Iris sighed as she stared out the window, looking out at the staircase winding down the mountain path and into the town of Last Rock below. Two figures walked down the stairs together, and despite the distance and the lack of detail, she knew exactly who they were. One Gabriel Arquin, her crush for the past year and change, and one Trissiny Avelea, his classmate and fellow Paladin, and therefore Iris' stiffest competition.
Aside from the Dryad with the giant knockers, anyways.
Iris shook her head to clear it, and focused on Gabriel. She wasn't quite sure what he saw in Trissiny, beyond the blonde hair and the Paladin-ness, and that concerned her. Trissiny, to Iris' knowledge, had once tried to murder Gabriel, and while it had only been once, it was also an easily-learned fact that the two of them were never alone together without being forced.
Until tonight, anyhow.
Iris scowled, and turned away from the window. She had homework to do, and she felt like she'd spent enough time obsessing over Gabriel as it was.
A few nights later, Iris noticed Gabriel and Trissiny walking down the stairs in the evening once again, this time with the Dryad- Birch? No, no... Juniper! That's the one- Juniper on the other side of Gabriel. The three were conversing- not loudly enough for Iris to hear, but then, she was a ways away with the window closed, and they would have to be shouting for Iris to hear anything .
Iris frowned. She'd known Gabriel was, shall we say, less than picky when it came to his female companions, but two at once? That was a first. And it didn't bode well for Iris; part of what appealed to her about Gabriel was the sort of... casual nobility he carried about himself. He was a good man who cared about others, at heart and on the surface, and yet this particular display of lechery...
Well. It might not have been his idea, to be fair. But it certainly didn't bode well for Iris' chances of one day getting him to herself.
"Three women and Gabriel," Iris muttered darkly.
"They do appear to be planning something," Szith said. "Likely something illicit. Considering Princess Zaruda's status and General Avelea's character, however..."
"That 'illicit' thing is going to be sexual, isn't it?" Iris asked.
"Most likely, yes," Szith said. "Considering criminal conspiracy is entirely out of the question with those four."
"Honestly, Iris, if you want Gabriel so badly, you should catch up and ask to join," Ravana said.
Iris coughed and spluttered indignantly, and Ravana smirked.
"Hey, Iris, are you free tonight?" Gabriel asked, approaching Iris. "Or maybe some other night? I've got something I'd like to show you."
Iris' heart lept up into her throat, pounding like a hasty drum. Her mind scrambled, screamed, and raced about for answers, and she found herself nodding calmly, and saying, with a voice that didn't feel like her own, "That sounds fine. What do you have in mind?" NO! That is NOT a decision you can make on your own, Mouth!
"It's a surprise," Gabriel said with a grin. "Well! See ya this evening, then!"
"This," Gabriel said, leading Iris down a flight of stairs into what was far too elaborate to be a mere basement, "is probably the most over-complicated moonshining operation in the entire Empire."
The ceiling was domed, and lined with monolithic stone that probably represented a significant achievement for his arcane ability, with a single large, bright sunstone at the apex of the dome. Arranged in a pleasing hexagon-like formation were six dwarf apple trees planted in half-barrels filled with dirt. In the center of the room, directly beneath the sunstone, was a workstation consisting of two barrels, an apple grinder, and a cider press.
The floor of the chamber was also monolithic stone, but still with clearly-delineated walking paths between the trees. All along the walls were a variety of sigils and spell circles etched into the walls, glowing faintly with enchantment.
"So, plants need more than just sunlight, right?" Gabriel said. "They also need water, and apparently, they really need airflow. So, I've got some air-circulation enchantments on the walls, and right over there, in that barrel up against the wall-" Iris noticed it, finally, moving so that it was no longer blocked by a tree. It had six hoses attached to its side, clustered together, and each hose trailed into a half-bucket. "-is a very small portal to the elemental plane of water. So the plants are kept well-watered, but not waterlogged. Which was really tricky to get right! Anyhow, as far as I can tell, if we solve the pollination problem, which shouldn't be too hard, then these six apple trees should produce apples as normal, and we'll get a bunch of apples. But, as you can tell by the fact that I dug out a secret underground brewery with all sorts of enchantments, I'm not content to do things the normal, boring way. So!"
"So?" Iris asked.
"So, I would like you , my witchy friend, to help me make these apple trees way more productive."
"...that's it?" Iris asked. "Why can't Juniper do that?"
"I'm a druid, not a witch," Juniper explained. "I do animal magic. Plants are... not my specialty."
"Wh- b- you're a dryad! " Iris protested.
"I'm not literally a tree, Iris," Juniper said, folding her arms.
"Trees aren't typically perambulatory," Trissiny noted.
"And you! What the hell are you doing here?!" Iris asked, whirling on the half-elven paladin.
"Well, Gabe and I realized we hadn't ever been alone together without someone forcing us to be alone together, so we decided to try a bonding activity," Trissiny explained. "Since I'm a formally-trained Eserite now, we decided to do something complicated and illegal but ultimately harmless."
"It ended up getting way too big, though," Ruda said, from her perch atop one of the barrels. "I'm here because I feel like it, and because I want the first taste of anything they brew here. My family curse means no matter how bad they fuck up, I'm not gonna go blind from anything they make outta apples."
Iris huffed, taking in the situation, before turning to face Gabriel. "This whole time, I thought you four were having orgies."
Ruda immediately burst out laughing, and fell off her barrel.
"I want to complain, but that's just going to make it worse, isn't it?" Gabriel asked, wearily. Trissiny silently nodded, patting him on the shoulder. "No, Iris, none of us are fucking. We're just committing felonies together."
"I'm not!" Ruda said. "Diplomatic immunity, bitches!"
"Ruda," Trissiny said, wearily.
"Triss, do we have to have another argument about the reclamation of slurs?"
"That's what I fuckin' thought. Anywho! Make with the witchcraft, Rissy!"
"...Rissy?" Iris asked.
"It's better not to question it," Gabriel said, shaking his head gently. "So, since we control the environment of these plants very, very tightly, and we've got infinite amounts of water and air- the main ingredients of life- I think we can alter these apple trees to produce apples really quickly just... as a matter of course."
"No, no," Iris said, shaking her head and walking up to one of the trees. "While yes, most of the bulk of life is water, carbon, and nitrogen, there are significant quantities of minerals that are necessary."
"Can we get those minerals from the elemental plane of earth without also getting a ton of extra dirt we have nowhere to put?" Gabriel asked.
"N- ma- yes , but get me a notebook, I need to write things down."
"Triss, baby, I am so proud of you," Principia said. "But also, you are being charged with unlicensed production and distribution of controlled substances."
"Oh come on ," Trissiny said. "Don't make me pull rank on you, Prin."
"Yeah, good luck with that," Principia said. "You're an Eserite, you know better. You've been fairly caught, and now you just gotta deal with it."
"Gabriel," Iris said in a warning tone.
"Look, I know this looks bad, but the thing is..." Gabriel began. "...as a half-demon, I'm immune to infernal corruption, and I spent a week learning enough infernomancy to shadow-jump." He disappeared, and shortly afterwards, Iris did too, leaving Trissiny, Ruda, and Juniper alone with Principia.
"Diplomatic immunity," Ruda said, heading for the door.
"Same," Juniper said.
"All I want for the Solstice is a friend who won't abandon me the moment the police arrive," Trissiny said.
"I'm afraid the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Principia said sadly, shaking her head. " I at least get to screw people over before they walk out on me, though. Anyhow, now that nobody's watching..." Principia took the manacles off of Trissiny's wrists. "I suppose nobody would doubt it if I said you all got away."
"...I love you, Mom."
"I love you too, honey."