“Is he a good kisser?” I whispered, because I knew that’s what she wanted me to ask.
“Oh my God, he’s amazing,” she whispered.
I wondered how she knew, since she hadn’t done a lot of kissing yet. Neither of us had. I went out with one of Zach’s friends, Joshua Taylor, last fall—if going out could mean being dropped off at the mall a couple of times. He had kissed me awkwardly in a dark movie theater, and I remembered feeling kind of sick about the whole thing. His breath reeked of mint gum and his hands had pawed nervously at my knee as he leaned toward me. I pulled away before he got too far. I had only gone to the movie with him because Morgan thought it would make Zach hang out with us more. Unfortunately I couldn’t stomach going out with Josh again, and that had resulted in Zach avoiding us completely.
I turned onto my side in the tent so that I could face Morgan, but it was so dark I could barely see anything, only the shadow of her head against the barely lighter tent wall. “So are you going out now?” I asked, because Morgan wanted desperately to talk about it, and even though it felt like stabbing myself in the gut, I wanted to make her happy.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “He wouldn’t say.”
“Do you want to go out with him?” I heard the impatience in my voice and wished I had hidden it.
“Maybe,” she said, sounding shy.
“Why maybe?” I softened my tone. “I thought you were totally into him.”
“I am, but…” Anxiety twisted through her voice. I scooted a little closer. Her hair still smelled like strawberries. “I don’t want to get my hopes up,” she whispered.
I suddenly felt sorry for her. “Oh, Morgan. Why don’t you just ask him out?”
She tensed up. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” I asked, and felt her recoil from me slightly.
“Girls don’t do that. And besides, what if he doesn’t really like me that way? What if he just wanted to make out with me and—and…” She trailed off, but I knew what she was afraid of. What if he just wanted to make out with her for the hell of it?
“Then he’s a jerk,” I said.
She sighed. I wanted to comfort her, but I was afraid to touch her. “He’s not a jerk,” she objected.
“Then ask him out,” I said, meaning it for the first time. Maybe if she did it, and he said no, she’d finally get over him. “And girls can do whatever they want.”
She didn’t say anything for a second, just lay there a couple of inches away from me, breathing. “I’ll think about it,” she said finally. “Not everybody’s as confident as you, you know.”
It was a weird, backhanded compliment—a cross between flattery and accusation—and I didn’t know what to say. Thanks? Or maybe: I’m sorry. I’m sorry you don’t see yourself as the girl I see, a girl who deserves someone way better than Zach Montgomery.
“I’m gonna go,” Morgan whispered. “Before they catch me.”
She slithered out of my tent, leaving me lying there on my side, facing the empty space where she had been a moment before.
The trail to the temple is steep but smooth, with rounded rocks marking the edge. It’s old and well maintained, reminding me that the Imria of Isi Na have been walking this ritual path for millennia. Tiny lights mark the edges of the trail. They’re attached to slender stalks planted in the ground about every ten feet, making it look as if Christmas lights have been strung up the mountainside.
Christmas. It’s jarring to think about that human holiday here, so far away from their God, their religions. I take a deep breath of night air and smell the spicy scent of the conifer trees around us, mingled with the fragrance of night-blooming inda. Isi Na is famous for inda perfume; Ama even brings it back to Earth with her in a little glass bottle, and every time I smell it I think of this place.
Nasha walks a few feet ahead of me. She stops as the trail makes a sharp right turn and says, “Look.” She points to the left, where the shoulders of the mountain part to reveal a distant view of the ocean. Something sparkles down there. It must be the lights of the nearest floating city, Sakai’uru. Above us, the stars glitter like a city in the sky. The pattern of them sometimes still surprises me. I can’t see the Big Dipper here, or Orion’s Belt. I’m in a totally different part of the universe, and all of a sudden I miss Earth with a deep, startling ache.
“Are you all right?” Nasha asks, taking a step toward me.
I guess it showed on my face. Ama says I have to be careful about letting my feelings show so much, at least back on Earth, where I’m supposed to be keeping a lot of secrets. “I just miss Earth,” I tell her.
She doesn’t respond, and I wonder what she’s thinking. Does she even believe me? Or does she think I’m saying it to show how special I am? Earthsider. I’m a little disappointed by her silence. I guess I hoped Nasha would be different tonight. That she would be friendlier.
We continue up the trail. In the distance the moon rises. It’s a little bigger than Earth’s moon and sheds a bit more light. Soon the mountainside will turn silver. About two-thirds of the way up we come to an overlook that gives us another view of the ocean. Up here the wind is cool and the air is thin, and I pull my hood over my head as Nasha walks toward a stone altar on one side of the overlook.
“Are you hungry?” she asks.
I join her at the altar. Three bowls, a pitcher, and two cups have been placed on top. Eres Tilhar, my teacher, told me about this. Three bowls to represent the origins of our people. One contains buru, hard red berries that look like cherries but taste more like olives. This is the fruit that sustained us on the mountainsides. One bowl of kubansurra, dried, salted fish that tastes kind of foul but represents the richness of the sea. Finally, slices of nindaba, flatbread made from coarsely ground grain, to symbolize our discovery of agriculture. It tastes a lot better if you have oil to dip it in or something sweet to spread on it, but we have to eat it plain. The pitcher contains kurun, a clear, sour drink that’s kind of like watered down white wine.
Nasha pours me a cup of kurun and holds it out to me. “Sude,” she says. A blessing.
In the moonlight I see the expression on her face and I realize she’s not being unfriendly. She’s being serious. Her eyes are steady and direct, her face sober. I feel chastened, and I raise my cup to her before we each take our first ritual sips. “Sude,” I say. I’m supposed to be thinking about the fruit that made this kurun, but instead I think about how kibila is still in many ways foreign to me. Even though I’ve known about it my whole life, it’s always been a distant idea to me, probably because I had nobody to talk to about it on Earth except Ama. Sure, I went to the Imrian equivalent of elementary school here, but little kids don’t care about kibila. It’s not until the two or three years before kibila’sa that it becomes a real, serious thing.
One year before kibila’sa—when you turn fourteen—you begin studying with a special teacher who guides you into a deeper understanding of susum’urda and also advises you on choosing your name. Not every Imrian chooses a new name at every kibila. Ada has kept the same name for his last three kibilas, and Aba for his last two. For your first kibila, though, it’s customary to choose a new name. Many Imria think of your kibila’sa name as your true name, even if you choose a different one later.