Chapter 26: Lessons

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JOSEPH SPENT THE next few days pleading for the mercy of others who were heading west, asking for free passage, or at least help in purchasing a ticket across the sea. But he was at the age where he wasn't young enough to seem helpless nor was he old enough to appear helpful, and promises of future payment out of the mouth of an adolescent were only taken in jest. However, pitying strangers occasionally gave him loaves of bread or a few coppers to purchase a hot meal.

After only a few days his clothes became filthy from sitting on street corners and sleeping on church benches. Dirt caked his face and embedded itself in each small crevice and wrinkle of his skin. Whatever credibility he once might have had for offering a reward for safe passage home was quickly lost. His eyes became shallow with hunger, his stomach was perpetually empty, and instead of rides on ships or in caravans, within a week Joseph began begging solely for food.

As he became dirtier, he also became hungrier. His filth seemed to turn him invisible to the men walking down the streets. At least to men of honor. There were plenty of dangerous men whose eyes lingered when Joseph walked past, and he was grateful for his disguise. He shuddered to imagine what would happen to him if they knew he had the body of a young woman. So, he did his best to fade into the scenery and avoided confrontation at all costs. His attempt to slink only in the shadows led to his first crime.

It had been less than a month since his arrival in Tyre and nearly a week since he had eaten anything of substance. He was leaning against a building in one of the city's large courtyards, quietly begging for handouts from those who passed by. There was a group of boys around his age playing a game. They were in a circle and speaking excitedly in a dialect of French that Joseph didn't understand. He wondered what they were playing. It had been so long since he had played with other children, and the sight made him miss his days in Loconge with Adso.

A new boy walked up the group. He was wearing a satchel over his arm, but dropped it next to the fountain and quickly joined his friends. Joseph eyed the bag curiously. It was just sitting there. Without stopping to think, Joseph stood up slowly. Casually, he walked over to the fountain. He dipped his hand under the spout and took a drink of water. The bag was inches from his foot. He splashed water on his neck, turning his head to make sure the boys were still engrossed in their activity. No one was watching him. He was just another dirty child of the streets. In one smooth motion he leaned down, brought the bag to his shoulder, and turned his body so that it blocked the bag from the boys' sight. Joseph walked as calmly as he could towards one of the crossroads.

As soon as he was out of view he took off as fast as he could. He raced down the street until his chest burned and his saliva was thick in his mouth. There was a corner across the way where no one was, and he sat down, scanning the area to make sure he wouldn't be bothered. After taking a few deep breaths, he crouched down and opened the satchel. His eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. Fresh bread! Cheese! And even a few copper coins! He closed the bag quickly and tucked it under his shirt. This was his find, and he wasn't going to lose it.

"What have you got there?"

Joseph whipped his head up and was startled to be met by a pair of piercing green eyes. He recognized the lean bronze face which was framed by a mop of dark curly hair. It was the brash boy who he had watched snatch a rich man's purse. Joseph hugged his chest, holding the satchel securely. "I don't have anything that would interest you."

"Are you sure about that?" the boy snickered.

"Listen," Joseph said carefully, trying not to whimper, "I need this. I am starving. Please leave me be."

"It's not yours, that bag. You took it from a boy who was playing by the fountain. I saw you grab it and scuttle away." His smile widened into a toothy grin.

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