Chapter 23: The Streets

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JOSEPH AWOKE. A butterfly emerged from a cocoon. He was no longer wearing a disguise, but instead was finally dressed as himself. Maybe being Hildegund had been the disguise all along. A role he had tried to play to make his father happy. Adso had basically said as much, hadn't he?

Resolute in this decision, and with his mind fortified with a facade of bravery, it was Joseph, not Hildegund, who marched down to the docks, mustering every ounce of pride and entitlement he could find. He was the son of the master weaver of Loconge; that would be his ticket home.

The north harbor was a huge crescent bay full of sailors and bustling with activity. The air was thick with salt. Gulls and other sea birds flew overhead, their caws and screams filled the air. They hovered and dived towards the fisherman, hoping to get a few scraps for a meal. In addition to the many smaller fishing vessels tied to the docks, Joseph saw both galley ships with large square sails, and hulks with their tall masts, steep sides, and bright flags. Sailors busied themselves swabbing decks and braiding rope; fishmongers haggled over the price of mackerel and flounder; men shouted orders in their native tongues. Next to one ship there was a large pile of cargo consisting of rolls of silk, crates of spices, and jugs of olive oil. These wares were being loaded onto the deck and into the hull. It must be headed back to Europe.

"Who is the captain of this ship?" Joseph asked a fishy-smelling man in ragged clothes. The sailor pointed in the direction of a tall and slender dark-haired and olive-skinned man wearing a black three-sided hat.

Joseph approached the captain, "Sir?"

The tall man turned slowly, looked down at Joseph, and raised one eyebrow.

"Sir," Joseph repeated, "I have been orphaned here in this land of Saracens, and I need passage back to Christendom."

The man sneered, "This is a trading vessel, and I am not in the habit of transporting poor orphans! There is not much of a market for them where I am headed!" The Venetian laughed heartily at his own joke.

"My father was a wealthy man and was the master weaver in Loconge. I would of course work for my way during the passage, and you have my word that I will send any outstanding payment as soon as I am able!" Joseph stated confidently, ignoring the captain's humor.

"You would work your way across the sea? What skills do you have? Are you going to weave me a blanket?" his voice dripped with sarcasm.

"Well..." Joseph started. It was a fair question, wasn't it? "I know my numbers, and I can read and write."

"A shipboy has no need of those skills. Have you ever been to sea? Loconge is nowhere near a port."

"We took river freights on our journey east," Joseph admitted, almost sheepishly.

"I have no need of the work of an untrained and inexperienced boy, and the word of an orphan? You must take me for a fool." The captain snickered and then turned and began walking away.

"Please take pity on a pilgrim of God!" Joseph shouted, the tone of desperation clear in his voice, but the man took no notice.

"We might be able to use a shipboy," came a gravelly voice from behind him.

"That would be..." Joseph's words got caught in his throat when he saw the man who had spoken. He was short and stocky; a thick scar ran down the length of his greasy face. His nose zigzagged, as though it had been broken many times. He was darting his tongue in and out from a gap created by two missing front teeth. "Where are you headed?" Joseph finished, tentatively.

"Headed home," the man's tongue darted across his lower lip, and he tilted his head, a dog waiting for a treat.

"Where's home?" As Joseph spoke, the man began to rub his chest, right under his collarbone. It was distracting and gave Joseph a queasy feeling.

"Across the sea, of course," the man grunted out the words. "We could put a boy like you to good use on the long voyage. We are always looking for extra hands."

The man took a step forward, and instinctively, Joseph took a step backwards. He could feel the bile creeping up the back of his throat. This felt very wrong, and he was reminded by what the harlot had warned. Don't draw any extra attention to yourself unless you want people to take notice.

"You know, thank you, but I, uh," Joseph stuttered. He looked around to see if anyone might take pity on him, and help him out of the situation, but all the men seemed either engrossed in their tasks or engaged in their own conversations. "Sorry, I have to..." and he ran without direction until he had to stop to catch his breath.

He should have known better than to just start approaching strangers. Being a boy didn't make him invincible. He was still young, with soft hands and smooth cheeks, and that made him nearly as vulnerable as a girl.

With a start, Joseph realized that he had no idea where he was. As he had run further from the ports, the streets had become narrower and more twisted. And now he was completely turned around.

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