“So, who’s the Queen?”
“You. You’re the Queen.”
She laughed. “No. The pub. Drottning. Who’s the Drottning?”
“It’s an old story. This place used to be a… what’s the word? Kingdom. Sort of. But smaller… Dukedom? Is that a word?”
“That’s it. The guy, the Laird or whatever, the Fief, had a wife and a younger brother, but no children. And so the Duke-guy, he knew that if he died before he had a son then the island would go to the younger brother…
“And that wouldn’t have worked: the younger brother was one of those youngest-kids kids, you know? It wasn’t enough that he won – everyone else had to lose. The Laird knew that if his brother took his castle, his mighty castle, then he would take the island next, and then the island would fall.
“His wife finally got pregnant. But the baby was a girl…”
“What a bitch.”
“Quite. So that was no good. And then suddenly the Laird died, and the island went to the younger brother. Who immediately evicted the widow and the baby girl out of the castle and out into the wilderness. He took the castle for himself and – as the Dead Duke had predicted – the island fell into wrack and ruin.”
Kathryn swigged more vodka. There weren’t even any insects in the sky… the air was completely still except for her and Gavin. This would be what the world would be like after the Apocalypse, everything just quietly running out.
“And no one knew what had happened to the widow and the daughter. They had just disappeared. Some people said that the younger brother had killed them off, other people said that they had died of grief…”
There weren’t any birds, there weren’t any aeroplanes… She had met Gavin at a party in a nightclub, three years before. He had been drunk, but funny. Then, halfway through the night, he had suffered a nosebleed and they had left the club while he tried to stop the bleeding. Neither of them had had any tissues – he had been forced to resort to pinching his nose, sitting on the kerb. In the yellow streetlights outside the club, his face had been quite pale, the only colour that horrible red detonation. She hadn’t left him there, though, she had chatted with him while the bleeding slowly stopped, laughing in spite of herself every time someone walked back past him to ask if he had any cocaine. He hadn’t known why they kept asking him that. She had found that funny, too.
“Then it turned out that the daughter was still alive, that she was living in the cemetery with the gravedigger. She was living with this man out on the far edge of the island in a tiny croft, with the man who buried them all.
“But that wasn’t the whole story. It turned out that she was the one carving everyone’s gravestones. Everyone’s. Everyone died, and then when they died she would find a piece of stone, cut it into shape, and then carve their name and their dates onto it.
“She had been doing the job for years… Everyone on the island who had died in that time had passed by her hands and been sent on their way, directed by her work.
“Well, that seemed fair enough, too start with, everyone needed a job after all. But across the island that thought slowly took root. Everyone died. And as everyone died, she was the one to find a stone, cut it into shape, carve their name and dates onto it, and then set it above them for the rest of time.
“They looked at these stones, all of them, and while each one was different, each was still clearly the work of the same pair of hands, the same intention. Some were engraved with runes, others with strange and delicate pictures. Some had poetry carved across them and some seemed actually to be growing out of the ground, cascading for the heavens, flowing like molten rock. Some, belonging to those less popular on the island, even had misspellings… as if the corpse in question was heading to an afterlife where nothing would be waiting for them.
“And once that thought, that recognition, took root, it was only a matter of time before people started to think that this baby daughter, now a grown woman, was actually the Queen after all. She stood above each of the people of the island and sent them on their way when they were at their most vulnerable. Their mothers saw them into the world, but she saw them out of it.
“Her Uncle, the Prince, the Laird the Chieftain, whoever… He didn’t like that. At all. He had worked hard to eradicate all memory of his late brother and his family and he wasn’t going to let some grave rat steal away his power with some morbid fantasy. So one night he took the six finest killers and maniacs from his personal guard and led them to the graveyard to confront his niece and her husband.
“No one ever saw the Prince, the Duke, that Laird or his guardsmen ever again. No one was fool enough to grieve, but that morning those who could be bothered went out looking for them and found nothing except for seven new gravestones in the cemetery – each one a beautiful and perfect memorial to a dead soul.
“And no one ever saw the daughter again either, but of course there was no doubt anywhere on the island that she was their Queen from then on.”
Kathryn was quiet, as Gavin’s words drifted off into the strange night that never came.
“There isn’t a castle on the island,” she said at last.
“Well,” said Gavin, “people kept on dying, didn’t they? No one ever saw her again, but people still needed their tombstones. Now that the castle was empty, she could use that for raw materials. The castle was built with the very finest stone on the island, after all. Over the years, over the decades, the castle got smaller and smaller. Until one morning it was gone…”
They both dozed off, falling asleep under the never-setting sun.