The Starless Sea

“Really?” Zachary asks, suddenly interested when before he had been lying in nervous apprehension. “Did you find anything?”

“Not a lot, the system’s so barcode-happy that if the computer doesn’t recognize it it’s hard to dig up a file, but I remembered that the book looked kind of old so I went down to the card archives, back from when everything was stored in those fabulous wooden catalogues, to see if it was there and it wasn’t but I did manage to decipher how it was coded, there’s a couple of digits in the barcode that indicate when it was added to the system, so I cross-referenced those.”

“That’s some impressive librarian detective work.”

“Ha, thank you. Unfortunately, the only thing it turned up was that it was part of a private collection, some guy died and a foundation distributed his library to a bunch of different schools. I updated the files and wrote down the name, so if you want to find any of the other books someone should be able to print out a list for you. I’m working most mornings until classes start up again if you’re interested.” Elena digs around in her bag and pulls out a folded scrap of lined notebook paper. “Some of them should be in the rare book room and not in circulation, but whatever. I gave it a catalogue entry so it should scan fine whenever you return it.”

“Thanks,” Zachary says as he takes the paper from her. Item acquired, a voice in his head remarks. “I’d like that, I’ll stop by sometime soon.”

“Cool,” Elena says. “And thanks for coming tonight, that was a great discussion. See you around.”

She’s gone before he can say goodbye.

Zachary unfolds the paper. There are two lines of text, written in remarkably neat handwriting.

From the private collection of J. S. Keating, donated in 1993.

A gift from the Keating Foundation.

Paper is fragile, even when bound with string in cloth or leather. The majority of the stories within the Harbor on the Starless Sea are captured on paper. In books or on scrolls or folded into paper birds and suspended from ceilings.

There are stories that are more fragile still: For every tale carved in rock there are more inscribed on autumn leaves or woven into spiderwebs.

There are stories wrapped in silk so their pages do not fall to dust and stories that have already succumbed, fragments collected and kept in urns.

They are fragile things. Less sturdy than their cousins who are told aloud and learned by heart.

And there are always those who would watch Alexandria burn.

There always have been. There always will be.

So there are always guardians.

Many have given their lives in service. Many more have had their lives taken by time before they could lose them in other fashions.

It is rare for a guardian not to remain a guardian always.

To be a guardian is to be trusted. To be trusted, all must be tested.

Guardian testing is a long and arduous process.

One cannot volunteer to be a guardian. Guardians are chosen.

Potential guardians are identified and watched. Scrutinized. Their every move, every choice, and every action is marked by unseen judges. The judges do nothing but observe for months, sometimes years, before they issue their first tests.

The potential guardian will not be aware that they are being tested. It is critical to steep the tests in ignorance to result in uncorrupted responses. Many tests will never be recognized as tests, even in hindsight.

Candidates for guardianship who are dismissed at these early stages will never know that they were ever considered. They will go about their lives and find other paths.

Most candidates are dismissed before the sixth test.

Many do not make it past the twelfth.

The rhythms of the first test are always the same, whether it occurs within a Harbor or without.

In a large public library a small boy browses books, biding time before he is meant to meet up with his sister. He stands on his toes to reach volumes shelved above his head. He has long since abandoned the children’s section but is not yet tall enough to reach all of the other shelves.

A woman with dark eyes and a green scarf—not a librarian, as far as he can tell—hands him the book he had been reaching for and he shyly nods his thanks. She asks if he will do her a favor in return, and when he agrees she requests that he keep an eye on a book for her, pointing out a thin volume bound in brown leather sitting on a nearby table.

The small boy agrees and the woman leaves. Minutes pass. The boy continues browsing shelves, always keeping the small brown book in sight.

Several more minutes pass. The boy considers looking around for the woman. He checks his watch. Soon he will have to leave himself.

Then a woman walks by without acknowledging him and picks up the book.

This woman has dark eyes and wears a green scarf. She looks quite similar to the first woman but she is not the same person. When she turns to walk away with the book, the boy seizes up with mild panic and confusion.

He asks her to stop. The woman turns, her face a question mark.

The boy stammers that the book belongs to someone else.

The new woman smiles and points out the fact that they are in a library and the books belong to everyone.

The boy almost lets her leave. Now he is not even certain it is a different woman, as this woman is nearly identical. He is going to be late if he waits much longer. It would be easier to let the book go.

But the boy protests again. He explains in too many words that he had been asked to watch it for someone.

Eventually the woman relents and hands the book to the small flustered boy.

He holds the hard-won object to his chest.

He is unaware that he has been tested but he is proud of himself nonetheless.

Two minutes later, the first woman returns. This time he recognizes her. Her eyes are lighter, the pattern on the green scarf is distinct, golden hoops climb up her right ear and not her left.

The woman thanks him for his service when he hands her the thin brown book. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a wrapped piece of candy and puts a finger to her lips. He tucks it into his pocket, understanding such things are not permitted in the library.

The woman thanks him again and departs with the book.

The boy will not be approached directly for another seven years.

Many of the initial tests are similar, watching for care and respect and attention to detail. Observing how they react to everyday stress or extraordinary emergencies. Weighing how they respond to a disappointment or a lost cat. Some are asked to burn or otherwise destroy a book. (To destroy the book, no matter how distasteful or offensive or badly written, is to fail the test.) A single failure results in dismissal.

After the twelfth test, the potential guardians will be made aware that they are being considered. Those who were not born below are brought to the Harbor and housed in rooms no resident ever sees. They study and are tested again in different ways. Tests of psychological strength and willpower. Tests of improvisation and imagination.

This process occurs over the course of three years. Many are dismissed. Others quit somewhere along the way. Some, but not all, will figure out that perseverance is more important now than performance.

If they make it to the three-year mark, they are given an egg.

They are released from their training and studying.

Now they need only return with the same egg, unbroken, six months later.

The egg stage is the undoing of many a potential guardian.

Of those who depart with their eggs, perhaps half return.

The potential guardian and their unbroken egg are brought to an elder guardian. The elder guardian gestures for the egg and the potential guardian holds it aloft on their palm.

The elder guardian reaches out but instead of taking the offering closes the potential guardian’s fingers around the egg.

The elder guardian then presses down, forcing the potential guardian to shatter the egg.

All that remains in the potential guardian’s hands is cracked eggshell and dust. A fine golden powder that will never completely fade from their palm, it will shimmer even decades later.

The elder guardian says nothing of fragility or responsibility. The words do not need to be spoken. All is understood.

The elder guardian nods their approval, and the potential guardian has reached the end of their training and the beginning of their initiation.

A potential guardian, once they have passed the egg test, is given a tour.

It commences in familiar rooms of the Harbor, starting at the clock in the Heart with its swooping pendulum and moving outward through the main halls, the residents wings and reading rooms and down into the wine cellar and the ballroom with its imposing fireplace, taller than even the tallest of the guardians.

Then they are shown rooms never seen by anyone but the guardians themselves. Hidden rooms and locked rooms and forgotten rooms. They go deeper than any resident, any acolyte. They light their own candles. They see what no one else sees. They see what has come before.

They may not ask questions. They may simply observe.

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