"Excuse me? Madam Pawz?"
The woman turned and looked him up and down. Average height. Professionally styled hair, expensive business suit . . . a face that should have been spectacularly beautiful, but the lines of chronic disappointment had crept in . . . and her current expression didn't help at all.
"Yes?" Chilly tones.
"I apologize for butting in, I wanted to meet Paer's . . ."
"Oh, another social climber? No, I won't introduce you." She turned away.
"Umm, I already know Paer, we work together. You're the person I want to meet."
She turned back and looked him up and down.
"May I take you to lunch?"
Raised eyebrow. "Men are so stupid. Do you really think Paer cares about my opinion of anyone?"
"She cares. She just tries to not let it show."
Pawz looked away. "Well, take me to lunch and tell me about her. I only know what's in the news."
But she mostly talked about herself.
"Orde was forty, intelligent and serious, I thought him rather grim at first. Older, because he acted so . . . adult. None of the subservient trying to get a position, then partying all weekend that I swear most High Oners keep up until they hit eighty. A confirmed bachelor, two terms in the Division Council, representing the Ottoman Clan. Then he resigned and ran for the Regional Council."
She looked away. Tears in her eyes, her expression furious. "I was so stupid! I was twenty-three, right out of college. I thought Orde would be an excellent first conquest, the first step in my . . . my career as a Game Wife. One! How could I have been so stupid!"
Ebsa made a neutral sort of noise.
"So I worked as an analyst in his campaign. I actually impressed him with my brains. It was so easy to charm him . . . I suppose if he'd been as old as I thought he was, he'd have been more cynical, not fallen in love with me. We married a month after he took office. It was fun. The social swirl was already a big step up from home . . . I got tired of pretending I loved him. And then I got pregnant. I couldn't believe it! I know my numbers! I'm a two fifteen! How could I possibly have married a two sixteen!"
She stabbed her salad.
"Pity no one ever admits to their numbers when negotiating a marriage." Ebsa shrugged. "But then there are the incompatabilities, so it's far from a guarantee."
"Bah. If I'd ever told anyone my numbers, I'd have died a virgin." More stabbing of innocent lettuce.
"But you didn't change your plans, when Paer was born?"
Her plate was empty of anything she could kill. She set her fork down. The hovering waitress darted in and grabbed it.
That got him something close to a growl. "They said—all the high Oner Gossips—that I must have barely qualified as a Withione. I stuck it out for four years, but she was such a daddy's girl, and she always went to the nanny first . . . I couldn't take it any longer. I divorced him and moved to Paris."
"I should have gone there first." her lips thinned. "But then, even with the stipend I could barely afford to live there. I got a job. Married my boss. He divorced me after four years with no baby. 'I thought you were fertile!' Huh. I'd just married my third husband when Orde was elected to the Imperial Council." She ignored the waitress delivering lunch. "I divorced again. Then . . . the utter insanity of that run for president! And then he won!" Incredulity in her voice. "After that I married an older Councilor who wanted to show that he was at least as high as Orde . . . And after that I was a complete pariah."
"With four stipends." Ebsa eyed her. "And a job."
She sniffed. "I love the job more than I ever loved any of my husbands. I just wish it didn't involve so much travel."
"Do the new corridors make it easier for you?"
"Corridors? I hate those things. 'don't enter until the car ahead clears the striped zone' indeed. How can you tell? You can't see through the damned things at all."
"Oh, uh, what do you do?" Son of a . . .
"Well, I wait a bit. People honk at me but what do they expect? I much prefer planes, but they've cancelled half the routes."
"Umm, Madam Pawz? Most people can see though corridors and gates. The people who see fog? They have dimensional ability. Paer sees a little fog, but not enough to train. Umm, might I recommend you get tested and trained? If you could make corridors . . . I mean, half a million a pop and not have to go to Disco or a Comet Fall Company?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Is that a joke. Oners can't do that."
"Oners descended from Alexander can." Ebsa cleared his throat. "I could drive you there, if you can take the afternoon off."
While she called her office, Ebsa filled out a security form, purpose "Dimensional testing" had been in semi-frequent use the last six months, and approval came back quickly.
She nodded approvingly at his car.
"So. Somehow you managed to get me talking about myself. Now tell me about Paer."
"She's brilliant. A directorate agent. They call her a Medic, the doctors call her a half trained Medgician because they don't want to admit that she can do incredible things—she trained under several Comet Fall experts."
A supercillious snort. "Endi Dewulfe. Are you jealous?"
"No. He's got enough prickly edges to make any sensible woman cautious. And Paer is practical, even though she's so capable that her practical looks insane to a lot of people."
Her brows lowered. "You're proud of her abilities. Not her looks, which are a bit disappointing. She should at least wear makeup."
He did a double take. "Paer is beautiful, but it's more than that. She smiles, she glows, her eyes sparkle . . . she's even more attractive in person than even makeup and professional photography can make her."
"Makeup would help. Now tell me about yourself." She stiffened as he turned in the corridor approach, relaxed after he was through safely. "You really can see what's on the other side?"
The latest reorganization of the corridors coming into Gate City had them fanned out around the city proper, all with dedicated freeway onramps. And then local corridors to several areas. Ebsa turned off the freeway and slowed to drive through the corridor to the main entrance to the Gate Field.
"Well . . . if I could see where I was going I'd just love the corridors. Now you were saying, about yourself?"
He slowed, was waved through security. "I'm Ebsa Clostuone Castellanos Montevideo. I am a Bastard Closey Upcomer. I am also a very high count Closey, and a Warrior of the One."
Definite disapproval radiating from the passenger seat.
"Paer is a 216. You've got a problem there, you know. Most men expect children."
"We've discussed the use of Comet Fall . . . " He shut up at her glare.
"Those people should all just die!"
Ebsa lined up with the Embassy traffic—light in the midmorning, here. "The one thing I have trouble with, using corridors, are the time changes. Umm, did I mention that Paer is on Embassy? Would you like me to call her?"
An uncomfortable shift. "We don't actually get along very well."
"You're both adults now. Perhaps you should get to know her."
Glare. "How does this testing work, anyway . . . Oh One!" She froze staring at the gate. "You can't possibly drive into that!" her hands scrabbled at the door handle and Ebsa hit the locks.
"You can't jump out . . . " he drove through the gate onto the paved embassy grounds. ". . . in transit. No telling what would happen."
She panted and gulped. "You have no idea what that looked like to me, do you?"