Higher Learning

The characters of Nikki, Evalia, Miranda, Person and Haku belong to their respective creators, and are used with permission.

When she woke up, it took her a moment to get her bearings. The room was prettier than the converted hangar she lived in, but much smaller: just big enough for the bed, bedside table and a small writing desk, a “kitchenette” that consisted of a bar refrigerator and a microwave. The furnishings and decor were tasteful but bland. A hotel room.

Arilin sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes, and turned off the alarm clock. Stumbling up to her paws, she walked to the window, parting the curtain enough to look out. As small as the room seemed to her, a look out over the countryside toward the sunrise told a different story. She looked out from a seventh-floor height, but she had a ground floor room. The Rhaaround here, “cat woman” made it simplerstood eighty feet high.

She pulled the curtains to again, and stepped into the bathroom to freshen up and get dressed. Objectively, she had plenty of time; the headmistress expected her at nine, and it was just seven. But she felt as tense as a harp string. Arilin hadn’t worked in a decade, and other than a few sessions in computer fundamentals at an adult learning center, she’d never taught a single class. While she’d been a good teacher at the base level of getting the concepts across, she knew her manner had hardly endeared her to the students. She’d been pretty damn misanthropic back thenlater to develop into full-fledged sociopathy, according to one psychologist.

And those were students on her own scale. At this community college, half her students were going to be ankle-high to her. How could she have possibly been considered for this job, much less been idiotic enough to take it?

“You’re much better now,” she mumbled to herself in the mirror. She straightened the blouse, lined up the belt buckle just so, put on the jacket, smoothed out the lapels. She had to admit, she cut a dashingly professional figure today.

Slipping her reading glasses into her pocket, she picked up her briefcase and stepped out of the hotel room. She only taught three days a weekMonday, Wednesday and Thursdayand the college provided this “home away from home” suite as part of her compensation. She’d come in on Monday and spend three nights a week here, leaving after class on Thursday, with office hours for all of Tuesday most weeks. It was a long and harrowing flight, courtesy of a giant gryphon she knew who’d agreed to rent himself out as a taxi. If she got something set up with a wizard that would let her teleport back and forth, the arrangement might change, but she hated teleporters.

Of course, simply moving would be easier, but she’d run the Giants’ Club for nearly a decade now back in her adopted home town, and she insisted on keeping it open. It was a place for giants and littles to meet on mostly safe ground. Granted, it was dangerous enough that she had multiple “enter at your own risk” signs, and patrons who made the mistake of bragging about powers of reincarnation usually found themselves forcibly demonstrating those powers in short order. Those who didn’t ask for it, literally or figuratively, rarely had problems, though, and she was pleased at how popular the place had been. Of course, because of the decidedly non-businesslike way she’d set it up, popularity didn’t translate into income. If she hadn’t taken this job, she would be shutting it down.

She’d thought the town she’d ended up in was one of the only ones with giantsshe had met a high school girl from a town in the east who was twenty feet high, and was the biggest thing by far anyone there had ever seen. This region, though, seemed to have nearly as much magic as where she lived now, possibly even more giants, and a populace of littles who expected giants might casually stomp or munch them given any opportunity. While it hadn’t been explicitly stated, she suspected the idea behind this college was similar to the idea she’d had with her clubalbeit on a far grander, highly quixotic scale.

Arilin stopped at the little breakfast table next to the little front desk in the equally little lobbyin a fruitless attempt to make the building less intimidating, they’d tried to keep everything as small as possible. The hotel stood closer to the nearest town than the main campus, making it the most visible reminder of the giants’ presence, but it nestled among gently rolling hills, mostly hidden from passing motorists. Like the college proper, people knew it was there, but could pay it no mind unless forced to. She grabbed a bagel half and spread cream cheese on it, poured some coffee into a paper cup, and stepped outside.

The autumn morning air was pleasantly crisp, good for the short walk she’d have ahead of her: about ten minutes at her pace, not much slower than the speed a little might drive it. She took a sip of the coffee, grimaced at the tasteshe’d forgotten how much Chipotle’s coffee at the Giants’ Club had spoiled herand set out, following the road toward the college.

At first glance, it looked like a five-lane highway, two lanes in one direction and three in the other. Second glance, though, revealed the truth: the road was only two lanes, and the wider parallel path was a sidewalk. Few cars drove on the motorway this morning; while she passed no others her size on foot, she shared the giants’ walk with more than one little, even though a proper concrete sidewalk for them ran on the opposite side of the road. Arilin supposed these students had absolute faith in the campus’s web of protection spells, but she took care not to put them to the test.

Another couple minutes’ walk and the college itself came into view. Sleek monoliths, styled to be modern without looking too institutional, rose into the air far higher than Arilin stood. The classroom buildingsand the giant dormitorieswere the largest structures she’d seen since she’d lived back in her home country of Stravell, well over a decade ago. She stepped off the road and onto the paved stone walkway leading through the front gate. It was almost like being at home.

She opened the front door to a fireball whizzing down the main hallway straight at her. She yelped, twisting to the side as it zoomed past. Arilin didn’t feel any heat, but her fur stood up, statically charged.

“Sorry! Sorry!” A wolf, not quite Arilin’s height, ran down the hallway, chocolate brown magician’s robes flapping around him. “It wasn’t actually dangerousuhwhich way did it go?”

Wordlessly, Arilin pointed out the door.

“Thanks. Sorry! Again!” The wolf charged out after his escaped energy ball.

Arilin smoothed down her fur and readjusted her jacket, then closed the door behind her. “All right, not completely like being at home,” she muttered aloud.

She stopped at the first hallway intersection, fumbling to open her briefcase and locate the campus map. She’d been here before, but only once; in most ways she was as lost as the incoming freshmen.

As if reading her thoughts, a voice sounded by her ankle: “You’re not lost, are you?” She looked down, startled, to see another cat womanthis one only about six feet high, with coppery brown fur, dressed in denim shorts and a tee-shirt. Unlike some of the gawkers along the sidewalk, she didn’t seem at all intimidated by the size of the woman she was standing next to.

“No, no,” Arilin said. “Well, not much. I’m just making sure I know where my office is.”

“Oh, you’re a professor!”

Arilin nearly shook her head in denial. Professor. That would take some getting used to. “Yes, I’m Arilin Thorferra.” Back home, that introduction would be “Thorferra gi Arilin,” but she’d realized years ago it was easier to adopt the convention of this land, when she needed a surname at all.

“Nice tohey, I think I have one of your classes.” The catgirl pulled a folded paper out of her pocket and studied it a moment. “English Comp I. Yeah. I’m an animation student but we have those prerequisites and all.”

Arilin nodded. “And you are?”

“Oh! Heh. Sorry. I’m Nikki Lumerl.”

“Well, I’ll see you…today at two, isn’t it, Miss Lumerl?”

“Yeah. It was nice meeting you! And, um, good luck finding your office.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ll manage.” She smiled, and stepped over Nikki on her way past, which produced a bit of a flustered expression on the girl’s face for a moment.

Her office wasn’t difficult to findin part because they’d already affixed her name to the door, and in part because Headmistress Miranda was waiting for her. Arilin had never been able to take “pikachu” mice very seriously, but Miranda broke that bias. For one thing, Miranda was actually pretty attractive, not in a cute rounded fashion as much as a sculpted warrior fashion. For another, Miranda’s title before headmistress was archmage, and she radiated a confidence in her abilities one suspected was completely warranted.

“It’s good to see you, Arilin,” Miranda said as she approached. “Did you get settled into the hotel?”

“Yes, it’s fine.”

“You’re all ready for class?”

Arilin laughed self-consciously. “As much as I think I’m going to be, yes.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Miranda said, tone less reassuring than simply matter-of-fact. “I wouldn’t have hired you otherwise.” She held out a set of keys. “These are for your office, and the front door when it’s after hours; the smaller key is the file cabinet inside the office.”

Arilin smiled. “Thank you.”

“If you need anything, just call.”

“Okay, I’ll

Miranda vanished with an audible thoop, teleporting away.

“I am so over my head,” Arilin muttered, unlocking the door and stepping inside.

If you’d asked Arilin to imagine the most stereotypical academic office she could imagine, she’d have described a small, windowless affair with one slightly oversized, utilitarian desk, a couple filing cabinets and a bookshelf that took up one wall. Her office met that stereotype exactly, save that the bookshelf and desk were completely bare rather than cluttered with papers, books and other paraphernalia.

She left the door open, sitting down at the desk and dropping her briefcase on it, then spent a good minute fiddling with the chair to get its height and tilt just right. After another couple moments of fidgeting, she opened her briefcase and took out her folder for today’s class.

By the time a quarter-hour had passed, she’d covered the surface of the desk with piles of paper, rearranging and shufflingstudent information here, lecture notes here, test ideas hereand had started scribbling more notes around the first set, filling in the margins with neat blue ink.

“You seem to be settling in, dear,” a voice said from the door.

Startled, Arilin quickly looked up. A black-furred vixen leaned against the door frame, wrapped in an equally black dress that balanced a conservative, almost archaic, cut with a calculatingly provocative cling. The paradox matched the vixen wellshe seemed so ethereal she might melt into the shadows if one looked away, yet she stood half again as tall as Arilin herself.

“I wondered when I’d see you, Evalia.” Arilin took her glasses off and returned them to her pocket. “I gather I have you to thank for this position.”

Evalia stepped forward into the room, glancing around. “When my sister asked if I knew anyone who would help with her…project, your name was one of the first that came to mind.”

“I don’t mean to look a gift job in the mouth, butgoodness, why? I can’t imagine I have a reputation for either altruism or teaching skills.”

The vixen’s eyes settled on the cat and she smiled slightly. “Yet here you sit.”

“Yes.” Arilin sighed, leaning back. “You know the experience at the Giants’ Club suits me more for…guidance counselor, social director

“You’re to be teaching a core course that most students will have to attend. It’s more influential than you know.”

“That’s what worries me.” She paused, realizing Evalia was holding out a cup of tea for her. “Thank you.” She took a sip, then looked back at Evalia. “I don’t think Miranda has any teaching experience, either.”

“I doubt she does. She’s younger than you are.”

Arilin nodded once. “When we interviewed, she seemed, oh, impatient with my worries. You’d recommended me to Shade, Shade had recommended me to her, that was that.” She sighed and smiled wryly over the tea. “I had an irrational worry that if I hadn’t accepted the offer, she’d have turned me into a toad.”

Evalia laughed. “Don’t be silly.” She sipped her own tea, and added thoughtfully, “Since she commands energy, she’d be more likely to reduce you to a flaming

Thank you for the clarification,” Arilin said, firmly cutting her off.

“But you know she wouldn’t.”

“Oh, on the face of it, this is the safest place I’ve been. I keep telling myself that.”

Evalia nodded. “Yes. Of course, the protection spells are mostly geared to keeping the smaller students safe.” She grinned widely this time, a flash of teeth radiantly white against black fur. “It’s assumed giants can take care of themselves.”

“I know. I mean, I don’t know your thoughts, but that makes sense.” She shuffled the papers in front of her on the desk, rearranging a few in completely arbitrary fashion.

“So…?”

“So why me to help with this crusade?” she said, tone suddenly sharp. She threw her hands out to the side. “You know my history, Evalia. My pastpast

“Indiscretions,” Evalia supplied.

Arilin laughed once, without humor. “Just say that felonious cruelty to animals would have likely been enough to disqualify me from a position like this back in Stravell, and anywhere where they didn’t think of the Liliren as just advanced animals….”

The vixen looked impatient. “Is that who you are now?”

“No!” Arilin said instantly, almost indignantly.

Evalia leaned forward over the desk, patently looming over the smaller Rha. Arilin managed to keep her ears from folding back. Mostly.

“You are here,” the vixen said, “because this is where you want to be.”

Arilin blinked once, and looked away, only letting her breath out when Evalia straightened up once more. “I suppose so,” she acknowledged reluctantly, looking at her tea cup. “I’m just…it just feels like there’s a lot riding on my performance, not just for me but for the staff and students and…” She took a deep breath, and looked back up. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be

She stopped, blinking. Evalia no longer stood there. A shadow moved, just past the edge of her vision, and she turned toward it. Still nothing.

“I’ll see you later, dear,” a whisper came from somewhere. Maybe inside the Rha’s head.

Arilin rubbed her forehead. “To be a hero,” she muttered, finishing her thought.

She picked up her tea again after another few moments passed, and went back to her notes.

When she walked into the classroom, the whiteboard looked just as intimidating as she had feared it would. She bit her lip, then picked up a blue dry-erase marker and wrote her name in neat block letters in the top right-hand corner, “COMPOSITION I” underneath.

Unlike her office, this room was open, spacious, appreciably more attractive than the lecture halls she remembered from her college days. It was as large as the Giants’ Club, ceiling and walls indirectly lit by recessed florescent bars, keeping the illumination soft despite the brightness. Staggered rows of desks took up most of the room, larger furniture toward the back; in line with the front row, separate entrances led to a balcony platform about forty feet off the floor level, supporting chairs and desks for the normal-sized students.

Arilin looked around, considering, then pushed the lectern off toward the back corner. Or tried to. She stopped with a grunt as it proved immobile. “Is this concrete?” she muttered, trying a different grip on it.

“No, it’s just locked down,” a voice said behind her. A hand came down on hers, just as softly as the hand’s owner had spoken.

She kept herself from jumping, but she whirled more quickly than she intended, finding herself staring up at a rabbit. His fur was as bone white as her own, but his eyes shone red. Albino? She doubted it; he certainly didn’t look weak, and he radiated an easy confidence. She cut herself off from dwelling too much on how handsome he lookedhe was clearly student age.

The rabbit smiled and crouched down, guiding her hand toward the lectern’s wheels and a small lever. “See, just click that.” He pressed her fingers over it, and pulled the lever up. “Now it will roll.”

“Thank you,” Arilin murmured, trying not to look flustered as she gently pulled her hand away.

Straightening up, he put his hands on the lectern. “Where would you like it, back there?” he said, already rolling it in that direction.

“Yes. That’d be fine. Are you a student in my

“No, I was just passing by. This is your first day.”

“Yes, it is.”

He put the lectern in place, and locked it there. “You’re not a magician, are you?” He tilted his head and smiled, leaning against the podium for a moment, loosely folding his arms.

Arilin shook her head. “No. That’s not what I’m here to teach, though, so that’s not an issue.”

The rabbit laughed. “That wasn’t why I asked. Some here are…how should I put this…they have power and have little compunction about using it. The school’s protection wards can only cover what the school administrators have thought of.”

“And I’ve already been told they were designed with littles in mind rather than giants, yes.” She set her briefcase by her desk, and took out some folders for the afternoon’s class, putting her reading glasses back on.

“And with students as victims. Staff rivalries, or students taking liberties with teachers, haven’t been properly considered yet.”

Arilin looked at the rabbit over the top of her glasses, steepling her hands in front of her. “I’m not sure if you’re merely passing on a friendly warning or implying something more ominous, Mister…?”

“Only idle chatter, Miss Thorferra,” he said with a grin more enigmatic than gentle. “You could say I’m fascinated by unforeseen consequences. I don’t want to be late for a lab I’m the TA for, so I’ll be on my way, but I’m sure I’ll see you about.”

She watched him go, then sighed, sitting on the desk’s edge. “I’m not feeling reassured,” she muttered under her breath, “and for future reference, bunnies aren’t supposed to make cats nervous.”

A glance at the clock. Ten minutes before class. She’d have expected at least one student here by now. What if nobody showed up? Arilin rubbed her temples, then folded her hands in her lap, waiting.

Students did show up, of course. First a giant, a wolf taller than she was and considerably broader, nodding nervously and sitting at the back of the room, hunched over. Then a group of littles, then another giant. Conversation started to fill the room, students glancing her way frequently. Nikki waved when she entered; Arilin smiled back, but remained silent, watching the door.

She waited until the clock showed three minutes past the start of the class. All nineteen registered students had arrived. Clearing her throat, Arilin said, “All right, let’s get started.”

The noise took a few seconds to drop to near silence.

“How many of you are freshmen?” she asked. Her voice sounded soft and shakyto her own ears; even so, most of the hands went up. “How many of you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t a required course?” Students exchanged glances and some laughed; about a third of the hands stayed up.

Arilin rose to her feet. “I won’t lie. This isn’t going to be the most exciting course you’ll take here, unless you’re planning on a very boring college career.” A bit more laughter.

“But.” Arilin spread both her hands in front of her. “Just about every other course here, no matter the excitement level, from computers to history to alchemy, involves what?”

Silence. Students glanced at one another.

She smiled. “It’s not a trick question.” She looked over at the wolf in the back; several rows separated him from any other student. “Have an idea?”

He blinked, hunching down reflexively, as if she’d whacked him on the nose. “Ah…I…” Someone snickered softly, and his ears went flat.

Arilin looked at him expectantly.

“Writing?” he mumbled.

“Yes.” She waved him toward the front of the class. “Take a seat up here.”

“I’m not really comfortable there,” he mumbled.

A mouse giantess said, in a serious half-whispered tone, “Zack’s the pack omega.”

Arilin glanced down at her class roster a moment, then back up at the wolf. “Mr. Pim, is it?”

He nodded slightly.

Arilin walked past the front rows, and held out her hand. “I am not your alpha, I’m your professor, and this is a classroom, not a pack. I’m not going to prevent you from cowering back here, but I am going to strongly recommend you try not to.”

Looking even more uncomfortable, the wolf took her hand, and allowed himself to be led to the second row.

Walking back to the desk, Arilin continued, her voice getting a little stronger. “Writing is fundamental to all your other courses. Reports, tests, term papers, and for some of the degree tracks here, theses.”

“If you’re a math student, aren’t you going to be judged on whether your formulas add up, not how beautifully you’re describing them?” the mouse girl said.

“If your paper is a struggle to read, they may not get to your formulas,” Arilin said, glancing back at the class roster a moment. “We all like to believe we’ll be judged on talent rather than appearance, Miss Simmons, but if you show up to an office interview in ripped shorts and a T-shirt, you’ll have lost the job.”

“But that’s just prejudice

“That outfit’d help someone built like her,” one of the littles called. The mouse girl turned to the balcony with a glare, amidst laughter and scattered clapping.

“No,” Arilin said, raising her voice, trying to pull the class back into control, “it’s pride. Your pride. Your appearance sends a message about how much you care about what others think of you, and your writing quality sends the same message about your work.”

The mouse didn’t looked convinced, but she nodded slowly.

Arilin took a deep breath, and reached onto the desk to lift up a thin book. “This is The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk, and it’s available from both the giant and little campus bookstores.” The studentsthe ones who were even looking in her directionlooked bored. She cleared her throat. “All of you should have already bought it, as it’s one of the required texts. The third and fourth editions are both acceptable.”

She walked back to the whiteboard, and tapped her name with the edge of the book. “I’m Arilin Thorferra. You can call me

“Whitekitten?” someone murmured from the little balcony. Smiles, but this time no snickers, from other students.

Arilin didn’t even look over; she’d recognized his name on the rosterthe only Giants’ Club regular in the class. “Mr. Person. It was a bit of a surprise to see you here. A welcome one, but you call to mind a question I had.” She walked to the little table and leaned over it; most students leaned back reflexively, but the grey cat she addressed leaned forward. “You have your own magic as protection from giants, similar to the magic the school uses.”

“Yes,” Person said, blinking once. “Well, not protection, exactly, but more…insurance.” He laughed.

Arilin nodded. “A good way to describe a resurrection spell.” Several giants looked over. “It occurred to me that, given you’ve brought your magic with you, the school’s magic might not affect you. Have you confirmed whether it does or not?”

Person’s eyes widened slightly and his ears skewed. “Wellahno…”

She fixed her gaze on him. “Then don’t give me a reason to test it, Mr. Person.”

The cat sank down in his seat. “Yes, ma’am.”

She got back up and walked back to the whiteboard, underlining her name once. “You can call me Miss Thorferra or Arilin, although for his own safety, Mr. Person should stick with Miss Thorferra.” Person sighed, crossing his arms; the rest of the students laughed.

“Now.” She took a seat on the desk, crossing her legs. “A little about how I’m going to conduct the class. Personally, I hate homework.” A few students clapped, but she held up a hand. “But this is the kind of class where it’s unavoidable. You won’t have more than one writing assignment a week, but the chances are you won’t have less than one, either.

“I’ll give you an assignment on Monday, and expect to see it on Thursday. I’ll throw out your lowest homework score, so you can screw up one assignment with impunity. You can turn in work any time I have office hours for that week, but it better be in my hand before I leave Thursday evening. Keep your essays until the course is over, as some of the assignments will be to revise your past work.

“For your first essay, due next Thursday, I want something shortsay, about two pagesexplaining why you chose this college.”

“What are the macros going to write about?” one of the littles called. A few muted chuckles echoed in response; some of the giant students shifted position, looking a little cross.

Arilin rose back to her feet and walked over to the balcony, fixing her gaze on the one who suddenly looked most self-conscious, a male fox. “Excuse me, Mr. Costa?” she said.

“Well, you know, this is the only place a macro could go,” he mumbled, not meeting her eyes. “It’s not like they need any other reason.”

“A macro?” she repeated. Leaning over the table, Arilin rested her hands on the balcony’s railing, accenting the looming. “Do you mean a series of recorded commands in a computer program? Or, no, perhaps you mean it as it’s used in photography.”

“No,” he stammered. “I mean, you know, l-like you. Giant!”

“Then say giant, Mr. Costa.”

“C’mon, everybody

“Everyone says ‘macrophile,’ I know. What does someone who’s a hydrophile love?”

He blinked and stammered. “Uh…water?”

“Exactly. Not the ‘hydro.’ Bibliophiles love books, not biblios. Oenophiles love wine, not oenos.”

“I guess

She abruptly picked up the fox’s chair, holding him up high over her head. He barked, his eyes doubling in size. “‘Giant’ is a fine word with a long and noble history,” the Rha said, blue eyes locked on her tiny student. “One might say that it carries a great deal of weight with it. Let’s not abandon it in favor of jargon.”

The fox nodded frantically. Arilin set him down again gently.

The mouse giantess said, “I bet I shouldn’t ask what you think of calling us ‘furs.’”

“No, I bet you shouldn’t.”

“You’re going to be one of those teachers, aren’t you?” the mouse grumbled, crossing her arms.

Arilin lowered her head, looking at the mouse girl over the edge of her glasses, then smiled with a hint of teeth. “I certainly hope so, Miss Simmons.”

The mouse’s ears folded back; a couple other students grinned.

Returning to her seat on the desk, Arilin spread her hands again, speaking with more strength, meeting each student’s eyes in turn. This time, none of them were looking away. “The main point of this course, beyond the boring but important mechanics, is to learn how to write effectively. In an essay, you need to develop your ideas and arguments logically, even when you’re not composing in a formal outline. I’ll introduce you, or reintroduce you if you’ve had previous misfortune, to the MLA Style Guide and the Turabian Manual for Writers, and go over some of the more arcane academic styles you might encounter here. From what I’ve seen of this school just today, I expect some classes get very arcane indeed.”

Most of the students chuckled; a few looked rueful. Those were the magic students, she bet. “All right.” She rose to her feet. “For the rest of this class, we’re going to go over those boring mechanics, at fast enough speed to keep them from being too boring, I hope. Turn to the first chapter.”

When Arilin returned to her office, she shut the door behind her and slumped down in the chair, taking a deep breath. It took her nearly a minute to notice the card on the desk.

Straightening in her chair, she picked up the card. It was small to her, not much bigger than business-card size, a folded half-sheet of fine handmade paper. On the inside, in neat cursive handwriting, it simply read, “I know you’ll do fine.”

Arilin smiled curiously, turning it over in her hand. No signature.

After a few more seconds, she set it back down. “Maybe I will,” she said aloud, and opened her briefcase. She had her next course plan to review.

December 2005