“We are the shadow – the border between light and darkness. We are not simply entertainers. We are agents of balance, and through our dance, we shape the future.”
—Kaleth Shol d’Phiarlan, ghost of the Serpentine Table
The world at large knows the elves of House Phiarlan as entertainers of the highest order. This stems from a tradition that dates tens of thousands of years, and for many members of the house, it is the only trade they follow.
Though stories abound that attest the elves of Phiarlan are spies or worse, the people of Khorvaire treat these as children’s tales. Phiarlan’s virtuous performers are known across the continent for their talents – who would believe that they sneak offstage and kill people during intermission? In a world that includes changelings, doppelgangers, and rakshasas, people have enough real spies to worry about.
In truth, House Phiarlan controls one of the finest intelligence networks in Khorvaire, but these services are available only to guildmasters, nobles, and others the house recognizes as players in the great game of politics and power. How do the twin paths of entertainment and espionage converge? To explain the present, one must look at the past.
The Spirit Keepers
The roots of House Phiarlan can be traced back to the ancient conflict between the elves and the giants of Xen’drik. The elves of that lost age were not a single, monolithic culture, and in the dying days of the giants, the former slaves among them fought alongside the warriors of a dozen different unconquered elf tribes. A corps of bards and scouts traveled from front to front, carrying news and intelligence that helped coordinate the elves’ attack.
These couriers also struggled with the impossible task of maintaining morale and preserving the fragile alliances between the elven tribes. They called themselves phiarlans, a word meaning “spirit keeper”. As the end drew near, the prophet Aeren called on the phiarlans to help him gather elves from across the continent, creating the refugee fleet that would ultimately found the nation of Aerenal.
Aerenal and the Undying Court
Before the rise of the Undying Court, Aerenal was a loose alliance of tribes and city-states. Members of the phiarlan bloodlines continued to serve as liaisons and troubadours, traveling from court to court bringing songs and news. Phiarlans worked to maintain peace and order through open mediation, but they also began to collect clandestine knowledge on their travels – knowledge that they would anonymously pass to competing tribes and leaders when doing so served the greater good. Gradually, intelligence-gathering became a secret industry for the phiarlan families, even as their skill with art, song, and dance became a shield against detection.
With the rise of the undying court, the phiarlans came into their own as spies, serving the nation of Aerenal as a whole. Their task was a noble one – bringing the light of observation to bear against the shadows of deception so that justice could be served.
The Mark of Shadow
Some thirty-two hundred years ago, two of the first three dragonmarks appeared among the Aerenal elves. The Mark of Death was limited to the live of Vol, but the Mark of Shadow appeared within a limited number of elf bloodlines, all tied to the phiarlans. Though the nature of the marks was a mystery, the elves were quick to recognize a connection of the marks that were bigger than the elves could imagine. A terrible civil war followed and caused waves of refugees to travel to Khorvaire.
This exodus included the vast majority of the phiarlans, fearful that the fury and destruction of that civil war would be turned against them. A few remained behind and were absorbed into other lines; today, the Mark of Shadow is found among the Aereni from time to time. In Khorvaire, the majority of those elves with the Mark of Shadow set out to create a new life. To mark their departure from Aereni society, they formally joined their lines into a new alliance: House Phiarlan.
Phiarlan in Khorvaire
The people of Khorvaire had never seen anything to compare to the artistic skills and talents of the exiled elves, and a renaissance in culture quickly spread across the land. Elf entertainers were welcomed in every village and city, allowing Phiarlan’s knowledge and contracts to grow. In time, the leaders of the house parlayed Phiarlan’s reputation into secret contacts with the nobility, and they began to sell the intelligence-gathering skills they had honed over thousands of years while serving as the eyes of the Undying Court.
Today, House Phiarlan lives in two worlds. Its performers can be found on the greatest stages and in the humblest taverns, and its eyes watch Khorvaire even where no elf is ever seen. Few people realize the true reach of the house, but kings and queens respect its power.
In 972 YK, House Phiarlan was torn asunder by a conflict that had festered within its ranks for centuries. In the end, the Shadow Schism saw the creation of House Thuranni and the loss of most of House Phiarlan’s holdings in Karrnath and the Lhazaar Principalities. (The Shadow Schism is covered more in the House Thuranni section).
House Phiarlan as an Organization
“The treasures of our house are shadows and sounds, and it is with words and motion that we earn our gold.”
—Tyasha d’Phiarlan, diva of Sharn
The elves of House Phiarlan carry the Mark of Shadow, and they use the powers of this mark for entertainment and espionage. House Phiarlan dominates the entertainment trade in Aundair, Breland, and Thrane. In addition to this peaceful work, it maintains a massive intelligence network that stretches across Khorvaire. The house sells information and intelligence-gathering services to the most powerful people in the Five Nations.
Guilds in House Phiarlan
With hundreds of years to devote to their particular arts, the elf entertainers of Phiarlan are legendary. While the elves are the primary ambassadors of the arts, members of other races can study under Phiarlan as long as they prove their dedication to the arts.
Entertainers and Artisans Guild
Phiarlan’s Entertainers and Artisans Guild is the foundation on which the house’s reputation is built. Any business associated with the guild (theaters, music halls, circuses, and so on) only employs licensed talent. Dedicated entertainers can earn a place in one of the bound businesses of the house, including the famed Carnival of Shadows: a traveling Phiarlan circus combining illusion, physical arts, and exotic beasts from across Eberron. An entertainer with such credentials can find employment in any major city of Khorvaire.
The Serpentine Table
The Serpentine Table is the espionage arm of House Phiarlan. It is not a guild in and of itself; few people outside the house even know of its existence, and hardly any of its lower-level operatives realize the full implication of their service. They simply collect and pass along information, never knowing how it is used. Members of the house who wish to operate their own independent intelligence agencies can be licensed by the Serpentine Table, though the house keeps a close eye on such endeavors.
While it is a simple matter to deal with the Entertainers and Artisans Guild, the Serpentine Table does not advertise its presence. A character seeking to employ the shadowy services of the house can inquire at a main enclave. If the request is worthwhile, it is passed to the Serpentine liaison. When the time is right, an agent will approach the prospective client to discuss the job at hand.
While House Phiarlan long ago severed its ties to the Undying Court, members of the house still hold their history and the memories of their ancestors in high regard. The greatest treasures of the house are the works of ancient artists: the dance with which Jhazalaen Elorenthi blinded the King of Fire, the song that Maenol sang as the elves boarded their ships in Xen’drik, and other epic performances. One of the greatest honors any elf can receive is the right to perform one of these heirloom works. Each is incredibly hard to master, and requires intensive training and the study of ancient tomes. Traditionally, the bearer of an heirloom performance chooses his successor, but should he die without designating an heir, the council of the appropriate house demesne selects a new elf to perform the art. Stories circulate of unworthy heirs assassinated by demesne councils in order for an heirloom performance to be transferred to a superior artist, but these have never been substantiated.
An elf known to be the rightful enactor of an heirloom performace gains near superstar status within their own house and the entertainment world at large. Teaching an heirloom performance to an unworthy pupil is a terrible crime, and both master and student could face censure or worse.
House Phiarlan in the World
“The Phiarlan hydra might have five heads, but it’s the shadow you need to watch out for.”
—Kessler, Poet of Sharn
House Phiarlan uses two symbols: the heraldic mark of the hydra, representing the artistic divisions of the house as well as its resilience, and a stylized silver “mask of shadows”. Some members of the house wear full-sized masks to show their allegiance, while others bear the mask design worked into jewelry or clothing.
Most of Eberron sees only the beautiful façade: artists and entertainers, poets and escorts. Only a select few deal with the sixth demesne of House Phiarlan: the spies of the Serpentine Table. Phiarlan entertainers can be found across Khorvaire, from the grandest gala to the homeliest inn. Phiarlan spies are just as ubiquitous, but rarely seen.
Taken as a whole, House Phiarlan is a neutral organization. Though its spies frequently engage in illegal activities in the course of their duties, Phiarlan operatives respect the overall structure of society. Like their ancestors, the leaders of the house see themselves as agents of balance, evening the odds between opponents and exposing conflicts that would otherwise fester and grow.
The elves of House Phiarlan practice hundreds of different styles of song, dance, and other arts, covering both the ancient traditions of Xen’drik and the modern styles of Khorvaire. Long before the house was formed, the early phiarlans divided the arts into five disciplines, with the greatest masters and teachers of each settling in the five major enclaves of the house, known as demesnes.
The Five Disciplines and their Demesnes
Memory: This discipline encompasses the written word, including poetry, prose, and even propaganda. History might be dictated by the victors, but the smartest hire Phiarlan word-weavers to write it down. The Demesne of Memory is located in the city of Fairhaven and run by Viceroy Dulaen Elorrenthi d’Phiarlan, Lord Seneschal of Aundair.
Motion: These are the arts of the body, including dance, gymnastics, wrestling, contortion, massage, and more. Gifted students of motion are often recruited by the Serpentine Table, their skills adapted to burglary and battle. The Demesne of Motion is located in Wroat, the capital of Breland. It is administered by Viceroy Surael Shol d’Phiarlan, Lady Seneschal of Breland.
Music: The Demesne of Music teaches the arts of sound, including song and the use of instruments. The demesne is located in the city of Flamekeep, under the leadership of Viceroy Kels Tialaen d’Phiarlan, Lord Seneschal of Thrane.
Shape: The discipline of shape covers the creation of physical objects. This ranges from purely functional goods (the costumes, props, instruments and the like required by the performers of the house) to the physical arts of sculptors, painters, and potters. The masters of this discipline belonged to the Thuranni lines, and the newborn house claimed the Karrnath enclave that housed the demesne during the Shadow Schism. House Phiarlan has reestablished the Demesne of Shape in the Thrane city of Thaliost, but its operations are overshadowed by those of House Thuranni. Currently the demesne is led by Viceroy Idal Tialaen d’Phiarlan.
Shadow: In its broadest sense, this is the art of deception. This includes the artistic use of illusions, puppetry, and literal shadow plays, but the Demesne of Shadow also encompasses the verbal arts of deception and coercion, feigning emotions, and playing a role. Actors and orators learn their craft at this demesne, and while a storyteller might create his tales at the Demesne of Memory, he learns to bring those tales fully to life at the Demesne of Shadow.
The first Demesne of Shadow was located in Metrol, but was relocated to Sharn after the Day of Mourning. The current matriarch of the house, Elvinor Elorrenthi d’Phiarlan, resides at the Demesne of Shadow.
The Phiarlan hydra has five heads, but a sixth is said to lurk in the shadow of the house crest. The Serpentine Table is the effective sixth demesne of Phiarlan, and the espionage arm of the house. The location of the Serpentine Table is a closely guarded secret, and rumors abound to its true location.
Every Phiarlan enclave has an observer who serves as a liaison with the Table, arranging jobs and ensuring that the local heirs of the house do not interfere with Serpentine operations. Active agents of the group are hidden even from this liaison, often scattered throughout the community and concealed behind layer upon layer of false identity. The true spymaster of a major city weaves her web in the shadows, and no one should ever know her connection to the house.
Agents of the Serpentine Table hold one of four ranks. The least are known as shadows, and often serve simply as observers.Wraiths coordinate groups of shadows, while Specters are elite troubleshooters. Ghosts are the legends of the house. Only a handful of these agents exist, and their identities are carefully guarded. The leader of the Serpentine Table is another mystery. The interests Phiarlan’s spies are represented by the Seneschal Taen Shol d’Phiarlan, but it is also rumored that Taen is just a mouthpiece for the Serpentine Table’s true master.
The Tialaen, Shol, and Elorrenthi lines have the most influence within House Phiarlan, but a number of lesser lines are well established in the house hierarchy. Prior to the Shadow Schism, the Thuranni line had considerable power; today, just a few members of this bloodline remain in the house, and they are often treated with suspicion.