An excerpt from Once I Was King
Updated: Aug 8
I wanted to include a chapter from Once I Was King on my website for anyone looking to see a sample of my work. The story follows a young Tibetan man in the late 1930s, adopted into a very wealthy family in New York, who stumbles upon some family secrets, just before he leaves for France to go to medical school. In his attic is a suit, once worn by his birth father, constructed of near supernatural means, with giant butterfly wings and inner mechanical makings. He is also gifted a copy of an old text on the philosopher's stone, that unravels into a theory that the stone is actually a butterfly chrysalis, and the etchings of snakes and dragons in the book are actually of caterpillars and butterflies, arranged this way to hide the truth. Going against his dedication to the world of science, he decides to put his life on hold to chase occult secrets, and with a good friend, he travels to Tibet to search for a group of winged monks that hold the truth to the stone. But his girlfriend, twin stepbrothers, stepfather and other interested parties, including the Nazis, are trying to stop him at every turn, in his quest to cheat death, as he finds what he hoped for carries a cost...
WHETHER WE WERE fools or geniuses, only time would tell.
We boldly boarded the Simplon Orient Express, a four day trip from Paris to Istanbul.
On our trip, we would pass through Milan, Venice, Belgrade, and Sofia, yet we would only see them from the windows.
Leaving Paris felt like leaving behind a mess of paint all around us, its colors seeping into my mind. The cafes, the nightclubs, they boasted a fantastic display of vibrancy. Almost a plea from the city that you remain awake and never sleep.
Onboard the train, the decorations were of top choice. Nothing in any room was fit for the commoners, the train was only for royalty and the well to do. The furniture was immaculate. You could pet any one of the couches and expect them to come to life.
I felt like a king as I passed on through train cars packed with swish couches and time period end tables.
We bunked in a wood paneled sleeper compartment with double beds. Ensuite toilets and vanity units with wash basins were standard installed comforts. This made our trip all the easier. Our room also came with the best quality crispy white linens and a luggage rack. The luxurious dining and lounge cars boasted art deco marquetry panels, polished wood and period lamp fixtures.
There was even a piano player who appeared after dinner to play for the travelers. A full bar, Ely’s favorite car, each car was uniquely fitted with a description imprinted in gold, describing the car’s origins and travel.
With the train running full steam, we passed staggering hills pressed against the horizon, through lush green pastures planted in vineyards, speckled with charming villages situated below high church steeples that pierced through blue skies and white clouds. At one point the train cut through a pasture full of galloping wild horses.
As we climbed to higher elevation, the green turned to snow on the ground.
I should admit, I gazed out the picturesque windows, looking for butterflies.
The club car was another beautiful car with many art deco details. During the day it was not very busy, yet in the evening with diners hanging out, before or after the two dinner seating, it was packed – with men in their dashing tuxes, women in glittering gowns, all sipping cocktails and fine wine, listening to the piano player tickling our ears.
For us, dinner was very elegant. We sat in L’Oriental dining car, decorated in black lacquer and heightened with oriental themes.
The bright white tablecloths and napkins were artistically folded by the sommeliers. The glittering glasses; the ruby red and topaz white wine; the crystal-clear water decanters and the silver capsules of the champagne bottles were more icing on the cake.
I had never been on a train like this one and I couldn’t thank Ely enough for the experience.
“I’ll have turbot fillet rolled with rocket pesto, prosecco and saffron risotto, cuttlefish ink sauce as a starter. And pan fried cod fish, green peas cream with cardamom; grilled lettuce with onions and bacon; olive oil violet mashed potatoes as my main course.
And for dessert - Semifredo with agave syrup, rosehip jelly and lime zests with mignardises served with coffee, thank you,” Ely said.
First class food to satisfy our hunger, the finest of brandy to wet our tongues; we were both excited, frightened and curious – a true adventure of a lifetime sat waiting ahead.
Eating at a table that was slightly shaking, the silverware bounced a bit on the napkins.
A man and woman sat behind us. They were Americans. They were talking at high volume. It almost reminded me of Stella and I.
The man abruptly turned and asked if he might sit with us. That he and his fiancé were looking for quality company and any good stories we might have to tell.
Ely said, “Your food has already been served, making it too much of a hassle,” and then he realized he was wrong. Their food had not been served. Ely had attempted it to try and dissuade them; he obviously wasn’t in the mood to make acquaintances with strangers, and I don’t know that I was either.
“Perfect.” the man said, standing up and helping his fiancé with an open hand. They shimmied themselves out of the booth and over to ours, pushing us toward the windows.
As the silverware and plates were moved below our faces, the man made his introductions. “This is Ms. Caroline Porter, my wonderful fiancé,” he said, “And my name is Jacob, Jacob Stowe.”
My eyes went wide. Ely’s were wider.
“I’m a Lepidopterologist,” he said, leaning forward. “That means I’m an expert on butterflies.” He cleared his throat, looking at his fiancé. “We are on our way to Turkey, to collect specimens for The Butterfly Conservatory at the Museum Of Natural History. And so, may I ask, what brings you to Turkey?”
Under the table I kicked Ely in the shin.
“I’m William Paul, and this is Ely Stokes. I’m a medical student and he’s a colleague of mine. We’re traveling on business, studying various illnesses and diseases,” I said.
Jacob Stowe nodded along, using every moment that he could to talk to us about butterflies. I pretended to know nothing about them.
Jacob Stowe was no longer a being we conjured up out of thin air.
From that point on, we never used that name.