Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 13th May 1225
Isabel sat in the solar with Felicia, Will, Katerina and Sophia, enjoying a rare moment of camaraderie with her siblings. Oliver and Robert were out hunting, and Amiria was in the nursery with Hugh. Her brother stroked her curls absent-mindedly as she rested her head against his legs, basking in the aftermath of their mirth. Her elder siblings reigned from four beautifully carved oak chairs, set in a semi-circle around the hearth. As usual, Will and Katerina were at the centre, whilst Felicia and Sophia hovered on the outskirts, always on the beautiful pair's periphery. It made Isabel feel so grown-up and special to be allowed to join in their merriment. They whispered and laughed together, barely acknowledging their blonde-haired sisters.
"You have such beautiful hair, Issy," Felicia said, leaning across to stroke her head.
Katerina took Isabel's face in her hands, brushing her hair back from her forehead. She laughed, a great smile curving her lips. "Do you think so?" Her voice was cruel, wounding, exactly as she had intended it to be.
"Yes, it is lovely," Sophia said, shooting Katerina a reproving glance.
"I didn't mean anything by it," Katerina said defensively, her lips twitching. Her fingers absent-mindedly traced her generous mouth as she pouted at Sophia. "Frizzy hair can be quite pretty, I suppose."
She laughed again, but when Katerina looked at Isabel, her eyes were cold. She loved nothing more than to be the centre of attention. She hated to hear anyone else being complimented, for it gave the merest suggestion that they possessed something better than she did. She would do everything in her power to make them change their mind. She was jealous of them all: Isabel, Sophia and Felicia. It was easy to love Sophia and Felicia, but Katerina was a different story: manipulative, selfish and self-centred.
The incident with Oliver had been typical of her. Whilst Felicia had been losing her precious baby, Felicia's husband had been with her. Katerina had wanted Oliver because it proved to her that she was more desirable than Felicia. She could have had anyone she coveted, but she had to choose him. She had to prove to herself that she could have him if she wanted.
Isabel stared back at her sister. Unlike William and Felicia, Katerina was short on redeeming qualities. She had inherited the worst of her mother and father. She was dangerous, heartless.
Isabel looked away first, back to her blonde-haired siblings. Sophia was content to sit by the fire embroidering, keen not to involve herself in their plotting. Felicia stared into the flames vacantly, her expression worryingly similar to their mother's, though she smiled at Isabel as she noted the concerned look on her face. "Cheer up, my little bird," she said gently.
Moving from her place beside Will, Isabel walked over to her and curled up in her lap, burying her head in Felicia's fragrant curls. Her sister relaxed as she felt her arms around her.
Katerina's dark eyes flashed with jealousy when she saw that Isabel had abandoned her company for Felicia's. She couldn't resist sabotaging her older sister's happiness. "How's Oliver?" Her question was pointed, and a smug smile sat on her lovely face.
"He's fine." Felicia's voice was pained, for she knew where the conversation was leading. She refused to meet Katerina's gaze.
"Katerina…" Will's tone held a note of warning.
Though their brother tried to diffuse the situation, Katerina couldn't leave it. Her hand clamped down on her twins, ordering him to be silent. "Oh, he seemed angry when he came to me this morning."
"When he came to you?"
Katerina smiled, laughed. "Yes, when I fucked your husband."
"Katerina!" Sophia's tone was scandalised.
"Please, Sophia…" Felicia's tone was weary. "I don't want to hear it. Just let it lie."
Sophia's gentle face flushed with anger. "Stop it, Licia. You can't let her get away with this."
"I said I don't want to hear it," Felicia shouted furiously, her explosion of emotion sudden and unexpected. She stood up abruptly, tipping Isabel from her lap, and turned to face the fire. She wrung her hands nervously, and started pacing frantically backwards and forwards, tears glittering in her silver eyes.
Katerina lashed out, quick as a snake, to take her sister's wrist. "Sit down, Licia," she commanded, her tone calm yet forceful. "You need to hear it. Will and I have discussed this, and we think that it could be to our advantage."
Felicia sat down automatically. Her shoulders dipped in a sort of relief, as though she was glad to have had such matters taken from her hands. She was very highly-strung, and Katerina's composure, in direct contrast to her own frantic state of mind, seemed to calm her. She needed someone to take control, to step in and stop her when she started to fall apart.
"Felicia!" Sophia's voice was outraged. "How can you listen to a word that whore says. This isn't normal. Normal women don't sleep with their sister's husbands. You can't forgive her this as well. It can't just be brushed under the carpet."
No-one reacted to her words. Sophia turned to Will, her eyes pleading with him to intervene, but he averted his gaze from her.
Realisation dawned in Sophia's eyes. "You planned this, didn't you?" she accused, her voice incredulous.
His silence said it all.
"You're truly our father's son," Sophia spat. "What's wrong with you? Why can't any of you see how wrong this is?" she raged.
Katerina took Felicia's pale hand, running a long nail across the wedding ring which sat on her older sister's finger. The smooth gold glittered in the firelight. "Don't you understand? He doesn't love her and he never has. Their marriage isn't some fairy tale; it was born from necessity. I acted for all of us."
Sophia's eyes flashed. "You've never done anything for anyone but yourself. Don't pretend that this was an act of sacrifice. You wanted him because he was Felicia's; you've always been that way, since we were children. You could never let anybody have something you didn't. I know you better than anyone, Katerina. God knows I've spent enough time with you. If you can do this to Felicia, who is to say that my husband won't be next?"
Katerina's eyes were dark as she looked at her golden sister's trembling frame. "I had your husband long before you, Sophia. He chose you because he couldn't have me. Has he never told you how he loved me once? He probably still does, for what would be the point of keeping secrets unless he still has something to hide?"
Isabel could almost see the puncture, the ragged tear, left by the lash of Katerina's tongue. Sophia slapped Katerina then, causing her head to snap backwards. Though she clutched her cheek, Katerina's eyes blazed as she looked at her sister from beneath her lashes. An expression of triumph shone on her face: she was victorious; she had forced a reaction from their gentle Madonna. Once more, she was the puppet master, pulling everyone's strings. Sophia ran from the room, sobbing. Will just looked at Katerina, shaking his head, though she was completely unperturbed by his blatant disgust.
Katerina sidled up behind their brother, running her hands over his shoulders so that he must, for a moment, relax the tension in his body. She bent her lovely head to kiss his cheek. "Don't you see, we can use this to our advantage," she crowed. She raised her hypnotising gaze from the face of her twin, tilting her head as she appraised her sisters. "But I need you with me. All of you." She looked at each of them pointedly.
Felicia nodded unthinkingly, her face dazed. Though Will still looked at Katerina with contempt, he nodded too. Gazing from one to the other, Isabel took the plunge, and indicated her assent.
Katerina's eyes widened, a visible shiver running down her spine. She took Isabel's chin between thumb and forefinger, and stared into her eyes. "I shall have to watch you, little sister. You wear the same expression that I've seen peering back from my mirror a thousand times."
Isabel swallowed. Though she met Katerina's determined gaze, a voice inside of her cried out at the immorality of what she was about to be witness to. She knew then that she was truly her father's daughter.
They were awaiting them when they returned, their faces red but exultant from the success of their hunt. Will greeted the men by the front door, requesting a private word with Oliver. He led him up to the solar, indicating that he should fill Sophia's vacant seat. His tone was grave as he began. "It has come to my attention that you have acted improperly towards my sister, my lord." He did a fantastic act of looking pained and embarrassed by what he was saying.
Oliver blushed furiously, fists clenching and unclenching nervously, as if he half expected Will to hit him. He made as if to protest, until he noticed Isabel sitting at Felicia's feet. He must have known that she had witnessed his betrayal, for he quickly looked away.
Felicia's gaze was unseeing. She stared into the fire as if it was the most fascinating entity she had ever perceived. Katerina, sat on the other side of William, affected an air of meekness and embarrassment, wringing her hands and looking at the floor.
"So you do not deny it?" William continued. He ran a black-gloved finger across the rim of his jewelled goblet, his many rings glittering in the firelight, a statement of his wealth, his power. "My lord, you must understand the position you have placed me in." He paced up and down as he spoke, as if thinking through what he was saying. His dark eyes flickered to his twins'. "You have scandalised my family: not only have your nefarious ways brought shame on my sister, your wife, but they have tainted Katerina's reputation, and she not yet married. I should run you through with a sword, but for my sister's sake I will let you live. But you must leave here. We are done, Oliver."
"My lord…" Oliver's voice was panicked as he spoke, and his handsome face was anxious. His fists curled, his hands shaking slightly. "Please, do not act so hastily. Surely, there is some way we can remedy this?"
"Unpleasant rumours already abound. Once heard the damage they wreak is irrevocable. But you talk of a remedy." Their eyes met, and a look of knowing passed between them. "What do you propose?"
"An act I had wished to avoid. They say that Lady Katerina is privy to all that you do, and women talk, my lord, especially those who believe themselves in love."
Isabel caught the flicker of amusement in her brother's eyes. The twins' gazes met for the briefest moment. A sly smile stole across Katerina's face, and she slowly, subtly, raised her finger to her lips.
"I know what you're planning," Oliver continued. "I know that I could be of use to you."
"How so?" Will's voice was cold, masterful. He stared at Oliver from eyes of flint, like an emperor who waited to pass judgement, to gift life or death to a bloodied gladiator.
Oliver's gaze darted around the room, searching for danger. "Leave us," he commanded, though he only had power to command Felicia.
Will nodded to Katerina and Isabel, passing the order on to them. Katerina cast a sloe-eyed glance over her shoulder as she left, a wicked smile on her generous lips. And Isabel understood that Katerina already knew every word which would pass between them. She had scripted the exchange. She had moulded the two men as easily as pieces of clay shaped by her delicate fingers.
Katerina's hand curled around Isabel's as they passed through the doorway. "Oliver does not yet understand my power, sister," she said, with an expression somewhere between sneer and smirk. "But you do, don't you? Remember this. Remember how easily I can control them; how easily I can control you."
Isabel tried to snatch her hand from her sister's, but Katerina's grip only tightened. "Ah, you're hurting me," she whimpered.
Her sister pressed a kiss to her palm, slowly uncurling her fingers from around Isabel's. "I could hurt you later, too, or else I could make you great. I could make you Lady of Glencaer, if you like, or I could cast you down. Do not make an enemy of me, sister. Your life is in my hands."
Isabel tried to sneer, as her sister had done, but her voice trembled. "Will would never let you do that."
Katerina considered Isabel, her lips smugly curved. "Will and I are one person. Two came forth when there should only have been one, and there is something special in that. I am the true ruler of Pompocali. You would do well to remember that." There was truth in her triumphant smile.
And later, much later, when Will and Oliver had plotted and connived, it was Katerina who learned of their success. Katerina who he plotted with.
But they were not one person. Katerina had been wrong. Will was softer, gentler. He seated Isabel on his lap when she quietly slipped in to the room, even as Katerina glared at her. His arms wrapped around her, and Isabel saw the sadness in his eyes.
His words were tentative, questioning, when he spoke, searching for his twin's intentions, following her lead. "There are those who say he is planning to put Felicia aside to marry you."
Katerina glided across to him, her long skirts emitting a low, serpentine hiss as they brushed the ground, and knelt beside his chair, her hand curling around his. Her eyes were bright, triumphant. She kissed him full on the mouth, the action too long, lingering beyond propriety. "My courtship charade has succeeded then."
Will's lips curled, and he turned his face away from her. "Was it a courtship, or was it a charade?"
Katerina stood, placing soft fingers on his cheek, reclaiming his attention. Her dark eyes cast their spell. She bent down and placed a kiss on his forehead, gentler than the first, her long hair tickling the back of Isabel's hand. "A charade, always a charade, dearest brother. No man is worthy of my courtship, for none can compare to the brother I love."
Still there was a quiet rebuke in his voice, disapproval. "You hurt Felicia. You hurt her so badly. Was her pain simply the currency you needed to play your games?"
Katerina took his chin firmly between thumb and forefinger, tilting his head. "Our games. I had to weaken the bonds between kin. I had to tear your allegiance from him."
A dark smile stole across his handsome face. "Take care that you do not tear our sister's allegiance from us. She is our father's daughter. There are many of her husband's men who follow Oliver only for love of her, and love of our father. We must be careful that her wishes remain the same as our own. Even now our father's name counts for a great deal. If Oliver rises without his wife's support, Oliver will fail. They won't be loyal to him if they think he slights her."
Katerina shrugged, and stroked her brother's cheek with a maternal sort of affection. "If Felicia remains silent, then you must lend your own voice to her husband's cause."
Will stood, Isabel forgotten, and wrapped his arms around his twin's neck, bringing her close to bury her face in his throat. His lips were against her ear, his fingers in her hair, soft and caressing. "You know that I cannot be seen to rise against the king. You must apologise to Licia, Kat."
Katerina pulled away. Her eyes flashed, her lips thinning. "Do you command it, brother?" she sneered, for Isabel knew that she had never been his to command; he had been hers.
With a snap of his wrist her brother pulled his twin close, his eyes soft, though there was steel in hers. "You are no mans to command, and for as long as I live I will keep my promise to have you beside me always. No husband will ever seek to control you. No man will ever have dominion over you. And I, your brother, am your own self, your other half. I do not command, my love, I only offer a course of action, but the choice will always be yours."
Her finger traced down his cheek, her talon nails a thing of beauty. "You offer, and I concur. And so your wish shall be granted." She leaned closer, enveloping him in her fragrance, and placed a long, lingering kiss on their brother's lips.
But Isabel did not understand how they could so easily command. "Why will Oliver do as you wish? What does it matter to him whether we are his allies or not?"
Katerina only laughed at her, and placed a kiss on her cheek. "You are a delightful little fool, Isabel Devereux. You do not yet understand our power."
Will was solemn. His face darkened. He pulled her to him, and knelt down so that they were face to face. "No one wants our enmity, Isabel. He will do anything to keep our friendship. We are Devereuxs. We are power and danger and cunning. They all want to stand beside us, and none would dare to stand against us."
"We are Devereuxs," Katerina quietly concurred, suddenly as solemn as their brother. "You will always be one of us. You must never, never betray us. You must always love your family above all others, think of your family before everything else. To disgrace us would be to destroy everything you love most in this world. You must always act for us. Promise me this, Isabel Devereux."
"I promise," she whispered, entranced by the gleaming fervour in her sister's dark eyes. She was enchanted, hypnotised, by the strength of feeling, the passion, in their twin gazes.
Katerina smiled, and Isabel knew that she had been blooded, becoming a fully-fledged member of the duplicitous, conniving Devereuxs.