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The Rithmatist (Page 47)

Had Nalizar changed his plans at that moment, fighting Harding to appear like a hero to fool Joel?

“You would have let me live,” Joel said. “You would have lain there, presumably unconscious, while your minion turned the students to chalklings. You could have charged over then and saved some of them. You’d have been a hero, but Armedius would still have been decimated.”

Joel’s voice rang in the empty hallway.

“What would the others think, Joel,” Nalizar said, “if they heard you speak such hurtful things? Just a couple of days after publicly admitting that I’m a hero? I daresay it would make you look rather inconsistent.”

He’s right, Joel thought numbly. They won’t believe me now. Not after I vouched for Nalizar myself. Plus, Melody and Fitch reinforced that Nalizar had come to help at the end.

Joel met the professor’s eyes, and saw the darkness moving behind them again—a real, tangible thing, clouding the whites with a shifting, scribbly mess of black.

Nalizar nodded to Joel, as if in respect. It seemed such an odd motion from the arrogant professor. “I … am sorry for dismissing you. I have trouble telling the difference between those of you who are not Rithmatists, you see. You all look so alike. But you … you are special. I wonder why they did not want you.”

“I was right,” Joel whispered. “All along, I was right about you.”

“Oh, but you were so wrong. You don’t know a fraction of what you think you know.”

“What are you?” Joel repeated.

“A teacher,” he said. “And a student.”

“The books in the library,” Joel said. “You’re not searching for anything specific—you’re just trying to discover what we know about Rithmatics. So you can judge where humankind’s abilities lie.”

Nalizar said nothing.

He came for the students, Joel realized. The war in Nebrask—the chalklings haven’t managed a significant breakout for centuries. Our Rithmatists are too strong. But if a creature like Nalizar can get at the students before they are trained …

A new Rithmatist can only be made once an old one dies. What would happen if instead of dying, all of them were turned into chalkling monsters?

No more Rithmatists. No more line in Nebrask.

The weight of what had just happened pressed down upon Joel. “Nalizar the man is dead, isn’t he?” Joel said. “You took him at Nebrask, when he went into the breach to find Melody’s brother … and Harding was with him, wasn’t he? Melody said that Nalizar led an expedition in, and that would include soldiers. You took them both together, then you came out here.”

“I see I need to leave you to think,” Nalizar said.

Joel reached into his pocket, then whipped out the gold coin, holding it up wardingly at Nalizar.

The creature eyed it, then plucked it from Joel’s fingers, holding it up to the light and looking at the clockwork inside.

“Do you know why time is so confusing to some of us, Joel?” Nalizar asked.

Joel said nothing.

“Because man created it. He sectioned it off. There is nothing inherently important about a second or a minute. They’re fictional divisions, enacted by mankind, fabricated.” He eyed Joel. “Yet in a human’s hands, these things have life. Minutes, seconds, hours. The arbitrary becomes a law. For an outsider, these laws can be unsettling. Confusing. Frightening.”

He flipped the coin back to Joel.

“Others of us,” he said, “take more concern to understand—for a person rarely fears that which he understands. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a competition to win.”

Joel watched, helpless, as the creature that was Nalizar disappeared up the steps to meet with the other professors. It had failed, but it didn’t seem the type to have only one plan in motion.

What was Nalizar planning for his personal team of students? Why create a group of young Rithmatists who were loyal to him? Those who won the Melee would be given prime positions at Nebrask. Made leaders …

Dusts, Joel thought, rushing back toward the dueling arena. He had to do something, but what? Nobody would believe him about Nalizar. Not now.

The students had already been placed on the field, some of them individual, others grouped in teams. He saw Melody, who unfortunately had drawn a very poor location near the very center of the arena. Surrounded by enemies, she’d have to defend on all sides at once.

She knelt out there, head bowed, back slumped in dejection. It twisted Joel’s insides in knots.

If Nalizar’s students won this Melee, those moving to Nebrask for their final year of training would gain positions of authority over other students. Nalizar wanted them to win—he wanted his people in control, in charge. That couldn’t be allowed.

Nalizar’s students could not win the Melee.

Joel glanced to the side. Exton was chatting with several of the clerks from the city who would act as his assistant referees. They’d watch to make certain that as soon as a Circle of Warding was breached, the Rithmatist inside was disqualified.

Joel took a breath and walked up to Exton. “Is there any rule against a non-Rithmatist entering the Melee?”

Exton started. “Joel? What is this?”

“Is there a rule against it?” Joel asked.

“Well, no,” Exton said. “But you’d have to be a student of one of the Rithmatic professors, which isn’t really the case for any non-Rithmatist.”

“Except me,” Joel said.

Exton blinked. “Well, yes, I suppose being his research assistant over the summer elective counts technically. But, Joel, it’d be foolish for a non-Rithmatist to go out there!”

Joel looked across the field. There were some forty students on it this year.

“I’m entering on Professor Fitch’s team,” Joel said. “I’ll take a spot on the field with Melody.”

“But … I mean…”

“Just put me down, Exton,” Joel said, running out onto the field.

His entrance caused quite a stir. Students looked up, and the watching crowd began to buzz. Melody didn’t see him. She was still kneeling, head down, oblivious to the whispers and occasional calls of laughter that Joel’s entrance prompted.

The large clock on the wall rang out, bells marking the hour. It was noon, and once the twelfth chime rang, the students could start drawing. Forty clicks sounded as students placed their chalk against the black stone floor. Melody reached out hesitantly.

Joel knelt and snapped his chalk to the ground beside hers.

She looked up with shock. “Joel? What the dusts are you doing?”

“I’m annoyed at you,” he said.

“Huh?”

“You came out here to get humiliated, and you didn’t even invite me along!”

She hesitated, then smiled. “Idiot,” she said. “You’re not going to prove anything to me by going down faster than I do.”

“I don’t intend to go down,” Joel said, holding up his blue piece of chalk. The sixth chime rang. “Just draw what I do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Trace me. Dusts, Melody, you’ve practiced tracing all summer! I’ll bet you can manage it better than anyone here. Where you see blue, draw over it with white.”

She hesitated, and then a broad, mischievous smile split her mouth.

The twelfth bell rang, and Joel began to draw. He made a large circle around both him and Melody, and she followed, tracing his line exactly. He finished, but then stopped.

“What?” Melody said.

“Safe and simple?”

“Dusts, no!” she said. “If we go out, we go out dramatically! Nine-pointer!”

Joel smiled, stilling his hands as he listened to the drawing all around him. He could almost believe himself a Rithmatist.

He set his chalk back down, divided the circle in his head, and began to draw.

Professor Fitch stood quietly on the glass floor, a cup held in his hand, though he didn’t drink. He was too nervous. He was afraid his hand would shake and spill tea all over him.

The viewing lounge atop the arena was quite nice, quite nice indeed. Maroon colorings, dim lighting from above as to not distract from what was below, iron girders running between the glass squares so that one didn’t get too much of a sense of vertigo by standing directly above the arena floor.

Fitch generally enjoyed the view and the privileges of being a professor. He had watched numerous duels from this room. That, however, didn’t make the experience any less nerve-racking.

“Fitch, you look pale,” a voice said.

Fitch looked over as Principal York joined him. Fitch tried to chuckle at the principal’s comment and dismiss it, but it kind of came out weakly.

“Nervous?” York said.

“Ah, well, yes. Unfortunately. I much prefer the midwinter duel, Thomas. I don’t usually have students in that one.”

“Ah, Professor,” York said, patting him on the shoulder. “Just two days ago you faced down a Forgotten, for dusts’ sake. Surely you can stand a little bit of dueling stress?”

“Hum, yes, of course.” Fitch tried to smile. “I just … well, you know how I am with confrontation.”

“There is, of course, no contest,” another voice said.

Fitch turned, looking through the collection of professors and dignitaries to where Nalizar stood in his red coat. He wore the one that had once belonged to Fitch—the other one had been ruined by acid.

“My students are the best trained,” Nalizar continued. “We’ve been practicing duels all summer. You will soon see the importance of building a strong, quick offense.”

A strong, quick offense makes for excellent dueling, Fitch agreed in his head. But it makes for terrible defensive practice on the battlefield, where you’ll likely be surrounded.

Nalizar couldn’t see that, of course. All he saw was the victory. Fitch couldn’t really blame the man—he was young. Attacking fast often seemed so important to those who were in their youths.

York frowned. “That one is too arrogant for my tastes,” the principal said softly. “I’m … sorry, Fitch, for bringing him on campus. If I’d known what he’d do to you…”

“Nonsense, Thomas,” Fitch said. “Not your fault at all, no, not at all. Nalizar will grow wiser as he ages. And, well, he certainly did shake things up here!”

“A shakeup isn’t always for the best, Fitch,” York said. “Particularly when you’re the man in charge and you like how things are running.”

Fitch finally took a sip of his tea. Down below, he noticed, the students were already drawing. He’d missed the start. He winced, half afraid to seek out poor Melody. He was taking her reeducation slowly for her own good. She wasn’t yet prepared for something like this.

That made Fitch grow nervous again. Drat it all! he thought. Why can’t I be confident, like Nalizar? That man had a gift for self-assuredness.

“Hey,” said Professor Campbell. “Is that the chalkmaker’s son?”

Fitch started, almost spilling his drink as he looked down at the wide, circular arena floor below. In the very center, two figures drew from within the same circle. That wasn’t forbidden by the rules, but it was highly unusual—it would mean that a break in the circle would knock them both out of the competition, and that wasn’t a risk worth taking.

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