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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3. The Empty Bed

Ma was working at the kitchen table, pretending that she wasn’t waiting for them, but Grace stepped inside first, and saw the way her mother’s head snapped up to look over at the door. She was squinting slightly, a look Grace knew meant that she was worried, and only relaxed a little when she saw her family pour in through the door.

            Grace felt a squirming guilt, but then also a little bit of defiance. They were with Dad. Why shouldn’t they go to the fair?

            “Hey, Ma,” she said lightly, pulling her key out of the door and tugging Benjamin in after her. He was trying to writhe out of his thick coat as he went, instantly too hot in the warmth of the house as he always was. Grace found herself holding an empty sleeve with a glove wedged into the end of it, and Benjamin was halfway towards the sitting-room and the TV.

            “Where did you lot get to?” Ma asked, closing her sketchpad deliberately and acting casual. “I thought you’d be back ages before I was.”

            “We went to the fair,” Dad said, before Grace had to explain. He was trying to unbutton Maggie’s pink duffel-coat while she jumped up and down.

            “It was great,” Maggie said, punctuating her excited words with bounces. “There were jugglers and fire-breathers and candyfloss and a merry-go-round, which I went on twice. And then I was nearly sick.”

            “Neither of you answered your phone,” Ma said, looking between Grace and her father.

            “I guess I left it here.” Grace felt a little sorry for her father just then. She knew he was in a lot more trouble than she was. “Sorry, sweetheart.”

            “Really sorry, Ma. I didn’t turn mine back on after school.”

            She unbuttoned her coat, beginning to sweat in the heat, and hung her school-bag by the door. Ma was putting her work things into her briefcase, and Grace saw that she was shaking very slightly.

            She sighed very slightly, feeling like it was a huge over-reaction but hating that she’d helped to cause it anyway. She went over to Ma and hugged her as she straightened up.

             “Did we mess up dinner?”

            “No, I haven’t made anything,” Ma told her, and squeezed her around the middle in return, before letting go and tugging gently on her hair. “You look like you’ve been rubbing balloons on your head. Was there some kind of static thing there?”

            Grace glanced at her reflection in the kitchen window, and saw that her hair was frizzed up all over. She tried to flatten it down, remembering the strange feeling as she had touched the globe, and shook her head.

            “I got snow in it, I think,” she replied.

            “Does no dinner mean we get to order takeaway?” Dad asked, taking Grace’s place next to Ma.

            “Takeaway!” Maggie shouted, immediately, and from the sitting room, over the noise of the TV, they heard Benjamin say, “Pizza!”

            Ma shook her head, smiling a little. “Healthy takeaway, yes. I’m not going to let you all shove saturated fat into your mouths.”

            Grace’s Dad sighed, and then asked, pretending to be disappointed, “Thai, then?”

            It was all a routine with him. Her father’s favourite food was Thai, followed by Indian, followed by Chinese. He couldn’t stand fried chicken and thought pizza was just a sandwich gone wrong. But he would shake his head, and gloomily inform his children that they had to go by their mother’s wishes and eat what was good for them. Then he would order most of the dishes on the menu and gorge himself until he could barely move.

            Grace slid into a chair on the far side of the table and watched Maggie scamper over to the notice-board and unpin the tatty Thai menu. Grace never involved herself in the ordering process. There were always too many dishes to try, and she was happy to have a little bit of everything. And nobody except Dad was ever allowed to phone thanks to his strange theory that if you spoke in a slight mock-Thai accent, incredibly slowly, the folks at The Bamboo Shoot would be able to understand better.

            Ma came to sit opposite Grace, smiling as she watched Maggie and Dad make a list on a scrap of paper, but Grace could tell she was still upset.

            “Was everything ok at the fair?” she asked after a little while. “Benjamin didn’t... get himself into any trouble, did he?”

            Grace looked sharply at her, wondering how her mother had hit on that. But she was still watching Maggie while she wrote untidily and then tried to correct it, with much teasing from Dad.

            “No,” Grace said, happier avoiding the subject than outright lying. “He tried to make an exhibition of himself at one of the shows, but I managed to calm him down.”

            Ma was unmistakeably relieved. She smiled at Grace, and her daughter felt a moment of worry about that coin. She hoped Benjamin kept it to himself, and did let on that Grace had made an exhibition of herself instead.

 

 

            The five of them collapsed in front of the TV after the takeaway, Grace feeling so full that an ice cream ad made her feel sick. Ma had forced her to complete her homework before they ate, and Maggie and Benjamin had been on room-tidying duty, so the three of them were given passes to slouch in front of Erin Brokovich until Benjamin got bored with the plot and went to play on his DS. Ma usually chased them to bed by nine but she was so stuffed herself that she just lay there and made occasional protests.

            Grace was the next to leave, feeling sleepy from dinner but with her head still full of strange predictions and bright lights. She climbed into bed with a book, but quickly gave up and turned the light off. She dreamed about her school being turned into a circus, and that she was failing her juggling tests.

Grace woke before everyone else, while it was still dark, and lay listening to the quiet hisses and clicks of the heating switching itself on. She stretched, luxuriating in the extra time to lie there, before the dryness of her throat stirred her into action.

She padded quietly over the carpet, and out onto the landing, the night-light coming on as she walked past. The landing window turned from a light blue to almost black, reflecting her form back at her as she walked towards it.

She glanced into the twins’ room as she went past, already seeing Benjamin’s sprawled form which was usually half on the bed and half off it with the duvet somewhere different each time. But the bed was empty.

            Her head told her he was probably in the bathroom, even while her stomach squeezed in fear. There

 There was no reason to think that anything was wrong.

            She took three steps towards the bathroom, and saw that there was no light coming from under the door. Benjamin wasn’t there. However much he sneered at Maggie for wanting a light on at bedtime, he was more scared of the dark than she was. He never went anywhere without switching a light on first, or following someone else into the darkness.

            Grace glanced at the stairs, which showed darkness down there as well, and then she went back into Maggie and Benjamin’s room for another look, realising that he might have fallen out of bed in the night, or be getting dressed behind the door.

            She walked around the door, seeing first the window, then Maggie’s bed with her mop of hair visible above the covers, and then finally the wardrobe where it stood against the near wall. But there was no Benjamin, and when she crouched to look under his bed, it was a reaction made out of desperation, not belief that he might be there.

            Grace went back out into the hall, her heart hammering, and almost ran down to her parents’ room. She came to a stop in the darkened doorway, not knowing quite what to say for a moment, before the words seemed to force their way out of her.

            “Ma. Dad. Benjamin’s gone. I can’t find him.”

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