There were sixteen bottles of gold paint on the shelf just inside the shop door. A proud line of straight-sided glass bottles with wax stoppers, they stood in front of the backboard, they alternated light to dark. The bright gleam off the edge of a gold sheet next to smouldering molten metal. Rich cream butter next to burnished gold a breath away from bronze. Ineli counted them at a glance as she walked past, knowing how many there would be. One for each of the winter and summer suns in their place of honor as the whole island prepared for festival. Smiling, she nearly skipped her next few steps inside the shop, between the shelves of sky-bright colors.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Ineli said. “What I’m going to be this year.” Spinning, she turned to look behind her.
Her bodyguard, Aithan was behind her as always, shoulders square and hands calmly at his sides. He glanced around the shop, and she knew he saw walls and doors and windows and figures before he saw the colors.
“So, this won’t be a short stop then,” he murmured. He didn’t look at her, still taking in the room, but he was smiling lightly.
“What do you think I should be?” Ineli asked.
Aithan gave her his attention then, but only for a moment while he shrugged.
“I can’t decide,” Ineli said. Brushing her fingers long the lip of the nearest shelf, she took another step forward. “My sister says she’s going in a star mask this year. My brother won’t tell me what he’s going as.”
“How strange…” Aithan said dryly.
Ineli grinned back at him. Then she turned back to the paint. She liked one of the blues to her right. And one of the purples. Her sister, Kadie would smear them together into a night sky that forgot to be dark. It would be beautiful. Ineli considered them, and then moved past them.
“I could be a cat, like last year,” Ineli said. She saw Aithan nod, out of the corner of her eye. She took another step, spun a bright green on the shelf. “A jungle bird. My mother said it was her favorite thing I was when I was little.” Ineli looked back at Aithan expectantly.
He paused when he saw her stop. He met her eye, holding back his surprised uncertainty. “You could,” he said.
“Kadie said she could teach me how to make the feathers look real,” Ineli said. She touched the green again. Paired with one of the sun-golds from the door, she could make it match the dress she had planned to wear, and give it a stroke of luck. The midnight blue could temper them into something brilliant, take away the gaudy edge. Ineli glanced at Aithan, biting her lip.
“If you wanted,” Aithan said.
“Should I?” Ineli asked.
He paused, looking down at her. “It’s paint,” he said. “I can already hear your sister telling me differently, but I don’t think its the sort of thing that needs a should or shouldn’t.”
“I can hear it too,” Ineli said.
Aithan nodded and they both smiled.
“So, what do you think?” Ineli asked.
“Please?” Ineli said. “I can’t decide.”
Helplessly, he blinked at her. He curled the finger of one hand back against his palm, and shifted onto his other foot. Then he rocked back on his heel. Eyes still wide, he turned, moving back to the door and the line gold bottles. He pointed toward the shelf.
“You look at these every year,” he said. “What would you do with them?”
Ineli picked up one of the center ones, a bottle a little darker than daisy centers. “I could use this for the jungle bird,” she assured him.
“What would you do with all of them?” Aithan said.
Ineli looked up, surprised. “All of them?”
Still unsure, Aithan gave her a close-mouthed smile and waited for her to consider it.
She looked at the long row in their stands of bright and gleam and bronze and smoulder. They were the prettiest things in the shop, just like they were every year, each one more perfect because of the ones that stood on either side of it. She always picked up one, couldn’t leave it behind, but almost couldn’t imagine holding two. Her hands were large enough, but two would be too precious to carry all the way home.
Slowly, she picked up a second bottle, and held it next to the first, dark afternoon sunlight next to the daisy bloom.
“All of them,” Ineli murmured, without realizing it was a statement until it was out of her mouth.