June 28, 2024

Excerpt from The Moonstone Covenant

By Jill Hammer

Excerpt from The Moonstone Covenant, forthcoming fall 2024

Chapter 1: Istehar Sha’an, Illuminatrix Juniper Island

Anteceday, 11:00 a.m.

At the foot of the stairs to the Juniper Island bookmarket, a dozen bookboats huddle close to the shore—crowded, overburdened, shambling creatures of slats, spines, and pages. The goods are second-rate—scribbled-in textbooks, castoffs from estate sales, bestsellers from decades ago, crude children’s stories painted on wood, pamphlets printed by ranting fanatics. These things are what the poor can afford, and the bookboats recycle them over and over again, buying an item back at a quarter what someone paid for it. Bookboats are floating piles of junk—beneath any Librarian’s notice, Annlynn says, and she’s a Librarian, so she should know. But now and then something unusual surfaces from the maelstrom, like a spout from a whale’s blowhole. And that is what I’m looking for.

I wince as a portly bookwife leans across a gap, her boat tilting, to upbraid a colleague who’s blocked the lane. I’ve seen one of those boats go over—or worse, catch fire. When it happens, the whole neighborhood jumps into the water to help save the merchandise—those books are someone’s livelihood, after all. And it’s Moonstone. Books are sacred.

But I’ve also seen the Library censors come and burn a boat to the waterline for having some book it’s not supposed to have. To a censor, a book is only sacred if it’s legal. The booksellers take risks anyway, with pillow books and strange religious tracts and works of arcane magic and tell-all tales about government officials. Romance, heresy, and sedition sell, no matter what city or century. Humans are what they are.

I pull off my shoes and shove them into my bag, then hop up onto a bookboat close to shore. I scan the shelves and boxes and listen for a moment. The bookseller, in the stern, scrambles toward the prow, sales pitch on his lips, and pauses, confused by my stillness. I don’t hear what I’m looking for, so before he recovers and reaches me, I hop onto the next bookboat.

This one is anchored under a little willow with yellow branches bending down to the water’s surface. Yes, there’s something here. Mixed with the hum of the tree is a harsher buzzing sound—the books. One yowls out its maudlin romance, another spews political rage, a third officiously gives advice about canal-dredging. My head starts to ache, but the humble, gentle song of the willow steadies me. I remember when I was a child in the Sha’an forest, and I’d put my hand to a tall cypress or an overhanging cherry, and it would tell me which animals or people had passed that way, how much rainfall there had been that winter, which leaf would cure a plague. My pregnant mother lived inside a giant hollow syssyrup tree for months, in the hope that I’d become a tree-speaker and one day be the tribe’s illuminatrix. I remember that tree, too, its hollow fragrant with sap. I visited it often as a child. You could sing inside it and your voice would be magnified, deepened, as if you had become a tree yourself.

“Oi, Snowhair,” the grizzled proprietor calls from mid-boat. Some of the booksellers call me Madam Sha’an, and some call me “Reverence”—which in Moonstone is the proper term for a religious functionary (though by law, as a foreign clergyperson, I’m not entitled to the title). Some of them don’t talk to me at all, and think I might be a madwoman, witch or bookthief. Those booksellers stare to make sure I don’t pocket anything. But the ones who know me from when I was younger and climbing around these canals know me as Snowhair. Years ago, when I wrote my first Book of the Tree in my twelfth year, I spent all night among the roots of a gnarled old apple tree, listening and transcribing, the book’s cover of soft bark smooth in my hands.

In the morning, the book was finished, the tree had bloomed, and the fine, wavy hair that fell in a mass down my back was white as snow. Olloise calls that story my “fairy tale,” but it’s true.

“Afternoon, Lerreg,” I respond, using my staff to balance on the rocking boat. “Anything good today?”

“Sure,” he grins. “In the mood for a pillow book? I always got bunches of those. The housewives sell ’em when they’re done reading ’em.”

To be friendly, I return the grin. “Maybe one day.” There’s something here, something that wants to be found. Bracing myself with the staff, I squat by a box that looks like a fruit crate and search through pamphlets, tolerating their mewling voices. One of them comes easily to my hand, but when I touch it, it gives off an awful, hateful chitter. When I look more closely, I drop it in disgust.

“Oi, don’t harm the merchandise,” Lerreg complains.

“How can you have this here?” I demand. Lerreg hangs his head a bit. I pick the thing back up. It’s a screed published by Vilya, crown prince of Moonstone. On the cover is an image of a gaunt sun-browned man in a tattered robe, with eerie green eyes, dipping his knotted fingers into the purse of
a well-dressed, well-coiffed lady. The man looks something like a tree, and a great deal like my uncles and cousins—men of the Sha’an forests.

It’s an outrage that Vilya should paint my people this way. Sha’an fighters fought off Lord Griseus of Mor and his soldiers long enough for many of us to escape. Sha’an healers helped us survive on the long journey down-river to Moonstone. I would surely have been killed if kind villagers had not taken me to safety after my parents’ death, when I hid inside the hollow tree and sobbed, and would gladly have died there defending the place of my birth.

“It’s written by the crown prince himself,” Lerreg points out.

“More’s the pity,” I mutter.

“They was handing them out at a canal bridge,” Lerreg adds. “I thought I’d just take a few. As a curiosity. They’re legal!”

“The archprince shouldn’t permit this to go on,” I say.

“Well, that could be true, Reverence,” Lerreg says, becoming distant, and likely angry with me. “But there’s plenty of people think there’s too much foreign magic in Moonstone.”

“Foreign magic cured the archprince,” I reply coldly.

“Mm,” Lerreg half-agrees, and looks away. But I’m on thin ice. I shouldn’t admit to magic, or even speak of it.

In the same way I can listen to trees, I can listen to books, so long as they’re made of plant matter.

The archprince, Jalian Mai, is a tolerant man—one might say, a placid one. His people benefit, and sometimes suffer, from his benign neglect. He was ill much of his early life. When we Sha’an came here, bedraggled and wounded, we brought rare healing mosses with us. Using those medicines, the healer Nurifir Sha’an cured the archprince of his illness. Jalian Mai has favored us ever since, helping us tend our poor and our orphans these last ten years.

But Jalian’s only legitimate son, Vilya, surrounds himself with fools and charlatans peddling hatred of my people. Savages, he calls us—beggars feeding off Moonstone’s riches and infesting the city with impure magics. Maybe Vilya hates us because by saving his father, we deprived him of the throne he craves and is so ill-suited to occupy. Or maybe his reclusive mother, the archprincess Tilgana, has poisoned his mind against us. She is, after all, from the House of Mor, and sister to the man who exiled us and burned our forests for farmland.

“Anyway,” I say, “we’re not foreign anymore. We live here.”

I shove the detestable thing in my bag to show Annlynn. “Don’t you dare charge me for it,” I growl at Lerreg, who glowers at me uneasily. He may have known me since I was fourteen, but like many Moonstone folk, he’s superstitious about my people, and my hair. I prepare to jump onto the next bookboat, but something stops me. There’s something here, among the voices of the books murmuring their little tales. Something for Olloise. A birthday present.

I prowl the rows of sacks and boxes and find a sturdy leather envelope, much finer than the type I normally see on such a boat. “Where’d you come upon this?” I ask, carefully squeezing it open. Lerreg says nothing and I don’t expect him to.

What I find in the envelope is old. I’m not Annlynn, but we’ve all learned a smattering of one another’s trades over the years. I can see a number of very small linen-bound books, carefully sewn at the spine. When I take one out and page through it, traces of gold illumination sparkle on the pages. As I leaf carefully through the tiny volumes, one seems to grasp at my fingers.

The title on the cover reads: The Poisoner’s Guide to Moonstone: A History of Murders by Elixir. When I open the book, I find a variety of tales, from the boastings of an alchemist to the plottings of a courtesan, all ending with the story of a fatal venom. Some of the pages reveal recipes for the poisons they describe.

“Cheerful,” I comment to myself. And it might be illegal, if anyone could actually understand it. The language is from so long ago it’s hard to decipher, like an ancient play staged at the Library theater. It might upset Olloise, remind her of her parents’ murder. But it’s speaking to me, and I have to trust that.

In the same way I can listen to trees, I can listen to books, so long as they’re made of plant matter. But unlike the dense, slow songs of the trees, the voices of books are tree-consciousness mixed with human intentions: brighter and louder. Neither trees nor books tend to use the kind of speech one gets in a conversation: usually, it’s more like a jumble of feelings and images. But still, I can size up an author’s intention without even touching the cover. It’s unfair, Annlynn says, that I can read books without opening them. A Librarian could use such a gift, she says. But this talent appears only rarely even among my people, who lived among the great trees of the Sha’an forest for generations—until a despot drove us out so he could own the trees himself, and cut them down
at will.

“This one I’ll pay you for,” I say to Lerreg, and drop a silver coin into his hand, more than he’s seen in a month, I would guess.

“Likely worth more’n that,” he objects halfheartedly.

“Maybe,” I say politely. I wish I hadn’t gotten angry with him. The city is steeped in hatred; it’s not his fault. “Thanks, Lerreg. Drop the rest of the prince’s pamphlets in the river, will you?” I wrap the small book in the extra shawl I keep in my bag. I nod farewell to the little gentle willow drowsing in its sunlit dream. Then I clamber back across several bookboats toward the shore, noticing the earthy smell of the river and the leathery scents wafting from the boat decks. I look back to catch the view of the Library dome towering like a mountain in the distance across the water. I’ll need to catch a gondola to Seven Lanterns, get off at Inkstone Point and then walk across the bridge to Undersong House. I hope the shortbreads I put in my bag a while ago are still intact. And that Olloise, who is so particular, doesn’t hate my present.

None of us has much. We are forest folk; we know how to find what we need.

The weight in my bag reminds me of the day we came down the river to Moonstone, hungry and wounded. The sentinels searched our fleet of small coracles and confiscated our sacred books, suspecting us of sorcery. They let us into the city only because we knew how to grow moss-silk,
and because our healer promised to cure the archprince. The Council commanded me, as leader of the Sha’an, to attend the River School, where the city trains its princelings, warriors, librarians, and scholars. So I would come to see this place as my home, they said. So I would become like them, they meant. Inside myself, I swore Moonstone would never be my home.

The Sha’an are in danger here. If I gave the order, my people could pack their belongings within a few days. None of us has much. We are forest folk; we know how to find what we need. We could travel elsewhere without much more difficulty than moss-silk seeds on the breeze. But how can
I leave my wives? Annlynn could never abandon her post at the Library. I cannot even imagine the fair Vasmine, who has the ear of princes, making her way through a forest.

And Olloise—this city is all she has left of her dead parents. The Council was far cannier than I thought, when they demanded I attend their River School and learn the things their princelings and scholars learn. I met my wives there, and they are of this place, to the bone. Now, how can I ever go?

As I climb up from the shoreline, a pebble strikes me in the shoulder. I turn to see an urchin staring. “Witch!” he calls before running off into the maze of alleyways and stairs.

So it begins.

Jill Hammer is a celebrated author, scholar, rabbi, ritualist, poet, and dreamworker. The Moonstone Covenant is her first published work of fantasy fiction, but she has been reading and writing fantasy since she was young. Like some of her characters, she has a deep love of books, trees, enchanted castles, and mysterious alleyways. She is the author of eight other books, including works of fiction, poetry, and feminist theological scholarship. She lives with her family in Manhattan, where she spends a great deal of time in Central Park.