Despair and Ecstasy are the simplest. Ecstasy is the small and cozy room of a cottage that looks out on a broad meadow in the forest. In the spring, elk come to posture and to mate, and the wildflowers bloom on every side. In the fall, mist dances in silver swirls framed by gold and bronze and copper trees. It is always spring or fall.
Despair is a vast, dark hall of low ceilings and small windows. In winter, snowdrifts sometimes cover the windows so that they are only squares of gray against black stone. In the summer, shafts of hot, bright light do nothing to warm the room, and only blind us to the room’s darkness, so that we must carry candles to the Master’s hard throne. It is always winter or summer.
Ecstasy and Despair are the simplest chambers, and the worst, and they are where the Master spends his time.
Today, though, I am pleased to find him in the low hall of Longing. He sits by the fire, a book spread open on one leg, his eyes on the soft river of cloud beyond the window, and the shining peaks in the distance.
“Sunset is beautiful,” he says. “The way it paints the snow of distant mountains with …”
“With crimson?” I suggest. It is always sunset in the hall of Longing, but our Master is no poet.
“With crimson.” He sighs, and raises his book. “The poet Lanoy said that ‘the sun’s bright ardor brings a blush and a glow to the earth’s shy breasts’. It sounds better in Clanetian, but I fear Lanoy was a man desperately in need of a lover. He should not have become a monk.” He puts the book back down. I have never seen him read it.
“Would that I had a lover,” the Master says. His latest has just left him. I can see one fist clenching, the fingers working deep furrows in his thigh. I go to stand beside him, as if my presence could deflect him from his course.
“Please, Master,” I beg. “Don’t go again into Despair.” He has spent the past weeks in that dark hall, slumped in its hard stone chair, punishing himself and us. Better Ecstasy than that.
“No,” he says, and his grip relaxes. I imagine the welts beneath his cotton trousers, the bruises they will leave. “I must distract myself,” he says. “I will go to the theater. I will talk, I will laugh, I will smile.” He gazes out again, across the blushing peaks. “And yet, I wish I had someone to laugh with. Someone to smile at. Ah, well. We cannot have all we want.”
He is safe now, I think, and I go to prepare a meal. I will find him again in the hall of Longing, or in some byway near it, perhaps, in an alcove of Yearning, or a gallery of Ache.
As I climb the narrow backstairs, I pass other servants, all quiet and intent on their errands, as I am on mine. We seldom speak, and I do not know their names. As I pass behind the walls of Satisfaction, my foot slips, and a chambermaid reaches out to catch me. I draw my hand away, ashamed, but she is as old as I, and there is no pity in her gaze. Her hair is gray, like the clouds of Longing, and as I look upon it her eyes widen. I wonder what she sees. I open my mouth to speak, but then I turn away. I am an old man now. In my youth, I kept my passions in check, until they left me for other, wilder spirits. The maid and I go our ways in silence.
I eat my meal in silence, in the warm staff kitchen, at the little table that is always set. With the Master lost in the ways of Distraction, I have time. I watch the cooks as they do their quiet work. One stirs a pot of stew — a tasty concoction of roots and sharp spices. He jokes quietly with a flour-handed baker stoking her oven. It warms my soul to see them. The young so often waste their youth, and I have myself for an example. These two are wiser now than I ever was. They are shy to have an audience, but I see their looks, hear their soft laughter, and I rise to leave them be.
I make my leisurely way down toward Longing, but though I have gone slowly, the Master is not here. I wait for some time, and even make the long descent to Despair, but he is not there, though I search its darkness with careful steps, quartering back and forth with my dim candle across its obsidian floor.
I climb the steep stairs back from Despair, but Longing is bare, and I do not hear or feel him near. I know what this must mean, and I am tempted to stop, to rest, to wait. To fail. But I have served the Master all my life; it is my life. My duty will not cease because I am tired or selfish.
I climb the long, gentle ramp from Longing to Fulfillment, passing through and past rooms of Relaxation and Relief. I wonder idly, as I pass through Tranquility and Quietude, whether the old chamber maid cleans these rooms, whether some day we will pass again in one chamber or another. Perhaps we have often done so.
The Master is not in Fulfillment, but I knew that, and though it is the most beautiful of chambers, I pass through its moonlit wooden chairs, with barely a glance through the windows to its quiet dawn-flecked lake. No, the Master was in Longing, and he has gone out to company. If he has not returned to Longing or to Despair, there is only one place he can be, and I pass on.
The Master stands by the wood-framed window of Ecstasy, his narrow frame bathed in sweat, a smile across his face like the rictus of lockjaw.
“Oh, but the world is a beautiful place,” he says to the wildflower bouquets of spring. “The colors, the rush of life, the flow of nature’s grace.” He shakes his head, but his smile is fixed, and no mere shake will dislodge it. “What have I done, I wonder, to deserve such happiness?”
That way lies Despair, and I know, with the certainty of experience, that this interlude of Ecstasy will be a brief one. “Do not say that, Master. You, as no other, deserve happiness.” I try, but I know he will not listen, cannot listen to other than the voices in his head that tell him otherwise.
“He is so beautiful,” he says. “A dancer, lithe as a willow, strong as an oak. He could pick me up with one strong hand. He did so!”
“You are a lucky man, Master. And strong in ways that he is not.” I know he does not listen.
“What could he see in me, I wonder?” As he speaks, he wipes himself with a soft towel, leaves it to dry on the arm of a chair. The chambermaids will find it. “A frail reed with little to offer. A poor artist. A dreadful poet with the voice of a crow.” He is already on his way to the door.
“A good man,” I insist, though the tears have already started in my eyes. “A hard worker, and a kind master.” Doomed to bounce endlessly from Despair to Ecstasy and back, and only because he is not strong or handsome or, in fact, very wise. But he is gentle and caring and honest, and someday, if he can only muster confidence, he will find a man who values that.
Now, though, I can hear him in the passage. “It is no wonder he has not come to call,” he says, and then his voice fades, and I must rush to follow. The Master has his own ways, fast and sure and painful, but I can only scurry and stumble through the long halls and stairs and byways toward Despair.
In the narrow path of Desperation, I run headlong into the old chambermaid. She catches me again before we both fall. “You must not make this a habit,” I say, and am shocked to find such wit in my dry mouth. But my courage fails as she drops my arm, and I realize that my tongue has failed me, that in so many dour and taciturn years, it has lost the knack for banter, has rendered my poor jest harsh and bitter.
My face settles back into its familiar, comfortable lines, all angles and ridges. I see the shine in her eyes vanish, but it lingers in the soft silver bird’s nest of her hair, and I grasp for something to say. “I am Akro,” I say. “The Master’s Ear.”
“I know,” she says, and moonlight glimmers in the windowless passage. “I am Lucy.” And she rushes away.
It is as well, for the Master needs me, and I must scamper on my way, but even in these dark lower stairs and alcoves, my heart is light. For once, Despair holds no dread for me, and I walk with a quick step toward the Master’s cold throne.
“He has not called on me,” he says at once. “And he has been seen at the Berry Wreath with Lord Consany — half my age, and broad as an ox. But no brighter.” He turns his eyes toward the glare of a summer window, and the light shows the tracks of tears down his face.
“You are intelligent, Master,” I say, because it is true. There is no sign that he has heard me. There is never a sign. “And gracious, and thoughtful.”
He looks out the window to the burning sun beyond, and out of habit, I warn him not to look, to mind his eyes.
He wipes a hand over his eyes, smearing the shadows he painted there to make his pale eyes luminous and rich. “I will never be happy,” he says, and begins to sob. It is my task to listen, not to speak. I have spent my life listening.
“Not if you act like a child,” I say, and wonder how my tongue, earlier so cold and clumsy, has suddenly become so sharp. “You are a good man, Master, but you seek what you will never find. You eat rich foods and complain of belly pain. You contest at sports you cannot win. You love young men who want only to play.” You talk with those who cannot hear.
“What is this?” The Master has a card in his hand. “He has come!” He throws himself from his chair, and I hear his laughter dwindling as he makes his rapid way to Ecstasy.
I set my foot on the stair from Despair, to follow, to listen, to be my Master’s Ear, as I always have been, as I always will be. And yet, I wonder as I climb the dark steps, whether the Master might be better served by absence, whether, without a willing Ear, he might be forced to listen for himself, and whether, doing so, he might hear something.
As I pass through the low hall of Longing, I gaze across its sun-lit mountain peaks and remember youth. I turn away from the window’s rosy lure, and climb the long, gentle ramp. I will wander the hallways above until I see the glint of bright eyes and silver hair. Then, if she is willing, we will enter my favorite chamber, and stand together in the gentle light of dawn.