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The Rithmatist (Page 4)

Exton grumbled and turned back to his ledger. “I suppose I can’t fault a person for sneaking into extra classes. Have enough trouble with students trying to skip them. Still, fascination with those blasted Rithmatists … it’s not good for a boy.”

“Don’t be such a bore,” Florence said. “Joel, you said that Fitch actually lost?”

Joel nodded.

“So … what does that mean?”

“He will switch places in seniority with Nalizar,” Exton said, “and lose his tenure. He can challenge Nalizar back in one year’s time, and both of them are immune to other challenges until then.”

“That poor man!” Florence said. “Why, that’s not very fair. I just thought the duel would be for bragging rights.”

Exton continued his work.

“Well,” Florence said. “Handsome or not, I’m growing less impressed with Mr. Nalizar. Fitch is such a dear, and he so loves his teaching.”

“He will survive,” Exton said. “It’s not as if he’s out on his ear. Joel, I assume you dallied there in the classroom long enough to watch the entire duel?”

Joel shrugged.

“How was the duel, then?” Exton asked. “Did Fitch acquit himself well?”

“He was quite good,” Joel said. “His forms were beautiful. He just … well, he seemed out of practice with real dueling.”

“Such a brutal way to handle things!” Florence said. “Why, they’re academics, not gladiators!”

Exton paused, then looked directly at Florence, eyeing her over the top rim of his spectacles. “My dear,” he said, “I don’t wonder if there should be quite a few more challenges like this. Perhaps today will remind those stuck-up Rithmatists why they exist. Should Nebrask ever fall…”

“Oh, don’t tell me ghost stories, Exton,” she said. “Those stories are simply tools for politicians to keep us all worried.”

“Bah,” Exton said. “Don’t you have any work to be doing?”

“I’m on break, dear,” she said.

“I can’t help but notice that you always take your breaks whenever I have something important to finish.”

“Bad timing on your part, I guess,” she said, reaching to a wooden box on her desk, then getting out the kimchi-and-ham sandwich packed inside.

Joel glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. He had fifteen minutes until his next class—too short a time to send him away on another errand.

“I’m worried about Professor Fitch,” Joel said, still watching the clock, with its intricate gears. A springwork owl sat on the top of the clock, blinking occasionally, then nibbling at its talons as it waited for the hour to chime so that it could hoot.

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” Exton said. “I suspect that Principal York will only assign him a few students. Fitch is due for some time off. He might enjoy this.”

Enjoy this? Joel thought. The poor man was crushed. “He’s a genius,” Joel said. “Nobody on campus teaches defenses as complex as he does.”

“A true scholar, that one,” Exton said. “Maybe too much of a scholar. Nalizar may be better in the classroom. Some of Fitch’s lectures could be … a little over the students’ heads, from what I hear.”

“No,” Joel said. “He’s a great teacher. He explains things and doesn’t treat the students like fools, like Howards or Silversmith do.”

Exton chuckled. “I’ve been letting you have too much time off, haven’t I? Do you want me to get into trouble with the Rithmatists again?”

Joel didn’t respond. The other Rithmatic professors had made it clear that they didn’t want him disrupting their lectures. Without Fitch and his lax attitude, Joel would not be sneaking into any more lectures anytime soon. He felt a twist inside of him.

There might still be a chance. If Fitch was going to teach a few students, why couldn’t one be Joel?

“Joel, dear,” Florence said, halfway through her sandwich, “I spoke with your mother this morning. She wanted me to see if I could give you a nudge on your summer elective paperwork.”

Joel grimaced. There were advantages to living on the campus as the son of academy employees. His free tuition was the biggest of those perks, though he’d only been given that because of his father’s death.

There were also disadvantages. Many of the other staff members—like Exton and Florence—earned room and board as part of their employment contract. Joel had grown up with them and saw them every day—and that meant that they were good friends with his mother as well.

“I’m working on it,” he said, thinking of his letter to Fitch.

“The last day of the term is coming, dear,” Florence said. “You need to get into an elective. You finally get to pick one of your own, rather than sitting in a remedial tutelage. Isn’t that exciting?”


Most students went home during the summer. The ones who did not leave only had to attend for half days, and could choose a single elective. Unless they did poorly during the year and needed a remedial tutelage as their elective. Rithmatists were lucky—they had to stay in school all year, but at least their summer elective was a Rithmatics elective.

“Have you given it any thought?” Florence asked.


“They’re filling up fast, dear,” she said. “There are still a few slots left in physical merit class. You want in?”

Three months of standing on a field while everyone ran around him kicking balls at each other, playing a game that they all tried to pretend was half as interesting as Rithmatic duels? “No thanks.”

“What, then?”

Math might be fun. Literature wouldn’t be too painful. But none would be as interesting as studying with Fitch.

“I’ll have one picked by tonight,” he promised, eyeing the clock. Time to get to his next class. He picked up his books from the corner—placing Fitch’s two books on top—and left the building before Florence could push him further.

Chapter 3

History class passed quickly that day; they were reviewing for the next day’s final exam. Once it was over, Joel went to math, his last period. This semester focused on geometry.

Joel had mixed feelings about math class. Geometry was the foundation for Rithmatics, so that was interesting. The history of geometry had always fascinated him—from Euclid and the ancient Greeks all the way forward to Monarch Gregory and the discovery of Rithmatics.

There was just so much busywork. Endless problems that held no interest for him.

“Today, we’re going to review formulas for figuring area,” said Professor Layton from the front of the class.

Formulas for figuring area. Joel had memorized those practically before he could walk. He closed his eyes, groaning. How many times would they have to go over the same things?

Professor Layton, however, didn’t let his students lounge about, even though most of their coursework—including the final exam—was already done. He insisted on spending the last week of class covering an exhaustive review of everything they’d learned.

Honestly. Who reviewed after the final exam?

“We get to start today with conic sections!” Layton said. He was a large-framed man, a tad overweight. Joel always thought Layton should have been a coach, not a professor of mathematics. He certainly had the motivational speaking part down.

“Remember the great thing about cones?” Layton asked, gesturing at a cone he’d drawn on the board. “You can make so many things just slicing a cone at given points. Look! Slice it in the middle, and you have a circle. Cut it at an angle, and you’ve got an ellipse. Isn’t that incredible!”

The students regarded him blankly.

“I said, isn’t that incredible?”

He got some halfhearted responses of “Yes, Professor Layton.” The thing was, Professor Layton thought that every aspect of mathematics was “incredible.” He had boundless enthusiasm. Couldn’t he have applied it to something useful, like Rithmatic duels?

The students slumped at their desks. Interspersed through them were several youths in white skirts and pants, with grey sweaters. Rithmatists. Joel leaned back, covertly studying them as Layton went on about different ways to dissect a cone.

The Rithmatic campus had its own specialized classes for the Rithmatists—or Dusters, as some called them. Those courses took up the first hour of each period. During the second hour of each period, then, the Rithmatists attended general education courses with the ordinary students.

Joel always felt it must be hard for them, studying all of the ordinary subjects as well as their Rithmatic learning. But it did make sense that the Rithmatists were held to higher standards than everyone else. After all, the Master himself had chosen them.

They really shouldn’t be in here, Joel thought. Since they were in his class, he knew their names, but he knew basically nothing else about them—except that they were in an ordinary math class. And that was important.

Rithmatics was founded on the concepts of geometry and trigonometry, and the Rithmatic classes contained a huge portion of advanced arithmetic studies. The only reason Dusters would end up taking Professor Layton’s class would be because they needed basic, remedial help in formulas and shapes.

The two boys, John and Luc, generally sat together in the back corner of the room, looking like they’d rather be anywhere than stuck in a math class with a bunch of non-Rithmatists. Then there was the girl. Melody. She had red curls and a face Joel rarely saw, since she spent most of each period leaned over, drawing doodles in her notebook.

Could I maybe figure out a way to get one of them to tutor me? Joel thought. Talk to me about Rithmatics? Maybe he could help them with their math in exchange.

“Now,” Professor Layton said, “let’s review the formulas for a triangle! You learned so much this year. Your lives will never be the same again!”

If only they’d let Joel into a higher-level class. But the higher-level classes were all on the Rithmatic campus. Off-limits to general students.

Hence the letter to Fitch, which Joel still carried in his pocket. He glanced at it as Professor Layton wrote some more formulas on the chalkboard. None of those formulas came to life, moved about, or did anything else unusual. Layton was no Rithmatist. To him, and to Joel—and to most everyone alive—the board was just a board, and chalk just another writing utensil.

“Wow,” Layton said, surveying his list of formulas. “Did I mention how incredible those are?”

Someone in the class groaned. Layton turned, smiling to himself. “Well, I suppose you’re all waiting for summer electives. Can’t say that I blame you. Still, you’re mine for today, so everyone get out your notebooks so I can check off last night’s assignment.”

Joel blinked, then felt a stab of alarm. Last night’s assignment. His mother had even asked him if he’d had one. He had promised he’d do it. Yet he’d put it off, telling himself that he’d work on it later … during his free period.

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