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As the seconds passed, Jacob glanced over his shoulder idly, waiting for someone to answer the executive suite door. There were no other people in the hallway, and he hadn’t told any of the other members of the security team where he was going, so it was unlikely that word would get out that he was snooping behind Caspian’s back. At least, not before he found out what was going on and could confront the king, himself. He didn’t plan on hiding his actions forever, after all. Loyal to the crown, he only wanted to make sure that the ruler of Aspiria wasn’t walking down a path he would regret later on.

The sound of a door handle turning jarred him from his thoughts, and he turned back to the suite, slightly surprised that someone was actually inside. Knocking had felt like a stretch, so he’d only tried it as a precaution, and for half a second the thought flitted through his mind that he could have been wrong about Caspian’s involvement at the hotel. If someone else was staying in the executive suite anonymously, he could have just landed himself in legal trouble for hunting them down. His heart felt like it skipped a beat, but the worry was replaced in the next instant with shock when he saw who was on the other side of the door: the rebel girl he’d seen with the former prince before.

It seemed she had been laying low in the Sunset Veil all this time, which must have been why the soldiers around the city had never been able to find her, and she hadn’t turned up on any of the cameras around the capital’s borders. The pieces were all falling into place, especially when she carelessly gave away Caspian’s involvement with her question. Now he had the evidence he’d needed to prove that his leader was the one who had been harboring this war criminal. The king of Aspiria was still behaving like an irresponsible teenager.

In a flash, the door was closing in his face as Iris tried to get away from him, but Jacob still had the reflexes of a trained soldier. He barred the opening with his boot and wrenched the door back open with a forearm, forcing his way into the room without asking for permission. Closing it again behind him, he stood with his body between the rebel and the exit, so she would have to go through him to escape. He also grabbed hold of her arm with his free hand to stop her from running further inside.

“Not so fast,” he said sternly, eyes narrowed as he pulled her roughly toward himself. “You’re going to tell me what’s going on here.”
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Feeling her heart race as the door wouldn’t shut and the fact Jacob had blocked it with ease her instinct was telling her to run, to get far away from this security guard who would be able to take her straight back to that prison. The thought of it made her head spin because the memory of the questioning was still fresh in her mind, it had played its own part in her not being able to sleep at night. Remembering the pain of the truth drug, the cruel way the interrogator had dealt with her and then ending up in hospital. It was all coming back to her when she had tried to hard to forget it all.

The panic only increased when she had tried to move further back into the room only to be stopped before the thought had fully crossed her mind. Feeling his hand wrap around her arm felt like a death sentence and as much as that would be the easy way out, she knew she couldn’t. Right now, she needed to stop Ethan and his plans to hurt Cas, Jacob wouldn’t understand that, and neither would Cas and both would be for two separate reasons. Cas wouldn’t see that she was trying to help him, and would no doubt say that he was safe, Jacob wouldn’t believe her or simply use their security team to ‘fix’ the problem.

“N-No!” Trying to wriggle out of his grasp and put distance between them Iris could feel herself shake, her world crashing down before her. “Let me go!” Desperation sinking in as she held back a sob when he pulled her roughly towards him.

Iris fought against it, she kept struggling against his grasp not wanting to be held by him because he could just easily drag her away and back to that hell hole that kept her up at night. “Nothing is going on here. I just want to go home.” Even if it wasn’t the complete truth Jacob didn’t need to know that, perhaps he would take pity on her and even escort her back to the districts which would make things easier on her.

“What is it you want to hear from me? That I’m not supposed to be here? That Cas could do so much better than me and wouldn’t have to worry about keeping me hidden? I know I shouldn’t be here, but I can’t exactly walk out that door and stroll on down to the districts can I now?” Iris knew she was rambling on, part of it due to panic but she didn’t know what else to say to him. It was now down to Jacob on what he was going to do with her because there was no way Cas had removed the warrant on her and it was clear the guard wasn’t here to take her to the palace because he seemed surprised to see she was in here and demanded to know what was going on.
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Even as he gripped Iris’s arm to stop her from wriggling out of his hand, Jacob’s mind was racing as he pieced together what was going on. He remembered that Caspian had taken an interest in this girl before any of them had known that she was a rebel, and even after she’d turned him over to her comrades, his infatuation hadn’t seemed to die out. Apparently he was still so taken with her that he was willing to betray the trust of his military and his people in order to keep her around. If anyone else found out he was hiding a member of the Scourge under the soldiers’ noses, there would be irreparable consequences.

So, even though he harbored some respect for the young king, he wasn’t going to take this situation lightly. The more Iris fought against him, the tighter he held her arm, determined not to let her get away. It didn’t matter to him that Caspian was interested in her. She was an enemy of the state and a threat to the monarchy. He was especially concerned about the influence she had over Atlas’s son, since they were meeting in secret where she was the only voice in his ear. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that she was planting seeds to turn him against his own kingdom or to convince him to do something he would regret. If either case was true, he wouldn’t hesitate to drag her out of the suite and lock her in a prison cell no matter what his liege had to say about it.

When Iris began talking, the guard was slightly thrown by her claim of wanting to go home followed by a mention of how it wasn’t possible for her to leave the capital. She didn’t sound like someone who was very invested in whatever sort of arrangement she and King Caspian had brewed up. However, he wasn’t going to simply take her word at face value. She was a fugitive who had just been found by someone who had every right to arrest her on the spot, so it could have been a desperate ploy to escape.

“Yes, you shouldn’t be here,” Jacob growled. He didn’t care about her comment about being unable to leave, but he could at least acknowledge that she’d gotten one thing right. If she was going to be in the capital, then she should have been locked away where she couldn’t do any more damage. But he wasn’t just there to slap her on the wrist and walk away. “I want you to tell me exactly what’s been going on between you and the king,” he demanded roughly. “We can start with when this charade began. How long have you been hiding here?”
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Feeling constricted by the tightening grip on her arm it only worsened the panic she felt being caught red handed and she couldn’t help but continue to struggle against him. Fears of being thrown back into prison kept creeping in and she knew this was the end of the road for her, she just wasn’t sure on what part was now coming to an end. Acceptance to the end of her relationship with Cas was something she had come to terms with because she knew it was something that could never happen. That was something she knew would happen, but if she got herself thrown into prison now who would stop Ethan? Then it would the end to someone who she truly believed could make a change for the better.

“Do you really need me to spell that one out for you?” Hissing out her words as she still tried to free her arm from his grasp, “Let me go already! You’re hurting me. I can’t exactly go anywhere.” Once more she tried to snatch her arm back grimacing because he had a vice like grip. “There is no charade, no big plan. No secret. You know full well what happened the night I disappeared, you figured it out. You confronted Cas about it, and he told you everything what more do you want to know?”

It was like word vomit because of the panic and fear she felt inside, rambling on when she didn’t even know what to say to him. What use would it be to plead her case to him? There would be no sympathy, he wouldn’t care what she had been through and all of it was down to the Capital. The massive divide between people, the previous monarchs who had been a part of causing the rift and all the hatred for them to create a rebellion for equal rights. None of it mattered, she was just another member of the scourge to him that was probably trying to stick her claws into the King to live a life of luxury. That’s all anyone would see in her.

“I can’t tell you how long I’ve been in this hotel room because all the days roll into one. I don’t want to cause damage. I know I’m not good enough for him and that he would do so much better without me, but I’m still stuck here because the minute I leave is the minute I go back into a cell.” Shaking her head, she looked away from Jacob and glanced towards the kitchen still stacked with untouched meals. Between the fear of her life and now the upset of admitting just how wrong she was for Cas she did her best to hide the emotions from her face, trying not to let herself get so worked up again and fall into a pit of emotion whilst he was here.
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Of course Jacob already knew why Caspian had been hiding Iris away in the hotel. The Aspirian king was smitten with the girl he’d rescued from the woods. However, that didn’t mean that was all there was to it. He was too cautious to assume Iris shared the same motive and that the two were just young and in love. She didn’t strike him as a conniving criminal who was sidling up to the ruler in order to whisper lies into his ear, and she hadn’t given him a reason to believe she wasn’t telling the truth, but it was always safer to rule out the possibility, no matter how slim it was. Startling and threatening her, while cruel, was an effective way of getting her to slip up if something deeper was going on.

He knew he was being harsh though, so when she said that he was hurting her, he reluctantly loosened his grip on her arm. Admittedly, part of the reason why he had reacted the way he had was because he hadn’t expected to see her on the other side of the door. For the last two or more weeks, he hadn’t heard Caspian mention anything about Iris, so he had assumed that she had actually escaped back to the districts. In retrospect, he should have known better. He had seen how much the young king had grown to care about her, so he shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that he was still holding onto her.

Truth be told, even though he had agreed to keep their involvement a secret for the sake of not aggravating Atlas nearly a month ago, he wasn’t fond of the fact that Caspian was so absorbed with someone who had been involved in the rebellion. He had been hoping that the issue would resolve itself, but clearly that wasn’t the case. Whether Iris was using him or they were genuinely only interested in each other as romantic partners, she could only bring the fledgling king trouble. Now that he knew they were still meeting in secret, he wasn’t sure what to do, so he had reacted more aggressively than he probably should have.

As Iris went on about losing track of the days and not wanting to cause any trouble, Jacob had to admit that she wasn’t acting like a person who had been caught in the middle of something devious. She looked beaten down and afraid of being sent back to the prison. He studied her in tense silence before following her gaze to the kitchen, where there were piles of uneaten food. The room looked more like a cage for a hostage than the secret meeting place for two people in love.

Calming from the initial outburst, the guard relinquished his hold on Iris’s arm, though he continued to stand between her and the door. “If you don’t want to be here anymore, then why did you and the king come up with such an elaborate plan to allow you to stay in the capital?” he interrogated her with a skeptical expression. “I was under the impression that you two claim to be in love. Have you changed your mind about him?”
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Feeling the sweet release of his hand that had gripped her arm Iris rubbed where he had held tightly to soothe it from throbbing pain. It was then she found herself laughing bitterly when Jacob continued to interrogate her about the big plan and what was going to happen next. “You’re quick to make assumptions, but you don’t know what’s been going on with Cas at all. There was no elaborate plan to keep me here. The most elaborate part of the plan as you put it was when he broke me out of the hospital before I was sent back to prison.”

Iris understood why he was questioning her so heavily, she got it but at the same time it was a little too much and somewhat overwhelming. It brought back horrid memories of when she had been questioned in the prison multiple times to only be forced into giving away the answers from that truth serum. Shuddering at the thought of it she hoped that it would not be the same again, that he didn’t have an emergency one on him for dire situations. The thought of that drug alone made her feel sick to her core, colour all gone from her face as she reminded herself of the horror from the prison.

Dragging a hand down her face as she tried to compose herself, she looked back at Jacob meeting his gaze and she could see the sceptical expression he held. “You know the night he disappeared. We had planned to run away together if you want to call that elaborate, but then everything got complicated.”

Finding herself peek over her shoulder towards the window for a split-second Iris debated her chances of using the window as an escape. Problem was it was far too high up, but the thought of going back to the prison felt worse. “Sure, I claim to be in love with him. Nothing will convince you otherwise, right?” She felt tired of this, tired of trying to prove she meant no harm and at the end of it all it didn’t matter. Her fate was sealed, there was nothing she could do to save herself but oddly enough it had been something she had accepted. As long as Cas and Maisie were well and safe, she could be happy with that.

“Just… get it over and done with already. Lock me up and throw away the key, have me killed as I’m sure that I have a death warrant out for me.” Iris sounded defeated as she carelessly shrugged her shoulders no fire left inside to even bother with fighting him. “Have them interrogate me with that drug again. I don’t care anymore. I’m done.” What else could she do in this situation? Beg for her life? That wouldn’t happen, not when deep down she still had little care for it and even with the brief visit from Cas it hadn’t changed anything apart from her resolve to protect him from Ethan. As dark as it sounded Ethan couldn’t blackmail her if she was dead and maybe the security team would protect him? They had finally found her after all.
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“Apparently I don’t,” Jacob growled in agreement. He was more frustrated with Caspian than he was with Iris for that reason, because he never would have imagined Atlas’s son would do something so reckless. The new king had butted heads with his father over plenty of things before and had a weakness for the night life in the capital, but he’d never done anything that had the potential to damage the crown’s reputation. He was responsible. If he drank to excess, he walked with an escort instead of driving; if the young women in the city flirted with him, he wouldn’t take advantage of their interest; if the previous ruler had needed his help, he always stepped up to do the job. For a young man in his early twenties, he’d matured beyond his years, so it was dumbfounding to the security guard that he would have thought up such a shortsighted plan.

As Iris went on about Caspian’s original intentions to run away, Jacob pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. The more he uncovered, the worse it seemed to get. The former prince had known that his father was on his deathbed, that there were no other successors in line for the throne, and yet he had still come so close to abandoning his people. Flightiness wasn’t a good quality in a king. Now that he knew it had almost happened once, he was going to keep a closer eye on the fledgling monarch in case he was ever overwhelmed enough to try it again. Until Caspian named someone else as his successor or had children of his own, the monarchy was precariously close to collapsing.

He remained quiet while the rebel girl seemed to give up before his eyes. She had fought him hard in the beginning, but it looked like she didn’t have enough resolve left to keep going. His eyes flicked once more to the filthy kitchen contemplatively before returning to her face. “Sit down,” he said, gesturing to the couch behind her. His words were still firm, but the initial anger had melted from his voice. Now that she had answered his questions and had lost her willpower, he didn’t feel the need to keep fighting with her.

Taking his own advice, the guard sat on the opposite end of the sofa and leaned back with his arms crossed. He was still alert enough to stop her if she made any sudden movements, but there wasn’t an immediate threat that required him to stay on his feet. “You say I’ve been kept in the dark about the king recently, but I do know him, Iris. Better than you do,” he told her bluntly. Someone needed to tell her the truth, and right now, he was the only one who was in a position to do so. For Caspian’s sake, he was going to be candid.

“You two only met a few months ago. I promise you that isn’t enough time to learn every detail about a person, no matter how much you care about each other, and I can tell you right now that the Caspian you know isn’t the same Caspian who was prepared to be the leader this country needs.” Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees as he held Iris’s gaze seriously. “I’m sorry if this is difficult to hear, but this relationship the two of you have is a detriment to him. Now that he’s been crowned king, Caspian has committed every facet of himself to Aspiria. I’m not yet sure if he grasps the full depth of what that means, especially after discovering this,” he gestured vaguely at the suite, “but running around in secret to be with someone who isn’t even a highborn, let alone a person who could strengthen the monarchy politically… These aren’t actions befitting of a king, and I can no longer stand idly by and watch him revert into an impulsive teenager. That means these meetings are going to stop.”
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To not know what was going to happen was so unnerving, Iris found herself at a loss and even though she accepted this was probably the end of the road for her she didn’t know what he was going to do now. It threw her back when he told her to sit but she found herself complying because there was no other option. Iris could peg it from the room and try to escape, but he would catch her and then there would be a commotion and it just wouldn’t end well for anyone involved. Taking a seat, she found herself fiddling with her hands not knowing what to do with them as she avoided making eye contact with him because it felt awkward.

Even as he sat and started to speak, she knew he was telling the truth, but the difference with hearing it from him was that she knew it was not just because he cared about the monarchy but because he actually cared for Cas. Hearing the words from him hit differently. “Don’t apologise.” There was no need for him to say sorry to her when she knew he was right with everything he said. “You think I don’t know that?” Sighing heavily as she placed her head in her hands knowing that their relationship wouldn’t last, and it was silly to even think it would have. It was a stupid dream and even as Jacob spoke about it, she found herself saddened by the fact he was just confirming what she already knew to be true.

“I know I’ll never be good enough for him, that he would lose the trust and faith of so many people if they knew about me. Some non highborn girl from the districts, part of the rebellion. Daughter to the leader of Hope… I couldn’t do that to him, not when he made the decision to go back and take responsibility.” Iris could feel the tears in her eyes, but she didn’t want to cry in front of him, so she blinked them back before looking up to meet his gaze again.

“Truth is..." Hesitating for a moment before she continued on. "I had planned to disappear tonight before all this.” Hinting towards the fact he had visited as well as Cas as it had been completely unexpected for her else, she would have made an effort to clean it. “I was going to try and make an attempt at returning to the districts.” Whether or not it would be successful was a different matter, but Iris already knew she had to leave Cas. Between the threat to his life with Ethan with the threats that she believed he would act on and knowing just how the country would react to her being with him was enough to know in her heart it was the right decision.

“I’m not about to bring him down, not when I firmly believe he will make changes for the good of all the people and I know he will be better off without me.” Reaching to her pocket she pulled out the note she had addressed to Cas, looking at it in her hands. Everyone would be better off without me here.
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When he was finished speaking, Jacob sat quietly and watched as Iris hung her head in her hands. It wasn’t that he didn’t think she knew he was telling her the truth, but even if she was aware of it, neither she nor Caspian were doing anything about it. They were still meeting in secret, and he was sure the new king was plotting to change their situation so they would be able to make the relationship more official. On their current path, they were headed for ruin—not just of themselves, but of the kingdom as a whole.

He was concerned about the way the Aspirian people would react and how foreign leaders would view their monarch if he came forward about being with a former member of the rebellion that plagued their country. For one thing, it wasn’t proper for a member of royalty to casually date like other highborns did. His eventual marriage was supposed to be with either a woman from a powerful family or a princess of another kingdom who could unite Aspiria with another nation and make both lands stronger. Atlas had tried to get it through his son’s head that choosing someone out of love wasn’t an option for him, but it seemed like that lesson hadn’t stuck.

Additionally, if the other highborns learned that their new king had chosen to be with a criminal, it could chip away at their faith that Caspian was a mature and grounded ruler. They didn’t need another revolt to deal with on top of the one that was already ongoing beyond the walls of the central city. That included an external attack by a foreign military that thought the current king was too weak to be in charge. No matter which way he looked at it, Cas’s infatuation with Iris was going to make things more complicated and dangerous than they needed to be.

So, when Iris informed him that she was aware of where she stood and revealed that she’d planned to leave the capital, the security guard arched his brows slightly with intrigue. Maybe they were on a more similar page than he’d first thought. He glanced at the piece of paper in her hands and skimmed the words, considering the new information he’d just been given. That she’d had the note already written told him that she was being honest about her intention to go back to her home. Perhaps he didn’t need to rip her away from Caspian after all.

“I understand that this is difficult, but you’re right,” he told her, looking up again to meet her eyes. “Without any distractions, Caspian has the potential to be a great king. Even more so than his father, so…” He stood up from the sofa and checked his watch to assess the time. “If you are serious about leaving the city quietly, I’ll give you a ride past border patrol.” Putting the device away again, he turned back to her and folded his arms. “We’ve increased security measures since Caspian returned, so you won’t make it past the infrared or the guards without help, and since there is still a warrant out for your arrest, you’ll be returned to a prison cell the second someone catches you. If you want to get out and promise that you’ll cut all communication with the king, I will make sure you’re returned to the nearest district without any trouble.”
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Iris felt herself just stare at the words on the letter a little while longer before she finally looked back at Jacob who had seemingly made up his mind on what to do. “W-What?” Frowning slightly as she wasn’t entirely sure on how to process the offer, it was out of character, and she had expected him to just haul her back off to prison. Not that she was complaining because this was the best possible outcome, he could easily sneak her back in and she wouldn’t need to worry about that. “You would do that?” It was clear to see how stunned she was over the small gesture from the guard.

“You’re not just saying this for me to go quietly and then trick me and throw me in prison? This… this is a genuine offer to take me back home?” It was hard not to question it; Iris knew this guard was a man of his word as he was the reason, she had probably survived the first round in prison. Then there was the fact he had covered for the King at the time when it came to her escape from the hospital and now there was an easy way out of all of this.

Glancing back at the letter in her hands she placed it on the table before rising to her feet, she could feel her stomach churning at the idea of actually leaving Cas. Returning to the destroyed districts and Ethan who would hopefully stop threatening the monarchy and drop all the rebellion like agreed when he threatened her on the phone. “Cas… he can’t know though. That you did this.” Rubbing her arm, she doubted he would tell him, but at the same time she had to be sure as she needed to be the bad guy so he could move on.

“I have to be the bad guy in this story, else I fear he would do something as stupid as follow me into those districts to bring me back.” Sighing Iris knew it was for the best though, “At least if he doesn’t know he will think it was all me, that I just left and didn’t even consider trying to work it out with him. This way I get to be the bad guy and he gets to move on without any further issues.” She was certain that after a bit of time he would easily move on with life and do what was best for him.

This was it; she had her way out and she could get home without any issues. Iris knew she could stop Ethan now and Maisie would help her with it all, Jacob didn’t need to know anything about that side of it. This was her problem to deal with and this would be her sacrifice to make. Being the bad guy wouldn’t be so bad, she could handle knowing that Cas would hate her if it kept him safe from all the trouble in the districts.
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Maybe it was a mistake. Iris had been a member of the Scourge and the daughter of its late leader, no less. Returning her to the districts beyond the capital was a gamble, but after speaking with her again, Jacob didn’t feel like she was a large enough threat to the kingdom to deserve another prison sentence. Her attachment to the king helped as well. While he couldn’t support them as a couple, he wasn’t concerned about her turning on Caspian and trying to kill him again. Even if she rejoined the rebellion—and even that felt like a big ‘if’—he didn’t expect her to do anything to target the monarchy this time.

“It is. And I would prefer to leave now,” he replied casually when she asked if his offer was serious. Taciturn by nature, he didn’t elaborate or share his reasoning for coming to the decision that he had. She didn’t need to know more than he’d already told her: that he was going to drive her past border patrol and let her go back to her home. If she had questions, they could discuss the matter further after they were on the road. He didn’t want to be out longer than he had to anyway, since his presence would be missed at the palace if he dawdled much more than he already had.

When Iris gave him her condition for leaving, the guard listened silently and then nodded once. “I won’t tell him a thing,” he assured her. He’d never had any intention of telling Caspian that he’d helped her slip out of the capital. It was better if the young king believed she had left of her own volition, because she was right. In his current state, it was very likely that he would spend every spare minute he had trying to bring her back. It would have been even worse if he left to look for her, himself. Abdicating the throne would leave Aspiria in a perilous position, so they had to make it look like she had broken up with him and didn’t want him to come after her. It was the only way they could make sure he didn’t do anything reckless.

He knew Caspian wasn’t going to take it well, but it was for his own good. His and Iris’s. With that thought in mind, Jacob offered her his own pair of sunglasses as a simple disguise and stepped over to the door to lead the way out. “Follow me and keep your head down,” he said curtly. “It’s a fifteen minute drive to the border.” He only glanced over his shoulder once to make sure she complied before he headed out of the suite, leading her down to his car that waited in the parking lot in front of the resort.
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Iris nodded knowing that time probably was of the essence, who knew how Cas’ meeting was going with the warden as they spoke. For all she knew he could very well have gotten rid of her warrant already and lingering only meant the risk he would take her back to the palace. It was only by some miracle that Jacob was willing to take her back to the border, it would mean she had to somehow make her own way back through the districts and back to that rundown home that had sat empty for so long.

Taking the sunglasses silently she put them on thinking about how similar Jacob and Cas where when it came to things like this. Remembering how Cas had given her sunglasses as a disguise on the way in and now she was wearing the same things leaving. Keeping her head down she began to follow the guard out of the hotel room as a huge wave of anxiety hit her full force at leaving. This had been the first time she’d have left anywhere for so long; it had been weeks not being able to go out into the fresh air and now all of a sudden, she felt anxious to leave and it wasn’t because she was a criminal or anything.

Hesitating in the hall for a moment she found it hard, each time she had left a place had been fuelled with adrenaline but now this was different. This was just a casual walk to his car and drive to the border. They weren’t running from anything, and it took her just a few moments to gather herself before she started to move again thankful no one had come out and seen them look a bit odd. “Sorry.” Whispering an apology to Jacob, she didn’t bother explaining what had just happened because she doubted, he cared or even understood. Instead, she just walked on trying not to think about it.

Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other she tried not to think on it at all, right now she was making the best decision because Cas would be free of her and all the dramas she had come with. Their future could never work, not when she had caused all of this in the first place by allowing the rebellion to kidnap him. That was all her and no one would or should forgive her for that even if Cas had.

Taking her first steps out into the open didn’t feel as big of a deal as she originally thought it would have, but seeing his car made her stomach drop. It was finally about to happen; she had an easy pass back home without any sort of effort required. Wordlessly she got inside the car, there was no need to make small talk especially with a guard who probably hated her. In fact, he was probably over the moon she would finally be out the picture, perhaps this was even a trap. Luring her to his car to say he’d take her back to the districts and then just kill her and no one would know. No one would miss her except probably Maisie because Cas would certainly get over her.
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Walking down the hallway, Jacob only noticed that Iris had stopped following him when he neared the corner that would take them to the elevator. He turned around with an impatient frown, prepared to tell her to keep moving if she was having second thoughts. Now that he’d found her, she had no other option anyway. It was his duty to make sure that her involvement with the king came to an end, and he was going to do that one of two ways: either by returning her to the districts or by dragging her off to a prison cell. The choice was hers, but he did hope she would choose the former, if only because he didn’t think she deserved to go through more questioning and torture.

Fortunately, he didn’t need to say anything before she kept walking, and they made their way to the elevator lobby. He didn’t bother responding to her apology either. Knowing that it was difficult for her to leave Caspian, he didn’t feel entitled to any of her specific thoughts on the matter. As long as she went with him, that was all he cared about. She could open up to him if she wished, and he would listen and perhaps hare a word of advice, but he wouldn’t probe her to start that conversation.

Being the middle of the day, most of the other people staying in the hotel were already busy exploring the recreational activities on the other floors, so they didn’t run into anyone on their way down to the ground level. Jacob preferred it that way as he led Iris out into the parking lot and to his waiting car. The less people around to question who he was with or what he was doing with a criminal, the better.

He unlocked the doors and made sure she climbed inside first before he sat down behind the wheel and put the car in drive. The silence between them continued to drag on as he headed out toward the highway that would take them to the border. Unlike Caspian who always listened to music on the road, the guard left his stereo off in order to pay full attention to his surroundings. It was easier that way for him to drive safely as well as listen for alerts on his phone, in case anyone at the palace tried to reach him while he was out. He was still the head of security, after all, so his job was his priority even above the favor he was doing for Iris.

As they neared the wall that curtained the capital off from the rest of the kingdom, he began to slow his speed. “Let me doing the talking when we pull up to the checkpoint,” he told Iris without looking away from the back of the car in front of him. He had brought them to a crawl as they joined a short line of other vehicles that were on their way out of the city. Most of the others were military transportation and delivery trucks that were going to be picking up goods and supplies that were produced in factories in the districts.
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It was strange to know she was finally going home and with an easy way out too, even as she sat in the car her heart was racing because she was about to face the music with Ethan. Stopping him from any future plots of harming the King was what she needed to do, it was her duty after creating this whole mess and Cas would be able to continue on with his life. Even if there was heartbreak Cas would soon get over it, she was sure his friends would help and support him but more importantly he had a whole country in front of him to focus on. Jacob wouldn’t let the King fail; he would be there to support, and she was certain of that fact.

The silence in the car was horrible, there was no music to distract her, and he wasn’t a guard that liked to talk, and she wasn’t about to make conversation just to fill the silence. Fidgeting Iris felt uncomfortable and couldn’t settle, not with the pain in her chest and unsettled sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach. Without realising her hands had begun to fidget with the ends of her sleeves, fingers pulling at the frayed fabric because this wasn’t the first time this nervous habit had come out and when she felt the car slow its speed, she knew it meant they had to be getting near the border.

Snapping out of her trance she glanced at the guard who didn’t move his head or even look at her when he spoke about the checkpoint. Just nodding in response to letting him do all the talking she didn’t think she could even bring herself to speak knowing she would fumble or say something stupid. Jacob could do it all, it was his idea to sneak her past the border after all so she would just let him continue on with it and not interrupt. Who knew what kind of questions would be asked at the checkpoint? It’s not something she had ever gone or tried to go past.

Looking out of the window Iris tried to focus on the scenery around her, she didn’t want to think on the what ifs anymore because it would just make her feel worse than she already did. Who knew maybe Ethan would be okay? Perhaps all of this was going to be over, and he would be true to his word, she had to believe that otherwise this was all for nothing. At least Maisie would be there, her best friend would continue to be a pillar of support and pull her through this slump she knew she would.

Instead, Iris began to think on how she would get back to her home, if it was still standing. Having nothing on her but the clothes she had borrowed from Miles’s home she knew the trek back would be long. It would be easier without an injured person alongside, but it was still going to be tiring and she wondered if she should have just tried to eat a little more whilst in the Capital.
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Jacob took Iris’s silence as compliance. Without asking her again to verify it, he pulled his car forward with the slowly moving line until they reached the uniformed guards at the edge of the city. Each one was dressed in the army colors of Aspiria and toted heavy weaponry that was usually more for intimidation than actual use. The rebellion had been quiet for weeks, so the soldiers hadn’t been required to do much more than stand at their posts and keep a lookout for signs of anything changing.

He brought his car to an easy stop at the gate and rolled his window down as one of the men strode over to look inside the cab. Fortunately, it was someone he knew, and he greeted him with a nod of acknowledgement when they made eye contact. “Garret, it’s been a while,” he mused.

“Good to see you again, Jacob,” the guard smiled, though his brows were quirked with slight bemusement. “What’re you doing all the way out here? No one told me you were gonna be passing through today.”

“Escort assignment,” Jacob lifted his shoulders as he gave the vague answer and gestured at Iris in the passenger seat. “I can’t give you too many details, but I won’t be out of the capital for long. I have some other work to do at the palace when I get back.”

Garret bowed his head to get a look at the girl sitting next to him through the window. Jacob held his breath while the other man studied her face, hoping to himself that he wouldn’t recognize her from the wanted posters around the city. After a moment, the other man simply nodded and took a step back again, and Jacob let out a silent sigh as the guard signaled to another soldier to open the gate.

“Well, it was good to see you even though it was brief,” Garret shot him a grin. “We should get drinks and catch up sometime, man.”

“I’ll let you know when I have some time off,” Jacob promised, although he didn’t know when that would be. As the head of security for the royal family, he worked seven days a week and was always on call, even during his off hours. It was an all-consuming job that demanded the utmost sacrifice from the person who accepted the duties that came with it, which was why he rarely ever went out on dates or with old friends anymore.

He’d accepted the good and the bad of his work long ago though. Letting the reminder of his busyness roll off his shoulders, he put his car in drive again and continued on through the open gate to bring Iris back to her home.
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Iris didn’t feel the need to talk much, not when Jacob was handling it and knowing her, she’d say something stupid or do something worse for that matter which she was hoping to avoid. As the car began to slow, she could feel herself tensing up, an underlying feeling of worry bubbling away because what if this was about to go wrong. Or what if this had been Jacob’s plan all along? Get her to leave the hotel with the lie that he was going to take her to the districts, but then they’d get caught by security and she’d go to prison. He would be able to brush it off like he thought he could get them through when in reality it had been his plan all along to get her back to prison and Cas would be none the wiser.

Keeping her eyes on the road she didn’t dare turn to look at the security guard that had stopped them, without realising she began to hold her breath as she heard him talk with the guard. Apparently, they knew one another, and she tried not to pay any sort of attention or draw attention to herself in any sort of way.

Please, don’t be a lie. I can’t… I don’t want to go back to prison. It was too much.

Hearing him speak she couldn’t help but fidget in the car uncomfortable with it all, she wanted nothing more than to finally have this nightmare end and either be away from the Capital and the threat against Caspian all because she was there. Iris had to be away from it, Ethan could not harm him this way if she kept to her word.

Shifting about Iris tried to keep calm but internally she was freaking out waiting for the moment they’d both turn around and say she was going to prison and that she was under arrest. Of course, that moment never came and when Jacob promised to inform this friend of when he had time off, she let go of the fabric she had frayed between her fingers. Only when the car started moving did she exhale the breath she had been holding because finally they had past the gate and there was nothing else to really stop them. Iris was going to be free, well as free as she could having to now heed to Ethans call to keep the peace. It would be worth it though; Cas would be safe and well.

The silence by now had become too much and she couldn’t help but ask him a few things that had been on her mind, for reassurance if anything. “Cas… will be okay, won’t he?” Iris just wanted to know that he would be fine, that Jacob would take care of him and keep an eye out for the young King. There would be no way for her to know truly how he would be feeling, she could see the news reports of course to see what was happening but there’d be no way to truly know.
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Content as he was with the silence, Jacob didn’t think anything of it as he drove along the pockmarked road on the other side of the border wall. The city buildings beyond the capital were in noticeably worse condition than their luxurious counterparts on the inside. Years ago, the area they were driving through had been called Celeste, and it had been another wealthy housing district for upper middle class workers in the country. Now, it was a wasteland like the rest of the regions that had been abandoned by the richest citizens in favor of living near the royal family in the center of the kingdom—a reminder of the distinct division between the haves and the have nots in Aspiria.

Jacob had seen it before, since he’d been part of the military before he joined the royal security team. The first time had been shocking, since no one in the capital spoke about the condition of the country outside of their shining city. He and the rest of the soldiers hadn’t realized how much worse off the non-highborn citizens really were. He’d since grown numb to the sight of the dilapidated buildings, rusted vehicles and overgrown plants that marked Aspiria’s poorest residential areas though. It was his job to protect the monarchy from the common people who tried to rebel, not to stand up for those who had made themselves into enemies of the crown.

Iris’s voice pulled him from his thoughts, and he glanced at her briefly before returning his gaze to the street. “He will,” he answered her curtly. Of course, he knew that Caspian was going to be devastated when he found out she was gone, but it was all for the best. The king would grieve and heal and move on with his life, just like every other man before him who had been through a break up. He would do what he could to make the process easier as well, since he knew it was the first semi-serious relationship the young monarch had ever experienced. Caspian didn’t yet have the tools in his belt to cope with heartbreak, so the guard would teach him how to get past it if he wanted the help.

“You’re doing the right thing,” he assured Iris once again. “Ending it now will be less painful for him than it would have been if you waited longer.”

Having said his piece, Jacob lapsed into silence again as he steered them further into the districts that surrounded the capital. He remembered where her father’s house had been, so he brought her to a nearby area before finally, after a little over two hours, he slowed his car to a stop once more. “This is as far as I’ll go,” he said as he turned to her in his seat. “You’ll have to cover the rest of the distance by yourself. The house isn’t too much further though. You should be able to reach it before the end of the day.” After a pause, he extended a hand to her. “Good luck, Iris. Maybe we’ll cross paths again someday.”
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Watching as the scenery vastly changed, she knew they were going further from Aspiria and its luxurious homes and wealthy borders. A pang of guilt hit her because this was what she had been fighting for, this was what her father had been fighting for before his ideals became more twisted. These run-down homes that housed poor families, children that knew nothing of what could be but still dreamed of better. It was hard to see again especially when she had been away from it for so long, but that was the beauty of the Capital it hid the truth just past the borders.

Knowing that Cas would be okay was some sort of relief, but it didn’t escape the truth of these districts. Nodding to herself as he answered her question, she wondered how long it would take for Cas to get over his feelings for her. Had she now ruined any future relationships of his? He was a King after all, he needed to marry because he would need an heir for the Kingdom. The marriage would have to be beneficial for the Country right? It was all common sense, and she knew that.

“I guess so.” Iris commented on the fact she was doing the right thing, looking back out of the window knowing where she was because it wasn’t too far from her home. It surprised her that he had taken her this far as she never expected it, in fact she had been thinking just how to get back all the way here quickly without the need of assistance. “This is… further than I thought you’d take me. I know where I am. Thank you.” Shuffling about in the seat as she undid the seatbelt and turned to leave the car but stopped her exit when she heard him once more.

Glancing back to see the outstretched hand she smiled slightly giving it a firm shake, “I severely hope not Jacob. If our paths cross again then something has gone wrong and neither of us want that for him.” Pulling her hand back before she clambered out of the car her heart already racing, “Thank you again Jacob.” Giving a subtle nod as she shut the car door and waisted no time slipping away into the darkness to make her way back to her broken home. This was where Ethan was there already, or it would be eerily quiet, and she would have to face the demons of that house.

Not glancing back at the car or the life she left behind Iris moved in the direction of her home, the pit in her stomach rising because she wasn’t sure if she was ready to face any of this. Now she was truly alone, there would be no Cas to talk to at the end of the day and she would have to deal with Ethan. Rubbing her arm as she walked each step filled with dread as it brought her closer to home, a place she didn’t really think of as a home anymore.
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Jacob chuckled as Iris shook his hand, “Have a good life, Iris, and stay safe out there.” He waited for her to exit the car and then watched her walk away from a few seconds more before he put the vehicle in drive and turned it around to head back to the capital. Fortunately, he had just enough fuel left to make it back without stopping at any of the pumps along the highway—which he was sure were being watched by opportunistic thieves who would try to jump him the minute he stepped out to top off the gasoline—and he returned to the border without any incidents.

From there, it was a straight shot back to the palace, where he found Caspian between meetings. With his sedan back in the garage and a check-in done with the other guards, Jacob stepped into the king’s executive office, where the new monarch was flipping through what looked like a report on the growth of a few pharmaceutical companies that were essential to Aspiria’s production of drugs and healthcare equipment. The moment he entered the room, Cas looked up and set the stack of papers down in front of him.

“Any chance you could read these for me?” he asked the security guard with a tired half-smile. After his meeting with the warden, he’d had a second session with a representative of the company he was looking over now who was asking for financing from the crown to support a new business endeavor. The man had told him that the company didn’t have enough funding to expand their research and had left him with a sea of diagrams and figures to ‘confirm’ his conclusion. Cas had assured him that he would review the stats thoroughly and get back to him with an answer before the end of the week, but the reading was already starting to make his head hurt.

He wasn’t completely demoralized though. Despite the amount of work that had been dumped on him that afternoon, he was still riding the high of his success with the warden. He had arranged to drop Iris’s charges and had signed written proof that the crown no longer viewed her as a threat. All that was left was to spread the word among the soldiers who were still looking for her, so she could leave the Sunset Veil without fear of arrest. He couldn’t wait to tell her the news.

“Legally, no,” Jacob replied, striding over to the long, polished desk in the back of the room. “However, if it’s the same group that was pestering your father over the last few months, chances are good that they’re just looking for another handout to increase the pay of their top CEOs. I wouldn’t take their word at face value, Your Majesty.”

“Hm,” Cas grunted, glancing at the papers again with a frown and then pushing them aside. “It’s still hard for me to tell when someone is just trying to take advantage of me.”

“You’re a new ruler,” Jacob lifted his shoulders. “They’re testing their boundaries with you. My advice is don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ often and repeatedly. You’re going to need it until the dust settles, and you establish yourself as our leader.”

“I just wish I was better at it,” Cas shook his head, pulling his arms over his head in a long stretch. “Anyway, I’m glad you stopped by, Jacob. I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

“A favor?” the guard arched a brow.

“Yeah, I’ve… kind of been working on something between all the meetings. Something I didn’t tell you about,” he admitted, shuffling his feet underneath the desk. “I’ve actually been staying in touch with Iris since she went missing… I put her up at a resort on the outskirts of the city to hide her from the guards, and we’ve been talking on the phone almost every night. I still love her, and I want to be with her, so… I had her charges dropped today, so she can move into the palace with me.” The words tumbled out quickly, and he eyed Jacob’s reaction for any sign of shock or disapproval as he went on, “I wanted to know if you could fly me out to pick her up tonight at the Sunset Veil. Taking one of the hover cars will be faster than driving, so we can get back earlier, and she’ll have time to settle in. Do you think you could do that for me?”

Jacob took a measured breath. He had prepared for this to happen, and he could already tell things were going to deteriorate even faster than he’d expected. As soon as Caspian discovered Iris was gone, he was going to crumble. However, he couldn’t give the king any hints that he already knew she’d fled the city, so he simply bowed his head and replied in a cool, courteous voice: “I’d be happy to, Your Majesty.”

Just like he would be there for the monarch when he broke.
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Stay safe? You really don’t understand the districts. Iris thought to herself as she caught Jacobs last words, hearing the car begin to pull away leaving her very much alone back in a place that she had once called home. It wasn’t a home anymore, but there was nothing else she could return too. Thinking about it she knew it was depressing, returning to nothing but then she didn’t have anything in the Capital either. There was just one person that she had to take care of her, and she had left him, but this was so she could protect him, and she had to remind herself that this was for the better.

The walk back to the home she once knew wasn’t too long and she had remembered the way at least, it was strange to think that this was muscle memory of hers at play. Thinking on it Iris hadn’t actually thought about the fact she had lost most of her memories and they were all starting to come back. There were still things she couldn’t fully remember, but she at least knew who she was again, and the old memories didn’t seem like a big deal when she had all these new ones to think about.

Sighing to herself as she continued to walk on, she soon reached her final destination, a tattered broken-down old home. Paint still peeling on the old woodwork, some of it looked broken as if it had been ransacked whilst she had been away. Standing in front of the door that was wide open she couldn’t help but feel how eerie this place had become, how empty it now was because no one would come by here unless they had reason too. Touching the old panelling of her home she took a step inside hearing the creak of the old floorboards beneath the weight of her feet.

“Who am I kidding, I can’t do this.” Iris whispered to herself as she shook her head stopping in the doorway of the living room, the old chair that he used to sit in sat in the middle. Old bottles scattered across the floor and there was a smell to her home that she couldn’t stand anymore, but it looked like the place had been raided and maybe that had been when they took her father and hauled him back to the Capital. When they had killed him. Feeling her hand drop from the side of the doorway as her eyes swept the empty living room mentally counting just how many bottles of alcohol were laying about.

Taking her first step inside she heard a crunch of glass beneath her feet, and she saw a photo frame shattered, the photo beneath it torn, worn and discoloured in places having been hit by the sun rays too much. Kneeling down Iris picked up the photo frame brushing away the shards of glass careful not to hurt herself. Seeing the photo, it was an old family photo of hers, when she was a child and still had both parents looking so happy, even in the districts she still had a shred of happiness, but it was all gone. Dropping the photo frame back to the floor with a soft thud Iris glanced towards the kitchen knowing the stairs to the basement where there, the place they had kept Cas in a makeshift cell.

Biting her lip and against all better judgement Iris wanted to see the basement, the cell that had held Cas captive. Where it had all started, where it had been her fault. She needed to see it to remind herself that this was the right thing she was doing.
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