A sample from The Prospect of This City: 23rd August 1666

As it's set 349 years ago to the day, here's the prologue to The Prospect of This City. Hope you like it!

Prologue: Thursday 23rd August 1666

Midnight made a mirror of the window-glass. Grand Pensionary Johan de Witt’s reflected face was as immobile as a portrait. He must have heard Rufus Challis be admitted into his offices, but had made no reaction. Instead he stared, his back to Challis, unblinking into the outside dark.

Challis stood in the centre of the room, left hand over right. De Witt’s desk was a scrabble of documents, papers tumbling over each other. Official correspondence, hastily-printed street pamphlets and hand-bills. Challis did not need to read them to know their contents. There could be only one reason why he had been invited, so secretly, to attend on the Dutch chief minister.

A smaller, secondary desk to one side. Somewhere a secretary might have sat and taken notes. Mathematical charts, writing equipment, a courier pouch.   

After perhaps five minutes, de Witt spoke. His English was good. ‘Sometimes I talk to myself aloud when I am alone,’ he said. ‘To organise my thoughts, nothing more.’

This was it.

‘The news is all across the Republic of the Seven Netherlands. All Dutchmen have learned of the recent atrocities the English have wrought. We might be at war with their King Charles, but our battles are at sea. Navy against navy, fighting like good Christians and honourable gentlemen despite our differences.

‘But no.’ De Witt stopped.

The old pain flared in Challis’s right hand. A harbinger, a premonition. He breathed through his mouth to ease the ache.  

De Witt rubbed his eyes. A deep draught from a glass of almost purple wine. ‘A fire-ship attack on our port of Schelling. Frigates burned in their berths, honest merchant-men losing their livelihoods. Worse, though, the sacking of the township. Women cut down in their homes. Innocents slaughtered. This,’ he drank again, draining the glass, ‘must not go unanswered.’

‘So I stand in solitude.’ De Witt’s voice quietened. ‘And I pray.’

Challis bowed his head and closed his eyes.

‘I pray that I am forgiven these violent imaginings.

‘I pray that we Dutch are given the year to rebuild our lost vessels and recruit fresh men. That we will right the wrongs done this week by Charles of England. That renewed, we will take this fight back to England in the Spring.’

Challis’s right hand pulsed. It felt full to bursting. This was no infected war-wound, though, but a holy thing. An engorgement with the spirit of the Lord.

‘But,’ de Witt continued, ‘this destruction, this murder cannot remain unaddressed. I pray that the sparks of the same fire that burned Schelling are blown across the water to England. That God brings down His fire upon the English and that we Dutch are avenged. That we are spared the necessity of retaliation in the new martial season.’

Challis opened his eyes. He went to the pouch on the secretary’s desk and checked inside. Papers, money. More than he needed for the enterprise. He took the pouch, cupping it in his throbbing, precious hand.   

‘I pray that this is done soon, so that God’s will is seen,’ de Witt said. ‘Amen.’

Leaving, Challis turned at the door.

De Witt remained at the window, his back still to the room. Throughout, he had made no acknowledgement that Challis had ever been there.

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