Home > The Princess Trials

The Princess Trials
Author: Cordelia K Castel

Chapter 1



When the revolution comes, border guards won’t get away with harassing Harvester girls. But for now, it’s just me and my poison darts.

I lie on the branch of the ancient persimmon tree, aiming my blowpipe at the exposed skin between the guard’s helmet and collar.

The hair curling from beneath his helmet is the blue-black common to the Nobles. His hand is wrapped around the Harvester girl’s arm, and he’s pulling her to his solar pick-up truck.

Dry leaves rustling in the wind mingle with the rapid beat of my pulse. As I grip the pipe’s barrel, my lips close around its mouthpiece, and I wish I’d brought the longer one I use for hunting jackrabbits. Accounting for the effects of the wind, it’s going to take every ounce of concentration to hit my target.

“Stay still,” I whisper into the wind. If that dart hits the girl…

Krim, the tomato supervisor, pushes his wheelbarrow off the path and heads toward the struggling pair, but the guard grips the butt of his rifle and hisses at the older man to get going.

He ducks his head and hurries along. As he passes beneath my tree, his head tilts up. My gaze is too fixed on the guard to notice the expression, but I don’t think he’ll yell at me today for not tending to my plants.

“One,” I mumble around the mouthpiece.

The guard clutches the girl to his chest and laughs. A palpitation reverberates through my chest, and my palms become slick. This won’t be like the last time.

“Two.” Dry air streams into my nostrils, fills my lungs, and expands my diaphragm. My ribcage pushes painfully against the rough bark of the branch.

The girl places both hands on his chest and throws her weight back to break free of the guard’s grip. He snatches her back and bends his head to plunder her mouth, exposing the reddened skin of his neck.

I release the air from my lungs and channel my resentment in a sharp exhale. The dart flies through the air and lands between the third and fourth notches of his cervical spine. I clench my teeth, waiting for the mandragon berries to do their work.

The guard flinches. His hand flies up to touch the feathered porcupine quill. He spins, yanking the dart, looking for me. I lie still, hoping the poison has blurred his vision enough to mistake the beige of my skirt for tree bark.

He stumbles toward the girl, who skitters back onto the path and ducks beneath the low canopy of the tomato trees. He falls forward with a heavy thud, and clouds of dust and leaf litter explode into the air.

Elation surges through my veins, and I drop from the tree to the applause of the other harvesters. On days like this, the revolution feels like it could really happen. I slip my blowpipe and quiver into the deep pockets of my skirt and walk back to weed among the tomato trees.

By the time Lieutenant Lecherous wakes up, it will be sunset, and he’ll suffer the mockery of his fellow guards, but there’s one Harvester girl saved.

For now.

The tomato trees have trunks as narrow as my forearm, which split at five-and-a-half feet into long branches that stretch horizontally to form a canopy thick enough to block the afternoon sun. Ripe fruit dangles from the stalks, and cool, sweet air sweeps beneath this haven from the dry heat.

My jute espadrilles scrape on the sandstone pathways, and I long to sink my feet into the damp, black soil.

A tall girl with straw-colored braids nods, acknowledging my heroic act, and I nod back. Only one thing would be better than saving a fellow Harvester girl, and that would be doing it under the approving gaze of Ryce Wintergreen.

“Zea-Mays Calico.” Krim’s voice lands in my ears with the weight of a boulder.

My shoulders stiffen, and I turn around. The tomato supervisor is in his mid-thirties like Dad, but the sun has dried his skin to the consistency of leather. It’s darker than his beige shirt and neckerchief, and his black eyes burn with fury.

“Yes, sir?” I reply.

He gestures behind us. “What have you done?”

I step back and bump into a wheelbarrow laden with beefsteak tomatoes. The question is annoying, considering he failed to save the girl. “That guard was attacking—”

“I didn’t ask for the whys.” He bares blunt, white teeth. “How in the name of Gaia will I explain his condition to his superiors?”

Apprehension prickles my skin, and I glance around the tomato field. The other harvesters pause to watch, their eyes wide with fear. My gaze darts back to the fallen border guard, who still lies face-down at the foot of the persimmon tree.

I swallow hard. “Mandragon mimics the venom of a jimson wasp.”

Krim’s lips tighten, and I already know what he’s thinking. Jimson wasps swarm in thousands. They will ask why only the guard got stung. If they’re not satisfied with his answer, that will be the end of Krim.

He blows out a long, weary breath. “Macoun, Cortland, Forelle, come here.”

Twin girls step forward, along with the girl I rescued from the guard’s attack. They all keep their gazes to the sandstone path.

Krim turns to me, his expression grim. “You’re going to sting each of them with your poisoned darts.”

My mouth drops open. “But—”

“How else can I cover up your impulsive act?” he snarls.

Any remaining triumph I felt now drains, and my shoulders slump with defeat.

The girl I saved steps forward. Her short apron indicates that she’s also an apprentice, but the faded tomato stains on the fabric tell me she’s been on the job at least a year.

Without looking me in the eye, she holds out her arm.

Ignoring the rise of bile to the back of my throat, I reach into the pocket of my skirt, pull out a dart, and give the girl’s arm the barest prick. She blinks once, twice, and falls back. One of the twins catches her before she hits the crops, and they carry her to the persimmon tree. Now, it will look like they both got stung.

When the twins return, we walk to the edge of the tomato field, and I have to sting them, too.

They remain conscious for long enough to position themselves in the shade, and Krim strides to the fallen guard and plucks the dart from his neck. I chew on the inside of my cheek, hoping the girls will stay unconscious for long enough to corroborate Krim’s cover-up.

A moment later, he returns with the dart and presses it into my hand. “I’ll report the sighting of jimson scouts.”

He glances around at the other harvesters. “Everyone was too busy weeding and picking tomatoes to notice what happened by the tree, is that understood?”

Mutters of agreement spread out from the tomato trees, and relief washes through my veins like rain. Krim’s plan might work.

As we walk toward the persimmon tree, he says, “Go home.”


“The next squadron will arrive soon enough.” He squints up at the sky. “When they take the register, I’ll explain that I sent you home with sunstroke, a common ailment for a careless apprentice.”



Home is a two-mile walk through the cornfield Dad supervises. Giant stalks loom at my sides like sentinels, their leaves rustling in the breeze. The milky, sweet scent of ripe kernels teases my sinuses, and saliva trickles into my mouth. Swallowing hard, I dip my head and pull down the brim of my bonnet, so no one recognizes me as I walk home in disgrace.

The sun beats down on my back like an admonishing parent, and for the next half-hour, Krim’s voice rings in my ears. Maybe there was a better way to handle the situation, but if I had let that guard drag away Forelle—I shake my head. I can’t dwell on old memories. I can’t keep punishing myself for those I couldn’t save.

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