"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.