“Do I have a choice?” 

“Do you wish to remain here?” 

The boy considers this for a moment. 

“No,” he says. 

“Very well."

This conversation is between the man in the grey suit and Marco in the chapter “Shades of Grey,” and is about whether Marco would like to be adopted. While seemingly innocuous, this quote represents a pivotal moment in the text and carries with it the menace of manipulation. Stripped down, this conversation makes it seem as though a young Marco chooses to go with the man in the grey suit. Later in the novel, however, it is revealed that the man in the grey suit is capable of magically manipulating people into agreeing with him by asking leading questions. In his interaction with Tara Burgess in “Temporary Places,” he gets her to believe that the circus is not magical and even convinces her that she is due to catch a train when neither are true by posing both ideas as questions. This suggests that a young Marco may not have been speaking authentically when answering the man in the grey suit’s questions at the orphanage years earlier. This effectively strips him of the choice he supposedly makes in this moment, his autonomy sacrificed to the whims of his teacher.

“Then came the response from Cambridge, the grandmotherly decree that this was acceptable, but Bailey would be going to Harvard, of course. This one was not a request disguised as anything. This was pure demand…The arguments started before Bailey’s opinion was even asked."

In the chapter “Hidden Things,” this quotation explains the way that Bailey is caught between two potential paths for his future, one decreed by his grandmother and the other asserted by his father. Even though he’s still a teenager, Bailey’s future becomes a battlefield over which he and his father wage war as his father insists he take over the family farm even though his grandmother has offered to pay for his college tuition. What matters more that even than the constant fighting he endures over his future, however, is the way that Bailey’s opinion doesn’t play into the decision at all. While Bailey’s grandmother eventually tells him to pursue his dreams, his notion of what his future could be is so profoundly influenced by these two options that he fails to consider what else he could do with his future until much later. It isn’t until a third opportunity metaphorically falls in his lap that he considers there might be a third path for him with all of the adventure and magic he dreams of while reading in the oak tree.

“The night you kissed me. I thought it that night. I didn’t want to play anymore, I only wanted to be with you. I thought I would ask you to run away with me and I meant it. The very moment I convinced myself we could manage it, I was in so much pain I could barely stand.”

In “Stormy Seas,” Celia explains why she and Marco can’t run away together. Because they are both bound magically to the challenge, they are physically punished when they think of leaving. The magical equivalent of a shock collar, Celia invites Marco to commit his mind to leaving the circus and the challenge behind as proof that this magical method of preventing them from leaving. He is horrified when he experiences a similar physical deterrent. Whether this was the devising of the man in the grey suit or Hector Bowen, or if it’s a simple result of the binding magic itself, is unclear. What is unmistakable, however, is the impact it has on their ability to decide what to do with their futures. In the face of overwhelming pain, they have no choice but to participate in the challenge.

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held. Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.”

This quotation is a confession Celia makes to Marco in the chapter “Beautiful Pain” while they discuss their relationship and the challenge. In the scene leading up to this moment, Celia and Marco are both frustrated by the challenge and how it has kept them apart. The denial that Celia speaks of is the self-denial she has exercised over her own aspirations and desires in service of the challenge. This conversation is when Celia is finally able to put a voice to this internal struggle and it causes a huge shift in Celia’s character. Rather than continuing to build tents for Marco, she dedicates herself to studying how she might free herself from having to constantly control the circus, thereby giving herself the chance to do something different with her life.