"You're challenging me to a Kendo tournament?"
"Yes. Basically identical Human vessels, no songs, only our attunements."
Neither Michael nor Laurence could believe their senses when they saw the next contender for Michael's Challenge; Marc, Mercurian Archangel of Trade, was considered more a talker then a fighter by everyone in Heaven, especially by the War faction. To say that having Marc challenging Michael to a Japanese swordsmanship fight came as a surprise was more than an understatment.
"When did you learn Kendo?", asked Laurence.
"I've been taking Kendo lessons since I started working with Japanese businessmen. It really helps negotiations when you try out their sports."
"Kendo is not a 'sport'", Laurence said crisply. "It's the formalisation and ritualisation of Kenjutsu, one of the fundamental aspects of Bushido..."
"Right, right... Sorry about that. Anyways, Michael, do you want to do this or not?"
Michael chuckled and nodded.
"Damn right I want to do this. No offense, Marc, but I think you need to take matters of War more seriously."
"I take them as seriously as needed to achieve my goals, as well as the goals of Heaven."
"Hold on, Marc. What are you putting at stake?"
"I'll give thirty-three of your personally selected Servitors one of my Attunements: "Head of a PIN". They will most likely find it useful in the field, to purchase weapons, food, or anything else a soldier might need..."
"Hmm... That DOES sound useful... Very well."
"I'll meet you in the groves for the fight, in a few hours."
"I'll be waiting."
And with that, Heaven's bargain-maker left Michael's war camp, leaving Heaven's Champion to talk with Heaven's General.
"You think he's up to something, Michael?
"Come on now, Laurence... We're talking about the Archangel of Trade, who embodies business and politics."
"Of *course* he's up to something..."
About two hours later, a regulation Kendo competition field was set up within the Groves and the Host was gathered to watch this fight as it had done with many of the previous fights. In the spirit of the match, many Celestials had taken on forms clothed in traditional Japanese dress, and even Laurence, a long time admirer of Bushido, had dressed as a traditional Kendo referee.
Both Archangels were on the sidelines, putting on their equipment and talking a bit. Michael, as was to be expected, seemed pretty confident of his upcoming victory...
"...Tell you what, Marc, I'll try not to bruise you too much up there. Any spot you want me to spare?" he said with a chuckle.
Marc just looked at the Seraph and remained cool and confident as always.
"Selling your chickens before they hatch, Michael? Need I remind you we'll be physically equal for this competition? And I am pretty skilled at Kendo..."
Instead of answering, Michael's attention was diverted by the sight of Servitors of Trade arguing with some of his own Servitors. Marc took notice of this and answered Michael's unanswered question:
"Oh, that's the betting pool, for our match. I'm pleased to note that my Servitors are mostly betting on me, even if for important events like this the stakes are sometimes unusually high..."
"High? How high?"
"Oh, the usual, really important stuff... Essence, Relics, Reliquaries, Forces..."
"They bet Forces?"
"It's been known to happen. Sometimes, some celestials get so carried away that they bet enough that they'd practically be stripped down to Remnants if they lost..."
Marc stopped and gave Michael a *very* meaningful look.
"I really hope that doesn't have to happen today."
Michael just looked at Marc, almost not believing his resonance it told him that the Archangel of Trade was telling the truth. Before he could ask more about this, however, Laurence called them both to the ring for the start of the match.
As Michael put on his helmet and took his place, he looked at his opponent, and reflected on his words. -I can't read the Truth of the Symphony from another Superiors' words unless he wills it, but I *can* read the lesser truth -- and he's not lying about those bets. If I win this match, and if Marc isn't tricking me somehow, then some of Heaven's servitors are going to walk home stripped down almost to nothing.
Am I willing to have that kind of price paid just so I can win this?-
As Laurence stood to the side of the ring, ready to order the match to begin, Michael quickly considered his options, then made his decision just as Laurence lowered his arm and yelled out "Begin!" Without any hesitation, Michael lowered his bokken and threw the wooden sword into the ring, clenching his teeth against the Dissonance he suffered as he said in an iron-hard voice...
For eons to come, angels would speak of that moment, when almost the whole of the Host gasped as one. David's jaw dropped. Janus froze. Even the inhabitants of Hell, unaware of the drama in Heaven, suddenly wondered about the sudden chill they just felt.
Only after a few seconds did Laurence finally get over the shock, and stammered out,
That single comment suddenly sparked a flurry of whispers from the crowd, from questions about whether or not this was a joke, to speculations that Marc had somehow bribed Michael, until Michael finally took off his Kendo mask and yelled out "SILENCE!"
"I suppose you're all wondering about why I just gave up... I'll tell you why. I did it because it was brought to my attention that some of you had bet all their Forces on Marc defeating me, which would've meant a few innocent Angels got knocked down to Relievers, or worst. Those of you who are or have been in my service that I while must sanction the sacrifice of lives in the War, that is because we all fight there for the cause of God. But this contest is not for God or for mankind or for the Host, but for my personal standing alone. It would not be right to ask any being other than myself to suffer such pain for my victory here."
Everyone stood silently for a moment, before Michael finally walked out of the ring, after adding:
"For to do so would be a sin in the eyes of God."
The crowd, shamed by Michael's display of selflesness, began to disperse, the various gamblers dropping their vouchers, the stakes suddenly not worth the bother anymore. Meanwhile, Marc caught up with Michael, who had asked Laurence to hold his axe for him during the kendo match.
"Michael, hold on!"
"What is it now, Marc?"
"I just wanted to apologize for putting you in such a situation..."
Michael and Laurence turned around, and then Michael looked the Mercurian in the eyes.
"You set me up, didn't you?"
Marc grinned and nodded. Michael suddenly smirked:
"You *were* bluffing, weren't you? About the Force-stripping?"
Michael smiled in relief as his resonance told him that Marc's statement was true.
"But I knew if I could keep the phrasing ambiguous enough, you wouldn't be able to tell if I were bluffing or not. And you wouldn't be willing to take that chance. Not for a strictly personal victory like this."
Michael suddenly chuckled and shook his head, smiling.
Laurence suddenly said "The Seraph of Trade attunement! You *knew* what prices Michael would be willing to pay!
Marc nodded. "Or *not* pay."
Michael grinned in sheer admiration. "You clever devil. You psyched me out!"
Marc smiled and nodded again, then shifted over to a lecturer's tone of voice:
"Many things can cause a loss of balance. One cause is danger, another is hardship, and another is surprise. You must research this. In large - -scale strategy it is important to cause loss of balance. Attack without warning where the enemy is not expecting it, and while his spirit is undecided follow up your advantage and, having the lead, defeat him."
Michael and Laurence blinked, looked at each other, and then back at Marc.
"'To Cause Loss Of Balance', from _A Book Of Five Rings. I hadn't known that you'd read it.", said Michael.
"Yep. They use as a textbook for MBA students, along with Sun Tzu's Art of War. "Business is War", as the Japanese say. Now, I do believe there's the issue of due payment, now?"
"Huh? Oh, right, I assume you'll be claiming your prize, won't you?"
"Fair enough. What would have have as your boon?" Michael said evenly, while surreptitiously shifting his axe behind his back.
Marc followed the movement with his eye, and grinned. "Your axe."
Michael blinked, then asked:
"My battle axe?"
"Yes, your battle axe."
Michael, without a single change of expression, unhesitatingly handed it to Marc.
"Here you go, Marc. Try not to hurt yourself with it."
"Thanks, Michael, I..." Marc paused, and "Hold on... What is this?!?"
"It's my battle axe."
"But this is just an _ordinary_ battle axe!"
Michael smirked, and crossed his arms in his usual confident way.
"Of course it is... What, you think I have to rely on Relics to win my fights? That's just a common, ordinary celestial battle axe, no different from any other battle axes you'll find in Heaven or Hell, nor any different from any other battle axes I've ever used. And, quite frankly, you're welcome to it. None of them last more than a couple of years under the kind of use I put them to anyway, I have to replace them all the time."
Marc just stared at Michael, then looked down at the mind-numblingly _normal_ Axe in his hands, then realized he'd just been _had_ by Michael! He could've asked the Seraph for anything at all, and all he got for his trouble was an ordinary battle axe?
And then suddenly Laurence chimed in with "Wait. Although the stated terms of the challenge was purely kendo, that was itself a mere strategem, only a part of the true test, correct? A challenge of exchange, of prices and sacrifices, of weighing cost vs. benefit?"
"Yes," Marc said.
"And Michael, do you accept this? That the true contest was not the originally stated one, and that Marc's maneuverings were an allowable tactic of War?"
"I already have accepted, haven't I? And psychological warfare is as legitimate a form of warfare as any other kind. As far as I'm concerned, the validity of Marc's challenge stands."
"Then if you both, by mutual consent, agree that the true contest here was a matter of trade and costs and bluffing rather than kendo...
Marc suddenly spoke with dawning realization. "... then Michael is the victor. For I, the Archangel of Trade, have received back a return far less than I expected, and less than the effort and expense I put into earning it. And in business, that is the *definition* of a 'loss'."
Michael smiled as he felt the dissonance he had taken for yielding the field to Marc dissipate, as his earlier yielding of a battle was erased by victory in the overall conflict that the first skirmish had been a part of. And the gathered angels smiled at the irony -- first to see Trade defeat War by applying his own strategies against them, only then to lose to War in a matter of business.
Marc suddenly snapped out. "You didn't move that axe hand just by coincidence, did you? You were *hoping* to catch my eye with it, and hoping that I'd go for the bait! Your axe is one of the most famous objects in all Heaven... well, at least it *was*."
"I wasn't sure if it would work, but it was worth a shot. After all, it would hardly have been the first conflict to be lost on the battlefield... and then won on the negotiating table."
The three Archangels stood and looked at each other for almost a full minute.
"Oh well," said Marc suddenly. "At least it's a collectible."
The whole crowd suddenly broke into riotous laughter as the three Archangels shook hands, all bad feelings and misunderstandings between the combatants forgotten. Arm in arm, they went off to the Eighth Virtue to celebrate Michael's victory, and for Marc to show off his new battle axe.
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