A/N: This is the sequel to "In All These Wasteful Hours" and I strongly suggest that you read it before you start with this. Unless, of course, you have no problems whatsoever with Loghain and the Warden suddenly being on semi-friendly terms. :)
I own nothing and make no money from this.
As always, many thanks to CJK for beta, plotting and hand-holding.
All through Greece for those who flocked to war
they are holding back the anguish now,
you can feel it rising now in every house;
I tell you there is much to tear the heart
(Agamemnon – Aeschylus)
The word on the street is that the war is over.
The word on the street is that because the hordes are no longer marching towards Denerim or the larger villages, because their leader lies hopelessly defeated and their purpose is seemingly lost, the war is no more. It's a simple mistake to make. The ashes behind them have buried their footsteps and the chaos is gradually replaced by growth; the beggars pitching camp in the burnt-out houses have been properly deported so the nobility can return and in the marketplace the luckiest merchants are setting up shop.
Loghain knows all there is to know about war and this, he thinks as he walks through Denerim, this isn't peace. It's a convenient pause from battle, scarcely more than that. And the future, wherever they will spend it, whatever they will be doing, is going to be devoted to further restoring what has been lost. Once the nobility is satisfied there's the matter of the commoners. Every burnt down farm, each son and daughter who died, every source of income gone to waste will have consequences.
This time, though, he will not be there to deal with what the king couldn't. He will not carry out the unpleasant orders, those that were half-spoken in the dusk of Maric's throne room when everyone had been sent away; he will not again learn when to forestall and when to allow the King to pronounce the words himself and he will not sit with the fate of Ferelden spread out in his hands at night, frowning over economical decisions or lack of military strategy. Back then he was a farmer's son who rose to kingmaker – a curious fact in a long line of blood and proud names – and the voice behind every brutal reform they made, behind every downright cruel thing they had to do. To Ferelden, for Ferelden.
What he is now remains to be seen.
He has taken up his quarters in the only reopened inn within the city gates. On the second floor, in a small chamber with an even smaller drawing-room, he has resided since the royal guards escorted him out of the teyrn of Gwaren's estate two days ago and it's as much home as anything else in this bloody city. With the Warden and her companions gone to reside with the future teyrn of Highever, Loghain is left alone. He is expected to care for himself and disturb no one.
It calls for a life resembling the one they've led on the roads of Ferelden, and it's nothing like the past thirty years where a task as simple as shaving required the assistance of terrified little boys running around his bedchamber, bowing so deeply their heads almost touched the floor – yes, your Grace; right away, your Grace. That damned title, too, like hearing an Orlesian curse every morning.
Much to his wife's and later his daughter's dismay, he has never liked having servants for his own personal daily routines - it felt too intimate when he first experienced it and that feeling never truly faded.
Yet the thought that he, after thirty years, will never again live like that is odd, too.
Because Maker knew he had practised hard in those years. It is something he seldom admits to himself even now, but he had. He learned that form of life like one learns a language beside the mother tongue, painstakingly and thoroughly and with the irritating knowledge that every small fault, each flaw, will be visible for all to see. In truth, he didn't master it until he married. Celia possessed patience and grace for them both, transforming herself into a proper lady within months of their marriage. She had domestic interests and the intelligence to put them to good use, always in tune with which servant would be best at which precise occupation, something that turned their home into a estate anybody would have been proud of.
Without her, Loghain knows, he wouldn't have had time to keep Gwaren's nobility in one piece. She saw to their successful interaction with the people there, showing unfaltering loyalty to both him and the throne, and had an untiring capacity for always smiling and offering her ear. Only Celia could listen to Lord Anshelm's dire tales of rotting fishing boats – something that he, for the period of ten years, insisted to have compensation for, even though Loghain refused every time – and still wear an expression of at least moderate interest.
They governed the south together – she in person and he through letters and dependants.
And yet there is no doubt in Loghain's mind that people laughed behind their backs, watching his every step in anticipation of his inevitable failures. Those could be minor – forgetting to extend invitation to the important people, hosting a disastrous event, speaking of the wrong matters – or major, such as unwittingly allowing the starved farmers to run amok and all but destroy Lord Dunn's estate, a mess forcing Maric to intervene in the end. Loghain was a hog in fancy armour but he was the right hand of the King himself, who made it no secret he trusted Loghain with his life, which gave them all the more reason to hope for his downfall.
It is only fair, Loghain supposes, for his most serious mistakes to be witnessed by all of Ferelden, accounted for before the whole of the Landsmeet.
He climbed high; his fall must be brutal.
This is what he reminds himself of, what everything reminds him of. The life he used to lead and where it took him. And he is thankful, each day and beyond words, that Celia isn't alive to see it.
Anora has saved a few belongings from the Palace – some books, a handful of maps, old papers – and he has brought those along with his sword and shield and the best bow he could find. These things are the only marks in his temporary home that say something about who he is.
They cannot take the risk of speaking face to face so Loghain has learned the name of his daughter's most trusted courier by now, having seen him every day since the fall of the Archdemon. Domak, a giant oaf of a man who might very well be mute save for the scant words he utters upon arrival and departure. He arrives daily with something – parcels containing not only information and instructions but also gold, food, even clean, neatly folded clothes – and Loghain accepts them, then politely tells the man to return with a simple message of gratitude.
He knows he must leave the city as soon as possible. For her sake if nothing else.
Last time he attended a royal wedding he had stood in these very halls, a hard knot of disgust in his stomach and a sense of dread seeping into the air that surrounded them.
The expenses had been significantly greater back then, he reckons, the display and finery more pronounced and both Rowan and Maric had been irrevocably gone, leaving echoes in between the chairs at the tables. Everything from that time, from the before that Loghain has conveniently tucked away into the farthest corners of his mind, had been erased as Cailan swore the oaths by Anora's side and if Loghain had felt old then, it's nothing compared to how he feels now.
In this room he is little but a ghost.
The crowd is smaller this time, more subdued. Surprisingly few of the nobles he has overheard are openly critical of the Chantry-raised bastard seizing the crown after Cailan. Naturally there is gossip and a few badly disguised frowns at the new king's obvious discomfort in his role, but the vitriol is lacking. Most people are genuinely glad the past year's turmoil is dealt with. It speaks volumes about the damned boy's reign, Loghain thinks, suppressing a grimace. It says even more about his own disastrous time up there, calling himself regent.
The lords and ladies from Gwaren – his lords and ladies, Celia's voice in his head still reminds him - are there in large numbers. He feels an unexpected rush of loyalty, followed by shame, as they scrutinize him with guarded expressions and glances amongst themselves. He doesn't walk up to them.
In the middle of the room the royal couple and their suite stand, dutifully smiling at their guests, making every effort at pleasing them with their presence so the oaths sworn later will be as honest as possible and the uproars kept to minimum. At least Anora does her share of the work - while the boy looks worse off, paling in the bright candle-lit room and seemingly drowning in his own armour. For a few moments he is such a spitting image of his father - long before said father had found the cruelty necessary to rule - that the past seems to have shifted, bled into the present and altered reality altogether.
Loghain can't hold back a grimace this time.
He steps closer to the wall, where scattered groups of nobles are chatting and drinking. Resisting the urge to lean the back of his head against the tapestry-clad walls behind him, he settles for folding his arms across his chest. It was not so long ago that he needed painkilling draughts to move. He should be thankful.
"My knights are waiting in the wings, ser, should there be any trouble."
He looks to his right and spots Cauthrien, fully armed and adopting a cautiously friendly expression. She has recovered well. Last time Loghain saw her she was being carried off to the Chantry healers after having held Fort Drakon for a full day with only a handful of men to her aid. The absurdity in that, in the entire battle of Denerim, returns with full flavour when she stands here like this.
"Cauthrien. It's good to see you," he says, nodding his greeting.
"Huh. There are more than enough people in this room who would like to see you hang, even now," she replies without preamble, leaving his pleasantries hanging mid-air.
"Of course. I expected no less." He frowns. "Did you?"
"It's hardly a joking matter."
"It wasn't a joke."
Cauthrien scoffs, as though she won't even condescend to giving an answer to that.
Maric aside, this is the person who has been closest to him over the past years and her voice, her patterns and habits are nearly as well-known to him as his own. They would have to be, for him to make her his second in command. He can predict and interpret her, better than she realises. Now, Loghain notices, she is torn between her head and her heart and it aggravates her. Cauthrien is famous for not listening to either, if pressed hard enough. She's a force: brutish strength and cold calculation wrapped into a sword-arm that hits like a full storm, and stands like an imperturbable mountain beside what she has sworn to defend. Maric had never approved of Loghain's promotions of her – he had never approved of Loghain's forming a group of elite soldiers in the first place – and asked once, his voice steel, if Loghain was to transform every promising young warrior in the nation into copies of himself.
"You should not have come." With a quick look around, she leans closer. "As I said, my men are here, but they can't serve as your bodyguards."
"I am here as a Grey Warden, and I certainly hope not." Loghain steps out of the way as a pair of young noblewomen pass by, not able to tear their gazes away from him, likely hoping for a noteworthy scandal to make the Landsmeet pale in comparison. "Maric's Shield protects the crown."
"Yes, ser." The mournful tone isn't lost on him but he ignores it all the same. "And who protects you?"
And with a subtle bow she steps away again, like a shadow.
Loghain groans to himself, wishing for something stronger than this diluted sodding wine to drink. He regrets coming, curses the curiosity and need to remain in control of whatever courses that can affect his own future that drove him here. It's wearing him out already. This bloody Palace has that effect on him, its floors and walls thick like those of a prison, the atmosphere downright stifling.
The horde of the gathered nobility of Ferelden does nothing to improve matters.
There's only one person in this room he can approach without it seeming inappropriate, without running the risk of being suspected of treason or rebellion or stabbed to death by those once sworn to him in mutual fealty. If someone told him weeks ago that the thought of her could make him anything less than livid with anger, he would have deemed them idiots, yet here he stands, thinking of her as the only resort at the moment. Pathetic as that may be, he has a royal wedding to get through, preferably alive.
She is occupied socialising several feet away, in a corner of the least populated area of the room and Loghain manages quite efficiently to help himself to a glass of wine, avoiding the Arl of West Hill while at the same time shooting a glance at Anora, who is granting a handful of banns a moment's audience.
He has, however, never seen the Warden look so uncomfortable.
He has in fact seen her send soldiers straight to their deaths with less agony in her face.
Not that she looks anything like herself tonight. She's wearing a silk dress that has several colourful layers, with ornate embroidery splashed across it and Loghain admittedly knows very little of dresses, but this looks like an expensive one, worthy of any royal wedding. A dress that either belongs to someone else or has been purchased under great personal stress since the Warden he knows would rather spend gold on a new blade than on a piece of clothing that doesn't even come with protective runes. Her hair is carefully braided and befitting a noblewoman. Catching his commander's gaze, he receives a scathing glare.
"Not a word, Loghain."
"Warden," he says anyway. Her exasperated look makes it nearly impossible not to smile.
She moves differently wrapped in the rustle of rich, heavy cloth, struggling somewhat to manage the skirts. It seems to annoy her greatly but amuse the man by her side who, judging by his appearance, is the long lost brother.
"Loghain, you may remember my brother – Fergus. Future Teyrn of Highever."
"My lord," Loghain says, nodding.
Fergus hesitates briefly, caught between titles and the abandonment of titles, Loghain presumes. Most people are. Then he nods back, his face closed off but vaguely polite.
"Warden," he offers on cue.
"My condolences for what happened to your family." Loghain feels a fool for saying it, all things considered. But it's good form and form doesn't take into account the fact that he allied himself with the man behind the coup against Highever. Form rarely takes people into account at all.
"Thank you," Fergus says evenly, glancing at his sister who looks like she is consenting. There was a good portion of the influential nobles, Loghain recalls, who did not see Fergus Cousland fit to succeed Bryce. Rumour had it Bryce himself agreed. The boy was a soldier, not a politician, word had it; yet he appears to have grown into his part reasonably well, like most of them do. If he possesses even a fraction of his sister's talent for leadership, the north will have a fine teyrn, Loghain thinks to himself.
As the three of them raise their glasses almost simultaneously and without words, the small group of people next to Fergus stir a little, approaching slowly. The Warden observes them intently.
"Lady Hertha and her sisters are upon us," she says in a low voice, raising an eyebrow. "Shall I leave you to your fate or do you wish me to chaperon you, brother?"
"Ah." Fergus sighs. "You do give her less credit than she deserves."
"Do I? I merely think she's the conniving daughter of a two-faced bastard who always quarrelled with father and opposed his decisions."
"You just thinks vassals should be quiet," Fergus says, smirking. "Serving as pretty ornaments."
"Lady Hertha is hardly pretty."
"Isn't she? I hadn't noticed."
The Warden snorts, taking a sip of wine. Loghain doesn't recognise the young woman who is on her way to their little constellation, but she must be a minor noble from Highever, if their comments are anything to go by. Her eyes are fixed on the future teyrn who, in turn, is still looking at his sister with a teasing glint in his eyes.
"You may leave, Elissa." He turns around to greet the women. "Lady Hertha. My ladies. I trust you are enjoying the feast?"
Loghain feels a hand on his arm and a firm push as the Warden is leading them both away. She has a wistful look on her face, underlined by the tiredness in her voice as they seek out the most reclusive spot in the entire hall.
"My brother's a good man," she says. "Too good, possibly."
"He has advisors, I take it?" Loghain notices Eamon and Teagan are looking in their direction. Wearily, he turns away.
She shrugs. "I don't know what he has now. What's left, I mean."
"You will still be able to advise him, regardless."
"Will I?" She glares at her drink, downing the whole of it. "Yeah. If the Wardens send me to bloody Rialto Bay or Weisshaupt, I'm sure my letters will arrive just in time for Fergus to have married what will be his certain death."
This is a streak of dramatics in the Warden that he hasn't noticed before. It paints her as a much younger woman – or reveals how young she actually is, he isn't certain of which.
"Speaking from experience," Loghain proceeds, "I think your brother will have entirely too much to occupy his thoughts in the near future to even consider courting."
"Ha!" she gives a little chortle. "You do not know Fergus. Before he married, he was... well, he was certainly not wasting any opportunities."
"All the better then; if he is as accustomed to women and courting as you suggest, he will know to evade the disasters."
Loghain himself had been – much to Maric's grim amusement – utterly unfamiliar with the rituals he was expected to participate in when it came to courtships of suitable ladies. Noblewomen were in all things very far from the simple girls he had been accustomed to and not, he found, in a particularly flattering way. It had offered a peculiar kind of torture, learning this.
"I suppose." Her sigh is heavy, then suddenly the stern worry in her face melts into a smile. "Are you trying to comfort me, Loghain?"
He sneers, but says nothing.
And then, by way of bells and drums announcing it, there is dancing.
Loghain instinctively backs away from the floor, and he notices the Warden does the same, so hurriedly in fact that she nearly steps on the bottom of her own dress and stumbles into a nearby lord. Regaining her balance, she proceeds to withdraw and Loghain follows suit in a mutual agreement of sorts. The large entrance is guarded by guards that make no sign of even recognising them as they walk past them, out towards the corridor where the servants are running back and forth. Still stuck in a crowded spot, but with people who are in no position to care about what they do, Loghain finds himself relaxing almost immediately.
"No dancing in Highever?" he puts his empty goblet of wine down on a nearby table.
"Oh, I dance." She adjusts her dress with a little grimace. "Only not voluntarily or with much grace."
Loghain himself has danced as little as possible for thirty years and it has always served as a very vivid reminder of his origins. There seems very little reason to change this fact tonight.
"Come," the Warden says, quickly.
With him at her heels she climbs the flight of the stairs in the entrance, stairs that lead up to a heavily guarded area of the Palace – plenty of sitting rooms, the chamber he used as an office, bed chambers and private quarters for the advisors – and slumps down on the bench placed on the landing. There's a basket full of fruits and a jug of wine conveniently placed in every empty spot of the estate and this is no exception.
Loghain reaches for a pale winter apple as he sits down, too.
"Are you enjoying the wedding?" The Warden – he tries to think of her as Commander, or even Elissa, but old habits die hard – asks, with only the faintest touch of sarcasm in her voice.
"Hardly," he replies, taking a bite of the apple and stretching out his legs. "Are you?"
She snorts. "The roast calf was tender beyond belief. It will be on my mind for a while. And I'm finding myself pleasantly drunk. Other than that, no, I cannot say I do."
"Royal weddings are rarely entertaining."
There's a sharp noise coming from below them and Loghain tenses immediately, as does his companion on the bench, he feels, her hands pausing mid-air when they find no swords to grab. He is about to get to his feet when they hear laughter again, and someone shouting bravos. They both let out a sigh. The drums of war in their heads, the constant readiness and reflexes will not vanish for a long while yet, he knows. He suspects the Warden realises this as well.
They are silent for a while, resting in the reassuring hum rising from the dancing hall and the clattering of trays and plates among the servants.
"Alistair will get used to ruling," the Warden says suddenly. Her voice is firm but otherwise expressionless. "Last time we spoke he said he wouldn't roll over and let Anora decide."
Loghain knows this part. He knows it better than he would like, and feels old again, looking at her.
"Anora is a strong Queen," he says. "But I have not raised a tyrant, Warden. She will treat him as justly as he deserves, in ruling as in everything else."
She winces a little at that; sitting bent forward with her elbows on her knees, swirls the glass in her hand, then sways it back and forth in her palm while keeping it in place with her other hand. Her eyes don't meet his.
"Eamon wanted me to marry Alistair," she says, quietly.
"I had suspected as much." Loghain nods.
"Yes. He told me Alistair would need me and – not surprisingly - that the boy he raised among the servants and later sent away to live in a sodding Chantry would require a political mind beside him on the throne." She sneers, her voice dry now. "And I said I had already seen to it."
Still the same petty triumph at the failure of Eamon's campaign to remove the commoner blood from the throne, Loghain thinks with a badly disguised smirk.
"I could have gained some support as queen, I assume," she continues, glancing at him. "But far from Anora's popularity. It would have been too great a risk."
They speak of this as a matter consisting solely of politics. Loghain finds himself wondering about the part that isn't, possibly reading too much of his own past into it all. He shakes his head as to rid it of the memories. The Warden watches him.
"It can't have been without conflicts and complications back when Maric took the throne, either?"
"No," Loghain says. "It wasn't. The Orlesians had been around for too long for that. And the rebellion took several years. Things... changed over the course of it."
She nods, simply.
One day, perhaps, they might talk about that, too. That day is not today, however, and it's not here in this place where they are badly suited to do anything but wait for the cue to leave.
"It must be strange for you," she remarks, as though something has just occurred to her.
"To be here, you mean?"
"Yes. It's strange for me, too, being around people I know but no longer have bonds to. I'm not a Cousland. Not even to Fergus, I'm..." She presses her hands to her legs, smoothing out the tiny crinkles in the silk. "For you it must be... terribly strange."
"It's odd," he agrees.
She is silent for a long while again. He eats his apple, observing the large paintings downstairs and thinks about how Maric had banned those from his private chambers, claiming he would never get anything done if he had a horde of giants watching over his shoulder.
"When I got dressed in this...thing," she grimaces and tears at the skirt of her dress, "I was looking for suitable places for my daggers, thinking of battle and unforeseen events. And then it dawned on me that I'm neutral. I'm a Warden. My only duty is to Thedas, to defend it from darkspawn. And the only one in this hall that I can rightly call an ally is you."
"All the more reason to tap into the recruitment process as quickly as possible then," he says, not intending it as joke, but is nonetheless met with an unexpected and most genuine ripple of laughter.
"Yes," she agrees, still grinning. "You are right. But first I have to survive another banquet in, oh, a little less than a day."
And then she gets to her feet, swiftly for someone who recently suffered severe injuries, and places a hand on his shoulder to keep her balance as the dress bothers her once more. Loghain wonders what the odds are that he will see her in her usual armour tomorrow, banquet or not.
"I'm going to find my brother before he finds himself in someone else's chamber," she says. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes, you will."
He is glad there is an end to these festivities. After tomorrow, Denerim will go back to its regular state of rebuilding and this pomp will quickly be forgotten. As will their battles, he knows, even the Warden's heroics will fade soon enough without constant reminders.
Outside, as he leaves the Palace only minutes later, the air is cold. The crispness in it is harsh but fresh, and it seems to reinforce the lines of the city that spread out before him on his way back to the inn; as though they're branches stiffened by nights of frost and snow. He takes a deep breath, grateful for the chill in his lungs.
Winter is coming.
A/N: The last line is a total shout-out to George R.R Martin. Sorry. Couldn't resist.