Althea Vestrit has found a new home aboard the liveship Ophelia, but she lives only to reclaim the Vivacia as her rightful inheritance. However, Vivacia has been captured by the pirate 'King' Kennit, and is aquiring a keen bloodlust.
Meanwhile in Bingtown, the fading fortunes of the Vestrit family lead Malta deeper into the magical secrets of the Rain Wild Traders. And just outside Bingtown, Amber dreams of relaunching the Paragon, the mad ship.
Aboard Vivacia, Kennit is dying, but Wintrow gets the courage together to cut off the infected part of his leg, and Kennit agrees to try. He's starting to bond with the ship, and the operation makes the bond much deeper. It's not quite clear which one changes the other more, but Vivacia starts to believe in Kennit even as Kennit seems to start to believe that he's actually trying to do good in becoming King of the Pirate Isles. And Wintrow comes to believe in Kennit as well. Kennit imprisons Kyle on the secret isle where his mother lives in seclusion. Kennit was taken prisoner as a child by Igrot the pirate, who killed Kennit's father, cut out his mother's tongue, and made him a pirate. Kennit and his two ships return to Divvytown to find it has been ransacked, and Wintrow talks the survivors out of killing him, Kennit, and Etta. Kennit decides that Wintrow must go to the Other's Island and receive a prophecy. When they get there, Wintrow goes off to look along the beach, but instead of an artifact, finds a path that leads him to a cage with a trapped serpent. Taking pity on her, he breaks her out of the cage, and she in turn helps return Wintrow, Kennit, and Etta to Vivacia. The serpent he rescues is She Who Remembers, whom the Others have imprisoned as their oracle.
Althea is serving aboard the liveship Ophelia. A Chalcedean galley stops her in the pirate isles and demands to board and check her cargo. Captain Tenira believes this to be piracy and refuses to allow it, even when they claim to have the writ of the Satrap. They fight, and Ophelia herself damages the galley enough that they can escape, but she is burned. When they return to Bingtown, Captain Tenira discovers that the Satrap's customs officials believe they can claim as big a bribe as they want to let him through. He refuses, and they tie Ophelia up at the customs dock. Althea goes to her family and tries to convince them to join with the Teniras in standing up to the Satrap, but it's tough going.
Meanwhile, Brashen has been serving with a pirate when he's called upon to help dispose of a piece of pirate booty—a painting that he knows was Althea's, from Vivacia. He had heard the rumors that Kennit had captured Vivacia but didn't believe it. Now he does, so he agrees to go to Bingtown to try to get a top price for some of the stolen stuff, but he jumps ship and goes to the Vestrits. Althea of course wants to arrange a rescue, but they quickly realize that nobody is going to be willing to mount a rescue mission. So Brashen, Althea, and Amber come up with a plan to refit Paragon and sail him after Vivacia. Davad Restart has already been handling negotiations for the Ludlucks to sell Paragon, and between Amber's own wealth and the other money they can come up with, they manage to do it. Things are getting bad with the politics in Bingtown, with more of the Old Traders starting to realize that they have to stand up to the Satrap and his Chalcedean mercenaries, but Paragon leaves before the war hits.
Malta continues to act as a spoiled child, shamelessly playing Reyn and Cerwin against each other, apparently only interested in who can give her the most goodies. She's feeling so persecuted as her presentation approaches, but things really go crazy at her presentation. She's introduced to the Satrap, who dances with her. Then Serilla, one of the Satrap's companions, talks to Reyn and to Grag and convinces them that a coup is about to be launched, the Satrap is going to be killed and Bingtown blamed. The Vestrits are being sent home when suddenly the Satrap decides that he wants to go with them, so they're all together in Davad's coach, which is taken by highwaymen. Davad is killed, the Satrap is abducted, and Keffria and Malta flee to the Rain Wilds while the Chalcedeans torch Bingtown. Then Malta sneaks off into the ruins at night. Reyn realizes that she's in trouble, that the dragon has her in thrall, but he's drunk and his mother thinks he's raving, so she ignores him. And then a big earthquake comes along. Malta discovers the Satrap, trapped in a chamber that is slowly filling with mud. Reyn and Selden finish what Malta had started and the earthquake continued, and the dragon Tintaglia is freed; she decides to honor her promises and rescue the people who are trapped in the mess that got her free.
The serpents tie everything together as we piece together the big story of the secret of the Rain Wilds. Maulkin manages to start forcing some of the wild serpents to remember their names. Then they come upon the liveship Ringgold. They're convinced that it is somehow one of them, and they fight to make it recognize itself until they destroy the ship, and eventually get through to the original memories in the wizardwood. It was a dragon called Draquius. The serpents eat the wood that was Draquius' chrysalis and recover some more of their memories, and we find out that the Rain Wilders have been performing a horrible abomination, murdering the dormant dragons by using their cocoons as "wizardwood logs" to make liveships.
At the end of the book, there is a live dragon again. If She Who Remembers can find Maulkin and the other serpents, and they can all find their way up the Rain Wild River, and Tintaglia the dragon can protect them through the winter, dragons can live again in the world.