The nine city-states composing the Free Cities lie across the narrow sea, east of Westeros, on the western side of the eastern continent. Braavos, Lorath, Lys, and Tyrosh are located on islands, Myr, Pentos, and Volantis are located on the coasts, and Norvos and Qohor lie inland. There are significant differences between the geography of the various cities, from the thick forests around Qohor, to the rolling hills of Norvos, to the tiny islands of Braavos. To the east of the Free Cities lies the Dothraki sea, to the south Slaver's Bay. North of the Free Cities lie the Shivering Sea and the islands of Ibben.
With the exception of Braavos, which was founded by slaves escaping the Freehold, the Nine Free Cities are all colonies founded by the Valyrian Freehold. The reasons for their founding varies. What made them "free" is that their leaders purchased contracts from Valyria's dragonlords that gave them limited self-rule over their own affairs, but they called on their "mother" for aid in times of war or other crisis.
The southern Free Cities, closest to Valyria, were all founded as trade colonies: Volantis (first and oldest of the Free Cities), Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh. They had a high degree of contact with Valyria and each other and thus have similar cultures. Tyrosh was actually first created as a military outpost to guard shipping lanes through the Stepstones, though it quickly turned into a major mercantile center as well.
The northern Free Cities, farther away from Valyria, have more diverse cultures and were mostly founded by religious dissidents seeking to distance themselves from the center of Valyrian power, who disagreed with the Freehold's tolerance for the plethora of different faiths practiced within it. Norvos was founded by the Bearded Priests, Qohor was founded by the cult of the Black Goat, and Lorath was settled by the followers of the Blind God Boash.  Braavos is also located at the far northernwestern edge of the Free Cities because the escaped slaves who created it fled as far from Valyria itself as possible.
While most of the Free Cities were created by Valyria itself (or in the case of Braavos, escaped slaves), Lorath and Pentos were the sites of prior cities. Lorath was originally settled by a series of other peoples, from the Mazemakers in ancient times up to the Andals, before they were burned out by Valyria's dragons, leaving it totally depopulated: centuries later it was re-settled by dissidents from Valyria, though the ruins of its former inhabitants remain. Alone among the Free Cities, Pentos might be a continuation of a prior settlement: some histories say it was an Andal colony where many Valyrian merchants migrated to seek their fortunes, and because they were of low social rank they freely intermingled their bloodlines with the locals. The modern Pentoshi do have very similar appearances to the Andals of Westeros, but the sources claiming it existed before Valyria are biased and might not be trustworthy.
After many centuries, Valyria's expansion of the Free Cities and other colonies into western Essos brought it into conflict with the Rhoynar, a loose confederation of six independent city-states along the Rhoyne River network. These trade wars flared off and on for two centuries, but eventually the Rhoynish Wars climaxed when Prince Garin of Chroyane rallied the remaining Rhoynar city-states into a grand alliance which threatened Volantis itself. Valyria rushed to the aid of its colony with an army of three hundred dragons, and in the end the Rhoynar city-states were totally defeated and left in ruins.
The Free Cities continued to thrive for another six centuries, until Valyria itself was destroyed in a single day by the volcanic cataclysm known as the Doom. Their vast empire quickly collapsed as the outer provinces and colonies fought for supremacy, a chaotic time known as the Century of Blood. Volantis, the eldest and largest of the Free Cities, attempted to seize power over the others, managing to take and hold Lys and Myr for two generations. Eventually the other Free Cities united against it, however, and the Volantenes were repulsed, though the alliance then collapsed. This coincided with the first great expansion of the Dothraki mounted hordes from the grasslands of central Essos, no longer held in check by fear of Valyria's dragons. Struggling to face the attacks from the Dothraki, further attempts to conquer and unify all of the Free Cities ended.
Some called the city of Gogossos on the Basilisk Isles the "Tenth Free City" when it grew rich and powerful during the Century of Blood, until it was destroyed by plague. Essaria, near the Dothraki grasslands, has sometimes been considered the "Lost Free City" as the colony was reduced to ruins by the horselords.
Over the past two centuries, Pentos has fought six wars against Braavos concerning the practice of slavery and the lands located in between the two cities. Four of these wars were won by Braavos. The last war ended in 209 AC and in the peace accords, Pentos was forced by Braavos to make several concessions, including the (nominal) termination of slavery in Pentos and their withdrawal from the slave trade, as well as a drastic reduction of the size of the Pentoshi military force.
In 96 AC, Myr, Lys, and Tyrosh united as the Triarchy after defeating Volantis at the Battle of the Borderland, driving the older city from the Disputed Lands. Next, the Myrish prince-admiral Craghas Drahar led an invasion of the Stepstones, clearing out the pirate dens of the islands and making safe the trade lanes of the narrow sea. When the Triarchy began to impose high tolls on trade in the narrow sea, the Westerosi began to resent the Triarchy's presence on the islands. Foremost was Lord Corlys Velaryon of Driftmark, who forged an alliance with Prince Daemon Targaryen and with him fought for dominion over the Stepstones against the Triarchy, beginning in 106 AC. The conflict raged on beyond 115 AC, when Prince Daemon abandoned the cause.
During the Dance of the Dragons, the Triarchy allied with the faction of King Aegon II Targaryen against Aegon's half-sister Rhaenyra and her husband, Prince Daemon. They participated in the Battle of the Gullet, where they took major losses. By 130 AC, the "eternal alliance" between the three Free Cities had begun to tear itself apart. An alliance between Braavos, Pentos, and Lorath in the Daughters' War eventually brought an end to the Triarchy.
During the Lysene Spring, the Rogare Bank in Lys grew more powerful than the Iron Bank of Braavos. This power increased further following the marriage of Larra Rogare to Prince Viserys Targaryen, after which House Rogare became involved in Westerosi politics. However, following the sudden deaths of Lysandro Rogare, the head of the family, and his brother Drazenko, the family's power rapidly decreased.
During the reign of the Westerosi king Daeron I Targaryen, Braavos was at war with Pentos and Lys. When Daeron attempted to negotiate a marriage-alliance between the Sealord of Braavos and one of his sisters, to help deal with the pirate activity in the Stepstones, Pentos and Lys responded by sending crucial aid to the rebels in Dorne.
The surviving Westerosi rebels who had fought on the side of Daemon I Blackfyre during the First Blackfyre Rebellion fled to the Free Cities, where they took work as mercenaries. Ser Aegor Rivers, who had escaped together with Daemon's widow and remaining children, eventually ended up in Tyrosh. When he saw the former strength of House Blackfyre scatter, Aegor formed the Golden Company in 212 AC, thereby binding the exiles together. Shortly after its creation, the Golden Company sacked Qohor after the city refused to honor the contract it had made with the company. This event established the reputation of the sellword company, which became known as the foremost free company of the Disputed Lands.
The Free Cities have had various shifting rivalries and alliances in the three centuries since the Century of Blood came to an end. In general, Myr, Lys, and Tyrosh frequently fight smaller wars over the ownership of the Disputed Lands located between them. Volantis is known to have involved itself in the struggles at least once. Norvos and Qohor are usually allied with each other – despite the fact that the Norvoshi religious leaders consider the god of Qohor to be a demon. Lorath, the poorest and most isolated of the nine cities, has little military power and prefers to trade with Norvos and Braavos. Despite its isolation, however, Lorath joined Braavos and Pentos in an alliance to make an end to the Triarchy, the "eternal alliance" between Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh. During the past two centuries, Pentos and Braavos have fought six wars against one another. The last war ended in 209 AC,[N 1] leaving Braavos victorious. Braavos forced Pentos to agree to a peace which severely limited the size of its military, which has made Pentos notably less belligerent than Tyrosh, Myr, and Lys. Ever since, the Pentoshi rulers have been much more conciliatory towards the other Free Cities, as well as the Dothraki horselords, the latter of whom are bribed to prevent attacks.
Braavos and Volantis are both formidable powers, with the former's main strength being at sea, whilst the latter's greatest strength is upon the land. Regardless, Braavos is now reckoned to likely be the most powerful of the Free Cities overall. It is home to one of the greatest ports in the world and houses one of the most powerful banks in the world.
In most of the Free Cities money equals power. Lys and Myr are ruled by conclaves of magisters, chosen from amongst the wealthiest men of the city; Tyrosh is ruled by an Archon, who is elected by magisters in a similar council. Both Pentos and Lorath have nominal rulers – the Prince of Pentos and the three princes of Lorath respectively – but in truth are ruled by a council of magisters. While the Prince of Pentos at least nominally presides over the sessions of the Pentoshi magisters, the position of the Lorathi princes is purely ceremonial. The situation is reversed in Norvos, which is nominally ruled by a council of magisters; However, these magisters of the deeply religious Norvos are appointed by the bearded priests, who hold the true power.
Braavos is ruled by the Sealord, who is chosen by Braavosi magisters and keyholders through a convoluted process. Volantis is ruled by three Triarchs, who serve a one-year term. These Triarchs are all from the noble families of Volantis who can prove unbroken descent from old Valyria. They are chosen through an annual election during which all freeborn landowners can vote. Both male and female landowners can vote, and both men and women can run for triarch – though in practice there has not been a female triarch since the Century of Blood.
Qohor's specific type of governance is currently unknown.
The Nine Free Cities
Braavos, also known as Braavos of the Hundred Isles and the Secret City, and sometimes referred to as the bastard daughter of Valyria, is the wealthiest and likely the most powerful of the Free Cities. It is also the youngest of the nine cities, and was founded by slaves fleeing the grasp of the Valyrian Freehold. The ancestry of the founders of Braavos was highly diverse, and the founders of Braavos spoke many tongues. Because of this, they used the language of their masters, High Valyrian, as their common tongue. The current Braavosi tongue is a corrupt dialect of the original High Valyrian. Because of the diverse origins of the Braavosi, temples for all gods can be found in Braavos, including a temple for the Moonsingers of the Jogos Nhai of the Further East. A seafaring city composed of many tiny islands, Braavos is known for its ships with purple hulls and sails, the powerful Iron Bank, the guild of assassins known as the Faceless Men, and the Titan of Braavos, the fortified statue and lighthouse that straddles the entrance channel to the city. Braavos is ruled by the Sealord, who is elected by the city's magisters and keyholders of the Iron Bank.
Located on the largest of three islands at the mouth of Lorath Bay, Lorath is one of the northernmost of the Free Cities. It is also the smallest, poorest, and least populous of the Nine Free Cities, as well as the most isolated. While the islands were originally inhabited by the Mazemakers, Lorath was founded when the followers of the god Boash settled on the main isle in 1436 BC.
Notable Lorathi include Jaqen H'ghar.
Lys is located on an island near the southern coast. The blood of Old Valyria still runs strong in this Free City, and as such, many Lyseni, even among the smallfolk, resemble the dragonlords of old. Lys is well known for its pleasure houses, training slaves in the arts of love and selling them as concubines and bed-slaves. Having once formed a kingdom together with Tyrosh and Myr, Lys now frequently fights with them over the control of the Disputed Lands.
Notable Lyseni include Varys, a eunuch and spymaster for several Westerosi kings; Salladhor Saan, a pirate and sellsail; Doreah, a handmaid to Daenerys Targaryen; Lysono Maar, a member of the Golden Company; and Tregar Ormollen, a merchant prince.
Myr is a coastal city renowned for their master glasscrafters, intricate lace, and fine carpets. It is considered to be among the most advanced of the Free Cities, and famed for its arts and learning. While Myr once formed the Kingdom of the Three Daughters with Tyrosh and Lys, they now frequently fight over control of the Disputed Lands.
Norvos sits on the main continent in two parts, one atop a high hill and the other beside a low river. The surrounding area is a land of rolling hills, terraced farms, and white-stucco villages. The city has three large bells, each with its own name and distinctive voice, that are rung to govern every aspect of city life. Norvoshi men can be recognized by their dyed and upswept mustaches. The city is run by a council of magisters, chosen by the bearded priests.
Pentos is a major trading port on a bay of the western coast, at approximately the latitude of the Westerosi city King's Landing. The city is ruled by a Prince who is chosen by the de facto rulers of the city, known as Magisters. Dothraki Khalasars occasionally make their way this far from the Dothraki sea, but the Pentoshi are spared much of the raiding and invasions by paying tribute to their khals. Slavery is outlawed in Pentos, but the Pentoshi flout these laws by keeping servants who, in essence, are slaves.
Situated on the main continent, Qohor lies in the vast Forest of Qohor. It is known for its fine tapestries and its smiths, who have the rare ability to reforge Valyrian steel. The Black Goat is a prominent god in the city. The city guard is comprised solely of Unsullied eunuch slave soldiers, and has been ever since three thousand Unsullied soldiers successfully defended the city against a Dothraki khalasar.
A coastal city, Tyrosh is ruled by an archon. The Tyroshi are known for their greed. Traders deal extensively in slaves and Tyroshi pear brandy, and Tyroshi master armorsmiths make intricate armor in fantastic shapes. The city is often involved in conflicts over the Disputed Lands and the Stepstones with Lys and Myr.
The southernmost of the Free Cities, Volantis is situated nearest Slaver's Bay, and does extensive trade in slaves, glassware and wines. The city is the oldest and proudest of the Free Cities, and only the Old Blood, those who can trace their lineage back to Valyria, may dwell within the part of the city behind the Black Wall. Volantis is ruled by an elected triarchy. Volantene sellswords are often recognizable by their fierce tattoos. It is not uncommon for the Volantene to mark the faces of their slaves and servants with tattoos as well. Volantis is sometimes drawn into conflicts over the Disputed Lands.
In the Free Cities of the west, towers and manses and hovels and bridges and shops and halls all crowded in on one another.—Daenerys Targaryen's thoughts
—Tyrion Lannister's thoughts
- The Lands of Ice and Fire, The Known World.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: Braavos.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities.
- The World of Ice & Fire, Ancient History: Valyria's Children.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: The Quarrelsome Daughters: Myr, Lys, and Tyrosh.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: Norvos.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: Qohor.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: Lorath.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: Pentos.
- The World of Ice & Fire, Ancient History: Ten Thousand Ships.
- The World of Ice & Fire, Ancient History: The Doom of Valyria.
- The World of Ice & Fire, Beyond the Free Cities: The Grasslands.
- The World of Ice & Fire, Beyond the Free Cities: The Basilisk Isles.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 1, Tyrion I.
- The Rogue Prince.
- The Princess and the Queen.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon III.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 5, Tyrion II.
- The Mystery Knight.
- The Sworn Sword.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Daeron II.
- George R. R. Martin's A World of Ice and Fire, Aegor Rivers.
- The World of Ice & Fire, The Free Cities: Volantis.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 6, The Merchant's Man.
- A Feast for Crows, Chapter 22, Arya II.
- A Feast for Crows, Chapter 6, Arya I.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 33, Eddard VIII.
- The Lands of Ice and Fire, The Free Cities.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 54, Daenerys VI.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 25, Eddard V.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 6, Catelyn II.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 35, Jon VII.
- A Feast for Crows, Chapter 2, The Captain Of Guards.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 3, Daenerys I.
- A Storm of Swords, Chapter 8, Daenerys I.
- A Storm of Swords, Chapter 72, Jaime IX.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 18, Catelyn IV.
- The Hedge Knight.
- A Storm of Swords, Chapter 39, Arya VII.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 27, Tyrion VII.
- A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 14, Tyrion IV.
- A Game of Thrones, Chapter 36, Daenerys IV.
- A Feast for Crows, Chapter 34, Cat Of The Canals.