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The Rithmatist (Page 2)

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 campus 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 vine-covered, 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 up 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 insignia. 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 fifteen-and sixteen-year-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.

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