"I ought to have the lot of them shipped off to Fort Drakon! Incompetent, cowardly idiots!"

Loghain Mac Tir let Howe rant on before him, barely listening to the man's words. This was what you got when positions were conferred by birth, rather than by worth. Rendon Howe had continued his predecessor's practice of padding the Denerim guard with bastard sons of the nobility to curry favor with his cronies, and the market district was inevitably assigned the least competent of the lot. According to witnesses, not one of them had backed up their sergeant, leaving him to take on two Grey Wardens and their allies alone.

Kylon deserved a promotion for his determination, but the brutal truth was that Loghain would almost have preferred it if the Wardens had killed the man, instead of simply releasing their hostage when they were clear. It would have made it easier to sway public perception of the event. As it was, the deaths of Howe's guards were being greeted with raised mugs and mocking laughs in taverns throughout Denerim, and the reputation of the two surviving Wardens – Maric's bastard and the Cousland brat – had been elevated another notch in the eyes of the commoners.

Blast it all! Who was he doing this for, if not the people of Ferelden? Certainly not for the soft and spoiled 'nobles' who would have given the land back to Orlais on a silver platter to save themselves the trouble of actually defending it. Maric must be spinning in his grave; his son and only heir had turned out to be a boy with a head filled with foolish dreams, dreams that had gotten him killed, and now this: wasting time trying to force the Arls and Banns into line when they should be united to deal with the darkspawn!

Not that this was a Blight; that had simply been a lie of the Wardens, a handy excuse to force their way back to prominence, but if Ferelden could not stand together to face this threat, it would be like waving a banner announcing their weakness to every nation.

And his staunchest ally among the nobles was this man, who seemed bent upon collecting as many titles as possible: Arl of both Amaranthine and Denerim, Teyrn of Highever – though Loghain had not yet confirmed that appointment. Holding it back served as both a carrot and a reminder to Howe that Loghain outranked him even without his status as his daughter's Regent. Rendon Howe's reputation had been made at the battle of White River during the Orlesian occupation; he was an abrasive bastard, but he was a brave abrasive bastard, and Loghain had thought him a true patriot, but -

He'd thought that Bryce Cousland was a patriot, as well, though he had only Rendon Howe as witness to the man's traitorous intent. His tale of the Teyrn's confession that he had been in contact with Orlais to broker a marriage between the Orlesian royal house and the Theirin line had sounded all too plausible, particularly in light of Arl Eamon's urging Cailan to set Anora aside and remarry...as if she were the reason no children had been conceived, when her husband had preferred playing soldier to trying to beget an heir!

But Loghain was no fool, and it would be impossible not to notice the convenient ends met by those who possessed what Howe desired: first the Couslands of Highever and then the Arl of Denerim, murdered in an 'alienage uprising'. He'd found no proof that the man had lied, but he still made a point never to turn his back on him when they were alone, and Cauthrien was seldom far away.

"I'm more interested in the witness accounts of the elf who accompanied the Wardens and helped them escape," he said at last, cutting off Howe's vitriolic diatribe without a hint of apology. "He sounds amazingly like the Antivan that you brought to me."

"I noticed that myself, Your Grace," Howe replied, his voice taking on the oily tone that he assumed when he felt pressed, but not yet cornered. "No doubt he is simply biding his time and waiting for an opening. A Grey Warden is a formidable target, after all, regardless of the skill of the assassin."

"Assassin? You hired an assassin to kill the Wardens?"

Loghain gave Howe a reproving glare before turning to face his daughter. "A brutal necessity, Anora, and one that royal houses have been making use of for centuries." He wasn't proud of it, and he likely would never have conceived of the notion on his own, just as using the blood mage to poison Arl Eamon had been an idea suggested to him by the current Arl of Denerim. Diffidently, of course. Always diffidently:

"An opportunity has arisen, Your Grace."

"An opportunity?" Loghain had never been one to speak in euphemisms, while Rendon Howe seemed to relish them, his gray eyes gleaming with the true intent behind his smooth words.

"A chance to head off Eamon's treachery. I have a source within Redcliffe who claims that Eamon's son is showing signs of magical ability."

Eamon's son a mage? That would deprive the Arl of an heir, but would not prevent him from continuing to press Cailan to take a new queen. "Go on."

"The Arlessa has evidently kept the knowledge from Eamon and is attempting to locate a mage outside the Chantry to give the boy sufficient training to conceal himself. The blood mage that was removed from templar custody could be of use in this matter."

More euphemisms. The templars from whose custody the blood mage had been 'removed' had not survived the removal, and Howe had not informed Loghain of the use of his soldiers to accomplish it until it was done. Loghain had no great love for the Chantry, but to deliberately antagonize the venerable institution by slaughtering its soldiers was foolhardy. What was done was done, however, and Loghain had allowed Howe to keep the blood mage in custody against future need for the formidable and forbidden magics that he could use.

"To teach a boy how to hide his magic?" If the Chantry believed that Eamon was involved in the deception, it could damage his credibility, but -

"To gain access to the Arl," Howe clarified smoothly. "In addition to their arcane talents, mages also frequently possess knowledge of the uses of certain types of plants and other substances."

Poison. He spoke of poisoning Rowan's younger brother, uncle of the King. A man who had spit upon the sacrifices of his sister and Maric by taking an Orlesian as his wife, and who might even now be encouraging Cailan to do the same. "Do it," he said with a nod.

"It shall be as Your Grace commands."

Rendon Howe could lick boots with the best of them, but he was willing to touch the tasks that other men would not. It didn't make Loghain like or trust the man any more, and perhaps that made him a hypocrite, but hard times required hard actions. He did not matter, and neither did Howe, nor Eamon; the survival of Ferelden was paramount.

Anora scowled at him now, ignoring Howe, as she always did. "You should have told me. I am the Queen. It will reflect upon me, if it is discovered. Those Wardens are quite popular right now." One pale brow arched pointedly. "They're actually killing the darkspawn."

She was without doubt his daughter: practical to a fault, but while they agreed on the importance of preserving Ferelden, he had been displeased to discover that she differed markedly with him on how it should be achieved, and was growing more vocal with her disagreement as the weeks wore on.

"We will discuss this later," he told her curtly. In private, his eyes added. Queen or not, he remained her father, and he had taught her everything she knew about leading, but she frequently forgot that he had not taught her everything that he knew. She would never have chastised him so openly in public, but she held Howe in such contempt that she rarely acknowledged his presence, even to the degree of guarding her tongue. "I will do whatever is necessary, for you and Ferelden."

"As you did for Cailan?" The barely veiled accusation caught him by surprise. She had known her husband for a fool, had ruled in his stead for five years while he played the hero, yet she had still cared for him, perhaps even loved him, in some odd way. Loghain had known that she had her suspicions about exactly what had transpired at Ostagar, but she had said nothing until now. He stared at her, unflinching, until a blush colored her fair cheeks and she dropped her eyes in surrender, murmuring something about matters of state as she backed from the room.

Howe swallowed nervously at the icy gaze that Loghain directed at him. "I apologize, Your Grace," he said, still all oil and servility. "Women rarely appreciate the necessity behind such weighty decisions; I should have censored my words."

"Yes. You should have." Bryce Cousland would not have been so obsequious; the other nobles had respected his opinions. Why had he turned traitor?

But did he?

Even as the thought rose, he was putting it to bed with the weary ease of long practice. He had chosen the path that would save Ferelden, and the allies that came with it. If he faltered now, it would be seen as weakness. The only way out was forward, and by the Maker, he would see Ferelden through this crisis.

Howe cleared his throat. "I have received some...interesting information regarding one of the Wardens' companions," he offered. He hastened on, evidently remembering the Teyrn's intense dislike of guessing games. "It seems that she is an Orlesian: a bard who had concealed herself in Lothering, posing as a lay sister to the Chantry for several years."

An Orlesian bard? Loghain's jaw clenched, his hands curling into fists. It was just as it had been before: the Grey Wardens were nothing more than agents for their former conquerors. Maric had refused to believe it, and Cailan had been even worse, but now...

"Where did you obtain this information?"

"An...Orlesian noblewoman," Howe confessed, obviously well aware of how well such news would be received. "A Contessa Marjolaine Duvalier. She sent you a missive advising you of the situation; it seems the woman is wanted in Orlais for selling state secrets. The Contessa feels that she might be attempting to use the Wardens to regain the favor she has lost."

Sent me a missive? "Reading my mail now, are you?"

Howe paled at the deceptively calm tone. "Only that from Orlais, Your Grace. I employ a very skilled man to inspect it; even the briefest note could be sealed in an envelope with a potent poison. The Orlesian nobles are most skilled in political intrigue. I thought it best -"

"You thought wrongly. From now on, I am to see all such letters before they are – inspected. Better yet, burn them outright and spare anyone the risk."

"Burn them?" The Arl's surprise showed in spite of himself. "But Your Grace, there may be advantage to be gained from the knowledge they provide. The Contessa knows this bard, and has offered her assistance in -" He trailed off at the look on the face of the Regent of Ferelden.

"Burn them," Loghain grated out each word deliberately, "and never speak to me of such things again." He would not, in fact or seeming, consort with anything from Orlais. Not now, not ever.

"As you wish, Your Grace." Howe composed his face into a mask of neutrality as he bowed, but not before the Teyrn caught sight of the displeasure in those calculating gray eyes.

"I will deal with the Wardens and their Orlesian allies myself," he said. "Now, leave me." He deliberately turned his back, leaning on the windowsill and staring out over the city, his true attention focused behind him, waiting. Would the jackal forget that it was the lion who gave him the scraps from his kills? Not today, it seemed; after a brief hesitation, the Arl's quick footsteps receded toward the door and faded.

The jackal still followed the lion, but not out of loyalty. Even if his other suspicions were wrong, Loghain knew that he was right about this, but he couldn't afford to give a damn. That Howe followed, that he was useful, was all that was important.

Ferelden was all that mattered.

A.N. - Loghain continues to fascinate me, and while I still have not created a Warden that doesn't kill him at the Landsmeet, I have considerably more empathy for him than I do Rendon Howe. The writers gave his character the usual ambiguity, allowing the player to interpret him as either a power-grabbing tyrant or tragic hero, but they gave more than enough material to make it easy for me to see him as the latter, particularly with Howe as the amoral bastard that he is.

Been playing the game through as Talia again, and made an interesting discovery: when she is grilling Isolde about Jowan, the Arlessa states that she trusted Loghain, who had sent the mage. That's a bit of a mind-blower, since it implies that Isolde confided to Loghain that her son was a mage, which makes very little sense, given his well-known antipathy to Orlesians. The flashback inserted into this chapter is my way of making some explanation, not only of how the Arlessa would have thought that Loghain sent Jowan, but for how Loghain & Howe would have even known she was looking for an apostate in the first place. Isolde never struck me as being that bright, so I can't see her having any idea of how to find a mage outside the Chantry's control, and probably too ready to swallow whatever cover story Howe cooked up. Meanwhile, I find the idea of Howe having spies in locations besides Highever quite plausible, given his ambitions.

I know that it is stated in the game that Jowan was sent by Loghain, and that the soldiers who killed the templars who were pursuing him were Loghain's men (and yes, Bann Alfstanna's younger brother is in Howe's dungeons, and no, Loghain doesn't know he's there). In my thinking, Howe did a lot of things in Loghain's name, with the intent of turning on him at some point, letting him take all the blame and making a grab for the throne himself. It doesn't absolve Loghain of responsibility for what he did, and didn't do, but it dovetails more clearly with my idea of what type of man he is and how a man of honor could be goaded into treason by a mixture of pride and deceit.