Noble Enough

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Won could have squeezed the trigger a touch slower to convince Zha Yao that his bullet was faster, but he was not sure he could take Zha Yao for more than the pistols were worth. Some noblemen only acted rich, and Zha Yao knew far more about the pistols than Won did. Really, he was lucky to lead the man on for as long as he had done. Besides, it was very satisfying to see the nobleman die just as he was about to curse Won out.

"Wanted to call me a fool, did you? Well, you are not the first, and you won't be the last," Won told the corpse while relieving it of its fine clothes and its empty purse.

"My parents, my brothers, my sisters, they all called me names, because I was so scrawny. They called me Weakling. They called me Won the Muck. They called me Cow Dung too and put me to soaking the cow patties in urine for the chemist. You know what? They are still there, breaking their strong backs and popping out strong babies. Meanwhile, I've learned to make saltpeter so well that Master Vasoun took me to Xichon City to work for him."

Won bundled up Zha Yao's possessions, but his hand would not let go the pistol's smooth handle. It felt just right. Moving as in a dream, Won reloaded the gun.

"I am the great Zha Yao!" The bravado came easier after he called himself Zha Yao. "Zha Yao, the noble outlaw! I challenge you, O Clay Pot of Magnificence, to an honorable duel!"

The jar burst into a shower of shards. It felt glorious. The morning sun was more pleasant than the dimness of the shop he was used to. Ancestors, but he loved this name, 'Zha Yao'!

Life is glorious, he thought. Everything, absolutely everything pleased and amused him right now, even the sight of his victim's naked corpse, his only audience. "Do you think I should have said 'I challenge you in this the Bamboo Grove of Honor?' Ah, well. Some other time."

Wait. What other time?! Won gingerly let go of the pistol. It dropped on the grass next to the corpse, both dead objects watching him. The muzzle's opening was uncannily similar to the blank, staring eyes. They did not accuse him, the dead man and his pistol, he just had their attention. Even if they did accuse him, he had no regrets, no guilt, no fear of retribution.

Deliberately and slowly, Won turned his back on the pistol and rolled the body under the overhang of a creek's bank, hoping that the body would never be found. The pistol Won buried inside the bundle.

There would be no stele for Zha Yao, no incenses, no flowers, but he could spare a moment for a eulogy, "Zha Yao, my Lord Fool, I am glad you've come along, to provide good life in the fabled Port of Sutao for me, the poor boy born to shovel dung. The humble are rewarded in the Boundless Empire."

When he spoke loudly like this, in the open air, his voice sounded mighty. Too bad he'd have to keep a low profile for a while. He did not really want to, beset with dangerous dreams as he hastened down the road to Sutao.

The accursed pistols made him, Won the Muck, an instant equal to a battle mage, or a burly swordsman. The rapture of killing the fool filled his chest with glee, but there was more. A throb kept forming in his throat, compelling him to risk it and to win it all.

With the pistol in hand, he would no longer be Won the Muck, a rat seeking a hidey-hole for its ill-gained loot.

He would become Zha Yao, the Noble Outlaw, who took lives and riches from the hated noblemen. There had to be someone like that. Someone who cared about the downtrodden. Someone the storytellers would go on and on about, free of charge.

His dreams filled up with the deeds of valor, each one more daring than the next, but he woke up in the cheap inns by the Imperial Highway to wipe off cold sweat. The vengeful spirit of the murdered nobleman drove him to self-destruction, he thought. Or was the compulsion always there, in the accursed pistol, and the nobleman had felt it too?

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