It curves through the city in a great lazy meander, its waters discoloured by coal dust, its surface dotted with floating refuse. Here and there the chemical run-off from some adventurous serpent-folk laboratory creates shining puddles of oily, iridescent colour that spread across the water, to the delight of the shrieking children who splash and paddle in its shallows at low tide. Throughout the harvest seasons it is choked with fleets of barges, carrying confiscated wheat, barley and chickpeas from the surrounding fields and villages to feed the teeming and ravenous mouths of the city's people. For the rest of the year traffic upon the river is dominated by the skimming rowboats which carry passengers back and forth along its banks, evading the perpetual gridlock of the city's roads and bridges. There are still a few fishermen who ply their trade in its waters, but the fish in the river have grown scarce and strange in recent decades, and the fishing boats grow fewer every year.
Shamans who commune with the spirit of the river upriver of the city say that he appears to them as a fine young man, proud and strong and straight-bodied, full of stories of the lands he has passed through and the hills he has made green. Those who commune with him downriver of the city find him terribly changed: an old man, haggard and shaking, wheedling and demanding, forgetful and irrational and vindictive. (Within the city, of course, the spirit will not appear at all.) Beyond the edge of the city's farmlands the river winds down into the desert, depleted by a thousand irrigation channels, and is lost in a maze of sediment-choked wadis. It does not reappear again.
The riverfolk of the Wicked City are a breed unto themselves, a hardy race of scavengers who live among the mud and damp of the city's ruinous riverbanks. They make their homes among the leaning buildings that hang over the water at alarming angles, straining against their subsiding foundations, slowly losing their decades-long battle with gravity. They work on the wharves when work is to be had, caulking hulls, weaving ropes and nets, loading and unloading cargoes, and carrying passengers from bank to bank in agile little boats with sails like swift red wings. When work grows slack they take to salvage, digging amidst the muck in search of coals dropped from barges, or diving down into the basements of flooded buildings in search of something worth the taking. They swim like eels and stink of river-mud. A lifetime at the oars covers their bodies with braids of muscle, but the river's pollutants eat into their lungs and stomachs, and they usually die young.
Everything ends up in the river in the end. Toxic sludge from serpent-man drug-labs. The rusting hulks of crashed scrap-racers. The regalia of fallen noble houses, hurled into the water by their despairing heirs as the triumph of the Wicked King became inevitable. Mutilated statues from the king's statue network, their stone eyes gouged out to prevent them from witnessing who it was that toppled them into the river. The bodies of unfortunates murdered by the city's gangs, weighted down with rocks and thrown from the wharves at midnight, the river their only grave. Every riverman has stories about times they found more down there than they bargained for. Huge river-snakes swimming in from the Rubble. Flooded sinkholes leading down into the Maze. Sealed caskets of antique silver. Bullet-riddled corpses with bricks in their pockets, their faces still covered by the unmistakable death masks of the Secret Police.
Most mysterious of all are the vast flooded spaces that extend beneath the temples and palaces that once lined the river in what are now the ruined districts. They may be little more than heaps of rubble on the surface, but the riverfolk swear that beneath them lie immense vaulted chambers, storerooms and basements and dungeons filled with river water, their treasures and secrets hidden beneath darkness and slime. Some of the most daring river scavengers are already in negotiations with the Scrap Mechanics. They want to hire digging tools and diving suits. They want to tear their way into the flooded vaults and drag their contents back into the light.
One of them even hired a shaman from the steppes to ask the Downriver Spirit if he knew what was in them. The spirit claimed to have forgotten. But there was a crafty and desperate look in his demented eyes that suggested he may not have been telling the entire truth.