The Lady Comes of Age

The lights were bright tonight. How could they be anything different? The Prince and his Lady were making the city their own tonight. It was a celebration of the Lady's birthday and they would celebrate until the sun peeked over the horizon and the lights began to flicker slowly off.

"What do you wish for your birthday, Lady?" the Prince asked her.

Marta, resplendent in a flowing black, strapless dress with a low cut and a fishtail skirt, waved a small feather fan at her face despite the chill of the night air. "I want everything, Prince," she said.

The Prince, his Victorian tuxedo perfectly tailored to every last stitch, bowed low and doffed his top hat. "For you, my Lady, I will bring you everything and more!" He looked up at her and Marta noticed his hungry eyes.

"What's more than everything, my Prince?" she asked with a laugh.

He took a step toward her, reaching his arm out. "Shall I show you?" he asked, his voice dripping with need. He didn't just want to show her what he meant, he needed to. In every fiber of his being, he needed to show her.

She sucked in a breath that made her chest rise and strain against the fabric of her dress. She hadn't heard the Prince's voice filled with such yearning in almost five years, since the short time he had lost touch with the city's lights.

She laid a hand modestly over her chest, covering her cleavage. Her clothes, the Prince told her, were designed to bring out her most perfect beauty. For the past few months, as she bloomed earlier than most girls did, they had grown gradually tighter and more revealing. She didn't mind, but did wonder how much further they would and could go before she started to.

Her palm came to rest on the jewel that hung around her neck. She closed her hand around it, gripping it tightly. "Yes," she told the Prince. "I want you to show me."

She held out her hand to him. She expected him to take it, but instead he laid his hand on her shoulder. Slowly, he let it slide up her neck to cup her face. The leather gloves were smooth and supple. "You are very beautiful, Marta."

Marta awoke, cold and uncomfortable. The threadbare blanket which had kept her mildly warm had fallen off her, exposing her to the cold air. Briefly, she considered covering up and going back to sleep. But she was awake now and didn't need much sleep anyway, so she got up and walked into the other room.

She lived in an abandoned row house, one without working electricity or running water. It was mostly unfurnished, containing only a few crumbling chairs and a bed in such a poor state the she wasn't eager to actually sleep on it. As she stretched to resolve the ache in her stiff back, she reconsidered that position for not the first time.

She slowly trudged into the bathroom. She owned a toothbrush with bent bristles and a cracked handle. She wet it with stagnant water from a plastic jug and squeezed on toothpaste from a tube retrieved, half-full, from a dumpster. She gently brushed her teeth and gums, exactly like her parents had taught her all those years ago.

Thinking of her parents now filled her with melancholy. It had been nearly nine years since she'd last seen them. With a foamy spit she realized her life without them had been almost as long as with them. And those first few years with them were the unremembered times of an infant.

She took a mouthful of water from the jug and washed her mouth out. She gave herself a smile in the cracked mirror, proud to see still-white teeth. The Prince had wondered why she bothered, once. "When the lights come on," he told her, "you will become perfection. Why bother with it?"

She didn't bother trying to explain it to him. How long had he been the Prince of the City's Lights? Probably as long as there had been lights, she supposed. She couldn't blame him for giving up on the time when the lights were off. More than once she'd entertained the idea as well.

Looking at herself now, the desire briefly flared up. Her long red hair, which was naturally curly and wavy, hung limply around her shoulders. It was dingy and oily. She could wash it out with the water and some soap, but then it would simply get tangled and brittle. She thought about the Prince, with his long, dirty dreadlocks. Either way, she thought with a sigh, her hair would be a mess.

Her skin was still creamy pale, though now marked with zits and blackheads. There weren't many, but the ravages of being a teen still afflicted her. Her eyes were still a bright brown fading to hazel near the pupils. She smiled at herself again. She had a nice smile, full lips, though they were dry and cracked in contrast to her oily skin. She didn't wear any makeup, not that she would bother putting any on if she even had some.

The cast off clothing she wore was too big for her and the opposite of flattering. They were dirty, of course. Everything was always dirty during the day. Her coat had holes in the elbows and half the buttons had fallen off. It wasn't very thick and only by constant moving could she remain warm even out in the sun. Her shirt was baggy and hung down around her thighs, a dingy white t-shirt with the logo of some RV dealership plastered across the chest. Her pants, at least, were relatively new, though uncomfortable even so. They were rough spun jeans, black in color and meant for a man, though they still fit her snugly. If not for the rest of her ensemble, they might actually look good on her.

Her stomach growled and she debated the merits of attending to that immediately. She didn't have any food in the house, so she'd have to go out and find some. She checked her pockets and discovered that money was lacking. That wasn't much of a surprise.

She did have a cigarette, though. She pulled it out and lit it with a match from a book she'd taken from a truck stop she slept at one night. The warm smoke helped banish the last bits of chill from her body and soothed her appetite somewhat. She wondered if smoking was truly bad for her. The Prince had never seemed to suffer from his various vices; at least not to the extent Marta thought he should.

She angrily shook her head. Why were all of her thoughts drifting toward the Prince this morning? She put him out of her mind and smoked the rest of the cigarette quickly, sucking it down like it was medicine. She dropped the butt to the floor and ground it beneath the worn sole of her ill-fitting sneakers.

Food was on the agenda. Unlike the Prince, she couldn't simply walk in somewhere and take anything she wanted. She would have to work for it.

Working for food meant one of two things for Marta. She could beg for money until she collected enough or she could dig through dumpsters for half-eaten leftovers. Neither option was particularly palatable for her; she hated the hit to her dignity that begging always seemed to result in, but at least the food would be fresh. There had been times when, in a particular moment of desperation, she'd taken to eating food covered in grime or small amounts of mold.

Those times hadn't happened in a long while, though. She'd swallowed her pride and would beg most of the time. Or, when the night fell and the lights came on, there were ways she could get things... She hated those more than begging, though. It was begging with a lie on top. Only when she was truly desperate.

Her best bet would be near the harbor, where plenty of young, well-off white people congregated. They had the most to spare and, even though they were among the least likely to give her anything, when they did it was usually enough to get something. It was a long walk from her home to the harbor, but she knew better than to even try anywhere she could get to quickly. The only thing she'd get around there would be curses or kicks.

As she walked, head down, hands stuffed in pockets, hood up, a man called out to her. "Hey girl!" She cringed. It was Lamont, one of the residents of the neighborhood who lived in one of the buildings that was actually intended to be lived in. She tucked her head lower and tried to speed her walk without looking like it. "Hey, girl!" Lamont called again.

She could hear him jogging after her so she sighed, slowed up, and glanced back over her shoulder. Lamont was a black man entering his mid-40s. His hair and beard were peppered with gray and he had friendly eyes that she knew were a lie. "What do you want?" she asked.

"You eighteen yet, girl?" he asked with a big smile.

Marta snorted and turned away from him. She started walking briskly off, but Lamont kept up after her. "Hey, girl, come on! Don't be like that!" he said. "Come on, I ain't askin' nothing but if you had a birthday yet! I got a present for you!"

"I don't think I want any of your presents," she said. "Leave me alone."

He laid a hand on her arm which she violent shrugged off. "Come on, girl. You livin' in a dumpster, more or less. All I wanna do is clean you up and put a roof over your head. Ain't nothing wrong with that."

"That's not all you want to do and you know it," Marta said harshly. Even with the layers of filth covering her, Lamont had been able to see through it and take notice of the beauty beneath. He coveted that beauty, as most men did, which made Marta hate him. She wanted nothing to do with men like Lamont.

"And what's wrong with that, huh?" he asked. "Man's got needs. Girl's got needs too, don't she? I'll be better than your old one, that's for sure - "

Marta whirled on him and gave him a wild-eyed glower that caused him to halt in his tracks, mouth agape. "Don't talk about him!" she snarled. "Don't ever talk about him, understand." She jabbed a finger into Lamont's chest and he stumbled backward.

Lamont raised his hands in the air as if she were pointing a gun at him and took a wary step back. "Whoa, girl, fine! I won't talk about him again, damn. Sorry."

She sighed and let the sudden tension flow out of her body. Her upper body went limp. The only thing keeping her legs from doing the same was her wish to avoid falling to the ground in a heap in front of Lamont. The last thing she needed was to give him more fuel to insist that she move in with him and share the benefits of having a real bed.

"Whatever. I'm not moving in with you, ok? So stop asking. I'm not eighteen yet anyway, so you'd get in trouble if we did what you want me to do." The truth was, Marta wasn't quite sure how old she was. She thought she was still seventeen, but maybe... It depended on the day. How long ago was New Year's Day? A month already? More?

Lamont frowned at her and for a moment she thought she saw sincere concern. "Anyway, I can't talk to you," she said. "I'm busy."

She started to turn and leave, but he said, "Hold up, just a second."

"I'm busy!" she said as she started to walk away.

"Damn, girl, I ain't gonna do nothing that won't take a second. Just hold up!" Marta spun and was ready to yell at him again, but before she could start she saw him holding out a crumpled twenty in his hand. "Here, take this. It ain't much, but it'll stop you from havin' to beg and shit."

She swallowed a lump in her throat. A twenty could buy her a decent meal, a few jugs of water, a bar of soap, and leave her with something left over. "I'm not taking your money," she said, the words an effort to force out. "I don't want to owe you."

Lamont sighed and ran a hand over his short, stubbly hair. "Damn, girl, you won't owe me shit. This is a gift, you feel? Friends give friends gifts, alright."

Marta laughed ruefully and shook her head. "We're not friends," she said and walked away. She expected Lamont to yell something at her, to say something at all. But he didn't say a single thing, not even a sound.

She kept walking without looking back.

A worn and creased square of cardboard served as her sign. It read, simply, "Homeless. Spare some money. God bless." She didn't really believe in God, to tell the truth. Her parents probably hadn't either, though they used his name in vain enough. Her mother had wanted to go to church, but her father hadn't wanted to go to a black church (though he'd used a much less flattering term), so they never went, except for the few times they visited her grandparents on holidays.

Even so, Marta didn't feel like it was a lie to say it. If there was a God and he was looking down on people, he'd probably bless the people who gave money to beggars even if they didn't believe in him.

She sat huddled on a concrete step, shivering in the cold air. It was the middle of the day, so people were moving through on lunch breaks. Plenty of traffic. She kept the sign up, hiding most of her face. People were more likely to give money to a pretty young homeless girl, but she hid anyway.

As people walked by, she peered out over the top of the sign, wondering who would be the first to drop some change into her cup. It was an empty Big-Gulp cup she scooped out of the trash. The inside was sticky. She rattled it back and forth, hoping the sound of the few coins she still had would entice someone to drop a bit of money in.

After a half-hour of no bites, she was growing a bit frustrated. She wanted to scream at them, to ask them if they knew who she was. What she was. Ask how they could dare to deny her! But she kept quiet, shaking the cup every few seconds, holding the sign up in front of her face.

Finally, someone walked over toward her. He was a young man, probably no older than she was. He had the thin, sly face of a child who would take far too long to grow up. As he got near, he grinned and pulled a clenched fist out of his pocket. "Here you go," he said with what seemed like barely-contained amusement as he stuffed his fist into the cup, opened, and then pulled it out.

"Thank you, God bless you," she said softly. His eyes went a little wide when he heard her voice. Maybe he hadn't realized she was a girl, or how young she was. But he turned and ran off, back to a group of other boys his age.

She glanced into her cup, half-expecting her coins to have been stolen. It wouldn't have been the first time someone thought it would be a funny idea to steal the little bit she'd managed to scrape together under the guise of helping her. Instead, she saw a crumpled piece of paper. She pulled it out and uncrumpled it.

The paper contained a crudely drawn picture of a person on their knees, mouth happily open, phallus pointed at it, along with what appeared to be a phone number with $5 written next to it. Apparently the boy had realized she was a girl after all. She simply crumpled it up and tossed it aside. "I don't even have a phone," she muttered to herself.

As time ticked by, she began to regret not taking Lamont's money. For whatever reason, no one was being generous today. Maybe it was too cold, she thought. Everyone was hurrying past, their breath steaming as they kept their heads down and hands in their pockets.

She was cold, too. She couldn't feel her toes or her fingers or her cheeks. Her stomach growled. Was she colder or hungrier? She spent a bit of time debating the issue with herself. On one (frozen) hand, she couldn't feel several of her cold parts any more, while she could definitely still feel her hunger. That was a point in favor of the hunger. But the cold could hurt her much more quickly if she let it, so that was a point for the cold.

In the end, she decided it didn't matter. Being hungry and cold was a rotten combination. Having sat there for close to three hours and receiving no money, she realized today would not be her day. She could do something immediately about the cold, at least. She got up and stretched, flexing her fingers and toes and trying to restore some warmth to them.

Once they were sufficiently warmed, she took out one of her remaining two cigarettes and lit it. The smoke helped warm her up some more and helped ease her hunger. It was artificial, she knew, but the gnawing at her stomach was the part that concerned her most at the moment. She'd eaten the day before, so she wasn't in danger of starving.

As she smoked, she started walking to bring warmth back to the rest of her body. She wandered around downtown for a while, looking for a place she might properly warm herself better. Eventually, she found a busy bookstore. Glancing around to make sure no employees were watching, she dashed inside and made a beeline for the restrooms.

She saw a woman enter the women's room as she neared, so she ducked into the men's room instead. It was thankfully empty, so she took the opportunity to turn on the hot water and run her hands beneath it. It stung painfully at first as sensation flooded her hands, but it gradually died away to a comforting warmth. She took some soap and used the opportunity to wash some grime off her hands and face.

The door opened and she hung her head, trying to hide her face. The person said nothing and went to a urinal. His back was to her, so she slowly slipped around and into a stall. Luckily, the bathroom was very clean, so she locked the stall door and sat on the toilet. It didn't have a lid, unfortunately, so it wasn't the most comfortable seat.

Still, it was better than sitting on a cold sidewalk. Her stomach growled.

When the tingling started, a wave of relief washed over her. She'd been sitting quietly in the stall for hours, dreading the point when someone realized how long she'd been in there and came to eject her. But she wouldn't have to wait long now. The sun was setting beneath the horizon and the city's lights were flickering on.

The transformation was both gradual and sudden. Her tattered clothes slowly cleaned and repaired themselves. Stains faded, holes closed. The prickly stubble of hair on her legs and underarms dissolved. Her skin became smooth and uniform. Suddenly, what were once dingy pants erupted into a hip-hugging skirt. Her baggy t-shirt lost its shoulders and turned into black satin with a low cut and exceptional lift. Deteriorating sneakers became shiny high-heels that looked fresh out of the box.

She liked it best when her hair suddenly became clean and properly styled. The curls lifted it up off her shoulders, causing it to frame her face in a much more attractive fashion. She tossed her head back and forth, feeling the loose curls bounce freely. Her lips, which she could feel being tinged rosy red with never-fading lipstick, curled into a giddy smile.

The transformation slowed after about ten minutes, once the majority of the city's lights street lamps had come on and people already at home turned theirs on. She loved the winter because the lights turned on so early and there was much more overlap between people still at work and already at home. She snuck a peek out beneath the stall, saw that no one was in the bathroom, and confidently walked out.

A woman was exiting the women's bathroom just as she came out of the men's. Marta just smiled at the woman, who gave her a gaping look, and walked out.

The temperature had already dropped several degrees since she'd entered the bookstore, but she didn't feel it one bit. The city's lights provided her with a fur coat of black mink which draped around her shoulders and reached her knees. She stroked it idly with a hand and wondered if the night would be bright enough for it to change to sable at some point.

What mattered now was getting some food. Her stomach was gnawing at her. She almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. She could have been mistaken for a princess, but she was as hungry as any of the city's many homeless. Then, of course, she soberly remembered that she was one of the homeless.

But when the lights came on, she was something more. She strode powerfully down the streets, drawing the enthralled looks of both men and women. They couldn't help but look. Who was she, they whispered to each other. Some celebrity? A model? Someone rich and powerful, no doubt. She was a dragon to them!

No, not a dragon she thought to herself with a wry smile. She'd met a dragon! A real live dragon. The Prince had -

Ah, but there was the Prince again, creeping into her memories. She puckered her lips sourly and wondered again why he was forcing himself into her mind at a time like this. It had been years since she'd seen him.

He was probably dead, she thought. The only way he wouldn't have come after her was if he was dead. Good riddance.

She realized the more she thought about him, the less she could manage to wear the fake smile and happy laugh that she needed if she was going to get what she wanted. She finally came to what she was looking for, a posh nightclub that was just opening its doors but already had a line down the block. There weren't many of these in the city any more, but there were enough for her to use them.

She walked right up to the head of the line. No one stopped her. No one thought about stopping her. The bouncer, a large black man with truly friendly eyes, smiled at her and waved her right on in. No one groaned or protested that she'd been allowed inside before anyone else. They could see her. They could feel her. Even though they couldn't name it, deep down they knew who she was.

Nightclubs were holy places for those with the city's lights. They were beacons and Marta felt even stronger inside. There were no actual changes brought on by the club (though in the time it took her to walk there, a silver bracelet had found its way around her wrist, while her nails were glossed in black), but she reveled in her feeling of power.

Despite being so early, music was already thumping over the speakers, filling the room with a cacophony. Pairs and trios of men and women bounced on the dance floor as multicolored lights swept over them. In a few hours, the place would be packed solid. For now, though, there were just enough for her purposes.

Now she just needed to find her mark. It was this part she hated more than anything else. She drifted toward the bar, where a bartender was pouring drinks for a few early starters. She slid onto a stool and leaned back against the bar to watch the people. She let a look of disinterest slip onto her face, even though watching the people was one of the most fascinating things she could do.

Look, there, a man in a brightly colored shirt who couldn't be more than twenty. But look how he danced! He had his butt thrust out behind him, swinging his hips back and forth, pumping his fists in circles like he was running. Who, exactly was he trying to impress like that? And the girl who sidled over and started bumping her hips against his, why was she indulging him? Was she actually interested in his spastic gyrations or was this simply a game to her, a way to mock him while indulging in her own over-the-top silliness?

The girl was pretty, in that generically skinny, bottle-blonde way. Marta figured it must be mockery. The poor man, who wasn't bad looking himself, didn't deserve to be treated like that. Marta almost wished he would walk over to her right now, so that she might spare him a few moments of shame...

But no, he would never have the confidence to approach her. Only a certain type could muster up that courage, a man with no qualms about his own failure because he could never see them. "How you doin'?" a man asked as he slipped onto a stool next to Marta.

Marta turned and smiled slightly at him. He was typical of her marks. Young, in his early twenties, with short hair gelled into stiff spikes, a neatly shaven goatee, fit and muscular in a way that showed he went to the gym five times a week. He wore a button down shirt with the top two buttons undone and reeked of cologne and pride. The watch around his wrist was too expensive for him, Marta knew. They always were.

"I'm a little bored," Marta said to the man, looking away and back at the crowd to let him know that he was adding to the boredom. The bait was being wriggled in front of his face.

"Bored, huh? A pretty girl like you shouldn't be bored, not when you've got a man like me around." Marta allowed herself to smirk slightly. He'd seen the bait and was sniffing at it.

Without turning to look at him again, she said, "Oh, really? What are you going to do to make things interesting?"

"Anything you want me to do, baby," he said with a leer evident in his voice. Marta choked down the urge to grimace. She could feel him staring at her chest, letting his gaze carry undisguised lust as long as he thought she couldn't see it. He'd swallowed the bait.

"Buy me a drink?" Marta asked without looking. It was easier to maintain the fiction when there still remained a chance he wasn't completely disgusting.

"Hey, bartender!" he yelled and started snapping his fingers for the overworked bartender. "Hey, come on man, get this lady a drink, pronto!" Then he turned back to Marta. "What're you having, baby?"

Her shoulders shrugged just slightly. "Surprise me, baby," she said.

"I do believe the lady is too young to drink," a shockingly familiar voice said. Marta's eyes went wide and she turned deliberately to confirm what she already knew.

The Prince, in all his splendor, was there, grinning at her mark. "Hey, bro, I was here first," her mark said, before turning back to the bartender and snapping his fingers again, as if they could be heard over the music. "Yo! Dude, come on, finish up with those pussies and get over here!"

"What are you doing?" Marta asked the Prince, who grinned wide at her, then laid his hand on her mark's shoulder.

"Excuse me, but I said - "

The man angrily brushed his hand off and whirled. "Don't touch me, bro," he said angrily.

"Leave me alone," Marta said to the Prince.

"Leave you alone, little girl?" the Prince asked, feigning insult. "Why, perhaps I shall, though only to inform security that you are but a precocious seventeen."

"Dude, she said to - " her mark began before the Prince's words sank in. "Wait, seventeen?" He turned to Marta, his face sinking. "You're only seventeen?"

"N-No!" Marta blurted lamely, making it evident she was lying. She cursed herself. Seeing the Prince again, so suddenly, had flustered her terribly.

The man held up his hands and backed away. "Whoa, I ain't no pedo," he said, eyes lingering hungrily on Marta despite his words. "You can have her, bro." He turned and walked briskly off.

Marta leveled a withering glare at the Prince, but he accepted it with a smile. He too was resplendent, wearing a fine white suit with a salmon shirt and a rich brown leather belt and shoes. As always, he wore a pair of fine leather gloves over his hands. He doffed an invisible cap to Marta. "The little girl is trying to be bigger than her britches," he said almost tauntingly. Despite the loud music, his voice carried to her unwaveringly.

"He was my dinner," Marta said bitterly.

The Prince laughed, a sound like someone crumpling paper, and glanced over his shoulder, though the man had already disappeared into the crowd. "A bit of a poor dinner, don't you think?" the Prince asked. "I remember when you dined on the city's finest, but now you're resorting to cannibalism." Then he quirked an eyebrow. "Or have you, perhaps, fallen in with that lot of vampires?" He chomped his teeth theatrically. "A bit of a bite on the neck." He reached out and hand and just started to brush Marta's neck.

She angrily slapped the hand away, causing the Prince to pull it back and hold it delicately, as if in pain. "I was going to get him to take me to dinner," she explained, even though she knew the Prince understood her plan. "I flirt a little, get him to take me to a nice restaurant, then I give him a fake number and disappear into the night."

The Prince snickered. "Well, come with me, little girl, and I'll take you to a grand dinner. You won't even have to bother with the fake number or disappearing."

Marta snorted and crossed her arms over her chest, looking away from the Prince petulantly. "In my way, at least, I'm not stealing from anyone."

The Prince laughed, though it was cut short with a cough. "A prince cannot steal what is his by right, little girl. I told you that over and over." He grinned again, his teeth bright white, as if lit from their own light, in the dim club.

Revulsion filled her from head to toe. In one stiff motion, she stood and started to walk out of the club. She could feel the Prince following her, though she didn't look to see. Once she got out the door, she whirled on him, expecting him to be right behind her and have to stop short in order to avoid running into her. Instead, he was a respectful several feet distant.

In full view of the bouncers, she yelled, "Leave me alone!"

The bouncers looked at her, then slowly turned to face the Prince. The one who had waved her in earlier asked, "This man bothering you, miss?"

"He won't stop bothering me," she said. She hated that she had to rely on someone else to be her watchman. But in the case of the Prince, she had no other choice. She hoped the Prince would press the matter.

Instead, he did as she expected, and raised his hands in defeat. "I know when I'm not wanted. I just wanted to wish the little girl a happy birthday." Then he spun on his heel and disappeared back into the club.

The bouncer turned to Marta. "You need us to deal with him further?" he asked, making it clear he would be perfectly fine taking her word for any dealing that needed to be done.

But though Marta knew nothing would make her happier than having the Prince roughed up, she knew it would be a hollow happiness. She waved the bouncer off. "No, thanks."

As she started to walk away, the bouncer called, "Is it really your birthday?"

Marta started and just now realized what the Prince had said. She glanced back over her shoulder at the bouncer and said with a sigh, "I guess it is." Now she had to find a new place to trawl for dinner. She took off down the sidewalk.

She reached into her purse (which had appeared miraculously at some point while she was in the club, though she hadn't noticed it until now) and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She smirked at that. The city's lights worked in mysterious ways sometimes.

Once the cigarette was lit and in her mouth, she took a long drag and let the smoke settle in her lungs. She knew that was terrible for her; or should be, at least. Still could be. She didn't know if the city's lights could actually do anything for her health. The Prince was old, for sure, and still looked young. He never seemed to get sick. But he was the Prince! She was just a girl.

She grit her teeth so hard they started to hurt. Now her own thoughts were sounding like the Prince's words, all those years ago. He was a Prince, she was a girl. The Prince took what was his and everything in the city was his. She angrily sucked in another lungful of smoke and forced it out in two long jets from her nose.

Her stomach growled. "Shall we go to dinner, then?" the Prince asked, his lips right next to her ear.

She jumped back so far that the Prince was forced into a laughing fit, though it quickly devolved into wretched coughing. Without thinking she swung her palm at him, aiming to slap him across the face. Instead he easily caught her wrist. His grip was surprisingly soft, just strong enough to keep her from hitting him, but not enough to cause her any discomfort. After hacking a few more ragged coughs, he said, "Now now, little girl, don't be like that."

"Do you want me to scream?" she asked. "I'll do it."

The Prince cough-laughed again. "I remember you said similar words the night we first met. We both remember how that ended, don't we, little girl?"

She flicked her cigarette, still half good, at him, but he effortlessly ducked to the side. "My name is Marta. Marta! And I'm not a little girl any more. If I scream, I will be heard. And you will be caught."

"You forget who I am, little girl. Scream all you want, I will simply walk away and no one will stop me. Now why don't you end this foolishness and come with me. I will feed you and then we can discuss important things."

"Foolishness?" Marta asked, flabbergasted. "Are you really that self-absorbed? I'm not going anywhere with you. Ever. Never ever."

For a brief moment, Marta thought she saw a flash of pain on the Prince's face. Had her words actually wounded some small part of him? "And why not, little girl? Why not become my Lady again?"

She put her hand to her face, to cover her own eyes as much as anything. "Your Lady? Don't you understand? You stole my childhood from me! You stole my innocence! And you expect me to just go with you and play whatever... whatever sick games you play? You ruined my life! I hate you."

The Prince gave her a piteous smile. "The Prince cannot steal - "

"Yes, I know. You can't steal what is yours to begin with. You've told me that a thousand times, to justify everything you've done to me and this city."

The Prince's smile disappeared, replaced with a sad frown. "I was going to say the Prince cannot steal what was given to him freely. I never stole a thing from you, little girl. I only took what was given. I always gave you a choice. You could have refused any time."

"There was no choice!" Marta snapped, slashing her suddenly-gloved hand through the air for emphasis. "When was there a choice? What choice did I have beside to do what you wanted!"

"Stay with your parents," the Prince said. "Be normal. In time, the lights would have faded from you. But you chose to come with me. And you chose to stay when you... ah..." He adjusted the knot of his tie. "When you gave me your innocence, as it were. You could have left at any time. You could have refused me and all this would have ended"

"I did leave," Marta shouted, stomping her foot for emphasis. "I left and yet here you are!"

"And yet here I am," the Prince admitted. "Things have a funny way of working out, don't they? I let you go for four years, little girl. Now I have found you, to hope that you will have grown up."

At his words, she immediately felt dirty. But the Prince wasn't leering at her. He was looking her plainly in the face, right in her eyes. She felt even dirtier because of that. He wasn't lusting after her body, but for something deeper down inside her. Some bit of her that he still hadn't taken and corrupted.

"I have grown up," Marta said defiantly. "And I've decided to leave."

"Wait." The Prince laid a hand on her shoulder and this time the grip was strong enough that she couldn't simply break away from it. "Don't go."

Suddenly Marta realized that she had been arguing and gesticulating strongly, on the middle of a busy sidewalk, and no one had stopped to look. No one had said anything. Everyone had just slid easily by, as if she and the Prince weren't even there.

"Let go of me," she said softly, voice quivering with a mix of fear and anger.

"I don't want to let you go, little girl," the Prince said, enticingly, seductively. "You are very important to me. Please, don't go."

She angled her head so he couldn't see her shaking lip. "I stole your lights once." Her voice, a harsh whisper. "Don't make me do it again."

"I'm not afraid of that anymore," he said sadly.

"Don't you think I could?"

"It doesn't matter if you could or not. I do not fear the consequences if you do." For a moment she almost considered listening to him. "Please, little girl."

"No." She brushed his hand off and walked away.

Despite her hunger, the meal had tasted like nothing. It had filled her belly but done little else. Her mood was black, made darker by the insufferable man sitting across the table from her. He wore a short-sleeved polo with the buttons undone and a pair of khakis. The entire time they'd been at dinner he had been talking about himself. He had large biceps but a stubborn pot belly and thinning hair.

Marta pushed at the food left on her plate absently with her fork, tuning the man's talking out. She looked around the restaurant, which was nice but not too nice, and watched the other diners. This wasn't a place to bring a family. It was instead populated by couples. She had the good fortune to spy both an old married couple and a pair that looked to be on the first date.

They were surprisingly alike in temperament. The married couple were talking softly to one another, laughing at each others' jokes, making small comments on the food or the service or even the other diners. The man glanced Marta's way once and she smiled at him and his wife teased him about it, causing the man to huff and puff in embarrassment.

The young couple did much the same, except with more nervous energy. She could see the guy was trying to impress the girl, and the girl was trying to impress the guy. They laughed too much or too hard and kept their eyes locked on each other, except when they thought the other wasn't looking. The guy glanced Marta's way once and she smiled at him and he blushed and dropped his eyes back to his plate until his date looked up from her menu and they fell into each other again.

She envied them their normalcy and wondered if she would ever have their fortune.

Her meal ticket was saying something to her and, from his tone, she knew ignoring it was going to make him upset. "Hmm?" Marta murmured. "I was distracted."

The man snorted and muttered "airhead" under his breath. Marta just forced on a smile as he said, "So you done yet? I figured we'd go back to my place."

She knew she should finish off the rest of her food. Her next meal might not come for another 24 hours, so she really should pack away as much as possible, but she just didn't have the appetite for it. "I'm done," she said, then prepared her typical acting job. "But I think I'm a bit tired. I'm just going to head home to my place." She reached into her purse and produced a pen and piece of scrap paper. She started to write the number the kid had given her as a joke this morning. "But if you want to call me some time, we could - "

"What the fuck?" the man snapped. "Are you fucking kidding me."

She froze and looked up at him. "What do you mean?" she asked innocently, still playing her part.

The man glared at her callously. "You get me to buy you dinner, you don't pay attention to a damn thing I say all night, then you try to just run off once you're done? That's bullshit. You owe me."

Now she glared back at him. "What, exactly, do I owe you?" she hissed through clenched teeth.

He waged a finger at her. "You know damn well what you owe me."

Well, playing innocent wouldn't win her this battle. She had to take an alternate approach. She smiled ruefully at him. "Alright, let me just hit the ladies' room first."

She stood and walked off toward the restrooms, but as soon as the man was out of sight she took a hard turn and looked for an exit. If she went through the front door, he would see her. There was the kitchen... With a shrug, she walked through the kitchen doors, where chefs in white jackets clamored over steaming pots and pans.

A busboy spotted her and started to say something, but she just winked and held a finger to her lips and the boy fell silent, mouth agape. She walked briskly through the kitchen, toward the rear entrance, and slipped easily out into an alley behind the restaurant.

As she walked out of the alley and began to head down the street, her mark shouted out, "You think you're real fucking clever."

Marta froze and turned just in time for him to grab her wrist. His grip was hard and painful and he didn't seem likely to let go if she asked nicely. They were on the sidewalk, so she doubted he would do anything too foolish. Even so, she felt rage building up in her.

"Let me go," she said in a voice that could make devils take pause.

But the man was too busy thinking without his brain to take notice. "You're just gonna ditch me after I bought you dinner and treated you nice? You stingy bitch, I should - "

Marta was about to make the lights explode in his face when, suddenly, there was a flash of movement. Someone grabbed the man, broke his grip on Marta's wrist, and shoved him back. Then Marta's hand was in a familiar leather grasp and she was being briskly walked away.

"I thought I told you to leave me alone," she said to the Prince without looking at him.

"It looked like you could use some assistance, little girl," the Prince said in a soft voice.

Marta struggled to shake her hand free of the Prince's grasp. "I could have handled myself," she said. "Let go of my hand."

The Prince didn't squeeze tighter, but he did make it difficult to break free. "Patience, little girl. Let's get a bit more distant before we let him see us, shall we?"

Marta glanced back over her shoulder. Her mark was looking around in confusion, wondering where she had gone to. Then she saw someone from the restaurant running out, yelling at him about having not paid his bill. Marta smiled and yanked her hand away from the Prince's. "He's got his own problems to deal with."

The Prince glanced back and smiled. "So he does. Now, little girl, shall we have a conversation like two adults?"

"I told you I didn't need your help," Marta said stiffly. "So don't think that your white knighting has me swooning over you. I told you I'm not a little girl any more."

The Prince clucked his tongue at her. "You would have brought the lights down on him," the Prince chided. "You remember what that did to those muggers. Or that drug pusher. Or that abusive man. Or - "

"I know what the lights can do," Marta snapped.

The Prince smirked. "And what did that man do to deserve such a fate? Be misled by a conniving woman?"

Marta scowled. "I used him, but he had no right to expect anything of me. That's the problem with men, all men. They expect women to be tools for their own pleasure, nothing else." She leveled a withering glare at the Prince, who actually took a step back in retreat. "So I don't owe him anything. I don't owe you anything."

The Prince nodded slowly, but said, "I never claimed you did, little girl." Then, just like that, he was gone. He disappeared from her view, right in front of her. Marta tried not to let her surprise show on her face, but if the Prince was still there watching, she figured he knew.

Rather than dwell on it, she turned and walked off down the street.

Marta spent the rest of the night in a meandering walk through the city. She didn't pay attention to where she was going or who might be following her. She simply just walked, trying to keep her mind empty but failing spectacularly.

Her mind kept drifting back to the Prince, to the good times. To the night before he stole everything from her, when he finally showed his true colors. She could never forgive the Prince for that. It was the greatest betrayal she had ever felt.

She stuck around for a short time after. She knew nothing else but the Prince and her parents. And she had abandoned her parents for the Prince, so she certainly couldn't go back to them. Her choice was solitude or the Prince. For a time she chose the Prince.

Then, one day, she could take no more. Looking at him each day, as she woke huddled up with him for warmth she no longer felt, left her too sick to take it any more. While he still slept, wrapped in his rags, clinging to the dreams of the night, she quietly left his side.

She'd wandered alone for weeks, wondering if he'd come after her, if he'd drag her back. But he never did. One day, after she'd been struggling on her own for two months, before she'd figured out how to make her beauty work for her when she was desperate, ravenously eating a pile of discarded spaghetti from a dumpster, she decided to look for him again.

For the whole day she sought him out, hitting every location she knew he frequented. Most of them were liquor stores. The Prince liked to drown out the day. No one had seen him in weeks, however. He'd moved on, they told her. The homeless did that, from time to time. Drift from place to place, their roots always shallow, ready to be transplanted.

She didn't believe them, but when she returned to the abandoned building they slept in and found him missing, she gave up her search. And after a few more years, when she would ask around about him and no one knew who she talked about, she decided they must have been right. He was gone. Maybe dead, she figured, though the city's lights burned on without him.

Once again, she cursed how her thoughts had turned to the Prince yet again. She stopped blaming herself, though. He'd reappeared into her life. What else was she supposed to think about? He had changed her life more than anyone, even her parents.

Her parents... It had been longer since she had seen them. Or even thought about them, with any seriousness. A knot formed in her stomach as she wondered why, even after all the Prince had done to her, she still thought more about him than her parents. Never once had she tried to find them.

There was still time, she thought. The night was still young enough. She found a fire escape and climbed up it, to the roof of a building. Taking a deep breath, she remembered the lessons the Prince had taught her, lessons she had allowed to go unused for so long.

She took off at a sprint, not that easy in heels, and leapt from the edge of the building. Her jump, bolstered by the strength of the city's lights, propelled her to another building in a flash. Exhilarating. A swell of pride and excitement filled her as she moved from rooftop to rooftop, cloaked in the glow of the city's lights.

She had forgotten about this. How could she have forgotten about it? No, she hadn't forgotten. She'd thrown it away, along with everything else about the Prince she could allow herself to. Silly, silly. The Prince wasn't the city's lights, that much was certain. He was their avatar, for sure, but so was she, just a little. Every night they reminded her about that, but she clamped her hands over her ears like a petulant child, trying to ignore them.

Soon, she found herself back in her old neighborhood. The place where she had reached preadolescence, and all the consequences that came of it. The buildings were still dirty and run down though not nearly as bad as the abandoned row house she squatted in now. No windows were boarded up here. Lights shone out of windows that weren't smashed out. She could see people inside, happy people, or at least content people.

She made her way to her old apartment building, where her parents once lived. May still, she thought. Why would they move? How could they move out?

What would she do if she found them? Would she say something? Would she reveal that she was their daughter, eight years missing? Would they weep for joy or curse her? She hadn't heard of them trying to find her after the Prince took her away, but the Prince had carefully controlled everything she heard. Maybe there had been a desperate search, only for the Prince to keep her concealed until they just gave up.

As she stood outside the building, staring up at it, someone came out the front door. It was a woman, older. Marta didn't recognize her, but the woman saw her staring. "Can I help you with something?" the woman asked.

Marta smiled at her. "Yes, maybe." She gave her parents' names. "Do they still live here? Do you know them?"

The woman shook her head. "I don't recognize the name, but then I don't know everyone inside."

"They were the white couple," Marta said. "The only one, back when I knew them. They had a young daughter who went missing."

At the last sentence, the woman's face broke into remembrance. "Oh, yes! Them! Yes, I remember them. Oh, that was such a terrible thing! So terrible, so sad..." Then the woman's eyes went wide. "Are you..."

"Just a friend of the family," Marta said softly. "After their daughter disappeared, I lost touch. I was just wondering what happened to them. Do you know?"

The woman looked disappointed to hear Marta wasn't the long lost daughter. Marta had to choke back a laugh. "Well, they eventually left here. They were always arguing, you know. I could sometimes hear them from two floors down, they got so loud sometimes. Well, after their daughter got kidnapped, the fighting got even worse."

The woman shook her head. "Couple of times they had to call the police in here. Both of them got violent. He got a broken jaw, once, and she stabbed him in the shoulder another time. She got a few broken ribs, but I think she gave worse than she took most of the time. Eventually the landlord couldn't put up with them any more and kicked them out after their lease was up."

"Oh," Marta said softly. "So you don't know where they went after that?"

"Sorry, dear," the woman said. "I don't."

Marta nodded and said, "Thank you."

"I just wish I could have helped you more," the woman said sadly.

With a smile, she said, "You helped me more than I could have hoped. Goodbye." She started to walk away, but the woman called out to her.

"Wait! What's your name? You know, just in case I see them."

Marta considered her answer for a moment, before answering truthfully. "I am Marta," she said softly.

Before the woman could remember that the couple's daughter was named Marta, she stepped into a side alley and vanished into the night.

She sat solitary, staring at sickly stars sitting solemnly in the light-stained sky. She wondered if she could, like the Prince, bring the lights of the whole city down enough so she could see all of the stars. Wouldn't that be wonderful? And then the power of the city's lights would be gone from her, like they'd left the Prince until she gave them back.

She closed her eyes and concentrated, willing the city's lights to turn off, just for a moment. Just long enough for her to see the night sky as it was intended.

But she couldn't do it. Maybe she lacked the power. Maybe she simply lacked the desire, deep down in her heart.

It was late at night, only an hour or so from sunrise. The city's lights had been turning off. Only the street lamps remained on, along with those few hold outs who would literally party until the break of dawn, sleep be damned. Her exquisite clothing had decayed, though it had not yet returned to the homeless girl's rags. Her skirt and top were simple, singularly colored black and, while not flattering, still looked good on her because she looked good regardless. Her makeup had faded. At least her teeth, which she took meticulous care of, were still pristine white.

"I know you're there," she said softly. "You can stop hiding."

The Prince stepped out from behind a utility box, though he could have hidden right in front of her had he chosen. His own clothes had degraded themselves. A simple pair of slacks and a white shirt, with a worn leather jacket. His gloves were well-used and his shoes marked with a few scuffs. He smiled, showing that his teeth, at least, still glowed with the power of the lights.

"Are you ready to hear me out?" the Prince asked.

Marta shrugged. "Do I have a choice? You've been following me the whole night, haven't you?"

The Prince shook his head, "No, not the whole night. Only when I thought it best I stay close. That's how it's always been."

Despite herself, she couldn't help but smile. "I should have figured. I always thought it was strange you didn't come after me."

He walked next to where she was sitting, her legs dangled off the ledge. "Mind if I sit beside you?" She waved her hand absently at the empty spot and he sat down, not close enough to be intimate, but not far enough away to be distant.

"I know how hard it can be to lose your innocence," the Prince said softly. "I lost my own, a long time ago. And let me tell you, mine was nowhere near as... gentle, as yours was. It took me some time to get over it as well. I figured it best to let you cope how you would."

Marta smiled painfully. "I suppose I didn't cope fast enough for you," she guessed.

"Not at all," the Prince told her. "Were it up to me, you would still be in the dark about my watchful eye. I wouldn't have come to you at all."

Marta turned to look at him and he wore a pained expression. "Then why..." she started, though she suddenly already knew the answer. She gasped.

He answered her anyway. "I am dying, Marta. I've been dying since the day I met you." He laughed and it almost immediately broke into coughs. She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he shook it away. "No, no. Don't spare me pity when I knew you still hold contempt for me." She slowly pulled her hand away. He was right, of course.

"I don't blame you for my condition," he told her. "I was dying before I met you, though I pretended I wasn't. But when I met you... Well, you were so obviously my heir. I tried to deny that, as well. You were so young! So precocious. But I found myself drawn back to you, again and again, and each time you proved your worth to me.

"When I lost the lights, I thought I had made a grave mistake. I thought I had cast aside the crown. After all, in this age, what good is royalty? But then you found me again and placed the crown back upon my brow and... Well, you know the rest."

Marta shook her head. She was surprised to find she was fighting back tears. "Why didn't you tell me before? Why not tell me earlier?"

The Prince smiled and started to chuckle, but only coughs came out. "Would you have really come with me if you thought your savior might drop dead on you at any moment? I had to hide the truth, until I was sure things could no longer wait." He sighed and shuddered in the cold. "I thought your hurt would have gone well before death finally came knocking at my door. But I see him walking up the path and know there was no longer time for me to dawdle."

"I didn't think you could die," Marta admitted. "I mean, you've been alive for..."

"Hundreds of years. The city has had lights for a long time. But ever light burns out eventually and my time is coming close. If you take on my crown, who knows... Your time may be a thousand years, or it may only be the rest of your natural life, or anything else. Only God can say."

Marta laughed. "I don't believe in God," she said.

The Prince shrugged. "Neither did I, until my second century dawned. Then, well... You start to think about things."

For a long time, Marta sat there in silence. She thought about everything without trying to think about anything. The Prince, to his credit, allowed her to contemplate without interruption. He even choked back a cough or two in order to preserve the silence.

"It is a lonely life," Marta finally said.

"It doesn't need to be," the Prince told her. "I chose to make it one, but you could choose different. It is all a choice, my Lady."

Marta smiled. "I didn't say I would become your Lady again, Prince."

The Prince managed a laugh without coughing. "Too true, too true."

"And if I choose not to? What then?" She raised her hand and looked at the nail polish and solitary ring that, in a few hours, would fade with the sunlight.

"I... do not know, to be honest," the Prince said. "The line of succession is broken. The title comes to an end. The lights burn on, I am sure, but their beauty is diminished. Their power becomes mechanical, all science and no magic." He shrugged. "Maybe that would be for the better."

"Once again, I'm given a choice that isn't much of one, my Prince," she said.

The Prince smiled. "Most of them won't be, my Lady" he admitted.

Marta walked triumphantly down the street, head held high. The sunlight shone overhead. Her clothes were simple, but comfortable. Her face and hair were clean. Her shoes were new, made for walking. In the brisk Spring day, she felt she could walk forever.

"Damn! Marta, girl, is that you?" Lamont called from across the street. She turned and smiled at him, showing off her pearly whites. "What happened, you finally find a man to take care of you?"

She laughed and shook her head, her red curls bouncing daintily with the motion. "No. I found my life, Lamont. And I realized it is full of light."

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