Floating through the air, birds and other winged beings – messenger angels, deva, garuda – float along their way, as well as less natural conveyances. Some gods fly in golden chariots, others on wisps of cloud. The designs cross the line into the absurd at times -- he smiles at the enormous baby-elephant balloon, crafted by some trickster deity to lampoon his rival, a god of elephants known for his pompousness. He sees the flicker of light off the golden scales of a wingless dragon, slithering its way through the air directly toward the temple of the Great God of Storm. As the sunlight angles into his eyes, he pulls the brim of his khaki field cap lower.
A door opens at the end of the long balcony, and the Commander's secretary's secretary bows and calls out to him, "Sergeant Tuma-sukai, the Commander is ready to see you now, sir." The police sergeant straightens, adjusts his hat again, tugs at the lapels of his open jacket, and checks his Guardia Dei badge. He breathes deep, mastering his nervousness, annoyed that he still feels it after all this time. Then he nods at the mortal secretary and follows him in.
The heavy wooden doors close almost silently behind him as he walks toward the Commander's desk. Behind it, the Commander sits looking down at an open file, his face like leather stretched over bone, a frown its natural, at-rest expression. The sergeant calmly sits in a comfortable leather chair before the desk.
"Did I invite you to sit?" asks the Commander in a dangerous growl, still reading.
The sergeant leans forward to open the Commander's desktop humidor and take out one of his cigars. He picks up a cutter from next to it and snips off the tip, then uses the lighter, puffing on it to get it going.
The Commander finally looks up with a sigh. "Really? You don't even smoke."
"I've been thinking of taking it up, sir." The police sergeant takes another puff on the cigar.
"Not even going to take off that non-regulation hat, are you?"
"Are you ordering me to, sir?" Tuma-sukai smiles a little, knowing he dresses more regulation than many gods in the Guardia.
"You always get more belligerent when you think you're going to be punished."
The smile disappears. "Am I? For doing my job? The job you specifically assigned me to do?" The sergeant's voice takes on a shade of bitterness.
The Commander's voice grows cold. "I did not assign you to publicly embarrass a high-ranking deity in the Department of Cross-Reality Customs."
Sergeant Tuma-sukai frowns now, his face growing darker as black tattoos writhe into view like ink stains blossoming beneath his skin. "That...deity was taking enormous bribes to look the other way while an interdimensional gang was importing child slaves into the City. Children! To be used as toys!"
The Commander stares at him stone-faced until the sergeant calms himself, the tattoos fading, taking deep breaths to master his emotions. "Sky...I know. But as usual, you didn't think it through. All you did was cause him some minor embarrassment. Because you didn't have all the information, he was able to shift the blame to some flunky and make an empty apology. But you did embarrass him...and cost him some money and a little influence. So now you have a powerful enemy."
Tuma-sukai leans back in the chair, trying to resume his air of nonchalance, taking another puff on the cigar. "So...now you have to punish me. What'll it be? Public shaming? Stripping me of my rank, even my job? Shall I be called a corrupt cop, evidence found that I've been taking bribes?"
"Perhaps your true identity will be revealed."
Sky stops smoking, looking at the wall. After a moment, he says, his voice tight and controlled, "Well...then I wouldn't be of any use to you at all."
The Commander stands and walks over to the seated cop. "Stand up!" he commands, his voice full of divine authority.
The sergeant instantly responds, all pretense gone, his face angry and fearful, his back straight, eyes forward.
"Put that cigar in the ashtray and take off that stupid hat!"
Tuma-sukai does so, trying to keep his face impassive, but his mouth betrays his fury at being controlled like a puppet.
The Commander, not a short man, has to reach up to remove the sergeant's chevrons from the shoulders of the police officer's jacket. Sky's eyes close as he is stripped of his rank. Then he feels the Commander pinning a new insignia to his shoulder. He opens his eyes and takes a sidelong look. His eyes widen when he sees an inspector's pip.
The Commander steps back and snaps a very formal salute. Sky straightens and returns it just as sharply, keeping it there until his Commander lowers his hand.
"Inspector Tuma-sukai, Breaker of Chains, Shadow of Freedom, formerly known as the Devil Azzageddi –" here the former sergeant turns pale, "– I order you in the names of the Ministry of Justice and the Guardia to take command of the newly expanded Guardia Station of Three Rats." The Commander hands him a sealed envelope. "Your written orders."
"You're...promoting me?" His body relaxes. "Promoting me...but sending me to someplace called Three Rats?"
"Down in the Fourth Ring...almost the Fifth. They've had a small Guardia Station there for decades, nothing but a half-dozen Guardia Popula and a coffee pot. But we need to expand. The neighborhoods down there need more attention."
"And you need me far away from you."
"See, you can think things through." He closes the files on his desk and hands them over. "These are your new sergeants. Two of them are Guardia Dei, also newly assigned. The third is Guardia Popula, former head of station, promoted from corporal. You'll also have six new constables in addition to the five already there. You'll need to promote a couple to corporal―I suggest you leave that to the mortal sergeant."
"So, I'm not the only god being punished. Look, Commander, you know what I'm like. I'm no leader. This...is a mistake, sir."
"Do you trust me, Sky?"
Sky pauses, thinking it over. "I've worked for you, as your personal troubleshooter, your hatchet man, for nearly forty years. In that time I've learned to trust no one. No one but you."
The Commander smiles. It looks painful. "You have your orders, Inspector. Carry them out."