One thing that you can learn about me through my stories is that I love food. There are quite a few dishes mentioned in my books (my supernatural creatures eat human food. Mostly); some of them come with the cooking instructions, simplified so that they don’t sound like recipes.
My first encounter with the ‘edible reads’ happened many years ago when I stumbled upon It can’t Always be Caviar: the Fabulously Daring Adventures and Exquisite Cooking Recipes of the Involuntary Secret Agent Thomas Levin by a German author, Johannes Mario Simmel.
The self-explanatory subtitle suggests a fun combo of culinary adventures and spying escapades, and rightly so, but It Can’t Always be Caviar is more than that – it’s a literary gem. It was an international bestseller in the late 1960s (when I still didn’t know how read), and the Continental Europe answer to the British spy-fiction invasion embodied in John Le Carre and Ian Fleming.
Books like Simmel’s novel were welcome literary breaks from marvelous but often heavy, heavy classic reads from our high school and university programs. Soon I discovered Ephraim Kishon, Peter Ustinov, Jerome K. Jerome, as so on.
(One of my favourite “novels that cook” is One Woman’s Island by Susan M. Toy. A great mystery with tested recipes.)
Back to the recipe. I love pasta, so The Chronicles are seasoned with some well-known starchy wonders of Italian cuisine. I make a killer Tagliatelle Bolognese — I might share the recipe in one of my future posts — but my hero, not very skilled in the kitchen, needed something simple. I picked Spaghetti Carbonara for him.
The key for great Carbonara is in using only egg yolks for the sauce, not whole eggs (because you don’t want pasta with scrambled eggs). Jamie Oliver will back me up – check out his own approach to Spaghetti Carbonara. It is very similar to mine.
It goes like this:
Start by cooking a package of dry spaghetti (Italian, if possible, although the No Name Superstore kind works just fine) in plenty of salted water.
You’ll need about 100-150 g of pancetta, cut into small cubes (if you use bacon instead, it won’t be the end of the world). Place a large frying pan over the medium heat, add a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the pancetta until crisp (don’t blacken it!). Add finely chopped garlic (2 cloves), making sure that the temperature is low enough that the garlic doesn’t burn.
You might need some of the cooking water, so save about 1/4 of cup.
In a bowl, combine 3-4 egg yolks with 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Regiano, or Pecorino Romano (saltier and sharper), or Grana Padano (sweeter and milder), then grate some more to sprinkle the pasta before serving. Add freshly grated black pepper to taste.
Chop a handful of Italian (flat) parsley and set aside. Do not subsidize it with curly-leaf variety. (This would be the end of the world -:)
Drain the pasta (don’t forget to save some water). It’s needless to say that it should be cooked al dente. Toss the hot pasta over the pancetta and garlic; if it’s too dry, add a splash of cooking water). Pour over the egg yolk and Parmesan sauce and gently coat the pasta.
Sprinkle each serving with extra cheese and parsley and serve immediately. I guess that some fruity Chardonnay would go well with Pasta Carbonara, but I’m no expert for wines.
I’ll serve it with:
WHEN JACK INSISTED ON DRIVING me to the hospital the next morning, leaving no room for negotiation, I reconsidered my still unannounced decision to go with him after my next change. I had less than two weeks before the next full moon, but that would give me enough time, I’d calculated, to do the surgeries that had already been scheduled. Now I realized that I was stuck with him in my house for the time being.
I felt ambivalent about his visit. On the one hand, it was a relief. I did need help. My uncle knew that, and I’d been expecting him to step in. On the other hand, my life here in Rosenthal, a small town in the Pacific Northwest, had been safe and pleasant, and I was reluctant to change it. I’d come to like its unhurried, familiar routine, and the way I blended in among its inhabitants.
I couldn’t imagine more capable safeguards than the Blakes—Tristan and, especially, Livia possessed immense strength and powers.
I’d moved from Seattle to Rosenthal about a year ago, accepting the position of trauma surgeon that had to be reposted three times before I applied for it. I bought the smallest house I could find in this town of wealthy retirees, artists and amateur golfers, and a nondescript car—a five-year-old cobalt blue Honda Accord—which I almost never used. The hospital and pretty much everything else in Rosenthal was within ten to twenty minutes’ walking distance from my tiny house on Bergamot Drive, depending on whether you were in a hurry or not.
I missed my grandparents, of course. My job at the ER, my new condo, which I hadn’t had time to turn into a home, my best friend, Ingmar. And the rain. Not that it didn’t rain in Rosenthal. But even when it rained in earnest, it still wasn’t that magnificent curtain of water that was possible only in Seattle.
My seemingly ordinary life in this small town was a temporary solution, I was aware of that. Or, better, a temporary illusion. I wasn’t an average young woman and my life had never been conventional.
Although I was of two bloods, I had been brought up as an asanni, a wizardess. I’d been put through rigorous training not only to master my abilities but also to bring them under perfect command. It’d been a crucial part of my upbringing—we had to learn from an early age to never draw attention to ourselves.
I’d been raised by my wizard grandparents, Ella and Gottfried. My grandfather was a brilliant lawyer, who currently worked for the UN as a human rights advisor. Grandmother was a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital in Seattle. They both enjoyed equal respect among Langaer, what we called the three non-human races. Werewolves, Tel-Urughs and wizards also needed legal minds and, occasionally, doctors.
Unlike the gwerin y blaidd—I really needed to start using the proper terminology—the asyngaer—the wizardkind, that is—didn’t have their own physical territory. We lived in the human world. Or rather, we shared the same world with them, for it was ours as much as it was theirs. We tried to blend in among humans, adopting many of their customs and habits. It was easy to forget sometimes that we were different.
To hide in plain sight, we had to resort to our significant powers creating tallins and Talsyns. The first ones were small, short-lived conjures like the one that I had tricked Jack with, “leaving” my aura in the kitchen. Talsyns were more powerful, long-lasting or sometimes permanent manipulations of space, time and, occasionally, human consciousness to create the appearance of a different reality in the eyes and minds of humans. Talsyn meant “great shield” and, in many ways, it was. It was real magic. In comparison, tallins, “little shields”, were harmless magic tricks.
All Langaer used tallins and Talsyns because we all needed to hide from, mingle with or sometimes protect ourselves from humans. They vary from race to race, of course, but we all share these two words that were the legacy of High Akkadian. Another curiosity—we all wrote tallin with a small “t” and Talsyn with a capital “T”.
I OFTEN THOUGHT THAT MY life would’ve been way less eventful if I hadn’t been of two bloods.
My asanni mother, Rowena was her name, was eighteen when she’d married my father, Hal, a blaidd from Red Cliffs. I was born a few months later. When I was less than a year old, my mother left my father for Seth Withali, the leader of the neighboring clan of Copper Ridge. She’d taken me with her, but it hadn’t been long before she’d sent me to Ella and Gottfried. She had remained in Copper Ridge.
Her decision to leave Red Cliffs and my father had triggered a series of tragic events. In an attempt to bring her back, my father was soon killed, along with Brian Canagan, Jack’s father, the clan’s then leader. Red Cliffs and Copper Ridge stood on the verge of war.
At the beginning too young to understand and later unaware of this turmoil, I’d lived my seemingly ordinary life, unaware of what my father was and that I had relatives from his side.
For years and years, my father had been a mysterious figure to me. An unknown man who’d died in an accident when I was a baby. I’d believed he’d been a wizard too. My mother had been equally unreachable to me even though she was alive. I knew she existed, but I’d never seen her and she’d never asked about me. It hurt me even more than the death of my father.
As I grew, my demands to know more about them became louder. My grandparents provided me with some explanations. I learned my father had been a werewolf. My mother had run away with Seth, my father had died trying to take her back. Too young to care for me, she stayed in Copper Ridge and I was raised by her parents.
These “answers” only intensified my curiosity, but my grandparents refused to tell me more.
I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together when I accidentally learned that Seth Withali was mentally ill.
I still remember my relief when my grandfather told me my mother had left him.
Even better I remembered how heartbroken I was when he added that she’d decided to stay in Copper Ridge nonetheless.
Why didn’t they divorce? I’d asked, demanding the truth. They didn’t have children.
It was complicated, my grandparents would say.
In the absence of concrete explanations, I drew my own conclusions. My mother either stayed because she had to, or because she didn’t want me, which was more likely. Some parents were like that, I told myself. After all, didn’t my grandparents seem to give up on her? If she’d been in danger, would they just sit and do nothing? No, knowing them, they’d move heaven and earth to save her. They loved her, she was their only child.
Yet they hadn’t done anything. As far as I knew, there had been no contact between my mother and her parents. Why?
Why had my mother run away with that man? Who was responsible for my father’s and Brian Canagan’s deaths? Why had they been killed? Had my mother somehow been involved? Why had she never contacted me? Why did nobody want to talk about it?
Questions, questions, questions.
WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, GOTTFRIED and Ella explained to me that I might expect to go through the initial shapeshifting. Some children of parentage like mine became shapeshifters, some didn’t. Nothing to worry about, they said. It wouldn’t hurt. The first few transformations would be spontaneous, but soon I’d be able to change by will.
Year after year had passed and nothing happened. I started to believe—and hope—that I hadn’t picked up that particular trait from my father.
In fact, I was a late bloomer: my metamorphosis was just a few years overdue. And then, one morning, when I was just two months shy of twenty-three, I suddenly felt horrible pain all over my body, as if something or somebody was trying to turn me inside out. I didn’t remember much more than the pain, that ripping, dislocating horror inside me.
Darkness took me.
The next shapeshifting was even worse.
PRIOR TO MY FIRST TRANSITION, I hadn’t been in touch with my Red Cliffs family. I was convinced they didn’t want me because of my mother.
I was wrong. My grandparents, I soon learned, had been in contact with them all the time, keeping them up to date, even sending them my pictures. Concerned about my violent, irregular and out of control transformations, Gottfried had turned to my uncle for help. The two of them agreed I should go to Red Cliffs and stay with my father’s relatives until I learned how to tame my wolf spirit.
Angry at my grandparents for keeping me in the dark, feeling betrayed by my father’s family who’d waited—or so I thought—to see if I would become one of them before accepting me, I’d refused to go. When Gottfried, Ella and Uncle James, Red Cliffs’ chieftain, or alpha—I was never sure about his official title, but he was a big gun there—combined their methods of persuasion in an attempt to reason with me, I put up such a fierce resistance that Red Cliffs was quickly taken off the agenda.
Following advice from my werewolf family, my grandparents helped me to cope with my transition.
Two years of random shifting had taught me how to recognize the symptoms. It helped me disappear in time, hide, go through the change and come back.
By then, the changes had become more and more regular until they came into perfect alignment with the lunar phases. The approach of the full moon—no surprise here—meant I’d soon shapeshift.
I hated it. I hated being weak and unable to control my body and mind. Having black holes in my memory. Waking up naked, on the cold, wet earth in the small cave on our secluded estate outside Seattle, where I would hide to shift. Feeling different, even smelling different as the change approached. Although, I could live with that part. The scent, no matter how hard I tried to dislike it, wasn’t unpleasant.
The werewolf scent. Unknown yet familiar, like Jack’s. His was similar to mine, only stronger, masculine and arousing. A perfect match to mine—more subtle, sweeter, feminine.
SOMEONE ELSE HAD BEEN WAITING to see if I was a shapeshifter or not—my stepfather, Seth Withali.
Last March he’d tried to kidnap me.
After my first, unexpected change, I had refused to shift in the house. Moreover, I’d taken a further step—I’d insisted on going to the little cave alone. Before that, Ella had always accompanied me.
The process was an ordeal. I’d be sick for a day or two before the change, exhausted, miserable, feverish. When the pain became unbearable, I’d shift, but that part was always lost to me. Then after about twenty-four hours, I’d return to my human body and my human mind.
That time, when I’d shifted back, two unknown men were in the cave with me. My hands and feet were neatly tied with a thin, silky rope, the kind that tightens more and more as you try to loosen it up. My vision was still hazy and all my senses dulled. The cave smelled of male sweat.
One of the men jerked me to my feet, brushing his big, dirty hand over my breast.
That sharpened my senses. I used all my energy to translocate far enough to get away from them. Still dizzy and weak from the change, the tranquilizer they’d used on me, as well as from translocation, I climbed up a tree and I watched them searching for me. They were mad with rage for losing me.
They mentioned Seth several times. What would they tell him about why they’d failed? Would he believe them?
Why had Seth wanted me? For blackmail? For revenge? Because he was crazy? Did my mother know what was going on?
Grandma and Grandpa didn’t seem to know either. Or if they knew, they didn’t want to share. They were super worried, though. Once more, backed up by Uncle James, they tried to persuade me to go to Red Cliffs.
Once more I refused. I changed my name and moved to Rosenthal instead. Livia and Tristan, Gottfried and Ella’s acquaintances, whom I’d known from before, came with me on Gottfried’s request. We quickly became friends.
NOW MY UNCLE HAD DECIDED enough was enough and sent Jack Canagan to bring me home.
Jack was my step-cousin, not a blood relation, as far as I knew (for a reason I didn’t want to dwell upon right now, this fact made me giddy with relief). We were family through marriage. A few years after Jack’s father had died, his mother—Eve was her name I believed—had married my uncle. Their daughter and son were Jack’s siblings and my first cousins.
Still, we could share the same ancestor. Werewolves were a small population, and if you go back far enough, we’re all related. That much even I knew.
We were somehow connected, however. When I’d touched him, first his neck and then his fingers later, I’d felt some sort of strange warmth rippling through my body. I’d never felt anything like it before. It was not only delightful but it also smothered the edginess caused by Jack’s sudden arrival. And like his scent, it had the same disturbing sensual component.
What was it? I didn’t know. I knew very little about the werewolf side of me.
It was time to learn more. Going to Red Cliffs with Jack might indeed be the best solution.
“Your family didn’t betray you, Astrid,” my grandfather often said. “Once you get to know your family, you’ll like them a lot.”
Soon we’d see.