A/N: Thanks to the lovely reviewers from chapter 1, all two of you. I'm sorry that this is even a bit longer than the first chapter, but hopefully you've decided to stick with it...please leave a comment! Praise, constructive criticism, whatever. It's all great. Thanks!
Ch.2 Wordcount: 5 500


"Hold on, boss, ah'm seein' somethin'."

Wester adjusted the radio at his ear. "And?"

"People. Migh' be bodies, though."

"If they're alive, we can save them," he reminded the scout, lowering the airship. "Park, or no?"

"Yeah. Park. They musta got our calendar from a travellin' bard, if they're so far from home."

Harper was on Bottomzone, perched precariously on a rusted metal foothold at the side of the airship. He had to shout over the wind to make his voice heard, and even then, the thickness of his costal accent made him almost impossible to understand. But the message was clear.

"They're children?" checked Wester.

"Can' really tell from this height, but I reckon so. Children or puny adults."

"Alright. Get Fylliá to take defence down to Hatch 2, and probably Zephyr and his healers. Rio's on maintenance today?"

"Yeah, boss."

"She can lower the bow and stern anchors."

"Roger, boss. Over."

Harper drew in a deep breath, double checking the huge carabineers that kept him from tumbling off the ship, and sent a radio signal to the head of defence. "Oi," he said, "You there, Fylliá?"

"Yes," the unmistakable northern accent drawled. "Your ass need saving from something?"

"Nah!" he replied indignantly. "Wester needs you an' defence at Hatch 2, we're spottin' some people but either they're dead, or they're injured, or they're adults, so take a couple o' older ones, kay?"

"Done," came her reply after a moment. "How's maintenance today? Over."

"You shut it, wildling. Over."

There was a cackle and a burst of static. Harper shook his head with a little laugh, looped his arm through the foothold above him, and sent a radio to Zephyr.

"Who's this?" said the healer. "Have we found someone?"

"It's Harper, an' we're seein' some people but they's injured or they's dead, or they just decided to fall asleep in the stream, so we need you an' one or two other healers at Hatch 2. With healing supplies, I reckon."

"Alright. Anything else?"

"Nope. I got Fylliá and a couple from defence crew in case they're bait for Recruiters or summat."

"Sounds like an adventure. Over."

Harper sighed heavily, checking his position on the ladder once again. He was secure as he could get, but still, hanging off the side of an airship tended to be frightening, no matter how used to it you were. And now, for Rio. He buzzed line 6, alerting the whole maintenance crew. "Rio?"

There came a crash and a shouted, "What?"

"It's Harper. We're parking."

"Which anchors?"

He hesitated. "You en't, uh… breakin' stuff, are you?"

"No!" she replied too quickly, stifling a laugh. "Which anchors?"

"Bow an' stern, you know the drill. Over."
"Fine! Over."

Harper drew in a breath as the airship descended steadily at Wester's command, squinting in the wind despite his goggles.

"Aight, let's see who we got," he said to himself, scampering along the side of the blimp, down the ladder towards Hatch 2. The airship stopped, and anchors from the stern and bow were lowered unsteadily. Hatch 2 slid open, the sound of metal scraping on metal filling the air, and a rope ladder unfurled. He unclipped himself and began to descend the ladder, disregarding the fifty-foot drop to the ground.

Harper always had liked the Brightwaters—they were so different from the rocky west coast in Kaigan. But they were beautiful, the flat golden expanses of sand and the—well, the bright water—making everything look paradisiacal. He was always glad to have avoided the inland desert, though. It was nasty. The climate was nasty. The tiny little towns were nasty and the slave drivers were everywhere.

As soon as his feet hit the ground, Harper stared up at the hatch. Fylliá was following right behind him, blades at her side, and behind her came four defence crew members. Zephyr and his healers were just above them.

"Weapons ready?" asked Harper, trying to sound nonchalant.

Fylliá rolled her eyes. "Obviously. But do you really think this is a trap?"

"You like this airship, yeah? You don' want it to be overridden by vandals? OK. Just checkin'."

She scoffed and pulled her defence crew off to the side. "Formation B," she called, "If they're threats. You know the drill."

Zephyr and his group landed, and Harper waved them forwards. He couldn't help running along the beach, towards the paper-thin stream that snaked towards the sea. Why were they asleep in it?

As he approached the bodies, it became clear that they were children. The boy couldn't have been older than fourteen, and his friend could easily be ten. They carried a burlap sack with them and they were curled up together, faces almost entirely covered by fabric.

"Zephyr, stay back!" ordered Fylliá. "I'm searching the bag first." Kneeling in the sand, she tore through the sack, tossing blankets, a compass, preserved food and, oddly, a book aside.

She examined the two breathing bodies. "The only weapon I can find is some sort of tooth-knife on the girl. The boy…I don't know."

Harper squinted. "They're breathing, so not dead, an' they en't got proper weapons, radios, nothing, so probably not bait. Besides, we can see for days. There's no one around." He turned to Zephyr. "You better work your magic."

The healers stepped forward, crouching in a semicircle around the children and unbuttoning their bags. "They're asleep, I think," he said to his crew, checking the pulses, "Not knocked out. Probably exhausted."

"Wasn't heat," a younger healer added, pulling the girl's head wrap away an examining her. "They're from inland, surely, they're so dark, so they're used to all sorts of temperatures…"

"Why in the stream, then?"

"Think," said Zephyr, rolling his eyes in Fylliá fashion. "If you're being pursued by something, and you're from inland and your only hope is to get to the coast—probably because you know the Finner is coming, as shown by that book of theirs—then you make it and you're exhausted. So you go to the stream. And you collapse. I can't tell if they've got injuries, we'd have to undress them."

"Well, they've got sand all over, they're pretty gross," said a third healer. "We can try to wake them up if they're just asleep. They'll be needing a wash off."

"What they'll be," reminded Zephyr, "is fatigued, so we'd be smart to pay attention to what they say they want."

"How do we go about…you know…waking them?" asked the healer, shaking the boy's shoulder hesitantly.

At the feel of another human, Tate's eyes flew open.

Recruiters. They must have tracked them, they must have gotten them—but where was Asha? Why—

He sat bolt upright, head whipping around as everything came into focus. The sea. The sand. Then the people.

A group of concerned and mildly curious looking teenagers were crouched around him. Tate attempted to scuttle backwards, looking around for possible escape methods, when he noticed the airship.

It was huge, anchored to the ground and hovering just a few hundred feet away, and there were words unmistakeably painted onto the side.

The Finner.

Tate closed his eyes and sighed, the reality of the situation sinking in. They had made it, and the airship had found them.

"You're—" he started, and found his throat hoarse. A tan thick-haired boy promptly filled a tin cup with water from the stream (that he happened to be sleeping in) and tipped it into his mouth for him. "You're the crew. From the Finner."
"Yes," replied the boy who had given him the water, smiling with a rather self-satisfied look.

Another, far paler than the one who had just spoken, crouched excitedly. "You were lookin' fer us, 'en? You knew 'bout us?"

His accent. His accent was almost impossible to understand. Tate frowned. "Yes."

"Of course he did, dolt," said a girl off to the side. Her voice was entirely different. She had her back turned, and appeared to be searching for something. "Look at this."

She turned around with his book of Stories from the East in hand, and his jaw dropped.

The girl had an almost feral look, but her skin, it was white, like a cloud or—or—perhaps the glass cup they had at home, reserved for Mother or Father's wine. It made the first boy, the tan one, look as dark as him. Her skin looked seemed so…breakable. But she didn't. She looked tough as nails.

Now that he was noticing, though, there were more like her in the small crowd, teenagers whose skin was like another creature's.

"Look at his book."

Her accent was beautiful.

"All sorts of stories from the east…" she flipped through, turning to him. "Can I ask, how did you know we'd be here?"
Tate swallowed. "A bard. He came through, he told me about you. He was in my town a few weeks ago…when the things came, the Finner was the first thing I thought of because…well…I thought children could be trusted not to sell us to the masters at Rhoyar."

She nodded. "What things?"

Tate shook his head hurriedly. "Not—I—not now."

The children glanced among each other. They had to understand. They all came here because they had been running from something.

"Alrigh', Wester'll be glad about this, let's get em to the ship 'fore—"

"No," said the boy with the cup, "Aren't they washing first?"

Tate tried to follow the conversation. "Er—what? Wester?"

"We thought it'd be best for you and your friend—"

"—Sister—"

"—To wash off in the ocean before you come on the ship. We can get you new clothes and everything. I have soap."

Tate nodded. "That's a good idea." Turning to his left, he looked at Asha's sleeping face, and couldn't help being reminded of the reason he was still alive. It was easy to give up when there wasn't anyone who needed you. He shook her shoulder. "Asha! Wake up!"

Her eyes fluttered open, slower and much more peacefully than his had. "We made it," he said. "The Finner's here."

She stared at him blankly for a moment, blind to the crew around her, and then broke into a smile, wrapping her arms around his neck. He exhaled shakily. "Come on. We've slept for hours, we've got to wash off, and then we'll go on the ship, alright?"

"OK," she said, voice just as hoarse as his had been. It was then that Asha noticed the ten-odd teenagers watching intently. She stared at them as if they were another species. "Who're you?"

"Well," the pale blond boy with the weathered face and thick accent spoke up, "Ah'm Harper, head of Maintenance and Management, but really that's code for 'get bossed around by all the other heads'. And that's Zephyr, head Healer, an' his crew—well, a small part of it, anyway—Yin and Arren." He gestured to the boy who had supplied the water earlier, a girl with long black hair that was tied back and a boy who looked like he could have been from the desert. "Moody defence girl is Fylliá, she's from the Katisk Fields so no one can pronounce her name. Just say fee-lee-ah."

"It's Fylliá!" she said indignantly, spewing out some northern pronunciation. Fee-lyau? Fill-ee-auh? Tate shook his head. He had heard of the Katisks. They were legendary fields of ice and grass at the very top of the world; another world entirely and the people, too, were supposed to be creatures of their own. Wild and strong.

"Her defence crew are Galla, Teller, Mei, Bret."

Unsure if he would remember all the names, Tate nodded and stood, legs wobbling. "We'll go and…wash."

Zephyr dug through his bag and handed the siblings a bar of soap. "No rush, but don't dawdle," he smirked. "We'll stay here. Wester's excited to meet you, I'm sure."

Tate nodded his thanks, tripping on unstable legs as he and his sister made their way to the ocean, clutching the soap.

She glanced up at him, eyes sparkling. "This is unreal."

It didn't take long for Asha and Tate to scrub themselves down with Zephyr's soap and wrap the thin towels he had left out around them. The crew from the Finner stood a hundred feet away on the beach, pretending not to watch them.

The rope ladder was precarious, but they tried their best anyway, taking it in slow steps. "Newbies," she thought she heard the crewmember below her mutter.

Well, they were newbies.

"Now," said Harper, waiting at the top of the hatch and giving them an arm up. "Let me explain a coupla things.

"This is Hatch 2, where we're at, main exit hatch. Five levels to the ship—bottom, where maintenance crew does a lotta work, you'll see what I mean, as well as our storage space. An' exits, 'course. Second is operations level, third is kitchens an' eating an' some livin' space, then top is where most of the livin' space is—by which I mean the hammocks—and then there's the entrance to the nest. It's not quite that simple but you'll get what I mean, alright."

Tate nodded along, trying to take it in. Harper continued before he had a chance for more questions. "Most of our littleuns go back to the Kinderelle jus' soon as we pick em up. Not good to have seven-year-olds on your airship forever. When you're twelve you start a job—" he jabbed a thumb at Asha—"You twelve?"

"Yes!" she said reproachfully.

"Righ', well, you can both start working. Our branches are maintenance, care, prep, control, defence, healing, but newbies always start off peeling potatoes for a few weeks. Sorry, someone's gotta do it."

Asha frowned. "…Potatoes?"

"Delicacy from Antrem. They never rot."

"Speaking of food," Tate started, "We've been on the run. I think I need—"

"Aw! Yeah! Food!" exclaimed Harper, smacking himself in the face. "OK, forget it, before you get new clothes I'm gonna needa feed you. Now," he reminded, tone going stern for a moment, "normally we only eat at mealtimes, but we make an exception for newuns. Just know that we feed you lotsa good food, OK? No need to go hoarding."

"We're not used to lots of food," said Asha brightly, to which Tate elbowed her aggressively.

Harper's smile flickered for a moment. "Well…great," he said. "It'll be like a feast every night for you! C'mon." he began scaling a ladder—they were everywhere—that ascended through the metal ceiling of floor one. Fatigue was settling in, but Asha kept on climbing, past the second level where no one gave them a glance, the third where an abundance of people were running about. Buildings had been built into the floor, homes with in the home, small rooms labelled, Defence. Healing. Care. Everyone seemed too busy to notice them. By the time they had scaled the fourth ladder, her limbs were shaking.

The kitchens were simple. Four rows of impossibly long mats and elevated wooden tables that stood a foot off the ground. And behind it, another building labelled kitchen/ prep.

"Potato peeling's a standard for newuns, but after a few weeks in prep you can choose a specialty. Depending if there's a spot, that is. Some people stay in prep forever, like—" he opened the kitchen door—"San over here's head o' prep now, where is she…anyway! You get the idea."

He craned his neck. "San! Newuns! Starving!"

There was a clatter and the sound of footsteps. A tall, willowy tan girl with a dirty apron and thin black hair emerged. "Who—Harper! Hi!"

She wiped her hands on her apron and kissed his head fleetingly before doing the same to Asha and Tate, complete strangers.

"Estesians," he said. "Always doing that. It's a greeting. San, Asha and Tate, Asha and Tate, San."

"Hello," she beamed. "Looking for food?"

Asha nodded eagerly while Tate shifted from one foot to the other. He didn't want to need this stranger's food, but he didn't want to starve either.

"You can pay me back later by potato-peeling," she said brightly.

"So we've heard," muttered Tate, following her into the kitchen.

"I'll wait fer you to eat," announced Harper, "Cause then it's off to get clothes, you two really can't wear towels and underpants around anymore…"

He sat cross-legged and the siblings mimicked him, stomachs burning. But, thank the gods, it didn't take long for San to come out with two large, steamy bowls of food. Asha's mouth watered.

"Now," San warned, "you must eat slowly, otherwise you'll throw it up and then you won't be full. Take one bite, swallow, one bite swallow, or I'll take all your food away."

Asha nodded. Just give it to me!

She placed the bowls in front of them gently and sat herself. Asha dug in, heeding the cook's warning but putting huge, greedy bites into her mouth and chewing as fast as she could. "What is this stuff?" she asked, mouth full.

San leaned in. "Er, that's all rice—really filling—then flatbread, and that's vine, and—"

Harper gasped. "Mango!"

Asha paused to look at him confusedly.

"You gave them mango! An' two slices of it!"

She threw her hands up in the air. "They're new and they're starved! If they're inlanders, they've never tasted it before, so calm down."

He sighed dramatically. "Thought it was a dessert food."

San grinned wryly. "It is to you."

The bowl was large, and the rice was just as filling as the cook had promised. When Asha was done, her stomach felt heavy and her head drooped.

"Thank you," muttered Tate, handing the bowl to her and wiping his greasy hands on the towel.

"Alrigh'!" Harper exclaimed. "Time to find clothes, then maybe meet Wester—you've gotta meet him—and then you can rest 'till dinner, I guess. You mus' be tired."

"We've just slept for a long time," said Tate hesitantly, "but rest sounds…not bad."

"Well, clothes are all kept back on floor one. Sorry. But I reckon you don' wanna walk around in towels all the time."

So they went back down, the trip just as precarious as it was going up. Plus, Asha found her towel was slipping off, the knot in the fabric she had made earlier coming undone, so she had to hold it in place with one hand while she made her way.

"We 'aven' been having any attacks lately, an' you lot aren't even on defence, so armour isn' really necessary at this point," explained Harper, hopping off the ladder at floor one and walking along, rummaging through boxes of who-knew-what. "Maybe later for you, since we're goin' up north soon, but it doesn't matter much at this point. Asha, you'll 'ave to wear pants, hope you're OK with that—"

"I always wear pants," she crinkled her nose.

"Good, I mean, there's some from Istoria an' the like an' they're all used to dresses, but really, who's gonna climb a ladder in a dress?" he shook his head and opened two boxes, rummaging through the one labelled not-so-big. "Yeah, so, two sets of pants an' shirts, boots, then a spare set for sleeping, but those'll be in the box over—" he pointed at the bin pressed against the far wall—"there, an' then we can meet Wester. He's the boss."

Tate pulled two shirts out of the bin, things made of light fabric with brown leather patches at the shoulders and elbows. The pants were some sort of stretchy material that clung to his skin. The boots were thin, supple leather and almost reached his knees. They took forever to lace up.

Nightclothes were easy to find, loose-fitting linen things like at home. Tate stared down at his figure proudly, really feeling like he fit in with the rest of the crew.

"Alrigh," beamed Harper once Asha had pulled her shirt over her head and abandoned her towel. "You're ready to go meet Wester, then?"

Tate nodded on behalf of his sister. "Where is he?"

The Maintenance Crew member grabbed a strange looking-black object and held his thumb down on a button, speaking into it. "Wester?"

There was an ugly sound, like crinkling parchment, and a voice sounded from the machine. "Yes?"

"S' Harper. Sure Fylliá or someone mentioned by now that the bodies were children? Yeah. You should pro'ly meet them."

"Can they come down to the basket?"

"Be there in a jiffy. Over."

Asha gasped audibly. "A radio! I've heard about those!"

"I only been here three years. So I dunno how or when we came about them. But I think they've been a part of the Finner for a long time," he replied, leading them along the metal catwalks. "If either of you become crew heads, or get up there in the ranks, anyway, you'll get a radio of your own."

He led them to a random patch of floor, explaining, "This is Hatch 1. It leads to the Basket, or the control room. This is where Wester, Ever, Wren, spend a lotta their time. But Wester, he's the real boss. He's twenty. Oldest here."

"Ever?" asked Asha hesitantly. "Wren?"

"Wren's vice-head of control, she keeps us in line. Ever, he's great. Makes you feel at home. Him and Zephyr are in love."
"Er…really?" asked Tate.

"Nah, pro'ly not really. But so what if they are? Everyone's rooting for it, anyway. They came to the ship together—they met on The Road. Zepyhr's not from the Kaiganese mountains—Ever is—but their paths crossed somewhere along the way."

With that, Harper pulled open the metal hatch, revealing yet another ladder. "Hiya, Wester!" he exclaimed, sliding down into the control room.

The control room was an aptly named basket beneath the balloon of the ship. The buttons and panels and levers were overwhelming. At the centre of it all sat a blond boy in a high-backed chair, staring out the front window and occasionally yanking on a lever or spinning a dial. Tate wasn't interested in what he was doing, though. The view from the wraparound windows was fantastic. The sea spread out in all directions, a starker blue than the sky, choppy and greyish and free. It looked sort of dangerous, like a person you wouldn't want to cross.

It looked like Fylliá.

The boy in the chair spun around to greet them. He was tall, lean and muscular, weathered face and square jaw similar to Harper's. His eyes sparkled, blue like a god's, and his half-smirk suggested he was in on some joke. He wore the same outfit as the rest of them, but a badge rested on his chest, one with two yellow gears sewn onto it.

"Pleasure," said Wester, extending a hand.

"Captain," stuttered Tate, shaking hands with him. "Th—" thank you didn't begin to cover his gratitude, but it would have to do for now. How could he express his feelings towards a boy who ran an airship dedicated to saving children from their fates? "Thank you. My sister and I—" he hated himself for sounding like such an idiot, such a suck-up. But what else was he going to do? "We needed this. We wouldn't be alive, if the ship hadn't come."

Wester smiled lazily, taking his radio from his belt. "It's what we do!" He then pressed his thumb down on a button, saying into the radio, "I need you down here, Ever. Got some new recruits, I'd like to take a minute with them."

Again came the burst of unpleasant noise, like the crinkling of paper, and a voice sounded from the tiny black device. "Done, boss! Over."

The Captain turned back to his control board for a minute, checking their position and saying, "I imagine you two have some questions. I've got a few questions for you, if you don't mind answering them."

Tate swallowed. "I guess, that's fine."

"Harper, you've got places to be," said Wester dismissively, giving the maintenance head what looked like a knowing smile. "People to check on, jobs to assign."

"Gotcha, boss," winked the boy, exiting through the ladder. He moved like he was gallivanting, always in pursuit of excitement.

Wester smiled fondly. "Harper's only thirteen, but he's as smart as they come. Don't let his accent fool you. On the coast of Kaigan, they all sound like that.

"You two know about The Kinder Road?"

Tate shook his head.

Wester turned to the sea again. "It's a road that travels from Port City in the north of Kaigan, all the way along Nyfrio's river to the Kinderelle. Takes a couple months to walk, marked by blue metal circles on the trees. Only the children know about it. And the ones that need to get away take The Road to get here. So we get a lot of Kaiganese, from the coast and the mountains." He continued, "I'm from the mountains there myself, but my parents brought me to the Kinderelle as early as I can remember.

"Anyway, we get all sorts from the central continent, mostly the east coast. But as you may know, we go to the east about once a year to pick up children who can't make it on their own."

Asha stared curiously. "Why are you all children here, then?"

"The question everyone asks—oi! Ever!" he said to a brown-haired boy making his way down the ladder. "These are our new recruits. They're from the inland desert."

"I can see that," replied Ever, hopping off the metal ladder with a warm smile. He had the same look as Wester, despite being a little paler, and the same lilt to his words. "Pleasure! I'm Ever. Although—you—probably already figured that on your own. And you're—Tate and Asha, right? Zephyr was saying."

"Zephyr?" said Asha. "The self-assured healer?"

"That'd be the one." Ever scratched the back of his neck and turned to Wester. "What's the command, boss?"

"Just take over for a bit," replied Wester, glancing carelessly back to the control panel at the basket's bow. He lowered his voice, as if it would make the siblings unable to hear him, and said, "I just want to give them a chance to—you know."

Ever nodded brightly, saluted, sat down on the spinning chair and sprung into action, checking on the control sector and radioing various crew members.

Wester waved the siblings toward the metal exit ladder and for the hundredth time that day, they ascended the iron rungs, up to the empty first floor where Maintenance Crew members rushed around, yelling orders at each other. The Captain looked graver now, even with his flippant attitude, and when he sat down against a huge burlap sack, Asha felt a tiny bit of fear—or uncertainty— fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Nothing compared to the fear they had experienced in the days before, but that was the thing about fear. You didn't stop experiencing it just because you had been in scarier situations before.

"Listen," he said, motioning for them to sit, "you're here because you needed to escape your past. I understand. That's why we're all here. So, you can understand obviously, that as a general rule, we don't ask our fellow crewmates about their histories."

Asha nodded vigorously.

"But I make a habit of asking our new recruits, because some people prefer to share. And some of them feel that there's information we need to know. Things like a war. So I ask you to share what you can if you feel there's anything that could be dangerous to the rest of the Finner and the kids living permanently in the Kinderelle."

Tate's mind raced as he contemplated the fire giants; barely humanoid and destroying everything in their path, lumbering along as if controlled by some greater power. Moving west. Away from the Kinderelle, but still a threat to the entire continent.

He made a quick decision. "Not with Asha here."

She glanced up at him, briefly annoyed that he thought of her as a child, but far too grateful that he would spare her of reliving that experience.

"Alright." Wester accepted this easily. "There aren't many rules to the Finner—I find kids don't operate well with them." He flashed a smile. "Twelve and older can live permanently on the ship if they have a job that requires it. Some prefer to be away from land. Seven and under live permanently on the Kinderelle with the teenagers who've chosen the post of caregiver. They get to come on the airship, once in a while. Those from eight to eleven get to partake in certain missions—safer ones, that is—and try out jobs. Three meals a day, and don't fight with other crew members. Or at least, don't get anyone else involved and don't hurt anyone else. We're a family here, alright? That's the most important thing. You protect these people. They protect you. The rest will come, in time."

Tate swelled. He was part of a family. Asha grabbed his sleeve instinctively.

"I'm sure both of you have questions," prompted Wester after a moment.

"Well," Tate started, "why are there no adults?"

"What you really want is the story of the Kinderelle," corrected Wester. "It's been around for thousands of years, surely, but the first inhabitants came about a hundred years ago. Right around the time of the first airships, I guess. It was a perfect paradise. Lush, habitable, warm, full of animals and edible vegetation. Adults came with their children and built homes, a refuge from the rest of the continent. The haven didn't last, though. The adults started to die off." He glanced downwards, as if recalling the past. "The children described it…coughing fits, choking, gone within a day. Some days they would wake up and find their parents dead in their bed, staring at the sky without a trace of illness. You can imagine the panic. It was a disease spreading without any source and it was only affecting those above twenty-five.

"It took six months for the grown-ups to be killed off, and fewer than five hundred children were left confused."

"They didn't leave?"

"Some did. Others stayed to see if they could figure out where the disease was coming from. It was an experiment, and some of them thought they were close to the answer. They waited for the oldest among them to turn twenty-six years, and see if the disease would take them next.

"Unfortunately for the oldest boy, their suspicions were confirmed. The Kinderelle was sending an obvious message: no adults." He smiled fondly. "It's a haven for children—if the gods have a merciful side, they used it to enchant our islands."

"So what happened to the rest of the inhabitants?"

"Children grow up here, in the safety of it," explained Wester. "All the world's adults know better than to think they would survive here. And when we turn twenty-five, we leave. Lots go to the free cities, Analusia and Fasulla. Some return to their homeland." He shrugged. "That's it, really."

Asha stared. How perfect for her and Tate!

"So…" she frowned, "how did you build the airship? Why's it here? I mean—do you—do we—have a mission?"

"Our mission….I like you! No one's asked that before." He laughed aloud. "I don't know... I guess our mission is to do what we did for you. Seems like enough for me. And the Finner has been around as long as all the airships have. The travelling bard who gave you our calendar? He grew up on it. The Kinder Road? How do you think it remains unnoticed? There are good adults in the world, ones who are still children in their hearts. They help keep the word out, too. So all the northerners and deep southerners know to come."

Tate looked at the titanium hull of the ship. "How does this airship stay up, then?" he mused. "I thought, in most of these blimps, the entire inside was filled with gas. That's…that's what it said in my book, anyway."

Wester beamed, eyes twinkling. "Glad you asked. The Finner's got the magic of the gods and the Kinderelle in it, see. It's just as enchanted as the pirate's airships. But stuck between the inner and outer wall, we've got pockets of helium to help us stay afloat in the sky. Most unique airship out there."

"And you've never been in any aerial combat?" asked Tate, knowing the main purpose of the blimps.

"That's a story for another day," said the captain. "You two look exhausted…I should get Harper to find you some hammocks."

Asha was enthusiastic about the prospect, but Tate said reproachfully, "We've slept a lot already."

Wester's lip curled. "Then you've got an airship to explore, haven't you?"