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The Rithmatist (Page 25)

“There’s got to be some number involved,” he said.

“I told you,” Melody said. “It has to do with how well they are drawn. If you draw a unicorn that looks like a unicorn, it will last longer than one with bad proportions, or one that has one leg too short, or one that can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a unicorn or a lion.”

“But how does it know? What determines a ‘good’ drawing or a ‘bad’ drawing? Is it related to what the Rithmatist sees in their head? The better a Rithmatist can draw what he or she envisions, the stronger the chalkling becomes?”

“Maybe,” she said, shrugging.

“But,” Joel said, wagging his spoon, “if that were the case, then the best chalkling artists would be the ones with poor imaginations. I’ve seen your chalklings work, and they’re strong—they’re also very detailed. I doubt that the system rewards people who can’t imagine complicated images.”

“Wow. You really get into this, don’t you?”

“Lines of Making are the only ones that don’t seem to make sense.”

“They make perfect sense to me,” she said. “The prettier the drawing is, the stronger it is and the better it’s able to do what you tell it to. What’s confusing about that?”

“It’s confusing because it’s vague,” Joel said. “I can’t understand something until I know why it happens the way it does. There has to be an objective point of reference that determines what makes a good drawing and what doesn’t—even if that objective point of reference is the subjective opinion of the Rithmatist doing the drawing.”

She blinked at him, then took another bite of ice cream. “You, Joel, should have been a Rithmatist.”

“So I’ve been told,” he said with a sigh.

“I mean seriously,” Melody said, “who talks like that?”

Joel turned back to his own ice cream. After how much it had cost, he didn’t want it to melt and get wasted. To him, that was secondary to the flavor, good though it was. “Aren’t those members of your cohort?” he asked, pointing at a group of Rithmatic students at a table in the corner.

Melody glanced over. “Yeah.”

“What are they doing?” Joel asked.

“Looking at a newspaper?” Melody said, squinting. “Hey, is that a sketch of Professor Fitch on the front?”

Joel groaned. Well, that reporter certainly does work quickly.

“Come on,” he said, downing his soda and shoving the last spoonful of ice cream in his mouth, then standing. “We need to find a copy of that paper.”

Chapter 14

“‘Professor Fitch,’” Melody read from the paper, “‘is a little squirrel of a man, huddled before his books like they were the winter’s nuts, piled and packed carelessly in his den. He’s deceptively important, for he is at the center of the search to find the Armedius Killer.’”

“Killer?” Joel asked.

Melody held up a finger, still reading.

Or, at least, that’s what one source speculates. “Yes, we fear for the lives of the kidnapped students,” the unnamed source said. “Every officer knows that if someone goes missing this conspicuously, chances are good that they’ll never be found. At least not alive.”

Professor Fitch is more optimistic. He not only thinks that the children are still alive, but that they can be recovered—and the secret to their whereabouts might have to do with the discovery of some strange Rithmatic lines at the crime scenes.

“We don’t know what they are or what they do,” Professor Fitch explained, “but those lines are definitely involved.” He declined to show me these drawings, but he did indicate that they weren’t composed of any of the basic four lines.

Fitch is a humble man. He speaks with a quiet, unassuming voice. Few would realize that upon him, our hopes must rest. For if there really is a Rithmatist madman on the loose in New Britannia, then it will undoubtedly take a Rithmatist to defeat him.

She looked up from the paper, their empty ice cream dishes and soda glasses sitting dirty on the table. The parlor was growing less busy as many of the students left for Armedius to make curfew.

“Well, I guess now you know the whole of it,” Joel said.

“That’s it?” she said. “That’s all you were talking about with the inspector?”

“That’s pretty much it.” The article contained some frightening details—such as the exact nature of Lilly’s and Herman’s disappearances, including the fact that blood was found at each scene. “This is bad, Melody. I can’t believe that got printed.”

“Why?”

“Up until now, the police and Principal York were still implying that Herman and Lilly might have just run away. Parents of Rithmatists at the academy guessed otherwise, but the people of the city didn’t know.”

“Well, it’s best for them to know the truth, then,” Melody proclaimed.

“Even if it causes panic? Even if ordinary people hide in their homes because they’re afraid of a killer who may not exist, and who undoubtedly isn’t going to hurt them?”

Melody bit her lip.

Joel sighed, standing. “Let’s get back,” he said, folding up the newspaper. “We have to make curfew, and I want to get this to Inspector Harding, just in case he hasn’t seen it yet.”

She nodded, joining Joel as he walked out onto the street. It felt darker now, and Joel again wondered at the wisdom of going out when there could be a killer about. Melody seemed to be in a similar mood, and she walked closer to him than she had before. Their steps were quick, their conversation nonexistent, until they finally arrived back at the gates to Armedius.

The same two officers stood at the entryway. As Joel entered, the campus clock beat fifteen minutes to the hour. “Where is Inspector Harding?” Joel asked.

“Out, I’m afraid,” one of the men said. “Is there something we can help you with?”

“Give him this when he gets back in,” Joel said, handing one of them the paper. The officer scanned it, his face growing troubled.

“Come on,” Joel said to Melody, “I’ll walk you back to your dorm.”

“Well,” she said, “aren’t you chivalrous all of a sudden?”

They strolled down the path, Joel lost in thought. At least the article hadn’t been belittling of Fitch. Perhaps the reporter had felt guilty for lying to him.

They reached the dormitory. “Thank you for the ice cream,” Joel said.

“No, thank you.”

“You paid for it,” he said. “Even if you gave me the money first.”

“I wasn’t thanking you for paying,” Melody said airily, pulling open the door to the dormitory.

“For what, then?” he asked.

“For not ignoring me,” she said. “But, at the same time, for ignoring the fact that I’m kind of a freak sometimes.”

“We’re all freaks sometimes, Melody,” he replied. “You’re just … well, better at it than most.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Very flattering.”

“That didn’t come out as I meant it.”

“I’ll have to forgive you then,” she said. “How boring. Good night, Joel.”

She vanished into the dormitory, door closing behind her. He slowly crossed the lawn, his thoughts a jumble, and found himself wandering around the Rithmatic campus.

He knew where most of the professors lived, so it was easy for him to determine which previously unused office probably housed Nalizar. Sure enough, he soon found the door bearing Nalizar’s nameplate resting on the outside wall of Making Hall.

Joel loitered outside the hall, looking up at the dark second floor. Making Hall was the newest of the four, and had a lot more windows than the older ones. The windows of Nalizar’s rooms were dark. Did that mean he wasn’t in, or that he’d retired already?

Melody said that Nalizar wanted the books delivered to his office. They’re probably sitting on his desk, or maybe waiting at the top of this stairwell.…

Joel found himself reaching for the doorknob.

He stopped himself. What am I doing? Was he really considering breaking into the professor’s office? He needed to think before trying something so drastic. He walked away across the lawn. As he did, he heard something and turned.

The door to Nalizar’s stairwell opened, and a figure with a dark cloak and blond hair stepped out. Nalizar himself. Joel felt his heart leap, but he was standing far enough away—and shadowed enough in darkness—that Nalizar didn’t notice him.

The professor put on a top hat and strode off down the sidewalk. Joel felt his heart beating in his chest. If he had gone up those stairs, Nalizar would have caught him for sure. He took a few deep breaths, calming himself.

Then he realized that now he knew for certain that the professor was gone.

And if he returns quickly? Joel thought. He shook his head. If he did decide to sneak into the professor’s room, he’d need to have more of a plan.

He kept moving, but didn’t feel like going home. He was too awake. Eventually, he decided on a different course of action. There was someone he knew would be up late this night, someone he could talk to.

He knew all the normal places to check for his mother, and he tried those first. He didn’t find her, but he did find Darm, one of the other cleaning ladies. She sent him to the right place.

It turned out that his mother was cleaning the dueling arena. Joel walked up to the door, which was propped open slightly, and peeked in. He heard the sounds of scrubbing echoing inside, so he pulled open the door and slipped in.

The dueling arena was in the middle of Making Hall and took up most of the central space in the building. The room’s ceiling was of glass squares with iron supports between. Rithmatic duels, after all, were best watched from above. During the Melee, professors and local dignitaries watched from the best seats up there.

Joel had never seen that room, though he had been lucky enough to get a lower seat for a couple of the Melees. The room was shaped like an ice-skating rink. There was the playing field floor below—black so that chalk would show up well on it—with enough space for dozens of people to draw defensive circles at once. Seats ran around the outside, though there weren’t ever enough for all the people who wanted to attend the Melee.

There were dueling competitions throughout the year, of course. The Melee, however, was the most popular. It was the last chance for the juniors to show off their skill before they were shipped to Nebrask for their last year of training. Winners in the Melee were given important posts in Nebrask, and would have a much better chance of becoming squad leaders and captains.

Joel’s mother crouched on hands and knees in the middle of the room, scrubbing at the blackrock floor, a single springwork lantern beside her. She wore her hair tied back with a kerchief, her sleeves rolled up, her brown skirt dusty from crawling around.

Joel felt a sudden stab of anger. Other people went to plays, lounged in their rooms, or slept while his mother scrubbed floors. The anger immediately turned to guilt. While his mother scrubbed floors, he had been eating ice cream.

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