When Sirgia regains enough vigour to move, I bring her to the bath and we spend some time washing each other. We also chat about her progress with the tablets and future plans. She informs me that she started researching spatial storages more in her free time and plans on trying to infuse that magic into the gems that are in their collars. I compliment her for such a clever idea and tell her to ask for whatever she might need. It’s not a simple matter and she still has other things to focus on, but I can start looking into materials or knowledge she might require later.
And thus, she spends the next three days working on the communication devices with the improvements that I showed her. Naturally, I often pay her a visit and help whenever and however I can. She seems much happier when receiving my assist and I just can’t get enough of looking at her while she does her artisanal magic.
After we complete the first, fully working pair of artifacts, Sirgia mounts one in the reception’s desk and the other in my room. Everyone gathers in the main hall for the presentation and instruction on how to operate them. Even Teffith observes from the side curiously. She kept herself quite off the sight in the last three days, exploring the mansion and learning more about the girls from none other than themselves. She still hasn’t shown any intention to talk about our last conversation.
Anyway, when we are all close, I give Sirgia a few pats, giving her a green light to start the explanation. She smiles and turns to the crowd.
“This is the artifact I’ve sometimes mentioned to you in the past and the one Master requested for easier communication. Its usage is very simple. Look at this panel. As you can see, there’s a visible handprint in the middle section. That’s the place where you lay your palm when you want to operate the device.”
She assumes a fully professional lecturer mode and looks at everyone, checking if they all follow. She then rests her small hand on the spot she mentioned and continues.
“Below the handprint, there are two rows of five squares with numbers from zero to nine. Every room in the mansion has a number on its door and that number will be the identification of the copy of this artifact placed inside. You just have to touch the desired number plates with your fingers and then send some of your mana through the palm above to activate the connection. If you don’t, the chosen numerals will reset after five seconds, so if you make a mistake, just wait for a moment.”
Sirgia makes another glance and everyone nods, including the elves, after Elea properly translates the details for them.
“Okay. Currently, there’s only one more device set up in Master’s bedroom. It has the identification of 0. When a person on one of the ends correctly activates the artifact, the one chosen as the target will emit a sound, signalling that someone is requesting a conversation through it. And above the handprint, we have this wide, rectangular box with five carvings, looking like a number eight but made out of sticks. This will lit up and show the identification of the device requesting a connection. To answer, you just place your hand on the middle area. Also, taking it off breaks the connection. The conversation takes place in the users’ minds since it’s based on a low-level telepathy sigil, but I don’t need to go into its details here. Was everything clear up to now?”
Everyone keeps nodding and Sirgia looks up at me with a proud smile. I give her some more pats.
“Master, since you know it best after me, could you help us test the artifact?” she asks.
“Thank you. The reception has an ID of 1. Please, make the first call.”
I leave the group and head to my room. The device is mounted on a short pedestal near one of the beds. I do as Sirgia instructed and try to connect to the reception. I can feel my mana connecting to the circuits in the artifact and after a few seconds, most likely where she explained more things to the girls, I sense another person on the other end.
「Hello? Can you hear me?」Cornelia’s voice rings in my head
「Loud and clear, my love.」
「Gosh, you can’t be serious even for once.」
「But I was completely serious there.」
A short moment of silence follows before Cornelia speaks again. I wonder if she started blushing in front of them all. That image makes me snicker a little.
「Well… so this is how the artifact works. It really seems handy. I think we should place them in the kitchen and baths too,」she gives her opinion.
「Good idea. Tell that to Sirgia later. She has to count them into the production list.」
Her presence in my mind disappears so I conclude that she broke off the connection and I take my hand away too. Now, someone from the other side should be trying to call me most likely. And my guess proves to be right as I start hearing a pleasant ring from the device and the plate shows number 1. Sirgia managed to replicate the sound of a quite modern-sounding tone really well from just my description and some makeshift noises I made.
I place my hand back on the tablet and connect with another person.
「Master! Hellooooooooooooooooo!」A really upbeat, cheerful and cute voice of a girl resonates in my head. I furrow my brows. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard it.
「Who?」I ask confusedly.
「It’s me! Emi! Hahahahaha!」
And it suddenly dawns on me. I’ve never heard that voice because the owner never spoke vocally to me before. But, even if Safi and Emi can’t talk, they still are able to communicate mentally. And to do that, you do need to sound in some way. So, this might actually be how she would sound if her vocal cords worked. It may be also somehow similar to the voice of the girl she consumed since this fits her tomboyish looks perfectly.
Another realization comes to me. I do have a way of mentally communicating with my Partners. I even did so in the past with Sirgia or Cornelia. I somehow never thought about reaching to Safi or Emi with my Sweet Whispers. Maybe because I just didn’t have a need to do so yet. I shake my head and decide to fix that mistake right now with the use of this device.
「You have a really beautiful voice, Emi.」
「Ehehehe~. Thank you, Master! So, we can talk with this artifact?」
「We can also talk with our shared Sweet Whispers skill, but it will sound a bit more… sexual. I really should have tried speaking to you earlier, sorry for that,」I apologize sincerely.
「Don’t worry, Master! I also kinda didn’t think of it, ehehe~. Oh! You must want to talk to Safi too, right? I’ll let her use the device now! She will be really happy!」
Before I can give any reply, she disappears from my head. Soon after, I sense a different presence.
「Ummmmm… Master?」A very polite, warm and kind voice slowly echoes in my head. Another perfect personality and appearance fit.
「You sound as charming as I’ve imagined it, Safi.」
「Ah. Thank you. I’m really happy to finally let Master her my voice. I was a bit worried it wouldn’t suit Master’s likes. It’s very different from Emi’s.」
「There’s no way I would ever dislike it. It fits you completely. I love it.」
「I’m glad. Maybe one day we will be able to converse vocally and I will be able to let Master hear it whenever Master wants, ufufu~.」
After she disconnects, every other girl present in the lobby has their turn to test and experience the artifact. Even Teffith somehow ends up being talked into trying it out as I hear her voice as the last person in the queue.
With the communication training done, everyone goes their own ways and Sirgia returns to her workshop to construct more copies of the device now that we confirmed everything to be working properly.
I also move down to the underground area and pay a visit to Neira in her artist’s den. In just these few days she has made it her new home, pretty much as Sirgia did to her workshop. Only the bed is missing. She happily agrees to help me with my little project as she promised previously.
We spend this and the next day working on my idea of introducing a kind of menu card but presenting a list of girls who will be working in the establishment. Each one would get a full page with some interesting information, like likes, dislikes, characteristics, style and such, accompanied by a big portrait image since the girls won’t always appear in the lobby. And that’s where Neira comes in.
I let her design and draw the portraits, currently only of Safi and Emi, but more will come in the future. She can decorate the cards and the whole menu book as she sees fit. I suggest personalizing the girls’ pages to their personalities and likes and she agrees on that, assuring me that she will talk with them about it and do her best to make it perfect.
Before leaving, I share with Neira another idea that just comes to me at that moment. I tell her that we could replace the current paintings, or the ones we already took off, with her own creations. I’m sure they would be much more suitable for our home. She gets all excited about that privilege and thanks me a lot for the chance. I’m looking forward to seeing what she will come up with.
Next, I go to my room and grab a finalized version of rules and some terms and move to the castle to confirm the date of our opening so that Ross can make his network work a bit in advance. Everyone agreed that a week should be enough. Hopefully, we will be free of any more incidents this time. I go by the tunnel and arrive in the castle without any issues. I’m guided to the garden again and told to wait there.
While I peacefully enjoy the tea presented to me by some servant, a clatter of a woman’s high-heeled shoes reach my ears from behind me.
“Oh! Sir Carter! What a coincidence!” A feminine voice soon follows, one I know decently well.
Queen Lianne approaches my table from the side with a really charming smile. She doesn’t seem to be feeling tense or awkward as she did during our previous meetings. Her clear and visibly merry expression also supports that observation.
“You must be waiting for my son, mind if I join and make your waiting time less boring with a pleasant chat?”
“With pleasure, Lady Lianne.” I nod my head with a polite smile.
She takes the seat in front of me very gracefully and joins her hands on her hips, smiling at me softly. She still emanates the same delicate and royal aura as before, but you can notice that it’s much less forced now. Somehow, I start wondering if this really is a coincidence with this timing. I wouldn’t be surprised if a certain magician didn't send a certain queen a notice about my visit. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t get lost in thoughts about it while in front of a fine lady.
“I see that you are feeling better, my Lady. It’s easy to discern how much more radiant you seem now,” I start the conversation.
“It’s all thanks to your amazing gift, Sir Carter.”
“I’m glad to hear that it managed to help. And that it wasn’t found offensive.” I show a wry smile.
“Oh, by no means! Please, don’t even dare to think that! It’s true that it wasn’t a… conventional gift, and I was a little bit sceptical at first, but… as you said before… it really helped relieve myself from all the accumulated stress. Well… to some extent…”
She gives me a quite cute side glance and chuckles a bit.
“I’m enormously thankful for such a thoughtful gift. I could even say that it’s the best one I’ve received up to this day, and I’m confident in thinking that I won’t see another beating it in the not so near future. In all seriousness, Sir Carter, it’s a marvellous artifact. Where did you acquire such a masterpiece?”
She is pretty much gleaming when she praises the toy. What a sight. I still can’t believe she is a sex freak.
“I’m honoured to hear such praise, my Lady. While the idea and general design are of my own, a friend of mine was the one who gave birth to it. I don’t think you will find a similar product anywhere else. Yet, at least.”
Her eyes slightly widen in surprise. “Oh? You came up with such… thing?” She covers her petite mouth with her hand, hiding a wide smile, and sizes me up. “You must be really knowledgeable about a woman’s body to create a tool which fulfils its purpose so well.”
I chuckle a little. “Certainly, I do have some theory in my mind, and even a bit of practice, but that’s still quite a fresh experience. I’ve studied various materials back at my homeworld. I wouldn’t gift such a thing to my Lady without properly making sure that it’s the best it can be.”
“I see. Am I right to assume that it’s linked to the business you will be starting up soon?”
“Well, to some extent, yes. But on the other hand, I’m just a man blessed with very understanding partners and friends.” I spread my arms and smile kindly.
“Certainly, you must be truly blessed to be able to win even the heart of the famous Ice Witch, fufufu~.” Even her laugh is all soft and petite, just like her looks. I feel blessed just by hearing it. “You have no idea how many men tried to pursue my dear Cornelia.”
She gingerly winks at me and laughs a bit again. This pretty much confirms for sure that the two have quite the close relationship. Not like there were any doubts before about that.
“Looks like nothing can escape the Queen’s information network. Yes, I truly must have accumulated a lot of good karma to be worthy of receiving the feelings of such an amazing woman.”
“Take good care of her, okay?” She shows a sincerely kind expression.
“I will do my best. That I can promise.”
She nods visibly happy and silence falls. For a moment it looks like Lianne wants to ask about something, but she stops herself and stands up.
“Well then, I really enjoyed our short meeting, but I’ll excuse myself now. I’m getting a little bit… tense… so I should rest for a while in my chambers.” She makes a very courteous bow, grabbing the hem of her beautiful dress and showing a faint blush on her fair complexion.
As she turns around, I stand up too and call to her. “Lady Lianne.”
She immediately turns back to me with a beautiful smile. It feels like she was hoping for me to stop her. Anyway, I step closer to the Queen and bring out a small, rectangular box from my storage ring. I present it to her on my palm.
“Hearing that you found my previous gift enjoyable, I thought of presenting you with another creation of mine. It can function by itself, but also as a complementary part with the last artifact. The instruction is inside, as usual. What does my Lady say?” I show a soft and knowing smile.
A bit more of the crimson blush paints her cheeks as she eyes up the little box. After locking her eyes with mine, she shows an embarrassed smile but extends her hand to receive the gift nevertheless.
“Al! You cheeky bastard! I knew you were scheming something behind the scenes!”
With completely perfect timing, Ross appears on our sides, just as the Queen was about to pick up the box. Looking again at our postures and the whole situation, and the box specifically, it’s easy to guess what he just assumed. I rub my temples and sigh.
“Ross. No. I’m not proposing to your mother. This is not an engagement ring. Is that clear enough?”
He comes closer to us. Lianne gets much more hesitant to grab the package now.
“Eh? Then what is it?” the King asks.
“It’s not your business, that’s all you need to know.” I turn back to the Queen and gently grab her delicate hand, placing it on top of the box in mine. “My Lady, I’m sure that this gift will also be to your liking so don’t let this situation hold you back from accepting it.”
She quickly takes the box and escapes my touch with her soft laugh again.
“Thank you. I’ll cherish it.” She nods with a smile and starts walking away, stopping by Ross’s side “You better not be rude to him.” She squints her eyes for a moment, turns around to wave at me and leaves.
It takes me a moment to somehow tame down the King’s curiosity before we move onto the important things. I pass him the completed set of rules and we discuss some details about how the whole thing works so that he can figure out how to properly make it sound good from the promotional side of things.
He plans on setting some rumour-spreading people around various bars and restaurants, who supposedly heard good stuff about my place, and some other moves like that. He conveys the slight disappointment of his nobles over the fact that there aren’t any Beastkin or Elves planned to work from the start, but more in a playful way than a serious one.
Without wasting his time, after we finish what we need to do, I head back through the city and step into Barren’s shop on my way. We haven’t talked much recently, besides his short visits with deliveries. He offers to provide some refreshments and such for the opening night and I naturally accept. Supportive as usual.
After arriving at home, I bring some of my notes with me and sit down in one of the alcoves in the garden, going through all the stuff we have completed and those that are slowly closing to the finishing line. It’s looking good so far. Let’s hope for a calm start.
Sometime later, I notice Teffith entering the garden’s grounds and she walks up to me. I close my notebook and nod at her while gesturing with my hand so that she sits down instead of just standing on the side menacingly. She complies and I wait for her to speak first.
“If I accept your proposal to work here, would I still be allowed to leave at any moment?” she asks, looking at me in full seriousness.
“Naturally. An employee can always quit their job if it's unsatisfactory or some circumstances arise. I don’t plan on enslaving you, but that should be clear already,” I explain.
She stops to think for a moment and then moves her gaze back to me. “What is the offer you mentioned before then?”
I glance at her again. It’s clear that she is a refined warrior. Just by looking at any Dragonewt’s sharp face, you get the feeling that the whole race knows how to handle themselves. And in terms of women, it just creates an image of insanely strong, badass beauties covered in shimmering scales.
“What’s your Tier?” I join my hands under my chin and ask her.
She hesitates for a moment, but answers nevertheless. “Four as of right now. I’ve reached it a long time ago, but I don’t think I will be able to advance further.”
“I see. Your weapon of choice?”
She raises a brow. “Naginata.”
“Interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen even one around the capital’s shops or in the ranks of knights and adventurers. Is it perhaps a racial or regional thing?”
While they do have katanas, non-sword type weapons of oriental design are quite non-existent here.
“For us, it’s often a commonly used weapon and it’s similar for most draconic and demonic races. It’s much less popular on the Human continent. I’m quite surprised you even know about it.”
I open my notebook again and make a quick sketch of what it looks like back on Earth. “Something like this, right?”
She glances at the drawing and nods.
“Thank you. What about your Class?” I continue the interrogation.
“Lancer,” she answers without a pause this time, most likely getting used to my weird questions.
“Oh, another derivative. If I recall correctly it was from Spearman. Main stats Agility and Strength, a lot of skills focusing on thrusts but also area swipes. Quite flashy and good in most situations.”
She seems surprised by my knowledge again. “Are all those questions related to my responsibilities somehow?”
I smile at her on-point remark. “Yes, to some extent. You see, what I need right now is a guard, a bouncer, a security guy or girl. I’m not so stupid to believe that there won’t by issues in the future where a bit of good, old, persuasive smacking wouldn't be necessary. In short, during the operating hours, you would be looking over the lobby and stepping in when something happens. I believe that you are a perfect fit for the task. And you could have a chance to beat the shit out of some trashy Humans once in a while. What do you think?”
Teffith definitely hasn’t expected this kind of offer. She most likely thought about me inviting her into my maid corps.
“Well, before you give an answer, I would like to test you a bit. Are you fine with that?” I continue.
After a short moment to gather her thoughts, she agrees and we move to the underground where the elves are currently doing their daily training. We gather together and explain to them the reason behind our visit. Since they are much better fighters than me, I pair Teffith up with each of them for a short spar. We don’t have a naginata at home, but she settles for a slim halberd for now.
I stand on the side and observe the bouts. As expected, she knows her thing quite well and holds her ground against pretty much each one of the elves. Her fighting style is a bit aggressive, focusing on not giving the opponent even a slight moment of rest in between the combined strikes. She skillfully spins and rotates the halberd at various angles to block most of the attacks aimed at her.
She manages to down two of the three melee using elves and also deflect a lot of Filue’s arrows when paired up with her. Neira completely obliterates her with her magic though, maybe taking Teffith a little bit off guard. All in all, she is plenty strong and that was with barely any skills used.
After our little competition is done, I pass her a waterskin and we sit down on the sides while the elves get back to their exercises. Teffith starts the conversation.
“So, am I good enough?”
“Hahaha, I’d even say that you are quite overqualified for the position. But yeah, if you are willing, I’d gladly have you around.”
She rests her head on the wall behind us and ponders for a moment. “I think I’ll take you up on it. At least until I figure out what exactly I want to do. I’m still not sure, but this place seems nice to stay for a while. It’s like… a luxurious inn where no one looks at you as if you have murdered their grandma. So… ummmm… yeah. I’ll do my best to cover my stay here… Master?”
“No need to call me Master. You should already know that most of them just choose to do so. Address me however it feels the least uncomfortable for you. And also, there are three more things I need to know if you are fine with.” I turn my head to the girl sitting on my side.
“Yes?” She also glances at me curiously.
“First, you should already be aware of some of my abilities from the girls, so I would like to register you as my Partner, for easier communication and such.”
She nods. I’m pretty sure Elea had already convinced her that there are no repercussions in doing so.
“Second, look at them. Anything they have in common?” I point at the practising elves.
Teffitth observes them for a moment before turning back to me. “Collars?”
“Correct. The dangling badge in the shape of a heart with succubi-like horns and tail is part of our image. Do you have anything against putting one on?”
“Do I have to wear it all the time?” she asks.
“No. Only while working. And when we leave to the town together or perhaps by yourself in the future.”
“I understand.” She nods again.
“And lastly, I bet you have noticed the marks on other girls, right?”
“Yes. The dwarf girl and the head maid explained to me their purpose and the fact that they requested them by themselves as a part of your plan to increase their safety outside.”
“Pretty much. What do you say?”
She takes another moment to think. I understand how this might feel a little disturbing to her. Getting collared and marked even though I said that she would be free.
“I guess I’ll comply with that too. It doesn’t need to be in a visible spot, right? Well, since my shoulder is covered in scales, then, would on the inner side of a forearm be okay?”
Looks like it’s less of an issue than I expected. That’s good. We go with her suggested spot and I weave the mark onto her skin. This also gives me a chance to feel a few her scales on the other side of her arm and the sensation is just amazing. So smooth yet hard and pleasant in touch.
We stand up and shake our hands to commemorate the deal. On the same day, we also move out together to order the collar and suit for Teffith. I think it will fit her much better than a maid uniform. Badass dragongirl in a suit and naginata in hand. Oh yes, please.
Time flies as we spend the next two days on perfecting everything. Teffith’s clothes should be done tomorrow, the collar hopefully will arrive before the opening night too. Communication devices are finished and placed in all rooms. Neira also created a few rulebooks and menu cards already. Everything seems to be on the right track for once.
Cornelia sends me a whisper to meet her in the lobby so I head there to see what she needs help with. After coming down the stairs, I look around but don’t spot her anywhere in the vicinity of the reception. A moment later, the main entrance opens and she walks in.
She begins a slow stroll towards me with a sensual pace, swaying her hips seductively. An alluring smile paints her face. I stand in place, frozen, staring at her with my jaw dropped to the floor, as she arrives in front of me.
Instead of her usual robes, Cornelia wears a slim, long, dark purple nightdress with cuts on the sides, starting at waist’s length, revealing her incredible legs with each step. On her chest, there’s literally a boob window in the shape of a heart in the middle area, showing a little bit of the sideboob view of both of her ample breasts, slightly squeezed together by the material. The cloth extends upwards in the shape of a narrowing triangle up to her neck, which is additionally decorated by a collar with a dangling, crystal heart of a hazelnut colour.
To sum it up, a fucking bombshell beauty straight out of some kind of a superstar night gala just stands in front of my eyes and smiles enchantingly, enjoying my reaction to the fullest. She chuckles. I step closer and pull her to me. My eyes land on the iconic badge.
“Wait… this is… this is why you ran back into the store on that day?” I ask while playing with it in my fingers.
She clicks her tongue. “I knew you would catch on that. I should have just gone there alone later.”
“Well, I definitely didn’t suspect you of getting a collar for yourself, that’s for sure. But, it looks beautiful on you. Like this whole attire. It’s so damn sexy.” I brush over her cheek while staring intently into her hazelnut eyes.
She chuckles again. “Looks like it works as intended.”
“It works too damn good. I’m starting to get worried that many guys might try to hit on you.”
Cornelia laughs a little. “They are welcome to try. I’m sure that no one can even hold a candle to you when it comes to flirting though.”
I move my face a bit closer and we join our lips in a passionate kiss. Cornelia’s hands wander over my back, while mine find their way through the cut sides of her dress, straight to her plump butt and squeeze it gently.
She breaks off the kiss and playfully smacks my face with a giggle. Leaving one more peck on my lips she steps back and does a spin to showcase the full extent of her dress.
“Gorgeous. I can’t find words worthy enough of this sight. Why so fancy though?” I ask curiously.
“The last time I checked, you didn’t have anyone for the reception, did you? Well, here I am then.” She makes a light skip and nod.
“Hahahah, really, you didn’t have to. I planned to man it myself.” I pull her into my embrace again.
“While you are quite pleasant to the eye, I think you would agree with the statement that a good-looking girl would fill that role much better considering the clientele, isn’t that right?”
“And with me there, you will be able to watch over everything from the sides and move where help is required without leaving the reception empty. Much more suitable role for the owner, I think.”
“Certainly. I never dreamed of having such a dazzling Madame.”
Cornelia starts the kiss on her own this time and we exchange a few loving pecks. She steps back after and puts her hands on her hips.
“Well then. We are pretty much ready now, right? So, what’s the name?”
I furrow my brows at her question. “Name?”
She raises hers. “Yes. Name. N-a-m-e. People give them to other people, objects, places. You don’t expect them to talk about us as ‘that fancy-looking brothel by the vegetable shop’, do you?”
She jokingly provides a long explanation while my eyes widen to the brim and I get frozen for the second time. Cornelia notices the change and stops chuckling, assuming a consternated expression.
“Wait... Don’t tell me you never thought about it before. We are a few days from the opening and you didn’t even consider one? Bloody hell! I thought you decided on it long ago and that’s why you never brought it up!”
I chuckle nervously. “Oh, fuck me…”
Cornelia steps closer and grabs me by the collar, giving me a stern glare. She then sighs heavily and drops her forehead onto my chest.
“Ugh… you dummy…”
I ruffle through her hair. “Sorry. I fucked up.”
She shakes her head. “No. We fucked up. I shouldn’t have assumed. I was supposed to fill the holes you missed as your assistant.”
“Shit. And here I thought I was pretty decent at filling holes.”
Cornelia snickers and shakes her head again. “There’s nothing you can’t turn into a sexual innuendo, can you?”
“Not when you lay such a perfect opportunity right in front of me.” I lift her chin to place a soft kiss on her beautiful lips before continuing. “Do you have any good ideas?”
“Not even in the slightest. Haaaaaah… I always sucked at naming things.”
We rest our backs on the reception desk and begin thinking about the issue. I instantly get reminded of one of my favourite Visual Novels back from Earth and almost suggest to Cornelia that we name our place Monster Paradise, but I realize how stupid it would sound in this world. Even Monpara feels damn cringy. I really would like something with meaning but also with a nice ring to it like the aforementioned ones.
While we are working our brains over it, a few girls pass by the main lobby. The sight of a Dwarf, Slime and Dark Elf freely wandering through the corridors and happily interacting with each other, and with me or Cornelia, Humans, gives me an idea.
“Utopia,” I turn to my new Madame and utter the word.
She stares at me for a moment, analyzing the name, and raises her brows in a positive fashion. “Hey, that could work. Utopia as a place where all races are equal, right? And everyone follows the same rules? Damn, why didn’t I think of that.”
“You like it?”
“You bet I do. It sounds nice and has a real meaning behind it, which, I think, fits your intentions perfectly.” She bumps my shoulder with her fist and smiles.
I push myself off the reception desk, turn around to face her, and glance all around the main hall once more.
“Well then. I guess it’s time to finally open our own, little Utopia,” I announce with a wide smile.