The Secret City

Two orbs of fire glowed in the moon-lit sky, cutting through gray clouds and scattering light on wine dark waters. It was the hour of the nightingale, which followed the hour of the wolf, the blackest hour of the night. Soon, the sun would begin its daily journey, illuminating the horizon in oranges and reds before breaking through the clouds. Or at least, it would try. In autumn, the Shivering Sea was famed for storms and showers of freezing rain.

Arya shivered at the prow of the carrack, next to the wooden figurehead. On the stemhead, a statue of a woman in white looked toward the hidden shore, the face fierce and strong, with streaming hair and a billowing dress, the left arm outstretched, as if to urge sailors onward. The Winter Town boys had whittled the carving as a jape, but the image suited the ship well. The She Wolf was meant to sail boldly to distant ports and places yet unknown.

Arya had always been an early riser. That was the best way to avoid Septa Mordane and her mother's lessons on how to be a lady. In the early mornings, when Winterfell was quiet, she could practice archery in the ruins of the First Keep or play with the dire wolf pups in the godswood. Nymeria and Ghost were deep asleep in one of the cabins at the stern but she heard Jon's footsteps approaching on the deck.

"Here." He handed over a heavy gray cloak.

Arya wrapped the dark wool around her shoulders. It was too long and thick, but the warmth was welcome, as was the protection from wind and rain. They stood together peacefully as the sky began to brighten. Soon, the Sea Wolf would spring into action. The cook would heat the porridge and hardtack, a boy would climb up the crow's nest to serve as a lookout, and the crew would man the sails. But in the hour before sunrise, they were alone with the waves, wind and clouds. And the two fiery eyes.

"Is that the Titan?" Arya asked.

"Yes. The Braavosi light beacon fires to guide ships through the channels. Safe passage would be difficult otherwise. The lagoon is protected by many small islands."

"It must be monstrously tall." They were still many miles away from harbor. Arya could see the faint outline of massive shoulders and an arm lifted up to the sky. The Titan's great helmeted head was hidden in the clouds. "Do you remember Old Nan's tales?"

"That the statue comes to life to smash the enemies of the secret city?"

"She told me that the Titan of Braavos eats highborn girls in one gulp. That was after I stole one of Gage's beef and bacon pies from the kitchen."

Jon chuckled. "Old Nan is a good story teller but that one is not true. The Braavosi built the Titan on mountains standing on separate islands. The iron and bronze start at the hips. Everything below is natural stone. If the Titan waded into the sea, it would do so without legs."

Arya squinted at the vague shape. "It is much taller than Winterfell."

"Four times as head of the Titan is four hundred feet above the sea. And the sword is even taller." Jon pointed out the line of the blade held diagonally by the right arm.

"Why is it broken?" Through the gloom, Arya could see traces of the hilt and half a sword.

"The maesters disagree on this. Some argue that the broken blade means Braavos only fights in self defense. The sword is a warning, while the real weapons are the arrow slits and murder holes on the armored skirt and breastplate. But the answer is much simpler. Braavos does not waste money needlessly."

"You mean they ran out of funds when building the Titan?"

Jon shook his head. He gave her a square coin. Arya examined it carefully, comparing it to her gift from Jaqen H'ghar. Her token was circular, and had a shrine on one side, and a hooded figure with features blurred in shadow. The square was even more peculiar, depicting a warrior in a crested half helm, much like the Titan, and on the other side, two golden triangles crossed like an hourglass with two hands extended outwards from the center with open palms. The coins shared one similarity.

"The coins are both iron."

"All other nations use gold, silver or copper. Only Braavos can pay with iron."

"But why?" Arya knew iron was far more common than gold or silver. "Why can't other cities use iron coins?"

"The Iron Bank is the wealthiest and most powerful bank in the known world. Perhaps there is something similar in the Golden Empire of YiTi but no explorer has gone past the Jade Gates in a hundred and fifty years. The Iron Bank uses iron because they can. See the writing?"

There was text inscribed under the two open hands. "What does it say?"

"Aegio Tistalior Gurotriri Emilza. The Iron Bank will have its due. Breaking faith with bankers is hazardous to your health. Their enemies wind up dead or deposed. The only institutions that survive untouched for the last five hundred years are temples and the Iron Bank. Even faiths ebb and flow, or suffer under kings. But since its founding, the Iron Bank has grown richer and richer. The Iron Bank is much deadlier than the Titan of Braavos."

"But the Iron Bank is not our enemy. Is it, Jon?" Arya asked.

"Someone hired a Faceless Man. That is a high price to pay for killing a whoremonger and brothel owner. Baelish's death is likely tied to the Iron Bank's dealings with the Iron Throne. H'ghar insisted that we meet with the Bank. The Bank has no reason to support us."

"But you saved Braavos from the plague! And if they killed Baelish, wouldn't the Iron Bank be on our side?"

Jon gave her a wry smile. "The Iron Bank does not take sides. They care only about profits. Think how bankers deal with a bad loan. When a king refuses to honor his debts, the Iron Bank supports challengers. War follows. The winner must pay both the old debts and the new. If the new king does not, war continues until the Iron Bank has its due. It matters not a whit how many die or whose shoulders bear the debt."

"But that is not fair."

Jon shrugged. "No, it is not. But keyholders do not get rich by forgiving debt. Braavos was built on trade. Contracts and debts are more important here than titles and honor. The Iron Bank has lent a great deal to the crown, not the North."

"They should still thank you for the elixir." Arya said stubbornly.

"If only Braavos received the elixir, the Iron Bank would think more kindly of us. The bankers could make a vast amount of gold. But that was not my desire. No child should die from the plague. The cure belongs to the people."

"But the Iron Bank may not agree. " Arya bit her lip. "Why would Jaqen lure you to Braavos? How does the bank work with the Faceless Men?"

"I don't know. Essos is a strange place. It is far older than the Seven Kingdoms and full of mysteries. The Free Cities descend from Valyria but Volantis and Braavos are more different than any two regions of Westeros. Braavos has secrets that no maester has ever studied. What other city has a guild of assassins whose temple is known to all?" Jon quipped.

"Are we in danger?" Arya remembered King's Landing - not the dull hours spent with the highborn at the Red Keep but the moons when she lived on the streets of Flea Bottom, catching pigeons and rats to trade with potshops for food. Harrenhal had been a horror but there she could at least hide among the five massive ruined towers. King's Landing was full of liars and spies. Would Braavos be the same?

"There is danger everywhere. Bran believes the Others have returned. The Lannisters would murder us at any opportunity. Slavers threaten my aunt, Daenerys Targaryen. The Iron Bank is only one of many possible threats." He turned somber. "Arya, promise me something."

"What, Jon?"

"If the Iron Bank is hostile, or we are attacked by the Braavosi, you should flee. They want me, not you. Remember what I said at King's Landing. Your safety is more important. Leave the city, go North or anywhere safe."

"I won't leave. Not if you are in trouble." She said fiercely.

"Arya, it is more important for you to be safe. If you are harmed, I would never forgive myself. Sandor Clegane and Asha Greyjoy can help you out.

"That's what Father said. He told us to leave on a ship for White Harbour by midday. The ship never sailed. They came for me when I was taking a water dance lesson. The next time I saw him was at the steps of the Great Sept. Joffrey ordered Ilyn Payne to take his head. If I was stronger, if I could fight better with a sword…."

He wrapped one arm around his sister. "It would have made no difference. Ned Stark didn't die because you were in King's Landing. One sword, no matter how skilled, would not have stopped the Lannisters. Father should have sent you and Sansa away earlier."

Arya closed her eyes. She recalled the last exchange with her dancing master. She whispered "Swift as a deer" and Syrio Forel had replied "Just so" before engaging with the white cloak. Syrio had only a leather vest and a wooden sword versus Trant in full armor and forged steel. Only a fool did not know who would win that battle. She had begged him to run, but the First Sword of Braavos refused. Swift as a deer. Quiet as a shadow. Fear cuts deeper than swords. She needed to master her fear.

"I am not going to die here, Sister. Not in Braavos, at least. I have dragon dreams, and they show places beyond the Secret City. What happened to the men and women that Ned Stark brought to King's Landing?"

"They died. The Lannisters murdered them all. Jeyne lived only because Baelish wanted her as a whore. Sansa was too valuable a prize for Joffrey to kill her. But everyone else died." Arya remembered the dead guards at the Tower of the Hand.

"There are others who journey with us. The Hound. Asha. Chett. Gerion. Stark guards. Winter Town boys and girls. They will look to you for guidance if I am not here."

"You think I can lead the She-Wolf?"

"Yes, you can. You are my squire and my heir. You are my blood. Our followers are loyal to Winterfell. I don't want them killed or imprisoned or sold into slavery. I trust you with their lives. House Stark has always cared for their people."

When Ned Stark had been imprisoned for treason, all of his guards had been slain. Septa Mordane's head had been placed on a spike on Traitor's Walk. Arya had not liked the sharp eyed and bony faced woman but she had not deserved to die. "Alright, Jon. If anything happens, I will protect the others." She said grudgingly.

"Thanks, Little Wolf. Keep Nymeria and Ghost with you. The dire wolves are loyal. They will protect you. Trust them more than anyone else."

Arya sighed. "I know. Don't die, stupid."

"I won't, Sister. Come what may, I will make my enemies pay. The Iron Bank may have its plots but better to face an enemy than fear a knife in the back."

Arya was not worried about bankers. The Faceless Men were more fearsome. Jaqen H'ghar had killed two men like a butcher carelessly swatting away flies. She had faith in her brother. Jon had come for her in the Riverlands after the battle on the Red Fork.

They stood side by side in comfortable silence, as the dawn broke pink and blue. The clouds cleared and the rains passed. The Titan, tall as a mountain, could be seen in all its splendor. A loud roar came across the water as the Titan welcomed the sunrise.

The Gate was full to the rafters. On the bottom level of the drafty hall, sailors, fish wives, and dock workers sat and gaped, crammed in the crowded pit, mesmerized by the performance. The balconies were full of wealthy merchants, keyholders and sea captains, dining on mussels and clams and drinking pale white wine in comfortable suites. The top floor was reserved for bravos in their colorful finery and slender rapiers. No duels had broken out tonight, a testament to both the play and the players.

Bellegere Otherys sat in a secluded box on the second balcony. The satin cushioned seats had an excellent view of the stage, and privacy to be seen but not heard. The Black Pearl enjoyed the theater. Attending the opening night of a play was a pleasant assignment for a courtesan. There was much speculation that this role involved carnal activity between the acts but that was mostly untrue. Braavosi adored the art of mummery. The rich and mighty were as likely as the pit to howl with laughter and gasp with shock at the twists and turns of a new performance.

But this was not a new play, and the three other women watched with little mirth or awe. Bellegere had been hired by the Moonsingers. No - not hired. She could not have refused. The high priestess had summoned her to the Temple. A gold and purple barge - likely loaned out by the Sealord - took the women to the edge of Drowned Town, where Izembaro had built his cavernous playhouse. "It shall go ill for any man that fails me." Izembaro warned menacingly before the assembled troupe of mummers. He stalked back and forth like a man possessed, enraged against his enemies, both real and imagined.

Many years ago, Bellegere had seen Wroth of the Dragonlords, Phario Forel's bloodiest play, when her mother Bellonara had been the Black Pearl. The performance was hurtling toward a spectacular end, and the speech, given at the eve of the final battle, never failed to give chills. After this last burst of defiance, only tragedy was left.

"He makes a poor Garin." the young girl murmured.

"Too fat." The dark skinned moonsinger smiled. "The Rhoynar were not so big bellied."

Those complaints were valid. Izembaro was sweating heavily, strands of dirty blond hair peeking through the dark wig crowned by a gold circlet. The velvet doublet was too tight and the mantle of gold and black inlaid with thick fur. Who would wear such heavy clothes on the shore of the Rhoyne? He looked more ready to feast than fight.

The speech was on the last legs, much like the doomed prince. "Towards thee, I roll. Thou all destroying but unconquering behemoth. To the last I grapple with thee. From hell's heart I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee." Izembaro paused, his nine foot spear held up as if to strike a blow.

Those would be the final words. Yellow, black and red smoke billowed onto the stage, obscuring the company. Bellegere knew the other players hurried off to enact the end. And what an end it was! Sinister figures emerged from the haze, sparks fell from the roof, and bright lights shone down. A fierce wind shrieked, accompanied by the beating of great wings. Swords clashed, drums were beaten, men screamed their deaths, and false blood splattered on the pit, eliciting quite a din. Izembaro stayed in the center, like a prisoner lashed to a mast, until a great chain of iron wrapped about his thick torso. Then with a mighty pull, he vanished and the stage went dark. There was silence first, and then spirited applause.

The mummery was clever. There was a trap door on the stage used for graves and tombs. The sparks were lit from powders hidden in hanging tubes of paper mache. Bladders of pig blood were concealed and punctured at the right moment. As for the wind, a cylinder draped in coarse linen was suspended below the balconies. When a storm was required, a stagehand would turn a handle, and rotate the cylinder to make the sound of winds while a heavy ball was rolled down a wooden trough to mimic thunder. The spectacle only lasted minutes but left the pit wonderstruck. But not the moonsingers.

"The words are right, but the manner is wrong." The dark skinned matron said. "Garin was not one to raise a fist and rant helplessly. Even after the torment, he took his revenge."

"The play ends with the battle, and before the Sorrows. Izembaro is too fat to play the Shrouded Lord. That play would sell no tickets for the Gate." the young girl replied.

"Izembaro likes to play kings." The crone said. "Prince Garin was more terrible than any king. He was skilled in magic and believed Mother Rhoyne would shield his army."

"But Garin was mistaken. The Valyrians proved that at Volantis." The girl said gently.

"Yes, he was wrong. The errors of a great man are no less great than his triumphs. His army burned by the thousands. His people scattered and slain. His city lost to the Sorrows. Garin would rather destroy the world than bow to the dragons. He was a true man of the Rhoyne." The crone turned to Bellegere. "What did you think of the play?"

Before the plague, the Gate had alternated between The Merchant's Lusty Lady and The Merchant's Melancholy Daughter. Both were comic farces, heavy with romantic confusion, mistaken identities, and ribald jokes. Braavos had turned more serious with the recent news. "People wonder about the dragons."

"They do not wonder. They worry. This play was chosen and performed for a reason." The crone said sharply.

"But why?" Bellegere asked the moonsingers. "What have the Targaryens done to Braavos? The conquest was of Westeros, not Essos."

"Before the Conquest, Aegon flew across the Narrow Sea to aid Pentos and Tyrosh in their wars. Balerion burnt the Volantene fleet at Lys." The dark skinned woman said.

"Daemon Targaryen has not claimed to be the Conqueror Reborn. He does not rule a city, let alone an empire. Where are his dragons? Where is his army?" The Black Pearl replied.

"A dragon casts a great shadow. You saw that in the vision at the House of Black and White. A man with a dragon can easily get an army. Daenerys purchased the Unsullied. The slavers are well aware of the fiasco at Astapor." The young girl said.

Bellegere had heard the sordid tale. Daenerys Targaryen sailed to Astapor to acquire a legion of Unsullied. In their arrogance, the Good Masters demanded a dragon. When the bargain was complete, the queen unleashed all three dragons on the Masters and freed the slaves in the city, including her new army. Bellegere did not like slavery, but she liked even less the stories of the aftermath. After the dragon queen had left, the butchering began. Astapor descended into civil war. The city was a charnel house, and only a few bits of splendor separated the mutilated bodies of masters and slaves. The slavers of Yunkai had attempted to conquer Astapor but retreated once the bloody flux appeared. Daenerys Targaryen might have meant well but the result was a terrible calamity.

"This northern dragon has done nothing wrong. His elixir cured many in Braavos and the other Free Cities. Is it the bounty of a million gold pieces? Why else would we turn our back on a potential ally?" Bellegere asked.

The young girl and dark woman turned to their high priestess. The crone closed her eyes, wrinkled and spiderlined with age, for a long moment before answering. "It is not what Snow has done. It is what he represents. Men fear what they do not understand. Powerful men fear what they can not control."

"The ghost of Valyria." the youngest moonsinger whispered.

"Just so." The crone opened her milky eyes. "Look at the magisters of Pentos, the archons of Tyrosh, the bearded priests of Norvos, the keyholders of the Iron Bank. They are lords of all they survey but serfs to Valyria. Even we, the guardians of the Temple of the Moonsingers - what would we do if the dragonlords return? We would be forced to bend the knee. The Free Cities claim to be the daughters of Valyria, but they do not wish to return to servitude. Once men taste power, they are loath to give it up."

Bellegere remembered the dream - armies locked in battle. Unsullied, Andal knights, Dothraki, sellswords, the purple sails of Braavos against a vast armada. She had recounted her vision to the Faceless Men, the Moonsingers and the Iron Bank. Was it only a prophecy? Or had the actual act of revealing the dream made war more certain.

"Do not blame yourself. The nature of man is to struggle for power and dominion."

"But if the Iron Bank or the Sealord works against the Targaryens, wouldn't that put Braavos at greater risk?" Bellegere said somberly.

"Of course. Clinging to power by force often creates the enemies that had been imagined. A dragon may be willful and fickle but to fight one directly - that ends poorly as the play shows. But there is a greater danger here." The high priestess paused to stand up with her cane. "What are dragonlords known for?"

"Pride. Power. For dragons are fire made flesh, and fire is power."

"Pretty words. But what are the Targaryens really known for? What has plagued their line since the Conquest?"

"Madness." She said softly. "Targaryens dance too close to madness. Will Daemon become another Aerys?"

"Aerys was not always mad. In his youth, he was a promising prince. Oh, he was vain, quick to anger, jealous and not the sharpest blade in the smithy. Two of his children died stillborn. Another three did not live past a year. What man would not go mad, if he thought his lords were poisoning his children? And then he was tortured at Duskendale."

"You fear that something similar could happen to Prince Daemon?"

""His enemies hate him. All powerful men have enemies, but he has more than most. Daemon will need allies and guidance." The high priestess said.

"But I don't know how to guide a Targaryen prince." Bellegere replied.

"Nor do we. That is not your role. Protect his allies. Daemon Targaryen is like his namesake. He will walk his own path. But the wolves will need your help."

"In Winterfell?"

"No. Here. The she-wolf is in Essos."

Mira Forrester had not returned to Ironath for many many moons. Asher was exiled by his lord father only a year later. And Sarra Snow, Captain of the Company of the Rose, had never crossed the Narrow Sea. It was far easier to find employment in the Disputed Lands or skirmishes between the many Free Cities. It had been a long time since any of the three had set eyes on a ship of Northmen.

Ragman's Harbor, unlike the neat and well maintained docks of the Purple Harbor, sprawled over little piers and shabby wharves and crowded ferry berths. Ships from the Free Cities, Westeros, Ibben, and exotic ports on the Summer Sea mixed with barges and hulks and fishing boats. Ragman's was a noisy place, full not only of sailors and traders from a hundred lands but also porters, mummers, ropemakers, sailmenders and fishmongers. The cramped alleys hosted taverns and wine sinks, and the odors of spiced ale and baked bread mixed with perfumed whores, garbage and the salt of both the sea and the canals. The oddest thing about the harbor was the provender. Mira had served at Highgarden and King's Landing but she preferred rustic food. Beef and bacon pies, leg of lamb, barley stews, and roast chicken were staples in the North. But in Braavos, sailors and dockworkers ate seafood raw - oysters, clams, cockles and mussels. Young girls pushed barrows and called out their wares. Mira had even seen seamen fresh off the boats devour whole plates of squirming creatures with hot sauce and toss a pile of shells away for the feral cats. She shuddered at these madmen.

"Are you sure the Northmen have landed?" Sarra said.

"A Tyroshi told me in a game of dice at Pynto's. He was walking near the Long Canal and saw a giant white wolf, when he went to relieve himself. Nearly soiled his breeches. He wanted to follow the beast but he was three sheets to the wind. When he sobered up with another jack of grog, the beast had vanished into the night." Asher said.

"Tyroshi always talk." Sarra frowned. "Everyone in Braavos will know Prince Daemon is here."

"Look, there it is." Asher cried out.

The She Wolf was a splendid vessel. Unlike many ships hailing from the Seven Kingdoms, it was a sleek carrack, not a fat bellied cog. Bales and barrels were stacked neatly at the dock. Several boys dashed up and down the gangplank to help the sailors unload cargo. The masts and hull were freshly cut, not weather stained and worn. Ironwood decorated the prow and stern. A figurehead of a woman in white faced toward the harbor.

Asher strode confidently up, past the busy crew. At the foot of the carrack, his progress was halted by the sight of a huge burly man. Even under the wide brimmed black hat, a mass of angry scars was visible on the left side of the face.

"I know you. You are the Hound." Asher shouted. "How did you gain passage on a Northern ship?"

Sandor Clegane stared down with contempt. "What the fuck is your problem?"

Asher drew his sword, as he stepped up the plank. Asher was lanky and strong like his father and brothers but the Hound was twice as broad.

"Stop, Asher." Mira cried. "The Hound left King's Landing with Snow in the Wildfire Wedding. He may have pledged his sword to House Stark."

"But he is a Lannister man." A surprised Asher said.

"And you are a twat." The Hound's hand rested on the pommel of a longsword strapped to his hip. Thankfully, the sword stayed in the scabbard.

"Making more friends, Clegane?" A leggy woman with short dark hair under a tricorn hat said. Her nose was too big, her face too thin, and her skin chafed by the wind and sun but she was comely in a forceful, almost manly way.

"You are not a Northerner either." Asher said, mouth open.

"I am a Greyjoy. Captain Asha to you. You are lucky Clegane didn't gut you. He may still change his mind. Who are you?"

Mira pushed forth while her brother could make an even larger mess. "I am Mira Forrester. This is my brother, Asher, and this is Sarra Snow, Captain of the Company of the Rose. We have come to warn Jon Snow."

"Warn him about what?" The Hound demanded.

"The bounty." Asher blurted out. "A million gold dragons."

"Let us not speak where the entire harbor can hear." Asha Greyjoy climbed the stairs to the quarterdeck. Mira and her companions followed, and the Hound stalked behind them.

The cabin at the stern of the She Wolf was spacious and warm. The heat came from the nearby galley as did a thick white stew in trenchers of hollowed out bread. Chunks of cod and clam were buried under leeks, turnips and carrots.

Asha Greyjoy's sparse quarters were dominated by a simple bed and a rough hewn oak table. An hourglass stood on a large nautical chart of the North and the Narrow Sea. A thick ship's log, full of scribbles, markings and columns, was open next to a brass Myrish eye, a sextant, and a chip log on a wooden spool. "A million dragons for the head of Daemon Targaryen?" Asha Greyjoy asked as she slurped the stew. "How did you hear about this?"

"The story has spread everywhere. It is known in Braavos that your prince would sail to meet with the Iron Bank. All of Essos will be hunting for the bounty." Sarra Snow said.

'And what's your part in this? Come to collect the gold?" Clegane snorted.

"How dare you? We are Northmen, loyal to Winterfell." Asher replied angrily.

"So was House Bolton, and they are all dead now." Asha retorted. "A million gold pieces is a rich, rich prize. If I was still Captain of the Black Wind, I would be sorely tempted to find Snow. Any reaver or sellsword would."

"If you tried, you would be deader than a Frey." The Hound said. "He burned Walder and all those other shits alive as payback."

"I didn't realize you were loyal to the dragons." Asher said mockingly.

"I am a dog." Clegane said. "And dogs are faithful but you are a sellsword. Why should we trust you and this bunch of Roses at all?"

"We came to warn you. My mistress, Queen Margaery charged me to bring the Company of the Rose to the North and make an alliance with Jon Snow and the Starks." Mira protested.

"So you have come to betray the Lannisters for the Tyrells. But the Lannisters are angry because Snow saved Garlan Tyrell's wife. Our not so hidden prince has been lured here by the Iron Bank who loves gold. But Snow still wants to see his aunt, the Queen of Meereen. What a colossal mess." Asha poured herself a jack of ale. She needed a drink.

"The Iron Bank won't kill Daemon. At least not when meeting with him. They might have him killed, but wouldn't do so brazenly." Sarra Snow said.

"We can guard him against any danger." Asher said.

"You can't." Asha Greyjoy said.

"We have guarded caravans against Dothraki and other companies of sellswords." Sarra said.

"He is not a fucking wagon." Clegane said.

"Dothrakis are savages but they are not assassins. In any case, you can't guard Snow because he is not onboard. He disembarked at the Arsenal before we reached Ragman's, so that no one would see him. He is already in the city." Asha said.

"But he may be in danger." Mira said,

The Hound shrugged. "I am sure he is. But Snow can take care of himself. He has the wolves with him."

Braavos was a queer city and a wet one. It had rained last night, when they snuck past the harbor guards, and it was raining again this morning. Drizzle came down from the dreary fog, and drops rippled in the canals and soaked the facades of brick, stone, and wood. Like parts of King's Landing, the houses were built very close together, their roofs almost touching. Braavos was more elegant though, with slim towers, four or five stories tall, that proudly displayed pointed arches, tall windows, and ornate statues on balconies and terraces. It might have been beautiful if the day turned crisp and bright.

"Sorry, Nym." Arya said. The dire wolves had hunkered down under a thick canvas tarp, looking none too pleased with the surroundings. Who could blame them? A serpent boat was no place for Nymeria and Ghost.

Jon pushed them carefully down the waterways. Braavos had over a hundred canals, and even more stone bridges. At first, it had been confusing - small unnamed canals that criss crossed in odd patterns, but that was how her brother learned to use the pole to navigate. With practice and after a few mishaps, they were ready to travel down the more crowded and busier large canals. The Canal of Heroes was closest to the Arsenal and connected at the center of the city with the Long Canal that stretched from the very south of the city to the richer northern areas near the Sealord Palace and the Purple Harbor.

"How do people live here?" Arya asked. She was sitting down with the wolves but Jon stood at the stern in a nondescript cloak of brown and green. It was still early, and there were few other barges and boats.

"Braavos? It is a rich city, the most prosperous in Essos. No one starves here, which is a lot better than the other Free Cities."

"That's not what I meant. Why did people decide to settle here? How could they build in all this water?" Arya asked.

"They had no choice. Braavos was founded by fugitives, slaves that escaped the Freehold. They sailed to the northeast, instead of south, and found sanctuary where the Narrow and the Shivering Sea meet. The hills, the nearby islands, the swamps and the fog kept the location a secret. No Valyrian dragonlord would imagine an entire city hiding in the middle of a marsh. By the time the Sealord announced its existence, it was too late."

"Too late?" Arya said.

"Too late for revenge. The Iron Bank paid settlements to the owners of the ships the slaves escaped in - or at least to the descendants of those owners. But slave owners are not that forgiving. Had they discovered the city earlier…"

"The Valyrians would have killed the Braavosi." Arya guessed.

"Killed? No, that is too easy. In Valyria, the sentence for an escaped slave is not death. Flogging, whipping, and then branding the forehead with the letter F for fugitive. Valyria had a natural prison - the tunnels deep in the Fourteen Flames. The mines of the Freehold were Hell on Earth - hot, full of sulfur and ash, with lava and steam. The slaves would work under such awful conditions that death was a release from suffering. If they tried to escape again, their legs and feet would be amputated, and then they would be sent back into the mines. Once in a while, a truly troublesome slave might be crucified. The slave would be stripped naked, dragged in chains to a public square, and then nailed to a cross to die over a few days. But the Valyrians preferred to force slaves to die slowly in the mines. That was the fate the founders of Braavos escaped."

"I had no idea that the Valyrians were so brutal."

"Empires always are." Jon said calmly. "Enemies of Valyria had to be crushed harshly. People accepted the rule of the Freehold because the consequences of disobedience were terrible. There were revolts, but easily dismissed. The dragonlords were not kind people. The wonder and glory of Valyria was built on blood and fire."

"How did Braavos escape punishment?" Arya asked.

"No one knows. There are some theories but that's not taken seriously in the Citadel. The maesters are guessing in the dark. One possibility is that Valyria was no longer strong enough. The nobles were too busy infighting and focused on expanding the colonies on the Summer Sea. A small city far to the North was not worth the trouble. Another idea is the Iron bank paid large bribes to the most powerful families. That is the most believable - empires turn corrupt. But there is a more sinister idea - Braavos might have threatened Valyria."

"With the Faceless Men?"

"With something - Sorcery, a curse, unknown magic. It is all very unclear. But all of the other Free Cities are colonies of Valyria. Only Braavos was allowed real independence."

"Could Faceless Men kill dragonlords?" Arya wondered.

"One dragonrider? Of course, any man or woman can be killed. But Valyria had dozens of families that challenged each other for leadership of the Freehold. No guild of assassins could frighten all the nobility. Braavos would be destroyed if the Faceless Men attempted to kill many dragonlords."

"Unless they did it in secret. Jaqen H'ghar killed Weese and Chiswyck without anyone knowing. I still can't figure out how he did it."

"Weese and Chiswyck are not dragonlords, Arya. Killing servants in a giant haunted castle is not a difficult task. But Valyria is long gone. Daenerys is the closest thing to a dragonlord now, and she has enough trouble freeing slaves from the Masters. Barristan told me that my aunt has many enemies."

"That's why you wanted to go to Essos. To make sure Daenerys is safe." Arya said.

Jon nodded. "She is family. And we do what we can to help our family. There are not many Targaryens left in this world. Not many Starks either."

"Father said something to me about this in King's Landing. He said that summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, the pack survives. Wolves must protect one another, keep each other warm, and share our strengths. He said that it was time to begin growing up."

"You have grown up. You survived King's Landing after Ned Stark's arrest and you made your way safely to the Inn at the Crossroads. Winter is coming, but not all of Father's words are correct. It is true that we must work together, but that does not mean we will always be together. Battles are won in many ways, and plans must change when the enemy moves. Sometimes, a wolf needs to go off on his own."

Or her own, Arya thought. "Like you and Robb. Robb is staying at Winterfell to rule and you have come to Braavos. He is the Warden of the North and you are the dragon king."

Jon shook water off his cloak. "I don't think many kings pole boats down a canal. And dragons like fire, not water. Titles don't mean anything here. In the Seven Kingdoms, a title might give you an army or bring you allies. This is a foreign land, like the rest of Essos. We will need to find our own way."

The serpent boat wended its way past a row of statues. Stone men in long bronze robes stood on both sides of the stone channel. The solemn figures loomed over their skiff, their dignity undisturbed by the droppings of seabirds. Darker lines on the legs marked where the water had risen in the past, either due to storm or high tide. In their arms, the statues held books, daggers, and rods. These were men of learning and trade, not kings with crowns or knights in armor. A different type of leader was honored in Braavos.

Arya and Jon drifted down the Isle of the Gods. There was the Temple of the Lord of Light, carved out of red stone, built like a fortress. A fire blazed in the iron brazier, nearly as the giant bridge that connected the red Temple to the rest of Braavos. There was the Temple of the Moonsingers, made of snow white marble topped by a huge silver white dome with many statues of moon maidens in alabaster alcoves. There were many shrines and monuments to gods that she had never seen or known.

Finally, they reached the Moon Pool, a fountain fed by the sweetwater river. The Braavosi had built a mighty stone roadway, high above the other canals, that brought water from the mighty Rhoyne to the lagoon. The sweetwater river entered the city from the south but ended in the northern districts, giving easiest access to the rich and mighty. The water was sparkling fresh, unlike the brackish liquid of the canals.

They disembarked before a great white building of domes and columns. Five rows of windows, of different shapes and sizes, looked down upon the marble plaza. Closest to the top, the windows appeared as enlarged arrow slits, diamonds the size of a escutcheon. The second row was the largest with massive sheets of glass in an inverted shield, bound by bars of steel. The third and fourth were the most plentiful - a set of ornamented arches embellished with precious stone and rare gems. The bottom level were windows set at the ground behind the arches that wrapped around the building.

In Braavos, Arya and Jon had seen people in either plain shirts, tunics and breeches of the sea or the flamboyant colors of revelers and bravos in the taverns. Here, men dressed in robes of charcoal gray and midnight blue. Wealth was not found in the color, but the quality of the material. A few had small iron keys clasped on dark satin doublets.

"The last temple of Braavos and the most powerful." Jon murmured. The great white marble doors were open to the plaza. They passed under the sigil of two golden triangles crossed in the shape of an hourglass with hands extended out where the triangles met. Jon and Arya entered the Iron Bank, followed by two suspicious dire wolves.

Author's Notes

The figurehead on the She Wolf is based on the Cutty Sark. This was one of the last of the sleek tea clippers that sailed from Great Britain to Asia, before steamships took over the sea routes. The Cutty Sark's heyday lasted thirty years from 1869 to 1895. The Cutty Sark's figurehead is named after Nannie Dee, a witch in Robert Burns poem, Tam O' Shanter.

The Iron Bank is the only power that has a fiat currency. Iron is plentiful, and quite cheap compared to silver. The iron square is not the only coin used in Braavos. Chapters in Feast of Crows and Dance With Dragons mention coppers and silvers. But assume the iron square is the $100 bill of Essos.

The scene from the Gate borrows from the Mercy (Arya) chapter in the Winds of Winter. GRRM has released a few POV views, Sansa, Arianne, and Theon. The play, Wroth of the Dragonlords, is only briefly mentioned, but it is Garin defying Valyria, before the entire Rhoyne civilization gets obliterated.

The speech of Garin is from the last words of Ahab in Moby Dick. From Hell's Heart, I stab at thee. For Hate's Sake, I spit my last breath at thee. The "beast" refers to a dragon of Valyria.

As for the pyrotechnics and special effects, that is actually real to life. They had clever ways to imitate thunder, and there were even fireworks. The Globe Theatre burnt down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII when a cannon misfired and the wooden beams caught fire.

Bellegere's reaction to events in Slaver's Bay mirrors how the US viewed slave rebellions in the Caribbean. The explosion of violence would be terrifying, and the concern would be that all trade was disrupted and broken. In the books, Daenerys screws up the whole ruling bit.

The scene of Mira meeting the boat is taken from a few chapters in Feast of Crows. Arya in her Faceless Man training sells clam, cockles, and mussels at Ragman's to sailors, whores and courtesans.

A million gold dragons is an incredible amount of money. The Iron Throne is in debt to the tune of 6 million gold, and despite the strange plot of ransacking Highgarden, assume that it seems unfathomable that sum could be paid in one shot.

Braavos is based on Venice. Venice was very influential from the 1100s to the 1400s. It collected the wealth of other places, including Constantitople which it sacked during one of the last Crusades. The gradual fall of power was due to the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Initially, Venice had the upper hand as the premiere maritime power. But over time, the Ottomans chipped away at them, and took more and more colonies. In between the wars, the Turks and the Venetians conducted a lot of trade.

The Romans did terrible things to escaped slaves, but for the most part, they usually kept them alive. They were valuable to work on the fields and mines. As for the description of the Fourteen Flames, that is the origin story that the kindly man tells Arya about the first Gift.

The whole Ned Stark trying to send his daughters away helps to jump start the Sansa and Arya arcs after the first book. It is sad what happens but it is in the GRRM theme that bad things are more interesting and sharpen the characters.

The architecture of the Iron Bank is based on the Doge's Palace and piazzas and basilicas. Venice is a small city compared to Volantis but it is incredibly rich. How they react to the shadow of Valyria is very important. There are many factions in Braavos.