The miniature dragon let out a mechanical groan and its beady eyes glowed amber. As the dragon thrashed its pointy tail on the tatami floor, Hijiri looked at Yumehiko and smiled. He placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled back. On a low, wooden table the flame of a lantern flickered, and their enlarged, conjoined shadows fluttered on the white wall.
They hardly ever exchanged a word. Orphaned at an early age, Hijiri was a bit of a loner. It didn’t help that Yumehiko was a laconic man. Even so, after several weeks working together, she was almost certain their hearts grew closer.
“It’s very clever,” Hijiri exclaimed with delight. She glanced at Yumehiko again, clapped her hands once, and held them together under her chin. “Do you have to wind it?”
“Yes. But mind you, it’s not a toy,” Yumehiko said, sounding a bit offended.
“It’s not?” She took her notebook from inside her kimono and jotted down a few things. Licking the tip of her pencil, she considered what else to write.
“No. Far from it. Wait till you see a life-sized dragon.” Yumehiko glanced toward the wooden sliding doors. Beyond them was a shed that served as his workshop, where he spent most of his waking hours. “Let me show you the blueprint.” He spread a piece of paper on the low table.
“I can hardly make head or tail of it. But it’s an airship, isn’t it?”
“Correct.” He pushed out his chest, proud. “It’s steam-driven.”
When she was little, Hijiri had ached to escape her dreary life in the orphanage. She’d wished she could fly away.
“When will it be ready?”
“Soon. Of course, as my official biographer, you’ll be the first to know. Don’t you feel privileged?” Yumehiko half-joked, looking up into her face. “Say, how’s the book coming along?”
“Quite well. I’m adding the final touches now.”
“What are your plans after this?”
“I don’t know yet, but something will come up.” She smiled faintly, expecting him to make overtures.
“It’s been nice having you around. I’ll miss you,” Yumehiko said. His gaze lingered on her longer than usual. She blushed and looked away. It was the first time he had said something resembling I love you.
“Me too.” Hijiri cleared her throat with a cough and managed to keep her tears at bay.
The following morning, Yumehiko led Hijiri to his backyard. He pulled off the cloth draped over a large object and revealed a dragon-shaped airship. The early morning sunlight shimmered off its metallic surface.
“Let’s give it a test flight,” he said, and put on an aviator cap. He handed her a pair of goggles, a map, and a compass.
“Where are we going?” Hijiri asked.
“Wherever the winds take us,” he answered. “Cancel all your plans. I’ll show you the world.” He opened the gondola door and invited her in.
“Wonderful,” Hijiri said.
As the airship floated into the bright azure sky, her heart soared with hope and excitement.
— Toshiya Kamei