On a stormy night so cold and windswept that even the sea seemed scared, a ship docked in the harbour in Enclave. It carried a single, bent-backed passenger. Hattie was the first to see him.
The stranger walked up from the jetty, dragging his luggage bump bump bump over the cobbles of Topergate town, searching for the rotting sign of the Nervous Fire Inn. He found it on Butterfly Street, swinging from the porch of a peculiar house on stilts. Up above, through the grimy kitchen window, Hattie the landlady watched him come.
With her telescope, she traced the long line of footprints etched behind him in the muddied frost. She saw him put a gnarled hand on the ladder that led to her front door and start to climb, up through the black and swirling night.
The wind was so strong it could have whisked the fingers from his hands, and yet he wore no gloves. It was the coldest winter Hattie had known, but the strange man hauling himself up the wooden ladder had only a thin coat on.
'He looks about a thousand years old,' she whispered to Dog, who had just flown inside. 'Wherever will we put him? All the beds are taken.'
Dog cocked his head and Hattie sighed. For a dove, he was a good listener but terrible at conversation.
Hattie closed her telescope with a snap and dropped it in the pouch of her apron. She went into the tiny front room, where her two remaining guests-a "Lady" from Shoeliya and a Zofluetan jeweller-sat in armchairs by the blazing hearth. Their real names were signed in the inn's guestbook, but Hattie called them (privately) the Blob and the Magpie. The Lady was the Blob, because she was fat and wobbled when she got too emotional. The jeweller was the Magpie, because he was thin and mean and liable to borrow pretty things.
'Someone's coming up,' said the tiny, shrunken Magpie. He hooked his pebble-like glasses round his ears and flicked down the extra lenses to glare at the door, his eyes as big as saucers.
'Well, he will not be having my bed!'exclaimed the Blob. Her lipsticked mouth pouted, piggy eyes squinted and her treble chin shook.
Hattie had no time to answer before the door flew open. Outlined against the raging night was the wizened man from the harbour.
'I need a room,' he said, 'and it must be perfect!'
At once, the fire died down to its embers. The wind swept in, and the room seemed to be struck with the silence of a hundred years
'Yes,' said the stranger softly. 'This will do nicely.'
Hattie stared. With jitters in her belly, she went to pick up his suitcase, but he shooed her hand away.
'No, no,' he said, alarmed, 'Far too delicate.'
Hattie was startled, but she responded, 'I'm not delicate! I'm twelve.'
'I was talking about my merchandise,' he snapped, nodding at the battered suitcase. 'It's very...sensitive. If it were spoilt, you wouldn't want to buy it. And I would have come all this way for nothing.'
'Sir,' said Hattie. 'I don't know what you're selling, but I can't afford it.'
'Don't be presumptuous,' barked the stranger. 'I know a customer when I see one.'
The Blob and the Magpie watched from underneath their furs. Hattie was speechless. For a week she had heard nothing but:
'More sugar in the tea!'
'More blankets on the armchairs!'
'More wood on the fire!'
Now here was someone-a strange old man with a suitcase full of mystery-telling her that she was his customer.
Hattie Sixsmith, stop your gawking and say something, she thought.
'Welcome to the Nervous Fire Inn, sir.'
'Yes, yes!' he said impatiently. 'Now please fetch the landlord!'
Hattie rolled her eyes. New guests always made this mistake. She wiped her hands on her apron. 'I'm the landlady.'
Hattie gave him one of her sterner looks. 'That's right, sir. Me. Hattie Sixsmith.'
'Well, what about Mr Sixsmith?'
'Dad's at the pub. Down by the harbour, at the Sleepy Whale, betting with the sailors.'
The stranger pursed his lips in irritation. 'And Mrs Sixsmith?'
'Well,' said Hattie hotly, 'If I had to take a guess, I'd say that's none of your business.'
He merely nodded, and Hattie followed his gaze as it swept around the tiny room. The Nervous Fire Inn was drab and bare. The pictures were gone from the walls, leaving dark squares on the wood. There was a dining table by the kitchen, two worn armchairs by the fire and Mum's old piano in the corner. There was only one rug left to cover the uneven wooden floorboards. It was small.
'This is fine enough,' he said.
'But all our beds are full,' said Hattie anxiously.
'I don't want a room for sleeping, Miss Sixsmith, I want one for business.'
Hattie had half a mind to give him a lecture on good manners and send him packing. But she couldn't. The Nervous Fire Inn needed money. Dad's gambling already had Mr Esly, the debt collector, knocking at their door each week. So instead of a telling off, she gave the stranger a forced smile and showed him her wide, wonderful eyes; the eyes of her mother, long gone.
'Certainly then, sir. Bed or business, it's all the same rate here...' She stuck out her hand and said, 'Three shillings a night, if you please.'
'Three shillings is reasonable...' began Blob,
'...for an inn with more than one rug!' finished the Magpie.
'You can have any room you choose for your business,' said Hattie, ignoring them. Then she lowered her voice so the two pompous creatures couldn't hear, and added: 'Even theirs.'
She expected him to haggle. She knew that three shillings was a lot for a run-down place like hers. But he just scowled slightly and said, 'I should get everything I need from you!'
'You will,' promised Hattie. 'With a warm brew and a smile.'
'Very well.' he said. 'We have a deal.'
Hattie stifled a cheer. She was so desperate for money she would have taken one shilling. Three would definitely cover all of her father's debts tonight. If she sent that to him now, he wouldn't have to borrow from Mr Esly. And that meant that Mr Esly wouldn't have to come round at midnight and take the last rug.
I'm so glad this man came to my inn tonight...she thought.
Hattie suddenly realised she didn't know his name. He hadn't introduced himself, which was odd, especially since he was a businessman and she was supposed to be his customer. She wondered whether it would be rude to ask, but before she could he suddenly bent down and picked three pebbles from the black slush surrounding his boots.
'Here,' he said. 'Put out your hand.'
Hattie folded her arms instead. 'Sir, I asked for shillings, not stones.'
'And I asked you to put out your hand. So kindly stop pouting and do as I say, Harriet Sixsmith.'
Reluctantly, Hattie obeyed. He dropped the glistening pebbles into her open palm: one, two, three.
Then he turned his back to the anticipating audience, and proceeded to open his suitcase, hiding what he was doing. He then clicked the catches shut, swung round to face Hattie again, and brought a tightly closed fist from behind his back. Reaching with the other hand into one of the pockets of his coat, he produced a small glass phial. He popped the cork out and brought his closed fist to the mouth of the jar, and released a glowing light into it, then promptly re-corking it. The stranger gave it a rough shake and it turned into a thick, silver liquid. He placed a drop of this on each of the stones.
And something happened.
The pebbles began to fizz. They jumped in Hattie's palm like crickets.
'Keep them in your hand!' ordered the old man.
Hattie clasped her fingers together, and inside the pebbles bounced around. Quite abruptly the air went pop! three times, and they fell still. A wisp of smoke curled into the air.
'Finished,' said the stranger, stashing the phial back in his overcoat.
Hattie opened her hands.
She couldn't help but gasp.
The Blob and Magpie just stared, open-mouthed.
'Now,' said the man, 'we can get down to business.'
But Hattie couldn't. She was rigid with shock. In her palm the pebbles were gone, and in their place were three gleaming shillings.
'How did you do that?' she whispered.
'I can make anything I want.'
Hattie frowned, but pocketed the coins. 'There's rules for staying here,' she said. 'The ledger's over there, and you've got to sign it. Your name, where you're going, and what you're carrying.'
He strode up to the book, leaving wet footprints as he went, and took up the quill in his hand.
Hattie heard the window creak; Dog was back. She rushed into the kitchen and took the room keys from the hook by the stove. The dove fluttered on his perch, a message from her father dangling on his foot:
Nearly won the last game! Might borrow a few more shillings. Don't worry, I've got a good feeling about this!
Dad always had a good feeling after a few bottles of beer. Hattie put that thought out of her mind quickly, before any other bad ones came.
'Borrowing a few shillings?' she murmured. 'Not this time, you're not!' She turned to Dog. 'I've got a message for you to fly to Dad in a bit, Dog. But for now I've to settle in this new guest. He's got a bit of a temper. And muddy feet too. Let me find out his name for you.'
She went back to the front room with her keys. The stranger threw down the quill and picked up his case without a word. Hattie peered at the ledger, trying to catch his secrets. Her eyes went wide when she saw where he had signed; the black ink had run gold.
Hattie looked at the quill, then back at the page.
He hadn't signed his name at all.
It just said Wish Master.
Hattie pondered. A master was someone who owned something else. But what was a wish?