The Dragon and the Stars is a finalist for the Aurora Award!

In case you don’t have a copy of 18 F&SF stories from the Chinese diaspora, for a limited time you can read my story for free below or permanently on Smashwords or on Amazon.  Please also check out all the “Dragon” excerpts at Eric Choi’s excellent website and then…rock the vote for the Aurora!

Dancers with Red Shoes

By Melissa Yuan-Innes

As an apprentice in the Wizard’s Hospital, Leah Chang was used to a certain amount of noise at night. “The night is a fertile time,” the wizard, Noah, had explained early on. “Many spells, from voodoo to demon-summoning to the simple wart-cure are most powerful at certain hours of darkness.”

Leah yawned. No need for demons tonight. Her ex-boyfriend Andrew, a corps member of the Royal Academy of Magical Ballet, had danced beautifully but then kept Leah up past midnight, doing shots and agonizing over his parents disowning him a month ago. They couldn’t handle him being a ballet dancer, let alone a magical ballet dancer. Leah had poured iced coffee and sympathy down his throat for hours on a muggy July Montreal night. Now she needed sleep and silence. She placed orange foam earplugs in her ears, which worked as well as her imperfect silence spell, and closed her eyes.

Thump!  Th-th-thump, thump, THUMP!

Leah tried some yogic breathing. In. Out.


That was the worst part. It had some sort of rhythm to it. So instead of blocking out random noise, her treacherous mind started analyzing it. She muttered a spell for a breath of wind. Wind was the most responsive element, though also the most fickle. This time, it answered with a small breeze. It smoothed the edge off the heat while creating a bit of white noise. Leah dozed off.

Ththum THUMP!

She jumped out of bed, ran up the curved stairs to Noah’s sanctuary, and banged on the door.

The door opened a crack. She couldn’t see his face, but his voice floated out. “Yes, Leah?”

“Noah, I’m sure you’re working on something important, but for the past few weeks, I’ve hardly slept!  Could you please put a silence spell on it?”

He paused. “Or a sleep spell on you?”

“Ha ha. I don’t need to wake up in a glass coffin with seven dwarves.”

The door opened a bit more. A shaft of light fell on his wrinkled parchment paper face and still-brilliant blue eyes. “Come in quickly, then.”

Leah slipped inside, inhaling the usual tang of smoke and something darker, like licorice and rosemary and blood. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the light. Then her mouth fell open.

At the far end of the room, in front of the extinguished fireplace, between a faded pair of purple velvet armchairs, a pair of amputated feet danced.

The feet did a step-twirl, step-twirl, step-LEAP, pas-de-bourré toward her in red ballet slippers. Leah recoiled. The cross section of ankle bones gleamed white, surrounded by dun-coloured muscle and leathery skin. In contrast, the en pointe shoes shone a brilliant, spotless scarlet. Their ribbons wound around the dead ankles and the empty air above them as if there were still legs to cling to.

The feet smacked down flat on the ground and paused for a second. It was like a drummer’s cymbal, marking the grotesqueness. Then the feet spun away again.

“My God,” Leah said softly.

Noah nodded. “She’s getting more and more impatient, too. I’m not sure what to do with her.”

Leah watched the feet spin, one on the ground, one in the air. “What are they doing here?”

He smiled and shrugged. “You remember Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the girl with red shoes?”

Leah’s forehead pleated. “You mean that girl who kept dancing and dancing in magical red shoes until an executioner chopped her feet off?”  Her eyes bulged. “These are the shoes?  The feet?”

The shoes jumped en pointe, then flexed their toes, as if curtseying.

“That’s disgusting,” she whispered.

“Yes, I myself dislike how Hans turned a young girl’s misfortune into a parable about vanity. You should re-read it, Leah. The girl tricks her foster mother into buying red shoes which are eventually spelled by a ‘soldier’ into endless dancing, until the unfortunate ending you describe. Of course, Hans then focuses on the girl’s returning to the breast of the church thereafter. He never bothers to follow the feet.”

Leah shook her head. “Why do we have to have the feet?”  They danced more slowly now, the left foot still while the right arched up in the air.

“My friend Cartaphilus bequeathed her to me for safekeeping.”

Leah breathed shallowly through her nose. There were some things up with which she could not put. “So what have you been doing with them?”

“Well, I thought she would enjoy staying in a wizard’s chambers, but she seems to be growing impatient. Though I applaud as often as I can, she seems to imagine a more imaginative audience lies beyond my door.”  He shook his head. “I showed her the mundanity of traffic lights and pizza parlours from the window, but then she jumped up to tap-dance on the glass pane.”

Leah’s brow pleated. “Can they see?”

He shrugged. “She dances around obstacles, so she must have some sort of sensory system.”

Great. Seeing-eye feet. After centuries of dancing, they deserved a rest. Leah noticed that Noah called them “she,” as if the girl were still alive, but Leah considered them an abomination disguised as feet. She’d seen a lot in med school before she quit, and even more as a wizard’s apprentice, but this one gave her the ooglies. “Can you do a disanimation spell?”

The red shoes leapt on Leah’s feet. Hard.

Leah yelped. The shoes sprang away before she could snatch them.

Noah said, “I must say, I agree, Leah. Those shoes clearly want to keep on dancing. And Cartaphilus certainly wouldn’t thank me for burying her.”

“The girl’s feet have rights, too!”

“Leah, my dear. After all this time, her feet and the shoes have come to an agreement. It’s called dancing.”

Leah’s toes throbbed. She leaned against Noah’s workbench to rub them, glaring at the red shoes. “Well, why don’t you send them to a dance company?”

He smiled at her. “The human mind is so logical.”

In other words, he agreed.

The red shoes capered around in delight. Leah caught herself smiling before she smothered it. The sooner the shoes were outta here, the better they’d all be off.

In the morning, Leah read up on various dance forms while the shoes beat on the wooden floor, practically flamenco-style. But the only magical dance corps were ballet, jazz, and modern.

When Leah woke Andrew up from his hangover, he connected her with the spokeswoman for the Royal Academy of Magical Ballet. The cool British voice expressed interest in acquiring “such a unique prop. ”  Leah felt a twinge at that as she coaxed the red shoes into a cat carrier.

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