"It's because I don't trust her an inch," Marcus said dryly, taking a sip from his tankard.
Thordal glanced ruefully at his own empty glass, then gestured to the bartender. "Why not, lad?"
Marcus blinked. "You do realise that she manipulated me for all I was worth and tried to kill both me and my wife on several occasions?"
"Years ago. Water under the bridge." Thordal stroked his beard with a nod of thanks to the girl who filled his glass. "She's more than proved herself since then."
The younger knight snorted, settling back into the sparse wooden chair. "Not enough."
"So what does it take?"
"It takes sincerity. She's changed because she wants something, not because she knows it's the right thing."
Thordal leaned forward. "Maria regrets almost every second of the past ten years of her life. The least you could do is let her try to atone."
Marcus laughed bitterly. "Fallen for the pretty face hook, line, and sinker, haven't you?"
"Do you think I didn't hate her just as much as you do?" Thordal's voice was dangerously raised. He glanced around awkwardly as heads turned, then lowered it. "Marcus, Crimson Sabatt was a monster she created, a mask she wore."
"And she's worn it so long it's part of -"
"Shut up and let me finish. She betrayed my people; she all but destroyed my homeland. Remember when I nearly destroyed Alandra's best set of crockery when you suggested we should work together?"
Marcus nodded, fingers twisting absently around the handle of the metal tankard. "Yeah."
"I learned to trust her."
"Became infatuated with her, you mean."
"She was not trying to manipulate me. She was and is sincere."
"You can't know that."
"I can." Thordal took a deep breath. "Marcus, sometimes you've got to actually trust someone before they'll show their true colours. You need to take the first step."
"And what if they aren't worthy of it?"
Thordal leaned back, shaking his head. "Lad, you have serious trust issues."
"What," Marcus said deliberately, "is that supposed to mean?"
"Remember that little party with the Eastern Raiders? And how you and Kes were at daggers drawn?"
"Kes deserved that."
"She didn't. She made one mistake, and you called her a murderer in front of Queen and country!"
Marcus' eyes sunk down to the table, fingers rapping softly against the edge. "I apologised for that," he said evenly.
"Did you mean it?"
Blue eyes snapped up. "Now, wait just a minute. If you're trying to compare me to that weasel -"
"That weasel effectively gave her life up for the Darion Empire. The fact she survived doesn't make the gesture any less noble. No one expected you to blow up a bridge after you defected. How'd you like to be blamed for that mess for the rest of your life?"
Marcus remained silent.
"Do you trust me?" Thordal said quietly.
"But you didn't initially."
"Of course not! You're from Narlind. It was instinctive."
"And when did you start to trust me?"
"When I found out you weren't actually involved in any of the raids on Challia." Marcus raised an eyebrow. "Where are you going with this?"
"So you only trust someone if they haven't actually done anything wrong. Ever. In their entire life."
Marcus exhaled. "Come on, that's ridiculous."
"Is it? Sounds mighty accurate to me."
"We've all done something wrong. It would be insane for me to hold grudges over everything."
"Yet you do." Thordal folded his arms on the table. "Well, perhaps not everything, but if someone ever does anything big and wrong and stupid, you don't give them a chance. You hold it against them forever. Does the concept of repentance mean anything to you at all?"
Marcus' face twisted. If Thordal hadn't known better, he would have thought that for a second he'd chewed his lip. "Leopards don't change their spots, Thordal."
"Boy, you and I both know that's not true."
"It has to be. Because, if it's not -" Marcus closed his eyes, clenching his hand into a fist. "It works both ways."
Thordal took a swig of mead, studying the eddies in the yellow liquid as it settled. "So," he murmured. "You hold the world to an unchanging black and white morality, not allowing black to fade, because you're scared that white will be tarnished?"
"Thordal, now's not really a good time to wax poetic."
"But I'm right, aren't I?" The Viking looked up. "You won't allow yourself to think someone could become good because it means that the reverse could happen."
Marcus' eyes drifted from Thordal's face, looking somewhere out over his shoulder. "Perhaps." His fingers drummed the table again, louder and firmer. "Go on, say it."
"That I'm horribly insecure and that I need to stop being an idealist and believing that perfect good is possible." He closed his eyes again. "And that I need to grow up."
Thordal took a long breath, then grinned. "You, kid, are a walking contradiction."
Marcus' face relaxed. He chuckled, resting his chin on his fist. "What are you blathering about now?"
"You're the weirdest mixture of idealism and cynicism I've ever come across. Then you condemn and reinforce your insecurity in the same breath."
"By saying that you need to grow up." Thordal rubbed his forehead, resisting the urge to laugh. "I think those trust issues of yours are so deep-rooted you don't even trust yourself."
"Insightful," Marcus said, eyebrow raised, but there was still a twinkle in his eye. "Have you considered hiring yourself out as an emotional counsellor?"
"Actually, no, but that's an interesting idea." Thordal glanced out the window. The stars were growing brighter in Vestholm's sky. "Come on. I don't think Alandra would appreciate me keeping you late at the Rook and Pony."
Marcus grimaced. "No, she wouldn't."
"Exactly." Thordal nodded to the barmaid with a grin, passed her enough coins to amply cover that evening's bill, then stepped out into the cool night air. Marcus was not far behind him.
"Thordal," Marcus said quietly as they turned down the road towards Castle Vestholm.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't speak to anyone about the content of our discussion just now. Especially Alandra."
"Not a problem." Thordal looked up, studying one of the clouds passing overheard. "Just - just give Maria a chance, Marcus."
He looked down at the younger man, who smiled weakly. "Agreed."
"And give yourself a chance as well."
Faint surprise flickered in his eyes, and he gave a lopsided grin. "I suppose I can manage that."