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The Rithmatist (Page 6)

“Unicorns?” he asked.

“What?” she said defensively, snapping the notebook closed. “The unicorn is a noble and majestic animal!”

“They aren’t real.”

“So?” she asked, standing with a huff.

“You’re a Rithmatist,” Joel said. “Why waste your time drawing things like that? You should be practicing your Rithmatic lines.”

“Rithmatic this, Rithmatic that!” she said, tossing her head. “Protect the kingdom, keep the wild chalklings at bay. Why does everything have to do with Rithmatics? Can’t a girl spend some time thinking about something else once in a while?”

Joel stepped back, surprised at the outburst. He wasn’t certain how to reply. Rithmatists rarely spoke to ordinary students. Joel had tried to talk to some of them during his first few years of classes, but they’d always ignored him.

Now, one was talking to him. He hadn’t expected her to be quite so … annoying.

“Honestly,” Melody said. “Why do I have to be the one to deal with all of this?”

“Because the Master chose you,” Joel said. “You’re lucky. He only picks fewer than one in a thousand.”

“He obviously needs better quality control,” she said. Then, with a melodramatic sniff, she turned and pushed her way into Professor Layton’s classroom.

Joel stared after her, then shook his head and crossed campus. He passed groups of students running toward the springrail station. Classes done, it was time to go home for the day. But for Joel, campus was home.

A group of students he knew stood on the quad, chatting. Joel strolled up to them, half lost in thought.

“I think it’s unfair,” Charlington said, folding his arms, as if his opinion were the only one that mattered. “Professor Harris was furious when she didn’t show up for her final, but the principal brushed it off.”

“But she’s a Rithmatist,” Rose replied. “Why would she want to get out of the test anyway?”

Charlington shrugged. “Maybe she wanted to get a head start on summer.”

Joel had been paying only vague attention to the conversation, but he perked up when they mentioned Rithmatists. He moved over to Davis, who—as usual—stood with his arm around Rose’s shoulders.

“What’s this?” Joel asked.

“One of the Rithmatist students, a girl named Lilly Whiting,” Davis said. “She skipped her history final today. Chuck’s missing a gear about it—apparently, he wanted to take the final early so he could join his family in Europe, but he was refused.”

“They shouldn’t get special treatment,” Charlington said.

“She’ll probably still have to take the test,” Joel said. “It’s not like their lives are easy. No free periods, starting early each day, staying in school through the summer…”

Charlington frowned at him.

“Trust me, Charlie,” Joel said. “If something took her away unexpectedly, she’s not off lying on a beach having fun. She might be in Nebrask.”

“I suppose,” Charlie said. “Yeah, you might be right…” He paused, fishing for something.

“Joel.”

“Yeah, Joel. I knew that. Well, you might be right. I don’t know. Professor Harris was sure upset. I just think it’s strange, is all.”

A few other students reached the quad, and Charlington joined them, moving off toward the springrail station. Joel could vaguely hear him begin telling the same story to them.

“I don’t believe it,” Joel said softly.

“What?” Davis asked. “About that student?”

“About Charlington,” Joel said. “We’ve been in classes together for three years, and he still forgets my name every time we talk.”

“Oh,” Davis said.

“Don’t worry about him,” Rose said. “Charlington doesn’t pay attention to anyone who doesn’t have a chest worth staring at.”

Joel turned away from the retreating students. “Have you picked summer elective yet?” he asked Davis.

“Well, not exactly.” Davis was the son of a professor, and—as such—lived on campus, like Joel. In fact, he was the only other child of an employee who was around Joel’s age.

Most of the children of the staff went to the public school nearby. Only the children of professors attended Armedius itself. Well, them and Joel. His father and the principal had been close, before his father’s accident eight years ago.

“I have a kind of crazy idea,” Joel said. “About my elective. You see…”

He trailed off; Davis wasn’t paying attention. Joel turned to see a group of students gathering at the front of the campus office building. “What’s that?” Joel asked.

Davis shrugged. “You see Peterton there? Shouldn’t he be on the 3:15 back to Georgiabama?” The tall senior was trying to peek through the windows.

“Yeah,” Joel said.

The door to the office opened, and a figure stepped out. Joel was shocked to recognize the man’s sharply militaristic trousers and coat, both navy, with gold buttons. It was the uniform of a federal inspector. The man placed a domed police hat on his head, then bustled away.

“A federal inspector?” Joel asked. “That’s strange.”

“I see police on campus now and then,” Rose said.

“Not an inspector,” Joel said. “That man has jurisdiction in all sixty isles. He wouldn’t come for nothing.” Joel noticed Principal York standing in the doorway to the office, Exton and Florence visible behind him. He seemed … troubled.

“Well, anyway,” Davis said. “About summer elective.”

“Yeah,” Joel said. “About that…”

“I, um.” Davis shuffled. “Joel, I’m not going to be spending the summer with you this year. It, uh, turns out I’m not free.”

“Not free? What does that mean?”

Davis took a deep breath. “Rose and I are going to be with the group Michael is taking this summer. To his summer home, up north.”

“You?” Joel said. “But … you’re not one of them. I mean, you’re just…” Like me.

“Michael is going to be an important man someday,” Davis said. “He knows my father has been preparing me for law school, and Michael is planning to go himself. He’ll want help, in the years to come. Someday, he’ll need good attorneys he can trust. He’ll be a knight-senator, you know.…”

“That’s … that’s great for you,” Joel said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Davis said, looking discomforted. “I’m sorry, Joel. I know this means you’ll spend the summer alone, but I have to go. This is a chance for me, a real chance to move up.”

“Yeah, of course.”

“You could ask him if you could come.…”

“I kind of already did.”

Davis winced. “Oh.”

Joel shrugged, trying to convey a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “He let me down easily.”

“He’s a classy guy,” Davis said. “I mean, you have to admit, everyone treats you pretty well here. You’ve got a good life, Joel. Nobody picks on you.”

That was true. He’d never suffered from bullying. The students at Armedius were too important to waste time bullying. If they didn’t like someone, they ostracized them. There were a dozen little proto-political factions on campus. Joel had never been a part of any of them, even the out-of-favor ones.

They probably felt they were doing him a favor. They treated him with civility, laughed with him. But they didn’t include him.

He’d have traded that for some good, old-fashioned bullying. At least that would mean someone considered him worth noticing or remembering.

“I’ve got to go,” Davis said. “Sorry.”

Joel nodded, and Davis and Rose jogged off to join a group gathering around Michael near the station.

With Davis gone, Joel really was going to be spending the summer alone. His grade was practically empty.

Joel hefted Professor Fitch’s books. He hadn’t meant to take them in the first place, but he had them, so he might as well put them to some use, as the library wouldn’t lend Rithmatic texts to ordinary students.

He went looking for a good place to read. And to think.

Several hours later, Joel was still reading beneath the shaded boughs of an out-of-the-way oak tree. He lowered his book and looked upward, peering through the branches of the tree toward the tiny shards of blue he could make out of the sky.

Unfortunately, the first of Fitch’s books had proven to be a dud—it was just a basic explanation of the four Rithmatic lines. Joel had seen Fitch loan it out to students who seemed to be struggling.

Fortunately, the second book was far more meaty. It was a recent publication; the most interesting chapter detailed the controversy surrounding a defensive circle Joel had never heard of before. Though a lot of the Rithmatic equations in the book were beyond Joel, he was able to understand the text’s arguments. It was engrossing enough that it had consumed him for a good while.

The further he read, the more he’d found himself thinking about his father. He remembered the strong man working late into the night, perfecting a new chalk formula. He remembered times his father had spent, an excited tremble to his voice, describing to the young Joel the most exciting Rithmatic duels in history.

It had been eight years. The pain of loss was still there. It never went away. It just got buried in time, like a rock slowly being covered over by dirt.

The sky was getting dark, nearly too dark for him to read, and the campus was growing still. Lights glowed in some of the lecture halls; many of them had upper stories to provide offices for professors and housing for their families. As Joel stood, he saw old Joseph—the groundskeeper—moving across the campus, winding each of the lanterns on the green in turn. The springworks within them began to whir, the lanterns flaring to life.

Joel picked up his books, deep in thought about the Miyabi Defense’s convoluted history and the Blad Defense’s nontraditional application of Lines of Warding. His stomach growled in complaint at being ignored.

Hopefully he hadn’t missed supper. Everyone ate together—professors, staff, children, even Rithmatists. The only ordinary students who lived on campus were the children of faculty or staff, like Joel. Many of the Rithmatic students lived in the dorms. They either had family who lived too far away to visit, or they needed to accommodate extra study time. All in all, about half of the Rithmatists in Armedius lived in the dorms. The rest still commuted.

The wide-open dining hall was a hubbub of activity and chaos. Professors and spouses sat on the far left side of the room, laughing and talking together, their children seated at separate tables. Staff were on the right side of the chamber, settled at several large wooden tables. The Rithmatic students had their own long table at the back of the room, almost tucked away behind a brick outcropping.

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