The Fragile Tower Prologue - High Peaks

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The day when all Ma's worst fears came true was dazzlingly bright and beautiful. It had snowed heavily during the night, and when Grace went to collect the post, she trod over perfect, crisp whiteness. She squinted out at their quiet street and thought that it had changed somehow with this first proper fall of snow. It seemed to promise something, and Grace felt a faint stirring of excitement in herself at the thought of change.

The feeling was cemented when she opened the post box and found a package addressed to her, which could only be her new tarot reading book. She hadn't thought it would be here until next week. It had to be a good omen.

Later, Grace thought that she should have understood the peculiar feeling. She should have read all the little differences today and realised that something terrible was going to happen before anything wonderful had a chance. But how could she have known, really?

Ma had woken at five thirty to reorganise her portfolio, and she was on her third cup of coffee by the time Grace returned inside. She was bent over the kitchen table with the cup in her left hand, making herself frantic notes and sketches with her right. But at least she was dressed now, and she looked elegant and also a little quirky in her slash-necked black top and her big silver necklace, her hair piled up into a mound of curls.

Grace had always been proud of Ma's beauty, particularly of her thick, shiny black hair and her huge eyes. But mixed with that was a little bit of envy she was ashamed of. Grace felt like her brown hair was dull and uninteresting in comparison, and her blue-green eyes were a normal sort of shape and size. Where Ma was exotic and striking, Grace was just average-looking.

The only thing she really seemed to have picked up from Ma was her height, and after a sudden rush of growth over summer, she was now an inch taller than Ma's five-foot-nine, and although accompanying Dad on hikes and her kick-boxing training meant she was fitter than most of her class, she wasn't graceful like Ma. In fact, she generally felt about as far from living up to her name as it was possible to be.

Ma looked up as Grace stamped her boots on the mat.

"Make sure Benjamin wears enough. And tell Dad to bring a spare coat in case he loses it."

"Sure." Grace dropped the post onto the kitchen table, then went to the kettle and clicked it on again. She smiled slightly at a screech and running steps coming from upstairs. She remembered when Dad had first met Ma and moved in, and the unbelievable excitement of having someone to chase around with each morning. It had been such a contrast to the way Ma worried about whether the roads were icy that morning or whether Grace might try to walk home with one of her friends.

She almost missed the silliness of those mornings, even though it had been Grace who sombrely told Dad she was too old for that sort of thing once she hit nine and the twins had started joining in too.

She looked at Ma, whose head was bowed over her sketchpad, and as usual felt a little bit like a traitor for wanting to have more fun. She knew how hard it had been for Ma, bringing a child up alone in a foreign country. For years it had been the two of them against the world. She understood the way her mother worried more than the twins ever could; more than Dad did, even.

"What time are you leaving?" she asked.

"Ten minutes," Ma said, glancing up at the clock and then down again. It was only half past six.

It was a four hour drive from High Peaks town to New York City, and that was in good conditions. With the snow, it might be almost five. Ma's all-important meeting with the Diplomat Hotel wasn't until one, and she thought it would be no more than an hour since they had already seen and approved Ma's plans for the sculpture she was going to create. But for that one hour, she would be on the road for most of the day.

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