“Lord Ashton is here to see you your Majesty.” The guardman, looking resplendent in his green jacket, buttoned all to the way to the top, stood to attention. His eyes, even though he and the Queen were alone in her official office, were always alert. The big glass window on the east side of the room always drew the majority of his attention. The risk of an assassin breaking in there was only marginally greater than elsewhere (thanks to the guards outside), but the Queen’s personal bodyguard did not like any risks, and had privately desired to board up the window. He knew the Queen, being as stubborn as she was, would never agree to that.

“See him in James.” The soft and gentle voice that had lured many a man to a false sense of security spoke.

“Yes, your Majesty.” James bowed, then ushered himself out of the office, and bade Lord Ashton in.

There she sat. Her office chair was a thing of Spartan beauty, a simple piece of wood with a plush maroon cushion but nothing like the ornate and beautiful golden throne of the palace. Her office too, was not what he ever expected, despite being a regular visitor.

Simple cream paint covered the walls and a large portrait of her father, the dear King Edward VI (in full military trim, with gold sash and sword) covered the west wall. Behind her was a map of her kingdom, and her desk ( a simple beech product) was nowhere near as large or fancy as his own. The chair in front of the desk looked marginally more comfortable.

Suddenly Ashton felt overdressed. He always made a point of wearing military dress uniform when meeting the Queen – impeccably clean black jacket, gold buttons done up completely, several gold and silver medals gleaming, and gold shoulder sashes provided a dab of extra colour. Brown shoes (polished to within an inch of their lives) completed the look of a man who took great pride in his appearance.

Queen Anna II did not go to the same elaborate lengths. A simple light blue dress, patterned ever-so-slightly with birds, was all she needed. Sorrowful blue eyes looked at him as she pushed a wavey lock of brown hair out of her face. For a moment Ashton forgot she was the Queen, and saw a young woman, young enough to be his daughter (hell, granddaughter!).

“Good afternoon Antony. How are your wife and children?” She asked pleasantly.

“They are well your majesty. My wife reminds me that we will have been married some thirty years next month.”

Those blues held a brief sparkle of happiness. “I imagine she will expect a gift or two.”

“That is distinctly possible your Majesty.”

“Please…” Queen Anna gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Sit down Antony.”

For a moment Ashton hesitated, always reluctant to relax in the Queen’s presence. He relented after a second, squeezing his frame into the seat.

“You look worried Antony.” Obviously his furrowed brow wasn’t doing much to disguise his concerns.

“I’m afraid I am your Majesty. I bring bad tidings – a letter, from the First Sea Lord of Antya. Quite why he wrote to me is beyond me, but it is a disturbing letter in both content and tone.”

Queen Anna sat up in her chair and clasped her hands on the desk. “How so?”

Guilt ran through Lord Ashton’s body. This young woman had inherited the burden of leadership when she was far too young for it, and didn’t deserve to be dealing with a diplomatic crisis, let alone the threat of war. His eyes flickered to that portrait of her father, and not for the first time, he wished King Edward were still here. He had been a good father and a friend, and Ashton knew both he and the Queen missed him, very much.

His eyes returned to the Queen’s. “Antya believes we are using our links and trade partners in the west to build up anti-Antyan sentiment, stifle Antyan trade opportunities, and… that we are transporting weapons with which to directly threaten Antyan interests. They are threatening a blockade of our merchant ships and the seizure of our vessels if we do not grant them considerably greater access to the western trade hubs.”

Queen Anna sat back. “It’s no lie that our sailors do not like Antya and probably sing colourful songs about them when drunk in local bars. We’re not exactly encouraging people to like Antya, after all.”

“True your Majesty. However, it is not official policy of any office in government to promote or encourage such sentiment. Nor are we preparing to attack them, as their letter implies. This blockade, if it goes ahead, will be bad for us your Majesty. Very bad.”

“And if we grant them what they want, how does that affect us?”

“I am no economist your Majesty, but right now we get a lot of revenue from the western empires. We get a significant share of the unique crops and goods from that part of the world. This in turn, allows us to barter and trade from a position of strength, and that in turn allows us to fill our coffers, build more ships, equip our navy and army with the best weapons, and so on. A dent in that, coupled with a growth for Antyan interests, could undermine our position of strength considerably.”

With a thoughtful look, the Queen stood, and turned to face the map behind her. She traced the lines of her kingdom with a fingertip. The isles that made up the Eshurg Kingdom were at once bolstered by their very nature and hampered by it – traditional land-based attacks were pointless against the three islands, but a blockade could lead to starvation and poverty before long. Eshurg depended on its merchant fleet, not only to remain powerful but to stay alive.

The the east, some two hundred miles away, the coast of Antya loomed. Unlike Eshurg, Antya shared land borders with other nations – and their relations with those nations was not always friendly. Expansion to other territories, and the benefit that could bring, was almost certainly vital to Antya’s long-term defensive plans… but the Queen had no desire to yield to those plans, not if it meant compromising her kingdom. She turned, to face Lord Ashton. Her eyes were resolved.

“You know what the Antyans desire in the long-term, don’t you?”

Ashton nodded. “Security. They’re not exactly having much joy with the Frequestians right now. They need resources and money to raise more armies if the need arises.”

“And something that undermines us at the same time can only be good for their long-term ambitions. Weaken us without firing a shot, whilst simultaneously putting down another enemy.”

“Yes your Majesty. I suspect their end-game is war with us – and if we cow to them now, that war will be so much harder to win.”

The Queen’s eyes became harsh. “If we refuse to acquiesce to their demands, what then? Have they the means to blockade us successfully?”

Ashton shook his head. “No your Majesty. They can hurt us, certainly, but our navy is bigger than theirs. It would be an uncomfortable diversion of our fleet, but their fleet is going to have to divert too, if they are to follow through with their threats. If they try to seize our ships or hold them in port, we can blast through their forces.”

“Which means war now, instead of later.” Her voice sounded heavy.

“Unfortunately so your Majesty. A war now though, is one we have a much greater chance of winning. It would not be easy, and I cannot predict what sort of casualties we’d face, but I am confident of victory.”

Queen Anna sat back down, looking at her hands for a moment. When she looked up at Lord Ashton, she did not look so young anymore.

“Inform the Antyans that we will not accept their demands, and inform them that if they proceed with their plans, we will consider an act of war and respond appropriately. In the meantime, I want our navy fully prepared to sail at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes your Majesty, it shall be ready.” Lord Ashton nodded.

“Very good. Is there any other business?”

“No, your Majesty.”

“Very well. You are dismissed Lord Ashton.” As he rose from his seat, the Queen uttered one more sentence. “And Antony… enjoy your anniversary.”

Lord Ashton turned, smiled, and bowed. “Thank you your Majesty.”

The guardsman opened the door from the other side, and Lord Ashton slipped out. The Queen sat there, heart full of regret that she could not find another way.

Chapter 3

Back to Kingdoms of War

Lord Ashton of Brixley studied the lines on the letter that now sat on his expensive oak desk, and looked at the blank piece of paper beside it, fountain pen in hand, poised to write a response. The gold tip nearly – nearly – pressed to the page, but restrained himself, remembering the sage advice his teacher back at the academy had given him – ‘never write in anger’.

It was hard advice to follow, especially as he read the letter again, feeling the anger swell in him even more, despite knowing the words to come.

Damn the arrogant Antyans, and damn their demands! They had no right, none whatsoever, to the sea lanes they coveted. They knew that, but still pressed anyway.

Ashton stood and moved his portly frame around his desk, and gazed at the bookcase. Behind tempered glass resided entire volumes of exquisite bound novels; some reminding him of his childhood, others were documents of wars and battles gone by – tactical and strategic masterpieces from his predecessors. In his reflection, he wished he had taken the time to maintain the physique of his younger days – he had been lean back then, but now, years of over-indulgence had caught up on him – his chin now had a chin of its own, and his face was permanently red from too many glasses of brandy.

My moustache needs a trimhe idly though to himself. His hair was rather in need of cutting too. Curly ginger locks were unbecoming of the Lord of the Eshurg Navy.

He wanted to open up the case and take a look at them – especially the ones about warfare. Oh how he wanted to stick a round of grape shot up Antyan arses…

Deep breath Antony, deep breath… he steadied himself, knowing full well her Majesty did not desire war. It was in everyone’s best interests to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

Still, as he sat back down and read the letter a third time, his fury boiled. The gall, the nerve, of the Antyan government! They had never liked Eshurg or its stranglehold over the western sea trade routes, but Eshurg had worked hard to create and protect those routes, and spent the best part of a century developing good relations with the empires beyond the Crest Islands. Why should they give up any of that?

Illegal goods, weapons shipments, the undermining of Antyan reputations and status in the west… it was rubbish. Eshurg had never shipped weapons to anyone, let alone people with anti-Antyan sentiment (well, not that Lord Ashton knew of, at any rate). And he knew the Antyan ambassadors in that part of the world were not shy of undermining Eeshurg influence whenever they had the chance! Posturing was part of the game after all… but Eshurg had never sought to stifle Antyan activities; instead, they sought only to counter the more extravagant and outrageous claims. Like claims of illegal goods and weapons shipments. Claims Antyan officials were making more and more.

Hence their desire to demand more access to hard-won trade routes. Ashton wanted to write two very blunt words to the Antyan embassy, but he restrained himself. No, he decided. The Antyans will not manipulate their way into our trade routes, greedy dogs…

Chapter 2

Back to The Kingdoms of War

I know what you’re thinking. Why is a grown meerkat going to see Captain Underpants? Well, the answer, dear reader, is that seven year-old daughters want to see it, and mummy and daddy couldn’t take her to see Dunkirk, so we ended up seeing Captain Underpants instead.

I confess to fearing the worst from this movie. The trailers did nothing to impress me, but then, I’m not the target audience. Looking at it through the perspective of 8-12 year-olds who enjoy jokes about ‘Uranus’ ‘poopypants’ and various other toilet-related puns, it can be argued this was in fact quite an enjoyable film. It certainly kept my daughter amused!

The film revolves about the friendship of two characters whose names I have already forgotten, who create comics around their character of Captain Underpants, and when their friendship is threatened by a maniacal headteacher, they somehow hypnotise him and transform him into the titular character. Cue various preposterous scenarios. As I said, it’s aimed at a specific age group, and yet manages to be surreal enough in places to get chuckles out of adults too. It managed to be better than expected, but I wish I’d seen Dunkirk!

7/10

I’ve not seen this race, but I’ve seen the second corner incident between the Red Bull pair of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, so I thought I’d weigh in on that. Verstappen had initially made a good start and was hassling Hamilton’s Mercedes around the first corner. He got squeezed by the Ferraris and Mercedes’ and as a result Ricciardo was moving ahead of him on the approach to turn 2. Verstappen was too punchy, braking too late and locking up, smacking into Ricciardo and damaging the side pod, causing some kind of leak that ended Ricciardo’s race on the first lap. It wasn’t a deliberate move but Verstappen was desperate to keep ahead of his teammate and that desire manifested itself in the form of an error. Ricciardo was furious, and I would be intrigued by what words were exchanged after the race.

Beyond that incident, what happened?

Whereas last time around in Britain I was saying Mercedes and Hamilton had looked dominant, Ferrari bounced back with a vengeance in Budapest, with Sebastian Vettel taking pole and victory, with Kimi Raikkonen taking second. Even here, there was a manner of mild controversy. Vettel was suffering from handling problems and Raikkonen was quicker, but Ferrari bosses wanted Raikkonen to hold station and act as a buffer to the Mercedes pair behind them. This in turn put more pressure on Raikkonen, with first Bottas, then Hamilton, pushing at him.

Honourable Hamilton

Bottas had originally moved aside to let Hamilton have a crack at Raikkonen, but the Mercedes is not great at following other cars, and Hamilton just couldn’t mount an attack. He gave up third to Bottas at the final corner, honouring an agreement with his teammate, but was it the smart move? World championships have been decided by margins of three points or less on several occasions – and Hamilton just gave up three points. Time will be the judge of this.

Spare a thought for Fernando Alonso – the McLaren man took a highly credible sixth place and also ended up with the fastest lap – a reminder that the car has a strong design, just not an engine that does it justice.

Formula 1 now powers down for a month. We resume hostilities in Belgium.

The final chapter of our Highlands adventure took the form of a meal at a nearby hotel, where we said fond ‘until next times’ to our loved ones. Beyond that, the day has been a quiet one – our energy is all but spent, our mood one of reflection on the week’s activities. Tomorrow is the journey home and soon, the routine of work will resume. It’s been a memorable week, crammed with various experiences, and one I shall remember with great joy and delight.

Today marked the Big Day! The reason for descending upon Aviemore. Weddings in my family tend to be big, boisterous affairs and this promised to be no different. My second cousin had hired a grand hall to host her special day – and this provided a good reason to get suited and booted!

Aultmore Hall is an astonishing venue. A huge place that’s obviously hosted a wedding or two, the hosts ensured the wedding ran smoothly and that everyone had a great time! My wife and I watched our adorable little girl throw herself into the festivities with abandon, and we enjoyed a big big dinner (which I am still recovering from). The whole day was glorious, and I wish the happy couple all the best for the future!

Today has been an altogether more sedate experience. A trip to the local cinema to see Captain Underpants (a better film than I’d expected!), a few unplanned run-ins with relatives and a couple more sights of the steam railway. We also fed a duck!








Tomorrow is the big one – the wedding!

Pictures to be added later to this one!

Today was very much an ‘action adventure’ day. I did something I’d never done before, and I loved it.

What was it you ask? Something called canyoning. It involved a wetsuit, harness and hard hat, to give you an idea as to the nature of it! The experience began in earnest with a jump – literally, we jumped into a river, from a reasonable height. The water was cold (but then, we are in Scotland), and from that point on, we did a mix of sliding down the rapids, hurling ourselves off various points, and abseiling too. For me, the most nerve-wracking parts of the experience were sliding from a near-vertical drop into pitch-black waters, and abseiling more or less into a waterfall. 

This is actually a tough experience to describe in a manner that does it justice. If you don’t mind getting wet, aren’t too worried about heights and prepared to ache afterwards, it’s worth a go!