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Caspian floated through the rest of the day only half present in his excitement to finally free Iris from the suite that had become her prison. Multiple times, he got caught up in his daydreams about what it was going to be like for them to finally be able to be together without the distance or the worrying or the sneaking around. Of course, there was still the question of what the Aspirian people would think when he came forward about choosing to be with a former member of the Scourge, but they could cross that bridge when they got there. At the moment, all he cared about was making her comfortable in the palace, so she could live with him in the place that would hopefully become a second home to her.

It was an exciting fantasy, and when his last meeting of the day finally ended at eight in the evening, he wasted no time hunting down his security detail to make the trip to the Sunset Veil. He found Jacob in his office reviewing camera footage in search of blind spots and technical issues. With a knock on the door to announce himself, the new king stepped into the room. “Hey, are you ready to go?” he asked. “I figured I’ll have a late dinner with Iris after she settles in, so we can pick her up now.”

“Sure. Just give me a minute to lock up,” Jacob nodded a little distractedly. He made a quick note on a pad to mark a timestamp on the video he’d been watching and logged out of the computer. As soon as he was finished closing up his office, the two made their way up to the helipad on the roof, where the hover cars were kept under a cover. From there, it was a straight shot to the resort. The ride only took about fifteen minutes, and once they found a place to park the vehicle, Cas led the way inside through the underground entrance, so they wouldn’t need to worry about being spotted by random passersby while they collected Iris.

On the elevator, he chattered with Jacob about his excitement that they were finally going to be able to be together. It had been a long journey to get there, but he was hopeful that they were nearing the end of the worst of it. The guard nodded along quietly without voicing his opinion one way or the other, which was fine. Cas didn’t expect him to be thrilled about his decision to be with a former rebel, but he would see soon that it was a good thing. He cared more about Iris than he did about anyone outside of his own family, and he was confident that she would be a good match for him since she had a big heart for the people in the kingdom who needed the most help from its leaders.

But that was something that would be proven with time more so than an argument, so he didn’t press the issue when they arrived at the top floor of the building and headed down the hallway to the executive suite. Already, the fledgling king had a grin on his face. He couldn’t wait to surprise Iris with the news that she didn’t have to stay hidden in the resort any longer and that he’d waived the warrant for her arrest. He strode ahead of his guard and knocked on the door, taking one step back to wait for Iris to answer.

Which took longer than he expected. A few seconds passed, then a few more, and the smile on Caspian’s face wavered slightly as he knocked again. The last time he’d come by, she had answered right away, but it was possible that she hadn’t heard him the first time. So, he waited again to the same result. “Maybe she’s in the shower or something,” he guessed, glancing over his shoulder at Jacob. “You can get us inside without the room key, right? I can go in and check on her.”

Jacob nodded and reached into his pocket. “Step aside please, Your Majesty,” he requested as he approached the door. Once he was given the room to work, he jimmied the lock open and pushed the door in for the king to enter first.

Cas stepped through with a quick word of thanks and looked around the suite in search of Iris, but the room seemed empty. All the dirty dishes had been left in the kitchen just like before, and the TV was turned off in the living area. “She has to be upstairs,” he mused, turning back to the other man once more. “Wait here. I’ll go ahead just in case she really is in the shower.” After the guard voiced his agreement, the king jogged up to the second level of the suite and called out Iris’s name. However, the top floor looked just as cold and empty as the lower one. He frowned, worry starting to creep up inside of his chest. He couldn’t hear the sound of running water, but he checked the bathroom anyway. It was empty too.

Abruptly, the thought crossed his mind that the soldiers could have found her and brought her back to prison since his last visit, and his worry escalated into panic. “Jacob, something’s wrong,” he yelled down to the guard as he stepped out of the bathroom.

“Your Majesty, there’s a note on the table down here,” the guard called back.

“A note?” Cas echoed, knitting his brows together. He hurried back down the stairs, where he found the other man with a slip on paper in his hand. Taking it from him, he skimmed the words, hoping that Iris had left some kind of explanation for him. But while the note did contain an explanation, it wasn’t one that made him feel any better.

“Caspian?” Jacob frowned as he watched the color drain from his king’s face.

Cas sat down on the sofa without taking his eyes off the note. It wasn’t a long message, but he’d gotten the meaning loud and clear. “She’s gone,” he murmured dazedly. “Iris isn’t here anymore… She left.”
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Each creak of the floorboards beneath her feet made her cringe, the sounds this house made where new to her. Once upon a time she wouldn’t have batted an eyelid walking down to the basement and hearing the old groans of the house, but now it felt different. Having been gone for so long from this house it no longer felt like a home, it felt like a damp old shed that would fall down at a small breeze. Touching a place on the wall feeling for the light switch she wasn’t surprised that when she turned it on there was no light, of course there would be no electric to the place no one had paid the bills. Maybe she should have asked Jacob for so money to disappear, it would have at least brought her some light and warmth for a few days before having to face someone she didn’t want too.

Feeling around on the shelf just below the switch her hands clasped around a small box which was filled with matches inside, not too far from the box was a candle which she wasted no time in lighting to give her a bit of light down in the basement. Clasping the candle close she ventured down further into the basement only to wrinkle her nose and frown at the stench that came from it. Grimacing as she finally reached the bottom, she could see in the dim light the makeshift cell they had made. The blood stains that surrounded the floors and walls and it looked like nothing had changed.

“What would have happened had I not agreed to that stupid plan? Would I still be dating a man who isn’t stable? Would my father also be alive?” Talking to herself as she paced through the small basement eyes sweeping over each mark and each stain that she could see, empty glasses of water. Bowls of food that where so far gone to saving and if she looked close enough she was sure there were flies buzzing around, but coupled with the smell she wasn’t surprised.

“I would never have met him I guess, was it worth it? Those few moments of happiness compared to the amount of damage I have caused?” Iris found herself frowning to herself feeling conflicted over it all, worried that the choices she made weren’t the right ones in any sort of way. Had she not have ruined the plan by falling prey to a bear trap she’d never have gotten to know Cas, in fact she’d have probably been rotting away in a cell for a failed assassination attempt.

Feeling a chill run through the room she rubbed her arms trying to warm herself up, turning her back on the room it was time she got some rest. At least she could get some rest in before facing him, perhaps some sleep would do her good and it would be a start at getting accustomed to life back in the districts. Climbing the staircase back to the living room she blew out the candle as she reached the top thankful for the fleeting natural light that seeped through the windows.

Walking through the kitchen she knew there was no way there’d be anything salvageable in terms of food, that was purely a wish that wouldn’t come true. Regardless she would need to sort that out if she did plan to make it back out here, lost in her own train of thought at how best to get started.

“Well, well, well… I didn’t expect you to be back so soon. You must have missed me.”

Hearing that voice, that dreaded voice was something she didn’t expect, out of shock the candle fell from her hands clattering against the floor as she felt her anxiety rise. Iris knew where the voice had come from, but she didn’t dare to turn and face him. Not yet.

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“I just don’t get it.”

“Your Majesty, please sit down.”

Jacob frowned as he watched his king pace in the living room of the executive suite. Not long after the reality had set in that Iris was gone, Caspian had switched from shock to what look like a mixture of frustration and denial. The young monarch was frowning at the floor, wracking his brain to figure out when things had gone wrong as he clutched Iris’s note in his closed fist. The last time he’d seen her, he’d thought they had been on the same page. She hadn’t been happy in the resort, but he’d told her he was going to fix it. So why would she disappear on him? It didn’t make any sense.

“How do we even know she actually wrote this?” Cas stopped pacing just long enough to hold up the crumpled paper between his fingers. “What if someone found her and took her? She wouldn’t do this. Iris wouldn’t have just walked away like this. Besides, where would she even go if she did leave? She doesn’t know her way around the city, and she couldn’t have gotten out without someone seeing her—”

“Your Majesty, breathe,” Jacob stopped him. “I understand that you’re upset, but you might be overthinking this just a bit…” He held up his hands innocently when the king shot him a glare. “Really think about it. Who would have taken her? If someone from our military had discovered her hiding here, I would have received a call about it, and I’ve heard no reports about any breeches in security at the border. No one has come into the capital who isn’t supposed to be here.” He lowered his hands. “As much as it pains me to say it… I believe Iris left of her own free will. I’m sorry.”

Cas held the other man’s gaze for a moment longer before he lowered his with a defeated sigh. “I know,” he shook his head, numbly reading the note in his hand one more time. “I just can’t believe she would do this to me. I… I told her I loved her, and she said she loved me. If she wasn’t lying, then why would she just vanish like this?”

“I can’t answer that,” Jacob stepped closer. “But if you want my honest opinion, I think this is for the best. If Iris wasn’t as committed to the relationship as you were, then it was better for the break to happen while the repercussions only affect the two of you.”

Cas nodded wordlessly, still reeling from the shock of his discovery. He didn’t want to believe that Iris had left him, but all the evidence pointed in that direction. She was gone, and she’d left a note specifically for him. For whatever reason, she’d decided to end things between them, and now he was left standing in an empty room, wondering if there was anything he could have done to prevent her from leaving.

“Maybe I deserved this,” he murmured after the silence had dragged out for a few minutes. “Honestly… she was miserable with me. I tried to make it better, but I couldn’t give her the time and attention she deserved. I think I was being selfish when I assumed we could make it work even when I was always working and barely had time to talk with her for half an hour every night. She probably got sick of waiting for me to be a better partner.” He rubbed one eye with his fist as he felt his emotions threatening to boil over and then blinked as he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You did nothing wrong,” Jacob disagreed. “You’re the ruler of an entire country, Caspian. By choosing your people over one relationship, you made the right decision. Even though it may hurt now, all of Aspiria will be better off because of your dedication.”

“I know,” Cas sighed, stuffing Iris’s note into his pocket after one last glance over. “But it still doesn’t change the fact that I feel like my heart’s been ripped out of my chest.”

Jacob nodded, “Breakups are a bitch… But in any case, we should go back to the palace. There’s no point in lingering here any longer than we need to.”

“Sure,” Cas replied noncommittally. “I’ll need my schedule pushed back tomorrow morning though. I’m not going to bed until I find the bottom of a whiskey bottle.” With one last look around the messy suite, he let out his breath and followed his security guard back to the hover car, managing to keep his composure until they were inside the vehicle, and the deep ache that gnawed at his stomach finally took over. Hot tears rolled silently down his cheeks, and he stared blankly out the side window, wishing he could have done something to keep Iris from walking away and wondering where she had gone.
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“Ethan…”

“And here I thought you had forgotten me.” Ethan fake pouted as he looked Iris up and down with his one working eye, “I must say I am impressed you made the decision to return to us. I thought you’d be living up the high life with your fairy-tale ending.”

“What fairy-tale ending Ethan? The one where I become Queen and live happily ever after?” Curling her hand into a fist knowing that this man was every bit insane, and no words would hurt him, and she doubted she could even get a good hit on him without him catching it and punishing her for even trying.

“There it is, that sense of humour I dearly missed from you.” Clapping his hands slowly, patronising her in every sense because he had won. Ultimately, she had returned home to him, to the run-down districts to save that new King that had barely grown up yet. Deep down he knew it was mainly because of Maisie and the need to save Caspian because for some reason she had felt guilt for sticking to the original plan of liberating the districts. “It’s adorable you’d even think that there could have been a happily ever after between you two. As if a King would marry a poor girl from the districts. Maybe if you were a simple commoner, but you are the daughter of the rebellion. You nearly ended the monarchy.”

“I didn’t! That… I don’t think like that.” Sighing heavily as she glanced down to the floor shaking her head to herself because no one would understand it, Ethan was just here to remind her of everything she lost. Questioning herself for a split second to why she had even returned here, but she knew it was better for his safety. Even if Ethan hadn’t threatened her to come back home Jacob had found out, she’d very well be in prison or thrown back here without a say in it because he didn’t think she was good enough for Cas. Another truth she hated but knew deep down it was right. “How did you even know I was here?”

“I have eyes everywhere and when someone told me there had been movement here, I knew you’d returned. I thought I’d save you the trouble in having to find to me.” Grinning to himself rather proudly, the rebellion may be small now, but he still had loyal and faithful people working round the clock to aid in their cause. “I thought I’d give you a choice of following willingly, or if you’d prefer me to drag you to our new base kicking and screaming that can be arranged.” After all he wasn’t planning on letting Iris out of his sight, not when she was about to become a key player in his plan.

“Is Maisie there?” Iris asked tentatively wanting to know her friend was safe, that he hadn’t done anything to her. Watching his movements and the nod of his head to her question she exhaled softly relieved to know that Maisie was okay. “I don’t plan on fighting. There’s no point.” Dejected without the will to bother Iris knew she’d just follow him back to whatever base it was. Go along with whatever he wanted because it would make her life easier out here.

“Good choice.” Smirking to himself as he outstretched his hand to Iris waiting for her to take it, to agree to follow because he had won. In his mind he had won the fight already and sure he had to put the plan into motion but the new King wouldn’t stand a chance.
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The next few weeks felt like wading through deep waters to Caspian. Every meeting was slow and forced, and whenever he had time to himself, he was too lethargic to do anything other than lay in bed or watch absentminded TV. Jacob did what he could to offer the monarch company, but most of the time, Cas wasn’t interested in talking. It was the first real heartbreak he’d ever experienced, and he couldn’t take his mind off the pain of the breakup no matter how hard he tried.

Which meant Jacob’s other job was coming up with excuses to get the Aspirian king out of last minute responsibilities and appearances. Anything that hadn’t already been on the schedule before Iris had disappeared stayed in place, but the security guard recruited the help of his PR agent to keep from adding anything new to the agenda for a while. Aside from Caspian’s own emotional recovery, it would have been bad for the kingdom if they pushed their ruler into making public appearances that he wasn’t prepared to handle. The rest of the Aspirian people—especially the rebellion—didn’t need to know what poor shape he was in.

However, everyone also knew that Cas couldn’t mope forever. The country could only run smoothly for so long before his lack of motivation started to affect things. So, as they started into the third week of the king’s new, reclusive habits, Jacob decided that it was time to set him back on course.

Lately, the monarch had been spending all of his spare time in his room, so the security guard knew where to find him without any effort. He headed up to the top floor of the palace and knocked on the oversized doors that used to belong to Atlas. Stepping back, he waited for a few beats before he heard a muffled response from within that he assumed was permission from the occupant to enter.

“Good evening, Your Majesty,” he said as he headed into the room. Unsurprisingly, he found Caspian lying half dressed in his bed. The younger man was sporting bed-messy hair and was scrolling through posts on social media, though it was questionable if he was comprehending what he was even looking at. “How are you doing today?” the guard asked on his way over to the bedside.

“How do you think?” Cas replied dryly without looking away from the screen of his phone.

“Fair enough,” Jacob lifted his shoulders, slipping his hands into his pockets. For a moment, silence fell between them. It was obvious that the king wasn’t in the mood to chat, but the guard wasn’t going to leave without addressing the long overdue conversation that needed to be had. He’d given the ruler time to grieve, but now he needed to start getting back on track. Staying where he was, Jacob went on, “How much longer are you planning on hiding away in your room?”

“As long as it takes,” Cas answered noncommittally.

Jacob sighed. “I know you don’t feel like getting up, but you’re not going to move on from Iris until you stop letting her affect you like this,” he said frankly. “You have a duty to your people and purpose in bettering their lives. Don’t let one girl take that away from you.”

“I’ll still go to all my meetings,” Cas muttered, finally letting his phone drop on the mattress to cast his guard an impatient look. “I’m doing my job, so what’s your point?”

“My point is that there’s a lot more to being king than attending meetings,” Jacob folded his arms. “You’ve been doing the bare minimum ever since Iris left you, and people are going to notice that your heart’s not in it if you keep this up. Laying around in bed isn’t going to bring her back either. She’s gone, Caspian, and sooner or later, you’re going to have to go back to your life without her in it. For your own sake and everyone else’s, let that lesson sink in before you have to clean up another mess.”

At that, Cas stayed quiet. He knew Jacob was right. Iris was gone, and he couldn’t contact her when he had no clue where she’d went. However, even though he understood it logically, he couldn’t convince his heart to get on board. “It just sucks, you know?” he exhaled, dragging a hand over his tousled hair. “I want to move on, but it still hurts. I think about her a lot, and every time, I just want to climb back into bed and be alone… How long does it take before that part goes away?”

“It will go away faster if you force yourself to stay busy,” Jacob assured him. “Get back to normal and let other people and responsibilities keep your mind occupied. I promise it will help, and you’ll eventually be able to think about her without the pain.”

Cas nodded halfheartedly. “Okay… but not today,” he compromised, picking up his phone again to unlock the screen. “I want one more night to be selfish about it, and tomorrow, I’ll try your idea.”

“That’s all I can ask for, Your Majesty,” Jacob bowed. “Have a good evening.”

And with his goal accomplished, the guard left the king alone, hoping that he would stay true to his word. The sooner he moved on from Iris, the sooner they could progress on establishing him as the new authority figure in Aspiria. There was still much work to be done on that front.
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Iris couldn’t tell you how long it had been as all the days merged into one and Ethan had not been kind to her like she thought he might after having agreed to go with him to save Cas from harm. All the promises he had made had been lies and she wasn’t surprised, but she had hoped for some slither of redemption from the crazed ex-boyfriend that had ruined her life. The only thing that was getting her through the days was the fact Cas was safe and surrounded by people who loved him and who would look after him which was something she couldn’t do. It was safer for her to be here, but Ethan had certainly drained the happiness from her within hours.

Ethan often liked to remind her that she was lucky to be back with him, that she was lucky to have her life, but it wasn’t any sort of quality with everything Ethan had put her through since returning. Maisie hadn’t been allowed to see her, but she knew her friend had argued with Ethan over it because she had heard the voices downstairs. According to Ethan she was in a state and not well enough to see anyone which was utter lies, but she didn’t dare shout out because the last time she had done that Ethan had punished her. Apparently, he still loved her, but it didn’t stop him from harming her.

All she had to do was keep going until there was a chance for her to escape her new prison in life. If she could even find the motivation to do so anymore as each day just ate away at what little life she had left, and it wouldn’t matter if anything did happen to her as it wasn’t like she was important to the world.

Bruises littered her pale skin and small cuts could be seen scattered all over, but no one had physically seen her because Ethan kept her all to himself. The room he had locked her inside was the room right next to his and every night he would make a stop by to ask if she had reconsidered getting back with him and each night the answer had been the same, for him to get lost and that was politely putting it and her answer always earned her one meal the next day if she was lucky and she was blessed if it was more than just stale bread.

Isolation really hadn’t been kind to her and even though there had been more social interactions being back in the districts each day locked inside a room was a consistent nightmare for her. All she could hope for was to fade away, but she knew Ethan wouldn’t allow it and as she thought about the deranged ex of hers, she could hear the footsteps of him approaching her room. Gearing herself up for a fight as she heard the click of the lock Iris folded her arms watching the doorway intently.

“It’s been weeks now Iris, surely you’re over pretty boy now?” Ethan cooed as he walked inside confident as ever, a smug smile threatening to break through because he was really happy about something. “If you reconsider, we could think about celebrating, you must be hungry right?”

"No."

“Cold shoulder as always… I don’t get it. I’ve given you plenty of options to be free of here, you’re the one that’s keeping yourself locked up b-“

“By what? By refusing to date you?” Iris snapped not letting him finish his sentence because every option he had given her whether it was freedom, food or even seeing her best friend all resulted in one thing for him.

“Well. I didn’t want it to come to this.” Ethans voice dropped slightly as he edged forward walking towards Iris as he reached out his hand and cupped her cheek only to catch her flinching out the corner of his eye when he raised his hand. Tightening his grip, he watched her close her eyes waiting for the inevitable hit but for once he didn’t. “Seeing as you’re given me nothing and my wonderful friends managed to do something exciting, I’m going to give you one last chance. Now are we going to return to being my girlfriend?”

“No.”

“What was that? I couldn’t quite hea…”

“NO!”

Angered by the answer Ethans grip on her face turned vice like and within seconds he forcefully threw her to the floor as he pulled out his phone. Grinning to himself he snapped a photo of Iris who was in a heap on the floor looking worse for wear before he knelt down to her showing her the photo. “You see. I now have Princes charmings phone number and I may just have to send him how pitiful you look with a few demands.”
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Three more days passed since the night Jacob visited Cas in his room. Trying to stay true to his word, the king put more effort into his work as it came up. During his scheduled meetings he was less distracted, and outside of the prewritten agenda, he started requesting documents to skim through as he finally took steps toward figuring out how to solve Aspiria’s economic disparity.

Ever since he’d been abducted by the rebellion, the image of the districts’ poor condition had been seared into his mind, and he was starting to find his determination to correct it again. He wanted to be the leader he’d promised he would be on his coronation day. Iris’s disappearance had put a halt to that for almost a month, but just because things didn’t work out between them didn’t mean he could forget about the other common people who needed his help. He wasn’t so petty that he would take out his disappointment with her on every non-highborn citizen in the kingdom, after all.

The additional work kept him busy, but he knew he needed to ground himself in something other than his job, so over the weekend, he asked Jacob to change the security parameters around the palace, so he could invite his friends, Jay and Miles, to visit him for an evening. The guard obliged without the need for any convincing—he was just happy to see his monarch finally returning to normal—and passed the word along to the men who were stationed to watch the front gate.

Once Cas was finished with his tasks for the day, he headed to his in-home bar to set up a game for them to watch on one of the TVs while he sipped at a whiskey sour. Even though the sting of the breakup hadn’t dissipated yet, preparing to spend time with two guys whose company he enjoyed was a strong step toward moving on. For just a moment, he could picture his life the way it had been before he’d met Iris. Hanging out with his friends, going out to late night parties, tracking his favorite teams each sports season and enjoying a few drinks at the end of a long day. Some of those things would never quite be the same since he was crowned king, but thinking about them helped him take his mind off things. Right now, that was what he needed.

And he didn’t have to wait long before a guard stopped by to let him know Jay and Miles had arrived, then the two in question caught up with him a few minutes later.

“Look who it is: His Royal Highness, King Caspian,” Jay grinned at Cas and leaned over in a mock bow as the former prince slid out of his booth to greet both of his friends with firm hugs and slaps on the back.

“Shut up,” Cas gave the other man’s shoulder a shove, though a smirk arched on his lip. He’d forgotten how much he had missed their jokes and ribbing. Lately, it felt like he had to be on his best behavior for all the older men and women he met with to discuss political issues. They all treated him like his father, with stiff manners and humorless attitudes. He may have become king, but he was still only halfway through his twenties. Sometimes it was nice to let go and forget about appearances for a few hours.

“Dude, we haven’t seen you in forever,” Miles jumped in as they headed over to the booth closest to the TV Cas had set up. “How’s life going for you as the most powerful man in Aspiria?”

“Um, not as amazing as you probably think it is,” Cas admitted, taking a seat across from his friends.

“What do you mean?” Miles frowned.

“Well, for one thing, my dad is dead and I’m being drowned in all the work he left behind,” he lifted his shoulders. There was a sting in his chest at the mention of Atlas’s unexpected passing, but he swallowed the emotions that rose up with it. Now that he was the new leader of the country, he was learning that if he didn’t temper his feelings, other people would think he was weak or unstable, so it was becoming a habit to keep the pain of his loss private. “But aside from that… there’s also something I need to fill you guys in on.”

Jay and Miles exchanged a glance. “Is it something to do with Iris?” Jay asked tentatively.

“Yeah,” Cas sighed, taking another pull of the drink he’d left on the table. “She left.”
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Iris couldn’t tell you what day of the week it was anymore, Ethan had kept her cooped up in that room and she was lucky she even had a bed with the way he had been acting towards her lately. You’d never have thought he was a loving boyfriend once, that he had a romantic side towards her and would bring her something as simple as a flower to brighten her day. Those days were dead and gone, far behind the both of them as now he had a new obsession, and she couldn’t tell you what had happened to drive him like this.

Hopefully the threat of messaging Caspian didn’t happen after that day, she didn’t want him dragged back into it because that was the main reason she had fled back to the districts. To stop Ethan from causing anymore harm to a monarchy that was fractured enough. If Cas where to be killed there would be no more and that would cause an endless war and bloodshed that was not needed. Her life was nothing compared to the weight of the world on his shoulders, everyone looking up to him to be a great king.

It was what she kept telling herself, what got her though the long nights and abuse that Ethan would throw her way. Again, she was isolated, left to feel alone and there wasn’t any grace period of being able to see Masisie like she thought. New bruises decorated her extremely pale skin and she hadn’t had food for days; Ethan brought her water to keep her alive but that was about it. The hunger pains had long gone, replaced by the pains of wounds that her psychotic ex-boyfriend now inflicted. What was slightly worrying was the fact Ethan had started to go around to everyone proclaiming she was his girlfriend once more. Something that made her stomach turn that was certain.

“Oh, deary me, you’re looking a little… worse for wear?”

Hearing the creak of the door and the sound of his voice Iris tried not to give it away that she was awake, keeping her eyes firmly closed and her body still on the bed she hoped he would just walk straight back out and leave it as is. If he thought she was asleep maybe she could spare herself a little bit longer today, no need for dealing with unwanted trauma straight away for the day.

“I know you’re not asleep Iris, you think you can fake it… but you can’t.” Ethan hummed softly as he walked closer to her, still no response but he knew her better than that. Standing over her on the bed he reached down his hand caressing her cheek which earned him a flinch. “Now was that so hard to wake up?”

“What do you want.” Hissing her words as she glanced up at him, edging away from the touch of his hand as best she could inwardly cursing herself from flinching.

“That’s no way to treat your boyfriend now, is it?” Reaching out he went to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear only to growl as she batted his hand away. “Enough of this childs play.” Hissing as he lunged forward hands wrapping around her slender neck squeezing it until he heard a pained cry, getting the reaction he wanted he pushed Iris up against the wall a manic smile spread across his face. “It’s showtime.” Whispering in her ear earning a shudder as he pulled out a knife slashing across her stomach tearing the clothing and causing a rather thin cat like scratch across her skin.

Stepping back Ethan admired his work as he saw Iris close her eyes tightly, torn clothes, dirt covering her body alongside a wonderous amount of bruising and cuts he knew this was what he needed. Grabbing his phone he took a photo of the scene, it wasn’t the worst he could do, and this was just a warmup, but it would still get him the desired affect and the prince wouldn’t know what hit him. Browsing through he found the number that had taken days for his hackers to obtain and typed a message attaching the photo before sending.

My girlfriend, back home where she belongs…

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In the weeks that had followed Iris’s disappearance, it had become easier for Caspian to think and talk about her to other people. Of course, he still missed her like a lost limb and felt the familiar tightness in his chest whenever her face appeared in his mind, but the passage of days replaced some of his sadness with more palatable emotions like frustration, bitterness and even a little indignation that she had chosen to leave him without so much as a goodbye. Even though things had soured between them, he felt like he was owed at least that much.

He’d gone out of his way to protect her from the military and had stayed completely loyal even when his relationship with her was to his own detriment. He had promised her that he wouldn’t go anywhere even when it was difficult for them to see each other in person. And although he knew he had been selfish at the end of it all, not all of their problems had been his fault. He couldn’t control his own schedule anymore, yet he’d still followed through on his promises to her—even if they had happened on a delayed timetable.

All of his emotions stirred up like dust as he filled Jay and Miles in on everything that had happened since they’d last seen each other. For their part, his friends listened patiently and didn’t interrupt. He could see the empathy on Miles’ face while Jay nodded along with his arms crossed over his chest and a deep frown on his lips. There wasn’t time to give them every detail of his relationship with the former rebel, but it still felt good to have some support from more people than just his bodyguard. As much as he appreciated Jacob’s attempts to help, the stoic man wasn’t the best shoulder to lean on while he was going through the thick of the breakup. Most of his solutions to deal with the hurt ended in a bottle of liquor or more tasks on his to-do list, so he would be too busy to think about his girlfriend.

When he finished catching them up, there was a short silent pause before Miles shook his head. “Well… I guess on the bright side, things can’t get worse than they are now, right?” he offered, propping an elbow on the table to rest his chin in his hand. “You’re gonna be on the up and up from here, man. No more girls to drag you down.”

Jay knocked him in the shoulder. “That still sucks though. I’m sorry she bailed on you, Cas.”

“It was going to happen eventually,” Cas lifted his shoulders, swirling the remains of the whiskey in his glass. “I think Jacob was right. It’s better that it happened now than it would’ve been if she broke up with me after everyone in Aspiria knew we were together… I was really close to making it public knowledge. Removed her criminal charges and everything the same day she left.”

“Yeah, you dodged a bullet there,” Miles agreed. “So… are you gonna reverse the charges again to put them back on her?”

“No, I’m not that petty,” Cas managed a smile. “I don’t like how things ended, but I still believe Iris is a good person. She doesn’t deserve to go to prison just because she broke up with me on a piece of paper.”

“You’re a better man than I am,” Jay quipped.

Cas and Miles laughed and the three friends fell into a more lighthearted conversation that was relieving to the king now that he’d gotten the worst part out of the way. They watched the game he’d put up on the TV, downed a few more cocktails and cracked jokes at one another’s expense like they always had before Atlas had passed away. The night helped to take his mind off everything that had been stressing him, and by the end of it, he could even say he was in a genuinely good mood for the first time since he’d found the executive suite empty.

Around eleven, he walked his friends to the door and then headed up to his room to get ready for bed. Fortunately, he didn’t have much scheduled for the next day, so he could set his alarm late and sleep off the alcohol that still lingered in his system. With a plan to do just that, he showered and went through his usual hygiene routine and then climbed under his duvet, plugging in his phone on the side table to charge overnight.

He had just gotten it put away and rolled over to sleep when he noticed the screen light up with an incoming message. He shook his head to himself. Assuming Miles had left something behind at the palace, he turned back over to skim the text—and then promptly sat up on his bed as he read it again.

Girlfriend? The color drained from his face, and he opened the message fully to find an attached photo of the last person he’d expected to appear in his inbox. His hands shook, and he swallowed hard, his mind racing as he labored to put together the pieces of what was happening. Was it a sick joke? Who would have even sent the text in the first place? He knew of one person who would call Iris his girlfriend, but how could that man have gotten ahold of his personal number? It didn’t make any sense.

With a tremor in his fingers, he typed back furiously:

Who is this? What happened to Iris?

In the back of his head, he knew it would have been smarter to alert Jacob immediately. Someone had gotten his contact information without the security team’s permission, and he didn’t know exactly who he was speaking with. However, the sight of Iris, beaten and bloodied on the ground, had swept away all sense of reason. The only thing he cared about was getting answers.
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“Ethan… you promised me.” Iris whispered as she pushed herself up from the floor feeling the tears already threatening to spill. All she had wanted was to keep Cas safe, to keep him out of it even as her heart yearned for her to be with him once more. “I… I am here for you because you asked me too. You agreed to let this stop if I came back.”

“I never thought you to be so naïve Iris, did you honestly believe me at my word?” Cruel words left his lips as he paced towards her on the floor, his one good eye watching her closely.

“There was a time when your word meant something.” Sitting herself up from the floor as she pushed back the tears and found herself frowning at Ethan. The phone in his hands meant one thing and she knew what the photo of her meant. A new game was about to be played, one that she didn’t want to be a part of, one that she had run from because she knew Cas would be safer without her and yet she was now going to be another problem for him.

“Funny how times have changed.” Twirling the knife between his fingers as he walked around Iris keeping her in place on the floor. “There was a time when I thought you loved me, when we were together…”

“Is that what you want?” Swallowing hard at the memories, they had been happy once and fools of course but if that was what he now wanted, maybe it would mean that he would stop this obsession for killing Cas.

Even with being back in the districts held against her will she still thought about him, wondered on if he was okay. Not a day went by without her heart aching and maybe that was why she had become so numb to the pain of Ethans abuse. Even if it had been better for everyone all round, she still regretted leaving him because she did adore him, and they had fought through so much. Hopefully he hated her, hopefully her abrupt leaving meant he would not care what kind of position she was in because she didn’t want him risking his life and getting caught up in Ethans schemes. “He won’t care you know… that photo he will just delete it because I broke his heart.”

“Then why does your voice sound strained at that thought? Clearly you are upset by the idea that he would hate you.” Ethans smirk grew as he leant down reaching out to touch her face only to watch her flinch from his touch. “I would very much enjoy the thought of reliving old memories together.” Humming softly as he leaned in pressing a kiss to her cheek his fingers running up her forearm before they slowly wrapped around her neck.

“Ethan… please.”

Letting go he pushed Iris back down to the floor before standing up to his full height once more, grinning to himself as he felt his phone go off which could only mean the King had responded. Opening it up to see the message he chuckled knowing that the King still had some care for the girl even if she claimed that she had broken his heart. “For someone with a broken heart he still asks about you. Hmmm, let’s see.” Tapping his fingers against the device he wondered on if he should even reply or let him wait for a response. Glancing over the small device he could see Iris huddled on the floor, not much fight left in her.

Step down as King, or she will suffer.


Tilting his head to one side as he scrolled through previous photos on his phone, ones that he had taken before today because he had been biding his time. After selecting his photo carefully hoping it would be the one to get the message across. To panic the King into acting rashly because if one acted in panic, it meant he would have an advantage. So, the particular photo he chose had been one of Iris asleep on the floor in the room he had her locked in oblivious to what was going on, still in a particularly bad state like the previous but with a difference. Small pieces of torn clothing just about covered important areas of her body leaving things to the imagination, but also showing the extent of damage he had already been causing.

For every day you are still King, Iris will pay the price. Time is not on your side.


Closing his phone, he sighed as he folded his arms knowing the message, he had sent was loud and clear and now all he had to do was wait. Wait for the King to be lured out to him so he could make the final blow.
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Cas could hear his heartbeat in his ears as he stared, unmoving, at the texts on his phone. He didn’t understand what was going on. Why was someone texting him photos of Iris? Why now? He’d finally started to move on from her disappearance, and suddenly everything he’d thought he knew was being thrown into question. He wondered with horror if she hadn’t left him intentionally but had been abducted by her lunatic ex-boyfriend. If so, he had no idea how the rebel could have gotten inside the capital without alerting the border security.

But then again, he also couldn’t fathom how the other man could have gotten ahold of his personal cell phone number, so anything was possible.

His head felt like it was swimming, and each second felt like an hour. Finally, a response from the original sender came through, but it did nothing to reassure him of the situation. Instead, he read the blackmail on his screen with a sinking stomach. Someone—probably Ethan—had Iris and was using her as leverage to force him to abdicate the throne. Of all the possible scenarios that could have come along with her absence, this one had never once crossed his mind.

He should have gotten Jacob involved. There was still time to tell the guard about what was going on, but he already knew what the other man would say. His reign as king and as the only living successor to the crown was more important than a common girl from the outer districts. As soon as the guard caught wind of what was going on, he would double down on security throughout the capital to make sure no one got in or out of the city. There was no way he would risk sending any of his men to rescue Iris when someone was threatening Aspiria’s monarchy.

Then the second text followed the first, and Cas felt his throat tighten. Ethan was insane. Was he going to torture Iris if he refused to step down? Reading the words dazedly, he raked a hand through his dark hair. He didn’t know what to do. Whether he wanted to or not, he knew that giving up the crown wasn’t on the table, so he couldn’t comply with the rebel’s demands. However, he also couldn’t go about his days with the knowledge that somewhere, Iris was suffering because of his decision.

When he’d thought she had left him of her own free will, he’d been able to slowly move on with his life, but now, he felt convinced that someone else had taken her. He had to get her back. Wherever she was, she clearly didn’t want to be there, and it was likely that he was the only other person who knew she was being held captive. The thought of going after her alone, returning to the districts beyond the capital, made him feel dizzy, but what other choice did he have? He’d drive himself mad if he pretended like he hadn’t read those messages. Even though he had responsibilities as king, he also had responsibilities to the woman he loved. He had to save her from her lunatic ex-boyfriend.

He also couldn’t let Ethan know what he was planning, so with a steadying breath, he typed back a carefully worded reply:

I will not step down, so you might as well give up on that angle. It isn’t going to work. I’ll also be disconnecting this phone’s service first thing in the morning, so don’t bother trying to send more photos to this number. It was a nice try, but Aspiria will always come first. As long as I’m king, I’ll do everything in my power to keep this country safe from enemies like you.
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Ethan waited for the text back with bated breath, waited for it to sink into the new King that was probably having the time of his life to realise at what cost it would take for him to be on the throne. The King was a young boy, infatuated by his ex-girlfriend who lay on the floor in front of him and he knew the King wouldn’t be able to have this on his conscience, the thought of another suffering at his hand when all he had to do was step down from the throne. Hopefully the King believed that he was that twisted to act upon it, and he was sure of that fact with all their meetings with one another. Caspian would not let Iris die he was sure of it.

The minute he heard his phone buzz back the smile grew on his face only to drop just as quick when he read the words ‘I will not step down.’ Feeling his anger spike as he read on the grip on the phone tightened, “What?” Hissing to himself as he tried to understand the motives of the King, was he happy to let her die? Let her be tortured each and every day because he refuses to give up the crown. Maybe he had the King all wrong?

“No, he wouldn’t leave you like this.” Muttering away to himself as he glanced back at Iris wary of what the next move would be. Narrowing his eyes as he began to contemplate the ideas forming, perhaps he would see her reaction to know if Caspian would truly leave her. “Well Iris, it looks like my plan has failed.” Sighing heavily as he sat on the floor next to her catching her flinch from the corner of his eye. Holding out his phone waiting for her to read the text. “Let it sink in, Prince charming isn’t about to come save you and he’s very happy to stay as King and let you fall prey to my hands.”

“Good”

“What the hell do you mean by good?” Outraged Ethans eyes widened as his nostrils flared, why was she happy about it? Why was he now seeing a faint smile on her face at the news? “You’re going to suffer and die here because the love of your life is refusing to save you and all you can say is good?” Rising to his feet as he stuffed the phone into his pocket shaking his head confused at her reaction.

“It’s good because it means I broke his heart enough to make sure that you would not get your claws into him because I knew deep down you would not keep your word.” Finding the strength to speak up against Ethan as she knew she was going to be in for a rough ride, but to see the message from Cas saying he wasn’t going to step down gave her hope that Ethan wouldn’t get near him. Ethan however, was clearly not impressed with her reaction as she found herself screaming out in pain as a loud crack sounded through her ears.

Pain flooded through her left arm, and she could still feel the pressure of his boot pressed firmly against her arm pinning it to the floor. There had been no warning as he stomped on her limb no doubt breaking it and she could feel the tears forming as she began to whimper from the force of it.

“Think about that, whilst I create stunning photo ops to tempt your Prince.” Spitting down at her slumped on the floor before he stormed out the room, in fury he couldn’t help but send one more text to the number that had taken weeks to get.

Fine, on your head be it. Long live the King.

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For the rest of the night, sleep was an impossibility. Cas couldn’t stop replaying the text conversation in his head over and over as he tossed and turned in his bed until, sometime after four a.m., he gave up and climbed out to calm down with a warm shower. After the last message he’d received, it had been hard to keep the panic at bay as he worried about what the sender was doing to Iris. He couldn’t stand the thought of anything else happening to her, especially because of him. He could only hope Ethan had been bluffing about continuing to hurt her after he’d refused to agree to his terms. The guy had called her his girlfriend in the first text, so maybe somewhere in his twisted heart, he cared about her wellbeing too. The thought made Cas feel nauseated, but it was better than the alternative. The broken arm in the last photo had nearly made him lose his dinner.

When he got back out of the shower, he felt slightly more settled about the way he’d chosen to respond to the man holding Iris hostage though. Lying would have only gotten him so far, since he was sure the rebels would keep an eye on the news in wait for an announcement that he was stepping down as king. It had been better to set proper expectations up front and pray that the woman he loved wouldn’t suffer further as a consequence.

The only question that remained was how he was going to get her back from Ethan.

Now that he knew where she was and felt convinced she hadn’t left him of her own volition, he wasn’t just going to leave her in the clutches of the Scourge. Even though he already knew Jacob would disapprove, he needed to do something about this situation. If that meant leaving without the permission of his security team, then that was what he would have to do.

Wringing the excess water from his hair with a towel, he traipsed back into his bedroom and picked up his phone to look at the photos Ethan had sent again. There had to be something in the background that he could use to narrow down where the rebel was hiding. A window, a specific kind of architectural feature, maybe a sign from Iris. However, after staring at it for half an hour he couldn’t find anything useful, so he set the device back down with a frustrated sigh. As much as he loved detective shows, he things he saw on TV rarely translated to real life. He didn’t have the know-how to find someone with just a couple pictures…

But Jacob did.

Cas pressed his lips together, drumming his fingers contemplatively against his pant leg. He was hesitant to tell the guard anything, because he knew how the other man would react, but he also knew he couldn’t handle this by himself. Last time he’d tried, he had ended up practically alone in the outer districts, fighting for his life in a warzone. He couldn’t risk that again—not when he knew the entire kingdom would suffer if something happened to him.

So, pressing back against the frantic voice inside of him that urged him to throw caution to the wind and go after Ethan without getting anyone else involved, he took a slow breath and made up his mind. Iris deserved his best, and his best was Jacob. In the morning, he would share the news privately with his guard and hope the other man would help him bring her back. It was his only option.
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Drifting in and out of consciousness as Iris tried to make sense of who she was and where she was, she found it a struggle to have a firm grasp on what reality was. Ethan hadn’t been kidding on the fact she was going to suffer for Cas not stepping down and she wished for the crazy ex-boyfriend of hers to just put her out of her misery. It took a lot of willpower to tell herself it was worth it, that she had made the right decision even though it caused her all this pain. Ethan hadn’t been nice in any way; he had left her with the broken arm and beaten body on the floor not even bothering to throw a blanket her way to combat the cold night.

Tears streaked down her face as she could feel the pain pulsating in her arm, the pains from the beats and kicks had dulled but only because there was a new pain on the block drawing all her focus. Iris didn’t have the energy to move so she stayed on the floor drifting in and out of exhaustion only finding herself to rouse at sounds approaching her cell or because the pain was too much to give her some rest. Hearing some sort of argument outside Iris opened her eyes towards the door trying to focus enough to listen.

“Are you really going to kill her?”

“It’s the only way to send a message, if he knows I’m serious at killing her then he will step down. If he doesn’t and she dies, then he will be taken by guilt.”

“Ethan it’s risky, I thought you loved the girl, but this is a little bit farfetched. There is talk, that maybe you need a break and some….”

Don’t! That’s absurd I am within my right mind and doing the right thing for this cause or have you forgotten on who the enemy is!” Ethan snapped at the other who just sighed and wandered off not wanting to get into a fight with a man who was losing his sanity as each day went, obsessing over one thing. “She will understand my love, the sacrifice I am making for the greater good here!” As if trying to affirm to himself that she still loved him and would understand his decisions.

The noise died down again and Iris couldn’t hear anymore voices as the exhaustion took her once more, eyes resting for a moment as she succumbed to the darkness. It had been another day before she started to come around again her energy still dwindling and the pain still there, but she knew there couldn’t be much longer he would hold out for. As her eyes began to open, she made sense of a figure in the corner, an outline of someone on the chair who leaned forward to her as her eyes slowly blinked registering her surroundings.

“Today is the day my princess. It is time for you to play your part in my plan.” Ethan spoke in a soft manner as he edged forward his eyes solely on the girl he had loved. Kneeling down at her side he began to stroke her hair in his fingers as if soothing her from being unwell, another sick twisted game of his as he acted like this was normal.

With her dry throat Iris managed a hoarse whisper to him still not giving up hope that Cas had moved on and was living his best life as a King they deserved. “It won’t work."

“Shhh, save your energy my sweet. I expect this to be long, slow and even more painful.” With a glint in his eye, he drew a blade from his pocket the steel blade pressing against her abdomen as he leaned over her body still on the floor. Inching closer to her lips Ethan kissed her softly as he pressed the blade into her skin slowly earning a whimper of pain and jolt of her body against his as he pressed the knife in further. Pulling back from the kiss he could see the tears in her eyes the struggle to not sob in front of him and show him the pain she was in; warmth of her blood had touched his fingertips before he pulled back leaving the knife in place knowing the weapon would help stem the blood flow and give her longer before bleeding out.

Rising to his feet he pulled back before nodding to a comrade in the room who stopped recording the scene before them and handed the phone over in silence. There was a green hue to the guy who felt sick watching, but none the less he had stood by Ethan as he took the next steps in his plan. Ethan had snatched the phone from him and wasted no time in sending that little snippet of a video to the King to see how serious he was in his words. Whether or not the King had turned off communication to his number he didn’t know, but he sent it none the less hoping he hadn’t blocked the number.

Enjoy living with your decision.
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The next day, after a night of getting no sleep at all, Cas headed to Jacob’s office early in the morning to catch him before they both got swept up in other responsibilities. Well, before the guard did. Since the texts had come through, any chance of him getting any work done had been thrown out the window. He couldn’t think about anything other than Iris, and he wasn’t going to rest until he made sure she was safe from Ethan. There was a good chance that he was the only one who knew where she was and what he was doing to her, after all, so it was on him to help her.

Knocking on the office door, he could only hope his guard felt the same way.

“Come in.” Jacob’s voice rang through the wood, and the king stepped inside to a surprised looking head of security, seated behind his desk. It was only a quarter past five in the morning, and Cas usually slept in until at least seven, so the other man hadn’t been expecting him to make an appearance when the sun had barely risen outside. His bemusement was reflected in his tone as he asked, “Your Majesty, is there something I can do for you this morning?”

“Yeah, actually,” Cas nodded, taking a breath and sitting down across from the guard with his arms folded over his knees. “I… got a message from an unknown number last night.”

“You did?” Immediately, Jacob’s brows furrowed with concern and he leaned forward in an urgent posture. “What did it say?”

“Whoever it is said he has Iris.” Despite his best efforts, Cas couldn’t stop the note of worry from slipping into his voice. “He demanded that I step down as king or else she’ll suffer… and he sent photos.”

Jacob pursed his lips. “Did you respond?”

“I did, but I told him I wasn’t going to give in to his demands. He sent another photo after that.”

“Do you mind if I look?”

The king nodded. He dug his phone out of his pocket and pulled up the text thread, winced at the sight of the photos, and slid the device across the desk for the other man to take. While Jacob reviewed the messages and attached pictures, he went on, “I think I know who sent these, because he called her ‘my girlfriend.’ Before she came to the Capital, Iris was with this crazy guy… the same one who shot me while I was stuck in one of the districts. I wouldn’t put it past him to do all of this to her, even though he talks about her like he still has feelings.”

“And I’m guessing you’re showing these to me because you want me to get the military involved?” Jacob arched his brows.

“Well…” Cas shuffled his feet underneath the desk.

“Your Majesty,” the guard sighed. “I understand your worries, but to be frank, I’m much more concerned about the fact that this man got ahold of your personal number. I don’t like that one bit, and I think it’s more important that I spend my time investigating how that information was leaked—”

As he was speaking, the phone in his hand buzzed, and Jacob looked down at it with a frown as he saw that the same unknown number had just sent a new message. This one, a video. His eyes flicked back up to Caspian, who was mirroring his confused expression, before he turned the phone’s volume all the way down to zero and pressed play. Holding it at an angle to conceal the contents from the king, he fought a grimace as he watched the man on the screen bury a knife in Iris’s torso while he kissed her. Cas’s theory about a deranged ex was definitely looking possible.

He also felt a stab of anger within himself that caught him off guard. He wasn’t close to Iris by any means, yet watching someone torture her like that made him grip the phone tighter and clench his jaw. A wound like that was no joke either. If there was no one around to give her medical attention, she wasn’t going to survive it, and he suspected that was the point, since the sender had indicated that he wouldn’t hold back if the king didn’t adhere to his conditions. The man behind this ploy was wicked.

“Did he send something else?”

Caspian’s question tore Jacob out of his red haze, and he looked up again, calculating. “Yes,” he answered honestly after a pause. “But I don’t think you should look at it. He’s just trying to torment you.”

“Why? What did he send?” Cas paled slightly, extending a hand to take the phone back.

“I’m sure you can guess, given the photos he sent last night,” Jacob replied, though he didn’t move to hand over the phone right away. “For your own sanity, you should let me delete this one.”

Cas pursed his lips. “She’s… still alive in the new photo… right?”

Jacob nodded. “I’d also like to keep this for a while, if you’ll allow me. The men in software security need to analyze it, so we can find out if it was hacked.”

“Okay,” the king frowned again, bouncing a leg restlessly. So far, the conversation wasn’t going his way at all. He’d come to Jacob in the hopes of getting something done about Iris, not his cellphone. While the latter was important too, since it was a matter of national security, he cared more about the person who was potentially at risk of losing her life. And he wasn’t going to leave until he got a straighter answer.

“You can do whatever you want with the phone. I don’t care, but Iris matters to me, Jacob,” he said forwardly, his fear transitioning into a more serious expression. “Can’t you spare at least a task force or something to help me find her and bring her back? I can’t just leave her out there with that psycho. He could actually kill her.”

Jacob remained quiet for a moment, his eyes dropping to the screen again with the macabre thumbnail for the video he’d just watched. Iris’s captor may have already killed her. However, he still found himself nodding as he lifted his gaze to the king’s face once more. After seeing what was being done to her, he had to agree with Caspian, albeit reluctantly. Even if it was too late, they would have both hated themselves for not trying.

“Fine,” he conceded. “I’ll put together a team to see if we can find out where she is.”
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“Ethan! What you have you done?”

“I told you this would happen; this is the plan!”

“Ethan, you said you wouldn’t kill her, she won’t survive that without medical attention… the guys still left in the rebellion won’t like this one bit…”

Cutting in and out Iris could hear voices not too far from her, she didn’t dare move to not irritate the wound she was now supporting but keeping awake and trying to hear what was happening around her was difficult. On occasion she could hear snippets, voices she didn’t fully recognise, and the conversations seemed to be more debates and arguments. Fading in and out she tried to pinpoint key things that where happening, anything that could be of use but all she could feel was the searing pain in her side and a steady amount of blood pooling from the wound surrounding her on the floor.

“Why hasn’t he done anything yet?”

“He said he’d block your number; I doubt he has seen the video, and this would have been all for nothing!”

NO!

The loud shout jolted Iris awake once more, the room was spinning around her, and she couldn’t tell you how long had passed. It could have been a minute or an hour because all sense of time had escaped her whilst in her current state. The only thing she knew for sure was that when the darkness enveloped her it gave her a brief respite. Pain didn’t seem to affect her whilst she wasn’t awake, and it was hard to keep fighting against it. Iris knew better, she knew deep down she couldn’t keep letting herself fall asleep as the next time could very well be permanent. Was there any point to fighting it? No one was going to come for her, she could go somewhat peacefully in her sleep and then Ethan would have no hold on her or Cas.

Who could use her for blackmail if she was dead? But… she didn’t want to die. Deep down there was a part of her that wanted to live, to find that happiness she had once had with Cas. That one night in the hotel when they had planned to run away together had been wonderful, there was no worry no fear and all they did was have fun together getting a taste for what it felt like to be in a relationship. It hadn’t ended too great, not with the death of his father and then everything changed once more.

With the little fight she felt she raised her arm, hand shaking from effort before she touched the knife embedded in her. Just the small amount of movement and touch to the blade sent a ripple of pain through her body, crying out as the pain made her alert once more. Panting from the effort her hand dropped down to her side into a cold wet substance that she knew was her blood. Chest heaving, she was awake, alert and feeling the pain in her as she tried to focus on what was now happening around her.

“WHERE IS SHE?”

Fully alert she could hear a voice that she knew, a loud womans voice asking for someone. No demanding for someone. It was Maisie it had to be her, maybe she had come to her rescue? But there was no way Ethan would let her past, there was no way she could get to her.

“It’s NONE of your business! Now GET OUT!”

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Over the next five hours, the palace turned into a madhouse as every man and woman available was assigned to last minute jobs. Between Jacob and Cas’s leadership, there were multiple teams operating to investigate the cell phone, the rebels who held Iris captive, and the other security systems in place that may have been breached by the Scourge. The king had wanted to be in charge of the search task force of course, but Jacob pointed out that that fell in his wheelhouse, so he took over that role while Cas received reports from the other military leaders who were running sweeps of their software coding for traces of invaders.

It was mind-numbing work to comb through everything, but everyone was diligent in their efforts, uncovering a few pieces of evidence that rebel hackers had been inside their system. They even found clues that one of their own men had been feeding information to an outside source, and another team was dispatched to have the culprit arrested at his house and interrogated to find out who he had been communicating with.

Through it all, Caspian felt sick. While the royal security made progress on improving their firewalls and removing spyware that would better protect the military, they had yet to figure out exactly where Iris was located. The carrier for the phone that had sent the texts was identified and ordered to hand over everything it had on the device’s owner, but it was clear from a glance that the user was working behind a fake identity—not uncommon for a member of the Scourge. They weren’t sure if the address on file was accurate either, so the only option left was to search the photos in the text thread for details that would allow them to narrow down the location.

That was where Jacob came in. Before he’d taken over as the head of security, he’d developed his skills as a talented tracker, among other things, so he scoured the pictures Ethan had sent for over two hours, taking down notes and assigning other security workers to research information about specific districts that the rebellion controlled. With his expertise, the team was finally able to narrow down their parameters to just one district not too far from the place he’d dropped Iris off the last time they’d crossed paths.

It was then that Cas came by to check on their progress, and the guard beckoned him over with a wave of his hand.

“Do you have something?” the king asked hopefully, leaning over to see all the haphazard papers the other man had been working with. There were scribbles and pins and lines drawn across pages, all interspersed with scratch marks where Jacob had ruled out the places she couldn’t be located.

“I believe she is most likely in this neighborhood here…” the older man nodded, tapping a finger against a digital map that zoomed in over a satellite view of a few houses. “Or here.” With a swipe, he brought the view to a different street in the same district, about five miles away from the first.

“Send a team to each one,” Cas nodded, his heartbeat quickening with excitement. They were so close. “You can head one and I’ll take the other. Between the two of us—” He faltered when the guard held up his hand, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I must insist you stay here,” Jacob frowned. “Aside from the fact that you don’t have military experience, I’m certain that the man behind this is using her to lure you out. I cannot allow you to make yourself vulnerable by walking into a trap.”

“You seriously expect me to stay here and wait around?” Cas scowled.

Jacob held his ground, unperturbed. “It’s your responsibility, Your Majesty. However, if it would make you feel better, we can bring along two drones to record everything, so you can watch the raids from the safety of the palace.”

Cas shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. He didn’t like the idea of being so uninvolved, but he could tell his guard wasn’t going to waver on this. And, as much as it pained him to admit it, the other man was right. “Fine,” he grumbled, turning his head away. “Do it.”

And with permission given from the Aspirian king, two teams of seven were established, and the troops were dispatched by air to search both neighborhoods for the kidnapped girl.
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Ethan was clearly pissed that Maisie of all people was now trying to ruin his plan, he had expected much of her best friend, but he thought he had struck such fear in the girl she wouldn’t be coming here making threats to him now. Ethan knew he had to remove her because she would not stop at getting to Iris who was a key part of his plan currently, a plan that felt like it was falling apart because he was certain that the King would have turned up for her by now. It seemed Iris had been right in saying she had broken his heart and he was now about to lose his only bargaining chip to getting to the crown.

“Ethan! I know you have her; I swear to god if you have hurt her!?”

“Swear to god what Maisie? You’ll kill me? Please, you’re weak and couldn’t even touch me.” Ethan spat back at the girl his rage building as the girl didn’t back down and stood firmly in front of him challenging his authority.

Ethan was right, Maisie knew that, but she couldn’t just let her friend suffer like this. Sighing softly her shoulders slumped because she was useless in this situation because she was only a baker. Maisie didn’t have the backbone or strength to fight it, she didn’t want her friend to get hurt, but what could she do? Bake him a batch of cookies? A bitter thought crossed her mind not that the districts even had the ingredients to bake something so sweet. “The rebellion is done with. Can’t you see it? You can’t bring down the monarchy and it’s stupid to think we can. The districts are suffering, why not focus your effort into improving them?”

Ethan could hear the plea in her voice, the resignation that she was not about to get past him to help Iris. There was no reasoning with him and instead of replying to her Ethan grabbed her by the wrist and began to escort her out of the house they had been using as a temporary base. Dragging along a protesting Maisie, he threw her out onto the floor shaking his head, “Go home Maisie, this is my final warning, or I will do something I’ll regret. You have his protection for now.”

Turning on his heal he slammed the front door behind him and stormed towards the front room where various different people were working away on plans. They were all just as sick and twisted as he were, and he’d established them to continue on the rebellion as others turned their back just because he’d done a few things they didn’t agree with.

“Ethan, they’ve started to trace our hacking. I’ve hidden our signal best we can, but we’ve been blocked out the Capital again.” A gruff voice spoke up, he was new to the rebellion and was an escaped convict from said place.

“Maybe he is coming after all.” Ethan mumbled to himself as he tapped his fingers against his chin. “Pack up your things. I can’t risk you getting caught up in this. Someone needs to continue the rebellion.”

“That’s the sanest thing you’ve said in a while.” Another man with pale skin and burn marks running up his left side chuckled as he nodded to the escape convict both began packing up their stolen computer ready to make a hasty getaway. “We’ll meet at dusk.”

“If I’m not there in two days assume I am dead and enact plan B as discussed.” Ethan stated as he glanced towards the stairs that led upstairs to where Iris was with a knife embedded in her. With everyone giving a quick nod the two men that had been helping him hack into the Capital had scarpered out from the house leaving him and a few expendable members of the rebellion left in the household. After all he had to make them think they had squashed the last of the rebellion if they were on their way. It could all be for nothing and maybe no one was coming, but you could never be too careful.
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It was almost torturous to watch the raids from a distance. Caspian chewed anxiously on the inside of his lip as he watched the screens that had been set up for him in the palace’s security office. He wished he could have gone with Jacob to make sure they got Iris back unharmed. He may not have had experience with this particular kind of mission, but he’d been to the districts before and had survived practically on his own. Was it really so much worse to go back with a fully equipped military unit?

Team one is approaching the target.

The crackled sound of the team commander’s voice over the comm device pulled him out of his moping, and he sat up straighter, his eyes flicking to the live feed on his left. The drone was hovering over a row of dilapidated buildings at the end of a cul-de-sac, above which a transport vehicle was lowering itself to deposit seven armed men and women in the street. The king could feel his heart thudding in his chest, and he leaned forward in his seat, as if he could get closer to them if he only pressed himself nearer to the screen.

As he watched, the team jogged toward the first building and jimmied the door open—since they were small groups, they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves by being too loud—before they slipped inside with their guns in their hands. The soldier piloting the drone steered it lower to follow them at a distance, so Cas could see as they explored every part of the house and eventually declared it abandoned. From there, they did the same with the rest of the buildings on the street until they could confirm that there were no members of the rebellion hiding in the area. The only people around were poor civilian families, whom the team left alone.

Hawthorn Circle is clear, the commander reported as he led his team back to their hovercar.

Copy. Team two is descending on Parkside now.

This time, it was Jacob’s voice that Caspian could hear over his earpiece, and he turned to the other screen in the office. This one had to be it. If his security guard was right that Iris could only be in one of these two neighborhoods, then the houses the second team was approaching were the only possible places left. He felt a rush of nervousness and excitement, and he brought a hand to his comm device. “Make sure our target stays safe. That’s top priority. We’re bringing her back alive.”

Yes, sir, Jacob replied. His eyes flicked to the drone hovering beside the transport vehicle before turning back to the houses below. The image of Iris’s heavily wounded body was still ingrained in his mind, but he kept to himself his doubts that they would find her alive. He just wanted to bring her tormentor to justice, even if she was dead by the time they found her. With that plan in mind, he switched the safety off on his rifle and led the way down to the street once the craft was low enough that he could jump out, jogging quietly up to the first house on the block with the rest of his team close behind.
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Ascending the stairs Ethan took each step carefully as he found himself smiling to himself as if he had accomplished something of great importance. The male certainly had a screw loose, but it didn’t mater to him as he firmly believed he had won this battle and began humming a tune to himself before finally singing the lyrics out loud to the empty house.

“And I’ll be along. When I’ve finished my song.”

More humming left his lips as his fingers began to tap against the banister as he climbed further heading towards the room, he had left Iris bleeding out inside.

“When I’ve paid all my debts, when I have no regrets…” Pausing at the top of the stairs as he listened out for any sound that was off, eyes flicking back to the bottom of the stairs a sinister smile still on his lips. Satisfied that nothing seemed amiss he continued on moving to the room that wasn’t even unlocked anymore, there was no need when the person he had held captive couldn’t move without making things worse.

Pushing the door open he heard the creak, and he had the satisfaction of seeing his prize sprawled on the floor laying in her own blood as the knife could be seen still in the same place he had left it. Finishing off the verse in his song as he sauntered inside eyes carefully watching the girl he had loved, “Right here in the old therebefore…”

Now fully inside the room Ethan crouched beside Iris who was giving him a look full of loathing, “When nothing is left anymore.” The verse of song now at an end Ethan reached his hand out caressing her cheek with his finger as if this was natural. Fingertips feeling how cold her skin was and he knew there was not much time left for the love of his life. Bring his fingers to his lip he kissed them before pressing those very same fingers to the side of her cheek as if giving her one last kiss goodbye before rising to his feet once more.

“Goodbye Iris.”

Accepting that she was gone he moved to the bed in the room taking a seat on the old mattress, a puff of dust rising as he did so and the sounds of old springs groaning under his weight. All he had to do now was wait and watch, if no one came he would simply bury the body later and make his move to join the others.

“Rot in hell…”

If those were to be her last words then so be it, what was the point of fighting anymore? All hope was fading away of any form of escape or someone coming to save her. It was hard to keep focus and she felt drained just wanting to do nothing more than go to sleep and give up fighting. I’m so tired… so very, very tired.

Silence fell into the room again and Iris couldn’t quite tell if Ethan had left or stayed, but she didn’t have the energy anymore to worry about it. If she could she would swear that she could hear her heartbeat ringing in her ears, her ragged breaths filling the room as she struggled to keep her grip on reality. Giving up Iris let herself fall into the lull of sleep, eyes closing as her head rolled to the side. It was hard to tell if she was breathing because it was so shallow, her chest barely moved as she drifted between sleep and unconsciousness.

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