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.
"Why did he want to bring you into the caves anyway?"
"He didn't at first. Then one of the younger dragons tried to poach me. It's not done, she got into a lot of trouble, but after that Morath decided it was easier to just bring me along if he was going to be gone more than a day or two. The caves aren't meant to keep dragons out, just knights."
"I'd think they'd be a little cramped in places for a bigger dragon."
She sighs as the darkness returns and sweeps back over them. She stops and leans against the wall, trying to make herself comfortable. "And these caves," she says grumpily, "just hate everyone equally."
"Well, at least they're fair-minded." Jann clanks to a halt. "I had definitely heard that dragons and wizards did not mix well."
Emmalina grins, not that Jann can see. "They're allergic, can you believe? Of all the things."
"That I didn't know! To wizards, huh. I suppose they have a well-established ability to sniff out all kinds of people. Not that they're infallible."
"To their staffs, mostly. Morath said the staffs steal their magic and it makes them sneeze." She shudders. "I'm glad no wizards ever stopped by. Dragons sneeze fire, and I am flammable."
"Oh, yikes, that would be really scary. I know how to tell where a dragon's going to breathe fire on purpose, but if they're sneezing? Yikes."
"I'm not sure they do sneeze without a wizard around," Emmalina says uncertainly. "So- don't fight one with the Wizard Staff of Hayfever and Pepper?"
"Okay! I'll keep that in mind."
Emmalina can't help laughing. "You have one in your cellars I talked you out of using?"
"No, but you never know what you'll run across, knighting around."
Well, she certainly can't argue with that. "What sorts of things have you run across, 'knighting around'?" she asks curiously.
"Haven't done that much knighting around yet. But speaking of what's in the cellars there's a magic carpet that turns people into rabbits if they touch it."
"It wasn't my fault! I was a little kid and my cousin wanted me to grab it because he was too short, and we figured it had to be a flying carpet, you know, harmless, so I grabbed it, and next thing you know - rabbit."
When she's stopped laughing helplessly, Emmalina gasps, "That sounds adorable. How did they unrabbit you? Unless they didn't and you've got a really convincing knight disguise."
"It's so convincing. You wouldn't believe how long it takes to get all the prosthetics on. Nah, you de-rabbit by going out under the new moon, I was fine."
"That... sounds pretty harmless, as magical misadventures go. The other princesses were always full of horror stories- "the ring turned her into a tree!" "the slippers made her dance every night!" "the makeup jar had a genie in it!", you probably know the type."
"Yeah, I was lucky. As penance m'cousin turned himself into a rabbit later. He was very fluffy."
This time the light comes back before Emmalina is finished laughing. "Your cousin sounds like an adventure," she tells him. "Ready?"
"Yep! To both."
Then, suddenly, there is a very large cave spider waiting for them.
Emmalina manages to swallow most of her shriek, then gets out of the way as fast as she can.
It's a pretty fast spider. Its fangs glance off his vambrace; he shaves a few hairs off its front left leg. It chitters. It has a lot of eyes.
And then everything goes dark.
"Drop to the floor so I don't cut you if it moves in your direction!" Jann barks.