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The Rithmatist (Page 14)

She rolled her eyes, but handed him one. They both knelt on the ground next to one another. Fitch began drawing. Joel watched, trying to guess which defense he was going to go for. A circle, so it wasn’t Osborn. Fitch then placed a smaller circle at the very top, crossed with Lines of Forbiddance.

Sumsion, Joel thought. It’s the Sumsion Defense again.

Sumsion had a Line of Forbiddance at the front, which—once in place—would block Fitch from drawing further on that side. The Sumsion Defense, then, started with a very strong front side, but that front couldn’t be protected. The Rithmatist would spend their time drawing chalklings at the sides and sending them out to attack.

I need to strike hard at that front, Joel thought. Break through in the place where he thinks he’s strong, but can’t protect himself.

That probably meant Ballintain was the best. Joel, however, didn’t draw that one. He wanted something more dramatic. He scribbled furiously on the rough wood floor, constructing a nine-point circle with a large number of bound chalklings around it, giving himself a very strong defense. He didn’t bother with Lines of Forbiddance to anchor himself. He went straight into drawing Lines of Vigor to launch at the very front of Fitch’s circle.

“All right,” Fitch said, standing. “Let us see here. Hum…”

Joel glanced to the side. Melody had drawn the Ballintain Defense, and done a fairly good job of it, for her. The lines were wobbly, and the circle lopsided, but she’d gotten each part in the right place.

“Yes indeed,” Fitch said. “That’s actually quite good, my dear. You may not have an eye for circles, but you can think like a Rithmatist.” Fitch hesitated, then leaned down to inspect her work more closely. “And, my! Will you look at that chalkling! Indeed!”

Joel leaned over. Most Rithmatists used simplistic chalklings. Snakes, spiders, occasionally a dragon. Fitch himself favored more intricate drawings—they were stronger, apparently, than ones with fewer lines. Joel hadn’t been able to study a lot of chalkling theory.

Melody’s single chalkling—there was only room for one on Ballintain—was incredibly detailed and complex, despite the small scale. The tiny bear was shaded with shadows, had little lines for fur, and had perfect proportions. It walked back and forth across the wood in front of her circle, connected to the bind point by a tiny chalk chain, each link drawn individually.

“Wow,” Joel said despite himself.

“Yes indeed,” Fitch said. “And Ballintain was the correct choice in this instance, I believe—though something with a very strong defense against chalklings would have been good as well.”

Fitch glanced at Joel’s circle. “Ah, a nine-pointer? Showing off a little, are we?”

Joel shrugged.

“Hum,” Fitch continued. “Not bad, Joel, I must say. The third point is a few degrees off, but the others are within reasonable limits. Is that a Hill Defense?”

“A modified one.”

“No Lines of Forbiddance?”

“You drew Sumsion,” Joel said. “So you probably weren’t going to use many Lines of Vigor—not unless you’re an expert at reflecting them, but you didn’t set yourself up to do that. So you couldn’t have pushed me about. That means I didn’t need the stabilization.”

“Excellent point,” Fitch said. “Unless, of course, I were to notice what you’d done. Remember, I could always dismiss the Line of Forbiddance and attack you from the front by surprise!”

“That would take you a few seconds,” Joel said. “I’d notice and stabilize my defense.”

“Assuming you were watching carefully,” Fitch said.

“I would be,” Joel said. “Trust me.”

“Yes … I believe that you would be. Well, that’s certainly impressive. I think that both of you might very well have defeated me!”

Doubtful, Joel thought. He’d seen Fitch draw, and the man was good. Uncertain of himself in a duel, true, but quite good. Still, Joel suspected that the professor wasn’t trying to be patronizing, just encouraging.

Judging from Melody’s response, it was working. She actually seemed excited to be drawing. “What’s next?” she asked.

“Well, I suppose we can do a few more,” Professor Fitch said, making his lines disappear. Melody did the same.

Joel just stared down at his. “Um…” he said. “Do you have an eraser?”

Fitch looked up, surprised. “Oh! Well, hum, let me see.…”

After about five minutes of searching through the room’s scholarly debris, Fitch managed to produce an eraser. Joel used it, but it didn’t work all that well. The lines just smudged on the floor, which hadn’t been designed for chalk drawing.

Joel felt his face redden as he brushed harder.

“Perhaps we should have you draw on a board from now on, Joel…” Fitch said, digging out a small chalkboard.

Joel looked down at the poorly erased chalk drawing in front of him. It seemed like a sharp and distinct reminder of what he was. No matter how hard he tried or studied, he’d never be a Rithmatist, able to make his chalk lines come alive or vanish with a thought.

“Maybe I should get back to my research,” Joel said, standing.

“Oh, do a few more with us,” Fitch said, wagging the board as he proffered it. “You’ve worked too hard on those census reports, and it will be good for Miss Muns to have some competition.”

Joel’s breath caught in his throat. It was the first time that a Rithmatist had actually offered to let Joel participate. He smiled, then reached out to take the board.

“Excellent!” Fitch said. He seemed to find the prospect of teaching them far more exciting than research.

Over the next few hours, they went over a dozen more examples of defenses and counters. Fitch drew more complicated circles, challenging Joel and Melody to discuss two or three ways to attack each one. There were no actual duels. Professor Fitch seemed to shy away from such things.

Instead, he would draw, explain, and coach. They talked about which defenses were best against multiple opponents. They discussed why it was important to think about being surrounded—since on the Nebrask battlefield, a Rithmatist might have to fight in several directions at the same time. They also discussed timing, drawing to their strengths, and some general theory. All of this was interspersed with more drawings.

Joel threw himself into it with excitement. Though this wasn’t the deep Rithmatic lecture he’d been hoping for, it was actual drawing with actual Rithmatists. It was wonderful.

And it was far better than looking at census records.

Eventually, Fitch glanced at the clock. “Well, we should move on for the day.”

“What?” Melody demanded, looking up from their latest set of drawings. “You can’t! He’s winning!”

Joel smiled smugly. By his count—and he suspected Melody had kept a similar count in her head—Fitch had approved of Joel’s counter-defenses seven times, while Melody had only done the right defense three times.

“Winning?” Fitch said. “Why, this isn’t a competition.”

“Yes, Melody,” Joel said. “It’s not a competition—at least, it’s not a competition when you are involved. None at all.”

She flinched, looking like she’d been slapped. Joel hesitated, realizing how harsh those words had been.

Instead of snapping back a retort, Melody grabbed her sketchbook. “I’ll just … keep practicing some more sketches, Professor.”

“Yes, dear,” Fitch said, shooting a glance at Joel. “That is a good idea. Joel, I need to run some of these books back to the library. Would you help me carry them?”

Joel shrugged, then picked up the indicated stack of books and followed the professor out into the stairwell. Melody remained behind, sniffling.

They stepped out of the stairwell onto the campus green, and Joel blinked against the sunlight—it was easy to lose track of the hours in Fitch’s office.

“You’re quite accomplished at Rithmatic drawings, Joel,” Fitch said. “I honestly don’t know that I’ve ever seen a student as skilled as you. You draw like a man with thirty years of practice.”

“I usually get the nine-point wrong,” Joel said.

“Few Rithmatists even come close with nine-point drawings,” Fitch said. “Your ability, particularly as a non-Rithmatist, is nothing short of astounding. You are, however, also an insensitive bully.”

“A bully!” Joel exclaimed.

Fitch raised a finger. “The most dangerous kind of man is not the one who spent his youth shoving others around. That kind of man gets lazy, and is often too content with his life to be truly dangerous. The man who spent his youth being shoved around, however … When that man gets a little power and authority, he often uses it to become a tyrant on par with the worst warlords in history. I worry this could become you.”

Joel looked down. “I wasn’t trying to make her look bad, Professor. I was just trying to draw my best!”

“There is nothing wrong with doing your best, son,” Fitch said sternly. “Never be ashamed of aptitude. However, the comment you made in there … That was not the sign of a boy who was proud of his aptitude. It was a boy who was proud of being better than another. You disappointed me greatly.”

“I…” What could he say? “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t believe I’m the one to whom you should apologize. You are young, Joel. Young enough that you still have time to decide the type of man you would like to become. Do not let jealousy, bitterness, or anger be what guides that path. But, here now, I have probably been too hard on you in turn. Just promise me you will think about what I have said.”

“I will.”

The two of them continued across campus, Joel feeling shamed to the bones as he carried the books. “Professor, do you really think you can train her to be a great Rithmatist?”

“Melody?” he replied. “Her uncertainty is her only true hindrance. I’ve looked into the girl’s records. It’s remarkable that she’s kept going, all things considered. I think that, with proper training in the basics—”

“Why, Professor Fitch!” a voice called.

Fitch turned, surprised. Joel hadn’t noticed it before, but a small crowd was gathered near the campus quad, where the grass was broken by a hilltop plateau of concrete. A man in a red Rithmatic coat stood there, arms folded as he looked down at Joel and Fitch.

“Professor Nalizar,” Fitch said. “Shouldn’t you be in class right now?”

“We are having class out here today,” Nalizar said, nodding toward the top of the hill, where a large group of Rithmatic students knelt on the concrete, drawing. “The only way to learn is to do, and the only way to win is to fight. These students have had enough time of dusty classrooms and lectures.”

It also lets him show off, Joel thought, noting the attention Nalizar’s display had drawn from the students and professors who had been playing soccer nearby.

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