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The Earring

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Aral had not ever planned on piercing his ears. Men didn't, on Barrayar; even the most outrageous town clowns didn't wear earrings, though they might wear giant seal rings and brooches that bore a faint resemblance to medals. But Cordelia had said that it would be considered a compliment to Betans if he wore an earring during the state visit. It was a simple thing he could do to help cross-cultural relations along, and, she thought privately, it would reassure Betans that their wayward daughter hadn't married a complete barbarian.

And now Aral had temporarily run out of work to do on the state courier, and Cordelia had taken the opportunity to stick the latest copy of the earring catalogue in front of him so that the one he wanted would be ready when they arrived.

A few minutes later, Aral looked up from the catalogue in dismay. "Cordelia, there are four pages of earrings for 'in a permanent relationship'."

Cordelia peered over his shoulder. "Oh, yeah. That first page is all open relationships--if you take other people in, and whether they just sleep with you, or both of you, and what genders you're interested in and what gender your partner is. And there are a few for some particular sexual kinks like--"

Aral made a strange sound in the back of his throat, and Cordelia cut off that line of explanation. She watched his finger moving over the images, pausing briefly on 'm/f primary relationship, secondary male partner' before moving on. "People just do that? On purpose?"

"Sure. My parents had a girlfriend for three years or so. I liked her."

Aral gave her a wide-eyed look. "Oh." He turned the page.

"Those are for people in closed poly relationships," Cordelia said. "Try the third page." She watched as Aral finally located one marked 'exclusive m/f relationship'.

"That one?" he said.

Cordelia looked it and sighed a little. "Well. If you like. Normally that would be worn by a heterosexual man, though."

"Cordelia..."

She pointed to the next one. "That's the same, but for a bisexual man. It's up to you."

"I can't ... people will look at that and just know?"

"That's the whole point of the earrings. How you present yourself is up to you, though. If you want the first one, you can have it."

Aral's earlier befuddled amusement had turned to serious unhappiness. Oh Barrayar, Cordelia thought, why do you do this to your children? She could see Aral's dilemma perfectly.

"It's not a--it's not like an oath or anything," she said. "It's your presentation, today. You can present yourself as anything that feels right to you. People switch around. Your identity isn't a fixed thing." She looked down the list and pointed at another. "This one is for people who don't want to reveal their orientation. Some Betans like the note of mystery--consensual mystery, you understand, not fooling people on purpose."

Aral looked at the third option and shook his head. "I don't know. Perhaps this isn't a good idea."

"You said you were going to try to be a little bit Betan here," Cordelia said, gently. "This will mean a lot to the Betans." It would mean a lot to her, too, but she didn't want to say that right now. But Aral heard it anyway, and sighed.

"A little bit Betan. All right. Order all three; I'll decide later which one to wear."

Cordelia nodded and entered the order, including a fourth for herself. That, at least, was an easy decision.

*

Cordelia hadn't seen Aral since that morning, when he'd been hauled off to a series of diplomatic and security briefings in his usual dress uniform, the perfect Barrayaran, whilst she went on tours and played the visiting dignitary all day long. And then she'd been too busy getting dressed for the reception herself to have a chance to look for Aral. Now she got out of the groundcar and went through the usual back, heavily secured entrance, past ranks of ImpSec men on guard, and reached the glittering crowd.

"...and Regent-Consort of the Barrayaran Empire, Lady Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan," the major-domo announced, stressing the Naismith a bit more than necessary. Cordelia took a deep breath and entered.

At least, she thought as she shook a dozen hands, smiling and nodding and making the scripted greetings whilst the press snapped and vidded and murmured into their mikes, Steady Freddy had been voted out three years ago, and the President now was a sharp-eyed woman in a sarong and glittering wrap who didn't wince as Cordelia approached. When the initial formalities were over, Cordelia scanned the crowd for the rest of the Barrayaran party. Most were identifiable by their look of deep confusion, some defiantly wearing Vor or military uniforms, others in rather feeble attempts at Betan clothing, but she didn't see Aral with them.

Then she recognised a broad back, and blinked. It was unmistakeably Aral. He was standing in the midst of a group of Betan politicians, and Cordelia found their wide eyes and slightly parted lips entirely understandable. Aral could be intensely charming when he chose, a skill he used to great advantage in politics, but this was far beyond his ordinary charm. The only word, Cordelia thought, was flirting.

And then there was his outfit. Cordelia gave a laugh of pure delight as the Betan Minister for Interstellar Trade moved slightly and she had a good view. Like many of the other men here, Aral was wearing a close-fitting black sarong that outlined his legs beautifully. On his feet he had leather sandals that twined up around his calves. Apart from that, he wore nothing except a dusting of gold glitter, carefully applied to emphasise the fact that he was a man who had done hard military training his whole life. Cordelia's mouth went dry.

She stood still for a moment, enjoying the view--and noticing that she wasn't the only one, either. Then Aral's head turned, and she saw the earring he'd chosen, and her heart skipped a beat.

None of the Barrayarans, she thought, would even notice the earring that proclaimed him bisexual, not against the rest of the outfit, but he was wearing it all the same. Cordelia came up alongside Aral, and he turned to her.

"Ah, my dear Captain, there you are," he said. Then he leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth. Not improper, on Beta Colony, and it wasn't as though Cordelia could resist the opportunity.

"You didn't say a word about this," Cordelia murmured as he embraced her, her cheek against his bare glittering shoulder.

"I thought you'd like the surprise."

"Oh, I do." Cordelia ran a hand down his back. "You never do anything by halves, do you?" Aral going full tilt at a problem was always a glorious sight, but this was exceptional. "And it's a brilliant strategy, too," she added, meaning both the way he wore the earring and the political implications of his behaviour. He certainly had the Betans' attention tonight. Trust Aral to make everything he did serve as many purposes as he could.

Not to mention the third purpose of pleasing her.

He grinned. "It does seem to be working. I've already had an agreement to the provisional trade deal, and I'm going to speak to their Defence Minister soon." Aral cast a quick glance around the room. "He's watching us, you know."

"Jealously, I'm sure," Cordelia returned. There were plenty of beautiful people in the room, but Aral drew all eyes. "How did you get all this?"

"I asked your mother," Aral replied. "I told her I wanted to look Betan tonight, and she put me in touch with a very pleasant young man who arranged the outfit for me. It was--" his eyes gleamed "--surprisingly entertaining. He was most disappointed when he saw my earring."

"I'm sure he was." Cordelia reluctantly released him. "I won't monopolise you right now. But at the end of the evening..."

"Whatever you command, my lady," he finished with a little half-bow.

Cordelia smiled wickedly. She'd made a brief private stop at a little shop first thing this morning. If Aral really did want to be more Betan, there were so many possibilities for later. The only trouble would be choosing.

"So are you enjoying it?" she asked.

"I've never gone into a battle dressed so strangely before," he said. "But yes. Far more than I would have imagined." He raised a hand to touch the earring lightly, wonderingly. "I think I'll keep this. Just for now and then." He kissed her again. "Thank you, dear Captain."