SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Mt. Vesuvius - Pompeii
Having reached the end of another scroll, Xena rolled the parchment carefully and placed it on the empty bedroll beside her. She leaned over and shuffled through a few of the others until she found the next one.
She didn't open the scroll right away. Instead, she stared at the flames, watching them flicker for awhile before she reached to grab more wood to feed the fire.
"Ya know, I was pretty mad at you for that, my bard," she said, pointing the stick in her hand at the flame, then tossing it into the center. The fire said nothing in Gabrielle's defense, merely crackling as it consumed the wood.
"Though I must say, you are very beautiful when you're angry." Xena smirked, then settled back against the log.
The warrior lifted her hands in exasperation. "Why in the world would you think that I would be interested in going to a brothel?"
Argo neighed loudly in the background, voicing a definite opinion.
"Be quiet, you!" Xena scolded the mare. "Those days are over and you know it!"
If the warrior hadn't known better, she could have sworn Argo had just thrown her a raspberry.
Xena fixed the blanket covering her legs and laughed. Her thoughts carried her away, back to that day in Pompeii. Closing her eyes, she brought the memories into clear focus so that her bard could see them and remember the day right along with her.
The warrior grinned, chuckling at herself as she remembered how angry she was as she stomped along the streets of the city heading back to the House of Vettii, mumbling the entire time.
"Oooh Paris, weren't you going to give me a tour of the theater?" Xena said, mocking the bard's sweet voice as she stomped away from the House of Julia Felix. "I'll give him a tour all right. An up close and personal tour of the pointy end of my sword!"
She was so busy talking to herself, she walked right by the two small figures who were huddled in an alcove of a building.
"What did she think I was there for? A little afternoon snack?"
The warrior stopped short.
"Ares' balls, that's exactly what she thought!" The sudden realization brought a look of dismay to the warrior's face. Stupid ... stupid ... stupid.
The colorful reference to Ares' anatomy brought a muffled snicker from the shadow of the alcove. Xena whirled around to find Alessandro and Hermia trying to stifle their laughter behind small hands.
They froze, eyes round, caught in the act by the Warrior Princess.
"What are you two doing here? I thought I told you to go home?"
And she had. When she was done at the Forum (and what a waste of time that was), she had found Alessandro and Hermia waiting for her at the entrance. She thought it fortuitous that they should be there and hoped that the children had seen her partner somewhere in the area. Not only had they seen Gabrielle, but they had led Xena right to the House of Julia.
The warrior paid them two dinars each for the information and then ordered them to go home immediately. Who knew what kind of clientele the brothel attracted?
"Well?" Xena arched an eyebrow at the pair.
Alessandro stood tall. "We ARE home."
Xena's eyebrow rose two notches higher.
"We live here."
The blue eyes narrowed to slits. "Right."
These two beautiful children, clean as shiny dinars, dressed in silk togas and leather sandals, did not live in this part of town - let alone at the House of Julia.
She grabbed the children by the scruffs of their necks and pulled them out of the alcove.
"All right. Come on." She dragged them along, refusing to release them no matter how much they wiggled, until the pair settled down and was keeping pace along side her.
Xena looked down to her right at the boy, who was rubbing the back of his neck and staring up in defiance. On her left, still holding her hand, his sister skipped happily along.
"This is not a safe area," she stated firmly.
"How would you know?" the boy replied, "I know this city better than you!"
"Ya do, huh?"
Alessandro nodded. Xena thought about this for a moment and then an idea sprang into her head.
"Tell me what you know about the Golden Ceres."
"The Golden Ceres?" the boy repeated, looking up at Xena in surprise. Forgotten was his anger, now that the warrior had brought up such an interesting topic.
"Yeah. Ever hear of it?"
Alessandro snorted. Of course he had heard of it. He also had heard that the Ceres had been stolen. He looked up at the warrior in speculation. Now, I wonder what she knows about that?
"The Golden Ceres was stolen," he informed her.
Xena rolled her eyes. "I know that. Tell me something I DON'T know. Something about the statue. Ya know, where it came from. Why it's so important. That kind of thing."
The boy scratched his head. "Well, it used to belong to the temple down near the tombs. The one the common folk worshipped at - it's not big or fancy like the nobles'. Merchants used to give tribute - wine, food and such to the statue in honor of Ceres. Then one year, Caesar came to Pompeii for the festival and took it from the temple so all the merchants would have to give their tribute to him." The boy shrugged. "The nobles have held on to it ever since."
The warrior's steps slowed until she had stopped completely.
"Are you saying that Caesar stole the statue from a temple?"
"Did I say steal?" Alessandro asked in all innocence and then looked around quickly to check for eavesdroppers. "You're not one of those Caesar-lovers, are you?" he whispered.
When the warrior's expression changed to a snarl, he grinned. "All right, all right. Neither am I. Yeah, he out and out stole it. But, now," the boy said, grinning wickedly, "the tables are turned because someone has stolen it from them!"
The way she was staring at him made the lad nervous. "Why are you looking at me like that? I didn't steal it!"
The corners of Xena's mouth lifted into a nefarious grin. "Oh, I know YOU didn't steal it."
She ran her tongue along the inside of her mouth, thinking.
Alessandro watched her eyes sparkle. He could almost see the thoughts whirling around in her head and he waited patiently, hoping upon hope that she would make him a part of her plan - whatever it was.
Finally, the warrior smiled and it seemed to Alessandro that the sun had just jumped out from behind a cloud.
"How would you like to make a lot more than two dinars?"
By the time Xena was done putting the first step of her plan into place, Gabrielle was already back at Vettii's home. Sappho had collected a small entourage of admirers and they were gathered in the triclinium drinking wine. The warrior could hear the bright tones of the bard's voice from all the way in the atrium, where she stood pondering which way to go: to her room or to Gabrielle. The bard was obviously in story-telling mode and when Xena made her way quietly to peek in the dining room, she found a small group of friends gathered intimately around the table, enthralled by the bard's performance.
Xena watched for a while from outside the room, leaning against the edge of the doorway and listening to the story. The bard was obviously enjoying herself, telling her tale to an appreciative audience instead of to an audience of one, usually grumpy, listener. Again, Xena could not help but believe that Gabrielle would be much, much happier if she pursued the life of a bard and left the hardships of being on the road with an ex-warlord far behind.
Xena watched as Gabrielle's gaze drifted across the room and suddenly their eyes locked together. The bard continued to tell the story, not missing a beat, but her eyes were looking right through Xena as though she could read the warrior's mind.
She's probably thinking the same thing, Xena thought to herself and pushed away from where she was leaning to walk off.
She went directly to her own room. It was not quite sunset and there was still a lot of light filtering in through the window. Removing her sword from her back, she threw it on the bed and walked over to the window to look out. The opening faced the northwest side of the city and provided a clear view of Mount Vesuvius as it towered majestically in the background.
Xena wondered if she should join the bard and her friends for dinner, then decided against it. Gabrielle appeared to be having a wonderful time in Pompeii, surrounded by friends and admirers, being asked to perform almost daily. The presence of the Warrior Princess would only take the spotlight away from her partner, and Gabrielle certainly deserved being at the center of attention for once.
So, rather than join Gabrielle for dinner, she stood at the window, staring at the volcano. The swirling smoke that rose in a steady stream from the mountain's peak help to distract her. Instead of worrying about her relationship with the bard, she found herself contemplating the path of the vapor as it twisted up and melded with the clouds in the sky.
She followed the trail of the smoke, its source filling her thoughts as she studied Vesuvius with a furrowed brow.
So intent on the volcano, Xena did not even hear the door to her room as it opened and Gabrielle stepped in. She didn't know how long the bard had stood there watching her watch the mountain before she spoke, but the sound of her name caused the warrior to jump a little before turning around.
"Xena?" the bard said softly and then raised her eyebrows in alarm, not expecting to have startled the warrior. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking." Xena walked over to the bed and picked up her sword, pretending to fix a clasp on the sheath.
The bard, who knew better, was not buying the performance. Shaking her head a little, she stepped into the room and closed the door.
"Xena." "Gabrielle." Each said the other's name at the same time and then chuckled in unison.
"You go first," the bard said.
"Nah, g'wan. You first," Xena countered, turning around to face her partner.
"I'm sorry about what happened in the pool. I was ... that was ... stupid of me. I just ... it just took me a little by surprise to see you there, that's all."
Xena arched a brow. "How do you think I felt?"
"I know. I realized that later. You know, it wasn't what you think. I wasn't there to ... you know ... to do what people do when they go to a place like that. It's just that Sappho ..."
Xena held up her hands for the bard stop. "You don't have to say a thing, Gabrielle. I was the one who left you in Sappho's care. I should have known the two of you would end up getting into some sort of trouble."
Gabrielle seemed a little disappointed. "What about trusting me enough to know that I would have no reason to be in a place like that unless I was there for a perfectly good reason - like to help a friend?"
Xena let her hands drop and turned away, throwing her sword back on the bed. "That goes without saying."
"But it would have made me feel better if you had said it."
Xena whirled back around more than a little annoyed. "You weren't very big in the 'giving the benefit of the doubt' department either, you know. Jumped to some pretty quick conclusions about the reasons for my being in a brothel, didn't ya?"
The bard, who was about to point her finger and voice a sharp retort, decided otherwise. "You're right," she admitted, then rolled her accusing finger back into a fist before letting it drop to her side. "I jumped pretty quickly ..."
"Yeah, right into the water," Xena said, and they both laughed, relieving the tension. "I don't think I've ever seen you run that fast!"
"Not all of us enjoy parading across a crowded room in nothing but their birthday suits ... unlike SOME people I know," the bard replied, blushing.
"Oh, is THAT why you ran so fast across that slippery floor? Because you were naked?"
"Yeah, why did you think?"
"Oh, I dunno. I thought maybe Labia Majora was after you ... "
They shared a good laugh until Gabrielle took a step closer and placed a tentative hand against her partner's arm.
"Once again, you came to my rescue."
"Hey, that's my job."
Gabrielle let her palm slip along the length of Xena's arm until she had a hand caught within her own and played with Xena's fingertips. "You must be getting tired of it."
"Not possible," Xena answered, not bothering to pull her hand away.
"So," Gabrielle said, getting a firmer grip and swinging their arms gently, "got any plans for tonight?"
Xena bit her lip, pretending to think. "Not sure. What are my options?" What was it she had been so worried about in their relationship? She could no longer remember.
Gabrielle lifted her eyebrows in speculation. "Well, personally," she said, pulling Xena forward and wrapping her other arm around the warrior's waist, "there is only one option I think that's even worth considering ..."
As though I would choose any other, Xena thought to herself. She was just about to lift the bard up into her arms and take her to bed when the sound of an urgent knock against the door filled the room.
"For the love of Zeus!" Xena said from behind clenched teeth. She pulled away from Gabrielle, but not by much. "Unless there's an army breaking down the door of Vettii's house, you better come back later," she yelled at whoever was risking their life by knocking on her door.
"How did you know?" Sappho's small voice croaked from the other side.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, one in irritation, the other in alarm. The irritated warrior growled and went to the door, swinging it wide open with an aggravated pull.
She found a small poet smiling sheepishly up at her.
"Well?" Xena's ever-expressive eyebrow arched.
"There's an small army at the door. They want to search the house."
Gabrielle walked quickly up to stand beside Xena, worry written all over her face. Had Caesar found out about their presence in Pompeii after all? "Who are they searching for?"
The poet rolled her eyes.
"Why for that gods-be-damned, pain-in-the-arse, stupid statue, of course!"
The small group of guards, twelve by Xena's count, followed Menander down the hall with Vettii in hot pursuit, yelling the entire time.
Xena, Gabrielle and Sappho were not far behind, following more out of curiosity than because their presence was required.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, walking quickly beside her partner.
Xena shrugged. "Beats me."
They were heading toward the rear of the dwelling to a place where they hadn't been before.
"I think we're going to the trophy room," Sappho responded, bringing up the rear of the group.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance and followed on in silence.
They came upon a double door at the end of the hallway and Menander turned the latches, shoving both doors open to reveal the inner sanctum of the House of Vettii. His guards marched in and began to search the room.
"Be careful in there!" Vettii yelled, running after them. "These are priceless collectibles!" He fluttered about from man to man, trying to protect his collectibles from being touched or, godsforbid, knocked over.
The rest of the group entered the chamber, looking around in amazement. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with the fruits of Vettii's obsession.
Xena smirked as she looked around. "Hmmpf! I thought he said he collected art and military artifacts."
Gabrielle picked up a small golden statue of two women engaged in a very erotic activity, in a very unusual position. "I guess this qualifies as art."
Xena snorted. "Is that what you call this?" She waved her hand around the room. Every spot on floor or wall was filled with erotic carvings, or statues, sex toys and fetishes of all shapes and sizes.
Xena picked up a string of golden ben wa balls and arched an eyebrow. "Solid gold? Gotta be cold."
"But expensive," Sappho commented from behind the warrior. When Xena turned around to smile, the poet had taken the stance of a swordsman armed with a weapon of a very phallic nature.
"I do believe my sword is bigger than the warrior princess', " the poet announced, whipping her 'weapon' from side to side with glee.
"Wanna bet?" Gabrielle deadpanned. Their laughter attracted the nobleman's attention.
"Put that down!" Vettii yelled at the three of them, running carefully around a set of hand-blown glass leeching cups and a set of silver lancets to grab the dildo away from Sappho. "This is a very rare item!"
"Rare?" Xena said with a snort as the item was grabbed out of Sappho hands. "I've seen a million of 'em."
"I bet you have!" Sappho quipped, then let out a cry of protest as Gabrielle poked her in the butt with her staff.
The guards were finishing their inspection of the room, predictably having found nothing. Menander was turning red and Vettii had placed himself in the center of the room, looking as smug as a fetish bug in a rug.
"It's not here, Menander," the nobleman stated. "I did not steal the statue!"
"I'll tear this place down stone by stone if I have to!" Menander sputtered as he picked up a marble statue rendition of a hermaphrodite and looked underneath to search for clues. Vettii stomped over to the man and pulled the statue out of his hand.
"I said I did not steal it!" Vettii caressed the breasts and penis of the statue with loving care, staring at it affectionately. "Why in Jupiter's name would I steal it when I was going to win it anyway?"
Xena was watching the interaction with a smug expression - too smug for Gabrielle to miss. The bard stepped up beside her partner and leaned against her arm. "Xena, do you know something I don't know?" she asked in a whisper.
"Usually." Xena gently pushed a fuming Gabrielle aside by the shoulder and sauntered over to the arguing men.
"That's quite a tradition you've got going here, isn't it?" Xena commented to the two men. "Figures that Caesar would start such a thing."
They both turned to face her, insulted by the tone of voice.
"What do you mean?" Vettii asked defensively.
"Steal an effigy of Ceres from her own temple, then keep the tributes for yourselves."
"Does it matter where the tribute is given? It's still done in the name of the goddess," Menander explained. "And we didn't steal it. We're just borrowing it."
"Then give it back."
"Why would we do that? Besides, the contest is fun! A bit of competition! Surely, you can appreciate a battle of wits?"
"Oh yeah, I can appreciate it, all right. But if you ask me, if it were a battle of wits, ya'd both lose." The corner of Xena's mouth curved into a half-grin, matching the arch of her eyebrow. "Personally, I'm not betting on either of you this year."
And with that, Xena turned away taking several long, slow strides in the direction of the door.
"I know where you're hiding it!" Menander exclaimed, turning to sneer at his rival. "You have it in that secret room!"
The fat nobleman took off bouncing toward the back of the large trophy chamber, heading for a door barely visible amongst the clutter of Vettii's collection.
Reacting in panic, Vettii rushed off after his peer.
"No, by Jupiter, Menander, wait! It's not in there, I swear. Don't open that door."
Xena pushed passed Sappho and Gabrielle, following the two Pompeians with a perplexed look on her face.
Menander opened the small door and disappeared within. Vettii twirled around and put up his hands to stop Xena's approach.
"Now trust me, Xena, you don't need to go in there. The statue is not there. It's just a closet."
The warrior brushed the nobleman aside and disappeared within, followed immediately by Gabrielle and then Sappho.
Xena blinked so she could adjust to the light. The interior was dimly lit, like a shrine, and the room was a lot larger than she had expected for such a small door. This inner chamber contained Vettii's most private collection and it was obvious how much he valued it by the care taken in the presentation of its displays.
The warrior walked up to a collection of four swords and four knives, arranged symmetrically on the wall, and instantly recognized them as her own. The saber belonged to Xena when she led her first army, mostly young men from Amphipolis, conquering the villages surrounding her homeland and attacking mostly by the sea. It had, no doubt, been commandeered by Caesar after his betrayal. Now it was a trophy hanging on a Roman nobleman's wall. The warrior's expression darkened.
She moved to the next display, inspecting a series of standards and banners, all her own, in their many incarnations. There was the red one with her purple X. Then the black one with the silver sword dripping blood, from her days with Borias. And there were several of her most well-known banners; two simple flags, one atop the other on a pole - different shades of purple. There had been no need for symbols by that time. The world knew her flag and the color was bright enough to be seen for leagues. The collection brought distinct memories flooding back to the warrior. Her army charging, her standard flapping violently in the wind - the same wind that had whipped through her hair. Some of the poles still had dirt on them from when they had been plunged victoriously into the earth, the signal of success, a symbol of her strength, the banner of the Destroyer of Nations.
There were several outfits of armor displayed as well, spread out in perfect presentation as though suspended by an invisible body. Rough skins and a beaded vest, a long cape, torn and ripped all along the bottom, a hand-hammered chestplate too primitive to be decorated with lavish engravings. There were other chestplates from a time of greater wealth; those were jeweled and intricately designed, befitting a warlord of her stature. It was armor once worn by a woman who might have, one day, ruled the world. Xena stared at each of them, thinking she could just step into them, right at this moment, and they would still fit perfectly.
The next display presented Xena with a row of tall spears - tall enough to plant in the earth while riding a horse - with spikes long and sharp enough to hold the severed head of a man, a warning for the world to see and heed. Some of the spears still had blood crusted on the tips.
Xena's head reeled and she stepped away from the sight, bumping into Gabrielle, who was following behind her partner, staring at the displays in awe. The warrior blanched when she saw the bard.
She whirled away, trying to not see the expression on Gabrielle's face as the bard looked at the blood-covered spikes, only to find herself staring at yet another display. This one a map, one of many she used for her attack plans against Corinth. Xena stared at the map, reading the side notes and scribblings, instantly recognizing her own bold handwriting. Next to it was a missive, also written by her hand. It was a typical ultimatum, written often and without any feeling at all, and one that Xena clearly remembered: Surrender or pay a terrible price.
She reached out with a shaking hand to touch the wax that was still hanging off the end of the note. Although it couldn't be seen, Xena was more than positive that it would carry her seal, a seal she still had with her to this very day. She jumped when she felt Gabrielle brush against her side, walking up to read the note.
Xena didn't think there was anymore air left in the room. The walls began to close around her. She looked at the bard with such a tortured expression that Gabrielle instinctively reached out to touch her arm, trying to calm her.
Xena jumped away, recoiling from the touch. She turned her back on her friend and faced the opposite wall, not wanting to watch as her partner got to see, first hand, the proof of her many atrocities. Here on display was her entire life as a warlord.
Closing her eyes, she took deep breaths, trying not to lose control and smash everything in sight. After a moment, she reopened them and found herself staring impossibly at the one thing she had never wanted to see again as long as she lived.
Her eyes widened in horror as she was confronted with a single item, set off from the others, on display under a special soft light in the center of the wall. It would have meant nothing if it had not meant so much. It was just a simple wooden crutch - hip high and well worn, hanging on the wall.
Xena took a stumbling step back, bumping into Vettii and practically knocking down Sappho.
The man smiled proudly as she turned to face him. What she really wanted to do was take one of those spears and put his head on it.
"Well, as you can see, I have quite the collection in your honor." Vettii lifted his arms and motioned around the room with pride. "It's taken me years to collect many of these things, some at great price, let me tell you."
Xena's nostrils flared. Gabrielle stepped forward and placed a comforting hand on her arm. "Xena," she said softly. It seemed to have an effect - a little, just enough to prevent the nobleman from being beheaded.
"I'm sorry, but I don't have much after you changed your ... focus," Vettii said, smiling apologetically. "I have a handle from a broken sword ... I think it's yours. Oh, and I managed to get a harp with broken strings. The man I bought it from told me you broke them yourself trying to play it. Is that true?"
There was no response from Xena. Only labored breathing.
"I'm trying, though. I do want my collection to be well-rounded, after all."
Sappho was staring at the man incredulously, shaking her head at his out-and-out stupidity.
"I'm a little unsure of some of the items," Vettii continued while stepping over to a table. He unrolled a map and looked at it under the light. "For example, I've been having trouble authenticating this one." He turned it toward Xena and she found her eyes drifting down to look at the parchment. "There's only a circle around a village and one word. I couldn't tell if it was your writing. I thought maybe you might recognize it. Perhaps, you would sign it for me. It would mean so much to me if I could add your autograph to my collection."
Xena instantly recognized the handwriting instantly as her own. There was a circle drawn around a small, unnamed village. She had scribbled its name by her own hand as a potential target. 'Poteidaia.'
She slammed her fist down, tearing the map out of Vettii's grip and smashing it onto the table with such force that Gabrielle thought the table was going to shatter under the impact.
"I don't do autographs," Xena said, choking out the words in an angry growl. Then she pushed the table and all of its contents over onto the floor. She had to restrain herself from breaking Vettii's shoulder as she pushed by him and marched out of the room.
Gabrielle took one look at Sappho then rushed out of the chamber, ignoring the toppled table and its scattered contents.
"Vettii," the poet said, hands on hips, her silver eyes flashing anger, "you have GOT to be the biggest asshole in the known world!"
And with that the poet hurried out of the room in pursuit of her friends.
The nobleman stood alone in his shrine to the Warrior Princess, shaking his head, barely understanding Xena's reaction. He looked down at the table and the map, wondering at the anger he had seen in the warrior's eyes.
"Well, it's not my fault if she wrote it. It's not my fault if these are her things," he said to himself in his own defense and kneeled to pick up the items that were strewn across the floor.
Vettii nodded to himself, thinking back on Xena's reaction. He looked up at a shadowed archway that led to another small room, just to the left of the crutch. Barely visible in the scant light was the base of something big leaning against the wall.
It was a good thing he had decided to move that cross out of the room after all.
Dawn invaded the darkness shrouding Pompeii, turning the sky from empty black to a wash of colors that bathed the city in translucent hues. The city shimmered in the coming light; walls shifted as clouds briefly passed across the rising sun, sending flickering shadows against pale pink stone.
Vesuvius towered over all, its thin line of smoke snaked up through golden rays, a stairway to the gods. A flock of birds shifted sharply in flight to avoid the column of vapor. It sent them flying in a path across the sun, their numbers creating a shadow that moved over the streets of Pompeii as they flew through the sky heading west, toward the sea.
Xena watched the flock fly by from her perch atop the roof of the House of Vettii. She had gone up there after leaving the trophy room wanting to avoid everyone, even Gabrielle. Most of all, Gabrielle.
She had spent the rest of the night sitting on the roof, first studying the stars, then watching Vesuvius. The mountain loomed in the background, standing in silent judgment over them all.
Xena tried to imagine life without Gabrielle, for surely the bard would leave her now. Her time as a warlord was no longer a ghostly memory, but solid and real, resurrected into the present by a roomful of relics from the past.
The shades of night were gone and the day was at hand. Time for Xena to face her future and acknowledge, once and for all, that no matter how hard she tried, she would never be able to escape her past.
She made an easy flip from the roof, landing on the stones of the street with a thud that echoed down the empty boulevard. Shifting shoulders to strengthen her resolve, she strode to the gate and entered the house.
It was quiet; everyone apparently still asleep. Xena walked down the empty hallway, pausing before the bard's bedroom door then deciding against entering. She walked the rest of the way down the hall to return to her own room.
When she opened the door to her room, she found Gabrielle inside, sleeping in a chair, their bags packed and ready, sitting on the bed. Xena stared, first at the bard and then at the bags, wondering at their significance. Was Gabrielle waiting to tell her good-bye?
The warrior walked into the room and stood over her friend, watching her sleep in the chair. The sun chose that moment to slip a ray in through the window and tickle Gabrielle's soft cheek. Her eyes twitched briefly in the sunlight and then she shifted with annoyance in the chair.
Xena watched all this in silence, wondering how in the world she was ever going to live without her. Maybe she should get down on her knees and ask her forgiveness? Again.
The very presence of her partner seemed to work its way through Gabrielle's dreams, nudging her awake. Green eyes opened, sparkling in the ray of sunlight as she looked up at the friend who was quietly watching over her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's sleepy smile lifted the warrior's spirits. The bard sat up in the chair and rubbed her eyes. "Are you all right?"
Xena frowned at the question and turned away.
"I'm fine. What's all this?" she said, motioning toward the bags on the bed.
Gabrielle came fully awake and sat up in the chair. "It's our stuff. I packed while you were gone so we could get out of here as soon as possible."
"We?" Xena asked, turning around to face the bard.
Gabrielle's eyebrows knotted together. "Of course, 'we.' What did you think? I was gonna let you leave without me?"
Xena's mouth was hanging slightly open, speechless for a moment. "Gabrielle, how can you even look at me, let alone want to leave Pompeii with me?"
Gabrielle stared at Xena in confusion. "Xena, what are you talking about?"
"Last night. All those things you saw," Xena said in distressed tones. "That was all proof of the reality of my past, Gabrielle. Of who I am."
"Who you WERE," the bard stated clearly. "By the gods, Xena, after all we've been through." She shook her head and stood. "How could you think a few dusty old clothes and rusty old weapons were going to change the way I feel about you."
"NO, BUTS!" The bard pointed her finger up at her partner. "I mean it, Xena. The things in that room have nothing to do with who you are now. The woman who wore those clothes, killed with those weapons, leaned on that crutch ... she's dead. Dead and buried. I just wish you would leave her in the grave and STOP trying to resurrect her, 'cause if you're doing it to try to get rid of me, I have to tell you it's just not gonna work."
Xena watched the tirade in complete silence, thinking that she had, once again, underestimated her partner. By the gods, Gabrielle was beautiful when she was mad. The warrior found a smile growing on her lips before she could stop herself.
"Now lets GET our things, GET Argo, and GET the Hades out of this bacchae-infested, Caesar-loving, piss-house of a city before I do something I'm really going to regret, like ... what are you smiling at?"
"We're not going."
"We're not leaving."
"Why not? I thought you would want to get out of here."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Just what are you up to?"
"I have a plan."
The bard lowered her finger. "You have a plan. Of course, you have a plan. Why wouldn't you have a plan? You always have a plan. You're not going to burn Vettii's house down, are you?"
Xena narrowed her eyes at her partner. "Do you want to hear my plan or not?"
The bard put her hands on her hips and looked at the warrior with suspicion. "Does this have anything to do with the Golden Ceres?"
Xena's smile lit up her entire face. "Gabrielle, have you ever heard the expression, revenge is a dish best served at a festival?"
The bard's eyebrows disappeared into the bangs of her hair.
"I was forever underestimating you, wasn't I, Gabrielle?" Xena said to the stars, opening her eyes to gaze at the heavens and wondering again which one might be her bard shining back at her.
"The gods know, you had already gotten a good enough taste of the warlord over this last year. And you were still with me. I can't believe I thought you would leave me just because of a few old things hanging on a wall."
She thought back to Vettii's trophy room, to the shrine of the Destroyer of Nations and all of the souvenirs of a warlord hanging in places of honor on a rich man's wall. They were lost to the world now, sentenced by the judgment of a mountain god to an eternity buried deep within the bowels of the earth.
"Where they belong," Xena said, finishing the thought aloud.
"I'm so quick to blame everything on my past. If you had ever decided to leave me, chosen another path, it wouldn't have been because I was once a warlord, would it? I wonder how I would have dealt with that, or if I would have even admitted it to myself?"
Xena shook her head to clear all the "what ifs" from her brain, then picked up the next scroll from her lap and began to read.
SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
The Amphitheater Pompeii
(Home of the Gladiatorial Games)
Sappho hustled along Via Stabia heading in the direction of the market. Her thoughts were filled with the beautiful woman Phaon and what securing her freedom might mean for the two of them. Of course, it wasn't certain that Phaon would want to leave with her or was even interested in her as more than a friend, but Sappho was willing to take a chance. If it took a million dinars to bribe Julia Felix then that's what Sappho was willing to pay.
A million dinars or, perhaps, one golden statue of Ceres.
The poet knew, without a doubt, that Xena had stolen that statue. Sure as she knew how to play a lyre, she knew that the Warrior Princess was involved up to her beautiful blue eyeballs in this sordid little affair. The question was, where would a Warrior Princess hide a Golden Ceres?
After all, it wasn't as if Xena knew many people in Pompeii. The statue was not at Vettii's house, that much was certain. So the question was, who else had Xena met since coming here who would be willing to help her?
Scooting around the corner onto Via Dell'Abbondanza, she spotted two children playing an innocent game of sticks and stones under the shade of an awning in the cool morning breeze.
Xena and Gabrielle strolled along Via Stabia heading in the direction of the market. They planned to spend a relaxing day, meandering through the city. Perhaps they would bathe together at one of the public pools or have lunch in a nice outdoor cafe. By then, Vettii's house would be empty and quiet, and they could sneak back in to enjoy the rest of the afternoon rediscovering a part of their relationship that they both had thought lost forever.
Gabrielle's staff clicked a happy rhythm in syncopation with their light steps as they walked along the street. She looked up at Xena and smiled. The warrior's black hair was flowing in the cool morning breeze and her eyes were sparkling in the bright sunshine. Sometimes, Gabrielle thought, just the simple act of walking beside her partner made the whole world seem right.
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle, catching the bard staring at her. "Watch where you're going, you'll trip over something."
Gabrielle couldn't resist. She wrapped her hand around Xena's arm, just above the elbow, lightly caressing the soft skin she found there. "Can't I walk and ogle you at the same time?"
"Not if you're going to step on the Pompeians," Xena replied with a grin and pulled Gabrielle to a stop before she could step on the legs of a beggar who was sitting against a wall.
"Hello, Gabrielle!" the beggar said. Ceres, the dog, wailed her tail.
Xena raised her eyebrow.
"Hello to you!" the bard replied with a smile. "And to you, too!" she added, including the dog with a pat on the head. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. You and your friend off to market?"
"Actually, we were thinking about getting something to eat."
"Try Diana's Bow. Turn right on Viccolo DiEumachia just ahead. I think you'll both like it."
Gabrielle grinned, "Thanks. Maybe we will."
"You're welcome," the beggar said, extending his hand, palm up, and smiling.
"Oh. Right." She gave Xena a nudge. The warrior was jerked out of a daydream and looked down at the extended palm.
With reluctance, Xena reached into her cleavage and produced a small pouch, out of which she drew a single silver dinar. She reached down to place the coin into the palm of a now very happy beggar.
It was halted abruptly by bony pale fingers which wrapped themselves around the warrior's strong wrist. Xena looked up in surprise into the face of a hag staring at her in anger.
"You'll give up too easily, warrior!" the old woman said in a raspy whisper, her eyes flashing with hostility.
Xena froze, staring at the craggy face which suddenly burst into a toothless smile. The old hag released her wrist, cackling at the look of alarm on the warrior's face.
"You'll give up too easily!" The old hag yelled and pointed an accusing finger in Xena's direction. She stumbled away from a stupefied warrior in a fit of laughter.
"What in Hades was that all about?" Xena asked, watching the old woman as she staggered down the street.
"That's just Portia. She's crazy. Don't let her bother you," the beggar answered, not wanting the distraction to prevent him from getting his tip. He raised his hand up a bit higher until it finally got the warrior's attention.
"This whole damn city is crazy, if you ask me," Xena said as she slapped the coin down into the dirty palm. "Come on, Gabrielle. Let's go."
Xena stomped off without looking back.
The bard leaned on her staff with a sigh. "Great. Just when I thought it was going to be a nice day." She shook her head sadly and followed her partner.
"Xena, slow down!" Gabrielle called out. The warrior halted her steps and waited for the bard to catch up.
"You didn't let that crazy old woman upset you, did you?" the bard asked as she placed a comforting hand on the warrior's arm.
Xena's expression told her that she had. Gabrielle grinned. "Come on, you probably just need something good and warm in your stomach."
"Yeah, like a big goblet of that good, spicy hot wine they have here." Xena sniffed and let herself relax. "Only good thing about Pompeii is the wine."
"Yeah, and the stuffed clams aren't so bad either. I'm starving! Let's get something to eat. When was the last time you ate, anyway? Or slept for that matter? I swear Xena, if I didn't watch you every second you'd keep going until you dropped from exhaustion or hunger or both!"
The warrior allowed herself to be led in the direction of the nearest cafe by a very persistent bard.
"Like Sappho says," Xena replied with a grin, "plenty of time to sleep when you die."
Gabrielle regarded her with a frown. "That's not funny and I never did find it funny, and I'd appreciate if you would never repeat it again because I never will find it funny."
Xena pursed her lips. "Whatever you say."
"Now that, I like!"
"Speaking of a satyr," the warrior mumbled under her breath as Sappho came running up to them.
The poet took a few moments to catch her breath and then grabbed at Xena's arm. "Come on! There's something going on I know you are just going to love!"
Xena pulled her limb out of the exuberant poet's grasp. "We've already got plans."
"Xena, believe me. You are NOT going to want to miss this opportunity!" Sappho pleaded.
"Sappho," Gabrielle said, trying to get the poet to read in between the lines. "We already have something fun to do today."
"Oh really? More fun than ... say ... kicking half a stadium full of pompous Pompeian butt?" Sappho replied, hands on her hips, staring directly at the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle sure knew the answer to that one, but Xena gently pulled her arm away from the bard. A very wicked grin spread across beautiful features as Xena took a step closer to the poet.
"Just where do I have to go?" she asked as her eyes flashed with an evil glint.
Large Palestra - Pompeii
Sappho led them toward the House of Julia Felix, almost to the Porta Sarino before making a right turn. They found themselves staring at the amphitheater of Pompeii - the huge arena used for sports and gladiator contests, hunts and battles with wild animals, spectacles of the type which had been introduced to Pompeii by the Romans.
These exhibitions were so popular that the amphitheater was built big enough to hold the entire population of the city in one sitting. Gabrielle sucked in her breath, thinking that Sappho was leading them to Pompeii's version of the Coliseum so that Xena could participate in one of these brutal events. This would be the last place in Pompeii that she would want to go.
Much to the bard's relief, they avoided the huge arena completely and turned, instead, to an equally large building that filled their vision just to the right of the amphitheater. It consisted of an enormous square surrounded by a high wall complete with battlements. On the inside, along three sides, was a portico of Ionic columns. In the middle was a large swimming pool around which grew a double row of tall trees.
The pool, however, was not the center of activity. For surrounding it on four sides was a meticulously groomed lawn bordering the pool with luscious green. And on this field, which stretched out in all directions the full length from the pool to the portico, were men participating in all manner of athletic games, from archery to wrestling.
"This is the Grande Palestra," Sappho informed them. "The exercise field of the noblemen. Today is games day. They're getting their minds and bodies ready for the big festival tomorrow night." Sappho took a step closer to the warrior, watching her as she observed the physical activities occurring on the field with keen interest. "I'm willing to bet there isn't an ugly butt out there that can beat the Warrior Princess." Sappho wiggled her eyebrows at Xena when the warrior looked over in her direction.
"Wanna go in?" Sappho suggested, grinning widely.
Xena pushed her aside and strolled into the Grande Palestra. Sappho took a step to follow, rubbing her hands in anticipation, but Gabrielle grabbed her friend and pulled her to the side.
"Thanks a lot, Sappho!" the bard whispered angrily.
"What? I thought she would enjoy the opportunity."
"We had other plans for the afternoon."
"Well," Sappho said with a smirk and a poke in the bard's ribs. "Imagine what fun you'll have after she gets through with 'em. I imagine her juices will really be going after this!"
Gabrielle leaned on her staff and watched the poet run after Xena into the Palestra.
"Hmmpf," Gabrielle said to herself, a knowing grin lifting the corners of her mouth into a full smile. "She's right about that."
By the time Gabrielle trotted up to stand beside the warrior, an argument had already begun. Apparently, Xena was not welcome on the playing field. There was a small group of men, naked save for the cotton wraps that protected their valuables. One short, wiry man held a scroll and was writing down the names of participants as they entered the playing fields. He was shaking his head at the warrior and staring up at her sternly.
"Explain it to me one more time," Xena repeated slowly, her voice dropping to a dangerous growl.
"There's nothing to explain," the man squeaked, then cleared his voice to sound more commanding. "The rules say no womenfolk on the playing field."
"No womanfolk, you say? And why is that?"
"Because that's the law!" A large, overweight man bellowed in support of his comrade.
The sight of a woman in leather and the ensuing argument was quickly getting the attention of everyone on the field. Several of the games had ceased and small groups of men were meandering toward the excitement.
"Are you telling me that you are afraid to let women participate in these games?" Xena said, taking a step so close to the small man that he had to look up at her - way up.
"We're not afraid," the man choked out in reply.
"Oh no?" Xena asked as she took another step even closer, causing the man to practically stumble over.
The larger nobleman stepped up, catching his friend by the armpits.
"Why in Jupiter's name would we be afraid to let women play?" he said loudly, loud enough for everyone who had gathered to hear. He smiled in satisfaction at Xena as the crowd answered with laughter.
"Then you're not afraid of women?"
Xena's question was answered by more guffaws and laughter.
Xena looked the fat nobleman dead in the eyes. "Then it's just ME you're afraid of?"
The fat man gulped, his expression revealing that maybe he should be, but his mouth responded before he could think.
"We are not afraid of you or anyone!"
"You're not?" Xena replied loudly, letting her voice echo above the men. The replies confirmed the brazen statement.
By this time, both Vettii and Menander had made their way over to the crowd, which was growing by the second.
Xena looked at Vettii and smirked. Before the nobleman could warn any of his compatriots whom they were up against, she turned to face the man with the scroll.
"Then I challenge the noblemen of Pompeii to a contest!"
There was laughter mixed with howls of outrage.
The fat man quieted the crowd with his arms and stepped up to the leather-clad woman with a grin.
"You. You are challenging a Palestra full of Pompeii's finest athletes to a contest?"
Xena looked around at Pompeii's finest.
"Oh, yeah. You bet."
"You and what army?" The fat man's sarcastic question caused another round of scathing laughter.
"Just little ol' me."
Xena's expression revealed no reaction to the cynical chortles that rolled through the crowd.
Vettii took a step forward and tapped the fat man on the shoulder, "Excuse me, Flabius, but do you have any idea who this is?"
Flabius pushed Vettii away. "Who cares? How dare a woman make such a brazen challenge in front of all the noblemen of Pompeii! I say we put her in her place!" He took a step closer to Xena. "What's the challenge?"
Xena stepped away from the man and began to pace the circle that had gathered around her. She talked loudly, so that everyone could hear, even the women who were gathering in the seats over the portico in the balconies above.
"I challenge the law of Pompeii that says women cannot exercise on the fields of the Grande Palestra. I'll go up against your best man in each of your main events, whatever they may be."
"Ask her what the stakes are, Umpiricus," Flabius demanded, poking the little man holding the scroll with an elbow.
"What are the stakes?" Umpiricus asked.
"The stakes are, I win in every event. If I do, then from now on women shall be allowed access to the field."
"And if you lose?" asked Umpiricus. He had been writing down the challenge even as the woman spoke the words.
"If I lose?" Xena repeated, stepping towards him with a sneer. "If I lose, then you will have the honor of being the first to ever beat me in competition."
Umpiricus snorted. "What kind of stakes are those? Who are you anyway?"
"The name's Xena," the warrior replied, stepping up to look over the little man's shoulder. "That's Xena with a capital X!"
The quill suddenly began to tremble as he scratched out the terms of the agreement,
Flabius' jaw dropped open. The crowd became silent. Sappho was jumping up and down on her toes, rubbing her hands together with glee.
"This is going to be GREAT!" the poet exclaimed.
The crowd parted as the group of officials, followed closely by the Warrior Princess walked toward the first event on the playing field.
"There are five main athletic disciplines," Umpiricus explained. "There's the discus, the spear, the broad jump, archery and wrestling."
Xena nodded her head as the man talked, her eyes scanning the field looking for the areas of each particular event. She could see they were approaching the area designated for the discus throw on the right side of the field.
Already the field was emptying, a crowd forming around the edges to watch the challenge. Up above them, in the balconies overlooking the field, women were gathering. The once small crowd was growing slowly as news of the challenge was already making its way through the rumor mill of the city.
Gabrielle took Xena's sword as the warrior removed it from her back. There was a slight wind and Xena's hair was flowing gently in the breeze. Gabrielle could see her blue eyes sparkling with happy anticipation. There was no doubt that her warrior was enjoying this immensely.
The bard had to laugh to herself. Xena was about to kick their collective butts. Sappho was right. This was going to be GREAT!
Umpiricus stepped up to the discus-throwing square and stood in its center.
"Xena the Warrior Princess has challenged the noblemen of Pompeii to a contest on the fields of the Grande Palestra! In the name of Ceres, in whose honor we train for the upcoming festival and Jupiter, King of All Gods, and in the name of Mars, who gives us strength to endure all challenges, we hereby accept the terms of the contest as stated!"
"The first of five events is the discus toss. The city's champion is Frisbius! Step forward Frisbius and stand in the name of Pompeii!"
A tall, muscular man stepped forward, waving to the cheering crowd and shooting Xena a leering smile. He had, in his hands, a round disc the same size as Xena's chakram, but solid and made of heavy clay. He shifted it confidently in his hands, letting Xena see that it was a lot heavier than it looked.
The warrior smiled indulgently at the display and put her hands on her hips. She was not impressed.
Frisbius stepped into the center of the bordered square. He flexed his muscles, put the discus in the palm of his right hand and heaved his arm back once, then twice. On the third swing, he allowed his body to follow his arm and heaved with all of his might, letting the clay saucer fly.
All eyes watched the spinning disc hover in the air, covering an amazingly long distance before it crashed into the lawn, taking a good bit out of the grass. The men erupted into applause. Umpiricus paced out the distance, checking familiar marker points as he stepped.
"101 paces!" he announced and scratched out the number with his quill.
The men cheered. The women in the balcony argued worriedly.
Frisbius stepped out of the throwing area and waved to his fans. He watched with a smirk as Xena was handed a new discus, chuckling at her surprise as she checked the weight of it out in her hands.
The warrior removed the far lighter chakram from her belt and handed to Gabrielle. The bard looked at the weapon and then at the discus which appeared to be so much heavier in the warrior's hands. However was she going to throw that thing?
Xena stepped up to the square, took her place in the middle, and centered the discus in the palm of her hand.
Instead of dropping her right arm back, as Frisbius had done, she dropped it across her body, swinging it down, letting her entire body dip at the knees and lift back up. She bent once, twice and the third time a huge grunting heave brought her arm snapping around with so much force, her entire body twirled around once, using the momentum to send the disk airborne.
It screamed through the air, making a noise never heard before in the history of the Palestra. The discus bounced off a column on the right side of the playing field, shot straight across the lawn and over the pool, trimming several branches from the bordering trees as it whizzed by.
It hit a marble bust of Caesar right in the nose, cracking it off with a resounding thud and a shower of flying sparks, which sent the discus careening directly for a group of watching bystanders. They all ducked as the projectile screamed just over their heads.
It hit the back of the playing field, just above the main entrance, which propelled it right at the head of Umpiricus, whose papers were tossed in every direction as he had to duck and cover.
With a heavy thud, the discus embedded itself into the dirt of the lawn exactly one pace further than where Frisbius' saucer had landed.
The audience of women watching in the balconies above burst into cheers.
Umpiricus looked up from his prone position, his nose covered with grass.
"How am I to measure that?!"
Frisbius was furious. "That throw is invalid! Her style was unorthodox!"
Xena adjusted her skirt and retrieved her chakram from a very proud bard.
"I threw it, didn't I?"
Umpiricus lifted himself up from the grass, brushed himself off, picked up his scroll and quill, and trotted over to the embedded disc.
The Palestra waited in absolute silence for the verdict to be given.
Umpiricus looked up and announced.
"The discus toss goes to Xena, Warrior Princess by one pace!"
The gallery of women screamed its approval. Gabrielle looked up at the noise, seeing that the number of onlookers was quickly growing to epic proportions.
The men on the field burst into packs of grumbling arguments. But the referee was adamant and ignored all the yells of dispute as he passed by.
"The next event is the javelin throw!" he announced and stomped off in the direction of that part of the playing field.
Xena left the distraught Frisbius pounding his fists into the dirt. All grumbling ceased as the group moved en masse.
Umpiricus stopped at a chalk border line and stood to face the crowd.
"The second event is the javelin throw, in the ancient tradition of the great hunters of Pompeii! Our city's champion is Spearus. Step forward Spearus and do honor to Pompeii on this day!"
A very lithe Spearus strutted forward holding a beautifully crafted javelin in his hands. He nodded respectfully in his opponent's direction before turning to stand just behind the line chalk in the grass. Xena watched his technique, noting how he stood toe to the line and then took three carefully measured paces backward.
Spearus stood at this new position and hefted the long javelin into his hand, balancing it just at his shoulder. He leaned back, stretching the javelin behind him, and then took three quick hops forward before letting the weapon soar through the air. It cut a graceful curve upward and out, travelling a remarkable distance before arching downward and then finally embedding itself into the earth. The twang of its impact could be heard all the way across the field.
The crowd of men on the lawn of the Palestra roared their approval. The women in the balcony groaned at the distance covered.
Meanwhile, Umpiricus measured.
"202 paces!" He announced to a thrilled crowd of noblemen. "A new Palestra record!"
The women lamented. So did Sappho. Gabrielle looked up to find the entire balcony on all sides was now filled.
Xena stepped up to the line and took Spearus' arm in a warrior's congratulations.
"You hold the field record," she said, nodding at his smile. "But not for long!" He lost his smile. "I need a javelin!" She announced, looking around at several men who were standing just behind with javelins in their hands.
"You! Give me your javelin!" she ordered a lanky man just to her left.
He jumped. "What? Me? You want my spear? You can't use my spear! It was a gift to me from Caesar himself ... "
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he was flying through the air right along with his spear. He was still holding on even after Xena had grabbed it and immediately given it a mighty heave, sending him and the weapon arching through the air to the amazement of everyone watching.
All eyes followed his path as he soared overhead.
The javelin and the man landed with a pang exactly one pace beyond the spear of Spearus. The man's grip slipped along the length of the shaft as he dropped down onto the ground.
Umpiricus was already there, measuring the distance.
"The Javelin Throw goes to Xena, Warrior Princess, by one pace!"
The men on the field groaned. The balcony of women erupted into cheers. Gabrielle looked up to find a mezzanine of scarves flurrying in approval as the Pompeian women screamed.
Xena gave the cheering crowd above a brief wave before following Umpiricus to the next event.
"Next event is the broad jump!" Umpiricus announced, grinning at the warrior. Xena inspected the field with a furrowed brow. She had never seen anything quite like it.
It was a pit of sand, about fifty paces long, and that was all.
"Am I supposed to jump over this?" she asked, turning to face the tiny referee.
The man laughed, "You jump as far as you can. You can take three strides up to the pit and then you must leap. Where your heels meet the earth, that's where I measure."
"And if I go past the sand?"
The man shook his head, "No one has ever jumped beyond the sand pit. It's not possible."
Xena chortled and looked down at her partner.
"That's what they think," Gabrielle mumbled as she followed Xena to the pit.
They walked up to the jumping area and Xena tapped the referee's shoulder once again.
"Let me get this straight. You measure from where my heels hit the dirt, right?"
"Right!" Umpiricus began to announce the event, but Xena interrupted him one more time.
"From where I jump to where my heels hit?"
Umpiricus looked up at her with annoyance. "That's what I said. What's the matter? Don't you think you can do it?"
"Oh, I can do it all right," Xena replied with a grin, watching as the audience on the field lined up around all sides of the sand pit, leaving one side open for the participants to run.
Umpiricus walked up to the edge of the launching point and announced:
"Next event is the broad jump! The city's champion is Hiphopites! Hiphopites, step forward and jump in Pompeii's honor."
A very trim and tall Hiphopites stepped out of the crowd and approached the line of the sand pit. He stood before the pit, facing it, and then did an about-face, taking three almost jumping steps away from the edge.
He turned back around to face the pit and spit in his hands.
Like a graceful gazelle, he took off in three long, loping strides before launching himself into the air. He flung his arms and legs up and out, stretching his limbs as far as humanly possible before the arc of his fall forced him to plant his heels firmly into the sand, just shy of the opposite end of the pit.
It was the longest jump any of them had ever seen. Umpiricus whistled. The men roared. The women groaned. Xena grinned.
She pushed past the crowd and took her place at the edge of the pit. Xena didn't even bother to take three running steps. She crouched down and sprang up, surprising everyone with the shriek of her battle cry. Hiphopites had to scramble out of the pit; she hadn't even given him time to get up.
All eyes followed the warrior as she launched herself into the air, flipping once, then twice overhead, traveling the full distance of the pit before the arc of her flight brought her down feet first onto the head of an onlooker standing at the other end.
Before he could even react, she had sprung off of that head then landed on another before flipping over one more time and ending her flight by planting her heels gracefully into the grass more than 50 paces beyond the sand pit and the crowd.
She turned to look over her shoulder with a smile at the herd of men who were regarding her in awed silence. Xena apologized with a pout at the two unwilling assistants who were lying in the grass, rubbing their heads.
"Xena wins the Broad Jump!"
The men erupted into angry shouts.
"She did flips!"
"She used heads!"
"Her method .... "
" ... is unorthodox," Gabrielle finished for them with a grin.
"Her heels landed in the ground 50 paces beyond the sand pit," Umpiricus stated bluntly. "Besides, even if I measured from where she hit the first head," Umpiricus explained as he stood over Xena's first victim, still lying in the grass, and tapped on his noggin with the tip of his quill, "she would still win."
The men became silent.
The women overhead roared. Sappho jumped up and down with glee and hugged the bard.
"The next discipline is archery," the referee announced as he trudged away toward the area of the field which held a row of targets, recording the results of the last event in his parchment as he walked.
The crowd moved across the lawn towards the archery field, filling in the spaces behind another painted line, the border that marked the shooting line for the archers. Someone handed Xena a bow, which the warrior flexed easily, getting a feel for the tension.
"Not taut enough," she said and returned the weapon to its owner. The crowd around her mumbled and another volunteer handed over a weapon. This was a much larger bow made of thick, red wood. The weapon creaked as Xena drew it back experimentally.
The warrior grinned in approval and its owner bowed.
Umpiricus stepped up to the line.
"The next event is bow and arrow. Pompeians are blessed by the Goddess Diana with a strong arm and a sure eye. The best of us in this discipline is Popidius! Step forward Popidius! May your aim be true in the name of Pompeii!"
Gabrielle and Sappho looked anxiously at one another. They had not seen Popidius since that unfortunate dinner the first night. The bard looked over at her partner. Xena was grinning with a certain glint in her eye that Gabrielle did not like one bit.
The bard watched her partner with suspicion as the warrior quickly asked for an arrow, even as Popidius was stepping up to the line. Gabrielle's suspicion grew to concern when Xena asked for two more, somehow loading all three on the bow in highly unorthodox manner.
Popidius stood at the line, strong and tall. He lifted his bow into position, drawing the arrow back with a steady pull and pointed its tip at a colorful round target more than 200 paces away.
He paused and aimed, the field of noblemen held their breath, the balcony full of women covered their mouths, and he let the arrow fly.
It cut through the air faster than the eye could follow, streaking a path across the field and embedding itself deep into the very center of the target, so very far away.
"Boarseye!" someone yelled and then the men let out a resounding howl.
Popidius gave his bow to a friend and trotted down the field to the target to inspect the hit. He was followed closely by Umpiricus who intended to see the mark for himself.
Popidius stood before the target, running his finger from the center along the shaft of the arrow, pulling down and releasing it at the very end, so the arrow would snap up and down with a musical twang. He turned to face his audience with a self-satisfied smile.
Gabrielle's concern turned into full-on anxiety when she saw her partner raise her bow.
It took less than a second for Popidius to realize that there were three arrows careening in his direction. He backed up in panic, spread eagle against the target, afraid to move a muscle.
The first arrow split the shaft of his own, embedding itself exactly in the center just to the left of his face. He stared at it as his arrow crumbled into pieces and Xena's vibrated in its place. The second hit under his right armpit. The third landed between his legs, pinning his loin cloth to the target just at a point where there was thankfully enough fabric. Despite the fact that he still had his manhood, Popidius screamed two octaves higher than his normal range.
Umpiricus, who was standing just to the left of the target, watched the shaft of the arrow between Popidius' legs quiver in its place.
"Xena wins!" he squeaked. No one dared argue with a shot like that.
The crowd of women above erupted to a chorus of whoops and hollers.
Xena and Umpiricus headed off in the direction of the last event, leaving Popidius where he stood, pinned spread eagle to the target by an arrow through the loin cloth.
The men grumbled, ignoring his whimpering pleas for help, as each one shuffled by.
The group moved across the field to the wrestling ring. The last event. Gabrielle scanned the faces hoping for a glimpse at the Pompeian champion for this event.
He was hard to miss. A huge man, a tremendously huge man - in fact, he was a mountain of a man. The bard gulped as he sauntered by, certain that the ground was shaking underneath her feet. He stepped up to the ring, which was a round platform, raised almost two meters above the lawn.
She watched in awe as the man somehow managed to lift his huge bulk of a body onto the wooden stage and prance around, flexing his muscles and adjusting his loin cloth. He winked at the bard as he gave the cloth a tug.
Xena frowned, not appreciating the action.
She gracefully flipped herself up, landing on the stage with a solid thump and proceeded to remove her armor. An evil smile answered the many catcalls which accompanied her actions. She threw her armor down to Gabrielle, followed immediately by one gauntlet and then the other.
The warrior proceeded to pace around the ring, wiping her nose, flexing her own muscles and giving her bustier cups a lift, one at a time. The performance was answered by a balcony full of cheers and yodels.
Umpiricus stood before the ring and raised his hand for silence.
"This is the last event. If Xena wins, then Pompeian law is changed forever and women will have access to our playing field. Lose, and we gain the reputation of defeating the Warrior Princess herself in fair contest! The final discipline is wrestling. Hand-to-hand combat is the true test of a warrior! Our own champion is Gluteus Maximus! Stand for Pompeii and make us proud, Gluteus!"
Umpiricus nodded his head at the contestants and the wrestling match for the honor of Pompeii began.
Gluteus Maximus took a wide stance in the center of the ring, flexing his muscles and grunting as Xena circled him with light, dancing steps. He lunged at her experimentally, but the faster warrior woman easily danced away, letting his own motion tip him off balance.
The women in the balcony began to yodel in true Xena fashion, sending a wave of warrior cries out over the Palestra like a call to the wild.
Gabrielle began to prance back and forth, mimicking the motions of her partner as she circled.
"Come on, Xena! That's right. Don't let him catch ya. The bigger they are the harder they fall, right? That's it! Circle, step, float like a butterfly ..." the bard skipped away as the warrior avoided another lunge, " ... sting like a bee!"
Just to the bard's left, Sappho was prancing in much the same manner.
The men began to yell out instructions, some of which were neither pleasant nor called for. The crowd was getting ugly, but not as ugly as Gluteus Maximus.
He took a quick lunge at the Warrior Princess, catching her in his arms and squeezing hard as he lifted her body off the mat and into the air.
Xena gasped for breath. Her arms were pinned to her sides. She struggled against the big man's arms, but it was to no avail. He was strong, very strong. And stupid.
The last thing he saw was the smile on Xena's face just before she butted him in the head. The blow sent the man reeling backward, the hold on the warrior completely forgotten.
Now he was angry. He shook his head to clear it and touched the growing lump on his forehead. It hurt.
From the other end of the ring, Xena grinned wickedly and blew him a kiss. The man howled in rage and stomped forward with the lumbering steps of a giant.
Xena waited a split second. Then, with a resounding cry, she bounced once on the balls of her feet and took off at full speed directly for him.
Gluteus Maximus laughed in triumph, certain his superior weight was going to crush his opponent to the mat. He lunged forward, arms outstretched, full steam ahead.
Gabrielle froze in horror. The women above gasped their collective breaths. Sappho covered her eyes.
At the last moment, Xena dropped to the floor, sliding feet first in between the legs of the giant wrestler.
Her slide took her under and through and he ended up running right over her. That is, until Xena reached up and grabbed his loin cloth, giving it a solid tug that brought the thong down around his ankles in one yank.
He barely had a chance to cover the family jewels as his forward momentum sent him flying from the ring, the white cloth still wrapped securely around his feet. He landed with a resounding thud face first in the grass directly between the bard and the poet.
"Looks like a full moon," Sappho commented and gave the wiggling globes a poke with her foot.
"Xena wins!" she yelled to the balcony.
The Palestra filled with a cacophony of screams, yodels and warrior cries. Hundreds of silken scarves flitted through the air, thrown down in the direction of the triumphant Warrior Princess.
It didn't take long for the balcony to empty and a multitude of women to fill the fields, dancing across the lawn in jubilation. They jumped into the pool and splashed water in celebration. The ring was swarmed with women of every shape and size, crowding the men away and overtaking the field.
The warrior was lifted from the ring by willing hands and placed on a pair of sturdy shoulders. She allowed herself to be carried in a circle around the pool, waving at the scores of women who were flinging off their sandals and dancing barefoot in the grass.
Eventually, the disappointment of the men disappeared and women wrapped their arms around them, kissing them and making them join in the dance.
Before long, what was once an athletic practice field was one big party.
Sappho and Gabrielle were twirling one another around in circles, yelling and laughing until the earth began to spin and Gabrielle had to sit down in the grass to wait for it to stop. They laid back on the cool lawn and giggled until a pair of dark, heavy leather boots came into view.
"Just what are you two doing?"
Gabrielle looked up to find a sweaty Warrior Princess staring down at her. She jumped up from the grass and threw her arms around her friend, giving her a great, big hug.
"Xena! That's was terrific!" The bard held on tight as the warrior hugged her back.
"Hey, I'm all sweaty!" Xena said, voicing a weak complaint.
"And that's a bad thing?" Gabrielle pulled back to stare at her friend. "Are you hungry?"
Sappho jumped up from the ground. "Come on! Let's eat! Dinner's on me!"
Together the friends made their way through the exuberant crowds, which now just seemed to be celebrating for the sake of celebration alone and were no longer interested in the Warrior Princess.
They strolled at a leisurely pace, triumphant, across the playing field of the Grande Palestra, passing out of its massive gate virtually unnoticed, yet leaving a piece of Pompeii forever changed in their wake.
Sappho gulped a half-swallowed mouthful of wine and stared at the Warrior Princess in shock.
"Xena! Warrior princesses don't burp!"
The warrior leaned back in her chair, patted her stomach and smiled contentedly.
Gabrielle put down her spoon and stared at her partner. "Xena, must you?"
The poet's next sip of wine spurted out of her nose. "By the muses, Xena. That takes talent!"
Xena beamed proudly. "In my day, I could send a full corp of calvary charging with one belch!"
"One of your more rude skills, I suppose," Gabrielle muttered while sucking on a crab leg.
"Oh, I have others!" Xena stated, eyes widening mischievously.
"I'm sure you do."
Xena lifted her leg and leaned to the side. "I could demonstrate."
The bard dropped her crab. "Please don't!" Gabrielle answered hurriedly. She pushed the leg down and straightened Xena back into the chair. "Barbarian," she mumbled.
"Yeah, but I'm your barbarian," Xena replied with a charming smile.
Gabrielle picked up her crab leg and continued to search for succulent pieces of meat. "Well, if I'm going to keep you, I'm going to have to teach you some manners."
"Oh, really?" Xena asked and leaned forward. Her smile widened. She was obviously enjoying the way Gabrielle was playing with the crab leg, watching her sparkling green eyes study the shell as she searched for the best way to crack through to the sweet meat inside. "And just what would you teach me?"
"Well, for one," Gabrielle replied, still giving her full attention to the shell of the leg, which she was just successfully splitting open, "I would teach you not to pick your nose in public."
"I'm not supposed to pick my nose?"
"No," the bard said, pulling a nice, juicy piece of grab out and dangling it triumphantly in the air. She licked her lips in anticipation.
"What about if I pick your nose?" Xena asked in all innocence, leaning over to poke a finger up a bardic nostril.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed and swatted her hand away. The distraction was enough to allow Xena to swipe the crab meat from the bard's fingers with one bite before her bard could even realize what had happened.
"Hey! That's my meat!"
"Hmmm!" Xena hummed happily. "Sweet!"
Sappho drank her wine as she watched the interaction with a big grin. She hadn't seen them this at ease with each other since they'd arrived. Even then, they seemed to maintain a respectful distance. All that had gone wrong in Pompeii was apparently bringing them closer together. The poet silently wondered whether one day she and Phaon would be sitting at a cafe table, playfully flirting with the pieces of delicious crab as bait.
A golden ray of sunlight reflected off a shiny object, hitting the poet directly in the eye. She had to squint to see what had caused it and noticed that the sun had shifted position and was soon about to set.
"By the muses, it's almost sunset!" Sappho said anxiously. She sat up in her seat and filled her goblet with wine, explaining as she emptied the cup between gulps. "We have to get going or we're going to miss the opening act."
Xena and Gabrielle stopped tugging the last crab leg between them and stared at the poet.
"Miss the opening act of what?" Gabrielle asked.
"You wanted to see a play, didn't you?" Sappho responded.
Xena used the surprised response of her partner to the mention of the play and snatched the last piece of crab. She popped it into her mouth, chewing victoriously.
"I let you have it!" Gabrielle grumbled and then turned back to Sappho. "Play? What play?"
Sappho stood. "You told Paris you wanted to see a play, right? Well, it's Friday night. He got us the best seats in the house. It's gonna start. You coming?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena expectantly. She knew all Xena really wanted to do was go back to Vettii's house, but she really did want to see a play. After all, they'd spent the afternoon doing a "warrior thing". The least they could do was spend the evening doing a bard thing.
Xena lifted a tender, plump crab leg that she had hidden from the bard's eyes under a napkin. Cracking the shell open expertly, she removed the succulent meat offering it to her partner by bringing the white meat up to her lips.
"We spent the afternoon doing warrior-type things," Xena said, smiling widely at the brightness in her bard's eyes. "We can spend the evening doing a bard-thing. If you want to see a play, then a play it is!"
With a crooked grin and happy surprise sparking in her eyes, Gabrielle had taken the meat from Xena's fingers with one bite. The feel of the bard's soft lips as they brushed against her fingertips had been the most erotic thing Xena had experienced in years.
Xena closed her eyes and smiled, remembering that moment with exquisite clarity.
She also recalled that the rest of the evening had been almost as perfect. Gabrielle's expression as they entered the theater and were ushered all the way down a sea of steps to the best seats in the very front of the stage; the high warbling, imitation warrior cries and the waving scarves that greeted them as each and every woman in the house recognized who had just walked in; her bard's shining, proud eyes when she looked up at her; these details were etched forever into her memory.
"I can't remember the last time you looked at me like that, Gabrielle," Xena whispered to the sea, smiling as the waves crashed against the shore, bringing the sound of the women's cheering and applause back to her mind.
"I was your hero once again, wasn't I?"
Grand Theatre - Pompeii
Gabrielle wiggled, trying to make herself as comfortable as possible on the hard stone bench. Folding her hands in her lap, she sighed happily, looking around at the enormous theater and the even more impressive stage.
Imagine performing in such a place, she thought to herself and spared a glance up at her partner. Xena was sitting straight-backed with legs crossed patiently waiting for the show to begin.
"I hope you won't be bored," Gabrielle whispered, leaning over so Xena could hear.
"I won't be."
"After all, serious drama is the highest form of art. Sometimes it's hard to follow, it can be so metaphorical."
"I'm sure I'll understand it just fine."
"If there's something you don't get, just ask."
Xena glanced down at her friend and raised an eyebrow. "Do you have any idea what play we'll be watching tonight?"
"No," Gabrielle admitted, "But I'm sure it'll be one of the classics. After all, look at this place! Only Aristotle, Sophocles, Aristophanes would be worthy of this theater." An idea popped into the bard's head and she grabbed Xena's forearm in excitement. "Maybe we'll get to see Prometheus Bound! Wouldn't that be fun?"
"A blast," Xena mumbled, but smiled at Gabrielle anyway.
"Well, if anything goes over your head, just let me know. I'll be happy to explain," the bard said, giving her partner's forearm a gentle squeeze.
Xena was about to make a cynical retort concerning height when the curtain began to lift and the crowd quieted.
"It's starting," Sappho leaned over and whispered.
A hush fell over the theater. Gabrielle sat, back straight, posture perfect, her face shining with anticipation for some great theater to begin.
Any dreams Gabrielle might have had for a night full of classic Greek drama were dashed when a large, man-made, horse rolled out onto the stage. It turned its rump to the audience, lifted its tail and out popped Paris, dressed as a caricature of Caesar himself. He fell ass first on to the floor, followed promptly by a resounding fart.
"BWAAA HAHAHA HAHAHA!"
Gabrielle looked up in surprise at Xena who, like the rest of the audience, was howling with laughter.
Back on stage, Caesar was trying to stand, none too successfully because he kept slipping on piles of brown fodder, parting gifts the horse left behind as it exited the stage.
Caesar slipped once again and rose with a face full of the stuff.
"BWAAAA HAHAHA HAHAHA!"
Gabrielle stared at her partner in amazement. "You think this is funny?"
"Let me know if you don't understand somethin'," Xena said, wiping the tears from her eyes. She would have said more, but Brutus had just walked onto the stage and bent over.
"BWAAAA HAHAHA HAHAHA!"
Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest. "THIS is Pompeian theater? It's nothing but a farce!" she exclaimed, looking at Sappho for support.
The poet was trying to catch her breath to answer, but the look on the bard's face only made her laugh more.
Xena glanced down, noting the look of disappointment on her bard's face. She grabbed Gabrielle's hand, entwining their fingers together, and gave a small squeeze.
"Come on, Gabrielle, relax. So, it's a comedy."
Up on stage, Caesar was being bounced between the bosoms of two robust women.
"Rude, perhaps. But you have to admit, it's very funny." Xena pulled the bard's hand, giving her a shake and staring at her, daring her to smile.
Before she could stop herself, a crooked smile began to work its way onto Gabrielle's lips. The grin gave way to a full belly laugh when Caesar's wife hit him in the head with a frying pan.
"That's more like it," Xena whispered, giving the warm hand another squeeze and refusing to let it go.
Gabrielle finally relaxed and actually found herself beginning to enjoy the show. She was chuckling in spite of herself at the antics on stage, but mostly she was enjoying watching Xena enjoy the play. Between being able to see her partner laugh louder than she had ever seen her laugh before, and having her hand held, the bard didn't think she could have asked for anything more.
"Excuse me. Which way is the ... latrine?" Gabrielle asked a young man who was kneeling in front of a wall.
He lifted his head from his work, scribbling something on one of the few bare spots left on the wall in the rear of the theater.
"Keep walking. First door on the right," he answered and turned back to his task.
Gabrielle peered over his shoulder at the writings, which were everywhere. "What are you doing?"
The young man paused and looked back up at her. "I feel like leaving a message."
Gabrielle nodded, trying to understand. "But it's such a beautiful wall. Why does everyone want to write all over it?"
He smiled, recognizing that she must be a tourist and unfamiliar with Pompeian customs. "It's art. And what better place for art than in a theater? Look at it. The hearts and minds of all of Pompeii, immortalized forever as words on a wall."
"Huh. I never thought of it that way." Gabrielle bit her lower lip, thinking it over. She leaned closer, trying to read the words he was writing.
All the world's a stage ...
"That's good," she said, smiling down at him. "Are you a bard?"
He shook his head. "Nah, but I'd like to be. A bard or a scribe. Unfortunately, my father is in the Navy. He's an admiral. Wants me to follow in his footsteps, serve Caesar and Rome."
Gabrielle gave the young man's shoulder a squeeze. "You should follow what's in your heart. Your father will love you no matter what you choose to do."
He smiled up at her, surprised at the insightful words. "You think so?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I know so. I know because that's what happened to me. My parents expected me to live a certain kind of life, but I had other ideas. I followed my heart and even though they really don't understand, I know for certain that they still love me. They always will."
He seemed to think about this for a moment, before letting a handsome smile grace his features. "Thanks!" he said, wiping his hand on his pant leg and rising to shake the bard's hand. "My name is Pliny. Pliny, the Younger. My dad is Pliny, the Elder. Maybe you've heard of him."
Gabrielle took Pliny's hand and gave it a friendly shake. "No, I haven't heard of him. But then, I'm not from around here."
"I figured as much," Pliny said with a smile. "Here." He handed his quill and ink to Gabrielle. "Would you like to write something?"
Gabrielle took the quill with a delighted smile. "Thanks. Maybe I will."
She pressed the tip of the quill to her lips and thought deeply for several seconds. Her eyes scanned the wall, finding an appropriately clear spot amidst the scores of messages.
Finally finding adequate space, she dipped the quill in the ink and wrote.
Xena, you are the warrior of my heart. - Gabrielle
"That's nice," Pliny commented as he looked over her shoulder. "Are you a bard?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle answered with a big smile as she returned the quill and ink. "I have a feeling you will be, too, one day. Thanks for letting me write something."
"My pleasure. And thanks for the words of support."
Gabrielle gave him a small nod and left the wall, heading in the direction of the latrine.
"Your words will be here forever!" Pliny called after her and then bent back to finish the rest of his own message.
By the time they got back to Vettii's house, Gabrielle was exhausted. Although Sappho had invited a handful of people for late-night drinks in Vettii's triclinium, Xena and Gabrielle gracefully excused themselves and headed back to Xena's bedroom.
No sooner had they entered the chamber than Xena flung herself onto the bed with an exhausted moan.
"What a day!"
Gabrielle walked into Xena's room and stood in the middle, feeling a little bit ... what? Uncomfortable? Excited? Her stomach rumbled in answer.
"Don't tell me you're hungry?" Xena exclaimed, lifting her head off the pillow to stare at Gabrielle incredulously.
Gabrielle blushed and grinned. "That, amongst a number of other things."
Xena answered with a sly grin. "Why don't you sneak out to the kitchen and get us a tray of snacks?"
Gabrielle nodded briskly in agreement and turned to dash off on her mission.
"Bring the snacks back here," Xena ordered, stopping the bard mid-step.
"Don't take too long."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I won't."
"Don't talk to anyone on the way. Especially Sappho."
Gabrielle smiled. "Right."
"And come right back here."
"I'll be right back. I promise."
"Good," Xena said and let her head drop back against the pillow. Her head popped back up quickly. "DON'T let Sappho talk you into anything."
Gabrielle grabbed the door handle and pulled. "Not tonight," she answered with a big grin.
Xena's reply was a bright smile and the return of her head to the pillow.
Gabrielle let the door close itself gently behind her as she left.
"Don't forget some wine!" she heard the Warrior Princess call as she hurried down the hall.
True to her word, Gabrielle avoided the dining room, Sappho, and the after-show party altogether. Two nice servants helped her put together a tray of delicious tidbits. With a flask of wine tucked under her arm and a tray full of food in her hands, she tiptoed passed the triclinium and made her way back to the living quarters completely unnoticed.
Pressing her back against the door, she let herself into Xena's bedroom.
"As you commanded, Warrior Princess!" the bard said brightly as she entered the room.
She was greeted by a loud snore. The Warrior Princess had fallen dead asleep, in full armor, boots and all.
"I don't believe it," Gabrielle mumbled.
Xena's chest rose and fell, emitting another soft noise that sounded more like a purr.
The bard put the tray down on a table and quietly stood over her partner, watching her sleep.
"How many nights have you gone without sleep this time?" she asked quietly and got another snore for an answer.
"Well," Gabrielle sighed.
She pulled a chair up to the table, sat, and rubbed her hands together. Picking up a piece of cheese and onion bread, she paused before tearing it in half and glanced over at the bed.
Xena's peaceful face twitched once and then came the sound of another gentle gurgle.
"A woman cannot live on love alone," Gabrielle stated before popping the bit of bread into her mouth.
Maidens breathlessly awaiting
The Unveiling of the Golden Ceres
The ground was knocking. Huge booming, knocking sounds. And rocking. Rocking so hard, that Gabrielle could not stand. She reached for Xena, but the warrior's hands slipped out of her grasp. She screamed that Xena was falling, but it was she who was falling instead.
Gabrielle sat up abruptly in bed, still hearing the pounding noise though the echoing booms had somehow reduced themselves to the sound of knuckles against wood.
There was someone knocking at the door.
By the gods, what time was it? She glanced outside and tried to note the position of the sun. Almost setting. Almost sunset? By the gods, they had slept the day away!
There was still someone knocking at the door.
Gabrielle hopped out of bed, the motion stirring the still sleeping warrior to consciousness.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, looking around the room sleepily for the bard.
"There's someone at the door," Gabrielle replied, pulling the door opened with a tug.
"What time is it?" Xena asked groggily from the bed.
"It's late. Time to get up! You want to sleep forever?" Sappho asked from the hallway. She took one look at Gabrielle and her mouth dropped open.
The bard looked down at herself, not understanding what was the problem.
"Look at you two!" Sappho exclaimed. "You spend all day in bed and you're still DRESSED!"
Xena lifted her head up from the pillow and looked down the length of her body. Leather, armor, gauntlets, boots -- they were all still on.
Sappho stared at Gabrielle with an incredulous expression.
The bard smiled sheepishly, inspecting her own clothes. They might be a little rumpled, but she was indeed still wearing them.
"We were tired," Gabrielle said in an attempt to explain.
"You and I are going to have to have a nice, long talk," Sappho said with her hands on her hips. "Come on. Get up. I'd say hurry up and get dressed, but I see THAT won't be necessary." The poet rolled her eyes and gave them both a wry look. "You're not going to want to miss this. The merchants are on their way to present Vettii with their tribute. Looks like Vettii has the Golden Ceres after all."
"That's what he thinks," Gabrielle stated, turning to give a smiling Xena a wink.
Sappho led them to the main garden, escorting them past the archway that led back to the Atrium and the entrance of the house. As they walked by, Gabrielle was not surprised to see Alessandro talking with Vettii by the fountain. She caught Xena's hand and brought the scene to her attention. They both watched as the nobleman handed the boy a small pouch and then patted him on the head.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle and they grinned at one another -- big, huge cyclops-just-ate-a-griffin grins.
What they didn't notice was Sappho watching them with a smile of her own -- a big, huge titan-just-ate-a-cyclops smile.
They gathered in the main garden -- Vettii, Menander, other prominent noblemen and honored guests, including Sappho, Xena, and Gabrielle. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the council of merchants to arrive to validate the presence of the Golden Ceres.
Gabrielle eyed the marble pedestal in the middle of the peristyle. It rose up amid a base of colorful flowers and stood proudly at the center of attention, waiting patiently for the moment of unveiling. Gabrielle looked closely at the silken scarf that was covering the statue. It certainly looked like something was under there.
She bent over to try and peer underneath the cloth, but it was no use -- she could not see.
"Ah, ah, ah," Xena said, wagging her finger. "No peeking."
At that moment, three merchants were escorted into the garden and Vettii clapped his hands. The crowd hushed and the nobleman gave his rival a triumphant smile.
"Well, Menander," Vettii said, rubbing his hands together. "Looks like I win this year."
"I knew you stole it!"
"I did not steal it. It was given to me by the Fates. The Golden Ceres was destined to be mine this year."
"Right," Menander said as he rolled his eyes. "Whoever believes that, I have some swamp land in Manchuria they'd probably be interested in." He waved his hand at the dramatically hidden statue. "Just get on with it, would you?"
"Noblemen of Pompeii and honored guests," Vettii began as he turned to address the crowd. "As is the tradition every year, the merchants have come to pay tribute to the Goddess on this the day of the Festival of Ceres. This year, Ceres graces my house with her presence. May the tribute bring all of our Houses fertile land and plentiful bounty!"
He brought his hand to the very top of the veil and grabbed a tiny corner of the silk. With great flourish, the covering was whipped away to reveal ....
... a beautifully rendered, meticulously carved, gold painted statue of a hermaphrodite. Although no one person could possibly be that well-endowed in so many respects, the attention to detail was amazing.
The silk scarf fluttered to the ground as Vettii stared at his favorite statue in horror.
"Well," Menander said, snickering, "I don't think Ceres will be pleased."
A round of laughter broke out amongst the gathered crowd.
"It was here. I just had it!" Vettii stammered. "That boy! I just paid that boy!"
"A good merchant always checks what he pays for," Menander stated and then waved at his rival in disgust.
"But I did ...."
Menander and the rest of the merchants were losing their patience, "Well, obviously something went wrong with your dirty little plan. Serves you right!"
"Well, if HE doesn't have the Golden Ceres, then WHO does?" a merchant asked.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, expecting her partner to speak up, but the warrior said nothing. Quite unexpectedly, Sappho stepped in and stood by the pedestal.
"I know where it is," she announced, surprising the Hades out of Gabrielle. The bard's mouth dropped open.
"Come on!" Sappho said, waving at the group with her hand, "Let's go. I'll take you to it."
The poet marched out of the garden with a large group of impatient merchants and one very angry Vettii on her heels. Xena and Gabrielle brought up the rear.
The crowd's mumbling echoed down the halls of the House of Vettii, drowning out the bubbling water of the fountain in the atrium, and filling up the street as they shuffled outside to mount their waiting horses and carts laden with tribute.
Above all the noise could be heard the frustrated queries of an VERY agitated bard.
"Xena, this was NOT part of the plan. What's going on? What does Sappho have to do with this? Where is the Golden Ceres? Why do you have that smirk on your face? And how could you let a young boy see a statue like that?"
The bard's questions came non-stop, but Xena's only response was to raise an eyebrow and follow the crowd.
The procession marched along the streets of Pompeii, the Tenth Muse leading them along Via Stabia and turning down Via Dell'Abbondanza in the direction of the Palestra, away from the Market. To Gabrielle, it looked like a parade; a long pageant of horses packed with food and carts filled with wine. Wherever they were headed, it was going to be one big party. Fitting that Sappho should be at the head of such a procession.
Questioning mumbles became loud and angry when Sappho stopped at the front gate to the House of Julia Felix.
"This is THE BROTHEL!" Vettii yelled. Arguments broke out everywhere.
Xena strutted up to the front of the line, the bard at her heels. In one movement, she drew her sword and clanged it on the wrought iron gate. The resulting ring brought everyone to silence.
Sappho gulped. For one brief moment, the poet had thought she was about to lose her head.
Xena looked down at her with an indulgent smile.
"If this is where the statue is, then this is where it is. Right, Sappho? Who are we to say which house Ceres chooses to honor?"
Vettii was red in the face. "This is no place for the Golden Ceres!"
Xena stepped up to the man and glared at him. "And what difference is this house from yours?" Her gaze took in the rest of the procession. "It seems kinda fitting, if you ask me." Her eyes rested on Sappho and Xena nodded in the direction of the door.
The warrior entered the gate, followed by Gabrielle. Sappho waited behind, ushering the rest of the noblemen and merchants through the door. When the last of them were in, she looked around quickly and waved at a bush.
Xena halted Gabrielle and pulled her over to the side of the gate, letting the rest of the crowd walk by. They watched through the wrought iron as Sappho placed a pouch full of coins into the waiting hand of the boy, Alessandro.
They watched from behind a tree as Sappho gave the young lad a pat on the head and then entered the courtyard with a very satisfied grin.
They waited until the poet had disappeared into the front door, then Xena pulled Gabrielle all the way into the house by her BGSB.
This time, the ceremony took place in the infamous bath house of Julia Felix. The large pool was surrounded by towering candles, and the pedestal was in the center of the pool, rising out of the water like the rock of Gibraltar. A soft evening breeze fluttered the crimson silk veil that was covering the statue in preparation for the ceremony.
Gabrielle walked up to the edge of the pool beside her partner and crossed her arms.
"All right. So you changed your mind." She looked up at Xena, who was watching the crimson silk sway in the breeze with a carefully neutral expression. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle and squeezed her shoulder. "I didn't change my mind."
"You didn't? Then if you didn't change your mind, that means that Sappho stole the statue from you!"
Xena did not have a chance to respond. Julia Felix arrived in the pool room attired in a crimson silk dress similar to the veil that was adorning the statue. She swished through the room, flanked on either side by Labia Majora and Bougain Villae. The pair were throwing rose petals in her wake.
Julia paused by Sappho and handed her a sealed document with a wry grin. The poet beamed and waved the parchment in Gabrielle's direction with a happy smile, then tucked it safe and sound in the folds of her toga.
Gabrielle leaned towards Xena to whisper an explanation. "Those are probably --"
"Phaon's papers of freedom?" Xena finished for her.
The bard scowled. "How is it that you know everything?"
Julia Felix clapped her hands and the crowd quieted. She strode up to the side of the pool and smiled at her guests.
"Noblemen of Pompeii and honored guests," Julia began as she turned to address the crowd. "As is the tradition every year, the merchants have come to pay tribute to the Goddess on this the day of the Festival of Ceres. This year, Ceres graces my house with her presence. Finally. May the tribute bring all of our houses fertile land and plentiful bounty!"
With two claps of her elegant palms, a pair of muscular slaves pulled on a rope and the crimson veil was raised to reveal ...
... a beautifully rendered and meticulously carved pewter statue of the Warrior Princess. She was poised in the arc of a powerful swing, ready to fling her mighty chakram. The attention to detail was remarkable.
Julia Felix choked. Labia Majora fainted; her wig rolled away as she hit the ground.
"Very nice," Gabrielle commented, raising her eyebrows.
"You like it?" Xena asked and she flashed a big smile at her partner.
Before the merchants could begin to yell, a man dressed in the robes of a priest entered the bath house. He cleared his throat, getting everyone's attention in the process.
"In case you are wondering," the man's deep voice boomed across the room, "the statue of Ceres is at the Temple. Bring your tributes to the Villae, where they belong."
The merchants muttered a hearty approval and they filed out of the House of Julia Felix, leaving the sparkling pool, the statue of the Warrior Princess and two furious hosts -- who were all dressed up, but had no where to go.
Vettii was fuming. He made a hasty lunge for the door, but was stopped mid-step by the strong arm of the Warrior Princess.
Xena pulled him back with little effort. "And where do you think you're going?"
Vettii tried to pull his toga out of the Xena's fist, but her grip was as solid as hardened lava. "I'm going after that boy! He tricked me and took my money!" he spat out angrily as he tried to pry Xena's fingers open. Not successful, Vettii attempted another run for the door anyway.
Again Xena pulled him back, again with very little effort. "Oh, no, ya don't. Ya made a deal with him fair and square. He brought you the statue, didn't he?"
"Yes, but ..."
Xena shook the nobleman. "No, buts! He brought you the statue and you paid him. Deal closed. What happened after that wasn't his fault."
"Yes, but ..."
"I said NO BUTS!" With a mighty heave worthy of her own statue, Xena tossed the Pompeian nobleman unceremoniously into the pool.
Vettii sputtered, flailing to stay at the surface until his own billowing tunic lifted up and entangled his head and arms, submerging him once again.
Meanwhile, Julia Felix was chasing the Tenth Muse. She was lunging at the poet, but Gabrielle was blocking her efforts using her body to protect her friend and keep the mad madam at bay. Xena came up behind Julia and grabbed her by the dress.
"Whadda ya think you're doing?" Xena asked calmly.
"We had a deal!" Julia Felix stated with a snarl. "She failed to keep up her side of the bargain. I want those papers back, Sappho!" Julia growled and tried to push the Warrior Princess away. She might as well have tried to move Vesuvius. Xena grabbed her by the embroidered bodice and held her in place with one hand.
"Oh, no, ya don't!" She gave the madam a shake to get her attention. "Now you listen to me. Sappho kept up her side of the bargain all right. She brought you the statue. You saw it didn't you?"
"Yes, but ..."
"No buts! She brought you the statue. You gave her the papers. Deal closed."
"Yes, but ..."
"I said no buts!" Xena shook her again, this time hard enough for Julia Felix to lose her own wig. Xena couldn't help but snort. Even she hadn't realized that Julia Felix was a man.
"Well! Now, I won't feel so bad," the warrior said with a wicked smile.
Julius Felix gulped. "Feel so bad about what?"
"About doing this!"
Xena heaved up, lifting Julius Felix off the ground and tossing him into the water, crimson silk gown and all. She reached down and threw his wig in after him.
The well-endowed Julius Felix sputtered in the water, watching helplessly as his reputations floated away. The wig hit him solidly in the face, submerging him once again.
"Thanks, Xena," Sappho said sincerely and patted her friend on the arm affectionately as they watched the two Pompeians flounder in the water. "I appreciate this. I really do. And here I thought you were going to be mad at me for disrupting your plan."
Xena turned on the Tenth Muse. "I am." She snatched at the Tenth Muses' toga and lifted her up in the air.
"No! Wait Xena! Don't! Phaon's papers. The ink will run!"
Xena grabbed the sealed parchment from it's spot and handed it to Gabrielle. An evil grin graced the warrior's features.
Sappho's face grew stern. "Xena, Warrior Princess. Don't you dare throw me in that water!"
Xena lifted higher. The poet began to struggle, her feet kicking uselessly in the air.
"Xena! I mean it!" Sappho froze. The expression on Xena's face meant only one thing. She squinched her eyes closed and held her nose. A second later she was sailing through the air. She hit the water with a such a slap that even Xena couldn't stop from cringing.
Sappho sputtered to the surface and managed to swim to the side of the pool, pulling herself to rest between the equally soaked Julius and Vettii.
The poet wiped a wet and tangled web of black hair out of her face, only to realize it wasn't her own. It was Julius' soggy wig. Sappho handed it back to the madam with a gratuitous smile. Julius Felix promptly splashed the Tenth Muse in the face. Not only did the water hit Sappho, but a good portion of it went up Vettii's nose as well.
The pool erupted into a splashing battle.
By the time the three of them had run out of breath, and their splash fight had subsided, Xena and Gabrielle were long gone.
Sappho pulled herself up and out of the pool and then reached down to give Julius Felix a hand.
"Come on! It's time for dessert!"
Continued in Next Part
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