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In my hypothetical world, the current development of humans is similar to our late 19th century in terms of technological advancements; larger countries are capable having more advanced technology than smaller towns. There is a small town located near the border of a country, which is home to some of the most notorious murderers and undesirable people (e.g. convicts, thieves, abusers) that have been exiled or otherwise ousted from their home countries. Despite the description, the town is incredibly peaceful as its residents have mostly decided to put their old lives behind. Citizens have developed their own laws, some of which contradict or overrule the country's laws. Historically, the country's ruling government has made 3 attempts of placing its own military and government officials in this town to bring it under their control. However, every time there has been an attempt, any government officials or military personnel have been openly executed or have disappeared. The government has classified this town to be "ungovernable" and avoids any interactions with said town.

Since this town is near the border of the country and has undesirable people living in it, it has been prone to attacks from neighboring countries who are seeking to expand their territory; they are under the impression that the country doesn't care for this town and is an easy territory to take over. However, that is not the case and the country still protects its territory and defends the town from invasions. While the country has been unable to place its own military in the town itself, it has placed military units in nearby towns that are capable of jumping into action in a relatively short period of time. The citizens of this town are no strangers to fighting and are capable of protecting themselves for enough time until its parent country's military is able to arrive.

What (secret?) motivation could exist for the country's government to continue protecting this town despite it seemingly being of no benefit to the country?

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    $\begingroup$ The country would protect the city militarily, but won't put troops in the city? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like it would only take one attempted invasion rebuffed by the parent country to dissuade neighbours of the notion that they don't care for it. Why would there be repeated invasions? $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ "Federal government's laws": What federal government? You did not say that the country has a federal structure. (Most countries of this world don't.) And, if the country does have a federal structure, what are the rules? What is the federal government supposed to do and regulate, and what falls within the purview of the governments of the federated entities? Is this city over town one of the federated entities which make up the federation? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ thank you everyone for clarifying questions! I realize there were a number of things that I failed to mention and caused confusion. I've edited my post in hopes of clarifying a few points. $\endgroup$
    – cosmix
    Commented Oct 27, 2022 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ CIty-states don't generally need "protection" and have existed throughout the ages, but of course things change over time - if you want aspects relevant to late 19th century, have you looked at the political conditions of city-states of that era like Free City of Krakow, and Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen until 1871, or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_International_Settlement ? $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 13:42

16 Answers 16

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Two other examples, one that still exists, and one that no longer exists.

The Vatican is an independent city-state with its own legal structure. My admittedly hasty understanding of this is that a tradition was recognized by the leadership of Italy in 1929. The tradition arose for a variety of reasons, strongly among them the fact that the Catholic church has international ties, and so putting pressure on the church gets other countries upset with you. Easier to carve out an exception for them. But there were other contributing factors including the usual corruption, bribes, threats, etc. And some things the Catholics polished for centuries, such as plenary indulgences. Hey, help out the Vatican and you can have a divorce or something.

Another example, no longer existing, is the Walled City of Kowloon. This is a former area of Hong Kong, now removed and replaced with more typical-of-Hong-Kong structures. It was formerly ruled (if that's the right word) by a variety of shady underworld-ish type figures. Rumored to be a small amount of illicit substances involved. Possibly other less than family-friendly type activities. Eventually the local authorities decided they had enough of this collection of, um, exotic characters. And they bulldozed the place.

It hung together as long as it did for a variety of reasons.

  • There was a certain tradition of having a "bad part of town" for such things to be tolerated. This idea is still alive in many parts of the world.
  • It was a tourist attraction of a sort. Not for school groups or your granny, but some types would visit and pay some cash.
  • Place where misfits could go hang out and annoy mostly other misfits. Made it a way to clean out the "nice" neighborhoods without having to get too violent. You don't have to shoot the misfits, just herd them into Kowloon.
  • Source of illicit substances and activities that the local authorities thought were pressure relief for the populace. Let the misfits drink and smoke and such in the walled city, out of view of "nice" people.
  • The local authorities had some overlap with the shady characters running the place. And there were some bribes (tribute?) paid. Lot of money in non-family-friendly activities. Respectable-Wong might well be a medium level official in the legit government of Hong Kong by day, and sell truckloads of opium by night.
  • The shady characters would, if things got bad enough and they were asked correctly, pull the misbehavior back inside their walls. Sometimes.
  • The folk running it were not quiet passive folk. If they were threatened they tended to limber up with car bombs, assassinations, arson, and such. So it took a determined and widespread effort to clean them out.
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    $\begingroup$ (The entirety of) Hong-kong used to be mostly an example, but lately China is cracking down. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ The Walled City had a complicated legal background which might help the OP. It could be argued that it was not technically a part of Hong Kong and therefore was left alone. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 7:16
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    $\begingroup$ Vatican is a bad example as this is not considered to be italian soil and Vatican is ANOTHER state. $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @TomTom it still might be helpful for OP to adapt its story/setup to let the city be pretty much its own country $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ @FrancisDavey yes, there were some historical precedent for the Walled City to have extraterritorial status as a special diplomatic zone. Even after the city had long ceased to have any meaningful diplomatic activity, it was largely left alone as establishing a heavy rule of law would have been expensive and it had achieved some level of meaningful, sustaining self-governance. It was also a haven for unlicensed dentists, some of whom were actually competent and could treat you for less than it would cost for a mainstream provider. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 13:59
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The city is older than the country that surrounds it, holds a special economic or military status, and has been able to maintain its independence by ancient agreements

The City of London, approximately a square mile in the center of what is typically referred to by "London", governed by the City of London Corporation is a great example of this. It has its own, unusual elections, allowing companies based in it to vote as well, has its own rites and rituals, and even has its own police force.

The city has a unique political status, a legacy of its uninterrupted integrity as a corporate city since the Anglo-Saxon period and its singular relationship with the Crown.

There is no surviving record of a charter first establishing the Corporation as a legal body, but the City is regarded as incorporated by prescription, meaning that the law presumes it to have been incorporated because it has for so long been regarded as such (e.g. Magna Carta states that "the City of London shall have/enjoy its ancient liberties"). The City of London Corporation has been granted various special privileges since the Norman Conquest, and the Corporation's first recorded royal charter dates from around 1067, when William the Conqueror granted the citizens of London a charter confirming the rights and privileges that they had enjoyed since the time of Edward the Confessor. Numerous subsequent royal charters over the centuries confirmed and extended the citizens' rights.

Even the King/Queen has to ask for "permission" before entering

The Sovereign is the only person who outranks the Lord Mayor in the City, and even so the Lord Mayor's permission is sought before the Sovereign enters the City. By custom the Lord Mayor greets the Sovereign at the City limits, often at the site of the old Temple Bar, and presents the Pearl Sword of the City of London (hilt uppermost) to him or her in recognition of the Sovereign's authority.

The City even has its own agent in parliament, the City Remembrancer

The City of London is the only part of Britain over which parliament has no authority. In one respect at least the Corporation acts as the superior body: it imposes on the House of Commons a figure called the remembrancer: an official lobbyist who sits behind the Speaker’s chair and ensures that, whatever our elected representatives might think, the City’s rights and privileges are protected.

Stephen Fry's Key to the City - Exploring the Mysteries of the City of London explores some of this.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a good answer - but the last section about the City Remembrancer is disputed; indeed the linked Wikipedia page quotes it as part of a section explaining that the Remembrancer has no special powers beyond those of other parliamentary agents. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ It would not be true to suggest that Parliament has no authority over the City of London. Its status is not that special. The wikipedia article makes it very clear why this is and provides sound evidence of it in case there was any doubt, which there should not be. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 9:11
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There are several instances of something similar in history.

Relatively near my own hometown, some six centuries ago, the Papal States sold a whole region to the Florentines, but by mistake a strip half a kilomer wide and about three long was left out of the deed: the Pope relinquished possession, the Florentine Republic did not take over, and before being formally granted independence, for some forty years it was designated terra nullius -- no one's land.

The situation was quickly exploited by all sorts of unsavoury characters, and while the inhabitants mostly grew tobacco (which was prohibited in the Papal States, but had a significant underground market), there was a florid fencing and contraband business. It was also ideal for "deniable diplomacy" meetings, since diplomats could avoid officially presenting their credentials. What happened in Cospaia remained in Cospaia, since it officially did not even exist.

Having an outlet for undesirables, a source of "semi-legal" commodities and a neutral zone for under-the-table operations are a few of the many reasons that might let a city become a "free port".

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The country does not want its rivals to gain control of the city.

carcassone

https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/replica-dame-carcas-bust-0011848

This city was not always "ungovernable". It is an ancient, formidable walled city of considerable military value. It gradually became a haven for refugees and criminals under the governance of a lord long since passed, and the national government decided not to try to put him back under their thumb because although he had gone rogue he was no threat, and taking back the walled city would be costly.

They are OK "ungoverning", but the nationals do not want an enemy nation to get this walled city. It would serve as a forward base of operations for them to then campaign against the rest of the country. The residents of the city can shut the gates and the militia can man the walls. Attackers who think they will settle in for a siege outside the walls are eventually chased off by the national military.

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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't even have to be walled, the simple fact that it is a good strategic location would suffice. $\endgroup$
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ A slightly weird related of this in real life: The country does not wish to give up a claim to a more valuable location, which due to the nature of the claim involves relinquishing a claim to the less valuable location: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bir_Tawil is a location that neither Egypt nor Sudan claim, due to doing so would require relinquishing their claim on the Hala'ib Triangle. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @DonQuiKong absolutely! Lots of blood has been spilled protecting port towns that nobody cares about, because they're on rivers that are strategically important (or vital for trade). Sometimes they're not even directly beneficial to the country that protects them, but there would be dire consequences if they fell into an enemy's hands... $\endgroup$
    – A C
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 23:00
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It's a pirate town

The city has a prominent naval base, and frequently raids and sinks ships. They have tacit agreements with the central government to raid rival enemy ships.

It both acts as a lure to rival military forces to get causa belli on their lands when they attack, and allows the home country to be more dominant on the sea.

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    $\begingroup$ It could also be a Venice-like city-state with a huge fleet that brings enormous wealth by trading. Wealth not only tends to attract a lot of "friends", but lets you build a huge fleet of warships too. $\endgroup$
    – Neinstein
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ A good example of this would be Campeche on Galveston Island. It boarded Spanish and US territory and served as a base for Jean Lafitte, if Jean Lafitte didn't screw up and attack a US ship in 1821, he could have likely continued to use the goodwill he earned during the war of 1812 with the Americans to operate the city as an independent pirate state. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Neinstein That sounds like the city (state) would be able to defend itself, not require the presence of the "parent country" army as the OP asks for. And if it's wealthy, the country it is located in would surely want them to pay taxes. $\endgroup$
    – Bergi
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 16:10
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The real world example of this that I can think of is the Native American Reservations in the U.S. They are small areas of relative autonomy that get to make their own laws and the more local governments of the states can't really govern them at all, just the federal government. If your government decided that they didn't want to deal with them, and just wanted to leave them to their own devices, they could set up a criminal reservation and let that problem deal with itself.

As far as a reason to keep it protected when it is of little to no value, consider putting it in the middle of a desert area, like Las Vegas is, so even though it isn't around anything useful being able to control the only pit stop in the desert is desirable.

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    $\begingroup$ Some of the Indian Reservations are "small" only on the scale of the United States of America, which is an extremely large country. For example, at 71,000 square kilometers the Navajo Nation is about the same size as Ireland, covering about the same area as Belgium and the Nederlands combined. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 6:56
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP A small handful are big, this is true, but the vast majority of them are pretty small. Very few have populations over 10,000 or a land area over 1000sqmi en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 16:49
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What (secret?) motivation could exist for the country's government to continue protecting this town despite it seemingly being of no benefit to the country?

Because it's theirs by right and no one else's. It's not a secret, it's just sovereignty. Nations take matters of sovereignty particularly seriously.

Nothing forbids a nation to allow a region to govern itself. Just call it a dependency and give it a high degree of autonomy by law, and you'll allow it to continue as long as it doesn't cause trouble outside the region and doesn't conflict with your higher interests.

Trying to apply your rule by force is only going to lead to discontent. If people are happy with their autonomy, you can trade with them, tax them, and enjoy the Exclusive Economic Zone that comes with it where applicable. And at the end of the day that's preferable to an independence war. You can trust a Frenchman on that.

That does not mean that you will allow another nation to yoink it from you though. Although it is largely independent, it's still technically yours. It's your trading partner, your taxes, your EEZ, your citizens, your territory. You don't let other nations take what's yours. Even if it's most worthless piece of territory the Earth has ever seen, you don't let anybody take it from you, that's just a matter of principle.

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Corruption of any sort, such as representatives benefiting from illegal, but not necessarily bad exports of a drug (take for example marihuana in the USA pre-legalization). If ever criticized the town would take all the blame, not the politicians. This would also create a second avenue for US-like corruption - the military industrial complex. The government could benefit from constant warfare by making the spending on it justifiable and in turn, create long-term militaristic pressure on neighboring countries if not overexerted.

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They pay their taxes and they don't rebel

In general, governments only care about 2 things: money and power. Everything else they do are just extensions of fulfilling these 2 roles. As long as these 2 things are met, a government does not actually have a reason to care that much what is happening in its territories.

Laws cost money. So, the whole reason a government imposes any laws at all, is to make the people more compliant which increases thier power. Any laws that make people less compliant are bad for your government because it makes it harder for those in power to keep thier power. If your voters want a law that says no stabbing people for example, then you pass a law against it, and then the people as a whole are less likely to resist your rule because you've given them a law that makes them happy. It might cost you a bit of money to enforce the law, but you make up for it because you can now tax the people more than you did before to pay for the law.

In the case of this penal colony, the people have thier own laws and rules that keep the peace, but are culturally incompatible with Federal Laws. 99% of the country says prostitution, drugs, slavery, and cruel and unusual punishment are bad. They would rise up if you made these things legal; so, they have been made illegal to preserve the government's power. But, if you passed those same laws in this one place where these things are considered rights, not crimes, then an uprising would come from having the law, not from not having the law. So by letting these people run thier own laws, the government enjoys more power, not less, over this region.

But avoidance of something bad is not enough to come to these people's defense. The government also needs to get something good out of the deal. You see, the laws that keep 99% of the people compliant also cut off a lot of economic opportunities. This penal colony generates tons of revenue through things like prostitution, drugs, and slavery (which are all taxable income here). So by creating a haven for "alternative income" the nation collects far more taxes out of this territory than they could even if they could impose federal laws on them.

So when foreign powers threaten this "independent territory", the Federal Government is quick to step in the same way you may see them do on behalf of an important trade partner. So just as the USA had a vested interest to protected the Kuwaiti Monarchy during the Gulf War despite strong ideological differences, so too will your government do everything they can to make your penal colony sound like the good guys in any conflict so that they can protect all that nice tax income that comes from the region.

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In many modern cities in many modern nations, there are "No Go Zones" or similar where the crime in particular neighborhoods is so bad, especially with respect to government authority, that the government will hesitate to send law enforcement into the area because the threat to their own forces is too great... however, they don't renounce their territorial claim to the city. And if the situation gets really bad, they will go in. This typically takes the form of inner cities, but can also look like a civil war where one side is seeking to form a new nation. Without the brokerage of a treaty where the recognized nation recognizes the break away state (Like what concluded the U.S. War for Independence or Texas, following the Texas war for independence). During the entirety of the American Civil War, the confederate states were never seen to be part of a foreign nation in so far as the Union was concerned and were still part of the U.S., just in open rebellion. When civil wars do not resolve, this can lead to long periods where a nation might make a claim on a region but in effect have no means of controlling said nation. Consider the relationship of China (People's Republic of China (PROC)) and Taiwan (Republic of China (ROC)). Both claim to be the sole legitimate government of China and both Territorial claims to Mainland China and the Island of Taiwan. This results from the two being in a stalemate of a civil war that began shortly after WWII. While the PROC was not able to defeat the ROC forces before they fled for Taiwan, they did force them from the mainland and it's no secret that they want to bring Taiwan under their control... It's just well, at no point in it's entire history has China ever been considered a great naval power... additionally, PROC has strong economic ties to nations that would probably side against them if they tried to take the island that they cannot afford to lose. (Bizarrely, China and Taiwan actually agree on a lot of other unresolved territorial claims on regions that are within borders of other nations.).

Similarly, North and South Korea are still at war with each other, although the ceasefire has been maintained while they negotiate the treaty. Unfortunately no one has budged on some of the critical sticking points (namely, neither wants to recognize the other's right to exist nor will they surrender to the other's government. But while they hash that out, they'll stop killing each other.).

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  • $\begingroup$ "at no point in it's entire history has China ever been considered a great naval power" Actually, China had significant naval power throughout most of its history up until the mid-15th century when the Haijin banned sea trade and scrapped Zheng He's fleet, effectively crippling it's long tradition of naval dominance in the Indian and West Pacific Oceans. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 16:06
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Spies/assassins.

This town has very good spies and assassins. They work unofficially for country and kill anyone who wants to govern them. That gives them a safe place to store their gold (or other currency) with taxes or even with no taxes at all. The country protects them in exchange for their services - they pay but as long as protection is on them the city does not do jobs against the country. Be aware that this town due to lots of money and good intelligence can be more advanced technologically than any other country.

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The rulers of the country have ties with the leaders of the city.

When you are a not-too-ethical politician, then having connections to some people from the underworld can be useful. The criminals who operate in the city might be a valuable resource to them, because they are able to provide the rulers with:

  • Services like blackmail or even assassinations
  • Access to illicit substances
  • Sex workers who engage in acts no reputable person would ever be willing to participate in.
  • Information on their enemies and on what actually goes on in the country

So the rulers have a personal interest in keeping the city in its lawless state and letting the gangster bosses do their thing. Also, the gangster bosses themselves will know quite a lot about the shady dealings the rulers are involved in, which makes them untouchable.

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There is a very simple answer to this question, and it is to look at how military bases, especially NATO bases, work.

Every NATO country has to host some bases on their territory and the country officials have no jurisdiction in them. Crimes committed by NATO personnel cannot be prosecuted by the host country (with some exceptions.)

the military authorities of the sending State shall have the right to exercise within the receiving State all criminal and disciplinary jurisdiction conferred on them by the law of the sending State over all persons subject to the military law of that State;

The military authorities of the sending State shall have the right to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over persons subject to the military law of that State with respect to offences, including offences relating to its security, punishable by the law of the sending State, but not by the law of the receiving State.

These are just some snippets that can be of interest to you, there are various interesting articles that you can find in the official NATO agreement

If you are interested in the WHY some countries would choose to give away some parts of their territory to a "foreign city", you need to look no further than the events that gave rise to the Pact: WW2 and the Cold War.

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They are a valuable source of mercenaries.

The city's rough history, coupled with its need to defend itself against larger foes, has forged a military force of uncommon discipline, flexibility, and resilience. One of the chief cash exports of the city is mercenaries. Although brutally efficient in battle, the mercenaries have a reputation for being disciplined professionals. They take pains to stay out of internal squabbles, they will not engage in coups, nor will they assist in any military actions that directly attack the surrounding country. Because they are not seen as a danger to the ruling classes, and because they are very useful in a pinch, the encapsulating country (and all other countries nearby) would rather they keep their independence.

They value more a wild wolf for hire than they do a domesticated sheep.

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The the ruler of that little region is a rebellious close relative to the ruler of the country.

Maybe the fearful pregnant lover of the leader fled to that place and their child, dutiful to the people there, rose high and rules there. And so the ruler is secretly the country's leader's secret love child!, or maybe grandchild, sibling, etc.

For inspiration, in the Witcher books the emperor of Nilfgaard's female cousin rules a small enclave in his empire, her own seemingly fairytale-like vineyard-kingdom, which exists as a separate country with its own laws. Nilfgaardian horsemen who try pursuing enemies into the region are reminded by the knights of that country, that they are independent. If you haven't read the Witcher books I highly recommend it! They were even better than the games in many respects.

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  • $\begingroup$ This isn't silly. Having some lesser realm for defeated or non-Crown royals to disappear to makes sense. Providing they keep crime contained and don't meddle outside their walls, why shouldn't the Sultan's brothers live? $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 5:53
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Slab City in the Desert of California (US) matches this description. I could easily imagine a place that developed with no government. And people refused any government, and so long as that place didn't cause any issues to the greater governing body, they just ignore it. I assume it would have to remain relatively small to not attract enough attention, in addition to not directly causing issues. Enough murders happen there, or someone makes too much money there...the government is going to come.

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