SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Gabrielle paused at the water channel in the middle of the street waiting for a cart to rumble by before quickly running across to the other side. The wagon left behind the distinctive scent of pickled olives floating in the breeze.
"Definitely getting hungry," the bard thought, realizing that all the smells of this wonderful market were beginning to make her mouth water.
She ambled along without a care in the world, admiring the colorful storefronts with their painted frescoes and intricately tiled entryways. She stopped, leaning on her staff to appreciate a beautiful rendition of Mercury coming out of a shrine with a sack of money, painted beside Venus on an elephant-drawn chariot escorted by golden-winged cherubs. Underneath this drawing was the name of an establishment that boasted the best weaving and dyeing of woolen goods in the city. It hit her that this beautiful piece of artwork was nothing more than an advertisement.
Gabrielle ambled along the street, oblivious to how far she had wandered from her original spot. She came upon an eatery displaying scrumptious looking meat and vegetables skewered on a spit.
Smiling eagerly, she pointed to one and the merchant handed it over, trading it for one of Gabrielle’s shiny coins. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the young boy she had asked for directions. He seemed to be watching her, but when she stared directly at him, he turned away and appeared to look at something else.
Gabrielle shrugged, took a bite of the succulent shish-ka-bob and continued on her way, humming happily as she strolled.
The lad chuckled mischievously, getting into the spirit of the game, and followed along behind the bard in hot pursuit.
Some time later, the shish-ka-bob long gone and the bard's stomach beginning to complain again, Gabrielle found herself pausing at the counter of yet another eatery, eyeing the sweet cakes and wondering if she should get one for Xena, as well. The warrior loved her sweets.
"BY THE MUSES, I DO NOT BELIEVE IT!"
The bard jumped at the shout and looked around. There was a group of Pompeians heading quickly in her direction. At it's center, amid a small assembly of tall, attractive and beautifully dressed young men and women, walked a short but nonetheless commanding individual. She was wearing a white toga and sandals, and sported a big smile that lit her face all the way up to her bright silver-gray eyes. The woman stretched out her arms and practically flew over to the bard. There was no mistaking that unruly head of black braids she called hair.
Gabrielle abandoned the sweet cakes and headed straight for her friend, almost dropping her scroll bag in the process. The entourage parted, waiting a respectable distance behind to give the great Greek poet a chance to embrace and greet her friend properly.
Sappho hugged Gabrielle, lifting her up in the air to give her a swing around.
"Whoa...I don't remember you being so strong!" Gabrielle said after her feet were back on the ground.
"And I don't remember you being this beautiful!" The poet's eyes traveled over the bard, twinkling in appreciation for every new muscle and luscious curve she observed. "You look wonderful, Gabrielle! Absolutely delicious! Doesn't she?" The poet glanced back at her friends for confirmation.
"Yes, she does," a young man answered with a smile. He had been doing some discreet appreciation of his own.
"Stop it, Sappho." The bard poked at the poet's arm and blushed at the compliment. Sappho merely grinned, enjoying the attractive pink that was creeping into the bard's cheeks.
"I am soooo happy to see you!" the poet said, grabbing Gabrielle's hand and giving it a squeeze. "What a happy coincidence. And of all places, here in Pompeii!"
A thought seemed to flash into Sappho's mind and her face lit up with excitement.
"By the Muses, you're here in Pompeii, aren't you?"
Gabrielle laughed at the statement. "Well, that’s where we are, isn't it?"
"That means SHE is here too, right?" Sappho looked around excitedly.
"If by SHE, you mean, Xena,” Gabrielle answered in a whisper, low enough for only Sappho to hear, “yeah, she's here, too."
"Where is she?"
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, studying the poet. That mischievous twinkle in the Tenth Muse's eyes could only mean one thing: trouble. Just what was she up to?
"Why are you so interested in where SHE is?"
"I just want to say hi!"
"Yeah, right." Gabrielle shifted the bag on her shoulder. "She went to a tavern to book us passage back to Greece. Why? What's going on, Sappho?"
"Back to Greece! Back to Greece! You can't go back to Greece! Not yet, anyway. You just got here, didn't you?"
"All right, what's going on, Sappho? What are you up to?"
"By all the muses, Gabrielle!" Sappho slapped her forehead and rolled her eyes. “You have no idea what’s going on, do you?” The bard stared back at her, apparently clueless.
"Look, Gabrielle, why don't you come with me right now. We'll sit and have a drink and something to eat and I'll explain everything." The poet took the bard by the arm and started to lead her away.
"Just wait a minute now!" Gabrielle pulled away, regaining possession of her arm and leaning closely toward the poet to whisper in her ear. "I have to meet Xena. I'm late as it is." The bard suddenly realized she had no idea how much time had elapsed since they had separated.
"There's a wonderful tavern the next door down. It has great food and even better wine! Just come for a few minutes and have a bite to eat."
"I don't know...I should have been back a while ago."
"Another five minutes won't kill ya."
Gabrielle looked down the street and scratched her chin. It couldn't have been that long, could it? And she was hungry, after all.
"Well, all right. But only for five minutes. Then I have to get back."
"Great!" The famous Greek poet, known the world over as the Tenth Muse, wrapped her arm around the shoulder of her dear friend and together they led the entourage down the street and into a very beautiful and most delicious smelling establishment.
From the corner of a stone doorway, the boy watched the woman whose hair sparkled like the gold of sun disappear into a very high class tavern. He checked the sun's position and then sprinted along the Via Dell'Abbondanza ti the spot where he had agreed to meet the woman who was a warrior and had eyes the color of the sky.
They sat around a large wooden table, waiting for a waitress to finish serving the drinks. When the servant was done, Sappho nodded her thanks and turned to Gabrielle.
"This place has the best sweet wine in the city. Try it. You'll love it."
Sappho raised her goblet, took a big gulp of the delicious liquid and smacked her lips. She paused and looked around the table, wondering why no one was joining in.
"What?" The poet asked and then realized her social faux pas.
"Where are my manners?" Sappho said, smiling apologetically to the group.
"You never had any," one of the young men replied, causing a round of chuckles.
"That may be true, but let me introduce you all to my beautiful young friend anyway." Sappho put down her mug and pointed to the first woman sitting just to the left of Gabrielle.
"This is Lavinia Claudia, a poet and a rich widow. Two very good things to be in Pompeii."
Lavinia nodded her head in the bard's direction and smiled at Sappho in obvious agreement.
"Next is Flavia Theodore. She's a singer but it's a good thing she doesn't do it for a living." Sappho winked at the woman, who promptly stuck out her tongue.
"This is Tiro. He's handsome and charming. Watch out for him," Sappho advised in a feigned whisper. The young man smiled broadly, obviously pleased by the poet’s compliment – and her warning.
"Next to him is Ciro. Now what can I say about Ciro. Is there any one word that can describe Ciro?"
"How 'bout infuriating?" an older man with graying hair at the temples offered helpfully.
"And this is Popidius. He can call Ciro anything he likes. They live together, but don't tell their wives that."
Popidius crossed his arms and glared at the poet in annoyance.
"Bohemian," he muttered under his breath.
The poet grinned mischievously and lifted the goblet to take another drink.
"Well?" Popidius prodded, waiting for Sappho for finish.
"What?" The poet looked at them in confusion. "Did I leave someone out?'
"Your friend, Tenth Muse. If you don't mind."
"Oh. Sorry." She smiled apologetically at the bard then placed her hand companionably on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Well, let me introduce to you the famous Greek bard..."
"Sappho, really," Gabrielle said, blushing. "I'm hardly famous."
"Yeah, but you're Greek aren't you? Who's doing the introductions here?"
"As I was saying," Sappho continued, giving the bard the eye, "we have in our midst a wonderful bard. I mean that. She weaves a tale like no other I've heard. Ladies. Gentlemen. May I introduce to you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, the GREAr Greek Bard and chronicler of XENA, THE WARRIOR PRINCESS.
Popidius choked on his drink.
"NO!" Ciro exclaimed.
"Do you really know the Warrior Princess?" Lavinia asked, moving forward in her seat.
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at the poet, not happy that Sappho had revealed Xena's presence in Pompeii to them all. "She's my friend."
"Friend?" Sappho asked, insinuating something else, then noticed the sad shadow that flitted briefly across the bard's features.
"Yes, she is my friend."
The poet was not pleased at all with the way Gabrielle said that. Looking closely for the first time, Sappho could plainly see the tiny bit of melancholy that shadowed the bard's normally bright eyes. Yes, Gabrielle had grown very beautiful with maturity. But at what price?
Just what has happened to her? Happened to them?
Gabrielle squirmed a little under the poet's scrutiny. "So, I thought you said we were going to eat?" The bard steered the conversation in another direction.
"So I did." The poet motioned for the servant to return and ordered her to bring them a variety of foods.
They drank in silence for a few moments, waiting for their order. Sappho studied the bard thoughtfully. The last time she had seen Xena and Gabrielle, they were floating in a beautiful lake, embraced in a passionate kiss. Food for poets.
Sappho's musings were interrupted as the waitress brought over a sliver tray full of snacks and placed it on the table.
Gabrielle broke the silence by grabbing a pickled olive and popping into her mouth.
"Hmmm. I was in the mood for these."
"You're always in the mood for food!" Sappho teased and then they were all reaching in to grab some treats, the previous moment of uncomfortable silence completely forgotten.
"Oh, these stuffed clams are delicious!" Flavia commented, showing the empty shell to the group.
Gabrielle's hand snapped out to claim a clam, "Oooo, let me try one!"
"I swear, I don't know where you put it all!" the poet exclaimed.
"In my stomach!" was the bard's response, which earned a wave of laughter from everyone present. Gabrielle popped another claim into her mouth, pleased that the atmosphere had lightened considerably.
Then, the laughter at the table died abruptly . In fact, the entire tavern had become curiously quiet. Gabrielle looked at her companions quizzically, noticing that all eyes were staring beyond her.
"My, but that woman knows how to fill a room!" Sappho stated with a grin.
The bard swiveled in her seat to see what had captured everyone's attention.
Xena loomed in the doorway like an ominous shadow eclipsing the sunshine, waiting to enter the tavern. The entire room became silent as the warrior took a step out of the archway and then strolled on in. Her eyes scanned the area slowly, scrutinizing each table, her gaze finally resting on golden locks, the object of her search.
Gabrielle watched as the warrior's worried expression changed to a scowl and looked down, nodding in approval to a young boy who stood now at her side. She slapped something into the boy's outstretched hand. It was the same young lad who had given the bard directions earlier.
The boy flashed a big smile at Gabrielle, waved the money in thanks, and then scooted away.
Xena ignored the open mouthed stares of patron and employee alike as she headed directly for their table.
"I don't recall agreeing to meet in a tavern," the warrior stated, her hands on her hips as she towered over them all.
"Did you pay that boy to follow me?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at Xena from her seat, very insulted and annoyed at her partner. The warrior merely raised an eyebrow in answer.
"Need I introduce Xena, the Warrior Princess?" Sappho announced happily to her friends, extending a hand to the warrior.
Xena seemed to notice the poet for the first time.
"Sappho," the warrior stated flatly, "I should have guessed you would be here. Anywhere there's a party..."
"Did you really pay that boy to follow me?"
"So you know about the festival?" Sappho asked, chuckling under her breath at the bard.
"Well, now I know."
"Stand down, warrior. Relax. Take off your armor. Have something to eat." Sappho waved at a passing servant, ordering an extra chair and another drink.
A chair was positioned between Lavinia and Gabrielle, and Xena eased herself into the seat. She looked at her partner with an indulgent grin.
"I can't believe you paid someone to follow me," Gabrielle grumbled.
"How else was I going to find you?" Xena answered, taking a goblet from the serving girl's hand. She sipped the wine and smiled. "Hmmm. This is good."
"The best thing about this city," Sappho explained, emptying her mug and ordering another round for everyone, “is the wine. Sometimes I think the city earned its reputation as playground for the rich and famous on the virtue of their grapes alone."
"I'm surprised you don't live here." Xena's comment caused a round of laughter.
Gabrielle decided to forget about being followed and join in the fun. Xena seemed very relaxed at the moment. They'd have a discussion about trust and respect a little later.
"Did you find a ship?" she asked.
"There're lots of merchant vessels and plenty of them will be heading toward Greece. Just not until next Moonday."
Sappho nodded knowingly. "That's because of the festival."
"Festival? What festival?" The bard eyed her friend out of the corner of her eye. The poet had mentioned nothing to her about a festival ... yet.
Xena turned in her seat to face Gabrielle.
"There's a big festival going on, Gabrielle. Plenty of ships arriving, bringing people in, but not one leaving until after it's over."
Xena finished her drink, and Sappho pushed another one in her direction. The warrior spied an olive, swiped it from the tray and popped it in her mouth, following it with a sip of wine.
Sappho's friends sat silently, watching the friendly exchange between the warrior and the poet. They were staring openly at the Warrior Princess, not believing they were actually sitting in her presence, watching her eat and drink and carry on normal conversation as though she were just a regular human being.
After all they had heard, it would be like watching Athena brush her teeth. It just didn't seem as though a legend of the warrior's stature would partake in boring day-to-day, earthly routines, such as eating and drinking and talking. For the love of Jupiter, they never actually really believed she existed!
Xena sat, munching on pickled olives and candied figs, oblivious to them all.
"Vettii is NOT going to believe this!" Popidius muttered aloud.
The statement caused the Warrior Princess to pause in her chewing and frown in his direction.
"Quiet!" Sappho waved her hand in annoyance at the man and smiled innocently at Xena.
Xena popped another fig into her mouth and chewed it, staring at the poet thoughtfully. "Well, since you obviously came here for the party, Sappho, why don't you tell us all about this festival. What's the big deal?"
"It's the festival of Ceres. Big, big celebration."
"Ceres?" the warrior asked.
"The Roman version of Demeter," Gabrielle explained.
"What's in a name?" Sappho commented. "It's the same god."
"If it's just a harvest festival, then what's all the hubbub?" Xena took a sip of wine and put the goblet down.
"The Romans will use any excuse for a party. They LOVE to party. They hold celebrations for one thing or another every month, if not twice. The festival for Ceres is one of the biggest, and that's saying something because Pompeians always like to party in a BIG way."
"Do they even care what they're celebrating?"
"Sure, they care. They give tribute to Ceres to ensure fertile soil and big crops. They petition the goddess for success in all their ventures, business and pleasure, so that she will bless this great city of Pompeii with her favor."
"Fertile soil and big crops, huh?" Xena sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. "So it's a fertility rite?"
Sappho grinned and nodded.
"One big, giant orgy I take it?"
Sappho smiled broadly and raised her glass, "You're a woman of the world, Xena."
"Xena, are we in trouble?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's the kind of trouble I covet!" Sappho laughed into her goblet.
"Look, maybe you could help us, Sappho." Xena sat up in her chair and leaned toward the poet. "We're going to need a place where we can lay low for awhile, until this festival is over."
"Lay low? Are you serious, Xena? This is the best festival they have! You should try to enjoy yourself for once in your life. Looks to me like you both could use it." Sappho nodded at Gabrielle and gave the warrior a knowing stare. Xena could not help but acknowledge her point.
"But, this place is going to be teeming with Romans!" Gabrielle interjected.
"Yeah. So?" The poet shrugged.
"Sappho, Xena and I were on our way away from Rome when that storm hit last night and damaged our ship. We didn't plan on being here. We don't WANT to be here." Gabrielle whispered, not wanting the entire room to hear.
"Ohhh! I get it! You were high-tailing it out of Rome after that thing with Vercinix!" Sappho said, way too loudly for Gabrielle's taste. Their audience snickered.
"You heard about that already?" Gabrielle said, under her breath.
"Heard about it?" Sappho laughed, putting down her goblet. "Why the entire city talks of nothing else!"
Xena sat back in her chair, at a loss for words.
"Xena, let me explain. This city is full of wealthy noblemen. They have vacation villas here and second homes. They come here whenever they can, just to get away from Rome ... and Caesar. Believe me, my friends, there is no great love for Caesar here in Pompeii."
Sappho patted Gabrielle's hand and continued.
"In fact, I’ve met quite a few noblemen who were present at that party Caesar held in Vercinix's honor," Sappho said, exaggerating the word honor and snorting. "They saw you there, Xena. I heard it was a beautiful dress, by the way."
The poet winked at Xena and the warrior scowled.
"More importantly, they saw Vercinix. Word gets around fast in Rome. You set a good trap, Xena. Somehow you managed to free Vercinix, execute that bastard Crassus and embarrass the great Caesear - all in the same moment. Those who knew what was happening hail you as a hero, Warrior Princess. You landed a heavy blow against the Triumvirate that day. Not to mention the performance you put on it the Coliseum. Is it true that you pulled a gladiator off of his horse with your bare hands?"
Everyone moved forward a bit in their seats. They had heard the rumors, of course. Now they would hear the tale from the lips of the Warrior Princess herself.
Sappho looked at Gabrielle, expecting the bard to take over.
Gabrielle merely looked away, her hand reaching for a goblet, finding it and bringing it to her lips. Once again that sad expression shadowed her features.
Sappho frowned. Something else she would have to question the bard about later.
"The point being that you are something of a hero in Pompeii. No. More than that. A legend. Politics is Caesar's arena and you beat him fair and square at his own game. The Pompeians love political intrigue and YOU, my dear, are its current reigning queen!"
Sappho stood, raising her glass. "A toast. To Xena, Warrior Princess. Twice now she has defeated Caesar. May his fame dwindle and hers grow."
All members of the entourage stood and raised their glasses in tribute. Xena and Gabrielle were shocked to then see almost everyone else in the tavern stand in salute as well.
And they all drank.
Sitting down, Sappho smiled smugly.
"You see. You have nothing to worry about. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if they threw you a parade."
"That won't be necessary," Xena stated, not sure she was happy with this turn of events. She was certainly relieved to find they would probably have no problems in Pompeii, but the effect the conversation was having on Gabrielle gave her pause.
"Feel better?" Sappho asked, staring directly at the bard.
Gabrielle did not answer.
"Then I guess we better find a place to stay," Xena commented, ever practical and trying to change the subject.
"You should come with me to Vettii's house," Sappho suggested. "He'll be able to help you."
Popidius open his mouth as if to speak, but Sappho shot him a quick glance. He closed his mouth and sat back in his chair.
"Who's Vettii?" Xena asked. She was reaching for another olive, but the exchange did not escape her notice.
"Aulus Vettius Restitutus. He and his brother are wealthy merchants. They have one of the largest houses in the city. He'll be able to arrange for a room." The poet paused. "You might even be able to stay there, with me," she added quietly as an afterthought.
Sappho watched the warrior for any reaction. She appeared to be thinking it over.
"It'll be hard to find room and board at this late date."
Xena remained silent.
"I'm sure he'll be happy to help you."
Xena looked down at her partner, who appeared to be waiting for the warrior to make up her mind.
"It's up to Gabrielle,” Xena said.
The quiet statement took the bard completely by surprise.
"I said it's up to you. I'll do whatever you want to do ... go with Sappho to this Vettii or we can find a room on our own."
Gabrielle was still staring at her partner.
"You mean you're leaving it up to me?"
"Why not? Whatever you think is best."
"Whatever I think is best?" Gabrielle repeated, incredulously.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Just come with me to Vettii's House." Sappho said, jumping on the opportunity to influence the bard's decision with their friendship.
Gabrielle took another quick look at Xena. Her face remained expressionless, not giving the bard a clue to as her preference.
"All right," Gabrielle decided, stating so in a small voice.
Sappho nodded, biting back a smile, and threw some coins on the table.
"Come on! Let's go to the House of Vettii!" With that the poet left her chair and motioned for her friends to follow.
Gabrielle ventured another glance at Xena before standing to follow suit.
"Is that OK?" she asked a little nervously.
"Gabrielle, I said it was your decision. But, you do realize that your friend is up to something, right?"
"Yeah. I thought so, too."
"I know you did." Xena smiled and Gabrielle smiled back.
With a push of her chair, the warrior stood, and adjusted her sword.
"Come on. Let's go find out what Sappho is hiding up her toga."
Gabrielle shuffled after Xena as they walked in single file out of the tavern and back into the street. She couldn't help but notice the stares that followed the warrior as they all left the room.
"So much for blending in," the bard muttered before slipping through the door.
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