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The Rithmatist (Page 12)

The Rithmatists maintained an enormous chalk circle there, the size of a city. Outside the circle, camps and patrols worked to keep the chalklings in. And on the inside, the chalklings attacked the lines, trying to breach, work their way out. On occasion, they’d break through, and the Rithmatists would need to fight.

Wild chalklings … chalklings that could kill. Nobody knew who had created them. Joel could imagine that circle though, drawn on concrete poured into the ground. Storms were said to be the worst. Though canopies kept most of the rain off, water would seep in, particularly from the side of the wild chalklings, washing away the chalk, creating breaches.…

The grandfather clock in the corner slowly ticked toward noon, the hour when summer elective classes ended. Joel worked on the ledgers, trying to focus, though thoughts of the chalklings, and Rithmatic circles, invaded his mind.

Eventually, Joel closed his latest census book and rubbed his eyes. The clock said fifteen till noon. Joel stood to stretch his legs and walked over to Professor Fitch.

The professor quickly closed his notebook as Joel approached. Joel caught a brief glimpse of some sort of drawing on the page. Rithmatic? A circle that had been breached?

“Yes, Joel?” Fitch asked.

“It’s almost time to go,” Joel said.

“Ah, is it? Hum, why, yes indeed. So it is. How went the research?”

Research? Joel thought. I’m not sure that’s the right word for it.… “I managed to cross off thirty or so names.”

“You did? Excellent! You can continue tomorrow, then.”

“Professor? I don’t mean to be rude, but … well, it would help if I knew the point of this. Why am I looking through census records?”

“Ah … hum … well, I don’t know that I can tell you that,” Fitch said.

Joel cocked his head. “This has to do with the inspector who visited the school, right?”

“I can’t really say.…”

“The principal already told me that much.”

“He did?” Fitch scratched his head. “Well, then, I guess you can know that. But really, I shouldn’t say more. Tell me, during your research, did you … find anything suspicious?”

Joel shrugged. “It’s a little bit creepy, to be honest—looking through lists and lists of dead people. In a way, they could all be suspicious, since there aren’t a lot of details. Most of them seem to have died from sickness or old age.”

“Any accidents?” Fitch asked.

“A couple. I marked them, like you said.”

“Ah, very good. I’ll look through those this evening. Excellent work!”

Joel gritted his teeth. But why? What are you looking for? Does it have to do with the girl who ran away? Or am I just hoping that it does?

“Well, you should run along then,” Fitch said. “You too, Melody. You can go early.”

Melody was out the door in a few seconds. Joel stood for a few moments, trying to decide if he should push Fitch further. His stomach growled, however, demanding lunch.

He left to get some food, determined to think of a way to get Fitch to show him the notebook.

Chapter 8

Joel crossed the lawn toward the dining hall. The campus wasn’t very full; over half of the students would be gone for the summer. Many of the staff took the summers off too, and even some of the professors were gone—off in France or JoSeun Britannia, doing research and attending symposiums.

Still, lunch was likely to be a little crowded, so he rounded the building and ducked through a back door into the kitchens. They were normally off-limits to students, but Joel wasn’t just a student.

Hextilda herself was supervising the lunch duties that day. The large woman nodded to him. “Joel, lad,” she said in her thick Scottish accent, “you enjoying your first day of summer?”

“Spent it trapped in a professor’s dungeon,” Joel said. “He had me reading census records.”

“Ha!” she said. “Well, you should know that I have news!”

Joel raised an eyebrow.

“M’son has gotten our whole family a traveler’s permit to visit the homeland! I’ll be leaving in a month’s time!”

“That’s fantastic, Hextilda!”

“First time any McTavish will have set foot on our own soil since my great-grandfather was driven out. Those dirty Sunnys. Forcing us to have a permit to visit our own land.”

The Scots had lasted a long time in their highlands, fighting the JoSeun invasion before being driven out. Trying to convince a Scot that the land was no longer theirs was next to impossible.

“So,” Joel said, “want to celebrate by giving me a sandwich so I don’t have to wait in line?”

Hextilda gave him a flat look. But less than five minutes later she delivered one of her signature, well-stacked sandwiches. Joel took a bite, savoring the salty flavor of the wood-smoked haddock as he left the kitchens and started across campus.

Something was going on—the way Principal York had acted, the way Fitch had closed the notebook when Joel approached … it was suspicious. So how could he get more involved?

Fitch did warn me that the life of a Rithmatist wasn’t glamorous, he reminded himself. But there has to be a way.

Perhaps he could figure out on his own what Fitch was researching. Joel thought for a moment. Then he looked down at the last few bites of sandwich in his hand, an idea forming in his head. He rushed back to the dining hall.

A few minutes later, he left the kitchen with two more sandwiches, each in a small paper sack. He ran across the campus green to the office.

Florence and Exton looked up when Joel entered. “Joel?” Florence said. “Didn’t expect to see you today. It’s summer!”

“I’m not here to work; I’m just here to say hello. What, you think that because it’s summer I’m never going to drop by?”

Florence smiled. Today she wore a green summer dress, her curly blonde hair tamed in a bun. “How thoughtful. I’m sure Exton will be pleased for the diversion!”

Exton continued to write at one of his ledgers. “Oh yes. I’m excited to have yet another item striving to distract me from the two hundred end-of-term grade reports I must fill out and file before the week is over. Delightful.”

“Ignore him, dear,” Florence said. “That’s his way of saying he’s happy to see you.”

Joel set the two packages on the countertop. “Well, I have to admit that it’s not just a social visit. I was in the kitchens, and the cook thought you two might want something for lunch.”

“That’s sweet,” Florence said, walking over. Even Exton grunted in agreement. Florence handed him a bag, and they immediately began to work on the sandwiches. Joel got out the remnant of his own meal, holding it and taking small bites so that he wouldn’t look out of place.

“So,” he said, leaning against the counter, “anything exciting happen during the four hours since summer started?”

“Nothing much,” Florence said. “As Exton already pointed out, there is a lot of busywork this time of year.”

“Dull, eh?” Joel asked.

Exton grunted into his sandwich.

“Well,” Joel said, “we can’t have federal inspectors visiting every day, I suppose.”

“That’s the truth,” Florence said. “And I’m glad for it. Quite the ruckus that one caused.”

“Did you ever figure out what it was about?” Joel asked, taking a bite of his sandwich.

“Maybe,” Florence said, lowering her voice. “I couldn’t hear what was going on inside the principal’s office, of course.…”

“Florence,” Exton said warningly.

“Oh, hush you,” she said. “Go back to your sandwich. Anyway, Joel, did you hear about that Rithmatic girl who vanished a few days back? Lilly Whiting?”

Joel nodded.

“Poor dear,” Florence said. “She was a very good student, by the look of her grades.”

“You read her records?” Exton asked.

“Of course I did,” Florence said. “Anyway, from what I’ve heard, she didn’t run away like they’re saying in the papers. She had good grades, was well liked, and got along with her parents.”

“What happened to her, then?” Joel asked.

“Murder,” Florence said softly.

Joel fell silent. Murder. That made sense—after all, a federal inspector was involved. Yet it felt different to have it spoken out loud. It made him remember that they were talking about a real person, not just a logical puzzle.

“Murder,” he repeated.

“By a Rithmatist,” Florence said.

Joel stiffened.

“Now, that’s just useless speculation,” Exton said, wagging a finger at her.

“I heard enough before York closed the door,” Florence replied. “That inspector thinks a Rithmatist was involved in the killing, and he wanted expert help. It—”

She cut off as the front door to the office behind Joel opened and closed.

“I delivered the message to Haberstock,” a female voice said. “But I—”

Joel groaned.

“You!” Melody snapped, pointing at Joel. “See, you are following me!”

“I just came to—”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses this time,” Melody said. “I have evidence now.”

“Melody,” Florence said sharply, “you’re acting like a child. Joel is a friend. He can visit the office if he wants.”

The redheaded Rithmatist huffed at that, but Joel didn’t want another argument. He figured he’d gotten as much out of Florence as he was going to be able to, so he nodded farewell to the clerks and made his exit.

Killed by a Rithmatist? Joel thought once outside. How would they know?

Had Lilly died in a duel gone wrong? Students didn’t know the glyphs that would make a chalkling dangerous. Usually a chalkling drawn with a Line of Making would be unable to harm anything aside from other chalk drawings. It took a special glyph to make them truly dangerous.

That glyph—the Glyph of Rending—was only taught at Nebrask during the last year of a student’s training, when they went to maintain the enormous Circle of Warding in place around the Tower. Still, it was not outside of reason that a student could have discovered it. And if a Rithmatist had been involved, it would explain why Fitch had been brought in.

Something is happening, Joel thought. Something important. He was going to find out, but he needed a plan.

What if he got through those census records as quickly as possible? He could show Fitch how hard he was willing to work, that he was trustworthy. Professor Fitch would have to assign him another project—something more involved, something that gave him a better idea of what was going on.

Plan in place, he headed back toward Fitch’s to ask for a few of the census ledgers to take home with him tonight. He’d been planning to read a novel—he’d found an interesting one set during the Koreo Dynasty in JoSeun, during the first days when the JoSeun people had turned the Mongols to their side. It would wait.

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