The boy's flesh is pure and uncorrupted, paler than ivory.
"A Puritan would be quite shocked," the Undertaker says, and chuckles at his own words.
"Why so?" Sebastian enquires. He folds the clothing, laying it aside.
"Not at the sin in one so young. They could quite easily believe that a child might be born unregenerate and corrupt, old in sin and growing deeper in it with every day."
"Sin?" Sebastian shakes out the ruffle, puts it down: he sets the shoes neatly side by side, reflecting that champagne makes an excellent boot-polish, but that knowledge is of little further use to him for the moment. There will be no more shoes to polish for a while, no more cakes to fetch, no more little human rituals. He wonders dispassionately if he will miss any of them.
"You know what I mean," the Undertaker says indulgently. "You know perfectly well what I mean."
Sebastian raises his eyebrows. "And you know that in some respects the Earl was as innocent as a babe at his mother's breast."
"If that had been the case, he'd have been of no interest to you," the Undertaker retorts. "It's the choice that gives the flavour. Full knowledge, full consent. Isn't that how it goes?"
Sebastian flicks his still-gloved fingers across the boy's lips, then touches them to his own. "There is a . . . piquancy, yes. You are right. A true innocent has nothing that I could want. There must be deliberate choice, made in knowledge, made with free will. And the purer the better. I suppose you could call that sin."
"But, you see, they would expect such a sinner as this to be poxed, to be full of disease: they would think that his veins were black with congealed vice, and look to see it here . . ." The Undertaker's long fingers, knuckles cracked, dirt caked under the nails, trace along the line of the boy's arm, from wrist to elbow, up the faint shading of the veins, to the fragile jointing of the shoulder. "But see? Nothing more than one might find in the purest babe, the most ascetic Christian."
"Asceticism is no guarantee of virtue," Sebastian comments, and his eyes catch the lantern-light and gleam like garnets. "Nor is Christianity."
"Nor is purity," the Undertaker agrees. "Quite the opposite in some ways. Did you ever . . ."
"Ever what?" Sebastian asks. He smoothes the boy's hair into the perfection of line which was so hard to maintain when he had been alive.
"You know," the Undertaker says. He gestures lewdly.
"Not my lord's style at all," Sebastian says dismissively. "And it was his wishes that counted."
For a moment it looks as if the Undertaker is about to ask what the boy's style had been, but he has enough sense not to ask a question that Sebastian will not answer. Some secrets go to the grave, and beyond, and all the way to the depths of Hell, and to the utter devouring of the soul.
Sebastian is jealous of those secrets, just as he is jealous of his food. He is prepared to let the Undertaker share in the preparation of the boy's body: it pays off a few debts, and there is nothing left that interests him here beyond the aesthetics of laying him out for burying. A last service to his lord. A final underlining to his term of service.
"But you and I, we have more refined hungers," the Undertaker says. He ignores the ruffle of Sebastian's anger at the thought that the two of them are in any way comparable. "Nothing so human."
Sebastian decides to let it pass. He leaves the clothing and shoes be, and steps up to face the Undertaker over the boy's body, his hands moving to touch it one last time. The ribs, the shoulder, and – ah, so very intimate – the sealed eye. "All things hunger," he says. "To set ourselves above, rather than apart, is . . ."
"Proud?" the Undertaker suggests.
"Self-deluding," Sebastian replies. Stroking the cold flesh is like toying with the wrappings of a parcel: nostalgic in some ways, anticipatory, a preparation of the appetite. He allows himself the luxury of this last physical intimacy, before the approaching and far more consuming union that awaits the boy's soul.
There is no such thing as time in Hell. There it is always now. It will always have been now. It will always be now. From that first panicked moment of contact, the binding of contracts and the branding of signs, through every moment of joy and grief and passion and despair: each wish that he fulfilled for the boy, each time he thwarted him and toyed with him and teased him, each time he took his orders and each time he bowed and said Yes,mylord. . .
He will (he is, he has) draw the boy's soul into himself. There it will be a diamond, where each separate reflection, each glimpse of light, each chatoyant flare, will be a moment of recollection that he will (is, has) devour eternally.
That is hunger. He wonders if humans ever feel it in quite the same way. He doubts it.
"After all these years," the Undertaker says, "one gets used to the usual stories. I did wonder if you and the boy would give me something new to watch. But no. A repetition, that's all." He gestures with one hand, then digs his nails into the boy's flesh. They leave dirty weals, but the corpse is too long dead to bleed.
"Don't blame yourself," Sebastian says. "It's hardly your fault that he knew no better – and you can't expect me to spoil my own game."
"But it would have been amusing."
"Amusement is nothing compared to hunger," Sebastian says, quite sincerely, quite honestly, because when one comes down to it, there is nothing but hunger.
"But couldn't you have let the game play out a little bit longer?" The Undertaker's fingers rake long red lines across the pale flesh, squeeze it like clay, press against the bones. "I'll concede the aesthetics of it, but –"
Sebastian raises his eyebrows. "You'll be accusing me of pitying him next."
"You might have loved him." The Undertaker begins to chuckle at the thought, and the sound echoes through the mortuary, and in the corners of the ceiling, spiders curl up their legs and die. "You might have cared enough for him to let him go."
This is too ridiculous for Sebastian even to consider it. "I desired his soul. That is something entirely different. I desired him far too much ever to let him go."
"But don't you think that desire is just another word for love?"
"No," Sebastian says, and finally turns away. He has an appointment with the boy's soul, after all, and it would be a pity to delay it any longer. "But then I have no sense of humour."
"A good butler always knows when to laugh," the Undertaker calls after him.
Sebastian does not bother to answer.
After all, he isn't a butler any more.