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The Rithmatist (Page 7)

Two long tables in the center of the room were set with the day’s offering. While servers dished plates and carried them over to the professors, the family and staff were expected to serve themselves. Most people were already seated on their benches, eating, their chatting causing a low buzz in the room. Dishes clanked, the kitchen staff bustled about, and an amalgamation of scents battled with one another.

Joel made his way to his place across the long table from his mother. She was there already, which relieved him. Sometimes she worked through dinner. She still wore her brown working dress, hair up in a bun, and she picked at her food as she talked to Mrs. Cornelius, one of the other cleaning ladies.

Joel set down his books, then hurried away before his mother could pester him with questions. He piled his plate with some rice and stir-fried sausages. Germanian food. The cooks were getting exotic again. At least they’d moved away from JoSeun dishes, which Joel found far too spicy. After grabbing a flagon of spiced apple juice, he made his way back to his place.

His mother was waiting. “Florence told me that you promised to have a summer elective chosen by tonight,” she said.

“I’m working on it,” he said.

“Joel,” she said. “You are going to have a summer elective, aren’t you? You’re not going to need to go to a tutelage again?”

“No, no,” he said. “I promise. Professor Layton just told me today that I’m passing math for sure.”

His mother stabbed a sausage chunk with her fork. “Other children try to do more than just pass their classes.”

Joel shrugged.

“If I had more time to help you with your homework…” She sighed. After the meal, she would spend most of the night cleaning. She didn’t start work each day until the afternoon, since most of the classrooms she cleaned were occupied during the day.

Like always, she had dark circles under her eyes. She worked far too hard.

“What about alchemics?” she asked. “Will you pass that?”

“Science is easy,” Joel said. “Professor Langor already gave us our performance reports—the last days will just be lab, and won’t be graded. I’m passing for sure.”

“Literature?”

“Handed in my report today,” Joel said. He’d gotten that assignment done on time—only because Professor ZoBell had given them writing time in class for two weeks while she poked through a series of novels. Professors tended to get a little bit lazy during the end of term, just like students.

“And history?” his mother asked.

“Term evaluation exam tomorrow.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“It’s on the history of Rithmatics, Mother,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’ll do fine.”

That seemed to satisfy her. Joel began to wolf down his food.

“You heard about Professor Fitch and that awful challenge?” his mother asked.

Joel nodded, mouth full.

“Poor man,” she said. “You know that he spent twenty years working himself up to full professor? He lost it in a few moments, back down to tutor.”

“Mother,” Joel said between bites, “have you heard anything about a federal inspector on campus?”

She nodded absently. “They think one of the Rithmatic students ran away last night. She was visiting her family for the evening, and never came back to the school.”

“Was it Lilly Whiting?” Joel guessed.

“I think that was her name.”

“Charlington said her parents just took her on vacation!”

“That was the story at first,” his mother said. “It’s hard to keep something like a runaway Rithmatist secret, though. Makes me wonder why they try to flee so often. They have such easy lives. Barely required to work, ungrateful lot…”

“They’ll find her soon enough,” Joel said, jumping in before his mother could go off on that particular tangent.

“Look, Joel, you need to get into a summer elective. Do you want to end up in labor instruction?”

Many students who couldn’t choose—or who chose too late—ended up helping with the landscaping of the school grounds. The official reason for the program, given by Principal York, was to “teach the generally affluent student population respect for those of other economic statuses.” That concept had earned him some measure of ire from parents.

“Labor instruction,” Joel said. “That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Father was a laborer. Maybe I’ll need to do a job like that someday.”

“Joel…” she said.

“What?” he replied. “What’s wrong with being a laborer? You’re one.”

“You’re getting one of the finest educations available. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

He shrugged.

“You rarely do your assignments,” his mother said, rubbing her forehead. “Your teachers all say you’re bright, but that you don’t pay attention. Can’t you understand how much other people would do for an opportunity like yours?”

“I do understand,” Joel said. “Really. Mother, I’m going to get a summer elective. Professor Layton said I could do math with him if I don’t find anything else.”

“Remedial?” she asked suspiciously.

“No,” he said quickly. “Advanced.”

If they’d just let me study the things I want to, he thought, shoving his fork into his food, then we’d all be happy.

That turned his mind back to the sheet of paper still crumpled in his pocket. Professor Fitch had known his father; they had been friends, to an extent. Now that Joel knew Davis wasn’t going to be around for the summer, it made him even more determined to go through with his plan to study with Fitch. He pushed his food around for a few moments, then stood.

“Where are you going?” his mother asked.

He grabbed the two books that belonged to Professor Fitch. “I need to return these. Be back in a few minutes.”

Chapter 5

The professors sat along their table according to rank, spouses at their sides. Principal York—tall, distinguished, with a drooping brown mustache—sat at the head of the table. He was a large man, wide at the shoulders and tall enough that he seemed to tower over everyone else.

The tenured lecturers came next, Rithmatists and ordinary men interspersed, treated as equals when dining. Joel suspected that the equality had to do with the fact that the principal himself wasn’t a Rithmatist. Moving along the table toward the foot, the next group of professors were what were known as “regular” professors—not yet tenured, but well established and respected. There were about six of them. The Rithmatists in their ranks wore blue coats.

The assistant professors in green came next. Finally, there were the three tutoring professors in grey. Professor Fitch, twenty or thirty years older than the people around him, sat in the last chair at the table. Nalizar sat in red near the head of the table. Even as Joel approached, he could hear Nalizar’s loud voice.

“… certainly hope it does cause some people to sit up and pay attention,” Nalizar was saying. “We are warriors. It’s been years since most of you held the circle in Nebrask, but I was there just a few months ago, on the battlefront itself! Too many academics forget that we are the ones who train the next generation of defenders. We can’t have sloppy teaching threatening the safety of the sixty isles!”

“Surely your point is made, Nalizar,” said Professor Haberstock, another of the Rithmatists. “I mean, no need to unsettle things further!”

Nalizar glanced at him, and in Joel’s perception, it looked as if the young professor was barely holding back a sneer. “We cannot afford dead weight at Armedius. We must train fighters, not academics.”

Fitch turned away, focusing on his food. He didn’t seem to have eaten much. Joel stood uncertainly, trying to decide how to approach the man.

“Theory is important,” Fitch said quietly.

“What was that?” Nalizar asked, looking down the table. “Did you say something?”

“Nalizar,” Principal York said. “You are testing the limits of propriety. You have made your point with your actions; you need not make it with insults as well.”

The young professor flushed, and Joel caught a flash of anger in his eyes.

“Principal,” Fitch said, looking up, “it’s all right. I would have him speak his mind.”

“You are a better professor than he, Fitch,” the principal said, causing Nalizar to turn even redder. “And a better instructor. I’m not fond of these rules and traditions you Rithmatists have.”

“They are ours to follow,” Fitch said.

“With all due respect, Principal,” Nalizar cut in, “I take exception to your previous statement. Professor Fitch may be a kindly man and a fine academic, but as an instructor? When is the last time one of his students was victorious in the Rithmatic Melee?”

The comment hung in the air. As far as Joel knew, Fitch had never had a student win the Melee.

“I teach defense, Nalizar,” Fitch said. “Or, um, well, I used to. Anyway, a good defense is vital in Nebrask, even if it isn’t always the best way to win duels.”

“You teach wasteful things,” Nalizar said. “Theories to jumble their heads, extra lines they don’t need.”

Fitch gripped his silverware—not in anger, Joel thought, but out of nervousness. He obviously didn’t like confrontation; he wouldn’t meet Nalizar’s eyes as he spoke. “I … well, I taught my students to do more than just draw lines,” Fitch said. “I taught them to understand what they were drawing. I wanted them to be prepared for the day when they might have to fight for their lives, not just for the accolades of a meaningless competition.”

“Meaningless?” Nalizar asked. “The Melee is meaningless? You hide behind excuses. I will teach these students to win.”

“I … well…” Fitch said. “I…”

“Bah,” Nalizar said, waving his hand. “I doubt you can ever understand, old man. How long did you serve on the front lines at Nebrask?”

“Only a few weeks,” Fitch admitted. “I spent most of my time serving on the defensive planning committee in Denver City.”

“And,” Nalizar asked, “what was your focus during your university studies? Was it offensive theory? Was it, perhaps, advanced Vigor studies? Was it even—as you claim is so important for your students—defense?”

Fitch was quiet for a while. “No,” he finally said. “I studied the origins of Rithmatic powers and their treatment in early American society.”

“A historian,” Nalizar said, turning to the other professors. “You had a historian teaching defensive Rithmatics. And you wonder why performance evaluations for Armedius are down?”

The table was silent. Even the principal stopped to consider this one. As they turned back to their food, Nalizar glanced toward Joel.

Joel felt an immediate jolt of panic; he’d already provoked this man once today by intruding in his classroom. Would he remember…?

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