Essle is a sprawling monstrosity on the south coast of Valdyas, in the delta of the Valda. It is built on hundreds, if not thousands, of larger and smaller islands - the exact number has never been determined, because at low tide there may be one island where there are a dozen or more at high tide; or there may be an island at low tide that at high tide disappears completely. Some are connected by bridges, some can only reached by boat at high tide and on foot at low tide, some are isolated at high tide and are very dangerous to get to at low tide because of quicksand.

The exact number of inhabitants is likewise uncertain. Estimates diverge from a hundred and fifty thousand to more than half a million. It depends on whether you count the shanty towns to the north, whether the fishing fleet is in, how many trading ships are in port, and if you count (as if anybody ever bothered to count) in summer or in winter.

The city is considered ungovernable and generally left ungoverned, except by its self-appointed council. Sometimes, a sudden flare-up of trading activity by mercantile houses of good standing, or by the noble houses Brun (very dependable) and Rhydin (reasonably dependable) brings in some taxes for the Crown, but thoughout history it has usually been more rewarding to let Essle itself stew and profit only by the trade passing through.

Every trading house worth the name has a branch in Essle: the most notable are The Dawn, The Rising Sun, and The Star of the South. The last is only a branch of a large trading empire based in Albetire. Every commodity available in Valdyas can be got here. All import and export goes across the ocean. Most trade is with Iss-Peran (a collection of countries to the south near the equator; import of fine textiles, spices, chemicals, glassware, preserved fruits, all kinds of exotic and tropical goods) and, until recently when it was conquered by the Khas, Aumen Síth which is also called Solay, "Gold Town" (to the far south-west; mostly salt, gold and gems as Aumen Síth was a small wealthy desert state, vestige of a once mighty empire). Exports are mostly of wool, wood, grain, copper and other typical temperate-climate bulk goods.

The climate is not quite warm enough for rice, and slightly too wet for cotton. There's always a wind. Typical summer weather is either humid and intolerable when the wind is from the south or south-west, or dry and intolerable with a stiff hot easterly or north-easterly breeze. Typical winter weather is chilly, drizzly and dismal. Autumn and, to a lesser extent, spring bring storms. It hardly ever snows: old people can probably recall "the time that it snowed when I was a kid". When the wind is from the south-east, the whole city reeks of rotten fish.

In spite of the weather most inhabitants of Essle seem to lead their public life in the street or the marketplace. No other town or city in Valdyas has so rich and varied an assortment of food stalls and take-away eating places, where people stop on their way to work to buy a filled roll or spend some time during the day to stand at a counter eating squid-and-onions (a local specialty) and chatting with friends. Only the rich stay inside the cool of their houses, which more often than not are built on a small island of their own.

The market quarter is near the docks, a labyrinth of islands and islets connected by bridges. Every island has a central marketplace, most devoted to one particular trade, surrounded by warehouses and private residences mostly occupied by the stallholders. Some tradespeople don't have a stall, but sell from their warehouse; some don't even have that, but sell from a boat or raft on one of the many canals.

The total tally comes to almost a hundred smaller and larger marketplaces. Some trades only have one small island or even share it with similar branches of trade, some (such as the fish, meat and vegetable markets) spread out over a dozen or more islands. Many bridges, too, are built up with stalls and even houses.

Everybody buys their daily necessities in the market, though the rich usually send their servants. Neighbourhoods too far from the market quarter have their own food markets. The market is never quiet: opening hours are from sunrise till sunset, tidying-up takes most of the night, and fresh produce comes in at dawn.

The dockyards take up most of the actual river-mouth, in the south-western part of the city. The great ocean traders lie to the south, the fishing fleet further inland. Upwind (north-east) from the dockyards most of the more smelly trades are located: smoke-houses, tanneries and similar operations.

The worst part of town is wedged between the market and the docks, a dismal triangle usually called 'Hind Town' or 'The Pit'. People who want to get produce from the docks to the market usually take the long way around instead of the short cut straight through. On dry land there are only warehouses, mostly empty. Respectable tradesmen don't have their warehouses here, or if they do they've long since forgotten. Even the less respectable tradesmen don't like to come here without a weapon or an armed escort, not even by daylight. As far as people live here, it is bound to be in leaky houseboats, tumbledown constructs comparable to those to the north of the city, or squatting in a derelict warehouse.

This is the realm of robbers, youth gangs, and the cheapest kind of whores who can't even make a living on the dockside. Of course they don't work in the neighbourhood - there's nothing to be got there - but they do live there, and if you don't belong you're done away with. The water is as thick as mud, so it's easy to make a body disappear.

Most of the city, in fact, consists of ordinary neighbourhoods, neither very rich nor very poor, where members of the various craft guilds live, but even there it's usual to have a small boat and use it almost daily. Every child born in Essle knows how to swim by the age of three, and being able to use a boat is as normal as walking.