Julian hunched on top of the palace roof with his bare feet braced on rough shingles, tracing notes of music in the dark.
His fingers, scorched and blistered, flew through the film of soot like birds. It was a happy, solemn kind of magic.
Julian rubbed his watering eyes and blinked the soot out of them.
He’d rather be doing this in the chimney. There was more soot there. Em said chimneys were his ‘national habitat’, or something. She always said it quiet, like it was a bad thing. Funny that someone like her could be awkward about that. He used to think that was just for rich folks whose chimneys he fell down on accident.
But the chimney was too hot right now, and Boris wasn’t there to say he had to go in.
He glanced up, but the only light at the far end of the roof was the faraway, foggy glimmer of the city lights far below.
No Em yet.
His face puckered. He jumped to his feet and dusted his hands on his shirt. Both came away dirty. Soot must be the pixie dust Em talked about so much—only she said it was in his head. Maybe he’d breathed it in so much he got ‘affected’.
He stepped back, shingles tickling his burn-roughened feet, and walked backwards all the way to the end of the roof.
The soot-covered rooftop was a symphony. Boris would laugh, but it was.
One time he’d cleaned chimneys for a man who taught little girls to sing. He used to sneak down the chimney at night and read the music left lying around, until Boris caught him at it and said he’d clip his ears off. But it had all stuck.
Julian shut his eyes.
It starts at the top edge of the roof like real notes start at the top corner of a page, though real notes don’t bump into chimneys and have to move over. Someday I’m going to have real paper and write real notes. But I like this one in soot. Em will too.
I wrote it in E minor, ’cause it’s for her.
The first four lines have chimneys and coughing and black eyes and lungs that bleed when I try too hard to breathe. And Boris. And Essi who cried when he forced her down a chimney that was too small for her and the fire wasn’t out and she stuck and died.
Julian closed his eyes tighter. Then there’s Em. The bad stuff goes to the lower clef and she comes, tangled up but clear as candles. Sixteenth notes with emphasis in odd places and eighth notes that pause and have no reason not to be quarter notes, except they want to be eighth.
She’ll like this part. It’s like a dance.
Julian started and nearly toppled backwards into empty air. Stumbling to firmer footing, he spun towards the back of the roof.
The two tips of a rickety wooden ladder quivered and scraped at the edge of it. A sooty cap poked up, big as a bag-pudding, and a sweaty face followed, like a bag-pudding without the bag and only two currants—the eyes. They blinked at him, rounder and wider-open than they usually were.
Julian stuck out his tongue.
Boris’s eyes narrowed. He grabbed the ladder like he grabbed kids’ throats with his long, squishy hands. “Why’re you up here? Scram!”
Julian stuck his hands behind his back and turned out his toes. “’Scuse yer highnessness,” he returned, “I’ve jes been talkin’ to the kelpies.”
Boris’s cheeks went from red to crimson. “Lunytic!” he spat. “Kelpies live in wells and talk to kings. I never heard o’ one that lived in chimneys and talked to asylum foundlin’s.”
Julian opened his mouth.
“Aw, shut it,” Boris growled, yanking his cap down over his ears. “Scram. You wanna be—” He stopped and scowled for five quarter notes and a rest. “Eh, nevermind.” He glanced at Julian sidelong, then shrugged and pasted on a smile that showed all his black teeth. “Watchin’ for your little pixie friend?”
Boris heaved an enormous sigh. “You’ve no idea how’t weighs on me heart, little Cinderfoot— one o’ yer toddlin’ years, afflicted so terrible with deluges.”
Before Julian had time to unscramble the sentence in his head, a new voice spoke clear and whispery right beside his ear. “That would be ‘delusions’, Master Boris.”
Em stood on his shoulder. Firelight wisped around her like she carried wind around in her pockets, and her pockets had holes in them.
Boris didn’t even blink.
Julian almost smirked. He couldn’t see her. She didn’t show herself to people without brains. That was most people. The asylum-woman, who was supposed to be smart, had been nervy enough to call her a ‘hallucigation’.
“Deaf too?” Boris shrugged. “Sweet dreams, li’l lunytic.” His head disappeared over the edge of the roof.
Julian scowled again. “What’s he so happy about?”
Em leapt from his shoulder and landed on the rooftop with a little thud, trailing light like a comet. She didn’t look quite human when she moved. Almost like she was made of rocks or lumps of coal hinged together where humans had joints.
Julian shook himself. “See what I made Em? I wrote it for you— you can dance to it. I could call it ‘Em’, but that doesn’t sound nice. What’s your whole name? Emmaline Firefingers? That was Mama’s name.”
Em blinked her white-hot eyes rapidly. “You didn’t know your mama, Julian.”
Em knit her forehead, then glanced at the rooftop around her. A tiny flame separated from her dancing hair and hovered above her head, blushing a soft blue. “It’s beautiful.”
“What’s the matter?” Julian’s stomach tightened. “Don’t you like it?”
“Oh yes!” She nodded vigorously, and the flame above her head blushed purple. “You’ve outdone yourself.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
She sighed and dusted off her skirt. “If you stay up here, you’re going to die.”
It was Julian’s turn to blink.
Em’s rocky chest heaved up, and she blew out a mouthful of sparks. “It’s Boris. And people worse than Boris. This is the palace, you know? The king lives here. Boris slipped down a chimney this morning and planted a packet of sulfur and— dangerous fire things, in the ballroom. They’re having a dance tonight, and one of Boris’s confederates— that means pals, dear— managed to get an invitation. He’s going to touch off the wick and get out of there before it…”
Julian stared at her, listening to the thud of his heart against his ribs, then shook his head violently. “W-what are we going to do?”
The flame above Em’s head flashed white. She drew herself up, six inches of burning command, and threw back her shoulders. “Save them.”
Julian gaped. “M-me?”
“You can!” Em snapped. Her face softened. “I will help you.”
Those burning white eyes drilled into him. “You have nothing to lose.”
Julian flung out his arms. “I have dirt! They get mad when I come down chimneys on accident.”
What would she know? She’d never been in his place. “They’ll make me take a bath!”
Em shut her eyes and breathed deeply. Her flame flickered red, then blue again, then purple. “Julian. I realize this is difficult for you to understand. Please. Take my word for it that this is vitally important.”
“But it’s not my business. I’m jes’ a sweep!”
Em’s flame bled pink, then dwindled and puffed out. She held out her hands. “Please. For me.”
Julian sighed. “They’ll make me take a bath,” he grumbled, and took off at a run for the chimney. Gripping the gritty rim with practiced hands, he scrambled up and tumbled over the edge. One foot found a rough brick and braced there and he slammed his back against the other side, wedged in warm, sooty darkness where the only sound was the echo of his breathing.
He looked up.
Em stood on the rim of the chimney, looking down. Her tiny form brightened, then flashed and disappeared. A split second later her voice whispered at Julian’s cheek, and hot little arms clung to his collar. “Go down until I say stop.”
Julian ran his tongue across his lower lip and started down.
Shuffle. Scrape. Clatter.
Soot on his hands, warm and comforting. Why’d rich people have to sleep in feathers and silk? Silk was cold. Soot was much better and easier to find. He slipped around a side flue, shifting his angle as the chimney narrowed. “Em, what’s a hallucigation?”
He expected her to reply with the proper word—he couldn’t be getting such a big one right—but she was quiet, and when she did reply her voice was very small. “Something only very special people can see, Julian.”
“Did you ever see one?”
“Not quite special enough, I guess. Here, stop—go left.”
Thrusting his head and shoulders into a smaller side flue, Julian kicked off the other side of the chimney and pushed himself in with a grunt. He dragged himself along with his elbows, squinting as he wriggled forward.
Light flashed at the corner of his eye, and a split second later Em popped up like a lit candle, walking in front of him.
“How come you always burn? Don’t you have to get new coal sometimes?”
Em made an odd sound that could have been a snicker. “Fire burns on oxygen,” she replied, as if that explained everything. “Not that there’s much of that down here.”
“Are there… other fire pixies, Em?” Julian gasped, shoving one shoulder past a dip in the ceiling. “I’ve never saw anyone but you.”
“Oh yes.” Em kept walking. “Lots and lots. They’re just shy, I expect.”
Julian stopped for a moment, panting. “Can’t breathe, Em.”
She whirled. “Julian—Julian, no! We’re almost there. Don’t think about it—that’s my job. You just do what I say and you’ll be fine. Come on.” Her white hot eyes dilated. “Julian?”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Something heavier than Boris’s fist dug into his chest and wouldn’t get out. Em was flickering. She reached out and grabbed his face, but he barely felt the shock of her hot little hands.
Someone was screaming his name so loud it echoed through the whole chimney.
‘Julian! You are NOT going to die here! Your life will be better—I’ll see to it, I promise!’
Sobbing. Little prickles like drops of boiling water touched his lips. ‘I had things I wanted to tell you… We could have had years and years yet, before you grew up…I didn’t want it to end this way. I never told you my name. It’s Ember. Ember Flyaway.’
The sobbing faded. Something whispered in the back of his head, like the voice of somebody he used to know. ‘So be it. I give you what I have.’
Air rushed into his lungs like freezing water. He gasped and his eyes flew open in total darkness. He shot out numb hands and gripped cracks in the stones, squirming forward for all he was worth.
Was that Em? That soft orange glow just ahead? Where had she gone?
Shaking, almost sobbing, Julian squeezed from the flue and tumbled six feet into a fireplace big enough to hold a horse. One half was full of leaping flames and he almost singed himself tumbling out over the fender; rolling to a stop on the embroidered rug and burying his face in it as he coughed all the soot and smoke from his lungs.
Julian sat up, dazed and blinking.
Golden people in golden coats and dresses floated by, carrying cups of golden stuff that twinkled under diamond lights. Music wove between the golden people, invisible and happy and haunting.
I must’ve died.
He blinked, shook his head, and blinked again, rubbing his eyes to clear them. Em didn’t show up. There was ash on his face. Something dark and lumpy rolled off the fender and sprawled on the rug.
A lady screamed like she’d found a frog in her wig. “Chimneysweep! My heart, it’s filthy! Augh!”
Julian scrambled to his feet and backed away. Were they going to make him take a bath before he even remembered what he had to…had to…?
Halfway across fairyland a man in a purple coat held a package to the flame of a candle.
A butler in a high black collar elbowed his way through the circle of staring faces, but Julian darted between his legs and took off full sprint for the candle.
The man was already gone. Julian dove across the tablecloth for the smoldering package, knocking over a bowl of soup.
Screams broke out in the direction the man had gone.
Julian snatched the packet and dumped it in a pitcher just as the flame caught and flared up on the edge of the paper. It sizzled out with a tiny pop, and then the world turned black.
Julian slumped cross-legged on the hearthrug, staring at his clenched hands as the room buzzed and spun around him.
“Is this the little ’sweep?”
He raised heavy eyelids and looked up. A man in a green coat stared down at him, red around the ears and kind of puffing. He had nice eyes. “I owe you my life, lad. How did you know?”
The words buzzed like half-frozen flies in his head. He held out his handful of coal. Ten pieces. He had counted them. “She told me.”
The man’s gaze dropped to his hand. A slight wrinkle creased his forehead. “…She?”
A murmur rippled through the circle of faces, ladies averting their eyes behind jeweled fans and gentlemen clicking their tongues and shaking their heads.
Julian rubbed the snot away from his nose. “This one must’ve been her face. It h-has a nose, see? And… eyes.” He held the pieces up to the man in green, who shrank back.
“Can you fix it?”
The man’s ears turned pink. “Ah…?”
Julian burst into tears.
Someone with huge shoe-buckles jabbered something about saving His Majesty’s life, but he didn’t even try to listen.
Em was broken. The music was gone. Even in his head.
Julian buried his face in his handful of coal, tears mixing with black dust and bleeding through his fingers.
The sounds of fairyland tinkled on around him. A heavy blanket fell over his shoulders, and someone set a glass of water beside his knee. His wails became sobs, then hiccups as he tried to breathe again.
A young man in white sat on the rug next to Julian. “There, there. Don’t cry. Your life will be better now.”
Julian rubbed his tears away. He had heard that before.