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The Rithmatist (Page 38)

They left, and Melody handed the book to Joel.

He tucked it under his arm. “Weren’t we going to the office to look for a note from the vicar?”

“I suppose,” she said, sighing.

“You’re down, all of a sudden.”

“I’m like that,” she said. “Wild mood swings. It makes me more interesting. Anyway, you have to admit that it hasn’t been a pleasant afternoon you’ve shown me. I got to see Nalizar—dreamy as he is—but I was also forced to think about the Melee.”

“You almost sound like it’s my fault,” Joel said.

“Well,” she said, “I wasn’t going to say it myself, but since you pointed it out, I find myself persuaded. You really should apologize to me.”

“Oh please.”

“Don’t you feel the least bit sorry for me?” she asked. “Having to go and be laughed at by the entire school populace?”

“Maybe you’ll hold your own.”

She regarded him flatly. “Have you seen one of my circles, Joel?”

“You’re getting better.”

“The Melee is in three days!”

“Okay,” he admitted. “You don’t have a chance. But, well, the only way to learn is by trying!”

“You really are like a professor.”

“Hey!” Joel said as they approached the office building. “I resent that. I’ve worked very hard during my school career to be a delinquent. I’ll bet I’ve failed more classes than you have.”

“I doubt that,” she said haughtily. “And, even if you did, I doubt you failed them as spectacularly or as embarrassingly as I did.”

He chuckled. “Point conceded. Nobody’s as spectacularly embarrassing as you, Melody.”

“That’s not what I said.”

They approached the office, and Joel could see Harding’s police guarding there. “Well, one good part about all this,” Melody said. “If Principal York restricts the Melee to students and faculty, then I won’t have to be embarrassed in front of my parents.”

“Wait. They’d actually come?”

“They always come to the Melee,” she said, grimacing. “Particularly when one of their children is in it.”

“When you talk about them, it sounds like you think they hate you or something.”

“It’s not that. It’s just … well, they’re important people. Busy doing stuff. They don’t have much time for the daughter who can’t seem to get Rithmatics right.”

“It can’t be that bad,” Joel said.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “I have two brothers and one sister, all older than me, all Rithmatists. Each one won the Melee at least twice during their careers. William won all four years he was eligible.”

“Wow,” Joel said.

“And I can’t even do a straight circle,” Melody said, walking quickly. Joel hurried to catch up to her.

“They’re not bad people,” she said. “But, well, I think it’s easy for them to have me here. Floridia is far enough away that they don’t have to see me often. I could probably go home on weekends—I did during the early years. Lately, though, with William’s death … well, it’s not really a very happy place at home.”

“Wait,” Joel said, “death?”

She shrugged. “Nebrask is dangerous.”

Death, Joel thought. At Nebrask. And her last name is …

Muns. Joel stopped short.

Melody turned.

“Your brother,” Joel said. “How old was he?”

“Three years older than me,” Melody said.

“He died last year?”

She nodded.

“Dusts!” Joel said. “I saw his obituary in the lists Professor Fitch gave me.”

“So?”

“So,” Joel said, “Professor Nalizar was involved in the death of a Rithmatic student last year. That’s why he was sent away from the battlefront. Maybe it’s connected! Maybe—”

“Joel,” Melody snapped, drawing his attention.

He blinked, regarding her, seeing the distress in her eyes, hidden behind anger.

“Don’t involve William,” she said. “I just … Don’t. If you have to look for conspiracies around Nalizar, do it. But don’t talk about my brother.”

“I’m sorry,” Joel said. “But … if Nalizar was involved, don’t you want to know?”

“He was involved,” Melody said. “Nalizar led a team past the Nebrask Circle up to the base of the Tower itself trying to recover my brother. They never even found the body.”

“Then maybe he killed your brother!” Joel said. “Maybe he just said he couldn’t find him.”

“Joel,” she said, growing quiet. “I’m only going to discuss this one time, all right? William’s death was his own fault. He ran out past the defensive lines. Half the contingent saw him get swarmed by chalklings.

“William tried to prove himself a hero, and he put a lot of people in danger. Nalizar did all he could to rescue him. Nalizar risked his life for my brother.”

Joel hesitated, remembering how she always described Nalizar.

“I don’t like what he did to Fitch,” Melody said, “but Nalizar is a hero. He left the battlefront because of the failure he felt in not being able to rescue William in time.”

Something didn’t seem right about that to Joel. However, he didn’t say anything about it to Melody. Instead, he simply nodded. “I’m sorry.”

She nodded as well, apparently considering the topic closed. They walked the rest of the way to the office in silence.

Nalizar suddenly decided he couldn’t take failure? Joel thought. He left the battlefront because of one death? If it was his conscience that made him leave the battlefront, then why did he complain about politics to Principal York?

Something is going on with that man.

They opened the door to the office, and Joel was pleased to find both Inspector Harding and Professor Fitch there. Harding stood talking to Florence about supplies and housing accommodations for his officers. Fitch sat in one of the waiting chairs.

“Ah, Joel,” Fitch said, rising.

“Professor?” Joel said. “You weren’t looking for me, were you?”

“Hum? What? Ah, no, I have to give a report to the principal about our work. He has me in every couple of days or so. You haven’t discovered anything new, have you?”

Joel shook his head. “I’m just keeping Melody company on her errands.” He paused, leaning against the wall as Melody walked over to get another stack of notes to deliver. “Though there was one thing.”

“Hum?”

“Do you know much about the original discovery of Rithmatics?” Joel asked. “Back when King Gregory was alive?”

“I know more than most,” Fitch said. “I am, after all, a historian.”

“Was there some involvement of clocks in the discovery?”

“Ah,” Fitch said. “You’re talking about the Adam Makings report, are you?”

“Yes.”

“Ha! We’ll turn you into a scholar yet, lad. Very nice work, very nice. Yes, there are some strange references to the workings of clocks in the early records, and we haven’t been able to figure out why. Early chalklings reacted to them, though they no longer do so. The power of the gears over chalklings is one of the reasons that springworks are used so often in Monarchical churches, you know.”

“It’s a metaphor,” Exton added from the other side of the room. Joel looked up; he wasn’t aware the clerk had been paying attention.

“Ask the vicar about it sometime,” Exton continued. “The priests see time in an interesting way. Something about how it is divided by man bringing order to chaos.”

There was a chuckle from the side of the room, where Florence had turned from her conversation with Inspector Harding. “Exton! I thought you were too busy to chat!”

“I am,” he muttered. “I have nearly given up on getting anything done in this madhouse. Everyone bustling about and making noise all the time. I’m going to have to find a way to do work when nobody is around.”

“Well,” Joel said to Professor Fitch, “the clock thing is probably a dead end then, if people have already noticed it and researched it.” He sighed. “I’m not certain I’ll be able to find anything of use in these books. I keep being shocked by how little I know about Rithmatics.”

Fitch nodded. “I feel the same way sometimes.”

“I remember sitting and watching your duel with Nalizar,” Joel said. “I thought I knew it all, just because I understood the defenses you were using. There’s a lot more to all of it than I once thought.”

Fitch smiled.

“What?” Joel asked.

“What you just said is the foundation of all scholarship.” Fitch reached out, putting a hand on Joel’s shoulder, which stood a bit taller than Fitch’s own. “Joel, son, you’ve been invaluable to this investigation. If York hadn’t given you to me as an assistant … well, I don’t know where we would be.”

Joel found himself smiling. Fitch’s sincerity was touching.

“Aha!” a voice declared.

Joel spun to find Melody holding a letter. She rushed across the office room, prompting a frown from Exton. She stretched across the counter between the office area and the waiting area, handing the letter to Joel. “It’s from the vicar,” she said. “Open it, open it!”

Joel accepted it hesitantly. It was marked with the clockwork cross. He broke the seal, then took a breath, opening the letter.

Joel, I have reviewed your case and have spoken with the bishop of New Britannia, as well as the principal of your school. After some deliberation, we have determined that—indeed—your request has merit. If there is a chance that the Master wishes you to be a Rithmatist, we should not deny you the opportunity.

Arrive at the cathedral on Thursday at eight sharp, and you will be fitted for a robe of inception and be allowed an opportunity to enter the chamber before the regular ceremony begins. Bring your mother and any with whom you might wish to share this event.

Vicar Stewart

Joel looked up from the note, stunned.

“What does it say?” Melody asked, hardly able to contain herself.

“It means there’s still hope,” Joel said, lowering the note. “I’m going to get a chance.”

Chapter 21

Later that night, Joel lay quietly in bed, trying to sort through his emotions. A clock ticked on the wall of the workshop. He didn’t look at it; he didn’t want to know the hour.

It was late. And he was awake. The night before his inception.

Less than one in a thousand. That was his chance of becoming a Rithmatist. It seemed ridiculous to hope, and yet his nervousness drove away any possibility of sleep. He was going to get a chance to be a Rithmatist. A real, honest chance.

What would it mean, if he were chosen? He wouldn’t be able to draw a stipend until after he’d served in Nebrask, and so his mother would probably have to continue working.

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