SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Gabrielle stopped by the water channel in the middle of the street waiting for a cart to rumble by before quickly running over to the other side. The wagon left behind the distinctive scent of pickled olives floating in the breeze.
"Definitely getting hungry," the bard thought, suddenly realizing that all the smells of this wonderful market were beginning to make her mouth water.
She ambled along without a care in the world, admiring the colorful storefronts with their painted frescoes and intricately tiled entryways. She stopped to lean on her staff and appreciate a beautiful rendition of Mercury coming out of a shrine with a sack of money, painted right next to Venus on an elephant-drawn chariot escorted by golden-winged cherubs. Underneath this drawing was the name of an establishment that boasted the best weaving and dyeing of woolen goods in the city. The bard suddenly realized that this beautiful piece of art was nothing more than an advertisement.
Gabrielle continued on her way oblivious to how far she had wandered from her original spot .
She came upon an eatery displaying scrumptious looking sandwiches and pieces of meat and vegetables skewered on a spit.
Deciding on the shish-ka-bob, the bard paid the merchant and took a bite. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the young boy she had asked for directions. He seemed to be watching her, but when she looked at him directly, he turned away and appeared to look at something else.
Gabrielle shrugged, took a bite of the succulent shish-ka-bob and continued on her way,
humming happily as she strolled.
The lad chuckled mischievously, getting into the spirit of the game, and followed along behind the bard in hot pursuit.
Some time later, the shish-ka-bob long gone and the bard's stomach beginning to complain again,
Gabrielle found herself pausing at the counter of yet another eatery, eyeing the sweet cakes and wondering if she should get one for Xena, as well. The warrior loved her sweets.
"BY THE MUSES, I DO NOT BELIEVE IT!"
The bard jumped at the shout and looked around. There was a group of Pompeians heading quickly in her direction. At it's center, amid a small assembly of tall, attractive and beautifully dressed young men and women, walked a short but nonetheless commanding individual. She was wearing a white toga and sandals, and sporting a big smile that lit her face all the way up to her bright silver-gray eyes. The woman practically flew over to the bard with outstretched arms. There was no mistaking that unruly head of black braids she called hair.
Gabrielle abandoned the sweet cakes and headed straight for her friend, almost dropping her scroll bag in the process. The entourage parted, waiting a respectable distance behind to give the great Greek poet a chance to embrace and greet her friend properly.
Sappho hugged Gabrielle, lifting her up in the air to give her a swing around.
"Whoa...I don't remember you being so strong!" Gabrielle said after her feet were back on the
"And I don't remember you being this beautiful!" The poet's eyes traveled over the bard, twinkling in appreciation for every new muscle and luscious curve she observed. "You look wonderful, Gabrielle! Absolutely delicious! Doesn't she?" The poet glanced back at her friends for confirmation.
"Yes, she does," a young man answered with a smile. He had been doing some discreet appreciation of his own.
"Stop it, Sappho." The bard poked at the poet's arm and blushed at the compliment. Sappho merely grinned, for the most part enjoying the attractive pink that was creeping into the bard's cheeks.
"I am soooo happy to see you!" the poet said, grabbing Gabrielle's hand and giving it a squeeze. "What a happy coincidence. And of all places, here in Pompeii!"
A thought seemed to flash into Sappho's mind and her face lit up with excitement.
"By the Muses, you're here in Pompeii, aren't you?"
Gabrielle laughed at the statement. "Well, thats where we are, isn't it?"
"That means SHE is here too, right?" Sappho looked around excitedly for the subject of discussion.
"If by SHE, you mean, Xena," Gabrielle answered in a whisper, low enough for only Sappho to hear, "yeah, she's here, too."
"Where is she?"
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, studying the poet. That mischievous twinkle in the Tenth Muse's eyes could only mean one thing: trouble. Just what was she up to?
"Why are you so interested in where SHE is?"
"I just want to say hi!"
"Yeah, right." Gabrielle shifted the bag on her shoulder . "She went to a tavern to book us passage back to Greece. Why? What's going on, Sappho?"
"Back to Greece! Back to Greece! You can't go back to Greece! Not yet, anyway. You just got here, didn't you?"
"All right, what's going on, Sappho? What are you up to?"
"By all the muses, Gabrielle!" Sappho slapped her forehead and rolled her eyes. She looked in exasperation at her friends. The bard stared back at them, apparently clueless.
"Look, Gabrielle, why don't you come with me right now. We'll sit and have a drink and something to eat and I'll explain everything." The poet took the bard by the arm and started to lead her away.
"Just wait a minute now!" Gabrielle pulled away, regaining possession of her arm and leaning closely toward the poet to whisper in her ear. "I have to meet Xena. I'm late as it is." The bard suddenly realized she had no idea how much time had elapsed since they had separated.
"There's a wonderful tavern the next door down. It has great food and even better wine! Just come for a few minutes and have a bite to eat."
"I don't know...I should have been back a while ago."
"Another five minutes won't kill ya."
Gabrielle looked down the street in the direction from which she had come and scratched her chin. It couldn't have been that long, could it? And she was hungry, after all.
"Well, all right. But only for five minutes. Then I have to get back."
"Great!" The famous Greek poet, known the world over as the Tenth Muse, wrapped her arm around the shoulder of her dear friend and together they led the entourage down the street and into a very beautiful and most delicious smelling establishment.
From the corner of a stone doorway, the boy watched the woman whose hair sparkled like the gold of sun disappear into a very high class tavern. He checked the sun's position and then sprinted along the Via Dell'Abbondanza towards the spot where he had agreed to meet the woman who was a warrior and had eyes the color of the sky.
They sat around a large wooden table, waiting for a waitress to finish serving the drinks. When the servant was done, Sappho nodded her thanks and turned to Gabrielle.
"This place has the best sweet wine in the city. Try it. You'll love it."
Sappho raised her goblet, took a big gulp of the delicious substance and smacked her lips. She paused and looked around the table, wondering why no one was joining in.
"What?" The poet asked and then realized her social faux pas.
"Where are my manners?" Sappho said, smiling apologetically to the group.
"You never had any," one of the young men replied, causing a round of chuckles.
"That may be true, but let me introduce you all to my beautiful young friend anyway." Sappho put down her mug and pointed to the first woman sitting just to the left of Gabrielle.
"This is Lavinia Claudia, a poet and a rich widow. Two very good things to be in Pompeii."
Lavinia nodded her head in the bard's direction and smiled at Sappho in obvious agreement.
"Next is Flavia Theodore. She's a singer but it's a good thing she doesn't do it for a living." Sappho winked at her friend, who promptly stuck out her tongue.
"This is Tiro. He's handsome and charming. Watch out for him," Sappho advised in a feigned whisper. The young man smiled broadly, obviously pleased with the poet's comments.
"Next to him is Ciro. Now what can I say about Ciro. Is there any one word that can describe Ciro?"
"How 'bout infuriating?" an older man with graying hair at the temples offered helpfully.
"And this is Popidius. He can call Ciro anything he likes. They live together, but don't tell their wives that."
Popidius crossed his arms and glared at the poet in annoyance.
"Bohemian," he muttered under his breath.
The poet smiled, very pleased with herself, and lifted the goblet to take another drink.
"Well?" Popidius prodded, waiting for Sappho for finish.
"What?" The poet looked at them in confusion. "Did I leave someone out?'
"Your friend, Tenth Muse. If you don't mind."
"Oh. Sorry." She smiled apologetically at the bard then placed her hand companionably on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Well, let me introduce to you the famous Greek bard..."
"Sappho, really," Gabrielle said, blushing. "I'm hardly famous."
"Yeah, but you're Greek aren't you? Who's doing the introductions here?"
"As I was saying," Sappho continued, giving the bard the eye, "we have in our midst a wonderful bard. I mean that. She weaves a tale like no other I've heard. Ladies. Gentlemen. May I introduce to you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, the GREAT Greek Bard and chronicler of XENA, THE WARRIOR PRINCESS.
Popidius choked on his drink.
"NO!" Ciro exclaimed for them all.
"Do you really know the Warrior Princess?" Lavinia asked ,moving forward in her seat.
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the poet, not happy that Sappho had revealed Xena's presence in Pompeii to them all. "She's my friend."
"Friend?" Sappho asked, insinuating something else. Then noticed the sad shadow that flitted briefly across the bard's features.
"Yes, she is my friend."
The poet was not pleased at all with the way Gabrielle said that. Looking closely for the first time, Sappho could plainly see the tiny bit of melancholy that shadowed the bard's normally bright eyes. Yes, Gabrielle had grown very beautiful with maturity. But at what price?
Just what has happened to her? Happened to them? Sappho swallowed her concern, determined to talk about it with the bard later, when they were alone.
Gabrielle squirmed a little under the poet's scrutiny. "So, I thought you said we were going to eat?" The bard steered the conversation in another direction.
"So I did." The poet motioned for the servant to return and ordered her to bring them a variety of finger foods.
They drank in silence for a few moments, waiting for their order. Sappho studied the bard thoughtfully. The last time she had seen Xena and Gabrielle, they were floating in a beautiful lake, embraced in a passionate kiss. Food for poets.
Sappho's musings were interrupted as the waitress brought over a sliver tray full of snacks and placed it on the table.
Gabrielle broke the silence by grabbing a pickled olive and popping into her mouth.
"Hmmm. I was in the mood for these."
"You're always in the mood for food!" Sappho teased and then they were all reaching in to grab some treats.
"Oh, these stuffed clams are delicious!" Flavia commented, showing the empty shell to the group.
Gabrielle's hand snapped out to grab a clam, "Oooo, let me try one!"
"I swear, I don't know where you put it all!" The poet exclaimed.
"In my stomach!" was the bard's response, which earned a wave of laughter from everyone present. The atmosphere was lightening considerably.
Then, the laughter at the table died abruptly . In fact, the entire tavern had become curiously quiet. Gabrielle looked at her companions quizzically, noticing that all eyes were staring beyond her.
"My, but that woman knows how to fill a room!" Sappho stated with a grin.
The bard swiveled in her seat to see what had captured everyone's attention.
Xena loomed in the doorway like an ominous shadow eclipsing the sunshine, waiting to enter the tavern. The entire room became silent as the warrior took a step out of the archway and then strolled on in. Her eyes scanned the area slowly, scrutinizing each table, her gaze finally resting on golden locks, the object of her search.
Gabrielle watched as the warrior's worried expression changed to a scowl and then she looked down, nodding in approval to a young boy who stood now at her side. She slapped something into the boy's outstretched hand. It was the same young lad who had given the bard directions earlier.
The boy flashed a big smile at Gabrielle, waved the money in thanks, and then scooted away.
Xena ignored the open mouthed stares of patron and employee alike as she headed directly for their table.
"I don't recall agreeing to meet in a tavern," the warrior stated, her hands on her hips as she towered over them all.
"Did you pay that boy to follow me?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at Xena from her seat, very insulted and annoyed at her partner. The warrior merely raised an eyebrow in answer.
"Need I introduce Xena, the Warrior Princess?" Sappho announced happily to her friends, extending a hand to the warrior.
Xena seemed to notice the poet for the first time.
"Sappho," the warrior stated flatly, "I should have guessed you would be here. Anywhere there's a party..."
"Did you really pay that boy to follow me?"
"So you know about the festival?" Sappho asked, chuckling under her breath at the bard.
"Well, now I know."
"Sit down, Xena. Relax. Take off your armor. Have something to eat." Sappho waved at a passing servant, ordering an extra chair and another drink.
A chair was positioned between Lavinia and Gabrielle, and Xena eased herself into the seat. She looked at her partner with an indulgent grin.
"I can't believe you paid someone to follow me," Gabrielle grumbled.
"How else was I going to find you?" Xena answered, taking a goblet from the serving girl's hand. She sipped the wine and smiled. "Hmmm. This is good."
"One of the chief products of the city," Sappho explained, emptying her mug and ordering another round for everyone. "Sometimes I think the city earned its reputation as playground for the rich and famous on the virtue of the wine alone."
"I'm surprised you don't live here." Xena's comment caused a round of laughter.
Gabrielle decided to forget about being followed and join in the fun. Xena seemed very relaxed at the moment. They'd have a discussion about trust and respect a little later.
"Did you find a ship?" she asked.
"There're lots of merchant vessels and plenty of them will be heading toward Greece. Just not until next Moonday."
Sappho nodded knowingly. "That's because of the festival."
"Festival? What festival?" The bard eyed her friend out of the corner of her eye. The poet had mentioned nothing to her about a festival ... yet.
Xena turned in her seat to face Gabrielle.
"There's a big festival going on, Gabrielle. Plenty of ships arriving, bringing people in, but not one leaving until after it's over."
Xena finished her drink, and Sappho pushed another one in her direction. The warrior spied an olive, swiped it from the tray and popped it in her mouth, following it with a sip of wine.
Sappho's friends sat silently, watching the friendly exchange between the warrior and the poet. They were staring openly at the Warrior Princess, not believing they were actually sitting in her presence, watching her eat and drink and carry on normal conversation as though she were just a regular human being.
After all they had heard, it would be like watching Athena brush her teeth. It just didn't seem as though a legend of the warrior's stature would partake in boring day-to-day, earthly routines, such as eating and drinking and talking. For the love of Jupiter, they never actually really believed she existed!
Xena sat, munching on pickled olives and candied figs, oblivious to them all.
"Vettii is NOT going to believe this!" Popidius muttered aloud.
The statement caused the Warrior Princess to frown in his direction.
"Quiet!" Sappho waved her hand in annoyance at the man and smiled innocently at Xena.
Xena popped another fig into her mouth and chewed it, staring at the poet thoughtfully. "Well, since you obviously came here for the party, Sappho, why don't you tell us all about this festival. What's the big deal?"
"It's the festival of Ceres. Big, big celebration."
"Ceres?" The warrior asked.
"The Roman version of Demeter," Gabrielle explained.
"What's in a name?" Sappho commented. "It's the same god."
"If it's just a harvest festival, then what's all the hubbub?" Xena took a sip of wine and put the goblet down.
"The Romans will use any excuse for a party. They LOVE to party. They hold celebrations for one thing or another every month, if not twice. The festival for Ceres is one of the biggest, and that's saying something because Pompeians always like to party in a BIG way."
"Do they even care what they're celebrating?"
"Sure, they care. They give tribute to Ceres to ensure fertile soil and big crops. They petition the goddess for success in all their ventures, business and pleasure, so that she will bless this great city of Pompeii with her favor."
"Fertile soil and big crops, huh?" Xena sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. "So it's a fertility rite?"
Sappho grinned and nodded.
"One big, giant orgy I take it?"
Sappho smiled broadly and raised her glass, "You're a woman of the world, Xena."
"Xena, are we in trouble?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's the kind of trouble I covet!" Sappho laughed into her goblet.
"Look, maybe you could help us, Sappho." Xena sat up in her chair and leaned toward the poet. "We're going to need a place where we can lay low for awhile, until this festival is over."
"Lay low? Are you serious, Xena? This is the best festival they have! You should try to enjoy yourself for once in your life. Looks to me like you both could use it." Sappho nodded at Gabrielle and gave the warrior a knowing stare. Xena could not help but acknowledge her point.
"But, this place is going to be teeming with Romans!" Gabrielle interjected.
"Yeah. So?" The poet shrugged.
"Sappho, Xena and I were on our way away from Rome when that storm hit last night and damaged our ship. We didn't plan on being here. We don't WANT to be here." Gabrielle whispered, not wanting the entire room to hear.
"Ohhh! I get it! You were high-tailing it out of Rome after that thing with Vercinix!" Sappho said, way too loudly for Gabrielle's taste. Their audience snickered.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each another with great concern.
"You heard about that already?" Gabrielle said, under her breath.
"Heard about it?" Sappho laughed, putting down her goblet. "Why the entire city talks of nothing else!"
Xena sat back in her chair, at a loss for words.
"Xena, let me explain. This city is full of wealthy noblemen. They have vacation villas here and second homes. They come here whenever they can, just to get away from Rome ... and Caesar. Believe me, my friends, there is no great love for Caesar here in Pompeii."
Sappho patted Gabrielle's hand and continued.
"In fact, there were quite a few present at that party Caesar held in Vercinix's honor," Sappho said, exaggerating the word honor and snorting. "They saw you there, Xena. I heard it was a beautiful dress, by the way."
The poet winked at Xena and the warrior scowled.
"More importantly, they saw Vercinix. Word gets around fast in Rome. You set a good trap, Xena. Somehow you managed to free Vercinix, execute that bastard Crassus and embarrass the great Caesear - all in the same moment. Those who knew what was happening hail you as a hero, Warrior Princess. You landed a heavy blow against the Triumvirate that day! Not to mention the performance you put on it the Coliseum. Is it true that you pulled a gladiator off of his horse with your bare hands?"
Everyone moved forward a bit in their seats. They had heard the rumors, of course. Now they would hear the tale from the lips of the Warrior Princess herself.
Sappho looked at Gabrielle, expecting the bard to take over.
Gabrielle merely looked away, her hand reaching for a goblet, finding it and bringing it to her lips. Once again that sad expression shadowed her features.
Sappho frowned. Something else she would have to question the bard about later.
"The point being that you are something of a hero in Pompeii. No. More than that. A legend. Politics is Caesar's arena and you beat him fair and square at his own game. The Pompeians love political intrigue and YOU, my dear, are its current reigning queen!"
Sappho stood, raising her glass. "A toast. To Xena, Warrior Princess. Twice now she has defeated Caesar. May his fame dwindle and hers grow."
All members of the entourage stood and raised their glasses in tribute. Xena and Gabrielle were shocked to then see almost everyone else in the tavern stand in salute as well.
And they all drank.
Sitting down, Sappho smiled smugly.
"You see. You have nothing to worry about. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if they threw you a parade."
"That won't be necessary," Xena stated, not sure she was happy with this turn of events. She was certainly relieved to find they would probably have no problems in Pompeii, but the effect the conversation was having on Gabrielle gave her pause.
"Feel better?" Sappho asked, staring directly at the bard.
Gabrielle did not answer.
"Then I guess we better find a place to stay," Xena commented, looking at her partner to see if she were all right and trying to change the subject.
"You should come with me to Vettii's house," Sappho suggested. "He'll be able to help you."
Popidius open his mouth as if to speak, but Sappho shot him a quick glance. He closed his mouth and sat back in his chair.
"Who's Vettii?" Xena asked. She was reaching for another olive, but the exchange did not escape her notice.
"Aulus Vettius Restitutus. He and his brother are wealthy merchants. They have one of the largest houses in the city. He'll be able to arrange for a room." The poet paused. "You might even be able to stay there, with me," she added as an afterthought.
Sappho watched the warrior for any reaction. She appeared to be thinking it over.
"It'll be hard to find room and board at this late date."
Xena remained silent.
"I'm sure he'll be happy to help you."
Xena looked down at her partner, who appeared to be waiting for the warrior to make up her mind.
"It's up to Gabrielle," Xena said.
The quiet statement took the bard completely by surprise.
"I said it's up to you. I'll do whatever you want to do ... go with Sappho to this Vettii or we can find a room on our own."
Gabrielle was still staring at her partner.
"You mean you're leaving it up to me?"
"Why not? Whatever you think is best."
"Whatever I think is best?" Gabrielle repeated, incredulously.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Just come with me to Vettii's House." Sappho said, jumping on the opportunity to influence the bard's decision with their friendship.
Gabrielle took another quick look at Xena. Her face remained expressionless, not giving the bard a clue to as her preference.
"All right," Gabrielle decided, stating so in a small voice.
Sappho nodded, biting back a smile, and threw some coins on the table.
"Come on! Let's go to the House of Vettii!" With that the poet left her chair and motioned for her friends to follow.
Gabrielle ventured another glance at Xena before standing to follow suit.
"Is that OK?" she asked a little nervously.
"Gabrielle, I said it was your decision. But, you do realize that your friend is up to something, right?"
"Yeah. I thought so, too."
"I know you did." Xena smiled and Gabrielle smiled back.
With a push of her chair, the warrior stood, and adjusted her sword.
"Come on. Let's go find out what Sappho is hiding up her toga."
Gabrielle shuffled after Xena as they walked in single file out of the tavern and back into the street. She couldn't help but notice the stares that followed the warrior's back as they both left the room.
"So much for blending in," the bard muttered before slipping through the door.
Main Garden or "Peristyle"
House of Vettii, Pompeii
"Here we are!" Sappho announced, bringing them to the front door of the House of Vettii.
The bard admired the facade of Corinthian columns that decorated the archway leading into the home. They appeared so real, yet they were only a basaltic lava facsimile of the type of columns that decorated real Greek temples, attached to the wall of Vettii's house for illusion only.
Sappho swung the large double doors open wide and they entered into the chilly cool of a quiet vestibule, leaving the heat, sun and bustle of the Pompeian city outside.
When the last of her charges had entered, she pulled the door closed. The latch clanged shut, echoing off the stone walls in the quiet dark of the cool room.
"Let's find Vettii!" Sappho snickered, her sandals clicking on the tile floor as she hurried across the room and exited through an archway on the other side. Her friends followed quickly.
Xena and Gabrielle, however, tarried behind. It was a painting that had captured their attention - a mural greeting all of Vettii's guests whenever they entered his home.
Welcoming them warmly was a large, colorful fresco of a very handsome, partially naked, muscular man. He was greeting his guests, not only with a smile, but with a male member depicted at complete attention and big enough to take up most of the length of the wall. And if that wasnt enough, he was having it weighed.
"Xena," the bard said, studying the painting with amusement. "Do you get the feeling that the people of this city spend entirely too much time concerned with ..."
"... the size of their crops?" the warrior finished for her, with a smirk. "Yeah. I get that distinct impression."
"So," the bard stated, examining the robust rendition with a critical eye, "do you think it's a self-portrait?"
"Whadda ya say we go find out!" Xena flashed a wicked grin at her partner and together they ventured forward to meet this remarkably endowed man of the house.
Xena suspected that this was one man who couldn't possibly live up to his reputation.
The pair left the foyer, exiting through the only archway possible. It brought them into the sunshine of a beautiful atrium. The roof was open to the sky and a fountain dominated its center. Cupid was kissing the sun and from his lips spouted a thin trickle of clear water, which arched out a short distance before plummeting into the marble base below. The abrupt entrance of the warrior and bard scared off two sparrows that had been enjoying a splash in the clear, blue water.
Gabrielle noted two marble inlaid shrines set into either wall. They were painted with the image of a goddess between two Lareses, the Pompeian god of the household and below their feet, a large serpent was depicted drinking from the offerings. The shrines, no doubt, were to honor Lares and bring health and good fortune to the household.
Xena caught a glimpse of the edge of Flavia's toga as she exited the atrium through an archway on the opposite side of the room.
"Come on...before we get lost." Xena nodded her head in the woman's direction and together they followed.
"Oh, Vettii!! Where are you?" Sappho called out in a lilting voice as she entered an elaborate open-aired garden. The man was mostly likely to be out here, fiddling with his flowers and herbs. She stepped from the wooden walkway, out of the shade provided by a short roof and onto the well-groomed soil of the Pompeian peristyle.
Its center held row upon row of meticulously tended plants and flowers. Small fountains and marble benches provided places to sit and read or meditate.
It was on one of these marble benches that the poet did indeed find Vettii. With brown hair that showed no signs of graying and was cut in the style of Caesar, he was a mature and handsome man. Long of limb and strong in build, he sat with his legs crossed sipping on a large silver goblet of wine. He was wearing a long linen toga and sandals, typical of Pompeian fashion and adjusted its folds as he rose to welcome the Greek poet when she came sashaying into the room.
"Well, Sappho!" Vettii greeted his guest with a smile. "What brings you back from your meandering so early?"
"Oh, nothing much," Sappho said, smirking at her entourage, who had entered after and were jostling one another aside, fighting for the best view. The poet rocked back and forth, heel to toe, grinning wickedly.
"I bumped into some old friends of mine," she added, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Oh really?" Vettii lifted the goblet to his lips, but paused before taking a sip. "Anyone I'd be interested in meeting?"
"Oh, I think so..."
Gabrielle chose that moment to pass through the portal, stopping to look around briefly.
Sappho took advantage of the opportunity.
"Vettii, this is the bard, Gabrielle of Poteidaia," Sappho announced with a smile and a flourish of her hand.
The bard nodded in greeting and Vettii nodded back. Then she stepped through the portal and away from the door to make room for her partner.
Xena walked in behind the bard, having to duck a little so her head and sword would not hit the archway. She froze at the entrance when she found all eyes had turned her way.
"And this...is Xena, the Warrior Princess."
Vettii's silver goblet slipped from his fingers and tumbled to the floor, hitting him squarely on the big toe.
The poor man cried out and grabbed his foot, hopping about for a moment before regaining his composure - much to his audience's delight.
"Sappho, this better not be some kind of joke!" the nobleman warned, limping in the poet's direction with more than a little menace.
"Vettii. Really. Would I kid you? Besides, you're suppose to be the Warrior Princess expert. LOOK at her."
Xena moved from the archway into the garden and rose to her full stature, taking a relaxed, if annoyed, stance. She shot the poet a look that let her know just how she felt about the situation.
Vettii limped slowly forward for a closer inspection.
The boots, the dark leather, the armor, the sword - they were all there. He noted the tall and dark, commanding presence ... and her hair, raven and flowing, framing a face ... a face so exquisite that even the eyewitness accounts he had read from various scrolls could not do it justice.
And the eyes.
Vettii moved closer to stare into the eyes. Xena sighed, sparing a look at Gabrielle. The bard had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.
He had read that her eyes were arresting, but that was a complete understatement. Because if this was indeed Xena, the Warrior Princess who stood before him, then her eyes were more than arresting - they were chilling, riveting, mesmerizing...
"For the love of Jupiter!" Vettii's strangled voice caught in his throat and he jumped back as it dawned on him who was standing in his garden. "Sappho?"
"Pick your chin up off the floor and say hello to Xena, Vettii," Sappho motioned to the warrior.
"Vettii." Xena's velvet voice greeted him politely, prompting the nobleman into action.
"I don't know what to say ... I never dreamt that one day I would get to meet ... It is my extreme honor ... oh, my!" Vettii didn't seem to know whether to grasp her hand in a warrior's shake or kiss her feet. Xena merely waited patiently as he gushed.
"I am just beyond words. Please forgive me." He finally ended his ramblings, clasped his hands in front of himself to stop them from waving around, and smiled.
"Sappho said you were a 'Warrior Princess expert?'" Gabrielle asked, stepping forward, more than a little curious about this man's reaction. "So what exactly is that?"
"Oh. Sappho didn't tell you?"
"No. She did not," Xena answered, casting a look at the poet that would have slain an army.
"I've been following your exploits for years. Years and years and years. I consider myself something of an expert on you, actually. I'm your greatest admirer, I think," Vettii said, blushing a little.
"Second greatest, maybe," the bard mumbled while scratching her lip, looking away when Xena caught her eye.
Sappho heard it and smiled.
The merchant motioned for the group to follow him into the garden. Limping over to a marble bench, he offered Xena a seat.
"No, thank you. We have to be going. We need to find a room and board before it gets too late." The warrior took Gabrielle's arm and moved to make a polite but quick escape.
Vettii turned to the poet, surprised that she had not made the appropriate arrangement.
"Sappho, surely you convinced your friends that they should stay here with me!"
"I was getting to that, Vettii."
He turned on the warrior and bard, surprising them both with his desperation. "You must stay here with me!"
"I wouldn't want to impose..."
"No. No. NO! I insist. I have plenty of room. It'll be no trouble, really." Vettii was getting frantic, so he calmed himself and stood tall to make it a formal request.
"It would be a great honor to me, Xena, if you would allow me to offer you the hospitality of my home for the duration of the Festival of Ceres."
Sappho and her entourage were enjoying this beyond words. They had never seen Vettii so humbled. Why, the man was practically on his knees. He will never live this down, Popidius snickered to himself. I won't let him.
"Please, Xena, say you and ... Gabrielle ... will stay?"
Gabrielle was impressed. At least he remembered her name.
Xena hesitated. Should she stay in the home of a self-professed Warrior Princess expert? She eyed the poet warily. Sappho obviously had set them up in some way. But for what?
"Please," Vettii added.
The warrior ran her tongue along the inside of her mouth and sighed. The thought of staying in a stable was looking like a pretty good idea right about now.
"Sappho is staying here," Vettii offered as though that would be incentive.
"Sappho is NOT staying here," Vettii corrected.
"Hey!" the poet yelled. Vettii hushed her with a wave of his hand.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. The bard merely shrugged.
The warrior thought about it for a few long seconds longer.
"It's up to Gabrielle."
"WHAT!" The bard strode angrily up to her partner and grabbed her arm. "Don't you dare leave this up to me."
"Why not?" Xena shrugged. "I'll stay wherever you want to stay."
All eyes turned to the bard.
I can't believe this. She wants me to be the one to say no. "OK. Fine then. We'll stay here," Gabrielle answered confidently, staring at Xena - daring her to say something.
"Fine. We'll stay," the warrior confirmed.
Vettii gave the bard a grateful smile and then turned to face Sappho.
The poet put her hands on her hips.
"I AM staying here."
Vettii looked back at Xena.
"It's fine." Xena looked at the poet. "For now."
"Excellent!" Vettii clapped his hands, summoning a servant, "I'll have my slave show you to your rooms. Do you have any baggage?"
Xena looked at Gabrielle. The bard's warning glance made Xena swallow any comment.
"Everything we have is on my horse, Argo, outside. I need to find a stable."
"I have a stable here, of course. My stable boy will see to your horse. Don't you worry about one thing, Xena. I'm going to take good care of you while you are here! Very good care!" Vettii said, clapping his hands to summon his servants.
Both of the bards eyebrows lifted, wondering exactly what this man meant by very good care. She gave her partner a sideways glance to see Xena following Vettii with a raised eyebrow of her own as he hurried away, still talking even as he walked.
"I cannot believe this! Xena ... in my home. Menander is just going to shit a marble statue when he finds out who is staying at MY house!"
And with that, Vettii intercepted an approaching servant to rattle off instructions.
Xena took the moment to pull the poet aside and glare.
"All right, Sappho. You set us up so we couldn't refuse. Why? What's going on?"
"You are SO suspicious of EVERYTHING, Xena," Sappho said, trying to remove the iron grip from her arm. Try as she might, the poet could not get the warrior's fingers to budge.
With a huff, Sappho gave up, glaring at the warrior impatiently. "Do you mind?"
Xena gave the arm one last good hard squeeze before returning control of the limb to its owner.
"Why not just relax and enjoy your good fortune, for Mnemosynes sake," Sappho said, rubbing her bicep and taking a step away. "You are here in Pompeii during the biggest festival of the year and are staying in one of the very best houses - owned by a man who happens to think you walk on water. What could possibly happen?"
"With you, Sappho, anything is possible."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Come on," the poet said, gesturing to her friends. "Let's go find something to drink."
The warrior studied each one carefully as they left the garden, wondering whether it wasn't too late to find that stable after all.
"Well," the bard said looking at her surroundings, "if we're going to be stuck in Pompeii for a week, at least we'll stay in comfort and luxury."
"Look, Xena. If you didn't want to stay here, then why did you leave the decision up to me?"
"Because I trust your instincts, Gabrielle."
"Lucky for you, Xena, that was the right answer. I thought you were just putting me on the spot."
Xena smiled at her partner. "Now, would I do that to you?"
"Yes," the bard answered, crossing her arms.
Xena lost her grin, feeling a little guilty. She took a step closer to the bard, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"I thought we talked about sharing in the decisions?"
"Yes, but that doesn't mean I get stuck with all the potentially embarrassing ones to make," Gabrielle said, feigning a pout. Her scowl was melting fast under Xena's tender gaze.
"Festivals and social occasions are your specialty, Gabrielle. I have to admit, I'm a little uncomfortable with Vettii's admiration and you know I don't trust Sappho any farther than I can throw a barrel of wine."
"Yeah, well, I could tell."
"Yeah, well, I didn't want my misgivings to keep you from having a good time."
The scowl was all but gone from the bard's face, replaced now by a smirking grin.
"You're getting pretty good at these sensitive chats, Xena."
The warrior raised an eyebrow, then smiled. "Are you buying all this?"
"Not for a minute, but thank you for trusting my instincts anyway."
"You made the right decision, Gabrielle. Vettii is a wealthy and respected man. His home is well- protected. We should be safe and no one will bother us here."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow of her own. "I thought of that."
"I know you did."
A slave led them from the garden. Xena and Gabrielle followed the servant through an archway and into the section of Vettii's home that housed the living quarters. There were three available spare rooms in a row. The slave led first Gabrielle to one and then Xena to another, leaving one room between the two still unoccupied.
Gabrielle paused to watch Xena carefully before entering her assigned room. The warrior did not seem to react to being given separate quarters. She merely thanked the servant and then entered, leaving Gabrielle to stand in the corridor alone.
The bard watched the empty space where her partner had stood for a moment longer before entering her bedroom.
It was a small room, and amazingly austere given the opulence of the rest of the house. There were no paintings or frescoes adorning the walls. Just bare walls surrounding a bed, a table and one chair. Gabrielle leaned her staff against the wall and threw her scroll bag down onto the pallet.
Would Xena be upset that they were not sharing the same room? Should she go to her? Uncomfortable situations just seemed to be piling themselves one on top of another since they had arrived in this city.
Gabrielle paced the small confines of the room, trying to decide what to do. Though they had been through so much over the last year and had somehow managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to continue their friendship, there was one aspect of their relationship that they had not yet resolved. They had not gone back to being intimate with each other since ... when? Since Britannia, the bard answered herself.
Gabrielle sat on the straw mattress of the bed and rubbed her eyes.
If they didn't resolve this issue soon, there would be no going back. She and Xena would continue as friends and nothing more.
Xena looked up from the scroll she was reading. The fire had been steadily dying out and the light she had been using to read was almost gone along with it. Putting the parchment down carefully on the sand, she reached over to pick up a log of driftwood and added it to the flames. She watched quietly as the fire sputtered and reached up, moving along the dry bark in a caress that was slowly turning to flame.
As she waited patiently for the fire to fully catch, she stared out toward the black sea. It was cold and the sea's breath made it seem even colder.
"Did you have any idea of what I was thinking, Gabrielle? Did you understand?" Xena listened as a wave crashed against the shore. The tide was coming in.
'How many more times will you follow me into battle?' she remembered asking. "How many more times will I hurt you, Gabrielle?"
The question had answered itself afterall, hadn't it?
"I was ruining your life. Forcing you to toss aside your values for what I believed was right." The warrior flipped a twig into the flames. "That thing in Rome with Crassus was a perfect example. I didn't even stop to think about the situation I had thrown you into. I just expected you to follow my plan ... follow me ... whatever the consequences."
The next twig was thrown at the sea in frustration.
"Crassus' death meant nothing to me, but it meant everything to you. You were constantly sacrificing everything on my behalf. What did I offer in return?" Xena picked up the scroll and looked at it, studying the careful strokes of ink as though she would be able to see the bard's face if she looked hard enough.
"You needed to leave me, Gabrielle, to get your life back."
The driftwood caught fire at that moment, bursting into a flame that illuminated Xena's face in a wash of golden light.
"I know you didn't agree. But that was the reason why I didn't come to you that night, Gabrielle, although the Gods knew, I wanted to."
The fire was now bright enough to provide the warrior with enough light. She shifted the pages of the scroll carefully to reveal the next piece of parchment, and continued to read.
Continued...Chapter 6 and 7
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