An Order of Whispers, A City of Secrets

Featured Art: Braavos by MsieuFrodon

Braavos may be the youngest of the Free Cities, but the city’s history is as rich as the famed Iron Bank. To unlock of the magic at the heart of Braavos, we must understand the people that founded the city and their motivations. I promise, the origins of the Faceless Men and story of the founding of Braavos are worth revisiting with our third eye open.

Whispers in the Dark: the Roots of the Faceless Men

The Kindly Man gives Arya her first lesson in Faceless history, explaining:

“Men may whisper of the Faceless Men of Braavos, but we are older than the Secret CityWe have flowered in Braavos among these northern fogs, but we first took root in Valyria, amongst the wretched slaves who toiled in the deep mines beneath the Fourteen Flames that lit the Freehold’s nights of old.”

(Arya II, A Feast for Crows)

There’s a ton to unpack in the Kindly Man’s story, but before we dive into the historical details, a quick aside. There is really strong greenseer imagery in this part of the tale. We associate both whispers and secrets with weirwoods. And words like “flowering” and “took root” deliberately evoke the image of the Faceless Men as a tree with roots that spread from Valyria to Braavos. This is a theme we will explore more in depth in the second essay in this series.

Now, back to history!

First, the Faceless Men pre-date Braavos. We’ll come back to this later, but the Faceless Men more than likely played a role in the founding of the Secret City.

Second, like Braavos itself, the Faceless Men opposed slavery as well as the Valyrian dragonlords:

“Revolts were common in the mines, but few accomplished much. The dragonlords of the Old Freehold were strong in sorcery, and lesser men defied them at their peril. The First Faceless Man was one who did…. He moved among the slaves and would hear them at their prayers.”

(Arya II, Feast for Crows)

And as the story closes, we learn that although the First Faceless Man gave the first gift to “the most wretched of the slaves, the one who had prayed most earnestly for release” ultimately , “he would bring the gift to the [masters] as well.”

mines of moria
Dungeon Mines by Joaquin Barrum

Cue ominous music…the Dragonlords burned in their mines with NO ONE there to hear.

Others in the fandom have persuasively theorized that the Faceless Men helped cause the Doom of Valyria. Because the Worldbook posits that a wave of assassinations of the key fire mages who kept the Fourteen Flames in check likely contributed to the Doom, this theory stands on solid ground.

Beyond a shadow of doubt, the Kindly Man establishes that a group of powerful Dragonlords and Fire Sorcerers were the Faceless Men’s secret enemy number one. To oppose them effectively, the Faceless Men must have had more than whispers in the dark at their disposal. If this were a crime drama, here is where I would tell you that the Faceless Men had both a motive and an opportunity to learn about the magic of Valyrians and use it again them.

Bloody Moon Rising: The Founding of Braavos

Per Maester Yandel, fugitives from a large convoy of Valyrian slave ships founded Braavos after they “rose in bloody rebellion” and sailed north to escape their masters. Here’s the relevant part:

Braavosi histories claim that a group of slave women from the distant lands of Jogos Nhai prophesied where they would find shelter…These women were priestesses, called moonsingers, and to this day the Temple of the Moonsingers is the greatest in Braavos.

(A World of Ice and Fire, Braavos).

The basics of Yandel’s account are confirmed in the main text. Vividly, the Kindly Man explains:

Braavos is the bastard child who ran away from home. We are a mongrel folk, the sons of slaves and whores and thieves. Our forebears came from half a hundred lands to this place of refuge, to escape the dragonlords who had enslaved them.

(Cat of the Canals, A Feast for Crows)

In short, a group of prophets called moonsingers helped a bunch of slaves kill their masters and escape to a refugee across the sea. There is ton going on in this story, so we will sort it out piece by piece. First, we’ll look at what we know about the moonsingers because their prophecy is central to the story of Braavos’ founding.

I.  A Magical Night For a Moon Song

When I first heard moonsinger I immediately thought about how the Children of the Forest call themselves those who sing the song of earth. Moonsinger also vividly evokes the idea of other-worldly magic. And indeed, there is (1) direct evidence that the moonsingers have magical abilities and also (2) a strong suggestion that moonsinger magic is tied to blood magic.

Let’s start with historical context. Moonsingers are not a separate, magical elder race comparable to the Children. Instead, they are the all female religious class of the Jogos Nhai who live in the far east of Essos. Interestingly, like cragnommen of the Reach who are thought to have interbred with the Children, the Jogos Nhai are described as short in stature. So, it is possible but not at all proven, that there is some kind of magical bloodline, elder race interbreeding at play in their history. Much more directly, the text tells us moonsingers have prophetic ability. Because prophecies and visions appear all over the books, the legend of moonsingers working prophetic magic seems credible.

We also know that present day Braavos remembers moonsingers’ role in the city’s founding. Denyo tells Arya, “The Moonsingers led us to this place of refugee, where the dragons of Valyria could not find us.” Fittingly, their temple is the largest in Braavos. And wow, the temple is full of icy moon imagery:

“A mighty mass of snow-white marble topped by a huge silvered dome whose milk-glass windows showed all the phases of the moon. A pair of marble maidens flanked its gates, tall as the Sealords, supporting a crescent-shaped lintel.”

(Arya I, A Feast for Crows)

If you recall, when she uses her secret identities, Arya returns to the House of Black and White during the new moon phase, or when “the moon is a black hole” to use Bran’s terminology. To be perfectly upfront, we know nothing about what kind of magic is practiced in the moonsinger temple. So, this next bit is mostly speculative. In fantasy, magic often waxes and wanes with phases of the moon. In the real world, the moon controls tidal patterns, which would hold significance for an island dwelling people such as the Braavosi. Often, these kind of ties to natural elements are precisely how Martin describes magic, so we could conclude something mystical—and probably cold—is connected to this snow-white temple.

II. Mirri Maz Moonsinger Student?

The first reference to a moonsinger actually comes in all the way back in Game of Thrones, when Mirri Maz Dur’s replies to Daenerys asking where she learned the healing arts:

When I was younger and more fair, I went in caravan to Asshai by the Shadow, to learn from their mages. Ships from many lands come to Asshai, so I lingered long to study the healing ways of distant peoples. A moonsinger of the Jogos Nhai gifted me with her birthing songs, a woman of your own riding people taught me the magics of grass and corn and horse, and a Maester [Marwyn the Mage] from the Sunset Lands opened a body for me and showed me all the secrets that hide beneath the skin.

(A Game of Thrones, Daenerys VII)

To be sure, Mirri’s blood magic spell in the tent is a literal song. Martin describes it as “like a funeral dirge,” a “high undulating wailing that sent shivers down Dany’s back” and “wailing like nothing human.” Naturally, for a series named the Song of Ice and Fire, song and magic are frequently related.

You may be thinking something like – take off your tin foil hat, Mirri was not a Moonsinger, she just studied with them in Asshai along with a bunch of other people. To which I say sure, but let’s note that our first introduction to moonsingers groups them with bloodmages from Asshai, Marwyn the Mage, and a lady whose most famous line is “only death can pay for life.” I agree, this is not proof of blood magic, but it is strong circumstantial evidence.

III. No One’s Rebellion

What is the connection between the escape of the slaves, the Moonsinger’s prophecy, and the Faceless Men? George has not left us a lot concrete information to go on, but the options are limited:

  • The Faceless Men helped facilitate the bloody rebellion on the slave ships and came to Braavos with the original group of escaped slaves.
  • The Faceless Men somehow found the Secret City afterwards or only came to Braavos after the either the Unmasking or the Doom.
  • The Faceless Men, or some proto-version of them, were already in Braavos when the escaped slaves arrived.

I’m not sure that it ultimately matters which of these is true, but I lean strongly toward option one, with option three as distant second. Because we have absolutely no information about this portion of the sequence of events, all we can do speculate on the possibilities. Nevertheless, it is important to consider how the relationship between the Faceless Men and the Braavosi began.

As for option one, the present story strongly suggests that much of the power of the Faceless Men rests in their ability to control shipping and trade. Take for example Arya’s first gift-giving assignment: she kills a shipping insurance salesman who was facilitating the trade of slaves. So, it seems thematically consistent that the Faceless Men’s journey to Braavos began by killing slave masters on their own ships. If this is case, it implies that from the very beginning, the founders of Braavos owed something to the Faceless Men. Now, it’s also possible this slave uprising just happened and that the Faceless Men had nothing to do with it. But, that would mean that Faceless Men were either coincidently on the slave ships or that they came to Braavos afterwards—and, to me at least, neither of those options make much sense story-wise. My guess is that Faceless Men somehow worked with Moonsingers to orchestrate the rebellion and lead their new people to safety.

And as for option three, it seems likes a long shot to me. To spitball, the World Book tells us that the Iron Bank was built on an abandoned iron mine. But what if it wasn’t abandoned and there was already another religious order hiding out there? To speculate even more wildly, did the slaves’ prophetic moonsingers know an early version of the Faceless Men were there and deliberately seek them out? I’m not sold, but I’m throwing it out there for the sake of being thorough. The biggest strike against this theory is the Kindly Man’s words: he says Faceless Men first “took root” in Valyria, which implies they began there.

A Cloudy Cloak, a Magic Mask

Supposedly, the Sealord Uthero Zalyne announced the existence and location of Braavos 111 years after its founding. The Braavosi call this event the unmasking or uncloaking of Braavos and celebrate it every year with a masked ball. Maester Yandel tells us that before Braavos revealed itself, the Braavosi traded with Ib and the Seven Kingdoms and “practiced artful deceit when questioned about their home port.”

If we are to believe Maester Yandel’s account of the Braavosi histories, Braavos’ existence was kept a complete secret for 111 years. Could this have happened without magic? Sure — that’s what Maester Yandel thinks.

I. Glass Candles v. Sea Fog

Yandel’s status as an unreliable narrator aside, there are good reasons to question this account. The official history holds that the fogs hid the city, but we know from Arya’s POV that although fog and mist are common in Braavos, fog is not ever present. During her time in Braavos, Arya describes both clear days and days cloaked in fog. So I’m not completely convinced that the city could stay hidden for 111 years even if they were completely self sufficient and there were no dragonlords looking for them.

Now, if you are several steps ahead of me, you might be thinking of Greywater Watch as a counter argument. Greywater is a keep that even ravens cannot find and the whole place seems to move! And I completely agree that Greywater Watch sets a precedent for nature acting as a hiding a place. But, it is possible that greenseer magic helps hide Greywater Watch and I plan to analyze its similarities with Braavos in the next essay in this series.  So, suspend your disbelief if you can.

The first Braavosi supposedly escaped at the peak of Valyrian power, when the dragonlords had significant magical resources at their disposal. For example, Marwyn tells us that with one glass candle, “the sorcerers of the freehold could see across mountains, seas, and deserts.” Surely, if the Valyrians made any serious effort to find the disappeared slave ships, they could have found them among the other Free Cities, even if a little fog got in their way.

II. Shire and Blood

The Worldbook gives us another reason to doubt the official, non-magical account—the Scouring of Lorath. Pull out your pocket of map the Free Cities—you have one of those, right—and you will see that Lorath is the closest of the Free Cities to Braavos. Assuming the map of the Free Cities in the Lands of Ice and Fire is reasonably close to scale, Lorath is slightly closer to Braavos than Dragonstone is to Storm’s End.

No maps were harmed in the making of this file.

So, why does this matter? During the Scouring of Lorath, the Valyrians supposedly rode hundreds of dragons across Essos on a mission to burn all the Lorathi islands.  The dragon lords brought Fire and Blood to Lorath to stamp out the ambitions of an Andal King, self-styled as Qarlon the Great. Qarlon’s writ extended from the headwaters of the upper Rhoyne in the South all the way to the lagoon where Braavos would eventually rise in the North. Qarlon marched against Norvos, an ally of Valyria, and shrewdly Norvos asked the Dragonlords for aid. And the dragons answered the call – flying all the way from Valyria to the aid of Norvos and then onward to put Lorath and all its people to the torch. As Maester Yandel puts it, “distances meant little and less to the Dragonlords in the summer of their power.”

Braavos was almost certainly founded sometime after the Scouring of Lorath. So, on one hand, it is possible that the Valyrian torching of Lorath made Braavos uniquely remote. After all, the Valyrians had just burned everyone alive in the closest major settlement. And Lorath was supposedly abandoned for more than a century after the scouring.

A brief aside—the Scouring of Lorath is totally an homage to the Scouring of the Shire. Saurman and Wormtounge were totally Valyrians.  It is known.

But on the other hand, the Scouring reads as an object lesson in Valyrian power. It demonstrates not only that the Dragonlords could bring their wrath across continents, but also that they did so throughout the Free Cities. If distances meant little to the Valyrians and they could see through mountains with their glass candles, a little fog and a hiding place in a remote lagoon seem like a meager defense.

III. The Stink of Sorcery

So, I’m going to call bullshit on the official history and say we at least consider a magical mechanism for cloaking and uncloaking of Braavos. Maybe a fog did hide the city—but it was a persistent magic fog that befuddled even glass candles. I am not the first person to suggest the idea that, sometimes, mist or fog indicates the presence of magic. And there is a confirmed instance of magic mist in Essos. In Tyrion’s POV at the Bridge of Dreams, we get a fog that is “not natural” and “stinks of sorcery.” Although, I don’t think we have enough evidence to draw firm conclusions right now, we should be suspicious. And I will most certainly be examining the fogs of Braavos in the next essay.

For now, let me observe that a lagoon surrounded by bloodstone is an excellent hiding place. Bloodstone “drinks the light” so it could contribute to cloaking the city in its darkness. And it also has magical properties that could not only enhance its ability to cloak, but also give magically inclined denizens a mechanism to evade thousands of watchful Valyrian eyes.

A Bloody Covenant

If like George R.R. Martin, your childhood involved many beautiful sunny mornings spent inside at Sunday school…hearing that a group of escaped slaves lead by a prophet founded Braavos made you recall the Book of Exodus. That’s the biblical story of Moses leading his people, the enslaved Israelites, out of Egypt to the Promised Land. This is the same story where God parts the Red Sea to allow his chosen people to escape and drowns the Egyptian army. That sure does sound a lot like a mythological version of God helping slaves rise up against their masters in rebellion and escape across a bloody, red sea.

The Braavosi did not wander the desert for 40 years, so I’m not suggesting that this is a blow for blow match for the biblical story. But I do think Exodus is highly suggestive of the relationship between the escaped Valyrian slaves and the God of Death. Arguably, the most important religious lesson in the Book of Exodus is about the covenant between God and his chosen people. In exchange for helping the Israelites escape slavery and find the promised land, God required that his people follow his laws. This is known as the Mosaic Covenant.

So what does Moses tell us about the deal between the Braavosi and their moonsinger prophet? We know they didn’t agree to follow the letter of the book of Leviticus, that would just be weird. Instead, I want to suggest that there was deal, a covenant between the original faceless men, the worshippers of the god of death, and the escaped slaves who founded Braavos. Earlier I posited that the Bloody Rebellion had the bloody hands of the Faceless Men all over it. So, it is likely that the moonsinger prophets and Faceless Men worked together to found Braavos.

I included the reference to Exodus here because I do think that George is paralleling the biblical story as his inspiration for Braavos, along with other parallel story lines like Nymeria’s exodus to Dorne and the Wildling exodus south of the Wall. I am going to go ahead and quote the Wikipedia summary of biblical scholar Carol Meyers’ commentary on Exodus.

[Exodus is] arguably the most important book in the Bible, as it presents the defining features of Israel’s identity: memories of a past marked by hardship and escape, a binding covenant with God, who chooses Israel, and the establishment of … a community and the guidelines for sustaining it.

So, as we analyze the Faceless Men and Braavos, ask yourself this, what would a similar covenant look like if it were with the devil or the god of death? What would be defining features of the Braavosi peoples’ identity as they reconcile their memories of slavery and escape with the covenant they made for their new life?

I. A Braavosi Always Pays his Debts

We get a lot of evidence that there is a special relationship between the Faceless Men and the people of Braavos. We get all of this from Arya’s POV, as we watch her journey to Braavos and eventually perform missions for the Faceless Men.

First, we learn about the Braavosi equivalent of a secret handshake –the iconic Valar Morgulis, Valar Doharis call and response. When Jaqen gives Arya the iron coin of the Faceless Men, he connects the coin to the phrase Valar Morgulis. The words themselves are important. Indeed, they work like magic words for Arya. When Arya tries to book passage on a ship outbound from Saltpans, the coin and words works wonders:

The captain turned it over and blinked at it, then looked at her again. “This … how …?”

Jaqen said to say the words too. Arya crossed her arms against her chest. “Valar morghulis,” she said, as loud as if she’d known what it meant…

Valar dohaeris,” he replied, touching his brow with two fingers. “Of course you shall have a cabin.”

(Arya XIII , A Storm of Swords)

Arya goes from being denied passage and nearly ignored to being afforded a religious reverence. She spoke the words and presented a coin to prove her affiliation with the Faceless Men.

Once the Titan’s Daughter arrives in Braavos, a couple other things become clear. Not only does the captain know exactly where to take Salty, he wastes no time getting her off his ship. Arya notices how uncomfortable he seems with her presence. And when Tenyo drops her off at the temple, he makes sure that she knows his name. Given that Jaqen used whispered names as death sentences and we later learn that Faceless Men do not assassinate people they know personally, this is not a coincidence. These Braavosi sailors not only know that Arya is a servant of death, but they also recognize they owe death something. All men must serve.

Death’s one over on the Braavosi is fleshed out in a couple other interesting ways.

First, Arya’s relationship with Brusco when she assumes the Cat of the Canals identity demonstrates widespread respect and service to the Faceless Men in Braavos. Not only does Brusco take her in under his own roof without question, he knows when Cat must return to the temple – when the moon is a black hole. Now, you could assume that Brusco is also Faceless Man, but I think the better interpretation is that Brusco is just doing what any Braavosi would do. After all, all men must serve.

Finally, many Braavosi (and admittedly others) seek the temple’s black cup to die. People who drink from the black cup are not following whatever funeral rites would normally apply in their primary religions. Remember, all gods are worshipped in Braavosi, but those who seek death at House of Black and White are not laid to rest by the priests of the religion they followed in life. Instead, upon death their bodies are forfeit to the temple. We see Arya clean the dead and take them down into the sanctum. It seems implied that, if they can, the people of Braavos are encouraged to come to the temple to die.

II. Death to Slavers

So, what does this mean? The Braavosi agreed to serve the Faceless Men and their agents and give themselves up to the God of death in exchange for something.

The best candidate is etched in the stone on the archway that forms the legs of the Titan. The First Law of Braavos, that no man should ever be a slave, a thrall, or bondsman.  The Braavosi agreed to serve the Faceless Men in exchange for the order’s help to end slavery.

Given the wealth of Braavos, there is probably more to it than that. In the beginning, the Faceless men may have simply promised to hide the city from the Dragonlords. But eventually, once the city unmasked itself, the Braavosi grew more ambitious. They sought out the wealth and power needed to end the Valyrian Freehold. The secret city moved stealthily, under the veil of trade, and with the help of an order of assassins forged in the red darkness of the Fourteen Flames.

Many good theories connect the Faceless Men and the Iron Bank—A Nefarious Investment is one of my favorites—so I will not delve into the details of that connection here. But a connection between the Iron Bank and the House of Black and White explains a lot. Importantly, it would connect the fabulous wealth of Iron Bank with the high prices demanded by the Faceless Men for assassination. It would also help explain the value of information the Faceless Men collect.

III. The Many-Faced God’s Demands

Why do the Faceless Men want people to come to their temple to die? Sure, they want to collect their faces to use as disguises. But let’s consider a deeper motivation. As I hinted at before, I think the answer lies in blood sacrifice—a common theme in the magic of a Song of Ice and Fire. The Faceless Men are getting something, or at least pretending to get something, in exchange for sacrificing blood to something in the center of the sanctum. A piece of oily black stone or meteor perhaps?

So far, it fits the historical clues we discussed. The presence of seastone surrounding Braavos. A protective Titan carved out of seastone. A moonsinger magic prophecy guiding the escaped slaves to the right, magical place. The weird abandoned iron mine and underground tunnel system. A magic powerful enough to not only hide the Braavosi from the Dragonlords, but make Braavos fantastically wealthy and give them the power to bring down the Valyrian Freehold.

But, we are only just beginning. I know I haven’t convinced you yet. To prove what’s going on under the hollow hill, under the green sea of Braavos, deep in the tunnels beneath the House of Black and White, we must look more closely at how the magic of the Faceless Men works. Only then can we return to solve the mysteries lurking deep in the dark stone sanctum of the House of Black and White.

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