'What's a wish?' asked Hattie.
'You're my customer,' said the Wish Master. 'You'll find out soon enough.'
There was expectation in his voice, like sparks. Hattie could tell he was excited. She could tell he was nervous. Nervous about what? she wondered.
The Wish Master swung his suitcase up onto the table. Its legs creaked with the weight.
'I've never seen a suitcase made out of mahogany before,' said Hattie. 'And I see a lot of suitcases in this business.'
'It's lined with sheep wool,' said the Wish Master.
'Why?' asked Hattie.
'It keeps what's inside safe.'
Hattie was puzzled. She had been landlady to dozens of guests, and they had always brought with them one thing: luggage. There had never been a suitcase like this before. The prizefighters from Balvolga brought their leather boxing gloves, in search of new opponents; the chess players from Yssa brought their black and white check boards, looking for new moves; the perfumers from Parrall brought empty boxes, to catch new smells in...Hattie even knew where the Blob was going next with her luggage: back to Shoeliya with the Magpie, to show off the new chandelier which he had made for her.
But what had the Wish Master brought with him?
What was the mystery he wanted to sell to Hattie?
Suddenly the clock by the bar chimed eleven, and the Wish Master jumped. 'The witching hour will come soon!' he cried in panic.
Hattie tore her eyes from the suitcase. 'Is that bad?'
'It means there's no time!'
'No time for what?'queried the Blob.
'For the creation!' he said. 'For the creation of wishes! I have to make them before I can sell them, and to make them I need a room!
Hattie jangled her keys. 'Which would you like, sir?'
'No, no!' shouted the Wish Master. 'There's no time to choose!' He looked around. 'This one right here will do!
And before Hattie could stop him, he strode right up to the hearth to do battle with the fire. It hissed and spat at him, as if the two were old enemies. The Wish Merchant regarded it contemptuously and then plunged a hand into his huge, black coat. He rifled away, searching for something. Hattie heard the rustle and clink of bottles as he went through each pocket.
'Here it is!' he exclaimed, withdrawing a small, crooked vial with a pipette lid. He shook it in front of his eyes and watched the contents slosh inside the glass. To Hattie, it looked like liquid frost; a bitter blue, cruel and cold.
'Oh, yes.' he said, his voice soft with menace. 'You know this, don't you? It's aether, isn't it? And it shall be the death of you.'
The two seated in the armchairs whimpered, and Hattie quaked and backed away, but she realised the Wish Master wasn't talking to any of them; he was talking to the fire. Feeling rather foolish, she looked again to the flames that were squirming in the grate.
The Wish Master unscrewed the vial's lid and Hattie's goose bumps rose. The aether leeched the warm from the room.
'Quite hard to obtain,' said the Wish Master. 'And almost impossible to bottle. But incredibly good at putting out fires.'
He squeezed the pipette and it sucked up a drop of aether.
He turned to Hattie. 'You might want to light a lamp.'
'Why?' she asked, trembling. 'What does it do?'
He laughed at her, at the fire. 'Why, it's a wish, of course. Wishes are what I use to change things, or create things. The mammonia wish, for instance, changes pebbles into shillings. Gastromajus, another of my....wishes, changes a person into what they last consumed.
'And what does aether change?' said Hattie.
'Temperature, of course!' said the Wish Master, dropping a trickle of aether onto the fire. It snuffed out the flames in an instant, plunging everything into darkness and leaving a smell in the air, like the start of a storm. The guests shrieked in their armchairs and the Wish Master cursed and yelled, 'I told you to fetch a light!'
Hattie fumbled for the lamp in the kitchen and brought it out. After a while her eyes adjusted, and the Wish Master threw open the curtains to let in the cloudless night. In came the moonbeams. They pooled on the windowsill like wax. Everything now looked silver and expensive, and even the dusty piano shone.
'I almost prefer it like this,' said Hattie.
'I certainly don't,' said the Blob, rising from her chair, her mink coat wrapped around her. She wore a powdered wig a size too big, and it wobbled over her forehead. Her diamond chandelier earrings tinkled and swung. 'I am chilled to my bones!' she declared. 'The least I deserve is a cup of tea! With cream and three sugars....make that five sugars.'
'I will have peppermint,' added the jeweller, 'with a splash of rum.'
But Hattie wasn't making tea. Her head was a kettle of questions.
'Do you know what a wish is?' she asked them.
The Blob smiled sweetly and said, 'That's not the question you should be asking.'
'And that is not the question either.' the Blob said in a slightly more dangerous tone.
'The QUESTION,' she shrieked, 'is "How many times does a guest need to ask for a cup of tea before she gets one?!"'
'Be quiet!' said the Wish Master who was setting out glass tubes next to his suitcase. 'You are lucky I'm letting you watch my craft at all.'
'Lucky?' cried the Blob. 'We are stuck on the drab little island, waiting for a ship to take us back to Shoeliya! That is not LUCK, that is TORTURE!'
Hattie knew this already, since it was already written in the ledger. The Blob had been all the way to Zoeflue, where the Magpie had made her special chandelier earrings, and now they were heading back to Shoeliya to show them off.
The Magpie declared, 'I don't know what is worse, the boredom or the frostbite...-'
'I am TRYING to PREPARE THIS ROOM!' thundered the Wish Master, slamming the piano lid down. 'But you INSIST on FILLING it with HOT AIR! Sit DOWN!'
The Blob looked at him, outraged. But she did flop back into her chair.
'I want a cup of tea,' she proclaimed, waggling a fat finger about. 'There should be tea and cake available at all times for a lady of my standing.'
'Madam,' said the Wish Master. 'If you eat much more cake, then standing really will be an issue for you.'
'How very dare you! When we get to Shoeliya, I shall be the HEIGHT of fashion.'
'But for now, madam, you are just a blob of blubber, babbling nonsense. So kindly shut up and let me do my work.'
Hattie clapped a hand to her mouth, trying desperately not to laugh.
The Blob sat numb at the shock of being spoken to so rudely.
The Magpie rose to his full height of one-and-a-quarter metres and fiddled with his glasses so he could glare more ferociously.
'I am the Most Famous Jeweller in All of Zoflue!' he announced, in a voice full of accent, arrogance and verbal capital letters. 'The Lady is my Customer, and I Demand that you Apologise at Once!'
'Because we a Citizens of High Standing!' spluttered the Magpie. 'Because we are People of Stature! Because--'
'I beg your pardon,' interrupted the Wish Master, not sounding apologetic at all, 'but how can you be a person of stature when I mistook you earlier for a footstool? Sit down, you miserable, craggy-faced old crone!'
The guests seemed as lost for words as Hattie.
Finally, though, the Blob recovered from the Wish Master's astonishing attack of rudeness. Her chins were wobbling in fury. 'All I am asking for is a cup of tea!'
'My customer is too busy to make you tea,' said the Wish Master.
'I am?' Hattie said. 'I thought I was just standing here with my teeth chattering.'
'Then do your job!' he snapped. It seemed not even Hattie was safe from his short temper.
'Job?' said Hattie. 'What do you want me to do?'
'Get rid of the draughts, girl! Every last breeze.'