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Maidens breathlessly awaiting the Unveiling of the Golden Ceres

- Pompeii


Chapter 17

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 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 type 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 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.

Xena smirked.

"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 a 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 arch a brow 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 lagged behind, waiting as the noblemen and merchants through marched 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 pass them by. They watched through the wrought iron as Sappho placed a pouch full of coins into the waiting hand of a boy hiding in the bushes - Alessandro.

Sappho gave the young lad a pat on the head and turned away, entering the courtyard with a very satisfied grin.

Xena waited quietly, watching, until the poet disappeared into the front door before she followed, reaching a strong warrior hand back to grab a handful of Gabrielle’s top and pull her along.

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 – a house worthy of Ceres’s blessing. 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, so hard, the Julia Felix’s luxourious hair came toppling from her head. Xena couldn't help but snort, as she stared at the wig laying in a heap on the ground.. 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 breast floated like two islands of tissue paper away. The wig hit him solidly in the face, submerging him once again.

"Thanks, Xena," Sappho said sincerely and patted her friend, the warrior affectionately on the arm. Together, 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 reached inside Sappho’s tunic and an evil grin graced the warrior’s features.

“That’s not nice, Warrior Princess,” Sappho said, blushing fiercely.

Xena pulled out the sealed parchment and handed it to her partner.

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!"

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