The guard who might as well have been called Larry hesitated but did as bidden. With a pleading look, he inched the torch toward the kindling at her feet. Iona only smiled at him.
Then, at the last moment, she gasped. “Wait! I’ve just had an idea,” she said, as planned. Larry, who did not know the plan, pulled the torch back. The crowd returned to their questioning head turns. “Could we,” Iona continued, “change the title ever-so-slightly to Queen of Uni?” The confusion intensified. “It’s just,” she went on, “I’ve been thinking about how coarse and unrefined the letter N is. It has no place at the end of a word, I think - especially one so important.”
The king narrowed his eyes again, as he apparently liked to do. A silence dragged on beneath his gaze until Larry - brave, dear Larry - offered, “It is a very harsh letter.”
There was some murmuring of agreement at that, which built to a general approval of the idea (and a general disapproval of the letter N). After a brief consultation with the scribe, the king said, “Fine. There’s room on the paper, and it doesn’t matter anyway.” Then, with a royal portion of barely-suppressed impatience, he added, “*Will that be all?*”
“Of course,” Iona smiled, “I thank Your Eminence, Your Grace, and Every Royal Bit of You.” She nodded again to Larry, “Let’s get on with killing me then.”
He continued as reluctantly as earlier, but again, right before the flame could leap to the kindling at her feet, Iona spoke up.
“It’s only,” she said, as calmly as dinner conversation, “And I am so sorry - It’s just, I’ve only now remembered it’s bad luck to end a royal title with an I.”
Again Larry snapped the torch away. Again the crowd snapped their heads back and forth. This time an old woman - one who had thrown mud at Iona before - spoke first from the middle of the crowd. “It’s true, it is! I heard it...” she tottered off for a moment, confused, but found a satisfactory course soon enough, “I heard it off a traveling minstrel two days back.”
She hadn’t. She’d heard Iona muttering it out of her cell window last night, but she’d remembered that too late and felt embarrassed about it. For good measure she added, “He was a filthy lad, but knew his way around letters, that’s for sure.” People nodded the way polite people do when the elderly say things that can’t be verified.
Iona smiled a small, personal smile, just for her. The ball was rolling now - it was rolling away from the cat, who was out of the bag and off to the races.
Quickly she got the king to agree to add a V to the end, on the grounds that Vs are fine letters at any point in a word.
Next - again waiting until the flames of the torch were just close enough to imperil her - Iona had the scribe squeeze a ‘the’ between ‘of’ and ‘Univ’. “It just makes it feel more definitive,” they’d all agreed, heads bobbing with assurance.
After - no longer bothering with the pretense of waiting on the torch - Iona wondered aloud which was better, a long I sound as in ‘nice and fine’ or a short one as in ‘limp fish’. “Of course,” everyone concluded, “long is better.”
“Fine,” the king said, his impatience fully unveiled. “We’ll pronounce it with a long I.”
“No,” Larry protested, “that won’t work. Because, I mean -- beg your pardon, king, but -- we’ll all be dead one day. Then it could get said all wrong.”
To illustrate this, Iona - with help from some in the crowd - presented a hypothetical involving a strapping, young historian who discovers her title in a dangerous crypt. How would they pronounce it, the group wondered? This was briefly derailed by a tangent about whether the historian should have a whip, but Iona ultimately brought it back to point. “There must be something on the paper,” she said, “that indicates how to say it properly, or else our attractive, youthful historian could be cursed accidentally.”
This was, everyone agreed, an outcome to be avoided. “What if we add an E at end?” asked a timid crowdsman near the front. Iona marveled at the elegance of this solution, begging the name of the brilliant man who’d discovered it. His name was Dorin, and he was to be lauded for his genius, his wit, and his trousers (which were very neat).
So an E was added, and Iona was to be called “Queen of the Unive. It was at that moment, sadly, that Iona realized it would be much prettier, sorry, if it were “Univer”. “Isn’t that much prettier?” They all agreed it was, so she gave her apologies to Dorin.
“But, oh. Oh, dear,” she said, once the R was inked. “It’ll have to be ‘Queen of the Univers’.” This, she explained, was because you wouldn’t say ‘Queen of the Human’, you’d say ‘Queen of the Humans’. All admitted this had a certain logic. The king - who just wanted a witch burning really, was that so much to ask? - fumed silently, having proved impotent to stop this.
Finally, Iona lamented that Dorin’s E was lost in the middle of the word. Oh, what a cruel fate for such a genius E! It really deserved a spot at the beginning or end, didn’t it? Everybody knows, after all, that those are most revered letters. (Everybody agreed that everybody knew this.) “Is there any more room at the beginning?” she asked the scribe, who confirmed there was none. “What about the end?” someone else called. There was still plenty of room there, as it turned out.
So it was that an E was tacked onto the end of her title, to forever be known as “Dorin’s E”.
With that settled and in a place they all felt good about, Iona motioned again for Larry to please kill her now. She only asked that, before he did, she could hear her full title read aloud.
The scribe read:
I, Anden, King of the Valley, hereby declare that the witch Iona Plum, is henceforth and retroactively to be known as
The Queen of the Universe
And granted all power and respect due to such a title, now and in perpetuity, under penalty of curse, death, or worse.
“Oh my!” she exclaimed, in obvious shock, “Well then, as my first act as Queen of the Universe, I hereby pardon Iona Plum of all charges of witchcraft, witchery, and witchliness. Oh, and theft, too.”
“But that’s you!” an idiot (who was called king) said.
“Yes,” she smiled, “I suppose it is.”