The actual ceremony is panoply and performance, aimed outward. A demonstration important for the community — and especially the community outside the community — but empty. No. The real work came earlier, came in the last awful weeks of the semester, when everyone hunkered down over their tablets and their laptops, grappled with words and demonstrations and ideas and lack of sleep.

And especially at the end. The hall doesn’t echo as Jillian walks to the podium: every seat is full of noise-absorbing flesh. For two months her seminar has been one rabbit hole after another, close encounters and diving into the wreck. She has hauled her souls gasping and disintegrating into the light, one after the other, to be weighed and found wanting, to be measured and dismissed, to be pushed again and again to a deeper level, a more primal truth.

She took her turn in the formal robes and mask, but that was trivial.

They have demanded — and received — nothing less than the full dissolution of her self. Down at the bottom, at the bedrock, and they kept digging. She loses family, friends, the power of her name, and still further down. Objects becomes collections of planes, become lines of light and shadow, become abstract colors, and meaningless.

At the podium she looks out across a sea of flames, a field of waving wheat, her fellow undergraduates. She speaks, and her voice is the roar of a forest fire, the clash of swords in the arena, gunfire echoing off the dunes. She speaks, and the crowd swallows her whole, pierces her through, and accepts her.

Everything else is just ceremony.


There’s a circle of pines next to the arts building Jillian likes to climb when the weather’s nice and she’s got a particularly abstract paper she’s reading or cantrip she’s learning. She knows the trees, knows their names, has sunk herself down deep in their roots and spent a week processing sunshine into growth. That was a fun altbreak, way better than another windless visit to her parents. She hasn’t been home in a year, and probably won’t be again; home’s not that place anymore.

She wraps herself in borrowed wings and rises to perch on the highest branch. The sun is caught between Art’s two high towers, and she finds herself singing without meaning to; some memory of the body she’s borrowing. She lets it flow, listens to it with her mathematician’s mind. A spring song, which is dangerous–she keeps her eye on the horizon for other birds. She’s not looking to feather a nest, not just yet.

She flits down deeper into the branches, shrugs off beak, brain and feathers, and settles back against the trunk. She pulls out her tablet and sighs; it’s almost too nice a day for Vorovsky.


A language, of course, first of all because you have to speak another language to be well-rounded and secondly because being bilingual makes magic much, much easier. Jillian takes French, because there are bits in the Lord Peter books she can’t read, and because most magicians are either French, Russian or Indian. She doesn’t like Russian (too dour) and most Indian papers are still written in English, so, French.

And astronomy, and at least one science beyond the introductory course (she does physics), and basic sociology, though more is better. She crams in a literature course here and there, and plays third clarinet in the orchestra, too, to relax. She doesn’t get a lot of sleep, and tends to drink too much on the weekends and sleep with people maybe she wouldn’t normally, but that’s fine, that’s what college is for.

Oh, and math, at least up through the 200 level. She likes math, the cleverness of proofs, the way simple rules complicate themselves, but quickly realizes she isn’t a mathematician. It’s the difference between being a craftsman and being an artist: she gets the concepts well enough, but there’s no voice in her singing equations. She sits in the second row and envies mightily the front-row students their ardency and poetry.

It all comes together in the 300 level courses, though. She is of a thousand lives lived, and commands the tongue of the birds. She swims in Hali beside the shattered towers of Carcosa. Plants grow at her command, and water flows. She holds forces in her head in perfect balance; like Maxwell’s demon she works without working.


You may wish to read this story and this one to find out what follows.

The tower has no top and no bottom but stretches endlessly away in either direction.
Cats nest in the vines that soften the gray stone and speak fairy tales.

They file into the classroom.
Rows of old desks aglow with light, golden smooth with nervous hands’ polishing.
It is the first day, and they are six:
Erica, Janet and Rachel on one side of the aisle;
Jillian, Sheila and Colleen on the other.

The professor walks in, black robes spread behind her like penguin wings.
She keeps her hair short, and her enemies shorter–
this at least is the gossip among the infinite dorms.
Vines have taken root and curl greenly from her collar,
from her cuffs,
peep from under her hem.

She takes the podium.
“So,” she says,
“You are come, all of you,
I trust,
with a deep love of learning
and a deep ambivalence for action;
you have come to pry under rocks,
to finger slime,
to tickle the underside of the universe.
Noble goals.
And I will teach you–
and others will teach you–
of many things. Of secrets ways,
hidden chants,
the thousand rules of power.
You will know, and you will see,
and what you see you shall never again unsee.”

There is a pause.

“So,” she says,
“Let us begin.”

Jillian, Sheila, and Colleen

Jillian, Sheila, and Colleen have been captured by a wizard.

He wants them to marry him but they don’t like him.
“You’ll learn to love me,” he cackles. “Or I’ll feed you to my wolves!”
“Says you,” says Colleen, and spits in his eye.
That’s what Colleen is like!

While he’s off visiting his mother they escape.

On the way out Jillian fills her pockets with magic jewelry.
Some of it she knows how to use, some she doesn’t.
“You never know when you’ll need magic jewelry,” says Jillian.
That’s what Jillian is like!

A crow sees them escaping and tells the wizard.

He comes flying after them, lightning crackling in his fingers.
Jillian throws a ring at him and turns him into a statue.
Colleen breaks him into pieces with a big stick.
“Poor wizard,” cries Sheila, and bursts into tears.
That’s what Sheila is like!

The wizard lies in the field for centuries until a farmer digs him up.

“What a weird statue,” says the farmer.
He sells the wizard to a museum that puts him back together again.
The wizard comes back to life and yawns.
“Our statue!” cries the museum curator.
That’s what museum curators are like!