Prince of the City's Lights

Marta climbed out the window of her bedroom, onto the fire escape. She slowly lowered the window behind her, leaving only a crack open so she could get back in. The shouted arguments of her parents echoed from the apartment behind her. It was worse than normal, tonight. It had woken her from her sleep and, try as she might, the pillow wasn't thick enough to block out the sound.

There was no telling when they would stop and she had school the next day. She had to get some sleep. It was a hot, sticky night, but they didn't have air conditioning in the apartment anyway. At least none that worked right now. Her dad had promised he'd fix it, but he didn't know how to fix it. He was a garbage man; she thought he was just hoping he'd find a half-working one in someone's dumpster and bring it home.

She dragged her blanket and pillow up the several flights of metal stairs, mostly rusty save for the well-worn path. Their apartment building was 13 floors tall (though the top floor was labeled 14), and she lived on the 5th floor, so it was a long climb. When she reached the roof she was sweaty and even more tired than before.

Thankfully the city lights were bright, so she was able to watch as she toed her way around the top, wary of broken glass, old needles, or anything else that might stick her. Finally, she found her way over to her common corner, well off to the side and hidden from the view of any maintenance men who might come up to the roof before she woke in the morning. It was still clean from the last time she'd been up there. She was thankful; that last time forced her to clean off a pile of dirty baby diapers. She really had no idea where they'd come from.

She folded her blanket into a makeshift mattress and lay on top of it. It was too hot to be under a sheet anyway. As she settled down on top, her head resting on her flat pillow, she wondered what her parents were arguing about now. She briefly entertained the notion that one would come in to check on her and, finding her missing, raise Cain to find her.

The knowledge that wouldn't happen accompanied her as she drifted to fitful sleep.

A noise woke Marta from her sleep. Her eyes shot open as she struggled to keep from moving. She didn't need anyone to find her up here. If they found her, they would take her to her parents, which would only cause more yelling. They yelled at each other enough, she didn't want to give them anything else they had to yell at either.

It was the crunch of someone's foot. It was still night out. No one should be up here at night. Her breath caught in her throat. Who could it be? Was it a robber? No, she thought, there was nothing in any of these apartments that anyone would want to steal. It could have been a murderer or a rapist. She didn't really understand what either of those things were, but her mom had warned her about them and said if she was out at night, one of them would get to her. Probably both.

Maybe it was someone, like her, who just wanted a place to sleep the night without being bothered. She saw homeless people sleeping down in the alleys and gutters before. The roof was probably a better place to sleep than those, but normally they couldn't get up onto the fire escapes because the ladders had been raised off the ground.

She closed her eyes and tried to ignore it, hoping the person would provide her the same courtesy. Then the foot crunched again, then again. It was getting closer to her. She bit her tongue to keep from screaming and giving herself away. There was no way the person could see her from where they were. She couldn't see them and she was sure she was facing the direction they were coming from.

"Boy," a rough voice said, "come out." It was a man's voice and she couldn't tell from the sound if he was black or white, but she guessed he had to be black. Most people in the city were black, even though she and her parents were white. Her dad complained about that all the time and her mom warned her not to talk to strange black men. She warned her not to talk to strange men in general, but especially not to strange black men.

Either way, she felt lucky, because he was up there looking for someone else. Some boy who must be hiding on the roof too. Maybe his parents had been arguing too. Maybe this man was his father and had come to get him.

The crunching footsteps came closer. "You. Boy. Do you hear me?" the voice said. Closer still. "You, little boy." Now she was sure the man was talking to her. She still couldn't see him even though he sounded like he was right on top of her.

"I'm not a boy," she said loudly, hoping that the sound of her own voice would banish whatever waking dream she was having. "I'm a girl."

There was a moment of silence where she thought it had worked. Then came a raspy noise like someone unwrapping a candy bar. "My apologies then, girl. You should still come out from there."

Marta remained frozen where she was, clutching her pillow in between white-knuckle hands. "I don't want to," she said.

"I really think you should," the man said. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

"I'm gonna scream really loud," she told him, trying to sound brave. Her mom had told her if any murderers or rapists ever tried to get her that she should scream as loud as she could, because that might scare them off. It might not, but it was better than nothing.

There was the raspy sound again. "Go ahead, little girl, no one will hear you if you do."

She realized he was probably right. She was on top of the building in the middle of the night. If there had been anyone walking past, no one would be able to hear her from way down there. And even if they did, they probably wouldn't stop to help anyhow.

Still, that wasn't gonna stop her. She opened her mouth and sucked in a deep breath. Just as the first shrill note of her scream escaped her lips, a leather hand clamped down over her mouth, muffling the sound.

The other hand grabbed the back of her shirt and started pulling, dragging her out from her bed. She grasped wildly for a handhold, but only managed to get a handful of blanket which pulled away with her. In desperation, she tried to bite the hand over her mouth. She only got a dirty mouthful of actual leather for her troubles as the man held on tight.

"Stop struggling," the man growled, his voice like the growl of a dog. She ignored him and thrashed back with her foot, catching him in the stomach. He let out a small oof and his grip on her loosened.

She twisted and turned, swinging her arms and legs in a furious attempt to hit him wherever she could. The back of her hand connected with his nose and he sucked in a harsh intake of breath, finally letting go of her. Without looking, she started to run, screaming at the top of her lungs as she did.

Hysterical, she ran toward the side of the building and scrambled up the low wall, aiming to leap down onto the fire escape and run down it. "Stop!" the man shouted after her, but she didn't. She took a step forward, where the escape should have been, and dropped right off the side of the building.

As she started to fall, she realized she had run to the wrong side, the one without the fire escape. She stopped screaming as she fell, the breath stolen from her by shock. The ground rushed toward her.

Suddenly, her fall stopped. Her left arm wrenched back and she slammed against the wall. Stars filled her vision. Once her vision cleared, she realized she was being pulled slowly back up the side of the building. Her left arm, shoulder, and hand ached. Dizzy, she realized she'd been holding on to her blanket as she fell off the roof. She was still clutching it.

She got back up to the side of the roof and those two hands grabbed her by the arm, harshly pulling her over the wall. She yelped in pain as she was jerked over the edge. "Hush," the man said to her. "I saved your life, so you owe me. Don't scream and don't run, ok?" She nodded her head, still delirious with fear and pain to think about it. "Good."

He let go of her arm and she tumbled to the ground in a heap, face smashing against the asphalt roof. For a moment, she lay there curled in a ball. Finally, she groaned and rolled onto her butt. She looked up at the man.

She was right, he was a black man. She couldn't tell if he was homeless or not. He was clean shaven, but had long, grungy dreadlocks. His gloves were ratty leather, so were his shoes. His pants were fraying at the cuffs, but he wore a pristine white dress shirt and black tie, with a sharp black vest over it.

"Who are you?" she asked.

He smiled at her. His teeth were very white. So white they looked like they were glowing in the dingy city haze. "I'm the one asking the questions here," he told her. "Now why don't you answer that question for me?"

"I don't know who you are," Marta said, before guessing, "A homeless person."

That crinkling noise came from him and Marta realized it was the man's laughter. "Very clever, little girl. But that is not what I meant. I meant, who are you, little girl?"

Marta inched back away from him slightly. Her mother had warned her about talking to strangers and this man was certainly stranger than anyone she'd ever met. But he had saved her from falling and he hadn't actually hurt her. Plus, he'd called her clever, which was something she'd never been called before...

"I'm Marta," she said, crossing her arms over her chest and looking up at the man as if to challenge him to dispute it.

He simply nodded. "Alright, little girl, how old are you?"

"I said my name was Marta!" she said in a petulant tone.

The man made his crinkly laugh again and grinned his glowing teeth. "Well, little girl, that may be so. But I will still call you little girl until I decide it is worth my effort to remember your name. Now, little girl, how old are you?"

Marta pouted and looked down, away from the man's face. She felt like not answering him at all, but something made her mutter, "I'm nine and three months."

There was a pause and for a bit, Marta imagined the man had gone away. She wondered if he had, but decided she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of looking up in case he had remained and this was all a trick to get her to look at him again. But then he finally said, "And why is such a young little girl sleeping on a roof? Don't you have a bed of your own?"

Without looking up, Marta answered, "My mom and dad were yelling and I couldn't sleep. So I came up here." She squirmed uneasily, not exactly sure why she was telling the man the truth. She could have told him anything, she thought, and how would he have known differently?

Once more the man had a long moment of silence. Then, "Very well, little girl. Would you like me to fix that problem for you?"

This made Marta look up at him. The man wore a grim expression that frightened her just a little. But the promise of it overrode the fear. "You can do that?" she asked almost breathlessly. "You can make them stop yelling forever?"

Now the man looked sad. "No," he said surprisingly softly. "I cannot make them stop forever. For tonight, perhaps, but not forever."

She huffed and put her head down again. But even if he could get them to stop yelling for one night... "Will you tell them you found me on the roof?" she asked. "I don't want them to know."

"No, little girl, I won't tell them a thing," he said. "They will never know I was there."

It only took a moment of thought before she nodded her head, once, firmly. "Ok." Then she stood and walked over to her blanket and pillow and pulled them into her arms. "Come on."

She walked to the edge of the building - making sure there was a fire escape this time - and started to climb down it. The man's shoes thunk-thunk-thunked after her as they descended. Finally, she got to her bedroom and wedged her tiny fingers beneath the sill and pulled up. Once there was just enough room for her to get in, she slithered through, then pulled her pillow and blanket in.

Back in the bedroom, she could still hear her parents arguing in the other room. How long had she been up on the roof? It felt like it had been hours, but it could have only been a few minutes. She hoped it was only a few minutes and they hadn't kept yelling at each other for hours. There was a crashing sound, like glass breaking, and the arguing stopped for only a brief second before her mother began to screech again, with her father bellowing back a loud retort.

The man stood outside the window, looking in. For a moment, Marta considered slamming the window shut, trapping him outside. At worst he could try to break through it and get her, but then she could run to her parents. She guessed even they would stop arguing if someone was trying to break into their daughter's bedroom.

But she didn't. Instead she pushed the window all the way open, which wasn't very far. The man stooped down and angled himself so his broad shoulders could just barely wedge through the window. He jerked himself into the bedroom, though he managed to make it look graceful by landing on his feet.

"Before I do this," he asked, "I must ask... Are you afraid of the dark, little girl?"

She cringed at the sound of his voice, sure her parents would overhear. But they were still shouting so loudly they probably wouldn't have even if the man had yelled it.

"I'm not," she said, though she swallowed a lump in her throat right after. "I'm not afraid of the dark."

He nodded and then, suddenly, her nightlight and the light spilling under the door from the hallway were extinguished. Her parents stopped yelling almost immediately and there was blessed silence for a few seconds, then there was a minute of frustrated yelling which trailed off into silence again. Marta held her breath, expecting the shouting to start up again, but there was none of it. She could barely hear muted talking, something she wasn't very familiar with, then that too stopped.

A door closed. She guessed it was to her parents' bedroom.

She turned to the man, who was silhouetted by the dim glow coming through her window. He had already started to exit. She ran over and grabbed his hand and tugged it back. He relented after a moment and looked down at her. "Yes, little girl, what is it?"

"Thank you," she said to him. "Even if it is only for one night."

The man shrugged. "It is not much." It may have been the dimness of the light, but he seemed somehow diminished, albeit just slightly. He started to leave again, but once more she stopped him.

"Who are you?" she asked.

He laughed raspily. "I am the Prince of the City's Lights," he said. "And I must be going. Goodnight, little girl."

This time he slipped through the window and would not be stopped. Marta sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the open window for a long time, then finally got up and pushed it shut. She laid back down, on top of her blanket, and soon fell asleep to wonderful silence.

Though the Prince had promised only that her parents would not argue that night, but the next few nights were peaceful as well. The lights were blamed on a tripped circuit breaker by the landlord, who fixed the problem the next morning. Marta slept with dreams of the Prince dancing in her head, but he did not return to her window.

Then, as always, her parents began arguing again about something. She climbed up onto the roof and settled down to wait for the Prince to come relieve her again. After waiting for some time, she fell asleep and didn't wake until the morning light slapped her in the face. A few nights later she repeated the experiment to similar results. The Prince did not grace her rooftop again.

In time, it seemed, Marta would forget all about the Prince, gradually. She might one day look back on that night and wonder at it; assuming it had been a very vivid dream, she would have cast it from her mind completely.

Then, one day, while walking down the sidewalk with her mother after going to the grocery store, she spotted the Prince once again.

She barely recognized him at first. His clean-shaven face was covered in grimy stubble, his long dreadlocks were frayed. What had once been a fine shirt, vest, and tie were instead a dingy t-shirt, ratty jean cutoff, and faded scarf. His gloves were fingerless and made of dirty cloth and his pants had holes in them and his shoes were little more than a pair of threadbare sneakers.

She might have walked right past him without noticing except for the crinkling noise he made. It looked like he was coughing, but she recognized it immediately as his laugh. Her face lit up with surprise and joy at the sound and she whirled around to face the shoddy man, laying propped against a wall halfway into an alley.

"Prince!" she said, running over to him with a big smile.

He did not even look up at her until she got a few steps away and then it was little more than a hasty glance. Her mother, however, shrieked at her. "Marta! Get away from him!"

Marta looked back over her shoulder in exasperation at her mother, who was jogging over with bags of groceries in each hand. "But mom, he's the Prince!" she exclaimed. "He helped me and I want to say hello!"

The Prince laughed, which turned into a cough, though it would be difficult to distinguish the two. "I ain't no prince, little girl," he said, and Marta was sure that he was telling her she was actually right. "Go on back to your mom."

"But..." Marta started to say, when her mother grabbed her by the wrist and basically threw her away from the Prince. Marta stumbled and fell on her hands and knees, skinning her palms on the sidewalk. She started to tear up and cry, but her mother was too busy picking the groceries back up to comfort her.

"Get up!" her mother said once she'd gotten the groceries arranged properly. When Marta didn't immediately respond, her mother shouted again, "Get up now!" Tearfully, Marta got to her feet, wiping her bloody hands on the front of her shirt and smearing it with red. "Dammit, don't do that! Now I'm going to have to wash that when we get home so it doesn't stain." Her mother sighed and shook her head, but just started walking toward the apartment again. "Come on, let's go. You've already wasted enough time."

Marta sadly trudged after her mother, casting one glance back at the Prince. He hung his head, a defeated look on his face. She looked away and ran after her mother. It was only a short two blocks before they were home.

Her mother put the groceries away, then cleaned off Marta's hands and changed her shirt. She cried as her mother poured harsh disinfectant on her wounds. "Maybe that will teach you not to go talking to homeless people. He was probably some drug addict! Now don't go sticking your hands in anything dirty, ok?" her mother told her. "They might get infected and then they'll have to cut them off."

Marta gulped and nodded her head seriously, holding her hands stiff out to her sides so they wouldn't touch anything dirty. For a few moments at least. Then, having forgot about her mother's caution, she started to run about the apartment, playing as she usually did.

She didn't, though, forget about the Prince. She hoped her mother might, however, and when Marta was certain she had, she casually walked up and asked, "Can I go play outside?"

By this point her mother had plopped down in front of the small television they owned, on the dingy couch with a rip in one of the cushions and a stain on the other. "Sure, go ahead," her mother said absently, concentrating on something on the screen. "Just don't get too far from the stoop."

Instead of immediately running out to play, Marta went into the kitchen and started digging around for things. Eventually, she found a can of soda and a package of cupcakes and stuffed them into the pockets of her shorts. Though she tried to sneak past her mother so they wouldn't be seen, she really needn't have bothered. Her mother didn't give her a single glance as she went out the door.

Marta rushed down the stairs, out the front door of the apartment, and down the block back toward where she'd seen the Prince. She was so excited to see him again! But as she ran down the block where she was sure he had been, she could not find him. He was no longer occupying the alley, nor was he in any of the nearby ones.

Undeterred, Marta walked up and down the nearby blocks, looking for the Prince again. She passed by a group of kids playing stoop ball and, for a few moments, had the urge to abandon her search and join them. But she pressed on, looking for the Prince anyway. She passed another group of kids standing on the corner, including several older teenagers. A few of them shouted at her as she put her head down and scurried past without looking.

After what seemed like forever, Marta was finally growing frustrated with her search. It had been only an hour in actuality, but to Marta it seemed much greater. She sat down on the curb and placed her head in her hands, pouting and wondering where the Prince had gotten off to. Was he hiding from her? Has he, when he thought she couldn't hear him, also said he wished she'd never been born?

She decided to give up. As she stood to return home, she realized she had wandered far and had no idea where she was. For a few minutes she stood frozen, staring up at street signs she didn't recognize. Which way was her home? She knew the street she lived on and a few near it, but none others.

Nervously, she glanced up and down the street. There were some other kids playing... She could ask them, but would they know either? Figuring she had nothing to lose, she ran up and asked. They stared at her with wide eyes and one of the boys said, "Go away, white girl," and another said, "I dunno" and the rest didn't answer at all so she turned and walked off.

There were only a few adults on the street, but she didn't trust them enough to go ask. Her mother had warned her about talking to strangers and all of these people were strangers. There was one type of stranger she was allowed to talk to - police officers - but she didn't see any around. Not many came around the neighborhood unless they were there to arrest someone.

Finally, she decided the only thing to do was pick a direction and walk in it, so she did that. She walked and walked, looking for a street that was familiar. After what seemed like forever (though, again, this was only because time moved differently for a young child. She had been walking for only fifteen minutes), she still had not seen anything resembling her street. Just as she was about to give up hope, she spotted a police car sitting at a stop sign.

Marta ran toward it, waving her hands to be noticed. But just before she got there, the car's lights flashed on, it let out a high pitched squeak, and it sped off. Marta squatted down on the edge of the sidewalk and buried her head between her knees. With a ragged sucking in of breath, she began to cry.

"Why do you cry, little girl?" a familiar voice asked.

It immediately snapped her out of her gloom. She straightened up and spun around to see the Prince, looking as he had earlier in the day, squatting in an alley. She broke into a huge grin and ran over toward him. "I was looking for you, Prince!" she said.

He gave her a curious look. "You were? Why would anyone look for me?"

She pursed her lips and looked at him again. In the light of the day he seemed much less imposing than he had before. The whites of his eyes were yellowed, his skin was blotchy, his teeth were bad (one of them had turned brown). Now that she was standing close to him without her mother yelling, she could smell the stench of sweat, grime, and waste that had collected on him over days or weeks gone without bathing.

Even so, he had helped her. "I wanted to give you these," she said, reaching into her pockets. The cupcakes had been squished and the soda was now warm, but she handed them to the Prince anyway. He nearly snatched them from her hands, tearing the package open on the cupcakes and devouring them without much thought to their appearance.

The soda he approached less enthusiastically. "Your parents don't have any booze?" he asked.

"What's that?"

"Alcohol," the Prince asked. "Vodka, scotch, beer. Anything."

"I'm not allowed to take those," she told him.

He looked like he was about to press her on the matter, but instead fell silent. After a moment he cracked open the soda and took a long drink of it, emptying half the can in one go. Then he sat the can down and stared forward at nothing in particular for a long time.

Finally, Marta said, "So you are a homeless person."

The Prince turned his head just slightly so he could see her out of the corner of his eyes. "So it seems," he said.

"I'm sorry," Marta said.

"It's not your fault, little girl," he said.

"Whose fault is it?" she asked, eyes big. If she could figure out who made the Prince homeless, she could fix it, she was sure.

The Prince made his crinkly laugh. "That is an answer that is probably too complicated for a little girl to understand," he said.

"Oh, ok," she said, though she thought he wasn't really being honest. She thought about it some more and said, "But if you're a prince, how come you don't have a castle?"

He grinned wide at that, his brown molar looking ready to fall right out of his mouth. "The entire city is my castle, little girl. You wonder, then, why I sit in a dirty alley instead of in a luxury apartment, don't you?" She nodded her head; though she hadn't thought that exactly, it was close enough. "A prince can be a pauper at the same time, little girl. Never forget that. With great power comes great responsibility and responsibility does not always allow a prince to earn his bread in these times."

"Ok," she said even though she didn't understand what he was saying. "I promise not to forget that." Even though she didn't understand the words, she was already memorizing them in her head. She would figure them out later. Maybe she would ask her dad to help her.

He turned to her more fully, facing her head on. "Do you mean that?" he asked. "Do you promise never to forget?"

Marta nodded her head. "I promise," she repeated. To prove it, she said, "With great power comes great responsibility and responsibility does not always allow a prince to earn his bread in these times."

The Prince laughed again and shook his head slowly. "A clever, clever girl," he said. "You are a dangerous one, but one to watch too." He lifted the can of soda and took a slow sip of it. "So, little girl, what now?"

"I don't know," Marta said. She looked around at the unfamiliar streets. "I don't know where I am."

"You are lost, little girl?" the Prince asked her. She nodded her head. "How long have you been looking for me?"

Marta shrugged her shoulders. "A long time," she said.

The Prince took another sip of his soda and nodded solemnly. "Then you should return home." He reached out and placed his hand gently on Marta's shoulder. "Your street is five blocks down that way." He pointed back the direction Marta had been walking. "When you reach that street, turn left and head down it for three blocks and you will have found your home again. Understand?"

Marta nodded. "Five blocks that way, turn left, and then three blocks," she repeated. She kept repeating it in her head, alternating with the Prince's earlier words, in an effort to memorize them.

The Prince's hand slid down from her shoulder, to the small of her back, and he pushed her out of the alley. "Then go home, little girl. Your parents will be worried."

"No they won't," Marta said, drawing another forlorn look from the Prince. "How will I find you again?"

A wry smile slashed across the Prince's face. "You should not have found me this time, little girl. You might not find me again, but I cannot say that for certain. I can find you, though, and I just might. Now go away."

Marta stared at him for a minute, then strongly nodded her head and ran off. She followed the Prince's directions exactly and found herself back at her apartment building in no time. When she got back inside, her mother was waiting for her, glaring.

"Where were you?" she yelled, grabbing her daughter by the wrist and yanking her down the hallway. Marta knew better than to try to explain, so she just stayed quiet. "I told you not to go away from the stoop but you did anyway! Your father and I thought you'd been taken or something worse!" She slapped Marta on the butt so hard it propelled her into her bedroom. Her mother slammed the door shut behind her. "Now you stay in there and think about what you did! And don't you dare come out!"

Marta could hear her mother's feet stomping away from the doorway. She ran over and pressed her ear against the door without daring to open it. She could just barely hear her mother talking to her father.

"Where was the girl at?" her dad asked.

"Who knows? She wasn't where she was supposed to be, which means she wasn't listening to me. That stupid girl's gonna get herself kidnapped or something."

"Hey, if someone wants to take her, they can have her," her father said.

Marta slowly backed away from the door and sat on the edge of her bed. "With great power comes great responsibility and responsibility does not always allow a prince to earn his bread in these times," she repeated to herself.

Marta woke up later that night with her stomach growling. Her mother had never come to let her out of her room, so she had never eaten dinner. She went to bed hungry, and now she woke hungry. She looked over at the glowing red lights of her clock, which read 2:30 AM. Her parents were probably already long asleep, she decided. But if she made too much noise and woke them up, she would have to deal with being yelled at...

Instead, she climbed out her window and ascended the fire escape to the roof. When she saw the Prince standing there, she wasn't surprised at all. His clothes were even nicer than they'd been the first nice. His pants looked newly pressed, while his shoes shined even in the dim night lights.

"I was wondering when you'd come up, little girl," he said with a debonair smile. His teeth were suddenly straight and white again, his eyes bright and powerful.

"You look different," she said to him.

He held out his arm and tugged at the cuff of his shirt. "I do indeed," he said. "I am, after all, the Prince of the City's Lights and tonight are many lights lit." He quirked his head and regarded Marta with a twinkle in his eye. "I could do this for you, as well."

Marta looked down at her clothes. She wore an old pair of pajamas that were now three sizes too small for her at least. Even her regular clothes were hand-me-downs from cousins and family friends or pieces picked from the bargain aisles of department stores. "Could you really?" she asked, staring at the Prince's clothes with awe.

"I could, and I will, if you wish, little girl," he held out a gloved hand to her, beckoning her to come toward him.

Hesitantly, she took a step forward, then reached up and took his hand. She felt flush and tingled all over as the Prince pulled her toward him, lifting her off her feet and pressing her against his chest. Immediately she felt different, but she couldn't see what had changed. "I want to see!" she said.

"Not yet," the Prince said. "Let's go."

"Where are we going?" Marta asked, but the Prince did not answer. Instead, he carried her to the edge of the building. He stepped up onto the wall, then sprang off. Marta squealed as they soared through the air, only to land gracefully on the next building over. The Prince took off running again, still holding her tight as the wind ruffled her hair.

Again he leapt from the roof of this building to the next, gaining momentum with each landing, moving faster and faster until it seemed they were going as fast as a person in a car. It seemed his feet barely touched the roof of a building as he took two or three delicate steps and jumped once more. She stared down at the ground passing beneath them, mouth open and eyes wide.

They turned and jumped over a street. A few scattered people were walking down the sidewalk and a car drove quietly down the street. None looked up to see the man with a little girl in his arms springing through the night air. Marta squealed in wonder.

They gradually made their way downtown, toward the parts of the city which were still bright with overwhelming lights despite the late hour. People still crowded the streets and cars - mostly taxis - drove up and down the streets, searching for intoxicated tourists to ferry back to their hotels. The buildings here were too high, so the Prince descended to the ground level and let Marta out of his arms.

Now she looked down at herself and could see what she wore. It was a mostly-black dress which flared out at her hips into a long ballerina skirt ringed with pink lace. It had a tight top with a square cut and two thin straps holding the dress up. Though her upper arms were bare, she wore two long white gloves which reached above her elbows.

The Prince grinned down at her. "Ah, you like the dress?" he asked. She looked up, awe struck, and nodded. "Then you have not yet seen the best part." He gestured at a dark store window and suddenly a street lamp swelled up brightly behind them, letting her see her reflection in the window as surely as if it were a mirror.

Her long red hair, which was normally wavy and plain, had been done up in loose curls, causing it to frame her head and barely reach her shoulders. Her cheeks were rosy, her skin flawlessly pale, her brown eyes bright and shimmering, her teeth strangely adult, her lashes long and full. There wasn't a hint of makeup, though. She supposed she was still too young for that, even when there was magic in the air.

Most striking, though, was the jewelry. Glittery earrings dangled from her ears. She reached up and touched them in awe, as she'd never had hear ears pierced. Yet there they were, hanging as if they were supposed to be there. And around her neck hung a beautiful gemstone of some sort, multifaceted and twinkling in the light of the streetlamp.

Slowly she turned back to the Prince, who was bowed at his waist and offering a hand to her. "Little girl," he said. She took his hand and together they walked down the streets. Despite their clothing, or the fact she was so young, no one gave them a second glance.

"Where do you wish to go tonight?" the Prince asked her. Before she could answer, her stomach growled. She blushed, but the Prince let out his raspy laugh. "Dinner it is, then."

He swept her forward and within a few minutes, they found themselves outside a crowded restaurant, a long line of people waiting to get in, bright lights pouring from inside. "It's open so late!" Marta wondered.

"The city that never sleeps," the Prince mused. "Shall we?"

Marta shook her head. "The line is so long. We'll be waiting all night."

The Prince laughed again. "The prince waits for no one, little girl." Her hand in his, he boldly strode to the doors, bypassing the line completely. No one stopped him or Marta; indeed, no one seemed to notice them at all.

Despite the lights outside, indoors it was much dimmer and far more subdued. Hushed patrons sat huddled around tables lit by candlelight. The Prince scooped two menus from the hands of a passing waitress without her even acknowledging him and walked briskly toward a lone table for two in the back.

He pulled a chair out for Marta, who hopped up and sat down, her chest barely reaching above the edge. He sat down with a flourish and handed her a menu. The Prince glanced at his menu for only a moment before setting it aside. Marta gave hers more attention, but found herself bewildered by the offerings. Nothing seemed to have a name that made any sense to her. Everything was described in excruciating detail without words that had meaning.

Seeing the look on her face brought another wave of crinkled laughter from the Prince. He placed his hand on the menu and gently pushed it down, out of Marta's face. "I shall order for the both of us, little girl," he said.

"Ok," she said.

After a few minutes, a waitress came around and noticed them sitting at the table. She seemed confused, but took the Prince's order nonetheless. She complimented Marta on her dress, but aside from that did not seem at all disturbed by a little girl being out with an adult man in the deepest parts of the night.

As they sat there, Marta stared at the Prince and wondered. The wondering led to questions, which she finally built up the confidence to ask. "Can I ask you a question?" she asked.

"Of course," the Prince said with a wry smile.

"Do you have a name?" she asked him. "Besides the Prince?"

"I do," the Prince asked with a curt nod.

"What is it?" she asked. The Prince simply laughed a few times, then went silent. After a moment, Marta asked, "Well?"

The Prince laughed again. "I said you may ask questions, I did not tell you I would answer them."

Marta huffed and threw her arms over her chest. "Why can't you tell me?" she asked.

The Prince offered her a bemused smirk. "I can tell you anything I want, little girl. I simply do not wish to tell you that."

An idea came to her. "I don't believe you," she said. "I don't think you can tell me. I think you have to keep it secret."

The Prince's smirk grew wider. "Think what you wish, clever little girl. But you won't get me to give up my name that easily."

She huffed again and pouted out her bottom lip. Several long minutes passed where neither said a thing. Marta figured eventually the silence would crack the Prince and he would finally tell her his name, either out of pity or (preferably) a desire to avoid Marta's anger.

As if reading her mind, the Prince said, "I am used to solitude and silence. So don't expect to break me so easily, little girl."

"Maybe I just don't want to talk any more," Marta said.

"Very well, then," the Prince answered her.

Indeed, they did not say another word to each other until the meal came. Marta wasn't sure what her dish was, but it was the most delicious thing she'd ever had. It was sweet and savory and made her belly warm. She wanted to gobble it up, but forced herself to chew slowly and relish it. Plus, even though she was here with the Prince, in the back of her mind she feared her mother yelling at her for eating too fast. "Like a pig," he mother said. "If you keep eating like that you'll get fat just like a little pig."

Before they finished, the Prince called over the waitress. "What is your finest wine?" he asked. She said some words Marta didn't understand and the Prince grinned wide, his white teeth almost a source of light on their own. "Very well, bring us a bottle of that."

The waitress returned moments later with a bottle in a bucket of ice, along with two glasses. She sat the glasses in front of the Prince and Marta. The Prince seized the bottle and poured a generous amount of bloodlike wine into his glass, then held it out for Marta. "Would you like a taste?" he offered.

After a moment's contemplation, she nodded. He poured a thumbnail of wine into her glass, barely enough to fill the dimple where the stem met the cup. The Prince lifted his glass into the air and said, "To you, little girl."

Marta picked her glass up with both hands, careful not to drop it, and innocently said, "To me," which drew a round of laughter from the Prince. He reached out his glass and tapped the rim against hers, then drained the glass.

Marta stared at her own glass, then gingerly raised it to her own lips. The droplets of wine trickled into her mouth, flooding it with a sharp, bitter flavor. She coughed and put the glass down, reaching out for her water as her eyes filled with tears. The Prince laughed and she wondered if he had somehow tricked her, though he had drank even more from the same bottle...

"Perhaps wine is not for you, little girl, not yet," he said. He refilled his own glass and drank deeply from it again, leaving it only a quarter full.

They finished their meal, with the Prince draining the rest of the bottle of wine all by himself. She had seen her father drink before. She knew it made people get loud, clumsy, angry, and mean. Her worries that the Prince would be the same were unfounded as, once the two had finished their meals, the Prince asked, "Would the little girl care for desert?"

Normally such a question would earn a resounding yes, but Marta was filled to the brim and didn't imagine she could eat another bite. "Maybe another time," she said.

The Prince grinned, "Yes, little girl. Another time. Then, it is time for us to take our leaves."

He stood and helped Marta out of her chair. He took her hand once more and the two of them began a brisk walk toward the exit. "Don't we need to pay?" she asked him.

The Prince gave her an incredulous look. "Little girl, I am the Prince," he said as if insulted.

Once they were outside, into the cool air of the night and the bright flush of city lights, Marta asked, "Where are we going now?"

"Sadly, it grows late," the Prince said. "I must return you home."

Marta started to protest, but the Prince lifted her into his arms and took off down the street. Soon, he was bounding from rooftop to rooftop and Marta's breath was taken away. She was sure she could stay in his arms forever, watching the ground travel in a blur below.

But all too soon they were back on her rooftop and he set her down. With disappointment, she realized she was no longer wearing her dress or jewelry. Her old, too-small pajamas were back. She touched her ears and found them as unpierced as ever. Even her hair had gone back to its long, unattractive waves.

She looked up at the Prince and noticed he, too, had diminished somewhat. His gloves were no longer the smooth, supple leather they had seemed when he carried her. His shoes were scuffed and his shirt had a small spot on the collar.

Seeing the look on her face, he crouched down before her. "You wish you were still as beautiful as you were tonight, don't you?" he asked.

She nodded, small tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes. He suddenly cupped her cheek in his hand, rubbing it gently with his thumb. "Well, little girl, you are always that beautiful," he said in a husky whisper. "I simply let the world see it." His hand lingered for a moment, then fell away.

He stood and walked to the edge of the roof. "Take me with you!" Marta blurted.

The Prince froze in place for a minute, as if thinking about it. Then he turned slowly and smiled at Marta. "Goodnight, little girl." With that he leapt away, into the night.

It was several days more before she saw the Prince again. One night there was a tap tap tap on her window as she was heading to sleep. She sat up and looked over and saw him staring in. He was even more glorious than the previous time, as he had added a top hat and gold cufflinks to his wardrobe. Marta hopped out of bed and yanked the window open.

"Prince!" she squealed with delight as she scurried out onto the fire escape.

The Prince held a finger to his lips, enjoining her to silence. She gasped and threw her hands over her mouth. He was right, of course. Her parents wouldn't be in bed yet. She grinned behind her palms at their shared secret and then ascended the fire escape in front of him.

When they reached the roof, the Prince sat down on the ledge. "You look very handsome tonight," she told him.

He grinned. "Thank you, little girl," he said. "I'm afraid it won't last, however. This early there are still plenty of folks awake. As the night drags on, well..." He shrugged his shoulders.

Marta hopped up onto the ledge beside him, swinging her legs back and forth even though her heels hit the bricks. "Can you make me pretty again?" she asked.

"Of course," the Prince said, reaching out with his gloved hand to cup Marta's face. She felt the tingle pass through her again and she shuddered, before opening her eyes to find her black, pink-fringed dress and jewelry. She wished she could see her hair again, because she liked her hair most of all.

She closed her eyes and let her head rest in the Prince's palm. He gently caressed her cheek for just a second before pulling it away. Marta opened her eyes and looked up at him. "I brought a gift, tonight." He hopped off the ledge and walked over to a corner, stooped down, and retrieved two silver bowls piled with ice cream and toppings.

Marta squealed in joy when he brought them back. Hers had scoops of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry between a split banana, topped with whipped cream, sprinkles, nuts, chocolate sauce, and cherries. She took her spoon and scooped out a huge, dripping bite. Moments before sticking it into her mouth, she froze, then turned to the Prince and bowed her head slightly. "Thank you, Prince."

The Prince let out a laugh, one that wasn't as raspy as all the rest. "You're welcome, little girl."

Marta stuffed the bite into her mouth and squealed at how cold it was. But before it could even begin to bother her, she dug into her next bite. "Be careful, little girl," the Prince said. "You don't want to get your dress dirty."

She looked up at him with wide eyes. "Will it really get sticky?" she asked.

He winked at her and said, "Better safe than sorry."

Marta nodded and started to eat more carefully, slowly scooping out medium sized bites that wouldn't drop on the way to her mouth. The Prince ate similarly, though his own bowl was much more modest.

After several minutes of quiet eating, the Prince softly asked, "Have your parents been arguing lately, little girl?"

Marta hesitated a moment, then ate another bite of her split before answering. "Yes."

The Prince sighed and said, "Has it been often, then?"

Marta nodded before eating another bite, this time with a big chuck of banana in it. "They weren't tonight, though."

"I see," the Prince said, looking away and up into the sky. "Did you know there are hundreds of stars in the sky? Even thousands? Millions, perhaps."

Marta looked up at the sky but didn't see anything but a yellow haze of light. "No," she said. There were one or two stars she could see, sometimes, if she squinted really hard. And she'd learned about stars in school and heard about them in songs. But hundreds or thousands? That sounded like a joke to her.

"Would you like to see them?" the Prince asked.

"Sure," she said, not really caring. She couldn't imagine that it would be all that impressive.

"Very well," the Prince said. He put his hand over hers and suddenly she felt very dizzy and weak. Then everything started to get dark. Very dark, like the dark of being in her bedroom at night with the lights off and all the curtains closed.

Then she looked up into the sky and her eyes went wide. There were so many stars! All of them were so bright, too! They twinkled magically, like little gems set in the darkness. She finally understood that song, now! And there, in the middle, this long, dusty band like a beautiful necklace of jewels, stretching from one end of the sky to the next.

She was amazed by it. It was like nothing she'd ever seen. She was sure she could stare at the sky forever if it was like that.

The Prince started to laugh. He kept laughing and Marta wondered what was so funny. So she tore herself away from the sky and turned to look at him. He wasn't laughing.

He was doubled over, coughing harshly. His wonderful clothing had degraded into little more than filthy rags. His face was splotched and his teeth were yellowed and brown. As she hopped off the ledge and ran to the Prince, Marta realized she was back in her pajamas. She rushed over to him and grabbed his arm.

Almost immediately the Prince's cough lessened. He straightened up and the city's lights returned in an explosion of light. The Prince lowered himself to the ground and looked up at Marta, forcing a smile. "Did you see the stars, little girl?" he asked, his voice strained and raspy.

Marta nodded, but wasn't thinking about the stars now. "Are you alright?" she asked. "What happened?"

He put his hands on his knees and hung his head. "The lights went out," he told her. "But now they are back. I will be better, soon." With some effort, he stood, wobbled, and righted himself. He stumbled over to the ledge and started to climb up it.

"Where are you going?" Marta called after him.

"I do not want you to see me like this," he told her. He forced a smile, but it became a grimace. "Do not worry for me. I will recover. You should... go home, for now." With that, he leapt from the edge of the building onto the one beside. He landed in a heap, but pushed himself to his feet and took off in a run, leaping away into the darkness.

Marta watched him go until she could no longer imagine she saw him, then started the climb back toward her bedroom. When she slipped inside, she noticed her pajamas had a fresh hole in the knee. She wondered where that came from; she didn't remember ripping it on the roof.

Days passed, then weeks, and yet the Prince never came back. At first, Marta was worried, then she became heart broken. She cried herself to sleep on the roof for several nights in a row, waiting for him to show up and never getting her wish. She wondered if the Prince had abandoned her. Perhaps seeing him when he was weakest had made him angry, she thought.

Or maybe he had gotten in trouble, somehow. People had talked about the city-wide blackout that happened the night of her stargazing. No one could figure out what had happened, why the entire city's lights had shut down all at once, nor why they'd all come back on a few minutes later. The official story eventually became that something had overloaded the grid and, when it was removed, everything came back.

She knew that wasn't true. She knew the Prince had turned off the lights for her and suffered for it. That made her feel even more terrible.

Three months had passed since she last saw the Prince. Finally, she was beginning to accept that he was not coming back. She didn't know if she'd been the cause or if there was something else that kept him away. But the pain had grown numb.

One night, her parents were arguing again, as always. It was a cold evening; the news said they might get an early snowfall that year. She knew she couldn't go up onto the roof to sleep, she would surely freeze if she tried. So she lay in her bedroom, pillow over her head, trying to block out the sound of the yelling and screaming and things being thrown onto the ground.

But it wasn't working. It never worked. She squeezed her eyes shut and crammed the pillow down against her head as hard as she could, but the sounds still assaulted her. "Please stop," she said softly to herself. "Please stop, please stop, please stop."

She repeated the mantra to herself, one that had become almost second nature. Sometimes it managed to lull her to sleep; but on this night it was doing no good. Though her eyes were squeezed shut, tears still managed to escape from between her lids.

She struggled not to burst into sobs. Her parents would hear that and then they would come in and yell at her or, even worse, start yelling at each other about it. She let out a choked off one despite her best efforts. She bit her tongue to try and keep the others from coming out, but she knew the leak would become a flood in a moment.

Then a tingly feeling spread over her body. There was en electric shorting sound, then her parents stopped yelling.

"Oh god dammit!" her mother yelled. "The fucking electricity is out again."

"Whatever, nothing to do tonight but go to bed wait for it to come back on in the morning."

"You're not getting out of this just because the lights are out!"

"Really, are you going to fucking ride me about this in the fucking pitch dark? Don't be a crazy bitch. Let's just go to bed."

"I'm not sleeping in the same bed as you!"

"Fine!" her dad yelled. "I'll sleep on the goddamn couch. It saves me from having to find the bedroom door."

"Fine!" her mother yelled. The sound of her mother's heavy footfalls sounded, then the sound of something crashing and her mother swearing. Then more footfalls and the door to her mother's bedroom slamming shut.

Marta leapt from the bed and ran to the window. She threw it open and ran up the fire escape. Before she was even half way up, she started yelling, "Prince! Prince!"

But once she reached the roof, the Prince was nowhere to be found. "Prince!" she wailed. "Prince!" She collapsed to the ground and sat there shivering in the cold. She felt she could just fall down and die there. But the bitter cold stung and she pulled herself back to her feet and sadly returned to the bedroom.

At least her parents weren't arguing any more, she thought, and that small blessing carried her to sleep.

The next day, Marta resolved to go out and find the Prince herself, no matter what. Her mother bundled her up for school and left her out on the corner for the school bus, but as soon as she was out of sight, Marta scurried off.

Even though it was so cold she could see her breath, and her nose ran even with a scarf wrapped around her face, she paid it no mind. She walked up and down the streets, peeking into every alley she came across to see if the Prince was back there. After what seemed like all day to her (but was really only two hours), she felt frozen to the bone and ached all over and still hadn't found the Prince.

She wanted to sit down and cry, but then thought about the Prince seeing that and resolved not to. Pressing on, she kept walking up and down streets further and further from her home. She would find the Prince no matter how far she had to go. She promised herself she would not give up for any reason.

Suddenly, she thought she saw him laying in a pile of dirty blankets halfway in an alley. Hope swelling within her breast, she rushed over and leapt on the pile, giving it a big hug. The pile let out a pained off and then started yelling at her in a voice she didn't recognize. She shrieked and threw her hands over her ears and ran away.

She wasn't sure how far or where she ran to, but when she finally stopped she was out of breath and sweaty despite the cold. She had no idea where she was. She had no idea where the Prince was.

Another hour of searching turned up no sign of the Prince either. With despair she began to realize how large the city was and how short her legs were and how long it would take her to search the entire thing for him. Plus, she realized, he could get up and move, so even if she checked every place a hundred times she still might not ever find him.

But there must be a way, she thought. She had to be able to find him somehow. Then she spotted another homeless man, sitting in an alley huddled up against the cold. Marta took a deep breath and walked over to the man. He didn't look up at her as she approached. "Excuse me," she said nervously.

The man looked up and Marta realized it wasn't a man at all, but an old woman. That made Marta much less nervous, even as she said, "Whattya want?" in a slur.

"I'm looking for the Prince," Marta said to her. "Do you know where I can find him?"

The woman laughed and coughed at the same time. "Don't make no sense, lookin' for no prince. Ain't no prince gonna come sweep me off my feet." The woman looked at Marta through one open eye, her other squinted shut and slightly swollen. "You, maybe they will. Maybe they will, you're a pretty little thing, so maybe they will. Ain't no prince is coming for me."

Marta shook her head savagely. "No! I don't mean a prince, I mean the Prince! He's a homeless person too!"

"Eh?" the homeless woman wondered. "Ain't no homeless princes I know, for sure. Think they'd have a castle or something to go to."

"The whole city is his castle," Marta said. "He's tall and black and has long braids - " for she did not know what a dreadlock was properly called - "and sometimes he wears really nice clothes and sometimes they're really gross." She thought about what he had looked like during the day, or right after he had turned all the lights off (even though she'd tried to forget that), and said, "He has a brown tooth right here," she pointed to one of her molars. "And gloves without fingers."

The woman cackled. "That could be anyone, yep. Not a prince, though, he ain't one. You want to find a homeless person, just look around. Plenty of them everywhere you look. Got one right here in front of you. I'm homeless too, you know. Maybe whatever you were looking for him for you can use me for instead. How about that, huh? I can do whatever he can do."

Marta sighed and shook her head and started walking away. After a few steps, the homeless lady started yelling and swearing at her. Marta covered her ears and ran again, but this time not nearly so fast nor so far.

She was exhausted. She had no idea where to look for the Prince now. How could she ever find him? There had to be thousands of people in the city (there were really millions, but she could not have even imagined such a large number), how could she ever find one person among all those? She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted to throw a tantrum until the Prince came to save her.

As she thought about it she became more and more angry until, finally, she stomped her foot in frustration. Almost instantly, the lights on a nearby police car started flashing wildly. The officer, who had been inside a nearby convenience store, came jogging out to examine it. Marta stared, mesmerized by the flashing red and blue lights.

The officer seemed baffled by it and turned, bringing his eyes onto Marta. Seeing a young girl all alone out in the cold during a school day, the officer shouted for her. Marta leapt and turned and ran, the officer yelled for her to stop, but she turned down an alley and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. She wasn't sure why she was running. Maybe it was because the officer would surely yell at her. Maybe she worried the officer would stop her from finding the Prince. Or maybe she worried that her parents would do worse than yell at her once the officer dragged her home.

After scrambling through the alley, Marta looked back and saw she wasn't being chased. However, she was hopelessly lost.

Then she saw him. The Prince was walking out of a store, clutching a bottle wrapped in a brown bag. Marta squealed in joy and ran toward him, arms extended. "Prince!" she yelped as she got near him. He turned at the last moment, his eyes glassy and bloodshot, as she crashed into his legs.

The Prince stumbled and fell back against the wall as she hugged him. He looked down at her and said, "Little girl," in a slurred voice.

"Prince!" she said, hugging him tight. "I missed you so much! Where did you go? Why didn't you come to see me!"

He laid his hand on her forehead and shoved her away. She tripped back and fell on her butt. "Go away," he said. As she struggled to get back to her feet, he stumbled away from her, down the street.

Now that he bliss over seeing him had passed, she actually looked at him. He was worse than she had ever seen him. On his feet were only a pair of socks, wrapped in clear plastic bags, both full of holes. His jacket looked like it was fitted for a child, and had several holes in it as well, and looked nearly as thin as the plastic bags. His pants were soiled and splitting at the seams. Several of his dreadlocks had broken off and those which remained were frayed and filthy.

Even so, he was the Prince. She ran after him, shouting for him to stop. "Please, Prince! Come back! Talk to me!"

The Prince ignored her, stumbling forward, making no specific attempt to escape her pursuit. Eventually, he came to an alley and lurched down it, out of sight briefly. Marta chased after him, hoping she wouldn't lose him. As she turned the corner, she did not see him. Her heart sank. Then she noticed that he was merely lying on the ground, in a pile of garbage.

He rolled over and gave her what might have been a glower if he hadn't been so drunk. "What?" he asked, his head swaying back and forth.

"What happened to you?" Marta asked. She could feel the tears creeping at the edge of her vision.

"What happened?" the Prince asked. He laughed, it almost immediately becoming a cough. "I'm not the Prince any more, that's what happened. The lights, they're nothing to me now. I'm nothing to them. I guess that's more important."

He lifted the bottle to his lips and took a swig. Marta could smell the stench of alcohol on him even from where she stood. "Why?"

The Prince looked like he tried to shrug. "I did too much. I turned off all the lights," the Prince said. "Never all the lights before. I shouldn't have done all the lights. It was bad. It was wrong. I lost myself to the lights. I said I would get better... I didn't. I didn't get better. I got worse."

His eyes scrunched up in pain. "I tried to get them back. I tried so hard, little girl. But the lights didn't come back. They'll never come back. They're gone. The lights are gone."

"But..." Marta shook her head. "But last night you turned the lights off when my parents were arguing!"

For a moment, the Prince's eyes cleared. Then he shook his head and they glazed over again. "No, it couldn't be. It wasn't me. I wasn't near your building. I went back, once, to try to find the lights. But they weren't there, even though they're everywhere. They weren't there for me. I looked for them, but they weren't there."

"But they turned off!" Marta insisted. "I saw them! My parents stopped arguing! They did!"

"Coincidence," the Prince said sadly. "Do you know what that is? It means when two things happen by chance without anything to do with each other. I didn't flip that switch. It flipped without me."

Marta stared at the Prince, sad and broken laying a heap of trash. He took another swig of the potent, cheap liquor and a wave of pain and relief passed over his face. "I want to help you," she said.

"You can't help me," he muttered. "Go away. Don't waste yourself on me." He let his arm drop to his side and his head fall. He gurgled and his body convulsed, then a mouthful of watery vomit erupted from him, coating his chest. It stank enough to almost make Marta sick.

She started to cry, hoping her tears would rouse the Prince from his stupor. Nothing happened, even after a full minute of crying. "Please, Prince, wake up," she whimpered, but he remained immobile.

Finally, the tears dried up and Marta started to leave the alley. Just before she stepped out, someone else stepped into her way. "Hey there, girlie," the man said. "What're you doing back here?" His voice was not friendly.

Marta took a step back, away from him. "Nothing. I'm leaving," she said, avoiding eye contact.

The man sneered. "I don't think you are," he said. He stepped into the alley after her and she saw there were two other men behind him. "Not until you give me what I want."

"What do you want?" she asked hesitantly, taking another step backward. She glanced over her shoulder.

"You got any money?" one of the other men said. "Give us all your money."

"I don't have any money," Marta muttered, stepping away again. The three men advanced on her once more.

"No money?" the third man asked. "Well, that's a nice jacket you got. Take it off and give it to me."

"But I need my jacket," Marta said, her bottom lip quivering. "Please let me go."

"Not until you take off your jacket," the third man insisted. "Just give it to me and I'll let you go, ok?" The other two men murmured their agreement.

Uncertainly, Marta started to take her jacket off and said, "Ok..." Without her jacket, it was bitterly cold. She shivered even as she handed the jacket to the man, who snatched it away from her.

"Those are nice shoes too," the first man said. "Take your shoes off."

"You said you'd let me go if I gave you my jacket!" Marta objected.

The three men laughed. "We changed our minds," the first man said. "But if you give me your shoes, I promise we'll let you go this time." They laughed harshly again.

Before Marta could do anything, the Prince leapt up and swung his bottle at the head of the first man. The bottle only glanced off his shoulder and surprisingly didn't break, but the man was knocked backward into the other two. They all fell to the ground.

"Run, little girl!" the Prince shouted.

In retrospect, Marta realized she should have run out of the alley. But in her terror she turned and ran deeper into it. When the Prince realized what she was doing he cursed and ran after her. He scooped her into his arms and continued sprinting down the alley as the three men had already stood and were giving chase.

The alley split into two at the end and he turned blindly down one side. It ended in a set of stairs that led down toward a door, with no other exit. The prince cursed again and stumbled down the steps two at a time. He grabbed the handle and yanked it, surprisingly finding the door unlocked. He jumped in and threw the door shut, leaning his weight back against it.

They were in a fairly large room, about twenty feet by twenty feet in size, lit by a string of dim fluorescent overhead bulbs. Aside from the two of them, the room was bare save a single fuse box at set into the wall. The Prince groped at the door, looking for a lock but unable to find one.

The door was suddenly flung open and the three men entered, wearing angrily sadistic expressions. "Gotcha," the first man said.

"Please, wait," the Prince tried to beg, but the men were already on top of him. They threw him down to the ground and began raining blows down on him. The Prince vainly tried to curl into a ball and cover his head with his arms, but the men kicked and stomped on him without mercy.

"Stop," Marta muttered in horror. One of the men briefly glanced up at her and flashed a wicked grin. There was no way she was getting past them. "Stop," she said, even stronger.

The men continued to pummel the Prince, who was starting to bleed from several nasty cuts on his face. He let out a strained cough, producing a glob of bile and blood.

Marta felt helpless. She wanted to do something, but what could she do against the three men? "Stop." The Prince had tried to save her, even though she had cost him his lights. "Stop." Now he was paying for it. She realized the men were going to kill him. They wouldn't stop until the Prince was dead. "Stop." And what would they do to her? Would they kill her too? Or something even worse? Who would be able to identify the men? Who would ever bring them to justice? "Stop!"

Terror and anger swelled up in Marta's chest. "STOP!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.

The lights flashed a brilliant, blinding white. It was so sudden and so bright the three men were blinded by it. Marta looked down, amazed, at herself. Her school clothes had transformed into the black-and-pink dress. The sparkling stone hung around her neck and she could feel the weight of the earrings in her ears.

The Prince sat up, looking at himself in amazement. His pains were gone. His clothes had been restored to the brilliance of the night before he had lost his lights. He flowed with vigor. The three men who had attacked him lay on the floor, clutching their seared eyes. Moans of pain and confusion escaped their lips.

The Prince stood and turned to Marta, awe on his face. "You did this," he said to her. "You spoke to the lights."

"I don't know what I did," Marta said. "I just wanted them to stop."

The Prince looked down at the men. One of them weakly reached a hand out and brushed the Prince's leg. The Prince kicked it away and the man groaned. "And stop they did," the Prince said. He looked back to Marta. "What should we do with them?"

"They can't see," Marta said as she watched them. "Will they ever see again?"

The Prince shook his head. "I do not know, little girl. They might. They might not."

"Should we tell the police?" Marta asked.

The Prince considered it for a moment. Finally, he said, "If we do, there may be some difficult questions to answer."

Marta took a step over the men, toward the door. "Then leave them. I don't think they'll ever see again." She stepped out the door.

"You might be right," the Prince said, following her out.

The Prince led Marta home. When she got back to the apartment, a police officer was sitting with her parents. Her mother wailed and threw her arms around Marta when she walked in the door. She cried out, thanking everything she could think of for "her baby" being safe. Her father sniffled and wiped at his eyes as well.

The police asked Marta many questions. "I went for a walk," she said cheerfully. She didn't tell them about the Prince, or anything else that had happened that day. They tried to figure out why she hadn't gone to school, what had made her decide to walk away from the bus stop, if anyone had taken her or hurt her or did anything to her. But she insisted she was fine, that she had done it on her own.

Eventually they were satisfied that it was simply a case of a child making a terrible decision. Her mother promised the police she would wait at the stop to make sure Marta got on, instead of leaving her with the other children. Marta felt a swell in her chest to hear her mother saying such things.

But as soon as the police left, she began yelling. She screamed at Marta for not going to school. "Do you know how that made me look?" she yelled. "The police thought I was neglecting you! Or worse, they thought I'd gotten rid of you! Why would you do that? Are you stupid?"

That went on for quite a while, with her father getting in a few licks of his own. Finally, they sent Marta to her room, sore and drained, and forbade her from leaving.

That night, she climbed onto the roof and found the Prince waiting for her. He looked majestic, as always. Marta matched him, her hair in perfect coils, black dress prettily trimmed with pink lace, cheeks rosy. She smiled and he smiled back.

"With great power comes great responsibility and responsibility does not always allow a prince to earn his bread in these times," she said to him.

"You remembered, little girl," he said proudly.

"Yes, Prince, I did," she said. "I don't want to stay here any more. I can't stay here any more."

The Prince laughed and it was only slightly raspy. "I know, little girl, and I don't want you to stay. You have to come with me. There is much you need to learn. Are you ready to go?"

Marta looked around at the barren roof and nodded curtly. "Yes, I am."

The Prince reached out his gloved hand. "Then come, Marta. Let's go."

Check out other stories that are Short Story, Fantastic Earth, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy.
Permalink to Prince of the City's Lights.