Runcifer James Beammest had been given his name by a mother who believed that great things happened to those with great names. Since her name had been Dolly Vin, and her life had been full of very mundane tragedy--born in poverty, earned a living on her back, conceived a son by some unknown client, died young from drink--there might have been something to that. When Runce had reached Master rank in one of the capital's most influential thieves' guilds, he came to believe it even more. Runce was sure he was bound for even greater things, to become the kind of thief that folk told stories about a hundred years later.

That was why, not content with violating the houses of the rich merchants in his guild's patch, he chose to take a shot at the royal castle. The opulent wealth of multiple dynasties was on display, to say nothing of the royal treasury and the personal possessions of a small horde of courtiers.

Runce had no intention of raiding the treasury or making off with the crown jewels or other ornaments of state. That kind of activity was a sure bet to get half the kingdom's security chasing him, with a bounty placed on his head that would tempt a saint to betray him. Plus, those crimes could be construed as lese-majestie and punishable by death instead of the much lesser sentences associated with mere theft.

No, he had something better in mind, nearly as enriching and nowhere near as dangerous.

His intrusion into the castle was by no means easy, but neither was it beyond him. The guards were somewhat lax in their vigilance, a side of their being a parade regiment while the kingdom was at peace. Magic, on the other hand, was never lax. For that, Runce had another remedy: the Amulet of the Hidden Eye. He'd pilfered it from the collection of a doddering antiquarian some four years past without knowing what it was, and had been elated to learn that it was a medallion that let him waltz right past magical glyphs and wards without triggering them. Most magicians didn't have a host of familiars standing watch--a squad of demons or ghosts would scare the guests and be hard on the furniture--and so without sentient eyes on guard, Runce could stroll into the Royal House of Magic and help himself to treasures worth more than diamonds or platinum. The arched window he forced open would no doubt have screamed an alarm, burnt him to a crisp with magic fire, or summoned something awful to carry him off, but with the Amulet of the Hidden Eye shielding him, its only defense was an easily finessed latch.

Now, let's see what we have here, Runce thought, striking a light. He'd picked the room because it was dark and presumably unoccupied, but he needed to see what he was doing. Fortunately, the door was solid and a light in the windows wouldn't attract any attention.

It was a spacious, well-appointed room, gladdening Runce's thieving heart. There would be good pickings here! Bookshelves of old wood dominated, ringing the room except for the hearth, a workbench, and a queen-size, four-poster bed. A black cat was curled up on one pillow, fast asleep. Runce decided not to bother it; he'd heard enough stories about witch cats to want to keep his own tail out of the fire.

The workbench seemed the best bet, so he examined it closely. There were the usual assortment of vials and beakers, stoppered jars and mixing bowls, all of the paraphernalia of magical experimentation. He pocketed several items, research components and reagents that he could get a good price for, but there was nothing at once that he figured would be the big score.

Aha! he thought, moving along the bench, now this is more like it! A large alchemical flask with a spherical base and a long neck that made it over a foot high rested in a stand, one carefully braced, padded, and secured so there could be no chance of an accidental breakage. That made its contents--a kind of viscous amber fluid with sparkling blue motes within--something precious and therefore worth his time and energy to take. Some kind of elixir or unguent, perhaps, with potent or dangerous effects? He lifted the flask down from the stand, wondering how best to carry it out without breakage or spilling.

That was when the door opened, revealing a young blonde woman, dressed in purple and black with a high, pointed hat.

"Who are you?" she asked. "What are you--aah! Put that down!"

Suddenly, Runce got a very bad feeling.

-X X X-

Lillet Blan's heart was in her throat. Bad enough that there was a stranger in their room, but he was holding Amoretta's flask! If he dropped it...

No; I can't think about that.

But she could, because she'd seen it happen. When she'd been studying magic at the Silver Star Tower, she'd met a girl named Amoretta Virgine, and she'd watched what occurred when Amoretta's flask was broken.

Because Lillet had been caught up in a warp in the fabric of time, she'd had to watch it twice.

She'd watched Amoretta die.

"Please," she said urgently, "please put that back in its stand."

"Oho!" the man said. "I thought this was valuable!" A sudden grin spread across his face.

"Please," Lillet said again. "If you put it down, I'll let you go."

"How about if I don't?"

Lillet tried her best to look threatening.

"This is the Royal House of Magic you've snuck into, and I'm a magician." How had he snuck in, anyway? Lillet wasn't stupid; she'd kept their room warded against outsiders.

"I know that," the intruder said. "Why do you think I came here? Runcifer James Beammest is nobody's fool, you know."

So he'd come on purpose, Lillet thought, and came prepared for magic. Did he have any more tricks up his sleeve? What could she do against him?

"What's in here, anyway? What's got you worked up into such a tizzy?" Runce said slyly.

"It's my..." Lillet started, then stopped.

"Come now, it must be something important or you wouldn't be so worried. If we're going to bargain, we'd better have our cards on the table."

"My love," she confessed.

Runce, though, misunderstood, believing Lillet had broken off the sentence in the middle.

"Oho! A love potion, is it? There's something that never goes out of style. I could get a good price for this!"

"No, that's not what I meant!" Why am I tripping over my tongue like this? I've outwitted devils with lives on the line. I have to think of something!

Then she didn't have any more time to think. The viscous fluid inside the flask began to move on its own, flowing up the long neck and arcing out towards the floor. Almost anyone who'd practiced alchemy knew the sight; animate blobs of base matter were the simplest, most fundamental form of artificial life created by the art.

Runce, however, was not familiar with alchemy. He cried out in surprise and fear, dropping the flask.

"No!" Lillet was in motion before she could even think. She flung herself forward wildly, going for distance, then crashed into the floor with bruising impact. In the next second, Amoretta's flask dropped safely into her outstretched arms.

The thief was still backing away, wide-eyed, as he watched the amber goo rise up, expanding in size as it took on definition and solidity. It was a homunculus, the base matter of alchemy given specific form and existence. In Amoretta's case, the form of a beautiful girl with fine-boned, ethereal features and hair so pale as to be nearly white. Her eyes widened in shock as she saw the scene in front of her, Lillet sprawled on the floor cradling the flask while Runce continued to stare in shock. Amoretta shrieked in fear, her hands fluttering to cover herself.

"Grimalkin!" Lillet called out. "Put him to sleep!"

The black cat on the bed yawned, stretched, and flicked its paw toward Runce. The thief's eyes rolled up in his head and he dropped to the floor with a thud.

Trembling, Lillet stood up and carefully replaced Amoretta's flask in its stand, the breathed a sigh of relief.

"Are...are you all right, Amoretta?" she asked nervously.

I think so," Amoretta said, pulling a robe about herself. "Lillet, what's been happening?"

"That thief broke in and tried to steal you!"

"Me?" Amoretta squeaked.

"Well," Lillet admitted, "I don't think he knew what it was he was taking. He seemed pretty startled when you came out. It's a good thing you woke up when you did, or Grimalkin would have slept through the whole thing."

"'Tisn't my fault," interjected Amoretta's familiar. "When she 'tis formless in her flask, the connection between her spirit and mine 'tis so weak 'tis all I can do to remain in this world, let alone be awake and active." He yawned again, then settled back down to sleep, not being the most active of animals even when he was able to move.

"I was so scared," Lillet confessed. "I couldn't think of anything I could do that wouldn't make him drop your flask." She frowned. "I should summon some kind of guard for you when you're alone. I know you have to restore yourself in your flask every few days, but you shouldn't do it alone." As a homunculus, Amoretta's life was artificially sustained in her flask since her body was the creation of magic, not biology. "Why don't you do it at night, anyway?"

"I like to be next to you while you're sleeping, so I can feel your warmth," Amoretta replied. "I'd rather use time when I can't be with you to restore myself, so I don't miss a moment when we can be together."

Tears blurred Lillet's vision, and she flung her arms around the other girl. With a sob, she buried her face against Amoretta's shoulder.

"Lillet, what's wrong?"

"I love you so much, Amoretta," she sobbed out.

"And...this makes you sad?" Amoretta asked, puzzled.

"No! I...It's just that the thought of losing you again..."

"But you didn't lose me, Lillet. I'm right here."

"That doesn't mean I can't be scared."

Amoretta sighed, and her own arms came up to hold Lillet close. She then bent down and kissed her softly on the forehead.

"You shouldn't be. You promised that you wouldn't let me die, and I know that you'll always keep that promise. Some silly thief could never make you break it."

A laugh bubbled up through Lillet's tears.

"Oh, Amoretta, you're always so matter-of-fact. Don't you have any doubts?"

The homunculus shook her head.

"Not about you. Your love made me complete. How could I ever doubt that?"

Lillet's heart seemed to be in her throat. Even after several years, her feelings for Amoretta so often threatened to overwhelm her; sometimes her heart seemed to hurt, she cared so much. Words failed her, so only actions seemed enough. Her hands slid up Amoretta's arms to her shoulders and she returned the other girl's kiss, but with her mouth on Amoretta's. It was a hard, deep kiss, and Amoretta's lips yielded softly to it, accepting the depth of Lillet's love.

"Aw, man, I can't leave you two alone for five minutes! How am I supposed to get any cleaning done--and who's that guy?"

They broke apart at the interruption. Lillet blushed, though Amoretta did not; she seemed incapable of feeling embarrassment.

"Gaff, why don't you ever knock?"

The elf servant shrugged.

"Amoretta told me I could clean up now. She thought you'd still be working."

"Oh, that rune didn't take as long as I thought. I'm glad, or else I'd never have walked in on the thief. If you want to clean, you can start with him. He doesn't add to the decor. Tell the guards to check him carefully, though. He was able to get in past the wards, somehow."

"All right, Lillet, but why don't you tell them yourself? You're the magician."

Lillet took Amoretta's hand.

"Because I'm going to be busy. And I don't want you coming back here for at least an hour!"

Gaff glanced from one girl to the other.

"Aw, man, not again. I knew I shouldn't have left the Tower with you two."

Amoretta smiled as Gaff started to drag Runce out by his boots.



She laced her fingers through Lillet's, then said in her usual straightforward way, "Please stay away for two hours."


Note: As anyone who's played the game probably knows, the character names are largely taken from various liquors, and this story's OC, Runcifer James "Jim Beam" Beammest is no exception.