She's as beautiful as anyone could wish, even if her hair color isn't quite the fashionable shade of blonde. It's long and flowing and perfectly tended and really, no one will mind if it's just a tad too dark. And her eyes are so unique, aren't they- and hazel is coming into style now, isn't it, so it won't matter a whit that cornflower blue is still the current trend.
Her multitude of tutors did their work well. She's not flawlessly graceful, of course, but she dances quite nicely nonetheless. She's as courteous and gracious as they could hope, even if she's sometimes a tad snide for polite company. And her watercolors are more than adequate, particularly that one of the river from the east tower (though wasn't the view from the west tower better? Well, the room's been empty for years, this was more practical, isn't she thoughtful.)
And she's certainly never any trouble. All those stories you hear- of course Cimorene's rather a dramatic case, but didn't that girl two kingdoms over recently run away from home to marry her girlfriend? Can you even imagine? Her parents must be so mortified. Thank goodness Emmalina's such a good child; she might talk back too much, but she's never done anything like that.
Really, her parents couldn't ask for a better daughter.
If only she would get married.
Emmalina doesn't think it's her fault, exactly. Griffinmarsh is very... average. Average size, average population, average wealth. Average princess, if she's being honest. And they hadn't had any of those recurring griffin problems in years, no matter the gossip. But for a kingdom, it's still rather... left out, if such a thing is possible. Not to mention that the marshes are rather hazardous to the unprepared; they don't get a lot of visitors. How Emmalina is supposed to marry someone when she never meets anyone has never been explained to her.
Her mother's latest plan is promising, she thinks, but it still seems to be missing a few pieces.
"Tourneys are downright thrilling," the queen assures her. "I met your father at one, back in the day! And this is one of the largest tournaments in years. They've had to split the bakeoff into two, can you imagine? Surely someone will find you to their liking."
"But we have to get there," Emmalina reminds her. "We can't exactly take the carriage through the marshes."
"The merchants have found a new route," her father tells her smugly. "Very promising. I'll send you and your mother through in a carriage with an escort, you'll be there in a week, no problems at all."
In Emmalina's experience, saying 'no problems' was just asking for them to appear. She's almost surprised an evil fairy doesn't materialize on the spot.
"You can't spare a full escort for a month," she points out.
"Well," her father says uncomfortably, "we'll only send half an escort. But you know as well as I do the griffins haven't appeared in years."
"To hear Princess Iradwel tell it, we've been attacked yearly for centuries," Emmalina says sourly.
"Emmalina," her mother says sternly. "Just because our neighbors indulge in rumor mongering does not make it appropriate for you to belittle them."
"Sorry, Mother," she sighs.
"It's all right, dear," the queen says. "Just do try to be careful at the tournament, won't you? Gossiping is unseemly in a princess."
"Very well, then. You'll be attending the grand tournament two months hence. I'll make the travel arrangements." The king beams at her. "And then we can put all this nonsense about you being unmarried behind us."
Emmalina and her mother depart for the tournament exactly on time. The carriage was ready for them, as her father had promised, with the half complement of guards he could spare. (Emmalina's maid had confided that there had been more than a few fights over the honor of escorting them; the promise of watching the tourney was, apparently, more than enough incentive to brave the marshes.) They're packed, loaded and out the gate before Emmalina is even fully awake.
Her mother chatters as they drive about all the eligible young men who have registered for the tournament. Prince So-and-So is nice, but a little too old- princes marry later, of course, but hasn't it been a little long even for a prince? And Sir This-and-That is ever so handsome, but obviously an actual prince is much to be preferred. Emmalina tunes her out. She's sure she'll hear it at least twice more before the end of the trip.
She's far more concerned by the marshes.
They're huge, and treacherous, and most of the reliable paths eventually submerge. The griffins are mostly gone, but one can never really be sure, and everyone says that the presence of armed men will set them off and-
She worries the whole time through the marshes. It takes them three days to get all the way through, and she barely sleeps. When they make it through with no more casualties than a single bag that got thrown too far over a horse, she breathes a sigh of relief and goes for her first good night's sleep in a while. They've made it out of the marsh, and out of the griffins, and now getting to the tournament will be straightforward.
Or it would have been, anyway. No one could have predicted the dragon.
Waking up was very unpleasant.
Half an escort might have been enough to handle bandits or even an unlikely griffin, but they were definitely unprepared for a dragon. Emmalina wakes up carefully bundled in the dragon's arms, still wrapped in her blanket, and promptly screams.
"Hey!" The dragon says indignantly. "Why all the yelling? I was very nice about this, you know."
Emmalina doesn't respond. She's busy screaming.
"I even brought your blanket," the dragon says, sounding aggrieved. "I didn't have time to file my nails, and I wouldn't want to damage you after I went to all the trouble of fetching you in the first place."
Emmalina pauses her screaming to catch her breath, then starts again. "Don't eat me! Please!"
"Eat you?" the dragon asks, confused. "Why would I eat you? I just said I'd gone to all this trouble! No, no, my last princess finally got rescued last month, and it's rather annoying having her gone. Helpful creatures, princesses. So I've been looking for a new one. I must say, I didn't think I'd have to go all this way, but here you are, so it all worked out, didn't it?"
"Not for me!" Emmalina wails. "I'm supposed to be at a tournament with my mother! I'm supposed to meet princes and knights and fall in love and live ha- happily ever a- afterrrr."
"Tournament?" the dragon says. "No, no, there's no tournament near here. No self respecting dragon would fly past that many knights! Don't be silly."
This shocks Emmalina almost into silence. "But- but I was going-"
"You were right where your father said you would be," the dragon says happily. "And you'll meet all sorts of knights and princes when they come to rescue you, and until then I'll have a princess to help with the cooking and tidying. Won't it be nice?"
"Of course," Emmalina mutters, because that's polite, she's always polite, she's a good daughter-
She cries the rest of the way to the Mountains of Morning.
The dragon, who introduces himself as Morath, helps Emmalina settle in. Once she accepts that Morath truly has no interest in eating her, it becomes easier. Her fury with her parents is surprisingly motivating; she sets herself to learning how to be a dragon's princess, and who cares if her parents would approve, because at least Morath is honest about it all. She learns the basics of cooking, and Morath has an enchanted broom and mop that help her through most of the cleaning. There's only two other princesses in the caves near Morath's, and Emmalina is polite to them whenever they appear to socialize, but they seem to find her parents' plan helpful and romantic, so Emmalina silently resolves to never be their friend.
Days turn to weeks. Emmalina adjusts to life with Morath well enough to have some free time outside cooking and cleaning; she reads, or organizes Morath's treasure. He doesn't have a lot of treasure- he's not particularly rich as dragons go- but he's good enough about keeping magical items separate that she can play dress up with the safer pieces, which she finds quite entertaining. Some of the older pieces are just stunning. Leave rings here, shields there, weapons in the back corner... She can do this. It's easier than keeping track of the relative ranks of dukes, counts and barons, if she's honest about it.
Weeks turn to months. Emmalina's far from home, and word only spreads through the knightly grapevine so quickly; she's had just a handful of would-be rescuers. Morath is very nice about it. He defeats them neatly, never damaging them too badly, but sends them back looking just injured enough to tell tales and garner sympathy. Emmalina hasn't decided how she feels about it all. It might be nice to be rescued. Certainly if she met a rescuer she liked enough, which she hasn't yet. She would be more than happy to never pull out the enchanted mop ever again. But on the other hand... then her parents would get what they wanted.
And they don't deserve it.
"If you do that, maybe a sidesaddle?" Emmalina suggests tentatively. "I know I'm slowing us down, and I'm sorry. It's strange riding astride."
"It'll depend what they have, but I can ask, sure."
"I suppose horses are more common than side saddles."
"Just a bit. And whether I can borrow one mostly depends on whether there's somewhere I can leave it where it'll wind up returned, and whoever returns it is less likely to ride sidesaddle."
"No roaming bands of side saddle equestrians in Raxwell?"
"Well, stranger things have happened, but I haven't heard of that one in particular."
"Well, now I'm curious."
"Oh, did I tell you about the time m'cousin turned me into a rabbit?"
"Magic carpets and moonlight? I'm starting to think it made an impression."
"Ah, I've used up all my best stories, I should start keeping closer track. Writing them down or something. Did I tell you how my best friend got into knight school early?"
If he did, she's forgotten, so she just shakes her head. "Do tell?"
"Usually they take you when you're fifteen. But there's an exception, you can get in at any age if you beat an instructor in a duel. Glynn decided that was too pedestrian and beat two of them."
"He's some kind of martial genius! Top of his class. Very sharp, knows all his stuff. Even kept on with archery, half of us drop that. And he can beat Milo at chess, occasionally, no mean feat."
"I'll take your word for it, I don't know hardly anything about fighting. But he sounds impressive. How long have you been friends?"
"Since he started! There's a mentorship thing and he was assigned to be my junior."
"Oh, so for a while then. Do you still see him, now that you've finished school?"
"Sure. He comes and hangs around and plays chess with Milo."
It takes them a day to get close enough to civilization that Jann can find someone who'll lend them a horse; after that they move considerably faster. The villages are loud and lively in a way the Griffinmarsh castle never was, and she doesn't quite know how to react. Everyone's very helpful and friendly, she'll give them that, even if she knows she's being quiet. No one seems to question Jann appearing with a rescued princess at his side. Emmalina wonders if he's rescued other princesses before, not just his cousin. The thought makes her feel small, and she doesn't ask.
The whole trip goes rather more easily than she expected. Jann's obviously traveled this way before, and he's organized and thoughtful, and if it weren't for her sore muscles she could almost forget that this is an escape, the end of a quest, rather than just a ride out in the country. She tries to think of it that way- just a fun excursion, nothing more. Not the glaring unknown that waits for her at the palace. She distracts herself by asking Jann more questions; it's a bit of a shock to realize that, late on the tail end of their third day, they're already at the castle.
"Sir Jann and...?"
"And Princess Emmalina of Griffinmarsh," says Jann.
"Aha," says the inquisitive guard, winking. And the gate is opened and Jann hands Morganite off to a stable boy who is up late and then:
"I can put you in a guest room, it won't be a bit of trouble."
"That would be- wonderful. Thank you." She looks around, eyes wide. "It's been so long since I've been in a castle. It's almost strange."
"I'm told it's a bit confusing to anyone who doesn't know their way around, but I'll leave notes where notes need to be about you being my guest and anybody will give you directions," says Jann. "Tomorrow might be a little hectic what with, ah, my father, just to warn you."
"Of course," Emmalina assures him. "Can't have our cave adventure going to waste, after all."
"Yes. But I'm not waking anybody up about it tonight. He's not getting any more made of stone." Here is a guest room. "Unless Milo has someone over... no, here we are, good. Does this look all right, do you need anything?"
Emmalina suppresses a mildly hysterical giggle. This is already so much, she can't picture possibly needing anything. But saying so would imply she didn't appreciate what Jann had done, surely, so she just shakes her head. "This is more than enough. Thank you." She pauses, unsure, and adds simply, "Good luck tomorrow."