The voice, more than the question, surprises him.
"Is it true?"
Signalling his Lieutnant to oversee the sparring grounds, Cullen turns, half expecting her to not be there at all, for this to be a momentary distraction of his mind. But there she is, in her pristine robes, hair neatly combed back to display the angry red brand on her forehead, hands folded before her, her eyes on his, at the same time empty and full of something he can never read.
"Elsa," he calls with an amiable smile, gently guiding her away from the grounds, from the sound and sight of clashing swords. She never speaks about it, not in any direct form, but Cullen remembers her wariness at the sight of them -at the sight of him- after the rebellion in the Gallows. She had trusted the world built of armor and blade around her until then, had trusted him as well, but he couldn't blame her - none of them had walked out of that unchanged.
"I haven't seen you in days," and it's true - she doesn't come out of the Chantry much, spending most of her time in the library underground, or helping Minaeve with her research, or with Avexis, the other Tranquil girl Cassandra brought in. It's where she feels safer, and Cullen does not question it. When he brought her from Kirkwall, he promised to keep her safe, whatever that means for her.
But she's not here for amenities, and only allows him to lead her so far towards the Haven gates before she turns and asks him again, "Is it true?"
She sounds different, somehow, even if her voice is the same monotone, and her face betrays no emotions. Cullen sighs, and his smile comes out more strained. "Is what true?" he asks, and it's a trivial question - he already knows. Across the grounds, he can see Avexis speaking to Cassandra as well, and he imagines his face must look as torn now as Cassandra's is.
"The Herald's report from Redcliffe," Elsa answers, and she sounds almost annoyed at his modesty now. Cullen wonders if he's imagining the small changes in tone, or if the proximity to the Rift is affecting the Tranquils as well. He files that away as a conversation to have with Cassandra, another time.
But they are. They are all true, and Cullen will not deny Elsa the truth - that's another promise he made her, when he took over Meredith's place.
He tells her of the book the Herald stole from the site of her terrible discovery in Redcliffe, the written evidence of the Venatori's crimes. He tells her of the number of occulara already found by the Herald in her travels, and the hundreds of skulls sitting in that shack yet unused. Her expression never changes, but her eyes drift farther off into places long beyond his reach, no longer watching the snow, but some place inside herself. Her feet shuffle by an inch, and she rearranges her hands over her lap.
"Are you afraid?" he asks, and feels foolish for his own words. Of course she is not.
And the word hangs between them, as she searches for something that will fit. Not afraid. Not concerned. Not saddened, not disappointed. She's not anything. She can't feel anything.
"Minaeve said the Tranquil were left behind in her Circle," she finally says. "Clemence said the mages of the rebellion preferred that he left."
Cullen nods solemnly, swallowing a familiar lump in his throat. Those are not the only such reports he's heard from other Circles across Thedas, and being the one who sorts them for him, certainly Elsa has read them as well. Murdered by rebelling Templars. Murdered by rebelling mages. Left behind to fend for themselves or otherwise be captured and exploited by oportunistic criminals and civilians alike. The war has been kind to no one, but there seems to be no end for the tragedy of the Tranquils caught in the middle.
"Are we not anything, then?" she asks, and the utter lack of emotion in her voice to ask such a question breaks his heart.
He takes hold of her arm, as gently as he can, and turns her towards him, forcing her to look up into his eyes. Her eyes are a deep pool of smoke he can read nothing in, and Cullen knows he can give her nothing but the truth.
"You are someone," he tells her, earnest and true. "You may not feel as the rest of us do, but you are no less a person than any of us. And your life is as worth protecting."
Cullen is certain he is imagining the shadow of a smile that flashes across her face for a second, then disappears. Maybe Owain was right. Maybe they're more alive than anyone could ever figure.
"I would prefer not to die," she says, and Cullen can hear the echo of these words from a lifetime ago.
"I did promise to protect you, didn't I," and he smiles again, warm and fond, with the kindness she inspires in him. "And I’m right here for you."
She nods, and he briefly wonders what would have happened to her had he left her in Kirkwall. What did happen to the ones he had to leave behind. He files that as something to have Leliana investigate later - perhaps there are some left they can still recover. Perhaps there are any left they can still help.
Instead, he reminds her of the book, and offers it at her leisure, to research, to study, gather what she can from it. See with her own eyes, if she must. Not all truths are pleasant to learn, as he well knows, but it is one's right to have it. He could swear he is not delusional to see the spark of interest in her eyes at the prospect of studying the grimoire of a Venatori, learning of practices none of them have any familiarity with, as gruesome as they may be; of taking notes and preparing reports for him, and Cullen promises to read them all, no matter how long. It's not guilt - but they've known each other long enough, and he owes her not only protection, but that much respect.
"Thank you for your time, Commander," she says at last, a small bow signalling her retreat back to the Chantry. "Your company continues to be... most agreeable."
"Any time you need, Elsa," Cullen nods, a small smile again on his lips as he begins to turn back to the grounds again. "I’m not going anywhere."