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Wolf-hunt

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The morning is low on the grasslands, the sky wine-clear with sunlight, when Chang Ge says to Mimi, “we are going hunting.”

“Women don’t hunt,” Mimi says, and her tone says, you ought to know.

They have spent the ebb of winter inside, Chang Ge as she could and Mimi always, except those brief steals to wash some clothes, to help some woman milk a goat. The last thing of winter to fade, long after the snows and the sight of the cows’ ribs poking through their haggard skin, is the smell of it. Mimi wants to open the carriage doors and leave them open, to stand at the doorway and breathe in and out in great bellowing puffs until the smell all goes in and out of her, in misting clouds of strange white into the melting air. In the Uyghurs’ country under the mountain her mother and aunts would drag out the carpets and beat winter senseless out of them. But here, Chang Ge wants to ride and hunt.

Ashina Sun is inspecting horses in pasture, and all that is visible of Mujin is the tip of his long nose between piles of reports. No one else has an interest in trying to stop Advisor Li from commandeering mounts, a bow and a quiver of handsome arrows. Some of the men gape at the sight of the Uyghur woman tucking her long golden tresses about her after mounting, trying to think of some way to stop a speedy ride from destroying her braids, but the Advisor haughtily lets the men know that the couple’s plans after the morning’s hunt are no business of theirs. The Turk soldiers snigger at that and elbow each other, and Mimi hopes that Chang Ge fully understands why. Perhaps it’s another plan of hers, who masquerades as a young man among this camp of much sturdier, burlier young men. Mimi doesn’t complain. If anything she approves.

“Why are you taking me?” she demands. The wind is in her hair as soon as Chang Ge spurs them both to anything faster than a walk. It barges in and starts knocking about like a bird organizing its nest. “I don’t know how to hunt. I don’t want to hunt.”

Chang Ge makes no reply. A slip of a thing on her horse, she leans into the gales.

Mimi tries to do the same. Her skirts dislike it, much preferring the dance that the wind teases them into. In the mountain’s shade she rode behind her father, when she rode at all, and his slave women would brush the tangles out from her braids when she was done. “What sort of game are you looking for?” she calls after Chang Ge.

Her pretend-husband slows, easing her horse with an expert hand to fall into step besides her. Mimi sees her little grin under deceptively large doe’s eyes. “Wolves.”

 

When Mimi was daughter of the Uyghur chief, her father and uncles hunted wolves. Peace meant prosperity; prosperity meant growing herds; vaster herds meant hunting.

When the men rode out to hunt in the morning, in their parade of furs and brocades, feathers tipping their hats and crowding in their quivers, sometimes at night the women cooked wolf meat. The grasslands did not forgive the waste of even the leanest, meanest meats; and the women sighed and threw in what herbs they could, but the men would say wolf tasted of success. Here there is only Chang Ge, single-feathered, the second ornament torn out of her hat by the wind. It flutters by Mimi’s face and she can’t catch it. She is breathless when they stop on a ridge and look over the sparse grass of a dawning season. Dark patches of the backs of antelopes dot it alongside light patches of frozen snow. Chang Ge strings her bow, while Mimi fills her lungs with air, and her eyes with the sight of a horizon, without carts and yurts, without men on horseback.

“Do you want me to watch you?” she asks Chang Ge. The Han girl runs her bowstring between pink porcelain fingers, her head canted, as though listening to its hum. “I told you I can’t hunt.” For the first time she notices that Chang Ge has a second bow across her saddle.

“But you know how to shoot,” Chang Ge says.

Mimi flushes. “As much as any woman on the grasslands knows.”

“Most Han women don’t know how at all.” Chang Ge looks wistful, and Mimi remembers: there are more cloistered, helpless lives for a woman than the Uyghur or the Turk. Chang Ge strings the bow and puts it in her hands, where it is smooth and weightless, and alive with the tautness of the string.

“Wolves are dangerous,” Mimi snaps. “You should hunt pheasants and antelopes. At least we can eat those. Leave the wolves to the tegin.”

Chang Ge smirks. “You mean leave them to the men.”

“Idiot,” Mimi says, and spurs her horse on behind as Chang Ge gallops down the slope. The memory of riding comes back quick.

 

She watches while Chang Ge shoots two pheasants, an antelope, and a hare. She does it easily, floating across the grass like the loose tassel from her hat, each of her kills complete with one arrow. The small antelope goes on the saddle on front of her, and she has Mimi’s horse carry the bagged birds and the hare, which helps Mimi feel useful. Mimi shoots once in the general direction of a pheasant. Her shot goes well wide of the mark, and she watches the bird soar away, great wings free against the pale early-spring sun.

Chang Ge looks at her. “You don’t like killing. Even prey.”

“I told you I don’t hunt,” Mimi says with the exasperated eye-roll of a third time.

Distance flickers in Chang Ge’s gaze. Her sweet, so-large eyes see not only Mimi, but through and beyond her. That kind of look is all good and well for Ashina Sun and his men, who don’t know what she really is, but Mimi does not bear it. She tugs at her reins. The horse turns its head, and she faces away from Chang Ge and the wind.

“Were you born in a noble family, or is it because you’re Han?” she asks. “Killing isn’t such a big thing. I’ve helped slaughter sheep and bird before.”

She still feels Chang Ge’s gaze on the back of her head. “Killing but not hunting?”

“It’s completely different.”

Her false-husband is quiet. She doesn’t see the difference. Sometimes, Mimi is amazed by the things that the military advisor from Great Tang does not understand.

“Anyway, we have enough now for quite a feast,” she adds, cheered at the thought. Her horse, an obedient beast, turns in its own unconcerned pace to follow Chang Ge’s mount along. “I’ll have to look over our stock of spices. Maybe there will be some good ones from the Han merchants…”

Chang Ge is still silent, the reins twisted in her hands, the light of her eyes curled back into those depths she keeps in her young head. She should not be so obvious about it, Mimi thinks, if she wants to be a man she should learn not to hide her thoughts like a woman. Perhaps for men of Han it is different.

“Are you all right? Do you need to rest?” she prods. “The wind is cold, you should be careful!” Chang Ge raises her head, and gives her small, impregnable smile.

 

They do stop to rest, crouching on a dry patch of earth to build a fire while the horses graze. Mimi skins and prepares the hare with Chang Ge’s knife and sets it on a spit. Chang Ge sits in the grass and watches, arms crossed and folded across her chest. One of her legs escapes a little and stretches in front of her, foot twitching in her very fine riding boots. Mimi watches her from the corner of an eye. All while flesh is cut, and cleaned, and slowly cooks, they watch each other.

Mimi tears off a haunch when the hare is brown and crackling, fat dripping into the flames. “This is good,” she muses. “Although it’s stringy. Maybe because it’s early in spring.”

“Sometimes it’s like all you ever think about is food,” Chang Ge says dryly. She means it as a fond comment, and Mimi huffs.

“Food is all you think about when you don’t know where any might come from,” she says. “Men do the hunting, but women have to actually make the food.” She pokes Chang Ge’s knife into a chunk of breast meat and passes it to her, pressing it into Chang Ge’s small, cold hand. “You don’t know anything about cooking, do you? Are you ever going to learn?”

Chang Ge tears a sliver of meat with her teeth. “If I did, it would be suspicious...” she licks the juices off the handle before they can stain her fingers. “Mujin cooks, but...”

Mimi makes a face. “Some of the women say Mujin is almost Ashina Sun’s wife.”

In mid-swallow, Chang Ge coughs. Mimi’s heart twists in her chest but then Chang Ge is laughing, giggling and cackling behind her hand. She bows her head, pulling it in, reining it like a frolicking foal, while Mimi sputters, “don’t tell him about it!”

“No, no.” Chang Ge waves a hand. “He might say they’re right, though.”

“He’ll kill you. He’ll stick you like this hare.”

“He cooks for the general, he manages the household and the camp here, what else does he do?”

Mimi snorts and takes another bite of meat. “Like you know!” She looks at Chang Ge’s slim hips and the furs that hide her chest. “You’re really just a girl.”

“I know what happens in the rear apartments,” Chang Ge says with a gleam in her eye, a spark of delight at forbidden knowledge. “In Chang’an, I heard that the Turks lay with their women under the open sky, where everyone can see.”

“I heard that Han men don’t even see a woman before they marry, so on their wedding night they don’t know what to do.”

“They know. There are books – “

Mimi gapes. “Books?

“Of course. The Han have books about everything.”

After a moment of staring, Mimi nearly throws the gnawed haunch-bone at her. “You’re lying!” She is flushing up to her ears, mouth trembling between outrage and laughter. “I don’t know why I ever believe a word you say!”

Chang Ge throws both hands up to protect her doe’s eyes. She grins behind her fingers, mischief, delight, deception. “But this is true. I’ll ask the merchants from Han to bring some books.” She peers, a dark glitter. “I can read them to you.”

“Don’t you dare.” Mimi can imagine. In the yurt with Chang Ge, listening to her read in her high, commanding voice. The books the Han men read to know how to be men… her face burns as hot as the cooking fire. She bites her lips against her smile and does throw the bone at Chang Ge.

Chang Ge ducks, the smallest, swiftest of feathers on the wind. She licks the last of the meat from her knife, and wipe it clean on the grass. “I’ll remember,” she says as she rises to her feet. Her horse also raises its head from its meal, ears pricked, alert to the whims of its mistress.

Mimi looks up. “Are we going back?”

“Not yet.” Chang Ge tilts her cap up. She puts her hand on her slender waist, plants her small feet on the grass. She scans the horizon. “I want to give you a wolf pelt today.”

“I’d rather have the books,” Mimi whispers, but only after her false-husband is on horseback, and out of reach of her voice.

 

Sunset is vast and crowning over the grasslands, setting flashes of orange fire to the scattered snow, when Chang Ge sits Mimi down beside her to wait for the wolf.

Though Mimi has never hunted wolves herself, she knows how it is done. Chang Ge has laid out the antelope with its belly slit open amongst a small crescent of rocks, at the edges of a copse of thin trees where animals take shelter. They have let their horses run free within a whistle’s range, and taken shelter in depression that still holds a thin powdering of snow. Now they wait for the wolf to come, the old, packless wolf for whom carrion is easier than hunting, drawn by the scent of blood in the dusk. Chang Ge must know the one. She must have been learning its habits, biding her time and making her plans.

Even with a good cloak about her, one of the furs that Ashina Sun had gifted Advisor Li with after the first, fateful audience, Mimi is uncomfortable on the half-frozen ground. But she would not complain when Chang Ge, the Han girl, doesn’t. She knows that Chang Ge has waited for this day, feels her fine body taut with the trembling bowstring anticipation. This must be what Chang Ge is when she is a general on the field.

“You haven’t hunted wolves before,” she whispers to Chang Ge. “This is the first time, isn’t it?”

Chang Ge never admits to knowing less than everything. But her breathing speaks, her sweat speaks. The bow is ready to speak in her hands.

A grey shape sneaks along the shadows of the copse, low to the ground, padding. Mimi watches with fear and reverence, this bone and winter fur shadow of Asena and her children. Hind legs stiff, hackles patchy and tail bitten, but a fierce and eerie green light in the eyes that search the trees, the rocks, the roll of the grasslands. Old, alone, a wolf is a wolf…

Chang Ge had strung her bow for her again. Two arrows are stuck in the earth at her elbow, ready to nock and loose. Mimi cannot tear her eyes away from the wolf to see if Chang Ge has her own bow ready.

She has never been so close to a wolf. Not to a real wolf, the sacred beast of the grasslands, that the Ashina clan itself takes its name from. Close enough to see the hoarfrost in its muzzle, and the red blood against the white fur. Watch it struggle to tear meat with weak fangs.

“Don’t,” she whispers.

She all but feels the tension of the draw freeze in the Han girl. Her hand, of its own accord, falls on Chang Ge’s slender arm, almost closes on the delicate bones of her wrist.

Silent as the huntress she has settled to be, Chang Ge looks at her. Old wolves kill sheep as easy prey. Mimi’s father and uncles would mark them and lure them, trap them if they could and shoot them if they couldn’t. Prosperity meant hunting.

Old wolves live short, struggling lives. Rarely a full belly, never a warm night. Killed by their own kind sometimes, when winters are hard. Perhaps an arrow is merciful.

“Don’t,” she says again. “I don’t want its pelt. Let it eat in peace.”

She can see that Chang Ge does not understand. But she takes the bow from her hands, and unstrings it, and plunges Chang Ge’s arrow deep into the ground.

The wolf eats for a while, a long while, before it creeps off again, a little less slinking, a little more spring in its weary steps. Chang Ge still sits back in the same pose she sank into when Mimi took her bow away. Her breath steams in the cold. She watches as Mimi settles, eyes closing as she breathes out her relief, now that it is only the two of them alone in the little hollow.

“What was it for?” Mimi demands. She feels tired. “Why did you think I’d want to go hunting?”

Chang Ge looks lost. She looks at the arrows instead of Mimi’s face. “I wanted…” Her wily tongue struggles. “I wanted us to do… something that men do. I thought you might…” She shrinks with the words, thin white fingers on the loose string of the bow, trailing up, down.

Mimi rises on her knees, and shoves her back into the thin snow.

Idiot,” she says, hot with anger, warm with strange affection, as Chang Ge lies back gently stunned. “I’m not a man. I don’t need to be one to care for you. Haven’t you been listening to me all this time? I said I’ll help you no matter what you decide. You, you…” her hands clutch closed at her sides around fistfuls of powdery snow. When Chang Ge straightens back up, she throws a balled handful of it at her face.

Chang Ge gives an, involuntary yelp, caught off guard by the cold, a gasping, girlish sound. She scrubs at her face with a sleeve, doe’s eyes stunned. “Mimi – “

“Stop.” Mimi leans closer. Whether it is from the snow or from her words, she is delighted by the high flush of Chang Ge’s face. “Stop doing these things. I don’t need them. I know what I am and I don’t care what you are.” She throws her braids back over her shoulders, straightens, pulls the arrows from the ground and puts them casually aside. “Let’s go home and cook the pheasants. I’ll show you what to do.”

She stands, rubbing the stiffness of cold ambush out of her arms and back. Chang Ge still sits for a long moment, a little pile of furs and uncertainty. Mimi looks up from her and squints into the darkening horizon, puts two fingers to her mouth to whistle for the horses.

Halfway through the whistle, Chang Ge aims a small ball of snow with deadly accuracy right to the back of her neck.

Mimi shrieks. She twists around, skirts blowing outwards. “Cheat!”

“I deserved the push.” Chang Ge hasn’t risen, but she already has another snowball in her hand, and the smallest, wickedest grin. “But not the snow to the face.”

“Oh, no you don’t – “ Mimi ducks, dropping to her knees to gather up the thin layer of snowfall. A little mud comes with it, but she doesn’t mind. No Han girl will beat her in such a fight. She skitters back, despite the weight of her dress, and throws up an arm to bat away Chang Ge’s snowball. The little military advisor is quicker than her, but not as sure-footed on the earth of the grasslands, hard and slippery with frost. Mimi’s hurled handful catches the tassel on Chang Ge’s hat and knocks it askew, and its slips off when Chang Ge stumbles back, hair awhirl, gasping and laughing. Mimi presses her advantage, jumping up. In her tribe, under the mountain, where life was hard but good, there were many girls her age. They did not hunt or go to battle, but they fought like tigers in the snow. She wrests Chang Ge down and puts snow down the back of her tunic. Chang Ge giggles, and whimpers, and cries mercy.

“Don’t be so hard on me, I’m not fully recovered!”

“Now you remember!”

“Mimi, it’s cold! This general surrenders!”

Mimi laughs, a single, gleeful burst of sound. “You’re just a girl!”

Chang Ge falls silent again. Under Mimi’s set but gentle hold, her breath flutters, quick and winglike. The jade of her face is in high colour from the cold, and her eyes are as deep and dark as scholar’s ink. She is so beautiful, Mimi thinks; what a waste, such beauty in a man. She would not dare, if Chang Ge were truly her husband, but she almost leans down towards this beauty, almost close enough to feel the warmth of Chang Ge’s breath as she raises her head to her, almost, almost…

“No,” Mimi whispers. “No. I can’t go back with you.”

The words are so soft, they have no sound at all; only the movement of her lips, lost on Chang Ge’s half-shut eyes. She does not know what Chang Ge thinks at that moment. The Han girl breathes out and coughs in the cold, and Mimi fussily helps her sit up and bats the snow out of her clothes. Chang Ge still smiles at her when they are sitting side by side, a bright smile. Mimi smiles back and sweeps the hair out of her face, tucks up her collar and fixes her hat back on her head. But there is silence between them, now.

The ride back is hurried in the early night-time, as winter slinks back in under the cover of darkness, turning the sky into a great cutting crystal and the air into arrow-points. They ride fast into the camp before the cold can catch up with their wake, passing unchallenged by any man. In their cart, Mimi cooks the pheasants, and Chang Ge watches, and asks foolish questions that any girl in Mimi’s tribe could answer almost as soon as she could walk. Mimi tries to answer patiently, but her patience is limited while cooking, and she welcomes it when Chang Ge begins to talk about the food of the Han instead. Sumptuous banquets, exotic spices. The famous frozen treats of the Tang capital, Chang’an. Even the simple sweets, which Mimi remembers taste better than anything she has ever known could exist. They eat well and in peace, enough for two full bellies, and soon Chang Ge is drifting, yawning as Mimi helps her out of man’s clothing and into bed. “I’m sorry, Mimi,” she mumbles as Mimi brushes out her hair over the pillow. “No more hunting. I know now…”

“Hush,” Mimi says. “It was good. Now I’ve hunted with you, so you have to cook with me.”

Chang Ge smiles, and keeps smiling as she falls asleep. Content, Mimi imagines, and wonders if anything has changed, when there are so many things that Chang Ge does not understand. She sits there for a while and watches her sleep, though in the end night falls, the fire dies out, there is more cooking and cleaning tomorrow, and she can only sit in silence for so long. Let today go. She has taken what she could from it. She lays herself down at Chang Ge’s bedside, and lets hers husband’s peaceful breathing lure her to sleep.

Chang Ge dreams of sweets from Chang’an; but Mimi dreams of wolf meat.