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.
-she's a princess and she will deal with it.
She straightens her spine, dusts off her dress even if she's resigned to the spider blood, and manages to herd the lot of them into something resembling an organized group. It would be the most exasperating thing she'd ever done if she hadn't had to manage Morath and his friends; she sighs internally at the comparison. Once she decides they'll be able to move through the caves without tripping over each other, she starts back the way they came.
(Slowly. While watching for Jann. He's the one she knows, in this crowd of strangers; this is much easier when he's near.)
He stays near the front of the group and helps with herding them, but she's the one who actually knows the way; he's only been through the once and there was a lot of darkness in the relevant time period. He makes sure that not too many people are trying to cross that rope bridge at the same time, though, which means he's the last person across. It doesn't break. He shoulders to the front again when they're all on the far side.
They're louder now than when it was just the two of them, but a crowd of armed knights is a much less appealing target. That's what she's going to repeat in her head, at least. There's more men here than in Griffinmarsh's entire castle guard, unless she's badly miscounted; she's safe.
(Her walk drifts her closer to Jann anyway. She doesn't know these men, even if they have swords.)
Jann, too, is concerned about the missing spiders. He sticks close to Emmalina. "Everybody look alive," he calls to the various knights and princes. "Could be something bitey here, we had trouble with giant spiders on our way in."
Emmalina blushes, she can't stop herself, but she knows better than to engage. She sets her mouth and keeps moving.
"Somebody didn't pass his etiquette classes in knight school," mutters Jann under his breath. Walking a bit faster now, slightly between Emmalina and the ex-boulders.
Emmalina glances backwards. "No armor, no sword," she says softly. One of her Princessly Skills is the ability to be able to speak quietly without looking like she's talking. "He's probably a forester out to make his fortune, someone's middle son maybe?" She looks back at Jann. She doesn't smile, but the stress lines around her mouth loosen a little. "The knights I know are perfectly polite."
"Hey sweetheart, do you-" the man at the back starts, before someone near him clocks him on the head and angrily hisses something about ingratitude. Emmalina rolls her eyes and lets herself smile, just a bit. "I should probably be upset by the violence," she tells Jann, sounding completely unbothered.
"As long as they don't start trying to kill each other it's all just a slightly informal tourney. For, in this case, your honor."
Well, that gets a laugh out of her. "That would be a first," she says.
"Really? Can't scarcely credit it."
In retrospect, that might have revealed a bit more than she meant to. Too late now. "There's not a lot of knights in Griffinmarsh," she says. "I was supposed to meet more, at the tourney, but- well. Morath."
"Very bad timing on his part."
Emmalina shrugs slightly. "The tourney didn't actually exist," she tells him. "So I suppose my alternative was more embroidery, not socializing. But it might have been nice," she adds, trying not to sound wistful. "The marshes made it hard- we didn't travel much."
"...The tourney didn't exist?"
"Dragons don't usually abduct princesses in the vicinity of a tourneyful of knights," she says with a smile she doesn't feel. "But it meant I was in an easily spotted carriage."
"...Oh, one of those. Setup arrangements. I don't quite get the mentality there. I mean, it seems to set some people up all right, but couldn't they just be... introduced in some politer way, I don't get it."
Emmalina looks down at her hands, which seem to be clenching her skirts rather more tightly than usual. "I've. Never had the chance to ask." She knows she probably sounds a little curt, but it's that or start ranting about her parents, and if there was ever a place to not do that, leading a score of knights out of the Caves of Fire and Knight would be a strong contender.
On tromp the score of knights.
The group emerges from the caves almost entirely unmolested, except for the usual attacks of cave-walls-in-darkness. A couple times there were eager shouts of beasts glimpsed in corners, but if such even existed, they seemed to have the sense not to bother quite this many knights and promptly disappeared. Arriving at the entrance- exit?- of the caves is anticlimatic, but very bright.
Emmalina covers her eyes with her hands, hissing with annoyance. "...sun," she grumbles. "Sun, ow."
Wincing knights and miscellaneous disperse into the late daylight.
She grimaces at the sight, and then turns back to Jann. "So..." she says blankly. "Those were the Caves?"
"Those were the Caves. I'm not sure why they get talked up so much as a tourist destination. Give me a nice trail ride in the woods any day."
"But just think how disappointed the locals will be."