SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
When Gabrielle woke up, she was not pleased. She didn't even have to open her eyes to know that Xena was not sleeping with her. Flipping the covers away, she jumped out of bed and scowled at the bright rays of sun that were drifting through the window.
She was a very cranky bard.
A knock on the door brought her attention around. That had better be Xena, she thought.
"Come in, Xena," she ordered, allowing her displeasure to show in her voice. "You're a little late, don'tcha think?" Gabrielle planted her hands on her hips and was tapping her foot impatiently. “You better have a good excuse for leaving me soaking in a bathtub, Warrior Princess.”
The door swung open and Sappho entered the room. Pleasant surprise burst across the poet's face when she found a completely naked Gabrielle standing before her in the soft morning sunlight.
"Well!" the poet said sporting a cheshire cat smile, "I, for one, would NEVER be late if I knew THIS was waiting for me! " Sappho couldn't help but indulge in an eyeful.
Gabrielle's hands quickly attempted to cover a variety of private bard-parts as she dove for the bedcovers.
"Uh! Sappho!" Gabrielle squealed, pulling the covers up to her chin. "I wasn't expecting YOU!"
"Obviously," Sappho stated and waggled her eyebrows as she sauntered across the room. "Relax, my friend. I have seen you naked before, remember?"
"That was different!" Gabrielle pulled the blanket higher. "It was dark."
"There was a FULL moon - very bright, as I recall," the poet said, pulling at the edge of the cover to peek underneath.
Gabrielle slapped her hand away. "Behave!"
Sappho smiled. "Now, there's a word that's NOT in my vocabulary!"
The bard futzed with the blanket, ensuring that it was covering everything of value. "Hmm! Well, it's time you learned," she said, pouting.
"Ooooh, cranky, aren't we? What's the matter? Water turn cold on ya last night?"
The bard shot her a look. "You are NOT funny!"
"Oh, we are in a foul mood today. Listen, I know something that'll cheer you right up. Come on. Get up and get dressed." Sappho grabbed the bard's green top and threw it at her. "We have places to go ... things to do."
Gabrielle picked up the top and waved her hand at Sappho. "Turn around."
The poet rolled her eyes, but complied.
"I just saw Xena," Sappho continued as Gabrielle dressed. "She's on her way to the Forum with Vettii. Apparently, this Golden Ceres thing is a lot more serious than it seemed. They're having some kind of hearing and Vettii is going to be accused of conspiracy or treachery or thievery or something equally ridiculous."
"All this over a statue?" the bard asked while she tied a bootlace.
"Well, the statue is central to the festival. And the festival is critical for a good crop and prosperous year, yadda, yadda, yadda. You know, the usual religious mumbo jumbo."
Gabrielle smiled. "You sound just like Xena."
"Yeah, well, we both have first-hand experience when it comes to the gods. It's hard not to be cynical."
Gabrielle stood up from the bed and straightened her skirt. "Why is Xena going with Vettii to the Forum?"
"Well, for one, Vettii practically begged her. I don't think even the Warrior Princess was able to resist a grown man crying. Besides, she seemed a bit interested in why the statue was so important - other than as a trophy."
The bard grabbed her staff and tapped Sappho on the shoulder.
"Oh!" the poet said, turning around. "You're ready? Good. Let's go." Sappho opened the door and motioned for Gabrielle to exit.
"Where are we going?"
"Xena asked me to wait for you and take you to the Forum. You want to go there, don't you?"
Gabrielle walked briskly out of the room, shrugging at poet in reply.
They walked quickly along the corridor. Sappho began to realize that the bard was very angry at her warrior friend.
"She told me to tell you she's sorry about last night," Sappho said, shuffling to keep up beside the bard.
"No she didn't," Gabrielle stated plainly.
They passed through the foyer and exited the house. Gabrielle pulled at the front gate angrily and swung it open. The poet closed it and rushed to catch up.
"How do you know she didn't say she was sorry?" Sappho asked after she caught up to her friend.
The poet couldn't help but notice the rhythm to Gabrielle's strut - the way the staff hit the ground in irritated syncopation with every other step.
"Because I know her. Xena never apologizes for her decisions." The next plunk of the staff was quite a bit louder.
Sappho grabbed her friend's arm and forced her to stop. "And what does that mean?"
Gabrielle shifted her stance, unsure of how much she wanted to reveal to her friend. She decided she needed to talk to someone.
"Xena had a choice last night," Gabrielle explained, her expression turning a little sad. "She could have spent the night with me. She chose to spend the night with someone else instead."
"Gabrielle," Sappho said, shaking her head. If she lived to be one thousand years old, no poem she could write would ever be able to capture the strange workings of a mind in love. "Where do you think Xena spent the night last night?"
Gabrielle pulled her arm away and continued to stomp down the street. "I'm not a child, Sappho."
"Well, you're sure acting like one! Slow down for Aphrodite's sake!" Sappho caught the bard again and swung her around. "I was with Xena last night!" she announced, stopping Gabrielle dead in her tracks.
Sappho's eyes widened as she realized how that sounded. She brought her hands up in surrender before the bard could bop her with on the head with that staff.
"Wait. I don't mean I was WITH Xena. I mean I was with Xena. We were together. Hades, what I mean is, I was there. With her and Vettii. It was the three of us." The poet slapped her own head. Good with words, aren't you, poet?
Gabrielle leaned on her staff and lifted her eyebrows. "I sincerely hope you don't mean what that sounds like."
Sappho shook her head and laughed at herself. She put her arm around the bard's shoulder and started walking along the street.
"Vettii, Xena and I," the poet resumed her explanation slowly, choosing her words a little more carefully, "spent the night at the dinner table talking about that gods-be-damned stupid statue."
"The whole night?"
"Let's just say Vettii wouldn't shut up and Xena, although she maintained polite interest, was obviously a little distracted. Although about what, I have would have no idea." Sappho's crooked smile almost got the bard to respond in kind.
"Hmmpff, nothing. She kept crossing and uncrossing her legs, biting her nail and looking at it ... playing with her leather skirt things ... peeking out the door to check on the position of the stars or something. Finally, she promised Vettii to go with him to the Forum. I think she did that just so she could leave. And let me tell you, as soon as Vettii seemed satisfied with that plan, Xena excused herself. I think she blew out half the candles in the room, she left so quickly."
The bard tried to hide her smile, but Sappho caught it and gave her a little push.
"I'm not exaggerating, either. I stayed with Vettii a little while longer until he finally went to sleep. In the morning, I saw Xena. She was heading to the garden to meet up with him when she stopped me and asked me to stay behind and wait for you. She told me she hadn't had a chance to let you know what was going on because she didn't want to wake you. Then she asked me to ASK you if you would like to join her at the Forum."
They turned off the Via Stabia onto the market street.
"She also said you're beautiful when you're sleeping."
"She did not say that." Gabrielle eyed the poet warily, but Sappho's expression neither confirmed nor denied. "Did she really say to ask me?"
"But she didn't tell you to tell me she was sorry."
The poet smiled sheepishly. "No. I made that up. But I'm sure she would have ... if she weren't Xena."
Gabrielle chuckled at that. The pair continued down the street toward the market, but were forced apart by oncoming traffic. Having lost Sappho momentarily in the shuffle, the bard stopped to wait for a group of shoppers to hurry by.
"Good morning, nice lady," a deep voice called out. She looked down to see the beggar and his dog at their usual spot, sitting on the street. She smiled; one more step and she would have tripped over him again.
"Good morning," she answered with a grin, "and my name is Gabrielle."
The dog wagged her tail. Gabrielle reached down to give the beggar's companion a pat and the pooch leaned into it, ever appreciative of a nice scratch.
"Beautiful day, Gabrielle," the man commented, smiling.
"Yes. Hope it holds for the festival party."
"The Festival of Ceres is for the rich. They have enough. Let the weather hold for us common folk, who only look forward to the festival in hopes of good business."
"Don't all Pompeians have parties on festival day?" Gabrielle asked, surprised at the beggar's statement.
"Who can afford parties?" The man shrugged. "Only the rich can afford to feed their friends. People like us just worry about our families." This the man said as he patted his dog's neck. "We go to the Temple of Ceres and give praise and hope that it will be enough to obtain her favor."
"Don't the noblemen go to the Temple to offer tribute?"
"The nobles give their tribute to one another. They 'plant their seed' and call THAT their tribute. The Festival of Ceres is nothing but an excuse for the rich to frolic. It's a wonder that Ceres doesn't burn Pompeii down to the ground in anger."
Gabrielle pulled a coin out of her pouch and offered it to the beggar. He, of course, took it with a smile.
"Here," she said. "Buy your family something good to eat in honor of Ceres."
"May the gods smile on you, beautiful Gabrielle."
"The gods frown on those who deny their destiny!" A growling voice yelled, causing both beggar and bard to jump in surprise.
The old crone was shaking her fists at them both.
"The sky will cry black tears! The very air we breathe will turn to fire! I can feel it already! Doesn't your chest ache?"
Her bony hands turned into a fist and she pounded her chest, coughing.
"Oh, shut up, Portia!" the beggar said, waving the old woman away. "You sound like an echo. Always repeating the same thing every day."
The crone scrunched up her face and gave both the beggar and his dog the finger. Then she stared directly at Gabrielle and her eyes grew wide. She reached out twisted and shaking digits toward the bard and grabbed at her shoulders.
"You may escape Pompeii, but you will not escape the flames," she said, hissing. Then she pushed the bard away and cackled.
Gabrielle watched the rag-covered crone stagger away, laughing, reaching out with emaciated arms to grab at other passerby as she spouted prophetic poetry. The busy Pompeians avoided her like the plague.
"What's wrong with her?" the bard asked Sappho, who had joined them and was standing at her side.
"She's crazy!" the poet answered in dismissal and pulled Gabrielle away.
"The gods favor the insane," the beggar mumbled as he watched the two women walk away. He reached to pet his companion for reassurance, but the dog suddenly jumped and began to howl.
"Now, don't you start going crazy on me, too!" the beggar said, pulling on the dog's collar to get her attention, "or I'll use this to buy cat food instead!" He showed his friend the silver dinar. The dog forgot why it was howling and licked the coin instead.
Sappho and Gabrielle came near the end of Via Dell'Abbondanza, passing merchants and shoppers as they argued over the price of bolts of finely woven fabric. The bard watched them bicker as she strolled by and smiled, always enjoying a good haggle and nearly walked smack into Sappho's back. The poet had stopped walking and was standing in the middle of the street.
"Sappho! Watch where you're going!" Gabrielle yelled as she rubbed her head. She had bumped into her own staff.
The poet was staring at a wide staircase which led into the Forum; the center of Pompeian political, economic and religious life. Sappho reached behind and pulled the bard around her.
"Look!" Sappho said, pointing to a grand marble entryway.
Now, the bright white marble steps were wide and long and very impressive, the bard had to admit. And the Forum was more than just a single building, it was a city within a city. The political center of Pompeii was a tremendous, surrounded by daunting columns and a raised wall that protected a great number of temples and public buildings inside. The steps leading in were merely to block wheeled vehicles and horses from entering as the Forum was restricted to pedestrian traffic only.
It was twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens and easily as big as the Coliseum in Rome.
But the grandeur of the pride of Pompeii was not what had stopped the Tenth Muse dead in her tracks.
Gabrielle followed the direction of the poet's pointing finger with her eyes until she recognized the familiar graceful walk of a certain beautiful woman. She should be able to recognize her walk by now, Gabrielle thought to herself. They'd spent half the day following her yesterday.
Sappho shuffled Gabrielle to the side of the street to watch as Phaon left the Forum accompanied by an older, but nonetheless attractive, Pompeian noblewoman. The couple stepped gracefully down the marble steps, chatting companionably.
"Would you look at that!" Sappho whispered, watching them approach with wide, gray eyes. She tugged Gabrielle into an alcove to hide them from Phaon's view.
Gabrielle shifted her staff to her other hand. "Who is she with?"
The poet watched for a while as the pair walked away. "I have no idea."
Gabrielle scratched her chin and watched her friend watch the couple saunter away. "Are they going to the Four Gods for lunch?"
Sappho did not seem to hear the question. "I've never seen her with a woman before," the poet whispered, more to herself than to Gabrielle. They watched in silence as the couple strolled by.
Phaon and her companion did not notice that they were being observed from a niche in a wall by two pairs of curious eyes. Sappho waited until the pair disappeared into the crowd of shoppers farther down the street before popping out of the hiding place.
She grabbed at Gabrielle's staff which was, of course, attached to Gabrielle and pulled the bard along as she ran off in pursuit.
"Hey!" Gabrielle's head jerked back as she was tugged forward.
"I want to see where they go!"
"What about Xena?"
The poet pulled the bard along by the staff. "Xena will be stuck in the Forum for hours."
"What if I miss her?"
The poet stopped short. Now isn't this a coincidence? There on the side of the street, sitting in the shade of a portico's awning, was Gabrielle's young friend. What was his name? Alessandro. He was playing sticks and stones with another young child, a girl.
Sappho ran over, dragging the bard with her all the way. The children stopped their game as the pair approached; Alessandro gave his companion a quick grin.
The poet threw down two gold coins between the children.
"Follow the warrior!" Sappho said to the boy, then pulled the bard away.
The children watched in silence as the comical pair scurried off, Sappho pulling the staff and the staff pulling Gabrielle. The boy picked up the two gold coins and looked at his sister with great satisfaction.
"I told ya, Hermia!"
Hermia grabbed one of the coins out of his hand. "You said 50-50!"
Alessandro frowned, then resigned himself to the deal and tucked the remaining gold coin away in his newly purchased belt pouch.
"OK. Now get going," he ordered, pointing with his thumb. "Just you remember ..."
Hermia jumped up and wiped her hands on her toga. "I know. I know. I follow the bard."
"And I follow the warrior."
Hermia nodded and then skipped off down the street in the general direction of her targets ... for the most part.
Alessandro watched as Hermia skipped from one side of the street to the other, happily weaving her way between the bustling throng of shoppers. He shook his head, wishing he hadn't needed to bring his sister in on the deal, but then he couldn't be in two places at once, could he?
He continued his game of sticks and stones, waiting patiently for the warrior, knowing without a doubt that she would be along ... and would most certainly want to know the whereabouts of a certain lady with hair the color of the sun.
Sappho and Gabrielle followed Phaon back down the Via Dell'Abbondanza. Keeping a safe distance, they continued to pursue the pair even after they crossed over the Via Stabia leaving the market area behind.
Sappho admitted to Gabrielle that she had never been to this part of the city. Shops abruptly disappeared as soon as they crossed to the other side of Via Stabia, as though an invisible boundary had prevented the business district from intruding into the residential area.
At first the homes were grand. Gabrielle immediately spotted a huge dwelling on a corner adorned with a golden sign identifying it as the House of Menander. She couldn't help but scrutinize the portico of the home, trying to get a peak within. But the courtyard beyond was lushly landscaped and the interior was blocked from view.
They passed a small cross street and immediately the style of the buildings changed. This part of the city was obviously not for the rich. The houses were small and set very close together. Gone were the intricate frescoes and painted murals that adorned the arched doorways of the rich and famous. Instead, the color of stone and basaltic lava painted the street in the soft natural tones.
Following Phaon without being spotted was becoming more difficult as pedestrian traffic had dwindled away to practically nothing. More than once, the sleuths had to duck into a doorway to avoid being detected.
Just as the bard began to believe that they were going to end up leaving the city altogether, Phaon and her mysterious companion paused at a doorway in a high stone wall and disappeared within. Sappho and Gabrielle quickly scooted up to read the sign above: House of Julia Felix.
"Do you know this Julia Felix?" Gabrielle asked as they both tried to peak through the iron gate and examine the dwelling within. The home was much larger than those they had seen so far; it appeared to take up almost one third of the block, perhaps more.
Sappho whistled at the apparent size; it looked like a palace.
"Whew! I think this place is bigger than Menander's. I've never heard of Julia Felix, though. Have you?"
The bard snorted. "Who me? How would I know Julia Felix? I’m just at tourist, remember?"
The bard and poet pressed their faces against the bars of the gate, trying to get a better view. A familiar figure paused as he walked in the shade of a colonnade, which ran the length of the front of the house. He recognized the two faces peering in immediately.
"Sappho! Gabrielle! What in Jupiter's name are you doing?" Paris exclaimed, laughing at their noses sticking through the gate. "Why don't you just come in?"
He left the shade of the pillared corridor, crossed the garden and hurried to the gate.
"Come on in!" he said with a smile as he opened the door to his friends.
"Well, we didn't want to intrude," Sappho explained, feeling very embarrassed at having been caught by somebody they knew.
Paris laughed at the comment. "Intrude? Here at Julia's? No one intrudes at Julia Felix's. Everyone's welcomed here. Everyone who has money that is - especially famous poets and wonderful bards! Julia will be thrilled beyond words to have you here." He ushered his friends along the gravel path, leading them up two short stairs onto the colonnade and into the entrance of the home.
As in Vettii's home, the entrance led into a small atrium, cooled by the sound of a bubbling fountain. Gabrielle watched as a beautifully carved, mischievous, horned faun spouted water from a good-sized penis grasped firmly in his hand. He sprinkled water into a sparkling marble base. As they passed by, Gabrielle peeked over the edge and was surprise to see the tiny statues of a variety of naked nymphs enjoying the shower being provided by the faun.
Paris led them through the atrium into the main peristyle, a tremendous garden filled with a rainbow of flowers and colorful shrubs. Gabrielle felt as though she had stepped through a portal and stumbled into a fantasy land.
“We must be over the rainbow,” she mumbled to herself, staring at the colors in wonder.
The musing was reinforced as Gabrielle watched two women prance like fairies through the flowers in a flurry of pomp and circumstance to greet the new arrivals.
"Oh Paris! Who have you brought us!"
Gabrielle found herself straining her necks to look up at the woman who had greeted the threesome first. She was unbelievably tall. Or was it her hair that was unbelievably tall? The bard couldn't tell and found herself staring up and up and up as the woman's bright yellow coif piled impossibly high on the top of her head.
It looked like a beehive. The bard tilted her head. There were, in fact, several jeweled bees adorning it. The bard blinked. One was flitting about on a wire at the top. It WAS a beehive.
The woman fluttered large eyelashes and extended a long, thin arm to greet her guests.
"Welcome to the House of Julia," she said smoothly.
Gabrielle grasped her hand to shake it, noticing the length of her brightly painted nails. By the gods, she could barbecue shish-ka-bob on those nails.
The woman beamed. "Such strong hands! My, but you MUST be an Amazon!"
The bard smiled, shook the hand once and released it.
"And what a big staff you have!"
"Thank you ... I think."
This statement caused beehive's companion to erupt into a titter of giggles. Their other greeter was as round as she was tall. At least, Gabrielle thought to herself, I think it's a he. It was dressed in a shimmering halter and sarong, wrapped purposely to reveal a round, smooth belly. He had no less than three rings piercing his belly button. The bard lifted her eyes from the body jewelry to inspect the long black wig that ended on his shoulders and flipped up so stiffly, he could have carried a scroll around and not dropped it.
It was definitely a man; the shadow of a beard proved it. In fact, Gabrielle thought as she examined the beehive one more time, they were both men. The bard looked quickly down at the two sets of feet. Yup, definitely men. Hairy toes gave them away every time.
The bees nest put her hands on her hips. "Paris, aren't you going to introduce us?"
The reprimand brought Paris's hand away from his mouth, where he had placed it to hide the grin on his face as he watched Gabrielle’s expression.
"Oh, where are my manners." Paris pushed the poet forward. "This is Sappho. I'm sure you've heard of her, haven't you? And this," Paris pushed the bard forward, "is Gabrielle. A bard from Poteidaia. She's here with the Warrior Princess. I'm sure you've heard of her as well."
Beehive clapped her hands in delight.
"Oh my, Paris! Julia is just going to DIE when she finds out who's here! Oh, do come in. Do come in." She shuffled the new guests along, stepping between Gabrielle and Sappho to push them by the small of their backs. "I can't wait to introduce you."
She ushered them along the path through the heart of the garden.
"I'm Labia Majora, by the way. And this is my friend, Bougain Villae. We are the official hostesses here at the House of Julia. We are SOOO happy to have you here. You are JUST going to have the most WONDERFUL time. Tell me, do you think the Warrior Princess herself will be visiting us? We'd just LOVE to have her here. We have the most perfect room for her. I think she would just LOVE our dungeon!" Labia Majora babbled as she herded Sappho and Gabrielle along. The pair could do nothing but follow and occasionally glance back at Paris, who had resumed hiding his smile behind a hand.
Sappho risked a glance at the bard, but Gabrielle caught her at it. They both had to look away quickly to avoid laughing out loud. In unison, they glanced back to see a smiling Bougain Villea bringing up the rear. She waved at them with a happy smile.
The pair slowed their steps, allowing Labia Majora to walk ahead. She continued to babble, unaware that her charges were no longer listening.
"Gabrielle," Sappho whispered, "I've been meaning to ask you."
"What?" the bard replied between the teeth of a smile she was flashing at Labia, who was checking on their progress over her shoulder.
"What ever happened to your belly button ring? Didn't Xena like it?"
The bard looked down at the belly button in question, almost forgetting what Sappho was talking about. Then she remembered and it brought a big smile to her face. She had gotten a piercing the last time they were together.
"Oh, she liked it all right. Problem was ... so did Argo."
"Yeah, she kept nibbling on it. Had to remove it. Couldn't take the horse drool."
Sappho was still laughing even as they arrived at their destination.
They were brought into a very large triclinium, at least twice the size of Vettii's and obviously much more than a dining room. Not only was there a large round table with accompanying divans, but the room was filled with chairs and sofas, and an assortment of pillows of all shapes and sizes.
No trappings of custom here. Sappho and Gabrielle were invited into the parlor to a party already in progress. There were scantily clad men and women of all shapes and sizes partaking of every possible festivity in every available spot in the room. Gabrielle surveyed the area, snapping her head around to look twice at a couple in a corner, fully engaged in the act of coupling and completely oblivious to everyone else in the room. And they weren't the only ones.
Gabrielle dared a look at Sappho. The poet was blushing beet red.
"Well!" the Tenth Muse said, rubbing the back of her neck with her hand and glancing at the bard demurely. "Let the games begin!"
Gabrielle was about to recommend that they bee-line out of there but fast, when Labia Majora clapped her hands together loudly thus announcing their presence to the room.
"Everyone! Everyone! Look who I found wandering in our garden!"
To their amazement, everyone … and everything … and all heads turned in their direction
Labia swung all of her nails elegantly in Sappho's direction.
"This is Sappho ... the Tenth Muse ... for those of you who have no culture."
"That would be everybody in the room," a fat man laughed from his chair, raising his goblet.
"That's why I felt I had to inform you," Labia explained, rolling her eyes. She turned her attention on the bard. "And THIS is Gabrielle, the bard who belongs to the WARRIOR PRINCESS herself no less."
The murmurs fluttered across the room and several men and women regarded Gabrielle with a downright embarrassing expression.
The bard poked at a chuckling poet's foot with her staff.
Suddenly, Sappho and Gabrielle found themselves being greeted by the very mysterious woman whom they had been following.
"Sappho! What a great honor it is for me to have you here!" She strolled forward and extended her hand in greeting. "I am Julia Felix and this is my home."
Sappho gulped and clasped Julia's hand, shaking it politely. The poet was at a loss for words; standing right behind Julia Felix was Phaon, staring in quiet surprise.
Gabrielle watched as a range of emotion cross Phaon's face. Surprise, a brief flicker of embarrassment, which could not hide the tiniest flash of anger, which gave way to a controlled and very well practiced, courteous smile.
Julia Felix motioned for them to enter and so they did. She led them over to the table, smiling and nodding at her patrons as they passed.
"We love your poetry, Sappho. I have a slave who sings it very well, as a matter of fact. If you'd like to have her, then just let me know and she'll be yours for the day."
Sappho shot a glance at Gabrielle. The bard's eyes were wide as saucers. Phaon was lagging slightly behind the group as Julia led them along.
She pressed discreetly between the pair so she could whisper. "Sappho, what are you doing here?"
"Damned if I know," the poet mumbled and then quickly corrected herself. "Why, looking for a party, of course!" she replied brightly.
Phaon narrowed her eyes, then regarded Gabrielle. "And what are you doing here?"
"Looking for the same party ... I guess," the bard replied as she watched a woman nibble on another's breast.
"Does Xena know you're here?" Phaon asked, whispering into the bard's ear.
The very mention of her partner's name made the bard flush.
"Of course," she squeaked. "Of course," she corrected her voice to a normal pitch. "She told us to meet her here."
Phaon raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"
"Oh, yes," Gabrielle continued, "Xena's heard all about this place. Told me she really wanted us to try it. She asked me to check it out first, you know. See if it meets our high standards. She's very picky about where she goes for ... for ... for ..."
"A bath?" Sappho prompted, hoping what she just saw through a doorway was right.
Gabrielle looked at the poet quickly. Sappho nodded.
"Umm, yeah, that's right. A bath. Xena heard this was the best little bath house in Pompeii."
"The best bathhouse?" Phaon repeated incredulously.
"And she would be right!" Julia Felix said, pausing as she came to the large round table and inviting Sappho and Gabrielle to sit. "We are the best bathhouse in Pompeii. It is the biggest and the best. Besides, where else can one go where women AND men can bathe together."
"They can?" Gabrielle asked, gulping.
"Only here at my house can men and women frolic freely, without the restrictions of Pompeian customs." Julia lifted her hand and summoned a slave. Instantly several were hovering around them, offering food and pouring wine.
Julia Felix smiled at the bard. "Obviously, Xena is a woman who appreciates the more carnal pleasures of life."
“She does have many skills,” Sappho stated, grunting when the end of a staff ended up in her stomach.
"Can I assume that you will attend to her needs when she gets here?" Julia asked the bard politely as she offered a tray of oysters. Gabrielle happily helped herself to one. "Or does she have a taste for something different today?"
Gabrielle choked on her oyster. She grabbed at a mug full of wine and gulped it down.
"And what about you, Sappho? How would you like to take your pleasure this afternoon?"
For the first time in her entire life, Sappho was speechless.
Phaon walked over to Sappho's couch and sat gracefully on its edge. "I will be taking care of Sappho this afternoon," she announced.
A mouthful of wine squirted out of Gabrielle’s nose.
"Are you all right, my dear?" Julia asked with concern and leaned forward to tap the bard on the back.
"Yes, I'm fine," Gabrielle replied, wiping her mouth and nose with the back of her hand. She lifted the goblet and smiled. "Hmmm. Great wine."
Julia Felix returned the smile politely then looked over in Phaon's direction. "Phaon, don't you already have an appointment this afternoon?"
"You can make other arrangements, can't you, Julia? After all, this is the Tenth's Muse's first visit to our house. I'm sure you want to give her everything she wants."
Julia regarded Sappho. "Do you want Phaon?"
Sappho was certain she had lost the capacity to ever speak again in her entire life.
The poet nodded and drank quickly from her goblet, carefully avoiding Phaon's eyes.
Julia Felix rose from her divan. "Very well. I'll make the arrangements. Just let Phaon know when you are ready for your bath. I'll have Labia Majora waiting for the Warrior Princess. You'll know as soon as she comes."
Sappho watched helplessly as the bard choked on another oyster.
"Enjoy your day at my house," Julia Felix said smiling graciously and then she departed, the bottom of her long silken white toga trailing behind.
Gabrielle and Sappho watched in silence until she was gone, then their eyes locked together and they gulped in unison.
"Well," Phaon said as she folded her hands in her lap, "it seems you have me all to yourself for the afternoon." She stared at the poet, grinning at Sappho's reddening cheeks. "I don't believe I've ever seen you so reticent, Sappho." Phaon shifted closer and took the poet's hand. "This is what you wanted, isn't it?"
Sappho stared down at the hand holding hers. "No."
Phaon jumped a little in surprise and pulled her hand away, but Sappho held on.
"I mean, yes. I mean, no. I mean ... that's not what I mean." The poet sighed wearily. Never before had she ever so completely lost the ability to speak Greek.
"I mean yes," Sappho stated firmly. "Yes, of course I want you. But not like this. Not here. Not in a place like this."
"What's wrong with this place?" Phaon replied defensively.
Sappho smiled and squeezed her friend's hand. "There's nothing wrong with this place. It's just that ... it's just ... you don't belong here, Phaon. What are you doing here?"
Phaon sighed and removed her hand from Sappho's. She looked over at Gabrielle, who was sipping slowly on her wine and listening to the conversation closely.
"This is where I live," Phaon explained to both women. "Julia Felix owns me, Sappho. I am a slave."
Sappho sat up in surprise. "That is NOT possible."
"I assure you, it is," Phaon replied, smiling sadly.
"You can't be a slave. You're too ... you're too ..."
Phaon crossed her arms and looked at the poet, smirking slightly. "I'm too what?"
Sappho's mouth opened and shut, unable to find the right words. She looked over at Gabrielle, desperate for the bard's help.
"You're too educated ... and you seem so independent," the bard offered in response. Sappho smiled at her friend gratefully.
"Thank you," Phaon said graciously. "I'm just luckier than most. I have been a slave all of my life, Gabrielle. I was born into this house and Julia has raised me as if I were her own daughter. I've had the best of everything, as you can see. I have nothing to complain about."
"So, then, you are happy here?" Gabrielle asked, looking directly at Phaon and trying not to judge.
"Happy?" Phaon looked at Gabrielle and then at Sappho with a somewhat bemused expression. "Am I happy? I have never thought about that, Gabrielle. It's not a question of happiness. I have no choice, you see."
Phaon wiped a few stray strands of long black hair back over her shoulder and Sappho watched with shining eyes, thinking it was the most graceful thing she had ever seen anyone do in her entire life.
"What do you mean, you have no choice? There is always a choice," Sappho said a bit angrily.
"In Pompeii, you are either the owner of a House or you are a slave. This is the House of Julia Felix," Phaon explained, including everything around them with an elegant wave of her hand before resting it against her chest. "And I am a slave."
"I think I need a drink," Sappho mumbled. Phaon began to rise to fulfill the request, but the poet grabbed her arm and pulled her back down onto the sofa. "Don't. I'll get it." Sappho scooted off the divan and stood at the table to pour herself a goblet of the warm, sweet Pompeian wine. She downed it quickly and then poured herself another.
"I hope you don't think less of me," Phaon stated as she looked at Gabrielle
Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed together and she shook her head. "Of course not. I'm totally against slavery. So is Xena. And there's entirely too much of it going on in the Roman Empire."
"Rome was built upon slavery, Gabrielle," Phaon said, smiling sadly. "Those who are conquered by Rome become their slaves, and Rome has conquered most of the world. It is the foundation of the empire. Without slavery, I think Rome would collapse."
"I'll have to remember to mention that to Xena," Gabrielle said. "It's been very hard for us to be here and not want to do something about it."
Phaon shrugged. "What could you have done, the two of you? You can't change the world, Gabrielle."
"Yes, you can," the bard stated with grin.
"End slavery?" Phaon asked with a snort. "Why, where would you even start?"
"One slave at a time. And I know just where to start."
Sappho twirled around, almost spilling her wine. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I was thinking ," Gabrielle said and she shifted forward on the couch, sitting closer to the edge,“can't a slave buy her freedom?"
Phaon nodded. "Yes, a slave can buy her own freedom. But first, you have to have enough money to do that and then, your master has to be willing to let you go."
"And Julia Felix would probably never let you go, right?" Sappho commented.
"I don't know about that. For the right price, Julia would do just about anything."
"Well, then? What's stopping you?" Sappho exclaimed, suddenly feeling hopeful.
Phaon sighed. "Sappho, I don't have a single dinar to my name. Julia does not pay me for what I do here, you know."
"Well, she should!" the poet blurted. "I didn't mean it like that."
Phaon laughed and pulled at the poet's hand so she would sit back down on their couch. "I really do like you, Sappho."
The poet blushed beet red and looked away.
Gabrielle scratched her chin and thought. "You know, I bet I know someone who has enough money to make Julia Felix an offer she couldn't refuse." The bard raised her eyebrows and looked over at the poet.
Sappho lifted her own brow in response. "Really? Who?"
Gabrielle slumped, giving Sappho an exasperated look. Then the poet's eyes popped as though she had just been hit by a bolt of Zeus' lightning.
Sappho jumped up from the sofa and grabbed the bard's face with her hands, planting a big kiss on Gabrielle's lips before the bard had a chance to do anything about it. She pulled away making a big smacking noise and beamed at her friend.
"You are a genius, Gabrielle. An absolute genius! One day I'm going to kidnap you from that warrior and steal you away to my school where we'll live happily ever after!"
Phaon was smiling at the display. "I don't believe Xena would be very happy about that, Sappho."
"Well, then she'll just have to come and live there with us if she wants to be happy, won't she?"
The poet turned to face Phaon and got very serious. "Phaon, I don't want to force you into anything. I'm willing to buy your freedom from Julia Felix. If you wish, you can return with me to Lesbos or not. Either way, after the purchase, you will be a free woman. Do you understand?"
"Sappho, I don't know what to say."
The poet sat down on the couch and took the woman's hand within her own. "Just tell me it's what you want ... your freedom, that is ... all you have to do is wish it and it will be yours."
"It'll cost too much, Sappho. I couldn't possibly ask you ..."
"Phaon, I'm a very wealthy woman. I won't spend half as much in buying your freedom as I do in wine each year."
"Now THAT," Gabrielle said, raising her goblet in the air, "is probably very true."
"I will owe you my life ..."
"Just give me your friendship," Sappho said softly, silently wishing for a million other things.
Phaon touched the poet's cheek and smiled. "You already have that."
Gabrielle took a quick sip of wine and looked away, trying to give Sappho and Phaon their private moment.
She was feeling pretty good, actually. Sappho and Phaon were on the same couch staring into each other's eyes and she had helped that to happen. She was finally able eat a few oysters and other bits of delectable finger foods. The wine was warm and sweet; the atmosphere relaxed, if not a bit heady.
The bard's eyes scanned the room taking in the various lustful, and some downright surprising, activities with an artist's eye. A few positions she filed away in her brain for future stories - and then there were others ... well she was just going to have to try a few of them out for herself. Where was a warrior when you needed one?
Paris saw his opportunity and took it. He had been waiting off to the side, watching the conversation between the three women. Finally, it looked as though Sappho and Phaon were talking privately and Gabrielle was the odd man out. Pushing away from the wall, he sauntered over to the table, smiling when the bard noticed his approach.
"Gabrielle, don't tell me Julia Felix left you here alone with no one to keep you company?" He flashed a dashing smile at the golden-haired woman and waited for her to ask him to join her. She didn't.
"Oh no, I'm not alone," she answered, much to the mime's dismay. She nodded in Sappho and Phaon's direction and Paris looked over, wondering if she meant they were a threesome. Maybe the bard wasn't as innocent as he thought?
"Well, then would you care to make it a foursome?" He asked, hoping for the best.
The bard looked confused. "What?"
"No ... we would not!" Sappho stated strongly, standing up from her divan. She gave Paris a curiously dangerous look, pretty effective for a poet Gabrielle had to admit, and held out her hand for the bard to take.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Let's go have that bath!"
The three women exited the room hand in hand, leaving the mime behind to wonder what it was he had said wrong. Paris's consternation melted into a smile. Luck was still with him, for no where else in Pompeii but at the House of Julia would he be able to indulge in the delicious sight of a bare bard in a bath.
This wasn't a bath, this was a clubhouse, Gabrielle thought to herself as she peered around the corner of the doorway. The bathing pool was huge and full of patrons happily engaged in conversation and/or mutual bathing. To her relief, she saw nothing carnal going on in the water. There must be some unwritten law about no copulating in the pool during business hours.
Still, everyone in the pool was completely naked and Gabrielle had never bathed publicly before. She turned away from the doorway and leaned her back against the wall, sighing.
"I can do this," she said to herself, mustering up the courage to enter the busy bathing area. She looked down at her body. One hand was across her chest trying to cover as much as possible, the other hand was protecting golden locks of the curly type.
Now, how could she enter the pool looking perfectly natural and at ease and still maintain maximum coverage? She peeked around the corner of the doorway looking into the bath once again.
Everyone was pretty much occupied. Maybe no one would see her? Gabrielle spotted Paris wading in the water at the far end of the pool, near some steps. He was watching the entrance to the women's locker room with way too much interest, in Gabrielle's opinion.
She scooted back to her hiding position against the wall. Hades damn it! She should have gone in with Phaon and Sappho. No one would have noticed her then. The bard peeked out again. Centaur shit! Now Sappho and Phaon were looking for her.
What she needed was a distraction. Something to make everyone look away in the other direction. Then she could jump on in and no one would notice until it was too late. She would just wade on up to them, chin deep in water, acting like she'd been there all along.
No such luck.
"I know I can do this." Taking a deep breath, she put her hands down , stood tall, turned to take a step into the doorway and froze. Someone's warm palm had just lain itself on her shoulder.
The warm hand pulled her away from the door and Gabrielle turned to be greeted by a pair of sparkling blue eyes, an arched eyebrow and a very naked Warrior Princess.
"Mind if I join you for a bath?" Xena's contralto voice was music to the bard's ears.
"Xena!" Gabrielle said smiling, as she gave her partner's forearm a squeeze. Then her smile turned to a frown as she thought about it. "What in Hades are you doing here?"
The warrior smirked. "I could ask you the same question, ya know." Xena strolled passed Gabrielle to enter the bathing room first. "C'mon. Let's get wet."
The bard could not have wished for a better distraction. Xena entered the room and strolled confidently along the edge of the pool, drawing each and every eye to her as she walked by. The bard waited, peeking around the doorway, until the warrior had the undivided attention of everyone there, even Paris.
Gabrielle stood, poised and ready to go, until the timing was just right. Xena was approaching the far corner and all eyes were on the Warrior Princess.
She scurried across the marble floor as fast as the slippery surface would allow and hopped into the water, making a slight but, for the most part, unnoticed splash. Before anyone was the wiser, she had bobbed across the pool over to Sappho and Phaon and was humming and washing her armpits before anyone even realized she was there.
The poet was the first to notice.
"Hey! When did you get here?"
Paris whirled around, his face crestfallen at having missed the opportunity.
Gabrielle smiled innocently. "Water's great isn't it?" She resumed her humming and washed her neck.
Sappho regarded her friend through lidded eyes. "Right."
In the meantime, the Warrior Princess was making her descent into the water. She waded over to a side wall and brought her arms up to lean against it. Two slaves ran over quickly; one offered a goblet of wine, the other some soap. The warrior took the wine and sipped it, then motioned for the other slave to wash her back, which the servant did most happily.
Gabrielle stopped preening and stared at her partner opened-mouthed. She seemed perfectly at ease here in this environment, as though she'd been here a thousand times before.
Xena moved her hair away from her back to give the slave better access. The young servant made a quick decision and peeled off her toga, then jumped into the water and resumed her task.
"Gabrielle," Phaon said softly as she waded over. The distraction made the bard realize she had better close her mouth. She did, but she could not take her eyes off of Xena.
"Gabrielle," Phaon repeated, finally getting the bard's attention. "Xena is so magnificent."
Gabrielle could only nod in agreement. "I know."
"If I were you," the courtesan advised, "I'd go on over there before someone else lays claim to her."
Now THAT got the bard's full attention. "What do you mean?"
"It's a strict rule of the house, Gabrielle. No patron of Julia's is left alone. At least, not for very long."
Phaon smiled. "No, you're not." She nodded over in Paris' direction. "Paris has been told to administer to your needs. He just hasn't been able to figure out what you want ... yet."
"Paris?" Gabrielle turned to face the woman completely. "Paris works here? I thought he was an actor?"
"He is an actor. He is also a slave of the House of Julia. I told you Gabrielle, in Pompeii, either you are the head of a House, or ..."
"... you're a slave," Gabrielle finished for her, suddenly feeling extremely sorry for Paris. She had been avoiding him the entire time. She might have gotten him in trouble.
The bard turned in the water to look at Xena. The warrior had waved off the slave and was leaning back against the wall, arms spread, taking an occasional sip from her silver goblet. The water in the pool was as clear and blue as her eyes, and Gabrielle found herself captivated by them as Xena lowered her gaze to stare right at her.
Gabrielle felt the pull all the way down to her groin. The corner of Xena's mouth lifted in a tiny grin and the bard's mouth went dry. Suddenly the water felt as though it was hot enough to boil.
Oh, no, you don't! Gabrielle's sudden thought completely broke the trance. Not here. Not like this. What do you think I am ... your slave? You can just throw me some 'come hither' look and I'll waddle right over to wash your back?
Gabrielle shot a look at Xena that clearly communicated two things. One, she was still angry about last night. And two ... and two ... the bard was still having a hard time figuring out number two, but there was something about this entire situation that was making her angry. For starters, why was Xena here in the first place? The answer to that question led to something else that the bard didn't even want to think about. At least, not right now.
The Warrior Princess had a lot of explaining to do before she was going to get this bard to wash her back.
Gabrielle crossed her arms and turned away, ignoring the flabbergasted expression on her partner's face.
Then she waded over to Paris and smiled.
"So, Paris, weren't you saying something about giving me a tour of the theater sometime?" the bard said to a speechless mime, even as she ventured a sidelong glance in her partner's direction.
Xena was livid.
Gabrielle continued the conversation, finally drawing a timid response from the actor. She couldn't see Xena, but she could tell from Paris's expression that the warrior was impaling him with her patented glare.
"Huh?" The mime tore his eyes away from the warrior and looked down into sparkling green. "Gabrielle. I think Xena is about to kill me."
The bard chuckled and patted the actor's arm. "Don't worry about it, Paris. If she does, you won't feel a thing. Now, how about that theater?"
There was a splash of water and Gabrielle couldn't resist turning to look. They all watched as Xena exited the pool. She grabbed an offered towel away from a slave and wrapped it around her body, taking unhurried but nonetheless irritated steps in the direction of the locker room.
Sappho bobbed up and down running over to Gabrielle as quickly as the water would allow.
"Gabrielle! What are you doing?"
The bard turned, feigning annoyance at being interrupted from her conversation.
"What do you mean?"
Sappho pointed to the warrior as she left the room. "Xena's leaving!"
"So. She can leave if she wants to. Or she can stay."
"Gabrielle, I don't understand you," Sappho said in exasperation.
The bard turned around to face her completely. "Look, I'm not some slave she can just beckon over to wash her back. Besides, what was she doing here in the first place? She didn’t come here because she knew she would find me here. For Zeus sake, we didn't even know we were coming here! You see how she acted? Like she owned the place. Obviously, she knows her way around a whorehouse ... no offense Phaon."
The courtesan was laughing. "None taken, Gabrielle. However, you do realize that Xena was a warlord. One of the greatest, I hear. I'm sure she is no stranger to this type of pleasure."
"Maybe so, but she's not a warlord anymore. So it doesn't explain why she had to come here today."
"She's probably asking herself the same thing about you," Phaon said as she floated away from the bard, leaving her with that thought.
Oh gods, the bard bit her lip as she looked at the locker room door. She probably thinks I came here to ... came here to ... stupid ... stupid ... stupid.
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