The Roleplaying Diaries of Bryan Stephens
We have our blades for war and our blades for kings, but Taldor has its blades too. Lion Blades, they call them, made for death and secrets. Spies, assassins that can walk up to a man in plain sight, kill him, and vanish again. That was how they took out our captain and left us back behind the border awaiting a replacement. First we heard that no replacement was coming. Then we heard that a new captain was coming to us, and we should wait for her arrival. Then we heard the new captain has been killed, or captured, or possibly defected. We had no way to separate truth from rumor, or to tell messengers from spies. The worst part of it all is that you can’t tell these so-called Lion Blades from normal people. Searching for one is like trying to hold a fistful of dry sand and watching it slide between your fingers. Still, if it pleases the high command, we’ll keep trying.
—Qadiran conscript, in a letter to her brother
Born and honed in the endless conflict with foreign powers, the Lion Blades are a secret organization dedicated to defending Taldor by subverting, misdirecting, or eliminating its enemies using assassination (both reputational and physical), espionage, and infiltration. Often, their devotion to Taldor means defending the grand prince, but the Lion Blades hold that the realm is more important than its ruler and have, in the past, toppled emperors to save the empire.
The Lion Blades recruit primarily from among the bards at the Kitharodian Academy, finding the students there smart and flexible enough to train, not to mention inclined to the life of duplicity and danger that a Lion Blade leads. Most of the teachers at the Kitharodian Academy are retired Lion Blades who keep an eye open for new talent, including the school’s administrator, Lord Merriweather Stokes. The Lion Blades teach their recruits for a year in their own secret academies, called Shadow Schools, and then turn them loose with the tools they need for the tasks they are assigned. One of the Shadow Schools’ top graduates in recent years is Lenorilia Callatarro, who now keeps watch over Oppara’s elite from the posh Porthmos Club.
The Lion Blades have three general goals regarding the imperial court and its bureaucratic machinery: preventing political corruption from getting out of hand while allowing just enough corruption to be useful to their ends; keeping the factions of the imperial court in relative balance to prevent any one faction from gaining more power than the Lion Blades can rein in should it become necessary; and preempting any attempts by Taldor’s neighbors to destabilize the current regime. Because these goals center on the imperial court and senate, most Lion Blades are active in Oppara, but others operate in remote regions of Taldor or even in neighboring countries in order to control the flow of information, infiltrate enemy networks, or work as double agents.
Grand Prince Goscelyn II (1597–1622 ar) fathered many children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and had all of his offspring inculcated in not only the niceties of noble society, but also the desire to serve and defend Taldor. Despite the even-handed education he provided, the grand prince failed to offer any kind of career to his children who couldn’t inherit by reason of gender, illegitimacy, or both. Two of his children, Yanual (who was legitimate but nonbinary) and Izora (who was both illegitimate and female) lacked clear direction and took to pranks and disguises to fill their time. When one of Yanual’s tricks revealed a Qadiran spy before an important diplomatic meeting, Yanual realized this could be a way to defend the land they loved using the skills they’d honed. Izora was just as enthusiastic when they suggested it to her, and she proposed the name Lion Blades for their clandestine defense operation.
At first, Yanual and Izora recruited only like-minded siblings and cousins to their cause, but within a generation the Lion Blades found they needed to recruit from a broader swath of Taldan society. With that came the problem of finding sufficiently trained actors and spies. One of the pair’s half-sisters, Arime, had inherited a small bard school from her mother, who had been dedicated to producing theatrical plays to show off the family’s elaborate costume collection. Arime was more interested in music than theater, and she offered to support the Lion Blades by recruiting skilled actors if they would in turn support her in expanding the school to include musical education. The aging Yanual and Izora agreed immediately. The school moved to a new location and eventually grew into the Kitharodian Academy, with the first of the Lion Blades’ Shadow Schools built below it.
For the next 1,500 years, the Lion Blades served both Taldor and the emperor equally. Once the Ulfen Guard formed, the Lion Blades began to leave the emperor’s personal protection to the Ulfen Guard and focused on preserving the country and thwarting its many enemies. Late in 4081, a noble who had been provided an invitation to join the Lion Blades but turned it down visited his recruiter and requested her help in eliminating Grand Prince Cydonus III before he bankrupted the entire country. The senior Lion Blades were well aware of the current financial crisis and thoroughly debated whether they should support the grand prince or the nation. After much deliberation, the Lion Blades came down on the side of the nation. Six months later, Grand Prince Cydonus was dead by poison, and his successor blamed Qadiran agents.
As the Even-Tongued Conquest shrank the size of Taldor’s holdings, some Lion Blades became trapped in rebellious nations declaring their independence from—and sometimes, significant hatred for—imperial Taldor. Most Lion Blades retreated into their carefully crafted disguises and eventually managed to return home, but many realized the benefits of their suddenly foreign posting and continued to protect Taldor’s interests from abroad. A few Lion Blades, particularly those born and raised in the now-independent nations, forsook the organization to instead serve their new countries.
During these chaotic years, the Lion Blades and their Shadow Schools were forced to repeatedly change their codes, drop points, and safe houses to avoid discovery by foreign agents. Compounding the organization’s troubles, this period of imperial unraveling was followed by the Yellowtongue Sickness, which killed more than half of the Lion Blades, including many of its leaders. Later Lion Blades had to reconstruct their operations and rediscover their deep-cover agents by piecing together journals and reports from the time, stored in a secret archive called the Library of the Lion.
In time, the Lion Blades recovered to the same extent that Taldor itself did, repositioning themselves as a strong and secret defender of the empire. To this day, the Kitharodian Academy remains the Lion Blades’ most fertile source of new recruits. In recent years, the academy has accepted many Taldan aristocrats seeking to earn their fame and fortune, talented outsiders seeking recognition, and penniless nobles fleeing the ongoing revolution in Galt. The Lion Blades drawn from these disparate sources have a wide array of skills and backgrounds suitable for any task.
No two Lion Blades come at their training the same way. The following rogue talents are designed specifically for prospective members of the Lion Blades to reflect the flexibility and ingenuity that the Lion Blades value in new recruits.
The rogue knows enough about music and performance to survive in a bardic college and can fake what she doesn’t know. The rogue qualifies as having the inspire competence bardic performance class feature for the purpose of meeting prestige class requirements, although this talent doesn’t grant her the bardic performance ability.
The rogue counts as having the sneak attack class feature of a rogue of her level for the purpose of meeting prestige class requirements, although this talent doesn’t improve the rogue’s existing sneak attack ability or grant her the sneak attack class feature if she doesn’t already have it. This talent is most useful for rogues that lack the sneak attack class feature, such as those with the phantom thief archetype.
The Lion Blades observe, maintain, and defend Taldor against those seeking to damage or destabilize it, regardless of the enemies’ class, nationality, or title. Most Lion Blades serve and protect the grand prince from enemies; after all, losing a head of state is often the most destabilizing event a nation can experience. The charismatic leader of the Lion Blades’ Shadow Schools, Dominicus Rell, believes it is important to keep the current monarch in power, but most other Lion Blades agree that the emperor himself can be sacrificed, if necessary, to preserve the nation as a whole.
Lion Blades choose the most expedient option that suits their current mission. Sometimes, the best option is to eliminate an enemy, but they are well aware that a noble could be replaced by an even more unpalatable heir, or a criminal overlord by a loyal lieutenant with an even more malicious agenda. In these cases, a Lion Blade might instead initiate several well-placed rumors to destroy the target’s reputation. Lion Blades master disguises, learning which persona is best suited to slide into a situation without being noticed or stopped. The best disguises can sometimes be the most bold or outré; a gaudily dressed entertainer might stride confidently into a crowded salon to reach a target when stealth would likely fail. For certain infiltration missions, one gender might have an advantage in access over others. As a result, the Lion Blades welcome members of all genders, including nonbinary agents, and the organization has a higher-than-average proportion of nonbinary and gender-fluid members. Similarly, many Lion Blades also develop a habit of using gender-neutral speech, particularly when referring to other members or past missions they’ve undertaken.
The Lion Blades are strongly pragmatic and willing to inflict collateral damage as necessary for Taldor to remain strong and stable. They believe these ends justify the means used to obtain them and see themselves as the agents best poised to accomplish those ends. This same sense of pragmatism also compels Lion Blades to help each other in their missions as needed. Although Lion Blades in the field supposedly know only what is necessary for the task at hand and are expected to avoid other Lion Blades engaged in separate tasks, most Lion Blades are canny enough to identify other agents in the same area and reach out for help if necessary. A Lion Blade won’t provide aid to another agent if it would expose her ongoing mission, so not all requests for help can be met, but most Lion Blades strive to assist each other wherever possible. Even so, any support provided is usually subtle and rendered in a way that can’t be traced back to either agent.
The Lion Blades are an egalitarian organization, with decisions reached by discussion and eventual consensus. However, most Lion Blades are strongly individualistic and don’t hold with following rules and orders to the letter. Even if a decision is backed by well-supported compromise, individual Lion Blades might take shortcuts or deviate from the decision to get the results they deem necessary. The Lion Blade most notorious for having this tendency is Dominicus Rell himself; although the charismatic leader might voice support for a broad decision or direction, he frequently gives his trusted agents different orders from those agreed upon by consensus. Other informal factions within the Lion Blades include the South-Facing Eyes (which insists that Taldor will never be safe until Qadira is eliminated as a national power), the Inward Step (which advocates for Taldan isolationism), and the Imperial Redeemers (which believes that the Lion Blades should focus on helping Taldor reunite the fragments of its empire and restore itself to its former strength and glory).