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The Rithmatist (Page 10)

“Principal, I try. Really, I—”

York held up a hand, stilling him. “I believe we had a conversation similar to this last year.”

“Yes, sir.”

York sat for a few moments, then pulled out a sheet of paper. It had lots of official-looking seals on it—not a request for a tutor. An expulsion form.

Joel felt a stab of panic.

“The reason I gave you an extra chance, Joel, was because of your parents.” The principal took a pen from a holder on his desk.

“Principal,” Joel said. “I understand now that I’m—”

The principal cut him off again with an uplifted hand. Joel held in his annoyance. If York wouldn’t let him speak, what could he do? In the dark last night, the wild plan had seemed clever and bold. Now, Joel worried it would explode right in front of him.

The principal began to write.

“I failed that test on purpose,” Joel said.

York looked up.

“I wrote in answers I knew were wrong,” Joel said.

“Why in all of the heavens would you do such a thing?”

“I wanted to fail so that I could get a summer tutelage studying history.”

“Joel,” York said, “you could simply have asked Professor Kim if you could join his course this summer.”

“His elective will study European culture during the JoSeun occupation,” Joel said. “I needed to fail Rithmatic history so that I could end up studying that.”

“You could have approached one of the professors and asked them to tutor you,” York said sternly. “Sabotaging your own grades is hardly appropriate.”

“I tried,” Joel said. “Professor Fitch said that ordinary students weren’t allowed to study with Rithmatic professors.”

“Well, I’m certain that Professor Kim could have come up with an independent study course covering … You approached Fitch?”

“Yes.”

“He’s a Rithmatist!”

“That was kind of the point, sir.” How could he explain? “I don’t really want to study history. I want to study Rithmatic lines. I figure that if I get Professor Fitch alone and start him talking about Rithmatics, I’ll be able to learn about the defenses and offenses, even if the tutelage is supposed to be about history.”

He gulped, waiting for the scorn he’d received from others.

“Oh, well,” York said. “That makes sense then, I suppose—assuming you think like a teenage boy. Son, why didn’t you just come ask me?”

Joel blinked. “Well, I mean, everyone seems to think that studying Rithmatics would be arrogant of me, that I shouldn’t be bothering the professors.”

“Professor Fitch likes to be bothered,” York said, “particularly by students. He’s one of the few true teachers we have at this school.”

“Yes, but he said he couldn’t train me.”

“There are traditions,” York said, putting aside the form and taking out another one. York regarded it, looking uncertain.

“Sir?” Joel asked, hope beginning to recover within him.

York set the form aside. “No, Joel,” he said. “Fitch is right. There are rules against assigning ordinary students to take courses in Rithmatics.”

Joel closed his eyes.

“Of course,” York said, “I did just put Fitch on a very important project. It would be very useful to him to have help. There’s nothing forbidding me from assigning him a research assistant from the general school.”

Joel opened his eyes.

Principal York pulled out another sheet of paper. “This is assuming, of course, that said assistant wouldn’t be a distraction to Professor Fitch. I’ve already given him a student to tutor. I don’t want to overload him.”

“I promise not to be a bother,” Joel said eagerly.

“I suspect that, with all of his attempts to divide the Rithmatists from the common folk, this will quite upset Professor Nalizar. A tragedy.”

York smiled. Joel’s heart leaped.

“Of course,” York said, glancing at the clock, “I can’t give you this assignment unless you have an open summer elective. By my count, you still have forty-five minutes left of Kim’s history class. Do you think you could get a passing grade if you were to return and use the rest of your time?”

“Of course I could,” Joel said.

“Well then,” York said, tapping the sheet with his hand. “This form will be here, ready and waiting, assuming you can get back to me by the end of the day with a passing grade in history.”

Joel was out the office door a few heartbeats later, running across the lawn toward history class. He burst into the lecture hall, puffing, startling the students who still sat taking their tests.

His own exam still sat on Kim’s desk. “The principal convinced me to try again,” Joel said. “Can I … have a new test?”

Kim tapped his fingers together. “Did you just go look up the answers while you were out?”

“I promise I didn’t, sir!” Joel said. “The office can confirm that I was sitting there the whole time, books closed.”

“Very well,” Kim said, glancing at the clock. “But you’ll still have to finish in the allotted time.” He pulled out a fresh test and handed it to Joel.

Joel snatched it, then took a jar of ink and a quill and rushed back to his seat. He scribbled furiously until the clock rang, signaling the end of class. Joel stared at the last question, which he hadn’t answered in true depth, lacking time.

Taking a deep breath, he joined the other students at the front of the room turning in their papers. He waited until all of them were gone before handing in his own.

Kim took it, raising an eyebrow as he noticed the thorough answers. “Perhaps I should have sent you to the principal’s office months ago, if this was the result.”

“Could you, maybe, grade it?” Joel asked. “Let me know if I passed?”

Kim glanced at the clock. He took out a quill, dipped it in ink, then began to read. Joel waited, heart beating, as the professor deducted points here and there.

Finally, Kim totaled up the score at the bottom.

“Do I pass?” Joel asked.

“Yes,” Kim said. “Tell me, why did you hand in that other test? We both know you’re quite accomplished in this subject.”

“I just needed the right motivation, sir,” Joel said. “Please, would you write a note to the principal explaining that I passed?”

“I suppose. Would you, by chance, be interested in studying in my advanced history elective this summer?”

“Maybe next year,” Joel said, spirits soaring. “Thank you.”

When Joel reached the office a short time later, he found the form waiting for him. It was filled out, and it ordered Joel to become Professor Fitch’s research assistant for the summer. Beside it was a note from the principal.

Next time, try talking to me. I’ve been thinking lately that the Rithmatists are too concerned with keeping themselves separate from the rest of the campus.

I’m very curious to see how Professor Fitch handles his current project. Inspector Harding insisted that I put my best Rithmatist to work on the problem; I found it convenient, if unfortunate, that my best scholar suddenly had plenty of free time.

Keep an eye on things in regards to this project for me, if you don’t mind. I may be asking you for the occasional update.

—Principal York

Part Two

Chapter 7

Joel left the dormitory building early the next morning, crossing over to the Rithmatic campus. He breathed in deeply, enjoying the scent of the flowering trees and the recently cut lawn. The Rithmatic campus consisted of four main buildings of stately brick, named after each of the four Rithmatic lines. The professors made their offices on the upper floors of each building.

Joel opened a door on the outside of Warding Hall, then entered a cramped stairwell. He climbed to the third story, where he found a thick wooden door. It was gnarled and knotted, which gave it the aged feel that prevailed across the Rithmatic campus.

Joel hesitated. He’d never visited any of the Rithmatic professors in their offices. Professor Fitch was a kindly man, but how would he respond to finding out that Joel had gone over his head, approaching Principal York directly?

There was only one way to find out. He knocked on the door. A short time passed with no answer. He reached up to knock again, but at that moment, the door was flung open. Fitch stood inside, his grey Rithmatist’s coat unbuttoned, showing the white vest and trousers he wore underneath.

“Yes? Hum?” Fitch asked. “Oh, the chalkmaker’s son. What brings you here, lad?”

Joel hesitantly raised the form that Principal York had given him.

“Hum? What is this?” Fitch took the form, looking it over. “Research assistant? You?”

Joel nodded.

“Ha!” Fitch exclaimed. “What a wonderful idea! Why didn’t I think of this? Yes, yes, come in.”

Joel let out a relieved breath, allowing Fitch to usher him through the door. The chamber beyond felt more like a hallway than a room. It was much longer than it was wide, and was cramped with piles of books. A few slot windows in the right wall illuminated an amalgamation of furniture and knickknacks piled against both walls. Two small springwork lanterns hung from the ceiling, their gears clicking as they shone.

“Indeed,” Fitch said, picking his way through the stacks of books, “I should have known York would make everything work out. He’s a brilliant administrator. Heaven only knows how he manages to balance all of the egos bumping around this campus. Sons of knight-senators mixing with Rithmatists and men who see themselves as heroes from Nebrask. My, my.”

Joel followed the professor. The room ran along the outside of the building; at the corner, it turned at a ninety-degree angle, then continued northward along that wall as well. The room eventually ended at a brick wall, against which sat a small, neatly made bed. The tucked-in sheets and quilted covering seemed quite a contrast to the clutter in the rest of Fitch’s dark, brick-walled office.

Joel stood at the corner, watching Fitch rifle through his books, stacking some aside, uncovering a plush stool and matching easy chair. There was a musty scent to the place: the smell of old books and parchment mixed with that of dank brick walls. The air was slightly chilly, despite the approaching summer weather outside.

Joel found himself smiling. The office was much as he had imagined. The left wall was hung with sheets of paper bearing aged Rithmatic sketches. Some were protected in frames, and all were covered with annotations. There were so many books that the piles themselves seemed to pile on top of one another. Exotic knickknacks lay half buried—a flute that looked Asian in origin, a ceramic bowl with a colorful glaze, several Egyptian paintings.

And the Rithmatic Lines … they were everywhere. Not just on the wall hangings. They were printed on the covers of the books, scratched into the floorboards, woven into the rug, and even sketched onto the ceiling.

“I asked York for an assistant,” Fitch was saying as he puttered about, “but I would never have dared ask for a non-Rithmatist. Too untraditional. But there must not be a rule about it, and … Lad?”

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