The Free Cities or Nine Free Cities are nine independent city-states located in the western part of Essos, the great continent that lies to the east of Westeros. Seven of the cities are coastal or island ports, lying on the Narrow Sea, whilst two others are located inland. Each of the Free Cities controls a certain amount of territory surrounding it, including smaller towns and villages. East of the Free Cities lies the Dothraki Sea. The Free Cities often feast and give tribute to the Dothraki to prevent them from sacking the area.
The coastal Free Cities are Braavos, Pentos, Tyrosh, Myr, Lys, Lorath and Volantis. The inland cities are Norvos and Qohor. Braavos is the richest and the most militarily powerful of the cities, but Volantis is larger.
Braavos is the northern-most of the Free Cities, located east of the Vale of Arryn or the Crownlands. Pentos is further down the coast, with Norvos and Qohor located inland to the east. Tyrosh lies to the south of Pentos, and Myr and Lys are located even further south on the coast, and often feud over the Disputed Lands and the Stepstones. They frequently try to embroil Tyrosh and Volantis in their wars. Volantis is located on the south-western coast of the region, on the Summer Sea rather than the Narrow, at the mouth of the River Rhoyne which borders the Disputed Lands to the east, beyond which lies the less-populous lands and the still-extant Valyrian roads leading towards Slaver's Bay.
Whilst the Free Cities are independent, they are not equally powerful. Braavos is the most influential and powerful of the Free Cities, and has some significant influence over Pentos (including encouraging the latter to outlaw slavery). Pentos also acts as the effective port for Norvos and Qohor, and has some authority over those cities. Lorath, located on an island in the Shivering Sea, appears to be the most isolated and least influential of the Free Cities.
Eight of the Free Cities existed during the latter part of the existence of the Valyrian Freehold, either founded by them as colony-states or conquered during their westward expansion (which had earlier seen the destruction of the Rhoynar city-states). Eight centuries ago - two centuries after the Rhoynar had been displaced by the Valyrians to Dorne in Westeros - a religious sect known as the Moonsingers led numerous refugees northward to a mist-shrouded lagoon where where they founded the Secret City of Braavos. The existence of the city was unknown to the Valyrians for a century, and even after its existence was revealed their dragons were unable to find it. Three centuries later Valyria was destroyed in the Doom.
After the Doom, the western cities became independent through a series of civil wars and conflicts collectively known as the Bleeding Years. During this time Volantis attempted to reforge the Valyrian Freehold and asked for help from the House Targaryen, the only remaining Valyrian noble family who still possessed dragons, who held the island of Dragonstone in the Narrow Sea. The Targaryens instead abandoned Volantis and the other Valyrian loyalists to invade and conquer Westeros instead. Volantis' attempts to reforge the Freehold collapsed, and the cities became free and independent.
In the three centuries since then, the Free Cities have become rich and powerful, although often riven by wars and conflicts. A major recent conflict was the War of the Ninepenny Kings, when the Band of Nine led by Alequo Adarys the Goldentongued conquered the Free City of Tyrosh and several of the Stepstone islands. Alequo's ally, Maelys Blackfyre and his Golden Company, comprising embittered and exiled knights and warriors from Westeros, planned to attack King's Landing in an effort to supplant the Targaryen family, but King Aegon V sent a strong army against him instead, and Ser Barristan Selmy slew Maelys in battle. Although Alequo retained power for six more years, he was eventually deposed and killed, and the Archons resumed control of the city.
The most constant ongoing struggle in the Free Cities is between the cities of Myr and Lys for control of the Stepstones and Disputed Lands, which frequently erupts into low-level warfare. Tyrosh and Volantis sometimes become embroiled in these conflicts.