“Miss Karami’s Academy for Time-Warping Ladies” by Kat Otis
Ryksa and I are not quite identical twins. That’s how I got caught doubling myself—warping time in a manner that was, as Mother phrased it, “unbecoming for a lady in proper Society.”
I spent my first week of exile at Miss Karami’s Academy furious at both my tangle of misfortunes and the eye-roll that Ryksa had concealed behind her lacy fan as she bid me farewell. Another gentleman’s daughter might have sold her soul for entrance to Miss Karami’s august halls, where the daughters of nobility formed lifelong alliances while they learned how to keep their guests’ tea hot for an equal length of apparent time. I was far more interested in learning how to be expelled. After three pranks in as many days, I was confident I’d managed the trick; instead, Miss Karami called me to her office and advised me on how to warp spacetime threads to maximize the effects of my mischief. Then she initiated me into the Empire’s most elite coterie of warpers.
Within a fortnight, I knew I’d found where I belonged. But that didn’t mean I intended to forego revenge when Ryksa was similarly exiled to Miss Karami’s, six months later.
“Caught by the parlor maid!” Ryksa burst out as soon as the door shut behind the servant who’d brought her along with a tray of tea. “She could have had her pick of bribes, if she’d just held her tongue, but no!” Ryksa flung herself across a settee, heedless of the way the linen skirt of her new uniform crumpled beneath her. “The silly chit screamed her head off as soon as she realized there were two of me. I tried to convince Mother she was lying, but…”
But Miss Karami had probably been bribing their servants, with far more than Ryksa could offer, since the moment she’d heard about my own unfortunate lapse with the threads. While most of the nobility could warp time enough to increase or decrease time’s flow in a localized area, there were not so very many people with the strength to turn time back on itself. Perhaps one girl in a decade discovered the trick of it on her own. Not that I had any intention of confiding that to Ryksa.
At least, not until after I’d had my revenge.
I drew on the skills Miss Karami had been helping me to hone and channeled my glee into a Society smile bland enough to make Mother weep with pride. Then I reached for the teapot with my physical hand and the threads of time with my mind. “Will you take tea?”
Ryksa’s mouth actually dropped open a little as she pushed herself up into a seated position that would have seemed demure if not for the way her skirt was still twisted about her legs. “Tea? It’s just the two of us, you can drop the act.”
I did no such thing—I’d barely begun to needle her. “Serving tea is quite a difficult art,” I pretended to confide, seriously, as I tugged gently on the threads to slow the flow of time within the teacup and keep the tea from losing heat at its normal rate. “The key is precision. It doesn’t do to warp the threads of the cup itself, only the liquid within.” Once I was certain I’d tweaked the threads correctly, I poured Ryksa’s tea with the same ceremony as if I served the Queen of the Romans. “Such control takes practice, which you shall find here in abundance. Miss Karami accepts nothing less than-”
“Snarled threads, Elżbieta! Are you still so angry with me for not defending you?” Ryksa snatched up her teacup and drank. A moment later she spat out the mouthful of boiling liquid and nearly dropped her cup, the liquid spilling all over her skirt. Yelping, she flung the cup back towards the table as she shoved her chair away from the table.
I suppressed a grin as I warped threads to slow the cup’s flight, then carefully plucked it out of the air before it could hit something and shatter. Miss Karami had sworn to me that manners were an effective weapon, when wielded properly—it looked like she was right. “Language,” I scolded Ryksa, using the same gentle voice Mother would have used. “According to Miss Karami-”
“Miss Karami, Miss Karami, Miss Karami!” Ryksa clumsily warped threads to speed her skirt’s drying, which only served to set the stain. She probably assumed a laundress would clean it for her. I hoped I was there to see her face when she learned otherwise. Miss Karami made us do our own housework for our first three months at the academy, to ensure we properly appreciated the servants—and could pose as one, if the situation ever demanded it
I tsked. “That will stain.”
Ryksa ignored me. “Was six months all it took to drive every intelligent thought from your head?” The words might have stung if Ryksa’s brown eyes—the same honey-brown shade as mine—hadn’t been wide with an anxiety that bordered on fear. It served her right to think the real me might have been bound and suffocated to death in a web of Society manners, after she hadn’t lifted a finger to save me from our parents’ wrath.
But I was still on the verge of relenting when Lady Euphrosyne Habsburg-Lothringen glided into the room. “Miss Olisava!”
Ryksa and I both rose in unison, though my curtsey of greeting was deeper and lasted longer than hers. Before Miss Karami’s, neither of us had ever traveled in circles that would allow us to recognize the girl who was twenty-third in line to the Imperial throne.
Euphrosyne stopped two steps into the room and stared at us, gaze darting from Ryksa to me and back again. I could see the moment she registered the mole upon my left cheek—and Ryksa’s right—for she lost nearly a quarter inch’s height as she slumped in relief.
“Lady Euphrosyne,” I said, hastily, hoping to distract Ryksa from noticing. “May I make known to you my elder sister, Miss Ryksa Olisava?”
“Elder?” Euphrosyne tsked, pulling exasperation over her features like a mask as she snatched up the threads surrounding us and slowed our conversation relative to the rest of the world. “How bothersome! As if you bearing her face wasn’t already to be confusing enough, you must take her address as well?”
Ryksa stiffened, her voice taking on the cool, clipped tone she used when she was attempting to hide her fiery temper from outsiders. “As Elżbieta is six minutes younger than me, it was never hers to begin with.”
Euphrosyne sniffed, with regal disdain. “Well. As you say. Miss… Elżbieta, you are late for your tutoring session. Inevitable to make your acquaintance, Miss Olisava.”
Tutoring! The only things Euphrosyne could have tutored me in were how to turn down suitors after my title and wealth. Since I had neither, it was a transparent excuse to separate me from my twin. “Miss Olisava has only just arrived,” I said, shooting Euphrosyne an exasperated look of my own.
“I won’t wait,” Euphrosyne tapped the toe of her stylish boot in what could have been impatience but wasn’t. Having been raised under the eternal surveillance of servants, bodyguards, and courtiers, Euphrosyne only telegraphed her emotions so clearly when she was hiding something or when she was trying to convey a message. Or both.
“Lady Jolanta-” I began, carefully, trying to get some measure of Euphrosyne’s unspoken crisis.
“Is with Miss Karami.” Euphrosyne’s toe tapped faster.
Odd. Jolanta was the weakest of our threesome—well, foursome, now that Ryksa was here, not that she knew it yet. Jolanta could travel back an hour’s time, but her strength paled in comparison with my own sixteen hours or Euphrosyne’s twenty-two.
“Very well,” I conceded, curious now, as well as confused. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
“This moment,” Euphrosyne insisted. I had only to think of her shock when she had seen Ryksa—when she thought there were two of me—to understand the warning. No warping time back on itself to arrive earlier than I departed.
“Of course,” I agreed. Euphrosyne still stared at me a few seconds longer before carefully handing the threads off to me and gliding out the door as serenely as she had entered.
“What was that?” Ryksa demanded, making no effort to hide her annoyance now that Euphrosyne was gone. “Elżbieta, I don’t care how angry you are with me, you’re being childish, again and-”
I stared at the threads, wondering what was so urgent that Euphrosyne was determined I attend upon her as soon as linearly possible. As much as I’d been enjoying my revenge, my oaths took precedence. “Agreed. Stay here. I’ll return as soon as I’m able-”
“I- what?” Ryksa blinked. “I will not!”
I hesitated, torn. On one hand, my twin had never been the kind to make mischief for its own sake—that had always been my pattern. On the other, when she set herself on a path, nothing could sway her from it. And I could just see her following me on her own and doing the Norns knew what damage, if I left her unattended. “Fine. Come with me. But if I tell you do something, you must. Right away, no questions asked.”
“Very well,” Ryksa said, irritably.
“Not very well. Swear it, on the threads.”
Ryksa rolled her eyes. “I swear on the threads, may my power desert me if I lie.”
My twin was annoying and supercilious and quick to anger, but she wasn’t an oath breaker. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.
I wrapped the threads tighter around us, then seized her hand and tugged her forward, hurrying out the door and into the hallway beyond. The few other people we encountered seemed to be frozen in place, not even blinking as we passed. Ryksa and I had played with the threads this way before, growing up, but I’d never had fine enough control to keep from influencing everyone in sight. I resisted the temptation to peer at her sideways and see if she was properly impressed.
I did sneak a peek as I tugged her through the secret door into the hidden hallway behind. She looked more exasperated than intrigued. If I was being honest with myself, my habits of mischief and mayhem had never before been placed in the service of something that fiery, cause-driven Ryksa might have approved of.
Euphrosyne and Jolanta were both waiting for us in the hidden chamber that hosted our weekly stammtisch—an informal gathering in which we honed our skills with time and spun dreams of our futures in Miss Karami’s intelligence networks. Jolanta paced, while Euphrosyne had seated herself on a settee and was pouring herself a cup of tea from a tray that she must have fetched herself. No servant was allowed into our sanctuary.
Jolanta stopped dead in her tracks as she saw Ryksa, eyes widening. Her fingers flew in a complicated pattern as she glared accusation at my twin. I confess to spending three full seconds in amusement before I took pity on Ryksa’s confusion.
“Ryksa hasn’t learned the hand signals yet. Though I suppose we’ll have to initiate her sooner rather than later.”
I wasn’t too pleased about that. I’d enjoyed not being the younger, less responsible twin here and didn’t relish the thought of being relegated to that status once again.
“The twin!” Jolanta sank down into the nearest chair. “Today, of all days.”
I claimed the other half of Euphrosyne’s settee and my own cup of tea, since I hadn’t finished my first. “What’s happened?”
“Hopefully, I’m still with Miss Karami,” Jolanta said, glancing upwards and to her left, in the direction of Miss Karami’s office. “Men from the Chronology Protection Agency should be arriving even as we speak.”
“The… Chronology Protection Agency?” Ryksa asked, still standing in the middle of the room and looking lost.
“Overbearing men who seek to guard the sanctity of time by destroying the minds of any man or woman caught running it backwards. They do this, of course, by running time backwards when they decide it’s necessary,” Euphrosyne said, with gentle irony. She deliberately eschewed formality—for all intents and purposes, accepting Ryksa into our group—as she continued, “Sit, Ryksa. Now will you tell us what happened, Jolanta?”
“The long and the short of it,” Jolanta sighed, as Ryksa dropped into the nearest chair. “The archduke and archduchess were assassinated yesterday.”
I sucked in a shocked breath. The archduchess had only graduated from Miss Karami’s academy four months ago. I had barely been initiated into Miss Karami’s coterie of elite warpers before she left, but I still knew her. She was one of us.
“The archduchess warped time enough to return five minutes before the assassination, thus warning them in time to stop the carriage and saving their past selves,” Jolanta hurried to reassure us. “But no one can hide their temporal duplicate bleeding to death on their laps in an open carriage, so the CPA became involved. The archduchess had convincing enough hysterics that most of them were convinced it was an instinctual, unduplicatable response to the stress of being assassinated.”
“Most,” Euphrosyne homed in on the key word.
“The CPA sent two of their top warpers to make sure Miss Karami isn’t teaching us forbidden warping. Miss Karami sent me back to warn you—and her—hoping that I was weak enough they wouldn’t notice my warping.”
Hence the temporary ban on warping time backwards. “Do you think they’ll notice?”
Jolanta bit her lip. “I hope not.”
Euphrosyne and I exchanged unhappy looks. “If they’re already suspicious-”
“Wait,” Ryksa begged, rubbing her forehead with one gloved hand. “You mean to say that you can all warp time backwards? And the Archduchess of Austria can, as well?”
“Welcome to the women who work in secret to save the Empire,” Euphrosyne said, “if only we could save ourselves, first.”
“You’ve always said I was too frivolous, Ryksa,” I added. “Well, now I have a cause. Congratulations, you were right.”
“None of us will have a cause for long if the CPA catch us out,” Jolanta said.
“If the problem agents are already a minority,” Euphrosyne turned her attention back to the matter at hand, “then all we have to do is appeal to the majority.”
“Convince them that these agents are harassing us?” I suggested, always a proponent of the wounded innocence defense. My mind began to race as I considered the options, running through my previous gambits—both the successes and failures.
“That would be ideal,” Euphrosyne agreed, “but how?”
“Get them to make an accusation,” Ryksa said, turning her reluctant gaze on me. “And prove it false. That’s what Elżbieta always did when she was getting into trouble at home.”
I ignored the latter part of her statement and homed in on the first. Euphrosyne and Jolanta had both made the same mistake… one that was easily proved false. “Ryksa, you did promise to do as I said.”
Ryksa didn’t look happy, but she nodded anyway. “I did.”
I’d made the mistake, last time, of assuming her reluctant support would be enough. While landing in a tangle of troubles and being sent to Miss Karami’s was probably the best thing that could have ever happened for me, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be so lucky a second time. “You heard Jolanta, Ryksa, it’s for a worthy cause. It’s not mischief for mischief’s sake—I swear on the threads.”
“Of course,” she said, only looking marginally happier about it.
Well then,” I said, as I mentally knotted together the strands of a plan. “For starters, I’ll need to spill tea on myself…”
Ryksa took far too much pleasure in recreating her tea-stains on my skirt, especially once Jolanta mentioned that she’d be doing her own laundry. In the interests of authenticity, she made certain it was hot tea which I then flash-dried into a nearly-identical stain.
Afterwards, we yanked our hair out of their careful arrangements and tousled our curls into as close an approximation of each other as we could, making certain to hide our moles in case the agents were sharp enough to notice the discrepancy on first sight. Euphrosyne kept shaking her head in amazement at the near-completeness of the illusion, as she pretended to haul us by our arms to the door of Miss Karami’s office. Jolanta was disappointed to miss the scene, but her present-self was already in the office and it would undo all our hard work to have a real pair of temporal duplicates show up beside us.
“Miss Karami,” Euphrosyne made a cursory knock on the door and pushed it open without bothering to wait for a reply. “Miss Karami, Miss Olisava- oh!”
The two agents from the CPA sat in armchairs across from Miss Karami, their hands conspicuously empty. Either Miss Karami had refused to serve them tea or they had refused to take it. Present-Jolanta was pressed into a corner of the room, trying to look inconspicuous. All four of them turned to stare at us as we entered, Jolanta’s eyes going wide in alarm.
“Sir Karl, Sir Ludwig,” Miss Karami said, after only a moment’s hesitation. “May I introduce you to Lady Euphrosyne and the Misses Olisava. Twins, of course.”
“Ha! A likely story!” The younger agent started up from the couch, face reddening. “I warned you, this academy is a den of iniquity and lawlessness-”
“She started it!” I yelped, with as much wounded innocence as I could muster, not wanting to let him get too far into his rant. He’d all-but made the accusation, better to stop him before he could say what he meant in clearer terms. I didn’t want to lose the option to mount an ignorance defense if the CPA ever challenged me in the future.
“I did not!” Ryksa retorted, right on cue, and I nearly ruined everything by sighing in relief. This time, she’d come to my aid. “You were the one who warped the tea-”
“It’s not my fault you’re too clumsy to hold a cup-”
“You chilled it-”
“As I was supposed to-”
“Girls!” Miss Karami interrupted, her voice and face stern but her eyes flashing with amusement. “Not in front of our guests.”
In unplanned unison, we crossed our arms and looked away from each other.
The older agent shook his head, looking as if he’d aged a decade in the past minute. “A nice attempt, girls, but I’m afraid the truth is quite evident. Miss Karami, I will have to report your delinquency to the agency.”
“Wait, what?” Ryksa and I demanded in unison.
“Since when does your agency,” Euphrosyne sneered the word a little, “care about childish food fights?”
I smoothed at my skirt, feigning shame, and caught Ryksa doing the same out of the corner of my eye. She caught my glimpse then rolled her eyes.
Not at me, but at the agents’ reactions.
Heat flooded my cheeks as I suddenly realized how badly I’d misinterpreted Ryksa’s parting, in my anger at her betrayal—which wasn’t really a betrayal, not when I had been making childish mischief over Ryksa’s eternal protests. Ryksa and I drove each other half-mad from fighting, sometimes, but we still loved each other.
We were twins after all.
I gave up on smoothing my skirt and shifted my attention to my hair, pulling it back so the mole was clearly visible then attempting to twist it back into some semblance of order. Miss Karami’s eyebrows rose. “Throwing food and pulling hair? I’m very disappointed in you, Miss Elżbieta.”
Ryksa smirked, happily, working her own hair back into place.
“And as for you, Miss Olisava,” Miss Karami continued, her tone making Ryksa straighten in alarm. “While you have not yet had the benefit of my training, as the elder sister, I expected you to have some manners. Apparently I was mistaken. As punishment, I believe both of you will be doing your laundry—and the other girls’ laundry—for the next month.”
We both stared at her in slack-jawed shock, then, instinctively, looked to each other. Belatedly, I realized the movement profiled our moles quite nicely.
“Gentlemen,” Miss Karami turned back to the agents for her final triumphant set-down. “As you can see, the Olisava twins are not quite identical. Though they have an identical talent for chaos.” She gave them several seconds to study our appearances, in which we both instinctively touched our moles. There was no way even the most unobservant of men could miss them. “I trust we are done here.”
The younger agent tried to rally, anyway. “I told you, I sensed-”
The older agent put a hand on his arm. “No. No, I can see she’s right.” The chagrin on his face was a familiar response, but the relief that went with it surprised me. He really hadn’t wanted to be right. “Stop embarrassing yourself, Ludwig.” He rose and bowed. “Miss Karami, we thank you for your hospitality and apologize for wasting your valuable time. Come along now.”
Ryksa and I separated to make an aisle for the agents to depart in shamed silence. None of us moved for nearly a minute, then Euphrosyne opened the door again and peered out. “They’re really gone.”
Jolanta slid out of the corner, grinning. “That was brilliant! They won’t be poking their noses into our business again for a good long while.”
“That was quite clever of you,” Miss Karami allowed, “though it’s not a ploy that you should come to rely on, as Miss Elżbieta knows very well.”
The reminder of my downfall no longer stung. Instead, my mind hurried ahead to other, more important matters. Such as—”You weren’t serious about the laundry… were you?”
“I can’t believe my baby sister is a spy for the Emperor,” Ryksa said, for the dozenth time, as she attempted to scrub the stain from her skirt.
“Spy in training,” I corrected her, fighting with my own stains. “And he wouldn’t know me if we met in person. The best spies are covert ones.”
“The Emperor,” she repeated. “Elżbieta, you don’t have a serious bone in your body-”
I slid my hand into my wash basin and splashed Ryksa. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Ryksa stared at me, wide-eyed, for several seconds. Then a mischievous grin—one more often to be found on me than her—spread across her face and she splashed me back. “I love you, little sister.”
I grabbed threads and slowed the water in the basin to glacial speeds. “You’ll love me even more, once I show you how to do this.” Then I upended the basin over her head in a slow-moving tsunami.
We did eventually get our skirts clean. Honest.
Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she’s not writing, she’s an historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. You can find her full bibliography at katotis.com and she procrastinates on Twitter as @kat_otis.