Daren’s hands clench white as he watches the dogfight taking place in the airspace above the military base. The tall windows of his office offer a prime view of the base’s landing strip and the incoming medical transport under fire from enemy aircraft. Despite the planes launched to repel the attack and guide the transport to a safe landing, the sluggish medic aircraft is clearly in trouble; dark smoke pours from one engine and its angle of approach is far too steep

“Colonel, med crews are ready to deploy when necessary,”

Daren doesn’t bother turning from the windows to acknowledge this report, only nods and continues to watch the battle taking place in his skies. When the door clicks shut, he slowly uncurls his shaking hands.

“Col St. Anthony, may I have the pleasure of introducing you to our newest Chief Flight Surgeon?” Daren held back a sigh and prepared for his tenth introduction that night. This was why he avoided military social functions; he could barely stand talking to any of these people on base, let alone after hours. Managing something that approximated a smile closely enough, considering his rank, he turned to face the speaker and their guest. “Of course.”

“Col St. Anthony, this is Dr. Rosenquist. Dr. Rosenquist, this is our esteemed Colonel.”

“St. Anthony?” The doctor held out his hand, and while Daren shook it he waited for the inevitable comment about the battle that made him a household name. Instead, though, Dr. Rosenquist only grinned and said, “I have heard you’re vicious at chess. Perhaps I could bother you for a game some day?” The comment finally snagged Daren’s attention and for the first time he actually looked at the man who gripped his hand with firm confidence. There was a curious shrewdness and humor to the gray-blue eyes staring back at him, and despite his reticence he found himself answering, “Yes, please do.”

Tanim bites back another curse as the plane rocks and swings to one side, sending half the supplies in his kit out of arms’ reach. He can hear the yelling of the pilots and the terrified questions from the rest of his team, but he has no time to glance out a window to see if they’re all doomed or not. His entire attention must remain focused on the patient in front of him and the frustratingly delicate, life-saving surgery that could not wait until landing. For anyone else the lack of steady ground would be enough to stop them from even attempting such a risky procedure, but Tanim remains determined to work until either his patient stabilizes or the plane explodes. Considering how the bloody floor beneath his knees drops and shudders, tilts and sways, Tanim can’t honestly say which might happen first.

“Thank god,” Tanim lets out a long-held breath as his patient’s bleeding finally decreases to a manageable trickle. As he ties off the last suture, the surgeon spares a brief second to glance up and through the cockpit window, where the airstrip rushes up to meet their plummeting plane. He has only enough time to feel a thrill of fear before the two collide.

“Hello, Doctor,” Daren shut the office door behind Tanim and slid home the lock. “You weren’t followed?”

“No, the building’s dead this time of night,” Tanim shrugged out of his coat, tossing it casually over the back of a chair, and came up behind Daren. He slid one arm around the man’s waist, the other over his chest, and held him close. “Hello, sir,” he murmured, pressing his lips to his lover’s neck to feel the heartbeat quickening under Daren’s skin. “Shall we play a round or two, then?”

“I would like that very much,” Daren turned in Tanim’s arms and pulled his head down for a hard, hungry kiss. After this they did not speak at all, lost in the need for mouth against mouth, skin against skin, to forget for a time their location and the illicit nature of their relationship. These clandestine meetings were not even barely enough for either of them, but all they could steal and so they made do. It was something, at least.

Tanim’s first instinct upon regaining consciousness is to locate and identify the pain, but every part of him seems to pulse with the same excruciating agony that scrambles his bleary thoughts. Giving up on any sort of diagnosis, he focuses instead on lifting his heavy eyelids. Even this is a feat, though one he accomplishes after what feels like an eternity. He can’t seem to move his head yet, though, and all he can see is a white ceiling and a dark blur at his side. When the blur moves, he just manages to make out the uniform. He tries to clear his throat but fails and instead quietly croaks, “Daren?”

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” The blur shifts and suddenly Daren comes into focus, his mouth a thin smile that does nothing to hide the worry casting shadows under his eyes. He reaches out and carefully brushes a lock of hair off Tanim’s forehead, then returns to holding Tanim’s hand. “Thought maybe we’d lost you for good.”

“Me too,” Tanim glances around, trying both to avoid the uncharacteristic concern in Daren’s eyes and to hide the pain he knows is obvious in his. “This isn’t the base ICU,” he realizes. “Where am I?”

“I had you moved to a room closer to my quarters. More privacy here,” Daren’s reply sounds careless, even distracted, but Tanim knows him too well. There is something he doesn’t want to say, something that would explain the different pains starting to define themselves; the pain of broken bones, of burned and lacerated skin, struggling lungs and a concussed brain, and beneath it all a deep, endless ache the doctor fears to identify. Instead, he takes a labored breath and asks, “How bad is it?” When Daren turns his face away, mouth set in a grim line, Tanim has his answer.

For a moment neither speaks, letting the room’s machinery fill the grim silence between them. Finally, Daren picks up something from the table next to them and holds it up for Tanim to see: a chess piece. He manages the ghost of a smile. “Want to play a round?”



The crowd roars as the bodies are dragged from the arena and fresh sand scattered over the quickly drying blood left behind. Restless and hot beneath the high sun, the spectators grow tired of minor skirmishes and quick deaths. They cheer and howl in anticipation of the main event, a showdown which promises to offer far greater entertainment – and more interesting wagers.

A square of darkness opens up in the middle of the arena as a trapdoor falls back and the crowd’s frenzy increases. From the empty space a second platform rises, bearing on it the source of an entire colosseum’s ardor. Flanked by the crouched and hissing bulk of a tiger, The Tiger Prince raises armored arms to receive the praise. Bright bronze armor accents the young man’s sleek, muscular form and the black domino mask which covers both eyes and right jaw allows a glimpse of his self-assured smirk. Unbound black hair falls around his shoulders, the single stripe of orange against his temple supposed proof of the legend by which he earned his name; it is said this son of wealthy nobles was born so brave he’d slain a tiger when he was just an infant and had inherited the tiger’s soul and ferocity. Certainly he seems an imposing and fearless warrior, bearing as he does no shield and only a single weapon, a long foreign sword which has spilled the blood of countless slaves in this arena.

That another slave’s blood might be spilled this afternoon is what so many attendees, both peasant and noble, eagerly wager. The Tiger Prince’s next opponent is a true rarity – a slave who has won every battle into which he is sent, no matter the kind or number of opponents. He has become a legend and the crowd gathered is here to see him as much as the handsome nobleman. Cheers and good-natured booing answer the slow rolling open of the slave door at one end of the arena. Out of the gloom steps a man near The Prince’s age, though his scars, blade-thin body, and plain dark clothing age him. Called “The Ghost” as much for his black garb as for his eerie white hair, the slave is a crowd favorite for his deadly speed. Into his tarnished silver vambraces, the only armor allowed any slave, he has carved the word “death”. In one hand he grips his only weapon, a dagger made from what looks to be a sharpened piece of a soldier’s helm. The Ghost makes no motion to the crowd, only stands within the arena and gazes steadily out to where The Prince fixes him with an arrogant smile. In return The Ghost places his left hand over his heart and keeps it there, a strange and inexplicable capitulation which he retains throughout every fight.

A single red rose falls from the stands where the arbiters of combat sit and the fight begins. The Prince takes immediate control by going on the offensive, rushing at the slave with a roar and the sword gripped in both hands. The Ghost evades the first powerful blow like a snake slipping away from the strike of a tiger. He darts in as The Prince recovers but the other twists away as well, and so the dance continues. The Ghost never takes the offensive; he lets The Tiger Prince come to him, using the overreach of the sword to come in under his opponent’s guard. Sparks fly as metal strikes metal, each warrior gaining only the briefest advantage with each minor cut or stab. The Ghost’s hand never leaves his chest, yet even one-handed he seems a match for the unbeaten noble. Their movements form a beautiful, intricate dance as The Prince pushes his opponent toward the growling, pacing tiger and The Ghost fights to drive him back.

By the roar in the stands, the fight clearly pleases the crowd, which seems to cheer equally for both men. None have lasted this long against The Prince and even he begins to realize he’s underestimated his opponent. Impressed with the slave’s stamina and determination, he changes tactics and places his own left hand against his chest as if in allegiance. Now they both fight one handed, The Ghost wielding his small dagger and The Tiger Prince his elegant sword. The battle intensifies and soon both bleed from numerous wounds, nothing life threatening but certainly wearying, and their movements quicken as if this dance truly has been choreographed. They even disarm each other in the same move, both blades flying away toward opposite sides of the arena. Gasping for breath and trailing drops of blood, the warriors begin to circle each other with locked gazes.

An odd hush comes over the arena as if even the rowdy spectators sense the battle coming to its climax and want to miss nothing. In the sandy circle below The Ghost pauses and those in the lowest levels can see his dark eyes flicker from The Prince to the tiger still chained in the center of the arena. A cruel smile crawls across The Ghost’s lips and then he’s running – not toward The Prince, but away to where the fallen sword lays gleaming on the ground. The sudden understanding and resulting fury show clearly on The Prince’s glowering face and he takes off as well, running toward the abandoned dagger which lays closer by. His armor slows him in a way his opponent’s thin clothing cannot, though, and as the crowd holds its collective breath, it seems impossible to guess which man will reach his goal first.


“Dum spiro te amo”

kiss and raise a fist
give your bow, gentlemen
this stage won’t forget

[ If you haven’t read Kathe Koja’s stunning work Under the Poppy, or its equally as heart-wrenching and powerful sequels The Mercury Waltz and just-released The Bastards’ Paradise, do yourself a favor… read them all. Now. ]