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The Rithmatist (Page 26)

If I were a Rithmatist, he thought, she wouldn’t have to do this.

Melody had spoken with disdain about the money and power many Rithmatists coveted. She obviously had no concept of what it was like to have to go without.

Joel walked down the steps between the bleachers, his steps echoing. His mother looked up. “Joel?” she said as he stepped onto the blackrock floor. “You should be getting ready for bed, young man.”

“I’m not tired,” he said, joining her and picking up the extra brush floating in her bucket. “What are we doing? Scrubbing the floor?”

She eyed him for a moment. Finally, she turned back to her work. She was far more lax with his sleep habits in the summer. “Don’t ruin your trousers,” she said. “The floor has a rough texture. If you aren’t careful, you’ll scuff your knees and fray the cloth.”

Joel nodded, then began to work on a section that she hadn’t yet scrubbed. “Why do we need to clean this place? It doesn’t get used that often.”

“It has to look good for the Melee, Joel,” she said, brushing a stray lock of hair away from her face and tucking it behind her ear. “We have to apply a finish each year to keep the color dark. The playing field needs to be clean before we can do that.”

Joel nodded, scrubbing. It felt good to be active, rather than just sorting through books.

“That girl seemed nice,” his mother said.

“Who? Melody?”

“No, the other girl you brought over for dinner.”

Joel blushed. “Yeah, I suppose. She’s a bit strange.”

“Rithmatists often are,” his mother said. “I’m glad to see you with a girl, though. I worry about you. You always seem to have people to talk to, but you don’t go out in the evenings. You have a lot of acquaintances. Not a lot of friends.”

“You’ve never said anything.”

She snorted. “One doesn’t have to be a professor to know that teenage boys don’t like hearing about their mothers’ worries.”

Joel smiled. “You have it easy with me. As teenage sons go, I’m not much of a headache.”

They continued to work for a time, Joel still feeling annoyed that his mother should have to do such hard work. Yes, Rithmatists were important—they helped protect the Isles from the dangers in Nebrask. Yet, wasn’t what his mother did important as well? The Master chose Rithmatists. Didn’t he, in a way, choose cleaning ladies as well?

Why was it that people valued what his mother did so much less than what someone like Professor Fitch did? She worked twice as hard as anyone Joel knew, and yet she gained no notoriety, no wealth or prestige.

Melody had wondered where his mother’s money went, and it was a good question. His mother worked long hours. So where did their money go? Was his mother saving it all?

Or was there something else? An expense Joel had never considered.…

He sat upright, feeling a chill. “The principal didn’t really give me free admittance to Armedius, did he? That’s just what you tell me, to keep me from feeling guilty. You’re paying for me to go here.”

“What?” his mother asked, still scrubbing. “I could never afford that.”

“Mother, you work double shifts most days. That money has to be going somewhere.”

She snorted. “Even with double shifts, I couldn’t afford this place. Do you have any idea how much in tuition most of those parents pay?”

Joel thought for a moment, remembering that Melody had spoken of a student who got ten dollars a week in allowance. If that much was simple spending money, then how much were they paying for the students to go to Armedius?

Joel didn’t want to know.

“So, where does it go?” he asked. “Why work all these extra hours?”

She didn’t look up. “Your father left more than a family behind when he died, Joel.”

“What does that mean?”

“We have debts,” she said, continuing to scrub. “It’s really nothing for you to worry about.”

“Father was a chalkmaker,” Joel said. “His workroom was provided by the school, as were his materials. Where did he get debts?”

“From a lot of different things,” she said, scrubbing a little bit harder. “He traveled a lot, meeting with Rithmatists and talking about their work. The springrail wasn’t as cheap then as it is now. Plus there were the books, the supplies, the time off to work on his various projects. He got some from Principal York, but he got the greater part from outside sources. The type of men who would lend money to a poor craftsman like your father … well, they aren’t the kind of men you can ignore when they come asking for payment.”

“How much?”

“It doesn’t matter to you.”

“I want to know.”

His mother glanced at him, meeting his eyes. “This is my burden, Joel. I’m not going to have it ruining your life. You’ll be able to start fresh and clean with a good education, thanks to Principal York. I’ll deal with your father’s problems.”

Obviously, she considered that the end of the conversation. She turned back to her scrubbing.

“What did Father spend all that time working on?” Joel asked, attacking a section of floor. “He must have believed in it a lot, if he was willing to risk so much.”

“I didn’t understand a lot of his theories,” she said. “You know how he would go on, talking about chalk composition percentages. He thought he was going to change the world with his chalk. I believed in him, Master help me.”

The room fell silent, save for the sound of brushes against stone.

“It was his goal to send you to Armedius, you know,” she said softly. “He wanted to be able to afford to send you here, to study. I think that’s why Principal York gave you the scholarship.”

“Is that why you always get so mad at me for not doing well in my classes?”

“That’s part of it. Oh, Joel. Don’t you see? I just want you to have a better life than we did. Your father … he sacrificed so much. He might have made it, too, if his blasted research hadn’t ended up costing his life.”

Joel cocked his head. “He got wounded in a springrail accident.”

She paused. “Yes. That’s what I meant. If he hadn’t been out traveling on one of his projects, he wouldn’t have been on the train when it derailed.”

Joel eyed her. “Mother,” he said. “Father did die from a springrail accident, didn’t he?”

“You saw him in the hospital, Joel. You sat with him while he died.”

Joel frowned, but couldn’t dispute that fact. He remembered the sterile rooms, the physicians bustling about, the medications they gave his father and the surgeries they did on his crushed legs. Joel also remembered the forced optimism they’d all displayed when telling Joel that his father would get better.

They’d known he would die. Joel could see it now—they’d all known, even his mother. Only the eight-year-old Joel had hoped, thinking—no, knowing—that his father would eventually wake up and be just fine.

The accident had happened the third of July. Joel had spent the fourth—the day of inception—at his father’s side. His stomach twisted inside. He’d held his father’s hand as he died.

Trent hadn’t ever woken up, despite the hundred prayers Joel had offered during that day.

Joel didn’t realize he was crying until a teardrop splatted to the black stone in front of him. He wiped his eyes quickly. Wasn’t time supposed to dull the pain?

He could still remember his father’s face: kindly, set with affable jowls and eyes that smiled. It hurt.

Joel stood up, putting his brush back in the bucket. “Maybe I should go get some sleep,” he said, and turned away, worried that his mother might see his tears.

“That would be for the best,” his mother said.

Joel walked for the exit.

“Joel,” she called after him.

He paused.

“Don’t worry about things too much,” she said. “The money, I mean. I have it under control.”

You work yourself half to death, he thought, and spend the rest of the time worrying yourself sick. I have to find a way to help you. Somehow.

“I understand,” he said. “I’ll just focus on my studies.”

She turned back to her scrubbing, and Joel left, crossing the green to their dorm. He climbed into bed without changing, suddenly exhausted.

Hours later, sunlight shining on his face, he blinked awake and realized that—for once—he’d fallen asleep with ease. He yawned, climbed out of the bed, and made it for when his mother got done with work in an hour or so. He changed into some clothing from the small trunk at the end of the bed.

The room was basically empty, otherwise. A dresser, the trunk, the bed. The room was so small that he could almost touch the walls opposite one another at the same time. Yawning, intending to make his way to the restroom at the end of the hall, he opened the door.

He stopped in place as he saw people rushing about in the hallway outside, talking excitedly. He caught the arm of one woman as she hurried past.

“Mrs. Emuishere?” he said. “What’s going on?”

The dark-skinned Egyptian woman eyed him. “Joel, lad! Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard what? I just woke up.”

“A third disappearance,” she said. “Another Rithmatist. Charles Calloway.”

“Calloway?” Joel said. He recognized that name. “You mean…?”

She nodded. “The son of the knight-senator of East Carolina, Joel. The boy was kidnapped right out of his family’s private estate late last night. They should have listened to the principal, I say. Poor kid would have been far safer here.”

“The son of a knight-senator!” This was bad.

“There’s more,” she said, leaning in. “There were deaths, Joel. The boy’s servants—ordinary men, not Dusters—were found at the scene, their skin ripped off and their eyes chewed out. Like…”

“Like they were attacked by wild chalklings,” Joel whispered.

She nodded curtly, then bustled off, obviously intent on sharing the news with others.

The son of a knight-senator kidnapped or killed, Joel thought numbly. Civilians murdered.

Everything had just changed drastically.

Part Three

Chapter 15

Joel ran across the campus to Professor Fitch’s office. He knocked on the door and got no answer. So he tested the doorknob, and found it unlocked.

He pushed it open.

“Just a moment!” Fitch called. The professor stood next to his desk, quickly gathering up a bunch of scrolls, writing utensils, and books. He looked even more disheveled than usual, hair sticking up, tie askew.

“Professor?” Joel asked.

“Ah, Joel,” Fitch said, glancing up. “Excellent! Please, come help me with these.”

Joel hastened to help carry an armful of scrolls. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve failed again,” Fitch said. “There’s been another disappearance.”

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