SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Gabrielle stood, staring out the window watching the tint of the sky change as the sun began to set. The quiet of the room was disturbed by a brisk knock at the door and the voice of a servant who had been sent to bring the bard to dinner.
"One moment," she answered, shaking off her reverie and turning from the window. She reached for her staff but decided that bringing a weapon to dinner, albeit a wooden one, might be considered bad manners. She left it leaning against the wall and opened the door.
Xena had already been summoned and was waiting patiently in the corridor.
"Did you have a nice nap?" Xena asked, greeting her partner with a warm smile. She waited for Gabrielle, letting the servant pass to lead the way.
"What makes you think I slept?" the bard asked, looking up at her friend as they began to walk.
"It was too quiet."
"You're funny, Xena," Gabrielle retorted. "What did you do the rest of the afternoon? Sharpen your sword?"
"Something like that." Xena nodded for Gabrielle to move along so they could follow the servant who was turning to bring them to the garden.
"Well, if you ask me, I think we both could have used a bath." Gabrielle commented, sniffing the air. She took a whiff of her underarm and gave her partner a look, letting her know that the offending odor had come from her direction.
Xena grabbed a lock of the bard's hair and brought it up to her nose to take a sniff of her own. "You're right about that!"
Gabrielle pulled the strand away, patting it back in place. "At least I don't smell like sweat and leather."
"Hey, I thought you liked the scent of sweat and leather!"
Gabrielle slowed her steps, bringing both of them to a halt.
"I do, Xena. Trust me, I do," she waited, watching Xena's reaction, hoping that the warrior would say something.
And Xena almost did, except that the servant had cleared his throat and was eager for them to catch up.
Reluctantly, they abandoned the conversation to follow the slave along the peristyle's raised walkway. They followed the full length of the tiled path until it turned a corner. Here, the slave stood at an archway and bowed, motioning for the pair to enter at their leisure.
Xena waited at the door, allowing the bard to enter first. They found themselves at the top of three small steps leading down into a large sunken dining area called a triclinium. The room's centerpiece was a beautifully carved, round wooden dining table. Most of the guests had already arrived and were lounging on the couches that surrounded the table, waiting for the first course to be served. Vettii, their host, smiled at their entrance and motioned for the pair to proceed inside.
Xena was about to step down when a pair of slaves waiting at either side of the small stairway blocked the warrior and bard, and began to reach for their legs.
"Hey!" Gabrielle said in protest, pulling away as the servant grabbed for her foot.
Xena stopped one servant with a look and the other by pinning her hand to the ground with a heavily armored boot.
"Vettii?" the warrior asked with a raised eyebrow.
Their host was laughing and waved away the servants, who seemed none too pleased that new arrivals were going to be permitted to enter the dining room without adhering to custom.
"A Pompeian custom, Xena," the merchant explained as she began to descend the stairs after releasing the slave's hand. "Shoes off and feet washed before dinner. You're excused from our quaint customs, of course. But," Vettii held up his hand, causing both Xena and Gabrielle to pause mid-step, "just be sure you enter left foot first."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another, switched feet and stepped down from the last stair.
"Bad luck otherwise," Vettii finished with an apologetic smile. "Xena, please. Your seat is here." He motioned to the divan on the right, next to his own. "And Gabrielle ... yours is next to Sappho, if you would." He motioned to the empty couch next to the poet on his left.
Xena walked around to her assigned seat, fully aware that all eyes were on her. She sat, stiff-backed, on the divan and adjusted her sword.
Gabrielle headed for the couch next to Sappho and plopped down with a grin.
"Now, this is how a meal should be eaten!" she said happily. Following the examples of the other guests, she lied down on the divan with her head closet to the table, stretching out her legs behind her and fixing her skirt. She took a moment to arrange the cushions under her left armpit and then leaned her head on her hand with a satisfied grin.
Two slaves ran over to the new arrivals and handed each a toothpick and napkin.
"What are these?" the bard asked, examining the items, one in each hand.
"Another Pompeian custom," Sappho explained, lifting her own to show the bard. "The guests are suppose to bring their own, but we figured you didn't have any."
"You figured right," Gabrielle answered, eyeing the toothpick with interest. "Unless Argo somehow got a hold of my staff. Are there any other customs we need to know about?"
"Only eat until your plate is empty," Vettii answered happily.
"That shouldn't be a problem," Gabrielle replied, settling into the divan with a grin.
"We're waiting for two more guests to arrive," Vettii explained, pointing out two empty sofas.
As if on cue, a servant entered the room bowing as he stepped aside to allow the last two guests to enter the triclinium.
He was the most beautiful man Gabrielle had ever seen. Tall and willowy, with flowing golden hair that tickled his shoulders. When he smiled at the room in greeting, Gabrielle found herself smiling back as though they were old friends; he had such an amazing way of engaging everyone.
Clear hazel eyes scanned the room, coming to rest first on Xena and then Gabrielle, the only two strangers at the table. His gaze lingered only for a moment on the warrior, choosing instead to nod in greeting to the more amicable bard.
Gabrielle smiled widely in return.
Xena disliked him immediately.
Accompanying the handsome man was an equally beautiful woman, slender and small with hair as black as Xena's, but much longer. Her silken tresses were pulled back loosely and artfully wrapped in a golden cord. She had the regal bearing of a queen and it was obvious that the woman's breeding was impeccable.
She leveled a dazzling grin at the poet. "It's so good to see you here, Sappho."
"Good to see you, Phaon."
"Paris. Phaon. Come in, please. Sit and let me make the introductions." Vettii motioned his last two guests to their seats impatiently, anxious to get on with the meal.
Gabrielle watched as the couple allowed Vettii's slaves to remove their sandals and wash their feet. Looking down at her own dirty boots, she wiggled into another position, attempting to hide them in a tuck.
After their feet were dried with a soft linen towel, they entered the triclinium. Phaon reclined elegantly into her divan, assisted by her escort. Only when the woman was comfortable did Paris take his seat on the couch next to Gabrielle. The newly arrived couple arranged their toothpicks and napkins to the left of their silver goblets and smiled at the group.
The bard hastily moved her dinner items to arrange them in exactly the same manner. She smiled at the servant who was reaching over her to carefully place a large, golden tray filled with dozens of tiny clam shells stuffed with minced pork, pine nuts and fish pate onto the center of the table. No sooner was the tray in place than the guests began to fill their plates with food.
A very handsome male servant set down a large bowl next to the tray and gracefully mixed equal parts water and wine. After mixing the brew carefully, he placed a ladle into the golden bowl and stepped back, leaving the guests to serve themselves.
Sappho immediately reached for the ladle. Silver wine goblets etched with intricate skeleton designs were filled with the warm sweet wine, each guest taking their turn.
"Let the games begin!" Sappho announced, raising her goblet in the air.
"Healthy and bountiful life," Lavinia added.
"To the beauty that surrounds us," Paris added, raising his cup and smiling at Gabrielle.
Xena chewed thoughtfully, looking down at the empty shell in her hand and wondering briefly if it would react like a chakram when thrown. Deciding to behave, she placed it on her plate.
"To my most honored guest, Xena, the Warrior Princess." Vettii said, smiling at the gorgeous woman who was gracing his table. Even though reclining on a couch fully armored should have been uncomfortable, the warrior appeared relaxed, as though she dined this way all the time. She had simply arranged her cushions as best she could without compromise, somehow still maintaining a commanding presence. The Warrior Princess was everything he had dreamt her to be, and more.
The merchant could not believe his fortune. Clapping his hands to gain the servants' attention, he ordered more wine and more food. A tray of snails and mussels replaced the now empty wine bowl.
"Most of you know one another, but for our honored guests' benefit, I wish to introduce each of you in turn."
"Certainly, Vettii. Go right ahead," Lavinia agreed, filling her plate with a selection from both platters.
"Of course, everyone knows the incomparable Sappho." Vettii said, after following a bit of food with a swallow of wine. "However, you probably don't know who is sitting next her. That lovely young woman beside you Paris, is Gabrielle of Poteidaia. She is bard to the Warrior Princess."
"Oh, really? A bard?" Paris said, giving Gabrielle respectful consideration.
"Yes, and an EXCELLENT one," Sappho added for emphasis.
"Really?" Phaon said, very impressed. She lifted her head to look over Paris, wanting get a peek at the bard for herself. "Well, compliments don't come easily from the Tenth Muse, Gabrielle. You must be outstanding."
Xena took a small sip of wine, watching her friend and enjoying the attractive pink that was coloring her cheeks.
"She is," the warrior whispered, locking eyes and exchanging grins with Sappho, the only one who had heard the soft comment.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said to Phaon, ducking her head and pretending to fill an already full plate with more clams.
"Next to Gabrielle is Paris, Pompeii's greatest mime and favorite son!" Vettii said.
"Oh! You're a mime. I've never met a mime," Gabrielle commented, showing great interest.
"Yes, I'm an artist just as you are," Paris smiled, lifting his glass and grinning at the bard.
Xena narrowed her eyes, but managed to stop herself from reaching for the shell.
"Paris, I thought you had committed to be at Menander's party this year," Popidius commented, hiding a smirk behind a sip of wine.
"There are no secrets in Pompeii, Popidius. We heard that things were going to be much more interesting over here. I am an artist. I go where I wish."
"And whatever Paris wishes, Paris gets. Yes?" Popidius added.
"It's one of the benefits of being famous. Right, Xena?" The mime grinned at the warrior.
"I wouldn't know."
Gabrielle grimaced at Xena's terse reply, recognizing the tone. She looked quickly at her partner, wondering briefly what she was planning to do with that empty shell she was flipping in her hand.
"Yes, well, next to Paris is Phaon." Vettii continued. "I believe you and Sappho know one another, don't you, Phaon?"
"Yes, I'm honored to call the Tenth Muse a good friend," the beautiful woman replied with a gregarious smile.
"Is that right, Sappho?" Popidius said, looking at the poet with surprise.
"Um ... yes," Sappho answered, dropping her eyes and taking a quick gulp of sweet wine.
Gabrielle couldn't believe it. Sappho was blushing. She had never seen the poet blush before. Never. Was she blushing or was she just getting tipsy? Gabrielle stared at her friend more closely, until Sappho caught her at it, and sent a warning glance to the bard to stop.
Gabrielle bit back a smile and took a quick look at Xena. Sappho's discomfort had softened her partner's mood considerably. Xena was sipping her wine with a delighted grin.
The slaves were removing the plates filled with empty shells and bits of uneaten food, replacing them with clean ones.
A fresh bowl of wine was placed in the center, joined by a huge platter containing the main meal. It was a roasted goose, surrounded by fish and smaller birds, decorated with garnishes of peacock feathers and painted quail eggs.
Gabrielle's eyes widened to saucers at the sight of the incredible meal and hurried to fill her plate.
"Careful, Gabrielle," Sappho warned, leaning over to whisper to her friend. "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach. I don't want you to have to make a trip to the vomitorium."
"The what?" Gabrielle asked in disgust.
"Keep it up and you'll find out."
Their host interrupted the side conversation. "Everyone knows Ciro and Popidius." Vettii nodded to the couple.
"Good to see you again, Ciro," Phaon greeted the man from across the table.
"And just how do you know Phaon?" Popidius glared at his own partner in surprise.
Vettii continued quickly, ignoring the arguing couple. "Next is my good friend and competitor, Lavinia Claudia."
"Keep your good friends close ...," Lavinia said.
"And your competitors closed!" Vettii added, the friends sharing a good laugh. Vettii turned, raising his goblet in Xena's direction. "And last, but not least ..."
"That's for certain," Sappho mumbled.
"... is the reason I will most definitely win the Golden Ceres this year."
Gabrielle stopped chewing. "What's the Golden Ceres?"
"My guest of honor is the most beautiful ..."
"... and dangerous," the poet added.
"... warrior throughout the known world: Xena, the Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations and the genius behind Caesar's recent embarrassment. And you all told me she was just a legend, made up by anti-Julius activists to sully his unbeatable reputation. Well, here she is in the flesh ... "
Sappho couldn't resist. "And what flesh it is ..."
Somehow, half of a wooden toothpick had imbedded itself in Sappho's forearm.
"Ow!" the poet jumped, pulling at the splinter.
"Lean on your toothpick, Sappho?" Xena purred.
Vettii continued on.
"You all know how much I've admired her. She's the greatest military strategist the world has ever known. Not even Caesar organizes a battle plan with such creativity."
"Is she always so creative?" Popidius asked, leaning forward to reach for more wine and giving Gabrielle a knowing gaze.
"Well ...," the bard began but was cut off, having to move her arm quickly to avoid being impaled by the other half of Xena's toothpick.
She shot a look in her partner's direction, smirking at her for missing the target. "So, what is this Golden Ceres?" the bard asked, tossing the toothpick from her cushion with a grin.
"Xena," Lavinia interrupted the bard, "tell us how you became a warlord?" The total silence of the table caused the woman to add in her own defense, "well, it's an unusual profession for a woman."
"I'm not a warlord anymore."
"But you were," Lavinia insisted. "Vettii here says you were the BEST warlord in the world. Aren't you always saying that, Vettii? So, how did you become one?"
"There was an opening. I applied."
"Come on, Xena," Lavinia scoffed, "it couldn't have been THAT easy. I'm sure you had to fight your way to the top, right? Is that how you got that scar?" Lavinia pointed a finger at the warrior's chest.
"What?" Xena asked, looking down at her armor plate.
"That little scar, there on your right breast. How'd you get that?"
Xena found the scar in question, lifting her eyes slowly back to the merchant's friend.
"I don't think it's something I should talk about at the dinner table."
"Oh, too traumatic for you?"
"No. It's just not a very pleasant story and I wouldn't want to ruin your meal."
"It doesn't look like a big scar. There couldn't have been too much damage."
"No ... not to me." Xena fingered the scar absently, her mouth turning up in a sarcastic grin.
The expression caused Lavinia to swallow in discomfort. "I see."
"No, I don't think you'd want to. Trust me, it wasn't a pretty sight."
Gabrielle knew that twinkle in Xena's eye all too well. "That Golden Ceres sounds really interesting. Anyone want to tell me about it?"
"Then what do warlords do, once they stop their warlording that is?" Paris asked, licking the sweet juice left behind by a bit of goose from his fingers.
"You mean other than plunder and pillage?" Xena ripped off a piece of meat from a bone with her teeth and chewed. She looked at the bone and then sucked on the marrow.
"Well, no ... I don't mean it like that ..." Paris squirmed uncomfortably under the steely gaze of the Warrior Princess, who was watching him as she gnawed on pheasant bone, "I mean what is it that you do ... now? You know ... now that you're not a warlord?"
"She fights for the greater good," Gabrielle stated proudly and quickly. "Now, what about this Golden Ceres?"
"Embarrassing Caesar is definitely for the greater good!" Popidius announced to everyone.
"I rescued Vercinix." Xena's reply was cold. "I could care less what happened to Caesar."
"Oh, come now. You can't tell me you didn't enjoy seeing Julius squirm. Makes me get warm and fuzzy just thinking about it!" Popidius wiggled on his divan and popped a fig into his mouth.
"I would sure like to hear about this Golden Ceres thing right about now." Gabrielle said, feeling just a bit nauseous.
"And Crassus! Why, that was a stroke of genius switching him with Vercinix! Not one nobleman raised his voice to say a thing on that day!" Popidius continued, oblivious to the warrior's growing irritation.
'That's not saying much for the character of Roman noblemen - just standing there while an innocent man loses his head!" Sappho commented, surprised to see the bard's face go pale.
"He was NOT an innocent man," Xena retorted angrily. "He was a murderer whose time had come."
"Be that as it may," Popidius replied with glee. "You took Vercinix and let Crassus' head roll in his place. I guess he's not the first man to lose his head over you, is he, Xena?"
"Hey, a man died on that day," Gabrielle said, barely able to contain her horror or her guilt.
Xena's stomach knotted at the look on her bard's face, her eyes flaring with anger as she dropped her bone.
"Xena," Phaon called out, "I hear you do some kind of warrior yell in your battles?" Her smooth voice reached Xena just in time. One split second more and the warrior would have been serving Popidius' head to Vettii for dinner.
"What?" Xena asked in a hoarse voice, surprised to find her hand almost at the hilt of her sword.
"Your trademark warrior cry?" Phaon prompted.
"You know," Sappho added, swishing her half-full cup back and forth like a sword, "that thing you do when you are CHOPPING PEOPLES HEADS OFF." The poet stared pointedly at Popidius and gave her cup one more swish across her neck.
Xena willed her muscles to relax. "What about it?"
"Well, where did it come from?"
"It comes from ... I'm not sure. It comes from my throat."
Sappho rolled her eyes.
"How do you do it?" Phaon pressed on, taking a look at Gabrielle, relieved to see the color returning to the bard's cheeks.
Xena seemed to really be thinking about this for a moment. "I don't know. I never thought about it. It's just something I do in the heat of the moment."
"In the heat of the moment? You mean, in the heat of battle?" Phaon asked.
Xena thought and then found herself taking a quick drink to hide behind her goblet, "Well, for the most part."
Sappho sat up in her seat. Was the warrior blushing? She looked quickly to Gabrielle. The bard was definitely blushing.
"Can you do it for us?" Phaon asked, smiling in appreciation at the lovely shade of red in the dark warrior's cheeks.
"Oh, yes. Please do." Vettii implored.
"I can't do it now. It's not the right moment."
"So, you have to be killing someone?" Lavinia asked.
"No!" Xena answered in a huff. "It's just not something I can do at the dinner table."
"Huh! Something else you can't do at the dinner table! Is there anything warriors CAN do at the dinner table?" Lavinia exclaimed in frustration.
"Usually, we like to EAT at the dinner table," Xena replied strongly. Oh, gods! The warrior's blush deepened.
"Well, in Pompeii, dinner is our favorite time of day," Popidius explained, "A time to relax, enjoy the company of friends, eat, drink and engage in witty repartee."
"Seems like a battlefield to me," commented Gabrielle, her voice somewhat choked.
"In a way it is, for those of us who are experts in wit," Popidius stated proudly. "The dinner table is MY battlefield!"
"Well, since I'm fighting on your battlefield today, maybe you'd like to meet me on mine tomorrow?" Xena offered, her eyes twinkling with devilish delight.
"Oh, no," Popidius looked away. She was joking, right? "I far prefer the dinner table to your battlefield. Warriors smell too much like sweat and leather for me."
Sappho had to reached over to pat a choking Gabrielle on the back.
"Hey! That gives me an idea." Ciro said, jumping in to the conversation, "If Xena can't get in the mood to do that warrior yell here, maybe we should stage a fight at the Palestra?"
"Yes, a re-enactment!" Paris excitedly agreed, "I can be the warlord."
"And YOU can be the army!" Ciro pointed to Vettii.
"We can dress up, I'm sure Vettii has some props."
"Yes, we can dress up as warlords and warriors!"
"And Amazons!" Lavinia added, jumping on the chariot.
"I can call Menander. He and his party can be the enemy! Xena you're on our side! And at the right moment, you can do your warrior cry!"
"We can do it after dessert! Paris can get us in."
"When word gets out, the whole city will be there!"
"Maybe we can charge admission?"
AIYAIAYIAIYAIYAIYAI LALALALALALALALALALALAL TIA AH AH HA!!!!!"
Three dropped goblets, two soiled togas and one inhaled olive later, Xena was sipping on her delicious sweet wine and basking in the silence.
"So, anyone care to tell me about that Golden Ceres now?" Gabrielle asked smugly, thinking perhaps she would finally get an answer.
Phaon waited until the servants were finished removing the second course's dinner platters from the table. She smiled, watching as a small tug-of-war occurred between Xena and a young servant girl over possession of a plate containing empty calm shells. The young servant girl won. It must have been the way she begged with her eyes, Phaon decided. They were the prettiest shade of green, the woman observed as she watched the servant girl scurry away with a proud smile.
The guests sat in an uncomfortable silence as two servant boys arranged silver trays filled with fruits and melons on the table. The pieces of fruit were cunningly carved to resemble birds, presented on nests of grape leaves and peacock feathers. Fresh, clean dishes given to each of the guests to fill themselves completed the third course serving and the slaves retreated to the back of the room allowing the guests to continue their feast.
Phaon gracefully reached out to fill her plate. "The Golden Ceres, Gabrielle," Phaon began, smiling at the bard who was already munching on a piece of candied fig, "is a beautiful, solid gold representation of the Goddess and is a very coveted during this festival."
"Coveted? Why?" the bard asked as she shifted on her couch to better see the beautiful woman.
"It's the prize in a contest held during the Festival of Ceres between all the great houses of Pompeii."
"Why? Is there a story behind the statue?" Gabrielle's query caused Phaon to chuckle.
"Why do bards always look for the story in everything?" the beautiful woman asked with delight.
"That's a good question," Xena said, popping a piece of fruit in her mouth as she flashed a smile in the bard's direction.
"Because there always is one," Sappho said in defense of her peer. She winked at Gabrielle in friendly support.
"And poets are no different," Phaon stated.
"No, they're worse," the warrior replied, ignoring Sappho as she stuck out her tongue.
"The Golden Ceres," Phaon continued for Gabrielle's benefit, "represents the Goddess Ceres herself. Wherever she resides, the goddess is considered present and that house is especially blessed for the duration of the festival."
"Oh, Phaon," Paris butted in. "You make it sound so spiritual."
"It's not?" Gabrielle asked in all innocence. "It sounds like a beautiful religious tradition to me."
"Well, maybe it started that way, but it has become quite a bit more secular now," Popidius added with a chuckle. "What it really means is whoever gets the statue has the best party on festival night. All the merchants have to contribute wine and food in tribute and where the wine is, THAT's where the party will be. Looks like this year, the party will be here. Right, my friend?" Popidius raised his goblet in salute to the host.
Vettii returned the compliment with a proud smile and his own raised cup. "I don't want to count my griffins before they hatch, but I'm pretty sure we have it in the bag."
"A contest, huh?" Xena said. She took a big swig of wine and stared pointedly at Sappho. "And just what do the houses compete over to win?"
"Why, whoever has the most famous...," Popidius explained, turning to wink at the warrior, "... or infamous guests."
Xena put her goblet down on the table. "Say that again?"
"The Great Houses of Pompeii compete over who can get the most famous people to stay with them. With Sappho and Paris ... and most of all you, Xena, staying here, Vettii is sandal-sure to win this year." Phaon explained.
"Ha!" Popidius announced, with a snort. "Even if Menander got Julius Caesar himself as a guest that wouldn't beat the Warrior Princess! The Golden Ceres will certainly be yours!"
"Julius Caesar isn't going to be in Pompeii, is he?" Gabrielle asked in a sudden panic.
"Oh, no," Lavinia said with a shake of her head. "They have their own celebration at Caesar's Palace. Lots of gambling. An entirely different spectacle altogether."
"Now, let me get this straight," Xena said, leveling a steely gaze directly at Sappho, her voice taking on a velvety, dangerous tone. "Whoever has the best meat gets the Golden Ceres which means free wine and a big party? Is that the way it goes, Sappho?"
"Well, I wouldn't refer to an honored guests as 'best meat', Xena, really..." Sappho began to stammer.
"Why, that's a very good way to put it, Xena," Popidius said, laughing.
The warrior's eyes caught the poet's even as she tried to look away.
"So, this was why you wanted me and Gabrielle to stay with you so badly? For free wine and a big party?"
"Xena! You insult me!" Sappho exclaimed. "That is NOT the reason why I wanted you here."
Xena raised her eyebrow.
"Well, not the only reason anyway." The poet blanched under the warrior's stare. "Gabrielle," she said turning to face her friend, "surely, you don't believe that the only reason I wanted you here was for the wine?
"It would certainly look that way to me, if I were your friend," Popidius mumbled into his goblet as he took a drink.
"Shut up, Popidius!" Sappho said snappishly. "These people are my good friends. You wouldn't know a good friend if you tripped over one!" The poet sat up on her couch, pleading urgently with the bard. "Gabrielle, don't listen to them. You know better, right?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena. The warrior was very angry with the poet at the moment. Neither of them enjoyed being manipulated for such trivial reasons, but she couldn't find it in her heart to believe that free wine and a party were the only reasons Sappho desired their company.
"Of course not, Sappho. I know you had to have other reasons for wanting us here so badly."
"She just can't think of them at the moment," Popidius added, snickering.
"That's not funny," Sappho stated and glared at the man, "and it's not true!"
The bard reached out and put her hand over the poet's, "He's only teasing. I know it's not true. WE know it's not true, right Xena?" Gabrielle glanced at her partner, her look urging the warrior to agree.
"Right," Xena said flatly, putting her plate down on the table and pushing the food away. She was finished for the evening.
Vettii watched the exchange, suddenly getting worried that the warrior would decide not to stay. "Xena, please believe me. Contest or not, I am more than honored to have you stay as a guest in my home. I spoke the truth when I told you that I've followed your exploits through the years. I admire you greatly ... always have. Please don't let the silly customs of a materialistic people ruin your enjoyment of a beautiful festival. Your presence here brings honor to my house."
"And the Golden Ceres will complete his collection," Popidius commented under his breath to Lavinia. "He can put that statue right next to the big cross he says Caesar used to crucify Xena that he claims he has, right dear?"
"WHAT?!" Xena jumped up from her couch to tower over the woman, barely able to contain her outrage. Lavinia nearly fell from the divan in fear.
"Lavinia, what did you say?" Vettii yelled, standing up quickly with great concern.
"I didn't say anything!"
"She said something about a cross."
"I did not!"
"Popidius mentioned something about a cross," Sappho heard the comment, but did not understand Xena's anger. She looked to the bard, whose eyes were round with alarm.
Vettii's face went pale, "Xena don't listen to him. He is a wicked man with a vile sense of humor."
The warrior had turned to face Vettii, very angry and standing utterly still, waiting for an explanation.
Vettii gulped. His scrolls hadn't come close to adequately describing what it was like to incur Xena's wrath.
"I have no such thing in my collection, I assure you." He risked taking his eyes from Xena's livid glare, to give his friend a stern look, warning him to keep silent.
"Your 'collection'?" Xena asked in angry skepticism.
"My collection of religious and military memorabilia from around the world, Xena. It's artwork and statues. Nothing more, I assure you." Vettii answered, smiling, bringing his hands up in surrender.
Xena narrowed her eyes in distrust, first at Vettii then at Lavinia and Popidius, who were both maintaining suspiciously neutral expressions. Putting her shoulders back, she looked at Gabrielle. The bard recognized immediately that her friend was angry beyond words.
"I think I've had enough to eat. Thank you for your hospitality, Vettii. I'll see you in the morning." She gave one brisk nod to all, turned and walked up the stairs to leave the dining room.
"That's just GREAT!" Vettii yelled at his friends, plopping down onto his couch. "You've insulted her. The greatest warrior in the world is staying at my home and my friends come to dinner and insult her! She'll probably leave in the morning." Vettii looked at Gabrielle. She was rubbing her temples with stiff fingers. Gabrielle never realized dinner could cause such a headache. She'd rather be seasick.
"He doesn't really have that cross here, does he?" Gabrielle asked with great concern.
Sappho looked sadly at her friend, "I think it was just a tasteless and VERY bad joke. Gabrielle, please believe me, I didn't mean for this to happen. I only thought you and Xena would be able to enjoy yourselves here. I looked forward to spending the week with you, really."
"All right," the bard said with a sigh, "I'll talk to her. We're stuck here in Pompeii whether we like it or not. But, if we do stay here, we can't have any more meals like this one. I enjoy my food too much."
"I'll arrange quiet dinners from now until festival night," Vettii promised sincerely. "I'll make your comfort and privacy my primary concern."
"Well, don't go overboard. I, for one, would like to take advantage and enjoy as much of Pompeii as possible. See the sights, enjoy that beautiful theater we passed on the way in..."
"I'll be happy to take care of that, Gabrielle," Paris offered, feeling terrible about the turn of events. He wanted to get to know the bard better. "I'll arrange for a row of the very best seats at our next performance this Friday evening. We're putting on our best play. You'll love it. I'll even arrange a personal tour behind the scenes, if you would like to see the theater. Would you be interested? You and Xena, that is."
"I would love it, but I'll have to ask Xena. Just don't make a big fuss or anything, and I'm sure it will all be fine. All right?"
"And what about the Golden Ceres?" Phaon asked, curious if they would still participate in the ceremony.
"I'm sure Xena would not want to interfere with any Pompeian customs. If you win this Golden Ceres thing, then you should have your party. Just don't do anything special on our account. And DON'T make a big deal about Xena being here. She'll just be another one of the guests, IF she comes to the party at all. I can't make any promises about that."
Vettii nodded, feeling very disappointed. "Perhaps she would enjoy some hunting? The woods around Vesuvius have excellent game."
"She probably would. I'll mention it, OK?"
"Whatever you say."
All the guests nodded their heads in solemn agreement. Gabrielle sat, stood up from the divan and then fixed her skirt.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I better go."
"Good luck," Sappho said as Gabrielle departed, "and thanks."
The bard turned and smiled at her friend.
"Hey, that's what sidekicks are for."
She left the triclinium, heading for her partner's room, but suspecting that Xena was probably already out and looking for a corner in the first available stable.
Gabrielle headed directly for Xena's room, halting suddenly when she came to a junction at two hallways. Knowing instinctively where her partner would be, the bard changed direction and headed out through the smaller atrium to the foyer, out of the entrance to Vettii's home and back onto the Pompeian street.
It was dark and the street was deserted. Looking first one direction and then the other, she shrugged figuring she had a two in one chance of heading the right way. Gabrielle decided to turn right and followed the street to the next corner, turning right again. She had guessed correctly for she could now see, as well as smell, the entrance to Vettii's stable a short distance down the block.
Gabrielle walked at a quick pace along the quiet street, her steps echoing a lonely rhythm off the walls of the neighboring homes. It was a hot night and humid as well. The bard could hear the sounds of a happy repast coming through the candle lit window of the house across the street. The happy banter of a family at dinner made the bard wonder why everything always seemed so difficult for her and Xena. Why couldn't they just come to a city and enjoy a festival like the rest of the world? She stopped at the entrance to the stable and leaned on the wooden door wearily before pushing it open. By the gods, she was tired of the constant struggle.
The bard entered the stable, scratching her nose against the sudden scent of hay, straw and horses that threatened to cause her to sneeze. She walked across the floor quietly, listening for a sign of her partner. Sure enough, a few stalls down, came the steady sound of brush against hide and the soft, contented whinny of a very happy mare.
Gabrielle walked quietly over to the stall and leaned against the wooden post. She didn't have to announce her presence; she knew Xena had probably heard her approaching from halfway down the street. She waited, leaning against the post with crossed arms, for the warrior to say something. But her partner merely continued to curry, so Gabrielle spoke first.
"Now, I know why you hate Romans."
The brush stopped and Xena chuckled. She turned around, smiling warmly at her friend. Gabrielle pushed away from the post and took a step forward.
"I'm sorry, Xena ..."
"What are you sorry about? It's not your fault that they're all silly, pompous, despicable, disgusting, ridiculous people who are only concerned with their own enjoyment." Xena turned back to Argo and continued brushing her mare. "Argo has more sense and sensitivity than the lot of them."
"Don't like them much, do you?"
Xena snorted, "'Bout as much as I like blood-sucking bacchae," she turned halfway to give Gabrielle a mischievous grin. "Well, that's not completely true. Not all bacchae are that bad."
"Thanks a lot." Gabrielle quipped, walking up to stand right behind her friend. "I was hoping you wouldn't hold that blood sucking thing against me."
Xena turned around, sporting a full smile. "Didnt I ever thank you for that?"
Gabrielle grinned crookedly, "Not that I can recall. But ... you're quite welcome. It was my pleasure." Her grin transformed into a full smile. They shared a quiet laugh before Gabrielle became serious.
"I feel really bad about what happened, Xena. After all, it was my idea to stay here. And Sappho feels pretty bad about it, too. They all do, I think."
Xena lost her grin, turned back around and continued brushing Argo.
"You have nothing to feel sorry about. And Sappho ... well, I would hope that Sappho feels guilty. She should. The rest are incapable of any feelings at all."
"Can I assume you don't want to stay here anymore?"
Both Xena and Argo snorted at the same time. "You got that right."
"Would you be angry with me if I asked you to change your mind?"
Xena whirled around to face her partner, a little surprised at her request.
"You don't seriously expect me to stay here after what happened, do you?"
"Look Xena," Gabrielle said, placing a hand gently on Xena's forearm. The warrior looked down at the touch but resisted pulling away and let the bard continue. "I know you're very angry and I don't blame you, but let's think about this for a minute."
Xena shifted impatiently to one leg and raised an eyebrow, but allowed the bard to continue.
"So, they have this strange custom about some fancy statue and they used your name to win it. What difference does it make? If anything, I would think you would be a little amused that your presence as a guest in a Roman house could win out over anyone, even Julius Caesar."
Gabrielle paused, waiting for the warrior to comment. Xena merely shifted impatiently to the other leg and raised her other eyebrow. The bard was taken by surprise for a second; she never noticed that Xena could lift each eyebrow separately in exactly the same manner.
"I don't like the idea of being the winning card in anybody's game."
"I realize that," the bard agreed, nodding. "And I feel the same way. But it's not that big of a deal. It's just a Pompeian custom that means nothing to us. Besides, where else could we stay?"
"I'd rather leave the city and camp outside the walls, if you ask me."
"What? Camp in the woods, right under the nose of that huge volcano? No thank you, Xena. I don't know about you, but that thing gives me the creeps. I'd rather be inside, under a roof, where at least there's a little shelter - just in case."
"In case of what?"
"Come on, Xena. Don't tell me you don't feel the tiniest bit nervous about that thing looming over us, spouting smoke all the time?"
Xena might have answered that the bard was overreacting, that the volcano had been dormant for thousand of years, but she remained silent, losing the smirk and considering her partner's words.
Gabrielle could sense the change in mood immediately.
"We'll never find another room, not at this late date. And once we leave here, we'll have every Roman nobleman in the city trying to get us to stay with them, if only to win this silly Ceres contest. Think about it, Xena. We're better off right here. As you said before, we'll be safe and everyone will leave us alone. Besides, I'm sure after tonight, they'll be no more dinners like this one, I can promise you that."
"What about that big party, then?"
"I, personally, would like to go to that. But if you don't want to go, then we won't."
Xena dropped her eyes and played with the brush in her hand.
"There's something else, Xena." Gabrielle stated solemnly, causing the warrior to look up. "There's something going on with Sappho and I want to find out what it is."
"Whadda ya mean, there's something going on with Sappho? The woman is just looking for free wine and a big party, you know that."
"Now, you know that's not true. She was unusually quiet tonight at dinner and she hardly drank."
Xena grunted, having lost count herself of the number of goblets finished off by the poet.
"At least, not as much as she usually does. I really believe there's another reason why she wanted us here so badly. I want to find out what's going on. Besides, I'm kinda glad to see her." Gabrielle dropped her eyes to stare at the ground, a little surprised at herself for having revealed that particular fact.
Xena studied her friend quietly for a moment. Gabrielle waited patiently, knowing she was pondering over all of the possibilities, weighing the pros and cons, looking at the situation from many different angles, but doing it so much faster than ordinary people ever could. Xena might come up with completely different conclusions most of the time, but she always trusted the bard's instincts.
The warrior played with the curry brush for a few moments, flipping it back and forth between hands, until finally letting out a great, big sigh.
"All right," Xena agreed, with great reluctance and turned away to continue grooming the mare.
"Thank you, Xena," Gabrielle said warmly. She placed her hand on top of the warrior's to stop the moving brush. "Aren't you coming to bed?"
Xena looked at the bard for a moment in silence.
The brush continued its path along the mare's hindquarter. Gabrielle stepped back. A good amazon knows when it's time to retreat. She turned to leave the stall, only to be stopped by the warrior's soft voice.
"Yeah?" The bard turned back around.
"Don't let me stop you from having a good time. If we have to stay here, I want you to at least enjoy yourself."
"The same goes for you, you know. There's nothing written that says the Warrior Princess can't enjoy herself now and again."
"You sound like Sappho." Xena mumbled, turning away.
"In this instance, I think Sappho has a point. We both need a little rest and relaxation. The gods know, I really do. Will you at least try? For me?"
"Sure. There must be something in this city I can do to keep my mind off of putting the pinch on half the population."
Gabrielle chuckled and then remembered something Vettii told her. "Vettii says the hunting is great around here. Lots of game up on the mountain slope. We can get out of the city for a day and see what the hunting is like in these parts. That sounds like fun, right?"
Xena stopped brushing.
"Gabrielle. You hate to hunt."
"I know. But I wouldn't mind doing it if it's something you would like to do."
Xena gave the bard's shoulder a squeeze and returned to the horse.
"I appreciate that, Gabrielle. Why don't you go get some sleep. We'll talk about what we'd like to do in the morning, all right?"
"Sure." Gabrielle said, grinning at Xena's back as she resumed grooming her horse.
"Good night, Xena," the bard said softly.
"Good night, Argo."
Gabrielle left the stall, leaving the warrior and the horse alone in the musty quiet. Argo stamped her foot and let out a condescending snort.
"Yeah. You're right, Argo. I'm a real push-over, aren't I?"
The horse turned her head and nibbled at the warrior's hair.
"Hey! I told you, no munching on my hair." Xena gently swatted and then scratched the wet nose affectionately, before pushing the horse away.
"All right. All right. So it's a nice stall and you'd rather stay here, too. I guess I'm outnumbered. A good warrior knows when to surrender."
Xena chuckled and patted her mare, then continued the gentle grooming. She thought about Gabrielle's suggestion to investigate the lush, green slopes of Mount Vesuvius. It was not, however, the local game which had piqued her interest.
To Be Continued...Chapter 7
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