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The Rithmatist (Page 19)

“Well, all right,” Melody said. “But I’m only doing this because I get to take a peek at Nalizar.”

“Melody,” Joel said. “He’s not a good person.”

“I never said anything about his morality, Joel,” she said, opening the door. “Only his face.” She swished into the room, and he followed. Ms. Torrent looked up as they passed her desk.

“He,” Melody said, pointing dramatically at Joel, “is mine. I need someone to carry books for me.”

Ms. Torrent looked like she wanted to protest, but—thankfully—she decided not to do so. Joel hurried after Melody, but stopped in the doorway to the Rithmatic wing.

He’d spent years trying to find a way to get into this room. He’d asked Rithmatic students before to bring him in, but nobody had been willing. Nalizar wasn’t the only one who was stingy with Rithmatic secrets. There was an air of exclusion to the entire order. They had their own table at dinner. They expressed hostility toward non-Rithmatic scholars. They had their own wing of the library, containing all the best texts on Rithmatics.

Joel took a deep breath, following Melody—who had turned toward him and was tapping her foot with an annoyed expression. Joel ignored her, reveling. The room even felt different from the ordinary library wing. The shelves were taller, the books older. The walls contained numerous charts and diagrams.

Joel stopped beside one that detailed the Taylor Defense—one of the most complicated, and controversial, Rithmatic defenses. He’d only ever seen small, vague sketches of it. Here, however, its various pieces were dissected and explained in great detail, along with several variations drawn smaller to the sides.

“Joel,” Melody snapped. “I didn’t abandon half my breakfast so you could stare at pictures. Honestly.”

He reluctantly turned his attention to their task. The bookshelves here were high enough that Nalizar wouldn’t be able to see Joel or Melody enter the room—which was good. Joel hated to contemplate the ruckus Nalizar would cause if he caught a non-Rithmatist poking around these texts.

Joel waved to Melody, quickly moving down the rows. They seemed placed more haphazardly than back in the main wing, though the library wasn’t really that big. He should be able to find—

Joel froze midstep as he walked past an aisle between shelves. There was Nalizar, not five feet from where Joel stood.

Melody pulled Joel aside, out of Nalizar’s line of sight. He stifled a grunt and joined her in the next row. They could peek through a crack between bookshelves and catch a glimpse of Nalizar, though the poor view didn’t let Joel read the title of the book the professor had.

Nalizar glanced up toward where Joel had been. Then he turned—never noticing Joel and Melody peering through the small slit at him—and walked away.

“What books are shelved there?” Joel whispered to Melody.

She rounded the other side—it wouldn’t matter if Nalizar saw her—and took one off the shelf. She wrinkled her nose and held the book up toward the crack for Joel. Theoretical Postulations on Developmental Rithmatics, Revised Edition, with a Foreword by Attin Balazmed.

“Dry stuff,” she said.

Theoretical Rithmatics, Joel thought. “I need to know the exact books Nalizar is carrying!”

Melody rolled her eyes. “Wait here,” she said, then walked off.

Joel waited nervously. Other Rithmatic students poked about. Those who saw him gave him odd looks, but nobody challenged him.

Melody returned a few minutes later and handed him a slip of paper. On it was written the titles of three books. “Nalizar gave these to the librarians,” she said, “then left for class, instructing the staff to check the books out to him and deliver them to his office.”

“How’d you get this?” Joel asked with excitement, taking the paper.

“I walked up to him and mentioned how much I hated my punishment running errands.”

Joel blinked.

“It made him give me a lecture,” Melody said. “Professors love giving lectures. Anyway, while he was chastising me, I was able to read the titles on the spines of the books in his arms.”

Joel glanced again at the titles. Postulations on the Possibility of New and Undiscovered Rithmatic Lines, the first one read. By Gerald Taffington. The other two had more vague titles having to do with theoretics, but that first one seemed an absolute gem.

Nalizar was researching new Rithmatic lines.

“Thank you,” Joel said. “Really. Thank you.”

Melody shrugged. “We should get going. I just got a lecture from Nalizar—I don’t want to get one from Fitch for being late.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “Just a second.” He glanced at the shelves full of books. He’d tried for so long to get in. “I have to get a few of these,” he said. “Will you check them out for me?”

“You can take one. I’m determinedly impatient today.”

He decided not to argue, and instead looked over the nearby stack where Nalizar had been idling.

“Come on,” she said.

Joel grabbed a volume that looked promising. Man and Rithmatics: Origins of Power. He handed her the book and they left. Ms. Torrent gave them another dissatisfied glance, but reluctantly checked the book out to Melody. Joel let out a deep breath as they walked out onto the green.

Melody handed him the book, and he tucked it under his arm. At the moment, however, it seemed far less important than the little slip of paper. Joel had proof that Nalizar was interested in new Rithmatic lines.

Of course, Fitch was convinced that the looping swirl was not Rithmatic. This was really just another suspicious connection—it wouldn’t prove that Nalizar was involved. I need to get that book, Joel thought. If it contains anything like this looping pattern, I’ll have evidence.

That sounded extremely dangerous. Perhaps it would be best for Joel to simply go to Harding and express his concerns. Undecided, he folded the paper and stuffed it in his pocket. Melody walked beside him in her white skirt, binder held against her chest. She had a distant expression on her face.

“Thank you again,” he said. “Really. I think this is going to be a big help.”

“Good to be useful for something, I suppose.”

“Look, about what I said the other day. I didn’t mean it.”

“Yes you did,” she said, voice uncharacteristically soft. “You were only being honest. I know I’m no good at Rithmatics. My reaction only makes me doubly a fool for trying to deny the truth, right?”

“You’re not being fair to yourself, Melody. You’re really good with chalklings.”

“For all the good it does me.”

“It’s a great skill,” Joel said. “You’re way better at that than I am.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, you’re laying it on thick. There’s no need to be so melodramatic—I know you’re just trying to make yourself feel better. I forgive you, all right?”

Joel blushed. “You’re an annoying person. You know that?”

“Okay,” she said, holding up a finger. “Now, see, you’ve gone too far the other direction. If you try really hard, you should be able to find a happy medium between patronizing me and insulting me.”

“Sorry,” Joel said.

“Regardless,” she said, “the fact of the matter is that no matter how good I am with Lines of Making, I still can’t build myself a decent defense. One good shot with a Line of Vigor will take me out of a duel.”

“Not necessarily,” Joel said. “You know, for all Professor Fitch’s talk about keening, maybe that strategy isn’t right for you.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, eyeing him suspiciously, apparently expecting another insult.

“Have you ever tried the Jordan Defense?”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s advanced,” Joel said. “One of the most advanced I’ve ever read about. But it could work. You have to draw a Forbiddance net, then…” He hesitated. “Here, I’ll just show you. You have chalk?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course I have chalk. During your first year at Rithmatic school, if any professor catches you without chalk, they’re allowed to make you scrub floors for two hours.”

“Really?”

She nodded, handing him a piece. The quad was nearby, and it didn’t look like anyone was using it. Joel rushed up the hill, Melody following. “Hey,” she said. “Aren’t we going to get into trouble for being late to Fitch’s office?”

“I doubt it,” Joel said, reaching the concrete-covered top of the hill. “Fitch was up late last night, and he got interrupted a couple of times this morning. I’ll bet he’s still dozing. Okay, here, watch this.”

Joel set his book aside and knelt, doing a rough sketch of the Jordan Defense. It was an ellipsoid defense, with a line at each bind point to stabilize it. The main feature of the defense wasn’t the primary ellipse, however, but the large cage made from Lines of Forbiddance around the outside. It reminded Joel a little bit of what Herman Libel had tried.

“That boxes you in,” Melody said, squatting down beside him. “You can’t do anything if you surround yourself with Lines of Forbiddance. That’s basic Rithmatics—even I know that.”

“That’s a basic rule of thumb, true,” Joel said, still drawing. “A lot of advanced Rithmatic designs break with early wisdom. The really good duelists, they know when to take a risk. Look here.” He pointed with his chalk to a section of the design. “I’ve made a large box on either side. The theory with the Jordan is to fill these boxes full of offensive chalklings. If you’re good with chalklings, you should be able to instruct them to wait and not attack your own line from behind.

“So, while your opponent is wasting time blasting away at your front, you are building a single overpowering attack. When you’re ready, you let out the burst of chalklings, then quickly redraw that Line of Forbiddance. You use Lines of Vigor to destroy any enemy chalklings that got inside while your defenses were down, then you build another wave of chalklings.

“While you might be slower than your opponent, it doesn’t matter because your attacks come in huge rushes that leave him confused and unable to respond. Matthew Jordan, the one who designed the defense, won a couple of very high-profile duels with this and caused an uproar among academics because of how unconventional it was.”

Melody cocked her head. “Dramatic,” she said.

“Want to give it a try?” Joel said. “You can use my little sketch as a pattern.”

“Probably shouldn’t,” she said. “I mean, Professor Fitch…”

“Come on,” Joel said. “Just once. Look, I got you into the library so you could ogle Nalizar, didn’t I?”

“And get yelled at by him.”

“That was your idea,” Joel said. “Are you going to draw or not?”

Melody set down her notebook and knelt on the concrete. She took out her chalk, eyed Joel’s miniature drawing, then began to draw an ellipse around herself.

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