STARTED: JUNE 2019
There’s a knife in my chest. It pierces its way through, sinking deeper into my heart until its buried to the hilt. Anguish tightens it's grip, twisting the blade in a single, sharp motion. A scream escapes my lips, shattering the silence. I reach for the knife and pain sears through my arms in defiance. My fingers clutch at my chest, seeking to tear out the blade. They close around thin air. There is nothing. No blade. But the pain is undeniable.
I wake, gasping and panting in a cold sweat. My hands are clawing at my chest, at where the knife should be. Above lies a sky of dark stone slabs which threatens to close in on me. At first I’m sure I am bleeding but after several heartbeats, when my breathing evens out, I notice there is no physical wound. The pain remains but the sharpness fades into a dull ache, like an old, forgotten scar.
I roll my head to the side and my cheek presses against cold stone - the same material from which the ceiling is made. Even that slightest movement leads to a burning sensation spreading down my neck. My eyes flicker across the floor, pausing when they find someone and trailing upwards. A girl stands there, her eyes widened and mouth parted in horror. At me.
She swallows and hurries forth, crouching down and helping me to sit upright. The movement sends agony coursing through me once more, but I lack the strength to resist. “You’re… you’re awake,” she mutters. “You were lying there for so long that I thought you were dead.”
“Where am I?” I demand, my voice hoarse. My hand darts out to grip her shoulder and I’m as surprised as her by the sudden movement.
“Huanfan Prison,” she squeaks, fear plastering her expression.
I watch her carefully for a moment before releasing my grasp and exhaling deeply. The gesture had of course been costly. “Huanfan Prison,” I repeat, musing over each syllable. But there is no recognition, other than the fact we are both inside a prison. Where, I do not know. “Who are you?”
“Xialing,” she tells me hurriedly. “My name is Fu Xialing.” We are both quiet and when the fear entirely fades from her eyes, she asks: “What’s yours?”
I blink at her once. Then twice. A name. I squeeze my eyes shut and wrack my mind but like with the prison’s name, I find nothing. Only a blinding white light that shines so brightly it burns me from the inside out. I gasp and clasp my head, willing the torment to subside. When it finally does, I look up to see her staring at me curiously. “I don’t know,” I say, my words flat but painfully honest. My mind is empty, only that tortured knife and blinding white light to fill it. They are the only memories I have.
“You don’t know?” she echoes, her soft brows knitting together. She glances over me and I follow her gaze, now noticing the bloodied bandages which cover my limbs. “Maybe you hit your head during your accident?”
“Accident?” I ask, leaning in as close as my broken body will allow. “What do you mean accident? Do you know what happened to me? How I got here?”
To my dismay, she only shakes her head. “I just meant maybe you hit head when you got hurt and that’s why you can’t remember your name.”
“What about how long I’ve been here? Do you know that?”
“Only that you were here when I arrived. That was over a week ago and this is the first time I’ve seen you so much as twitch. I would have thought you dead, had I not noticed your pulse while changing your bandages. It was so faint.”
I arch an eyebrow. “You’ve been changing my bandages?”
She dips her head in response. “Guards came in a few days ago with a bowl of water and fresh bandages. They said to clean your wounds and swap your bandages. I did as I was told.”
“Thank you,” I say, lowering my head and feeling shameful of my earlier outburst. While she might have only been following orders, she is very likely the reason I am still alive.
She offers a meek smile. “I daren’t disobey. Not in this place.”
The edge to her voice forces me to my feet, despite my injuries. I struggle forth, towards the iron bars which stand before us. I cling onto them, steadying myself, and press my forehead between a gap to catch a glimpse of the world beyond. A dark corridor stretches out as far as I can see, unending on either side. Sparse torches line the stone walls, their flickering amber light all that wards off utter darkness. It seems my surroundings are as empty as my mind.
My stomach growls and I experience my first sensation that isn’t pain: hunger. It is as intense as that illusionary knife, and I am sure my stomach would devour itself if it could from sheer starvation. That alone validates Xialing’s words: It is clear I have been lying here for at least a week, perhaps more, without eating.
“Here,” she says, taking a bowl from the other side of our cell and handing it to me. Inside is gruel - stone cold, but I doubt it was warm when served, whenever that was. The temperature doesn’t matter as I collapse against the wall behind and dig my spoon in. Nor do the watery consistency and uncooked rice grains matter. It is food, and my stomach cares only for that fact.
Xialing watches me quietly as I eat and then hands me a second bowl when I finish, one which I assume to be hers. I open my mouth to refuse her kindness and insist that she eats it herself, but she speaks before I have the chance.
“I wasn’t hungry when they brought it in before and I’m still not hungry now,” she says. “After a few days here, you begin to lose your appetite.”
At first I doubt her words, believing them only to have been spoken out of generosity. While I accept her second bowl of gruel that night, when breakfast comes I find I cannot so much as lift my spoon from the soggy mixture. That’s because I wake to a dying man’s screams, echoing from somewhere deep within the prison, and soon after watch a bloodied corpse being dragged past our cell by two servants. A thousand cuts cover his body, so many that the flesh has peeled back to reveal muscle and bone. Xialing whitens at the sight and even by the end of the day, the colour hasn’t returned to her face. I’m not sure whether my expression is the same, but the image lingers before my eyes.
My appetite does return by the evening, but that’s only more evidence of how starved my body is. Xialing only picks at her gruel, fiddling with her spoon absentmindedly. “Has anything come back yet?” she finally asks. “Anything at all about what happened to you before waking up in this cell?”
I can only shake my head. I remember no more than I did the previous morning.
She gives me a small but reassuring smile. “Your memories will definitely return soon enough, don’t worry.”
“What about you?” I ask, placing the now empty bowl beside me. “How did you end up in here?”
She lets out a long sigh and squeezes her eyes shut, a pained look twisting her expression. “I didn’t want to…” she whispers, her voice barely a breath. She pauses, staring down at her outstretched hands for so long that I begin to doubt she will continue. She looks back up at me and swallows down hand. “I killed my mistress. Poisoned her.”
“You killed your mistress?” I echo, so sure I misheard her. From all that I have seen, Xialing seems softly spoken and gentle hearted. The last thing I would have expected her to be is a murderer.
She pales at the question and I can see nausea washing over her. “I killed her. I was the one who slipped the poison into her tea. I was the one who watched her drink it. Who watched her choke to death. There was blood, so much blood. Everywhere. I didn’t think it would be like that. She knew. She knew it was me as she died in my arms. Her eyes held betrayal. She treated me so kindly for so many years. Yet I killed her.” By the time she finishes, not only her hands but her entire body is shaking. Tears roll down her face and I watch her, holding back my question until I can hold it back no longer. When I finally speak, my voice is as quiet as hers.
“If you cared for your mistress and she treated you kindly, why would you kill her?”
She shakes her head frantically, as if in disbelief that she ever did such a thing. “I couldn’t not do it. I had no choice. The Queen - she wanted my mistress dead. And I was the only one my mistress trusted. The Queen had my father. She told me what would happen if I refused - if I failed. I told the rest of my family to run. To run and never stop running. My father, they killed him all the same when I confessed my crimes. I can still see…” Her throat closes up as she chokes on her tears. I reach forth and hold her hand, squeezing tightly. No words will come to me, but I doubt there are any which would comfort her. All I can do is sit there and listen to her weeping for the remainder of the night.
Eventually she quietens as she drifts asleep, but her slumber is a restless one. I know her dreams torment her; I know both grief and guilt haunt her mind. I wish I had not asked her; I wish I had not forced her to relive those memories. It is not only because of the suffering it brought upon her but also because of the fear it instilled into my heart.
I know not who I am, nor how I got here. But Xialing has told me Huanfan Prison is renowned for its brutality. Only the most dangerous criminals are sent here. She killed a favoured concubine. I can only imagine who I might have killed. I pray my story is like Xialing’s: that whatever crime I committed, my hand was forced. A part of me hopes my memories will never return, that I will never learn the truth of my past. Perhaps my grief will be as unbearable as Xialing’s, or perhaps it will be even worse. Perhaps I will discover I am nothing but a monster that deserves the worst fate Huanfan Prison has to offer.