SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Gabrielle followed Sappho as she hurried down the street toward Via Stabia. Long, wild hair bouncing with every step, the poet was traveling as fast her legs could carry her without breaking into a run. The bard was barely able to keep up.
"Sappho, for Gaia's sake! Where's the fire?" The bard caught up to the poet, grabbing her arm to slow her down. "Where are we going?"
Sappho only picked up the pace. "We have to get to the Macellum right away. I don't want to miss her."
"What's the Macellum?"
"That big market area where I met you yesterday. Well, the official Macellum is really down closer to the Forum, but the stores have spread up along Via Dell'Abbondanza so that area is included in the Macellum as well."
"Why are we going there?"
"We're going to the Tavern of the Four Gods. Phaon will be there for the noon meal. She always is." The poet smiled broadly at her friend and pulled at her hand so they would move along faster.
Gabrielle stopped short.
"Just ... just hold your centaurs hooves a moment, Sappho," Gabrielle said, bringing a hand to her chest while trying to catch her breath. "You rushed me out of that house so fast, I didn't have time to get my staff or scroll bag! I don't have a dinar in my pocket and I have no idea where Xena is!"
"So?" Sappho grabbed and pulled again, but the bard refused to budge. "Gabrielle, you won't need your staff. I have all the dinars we need. And don't worry about Xena - she can take care of herself."
"I know that," Gabrielle answered, "but she'll have no idea where I went."
Sappho smiled sympathetically, "You think she'll be mad that you just up and left her alone for the day?"
Gabrielle nodded. "That and she won't be able to find me ... if she looks for me."
The poet's smile widened. "Don't you worry 'bout a thing, my dear. I took care of that."
Gabrielle wrinkled her brows in question.
"I left a trail for the warrior princess to follow," Sappho revealed.
Gabrielle crossed her arms. "You left her a note? What did it say?"
"I didn't say I left her a note. I just said I left her a trail." The poet wrapped an arm around the bard's shoulders and eased her into a walk.
"And don't you worry ... she'll follow it all right." Sappho laughed heartily at the expression on her bardic friend's face as they turned the corner of the Via Dell'Abbondanza. They disappeared amongst the throng of bustling shoppers.
Gabrielle found herself strolling once again along the busy street of the Pompeian market district. She smiled, enjoying the cool sea breeze that was ruffling her hair and bringing the scent of freshly baked bread to her nose. Her eyes took in the bright colors of the painted facades and the varied jumble of balconies, loggias and roofs projecting over the street.
She could hear the voices of a group of men sitting around a table on one of those balconies as they argued over a move in some game. Passing underneath, she smiled as she looked up, catching one of the men throwing down his hat in frustration.
The distraction of looking up almost caused the bard to trip over the legs of a man sitting against a wall. His clothes were tattered and one hand was held out, palm up, while the other absently petted the furry neck of a panting dog.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" the bard exclaimed as the man pulled his legs out of the way. The dog stopped it's panting and took a sniff.
"Don't be. It's not often that a beautiful woman falls for me." The man winked and then smiled a toothless grin.
The bard grinned at the compliment. "I hope I didn't hurt you."
"Not at all. But Ceres here could use a denarius, if you got one to spare," the man said, patting his furry companion on the head.
Gabrielle reached for her pouch, but then realized she had left it at home. She was about to apologize when Sappho nudged her in the side, handing over a coin. The bard took it with a grin and passed it down to the beggar. His dog gave the bard's hand a sniff and then a quick lick as she placed the coin in the outstretched palm.
"She likes you. And she thanks you for the both of us."
"You're welcome," the bard replied, smiling at the pooch and giving her a scratch behind the ear.
"Come on, Gabrielle." Sappho gave the bard's arm a tug. "We've got to get going."
"Eat well," Gabrielle said, gracing the beggar with one last smile before moving off to follow the poet.
"The gods smile on kindness!" the beggar called after the bard. He showed the silver denarius to his dog, hugging its neck in excitement. "Look, Ceres! Silver, not bronze. We'll both eat good tonight!" The dog licked her companion's cheek, wagging her a happy tail as they both watched the bard stroll away.
They walked under the shadow of a balcony, sticking to the left side of the street until they came to an arched doorway. Gabrielle looked up before entering, noticing the flowery lettering spelling out "Tavern of the Four Gods" painted over the archway. Beautiful depictions of Apollo-Sun, Jupiter, Mercury, and Diana-Moon bordered the name on all sides. Outlining the left of the door, top to bottom, was Venus Pompeiana with Cupid; to the right, a sacred procession of nymphs leading a litter bearing a bearded Bacchus.
Sappho saw the bard eyeing the artwork and smiled. "The Pompeians love to decorate their walls. Not a space goes unfilled." The poet pointed to a little corner just under Cupid's bow.
No more question of it - Romula, my wife, met here with her lover
Gabrielle laughed at the scratched words, her mind quickly imaging all kinds of scenarios.
"This is a favorite place for lovers to meet, Gabrielle," the poet explained, "and the preferred tavern for all the artists of Pompeii. You're going to love it here." Sappho bade the bard to enter. "And they're going to love you!"
They entered the Tavern of the Four Gods, pausing momentarily to allow their eyes to adjust to the change in light.
It was a large tavern, stretching out into a labyrinth of cubby holes and tables hidden behind columns and in archways. It smelled of the warm, sweet wine popular throughout Pompeii and was appropriately dim, lit mostly by candles flickering within silver holders at the center of each table. All but the tables cloest to the entrance were occupied. There was a cluster of customers in the back of the room, filling the tables that bordered a very small stage.
A poetry reading was in progress. Gabrielle smiled, recognizing the familiar meter of Greece's greatest living poet, the Tenth Muse. She gave Sappho a proud smile, but the poet merely shrugged.
Sappho scanned the room, grasping at the bard's shoulder with a sudden intake of breath.
"There she is!" the poet whispered, pulling Gabrielle over toward the side of the room to hide behind a pillar.
"There, see?" Sappho pointed to a table for two, partially hidden within an archway toward the right of the stage. "At that table under the arch."
Gabrielle squinted into the dim light, her eyes finding the target. There Phaon sat, sublimely elegant in a turquoise silk toga trimmed with golden lace. Her long, black hair was loose and fell over the back of her chair, almost to the floor. She was smiling, her face shining as she related what was obviously a very interesting story to her escort, who was no doubt a very rich man. His robes betrayed an excess of wealth; his bearing that of a man of high station. And though many a woman was glancing in his direction, he only had eyes for the one at his table.
Gabrielle couldn't blame her escort; Phaon was quite simply breathtaking.
"He is more than a hero," Sappho whispered, catching the bard's attention. "He is a god in my eyes."
"What?" Gabrielle asked in a hushed tone, the poet's comment taking her by surprise.
"The man who is allowed to sit beside her," the poet continued, not really talking to Gabrielle at all. "He who listens intimately to the sweet murmur of her voice, the enticing laughter that makes my own heart beat fast."
Gabrielle grinned, listening quietly to the poet as she whispered an impromptu sonnet with a faraway look in her eyes.
"If I meet her suddenly, I can't speak - my tongue is broken; a thin flame runs under my skin; I see nothing, hear only my own ears drumming. I drip with sweat, a trembling shakes my body and I turn paler than dry grass. At such times, death isn't far from me ..."
Sappho's voice faded away as the sound of Phaon's laughter, joined by that of her companion, lifted above the ambient noise of the crowded room.
Gabrielle placed her hand gently on the poet's shoulder, bringing her out of the spell. Sappho smiled sheepishly, a blush rising up from her neck to color her cheeks.
"That's the second time I've seen you blush," Gabrielle observed with a grin. "It becomes you."
The red tint deepened as Sappho looked at the floor.
"She is beautiful, Sappho," Gabrielle said, giving her friend's shoulder a squeeze.
"Too beautiful," the poet commented, leaning back against the wall and scraping the floor with her sandal. "Much too beautiful to be interested in me."
Gabrielle leaned against the wall next to her, "Now, what makes you say such a thing?"
"Look at her!" Sappho flicked her arm in the table's direction. "She's the most beautiful woman in all of Pompeii. Everyday, she's here for the noon meal and every day she has a different man as her escort. Each one more handsome and more rich than the next."
"Sappho," the bard said, forcing the poet's gray eyes to meet her own. "Why her?"
"Because she's a wonderful person!" Sappho answered, her eyes lighting up. "She's educated and articulate, compassionate. She has a great sense of humor and you should see her dance! She can sing, too."
"Then I gather you've done more than just worship her from afar?"
The poet became embarrassed again and Gabrielle watched as Sapphos eyes drifted toward the floor. "Well, we've spent quite a bit of time together since I've been here."
"Really? Doing what?" Gabrielle poked her friend in the ribs.
"Nothing like that, Gabrielle," Sappho countered with a poke of her own. "Don't I wish. No, we've had noon meal, dinner, gone to parties, taken walks in the evening. Seen a few plays. Stuff like that. Whenever she has a spare moment, she lets me know and we manage to ... you know ... meet."
"That sounds very encouraging to me," Gabrielle commented with a grin.
The poet shrugged, "Yeah, well it's all been very platonic so far." She glanced over at Phaon with a wistful expression. "I just don't know if she's interested in me in any way other than as a friend."
Gabrielle bit her bottom lip to keep from chuckling. "Sounds familiar," she mumbled.
Sappho heard the comment and turned to face the bard. "That's why I thought you could help me. I figured you could watch us together, see how she acts. Maybe you'll be able to see what I can't. Sometimes you need someone from the outside to see the truth within."
Gabrielle nodded her agreement, studying the poet's face and noting the serious expression, the heart-wrenching concern in her eyes. No one knew more than Gabrielle how blind a person could be to her own situation. But the truth sometimes hurt, and she would hate to see the sensitive poet hurt once again by love.
"Sappho, what if I don't see what you're hoping for? What if all I see is a deep respect and friendship on her part for the world's greatest poet?"
"That's what I need to find out, Gabrielle. If that's what you see, then I want to know it. Don't spare the truth to save my feelings."
Greece's greatest poet placed her hands on the bard's shoulder, giving her friend the benefit of her patented smile.
"Of all the people in the known world, Gabrielle, I trust you most of all." She gave the bard's shoulders a squeeze. "I know you'll see the truth."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled back at her friend, "for trusting me."
They turned together to sneak another peek at the object of Sappho's desire just as the beautiful woman's eyes wandered over, recognizing their presence in the corner.
"Sappho!" Phaon called out with a wave and a smile, causing the entire tavern to react to the name.
The poet feigned surprise and waved back, speaking to Gabrielle through a wide smile. "Oops! Caught in the act."
"Liar. You know you wanted her to see you," Gabrielle observed hiding behind a wide smile of her own.
The poet spared the bard a quick look before they headed off toward the beckoning couple.
"Don't get carried away, bardie."
They worked their way through a maze of crowded tables, as the name of Sappho passed from patron to patron, floating through the room amid mumbled cries of recognition.
Sappho and Gabrielle joined Phaon and her escort at their table. It didn't take long for the party to grow from there. As usual, Sappho managed to attract a variety of artists and friends from all walks of Pompeian life, each anxious to share a drink with the most famous Greek artist of all.
Gabrielle sat at Sappho's side, sipping on sweet wine, thoroughly enjoying the lively conversation and laughter that was filling the room all around them. The banter was lighthearted. Jokes and gossip mixed with discussion of politics, art, and the latest in Pompeian fashion, which seemed to be leaning toward a shorter, more revealing, toga. Or so an adorable woman named Osiri claimed, standing to present her own designer frock which barely managed to cover her secrets. The table howled in appreciation.
This is what the bard craved - this interaction of artists in a congenial atmosphere. Friends sitting around a table, sharing wine and the latest gossip, trading stories and discussing plays. She watched Sappho, who was obviously in her element. Her wide smile and bright gray eyes sparkled silver with pleasure as she commented on an up-and-coming poet, always providing compliment and praise, never condescending or jealous towards another's accomplishments.
The bard was enjoying a particularly fascinating debate Sappho was having with Phaon regarding a recent play by Aristophones when they were joined by Paris at their table. The famous Pompeian mime pulled up a chair next to Gabrielle and quickly cut in on the conversation. Gabrielle was impressed. Both Phaon and Paris were well-versed in Greek classics and had a lot to say on the subject. The bard hadn't listened to such a lively discussion in ages.
Gabrielle sat back contentedly in her chair, drinking her wine and watching the interaction between Sappho and Phaon. The poet was so animated when she spoke, it was hard not to smile just watching her. Her eyes flashed when she disagreed. Her hands danced as she made a point. She threw her head back when she laughed.
Gabrielle chuckled as she drank her wine, turning her attention to Phaon. The woman beamed at Sappho, laughing in agreement at a point well made, tapping the table to make one of her own. There was no doubt that they were enjoying one another's company immensely.
The bard peeked at Phaon's escort, who had been introduced as Ceilus Secundus, a nobleman high in the ranks of the Roman Senate. Though he did not participate in the conversation, he did not seem to mind Phaon's attention toward Sappho. The man simply sat and drank from his goblet, apparently content to simply be surrounded by the artists of Pompeii.
Gabrielle missed this. Not that she ever had this in Poteidaia, but she missed the idea of just sitting and enjoying an afternoon. It seemed as though she and Xena had not done this in ... the bard thought back through the last few years. Had they ever done this at all? Gabrielle could not think of a time when she and her dearest friend had just sat at a table enjoying an afternoon amongst good friends. The bard was not afraid to admit that she needed this every once in awhile.
And so did Xena. Gabrielle suddenly found herself missing the warrior's presence, wishing Xena were by her side so she could be enjoying this as well. It might have erased the awful tension of last night's dinner and showed the better and brighter side of Pompeii.
"A ruby for your thoughts," Paris whispered, interrupting the bard's musing.
"Oh!" The comment startled the bard and she smiled at the mime. "I was just enjoying the conversation. And the wine." She lifted her cup in a quick toast and took a sip.
Paris returned the toast. "We do this every day in Pompeii. It's an artist's paradise, second only to Sappho's school!" the mime said loudly, gathering the attention of everyone at the table.
Gabrielle grabbed the poet's arm. "Your school? You started the school we talked about?"
"Started! It's more than just 'started'!" Paris scoffed. "Why it's the best school in the mortal realm. I hear even the gods are lining up to get in!"
The bard was enthralled. "Why Sappho, that's wonderful!"
The poet smirked, "I wouldn't let the gods in, even if they did apply. It is doing well. Thanks to you, Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle had something to do with your school?" Phaon asked.
"It was her idea!" the poet announced, slapping the bard proudly on the back.
"Gabrielle, how impressive!" the beautiful woman commented, sitting back in her chair.
The bard waved her hand in dismissal. "It was just an idea. Sappho was the one who had to make it a reality."
"Whadda ya mean, JUST an idea. It was a great idea," Sappho said, poking her ribs with an elbow. "In fact, it's such a good idea that I'm thinking of expanding. Maybe start extension courses. You know, degree by courier. Or open another school in Athens. Give that Academy of Bards some competition."
"Women only, Sappho?" asked a young lady from the other side of the table.
The poet shrugged. "Maybe I'll let some men into that one. Maybe. IF there are any GOOD male poets out there who apply."
"How will you run a school in both Lesbos and in Athens?"
"I'll just have to find someone else to run the place." Sappho lifted her cup to her lips and took a nice, long sip.
"Maybe Gabrielle here could run it for you?" Paris said, patting the bards shoulder.
Sappho looked at the bard from over the lip of her cup as she drank, raising an eyebrow.
Gabrielle looked at her hands. This was the crux of her problem, wasn't it? Did she want a life with Xena or one as an artist. An opportunity for a different destiny was being thrown in her lap. Was she willing to let it pass her by?
She just wasn't ready to let go ... of the chance for either.
So she shrugged, making her voice as noncommittal as possible. "Maybe."
The poet studied her friends face closely. "Gabrielle, are you really interested in running a school?"
The bard merely shrugged again.
"I think it's a great idea!" Phaon commented with a grin.
Paris nodded in agreement, "Might even enroll myself, if Gabrielle's going to be running it!"
The bard purposely avoided Sappho's penetrating stare, choosing to change the subject. She looked over to the empty stage instead.
"Are there going to be any more readings?"
Phaon reached across the table to give Sappho's hand a squeeze. "Will you sing for us?" she asked softly. Her eyes were shining at the poet in the dim candlelight.
Sappho gulped. How could she refuse such a request? She took a moment before responding, enjoying the contact of Phaon's skin upon her own, eyes memorizing the delicate curves of Phaon's face as they stared at each other grinning. If her skin got any hotter, the poet imagined she was going to burst into flames and burn down the tavern.
Get on the stage? Not a chance, thought Sappho, as she smiled at Phaon demurely. I'd much rather stay right where I am.
"I have a better idea," the poet announced, reluctantly taking her eyes and hand away from the beautiful woman.
The group held its collective breath.
"Let's hear Gabrielle tell a tale of Xena the Warrior Princess."
Four stories and two encores later, Gabrielle finally stepped from the stage shaking her head, refusing to tell yet another tale. Her throat was dry and she was getting light-headed from all the wine she had consumed while trying to keep her voice. The crowd was still applauding as she walked back to her companions.
"Truly marvelous!" Paris exclaimed. He was standing and still clapping as the bard returned to her seat. "And here I thought Xena was just a power-hungry warlord. You make her sound like a hero ... like Hercules."
"She is," Sappho replied quickly. "I happen to know that for a fact. I've seen Xena in action for myself."
"She seems like a beautiful and sensitive woman to me," Phaon commented, causing the Gabrielles head to snap around in surprise.
"She is," the poet replied, answering for the bard. "I've seen that for myself as well, although not many people have. Right, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was about to respond when Paris interrupted.
"Well, Xena scared the sarong off of me last night! I thought Popidius was going to lose his head!" the actor said, chuckling.
"Popidius wasn't the only one about to lose his head," Sappho mumbled and leveled a knowing gaze at the mime. Phaon, laughed heartily. She, too, had caught more than one lustful stare thrown in the bard's direction at dinner ... from both Xena and Paris.
The entire conversation was making Gabrielle very melancholy. She half listened as they continued, barely registering when the focus shifted to another topic. Turning around in her chair, she scanned the faces of the crowd still hovering around the stage looking for the one face she had thought she spied earlier.
Gabrielle had told the patrons some of her favorite adventures and the crowd had responded like a bard's dream. She could feel when their emotions changed along with the tone of her voice, could anticipate their reaction and pace her phrases accordingly. A hand movement, and their eyes followed. If she smiled, they smiled.
Gabrielle could tell that their hearts were racing with every battle scene; she heard them gasp at each plunge of a sword. And for every tender moment, there was an equally tender collective sigh.
She had become an expert in her craft. Gabrielle could recognize and admit to that now. Gone were her insecurities and she no longer worried or felt frightened whenever she stepped upon a stage.
Most of all, Gabrielle loved being a bard. Was this what she was meant to do with her life? Was this her dream, her heart's desire? And if so, then why did her eyes search the room, even as she was fulfilling that dream? Why had she imagined catching a glimpse of shining blue eyes watching her with pride as she stood on stage performing her craft?
She craned her neck to search the crowded room. What was the sense of fulfilling a dream if the one person she wanted to share it with was not present?
"Am I who I am or am I who you made me?" Gabrielle whispered to herself, still wondering about the answer to that question.
"You are who you want to be," Sappho answered, having heard the whisper.
"We have to be going," Ceilus said in an apologetic voice, rising from his chair. He extended his hand to Phaon and eased her up from her seat. The woman nodded briefly at Sappho as she followed her escort from the table and out of the tavern.
The poet watched as she was led away until Sappho could no longer see the pair, then turned to Gabrielle with an exasperated look.
"It's the same thing every day," the poet said with a sigh.
"What do you mean?"
"She comes every day, stays a few hours and then leaves."
"Well," Gabrielle said with a shrug, "it's only polite to leave with the person you came with."
"True. But why someone different each day?"
"She has a lot of friends?"
"Do you think he's just a friend?" She turned in her chair to watch them leave. "I wonder who he is to her and where she is going?"
"Why not ask her?" Gabrielle commented, taking the opportunity to search among the crowd one more time for her own friend.
Sappho slapped her hand down onto Gabrielle's forearm. "I have a better idea!" she announced, her smile widening across her face in a way that could only mean trouble.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, recognizing that expression all too well.
"Let's follow them!" the poet gleefully whispered, shaking Gabrielle's arm in excitement.
"Sappho!" Gabrielle pulled her arm away. "Do you want her to catch you *following* them? Like a lovesick ..."
"... Poet?" Sappho chuckled. "They won't catch us at it. I bet you're real good at tracking, right?"
"Well, yeah ... I am, if I do say so myself," Gabrielle admitted, humbly.
"Come on!" Sappho popped up from her chair, tugging Gabrielle up by the arm.
Paris turned away from his conversation in surprise. "Hey! Where're you going?"
"See ya later!" the poet said, pulling Gabrielle along, away from the disappointed actor and out of the Taverna of the Four Gods.
Paris watched as they departed, thinking of following. The mime shrugged to himself. There was no rush. There was still plenty of time left to woo Gabrielle of Poteidaia. By Saturnday night, the night of the Golden Ceres, the goddess would pair them for the ritual. He was certain of it. It was, after all, only natural.
Sappho pulled Gabrielle out of the tavern and hurried into the street. She looked first right and then left, until she spied the distinctive long, black hair of her quarry disappearing in the direction of the Forum.
"There she is!" The poet grabbed Gabrielle's hand and started off in the same direction.
"Wait a minute!" Gabrielle stopped short, pulling the poet back abruptly.
"Come on, Gabrielle! We'll lose them!"
"Just wait one minute!" The bard was looking across the street and Sappho followed her gaze until her eyes rested on a young boy playing with stones under the shade of an awning. "Wait here one second," Gabrielle said and then trotted across the road.
The boy had been watching Gabrielle discreetly, looking quickly back down at his stones when the bard's eyes turned in his direction. He pretended not to notice her.
"Hey!" Gabrielle said. The boy looked up, faking surprise.
She smiled down at the lad. "Remember me?"
"Sure," the boy replied. "You're the girl with hair the color of the sun."
The bard touched her hair and grinned. "Hmm. Thank you. What's your name?"
"Alessandro," the boy answered.
"Nice to meet you, Alessandro. My name is Gabrielle and I have a proposition for you. How would you like to make some coin?"
The boy sat up, raising his eyebrows in surprise. A stone dropped from his hand. "Er ... yeah ... sure. Um, what denomination?"
Gabrielle tilted her head, "What? Oh. Two denarius. Silver."
The boy nodded. "Whadda I have to do? No. Let me guess. You want me to follow someone?"
Smart kid. Gabrielle nodded. "Yup. You remember the warrior who paid you to follow me yesterday?"
The boy crossed his arms. "You mean the one with eyes the color of the sky?"
Gabrielle smiled. Very smart kid. "That's the one. She should be coming here. When she leaves, I want you to follow her. See where she goes. I'll meet you back here in one hour. Deal?"
The boy held out his palm. "Pay first."
"Pay now. I meet you later."
Gabrielle held out her hand, knowing that Sappho was now standing just behind her, listening to the conversation. The poet slapped one silver denarius into the bard's palm. Gabrielle flipped it to the boy.
"One now. The other later."
The boy caught it with a snap of his hand, inspecting the coin closely. He squinted up at the bard and nodded in agreement.
"Alessandro, you better be back here in one hour," Gabrielle said, pointing her finger in warning.
"Don't worry. I'll be here. No problem."
Sappho tapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. "Come on or we'll lose them!"
Together they took off in the direction of the Forum, leaving the boy to watch their retreating backs as they hurried down the street.
The lad looked at the money and sighed. At this rate, he was going to have to buy a bigger belt pouch.
Xena's howling laughter broke the silence of the dark night, causing Argo to jump, lift her head and stare at the warrior in surprise.
She laughed, head thrown back against the driftwood log, until she was forced to calm herself if she wanted to be able to breathe. She succeeding only in reducing her laughter to a chortle.
"Why that little scamp!" the warrior princess said, putting the scroll to the side and wiping a tear from her eye.
She turned to Argo. Her mare was watching with a quizzical expression.
"I had just paid him two MORE dinars to keep an eye on GABRIELLE!" the warrior explained to the horse.
Argo snorted, turning back down to finish pulling at a particularly crunchy and very satisfying piece of brush.
Xena shook her head, remembering the lad fondly and a little sadly.
"I wonder just how much money he made off of us that week?"
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