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Dragon Keeper Free Edition with Bonus Material

Robin Hobb



  Free Edition with Bonus Material




  To the memory of Spot and Smokey, Brownie-butt and Rainbow, Rag-bag and Sinbad.

  Fine pigeons, one and all.



  Title Page

  Cast of Characters

  Prologue: Serpents’ End

  Chapter One – The Riverman

  Chapter Two – The Hatch

  Chapter Three – An Advantageous Offer

  Chapter Four – Vows

  Chapter Five – Blackmail and Lies

  Chapter Six – Thymara’s Decision

  Chapter Seven – Promises and Threats

  Chapter Eight – Interviews

  Chapter Nine – Journey

  Chapter Ten – Cassarick

  Chapter Eleven – Encounters

  Chapter Twelve – Among Dragons

  Chapter Thirteen – Suspicions

  Chapter Fourteen – Scales

  Chapter Fifteen – Currents

  Chapter Sixteen – Community

  Chapter Seventeen – Decisions

  Bonus Excerpt

  About the Author

  Also by Robin Hobb


  About the Publisher

  Cast of Characters



  ALUM: Pale skin, silvery gray eyes. Very small ears. Nose almost flat. His dragon is ARBUC, a silver-green male.

  BOXTER: Cousin to Kase. Coppery-eyed, short, stoutly built. His dragon is orange male SKRIM.

  COPPER: An unclaimed, sickly brown dragon.

  GREFT: Eldest of the keepers, and most heavily marked by the Rain Wilds. His dragon is blue-black KALO, the largest male.

  GRESOK: Large red dragon, first to leave the cocooning grounds.

  HARRIKIN: Long and slim as a lizard, at twenty, he is older than most of the other keepers. Lecter is his foster brother. His dragon is RANCULOS, a red male with silver eyes.

  JERD: A blond female keeper, heavily marked by the Rain Wilds. Her dragon is VERAS, a queen, dark green with gold stippling.

  KASE: Boxter’s cousin. He has copper eyes and is short, wide, and muscular. His dragon is orange male DORTEAN.

  LECTER: Orphaned at seven, raised by Harrikin’s family. His dragon is SESTICAN, a large blue male with orange scaling and small spikes on his neck.

  NORTEL: A competent and ambitious keeper. His dragon is lavender male TINDER.

  RAPSKAL: A heavily marked keeper. His dragon is the small red queen Heeby.

  SILVER: Has an injured tail and no keeper.

  SYLVE: A twelve-year-old girl, youngest of the keepers. Her dragon is golden MERCOR.

  TATS: The only keeper to have been born a slave. He is tattooed on the face with a small horse and a spider web. His dragon is the smallest queen, green FENTE.

  THYMARA: Sixteen years old; has black claws instead of nails and is at home in the trees. Her dragon is a blue queen, SinTARA, also known as SKYMAW.

  TINTAGLIA: An adult queen dragon, she assisted the serpents on their journey up the river to cocoon. It has been years since she has been seen in the Rain Wilds.

  WARKEN: A tall, long-limbed keeper. He is devoted to his dragon BALIPER, a scarlet male.


  ALISE KINCARRON FINBOK: Comes from a poor but respectable Bingtown Trader family. The dragon expert. Married to Hest Finbok. Gray eyes, red hair, many freckles.

  HEST FINBOK: A handsome, well-established, and wealthy Bingtown Trader.

  SEDRIC MELDAR: Secretary to Hest Finbok, and friends with Alise since childhood.


  BELLIN: Deckhand. Married to Swarge.

  BIG EIDER: Deckhand.

  CARSON LUPSKIP: Hunter for the expedition. Leftrin’s old friend.

  DAVVIE: Apprentice hunter to Carson Lupskip. About fifteen years old.

  GRIGSBY: Ship’s cat. Orange.

  HENNESEY: First mate.

  JESS: Hired hunter for the expedition.

  LEFTRIN: Captain. Robust build, gray eyes, brown hair.

  SKELLY: Deckhand. Leftrin’s niece.

  SWARGE: Tillerman. He has been with the Tarman for more than fifteen years.

  TARMAN: A river barge, long and low. Oldest existing liveship. Home port Trehaug.


  ALTHEA VESTRIT: First mate, Paragon out of Bingtown. Aunt to Malta Khuprus.

  BEGASTI CORED: Chalcedean merchant; bald, rich, trading partner of Hest Finbok.

  BRASHEN TRELL: Captain of the Paragon out of Bingtown.

  CLEF: Ship’s boy on the Paragon, former slave.

  DETOZI: Keeper of the messenger birds at Trehaug.

  DUKE OF CHALCED: Chalced’s dictator, elderly and ailing.

  EREK: Keeper of the messenger birds at Bingtown.

  MALTA KHUPRUS: The Elderling “queen,” resides in Trehaug. Married to Reyn Khuprus.

  PARAGON: A liveship. Helped escort the sea serpents up the river to the cocooning grounds.

  SELDEN VESTRIT: A young Elderling; Malta’s brother and Althea’s nephew.

  SINAD ARICH: Chalcedean merchant who strikes a deal with Leftrin.

  Day the 2nd of the Plough Moon

  Year the 6th of the Reign of the Most Noble and Magnificent Satrap Cosgo

  From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  This night have dispatched to you four birds, bearing in two parts our agreement with the dragon Tintaglia, to be ratified by the Rain Wild Council. Trader Devouchet, leader of the Bingtown Traders’ Council, suggested that duplicates be sent. They sum up the formal agreement between the Traders and the dragon. We are to aid her serpents in traveling up the Rain Wild River in exchange for her assistance with defending the Trader cities and waterways against the Chalcedean invaders.



  A brief message of my own, penned in haste in a very small space. All is chaos here. My bird coop scorched in the fires the invaders set, many of my birds dead from smoke. I’m sending Kingsly as one of the messenger birds tonight. You know I raised him from a squab by hand after his parents died. Please keep him safe there and do not return him until we know that all is well. If Bingtown falls, treat him well and keep him as your own. Pray for us here. I do not know that Bingtown will survive this invasion, dragon or no.



  Serpents’ End

  They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present. Sisarqua opened her jaws and bent her neck. It was hard for the sea serpent to focus her thoughts. It had been years since she had been completely out of the water. She had not felt dry land under her body since she had hatched on Others’ Island. She was far from Others’ Island’s hot dry sand and balmy waters now. Winter was closing in on this densely forested land beside the chill river. The mudbank under her coiled length was hard and abrasive. The air was too cold, and her gills were drying out too quickly. There was nothing she could do about that except to work more swiftly. She scooped her jaws into the immense trough and came up with a mouthful of silver-streaked clay and river water. She threw her great head back and gulped it down. It was gritty and cold and strangely delicious. Another mouthful, another swallow. And again.

  She had lost count of how many
gulps of the grainy soup she had ingested when finally she felt the ancient reflex trigger. Working the muscles in her throat, she felt her poison sacs swell. Her fleshy mane stood out all around her throat in a toxic, quivering ruff. Shuddering down her full length, she opened her jaws wide, strained, gagged, and then met with success. She clamped and locked her jaws to contain the liquid, releasing it only as a thin, powerful stream of clay, bile, and saliva tinged with venom. With difficulty, she turned her head and then coiled her tail closer to her body. The extrusion was like a silvery thread, thick and heavy. Her head wove as she layered the wet winding over herself.

  She felt a heavy tread nearby, and then the shadow of the walking dragon passed over her. Tintaglia paused and spoke to her. “Good. Good, that’s right. A nice even layer to begin with, one with no gaps. That’s right.”

  Sisarqua could not spare a glance for the blue-and-silver queen who praised her. Creating the case that would shelter her during the remaining months of winter took all her attention. She focused on it with a desperation born of weariness. She needed sleep. She longed to sleep; but she knew that if she slept now, she would never wake again in any form. Finish it, she thought. Finish it, and then I can rest.

  All around her on the riverbank other serpents labored at the same task, with varying degrees of success. Between and among them, humans toiled. Some carried buckets of water from the river. Others mined chunks of silvery clay from a nearby bank and loaded them into barrows. Youngsters trundled the barrows to a hastily constructed log enclosure. Water and clay were dumped into the immense trough; other workers used shovels and paddles to break up the lumps of clay and render the water and clay into a loose porridge. It was this slurry that Sisarqua had consumed as the major ingredients for manufacturing her case. The lesser ingredients were just as essential. Her body added the toxins that would plunge her into a sleep half a breath above death. Her saliva contributed her memories to the keeping of her case. Not just her own memories of her time as a serpent, but all the memories of those of her bloodline spooled around her as she wove her case.

  Missing were the memories she should have received from watchful dragons tending the serpents as they made their cases. She had enough memories to recall that there should have been at least a score of dragons present, encouraging them, chewing the memory sand and clay and contributing their own regurgitated saliva and history to the process. But there weren’t, and she was too tired to wonder how that lack might affect her.

  A great weariness washed over her as she reached the neck of her case. It had to be constructed in a way that would eventually allow her to draw her head in and then seal it behind her. It came to her, slowly, that in previous generations, the dragons who had tended the serpents had sometimes helped them seal their cases. But Sisarqua knew better than to hope for that help. Only 129 serpents had massed at the mouth of the Serpent River to begin the desperate upriver migration to the traditional cocooning grounds. Maulkin, their leader, had been gravely concerned that so few of them were female: less than a third. In any cocooning year, there should have been hundreds of serpents, and at least as many females as males. They had waited so long in the sea, and then come so far in the hope of restoring their species. It was hard to hear that they might be too few and too late.

  The difficulties of the river journey had reduced the number still further. Sisarqua was not certain how many had reached the cocooning beach. About ninety, she thought, but the graver news was that fewer than twenty of the survivors were female. And all around her, exhausted serpents continued to die. Even as she thought of it, she heard Tintaglia speak to a human worker. “He is dead. Bring your hammers and break up his case. Work it back into the troughs of memory clay. Let the others keep alive the memories of his ancestors.” She could not see, but she heard the sounds of Tintaglia dragging the dead serpent from his unfinished cocoon. She smelled his flesh and blood as the dragon devoured his carcass. Hunger and weariness cramped her. She wished she could share Tintaglia’s meal but knew that it was too late for eating now. The clay was in her gut and must be processed.

  And Tintaglia needed the food. She was the sole dragon left alive to shepherd all of them through this process. Sisarqua did not know where Tintaglia got her strength. The dragon had been flying without rest for days to shepherd them up the river, so unfamiliar to them after decades of change. She could not have many reserves left. Tintaglia could offer them little more than encouragement. What could one dragon do when faced with the needs of so many sea serpents?

  Like the gossamer recollection of a dream, an ancestral memory wafted briefly through her mind. Not right, she thought. None of this is right; none of it is as it should be. This was the river, but where were the broad meadows and the oak forests that had once edged it? The lands that bounded the river now were swamp and boggy forest, with scarcely a bit of firm ground to be seen. If the humans had not labored to reinforce the bank of this beach with stone before the serpents arrived, they would have churned it to mud. Her ancestral serpent memories told her of broad, sunny meadows and a rich bank of clay near an Elderling city. Dragons should have been clawing chunks of clay free and churning the clay and water to slurry, dragons should have been putting the final seals on the serpents’ cases. And all of this should have been happening under a bright summer sun in the heat of the day.

  She gave a shudder of weariness, and the memory faded beyond her recall. She was only a single serpent, struggling to weave the case that would protect her from winter’s cold while her body underwent its transformation. A single serpent, cold and weary, finally come home after an eternity of roaming. Her mind drifted back over the last few months.

  The final leg of her journey had seemed an endless battle against the river current and the rocky shallows. She was a newcomer to Maulkin’s tangle and astonished by it. Usually a tangle numbered twenty to forty serpents. But Maulkin had gathered every serpent he could find and led them north. It had made foraging for food along the way far more difficult, but he had deemed it necessary. Never had she seen so many serpents traveling together as a single tangle. Some, it was true, had degenerated to little more than animals, and others were more than half mad with confusion and fear. Forgetfulness shrouded the minds of too many. Yet as they had followed the prophet-serpent with the gleaming gold false-eyes in a long row down his flanks, she had almost recalled the ancient migration route. All around her, both spirits and intelligence had rallied in the embattled serpents. This arduous journey had felt right, more right than anything had for a very long time.

  Yet even so, she had known moments of doubt. Her ancestral memories of the river told her that the waterway they sought flowed steady and deep, and it teemed with fish. Her ancient dreams told her of rolling hills and meadows edged with open forests abounding with game for hungry dragons. This river had a deep channel that a ship could follow, but it threaded a wandering way inland through towering forest thick with creepers and brush. It could not be the way to their ancient cocooning grounds. Yet Maulkin had doggedly insisted that it was.

  Her doubt had been so strong that she had nearly turned back. She had almost fled the icy river of milky water and retreated to the warmer waters of the oceans to the south. But when she lagged or started to turn aside from the path, others of the serpents came after her and drove her back into the tangle. She had had to follow.

  But though she might doubt Maulkin’s visions, Tintaglia’s authority she had never questioned. The blue-and-silver dragon had recognized Maulkin as their leader and assisted the strange vessel that guided his tangle. The dragon had flown above them, trumpeting her encouragement, as she shepherded the tangle of serpents north, and then up this river. The swimming had been good as far as the two-legs city of Trehaug. Wearily but without excessive difficulty, they had followed the ship that led the way.

  But past that city, the river had changed. The guiding ship had halted there, unable to traverse the shallows beyond. Past Trehaug, the river spread and widened and
splintered into tributaries. Wide belts of gravel and sand invaded it, and dangling vines and reaching roots choked its edges. The river they followed became shallow and meandering, toothed with rocks in some places and then choked with reeds in the next stretch. Again Sisarqua had wanted to turn back, but like the other serpents, she had allowed herself to be bullied and driven by the dragon. Up the river they had gone. With more than one hundred of her kind, she had flopped and floundered through the inadequate ladder of log corrals that the humans had built in an attempt to provide deeper water for their progress through the final, killing shallows.

  Many had died on that part of their journey. Small injuries that would have healed quickly in the caressing salt water of the sea became festering ulcers in the river’s harsh flow. After their long banishment at sea, many of the great serpents were feeble both in mind and spirit. So many things were wrong. Too many years had passed since they had hatched. They should have made this journey decades ago, as healthy young serpents, and they should have migrated up the river in the warmth of summer, when their bodies were sleek with fat. Instead they came in the rains and misery of winter, thin and battered and speckled with barnacles, but mostly old, far older than any serpents had ever been before.

  The single dragon who watched over them was less than a year’s turning out of her own cocoon. Tintaglia flew overhead, glinting silver whenever the winter sunlight broke through the clouds to touch her. “Not far!” she kept calling down to them. “Beyond the ladder the waters deepen again and you can once more swim freely. Keep moving.”