"Nicolais! Nicolais!"

This time, it caught him by surprise. He wanted to tell the frantic voice calling his name to be quiet. Instead, he settled for shoving it to the back of his mind, where it became the least of his concerns. The first became how he had ended up here, trapped on the floor, his body ignoring his mind's pleas to get up.

Finally, he regained control over lifeless muscles. Sitting up, Nicolais rubbed the diamond imprint of the carpet's texture out of his forehead. A withered, old man with a wispy white goatee hovered over him, smothering with arms outstretched. "Master? Let me help you up."

Nicolais flinched. "I'm fine. Stop babying me, Gunnar!"

With a bow, Gunnar retreated from the dark chamber with a backward glance for the dark-dressed figure still huddled on the floor.

What had he expected? Since childhood, every hour or so, his body would fall asleep. Sometimes, as if his condition were taking mercy on him, his mind could also rest. In the end, no one could explain why his body betrayed him. Only that there was no resisting it. That was his curse.

With a laugh that echoed in the barely furnished room, Nicolais hobbled to a corner. There, he dropped onto the high-back chair once favored by his dead father, the previous lord of the isle of Ebel.

This autumn had been his father's last one. Two months ago, a man had come to their isolated island to assassinate Valerius. Giddy with success, the incompetent hero had left Nicolais alive to inherit his father's position and reputation. The new role required Nicolais to be in his father's conference room. The gloomy, musty place contained a black oblong table with a matching set of chairs and shelves of papers, which Nicolais didn't dare touch.

He sat in silence until a speckled white and black goat trotted into the room and towards his chair. The goat was the only gift from his father that he had ever liked, even if Valerius had meant it as an insult. The goat bleated happily as Nicolais reached down to pet her smooth forehead.

"He brooded in here, Belle," he told her. "I'm supposed to ponder and plot in here too." Again, he wondered how one went about conquering the kingdom of Mielind with a goat, a babysitter and a modest army. At least, with Belle for company, Nicolais found the gloom that had frozen him earlier melting away.

After a hasty search of the room's shelves, he took out a map and studied the giant landmass that comprised Mielind. The country had many ports, but a small fleet could not hold any with success. Over the course of twenty-three years, his father had completed sneak attacks by land. Cities were burned, hostages taken. Each time, the king had driven Valerius out. It left the people of Mielind only the memory of senseless destruction and the fear of becoming a target for the lord of Ebel.

Havenhall. Faraday. Eckhart. Weston. Each city name came to Nicolais with a memory of Valerius' flashing, dark eyes and haggard face. Shivering, he pushed the map away.

As the sun struggled higher into the sky, Gunnar re-entered the conference room with a cup of tea. He paused a moment and bit back a smile. The master had taken to having Belle chew Valerius' papers to pieces. Nicolais made certain the goat didn't swallow the shredded paper, even if she bleated at him indignantly for it.

The old man crossed the room, and Nicolais took the offered cup. If it had been anyone but Gunnar, he would have tossed it. The sabotage of the castle water had hastened his father's downfall after all.

"We could brighten the room up a little, my lord."

Nicolais straightened in his seat and replaced the papers he had taken from a shelf an arm's length away. "Fine. It doesn't matter to me." Most of the castle windows were covered in boards to allow in only the slightest sunlight. Perking up at the response, Gunnar began at the window furthest from the master and dug at the wooden boards with his nails.

Rays of sunlight washed over the room and revealed that the table here wasn't black, but a deep, dark mahogany. By the time Gunnar had finished unblocking all the windows, Nicolais became distracted. The sun was so warm, so strangely bright. Crossing the room, Nicolais pressed his nose against the clear casement window. He curled closer to the glass when warmth burned the black cloth of his coat.

"I wonder what it's like."

"My lord?"

"On the mainland of Mielind. All my memories are here. I haven't left this castle since Mother died."

Gunnar considered. "There are two hours of sea travel between Ebel and Mielind…The distance kept your parents safe from the king's wrath." The rock cliffs embracing the island of Ebel also kept wise sailors away.

"Safe, but was my father content? Satisfied with this exile and in leaving mainland matters for his spies to track? For every new moon that waxed, he had a new ploy, but none worked. This was the place of his failures."

Nicolais drew away and stumbled as the darkness of the room blinded him. "Mother wasn't content here at all! I remember—" His jaw froze, and then slackened. He collapsed to his knees and then pitched forward, nearly smashing his skull on a chair.

"Master Nicolais!" Gunnar rushed over to hold his charge's lolling head. A few moments later, Nicolais jerked back to life and clutched for a hold on something stable. He recoiled as his fingers found the old man's spindly arms. "You must be careful when the time draws near."

"I know that. Don't touch me."

Nicolais refused to look at him. Heavy with sorrow, Gunnar moved to pick up a few pieces of splintery board and shuffled out of the room. Belle gamboled over to nibble at Nicolais' velvet shirt as if to comfort him.

"I didn't mean to snap at him…but what good does saying 'sorry' do?" He had more important things to do than worry about being polite to servants. Standing, Nicolais returned to stare at the to-do list on the conference table. Below a list of menial tasks, the last item on the paper he had underlined three times. "Take over the kingdom...the one that belongs to my bloodline."

Belle turned big brown eyes up at him. While she couldn't solve his problem, she could at least console. With a faint laugh, Nicolais scratched her between the ears.

With a shake of her stubby tail, the goat darted off and then abruptly fell over, legs stiff. A moment later, she struggled back onto her feet with an indignant bleat. Nicolais considered her. "We're both cursed, huh? You're almost lucky. If you didn't get excited so much, you wouldn't be fainting so often."

Belle gave him a look, or as much of a look as a goat could manage. In a few moments, Nicolais found himself lounging on the ledge beside the window. He pressed against it once more to allow the warmth of the sun-bathed glass to enter his shivering body. The castle, which his father had built on the backs of others, felt empty.

His father's attention never boded well for him, but at least, there wouldn't be this eerie silence. Now, all the soldiers sat stagnant, preparing for a battle that would never come or could not be won. Meanwhile, the castle staff completed the bare minimum of chores and then hid from the lord of the castle.

As Belle nudged at his knee, Nicolais moved away from the window reluctantly. He snatched the To-Do List from his desk, strode over to the fireplace at the other end of the room and released the parchment. The paper blackened and curled as flames engulfed it.

"I don't need a list to tell me what to do. I will figure this out." Nicolais grinned as Belle gamboled around him, tossing her head with perhaps happy agreement.

"I'll have to ask General Jago if there is a method, no matter how mad, to take the Capitol itself." At the moment, a direct attack would result in the king crushing his army like a person crushes a bug crawling up his arm.

As if the words had summoned him, the general of Valerius' army strode into the room, heavy boots thumping. The sound sent Belle skittering behind the lord of Ebel's chair and made Nicolais flinch.

With a face marred by brown scars and a perpetual grimace, General Jago could daunt the fiercest of hearts. The man's thinning, silver and black hair pulled back into a painfully taut ponytail that stretched the general's forehead into an odd smoothness.

"My lord," Jago rumbled. As of yet, Nicolais could not decide his feelings about the man who had commanded hundreds of soldiers on Valerius' behalf.

After a moment, Nicolais spoke the words Jago was waiting for. "Speak, Jago. Freely."

"I have some grave news." Even so, the general's face showed no hint of concern. "King Litus has announced a competition for the hand of the Minister Jillet's daughter, Jeanne Butterfly. Since he is without an heir, he has declared the girl his heiress so long as she marries."

Nicolais stifled a snort at the girl's name. Nobles clearly had odd hobbies. Since the other man had not grasped the significance of the situation yet, Jago forced himself to continue. "For now, we must stop a suitor from winning her hand. If we learn more about the eligible candidates, we can hunt them down. Without a husband, she will have no claim to the throne."

"Fine," Nicolais agreed. "Women have no claim to a kingdom, but what does that have to do with us?"

Jago flashed him a severe look that was gone as quickly as it had appeared. "My lord, if this girl cannot inherit the throne and no other heir is acceptable, then you could take the throne. It's an opportunity your father waited for his entire life, and now you-"

"Why don't we just kill Litus?" With his hands, Nicolais mimed a stabbing. "Rather, send a man in, have him stick a dagger in all the royals, and then we can take the throne in the chaos. Why must we fuss about and kill Jeanne Butterfly's suitors?"

"It is near impossible to bring a dagger near the king."

"Near impossible!" Nicolais repeated. "Then you are insinuating that it is possible! My father wasted too much time on elaborate plans. Shouldn't we get to the root of the problem? If they can send someone skilled enough to kill my father, why can't I find someone to kill the king? Hmm?"

Jago said nothing and scrutinized his young master. Valerius' son resembled his mother. The same straight, black hair crossed Nicolais' forehead in a nonchalant manner, and the eyes were the same startling olive green. His height, of course, came from Valerius along with an elongated face and fine features. The young lord may have looked like his parents, but he was nothing at all like them, the general decided. He was an inconsiderate, incompetent boy.

Feeling the beginnings of a headache throbbing at his temple, Jago sighed. "Then you will do nothing to stop the suitors?"

Nicolais held up a finger in thought. He almost said "no" and then he re-considered. Perhaps this "stop the suitors" action was the proper, villainous thing to do. He had few other options, but at least, he would do it his way. "Very well. We'll stop the suitors…by kidnapping the girl."

Standing behind Nicolais, Belle butted his leg. While the lord of Ebel recovered his balance, Jago placed his hand against his head and ruminated on the best course of action.

"I haven't forgotten you, Belle," Nicolais said to the goat with amusement. He glanced back up at the general. "What is it?"

"Kidnap the minister's daughter? That's almost as impossible as…"

"Killing the king?"

"Exactly, my lord. I implore you to target her suitors."

"That tone of voice doesn't sound imploring. More demanding, I think." Nicolais squinted at the general, who wore his chainmail with the ease of being in a soft tunic. "Find a man capable of kidnapping her. Take your time, but don't leave it until the girl marries."

"You would kill her?"

"Go on. Go!" Nicolais snapped. "Bring her here, so I can take over the kingdom! Just as my father wanted…"

"I shall find a capable someone to do as you wish."

"Yes, and make use of those spies you have in the king's castle," Nicolais added.

After a stiff bow, Jago strode from the chamber. He squared his shoulders to soothe away the anger that wanted to buckle them. Perhaps the new lord of Ebel did share something in common with his father: his rudeness. The general resigned himself to becoming accustomed to such treatment from the son as well.

With Belle nosing under the conference table, Nicolais returned to pondering. This time he wondered about the general's startling acquiescence to his unreasonable demand. No matter how he looked at it, the easy agreement was incomprehensible. Nicolais yawned. "Well, until the heiress arrives—if she arrives—I say I deserve a break." And a nap.

His only audience, Belle, gave a short bleat. Nicolais held up his hands. "Yes, I haven't done much to begin with, but before I take on King Litus, I'll need all the rest I can get. I see restless nights in my future. War and bloodshed. Wonderful, isn't it?"

It was what his father had accomplished after all, and in that way, Valerius had perfected his reputation as a villain. Under the sun's encouraging warmth, Nicolais believed he could be more. He could be the man to take over the kingdom.