Oftentimes, I feel the yearning for something simple and easy to grasp when I have stared into the glass candle for too long. It is in those moments that I don simple garb and make my way to the local market, wherever that may be. As I write this tome, the local market happens to be in Braavos, and as I walk through the roughhewn stands and take in the smell of salt, sweat and fish that embodies the people of the harbor at all times, I stop at the cart of an old woman that I talked to often enough. Her name is Garara, and she brought five sons and seven daughters into the world. She must be eighty by now, or near enough it makes no matter. The children are long married, of course, as is custom in these parts, and her back is hunched over from decades of hard work.
“Want a clam?” she asks, always the same question in her coarse voice. My smiling eye sparkles as I buy the clam. Not to eat it, I’m not hungry, but of course, it is customary in this part of the harbor to buy one of her clams. If you don’t, you shun the community. Everyone buys her clams, and so it’s only natural that I do too.
Braavos is a strange city. It’s full of rich merchantmen who made their own luck, only helped by the effort they put into learning and working. And yet, for as much as I find myself naturally drawn to those who thrive in the world, at least once a week, I find myself going to the Ragtag harbor and buying a clam. The people here have a saying: “It may stink, but at least, we’re free.” This spirit is what sets Braavos apart from the rest of Free Cities, and most of all, from Volantis.
Volantis is an entirely different beast. Architecturally and culturally, it’s a marvel. When you visit the Grand Theater in Old Volantis, where only few outsiders and no freedman may treat, you are presented with the old plays, full of beautiful poetry, sung by the best actors in the finest garbs. It’s no comparison with Braavos’ base entertainment, the little plays aiming for cheap laughs that can be viewed in every street corner. Many a critic has said that only slavery made this possible, but of course, no beautiful thing has even been made without some loss. When you visit Volantis, you can truly ask yourself whether or not freedom really is the highest virtue.
As I rode the hathay through the streets of the harbor, I chatted with the rider. It was a novel experience for him, since the Volantene do not consider their slaves proper people, but being a foreigner, I didn’t think there was much harm in doing so. The man told me that his owner, Rahaqos Donarchos di Terrenos, was treating him well, and that he was allowed to keep some money. Trinkets are rare in Volantis, so I did the proper thing and gave him what was left of my honor – as the Volantene call their coinage for reasons I don’t fully understand – so he might have a drink. That opened him up, and he told me more about the Volantene spirit.
Most slaves are happy with their lot, he said. They know that the world of trade, as exemplified by the ruling caste of the elephants, is nothing for common folk to meddle in. I asked him if he didn’t want to rise up in the world, and if he didn’t realize that it’s trade that opens possibilities in life. He did in fact not understand what I meant, so I explained to him that he could collect the dung that his elephant was producing on its own, dry it in his free time and join a venture with some merchant to sell it to Braavos, always in need of fuel for their fires for the cold seasons ahead. While he listened, he didn’t really seem all that open to the idea. When I told my host, the gracious Nopramos Patroclos, he just laughed and said that the people had no initiative of their own, and that the wealth of the world belonged to the few who did. I found it hard to argue.
As I prepared to continue my voyage to Qarth, where rare spices and magical trinkets are sold, I could not help but stand in awe and wonder on the Long Bridge and gaze out on the mouth of the Rhoyne. Volantis and Braavos had been at each other’s throats so often in the past, but looking upon the many merchantman laying anchor in the harbor and looking out on the slow and steady waters, connecting Braavos to Volantis to Qarth, Westeros to Asshai and the Sommer Islands to Ybb, I truly realized that the world was really flat, no matter what the maesters say. It’s bold men who make their mark on it, and if you truly understand the tides of trade connecting its various places, it is you who will rise. All you need is the courage to do so, to take that one leap from a high tower for the very first time.