«illustration credit 1 illustration credit 2 The World of Ice & Fire is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the ...»
The Iron Bank of Braavos (illustration credit 172)
Today Braavos is one of the world’s greatest ports and welcomes trading ships of all nations (save for slavers). Within the vast lagoon, Braavosi ships dock at the splendid Purple Harbor, located near the Sealord’s Palace. Other vessels must use the port called the Ragman’s Harbor, a poorer and rougher port by all accounts. Still, there is so much wealth to be had in Braavos that ships come from as far as Qarth and the Summer Isles to trade there.
Braavos is also home to one of the most powerful banks in the world, whose roots stretch back to the beginnings of the city, when a few of the fugitives took to hiding such valuables as they had in an abandoned iron mine to keep them safe from thieves and pirates. As the city grew and prospered, the shafts and chambers of the mine began to fill. Rather than let their treasure sit idle in the earth, the wealthier Braavosi began to make loans to their less fortunate brethren.
Thus was born the Iron Bank of Braavos, whose renown (or infamy, to hear some tell it) now extends to every corner of the known world. Kings, princes, archons, triarchs, and merchants beyond count travel from the ends of the earth to seek loans from the heavily guarded vaults of the Iron Bank.
The Iron Bank will have its due, it is said. Those who borrow from the Braavosi and fail to repay their debts oft have cause to rue such folly, for the Bank has been known to topple lords and princes and has also been rumored to send assassins against those it cannot remove (though this has never been conclusively proved).
Braavos is a city built on mud and sand, where a man is never more than a few feet from the water.
Some say the city has more canals than streets. This is an exaggeration, yet it cannot be denied that the swiftest way to move about the city is over water, in one of the myriad serpent boats that ply the canals, rather than by foot through the maze of streets, alleyways, and arched bridges. Pools and fountains are seen everywhere in Braavos, celebrating the city’s ties to the sea and the “wooden walls” that defend her. The brackish waters of the lagoon that surrounds the “hundred isles” were the source of much of the city’s early wealth, yielding up oysters, eels, crabs, crawfish, clams, rays, and many sorts of fish.
Yet the waters that nourish and protect Braavos also imperil her, for during the past two centuries it has become apparent that some of the city’s islands are sinking under the weight of the buildings that now cover them. The oldest part of the city, just north of the Ragman’s Habor, has in fact already sunk, and is now known as the Drowned Town. Even so, there are still some Braavosi, of the poorest sort, who dwell in the towers and upper floors of its half-submerged buildings.
Archmaester Matthar’s The Origins of the Iron Bank and Braavos provides one of the more detailed accounts of the bank’s history and dealings, so far as they can be discovered;
the bank is famous for its discretion and its secrecy. Matthar recounts that the founders of the Iron Bank numbered three-and-twenty; sixteen men and seven women, each of whom possessed a key to bank’s great subterranean vaults. Their descendants, whose numbers now exceed one thousand, are known as keyholders to this day, though the keys they display proudly on formal occasions are now entirely ceremonial. Certain of the founding families of Braavos have declined over the centuries, and a few have lost their wealth entirely, yet even the meanest still cling to their keys and the honors that go with them.
The Iron Bank is not ruled by the keyholders alone, however. Some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Braavos today are of more recent vintage, yet the heads of these houses own shares in the bank, sit on its secret councils, and have a voice in selecting the men who lead it. In Braavos, as many an outsider has observed, golden coins count for more than iron keys. The bank’s envoys cross the world, oft upon the bank’s own ships, and merchants, lords, and even kings treat with them almost as equals.
The temple district of Braavos. (illustration credit 173)
Braavos is a city renowned for its architecture: the sprawling Sealord’s Palace, with its magnificent menagerie of queer beasts and birds from all around the world; the imposing Palace of Justice; the huge Temple of the Moonsingers; the aqueduct that the Braavosi named the sweetwater river, carrying much-needed freshwater from the mainland of Essos (for the water in the canals is brackish, muddy, and too foul to drink because of the refuse thrown into it by the city’s inhabitants);
the towers of the keyholders and noble families; and the House of Red Hands, a great hospice and center of healing. In and amongst these noble structures are countless shops, brothels, inns, alehouses, guildhalls, and merchants’ exchanges. Along the streets and bridges stand statues of past Sealords, lawgivers, sailors, warriors, even poets, singers, and courtesans.
The temples of Braavos are far famed as well, and some are truly wonders to behold. The Temple of the Moonsingers is the foremost of these, for the Braavosi have a particular reverence for that deity, as previously recounted. The Father of Waters is almost as venerated; his watery temple is built anew each year for his feast days. The Lord of Light, red R’hllor, has a great temple on Braavos as well, for his worshippers have grown ever more numerous in the past hundred years.
Descended from a hundred different peoples, the Braavosi honor a hundred different gods. The greatest of these have temples, but deep in the heart of the city can be found the Isle of the Gods, where even the least of the gods have temples. The Sept-Beyond-the-Sea and its septons and septas offer worship to the Seven every day for sailors off the ships from the Seven Kingdoms that come to Braavos to trade.
In Braavos men and women from far-flung corners of the world may sit together, as they have done for hundreds of years, eating and drinking and telling tales. All are welcome in the Secret City, it is said.
Many of the courtesans of Braavos are celebrated in song and story, and a few have even been immortalized in bronze or marble. In the Seven Kingdoms, the most storied and infamous of these are the Black Pearls. The first woman to bear that name was the captain and pirate queen Bellegere Otherys, who reigned briefly as one of the nine paramours of King Aegon IV Targaryen, and bore him a bastard daughter, Bellenora, the second Black Pearl, a famous courtesan acclaimed by the singers of her day as the most beautiful woman in all the world. Her descendants became courtesans as well, each in turn known as the Black Pearl, and each having in her veins some measure of the blood of the dragon to this very day.
It must also be said that the courtesans of Braavos are renowned throughout the world, yet are all free women, unlike the more famous beauties of the pleasure gardens of Lys or the brothels of V olantis. Their art is not only for the bedchamber; their wit and their bearing make them much sought after by the richest merchants, the boldest captains, the most distinguished visitors. Keyholders, lords, and princes seek their favors. The most famous courtesans take poetic names that add to their allure and mystery. Singers vie for their patronage, whilst the bravos with their slender swords oft duel to the death in the name of a courtesan.
Pilman of Lannisport, a ship’s captain, provided an account of a water-dancer duel to the Citadel. The water dancers, he tells us, do seem to barely skim upon the surface, but it is an illusion caused by the darkness, for they always duel at night. The captain insisted he never saw anything like it for grace or skill, however.
The coins of the Faceless Men of Braavos (front and back). (illustration credit 174) The swordsmanship of the bravos of the Secret City is as famed as the beauty of her courtesans.
Largely unarmored, and wielding slender pointed blades far lighter than the longswords of the Seven Kingdoms, these warriors of the streets practice a swift, deadly style of fighting. The greatest bravos call themselves water dancers, given the custom of dueling upon the Moon Pool near the Sealord’s Palace; it is claimed that true water dancers can fight and kill upon the pool’s surface without disturbing the water itself.
Though many a deadly swordsman can be found amongst the bravos and water dancers, by tradition the greatest of them all is the First Sword, who commands the personal guard of the Sealord and protects his person at all public events. Once chosen, Sealords serve for life. Inevitably, there are always those who wish to cut that life short to effect some change in policy. Through the centuries, the First Swords have fought many famous duels, taken part in a dozen wars, and saved the lives of scores of Sealords, for good and ill.
No discussion of Braavos would be complete without a mention of the Faceless Men.
Shrouded in mystery and rumor, this secretive society of assassins is said to be older than Braavos itself, with roots that go back to Valyria at the height of its glory. Little is known for certain about these killers, however.
B EYOND THE F REE C ITIESDO WE KNOW all of the lands and peoples who exist in the world? Surely we do not. Our maps have their limits, and even the finest of them raise as many questions as they answer about the far lands to the east, featuring all-too-frequent blank spaces where we have no knowledge. Yet it may profit us much to discuss something of those places we do know, even if their commerce with the Seven Kingdoms is small at best compared to that of the Free Cities.
THE SUMMER ISLES
South of Westeros, cradled in the deep blue waters of the Summer Sea, the Summer Isles bask in the warm southern sun. More than fifty islands make up this verdant archipelago. Many are so small a man could walk across them in an hour, but Jhala, largest of the isles, stretches two hundred leagues from tip to tip. Beneath its towering green mountains are vast forests, steaming jungles, beaches of green and black sand, mighty rivers teeming with monstrous crocodiles, and fertile vales. Walano and Omboru, though less than half the size of Jhala, are each larger than all the Stepstones combined.
These three islands are home to more than nine-tenths of the peoples of the isles.
Flowers of a thousand different sorts bloom in profusion on the Summer Isles, filling the air with their perfume. The trees are heavy with exotic fruits, and a myriad of brightly colored birds flitter through the skies. From their plumage the Summer Islanders make their fabulous feathered cloaks.
Beneath the green canopies of the rain forests prowl spotted panthers larger than any lion and packs of lean red wolves. Tribes of monkeys swing through the branches of the trees above. Apes abound as well: the “old red men” of Omboru, silver pelts in the mountains of Jhala, night stalkers on Walano.
The Summer Isles (illustration credit 175) The Summer Islanders are a dark people, black of hair and eye, with skins as brown as teak or as black as polished jet. For much of their recorded history, they lived in isolation from the rest of mankind. Their earliest maps, as carved into the famous Talking Trees of Tall Trees Town, show no lands but the isles themselves, surrounded by a vast world-spanning ocean. As islanders, they took to the seas in the dawn of days, first in oared coracles, then in larger, swifter ships with sails of woven hemp, yet few ever ventured beyond the sight of their own shores … and those who sailed beyond the horizons did not always return.
Lomas Longstrider, who visited the Summer Isles in his search for wonders, recorded that the sages of the isles claimed that their ancestors once reached the western shores of Sothoryos and founded cities there, only to have them overwhelmed and destroyed by the same forces that wiped out later Ghiscari and Valyrian settlements on that perilous continent. The Citadel’s archives hold a few ancient chronicles of Valyria, but none speak of these supposed cities, and there are maesters who cast doubts on the truth of these claims.
The first recorded contact between the Summer Isles and the wider world occurred at the height of the Old Empire of Ghis. A Ghiscari merchant ship made landfall on Walano after being blown off course by a storm, only to flee in terror at the first sight of the local inhabitants, whom the Ghiscari took for demons with skins burned black by the fires of hell. Thereafter, Ghiscari sailors took care to stay well away from the Demon Isle, as they named Walano on their charts; they had no inkling of the existence of Omboru, Jhala, or the lesser islands.
This contact had a profound effect upon the Summer Islanders themselves, for it proved that other peoples lived in the lands beyond the waves. Their curiosity (and avarice) thus awakened, the princes of the isles began to build larger and stronger ships, capable of carrying sufficient provisions to cross long stretches of ocean whilst withstanding even the fiercest storms at sea. Malthar Xaq, a prince of the small island of Koj, was the greatest of these shipbuilders, and is remembered today as Malthar the Windrider and Malthar the Mapmaker.
A new era of exploration and trade began as the great ships struck out across the waters, dispatched by Malthar and his fellow princes. Many did not return. More did. Naath, the Basilisk Isles, the northern coasts of Sothoryos, and the southern coasts of both Westeros and Essos were all visited, and within less than half a century, a thriving trade had grown up between the Summer Isles and the Freehold of Valyria. The islands lacked iron, tin, and other metals, but were rich in gemstones (emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, and pearls of many sorts), spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper), and hardwoods. A fashion developed amongst the dragonlords for monkeys, apes, panther cubs, and parrots. Bloodwood, ebony, mahogany, purpleheart, blue mahoe, burl, tigerwood, goldenheart, pink ivory, and other rare and precious woods were also much in demand, along with palm wine, fruit, and feathers.