Book Release on KISS – The Two-Blood Legacy

Back in February, I was contacted by Crazy Maple Studio (CMS), the creator of Chapters Interactive Stories (an interactive story game and visual novel app). They recently launched a novel platform called KISS and offered to market my books through it.

I asked them to send me a sample of the distribution contact. My sister, a copyright and trademark agent, didn’t find anything alarming in it, so I singed a one year non-exclusive contract allowing CMS (KISS) to market my books to their reading community.

The Two-blood Legacy was released today. I’m not thinking about possible profit, I’m just curious to see whether or not my books will finally meet their readers.

Hopefully they will. Last night, while I was going through the entire book in search for the best lines CMS would need to do more personalized graphics for me, I realized something big: If someone else wrote The Legacy, I would truly enjoy reading it.

P.S.

JP McLean, thank you for the title and your help with the blurb!

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The Emperor and I – Facts and fiction in my stories

Do historical figures inhabit your fiction work?

Some past events and long-dead people crop up in The Red Cliffs Chronicles—the 1621 Battle of Khotyn, the 1588 Battle of Gravelines, the 1793-1794 Reign of Terror; the fifteenth-century Turkish cartographer Piri Reis, Voltaire, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and so on. I like throwing bits and pieces of history into my novels and then tweaking them to fit my narrative purposes.

Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, man ahead of his time

One particular man has his cameo appearance in all my stories—Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, a statesman I deeply admire.

Along with Catherine the Great and Frederic the Great, Josef II has been considered one of the three most important Enlightenment rulers.

History doesn’t call him “Josef the Great”, but to me—and I’m not alone–he is the greatest among the three of them. His vision was broader, more modern, more humane. More idealistic. He didn’t possess the ruthlessness of the other two and, unlike Catherine and Frederick, didn’t eradicate his powerful opponents to enforce his reforms and thus give them a chance to consolidate.

As someone said, he wanted too much, too fast, too early.

There isn’t better proof of this statement than Josef II’s reformation of the legal system: in 1787, he abolished brutal punishment and death sentence.

The radical changes Josef II initiated didn’t take root during his lifetime. His triumph, however, although postponed, was ultimate—his reforms became the bedrock for modernization of the Austrian Monarchy and its pathway to democracy.

According to many accounts, the emperor was a contemplative, lonely man with melancholic blue eyes. He died relatively young, without children — his only daughter didn’t survive childhood. His first wife, whom he adored, didn’t love him in return; just the opposite happened in his second marriage. Reading and learning about him, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question that often pops into a writer’s mind  – what if things were different?

And this is how Josef II ended up with an alternative biography, much happier than his official, imperial life story had even been. But then, when I took over telling it, he wasn’t an emperor anymore. Just a man, free to dream and love.

In this a small excerpt from Chapter 35 of Guardian of the Realm, in which our heroine meets an interesting man.

“… Dr. Gerhard Falkenstein bore an astonishing likeness to Josef II, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and one of my favorite historical figures. I tried hard to ignore the fact that Falkenstein had been the alias the Emperor had used for his travels as a commoner since I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t find even a remotely reasonable explanation. Dr. Falkenstein was a pleasant, quiet man and had light blue, somewhat melancholic eyes, like the man whom he resembled. His Midwest American accent was a welcoming reality check. The Emperor had liked to travel, but no history book mentioned that he’d reached Colorado. The solemn Dr. Falkenstein couldn’t be his relative either. It was well known that the Emperor’s only child was a daughter who had died very young…”

Image (public domain): Anton Von Maron (1733-1808) Kaiser Joseph II. (1741-1790) mit der Statue des Mars 1775 , 242 x 172.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Bilddatebank
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She Who Comes Forth by Audrey Driscoll

The first book I read this year left me frustrated. I was way more fortunate with my second read in 2021 – She Who Comes Forth by Audrey Driscoll.

I really enjoyed this mystery novel set in the early 1960s Egypt and was sorry to part with it, which is always a good sign – an emotional and mental relationship with a book doesn’t happen out of nowhere.

It has a thrilling plot, believable, multifaceted characters, and a delightful touch of spookiness. It also has something else, and I’ll try to explain it.

I’ve been dazzled by Ancient Egypt since I was a child. You don’t need to believe in pseudo-scientific hypotheses about its origins to become fascinated with Egypt – I certainly don’t — but once you learn a little bit more about this incredible civilization, you can’t ignore the mysteries, the unknown and unexplained that surround it. Once you stand in front of the pyramids, the temples, the colossal statues of the old kings and queens, or the granite boxes in Serapeum, you realize and, even more, you feel that the official Egyptology answers are not only insufficient but also as illogical as the most outlandish alternative theories. Better still, you understand, on some deep, cosmic level, that the Egyptian puzzle doesn’t have or doesn’t need the ultimate answers; the great part of the appeal of this old, old world is in its resistance to be fully explained, in its ability to keep its secrets. In a paradoxical way, this great mystery connects us to Ancient Egypt much stronger than any definitive explanations ever would.

I felt that tie when I was there. France Leighton, the heroine of the novel, felt it too. This bond gives Audrey Driscoll’s story a unique dimension, and it’s the reason why She Who Comes Forth and I clicked together. All the other qualities aside, the undisputable beauty of this novel lays in the fact that the author was able to evoke the enigmatic and timeless substance of Egypt and the mysterious connection between this land and us.

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The Inspiration Eaters

The first book I read in 2021 was A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J. Maas). It took me forever to finish it.

Last January, I remember, I blitzed through seven or eight Lisa Gardner’s novels with a thrilling satisfaction, even though suspense isn’t my cup of tea, and then continued with the same pace and an array of authors for the following six months. Reading has always been my salvation, my sanctuary, my deepest need. Since I discovered the written world, books were my closest friends: I read classics, popular fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, great books, not so great books… everything but magazines and newspapers (once I left journalism for good, that is).

And then, sometimes this summer, just like that, it stopped. Old TV series on YouTube, documentaries, podcasts and video clips about quantum physics (not that I understand much of it :-)), mental health, and acrylic painting have become my new form of escapism. I could neither read nor write; my imagination, my most treasured “possession” and such a huge part of me since I could remember, vanished, as if someone turned it off.

What’s to blame? COVID, my age, depression that I’ve been wrestling with for years? Reading and writing (and medications) had been my greatest allies against my congenital melancholy and many life’s challenges. So what to do now?

And that’s not all; there are my books, too. My attempt to “embrace obscurity” didn’t work out. It’s one thing to tell myself it doesn’t matter; I’m writing for myself, but  it’s another to see my novels sitting on Amazon with no reviews, no sales, no recognition at all. The library e-copies were doing fine for several months, but the constant flood of new electronic books has made it impossible for an unknown author to stay visible for long. The Smashwords editions are still free and there have been over 2000 downloads but I don’t know how many of them go to samples and how many to the full books. How many people read them? Between 4 and 2000+ although I can be  sure only about those four since they “favorited” me. And again, no reviews, no ratings, either good or bad. Nothing. Silence.

Together with COVID, the death of my best friend in July and the months-long worry for my critically ill cousin, this complete invisibility of my novels pushed me even deeper into despair and — of course — I started entertaining some not helpful thoughts: I shouldn’t be writing at all. My stories are not good. If they were, they would find their readers, right?

This way of thinking won’t make me sit in front of my computer and start writing, I know, but it seems I can’t find the way out. My wise older sister says I’m too hard on myself. She thinks I should let it be, give myself time and stop torturing myself. Yes, but how?

The debacle with my books and my family issues aside, does anyone else experiences the COVID-induced absence of inspiration and motivation?

How do you cope with it?

I got sidetracked. This post was supposed to be my observations about the book that took me three long weeks to read. Disturbance in my reading habits wasn’t the only reason, but I’ll leave it for the next post.

 

 

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The Years of Living Dangerously

Photo by D. Gagovic.

I don’t think about the past often, but every now and then something brings it back against my will and turns me inside out. This time it was an article, written by a friend of mine and once-time colleague, about the magazine I used to work for. You can see me on the photo below, sharing the chair with my friend Filip.

Her article was an overview of the magazine’s 30-year history through the five addresses it resided at. I was there when it was at its first, which corresponds with the time of war (1992-1996).

That war was an unimaginable horror and, like every other challenging times, brought out the best and the worst in people. In a way, however, it simplified things — life became black and white. You knew your friends from your enemies, you knew the right from the wrong, you knew who to trust. It didn’t let you compromise with your moral principles and conscience.

Our offices back then were situated in a 1930s building, on the top, seventh floor, which originally served who knows what purposes. It had low ceilings, small windows and squeaky parquet. In the hallway stood a row of seats salvaged from the old movie theater, “Odeon”. To paraphrase my friend,  in those tiny, overcrowded rooms, connected with a long, curved corridor, on those “Odeon” seats, the ethical concepts and professional standards of our magazine took shape. Between the sixth and seventh floors was a locked gate, a pitiful attempt to stop the anonymous telephone callers who threatened to come to kills us, or throw the bomb, or worse. Much better protection was Maria, the building manager then in her sixties, who would warn us if some suspicious characters were on their way up. More than anything else, that gate and that no-nonsense woman symbolized the pressures we worked under.

These were the worst years of my life: I lost my home, my friends, all my material possessions,  part of my identity. My family was scattered all around the world and I became a refugee in my own country. Yet at the same time, they were among the best. I’d had some crucial things I never found here: the sense of belonging, the job that I was proud of, and (save for very few) true friends.

The times were dangerous, but I resided at the right address.

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In the Spotlight: Jasmina Hanjalic – To the Mother of the Only Son

<span>Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@radekjedynak?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Radek Jedynak</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/stream?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a></span>

radek-jedynak-ipdCiQah83M-unsplash.jpg

 Jasmina Hanjalic is my high school friend, the author of several books of poetry and short stories, and an ER doctor.

This poem is based on a true event, and it’s Jasmina’s intimate reaction to its absurdity. I had the pleasure of translating it, and I just hope I’ve caught some of its power and essence. A big thank to Kristin Muraki for her valuable inputs.

 

TO THE MOTHER OF THE ONLY SON

 

A story has been broadcast

about a mother–and the wife of a prime minister at that–

who has, proudly and with joy, seen her only son

off to the war to give his life for the homeland.

If I could talk to her, just for a half an hour,

I would ask her: Mother of the only son,

do you know what the homeland is?

If you think it’s the country you were born in, think again:

the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire,

the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire…

they all perished.

Do you know, Mother of the only son,

that the country of my birth is no more,

wiped out at the whim of those in power?

I would tell her about another mother,

Nazija from Klisa, near Zvornik,

and her six dead sons,

six sunken graves in the homeland soil.

Do not offer to any army your son, to whom you gave life.

From time immemorial,

the homelands have been thirsting for the blood of our children.

Mother of the only son, I would say at the end,

my homeland is my two sons,

and all the sons of this accursed world.

 

October 2020

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Honouring Rememberance Day: Momčilo the Brave

Momčilo Gavrić, 1914, age 8. Photo by Nena Metikoš. The image is public domain.

There are very few things more depraved, more cruel, more immoral than child-soldiers. 

Yet, this post is a homage to a boy-warrior, the youngest soldier of the Great War. His story is unique, though–he wasn’t recruited; nobody used him for military propaganda; there was no “children brigade” in the army he joined. His name was Momčilo Gavrić, he was eight in 1914, and the war just happened to him and to a good part of humankind. (The war to “end end all wars”, as it was called; in truth it was just a prelude to even more horrible slaughter and destruction that will soon follow.)

At the very beginning of the war, in August 1914, Austro-Hungarians attacked his village, in central Serbia, then a small, independent kingdom. They annihilated his entire family, among many others — his mother, father, grandmother, three sisters and four brothers, all perished within minutes — and burned the village. Momčilo (the meaning of his name name is “bold guy”) survived by pure chance–earlier that day, he’d been sent away by his father to do some chores. Fleeing from his home after the massacre, Momčilo stumbled upon a Serbian artillery unit. Not knowing what to with the shell-shocked child, the commander, Major Stevan Tucaković, let him stay with them until they found him a new home.

Momčilo Gavrić and his caretaker (?) salute to the Major S. Tucović (1916). Photo by R. Šuković. The image is public domain.

It never happened. Behind them, in front of them, on the left and on the right was only destruction and devastation. The boy stayed. The commander had a uniform made for him and assigned a comrade-in-arms to be Momčilo’s caretaker.

With his “adopted family”, the 6th Artillery Division,  Momčilo went through all the major battles. He was demobilized in 1918, age eleven, in the rank of lance sergeant, the youngest one in all the armies of the Great War.

Later, he was sent to England, where he finished school at Henry Wreight School in Feversham.

Later still, he married, worked, got arrested twice by Germans during WWII, had some disagreements with the new government after the war and spent some time in jail.

Other than that, he had more or less ordinary life. He lived to be eighty-seven.

Imbedded is a  song, relatively recent, about a soldier returning home after the Great War.

I have two more stories from WWI for this Remembrance Day. One is about the most decorated woman of the Great War and the other one about a military trumpeter.

 

 

 

 

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ALL MY BOOKS ARE FREE ON SMASHWORDS

Best Friends and Other Lovers

Two lonely souls trapped in a stormy night. A blind date gone awry. A quest to save the best friend from the worst mistake of his life, with a dash of Christmas magic…

Three couples, three adventures, three love stories.

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1036178

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/x/id1526352713

Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/Search?Query=9781005043803

The Two-Blood Legacy: The Red Cliffs Chronicles Book 1

An ancient alliance. An epic battle. An immortal love.
Meet Astrid Mohegan and Jack Canagan—a young wizardess unaware of her legacy, and a handsome wolf-man hesitant to take over his responsibility.
Until their paths cross.

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1037738

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/x/id1527327091

Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/Search?Query=9781005662127

Guardian of the Realm: The Red Cliffs Chronicles Book 2

Man by day, wolf by night, Brian Canagan lives a lonely life on his splendid mountain estate.
Until he meets his match—the brilliant and sassy Elizabeth Chatwin.
Risking unforeseeable consequences of exposing his world to Elizabeth, Brian will lure her into it, hoping that she has enough courage to love him—both the man and the beast.

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1038289

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/x/id1527853168

Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/Search?Query=9781005398934

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Embracing Obscurity

Uploading all my three books on Smashwords marked the end of my formatting  adventure. I left Smashwords for the end because I believed its style guide was complicated. It isn’t; it’s only written in an unnecessarily complicated manner, but once you separate the unimportant from the important, it’s a piece of cake.

Khafre’s Pyramid

Smashwords distribution is another story. Days after my books were accepted for their Premium Catalogue, they still can’t be found on OverDrive. I asked my librarian colleague to purchase them from Draft2Digital.

D2D and Smashwords distribute to the same vendors, but I wanted my trio on Smashwords because it allowed me to offer two of them for free. It could be the way to reach potential readers and it might help the third book, which isn’t free, to gain momentum.

I’m not sure if this strategy is going to work or not, but this is the only one I’m going to employ.

Otherwise, I’m ready to embrace obscurity, as the owner of Smashwords suggests in his book, “Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success.” For him it’s a cause for optimism. After all, he says, even if you sell 30,000 books and become the NY Times bestselling author, you’re still obscure for the rest of humankind and, besides, being obscure is a chance to become visible.

I can’t say I share his enthusiasm. For me obscurity is reality, a roadblock I’m not going to be able to walk around. After months and months of getting my books ready for publishing, after all the money spent on editing, proofreading and various courses on how to do this and that, I have no energy and no financial means for promotion. And I certainly don’t want to explore those free options such as pestering my friends and family to read my books and write me reviews.

Fortunately, I don’t need more than I already have: I created an entire world, populated it with people who breath, dream, love, cry. Who search for happiness, who try and fail, and try again. By publishing my books I made them alive. Everyone is welcome to enter it, but this world is now my happy place. It’s no less real than the bottom of the Khafre’s Pyramid, where I sat once, back pressed against the warm limestone, and starred into the Great Sphinx, experiencing almost an otherworldly connection to something or someone, and thinking, if I died now, I’d die a happy person.

I dedicated Guardian of the Realm to my two close friends, Zlatko D. and Nada S., with whom I traveled to Egypt a lifetime ago, and with that I closed the circle, connecting my then with now, and my here with there.

 

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DIY Formatting? Not so Sure.

It’s been said over and over again that you should never edit your own book. After three months of preparing my three manuscripts for publishing, I’m not sure that self-formatting is a good idea either.

Cover design by Srdjan Filipovic

Having said that, formatting isn’t difficult, just detailed and tedious, and takes a lot of time and patience. I formatted each book for three different platforms. No wonder it took me forever: the Legacy has 71 chapters and 467 pages, and the Guardian (now published!) 77 chapters and 524 pages. In comparison to these two, Best Friends and Other Lovers, my contemporary love story collection, was child’s play–it has a different structure (no formal chapters) and “only” 250 pages.

I first prepared my books for Amazon KDP e-book and paperback. KDP has excellent step-by-step instructions for both formats. They also have two types of templates for paperback, but they didn’t work for me so I took the safer yet longer route and followed the procedure for formatting MS Word files.

Cover design Meera Thakore

To get my books into libraries, I used to use Smashwords, which has quite a complicated style guide. My friend J. P. McLean told me to try Draft2Digital, the vendor that also distributes to all the major retailers online, including OverDrive, which is often the only pathway to public libraries.

D2D is easy to use, despite the occasional glitches. There are limits to what you can do in D2D, and you reach them fast. D2D offers several templates, three to four for each major genre and non-fiction. Comparing to the sleek, elegant look of KDP e-book/paperback, D2D is more basic, but overall, I was happy with the result, and would recommend it to anyone who wants her/his book to be added to the OverDrive collection without too much fuss.

Cover design by Srdjan Filipovic

So why did I say I should’ve stayed away from formatting my own books? Because I couldn’t stop making changes, finding small imperfections, adding a space here, changing a word there. I couldn’t get myself to press the “Publish” button, leaving it for the next day, after just one more checkup, after another go through all 71 or 77 chapters again. And again. And again. (And I’m sure I missed something.)

I would format a book for someone else, but next time I might just pay a formatter to do it for me.

And then, finally, I did click on that button, and the last one in the row, the paperback format of Guardian of the Realm, is up. When it comes to my books on Amazon, I don’t hold my breath, however. I have neither time nor money for any kind of promotion. The paperbacks are for my pleasure only anyway — I like to be able to touch my books. But the D2D versions have already achieved their purpose. The Legacy and Guardian are on OverDrive now, and I expect the third one to join them soon. My library is going to buy them and the readers will find them. They always do.

Voila!

And, before I forget,

CHAPTER 4

A part of me was relieved when I dropped Astrid off at the hospital.

Before last night I hadn’t even been sure if I believed in werewolf bonding. I’d always thought that it was wrong to be left without a choice. There was nothing great about some random, unknown power ruling one of the most important aspects of your life.

Then Astrid’s fingers had touched my throat, and the shock of our irreversible, unchangeable, eternal connection shot from my neck down my spinal cord, spreading through my body, my soul, my mind.

I had never met Astrid before yesterday. I knew she existed—back home, her name was on everybody’s lips—I’d seen her pictures many times in the last six months. Nothing had foretold one of the greatest events of my life. Her lovely but serious face and smart, deep-blue eyes hadn’t evoked any specific emotion. The only detail that had stuck in my mind was her luxurious hair—a long, silky golden-copperish cascade that looked like a halo around her face.

She too had felt the bond, but didn’t seem to know what it was. I knew, which didn’t prevent me from feeling like I was struck by a thunderbolt when it happened.

I didn’t want to be bonded, not to her, not to anyone, yet I could do nothing about it. I found comfort in the fact that she would’ve attracted me anyway. Probably. Physically, she wasn’t my type, but she did have that something that I liked in women: confidence, a brilliant mind, wit and charm.

Later, watching her sitting across the table, her arms crossed over her chest, I tried to imagine her reaction when she learned we were bonded. I could see her cool wizard mind struggling to grasp the concept of the bond and many others she was about to discover. Oh, that was going to be interesting. She’d been ready to jeopardize her safety by refusing to come to Red Cliffs because her opinion hadn’t been considered. Wait until she learned she had no choice but to fall in love with me.

The other part of me, the one that wasn’t relieved, didn’t like being separate from her. The darned bond had already started working. That was a new feeling, both exciting and frustrating. Annoying because, again, it had been forced upon me. Exciting, well, because I could hardly wait to have that not-my-type-of woman beside me again.

I shook my head and smiled. Seven-of-Nine from Star Trek Voyager, exactly my type of woman, would say that resistance was futile.

***

I returned to Astrid’s house. Her scent was all over it, and I inhaled it thirstily. She smelled fresh, of rain and wind, of a clear spring morning, of the sea breeze. Deep, deep under all these elemental essences, there was a subtle touch of musk, earthy and tangy.

All insanely arousing.

I talked to James and my mother, without revealing too many details of my first encounter with my step-cousin, then spent several hours on my laptop trying to catch up with my work.

It was around eleven when I became restless, so going to see Tristan seemed like a good idea.

***

The hospital administration, including Tristan’s office, was on the fourth floor. I asked to see him and he instructed the receptionist to send me up.

A brass plate on the door read Dr. Tristan Blake, and under that CEO, Hospital Services, without the usual string of titles that people from the medical profession were sometimes so fond of. Tristan had several medical specialties, but he was one of the most laid-back people I’d ever known.

He was reading a medical journal when I opened the door, and rose to greet me.

“The first thing Astrid asked me this morning was if you were her blood relative, then if you were married,” he said, gesturing toward an empty chair across his desk. “Interesting, isn’t it?”

I felt a surge of primal male pride. “Did she now? What did you tell her?”

“That you are not married and, to the best of my knowledge, not her blood relative. She’ll kill me if she knows I told you, so don’t mention it to her. And no reason for that cocky grin; she asked that for practical reasons. You are about to camp at her place for several weeks, so she would prefer you were unmarried, cousin or not. Espresso?”

I couldn’t hide my smile. No, she hadn’t asked just for the practical reasons. “Sure,” I said. “She made something undrinkable this morning. So, what did she say?”

“Nothing. Hard to tell if she was relieved or disappointed. Wizards are not easy to read.” Tristan walked to the small table beside the window that held a coffee machine. He took two cups from the top of it, set them on the drip tray and filled the filter with ground coffee. The fresh aroma of Arabica beans filled the air.

Tristan pressed the power button and leaned against the windowsill. The machine made a soft hiss and started dripping coffee into the cups.

“She was relieved, take my word for it,” I said, and took a deep breath. “She’s my bond mate, Tristan.”

For an instant, he didn’t get it.

“You’re kidding!” he said when the meaning reached his mind. “Wow. What now? How did Astrid take it? How come she hadn’t mentioned it this morning?”

“She doesn’t know. I’m afraid to break the news to her.”

“She’ll freak out. And if you tell her you snooped around her house yesterday, she’ll kick you out. And what then?”

“You have an excellent nose,” I said. “At this point, she doesn’t need to know about the bond. Or that I was in her house. After she spends some time in Red Cliffs, she’ll understand us better. She’ll learn such things are necessary.”

Tristan smirked. “Good luck with that. So, what about you? How do you feel about the bond?”

“I’ve already freaked out. It’ll take a while to accept it, mentally and emotionally.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Proceed with the plan. Take her home. I don’t know more than that.”

“Do you like her?”

I raked my hand through my hair. “As if I have a freaking choice. Man, I met her yesterday. People think that bonding is romantic. It’s damn scary. Your finger touches a stranger and the next thing you know you’re tied to her for the rest of your life.” Which could be (and most of the time was), very, very long.

The dripping stopped. The coffee machine pipped a signal that the espressos were ready. Tristan grabbed them, placed them on the desk and pushed one in my direction. “Sugar?”

“Thanks,” I said, taking a spoon and a small crystal bowl with white cubes. With something that looked more like an old-fashioned surgical instrument than sugar cube tongs, I picked one piece and dropped it in my coffee.

“All species have bonding of one kind or another,” Tristan said, taking back his seat. I passed him the bowl and the tongs.

“Yes, but ours is a more complex process. We bond on two different levels: our human and wolf spirits. Everybody must be in sync with everybody else. It usually happens easily and instantly, but it can also be a lengthy process.”

“It’s not always simple for us, either. Outside of our own kind, we most often bond with humans. No matter how civilized we are, on the subconscious level, we still consider them a source of ‘food’. An inferior species, on the bottom of the evolutionary scale, although, in terms of survival, it’s just the opposite—they’re above us since they don’t need us, we need them. Still, we are predators, they are prey. And then, poof—you found yourself bonded to a human. No, my friend, bonding often doesn’t go smoothly.”

“To be honest, it never made much sense to me. Relationships are messy enough without it. It only complicates things even more.”

Tristan shook his head. “Here you’re wrong. We might not understand many aspects of it, but bonding doesn’t happen haphazardly. That wouldn’t make any sense. Regarding Astrid, you should cheer up. It’ll be easy to love her. You’ll see when you know her better.”

“We’ll see,” I said, stirring my coffee. “There’s nothing I can do about it now anyway. Bonded or not, Astrid still needs my help to learn how to control her changes.”

“It’s more than that. Her transformations are not only uncontrollable but difficult and painful as well.”

“Painful? She said she blacked out, but she didn’t mention it was painful,” I said, feeling a strange tightening in my chest. I wanted to find her, hold her tight so that nothing could hurt her anymore.

Where was she now, I wondered, trying to pick up her scent.

The bond seemed to be interfering with my common sense. I made an effort to refocus on the conversation.

“It’s always been painful for her, and it’s becoming worse. She does it quickly, faster than you. Maybe that’s the reason. She’s an enormous wolf, way bigger than her human size would suggest. But then, when she turns, she’s nothing like you guys. There isn’t that burst of energy and life that always impresses me when I see you changing. She’s exhausted.”

Her words came back to me. “When you see my change, you’ll understand my lack of enthusiasm.” And I had all but accused her last night of being prejudicial. “Why are they painful? Why is she weak afterward? Do you have any explanation?”

Tristan scratched his head. “I believe it’s because she’s an ellida. Alas, that’s all I can say. As you know, very little is known about them.”

He was right. Ellidas were rare and mysterious female offspring of rare unions between werewolves and wizards. There had been only a handful of ellidas in our history.

“Every ellida is different, but there are still some things they all share,” I said. “Their first change happens in late puberty. After that, they quickly establish control over the process. It didn’t happen with Astrid.”

“Well, she’s just different. Despite all her difficulties, she comes out of her shifting just fine. I always check her after the transformation. There is no damage, nothing unusual. She needs a day or two to become herself again.”

Two days! Of course she hated it, I thought, trying hard not to imagine her curled up in pain, exhausted, unable to move. “I’ll find out why she suffers through the change,” I said. “What can you tell about her genetic makeup? That’s your field.”

One of Tristan’s specialties was in medical genetics.

“She combines the best of both kinds, of course. She’s an ellida.”

“I know that. But emotionally, socially? Privately?”

“Astrid’s much more emotional than wizards in general. You know them; they’re like a crossover between Tolkien’s Elves and Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Their rational side is prominent. Not that they do not feel, they do, as intensely as we do, they just don’t show it. She does.”

Tristan smiled at some private thought, then took a sip of his espresso and continued, “She’s fiercely independent. Don’t expect her to be submissive to you or anybody else. Or dominant, for that matter, at least not in her human form. Those concepts are still alien to her. She’s a private person. A loyal friend. Smart, well-educated and sophisticated. She’s very serious but can be funny to the bone.”

“As a doctor?”

Tristan’s face lit up. “Born to be one. She is both an orthopedic and trauma surgeon, and brilliant in both fields. Wizards are doctors par excellence, but she’s exceptional even by their standards. I’ve haven’t seen anything like that in a long time.”

“She doesn’t resemble Rowena.”

“No, she took after Hal. From inside? We’re all a combination of inherited and acquired characteristics. She has the best of both in her.”

“She seems more levelheaded than her mother was,” I said before I could think twice.

Tristan gave a sharp look. “Oh, for Chrissake, Jack! Rowena was eighteen, a teenager caught in serious grownup circumstances. Passionate, impatient. Too young to be married, too young to have a child. Hal was a great man, but he could be reckless and irresponsible. Like it or not, Astrid has her mother’s passion, her feistiness.” He pointed his finger at me. “And I’ll tell you something else. No matter what Red Cliffs thinks, Rowena had nothing to do with Hal’s and your father’s deaths. No one can convince me otherwise. No one!”

“She set things into motion, but it was Seth who killed them, not Rowena. I’m aware of that.”

“Jack, Astrid’s a mature and responsible young woman,” Tristan said, his voice softening with true affection for his young friend. “An old soul. I tease her sometimes that she was born as a twenty-five-year-old woman. She had a few stormy teenage years, but even that was just a typical hormonal rebellion, although Gottfried and Ella probably wouldn’t agree.”

Tristan’s phone buzzed. He took it out from his pocket and read the message “Astrid’s done for today. By the way, Liv expects you two at our place tonight. I mentioned it to Astrid. She said she’d talk to you.” He gave me a devilish smile. “Oh, Liv will be ecstatic when she hears about the bond.”

I bet she would be. “Don’t mention it in front of Astrid. I’ll tell her.”

“No, I’ll only tell Liv,” he said with a wicked grin.

I ignored it and checked my phone for messages. “I told Astrid to text me when she was done so that I could pick her up.”

“Next time ask her, don’t tell her. Then she might do it. Why don’t you surprise her? She’ll be down in five minutes.”

I rubbed my chin. “Damn. I’m bonded to her, she’s not even my type,” I said and stood. “She’s too serious. And too slim.” I meekly tried my futile resistance one more time. And no boobs. I added another irrelevant complaint to the whole list of other ridiculous ones, but at least I knew better than to say it aloud. Tristan was a first-rate old-school gentleman, and Astrid was his protégé.

He looked at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted a second head. “She’s beautiful. You should think beyond bonding. Believe me, you’ll be eating out of her hand before you know it, and you’ll love it.”

I heard my friend’s hearty laugh as I closed the door behind me.

***

Handbag over her shoulder, her light coat draped over her arm, Astrid stepped out of the elevator. She tilted her head and looked at me with an arched eyebrow.

I walked to her, I took the coat from her hands and helped her to put it on. I rested my hands on her shoulders and let the warm current run between us for a moment.

“I came to see Tristan,” I said before she could ask me what I was doing in the hospital.

She turned to me. “Ah. To talk about me.” The little smile that lurked in her blue eyes reached her lips. In a split second, I realized what Tristan had tried to tell me just a few minutes ago. You are beautiful! I almost said aloud, looking at her as if I hadn’t seen her last night at all.

She opened her coat to smooth the blue dress under it. Last night she was in an oversized shirt. This morning she’d been fully dressed when she left her bedroom, her coat included. Now I realized I was mistaken about at least one more thing. Or rather two. The boobs.

I laughed aloud and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. She glanced at me from under her lashes, but stayed close, the smile still lingered on her face.

I had a secret, and for the time being, I wasn’t going to share it with her. For a while, I’d decided, I would enjoy the fact that she didn’t have a clue that I was about to happen to her.

 

 

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