Ice. An entire forest of ice.
Cold crawled into Polkadot’s body like a menacing snake, slithering, creeping into her bones and threatening to freeze her alive. All around her, there were trees that would have been lush and green, and grass that would have felt soft under her feet. But this was a land of ice, and so her surroundings were blindingly white – the sky, the ground, the vegetation all grew around her, glass-like and fragile. She stood, overlooking a great landscape, a frozen lake beneath her, gazing at the view from atop a cliff of ice. She shivered as a cold wind drew by, numbing her lips. If it wasn’t for her navy-blue coat, she would have been a frozen sculpture, another feature in this garden of ice.
“M-m-mam,” said her assistant, Thug, amidst a fit of shivers. His wings were glazed over. His brown fur was grey and spotted with snow. His long bouncy ears fell to the sides of his snout, his whiskers trembled every time he spoke. “Is – th-that the c-c-castle?”
Fantasy Investigator and Journalist, Polkadot, dug her fists deeper into her pockets. Another breeze blew by, freezing whatever else was left. She drew back her head, squinting at the sky. The castle loomed over the garden, casting a dark shadow over them, making everything all the more ominous. The frozen rose bushes seemed to be whispering to each other, the frozen pond concealing fish that peeped at the intruders. Polkadot got every feeling that she and her assistant were not welcome here at all.
“Yes, Thug,” Polkadot whispered, “that black building is the castle. The villagers gave us proper directions, at least.” She didn’t need to mention the way the locals looked at her when she asked – some merely shook their heads and refused to share information. Others pointed in the general direction of the castle and said no more. In other words, it took Polkadot and Thug a few day’s journey to reach here.
Polkadot was not disappointed. “Come, Thug.”
“There is no immediate danger, Thug. And I’m here with you.” She knew he was fearful of many things, but he was her assistant and he had ought to get used to fear.
“A-a-alright, mam,” said Thug, clinging close to her coat.
Together, they trudged through the thick layer of snow. The large iron gates were wide open, spreading into a spacious garden. At the centre was a magnificent fountain – Polkadot could only imagine its beauty if it wasn’t covered with icicles. In fact, the entire garden would have been one of the lushest gardens she had ever visited – and she had visited places galaxies away – if only everything wasn’t dead.
“Wait –” Thug nudged her sleeve. “Mam – look.”
The sight made Polkadot’s senses tingle with excitement. They were getting a good lead after all. It was a grave. Two graves, to be precise, laying side by side. But there was a single gravestone that read the words:
Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
“This a good sign, Thug.”
He shivered. “You do love graves, mam.”
The castle doors were heavier to push, and Polkadot had the slightest inkling that it might be locked. She gazed around, looking for their spirits. If they were here, they didn’t make themselves known. Polkadot was just about to reach into her pouch for a spell when another breeze swept through the garden. A window beside the door swung open.
Thug took one look at it and shook his head at her. “No, mam, this – this isn’t –”
Without further stalling, they climbed through the window. Before long, they were inside the castle, darkness blanketed over them – thick and impenetrable.
He rubbed his furry paws together and began glowing; soft yellow light revealed the entrance hall. The ceiling ended high, so high that it disappeared in shadows. An ornate crystal chandelier lay shattered on the marble floor. There was no other feature in this hall, except for the twin mahogany staircases that led to the first floor.
“Come, Thug. We must find the Ballroom.”
Up the staircase they went, Thug clinging to his dear boss for all his life was worth, his glowing palms the only source of light, while Polkadot navigated her way through the unknown castle. They reached another entrance sealed with heavy doors. Polkadot pushed it with all her might. The door gave in, swinging open with a sound so tremendous that it echoed across the castle several times.
Polkadot couldn’t resist feeling a tinge of victory. The doors opened into a large circular room, a glass window spanned the entire front wall, offering a mournful view into the dead garden and graves.
“Search around,” she told Thug. “Find any clues. But be careful –” she glanced at the shelves of candle stands, clocks, and teapot sets warily.
“Y-yes, mam,” said Thug. He dislodged himself from her coat and flew across the Ballroom, examining the floor and walls.
Suddenly, a deep voice spoke from the entrance: “Get out of my castle.”
If it was possible to freeze any further, Polkadot froze. Slowly, she turned on the spot to face the owner. She did not anticipate that there would be someone living here. But when she saw him – a large beast with a strangely humanoid body, horns ready to impale intruders, his fists the size of Thug – she realised that her detective skills were slow to miss it.
“Greetings,” she spoke firmly.
The beast growled. He stepped forward – THUD, THUD, THUD – and towered over her. “Get. Out. Now.”
Polkadot took a single step backwards. She did not appreciate people invading her personal space. “I’m sorry to intrude. We were just looking around for clues. Me and my assistant. Thug. Come meet the owner of the castle.”
Up until the beast entered, Thug was hiding safely behind a shelf, hoping to stay concealed. When she beckoned him forward, his eyes bulged in fear.
The beast’s growls grew louder. “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m so glad you asked,” said Polkadot. “Fantasy investigator, journalist, and detective, Polkadot. I solve cases – murders, crimes, stolen items, lost myths, cover conspiracies. I am never hired. Special gifts often aid me in a way another investigator would never be aided. I leave when the case is completely solved.” She paused to steal a glance at the graves outside. “And when the souls of the dead are freed.”
She gave the beast some time to digest this information. His expression hardened. He turned his beady eyes to her assistant.
“Oh, yes,” said Polkadot. “This is my assistant, Thug. He’s been training with me for centuries.”
The beast gave her an incredulous look. “Centuries?”
He glanced at Thug again, eyeing his wings and floppy ears, his palms that glowed. Thug shivered all the way, although Polkadot wasn’t sure whether it was from the cold anymore. “I’ve never seen a creature like him before.”
“That is no surprise.”
The beast blinked at her.
She stared him down. “And … may I ask who you are?” She gave him enough time to answer, but she thought she already knew.
“I …” his fierce expression melted, his shoulders slumped. He closed his eyes … and slowly, his appearance morphed. His claws drew back into slim fingers. His fur and horns shrunk into brown tufts of hair. Next thing, a handsome man stood before Polkadot, his eyes full of sadness. “Benjamin. Just Benjamin. I’m no Prince.”
In fact, with his tattered clothes and unkempt hair, he looked more like a beggar. Polkadot was about to reply when she felt another presence – a buzzing soul. She craned her neck, turning to face the window again, and saw the translucent figure floating outside. She held a rose. Her eyes found Polkadot’s and she shared a silent message: Help my son. Restore this castle to its original glory.
“What is it?” asked the Prince in a whisper.
Polkadot looked at him. “Your majesty, this castle –”
“Please,” he said in a strained voice, “I’m no majesty. Just Benjamin.”
“Benjamin,” Polkadot repeated. “Why is it so cold?”
He breathed a deep sigh, as if he was Atlas holding up the sky on his shoulders. “Because of me. It’s all my fault.”
Polkadot waited, but he explained no further. She glanced at the graves again. “Your parents … how did they die?”
The Prince glared at her angrily; again, she stared him down. The ghost of his mother still waited outside the window, depending on Polkadot.
Finally, the Prince surrendered. “I killed them. I – I – I couldn’t …”
Polkadot frowned. The ghost outside was shaking her head. No.
The Prince sobbed. “I didn’t even – I – the last thing I said to her …” he fell to his knees and Polkadot felt obliged to kneel beside him. He looked at floor. “The last thing I said to her was “I hate you”.”
The ghost laid her palm on the glass, a single tear fell from her eye.
“I wish – I just wish I could go back to that day,” the Prince sobbed, “I wish I could see her again. I wish I could tell her I don’t hate her. I – I didn’t mean it – I was only angry in that moment … I wish I told her I love her.”
Polkadot placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. The Prince didn’t swat it away. He looked up, his eyes red from crying. “But you already know all this, don’t you? You – you’re one of those journalists, looking for a juicy story to publish, aren’t you?”
“No,” she told him. “I’m not publishing anything. As I said, I am never hired. I leave until the souls of the dead are freed.”
The Prince seemed to have held his breath. “The – the dead? C-can you see …?”
He stood. “Where is she? Where –”
“You must first tell me what happened that day,” said Polkadot, rising to her feet also. “I must solve the case so that your parents can be freed.”
The Prince wiped the tears from his face. “I – I’ll show you.” With a steady glance at Thug, he made his way to the window, his mother’s ghost only an arm’s length away yet he didn’t know. He dug in the shelves, retrieving a photo frame with a cracked glass. He handed it to Polkadot.
She raised her eyebrows. “Do you have a sister?”
The Prince shook his head. “So you only know as much as the locals.”
For the first time, Polkadot was taken aback. She looked at the photo again, at the happy picture of a pair of beasts. One looked similar to Benjamin, the original Beast, but the other was more wolf-like … yet equally fiercer and dangerous …
“My father,” said Benjamin, pointing at the Beast, “and my mother.” His finger hovered over the wolf.
Polkadot looked at the ghost for confirmation, who nodded once, gesturing at something else in the shelf: two large, jewel encrusted goblets.
“What are these?” Polkadot asked the Prince.
He frowned. “Nothing, they’re just – just goblets to drink in.”
But the ghost pointed at it persistently. “May I?”
The Prince shrugged, still frowning.
Polkadot placed the photo down and took a goblet in her hand. It was heavier than she thought. She ran her finger over the rim and brought it closer to her nostril. There was a faint scent of something familiar … she looked at the ghost, who was smiling now.
“Benjamin,” said Polkadot, “you say this goblet is meant to drink from?”
“There was poison in here.”
His expression turned to deadly shock. “No! Are – are you – are you sure?”
The ghost nodded. “Yes,” said Polkadot. She placed the goblet back and sniffed its pair. “There was poison in here, too.”
“No!” The Prince yelled. He held his head, his face contorted in pain. “No!”
Polkadot faced him. “This poison is powerful. How long ago did your parents die?”
The Prince was trembling. “Two- two years.”
“That explains why the scent is still fresh.” Polkadot strolled to the centre of the Ballroom, gazing at the ceiling in thought. “Do you know of any enemies that your parents had?”
“No! My parents didn’t have any enemies!”
“Are you absolutely sure? Nobody who was against their marriage? Nobody who wanted to stop your mother?”
His eyes widened in realization. “He died! He fell from the cliff! He fell after he stabbed my father –”
The ghost shook her head rapidly, and cupped her hands, gazing downwards tenderly as if holding a child in her arms.
“Benjamin,” said Polkadot carefully, “that man did not die. He was badly injured, but he lived. He lived with plans of revenge growing inside him after his humiliation. He lived long enough to have a child. A son.”
The ghost nodded once. She pointed at Benjamin and intertwined her fingers together.
The Prince was staring at Polkadot expectedly, waiting for an explanation for his misery. “Benjamin,” she said softly. “Did you have a close friend? Before your parents –”
“Yes,” he cried. “but none of this has anything to do with him! This is all only my fault! My fault my parents died!”
“Why do you say that?”
“I – I couldn’t control myself! I was angry that I had to live with this curse! I hated being like them! It – it was excruciating – every month – all the teasing – all the mockery – I could never make any friends –”
“But one boy offered to accept you as you were?”
“Yes! He was the only friend I had! But he was poor – he had no family – we – we hired him – we gave him a job here at the castle. We – we gave him a home,” the Prince broke into a fit of tears. “You hear some of the locals saying how pure my parents’ love was? You hear them say she loved him as the Beast that he was, appearance isn’t everything, blah blah blah! They don’t know the truth!”
“Benjamin,” she whispered. “Your friend – what was his name?”
He mumbled something inaudible amidst sobs. “Gil.”
“Tell me something, Benjamin,” said Polkadot, “tell me, do you think your parents’ love was pure? Do you think a beautiful woman could love a hideous beast?”
“No! It didn’t happen like that!”
“Then why do you believe that your friend accepted you as you are?”
He did not reply, only sobbed some more, wiping his face fiercely.
Polkadot went on. “Your closest friend was your greatest enemy. And he had a family. Gil – or Gaston Junior.”
“Gil only pretended to be your friend – only to get into the castle – to get closer to your parents –”
“He wanted to complete what his father died trying – he wanted revenge –”
“That night you were arguing with your mother – telling her that you hate her for passing on her curse to you – that night you and your family were having dinner – and they drank from this goblet – they didn’t know it was poison –”
“And the waiter that night? Serving them their death – was your fake friend, Gaston Junior.”
The Prince wailed louder than ever, his anguish causing the temperature in the Ballroom to drop a few degrees. Icicles formed in Polkadot’s mouth, she shivered uncontrollably, but she had already solved the case. It was time to go. The ghost stared at the scene, expressionless, as her son cried out his two years of misery. Thug, though halfway frozen to death, flew over to the hunched Prince and offered him a hug, clinging to his neck. The Prince did not react – but Thug tried to get his attention – tried to show him the figure at the window.
“Benjamin,” said Belle’s voice.
The Prince looked up wildly but seeing nothing.
Thug pointed at Polkadot. She was holding a rose.
“Mother?” Benjamin sobbed.
“Ben,” said Belle, using Polkadot’s lips, “It isn’t your fault. Our actions eventually catch up to us, and my marriage to your father had its consequences. But remember the happy times, Ben – remember us with a smile. Do not blame yourself. Look at what you are doing. Look around you.”
The Prince’s tears did not stop flowing, but he saw his surroundings clearer than ever. He saw the once magnificent castle in ruins, the once breath-taking gardens now dead. He had destroyed his own home with his ice.
He looked at Polkadot, speaking to his mother. “I – I love you.”
“I love you, my son.”
Polkadot blinked, and the ghost was gone.
The Prince stared at her, at a loss for words. He turned to Thug, who still clung to his neck … but his paws had returned to its warmth, his brown fur sparkling and soft. Polkadot was not shivering anymore.
“It is time to go,” she said.
Thug flew to her side, as they walked out of the Ballroom.
“I – thank you,” said the Prince. His eyes were warm brown. Slowly, but surely, the icicles around the ceiling melted.
“It is my duty,” said Polkadot. “I take my leave, now. Your Majesty.” She curtseyed, and they left the castle.
When they were at the hill top, yards away from the castle, she turned to face it. The ice was melting, the warmth returning, the bitter winter receding. Light poured through the clouds.
“Mam,” said Thug, “how did a beautiful woman love a hideous beast?”
Polkadot’s lips lifted at the edges. “A hideous beast … loves a hideous beast, Thug. Benjamin inherited his mother’s curse. The curse of a werewolf.”
Together, Polkadot and Thug walked towards the sunrise. The case was solved.