Read a sample from A RADICAL ACT OF FREE MAGIC by H. G. Parry

This sweeping tale of magic, revolution and the struggle for freedom concludes the genre-defying Shadow Histories duology that began with A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians; perfect for readers of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Somerset

1773

William Pitt the Younger was fourteen years and seven months old, and he was dying. He had been sent home from his first year at Cambridge in order to do so. He was doing his best to die well.

It had been two months since he had woken shivering with fever and racked with nausea. He had barely retained any food or water since, and he knew he was desperately weak. He could see the thinness of his own wrists, and feel how hard it was to sit up, to talk, to hold a book, and, increasingly, to breathe. During the day, he mostly kept as still as he could and pretended he didn’t even have a body; during the night, he felt stronger, but so did the throb of bloodlines in his mind, until it became difficult to think over them. He wished he could say he barely cared anymore, but he cared bitterly.

He didn’t want to die. Even now, feeling worse than he had ever felt before, he didn’t for a moment want to die. He had only just begun. It was a crisp, bright winter’s morning outside, and there were books on his desk. He wanted to live. It wasn’t fair.

The voices outside his room drifted in and out of his hearing as he dozed, so that when Dr. Addington entered quietly, he seemed to do so all at once.

“We need to talk, William,” he said.

His mind made the adjustment from rest to engagement immediately, but it took a beat and a surge of effort to communicate it to his limbs.

“Of course.” He straightened on his pillows and blinked hard to clear his haziness. His head swam. “I— Do my parents know you’re here?”

“They allowed it.” The wording was strange, as was the tone. It sounded as though they had been persuaded to allow it. And yet what was there about their family doctor’s visits to allow? Unless, of course . . .

Dr. Addington sat down at the bedside and looked William in the eye. “You know what’s happened to you, don’t you?” he said, without further preamble.

William nodded, and tried to look as though his heart wasn’t pounding rapidly. “Yes. I’ve come into an Inheritance late. An illegal Inheritance.”

“Blood magic. Vampirism. I know that you won’t like to say it aloud, but I’m afraid that if we’re going to talk about this, I must insist that we give it its correct term.”

Technically, only the first term was correct. Blood magic was the official classification; vampirism was an insult. William didn’t dispute the point. It would look too much like weakness. Instead, he nodded again, and this time tried not to look as though he had been flayed alive and something private and grotesque inside him had been wrenched into the light. “Of course.”

Perhaps Dr. Addington had expected a protest after all. He looked at him hard before he continued. “The abilities have settled now; that’s not the problem. The problem is that your body, in its altered state, can no longer sustain itself. It requires magic of a very particular kind. With it, you can live forever. Without it, very soon, you will starve to death.”

It was nothing he didn’t already know. He told himself this, firmly and fiercely, and so he could raise his head and look Dr. Addington in the eye. “Yes.”

“The question is,” Dr. Addington said, “do you want to live?”

“Of course I want to live,” William said. “But—”

“On what terms?”

The question made him pause. “Any that are reasonable and honorable.”

“And which do not include murder?”

“Surely you don’t need to ask me that.” He felt a chill. Dr. Addington’s voice was no longer kind, and he had never known it not to be kind.

“And legal?”

“They couldn’t be, could they?” William said evenly. “I’m not legal.”

“No,” Dr. Addington said. “You’re not, legally, human. You’re a blood magician. A vampire.”

“Please don’t,” William said, before he could stop himself.

“You agreed to use the word.” “Yes, I know, but . . . please don’t use it like that.” He didn’t quite know how to explain that, however much “vampirism” hurt, “vampire”— an identity, a noun that described him and not the magic inside him—hurt more deeply yet. He would have been stronger about it usually, he hoped, but in that moment everything hurt, and so words hurt too.

“It’s what you are,” Dr. Addington said. There was certainly no kindness in his voice now. “You’re illegal, William, because your survival now depends upon the death of others. The mesmerism in your blood has awakened now, hasn’t it?”

“I haven’t touched it.”

“But it’s there.”

He didn’t answer; he didn’t have to. Of course it was. It burned in his veins, silent and secret, screaming to be used.

“And you know why, don’t you? It isn’t like other mesmerism. You know what blood magic requires.”

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s awakened to kill me,” Dr. Addington said. “Your mesmerism will hold me in place, so that I can only obey your voice telling me to hold still. Your mesmerism will hold me still while you cut my throat, or I cut it for you at your command. And when the blood spills and the light dies from my eyes, your mesmerism is what takes my magic and my life and feeds it to you. That’s what blood magic is. It’s holding another’s will in your own while they die at your hand.”

“I know,” he said, or tried to. His head throbbed.

“And do you know because you’ve read it in a book, or because you feel it?”

“Both. Please— You don’t need to tell me this. I know.”

Dr. Addington continued, relentless. “Then you know that it doesn’t stop there, with one death.”

“Stop it,” William said. “Please.”

“Vampiric mesmerism can hold entire countries in its grip, and it does. Vampires can’t stop, or at least they never do. Because it isn’t only lifeblood they crave; that’s only what they need to survive. They crave power. They always have.”

“I said, stop it.” The words burst from him, and for the first time in his life, a flare of pure mesmerism burst from the place he’d been keeping it hidden and flamed his eyes. Dr. Addington faltered, and his mouth closed. William saw it, and he didn’t stop. Blood was singing in his ears and heat was scorching his veins, and after two months of weakness and agony, he felt strong and clear and powerful. It was intoxicating.

This is it, the magic told him. This is the way you do not die.

And then, with a surge of effort, he forced it back. It was like swallowing a flame; he choked, and closed his eyes tightly as the heat drained from his limbs. All at once, he was cold and aching, and shivering with the horror of what he had done.

“I’m sorry,” he heard himself saying, and his voice seemed to have become a child’s again. He was so tired. “Please forgive me, I didn’t mean to—”

“No, I’m sorry,” Dr. Addington said unexpectedly, and William looked up in surprise. His voice was once more the gentle one he remembered. “I knew I was hurting you. I was trying to do so. I had to know that you understood what your Inheritance meant.”

He was determined not to cry now, after so many long weeks, but his eyes were stinging, and when he blinked, he felt a hot tear escape his eyelashes.

“I’m not stupid,” William said. He had never had to tell anybody that before.

“You certainly are not. But you’ve been so calm about it, every time I’ve seen you—I was concerned—”

“That I wasn’t human?”

Dr. Addington laughed shortly, which told William that the thought had crossed his mind. “Perhaps that you weren’t allowing yourself to truly think about what was happening. Or to feel.”

“I have,” he said, as firmly as he could. “Both thought and felt. I know what I have to do.”

“I know,” Dr. Addington said. “Perhaps your mother was right. She told me I was punishing you for being fourteen years old and trying to be brave.”

That, of course, was more likely to make him cry than anything else, but instead he drew a very deep breath and didn’t let it out again until he could trust his voice to be steady.

“Are you going to kill me?”

“I’m not a Templar. I’m a doctor.”

“Doctors have killed sons and daughters with illegal Inheritances in the past, to keep the family bloodlines clean on paper. It isn’t legal, but it’s perfectly acceptable. The Knights Templar make sure they’re never prosecuted.”

“I didn’t realize you knew that. If I had—” He shook his head. “When that happens—and I concede that it does—it happens at the request of the parents, while the child is an infant. Do you really think your parents would allow me to harm you?”

I am not an infant was what he knew he should have said. And we wouldn’t have to tell them. But he couldn’t say it. He hoped he could do it, if it came to it, but he couldn’t say it.

“No,” he said instead. “But . . . do you intend to tell the Temple Church what I am?”

“What would you say if I did?”

“I doubt they’ll give me the opportunity to say very much at all,” he said, on reflex, and Dr. Addington’s mouth quirked. “It’s your duty as a medical practitioner to report me. I wouldn’t blame you.”

Dr. Addington regarded him for a very long time. “Your father is an Aristocrat now,” he said at last. “So are you. It’s not illegal for you to possess a magical Inheritance. Your particular kind, of course, would always be illegal, and I would certainly have to report it if it ran true. But you see, I don’t believe it does, not quite. Your abilities didn’t manifest until the onset of adulthood, which isn’t usually the case with blood magic. You lived for fourteen years with no more magic than a pure Commoner. I believe there are a few things we can try, before we need to call the Knights Templar to take you away.”

His breath caught in his throat. Hope had been smothered by resolve such a long time ago and so repeatedly since, it hurt to have it break free again.

“I said ‘try,’ ” Dr. Addington warned quickly. “I speak of a piece of alchemy that exists only in old textbooks, one designed to take the place of lifeblood. I warn you, though, that before I hit upon the right formula, you’re likely to become a good deal more ill than you are now. It may kill you outright; it may never work at all. And if it doesn’t—”

“But if it does, I’ll be no different to anybody else?”

“Ideally, yes,” Dr. Addington said. “But, William, your abilities will still be there. If you live, then as long as that life lasts you will need to be very, very careful that the darkness inside you never gets out. And if the alchemy should cease to work, for whatever reason . . .”

“I understand,” William said quickly. His heart was racing again, this time joyfully; his body was too weak to sustain it, and it was making him light-headed. “Please—”

“It’s all right,” Dr. Addington said soothingly. He was rummaging in his bag, a small glass already held between two fingers. “I’m going to try my utmost.” For the first time he smiled. “Good God, William, I’ve been looking after you since the day you were born. Did you really think that I could stop now?”

“Did you?” William replied, with a very small smile.

“Sharp as ever,” Dr. Addington said, which wasn’t really an answer. “Here, drink. I’ve overexcited you, and if I don’t put it right, your heart is going to give out before you get anywhere near the elixir.”

William swallowed what was in the tiny glass obediently, making an involuntary face at the bitterness, and then accepted the much larger glass of wine that Dr. Addington held out for him in turn.

“There. Rest now. You have a very unpleasant fight ahead of you. I meant what I said earlier. If I can get the elixir to work, it won’t make you pure ungifted Commoner—or Aristocrat, I should say, now your father’s titled. You will have to make yourself that. For the rest of your life, you’ll battle not to do again what you just did to me—when someone threatens you, or hurts you, or when something important is at stake. You’ll be hiding a part of yourself until the day you die, and on that day, you’ll decide to die rather than betray the promise that you’re about to make. Do you promise to do that?”

“I promise,” William said clearly.

Dr. Addington nodded. “Anybody would make that promise,” he said. “But I’m going to trust you to keep it.”