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Beet Juice

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When Tommen was very little, he used to love beets.

Between morning lessons, Tommen was allowed to have cold beet juice. The papers with Tommen’s wobbly writing and the books with House names that Tommen was studying would be pushed aside, and a maid would set before him a tall golden cup.

The cup would always be full of dark red juice. It also had something sweet and syrupy, and some milk. Tommen liked chewing on the green leaves at the top. They made him feel like he was breathing out ice. Tommen also liked to blow his icy breath on the cup, in between his sips, and giggle at the cold droplets on the stags and lions carved on his cup.

And as if the books and the beet juice were not happy-making enough, a plate of applecakes would also be set beside the tall golden cup. Applecakes were Tommen’s favourite. He loved them so very much. Sometimes he even dreamed about applecakes.

Tommen would always clap happily.

Then he would take a large bite of applecake and a huge gulp of beet juice.

Joffrey would always scoff at Tommen and say, “You are such a baby.”

Joffrey was the crown prince so he couldn’t be jealous of Tommen. But Tommen rather thought that since Joffrey hated the lessons, he also hated that Tommen got to have all of Tommen’s favourite things in the world at the same time: beet juice, books, and applecakes.

It was not Tommen’s fault that Joffrey liked the less exciting things, like – Tommen didn’t actually know.

But there were seven applecakes to eat and beet juice to drink, so Tommen didn’t really care.

*

One morning the heat was so terrible that the lessons were cancelled.

Tommen had only known of summer all his life. But today it was hotter than usual, so Tommen started to wander to the darker rooms of the castle, the ones Tommen and his family didn’t use.

His hands were sticky with his half-eaten applecake. His chest was thumping with excitement because he had slipped past the guards who were supposed to take him to Mother’s maids. It was also very dim in this particular bedchamber, so his eyes were squinting and his steps were hesitant.

When a soft mewl echoed around him, Tommen startled.

Tommen startled so hard that he fell on his bum.

“Oof,” said Tommen.

His arm caught on something. Tommen had a lucky arm. It saved his applecake from being spoiled.

When his eyes adjusted some more, Tommen saw that he had accidentally dug his lucky arm on a short stout statue. This statue turned out to be a dragon.

Tommen was patting it in thanks for saving his applecake, when the mewl sounded again and a black cat slinked out from under the bed.

It was the most adorable thing Tommen ever saw. So adorable, with its fluffy little paws and fluffy little tail, that Tommen felt something squishy deep in his heart.

“Hello,” Tommen said, as his hand hovered by the cat’s head.

The cat mewled. It nudged his hand with its tiny nose.

The squishy feeling deep in Tommen’s heart melted. Tommen couldn’t stop grinning.

The cat licked and licked at Tommen’s hand. It probably loved the taste of applecakes, like Tommen did. Tommen decided that he liked this cat very much.

It was then that another small figure started to crawl out from under the bed.

The figure had very black hair, black as the cat’s, but curlier. It slowly put out a little brown hand. Then another. The figure dragged itself on the old-smelling rug and crawled out from the shadows of the heavy black bed sheets.

When the figure fully emerged, Tommen saw that it was a little girl in a bright orange dress with a red sash.

Tommen didn’t understand why the little girl looked a bit afraid. Her big dark eyes stayed on Tommen as she said, “Bal, here. Here, Bal, here.”

The cat moved away from Tommen and darted towards the girl. Tommen felt a bit sad.

She was younger than Tommen, though. She looked barely older than a baby. Some of her teeth had barely peeked from her gums, so Tommen tried to be very understanding about the cat.

“I am Tommen of House Baratheon,” said Tommen. His lessons said he should always state his name and his House, except when he was all alone and foul men looked as if they might whisk him away: then he should say he was a blacksmith’s apprentice and wait for Uncle Jaime to come rescue him.

“What’s your name?” Tommen continued. “Is that your cat?”

“Rhaenys,” the girl told him. It sounded like Rhaenyth from between her barely grown teeth.

Tommen beamed. “Like the queen. The one in my books.”

Rhaenys tightly hugged the black cat. “Bal is mine.” She kissed the cat’s nose. “Big Bal.”

Bal the cat started to give her small licks.

Tommen watched yearningly.

“Can we both play with Bal?” said Tommen.

Rhaenys silently studied Tommen again. Tommen decided that she was rather odd. Babies were odd because they cry for no reason, and Rhaenys looked barely older than a baby, but Tommen couldn’t understand why she was in this dim musty bedchamber.

“Are you lost? Is that why you were under the bed?”

Rhaenys raised a finger to her lips. “Shhhh.”

“What?” Tommen was confused. “Why? No one’s here.”

Rhaenys looked confused, too.

This was all very confusing to Tommen. He only wanted to play with Bal the cat. Hesitantly, Tommen lifted his hand with the half-eaten applecake. “This is very delicious.” He wiggled it a bit.

Bal immediately pounced towards him. Tommen let out a giggle as Bal ate the applecake and licked at his hand. This was the first time Tommen had ever played with a cat. Bal was so adorable.

“Bal likes you,” Rhaenys observed. “I like Bal.”

“So can we both play with Bal?”

Rhaenys nodded. She crawled towards Tommen and Bal. She stroked Bal’s head and chin, and allowed Tommen to pet Bal’s back. Bal was a spoiled cat.

“I lost Bal’s ribbon,” Rhaenys told him, after a long silence with nothing but Bal’s happy purring. “Mother made it. I’m sad.”

*

Tommen visited again, and again, and again, until he was visiting everyday.

And for every visit, Rhaenys would crawl out from under the bed.

This always confused Tommen. But since Mother had started to look confused with Tommen’s new-found interest in cats and at one point told him how she played with old lions as a girl and how Uncle Jaime had always adored puppies, Tommen decided that he probably shouldn’t bother about people’s confusing ways.

What was important was that Rhaenys was Tommen’s new friend, and that Tommen could play with Bal the cat.

On one visit Tommen brought with him half of the applecakes from his plate, but only he and Bal ate them. Rhaenys shook her head when he had offered, then said, “Lemons. Lemony cakes.”

Another visit brought Tommen with a yellow ribbon. He had sneaked it from one of the many bunches of flowers around, feeling very naughty and very guilty as he made his way to the dim musty bedchamber.

But when Rhaenys saw the ribbon she clapped once and smiled at him, and they spent some time looping it around Bal. Cat-related activities made Tommen forget about feeling very guilty.

A lot of the visits were spent playing.

This morning, Tommen was saying, “You’ll be the princess, Rhaenys.”

He set his half-finished cup of cold beet juice on a table. It was another very hot day. Father had visited the river beneath the castle, the one with lots of women according to Myrcella, and Mother had gone out on a ride with Uncle Jaime.

“I’m a princess,” Rhaenys agreed.

Everyone admired knights, who were noble and brave and kind. So Tommen said, “I’ll be the knight.”

“Bal is a dragon.” Rhaenys hugged Bal again, pressing her cheek against his black fur. “He’s Balerion.”

Bal chased Rhaenys, and Tommen chased Bal. They ran and ran and ran around the bedchamber. Rhaenys kept looking over her shoulder, and squealed whenever Bal’s leaps got him near her, and Tommen kept giggling breathlessly.

Rhaenys suddenly turned around and, gleefully shouting, announced, "I'll catch Bal! I'll catch the dragon!" Tommen burst out laughing, and now it was Bal chasing Tommen and Rhaenys chasing Bal.

Bal leapt from rug to bed, from ornate table to ornate table, from dragon statue to dragon statue, from ivory harp to silver harp. Until he leapt on the table with Tommen’s tall golden cup and bumped it aside.

The cup came crashing down. The beet juice splattered on the rug in splotches and streaks of dark red.

Then Rhaenys screamed.

Rhaenys’ screams were startling in the dim musty quietness.

Her high, terrified screams raked its chilly way up Tommen’s back until the back of his neck felt strange. Rhaenys’ eyes were bugging out, fixed on the pool of dark red on the rug. She stumbled backwards, and fell, and curled her body away from the spilled beet juice. All the while she kept screaming.

Tommen grew afraid.

“It’s nothing,” Tommen hurried to assure her. “It’s all right, I’m not mad with Bal, he didn’t spill it on purpose, I’m not mad with Bal.”

Tommen was about to be relieved when Rhaenys’ screams tapered off, but it was only because she started to cry. Rhaenys curled up into a ball, gripping hard at her skirts, crumpling part of the red sash.

Tommen was really alarmed, and frightened. He dashed towards her and put his arms around her. It was the only thing he could do.

“Bad men,” Rhaenys started to babble. In between her heaving cries, Tommen caught words like, “Mother,” and “no,” and “bad men.”

Rhaenys was trembling. Tommen gently patted her hair, like he had seen Myrcella do to her dolls when she pretended that they were her babies. Tommen gently rocked her. They stayed like that for the rest of the morning.

At last when Rhaenys’ cries had grown quiet, Tommen looked up from the tiny golden suns embroidered on Rhaenys’ dress to see Bal napping by the stain on the rug. In this dim light, the stain of the beet juice looked like a drying pool of blood.

*

And so a year passed.

Tommen turned seven. Bal grew a bit.

Tommen stopped drinking beet juice. They put his tall golden cup away.

But Rhaenys’ other teeth remained barely peeking from her gums. She still looked barely older than a baby. And Rhaenys remained greeting Tommen by crawling out from under that bed.

Tommen started to have scary and uneasy suspicions. After all, he had read some books and Myrcella had told him about ghosts.

“I will visit the North,” Tommen told Rhaenys one morning. “Father says we will go see his friend. I will be away for many days.”

Rhaenys reached out and patted Tommen’s hand. “I have Bal.”

Tommen smiled at her. He was sad and happy and uncertain, all at the same time. Maybe when Tommen became a knight, when he was noble and brave and kind, then he could outlaw Rhaenys’ bad men.

“When I go back I’ll have flowers for you. Even snow. I’ll bring you some snow.”

Rhaenys nodded. “Come back. Tommen.” Then she patted his hand again. “I’m here.”

fin