SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
"Right," Gabrielle said, using her hands to help her talk as she and Sappho walked quickly along a labyrinth of narrow streets. "We'll just tell her that we got lost." The bard scratched her chin thoughtfully. "We were looking for a scroll shop and got lost. That's why we're late."
Sappho shook her head, causing a braid to fall down across her face. She sent it flipping back over her forehead with a snap of a finger. "We're not late. We'll be back just in time for dinner."
They turned a corner and Gabrielle suddenly recognized where they were. She had been a bit concerned, since following Phaon and her escort, that they would not be able to find their way back to the House of Vettii. The couple had led them on a chase through an unending maze of twists and turns in an exclusive residential section of Pompeii. Finally, the sleuths watched as Secundus and Phaon disappeared into the back entrance of what was apparently the nobleman's house.
Sappho and Gabrielle waited huddled in a corner for Phaon to emerge. The poet desperately wanted to know how long the beautiful woman would stay with the Roman and where she would go after that. But time was not on their side. It was getting late. Gabrielle was hungry and more than a little worried that Xena would not be pleased she had disappeared for the entire day.
In fact, knowing her partner, Xena probably had assumed the worst - that Caesar’s collaborators had abducted Gabrielle. The bard imagined Xena putting the pinch on some unsuspecting soul and interrogating him at this very moment.
Gabrielle was so deep in thought, that she ran smack into an old woman as they turned another corner. She reached out to steady the old lady and was about to apologize when the crone grabbed her by the arms.
"The gods are punishing us! Our wellsprings are running dry!"
The old woman's grip tightened on Gabrielle's arms as the bard tried to pull away.
"The sea is boiling. There is a fire under your houses," the worm eaten hag cried, giving Gabrielle the benefit of a full view of her rotting teeth.
"Leave her be, you old crone!" Sappho yelled, pulling the bard away. They hurried down the street looking over their shoulders as the hag continued to yell.
"I have listened to the heart of the mountain and it beats in rage! Haven't you felt it?!"
"Gaia, there's all kinds of nutballs in this city!" the poet commented as she pulled the bard along, leaving the crazy old lady behind.
Finally, they found their way to the side street which took them past the entrance to the stable. Gabrielle recognized a familiar and disapproving snort directed at her from within as she walked by.
"I know, I know ... I'm late," the bard said in answer to Argo's comment.
They hurried down the street the rest of the way, turned left and then entered the gate into the House of Vettii.
A slave directed them to the dining room; dinner had already been served. Gabrielle waited at the top of the steps and allowed the servant to unlace her boots to wash her feet. With great discretion, the bard lifted her eyes to scan the room, expecting to find a scowl greeting her in return.
Xena was lying on her assigned couch at the table all right, but it wasn't a scowl that greeted the bard. The warrior was smiling brilliantly. Her head was turned in greeting and she was smiling. Sparkling, in fact. Gabrielle froze in surprise. Why, Xena was practically beaming at her.
"Hi! You're just in time for dinner!" Xena said, waving the bard to hurry up and sit down. "The food is great. I bet you're hungry!"
Gabrielle walked around to her side of the table, keeping a suspicious eye on her partner. Xena smiled again and titled her head.
"Did you have a nice day?"
The bard looked at her partner, noticing her legs as they stretched along the couch. Xena was too tall for the divan and her feet were dangling off the end. Her feet? Her bare feet? She let them take her boots off?
All right. That's enough. "What's going on?" Gabrielle asked, crossing her arms.
"Sit down, Gabrielle. Have something to eat. This squab is fantastic!" The warrior pulled some meat off the bone with her teeth and chewed on it, smiling all the while.
Sappho rounded the table and dropped down onto her own divan. "What's going on?"
"I don't know," the bard replied, keeping her gaze on the warrior. "That's what I'm trying to find out."
Xena shrugged and took another bite. "Why does anything HAVE to be going on? I just asked if you had a good day. I assume you two spent the day traipsing around the city?"
"Yeah, we did," Gabrielle answered, shifting onto the couch and settling in to eat. She was still watching her friend closely. "What did you do all day?"
"Oh, a little of this ... and a little of that," Xena replied between licking her fingers. The warrior flashed her friend a happy smile.
Gabrielle and Sappho looked at each other. The poet shrugged, then motioned for a servant to fill her mug with wine.
"I hope you both worked up an appetite," Vettii commented, drawing surprised glances from both the bard and the poet. They hadn't even noticed he was at the table. "I know I have."
Gabrielle studied Vettii closely. He seemed the same - distant, aloof, rich, handsome. She looked at Xena, frowning. Her friend appeared to be very ... satisfied? The bard looked at the man again, then at Xena. Was she humming?
Gabrielle crossed her arms angrily as her appetite disappeared. She wouldn't have! She couldn't have! She better not have!
Xena glanced up just as she was about to take a bite from a drumstick.
"What?" she asked, freezing mid-bite. "Do I have something on my face?"
Yeah, a guilty expression, Gabrielle thought to herself, sending a penetrating glare in the warrior's direction. Xena felt the heat.
"What?" the warrior asked again, her eyes rounding with innocence.
Sappho blew air through her lips and looked away.
"Is something wrong?" Vettii asked as the tension in the room suddenly increased.
Gabrielle felt an uncontrollable uprising of jealous rage and was about to make a scene when an unexpected guest was ushered into the dining room.
He ran down the steps, ignoring all protocol in his haste.
"Menander!" Vettii announced in surprise, putting down his mug. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
The man was huffing and puffing, trying to catch his breath. Gabrielle recognized the name from the dinner last night. He was one of the great noblemen of Pompeii and she had gotten the impression that he was Vettii's rival. She noted that his elegant robe could not hide a rotund belly, and his equally round face was flush with the exertion of running. Menander ran his hand through shortly cropped, graying hair before wiping his palm on his tunic.
"For the love of Jupiter, Menander, sit down before you fall down!" Vettii said, rising up from his seat to offer it to his peer.
Menander waved him off, taking deep breaths.
Vettii took a step forward in concern. "What is it? What's wrong?"
The man nodded at Vettii, taking big gulps of air, urging him to be patient while he tried to compose himself. Finally, Menander was able to speak. His expression turned angry.
"Someone has STOLEN the GOLDEN CERES!"
"What did you say?" Vettii asked slowly.
"I said," Menander answered, taking another deep breath, "the Golden Ceres has been STOLEN!"
Vettii stared at his peer in disbelief. "Menander, if this is your idea of a joke, I'm NOT amused."
Menander's face turned red. "I am NOT joking!"
"I don't believe it!” Vettii shouted, enraged, “This is ridiculous! What do you take me for, some kind of fool?"
"What do you mean?" Menander yelled back.
"You expect me to believe the Golden Ceres was stolen? From your house - from right under your nose? Just a few days before it was to be handed over to me for the festival. Now it's missing? Just like that? A little convenient, wouldn't you say, Menander?"
All heads at the table turned in Menander's direction.
"And just what do you mean by that?" Menander said defiantly, taking a step forward.
All heads turned to Vettii.
"I mean, isn't it CONVENIENT that the statue should disappear just days before you would have had to turn it over to ME?" Vettii took his own step forward, bringing him nose-to-nose with the nobleman.
All heads turned to Menander.
"And what makes you think YOU were going to win this year?" Menander said, snarling.
"You know damn well I was going to win," Vettii replied, snarling right back at him.
"Over-confident, aren't we?"
"Selfish, aren't we?"
Watching this argument was making Gabrielle seasick. She stopped looking back and forth between the two men, instead taking a glance at her partner, expecting her to intervene before they came to blows.
Instead, it appeared as though Xena was not even listening. The warrior inspected a particularly succulent bit of candied fig before popping it in her mouth and chewing happily.
Gabrielle's eyes widened and then narrowed in suspicion.
She's up to something, I just know it, the bard thought studying her partner carefully.
Xena met the bard's suspicious gaze, popping another candied fig into her mouth with a smile.
Oh, she's definitely up to something. The bard tapped her fingers against the soft velvet of her couch.
The argument escalated.
"Just whom are you calling a THIEF?" Menander asked, his voice rising in pitch.
"If the sandal fits ...."
"How dare you!"
"How dare YOU!" Vettii exclaimed and pointed his finger in his rival's face. "I can see right through you, Menander! Finally, someone else was going to win and you couldn't stand the thought of that, could you? You'd rather have it stolen, than lose! Well, if you think for one moment, that this is going to prevent me from having the party here this year, then you are SADLY mistaken!"
"How DARE you accuse me of stealing!!"
"How dare you STEAL!" Vettii yelled, giving the larger man a push.
Vettii pushed back. "How dare you!"
"How dare you!"
Vettii was winding up for a punch when he found his hand caught in a vise-like grip.
"All right," Xena said calmly, pulling Vettii away easily and standing between the two. "That's enough of that." She leveled a steely gaze at both men. "You're giving me indigestion."
Menander looked like he was about to yell something else, but the Warrior Princess's stare made him swallow his words.
"You! Siddown!" she ordered, pointing a finger at Vettii's divan. Vettii sat obediently.
"And you," Xena said, turning to look at Menander. The large man's eyes grew wide. "Tell us exactly what happened." She lay gracefully on her couch and popped another fig into her mouth. "Start at the beginning."
Vettii was about to say something, but Xena silenced him with an angry glare. "No interrupting," the warrior warned. Vettii shut his mouth. She turned back to face Menander. "Go ahead."
Menander wiped his hands on his tunic and nodded.
"I ... I ... I just saw it this morning. It was in my shrine. I had a beautiful shrine built in my garden especially for it. Marble base with gold leaf borders," Menander explained for the guests' benefit.
"He's had it for so many years, he thinks he owns it!" Vettii interjected, grumbling. Menander turned red.
Xena glared at Vettii. "I said ... no interrupting! Now, quiet!" She nodded at Vettii's rival. "G'wan."
"As I said, I was admiring it just this morning. It looks so beautiful on that pedestal."
Vettii rolled his eyes.
"I left to run some errands and when I came back, it was gone! Vanished. As though it had never been there! By Jupiter, I swear," Menander pointed an accusing finger in Vettii's direction, "if you took that statue, I'll have you dragged by the balls at the Coliseum!"
Collectively, all men at the table cringed. Gabrielle narrowed her eyes in suspicion at her partner, the only one having heard the snorted chuckle swallowed by the Warrior Princess.
Vettii slammed his fist on the table. "Why would I have to STEAL it when I was going to WIN it!"
"Says who?" Menander screamed.
"Says everyone!" Vettii screamed back.
'THAT'S ENOUGH!" Xena roared. Even Gabrielle and Sappho jumped.
"That's better," Xena stated. "Now. Menander. Did anyone see anything?"
Menander shrugged. "I told you. I wasn't home."
"Yes, I heard you. But you do have servants, don't you?"
Menander shrugged again. "Yes, but they're just slaves."
"Well, they do have eyes and ears, don't they?" the warrior asked in exasperation. "Did any of them see or hear anything suspicious this afternoon?"
Menander looked at Xena incredulously. "How should I know? I didn’t ask them. They're slaves!"
Xena looked at Gabrielle and rolled her eyes. The warrior sat up on her couch and put her elbows on her knees, leaning toward the nobleman.
"WHY didn’t you ask them?"
"I didn't think to."
"Right," Xena said, slapping her hands on her knees and rising. "It's late and I'm tired. Goodnight, all."
"Wait! Where are you going?" Vettii exclaimed, rising to his feet.
The Warrior Princess turned to face her host. "Dinner was good. I hate to lose it."
"What?" Vettii asked, not understanding.
"You're both making me sick," Xena stated and turned on her heels, ignoring Sappho's snort.
"But ... but ... what should we do?" Menander asked, pleading as he took a step after the warrior.
Xena twirled around, stopping the nobleman in his tracks.
"Do? What should you do?" Xena crossed her arms and smirked. "If I were you, I'd start thinking about how to celebrate your festival WITHOUT the Golden Ceres." She gave Gabrielle a quick look and a raise of an eyebrow before turning to depart.
They all watched in silence as the Warrior Princess left the room.
"Hmm," Gabrielle said to herself with a half-grin, looking quickly at Sappho. The poet raised her eyebrows in speculation.
Vettii and Menander stared at one another dumbfounded.
"The Festival of Ceres ... ?" Vettii began.
"... with no Golden Ceres?" Menander finished.
"Why, who ever heard of such a thing?" They finished together.
"Hmm," the bard repeated under her breath and rose quickly from her divan to follow her partner out of the room.
Sappho lifted her goblet into the air.
"Here's to dessert!" she said happily before taking a good, long swallow.
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