Liji gulped as she approached the Eastern River’s sandy shores where the Dragon resided. Taking small steps, a numbing pain radiated from her bound feet, cramped inside her silk lotus shoes.

Her mother adjusted the flower pinned to Liji’s hair frame and straightened her white silk scarf that hung across her chest to the waist of her kaftan. Her parents gave her a hug she hadn’t earned before now, while her four older sisters stood behind them, eyes downcast. A group of villagers observed from afar. Liji looked like a porcelain doll to be put on display. 

Taking a step forward, the river’s roaring depths engulfed her.

“Your sacrifice will bring us honour.” Her mother’s firm voice echoed in her mind as she sank. Her throat tightened, but she didn’t need to breathe. As her feet reached the bottom, she felt neither submerged underwater nor was she in the mortal world. Her eyes adjusted and she saw a gaping maw of a cave’s opening.

A low growl came from inside, and Liji flinched. Survival instincts kicking in she scrambled to smear a handful of dirt on her face and pulled out hair strands from her two chignon-like bunches around her hair frame, hoping it would deter the dragon.

A blue dragon emerged; his azure scales shimmered across the serpent-like body. Long whiskers extended to his claws. His sharp, pearl-white teeth, bared at her. The dragon squinted at her dishevelled state and wrinkled his snout.

“What happened to you?” the dragon asked. She stumbled backwards, eyes widening. Her foot landed on something hard. Previous victims’ bones were scattered across the seabed behind her. Her heart pounded.

“Speak, or I’ll have you for dinner.”

A shiver ran down her spine. Yet, his gleaming scales and majestic presence captivated her.

Liji swallowed.

“If… if I tell you my story, will you spare me?”


And so, she began.

“When I was five, my mother broke my feet. I ran around too much, so she taught me a lesson that girls shouldn’t run. She forced my feet into small shoes. For two hours a day, I had to practice walking in them on a chalk line across the bridge in our courtyard. I couldn’t balance well in them, so one day I fell into the pond. Gasping for air I…”

The dragon stared at Liji expectantly with his golden eyes. She tugged on her silk scarf, trying to loosen its tight hold around her neck as if she were breathing inside a bubble of air. His gaze shifted to her feet, and he lifted his eyebrows.

“I can’t continue anymore today. I’m tired and haven’t eaten anything. If you spare me today, I’ll continue the story tomorrow,” she said.

The dragon stitched his eyebrows together, frustrated. Curious to know what happened next, he agreed and offered her some fruit.

For days, Liji’s story unfolded with the ebb and flow of the tides. She envied the fish that swam past them.

“When I was ten, my father beat me for reading one of his scrolls. My home was a peaceful sanctuary where flowers bloomed in our manicured gardens and water trickled in a small waterfall on rock formations. Trapped within the gates, I was curious about the outside world, but he said girls should not be concerned with state affairs. Even so, during the evening, I snuck into his study to read them. One night in his study, I saw him touching another woman behind the wooden shelf filled with scrolls and books. One of the maids, I think. I crouched outside, silent. I couldn’t peel my eyes away…”

 A single pearl escaped from the dragon’s eyes and rolled next to her feet on the underwater sand. He turned his face away. She didn’t touch the pearl. 

Each night, she shared a fragment of her tale, always dropping it halfway to continue the next day. Her voice mesmerized the dragon, so he invited her into the cave and offered her the warmth of his side to sleep. Days turned into months as she continued.

“When I was fifteen, my parents betrothed me to a rich man with two wives, despite disturbing rumours that alleged he beat them. This year I was meant to be married to him. I thought of ending my life, but then news broke that floods threatened our homes if we didn’t sacrifice our maidens. So, I volunteered…” Tears brimmed up in Liji’s eyes.

The dragon shrank back, his eyes losing some of their luster. He coiled his tail towards himself like a serpent.

“I’ve heard enough.” The dragon sighed, his scales quivering. Liji gazed into his eyes, no longer afraid.

“I flooded the villages to drown them in my pain,” the dragon said. “Another maiden who had stolen my heart ran away with another man. She told everyone that I mistreated her, and so I was trapped in her lies. If you marry me, and clear my name, I shall spare you.”

Liji reached her trembling hand out towards his head. Tentative at first, he lowered his head to meet her hand. She stroked his smooth scales, and he purred. Warmth emanated from her chest, like an unexpected embrace.

“If you learned anything about me, it’s that I don’t like to be bound. I’d rather you end my suffering.”

He considered her words, and his eyes softened.

“I’ve grown to like the sound of your voice. May I have the honor to give you a ride?”

Liji’s eyes lit up. He allowed her to climb on his scaly back, he shot up out from the water and soared into the dark sky. She unravelled her silk scarf and let it fall to the village below. She took off her shoes for the first time in many years, feeling the air caress against her bare deformed feet. Exhilaration coursed through her veins as the wind blew in her face. Her hometown diminished to a speck in the distance.

Wanying Zhang is a Chinese-Canadian writer of speculative fiction based in Montreal. Since she was young, she has dabbled in mixing potions and writing stories fusing elements of Asian and European fairy tales, folklore, and science fantasy. She is a recent flash fiction winner for the 61st issue of Flame Tree Fiction Newsletter, titled “Feathers of Eternity.” She has also published with Every Day Fiction and DeeBee Publishing. Currently a college professor with too many degrees, she sprinkles the magic of chemistry for future generations.

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