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The Rithmatist (Page 23)

“It’s not secret, really,” Melody said. “It’s just … well, I don’t know. Holy. There are things you’re not supposed to talk about.”

“Well, I mean, I’ve read the book,” Joel said. Or, at least, as much of it as I could make out. “So, I already know a lot. No harm in telling me more, right?”

She eyed him. “And if I answer your questions, will you tell me about the things you and Fitch talked about with that police officer?”

That brought Joel up short. “Um … well,” he said. “I gave my word not to, Melody.”

“Well, I promised I wouldn’t talk about the chamber of inception with non-Rithmatists.”

Dusts, Joel thought in annoyance.

Melody sighed. “We’re not going to argue again, are we?”

“I don’t know,” Joel said. “I don’t really want to.”

“Me neither. I have far too little energy for it at this present moment. That comes from eating this slop the Italians call food. Looks far too much like worms. Anyway, what are you up to after dinner?”

“After dinner?” Joel asked. “I … well, I was probably just going to read some more, see if I can figure out this book.”

“You study too much,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“My professors would generally disagree with you.”

“Well, that’s because they’re wrong and I’m right. No more reading for you. Let’s go get some ice cream.”

“I don’t know if the kitchen has any,” Joel said. “It’s hard to get in the summers, and—”

“Not from the kitchen, stupid,” Melody said, rolling her eyes. “From the parlor out on Knight Street.”

“Oh. I’ve … never been there.”

“What! That’s a tragedy.”

“Melody, everything is a tragedy to you.”

“Not having ice cream,” she proclaimed, “is the culmination of all disasters! That’s it. No more discussion. We’re going. Follow.”

With that, she swept out of the dining hall. Joel slurped up a last bite of spaghetti, then followed in a rush.

Chapter 13

“So, what’s it about Rithmatists that makes you so keen on being one?” Melody asked in the waning summer light. Old Barkley—the groundskeeper—passed them on the path, moving between campus lanterns, twisting the gears to make them begin spinning and giving out light. Melody and Joel would have to be back from this outing soon to obey Harding’s curfew, but they had time for a quick trip.

Joel walked beside Melody, his hands in his trouser pockets, as they strolled toward the campus exit. “I don’t know,” he said. “Why wouldn’t someone want to be a Rithmatist?”

“Well, I know a lot of people think they want to be one,” Melody said. “They see the notoriety, the special treatment. Others like the power, I think. That’s not you, Joel. You don’t want notoriety—you’re always hiding about, quiet and such. You seem to like to be alone.”

“I guess. Maybe I just want the power. You’ve seen how I can get when I’m competing with someone.”

“No,” she said. “When you explain the lines and defenses, you get excited—but you don’t talk Rithmatics as a way to get what you want or make others obey you. A lot of people talk about those kinds of things. Even some of the others in my class.”

They approached the gates to the school grounds. A couple of police officers stood watching, but they didn’t try to bar the exit. Beside the men were buckets. Acid, for fighting off chalklings. It wasn’t strong enough to hurt people, at least not much, but it would destroy chalklings in the blink of an eye. Harding wasn’t taking any chances.

One of the guards nodded to Joel and Melody. “You two take care,” he said. “Be careful. Be back in an hour.”

Joel nodded. “You sure this is a good idea?” he asked Melody.

She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Nobody has disappeared from ice cream parlors, Joel.”

“No,” he said, “but Lilly Whiting disappeared on her way home from a party.”

“How do you know that?” Melody said, looking at him suspiciously.

He glanced away.

“Oh, right,” she said. “Secret conferences.”

He didn’t respond, and—fortunately for him—she didn’t press the point.

The street looked busy, and the kidnapper had always attacked when students were alone, so Joel probably didn’t have to worry. Still, he found himself watching their surroundings carefully. Armedius was a gated park of manicured grass and stately buildings to their right. To their left was the street, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage clopped along.

Those were growing less and less common as people replaced their horses with springwork beasts of varying shapes and designs. One shaped like a wingless dragon crawled by, its gears clicking and twisting, eyes shining lights out to illuminate the street. It had a carriage set atop its back, and Joel could see a mustached man with a bowler hat sitting inside.

Armedius was settled directly in the middle of Jamestown, near several bustling crossroads. Buildings rose some ten stories in the distance, all made from sturdy brick designs. Some bore pillars or other stonework, and the sidewalk itself was of cobbled patterns, many of the individual bricks stamped with the seal of New Britannia. It had been the first of the islands colonized long ago when the Europeans discovered the massive archipelago that now made up the United Isles of America.

It was Friday, and there would be plays and concerts running on Harp Street, which explained some of the traffic. Laborers in trousers and dirty shirts passed, tipping their caps at Melody—who, by virtue of her Rithmatist uniform, drew their respect. Even the well-dressed—men in sharp suits with long coats and canes, women in sparkling gowns—sometimes nodded to Melody.

What would it be like, to be recognized and respected by everyone you passed? It was an aspect of being a Rithmatist that he’d never considered.

“Is that why you don’t like it?” he asked Melody as they strolled beneath a streetlamp.

“What?” she asked.

“The notoriety,” Joel said. “The way everyone looks at you, treats you differently. Is that why you don’t like being a Rithmatist?”

“That’s part of the reason. It’s like … they all expect something from me. So many of them depend on me. Ordinary students can fail, but when you’re a Rithmatist, everyone makes sure you know that you can’t fail. There are a limited number of us—another Rithmatist cannot be chosen until one of us dies. If I’m bad at what I do, I will make a hole in our defenses.”

She walked along, hands clasped in front of her. They passed underneath the springrail track, and Joel could see a train being wound up in the Armedius station to his right.

“It’s such pressure,” she said. “I’m bad at Rithmatics, but the Master himself chose me. That implies that I must have the aptitude. So, if I’m not doing well, it must mean that I haven’t worked hard enough. That’s what everyone keeps telling me.”

“Ouch,” Joel said. “Harsh.”

“Yeah.”

He wasn’t certain what else to say. No wonder she was so touchy. They walked in silence for a time, and Joel noticed for the first time that a smaller number of those they passed didn’t seem so respectful of Melody as the others. These glared at Melody from beneath worker’s hats and muttered to their companions. Joel hadn’t realized that the complaints about Rithmatists extended beyond the jealousy of the students on campus.

Eventually, they passed the downtown cathedral. The imposing structure had broad metal gates set with clockwork gears twisting and counting off the infinite nature of time. Springwork statues and gargoyles stood on the peaked walls and roof, occasionally turning their heads or shaking wings.

Joel paused to look up at the cathedral framed by the dusk sky.

“You never did answer my question,” Melody said. “About why you want to be a Rithmatist so badly.”

“Maybe it’s just because I feel like I missed my chance.”

“You had the same chance as anyone else,” Melody said. “You were incepted.”

“Yeah,” Joel said. “But in December instead of July.”

“What?” Melody asked as Joel turned away and started walking again. She rushed up in front of him, then turned to face him, walking backward. “Inception happens in July.”

“Unless you miss it,” Joel said.

“Why in the world would you miss your inception?”

“There were … complications.”

“But by December, all the year’s Rithmatists would already have been chosen.”

“Yeah,” Joel said. “I know.”

Melody fell into step beside him, looking thoughtful. “What was it like? Your inception, I mean.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about these things.”

“No. I’m not supposed to talk about them.”

“There’s not much to tell,” Joel said. “My mother and I went to the cathedral on a Saturday. Father Stewart sprinkled me with water, marked my head with some oil, and left me to pray in front of the altar for about fifteen minutes. After that, we went home.”

“You didn’t go into the chamber of inception?”

“Father Stewart said it wasn’t necessary.”

She frowned, but let the matter drop. They soon approached the small commercial district that thrived outside of Armedius. Awnings hung from the fronts of brick buildings, and wooden signs swung slightly in the wind.

“Wish I would have worn my sweater today,” Melody noted, shivering. “It can get cold here, even in summer.”

“Cold?” Joel asked. “Oh, right. You’re from Floridia, aren’t you?”

“It’s so cold up here in the north.”

Joel smiled. “New Britannia isn’t cold. Maineford—that’s cold.”

“It’s all cold,” she said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that you northerners have never experienced what it is to be really warm, so you accept a lesser substitute out of ignorance.”

“Aren’t you the one who suggested ice cream?” Joel asked, amused.

“It won’t be cold in the parlor,” she said. “Or … well, maybe it will. But everyone knows that ice cream is worth the trouble of being cold. Like all things virtuous, you have to suffer to gain the reward.”

“Ice cream as a metaphor for religious virtue?” Joel said. “Nice.”

She grinned as they strolled along the brick-cobbled sidewalk. Light from whirring lanterns played off her deep red hair and dimpled cheeks.

Yeah, Joel thought, when she’s not acting crazy—or yelling at me—she really is quite pretty.

“There!” Melody said, pointing to a shop. She dashed across the street; Joel followed more carefully, staying out of the way of vehicles. The parlor was, apparently, a popular one. He’d never been here before—he didn’t go to the commercial district much. What would he buy? The academy provided for his family.

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