Lidia stepped back, took a look, fussed with the drape again, then stepped back and took another look. Then she exhaled and made herself stop messing with it. Like it or not, it was finished. She took a deep breath, and stepped further back to get a look at the whole. “My dear girl…” The voice behind her made her turn. Mr. Ishi was looking around with a smile on his face. “You’ve done marvelous work.”
She smiled. “Really?” She shifted from foot to foot. “You don’t think it’s a little cheesy?”
“Darling, this is Las Vegas.” Mr. Ishi laughed.
“Good point.” She turned to look at the chair. It was fashioned to look like a tree stump, with part of the tree remaining and spreading out into branches over the walls and along the book shelves, with fake leaves interspersed with actual plants. “I’m just worried it’s creeping into Limburger territory.”
“I don’t think it goes beyond a nice cheddar.” He turned to the gentleman standing next to him. “What do you think?”
“Could use more nymphs.” The other man’s voice was surprisingly rich and deep, with an accent that sounded Welsh. “Are these original Beatrix Potters’?” He gestured at the artwork.
The grove was the transition point from the small children’s art museum into a play area, and once she’d learned Mr. Ishi was willing to let her have her way on the design, she’d gone with a full on fairy-tale theme. “Four of them.” She indicated the work. “There are more in the museum itself, but I thought the rabbits suited better here.”
“I saw the museum. Excellent taste for most of it.” He made a grumbling sound. “Could have done without that garish St. George one by the window.”
“Oh, get over it already.” Mr. Ishi rolled his eyes at his companion. “Mrs. Wu, this is Mr. Emrys, an old friend of mine. With your permission, I would like to introduce him and a few other friends to Coraline. There is a small matter she may be able to assist with.”
When Mr. Ishi gave her a slight reassuring nod, she smiled. “She should be here in the next half hour or so. She’s been helping.” Coraline’s control of her powers had improved over the past year, and the braided climbing roses around the museum’s entrance had been her work. Twenty years of growth in a few minutes. Lidia gave a small frown. “I’m sorry, Mr. Emrys. I think I’ve heard your name before but at the moment I can’t recall where.”
“Quite alright. Many get the name wrong anyway.” He extended his hand, but when she offered her own instead of shaking it he kissed the back. “Myrddin Emrys. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. I…” She stopped. Then she stared at him as realization dawned, and she glanced at Mr. Ishi. He nodded, a bit of mischief in his eyes. She looked back at the man in front of her. He was tall, with brilliant blue eyes and black hair threaded with silver. Like Mr. Ishi, he wore an elegant tailored suit that was just a little old-fashioned. “Old friend…”
“You’re Merlin.” She stared, her mouth falling open. “You’re Merlin.”
He turned, and gave Mr. Ishi a look that was more than a little bit smug. Mr. Ishi rolled his eyes. “We are in the West. Come to Japan, and see which of us is recognized.”
“I told you, you should have kept the name Jin. It suited you far better.” Mr. Emrys turned back to Lidia. “Thank you for allowing us to speak with your daughter.”
Coraline looked nervously at the dozen earth-filled pots laid out on the table in front of her. Ryuu put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “This is not a test, my dear. You need not be worried.”
She looked up at him. “There are nine dragons in this room.” Nine dragons surrounding her as she sat, looking at the little pots.
The elegant Chinese woman who’d introduced herself as Mei smiled. “And not one of us intend you any harm, my dear girl.”
A large man nodded. He’d introduced himself as Jormun Wōtan, and despite being in a nice suit he looked like any moment he could grab an axe and lead a horde of Vikings into battle. Until he smiled at her, and then he just looked like Santa Claus. His voice was gruff, with an accent she didn’t recognize. “And even if you cannot do this, we will not be upset.” He knelt so he was eye level with her, then poked her lightly in the shoulder. Then he shook his head. “Besides, you are all skin and bones. Crunchy is good, but I do like a little bit of flavor rather than just gristle.”
Laughter bubbled up from her. Then she took a deep breath, and reached for the first of the pots. She concentrated, and in addition to her usual magic she felt an odd tingling from the pot itself. It took more energy than expected, leaving her a bit light headed, but a seedling emerged, growing into a tiny sapling. The woman who’d introduced herself as Iris put a hand over her mouth, and she saw a tiny sheen of tears in the woman’s eyes. “Oh, you marvelous child.”
Her hand left the pot, and she started to nod. A small wave of dizziness struck her, and she’d have slid out of the chair had Jormun and Ryuu not caught her. “Get this girl some cupcakes.” Jormun waved a hand at the woman guarding the door.
“The others can wait until tomorrow.” Mei nodded firmly.
A couple of the others started to give reluctant shakes of their heads, and Emrys glared at them. “We’ve waited this long. A few more days will do harm to none.”
“Agreed.” Mei nodded firmly.
“How…” Stasya accepted the plate Sean handed her. “All nine?”
“What do you mean all nine?” Lidia looked up at her.
“There are supposedly only nine dragons. The Council of Wyrms.” Stasya took a small helping of the vegetables, then passed the plate to Coraline.
“So, those were…” Coraline’s hand shook just a little, and Stasya caught the plate again before it could fall. “But they were all so nice.”
“Did any of them indicate what the plants were?” Sean frowned. He wasn’t entirely sure this sounded like something he should be comfortable with.
“No. Iris though, she was so happy when it sprouted she actually cried a little.”
“Not Iris, sweetie.” Stasya smiled at Coraline. “Isis.”
“Isis…” Sean’s eyes widened. “Like the Egyptian goddess Isis?”
“Exactly like the Egyptian goddess Isis.” Stasya nodded. “Dragons have slipped in and out of myths since humans first started telling stories. If humans give them a name they like, they keep it.”
“Mr. Emrys made a comment about Mr. Ishi having a different name before. Jin, I think.”
“Ryo Jin. Very important to Shinto mythology. But do not know details. I’m not an expert in Japanese folklore.”
“Do you know why he changed the name?” Sean offered her another dish.
“Not a clue. Was before my time, and…” Stasya shook her head. “To be honest was always a little afraid of learning too much about dragons.”
She hesitated before approaching him. “Mr. Ishi, do you have a moment?”
“Of course.” He inclined his head. “I was just about to have lunch. Join me?”
Lidia followed him to his private table in one of the casino’s restaurants. As near as she could tell, he owned four hotel-casinos, though she had a hunch he ultimately owned far more than that. This one, however, was her favorite, which was why she’d chosen to work here. It was more tasteful than most, but there was a playfulness to it that appealed to her. And it was by far the most family oriented, with a bit less focus on the actual ‘casino’ portion of the hotel. She waited until their order was taken, and marveled again just slightly at how much had changed since they’d accepted his offer. She was having lunch with a demigod. “I was just…” She trailed off.
“Wondering what we have involved your daughter in?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Mankind has spread across the world, sometimes with unfortunate consequences to what existed before their arrival.” Mr. Ishi leaned back in his chair. “Some of my kin managed to preserve a few remnants, but the last being with a gift like your daughter’s was killed in the…” He gave a small shake of his head. “War to End All Wars.” He exhaled.
“These were seedlings to extinct plants?” She glanced at the small planter that decorated the table.
“As you have come to learn, this world hides another. The supernatural walks just out of sight to most and…” His smile was sad. “Some of them have become rare, and others have been lost. It is our hope that your daughter’s gift can restore something to this world, something that may help us keep the balance.” He leaned forward again. “I saw the dreams in your eyes when you created a fairy-tale world for the artwork I’ve collected. I am certain you have heard of dryads?”
“Oh, my goodness.” She put a hand over her mouth. “And the balance…” Her eyes suddenly widened. “Oh, my goodness. It’s more than just bringing back a lost species though, isn’t it? You’re trying to do something about climate change.”
“Clever girl.” He raised his glass in her direction. “I knew I liked you.” He nodded. “That is the end goal, yes.”
“Is that…” Lidia hesitated. “Is that what…” She took a deep breath. “Is that what dragons do?”
“It is an interesting paradox, I think. My kind existed long before yours, and yet my kind would not exist without yours.” He set the glass back down. “It was not until your kind began telling stories that I had a name and identity. Thus, my kind has a vested interest in preserving yours.” He waved a hand. “Yet we ourselves are beings of nature, spirits tied to the world itself. And thus, we have a vested interest in protecting the world from its dominant predator.”
“The human race.” She folded her hands on the table.
“Therein lies the balance. We protect you and the world from the same threat.” He nodded. “Yourselves.” He stopped talking as their food was brought.
As soon as the server left, she leaned forward again. “If you existed before the human race, I…” She took a deep breath. “We’re like mayflies to you.”
“A matter of perspective.” He smiled. “I travel through time at the same rate you do, I simply have a much longer journey. I have friends among the short-lived species, including your own.”
“How many of them do you remember?” She raised an eyebrow.
“All of them.” He shook his head. “Dragons do not forget, and rarely forgive.”
“How do you protect us from ourselves?” She moved food around on the plate with a fork.
“A variety of ways. Sometimes a simple word in the right ear. Tia once suggested to a certain individual that he take a second look at a bit of bread mold, and…” He shrugged.
“It’s fulfilling work, and also slightly disappointing.” He stabbed a bit of carrot with his fork. “Really thought I’d have you lot on the moon by now.”
Lidia laughed. “You’re a good man, Mr. Ishi.”
“Not always.” He shook his head, and exhaled. “As I said, there are a variety of ways. There was penicillin, but also Pompeii.”
“Pom…” Her eyes widened. “The volcano.”
“Never an easy decision. Kill ten to save a hundred. Let a hundred die to save a thousand. Your species can be so…” He exhaled. “Ingenious. You create marvels and destructive forces beyond comprehension. Sometimes we must stand aside and let you war among yourselves. Sometimes our hands are forced, and we must act. A thousand dead to save a million.” His voice became just slightly bitter.
“I…” She swallowed. His name Japanese, and Ryuu Jin was part of Shinto mythology. “A bomb to end a war.”
His eyes glowed, just for a moment, and the expression that darkened his face was fury. It vanished quickly, and he took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“I’m…” She put her hand atop his. “I am so sorry.”
“You’re Jormagander.” Coraline stared at the man on the other side of the table.
“Must you Americans mangle the pronunciation of everything?” He shook his head. “Jörmungandr.”
“So, in the new Thor movie…” She leaned forward. “Loki’s your dad?”
“The whole Marvel thing is…” He gritted his teeth. “Ryuu’s sense of humor leaves something to be desired.”
“No, I mean…” She spread her hands. “He’s like the best part in those movies. Except when he tried to argue with the Hulk, that was really dumb. But the whole faking out Thor thing and taking over Asgard.” She nodded. “Awesome.” Then she leaned in. “And Tom Hiddleston is really cute.”
Jormun started snickering. “Well, at least casting did a decent job.”
“Okay, but isn’t Wutang another name for Odin?”
“Wōtan. Wu-tang is one of those groups that refer to themselves as musicians.”
“Is that why you look like a scary Santa Claus?” She tilted her head up at him. “I mean, if Santa were going to war and wearing a suit, he’d totally…” She narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. “You’re Santa Claus, aren’t you?”
He winked at her. “Mythology is stories. Stories have a tendency to get muddled over the course of the years. If all works out, a thousand years from now you will be Aline, the goddess of springtime and bringer of life.”
“Can I have a cool sword?”
“Like an actual sword, or something metaphorical?” He raised an eyebrow.
She gestured wildly. “No, better. Dual-wielding sickles. Trod on my garden and I will straight up castrate you and use your bits for fertilizer.”
“I…” She turned to see her father. He was shaking his head. “I may have walked into this conversation at a bad time.”
“Not really.” She shook her head. “Dad, this is Santa. Santa, this is my dad. Sean.”
“What?” Her father stared.
“It was a pleasure meeting you.” Jormun nodded to Sean, then gave Coraline a small bow. “My dear, when you reach your majority, I hope you’ll permit me to counter whatever offer of employment Ryuu gives you.”
“I…” She leaned forward. “One question.”
“Ask.” He smiled at her.
“Do the north pole elves have a decent benefits package?”
“Full health, pension, family leave, and two weeks paid vacation.” He nodded. “Also, they each get their own company reindeer.”
“I’ll keep you in consideration.”
She got off the phone quickly when Ryuu entered her office, then smiled at him. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“An unexpected opportunity fell into my lap.” Ryuu nodded at her. “And I was wondering if I could impose upon you to do me a small favor.”
Lidia just smiled again. “Ryuu, with all you’ve done for us you can pretty much ask me anything.”
“Coraline repaid whatever debt was owed the moment those seeds sprouted.” Ryuu shook his head. “I just wrote a grant for a small archaeological dig in France, but some information came across my desk that these particular ruins may have been used to hide some artwork stolen in World War Two.”
“Lost art?” Her eyes widened.
“That complicates the matter somewhat, and thus I would like to have a representative of my own present.”
“Surely you’ve got better art historians available than me?” She stared at him.
“The other small complication is…” Ryuu shook his head. “I require someone who is…” He waved a hand. “Aware of certain matters.”
“Someone who knows about the supernatural.” She slowly nodded.
“And is willing to keep an open mind should such matters play into the situation.” He gave her a playful smile. “And you get to go to Europe.” He said the words like he was offering her a toy.
“You don’t need to sweeten the deal.” Lidia laughed softly. “You had me at lost art.”
“I’ll file that away for future reference.” He nodded.
“Coraline just started school again or I’d ask if she could come with. How long will I be gone?”
“Hopefully no longer than two weeks, but if that changes something can be arranged.” He shrugged. “I’d send Stasya with you for security but I have her dealing with a matter in the Ukraine right now. You get along well enough with Ahit, yes?”
“Certainly. She has an excellent eye for color.” Lidia nodded. “When do we leave?”
“Will two days give you enough time to prepare?” He offered her a small packet. When she took it and nodded, he waved a hand. “There is a corporate card in there for your financial needs. You are welcome to make purchases for the children’s museum, of course, but to avoid giving accounting conniptions I must request you call for prior authorization on any purchases larger than ten thousand American.”
“Ten…” She looked down at the packet. “What exactly is this card’s limit?”
“There isn’t one.” He shrugged. “And do try to have some fun, my dear. You needn’t work all the time.”