i. the summer wind
While all the other graduates brunch in their hideous purple robes with their hideous happy families, Eliot Waugh and Margo Hanson (B.A., Drama, cum laude) defrock themselves and cool off in the air-conditioned 4 train from NYU to their shitty studio in Harlem. They lean against each other and crack jokes about the commencement speech, the fucking employment fairs with their fucking unpaid internships, anything but the blank spots yawning around them: their futures, their families who weren’t there to watch them cross the stage.
They sweat for blocks through the stink of summer garbage, and in the lobby of their stifling old apartment building, Margo remembers she hasn’t checked their mailbox in a while and breaks out the key. Inside are two envelopes of thick, creamy paper bound in red wax seals, and when they open them, a sudden hot wind breathes through the propped-open front door, carrying away the papers inside.
Margo looks down at her envelope in outrage, like she can protest it out of its existence in her mailbox and her life, but Eliot laughs a little and leads her by the hand into the chase that will change their lives.
They run after the loose papers into a community garden, which thickens impossibly into a forest, and when they stagger out of it, a summer thunderstorm dumps rain on the campus of a university far from Manhattan.
“What the fuck!” Margo shrieks, bolting toward the shelter of the university building. “Where are we!”
“I have no idea!” Eliot shouts back, getting ahead of her on his stupidly long legs, the bastard. He holds the front door open for her so she can dash inside and wring out her little black dress on the marble floor.
Eliot puts a hand on her shoulder, and she looks up from the mess of her clothes to a woman with leather pants, an undercut, and at least five piercings, who somehow carries it all off without looking like a tryhard. Probably because she has an actual live snake wrapped around her hips like a belt, which is a way cooler accessory than anything the Tisch goths at NYU could come up with. “Margo Hanson and Eliot Waugh?” she says.
“That’s us,” says Eliot, watching the snake like it might jump up and bite him any second. “Uh, do you mind telling us where we are?”
“I’m Holly.” She starts reciting what’s obviously boilerplate for her. “This is Brakebills University. Elite grad school, kinda niche. You’ve been invited to take the entrance exam.” She eyes them. “You usually don’t come in twos.”
Eliot smirks. “That’s the only way we come.”
Margo smacks his arm. “Speak for yourself, you needy bitch.” She looks Holly up and down. “I can come just fine without him.”
Holly snorts. “Pass the exam and maybe I’ll find out. Come on.”
They follow Holly through the school, and the snake watches them the whole time. Eliot sing-songs under his breath, “What the hell is going on, what the actual fuck?”
Margo grabs him by the forearm and hisses, “This is about our thing, isn’t it!”
Eliot’s eyes widen. Their thing is that when they’re together, they can’t have a bad party. Oh sure, a wet blanket can ruin the vibe, or they can sabotage it themselves with their fucked-up heads, but everything else goes exactly the way they want. Their drinks are always the right temperature and never watered down. If they don’t want to talk to anyone, no one comes up to them. If they want to meet people, someone makes an introduction. They’ve never been able to explain it, but they know it’s there. Eliot’s hinted he can do other things on his own, but it’s one of the details of Eliot’s life he won’t share, no matter how hard she pushes.
The exam room looks like just another final in the parade of finals Margo’s had to take in the last few weeks, cramped desks and blue books and all. Holly’s snake fixes them with suspicious looks, and she seats them across the room from each other. Margo mouths we got this at Eliot, and when the last test-takers have filed in, it begins.
ii. the adamant caiman
As Eliot hands in his blue book, he gets Margo’s patented what the fuck is this stare from across the room. He shrugs helplessly and finds his room, overwrought Neoclassical in a way NYU never was. He waits for the examiners to show up, his heart pounding in his throat. How do they know about him? How do they know?
The Dean files in with the other examiners, all of them accompanied by animals, or familiars maybe, like witches. The Dean has something that looks like an animated miniature crocodile skeleton articulated in shiny black metal. Another professor has a butterfly made of leaves and flowers. They take their seats behind a grand old desk while Eliot tries to stand insouciantly with his thumbs in his belt loops. He suspects he’s not carrying it off, since he can’t help staring at the familiars, who stare right back.
The Dean slams a deck of cards on the table. “Let’s see some magic.”
Eliot folds his arms across his chest. “Do I look like a stage magician to you? I dress way better, for a start.”
The miniature crocodile walks out from the darkness under the table and snaps its jaws with a metallic snick like a steel trap closing. It speaks, in a remarkable dramatic soprano, Eliot notices distantly, a Jessye Norman or an Angela Brown. “Don’t bullshit me, Eliot. You know I’m not talking about stage magic. You can armor yourself in that cynical remove all you like. Underneath it all, you have power.”
Eliot snorts. “Yeah. The power to fuck things up.”
“And you can keep fucking things up for the rest of your silly little life,” she says, and lashes her tail against the floor. “Or you can, just this once, try to be better.”
“I can’t be better,” Eliot sneers. “I’m just like this. So I’m sorry if I’m wasting potential or whatever, but whatever the fuck you’re doing here, it isn’t going to work.”
The mini-croc opens her jaws to speak again, and Eliot can’t bear the thought of hearing this animatronic nightmare mock him again. He doesn’t want to hear it, he won’t do what he did to Logan Kinnear, not again, not ever –
The deck of cards smacks hard into the Dean’s forehead. His crocodilian familiar goes flying backward and smacks into the legs of the Dean’s chair with a clatter. Shiny black vertebrae scatter across the floor. The other familiars scatter in every direction. Horrified, Eliot sits down on the floor, hard, smacking his tailbone. He swore to himself years ago he’d never let his, whatever it was, magic, telekinesis, loose again. And now he’s used it on the very people who can explain to him how the hell it was even possible he could kill another kid with his mind.
“Finally,” says the Dean, standing. He offers Eliot a hand up. “Let’s go to my office, shall we?”
iii. the amber spyglass
“Magic is real,” the Dean says, taking a swig of what’s probably just coffee. “But you already knew that.”
Margo scoffs. “Like hell I did. I knew Eliot and I had a weird party trick.” A terrible thought creeps in on her. “Wait, Eliot got in, right?”
“Don’t worry,” the Dean says with a tight little smile. “I wouldn’t dare separate you two.” He rests his hand on the skull of his creepy skeleton buddy curled up in his lap, her shiny black head resting on the desk. “You’re both invited to the three-year graduate program to learn magic.”
“What’s up with the croc?” Margo says. She asked him during the exam, but he wouldn’t say.
“Broad-snouted caiman,” the Dean corrects her. “It’s best to be precise about these things. Adamantine is my Shade. A part of my soul that feels empathy. Regret. Pain. As you become an adult, it takes the form of an animal that reveals the innermost part of yourself. Everyone has one, but we Magicians have a special insight into ours. Our Shades help us access the essence of our magic.” He holds up his hands. “This is the first spell you’ll learn at Brakebills, should you enroll. It’s called the Amber Spyglass. It helps you become more sensitive to Shades.”
He describes shapes in the air with his fingers, ending with a rectangle of his thumbs and forefingers, like the photographers at Tisch framing their shots. The air between his fingers turns into an amber sheet, like cellophane. He looks through it at Margo and nods a little, as if confirming something. It pisses Margo off. She folds her arms and raises an eyebrow. “Well?”
The Dean breaks the frame, and the Amber Spyglass disappears. “I’m sorry, Margo. That’s something you’ll have to discover for yourself.” He slides a piece of paper and a pen across the desk at her. “I need an answer.”
Margo thinks about what happened in the exam room. She begged the examiners to let Eliot in, because she didn’t know how to do their party trick without him. The Dean, clever son of a bitch that he was, got in her face and asked her if she was so weak she couldn’t pass a test without her best friend to hold her hand. In a flash of cold rage, she froze him and his caiman-bot to the floor so they couldn’t come any closer. He was fucking with her. She knows that. But he was also right. Margo loves Eliot with every scale of her curled-up dragon of a heart, but she never wants to be dependent on him, or any other man. She’s already more powerful than almost anyone around her is comfortable with, but if she has another source of power inside her, she has to find it and wield it for herself.
Margo picks up the pen and signs.
iv. the twin pairs
“Nuh uh,” says the beaded-shawl hippie who’s tacking up chakra maps on the other side of Margo’s dorm room. “You can’t just swap me out so you can be with your - your boy-toy. This is a girls’ dorm!”
Margo flashes Eliot a brilliant grin that he instantly reads as she thinks you’re my boy-toy, that’s so adorably naïve. Eliot waggles his eyebrows at her, which means hell yeah I’m a boy-toy. But all of that is beneath the hippie’s radar, so he says out loud, “Margo and I are the same gender: fabulous mega-bitch. So I don’t see any problem here. Besides, the virtue of the women in this dorm is in way more danger from Margo than from me.”
“I’ll take my chances with her over whatever rando guy you’re rooming with,” the hippie says, shooting them a glare before reaching for the next New Age monstrosity in her suitcase.
Margo eyes the chakra poster. Her mom is Indian, and she assumes that any white person into chakras is an idiot, though Eliot’s pretty sure she’s never met a god she’s had any use for except herself. Eliot figures if magic is real, maybe chakras are too, but what does he know?
A dangerous smile curls her mouth. “Are you sure about that? Because –”
Holly bursts into the room with another girl who could be her twin, black mesh and braided undercut and all, except that she has an octopus hanging from her belt loops instead of a snake. The octopus holds onto the snake with a tentacle like kids holding hands. They both look past Margo and Eliot, just a little to the left, as if someone standing behind them was doing something hilarious. “Oooh, you’re right,” says the octopus girl. “Look at them. They did come in a matched set. First time that’s happened since, well – us.” Finally, her eyes focus on Eliot and Margo. “I’m Willow. And before you ask, we are twins.”
Margo sits bolt upright on her bed. “Wait a second. Were you ogling our Shades just now? I thought you needed a spell to do that!”
Holly tosses her braids over her shoulder and smirks. “Most Magicians do. We’re Psychic kids. We can just see them.” She waves a hand through the snake around her hips, passing through it like a ghost. “We’ve kind of incepted the ability to see ours into your heads.” She tilts her head toward the door. “Come on, let’s show you around.”
Eliot and Margo look at each other and follow the twins. Margo says, “So what are our Shades anyway? What was so funny?”
“Nothing, they’re just – close,” Willow says. “And nice try, but you have to find and manifest your Shade on your own. It’s part of how you prove yourself as a Magician. There’s spells and books for that. See?”
Out on the quad outside the first-year dorms, Brakebills students are hanging out, enjoying the weather, and practicing magic. It’s all around them, out in the open, not a dirty little secret that can save a party – or end a life. He follows the line of Willow’s gesture toward a beautiful bald androgynous figure who makes finger shapes in the air and summons the image of a huge yellow-eyed tiger.
Next to the tiger, there’s another Magician with a clockwork grasshopper Shade in his hand, who shakes his head and laughs. “Stop fucking with the first-years, Sandy, we all know she’s just a kitten.” Sandy sighs and gestures again, and the tiger collapses down into a little gray Scottish Fold.
“Illusion magic,” Holly says. She gestures toward a girl who’s making weaving motions with her hands over what seems to be an actual taxidermy wildebeest, stitching the hide back up over the stuffing where something must have cut it. “Healing magic. There’s lots of ways to manifest a Shade.”
“Ew,” says Eliot.
“Though some of us don’t need anything so obvious,” Willow says.
“Yeah, we get it, you’re boss bitches,” Margo says. “Now where do we go to have some fun around here?”
“Come with us to the Psychic Cottage,” says Holly. “We can literally blow your mind.”
v. the book of shades
Margo throws herself down on Eliot’s bed. She declares, “I’m gonna fuck the twins.”
Eliot’s roommate, a scholarly, cute in a repressed way, tragically straight boy named Praveen, who Margo will also probably fuck, looks up from the Amber Spyglass he has aimed at the space under his bed. “Do you mind?”
Margo opens her mouth to verbally eviscerate him, but Eliot hauls her up by the arm and leads her out. “Come on, don’t piss off the nerds, we like the nerds, right Margo?”
Cool autumn night air on his face. Margo gets out a swirled candy-cane glass pipe, a little plastic baggie, and a grinder. They sit on a bench while Margo loads up the pipe. “Also, twin threesome fantasy? Seriously? You do know that’s gross in real life, right?”
She smacks his arm. “Don’t be weird, I didn’t mean both at once.”
“How is fucking a Psychic kid not weird?”
Margo holds out the pipe and Eliot lights it with a murmured word and a complicated finger flick; he’s better at fire than she is. “They can literally blow your mind. Don’t you remember? Or did the magic drugs rot your brain?”
“Yes, I remember, and after careful consideration I’ve decided I’d rather have my dick blown than my mind,” Eliot says.
Margo sucks on the pipe as the weed smolders and smolders without going out. She expels smoke from her nose, looking for once like the dragon she is. “Well, I don’t have a dick, so I gotta get my kicks somehow.”
“Then get your clit blown like a normal person,” Eliot says. “What is this really about, Bambi?” He plucks the pipe from her hand. “You’re pissed that you still can’t see your Shade.”
“Neither can you!” Margo huffs. Eliot tilts his head in acknowledgment and takes a drag off the pipe. “And yeah it’s pissing me off! Praveen saw his, Beverly the chakra-smoking hippie found hers, all the Psychic kids can see mine and they won’t fucking tell me what it is. How is that fair?” Eliot raises his eyebrows, and Margo just knows he’s editing his mental entry from ‘pissed she can’t see her Shade’ to ‘pissed that everyone can see deep into her soul when she can’t’, which, fair. “I figure if I fuck Holly’s brains out, she might let it slip in the afterglow. You wanna help me fuck her? Maybe she’ll tell you, too.” Margo reaches for the right words through the soap bubble of her high and casts the Amber Spyglass, and just like always, it’s a mirror, showing nothing but her own face in unflattering sepia. She snarls in frustration and shakes it away.
“The Amber Spyglass isn’t the only way to do this,” Eliot says. “Neither is fucking the twins.” He puts his hand on hers. “I apologize in advance for saying this, but there are a million books on Shades in the library. We can do research to narrow it down. Come on.”
So Margo follows Eliot to the library, of all places. Sure enough, there are reference books, big enough to use as murder weapons, full of different Shade animals and what they mean.
“This one’s indexed by, and I quote, ‘how dominant or submissive of a nature governs your spirit’,” Margo says. “What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?”
“I think there’s a spell for measuring that, but why bother? Just start at the most dominant end and work from there,” Eliot says, paging through Of the Various Natures of Shades. “This one has a dichotomous key. Like an identification guide for plants. Let me just…” His finger moves across the page.
“Apparently goats are ‘among the most domineering of the personalities.’ Who’d have thought? Same with hyenas.” Margo reads the section on hyena Shades. “‘Some of the greatest magical men, ferocious and unrelenting in pursuit of their desires, have found that the shape of their Shades’ – ugh, the book talks about these Shades like only guys could be dominant enough to have them. Anyone wanna lay money on how they talk about the ‘submissive’ Shades in the back?”
“No bet,” Eliot says. “Oh my God, this book says my Shade is a Madagascar hissing cockroach, ‘owing to the diverse nature of their hisses as courtship, dominance signal, and anti-predator defense’. How dare they!”
“I like those little guys,” Margo says, flipping to the back of the book. “We had them as class pets in elementary school. First time I picked one up, he hissed at me so loud I thought there was a snake and dropped him. Only pet I ever had that didn’t die on me. Oh, yup, here it is. ‘Magicians with microbat Shades make some of the most compliant and submissive of wives, sweetly bending to their husbands’ – ugh.” Margo slams the book closed. “Let’s get out of here. This is getting us nowhere.”
Across the table, Eliot is casting an Amber Spyglass. It doesn’t show a cockroach. Just like hers, it shows nothing but his own face.
vi. the burning tree
Professor Sunderland peers at Eliot through different colored lenses, for which he cuts condescending poses. Her Shade, an egret woven solid from thick white yarn, looks right through him and past him with his glass button eyes, in a way that has become all too familiar – and all too annoying.
“If I tell you I’m a natural at telekinesis,” Eliot says snippily, “can we fast-forward through the rest of this?”
“All Physical magicians are naturals at telekinesis,” Sunderland says, still examining him through a pink glass. “And you’re definitely a Physical magician.”
Eliot smirks. “I’ve heard that one before.”
“I don’t care how many TAs you slept with in college, the flirting isn’t cute,” Sunderland says, closing her fan of colored lenses. “Here, hold this plant.”
Eliot holds a bonsai tree while she wafts sour yellow mist at him from a censer, and thanks the gods of aesthetes everywhere that magic is usually more dignified than this. Then, suddenly, something sharp jabs him in the back of the neck. Eliot yelps, and the leaves of the bonsai curl and smolder, mixing gray smoke into the yellow mist. Eliot slams the burning bonsai on the lab bench, slaps a hand to the back of his neck, and turns on the Shade with its knitting needle beak. “Excuse me, was that really necessary?”
“Sometimes all you need is a jolt,” the egret says without apology. “Pyromancy.”
Eliot looks at the smoldering tree. “Burn, baby, burn.” With a quenching curl of his hand, he extinguishes it.
Eliot bursts into Margo’s room, and Beverly the hippie isn’t there to huff and pretend she doesn’t like him, having moved out to the Natural Cottage in the morning. Margo has her suitcases half-packed. “Where are you moving?”
“Physical Cottage,” Margo says, stuffing a pillow into her suitcase. “Fogg and his creepy croc say I’m a cryomancer. You?”
“Oh, thank fuck, me too,” Eliot says. “My discipline is pyromancy.” He smiles, and they look at each other, silent, for a moment. Then Eliot strikes his best Pat Benatar pose and sings, “Fire and ice! You come on like a flame, then you turn a cold shoulder!” Margo grins and joins in, “Fire and ice!” and they collapse laughing in a pile of her bed linens.
Eliot goes back to his room, where Praveen is packing to join the Knowledge nerds, bless him. Eliot weaponizes folding spells to fit all his clothes in one suitcase and meets Margo outside.
They have to ask around to find out where the Physical Cottage is these days. “You’re gonna be so bored in there,” Willow says, pointing it out for them. “Their idea of a good time is renovating the cottage. Last month they made it look like a Victorian country manor. So tacky.”
“Then we’ll teach ’em how to have a good time,” Margo says with a wicked smile. “I’m very good at showing people a good time, aren’t I?”
Willow tosses her braids over her shoulder. “You’re all right.”
“She wasn’t kidding about the renovations,” Margo says when they reach the cottage. The roof is busily rearranging itself. She tries the door, then sees the sign. “‘Let yourselves in?’ Ugh. How many fucking bullshit hazing rituals do we have to do before we get some fucking respect around here?”
“Relax, Bambi, I’ll just burn through the door.” He waggles his eyebrows. “You ready to quench my fire?”
Margo puts her hands on her hips. “If there’s somebody who can do that, I haven’t met him. But I’ll keep you from burning the house down, sure.”
Eliot sparks his fingers together, flint and tinder, grows a fireball in the span of his hand, and holds it to the door above the knob. A hole burns through with the hiss of catching wood, and flames lick up the door. When there’s a charred, glowing hole, Eliot pinches the flame into nothing. Margo presses a hand to the burning door and flash-freezes it. The ice sublimates instantly to steam, which Margo has to wave away to find the hole and reach through.
Inside, the contents of the cottage are moving around at the gestures of the Physical Kids, walls and doors and all. “Hey,” Margo shouts. “Which rooms are ours!”
“We’ll find out when we’re done renovating!” a gorgeous dreadlocked twunk shouts back. His emu Shade kicks a gas stove like it’s nothing, caroming it toward the emerging kitchen. “You can join in if you have any opinions about the interior design.”
Eliot grins and folds back his sleeves. “Oh, honey. Do I ever.”
vii. the yarrow bird
Margo slams the book shut and clutches at her hair. “I am at the end of my fucking rope. It’s almost the end of first semester and we still haven’t found our Shades. Your twunk and his emu keep making fun of us when our backs are turned. We’re a joke! We’ve tried everything, and no dice.”
“Here’s something,” Eliot says, pointing out a line in his book. “The creator of the Amber Spyglass spell is alive and well and living in London. And rumor has it there’s a spell in the library a professor wrote to open a portal to her favorite pub in London.”
Margo rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand. “All right, who is this asshole?”
“She’s kind of a big deal,” Eliot says. “She’s a physicist and a Magician – and a former nun too, somehow? Her name is Mary Malone.”
They find the portal spell and cast it in Eliot’s room in the newly livable and, Margo concedes, nicely tricked-out Physical Cottage. At Brakebills it’s late at night, and in London it’s a miserable wet morning. They show up on Dr. Malone’s doorstep like a pair of drowned cats, but when Eliot crafts his most charming smile, and tells the sharp old lady in square glasses and a gray frock that that they’re from Brakebills, she smiles and shows them hooks for their soaked jackets. She fixes them tea in thick handmade ceramic mugs, clunks them down on the round kitchen table and says, “Tell me about your trouble with the Amber Spyglass.”
Margo and Eliot look at each other. Margo quaffs her milky tea, while Eliot says, “Uh, how did you –”
“There’s a handful every year,” says Dr. Malone. “From every magical university in the world. Last week I had a Brazilian. Lovely girl. Brought me a bottle of caipirinha as a thank-you gift.”
Margo and Eliot trade another look. They didn’t even think of bringing a thank-you gift. Margo silently begs Eliot to salvage this conversation, and he says, “Dr. Malone, how did you find your Shade? How did you invent the Amber Spyglass in the first place? Shades were just a magical curiosity before then.”
“I found him in another world,” Dr. Malone says. “A witch showed him to me. After that, I became determined to find a way to see him for myself.” She frames a triangle, then twists it into wings, and an I Ching set rises from a shelf, the yarrow stalks assembling themselves into a rough frame of a small bird on her shoulder.
“Like an actual, broomstick-riding witch?” Eliot says, watching the bird Shade.
“Yes,” says Dr. Malone, the famous physicist and Magician. “Her name was Serafina.”
Eliot looked impressed. Shit, Margo would love to meet an honest-to-God, creepy-forest-dwelling, broomstick-riding, terror-to-all-men witch. But they’re on a mission here. She lays a hand on Eliot’s arm. “We’ll talk witches later. The Spyglass. Everyone else in our class can get it to work, but we can’t.”
“It turns into a mirror whenever we use it,” Eliot says.
“Hmm,” Dr. Malone says. Her yarrow bird Shade tilts his head. “Even when you use it on each other?”
Margo nearly stands bolt upright from her chair. “We can use it on each other? Everybody at Brakebills said we had to figure it out ourselves!”
“Most people are better off that way,” Dr. Malone says. “But I see a profound bond of friendship between the two of you, like a pair of matching puzzle pieces. Perhaps you can see each other more clearly than you can see yourselves.”
Margo collapses back in her chair and looks at Eliot. “Why the hell didn’t we think of that? We should have thought of that.”
“Thank you, Dr. Malone,” Eliot says. “If there’s anything we can –”
“I’m always happy to help young people find their Shades,” says the yarrow bird.
“Though I certainly wouldn’t mind a thank-you card, at least,” says Dr. Malone.
“Of course,” says Eliot, shooting Margo a look that says if this works we’re doing better than just a thank-you card.
“Who was the witch? Serafina. Can we meet her?” Margo says suddenly.
“I’m afraid you can’t,” Dr. Malone says with a sad twist of her mouth. “Neither can I. The ways between worlds have been closed for decades now. Even if they weren’t, I’m not sure I could recommend it. Every way through is a wound in the multiverse. To journey across worlds is to crawl through one of these wounds. It’s impossible not to get blood and pus on oneself.”
“If a magical portal ever opens in my living room, I’ll keep it in mind,” Margo says.
They say their polite goodbyes, and when they’re back outside in the cold drizzle, Margo laughs a little and says, “She can tell us dire warnings all day long. If a portal opened up in her living room, that tough old bitch would be through it in a second.”
Eliot hums noncommittally. “Let’s go back to that pub. I want to try this out.”
Margo rolls her eyes. “It’s nine in the morning here. We’re going to a cafe.”
Margo orders black coffee, and Eliot a chai latte. When they find a quiet back corner, he tips whiskey from his flask into it. Margo eyes his cup and just says, “You ready?”
Eliot slugs back his boozy tea, folds back his sleeves, and smiles. “Ready.” He makes a frame of his hands, and an amber pane springs up between his long precise fingers. He looks through it straight at Margo. When she looks at it, she just sees a mirror, like always.
“Still a mirror,” Eliot mutters.
“You’d never know the difference, the way you’ve been stealing my smoky eye look,” Margo grouches. “Find your own YouTube makeup tutorials.”
“Huh,” Eliot says. “I think you might have just cracked this wide open. I just have to trick my brain into thinking that looking at you is the same as looking in a mirror.” He keeps staring, and then he breathes in sharply.
Margo stiffens. “What? What is it?”
“I see it,” Eliot says in a small, hushed voice. “Or – I think it’s a her.” Then he grins. “Bambi, you’re gonna love this. You managed to have a Shade from the only species where all the girls have dicks and ballsacks.”
“Mother-fucker,” Margo says. “That piece of shit book about Shades from the library. I looked at hyenas in there.” She looks around, as if maybe she could see her Shade now that Eliot’s pointed her out, but of course she can’t. “What does she look like? What is she doing?”
“She looks like she could fuck me up, and she has her head in your lap,” Eliot says.
Margo jolts at that, pressing her hands to her thighs, but she can’t feel the weight of a hyena head there. She tries to imagine it instead. A blunt, ugly snout full of sharp teeth. Huge spotted shoulders. An ear pricked for danger – or prey. “You’re right.” She’s smiling. “I fucking love it.” Eliot’s still staring at her through the Amber Spyglass. “Can you stop that? I feel like I’m being X-rayed or something.”
“I like the way you look with her,” Eliot says. “Like a queen.”
“I’ll do you,” Margo says, and at that, Eliot drops the Amber Spyglass. She casts it herself and holds it up to look at Eliot. Just like before, it’s a mirror, showing her bright, determined face. She remembers Eliot’s trick. Looking at Eliot is a mirror. He gets this same look when he’s fixed on something he wants: proud, unstoppable, like the universe will rerrange itself around him. Beautiful, savage, cultivated just so. That’s her, and that’s him.
It’s like one of those optical illusions where the vase turns into a couple about to kiss. Her perception shifts, and it was Eliot in the Amber Spyglass all along. Eliot – and something else. Margo stares, and stares, and stares.
Eliot clears his throat impatiently.
“It’s perfect. He’s gonna fit right into the #aesthetic. I mean, what did you think he was going to be? He’s a fucking peacock,” Margo lies, and Eliot’s face lights up, imagining himself regal and resplendent.
viii. the third task
This is the least fun Eliot can imagine having with Margo while naked, streaked with paint, and bound at the wrists with rope.
They’re sitting at the edge of the fountain, their legs dangling in the water. Eliot cast a spell to keep himself warm, while Margo cast a spell to make her body accept the cold. She stares into the bottomless pool with a look of deep concentration, like all her secrets are floating down there and she’s trying to pick which one to fish up.
Eliot knows what he has to say to break the spell. He just doesn’t know how to open his mouth and say it.
“My advisor at NYU told me I had four tickets to give out for guests to graduation,” Margo says, staring down into the water. “I told her not to bother, give ’em to somebody else with a big family, ’cause my dad wasn’t coming. And she got that sad face on, like every single fucking person does when I say anything about my family. Except you. It’s one of the million reasons you make more sense to me than anyone else.” Margo looks sideways and up at Eliot. Even with the paint marks on her face, she looks so matter-of-fact, the truth of herself laid out, take it or leave it. Eliot wishes he could cast the Amber Spyglass right now, and see the savage face of her other self, but the rope restricts his wrists too much. “I know it still hurts you that your family doesn’t love you. It’s the most understandable thing in the world. Anyone would feel that way, right? But not me. When I think about how my dad thinks I’m a bitch because I didn’t turn out a sweet broken little doll like my mom, I don’t feel a single goddamn thing. My dad doesn’t love me, and I genuinely do not give a shit.”
The rope uncoils itself from her wrists and falls into the water. Margo sways a little, then catches herself with her hands on the grass behind her.
“Of course you figured out how to say it first,” Eliot says. “You’ve always been braver than me.”
“Then grow a pair of ovaries so we can go inside and have a cocktail,” Margo says, raising her eyebrows at him.
Eliot looks down at his hands. “Creating me was the greatest art project of my life. I should have used my own persona as my thesis project instead of that Sondheim revue.” No, he’s not so much of a coward he can’t look at Margo for this. She’s his mirror, after all.
She smiles and rubs his shoulder. “I loved that Sondheim revue. Bobby is gay and you should say it.”
“I let everyone at NYU assume that I’m from somewhere in or around the city. Your style advice helped me with that, so – thanks. But I’m a farm boy from Indiana,” Eliot says, and Margo’s face isn’t shocked or repulsed, just thoughtful. “When I was fourteen, I used magic to kill my worst bully. Nobody knew it was me, but I did. That’s the biggest reason I had to leave Indiana as far behind me as I could. Not because I’m queer. Because that’s where I murdered a boy.”
The rope falls from Eliot’s wrists. He stretches his arms wide, then pulls Margo into a sideways hug. She kisses him on the cheek, a silent benediction. “Let’s go get that cocktail,” Eliot says, and then the clock tower chimes midnight.
The moonlight seems to reach down and grab Eliot. It squeezes him down into a new shape, and then he flies up and up. He needs to find his flock! There are so many miles to go!
He and his flock know the way by the sun, the stars, by the ephemeral sense of magnetism. They take turns in the lead, and when one is too tired to go on, they all stop somewhere safe and feast on insects and seeds. The cold doesn’t touch them, because the fire of their breast muscles working their wings keeps them warm.
And then that sense of certainty tells him that the journey is over, and the flock circles down through whirling snow to a human place, and when they land in front of the human place, the moonlight reaches down again and stretches him out, and he is naked in the snow with a terrible wind howling at him from behind and Pavarotti howling “Nessun dorma” through the open doors ahead. A Russian voice shouts over the soaring tenor aria, “Get inside!” and they stagger into the gloomy prison of Brakebills South.
ix. the second manifestation
“What is Ospina’s Third Manifestation?” Mayakovsky demands of Eliot, his voice cracking like a whip in the vast quiet hall.
Eliot’s mouth works, but no sound comes out. He’s still shell-shocked from being a goose for weeks, then a human again, then a human in a stupid white uniform, just like Margo is.
“Think, nancy boy!” Mayakovsky roars at him. “One day you will not be so pretty, and then why should anyone care about you? Use the brain behind those long girly eyelashes!”
Margo is about ready to kill Mayakovsky for that, but Eliot just sneers icily at Mayakovsky, and Margo realizes he’s heard that insult so many times it stings about as much for him as “ice queen” or “bitch” does for her – which is to say he wears it as a badge of honor. “It’s a spell that manifests your Shade by assembling a group of small, identical objects.” The same spell Dr. Malone used to manifest her Shade out of the yarrow stalks in her I Ching set.
A girl in their batch of Physical Kids, Sneha, crooks her fingers over the nails on the table and begins, “Ojalá que mi sombra –”
All it takes is the barest gesture from Mayakovsky, and Sneha’s voice dies. Margo tries to shout a protest and finds her voice gone too. Her face heats. How dare he take away her voice?
“This is your Shade!” Mayakovsky shouts. “The face of your magic, of your pain, of whatever gets you up in the morning! You don’t need your voice to manifest it! It is inside you! Begin!”
Margo and Eliot look at each other across the table, eyes wide and panicked. They still haven’t been able to manifest their Shades, or even see their own, though now they can both use the Amber Spyglass to see anyone else’s. Margo casts it to look at Mayakovsky, who hasn’t manifested his. There’s a giant centipede scuttling up his neck and jawline. Mayakovsky glares at her. “Worry about your own Shade, ice queen.” Margo rolls her eyes. He really is predictable with his insults.
In between their hopeless attempts to manifest their Shades from piles of nails, Eliot and Margo make increasingly obscene gestures at each other across the hall through their open doors. Mayakovsky walks in the middle of Eliot writhing on his chair with his knees around his ears and Margo thrusting her hips while holding the base of a nonexistent dildo. “Huh,” he says. “So the nancy boy gets fucked by the ice queen. Who’d have thought?”
Margo and Eliot stop and sag into their chairs. Mayakovsky points at them dramatically. “You two idiots cannot manifest Shades at all. Come.” He gestures violently, and even Margo doesn’t dare do anything but get up and follow him. He leads them to the front hall, opens the front door, and says, “You are not allowed back in here without Shades.”
Margo stares at Mayakovsky, mouth open, and spreads her hand toward the blinding plain of ice outside.
“Your. Disciplines. Are. Fire. And. ICE!” Mayakovsky roars. “Figure it out!” He raises his hands, casts a spell, and flings them out the door into the eternal sun of Antarctic summer.
Even in summer, it’s fucking cold in their stupid white outfits. Margo tries to wordlessly cast her spell that makes her body temperature drop and accept the cold. Her hands are shaking. She breathes on them and tries again. She won’t let that old Russian bastard kill her down here. This time she manages it, and the cold is still there, it’s just not a concern anymore. She blinks ice crystals from her eyelashes and looks at Eliot. He’s smoking a cigarette, his other hand tucked in the armpit of the smoking arm, and the glow of the lit cigarette surrounds him like a halo. When she blinks at the cigarette, Eliot takes a box of cigarettes labeled in Russian from the waistband of his white pants. Margo grins and thumps him on the arm. He stole them from Mayakovsky, the scamp. She’s so proud of him.
Eliot sweeps out his free hand in a shrug of now what? In reply, Margo casts the Amber Spyglass and looks at Eliot. By now she regrets keeping the truth from him – how did she think he was going to manifest his Shade if he didn’t even know what shape he was? – but it’s too late for that now. They can’t talk. The only way for Margo to tell him the truth is to show him. She has to manifest his Shade – and she’s not too proud to admit that she needs him to manifest hers.
Those goddamn nails of Mayakovsky’s. Back at Brakebills, she tried manifesting her Shade from bolts of cloth she kept around for making new outfits – she’s always been good at costume design. Out here she has nothing but the clothes on her back and the endless ice.
Ice, Margo says, though no sound comes out. No shit, it had to be ice. Mayakovsky was right. She’s a fucking idiot. She points her hands toward the ice in front of Eliot’s feet and makes the shape for Ospina’s Second Manifestation: a spell for manifesting Shades from continuous, flowing material. It’s usually used on water, but ice flows too, if you give it enough time. Or enough magical encouragement.
Eliot notices her casting as she pulls with all her magical strength at the slow stubborn ice. He throws his cigarette on the ground, but doesn’t let the fire die. He casts Ospina’s Second Manifestation on the column of rising smoke, trying to hold it in place, to shape it. Margo smiles and moves so they’re standing back to back, supporting each other as they work. She leans back into him as she wrenches bright, glittering chips of ice from the ground. She knows what to do. She’s seen his Shade a hundred times now, from a hundred little spells cast while he showers or rummages through her closet or asks a combative question in class. She can make him real, and she does.
Breathing clouds of white mist, frost blooming all over her exposed skin, Margo turns around and sees a hyena made of smoke. Her ears prick forward at the sight of Margo, and she pads toward her. When she leans her face into Margo’s thigh, there’s a feeling of deep warmth, like a hot breath. “Finally,” she says, because Mayakovsky cast the silence spell on Margo, not on her, not when she was still insubstantial and unknown.
Eliot looks down at Margo’s manifestation, then up at her, his eyes shining and hurt. At his feet is a Madagascar hissing cockroach, made of a hundred precisely cut, glittering chips of ice, packed together with snow.
“You were so freaked out when the book said it was your Shade,” Margo’s Shade says. “I didn’t want you to be grossed out by yourself. You do that to yourself more than enough already.”
Eliot pushes at the hisser with his toe, wearing the exact expression of cold, refined disgust that Margo feared he might have. She looks down fiercely at her Shade, and bats her hand at her smoky mouth, demanding that she say something to fix this.
“Hyenas are terrifying monsters with a creepy-ass laugh, and when you saw me for the first time through the Amber Spyglass, you smiled,” the hyena says, baring her teeth. “I wear my ugliness like a badge of honor. You just told me that you were the greatest art project of your life. This is part of the art project. Make it work.”
That makes Eliot look thoughtful. He bends down to pick up the cockroach, who waves his bright white antennae and hisses. Eliot holds him in his palm and studies him like an alien specimen. “Make me pretty,” the hisser says.
Eliot raises his other hand to cast something on him, then shakes his head and drops the hand. Margo’s Shade laughs in a harsh high warble. “Yeah, that’s right, you asshole. Margo already made him pretty. She fucking rules at prop design. Now let’s get back inside before the next blizzard kicks up.”
As Eliot and Margo walk back to the door of Brakebills South, arm in arm, Eliot’s Shade says, “We’re gonna have to figure out names for ourselves.” He waves his antennae toward the hyena. “What do you think of Elphaba?”
Margo flips him off and opens the door to Mayakovsky’s oh-so-welcoming embrace.
x. the season’s turn
Eliot drags on his pipe, and with his exhale, manifests Smoke from white cannabinoid clouds. She butts her head against Margo’s thigh.
“Why’d you have to manifest her?” she groans. “She keeps nagging me to get up and I’m tired.”
“You’re wasting your Sunday, you lazy bitch,” says Smoke.
Snow, manifested in smooth exoskeletal plates of sea glass, all green and white and brown, is tucked in the idle curl of Eliot’s free hand. “Getting high with your best friend is not a waste of a Sunday,” he says, slow and stately.
“I did it because I missed her face,” Eliot says, turning his head to watch Smoke’s craggy face swirl in white, like the ghost of contact highs past. He sets Snow on his chest and reaches through Smoke for Margo’s hand, and feels a sweet hot shiver up his arm where the smoke of her touches his skin. Margo hooks her fingertips on his, and Eliot laughs at how the high makes all these soft sensations expand until he’s embraced by them all over.
Of course, that’s when Todd bursts into the Physical Cottage with his yappy little terrier Shade, hollering, “Prospie assignments! Everyone has to guide a prospective student to the entrance exam!”
Margo groans and throws an arm over her eyes. Todd comes over and shoves cards at them. “Come on, take one, they’re coming.”
“Why do we have responsibilities suddenly?” Margo says, sitting up and grabbing a card. She reads, “William Adiyodi.”
“We’re upper years, dear Bambi. With great power comes great responsibility. Pretty overrated if you ask me.” Eliot snuffs out the smolder in his pipe, cups Snow in his hand, sits up, and takes a card.
“Who’d you get?” Todd says.
“Quentin Coldwater,” Eliot reads. “What kind of a name is that?”
“They’ll get here in half an hour,” Todd says. “Come on, let’s go!” And he dashes off to the next group of Physical Kids trying to enjoy their lazy Sunday.
“At least it’s sunny out,” Eliot says. He tucks Snow in his vest pocket, folds his sleeves down, buttons the cuffs. Margo reapplies her lipstick and zips her boots on. Eliot reaches out and finger-combs a few flyaway curls into place. She reaches up and adjusts his collar. Eliot tells her, “You’re going to intimidate the shit out of Mr. William Adiyodi,” and goes out to meet Quentin Coldwater, whoever he may be.
If he’s going to run page-boy errands for Dean Fogg, he might as well enjoy it. He lays in the sun in front of the main Brakebills building, lights a cigarette with a twist of his fingers, and tells Snow, “Go nuts.” His Shade runs up and down the line of his torso and outstretched leg, like a living sea-glass brooch against the cream of his outfit. Except, of course, that only a madman would make a cockroach brooch. Good thing, then, that Eliot is a madman.
Quentin Coldwater turns out to be a delectable little nerd boy, stumbling and lost in his own clothes. His eyes are huge and liquid and don’t seem to know where to settle: on the lit cigarette in Eliot’s mouth, on Snow scuttling up the buttons of his vest, or on Eliot’s, well, everything, really. Eliot wants to draw him out from behind that curtain of hair and baggy shirts and find out what he’s made of. But first, he has an exam to pass. He’s still so new; he doesn’t even know what a Shade is. He may not even know what magic is.
“Am I hallucinating?” Quentin finally seems to have decided to stare at Snow perched on Eliot’s shoulder - he hisses and clicks cheerfully, making Quentin jump inside his loose layers of hair and cloth armor.
“If you were,” Eliot says, “how would asking me help? Come on, or you’ll miss it.”
As they get closer to the exam room, Eliot lets himself fall behind Quentin a little, despite his longer legs, so he can discreetly cast the Amber Spyglass and hold it up to his shoulder so Snow can look through it.
“Late!” Dean Fogg roars through the door to the exam room, and Eliot backs away and leaves Quentin to his fate.
When the door slams shut, Eliot dispels the Amber Spyglass and asks Snow, “So what did you see?”
“I didn’t get a clear look,” he says, “but it was something small, with wings. It was clinging to his shirt, where his heartbeat is.”
“Maybe he’ll get a chance to find out,” Eliot says, his smile fond, and goes back home to waste his Sunday.