"Cleverly written, intriguing, and heart-wrenching." – New York Times bestselling author Jodi Meadows
“An unusual focus on food only improves this intriguing coming-of-age story.” - Kirkus Reviews
Princess Vela's people are starving.
Stranded on a planet that lacks food, Vela makes the ultimate sacrifice and becomes an Aegis for her people. Accepting a genetic modification that takes sixty years off her life, she can feed her colony via nutrition pills. But her best friend is still getting worse. And she's not the only one.
Now the king is dying, too.
When the boy she's had a crush on since childhood volunteers to give his life for her father's, Vela realizes her people need more than pills to survive. As tensions rise between Aegis and colonists, secrets and sabotage begin to threaten the future of the colony itself.
Unless Vela is brave enough to save them all…
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||829 KB|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
About the Author
When her first-grade teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, Pintip replied, "An author." Although she has pursued other interests over the years, this dream has never wavered.
Pintip graduated from Harvard University and received her J.D. at Yale Law School. She published an article in the YALE LAW JOURNAL, entitled, "How Judges Overrule: Speech Act Theory and the Doctrine of Stare Decisis," and received the Barry S. Kaplan Prize for best paper in Law and Literature.
Pintip is a 2012 Golden Heart® finalist and a 2014 double-finalist. She lives with her husband and children in Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
I break off a piece of raspberry tart, with a crust as light as sunshine, and slide it into the pocket of my caftan. My mouth goes dry in spite of the sweet tang that's about to burst over my tongue.
Because the hidden bite's not for me. It's for my best friend, Astana, and if the royal guards catch me stealing food for a colonist, I could be thrown into the Red Cell Prison. Our laws are clear: actual food, as opposed to nutrition pills, must be reserved for those who can utilize it best.
I shove the rest of the tart into my mouth. It breaks upon contact, littering crumbs across the silver shuttle floor. I'm so nervous, the dessert tastes like congealed space dust and raspberries, but I chew and swallow as if nothing's wrong. As if there isn't a smooshed-up pie staining the inside of my pocket.
Did anyone see me hide the bite?
All around the Banquet Room, the Aegis dig into their mid-afternoon snack. Pecan-encrusted squash, double-mashed garlic potatoes, barbecued tofu drizzled with a blackberry-port reduction. They sit twenty per table, at sheets of metal which would sag if they weren't doubly reinforced. Their silverware clinks together in a high, tinny melody, replacing the conversation that might have occurred back on Earth, where eating was partly social instead of wholly functional.
On our new planet, Dion, no Aegis talks during the first twenty minutes of a meal. It would be a waste, since more food can be consumed before the stomach has a chance to feel full. And an Aegis has only one goal: to consume as many nutrients as possible. We have to, in order to take in enough sustenance for the rest of the colony.
I'm about to finish what's left of the tart when a hand closes over my elbow.
My heart stutters. So it comes to this. After training all my life to eat for my people, I'm caught over a piece of raspberry pie.
Pellets of sweat break out on my neck. I turn to my captor, the excuses ready on my lips. It's just a single bite. My best friend's been so down lately. I just want to bring her a little excitement, a little joy. Is that so wrong?
The words melt in my mouth. Because it's not a royal guard who has a hold of me. It's my older sister.
"Sweet before savory?" Blanca asks, moving the hand from my elbow and onto her hip. She's widely considered beautiful, even if she doesn't have the voluptuous figure that is so prized in our colony. It's not easy to have curves when every excess calorie is sucked out of your body six times a day and transferred to the colonists via a pill. "Is that your secret, Vela? You eat a round of dessert before the main course?"
Of course not. I'm only eating this tart because it gives me an excuse to be near the dessert buffet. But Blanca doesn't have to know that.
"You got me," I say. "Sweet and savory foods fill different mental compartments, you know. You can still eat chocolate cake, even though you're full of ramen noodles and pan-fried dumplings —"
"Save it." Blanca arches her back, jutting out her food baby. Fifteen minutes from now, after she pays a visit to the Transfer Room, her stomach will deflate once again, but my sister's always been one to show off her roundness, however temporary. "I don't need your strategies to be named Top Aegis."
I'm a shoo-in for the top prize this year. Blanca knows it, I know it. Half of our Eating class has placed bets on it. If I keep eating the way I have for the next two days, no one will even come close.
Vela Kunchai, Top Aegis. I can taste it. Hot and satisfying, like a tray of lasagna with a bubbling soy cheese crust. It's not the title I want, but the caring that it conveys. The more nutrition pills I produce, after all, the more people I'll feed. My father, the King, has two heirs. Within the year, he'll name either me or Blanca as his Successor. He's been training both of us, from a very young age, to take his place, and a few months ago, the council decided that the transition to a new ruler would proceed most smoothly if the Sucessor stayed within the royal family.
We don't know what criteria the council will use to choose the Successor. After all, our colony has never had to pass the reins before. But winning Top Aegis sure won't hurt my chances. And so, I'd stretch my stomach lining into gauze to make sure it's me. My sister, unfortunately, feels the same way.
"It's not just about how much you're willing to suffer for your people," Blanca says, as if reading my mind. "The King's Successor has to be practical enough to see the big picture. She has to have helped the King from an early age, running scenarios for him in the control room every time he needs data for a decision." Even my sister's raised eyebrow looks smug. "In other words, she can't just flounce around the colony. She can't interrupt her father during important council meetings to show him a Venus flytrap with a broken stalk."
I flush. That was ten years ago, when I was seven and she was eight, but Blanca will never let me forget it. Just like she'll never let me forget that she's useful to the King — has always been useful to the King — and I'm not.
But I refuse to let her get to me. Even if I don't have Blanca's logical mind and analytical abilities, I have my own attributes. "Oh yeah? The King's Successor also has to be compassionate enough to rescue the spider trapped inside that plant."
I lock eyes with her dark brown ones. We weren't always rivals. Once upon a time, my sister and I played rocket ships together. She was the captain, and I was her best mate. We zoomed here to the planet Dion, hundreds of light-years from Earth, and pretended we were one of the original colonists who landed on this world seventy years ago.
Of course, that was before I surpassed my sister's eating ranking. Before my father, the King, announced one of us would be his Successor. Before my mother passed away.
In other words: a long time ago.
"This whole thing is ridiculous," Blanca says. "I can't believe the council's even considering you. How could you possibly be Successor? You can't even stand in front of a crowd without fainting."
"I was a kid, and I hadn't nutritioned all day."
"This isn't something you can learn. You either have what it takes to be Successor ..." My sister's eyes hack into me like a cleaver. "Or you don't."
"And you don't think I do?"
She doesn't answer for a moment. The air cleanser switches on. Wind blasts from the vents in the space shuttle's curved walls, picking up the aromas and carrying them outside. Well, not literally outside in the real planet, but outside in our twenty square miles of intersecting bubbles. The two space shuttles, where the Aegis live and eat, are parked right in the middle of our colony, and their solar-paneled exteriors make up part of the energy shields that keep the oxygen-rich air in and the CO2-dense air out.
"Sorry, sis," Blanca finally says. "Nobody thinks you've got a chance. The council's just indulging Father in one of his whims." She puts a hand on her hip and looks over my shoulder, as if she's bored with the conversation. "You might want to take the pie out of your pocket. Wouldn't want the guards to catch you sneaking food out of the Banquet Hall. Someone might get the wrong idea."
She turns and swishes away, her eating caftan flowing behind her. The material catches the wind from the vents, and for a moment, it billows out, as haunting as a lone kite tapping against our energy shields.
A sharp pain seizes my chest. I can't tell if it's from Blanca's graceful form or from the sudden certainty that I will never be my sister's best mate ever again.
* * *
Five bubbles from the center of our colony, in the slags of rock that hold floor after floor of living units, there are no blasts of wind. Instead, the odors sit on the air like the nine layers of my Thai ancestors' most auspicious dessert, khanom chan.
Except there's nothing appetizing about these smells. Sweat. Body odor. Insect repellent.
I shudder and ignore the panel next to the front door, which would announce my arrival to my best friend, and walk into a narrow room with furniture set into the walls. All the living units in our colony are equipped this way, so that a single room can serve multiple living functions.
At the moment, a bed is pulled out, and Astana huddles underneath a solar blanket, newly heated from the sun lamps. Her breath comes in uneven pants, and her skin is stretched pale over the bones of her face. She's so thin she could slide between the cracks of the tiled floor.
She props herself on her elbow as soon as she sees me. The blanket slides to the floor, its reflective surface flashing under the lights. "Did you get the pie?"
I shake my head, and she crumples, inches away from joining her blanket.
"Next time, I'll wait until Blanca leaves before I try to take any food."
She wets her lips. "Could I maybe lick your pocket?"
"Oh. Um, sure." My heart shudders to hear her so wistful, but I slip the caftan over my head, leaving a simple tank top. I turn the pocket inside out and hold the raspberry-stained fabric out to my friend. She catches the cotton between her teeth and sinks against the couch, her jaws working the caftan the way a beetle gnaws on bark.
The cloth must've absorbed more juice than I realized. Almost immediately, a bit of color returns to her cheeks.
She sees me watching, and the fabric falls from her lips. "Sorry. I've been craving a taste all week."
"It's okay." This is my fault, really. Back when we were kids, when her mom worked in the royal kitchens, I would sneak Astana bites from my training meals. I wanted to share everything with my best friend, including this weird thing we were learning about in our classes called "eating." By the time I realized I wasn't supposed to share, it was too late. Astana was hooked.
"Besides," she continues. "I don't know if I'll make it to your next visit."
"You're not going anywhere. The nutritionists are going to recalibrate your needs, and in the meantime, I'll give you every excess pill I have. I'll eat until my stomach splits, if that's what it takes."
This is my secret. The strategy that turns my stomach into an infinitely- expanding balloon. The reason I can eat more than anyone else. My best friend in our brand-new world is dying.
We Aegis are assigned a quota every month — a set amount of nutrients we have to consume. Once we meet the quota, any additional nutrients are ours to keep. These little round pills act as currency in our society. We can set them aside to purchase tickets for a virtual vid. Or give them to our friends.
"Your pills can't fix what's wrong with me," she says.
"How can you say that?" I pick up her wrist, my thumb and index finger easily encircling it. "I make the most nutritious pills there are. Everybody knows that."
I smile as I say the words, but I'm only half kidding. Blanca and I have known since we were kids that our genes responded particularly well to the Aegis modification — the one that allows us to extract nutrients from food more efficiently. With this modification, most Aegis can absorb two or three times as many nutrients as the regular person. Blanca and I are five or six times more efficient.
"You have to stop giving me all your pills." Astana's smile, like her body, is a cheap remake of its former self. "Your life's already shortened. You need to enjoy every moment of it."
"Nah. I've got over a decade left on this planet." It's hard for me to be too concerned about my impending death when it's years and years away. Especially when my best friend is in desperate need of nutrition today.
"Can you tell me about the part I missed?" She puts the fabric back in her mouth. "The crust of the pie?"
I bite my lip. How do I explain taste and texture to a girl who's barely known it?
"Oh, come on," she says. "I told you about kissing. Surely you can talk about a measly pie crust."
A few months ago, she painstakingly walked me through every detail of her first kiss with Jacksonville Kim, from his front teeth clicking into hers to the way his tongue cleaned the inside of her mouth like a Hyper Bot.
The memory makes me smile. Even better, Astana's sitting up, and she almost sounds like herself again.
"Just you wait." I aim for light and floaty, like butterfly wings, but relief punches a hole through my voice. "Maybe my mysterious rescuer will swoop back into my life, and then you'll be the one begging me for kissing details."
"That was the only time you ever needed saving." My friend's eyes drift closed. "Not like me. I need rescuing every day."
My stomach falls somewhere near the vicinity of my knees. Because this doesn't sound like my best friend. Gravity has never pulled so strongly on her words. She's never referred to the time I fell into the pond during the King's Birthday Picnic without an exaggerated wink.
I would've drowned that day, ten years ago, had someone not pulled me out and laid me dripping on the shore. But my rescuer left before I could get a look at him. He never even claimed his death debt.
I slide my hand until our wrists are pressed together. Our pulses beat next to each other, our life forces combined into one. The ultimate gesture of friendship and trust. "Do you still want to hear about the crust?"
She nods without opening her eyes. "Please."
"Let's see. The crust of a raspberry pie." I slip my hand into hers and think back to all the times I've eaten the dessert. "Imagine grains of sand as light as dandelion fluff, rolled in the breeze and bursting with sunshine. Threads of brown cut through the flavor, and right when you least expect it, a good strong shot of red ... "
I keep talking nonsense until I hear her slow, even breathing. Until her hand goes limp and falls out of mine.
She looks too peaceful, too much like a corpse. Too much like my mother the last time I saw her.
I root in my knapsack and pull out a flat plastic box. Eight round tablets, the color of a juicy peach, rattle inside.
I wrap my friend's hand around the case. That's better. She looks more alive holding the brightly colored pills. As if no harm can come to her, so long as she has this store of nutrients.
If only it were that easy.
"Nice description," a voice says behind me.
I turn. Astana's brother leans against the entry to the living unit, his head a few inches from the doorjamb. Straight hair falls over his forehead, and his caviar-black eyes sink into me.
My cheeks warm. How long has he been standing there? Did he hear me gushing about my mysterious rescuer?
It shouldn't matter what Carr overhears. I've known him since we were kids, and he's not the type to tease. He used to hang around with my cousin, Denver, and sometimes the four of us would play a game of tag. Most of the time, though, Astana and I would stomp around Protector's Pond, catching and releasing dragonflies with fishing nets, while Carr would dig up worms and sell them as bait to the fishermen. He never made much — just one or two of those peach-colored pills — but looking at the dried mud under his fingernails always made me feel like one of his fat-bellied slugs. Spoiled and more than a little lazy.
I'm not that girl anymore, I want to tell Carr. Any day now, I'll be named Top Aegis of my class, and within a few months, the council might appoint me as the King's Successor.
But Blanca's words echo in my ears. Nobody thinks you've got a chance. The council's just indulging Father in one of his whims. Is she right? Maybe the council members aren't considering me after all. Maybe it's been Blanca all along, and they're just going through the motions.
So I end up not saying anything and simply stare as Carr walks into the room.
"Nice shirt, too." His eyes pause, for a fraction of a second, on my bare arms. "I don't think I've ever seen you in anything like that."
The heat in my cheeks spreads, wrapping around my ribs and stroking its tendrils along my spine. Which is ridiculous. He doesn't mean anything by the compliment. He works way too hard to ever take much notice of me.
And yet, I've always had this reaction to him. He could give me the smallest look, or place the tiniest emphasis on a single word, and my nerves dart around like they're the flame to his flint.
"I, um, took off the caftan because it's hot," I say and then flush. I might as well have told him pills have no taste. But what else could I have said? That I took my caftan off so his sister could suck on it?
Carr yanks on a loop to pull a sink out of the back wall. "What are you doing here?" He passes his hands under a red beam, which zaps the germs off his skin.
"I had some extra pills I wanted to give Astana."
He glances over his shoulder, at his sister's sleeping form, and his eyes fasten on the peach tablets.
My breath gets stuck in my lungs. Colonists don't eat, but that doesn't mean they don't feel hunger. "Carr," I say carefully. "What happens to the pills I leave for Astana?"
He snaps his gaze back to me. "What do you think happens to them?"
"I ... I don't know. She never seems to put on any weight. And I've left countless pills."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Star-Crossed"
Copyright © 2018 Pintip Dunn.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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