The fairy swallowed, and smiled as the wet, wiggly little neko slipped smoothly down her throat. She breathed out a soft sigh of contentment, and passed the tip of her tongue over her pretty, gentle-looking pink lips. The aftertaste of the delicious little creature lingered pleasantly in her mouth- a tangy, energising tingle.

It was early morning, not all that long after dawn, but the air was already warm. She stood in the partial shade of a tree, quite naked, her face bright and cheerful, bathed in the sun’s pleasant warmth. Her hair was long and pale green, a little untidy still, though she had hastily smoothed it out after waking. Soon one of her friends would help her set it just the way she wanted. Her light hair contrasted with her much darker, emerald eyes – an effect which she had always been quietly pleased with. Her delicate butterfly wings were a beautiful pattern of dark evening blue and sunset gold. She left them fully extended, soaking in the sunlight.

Inside her tummy, her food fluttered about, and she closed her eyes to focus on the feeling, happily. She loved nekos for breakfast, when she could find them. They seemed to boost her vitality, and put her in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Close by, one of her friends was poking her bare foot through the bushes. Her hair was short, a deep purple, while her wings were in shades of wonderful dark purple, soft lilac and lavender mauve. She crouched to search through the bushes with her hands, then straightened up with a little sigh.

I don’t think there are any more,” she said.

The first fairy didn’t mind. She had eaten enough, and they could always top off their breakfast with some of the abundant fruit which grew in this part of the forest. On what seemed like the start of a hot day, it would be nicely refreshing.

Are you going to go back to Shelny?” her purple-haired friend asked. “That talk-thing of hers should be starting soon.”

The green-haired fairy hesitated. “I don’t think so,” she decided quickly enough. “I think she said they’ll be talking about things that aren’t very nice.”

Her friend nodded. Shelny had told them, gently, what this morning would be all about, and she had to admit it didn’t sound very fun. She preferred it when Shelny played with them, or told them nice stories, or made garlands of sweet-scented flowers with them, but it sounded as if this was going to be something quite different. She knew that Feinee, after accidentally overhearing one of Shelny’s ‘serious’ conversations, had been completely put off eating nekos or any similar foods, and had even become tearful at the very thought. The purple-haired fairy had not inquired too closely, but she did not want to not want to eat nekos. So whatever mysterious things were going to be said, perhaps it was best not to overhear too much.

Sweeties, you might not like the things I’ll be saying,” Shelny had told them, in that lovely kind voice of hers. “It might make you feel uncomfortable, or unhappy. So I’ll understand completely if you don’t want to be here. But if you want to understand why it is that I don’t eat littles, I’ll be making it as clear as I can.”

Shall we go and bathe?” the green-haired fairy suggested brightly. “The water should be nice and cool.”

We shouldn’t swim with a full tummy,” her friend reminded her automatically.

We can still splash around, though.”

Okay!” She grinned, pleased at the thought.

With their still-moving breakfast weighing pleasantly in their tummies, the two fairies took to the air. Laughing, calling out to each other and giggling, the colours on their beautiful wings shimmering in the sunlight, they raced one another to the pond.

* * *

Shelny was feeling nervous. She tried not to let it show and, when she caught herself fiddling with her long dark hair, made herself stop.

Her guests were already here, milling about or resting nearby, and she knew she had to look confidant. Any hesitation would surely weaken the value of her argument, or at least her ability to convince them. So far, she had been her natural charming self, hostess to all these people who had come here to hear her. She had been surprised, and initially even a little alarmed, when they had all turned up, one by one or in little groups, more and more as the day drew nearer – and more again this morning. She had been half-expecting that no-one would want to come at all.

After all, people usually did not like to think about the ethics of what they ate. Until now, over the past many years, whenever anyone had raised the subject with her, she had found that they did not really want to hear a convincing argument. Rather, they wanted to hear a reason that they could easily dismiss. Which was exactly what she did not want to give them today.

To add a little to her stress, and to her even greater surprise, a couple of littles had turned up among her audience! They were clearly off-worlders, and she assumed they were humans, though they were clad in so much clothing that it almost entirely concealed them. They even wore heavy hoods, and helmets with faceplates. They were armed, too, which added to her discomfort; they had rifles strapped over their backs. She had let out a gasp as soon as she had first seen them, and had picked up them hastily. Two humans, coming up to see her when there were giant predators around! At least they had arrived early, before most of the said predators. But she had felt immediately worried for them all the same, and had chided them before they could even introduce themselves. It had turned out their names were Carver and Ian, and they had come out of interest to hear a ‘predator’ argue against eating their kind. “We’d like to understand your ethical perspective, ma’am,” one of them had said politely. “And see whether any other predators share your way of seeing things”. They had told her, somewhat evasively, that they ‘knew’ a few predators, which was how they had heard about this debate.

Once she had got over her concern for them, she had chatted with them about other predators who had a particular ethical viewpoint. She had heard of a giantess called Jade, somewhere to the south, who not only refrained from eating littles, but even protected them. And this Jade reportedly had a friend who, for moral reasons, refused to eat off-worlders who’d arrived on Felarya by accident. As it turned out, they knew about Jade, and she had begun a discussion of the giantess’ ethics with them. She had not wanted to say too much about her own views, however. She wanted to keep that for the big day itself.

Now, Ian and Carver were sitting on a thick branch on a tree opposite her, cutting through some fruit and talking to each other in low voices. Not too far away were other unexpected visitors, even stranger, and far more intimidating – at first, at least. Half a dozen giants, all in armour, polite and respectful but very formal, and some of them quite stony-faced. Most were literally giants, but there was also a giant male centaur among them, and a female giant sphinx – likewise in armour. They had arrived well in advance, before anyone else, and introduced themselves as the Kadar. For a horrible moment, she had been very frightened.

Then they had started talking, and her fear had turned to confusion. Once they had finished explaining the reason for their presence, she had tried to piece it all together.

You want to give animals for my guests to eat… so that they stop eating people?”

The whole thing had seemed ludicrous. Then they had produced a crate, one of many that they were carrying on some sort of hard floating sled. From it, they had withdrawn some sort of hairless mammal, with four short paws, and a long stick stuck through its body, contracted in death. The corpse had been glazed over with something whitish-blue and sweet-scented. She had wrinkled her nose, leaning back away from them.

Understanding their mistake, they had offered her fruit instead – something large and pinkish-white, crunchy but juicy. She had tasted it, and the most amazing flavour had blossomed in her mouth. She had eaten it up ravenously, and blushed in embarrassment at her own appetite. It had been the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.

See what we mean by tempting Felaryans off eating people?” one of the armoured giants had said, with just a hint of a grim smile.

She certainly had. As it turned out, their plan was fairly simple. They politely requested to be able to distribute their candied animals and luscious fruit to anyone who attended her debate. The idea was to present predators with an alternative more delicious than eating people.

We’ve already begun planting fruit trees and vegetables in different parts of the forest, and releasing genetically engineered animals into the wild,” the man had told her. Though she had not fully understood what that meant, she had got the gist of it. “They all reproduce quite rapidly, including the plants, so that should be a tempting new food source for all your friends. We share the same goal as you do, ma’am. Encouraging Felaryans to stop devouring sapient people.”

She had been more than a little uncertain about the animals, and had said so. These animals would feel pain at being eaten, just as much as little people would. The giants had seemed puzzled at that, but had assured her the dead, candied animals in their crates had all been put to death ‘humanely’. Feeling just a little sickened nonetheless, she had agreed to let them talk to her guests, on the margins of the debate. They had thanked her respectfully, given her some more fruit, bowed a little, and gone off to set up camp close by.

That had been several days ago, and since then they had been busy distributing their treats to all those who arrived. By now, some of her guests had already gathered round, while others were off finding breakfast, or –in one or two cases– still dozing. On the other hand, there were not many fairies about. ‘Her’ fairies, her constant companions, her dear friends for many decades now. Her little darlings, who so often played in her hair and her leaves, and snuggled down to sleep on her branches. She found herself missing their familiar, reassuring presence already. When she had first told them that this talk was going to be about ‘eating elves’, some of them had been excited. “We’ll have elves to eat?” one of them had asked, gleefully. She had had to explain, as gently as she could, that she would be giving her view on why eating elves was wrong. She was not surprised that most of the fairies had chosen to stay away this morning. Some of them were a little intimidated by her guests, too. They were waiting for all this to end, and return to normal.

Shelny felt her stomach clench a little with nervous tension. Over the past few days she had wondered, several times, whether agreeing to this ‘debate’ had really been a good idea.

* * *

It had not been her idea, of course. She had had only the vaguest notion of what the word ‘debate’ meant. And she had not been in the habit of inviting people to discuss ethics with her. Rather, she normally talked about her own moral views only when someone expressed an interest in them. Raising the topic unprompted would not have been conducive to maintaining healthy friendships. And it would have upset the fairies.

No; the idea had come from Irenn.

Irenn was not like other fairies. At least, not like the fairies that Shenly was used to. She had turned up one day, looking for her, and had introduced herself to her amiably, with an outstretched hand. She wore clothes, beautiful and ornate, yet sufficiently practical for spending time in the jungle, which the fairy tribe that lived with Shelny had found utterly fascinating. She spoke in a clear, precise way, and spoke words that the jungle fairies had never heard before. She came –she had said– from Kortiki, a town in the east, in the heart of the fairly distant Fairy Kingdom. Her appearance was tidy and neat, her mid-length hair a pure natural white, her face as smooth and youthful and pretty as that of most Felaryans. She had presented herself as an ‘amateur scholar’ – an example of those strange words. And she had wanted to debate Shelny’s views with her.

At the time, the dryad had not quite known what she would be getting herself into. She had said ‘yes’, because she always said ‘yes’ to those who wanted to talk about why it might be wrong to eat people. She always hoped she might be able to convince those who seemed open to talk, even though most of them clearly did not want to be convinced. Then Irenn had talked about having an ‘audience’, and even of broadcasting their ‘debate’ through willing members of the dryad network, and it had all become just a little bit overwhelming.

You’ll do fine,” one of ‘her’ tribal fairies had told her afterwards, once Irenn had gone back to Kortiki to ‘get it all organised’. “I’m sure you’ll win!” she had added with light-hearted confidence, and had kissed her dryad friend affectionately on the lips.

But how exactly do I ‘win’? Am I supposed to convince all of this ‘audience’ to stop eating people completely? They were pretty much all predators; they had told her so, in a perfectly friendly manner. They were here out of curiosity, to experience something new: a ‘debate’. And many of them had brought questions for her, as they had been encouraged to do. She did not even know what those questions would be; that was all part of the ‘debate format’, as Irenn had put it.

It was Irenn who had suggested the topic – because, she had said, there needed to be one. A ‘formal topic’. Something specific for them to discuss. And so the topic was: ‘Is it wrong to eat elves?’. Shelny had agreed to it readily enough, at the time. Looking back on it, though, she had begun to wonder whether she should have asked for it to be phrased differently. Elves, after all, were the most delicious of all littles. Though she had not eaten any in a very long time, she still remembered that. To her embarrassment, she could even still feel her mouth watering at the memory. Everyone enjoyed eating elves so much, whenever they could catch such a rare treat, that she knew it would be very difficult to talk them out of it. When she had raised the matter with Irenn, the fairy had nodded.

We can change it if you like,” she had said. “I don’t mind. But I thought, because it’s so counter-intuitive to most people, your arguments would have the most weight if you could really make the case that even elves should be off the menu.” She had looked at her with her pleasant, reasonable expression and amber-brown eyes. “Shall we change it to ‘humans’? I’ve already told everyone it’ll be about elves.” Shelny had agreed, reluctantly, to make no change.

Then there was the fact that they had put ‘elves’ in the plural. Was there not a risk –the dryad still wondered– that such a phrasing would diminish the sense of any elf’s individuality, lumping them all together as though they were simply a category of food? Would it not have been better to ask ‘Is it wrong to eat an elf’? Even if ‘an elf’ was hypothetical, she could have insisted on his or her personhood, and perhaps made a stronger case. Why is it that words bring with them all these assumptions? she had thought, already a little worried.

Well; it was too late now to redefine the terms of the debate. The day had come, and now Irenn was walking up to her, looking fresh and bright and well-rested, and enthusiastic to start. They smiled at each other. Though Shelny’s smile was a little nervous, it was genuine nonetheless. Over the past couple of days, she and Irenn had discussed various issues other than their respective eating habits, and she had found conversation with the Kortiki-native to be a real mind-opener. Irenn had read countless books, and talked to wise fairy elders in the kingdom; she had a thirst for knowledge and understanding, which Shelny fully approved of. In that sense at least, they were kindred spirits. There was a lot she could learn from Irenn, and very soon she had decided she liked her. They would be opponents during the debate, but they had become naturally bonded by a sense of mutual respect.

Good morning!” Irenn smiled.

Good morning. You’re looking well.”

A bit excited, actually!” She grinned, flashing her lovely white teeth. “I think everyone’s more or less here. Shall I gather round the stragglers, and then we can get started?”

Shelny moistened her lips, anxiously. “All right.”

Sensing her slight tension, Irenn put both her hands on the dryad’s shoulders –for which, even at full height, she had to reach up a little– and rubbed them gently. “Don’t be nervous!” she whispered, warmly. “You’ll be fine. You have a good, sharp mind. I’m going to enjoy this, and I hope you do too?” She stepped back, still smiling. “Ready, then?”

Shelny took a quiet breath. “Ready,” she said.

Good!” Irenn skipped away lightly to find whatever guests might still be out having breakfast.

Four of ‘her’ fairies pressed round her as soon as Irenn had left. They were all babbling at the same time, eagerly, and all tried to hug her. She put her arms round them all, affectionately, as they pressed fondly against her.

You’re going to win!” one of them, with hair as dark as her own but much shorter, said confidently. “You’re the bestest ever, and the most cleverest! We all know you’ll win!”

Thank you,” Shelny said softly. She held them for a while, then disentangled them gently from herself. She wondered, a little sadly, whether they realised what her ‘winning’ would actually mean. All four of them ate littles, she knew. She managed a grateful, tender smile. Part of her was glad they were here, supporting her. But part of her wanted to urge them away, with their joyful innocence still intact.

Irenn returned after a short while, and began busily giving directions, getting everyone settled in a loose semi-circle, between the trees. Mindful of her duties as hostess, Shelny made sure each member of the ‘audience’ was comfortable, as they sat, or came to rest in whatever position was anatomically most suited to them. The two littles, Carver and Ian, were still in the tree opposite her, seemingly alert and focusing on the proceedings, though with their little faces concealed it was difficult to be sure. She reminded herself to keep a regular eye on them, just in case anyone might fancy them as a light snack. A few of her fairy companions had also chosen to settle at human-size, and she kept her eye on them too. Her guests were, after all, mostly strangers to her.

She looked round at them, slowly but discreetly. In addition to a few fairies, and to three of the stony-faced Kadar giants, there was a fairly tall redhead giantess, dressed in what looked oddly like giant-sized human clothing. She was sitting on the grass, looking slightly bored already, but Shelny knew she had come only to look after her little human companion – a blond male with a keen, inquisitive mind and a startling shiny grey contraption in place of his left arm. Fairly close by, an athletic, bronze-skinned, crimson-haired fairy with fiery butterfly wings. She had come as one of a group. With her was a beautiful blue-haired fairy, with antlers growing from her head and a half-dozen dragonfly wings, catching the morning light; a gigantic brown-haired dridder with calm, kind amber eyes; and a distinctly sultry, gorgeous naga with mocha skin, brown hair and bright green eyes. Disturbingly, both the dridder and the naga had skull-like patterns on the lower part of their body, but they had both proved very friendly so far. They had introduced themselves to her politely the day before, and it had not been long before the naga had turned on the charm, trying very obviously to seduce her. “You look a bit nervous, hun,” she had cooed, in her sensual voice. “All those tight muscles. I’ll give you a bit of Malika-therapy, and you’ll feel allll relaxed.” Shelny had politely declined. Not that the prospect of sex with gorgeous, stunningly sexy naga had not been appealing, but she had wanted to keep her mind clear for the following day. Seeing the dryad’s gaze pass over her now, Malika winked at her, and smiled. A smile of friendly encouragement.

Standing, leaning against a tree, was another fairy, black-haired, who was not from ‘her’ tribe. Introducing herself as Tache, she had explained that she too was originally from the Fairy Kingdom, and a keen reader of that land’s many books about the wider world. She had learnt of this debate directly from Irenn, in Kortiki’s main library. Close by her, but clearly unacquainted with her, was another dridder, lying comfortably with her legs folded beneath her. She had light green skin, and hair of a darker green, while the arachnoid part of her body was forest brown, with green patches. She had come alone, and so far had mostly watched and listened, gradually easing herself into this very mixed little audience. Yet another fairy, mauve-skinned with antlers, was chatting pleasantly with a cute, warm-eyed and smiling blond naga, whom Shelny already knew.

Last but not least, she could feel the presence of several dryads connected to her through the network, listening in. Some were her friends; others were mere acquaintances, or virtually unknown to her, and she felt their curiosity – benevolent, or sometimes tinged with suspicion. Her friends, though they did not agree with her views, sent her waves of warmth and affection, supporting her. She responded in kind, touched and grateful. One or two were even going to relay the conversation to their own non-dryad friends, or summarise it.

Well…” Irenn walked back over to Shelny’s side, looked round at the gathering, then smiled at the dryad. “Shall we begin?”

* * *

First, thank you all for coming!” Irenn began brightly. “We both hope this will be an interesting and thought-provoking discussion for you. We’ll start with just the two of us talking, but then we’ll open it up to your questions. So keep them in mind.” She paused. She was wearing a different set of clothes than the previous day, simpler but still elegant, in mostly sky blues and whites. She had brought several lots of clothes with her, and changed every day – much to the delight of Shelny’s fairy companions, who had had fun trying on her used clothes. Irenn had tolerated it, as long as they caused no damage. “Second… I suppose Shelny and I should introduce ourselves! Although most of you have already chatted with us a bit. Shelny,” –she turned to her– “would you like to go first?”

The dryad blinked, taken by surprise. “Um, uh… Well, I’m Shelny.” She smiled round at them, a little awkwardly. “I… live here. I don’t know what else to say, really…”

Irenn flashed her a kind smile. “All right, then. As for me, my name’s Irenn. I live in Kortiki town, the capital of the Fairy Kingdom. I… Well, I like to find out about things, I suppose. To understand them. And I like ideas, new ideas. Ideas that are new to me. In Kortiki, we have lots of books, with all sorts of knowledge and ideas, from long ago or from quite recently, and from all parts of the world and beyond. And we have people, scholars, who know a lot, and who’ve given a lot of thought to how the world is. How it works. Me, I’m just… interested. I like to think, and to know whether or not the way that I think of the world is true.” She paused. “One day, I heard about a dryad, a long way outside the kingdom, out in the wild open forest in the west. A lovely dryad with dark black hair and light green skin, called Shelny. And this dryad, I was told, didn’t eat littles. Not because she didn’t like the taste. She does like the taste, and maybe she’ll tell us about that. No; she doesn’t eat littles, because she’s decided, and believes, that it’s wrong. Morally wrong.” The fairy paused. “Now, when I first heard that, I thought it was silly.” She gave Shelny an apologetic smile. “I mean, I thought, if it was wrong, then we’d all know that it’s wrong, and we wouldn’t eat them. So I thought, obviously it can’t be wrong.” Several members of the audience nodded quietly at that, while others looked thoughtful. “I’ll come back to that,” Irenn promised. “Anyway, I started to think about it a bit more, and I realised that this Shelny person, who I hadn’t met yet, was someone who clearly believed this so strongly that she had given up eating them. From what I’d heard, she’d stopped eating them completely. When I went out and met her, I asked her– I asked you,” she went on, turning to the dryad, “about this, and you said it’s been a very long time since you ate a little. You remember that they tasted delicious, but you gave up that pleasure for moral reasons. You had a belief, and you decided to live by that belief, even if it meant depriving yourself of something nice. So that made me think. I thought, obviously you must have some sort of really strong reason, something that I’d never thought of. And that’s why we’re having this talk today.”

She was facing the audience once more, who were listening silently, with obvious attention – other than the redhead giantess, who looked mildly annoyed, and was drumming her fingers against her thigh. “The subject of our discussion,” Irenn went on, “the question we’re going to try to answer, is: ‘Is it wrong to eat elves?’.” She paused for a moment to let that sink in. “We’ve phrased it that way to keep it simple. So, as you know, Shelny doesn’t eat elves, because she thinks it’s wrong. I do eat elves – when I’m lucky enough to find some!” That drew a few smiles from the listeners. “Not in Kortiki itself, of course, but in the north of the kingdom, and beyond. I go hunting for them, with friends, and we enjoy them. So as you can imagine, I really hope it’s not wrong to eat them” –more smiles, and one or two laughs from the audience– “but luckily for me, I really think it’s not. Not wrong, I mean. But that’s what we’re going to discuss.” She paused, and turned to the dryad. “Shelny, would you like to start by telling us exactly what it is you believe, and why? Or, wait! First, maybe we should ask… Does anyone here already think it’s wrong, morally wrong, to eat elves?”

They both looked round, and members of the audience looked at one another. The results, to Shelny, were surprising. As expected, almost no hands went up (other than those of the three Kadar), which she tried not to feel disheartened about. Worse, among the three littles present, only one raised his hand – one of the face-plated humans up in the tree facing her. His companion stayed motionless, while the human with the redhead giantess likewise kept his arm down. For a brief moment, Shelny stared at him in dismay. Even more surprising to her, however, was the sight of the skull-patterned dridder raising a hand, quietly, her four yellow eyes fixing the dryad with a silent warmth of support. Shelny smiled at her softly in thanks. I’m not alone, then.

Right, okay,” Irenn was saying. “Two of you – including one of the littles. Not counting our Kadar friends, of course. Interesting. Well, we’ll get back to you all when it’s question time. Shelny? Over to you.”

The dryad moistened her lips, trying to focus. “Well…” She was mostly looking at the fairy, but made a conscious effort to face the others too. “As Irenn said, I stopped eating elves a long time ago. It was a bit difficult at first, and from time to time I… Well anyway, I managed in the end.” She blushed a little. “So I don’t eat elves any more. In fact, I don’t eat any animals, including elves and other littles. As Irenn said, I think it’s wrong. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and I really think it’s wrong.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. She had never talked like this to so many people at once before. And she knew they were not going to be particularly receptive. They were probably hoping to be able to pick her arguments apart, and dismiss them. But they came, she reminded herself. They came, and they’re listening.

Imagine an elf,” she went on. If she could make them picture an individual, that might be more effective. “A perfectly ordinary elf, say of average height, with… light brown hair. He lives in the forest, with his tribe. With his family. He has parents, a mate, and children. He doesn’t want to be eaten. He has a life, and it’s important to him. It’s precious to him.” She felt her voice crack just very slightly with the earnestness of her feelings, and she took a moment’s breath to remain fully calm. “If you try to catch him and eat him, he tries to run away. Or to resist, in whatever way he can. If you eat him, you’re taking away his entire existence. You’re taking away absolutely everything that he’s got. Forever. Just so that you can enjoy his flavour, for a few seconds. And he won’t even be filling.” She paused. “That’s not all,” she went on, as she saw a few members of the audience looking as though they might object. “It’s not just that eating him puts an end to his existence. To his life. It’s also how it’s done. When you chase after him, he feels afraid. He knows you want to kill him, and he’s terrified. And when you eat him, he feels pain. You digest him, alive; try to imagine what that’s like, for him.” She bit at her lip, focusing. “My point is that it’s wrong to inflict terror and pain and destruction on a being, any being, who is capable of feeling that pain and terror. The brief pleasure that you get from eating him isn’t enough to counter his fear and his pain. So it’s wrong. That’s why I don’t eat them, at all – any animals. If we want to be moral, we have to make sure that we don’t hurt creatures that can be hurt, unless we really can’t avoid it. And we can avoid eating elves. So we shouldn’t eat them.”

She stopped, and looked round at them. She was feeling quietly quite pleased with herself. She had prepared for this, of course, but she felt she had made her case, calmly and clearly. Many in the audience were looking thoughtful, considering her words. Some looked dubious, of course, but that was only to be expected. She had seen such reactions before: the automatic defence mechanism which prevented people from giving too much thought to something unpleasant.

Oh, and I almost forgot!” she added quickly. “There’s the fact that when you eat an elf, it’s not only him that you’re hurting. You’re also hurting all the people who love him, and who are going to miss him. His parents, his children, his mate. His friends. They’ll all feel pain. That’s true for all littles, and for quite a few animals too. So that’s another reason why it’s wrong.”

Irenn nodded, calmly. “Thank you, Shelny. You clearly have given it a lot of thought, and that gives us a good place to start. Can I ask you a question?”

Of course.” She tried not to feel wary.

Is it always wrong to eat an elf?”

Yes,” she said, without hesitation.

Even when someone is starving, and the elf is the only source of food available?”

Shelny hesitated. “That wouldn’t happen,” she said, after a moment’s thought. “The forest is full of food. How could anyone be starving?”

Some people aren’t very good at finding food,” Irenn said simply. “Besides, there’s more than just the forest in the world. Imagine someone stranded up on one of the mountains, in the south. Up on a slope of barren rock, where it’s cold and there are no plants at all. Nothing to eat. They’re trying to get down, but they’re weak from hunger. They find an elf–”

Shelny shook her head. “It wouldn’t happen. What would they be doing up there in the first place? Either of them? There’s no realistic situation where someone would need to eat an elf.”

All right. So it’s always wrong?”


Let’s look at the reasons why it’s wrong, according to you. You said it’s wrong to eat an elf alive, because it hurts them.”


What if you kill them before you eat them?”

Shelny frowned a little. “That’s not what people do.”

But if they did? I imagine you would say it’s still wrong, because the elf would prefer to continue living, and because he’d be frightened before you kill him.”


I’m not actually convinced that elves feel fear in the same way that we do,” Irenn said. “Oh, they do feel some fear,” she acknowledged, upon seeing the dryad’s incredulous look. “But, as a species, they’re used to being eaten. It doesn’t take them by surprise in the same way that it would for us. They all know they’re going to be eaten, at some point. I’ve eaten elves who haven’t struggled at all, because they were ready for it. They just accepted it. So I’m not completely convinced by the ‘terror’ argument. But still, I’ll concede it for now, hypothetically. Now let’s imagine that I can kill an elf completely by surprise, without him ever seeing me, in a way that’s so quick that he never feels any pain. I’m told that there are swords that can do that, for example. Imagine that I kill him without causing him any fear or pain, and then eat him once he’s dead.” A few of the listeners wrinkled their nose in distaste at that thought. “Even if he wanted to continue living, he loses nothing, because he never even realises that he’s dead. And imagine that he doesn’t have a tribe. He lives completely alone; no tribe, no family, no friends. Would it still be wrong?”

Shelny bit her lip, processing that. Yes, was her first impulse. Surely it was wrong. But she had to untangle the argument, cut through it.

If it’s not wrong for any of the reasons that you mentioned,” Irenn clarified, “then can it still be wrong?”

It’s completely improbable,” the dryad countered. “That kind of situation just doesn’t happen.”

Actually, I’m sure it does. There are littles who live alone, without a tribe. And I’m sure it is possible to kill them in the way I said. So would that be wrong?”

If… I mean… Well, the elf wanted to continue living. So even if you kill him without him realising, you’re still doing something that he didn’t want.”

But he wouldn’t know.” Irenn smiled a little. “It would be harmful to no-one, not even him.”

But he wanted to live,” Shelny insisted. “And you’re taking away his life for no good reason. Or just for a moment’s pleasure, the pleasure of his flavour. It’s better to let him continue his life, with all the pleasures that he’ll be feeling, for all the years ahead. While you eat some fruit or something, and get pleasure from that. That way, everyone’s happy.”

What if his life was miserable?”

You’d have no way of knowing that! And even if it was, if he’d chosen to go on living, you can’t make that choice for him. He’s capable of making choices for his own life, so they have to be his own.” She paused. “I still think your whole hypothetical situation is improbable. And that’s just… not how things happen in real life! People in real life who want to eat elves don’t go to the effort of killing them quickly and painlessly. They just eat them. They hunt them down, and they eat them, alive. They enjoy the hunt, and the… the feeling of the elves moving inside them. I know; I used to enjoy it too. Nobody’s going to go to all that trouble. So in practice, it has to be a choice between eating them, or not eating them at all. Would you eat elves in the way that you described?”

No, because I don’t think it’s wrong to eat them in the first place. As long as we’re not sadistic, it’s not wrong to hunt them, and eat them alive. It’s the normal thing to do. I’ll try to explain that, when it’s my turn. Is there anything you’d like to add though, first?”

Even if you could kill an elf in the way that you said,” Shelny told her, “which nobody would do anyway, you can’t know whether the elf has loved ones who’ll miss him. So there’s no morally good way to eat an elf. Or any creature who’ll be missed. We shouldn’t do it at all.” She paused. “I’d like to return the question to you. Would you ever not eat an elf?”

Irenn smiled. “Of course. There are all sorts of cases where I wouldn’t eat an elf. Inside Kortiki, for example, it’s very much frowned upon. There are elves who live there, permanently or not, and so of course we don’t eat them. They’re our guests, in a way, so it would just be rude, and not very friendly. Some of them come to the library, and I’ve had some very interesting conversations with them. There are a few I get on very well with; I consider them as friends.”

So you eat elves only outside Kortiki, and only those you don’t know.”

Yes. Out there, it’s fine to eat them, and there’s no reason not to. Except if I’m already full,” she added with a little smile.

But of course, you eat them even when you’re not really hungry, as long as you’re not actually full.”

Of course.” Irenn’s smile broadened. “They’re a treat.”

If you found an elf that was injured, out in the forest, and you were full… Would you help him?”

Yes,” the fairy said, with barely any hesitation. “If I can. If there’s something I could do to help him, I wouldn’t just walk past and leave him to it.”

But if you weren’t full, you’d eat him?”

Irenn nodded.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit contradictory?” Shelny pressed.

No.” Irenn shrugged. “If I feel like eating the elf, it’s food. If not, it’s normal to be nice, and help it. In both cases, I’m responding to a natural impulse. It’s what almost all of us would do. It’s what feels to us like the normal thing to do, and I think that impulse is very important. I don’t think that impulse can be ‘wrong’.”

All right.” Shelny grimaced a little. “Do you want to tell us why you don’t think it’s wrong to eat elves?”

The fairy nodded. “I think, first of all, we need to try and agree on what makes things right or wrong. We all have a sense of right and wrong. We know that certain things are right, and we know that certain things are wrong, and for the most part there’s no disagreement or uncertainty about what’s right or what’s wrong. For the most part, these things are clear to us. So my question would be, how do we know what’s right?” She looked at the dryad.

We work it out,” Shelny said.

All right. That’s true, to some extent, when we’re adults. But do you agree that we have a sense of right and wrong when we’re children?”

Yes,” Shelny said, after a moment’s thought.

And where does that come from?”

I suppose… Well, for me, I grew up connected to the dryad network. It was other dryads who told me what I needed to know, as a child, about the world. Including the proper way to behave. Basic morality.”

That’s right. And for people who aren’t dryads, it usually comes from our parents, or from whoever raises us. Part of being a conscious being is learning about right and wrong, and developing into a moral being. But how do our parents, or in your case other dryads, know what’s right?”

They learn it from their parents, or from older dryads.” Shelny smiled faintly. “You’re going to ask me how it all started. Unless we can go back indefinitely. I admit, I’ve never thought of that.”

Irenn returned the smile, and faced their audience. “There are two possibilities. Which, in fact, may both be true. The first is that we were created to know certain things. A lot of scholars think that our whole world was created, a long time in the past. That we were all designed, by beings that are usually called ‘gods’. These gods, who were infinitely wise, defined how the world would work, and what our place would be within it. They either told our distant ancestors what was right and wrong, for them to pass it down to us, or else they made our ancestors –and us– in such a way that we know, instinctively, what’s right or wrong. That would explain why we have instincts. They made us so that we would be kind and true to one another, and generous, and helpful. And if they made us, they also made the way in which our bodies work. We instinctively want to hunt and eat elves. Our body, our instinct, our mind, tell us that elves are good for us. That they nourish us. Why would we have been made that way if it’s all wrong? Why would we have ‘wrong’ instincts – or, even worse, ‘wrong’ needs? We haven’t. We can’t have. It wouldn’t make sense.”

Shelny mulled it over. “Are you sure that we were made?”

No, I’m not sure.” She shook her head a little, her lovely white hair catching the sunlight. “But I think it’s very likely. But even if we’re not… The point still stands. Whatever it was that put these instincts into us, and whatever it was that put this sense of morality into us, they’re there. We all have them. And it wouldn’t make any sense for the morality we all share to be wrong. I think it goes beyond just what our parents tell us. After all, there are people who grow up without parents, all alone, in the wild. Yet they have a morality too, when they eventually meet others of their kind. So I think that morality is something we all feel because it’s there. It’s something real, something true, which permeates the world, and that we all experience. It would make no sense at all for it to be wrong. It would make no sense for all parents in the world to deeply believe that something wrong is in fact right, and to all pass it on to their children. We have to assume, unless we have a very good reason not to, that our instincts are right, and that the morality we all share is correct.”

Then how do we know, or find out, if our morality is wrong?”

I don’t think it can be. If it were, it would be obvious to us, and we wouldn’t have it in the first place. Or we’d have abandoned it a long time ago. Our ancestors would have abandoned the wrong part, and our parents would only have passed down to us the right part.”

Shelny frowned a little, concentrating. “So our instinctive morality is always right?”

I think so, yes. At least, in general. It may go wrong with one or two people, who do wrong things, but almost everyone has the same morality. The same instincts.”

What about… For example, if someone makes us angry, for something that’s completely trivial. We may feel an instinct to hit that person. But that would be wrong. You agree that it would be wrong?”

Yes. But I don’t agree that our instinct is wrong. When you feel the urge to hit someone, you also have a stronger urge, a stronger instinct, which tells you not to. So in the end, your instinct is to not hit them, and your instinct is correct. It’s the same when you see someone who needs help. You may have one impulse which is not to help them, because you’re feeling tired, or in a bad mood, or whatever. But you’ll also have a stronger impulse which is to help them. And so that’s what you’ll do. Your instinct will be the right one. You’ll do what’s right. We all have an impulse to help people, and we know that it’s morally right. We all have an impulse not to hit people, and we know that would be morally wrong. But we don’t have an impulse not to eat elves, so we know that’s not morally wrong. On the contrary, our impulse is to eat them, because we know that they taste good and that they’re good for us. And that we’re not doing anything wrong by eating them. I think, probably, elves were made tasty so that we would know to eat them. And if that’s true, then they were made specifically for us to eat. But even if they weren’t, and even if there are no creative gods, we still have that impulse. And that’s just undeniable.”

Shelny was quiet for a long moment. There were murmurs among members of the audience. She saw the human with the shiny grey arm whisper something to his giantess companion, who simply shrugged. The green-haired dridder was looking thoughtful, frowning a little too. Through the dryad network, she could hear the thoughts and communications of her fellow dryads, discussing Irenn’s point in the equivalent of a whisper.

When we decide not to hit someone,” she said at last, “we’re clearly doing right because hitting that person would hurt them. It would hurt them for no good reason. And when we decide to help someone, that’s clearly right too, because we’re doing the opposite of hurting them. But when we eat an elf… we are hurting him! It’s not the same at all. We’re hurting him, and all the other elves who care about him, and without any good reason. And that’s what I call wrong.”

All right, that’s a fair point,” Irenn said. “But you’re still mistaken, I think. If we follow your logic, then ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ become completely… individual. Completely subjective. We would each have our own definition. There would be no… correct right and wrong. There would simply be each person’s right and wrong. That would just create complete confusion. Our sense of morality gives us some clear guidelines, and since we all have it, it gives us a form of… what I would call moral certainty. Or moral knowledge, rather. It enables us to know right and wrong. But if we each make up our own definition… Then we’re not knowing right and wrong. We’re just making things up.”

But we… We already have an impulse not to do harm–”


What I’m saying,” the dryad pressed, “is that there’s no reason not to apply that to elves as well. Or, more to the point, apply it to all beings who might be harmed. If it’s wrong to cause harm, then it’s wrong to harm any being that can be harmed. Except if we have no choice. And we do have a choice whether or not to eat elves. So if we agree that doing no harm is one of the most basic, one of the most essential parts of morality, then we can decide to be moral towards elves, too. And not harm them.”

Irenn nodded. “All right. But we do apply morality to elves. As we said earlier, if I see an elf that’s hurt, I’ll help him. Unless I’m hungry, in which case I’ll eat him. We do good things for elves, except when we’re hungry, and we have the impulse to eat them. I don’t think that impulse is wrong; I don’t think it can possibly be wrong. So we do no wrong when we eat them – except perhaps if we’re already stuffed and we force ourselves to swallow them when our tummy’s already full. I don’t think we wrong an elf by eating it,” she went on, seeing that Shelny was about to protest. “If you ask them, most elves won’t say that eating them is wrong. Nor will most nekos, or most humans. They know it’s not. The only ones that make a fuss and say it’s wrong as those that come from off-world. From where they don’t have predators, and they’re simply not used to being eaten.”

Okay,” Shelny said, trying not to feel frustrated. “But my point is, we don’t have to eat elves. It’s never necessary. So when we eat them, we’re harming them in a way that’s not necessary. I know we feel the instinct to eat them. But I have no reason to think that that instinct is right. If you say that it’s right because it tells us that elves are tasty and good for us, my answer is that we can eat tasty, good food without eating elves. We can be perfectly healthy without eating them. So we choose to harm them, without needing to. And we’ve already agreed that causing unnecessary harm is wrong. My point is that causing unnecessary harm to elves, or to animals of any kind that can feel pain and fear, is wrong. Our natural impulse to not harm people is much more important, much more valid, than our impulse to eat elves, which isn’t necessary. We just have to take our impulse to not harm people to its logical conclusion. That conclusion is that if it’s wrong to harm a fairy, or a dryad, then it’s also wrong to harm and elf.” She stopped, and inhaled, catching her breath.

Now it was Irenn’s turn to be silent for a long moment, as she absorbed and pondered that. “I still think that’s much too subjective,” she said at last. “The sense of morality that we already all have tells us clearly what to do. And we have every reason to believe it’s right.”

But you agree that swallowing an elf harms that elf in the same way that swallowing a small-sized fairy harms that fairy?”

Yes. But most of us don’t have an instinct to eat fairies.” She smiled. “Thank goodness.” There were a few chuckles from the audience.

But since we can live happily and healthily without eating elves (or fairies!), isn’t it better, more right, to eat other foods as much as we can, and to avoid eating elves?”

Irenn opened her mouth, closed it again, and once more spent a long moment thinking hard. “I can grant you that,” she said at last, cautiously – and Shelny felt her heart swell with relief. “Sort of. It’s not wrong to eat an elf. But eating something else instead of an elf may be a kindness to that elf. And that kindness would be something right.”

A wonderful warmth spread through Shelny’s body. She wanted to hug her. “Thank you,” she said, softly but with genuine emotion. “Thank you. Yes, it is more right to eat something else instead. It is.”

Irenn smiled gently, warmly. “Hey.” She took her hand, and squeezed it softly. “It’s okay. I know this is important to you. Are you okay?”

The dryad nodded, blinking back the faintest hint of warm tears, and smiled. “I’m okay.”

Shall we continue?”


You’re a wonderfully moral person, Shelny, and I do respect that.” She gave her hand another kind squeeze, before releasing it.

Thank you,” Shelny whispered.

So… Before we open up to questions from the audience. One last one from me, perhaps. If we follow what you’ve suggested…”


You’ve said that all animals, including elves, can feel pain and fear, and you’ve made that the morally relevant factor.”

I think it is the morally relevant factor. Objectively. It’s not just ‘my’ morality. It’s not okay to harm creatures that can be harmed. You and I have already agreed that we have a moral impulse, a natural moral sense, to do no harm.”

All right. So… If we try to put that into practice. What can we eat?”

Shelny passed the tip of her tongue over her lips, feeling just a little uncomfortable once more. She had had this type of conversation before.

In my case,” she said, “I can live healthily without eating any animals at all. I get nourishment from the ground, through my roots, and from the rain, and from sunlight. And my fairy friends bring delicious fruit to me.” She flashed a grateful smile to those still present. They grinned, and waved. Somewhat to her relief, the discussion so far did not appear to have affected them too badly.

But that makes you dependent on your friends bringing food to you. And most of us don’t have roots with which we can feed from the soil.”

Yes, I know,” Shelny said, a little sadly. “Which is why I think that each person should do what they can, what’s possible for them, to eat as few animals as possible, without putting their own health at risk. We all have to stay properly nourished, and for most species I think, unfortunately, that does mean eating animals, sometimes. I’ve met humans who’ve come from other worlds, and who are vegetarians like me. But that’s because, on their worlds, they have all sorts of foods that they can eat without hurting animals, and stay healthy. For most of my friends here in the forest, that’s not the case.”

So it’s okay to eat elves – sometimes?” Irenn’s gentle little smile was almost apologetic. “For those of us who aren’t dryads?”

Only when you absolutely have to. You should work out how many you need to eat, and not eat any more than that. For you, if you live in Kortiki and you can live there comfortably without eating any elves at all, then that number would be zero.” She returned the friendly, half-apologetic smile. “Sorry.” Irenn laughed, and the dryad went on: “Animals of all sorts feel fear and pain, so if you hunt them, you should kill them as quickly and painlessly as possible before eating them. For elves, and for some animals, there’s also the fact that their loved ones will miss them. All sorts of creatures feel that sense of loss, but I think it’s strongest among littles, like elves, so they should really be last on the menu, if you can eat anything else at all.” She paused, and thought for a moment longer. “That’s all, really…” She looked round at her audience. “Those are the points I wanted to make.”

Right.” Irenn smiled round at them. “Then I think the first part of our debate is over. Thank you, Shelny; you certainly got me thinking.” Shelny smiled, but not too much. She knew the fairy was not going to stop eating elves. “Unless anyone wants a break, I think we can move on to the questions.”

Yes, please,” the green-haired dridder said pleasantly. “It’s all given me a lot to think about too, but I do have a couple of questions.”

Sure, hun,” the lascivious mocha-skinned naga agreed, with her intense green-brown eyes fixed upon Irenn. “Roll on ta’ questions.” She moistened her lips in a way that was unmistakably sensuous.

Ma’am, would this be a good moment to hand out a few refreshments?” one of the Kadar soldiers put in, his tone formal and respectful as ever. There were exclamations of pleasure, a chorus of positive answers, before Shelny herself could even reply. But the man’s attention was on her, awaiting her permission, so she nodded, quietly. They’re getting them hooked, she realised, bemused. They were perhaps not quite yet creating an addiction, but the Kadar’s ‘treats’ were turning out to be a real success.

The irony was unmistakable and, if she dwelt on it too long, a little depressing. She had just put every effort into using reason and empathy to persuade her audience to reconsider the ethics of eating people. Yet her words would doubtless have little effect, while the Kadar’s alternative food sources –including new animals– might conceivably affect her audience’s eating habits. She sighed, and tried to remind herself she was glad if it meant lives were spared.

But they’re sending animals here specifically for them to be eaten. For them to suffocate alive in people’s stomachs. It made her feel a little sick.

Where was it you said you lived, ma’am?” one of the men asked, handing the redhead giantess a candied animal on a stick. “Up on the beach, to the north? We’ll be releasing more of these animals there soon, if you like them. And planting fruit bushes. If you’d like to try some more of what we’ve got?”

Irenn, meanwhile, accepted a sugar-coated creature from another soldier, and sucked it daintily off its stick, shifting it about in her mouth with obvious pleasure before swallowing. “Really delicious,” she commended. “It’s just a shame they don’t move.” She smiled playfully.

The live ones will,” the giant said, deadpan. “And we’re thinking of injecting a kinosynthetic agent into the dead ones, to simulate movement. And make them more appealing to you people.”

You do that,” Irenn agreed with a grin. She skipped back over to Shelny, who was accepting some more fruit from a Kadar. It was just so juicy and flavourful; she could not get enough of it. “That was really good, our talk!” the fairy told her, looking pleased. “You stumped me, once or twice.”

Shelny finished chewing the delicious fruit in her mouth, swallowed, and licked the juice off her lips. She felt a little shiver of pleasure. “You got me stuck a few times too. I’d never really heard those types of argument before. At least put like that.”

Irenn grinned at her broadly. “I don’t suppose I changed your mind, though?”

No.” Shelny smiled. “I don’t suppose I changed yours?” She tried not to sound too hopeful.

Not exactly,” Irenn said, kindly. “But I’ll certainly give it some more thought. I’ll have to see whether I start feeling guilty when I catch elves!”

Shelny glanced over at the few of her fairy companions present. Not surprisingly, some of them had left during the talk. The others had mostly gathered together, and were talking among themselves. She yearned to call them over to her, and hold them, fuss them, spend time alone just with them as she always had done… But that would have to wait.

All right,” Irenn spoke up, once it seemed everyone had eaten their fill, and the Kadar had withdrawn from sight for the time being. “Now I hope you’re not all stuffed and sleepy, because…” She smiled at them. “It’s over to you.”

* * *

For a moment, the motley assembly of listeners looked round at one another, seeming uncertain who should go first, and perhaps not quite daring to ask the opening question. These types of debates were a novelty in the forest. They had listened with apparent interest –Shelny had noted with relief–, but now they were being asked to play a rather more active part.

On the other hand, some of them really don’t look shy, she thought.

She was a little surprised, nonetheless, when one of the humans, perched on the branch of a tree opposite her, put up his hand to speak.

Irenn’s attention narrowed in on him. “Yes? Please, go ahead, get us started. Maybe just tell us your name, and who your question is for? And then ask it.”

Carver,” the man said calmly, “and my question is for Shelny.”

Shelny looked at him, and quietly prepared herself. In fact, everyone was looking at him – one of the few littles boldly settled amidst this gathering of giant predators. The fact that she could not see his face, concealed by his hood and faceplate, bothered her somewhat. It inhibited the naturalness of conversation. It made it more difficult for her to feel a comfortable connection with this small person. A few members of the audience were whispering among themselves, perhaps wondering who –and even what– he and his friend were. One or two were gazing at the pair hungrily, despite the snacks which had just been provided. She made a mental note to obtain repeated promises that nobody here would ever try to eat these two humans, even after the event.

"Strange seeing a dryad debating for humans,” he began matter-of-factly. Even his voice was unnatural, as though filtered through some alien human contraption. It jarred with the peaceful forest setting and, despite herself, jarred at her. She reminded herself to focus on the words, rather than the way in which they were spoken. “That being said, as a dryad, you should know better then most that the near-entirety of the ecosystem’s dependent on human consumption. Humans are the bottom of the food-chain here. Near everything higher up is built from it.”

She frowned, confused. Was this really going where it appeared to be going? Near her, Irenn cocked her head, curious and pleased.

I know I’m playing devil's advocate here,” Carver went on, “but is it really… practical for your daily survival to debate ethics when you people are so dependent on humans?”

There was a murmur from many of the others. Not surprisingly, they sounded as pleased as Irenn looked. A human who accepted predation?

Can I eat him afterwards?” the bronze-skinned fairy with fiery butterfly wings asked, amused. “He doesn’t seem to mind.”

No!” Shelny said sharply, a little flustered. “No eating any of the guests.” She took a moment to compose herself, blushing. “Sorry. Your question just surprised me a bit,” she told the human. He inclined his head graciously, in what might have been a quiet apology, or merely an acknowledgement. She paused to think. “I disagree with the… what is it that Irenn calls it? The premise? The premise of what you said. When you say that we’re ‘dependent’ on eating humans. It’s true that some people aren’t very good hunters, and maybe have to eat whatever they find. But for most people, the forest is full of food. Nobody here would starve, I think, if they cut littles out of their diet. We can survive without humans, and be healthy. I know it’s easiest for me, and I won’t deny that. But I think, honestly, it’s not all that difficult for most other people, either. So since we’re not really dependent on humans, eating them becomes a matter of choice. And if it’s a choice, we can look at the ethics of whether it’s right or wrong to do it. Eating them puts them through a lot of pain and fear and suffering, and then takes their whole existence away. All for almost nothing. That’s why I say it’s wrong.”

Another small nod from the human. It was impossible to see what expression there might be on his face, and thus what he might be thinking. His companion, however, appeared to be glaring at him, and already had his hand up.

I have to admit, we fairies aren’t really dependent on humans,” Irenn piped in cheerily, “but I’m enjoying the debate. I think you had your hand up next,” she said, turning to the black-haired young fairy with dark-blue butterfly wings who, like her, had travelled here from the Fairy kingdom. “Tache, right?”

Yes. Thanks.” Tache smiled. She looked rather excited, as though all this were very much a game to her. As indeed most things were, to fairies, Shelny thought with a quiet, gentle little smile. “I wanted to ask you, Shelny…” She faced the dryad. “I was listening to what you were saying, about not eating elves and all the other nice littles. But then what if they attack you first? If they’re shooting and trying to kill you, wouldn’t you have to eat them to protect yourself?”

The dryad considered it briefly. “No,” she said soon enough, without hesitation. “You never ‘have’ to eat a little. If they attack you, you have the right to defend yourself, of course. You always have the right to protect your own life. If necessary, you can even kill them, to protect yourself, if they attacked you. But you can kill them without eating them. Eating them would be unnecessarily cruel.”

On the other hand, they’re kind of asking for it,” Irenn grinned. “If humans are stupid enough to try to shoot at you, I say they’re offering you a free meal. You can eat them up, and really not have a guilty conscience.” She and her fellow fairy exchanged a broad smile, before Irenn turned back to the two humans. The one who had not yet spoken still had his hand up, patiently. “Your turn.”

Thank you. My name’s Ian. My own question would be for the human half of the debate, miss Irenn.” The fairy nodded at him encouragingly, and offered a pleasant smile. He went on: “My concern is: Do you think many human-sized people would be willing to accept predators as people any more then they would accept humans? You have to admit, a thousand years or so of being prey to them is going to leave some deep scars, and as the fairy Tache said, most cultures here, from Negav to Kadar, tend to have a 'shoot first, ask questions never' policy with predators. Would humans be any easier to persuade then predators would?”

You mean, is it even possible for a fairy and a little elf, for example, to interact in a way that’s not hostile, or that’s not based on one being food for the other?” Irenn pondered it, moistening her lips thoughtfully with the tip of her tongue. “In Kortiki, it certainly is possible. But that’s because the elves and humans there are in an environment that doesn’t threaten them at all. Out here, humans are in a dangerous environment, so it’s true that they tend to see us all automatically as threats. And they’re generally right. I have to say, I can understand a human defending itself by shooting immediately, even though I don’t like it. And even though it means that someone like Shelny, who would never hurt them, might get shot at too.” She turned to the dryad. “Do you get shot at by humans, by the way?” she asked, curious.

I try to be careful,” Shelny said. “When humans are well armed, I simply don’t show myself to them. I can start by talking to them while staying hidden. And I try to get a feel for them; if they look aggressive, I don’t even try to talk to them. But that doesn’t happen very often.”

If I understand your question correctly,” Irenn said, turning back to Ian, “you’re asking if there’s even any point for us to try to make friends with littles, who might react by trying to kill us before we even open our mouth. Open it to talk, I mean; not to eat,” she clarified with a smile. “I don’t know. I don’t really see any value in trying to ‘make friends’ with littles in the wild anyway. If I want to talk to littles, I can do it safely in Kortiki, and have some interesting conversations. When I’m out here in the forest, I’m normally looking for food, not for littles who can become my ‘friends’. And even Shelny has just admitted that there are some humans she won’t bother to talk to, in case they try to hurt her.”

I wish it weren’t that way,” Shelny said, sadly. “But you make a good point, Ian. There’s too much mistrust, and humans are usually right to be mistrustful. In some cases I can try to earn their trust, but maybe not always.”

All right; thank you.” He sounded thoughtful, before sitting back, quietly.

The fair-haired male human seated on the redhead giantess’ lap had his hand up, politely, but Irenn shook her head. “In a minute,” she told him. “I’d like to get some of our bigger audience members involved. Let’s see… Yes; go on, please,” she smiled invitingly at the nice-looking green-skinned dridder.

Oh; me?” The dridder straightened up a little.

Yes. Your turn.” Irenn smiled.

Right!” The woman looked round, and smiled a little shyly at other members of the audience. “I’m Ciel. Hello to everyone, and thank you both for this event! This has been very interesting to hear and it's certainly got me thinking some on this. I guess I have a few questions of my own for you… Irenn, right? Irenn…” she repeated, upon the fairy nodding in confirmation. “I understand that humans and littles do taste good, but compared to many other food choices we can get are really small. So given the choice, why should we prefer them over other foods if the choice is there? Is there any reason to have them over something more filling?"

Irenn shrugged. “I’m not saying we should necessarily prefer them. I’m saying that, to me, the question of what we eat is not a moral question. We can all eat whatever we want. Depending on our taste, or on what’s easiest for us, or what we think will be the most nourishing, or whatever. When we want a filling meal, we should probably look for something bigger than humans, yes. But if we want a few humans as an appetiser, or for dessert, then… why not?” She paused. “We all have a moral sense. We should all try to follow it, and to be good, moral people. But the question of what we eat is, generally speaking, a question outside of morality. We can each make our own choices about food, but I don’t think they’re moral choices.”

I disagree, of course,” Shelny said, rather quietly. “The fact that a human is too small to be filling or nourishing means that we eat them mainly for pleasure. Rather than necessity. And if we eat them for pleasure, we can look at whether it’s ethical or not to eat them. Which takes me back to my earlier argument. If we can live without eating littles, then the right thing to do is to not eat them.” A short pause. “And I think we agreed earlier, if you can choose between eating an elf or eating something else, then eating something else is a kindness to that elf. And that’s good.”

Irenn nodded. “I take it you yourself don’t eat littles, right?” she asked Ciel, pleasantly curious.

Ciel smiled, her pale green cheeks darkening ever so slightly. “Actually no, I do. Sometimes. But I was just wondering. If there’s a case to be made against eating them, I wanted to hear it.” She paused. “I have another question, if that’s okay?”

Sure,” Irenn said.

"This might seem a bit weird... but I also actually live with a mantoid for a friend too. She, well, sometimes even eats other people our size as well, and even sometimes nibbles on me saying how good dridders taste.”

There were murmurs again from the other participants; a few sounded uneasy. But there were chuckles and quick laughs, too, at the latter comment.

I know,” Ciel said. “It's weird. Anyways, how does this argument to eat littles hold up with her eating people our size too? Or other predators capable of eating people their own size?"

Hmm.” Irenn considered it.

I’m sure ya’ tasty, hun,” the mocha-skinned naga smiled at the dridder, and winked at her. “Though I wouldn’t gobble ya’ up.”

I don’t think people our size are for eating.” That came from Crisis, the blond naga. Her friendly, lovely face looked slightly troubled, as she processed the unpleasant thought. “That’s just wrong.”

Is it, though?” Irenn said with a slight smile. “Ciel here has asked a valid question. “I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer. My argument was that we have a moral sense which tells us what is right and wrong. That’s there’s an objective right and wrong, and that knowledge of it was either built into us, designed into us, or maybe taught to our ancestors long ago, or both. We’re made in such a way as to know what really is right or wrong. But when it comes to a mantoid eating a giant dridder…”

She paused, and passed her tongue over the tips of her teeth, thinking. “I’m going to have to make a few assumptions here. I assume your friend literally doesn’t see anything wrong with eating dridders.”

That’s right,” Ciel confirmed. “To her, it’s normal.”

Then I would tentatively argue that, to a mantoid, maybe it isn’t wrong to eat dridders. If they have the instinct to do it, and no moral impulse not to. At least, if it’s common to their whole species, rather than something that only a few individuals do.”

But how can it not be wrong?” Tache asked, troubled.

I’m going to have to give it some more thought,” Irenn admitted. “But my theory for now would be that some things, very rarely, might be right or wrong depending on your species. We fairies naturally feel horrified at the idea of… of ripping a dridder apart and eating her.” She grimaced. “But if mantoids honestly have no impulse inside them that tells them it’s wrong, then maybe for them it’s not wrong. I have to assume they were made that way, and that eating giant dridders is something that’s good for them. But this is a new idea to me; I’ll have to think it through more carefully.”

See, now your rules don’t quite work,” Shelny chided gently. “My own view, of course, is that we should treat littles and bigger people the same way. There’s no justifiable reason to treat them differently. A little elf and a bigger dridder both want to live; they both have loved ones who would miss them; they can both experience fear and pain, and happiness and contentment. So it’s equally wrong to kill either of them when it’s not necessary.”

I think my argument is consistent,” Irenn disagreed pleasantly. “It’s based on our innate morality.” She looked round. “There have been several questions for me, so let’s have one for Shelny now, shall we? Or our lovely hostess may feel neglected.” She smiled at her warmly, then turned to the human who had come accompanied by a redhead giantess. “Yes, you. Okay.”

Elli, my dear, would you hold me up, please?” the man asked politely. Still looking rather uninterested, the redhead plucked him from her lap, from the folds in her short black skirt, and deposited him on the palm of her hand, which she held aloft. The little creature got to his feet, finding his balance on his friend’s hand, and cleared his throat.

Ah, thank you. Good morning to you all. Charles Starwind is my name. My question goes to our lovely arboreal agitator, Shelny.” He smiled, and bowed a little. His unusual clothing, neatly tied blond hair, and strange gleaming grey arm, gave him a most striking appearance, for one so small. “I'm no philosopher, mind you. I'm a naturalist; evidence, not argument, is my forte. My question is...”

Shelny made the most of the brief pause to mentally prepare herself. Carver’s earlier, startling question had taught her not to assume that humans would necessarily argue against the eating of their own kind. And the fact that this one was travelling with a giantess…

"How do you justify not attempting or desiring to kill –or in some other way physically hinder– those that you know eat sentient beings, in order to stop them from continuing to do so?” Starwind inquired. “How could you favour their preference to stay alive or be free over the preference to live for those tens or hundreds of sentient beings that will surely be eaten during the days or months it'll will take for you to convince the predator of your argument’s merit?"

Oh.” Shelny processed that. She went over it in her mind, her brow creasing a little with concentration. “Um… Well, I wouldn’t want to go around killing people, or hurting them, just because of what they eat! That would be rather extreme. It’s a free world. I don’t want to try and impose my views on anyone. That would be wrong.”

Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” one of the Kadar remarked darkly from the sidelines.

Shelny cast him a look of mild disapproval, then turned back to Starwind. He looked so small and vulnerable, yet so smart and confident, full of life. She felt her heart swell with sympathy. Life for littles must be so awful, she thought, not for the first time. Though at least he’s got someone to look after him. “I see your point, though,” she said. “I think. Each single predator, like Irenn here, eats lots of littles during her or his life. So that’s lots of people’s lives ending just for one person.”

Exactly,” Starwind agreed. “So would not consistency demand that the combined lives of all the people who would, in future, be eaten by one specific person, take precedence over the life of that one person? And if not, why not?” His friendly, curious expression tempered the bluntness of his words. “Or, to put it another way, since you have made pain a relevant criterion: Predators cause pain to more beings then they themselves constitute. Would it not be our moral responsibility, as capable sentient beings, to kill or capture these predators in the wild if we believed it would lessen the total amount of unnecessary suffering caused to other creatures?”

I take your point,” Shelny said softly. “One life restrained or destroyed, to save many other lives. But…” She chewed at her lip. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can reason in that way. I try to help people, to protect littles when I can, but I can’t kill people. I don’t see how it could be right. To… to murder someone, or confine them in some way, to stop them from eating people that they haven’t even met yet. Even if that isn’t wrong, I can’t do it. Even if I wasn’t rooted to the spot, here in one place. It’s just… It’s too cold. It’s hurting people for cold, abstract reasons. I can’t do that.”

Irenn had walked up to her, and faced her with a look of gentle concern on her face. “Hey… Are you okay?” she whispered.

Shelny nodded, composing herself. “I’m all right. I just… I’m all right.”

The fairy turned back to the audience. “No more upsetting questions like that, please,” she said sternly.

No, it’s all right,” Shelny put in quickly. “You’re all free to ask whatever you want. It’s okay. And… And to finish answering that particular question…” She looked at Starwind, an apologetic look in her eyes. “I understand your logic. I really do. And I… What I try to do is persuade people. Gently. That’s one reason why we’re doing this, here, today. If you all think seriously about what Irenn and I have been saying, maybe you’ll decide, or some of you will decide, that I’m right. And if that happens, then lives will be saved. People that you would have eaten won’t be eaten. It may not be much, but it counts. Every life counts. Every person is important. I don’t think this is really about numbers; it’s about people. And that’s the best I can do. I talk to people, if they’re willing to think about what I’m saying. And maybe, sometimes, that helps. I hope.” She paused. “Besides, it may be easy to talk in abstract terms about killing predators to save lives. But predators are people too. With people who love them and care about them. I have friends who eat littles. Friends that I love and care about very much. It would be wrong to hurt them, whatever way you look at it.”

Well, we’re in agreement,” Irenn said. “If we went around killing one another for our opinions, that would be a world that none of us would like to live in. Now… You seem to have some views on these matters, young lady,” she addressed Crisis with a smile. “Have you got a question for us?”

Oh!” Crisis returned the smile. Her kind, gorgeous face turned thoughtful. “Yes, I think… I want to ask you, Shelny… I know you don’t eat humans now. You used to, but you stopped. And I’ve been listening to why you stopped, and I think it’s really good that you’re doing what you think is right.” They exchanged a smile. “But… don't you miss the taste? I mean, humans are just so delicious! Less than nekos but still super-tasty! And what do you eat instead? I'll catch you some next time I pass by!”

There were a few laughs, and Shelny smiled, warmly. “Thank you, Crisis; that’s really sweet of you. I get a lot of my nourishment from the soil, and the rain. But I do really enjoy fresh, juicy fruit, when people bring me some. Which is very kind of them. To answer your question… I used to miss the taste of humans. I missed it a lot, at first. When I saw humans, I’d feel my mouth water, and a hunger in my tummy. Or when, through the dryad network, I sensed other dryads savouring some delicious humans… For a while, I was even tempted to use that as a substitute. It wasn’t easy, making myself completely stop eating them. But I managed, and now I no longer miss it. When I see humans, I see them as people, each with a life that’s precious to them, and probably with loved ones back home, and maybe something interesting to talk about. So it’s a long while since I’ve even been tempted to eat them. I can barely even remember what they taste like. Only vaguely.”

Crisis pouted slightly. “But that’s sad,” she said, with honest sympathy. “I don’t think I’d want to do that.”

It’s all right,” Shelny told her gently – a little sadly, too. “As I said, it’s a free world.”

Crisis smiled. “I’ll bring you some fruit, next time,” she promised brightly. “And we can enjoy it together.”

That would be very nice.” The dryad gave her her warmest smile. There was a gentle, heartfelt friendliness to the naga which it was impossible not to like. “You’re welcome here any time. I look forward to it.” She turned to Irenn. “I have people who’d like to ask a question through the dryad network. A dryad called Holly is relaying a question from a mermaid friend of hers, called Mina. It’s a question for me, but I can relay it out loud.”

Irenn nodded, and Shelny focused. Okay, send your question, she thought, directing the thought to Holly, and through the other dryads presently connected to them in the network.

She knew Holly, of course. The dryad was well known for being talkative, actively involved within the network, interested in whatever might be happening in other parts of the forest. Though curious, and prone to badgering people with friendly queries about their private lives, she was a generally calm and thoughtful woman. Shelny had never met her face to face, of course –despite Holly’s occasional travels for a ‘change of scenery’– but had developed a mental picture of her. A smooth pensive face, sometimes brightened by a grin, the warmth of which travelled through their mental and emotional bond. Long forest-green and brown hair, dotted with pretty little flowers.

Through Holly’s eyes now, she could ‘see’ a giant mermaid, immersed in the wide river, on the banks of which the dryad had –for now– planted her roots. The mermaid had the upper part of her torso outside the water, resting her elbows on the muddy grass and her chin in the cup of her hands, looking up with interest at Holly as she spoke. She had light blue skin, eyes of an even lighter blue, and long wet black hair, spilling over her shoulders and plastered damply to her skin. Her tail, insofar as Shelny could see it through Holly’s eyes, was a dark sleep shape beneath the sunlit, sparkling water.

"...And they can all really hear everything I say?” Mina asked gleefully, while Shelny prepared to pass on her words to her own little audience. “Heehee, I've never done anything like this before! Oh, ahem. If it's wrong to eat humans and elves and other littles, why, well... why do they taste so good? If it was really bad, wouldn't it feel bad too? That's how things usually work, I think. Oh! And, thank you for your time and everything."

You’re welcome,” Shelny told her, after informing her own listeners of the question. “I think, eating elves, or humans, can be good for us. To a limited extent, since they’re not actually very filling, or nourishing. I think that’s why we have an instinct to eat them. Our body knows what it’s able to digest, and what it’s not. But ethics is about looking beyond simply our instincts. Beyond simply what we enjoy. It’s about looking at the consequences that our actions have on other people. For an elf, being eaten is not a pleasant experience at all, and it’s horrible also for the people who care about that elf. So we have to look beyond our instincts, and look at what’s ethical. And when we think about it that way, maybe it does start to feel bad, for us, when we eat them.”

Well, I agree with you completely, Mina,” Irenn said. Through the network, Shelny heard Holly repeat the fairy’s words to the mermaid; like an echo. “If we assume that we were made in such a way as to find elves so very tasty, and that elves were created in a way that made them tasty to us, that, to me, seems like quite a strong indication that eating them can’t be wrong. Why would they be tasty, and therefore encourage us to eat them, if the moral message behind it all was supposed to be that it’s wrong? It wouldn’t make sense. I think we’re made in such way that the moral truths in the world are, on the whole, quite clear to us. We know what’s right and what’s wrong. We don’t feel bad eating elves, because it isn’t bad.”

Thank you for your answers!” Mina said brightly, through Holly. Then Holly’s own thoughts: “Can I ask a question too?”

Of course! Shelny told her.

"First of all,” Holly said, “I’d like to thank both Shelny and Irenn for this little event! It’s certainly been lively and interesting to listen to.”

Thank you for tuning in,” Irenn quipped, when Shelny transmitted the dryad’s words.

Now, I personally only eat humans and other tiny beings occasionally, so I don’t have a very strong vested interest in this one way or the other, but my question is for Shelny: If it is ethically wrong to consume other beings capable of experience, why then does this happen almost constantly and in every level and facet of the natural world we live in? Is the insect who eats a starkala bug less ethical than the one who eats a plant? On a side note, I rather admire your willpower and conviction.”

Thank you,” Shelny said, grateful. “You’re right: that’s a good question. If eating beings who can suffer is wrong, there’s clearly a lot of suffering in the world, which would suggest that there’s clearly a lot of ‘wrong’.” She paused. “I think I’d say that what an insect does can’t be ‘wrong’. We can’t communicate with insects; we can’t talk about morality with them. So probably, they don’t have a sense of morality. They just do what comes naturally to them. But us, we’re capable of thinking about these things. Thinking about what’s right or wrong. So when we eat something that suffers, that is wrong, because we had the possibility not to do it. Whereas, I think, a bug that eats another bug didn’t really have the possibility not to do it.”

I agree that morality is specific to sapient beings,” Irenn said. “And I also think you’ve raised a good point, Holly. If eating such creatures were wrong, why would the world be designed in such a way that it happens all the time? That would suggest… I mean, if you take it to its logical conclusion, it would mean that this world, and other worlds too, were made in a way that was… well, malevolent. Actively and hugely malevolent. That this was made to be a bad world. A world where doing wrong things would be… put into us as part of our nature, as an instinct. I don’t think that’s the case. I really don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think we were created to live in an evil world, and to do evil things. I think that’s obviously not true. And that, to me, really tips the balance against the idea that our instinctive morality is wrong. Our instinctive morality is right. It’s the only logical position to hold.”

Me now?” the fairy with fiery patterns on her wings put in. Shelny nodded at her. This fairy, unlike most, was clothed, in tight shorts and an equally short top, revealing much of her healthy, athletic bronze frame. Her long, flowing crimson hair seemed mirrored in her eyes, and was topped by curly antennae, shifting slightly in the soft warm breeze. “Okay. My name’s Relina. I completely understand the argument for not eating humans and all, but it acts as a pretty nice deterrent for keeping the place from being overrun by human kind. It’s part of Valka Fae tradition to spend time away from the spire on various worlds in various dimensions, to learn of new cultures and of course fighting techniques. I have to say, in many cases humans resemble locusts when left unchecked - though that is not always true. Isn’t a jungle full of giant man-eating she-beasts a good way to preserve that?”

The very tall, stunning blue-haired fairy sitting beside her, clearly a friend of hers, slammed her hand over her own face at that, and shook her head.

I…” Shelny blinked. “I’ll take that as a question for me.” She thought for a moment. “It’s not an easy question. I admit, I’ve talked to human travellers quite a bit, and so I’ve heard of worlds where humans are the dominant species. In some cases, they do seem to have caused quite a lot of damage. Destroying the forests, for example. And doing a lot of harm to the other creatures on those worlds.”

Whereas here, we keep them under control,” Relina said. “There are human outposts, but they don’t really expand. And native humans in the forest spend more time hiding from us than anything else.”

Yes; they don’t have the opportunity to cause damage,” Shelny agreed, reluctantly. “But would they cause damage, if they could? Native humans are creatures of the forest, like all of us. This is their environment. I don’t think they’d try to destroy it.”

What about humans from off-world?” Irenn said. “Relina makes a good point. Humans expand, into undeveloped worlds, and destroy them. The whole reason why they don’t come here is because we eat them. It dissuades them.” She smirked.

I don’t think that’s really an excuse to eat native humans, though,” Shelny said gently. “And as for those that come from other worlds: Surely we could dissuade them without eating them. Just the fact that we’re here, and that we’re so much bigger than them; that probably dissuades a lot of them already.”

I’m not convinced,” Irenn said. “I wouldn’t want to risk living in a world reshaped and dominated by humans.”

It’s not a reason to eat elves, in any case,” Shelny piped in quickly.

Let’s move on,” Irenn said with a little smile. “Yes?” She nodded at the dridder within Relina’s group of friends.

The dridder, who had been lying on folded legs following the discussion with quiet interest, straightened up. She was beautiful, with a fine, elfin build, her skin a warm tanned hue, complementing her lovely, flowing dark brown hair. Strikingly, she had four eyes, of an intense beautiful amber. The arachnid part of her body was a deep dark black, her eight legs curved, spiny and somewhat vicious looking, contrasting strongly with her pleasant demeanour. Unlike the fairy, she was naked.

I’m Noxcia,” she said. “And my question is for Shelny. It's so good to meet like-minded beings, as someone who also completely detests eating smaller intelligent life – or even those of my size.” They exchanged a warm smile. “My question is rather simple: Being that I can agree it’s wrong to prey on sapient life, but also recognise a person’s right to feed himself to survive – is it right to stop someone from eating what they’ve caught fair and square?” While Shelny considered that, the dridder went on: “As a scientist, I still recognise the laws of the jungle, and of survival – and I’m conflicted to interfere with a natural occurrence, but as a person I still feel it’s wrong to devour someone –I consider any living being I can rationalise with a someone and not a something– just because they taste better than the abundance of other things one could catch. I myself, am quite fond of tonorions for example – something I’ve heard many people hate, when I could eat... well... just about anyone in attendance here – something deep within tells me it’d be a lot better tasting – but I couldn’t live with the guilt of having snuffed out the life of a person, just for the sake of taste – which is why it seems most people prey on the small.”

I’m not sure the ‘laws of survival’ always factor into this,” Shelny replied, cautiously, continuing to think it through even as she spoke. “Very often, people don’t eat elves, or humans or nekos, in order to survive. As you said, there’s an abundance of other things to eat. When someone isn’t hungry but eats an elf as a treat, that’s not about survival, of course.” Noxcia nodded, looking pleased, and Shelny went on: “I’m not sure I’d call it a ‘natural occurrence’, either. We’re sapient beings, and that means we’re capable of thinking about our natural instincts, rather than just following them. Even though I know Irenn thinks our instincts give us moral guidance.”

She paused, then went on: “As to your question… When we see someone who’s about to eat someone, should we intervene and stop them? I don’t know. For me personally, that question is mostly theoretically. I don’t move around, so I only physically meet people who come to me. And people who know me don’t come here carrying people they’re going to eat. I live here with fairies, most of whom do eat people, especially nekos; there are quite a few around here. But they go out and hunt, and eat their food where they catch it; they don’t bring it here to eat, since they know I wouldn’t like that.” She addressed a gentle little smile to those of ‘her’ fairies who were present and listening. “What does happen sometimes is that, through the dryad network, I can sense a dryad enjoying an elf, or some other little. I admit, when that happens I just tune out. I could, I suppose, try to intervene. I could ask that dryad to spit that person out and let him, or her, go. I could even shout at her through the network, and try to make her uncomfortable. But I don’t.”

She paused again, a little ill at ease, and gathered her thoughts. “Partly, I must admit, there’s a selfish reason for that. If I started attacking or shouting at people who comes to see me, or who talk to me through the network, very soon I would find myself… rather isolated.” She swallowed nervously. “I know that’s not a very noble reason for not helping people, but it wouldn’t be very nice of me to start being aggressive that way. Also… Well, also, it’s my point of view that eating people is wrong. But it seems that most people disagree with me. And even if I think that they’re wrong, what right would I have to try and force my views on them? To try and force them to follow my moral values? I can’t. I shouldn’t.” Another pause. “Now, for people who are able to move around… If you come across a stranger who’s about to eat an elf… What should you do? I suppose… I suppose the right thing to do, in principle, is to ask the person politely not to eat him. Maybe explain why; maybe offer some other food instead. Be polite, rather than aggressive. Try to explain why you think it’s wrong. If the person still intends to eat the elf, I… I don’t know. I really don’t. It feels wrong to impose my morality on someone who doesn’t share my views. But it also seems wrong to do nothing while a person gets eaten. I don’t think I would try to snatch the elf away from the person’s hand, or anything. That would be a bit extreme. But I’d feel bad about him being eaten.” She stopped, and winced, unhappily. “I realise that’s not much of an answer. I’m sorry. But it’s the best I can think of, right now. Maybe there’s an ideal answer, but if so, I don’t know what it is.”

I don’t know either,” Noxcia said, with a kind, gentle little smile. “But I’m glad to be able to talk about it.”

Well I’m glad nobody intends to go around snatching elves out of hungry people’s hands,” Irenn said mildly. “That would be extreme. We’re all entitled to try and work out the morality of our actions by ourselves, without having other people’s views forced on us.”

Shelny glanced over a little nervously at where the Kadar soldiers had been, half-expecting to hear them express blunt disagreement. But they seemed to have withdrawn from sight, for now.

That said,” Irenn told Noxcia, “I’d be very interested to have a longer conversation with you later. If you agree? I think we can have an interesting exchange of ideas. With Shelny too, if she wants.”

Yes, of course,” Noxcia said pleasantly. “I’d be delighted.”

You said you’re a scientist?”

That’s right. I’m from another world originally, and I was in medical research. Trying to develop immunities to protect people from disease.”

From another world? All the more reason for me to want to talk to you more later,” Irenn beamed. “I’ll look forward to it. Shall we–”

Oh by the way, Shelny…” Noxcia said. “Sorry,” she told Irenn, realising she had cut her off.

No, it’s okay.”

I was going to say, Shelny, that thing you said earlier about killing food before eating it, so as to minimise the pain… I agree. When I eat animals, I kill them first, quickly. Or at the very least, I use my venom to make them numb.”

Shelny smiled, touched and quietly grateful. “Thank you,” she said softly. “I’m glad that someone at least does that.”

Shall we move on?” Irenn suggested.

Well, I can think of someone who earned herself a thousand laps around the spire,” the tall blue-haired fairy said, nudging Relina and then putting an arm round her. “I’m Natalie, by the way; Relina’s mum. Since my precious baby girl didn't ask the question, I will... Simply put, what's wrong with culling the weak? Every time we go into the jungle, or to another world, we accept that death could come for us anytime. In cases where we encounter our dinner, we opt to give them a chance – on their terms, to save themselves, which is far more than they get from most – be they talking in a sweet voice or slobbering and roaring all over the place. If they can't save themself on their own terms, then they probably weren't going to last long anyway. So at best we save them from being torn apart by some random jungle beast.”

Shelny half-opened her mouth to respond, but Natalie had not quite finished yet.

And if that doesn't suit your fancy, then I'll ask you this,” she went on. “We valka fae are fairies, and though we may have a different set of laws and beliefs than the fairies native to Felarya, there is one thing we both hate – Fairy hunters. Just as I look at my clan as all being my precious little angels – I’m sure it’s no different with the other fairies. Is it wrong for us to hunt fairy hunters and devour them – the very same people who take fairies from their families and sell them into slavery or into death? Even if we didn’t eat them, that wouldn’t stop fairy hunters – or kidnappers of any kind really. Where do ethics come in there, hmm?” Then, as though to take some of the sting out of her words, she smiled.

Right,” Shelny said. “Um… Okay.” She ran her hand through her dark hair, thinking quickly. “Well, I can certainly relate to you on that. As you may have seen, there’s a tribe of fairies who live here with me. Most of them are out right now, but…” She gestured over at some of those in attendance, who waved cheerily. “Like you, I love my fairy friends to bits. They’re my precious little darlings. The thought of anyone hurting or capturing them, enslaving them, putting them in a cage and terrifying them, is one of the few things that makes me really, really angry.” She paused, to calm herself. Even the thought had been enough to upset her greatly. She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “So I don’t like fairy hunters,” she said, as calmly as she could. “I have no sympathy for them, and I can’t say I’m all that sorry when one of them gets eaten.”

There were a few cheers, and not just from the fairies present, as well as a smattering of applause. She blushed, mildly embarrassed.

No, wait, don’t… I haven’t finished yet. As I was… As I was going to say, kidnapping fairies is a horrible thing to do, and fairy hunters have to be stopped, but that still doesn’t justify eating them. Or at least, it can’t justify eating them alive. That’s simply too cruel. Nobody deserves that. Eating people should never, ever be used as a punishment. It’s horribly cruel, and completely disproportionate.” She stopped, and looked round at them, a little worried at their possible responses. This time there was no applause, though some did look thoughtful, and they were all still listening. Some were frowning in disagreement, unimpressed.

As for ‘culling the weak’,” she went on, “there’s nothing morally justifiable about that. We’re not savage beasts; we’re people. We feel empathy; that’s really what makes us people. Even Irenn said, earlier, that if she sees an injured elf, she may want to help him. Besides, why should the weak be punished? Imagine, if you like, a human who’s a good person on his world. A healer, maybe, who helps the injured. He’s not physically strong, but he’s good at what he does, and kind. One day, he finds himself in Felarya by mistake. Should he be ‘culled’? Obviously not.” She paused. “Maybe it’s true that some littles would die anyway. But you don’t know; so that’s no excuse for killing them. And it’s certainly no excuse for making them suffer.”

I agree with one thing you said: I have no sympathy for fairy hunters,” Irenn said darkly. “And that really means no sympathy at all. The more of them get eaten, the better the world will be. For the rest… Yes, if you catch a human, it’s yours. I’d say you have a moral obligation not to be cruel to it, but eating is natural, not cruel. And I agree that if it gets caught, it was probably going to get itself eaten at some point anyway. Yes?” she gestured at another fairy, who was clearly keen to intervene. This time, it was the lovely mauve-skinned friend of Crisis’, with iridescent wings, and a pair of antlers rising from her long turquoise hair. “Melany, right?”

Yes, I wanted to say… I agree with Natalie. If a human gets caught in one of my traps, it’s totally fair game! It means they weren’t going to go very far anyway, and if they’re going to end up in someone’s tummy, it might as well be mine!" She grinned, and patted her belly playfully.

Irenn laughed. “You’ll get no argument from me there! Anyone else?”

Ciel, the green-skinned dridder, put up her hand politely. “Can I have another question? After what Natalie said.”

Of course!” Irenn said cheerily.

For you this time Shelny, if you don't mind.”

Shelny nodded. “Please.” After Natalie’s disconcerting and –in her view– rather callous opinions, she was hoping the pleasant, mild-mannered dridder might offer something a bit more manageable.

If we were to follow and accept the argument that the lives of littles are important and shouldn't be eaten,” Ciel asked, “just how far should we take this? I guess what I'm trying to say is, even if we don't eat them, if we were to leave them alone they would surely run into someone or something else later eventually, like what Natalie was saying. By just letting them face those dangers, wouldn't we be just as responsible? I think it would be a bit impractical to try and bring every little human to a safe place like their city. So what should we do with them?"

Well, n-no, I don’t think we have a strong moral duty to pick up all the littles we find and bring them to safety,” Shelny agreed, with slight reluctance. “That wouldn’t be practical, as you said. And anyway, most often they might not want to be moved from where they are. If they’re rational adults, we shouldn’t move them against their wishes. Even though they’re small and fragile.” She paused. “Of course, if you can get some to safety, in a way that’s not too inconvenient for you, and if they themselves agree, then that’s a very good and kind thing to do. You don’t have to, but it’s a very great moral good if you do. If the little is there by accident, and is lost and frightened, then of course we should do something to help if we can. Even if that’s just pointing them in the right direction to safety, or taking them part of the way. Or giving them information or advice that can help them to survive. There are various degrees of help, all of which are good.” She smiled at Ciel warmly. “Simply not eating them is a start, of course. Beyond that, you can help them, but you mustn’t feel responsible for everything that might happen to every little you can’t help.”

Ciel nodded, seeming grateful, and pensive.

I’ve helped littles, at times,” Irenn mused. “Finding them lost in the forest, and taking them safely to Kortiki.”

Shelny gave her a little smile. “I think you’d agree that was a good thing to do?”

Yes.” She smiled back. “Or at least, I like to think so.”

Of course, for me, this is again one of those theoreticals,” the dryad admitted. “Since I’m rooted in one place, I can’t actually carry a human to safety. What I do is, I give them a safe space right here to spend a bit of time, when they need it. A safe place to sleep, until they move on. And I tell them how to get to the dimensional gate, of course. It’s not all that far. I know I’ve saved a few lives, doing that.” She said it quietly, not quite looking at anyone, a brief faraway look in her green-brown eyes.

She was brought back to the here and now by a gentle, rather timid nudge within her mind. “Ah.” She smiled a little. “I have another dryad on the line, who’d like to ask a question. Her name is Hazel.”

Let’s hear her,” Irenn said pleasantly.

Go ahead, Hazel, Shelny said kindly. Don’t be shy. She knew Hazel a little, or at least knew of her, though they were not closely acquainted. Still young, and rooted on the edge of the Forest of whispers, the green-haired dryad was sweet as could be, but something of an introvert. She linked with others occasionally, but never deeply, and soon withdrew back into herself. Shelny had never pried into why, though there were rumours about a traumatic event that had affected the young woman; and she knew that dryads rooted closest to Hazel were trying gently to make her more sociable.

The very fact that she was participating in this debate, even only briefly, was a pleasant and encouraging surprise.

Ummm... okay, uh, I guess this is for Irenn... if that's okay?”

Go ahead, sweetie, Shelny told her.

I recently met some humans who were really nice to me. Uhh, I'm still too small to eat humans without a fairy to shrink them, but these ones gave me food and seemed really... nice. I let them go, but I've been feeling kinda bad about eating humans at all now. So, umm, my question is – if humans can be nice and friendly and helpful and stuff, wouldn't it be better to at least make sure they're not before eating them? Okaythat'smyquestionbye!"

Shelny smiled gently as she passed on the question to Irenn.

Okay,” the fairy said, thoughtfully. “That means you’re a sensitive person, Hazel; and that’s good. But I don’t think it’s always practical to try and find out what sort of character and behaviour a specific human has. We can’t start talking to every single human we catch, and try to test them. That would just complicate our lives far too much. Not to mention,” she added quickly, “that holding them and testing them would probably just make them more afraid, which Shelny here would say is unethical.” She smiled slightly. “So no, I would say you can eat whatever you want, especially if you’re hungry. I understand you’re quite young? You shouldn’t let yourself go hungry just because of such doubts. You need to eat if you want to be healthy. But of course if you have a particular feeling about a particular human, and so if you don’t want to eat that human, then of course it’s okay to let it go.” She paused. “As long as you’re sure he’s not going to come back and hurt you!” she added, as the thought struck her. “If you’re a dryad, and you’re stuck in one place, you have to be very careful about letting humans see you and then get away. Some of them can be nasty. Don’t take any risks.”

Carver and Ian appeared to be having an animated whispered discussion, or argument, between themselves. Shelny heard one of them say, in his strange artificial voice, “…sounds like a sweet kid, I don’t want…”, but she did not listen in further. She could sense Hazel’s worry, and tried her best to soothe it.

It’s true that some humans are nasty, but most of them are nice,” she began, reassuringly.

They’re more than just nice; they’re delicious,” Melany quipped, and licked her lips.

I mean they’re nice people,” Shelny clarified firmly. “Most of them. You shouldn’t show yourself when you’re not sure about them, of course, but feeling sympathy for humans is good. If you start to feel bad about eating them, well, you know you don’t have to eat any. If you spare them, you may find that you feel very good about yourself. And it’s good for the humans too, of course, since they prefer to stay alive.”

Okay, thanks,” Hazel sent, with endearing shyness. Shelny felt her mentally withdraw, but she was still there, within the network. She had not tuned out of the audience.

I think we’ll be winding this up soon,” Irenn said amiably. “Has anyone not asked their question yet? You, maybe?” She had skipped over to face the redhead giantess accompanying Starwind. The woman, dressed in surprisingly human-like clothing, was sitting with her back to a large tree, half dozing. She looked up, a little startled, at the energetic fairy.

Um, no thanks,” she said bluntly. “I’m just here to… yeah. I’m just listening. It’s all very interesting.” Her tone belied the politeness of her words; she looked as though she might be trying to stifle a yawn. Clearly she had come merely to look after her little human friend.

The gorgeous, mocha-skinned, large-breasted naga a few steps away raised a hand and waved it, smiling. “Me, maybe? ’Name’s Malika.”

Malika.” Irenn darted daintily over to her. “Please, go ahead. Is your question for Shelny, or for me?”

For Shelny.” She grinned, looking straight at the dryad. “Sug’, I just want to know if you’re free after this is over – I got a few things I’ve been itchin’ to try, and I ain’t been able to get my hands on a willin’ tree gal to try it.”

Her grin broadened upon seeing Shelny’s startled blush, and Relina glared at her. “All right, all right! My question is kinda like that gorgeous gal over there with all the legs asked.” She gestured at Ciel, flashing the dridder a friendly grin. “But for a naga it’s a bit different. Let’s say I had a friend that eats folk of the larger persuasion – if there’s nothin’ else to eat that’d fill her large stomach, since we’re talkin’ ’bout protectin’ the lil’ ones – then wouldn’t eatin’ a giant be like savin’ the lil’ ones as well? Just like eatin’ a neko is protectin’ the tinies? All this who and what not to eat has me feelin’ just a tad confused...”

Right…” Shelny was still trying to bring her blush under control, and to focus on the sultry naga’s actual question. It was –as her mind clicked into gear– a perfectly valid and slightly difficult one. Asked by a very lovely naga, she thought, despite herself, a touch of colour spreading once more over her cheeks. “So you’re asking if eating a giant might be more ethical, or less unethical, than eating a whole group of little elves? For example. Or even if eating a giant might be good, because otherwise that giant would go on to eat elves and humans later on.”

That’s the question, hun’,” Malika confirmed, still smiling at her very enticingly. “I mean, if there’s all sorts’a rules now, and all, it’d kinda be good ta’ know what we’re doin’ right. Or not. Right?”

This friend of yours…” Irenn asked, curious. “Hypothetical? Or do you really know a naga who eats giants?”

Maybe.” Malika grinned again. “Maybe not. Let’s go with ‘hypothetical’.”

On the second part of the question, I’d have to say that eating a giant to prevent him from possibly eating other people later on is wrong,” Shelny said, carefully. “Otherwise, as we said earlier, we’d all be going around killing one another, and we’d all become quite paranoid. On the first part… I’m not sure we can really do it with numbers. I don’t think eating a giant is less wrong just because there’s one of him, as opposed to eating half a dozen littles. Obviously my view is that we should eat neither. Even a naga with a very large appetite should be able to find other sources of food. Most of us don’t need to eat people – of any size.” She paused. “Irenn? What do you think?”

The fairy rubbed at her cheek, thoughtfully. “I’d heard of predators eating big people, of course. If it’s something that they do naturally, it would be difficult for me to say that it’s wrong. Instead, I’d just try to stay away from them, I think.” She smiled. “But the idea of deliberately targeting a giant so as to avoid eating littles… I think that would be rather perverse.”

Oh, and to answer your other question, Malika,” Shelny put in, with a meaningful smile. “Yes, I am free after this.” She looked straight at her in turn, and felt a warm little tingle at the look of pleasure on the naga’s face. It had been a while since she had enjoyed a bit of casual sex, and although she did not often crave it, she saw no reason to pass up on the offer. No reason at all, she thought, pleased, gazing with a soft smile at the lovely, alluring woman.

Irenn laughed, gently. “Well, maybe we should wrap this up soon, then! Has everyone had their say?”

Actually, if I may…” The voice, which they all turned their heads towards, came from off to the side, where a couple of Kadar soldiers in armour now stood once more. One was a male giant, sullen-looking and silent. The other was a female sphinx, all the more resplendent in her alien black-and-orange armour, its many small plates bound together with glowing seams. With shoulder-length light brown hair and a naturally graceful build, she wore a sword strapped to her back, and her face was stern. Her voice and expression darkened the comfortable levity which had begun to permeate this sun-kissed patch of forest, where the little gathering had sat lounging about, talking and sitting, their tummies full of the treats which the Kadar themselves had earlier provided.

The soldiers, who had seemed to disappear for a while, had now returned, and their very presence felt menacing. There were a few uncomfortable looks between the participants. Tache –one of the closest– edged away from them, with several rapid, cautious steps. Crisis tensed a little, her soft lovely face wary. Noxcia’s pose had stiffened, while Ciel got carefully to her feet. On one of the trees, Carver and Ian too had got up, sensing the shift in atmosphere.

Shelny hesitated for a moment, then nodded at the sphinx politely. “Please, yes. Ask your question.”

And if we could have your name?” Irenn interjected.

Songraka,” the sphinx said curtly. “It’s come to my attention that some of the giants present have at least one friend of smaller size.” Her gaze flicked to the redhead giantess, just long enough to pierce her, then swept over the whole gathering once more. “These friends are dear and precious to you. In a number of cases, some of you might even give your lives to protect your precious littles. It is to you I ask what is the true difference between your loved ones and your victims, apart from your own views on these particular people?”

The question hung in the air for several long, uncomfortable seconds. Then, as though naturally, or by some unspoken accord, people began to look towards the giantess. A question for her, it seemed to be. And so, quietly, they found themselves urging her to answer. To satisfy the alien soldier, and enable her to withdraw, removing the discomfort from their presence. Sensing the waiting, heavy gazes, the giantess looked up.

What, me?” she asked, with what sounded like a touch of scorn.

You travel with a human,” Songraka said bluntly. “I imagine he is dear to you.”

Yes he is.” The woman’s own tone was immediately hostile, reacting to the pressure in the sphinx’s query.

Do you eat littles?”

None of your business.”

All right, now stop, please!” Shelny interjected quickly. “This isn’t what we’re here for. I don’t want us to start accusing each other. And our guests here don’t have to answer any questions.” She offered the giantess an apologetic little smile. “I’ll see what I can make of the question, if you like.”

Songraka stood still for a moment, then inclined her head in apparent acceptance.

I can understand people becoming attached to a particular little. I agree, of course, that every little person is, inherently, of equal… I was going to say, of equal value. Equally precious, I think I mean. Or should be.” She paused, feeling a little flustered. “Objectively, we should all respect the lives of all littles. There’s no reason to not… There’s no…” She stopped, annoyed at herself. The implicit threat that seemed to hang in the air had unsettled her, and she was finding it difficult to put her thoughts into some sort of coherent order.

Morally, we have a duty to respect the wish of all littles to continue living,” Noxcia said, calmly, coming to her aid. Her gaze, however, was on the sphinx. “I think perhaps you should go now,” she told the Kadar, rather quietly.

The tense silence filled the air a moment longer. Then Songraka, with a twitching little grimace of her lips, inclined her head once more, fractionally, and stepped back. She turned and, with her silent companion, withdrew.

An audible sigh of relief emerged from several chests, the onlookers catching their breath.

Thank you,” Shelny said to Noxcia, softly.

The dridder nodded. “No problem. So… Have we finished, then?”

Maybe I’ll just conclude,” Irenn said, more brightly than Shelny would have thought possible after the uncomfortable moment that had just passed. “Let’s see… We’ve heard quite a lot of opinions and arguments, but what does it boil down to? Shelny here” –she smiled at her– “has suggested that things like pain or fear, real or supposed, are morally relevant criteria when deciding what food we should eat. That may sound sensible enough, but in my view, it’s rather too subjective. Why are these relevant criteria? To most of us, it doesn’t seem that way. So on what clear, objective grounds is Shelny’s morality based on? I respect her views, and I find her willpower quite admirable, but I don’t find those views persuasive.” She paused. “We also heard a very interesting exchange earlier between Shelny and Noxcia. On the question of whether it might be okay, or even a moral obligation, to kill people to prevent them from eating littles. Now, luckily, neither Shelny nor Noxcia are actually going to do that. But you’ll note that they both hesitated, and neither of them was able to say clearly that murdering people for their opinions and diet is wrong. Clearly and objectively and unquestionably wrong. I would suggest” –she looked round at them all, her expression serious, though still with a hint of a smile– “that that’s what happens when we ignore what we know to be right and wrong, and start trying to set up our own subjective moral standards. It leads to confusion, it leads to absurdities, and it may even lead to us doing things, or at least contemplating things, that clearly are immoral. And that all of us would normally recognise as such.”

She stopped, took a quick breath, and beamed round at them, before turning to the dryad. “That’s it for me. Shelny, do you want the last word?” she asked brightly.

Um, okay.” Shelny was still trying to absorb the unexpected sting of the fairy’s sudden attack on her views. For a moment, it had left her reeling, and even uncertain. She knew that Irenn had meant no unkindness by it; she was merely trying to make a point. But had she really uncovered a gaping flaw in Shelny’s morality? The dryad pulled herself together.

Right, first, I’ll say that obviously we mustn’t kill people because of their opinion, or because of what they eat–”

Good; thanks,” Irenn said. “I’m glad to hear you say it.”

Second, on objective morality… I do think that pain and fear are objectively moral criteria. I think it’s clear to us all that, when we hunt and catch and eat littles, they’re afraid. They’re terrified. And if we digest them alive, they’re clearly going to be in pain. There’s no way of denying that.” She paused, and took a quick breath in turn. “Irenn says it’s all ‘subjective’, or ‘personal’. But it isn’t. To me, if we want to live a good, ethical life, then logically the starting point, the very basis of morality, is to try to avoid causing fear and pain. To not cause fear and pain, or any form of distress, when we can avoid it. I think we all know that that really is the basis of morality. Think about it. There can be no morality which isn’t founded, first and foremost, on the idea of not causing avoidable pain and distress. That being true, and since eating littles does hurt and distress them, the inescapable logical, moral conclusion is that we shouldn’t eat littles, when we can avoid it. That eating littles is wrong.”

She stopped, and moistened her lips, just a little nervously, looking round at them. “That’s all. I’ve finished. Thank you. Thank you for coming, and for listening, and for your questions, that gave me a lot to think about. I hope I gave you something to think about too, and that Irenn did as well. We’ll let you… well, it’s up to you now. I’ll just be quiet.” She smiled.

It was Ian who began to applaud first, politely. Then Noxcia, and Ciel; and Crisis too, with surprising enthusiasm, though perhaps that was just her way of being friendly. Then most of the others joined in, to varying degrees. Shelny smiled, touched, almost shyly, while Irenn thanked them with a bow, amused. Melany, however, had her arms crossed over her chest, looking displeased and dubious. Dimly, Shelny heard her say to Crisis: “You do realise what you’re applauding, right?”.

Out of curiosity,” Irenn asked, “is there anyone here who eats littles but who’s now thinking of stopping?”

They looked round at one another. Shelny’s gaze travelled over them, a little anxious. Truth be told, she would have preferred the question not to be asked. The thought of having changed nobody’s mind, despite all her efforts, was disheartened.

I’ll… certainly think about it,” Ciel said, a little shyly, as though hesitant to break the silence. “There were things I hadn’t thought of, and I’ll… think about them.” She gave a little smile.

Tache was shaking her head quietly. “They’re yummy, and that’s that,” Melany said, firmly. Relina grinned at that, and nodded. But within the dryad network, Shelny could sense an echo of Hazel’s silent thoughts and feelings. The young dryad, too, would be thinking about it. And maybe, just maybe, she and Ciel would start to see littles in a different way. A kinder way. Elsewhere in the network, she could sense reluctant hesitation, or uncertainty, from other dryads too.

Maybe a few lives would be spared, and saved, after today. Not many, perhaps. But every single one mattered.

And Noxcia?” Irenn queried, playfully. “You’re the only one here, apart from Shelny, who doesn’t eat them. I don’t suppose I’ve changed your mind? I haven’t tempted you to try a few elves?”

Noxcia smiled faintly. “No,” she said simply. “You haven’t.”

Is it finished?” a pretty, dark-haired fairy piped up. She had been sitting to one side with three other of Shelny’s usual fairy companions. The dryad turned to them, and smiled warmly.

It’s finished.”

At that, the fairies got to their feet, and hurried or flew over. As one, they piled round her, hugging her.

You were great!” they gushed, all speaking at once. “You’re so clever!” “All those things you said!” “You’re the best!” One of them fluttered up, kissed her lips, and hugged her tight. Shelny laughed, happily, and held them all close to her.

My little sweeties…” She kissed one on the forehead, tenderly, and stroked another’s soft long hair, gently rubbing another’s back. “I love you all so much.”

We know,” one said, with a happy smile, and nuzzled up against her.

I’m still not sure why you had this whole talk about food, though,” another said, a little hesitantly. “It was to say you don’t like eating elves, right? I think I got that, at least.”

That’s right,” Shelny said gently.

But why were you talking about–”

Shh.” Shelny kissed her softly. “Later, okay? I’ll answer all your questions, later. For now, can you help me find some fruit and nice fresh food-plants for our guests, for lunch?” She looked up, to her audience. “I know it’s a bit early for lunch, and most of you aren’t hungry, but if some of you would like to stay a while, I’d be delighted for you to be my guests at lunchtime. And we can talk about… other things now.” She smiled.

Thank you,” Tache said, brightly. “I’ll stay, if that’s okay.”

Me too.” Malika winked. “And after lunch-time too, if you’ll have me.”

Shelny merely grinned. She turned once more to her fairy friends. “Can you find some food? Fruit and plants only, please. The yummiest ones you can find.” They responded enthusiastically, eager as ever to please. They would make it into a game, she knew. A race of some sort, perhaps. Almost everything was a game, to them. Their lives were full of carefree, simple pleasures – and she adored them for it.

I’ll help you find food!” Crisis offered cheerfully. “I’m good at that. And I’d like to help. What kind of fruit do you have around here?”

Well, if there’s going to be lunch…” The redhead giantess got to her feet, while careful not to spill Starwind out of her lap. She walked over to Shelny, and held out a hand, with a friendly smile that managed to look almost natural. “I’m Elli. I don’t think I introduced myself properly, earlier.”

A most fascinating discussion,” Starwind put in. “Most enlightening to hear these views put forward by an apex predator of this world. Though if I may, later on, I have a few thoughts on some of the points raised. If you would be willing to pursue the discussion…”

Looking round, after exchanging brief formal pleasantries with the redhead and her human, Shelny saw that Irenn was already engaged in a fascinated, animated conversation with Noxcia. Over the snippets and hum of other people’s voices, she heard that they were talking about ‘research’, of some sort. Any disagreement they might have had earlier had been buried by delving into a topic of mutual interest. She saw, too, that Carver and Ian had vanished. She looked round, worried, but there was no sign of them. She hoped they had left quietly by themselves, rather than someone having discreetly eaten them up while no-one was looking. But then, they had seemed quite capable of looking after themselves…

Ciel had scuttled up to her. The pretty dridder’s light green skin and darker green hair were dappled in patterns of warm sunlight, mirrored in her yellow eyes.

Well done,” she smiled. “I meant what I said; you’ve really given me something to think about. Humans do taste nice, but I’ve been thinking for a while that there might be more to them than that. I’ve met a few interesting ones, with real personalities, and, well… It did make me think.” She looked up at her with friendly curiosity. “How long has it been since you stopped eating them? Was it very difficult?”

Shelny returned the smile, pleased, as she began to formulate an answer in her mind. This had gone, she felt, rather better than she had dared imagine. Most of the audience seemed to have listened with genuine interest, and some at least had taken in what she had said. They were company, too; she rarely had so many people come to see her, and she was looking forward to getting to know some of them a little better. They would share lunch, later on, and talk about… whatever they wanted, and perhaps they would come and see her again after that. And then there was Malika, leaning against a nearby tree for now, striking the most stunningly sexy pose and eyeing her with a meaningfully warm gleam in her bright green eyes.

After the nervous effort of her talk, Shelny was feeling a little tired. And yet, with all the novelty and excitement, and the friendliness of her visitors, she was feeling energised, too. The warm sunlight bathed her, nourishing her, warming her, as she chatted pleasantly with Ciel, content.