You may wonder how a two-dimensional drawing could possibly be a threat. Here’s the answer: Wild Chalklings scurry across the ground like scorpions or land piranhas, and bite chunks out of your feet. At which point you fall to the ground and they swarm you. Enough said.
The Rithmatist is about a 14-year-old kid named Joel who wants desperately to be a Rithmatist. But he wasn’t Chosen, so he doesn’t have the ability to bring chalklings or Rithmatic lines to life. All he can do is watch as The Rithmatist students at Armedius Academy learn the mystical art that he would give anything to practice. Then Rithmatist students start disappearing, kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving only trails of blood. Joel’s professor asks him to help investigate—putting Joel and his friend Melody on the trail of a discovery that could change Rithmatics—and their world—forever….
Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway. She threw the lamp aside, splashing oil across the painted wall and fine rug. The liquid glistened in the moonlight.
The house was empty. Silent, save for her panicked breathing. She’d given up on screaming. Nobody seemed to hear.
It was as if the entire city had gone dead.
She burst into the living room, then stopped, uncertain what to do. A grandfather clock ticked in the corner, illuminated by moonlight through the broad picture windows. The city skyline spread beyond, buildings rising ten stories or more, springrail lines crisscrossing between them. Jamestown, her home for all sixteen years of her life.
I am going to die, she thought.
Desperation pushed through her terror. She shoved aside the rocking chair in the middle of the room, then hurriedly rolled up the rug so that she could get to the wooden floor. She reached into the pouch tied to a loop on her skirt and pulled out a single bone-white length of chalk.
Kneeling on the wood planks, staring at the ground, she tried to clear her mind. Focus.
She set the tip of the chalk against the ground and began to draw a circle around herself. Her hand shook so much that the line was uneven. Professor Fitch would have been quite displeased to see such a sloppy Line of Warding. She laughed to herself—a desperate sound, more of a cry.
Sweat dripped from her brow, making dark spots on the wood. Her hand quivered as she drew several straight lines inside the circle—Lines of Forbiddance to stabilize her defensive ring. The Matson Defense . . . how did it go? Two smaller circles, with bind points to place Lines of Making—
Lilly snapped her head up, looking down the hallway at the door leading to the street. A shadow moved beyond the door’s clouded window plate.
The door rattled.
“Oh, Master,” she found herself whispering. “Please . . . please . . .”
The door stopped rattling. All was still for just a moment; then the door burst open.
Lilly tried to scream, but found her voice caught in her throat. A figure stood framed in moonlight, a bowler hat on his head, a short cape covering his shoulders. He stood with his hand on a cane to his side.
She could not see his face, backlit as he was, but there was something horribly sinister about that slightly tipped head and those shadowed features. A hint of a nose and chin, reflecting moonlight. Eyes that watched her from within the inky blackness.
The things flooded into the room around him. Angry, squirming over floor, walls, ceiling. Their bone-white forms almost seemed to glow in the moonlight.
Each was as flat as a piece of paper.
Each was made of chalk.
They were each unique, tiny picture like monsters with fangs, claws. They made no noise at all as they flooded into the hallway, hundreds of them, shaking and vibrating silently as they came for her.
Lilly finally found her voice and screamed.
Boring?” Joel demanded, stopping in place. “You think the 1888 Crew-Choi duel was boring?”
Michael shrugged, stopping and looking back at Joel. “I don’t know. I stopped reading after a page or so.”
“You’re just not imagining it right,” Joel said, walking up and resting one hand on his friend’s shoulder. He held his other hand in front of him, panning it as if to wipe away their surroundings— the green lawns of Armedius Academy—and replace them with the dueling arena.
“Imagine,” Joel said, “it’s the end of the Melee, the biggest Rithmatic event in the country. Paul Crew and Adelle Choi are the only two duelists left. Adelle survived, against all odds, after her entire team was picked off in the first few minutes.”
A few other students stopped on the sidewalk to listen nearby as they passed between classes.
“So?” Michael said, yawning.
“So? Michael, it was the finals! Imagine everyone watching, in silence, as the last two Rithmatists begin their duel. Imagine how nervous Adelle would have been! Her team had never won a Melee before, and now she faced down one of the most skilled Rithmatists of her generation. Paul’s team had shielded him at their center so that the lesser players fell first. They knew that would get him to the end practically fresh, his defensive circle almost completely untouched. It was the champion against the underdog.”
“Boring,” Michael said. “They just sit there and draw.”
“You’re hopeless,” Joel replied. “You are going to the very school where Rithmatists are trained. Aren’t you even a little interested in them?”
“They have enough people interested in them,” Michael said with a scowl. “They keep to themselves, Joel. I’m fine with that. I’d rather they weren’t even here.” A breeze ruffled his blond hair. Around them spread the green hills and stately brick buildings of Armedius Academy. Nearby, a clockwork crab continued its quiet duty, chopping at the grass to keep it level.
“You wouldn’t think that way if you understood,” Joel said, getting out some chalk. “Here, take this. And stand here.” He positioned his friend, then knelt and drew a circle on the sidewalk around him. “You’re Paul. See, defensive circle. If that gets breached, you lose the match.”
Joel paced back a ways on the concrete quad, then knelt and drew his own circle. “Now, Adelle’s circle was nearly breached in four places. She quickly began to shift from the Matson Defense to . . . Okay, you know what, that’s too technical. Just know that her circle was weak, and Paul had a strong, dominant position.”
“If you say so,” Michael said. He smiled at Eva Winters as she walked past, holding books in front of her.
“Now,” Joel said. “Paul started pounding her circle with Lines of Vigor, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to shift defenses quickly enough to recover.”
“Pounding . . . Lines of what?” Michael asked.
“Lines of Vigor,” Joel said. “Duelists shoot them at each other. That’s the point; it’s how you breach the circle.”
“I thought they made little chalk . . . things. Creatures.”
“That too,” Joel said. “They’re called chalklings. But that’s not why everyone remembers the 1888 Melee, even some twenty years later. It was the lines she shot. Conventional wisdom would have been for her to last as long as she could, draw out the match, make a good showing of it.”
He set his chalk out in front of his circle. “She didn’t do that,” he whispered. “She saw something. Paul had a small weakened section on the back of his circle. Of course, the only way to attack it would be to bounce a shot off three different lines left by other duelists. It was an impossible shot. She took it anyway. She drew one Line of Vigor as Paul’s chalklings ate at her defenses. She fired it and . . .”
Caught up in the moment, Joel finished drawing the Line of Vigor in front of him, raising his hand with a flourish. With surprise, he realized that some thirty students had gathered to listen to him, and he could feel them holding breaths, expecting his drawing to come to life.
It didn’t. Joel wasn’t a Rithmatist. His drawings were just ordinary chalk. Everyone knew that, Joel most of all, but the moment somehow broke the spell of his story. The gathered students continued on their way, leaving him kneeling on the ground in the middle of his circle.
“And let me guess,” Michael said, yawning again. “Her shot got through?”
“Yeah,” Joel said, suddenly feeling foolish. He stood up, putting away his chalk. “The shot worked. She won the Melee, though her team had been lowest favored in the odds. That shot. It was beautiful. At least, so the accounts say.”
“And I’m sure you’d love to have been there,” Michael said, stepping out of the circle Joel had drawn. “By the Master, Joel. I’ll bet if you could travel through time, you’d waste it going to Rithmatic duels!”
“Sure, I guess. What else would I do?”
“Oh,” Michael said, “maybe prevent some assassinations, get rich, find out what’s really happening in Nebrask. . . . —”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Joel said, pocketing his chalk, then jumping out of the way as a soccer ball shot past, followed by Jephs Daring. Jephs gave Michael and Joel a wave before chasing down his ball.
Joel joined Michael, continuing across campus. The beautiful, low green hills were topped by flowering trees, and green vines wound their way up the sides of buildings. Students darted this way and that between classes, in a variety of dresses and trousers. Many of the boys wore their sleeves rolled up in the late spring warmth.
Only the Rithmatists were required to wear uniforms. That made them stick out; a group of three of them walked between buildings, and the other students casually made way, most not looking at them.
“Look, Joel,” Michael said. “Have you ever wondered if maybe . . . you know, you think about this stuff too much? Rithmatics and all that?”
“It’s interesting to me,” Joel said.
“Yes, but . . . I mean, it’s a little odd, considering . . .”
Michael didn’t say it, but Joel understood. He wasn’t a Rithmatist, and could never be one. He’d missed his chance. But why couldn’t he be interested in what they did?
Michael narrowed his eyes as that group of three Rithmatists passed in their grey-and-white uniforms. “It’s kind of like,” he said softly, “it’s kind of like it’s us and them, you know? Leave them alone to do . . . whatever it is they do, Joel.”
“You just don’t like that they can do things you can’t,” Joel said.
That earned Joel a glare. Perhaps those words hit too close to home. Michael was the son of a knight-senator, a son of privilege. He wasn’t accustomed to being excluded.
“Anyway,” Michael said, looking away and continuing to hike down the busy sidewalk, “you can’t be one of them, so why keep spending all of your time talking about them? It’s useless, Joel. Stop thinking about them.”
I can’t ever be one of you either, Michael, Joel thought. Technically, he wasn’t supposed to be at this school. Armedius was horribly expensive, and you either had to be important, rich, or a Rithmatist to attend. Joel was as about as far from any of those three things as a boy could get.
They stopped at the next intersection of sidewalks. “Look, I’ve got to get to history class,” Michael said.
“Yeah,” Joel said. “I’ve got open period.”
“Running messages again?” Michael asked. “In the hope that you’ll get to peek into a Rithmatic classroom?”
Joel blushed, but it was true. “Summer’s coming up,” he said. “You going home again?”
Michael brightened. “Yeah. Father said I could bring some friends. Fishing, swimming, girls in sundresses on the beach. Mmmm . . .”
“Sounds great,” Joel said, trying to keep the hopeful tone out of his voice. “I’d love to see something like that.” Michael took a group each year. Joel had never been invited.
This year, though . . . well, he’d been hanging out with Michael after school. Michael needed help with math, and Joel could explain things to him. They had been getting along really well.
Michael shuffled his feet. “Look, Joel,” he said. “I mean . . . it’s fun to hang out with you here, you know? At school? But back home, it’s a different world. I’ll be busy with the family. Father has such expectations. . . .”
“Oh, yeah, of course,” Joel said.
Michael smiled, banishing all discomfort from his expression in an instant. Son of a politician for sure. “That’s the spirit,” he said, patting Joel on the arm. “See ya.”
Joel watched him jog off. Michael ran into Mary Isenhorn along the way, and he immediately started flirting. Mary’s father owned a massive springworks. As Joel stood on that sidewalk intersection, he could pick out dozens of members of the country’s elite. Adam Li was directly related to the emperor of JoSeun. Geoff Hamilton had three presidents in his family line. Wenda Smith’s parents owned half of the cattle ranches in Georgiabama.
And Joel . . . he was the son of a chalkmaker and a cleaning lady. Well, he thought, it looks like it will be just me and Davis here all summer again. He sighed, then made his way to the school office.
Twenty minutes later, Joel hurried back down the sidewalk, delivering messages around campus during his free period. Those sidewalks were now mostly empty of students, with everyone else in class.
Joel’s moment of depression had vanished the instant he’d looked through the stack. There had been only three messages to deliver today, and he’d done those quickly. That meant . . .
He clutched a fourth message in his pocket, one that he himself had added without telling anyone. Now, with some time to spare because of his speed earlier, he jogged up to Warding Hall, one of the Rithmatic lecture halls.
Professor Fitch was teaching in there this period. Joel fingered the letter he carried in his pocket, penned—after some nervousness—to the Rithmatic professor.
This might be my only chance, Joel thought, shoving down any nervousness. Fitch was a relaxed, pleasant man. There was no reason to be worried.
Joel scurried up the long flight of steps outside the vinecovered, grey brick building, then slipped in the oak door. That brought him into the lecture hall at the very top. It was shaped like a small amphitheater, with tiered seats. Schematics depicting Rithmatic defenses hung on the whitewashed walls, and the plush seats were bolted in rows along the tiers, facing toward the lecture floor below.
A few of the students glanced at Joel as he entered, but Professor Fitch did not. The professor rarely noticed when he got deliveries from the office, and would ramble on for the entire lecture before realizing that a member of his audience wasn’t actually a member of the class. Joel didn’t mind that one bit. He sat down on the steps eagerly. Today’s lecture, it appeared, was on the Easton Defense.
“. . . is why this defense is one of the very best to use against an aggressive assault from multiple sides,” Fitch was saying down below. He pointed with a long, red baton toward the floor where he’d drawn a large circle. The hall was arranged so that the students could look down at his Rithmatic drawings on the ground.
With his pointer, Fitch gestured toward the Lines of Forbiddance he’d affixed to the bind points on the circle. “Now, the Easton Defense is most famous for the large number of smaller circles drawn at the bind points. Drawing nine other circles like this can be time-consuming, but they will prove well worth the time in defensive capabilities.
“You can see that the inner lines form an irregular nonagon, and the number of arms you leave off will determine how much room you have to draw, but also how stable your figure is. Of course, if you want a more aggressive defense, you can also use the bind points for chalklings.”
What about Lines of Vigor? Joel thought. How do you defend against those?
Joel didn’t ask; he dared not draw attention to himself. That might make Fitch ask for his message, and that would leave Joel with no reason to keep listening. So, Joel just listened. The office wouldn’t expect him back for some time.
He leaned forward, willing one of the other students to ask about the Lines of Vigor. They didn’t. The young Rithmatists lounged in their seats, boys in white slacks, girls in white skirts, both in grey sweaters—colors to disguise the ever-present chalk dust.
Professor Fitch himself wore a deep red coat. Thick, with straight, starched cuffs, the coat reached all the way down to Fitch’s feet. The coat buttoned all the way to a tall collar, mostly obscuring the white suit Fitch wore beneath. It had a militaristic feel to it, with all of those stiff lines and straps at the shoulders almost like rank insignias. The red coat was the symbol of a full Rithmatic professor.
“And that is why a Keblin Defense is inferior to the Easton in most situations.” Professor Fitch smiled, turning to regard the class. He was an older man, greying at the temples, with a spindly figure. The coat gave him an air of dignity.
Do you understand what you have? Joel thought, looking over the unengaged students. This was a class of fifteenand sixteenyear-old students, making them Joel’s age. Despite their noble calling, they acted like . . . well, teenagers.
Fitch was known to run a loose classroom, and many of the students took advantage, ignoring the lecture, whispering with friends or lounging and staring at the ceiling. Several near Joel actually appeared to be sleeping. He didn’t know their names—he didn’t know the names of most of the Rithmatic students. They generally rebuffed his attempts to chat with them.
When nobody spoke, Fitch knelt and pressed his chalk against the drawing he’d done. He closed his eyes. Seconds later, the drawing puffed away, willed by its creator to vanish.
“Well, then,” he said, raising his chalk. “If there are no questions, perhaps we can discuss how to beat an Easton Defense. The more astute of you will have noticed that I made no mention of Lines of Vigor. That is because those are better talked about from an offensive viewpoint. If we were to—”
The door to the lecture hall banged open. Fitch rose, chalk held between two fingers, eyebrows raised as he turned.
A tall figure strode into the room, causing some of the lounging students to perk up. The newcomer wore a grey coat after the style of a Rithmatic professor of low rank. The man was young, with stark blond hair and a firm step. His coat fit him well, buttoned up to the chin, loose through the legs. Joel didn’t know him.
“Yes?” Professor Fitch asked.
The newcomer walked all the way to the floor of the lecture hall, passing Professor Fitch and pulling out a piece of red chalk. The newcomer turned, knelt, and placed his chalk against the ground. Some of the students began to whisper.
“What is this?” Fitch asked. “I say, did I pass my lecture time again? I heard no sound for the clock. I’m terribly sorry if I’ve intruded into your time!”
The newcomer looked up. His face seemed smug to Joel. “No, Professor,” the man said, “this is a challenge.”
Fitch looked stunned. “I . . . Oh my. It . . .” Fitch licked his lips nervously, then wrung his hands. “I’m not sure how to, I mean, what I need to do. I . . .”
“Ready yourself to draw, Professor,” the newcomer said.
Fitch blinked. Then, hands obviously shaking, he got down on his knees to place his chalk against the ground.
“That’s Professor Andrew Nalizar,” whispered a girl seated a short distance from Joel. “He gained his coat just three years ago from Maineford Academy. They say he spent the last two years fighting in Nebrask!”
“He’s handsome,” the girl’s companion said, twirling a bit of chalk between her fingers.
Down below, the two men began to draw. Joel leaned forward, excited. He’d never seen a real duel between two full professors before. This might be as good as being at the Melee!
Both began by drawing circles around themselves to block attacks from the opponent. Once either circle was breached, the duel would end. Perhaps because he’d been talking about it, Professor Fitch went to draw the Easton Defense, surrounding himself with nine smaller circles touching the larger one at the bind points.
It wasn’t a very good stance for a duel. Even Joel could see that; he felt a moment of disappointment. Maybe this wouldn’t be that good a fight after all. Fitch’s defense was beautifully drawn, but was too strong; the Easton was best against multiple opponents who surrounded you.
Nalizar drew a modified Ballintain Defense—a quick defense with only basic reinforcement. While Professor Fitch was still placing his internal lines, Nalizar went straight into an aggressive attack, drawing chalklings.
Chalklings. Drawn from Lines of Making, they were the core offense of many Rithmatic fights. Nalizar drew quickly and efficiently, creating chalklings that looked like small dragons, with wings and sinuous necks. As soon as he finished the first, it shook to life, then began to fly across the ground toward Fitch.
It didn’t rise into the air. Chalklings were two-dimensional, like all Rithmatic lines. The battle played out on the floor, lines attacking other lines. Fitch’s hands were still shaking, and he kept looking up and down, as if nervous and unfocused. Joel cringed as the middle-aged professor drew one of his outer circles lopsided—a major mistake.
The instructional diagram he’d drawn earlier had been far, far more precise. Lopsided curves were easy to breach. Fitch paused, looking at the poorly drawn curve, and seemed to doubt himself.
Come on! Joel clenched his fists. You’re better than this, Professor!
As a second dragon began to move across the ground, Fitch recovered his wits and snapped his chalk back against the floor. The gathered students were silent, and those who had been dozing sat up.
Fitch threw up a long wiggly line. A Line of Vigor. It was shaped like a waveform, and when it was finished, it shot across the board to hit one of the dragons. The blast threw up a puff of dust and destroyed half of the creature. The dragon began to wriggle about, moving in the wrong direction.
The only sounds in the room were those of chalk against floor accompanied by Fitch’s quick, almost panicked breathing. Joel bit his lip as the duel became heated. Fitch had a better defense, but he’d rushed it, leaving sections that were weak. Nalizar’s sparse defense allowed him to go aggressive, and Fitch had to struggle to keep up. Fitch continued throwing up Lines of Vigor, destroying the chalk creatures that flew across the board at him, but there were always more to replace them.
Nalizar was good, among the best Joel had ever seen. Despite the tension, Nalizar remained fluid, drawing chalkling after chalkling, unfazed by those that Fitch destroyed. Joel couldn’t help but be impressed.
He’s been fighting the wild chalklings at Nebrask recently, Joel thought, remembering what the girl had said. He’s used to drawing under pressure.
Nalizar calmly sent some spider chalklings to crawl along the perimeter of the floor, forcing Fitch to watch his flanks. Next, Nalizar began sending across Lines of Vigor. The snaky lines shot across the board in a vibrating waveform, vanishing once they hit something.
Fitch finally managed to get out a chalkling of his own—a knight, beautifully detailed— which he bound to one of his smaller circles. How does he draw them so well, yet so fast? Joel wondered. Fitch’s knight was a work of beauty, with detailed armor and a large greatsword. It easily defeated Nalizar’s more plentiful, yet far more simply drawn dragons.
With the knight set up, Fitch could try some more offensive shots. Nalizar was forced to draw a few defensive chalklings— blob creatures that threw themselves in front of Lines of Vigor.
Armies of creatures, lines, and waveforms flew across the board—a tempest of white against red, chalklings puffing away, lines hitting the circles and blasting out chunks of the protective line. Both men scribbled furiously.
Joel stood, then took an almost involuntary step down toward the front of the room, transfixed. Doing so, however, let him catch a glimpse of Professor Fitch’s face. Fitch looked frantic. Terrified.
The professors kept drawing, but that worry in Fitch’s expression pulled Joel away from the conflict. Such desperate motions, such concern, his face streaked with sweat.
The weight of what was happening crashed down on Joel. This wasn’t a duel for fun or practice. This was a challenge to Fitch’s authority—a dispute over his right to hold his tenure. If he lost . . .
One of Nalizar’s red Lines of Vigor hit Fitch’s circle straight on, almost breaching it. Immediately, all of Nalizar’s chalklings moved that direction, a frenzied chaotic mess of red motion toward the weakened line.
For just a moment, Fitch froze, looking overwhelmed. He shook himself back into motion, but it was too late. He couldn’t stop them all. One of the dragons got past his knight. It began to claw furiously at the weakened part of Fitch’s circle, distorting it further.
Fitch hurriedly began to draw another knight. But the dragon ripped through his border.
“No!” Joel cried, taking another step down.
Nalizar smiled, removing his chalk from the floor and standing. He dusted off his hands. Fitch was still drawing.
“Professor,” Nalizar said. “Professor!”
Fitch stopped, and only then did he notice the dragon, which continued to work on the hole, trying to dig it out enough that it could get into the center of the circle. In a real battle, it would have moved in to attack the Rithmatist himself. This, however, was just a duel—and a breach in the ring meant victory for Nalizar.
“Oh,” Fitch said, lowering his hand. “Oh, yes, well, I see. . . .” He turned, seeming dazed, regarding the room full of students. “Ah, yes. I . . . will just go, then.”
He began to gather up his books and notes. Joel sank down onto the stone steps. In his hand, he held the letter he had written to give to Fitch.
“Professor,” Nalizar said. “Your coat?”
Fitch looked down. “Ah, yes. Of course.” He undid the buttons on the long red coat, then pulled it off, leaving him in his white vest, shirt, and trousers. He looked diminished. Fitch held the coat for a moment, then laid it on the lecture desk. He gathered up his books and fled the chamber. The door to the ground-floor entrance clicked shut softly behind him.
Joel sat, stunned. A few of the members of the classroom clapped timidly, though most just watched, wide-eyed, obviously uncertain how to react.
“Now then,” Nalizar said, voice curt. “I will take over instruction of this class for the last few days of the term, and I will be teaching the summer elective course that Fitch had planned. I have heard reports of rather disgraceful performance among students at Armedius, your cohort in particular. I will allow no sloppiness in my class. You there, boy sitting on the steps.”
Joel looked up.
“What are you doing there?” Nalizar demanded. “Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?”
“I’m not a Rithmatist, sir,” Joel said, standing. “I’m from the general school.”
“What? Why in the name of the heavens are you sitting in my classroom?”
Your classroom? This was Fitch’s classroom. Or . . . it should be.
“Well?” Nalizar asked.
“I came with a note, sir,” Joel said. “For Professor Fitch.”
“Hand it over, then,” Nalizar said.
“It is for Professor Fitch personally,” Joel said, stuffing the letter into his pocket. “It wasn’t about the class.”
“Well, be off with you then,” Nalizar said, dismissing Joel with a wave of his hand. The red chalk dust scattered on the floor looked like blood. He began dispelling his creations one at a time.
Joel backed away, then rushed up the steps and opened the door. People crossed the lawn outside, many dressed in the white and grey of Rithmatists. One figure stood out. Joel dashed down the stairs across the springy lawn, catching up to Professor Fitch. The man trudged with slumped shoulders, the large bundle of books and notes collected in his arms.
“Professor?” Joel said. Joel was tall for his age, a few inches taller, even, than Fitch.
The older man turned with a start. “Uh? What?”
“Are you all right?”
“Oh, um, why it’s the chalkmaker’s son! How are you, lad? Shouldn’t you be in class?”
“It’s my free period,” Joel said, reaching and sliding two of the books off the stack to help carry them. “Professor, are you all right? About what just happened?”
“You saw that, did you?” Professor Fitch’s face fell.
“Isn’t there anything you can do?” Joel asked. “You can’t let him take your classes away! Perhaps if you spoke to Principal York?”
“No, no,” Fitch said. “That would be unseemly. The right of challenge is a very honorable tradition—an important part of Rithmatic culture, I must say.”
Joel sighed. He glanced down, remembering the note in his pocket. A request from him to Fitch. He wanted to study with the man over the summer, to learn as much about Rithmatics as he could.
But Fitch wasn’t a full professor any longer. Would that matter? Joel wasn’t even certain the man would take a non-Rithmatic student. If Fitch wasn’t a full professor, might he have more time for tutoring students? Thinking that immediately made Joel feel guilty.
He almost pulled the letter out and gave it to the man. The defeat in Fitch’s face stopped him. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time.
“I should have seen this coming,” Fitch said. “That Nalizar. Too ambitious for his own good, I thought when we hired him last week. There hasn’t been a challenge at Armedius for decades. . . .”
“What will you do?” Joel asked.
“Well,” Fitch said as they walked along the path, passing under the shade of a wide-limbed red oak. “Yes, well, tradition states that I take Nalizar’s place. He was hired on as a tutoring professor to help remedial students who failed classes this year. I guess that is my job now. I should think I’ll be happy to be away from the classroom to have some peace of mind!”
He hesitated, turning to look back toward the Rithmatic lecture hall. The structure was block-shaped, yet somehow still artistic, with its diamond patterns of grey bricks forming the vine-covered wall.
“Yes,” Fitch said. “I will probably never have to teach in that classroom again.” He choked off that last part. “Excuse me.” He ducked his head and rushed away.
Joel raised a hand, but let him go, still holding two of the professor’s books. Finally, Joel sighed, turning his own course across the lawn toward the office building.
“Well,” he said softly, thinking again of the crumpled paper in his trouser pocket, “that was a disaster.”
The office sat in a small valley between the Rithmatic campus and the general campus. Like most everything at Armedius Academy, the building was of brick, though this building was red. It was only one story tall and had quite a few more windows than the classrooms did. Joel had always wondered why the office workers got a view outside, but students didn’t. It was almost like everyone was afraid to give the students a glimpse of freedom.
“. . . heard he was going to make a challenge of all things,” a voice was saying as Joel walked into the office.
The speaker was Florence, one of the office clerks. She sat on top of her oak desk—rather than in her chair—speaking with Exton, the other clerk. Exton wore his usual vest and trousers, with a bow tie and suspenders—quite fashionable, even if he was a bit portly. His bowler hung on a peg beside his desk. Florence, on the other hand, wore a yellow spring sundress.
“A challenge?” Exton asked, scribbling with a quill, not looking up as he spoke. Joel had never met anyone besides Exton who could write and carry on a conversation at the same time. “It’s been a while.”
“I know!” Florence said. She was young, in her twenties, and not married. Some of the more traditional professors on campus had found it scandalous when Principal York hired a woman as a clerk. But those sorts of things were happening more and more. Everyone said it was the twentieth century now, and old attitudes would have to change. York had said that if women Rithmatists could fight at Nebrask and the Monarch could use a woman as a speechwriter, he could hire a female clerk.
“Challenges used to be much more common, back closer to the start of the war in Nebrask,” Exton said, still scribbling at his parchment. “Every upstart professor with a new coat would want to jump right to the top. There were some chaotic times.”
“Hum . . .” Florence said. “He’s handsome, you know.”
“Professor Nalizar,” she said. “I was there when he approached Principal York about the challenge this morning. Swept right in, said, ‘Principal, I believe it right to inform you that I shall soon achieve tenure at this academy.’ ”
Exton snorted. “And what did York have to say?”
“He wasn’t happy, I’ll say that. Tried to talk Nalizar out of the plan, but he would have none of it.”
“I can imagine,” Exton said.
“Aren’t you going to ask me who he intended to challenge?” Florence asked. She noticed Joel at the side of the room and winked at him.
“I seriously doubt you are going to let me continue my work in peace without hearing about it,” Exton said.
“Professor Fitch,” she said.
Exton stopped. Finally, he looked up. “Fitch?”
“Good luck, then,” Exton said, chuckling. “Fitch is the best at the academy. He’ll take that upstart to pieces so fast that the chalk dust won’t have time to settle before the duel is over.”
“No,” Joel said. “Fitch lost.”
The two fell silent.
“What?” Florence asked. “How do you know?”
“I was there,” Joel said, walking up to the counter in front of the clerks. The principal’s office was behind a closed door at the back.
Exton wagged his quill at Joel. “Young man,” he said, “I expressly remember sending you on an errand to the humanities building.”
“I ran that errand,” Joel said quickly. “And the others you gave me. Fitch’s classroom was on the way back.”
“On the way back? It’s on the complete opposite side of campus!”
“Oh, Exton, hush,” Florence said. “So the boy’s curious about the Rithmatists. The same goes for most of the people on campus.” She smiled at Joel, though half the time he was convinced she took his side just because she knew it annoyed Exton.
Exton grumbled and turned back to his ledger. “I suppose I can’t fault a person for sneaking into extra classes. Have enough trouble with students trying to skip them. Still, fascination with those blasted Rithmatists . . . it’s not good for a boy.”
“Don’t be such a bore,” Florence said. “Joel, you said that Fitch actually lost?”
“So . . . what does that mean?”
“He will switch places in seniority with Nalizar,” Exton said, “and lose his tenure. He can challenge Nalizar back in one year’s time, and both of them are immune to other challenges until then.”
“That poor man!” Florence said. “Why, that’s not very fair. I just thought the duel would be for bragging rights.”
Exton continued his work.
“Well,” Florence said. “Handsome or not, I’m growing less impressed with Mr. Nalizar. Fitch is such a dear, and he so loves his teaching.”
“He will survive,” Exton said. “It’s not as if he’s out on his ear. Joel, I assume you dallied there in the classroom long enough to watch the entire duel?”
“How was the duel, then?” Exton asked. “Did Fitch acquit himself well?”
“He was quite good,” Joel said. “His forms were beautiful. He just . . . well, he seemed out of practice with real dueling.”
“Such a brutal way to handle things!” Florence said. “Why, they’re academics, not gladiators!”
Exton paused, then looked directly at Florence, eyeing her over the top rim of his spectacles. “My dear,” he said, “I don’t wonder if there should be quite a few more challenges like this. Perhaps today will remind those stuckup Rithmatists why they exist. Should Nebrask ever fall . . .”
“Oh, don’t tell me ghost stories, Exton,” she said. “Those stories are simply tools for politicians to keep us all worried.”
“Bah,” Exton said. “Don’t you have any work to be doing?”
“I’m on break, dear,” she said.
“I can’t help but notice that you always take your breaks whenever I have something important to finish.”
“Bad timing on your part, I guess,” she said, reaching to a wooden box on her desk, then getting out the kimchi-and-ham sandwich packed inside.
Joel glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. He had fifteen minutes until his next class—too short a time to send him away on another errand.
“I’m worried about Professor Fitch,” Joel said, still watching the clock, with its intricate gears. A springwork owl sat on the top of the clock, blinking occasionally, then nibbling at its talons as it waited for the hour to chime so that it could hoot.
“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” Exton said. “I suspect that Principal York will only assign him a few students. Fitch is due for some time off. He might enjoy this.”
Enjoy this? Joel thought. The poor man was crushed. “He’s a genius,” Joel said. “Nobody on campus teaches defenses as complex as he does.”
“A true scholar, that one,” Exton said. “Maybe too much of a scholar. Nalizar may be better in the classroom. Some of Fitch’s lectures could be . . . a little over the students’ heads, from what I hear.”
“No,” Joel said. “He’s a great teacher. He explains things and doesn’t treat the students like fools, like Howards or Silversmith do.”
Exton chuckled. “I’ve been letting you have too much time off, haven’t I? Do you want me to get into trouble with the Rithmatists again?”
Joel didn’t respond. The other Rithmatic professors had made it clear that they didn’t want him disrupting their lectures. Without Fitch and his lax attitude, Joel would not be sneaking into any more lectures anytime soon. He felt a twist inside of him.
There might still be a chance. If Fitch was going to teach a few students, why couldn’t one be Joel?
“Joel, dear,” Florence said, halfway through her sandwich, “I spoke with your mother this morning. She wanted me to see if I could give you a nudge on your summer elective paperwork.”
Joel grimaced. There were advantages to living on the campus as the son of academy employees. His free tuition was the biggest of those perks, though he’d only been given that because of his father’s death.
There were also disadvantages. Many of the other staff members—like Exton and Florence—earned room and board as part of their employment contract. Joel had grown up with them and saw them every day— and that meant that they were good friends with his mother as well.
“I’m working on it,” he said, thinking of his letter to Fitch.
“The last day of the term is coming, dear,” Florence said. “You need to get into an elective. You finally get to pick one of your own, rather than sitting in a remedial tutelage. Isn’t that exciting?”
Most students went home during the summer. The ones who did not leave only had to attend for half days, and could choose a single elective. Unless they did poorly during the year and needed a remedial tutelage as their elective. Rithmatists were lucky—they had to stay in school all year, but at least their summer elective was a Rithmatics elective.
“Have you given it any thought?” Florence asked.
“They’re filling up fast, dear,” she said. “There are still a few slots left in physical merit class. You want in?”
Three months of standing on a fi eld while everyone ran around him kicking balls at each other, playing a game that they all tried to pretend was half as interesting as Rithmatic duels? “No thanks.”
Math might be fun. Literature wouldn’t be too painful. But none would be as interesting as studying with Fitch.
“I’ll have one picked by to night,” he promised, eyeing the clock. Time to get to his next class. He picked up his books from the corner—placing Fitch’s two books on top—and left the building before Florence could push him further.
History class passed quickly that day; they were reviewing for the next day’s final exam. Once it was over, Joel went to math, his last period. This semester focused on geometry.
Joel had mixed feelings about math class. Geometry was the foundation for Rithmatics, so that was interesting. The history of geometry had always fascinated him—from Euclid and the ancient Greeks all the way forward to Monarch Gregory and the discovery of Rithmatics.
There was just so much busywork. Endless problems that held no interest for him.
“Today, we’re going to review formulas for figuring area,” said Professor Layton from the front of the class.
Formulas for figuring area. Joel had memorized those practically before he could walk. He closed his eyes, groaning. How many times would they have to go over the same things?
Professor Layton, however, didn’t let his students lounge about, even though most of their coursework—including the final exam—was already done. He insisted on spending the last week of class covering an exhaustive review of everything they’d learned.
Honestly. Who reviewed after the final exam?
“We get to start today with conic sections!” Layton said. He was a large-framed man, a tad overweight. Joel always thought Layton should have been a coach, not a professor of mathematics. He certainly had the motivational speaking part down.
“Remember the great thing about cones?” Layton asked, gesturing at a cone he’d drawn on the board. “You can make so many things just slicing a cone at given points. Look! Slice it in the middle, and you have a circle. Cut it at an angle, and you’ve got an ellipse. Isn’t that incredible!”
The students regarded him blankly.
“I said, isn’t that incredible?”
He got some halfhearted responses of “Yes, Professor Layton.” The thing was, Professor Layton thought that every aspect of mathematics was “incredible.” He had boundless enthusiasm. Couldn’t he have applied it to something useful, like Rithmatic duels?
The students slumped at their desks. Interspersed through them were several youths in white skirts and pants, with grey sweaters. Rithmatists. Joel leaned back, covertly studying them as Layton went on about different ways to dissect a cone.
The Rithmatic campus had its own specialized classes for the Rithmatists—or Dusters, as some called them. Those courses took up the first hour of each period. During the second hour of each period, then, the Rithmatists attended general education courses with the ordinary students.
Joel always felt it must be hard for them, studying all of the ordinary subjects as well as their Rithmatic learning. But it did make sense that the Rithmatists were held to higher standards than everyone else. After all, the Master himself had chosen them.
They really shouldn’t be in here, Joel thought. Since they were in his class, he knew their names, but he knew basically nothing else about them—except that they were in an ordinary math class. And that was important.
Rithmatics was founded on the concepts of geometry and trigonometry, and the Rithmatic classes contained a huge portion of advanced arithmetic studies. The only reason Dusters would end up taking Professor Layton’s class would be because they needed basic, remedial help in formulas and shapes.
The two boys, John and Luc, generally sat together in the back corner of the room, looking like they’d rather be anywhere than stuck in a math class with a bunch of non-Rithmatists. Then there was the girl. Melody. She had red curls and a face Joel rarely saw, since she spent most of each period leaned over, drawing doodles in her notebook.
Could I maybe figure out a way to get one of them to tutor me? Joel thought. Talk to me about Rithmatics? Maybe he could help them with their math in exchange.
“Now,” Professor Layton said, “let’s review the formulas for a triangle! You learned so much this year. Your lives will never be the same again!”
If only they’d let Joel into a higher-level class. But the higher-level classes were all on the Rithmatic campus. Off-limits to general students.
Hence the letter to Fitch, which Joel still carried in his pocket. He glanced at it as Professor Layton wrote some more formulas on the chalkboard. None of those formulas came to life, moved about, or did anything else unusual. Layton was no Rithmatist. To him, and to Joel—and to most everyone alive—the board was just a board, and chalk just another writing utensil.
“Wow,” Layton said, surveying his list of formulas. “Did I mention how incredible those are?”
Someone in the class groaned. Layton turned, smiling to himself. “Well, I suppose you’re all waiting for summer electives. Can’t say that I blame you. Still, you’re mine for today, so everyone get out your notebooks so I can check off last night’s assignment.”
Joel blinked, then felt a stab of alarm. Last night’s assignment. His mother had even asked him if he’d had one. He had promised he’d do it. Yet he’d put it off, telling himself that he’d work on it later . . . during his free period.
Instead he’d gone to watch Fitch.
Oh no . . .
Layton moved through the class, glancing at each student’s notebook. Joel slowly pulled out his own notebook and opened it to the right page. Ten unworked problems lay there. Undone, ignored. Layton stepped up to Joel’s desk.
“Again, Joel?” Layton asked, sighing.
Joel glanced down.
“See me after class,” Layton said, moving on. Joel sank down in his seat. Only two more days. He just had to survive two more days and pass his class. He’d meant to get to the assignment; he really had. He just . . . well, hadn’t.
It shouldn’t matter. Layton put a lot of emphasis on tests, and Joel had achieved a perfect score on every single one. One more missed assignment wouldn’t mean much for his grade.
Layton moved up to the front of the room. “All right, well, we’ve got ten minutes left. What to do . . . Let’s work some practice problems!”
This time he got more than a few groans.
“Or,” Layton said, “I suppose I could let you go early, since this is the last period of the day, and summer is right around the corner.”
Students who had spent the entire period staring at the walls suddenly became alert.
“Very well, go,” Layton said, waving.
They were gone in a matter of seconds. Joel remained seated, going through excuses in his head. Through the cramped window, he could see other students moving on the green outside. Most classes were finished with end-of-term tests, and things were winding down. Joel himself only had the one test left, in history. It wouldn’t prove much of a problem—he’d actually studied for it.
Joel stood and walked to Professor Layton’s desk, carrying his notebook.
“Joel, Joel,” Layton said, expression grim. “What am I to do with you?”
“Pass me?” Joel asked. Layton was silent. “Professor,” Joel said. “I know I haven’t been the best with my assignments—”
“By my count, Joel,” Professor Layton interrupted, “you’ve done nine of them. Nine out of forty.”
Nine? Joel thought. I have to have done more than that. . . . He thought back, considering the term’s work. Math had always been his easiest subject. He’d given very little concern for it.
“Well,” Joel said. “I guess, maybe, I was a little too lazy. . . .”
“You think?” Layton said.
“But, my test scores,” Joel said quickly. “I’ve gotten perfect marks.”
“Well, first off,” Layton said. “School isn’t just about tests. Graduation from Armedius is an important, prestigious achievement. It says that a student knows how to study and follow instructions. I’m not just teaching you math, I’m teaching you life skills. How can I pass someone who never does their work?”
It was one of Layton’s favorite lectures. Actually, Joel’s experience was that most professors tended to think their subject was vitally important to a person’s future. They were all wrong—except for the Rithmatists, of course.
“I’m sorry,” Joel said. “I . . . well, you’re right. I was lazy. But you can’t really go back on what you said at the beginning of the term, right? My test scores are good enough to let me pass.”
Layton laced his fingers in front of him. “Joel, do you know how it looks to an instructor when a student never does their practice assignments, yet somehow manages to get perfect marks on their tests?”
“Like they’re lazy?” Joel asked, confused.
“That’s one interpretation,” Layton said, shuffling a few sheets of paper out of a stack on his desk.
Joel recognized one of them. “My final exam.”
“Yes,” Layton said, placing Joel’s exam on the desk beside one done by another student. The other student had gotten good marks, but not perfect. “Can you see the difference between these two tests, Joel?”
Joel shrugged. His was neat and orderly, with an answer written at the bottom of each problem. The other test was messy, with jotted notes, equations, and scribbles filling the allotted space.
“I’m always suspicious when a student doesn’t show their work, Joel,” Layton continued, voice hard. “I’ve been watching you for weeks now, and I haven’t been able to figure out how you’re doing it. That leaves me unable to make an official accusation.”
Joel felt his jaw slip down in shock. “You think I’m cheating?”
Layton began to write on his paper. “I didn’t say that. I can’t prove anything—and at Armedius, we don’t make accusations we can’t prove. However, it is within my power to recommend you for a remedial geometry tutelage.”
Joel felt his hopes of a free elective begin to crack—replaced with a horrifying image of spending each and every summer day studying basic geometry. Area of a cone. Area of a triangle. Radius of a circle.
“No!” Joel said. “You can’t!”
“I can indeed. I don’t know where you got the answers or who was helping you, but we’re going to be spending a lot of time together, you and I. You’ll come out of your summer elective class knowing geometry one way or another.”
“I do know it,” Joel said, frantic. “Look, what if I do my homework right now? There’s still a few minutes left of class. Then I’ll have another assignment done. Will that let me pass?” He snatched a pen from its place on Layton’s desk, then opened the notebook.
“Joel,” Layton said sufferingly.
First problem, Joel thought. Find the area of the three highlighted sections of the cone. The figure was of a cone with two segments removed, with lengths and measurements of the various sides given at the bottom. Joel glanced at the numbers, did the calculations, and wrote a number.
Layton put a hand on his shoulder. “Joel, that’s not going to help. . . .”
He trailed off as Joel glanced at the second question. The computation was easy. Joel wrote down the answer. The next figure was of a cube with a cylinder cut out, and the problem asked for the surface area of the object. Joel scribbled down an answer for that one.
“Joel,” Layton said. “Where did you get those answers? Who gave them to you?”
Joel finished the next two problems.
“If you’d already gotten the answers from someone,” Layton said, “why didn’t you just write them down earlier? You went to all the trouble of cheating, then forgot to actually do the assignment?”
“I don’t cheat,” Joel said, scribbling the next answer. “Why would I need to do something like that?”
“Joel,” Layton said, folding his arms. “Those problems are supposed to take at least five minutes each. You expect me to believe you’re doing them in your head?”
Joel shrugged. “They’re basic stuff.”
Layton snorted. He walked to the board, drawing a quick cone, then writing some numbers on the board. Joel took the opportunity to finish the next three problems of his assignment. Then he glanced at the board.
“Two hundred one point one centimeters,” Joel said before Layton even finished writing. Joel looked back down at his paper, figuring the last problem. “You need to practice your sketches, Professor. The proportions on that cylinder are way off.”
“Excuse me?” Layton said.
Joel joined Layton at the board. “The slant length is supposed to be twelve centimeters, right?”
“Then proportionately,” Joel said, reaching up and redrawing the cone, “the radius of the bottom circle needs to be this long, if you want it to accurately reflect a proportionate measurement of four centimeters.”
Layton stood for a moment, looking at the corrected diagram. Then he pulled out a ruler and made the measurements. He paled slightly. “You could tell by eye that my drawing was off by a couple centimeters?”
“Draw me a line one third the length of the slant length,” Layton ordered.
Joel drew a line. Layton measured it. “Accurate,” he said, “to the millimeter! Can you do a circle with that radius?”
Joel did so, drawing a wide circle on the board. Layton measured the circle by getting out a string. He whistled. “Joel, these proportions are perfect! The arc on your circle is almost as exact as if it were drawn by a compass! You should have been a Rithmatist!”
Joel glanced away, shoving his hands in his pockets. “About eight years too late for that,” he muttered.
Layton hesitated, then glanced at him. “Yes,” he said. “I guess it is. But, well, you mean to tell me you sat there in class all this time knowing how to do this?”
“You must have been bored out of your mind!”
Joel shrugged again.
“I can’t believe it,” Layton said. “Look, how about we do your summer elective as a trigonometry study?”
“I know trig already,” Joel said.
“Oh,” Layton said. “Algebra?”
“Know it,” Joel said.
Layton rubbed his chin.
“Look,” Joel said. “Can I please just pass geometry? I have plans for summer elective. If I can’t make them work . . . well, I’ll do calculus or something with you.”
“Well,” Layton said, still regarding the board. “Really is a shame you’re not a Rithmatist. . . .”
You’re telling me.
“Did you learn this from your father?” Layton asked. “I understand he was something of an armchair mathematician himself.”
“Kind of,” Joel said. Layton was new to the campus, having arrived at the academy just a few months back. He hadn’t known Joel’s father.
“All right,” Layton said, throwing up his hands. “You can pass. I can’t imagine spending three months trying to train you in something you already know so well.”
Joel let out a deep sigh of relief.
“Joel, just try to do your assignments, all right?”
Joel nodded eagerly, rushing back to get his books from his desk. On top of them were the two books that belonged to Professor Fitch.
Maybe the day wasn’t a loss quite yet.
Joel left Professor Layton’s lecture hall, stepping out onto the grass. A girl in a white skirt and a grey sweater sat outside, back to the brick wall of the building, sketching idly in her notebook. She looked up, curly red hair bouncing as she inspected Joel. It was Melody, one of the Rithmatists in the class.
“Oh, is he done with you?” she asked.
“Well, you’re still in one piece,” Melody said. “I guess that’s a good sign. No bite marks, no broken bones . . .”
“You were waiting for me?” Joel asked, frowning.
“No, silly,” she said. “Professor Boring asked me to stay and talk to him once he was finished with you. Probably means I’m failing. Again.”
Joel glanced at her notebook. He’d watched her all semester, imagining the complex Rithmatic defensive circles she was drawing. On the pages, however, he didn’t see Lines of Warding, Forbiddance, or even any circles. Instead, he saw a picture of unicorns and a castle.
“Unicorns?” he asked.
“What?” she said defensively, snapping the notebook closed. “The unicorn is a noble and majestic animal!”
“They aren’t real.”
“So?” she asked, standing with a huff.
“You’re a Rithmatist,” Joel said. “Why waste your time drawing things like that? You should be practicing your Rithmatic lines.”
“Rithmatic this, Rithmatic that!” she said, tossing her head. “Protect the kingdom, keep the wild chalklings at bay. Why does everything have to do with Rithmatics? Can’t a girl spend some time thinking about something else once in a while?”
Joel stepped back, surprised at the outburst. He wasn’t certain how to reply. Rithmatists rarely spoke to ordinary students. Joel had tried to talk to some of them during his first few years of classes, but they’d always ignored him.
Now, one was talking to him. He hadn’t expected her to be quite so . . . annoying.
“Honestly,” Melody said. “Why do I have to be the one to deal with all of this?”
“Because the Master chose you,” Joel said. “You’re lucky. He only picks fewer than one in a thousand.”
“He obviously needs better quality control,” she said. Then, with a melodramatic sniff, she turned and pushed her way into Professor Layton’s classroom.
Joel stared after her, then shook his head and crossed campus. He passed groups of students running toward the springrail station. Classes done, it was time to go home for the day. But for Joel, campus was home.
A group of students he knew stood on the quad, chatting. Joel strolled up to them, half lost in thought.
“I think it’s unfair,” Charlington said, folding his arms, as if his opinion were the only one that mattered. “Professor Harris was furious when she didn’t show up for her final, but the principal brushed it off.”
“But she’s a Rithmatist,” Rose replied. “Why would she want to get out of the test anyway?”
Charlington shrugged. “Maybe she wanted to get a head start on summer.”
Joel had been paying only vague attention to the conversation, but he perked up when they mentioned Rithmatists. He moved over to Davis, who—as usual—stood with his arm around Rose’s shoulders.
“What’s this?” Joel asked.
“One of the Rithmatist students, a girl named Lilly Whiting,” Davis said. “She skipped her history final today. Chuck’s missing a gear about it—apparently, he wanted to take the final early so he could join his family in Europe, but he was refused.”
“They shouldn’t get special treatment,” Charlington said.
“She’ll probably still have to take the test,” Joel said. “It’s not like their lives are easy. No free periods, starting early each day, staying in school through the summer . . .”
Charlington frowned at him.
“Trust me, Charlie,” Joel said. “If something took her away unexpectedly, she’s not off lying on a beach having fun. She might be in Nebrask.”
“I suppose,” Charlie said. “Yeah, you might be right . . .” He paused, fishing for something.
“Yeah, Joel. I knew that. Well, you might be right. I don’t know. Professor Harris was sure upset. I just think it’s strange, is all.”
A few other students reached the quad, and Charlington joined them, moving off toward the springrail station. Joel could vaguely hear him begin telling the same story to them.
“I don’t believe it,” Joel said softly.
“What?” Davis asked. “About that student?”
“About Charlington,” Joel said. “We’ve been in classes together for three years, and he still forgets my name every time we talk.”
“Oh,” Davis said.
“Don’t worry about him,” Rose said. “Charlington doesn’t pay attention to anyone who doesn’t have a chest worth staring at.”
Joel turned away from the retreating students. “Have you picked summer elective yet?” he asked Davis.
“Well, not exactly.” Davis was the son of a professor, and—as such—lived on campus, like Joel. In fact, he was the only other child of an employee who was around Joel’s age.
Most of the children of the staff went to the public school nearby. Only the children of professors attended Armedius itself. Well, them and Joel. His father and the principal had been close, before his father’s accident eight years ago.
“I have a kind of crazy idea,” Joel said. “About my elective. You see . . .”
He trailed off; Davis wasn’t paying attention. Joel turned to see a group of students gathering at the front of the campus office building. “What’s that?” Joel asked.
Davis shrugged. “You see Peterton there? Shouldn’t he be on the 3:15 back to Georgiabama?” The tall senior was trying to peek through the windows.
“Yeah,” Joel said.
The door to the office opened, and a figure stepped out. Joel was shocked to recognize the man’s sharply militaristic trousers and coat, both navy, with gold buttons. It was the uniform of a federal inspector. The man placed a domed police hat on his head, then bustled away.
“A federal inspector?” Joel asked. “That’s strange.”
“I see police on campus now and then,” Rose said.
“Not an inspector,” Joel said. “That man has jurisdiction in all sixty isles. He wouldn’t come for nothing.” Joel noticed Principal York standing in the doorway to the office, Exton and Florence visible behind him. He seemed . . . troubled.
“Well, anyway,” Davis said. “About summer elective.”
“Yeah,” Joel said. “About that . . .”
“I, um.” Davis shuffled. “Joel, I’m not going to be spending the summer with you this year. It, uh, turns out I’m not free.”
“Not free? What does that mean?”
Davis took a deep breath. “Rose and I are going to be with the group Michael is taking this summer. To his summer home, up north.”
“You?” Joel said. “But . . . you’re not one of them. I mean, you’re just . . .” Like me.
“Michael is going to be an important man someday,” Davis said. “He knows my father has been preparing me for law school, and Michael is planning to go himself. He’ll want help, in the years to come. Someday, he’ll need good attorneys he can trust. He’ll be a knight-senator, you know. . . .”
“That’s . . . that’s great for you,” Joel said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Davis said, looking discomforted. “I’m sorry, Joel. I know this means you’ll spend the summer alone, but I have to go. This is a chance for me, a real chance to move up.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“You could ask him if you could come. . . .”
“I kind of already did.”
Davis winced. “Oh.”
Joel shrugged, trying to convey a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “He let me down easily.”
“He’s a classy guy,” Davis said. “I mean, you have to admit, everyone treats you pretty well here. You’ve got a good life, Joel. Nobody picks on you.”
That was true. He’d never suffered from bullying. The students at Armedius were too important to waste time bullying. If they didn’t like someone, they ostracized them. There were a dozen little proto-political factions on campus. Joel had never been a part of any of them, even the out-of-favor ones.
They probably felt they were doing him a favor. They treated him with civility, laughed with him. But they didn’t include him.
He’d have traded that for some good, old-fashioned bullying. At least that would mean someone considered him worth noticing or remembering.
“I’ve got to go,” Davis said. “Sorry.”
Joel nodded, and Davis and Rose jogged off to join a group gathering around Michael near the station.
With Davis gone, Joel really was going to be spending the summer alone. His grade was practically empty.
Joel hefted Professor Fitch’s books. He hadn’t meant to take them in the first place, but he had them, so he might as well put them to some use, as the library wouldn’t lend Rithmatic texts to ordinary students.
He went looking for a good place to read. And to think.
Several hours later, Joel was still reading beneath the shaded boughs of an out-of-the-way oak tree. He lowered his book and looked upward, peering through the branches of the tree toward the tiny shards of blue he could make out of the sky.
Unfortunately, the first of Fitch’s books had proven to be a dud—it was just a basic explanation of the four Rithmatic lines. Joel had seen Fitch loan it out to students who seemed to be struggling.
Fortunately, the second book was far more meaty. It was a recent publication; the most interesting chapter detailed the controversy surrounding a defensive circle Joel had never heard of before. Though a lot of the Rithmatic equations in the book were beyond Joel, he was able to understand the text’s arguments. It was engrossing enough that it had consumed him for a good while.
The further he read, the more he’d found himself thinking about his father. He remembered the strong man working late into the night, perfecting a new chalk formula. He remembered times his father had spent, an excited tremble to his voice, describing to the young Joel the most exciting Rithmatic duels in history.
It had been eight years. The pain of loss was still there. It never went away. It just got buried in time, like a rock slowly being covered over by dirt.
The sky was getting dark, nearly too dark for him to read, and the campus was growing still. Lights glowed in some of the lecture halls; many of them had upper stories to provide offices for professors and housing for their families. As Joel stood, he saw old Joseph—the groundskeeper—moving across the campus, winding each of the lanterns on the green in turn. The springworks within them began to whir, the lanterns flaring to life.
Joel picked up his books, deep in thought about the Miyabi Defense’s convoluted history and the Blad Defense’s nontraditional application of Lines of Warding. His stomach growled in complaint at being ignored.
Hopefully he hadn’t missed supper. Everyone ate together— professors, staff, children, even Rithmatists. The only ordinary students who lived on campus were the children of faculty or staff, like Joel. Many of the Rithmatic students lived in the dorms. They either had family who lived too far away to visit, or they needed to accommodate extra study time. All in all, about half of the Rithmatists in Armedius lived in the dorms. The rest still commuted.
The wide-open dining hall was a hubbub of activity and chaos. Professors and spouses sat on the far left side of the room, laughing and talking together, their children seated at separate tables. Staff were on the right side of the chamber, settled at several large wooden tables. The Rithmatic students had their own long table at the back of the room, almost tucked away behind a brick outcropping.
Two long tables in the center of the room were set with the day’s offering. While servers dished plates and carried them over to the professors, the family and staff were expected to serve themselves. Most people were already seated on their benches, eating, their chatting causing a low buzz in the room. Dishes clanked, the kitchen staff bustled about, and an amalgamation of scents battled with one another.
Joel made his way to his place across the long table from his mother. She was there already, which relieved him. Sometimes she worked through dinner. She still wore her brown working dress, hair up in a bun, and she picked at her food as she talked to Mrs. Cornelius, one of the other cleaning ladies.
Joel set down his books, then hurried away before his mother could pester him with questions. He piled his plate with some rice and stir-fried sausages. Germanian food. The cooks were getting exotic again. At least they’d moved away from JoSeun dishes, which Joel found far too spicy. After grabbing a flagon of spiced apple juice, he made his way back to his place.
His mother was waiting. “Florence told me that you promised to have a summer elective chosen by tonight,” she said.
“I’m working on it,” he said.
“Joel,” she said. “You are going to have a summer elective, aren’t you? You’re not going to need to go to a tutelage again?”
“No, no,” he said. “I promise. Professor Layton just told me today that I’m passing math for sure.”
His mother stabbed a sausage chunk with her fork. “Other children try to do more than just pass their classes.”
“If I had more time to help you with your homework . . .” She sighed. After the meal, she would spend most of the night cleaning. She didn’t start work each day until the afternoon, since most of the classrooms she cleaned were occupied during the day.
Like always, she had dark circles under her eyes. She worked far too hard.
“What about alchemics?” she asked. “Will you pass that?”
“Science is easy,” Joel said. “Professor Langor already gave us our performance reports—the last days will just be lab, and won’t be graded. I’m passing for sure.”
“Handed in my report today,” Joel said. He’d gotten that assignment done on time—only because Professor ZoBell had given them writing time in class for two weeks while she poked through a series of novels. Professors tended to get a little bit lazy during the end of term, just like students.
“And history?” his mother asked.
“Term evaluation exam tomorrow.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“It’s on the history of Rithmatics, Mother,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll do fine.”
That seemed to satisfy her. Joel began to wolf down his food.
“You heard about Professor Fitch and that awful challenge?” his mother asked.
Joel nodded, mouth full.
“Poor man,” she said. “You know that he spent twenty years working himself up to full professor? He lost it in a few moments, back down to tutor.”
“Mother,” Joel said between bites, “have you heard anything about a federal inspector on campus?”
She nodded absently. “They think one of the Rithmatic students ran away last night. She was visiting her family for the evening, and never came back to the school.”
“Was it Lilly Whiting?” Joel guessed.
“I think that was her name.”
“Charlington said her parents just took her on vacation!”
“That was the story at first,” his mother said. “It’s hard to keep something like a runaway Rithmatist secret, though. Makes me wonder why they try to flee so often. They have such easy lives. Barely required to work, ungrateful lot . . .”
“They’ll find her soon enough,” Joel said, jumping in before his mother could go off on that particular tangent.
“Look, Joel, you need to get into a summer elective. Do you want to end up in labor instruction?”
Many students who couldn’t choose—or who chose too late— ended up helping with the landscaping of the school grounds. The official reason for the program, given by Principal York, was to “teach the generally affluent student population respect for those of other economic statuses.” That concept had earned him some measure of ire from parents.
“Labor instruction,” Joel said. “That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Father was a laborer. Maybe I’ll need to do a job like that someday.”
“Joel . . .” she said.
“What?” he replied. “What’s wrong with being a laborer? You’re one.”
“You’re getting one of the finest educations available. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“You rarely do your assignments,” his mother said, rubbing her forehead. “Your teachers all say you’re bright, but that you don’t pay attention. Can’t you understand how much other people would do for an opportunity like yours?”
“I do understand,” Joel said. “Really. Mother, I’m going to get a summer elective. Professor Layton said I could do math with him if I don’t find anything else.”
“Remedial?” she asked suspiciously.
“No,” he said quickly. “Advanced.”
If they’d just let me study the things I want to, he thought, shoving his fork into his food, then we’d all be happy.
That turned his mind back to the sheet of paper still crumpled in his pocket. Professor Fitch had known his father; they had been friends, to an extent. Now that Joel knew Davis wasn’t going to be around for the summer, it made him even more determined to go through with his plan to study with Fitch. He pushed his food around for a few moments, then stood.
“Where are you going?” his mother asked.
He grabbed the two books that belonged to Professor Fitch. “I need to return these. Be back in a few minutes.”
The professors sat along their table according to rank, spouses at their sides. Principal York—tall, distinguished, with a drooping brown mustache—sat at the head of the table. He was a large man, wide at the shoulders and tall enough that he seemed to tower over everyone else.
The tenured lecturers came next, Rithmatists and ordinary men interspersed, treated as equals when dining. Joel suspected that the equality had to do with the fact that the principal himself wasn’t a Rithmatist. Moving along the table toward the foot, the next group of professors were what were known as “regular” professors—not yet tenured, but well established and respected. There were about six of them. The Rithmatists in their ranks wore blue coats.
The assistant professors in green came next. Finally, there were the three tutoring professors in grey. Professor Fitch, twenty or thirty years older than the people around him, sat in the last chair at the table. Nalizar sat in red near the head of the table. Even as Joel approached, he could hear Nalizar’s loud voice.
“. . . certainly hope it does cause some people to sit up and pay attention,” Nalizar was saying. “We are warriors. It’s been years since most of you held the circle in Nebrask, but I was there just a few months ago, on the battlefront itself! Too many academics forget that we are the ones who train the next generation of defenders. We can’t have sloppy teaching threatening the safety of the sixty isles!”
“Surely your point is made, Nalizar,” said Professor Haberstock, another of the Rithmatists. “I mean, no need to unsettle things further!”
Nalizar glanced at him, and in Joel’s perception, it looked as if the young professor was barely holding back a sneer. “We cannot afford dead weight at Armedius. We must train fighters, not academics.”
Fitch turned away, focusing on his food. He didn’t seem to have eaten much. Joel stood uncertainly, trying to decide how to approach the man.
“Theory is important,” Fitch said quietly.
“What was that?” Nalizar asked, looking down the table. “Did you say something?”
“Nalizar,” Principal York said. “You are testing the limits of propriety. You have made your point with your actions; you need not make it with insults as well.”
The young professor flushed, and Joel caught a flash of anger in his eyes.
“Principal,” Fitch said, looking up, “it’s all right. I would have him speak his mind.”
“You are a better professor than he, Fitch,” the principal said, causing Nalizar to turn even redder. “And a better instructor. I’m not fond of these rules and traditions you Rithmatists have.”
“They are ours to follow,” Fitch said.
“With all due respect, Principal,” Nalizar cut in, “I take exception to your previous statement. Professor Fitch may be a kindly man and a fine academic, but as an instructor? When is the last time one of his students was victorious in the Rithmatic Melee?”
The comment hung in the air. As far as Joel knew, Fitch had never had a student win the Melee.
“I teach defense, Nalizar,” Fitch said. “Or, um, well, I used to. Anyway, a good defense is vital in Nebrask, even if it isn’t always the best way to win duels.”
“You teach wasteful things,” Nalizar said. “Theories to jumble their heads, extra lines they don’t need.”
Fitch gripped his silverware—not in anger, Joel thought, but out of nervousness. He obviously didn’t like confrontation; he wouldn’t meet Nalizar’s eyes as he spoke. “I . . . well, I taught my students to do more than just draw lines,” Fitch said. “I taught them to understand what they were drawing. I wanted them to be prepared for the day when they might have to fight for their lives, not just for the accolades of a meaningless competition.”
“Meaningless?” Nalizar asked. “The Melee is meaningless? You hide behind excuses. I will teach these students to win.”
“I . . . well . . .” Fitch said. “I . . .”
“Bah,” Nalizar said, waving his hand. “I doubt you can ever understand, old man. How long did you serve on the front lines at Nebrask?”
“Only a few weeks,” Fitch admitted. “I spent most of my time serving on the defensive planning committee in Denver City.”
“And,” Nalizar asked, “what was your focus during your university studies? Was it offensive theory? Was it, perhaps, advanced Vigor studies? Was it even—as you claim is so important for your students—defense?”
Fitch was quiet for a while. “No,” he finally said. “I studied the origins of Rithmatic powers and their treatment in early American society.”
“A historian,” Nalizar said, turning to the other professors. “You had a historian teaching defensive Rithmatics. And you wonder why performance evaluations for Armedius are down?”
The table was silent. Even the principal stopped to consider this one. As they turned back to their food, Nalizar glanced toward Joel.
Joel felt an immediate jolt of panic; he’d already provoked this man once today by intruding in his classroom. Would he remember . . . ?
But his eyes just passed over Joel, as if not even seeing him. Once in a while, it was good to not be memorable.
“Is that the chalkmaker’s son standing over there?” Professor Haberstock asked, squinting at Joel.
“Who?” Nalizar asked, glancing at Joel again.
“You’ll get used to him, Nalizar,” Haberstock said. “We keep having to throw the child out of our classes. He finds ways to sneak in and listen.”
“Well, that won’t do,” Nalizar said, shaking his head. “It’s sloppy teaching, letting non-Rithmatists distract our trainees.”
“Well, I don’t let him into my class, Nalizar,” Haberstock said. “Some others do.”
“Away with you,” Nalizar said, waving at Joel. “If I find you bothering us again, I shall—”
“Actually, Nalizar,” Fitch cut in, “I asked the boy to come speak with me.”
Nalizar glared at Fitch, but he had little right to contradict instruction given to a student by another professor. He pointedly turned to a conversation about the current state of affairs in Nebrask, of which he was apparently an expert.
Joel stepped up to Fitch. “He shouldn’t speak to you like that, Professor,” Joel said quietly, hunkering down beside the professor.
“Well, maybe so, but maybe he has a right. I did lose to him.”
“It wasn’t a fair battle,” Joel said. “You weren’t ready.”
“I was out of practice,” Fitch said. Then he sighed. “Truth is, lad, I’ve never been good at fighting. I can draw a perfect Line of Warding in front of a classroom, but put me in a duel, and I can barely get out a curve! Yes indeed. You should have seen how I shook today during the challenge.”
“I did see,” Joel said. “I was there.”
“You were?” Fitch said. “Ah yes. You were!”
“I thought your sketch of the Easton Defense was quite masterful.”
“No, no,” Fitch said. “I chose a poor defense for a one-on-one contest. Nalizar is the better warrior. He was a hero at Nebrask. He spent years fighting the Tower. . . . I, well, to be honest I rarely did any fighting even when I was there. I tended to get too nervous, couldn’t hold my chalk straight.”
Joel fell silent.
“Yes, yes indeed,” Fitch said. “Perhaps this is for the best. I wouldn’t want to leave any students poorly trained. I could never live with myself if one of my students died because I failed to train them right. I . . . I don’t rightly think I’ve ever considered that.”
What could Joel say to that? He didn’t know how to respond. “Professor,” he said instead, “I brought your books back. You walked off without them.”
Fitch started. “So, you actually did have a reason to speak with me! How amusing. I was simply trying to aggravate Nalizar. Thank you.”
Fitch accepted the books, laying them on the table. Then he started to poke at his food again.
Joel gathered his courage. “Professor,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “There’s something else I wanted to ask you.”
Joel pulled out the sheet and flattened it against the table. He slid it over to Fitch, who regarded it with a confused expression. “A request for summer elective?”
Joel nodded. “I wanted to sit in on your advanced Rithmatic defenses elective!”
“But . . . you’re not a Rithmatist, son,” Fitch said. “What would be the point?”
“I think it would be fun,” Joel said. “I want to be a scholar, of Rithmatics I mean.”
“A lofty goal for one who cannot himself ever make a line come to life.”
“There are critics of music who can’t play an instrument,” Joel said. “And historians don’t have to be the types who make history. Why must only Rithmatists study Rithmatics?”
Fitch stared at the sheet for a while, then finally smiled. “A valid argument, to an extent. Unfortunately, I no longer have a lecture for you to attend.”
“Yes, but you’ll still be tutoring. I could listen in on that, couldn’t I?”
Fitch shook his head. “That’s not how it works, I’m afraid. Those of us at the bottom don’t get to choose what or who we teach. I have to take the students the principal assigns to me, and he has already chosen. I’m sorry.”
Joel looked down. “Well . . . do you think, maybe, one of the other professors might take over your advanced defenses class?”
“Lad,” Fitch said, putting a kindly hand on Joel’s shoulder. “I know the life of a Rithmatist seems full of excitement and danger, but even Professor Nalizar’s talk of Nebrask is much more dramatic than the reality. Most Rithmatic study consists of lines, angles, and numbers. The war against the Tower is fought by a bunch of cold, wet men and women scribbling lines on the ground—interspersed with empty weeks sitting in the rain.”
“I know,” Joel said quickly. “Professor, it’s the theory that excites me.”
“They all say that,” Fitch said.
“You think you are the first young man who wanted to join the Rithmatic classes?” Fitch asked with a smile. “We get requests like this all the time.”
“You do?” Joel asked, heart sinking.
Fitch nodded. “Half of them are convinced that something mysterious and exciting must be going on in those lecture halls. The other half assume that if they just study hard enough, they can become Rithmatists themselves.”
“There . . . might be a way, right?” Joel asked. “I mean, Dusters like you are just regular people before their inception. So, other normal people can be Rithmatists.”
“It doesn’t work that way, lad,” Fitch said. “The Master chooses his Rithmatists carefully. Once the age of inception has passed, the choices have all been made. In the last two hundred years, not one person has been chosen later than their inception ceremony.”
Joel looked down.
“Don’t feel so sad,” Fitch said. “Thank you for bringing my books back to me. I’m sure I would have searched my entire study three times over for them!”
Joel nodded, turning to go. “He’s wrong, by the way.”
“Yallard, the author of that book,” Joel said, waving toward the second of the two books. “He determines that the Blad Defense should be banned from official duels and tournaments, but he’s shortsighted. Four ellipsoid segments combined may not make a ‘traditional’ defensive Line of Warding, but it’s very effective. If they ban it from duels because it’s too powerful, then nobody will learn it, and they won’t be able to use it in a battle if they need to.”
Fitch raised an eyebrow. “So you were paying attention in my lectures.”
“Perhaps it’s in the blood,” Fitch said. “Your father had some interest in these things.” He hesitated, then leaned down to Joel. “What you desire is forbidden by tradition, but there are always those who break with tradition. Newer universities, young and eager, are beginning to teach about Rithmatics to anyone who cares to learn. Go to one of those when you’re older. That won’t make you a Rithmatist, but you will be able to learn what you wish.”
Joel hesitated. That actually sounded good. It was a plan, at least. Joel would never be a Rithmatist—he accepted that—but to go to one of these universities . . . “I would love that,” Joel said. “But will they let me in if I haven’t studied under a Rithmatic professor already?”
“Perhaps.” Fitch tapped his knife softly against his plate, looking thoughtful. “Perhaps not. If you were to study with me . . .”
Fitch looked toward the head of the table, toward Nalizar and the others. Then he looked down at his food. “No. No, son, I can’t agree to this. Too unconventional. I have already caused enough trouble. I’m sorry, son.”
It was a dismissal. Joel turned and walked away, shoving his hands in his pockets.
The Rithmatist © Brandons Sanderson 2012