Today's Reading

Portia shivered—from fear, anxiety, and the effort it took to suppress the urgent need to take action. Her heart was wedged firmly in her throat, and her jaw ached from clenching her teeth against the desire to shout her sister's name as loudly as she could into the night on the insane hope that Lily might somehow hear her and know they were doing all they could to get her back.

She was desperate to be moving, running, talking. Something to produce progress. While they rolled through the narrow, twisting lanes, Lily was being taken farther away from them.

Instead of bolting out of the carriage and scouring the streets uselessly, Portia focused all of her energy on scanning the streets through the window. Streetlamps were sparse, casting deep shadows through which anonymous figures moved about. It was near midnight, and the East End was rife with activity.

Questionable activity.

The carriage slowed as they wound their way along the dark lanes. Portia saw various characters moving about in the night—men, women, and far more children than she would have expected, but not a single red cap.

And then, as they turned another corner—there!

A boy strolled casually with a chimney sweep's broom. One hand was stuffed deep in the pocket of his oversize woolen trousers, a red cap sitting jauntily on his head.

"Is that him?" Portia asked, a flash of hope making her chest tight.

Her great-aunt leaned across Portia to peer out the window. "Let us hope so." She knocked on the roof, signaling for the carriage to stop. A moment later, Charles appeared in the doorway. A heavy bruise had already formed above his temple where he had been struck by Lily's attacker.

"Go fetch that boy there," Angelique said. 

"Yes, m'lady."

While the loyal servant did as requested, the ladies waited in tense silence. Several moments later, the carriage door opened again.

"Wot do you fancy pieces want?"

The boy in the red cap peered in through the open door while Charles stood stiffly behind his shoulder. The lad's young face was smeared with soot, making it hard to discern his age. But judging by his size, Portia guessed him to be about eleven or twelve. A bit old for a chimney sweep.

He stood warily scanning the interior of the carriage, expertly assessing what danger they might represent. He dismissed Angelique quickly enough, but took a few extra seconds studying Portia. When he gave her a jaunty little grin and tipped the brim of his hat, Portia realized with a touch of shock that the child was flirting with her.

Angelique leaned forward from the shadows, bringing her face near to the boy's. Her age lines looked deeper in the uncertain light, but her dark eyes were piercing and direct. If Portia hadn't known better, she would have been intimidated by the sudden intensity within her great-aunt's stare.

"We are looking for Nightshade." Angelique spoke in a dramatic whisper, though there was no one beyond Portia and the boy near enough to hear her.

The child snorted and eyed Angelique as though she was daft. Portia worried again about having followed her great-aunt's suggestion so readily. The dowager countess was generally just a harmless eccentric, but so far she had led them on a search for a boy in a red cap, and now she was asking for a poisonous herb.

"I ain't no apothecary," the boy said.

Angelique flashed a coin in the palm of her gloved hand. "You know whom I seek, boy. We haven't the time for games and subterfuge."

A shadow of respect crossed the boy's face, and he reached to take the coin, testing it between his teeth before shrugging his shoulders. "Can't take you to 'im. Not how it works. I deliver a message, an' his man'll contact you."

"No, please," Portia said, drawing the boy's eyes back to her. "We don't have time for messages." She finally had some hope her great-aunt had not led them astray, and she was not going to let the opportunity slide away. "You must take us to this man directly. Immediately."

The boy narrowed his sharp gaze and flashed another grin. "Fer another coin an' a kiss, I may change me mind."
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