The Alexandrian Society, caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity, are the foremost secret society of magical academicians in the world. Those who earn a place among the Alexandrians will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams, and each decade, only the six most uniquely talented magicians are selected to be considered for initiation.
Enter the latest round of six: Libby Rhodes and Nico de Varona, unwilling halves of an unfathomable whole, who exert uncanny control over every element of physicality. Reina Mori, a naturalist, who can intuit the language of life itself. Parisa Kamali, a telepath who can traverse the depths of the subconscious, navigating worlds inside the human mind. Callum Nova, an empath easily mistaken for a manipulative illusionist, who can influence the intimate workings of a person’s inner self. Finally, there is Tristan Caine, who can see through illusions to a new structure of reality—an ability so rare that neither he nor his peers can fully grasp its implications.
When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they will have one year to qualify for initiation, during which time they will be permitted preliminary access to the Society’s archives and judged based on their contributions to various subjects of impossibility: time and space, luck and thought, life and death. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. The six potential initiates will fight to survive the next year of their lives, and if they can prove themselves to be the best among their rivals, most of them will.
Most of them.
PERHAPS IT WAS A TIRED THING, all the references the world had already made to the Ptolemaic Royal Library of Alexandria. History had proven it endlessly fascinating as a subject, either because the obsession with what it might have contained was bounded only by the imagination or because humanity typically longs for things most ardently as a collective. All men can love a forbidden thing, generally speaking, and in most cases knowledge is precisely that; lost knowledge even more so. Tired or not, there is something for everyone to long for when it comes to the Library of Alexandria, and we have always been a species highly susceptible to the call of the distant unknown.
Before it was destroyed, the library was said to contain over four hundred thousand papyrus scrolls on history, mathematics, science, engineering, and also magic, which advanced in scope and progress as much as any other topic of study. Many people incorrectly assume time to be a steady incline, a measured arc of growth and progress, but when history is written by the victors the narrative can often misrepresent that shape. In reality, time as we experience it is merely an ebb and flow, more circular than it is direct. Social trends and stigmas change, and the direction is not always forward. Magic is no different.
The little-known truth of the matter is that the Library of Alexandria burned down to save itself. It died to rise again, in something less metaphorically phoenix-like and more strategically Sherlockian. When Julius Caesar rose to power, it became obvious to the ancient Caretakers that an empire could only sit successfully upon a chair of three legs: subjugation, desperation, and ignorance. They knew, too, that the world would forever be besieged by similar pursuits of despotism, and therefore determined that such a valuable archive of wisdom would have to be carefully hidden in order to survive.
It was an old trick, really, death and disappearance so to start again, which depended entirely on the library’s ability to keep its own secret. The medeians, the most learned among the magical population, were permitted to use the pieces they squirreled away so long as they accepted an equal obligation to care for them. In the society that grew from the library’s remains, privileges for its members were as unmatched as their responsibilities. All the knowledge the world possessed existed at their fingertips, and all they had to do in return was continue to nurture it, to make it grow.
As the world spread—expanding beyond the libraries of Babylon, Carthage, Constantinople to the collections of Islamic and Asian libraries lost to imperialism and empire—so did the Alexandrian archives, and as their influence expanded, so did the so-called Society itself. Every ten years a new class of potential initiates was chosen. The candidates spent one year in training, learning the functions of the archives and what would eventually become a lifelong craft. It was, in many ways, comparable to a doctorate or a fellowship. For one year, each individual selected for the Society lived, ate, slept, and breathed the archives and their contents, with five of the six potential candidates being inducted at the end of the year. Following that, the new initiates rigorously pursued their course of study for an additional year before being presented with the opportunity to stay and continue their work, or, more likely, to accept a new offer of employment. Alexandrians typically went on to be political leaders, patrons, CEOs and laureates. The truly curious would remain behind and vie for positions as Caretakers. What awaited an Alexandrian after initiation was wealth, power, prestige, and knowledge beyond their wildest dreams, and thus, to be chosen to sit for initiation was the first in a lifetime of endless possibility.
This was what Dalton Ellery relayed to the most recent class of initiates, none of whom had been informed why they were there or what they would be competing for. Likely they did not yet grasp that by virtue of standing in that room, Dalton Ellery was himself a uniquely skilled medeian, the likes of which they would not encounter again for generations, who had chosen this path over the many others he might have taken. He, like them, had once discarded the person he might have been and the life he might have lived—which would have been ordinary by comparison, most likely. He would have had a profession of some sort, perhaps even a lucrative one, folding into the mortal economy in some useful way, but witnessing nothing like what he’d seen by virtue of his acceptance. He might have done exceptional magic, but would have fallen shy of extraordinary himself. Inevitably he would have succumbed to mundanity, to struggle, to boredom, as all humans eventually did—but now, because of this, he wouldn’t. The pittances of a shrunken existence would count among the many things he would never again encounter from the moment he’d taken his seat in this room.
He looked out at their faces and imagined again the life he might have lived; the lives they allmight have lived had they never been offered such… riches. Eternal glory. Unparalleled wisdom. Here they would unlock the secrets the world had kept from itself for centuries, for millennia. Things no ordinary eyes would ever see, and which no lesser minds could possibly understand.
Here, their lives would change. Here their former selves would be destroyed, like the library itself, only to be built back up again and hidden in the shadows, never to be seen except by the Caretakers, by the Alexandrians, and by the ghost of lives uncrossed and paths untaken.
Greatness isn’t easy, Dalton didn’t say, nor did he add that greatness was never offered to anyone who couldn’t stand to bear it. He merely told them of the library, of their paths to initiation, and of what stood within reach—if they only had the courage to reach out and grasp it.
They were entranced, as well they should be. Dalton was a very good at breathing life into things, ideas, objects. It was a subtle skill. Optically his skills were less magical and more professional finesse, which made him an exceptional academic. In fact, it made him the perfect face for the new class of Alexandrians.
He knew before he started talking that they would all accept the offer. It was a formality, really. Nobody turned down the Alexandrian Society. Even those pretending at disinterest would be unable to resist. They would fight, he knew, tooth and nail, to survive the next year of their lives, and if they were as steadfast and talented as the Society presumed them to be, most of them would.
Most of them.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS THIS:
Beware the man who faces you unarmed.
If in his eyes you are not the target, then you can be sure you are the weapon.
Five Hours Ago
THE DAY LIBBY RHODES met Nicolás Ferrer de Varona was coincidentally also the day she discovered that incensed, a word she had previously had no use for, was now the only conceivable way to describe the sensation of being near him. That had been the day Libby accidentally set fire to the lining of several centuries-old drapes in the office of Professor Breckenridge, Dean of Students, clinching both Libby’s admission to New York University of Magical Arts as well as her undying hatred for Nico in a single incident. All the days since that one had been a futile exercise in restraint.
Incandescence aside, this was to be a very different sort of day, as it was finally going to be the last of them. Barring any accidental encounters, which Libby was certain they’d both furiously ignore—Manhattan was a big place, after all, with plenty of people ravenously avoiding each other—she and Nico were finally going their separate ways. She’d practically burst into song over it that morning, which her boyfriend Ezra presumed to be the consequence of the occasion’s more immediate matters: graduating top of her class (tied with Nico, but there was no use focusing on that), or delivering the NYUMA valedictory speech. Neither accolade was anything to scoff at, obviously, but the more enticing prospect was the newness of the era approaching.
It was the last day Libby Rhodes would ever set eyes on Nico de Varona, and she couldn’t have been more exuberant about the dawn of a simpler, superior, less Nico-infested life.
“Rhodes,” he acknowledged upon taking his seat beside her on the commencement stage. He slid her surname around like a marble on his tongue before sniffing the air, facetious as always. “Hm. Do you smell smoke, Rhodes?”
Very funny. Hilarious.
“Careful, Varona. You know this auditorium’s on a fault line, don’t you?”
“Of course. Have to, seeing as I’ll be working on it next year, won’t I?” he mused, and then peered into the crowd, half a tick of laughter tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Ah, Fowler’s here too, I see.”
Libby bristled at the mention of Ezra. “Why wouldn’t he be here?”
“Oh, no reason. Just thought you might’ve leveled up by now, Rhodes.”
Do not engage, do not engage, do not engage—
“Ezra’s just been promoted, actually,” she said coolly.
“From mediocrity to competence?”
Libby broke off, tightening one fist and counting silently to three.
“He’s a project manager now.”
“My goodness,” Nico said drily, “how impressive.”
She shot him a glare, and he smiled.
“Your tie’s crooked,” she informed him, giving her voice a lilt of impassivity as his hand reflexively rose to straighten it. “Did Gideon not fix it for you on your way in?”
“He did, but—” Nico broke off, catching himself, while Libby silently congratulated her success. “Very funny, Rhodes.”
“Gideon’s my nanny, hilarious. Something new and different.”
“What, like mocking Ezra is suddenly revolutionary?”
“It’s not my fault the subject of Fowler’s inadequacy is evergreen,” Nico replied, and were it not for the fact that they were in front of all of their classmates and a great number of their faculty and staff as well, Libby would not have paused for an additional centering breath and instead entertained whatever her abilities compelled her to do.
Unfortunately, setting fire to Nico de Varona’s undergarments was considered unacceptable behavior.
Last day, Libby reminded herself. Last day of Nico.
He could say whatever he liked, then, and it meant nothing.
“How’s your speech?” Nico asked, and she rolled her eyes.
“Like I’d discuss it with you.”
“Why on earth not? I know you get stage fright.”
“I do not get—” Another breath. Two breaths, for good measure. “I do not get stage fright,” she managed, more evenly this time, “and even if I did, what exactly would you do to help me?”
“Oh, did you think I was offering to help?” Nico asked. “Apologies, I was not.”
“Still disappointed you weren’t the one elected to deliver it?”
“Please,” Nico scoffed under his breath, “you and I both know nobody wasted any time voting on something as idiotic as who should give the commencement speech. Half the people here are already drunk,” he pointed out, and while she knew he was more right than she’d ever admit to him being, she also knew it was a sore subject. He could pretend at nonchalance as much as he liked, but she knew he never enjoyed losing to her, whether he considered it a subject of importance or not.
She knew it because in his position she would have felt exactly the same way.
“Oh?” she prompted, amused. “If nobody cared, then how did I win?”
“Because you’re the only one who voted, Rhodes, it’s like you’re not even listening to me—”
“Rhodes,” cautioned Breckenridge, breezing by their seats on the commencement stage as the processions around them continued. “Varona. Is it too much to ask you to be civil for the next hour?”
“Professor,” they both replied in acknowledgement, forcing twin smiles as Nico once again fussed impulsively with his tie.
“No trouble at all,” Libby assured the Dean, knowing that even Nico would not be so idiotic as to disagree. “Everything’s fine.”
Breckenridge arched a brow. “Morning going well, then?”
“Swimmingly,” said Nico, flashing her one of his charming smiles. It was the worst thing about him, really, that he could be such a non-headache with everyone who wasn’t Libby. Nico de Varona was every teacher’s favorite; when it came to their peers, everyone wanted to be him or date him, or at the very least befriend him.
In some highly distant, extremely generous sense, Libby could see how that was understandable. Nico was enormously likable, unfairly so, and no matter how clever or talented Libby was, students and faculty alike preferred Nico to her. Whatever gift it was he had, it was like Midas; the effortless turning of nonsense to gold, more a reflex than a skill, and Libby, a gifted academic, had never been able to learn it. Nico’s brand of easy charm had no metric for study, no identifiable markers of finesse.
He also had a monstrous capacity to fool people into thinking he knew what he was talking about, which he resolutely did not. Sometimes, maybe. But certainly not always.
Worse than anything Nico happened to be as a person was what he had, which was the job Libby had really wanted—not that she’d ever admit that. Sure, being hired at the best magical venture capitalist firm in Manhattan was no small thing. She’d be providing funding to innovative medeian technology, able to choose from a portfolio of exciting ideas with massive potential for growth and social capital. Now was the time to act; the world was overpopulated, resources drained and overused, alternative energy sources more imperative than ever. Down the line, she could change the very structure of medeian advancements—could choose this start-up or that to alter the progression of the entire global economy—and she’d be paid well to do it, too. But she’d wantedthe research fellowship at NYUMA, and that, of course, had gone straight to Nico.
As Breckenridge took her seat and Nico decided to pretend at reasonability, Libby pondered what it would be like in her blissful future where things didn’t always come down to the two of them competing. For four years Nico had been an inescapable feature of her life, like some sort of bothersome vestigial organ. Physical medeians with their mastery of the elements were rare; so rare, in fact, that they had been the only two. For four long, torturous years, they’d been shoved into every class together without respite, the extent of their prowess matched only by the force of their mutual antipathy.
For Nico, who was used to getting his way, Libby was purely an annoyance. She’d found him smug and arrogant from the moment they met and hadn’t hesitated to tell him so, and there was nothing Nico de Varona hated more than someone who didn’t adore him on sight. It was probably the first trauma he’d ever suffered; knowing him, the idea that a woman could exist who didn’t worship at his feet must have kept him up at night. For Libby, however, things were far more complex. For all that their personalities clashed, Nico was something far worse than just an average asshole. He was also an obnoxious, classist reminder of everything Libby failed to possess.
Nico came from a family of prominent medeians, and had trained privately from his opulent palace (she assumed) in Havana since he was a child. Libby, a Pittsburgh native whose suburban lineage had no medeians or even witches to speak of, had planned to go to Columbia until NYUMA, via Breckenridge, intervened. She had known nothing of basic medeian principles, starting off behind in every aspect of magical theory, and had worked twice as hard as everyone else—only for that effort to be dismissed in favor of yes, that’s very good, Libby… and now Nico, how about you try?
Nico de Varona would never know what that felt like, Libby thought again, as she had countless times. Nico was handsome, clever, charming, rich. Libby was… powerful, yes, equally as powerful and likely to become more so over time given her sense of discipline, but with four years of Nico de Varona as a yardstick for magical achievement, Libby found herself unfairly measured. If not for him she might have breezed through her studies, perhaps even found them dull. She would not have had a rival, nor even a peer. After all, without Nico, who could even hold a candle to what she could do?
No one. She’d never met anyone with anything even close to hers or Nico’s proficiency with physical magic. The little tremors from the slightest flaring of his temper would take a lesser medeian four hours and herculean effort to create from nothing, the same way a mere spark from Libby had been enough to secure a full scholarship to NYUMA and lucrative full-time employment after that. That sort of power would have been revered, even exalted, if either of them had been singularities—which, for the first time, they would be. Without Nico for comparison beside her, Libby would finally be free to excel without having to push herself half to death to stand out.
It was a strange thought, actually, and strangely lonely. But still, thrilling all the same.
Copyright © 2020 by Olivie Blake.
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