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A player handout that got a bit out of hand (maximum verbosity!) for our Iron Kingdoms RPG campaign.

I wrote up this little interlude for JHZ. Alas, his player has been absent for a couple of sessions, and a lot of weird stuff has been happening in his absence -- particularly concerning a "scripted" encounter in the pre-written adventure for which his character, Pete the Alchemist, was the most likely to be involved, poor guy. A lot happened, and it would take a lot to fill in the "story so far," but I thought I'd post it here because, hey, maybe it could be even remotely readable as it stands. Maybe. Eh.


It’s nighttime in Five Fingers, aboard the Khadoran-flagged steam-and-sail ship Rusalka as it waits in port, still a day away from setting sail for the Scharde Islands. Wedged between barrels and crates of provisions in the hold, and under the dim glow of a swaying, hanging oil lantern, a soggy young alchemist attempts to read, and to ignore the young lady perched on a nearby crate.

This makeshift break area has a few barrel chairs with burlap cushions printed with various Khadoran manufacturers’ stamps, and into one of these over-sized and awkward chairs Pete Flur has crammed himself, swaddled in the aromatic (but enchanted!) drape he acquired from that smelly, accursed grymkin boatman, Ol’ Mudfoot. Pete hardly notices the smell anymore, but it could be on account of his habit at wearing a full face mask with brass-rimmed goggles and a bulbous beak of an air filter.

He flips through the pages of one of those curious books he picked up at The Library of Secrets Best Forgot. Ryssa (AKA “Miss Fogdale,” AKA “that girl who always clings to Stinky Pete,” AKA “what’s WITH that lass?”) fusses over her hair, which is still damp from when they both got fished out of one of Five Fingers’ many canals. She uses a hair brush gaudily ornamented in a way that reminds Pete of the garish vardos of Radiz caravans. He forces his attention back to the book.

The Sunken Cities of Zu are promised to the reader by the title, but Pete suspects he should have bargained the creepy bookseller down from the asking price of five gold crowns. The “maps” are full of needless flourishes and meaningless bars and lines (no scale is given) that suggest more in the way of naïve artistic license, inspired by the sorts of lines one sees on a proper nautical chart, versus being informed by any actual knowledge of navigation. To judge the veracity of the rumors jotted down therein, he’d have to visit the jungle continent himself and try to track down the purported landmarks; all in all, it’s a dubious proposition.

Ryssa finally puts the brush back into her leather satchel, and picks up a book to peruse. To Pete’s mild surprise, it isn’t Romance on the Canals of Five Fingers, but rather that bound battle-axe of a book, Uncle Dredfel’s Byge Booke of Grymkine Tailes. At fifty gold crowns, it was a bit of an investment, but given the handsomely embossed cover, gold foil inlay, and multi-colored plates, he figures a good chance of at least recouping part of his outlay once he’s finished with it. With a cringe, he notices countless little paper tags protruding from the pages; Ximena must have gotten to the book first, what with her habit of tabbing everything of remote interest. He has a mind to go through the book himself, but the faux archaic spellings made reading the thing a chore. He hardly got through the opening paragraph of “Ye Kat wyth Ghloves” before giving up in disgust.

Ryssa hums pleasantly to herself, but then lets out an almost squirrel-pitched squeal, setting the book down on a crate to clap delightedly. “Oh! Pete, PETE! I love this one! And the pictures! This is perfect. Here, shall I read it to you?”

Pete realizes it’s a rhetorical question. If she’d asked, “Would you like—?” the answer would be emphatically “No!” But shall she? Oh, of course, she shall. Just another day, Pete reminds himself. He fished her out of the water—so everyone tells him. He saved a “fair young damsel”—so everyone tells him. But he can remember nothing of the past four days on the steamboat Gambler’s Bride, riding down the Dragon’s Tongue River, let alone spending that time with this clingy maid.

The lewd insinuations of his compatriots are wearing thin. Yes, she’s “pretty,” but he has rather more exacting standards about the intimate company he might wish to keep. In short, “chipper, clingy, and quite possibly insane” just isn’t his “type.”

But just another day, and the Rusalka will be sailing off. Captain Vodyanov has places in his crew for Ximena the crazy librarian Satyxis, for anyone who can marshal a steamjack (such as Old Bar and Thale Lyorys), for that silent Khadoran priest (someone needs to give last rites and hear confessions), and for a skilled alchemist such as himself. But Ryssa – for a woman to be aboard the ship, she’d need to be kin to the captain (like Katya), or possess some remarkable power. Ryssa … what can she do, exactly? Well, that’s her problem and not mine, Pete resolves. And she can figure that one out for herself here in Five Fingers, while I sail away.

“Once upon a time,” Ryssa begins, taking Pete’s silence for consent. A good thing about a foggy-goggled gas mask is that Ryssa has no idea that Pete is ignoring her completely. Or trying to. Really trying to.

“Once upon a time, there was a prince of a lonely little seaside kingdom. It was a lovely place, but the weather was frequently frightening and terrible, and all the more so for the young prince, for at a young age the royal yacht had been tossed and turned by waves kicked up by a storm – and after such terror he feared the sea and refused to ever again leave dry land.

“One night, he heard a hauntingly beautiful song wafting on the night breeze. Entranced, he slipped out of the safety of his tower, past the guards, to investigate. There, in the shallows, bathed in moonlight, was a fair maiden with ringlets of hair the color of sea foam, and a voice that would put a nightingale to shame. The prince longed to go to her, but his fear of the sea held him back. At last, his guards spotted him on the shore, called out and brought him back. A wave crashed, with a spray of mist, and the maiden was gone.

“The next night…

And so on and so on. Pete shudders involuntarily at Ryssa’s choice, thinking back to the affair with that wretched Boatman. The grymkin tale follows a typically repetitive pattern, as night after night, the stupid young prince wanders out to the shore, following the sound of the beautiful voice, briefly comes to his senses (or is “too afraid”) rather than joining the soggy maiden in a nightly swim, gets pulled back by his guards, and chastised not to do it again. But, of course, he DOES, and he gets a little further into the water each time. This can’t turn out well.

Ah, but there’s a twist!

“The captain of the guard, ready for this moment, leapt out from where he’d been hiding behind the rocks, and struck down the sea maiden! Her body dissolves into a swell of sea foam, and washes back out with a receding wave. The prince, heartbroken, howled in anguish, and had to be held back by the others….”

Pete nods. Well, we’ve seen that even grymkin can be beaten to a pulp. Oh, wait, there’s more? Uh oh.

“… and so, the Prince, still sad over the loss of the mysterious sea maiden, nonetheless consents to marry the Princess of the neighboring kingdom….”

And a bit more about his yearning and yearning, despite being married.

“… but then, a year and a day after that fateful night, with Calder full again, he hears that haunting melody drifting over the waves once more.”

Oh come now! Pete thinks. You’re married now. Don’t … You know this is going to end badly.

“… and despite their cries, he dives into the water, embraced by the sea maiden. It is dark and cold, but she kisses him on the lips, and suddenly it is as if they are flying through the air. Below them, the faint glow of the Sea Emperor’s castle, and the dancing lights of his host. And so the Sea Maiden and the Prince swim together to live happily ever forever in the Sea Emperor’s kingdom. The End.”

Pete blinks underneath the smeared goggles. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he says. “In grymkin tales it goes badly for everyone except the monster. And a faithless husband like that, doubly so.”

Ryssa gasps. “He wasn’t faithless. He was true to his first, true love!”

“That didn’t end like a typical grymkin tale. Say! You didn’t just stick in a ‘happily-ever-after’ at the point you liked, did you? Because that’s exactly what my Nana used to do.” He shakes his head. “Made for a rude awakening once I learned how to read on my own, what really happened to Goldenmane when the Bear Family came home. Here, let me see that.” He reaches out for the book—

—but Ryssa snatches it away, and slaps it down on the crate-top, losing the page. “It’s getting late,” she says. “And, really now, surely you can’t sleep in that smelly drape of yours. Let me have it and I’ll take it to the scullery.”

Pete remembers the others taunting him, claiming that the drape is cursed, that it’s impossible to remove. He could test that theory easily enough, but something chills him at the thought. “Maybe later.” Something about the enchantment of the drape is that despite being dragged out of the water, he’s merely damp rather than completely soaked, and he doesn’t feel all that chilly. Remove it, and he might catch cold just in time for the Rusalka to set sail.

Ryssa pouts, and tugs on the drape, and for a moment Pete is surprised by just how strong she is, but it’s slippery in her hands. At last, she relents. “Well, I’m going to see if the bath is free. Surely you can manage that. They have actual plumbing and hot water thanks to the boilers. How many days has it been since—”

“It’s not even been an hour since I last bathed,” Pete protests. “Not that I remember it, but I’ve bathed at least daily since I met you.” He half-imagines that between Ryssa, himself, and a tub of water, they’d end up vanishing and someone would be fishing him out of the water the next day, minus his memories again. He shudders at the thought.

“Hmph!” is all Ryssa has to say to that. “Suit yourself.” She storms off, but not too stormily. She seems incapable of actually getting angry, no matter how cold the shoulder he gives her.

Pete sighs, enjoying the relative quiet once she’s gone.

He glances over at the book. It’s just sitting there. He tries not to think about that story. Something about it bothers him. He looks away.

He’s getting nowhere with this book. Why did this have to be about sunken lands of Zu?

And there’s no touching that romance book, especially not with the figure on the cover, poling a gondola through the canals. Too much like the Boatman. Why couldn’t he have forgotten that?

Surely there’s a grymkin tale about something other than water.

At last, his curiosity has the better of him, and he grabs up the tome (So heavy! It takes both hands!) and starts thumbing through it, skimming the illuminated capitals of each title, and the plate illustrations for whatever strikes his fancy. Ximena’s tabs are of no use, as she appears to have written them in her native tongue—whatever it is they speak in the lawless Scharde Isles.

The Rusalka.”

A tale sharing the ship’s name. This seems fortuitous. Pete’s curiosity is piqued.

“Once upon a time, there was a prince of a lonely little kingdom on the moors.”

Under the smeared goggles, Pete blinks. He reads further. It’s the same tale Ryssa read to him, but not quite. Instead of a seaside castle, it’s near a swamp. Not quite so romantic. It particularly diverges at about the point where the young prince’s almost-competent guards fight with the “water maiden.” She transforms once challenged, revealing her true form—still humanoid and shapely, but with a sickly pallor to her skin, dead eyes, elongated ears, and savage fangs. She strikes down one of the guards with a scrimshaw dagger that weeps venom—but she is slain, and her body melts away (but into swamp muck, not sea foam).

The prince returns the next day, still in denial over the whole ordeal, and finds the dagger in the shallows. He secrets it away as a keepsake.

And as in the original story, in due time the prince finds a wife, thanks to an arranged marriage. But in this version of the story, a year and a day after the death of the water maiden, the wife is tidying up the various knickknacks the prince has collected, and finds the dagger. Something about it entrances her, and she reaches out to touch it. That evening, when the prince looks for her, a maidservant claims she saw the lady walking by the water’s edge, holding a dagger. The prince rushes out, but finds no sign of her.

The next evening, the prince hears a haunting melody, and rushes outside. There, he sees his wife standing in the shallows, singing with the same beautiful voice as the mysterious water maiden. The castle guards rush out and try to stop him, but a thick and impenetrable fog thwarts them, while the prince approaches his wife, unimpeded. They both vanish.

But the next morning, the prince is found. He seems to be at peace, but very dead. No trace is found of his wife, nor of the mysterious dagger.

She took quite the liberties with this one, Pete considers. He gazes for a while at the plate that represents the water maiden’s true form. Something flickers within his clouded memory. He has the feeling that he has seen this before, but he can’t remember where or when.

Repulsed and disturbed, he slams the book shut.
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