Baal was in the bath.
"May I assume that you have heard the news?" asked his visitor.
The Demon Prince of The War soaped his left arm thoughtfully with a barof something very orange and fragrant. Then he leaned back and closedhis eyes, sinking further into the steaming water.
"That Michael is arrogant beyond belief?" he asked eventually. "And stupidbeyond belief also? That cannot be news to any being in creation,Asmodeus, although I'm flattered that thou sawst fitting to make suchefforts to inform me."
"Will you fight him?" asked the other politely. The Prince of the Game,head of Hell's secret police and intel forces, favoured 17th centurygarb and had done since the 17th century. He swept the embroidered hemof his black frock coat away from a puddle of bath water on the floorand sat on the only chair in the room, stretching out his stockingedlegs. It was after all his favourite coat. The ivory buttons alone hadtaken several damned souls a century to carve, and no mere affairs ofinfernal state would make up for its accidental ruination.
"I will certainly give the matter mine complete attention. Sometime.When I have finished my bath."
"In a timeframe of under a century?"
"Who can say?" Baal stretched out philosophically. "And thou bring'st reportson each of his recent battles with other superiors for me?"
Asmodeus sniffed, positioned the thin wire-framed glasses on the bridgeof his nose with a thumb and forefinger, and opened a briefcase."Indeed."
"My _friend_," the Prince of the Game murmured, "I would like anassurance that you will not take part in these games yourself."
Baal propped an elbow on the bathtub and sat up, cascading waves of wateronto the floor. His eyes glittered like polished bootleather as hestared the other prince down. "Because you think I would lose and itwould be bad for morale?"
His voice was pleasant enough, sweet like honey, and soft like butter,and pleasant on the ear.
"It would be bad for morale in either case."
"There is no question in my mind but that I could defeat Michael in combat."
"If you win, there will be rumours of imminent Armaggeddon. If --"
Baal slammed a hand down against the side of the tub. "THERE IS NO IF,"he spat.
"As you say," Asmodeus murmured politely. He bent his expensive wig overthe papers as he rifled through them. "Litheroy, Gabriel, Novalis,Dominic. I can give you details of these matches."
"There is no if," whispered the Prince of the War.
Asmodeus adjusted his glasses again, wiping the steam from the lenseswith a lace cuff. He peered at the figure in the bath, glanced down athis notes, and began to read.
Baal stared at him through narrowed eyes for a moment longer, beforesettling back into the frothy water. The infernal bureacrat's voicedroned on in a soothing manner, describing archangelic defeats inclinical terms.
"None of them really want to defeat him," commented the Prince of theWar, after several minutes of hot soapy silence. Any trace of temper hadvanished from his voice, and he merely sounded reflective. "They all knowwhat that would mean to the rest of Heaven. But he really wants to win.It becomes a matter of mere Will."
"As you say."
"Thy spies and envoys seem well informed about Litheroy?"
Asmodeus smiled thinly. "He was disguised as a rock at the water's edge."
"He was disguised as a tree."
"He was disguised as a cloud of sulpherous fumes."
Baal nodded. "A versatile chap, then?"
"And so we obtain information about our enemies individual strategies."
After a few more minutes, Baal turned to the other man and smiled asbrightly as an atom bomb.
"Old friend," he purred. "Your close relationship to all the Princes ofHell is as reknowned as it is envied."
Asmodeus peered at him over the edge of the wire-rimmed frames."Indeed," he said again.
"Talk to Beleth," directed the Prince of the War. "Persuade her to offerMichael a fight on her own terrain. Make haste to inform me of preciselywhen the battle commences. And set your man to spying upon them bothwith his usual subtlety."
"What purpose to this, my friend?"
Baal pressed his fingertips together, then he sent the other man a lookthat would brook no opposition. "That was an ORDER, soldier," hesnapped. "We have a war to fight."
Asmodeus bowed his head low, and gathered his papers together. If therewas a whisper-thin smile dancing on his lips, it was hidden by thegesture.
As he left the room, he could hear the Prince of the War calling to hisequerry, "Get me a towel, you laggard! And have my jeep ready!"
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