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Many eons ago, when the first dawn broke over the newborn mortal world, the children of the Heavenly Realm assembled at the Golden Sky Palace. They knelt before the Immortal Emperor, their foreheads pressed respectfully to the floor. One by one, he bid them rise and approach the throne to receive their mandates of duty.

Jūnlǐ, the Third Son, was appointed God of the Hunt. Sīyùn, the Eighth Daughter, was named Goddess of Scholars. And so on, and so forth. Each new god and goddess leapt from the palace windows to fly down to the mortal world, their silk robes and long hair fluttering in the wind.

Dǔníng, the Forty-Fourth Son of Heaven, wasn’t there. He was late.

In the ages to come, he would blame his tardiness on a variety of circumstances quite out of his control. The wind, he would argue, was unseasonably gusty, and insisted on blowing in a contrary direction. The distance to the Golden Sky Palace seemed atypically stretched out that day, no doubt some mischief played by the spirits who were hard at work weaving the fabric of the young mortal world.

Deep down, he knew he had no one to blame but himself.

He had been on the moon when he received the summons, dozing beside one of the shallow pools of liquid silver that dotted the moon’s surface. The heavenly rabbit who had been sent to summon him thumped its hind legs to get his attention. “Lord Dǔníng! Your presence is required in the Golden Sky Palace! The Immortal Emperor himself commands it!”

“Very well,” Dǔníng said, cracking an eye open. “I will be on my way shortly. In five minutes.”

It was so tranquil here, lounging by a silver pool beneath a star-frosted sky. He would just rest his eyes for five more minutes. What difference could five minutes make?

An hour later, he was hurtling through the sky in a panic. After what felt like an eternity, the Golden Sky Palace finally came into view. It was a grand pagoda perched on a curling cloud, the entire structure bobbing gently in the wind.

His sister Huìmín, the Fifty-First Daughter of Heaven, stepped out of the door and floated towards him as he approached. She shook her head disapprovingly. “You’ve missed the ceremony. You’d best go in and make your apologies to the Emperor. Good luck, brother, and goodbye.”

He stopped short. “Goodbye?”

“The Emperor has named me the Goddess of Lonely Places.” She smiled shyly. “It is what I hoped for. I will go to the silent caverns and the snowcapped mountaintops and the underground rivers. As humankind grows and spreads across the world, I will linger in the lonely places, and watch over them. I think our paths will not cross again soon.”

“Oh,” Dǔníng said, feeling an odd twist in his chest. “Then farewell, sister.”

He landed on the front step of the pagoda, nervously tugged his robes straight, and entered the palace. He immediately dropped to his knees and kowtowed on the ground before the dais. He dared not look up into the Emperor’s face, and instead stared at his magnificent white beard.

The Emperor’s voice was so deep that Dǔníng could feel its rumbling resonance through the floor. “Dǔníng, the Forty-Fourth Son of Heaven, who answered late my summons—”

“A smidge late,” Dǔníng mumbled.

“—I appoint you the God of Minor Troubles.”

There was a pause.

“… Minor troubles?” Dǔníng asked.

“Minor troubles,” the Immortal Emperor confirmed.

“May I beg your Immortal Highness for a more specific definition of, uh, minor troubles?”

If Dǔníng didn’t know any better, he would say there was a note of amusement in the Emperor’s thunderclap voice. “A soldier on the eve of battle will pray to the God of Warriors for strength and courage. A student preparing for an examination will pray to the God of Scholars for sharpness of mind. And an unfortunate mortal who finds a hole in their favorite shirt will utter a prayer to you. Is that clarity enough?”

Dǔníng swallowed. “Your Immortal Highness, I truly apologize for the offense I gave with my lateness.”

“This is no punishment, Dǔníng. It may seem trivial to immortals like you and I, but mortals live for only a flicker before they are gone. These minor troubles will feel very real to them, at least for a moment. And in these moments of vexation, they will call to you. Now go forth, and listen.”

The first couple of millennia weren’t too bad. Back in the infancy of civilization, mortal lives were short and brutal. There was nothing minor about their troubles then. They prayed for mercy to greater gods as they ran screaming from wild animals, shivered in caves, and died of horrible diseases. Dǔníng was free to indulge in his favorite pastimes, namely lounging, lazing, and daydreaming.

But mortal civilization persevered through the ages. For whatever reason, they seemed absolutely determined to stay alive. In time, they built cities and palaces. Kingdoms defended their borders against invaders, while wandering heroes fought in defense of the common folk.

And as humanity multiplied, so did their worries.

It was maddening. And tedious! But even Dǔníng, lazy lout of a godling that he was, dared not turn his back on a duty bestowed by the Immortal Emperor. And so, he listened to every prayer and gave them the consideration they were due. On rare occasion, he intervened on behalf of the mortals who earned his sympathy.

When he needed a break from mortals and their whining, he paid a visit to his sister, the Goddess of Lonely Places. She dwelled in the ruins of a ship at the bottom of the ocean, spending her days in quiet contemplation. They lay side by side in the shipwreck, gazing up through the water, where the faint shimmer of moonlight was just visible through the rippling waves. It was so beautiful here, so peaceful and—

“Damn it all! That wretched serving girl forgot to light the fires again!”

Dǔníng winced as the prayer reverberated its way to him through the water. A school of fish scattered in alarm.

His sister gave him an uncharacteristic scowl. It was clear his minor troubles were disturbing the sanctity of the lonely places.

“I’ll go,” Dǔníng said with a sigh, and left.

 


 

“… it’s broken! My favorite …”

“Oh no, I thought I finished that already …”

“… why won’t he just leave me alone?”

And then a deafening shriek cut through the low, constant hum of troubles:

“By all the gods and spirits, I just need a good night’s sleep!”

Dǔníng almost fell out of the air in fright. He looked around, as though expecting to find a mortal yelling directly into his ear, but since he was currently lying in a cloud, he was alone, unsurprisingly.

“How can I be expected to fight for justice when I awaken five times a night?”

Dǔníng gritted his teeth and pulled a wisp of cloud over his head.

“A martial artist needs her rest before she can battle evil!”

Dǔníng growled. He focused his senses and followed the mortal’s abrasive voice. He flew over rivers and fields and villages, until he finally arrived at a small camp at the bottom of a mountain.

An old woman lay upon a mat, wide awake and scowling at the sky.

“I’ll end up falling asleep in the middle of battle—”

“I beg of you,” Dǔníng whispered, “pray more quietly.”

The old woman gasped in shock, jumping to her feet. She certainly seemed spry for a mortal of her advanced age.

“Who are you?” she demanded. “What do you want?”

“You prayed to me,” he said, a bit tetchily. “And I answered.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You are Qiūhū, the God of Warriors?”

“No,” Dǔníng said. “I am Dǔníng. The God of Minor Troubles.”

“The what?”

“The God of Minor Troubles.”

She stared at him. He stared back appraisingly. She was tall and severe, her thinning white hair pulled back into a tight bun. She was thin, but wiry.

“My troubles are not minor, Lord Dǔníng,” she said firmly. “In two days’ time, I plan to march upon the village at the top of the mountain, and liberate the good people there from the bandits who have taken them prisoner.”

Dǔníng raised an eyebrow. “You plan to fight off these bandits yourself?”

The woman drew herself up a little taller. “In my youth, I was trained by the greatest masters in the land. But I turned my back on the path to marry and bear children, and for many years I did not touch the hilt of my sword. Now my husband is gone, and my children have children of their own. I left the city to spend my twilight years on the path I once abandoned. I am a warrior still, and I will not leave the village to their fate.”

“I see,” Dǔníng said doubtfully. It seemed to him that those twilight years would soon come to an abrupt end. “I will grant you your good night’s sleep.”

She bowed shortly. “I thank you, Lord Dǔníng. And I would be most grateful if you would intercede on my behalf with the God of Warriors. I am in great need of his blessing.”

“Hmph,” Dǔníng said, and vanished.

 


 

“These damned boots! I thought I mended them already!”

“Argh!” Dǔníng groaned, pressing his hands over his ears. It didn’t help, of course. The woman’s incessant complaining drilled straight into his skull.

“How am I to fight with stones in my boots?”

He flew to the mountain in a fury. She was bent over a pair of tattered boots, needle and thread in hand.

“How dare you demand so much of my attention?” he raged. “Do you think you are the only person in the world with minor troubles?”

She squinted up at him, one wrinkled hand shielding her eyes from the sun. “I prayed to the God of Warriors, not to you,” she said.

Such impudence! Dǔníng was so incensed that he felt flames spark in his eyes, but the tiresome old woman did not even flinch. “Yet here I am.”

“I am facing a warrior’s death,” she replied, standing up and facing him with her arms stubbornly crossed. “Do my prayers not deserve to be heard by the God of Warriors? My troubles are not minor. I am not that insignificant!”

He could flatten her like an insect for such an insult. It was his right as a god.

“It makes no difference to me,” he said. “Tomorrow you will be dead, and no one will ever hear your prayers again.”

Her lips pressed together tightly. She stared at him and said nothing.

“Your boots have been mended,” Dǔníng snapped, and flew away.

 


 

“… Lord Dǔníng?”

Dǔníng cracked one eye open. It had been an unusually peaceful evening. He was dozing in the eye of a storm, the wind and rain lashing all around but never touching him. It was a very cozy spot.

“What now?” he demanded, projecting his voice over the distance to the irksome old woman.

“You might have struck me down for my insolence, but you did not. That was … a kindness.”

Realizing that his peaceful evening was over, Dǔníng sighed and flew to the old woman’s camp, where he found her sitting on the mat, her sword laid across her lap.

“Indeed, you were deplorably insolent,” he said. “But I shall forgive you. I am very magnanimous.”

He turned to depart.

“Wait, Lord Dǔníng,” she said. “I do have a minor trouble. I am troubled to be alone on the last night of my life. Will you stay, and tell me a little of yourself?”

“Of myself?” he asked, perplexed.

“Yes. You are an immortal. Surely you have many stories to tell.”

Dǔníng hesitated. “Very well,” he said. “I will tell you the tale of how I came to be the God of Minor Troubles. The Immortal Emperor assured me it was no punishment, but I have my doubts.

“I was on the moon when he summoned us to the Golden Sky Palace …”

 


 

Péi marched up the mountain road. She wished she could say she felt no fear, but that would be a lie. It wasn’t death she feared—it was mockery and humiliation. She had horrible visions of the bandits cutting her down with ease, laughing at the foolish old woman who thought she was still a martial artist.

The God of Warriors had not even seen fit to give her his blessing. But still, she reminded herself, she had spent her last days in the presence of a god. A … rather peculiar god. But a god, nonetheless.

The bandits had overrun the tiny mountaintop village. There were seven of them, armed to the teeth. They had settled in the biggest houses, devouring the villagers’ food and wine, while the villagers cowered in their basements.

Péi walked into the village square, her gaze fixed straight ahead, refusing to react as she sensed rather than saw men emerge from houses around her. She unsheathed her sword in one smooth motion.

“I demand that you leave this village,” she said, her voice clear and strong. “You have no place here.”

The leader of the bandits chuckled. “It’s truly pitiful when grandmothers go senile.” He hefted his own sword.

Péi leaped and twisted as the bandit leader swung his sword. Her joints creaked, but the memory of lifelong training still sang within her. She jumped high, and for a single drawn-out moment, seemed to hang in midair, the world going silent around her. And then she stabbed downward with her sword, skewering the bandit through the chest.

He staggered. The astonishment on his face was a sight to behold before he crumpled to the ground.

There was a brief silence. And then the other bandits rushed at her, screaming.

Péi lost herself in the dance. She spun and kicked, and her sword was a whirl, and for a few seconds, she was once again young and invincible.

For a few seconds.

And then a blow caught her on the side of the head, sending her reeling. She fell to her hands and knees, suddenly feeling every aching joint, every brittle bone.

She looked up, and saw a bandit poised to stab his sword through her chest. She bared her teeth as death came for her.

… And then the bandit stumbled.

Péi slashed her sword across his throat before he had a chance to find his footing. Blood sprayed. She struck true, again and again.

But even amidst the fever of battle, she noticed something curious. Moments when their aim was just a little off, their swords just a whisper too slow. Tiny things, really. Too minor to turn the tide of battle, but enough to give her an advantage.

Sword lifted high above her head, she looked around wildly for her next opponent, and realized there was none. She was surrounded by seven corpses.

She cackled in triumph. Then she collapsed.

 


 

The villagers were making a huge fuss over her, and Péi was enjoying herself greatly. They had called on a physician from a neighboring town, who had seen to her wounds and told her it was a miracle that she was still walking. While she recovered, the villagers set her up in their biggest house and waited attentively on her every need.

She reclined in a chair on the porch, which overlooked the mountain pass. It was a clear, lovely day.

Feeling a little silly, Péi cleared her throat. “Lord Dǔníng?” she asked tentatively.

Nothing happened.

“Lord Dǔníng!” she called again, louder.

Still nothing.

Perhaps, now that she was contented and had no more troubles, she was no longer his problem. That was probably for the best. She had taken up enough of his time.

She reached for her cup of chilled sour plum juice, but her hand bumped against it, sending it spilling. “Damn,” she cursed, mopping at the mess with the hem of her tunic.

“Really,” Lord Dǔníng said, exasperated. “Do you still have troubles to complain about?”

“It seems so,” Péi said. “I am a cantankerous old lady, and have no shortage of complaints. Come, sit. Do you like sour plum juice?”

“I have never tried it.” Dǔníng sat on the stool next to her, and took the cup she poured him. He sipped it. “Hm. Satisfactory.”

“It is very peaceful here, is it not?”

Dǔníng looked out at the mountain pass and the valley beyond, where the trees swayed gently in the breeze. “I suppose it is.”

“You could stay a little while,” Péi suggested. “Take a well-deserved break. Perhaps a nap. Unless your duties are calling you away already?”

“I do have many onerous duties,” Dǔníng said reluctantly.

The sound of something breaking, followed by a cry of dismay, reached their ears from the neighboring house.

“Perhaps I can attend to them from here, at least for a while,” Dǔníng said. And then he closed his eyes, and fell asleep.



Megan Chee has lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, and is currently based in Singapore. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Nature Futures, Cast of Wonders, and other venues. You can find her online at meganchee.carrd.co or @meganflchee.
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