a deep breath and started to fasten the rest of the tack to his head. With his thick fingers, it wasn't easy to do it on a real patient horse. On himself, excited and clumsy, it was much, much harder, yet. It took him ten minutes to put the reigns on properly, more then twice as long as it should have... and he wasn't exactly being gently with himself.
He never new exactly what moment he decided he was going to morph into full pony mode, but his breeches were off quickly enough. The sound of the studding outside wasn't helping matters and he was going to just try it once to see if a real horse's jaw found the bit as comfortable as the Stablemaster had said it was. Clay started to morph, but stopped when he felt the bit tugging painfully in his mouth. Duh. His head, Clay hadn't quite realized, was bigger as a full horse.
Clay paused for a moment trying to figure out what he should do. He morphed back to normal and stood there naked for a moment, feeling the reins brush loosely against his buttocks. It was actually a very nice sensation, but it did not help him decide what he should do. He stared off into the corner as he tried to decide if he should take the equipment or just to loosen it enough to change.
Clay nearly leapt out of his skin.
He whinnied in fright and jumped back and spun. The whites in his eyes flashed white and his tongue was suddenly on the wrong side of the bit. He choked and tried to cover himself at the same time.
The man his father and Wicker attacked stood just outside the stall. His eyes were wide too, by the time Clay met them. But the gag reflex was now completely out of control and Clay was sure the things were trying to kill him. Panic grabbed him and he tripped on his own two feet. He made an effort to kick his feet out so he wouldn't land on them and sprain them or - worse yet-break them.
Then, the man was on top, making shushing noises as Clay clawed at the rigging on his head. When the man cupped his nose with his unchanged human hand, Clay's shock at the contact froze him into place... yet, there was a gentleness within the firmness. His lungs were still working like an angry set of bellows, but other wise only his eyes moved as the man touched him.
Still talking calmly, the man loosened the reigns and then took the bit out of his mouth. Clay went to say something, but a coughing fit stole his words. His throat was raw!
The man carefully put the bits on a nearby nail and squeezed Clay's shoulder. The man's breathe was tainted with honey mead and something that might have been fish, but his eyes were sharp and focused. They were filled with some slight concern.
He smiled gently, fatherly, and said, "Did you want to try to what it was like?"
Clay blinked. Of course not! But what he did was nod yes.
The man looked knowingly at the discarded britches on the floor and nodded. "I don't blame you... I wonder too."
There was moment of silence man actually seemed to lose himself in time. Then he touched Clay's cheek gently. "Would you like to try it?"
Clay blinked. No! But what he did was to nod yes.
The unchanged human smiled and a look passed over his face that took Clay a moment to place.
Wheeler had come to the stables looking for his rat one last time.
The trial was going to be tomorrow and he wanted to thank him before then. He'd had a lot of fantasies since first seeing the thief what meeting him would be like and what might come of it, but he hadn't struggled to suppress them over the last few days just to trot them out now.
After the trial, he was going to leave the Keep.
His heart had finally learned its lesson and he wouldn't need to be turned into a woman or child just to avoid feeling like a freak the rest of his life. Nor would he need to become a freak just to justify his feeling like a freak. He wasn't wanted here, not by the people who counted at least. The regular crowd at the Deaf Mule was nice enough. His cousin, the Duke, was ignoring him, of that much he was sure. That was probably for the best, all things considered. The curse at Metamor Keep was a bit too extreme a cure when just a bit of will power would easily solve his problem. Not that the people of the Keep weren't nice enough.
This meeting with the baifel, Clay, was a test of sorts. If he could keep his resolve and keep his fantasies still, then he'd be willing to take his chances with the Lutins... whatever they were. He wasn't exactly sure what a baifel was either, other than it was a rodent like creature.
The stable was relatively empty.
He poked his head in a few stalls, most had been mucked clean. And the smell was much less oppressive than the ship's hull had been. In fact, the smell was actually pleasant and took him back to the days before he'd been kidnapped from the streets of Br'Aire. The carefree days of youth so long ago... there was no going back.
Well, actually, there was a one in three chance of that very thing happening if he stayed long enough. He could be a child again. It happened. But, it wouldn't be the same, there would be no Mommy for him cleaning his ears or fussing with his shirt hems. There would be no wonder of discovery that made childhood special. There would be no father to make proud. There would be no growing up... a child forever helpless.
Helpless. His loins stirred at the thought.
Hmph. There'd be none of that, either.
Then Wheeler's thoughts and libido came to a crashing thought when he came face to face with a monster coming out of one of the stalls.
It's just a Keeper. Don't panic. It's just a Keeper.
It wasn't just a Keeper, though. It was a iridescent green giant dung beetle standing on incredible thick hind legs. Four hind legs, to be exact. The upper legs held a brush and a bucket of soapy water. The thing stood eye level with Wheeler and seemed to be just as startled with Wheeler's presence as he was with its. Except, Wheeler was only guessing about that. There could be no mistaking the blood draining from Wheeler's face or his leaning against a post for support. He covered his mouth in embarrassment and tried to form words. It didn't happen. The sickle like horned bobbed a bit and Wheeler actually took a step back from it, as if someone was holding a knife over his head.
The feathery things that made up the beetle's mouth buzzed a bit faster, making a questioning noise.
Wheeler pulled himself together and stammered out, "I was looking for Clay. Do you know where I can find him?"
The beetle pointed down towards the stables where the royal steeds were kept. "Zzz'all zeeeeee." It whispered. "Zzzz'all zeeeeee." And went about its own way.
Another reason not to stay, Wheeler thought. A bug. He didn't even think of them as animals, yet, that fate could as easily be his as any other. If he stayed. Which he was not going to.
Wheeler shook off his heebie geebies and found Stall three.
Instead of a rodent morph, he found a horse morph. It was the young stallion morph he had found himself staring at several days ago, but this time its back was to him. IT? Him! This was no animal, but, in this one candid moment, the most beautiful man he had ever seen. He felt his heart swell at the unexpected vision before him.
The horse morph's back was to him and the doorway, its reins dangling off his back and along his tail, almost as if in invitation to be taken. A real horse would have spotted the unchanged human easily. However, the mostly human shape of his head prevented the Keeper from seeing Wheeler in the doorway. But then a real horse would never be swept up in the act of rigging himself.
Wheeler's eyes absorbed every inch of the Keeper's naked body, noting the impromptu pile of clothing. The hocks of his feet were as thick and as black as Chang's hair had been and the brown coat of hair was as deep a brown as Chang's eyes had been. There the resemblance ended. Chang's rat body was soft where this stallion seemed almost chiseled from stone. The legs were long and fragile looking below the knees, but actually a little thicker than a real horses might be. The docked tail showed buttocks each as huge as hams, yet without fat. The fur blackened into the crack of it, but the pink skin of youthfulness could still be seen. He felt incredibly guilty that he wanted to look under that tail to see more, but he kept on looking, entranced.
The muscles and structure above the horse tail were human looking, except for the coat of brown hair and the equine like head sitting upon the Keeper's shoulders. The mane, in the last few days, had been cut incredibly short, but the black line of it still ran from just below his shoulders and up his neck. The little twists of fabric were gone now from his mane, giving the horse morph a wilder look. Behind his ears, there was a spade shape puddle of hair, remnants of his human hair. Unlike the last time he laid eyes on the stablehand, the muscles under that brown coat twitched and flexed as the horse morph explored the sensation of having a bit in his mouth.
Wheeler could not help but remember a time when he himself had held a bit in his mouth the first time.
Chang had taken him off the streets in Os-Var-Khai and given him a place to stay. No, it was more than that. Chang had saved his life and even, miracle of miracles, actually made Wheeler feel good about himself.
Like most residents of that island nation, Chang was an animal morph, a five foot tall rat with shiny black head fur always tied back into a pony tail. Wheeler did not know this marked the rat-man as a priest, nor did ever quite understand the Tantric forces that Chang wielded until he, himself, was branded with them. He only understood that this powerful and ugly creature had taken a liking to him, saw something within him that he wanted. With halting words foreign to the rat's mouth, he promised Wheeler that if he came willingly, he would never lose hope again.
It all came with a cost. Wheeler became his willing slave. Chang spoke very little of the boy's tongue, but he taught Wheeler his own language, as well as a number of other things. He overcame his shame and learned to seem the beauty of the rat's form. He learned what he liked and what he could do.
Wheeler's life as a slave had been an easy one, compared to his life aboard the Black Capricorn. Chang began his training in earnest, once his shame had been conquered. After the first year, Chang announced that he found a potential buyer for his golden haired slave from the West, and his training began to be specialized towards the merchant Dramm.
It was about this time that Wheeler realized that he had fallen in love with Lord Chang. He felt betrayed and began throwing himself at the Tantric master. Once, Chang gave in and allowed Wheeler to service him while bathing. Chang held still the entire time until Wheeler could perform no more, and he left without saying a word.
Wheeler begged for more chances to please the master, but Chang did not give in again. Wheeler began provoking Chang and, after a short time, Chang simply stopped all his training. Wheeler was crushed. Then, a week or so later, Chang returned with an ancient jar and a bag of horse riding equipment.
Realizing that his misbehaving ways had caused Chang to avoid him for a time, Wheeler was sure to be extra attentive as Chang explained that the jar would be used to house Wheeler's soul while Chang did research into the nature of horses. The reins were magical and held a horse's soul. If Wheeler agreed, at dusk each night Chang would place Wheeler's soul in the jar and place the horse's spirit into Wheeler's body. The horse, raised to want to please Chang, would have to relearn everything it knew as the human body was so different. Chang told him he would be vaguely aware of what was happening to his body and he gave Wheeler a magic word if something should happen and he needed to get back to his human body.
By dawn, Chang promised the lid would come off the jar and Wheeler would have his own body back. The horse would, of course, retreat back into the magick bit until the next time Chang did his experiments.
In any other place, this might have sounded odd. But in Os-Var-Khai, science and magic were wrapped around animals to an incredible degree. Wheeler readily agreed. He wanted to show his master and his love that he would do anything for him.
A little sake and they began the bonding ceremony. Wheeler felt woozy from the incense burners and he could feel the magic in the air as Chang poked his naked body once in the forehead, once in the heart, and three times in the loins (the center of the soul) with a peacock feather. It drew a bit of blood in each spot and Chang painted a bit of blood onto the lip of the magic vessel that would hold Wheeler's soul as Chang experimented on his body.
Then the ceremony was over and the lid was placed on the jar, and the jar placed on a high shelf where Chang had assured him he would be able to see everything. The odd thing was, Wheeler was still in his body. But he held still all the same, as if his mind was no longer active. Chang put the bit on him and he tried to look vacant as his mind raced. He choked on it and it took all his will power not to actively resist. He kept waiting for the horse to enter his body, it never did. The last thing he wanted was for his master to have failed, but it was conflicting with his desire not to deceive the one he loved.
Change stroked his hair and then leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Chang had never kissed him before. It startled Wheeler and then the rat merchant stroked his nose and said, "I know... I know."
It was exactly the thing one would say to a horse in a strange place, a horse resisting yet trying to please its master at the same time. Except, Chang had said it in Wheeler's native tongue, and it was then that Wheeler knew it was just a game.
But it wasn't just a game, either. The magic might have been a sham, but the experience was real. Chang trained him as if he was truly retraining a horse. Wheeler fell into the role easily. Chang was rich and his servants discreet and all had followed Chang from the Tantric temple where he was apparently once a priest. From dusk to just before dawn, Wheeler knew what it was like to serve a man body and soul as Chang became more intimate with him. It was, quite surprisingly, the happiest year of his life. It was only when Chang offered to give him a horse's body that it all came to an unhappy ending.
At the time, he had thought Chang had simply grown tired of him and was asking this of him to pressure him to leave. It was only in later years, when relating this story to Dramm, did Wheeler come to realize it had been a close a marriage proposal as he was going to get from any man.
And he had thrown it away.
He supposed that might be a bit of motivation behind his infatuation with the rat-like thief he had seen when he first arrived here. But, he could not think about that. He could only think about the creature before him about to experience what he, Wheeler, could have only pretended to. With a body that could have been Wheeler's if he had only said yes.
Then the most amazing thing happened.
The horse morph's skin rippled in a completely unnatural, magical way and the young stallion actually started to grow larger. It only lasted a second. The horse morph snapped back to normal and clutched at its face. Obviously, the Keeper's bit wasn't any more magical than Wheeler's had been and it had caused a bit of pain during the transformation. Then the Keeper appeared to brace himself for one more try and Wheeler's heart skipped a bit. The stallion would probably kill himself in the process. That's when he cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me."
It might have been a bit too loud and sudden. Horses can be skittish at times.
This one whinnied as he jumped out of his skin and tripped over his own two feet. White panic filled his eyes and Wheeler was afraid the horse morph would break something in his panic to stand up. He laid a hand on the young stallions muzzle, with thinking it might be insulting to the young man trapped in the horse's body. It was his luck the lad appeared to be the big and slow type. The bit kept gagging him and he wasn't able to catch his breathe. Wheeler made shushing noises to calm him down and that seemed to work.
Calmer, but still breathing as hard as a jousting charger, the whites slowly vanished from the Keeper's eyes. Wheeler talked about the weather as he loosened the reigns just a tad. He told him what a beautiful creature he was. Things just came out of his mouth. He didn't think to introduce himself, but kept sprouting soothingly inane things. He took the reigns off the Keeper and put them on a nearby nail, where he guessed they would go. He was about to introduce himself, but he saw that the horse morph could not take his eyes off the leather and metal rigging.
"Did you want to try what that was like?" He asked. The horse morph started, his whole body twitching the way a horse might before taking off on a run. The young stallion went to say something but nodded YES instead.
He looked again at the breeches lying on straw-covered floor of the stall. He was ready to throw his into the pile, too, if given a chance.
"I don't blame you...," Wheeler said. "I would wonder, too." Only that wasn't how it came out. What came out sounded like he was inviting himself to intrude on the stallion's private moment. But there was a pleading look in the horse morph's eyes and Wheeler knew he was falling for the stallion. Hard.
He touched the horse's cheek, wiping a bit of spittle and hay off but letting it linger there impulsively. It did not seem repulsed in the least; in a place where one's sex, age or species was subject to change it would have surprised Wheeler if it had. The older man summoned his courage and asked, "Would you like to try it?"
Again the whole horsey twitch and then a quick nod. The stallion gulped nervously and his beautiful dark eyes swallowed Wheeler and he knew he'd found a reason to stay in Metamor Keep. Probably the best reason in the world to stay anywhere.
And he smiled.