Even in Mei’s practiced hands, the tray shook. It took all of her concentration not to stare at the sharp, gleaming metal the door guards held before them. Their schooled faces showed nothing. Not the slightest thought flickered across their chiseled faces. Mei knew how quickly those blank faces could turn deadly.
On silent hinges, the massive red doors swung inward beckoning Mei in. She scuttled forward doing her best to keep the tray and its simple contents steady. At this late hour, all but the most dedicated watchers had left to get a few hours of much needed sleep.
Mei swallowed a gasp as she drew nearer the massive bed. At the center, the Emperor’s shrunken form seemed too small and shriveled for such a large place. His wrinkles had sunk further into his impossibly pale face. Mei settled her tray onto a finely carved table set beside the bed for just that purpose.
She lifted the lid from the tray and set it to the side being careful not to scratch the lacquer. Steam wafted into the flickering darkness.
“Soup, your Imperial Highness,” Mei said softly. Her voice floated away from her and got lost in the vastness of the space around her. The Emperor didn’t stir. All around him was splendor. Brightly colored silks hung high into the rafters fluttering occasionally in the hot summer breezes allowed in for the Emperor’s health.
The only thing that seemed out of place was a bejeweled golden bird. It sat on a table all its own beside the Emperor’s bed. Mei eyed the metal creature warily, but it made no noise. In fact, it had made no noise in years. The fact that it sat there still held a testament to the bird’s sway over the Emperor.
Mei wished it’s real life counterpart still lived in the palace. The golden bird had been beautiful, but she’d never liked it better than the friend she’d brought to the palace all those years ago.
The Emperor stirred and turned toward where she stood beside the table and tray.
“Pl…,” he muttered. His purplish lips smacked together drily.
“Your Highness?” Mei trembled. She should say nothing.
“Play!” he shouted. His body twisted. Covers pulled this way and that tangling around his frail arms and legs. “Why won’t you play? I want to hear your song?”
Mei flinched, terrified of the rage in the sleeping man’s voice. A hand gripped Mei’s shoulder. Her eyes went wide with fear.
“The Emperor will eat his soup when he wakes.” Mei stared silently, unable to speak, into the wild dark eyes of a courtier. His fingers tightened, digging into her shoulder. She allowed herself to be propelled toward the door. What could a kitchen maid say?
In seconds, she found herself thrust back into the hallway. She walked as quickly as she could and still look proper. It would not do for even a servant to run.
Returning to the kitchen seemed to take an age, and even when she’d returned she was still unsure of how to do what she knew needed to be done.
“Did he eat?” the head cook barked from her chair beside the fire. A massive fan wavered back and forth in her calloused hands. Mei shook her head and kept moving across the floor. She’d have to be careful if she was going to make her way out of the forbidden city.
“That’s no answer!” the cook called after her, “What do you think you’re doing Mei.” Mei looked over her shoulder at the older woman whose face had gone nearly purple with rage at being ignored.
“I’m going to save the Emperor,” Mei said. The cooks face settled for just a moment before it split with gales of laughter. Mei turned and darted out into the night. The head cook didn’t have to believe her. She knew what she had to do.
“Friend!” Mei called into the perfumed night air. Branches wavered in the warm night time air. Leaves whispered against each other. It had taken hours of careful sneaking through the avenues of the palace before Mei had managed to escape into the city and then the countryside. Her feet ached, but beside her water tripped musically across rocks and fallen sticks.
“I know you are there,” Mei said softly. Her voice carried upward like it had in the vast bedchamber of the Emperor. “Nightingale, I know he wronged you, but he needs you now. He is dying.”
Mei stomped her sore feet and wandered further beside the brook she’d visited since she’d been little. Only the sound of the wind greeted her.
“If for him, then please come and sing for me, Nightingale.” Hot tears welled behind Mei’s eyes. If she was wrong, if she was found outside the palace, she’d pay dearly. She’d known, but she’d been so sure that she came anyway.
Tired and losing hope, Mei dropped herself down to a moss covered rock.
“Please,” she begged. Tears sprang from her eyes and tracked down her cheek.
A rustle beside her in the leaves pulled her head from her hands. Down in the leaves and pine needles, the form of a small nightingale hopped first from one foot to the other.
“Friend,” Mei cried.
“I came for you,” the Nightingale said in a voice like a music box.
“Fly. I will meet you there. Together, we will save him. If you will not sing for me, then sing for him.” The Nightingale threw itself into the air as an answer. Mei did her best to follow and retrace her steps through the forbidden city.
Night spread across a city holding its breath. Light outlined the palace walls stealing Mei’s breath when she most needed it. Still gasping she stopped just outside the palace kitchens. While she had run, the sun had wheeled closer to the horizon. To the east, the sky was brightening.
“Carry me, friend,” the Nightingale said simply. “We will go together.” Mei nodded and held out her hand. She entered the kitchen with the bird held before her as explanation. The cook looked up from the beginnings of breakfast but her words stopped in her mouth. All knew the bird and did not question.
Through hallway after hallway Mei went with her avian ambassador before her. Guards and courtiers, who normally would have shooed her away, watched with slack faces and wide eyes.
When she arrived at the door, Mei looked into the faces of the door guards and knew she’d been seen. The broad red doors swung inwards. Courtiers raised themselves from where they lay and began to protest.
Mei did not stop until she stood beside the Emperor’s bed. Out of respect for her friend, she picked up the golden copy and moved it away. The Nightingale hopped onto its rightful perch. Mei felt a cold prickle between her shoulder blades and turned. Unnoticed by the courtiers, a figure dressed like a fine noble but all in black stood watching on. His hair was a glossy black and his eyes seemed bottomless.
“Sing friend. It’s now or never,” Mei begged. The Nightingale considered the room before its throat bobbed and music poured from its tiny beak. The music, long missing from the Emperor’s palace, poured forth once more. It filled the grand room from floor to ceiling.
Mei smiled and let her eyes slide shut. She was reminded of a happy childhood and of her trek into the woods with the Emperor and his courtiers. She could see the branches and waving leaves. The sun seemed to show through the bars of the bird’s song.
When at last she opened her eyes, the man in black had moved away. A smile had split his impossible face. His chin dipped in a respectful nod toward the bird, and then it was like he’d never been there before. Mei smiled.
A gasp arose beside her. The Emperor, still tangled in blankets, sat with his eyes opened. They were fixed on the small, plain bird perched where the lovely jeweled copy had stood only moments before.
“How can I ever repay you?” he said and his eyes slid to where Mei stood.