SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Main Garden or “Peristyle”
House of Vettii, Pompeii
"Here we are!" Sappho announced, bringing them to the front door of the House of Vettii.
The bard admired the facade of Corinthian columns that decorated the archway leading into the home. They appeared so real, yet they were only a basaltic lava facsimile of the type of columns that decorated real Greek temples, attached to the wall of Vettii's house for illusion only.
Sappho swung the large double doors open wide and they entered into the chilly cool of a quiet vestibule, leaving the heat, sun and bustle of the Pompeian city outside.
When the last of her charges had entered, she pulled the door closed. The latch clanged shut, echoing off the stone walls in the quiet dark of the cool room.
"Let's find Vettii!" Sappho snickered, her sandals clicking on the tile floor as she hurried across the room and exited through an archway on the other side. Her friends followed quickly.
Xena and Gabrielle, however, tarried behind. It was a painting that had captured their attention - a mural greeting all of Vettii's guests whenever they entered his home.
Welcoming them warmly was a large, colorful fresco of a very handsome, partially naked, muscular man. He was greeting his guests, not only with a smile, but with a male member depicted at complete attention and big enough to take up most of the length of the wall. And if that wasn’t enough, he was having it weighed.
"Xena," the bard said, studying the painting with amusement. "Do you get the feeling that the people of this city spend entirely too much time concerned with ..."
"... the size of their crops?" the warrior finished for her, with a smirk. "Yeah. I get that distinct impression."
"So," the bard stated, examining the robust rendition with a critical eye, "do you think it's a self-portrait?"
"Whadda ya say we go find out!" Xena flashed a wicked grin at her partner and together they ventured forward to meet the remarkably endowed man of the house.
Xena suspected that this was one man who couldn't possibly live up to his reputation.
The pair left the foyer, exiting through the only archway possible. It brought them into the sunshine of a beautiful atrium. The roof was open to the sky and a fountain dominated its center. Cupid was kissing the sun and from his lips spouted a thin trickle of clear water, which arched out a short distance before plummeting into the marble base below. The abrupt entrance of the warrior and bard scared off two sparrows enjoying a splash in the clear, blue water.
Gabrielle noted two marble inlaid shrines set into either wall both painted with an image of Lares, the Pompeian god of the household. At his feet, a large serpent was depicted drinking from the offerings. The shrines, no doubt, were to honor Lares and bring health and good fortune to the household.
Xena caught a glimpse of the edge of Flavia's toga fluttering as through an archway on the opposite side of the room.
"Come on...before we get lost." Xena nodded her head in the archway’s direction and together they followed.
"Oh, Vettii!! Where are you?" Sappho called out in a lilting voice as she entered an elaborate open-aired garden. The man was mostly likely to be out here, fiddling with his flowers and herbs. She stepped from the wooden walkway, out of the shade provided by a short roof and onto the well-groomed soil of the Pompeian peristyle.
Small fountains and marble benches provided places to sit and read or meditate amid the rows of meticulously tended plants and flowers.
It was on one of these marble benches that the poet did indeed find Vettii. With brown hair that showed no signs of graying and cut in the style of Caesar, he was a mature and handsome man. Long of limb and strong in build, he sat with his legs crossed sipping on a large silver goblet of wine. He was wearing a long linen toga and sandals, typical of Pompeian fashion and adjusted its folds as he rose to welcome the Greek poet as she came sashaying into the room.
"Well, Sappho!" Vettii greeted his guest with a smile. "What brings you back from your meandering so early?"
"Oh, nothing much," Sappho said, smirking at her entourage, who had entered after and were jostling one another aside, fighting for the best view. The poet rocked back and forth, heel to toe, grinning wickedly.
"I bumped into some old friends of mine," she added, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Oh really?" Vettii lifted the goblet to his lips, but paused before taking a sip. "Anyone I'd be interested in meeting?"
"Oh, I think so..."
Gabrielle chose that moment to pass through the portal, stopping to look around briefly.
Sappho took advantage of the opportunity.
"Vettii, this is the bard, Gabrielle of Poteidaia," Sappho announced with a smile and a flourish of her hand.
The bard nodded in greeting and Vettii nodded back. Then she stepped through the portal and away from the door to make room for her partner.
Xena walked in behind the bard, having to duck a little so her head and sword would not hit the archway. She froze at the entrance when she found all eyes had turned her way.
"And this...is Xena, the Warrior Princess."
Vettii's silver goblet slipped from his fingers and tumbled to the floor, hitting him squarely on the big toe.
The poor man cried out and grabbed his foot, hopping about for a moment before regaining his composure - much to his audience's delight.
"Sappho, this better not be some kind of joke!" the nobleman warned, testing his weight on the tender toe.
"Vettii. Really. Would I kid you? Besides, you're supposed to be the Warrior Princess expert. LOOK at her."
Xena moved from the archway into the garden and rose to her full stature, taking a relaxed, if annoyed, stance. She shot the Tenth Muse a less than thrilled expression.
Vettii limped slowly forward for a closer inspection.
The boots, the leather, the armor, the sword - they were all there. He noted the tall and dark, commanding presence ... and her hair, raven and flowing, framing a face ... a face so exquisite that even the eyewitness accounts he had read from various scrolls could not do it justice.
And the eyes.
Vettii moved closer to stare into the eyes. Xena sighed, sparing a look at Gabrielle. The bard had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.
He had read that her eyes were arresting, but that was a complete understatement. Because if this was indeed Xena, the Warrior Princess who stood before him, then her eyes were more than arresting - they were chilling, riveting, mesmerizing...
"For the love of Jupiter!" Vettii's strangled voice caught in his throat and he jumped back as it dawned on him who was standing in his garden. "Sappho?"
"Pick your chin up off the floor and say hello to Xena, Vettii," Sappho motioned to the warrior.
"Vettii." Xena's velvet voice greeted him politely, prompting the nobleman into action.
"I don't know what to say ... I never dreamt that one day I would get to meet ... It is my extreme honor ... oh, my!" Vettii didn't seem to know whether to grasp her hand in a warrior's shake or kiss her feet. Xena merely waited patiently as he gushed.
"I am just beyond words. Please forgive me." He finally ended his ramblings, clasped his hands in front of himself to stop them from waving around, and smiled.
"Sappho said you were a 'Warrior Princess expert?'" Gabrielle asked, stepping forward, more than a little curious about this man's reaction. "So what exactly is that?"
"Oh. Sappho didn't tell you?"
"No. She did not," Xena answered, casting a look at the poet that would have slain an army.
"I've been following your exploits for years. Years and years and years. I consider myself something of an expert on you, actually. I'm your greatest admirer, I think," Vettii said, blushing a little.
"Second greatest, maybe," the bard mumbled while scratching her lip, looking away when Xena caught her eye.
Sappho heard it and smiled.
The merchant motioned for the group to follow him into the garden. Limping over to a marble bench, he offered Xena a seat.
"No, thank you. We have to be going. We need to find a room and board before it gets too late." The warrior took Gabrielle's arm and moved to make a polite but quick escape.
Vettii turned to the poet, surprised that she had not made the appropriate arrangement.
"Sappho, surely you convinced your friends that they should stay here with me!"
"I was getting to that, Vettii."
He turned on the warrior and bard, surprising them both with his desperation. "You must stay here with me!"
"I wouldn't want to impose..."
"No. No. NO! I insist. I have plenty of room. It'll be no trouble, really." Vettii was getting frantic, so he calmed himself and stood tall to make it a formal request.
"It would be a great honor to me, Xena, if you would allow me to offer you the hospitality of my home for the duration of the Festival of Ceres."
Sappho and her entourage were enjoying this beyond words. They had never seen Vettii so humbled. Why, the man was practically on his knees. He will never live this down, Popidius snickered to himself. I won't let him.
"Please, Xena, say you and ... Gabrielle ... will stay?"
Gabrielle was impressed. At least he remembered her name.
Xena hesitated. Should she stay in the home of a self-professed Warrior Princess expert? She eyed the poet warily. Sappho obviously had set them up in some way. But for what?
"Please,” Vettii added.
The warrior ran her tongue along the inside of her mouth and sighed. The thought of staying in a stable was looking like a pretty good idea right about now.
"Sappho is staying here," Vettii offered as though that would be incentive.
"Sappho is NOT staying here," Vettii corrected.
"Hey!" the poet yelled. Vettii hushed her with a wave of his hand.
Xena looked to Gabrielle for her opinion. The bard merely shrugged.
The warrior thought about it for a few long seconds longer.
"It's up to Gabrielle."
"WHAT!" The bard strode angrily up to her partner and grabbed her arm. "Don't you dare leave this up to me."
"Why not?" Xena shrugged. "I'll stay wherever you want to stay."
All eyes turned to the bard.
I can't believe this. She wants me to be the one to say no. "OK. Fine then. We'll stay here," Gabrielle answered confidently, staring at Xena - daring her to say something.
"Fine. We'll stay," the warrior confirmed.
Vettii gave the bard a grateful smile and then turned to face Sappho.
The poet put her hands on her hips. "I AM staying here."
Vettii looked back at Xena.
"It's fine." Xena glanced at the poet. "For now."
"Excellent!" Vettii clapped his hands, summoning a servant, "I'll have my slave show you to your rooms. Do you have any baggage?"
Xena stared pointedly at Gabrielle. The bard's warning stare silenced any snide comment Xena had contemplated making.
"Everything we have is on my horse, Argo, outside. I need to find a stable."
"I have a stable here, of course. My stable boy will see to your horse. Don't you worry about one thing, Xena. I'm going to take good care of you while you are here! Very good care!" Vettii said, clapping his hands to summon his servants.
Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted, wondering exactly what this man meant by very good care. She gave her partner a sideways glance to see Xena following Vettii with a raised eyebrow of her own as he hurried away, still talking even as he walked.
"I cannot believe this! Xena ... in my home. Menander is just going to shit a marble statue when he finds out who is staying at MY house!"
And with that, Vettii intercepted an approaching servant to rattle off instructions.
Xena took the moment to pull the poet aside and glare.
"All right, Sappho. You set us up so we couldn't refuse. Why? What's going on?"
"You are SO suspicious of EVERYTHING, Xena," Sappho said, trying to remove the iron grip from her arm. Try as she might, the poet could not get the warrior's fingers to budge.
With a huff, Sappho gave up, glaring at the warrior impatiently. "Do you mind?"
Xena gave the arm one last good hard squeeze before returning control of the limb to its owner.
"Why not just relax and enjoy your good fortune, for Mnemosyne’s sake," Sappho said, rubbing her bicep and taking a step away. "You are here in Pompeii during the biggest festival of the year and are staying in one of the very best houses - owned by a man who happens to think you walk on water. What could possibly happen?"
"With you, Sappho, anything is possible."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Come on," the poet said, gesturing to her friends. "Let's go find something to drink."
The warrior studied each one carefully as they left the garden, wondering whether it wasn't too late to find that stable after all.
"Well," the bard said looking at their surroundings, "if we're going to be stuck in Pompeii for a week, at least we'll stay in comfort and luxury."
"Look, Xena. If you didn't want to stay here, then why did you leave the decision up to me?"
"Because I trust your instincts, Gabrielle."
"Lucky for you, Xena, that was the right answer. I thought you were just putting me on the spot."
Xena smiled at her partner. "Now, would I do that to you?"
"Yes," the bard answered, crossing her arms.
Xena lost her grin, feeling a little guilty. She took a step closer to the bard, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"I thought we talked about sharing in the decisions?"
"Yes, but that doesn't mean I get stuck with all the potentially embarrassing ones," Gabrielle said, feigning a pout. Her scowl was melting fast under Xena's tender gaze.
"Festivals and social occasions are your specialty, Gabrielle. I have to admit, I'm a little uncomfortable with Vettii's admiration and you know I don't trust Sappho any farther than I can throw a barrel of wine."
"Yeah, well, I could tell."
"Yeah, well, I didn't want my misgivings to keep you from having a good time."
The scowl was all but gone from the bard's face, replaced now by a smirking grin.
"You're getting pretty good at these sensitive chats, Xena."
The warrior raised an eyebrow, then smiled. "Are you buying all this?"
"Not for a minute, but thank you for trusting my instincts anyway."
"You made the right decision, Gabrielle. Vettii is a wealthy and respected man. His home is well- protected. We should be safe and no one will bother us here."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow of her own. "I thought of that."
"I know you did."
A slave led them from the garden. Xena and Gabrielle followed the servant through an archway and into the section of Vettii's home that housed the living quarters. There were three available spare rooms in a row. The slave led first Gabrielle to one and then Xena to another, leaving one room between the two still unoccupied.
Gabrielle paused to watch Xena carefully before entering her assigned room. The warrior did not seem to react to being given separate quarters. She merely thanked the servant and then entered, leaving Gabrielle to stand in the corridor alone.
The bard watched the empty space where her partner had stood for a moment longer before entering her bedroom.
It was a small room, and amazingly austere given the opulence of the rest of the house. There were no paintings or frescoes adorning the walls. Just bare walls surrounding a bed, a table and one chair. Gabrielle leaned her staff against the wall and threw her scroll bag down onto the pallet.
Would Xena be upset that they were not sharing the same room? Should she go to her? Uncomfortable situations just seemed to be piling themselves one on top of another since they had arrived in this city.
Gabrielle paced the small confines of the room, trying to decide what to do. Though they had been through so much over the last year and had somehow managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to continue their friendship, there was one aspect of their relationship that they had not yet resolved. They had not gone back to being intimate with each other since ... when? Since Britannia, the bard thought, answering her own question.
Gabrielle sat on the straw mattress of the bed and rubbed her eyes.
If they didn't resolve this issue soon, there would be no going back, Gabrielle thought as she stared out of a small window at the nice view of city and the looming presence of Mount Vesuvius visible from her room.
She and Xena would continue as friends and nothing more.
Xena looked up from the scroll she was reading. The fire had been steadily dying out and the light she had been using to read was almost gone along with it. Putting the parchment down carefully on the sand, she reached over to pick up a log of driftwood and added it to the flames. She watched quietly as the fire sputtered and reached up, moving along the dry bark in a caress that was slowly set the wood aflame.
As she waited patiently for the fire to fully catch, she stared out toward the black sea. It was cold and the sea's breath made it seem even colder.
"Did you have any idea of what I was thinking, Gabrielle? Did you understand?" Xena listened as a wave crashed against the shore. The tide was coming in.
'How many more times will you follow me into battle?' she remembered asking. "How many more times will I hurt you, Gabrielle?"
The question had answered itself after all, hadn't it?
"I was ruining your life. Forcing you to toss aside your values for what I believed was right." The warrior flipped a twig into the flames. "That thing in Rome with Crassus was a perfect example. I didn't even stop to think about the situation I had thrown you into. I just expected you to follow my plan ... follow me ... whatever the consequences."
The next twig was thrown at the sea in frustration.
"Crassus' death meant nothing to me, but it meant everything to you. You were constantly sacrificing everything on my behalf. What did I offer in return?" Xena picked up the scroll and looked at it, studying the careful strokes of ink as though she would be able to see the bard's face if she looked hard enough.
"You needed to leave me, Gabrielle, to get your life back."
The driftwood caught fire at that moment, bursting into a flame that illuminated Xena's face in a wash of golden light.
"I know you didn't agree. But that was the reason why I didn't come to you that night, Gabrielle, although the Gods knew, I wanted to."
The fire was now bright enough to provide the warrior with enough light. She shifted the pages of the scroll carefully to reveal the next piece of parchment, and continued to read.
House of Vettii
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