The Fragile Tower

The Fragile Tower is book one of the Cold Lands series.

Grace Lane is fourteen and an outsider who has been looking for something to make her significant for most of her life. When the midwinter fair arrives at St Matthew's Park only a quarter mile from her house, it seems to be designed to draw her in. But after she wins a gold piece from a circus-performer in a strange test, her brother takes the coin and then vanishes.

Grace's ma admits that she knows where he has been taken - to the Cold Lands where she was born, in order to be bound to the workings of its Queen and her magics. Grace realises that she has to get him back before his twin sister can be taken too. With the help of a book and her mother's grudging confession, Grace steps out of her world and into the Cold Lands.

She enters the extroardinary and beautiful Fragile Tower, a place kept working by the magic of boys linked and kept captive. Grace must face ancient magics and the truth about her family to free Benjamin.

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1. The Midwinter Circus

 

            It was a clear, bright, snow-covered evening when the fair appeared in St. Matthew’s park. Grace, walking ahead, saw it through the iron railings and faltered, her feet choosing to stop before her head had made a decision. The lights strung between the stalls and tents were yellow-orange, with reds and greens and whites scattered among them, warm and gorgeous against the ice blue and black of the snow. When she took a breath in, it was a breath made up of caramel and cinnamon and wood-smoke.

            She took two crunching steps and pressed her face up against the railings, her eyes full of jugglers, coconut-shies, carousels and waffle stalls. The bars started to make thin, icy imprints down her cheeks but she still stood there, breathing in flavours and watching the groups and couples who made their laughing way between stalls.

            It might have been designed just for her, that fair. Grace was the dreamer, the shy one, the one who loved to watch a spectacle without having to join in, and who was always looking for strangeness in ordinary things, even now that she was fourteen and supposed to be turning into an adult. It held her, caught against the park railings, unable to look away while her cheeks grew numb and then painful.

            Maggie’s shrieking laughter made her look around in the end, and a little of her skin stuck to the metal and pulled sharply as she tugged her head away. She rubbed at it with a wool-mittened hand as she watched Benjamin’s impersonation of their Aunt Frances, this time made more realistic by the cold air which made it look like he was really smoking. He had picked up a stick from somewhere, and was holding it between his thumb and first finger, drawling about the devils of democracy while he strutted along with a hand on his hip.

            Maggie was cantering along in front of him, turned sideways so that she could see him, and bending double every few steps to laugh harder before trotting to catch up. Grace looked from them to their father, who was trying not to smile too obviously at their antics, but not managing. If they’d been at home instead of trailing along in a scattered bunch of school-children and parents, he would have been capering around with them, probably with one of them on his shoulders and the other one under his arm. But this was only the second time he’d picked walked them home, and he was taking it seriously.

            She looked back over at the fair, surprised to find her hands reaching for the railings again. It was everything her mother hated most, right there. A snowy night, an exotic and unknown fair full of strangers and probably swindlers, and a full moon shining brilliantly down out of the sky overhead. With an uncomfortable feeling, she knew how disappointed Ma would be if she asked to go. Grace was supposed to set an example now, and follow Ma’s careful guidance to keep the twins safe.

            But Ma wasn’t here, and none of her fears seemed reasonable here. It was just a fair: a prettier than usual, warm and fun and living fair. And if she didn’t ask to go...

            She slid a sidelong glance at Benjamin, who was nearly past the end of the bank and in sight of the park. Benjamin would want to go, and Maggie would want to do whatever Benjamin was doing. And Pa would want to please both of them, and Grace too. He was always the one who spoiled them when Ma wasn’t looking, and Maggie knew just how to stretch here eyes into a mournful look which usually wrung out of him more than what she was asking for.

            The little trio cleared the building, and it was actually Maggie who saw it first, gasping for breath between shrieks. Grace watched her face change straight from hto go...

            She slid a sidelong glance at Benjamin, who was nearly past the end of the bank and in sight of the park. Benjamin would want to go, and Maggie would want to do whatever Benjamin was doing. And Dad would want to please both of them, and Grace too. He was always the one who spoiled them when Ma wasn’t looking, and Maggie knew just how to stretch here eyes into a mournful look which usually wrung out of him more than what she was asking for.

            The little trio cleared the building, and it was actually Maggie who saw it first, gasping for breath between shrieks. Grace watched her face change straight from hysterical amusement into longing in the instantaneous way she seemed to have, and she flew across in front of Benjamin to clutch at the railings, already saying, “Please, oh, please, Daddy,” as she went.

            Benjamin watched, her his nose puckered, as he considered pretending he hated the sight of it just to avoid looking like he was copying her, but an expanding circle of lights and jaunty piped gypsy-music announced that a small Ferris-wheel had begun working, and he was next to his sister in a moment.

            “We’ve got to go, Dad! They’ve got rides and everything!”

            “Well, I’m not sure...” Her Dad made a small effort at resistance, which melted immediately under one of Maggie’s most wide-eyed gazes. “Just a short trip, then. It’s a school-night.”

Her father strolled contentedly into the park behind his squealing younger children, and then turned to look at Grace.

“They’re the most easily excited children in the country. You don’t mind, do you?”

Grace smiled at him. “Not if I can have my fortune told.”

She held out her hand, and he sighed as he took off his gloves and worked his wallet out of his pocket.

 

“Ten do it?”

“Sure.”

 

 

Grace was quickly lost among the stalls without minding too much. She could hear Maggie somewhere off ahead and in a different row, but also Dad’s slightly-too-loud recitations of “Now you calm down, Missy,” and “One thing at a time, Mags,” which were really for everyone else’s benefit. She knew she’d be able to find them without much trouble, and ignored the little flicker of guilt when she thought about Ma and how she was supposed to look after the twins for her.

“It’s Dad’s job today,” she muttered to herself, and wandered in search of a fortune-teller’s tent.

Grace had always loved tarot cards, Ouija-boards (properly used), crystal balls and palm reading. She liked to find reasons and patterns in her life and everyone else’s, and most of the readings she did for herself with the deck of cards she’d bought at Cassellino’s bookshop were subtly twisted to reassure herself that adventure was waiting around the corner. She had only once had a real fortune-teller give her a reading, and while she thought the woman herself had been a little bit disappointing, Grace had felt like she was in the presence of something which was guiding her towards a misty and romantic future.

She knew that Dad would want them home before Ma got back, so her time was limited, but still she found herself lingering amongst the many tents and stalls and displays. A fire-breather was shooting flames which changed from yellow to red to purple to green into the air, pausing, and then breathing again, his bare chest and face and hairless head painted gold to match and reflect the colours in the fire. Behind him, an old woman sold toffee-apples from a stall which looked to be made all of red velvet, and beyond a tiny carousel spun beautifully painted unicorns and dragons and lions around, with three little children clutching tightly on to them.

Moving towards the edge of the fair, where there were fewer people, Grace found a tent selling scarves and cloths of every imaginable colour. She paused to look into a gazebo under which a huge wheel span made up of tiny, purple and black segments, on which a gold ball would bounce and eventually come to rest, either winning the visitors money or losing it for them. After that she moved on past a tent full of mirrors and a juggler who was spinning glittering beanbags into the air and catching them in her mouth and hands and with her feet.

Grace stopped after a little while to buy a cup of hot chocolate, which was breathtakingly expensive but also, when it came, the most delicious thing she could remember drinking. She stood sipping it, and then, seeing no sign of a fortune-teller, she asked the girl behind the counter whether there was one.

“She’s the next row up. Opposite the light fountain,” the girl told her, and nodded over to a gap which Grace thought would take her to the central row.

She wandered that way, smiling at a mime dressed in silver who was pretending to be crushed slowly downwards by something huge above him, and then passing between a sweet-stall and an old-fashioned shooting gallery where elaborate black-and-silver rifles were being fired enthusiastically, and almost soundlessly, at a flock of wheeling birds. 

She couldn’t remember seeing a fair this exotic and... well, clean before. But it was more than just clean. It was beautiful, with its lights and its fabric, and each stall seemed to match the next one. There were no thick cables visible, no mud where trailers had driven over the grass, and in fact, no trailers visible at all. Only the patchwork or velvet tents would have given the performers anywhere to live.

She saw the water-fountain a few moments later. They had set it up so that multi-covered lights shone over the sprays of water, and in the cold night air, the cylinders which supported each layer were covered in runs and drips of ice, which reflected the lights back again and again into her eyes.

It was difficult to turn away, but when she did, the fortune-teller’s tent was waiting for her, a deep blue with silver patterns embroidered on, and with such a dim, purple light visible under its overhanging cloth that she couldn’t help walking towards it to peer inside.

Her eyes strained to make something out in the dimness. It was hazy and nothing seemed to stand out. It was warm, too, and that on its own might have made her want to step in, but she hesitated, feeling as if she might have been intruding. It was how Grace often felt.

The voice which sounded from somewhere inside made her jump.

“It’s all right to come in,” it said, a woman’s voice with a thick accent which sounded like it might have been French or maybe Swiss. “If you walk straight ahead, you’ll come to another curtain, which you can pull aside.”

Grace still hesitated for another moment, and glanced back out at the little groups and couples walking amongst the stalls. There was something a little threatening about walking into the dark there, but also, she admitted to herself, something appealing. She stepped inside, her hands out in front of her, and when she felt velvet brush against her hands, she pushed it aside and blinked into what was still a low light, but one which gave her enough light to see by.

The woman was probably her mother’s age, or a little bit younger, and had long ringlets of black hair on a pale face. Her clothes were like the others she’d seen here: antique in style but also rich-looking. Her dress was dark blue velvet, with little silver details which matched the outside of the tent.

She was settled behind a table which had nothing on it except a red cloth. The empty chair on Grace’s side was tall-backed but cushioned, a comfortable chair for settling into.

“Will you sit down?”

The fortune-teller was studying her, with a little smile on her face that said she was pleased by what she saw. Grace remembered what Dad often said about psychics and mystics: that it was their job to make you feel like the most unique person they’d ever met, and that was what you were really paying for.

But Grace wanted to feel unique, and special. It was a deep-rooted want in her. She shrugged her coat and gloves off now that she had left the cold behind, and sat in the chair.

It was really comfortable, the chair. She felt herself sink into it and hoped the fortune-telling would go on for a little while so that she could stay there.

“You’re lucky,” the fortune-teller told her, still with that little smile. “Dozens of people come each night, hoping to be told that their life holds something extraordinary. All of the others go away disappointed.”

Grace blinked at her, a little uneasy in spite of the comfort of where she sat. She wondered how obvious it was that she wanted to be unique instead of just an outsider. But she wanted to hear it said, anyway.

A silence stretched out, and Grace wondered whether she was supposed to start things off. After a moment, she asked, “How much is it?”

“That depends what you want,” the fortune-teller told her, propping her elbows on the table. “Would you like me to tell you your innermost wishes, and whether or not they will come true? Would you like me to tell you about how today will happen, or about tomorrow? I can tell you about next year if you like, though it wouldn’t necessarily make sense without knowing what will lead you there.”

Grace looked down at her hands, finding this decision-making difficult. “Could you just... could you just tell me about when something interesting’s going to happen to me?”

She looked back up at the fortune-teller, who was smiling more brightly. Grace wasn’t sure if she liked that smile, the way it said the woman knew something she didn’t.

“Give me your hands,” she said, and Grace laid them out flat on the table with her palms up, remembering other fortune-tellers who had read them.

The woman took her left hand gently in hers, and murmured, “Here is what you are.”

She moved a finger over her palm, not following the lines Grace knew where there, but tracing other patterns. It was a soothing touch, and Grace relaxed into the chair, willing to trust her for a little while at least.

“You are always out of step, but of course you are. Half of you is waiting until it can come into being. You shouldn’t feel afraid of standing out. But that is not all that goes into making you. There is also a self which isn’t waiting, which is strong and wants to protect, to watch over the ones that you love. That part is not shy, or afraid. It is a fierce creature which you keep ready.”

Grace felt her eyes start to grow heavy, and was surprised to feel so tired. It was probably just the warmth and the comfort, but she was listening through half-closed lids now, lulled by the musical, exotic voice.

She felt the woman lower her left hand and take the right instead.

“And what you will become.” She felt those wandering patterns being traced on her palm again. “There is more here. Much more. It is what you will become and it is almost limitless. It’s strange that you feel you are waiting for something, when the change has already started.”

Grace tried to focus on the woman properly. The fortune-teller’s words made her a little uneasy again. Or perhaps it wasn’t the words, but how she said them. It almost sounded like a warning.

“Your other self is waiting for you to step into it, and it is close tonight, so close you could touch it if you wanted. And when you do, it will not only be you which changes, it will be everything.”

Grace’s eyes still felt heavy, but she forced them open and sat forwards. She was starting to feel more than uneasy. She was feeling slightly afraid, and she didn’t know why.

“Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen except by your choice. Though it will be a choice you want to make, that you feel you have no choice over, it will still be your choice, and in choice there is power. Hold that power with you, and you will make it through everything that comes.”

The fortune-teller sat back, and Grace stood up quickly, dizzily, her heart beating quickly. There was something wrong here, and she needed to know where Maggie and Benjamin and Dad were.

“Your family is watching the light show,” the woman said, and Grace started, looking with disbelief into the wide, watching eyes. “On the other side of the fountain, there is a gap between two tents, which will take you there.”

Grace nodded, and picked up her coat and gloves. She pulled aside the curtains with arms which felt heavy and weary.

“Luck go with you,” she heard the woman say behind her, and nodded without turning around.


 

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