twenty-five           

            The bed sheets reek. A plate of untouched hominy and flapjacks crawls with flies. Despite gaping windows and earliness of hour, it is hot, muggy, breezeless, and stiflingly...

            Boring!

            Itchy in his skin and somewhat smelly in his unchanged drawers, Zachary shakes off lethargy and rises unsteadily. His legs are out of practice but nonetheless support him. He crosses to the cheval glass (an heirloom of his mother's) inspecting face and physique with manifest contempt.

            Hiding out. Shirking responsibilities. Features turned to mush, muscle tone to flab.

            In three days he is expected to take his wedding vows—said prospect fuelling the impetus for his wallowing in bed; were he not fully recovered, the marriage might be postponed, and yet he issued orders that the Abernathy's not be told of his debilitydue in part to his embarrassment...

            Fainting like a woman.

...and due in part to giving his betrothed no excuse to pay a visit; the last time she had done so (prior to his father's demise) had proven disagreeable.

              "Of course it will all have to be re-done, but I'm quite surprised. Rumours had described this place as a virtual house of horrors. You know, dungeons and torture chambers and the like? Or depicted it as a brothelanother popular theory. Oh, have I shocked you? I am sorry. It's just the fact that your Daddy so seldom socializes. You know how people are if they're kept uninformed—as if there's a deep, dark secret—how they'll make up stories? I do declare, the Squire Plantation is positively legend. Why, I was half afraid to come here unescorted. Mostly it's your overseer's fault—that nasty, toady-faced man named Mister Tune. Folks tell gruesome tales about his goings on. Even as a child, I was warned about him. 'Watch out or The Tune will get you', like the bogeyman himself. Is it any wonder folks are full of misapprehensions? It was even bandied about that Mister Tune put all your female slaves to death. Do you believe it? And he did so at your Daddy-dear's behest. Gossip only simmered down when you bought that pair of house-niggers. In any case I'm relieved to find curtains instead of bars."

            Yet Felicia, for all her tactless chatter, had made a favourable impression on Zachariah—who had fixed on her as the answer to his empire-building prayers, and also saw her as redemption for his having isolated Zachary. Most important, however, Felicia meant an heir (albeit potentially), for it was Zachariah's growing desperation about Squire progeny that dictated his later-life decisions. He was dying, his son was still a bachelor; understandably, the widower was concerned. And he held himself to blame. Thus salvation, in the old man's mind, had become synonymous with betrothalZachary to whomever... to Felicia Abernathy, if for no better reason than to 'annex' her estate.

            Zachary edges closer to his reflectionmottled flesh resembling a ragged camouflage of pink and moulting grey. He picks at a patch; it peels in one translucent section—exposing skin beneath that is brand-spanking new.