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Blessed with a magnificent natural harbor and an ideal location at the mouth of the Rhoyne, V olantis began to grow rapidly. Homes and shops and inns spread up the east bank of the river and into the hills beyond the Black Walls, whilst across the Rhoyne on the west bank the foreigners, freedmen, sellswords, criminals, and other less savory elements threw up their own shadow city, where fornication, drunkenness, and murder held sway, and eunuchs, pirates, cutpurses, and necromancers mingled freely.
In time the lawless city on the west bank became such a cesspit of crime and depravity that the triarchs had no choice but to send their slave soldiers across the Rhoyne to restore order and some semblance of decency. Strong tides and treacherous shifting currents made the crossings difficult, however, so after some years, the triarch Vhalaso the Munificent commanded that a bridge be built across the Rhoyne.
Those same tides and currents, and the river’s width, made the building an epic task, requiring more than forty years and many millions of honors. Triarch Vhalaso did not live to see what he had wrought … but once completed, the Long Bridge had no rivals save for the Bridge of Dream in the Rhoynar festival city of Chroyane. Strong enough to support the weight of a thousand elephants (or so it is claimed), the Long Bridge of V olantis stands today as the longest bridge in all the known world.
Lomas Longstrider named it one of the nine wonders made by man in his book of that title.
For much of its early history, Volantis benefited from the trade between Valyria and the Rhoynar, waxing ever more prosperous and powerful … whilst Sarhoy, the ancient and beautiful Rhoynish city that had previously dominated that commerce, suffered a corresponding decline. Inevitably, this led the two cities into conflict. The long series of wars that followed, the details of which have been recounted elsewhere, culminated with the utter destruction of the cities of the Rhoyne and the flight of Nymeria and her ten thousand ships. Though the dragonlords of Valyria won the victory, it is rightly said that V olantis was the principal beneficiary. Sarhoy remains in ruins to this day, a desolate and haunted place, whilst V olantis, with its Long Bridge and Black Walls and huge harbor, ranks amongst the great cities of the world.
Inside the Black Walls, Volantenes of the Old Blood still keep court in ancient palaces, attended by armies of slaves. Outside, the foreigners, freedmen, and lowborn of a hundred nations may be found.
Seafarers and traders swarm the city’s markets and harbors, together with slaves almost beyond count. It is said that in Volantis, there are five slaves for every free man—a disproportion in numbers matched only by the ancient Ghiscari cities of Slaver’s Bay.
The custom in V olantis is that the faces of all slaves are to be tattooed—marked for life to show their status, and carrying that burden of the past even if they are freed. The styles of tattooing are many, and are sometimes disfiguring. The slave soldiers of V olantis wear green tiger stripes upon their faces, which denote their rank; prostitutes are marked by a single tear beneath their right eye; the slaves that collect the dung of horses and elephants are marked with flies; fools and jesters wear motley; the drivers of the hathays, the carts pulled by the small elephants of V olantis, are marked with wheels; and so on.
Slave markings of Volantis. (illustration credit 169) Volantis is a freehold, and all freeborn landholders have a voice in the governance of the city.
Three triarchs are elected annually to administer her laws, command her fleets and armies, and share in the day-to-day rule of the city. The election of the triarchs occurs over the course of ten days, in a process that is both festive and tumultuous. In recent centuries, the office has been dominated by two competing factions, unofficially known as the tigers and the elephants.
Partisans of various candidates—and of the two factions—rally on behalf of their chosen leaders, dispensing favors to the populace. All freeborn landholders—even women—are granted a vote.
Though the process strikes many outsiders as chaotic to the point of madness, power passes peacefully enough on most occasions.
After the Doom engulfed Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer, V olantis asserted its right to rule over all the other Valyrian colonies throughout the world. Such was the might of the “First Daughter” that for a time she succeeded in establishing hegemony over several of the other Free Cities during the Century of Blood. Eventually, the V olantene empire collapsed of its own weight, brought down by an alliance of those sister cities that still remained free and the rebellion of those that had been subdued.
Many V olantenes regard themselves as the natural and rightful successors to the dragonlords of old Valyria and desire to achieve dominance over the other Free Cities and, in time, the world. The tigers advocate achieving this dominance through war and conquest, whereas the elephants prefer a policy of trade and growing wealth.
Since that time, the elephants—the more peaceable of the V olantene factions—have dominated the annual choosing and the office of triarch. Yet years of expansion under the tigers gave V olantis control over several lesser cities, most notable amongst them the great river “towns” of V olon Therys, Valysar, and Selhorys (each larger and more populous than King’s Landing or Oldtown). The Volantenes also control the Rhoyne as far as the tributary river Selhoru, and hold sway over the Orange Coast to the west. These lands are protected by slave soldiers against the Dothraki horselords, who sometimes test the V olantene defenses, and the other Free Cities, who attempt to grow stronger at the expense of their sister city.
While V olantene elections are mostly peaceful, there have been significant exceptions.
Nysseos Qoheros’s Journals contain a report of the Triarch Horonno, who had been returned as triarch for forty years running, for he was a great hero during the Century of Blood. After his fortieth election, he declared himself triarch for life, and though the V olantenes loved him, they did not love him so much as to see their ancient customs and laws usurped for his ease. He was seized by rioters not long after, stripped of rank and title, and torn apart by war elephants.
The execution of the Triarch Horonno. (illustration credit 170)
At the far northwestern corner of Essos, where the Shivering Sea and the narrow sea come together, the Free City of Braavos stands upon its famed “hundred isles” amidst the shallow brackish waters of a fog-shrouded lagoon.
The youngest of the Nine Free Cities, Braavos is also the wealthiest, and in all likelihood the most powerful. Originally founded by escaped slaves, its humble beginnings were rooted in nothing more than a desire to be free. For a great part of its early history, its secret status made it of little consequence in the wider world. But in time it grew, eventually emerging as a power almost without rival.
Neither prince nor king commands in Braavos, where the rule belongs to the Sealord, chosen by the city’s magisters and keyholders from amongst the citizenry by a process as convoluted as it is arcane.
From his vast waterside palace, the Sealord commands a fleet of warships second to none and a mercantile fleet whose purple hulls and purple sails have become a common sight throughout the known world.
Braavos was founded by fugitives from a large convoy of slave ships on its way from Valyria to a newly established colony in Sothoryos, who rose in a bloody rebellion, seized control of the ships on which they were being transported, and fled to “the far ends of the earth” to escape their erstwhile masters. Knowing they would be hunted, the slaves turned away from their intended destination and sailed north instead of south, seeking a refuge as far from Valyria and her vengeance as could be found. Braavosi histories claim that a group of slave women from the distant lands of the Jogos Nhai prophesied where they would find shelter: in a distant lagoon behind a wall of pine-clad hills and sea stones, where the frequent fogs would help to hide the refugees from the eyes of dragonriders passing overhead. And so it proved. These women were priestesses, called moonsingers, and to this day the Temple of the Moonsingers is the greatest in Braavos.
Since the escaped slaves came from many lands and held many faiths, the founders of Braavos created a place where all gods were given their due and decreed that none would ever be made paramount over another. They were a diverse people, whose numbers included Andals, Summer Islanders, Ghiscari, Naathi, Rhoynar, Ibbenese, Sarnori, even debtors and criminals of pure Valyrian blood. Some had been trained in arms to serve as guardsmen and slave soldiers; others were bedslaves, whose art was the giving of pleasure. There were many sorts of household slaves amongst them: tutors, nursemaids, cooks, grooms, and stewards. Others were skilled craftsmen: carpenters, armorers, masons, and weavers. Some were fishermen, some field hands, some galley slaves, many common laborers. The new freedmen spoke many tongues, so the tongue of their late masters— Valyrian—became their common language.
And because they had risked their lives in the name of freedom, the mothers and fathers of the new city vowed that no man, woman, or child in Braavos should ever be a slave, a thrall, or a bondsman.
This is the First Law of Braavos, engraved in stone on the arch that spans the Long Canal. From that day to this, the Sealords of Braavos have opposed slavery in all its forms and have fought many a war against slavers and their allies.
The lagoon where the fugitives found refuge seemed a drear and uninviting place of mudflats, tidal shallows, and salt marshes at first glance, but it was well hidden behind outlying islands and sea stacks, and oft cloaked even from above by fog. Moreover, its brackish waters were rich with fish and shellfish of all sorts, the sheltering islands were thickly forested, and iron, tin, lead, slate, and other useful materials could be found nearby on mainland Essos. More crucially, the lagoon was remote and little visited; though the escaped slaves were weary of flight, most of all they feared recapture.
Undiscovered, Braavos grew and prospered. Farms, homes, and temples sprouted across the lowlying islands, whilst fishermen harvested the bounty of the great lagoon and the seas beyond. Amongst the other shellfish the Braavosi discovered was a certain sea snail, akin to those that had made Tyrosh and its dyes rich and famous. The snail yielded a dark purple dye. To change the look of their stolen ships, Braavosi captains dyed their sails this color whenever they sailed beyond the lagoon.
Taking care to avoid Valyrian ships and cities wherever possible, the Braavosi began to trade with Ib, and later with the Seven Kingdoms. For a long while, however, Braavosi merchant ships carried false charts and practiced an artful deceit when questioned about their home port. Thus, for more than a century, Braavos was known as the Secret City.
Sealord Uthero Zalyne put an end to that secrecy, sending forth his ships to every corner of the world to proclaim the existence and location of Braavos, and invite men of all nations to celebrate the 111th festival of the city’s founding. By that time all of the original escaped slaves were dead, along with all of their former masters. Even so, Uthero had sent envoys from the Iron Bank to Valyria several years prior, to clear the way for what became known as the Uncloaking or the Unmasking of Uthero. The dragonlords proved to have little interest in the descendants of slaves who had escaped a century before, and the Iron Bank paid handsome settlements to the grandchildren of the men whose ships the founders had seized and sailed away (whilst refusing to pay for the value of the slaves themselves).
The Titan of Braavos. (illustration credit 171)
Thus was accord achieved. The anniversary of the Uncloaking is celebrated every year in Braavos with ten days of feasting and masked revelry—a festival like none other in all the known world, culminating at midnight on the tenth day, when the Titan roars and tens of thousands of revelers and celebrants remove their masks as one.
Despite its humble origins, Braavos has not only become the wealthiest of the Free Cities, but also one of the most impregnable. V olantis may have its Black Walls, but Braavos has a wall of ships such as no other city in the world possesses. Lomas Longstrider marveled at the Titan of Braavos—the great fortress of stone and bronze in the shape of a warrior that bestrides the main entrance into the lagoon—but the true wonder is the Arsenal. There, one of the purple-hulled war galleys of Braavos can be built in a day. All the vessels are constructed following the same design, so that all the many parts can be prepared in advance, and skilled shipbuilders work upon different sections of the vessel simultaneously to hasten the labor. To organize such a feat of engineering is unprecedented; one need only look at the raucous, confused construction in the shipyards of Oldtown to see the truth of this.
It would be folly, however, not to give the Titan its due. With his proud head and fiery eyes looming close to four hundred feet above the sea, the Titan is a fortress of a type never seen before or since, cast in the form of a huge giant straddling two seamounts. The Titan’s legs and lower torso are black granite, originally a natural stone archway, carved and shaped by three generations of sculptors and stonemasons and wrapped in a pleated bronze skirt; above the waist, the colossus is bronze, with green-dyed hemp for hair. When seen from the sea for the first time, the Titan is a sight terrifying to behold. His eyes are huge beacon fires, lighting the way for returning ships back inside the lagoon.
Within his bronze body are halls and chambers, murder holes and arrow slits, such that any vessel that dared to force the passage would surely be destroyed. Enemy ships can easily be steered onto the rocks by the watchmen inside the Titan, and stones and pots of burning pitch can be dropped onto the decks of any that attempt to pass between the Titan’s legs without leave. This has seldom been necessary, however; not since the Century of Blood has any enemy been so rash as to attempt to provoke the Titan’s wrath.